Katey Howes is a children’s author writing picture books, chapter books, and middle grade novels. She is represented by Essie White of Storm Literary Agency. You can check out her client bio on the Storm site. Katey is the author of Grandmother Thorn, featured in my post about Facing Change earlier this week, and Magnolia Mudd and the Super Jumptastic Launcher Deluxe—watch for it in an upcoming post! She also writes a popular blog for parents, caregivers, teachers and book-lovers. In it, she discusses the day-to-day life of a book-loving family. Her highly topical #RaisingReaders posts give plenty of tips and advice on ways to engender a love of reading in children. She encourages families and communities to build a culture of reading in big ways and small. (extracted and adapted from author website)
Coming from a science background and a male dominated profession myself (physician), I love that Magnolia Mudd and the Super Jumptastic Launcher Deluxe features a female protagonist who proudly pursues her love of science. You are also a science lover with a career in a healthcare field prior to becoming an author. How did your experiences growing up as an scientifically minded girl and then being a professional Physical Therapist influence your development of Magnolia’s character?
I was exceptionally lucky to have parents who encouraged me to explore whatever topics interested me, and also took me to the library all the time (sometimes with a wagon to pull the stack of books home!) This let me develop passions for a wide variety of subjects – from literature to biology to languages. In high school, I was accepted to a magnet school for students gifted in math and science, the Kalamazoo Area Mathematics and Science Center. There, my peers and my teachers were so supportive! The student population was fairly evenly split male and female, and it was quite diverse. None of us had any preconceptions that math and science careers were reserved for a particular gender, race, or even personality type. There were science-loving jocks and science-loving gamers and science-loving drama-club kids. Excelling at math and science was just part of who we were, not all of it.
Outside the magnet school, however, kids tended to lump us all into the category of “nerd,” as if that was all we had to offer. Honestly, most of us didn’t really mind. We knew who we were and where we were going. But once I had my own daughters, I started to feel more strongly about the prevalent belief that “nerdiness” was a negative trait – and one always paired in the collective consciousness with other limiting traits – like being introverted, boring or stodgy. I wanted to give my girls – and their generation – a female role model who embraced her love of math and science, found everyday ways to celebrate her preferences and personality, and couldn’t be boxed in by existing stereotypes. Why shouldn’t a girl be smart AND trendy (cue Magnolia’s pink hair), smart AND outspoken, smart AND funny? From that rather lofty goal, Magnolia was born.
As a person with perfectionist tendencies that have been passed down to my daughter, I love that Grandmother Thorn gains such joy from releasing complete control over her garden. It’s a great book for teaching kids with type A personalities that unexpected results may be some of the best. Did this character and storyline develop from personal experiences?
Absolutely. I sometimes say that I wrote this book because I needed to read it. The idea began with a literal unruly blackberry vine that refused to stay where I put it—it kept escaping my trellises and trying to take over the back patio. One noteworthy day, after getting scratched a few too many times while pruning it back, I shouted “sooner or later, everything meets its match.” Then I fell silent, wondering whether that message was more appropriate for the vine…or for me.
This was a point in time where I was trying to do everything—work, parent, write, blog, run a Girl Scout troop, be a great spouse and sister and daughter. I had so many lists and calendars and schedules. I was putting so much pressure on myself and getting very stressed and anxious. Realizing that there were things beyond my control, and that some of the most wonderful events in my life had come when I wasn’t looking or working for them, was a revelation I desperately needed. I admitted I needed to slow down, give myself more slack, and make time and space for unexpected gifts. Writing Grandmother Thorn was one way I made that decision manifest in my life.
You have been active in a website called All the Wonders, which is dedicated to helping people find new picture books in creative and “wondrous” ways. How has exploring and reviewing other author’s work influenced your own picture book writing?
Working with the team at All The Wonders has been a tremendous gift. In many ways, joining ATW was an crash-course in picture books – I was working alongside (well, digitally alongside) amazing librarians, artists, teachers, and writers who not only KNOW children’s literature, they love it. They introduced me to new ways to assess and analyze books, but also to the joy that comes from finding other grown adults who want to enthuse over books for 5 year-olds. (Strangely, not every grown up gets as passionate about them as we do!)
Through my work at All The Wonders, I learned to appreciate a wider variety of books, including those from small publishers and foreign publishers who I might not have encountered on my own. I also learned to look more critically at the illustrations, page turns, and design of books. Having that deeper understanding of what illustrators and art directors bring to picture books definitely influenced my writing style – I learned to leave room for the illustrator and to think critically about the impact of pacing, pauses, and silence.
You’ve also written a blog dedicated to thoughts on motherhood, writing for kids, and raising readers. How has interacting with other parents interested in kidlit influenced your storyline and character development?
When I first decided to try to write for publication, I knew I needed a way to hold myself accountable for writing every day, and a way to network with other readers, writers, and book lovers. I started my blog to give myself that accountability and connection. I didn’t initially plan to blog about raising kids who love to read, but my husband (who loves statistics ALMOST as much as he loves me) noticed quickly that I got the most engagement from posts that touched on #Raisingreaders. I decided to write a weekly post using my experiences as a mom of 3 young readers to share my advice, inspiration, and ups and downs.
Connecting with those other writers, readers, and caregivers was a godsend – for my sanity when I felt the isolation of working from home after years of an out-of-the-house job, and for my journey as a writer. I started to learn what books parents and kids wanted to reread again and again; what themes parents WANTED to find in books, but couldn’t; what appealed to struggling readers and to readers in communities different from my own.
I found that parents – and kids – were very discerning. They don’t want didactic or prescriptive stories. They DO want strong, relatable characters. They will seek out and embrace deeper, more complex themes if they are presented in an engaging way. Because of that, I don’t shy away from tough topics – I try to never underestimate kids.
Picture the Books is a group of 2017 debut authors who have supported each other in their picture book creation and promotion. What do you think the greatest benefits of participating in this group have been for you? Do you have any advice for debut authors about how to connect with others at similar points in their career?
Great question! Picture the Books (PTB for short) has been and will likely continue to be one of the most important supports to my writing life. The women and men who make up the group are endlessly caring, generous, honest and hilarious. We are able to share our successes, our struggles, our confusion, our complaints, and our frustrations, all without fear of judgement. Having a safe place to learn, vent, celebrate and compare notes has been really critical to my career – and my mental health.
There are already groups formed/forming for 2018 (#epiceighteen) and 2019 (#newin19) picture book debuts – I’d suggest asking on Twitter with the hashtag #kidlit or in the KidLit411 Facebook group if you are looking to find a similar group for future dates.
As a mother of 3 and an avid picture book reader in both your personal and professional life, you’ve come across many books. What is your favorite picture book to read with your kids? What picture book do you think was most influential in your decision to become a picture book author?
Tricky question! There are so many picture books I love to read with my kids (even now that they are 8, 10 and 12.) One of my favorites is There’s a Party at Mona’s Tonight by James Marshall and Henry Allard, for the humor, the wild vocabulary, and the classic illustrations. My family has countless inside jokes about this book and regularly quotes it, it is such a part of our shared reading lives.
I suppose the book most influential in my decision to write picture books is Katy and the Big Snow, by Virginia Lee Burton. It was always a favorite of mine growing up, since the snow plow shares my name and my go-get-‘em attitude. I had forgotten how much I loved that book, and probably hadn’t thought of it at all for years. But when I was pregnant with my first daughter, my mom gave me a classic copy for my baby shower. Just one glimpse at the cover brought back so many vivid memories of places I had read it, stories I had created about Katy’s future adventures, even of eating one of those Hostess snowballs while reading it. It kind of hit me – this was what a beloved book could do. I wanted to do that.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’d love to share that my next book, BE A MAKER, is scheduled for release in Spring 2019 from Carolrhoda (an imprint of Lerner Books.) The exceptionally talented Elizabet Vukovic is illustrating it – and I feel honored and excited to work with her. She brings so much personality and energy to everything she does.
It’s my first rhyming book (don’t groan – I did a good job, I promise!) and explores the many things a child can make in a day. I wrote it to encourage kids to explore their power to create. It also empowerss kids to think about what THEY enjoy making, what makes THEM proud, and to judge for themselves, rather than be influenced by others, what creations bring them meaning and joy.
Thanks so much for having me and for the insightful questions!