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True Story Blog


After spending ten years as a physical therapist specializing in brain injury rehabilitation, Katey Howes turned her attention to becoming a children’s author. She is a team member of All the Wonders website and writes a popular blog, kateywrites. And come August—her #firstpicturebook will be published by Ripple Grove Press! Thank you Katey for giving us a peek into the process:

Q. Was GRANDMOTHER THORN the first picture book manuscript you ever wrote? If not, what was the first picture book you wrote and what happened to it?
A. I’ve written a lot of short stories and poems over the years, but I really began writing picture book manuscripts in 2014, when I decided to quit my job as a physical therapist and focus on a writing career. GRANDMOTHER THORN was the third picture book manuscript I felt was “ready to polish,” though there were dozens of false starts and ideas that never made it to that stage. The first manuscript I felt was polished enough to submit was rejected by a few agents as “too quiet for the market” and sat in a drawer for a few years. I’m reworking it right now with the help of my critique group and agent. And that second manuscript was the beginnings of what is now MAGNOLIA MUDD AND THE SUPER JUMPTASTIC LAUNCHER DELUXE, which is being published by Sterling in Fall 2017. Back then, I called it Julia Mudd Won’t Wear That Dress. What a difference a few years makes!

A. Great question! I have a small yard here in New Jersey, especially when compared to the open space I was accustomed to when I lived in the Midwest. To make the most of it, my husband and I planted raspberry and blackberry bushes in a narrow, sandy garden bed (about 18 inches wide and 6 feet long) between the back wall of the house and the stone patio. Well, the bushes must have liked it, because they grew like crazy! In a little over a year, the blackberry bush stretched almost 13 feet tall, and the raspberry bushes were trying to take over my patio. In an epic attempt to battle them into submission against a trellis, I got poked by one thorn too many and yelled “sooner or later, everything meets its match!” I was not entirely sure whether I was talking about the bush, or myself, but the idea for GRANDMOTHER THORN took root in that moment.

Q. How did you pick the title of your book?
A. I knew the theme I wanted for the book early on – but not where or when it would be set, or even a lot about the main characters. I wrote it many different ways, draping settings and voices around my theme to see what fit best. When I set it in a small Japanese village, inspired by the artistry of Japanese gardens, Grandmother Thorn practically wrote herself into the tale. I knew very quickly that her struggle and growth would be the heart of the story, and therefore the title.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book? And was that part in the first draft?
A. I love the image of Grandmother Thorn as she follows her one friend, Ojiisan, along the pebbled path from her door, smoothing out stones disrupted by his twisted foot. This early glimpse into her need for order, and her willingness to allow order to be disrupted – for a short time – for the sake of her friend, has always seemed poignant to me. The detail was not part of early drafts, but evolved over time as I changed the characters slightly to both challenge and complement one another.

Q. How did you select the names for your characters?
A. At first, I wanted to use Japanese names for the characters – perhaps something that would literally translate to “Grandmother Thorn” and “Limping Man.” Our fairy tales and folk tales have such a tradition of these type of names – like Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, for example - and I felt it would lend to the folktale tone. After several conversations with native speakers of Japanese, hearing their thoughts on how the translations could be misconstrued, and realizing that for the average picture book reader they might also be difficult to pronounce, I decided to use names that would be simpler and easy to say.

Q. How did you decide whether to tell the story in first or third person?
A. I never considered writing this story in first person, as I really wanted to be able to look in on Grandmother’s world from the outside.

Q. How much of the story did you know when you began writing GRANDMOTHER THORN?
A. As I mentioned before, I knew the theme I wanted to explore – that of balancing chaos and control - and the vehicle – a garden – that I wanted to use to create the story. But the specific characters and twists and turns of the plot evolved through a lot of exploration and many very different drafts.

Q. Did GRANDMOTHER THORN receive any rejection letters? If so, how many (ballpark)?
A. Oh, yes! I received at least ten very nice rejection letters for GRANDMOTHER THORN before getting the incredibly exciting call from Rob Broder of Ripple Grove Press. Most of the rejections claimed to love the lyricism and symbolism of the story, but said that it would be a tough sell in the current market because it was “quiet.” Several agents who read GRANDMOTHER THORN asked to see other works from me.

Q. Describe your reaction when you received an offer on GRANDMOTHER THORN.
A. I was pretty much in shock! I was actually out on my back patio, right next to the devilish berry bushes that started it all, when I received the call from Ripple Grove Press. Rob Broder told me that they had read the manuscript “at least a dozen times” and never grew tired of it, and that that was the quality they looked for in books they made. I remember getting teary-eyed as I realized that someone else connected with GRANDMOTHER THORN the way I did.

Q. What kind of input did you have in choosing an illustrator for the book?
A. Ripple Grove Press is wonderful in the way they respect the artistic vision of both the author and the illustrator. I was asked to provide links to images or portfolios that represented my vision of the book. Once the illustrator was selected, she took some time to build her own vision, and then asked if there were any images that had influenced me. I was able to share with her pictures of my berry bushes, as well as tell her how traditional woodblock prints (called ukiyo-e) by Japanese artist Hokusai helped me envision the story’s Shizuku village.

Q. What jumped out at you when you saw the first sketches and jacket cover?
A. The first glimpses of the illustrations blew me away. The intricacy of Rebecca Hahn’s work, and the way that she brought the garden to life – almost as a character in its own right – made my heart leap.

Q. How long did GRANDMOTHER THORN take to be published—from the time you received an offer until it was printed?
A. All told, it will be about 30 months to publication.

Q. What is your #1 tip to those who want to write picture books?
A. Read as many picture books as you can!

Q. Do you have a favorite writing exercise that you can share?
A. I constantly write ideas – whether it’s for a plot, a character name, a funny line of dialogue – on sticky notes and stick them up on the side of my bookcase next to my desk. When I feel stumped or blocked or uninspired, I grab a note – or maybe 2 or 3 – and see what I can make of them in 15 minutes.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m revising a rhyming picture book manuscript and a middle grade novel, as well as drafting a picture book full of mythological creatures.

Q. Where can people find you? (Website, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
A. My author website is a great place to start: www.kateyhowes.com! I’m active on Twitter @kateywrites and on Instagram @kidlitlove. You’ll also find me at All The Wonders, where I help readers journey beyond the book, and as a member of Picture the Books, a website featuring authors with 2017 debut picture books.
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