September 21, 2020

Birth Stories for Books: COOKIE & MILK, by Michele McAvoy

The kidlit community is filled with wonderful people, and as I've said many times before, one of the best things about writing children's books is the opportunity to get to know others who write and/or illustrate books for kids. 

Today's guest is Michele McAvoy, and we'll be talking about her book, COOKIE & MILK (illustrated by Jessica Gibson, Cardinal Rule Press, 2019). I was introduced to Michele by our mutual friend, Annie Lynn, who produced the marvelous song for Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? as well as a super catchy song for Cookie & Milk.  

So let's get to know Michele, and her work: 

Dawn Prochovnic: Thank you for stopping by to talk with us, Michele. After listening to several of your My Messy Muse podcast interviews and watching several of the informative features in your related Facebook group, I'm really excited to get to know you and your books a little bit better. 

Your most recent book, Cookie & Milk: A Scientifically Stunt-Tastic Sisterhood, hit bookstore shelves last October (2019). What a great title! Kirkus said the book is, “Smart, sassy, supportive girl power to the max!” in their marvelous review, and the Midwest Book Review described the book as, "A thoroughly charming picture book story with a valuable underlying message about friendship,” saying, "Cookie & Milk will prove to be an enduringly popular and appreciated addition to family, elementary school, and community library collections for young readers. Congratulations on the rave reviews! 

Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication for this story? For example, I’d love to hear a little bit about the process and timeframe between your initial idea for this story and the story that was formulated fully enough to submit to an editor.

Michele McAvoy: I thought of the story right after the Trump election. There was so much tension in our country across race lines, and I thought about myself and my best friend, Wose, who is black, and how easy our friendship is. It's more like a sisterhood, really. And, I remember thinking that it's so much easier to love than to hate. I wanted to write a story about two girls that look nothing alike but are best friends, like Wose and I.  And Cookie & Milk was born! Cookie & Milk look nothing alike and act nothing alike, as well.  I really wanted to portray girls in non-traditional lights, because I think it's important for girls to see and know that they can and should do anything they want to do. There is no more sitting neat and pretty. In truth, Wose and I are more similar in our likes than different. We are both pretty studious and not very athletic. lol. 

DP: Reflecting on the journey from idea to published book, is there any one moment along the way that you credit with opening the door for this particular story to find its way to publication? 

MM: I can't help myself but research stuff all the time.  It's like my mind has to always be busy. So, in my spare time I was researching smaller independent publishers and came across a new (at the time) independent publisher, Cardinal Rule Press.  I told my agent, Stephanie Hansen of Metamorphosis about it and asked to submit to them.  A few months later we had an offer of publication.  It was fairly quick.  I truly believe that some things are meant to be. My publisher, Maria, is fantastic and she and I are super similar.  I am lucky to have her as my publisher and friend. And she made a beautiful book. I was insistent on having a black woman author illustrate because it was necessary for the book to truly be genuine.  Maria listened and found the amazing Jessica Gibson.  I couldn't be happier with COOKIE & MILK. 

DP: What a great back story! Thanks for sharing. When you compare one of your earliest drafts of this story to the version in the published book, what stands out for you in terms of what is most different? Likewise, is there anything in particular that stands out that was included in your earliest drafts and survived the revision process?

MM: I was lucky to win a critique from the publishers of Just Us Books.  The earlier version had Milk doing most of the talking, she was a real motor mouth, and Cookie running behind her with her pencils and sketch books, being more the silent/smart type. The important critique from Just Us Books said that Cookie needs to be as active and dynamic on the page as Milk. That black children need to be just as front and center. It was never my intention to give Milk the spotlight and Cookie a supporting role, but that was how it was portrayed. Their advice was spot on, and when Cookie started to have more dialogue, her sassy, smart personality came through. I am grateful for having that critique. 

What came out in the story at the very end was the twist at the end of the story- that is that they are actually sisters. That came in the very final revision with Maria. When it came to me to put that in, I got chills. My girlfriend Wose is truly more like a sister to me. And, I just love throwing kids a curve ball. 

DP: It's so great when a critique can help you find the missing link to a story that is close, but not quite there. And what fun about the twist at the end! When you look back to your earlier published books, THE GORILLA PICKED ME, and MY SUPERHERO GRANDPA as compared to this book, what were some of the key similarities and differences in terms of the publication journeys for each?

MM: THE GORILLA PICKED ME! was my first traditionally published book. I was absolutely over the moon for the opportunity. THE GORILLA PICKED ME! is a book that is the closest to my heart (and maybe the book baby that I like the most.)  I revised that story a gazillion times based upon a million critiques from publishers, agents, other authors. Plus, it's a rhyming book, switched to prose, then rhyming again. A gazillion revisions.  I wanted to get that story just right, and I truly believe I did. So, the revision journey is much longer for GORILLA than it was for COOKIE & MILK.  But, for sure, I revise my stories, a lot. 

MY SUPERHERO GRANDPA was self-published. The publishing journey and revision journey was not as arduous. This title and journey was my intro into children's writing and publishing and started me off on this amazing career. 

All of my stories are influenced by my late father, who encourages me always, to follow my dreams and never underestimate my capabilities and what gifts God has given me. When I double myself, I hear him say, "pick your chin up, Pish (his nickname for me) and I continue to try to make him proud. 

DP: Oh, that's wonderful, Michele. I'm sure he is very proud of you!

I’ve noticed that all three of your books are published by different publishers. Are you able to share more details of how you came to connect with these different publishing houses, and also, if there were notable differences in the publication processes for each of the different books/publishers?

MM: The Little Press published MY SUPERHERO GRANDPA. That is my publishing imprint, and we have expanded and will be publishing other authors, too!  We have signed two author/Illustrators for PBs out in 2021!

DP: What excellent news. Hooray!

MM: My agent found Native Ink Press who published THE GORILLA PICKED ME! (which was re-released in fall 2019 with THE LITTLE PRESS) and I found CARDINAL RULE PRESS and was submitted by my agent, for COOKIE & MILK. I have a 4th picture book coming out with Pigman Books (another indie press) in Spring 2021 called BUCKINGHAM GETS A NEW SHELL, illustrated by Pauline Reeves, whose illustrations are amazing! Every time I see an amazing artist illustrate one of my stories, I feel so incredibly lucky. It's insane to see your imagination come to life. 

DP. Yes, yes! That's one of my favorite parts of being an author! Another favorite part is connecting with young readers at schools, libraries, and bookstore visits, (back when we could do that!), and I'm always looking for new pro tips. You have some fabulous activities that align with your books on your website. Do you also offer author visits, and if so, what advice or suggestions do you have for fellow author/presenters in terms of planning successful book readings/ book events? (I remain hopeful this aspect of our lives as author will eventually resume!) 

MM: I do author events and school visits and I'm missing doing them during the pandemic!  Since I've been doing them for a few years now, I have a good handful of presentations put together that I can offer to schools. For me, I recommend using a Powerpoint visual, but also, giving the kids time to get creative themselves. The most fun is at the end, when the kids draw or write from their wacky imaginations. 

DP: Yes, I love seeing kids take an idea and run with it! 

A question I always like to ask in these interviews is if you could go back in time, what would you tell your pre-published self? Or, said another way, what do you know now, that you wished you would have known a bit earlier?

MM: I wish I was less hard on myself. When I set a goal I sort of get obsessed with reaching it. I'm a lawyer by profession (as well as a writer) and when you're a lawyer, you go to school, get good grades, pass the bar and get a job. Being a writer is so subjective, and it's not easy to find a publisher that wants to invest in your work. I am still hard on myself and, I'm from the East Coast, so I want things quickly. I need to just allow myself space and to occupy myself writing more and doing more in the community while I wait on submissions. It's not easy. I'm waiting now. Fingers crossed, People!

DP: I know what you mean, Michele. I have a background in business, and I run a training consulting company in addition to writing books for kids. I remember when I began my quest to get my first books published (back before self-publishing was a viable option). I attended a writing conference, and approached it as a business person, setting out to find an illustrator and publisher to hire--pronto. Ha! I quickly learned that traditional publishing doesn't work that way at all! 

Shifting gears a bit, I mentioned in the opening that you worked with Annie Lynn, AnnieBirdd Music, LLC to produce a theme song for Cookie & Milk. As you know, I had a marvelous experience working with Annie for the theme song for my book, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty? Can you tell us a little bit about your experience working with Annie Lynn and her team, including the experience of writing lyrics for your book’s theme song? I recall you were a little bit apprehensive about that part of the process at first, and I’d love to hear how it all turned out.  

MM: Annie Lynn is a dear friend of mine. And she is nutso potato in all the most fantastic ways you can be.  I love her energy, her vibe, her heart. Annie Lynn came up with that song all her own. It is special and so much fun! Her son, Alex, is hysterical. They are both truly talented. I would recommend her to anyone in the industry that is looking for music for their stories.  

DP: I couldn't describe the experience of working with Annie Lynn any better myself. I highly recommend her as well!

Is there something you wish someone would ask you about COOKIE & MILK, and/or your path to publication for one of your books that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet? 

MM: I think sometimes we focus so much on getting that big deal that we overlook the amazing opportunities with small independent presses. I am grateful for the opportunities that I have had, and Cardinal Rule Press, has helped me in so many ways to build my author platform. I would recommend to look at smaller presses as an opportunity and not a back-up plan. When your book is out in the world, kids don't care who published it. All they care about is the story and the book. A good book is a good book. 

DP: Well said, Michele. Thanks! 

Do you have anything you’d like to tell us about what you’re currently working on? 

MM: Right now I am so very busy with my own publishing company which we launched in March of this year. Blue Bronco Books is the Middle Grade imprint, and our first release BONE TREE with Jenna Lehne comes out April 1, 2021. We also signed two picture book authors for release in 2021 as well, under our Little Press imprint. 

DP: Wow! That is SO EXCITING. Congratulations! 

One more question: You've mentioned that in addition to being an author, podcast host, and publisher that you're also an attorney. How do you fit it all in? And how do these different roles and interests interweave and inform each other? (Ha! Guess that’s two more questions ;)

MM: I am an attorney. I have been writing, professionally, as an attorney for 20 years. It really allowed me to develop my writing skills as well as my writing stamina. Nothing prepares you better (well, maybe medical school) for academic and intellectual stamina like being a lawyer. I can write through complete exhaustion. Law taught me to do that (I don't know if that's a good thing or not!)

DP: Thank you so much for sharing your Birth Story for Books, Michele! I've learned so much from you! 

MM: Thank you so very much, for having me!

Friends, the best way you can say thank you to Michele for spending some time with us today, is to support her work. Michele's books are available everywhere books are sold


Michele McAvoy is an inspirational speaker & award-winning children’s book author from New Jersey. As a child, she read Judy Blume and drew Garfield comics. For her 10th birthday, she asked for a pink typewriter. Michele always loved the smell of new books. Now all grown-up (typewriters near obsolete) she loves bringing joy to children through her own stories. Michele’s books are uplifting and colorful and are meant to help children navigate through the natural bumps and curves of life. Her next picture book, Cookie & Milk with Cardinal Rule Press, releases October 1. Cookie & Milk was selected as a Top Shelf Title with IPG and was touted as “Smart, sassy, supportive girl power to the max!" by Kirkus. Michele’s books are sold at bookstores across the country as well as online. Pick up a copy! You can find Michele on social media @michele_mcavoy on Twitter and @michelemcavoy on Instagram. 


Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including, Lucy's Blooms (Spring '21), Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to the award-winning book, Oregon Reads Aloud, and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at

August 26, 2020

Birth Stories for Books, TAILS FROM THE ANIMAL SHELTER, by Stephanie Shaw

Sophie the Shelter Rescue Dog
Today, I'm so happy to share with you a guest post featuring the birth story for a new book by one of my first friends and favorite people in the kidlit community, author Stephanie Shaw. I featured one of Stephanie's earlier books last year, and I'm so happy she was willing to share more of her perspective and experience with us here today.

Stephanie's new book, TAILS FROM THE ANIMAL SHELTER (illustrated by Liza WoodruffSleeping Bear Press) is worth every woof--and if you don't believe me, take it from my shelter rescue pup, Sophie!

Take it away, Stephanie!

Tails From the Animal Shelter
by Stephanie Shaw

Today is August 15, 2020. It is the ‘book birthday’ of my most recent picture book Tails From the Animal Shelter with illustrations by Liza Woodruff, published by Sleeping Bear Press.

The book is made up of page after page of various (fictional) animals seeking adoption. There’s Lucky the three-legged, one-eyed dog; Pooter the skunk, Hamlet a pot-bellied pig and many more. It’s also packed with non-fiction information about various rescue organizations. There are guidelines to consider before adopting and ways to support shelters if adopting is not possible.

Who should buy this book?

Photo Credit: Katia Prochovnic

Families who have family members clamoring for a pet!
Teachers who are looking for persuasive writing exercises.
Shelter and rescue organizations looking for a great fund-raising product.

Why writers? Because (aside from the fact that this is just a darn good book and beautifully illustrated and you need one for your kid lit collection) it is a testimony to my theory that writing is not a straight path. It is a maze. The ‘birth story’ of Tails From The Animal Shelter is just that.

About four years ago, my husband and I decided it was time to downsize and try living in another state (away from my beloved native Oregon). I could write anywhere, right? But it turned out I could not. And days and weeks and then months began to pass without any writing.

One healthy writing habit I managed to hold onto was a daily walk. I would trudge up a long hill and back down --- usually berating myself for not coming up with a new story.

Then one day it occurred to me to go back to what I did in the very beginning of my years in writing:  small poems. I didn’t have to write long paragraphs. Just little snippets. I could do that. And I did. I gave myself the task of writing a tiny poem each day. Each turned out to be about animals. And each one was searching for a home.

This led me to research how Humane Societies began. I tucked that information in with the poem collection and sent it to my editor at Sleeping Bear Press where I had four other picture books in publication.

It was my good fortune that Sleeping Bear loved it but they saw it as the basis of a non-fiction story and wanted the text expanded considerably. This was new territory for me. It was time to back up again and try this new route.

I learned so much. I read and read and read. I developed relationships with animal shelter workers. I picked the brain of a newspaper columnist who writes about dogs.  More than anything I developed a huge respect for non-fiction writers. This non-fiction writing was no walk in the dog park!

When I was stuck and thought I’d never have an idea (let alone a whole book), I went back. Since that time, I also completed three concept books for Read Your Story and a picture book (Sylvia’s Way, West Margin Press, 2021). I’ve asked for help. I’ve taken classes, attended workshops, connected with a great agent. Oh, and we moved back to my beloved Oregon.

I’m looking at a copy as I write this. It will forever be a reminder that writing is a labyrinth; a route under construction with lots of detours. 

But I love what it led to.

Thank you, Dawn, for allowing me to share this birth story.

Thank YOU for sharing your insights and inspiration with us, Stephanie!

Friends, the best way you can say thank you to Stephanie for spending some time with us today, is to support her work. Stephanie's books are available everywhere books are sold

Image Supplied by Stephanie Shaw
An Oregon native, Stephanie completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Education at Oregon State University and her Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology at Lewis and Clark College. Her professional life includes teaching children with severe behavioral challenges, school counseling and school administration. But now her love is working with illustrators and editors to create stories that range from quiet to quirky, poetry to prose. When she isn’t assisting door-to-door vacuum cleaner vampire salesmen, taking cows on shopping trips for muumuus, or helping garden slugs with their calligraphy, she can be found at home with her husband Brad and her labradoodle Milo. 

Stephanie is a member of SCBWI and has served on the faculty of Oregon SCBWI at annual conferences and as a mentor to aspiring writers at Oregon Great Critiques many times. She is a three-time award winner for her contributions to Highlights for Kids and High Five Magazine. 

Stephanie’s books in publication include multiple picture books and board books published in the US and UK. Her work has been translated to Dutch, Portuguese and Turkish.
BEDTIME IN THE MEADOW, Tiger Tales, 2013
A COOKIE FOR SANTA, Sleeping Bear Press, 2014 
UNDER THE SLEEPY STARS, Tiger Tales/Little Tiger, 2015 
THE LEGEND OF THE BEAVER’S TAIL, Sleeping Bear Press, 2015
BY THE LIGHT OF THE MOON, Tiger Tales/Little Tiger 2016
SCHNITZEL: A Retell of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Sleeping Bear Press, 2016
LULLABY FARM, Little Tiger, 2016
MOO LA LA! Simon and Schuster UK, 2017
PIECE BY PIECE, Sleeping Bear Press, 2017
SYLVIA’S WAY,  West Margin Press, 2021 


Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, Lucy's Blooms (Spring '21), and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to the award-winning book, Oregon Reads Aloud, and a frequent presenter (and e-presenter!) at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at

July 22, 2020

Birth Stories for Books: LET'S DANCE!, by Valerie Bolling

by Valerie Bolling and Maine Diaz
One of the things I love most about being an author is discovering new books and meeting fellow creatives. I get to sit with a pile of new (or new to me) children's books and call the time spent "working." It's the best kind of work!

Valerie Bolling's debut picture book, LET'S DANCE!, (illustrated by Maine Diaz, Boyds Mills & Kane, 2020) is so much fun. The language is playful and rhythmic, the characters are diverse, and the invitation to join in and dance is irresistible!

I was introduced to Valerie by a mutual friend, Susan Uhlig, after I put out a call for contributors for my Birth Stories for Books and Have Swag Will Travel blog features. Valerie was kind enough to share her path to publication for LET'S DANCE! with me, and I'm so delighted to be able to share it with you here, today.

Take it away, Valerie!

Let's Dance!
by Valerie Bolling

At the start of each year, my husband and I set goals for ourselves. Having been inspired by a visit from our nieces in December of 2016, I decided that one of my goals for 2017 would be to explore the possibility of getting a picture book published. With this in mind, that January I had written two stories in which each of my nieces was the protagonist (The Greatest Gift for Zorah and I Do for Anyah). I also found and revised two stories I wrote many years ago (Play Date and Come In! Come In!).

Thus, began my pursuit to become a published writer. I spoke to people who I believed could be helpful – and they were – and I wrote and wrote and wrote ... and revised even more. I enrolled in a course at Westport Writers Workshop and revised I Do and The Greatest Gift. I continued writing after the course ended.

In June of 2017 I wrote my first draft of Let’s Dance! Since most children enjoy dancing, like Zorah and Anyah (and adults do, too, including me!), I decided to write a fun, rhyming story celebrating the universality of dance. My goal was to showcase dance as a language we all speak, even though we have different “accents.”

Let’s Dance! was originally titled I Love to Dance, as this line was repeated throughout the book. Marianne McShane, a friend who is an author, storyteller, and librarian, suggested I read Watersong by Tim McCanna as a mentor text and that I start my story with a line that appeared later in my manuscript: “Tappity-tap/Fingers snap.” She said that would immediately encourage readers to dance along from the beginning of the book. Her recommendations helped significantly in revising the book and inspired me to change its title. Since the “I love to dance” lines were deleted from the manuscript, I decided upon Let’s Dance!

Revision is an ongoing part of the writing process and perhaps the most necessary. That’s why I share the story about Marianne. No writer achieves success on her/his own. We each have friends, writing partners, critique group members, and a large supportive writing community that encourages us to forge ahead amidst all of the rejection. I am fortunate to have an amazing critique circle: critique partner, critique group, debut group that offers critique, WNDB mentor, and, most recently, an agent! At the time I wrote Let’s Dance!, however, Marianne was the only person who offered feedback because I hadn’t formed my circle.

I continued to revise Let’s Dance! until the end of 2017 and felt ready to start querying on January 1, 2018. What a way to start the year, huh?! I sent more queries on February 25, 2018, and an agent was interested in the story! She requested I send her two more manuscripts, but when I did, she wasn’t as interested in those stories, saying, “I foresee a harder sell for the other projects.” Thus, she decided to pass.

All in all, I submitted Let’s Dance! to 26 agents, editors, or small presses. Of the 26, I received eight “not interested” responses, and 16 people didn’t bother to respond, which is not uncommon. If there’s no interest in a manuscript, there may not be a response. I received two yeses: the first from the agent I recently referred to, and the second from the editor who wanted to publish the book. (That story is coming soon!)

In addition to direct queries, I participated in two Twitter pitches in June. I received a “like” in #PitMad that was turned down when I sent the manuscript, and I received another “like” later in the month during #PBPitch. That was the “like” from Jes Negrón, an editor at Boyds Mills & Kane, that led to Let’s Dance! being published!

When I sent the manuscript to Jes on June 18, 2018, she emailed me two weeks later on July 2, requesting to have a conversation. During that phone call, I learned that she was interested in acquiring the story! I shared with her my desire for the book’s illustrations to display an inclusive representation of children: gender, race, ability. I specifically said, “I want a lot of brown kids in this book!” Jes assured me there would be. I also said I wanted children of differing abilities and from diverse backgrounds. I said I wanted the ballet spread to include a boy in a tutu, and Jes agreed. (In the end, I got something even better: a child in a blue tutu whose gender is indiscernible.)

Jes asked me to write illustrator notes next to each stanza in the manuscript to signify the type of dance my words described. I hadn’t connected all of my words to particular dances, so this was an interesting exercise. When I completed that task in July, Jes said what I had written was fine but suggested deleting two stanzas; one dance was too similar to another, and she didn’t necessarily connect a specific dance with the other stanza. Besides those deletions, Jes changed not ONE word of my manuscript.

In October 2018, Jes expanded upon my desired vision for diversity by sharing that she thought we were missing out on an opportunity to make the story more global. She recognized that some of my words could describe cultural dances. For instance, where I saw “Tappity-tap/Fingers snap” as tap dance, Jes imagined flamenco from Spain. I envisioned the electric slide for “Glide and slide/Side to side,” but Jes suggested long sleeve dancing from China. I am thrilled to have this added layer of cultural representation in my book! It was at that time that Jes requested that I write backmatter: two-sentence descriptions for each dance featured in the book.

It’s ironic that my first published book is written in rhyme because I started out writing “poetry.” In first grade, I had a black and white marble composition book that I used to capture my poetic musings. I loved creating simple rhymes, using the most recent phonics lesson I had learned in school. I created “masterpieces” like: “There is a cat. It sat on a mat. It caught a rat.” How interesting that my writing has come full circle, that my first published book features rhyme. I continue to be grateful that this book, illustrator, editor, and publisher are what propelled me on my path to becoming a published author.

I want anyone who reads Let’s Dance! to know that not only are people connected through dance, but we’re also connected simply because we’re human. Regardless of how we dance or how we look, we are worthy, valuable members of society. I will continue to write books that make all children feel seen and heard and valued and validated. I want to do my part to promote a world of equity and inclusion, of peace and joy.

Thank you for sharing your beautiful and inspiring birth story for LET'S DANCE!, Valerie. Your book is sure to bring so much joy into the lives of children and families that read it together, and dance together.  

Friends, the best way you can say thank you to Valerie for spending some time with us today, is to support her work. LET'S DANCE! is available everywhere books are sold. 

Let’s Dance! (Boyds Mills & Kane) is Valerie Bolling’s debut picture book. In addition to being an author, Valerie has been an educator for over 25 years. When she taught elementary students, it was difficult to find diverse literature for them. Thus, she is passionate about creating stories in which all children can see themselves and feel valued and heard.

A graduate of Tufts University and Columbia University, Teachers College, Valerie currently works as an Instructional Coach with middle and high school teachers.

Besides writing picture books, Valerie writes a Monthly Memo for teachers that she publishes on Twitter, and she has been published in The National Writing Project’s Quarterly (“The Family Writing Project Builds a Learning Community in Connecticut”) and NESCBWI News (“Microaggressions Don’t Feel ‘Micro’”). Recently, she had a poem accepted for publication by Cricket Media.

Valerie is represented by James McGowan of BookEnds Literary Agency, and she is a member of NCTE, SCBWI, the NESCBWI Equity and Inclusion Committee, the Authors Guild, the WNDB Mentorship Program, #12X12PB, 2020 Diverse Debuts, 20/20 Vision Picture Books, and a picture book critique group.

Valerie and her husband live in Connecticut and enjoy traveling, hiking, reading, going to the theater, and dancing. You can visit her website at

Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, Lucy's Blooms (Spring '21), and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to the award-winning book, Oregon Reads Aloud, and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at

June 18, 2020

Seeking Diverse Contributors for "Birth Stories for Books" and "Have Swag Will Travel" Blog Series

The blog has been quiet for awhile. I've been quiet for awhile. I'm doing my best to listen. To learn. To reflect on how I personally contribute to and benefit from systemic racism. To make changes in my own behaviors. To become a better ally.

I first started my blog as way to provide free, accessible activities and learning extensions related to my books and my training and consulting company, SmallTalk Learning. Many of the teachers, librarians and families that I serve via my infant/toddler sign language workshops and early literacy training and consulting business hungered for more resources than I could effectively and affordably supply in person. Many of my workshop participants are from communities of color, and the educational resource aspect of my blog continues to be something I'm proud of and that I feel confident makes a positive difference in my community and in our world.

As my blog evolved over time, I started creating different collections of posts, for example, Quick Ideas for Getting Started with SigningStart to Finish Story Time, (as well as the expanded version of that series, Start to Finish Story Time, Expanded), and Birth Stories for Books.

I'm especially proud of my Birth Stories for Books series, and my Have Swag Will Travel series, as these posts help me (and my readers) meet and learn from a variety of different authors, and they allow me the opportunity to amplify the voices and works of other authors. The first posts in these series started with a general outreach to my personal/ professional social network seeking contributors for guest posts and/or interviews. Since then, contributors for each series has evolved through word of mouth.

What I am not proud of is that as of this writing, I have only hosted one guest of color on my blog. This is not due to a lack of interest, but it is due to a lack of intentional outreach. This must change. As I pay closer attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, and as I reflect on and learn about my own contributions to racism and the systemic inequities in our society, I understand that I personally must do better. Going forward I will intentionally seek out a wider range of voices to amplify. I will seek opportunities to discover and reach out to writers and illustrators of color that are outside of my current personal/professional circles. I will work to establish a more diverse network of contributors.

If you are a person of color, or a person from another underrepresented community, and you have an interest in your work being featured on this blog, please reach out via the contact form on the left, or through a DM on my Twitter account. I want to learn about your unique path to publication. I want to hear about the unique obstacles you faced in finding a publishing home for your book(s). I want to learn your professional tips and tricks for book events and other book promotions. I want to shine a light on you and on your work.

Please feel encouraged to share this post widely so that I can begin to expand and widen my outreach to a more diverse cast of book creators.

And ... if I've made a mistake on how I've worded something, or characterized something in this outreach, call me out. I want to be made of aware of my mistakes so that I can learn, and so that I can do better.

June 17, 2020

Have Swag Will Travel: Tips for Planning Book Events, Summary Post

Over the past couple of years, I've developed several different collections or series of blog posts, for example, Quick Ideas for Getting Started with SigningStart to Finish Story Time, (as well as the expanded version of that series, Start to Finish Story Time, Expanded), and the Birth Stories for Books series. Once there's a critical mass of posts in a particular series, I create a summary post that provides an updated list of the posts for the series.

Last year I started a series of posts called "Have Swag Will Travel: Tips for Planning Book Events." At long last, I've now created a summary of posts for this series. Keep in mind that the first several posts in the series were created by authors in a pre-pandemic frame of mind, but many of the ideas in these posts can be incorporated (in some cases with modifications to align with current circumstances, ) into the promotional events and plans for your own book(s).

This will be a good post to bookmark and follow, as I will add links to this page as new posts are added to the series.

Here goes:

Interview with Anna Monders about her Booktalk Blog (pro tips for creating your own booktalks)

Chicken Break! by Cate Berry (EGGcellent ideas including author collaborations, playful reviews, karaoke songs and videos, and themed refreshments)

untitled, by Timothy Young (school visits, sculptures, and other art-infused give-aways)

My Quiet Ship, by Hallee Adleman (interactive school visit and classroom activity plans)

There Was An Old Gator Who Swallowed a Moth, by B. J. Lee (business cards, note cards, & posters)

If you like these posts, you might also be interested in Start to Finish Story Time, Expanded.

If you've found these posts helpful, I encourage you to bookmark and follow this page. I will add new links to this page as more posts go up. (And, please get in touch if you'd like to share YOUR tips for planning book events).

May 13, 2020

Birth Stories for Books: A SEARCH FOR NORTHERN LIGHTS (and more!) by Elizabeth Rusch

Elizabeth and Izzi Rusch
(Image provided by Elizabeth Rusch)
Today's blog post is a trifecta for book-reading, book-creating, and book-loving folks. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing fellow author, Elizabeth Rusch, about three new books that just launched into the world (yep, THREE book launches in the midst of a global pandemic).

And all three books are great reading for right now, so let's get right to it:

Dawn Prochovnic: Thank you for stopping by the blog, Liz. If I remember correctly, we first met at a writing conference in the early stages of our publishing careers. Since that time, we’ve attended each other’s writing workshops and book launch events and even collaborated on some projects and events. It’s been exciting to watch your career flourish— and it’s been enjoyable to share many of your books with the young readers in my life. I’ve also greatly appreciated the doors you’ve opened for me that have led to some of my own publishing credits. It is privilege to have an opportunity to shine a light on some of your latest books.

Speaking of light, let’s start by talking about your book, A SEARCH FOR THE NORTHERN LIGHTS, which just came out in April by a publisher we both work with, West Margin Press (co-written by Izzi Rusch and illustrated by Cedar Lee). Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication for this particular story? For example, I’d love to hear about the process and timeframe between your initial idea and the story that was formulated fully enough to submit to an editor.

By Elizabeth Rusch, Izzi Rusch, and Cedar Lee

Elizabeth Rusch: My teenager Izzi homeschooled for 8th grade and after witnessing the total solar eclipse we talked about other natural wonders we would like to see. We started talking about and researching the northern lights and decided to take a trip to Alaska to see if we could spot them, as well as do some hiking and exploring there. We found a few days when a magnetic storm was expected and planned our trip around that. It was raining when we landed and overcast much of time. But we had fun trying and experiencing all that Alaska had to offer while we were there. Then, while on the phone with an editor at West Margin, I told her about the experience and that we were committed to trying until we saw the northern lights. She thought it was a great idea for a book, so I wrote a proposal and she signed it. We had the year of homeschooling to search.

DP: What a great backstory, Liz. And what a fantastic goal for you and Izzi to set your sights on, together.

When you compare one of your earliest drafts of this story to the version in the published book, what stands out for you in terms of what is most different?

ER: Well, Izzi and I traveled to Iceland to see the northern lights but didn’t see more that a slight glow and green arc there (there were blizzards shutting down the country most of the time we were there). We included that experience in the first draft, but the narrative of it was so similar to the Alaska trip (and we thought most readers would not get to travel to Iceland) so we all agreed it needed to be cut (except for an extensive thank you to the wonderful family that hosted us there.)

DP: Wow, you really took this quest seriously. That's really inspiring. 

I'd also be interested to know if there is anything in particular that stands out that was included in your earliest drafts and survived the revision process?

ER: We were glad that though the story is about a search for the northern lights, it captures many of the other amazing outdoor experiences we had while searching. You can only search for the northern lights at night so we had many daylight hours to do other things. We were glad that we got to keep that part of the story in because they were such an important, and unexpected, part of the experience.

DP: That's great that you were able to experience so many adventures with Izzi and that you were able to keep that element of your experience in the story. 

What was it like collaborating with your teenager on this book?

ER: Izzi and I learned a ton about each other by writing this book together. We learned that it worked best to divide the book into sections and work separately on drafting different sections. That worked better than sitting down and trying to write together because we are both pretty opinionated. We made notes to each other on the first draft and each did some revisions on our parts. Only then did we merge our pieces together. We each read separately and made more notes and then sat down together in front of the computer and edited. These discussions were lively, passionate and full of humor. Even though I was a well-published author, I had to take her ideas and reactions seriously and address them. It was challenging but I really believe it helped us make a better book.

DP: It sounds like a memorable experience all around, Liz. 

You have another picture book that also launched in April: GIDGET THE SURFING DOG (Little Bigfoot). When you compare the path to publication for these two books,  what are some of the key similarities and differences in terms of the publication journeys for each?

By Elizabeth Rusch
ER: Well, the Gidget book is a follow-up of sorts to a book that published last year with Little Bigfoot called Avalanche Dog Heroes: Piper and Friends Learn to Search the Snow. With the northern lights book Izzi and I had to create something from scratch. With the Gidget book I had a really great model to build on. I wanted a gripping story about a real dog learning and striving to develop a skill accompanied by lively photos and lots of science diagrams. So I knew while reporting the book what elements I wanted and could identify immediately when I found them.

(Images provided by Elizabeth Rusch)

DP: Wow, Liz, if those photos don't hook a reader, I don't know what will!

You also have a very timely book for teens and young adults that came out in March: YOU CALL THIS DEMOCRACY?: HOW TO FIX OUR GOVERNMENT AND DELIVER POWER TO THE PEOPLE (HMH). Not only is this book for a different age range and audience, but it’s with a different publisher. Have there been notable differences in the publication processes for this book as compared to the others?

By Elizabeth Rusch
ER: In some ways, I’ve been writing the democracy book for more than 20 years. In the mid-1990s I got a masters in public policy and then spent a year working as a fellow in the U.S. Senate. Then I turned back to writing. My husband used to tease me that I wasn’t using my masters, and I used to joke back that I use it every day when I read the news! And that was really true. Over two decades I was reading and filing away in my mind all the ways that our democracy falls short of the promise of one person, one vote. Americans have become increasingly discontent with how our government functions, and I wanted to pull all this together into a book. And I wanted to aim it at young adults and new adults because I believe deeply in their power to change the world.

I pitched the idea to my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and she asked for a proposal. It was remarkably easy to write the proposal because these ideas had been floating around in my mind for two decades.

But, writing the book? Not so easy! I had to delve deeply into so many different issues – the electoral college, gerrymandering, the role of money in politics, etc. I had to be accurate and engaging, and I had less than a year to write it so that it would come out in time for the 2020 presidential election year.

DP: I'm so glad that young readers (and voters!) will have this book available to reference ahead of the 2020 election and many elections to come. Thanks so much for writing it! 

One of my favorite parts of being an author is connecting with young readers at schools, libraries, and bookstore visits, and I’m always looking for new pro tips. You maintain a very active schedule of book-related events. What advice or suggestions do you have for fellow author/presenters in terms of planning successful events? (Note: This question was asked and answered in a pre-Covid19 frame of mind.)

ER: For book store events, I believe we have to do more than just read from our books. We have to offer something more that will draw people to the store. That could be a visit from a celebrity surfing dog, hands-on science activities, or advice for writers or parents.

For school visits, I think that taking a storytelling approach is really fun and effective. After all, we writers are storytellers, so finding ways to say what you want to say through a series of stories can keep the audience – and you – engaged.

DP: Excellent advice, Liz. 

You have a lot of creative projects competing for your attention. How do you balance the time between your different projects and the different aspects of the publishing business?

ER: At the end of each year, I make a list of projects in the works and project ideas and try to sketch out a game plan. Sometimes I break it up by months, such as: This month I’ll work on research for this project, while writing a draft of that one, while revising a third.

Even though I am a full time writer, I actually find it difficult to find time to write. So I have to block out clusters of days when I will try to do nothing but write. I do some of my best writing at writing retreats with my critique group members. It works best if there is no internet to distract me!

DP: More excellent advice, Liz! 

You have great resources for readers and educators on your website, and you publish an occasional newsletter, which I’m sure also takes a fair amount of time to keep up with. For those of us who might be pondering if it’s worthwhile to create these types of supplementary materials, what are the pluses and minuses of these types of reader outreach, from your perspective?

ER: It’s funny, I know my website is supposed to be for the wider world but it also acts as a resource to me. If I need a good description of one of my books, I pull it from my website. When I win an award, I immediately add it to my website so that may be the only place where I have a complete list of my accolades.

The newsletter does take time, but what I love about it are the replies that I get when I send it out. With a website, you have no idea who is looking at it and how they respond. With a newsletter, I have a dialog with my readers and peers so it helps me feel more connected.

DP: That's a great point, Liz. I had not thought about the feedback loop aspect of a newsletter. 

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your pre-published self? Or, said another way, what do you know now, that you wished you would have known a bit earlier?

ER: A career in writing is a long-term proposition that requires an enormous amount of commitment and a willingness to roll with the punches.  There will be setbacks and it is healthier to expect them then to be caught by surprise.

DP: That is so true! 

Before we wrap up, is there something you wish someone would ask you about your path to publication for your latest books and/or one or more of your other books, that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet?

ER: I think one key to sticking with it and staying sane it to try to love the process itself. I try to find joy in the generation of ideas, the development of ideas, the research and what I get to read and where I get to go and who I get to talk to, and the creativity of putting words and stories on the page. You don’t have control over the publishing process. Publishing can bring some disappointment and grief, so focus on loving what you do and being grateful that you get to do this amazing work.

DP: That's such an uplifting, encouraging, inspiring perspective, Liz. Thanks for that. 

Do you have anything you’d like to tell us about what you’re currently working on?

ER: I’m developing some new projects related to climate change and I have a really cool collaboration with illustrator Liz Goss called All about Nothing, about the role of nothingness in art and in our lives. Wish me luck!

DP: Good luck, indeed! I look forward to seeing those projects come to fruition. 

Thanks for sharing your Birth Story for Books (X3!) with us, Liz. I've learned so much from you. 

Fun Fact, Readers: Alice Brereton, the amazing illustrator for Liz’s book, GLACIER ON THE MOVE, is in the process of illustrating one of my next books, LUCY’S BLOOMS (due out in 2021). Stay tuned for more exciting news about this project!

Photo Provided by Elizabeth Rusch
Elizabeth Rusch is the author of twenty books for young readers, as well as more than a hundred magazine articles. Liz’s works are frequently honored by the Junior Library Guild, have received multiple starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, The Horn Book, Booklist, School Library Journal, the BCCB, and have been named best book or notable book of the year by ALA, Bank Street, SLJ, Kirkus, the NSTA, CCBC, Nonfiction Detectives, and the New York Public Library, among others. New in March and April are: You Call THIS Democracy? How to fix our government and deliver power to the people; A Search for the Northern Lights; and Gidget the Surfing Pug. Learn more about Liz and her work at and Connect with her on Facebook at authorelizabethrusch and on twitter at @elizabethrusch.

Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to the award-winning book, Oregon Reads Aloud, and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at

May 7, 2020

Birth Stories for Books: Nita's Day, by Kathy MacMillan

I am so delighted to bring you today's interview with Kathy MacMillan. Kathy and I have several interests in common including kidlit, libraries and American Sign Language. I first interviewed Kathy in 2014, and she has featured my work on her information-rich blog a couple of times (my potty-humor books, here and my Story Time with Signs and Rhymes series, here). Today, we get the inside scoop on Kathy's Little Hands Signing series, just in time for the publication of a new board book in that series, NITA'S DAY (illustrated by Sara Brezzi, Familius Press, May, 2020).

Dawn Prochovnic: What was the inspiration for the Little Hands Signing series?

Kathy MacMillan: I had previously published a book for parents about signing with children ages birth to six, titled Little Hands and Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together. In the fall of 2016, I was promoting that book at the Baltimore Book Festival, when David Miles, then the publishing director at Familius Press, approached me and invited me to pitch them other ideas of this topic. Familius specializes in books for families, so they were an ideal home for books about signing with children – which is all about communication and bonding! I pitched them several ideas, but the one that stood out was a board book series about a little girl named Nita who signs with her parents.

What excites me most about the series is that it features stories about a family. It shows how communicating through American Sign Language improves their everyday lives. Many of the board books about signing with young children focus only on vocabulary. But in this series, I really wanted to show the how as well as the what. I also really wanted to create a series that could be enjoyed equally by hearing, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing readers.

DP: I really love your vision for the series, Kathy. Can you share some backstory about the journey from “book idea” to “book publication?”

KM: Right from the beginning, David and I discussed having some interactive element to the book – flaps or moving parts. The series was always conceived as having the story on the main spreads, supplemented by sign instruction (through illustrations and text) on each page. It was David’s brilliant idea to use the slide-open format to have the sign illustration appear. Not only does it fit the theme perfectly (because effective communication underlies everything the family does!), but it makes the books far sturdier than the life-the-flap format would be. I have heard from many parents and librarians that their copies of Nita’s First Signs have stood up to months of readings by eager babies and toddlers.

DP: Yes, the format is brilliant, and the illustrations are gorgeous. As we both know, conveying a three-dimensional language via two-dimensional pictures can be very challenging. Can you share what went into the illustration process to “get it right” to your satisfaction?

KM: Normally, the author has very little say in the illustrations of a picture book. That often surprises readers. But it’s actually quite unusual for the author and illustrator to have any contact at all in a traditionally published picture book!

I knew from the beginning that approach would never work here. Because most of the people involved in the publishing process did not know American Sign Language, it was crucial that I be consulted at each stage. When Familius agreed to that up front, and even put it in the contract, I knew they were serious about creating a quality product. Because there has been so much misinformation spread about American Sign Language and Deaf Culture, it was vital that we get this right.

And then, when David told me that Sara Brezzi had been selected to do the illustrations, I knew we were on the same page. Sara’s bright, cheery style was perfect for the tone of the books.

I provided detailed instructions and video links for each of the signs, and Sara sent me her sketches of the illustrations as she went. I would give feedback at each stage to make sure we were conveying them accurately. Sometimes we went through two, three, or even ten rounds of back and forth before we worked out the kinks!

In addition, we also had an ASL/Deaf Culture Advisor review each book before going to press. This was a native ASL user who could advise about any problems or misleading information that had slipped through the cracks. I was honored to have renowned Deaf Culture researcher Dr. Barbara Kannapell serve in this role for Nita’s First Signs and Deaf filmmaker and educator Jevon Whetter serve in this role for Nita’s Day.

DP: It is clear that a great deal of care has gone into these books. It used to be there were only a handful of books that incorporated sign language. Now there are many. What would you love to hear a bookseller saying as they handsell Nita’s First Signs or Nita’s Day?

KM: I would love for them to emphasize that learning how to communicate is a young child’s most important job, as it is how they get their other needs met. I would love for them to talk about how these books show how a young child can initiate communication and how much easier it makes the whole family’s life as a result. And that signing with your child sends the crucial message that you are interested in knowing what they have to say!

DP. Yes! Yes! and Yes! 

What would be your dream book review for Nita’s First Signs or Nita’s Day? Who would this review be from? And where would this review be published or posted?

KM: While I love every single review from hearing parents who say how fascinated their babies and toddlers are with the books, and how much they themselves have learned from them, the ones that touch my heart most are from members of the Deaf community. As a librarian and a book reviewer, I have seen so many inaccurate, misleading, and sometimes downright harmful representations of ASL and Deaf Culture. So it was very important to me to get this right. And the reaction of the Deaf community to the first book has been overwhelmingly positive. Recently at a signing, a Deaf woman carefully scrutinized every word and picture in the book and then looked at me and signed, “Thank you for this. This is wonderful.” I swear my heart grew three sizes!

DP: That's beautiful, Kathy. I'm so glad to hear that! What resources and/or next steps would you suggest for readers who want more

KM: Check out the series website at! I have compiled lots of videos, links, articles and more that will be of interest to parents, teachers, and librarians alike!

DP: Youza! That's a great collection of resources! And thanks for including my Story Time with Signs & Rhymes series on your list of Picture Books about ASL and Deaf Culture.

Speaking of resources, are there more Nita books in the works that we should be on the lookout for? 

KM: Yes! We plan to publish several more books in the series, each on a theme such as food signs, family signs, bedtime signs, or seasonal signs.

DP: I'm so glad to hear that. Now for one of my favorite questions: What have I not asked that you would love for people to know?

KM: I would love readers to know that, in addition to the Little Hands Signing books, I also write nonfiction for children and adults and young adult fantasy. My most recent book is She Spoke: 14 Women Who Raised Their Voices and Changed the World (Familius Press, 2019). This book, co-authored with Manuela Bernardi and illustrated by Kathrin Honesta, features built-in sound clips where you get to hear the voices of 14 amazing women at the touch of a button!

DP: What a timely and innovative book! 

What is the best way for readers to get in touch with you or get their hands on your books?

KM: You can contact me through my website at You can also find purchase links for all my books there. They are all available through the usual online booksellers, but you can also purchase signed and personalized copies of all my books at the Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore. Deaf Camps, Inc. is a an entirely volunteer-run nonprofit organization that provides communication-rich camps for Deaf and hard of hearing children and children learning American Sign Language, and I have been a proud volunteer and board member for the last 18 years. All proceeds from books purchased through the Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore support Deaf Camps, Inc.’s scholarship program. So it’s a great way to purchase great gifts and support a great cause!

DP: I will also say they have one of the most magnificent logos I have ever seen (readers, you will need to pop on over to the links above to see it for yourself!)

Thank you so much for stopping by the blog, Kathy. Best wishes for a successful launch of Nita's Day!

KM: Thanks for having me on your site, Dawn!  And happy signing, everyone!

Purchase Nita’s First Signs at Deaf Camps, Inc. Online Bookstore (autographed copies that support a great cause!) | | | | (use code BOOKS for 20% off)

Purchase Nita’s Day at | | | Deaf Camps, Inc. online bookstore (signed and personalized copies available starting May 12, 2020.) | (use code BOOKS for 20% off)

Join Kathy MacMillan online on Tuesday, May 12 to celebrate the launch of Nita's Day!
11 AM Eastern/8AM Pacific: ASL Storytime on Facebook Live at

2 PM Eastern/11 AM Pacific: Spoken English Storytime on Facebook Live at

Kathy MacMillan (she/her) is a writer, American Sign Language interpreter, librarian, signing storyteller, and avowed Hufflepuff.  She writes picture books (the Little Hands Signing series, Familius Press), children’s nonfiction (She Spoke: 14 Women Who Raised Their Voices and Changed the World, Familius Press), and young adult fantasy (Sword and Verse and Dagger and Coin, both HarperTeen). She has also published many resource books for educators, librarians, and parents. Kathy serves as the co-Regional Advisor for the Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia Region of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She lives near Baltimore, MD. Find her online at: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Instagram   

Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to Oregon Reads Aloud and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at