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.
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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