Hello friends, and welcome to the March 2023 FEATURE INTERVIEW. Today we are sharing the floor with special guest Janet Sumner Johnson. Janet is a children’s book author, wife, and mother of three, living in Utah, who writes both picture books and middle-grade stories.
Her debut picture book, Help Wanted: Must Love Books (Capstone, March 2020), was the winner of the 2021 CLEL BELL Read Awards and nominated for both the Colorado and Washington State Children's Choice Book Awards. Her other picture books include Braver Than Brave and A Bad Case of the Almosts, and she has an exciting new picture book series beginning in 2023, The Recess Genius: Open for Business.
So, let’s talk about what got you into writing and when this journey began for you. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
I have always gravitated to writing. In first grade, I was part of our school newspaper. In 3rd grade, I entered an essay in the Reflections contest and took 3rd. In High School, I sent a movie idea to Disney (and got my first rejection letter, lol!). But I never wanted to be a writer/author until after I graduated from college, and I realized that I was always writing because I loved it! With my husband’s encouragement, I wrote my first book and then proceeded to make all the beginner mistakes (querying before revising, thinking I had nothing to learn because I was a natural--HA!). But I stumbled my way into SCBWI, joined a critique group, and spent a lot of years learning before I finally dared to send another query. It was a long path for me!
I’m curious to know, from your side of the desk, which came first, the chicken or the egg? The chicken being your middle-grade stories, and the egg being your picture books- and why?
Love your question! The chicken came first. When I began writing, I actually thought I was writing YA, but after all those years of learning and working with my critique partners, I discovered I’d been writing MG all along. I didn’t even consider writing picture books until having kids. With toddlers, you are reading SO MANY picture books every day, and I think it’s natural that you start to get ideas for picture-book-size stories. I resisted for a long time because I’d learned enough at that point to know just how hard it is to break into the picture book world as a writer. But with so much inspiration and with the encouragement of a critique partner who got me to sign up for Susanna Leonard Hill’s “Making Picture Book Magic!” class, I discovered just how much I love the wordplay of picture books.
Can you tell us a little bit about the mental process for writing in different children’s book categories. Any specific setting or headspace required before you write one over the other? Like, do you need to be sitting upside down, facing north, with just the right amount of wind before you can write a picture book, whereas, for middle grade, you need to hop on one foot, spin around a few times, and have a cup of tea at the ready?
Haha! That’s about right. It’s definitely a different headspace for each category. With picture books, I focus on structure and action to start. I lay out a super quick outline, and once I have that, it’s all about the wordplay and finding fun, lyrical ways to convey the story. It’s very much about the details.
With middle grade, I have to think big picture. I still prepare an outline, which helps me know whether my story idea will work or not without committing too much time (I’m a plotter if you can’t tell). Once I begin writing, I have to block out the wordplay and focus solely on moving the story forward. If I find myself getting caught up in the words or how I’m saying something, I recite this mantra in my head: “It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be written.” It’s all about the big picture.
Do you find it more challenging to write one vs. the other, or are they equally matched? Is there one you naturally find yourself gravitating toward?
This is a hard question because they’re so different. I find that I gravitate to picture books because I love the wordplay so much. I am a bit of a (recovering) perfectionist, so the shorter works allow me to spend the time with words and phrases and play with form in a way that I just can’t do with middle grade.
If you look at how much time I spend per word, picture books are much more difficult. The simplicity of a good picture book is so deceptive. Telling a story is harder when you don’t have as much real estate. However, looking at the sheer amount of time a middle-grade book takes to write, as well as the increased complexity in plot, I personally have a harder time writing middle-grade.
What is challenging to one person may not be to another, so I think it depends on your strengths as a writer. My strengths lend to writing picture books.
Here’s a fun question. Have you ever had an idea for a picture book and realized it would actually make a great middle-grade story instead, or vice versa, and do you have any examples of this?
When I get an idea for a story, the first thing I do is decide who the audience is. Usually, it’s pretty obvious. Sometimes, I think a story could go either way. In those cases, I write the one that sounds more fun. However, every now and then, form and story overlap and make it hard to decide.
So, for example, I recently wrote a picture book that I think might make a better MG graphic novel. The story needed the pictures to carry the gag, which initially pushed it to picture book for me, but once I wrote it, I felt like the gag might be appreciated more by older readers.
I’m still working on that transition, and who knows if I can pull it off because it’s a new form for me, but I love trying new things and pushing myself as a writer. And it’s always fun to see how one story can lay a seed for another. I love playing with stories and seeing how small adjustments can lead to big changes. No writing is wasted!
In numbers, can you tell us between your picture books and middle-grade stories how many you have published now and about how many are in the works?
I have four picture books out in the world and two more announced. Six total.
For middle grade, I have one out and two more coming. Three total.
So far. 😉
Now, in just the past two months you’ve had two new books enter the world. Can you tell us a little bit about both?
A BAD CASE OF THE ALMOSTS released on Jan. 1st. It is about Abby, whose life is being ruined by Almosts! Almost tall enough. Almost fast enough. Nothing seems to go her way . . . until a chance encounter shows her that Almosts might have a bad rap. What if Almosts can actually be good?
I was struggling with my own Almosts, and I wondered if my attitude might be more powerful than I realized. It was a cathartic story to write that helped me change my own perspective. So it was exciting when my editor at Capstone connected with the theme.
Next, THE RECESS GENIUS: OPEN FOR BUSINESS is about Regina Grey, who is no stand-out student, but who loves to read. When she inadvertently solves her classmate’s problem, she is pushed into a new role as the Recess Genius, which suddenly makes it very hard to find time to read—the one thing she’s ever been good at! Can the Recess Genius use her magical power to solve her own dilemma?
This one is an origin story. I imagined a wise kid who other kids could come to for solutions to their kid problems. But I wanted to know how she got there. It took a lot of tries to get this one right, but I’m so excited for everyone to meet Regina!
And I know that’s not all for the new books out this year. You also have a very exciting release this Fall… tell us about that!
This Fall is the release of The Winterton Deception: Final Word. It is the first book in this Mystery Series surrounding the Winterton's—a wealthy dictionary magnate family. My editor called it a middle-grade Knives Out, and I wrote it because I wanted more books like The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. It has family drama and hidden passageways. It has a cut-throat spelling bee and a missing artifact worth millions.
When Hope Smith gets dragged into the Winterton drama by her twin brother, who enters them in the Winterton family spelling bee, she wants nothing more than to get in and get out with the prize. That all changes when a clue to a missing artifact lands in their laps, along with the promise of learning more about their long-dead father. Hope can’t resist the call to solve it, but with millions on the line and others following the same trail, Hope might just be in over her head.
It is complex and twisty, and it was oh-so-fun to write! I can’t wait for the world to meet the Winterton's and all their family drama.
Oh, my goodness. That sounds so good! Did I mention I love Knives Out? Because I LOVE Knives Out. A middle-grade version of this just sounds out of this world exciting to me! Okay… next question.
Do you have any advice for authors wanting to write both picture books and middle-grade series?
Yes! The big question with a series is, what thread do you plan to pull through to future books? Is it the character’s personality (think Olivia or Judy Moody)? Is it a theme (think Creepy Carrots or The Giver)? Is it specific type of situation (like with my book where the kids are seeking advice from the Recess Genius, or even a Series of Unfortunate Events)? Is it a genre (think a mystery series)? What is the appeal in the first story that drew people to it? That is what you want to continue into the series.
And once you have an idea, try writing some pitches for future books in the series. This will tell you if it’s viable as a series and if it’s something you’d want to keep working on (because a series is a commitment, and it can lock in your writing time for years (particularly for middle grade). Are these the books you want to be writing?) Plus, if you are pitching a series to a publisher, they will want to see what ideas you have for the next books. The time you spend planning the series is time well-spent.
Thanks for this terrific advice, Janet.
Now for some fun get-to-know-you questions
Warm (but not hot).
Favorite place- real or imagined, or both?
The beach! There is something about the crashing waves and the beauty of the ocean.
Favorite books- you can include up to 5!
(Thank you for the 5! Here are 5 recent favorites.)
PBs: Pirates Don’t Dance (by Shawna J.C. Tenney); Mother Bruce (by Ryan T. Higgins); A Spoonful of Frogs (by Casey Lyall and art by Vera Brosgol)
MGs: A Wish in the Dark (by Christina Soontornvat); A Place at the Table (by Laura Shovan and Saadia Faruqi)
Fresh laundry. Or Cinnamon Twists. Tough choice!
Dream vacation? No rules.
A River Cruise through Europe. No cooking, I can be as lazy or as go-go as I want.
Favorite tv shows- you can include up to 3!
The Good Place; Phineas and Ferb; Ted Lasso; (Honorable mention to Wednesday)
Phineas and Ferb- YES! Also, I love Wednesday! In fact, I fell in love with her at first sight when I was about 6 or 7, in the 90s THE ADDAMS FAMILY movie. I wanted to look and be just like her.
Siblings? If so, how many? And which number in the line are you?
4. 2 brothers, 2 sisters. I’m 4th of 5.
Thanks so much for being with us today, Janet! It was such a treat to learn about your methods and hear about all your great stories.
Now for our Giveaway Prizes
Yes… you read that correctly. There was an ‘s’ at the end of that word.
Janet has generously offered to give away multiple prizes.
What are the prizes? How can I enter?
Here ARE the answers.
Prize 1 Giveaway: A copy of A Bad Case of the Almosts
Prize 2 Giveaway: A copy of Recess Genius
If you would like to enter to win a prize, leave a comment on this feature interview post with
PRIZE 1 or PRIZE 2 (OR THE NAME OF THE BOOK YOU'D LIKE).
And that’s it! NOTE: This giveaway is international for wherever Book Depository delivers.
Winners will be selected at random and contacted within two weeks of this post.
To see other great interviews, be sure to subscribe to the blog. And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to like it before you leave.
If you’d like to connect with Janet or find out more about her books, you can find her website and social media links listed below. Thanks for reading!
Janet Sumner Johnson, author of:
Not My Circus (Capstone, 2024)
The Winterton Deception MG series (Pixel + Ink, 2023, 2024)
The Recess Genius PB series (Pixel + Ink, 2023, 2024)
A Bad Case of the Almosts (Capstone, Jan. 2023)
Braver than Brave (Capstone, Aug. 2022)
Help Wanted, Must Love Books (Capstone, 2020)
The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society (Capstone, 2016)
Find Janet on:
Browse and purchase Janet’s books on her website HERE
Biscuit and Gravy visit the fire station to learn about fire safety. Their imaginations run wild as they tell their parents how they defeated the fire monster. Questions and answers about fire safety are included at the end of the book.
Biscuit and Gravy Learn About Fire Safety. Written by Shaun Tyson. Illustrated by Simon Tyson.
Published March, 2022.
A little background on my relationship with Shaun and Simon
I met Shaun and Simon in the summer of 2022, but Shaun and I were in contact earlier in the year. For the 2022 Summer Reading Program, hosted in the Children’s Library, I was looking for fun activities to do with the kids. Of course, being an avid reader and writer myself, I was excited about the idea of having a short story contest.
The goal of the short story contest was to engage kids within the community and motivate them to write a story. The rules were simple: anyone up to the age of 12 could submit a story, up to a max of 1,000 words. All of the participants would have a chance to share and read other stories on our story board display in the Children's Department. However, three special winners would be chosen and awarded a special prize at the end of the summer. Because who doesn't love a good incentive?
This idea seemed way cool... but I wondered, what could bring this contest to the next level of awesome? And then it hit me. What if we had LOCAL CHILDREN'S AUTHORS not only help participate in selecting our finalists but also present the prizes to the kids, along with a copy of one of their autographed books? There's a great way to incorporate the community!
By a sheer chance of luck, the weekend prior to this novelty idea, a local Children's Author- Shaun Tyson- had come into our library and donated a copy of his children’s book Biscuit and Gravy Learn about Fire Safety. So, of course, he was on my radar as a possible candidate. It didn’t take long to track Shaun down, and he was overwhelmingly gracious about the opportunity. Working with Shaun was a joy. He was a fantastic communicator, provided everything I needed- when I needed it- and, he was super easy-going.
Now that we had Shaun on board, it was time to find some more authors. Where did I find them, you ask? Well, as every librarian knows, the best place to find writers (other than in the library of course) is at your local bookstore! So, that’s just where I went. I paid a visit to Curious Capybara, a local gem in our area, and in no time, I had leads on some other fabulous authors. And thankfully, all of them were more than willing to join the judging table and help us find our short story finalists. Acting as judges were Rainbow Mosho, Brittany Wuthrich, and Shaun Tyson.
Upon meeting Shaun and his son Simon in person, I was met with an immediate feeling of warmth and kindness. The entire clan (wife and other son too) were down-to-earth, and just overall a pleasure to have visiting our library. So, when I started doing feature interviews, I immediately thought of them. And just like last time, they graciously accepted.
So, let’s jump right in!
Questions for Shaun:
What made you decide to write a book?
There are firefighter books out there. Some have great messages, but few teach fire safety. I felt there was a need for a children's book that taught actual fire safety tips that the child could remember.
What was your favorite part of the writing process?
Seeing it all come together with the illustrations. Simon really brought the characters to life.
Did you come up with the concept of the story first or the title? Did the title ever change?
The story concept was first. The title came after the character names were developed, which were created by my other son, Sully.
How long did it take from the point you had your first idea for the story to publication?
Probably close to a year from concept to print.
At any point, did you consider doing traditional publication?
I looked into it, but it seemed less likely that I would be able to achieve my goal.
What made you decide to self-publish?
I decided to self-publish because I would be fully in control of what I wrote and on our own timeline.
Can you tell us a little bit about your personal connection to the story on fire safety?
I have been in public safety for over 23 years. A large part of that has been in the fire service, predominantly in fire investigations. Seeing so many fires and how they were caused fueled my passion for fire safety education.
Was it difficult to decide where you would get your illustrations, or did you know immediately that your son would be the perfect fit?
It was an easy decision to keep it in the family. Simon is quite talented.
Do you think you’ll publish more books in the future? If so, do you think you’ll continue a series using your characters from your first book or start fresh on a new venture entirely?
I do have an interest in publishing another Biscuit and Gravy book. I think stories can be both fun and educational. But we will have to wait and see what happens.
If you published again, do you think you would go the independent route again or try to seek out traditional publishing?
I think I would continue to self-publish because I do like the freedom that comes with it. Although, it is tougher to get the word out about your book. They both have their advantages.
Now for some fun questions….
Melted caramel. Karamell-Küche in Epcot’s Germany Pavilion is the place to go if you like caramel.
Epcot at Disney World.
Otters are awesome.
Favorite tv show?
Any of the baking competition shows on Food Network.
Favorite book (s)?
I am going to keep with kid books and say the Berenstain Bears books.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Although super strength would be tempting, I think super speed so I can get more things done in less time.
If you were an animal, what would you be?
Although I love otters, I think I would be a fox. They are mysterious creatures.
Thanks Shaun! Now, let's talk to Simon a little bit.
Questions for Simon:
How old were you when you started working on the illustrations for BISCUIT AND GRAVY LEARN ABOUT FIRE SAFETY?
I was 17 years old when my dad first approached me about illustrating the book, but 18 by the time I started the illustrations.
Was this your first time doing any kind of creative art professionally?
This was my first book, but I had done some commission artwork for friends and family prior.
Do you have any history of art education?
Currently, I do not have any art education, but I do plan to take some art classes while in college. Most of what I have learned about techniques and tools comes from watching other artists on YouTube, such as Jazza and James Raiz.
How long did it take you to draft your work?
If I remember correctly, it took me about three weeks, give or take, to draft everything. Certain pages were a bit trickier to tackle than others, and I would go back and forth on what to do with them.
How did you create your illustrations? Did you use an online program, or were your creations hand-drawn? If hand-drawn, what mediums did you use? If you used an online program, did you do hand sketches first?
For the final illustrations seen in the book, I used a program called Clip Studio Paint. However, I started off with simple pencil sketches to get the basics of how Biscuit and Gravy would look in each picture. I'd take a picture of the sketch with my phone, email it to myself, and then use that as a rough guide on my computer to make cleaner lines and coloring. Certainly not the most efficient way to do things, but it worked for a first project!
What was it like working with your dad?
Working with my dad was a ton of fun. When it was time for me to illustrate, to go along with the writing he already had done, he gave me tiny doodles of what he wanted many of the pictures in the book to look like. It was cool getting to see his original vision develop over time into the final product, a process that is really rewarding as an artist.
Did you enjoy the process of illustration?
While tedious, I enjoyed the illustration process. Drawing is one of my favorite things in life, so getting to design these lovable characters and present them in dynamic ways was very fun.
Do you think this is something you might continue to pursue in the future?
I've considered pursuing more illustration work in the future! I would love to help more authors with their work, there's just a "do I have the time" issue. We'll see what opportunities are presented in the future, though. I keep an open mind! I do know for certain, however, that Biscuit and Gravy's adventures are something I'll be coming back to when the time comes!
Now for some fun questions…
So many favorite smells to choose from, but I'll have to go with freshly baked cinnamon rolls!
I really enjoy the color feldgrau green.
My grandparents' house is probably my favorite place on earth. (Grandma often makes cinnamon rolls!)
Aww! Great answer!
Autumn is my favorite season. In my humble opinion, the perfect weather happens during this time of year.
Cherry Coke is my go-to beverage, but cherry Sprite is a close second.
Komodo Dragons are by far my favorite animal. Such cool creatures!
Favorite tv show?
Star Wars the Clone Wars has been a consistent tv show in my life. While my favorite tv show changes frequently, I'll have to go with this one. Having grown up with it since I started school, it has a special place in my favorites list.
Favorite book (s)?
My favorite book is the Outsiders by S. E. Hinton! Such a dynamic story with lovable characters. It's also worth noting that my favorite illustrated book would be any of the Pigeon books by Mo Willems. His work was a huge inspiration for Biscuit and Gravy Learn About Fire Safety!
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
If I could have any superpower, it would be to emit fire. Not only would it look cool, it's practical for things like roasting marshmallows! Would be smart of me to make sure I have the fire safety stuff memorized before using the power though.
If you were an animal, what would you be?
I think it would be cool to be a panda. Sometimes I feel like one, sitting around eating and sleeping for most of the day!
Thank you, guys, so much for sharing your story with us! To purchase a copy of BISCUIT AND GRAVY LEARN ABOUT FIRE SAFETY, click here. To find out more about Shaun and Simon, visit their social media pages on Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok, all of which are @biscuitandgravybooks.
This post was written by Children’s Librarian and Kidlit Writer, Chelsea DiCicco; author of ADHD AND ME.
Are you an author, illustrator, or any other member of the writing community looking to share some of what you do with others? Contact me below for details on upcoming FEATURE INTERVIEWS.