New Voices: Christy Mihaly & Jessie Oliveros on Their Paths to Publication

By Traci Sorell

Today, we have two award-winning Epic Eighteen debut authors, Christy Mihaly, author of Hey, Hey, Hay: A Tale of Bales and the Machines that Make Them, illustrated by Joe Cepeda (Holiday House, 2018) and Jessie Oliveros, author of The Remember Balloons, illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte (Simon & Schuster, 2018).

Christy Mihaly

Holiday House, 2018

Christy has an affinity for and usually writes nonfiction for children and adults. But her debut fiction picture book, Hey, Hey, Hay! A Tales of Bales and the Machines that Make Them, landed on the Bank Street’s Best Children’s Books Under Age 5 list and the American Farm Bureau Foundation’s Recommended Publication list. The 2018 Best in Rhyme Top 20 book features a young girl and her mother using machines on their farm to make hay.

Christy, I know you’ve written many books before this one. Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

My first reaction is that I’m still working on craft. But I’ll tell you my how-I-started-writing-for-kids story.

I always loved to write, and on some level considered myself a writer. But I’d never thought of writing as something that you could do for a living. I went to law school, practiced law, became a mom, and started daydreaming about writing for kids.

One day in the late 1990s, in the waiting room of a pediatrician’s office, I picked up a magazine. It flipped open to an advertisement for the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL), inviting me to send in a writing sample. I did it. I mailed in my application, was thrilled when they accepted me, and dived into the assignments…at first.

Then I got really busy with other things. I may have set a record for the length of time it took me to reach the final lesson in the basic ICL course: a dozen years. And I’m not sure I ever mailed in that last assignment.

Feria de abril, an annual April fair in Seville.

But I didn’t drop the dream, and seven years ago, I finally took the big leap. My husband was up for his first sabbatical from teaching (everyone should get sabbaticals, in my opinion).

With our daughter, we discussed our options for this year-long leave, and we ended up in southern Spain. Our girl wanted to learn Spanish, so she attended a Spanish school. My husband studied and taught in Seville, and I wrote.

That year in Spain—communicating in a foreign language, learning another culture, and meeting people with a different frame of reference from ours—expanded all of our minds.

I felt like “the other,” interacting with genial Spanish-speaking people while feeling inarticulate and slow to comprehend. But people were welcoming, and we soon became friends with neighbors, other parents (and teachers) from our daughter’s school, and my husband’s colleagues and their families.

A woman we met on the metro became one of our closest friends! We gradually figured out the lifestyle of southern Spain – e.g., inviting people to our place for “lunch” at 2 p.m., we learned they would stay and chat and eat and drink until midnight.

It was an ideal way to launch life as a full-time writer. Surrounded by the unfamiliar, I found my head exploding with ideas for new manuscripts. I wrote it all down–all that we were doing and feeling and learning.

I also resurrected an old assignment from the ICL course, researched magazine markets and themes, and made my first sale–a short story to an online children’s literature magazine, for five dollars. I was so excited, and I couldn’t wait for my piece to be published. Then, a few weeks before my story was scheduled to go live, the magazine folded. Went out of business. Disappeared. The first story I sold is still unpublished.

But the fact that an editor had accepted my writing spurred me on. I wrote a new story, this one based on my daughter’s experiences as an American in Spain. With my daughter’s consent, I submitted it to another online magazine. This one didn’t pay at all, but the editor loved it, and soon “Hola, Amiga” became my first published work for children. That magazine eventually went defunct too—but I retained the rights, and later revised and sold the new version.

When our year ended and we returned home, I didn’t return to the law. For a complex bunch of reasons, I stayed at home, homeschooling my daughter for the eighth grade–and writing.

Lerner, 2019

That year, I contacted the local parenting newspaper and sold them an essay about our homeschooling year. A kids’ magazine accepted an article based on research I’d done in Spain.

And I took an important next step: I signed up for a workshop—Writing Nonfiction for Children—at Highlights Foundation. That’s where I finally began to feel legitimate.

I hung out with others who were on the same path and worked with editors who helped me hone my writing. And I met many talented writers, including the members of my current online critique group, and Sue Heavenrich, who is now my co-author of Diet for a Changing Climate: Food for Thought, a nonfiction book for teens which was longlisted for the 2019 Green Earth Book Award, which Lerner published last year.

Looking for ways to make a living at writing, I discovered the world of work-for-hire. I submitted resumes and writing samples and got my name on educational publishers’ lists, then finally started receiving assignments for books and other educational content.

With each new project, I gained new insights about writing for kids, and I felt more like a “real” writer. I became familiar with reading levels. I learned about working with editors, researching topics I knew nothing about, and making complex concepts fun and engaging for young readers.

Recently, I’ve been writing more poetry. It’s fun and fulfilling (I love being able to finish a first draft in a day). I’m also hoping that some of that poetic lyricism spills over into the rest of my writing.

And through it all, I keep taking online classes, attending conferences and workshops, reading, and writing, writing, writing.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

In the fall of 2013, we moved out of town and into a home in the country next to a beautiful hayfield. I loved watching the change of seasons.

Snowshoeing across the hayfield, I spotted the footprints and snow tunnels of the various critters making their homes under the snow. In spring, the snow melted, the brown ground cover turned green, the birds arrived, and the field filled with tall, waving grasses.

Then when the grass was high enough and it was dry and sunny, it was time to hay. That first season, the haymaking process charmed me.

First, the giant mowers ran up and down the field, leaving the grasses flattened on the ground.

The whirring tedders came next, “wuffling” the cut grass to aerate it and facilitate drying. The hay rake formed long windrows, piles of cut grass running the length of the field.

Finally, the baler created those neat bundles from the loose hay. Mower, tedder, baler, hay!

The rhythms of all these machines seeped into my mind, and I found these lines running around in my head: “Listen and I’ll tell the tale/of storing summer in a bale.”

Many people in my area (including the kids) are involved in haying. But I began to realize that in most of the country, people don’t know much about hay or how it’s made. I researched kids’ books and couldn’t find any about hay. And so, I wrote one.

At first I thought I was writing a poem, but soon it was clear that this manuscript wanted to be a book—a rhyming picture book.

As an unagented author, how did you identify your editor and connect the manuscript with the publishing house?

I wrote the manuscript in the summer and fall of 2014. That November, I took it with me to a writing workshop. The editor with whom I was matched for a critique had no interest in it whatever. Luckily, by then, I’d dealt with enough rejections that I knew that her lack of enthusiasm might not mean my work was terrible.

At the same workshop, I met Grace Maccarone of Holiday House. She gave a delightful, practical presentation on submissions and what she was looking for.

Several months later, having carefully reviewed my notes from Grace’s talk, I sent her my manuscript. She responded immediately, calling it “adorable,” and within a few months, we had a contract.

That’s wonderful, Christy! I love that story. Tell me about your relationship to the children’s-YA writing and illustration community?

I started out on this writing adventure thinking the work would be solitary. I knew nothing about the amazing community of children’s writers. What a pleasant surprise! I’ve had a series of serendipitous encounters and taken advantage of many great opportunities, and now I feel as if I have hundreds of friends (virtually, if not yet in person) in the wide world of children’s literature.

I’ve come to appreciate how much support the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) offers, from national and regional conferences to smaller workshops and online resources. (Plus, I give credit to that SCBWI-sponsored workshop for introducing me to my editor.)

I found my first large SCBWI conferences intimidating (and loud). But as I keep attending, I’m finding that fewer people are strangers, and the whole gathering starts to feel like community.

Through conferences, workshops, and online writing groups, I’ve connected with writers all over the country (and beyond).

My group of critique buddies, who live in five different states, has been working together for five years now.

In that time, several of us have sold manuscripts, published books, and found agents. It’s such a pleasure to have these friends to share the journey.

Then of course I’m involved with larger groups that convene online, from the 12×12 Picture Book Challenge to the Poets’ Garage to our Epic Eighteen group of debut picture book authors and illustrators.

I’m also a founding member of GROG, the group blog about children’s literature for writers, teachers, readers, and librarians, and the “groggers” are important writing friends too.

Epic Eighteens at Kindling Words: Christy, Sarah Lynne Reul, Jeanette Bradley, Michelle Cusolito, Aura Lewis and Jen Betton

At the local level, I am fortunate to belong to two in-person writing groups. One is entirely children’s/YA authors, and the other is mixed (including poets and memoir writers).

I learn so much at every meeting—about craft and marketing and the writerly life in Vermont.

I also have met other local writers with whom I periodically consult and commiserate. I’ve gotten to know my local booksellers and children’s librarians and worked on projects with them.

A friend who teaches first grade has invited me to share my books and stories of the writing life with her young crew.

It’s been an unexpected bonus of becoming a writer–joining the kidlit community.

Simon & Schuster, 2018

Jessie Oliveros 

Winner of the 2019 Schneider Family Book Honor Award and 2019 Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Text, The Remember Balloons shares the story of James, a young boy grappling with his grandfather’s memory loss.

I’m delighted to visit with author Jessie Oliveros about her debut picture book illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte and published by Simon & Schuster last year.

Jessie, what got you started on this path writing for young readers?

There was never really a question for whom I’d write. I’m a children’s writer because as a child I loved to read, and I never stopped reading children’s books.

Ironically, it was while reading an adult book about a children’s author that made me first think, “Well, wouldn’t that be fun?”

I started pursuing publishing after six years of working as a registered nurse. I had put aside my medical career to stay home with my kids. Surrounded by children every day with a restless brain meant endless ideas. And a children’s writer was born!

Traci and Jessie

 What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My grandpa was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about five years ago.

My kids and I were visiting him one day when I thought, I should write a picture book about a grandpa with Alzheimer’s.

It’s a confusing disease, especially for kids. Only, I wasn’t successful in writing a straight-forward story about a grandpa with Alzheimer’s so I went for the metaphorical.

In The Remember Balloons, the balloons are memories. The boy, James, enjoys his own memories as well as those his grandpa shares with him. When his grandpa’s balloons start floating away, James is upset and confused. As he navigates this new turn of events, he finds a way to reclaim his grandpa’s balloons for him.

Real-life Grandpa is 92 years old and living in a retirement home/memory care center with my grandma. He’s still a joy to be around, and Alzheimer’s hasn’t dimmed his sense of humor.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

Worst moments—1) the waiting; 2) the waiting; and 3) the waiting.

Jessie visits Simon & Schuster

The waiting is harder than the rejections themselves. I have had to learn (and am still learning) how to set aside my publishing thoughts so I can focus on my family and friends. Then when good publishing news comes along, it’s amazing!

Speaking of…my best moments” 1) getting my agent and 2) getting my publishing deal.

Funny, in spite of all the waiting, these things happened fairly quickly for me.

I entered the 2015 #pitchmas Twitter contest on a Friday. Mike “liked” my pitch. I emailed him my manuscript on a Saturday. Monday, he said, “I’m interested!” Tuesday, he said, “Let’s talk about signing!”

This was only a few days shy of Christmas and incidentally, I was also seven months pregnant with my fourth.

The pub deal was quick. We revised, sent out, and in less than a month had an offer from Simon & Schuster. It was all kind of surreal and magical, especially since this all happened in the haze of child birth. I received the offer a couple days after I brought my baby home from the hospital!

Here’s a picture of my “baby” reading an early copy of The Remember Balloons. Kind of puts the length of a book from offer to actual book into perspective. She was 2 ½ when the book published!

Dana and Jessie at Simon & Schuster

Your book is illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte, who had her debut as an author-illustrator with Rabbit & Possum (Greenwillow) earlier last year.

Did you all have any contact while she was creating the art and did you know she’d have her own debut picture book out too?

I am so lucky to have Dana as my illustrator. She’s a rising star in the kidlit world. Her debut Rabbit & Possum is hilarious and adorable (hilarable?), and she has many things to come.

Not only is she an awesome illustrator, but a talented animator as well. She brought so much movement into my story, and I couldn’t have asked for better.

Oh, sorry—you asked me a question. I’ll leave off my Dana gushing to answer. When I found out Dana would be illustrating The Remember Balloons, I was excited to discover she was also debuting this year.

She kindly tagged me on a Twitter post for Epic Eighteen, which I’m forever grateful for because our picture book debut group has been a great blessing.

While Dana and I were in contact, we went through the art director and editor on anything regarding the art. (See Dana’s Cynsations Post)

Cynsations Notes

Christy Mihaly writes in Vermont at a table that overlooks forests and fields. In addition to Hey, Hey, Hay! and Diet for the Changing Climate, Christy has written a half-dozen books for the educational market on topics ranging from moose to redwood forests to fashion and math.

In spring 2020, Albert Whitman will publish her next picture book, Free for You and Me—a poetic introduction to the First Amendment freedoms (speech, press, religion, assembly and to petition the government).

She’ll also have a six book educational series for middle school students focused on contemporary political issues like climate change and freedom of the press out next year.

Christy’s articles about science, nature, technology and history have appeared in numerous children’s magazines. She has also published poetry and activities. She has, in addition, amassed a tall stack of rejections.

Jessie Oliveros grew up watching Kansas sunsets, and she’ll always have wild sunflowers and gold-tipped corn fields in her heart. She spent her college-life climbing mountains in Utah and striving for higher vistas.

After a fulfilling career as a registered nurse, Jessie hung up her stethoscope to grow children and stories.

She loves root beer floats, autumn, and running in the rain. These days you can find her in the Texas hill country with her husband and their four kids.

Traci Sorell covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She also covers fiction and nonfiction picture books.

She is the author of We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018), a 2019 Sibert Medal Honor and 2019 Orbis Pictus Honor award-winning nonfiction picture book with four starred reviews.

Her forthcoming works include: At the Mountain’s Base illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre (Kokila, Sept. 17, 2019); Indian No More, a historical fiction middle grade novel co-authored with the late Charlene Willing McManis (Tu Books, fall 2019); and Powwow Day illustrated by Marlena Miles (Charlesbridge, April 21, 2020).

Traci is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. She is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency. Follow Traci on Twitter and Instagram.