We welcome picture book debut authors Hayley Barrett and Jasmyn Wright to Cynsations today! They share their inspiration for their debut books as well as some of the challenges in bringing those stories to life.
What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?
2019 was my double debut year. Originally, both Babymoon, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (Candlewick Press, 2019) and What Miss Mitchell Saw, illustrated by Diana Sudyka (Beach Lane, 2019) were expected in early April. Bookish twins! I was simultaneously elated and terrified.
As we moved closer to publication, the situation became more like a horse race, with my two wildly different books running neck-and-neck.
Secretly, I hoped Babymoon would come in first, and happily, it did. But after they both crossed the finish line, one in April and one in September, I needed a nap for sure.
What was your initial inspiration for writing What Miss Mitchell Saw?
While my research for What Miss Mitchell Saw was underway, I learned something that changed my lively interest in Maria Mitchell into a complete commitment to tell her story. I realized I didn’t know how to pronounce her name. In fact, I discovered that many people, even those familiar with Miss Mitchell and her work, didn’t know how to say her name either.
Allow me to explain. In keeping with the time and place of her birth, Miss Mitchell’s first name follows the traditional English pronunciation—Ma-Rye-Ah—rather than today’s more familiar Spanish or Italian pronunciation of Ma-Ree-A. (While I’m on the subject, the same pronunciation applies for Maria’s friend, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, accomplished artist and wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne.)
Anyway, I was suddenly fired up and my objective became two-fold: to write an informative book about a fascinating woman and to fix the near-universal mispronunciation of her name. In my opinion, the best way to permanently accomplish such an objective is to teach the correct information to as many young people as possible.
Now every time What Miss Mitchell Saw and I visit a classroom, I encourage the students to say (shout, really) her name over and over until I’m confident they’ll never mispronounce it again. I’m proud to report that hundreds of schoolchildren now know how to say Miss Maria Mitchell’s illustrious name. Whew!
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?
Writing narrative nonfiction is both deeply challenging and deeply fun. When I’m writing nonfiction, my adherence to facts is as absolute as possible, and those facts require lots and lots of research.
For What Miss Mitchell Saw, my research was necessarily wide-ranging. In addition to Maria Mitchell’s life and accomplishments, I studied Nantucket history and geography, nineteenth century whaling practices, the tools of celestial navigation, and more.
I also made sure the bits of dialogue I included were backed up by primary sources. At the same time, I endeavored to build read-aloud appeal by adopting an approachable, once-upon-a-time style, like a fairy tale. I spiced it up with plenty of rich and exciting language to pique the reader’s interest and provoke their innate curiosity. The project was quite a monumental undertaking, but the finished book is worth it.
One of the difficulties with writing a biography about a woman is the lack of solid information about the other women of her community. For many reasons, including its relative isolation and the influence of Quaker beliefs and customs, Nantucket was the birthplace of many influential women like abolitionist Anna Gardner and activist Lucretia Coffin Mott.
But apart from such luminaries, could I accurately, confidently identify the female shopkeepers young Maria Mitchell would have known? Who were they? Where were their shops? Does the timing of their lives and livelihoods fit neatly into Maria’s own story?
Finding the three I mention in What Miss Mitchell Saw wasn’t a bit easy, and although my facts are straight, I still sometimes lose sleep over them.
What was your initial inspiration for writing I’m Gonna Push Through?
I just finished my tenth year as a classroom teacher.
Making it an intention to incorporate social-emotional learning skills in my classroom, I always taught my students to have strong identity, be resilient, hold themselves accountable, and be of service to others.
Daily, we would have “Mama Moments,” where we would sit in a circle and have discussions around purpose, self-worth, and grit.
The words “push through” were always a common phrase that I’ve used in my class.
After a few “Mama Moment” conversations, I decided to create a call-and-response affirmation for my students called, “I’m Gonna Push Through!” (As a spoken word artist, I often bring my love for poetry in my classroom and share it with my students.)
They fell in love with it, and we recited it multiple times on a daily basis!
The purpose of the mantra was to get them to believe that they are worthy enough to push through anything they put their minds to!
One day, one of my students asked me to upload the mantra/affirmation to my Facebook page. (He wanted my mom to see and comment.) To my surprise, the mantra went viral! Within one week, it reached 3.7 million views.
A few months later, I was contacted by Gap Kids to feature the mantra, myself, and my students in their 2017 back-to-school campaign.
After creating a shortened version of the mantra and filming it with Gap Kids, it went viral again! This time, I was being contacted (and still am being contacted) by educators, parents, administrators, etc., all over the world, who were letting me know that they have used “I’m Gonna Push Through!” in their professional settings (especially the classroom). So far, the mantra is in 29 countries, and has been translated into four different languages.
I created my children’s book, I’m Gonna Push Through!, illustrated by Shannon Wright (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2020), because I wanted to continue the legacy of the mantra, and continue to inspire kids for generations to come. There was already an audio and visual version of the mantra. I wanted to supplement that with printed version for classroom and home settings.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?
As mentioned before, the mantra started off as a call-and-response affirmational chant. The teacher (or leader) says one line, and the children follow-up with a responding line.
In addition to the call-and-response, the mantra was even more interactive because there were hand motions that accompanied many of the lines to the affirmation. It was a challenge figuring out how to bring those same concepts in a book.
I didn’t want children or teachers to just reeaaad the book; I wanted them to chant it! The adult says one line, and the child says the following; using the hand and arm gestures.
After a few emails back and forth with my publishing company, we figured it out! We decided to have separate color wording for the response lines, and include images of children doing the hand motions under or next to each line.
Another challenge is that I decided to combine two call-and-response affirmations into one book. (I guess I wanted to double the empowerment!) It took me some time to play around with word play and make the book flow as it accommodated both affirmations.
A final challenge was deciding on a sufficient and diverse group of influencers who’ve “pushed through” to overcome obstacles and have left their mark in the world. I wanted to choose examples of people who were already widely known and familiar, as well as influencers who may not be so mainstream. I had to have an even number of people, ranging 12 to 16 people.
It was such a challenge making sure the list of people who were diverse in not just race and ethnicity, but also in gender, profession, disability, age, etc.
What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?
I’d tell them: You know that fascinating idea you have for a children’s book? The one where you play around with characters and words in your head?
Yea, that one! Write it down! Turn it into a children’s book. The first step is to just write it down. Once you do that, you can go back over and add the details and tweaks you need.
Allow your interactions with children, or memories, experiences, and/or lessons from your past to guide the theme and message of your book. Keep that theme/author’s purpose in mind and write the text accordingly. Think about your audience.
Be careful of sharing your idea with people who are aren’t as creative as you. Remember, not everyone will have your vision. Trust yourself. Trust your gift. Trust your passion. Trust your experiences. Trust your creativity. Trust your content. Trust the journey in the process. Write the book! You’ve got this!
As an author-teacher/librarian/agent/publicist/editor, how do your various roles inform one another?
I feel like I have an advantage being an author-teacher! I talk to children and teachers for a living and have taught various grades in K-5. Serving as a teacher is helpful when I’m conducting author visits or creating educational content that aligns with my book and message.
Serving in this dual role has its benefits: The author follows the teacher—I write about what I experience and learn from my time in the classroom. The teacher follows the author—as a writer, I want to bring forth creativity, expression, and lessons to my readers.
Hayley Barrett is the author of Babymoon (Candlewick Press, 2019), What Miss Mitchell Saw (Beach Lane Books, 2019), Girl Versus Squirrel, illustrated by Renée Andriani (Holiday House, 2020), and The Tiny Baker, illustrated by Alison Jay (Barefoot Books, 2020). Hayley lives outside of Boston with her husband John. Their two terrific kids have flown the coop.
Jasmyn Wright, a globally recognized educator, author, and speaker, received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Spelman College and her Master in Education degree from Christian Brothers University.
A Teach for America and Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms alumna, she is the CEO and founder of The Push Through Organization–a non-profit that uses innovative practices to equip, inspire, educate, and empower individuals to overcome adversity and become change agents.
An elementary educator of 10 years, Jasmyn’s empowering and “out of the box” teaching style has been featured in a global GAP Kids back to school campaign, as well as various national and international news and media outlets, including NPR News and Good Morning America. Her mantras and teaching philosophies have been adapted into adult and K-12 classroom settings across 19 U.S. states and 26 countries.
Her new affirmational and empowering children’s book, I’m Gonna Push Through! (Atheneum, 2020), encourages children to access their power within and use it to overcome challenges.
Jasmyn has had the opportunity to deliver two TEDx talks, as well as travel the world, leading keynotes and serving as a consultant to various educational organizations. To find out more about Jasmyn and her work, please visit her non-profit’s website at www.wepushthrough.org.
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. She is represented by Lori Steel at Raven Quill Literary Agency.