Recently, I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Joan Holub, an iconic children’s book author who defined countless childhoods, including mine. Holub has written over 200 children’s books, her most popular (and my childhood favorite) being the Goddess Girls series. She’s also written Little Goddess Girls, Grimtastic Girls, Who Was Babe Ruth?, Heroes in Training, and many more.
ZW: I saw that you were an associate art director at Scholastic before you became an author. What was that transition from illustrator to writer like?
JH: I just started to love writing! After some editors at Scholastic asked me to just do the writing for certain books instead of illustrations, I started to really enjoy it. And as a writer, you can be anywhere. Let’s say you have an idea on the bus, you can just write it down. I love being able to have that flexibility. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of artist that can just draw things on a bus. Sometimes, I would get stressed out because I could only create art at the drawing table. Whereas, with writing, ideas can come to me no matter where I am and I can jot them down.
ZW: I was a huge Goddess Girls fan in middle school, and now there are almost 30 different books in that series! How did the collaboration with co-author Suzanne Williams begin? What’s the process of writing those books alongside someone?
JH: I was at an SCBWI event, which stands for The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, in Seattle. There, I met Suzanne Williams for the first time. I happened to sit next to her and we started talking. We ended up going out to dinner with our husbands and then it started just being us hanging out. She had written multiple series already, so I asked her what she thought about writing a series together. We thought of a few ideas and ended up settling on the idea of Goddess Girls.
In terms of our writing process, we discuss our ideas over the phone. I’ll say something like “I want to write about Athena and I’m thinking about using this myth…”. We talk about what the story is going to be and how we’re going to incorporate the myth, which is helpful because we’re always writing two different books at a time. Then we go to our separate corners and write an outline which can be 10 to 13 pages long. We then trade our outlines on a set date. From there, we read each other’s outlines as if it was our own and say “what if we add this” or “this doesn’t make any sense” or “I really like this” and so on. After discussing our changes and edits, we write our first manuscripts individually. We read each other’s manuscripts, probably about four times back and forth before we send it in for the editor to read!
You want to get published so badly and you’re so grateful when it finally happens. Suzanne and I were working on sometimes four books a year between the two of us, which can be very stressful. But, Suzanne and I never had any problems and we’re still friends to this day! We also ended up writing Little Goddess Girls, which is a spin-off of Goddess Girls for a younger audience, Grimtastic Girls, and Heroes in Training together to name a few. I’ve heard a lot from parents that Heroes in Training helped a lot of young kids who didn’t really like reading start to like it, which was just amazing to hear as an author!
ZW: What inspired the story behind Goddess Girls?
JH: I loved Greek mythology. When I was in sixth grade, I was just hooked on it. I also took a lot of Egyptian art history in college, so I’ve always been interested in those eras. Greek mythology wasn’t really a hot topic until Rick Riordan’s books came out, and that kind of opened the door to get Goddess Girls published. Publishers seemed to want Greek mythology suddenly!
ZW: What’s your advice to aspiring authors for getting a literary agent and getting your work out there?
JH: I actually got my first literary agent through Suzanne. Since we were going to be working on Goddess Girls as a joint project, I thought it would be best to just go with Suzanne’s agent that she already had. That was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me because I got an agent, and she’s great!
The SCBWI conference also really helped me a lot. Agents come to events like that and they provide a digital book with information on different publishers and what they look for. That was really helpful for me when I didn’t have a literary agent. Although, I did have a bit of a foot in the door because I had already worked at Scholastic. But, it was not easy in the beginning. It’s important to network, but it’s also important to keep writing and finish as many projects as you can before you do.
I also find it helpful to write more than one story at a time because sometimes I would get stuck. But, if I have another book that I’m writing and decide to work on that one, I suddenly see things differently and generate more ideas. Try not to get too fixated on one story if you can, even though sometimes all you want to do is finish that book.
ZW: I was also a big fan of the Who Was? series. How did you start writing for that series?
JH: I love the Who Was? series too; I’m with you! Even as an adult, it’s such an easy way to learn new things. I had an editor who I’d already written some books for who also worked for ‘Who Was?’. I can’t remember for sure but I think she just reached out and asked if I’d like to try writing one of them. My favorite one I wrote was Who Was Babe Ruth?
ZW: Which genre do you prefer more? The fantasy of Goddess Girls or the fact based historical books?
JH: I like to write all of it. Word books, novelty books, graphic novels, early readers, middle readers, picture books… I like doing everything and trying everything. The only thing I haven’t done is YA, but I’m sure it’ll happen eventually!
ZW: I have a bit of a fun question to end on. Who is your favorite Goddess Girl and why?
JH: My first knee-jerk reaction is to say Athena, but I have to go with Medusa. For book number eight, I wrote Medusa the Mean, who’s an evil character in the series. I really liked explaining why she’s the way that she is. I explored her home life and readers got to see that she lives in this little tiny closet and that her sisters, which she does have in mythology too, are doted on by her parents. It was just so much fun for me to write about her backstory. I started to empathize with her as a character.
I can’t believe we’re on book 30 right now. Elpis the Hopeful is our newest one that’s coming out soon. We came up with the idea for her during the pandemic. She’s all about spreading hope!
A huge thank you to Joan Holub for taking the time to chat with me! Here’s a link to her website if you want to learn more about her and her wonderful children’s books.