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 www.dawnprochovnic.com.