Hello readers. Today I have the pleasure of bringing another Birth Stories for Books interview your way.
My guest is Phaea Crede, author of the picture book, JET THE CAT (Is Not a Cat) (illustrated by Terry Runyan, Barefoot Books, May 2021.)
Phaea shares many inspiring details about her path to publication in this interview, so let's get right to it:
Dawn Prochovnic: I’m so glad to have you on the blog, Phaea, and congratulations on the release of your first picture book, JET THE CAT (Is Not a Cat.)
Phaea Crede: Thank you so much for having me!
DP: I read your recent interview on Tara Lazar’s blog, and it sounds like this story was inspired by the experience of your 3rd grade teacher leading you to believe that you couldn’t be a good writer because of your dyslexia.
PC: Sadly true! I’d always loved making up stories, but because of my dyslexia I struggled in some key academic areas: spelling, grammar, and handwriting. I was often frustrated.
Then, in the 3rd grade, I got a report card that said something like “Phaea is very creative, but needs to try harder on her spelling and grammar.” But—twist—I was already trying really, really hard! The built-up frustration and this unfortunate report card led me conclude I wasn’t smart enough be a writer. So, I gave up.
DP: I’d love to hear how that (unfortunate!) event transformed into the idea for a book about a cat that "learns to embrace her unique brand of catness,” and I’d also like to hear about the process and timeframe between your initial idea and the story that was formulated fully enough to submit to an editor.
PC: The idea for Jet came from my mom’s cat, Eddie, who loved water, something I thought all cats hated! I liked the idea of another cat being a jerk about it to Eddie, maybe even claiming that “REAL cat’s hate water.” Once I had that idea, I flashed back to 3rd grade when I’d internalized that “REAL writers don’t have dyslexia,” something I now knew, thanks to years of learning to love myself, was false.
I had the idea Summer of 2018 and rewrote the story about 15 times with the help of my amazing critique group, Words with Friends. They guided me to embrace a repeated structure and play up the heart along with the humor. By the time I submitted it to Barefoot Books that fall, Jet had come a long way!
DP: That's quite a back story, Phaea. Thank you so much for sharing that with us.
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?
PC: In the early version of Jet the Cat, Jet was called Nat. Nat the Cat. A bad choice based on nothing by a rhyme. Happily, I moved away from that to a name that actually related to water!
DP: Jet is a great name!
PC: Also, the story originally had more creatures Jet tries to be: a fish, an alien, and a mythical creature called a Tatzelwurm. The Tatzelwurm bit the dust early, but the fish and the alien made it all the way to submission!
My editor, Lisa, who is a genius, gently guided me away from the alien and even the fish because it was so similar to a frog.
When I needed a new animal for the book I actually ran a poll on Twitter to decide between a goat, a horse, a squirrel, and a raccoon. Goat was the winner by far, so I added one to the book!
DP: What a clever solution for deciding what new character to add--and what a super-cute goat!
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?
PC: Two moments for me. One, when my friend and fellow author Jessica Southwick laid out a structure that she thought would suit the story better than the one I was using. Beta readers save books. And two, the 2018 New England SCBWI Agent/Editor day. I heard Lisa Rosinski of Barefoot Books speak about her wish list and realized Jet might have a home there. I was right!
DP: Hooray for beta readers (and I love hearing and sharing SCBWI success stories!)
JET THE CAT (Is Not a Cat) is illustrated by Terry Runyan, whose “how to draw cats” videos on YouTube and Instagram are wildly popular. What was it like to hear news of that match up? (Purrr-ty exciting, I’ll bet!)
PC: One of my favorite things about being “just” the author is that you get to hand your story over to an artist who creates their own interpretation of the world. When I found out that artist was going to be Terry, who does the greatest cat-related art on the planet and probably the galaxy, I’m pretty sure I wept. Terry took Jet into a plane of existence I couldn’t have imagined. So, yeah, I was excited!
DP: You’ve mentioned that “as a writer with dyslexia,” you’re “proud to demonstrate that disabilities don’t have to stand in the way of dreams,” and your bio indicates you’ve had a variety of writing-related jobs, including scriptwriting for the TV shows Nature Cat and Word Girl and playing and writing about video games for a living. Is there anything (i.e. resources, techniques, individuals) that you credit with being particularly helpful to you along the way as you’ve achieved some of your writing-related dreams?
PC: The number one thing that made the difference for me was to stop beating myself up for having the brain that I had. I just accepted that I am prone to spelling and grammar mistakes, and started asking my friends to look over important things before I sent them out. Simple as that.
And now if I make a mistake, I don’t hate myself. I just say “Oh, a mistake. That tracks. Let’s fix it!” My cognitive disability is mine; I love it, I accept it, and life is much easier.
DP: That's such a healthy response, Phaea. Thank you for sharing this.
PC: Plus, I added a free dyslexia font plugin to my Chrome browser recently called OpenDyslexic. Now my brain doesn’t haven’t to work so hard to read websites! I wish every book came in a dyslexic font.
DP: I had no idea something like that existed. Hooray for technological advances!
You’ve said that "nothing in the world compares to writing picture books.” How is writing picture books different and/or better than the other writing-related jobs you’ve held?
PC: Picture books were the gateway to not only reading for me, but learning about the world and the people in it. As a kid, other people were very overwhelming and hard to understand. Picture books gave me the chance to sit back and identify with others, while going on mini-adventures.
Plus, my parents read them to me, so picture books were this warm and cuddly family experience of ultimate safety. Now I get to relive that with my kids in the same way—as do my parents. Picture books bring generations together! Picture books are for everyone.
DP: Well said. I love picture books, too!
That said, in my experience, writing picture books is challenging enough without the added element of a disability. For those of us who might not be as familiar with the particulars of dyslexia, can you share a little bit about what unique challenges it poses to you as a writer?
PC: Hahah I could talk about this for a while. But there are two things that really make writing hard.
1) My handwriting! My dyslexia presents like a disconnect between my brain and my hand. If I want to jot down ideas in a notebook or write something out instead of typing, it’s very challenging. The words and letters jump out of place and I have to cross every other word off. That’s exhausting!
2) How quickly I become overwhelmed! I can’t process many things at once, so if I have multiple drafts or multiple sets of critique notes, or multiple ideas, I get frustrated and want to quit. That can be very discouraging, too.
DP: Those sound like very frustrating challenges, indeed.
In addition to inspiring your book, are there specific ways in which your personal experience with dyslexia has informed your work as a writer?
PC: The gift of dyslexia is that I’ve been forced let go of perfection. Accepting that I’m a human being that makes mistakes allows me to take bigger risks, try weirder ideas, or be willing to scrap it all and start over. And after essentially rejecting myself for so many years, getting story rejections isn’t a big deal!
Also, not to brag, but the disabled writing community is AWESOME. Being a part of that is a joy.
DP: Your joy is infectious, Phaea. I have no doubt you will inspire many young readers and writers as you share your work and your story.
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?
PC: Is it a cop out to say NO REGRETS? When I started out, I was so naïve about what made a good book, but other authors took time out of their lives to give me advice and set me up for success! I wouldn't want it any other way.
DP: That's a great answer. Not a cop out at all.
PC: Oh, wait maybe one thing: don’t call your cat Nat. That’s super bad.
Is there something you wish someone would ask you about your path to publication for JET THE CAT (Is Not a Cat) that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet?
PC: Just that Jet was rejected by so many agents before she found a home at Barefoot Books. If you believe in your story, don’t give up!
DP: That is excellent advice. Very encouraging, inspiring, and true! I always say the goal is to find the right someone who loves your story nearly as much as you do.
Do you have anything you’d like to tell us about what you’re currently working on?
PC: I have one super, secret project that should be announced soon, but right now I’m obsessed with giant squids and I’m trying to write a story featuring one. I’ll let you know if I pull it off!
DP: I can't wait to hear about the super, secret project, and yay for giant squid obsessions!
Thanks so much for sharing your Birth Story for JET THE CAT (Is Not a Cat) with us, Phaea!
PC: Thank you so much!
DP: Friends, by now you know that I'm quite partial to supporting the authors that share their experiences here with us and also your favorite indie bookstore. JET THE CAT (Is Not a Cat) is available everywhere books are sold. I hope you'll jet right out and get a copy for yourself or a young reader you know.
Phaea Crede loves writing silly picture books for silly kids. Serious kids, too! Her debut picture book Jet the Cat (is Not a Cat) will be published Spring 2021 by Barefoot Books. Phaea lives outside of Boston with her husband, two kiddos, two kittens, and a slightly stinky dog named Gus.
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.