Author Spotlight: Jessie Oliveros
Happy Monday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight! This week is unofficially (and officially in my mind) The Remember Balloons week! Why? Because this book is awesome. And because I said so. AND because we get to hear from both the author and illustrator of this award winning book! Haven't read it yet? A pox upon you. In the words of William Shakespeare, "get thee to a library!" Or amazon. Or an actual bookstore.
Today we get the inside scoop with author Jessie Oliveros. There might be a giveaway opportunity at the end of this post. Maybe. Hypothetically it might involve getting a signed copy of The Remember Balloons for one lucky winner. It might. You'll have to read and see!
Then on Thursday, we get another interview and (maybe) giveaway opportunity with illustrator Dana Wulfekotte!
Alright, alright, alright. No more silliness from me. Please welcome Jessie Oliveros!
What’s something you absolutely must have in the refrigerator or pantry?
Can we go with something I absolutely should NOT have? Anything sugar but especially chocolate chip cookies. These will be consumed at midnight. I've also been known to raid my kids' Halloween bags. Lucky Charms cereal is another special weakness (but just the marshmallows).
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
Quiet. I need quiet to create. I usually write best while my children are sleeping. (Although, The Remember Balloons was composed while my children were playing around me one afternoon.) Next, my laptop of course. Sometimes I write by hand while I'm drafting, but my brain works best with my laptop. And the third thing? A worthy subject. I need to write about something from the heart.
Where do you feel most inspired and why?
Anywhere my mind is relaxed. When I'm out running with my dog I feel particularly inspired. (Bonus if it's cool and rainy.) Driving will do it for me sometimes...if kids aren't screaming in the backseat. Lol.
Give us a little bit about your background and your journey into kid lit. Why picture books?
I've always loved books and writing. But as I was also drawn to science and the practicality of the medical field, I went to nursing school. I worked as a cardiac nurse for about six years before hanging up my stethoscope to stay home fulltime with my kids. And that's when my brain REALLY started wanting to create. Once I cleared it of all those telemetry patterns and IV drips. Haha! As far as picture books...well, when I got serious about publication about ten years ago, I started with picture books [a little cheesy tale called Charlie Nickel Gets his Wish]. My journey took me to YA and MG over the years, but I was always writing picture books. I love the art form of writing a tale in 32 pages. I love writing for kids that are the same ages as my kids. I love sculpting and creating a tale that will (hopefully) one day be married to illustrations. (Fun fact: I was still querying my middle grade novel when I wrote The Remember Balloons, a middle grade novel which had over 100 rejections!)
Your website mentions climbing mountains in Utah during your college years. Please tell us more about this! I am an avid rock climber, hiker, and mountain biker and lived in Utah from 6th grade until the summer before my junior year. Utah is such a wonderful, outdoor playground!
I attended BYU which is nestled right against the beautiful Wasatch Mountains. I enjoyed hiking them on my own and with friends. I loved riding my bike on the trails. The waterfalls. Lakeside camping. The mountain air. I really miss my mountains!
As a mom of four, your work-life balance must be very difficult to, well, balance. What’s a typical day for you and, how do you make it all work?
I don't know if I can use the word "typical." Every day throws new things at me. It's a constant struggle to balance both, and the scale is very tipsy one way or the other depending on the day. But the best answer is that my life is 89% scrambling to be a decent mom and 40% my author life and 5% confusion over how I'm making it work at all.
Talk to us about your experiences visiting schools. What do those visits look like and what do you hope to accomplish? Any memorable stories come to mind about a particular visit? Do you recommend offering skype visits for schools?
I have had limited experience with school visits so far. I've visited my daughters' and son's classes. I skyped with four classrooms on World Read Aloud Day this year. (I plan to do more once my youngest is in school.) BUT, I have loved my school visits. I love the questions and engaging the kids and seeing where their minds spin. I definitely recommend offering skype visits for school, and I also recommend knowing your worth. My friends (and children authors) Michelle Cusolito and Jeanette Bradley did a survey which everyone should read. http://www.michellecusolito.com/blog/2018/4/30/2018-survey-transparency-in-pay-for-author-illustrator-school-visits
Looking back at what you have learned along the way, what advice do you have for authors just starting out on their journey?
When you receive no "likes" in a Twitter contest, read your 60th form rejection, find you have such little time to attain those goals because regular life is CRAZY...just try and find joy in the journey. (The joy is there!) Don't stress. It will come if you're all in. And those rejections? They are just paving stones to something greater.
Tell us a little bit about your vision for your future as a picture book author. Any teasers for projects you’re currently working on?
Well, I'm not sure I'm ever going to be a very prolific author, but I hope that each book I put out is loved by my readers. I always have several things in the oven at once (they just bake for a long time): A picture book biography. Another picture book in the same emotional vein as The Remember Balloons. A middle grade novel I'm revising. And beyond books, I hope to do more conferences and school visits one day.
What are some recently published picture books that have been inspirational or had you laughing out loud? Laughing out loud?
MAXIMILLIAN VILLAINOUS by Margaret Chiu Greanias
RABBIT AND POSSUM by Dana Wulfekotte (illustrator for The Remember Balloons!)
Inspirational? THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY by Hannah Holt
IVER AND ELLSWORTH by Casey Robinson, LOVE, MAMA by Jeanette Bradley
Congratulations on your SCBWI Golden Kite Award as well as being a Schneider Family Book Honoree! I was so happy watching the live tweets during the ALA Youth Media Awards. Take us back to the moment when you found out about these two achievements. What has it meant to you to have your work receive this type of recognition?
I still can't believe it. I found out about these awards not long after the new year. A lot of lists had already been put out. I made a couple of them. I was happy with those! Then I get a call from Lin Oliver. (I missed the first call!) When I heard her message telling me the good news, I squealed. And I celebrated! The Golden Kite! Then a couple weeks later, the night before the ALA announcements, I got another call! (I honestly wasn't really thinking about the possibility of an ALA award. I had my Golden Kite! I was still sailing on that goodness.) The Schneider Family committee was calling to let me know that The Remember Balloons had been selected as an honor book. Having this recognition for The Remember Balloons is pretty incredible. And above all, it means that more people who need the book will have a chance to read it. For those interested, the Golden Kite speeches are here---> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-NmkMhr4ng.
Let’s get into some deeper questions, specifically about The Remember Balloons. We know that this book was inspired by and dedicated to your grandfather, but what is the story behind the story? How did this book go from initial idea to its current form?
My paternal grandfather has Alzheimer's. He now lives in a retirement home with my grandmother not too far from where my parents live in Kansas. As my children and I were visiting him a few summers ago, I considered the idea of writing a children's book about Alzheimer's. What began as a straight-forward story about a boy and his grandfather grew into a metaphorical story about balloons. And all in one afternoon. I truly believe there was some heavenly inspiration going on there, so I can't take all the credit for it! The idea of balloons really just came to me. And it worked. Because I needed the story to be accessible to children, and what is more accessible than balloons?
How much of the grandfather’s stories in the book are stories that really happened?
Well, my grandpa had an aunt Nellie just like my book grandpa, and he'd also visit her farm. And of most significance, I do have some great memories of fishing with my grandpa just like James did.
The concept of an individual memory taking the form of a balloon is such a brilliant metaphor. My favorite part is that you never outright say that the balloons are memories. You show us. For example, “This one’s my favorite,” I tell him, pointing to the balloon filled with my last birthday party. “When I look at it, I can see the pony again. I can still taste the chocolate frosting.” I love the idea of the balloon being filled with his birthday party. I think your figurative language invites kids into a conversation, asking them to think deeper. Far deeper than if you had outright told us the balloons are memories, and the grandfather letting them go is him dealing with memory loss. Obviously any handling of such a sensitive, painful topic is going to be difficult, but when it’s dressed as metaphor, it seems to make it more approachable. Was this an intentional choice on your part? What was the evolution of this idea throughout the revision process?
I love everything you said here. It's funny how some people have a way of describing The Remember Balloons--in words far better than my own! I'll build on what I said before about the idea of balloons... and that is my love for metaphors. I've always loved and appreciated and seen life with the use of metaphors. Which, I suppose, made me the right person to tell this story!
I think you really accurately capture the helplessness people feel when a loved one is struggling with any form of memory loss. The image of the main character chasing the lost balloons for his grandfather is seriously haunting. There’s a feeling of powerlessness. Hopelessness. But that doesn't have the final word, nor is that our final image in the story. He has new balloons. His grandfather’s stories belong to him now. The mother says, “See? Now they’re yours to share.” I love that idea so much. Why was it so important to you to share that message of hope and to end the story on such an uplifted note?
While I wanted to write a story about Alzheimer's, I knew that --in real life-- it doesn't end happily ever after. But I was writing a children's story! And it was important for me to show children that hope could be found in even impossible-seeming things.
There is a moment that always gets me the worst. The silver balloon. Knife to the heart. It’s his most treasured moment with his grandfather and now it’s gone. I think you were correct to show a little bit of his anger in this devastating moment. It seems more raw. More true to life. Did that feel like a risky choice to have him be angry and yell, rather than just being sad?
My editor did a really good job helping me to dig more into James' character. This happened during the revision process when I asked myself, how would a kid react? I mean, anger is a stage of grief and certainly children don't have all the resources to handle a loss as an adult might handle it.
Talk to us about some of the conversations you’ve had with people who have a very personal connection to this subject matter. How have you seen healing and positive change come from responses to your work? What does that mean to you?
I've had a lot of people reach out to me, and it's been incredible. Among them, there have been those with loved ones affected by Alzheimer's. That something I wrote can somehow offer solace and comfort to those going through this incredibly heart wrenching journey...well, there just aren't words to describe it.
What was it like working with Dana Wulfekotte and seeing your book slowly come to life? Did your manuscript contain a lot (or any) art notes? I’m really fascinated by other author’s use of art notes.
Dana is incredible to work with, and I hope that we can do another book together one day! I didn't put many art notes in my manuscript. After I did the first big edits, and after Dana had the preliminary sketches, there were some words cut--words that would have been redundant because they were shown in the illustrations. Otherwise, the direction of the art is all Dana and our art director!
On a more lighthearted note, I just love that the dog has one memory balloon. Was this your or Dana’s idea? What would a dog’s one memory be?!
Dana's idea! In fact, James' dog didn't exist in my original manuscript! I was asked that question by a student after the book was published. When I asked Dana she said that she thought of the memory as a really good bone...but that she also liked to leave it up to the reader's interpretation.
To close out, what is something upcoming that you are looking forward to and would like to promote?
Thank you for sharing your time and thoughts with us, Jessie! I can't express enough how much I love your book, and how much I look forward to any future projects you write!
Jessie has generously offered to do a signed book giveaway! Read below for your chance to win!
To enter this giveaway contest for your chance to win a signed copy of The Remember Balloons, do one of two things:
1. Retweet this post with a comment.
2. Share a comment below AND subscribe to Picture Book Spotlight.
The deadline for this contest is Thursday, March 21st at 9AM CST
The winner will be contacted on Thursday, March 21st and announced on Twitter
ABOUT JESSIE OLIVEROS
Jessie Oliveros grew up watching Kansas sunsets, and she'll always have wild sunflowers and gold-tipped corn fields in her heart. She spent her college-life climbing mountains in Utah and striving for higher vistas. After a fulfilling career as a registered nurse, Jessie hung up her stethoscope to grow children and stories. She loves root beer floats, autumn, and running in the rain. These days you can find her in the Texas hill country with her husband and their four kids.