Mister Mark Burrows’ newest book, I’ll Take My Chances! (Pelican Books, 2015) is now out and available to the public. He’ll be signing this beautiful book, dedicated to the children of FUMCFW, in the Garden this Sunday following Children First, and he will be donating all royalties to our Mission Teams Ministries for the benefit of children around the world. His second title with this major children’s publisher, I’ll Take My Chances! is all about taking appropriate risks — and not letting fear of failure stop us from doing something important.
In true Mister Mark fashion, this is a strong message for children (that also reaches deep into the hearts of any nearby adults), beautifully illustrated, and just plain fun to read for any age. With a little bit of maneuvering and a modestly increased vertical jump, we managed to catch Mister Mark for a few minutes to ask him some nosy questions about this newest creation, his writing process, what he’s working on now, and why he believes being creative is our “moral imperative.”
Here’s Mister Mark!
How did you get the idea for your new book, I’ll Take My Chances!
The idea came from my own fear of failure and how it has kind of dictated the things I do. A lot of us are so afraid of making mistakes or looking stupid in front of other people that we don’t go for it. And that’s a shame.
So what made you want to write a picture book about it?
My motivation was to do something about this. They say “write what you see, write what you know” — and I know what it’s like to not go for it, so I wanted to help kids think differently about taking chances and fear of failure.
How did you decide on your examples and scenarios?
I tried to find scenarios in the life of a child that are the worst fears, the worst-case ideas that could inhibit someone from doing it — and then, not lying about it and wrapping things up in a bow and saying how everything’s going to be just fine: “You go for it. You can do anything you want to! You’re going to be great!” That’s just not realistic. Nobody is great at everything they try.
The scenarios in the book don’t always end well. Why is that important?
Sometimes, you are going to fall on your face and get last place. Those things happen. Do it anyway. For that reason I did request of the illustrator that some of these scenarios not turn out well — and that the illustrations show kids failing or falling — just to make it more realistic, but still upbeat and positive because they tried.
Are any of these examples autobiographical?
A lot of these examples are from my own experience. The first one that comes to mind is the spelling bee one. In the book, the word that trips up the kid is “hyena.” For me it was “weasel,” which I still can’t really remember how to spell. I had made it from the School Bee in Lamesa to the County Bee, it was this big build-up, and then I went up to the microphone in the first round and they asked me to spell “weasel” — and I was out.
What do you want kids to learn from this book?
Sometimes trying something new or difficult is scary. Spelling bees are terrifying, so are science fairs, and anything involving the physical. I chose t-ball for this book because the age of the reader is around the t-ball age, but baseball was also terrifying for me. Getting hit with the ball wasn’t nearly as bad as walking back to the dugout after striking out.
If you could go back now and tell your childhood self something about taking chances, what would it be?
To enjoy baseball more — just get out there and swing away and not to worry so much about it. I spent so much time worrying about it I didn’t have any fun. I’d say to my childhood self, “Go for it. Be willing to try. Know that you’re going to fail sometimes and it’s going to be OK.”
Isn’t publishing a book one of those kinds of lessons in taking chances?
It is! Pelican receives thousands of manuscripts each year, and they only publish a very small percentage of them. With bigger publishers, the odds are even steeper. The children’s picture book market is probably the most competitive thing to break in to in the book publishing world. One of the publishers that rejected me sends me a nice form letter—they get over 20,000 submissions a year and they only publish 30. About half of those 30 are known authors they already publish. So that’s only about 15 that are published by other authors like me.
Why it this so hard?
So many people think they can write children’s books. Most grownups who have ever read a children’s book to their kids have at some point said, “I could write one better than that.” There is a whole genre of celebrity authors who have written children’s books. Jamie Lee Curtis is a great one. BJ Novak, who was the temp on The Office wrote The Book With No Pictures (Dial Books, 2014), which is drop-down-on-the-floor hysterical. But by and large celebrities are selling books because of their celebrity. The market is flooded and really, really competitive.
So knowing about these odds, how did you begin?
I tried it anyway! Also, there was a little bit of dumb luck involved. I knew about Pelican. I knew their focus was Texas and Louisiana and Deep South. Cajun Night Before Christmas, etc. Ten or fifteen years ago I thought, “wouldn’t it be great to write a picture book?” So I wrote a couple and sent them out and they were swatted out to half court, which is where they belonged. It’s hard. It’s really hard. You have to be really good and publishers are only going to take a chance if they think they can sell lots of copies.
And then, even after these experiences, you still took your chances anyway?
That’s right! Rev. Tom McDermott (leader of our eleven:eleven celebration who is also a published children’s author on staff at FUMCFW) had published his book, The Ghouls Go Haunting, with Pelican, so I decided to give them a try. I sent them something I had been working on with the kids here to encourage them when they feel so little in a big world. It was a book of empathy, called Little Things Aren’t Little When You’re Little. It was only 8 stanzas long, which I later learned wasn’t enough.
Then what happened?
A few months later I got a letter. I thought, “OK, here’s my rejection letter “ . . .but it wasn’t! It was, “we like it but it’s not long enough. You’ll have to write some more stanzas to make it a book length” (Children’s picture books are 32 pages, 28 of which are content.) So as they requested, I wrote some more stanzas and sent them off. Then, just before choir tour 2012, a letter in my inbox from the editor said, ”you’ll receive a contract shortly.” I was thrilled!
How long did the whole thing take?
The first thing I sent was 2011. With books it’s almost always two years from the time you submit it and when it’s out. It takes forever!
Tell us about a time when your books didn’t work out as expected.
In the spirit of taking your chances and being willing to deal with failure, I’ve had several other manuscripts that I’ve been working on that are strong, but still haven’t cracked that New York market. So I’ve assembled QUITE a list of rejections. And a rejection letter isn’t even the worst thing, I’ve found out. Because publishers do get so many submissions, if a book isn’t something they want, they don’t even respond at all. So a non-response is the worst thing — even worse than the dreaded self-addressed stamped envelope. That’s where you get a rejection letter addressed to you, in your own handwriting. Basically you’ve paid for the stamp to send yourself a rejection letter. That’s like, “Hit yourself, hit yourself , hit yourself!”
So what are you working on now?
The one I’m working on now is a non-fiction project I’m really excited about. I LOVE doing research. It’s called —the stupidest title ever — 101 Happy Time Animal Fun Facts, Yeah! The pitch is this: What would happen if Jack Handy and Jack Hannah wrote a book together? (Jack Handy is the “deep thoughts” guy and Jack Hannah is the Columbus Zoo guy who used to be on The David Letterman Show all the time.) It’s all true — real animal facts with some weird bizarre takes on them. There’s a real push with the common core standards for kids to read more non-fiction. This idea makes me laugh, and I love animals, so we’ll see what happens.
How will you take your chances on this one?
I have submitted a query to one agent. I think I’d like to try that this time. The bigger publishers usually only work with authors who have agents, and since I’d love to get in with a bigger publisher, this is my new chance to take. The market seems better for non-fiction, and I want to write non-fiction that is fun and goofy and makes children laugh and learn and enjoy reading.
How will you do it?
I’ve been working on it for about a year. I’ve read LOTS of books about animal facts. It’s an interesting process. For each animal I’ve compiled a list of facts. Found out some stuff is not factual. So I’m digging into what’s already out there. Scientists have learned so much and keep learning more, some things believed to be true — like why chameleons change color and what the zebra’s stripes are for — there are all kinds of theories, and debunking things already out there has been fun and exciting.
Where will you find this information?
I use the Internet as beginning point only — to find sources, papers, etc. I also rely on National Geographic, San Diego Zoo and other great sources for animal facts., plus a whole slew of reference books in area libraries. I even have a red-letter edition of my manuscript that has all the citations and where I found them. I would love to do projects like that.
Why do you write books?
I love to create. I believe creativity is a moral imperative. To be created in the image of the Creator, is to be creative. So it is our job to be creative. Two things that wake up my brain — that oxygenate me — are working with children and being creative. It can be a children’s book, a piece of choral music, a song about duct tape, a giant puppet, a worship service, or a shadow theatre to illustrate a story from the Bible.
It’s not as important to me to get my name out there as it used to be. I want to create things that help people. Picture books aren’t supposed to be preachy, but they do need to have a message, I want to reach out to people with a positive message.
And the message you want children — and grownups who read these books to children — to get from I’ll Take My Chances?
Don’t wrap yourself in bubble wrap. Try new things, take some appropriate risks, be nice to kids who are getting left out, hug your grandma (or your parents) in public. People may make fun of you, but do it anyway. My books are all about teaching on the sly — ministry on the sly. Learning can be fun and silly and encouraging and realistic. I dedicated this book to the children of FUMCFW because that’s what we do here — and that’s what I want to share with as big a reach as I can get. So I’ll keep sending out books that carry these kinds of messages — it’s not easy, but I’m going to do it anyway!