As an only child, Gotham teacher Michelle Knudsen scribbled poetry in the back seat of her parents’ car during cross-country road trips to entertain herself. She spent a lot of time alone. Fortunately, she enjoyed reading, particularly fantasy novels, and she also dabbled in theater, writing plays and performing in Pirates of Penzance at theater camp. Like most children, she lived in a world of make-believe, but unlike most of us, she found a way to live amid “make-believe” as a responsible grown-up.
After college, Michelle looked for any writing-related job she could find. Initially, she was interested in working in the editorial department of a science fiction imprint, but instead landed a gig in the children’s division of Random House. Not only did she edit other people’s work, but Michelle was fortunate enough to also write books in-house. She started with concept and license books, such as Star Wars coloring books, and as she found more opportunities, Michelle realized she had become a writer herself. Eventually, she started sending out her own manuscripts.
To date, she has published more than 40 books for children, her most well-known being the picture book Library Lion. Michelle has covered the entire children’s book spectrum, from board books to picture books to middle grade, and soon, she will have completed a young adult novel.
Even after numerous publications, Michelle decided to pursue her MFA in children’s book writing at Vermont College. “The goal,” she points out, “is not simply to get published. The goal is to get better, no matter what. The great thing about being any kind of artist is that you always want to be reaching—you never want to be stagnant in your work.”
As Michelle’s work has evolved, so too has the world of publishing. She hopes that paper books will survive (despite the digital frenzy), and suspects that books for younger readers will take longer to mainstream in the ebook format. Michelle says supplements or “apps” might be the way to go for the youngest readers—it would bolster their experience without taking away the physical concept of a book. Interestingly, Michelle finds most of her marketing is devoted to parents and librarians, not the kids themselves. “Teen authors can connect with teenagers in a way I can’t with my picture book audience.”
Creating picture books is an unusual process for a writer. Michelle sees it as a “separate” collaboration between the illustrator’s art and her story. However, once the creation of a picture book is set in motion, several key players become involved: the editor, art editor, and of course, the illustrator. The text is written first. Then, Michelle sees some initial sketches from the illustrator and can make textual changes based on the artwork if necessary. Often, the best illustrators, she points out, “not only reflect the text, but add something to the story as well.”
Happily, Michelle’s adult make-believe world also extends into theater. She continues to perform in productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, most recently seen in Iolanthe at the Village Light Opera Group. “Theater is a great complement to writing.” Michelle says, “Writing is solitary while theater is communal and collaborative.” She also finds that theater informs her writing, claiming, “Being an actor can help you imagine your characters’ motivations.”
For aspiring children’s book authors, Michelle imparts the advice that was once given to her: “Write for the child you used to be.” As a playful reminder, Michelle displays a photo of her younger self on her website with the caption: “The author, in a tree, a long time ago.”