First Stories

First Stories!! Featuring Brian Gehrlein

Reading the responses to last week’s first-ever “First Stories” interview was wonderful! Norene Paulson’s stories and insight taught me so much – thanks, Norene! And thank you for all of the comments and encouraging feedback! This week, I’m thrilled to be talking to Brian Gehrlein, whose debut picture book, THE BOOK OF RULES (illustrated by Tom Knight), releases very soon! Many of you know Brian as the creator of Picture Book Spotlight – And you can find Brian roaming around Twitter @BrianGehrlein. Read on – you won’t want to miss the sneak peeks that Brian has provided of his hilarious book! 🙂

Me: Hello Brian! A huge welcome to “First Stories”! Thanks for taking time to talk with me about your very, very first story.

Brian: Glad to be here.

Me: So, tell me about that “first story.” You know, the one that really pushed you to consider publishing. What inspired you to write it? What was it about?

Brian: I first realized I wanted to write picture books when I worked as a special education paraprofessional in an elementary school. Every day, I was surrounded by small group read-alouds, Tumblebooks, book studies, library check-out trips, and library whole-group story times. For a year, picture books were everywhere and I was saturated in kidlit. I discovered Robert Munsch, Laura Numeroff, Drew Daywalt and a million others. Eventually, I remember thinking, I can do that too. I had mostly been a playwright, poet, and short story author but after so much time with picture books, I knew I had to try.

My first attempt was a manuscript called THE ROUNDEST SHAPE. It was about a little square named Eugene who lives in a community of circles and just wants to be like everyone else. They have an annual downhill race and Eugene decides to enter. The winner of this race is always awarded the title of “the roundest shape” (hence the title). So, he trains in an adorable little montage of vignettes, attempting to “get in shape” (yes, and I totally used that pun). The day of the big race arrives and Eugene takes a tumble and gets one of his corners stuck in the mud (dark moment). Giving up the chance to be “the roundest shape,” he slides down the hill—but soon begins gathering speed and starts passing circles. To his amazement (and the amazement of the others), Eugene wins the race and is ironically declared “the roundest shape.” I think in the end he decides the award should go to a circle and gives up wanting to be like everyone else. He accepts his squareness and finds peace. So, there were themes of persistence, fitting in, a fish out of water, self-acceptance, being okay with standing out from a majority, and discovering one’s unique strengths.

Me: I LOVE it, and…(coughs slightly)…um…I actually have a working manuscript about a circle…comparing himself to other shapes…there may have been a race involved. Ha! I even included the “get in shape” pun as well! That manuscript has been revised so many times that it has nothing to do with a race anymore. And it doesn’t have that pun. But the similarities are uncanny.

But the training montage?! That is great! I love a good 80’s style training montage!


Brian: Alas, it is collecting digital dust in the often heavily populated story sepulcher of my Google drive.

The manuscript mausoleum.

The Forgetting Place (where former stories go to die a slow death until they are forgotten).

Sad as it is, I think the story (in its current execution) feels a bit didactic and simplistic. Sure, it’s cute. It has some substance and redeeming qualities. And this manuscript wasn’t sent to the Google drive grave because I queried it too soon (a mistake of which I am Offender-in-Chief) since I wrote the original draft in 2012/2013 and then sat on it until 2017. I initially played around with picture books when I was a paraprofessional but then got lost in “being a high school theatre teacher land” and didn’t write any new books for several years. Perhaps one day I’ll dig it up and see what’s there. Or not. Who knows? 

Me: I’m up for collaborating on a geometry-inspired racing picture book anytime! But are there themes in the ROUNDEST SHAPE that you can see in your writing today?

Brian: Probably. I think I generally circle back around to themes of self-acceptance, embracing divergent and heterodoxic thinking, persistence to achieve one’s goals, etc.

So, yes…I think definitely.

It’s likely because those deeper themes echo personal values earned in the furnace of life experience and so we hold on to those big ideas, eager to dress them up another way that maybe works better.

More specifically, one big one that I connect to on a personal level is the idea of a fish out of water. I grew up as an Army brat and always played the part of “new guy,” never really belonging somewhere very long, and perpetually longing for acceptance and authentic community. I think that’s where that comes from. Those deep emotional experiences and ideas have stayed with me even today and I think always come out in my stories whether I’m aware of them or not.

They say “write what you know”…so why run from that? What deep emotional truths from life are embedded in your bones?

Me: Exactly! When I was younger, I wondered about that phrase – “write what you know”. I thought, My life hasn’t really been anything special (well, it has to me). But not super unique. But I’m beginning to understand that “write what you know” refers to deep emotional truths, core experiences that you have had that are universal.

But back to your First Story – Looking back, what elements of that first story made it unmarketable? Did you receive feedback on that story? What did that feedback teach you?

Brian: I briefly already touched on this but I think it was a tad didactic. Feedback echoed this as well. I have a tendency to wield a heavy theme-club and always need reminders not to bludgeon my readers too much.

It was also narrative heavy so I think I wasn’t experienced enough to be aware or mindful of that other collaborator in the equation—the artist. Hot take: picture books…have pictures in them…that’s what makes them picture books! Shocking revelation, right? I know, I know. But how easily do we seem to forget the type of book we’re writing? We have to leave room for the illustrator to contribute. We have to create space. It’s their story too! All that to say, I suppose it read more like a storybook and didn’t have the legs to stand as a picture book.

Finally, I think shapes as characters is risky. It’s such a saturated idea. It’s not new. And I think some agents and editors have a harder time connecting with a personified shape. So, if you’ll please permit the pun…I think Eugene felt a little two-dimensional (cue the sad, muted trumpet—wah, wah, wah, waaaaaaaaaaaaah!). I think those three things are the  feedback I got on it, and, now with perspective, I see it too.

But it’s all so subjective. If I had written the same story and was, oh, I don’t know…Tom Cruise…maybe, just maybe, it would be a tad bit more marketable. I know this is a can of worms to open but I’m totally going there. I’m saying the quiet part out loud but let’s be real, people.

Platform matters.

When you’re a household name and have a powerful platform, those agents and editors are going to be enormously generous with their forgiveness of concept and execution. We all know it. And I don’t think that’s a cynical take. It’s understandable and grounded in market realities—people want books to sell. If you’re not a name or have zero platform, your words need to be lightning. Your stories have to be lightning. It’s a tough gig and a hard sell when you only have your words to speak for you.

Me: I’m taking tons of notes right now…I’m beginning to wonder how much life my own Circle has in him. Not that I should just roll over (pun intended) or forget about him – the market is also full of animal protagonists and narrative nonfiction – but yes, words must be lightning in a bottle. What a great reminder! And thanks for your honesty! We’ve all seen that play out and need to acknowledge the realities of publishing – it is a business!

And speaking of leaving room for amazing illustrators – here’s a sneak peek from THE BOOK OF RULES! An interior spread highlighting Tom Knight’s fabulous artwork!

I just CANNOT wait for this book to release! But back to Eugene’s journey: Why is that “first story” special to you? How was it important for your writing journey?

Brian: THE ROUNDEST SHAPE is special because it was the first picture book where I took a step. It’s one thing to think, I can do that too—I think we all probably do with a lot of things. It’s another thing to actually try. To move from thought to action. It’s terrifying—and wonderful. So, I tried. And I had a manuscript. Had I not taken that step of faith to try, I wouldn’t have the journey I’ve had—and certainly wouldn’t be on the doorstep of my debut. Everyone has a first and we tend to remember our firsts, don’t we? Our firsts teach us a lot. Because we usually fail. And failing is part of learning. We have to give ourselves permission to fail—permission to try. It is only then that we learn. We all have to start somewhere…

Me: So. Much. Wisdom. I once heard someone compare writing a book, even a “short, easy” (HA!) picture book, with planning a vacation. It’s one thing to think – it would be nice to visit the Bahamas one day – and another thing entirely to research and plan and prepare and then take that trip. We do all have to start somewhere…

So tell me even more about THE BOOK OF RULES! As a mom, this sounds like my kind of book! Ha! How did you come up with the idea for this book? Does it relate at all to your “first story”?

Brian: Thank you so much! To begin, I have a little announcement about the release date…due to global shipping delays, the release date for RULES has been pushed back into November. THE BOOK OF RULES will now be available for purchase on November 16th.

More time for book buzz and more time to pre-order! Woot, woot! Here’s a little about the book from Macmillan:

An interactive picture book with dynamic illustrations, in which readers have to follow the rules or risk a run-in with a monster—with a gentle approach to mindfulness along the way.

Beware! This book has rules. You must follow all the rules. If you break the rules . . . Dennis the monster will eat you. And you don’t want to be Dennis-food—do you?

With a laugh-out-loud, interactive style, The Book of Rules invites you to get your sillies out before it’s time to focus and listen to directions. And you better get started, because Dennis can’t wait to eat—or, um—meet you!

I came up with the idea for this book in the fall of 2017 while working as a special education paraprofessional in an elementary school—for the second time (I had left high school theatre teacher land). I think it came from observing all the squirrelliness of students every day.

Part of that assignment was attending library time with a few different students so I got a healthy dose of group story time—aspiring picture book author gold! That year I experimented a lot with form and played with different narrative styles in the picture books I was writing. I think I was honing my voice. I was curious about creating a picture book that had a highly interactive element that generated a unique experience for the little ones hearing it. I wanted their participation in the book. Using the premise of a child-eating monster named Dennis to encourage their participation seemed to be a unique way to appeal to their very active imaginations.

“This book has rules. You must follow all the rules. If you don’t, Dennis will eat you.” That’s the basic formula for the story. And Dennis is probably the worst monster name I could have come up with. That was important to maintain the lighthearted tone.

The other element at play with the story is it’s written to move from zany and silly to more calm and focused. To move from chaos to order. So, there’s a line of mindfulness and a progression of “winding down” to orchestrate this. I hope kids, parents, librarians, and teachers have a ton of fun getting those sillies out together! It should be a unique story time experience. And I sincerely hope nobody is eaten by Dennis…

Me: Hmmm…I wonder if my own kids will follow the rules! Ha! Brian, thank you so much for giving us a peek into your first story and your upcoming book! And you also gave us so many good ideas to ponder – writing what you know, using your experiences and emotions as jumping off points, giving yourself space and freedom to experiment with different structures and points of view. Fantastic!

Brian: Thanks so much for having me! *whisper, whisper*

Me: What’s that? *pause* Oh, Brian wanted me to be sure to tell you that Rule #14 states you must pre-order a copy of THE BOOK OF RULES…or Dennis will eat you!

But seriously, click on a link below to order your own copy today! If you order from Brian’s local bookstore, you can get a signed copy!



The Learning Tree (my local indie bookstore)—for signed copies, fill out the name and personalized message fields before check out!

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