Author Spotlight: Matt Forrest Esenwine
Happy Tuesday and welcome to Picture Book Spotlight!
Thanks again for all the author and illustrator love for Beth Ferry and Tom Lichtenheld on their newest collaboration. If you happened to miss the post, check it out here. Many congrats to Aimee Larke on winning a copy of Stick and Stone: Best Friends Forever!
Before we move on and jump into today's Author Spotlight, I had some author-heart moments I just HAD to share. Our eldest son, Peter, is going to be three next month. I never imagined how much I'd enjoy the "terrible-twos," but in all honesty, I've cherished my time during this season of his life. Sure, there are lots of frustrations and times when I feel like I'm an abysmal failure of a dad, but we work through it all and I try to learn along the way. Sharing this new chapter of being an author with Peter has been extra special. "Who wrote the Dennis book, Peter?" "YOU did, Daddy!" Stuff like that, even if he doesn't fully understand yet, just melts my heart. Something I didn't expect to experience was hearing him quote lines verbatim from my book without being prompted. The lines are just...in there. This has happened several times at our house over the last few weeks. He was in the tub the other night and started saying, "make a fish face at someone. Fishier! Like the fishiest fish! Well done, little fish..." My heart burst into flames. I hugged him goodnight another night and he said, "give yourself a bear hug. A bigger bear hug! The biggest bear hug in the history of bears!" Hard to put to words exactly what that's like. I suppose I just feel noticed. Extra noticed. Noticed in a way that matters the most. Isn't that what any author wants? Then there was this morning. On the way to daycare, he was doing a read-aloud voiced book (Hello, Ninja. Hello, Georgie) and I said, "Do you like ninja books?" "Yeah!" "Daddy needs to write another ninja book. I wrote one a long time ago but nobody wanted it." And without a beat, Peter replied, "I want it, Daddy."
Then I cried.
So that was my Tuesday morning. It reminded me why I do what I do. I think that small moment between Peter and I was it. I think that's it. To small moments and reminders from people who matter. May you hold on to that as you slog through rejections and deadlines and burnout and frustration and all that sucks life out of what we do. Because our words matter to someone. And doesn't that matter the most? To small moments...
Well then. There's no easy way to pivot out of all that sentimentality...so...here's a quick commercial about a little event I'll be doing this Saturday--I'd love to "see" you there! Youtube Live Link
Now, on to the Spotlight at hand. Today, we have Matt Forrest Esenwine! You might know Matt from some of his other books like:
His newest book, I am Today is illustrated by Patricia Pessoa and published by POW! Kids Books. This lyrical delight comes out January 23rd and would make a perfect gift to any kiddo who needs to be inspired that they, in fact, can do great things and make a difference...today!
There is a giveaway at the end of this post, so be sure to read to the end. Alright, all you eager beavers. Cue the spotlight...
Matt...this book is an absolute delight! Your language and rhythm are laser tight. And the theme is super on point and uplifting. Love, love, love it! Give us the story behind the story. What were some influences and inspirations for I am Today?
Thank you so much, Brian! Like most of my books, my children were the primary influence – particularly my 7-year-old daughter in this case. The kids were remote-schooling due to the pandemic, so once summer came along I was as excited as the kids were to put school behind us, ha! But summer didn’t really feel much different than the school year because, other than the academics, our days were pretty similar; the daily routines were still the same as always, just without schoolwork. I don’t know if that makes sense, but a normal school year has a sort of flow to it, and then summer comes along and it’s a nice break from the routine. In this case, the ‘break’ wasn’t really all that dynamic, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, the point of all this is that towards the end of summer 2020 I realized that many kids, not just my own, felt they had no control over what was happening. Heck, even we adults felt like we had no control over things! And if we were having a tough time with the pandemic, imagine how our kids felt. At least adults understand what’s going on in the world and have coping tools and resources. Kids, as resilient as they are, are still developing and don’t have the means to be able to navigate this new reality and the emotional baggage that comes with it. So I decided I wanted to write something to help empower kids, to help them feel like they are not entirely powerless in the world.
Now this might sound bizarre, but I began brainstorming ideas by attempting to come up with a non-grammatical title. (I know, not exactly something they teach you at writing conferences!) But I figured a non-grammatical title might be poetic and thought-provoking – poetry is all about finding unusual connections and unexpected wordplay, after all – and could likely lead to an attention-getting cover. I thought about it for a while and eventually the phrase, "I am today" popped into my head. I wondered what that phrase might mean, how I could make that phrase understandable. It occurred to me: kids are always being told they are "the Future," but what if a child doesn't want to wait, in order to make a difference in the world? Boom, I had my concept!
Speaking to the craft and poetry you accessed, can you share how this story evolved in terms of the actual final copy? What line came first for you and what were some highlights of the revision process as it settled into its form?
Well, I knew it couldn’t be didactic. I usually detest picture books that place moralizing and instruction above story-telling, so if I was going to write a book with a purpose beyond simply telling a story I was going to need to make sure I didn’t veer off into pedantry.
That said, the story came together fairly quickly. If I recall correctly, the last line of the book was the first line I came up with: “Someday I’ll be the Future…but for now, I am Today.” I knew I wanted the narrative to begin and end similarly, so the first line was next: “Grown-ups say I am the Future, but I’d rather be the Now.” I didn’t want to give away the concept of “I am Today” too quickly, which is why I used “Now” instead. From that point on, the story wrote itself!
What your readers should take note of is the fact that I did not create the plot; I created a narrative, but the plot is all illustrator Patricia Pessoa’s doing. What I mean is, “I Am Today” is a story about a little girl who discovers that sea turtles at her local shoreline are threatened due to pollution, she thinks about what she can do, devises a plan, gets the town to join in, the beach is cleaned up and the turtles are saved, and everyone is happy at the end and the little girl is satisfied knowing she did her part to make the world a better place. The thing is, none of that is my text!
I created what I call a ‘story skeleton’: a loose narrative arc that allows an illustrator like Patricia to tell her story. If you look at just my text, my story begins with a young person wanting to help, understanding what they’ve been taught and how to behave/react, deciding they can do something, gaining confidence, and being content with what they did. There are no turtles, no pollution, no origami. The girl doesn’t even have a name. (There isn’t even a girl, for that matter!) The text I wrote is simply a narrative arc that gives an illustrator wide latitude in coming up with their own story. The only illustrator note I gave was, “a child recognizes an injustice, perhaps a park being torn down or a bully at school, and decides they need to take action.” That was it. And look what we have now!
The thing is, I love creating picture books that require both text and art to work in tandem to tell the entire story. I did this with “Flashlight Night” (Astra Young Readers, 2017) and “Once Upon Another Time” (Beaming Books, 2021), and am doing it again with another very lyrical, non-rhyming picture book I’ll have out either late next year or early 2023. None of these books have a main character, there are no names, there is no Fichtean Curve or Rule of 3s or Freytag’s Pyramid…but there is a narrative structure that leads a reader from a beginning to an end. There’s a fine line between being creatively ambiguous and just being vague, so it does take some finesse to make sure your manuscript has a structure to it – but it can be done! (Creating non-traditional narratives was actually the theme of my presentation in October at LitYoungstown’s Fall Literary Fest)
My favorite line is probably the title, to be honest! I love the phrase, “I Am Today” because it has such an emotional punch. Yes, our children are the Future – but they don’t need to wait, and I hope everyone who reads this will come away with that understanding. My favorite artistic element is the origami turtles, which was an ingenious idea. As I said before, I had no say in what the actual plot was going to involve, and certainly had no idea that origami turtles would be part of the storyline. But they’re so simple and beautiful…and readers get to learn how to create them at the end! As for my favorite spread, it’s got to be the wordless spread where the main character is dreaming – the deep blue of her mind with colorful creatures swimming and swirling about is just mesmerizing.
Illustrations by Patricia Pessoa
Share something that surprised you or that you discovered while making I am Today.
I think what surprised me most was how quickly it came together! I emailed the manuscript to my Don’t Ask a Dinosaur editor, Jordan Neilsen, at 2:30 in the afternoon…and by 4:35 she had emailed back to say how much she loved it and wanted it! Never in my life have I sold a manuscript that fast – in fact, most children’s authors I know haven’t sold a manuscript that fast!
But I was thrilled that she liked what I’d done and that she wanted to fast-track it for this autumn. Keep in mind, I signed the contract the first week of October 2020, and they scheduled the book’s release for the first week of October 2021! (And that would have happened, had we not needed to bump it up to Nov. 30 due to the whole supply chain issue that’s going on in the world) Still, the fact that it’s only taken a mere year for the book to be completed is pretty amazing, considering how slowly this industry moves.
Something I appreciate about your book is its central message of individual empowerment--that you’re never too young to make a difference and share your voice or take action. Why is this a timeless and relevant message for kids today?
Because it’s a message that’s truthful and important. Whether it’s something grand like saving sea turtles or simply standing up for a friend at school, kids need to know that their opinions, words, and actions not only matter, but have weight. What a child does, how they behave, how they react…it makes a difference whether they realize it at the time or not.
Readers, especially young people, enjoying it and relating to it. Like I mentioned earlier, I didn’t want this to be a “message” book that was heavy on didacticism and light on plot; I wanted a book that was enjoyable to read with a story that was compelling. And I think Patricia Pessoa really stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park, as they say in baseball! She took my ‘story skeleton’ and ran with it and helped us create a book that really is greater than the sum of its parts.
Complete the following sentence: “the world needs picture books because…”
…there are people who want to read picture books.”
Is there a better reason? I know it sounds simple, but picture books are an incredibly diverse art form, attracting all sorts of readers and admirers, with a vast array of styles and sub-genres.
Truth be told, it is sad that many folks, young and old, don’t realize the diversity and scope of what picture books are these days – lyrical, rhyming, non-rhyming, quiet, funny, nonfictional, wordless, poetic, meta – I could go on and on! So although they are written for younger audiences, picture books can be enjoyed equally by adults as well, if the adults allow themselves to enter that world.
Finally, how are you celebrating the launch of I am Today and what’s the best way we can champion and support your book?
We have several author visits lined up at various bookstores around the country (some will be local and in-person while many will be virtual), so please find me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and you can find out where I’ll be next! I’m also participating in LitWorld’s World Read Aloud Day once again, and am offering free :15-:20 virtual school minute visits ALL DAY LONG on Wed., Feb. 2. I’ll be featuring “I Am Today” at many of these visits, so I’m eager to hear what the kids think!
Another HUGE way that readers can support their favorite authors is by leaving positive reviews on places like Amazon and Goodreads. People who aren’t in the publishing industry may not think it matters much, but it really does! So even if you’ve read a book at a library that you really enjoyed but can’t afford to purchase… leave a review! Helping a book’s ratings rank or percentage is an easy and really important way you can support writers and illustrators without even needing a wallet.
If you DO happen to have a wallet, I’d encourage you to buy locally – in my case, from MainStreet BookEnds in Warner, NH – because when you place your order, you can request that your book(s) be personally signed! In the “notes” section, just let them know the name(s) of who you’d like the books signed to, they’ll send me an email, I’ll run down and sign the book (the store is literally a 20-minute walk from my house), and they’ll get it in the mail to you pronto, usually within 24 hours!
Thank you so much for sharing your new book with us, Matt!
And thank YOU for stopping by for the read, kidlit fam! If you'd like to keep this book on your radar and help celebrate with Matt, check out his blog tour. As a thank you to our Picture Book Spotlight readers, POW! Kids Books has generously donated a copy of I am Today to raffle off for one winner! See details below on how you can win a copy of this inspirational, poetic delight.
And now for a GIVEAWAY!!!
We're raffling off a copy of I am Today
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***The deadline for this contest is Tuesday, December 7th at 9AM CST
The winner will be contacted on Tuesday, December 7th and announced on Twitter and Facebook***
About Matt Forrest Esenwine
As a former radio broadcaster, I spent a good part of my life writing and producing commercials, comedy bits, and news stories. At various times I was also an event DJ, country dance instructor, news reporter, cook, telemarketer, ice cream scooper, and photography sales dude…and never figured out how to make a living doing any of it.
I also loved poetry - my first published poem was in 1984 when I was still in high school - and over the years I've had numerous adult-oriented poems published in various journals and anthologies including the Donald Hall tribute, "Except for Love (Encircle, 2019). In 2012 my poem, "Apple-Stealing" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and in 2019 I was the recipient of the MacGregor Poetry Prize, coordinated by the Robert Frost Farm board of trustees and Derry (NH) Public Library.
Anyhoo...little did I know all this short-form writing would lead to my debut picture book, "Flashlight Night" (Boyds Mills & Kane, 2017), which received numerous positive reviews including a Kirkus star and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the Best Books for Kids 2017. I now have a dozen books out or under contract, including "Once Upon Another Time" (Beaming Books, 2021), co-authored with my friend, Charles Ghigna (aka, Father Goose®).
Meanwhile, my children’s poetry can be found in anthologies like "The National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry" (National Geographic Children’s Books, 2015), "Night Wishes" (Eerdmans, 2020), and "Construction People" (Wordsong, 2020), the latter of which chosen by Kirkus as one of the Best Picture Books of the Year. Take a gander at all my books here.
Matt lives in New Hampshire with his wife, kids, and more pets than he has fingers, so don’t ask him to count.
This is the story...the story of a bio. A bio so preposterous, so--unnecessary--that you just couldn't stop reading. Not only did it make nonsensical claims about its own existence, but it actually didn't even fulfill the basic function of a bio. It just...didn't. Not even close! In fact, there was zero information about the person it was supposedly about--the person featured in the photo on the left (the one holding the blue book). Yeah, that guy. This bio provided almost negative amounts of useful facts about that guy, and yet you continued to read. Why would you do that? What were you hoping to gain--hoping to find? Some sort of code hidden at the end of a pretend bio that would somehow increase your chances of winning Matt Forrest Esenwine's new book? Who would do such a thing? Who would bury a code deep within the literary tendrils of an almost stream-of-consciousness word salad about, well, nothing!? What was this mystery person, holding a blue book, hoping to gain by removing all biographical information from his biography?! Why couldn't he just be normal and write a standard biography even once in his life?! Why indeed. Some things just can't be explained...some Brians just can't be explained. The emoji code is a cactus. A cactus.
Illustrations by Tom Knight