Aptitude tests don’t have slots for playing with plastic dinosaurs or providing therapy to Santa Claus.
Refe Tuma and Tad Carpenter would be the first to tell you that neither expected to have careers based on those activities. But the two Kansas Citians are carving unconventional career paths fueled by their imaginations. Both will have books on the shelves by this October, one because he wouldn’t put away his toys and the other because he accidentally started working on his honeymoon.
“One never knows where one will find the next great thing,” says Scholastic publisher Lori Benton about uncovering new authors. “I was lucky to have a mentor that told me you always answer the phone because you never know when the next Maurice Sendak is calling.”
Children’s books could use another Sendak. Nielsen, the company that measures everything from television ratings to purchasing habits, estimated that book sales increased by 1 percent to $15.05 billion in 2013; but the sale of children’s and young adult books declined by 6.6 percent year over year. That decline can, in large part, be attributed to the success of Scholastic’s Hunger Games series in 2012.
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However, children’s books are still important to the overall print market.
Nielsen Bookscan data at the point-of-sale in digital and physical booksellers indicates that children’s books were 34 percent of the print market in 2013, up 4 percent from two years earlier. Another area of growth could be digital book sales, which currently account for approximately 15 percent of the children’s book market.
Benton notes that increased access to devices and the potential to binge read series has begun drawing in more middle grade readers, typically 8 to 12 years old.
“I think as publishers, and especially publishers of children’s books, our task is to keep children engaged and reading. We need to stretch the boundaries of storytelling to meet whatever comes up next,” Benton said.
Two years ago, Refe and Susan Tuma were up late like so many exhausted parents with a son who was having trouble sleeping. As Refe rocked him and walked, Susan began the task of cleaning up the house. She paused when she got to the plastic dinosaurs that she herself had played with as a child. Instead of putting them in the bin, she arranged them in the sink as if they were brushing their teeth.
“There was no grand plan. There was no great scheme. We never thought, ‘Hey, if we do this, we can land a book deal,’” says Refe Tuma, 28, of the night-time tableaus that would become “What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night.” “We just wanted it to be this fun thing for our kids.”
The next morning, their two older daughters dragged them out of bed to see what the dinosaurs had done. A tradition had just been born in the Tuma family.
Over the next few nights in November of 2012, the dinosaurs cracked open eggs, spilled cereal and kidnapped other toys. It was a chance for Susan to reconnect with her career as an artist in the context of being a mom. It was a Jurassic rampage, and it captivated their children because they began to believe it was real.
“It worked because Mom and Dad would never do that. Mom and Dad don’t make messes. They clean things up. But dinosaurs, they’re not domesticated, so that makes sense,” says Tuma.
As the girls began sharing the story of the dinosaurs at school, the Tumas began posting pictures on Facebook. It was part explanation, part sharing something with their family and friends. When November ended, so did “Dinovember,” as they’d taken to calling it. The dinosaurs were put away. Their youngest at the time (they now have another daughter) began to sleep better. But then the girls started asking whether the dinosaurs would come back.
Right around that time, Tuma and Carpenter crossed paths in a conference room at DST Systems. Carpenter was an illustrator working with Tuma, a copywriter for the Kansas City-based software development firm, on an internal branding project. Both secretly harbored a desire to get into the world of children’s books, but the topic never came up.
On a recent Monday, Carpenter sat at a wooden desk sketching out book jacket ideas in the clean white rectangle of an office that sits below his house on the West Plaza. His design firm is the midst of building an identity for a series of restaurants in Atlanta.
“I don’t think everybody will write a children’s book, but I do think everybody could,” says Carpenter.
The son of Stephen Carpenter, the international creative manager for Hallmark Cards, Carpenter grew up reading books that had been illustrated by his father. That, and a chance to meet Maurice Sendak, who was touring through Kansas City with the stage version of “Where The Wild Things Are,” gave him a vision for his future.
“I remember thinking this is the guy that drew all these monsters. And that’s what he does for a living,” says Carpenter. “I think children need that or they’re not going to do it. “
The graphic designer had dabbled in the family business — working as an illustrator on other people’s books — but he’d always seen it as simply part of the mix of album covers and corporate logos that came across his desk.
The idea for his own book occurred right at the moment when he was supposed to be thinking about anything but work. Five years ago, Carpenter curled his toes into the sand on a beach in Greece, and his gaze turned to the North Pole.
“There was this big exhale. We’d planned a party for a day, and then we’d be married for the next 40 years,” says Carpenter. “I just thought, ‘This is how Santa Claus feels on the day after Christmas.’”
So, he started sketching on the beach. After his honeymoon, he reached out to a few connections in the publishing world — people he knew from his work as an illustrator. There was palpable interest, and Carpenter had his first book deal before year’s end. In 2012, Sterling Publishing released “Sad Santa” — the story of what happens when Santa Claus realizes there are 364 more days until Christmas returns.
In the three years between that initial idea and the book’s publication, Carpenter also created and launched a series, “I Say, You Say,” picture books that teach colors, opposites and animal sounds.
“There’s something so special about an idea that didn’t exist, something that was in your head and then people are out in the world enjoying it,” says Carpenter.
The world woke up to Dinovember in November of 2013. That’s when Refe Tuma posted an article on Medium explaining the idea behind the month-long project and directing people to a Facebook page created to separate the movement from his family’s personal accounts. “We have friends who didn’t need a Facebook feed of dinosaurs,” said Tuma. Two days later, there were 100,000 likes. Ttoday that number is more than 266,000.
At first, the Tumas heard from families in Australia and Texas.
“We heard from a lot of parents that they felt like it gave them permission to have fun and do creative things,” says Tuma. “I think people connected with the freedom to use their imagination.”
Then the agents started reaching out. In February, the Tumas signed a two-book deal with Little, Brown and Co. The first book, “What The Dinosaurs Did Last Night,” is slated to come out Oct. 28. A second title, an illustrated children’s book told from the perspective of their own children, is in the works for 2015.
“They see us setting up shots for the book and they’re like, ‘Oh, that makes sense. I remember the dinosaurs doing that. Mom and Dad are just recreating what happened,’” said Tuma.
They have spent the past three months staging scenes and shooting 80 photos for their first title, which will be a collection of vignettes along with brief descriptions of what the dinosaurs might be thinking.
“I’d love to keep doing this. It’s something we’ve always dreamed of, but this was just an unexpected on ramp,” said Tuma. “As a married couple, we have a lot of fun working together.”
Between contributing illustrations and his own written and illustrated work, Carpenter has six books slated to hit shelves in the next two years. And right now, he’s shopping a manuscript based off the first story he ever wrote at the age of 12 years old.
“Some of those passions that you have as a kid, they don’t have to go away,” says Carpenter.
Five ways to break into children’s publishing
1. Tell your story online. Whether by a blog or article, building advance interest in your project is important. This lets you (and potential agents) know the size and age of your audience. It can also help determine how you sell and market the book.
2. Find an illustrator. You don’t have to be able to draw to write children’s books. Map out your page count, determine your budget and then visit freelance sites such as eLance (www.elance.com) or portfolio sites such as Children’s Illustrators (www.childrensillustrators.com) to find an illustrator with a style that matches your idea.
3. Seek out crowdfunding. Take your idea to Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com) or IndieGogo (www.indiegogo.com) — two platforms that allow you to run a fundraising campaign online. Indiegogo has an option that lets you move forward with the funds raised even if you don’t hit your goal. Kickstarter is all or nothing.
4. Self-publish. Once your book is written, there are several companies — AuthorHouse (www.authorhouse.com) and Createspace (www.createspace.com) among them — that offer layout and design templates, marketing services, print-on-demand and even help selling online.
5. Turn your book into an app. Your book doesn’t just have to sit on shelves. Software such as Authorly (www.authorly.com) transforms your kids’ book into an app for smartphones in exchange for a portion (20 percent) of your app revenue.