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by Joan Holub

The Goddess Girls series is up to #25 with CLOTHO THE FATE! I can hardly believe it. (Thank you, thank you, Simon and Schuster!) The Greek myth about the Three Fates, who decide, well, human fates, has been one of my faves since fifth grade.

THE GODDESS GIRLS series (ages 8-12) happened because I met Suzanne Williams at an SCBWI meeting and asked if she’d consider co-writing a series. We both pitched ideas and Goddess Girls wound up the front-runner. Book #1 Athena the Brain, in which Athena discovers she’s a goddess and is summoned by her dad Zeus to attend Mount Olympus Academy, pubbed in 2010. The GG books are each a riff on an actual Greek myth and star smart, adventurous girl goddesses. Quirky grown-ups include Mr. Cyclops teaching classes such as Hero-ology. Suzanne and I have since spun off two other series: LITTLE GODDESS GIRLS (ages 6-8) and HEROES-IN-TRAINING (ages 7-10).

Recently, I read an instagram from a favorite author, Julie Falatko, regarding the difficulties of balancing art, life, and income. I’m prolific with about 170 children’s books by now, and I realized that series writing has helped me maintain that balance Julie mentions. With a schedule of enjoyable series work on my desk, I can fit in picture books, board books, etc. as I have time and think of ideas. My creativity isn’t encumbered by angst regarding my publishing future. Still, it’s not fair (or helpful) to me or my editors if I were to have, say, two board books pub in the same season for different publishers. A bookstore might choose only to stock one of those two Joan Holub offerings. Instead, if I pub a board book, along with either a picture book or a middle grade book in the same season, I haven’t set up sales competition between two of my own books. They’ll be shelved in different areas of a store and browsed by parents and kids in different age groups.

Some of my books have become a series unexpectedly. I read every biography (starting with the girl ones) in my school library as a kid. So a few years ago, I wanted to write some simple board books bios. First came THIS LITTLE PRESIDENT (Little Simon). The format includes 10 spreads with 10 of the better-known presidents, plus a final spread mentioning numerous more and a call for kids to become part of the presidential group in future. It sold well enough to spin into a series: THIS LITTLE ARTIST, THIS LITTLE TRAILBLAZER: A Girl Power Primer, etc. Much of the series success is owed to my editor and the illustrator. I mean, who could not pick up these books after seeing Daniel Roode’s covers? I’ve also been lucky enough to also write for the Penguin Workshop’s bestselling WHO WAS series (WHO WAS BABE RUTH?). They’re the books with the big heads on the covers, and it seems like every kid has read at least one. I know I have. They’re addictive.

Thank you, Tara, so much for letting me visit today.

I’d love to give away three autographed copies of GODDESS GIRLS: CLOTHO THE FATE. They won’t arrive until 2020, but there’s always Valentine’s Day and birthday gifts! Thanks for reading!

You heard Joan!

Leave one comment below to enter the random giveaway. Three random winners will be chosen soon.

Good luck!

 

Ring, ring! Ring, ring!

Who can that be?

Oh, it’s Laurie Keller and Adam Rex calling to talk about their new book PLUTO GETS THE CALL!

And making a surprise guest hosting appearance is none other than…PLUTO! (It’s kind of like how Brie Larson is filling in for Jimmy Kimmel. Yeah, just like that. Wait, does that make me Jimmy?)

Anyway…Pluto will be interviewing this dynamic picture book duo! Take it away, Pluto!

Now Adam, how did you get the idea to write about little old me?

Well, usually my books come out of totally unexpected ideation but this time it began with an editor asking if I might like to write something about our solar system. She was hoping if I wrote something like that, Laurie might want to illustrate it. It was the first time I’d ever written anything with another, specific artist in mind.

I’m not known for nonfiction. You don’t call me if you want 50 Facts About the Planets or whatever. So I started looking for the fiction that would underpin all the nonfiction, and your reclassification still feels like the biggest story to come out of the solar system in my lifetime. When I was a kid every list of planets ended with Pluto, but now my son learns something different. That seems like a big deal to me.

Thank you, Adam! I really am a big deal!

Laurie, do you want to draw any comparisons between me and your other round hero, Arnie the Doughnut?

Well, Pluto, that’s a very good question and the answer is yes! You and Arnie both have an infectious zest for life and a genuine excitement for whatever you do. You’re both seen as the “underdog” (or the under-doughnut-dog in Arnie’s case) but you never let the hard knocks crush your spirit. I’m inspired by you both!

And even though you don’t look anything alike, other than being round, you each have distinguishing features that you’re very proud of—you, with your big heart birthmark and Arnie, with his chocolate frosting and sprinkles! You’re a lot easier to paint than Arnie though—he always makes sure that I draw all 135 sprinkles and it takes a long time!

Adam, did Laurie contribute any clever asides to the story or do anything you didn’t expect? Just like I was not expecting to be de-planetized?

YES. I set out to write what I thought was a Laurie Keller picture book (you can ask her what SHE thinks about that), but it wouldn’t really be a Keller book without a lot of asides and marginal visual gags, and she wrote and invented nearly all of those. Including a line about smoothies that I’m sorry to say gets a bigger laugh than anything I wrote myself.

Well, c’mon Adam, everyone loves smoothies!!! Even an intergalactic comet!

So Laurie, what do you think about that?

Adam, you’re a great writer no matter what or who influences you at any given time. Just keep doing that Adam thang no matter how you do it! I was just happy to get the chance to illustrate one of your stories!

Adam, this book is PLUTO GETS THE CALL. Why didn’t I get a text instead?

I agree, the call was a mistake. Big-time roaming charges. But you don’t break up via text.

You sure fit in a lot of facts about me and the solar system. Did you count how many? (There’s more facts about me than anyone else, right?)

I fit in as many facts as I could while keeping the whole thing breezy and natural. I didn’t want anyone to zone out. I wanted them to feel like an affable new friend was giving them a house tour.

A house tour like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous? Awesome! My house tour is really SPACIOUS! (Get it???)

Well, thanks to the two of you for making me a star! You know, like Brie Larson, not like the Sun. No one can steal Sun’s spotlight.

And blog readers, you can GET THE CALL, too!

Just leave a comment below to win a copy of PLUTO GETS THE CALL!

One random winner will be selected soon. And notified via email. So you won’t really GET THE CALL, but close enough!

A little theme GIF first…

Well, this post is long overdue!

Here are all the random winners of various giveaways since…I don’t even remember when! If your name is here, please be on the lookout for an email from me. Hopefully your prize will arrive in time for Christmas, but unfortunately, I can’t guarantee it. What I do guarantee is that you’ll be charmed and delighted when it lands on your doorstep!

(Hey, I never noticed before…is that girl in green Vogue-ing?)

OK, and away we go…

HOW TO TRICK A CHRISTMAS ELF by Sue Fliess
Rachel (rbkrackeler)

LONE WOLF by Sarah Kurpiel
Carrie Williford

KIKI & JAX by Marie Kondo & Salina Yoon
Rose Capelli

FRANK & BEAN by Jamie Michalak
Annette Pimental

AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO by Kat Zhang & Charlene Chua
Cheryl Johnson

PORCUPINE’S PIE by Laura Renauld
Sheila Wipperman

HALLOWEEN KITTY by Salina Yoon
Katie Giorgio
Joy Pitcairn
Rebecca Herzog
Carol Gwin Nelson
Denita Johnson

KARATE KID by Rosanne Kurstedt
Mary York

WHERE DOES A PIRATE GO POTTY? or A CRITIQUE by Dawn Prochovnik
Karin Larson

ANNIE LYNN’S MUSIC CD: SONGS FOR SCHOOLS
Natasha Wing

THE ARTIST WHO PAINTED A BLUE HORSE by Eric Carle
Jerianne Hayslett

TWO DOGS ON A TRIKE (when it releases in May 2020) by Gabi Snyder & Robin Rosenthal
Tania Hebert

YOUR FIRST DAY OF CIRCUS SCHOOL by me & Melissa Crowton
Amy Benoit
Jacqueline Adams
Latasha Vernon

DUCKWORTH THE DIFFICULT CHILD by Michael Sussman
Kaylynn Johnsen
Aimee Satterlee

SMALL WORLD by Ishta Mercurio
Christina Shawn

WHY? by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Kim Campbell

NUGGET & FANG GO TO SCHOOL by Tammi Sauer
Christine Pinto

SKYPES WITH ME (FOR TEACHERS/CLASSES OR WRITERS)
Marlene Farrell
Michelle Helsel
Joan Longstaff
loelmu
Susan Twiggs
Emily Patriquin
Amanda Sincavage

PAPER MICE by Megan Wagner Lloyd
Suzanne Lewis

Whoa, baby.

That was A LOT of giveaways I fell behind on. In the future I promise to be more timely! Maybe I should get a robot assistant?

(It looked like that robot assistant was gonna take the husband out with a frying pan! I think I’ll wait for the upgrade.)

Before you go, I’d like to let you know my next book is out soon…January 7th! Of course, it’s available for pre-order.

Wow, that snuck up on me! Finn the Leprechaun will sneak up on you, too.

by Sue Fliess

Let’s talk elves!

My book HOW TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN is doing really well (yay!), so my publisher approached me to write more like it. They wanted one for Easter and Christmas. But they asked me if I would write more ‘trap’ books. When you put trapping with bunnies and elves, well, you can see the issue with that right away. So I came back to them with the titles: HOW TO TRACK AN EASTER BUNNY and HOW TO TRICK A CHRISTMAS ELF.

Great! But now I had to create a story for both of those. And come up with a craft written into each book as well! (Between you and me, trying to write craft instructions in rhyme requires a little humor and a lot of wine). But I said Yes, I’ll do it! and off to the library I went!

Researching Easter, bunnies, Christmas elves, mythical elves, Christmas crafts, that particular elf that hangs out on shelves, Santa, naughty and nice lists…whew! And with the help of my amazing critique group, I was able to come up with a story around both titles.

For HOW TO TRICK A CHRISTMAS ELF, I wanted to avoid having the children trick their elf into getting what they wanted for Christmas because that would be very bad! So I thought if they could trick or distract the elf, simply to peek at his naughty or nice list, then they would know where they stood with Santa and would have a chance to make things right, if need be, before the jolly man in red delivered (or not) their gifts.

So they decide to make the elf his very own miniature sleigh. To their surprise, he is over the moon! Because elves usually make the gifts, this sleigh is the first gift he’s ever received. He’s so delighted that he automatically puts the children on the nice list…and he flies back to Santa’s workshop in style. Now, the series, Magical Creatures and Crafts, is taking on a life of its own! It’s grown to include HOW TO FIND A UNICORN, HOW TO MEET A MERMAID, and even HOW TO HIDE A TURKEY, which are set to publish in 2020. Thanks for inviting me divulge the magic behind my elf book, Tara!

Thanks, Sue!

The elves have a gift for you, blog readers! A copy of the book!

You know the drill…leave a comment and I’ll pick a random winner soon!

Actually, I have a lot of winners to announce, and I had previously promised that post…but life has a way of interfering with the blog, so it’s been far too delayed. Next week we’ll have lots of winners just in time for the holidays!

by Sarah Kurpiel

Thank you, Tara, for hosting the cover reveal for my debut picture book, LONE WOLF (Greenwillow/HarperCollins), which I both wrote and illustrated.

Maple the husky loves being the Parker family’s dog, but strangers always seem to think she’s a wolf! It’s true: Maple can hunt, she can howl, and she can dig, just like wolves can. Oh, no! What if she is a wolf and doesn’t belong with her family after all?

LONE WOLF hits the shelves in May 2020.

Without further ado, here is the cover:

The main character in LONE WOLF, Maple, is inspired by my childhood dog, a Siberian husky with loads of personality. Like Maple, my husky was playful and goofy and stubborn in all the best ways. She liked to hunker down on the couch, pull us on long walks, and chew up action figures and video game controllers. I kid you not, she once stole an unlit candle by the wick from a spindly glass candleholder without knocking it over. She had skills!

I also remember how people often compared her to a wolf. This last memory got me thinking. I imagined my husky wondering if maybe, just maybe, she was a wolf. And that’s where the story got its start. I think a lot of kids (and people of all ages, really) can relate to the way Maple feels when she starts questioning her identity. I know I can. This story is about family, self-acceptance, and belonging—plus, it’s pretty funny!

As for the cover, I knew what I wanted to do with it from fairly early on. Colors and details changed with the help of my editor and art director, but the concept remained the same: Maple peeking out, staring squarely at the reader, a look of confusion, surprise, or worry in her eyes. Here are two early sketches:

Elements on the final cover design, like the dotted line and hand lettered text, appear throughout the book. I can picture young readers tracing the dotted lines with their fingers as the lines meander and loop across the page. I initially hand lettered the title simply so I could visualize the cover as a whole for myself. It wasn’t until later in the process that I learned that my editor and art director were going to use it (at which point I cleaned it up a bit). I’d love to do more hand letting in the future.

And first and foremost on the cover is, of course, Maple herself. I never get tired of drawing stylized huskies, which is fortunate since I had to draw Maple so very many times. If you scroll back in my Instagram feed, you’ll see a few of my earliest husky doodles. Drawing dogs in general is such a pleasure for me. (If you need further evidence, be sure to check out the endpapers when the book comes out.)

I’m happy with how everything came together in the end, which is in large part thanks to my editor, Martha Mihalick; art director, Sylvie Le Floc’h; and agents, Rebecca Sherman and Allie Levick. As a publishing newbie, I learned a lot over these past few months. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed making it.

LONE WOLF will be published by Greenwillow/HarperCollins in May 2020. It’s currently available for pre-order.

Thanks, Sarah! Love your style!

Sarah is giving away a signed copy of LONE WOLF to be sent your way when it releases in May 2020.

Leave one comment below to be entered into the random drawing. A winner will be selected on January 1, 2020.

Good luck!


Sarah Kurpiel is a librarian and author/illustrator from the Midwest. Her stories are inspired by animals, nature, and everyday life. Sarah has been doodling in the margins of notebooks for as long as she can remember. She started drawing digitally in 2016 and never stopped. Sarah uses a power wheelchair and considers her disability an important part of her identity. LONE WOLF is her first book. Visit her at sarahkurpiel.com and follow her on Instagram @sarah.kurpiel.

I have something today that will spark joy in book-loving hearts—a picture book collaboration between de-clutter queen Marie Kondo and prolific author-illustrator Salina Yoon!

Introducing KIKI & JAX…

Salina, how did you feel when you were offered the co-writing and illustration gig on Marie Kondo’s first children’s book?

At first, it didn’t quite register. I’d heard of Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” because it was a bestseller for months on the NY Times list, but I had not read it. My agent was overjoyed with the idea of collaborating with her, so I knew it was something to be excited about! I started to research articles about Marie, and found that she was an international superstar—and this was BEFORE we knew anything about the upcoming series on Netflix, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo!” I happened to read about the Netflix series on the Washington Post while on vacation when our project was already in progress. My jaw dropped to the floor!

Mine would have dropped, too! (Until I realized I had to clean it up!)

How did you decide on the style of the illustrations?

I wanted to make this book extra special, so I actually tried many different styles before deciding to do the one I used. I even sketched out human girls as characters before deciding to do the animal ones in the style of Penguin and Pinecone. What ultimately made me choose this style is because I was told that Marie’s favorite book was PENGUIN AND PINECONE. If she loved that book, then I knew she also loved that art style, and my stylization of animal characters. So I reigned myself in and stayed with the Penguin art style for the Kiki and Jax book—and she loved it!

What do you hope young children (and their parents) will take away after reading this book?

I hope that both children and adults will reflect on what matters most to them in their lives-—and consider letting go of the things that get in the way of it. By letting go of the clutter that doesn’t spark joy for us, we’ll find a greater appreciation for the things we do have. Finding joy from what we already have is the best joy of all.

How adorable! The characters and colors really pop!

OK, confession time! Have you let some things go after working on this book?

You know, I’ve always been pretty tidy because my mom is EXTREMELY tidy. But it turns out I could be much tidier when I looked at my things with a different filter—the Marie Kondo filter! There was one week earlier this year that I thought Marie would be coming over to my house (this visit had to be cancelled), but the thought that Marie was going to see my home made me tidy in a hurry! I unshelved ALL of my books in my office, and filled many boxes for book donations. I kept about one third by using her method of holding each book and seeing if it sparks joy for me. Another motivation was that now, I have room to buy new books to spark even MORE joy!

I also let go of many pairs of shoes that never fit right, but felt too guilty to let go of because I hadn’t worn them enough. The KonMari method taught me that I shouldn’t hold on to things because of guilt. I should only hold on to things that spark joy! I thanked my old pairs of unfitting shoes, and donated them to Goodwill. If you’re a size 6, go look for some nearly-new pairs of shoes at Goodwill’s in San Diego! 🙂 Unfortunately, I’m a size 5.

So I do practice what I preach in this book with Marie Kondo. I wholeheartedly believe in her method of tidying!

Thank you, Salina! Happy tidying! (Will you come do my house next???)

OK, one thing I know folks will never part with is one of the 3 copies of KIKI & JAX signed by Marie Kondo and Salina Yoon that Salina is giving away!

Leave one comment below to enter. Three random winners will be chosen next Tuesday, November 20th.

And yes, all the winners of previous giveaways I haven’t yet announced will also be up next Tuesday.

So get your entry in now!

Good luck!

It’s Halloween! A perfect day to introduce you to a book for year-round fun: THE ITTY BITTY WITCH by Trisha Speed Shaskan and Xindi Yan. I interviewed both creators for a sweet blog post today!

Trisha, what inspired you to write The Itty-Bitty Witch? How did the story evolve?

When I was a child, I lived in a neighborhood full of kids. We played ditch, Sardines, and baseball at the nearby park. Halloween was magical because the kids took over the streets at night, in costumes! Because of my love for Halloween, the first picture book I chose at a RIF event was Tilly Witch by Don Freeman, a story about a witch who feels happy instead of wicked on Halloween! Drat! That story inspired me to write and read witch stories as a child. As an adult, I thought: What if I wrote a story about a witch who is the smallest witch in her class? I was always one of the smallest and/or shortest children in my class. In the early drafts of The Itty-Bitty Witch, Betty Ann Batsworth (the itty-bitty witch) tries to take part in all the activities at school–spells, phys ed, and flying, but falls short. Literally! But the story needed focus, so I centered around one event: The Halloween Dash, a race on brooms. From there, the story took shape.

Trisha, this book isn’t just a Halloween story. What can readers gain from this book any time of the year?

As a child, I played nearly every sport from flag football to basketball. I was often the one girl athlete on a team of boys. Kids called me “short” and “Tommy” since I was seen as a tomboy. I didn’t like being labeled because it set me apart from other kids. Although my height and ability to play on any team was often an asset, I often didn’t see it that way. Betty is similarly given a nickname she doesn’t like (“Itty-Bitty”) but learns that being small can be a strength. Readers can learn the magic of believing in one’s self. Since Betty’s broom is shorter than the other witch’s brooms, she tries different methods to gain speed, but fails. Yet she never gives up. She uses critical thinking and demonstrates perseverance, both traits readers can fly away with!

Xindi, which aspects of Betty Ann’s personality did you want to showcase in your illustrations for The Itty-Bitty Witch? How did you accomplish that?

Betty Ann is a friendly, lovable, little witch. Her small stature is the focus of the story, so the character design process started there. Since she’s innocent and unreserved, I gave her expressive, bright eyes. I also believe she’s a confident girl, even though she experiences temporary defeat in the story. On the first day of school, she rocks her floppy hat, messy, carefree hairdo and a small broom, completely oblivious to others’ stares. Believing in herself is what pushes her to work harder and eventually win the race. The details of her outfit are different than her more “polished” classmates. I chose yellow for her top because it’s the contrasting color to the purple uniforms. Visually she pops out of any composition. Yellow also represents her warm, friendly personality and relentless energy. I was so inspired by the story, I did more than 20 variations on the initial character sketches of Betty Ann. The final design is based on bits and pieces from a lot of them.

How did you choose the illustration style of The Itty-Bitty Witch?

The style of the book was inspired by one personal piece I did of a little witch.

This is a Halloween story with witches and magic, so obviously dramatic lighting, colors and spooky elements are a must! And nighttime is the best setting to show these off.

While creating the scenes where Betty’s trying to fly faster on her broom, I was inspired by comic books and LeUyen Pham’s work. I alternated from full-spread illustrations to spot illustrations to create visual breaks and change the pacing of the story.

Thank you for taking a break from Trick-or-Treating to chat with me about THE ITTY-BITTY WITCH! 

I have a copy to give away!

Leave one comment below to enter. A random winner will be selected very soon.

GOOD LUCK!

by Michael Armstrong

When Tara agreed to host the cover reveal for my upcoming picture book, BEST DAY EVER, my initial thought was to have a writer friend do a Q&A type interview. Unfortunately, the few other writers I actually know were unavailable—all for perfectly understandable reasons (one had emergency dog neutering, one was having elective root canal, and one said, “I’ve told you before, we’re not friends, man!” That joke never gets old.)

So instead, I had to settle for my writing nemesis, Carrie Jeschelnig “CJ” Penko. And no, I have no idea what the “CJ” stands for.

MA: Hi CJ. I realize that interviewing me must be quite an honor for you, but let’s try to keep the gushing to a minimum and focus on my fascinating back story.

CJ: Ugh. Let’s just get through this. Do you have my check, old man?

MA: Questions first.

CJ: Fine. (sighs) So, I guess tell me about the cover of your book.

MA: I’m glad you asked. The illustrator is the very talented Eglantine Ceulemans. You might know her work from NO FROGS IN SCHOOL, the Marge collection and the Pug collection.

CJ: Was her cover design what you expected?

MA: Absolutely not. In fact, I was shocked at first. And maybe that’s true with every writer when they first see an illustrator’s interpretation of their story. But the more I looked at it, it became clear to me that it was perfect. Eglantine created a funny, playful cover that not only embodies the tone and content of the story, but added new elements that had never occurred to me. And that’s true of every single spread. I feel very lucky to have her as my collaborator on this book.

CJ: That was actually a good answer. Tell me more about her. She sounds interesting.

MA: I wish I could, but I’ve never actually met her. She lives in France.

CJ: Lucky lady.

MA: Because she lives in France?

CJ: That, too.

MA: Let’s get back to me, please.

CJ: Yeah, yeah. So, this is your first book. Was publishing a picture book the last item on your bucket list?

MA: That’s pretty funny. You should try being funny when you write.

CJ: Well-played.

MA: To answer your question, I first started writing after I became a stay-at-home dad. I spent an enormous amount of time reading picture books to my daughter, and eventually it occurred to me to write one. Seemed easy enough, right? When I tried it, though, I quickly realized that this is a craft that I needed to learn and develop. Five years later a book emerged.=

Also, when you’re home alone all day with a toddler, you need to find something cerebral to do. Writing seemed like a good way to keep my brain from turning to rice cereal.

CJ: Why didn’t it work?

MA: I dunno. Years of abuse and neglect?

CJ: I’m thinking decades. Moving on. How did the idea for BEST DAY EVER originate?

MA: It was from an exercise I picked up at an SCBWI conference. I was having trouble with my word counts being too high, so the idea was to write a story with no words, just illustration notes. Mine was about a kid with a new toy who sees his neighbor having WAY more fun than him with just a stick. Over the course of the next 18 months—with the input of critique partners and friends—it evolved into BEST DAY EVER.

CJ: Is there anything you want your book to accomplish?

MA: After spending several decades in the non-profit world, I came to a conclusion: the best way to change the world is through education. And education begins with reading. So, if we can make books that kids love, it stands to reason that they will seek out more. That’s how it starts. I hope we made a book that kids will love.

Also, I want to be a famous big shot so I can burn bridges with impunity. It has always been a dream of mine.

CJ: Another item on the bucket list?

MA: (stares).

CJ: Well, it’s past three-o-clock. We should probably wrap-up since you need to get ready for dinner. Anything else you’d like to say?  And remember, keep the word count low.

MA: Fine. Then I’ll just say thanks to all the critique partners, SCBWI members, FB pages, Twitter hashtags, and the entire PB writing community. It’s an incredibly supportive and generous group of people who are very giving of their time and talent. And they do it all for free.

(MA gets up and begins to leave.)

CJ:  Free? Oh, no. Where are you going? I want my check. Don’t turn your hearing aids off on me, old man. Mama needs to get paid. I mean it! Come back here!

BEST DAY EVER releases on May 5, 2020 from Sterling.

Editor’s Note: Mike is not quite as pompous, and CJ is not nearly as snarky in real life. They are also quite good friends.


CJ Penko is a writer and a stay-at-home mom. Follow her on Twitter @cjpenko.  Visit cjpenko.com, and look for her best-selling books in the near future.

Michael Armstrong is the author of BEST DAY EVER (Sterling, May 2020). Before becoming a stay-at-home dad, he spent most of his career managing non-profit organizations. He is an active member of SCBWI. Follow him on Twitter @wrongarmstrong.

Recently a film by Pixar called “Bao” received the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film at the 91st Academy Awards. The short featured a Canadian-Chinese mother whose son grew up and moved away, so she was feeling lonely. Enter a perfect, plump bao to give her a second chance at motherhood.

Since then, I’ve been a tad obsessed with the yummy bao. I enjoy one every time I shop at the Asian grocery. So I was excited to learn of a new picture book coming out on October 1: AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO.

What a cover! Not only is there a perfect bao, but Amy and her kitty are pretty darn adorable, too.

I asked the author, Kat Zhang, and the illustrator, Charlene Chua, a few questions. I also had them interview one another. They discussed the story and the delicious ideas behind it.

Kat, what inspired you to write Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao?

Making bao and mantou (another kind of Chinese steamed bread bun) with my parents is such a treasured childhood memory for me. As I grew older, and the whole family got busier, we made them less. It wasn’t until I was in late high school or early college that the bao-making bug struck me again, and I became obsessed with making bao that were as good as the ones I had in restaurants. Many, many rounds of lumpy, leaky, over-and-underfilled bao later, I not only had a darn good bao recipe, but an idea for a new book!

What was your reaction to Charlene’s illustrations?

AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO is my debut picture book, and seeing Charlene’s illustrations has honestly been one of the most thrilling parts of the whole process! I had a general idea of how I pictured the characters and illustrations, but I was eager to see how an illustrator interpreted the text and the characters as well. Charlene did such an amazing job giving Amy’s family dimension and character through the illustrations, and I especially loved the addition of the little kitty, who wasn’t mentioned at all in the original text. Now I can’t imagine the book without it!

What do you hope young Asian-American/Canadian readers will get from this book?

The opportunity to see people like yourself in media is such a big deal, and honestly, something I don’t think I fully grasped until I was older. As a kid, I don’t remember specifically thinking that I wished there were more Asian-American characters in media. But not seeing myself reflected in the books and movies I consumed definitely contributed to my internalizing a lot of things as a kid about what sort of things I “fit” into. I was perpetually on the outside looking in. I hope that AMY WU is just one more opportunity for a kid to recognize themselves in Amy’s family. And of course, on the other side of things, I hope it lets non-Asian American kids explore a culture different from their own.

What is your favorite detail from the book that reminds you of your own homes/households?

I absolutely loved all the details Charlene snuck into Amy’s house! My mother has a total green thumb, so when I was growing up, we definitely had the bamboo plants, and the big leafy plants all over the house. Our steamer was metal, but I totally wish we had a cool woven one like Amy’s family!

What is your favorite bao?

I have a sweet tooth, and I love red bean paste bao and lotus paste bao!

Charlene asks Kat: Did the story change a lot from 1st draft till the version I got to illustrate? If so, what were the big changes?

Amazingly (at least for me, since my stories often undergo big changes from my first idea to the final draft!), AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO didn’t change much from the very first draft I wrote. The biggest tweak was probably having Amy herself come up with the solution of cutting the bao dough into smaller pieces so that they fit her hands better. In the first draft, it was Grandma who came up with the idea!

Kat, which is your favorite page/s in the book?

This is so hard to choose! I love, love the page with the phoenix and dragon surrounding Amy’s vision of a perfect bao, but I also laughed out loud when I first saw the page of her and Kitty with the three “messed up” bao. The “Perfect Bao Plan” page is also amazing. Really, I just love them all!

Did Amy and her family turn out looking like what you originally imagined them to be?

They did! I hadn’t originally imagined Grandma with pink hair, but I think it adds something great to her character. Amy is every bit the spunky, vivacious kid I wanted her to be!

Charlene, what was your inspiration for Amy Wu’s look—her hair, her clothes, her body language, etc.?

When I first read Kat’s manuscript, I thought that Amy was a very cheerful, enthusiastic girl, with a good amount of confidence in whatever she set her mind to doing. It was great to have a story with a young Chinese girl who isn’t afraid of expressing what she wants or how she feels. Amy is also character that sort of needs to be All-Amy, all the time, and I tried to match her design to those qualities. Amy’s actions are depicted with bigger gestures, because she’s not shy at showing how she feels. Her clothes allow her freedom of movement, and feature bold and eclectic colors.

What inspired you to create Amy Wu’s cat friend?

I had attended a kidlit conference shortly before starting work on the book. At one of the talks, the speaker mentioned that animals were a way to add more visual interest to a story, without altering the narrative. The thought stuck with me, and I’ve been trying to incorporate it ever since. With Amy’s story, I also really like Amy’s personality, it’s very strong – but to really show that, sometimes you need to contrast it with a softer character, such as a younger sibling that can look up to or copy the ‘stronger’ character’s actions. Since Amy doesn’t have any younger siblings, I thought that maybe her having an animal companion would be able to achieve the same effect. I also just like cats, and will take any opportunity to stick one into a story!

What do you hope young Asian-American/Canadian readers will get from this book?

I hope that readers who identify with Amy and her family will be excited to see a family like their own in this book. But I also hope that readers from all backgrounds will enjoy it too. You don’t have to be from an Asian family or know about Chinese food to enjoy the book—it’s very accessible so I hope that people will check it out just because it’s a neat story.

What is your favorite detail from the book that reminds you of your own homes/households?

The kitchen stove in the story is more or less based on my actual stove. It’s a gas stove, because I’ve cooked with gas all my life. My mum cooked with gas, and my grandmothers did too (one grandmother liked using charcoal as well, but that’s another story). The rice cooker also looks similar to the cooker I grew up with, although the one I use now looks different.

What is your favorite bao?

Char siu bao! (Chinese barbeque pork.)

Kat asks Charlene: I loved getting multiple versions of the illustration for each page during the initial stages of book coming together. How do you brainstorm various ideas for an illustration? What factors do you take into consideration?

I like trying out different layouts to see what works best – usually the first idea I come up with isn’t the one I end up going with. Most of the art for Amy Wu was done digitally, but the thumbnails were done with pencil on paper. I like to sit in a comfy chair and doodle out thumbnails—it works better for me that way as it’s just me and the paper, no fancy screens or Undo buttons to concern me. When working on thumbnails, I consider the text for a particular page or spread, and how best to bring that to life. I also think about what I could possibly add to make it more fun or impactful. When all the thumbnails are done, I try to look at them as a whole to see which ones connect the best. Sometimes there’s a thumbnail for a page that looks great on its own, but when it’s strung together with the rest, it doesn’t work as well.

Artists often have a very unique signature style. What would you say are the elements of yours? Do you feel like it’s still evolving a lot, or something that’s remained stable? 

It’s kind of hard for me to pin down my own style (I think many artists have that problem!). I guess my art tends to be quite energetic, usually with pretty strong colors. I think it’s evolved over the years, especially now that I’m working with more non-digital art for some other projects. But at the same time, I think if you looked at the older and newer work, it’s still possible to see the same artist behind it.

Thank you, Kat and Charlene, for sharing the stories behind the story!

Blog readers, you can win a copy of AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO when it is released.

Just add one comment below and a random winner will be selected soon! (Tara has many winners of recent contests to select!)

Good luck!

You can visit Kat Zhang at KatZhangwriter.com and Charlene Chua at CharleneChua.com

by Colleen Paeff

The year or two leading up to the publication of an author or illustrator’s debut book is a rollercoaster ride of exciting milestones (“I signed my contract!”), new experiences (“Hello, Copy Editor.”), and sheer terror (“You expect me to read my book aloud in front of how many children?”). And, like a rollercoaster, it’s best experienced with friends. That’s where debut groups come in.*

The Soaring ‘20s Picture Book Debuts is a collective of picture book authors, illustrators, and author/illustrators with debut picture books being released in 2020** and beyond. We’ve pooled our resources, talents, and sympathetic ears so none of us has to experience this ride solo—and that’s fitting because we certainly didn’t get this far on our own. We’re all in the happy position of awaiting the release of our books thanks to the authors, illustrators, teachers, editors, or agents who looked at our work and offered targeted feedback to help improve it.

And now we’d like to do the same for you!

To celebrate the launch our new website Soaring20spb.com, we’re giving away 20+6 free manuscript, dummy, or portfolio critiques in the MEGA SOARING ’20s CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY!

If you’ve been in the picture book game for a while, you probably already know the value of a thorough, thoughtful critique. But if you’re new to writing or illustrating for kids or you’re on the fence about whether or not to hand your baby over to a set of critical eyes, allow some of our members us give you a nudge:

“Critiques have been an essential step (many steps! multiple flights of stairs!) on my path to publication.”

Angela Burke Kunkel, author
DIGGING FOR WORDS: JOSÉ ALBERTO GUTIÉRREZ AND THE LIBRARY HE BUILT (Random House/Schwartz & Wade, Fall 2020)

“If you’ve put your all into your work-in-progress and are ready to see it with fresh eyes, a critique is a fun way to open new pathways in your brain and to rekindle your enthusiasm for your work.”

Shelley Johannes, author/illustrator
MORE THAN SUNNY (Abrams, Spring 2021)

“The more we embrace the journey of improving and collaboration, the more we learn and the better we become as authors, illustrators and artists.”

Sam Wedelich, author/illustrator
CHICKEN LITTLE: THE REAL AND TOTALLY TRUE* TALE (Scholastic Press, Spring 2020)

“I’ll always remember how Jo Whittemore, author of FRONT PAGE FACE-OFF, critiqued me years ago. She called problems in my manuscript ‘opportunities.’”

NoNieqa Ramos, author
BEAUTY WOKE (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, spring 2021)

“The more you have your work critiqued, the less personal it becomes. You learn to listen for the gems of advice, questions, concerns, and ideas that other readers/writers have for you. Then when you take those gems and apply them to your work, the proof is in how much your writing is improved and how much your skill grows as a storyteller. And while this process sometimes has you feeling vulnerable and exposed, ultimately when you send your writing out into the world, you will feel so proud of it!”

Anna Crowley Redding, author
RESCUING THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE (HarperCollins, spring 2020)

Convinced? Go to our website to enter to win a free picture book manuscript, dummy, or portfolio critique in the MEGA SOARING ’20s CRITIQUE GIVEAWAY by midnight on September 15 and you could be one of 20+6 lucky winners!

*We’re not the only game in town! Check out KidLit411’s list of Debut Year Groups (scroll all the way down to the bottom).

**One of us got bumped up to 2019! Look for Author Saira Mir’s MUSLIM GIRLS RISE: INSPIRATIONAL CHAMPIONS OF OUR TIME (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster) on October 29.

Big thanks to Tara for letting us share the news about our giveaway on her blog!

(And Tara says thanks right back!)

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As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:


THREE WAYS TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN
illus by Vivienne To
HarperCollins
January 7, 2020

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
August 2020

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