Student Success Stories: AJ Irving

I'm thrilled to be sharing AJ Irving's interview with you today. AJ has a lot of great advice. If you're finding it hard to create right now, keep reading. AJ shares some resources that are working for her.

I'm giving away a copy of AJ's debut picture book, DANCE LIKE A LEAF, at the end of this post, so let's dive in!

Myrna: What is your background? Your profession?

AJ: I grew up in Boise, Idaho. My family recently moved to a tiny town near Jackson, Wyoming. I used to be a bookmobile librarian. While I miss working on the bookmobile, I am fortunate to be able to stay home with my kiddos and write. I have a B.A. in Journalism and Women’s and Gender Studies from the University of Oregon.

Myrna: Can I just say how cool I think it is that you were a bookmobile librarian? What made you want to start writing picture books?

AJ: I fell in love with children’s books all over again after my son was born almost 12 years ago. The excitement in his eyes when we read inspired me to start writing picture books. 

Myrna: I think that's relatable for a lot of us. How long have you been writing? 

AJ: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I wrote a poem for my mom titled Loving Arms when I was in elementary school. It was published in Writing Without Walls

Myrna: When and why did you take Arree Chung’s Making Picture Book Stories and Dummies?

AJ: I wanted to take my writing to the next level and was intrigued by the idea of creating dummies for my manuscripts. I started taking Making Picture Book Stories and Dummies in the fall of 2017. 

Myrna: How did taking Arree’s class change the way you write picture books?

AJ: I think I usually come up with strong concepts, but I struggled with fully developing my stories. Arree’s class helped me to write more well-rounded picture books with a nice balance of heart and humor. His class also helped me write stronger manuscripts faster. Creating dummies, going on creative walks, and using Post-it notes may seem like simple tools, but they work!  

Myrna: You signed with Jordan Hamessley at New Leaf Literary and Media. Can you talk about how you got her attention? How has having an agent made a difference for you and your writing?

AJ: I was excited to discover that Jordan was seeking LGBTQ projects. I had the perfect picture book manuscript to send her. In my query letter I mentioned that I had received interest from an editor for my LGBTQ manuscript, that I was working on an R&R with another editor, and that I had recently received an offer on a lyrical manuscript from a publisher. I queried Jordan on a Friday morning. She got back to me later that afternoon to request more work and set up a time to chat on the phone. We had the call the following Monday. Having an agent hasn’t changed my process much, but I do have more time to write because I’m no longer querying. I appreciate that Jordan is an editorial agent. It’s also wonderful to have someone who champions my work, answers my questions, and offers guidance about all things publishing.

Myrna: Congratulations on your picture book deal! Could you tell us about what it’s like to have your book on submission? How did your debut finally sell? What are you most excited about?

AJ: I received an offer from Barefoot Books for my debut picture book, DANCE LIKE A LEAF, after participating in #KidPit on Twitter. The email from my editor, Kate DePalma, was definitely the most exciting email I had ever received. Lots of happy dancing! I was stoked to have Jordan in my corner to negotiate the contract and explain every little detail to me over the phone.

Seeing Claudia Navarro’s breathtaking illustrations has been the most exciting part of the process so far. A few folks have suggested including a box of Kleenex with my book. My heart explodes every time Kate and Jordan post about my book on social media.

“I adore AJ Irving’s DANCE LIKE A LEAF and can’t wait to see Claudia Navarro’s art alongside AJ’s beautiful words. This is one of those picture books that will make you smile, cry, hug the ones you love, and dance!” -Jordan Hamessley

“I cry every time I read this project. Even in public. At a Wendy’s. Into my Frosty.” -Jordan Hamessley

“I’ve done a lot of public speaking, but I’ve never brought a room full of adults to tears until I gave a sneak preview of AJ Irving’s debut picture book to the Barefoot Books Ambassadors this weekend.” -Kate DePalma

“Fully in tears in this rural TN Dunkin Donuts as I write marketing copy for AJ Irving’s debut picture book. Yes, it’s that good.” -Kate DePalma

Myrna: Those quotes are amazing! “Into my Frosty.” Hahaha! Thank you for sharing your experience. What is working with an editor on your picture book like?

AJ: It has been such a beautiful experience. Kate is fantastic! I enjoyed working with her on pagination and text edits. I had to change some language to make the book compatible in the UK and Canadian markets, but I ended up liking the changes more than the original text. Kate was also the art director for DANCE LIKE A LEAF. Her idea to have a wordless spread before the final page was simply brilliant. It’s my favorite spread in the book. 

Myrna: I’m so glad you’re having a great experience with your editor and your illustrator. Do you have a plan for marketing?

AJ: I am a member of a fabulous debut group. I feel like I’d be lost without Perfect2020PBs. We support each other on social media, share tips, and bounce marketing ideas off each other. The most valuable thing for me as been learning about their experiences with their publishers in terms of marketing. Every publisher is different, but it’s clear that authors do a lot of the marketing. I also participated in a KidLit 5-Day Marketing Class with Colleen Riordan through Wild Ink Marketing. We learned how to structure a marketing plan, write an author bio and book blurb, the importance of having a website and newsletter, tips for Amazon and Goodreads etc. I’m a huge fan of Jennifer Laughran’s podcast. I highly recommend Literaticast for all writers. Episode 40: A Publicist Explains It All For You with Tracy van Straaten was especially helpful. 

Myrna: Oh, I’m also a big fan of Literaticast. Do you have any advice that might help readers find satisfaction or joy in writing picture books?

AJ: Play and stay inspired! Read A LOT of picture books (I read at least 500 per year), doodle, and keep a folder full of ideas. I also think it’s important to put a project away if you get stuck and work on something else.

It may be difficult for some of us to write because of what is going on in the world right now. Be gentle with yourselves. It’s okay to take a break. I believe giving time to ourselves will help us when we are ready to return to our craft.

Creative walks have always helped me the most in terms of developing ideas and figuring out revisions for my WIPs. Unfortunately, going for walks may be difficult, even impossible for some, given our current situation. My family lived in Seattle before we moved to Wyoming. Many of our friends have had to discover new (indoor) ways to tap into their creativity. I rediscovered my joy of journaling. I light a candle, listen to music, and spend alone time in my writing space. There’s something magical about the hand moving across the page.

One of my friends recommended MOVING ART on Netflix. The nature scenes are incredibly soothing and inspiring. This also helps me relax. Since I’m homeschooling for the first time, I just have to give a shout out to the kidlit community! It’s wonderful how many kidlit folks have offered free creativity services like Arree’s Creativity Camp and Lunch Doodles with Mo Willems. The SCBWI is also offering a series of free digital workshops for writers.

Myrna: Thank you, AJ! What’s next for you?

AJ: It’s a strange time to be on submission. On a positive note, I’ve seen a lot of tweets from editors about recently acquiring manuscripts. I will keep my fingers and toes crossed, but I’m not going to obsess over my subs like I have in the past. I’ve been focusing my energy on my family and working through THE ARTIST’S WAY with a group of my agent sisters. In the next few weeks, I plan to revisit the first story I worked on in SA. I also want to revise a manuscript about a sassy plushie. My latest project is very close to my heart because it was inspired by our dog, Charlie, who passed away from lymphoma last week. 

Myrna: Losing a beloved pet is so hard. I’m sorry, AJ. Where can we find you on the Internet?


Myrna: Where can we pre-order your book?

AJ: DANCE LIKE A LEAF: As her grandmother's health declines, a young girl begins to lovingly take the lead in their cozy shared autumn traditions. Poetic prose paired with evocative illustrations by Mexican illustrator Claudia Navarro make for a beautiful celebration of life and a gentle introduction to the death of a loved one.

Myrna: Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us, AJ! I can't wait to read your beautiful book!

Book Giveaway Details

I'm giving away a copy of AJ's picture book. To enter, let me know something that you've learned from AJ in the comments by midnight on April 11. You don’t have to buy anything or be a student to enter. 

Please share this post on social media for extra entries, and paste the link to wherever you shared as a reply to your original comment. You may also have an extra entry if you follow AJ's Goodreads link and mark her book as “Want to Read.” Just let me know in the comments.

Thank you for reading!

Blog Contributors

Instructor Photo: Myrna Foster

Myrna Foster writes and edits content for Storyteller Academy and the WriteRiders Newsletter for SCBWI Nevada. She has spent a lot of time teaching and coaching children, including five years as a preschool teacher. She's also worked as a journalist, and Highlights High Five has published six of her poems. 

Arree Chung is an author/illustrator and the founder of Storyteller Academy. Arree’s Ninja! series has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. Kirkus also gave a starred review to Mixed, which recently won the FCGB award. 

Today Arree lives a creative life, making stories for children. Arree spends most of his time making picture books, writing middle grade novels, and sharing his love for art, design, and storytelling with kids and dreamers everywhere.

Follow Storyteller Academy on Social Media

Scroll to Top