New Voices: Rob Justus & Kirsten W. Larson on Switching to a Career in Children’s Literature

By Stephani Martinell Eaton

Rob Justus

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

After not drawing for about 15 years, I picked up a pencil for the first time and rediscovered my love for creating. I would say I’ve always had a quirky mind that would go to outlandish places, but I never really had an idea where I could channel this energy.

I don’t think it would’ve served me too well in my previous career as a market researcher. The odd scenarios and characters I dreamed up didn’t really fit into any sort of adult medium.

At the time I began to seriously consider switching careers, I started writing silly little stories for my sister’s twins. They dug them! I dug them!

So it was then that I realized that picture books are the perfect medium to flesh out my silly stories and characters. The stories didn’t need to be overly serious. The openness of a child’s mind gave me permission to write, draw and play along with them.

My writing didn’t have to be serious. My art didn’t have to look a certain way to be accepted.

I felt like I had always meant to be doing this (and hopefully I can keep doing this).

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Well, I have to admit that I’m a huge professional wrestling fan. I love everything about it. The spectacle. The pyro. The over-the-top characters and stories. The feats of athleticism and the choreographed dance between good and bad. All of this translates into something that, I feel, children would get a kick out of, and therefore would make for a fun read-out loud book.

I don’t write quiet stories. I write loud, fun books. The question I ask myself constantly when writing, drawing or world building is: “Is this fun?”

So when I first thought of the premise for Kid Coach (Page Street Kids, 2020), I thought a child who signs their parent up for a wrestling tournament is both hilarious and fun!

This not only allowed me to write a bouncy story that suited the action. It allowed me to draw big, colorful characters that might appeal to children too!

Rob’s favorite spread in Kid Coach.

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?

I’d say the biggest challenge in bringing Kid Coach to life was all psychological. It was all me in my own head⁠—trying not to freak out too much! This was real. I was making a real picture book that was going to be on store shelves. I’m no longer doing this for fun…this is my job!

Since I’m completely self-taught (well, I did go to The School of YouTube) there was a ton of stuff I didn’t know about. It was all the little details that I assumed a real professional illustrator knew like the back of their hand, but here I was…an imposter! Someone posing as a professional and someone who had no business being there.

The thing was, I did belong there.

I did work hard to get an agent. I did work hard at drawing. I did work hard learning to write. I went through countless rejections. I had been ghosted. But after all that, I earned this opportunity.

Once I got past all the noise in my head, I set out to draw the funnest book I could, and the images just poured out of me.

Rob’s second favorite spread in Kid Coach.

What were the most striking ways your life changed after you transitioned to published illustrator?

I’d have to say all the gold bars and fur coats people give me. It really is something else! Okay. Okay— you got me! People don’t give me gold bars or fur coats.

My life is surprisingly unchanged so far. I do a few more interviews these days, and social media feels like work more so than ever, but other than that I still write and draw every day and chill with my family. It’s already a pretty great life…could just use a few more gold bars though….

What advice do you have for beginning children’s illustrators?

Keep doing your thing.

Don’t get caught up comparing yourself to other people, especially on social media.

And lastly, relax. Be patient. If you’ve worked hard, good things will come. It just might take longer than expected, so enjoy the ride and celebrate every “little” win along the way.

Kirsten W. Larson

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I’ve always had a passion for true stories, starting with family newspaper I wrote in high school. Then in college I wrote for the school newspaper along with two local newspapers before turning to public relations at NASA.

It wasn’t until I had my own children that I considered making children’s books my career. Probably inspired by our family’s NASA connections (my husband is a NASA test pilot), my boys devoured true books about space, weather, and animals from the kids’ nonfiction section at the library. As I read these books, I realized I could learn to write them and would have a blast doing it, which sent my career on a whole new trajectory!

Kirsten and her family at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena around the time she first started writing. Her kids’ fascination with Mars and space helped launch her career.

Please describe your pre-publication craft apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

Kirsten at an SCBWI conference with one of her critique partners, Margaret Chiu Greanias, whom she first met through 12×12.

I decided to write for children in late 2011 and quickly connected with Julie Hedlund’s fledgling 12×12 Picture Book Writing community.

Through that community, I found my first critique group. (Some of us are still together today!)

I joined SCBWI and attended conferences and workshops, including craft sessions with nonfiction powerhouse Melissa Stewart and Ann Whitford Paul, who literally wrote the book on writing picture books. [Note: Writing Picture Books: A Hands-on Guide from Story Creation to Publication (Writers Digest, 2009, Revised and Expanded Edition, 2018).]

I wrote my first draft of Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020) in Susanna Hill’s wonderful “Making Picture Book Magic” class (best class ever!), and she was the first professional to critique the book.

After I took Renee LaTulippe’s “Lyrical Language Lab,” I finally had all the tools I needed to make the book sparkle and shine.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

The best advice I have for emerging creators is to focus on the “three C’s”:  create, critique, and study your craft.

You can’t succeed if you don’t create. That means actually doing the work of drafting (or revising) stories. Sharing work for critique and thoughtfully considering the feedback also is essential. Finally, all of us must keep developing our craft, including studying current books, trying our hand at new genres or categories, and continuing to take classes and learn from others.

I’ll add a final “C,” which is “community.” The kidlit community is one of the most generous and loving around, and the sooner you can engage with the kidlit community either in-person or online, the better.

KidLit community! Marcie Colleen (on the right) and Kirsten, next to her have been critique partners for years.

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

I never realized how truly time consuming the work of a published author could be in terms of publicity, school visits, library programs, etc.

What anchors me is the discipline of continuing to create. I have an accountability partner, fellow author Marcie Colleen, and we get up Monday through Friday at 5:30 a.m., pour a cup of coffee, and tackle our works in progress for at least an hour before we start our day.

No social media. No email. No web surfing.

Even if I never get back to my draft for the rest of the day, I have made progress towards the next book. And the next book, as they say, is the best form of marketing.

Cynsational Notes

Rob Justus chopped his way out of a career in market research and slammed into the publishing ring with his jammin’ debut book, Kid Coach (Page Street Kids, 2020)!

Wrestling words and art as the Screaming Scribbler, Rob has wrangled many big guys, bad guys and bald guys with his signature move: The Double-Dare Doodle Devastator!

Rob trains to be a true champion in Ottawa, Canada. He’s represented by Molly O’Neill at Root Literary, and his debut middle-grade graphic novel series Death & Sparkles comes out in Fall 2021. You can check him out at or on Instagram @robjustus.

Kirsten W. Larson used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. Kirsten is the author of Wood, Wire, Wings: Emma Lilian Todd Invents an Airplane, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, February 2020) and The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2021), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market.

Kirsten lives near Los Angeles with her husband, lhasa-poo, and two curious kids. Her house is filled with LEGOs, laughter, and lots of books!

Kirsten is a member of The Soaring 20s picture book group and STEAMTeam2020. Check out her posts at STEM Tuesday or join her on Twitter or Facebook. She also serves as a nonfiction and query corner “elf” for Julie Hedlund’s 12×12 Picture Book Writing Challenge. Kirsten is represented by Lara Perkins of Andrea Brown Literary.

Stephani Martinell Eaton holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts where she won the Candlewick Picture Book Award and the Marion Dane Bauer Award for middle grade fiction.