Just under a year ago, I started this interview series with the hope of making connections with up and coming authors, picking their brains about the release of their debut picture books and learning the stories behind some of our favorite stories. I was incredibly fortunate that one kind connection led to another and the interviews quickly picked up steam. I’m sure that I would’ve found a way otherwise, but the gracious and generous Katey Howes is the one who put me in touch with my first few authors. I’ve been anxiously awaiting this month to interview Katey and discuss her gorgeously wise debut picture book, GRANDMOTHER THORN.
Katey, thanks for being here! I start all of my interviews the same way (blame it on my southern roots.) So, before we get started, can I get you something to drink?Thanks! I’ve had to cut back on coffee lately – since it’s good when a book gives you heart palpitations and bad when caffeine does it. So now my drink of choice is a pomegranate sparkling water. In a coffee cup, if you don’t mind. (I can still pretend.)
Well that sounds deliciously refreshing. I applaud your efforts but I’ll keep coffee in my cup. Cheers to you and GRANDMOTHER THORN! I’ve said this to you before, but I give you so much of the credit for helping get this interview series off the ground! I’m not even sure why you were so nice to me, but I’d be willing to bet it has something to do with paying it forward. Who were some of the people who helped you when you were first starting out? How did you find your way, at least this far, into the kidlit-sphere? Well, I can’t say I deserve any credit, but I am thrilled to know that I helped you recognize how valuable and important your voice is to the kidlit world. We should all surround ourselves with people who remind us that our perspective matters, and who challenge us to do, be, and imagine more for ourselves than we think possible.
Among those people for me – now and I’m hoping forever – are my kidlit family from All the Wonders, my debut group at Picture the Books, and my Critique Pandas. (I mean, partners.) But it took me years to develop those relationships. I started my author journey, as many do, feeling like an outsider.
When I attended my first SCBWI conference in New Jersey in 2014, I was so lost. I didn’t even know what questions to ask. I just really wanted to write a book, you know? Despite my utter naivete and painful anxiety, both Ame Dykeman and Tara Lazar made me feel welcome – and nowhere near as clueless as I thought I was. I owe them both a debt of gratitude for the simple acts of being kind and willing to answer questions from a newbie.
At the same time, I made connections through the WordPress community. I’d just started a blog about raising readers, and other bloggers like Vivian Kirkfield, Patricia Nozell, and Darlene Beck-Jacobsen were lifting me up through their encouragement, interest, and kind feedback. I feel blessed to have them all in my life, and I’m determined to keep passing the encouragement along.
I’m a BIG fan of Matthew Winner’s podcast! I clearly remember your interview with him, back when it was still All the Wonders (now called The Children’s Book Podcast.) It was fantastic! You talked about GRANDMOTHER THORN and how you might not have had the courage to write it, had you known then what you know now about what’s ‘acceptable’ in picture books. (aka- you should have a child protagonist, you must follow the rule of three, the main character has to solve her own problem etc. etc. etc.) Like so many aspiring authors, I struggle with the ‘rules’. I want to honor what works in this industry while still holding on to my own authentic voice. Do you have a similar struggle? How do you combat this? That was such a fun podcast! Aside from me being a nervous wreck, of course. But the best thing about it was hearing someone I really respect delve deeply into my book and share how it resonated with them. You don’t need that reaction, that connection, from everyone. You just need it from someone. The first time you read through a page of reviews of your book (not an activity I’d highly recommend), and you see how many varied opinions one story can evoke, you start to realize that you can’t please everyone, no matter how many rules you follow – or break. What I personally take away from that knowledge is that I need to simultaneously respect the traditions of the genre AND trust those things my instincts and my art bring to it that no one else can. And that doing so will often end in publishers saying “not for me” – but will sometimes, gloriously, end in “this is exactly the book I’ve been looking for.”
In GRANDMOTHER THORN, you teach a powerful lesson that I’ve read was a personal one for you. Its interesting for me, because out of my three children, who all love the book, the one who loves it MOST is my middle child and he has the hardest time deviating from the norm. I know on some days it’s ‘exactly the book HE’S been looking for’, so, thank you for sharing. How did your experience with a stubborn vine morph into this gorgeous story? Did you have an ‘Aha’ moment at any point in your process? Please, tell your kids how much I appreciate hearing that they love the book. That’s the best part of being an author. My middle child is also the rule-follower of my three, and I’m a middle kid, too – so maybe there’s something significant there. I’ve always thought we middles were good at balance – but lately I’ve been wondering if what we’re really good at is pleasing others to keep the peace, and if following the rules is part of that. That’s a kind of balance that often doesn’t weigh our own happiness heavily enough. But I digress. (I’m super good at digressing. Wonder if that’s a middle-child thing, too.)
I did, indeed, have an “aha” moment when I realized I was battling nature and that, given all the other constraints on my time and energy, I was not likely to win. It was one of those lessons life tries to gently teach you over and over again – that it’s OK to have finite resources – until it finally has to hit you in the face with it. Or with a raspberry bush. And so a story was born.
Wait! I’m a middle child too! Happy belated National Middle Child day. It’s the best place to be. So, now that I’ve taken us off track too, I want to ask about your school visits. I remember ONE author visit in my entire elementary school career. I wish I had been exposed to more at a younger age! You seem to have a wonderful plan in place for the schools you visit. How did you develop your process? What’s your main focus once you’re in front of the students? I haven’t done a lot of school visits yet, and each one is a still new experience. I have a list of possible topics and I have a deck of standard slides, but mostly I like to talk to the librarian or teachers who are hosting me and plan a unique program that’s going to support their curriculum and maybe open up some new inquiries and excitement in their students. We might focus more on the idea of being “imperfectly perfect” for a school that wants to emphasize character development. For a group with a new Makerspace or thriving garden program, I might focus instead on science concepts that relate to the books. I’m getting more and more comfortable with large group assemblies, but I’m really in my happy place with smaller groups –I like the personal connection to the kids, and the flexibility to cater to their curiosity. Skype visits are great, too! Aside from the inevitable tech hiccups, it has been such a joy to interact with kids I wouldn’t necessarily be able to travel to see.
I can imagine how rewarding it is to make connections with the students, via real life or skype life. What do you struggle with the most? Do you have any advice for authors just starting out on how to tackle this wonderful, unique and no doubt, overwhelming opportunity that comes for authors? I’m sure there are other authors who have this whole school visit thing down way better than I do. I often find myself wishing I could draw – because I’m super jealous of the presentations I see illustrators giving at schools! Or wishing that I didn’t shake quite so much when I’m up on an auditorium stage. And I’d love to have someone else handle the whole booking and contract and payment side of things! I’d say my best moments are the ones that feel natural – when I’m answering honest questions or telling personal stories or listening to kids’ big ideas or just being a total goofball and it feels less like a “school visit” and more like a room full of friends who all love books and get excited to talk about them.
On August 29th, you’ll have been a published author for one whole year! That’s only five days away!! Happy Book-iversary! Do you have plans to celebrate? What? Really? I honestly can’t believe that it’s been a year. And a busy one, too! 2 books released, a move to a new house in a new state, and a big learning curve on things like bookstore events, school visits, and book festivals. I hadn’t planned a celebration – but maybe I should! Maybe there will even be coffee. Or maybe I’ll treat myself to another bookcase.
There is ALWAYS room for more coffee and another bookcase. I dream of living in a house with bookcases lining ALL THE WALLS. I support both! So, do you remember the first time you saw GRANDMOTHER THORN on a bookstore shelf? Tell us about that moment! My publisher, Ripple Grove Press, arranged two events at Portland, Oregon bookstores to coincide with the launch. Both the publisher and illustrator live in Portland, and I have family there, so I flew out to join them. I have to tell you, it was an incredible thrill walking into the iconic Powell’s Bookstore and seeing this display in the children’s section:
We had an amazing turnout, and Powell’s sold out of copies. So, of course, I stole that little booktalker sign.
How did you get it on those shelves? Did you have any marketing tricks up your sleeve that you used for the books release? There’s only so much control an author or illustrator can exert over sales – but I was determined to give it my all. Since Ripple Grove is a smaller press, there was no guarantee the book would find its way to big bookstore shelves – but I knew that indies are more flexible in their ordering and will really hand-sell and support books they love. I visited bookstores that I could drive to, dropping off catalogs and chatting with booksellers even though self-promotion makes me sick to my stomach. Sometimes I sat in my car for 40 minutes, just getting up the nerve to do it – but it was almost always worth the effort.
I emailed museums and botanical gardens with Japanese garden exhibits, and I basically begged everyone I knew across the country to bop into their local bookstore and request a copy and to suggest the store carry a few more. I sent bookmarks everywhere!
I moved just a month before the book’s release, which meant I didn’t know the area especially well. Luckily, an author/illustrator in my new town, Jennifer Hansen Rolli, was incredibly generous with her knowledge and connections. Right away, she introduced me to Kathy at the local independent bookshop – Newtown Bookshop. Kathy is one of those amazing booksellers who knows every teacher and librarian and ravenous reader in a three-town area, and she has been a huge support for me. I highly recommend dropping in her store anytime you are north of Philadelphia.
What crazy timing, not to mention your second picture book was released not long after your first. (MAGNOLIA MUDD AND THE SUPER JUMPTASTIC LAUNCHER DELUXE) What’s been the most surprising thing about making it to the published side of the industry? Having two books come out in quick succession – and having them be such different books -made me a little nervous. One book was thoughtful and lyrical and more artistic, one funny and science-packed and more commercial. How was I going to “sell” myself in the industry without a niche, a brand, a recognizable “oh yeah, she’s the one who writes the (fill in the blank) books”? I’d heard that authors should build a track record of similar books…another one of those rules that are, it turns out, pretty flexible.
Thank heavens for my wonderful agent, Essie White, who has been telling me since the day I signed with her that my versatility is a strength, not a detriment. She knew, even if I didn’t, that there is more than one way to build a reputation in publishing. I guess I was most surprised to find out that I don’t need to be any “one kind” of author – I can just be the kind that adores language and storytelling, and I can let that take me on a series of very different adventures.
Do you have anything else coming down the pipe? Where can we find and follow you on social media? I am over-the-moon excited for my next picture book, due out in March of 2019. BE A MAKER is being beautifully illustrated by Elizabet Vukovic, who I have described on Twitter as a “magical mind-reading unicorn of an illustrator.” I cannot believe how well she’s taken a very simple text and built layers of story into it, exactly as I’d imagined, but also way beyond what I could have asked for. I cannot wait to share it with all of you!
BE A MAKER explores all the things a child can create in a day and plays with the many uses of the verb “to make” – but mostly it celebrates the idea that the world is full of possibilities, and we can choose the ones that make us feel happy, proud, and fulfilled.
I started working on this manuscript in the 12×12 writing forum in 2016, and the support and critiques I received from the community there really kept me going. This is my first rhyming book, and you may be aware that there’s another one of those “rules” that says that rhyme is hard to sell. There were definitely times I was tempted to ditch the couplets, but I’m oh-so-glad that my 12×12 friends wouldn’t let me do it!
There’s another very different, very secret picture book in the pipeline – so if you are curious, I hope you’ll follow me on Twitter @kateywrites or on Instagram @kidlitlove. As soon as it’s announced, you’ll learn more there.
Done and done! Encouraging children to recognize their own creativity is something I am so passionate about. So, BE A MAKER has a seat saved on my own bookshelf. Thanks so much for visiting with me! Thank you, for having me! It’s been so much fun “chatting” picture books with you.
Stay tuned! I have more great interviews to come and many more thoughts to share.
Here’s to hoping that your summer is wrapping up well and the school year starts off well; whatever that means for you, wherever you are!
Thanks for reading, come back anytime!