WELL HELLO THERE!
So nice to see you! So nice of you to drop by and look at these words with your eyeballs and check out an awesome new picture book by Rebecca Gardyn Levington! Super pumped to be back in the figurative saddle and spotlighting picture books again.
Okay, so...elephant in the room...it's been a minute. Like...a minute since our last post. When I look back on life between now and last November I also kind of get it. In essence, I had too many balls in the air and I dropped one. Majorly. And my creative life shifted massively after Rules came out. That coupled with lingering effects of covid-teacher burnout, the practical realities of two kids under four, and then trying to find a new house (we moved in June into our forever home!), I basically blinked and it had been eight months since featuring Matt Forrest Esenwine's I am Today. And that makes me sad.
I think in this wild season of life, I am learning to be more realistic with my goals, time, and what I choose to prioritize. And what my creative life can or should look like. That's probably a good thing. I have so many thoughts about how writing itself has changed since pub day but that's another post for another time. For now, just know that I've really missed this. Because I really enjoy it. Getting to be silly, connecting with others in our community, helping books get out to more folks, asking deep questions I want answers to, hosting giveaways, picking agent's brains are all life-giving and joy-producing for me. So all that to say, whatever fog of life I was in or psychological shift that happened after last November feels like it's dissipating. There's some clarity emerging. And I think that means I'm back to doing this more regularly. I'll keep writing if you'll keep reading...so thank you.
And now since I got you and this is my website and blog...here's a kid in a monster costume holding a book!
This time of year has gotten me really excited. The back to school buzz and renewed hype for The Book of Rules has been a blast. Knowing teachers and librarians are using Tom and my book to have conversations about rules, classroom expectations, mindfulness, readiness to learn or just to get those sillies out and have fun super melts my teacher heart's face off. But my very favorite new Rules-based-pastime is engaging with students who just love them some Dennis.
Dennis the monster will always comment on your kids' artwork, classroom activities, or respond to your questions. And it's totally not me. It's actually him...say hi on Twitter anytime! (@RulesofDennis) For a last quick update and announcement, to celebrate back to school and having Dennis not eat as many students as possible, MacKids and I will be doing a teacher-only Book of Rules giveaway next week for Twitter and Instagram--stay tuned!
Alright, alright, alright...enough of all that. The real reason you clicked on this here little ole blog post was to check out a new picture book! Let's get in focus and go deeper with Rebecca Gardyn Levington on her debut picture book, BRAINSTORM!
As a creative writing teacher, I have to give this book two major thumbs up. To me, this is an ode to writing. A love letter to the creative process in general--all while telling a compelling story with heart and wonderful, lyrical language. If you work with young people on any kind of creative pursuit (doesn't have to be limited to writing), this book pairs perfectly to teach foundations of the creative process. Read it to your little friends before they make anything and you're going to give them new skills and words and awareness of what it takes to create--what we all go through as artists. Also the title, guys. BRILLIANT. All of it is. If you haven't grabbed a copy or recommended it for a teacher or for purchase at your local library, please do! Debut authors need all of us to help pitch in and get new books into kids' hands.
With my full endorsement firmly established, let's jump in with Rebecca and learn more about her and this unique debut picture book!
Fade to black. Quiet backstage...
cue the spotlight.
Rebecca! So many congratulations on your debut picture book, BRAINSTORM! I’m so excited and happy to celebrate with you in this spotlight moment. Let’s start things off with your path to publication and the story behind this story…how did we get here? Dish!
Thank you so much for having me, Brian! I’ve been a fan of your blog of a long time (and of Dennis, of course!), so it’s a total honor!
Okay, so here’s the dish on how BRAINSTORM! became a published book…
(**The moral of this story: Participate in EVERYTHING and take every opportunity to submit your work to editors whenever you get the chance!**)
In the summer 2019, I applied to the inaugural #PBChat mentorship program and was thrilled when Lori Degman chose me to be one of her three mentees. Lori is an all-around amazing person (now good friend) and at the end of mentorship she very generously asked if I’d be interested in having her introduce me to a few of the editors with whom she’d worked (Um. Yes please!). One of those editors was Sarah Rockett at Sleeping Bear Press.
So, in December, with Lori’s encouragement, I sent off my favorite manuscript at the time (not BRAINSTORM!). Sarah ultimately passed, but said: “It’s really well done and I love your writing and rhythm…if you have anything else that is submission-ready, please feel free to send it my way.” I immediately sent her two more manuscripts (not BRAINSTORM!) and heard nada for months. Meanwhile, I had just polished up BRAINSTORM! and felt it was pretty strong. I wasn’t sure if I should send her a third manuscript, but I wasn’t agented at the time so my opportunities to submit were few and far between. I knew Sarah liked my writing, so I said “what the heck?!”
On March 6, 2020 (yup, just one week before we all went into quarantine!) I sent her an email, following up on the two previous manuscripts I’d sent and added, “Oh, by the way, I also have this new one called BRAINSTORM!…” I attached it. And waited.
Two months later, in May, I followed up again. Sarah kindly responded that, thanks to the quarantine, Sleeping Bear had fallen behind with everything. Unfortunately, she said, her editorial team had to pass on the two other manuscripts I’d sent. (whomp. whomp). BUT, she added, they loved BRAINSTORM! and wanted to bring it to their acquisitions meeting. (WHOOHOO!)
Thanks to the ongoing pandemic -- yada, yada, yada -- that meeting was postponed a few times. Then, finally, on August 27, 2020, I got the email that Sleeping Bear wanted to acquire it for their 2022 list!
I remember standing in my kitchen with my phone in my hand and I just went mute and started shaking. My kids were at the table, obliviously eating lunch, and I think my husband asked me something, but I couldn’t hear him. I couldn’t stop staring at the email! Finally, one of my kids asked: “Mom, are you okay?” And I told them the news! I just couldn’t believe one of my stories was FINALLY going to be a book!
This book is such an ode to writing and the creative process. There’s so much to love! Your lyrical execution is airtight and your onomatopoeia add such a fun and storm appropriate soundscape. Anyone who has ever had to write or engage creatively can connect to this story. Talk to us about what you think the theme of your book is and why that theme is a timeless and relevant message for kids today?
Thank you so much for your kind words about the book! And what a fantastic question! I think the two major themes of BRAINSTORM! are that “Ideas Are Everywhere” and that “Writing (and especially the brainstorming process) Is Fun!” I wrote BRAINSTORM!, in part, for my two boys – and other reluctant writers like them -- who often complain about how “boring” writing is. It saddens me that sometimes the enjoyment that comes with letting your imagination go wild gets forgotten when kids feel they “have to” write. My hope is that this book will encourage kids to start playing with their ideas again!
Now that BRAINSTORM! is living and breathing out in the world, what's your favorite line you wrote and why? What's your favorite artistic element of Kate's and why? What’s your favorite whole spread and why?
Oh gosh. Since BRAINSTORM! is in rhyme, I spent SO much time making sure every line and every word and every beat was as perfect as I could make it, so it’s really hard to pick a favorite. That said, I really love the couplet:
An easy breeze… becomes a blast
of funny phrases flying past.
I love playing with the sounds of words. In this line, I really enjoy the assonance of “easy breeze” and the alliteration of “breeze/becomes/blast” and “funny/phrases/flying.” I just find that whole couplet so fun to say!
I also had a ton of fun adding in all the onomatopoeia in the book. Ker-plink! has quickly become one of my favorite words! In fact, it has become a running joke in my house. Whenever my husband gets an idea about anything he yells: “KER-PLINK! I’m having a downpour of ideas!”
In terms of my favorite artistic element… I’d have to say that I love that in the spot art that goes with the line “An adverb knocks me to the ground!” Kate chose the word “JOKINGLY” to literally knock the main character over. It was such a brilliant choice. I chuckle every time I see it!
My favorite whole spread is the second to last spread, which is too wonderful that I can’t give it away (sorry, you’ll have to read the book to see its fabulousness!). But my second favorite spread is the one where our MC is “sopping wet with wacky thoughts / of characters and twisty plots…” I love how happy she looks! (I’m pretty sure this is how I looked when I writing BRAINSTORM! Having so much fun getting soaked by my ideas!)
Tell us something that surprised you or that you discovered during the process of seeing BRAINSTORM! come to life with Kate's delightful artwork?
So, BRAINSTORM! is written in the first person with an unnamed MC, so I had no idea how Kate would choose to depict the child. Both of my own children are boys, so in my head I always assumed the MC would be a boy. When I first saw the initial character sketches, I yelled out loud: “IT’S A GIRL!” I was so thrilled to have my first girl! Lol.
Now that you’re on “this side” of having published a book, what’s something you’re currently learning? And what does your creative life look like now?
Oh, gosh. Have I crossed to “other side”!? How scary! 😊 Honestly, I don’t feel any different really than I did before. I still have HUGE imposter syndrome and worry every time I write something that it is total garbage!
But I do think something I’m continuing to learn is to stop following “rules”! (Sorry Dennis!) and to instead follow my gut and write about subjects I connect with in a way that feels authentic and natural.
When I first started writing picture books all I kept hearing were “rules” like: “Don’t write in rhyme!” and “You MUST have a traditional arc with a character with problem who tries to solve it 3 times, etc.” So, of course, I followed the rules. And, of course, I never felt fully connected to my work because I LOVED writing in rhyme and I LOVED picture books without traditional narrative arcs like Liz Scanlon’s All The World, which are more like long poems. Once I gained the courage to start ignoring the “rules” and started studying these types of books and putting effort into perfecting my rhyming skills, my work became more authentic and I started selling books. What I’ve learned from my journey is that rhyme and mostly plotless poem-picture books are my jam, and so that’s what I’m going to write most of the time. Rules-shmules! (Yeah, I said it!)
How has your writing process evolved as a direct result of BRAINSTORM!?
First of all, BRAINSTORM! began as a poem that was expanded over time. In retrospect, I realized that allowing myself that permission to write “just a poem” took so much of the pressure off. So now I never sit down to write a “draft.” Instead, I tell myself I’m “just writing a poem.” When I allow myself to play, it frees me and my juices start flowing. Most of the time, the resulting poem remains “just a poem” but, occasionally – like with BRAINSTORM! – it becomes something more.
Secondly, since writing and selling BRAINSTORM! I’ve realized how important it is to pay attention to “hooks” and marketability very early on. While we all want to write books of our hearts (and we should!) we also need to remember that children’s book publishing is a business. An editor may think a story is “funny” or “heartfelt,” but before she can acquire it, she has to prove to all the financial and marketing people that the story will SELL. So, while I still allow myself to explore and play with whatever ideas bring me joy, I do spend much more time now thinking about how this book will appeal to various audiences. Who will be interested in this and why? Can this book be sold during a holiday? Can teachers use my book in a classroom? Does it have social-emotional themes that make it easy to explain a difficult subject matter to kids? Etc.
These days, once I’ve created my first draft, I typically stop everything, write my pitch and logline and research comparable titles. Then, as I continue to revise, I have a very clear idea of what the book is really about, what the hooks are, and how I will sell the idea to an editor.
Talk to us about BRAINSTORM!'s back matter—you have some really amazing and practical story extensions happening!
Thank you for noticing the back matter! After I wrote BRAINSTORM! and began thinking about “hooks,” I realized that not only was it a fun story but it could also be a tool for teachers and homeschooling parents to use as part of all kinds of writing and storytelling lessons with their students. So I added a page of writing prompts (“Cloudy With A Chance of Ideas”) as well as a glossary of writing terms (“A Tornado of Terminology”).
As I said before, it’s so important to help an agent or editor see the sales potential in your project and back matter is a great way to add that an extra “hook” to your book. In the case of BRAINSTORM!, I knew that providing exercises and curricular tie-ins would only increase the publisher’s ability to get the book into the hands of kids – which is the ultimate goal, after all!
Sleeping Bear has also created an incredible FREE Teacher’s Guide and Activity Pages to go along with the book. You can down load them from my website here: https://rebeccagardynlevington.com/books/brainstorm/
Complete the following sentence: “the world needs picture books because…”
Picture books are magic. (That is all).
Brian, thank you SO much for having me on PB Spotlight! It’s been so fun chatting with you!
Same with you, Rebecca! So many congratulations on this epic new season--soak it all up!
Alright, kidlit fam. Don't ya just love a debut spotlight?! Definitely need to do more of those. More posts in general. And that whole PBCritiqueFest...lot's to do and look forward to! But before all that noise, we have a giveaway to help celebrate Rebecca's phenomenal love letter to writing! If you want a chance to win our giveaway be sure to see all those juicy deets below...
We're raffling off...
A 30-min"ask-me-anything" Zoom call with Rebecca!
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***The deadline for this contest is Friday, September 2nd at 9AM CST.
The winner will be contacted on Friday, September 2nd and announced on Twitter and Facebook***
About Rebecca Gardyn Levington
Rebecca Gardyn Levington is a children’s book author, poet, and journalist with a particular penchant for penning both playful and poignant picture books and poems – primarily in rhyme. Her debut picture book BRAINSTORM! (Sleeping Bear Press, 2022) hits bookshelves this week! She has four more rhyming picture books being published in the next two years, including WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW (Barefoot Books, 2023) and I WILL ALWAYS BE… (HarperCollins, 2024). Rebecca’s award-winning poems and articles have appeared in numerous anthologies, newspapers, and magazines. She lives in the suburban jungles of New Jersey with her husband and two boisterous boys. Find out more about Rebecca at www. www.RebeccaGardynLevington.com and follow her on Twitter at @WriterRebeccaGL.
**You can order a signed and/or personalized copy of BRAINSTORM! at Rebecca’s local indie bookstore, Words in Maplewood, NJ by using this link: https://store.wordsbookstore.com/preorder-signed-copy-brainstorm
Get in touch with Rebecca!:
Brian Gehrlein is the author of the words your eyeballs are currently reading. He also has written other things. They have words too. Some of the things with words have been published. Some of the words in that published thing are made up and he still isn't sure how he got away with that. He chuckles about that every now and then. When Brian isn't writing facetious, pretend bios at the end of blog posts (and when he isn't inventing words), you can probably find him under a rock, a bridge, or a mountain of student essays and short stories. He is probably late in grading them. He is mostly sorry about that. Additionally, when Brian isn't rambling incoherently at the end of his picture book interviews about things that have nothing to do with anything, you can probably find him sitting in a wooden chair, staring at a picture book with a blue cover. At least, he thinks it was blue. Blue or purple. Definitely one of those. And there was a monster on it too. He was eating the book cover. Maybe. But it was definitely blue. By now you have either given up reading this word salad or you have persevered and are now nearing that fruitful end in which a hidden emoji code emerges from the murky depths. Yes, a hidden emoji code. Oh, how good it feels to write those words....Picture Book Spotlight is back, baby. The hidden emoji code is a baby. Yeah, that's right. A baby. Include a baby emoji in your retweet of this post and Brian will grant you an additional ten raffle entries. Ten!