Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Today, I interview Diane Benson Harrington, who wrote activities for "Gymboree A to Z Activities" a deck of activity cards for little ones. Among other things, Diane also leads a very successful and worthwhile querying class on freelancesuccess.com

Tell us about yourself.
When I was 12 years old, my parents were terribly concerned that I didn't yet know what I wanted to major in in college. So I took an Interest Inventory Test. It revealed that I wanted to be either a parole officer or a reporter. Through a shadowing program at school, I spent a day with a parole officer and decided it was way too much paperwork and not nearly enough interaction with people. The next week, I headed for the Boca Raton (Florida) News, which had a Youth Today page (written and edited for and by teens). I've been at it ever since.
Since then, I've worked for two medium-size daily newspapers and four national magazines. I left the world of weekly paychecks in 1989, starting as a local/regional freelance writer/editor. I've been writing for national magazines for about the past 10 years. I'm a former columnist for Coastal Home (sold and later resurrected as Coastal Living), RealtyTimes.com, and MommaSaid.net, and am the managing editor for FreelanceSuccess.com. My writing credits include publications such as Woman's Day, Family Circle, Parents, Parenting, Health, American Baby, Homestore.com (which repurposes material for AOL and many other sites), and more.

Tell us about your new project, "Gymboree A to Z Activities."
Those of you who've had children may remember those early days, when you honestly had no clue what you're supposed to do with your child all day long. Sitting and staring just doesn't cut it! But most new parents don't have the time - or energy - to scour magazines and books to figure out how best to entertain and teach their babies and toddlers. That's where these activity decks come in. I've written the text for two decks of activity cards - one for babies and one for toddlers. The oversize card decks (about the size of a Reader's Digest magazine) are printed on super-thick, extra sturdy cardboard and have adorable illustrations on one side, paired with an age-appropriate and developmentally oriented activity on the other. (I just received my author's copies, and they're far larger and more substantial than I'd imagined they'd be!) So, for instance, the D card in the toddler deck has a picture of a drum (along with upper- and lowercase D's) on one side. On the other, I've created an activity to match that word. With D, I explain how to create drums with items around the house and how parents can play with their child for the ideal interactive experience (rather than just letting the child play by himself, which doesn't provide the same learning experience). I also created the parent card for each deck, which explains the types of activities we're offering and the reason these are important.

How did you get this project? Did you have an agent represent you?
A while back, I'd answered a notice from a publishing company (Weldon-Owen) seeking writers to produce interior-design-related books for their corporate clients. Because I didn't have any book experience, I didn't get the advertised job, but they tried me out (and paid me a nominal fee) for a kid-oriented project. They ended up doing that in house. But I kept in touch, and they kept my name on file. When one of their clients, Gymboree, was ready to do these fascinating activity card decks, they called me. I again did a sample for them, after which we finalized a contract and moved forward. They had a pretty tight deadline - it was around the holidays last year.

How as it different from writing magazine articles or books?
Because of the nature of this project - a deck of "cards" rather than an actual, bound book - it was probably much closer to writing a magazine article than writing a book. It was the type of tight writing - condensing creative, interesting, developmentally appropriate information - I've typically done for parenting magazines. But the format was different, obviously. And I didn't have to interview experts. The publishing company had the highly respected Zero to Three company review the cards after I'd written them to ensure they were ideal for the age ranges. The editors were wonderful to work with - extremely helpful, offering terrific guidance and great feedback.

What was the most interesting aspect of the project?
The publisher told me what illustration they had for each card, and typically what the word was going to be. It was fun coming up with activities - . I even included my own boys (ages 8 and 10 at the time), asking them for any activity ideas they might have that itty bitty kids would enjoy. I especially liked being able to use my background (reporting on and writing parenting articles for the past decade) to suggest that they switch some cards/words they'd planned for the toddler deck to the baby deck and vice versa. I also remember trying to bring a few things more up to date - like suggesting they use "jelly" instead of "jam" on the J card, since most kids I know like "peanut butter and JELLY sandwiches," not "peanut butter and jam sandwiches."

What was the most challenging aspect of the project?
Making sure we didn't have too many of one type (music-oriented, dress-up, etc.) of activity in each deck. I couldn't duplicate activities between the Baby and Toddler decks, so that meant coming up with 52 distinct activities - and making sure each was as interactive as possible. Gymboree really wanted these decks to help build parent-child relationships - not provide a way for parents to just set kids aside by themselves.

Is doing activity cards or other projects for kids profitable?
Not especially. (At least this project wasn't.) It paid about the same as a magazine article. But I hadn't written any books before, and I like this publishing company and am hoping to work on more projects with them in the future (parenting and other subjects). I looked at this as a foot in the door.

What's next for you?
I'm working on a new book - Freelance Success: Moving Your Magazine Writing Business to the Next Level - with Jennie Phipps; it'll be authored by the two of us as "the editors of FreelanceSuccess.com." I've talked with a former Woman's Day editor about co-authoring a book with her, and I hope to get my own query-writing book out there some day soon.


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