This is a sketch drawn by my friend Paula Cohen during a virtual critique group meeting.

Paula’s top left and then there’s (clockwise) Karen Rostoker-Gruber (with an animal mask on the wall behind her), Margery Cuyler, me (with tea), Laurie Wallmark, and Rachelle Burk. It was a lovely meeting full of laughter and sharp writing feedback, plus it was the highlight of everyone’s month since we’ve not been together during the pandemic. In the “before times” we would gather for breakfast at Panera and inevitably stay for lunch, too! But since March 2020, it’s been Zoom-a-zoom-a-zoom-a-zoom.

We were all eagerly anticipating Paula’s debut picture book as author-illustrator (originally titled SHIRLEY’S STORE, then SHIRLEY’S BIG IDEA) because we had been together through the many revisions she made, through agent queries, through publisher submissions, and finally through the offer with Levine Querido. We all rode that rollercoaster with Paula (screaming, laughing, crying and holding tight with sweaty palms).

Finally, TODAY IS THE DAY! Happy book birthday, Shirley and BIG DREAMS, SMALL FISH!

Let me tell you about Shirley 1.0! Shirley is really Paula’s mom, “working” at the family grocery store in Albany, NY. I remember we joked with Paula about how the first Shirley looked a little too matronly to be a young kid.

One of Paula’s original Shirley sketches.

And Uncle Morris appeared a little too senior for his wife to be having a baby in the story.

Oh, how we laughed with Paula! She took the criticism well, with humor. Of course, Shirley and Uncle Morris went through some transitions…they both got more hair…

I remember Paula being particularly proud of this spread in BIG DREAMS, SMALL FISH—where the neighborhood customers are trying Shirley’s store delicacy from the comfort of their homes.

The original page didn’t show the true depth of Shirley’s effect on the neighborhood (but we loved it all the same).

The change was her art director’s suggestion, and it was brilliant. The new scene shows the diverse immigrant community. There’s the glow of the lights from within the apartments and plenty of smiles. It radiates warmth—just like Paula’s original sketch, but on a neighborhood scale.

And just like the real Shirley, who embodied warmth and shared the importance of family in her community, too. BIG DREAMS, SMALL FISH is Paula’s homage to her mother.

And this blog post is my homage to Paula. She passed away suddenly on Thursday.

Visiting Paula’s summer camp on “Fractured Fairy Tale Day”. She made that Goldilocks wig!

I’m in a state of shock and disbelief. Paula was one of those vibrant, upbeat, joyous people you loved to be around because she made you feel good. She gave great big hugs in a tiny 4’10” frame. Her art was always a delight. In fact, I met Paula at a NJ-SCBWI conference because of her art. She had displayed a playful image of a polar bear and a girl swimming underwater. I sought her out to compliment her.

Here’s a sketch of that polar bear and girl, who became characters in a friendship story that she hoped to sell soon.

And Paula’s polar bear even got to be a star with the Coney Island Polar Bear Club!

Well, this was supposed to be a post about BIG DREAMS, SMALL FISH but it’s about Paula instead. You can see the joy she brought to others through her art, and my own dream is that Paula’s work will have a ripple effect, touching everyone who comes across it. It was her dream to be an author, and she did it. Mazel Tov, Paula!

So please, check out Paula’s book. Share it, request it at your library, do what you can to spread the warmth.

Thank you!

Paula and her beloved pooch, Joxter the Schnauzer.