Author Spotlight: CJ Penko
Happy Monday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!
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Today's Author Spotlight is with CJ Penko. CJ is a picture book author from Ohio currently seeking representation. She has a lot of wisdom and a refreshing, positive outlook on the querying process.
CJ has generously put together a unique giveaway, featuring three new books from her fellow Ohio writers that will probably look pretty familiar to you. CJ is pretty fabulous so make sure to give her a follow and share this post!
Without any further ado, let's jump right in with CJ!
What’s something you absolutely must have in the refrigerator or pantry?
Ovaltine! Go ahead with the Christmas Story quotes. I hear them all the time.
Name three things you can’t do your job without.
1. A quiet place
2. A comfy spot
3. A clean house
At my house. It’s my favorite place in the world. And if it’s a cloudy, rainy or windy day my inspiration goes through the roof!
Tell us a little about yourself and your journey into writing and kid lit. Why picture books?
I’m a stay-at-home mom from Cleveland with a six-year-old son who constantly makes fun of me, and a husband who wants to kill one of my cats. (To be fair, one of my cats is really, really horrible.) I consider myself to be an extremely boring person - and I love it! If the weather is gloomy, I have nothing to do, and there’s an animal around me, I’m happy.
There really wasn’t a journey into writing for me. One day I just tried doing it. It was almost by accident. I was inspired by my son, and I wrote a story. And if I was going to write anything, it was always going to be a picture book. I love everything about them. But my favorite picture books are the ones that make adults get loud and silly when they read them aloud. I’ve never met a kid who didn’t love seeing that!
Give us a day in your life. As a busy mom (with another in the oven!), how do you foster a sense of work-life balance? When do you have time to write?!
I’m actually incredibly fortunate. I write constantly. As soon as I get my son off to school, I start writing. And since I’m a homebody, I will almost always pick writing over doing anything else during the day. In fact, I’ve mastered all the best excuses to convince myself and my husband why I can’t go grocery shopping or cook dinner, just so I can keep writing. About once a week I go to the library so I can gradually destroy my back carrying a bag full of 100 picture books out to my car, but other than that, and the occasional school volunteering, I’m at my house writing. And if I’m not writing something new, I’m editing, revising, researching, or critiquing. Like I said, I’m very fortunate.
My first submission was to 6 big name publishing houses about 5 years ago. This was before I knew anything about this industry. The manuscript was the first story I ever wrote titled, A WIZARD IN MY ROOM. It was about a kid who can’t figure out how his toys and clothes are getting magically cleaned up when he leaves the room.
The story was inspired by my son. He was one year old at the time, and I remember him walking into our living room (after JUST being in there) and noticing the toys he was just playing with were all put away. He had this hilarious, perplexed look on his face as he tried to figure out what happened to them. And for some reason, I started to write a story about it. I had no plan to start writing, so I have no clue why I felt inspired to start then, but I’m so glad I did. I spent a couple days writing it, four months editing it, and then I sent it to the publishing houses. After all my rejections came through, I started a new story. And I haven’t stopped writing since.
My first rejection came from one of the publishing houses I just mentioned. I can’t remember which one, but it was one of the most exciting days of my life! I remember getting a letter (FROM A BIG PUBLISHING COMPANY!!) explaining that my story wasn’t a good fit for them. I was ecstatic that a publishing company took the time to contact me! It’s really what made me write my next story. I think I just wanted the rush of another rejection!!
What’s something you do to stay positive and moving forward in the face of rejection?
I think I take rejection better than a lot of people, and that’s probably because of my first experiences with it. I just don’t let it bother me. I really love my stories. I love that I get to do this, and I feel so lucky that I can. I truly believe that I’m going to be published– but that’s not what drives me. I LOVE WRITING STORIES. And once you learn to just have fun, rejection doesn’t seem to matter that much. Worst case scenario: I don’t get published in my lifetime. But my gosh, I had fun trying! And I created something that didn’t exist before me! How lucky are we as writers that we get to say that!?
The more I write the more I see the importance of revision. What is your revision process like?
NEVERENDING. I always think my manuscripts can be better. I really don’t have a process for revision, I just revise and edit constantly. If I’m not writing something new, I usually have 3 or 4 manuscripts out that I bounce back and forth revising. When I get frustrated with one, I move on to the next one. Sometimes I’ll edit them directly on my laptop, other times I print them out and edit them by hand. Reading them both on screen and on paper seems to be the key for me. I notice more problems that way.
Something I appreciate about you is that you’re consistently promoting picture books and other authors and illustrators. You read a lot! I know that has to make a difference--maybe even gives you a competitive edge or inspires new ideas? What has this practice taught you? Why is it an important part of your social media engagement?
I love reading to my son before bed, so I was reading that many books before I even started writing. But after I did start, I quickly realized it was research too. I can’t stress enough how beneficial it is to read a lot in the genre you write in. Not only does it inspire ideas, but I’ve learned about the different styles of picture books, different ways to use language, what the current trends in the market are, how to establish voice in my manuscripts, what makes a memorable character, and really, it’s how I found my own voice and style.
After a few years of writing I got serious about establishing my writer platform. I’ve never had any social media presence, so I was clueless about how I was going to do this. The only thing I knew was that I read more picture books than anyone else I know, and I thought maybe I could use that somehow.
So, in February 2018, I took the plunge, got on Twitter, and my very first follower was Karma Wilson! And she didn’t just follow me, but we had a conversation! I don’t think I slept that night. I was freaking out that I had just connected with such a fantastic author whose work I admired so much. That was definitely the confidence booster I needed. If Karma Wilson thought I was good enough to follow, then I would have to prove her right. I decided to use my platform to promote as many picture books, authors and illustrators that I possibly could. And the knowledge and connections I’ve made from doing that is probably the most important thing I’ve done for my writing career. It jump-started everything. In fact, I’m doing this interview right now because of it.
Let’s talk about your work. Describe your style or voice as a picture book writer. Any writers who come to mind that you strive to echo in terms of tone or personality?
I write a lot of dialogue-only stories full of characters with big personalities. I sometimes think of my mind as the place where tortured characters are born. A lot of them are grumpy, annoyed or even beat up at times. They’re usually offset by other cute, hopelessly optimistic characters. And I love a twist ending. In terms of voice, they tend to be loud, expressive, and fun to read aloud. Stories like that just flow out of me. I have other stories as well, but my go-to style is definitely humorous, character-driven stories. And Ross Burach, Jory John, Dev Petty, Jan Thomas, Ryan T. Higgins, and David Ezra Stein have had a huge influence on the way I write.
PENCIL PROBLEMS. It’s about a pencil that’s pretty much tortured by a little kid just learning how to write properly. It’s loud, fast-paced, action-packed and full of very expressive dialogue. I LOVE IT. I can’t read this story without cracking up at certain parts. My husband thinks it’s crazy that I still laugh out loud at my own manuscript after reading it so many times, but I think it’s hilarious. I absolutely love Pencil’s personality, and I’m convinced somebody else will love it too. But I love all my stories. I have way too many ideas I’m excited about to concentrate on the ones that I’m not. I constantly have an anxious “I need to write this” feeling when I’m working on my stories and that’s because I’m so excited about them.
I really dig your website! It’s clean, professional, and kid lit friendly (the eraser and pencil are a fun element!). You share writer resources, a little about your manuscripts, and about you. What was the inspiration for the site and why is it important to have this established prior to publication?
Thank you! I had a really boring website before this one and I wanted a site that showcased my writing style a little more. To me, if an agent (or anyone) stops by my site, I want them to have an idea of how I write just by looking at it. That’s how Pencil and Eraser came in. I needed something to help get the point across that my character’s personalities are a huge part of my writing.
I definitely think there’s an advantage to having a website prior to publication. It may not be a deal-breaker, but if I were an agent, I would want to see one. If nothing else, it tells them I’m serious about my writing career. And if I can make them smile (or even laugh!) while they’re on my site, that can’t hurt either!
What are some picture books published recently that have inspired you or had you laughing out loud?
There are too many to list, but these 3 books are beyond important to me:
AYOBAMI AND THE NAMES OF THE ANIMALS by Pilar Lopez Avila & Mar Azabal
THE ROOSTER WHO WOULD NOT BE QUIET! by Carmen Agra Deedy
LITTLE BOT AND SPARROW by Jake Parker
And some laugh-out-loud books that have inspired me:
BE QUIET by Ryan T. Higgins
THE VERY IMPATIENT CATERPILLAR by Ross Burach
INTERRUPTING CHICKEN by David Ezra Stein
THE OTHER DUCKS by Ellen Yeomans & Chris Sheban
How has becoming a member of SCBWI added value to your author life?
SCBWI is just awesome. The biggest value I’ve found from them are the conferences. Being able to go to conferences and meet authors, illustrators, agents, editors, and other industry professionals has been AMAZING. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I’ve learned from doing this. On top of that, I’ve found almost all my critique partners from conferences. And the value that has added to my author life cannot be overstated.
Spreadsheets. I have spreadsheets coming out of my ears. It’s how I keep track of everything: submissions, contests, stories I need to edit/revise, stories I want to work on next, Twitter events/chats/pitches, etc. If you don’t like spreadsheets, just find somewhere to write everything down. But whatever you do, don’t trust your head to remember it all. And stay organized. One of the reasons I’m able to write all the time is because I’m so organized. Even if I have just a few minutes of free time, I know I can jump on my laptop and work on something. I know where everything is, and what I need to do next, which means I can utilize every spare minute I have. You wouldn’t believe how much work you can get done in short bursts of time. But it would never work if I wasn’t as organized as I am.
Are you in a critique group? If so, how does your group swap manuscripts? What role does the critique process play for your work?
I have a critique group, and I also have critique partners. My group meets in person once a month, and we swap manuscripts by email all the time. My critique partners only communicate via email, but we also swap manuscripts whenever we need to.
Then, I have a critique partner who’s really more of a mentor. He’s an incredibly talented writer, and he’s much farther along in his writing career than I am. In fact, he has a book coming out next year, and I considerate myself so fortunate that I get to learn from him, especially at this point in his career. I just started meeting with him every month or so, but I send him my manuscripts whenever I need to as well.
I can’t stress how important these people are to my writing. I would be lost without them. They are absolutely crucial.
I think the best piece of advice I can give is to have fun. If you’re genuinely having fun, it will be noticeable in your writing. Plus, you won’t feel as bad when you get a rejection. Don’t forget: just because it’s not published doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. You created something that wasn’t there before you. Be extremely proud of that. Have fun and just keep writing.
When you think about yourself as a successful author, what image comes to mind?
Me, old and gray, still writing. That’s all I want. I never want to stop. As long as life is kind enough to allow me that, I’ll consider myself a success.
Anything coming up that you are looking forward to and would like to promote?
Not personally, BUT…
*Look for Michael J. Armstrong’s picture book debut: BEST DAY EVER! coming out in the spring of 2020 by Sterling Publishing. Website: https://www.michaeljarmstrongbooks.com/
*Support these incredible authors from Ohio by getting a copy of their brand-new books!
UNDERWEAR! By Jenn Harney