“Generally speaking, kids are just so full of wonder and awe and enthusiasm for everything that they are, in a way, the best audience.” NYT Bestselling Author and literary legend Dave Eggers talks with Zibby about the ins and outs many people don’t know about the publishing process, how he began writing picture books, and The Young Editors Project which allows young children to help workshop picture books before they’re published.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dave. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Dave Eggers: Good to be here.

Zibby: I’m thrilled to talk to you about so much of the amazing work that you do to support other writers, younger writers, and just the amazing philanthropy that you’re involved in and also, We Became Jaguars, your latest children’s book which is just amazing and also a perfect gift for Mother’s Day with this whole grandmother kneeling on the floor playing games with her grandchild. Maybe we could just talk about this book first and how this book came to be.

Dave: I don’t even know if I have an origin story for this one. This one just sort of came out of the blue, which sometimes happens with picture books in particular. Sometimes it just starts with a phrase. In this case, it was the title. I just wrote it down. I always start by writing things down on just sheets of copy paper, usually, that I keep all over the house and by the bed. I just wrote down We Became Jaguars and woke up with that next to me by the bed with those words. Then I went from there. What would it be like if a little boy and his grandmother pretended or actually became jaguars? I didn’t have grandparents who were spry or with us too long when I was a kid. I do know that my kids have the benefit of having very active and engaged and incredible grandparents. The adventures that they go on with them are completely apart from what the rest of us do as a family. I think that there’s something really sacred and sometimes very mysterious, even, about those adventures with grandparents. This takes that as its starting point.

Zibby: I love that. That’s awesome. Also, you had this edited by your editors-in-progress. Tell me a little bit more about The Young Editors Project as part of 826 National and all the other awesome things that you do.

Dave: This grew out of a little project that we call The Hawkins Project. It works with schools and teachers and young authors. We collaborate with different 826 centers around the country and then centers that are like our — we started this center here in San Francisco where I am right now. I’m across the street from 826 Valencia, which is a writing and tutoring center in the Mission District of San Francisco. Now there’s maybe sixty or seventy centers around the world that are based on that model where you have a whimsical theme. In our case, it’s a pirate store. The whole place looks like a pirate ship, pirate store. It’s sort of a mysterious front for a writing and tutoring center that supports writers as young as six. At one point, I would read works in progress to kids for the last ten, fifteen years. Then we decided to make it a little bit more of a formal — not formal, but more of an expanded program that we call The Young Editors Project. A lot of other picture book writers like Shawn Harris and Mac Barnett and Bethanie Murguia, they give manuscripts in progress to us that we then send to teachers in classrooms around the country and around the world.

Then the kids in the class will comment and say, I really like this. I wish there was more of that. The comments are always very generous and encouraging. They’re very forgiving and enthusiastic editors. Then every so often they’ll say, what about this? You ever thought about that? Sometimes these suggestions end up helping the authors with a next draft or with the final draft. I don’t know about you, but as a kid, you grow up assuming that all authors lived hundreds of years ago and that you’d never encounter one in the real world. When I was a kid, I got to sort of meet Gwendolyn Brooks who was the poet laureate at the time. I grew up in Illinois. She was a well-known author from Chicago. To see that she was a living person who was also in our textbooks and everything, it meant a lot. It kind of collapsed that space between being a young kid and then also thinking, oh, there’s actually authors in the world that are visible and reachable and engaged. This is a way where kids can feel part of the process and get in touch a little bit with authors that they might know. Then their names are always included in the book that they advised on. We’re hoping to keep expanding the program and make it sort of a staple of a lot of picture books, that each one of them might have fifteen, twenty names of young editors who helped bring that book to fruition.

Zibby: Wow. That must just be the most amazing feeling for those kids to see their names in there. I saw the long list at the end. It’s just the coolest, how much you’re changing their lives and their point of view. When I was younger, I had a pen pal relationship with one author. The first time she wrote me back, I was shocked. I was holding this piece of blue paper with her script handwriting on it. I was just like, oh, my gosh, a real writer wrote me back. I couldn’t believe it.

Dave: Who was it?

Zibby: Her name was Zibby Oneal, which I thought was amazing because I didn’t know anybody else in the world had the name Zibby.

Dave: That was why you were attracted to her work, a little bit, right, or maybe your parents got you her book?

Zibby: It was, yes. She wrote a book called The Language of Goldfish which I just loved. Then we kept in touch for all these years. Then eventually, she took me to tea at The Plaza. It was the highlight of my childhood.

Dave: I’m sitting here at the McSweeney’s offices. Haven’t been here that much since the pandemic. I get mail here. I’m sitting here answering mail. I was this morning before talking to you. That’s my favorite thing in the world, is just that personal connection and if somebody writes to you and says that a book meant something to them. I only get mail via paper mail. I love that process. I don’t have a public email address because I’m just not good at email, but I love writing letters and getting letters in the mail. I remember that too. I used to write to the Lego company. A friend, Anne Carter, and I were Lego obsessed. We would, once a month, write letters to the Lego company in Enfield, Connecticut, with ideas about what they could do next. We always had ideas for Lego sets. There was a woman there that wrote back to us every time. She was in the public relations department, I’m sure. She had beautiful stationary and beautiful envelopes. She’d always put little extra things in there like information about upcoming Lego things. To have that connection, to have a human on the other end of something that you admired so much actually take the time to recognize you as a human and say, I got your letter, I read it, it just was — I kept all of them.

I still have them all. I think there’s twelve letters that we got. I have them in a scrapbook. It meant the world. Having that lifeline or having that connection, I think it means a lot to the authors too, to have somebody on the other end of what you do. Unlike a musician that’s playing a concert where you’re hearing from people immediately, very often, writing is kind of solitary. You’re not there the moment that somebody reads your work. You’re not sitting over their shoulder and you get the benefit of them responding in real time. Those letters mean a lot. Sometimes we authors are just as eager for that connection as are the readers. I’m glad that you reached out to your fellow Zibby. I always tell everybody to write letters. You won’t always get an answer. Sometimes somebody’s in a stage of life where they can’t answer. I’ve been there years ago where I just fell behind with mail. I couldn’t get back to people. Chances are that person will write you back. That connection is complete. That’s what keeps us going in some cases.

Zibby: I think you should take those twelve Lego letters and make those into another children’s book.

Dave: They’re in deep storage now. I wonder what they said. A little bit of it was a little formal. “We can’t accept your ideas, Dave and Dan, because we have our own Lego creators, but…” Then we would turn around and send them another idea the next month. We would not get the message. They don’t necessarily have a compelling narrative so much, but they were personalized to us. She eventually would say, “Good to hear from you again, Dan and Dave. As I said before…” She was very kind. I wish I could remember her name off the top of my head. I do still have them somewhere.

Zibby: All right, I will let you just keep coming up with your own book ideas then. I’ll just leave that as it is.

Dave: You’re welcome to. I’ll keep listening and gently diverting. I’ll take that into consideration, Zibby. Thank you very much.

Zibby: Anytime. Speaking of coming up with ideas, you have written so many books, so many things. You’ve started McSweeney’s. Other people have written things. You have ideas all the time. Yes, your scraps of paper and what you said earlier is part of the process, but what else helps you come up with the ideas and decide which ones are worth your time pursuing?

Dave: I’ll stick with picture books for now. What’s funny is it is a process where — I know that a lot of your listeners probably have picture books in mind. A good friend of mind I went to high school with, a writer named Amy Krouse Rosenthal who passed a few years ago, we went to high school together. Then, I think her kids were teenagers. We used to publish her at an old magazine called Might magazine. I’ve been a fan of her work forever, since we were in our twenties together. Then a little later on, she started writing picture books. She was just so gifted at it. She’s written so many classics. They have obviously reached a really wide audience still. I remember picking her brain about it after she had published a number of books. I always wanted to write picture books. When she was out in San Francisco one time, we took a long walk. I was like, “So how do you this? Who do you reach out to?” She really clarified that a lot of it is that alchemy between your idea, how it comes together on the page, how an agent might respond to it, and then how a publisher and an editor at that publisher responds to it. Anyone that’s aspiring to write a book has to realize that it’s a very human process every step of the way. I’ve written picture books that no editors responded to. That’s because it’s a very particular alchemy. I might think it’s a really good idea, but then the editor has her particular taste. My editors are all women. I’m just thinking of Taylor Norman who edits my books at Chronicle and Andrea Cooper who’s at Little Brown.

I might send them something and they say, this is for me. This isn’t for me. This still needs work. They’ll gently somewhat indicate it doesn’t have merit. I think that as long as you realize that it really is a personal and idiosyncratic process, that you have to perfectly match up that idea with the execution with the editor, when it all comes together, something really nice can happen. In this case, Taylor Norman, my editor at Chronicle, really liked We Became Jaguars. Then she helps improve it and shape it. Then we find an artist, in this case, Woodrow White who had not illustrated a picture book before. He was just a fine artist that I’d loved his work when I’d seen it online. We asked him if he’d ever consider doing it. He took it on and then just made this gorgeous bunch of illustrations. Because I’ve been on the publishing side for so long, I always want to tell people that you have to be really patient. You have to be very flexible. You really have to be very understanding that the people that are on the other end on the publishing side, on the agent side, they’re all humans. They’re all really busy. They’re all trying to put out books. It’s not like a Kinko’s service; you send in your manuscript, and you get a book back in two days and they should immediately respond to whatever you think is a finished product. I think it’s much more idiosyncratic and much more personal than people often imagine. Does that make sense?

Zibby: Of course, yeah. I think the acceptance of different projects obviously is personal and has so many factors. Whereas if you’re the person writing it, all you’re thinking about is your creation. You don’t realize that the person might have seventy different picture books sitting in front of them. They’ve already committed to these. They have to rush home to this. Yes, of course. I think it’s so much in life, you don’t realize what’s going on on the other end of your hopes and dreams.

Dave: I feel like more so than in a lot of fields, I don’t know if the submitter always understands that the person on the other side is almost in the exact same spot. They’re sitting at home. They’ve got a tall stack of manuscripts. They can only publish probably eight books a year, or twelve or whatever. They’ve got a thousand options to do it. In the picture book realm, because they don’t — I don’t know. I have far more ideas than ever get to print. It’s up to the editors to help sort out and find the best ones and save me from my bad ideas. I have a lot of gratitude toward them for gently helping sift through and find the ones that are worthy.

Zibby: I feel like it will make other people feel better to know that even your ideas get passed on occasionally and that perhaps it’s not just them being rejected.

Dave: More than occasionally. I’d say two thirds of the picture book notions I have are passed on, for sure. Then there’s the ones that, sometimes you’re just looking for somebody to — you might take it eighty percent of the way and you say, what do you think of this so far? If there’s polite silence, then you know that maybe you could direct your energy somewhere else. To me, to finish something, I usually need somebody’s enthusiasm a little bit. Those last bunch of drafts, it becomes more fun and more easy to do it when you have somebody on the receiving end who’s ready for it and has already expressed some kind of affection for it and can urge you over the finish line.

Zibby: I actually have a picture book coming out from Penguin Random House next year. I’m very excited. It’s called Princess Charming.

Dave: Oh, good. Congratulations.

Zibby: Thank you.

Dave: Isn’t it a fun process, especially when you illustrator starts sending you art back?

Zibby: Yes, it’s the coolest.

Dave: You can only compare it to Christmas morning or your birthday or whatever holiday is meaningful to you. When you open that email and you see a new creation based on your words, it’s just indescribable, don’t you think? Have they already started illustrating yours?

Zibby: They have. I got two of the character drawings. I was so excited. I printed them out. I have four kids. I printed them out, one for each kid. Everybody was running around all day with the copies.

Dave: That’s so great. How old are your kids?

Zibby: Six, seven, and then I have twins that are almost fourteen. They’re thirteen.

Dave: Wow. What fun for them. I always pick my kids’ brains and had them read early drafts. They’re such a supportive audience. Maybe my kids were just polite. They were always like, “Yeah.” We used to have kids at 826 Valencia review movies for the San Francisco Chronicle. I always thought kids should review kids’ movies. I just don’t know if there’s any point in adults reviewing kids’ movies. It’s just a total disconnect. These kids would come in after school here to do writing and tutoring. Then we would send them to screenings of movies that they would get to see with their families for free. Then the Chronicle would run five, six of these reviews together. They were all uniformly glowing because they’d seen the movie for free with their family. They get to see it before other people. Generally speaking, kids are just so full of wonder and awe and enthusiasm for everything that they are, in a way, the best audience. Whatever movie that we think isn’t the best kids’ movie ever, they think is the best movie that was ever made. Always, the last movie they saw was pretty much the best movie ever made. There’s something about their unbridled and unsullied enthusiasm that I think authors should avail themselves of. If you’re not sure about something, showing it to kids I think will give you that shot in the arm. I don’t know if you find that to be the same thing with yours.

Zibby: I think focus groups are always a good idea.

Dave: Especially focus groups at home where they count on you for food and shelter. There’s an exchange there. They know that if they don’t support mom’s book, maybe they don’t eat. That’s just a joke.

Zibby: I should really tie it to the allocation of Roblox which is sweeping the family at the moment.

Dave: Roblox? What are Roblox?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Roblox is this online video game thing. It has a ton of games under the banner of Roblox. You can pick which ones you want. You have your own person who’s your character. It’s essentially virtual reality of sorts. You’re walking through. You can see your friends who are also — if my two kids are on two iPads, they meet up in the game with their little personas.

Dave: Oh, right. Okay. This is sounding familiar.

Zibby: The company actually just went public last week. I was looking at the newspaper. There was this full-page ad about, congratulations on Roblox going public. I was like, you’re kidding. My whole life is Roblox. This is why my kids don’t read enough, clearly.

Dave: Well, it’s a weird time. I hope when the pandemic’s over we can sort of get back to a little bit more of a balance where they’re not required to be on screens as much as they are right now. It’s the only way, obviously, right now. Teachers have done an incredible job of reengineering everything to work through screens. I do feel like it’s out of balance, for sure. The kids are required to sit in one place and be on screens for so much of the day. I hope that when it’s over we can recalibrate and make sure that they have enough quiet time away from screens to be able to find that peace of mind that you need to be able to sit quietly with a book. I grew up in a house where we had the TV on probably sixteen hours a day. It does alter the mind, especially a growing mind. I was only able to read if I was really isolated for a while because I think my brain had been sort of engineered to expect more diversion and more noise and more distraction and things going on.

I’ll say this to any parents out there. For me, the first time I was able to just read on my own was my freshman year in high school. Not the first time. I certainly read everything that we had to read in school. Anything they told me to read, I read, but on my own really for fun — we had a class in freshman year. It was a class that was supposed to be for counseling, I guess. If you weren’t seeing your counselor that period, you just were sent to this little quiet room that was full of books. You had to sit on a pillow and read for that hour. I pulled Frank Herbert’s Dune off of the shelf. I’d never heard of it or anything about it. Then I read. It was because we had that isolated space, total no noise, and nothing else to do, no other options but to read. That’s what got me finally in that space where I could really read an adult novel for fun. It’s just to say for those of you out there, parents who have especially kids that are reluctant readers or are a little squirmy, have a hard time sitting still, just realize it takes quite a lot of isolation and downtime and quiet to really get in that place where that kid can shut everything else out and really get absorbed in a book. If you think you can say, read for twenty minutes, here’s a book, it’s not that easy for a lot of kids. Sometimes those conditions, you really have to create an environment that allows it for a kid whose brain is on fire and who’s so given to distraction. That’s my little bit of what I’ve learned.

Zibby: Thank you for making me feel better and not like the worst mom on planet, which I feel like half the time.

Dave: I hope that you don’t. I hope that you’re not serious.

Zibby: No, I’m not. I’m just kidding.

Dave: We can never judge ourselves when we’re doing everything we can, especially right now. I feel like it’s been such a weird time. It’ll be a decade before we realize how weird it’s been for the kids when they start writing about it in their college creative writing papers and things like that. I do feel like parents modeling that behavior, having a reading hour or a reading ninety minutes at home or reading out loud — I can’t say I’m a big reading out loud as a family person, but we’ve done it some. It’s always magical if you can spare that time. I meet people at bookstore signings and stuff. I’ll meet some twenty-two-year-old guy with his mom. They read out loud together even at twenty-two. I’m always thinking that these are the greatest humans imaginable that have that time to just read aloud to each other because it really does penetrate the psyche in a whole new way if you’re in a room with somebody you know and you’re reading out loud. I remember every word that my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Bringleson, read when she read Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. I can picture exactly where I sat, who was sitting next to me, the feel of the carpet, the light from the window, everything about it. That book, I feel like I could recite because of how she read it to us.

Zibby: Wow, that’s a nice image. I love that. I do read every night out loud to my kids. I actually read to my husband when I have a book that I think he would love. I read all the time for my podcast and all this. If it’s a book I think he’ll love, I’m like, “Let me read it to you.” Then I read it out loud to him. That’s really fun.

Dave: Wow. How long? Will you read just passages or a whole chapter or what? A whole book?

Zibby: I’ll read a couple chapters before bed. If we’re in a long car ride and we don’t happen to have the kids or they’re all on their iPads or something and it’s a great book, I’ll read it. He likes it.

Dave: I’ll give a plug for the best book on tape. We drive from California to Idaho fairly often. We’ll listen to books on tape. The best one I ever heard was Sissy Spacek doing To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s been some extraordinary books on tape. The guy who does most of my books on tape, Dion Graham, he’s an actor. He’s on movies and TV. He also does books on tape. He’s extraordinary at it. It’s such an underappreciated art. For all ages, that Sissy Spacek To Kill a Mockingbird, she took a classic and somehow made it even better. She just threw everything she has at that and really sounds like Scout. If you could imagine what Scout’s voice would’ve been like as an adult, it’s her. I can’t recommend that highly enough.

Zibby: Okay. When I need a break, I’ll — I know I’ve already taken so much of your time. Can I just ask one last question? What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Dave: I would get yourself in a writing group before almost anything else because you need peer editing. You need people to bounce ideas off and say, how is this reading? I’m a pretty obsessive editor and a seeker of editing. I feel like the one mistake some people make is not showing your work to anybody until you send it to a publisher, which I think is skipping a hundred steps in between. I always compare it to deciding that you’re going to be a professional football player and just showing up at the stadium one day dressed up. Wait, you missed high school football, college football, the draft, the combine. You skipped every step in between. Now you’re just going to show up at the stadium. In the publishing world, it can work every one in a thousand times, but otherwise, going through normal steps of rigorously improving your work and being willing to edit and take feedback and holding yourself to the highest standard and having the community of fellow writers that are going to help you and support you and encourage you, and helping them.

Then when ten people you know all say, okay, this is perfect, it’s ready to go, then that’s time to send your work out. I think you get so excited and so impatient that you start sending your work out when you’ve done one draft. Then that disappointment can be crushing. A lot of is that you haven’t prepared. You run to the stadium half dressed, so I think being patient. Then going back to what I was saying before is that the person on the other end of your submission is overworked, underpaid, has a twelve-foot stack of manuscripts they’re desperately trying to get through. They’re doing the best they can. If you don’t find that publisher, publish it yourself. This has never been easier in the history of humankind, to put a book out into the world and find an audience. We’re very lucky to be living in this time in that way in that you can put it online. You can find a printer. All of these things are democratically available for the first time ever. If you don’t find that agent, publisher connection, then do it yourself. Somebody will find it. It’ll mean something to somebody. You should be patient, but don’t wait forever.

Zibby: Love it. Dave, thank you so much. This has been so enjoyable for me. I hope that I meet you in person. I’m so glad I’ve gotten to know you and your wife, Vendela Vida, about her book, We Run the Tides. It’s just been great. Thank you so much.

Dave: Thanks a lot, Zibby. Great to meet you.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Dave: Bye.

We Became Jaguars by Dave Eggers

Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts