Meet Mentor Deb Pilutti

Deb Pilutti is the author and illustrator of Ten Rules of Being a Superhero, The Secrets of Ninja School, and Bear and Squirrel are Friends…Yes, Really! She is the illustrator of Idea Jar (written by WWTS mentor Adam Lehrhaupt), The Twelve Days of Christmas in Michigan (written by Susan Collins Thoms), and The City Kid and The Suburb Kid (written by Linda Bleck). We are thrilled to have Deb and her amazing art as part of Writing with the Stars.

As a former toy designer, what is your favorite toy or a toy you wish you had created?

Maybe not a favorite, but I loved poring over the back of comic books for the kitschy toys that were promoted, like Sea Monkeys! The ad for them was amazing. If only it were true. The Sea Monkeys had faces and hair ribbons or ties. You only needed to add water and you would have a tank full of little buddies. I believed every word and sent away for them with such hope, and I was thrilled when the package arrived. I diligently followed the instructions and looked for signs of life each morning. Much later, I learned that Sea Monkeys are desiccated brine shrimp that become reanimated with water. Mine did not. I’m not going to go into detail about the despair I felt when I had a tankful of nothing—it’s just too sad. But there’s a good chance I would order them again if I saw an ad…

You are drawn to humor in your work. Besides researching Bugs Bunny cartoons, what are your favorite characters, books, movies, comedians, etc. that define your type of humor?

I enjoy subtle or dry humor, and misdirection, which can be difficult to use when creating for a young audience. Ian Falconer does it masterfully in the OLIVIA series. While I did read quite a bit as a child, I also watched copious amounts of TV. Especially cartoons. This was once a source of shame, until I realized that I received a master class in humor, pacing and illustration from the artists at Warner Brothers studios and Jay Ward animations. My sensibilities were defined by episodes of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, Rocky & Bullwinkle, Fractured Fairy Tales and of course that one with the singing frog! The humor in these programs ranged from slapstick to sophisticated—I definitely did not always catch the joke the first time around.

Is there any difference in your process when you illustrate another author’s text versus illustrating your own?

My process involves a lot of sitting and staring. It’s not glamorous, but it works for me. The idea for my own story may begin with a drawing, but I won’t start sketching the dummy until after the story is buttoned down, which is similar to the way I work with another author’s text. The difference is that while creating my own stories, I often end up cutting a lot of text or making edits during the dummy phase because I can use a character or situation to advance the plot.

Bear and Squirrel are Friends…Yes, Really! is a favorite of mine as I love subversive humor. How did these characters and plot begin?

Thanks so much! I was attending a remote retreat in Michigan with a couple of writer friends when the idea for the story was conceived. We would write in a common space during the day and return to our individual tiny cabins in the woods at night. The setting was peaceful and we would see deer and squirrels and other wildlife out the window. My overactive imagination wondered if there were bears snuffling around the cabin while I tried to sleep. I never saw any, but during one writing session, I was doodling and ended up with a bear and squirrel on my page. I loved the dichotomy of the two characters and wondered if they could be friends, and what might happen if they were.

Who are your favorite artists or influences?

I love the humor and candor in Maira Kalman’s work. She taps into relatable feelings and emotions. I’m drawn to the sparse and graphic illustrations of Mary Blair and Alice and Martin Provensen. They are pros at distilling images to the simplest form, something I try to work toward. Eyvind Earle created ethereal landscapes and concept art for many of the Disney films. His use of color and value is illuminating.

What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators? 

Work harder than necessary. In an effort to grow, I started paying attention to the work habits of artists and professionals whose work I admired. One of the things I noticed is that they often will rework a piece of art or a story that I think is already pretty great. Their art director and editor may be perfectly happy with it. I would be happy with it. But the artist is not satisfied and keeps pushing and self-editing. And when I see the finished product, I realize they were right. It is even better.  

Can you tell us a bit about your next book, Old Rock (is not boring)?

I’m just finishing up the final art! Old Rock came from a doodle. I drew a picture of a rock that I thought was funny and wondered if I could write a story about this character. Then I became stuck, because ROCKS DON’T DO ANYTHING, they just sit there. It seemed like a boring premise. Well, that’s what the story is about. Some of Old Rock’s friends, Tall Pine, Spotted Beetle and Hummingbird, think she’s boring. Old Rock reveals her own surprising story (hint: it’s not boring).

What other projects are you currently working on?

I’m also illustrating a sequel to Ten Rules of Being a Superhero. It’s called Ten Steps to Flying Like a Superhero. I had so much fun with the characters from the first book that they are back for another adventure. Lava Boy’s superhero toy, Captain Magma, wants to fly more than anything. They devise a plan, which does not go as anticipated.

Thank you, Deb, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer/illustrator in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.

Meet Mentor Tammi Sauer

Tammi Sauer is the prolific author of 25 published picture books (with many more in the pipeline). Tammi is finishing an epic year in which she released six books (her six-pack, as she refers to it). I had the pleasure of meeting Tammi in person this year, and I’m convinced that if there were a Miss Congeniality award in kidlit, this woman would win, hands down. I am thrilled to welcome Tammi to Writing with the Stars!

With 25 published books and more under contract, how is it possible that you’ve never had coffee? 

This is one of life’s great mysteries. While I don’t drink coffee, I am, however, a dedicated iced tea drinker. I guzzle that stuff by the 32 oz. cup.

Here’s a little secret. I’m a weirdo about my tea at restaurants. I always order an extra glass of ice because most waiters don’t add extra ice when pouring refills. I like to have my extra ice at the ready! I also ask for an orange slice. I squeeze it into my tea to give it a little extra something-something.

Can you even imagine how high-maintenance I would be with COFFEE?!

What’s been the most unexpected source of inspiration for one of your books?

One night, when my kids were really little, my husband and I tucked them into bed. We were getting ready to sit down and watch a movie when we heard a knock at the door. We opened the door and saw a kid standing there. He looked like he was probably a fifth grader. He said, “Hi! I’m selling newspaper subscriptions. I’m trying to raise some money. I want to go to Cowboy Camp.” Well, this kid didn’t look like a cowboy or act like a cowboy or talk like a cowboy, and at first I thought, “Ooh. I hope he’ll be okay at Cowboy Camp.” Then I thought, “Ooh! That’s a great idea for a book!” So I wrote Cowboy Camp. It’s about a kid named Avery who goes to Cowboy Camp. He doesn’t fit in, he can’t do anything right, but he ends up saving the day anyway. The book debuted in 2005, and it’s still in print. YEEHAW!

If only more ideas would just knock on my door after the kids go to sleep…

You’ve written a few books about caring for pets (or aliens)—what is the most unusual pet you’ve ever had? 

That would be Lightning, the giant Madagascar hissing cockroach. When my daughter, Julia, was little, she attended a camp called Bugmania. At the end of camp, the camp counselor asked me if it was okay if my daughter came home with a bug. I said sure because I thought Julia would choose one of the ladybugs or one of the butterflies. Did Julia do that? Nooo. She came home with Lightning, the giant Madagascar hissing cockroach, who ended up living in my house for five long years.

If you weren’t a writer, what would your job be?

Can it be watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel? I’m REALLY good at that.

You’ve done a lot of school visits—what’s the best question a kid has ever asked you? 

Will you marry me?

What is the thing you know now that you wish you had known earlier in your career?

I wish I had known how important it is to have a critique partner and/or group. Early on, I didn’t think I’d have time for this. Getting feedback from others, however, has pushed me to work harder and write better. Plus, it’s good to have people to celebrate and commiserate with.

What books are coming out next and can you tell us a bit about them?

In February 2018, Wordy Birdy (Doubleday), illustrated by Dave Mottram, was released. Wordy Birdy loves to talk, talk, talk. But she never listens. In fact, Wordy Birdy had so much to say, she has another book due out February 5, 2019. It’s called Wordy Birdy Meets Mr. Cougarpants. In the first book, Wordy Birdy’s talking gets her into some big trouble. In the second book, Wordy Birdy’s constant chatter saves the day.

Next on the scene is A Little Chicken (Sterling), illustrated by Dan Taylor. This book has one of my all-time favorite first lines: “Dot was a little chicken who, let’s face it, was a little chicken.” This book proves that sometimes a big hero…is just a little chicken.

In June, two of my old pals, Nugget and Fang, return for the long-awaited SEA-quel. It’s called Nugget & Fang Go to School (Clarion), illustrated by Michael Slack. In this book, Fang gets invited to be a student at Mini Minnows Elementary. Fang loves this idea…until his first day of school. It turns out that even a big shark can sometimes feel like a fish out of water. With Nugget’s help, however, Fang realizes that school is better than fine. It’s FANG-tastic!

Thank you, Tammi, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.

Meet Mentor Deborah Marcero

We are thrilled to welcome uber talented Deborah Marcero to Writing with the Stars. Deborah is the illustrator of Twinderella (written by Corey Rosen Schwartz) and the author and illustrator of Rosie and Crayon, Ursa’s Light, and the newly released and stunning My Heart is a Compass.

Can you tell me about your process? What comes first, the writing or the pictures, or both at the same time?

Sometimes a story idea comes first that I need to write out before drawing anything, and sometimes an image will come first, and the story will spring from there.

My Heart is a Compass has been getting a lot of buzz, including a starred review on Kirkus and recognition from Illinois Reads. What has been the most surprising moment so far?

The most surprising moment so far besides simply holding the book in my hands and realizing how much my whole heart is in there, was having the incredible opportunity to create this book with the team at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

How do you find inspiration for your writing and illustration?  

I’ve found that nature, stillness, love, friendships, my childhood, and even small moments serve to inspire my creative spirit.

As a former teacher, what is your best memory of a child learning to create?

I was leading a writing workshop in a fifth grade classroom in Chicago Public Schools, modeling how to write a fictional story. To scaffold the instruction, we wrote a story together as a class. All I did was ask the questions and direct the plot. They came up with a main character, what he wanted, his struggle, how he overcame the struggle, and how he triumphed in the end. The entire class was so excited and engaged, I could barely believe it. They were almost jumping out of their seats, raising their hands with ideas to share. They cared so much about what happened to this character they created that they were all 100% invested. It showed them the power of story, and what could happen when they wrote something they cared about. The best part was when, the next year, students in that class came up to me and said, “Remember, Ms. M., when we wrote that story about Jerome?” I will never forget that.

I love clever character names. In Ursa’s Light, the main character is a little bear named Ursa, and I’m assuming this is a nod to the constellation Ursa Minor. Did you have that idea first, or did you name your character as the story progressed?

Yes, the name Ursa was a nod to the constellations (as she wanted to fly and ends up becoming a shooting star), and Ursa also means “Bear”. I love when a word or play on words can mean more than one thing. I ended up naming my character Ursa after several drafts of the story developed.

Who are some of your favorite artists or influences? 

Frida Kahlo, Edward Gorey, Eric Carle, Georgia O’Keefe, Mary Blair, and Peter Sis.

What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators? 

Listen to that quiet voice inside, and do not compare yourself to anyone, anywhere, anytime. We are each on our own individual journeys. Try to create work from a place of play and discovery. Be willing to revise, challenge yourself and be challenged. 

Can you tell us a bit about your next book releasing?

My next book, In a Jar, will be coming out in Spring 2020 with Putnam’s Sons, Penguin. It’s another author/illustrated book that is about a friendship that grows between two bunnies, Llewellyn and Evelyn, through their collection of memories in jars.

Thank you, Deborah, for your time and for mentoring one lucky author/illustrator in 2019. To see Deborah’s lovely illustration work, please visit her website All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.

Meet Mentor Carter Higgins

Carter Higgins is an Emmy-winning visual effects and motion graphics artist and ex-school librarian turned kidlit author. She is the author of A Rambler Steals Home (HMH) and two picture books, This is Not a Valentine (with Lucy Ruth Cummins) and Everything You Need for a Treehouse (with Emily Hughes), plus the forthcoming Bikes for Sale (with Zachariah OHora). She writes about picture books and graphic design at her blog, Design of the Picture Book.

You’re the author of several picture books and a middle grade novel. Does your writing practice differ a lot when working on a novel vs. a picture book, and if so, how?

I think a picture book is more difficult to write than longer fiction—the intricacies, the structure, the precise language—but the scope is more manageable than a middle grade novel. I can think about what my picture book is about and see it from end to end with more ease. Because of that, I find it easier to dip in and out of more than one picture book at a time. I can’t do that with longer fiction. As far as sitting down and doing the work, though? That’s equally hard.

Your upcoming picture book, Bikes for Sale, was inspired by a sign on a lamppost. What other interesting places have you found inspiration?

You know, this is the first time I’m thinking of this, but I think a lot of my wordplay roots are in my musical family. There are a lot of singers and instrumentalists and music teachers and just plain talent. I never mastered an instrument or had the same singing voice as my mother and sister. But I see how my writing is musical, inspired by rhythm and cadence and tempo. This Is Not a Valentine and Everything You Need for a Treehouse were titles before they were stories because I loved the way those little lumps of words sounded. A decade of teaching and listening to the quirky way kids speak has brought endless inspiration as well. I love to tap in to those small moments and the universal childhood experience.

You recently participated in Inktober and tapped back into your visual arts background. Can you tell us a little more about that and how it informed your picture book writing? Any plans to illustrate in the future?

That was fun! Librarian-ing and motion design are so clearly connected through visual storytelling. At the time of my career crossover, before I was seriously writing for kids, I didn’t realize that was what I loved. Animating is all about timing and leading the viewer through a sequence of images in an effective way. It’s the exact same thing that makes a picture book satisfying. Though I’ve not illustrated any of my own work (yet!), having an understanding of that style of pacing in storytelling has helped immensely.

Do you write daily?

No way. I think daily, but that doesn’t always translate to words on the page.

You worked for many years as an elementary librarian. Do you have a favorite story to share?

My last library was right next to a restroom. A third grader had been relaxing in the library during recess, but then he dashed out with a book in hand. I whoa-whoa-whoa-ed him, and he said, “Oh, I don’t want to check this out. I’m just taking it to the bathroom so I can read while I poop.”

You’re an unabashed fan of The Babysitters Club Club Podcast. Which babysitter did you relate to the most as a kid?

It’s so clear to me that I am a Mary Anne—loyal, cautious, highly sensitive. But as a kid, I was absolutely obsessed with Claudia? I loved Nancy Drew, liked art, and hid candy in my room. But I did not have her confidence, her wardrobe, or her oomph. Isn’t that the best thing about books? I could pretend. 

Since you named the Spice Girls as the band you’d choose to be a member of, what would your Spice name be?

Mushy Spice.

What did I tell you? True Mary Anne.

Thank you, Carter, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.

Meet Mentor Catherine Bailey

Catherine Bailey is the author of Lucy Loves Sherman, Hypnosis Harry, Mind Your Monsters, and the forthcoming Lucy Loves Sherman’s Beach and Harbor Bound. She lives in Florida with her family. As a big fan of Lucy Loves Sherman, I am thrilled Catherine is participating in Writing with the Stars this year.

How did you begin your foray into kidlit? What was the catalyst that started it all for you?

I fell in love with writing in the first grade when I met the very inspiring James Howe. He signed two books for me, and I still whip them out at school visits today. By middle school, I was writing family newsletters and short stories. In high school, I earned an internship at a local paper. In college, I answered fan mail while working at the Cartoon Network. In law school—well, there was research AND writing—even better!

But it wasn’t until I had my first daughter in 2009 that I thought of writing as a profession. With a baby at home, I’d left my job and rediscovered Roald Dahl, The Grumpus Under the Rug, and a zillion other kidlit wonders, new and old. I also discovered I could write in the middle of the night after feedings because everyone was finally asleep. Plus, I’d been published in the educational and legal markets, so how hard could this be, right?

HA, HA, HA! Silly Catherine.

I had no clue how competitive the industry was, nor how difficult it was to write for children. But what I lacked in knowledge I made up for with persistence. And in addition to writing, I spent hours online learning about the publishing industry, from slush piles to agents to contracts. I subbed poetry to children’s magazines and worked up from there. I signed with an agent in December 2012, and finally my first book debuted in 2015 (that’s just about 31 years after I met James Howe).

But I promise, getting published is worth the wait! 🙂

What was the best thing you did to educate yourself about the industry when you started?

(1) Join SCBWI and (2) become active on Verla Kay’s “Blueboards”—an online forum for kidlit writers. The Blueboards have since become part of the SCBWI website, so now it’s a super convenient one-stop resource for writers and illustrators.

Do you have any writing rituals? What is your process?

I (try to) keep office hours, and I have a fairly defined “process” for writing.

After I have a specific idea, or I pull one from my files, I sit at my desk and write what I call a “vomit draft” in one sitting. It’s quick and awful and needs to be cleaned up—but at least the worst part is over. I have a beginning, middle, end, and title. Then I ignore the manuscript for at least two weeks before editing it. After I polish it up, I begin the critique stage. Then I  ignore it some more. Then rewrites and more critiques, etc. It usually takes at least 4-6 months of this before I will send my agent a draft.

Lucy Loves Sherman is getting a sequel in March, 2019: Lucy Loves Sherman’s Beach. Was that always the plan when you wrote the first book or was it a surprise?

It was a surprise! I thought Lucy would be one and done, but Lucy disagreed—LOL! Her personality turned out to be so strong, and her temperament was so sassy and fun! I just had to think of what else she might love; something that aligned with the tone and subject of the first book.

Was writing a sequel easier or harder than expected?

Writing the sequel for Lucy Loves Sherman was surprisingly easy. I drafted, edited and submitted it in about a week, and it sold almost immediately. This is definitely NOT the norm for me!! I think it was so simple because I already knew Lucy’s voice and I quickly came up with an idea for her next adventure. In book #2, Lucy tackles pollution at her friend’s beach, which is something my seaside town happened to be struggling with at the time.

You have another book releasing in May 2019 (Disney-Hyperion) called Harbor Bound. Can you tell us a bit about this one?

Happily—thank you! Harbor Bound is a rhyming bedtime book about boats coming home through a storm, and it is inspired by personal experience. I grew up in a coastal town, I spent time working on sailboats in Greece, and I live in a house by the sea. So I knew eventually I would write a boat book! Early on the book was a lyrical list of vessel types. Cute but not exactly a “wow!” book. So I added in a storm and paralleled the action with how a child ends their day (coming home, bath time, bedtime, etc.). I was able to include nonfiction boat facts at the end, so there’s a nice balance of entertainment and education. The best part was that a good friend and crit partner was also working on a boat book, and she sold hers too! And I must give a shout out to the illustrator, Ellen Shi, and my captain—er, editor—Rotem at Disney Hyperion. They turned my little poem into a beautiful book. It sets sail in Summer of 2019, so keep a weather eye out!

How often do you get new picture book ideas and how many of those actually turn into a viable manuscript?

I’d say I have, maybe 20ish ideas a month, which turn into about 6-8 actual manuscripts I might consider editing.

What’s the funniest thing that has happened to you on an author visit?

I discreetly keep my phone out during school visits so I can check the time and stay on schedule. Once, smack dab in the middle of a presentation to a HUGE group of kids, I saw a missed call from my daughter’s school. Then another. And another. Then a text saying something to the effect of, “This is not an emergency, your child is safe, but you need to call us as soon as possible.” That was quickly followed by another message that read, “Your daughter has a bead up her nose and we can’t get it out.” And then something like, “It is really up in there!” So there I am, trying to focus and entertain a room full of squirmy kids—all while this crazy nose drama is unfolding on my iPhone screen. “We aren’t sure if it is a bead!” “We called your husband who says she will be fine!” “It may be a berry!” And so on and so on … Long story short I sped up the presentation, called the school, hopped in the car, zoomed into a Target and bought a Nose Frida (excellent nose-sucking device if you ever need one BTW!), and rushed to my child where I successfully removed the bead (not a berry). Everything ended well, I still get invited back to that school, and their wonderful media specialist still asks about my daughter—ha!  

Thank you, Catherine, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.

Meet Mentor Jason Gallaher

Jason Gallaher is the author of the wickedly funny Whobert Whover, Owl Detective, illustrated by Jess Pauwels, and the forthcoming Porcupine Cupid. When not writing, Jason zips about Austin, Texas. He loves dinosaurs, unicorns, dinosaurs riding unicorns, and anything magical that takes you to a different world or time. Also, Anjelica Huston. Jason is a tried-and-true Hufflepuff, and he is actively looking for an Andalite friend. 

Your next book, Porcupine Cupid (illustrated by former WWTS mentor Lori Richmond), is slated for fall of 2020. Can you tell us a little about this book? 

I am in loooooove with love! Valentine’s Day has always been tied for my favorite holiday with Christmas. We live in such a busy, busy world that I think it’s nice to have a day where people who are interested in a little romance remember to stop and take a second to light that fire of passion and love. So it was always on my author bucket list to write a Valentine’s Day story.

While I love love, I do think we have an unrealistic portrayal of it for the youngest generation of readers. There isn’t really an idea in children’s media that love is an investment, love is hard work, and that love is often painful. Cut to: Porcupine Cupid. Porcupine fancies himself a matchmaker, but he uses his quills to bring folks together. This is a maybe not-so-subtle reference to show readers that, yes, sometimes love hurts, but that pain is worth it in the long run because it brings you closer to the people you love.

I love using nonfiction to get ideas for fiction, and Whobert Whover, Owl Detective, is the perfect example. You took nonfiction animal facts (possums play dead, owls eat possums) and then created a story using these facts in a completely unexpected way. Were you at all conscious of the nonfiction elements when you started playing with the idea for the book?

Absolutely. In fact, the first draft of the manuscript had all the animals Whobert accuses of doing in poor Perry explaining the real-life uses of their bodies, which Whobert thinks are murder weapons. Debbie the duck explains her wings are for flying, Becky the beaver explains she uses her tail to help build her dam, etc. But that got to be a little too fact-forward and less the detective romp we have today. So instead I use real-life facts about owls in my school visits to explain to kids how owls have awesome characteristics, like terrific eyesight and neck mobility, that would make them great at detective work and finding clues.

In addition to writing books, you also review them as a merman on YouTube. How did you get started on that project? 

By trying to figure out the mystical world of social media and self-marketing. With so many BookTubers out there on YouTube, I wanted to do something that would stand out. So naturally I thought it right to pair my mertail (which, yes, I already had beforehand because who doesn’t want to see what it’s like to be a merperson?) with my love of books. Then we had the Merman Minute.

You live in Austin, Texas, so I have to ask—best taco in town? Best margarita? Best BBQ? 

Best taco and queso is, hands down, Torchy’s Tacos. I’d say, on average, we eat there twice a week.

Best margarita is my husband’s recipe! It has all fresh ingredients, never any sweet and sour, and lately we’ve been able to use some homegrown lime, so we’re getting all Barefoot Contessa up in here.

Best BBQ for me is Rudy’s. Most of their locations are hooked up to gas stations, which is super charming to me for some reason. I’m one of those people who thinks gas stations smell good, which has got to be a genetic trait or something, like enjoying the taste of cilantro (which I would put on everything). Do they make a cilantro and gas station candle?

Do you write in any format besides picture books? If so, what are you working on? 

I do! Currently, I’m trying my hand at a contemporary, gay YA loosely inspired by my real-life experience. It’s about a high school senior who lives in a very small, rural town as the only out gay student. But then his mom gets a job in the big city and when they move, he’s plunged into an active LGBTQ+ community and has to work on discovering who he is when his identity isn’t simply “only gay kid in school.”

I also loooooove writing MG fantasy-adventure, and we’re on submission with a couple right now. In those works there is also an undertone of gender equality and body acceptance, two areas that are super important to me. We still have such an archaic idea of gender in our society, and I want readers of all ages to know that they ultimately have control over their own bodies and how they express themselves.

Since you named the Spice Girls as the band you’d choose to be a member of, what would your Spice name be? 

I can’t get the name Sprinkle Spice out of my head! I think I’d be the band member with a little more pizzazz and flair and tons of bright colors!

Favorite Netflix/Hallmark holiday movie? 

This isn’t from Netflix or Hallmark, but ABC Family before it turned into Freeform. HOLIDAY IN HANDCUFFS, starring Melissa Joan Hart and Mario Lopez, is pure gold. First, the duo of M&M (I really hope that’s what they called themselves on set) is unbeatable, and I think the premise of kidnapping someone during those pressure-filled family holiday occasions to make your family think you have your life in order is a titillating premise that is both hysterical and horrifying.

What reality show host do you hope reads this interview and is intrigued and calls you to talk about maybe going on his or her show?

Jeff Probst! I’m obsessed with Survivor and have been ever since it premiered when I was 12 years old. My new goal is to somehow slip Jeff’s name into every interview I do so he realizes I’m serious and would love to put myself through torture on a deserted island with 15-19 other people who are also gluttons for punishment.

Thank you, Jason, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.

Link to Jason’s Youtube channel:

Meet Mentor Lindsay Ward

We are excited to welcome Lindsay Ward back for her second year as a Writing with the Stars mentor. Lindsay is the author/illustrator of ten picture books, including IT’S SHOW AND TELL DEXTER! and DON’T FORGET DEXTER! (Two Lions, 2018), the first two books in the Dexter T. Rexter series, as well as five forthcoming books.

You have the enviable ability to write as well as illustrate your own books. How do you approach the writing process, knowing that you will be telling at least half of your story visually? What writing advice do you have for authors who do not illustrate?

I usually start with a story idea first, then I create the visuals around the text (although currently I’m working on something that started as a visual idea … so I guess anything goes with each new book). I definitely self-edit a lot as I write because I know that certain things will be shown visually. I don’t really think of it this way while I’m working because it’s how I’ve always seen my work, but it is tremendously helpful to be able to see the visuals in my head as I’m writing, knowing that I’m going to be the one executing them. That being said, I have a couple ideas sitting around that I think would be a better fit with another illustrator. It would be interesting to just be the author and not worry about the art for a change. That seems like it could be really freeing. I’m sure authors would say otherwise.

Your first book, WHEN BLUE MET EGG, is so special—I remember reading it for the first time years ago and thinking, “Wow!” How do you find that perfect blend of “humor and heart” that is so prevalent in all of your books? 

Thank you so much. WHEN BLUE MET EGG is a really meaningful book for me, too. In a lot of ways I’m Blue and the story reflects my love for New York City when I lived there one summer during college. That story in particular was very difficult to write. After I decided to make Egg a snowball, I realized I’d written myself into a corner. Inevitably the snowball would have to melt … and I still needed a hopeful ending. Eventually I realized that things change in life and that’s okay. In Blue’s case, she embraces it. I guess she does what I always hope to do, even when it’s really difficult. The stories that have always resonated with me are the ones that make me laugh and connect. I try to consider that in my work when I write. Sometimes it takes many, many, many drafts to get there, but I know it’s right when I read it aloud and everything clicks together.

Dexter T. Rexter is a series character—congratulations! Is the next book, VACATION FOR DEXTER, the last or will there be more?

Thank you! It’s been so much fun to write the Dexter books! VACATION FOR DEXTER will be the third book in the series, and will release in April 2019. Hopefully, there will be a fourth. I have a few ideas, so we shall see …

You offer a variety of school/library visits and writing workshops on your website, but you also offer art demos where smaller groups of students get personal instruction time with you. How does this face-to-face interaction with your audience inspire you creatively? What words of wisdom do you have for other illustrators who might like to try this, too?  

Art demos are one of my favorite things to do at library or school visits! These presentations are designed for 20-25 students so I really get a chance to talk to each student about their work and connect with them one-on-one. It’s wonderful. Kids are incredibly creative and they don’t hold back the way many adults do. Even if they are initially reserved about trying something new, by the end of the demo or workshop they are totally into it. Cut paper is a really fun way to explore, and is ideal in that it’s not quite as intimidating as painting or drawing. I encourage students to cut shapes and create an arrangement. Sometimes it’s clear what the image is and sometimes it’s completely abstract. Interestingly enough, it’s usually the kids who say they can’t draw who create the most incredible work. For other illustrators interested in doing workshops with kids, I would suggest coming up with a few different ideas and testing them out. See what’s successful and what you feel comfortable doing. Authenticity is always best when it comes to kids.

Your book, PLEASE BRING BALLOONS, was developed into a play by the New York City Children’s Theater in 2017. Can you share a bit about that experience? It must have been truly surreal to see your book come to life!

This has been one of the highlights of my career. My husband and I had the chance to travel to New York when the show premiered and it was incredible, surreal, and emotional. I just watched in awe during the whole thing. The play is designed for small children, so it’s interactive theater. It was wonderful to see a group of kids completely immersed in the story I’d created. I wish my two boys had been able to attend. I was pregnant with our second at the time (probably why I cried during the show), and our firstborn was too little to make the trip. We’ve since licensed the rights to it, so hopefully it will open in the Cleveland area one day and my kiddos can experience that magic, too.

Your forthcoming book, THIS BOOK IS GRAY, has a very intriguing title. Can you tell us a bit about this one?

THIS BOOK IS GRAY is definitely the most unusual and challenging book I’ve ever done. I’m in the middle of working on the finished art for it right now. It’s set to release in fall 2019. Almost the entire book is dialogue, with a large cast of characters. Readers will meet the colors on the color wheel, learn about the relationship between colors, and hopefully laugh … a lot. I’ve definitely got my work cut out for me with this one …

The color Gray is tired of being left out. He never gets to color. Not like the primary colors: Red, Yellow, and Blue, or the secondary colors: Orange, Green, and Purple. Even Black and White are included. But not Gray. Gray is a dismal, bleak, and gloomy color. So Gray decides he’s going to make his own book. A GRAY book. The GRAY-test book any of the other colors have ever seen … that is, if he can get to the end of it without all the other colors constantly interrupting him.  

Thank you, Lindsay, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer/illustrator in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.

Meet Mentor Andrea Wang

We are thrilled to welcome Andrea Wang to Writing with the Stars. Andrea has written seven nonfiction books for libraries and schools, plus her own fiction book, The Nian Monster (Albert Whitman & Company), and a nonfiction biography, Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando (March 2019 from little bee books). In addition, she has a title slated for release in 2020 called Watercress. Andrea lives in Denver with her family.

You were an environmental consultant before starting your career as a picture book author. How did you make the switch from that job to picture books?

I left my consulting job shortly after my second child was born. I took my kids to the library all the time, and spent hours reading to them at home. That reawakened my love of writing and inspired me to try my hand at writing my own stories again.

What inspired The Nian Monster? It seems to have some environmental overtones—a greedy monster seeking to devour anything he can. Did any of your environmental work inspire the character?

That’s so interesting—I’ve never thought of the book that way before. The Nian Monster is a retelling of an ancient folktale that explained the use of loud sounds, fire, and the color red during Chinese New Year. The monster himself is a symbol of the old year, as the word “nian” means “year” in Chinese. I think you could view the monster as the bad events or natural disasters that may have destroyed crops or livestock during the year. Scaring the monster away meant that the people had survived another year—definitely a cause for celebration.

The artwork for The Nian Monster is just,“wow!” The monster looks cuddly and not scary at all. Did you request this approach or were you as blown away as I was when I saw it?

I was totally blown away! 🙂 My editor had asked what I thought about making the illustrations “whimsical,” but I didn’t really understand what she meant. It was my first picture book, so I just said, “Sure!” I’m so glad I did! Alina Chau’s art is amazing and added so much depth and authenticity to the book. 

Your nonfiction biography should be on every college student’s reading list. What prompted you to write Magic Ramen?

Ha! I hope the book does find its way into college students’ hands! I was inspired to research the inventor of instant ramen by my younger son, who loves eating it. Once I discovered the reasons Momofuku Ando felt compelled to invent instant ramen, I knew I had to write about him. 

Can you tell us a bit about Watercress? Do you have other projects in the works

Watercress is a very different and much more personal story than my other two picture books. It’s based on an actual childhood experience of gathering watercress in the wild with my parents, who were immigrants from China. It sounds like a fun activity, but in reality, I was mortified. The story was my way of processing that event, as well as showing how important family histories are when it comes to understanding ourselves.

I have another picture book being published by Neal Porter Books after Watercress. Right now it’s called Luli and the Language of Tea, and it’s about the evolution of the word for tea from the original Chinese and how it brings immigrant children from around the world together. I’m also working on a middle grade novel and several other picture books, both fiction and nonfiction. All my WIPs are about immigrants or the children of immigrants, their experiences, and how that shapes their identities

How did you get into the educational writing market, and did it help you once you moved to your own work?

A good friend who is also my critique partner introduced me to an editorial company she was working for. They were looking for science writers and I had a science background, so it was a good fit. The experience definitely helped me once I started submitting work based on my own ideas. It gave me publishing credits, taught me to work on deadline, and showed me how to extract the most relevant and interesting information out of a mountain of research. 

What has surprised you most about writing picture books?

I think it has to be the variety of structures and formats. You’re not limited to the typical plot arc or linear storytelling, and you can use the physical form of the book itself as part of the story, like how some authors have used the gutter. I just read Blue by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, and the way she uses cutouts and conveys the story through simple text (just two words per page, and one of them is “blue”) and gorgeous art work is masterful. I’ve also been learning about layers of text and circular structure—the possibilities with picture books feel endless, which is so exciting.

Thank you, Andrea, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.

Meet Mentor Tim McCanna

We are very grateful to have Tim McCanna join Writing the Stars this year. Tim is the author of Bitty Bot, Bitty Bot’s Big Beach Getaway (both illustrated by Tad Carpenter), Barnyard Boogie (illustrated by Allison Black), Teeny Tiny Trucks (illustrated by Keith Frawley), Watersong (illustrated by Richard Smythe), Jack B. Ninja (illustrated by Stephen Savage), Boing! (illustrated by Jorge Martin), and So Many Sounds (illustrated by Andy J. Miller). He’s also been an actor, musician, musical theatre writer, graphic designer, and played accordion in a folk band—so of course the next natural step was picture books. Seriously though, Tim’s books reflect a keen knowledge of both musicality and visual appeal.

You sold your first book, Teeny Tiny Trucks, before you had an agent. How did that all happen?

I started writing picture books in 2009. In early 2012, I joined author Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 challenge. After six months, I was enjoying 12×12 so much, I wrote and recorded a little song about the experience and sent it to Julie. It just so happened that her book, A Troop is a Group of Monkeys, was in the process of being published in hard cover and as an interactive iPad app. Julie asked if I’d write a sing-along version of her text for the app and connected me with the editor at Little Bahalia Publishing. After that job, I submitted my manuscript to them and a year later Teeny Tiny Trucks came out! Unfortunately,the publisher eventually closed shop and my book went out of print. I was in it for the long haul, though. So I kept writing and submitting to editors and agents. In 2014 I signed with Caryn Wiseman at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

How did your writing career change once you got your agent?

By the time I signed with Caryn, I had a portfolio of polished manuscripts. Over the next two years she sold nine of my stories to houses like Simon & Schuster, Abrams, and Scholastic. Does everything I write now automatically sell? No way. But a good agent like Caryn knows the best editors to match your work to, handles the contracts, improves offers, gives creative feedback, and is a friend who listens.

You write successfully in rhyme. What is it about rhyme that attracts you? How have you learned to do it so well?

Thanks! Rhyming is a real challenge, but is so fun when it works. I just love playing with words. I have a background in musical theatre and songwriting, so I approach my picture book texts with performance in mind. After all, the reader is performing for the listener. Becoming a strong rhymer takes practice, reading lots of rhyming books, and developing an ear for language that sparkles.

Watersong, which you won some pretty cool awards for, is fascinating for its sparse text and the manner in which the illustrator took that text and made it such a dramatic picture book. Did you know when you wrote it that it would come to life like that?

NO! I had a fun time stringing that spare text together, but I really wasn’t sure if it was book-worthy. I added some art notes about fairies and water sprites to give it a story arc. But the illustrator, Richard Smythe, took it in a more naturalistic direction and I couldn’t be happier. We added some non-fiction back matter, and now there’s a sequel in the works!

What are some of your writing rituals?

I will often blast through the first draft of a manuscript using no formatting and a san serif font like Arial. Then, as I start editing and shaping, I duplicate the file, convert the text to Times New Roman, put in my standard title page,and get persnickety about tabs and spacing. Then I read the story out loud to myself like a hundred times, making changes here and there. I also try to regularly visit my local independent bookstores to read the latest releases and buy some books.

Who are some authors who have influenced your style?

I could list a bunch, but I have to mention my critique partner, Sue Fliess, who is an amazing rhymer and a superb author. We’ve critiqued each other’s work for over seven years, and her feedback and encouragement have made me a better writer. And, we both have truck books, robot books, and ninja books!

What stories do you have in the works that you can tell us about?

I mentioned a follow-up to Watersong … that one is going to have DINOSAURS! I can’t wait. I also just saw a couple spreads of a book called In a Garden with beautiful art by Aimee Sicuro. Both are coming in 2020.

Which of your books is the favorite of your children?

They’d probably say Bitty Bot. When the first Bitty Bot book came out, I made a big cardboard robot costume. At my bookstore events, the robot would bring a copy of the book to me to read aloud. Both of my kids were good sports and occasionally played the part of the robot. Those are fun memories they’ll always have.

You mention that you wanted to start writing picture books after becoming a dad and reading to your own kids. Were there any particular books that inspired you the most?

Back in those days I was reading everything coming out by Dan Santat, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Peter Brown, Adam Rex, Tammi Sauer, Oliver Jeffers, and Mo Willems. As a rhymer, I was also studying the works of Julia Donaldson and Chris Van Dusen.

You have some pretty fun videos on your site. Did you make them yourself? How important has your platform been in marketing your books?

Thanks! Yeah, I made all those. I’m especially proud of the 12×12 jingle video. People still come up to me at conferences and start singing that song to me. Making videos is time-intensive, though, so I only do the occasional book trailer nowadays. But as I’ve developed my career, having an online presence has been essential. Even if you’re not published yet, it’s good to get a head start on your social media platform.

Thank you, Tim, for your time and for mentoring one lucky writer in 2019. All information about how to apply to Writing with the Stars is on the WWTS Contest tab. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online, and tell your local librarians how awesome they are.

Meet Mentor Laura Gehl

We are excited to welcome author Laura Gehl back for her third year as a mentor for Writing with the Stars! Laura is the author of eleven picture books, including the popular PEEP AND EGG series, illustrated by Joyce Wan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux BYR), and most recently, the hilarious DELIVERY BEAR, illustrated by Paco Sordo (Albert Whitman, 2018).

In ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR, you have an impeccable rhyme scheme AND the word “underwear” in the first line—two things universally irresistible to kids! Good rhyme is incredibly difficult to master. What advice do you have for writers who would like to attempt rhyme?

The biggest problem I run into when I am writing in rhyme is letting the rhyme lead the story. Like … I have the word ROCK at the end of a line, so then oh-wow-my-characters-suddenly-care-about-the-time-because-I-need-to-get-to-the-word-CLOCK. You need to have a clear idea of what story you want to tell, and make sure you force the rhymes to follow your story (without sounding forced), and not the other way around. This is very hard for me, and I imagine for others as well!

ONE BIG PAIR OF UNDERWEAR has internal rhymes as well as rhymes at the end of sentences, which I think is one reason people enjoy reading it. And I personally love books where the rhyming words are not all one syllable. If I visit a school and ask for a list of words rhyming with “bear,” kids’ suggestions are typically one syllable. But then I show them all the two and three syllable words (like underwear!) they could use as well. Multi-syllable rhyming is beautiful and satisfying when it works. You know who is really REALLY good at it? Lin-Manuel Miranda. So just do what he does. No problem, right?

As a former reading teacher, you’ve likely seen the exact moment a reader makes a connection with a story. How do you create opportunities for your readers to make connections in your books? Is this a conscious effort, or something that develops organically as you write?

I think it is important to hook a kid right away, so I try to make the first line of each book as engaging as possible. Even as an adult reader, I make a decision quickly about whether or not I want to continue reading a book. Many kids are the same way. Whether the first line is funny or mysterious or introduces an intriguing character, it is the most important line of the book (except for the last line). But in the middle of the book, the key connection is made when the reader sees the heart of the story and feels a strong emotion—whether happiness or sadness or relief or satisfaction. I often start my stories with a funny idea, so I have to work hard to put heart into the story as well.

I GOT A CHICKEN FOR MY BIRTHDAY is such a celebration of imagination and humor! How do you tap into this deeply funny and creative vein when brainstorming ideas? What advice would you give to writers who long to “write funny”?

Whenever something strikes me as funny, I write it down immediately. Lots of these are just two-word scribbles on post-it notes, like yodeling pigeon or broccoli beard. Others are silly situations, or funny scraps of conversation, or plays on words. I email myself all of my notes and keep a file of ideas. When I’m ready to start a new project, I scroll through all of those random nuggets and pick one to develop into a story. I GOT A CHICKEN FOR MY BIRTHDAY started with a child finding a chicken in her bathtub (the bathtub got ditched in one of the early drafts) and grew from there. 

I also think reading funny picture books, comics, and novels helps—as well as listening to stand-up comedy, watching funny movies and TV shows, and observing really good improv comedy groups. Of course you aren’t going to steal someone else’s funny idea directly, but getting all that humor percolating in your brain can only be a good thing. (I’m pretty sure this means you can also deduct all those movie tickets from your taxes. Netflix too.)

Tell us about the journey for your latest book, DELIVERY BEAR, and where the idea spark for that one came from.

I had the idea of a cookie delivery service … possibly because my mom once gave me a subscription to the Dessert-of-the-Month club as a gift. I also had the idea of a large, fierce-looking animal applying for a customer service job. Those two ideas ended up complementing each other like raspberry and chocolate (one of my favorite combinations). DELIVERY BEAR is about a large bear named Zogby who wants to work for the Fluffy Tail cookie company, a company run and staffed by adorable little bunnies. The book is packed with both screaming and singing, which makes it lots of fun for story time. 

Purely out of curiosity—with a PhD in neuroscience, you must know all about the benefits of reading aloud to children. What, in your opinion, is the most important benefit, and why should authors and illustrators continue to endeavor to create picture books for our youngest readers?

Ha! I actually know absolutely nothing about the neuroscience behind this. But as a parent, I think the most important benefit of reading aloud is the shared experience. Whether it is a funny picture book, or a sad picture book, or an inspirational picture book, the adult and child share the way the words and pictures make them feel. The shared experience of that book leads to conversation directly after reading, but can also create a shared reference point for future conversations, can spark an inside joke that sticks around into adulthood, and can of course fuel the desire to read MORE BOOKS together. As creators, we are so privileged to have a role in shaping that special time adults and children spend together.

Thank you so much for your time, Laura, and for mentoring a lucky writer again in 2019!  Look for Laura’s next four books this spring: DIBS!, EXCEPT WHEN THEY DON’T, and the first two books in the BABY SCIENTIST series. Applicants, please remember to support these mentor authors. Buy their books, review them online and tell your local librarians how awesome they are. You can find all the mentors and details on how to apply to Writing with the Stars on the WWTS Contest tab.