My Author Friend: Diane O'Neill
How many years you have been working on this book before you got a contract on it for publication?
My experience was not at all typical, but rather miraculous—it took less than six months! I wrote an op-ed about the stigma I experienced, growing up on food stamps, and it was published in the Chicago Sun-Times on January 2, 2020. I shared my good news on the Illinois SCBWI listserv, and an editor at Albert Whitman emailed me, asking if I had any ideas for picture books about food insecurity. No, none--but then memories flooded back. I wrote a story, revised it per the editor’s feedback, and received the contract on June 2, 2020. Saturday at the Food Pantry came out on September 15, 2021.
Is this your first publication?
It’s my first book, but not my first publication. I’ve had stories, essays, op-eds, and poems published. My works have appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, the South Side Weekly, the Journal of Modern Poetry, The Shine Journal, the Gnu Journal of National University, It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, and the blog of Solstice Literary Magazine. LADYBUG Magazine published my story "Hector the Superhero" in January 2019, and Highlights for Children accepted my nonfiction article "Valentin's School" in 2017.
Do you write full-time? If no, what do you do besides write?
I’ve been writing full-time since July 2021. Before then, I worked in jobs serving people with disabilities, most recently as a curriculum designer, writing courses for people with visual impairments.
What inspires you to create picture books? Do you write any other genres (MG, YA, adult)?
Events from my childhood, or from my son’s childhood, inspire me the most. Of course, there’s a lot of fictionalizing—I’ve written from the point of view of a lonely violin and from the viewpoint of an Easter Bunny with a poor sense of direction. But dig deep, there’s usually a true story in there!
I’m working a middle grade mystery now, and I also write poems and essays for adults. That said, picture books hold a special appeal to me—they are so close to poetry (regardless of whether or not they are in rhyme), and I’ve always felt pretty close to my inner child!
Where do your ideas for new manuscripts come from? Has a manuscript ever started out in one direction and by the end been a totally different story?
I keep an idea-a-day journal, and that helps me keep my imagination limber. Lately, I’ve been trying to mine my personal life for experiences that aren’t written about much and that have emotional resonance for me. For example, I’m working on a picture book about meeting half siblings, and I’ve written one about housing insecurity, also something I experienced as a child.
“Molly” in Saturday at the Food Pantry originally was Sean. He loved comic books, whereas Molly loves to draw. In other manuscripts, I’ve eliminated characters who started to bore me and replaced them with more interesting ones. Hm, wonder where those discarded characters go…
What is your favorite thing about being an author?
My favorite thing is knowing that people are reading my words, and that for some people, my story has had a positive impact. One reader commented on social media that she, too, grew up on food stamps, and that my book made her childhood self feel seen.
What is the most difficult thing about being an author?
The most difficult thing for me about being an author/writer is getting rejected. But it’s part of the process, and I was amazed to learn that even the greats (Walter Mosley, Jane Yolen) still get rejections! You just have to keep writing and keep submitting. You have to write for the joy of it. I’m lucky--I like writing. I’m not one of those writers who feel like it’s like opening a vein, drawing blood. When I attend virtual write-ins, I feel like I’m attending playdates with faraway friends!
When you are “stuck” or have “writer’s block”, what do you do to help you over the hump?
Writing in different genres helps me keep away from writers’ block. If I’m feeling blocked about working on my novel, I can work on a picture book draft, or I can work on a poem or an essay. I also attend a lot of virtual writing workshops and write-ins. Meetup has a number of great virtual co-writes (Office of Modern Composition, Shut Up and Write, The Chicago Writers Circle, etc.), and so does the London Writers’ Salon. So cool to write with people from around the world, all gathered in virtual creativity!
Do you write in the morning, evening, or late at night? Do you have any music or background sounds to keep you focused on writing?
I write at different times—early morning, early afternoon, early evening. I have Pandora on in the background, playing everything from Bruce Springsteen to Bach to Christmas music (even in July). Coffee and tea are my fuel.
When you first started out, where did you find the most positive influence or support to help you with the process of becoming a children’s author?
I’ve found SCBWI workshops very helpful, and I was lucky to get accepted into a wonderful kidlit critique group, KIDSCRIT, in 2010. That group has been immensely helpful to me, encouraging me to try formats I hadn’t considered. I’ve also participated in NaPiBoWriWee (National Picture Book Writing Week), starting in 2007--that was the first time I actually considered writing picture books.
To date, what would you say is the biggest moment of your career?
My book was selected by Parents Magazine as their October 2021 book for their Raising the Future Book Club, and I did a live Instagram interview with Elliott Gaskins of No Kid Hungry: https://www.instagram.com/p/CU0XVr-JLAV/
When you first started out, what is something you wished you knew about the process of being an author?
I wish that I had let myself explore and have fun with other genres, and not focus so hard on finishing my first novel. I still have hopes for this novel, and I’m glad that I wrote it, but when I started to submit shorter works—essays and poems—they were published, and that was so encouraging. Publishing aside, switching between genres keeps me more productive and staves away the dreaded writer’s block. I’d never thought of myself as a poet, but taking a free MOOC (massive open online course) from the University of Iowa in 2015 was lifechanging, and since then I’ve had poems published and won an award.
Tell me more about your book and share about your illustrator.
Brizida Magro illustrated this book, and her work is amazing. I am especially happy that she captured the personalities and emotions of the characters so perfectly. I’m so grateful she was the illustrator!
My book really began when I read a letter to the editor in December 2019 that criticized people for buying energy drinks using SNAP cards. This triggered a high school memory—in a history class discussion, classmates recounted how their moms would look in carts of people on food stamps: “Terrible! They’re buying sweet rolls!” I shrank in my seat—we were on food stamps, and sometimes we bought sweet rolls.
My response to this letter was published. I happened to be taking a writing course, so I expanded the letter into an essay for an assignment, and then submitted it as an op-ed. Andrea Hall at Whitman asked if I had any picture book ideas on food insecurity—and “Molly” was born.
In my book, Molly and her mom have no more food in the house, so they go to a food pantry. “Everybody needs help sometimes,” Mom tells Molly.
While waiting in line, Molly sees a classmate, Caitlin, and calls out, “Hi Caitlin!” But Caitlin doesn’t want anyone to know she’s here. When Molly runs to the desserts, Mom says “No! They’ll want us to take sensible food.” Mom looks embarrassed, too.
But none of them are doing anything wrong! “Everybody needs helps sometimes,” Molly reminds Mom and Caitlin. She tells Caitlin that they helped, too, by drawing pictures for people in line and the staff, cheering them up.
What is next for you as an author? Any news you can share about an upcoming project?
I’m working on some new picture books and a couple of new middle grade novels. I’m also writing poems.
If you could tell an aspiring author one thing, what would that be?
Keep writing, and have fun with it! Never give up. Be aware of your internal editor, and don’t let that critical being boss you around—don’t worry about what anybody will think when you’re drafting your work! There are lots of free and low-cost resources out there—take advantage of them! This is a great time to be a writer. The world needs your words. (Uh oh, you said one thing and I said a few--sorry!)
Here is connections to Diane. Please be sure to check them out:
Just a blurb about the book:
Saturday at the Food Pantry | Albert Whitman & Company
Molly and her mom don’t always have enough food, so one Saturday they visit their local food pantry. Molly’s happy to get food to eat until she sees her classmate Caitlin, who’s embarrassed to be at the food pantry. Can Molly help Caitlin realize that everyone needs help sometimes?
Now it is giveaway time!
This book would be a wonderful addition to any classroom library or home library. It is such a great subject for this holiday season. Please be sure to post a comment to be entered to win a copy of this wonderful book.
All comments need to be posted by November 30th. The drawing and announcement will be on December 1.