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Q&A Blog

WHEN A TREE GROWS

“I knew the beginning and end would mirror one another, but the mushy middle was created as I wrote. I cut the scenes that didn't feel funny enough or have great illustration potential.”

—Cathy Ballou Mealey

 

In addition to working in the fields of college administration and teaching, Cathy Ballou Mealey has also been a crossing guard, hash-slinger, gift-wrapper, pet sitter and—her favorite job—"Mom." This month she adds debut author to that list with the publication of her #firstpicturebook WHEN A TREE GROWS. “Laugh along as a story about a tree in the forest comes full circle, bringing three creatures along for a bumpy but fun ride” (Kirkus Reviews).


Q. Was WHEN A TREE GROWS the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?

A. OZZIE THE OYSTER was the first picture book manuscript that I finished, an entry for the Cheerios "Spoonfuls of Stories" contest. Ozzie is still languishing on my hard drive, trying to imagine how he will get back his (lemon) zest for life.

 

Q. What inspired WHEN A TREE GROWS?

A. I was out in the woods, enjoying a nature hike with my family when we heard a distant, creaky Crash! Was it a falling tree? An animal? We froze, listened and after a long silence, hiked on. I began to wonder: What if that crash had scared a bear or frightened a deer?

 

Building on that "OR" question, I framed a wacky story with two different possible outcomes, one rather expected and one funny, unexpected outcome. Readers will find that "OR" spotlighted on the bottom corner of each recto page with a clever curled paper art effect.

 

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?

A. The original title was WHEN A TREE FALLS. My editor suggested that "GROWS" would be a stronger title, neatly tying the end to the beginning.

 

Q. Do you write by hand or on the computer?

A. I wrote TREE on the computer, then cut each scene into separate strips of paper. I added some stick-figure critters by hand, and moved text around with sticky notes until I had the funniest possible sequence of events.

 

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?

A. When Squirrel decides to return to the forest, he writes a letter to Moose. What happens to the letter is my favorite, funniest part of the book.  That sequence has not changed since draft #1.

 

Q. What made you decide to tell the story in third person and present tense?

A. The action-oriented sequence of events really called for third person, present tense format. I didn't even experiment with other versions.

 

Q. Did you outline your story first or did you create your story while writing it? 

A. I knew the beginning and end would mirror one another, but the mushy middle was created as I wrote. I cut the scenes that didn't feel funny enough or have great illustration potential.

 

Q. Did WHEN A TREE GROWS receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?

A. My agent sent out two rounds of submissions, and it was not a fit for four houses. We received one offer and one request for a revise-and-resubmit.

 

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on WHEN A TREE GROWS.

A. Yippee! And "Should we open some wine to go with this meatloaf?"

 

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book? 

A. Sterling suggested three potential illustrators – all fantastic. There was something to love about each and every one, but Kasia Nowowiejska's adorable forest animals won our hearts.

 

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?

A. The warthog! Kasia is from Poland, and I loved the European flair in her forest sketches. The cover was not finalized until the end. I love the shiny copper foil lettering!

 

Q. How long was the publication process for WHEN A TREE GROWS from the time you received an offer until it was printed?

A. Three years, four months. When the PW announcement was published in March 2017, I could officially share the news with everyone that TREE was becoming a book.

 

Q. Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?

A. An early draft had a sweet city scene between Squirrel and a pigeon, but it didn't make the final cut. I thought three animal characters were enough for this book.

 

Q. When you read WHEN A TREE GROWS to kids, which part of the book gets the best reaction?

A. They love to see Squirrel scooping coins out of the fountain to buy a bus ticket home.

 

Q. Did you create any book swag for WHEN A TREE GROWS? If so, what kind?

A. Sterling is compiling an activity kit with simple mazes, word searches, coloring pages, etc. I've dreamed up a craft project using a paper plate to create kid-sized moose antlers. I can't wait to share it with kids!

 

Q. What is your #1 tip for picture-book writers?

A. Never leave home without your library card!

 

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?

A. Paste your PB draft into a word cloud generator like WordItOut or Wordle to visually gauge the frequency of words in your text. A word cloud can help you find terms to cut or replace with stronger choices.

 

Q. What are you working on now?

A. Next up for me is a still-secret picture book with an amazing publisher in Canada. A sloth and a squirrel are involved. Look for an announcement soon, and a book sometime in 2021.

 

Q. Is there a public launch for the book (reading/party at bookstore, library, etc.)?

A. I am collaborating with our town Tree Committee and Library on exciting launch events this spring. Look for details on my Twitter and Facebook accounts.

 

Q. Where can people find you?

A. Please come connect and say hello! Tell me if you've seen a Moose in real life, or if you need a recipe for cardamom crème cupcakes.

Website: https://cathyballoumealey.wordpress.com/about/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CatBallouMealey

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cathy.mealey

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/catballoumealey/

 

 

 

 

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LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST

Author Josh Funk has two upcoming picture books but today he talks about crafting his very first picture book, LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST—"a ripping barnburner full of outlandish action, heroic and dastardly characters, roller coaster rhymes and some absolutely fabulous illustrations by Brendan Kearney" (David Henry Sterry, The Huffington Post) .

Q. Was LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was definitely not the first (or second ... or third) manuscript I ever wrote. The first was about a fox and a squirrel and involved a mystery about a missing guitar. And it was ... pretty terrible. But I spent well over a year revising it - and it was a fantastic learning experience. Looking back on it, I realize that I'd have to completely rewrite it for it ever to fit today's picture book market (or just be any good). But I learned so much as I revised it. And I continued to write new manuscripts as I learned. One of which was Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast.

Q. What inspired LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST?
A. I had been writing picture book manuscripts for a while and was always on the lookout for new ideas. One Saturday morning I came down for breakfast and asked my kids what they wanted to eat. One said, "Pancakes!" and the other said, "French toast!" - and they argued for a bit. When I checked the freezer, all we had were waffles. It was on the way to the diner that I thought it might be fun to see a pancake and French toast arguing.

I asked my kids what a pancake and French toast might fight over and one of the kids said, "Syrup." I thought that was a brilliant idea. But I can't remember which of my kids said it. And now, years later, the kids fight about which of them came up with the idea. So what started with two kids arguing, continues today ... with two kids arguing.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. The names of the characters were always pretty descriptive and different, so Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was the title since the very beginning.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. My favorite part is probably the bean avalanche. Not only is the two-page spread extremely colorful (illustrator Brendan Kearney once told me it took an entire week for him to color in those beans), but it's just such a silly thing to happen.

It was not part of the first draft. The first draft was actually just the two main characters arguing about who was more deserving of the syrup-- it was more of a debate. One of my critique partners made the comment that it needed more action (thanks, Jane). That's when it turned into a race.

I will say that the bean avalanche was something I mentioned in my cover and query letters, cause I thought it was a pretty descriptive and different thing.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. Most of it has to do with the fact that the story is written in rhyme. The way it flowed, I needed certain syllables in the right places and 'Lady' just fit. In the very very very first draft, Sir French Toast was actually Mister (because two syllables were needed). It was suggested I stick with the royalty theme (thanks, Carol!) and go with something like 'Sir' - so I did. And that's why the fourth line of the book is "sat Lady Pancake beside Sir French Toast." I used 'beside' as a two syllable replacement for the word 'and' when 'Sir' was originally 'Mister.'

Q. Why did you decide to tell the story in third person?
A. Because there are multiple main characters, this seemed to fit best. I must admit though, it just came out this way at the start and I never considered changing it.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST?
A. I knew the two characters, the setting (inside the fridge), the conflict (only one drop of syrup was left in the bottle and they both wanted it), and the ending (I'm not telling here). None of that changed along the way. Almost everything else did.

Q. Did LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. I sent it to 36 agents. Two responded as if they read it. Ten sent me form rejections. The other 24 were black holes (I never received a response). So I gave up on agents.

I sent it snail mail to 10 publishers that accepted unsolicited submissions. One sent back a rejection. 8 never responded. So that all adds up to 45 rejections and ...

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST.
A. On the evening of October 30th, 2013, I received an email from an editor at Sterling saying they found my manuscript in the slush pile and they would be taking it to acquisitions the following week. While I was excited and encouraged, I'd had some close calls that didn't go through in the previous few months so I didn't get overly excited until ...

Eight days later I was at The Writers' Loft in Sherborn, MA (a local writing community), a few hours early for a picture book critique group (I hadn't yet critiqued the manuscripts we were going over that night) when I got the email. No one else was around, so I screamed a little. I giggled a bit. I called my family to tell them. It was pretty exhilarating!

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. None. Sterling told me that they'd found an illustrator and sent me a link to Brendan Kearney's website. I was psyched. From the very beginning before I saw any of his sketches, I knew he'd be pretty perfect.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. Brendan had put so much thought into not just the main character, but so many of the side characters as well. Lady Pancake's whipped cream hair with a cherry and wafer crown along with Sir French Toast's strawberry hat blew me away. None of that was in my text. All he had were the character names. The rest came from Brendan's imagination.

And the cover is perfect. The color (bright turquoise-green) pops off the shelf, along with the embossed gold foil! And it's got so much tension and action built in to the illustrations. I love it!

Q. How long did LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. Just under 22 months. Which is fast. Almost lightning fast for a picture book non-sequel where the author and illustrator are not the same person.

Q. Is there anything you would change in the book today if you could reprint it? (Was there a part that you really loved but had to edit out? Or did you think of something later that you wanted to add?)
A. Nope. I wouldn't change a thing!

Q. Can you share any funny or memorable parts of letters from kids about LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST?
A. Strangely, a lot of kids wonder whether Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast will ever get married (or if they already are married). I do know that if they did start a family and have kids, their children would definitely be crêpes (French pancakes).

Q. When you do readings of LADY PANCAKE & SIR FRENCH TOAST, which part of the book gets the best reaction?
A. The twist ending.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. I've put together a set of Resources for Writers on my website. But the most important thing I'd recommend is that you keep writing. As I said earlier, my first manuscript was terrible. My second was a little less terrible. Every book you write is likely to be better than the last, especially if you're going to conferences, getting feedback, learning about the industry, making (and learning) from mistakes, and more. I can't tell you how many times I've heard keynote speakers say that finally, it was their seventh book written that became their first one published. So keep writing. And keep writing new things.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I have two new books: Pirasaurs! (Scholastic) illustrated by Michael Slack and Dear Dragon (Viking/Penguin) illustrated by Rodolfo Montalvo. Next spring (2017), Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast: The Case of the Stinky Stench will be released. And then a few more are on the way after that.

To learn more about Josh and his books, visit his website.
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