Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Kidlit Caravan members, Harshita Jerath, Kimberly Wilson, Carrie Tillotson, and our dearest Paula Cohen who passed away in February a few days before her book launch. Kidlit Caravan is a troupe of authors and author/illustrators with debut picture books headed your way in 2022.
Could you tell us about your book?
Paula: Big Dreams, Small Fish (Levine Querido, 2022) is the story of Shirley, a little girl whose family lives over the small grocery store they own in an immigrant neighborhood. The story is set in the 1930s. Shirley’s family came to this country with big dreams, and they don’t want her to work, but Shirley has dreams, too! She imagines a store that is modern and successful. Her biggest challenge is to sell Mama’s specialty, the slow selling homemade gefilte fish. She has her “big break” when a family event forces her parents to leave the store in her hands.
The book is a tribute to my mom and her family, who owned a small store in downtown Albany, NY. My mom was a smart feisty woman and did things her own way, and little Shirley has that kind of spirit and those kind of smarts. She is a little entrepreneur. It’s also a slice of old Albany life, when neighbors came from different countries, learned from each other, and shared their cultures and traditions.
Harshita: My picture book, The Leaping Laddoo (Albert Whitman, 2022), illustrated by Kamala M. Nair, is a fun, cultural variation of the Gingerbread Man classic in which an Indian dessert, laddoo (luh-DOO), runs away from the hands of its maker. Series of characters such as the kids playing cricket, the groom on an elephant, dancers, chai vendor, and other characters run after the haughty Laddoo to savor a bite, starting a rollicking chase on the streets of India. Sprinkled with Hindi words, a tongue twister, and vibrant illustrations, this story transports readers to Indian streets.
Kimberly: A Penny’s Worth (Page Street Kids, 2022), illustrated by Mark Hoffmann, is a humorous picture book about a penny who thinks she’s cent-sational. But when bigger coins and bills are plucked from pockets and purses, and she sits forgotten, she begins to doubt her value. She can’t slot surf with Quarter or even buy penny candy like Dime! Refusing to be short-changed, Penny sets out on a quest to find her place at any cost. Readers will roll with Penny while cashing in on a wealth of money puns, a basic lesson on US currency, and the important discovery that self-worth is truly priceless.
Carrie: Counting to Bananas: A Mostly Rhyming Fruit Book (Flamingo Books, 2022), illustrated by Estrela Lourenço, is a picture book about counting—and fruit! It’s also about an opinionated banana, ready to be a star. But when the narrator can’t find rhymes for all the fruits and starts inserting animals instead, Banana feels bruised. When will it be time for bananas?! This book has counting, fruit, animals, rhyme, metafiction, and amazing illustrations that I can’t get enough of!
When you look back on your writing and publishing journey, what are the challenges that stand out?
Paula: I’m an author and illustrator and the challenges for each were different. When it came to writing, I think the biggest challenges were in my own head. I had gone to school for Illustration so it never occurred to me that I could also write. When I was younger I was easily discouraged. Luckily by the time I tried to focus on writing, there were so many opportunities to take classes, challenges like 12×12 that allowed me to “catch up.” And with maturity I also didn’t judge myself so harshly. For illustration, my life changed when I started working digitally. Not that I’m a total pro at it, but it allowed me to be less hesitant of an artist. I still like drawing with pencil and paper, but for book work I do the finishes digitally.
Harshita: One challenge with The Leaping Laddoo was the varying feedback I received. Some agents did not provide me representation saying illustrating a food item can be tricky. And I’m glad I did not quit based on those feedbacks, ultimately finding an agent who believed in my story, and the illustrations look gorgeous.
Secondly, putting together the pronunciation guide for the Hindi words was not easy. There are some sounds such as the ‘uh’ sound in laddoo (luh-DOO) which took me a while to figure out the best way to put together so young readers can say these Hindi words effortlessly.
Kimberly: The main challenge that stands out with A Penny’s Worth is the number of times I completely rewrote the manuscript. With each version, I veered further and further from the original heart of the story. I had some tough critique moments that left me frustrated and even sad. But my critique partners supported me as I worked through those emotions and encouraged me to keep going. With their support and my determination, I eventually realized what I was missing in these newer versions and found the heart of my story again. That’s when the manuscript clicked with Page Street Kids, and I received an offer! As with most challenges, I learned something in the process, to listen to the story in my heart (and to write a pitch, paste it at the top of my document, and to stick to it!).
Carrie: One of my biggest challenges has been learning what to do with feedback. I often have a vision in mind for my manuscripts, but sometimes I get feedback that bumps up against that vision. I used to have the mindset that I should at least try every suggestion offered. After a while, I realized this approach would send me down too many rabbit holes. Now I consider every suggestion, but I don’t necessarily take and implement each one. I’ve learned I need to trust myself first and foremost, while keeping a balance of being open to new ideas. It’s not easy—I’m still working at it!
If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?
Paula: Don’t take criticism as a sign that you should give up, young Paula! While in college I wrote my first manuscript. My teacher loved it and arranged for me to meet with the head of Random House Children’s Books. He liked it but pointed out they had just released 2 books of the same theme, and suggested it was not the right timing. I wish I’d understood how big a deal it was to land that meeting at any age, but particularly at 19. I was discouraged, and didn’t write another story for 20 years. I’ve done some ridiculous things, but that is the one that makes me slap my forehead with the heel of my hand.
Harshita: Start building your author platform, which in simple words is reaching out to people, connecting with them, helping them out and showing up. And this exercise is satisfying and not overwhelming.
Kimberly: Major in English! Do not change your major and then end up three credits shy of having a double major in English anyway. Jump feet first into writing, and follow the dream you had from the time you were nine.
Carrie: I would tell myself to embrace playing — that it’s okay to try different openings, closings, turns of phrase, and structures. It’s sort of the flip side, the balancing act I described in the last question! When I was a kid, one of the things I hated most in making art was re-doing it. I thought I should be able to make everything right the first time. I’m still learning that my best work comes with revision and experimenting.
What are you working on next?
Paula: Right now I’m working on a number of different stories. One has a folk-tale feel, one is a twisted tale with a lot of noises in it, and one is my first graphic novel. I have a really hard time working on just one thing at a time, especially since revisions are my least favorite thing to do. if I write a story, I will often start a new one before I do the revisions on the current story. It’s a terrible habit, although not as bad as my late night cereal addiction. I’m also taking an online art course to try to increase my digital art skills. Here are some activities for Big Dreams Small Fish: https://paulacohenillustration.com/activities
Harshita: I’m working on a lyrical picture book about loss and another children’s book about adventures of a little girl and her pet dog.
Kimberly: A Dollar’s Grand Dream (Page Street Kids, spring 2023), is the sequel to A Penny’s Worth, also illustrated by Mark Hoffmann, about a dollar bill who realizes the grand life might not be as one-derful as it seems. I’m also currently working on several additional projects, including a heartfelt informational fiction piece told from an unlikely perspective and a wacky, graphic-style story.
Carrie: Counting to Bananas has a little sibling coming out next year, B is for Bananas: A Going Bananas Alphabet Book, illustrated by Estrela Lourenço (Flamingo Books, 2023). It’s about our same opinionated banana who still wants a book about bananas, but the narrator thinks it should be a bedtime book. I’m also playing around with a picture book biography set in Victorian London, and several other humorous manuscripts. Lots of fun around here!
Paula Cohen was a children’s book author and illustrator. She brought charm and humor to the animals and people she drew. She wrote warm and funny stories, some of which reflect her Jewish background. All of them encourage young readers to grow, explore, try new things, and find ways to connect to each other.
Harshita Jerath (pronounced her-SHE-ta) loves writing stories for children. She draws inspiration from her growing-up memories in India and the colorful world around her. She’s a science graduate in Industrial Microbiology with a Master’s equivalent in Hospital Administration. Harshita is represented by agent Beth Marshea of Ladderbird Literary Agency.To find out more about Harshita and her books visit her website at http://harshitajerath.com and her blog ipenlife.com where she shares her views about everyday life. Twitter: @hjerath Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/harshitajerath/ Website: http://harshitajerath.com
Kimberly Wilson is always on the look-out for lucky pennies and believes wishes do come true. A Penny’s Worth (Page Street Kids, April 5, 2022), illustrated by Mark Hoffmann is her debut picture book. The sequel, A Dollar’s Grand Dream, hits shelves in spring 2023! She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two daughters, and their puppy.
Carrie Tillotson is a biostatistician turned children’s book author, whose debut picture book, Counting to Bananas: A Mostly Rhyming Fruit Book, arrives on shelves in April 2022. As a child, Carrie loved to read, paint, and draw, and thought books were written by dead people. She later met a real-live author and realized she could be an author one day, too. After getting a master’s degree in public health and working as a biostatistician for more than ten years, Carrie now sculpts her interest in science and fun into playful picture books. When not reading and writing, you can find her running, playing games, and eating ice cream (though usually not all at the same time). She lives in Oregon with her husband and son, two dogs, and two chickens.
Suma Subramaniam is the contributing author of The Hero Next Door (Penguin Random House, 2019). She is also the author of Centaurs (Capstone, 2021), Fairies (Capstone, 2021), She Sang For India: How MS Subbulakshmi Used Her Voice For Change (Macmillan FSG, 2022), illustrated by Shreya Gupta, Namaste Is A Greeting (Candlewick, 2022), illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat, V. Malar series (Candlewick, 2024 & 2025), illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan, A Bindi Is A Dot (Kids Can Press, 2024), illustrated by Kamala M. Nair, and My Name is Long as a River (Penguin Workshop, 2024), illustrated by Tara Anand. Her poems have been published in the Young People’s Poetry edition of Poetry Magazine from Poetry Foundation. She is a volunteer at We Need Diverse Books and SCBWI Western Washington. Suma has an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Visit her website at https://sumasubramaniam.com.