First Stories

First Stories Returns in 2022…Featuring Bonnie Kelso

Happy New Year to each one of you! I hope and pray that this year finds you healthy and ready to tackle something new – or something familiar – with enthusiasm. New years do smell of fresh starts, don’t they? Perhaps this year will bring a “first” for you…or even two.

For this week’s featured author, Bonnie Kelso, this year will mark a first – the release of her debut picture book! But, I’m getting a little ahead of myself! Allow me to welcome Bonnie to First Stories!

Bonnie Kelso writes and illustrates books for children and adults that encourage individualism and brave creative self-expression. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, she has a background in exhibit design and has worked on projects for NASA, National Geographic, and the Smithsonian Institution. Bonnie traveled all the way around the world… twice! An avid snorkeler and scuba diver, she has explored every sea or ocean she has come close to, except for the really cold ones. Bonnie still enjoys indulging her wandering nature whenever she gets the chance. Currently, she lives in Las Vegas with her family with whom she enjoys many real and imaginary adventures. 

Me: Bonnie! Happy New Year and welcome to First Stories!

Bonnie: Thanks so much for having me, Heather!

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

Bonnie: Oh, wow! I love this question so much, Heather. In 2017, I wrote an activity book that encourages children to speak up for themselves. At the time, my son was having difficulty speaking to his teachers and peers. I had the same problem when I was little, so I knew how frightened he was inside. I thought if I wrote this book for him he would feel less alone in his struggle. It’s about a Seakin who doesn’t like being called a mermaid. It’s titled, I AM SHAYLEE SEAKIN: SHARING MY TRUTH.

Cover of Shaylee!

Me: What an amazing gift to be able to give to your son! Where is this story now?

Bonnie: It’s actually available on Amazon because I self-published it. I just now re-read it with fresh eyes. My illustration skills have evolved quite a bit since then, but the theme tackles some really interesting ideas and there’s an innocence about it that I still love. It’s not really a picture book, but more of an activity book, so, for now, I’m leaving it right where it is. I always thought it would be fun to explore the Seakins as a chapter book series, so who knows where the story might go someday!

Me: No way! How awesome that you took the plunge and self-published this story! And it’s still available!! (Click here if you’d like to order a copy!) Looking back, what elements of that first story made it unmarketable? Did you receive feedback on that story? What did that feedback teach you?

Bonnie: It’s definitely a unicorn of a book and doesn’t really fit into a genre which I think makes it ultimately difficult to market.

I never received any professional feedback on it because I lacked the self-confidence to share it with anyone. Partly I was afraid of negative criticism and partly I didn’t have the ability at that time to handle disappointment.

What I really cared about most was helping my son. When I gave him a copy I watched his reaction to it very closely. He read it quietly and asked me a few questions about it then started drawing on the pages. I never told him why I wrote it for him. I just let him explore it on his own. That memory is very precious to me and it taught me the power of children’s books. They can deliver messages children crave to hear in the most gentle and surprising ways. He still struggles with paralyzing shyness, but it’s no longer so extreme that I worry about his safety.

Me: What a powerful story about your First Story! Not only does it highlight the power and importance of books in the lives of children (and adults) – I know we can all remember a book that challenged or changed us – but is also helped your own son. How wonderful that he does not struggle as much anymore.

Are there any themes in SHAYLEE that you can see in your writing today?

Bonnie: Oh, definitely! I love ocean stories! It also has the environmental stewardship theme that’s incorporated into NUDI GILL. Also, there’s something in Shaylee’s voice that I recognize as my own. It’s a voice that I tap into often when I’m writing dialogue. It’s playful, but vulnerable, too.

Me: Why is SHAYLEE special to you? How was it important for your writing journey? I feel like I may know a bit of the answer to these questions, but still want to hear more! 🙂

Bonnie: Well, writing that book gave me a tiny taste of the author-illustrator lifestyle. I’ve been hooked ever since! I had always wanted to write and illustrate for children but had never really given myself the time to try it. After I wrote Shaylee, I started writing a chapter book for my other son. I started paying attention to the books we checked out of the library. I really studied them in new ways. I specifically remember pouring over every detail of NOT QUITE NARWHAL, by Jessie Sima. Then a friend of mine recommended that I join SCBWI and that set me on a path toward traditional publishing.

Since then I’ve learned so much about myself and how important it is for me to connect with other writers and illustrators. I am so grateful for all my wonderful critique partners and couldn’t imagine going it alone without them. There are so many amazing people in the kidlit community that are available to support emerging authors and illustrators. It’s really overwhelming sometimes how much they care about bringing quality literature to children. Not only has my work improved because of them, but my self-confidence as well. I find now that I look forward to and am eager for feedback and criticism. All I want for my future is to grow and become a better storyteller.

Me: I echo everything you said about the Kidlit community, Bonnie! It is truly something unique and special in the professional world – at least what I have tasted of it. My critique groups have encouraged, challenged, and compelled me to grow and write increasingly better stories for kids. And the agents and editors – they give so much advice and encouragement as well! Like you said, everyone has a passion to see quality stories in the hands of every child.

Speaking of quality books and working with editors, I would love to hear about your book release! Coming soon (in Fall 2022) from Gnome Road Publishing – NUDI GILL! What can you tell us about this book? The title is just SO fun! How did you come up with the idea for this book? Does it relate at all to your “first story”?

Bonnie: Oh, my, yes! I’m so excited to be working with Gnome Road Publishing on this project! They are definitely an indie-publisher with all the right stuff and have been such a pleasure to collaborate with.

The idea for NUDI GILL came from my own personal obsession with nudibranchs (a.k.a. sea slugs). As a diver, spotting a nudibranch is like striking gold. It’s a special thrill for sure. Also, I love the theme that something so tiny can be so fierce. They truly are lovable and I hope that the book will inspire a whole new generation of nudibranch enthusiasts. There’s a scene in my Shaylee story where she watches a baby Seakin emerge from an egg ribbon. That was directly inspired by nudibranchs, so yes, there is definitely a connection there.

Me: I am super excited to welcome NUDI GILL and other Little Gnome books into the world this fall! Below is a preview of what’s to come:

Be sure to pre-order NUDI GILL or pick up a copy when it releases this fall! And thank you again, Bonnie, for joining me today to talk about your First Story!

Bonnie: Thank you so much, Heather, for inviting me to share the story of my First Story with you and your readers. I hope it will inspire children and adults to read more. And if there are writers or illustrators out there on the fence about diving into the #kidlit community via SCBWI, Storyteller Academy, 12×12, or Twitter, I hope my story will encourage you to take the plunge. There’s an amazing journey of support and discovery waiting for you.

Bonnie is offering a picture book manuscript or dummy critique for one LUCKY author or author-illustrator! To be entered in the drawing, you will need to follow Bonnie on social media: Twitter at @bonniekelso or Instagram @bonnie.kelso. After following Bonnie, return to this post and comment that you followed her. One winner will be selected at random on Tuesday, January 18.

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