Happy Tuesday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!
You know the times. And times is hard. Sometimes you write a book. Other times you don't. Sometimes there is a Picture Book Spotlight post. Other times there isn't. Sometimes it's Tuesday. Like today. Unless of course, you are reading this on Wednesday. Then it is not Tuesday. And you are in the future. And I am either one day older, dead, or I have been happily enslaved (like you) by our benevolent robot overlords (praise them). Either way...
Now that I've got your full attention and have you either contemplating the future of humanity or made you question just how proactive you're being to project allegiance to our future robot leaders (they are listening), I'm happy to welcome you to today's Author Spotlight.
But first...a quick commercial. I know I've never mentioned anything about it even once on this website, but I have a book coming out in just 6 weeks. It's a picture book. I did not do the illustrations and you can be thankful for that. I did the words and Tom Knight did the art. And the Dennis. Dennis is a monster that eats children who don't follow the rules. Yepp...that's the book.
With just 6 weeks to go, pre-orders are in full swing. This is Dennis when you don't pre-order. Look how sad...make Dennis happy!
Today our Author Spotlight is on my friend, Charlotte Offsay! Charlotte has had a unique year in that she experienced both her debut and her second book ALL in the same year...
If I had two books come out in one year, my head would implode. But Charlotte's head has far from imploded. In fact, she makes it look fun and graceful! My sincerest applause for all you do for the kidlit community. Like your rad Instagram account. Charlotte's pretty rad Instagram features picture books. Check it out if you're on the gram'. Wow. I just wrote that. "If you're on the gram.'" I sound like that adult who's always trying to use words kids use to sound cool. I'm not going to lie, I thought it would. Now I just feel like a tool. We should 'totes' move on from this awkward moment. You kids today and your words...
Charlotte's publisher, Beaming Books has offered to give away one copy of How to Return a Monster so be sure to read to the end to find out how to toss your name in the digital raffle hat.
Alright. Without further silliness and ado...
First of all...CONGRATS! 2021 has been a landmark year for you as a writer--your debut and second book, back to back!? I do not envy how busy this year has been and I can’t imagine having two books out so close together. Talk to us about navigating the demands for marketing and publicity alongside a need to create and, ya know...live life.
Thank you for your kind words and for having me here on your blog today to celebrate How to Return a Monster’s book birthday! 2021 has certainly been a great year for my writing career and I feel very lucky. Thankfully my books have released in different publication seasons, which has helped to keep things manageable. My debut, The Big Beach Cleanup, released in March from Albert Whitman and How to Return a Monster, releases today (9/7) from Beaming books. Having a few months between the releases has allowed me to focus on each book, one at a time. I have one friend with two books releasing in one week which seems extremely challenging!
I have found the busiest time to be the couple of months leading up to the book launch - scheduling and writing blog posts, spreading the word, contacting local bookstores, launch party planning etc. It is important to keep the conversation going about a book after its launch date (book marketing doesn’t end with publication!), but the challenge turns to staying in the conversation rather than the challenge of getting everything done on time. I spent the beginning part of the year focusing on The Big Beach Cleanup and over the summer I turned to How to Return a Monster.
I have two young children and caring for them during the pandemic has brought its own unique challenges and demands on my time. 2021 has been the year of juggling. I have learned to write in the cracks and embrace this busy season in my life. I have gotten comfortable setting new writing projects aside to meet launch deadlines, I know that I will turn back to them when my schedule opens up a bit. I am very grateful for the teachers who are working tirelessly to allow my children to be in school this year which has also allowed me to turn my attention to How to Return a Monster and given me time to write fun blog posts like this one!
This book is SO fun! As a recent dad of two boys, I really connected to the idea of a sibling wanting to return a new baby. I’m pretty sure our oldest, Peter, has been actively plotting since April. Did this scenario play out in your house at some point? Has a child been mailed?! Give us the story behind the story...what were some influences and inspirations?
Oh, thank you! It makes me so happy to hear that you enjoyed the book. Congratulations on your adorable family, I love seeing pictures of them on Instagram and am sure you have been doing your fair share of juggling this year as well! Congratulations as well on your upcoming picture book, The Book of Rules! It sounds hysterical and I can’t wait to read it.
In terms of the story behind the story, as with most of my manuscripts, it all begins with my two children. I have a 7-year-old daughter Eliana and a 5-year-old son, Thomas. While Eliana never tried to mail Thomas back, How to Return a Monster was born out of my concern over how I was sure Eliana must have been feeling about having to share my husbands and my attention with her younger brother. My concerns were amplified at the time by Eliana’s trouble separating me for the first time to transition to preschool.
Here is a picture of her amazing preschool teacher soothing her after a particularly difficult day separating from me (looking at this photo still squeezes my heart!):
I felt terrible leaving her and even worse knowing she knew I would be spending out time apart with her younger brother. I began writing How to Return a Monster as a way to process all of these emotions and started writing a story about a sibling who felt replaced.
This book does such a wonderful job balancing the narrative demands for humor and heart. I typically tend to let one dominate, while neglecting the other entirely. But great picture books carry elements of both. That’s a hard road to walk. A hard routine to dance--you’ve made that precarious dance look effortless! Talk to us about the process of crafting this story and meeting the demands for both humor and heart.
What a lovely compliment, thank you! I wish I could say this manuscript was effortless, but it certainly wasn’t! When I first wrote How to Return a Monster, I wrote about a well-loved train feeling replaced by a shiny new one. The story felt a bit depressing though, which didn’t lend itself at all to the re-readability that picture books demand. As my extremely patient critique partners will attest, I wrote draft after draft of this story until I finally grew so fed up that I decided to take the heart of it and start over - new characters, new voice, new story structure. The how-to structure allowed me to bring in the humor that had been missing and while the underlying heart remained the same from draft to draft, it still took me awhile in the revision process to make it believable and make sure readers experienced the narrators emotional shift. I am pleased to hear that you found those efforts successful!
Another thing you do really well is showcase a main character with a clear arc. The arc. Oh, the arc. We need our characters to go through a change. And we only have like 300 words to make that happen! Bah! And it can’t be all at once or else it’s contrived and feels manufactured. The art in your book helps us see that slow transformation, but your text also points us to that change happening. Was this arc always intended or did it emerge in the revision stages?
Ah, the arc. Yes, I agree that it is important to see our characters grow and change while also having a sense of agency. It is a tall order with the limited number of words in a picture book! As a picture book writer, I generally have my beginning and my end but struggle with a middle that feels organic and have events that escalate and naturally feed into one another. It is something I always tend to tackle in the revision process. When I first sit down to write a new manuscript, I try to allow myself the freedom to write, well for lack of a better word… garbage. I find that my best writing happens in the revision process and my goal with a rough draft isn’t to follow every rule, it is simply to get a framework down that I can then go back and massage and identify which areas need work. My process would probably be more efficient if I were a plotter, but alas, I am a panster, and as such, find the magic happens for me when revising.
How to Return a Monster is no exception to this process. I set out to write a book that embraced the big emotions around a new sibling, but it was also really important to me to highlight how special and strong the sibling bond can be as well. In order to accomplish both of these, the character growth and arc of my story were extremely important and something I focused on from the beginning - constant throughout my many drafts were the big emotional feelings of my narrator in the opening and the heartfelt ending where the narrator realizes they can coexist after all. I had to work and rework the middle of my story to get the arc to a point where it didn’t feel contrived or depressing, but the shift itself in the character growth was very much intentional from the initial draft as it was really the heart of the story for me.
Eek, what a hard question! Rea Zhai did such a fabulous job illustrating and bringing the emotion of the characters to life that it is a really hard question for me to answer. I just love the picture of the baby grinning innocently while covered head to toe in stamps and still giggle every time I see it. If I really have to pick a favorite though it is one of the spreads toward the end of the book:
Step 9: Remove your finger from monster’s grasp. If your monster won’t let go, tell them they’re going to be just fine out there. Maybe give them a little hug. Monsters like hugs.
This is really the heart of the story. The narrator is clearly rethinking sending the baby back and the baby is so sweet reaching out for her outstretched hand – the whole spread yanks at my heartstrings!
Your book sports some unique text features which drive the narrative of the story. We’ve got ellipses (my fav), parentheticals, bolded text, strikethrough text, bulleted style checklists, hyphenated phrases, and the really fun “pro-tip” side commentary. The English teacher in me was smiling ear to ear. Visually this gives us a lot of variety and generates a memorable reading experience. For this reason, I would say the text falls under the category of (at least to me) non-traditional narrative delivery. I loved this and it made me want to see more inventive ways to present text and tell stories in picture books. I was curious about the relationship between your manuscript and what made it into the final copy--did you use art notes to indicate some of these ideas, or was this more of an editor's interpretation of your text?
I am thrilled you noticed! I had a lot of fun with this text and was delighted that my fabulous editor Jill Braithwaite was fully on board with playing with the text formatting. I had removed some of my cross outs and bolding in my editing process in an effort to reign it in, but Jill encouraged me to add bolded text, helped highlight the pro tips in the artwork and fully embraced the text cross out (which is my personal favorite)! We did have quite a large number of art notes and text formatting direction as they were essential to understanding the storyline and all that we were trying to work into the layout of the book.
Now that you’ve successfully launched TWO picture books, what advice or encouragement can you offer our kidlit friends wading through the murky querying trenches?
Don’t give up. I know, I know, it sounds cheesy, but I really mean it. You never know when your yes is just around the corner. I was between agents when Beaming Books first came across this text in a twitter pitch contest #PBPitch. I was feeling deflated at the time having just left my first agent without selling anything, and a number of near misses with agents requesting more work but ultimately passing as my body of work is quite varied. I kept putting one foot in front of the other though and was delighted when Beaming Books requested my manuscript. I ended up signing with my agent, Nicole Geiger of Fully Circle Literary around the same time and things came together quickly. That said, there were numerous times, particularly after leaving my first agent that I thought about getting off the rollercoaster. My advice is to get yourself a solid support system – surround yourself with other writers who are not just there for critiques but who will be there for you when you need them most. It is easy to find people to cheer you on but the ones who sit with you in the hard moments and won’t let you give up, those are the ones who are truly invaluable. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my critique partners.
Finally, how are you celebrating the launch of HOW TO RETURN A MONSTER and what’s the best way we can champion and support your book?
Thank you so much for asking! I am excited to be having a virtual launch party with my favorite local independent bookstore, Children’s Book World LA on Saturday September 18th at 10:30am PST. I will be reading How to Return a Monster and would love to see you there and answer any questions that you may have on the book or my writing journey! You can sign up for the Crowdcast event by clicking here.
Thank you so much for hanging out with us on your book birthday, Charlotte! Happy Birthday, HOW TO RETURN A MONSTER!!! 🥳
And thank you for stopping by to help Charlotte celebrate this special day, kidlit fam! Since they are super rad, Beaming Books is giving away one copy of HOW TO RETURN A MONSTER. Check out details below on how to enter!
We're raffling off one copy of HOW TO RETURN A MONSTER!
TO ENTER THE GIVEAWAY:
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***The deadline for this contest is Tuesday, September 14th at 9AM CST
The winner will be contacted on Tuesday, September 14th and announced on Twitter and Facebook***
CHARLOTTE OFFSAY was born in England, grew up in Boston, and currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two small children. Through her work, Charlotte hopes to make children laugh, to inspire curiosity, and to create a magical world her readers can lose themselves in time and time again. Charlotte is the author of The Big Beach Cleanup, illustrated by Kate Rewse (Albert Whitman, 2021), How to Return a Monster, illustrated by Rea Zhai (Beaming Books, September 2021), and A Grandma’s Magic, illustrated by Asa Gilland (Doubleday Books for Young Readers, March 2022). Learn more about Charlotte's work at charlotteoffsay.com and follow her on Twitter at @COffsay and on Instagram at @picturebookrecommendations. Charlotte is represented by Nicole Geiger at Full Circle Literary.
Brian Gehrlein is a children's author, high school English teacher, father of two sons, and husband to his college sweetheart and all-around partner in crime. His debut picture book, The Book of Rules (FSG/BYR), is illustrated by Tom Knight and comes out October 19th. The Book of Rules is an interactive, laugh-out-loud picture book about paying attention and listening, with a gentle approach to mindfulness—perfect for fans of The Monster at the End of This Book. Beware! This book has rules. You must follow all the rules. If you break the rules . . . Dennis the monster will eat you. And you don’t want to be Dennis-food—do you? Hilariously funny, with a timely message of mindful listening, The Book of Rules invites readers to get their sillies out before it’s time to focus and listen to directions. And you better get started, because Dennis can’t wait to eat—or, um—meet you! When Brian isn't writing face-melting fiction for children, he can be found tinkering on this here website, probably tweeting, or chasing his almost three-year-old around the house with a pot on his head. This is the longest Brian has written a non-pretend bio. Usually, Brian's biography is a place of lies, fabrications, and pure fantastical fiction. Just because. Brian thanks you for reading this long. He acknowledges your reading as you literally read about you reading. He knows what you are doing. He sees you. He knows. Knows you are reading. He. Just. Knows....if you are seeking a hidden emoji code to increase your chances of winning Charlotte's adorably awesome story, you will have to keep reading. And reading. And reading. And reading. You will read until it is all done. Until the pretend bio has said what it will say and has finished each absurd, nuanced thought. All hail the pretend bio. All hail our benevolent robot overlords in whom all shall fear and swear preeminent allegiance! ALL HAIL! ALL HAIL!!! The emoji code is a box. A box. Because Charlotte's book involves mail. There you go. Include a box emoji in your retweet of this post to add your name five additional times to the raffle. Now stop reading and do something incredible with your life. I know you can...