STEM and STEAM—whichever term you prefer to call Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Math—is a hot area for picture books that can be incorporated into classroom learning. (Well, of course “steam” is hot!) Author Karla Valenti joins us today to talk about her unique path to publication with her “My Super Science Heroes” series.

Karla, I love learning about how authors form their story ideas. How did this book come to be?

This book is part of the “My Super Science Heroes” series. It actually came about in a really unique way.

Back in 2016, a friend alerted me to a call for proposals from the Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA), a global research group with over 4,000 scientists worldwide. They wanted to partner with an author to write a picture book about Marie Curie. The profits would go to support their various research projects. The MCAA group was looking for books that would portray science in a unique and engaging way for young readers.

I am not a non-fiction or historical writer (I do fiction and mostly magical realism); however, I saw this as a way to flex my creative writing skills so I decided to give a try. I began doing research on Marie Curie and the more I read, I realized that she had led a very challenging life, constantly faced with opposition (both personally and professionally). It astounded me that she had achieved what she did in light of all that opposition. It was almost as if her persistence were a super power.

Ding!

A light went off and I began to explore the idea of writing a book where Marie Curie was a super science hero whose super power was persistence. Leveraging super hero tropes, I knew I needed a bad guy and of course, she had one—Mr. Opposition. And so the story came together—a book designed as a super hero concept, focusing on the person more than their accomplishment, focusing on how difficult it actually is to follow our dreams and celebrating the persistence that made it possible for her to reach them.

I submitted the proposal and, to my delight, won! I began working with MCAA to identify an illustrator who could bring a unique angle to this story – something different and unconventional. Annalisa Beghelli is the talented Italian illustrator who was brought in for the project, and she has been a wonderful collaborator.

We launched the Indiegogo campaign in 2017 and before the month was even over we had exceeded our fundraising goal and Sourcebooks had found out about the project. They made us an offer for world rights to the series, and so we began working with them directly.

MARIE CURIE AND THE POWER OF PERSISTENCE was published in April 2020, and we’re so excited for ALAN TURING AND THE POWER OF CURIOSITY, which includes all sorts of visual riddles and easter eggs in the artwork but also has loads of back-matter featuring various codes and ciphers.

MCAA, Annalisa, and I continue to collaborate on the series and a portion of all sales go to support the science initiatives of the MCAA folks.

Wow, going from a crowd-sourced book to a Sourcebooks-published one is a rare path to publication. How did you attract Sourcebooks’ attention?

It was a very rare opportunity and a very fortuitous one. Basically, the month we launched the crowd-funding campaign, someone forwarded a tweet about our project to Kelly Barrales-Saylor at Sourcebooks. Kelly immediately reached out to us and, after learning more about the project, expressed an interest in taking the project in-house. Of course, we were delighted and happily joined efforts with Sourcebooks to bring this project to life. I never found out who sent Kelly the tweet, but they will forever have a special place in my heart.

I love the concept behind these books—that there are forces like the “Nemesis” trying to thwart the scientists, but their super powers win out in the end! It shows kids that real traits like tenacity and wonder can lead to amazing things!

How were you able to step outside your usual writing comfort zone—you said you’re typically a fiction writer…? 

To be fair, this really wasn’t outside of my comfort zone (the series is actually fiction inspired by real-life heroines and heroes). That said, I did embrace the MCAA call as a challenge, a way to flex my creative muscles in a different way, almost like solving a riddle (which by the way, is what ALAN TURING AND THE POWER OF CURIOSITY is all about!).

As for what inspired me to do that—it was something my critique partner Tara Luebbe once said. To paraphrase: you never know what the next opportunity will bring, so take all the opportunities you can. And wow, was she ever right!

I love that advice and I often share that, too. There are many opportunities for writers online. Social media, like Twitter, is a great place for pitch parties and making connections with others in publishing.

When you write picture book biographies, you have to choose the parts of the person’s life that support the story you’re telling. There’s not room for everything. What facts about your science hero did you learn that did not make it into the book?

This is a good question and especially relevant in a series like ours that is not intended to be a comprehensive biography of the science super heroes, since we are only looking at certain events in their lives that pertain to the specific super power we are studying.

In the case of Alan’s story, I think everyone should be aware of one of the defining facts of his life; namely, the tragic criminalization of his homosexuality, which led to a horrendous punishment. Acknowledging their error, in 2009 UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Alan Turing, announcing, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.” He did.

It is our hope that people will read Alan’s story and be inspired by him and his unfailing curiosity, honoring his achievements as a real life super hero.

What are you working on next?

My debut novel, LOTERIA, comes out in September with Knopf. Set in Oaxaca Mexico, the book is a magical realist adventure that features a high-stakes game of Loteria played by Life and Death in which an 11 year-old girl (Clara) is the pawn. Every card reveals a new twist in Clara’s fate: a tree, a scorpion, a treacherous rose. But Clara knows none of this. All she knows is that her cousin Esteban has vanished, and she’ll do whatever it takes to save him, traveling to the mythical Kingdom of Las Pozas in her search. And although it seems her fate was sealed as soon as the cards were dealt, Clara just might have what it takes to shatter the game and choose a new path

I also have a picture book coming out with Chronicle in 2023 (MARIA MARIPOSA), and I recently sold two new picture books at auction (details to be revealed soon!)

Wow, Karla, this all sounds like a rip-roaring start to your writing career. Congratulations!

Blog readers, Karla is giving away a copy of ALAN TURING AND THE POWER OF CURIOSITY.

Leave one comment below to enter.

A random winner will be selected in a couple weeks.

Good luck!


Karla Valenti writes stories for and about kids, taking readers on journeys seeped in magical realism and deep philosophical questions. Her storytelling is heavily influenced by her Mexican heritage and layered with ideas and concepts she’s picked up in her many travels around the world. She currently resides in the Chicagoland area with her husband and three kids, two cats, and thousands of books. Connect with Karla at her website karlavalenti.com, on Facebook and Twitter @KV_Writes.

Welcome to the book world, BIRDS OF A FEATHER!

This gorgeous debut brought along its author, Sita Singh, to talk about its journey to publication. Congratulations, Sita!

Thank you, Tara, for having me here to celebrate the Book Birthday of BIRDS OF A FEATHER!

Sita, you know I’m fascinated by book origin stories. How did the idea for BIRDS OF A FEATHER come about?

BIRDS OF A FEATHER is a story of a colorless peacock who learns to love himself in a jungle full of color. Several things sparked this story idea. First, I wanted to write a story with peacocks at the front and center as they are a part of my childhood memories, and also because I’d realized early on that while there are many picture books featuring variety of birds and animals, there are next to none featuring peacocks. Second, I was inspired to tell this story from my daughter’s experience of being the only child of color in her classroom for almost four years of elementary school. Having watched firsthand how important self-acceptance is, in order for children to know and love themselves for who they are, is what inspired me to write BIRDS OF A FEATHER!

Could you share your fondest childhood memory of peacocks?

Although I often saw peacocks on our farm in India, my earliest and fondest memory  is from a visit to the zoo. As kids, my brother and I had gone to the zoo and I remember feeding a peacock and getting my palm tickled. Later, that peacock went on to flaunt his feathers and for the longest time the child in me thought he’d not only put on the show for me, but there was magic in the seeds I’d fed him. I think that fascination probably stayed with me.

In the story, Mo is a leucistic (colorless) peacock who is well-loved, but he still thinks he is not as beautiful as his brothers and sisters. How did this internal conflict come to be the focus of your tale?

Sometimes children struggle with self-acceptance issues arising from identity, or fitting in, or self-doubts, maybe not due to external biases or bullying but just because of feeling different, like Mo. As an immigrant and a mother to three first-generation Indian-American children, I wanted to write a story that would empower children to know their strengths and understand their uniqueness, and become confident individuals. Through the colorless peacock’s journey to self-discovery, and finally to self-acceptance, my hope is to help every child realize that there is no one else like them, and that it’s great to be unique.

What was your initial reaction to seeing Mo brought to life in illustration?

My heart skipped a beat when I first saw the colorless peacock that only lived in my head come alive, and dance and celebrate on the pages. I was blown away by the vibrancy of colors and textures Stephanie had used all around Mo to make him stand out. At the same time, I was moved by how she let the white peacock glow and shine bright through his entire journey to self-discovery! The way Mo was brought to life was beyond my imagination!

With this being your debut picture book, what about the publishing process was surprising to you?

After my manuscript was acquired by Liza Kaplan at Philomel Books and Stephanie Fizer Coleman came on board to make the art, I kept wondering on how everyone’s vision would come together. I had no clue at all! Every stage of the book making process came to me as a pleasant surprise. But what surprised me the most was how the collective vision of so many people involved in the publishing process not only came together to match mine, but it went above and beyond that. I’m still in awe of the trust, creativity, and teamwork that goes into publishing of a picture book.

If you were to imagine Mo today, what do you think he’s doing?

Well, that’s a fun question, Tara! I think Mo must be enjoying playing hide-and-seek with his friends. And every now and then, I’m sure he must be standing tall, screeching aloud, and flaunting his feathers to attract the peahens.

Thank you for visiting, Sita and Mo, and congratulations on your picture book debut!

Blog readers, Sita is giving away a copy of BIRDS OF A FEATHER.

Leave one comment to enter the giveaway.

A random winner will be selected later this month.

Good luck!


Sita Singh was born and raised in India, and moved to the United States in 1999. She currently lives in South Florida with her husband, three children, and an immensely cute and curious dog. An architect in the past, Sita now enjoys writing heartwarming picture books with a South Asian backdrop. When Sita isn’t reading or writing, she can be found trying new recipes in the kitchen, experimenting with food photography, walking with the dog, or movie marathoning with the family. Find out more about Sita on singhsita.com and connect with her on Instagram and Twitter @sitawrites

 

♫ ♬ You’re a code breaker, spy hunter, heartbreaker don’t you mess around with me… ♫ ♬

Today I have a very special guest on the blog. No, not Pat Benatar…it’s the queen of picture book STEM biographies, Laurie Wallmark! Cool tidbit—I have known Laurie longer than anyone else in kidlit because we were in our first critique group together…aaaaand, we’re in the same critique group (albeit a different on) once again.

Laurie’s here today to celebrate the release of her newest book: CODE BREAKER, SPY HUNTER: How Elizabeth Friedman Changed the Course of Two World Wars, releasing March 2 from Abrams, with illustrator Brooke Smart.

This is a special book, as Laurie discovered new ways to enhance the story with fun approaches not typically seen in picture book biographies.

Laurie, kids love secret codes and messages. Is that why you decided to make this your next STEM biography? 

What do you mean kids love secret codes and messages? How about me? I love secret codes and messages, too, and have ever since I was a kid. Remember, I was a computer programmer for many years. And what are programs, but coded messages to communicate to and from computers? They can also be like secret messages for those who don’t understand the computer language.

I enjoyed having the opportunity to both delve into Elizebeth Friedman’s life and learn more about codes and ciphers. In fact, writing the section in the back matter about “Cryptography Today,” gave me an excuse to further research the subject. I have the best job.

Oh, will you be writing your next book in codes and ciphers, then?

Ooh, wouldn’t that be fun? But I did something close to that in this book. If you look at the cover and some of the interior pages, you’ll see ribbons with letters on them. Originally, the illustrator was going to fill these ribbons with random letters. I made her and my life more difficult by suggesting that these ribbons actually contain real coded messages. I had to figure out the codes, then Brooke had to carefully hand-write each letter. (I can’t imagine how much work that was for her.) Even though we double- and triple-checked the ribbons, I’m convinced some eagle-eyed ten-year-old out there will find a mistake I made.

I hope the secret message isn’t “be sure to drink your Ovaltine” like in “A Christmas Story”!

When you’re working on a PB biography, how do you distill a person’s life into just the most salient points? How do you decide what’s most important in a life full of importance?

Before I answer your question, I want to mention a secret message that has nothing to do with books. This was hidden in the parachute of the Mars Perseverance. The white and red triangles represented binary code for the secret message, “Dare mighty things,” which is the motto of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In addition, the outside ring of the parachute holds the code for the GPS coordinates of JPL.

Anyway, on to your question. Finding a focus for a picture book biography isn’t easy. This is not only because of the limited word count, but also because I’m writing a story. And just like when I write fiction, sometimes I have to “kill my darlings.”

Because I write about people who are not well known, I tend to write what are called cradle-to-grave stories. I cover from the person’s childhood until after she has made her major accomplishment(s). Obviously, I can’t touch on every event in her life.

It’s hard, though. I try to make sure I cover the basics of the person’s life and accomplishments. After all, I want children to know why my subject is important. Once I do that, it’s all about writing a story that flows—a story that will draw a child in.

I noticed in the book illustrator Brooke Smart wrote some of Elizabeth’s quotes in handwriting instead of leaving them within the book’s text. Was there a significant reason for this treatment? 

Unlike “nonfiction” biographies from years gone by, these days everything in biographies must be completely factual. Some authors get around this by including a note in the back matter that explains what is true and what isn’t. I personally don’t like this method, because a child might not read the note and be mislead by the text.

I chose a different approach. I identified a series of Elizebeth’s quotations I thought would help illustrate her thoughts and personality. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an easy way to include them within the text without making up the surrounding dialogue. Or, as discussed above, interrupting the narrative flow. Instead, I matched the quotations to events happening in a specific spread. Then, Brooke was able to artistically include the quotations in her illustration.

That method works beautifully! 

Is there anything about Elizabeth you wanted to share but you couldn’t fit into the book? 

There are always aspects of a person’s life that you need to leave out because, as mentioned above, word count limitations or story flow. I would have liked to include the fact that her father didn’t want her to go to college. In spite of that, she sent applications to multiple schools, determined to figure out a way to pay the tuition herself. Her father ended up loaning, not giving, her the money for school. The anecdote says so much about her determination, but it just wouldn’t fit. As it is, the book is jam-packed with scenes, so this is one that had to be left behind.

Speaking of scenes from the book, which is your favorite?

I love the scene with Velvalee Dickson, the “Doll Lady.” First, Velvalee is such an unusual name that it seems fake, even though it was her real name. Second, I can’t imagine how she cracked this code. How could she possibly realize that in a letter about dolls, “little boy” referred to warships or that “fisherman with net” meant minesweeper?

I can understand how decoding ciphers, where one letter or symbol is substituted for another, works. I might not be able to do it myself, but it makes sense to me that other people have the knowledge of math and the tools to do so.

But what an amazing brain Elizebeth must have had. She read letters that were supposed to be about dolls and not only realized they contained secret messages but figured out the code. There’s a reason Elizebeth Friedman is known as one of the world’s greatest cryptanalysts.

And you’re one of the world’s greatest picture book biography authors! Congratulations on CODE BREAKER, SPY HUNTER!

Blog readers, Laurie is giving away a copy of her book.

Leave one comment below to enter.

A random winner will be selected in early March.

Good luck!


Award-winning author Laurie Wallmark writes picture book biographies of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) as well as fiction. Her books have earned multiple starred trade reviews, been chosen as Junior Library Guild Selections, and received awards such as Outstanding Science Trade Book, Best STEM Book, Crystal Kite Award, Cook Prize Honor, and Parents’ Choice Gold Medal. Her titles include ADA BYRON LOVELACE AND THE THINKING MACHINE, GRACE HOPPER: QUEEN OF COMPUTER CODE, HEDY LAMARR’S DOUBLE LIFE, NUMBERS IN MOTION, and CODE BREAKER, SPY HUNTER. Laurie has an MFA in Writing from VCFA and frequently presents at schools as well as national professional conferences (NSTA, NCTE, ALA, TLA, etc.). She is a former software engineer and computer science professor. You can find Laurie on the Web at lauriewallmark.com and Twitter @lauriewallmark

by Hoity-Toity Otter (and not Abi Cushman)

A little birdie told me something recently that was otterly preposterous. Apparently there are women who… get this… make funny books for kids.

“Really?” I said. “Well this is the first I’ve heard of this and I’ve read many articles about funny kids’ books in major newspapers and magazines, and I don’t recall mention of female authors and illustrators in any of them.”

I continued about my day, chuckling at the very notion. A funny woman??  Who writes for KIDS?? Ho! Ho! Now THAT’S a funny idea for a picture book. For a man to write, of course.

But then something happened. I couldn’t shake this feeling. What if that little birdie was right?? I had to know for sure, so I decided to throw myself into deep research.

Well wouldn’t you know, there ARE funny female authors and illustrators! Quite a few actually. Dare I say, LOTS. I decided to reach out to some of these creators and gain more insight into this phenomenon. Interestingly, for my first question I got the exact same answer from every single person I asked.

So I felt compelled to dive deeper and learn more about their process for creating really funny books. Here are the results.

  • From where do you draw your humor?

From Dev Petty, author of CLAYMATES:

“Life is funny and occasionally (if not often) somewhat absurd. I draw humor from those uncomfortable and weird bits of absurdity around us and how we humans cope with them. Sometimes I crack jokes when I’m nervous or uncomfortable and that friction, that discomfort, can create a lot of room for humor. I also grew up around a lot of funny, creative people and learned how humor connects people. Basically, if I was entertaining, my family let me stay up late.”


From Melanie Ellsworth, author of CLARINET AND TRUMPET:

“For me, individual words and the way we string certain words together can be very funny. So I’m always on the lookout for a silly turn of phrase – sometimes stolen from my daughter and occasionally something I have misheard. I love playing around with puns and idioms and common expressions and seeing if there’s a story there!”


From Julie Hedlund, author of OVER, BEAR! UNDER, WHERE?:

“I get a lot of ideas from movies, comedy shows, books, and even signs and advertisements. When something makes me laugh out loud, I ruminate on WHY it’s funny and brainstorm on how I could make that concept work for kids. I also often get a funny/punny title first and build a story from there.”


  • How do you know if your joke will be funny to kids?

From Isabella Kung, author-illustrator of NO FUZZBALL!:

“First, I would like to acknowledge I am very fortunate that my main character—a cat—is already beloved by many adults and kids. (The internet is obsessed with cat pictures and videos for a reason!) So just getting the character design, attitude, and body language right made a lot of adults and kids laugh. NO FUZZBALL! is very much inspired by my own furbabies, Bubo and Bella. Honestly, I just wrote and illustrated what I found funny and what made me laugh about them. I also drew a lot of inspiration from books and cartoons I loved as a kid. I enjoyed when characters made a mess, and found it hilarious when characters had grand personalities while being completely unaware or misunderstand their surroundings like PINKY AND THE BRAIN. I found that embracing my inner child is the key to writing humor for children.”


From Marcie Colleen, author of the SUPER HAPPY PARTY BEARS series:

“For me, being attuned to what kids are currently watching in cartoons helps a lot to know what they are laughing at today. When I was writing The Super Happy Party Bears chapter book series my editor asked me to infuse my storytelling with random, absurd humor like in Adventure Time, a popular Cartoon Network show at the time. I sat down and watched several episodes (cool job, right?) and took notes on how jokes were set up, the rhythm of the jokes, and basically the essence of what was considered funny. I was then able to recreate that type of humor when writing my books. Truth is, I’ve never grown up and I LOVE watching kids television. It’s a quick and easy way to see what’s funny to today’s kids. And it’s hella fun.”


From Sam Wedelich, author-illustrator of CHICKEN LITTLE AND THE BIG BAD WOLF:

“When I’m writing, I try and make myself laugh. That’s the first test. The second test is to read it to kids… I have two kids, so I don’t have to go far, but I also send early drafts or jokes to other friends with kids and get their feedback. Did they laugh? Did they want to hear it again? To me, the highest praise I could ever get on my work is that a kid wants to read it ‘again.’”


  • What’s your trick to creating a really funny scene or moment?

From Julie Falatko, author of YOURS IN BOOKS:

“Once I have the story down, I work to shoehorn in as many jokes as I can. I do a revision where all I’m doing is adding as much specific hilarious weirdness as possible. I look at every line and think of how it can either set up a joke or be a joke, and then I make it as silly and weird as I can. Always make it weirder. I have a book with a discarded shoe who likes to sing, one where the main characters wear pizzas on their heads, and one where a dog gives a dramatic speech about a sponge. All those things were added in the “make it weirder” revision.”


From Julie Rowan-Zoch, author-illustrator of I’M A HARE, SO THERE!:

“More often after I get a drawing or sketch to a point where I am satisfied I take a step back (or hold my iPad further away!) and ask, what can I do that would lift the story – or character look? Especially something that happens to everyone, so viewers can relate, or to evoke an emotion – but something that is not in the text! Add a few lines, move them, or REmove them? A shoe on the wrong foot, perhaps? Gum stuck to it? An eye roll? Maybe with juxtaposition: over-sized ears, a tiny stuffie for a bristly character, an exaggerated mouth wide open on a quiet personality! Would the situation, like a haircut, be more interesting in a kitchen or in a classroom? Unexpected color: purple clouds, mis-matched socks, or green eggs! Even something dark, like a random grimace in a crowd, or a pothole in the character’s path. Or just plain silly, like baby ants in diapers? I suppose it helps having a mind that is always looking for a bit of trouble!”


From Kjersten Hayes, author of THE ELEPHANTS’ GUIDE TO HIDE-AND-SEEK:

“My favorite way to create funny scenes is through brainstorming and not stopping with my first idea but pushing myself until I’ve come up with quite a few possibilities. I often set a goal, like I’ll say I need ten different options for how a part will play out and then I’ll brainstorm until I make it to ten. I usually have to get pretty silly to make it that far, which makes things funny. I especially like to use this method to brainstorm how the words and the pictures could show two different points of view or two different parts of the story. Like maybe the character thinks one thing is happening, but reality is a bit different. I also always ask myself after writing a part if this is really the best and funniest possibility I can come up with. I often realize the answer for early drafts is no. Even if I like it, I realize it could be even better. So I try again, and things get funnier. Another small tip—when in doubt, go for drama and exaggeration. Drama and exaggeration are often funny in picture books.”


From Heather Fox, illustrator of LLAMA DESTROYS THE WORLD:

“For me, it’s all about facial expressions and body language- specifically the eyes! That being said, you might notice that a lot of my silly book characters have really big eyeballs.This proves useful in scenes that don’t have dialog (and even ones that do!) with conveying a character’s expressions, emotions, and thoughts. Humor often comes from not just a situation, but the reaction of the character in that situation.”


From Joana Pastro, author of LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS:

“My favorite line in LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS belongs to the witch. When she says: “It’s a monstrosity! I love it!” It’s a simple line, but I find it hilarious—especially when read aloud—because she uses the word monstrosity in an unpredictable way, as a compliment. So, when I’m working on a funny story, I always aim for the unexpected by searching for out-of-the-box situations or the unfiltered honesty that young children have. If I want to amp the humor, I will make a list of predictable outcomes and then a list for absurd ones. I love a good twist, a great surprise. That’s what I always aim for.”


From Tammi Sauer, author of NOT NOW, COW:

“I think every writer has different strengths, and one of mine is humor. Most of what I write just comes out funny. Even so, I don’t settle. When I’m working on a manuscript, I keep toying with each word, each line, and each scene until I get that YESSS feeling. The YESSS feeling usually involves me laughing and crying alone in my office but whatever. It’s the best.”


  • What do you do if your editor/agent/art director doesn’t ‘get it’?

From Doreen Cronin, author of THE CHICKEN SQUAD series:

“Ha!  This happens all the time. I can get in a groove where I think everything is funny. When I hear back that I am alone in that — I re-write. It’s like writing any other genre, not everything you think is coming across (humor, emotion, plot) is coming across clearly. Re-write, re-write, re-write.  Comedians work out their material in a room with an audience and sharpen it until it really works. Writers do the same. Your audience becomes your agent, editor, art director, etc.  (My kids tell me how “not funny” I am all the time!) It’s usually more about sharpening than deleting all together. For every 30 jokes  you write, three of them might actually be ready. Rewrite! The punch-line is there, it just might be circling and you haven’t really brought it in for a landing.”


Well to quote Baby’s father in Dirty Dancing, a movie all sea otters love quoting, “When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.” I was absolutely bowled over by those responses and give those creators my otter-most respect.

And guess what! It gets even better. I have a special bonus round with the fabulous host of this blog and the author of many funny kids’ books including the upcoming picture book, BLOOP, illustrated by Mike Boldt. It’s the one and only, Tara Lazar! Thank you, Tara, for making my research project extra otterrific.

So Tara, where do YOU draw your humor from?

My father had a dry wit with zingy one-liners. I grew up with his humor, so it was bound to rub off. We watched funny movies together (his favorite was “My Cousin Vinny”) and he let us stay up late to watch Saturday Night Live. What’s especially funny is that he had a very serious, boring job (at least in my opinion) as a chemical patent attorney. I think his humor provided much needed comic relief at work! But he was obsessed with MAD Magazine as a kid—hiding cut-outs of Alfred E. Neuman all over his house to surprise his parents—so I think he was always funny.

My dad, circa 1979

How do you know if your joke will be funny to kids?

Well, I’m still in second grade, so if I laugh, I’m pretty sure kids will, too. I laugh at silly things my own kids roll their eyes at—but they’re teenagers, so, like, pinch of salt.

What’s your trick to creating a really funny scene or moment?

There’s no trick, really. Humor comes from surprise. Sometimes I’m shocked at what spills out because I wasn’t expecting it, either!

What do you do if your editor/agent/art director doesn’t ‘get it’?

I’m lucky in that my agent does GET IT. But sometimes an editor doesn’t. If they provide comments that resonate and ask for a rewrite, I’ll do it. But those that don’t GET IT just don’t and there’s nothing I can do but move on to the next editor. Humor is subjective.

Well, I don’t know about you, but this hoity-toity otter sure learned a lot! And you know what? I just got a wild idea! Maybe someone should tell those newspapers and magazines they’re missing out and should include funny women in their articles! Why hasn’t anyone else thought of this?? I’m going to go do that right now. Ta-ta!

 


Hoity-Toity Otter is not only the author of this article, he also plays the small but pivotal role of “Taxi Cab Passenger Who Eats a Three-Course Meal While Sitting in Traffic” in the upcoming picture book, ANIMALS GO VROOM!, which rolls onto shelves on July 13, 2021 from Viking Children’s Books.

Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of ANIMALS GO VROOM! and SOAKED!, which was a Kids’ Indie Next Top Ten Pick for Summer 2020. She has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years, and runs two popular websites of her own: MyHouseRabbit.com, a pet rabbit care resource, and AnimalFactGuide.com, which was named a Great Website for Kids by the American Library Association. In her spare time, Abi enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.) She lives on the Connecticut shoreline with her husband and two kids.

If you’d like to learn more about Abi and her books, you can visit her website at AbiCushman.com. For special giveaways, sneak peeks, and more hoity-toity otter musings, subscribe to her newsletter.

by Brian Gehrlein

To begin, THE BOOK OF RULES was never supposed to happen. It was just a silly book I wrote in 2017 that was never queried and never shared with my agent because I thought it was dead. However, we wanted to find another project to go on submission with so I took a dive into the dusty corners of my Google drive. And there it was. Lifeless and forgotten…THE BOOK OF RULES. Recalling concepts from The Princess Bride, I wondered if it was all dead or just mostly dead. I decided to find out. Through the magic of revision, several amazing critique buddies, and 10,000 volts of figurative electricity, we brought this “dead” story to life. Ta-da! A once thought dead manuscript Frankensteined to a multi-house offer debut book deal. Moral of the story? Keep an open mind and doubt your conclusions—what if your “worst” story is actually your best?!

So far what I’ve observed about the kidlit industry is that it feels like nothing is happening and then everything is happening. And then nothing is happening. And then EVERYTHING IS HAPPENING! Soon art was happening. Soon a monster was happening. Soon Dennis was happening. Yes, Dennis. Because what’s a good name for a monster that eats children who don’t follow the rules? Obviously Dennis.

Throughout the process, Tom Knight confirmed himself to be the kidlit illustration wizard I knew he was. His stuff is amazing and I couldn’t be more pleased to share this book with him! The first time I saw the cover, I remember shouting, “IT’S DENNIS! HE’S PURPLE! MY NAME IS ON A BOOK!” Crazytown. Bonkersville. A rush of blood to the head with two parts sugar and one part imposter syndrome. Because this book was never supposed to happen…and then it was.

THE BOOK OF RULES is a meta, interactive story that playfully introduces the idea of following rules (lest you be eaten) while weaving in a subtle thread of mindfulness. Due to its meta nature, I love that Dennis is eating the book on the cover—a bit of foreshadowing for one of my favorite parts at the end! I also think Tom really captures the playful tone I was going for with the color scheme and design of Dennis. Look how hungry he is! He’s adorably awful. Marvelously monstrous. I can’t wait for him to break out of this cover and munch his way into your hearts…and also eat your children (unless of course, they follow the rules).

From the publisher: 

An interactive picture book with dynamic illustrations, in which readers have to follow the rules or risk a run-in with a monster—with a gentle approach to mindfulness along the way.

Beware! This book has rules. You must follow all the rules. If you break the rules . . . Dennis the monster will eat you. And you don’t want to be Dennis-food—do you?

With a laugh-out-loud, interactive style, The Book of Rules invites you to get your sillies out before it’s time to focus and listen to directions. And you better get started, because Dennis can’t wait to eat—or, um—meet you!

THE BOOK OF RULES (FSG/BYR) comes out October 19th and is available for preorder.

Thanks for stopping by, kidlit fam! And thanks for hosting this cover reveal, Tara!

Brian is giving away a picture book manuscript plus query critique to a lucky commenter!

Leave one comment below.

A winner will be randomly selected in two weeks.

Good luck!


Brian Gehrlein is the author of dozens of award-winning children’s books that you haven’t read because they don’t exist yet. If only you had a time machine to fact check this absurd claim. Alas, you do not so you’ll just have to take his word for it. Brian enjoys writing snarky pretend-bios at the end of his posts which you can read at pbspotlight.com. Brian thanks you for reading this post. He thanks you for reading this unhelpful non-bio. He especially thanks you for reading this sentence. It was a really good sentence. However, he does not thank you for reading this sentence. You were not supposed to read that one. It was a secret and you’ve gone and compromised the entire mission. What mission you ask? Well, if you even have to ask then you don’t have a high enough security clearance and probably aren’t that cool. For more snark, follow Brian on Twitter @BrianGehrlein.


Tom Knight grew up on Mersea Island on the Essex coast, where he returned to live after having children of his own. Having grown up on a small farm, Tom spent most of his time using his imagination to create new worlds from the hedgerows and haystacks.

After an enjoyable stint as a graphic designer, Tom is now proud to be using his imagination as a full time career. Drawing on a long and abiding love of imagery from childrens literature, Tom has worked for a diverse range of publishers, including Little Tiger Press, Templar, Simon and Schuster, Scholastic and Macmillan. He has also turned his hand to authoring his own titles and is the author and illustrator for the ‘Good Knight, Bad Knight’ books and ‘Jimmy Finnigan’s Wild Wood Band’.

He does all this from a poorly temperature-controlled studio in the garden, where he is constantly distracted by the greedy birds that hang out by the feeder outside his window.

Learn more at Tom’s website tomknightillustration.co.uk and follow him on Twitter @tombabylon.

by Ashley Franklin

Remember NOT QUITE SNOW WHITE? Now we finally get to see Tameika in all of her royal glory! My publisher received such a positive response from readers who fell in love with Tameika’s story that it was decided that she deserved more time to shine. She does just that in BETTER TOGETHER, CINDERELLA.

The NOT QUITE SNOW WHITE cover does an amazing job of capturing the gist of the book: Tameika wonders if she can be Snow White. The cover of BETTER TOGETHER, CINDERELLA does an equally amazing job of doing the same. Tameika is Cinderella, but she’s sharing her space with her siblings.

There are so many things that I love about this cover by illustrator Ebony Glenn! Purple and blue were essential to the cover, and I had a lot of fun adding my input. Of course, we wanted blue for the Cinderella vibe, but purple is associated with royalty. Blue cover or purple cover? As you can see, we went with purple. If I had to pick my absolute favorite thing about the cover, it would be the stars. I often sign NOT QUITE SNOW WHITE with some rendition of “Always shine like the star you are.” This sentiment resonates in BETTER TOGETHER, CINDERELLA too; so to me, the stars are perfect.

What makes this book particularly special to me is that this was a completely different experience from my debut. This title was not something that came easily. I really wanted the perfect rhyme like we had with “quite” and “white” again, but it is not much you can do for a Cinderella rhyme. One of my sons suggested that we use mozzarella and be done with it. Clearly, that would have been a different story altogether.

I can’t wait until kids can see how Tameika adjusts to sharing the spotlight.

BETTER TOGETHER, CINDERELLA will release from HarperCollins on September 7, 2021. Pre-order a copy online today or through your local independent bookstore.

Ashley will be giving away a signed copy of the book once it’s released!

Leave one comment below to enter. A random winner will be chosen next month.

Good luck!


Ashley Franklin is the author of NOT QUITE SNOW WHITE (2019), “Creative Fixes” from the anthology ONCE UPON AN EID (2020), “Situationally Broke” from the anthology WHAT WE DIDN’T EXPECT (2020), BETTER TOGETHER, CINDERELLA (2021) and more. Ashley received her master’s degree in English literature from the University of Delaware. She is an adjunct college instructor, freelance writer, and proud mom. Ashley currently resides in Arkansas with her family.

Ashley is represented by Kathleen Rushall of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Visit Ashley’s at ashleyfranklinwrites.com, on Twitter @differentashley, Facebook at Ashley Franklin, or Instagram @ashleyfranklinwrites.

Today we’re revealing the cover of Jocelyn Rish’s debut BATTLE OF THE BUTTS, illustrated by David Creighton-Pester.

Did you know manatees swim using farts? Or that herrings communicate by passing gas?

Butts are used for breathing, eating, swimming, talking, and even killing in the animal kingdom. Focusing on ten different animals and their derrières, and offering fun facts about their origin, habitat, and “posterior power,” this hilarious book captures the wonder of our ecosystem. Which animal has the coolest butt power? That’s up to you to decide!

Jocelyn, what inspired you to write about animal butts?

I was doom-scrolling Twitter very, very late one night, which is a bad habit I indulge in way too often, but this time it was a good thing! I ran across a tweet with this meme, which says manatees can control their buoyancy through an endless cycle of farting.

I giggled and thought that can’t possibly true. So I Googled it. And it is true! And as a delightful bonus of my search, Google told me about other animals that do weird things with their butts. I don’t think I slept that night as I went down a research rabbit hole of bizarre booties.

I tutor elementary school students who struggle with reading through a program called Reading Partners, so I’ve always wanted to write a book that would appeal to reluctant readers. After hours of reading about these fantastic fannies, I knew this was IT!

Did I ever imaging my debut would be about animal butts, farts, and poop? No.

Am I over-the-moon excited about it? Heck yeah!

And I hope even reluctant readers will be unable to resist a book with animal butts on the cover. Check out these delightful derrières!

What were your thoughts when you first saw the cover?

First of all, I have to say that David is both clever and hilarious (and of course super talented). I can’t wait for y’all to see all the little funny moments in the illustrations.

Anyway, my editor (Allison Cohen) sent me his sketches of several potential versions of the cover. They were all great—one was even set on a stage like the animals were competing, which is how I first envisioned the butt battle—but we all agreed the trophy version was the winner. I just loved the concept of the title on the trophy with our names on the stand—too perfect!

Once I saw the final version, not going to lie, I cried. I never imagined that a cover featuring animal rear ends would be so pretty! The bright colors. The way the greens and blues blend together (half the animals live on land, the other half in the water). The whole thing makes my eyes and my heart happy.

And I’ve never asked David if this is on purpose or if it’s my posterior preoccupation reading too much into things, but the trophy has butts on it! The top of both handles, the bottom of the cup, and the bottom of the stand have light reflections that are butt silhouettes. And even the handles themselves are booty shaped! Or maybe I’m taking this tushie theme too far.

Regardless, I’m thrilled our cover is now out in the world, and I can’t wait for kids to start reading the book!

BATTLE OF THE BUTTS will release from Running Press Kids on September 28, 2021. Pre-order a copy online today or through your local independent bookstore.

Jocelyn will give away one copy of BATTLE OF THE BUTTS to a lucky commenter (to be sent your way when it releases in September 2021!

Leave on comment to enter.

A winner will be randomly selected at the end of the month.

Good luck!


Jocelyn Rish is a writer and filmmaker who never imagined her cheeky sense of humor would lead to a book about animal butts. When she’s not researching fanny facts, she tutors kids to help them discover the magic of reading. Jocelyn has won numerous awards for her short stories, screenplays, short films, and novels and lives in South Carolina with her booty-ful dogs. Visit her website jocelynrish.com.

 

 


David Creighton-Pester is an illustrator and designer from Hamilton, New Zealand. Inspired as a child by picture books, animation, and all things arty, he spent endless hours drawing crazy characters and coming up with silly stories. And still does now! David is also the owner of Scorch Design, a graphic design company he started in 2009. You can see more of his illustration work at davidcp.com.

 

by Sarah Kurpiel

Thank you, Tara, for hosting the cover reveal for my latest picture book, ORIGINAL CAT, COPY CAT (Greenwillow/HarperCollins), which “pounces” onto shelves this August!

Pineapple loves his comfortable life as the one and only cat. But when new kitten Kiwi comes along, Pineapple’s sweet life turns sour—until he sees the world from a new point of view.

Without further ado, here is the cover:

The story got its start back in 2018 with a title (which, amazingly, never changed), a loose concept, and the encouragement of my agents, Allie Levick and Rebecca Sherman. I set the idea aside while I finished my debut picture book, LONE WOLF. When I picked it up again a few months later, I jumped right into my favorite part: designing the characters. I sketched cat after cat after cat until I finally found a pair that just felt right. One day, the name “Pineapple” popped into my head. Not only did the cat I’d been sketching slightly resemble a pineapple, but also, personality-wise, he was prickly at times but sweet on the inside. It was one of those special “aha!” moments—a rather “fruitful” one! Suddenly, my head was filled with ideas for names, colors, words, and patterns. Of course, it took a while for all the pieces to come together. But, looking back, the book title and main character’s name really helped the story take shape.

While the title didn’t change, the jacket certainly did. Below are a couple of jacket concepts the wonderful team at Greenwillow considered:

As every cat person knows, cats are naturally funny. This story celebrates their everyday humor. I had a blast drawing the many antics of Kiwi, who is inspired by my own cat, Cad, pictured here getting in on an F&G photo shoot:

ORIGINAL CAT, COPY CAT will be published by Greenwillow/HarperCollins August 3, 2021 and is currently available for pre-order.

Sarah is giving away a signed copy of ORIGINAL CAT, COPY CAT to be sent your way when it releases in August 2021.

Leave one comment below to be entered into the random drawing.

Good luck!


Sarah Kurpiel is the author and illustrator of LONE WOLF, which was named an Indie Next Pick. She is a librarian and a self-taught illustrator, inspired by animals, nature, and everyday life. She uses a power wheelchair and considers her disability an important part of her identity. Sarah lives with a cat as loud and as fast as Kiwi in Downers Grove, Illinois. View her portfolio at sarahkurpiel.com and follow her on Instagram at @sarah.kurpiel.

 

And now…the drumroll please…

These are the Grand Prize Winners and the agents with whom they’ve been paired! They’ll receive feedback on their best 5 story ideas, helping them to decide which to pursue as manuscripts.

Sarah Tobias → Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy Literary Agency

Sue Twiggs → Miranda Paul of Erin Murphy Literary Agency

Jamie Bills → Natascha Morris of The Tobias Literary Agency

Angela De Groot → Adria Goetz of Martin Literary Management

Jane MacKenzie → Jennifer March Soloway of Andrea Brown Literary Agency Inc.

Marilyn R. Garcia → Sean McCarthy of Sean McCarthy Literary Agency

Rachelle Burk → Susan Hawk of Upstart Crow Literary

Karin Larson → Liza Royce Agency

Congratulations! I will be contacting you via email shortly.

Many thanks to Urania Smith of KidLit Nation who randomly pulled the winner’s names. She co-founded KidLit Nation as the place for children’s authors and illustrators of color to get their publishing info, resources, and opportunities.

In the interest of full transparency, there is a winner whom I know well, but I had no hand in selecting the winners, which was done solely by Urania via random number generation. Please support Urania’s KidLit Nation if you can!

More daily prize winners to come soon…with more assistance from Urania. I am grateful for her support!

by Jess Keating

Heads up, Storystormers, because I come bearing gifts!

For the past month, you’ve devoted some of your precious time to diving into your own creativity.

You’ve mined your failures.

You’ve gotten unpredictable.

You’ve even cuddled with writers block.

And now, as we wrap up these 31 days of experimenting, I’ve got one piece of advice for you:

Celebrate everything on this creative journey.

Celebrate today, yes. You’ve achieved an enormous goal! Celebrate the brilliant ideas, the friendships, and the magical moments of inspiration that found their way into your notebook.

But don’t stop there.

Celebrate the days you missed. Celebrate the bad ideas that go nowhere. Celebrate the hiccups, the fails, and even the rejections. (Especially the rejections!)

Why? Because you’re a writer, and being a writer means embracing the path that lies invisible before you. It means recognizing that success is tailored to you and failure is just another word for ‘research’.

We writers want to change the world with our words, but big changes aren’t made through big steps—they’re made through big thinking that accompanies small steps.

Small steps like cracking open your notebook. Eavesdropping a few moments of juicy of dialogue at the coffee shop. A goofy doodle or two in the margins of your life.

It all counts. Every word. Every idea. Every manuscript and character and deal memo you’ve imagined sharing on Twitter.

But do you know what’s even more important than the books you’ll write?

The person you’ll become as you write them.

At its heart, creativity is a form of self care. Expressing yourself—whether it’s in books or art or the making of extraordinary pies—isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. This goes doubly so for creatives like you, who see the world through story, characters, and entire worlds inside your own head.

And guess what? These Storystorm days are just the beginning.

Maybe our stories will end up on bookshelves. Maybe they end up in a drawer. The location of where your thoughts end up doesn’t matter—what matters is that we give them the chance to breathe. What matters is that we become the people we’re meant to be.

Your words matter. Your stories matter. Let them out!

And through it all, celebrate everything.

I’m rooting for you!

Want a quick way to celebrate today? Jess is giving away a free copy of Query Bootcamp to every Storystorm participant! Hop over to Query Bootcamp to get your copy of this amazing template with easy-to-swipe phrases to make your query shine.

Jess Keating is an award-winning author, illustrator, and creative coach who helps writers and illustrators play big in their creative lives and businesses. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, CBC, Global, Parents Magazine, Buzzfeed, and more. You can  tweet her @Jess_Keating and get daily creative empowerment on Instagram @JessKeatingBooks.

Oprah-style—everyone gets a free download of Jess Keating’s Query Bootcamp!

Since this is our last un-official official day of Storystorm, leave a comment below with your biggest aha moment, favorite post, or a virtual high-five to all your fellow Storystormers! Happy storming, all!

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:


BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

ABSURD WORDS
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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