New Voice: Cate Berry on Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime!

By Traci Sorell

I’m so pleasured to feature my interview with Cate Berry, debut picture book author of Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime, illustrated by Charles Santoso (Balzer + Bray, 2018).

Publishers Weekly described it as “…a buoyantly subversive antibedtime tale,” and I couldn’t agree more.

The witty repartee between Penguin and Tiny Shrimp, coupled with the digital artwork of Charles Santoso make this 2018 Junior Library Guild selection a fun and engaging read for little ones.

My visit with Cate yielded lots of helpful takeaways for those new to the field and some salient thoughts on when to ask for help.

Kate, what advice would you share with beginning children’s-YA writers? 

Personally, I urge my new students to read at least three hundred picture books before even beginning a manuscript (or at least while you begin drafting).

Picture books are like learning a new language. There is a rhythm, a vibe, and implicit rules are attached to the form. Taking a class or reading a craft book is great, but reading a heap of picture books is even better.

Cate’s students at The Writing Barn discuss picture books.

So reading more than you are writing is my advice, especially with picture books. You want the form to wash over you; the economy of words, the give-and-take with the illustrator, the brilliant idea, the strong beginning, the twist endings.

After you read a jillion of them, their residue is left behind and it’s easier to get out of the way and write something uniquely fresh and your own. I think every kid (and editor!) is looking for this in your next picture book.

Cate with VCFA faculty member A.S. King

I’d also say it’s very important to pay it forward. There are writers who have been so generous with their time and talent towards me over the years and continue to be so. I will never forget it.

I write a new mission statement for my writing each year and I always end it with “give back as much as I receive.” I hope I can encourage beginning writers to remember this unspoken tradition in our community and pay it forward as they move along in writing and publishing.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, and moving forward with your literary art? 

I love this question. You’ve made me think about it a lot. There is a lot of change right now. There are school visits, conferences, panels, social media and blog posts where there was once just writing time.
I’m not someone who believes in balance, which isn’t very on trend right now.

I don’t do yoga. I meditate until I have to stop and jot down “a very important note.” I like moving at full speed, falling into a project and not coming up for air until it’s done. I also like saying “yes” to everything. But all this isn’t very realistic.

So, I’ve incorporated two things into my life during this transition from writer to author. The first is asking for help from amazing women, in all fields, who are a step or two ahead of me.

I’ve watched successful men, including my dad, ask for assistance when they need it. Why shouldn’t I? A friend of mine in women’s marketing offered to be my project manager. She’s brilliant, helping me organize my new book/author commitments and not get overwhelmed with the process.

One of my students is helping me with the extra social media that comes along with launching a new book. And I’ve enlisted the help of another writer who is much farther along in publishing than myself to critique new manuscripts for me each month so my writing remains on the front burner.

And speaking of burners, I don’t want to burn out. That leads me to my second life change: making downtime a priority.

It was suggested I do this everyday and my first thought was, That’s nuts. There’s too much to do! I can’t stop until it’s done (see above paragraph)!

But, I want to be writing for many years. It’s a slow burn not a hot mess— this business of long-time book making. Taking twenty minutes a day to curl up with my cat isn’t going to slow me down at all.

In fact, I’m finding I’m more productive with less time on the days I keep this commitment of regular downtime.

As an MFA in Writing graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

A week after I was accepted into the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program, I signed with my agent.

Some writing friends were scratching their heads at my decision to attend because, yes, MFAs are expensive and demanding. And hey, you just got an agent. Do you need to do this? I also knew it would be hard on my family.

But my mentor at the time gave me great advice: getting an MFA will put you on a fast track with your writing and ultimately your career. At the time I thought, Great! I will gain a degree along with accruing a lot of publishable work.

Turns out, I misunderstood her completely. To be clear, I don’t believe you must gain an MFA to write or publish, many writers I admire don’t have one. But for me, it allowed me to claim my space as a writer.

Is it Hogwarts or Narnia or Wonderland or Brigadoon?
Vermont College of Fine Arts is a low residency MFA and comes with a grueling schedule of critical writing, creative writing and an enormous amount of reading every month. We all know life gets in the way when you try and write. Going to VCFA took away any excuse for not putting writing at the top of my To Do list. And now I feel that commitment is embedded in my DNA.

I think that’s what my mentor really meant. It was a fast track, for me, in that it cemented my writing process.
One thing that surprised me is that working towards an MFA at VCFA was not linear.

Looking back, it’s strange how much I learned without academic scaffolding holding everything in place (ex. detailed curriculum uniformly followed by all students). I had four completely different advisors throughout my two years in the program, and I gleaned four different skill sets under their wings.

One semester was spent entirely on picture books. I had experience writing in this genre so I was able to dive deep, annotating hundreds of picture books and writing three to five drafts each month as well as revising and working intimately with my advisor and five other students through an online forum.

I received a certificate at the end of that semester which felt a little like “The Wizard of Oz” ending. Ultimately, it’s just a piece of paper, and yet, it gives me strength and confidence when I glance at it (which I do often!) knowing the effort behind it.

I will admit I was intimidated and frustrated by all the critical writing at first. But after some guidance, I grew to love it. My critical thesis and lecture were based around humorous picture books. I made time to delve into humor theory and research, applying it to currently published picture books, which now informs my daily writing. More importantly, it sharpened my analytical skills.

Why is this important for creative writing? Well, how can you write a great novel or picture book without being able to pull apart the mechanics of the story and embed your heart into it at the same time?

In the end, the greatest gift from my master’s program was understanding and valuing the long game. Faculty member Cynthia Leitich Smith’s inspired series on longevity and publishing in children’s writing also highlights these sentiments.

Sometimes life happens no matter how much you plan for an uninterrupted writing day.

This past week my son had the flu—pfft —I lost four days. But you can always keep your finger in the creative pie.

Even on the crazy days, I’ll jot down a poem or a new picture book title. My advisors, whom (lucky me) are now some of my writing pals, taught me about attending my work with care and dedication because we are writers for life, not sprinters in a writing contest.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews said of Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime!:

“Ironic counterpoint abounds in this humorous picture book, which sees the eponymous characters rejecting typical bedtime-book activities and accouterments through speech-balloon text, as all the while humorous, expressive, digital illustrations doggedly present them…. A definite do for bedtime.”

Cate Berry is a faculty member with the Writing Barn in Austin, Texas and an active member in the SCBWI and Writers’ League of Texas.

She also speaks at schools, libraries and conferences year round on such topics as “Gender Stereotyping and Poetic Devices” and “From Stand Up to Sit Down: Funneling Surprise and Stand-Up Comedy into Humorous Picture Books.”

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.