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Meet Mentor Cate Berry

Cate Berry is the author of the hilarious Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime (illustrated by Charles Santoso). She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and earned her Picture Book Intensive Certificate in the process. Cate loves teaching and offers many classes on writing picture books at The Writing Barn. You can visit her online at www.cateberry.com.

How or why did you choose a penguin and a tiny shrimp to star in your book?

You mean everyone doesn’t write about silly crustaceans? Shocking!

These characters are a loose composite of my kids, born fifteen months apart (not our best work but now it’s peachy). They acted like a little vaudeville duo, the youngest riffing off the oldest—NEVER sleeping.

My greatest love is writing picture books with lots of heart, delivered in a fresh way. My inner writer brain is one part four-year-old and three parts pink champagne so Penguin & Tiny Shrimp popped into my head very naturally.

Do you have any writing rituals? If so, what are they?

All my rituals revolve around coffee. Coffee, coffee, coffee. I start my day with three espresso shots lovingly poured into a tall glass of almond milk, gently shaken over ice. Really, once I have that, I turn into Wonder Woman and the work flows easily.

Now that you’ve published your debut book (and with a sophomore book on the way), what are your writing goals?

That’s a great question. I’ve spent far too many hours plotting and scheming my next industry move only to circle back to what’s important and in my control: writing something every day. My wonderful advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts trained me to dabble and play, and interact with my work daily. It doesn’t have to be serious or even productive. But keeping my mind childlike keeps me connected to my work. Plus, sometimes a gem of an idea pops out as a bonus!

If you were stranded on a deserted island for the rest of your life and you could bring only one book, what would it be?

Ermergahd. Just ONE?

I’m a huge E. B. White fan so I’d probably take Charlotte’s Web. Recently, I fell in love with Melissa Sweet’s biography Some Writer, a near perfect picture book about E.B.White. It reminded me that art takes time. And that’s okay. Letting a manuscript “marinate” often leads to greatness.

(So, I’d probably bribe someone to let me take two books. Tee hee.)

If you were stranded on a deserted island for the rest of your life and you could choose an unlimited supply of only one food, what would it be?

My first thought is Twinkies because they have a shelf life of twelve years. But I hate Twinkies, so I’d probably choose the fun-loving pineapple. It’s got vitamins, a sunny disposition and it’s the universal symbol of hospitality. (My super power is being friendly, even on a deserted island.)

Are you an early bird or night owl?

Pre-motherhood: night owl. Oh, the work I achieved between 10 PM and 2 AM.

Post-motherhood: I’m embracing the early bird mindset begrudgingly and finding it: pleasant! Also, getting a day’s work accomplished before 11 AM is thrilling.

What are your favorite non-writing related things to do?

My husband is a composer and we host monthly music parties at our house. Lots of musicians and artists drop by and I enjoy singing with them (I was a songwriter once-upon-a-time).

I also love entertaining and connecting people. I would have had a rollicking career in 1920’s Paris hosting salons.

Can you tell us about your next book, Chicken Break?

It’s an Ocean’s 11-style, barnyard breakout counting book—told in rhyme!

I adore mash-up books, or books that do more than one thing. This one includes counting, accumulation, wordplay and…going wild! (Plus, chickens. Who doesn’t love chickens?)

This book took three years of revision before it clicked so I’m super excited about its publication in October 2019 (MacMillan/Feiwel & Friends).

What is the best advice you can give aspiring picture book writers?

Read, read, read and then read some more. I wrote a blog post about reading at least three hundred picture books before you begin writing them in earnest. It’s like learning another language, there is so much packed into this short form.

But after reading enough of them, you start to absorb the format into your subconscious. Picture books must have all the integrity of a novel but accomplish it in six hundred words or less (if it’s fiction, that is). It’s a tall order, but reading a LOT will give you a huge advantage.

What’s on your mind these days regarding writing?

I’ve self-appointed myself the modern Lorax: I speak for the humorous and playful picture books. I often think funny books don’t get the respect that they deserve. It’s hard to write something effortlessly humorous. And our culture (myself included) often rewards serious, hard-hitting books more “worthy” of our purchases. Perhaps we feel our kids will be better educated if they read these? And, of course, that’s true.

I also feel kids and grown-ups need levity, perhaps now more than ever. We need to unwind and give our brains a hit of serotonin. Yes, laughter delivers “feel good” chemicals!

It’s important.

I love helping writers develop fun, funny, playful picture books—with heart, of course. Picture books are shared and read together. Imagine starting and ending your day with a giggle and a hug? It matters.

I’ve just talked myself into writing!

See you on the page.

Thank you, Cate, 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.