This spring marks the release of the first FIVE picture books from Gnome Road Publishing!! This small press based in Kentucky is dedicated to publishing books that inform and engage, develop and strengthen a love for reading, and bring smiles to faces of all ages. This publisher also focuses heavily on RE-READABILITY – that elusive quality in a book that makes a child (or a grown-up) reach for it again and again. You can read more about their line-up of unique and amazing books on their website:
One of their first releases is a gorgeous book of poems about animals in their surprising, unique colors called ANIMALS IN SURPRISING SHADES. And my featured guest for today, Susan Johnston Taylor, wrote all of the words in this remarkable book, illustrated by Annie Bakst! School Library Journal gave it a thumbs-up, saying – “A STEAM-themed poetry collection that should have broad appeal for young readers and will be a welcome addition to the shelves.“
Me: Welcome to “First Stories”, Susan! And congrats on the release of ANIMALS IN SURPRISING SHADES!
Susan: Thanks, Heather! It’s great to be here.
Me: I’ve been super excited to welcome these five books into the world this April!! It feels like they are “siblings” to my 2024 picture book – TRUNK GOES THUNK! – which will also be published by Gnome Road. This group of authors and illustrators working with GRP is amazingly talented. It’s an honor to be included alongside each of you.
Susan: I feel the same way! It’s been great to help promote the books of fellow “Gnomies” and cheer each other on.
Me: I’d love to hear a little about your “first story” – the one that prompted you to start writing for kids. What was it about? Is it out “in the world”? What was it about?
Susan: Back in early 2016, I was burned out on writing about personal finance business for adults. (I’ve worked as a full-time freelance writer since 2008.) My husband suggested that I try writing something—anything!—else, and I responded with the wildest, wackiest idea I could think of. Our rescue dog Sebastian was nearby, so I looked at Sebastian and said “maybe I’ll write a children’s book about our dog!”
“Yes! Why not?” replied my husband. I sat on that idea for a while because I had no idea where to start. I had a character, but what was the story?
A few months later, I saw a social media post from the parents of a little boy who was being bullied for his red hair. It broke my heart because as a kid, I was also bullied for my red hair. The parents asked people to respond with words of kindness and encouragement, so I posted a photo of Sebastian (a fellow redhead) and responded as I imagined Sebastian might.
An idea for a picture book about Sebastian dealing with bullies started to form in my head. I imagined what his life might’ve been like before we adopted him. Did he feel “othered” as he watched other dogs get adopted? Was there an alpha dog preying on his feelings of insecurity? I drafted a manuscript about a group of dogs trying to get adopted from an animal shelter with Sebastian as my main character.
Me: Awwww, Sebastian! I love this idea so much! And I love that you wrote what you knew, but applied it in a slightly different way, with a story that would appeal to what kids worry about. Where is it now?
Susan: It’s collecting digital dust on my computer, and I’m fine with that.
Me: Ha! I totally get that! It’s funny, though – I’ve told a few people (not writers) about my own “first story” recently, and they LOVE the premise. It’s made me wonder if I should dust it off and revise…we’ll see…
Back to Sebastian – Are there any themes in that story that you can see in your writing today?
Susan: Yes! All my manuscripts aim to spread kindness. I love animals, so I have several more picture book projects (fiction and nonfiction) about animals. My debut picture book is all about animals. I’m shopping around two manuscripts about rescue dogs and another animal-related poetry collection. (One of the rescue dog stories was inspired by Sadie, a rescue dog we got during the pandemic.) I think we could all use an extra dose of kindness, so hopefully I get to share those stories with kids someday!
Me: I love all of this so much! Kindness + animals = amazing! I hope more of your stories make it into kids’ hands soon.
Looking back, what elements of that first story made it unmarketable? Did you receive feedback on that story? What did that feedback teach you?
Susan: It’s a sweet story, and it uses some classic picture book techniques like the rule of threes, but ultimately, it feels derivative of other books and doesn’t say anything new or unexpected. Can I Be Your Dog? by Troy Cummings explores dog rescue in a more unique format, told entirely through letters.
Rather than continuing to revise my story, I’ve moved onto other projects. I think starting with a more exciting and original premise is more likely to yield a publishable manuscript.
I did get feedback on the story. At that point, I’d earned a living writing for adults for nearly a decade, but the feedback made me realize I still had a lot to learn about writing for kids. When you’re writing for adults, you don’t have to leave room for the illustrator or consider what language is most kid-friendly.
Me: Yes! Writing for kids is much more challenging than many people realize. There are formulas…but you can’t be too formulaic. There are limits to number and kinds of words…but your word choice can’t be too boring. Whew!
Why is that “first story” special to you? How was it important for your writing journey?
Susan: Although it’s probably not going to be published, that first story is special to me because it sparked my interest in children’s publishing. Now, I’m hooked! Sebastian is the dog who taught me to love dogs and he’s also the muse who inspired this whole journey into children’s publishing.
Me: Thank you, Sebastian, for introducing Susan to writing for kids! Now, we all get to enjoy her gorgeous poems and stories!
Ok, tell me more about ANIMALS IN SURPRISING SHADES! It released on March 28 and so is already available to order from Amazon, B&N, and – most importantly – your favorite indie bookstore! Can you tell us a little about this book? How did you come up with the idea for this book? Does it relate at all to your “first story”?
Susan: In January 2020, I read about the Malabar Giant Squirrel, which has brightly colored fur. I started thinking about other animals with unusual coloring, and I found lots of examples. I’d read several of Jane Yolen’s fantastic STEM poetry collections, so I tried exploring this concept in poetry. After many, many revisions and many discarded poems (including one about the Malabar Giant Squirrel), I sold the project to Gnome Road in spring 2021. At that time, it was called COLORFUL CREATURES: POEMS ABOUT ANIMALS IN SURPRISING SHADES, but we later flipped the title to ANIMALS IN SURPRISING SHADES: POEMS ABOUT EARTH’S COLORFUL CREATURES.
This project and my very first story both come from feeling “othered” or too different. ANIMALS IN SURPRISING SHADES celebrates animals who defy our expectations: purple snails, red frogs, even a pink manta ray. In some ways redheads do this, too. We’re a lot less common than blondes and brunettes, so there are some negative stereotypes that can perpetuate bullying. But these differences are worth celebrating because they make our world more vibrant!
Me: Susan, thank you so much for talking with me about your beautiful book and your first story! Can’t wait to see more of your books in the world!
Susan: Thanks for having me, Heather!
Me: Ok, dear reader, now it’s YOUR turn to make a difference! Click on the link below to order your copy of ANIMALS IN SURPRISING SHADES. It is the perfect gift for anyone you know ages 3-6…or someone who just loves animals!
2 thoughts on “Animals in Surprising Shades”
Aww. Such a wonderful interview. Love reading about Sebastian and his role in your journey to writing for children. Your book is fabulous and I loved. Reading every word and learning about such incredible animals.
Thanks so much, Anita! What a fun interview this was! Love talking to fellow “Gnomies” and would love to feature you and your gorgeous book on First Stories!