“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.