At Novel Effect, we believe in the power behind every picture book. To celebrate Picture Book Month, our CEO, Matt Hammersley sat down with five authors making a difference in the lives of children through their picture books. Each author has at least one book featured in the Novel Effect Library. (It might even be your favorite soundscape!) Learn about these writers and what they find most important when reading with children in their interviews.
Click on the name of the author you want to read about in the list below. It will direct you to their one-on-one session with Matt. If you want to read them all, just scroll down!
Celebrate Picture Book Month with Adam Wallace: The How to Catch Series
A Discussion with Author, Adam Wallace
Matt Hammersley (MH): I’m here with Adam Wallace, author of some of my favorite books from the How to Catch series. And then one of your recent ones, A Very Dinosaur Birthday, which I just loved with my kids. Thank you for joining me today, Adam.
Adam Wallace (AW): Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here all the way from Australia. Nice to connect.
MH: Tell me about the How to Catch series. I know you’re not affiliated with that series any longer, but the ones that you wrote in the beginning, they’re always read in school. How did you come up with this theme?
AW: I ended up doing about 13 I think, in the end. And those were great. They were really fun to write and a really cool concept. How did I come up with the theme? It was someone from the publisher, Karen, who I’ve worked with over here. She was back in America. She emailed me and said, “We’ve got this idea for a story because Saint Patrick’s Day is really huge in the States. We want to write a story about a leprechaun and kids trying to catch it. You want to write it?”
That was literally how it began. I was lucky enough to be the one who got asked to write it. I don’t know what expectations they had, I just did it and had fun doing it. My niece looked up facts about leprechauns for me, then I’d write those into the story and it just kind of took off.
It’s one of those things that shows that you have ideas about what’s great and what’s going to work, but you never really know what it’s going to be. This one was great fun, but it was fun and that was kind of it. I had no idea it was going to do what it did and grow into what it grew into.
MH: That’s super cool. That’s one of those ideas too where there’s always another thing you can add. So how did you get your start in writing? Was that your first book?
AW: That was about 17 years into a long journey. Basically, I loved writing as a kid. Then in my final year of school, I hated writing more than anything in the world. I had to write this stuff that was just so different to what I enjoyed writing, but I had to write it to try and pass. And I was failing at the start, so I just really got put off writing. I love maths as well. Maths was probably my best subject at the time, so I went into engineering and did that for 10 years. I didn’t write a word, apart from birthday cards basically.
It was about 10 years after that that my partner at the time was doing a professional writing course and wrote a children’s book. It was really good—she’s a very talented artist and writer. I said, “You know, that’s really good.” She was like, “Oh, anyone could write a children’s book.” which is what we hear a little bit—or a lot.
Anyways, she said, “You could write one.” And I was like, “No I couldn’t.” Then she dared me to write one. So I wrote it, and it wasn’t great, but it unleashed this little thing that had been hiding away for 10 years. I was hooked. That was 1999 and, as I say to kids at schools, I reckon I’ve missed a handful of days since then.
Books by Adam Wallace in the Novel Effect Library
MH: You know, no one’s career is a straight line. I got my degree in chemical engineering, became a patent attorney, and now I have a company adding music and sound effects to children’s books. You know, totally straight line. I love to hear you go around and do a lot of visits. I remember the first time I got up in front of a group of kids to read a book and demo with Novel Effect. I couldn’t believe how nervous I was! I mean these are like five-year-old kids. They don’t care. But man, butterflies start coming out. Tell me about some of your visits. Do you ever get that feeling?
AW: Probably not so much any more, but certainly for a long time. I was almost cripplingly shy as a kid. Doing this as a kid, I would have burst into tears five minutes ago. I was terrified talking to anyone. Even if I knew them, I found it terrifying.
I sort of forced myself a lot. I got a job hosting kid’s parties where I had to write a story and then I’d perform it to the kids as a character, and we’d play games, and that first time—terrifying. Then I went to open mic nights and open mic poetry nights, and I read my stories there. The first time I stood up I had the book I’d self-published and read a story out of that. Everyone had read these really serious, deep, meaningful poems. I get up there about to read a story called, “Valerie’s Vomit”.
I said the first word and my entire body broke out into a cold sweat. It was the worst, my voice was shaking. My first couple of school visits were the same, and I’d worked with kids a bit. It’s bizarre, I don’t know where the nerves come from—wether it’s that we really want to impress the kids or we know that kids are honest and if they don’t like it they’ll tell us. It’s very nerve-wreaking.
It’s really nice now. My first visit I think was 2005-ish. I’ve been honing it since then. I’ve got a few tricks in my bag; if one things not working I can go to another. When it works and you’re getting the kids laughing and you get that energy there’s nothing better for me. I just love that so much.
MH: We ask everyone on our team, even the developers, to volunteer at your local school, your local library, and just go and read the story with the app and practice because you’ve got to see the reaction from the kids themselves to truly understand, "does this work or not".
AW: And kids are—it’s that instant feedback as well. If they don’t like it you can see it on their face. Or, I remember one time I was reading, when I was working at a school just sort of trying my stories on the kids, I started reading this story to about five kids. I was about half way through and two of them just got up and walked off without a word. They are going to let you know straight away. Again, the opposite, when they like it the sound of kids laughing is the greatest.
MH: Um hm, I knew we had something when I did that and the whole room just was...the whole room, you could hear a pin drop how engaged they were and at the end they gave a round of applause. And I was like, round of applause after reading? I will take it.
AW: Right?! 100%. And that’s the thing. That’s where we see that no matter what’s out there, kids love stories. If kids hear a great story and they are really engaged in it. You know, going up to school’s we get treated like rockstars. Kids want our autograph and the kids are listening and they’re talking, asking questions. They’re so—seeing kids get so excited about a book or about an author, or about an app that works with books—that’s kind of thrilling. And it shows that these books and stories aren’t going to die out any time soon.
MH: Yeah! Alright, we have a couple minutes left. Are there any other new projects you want to talk about or you care to share?
AW: Sure, yeah! Well, The Very Dinosaur Birthday which Novel Effect has so generously done sounds for—and it sounds amazing—we’re doing A Very Dinosaur Christmas which is going to be a follow-up to that. So that’s getting illustrated at the moment.
MH: Awesome! Well, Adam thank you so much for talking with me today.
AW: Thanks Matt!
Celebrate Picture Book Month with Erin Winters: I Love You When You’re Angry
A Discussion with Author, Erin Winters
Matt Hammersley (MH): I’m so excited today to have Erin Winters here to share with us about her wonderful books that she has written and find out a little bit about her view point on the joy of the read-aloud. Erin, it’s great to have you here.
Erin Winters (EW): Thank you for having me.
MH: So, tell me a little bit about what you do Erin.
EW: Well, my official trade before I came into authoring, I’m a licensed professional counselor. While I am still active in seeing some clients, writing is taking more and more of my time and I love that. I’m spliced in a few different areas, but I am a children’s book author and I write therapeutic books, as you might imagine, much of the time as well. I have several of those. One of them is kind of just a heartwarming, rhyming story, which is one you’re most familiar with—I Love You When You’re Angry. One is particular to therapy, like explaining what play therapy is, what the process is for parents and adults—that sort of thing.
MH: It seems like—I’m a parent as well, I’ve got a party going on here and just from when we were out camping, my son, we were just joking with, like “Oh, if you keep talking about that we’re going to have to take you to therapy” and he got all freaked out. You know, “What is that?! I don’t want to go.” But I would imagine you’ve got some pretty heavy topics here, right? And then trying to take that and put it into a picture book. Tell me a little bit about that kind of process.
EW: Well, here’s the thing. I think it’s important to take heavy topics and make them easier to talk about. So part of what I’m trying to do in my books and in my publishing company, Snowfall Publications, is creating therapeutic moments. Connection moments with your child, and it’s for you and your child.
I’ve had lots of people tell me, for I Love You When You’re Angry in particular, “This book is for your kid, but it’s really a lot for you too.” People tell me this is their gift that they give at baby showers all the time. It’s just the go-to. One of the reviews for it was really sweet, they said they’re a foster parent and they have a foster child who’s 16. She’s a teenager! She’s like, I got them this book though because this is what they needed to hear.
I even had TAPS—my husband’s military, so we’re a military family—he’s been home from his most recent deployment less than a year, but coming up on. Because of that affiliate, we’ve also gotten involved with an organization called TAPS, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, and it’s for military families who’ve lost someone. They do this grief camp for kids every year over Memorial Day and then all of these different seminars throughout the year for the families for support. They worked with me and ordered 1,000 of their own personal print run just for them of I Love You When You’re Angry to put in backpacks of kids and he was just talking about how kids need to hear parents read these types of words.
I guess I’ll just tell you how I ended up writing it. I was pregnant with my second and our oldest was a toddler. They’re 20 months apart. And I was not at my best. This was not a prime parenting day. I know the stuff, but it wasn’t going spectacularly.
I felt terrible, both emotionally and physically, you know? And it was just not a good day. And it was just terrible, so by the end of the day, I just was at my wits end; I was so frustrated; I was so exhausted. I was frustrated at myself because I had not parented the way that I wanted to, you know? This is not the type of person I want to be as a mom. So I was just kind of thinking about what do I want him to know? What do I want my kids to know when we have these hard days, because we will.
I think a lot of times, even the kids books—I was shocked how few kids books there are, especially quality ones, that deal with emotions. There are some good ones, but they’re limited. Of those they usually target kids’ emotions. They don’t even acknowledge that the parent also has emotions, but the kids know it. Kids are so susceptible—this is probably partially because of my exposure to kids with trauma—but, so susceptible to just taking it on themselves.
I think it’s important to call it out and be like, “Hey, I know that you notice these ‘cause you’re not dumb. So let me just notice for you and with you, I have those too. It’s not because of you, but it is around you, so I want you to know that I love you when you’re angry. I love you when I’m crazy.” You know? That’s where that came from, it’s just kind of a—I think I wrote it in 10 minutes, that particular one, because it just was one of those things that I wrote as a catharsis for myself and then it ended up becoming what it is, and that’s been my bestseller by far.
Books by Erin Winters in the Novel Effect Library
MH: I was thrilled to hear about your military background. My wife was a military brat as well. They were Navy. They moved around a lot. And we’re very fortunate at Novel Effect to have a couple of partnerships with various military organizations. Our Military Kids, we’ve done some stuff with and then United Through Reading is the other one.
EW: I actually have a children’s book for military deployment. I wrote it two days before my husband left, so I was not running to publish it yet. It’s called A Sweeter Hello and it was another one of those that I wrote just out of myself and all of my feelings. He left two days after Thanksgiving and it was also the week after our son turned 1. The other one was 2 1/2, so I had two 2-and-under for a few months. It was his third deployment, my second, and the kids first. It was a whole thing. So, I wrote one for the kids basically. It has therapeutic coping skills and stuff, so that’s really cool that that fits.
MH: Yeah, yeah, 100%! I had another question, kind of switching topics here. It was pretty cool to see that you were not only an author, not only self-publishing, but you created your own publishing company around it too. Tell me about that decision?
EW: I actually just never pursued traditional publishing at all. For an author to go to traditional, sometimes it’s very smooth and very quick. Sometimes it’s really not. It takes a long time and then the publishing house will pick the illustrator, and the editors. It’s great because you don’t have to do as much and they’ll foot the bill, which is very helpful because it’s expensive. However, they pick it then, which is both good and bad depending on how control-oriented you are.
I wanted to be a part of the process intimately. I’m integrally involved in all of it. And I love that, all though it’s hard because I am all of the hats, but I do really enjoy being a part of the process and by the end, each one of my books is exactly what I want it to be. I’m not saying that’s true for traditional, it’s just the only experience that I have. I really enjoy that when I finish a book I can launch it.
MH: That’s such a fun journey. And you know, this difference between a publishing house versus self-publishing. To me, they’re all great angles. It’s about getting the stories out in a way that other people can experience them. Well Erin, thank you so much for talking with me today. It’s been a pleasure on my side.
EW: Thank you so much for having me on. I so enjoyed it.
Celebrate Picture Book Month with Josh Funk: The Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast Series
A Discussion with Author, Josh Funk
Matt Hammersley (MH): We have here today, Josh Funk. Josh you’re one of my favorite authors, I gotta say.
Josh Funk (JF): Well thank you so much, that’s very sweet.
MH: We just added My Pet Feet to the app. Did you get a chance to participate in that soundscape?
JF: I did actually, yeah. My Pet Feet was added to the library and I was lucky enough to do one of the voices for one of the characters. While I was recording my part, my cat was in the room and I closed the door because I wanted it to be as quiet as possible. He was sleeping and I started saying things out loud over and over again to do a bunch of takes. Then my cat clearly was not happy. While I was still recording the cat meowed and I let him out of the room. The soundscape engineer who did the book, Maria, added his meow to one of the Go-Cats in this book. Not only am I a voice in the book but my pet ended up in My Pet Feet.
MH: I love that! You know, it’s truly a family affair here. We’ll bring in the dogs, the cats, we’ll record a goldfish if we can. I’m not really sure what it’ll sound like! I see back there too you’ve got Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast?
JF: Yeah, that was my very first book that was published. It was added about a year ago to the Novel Effect app. Spoiler alert, I do the voice of one of the characters at the end of this book as well. There’s actually five books in the series. Not all of them are in Novel Effect yet, but the first one is. This is by far my most popular book. It’s sold, I think, over 100,000 copies by now which is pretty cool.
MH: Oh wow! You know, I’ve got a 5 and an 8-year-old and when we added that book and read it to them about a year ago—the giggles were just memories for life!
JF: Well I think that’s one of the things about Novel Effect. It adds multiple layers with the music, and the sound effects, and the voices. There’s so many different things that bring it to another level. Even things that I didn’t expect. I know it’s Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast and people will do a British accent for the lady and the French accent for French Toast, which is what happens in the app, but it’s not how I do it. It was just so much more dramatic. It’s kind of above and beyond what I would have expected.
MH: Oh, you know, I appreciate that. They’re so talented—I could never do it! I always wonder what it’s like from an author perspective. You know, you write your book, you put all this work into creating the story, and then doing the illustrations together, and then having these other interactions of modalities, right? Other interactive forms of content that come up around what you have created. What is that like on your end?
JF: I guess it’s kind of interesting because every single time someone reads a picture book it’s however they want to perform it. The way that you write picture books—and a lot of my books are written in rhyme. Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast is. My Pet Feet is not and How to Code a Sandcastle, the third book that Novel Effect has, they’re not in rhyme but…the way that I write picture books, I’m not teaching kids how to read with any knowledge of linguistics or phonics or anything like that. There are books that are meant for that, and I’m sure some of them are in Novel Effect, but I think that there’s a real special skill that is required for people to know how to teach kids how to read.
The way that I write books is that I write books for adults to read to kids. If the kids can read them themselves that’s great, but they’re written at a fifth grade reading level give-or-take, if you put it into one of the systems that everyone argues about.
But I think ultimately it’s meant for an adult, a parent, a librarian, a teacher, a caregiver, an older sibling. Someone like that to read to a kid out loud. And they are going to be performing it, probably for the first time ever in front of a kid. They’re not going to read it first and then read it to a child. They’re just going to open it up and read it.
So you want that performance to be as good as possible as the author. You want to make it as smooth as you can, you don’t want to make the words so that people are tripping up over them especially when writing in rhyme. You want to make sure that the rhythm is correct and that it’s going to be easy for them to say.
I think that, you always want this for all of your books, and you never know how people are going to interpret them or read them out loud as a performance and obviously the illustrations are a big part of that, and the page turns, and the pacing, and all of those things, but when you add in Novel Effect, it adds so much more that makes it so much easier for the reader.
I mean, it’s great if you’re an actor and you really want to get into it and do voices but if you’re not, all you gotta do is say the words and Novel Effect will add all the rest for you.
Books by Josh Funk in the Novel Effect Library
MH: I love that you’re thinking about—when you’re writing these things—about the parent reading aloud to the child and it’s really kind of a tool for them to create that connection with the kid around the story. It’s kind of our whole philosophy here, it’s about fun. You’re supposed to have fun reading together and if you want to get kids to love to read and want to read, you’ve got to make it fun.
JF: That’s actually kind of my goal as an author. More than kind of. On my X bio at one point I had something that was like, “I write books for adults to read to children so that children fall in love with reading.” And that really sort of sums up what my goal as an author is.
MH: You know, to me what we want as parents to our kids, and teachers to our kids, during a read-aloud is to see their eyes light up and see them unlocking some new mystery or magic inside of themselves, as a part of the reading experience. Have you ever experienced something like that?
JF: Oh, certainly. I think there’s different types of read-alouds to me. Sometimes a read-aloud can be me holding up a book in a library and reading it to a class or at a storytime. And you can see those kids that are just completely engaged in the story and shocked when they see the twists on the next next page.
I had a book once, it’s a book called It’s Not the Three Little Pigs and a librarian messaged me on Twitter privately and said that when she finished reading that book, one of her kindergarten students said, “ That’s effing brilliant.” She said that’s the first time anyone’s ever said that to her, especially a kindergartener. The kid getting it, that’s one of my favorite parts about reading a book with kids.
I mentioned, there’s different types of read-alouds. There’s the read-aloud to a classroom or to a library or if you have three kids sitting on the couch and you’re holding the book in front of them. Then there’s the read-aloud where it’s more of a read-together. You’re sitting with the kid next to you on a couch or on a lap and you’re really letting the kid turn the pages and pour over the images. It’s not you reading to them. It’s you reading together. It’s not just the book, and the text, and the pictures, and the words being read out loud. It’s the whole experience. And I think that’s something that I’ve always called a read-together.
MH: Yeah, I think, that’s what it means to me to be a parent honestly. Being there to introduce your kids to the world and seeing how they interpret things and do things differently than you. That kind of stays with you for a long time. Do you have any new books in the works right now?
JF: Dear Unicorn. This is a book about a girl and a unicorn who are pen pals. They’re writing letters to each other, sending each other art, and they don’t realize they’re writing to a different species. The girl, she is very serious about her art. She thinks that art should be in museums, not in pen pal letters. And she’s also very kind of negative. She’s a glass-half-empty type person and the unicorn is bubbly and glass overflowing type. It’s an unlikely friendship, a lot of creativity and letter writing and unicorns.
MH: Well, this is awesome Josh. Thank you so much for talking with me today.
JF: Thank you for inviting me to chat and thank everyone on your team for making amazing soundscapes. It’s been such a pleasure working with them and hearing the finished products.
Celebrate Picture Book Month with Kat Zhang: The Amy Wu Series
A Discussion with Author, Kat Zhang
Matthew Hammersley (MH): Alright, Kat Zhang, it is so nice to meet you!
Kat Zhang (KZ): Thank you, you as well!
MH: I’m a big fan of your books and the Amy Wu series. I’ve read three of them so far. Is that how many that are out now?
KZ: The fourth one actually just came out a couple months ago, Amy Wu and the Ribbon Dance. Part of my wanting to write Ribbon Dance was I felt like there are more books that talk about little boys being super energetic and wiggly. I don’t think it’s something people talk about as much with little girls. Amy is such a rambunctious character it really made sense for her to love to dance.
MH: Oh totally. I can already hear the soundscape in my mind that is going to get those wiggles out and get the body moving! And so, you’ve written four books in this series and I understand that you’ve written Young Adult and Middle Grade novels as well?
KZ: Yeah! So there are four Amy Wu books out right now and there is actually a fifth one coming out next year, Amy Wu and the Lantern Festival. All of the Amy Wu books are in some way based on something that happened to me or something that I was interested in as a kid.
Amy Wu and the Lantern Festival is based off of one of my early, early memories when I was in China. There is something called the Lantern Festival. It’s the last day of the traditional two weeks of the Lunar New Year celebrations. People light these lanterns and there’s a lot of history and tradition behind why they do that. There’s lots of myths and legends that say it’s to scare away evil spirits.
Basically what it boils down to is that people go out after dark with these lanterns, and nowadays we have mostly electric lanterns. When I was a kid there were still a lot of them that had real fire inside. I was probably 3 or 4-years-old. You can imagine if you give a 3 or 4-year-old a lantern with a candle inside, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going to get burnt up. So, I remember being really sad that my first lantern got burnt up, but luckily my aunt bought me a new one and I was very thrilled.
In Amy Wu and the Lantern Festival, she has a somewhat similar experience where she has this beautiful family heirloom lantern that she really loves but it accidentally gets squashed. In true Amy Wu fashion, she has to use a little ingenuity, a little creativity, lots of arts and crafts skills, and try to save Lantern Day.
MH: I think some of the best stories are when authors are drawing from their personal experiences and kind of sharing a piece of their life or culture that other people don’t necessarily see or understand, right? It’s like that window into your world that I find so intriguing.
KZ: Yeah! Exactly. And that honestly was a lot of the reason why I started writing the Amy Wu books, because there are a lot of bits of my childhood that happened because of my cultural background, being Chinese American; growing up Chinese American.
And, you know, even though I was born here and a lot of experience of mine as a kid were just very normal American experiences that most kids growing up in the U.S. would have, I also had a lot of these experiences that were unique due to being Chinese American, having parents who immigrated a couple years before I was born. And I really wanted to share that in a way that made it seem really normal—because it is really normal to the kids who go through it–and not have it just be this very strange, other, exotic thing that happens, but something that is just very everyday for Amy.
MH: I was wondering, do you write in a way that you picture the read-aloud experience or are you more focused on an independent reader—maybe a child on their own reading the book? How do you go about that thought process and does read-alouds come into play when you’re writing?
KZ: Yeah, definitely. I think a huge part of writing picture books is writing them to be read aloud. Picture books are meant to be read aloud—at the core of them they’re meant to be a shared experience between the kids and whoever’s reading to them. I always read all my picture books aloud—the manuscript—multiple times while I’m writing them. The rhythm of the words is a huge part of how I choose what to put in the books.
That’s one of the biggest challenges I think, in many ways. You know, all books have a rhythm to them, whether it’s a novel, or a speech, or anything, right? There’s always a rhythm to the words, but especially in a picture book. You really have to balance saying what you want to say, telling the story that you want to tell. But you’re limited by the word count and also by the fact that you want things to sound good as well.
Books by Kat Zhang in the Novel Effect Library
MH: What about some of the other picture books that you’ve seen that you drew inspiration from? Did you have any kind of reference books that you would draw from when you were creating your stories?
KZ: Before the first one, I remember—since picture book writing had not been something that I thought a lot about before I got the idea for the first Amy Wu book—I just went to the book store. Luckily they’re very short so you can just sit there and read through a ton and go to the library and read through a ton. There were a lot that stood out to me that I really liked. In general, what I really liked was that they’re all just so different.
Even though in some ways it seems kind of constraining to say picture books should only have a set number of pages and a set number of words—really there’s a big difference. There’s everything from picture books where there’s only dialogue, they’re almost like a comic book. Then there are other ones where they’re a lot more like an illustrated story where every page will have a little paragraph and an illustration. And then there’s everything in between. I really liked how we ended up incorporating Amy’s story with the illustrations so there’s always at least one or two examples where the text becomes part of the illustrations. I like how it’s kind of meta.
MH: Do you have any tips that you would share with the parents or an educator in getting a joyous moment when reading your books?
KZ: Honestly, I always really admire people who are great at reading aloud their own books. Whenever I go to a festival, you can see a lot of other people reading aloud their books and I’m always super impressed by the people who are clearly very, very good at it. I think a good read aloud is almost like a mini theater performance. You have to really get into it and not be shy. Kids love it the sillier you are, the more into it you are. It’s sort of like doing a silly dance—as long as you do it with confidence I think it works out. You have to not be scared to do the silly voices, to do the really big tones, and the sing-song-y voice or something like that.
And not rush it, I think that’s the other thing. Especially if you’re an author—maybe not if you’re a parent or a teacher reading to your own kids—but, if you’re an author trying to do a reading and this is not something that you’re super accustom to, I think the natural tendency is to rush things because you’re nervous. It’s a lot easier to get someone engaged into a story if you really take the time to tell the story instead of just read the words.
MH: I love that. Well thank you, Kat, so much for talking with me today. I really appreciate it.
KZ: Definitely! Thanks so much for having me.
Celebrate Picture Book Month with Stef Wade: A Place for Pluto
A Discussion with Author, Stef Wade
Matthew Hammersley (MH): I’m excited to meet with Stef Wade. And we have your book A Place for Pluto inside of the Novel Effect app. It’s nice to meet you Stef!
Stef Wade (SW): Thanks! I’m excited to be here!
MH: I have really enjoyed A Place for Pluto and at Novel Effect it was so much fun for us to make that soundscape together. So tell me a little bit about A Place for Pluto.
SW: Sure! So A Place for Pluto was the first picture book I ever wrote. When I started out writing I was working on some Young Adult novels and I had one small child at the time. I kind of just started playing around with writing stories for him. I wrote A Place for Pluto when I was reading to my son from an old book from the library that said Pluto was still a planet. And I was like, “Oh buddy, Pluto’s actually not a planet anymore.” And he looked at me and he said, “That is so sad.” And I was like, “that is really sad!”
It gave me the idea to write A Place for Pluto about Pluto being told he’s not a planet and what he might really have been feeling like if he was told that. It’s been just such an awesome experience with this being my first book. I’ve had so many great experiences with it and I’m so excited that it’s on Novel Effect now.
MH: What gave you the idea to take that initial idea that you had when writing the story for your kids and turning it into a full-fledged published book?
SW: I was actually in the middle of looking for an agent for my Young Adult book and when I started dabbling around with this book I was thinking, I might actually have something here. So I actually started looking for agents that I knew would represent children’s picture books through Young Adult, so that if I wanted to pursue picture books that whoever I matched up with would help me in that.
When I found my agent, based on my Young Adult novel actually, I told her, “By the way, I have this picture book.” And she fell in love with it too. It was originally called Pluto Sings the Blues and I had kind of started it more around Pluto just being really sad. Then I realized I could weave in all these facts about space and that is really what became the foundation of A Place for Pluto. Now all of my picture books have a little bit of that. I like to call it sneaky learning.
MH: And you’re not an author full-time, right? You are also an elementary librarian?
SW: I actually volunteer librarian in our school. But I spend a lot of time at our school library. That is awesome for me as an author. I also do school visits, assemblies, and things like that. Being with the kids in the library has been just a great experience for me. I get to see my own kids in there, which is great, but being able to pick out different stories and see how they react, to enjoy watching them and, to also help them love reading and reading aloud. I read aloud to kids from the age of 3 all the way to 8th grade actually. I love reading picture books to middle schoolers. It’s so fun, and Novel Effect has been awesome for us on that.
MH: Oh really? I hear it all of the time where people will be hesitant like, “Oh, these kids are too old for this, they won’t like it.” I mean even 3rd grade teachers have told me that at one point, but inevitably when they try it with them, the kids just love it. And it reminds me, I think it was like 3 or 4 years ago, maybe longer—it was a report that Scholastic did and they were talking about, “Why do we stop reading to kids?” It usually happens at one point of time or another but the kid isn’t the one asking for it to stop.
SW: No, no they’re not. And I see it. I have a middle school book club and once a week they meet with me in the library for lunch. We have a book that we’ll be reading and I started to realize that they really love when I read some of the chapters out loud . We’re reading you know Middle Grade, Young Adult novels with them. Every time I stop reading they’re like, “Don’t stop now! Keep reading!”
I also do it with picture books with them. If I’ve just found a fun book, I’m like, “You guys have to listen to this one.” Reading to the middle schoolers is fun. They pick up on the jokes. Especially the stories I write myself always have a little bit of almost a Pixar quality where there’s something in there for the adults too. The kids pick up on all of those jokes and love those, so that’s really fun for them. You can talk to them differently about the story. I use picture books all the time when I’m speaking to kids about how to write. You can learn so much from a short story like that. I think the picture books really help them catch on to that writing piece as well.
Books by Stef Wade in the Novel Effect Library
MH: So, how did you find out about Novel Effect?
I actually have a friend who’s an elementary librarian and I was visiting her school to do a school presentation. After I was about to leave she was like, “Wait a minute. Have you ever heard of this app?” and I was like, “No.” So she pulled up, Creepy Carrots maybe, was the book she pulled up. She was like, “Just listen to this!”
I immediately downloaded the app and I started doing it in our school library. The kids faces just got huge. It was right around fall, Halloween time last year. I actually did, I think it was Creepy Carrots or Creepy Pair of Underwear with them and one of the little first graders, I saw her almost shivering. It was amazing! It really brings you into the story so much more, just that extra piece is so exciting for them. I have one of those little portable speakers. Whenever I have that, I put it out on the floor next to me and they’re always, “It’s a speaker book!” They ask for “speaker books” all the time.
MH: Have you ever had like one of these experiences were their eyes just light up, they get totally engaged, and then are just in-tuned throughout the whole story?
Absolutely! I think in general reading aloud to kids is so awesome and having the extra piece to it—the extra sensory piece–helps the kids focus a little bit more too. It almost closes us off in this little bubble while we’re reading. I think the anticipation for what’s going to happen in the story—like when you’re watching a show and you don’t even realize there’s a score in the background that’s making you feel anxious or making you know something exciting is going to happen. The extra piece that does that gets them that much more engaged with the story. Even afterwards, when we talk about the story, I can tell the difference in how much more attention they are paying when that soundscape is attached to the story.
MH: I will say as a parent of two, and maybe you’ve seen this before but, the thing that just stopped my heart was when my eldest read to the youngest unprompted. They just did it on their own and it was just, oh my goodness.
SW: I love that so much. One of the reasons I wanted to become an author was because I have such fond memories of bedtime at night with my dad sitting there and reading stories to me. And I love that I am now a part of that experience for people where something I wrote is the book they’re picking up, and they’re snuggling up with their kids, and they’re reading, or their child is reading it to them. So that’s like the biggest honor that I can have is knowing–when someone tells me, “Oh we have your book and it’s all torn and worn out,” and I’m like, “That’s the best thing I could ever hear!” Because I love that what I do, which is so much fun and so fulfilling, that I can be a part of that awesome experience.
MH: Well, thank you so much for being here with my Stef. Hope to talk again soon!
SW: Sounds great. Thank you!
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