It’s exciting to see new picture book covers since I can’t view them in the bookstore or library. (I know we all miss that!)

So today it’s time for Milly to make her entrance. She’s a donkey with dreams of attending the prestigious unicorn school. But when she’s accepted, she must make it through without anyone realizing what she really is: a donkey in a party hat. (Ha!!!)

Jess, how did you get the idea for FIRST DAY OF UNICORN SCHOOL?

On one level, the idea for this book came from watching my kids fight over a cardboard tube. Each of them wanted to use it as a unicorn horn. My daughter grabbed the tube and told my son, “You’re not a unicorn! You’re just a horse!” Boom. Instant story.

On another level, this book came from conversations I’ve had with other grown-ups. It seems like no matter where we are in our lives or careers, most of us feel like we’re totally faking it and live in fear of the day someone notices we aren’t special, we aren’t unicorns—we’re just donkeys in party hats. It made me realize that everyone feels like that sometimes. Normalizing imposter syndrome makes it feel less scary when it happens, and I think that’s a message both kids and adults could benefit from.

Absolutely! Every writer has suffered from feeling like a poser. 

What hurdles, besides your own imposter syndrome, did you have to leap over while making this book?

This book almost didn’t happen! By December of 2018, I’d been working toward publication for six very long years and had racked up HUNDREDS of rejections from agents, writing contests, editors, mentoring contests, etc. If they were in publishing and could tell me no, they probably had. (In fact, my agent Rena Rossner rejected me twice on different projects before offering on UNICORN SCHOOL.) The night before a big Twitter pitch event, #PitMad, I decided enough was enough. It wasn’t going to happen for me. I scheduled some pitch tweets and if nobody liked them, I was done.

The next day, my pitch for UNICORN SCHOOL got over a dozen agent likes, more than 300 retweets, and a ton of comments offering encouragement. I didn’t get an agent from the experience, but it made me see that what I was doing had market appeal and was worth pursuing. The dream wasn’t dead yet!

It took another six months and joining an awesome critique group to get my “yes” from Rena, but even then, it was still touch and go with UNICORN SCHOOL. In the 18 months I spent querying the book, the market was flooded with unicorn stories. Every rejection we got from editors was some version of “nice, but we’ve already got one.” I was content to shelve it until unicorns stopped being the picture book version of YA vampire novels, but Rena was convinced it was different enough to sell. And thank heavens, she was right.

And here’s the cover! The book releases January 1, 2021 from Capstone:

The cover is total happy-making, with eager Milly and a bright palette. Can you tell us about the illustrations?

When I was a kid, I read a lot of the classic picture books—Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle, Leo Lionni, H. A. Rey—and while they were great, the artwork didn’t really blow me away.

Then, as a teenager, I came across RED RANGER CAME CALLING by Berkeley Breathed. And I fell in love. The art was dynamic, hilarious, and felt almost three dimensional. So when my editor at Capstone asked me if I had any kind of vision for the illustrations, I knew exactly what style I wanted. And wow, did Mariano Epelbaum deliver. His work is fresh, fun, and full of life. I can’t wait for you all to see the interior, too!

Ooh, can we get a sneak peek?

So cute! Love the family portraits.

Now let’s hear from Illustrator Mariano Epelbaum..,.

The cover is a bright and colorful invitation to a cute magical world where anything can happen.

Milly—the new student—wishes to be part of this ideal place, to be someone else.

Jess Hernandez invented a funny story full of messages about beauty, appearance, prejudice, and diversity—all human concepts but with imaginative wildlife characters where I feel so comfortable to show children that a better world is possible.

Thanks for stopping by, Jess and Mariano!

The creative duo behind Milly are giving away an ARC (F&G) of the book before it’s released! 

Just leave one comment below to enter.

A random winner will be selected in a couple weeks!

Good luck!

Mariano Epelbaum is an illustrator and character designer from Buenos Aires. He enjoys trying different styles of illustration, as he is inspired by each project he works on. Mariano worked as art director and character designer on the animated movie Underdogs. He has published books in the US, UK, Spain, Argentina, and Puerto Rico. When he´s not working, he likes playing with his two daughters, watching movies, and going for outdoor walks. Visit him online at, and follow him on Instagram @mariano.epelbaum!

Jess Hernandez has spent her grown-up life working with kids and books—as a teacher, a children’s librarian, a mother, and a picture book author. Her debut book, FIRST DAY OF UNICORN SCHOOL, illustrated by Mariano Epelbaum, comes out January 1, 2021 from Capstone. Jess lives in a very small, very LOUD house in Washington with her husband, their three children, a blind Labrador, and seven chickens. Find her on Twitter at @FinkHernandez, on Instagram @JessHernandezWrites, or at her website