June 8, 2022

Birth Stories for Books: A FAMILY LOOKS LIKE LOVE, by Kaitlyn Wells

Here comes a treat, readers! 

I recently had the opportunity to interview Kaitlyn Wells about her debut picture book, A FAMILY LOOKS LIKE LOVE, (illustrated by Sawyer Cloud, Penguin Random House/Flamingo Books, May 31, 2022). Today, I get to share that interview with you.

by Kaitlyn Wells and Sawyer Cloud

Dawn Prochovnic: Welcome to the blog, Kaitlyn. I’m looking forward to learning more about the path to publication for your debut picture book, A FAMILY LOOKS LIKE LOVE. 

In an earlier interview you shared that the inspiration for this book was based on heartbreaking experiences you had growing up as a biracial child. I wonder if you could share more specifically how and when the idea came to you to write about these experiences in the form of a children’s book featuring a young pup who looks different from her doggy siblings? 

Kaitlyn Wells: Honestly, reliving a painful childhood experience wasn't the first thing I wanted to write about, but friend and fellow author Nancy Redd reminded me that it's OK to put yourself into your art and tell empowering stories. I thought about what I want other people to know about what it felt like to be told you didn't belong and that your family wasn't your own, simply because of the color of your skin. Along the way, I remembered that my dog Sutton looks completely different from her own family, too. She's a Chihuahua-mix with a brown tricolor coat. Two of her siblings have scruffy blond coats, and another has a black tricolor coat. Sutton's also a dog who sees the best in everyone and loves you no matter what you look like. It just seemed like telling a difficult story with my dog as the conduit fit perfectly with what I was trying to do, and made it a little bit easier to write the story too.

Interior Image from A Family Looks Like Love

DP: It's so nice to have the backstory, Kaitlyn. Thanks for sharing it with us.

In addition to writing (and reading!) books for kids, you are an award-winning journalist, and you’ve written for a long list of different publications. This suggests you have quite a bit of experience submitting ideas to editors, and yet the children’s book publishing industry can pose its own unique challenges. I’d like to hear about the process and timeframe between your initial idea for this book and the manuscript that was formulated fully enough to submit to an editor. 

KW: Looking back, I've been writing stories since middle school. I've been honing my craft—as a writer, journalist, author or whatever you want to call me—my entire career. With this particular manuscript, I began scribbling down thoughts for the book in August 2019. But because of a mix of perfectionism and imposter syndrome, I didn't write my first draft until December 2019. From there, I went through several revisions with my critique partner. That same partner and friend shared my manuscript with her agent to ask for advice on what I should do next. Then things took a surprising turn. The agent, Jane Startz fell in love with the manuscript and offered to represent me. I did my research, we had a great conversation, and I signed with her that following May. After a few more revisions we went on submission. At that point, it became emotionally draining with every "no" we received from editors and publishing houses. My story was an #ownvoices manuscript, so it felt like every rejection was a reminder that my voice, that my lived experience, wasn't good enough for the publishing world. One day, I finally received good news, and in September 2020 I accepted an offer with Penguin Random House/Philomel Books (currently under Flamingo Books). Now, you'll be able to find A FAMILY LOOKS LIKE LOVE in bookstores on May 31, 2022! 

DP: That's quite a path-to-publication, story, Kaitlyn! Hooray! 

KW: Thank you! Looking back, I'm still surprised by how fast the process went and I believe my book publishing journey isn't typical. Although, just saying that out loud, I'm reminded that I don't have to justify my journey and I need to push imposter syndrome aside (yet again). So, correction: I didn't luck into anything during the process. I worked incredibly hard and earned everything I have achieved.

DP: Indeed! 

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 A FAMILY LOOKS LIKE LOVE to find its way to publication? I’d also like to hear if there is anything in particular that you bring from your other research and writing experiences that helps you be more successful in your role as a children’s book author?

KW: All of the credit in the world goes to my colleague, Nancy Redd, who believed in me. Well, I should say my mother is the one who's always believed in me, followed by my wonderful husband. But in this particular instance, it was Redd who pushed me to write this particular picture book at this moment in time, and opened another door by sharing the manuscript with her agent. I will also say that our meeting was an accidental encounter. Redd and I live on opposite coasts in the U.S., and we only know one another because one day I shared a job opening at my company and she replied to the posting. I helped her through the application process by offering her cover letter and interview help, and when she landed the job our friendship grew. This is just to say that you never know what connections you make today will lead to good fortune in the future. So do the networking, be kind to everyone you meet, and put yourself out there.

DP: That's great advice, Kaitlyn, and such an excellent example of this advice in action. 

KW: I think so, too. As for the second part of your question, I'm a firm believer that skills are transferable—you've just got to know how to apply them to each new situation. I bring everything into my kidlit journey. The research and reporting skills and ability to translate complex information into compelling narratives translates well into my work as a children's book author. 

DP: What an inspiring and empowering perspective. 

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 that stands out that was included in your earliest drafts and survived the revision process?

KW: The first version of the story featured a not-so-friendly squirrel. I don't want to spoil the story, but that character was later replaced with a honey bee who says some "stinging" things to my main character, Sutton. 

DP: Ha! It will be fun for readers to discover this revision! 

KW: And since looks are integral to this story, I also considered the coat colors and textures of the dogs. The original version described Sutton's family as cream-colored or white (a nod to some of my own family members). But during the revision process, it became clearer to me that the story was centering whiteness, which wasn't something I wanted to do. The dogs ended up having yellow and brown coats instead, and I like this version better because it reflects the coats of the real-life Sutton's siblings.

Interior Image from A Family Looks Like Love

DP: This is an excellent example of how important the revision process is to the writing process. 

You write on a wide range of topics and for a variety of different publications in your role as a journalist. You also publish a newsletter "that explores how Black, Indigenous, and womxn of color navigate the world,” and you are engaged in many activities and initiatives, such as volunteering for organizations like the ASPCA and standing up for banned books. How do you balance the time between your different writing projects and the different aspects of the book publishing business alongside an active personal life?

KW: Oh goodness, I am nowhere near on top of my game. For example, I will admit my newsletter isn't as active as I would like it to be. That's all to say that my work-life balance often has its struggles. But honestly, I love being busy and learning and growing as a person. I love helping others, especially animals, and if I can do something to make the world a tiny bit better, then I'm going to try. 

When it comes to finding that balance, I constantly remind myself that perfection doesn't exist, and just doing the thing is better than doing nothing at all. In general, I try to devote an hour or two to each major project with the understanding that I can always come back to it and improve upon it another day. And if I don't that's OK too because I made enough progress that allows me to check it off my to-do list. No matter what, I try to remain in the moment and find joy in the task at hand so I don't obsess about it later on. Otherwise, I think self-tormenting can detract from my entire point of creating and growing and learning and helping others. It's a constant battle, and I'm always working on finding that balance.

DP: Thanks for the healthy and helpful perspective, Kaitlyn.  I'm grateful for the reminder that we are all a work-in-progress. 

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?

KW: If I could go back to my childhood self who loved drawing horses and fairies, I would tell her to keep at it. I desperately wish I had developed my illustrator skills as there's a lot more freedom to tell stories a certain way when you have a strong say on both the words and images associated with your books. Then I would tell my adult self to just get the words out on the page. They don't need to be perfect because they can always be improved upon later. Just write it down. Come back to it later. Also, don't be afraid to write more stories than you think people want to read because, honestly, the world can always use empowering tales by a strong, Black biracial woman. Lastly, I would tell both selves that you deserve to be here, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

DP: Yes, to all of this. 

Is there something you wish someone would ask you about your path to publication for A FAMILY LOOKS LIKE LOVE that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet? 

KW: What I will say is that every child matters. Everyone deserves to be represented in the books that they read. Don't be afraid to push boundaries and stay true to the authentic stories that you want to tell. 

If someone tells you that your experiences as a diverse author don't have merit, surround yourself with people who respect you and your art. If someone actively keeps your story and the stories of your literary peers out of the hands of readers, know that you can do something about it. You can report book censorship to the American Library Association or the National Coalition Against Censorship, and run for local office to combat proposed censorship laws. 

DP: Thank you for this, Kaitlyn. I know some of our readers really needed to hear these words and receive these resource links today. 

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

KW: I have so many unpublished stories in the works. Right now, I'm excited about my upcoming biographical STEM picture book. I hope to announce it soon. I encourage you to subscribe to my newsletter for updates. (Shameless plug, I know.)

DP: Shameless plugs are welcome here! 

Thanks so much for sharing your Birth Story for A FAMILY LOOKS LIKE LOVE with us, Kaitlyn! 

KW: Thank you for inviting me to participate! And before I forget, you can always snag a signed copy of A FAMILY LOOKS LIKE LOVE with one of my local indies. Happy reading!

DP: Dear readers, you've heard me say it before: the best way to thank an author whose insights have been helpful and/or inspiring to you is to support their work. Buy their books. Request them from your library. Read and share them with others. A FAMILY LOOKS LIKE LOVE is available everywhere books are borrowed and sold, including your own local, indie bookstore


Image Credit: Sarah Kobos
Kaitlyn Wells (she/her) is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among others. Her commentary on diverse literature can be found in The New York Times Book Review, BookPage, and Diverse Kids Books. Her debut picture book A Family Looks Like Love arrives May 31, 2022 with Penguin Random House/Flamingo Books. She lives in New York City with her wonderful husband, rambunctious dog, and demanding cat. Visit KaitWells.com to subscribe to her newsletter that explores how Black, Indigenous, and womxn of color navigate the world. And follow her on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter


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, 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.  

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