New Voices: Melissa Coffey & Kristin Wauson on SCBWI’s Role in their Journeys

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Featured image: Melissa Coffey signing advance copies at the 2022 Texas Library Association Conference.

Today I’m pleased to welcome two Austin authors to Cynsations, Melissa Coffey and Kristin Wauson. Melissa is the debut author of Fridge-Opolis, illustrated by Josh Cleland (Little Bee Books, Sept. 6, 2022) and Kristin is the author/illustrator of Mr. Thatcher’s House (Sleeping Bear Press, Aug. 2022).

Melissa Coffey

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

Becoming a mother to my own two sons. My background is in journalism, and I worked at CNN/Turner for almost a decade. I launched my own freelance writing business, Coffey Creative, and have spent most of my career as a business writer for corporate clients and CEOs and editorially for national and city magazines. But I decided to totally switch gears with my writing after having my sons, Adam and Ethan. Every night at bedtime, I was reading mountains of picture books to them and (re)discovered my love of children’s literature. (They’re older now, but still voracious readers, and my eldest keeps lobbying me to write YA.)

Adam and Ethan Coffey

LeUyen Pham said, “Picture books are the first stories that mold a child’s vision of the world. They are one step past a parent and are the closest you can come to whispering in a child’s ear.” The truth of those words really resonated with me, and the privilege, joy and responsibility that comes with writing for children. I loved meeting her and Shannon Hale when they did an author/illustrator visit and signing (pre-pandemic) for Best Friends (First Second, 2019) at my son’s elementary school in Austin. And now I’m excited to be doing the same for Fridge-Opolis with his school in October.

Melissa with LeUyen Pham and Shannon Hale at a school visit in Austin.

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

Publishing a book has always been a lifelong goal of mine. I’ve been focused on kidlit for the past five years. I joined SCBWI, started attending workshops and classes and found my wonderful critique groups who have become some of my closest friends and supporters. Collaborating with these amazing authors has not only been one of the most rewarding parts of my journey, but also one of the most pivotal in helping me hone my craft and trust my voice.

In 2017, I attended my first SCBWI summer conference in Los Angeles. I didn’t know a soul. I remember going through a vast gamut of emotions, including that pesky-but-all-too-predictable “imposter syndrome” so many of us wrestle with at various points on our creative paths.

Vanessa Brantley Newton’s keynote brought me to tears and then Marvin Terban had me laughing in stitches. The incomparable Judy Blume was on stage chatting, and it all felt a bit surreal. But I was totally hooked.

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with their representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

This was actually a bit of “Big Magic” for me, signing with my agent, Charlotte Wenger at Prospect Agency, and then placing Fridge-Opolis with Courtney (Fahy) Price at Little Bee Books.

In December 2017, I participated in a Twitter pitch contest. Happily, the nonfiction picture book manuscript I pitched caught the attention of Charlotte, who was then an editor at Page Street Kids. We worked closely on an R&R [revise and resubmit], but ultimately, that manuscript was not acquired.

While I was crestfallen, I adored working with her and learned so much in the process. About a year later, Charlotte joined Prospect as a literary agent. We reconnected on a new fiction PB project of mine. While I had two offers of representation, I chose to partner with Charlotte because a) I already had first-hand experience with her editorial style and impeccable communication and b) she’s just a genuine, lovely person.

While my overall experience has been that publishing generally moves at a sloth-like pace, my debut, Fridge-Opolis, was a total exception. Charlotte submitted the project right before Thanksgiving 2020 to my delightful (then) editor, Courtney Fahy, at Little Bee Books.

Five weeks later, right before Christmas, we had an offer in hand. It was truly the most unexpected, incredible holiday present I could have received. Courtney was an absolute gem to work with, and our visions totally aligned. I feel rather spoiled because Shimul Tolia’s entire Little Bee team is terrific and even celebrated Fridge-Opolis with me at TLA!

Little Bee Books Marketing & Publicity team at TLA (Paul Crichton and Tristan Lueck).

And, of course, I can’t wait for readers to see how much humor our sublimely-talented illustrator, Josh Cleland, has infused into the book’s anthropomorphic food characters and their escapades.

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 think my extensive background in marketing communications and PR serves me well in that I’m accustomed to revising and well-versed in key messaging, promotion and producing collateral. My mind is constantly thinking about creative, cross-promotional ways in which Fridge-Opolis could be used as a teaching tool.

The book’s message aligns with many environmental organizations, food resource/recovery networks, green non-profits, environmental science curricula, community outreach, etc. It’s why I wanted to partner with the Pease Park Conservancy and Keep Austin Beautiful for my BookPeople book launch event Sept. 17 in Austin since sustainability is our shared goal. I’m definitely trying to embrace social media more as an author and learn how to navigate the various platforms. I do love connecting with the larger kidlit community.

I think striking the right balance between time spent on book promotion, events, social media and actually sitting down to write/revise is the magic unicorn for many.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

One of my least favorite chores is cleaning out the fridge (anyone?). Who hasn’t found some leftovers lurking in the back or forgotten produce that has turned mushy in the crispers? How about lovingly packing a child’s lunchbox only to have most of it come back home at the end of the school day or worse, dumped in the cafeteria (ugh). Even now, while we recycle, compost and meal plan to reduce our own waste, it still pains me whenever food goes uneaten. Growing up in the Midwest, it’s always been a very practical part of my family’s value system not to squander precious resources.

The earliest drafts of Fridge-Opolis spotlighted most of the same key characters (hello, mustachioed Mayor Mayonnaise!), and the city was modeled after New York, but I initially focused on food insecurity. Food insecurity and food waste are intertwined.

The book’s angle morphed over time and really crystallized when I did more research and learned the gobsmack-ing statistic that we collectively waste up to 40% of all food in the US. The number one thing dumped in landfills is food, which is a major contributor to climate change. Yet many people don’t necessarily make the automatic connection between food waste and global warming. I know I didn’t.

I hadn’t seen this environmental topic addressed in a picture book before, so I knew I wanted to raise awareness, but do so in a humorous, playful way. Kids will be shepherding our planet through the next generation. I included backmatter as a way to start those deeper conversations and hopefully empower readers to become food waste warriors through their daily choices and habits.

Kristin Wauson

What first inspired you to illustrate for young readers?

I used to draw and write stories when I was a kid. I even wanted to be a Disney animator. But then I grew up. I went to college and got a job as a graphic designer. Back then everyone was all about computers, but once I started working exclusively on a computer, I missed the analog ways of making art.

I have always loved picture books, but had forgotten about them until I had kids. One night we were reading before bed and I happened to notice a photo of the author and illustrator on the back flap of the book’s jacket. It sounds silly, but until that moment, I had never considered that regular people make picture books and I was instantly obsessed with the idea that I could do it, too.

That same night, I went down an online rabbit hole, learning everything I could about how to make a children’s book and get it published. I read over and over again that it would be difficult to do. Even if I was successful it might take years. But, I didn’t care.

It was the first time in years I had felt this excited about making something. I was going to do it, and I wasn’t about to let common sense or statistics get in the way.

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time?

When I started this journey, I hadn’t drawn in a long time. After my son was born, I joined SVSLearn and I watched their entire video library in the early hours of the morning while I was up with my new baby.

My family is super supportive. That year, my husband and father-in-law gave me an iPad Pro for Christmas and I started dabbling in Procreate. My mom pressured me to attend an SCBWI Austin Conference by paying for my registration. So I put together a small portfolio and ended up winning the Emerging Voices Illustrator Mentorship. I worked with Marsha Riti, for over a year. She was so generous with her time, and having a published illustrator who could answer my questions and guide me in the right direction was huge.

I learned to illustrate mostly from self-study. I read books, took online classes, and filled as many sketchbooks as I could. When I first started, I felt like my style was all over the place and I spent a lot of time trying to cover up my line work. Then I did an exercise where you collect all of the art you love and analyze what you love about it. I noticed that all of my favorite art had beautiful line work, yet here I was, trying to cover up all my lines. That completely changed my artistic process.

Another big milestone was when I realized I could scan my pencil drawings and paint on top of them in photoshop with transparent layers. I have always felt most comfortable working in pencil, and I never could seem to replicate my pencil process digitally. But it turns out, I didn’t need to. Sometimes we make things harder than they need to be.

What about this manuscript called to you as an illustrator?

Anytime I read a manuscript, I always make a judgement about whether or not it’s something I would want to draw. Even if the probability of me illustrating that manuscript is zero, I still make that assessment. I also come up with a lot of ideas for picture books that I would not necessarily want to illustrate, so when I write something that has me excited about both the story and the visual potential, I know it’s something I should pursue.

Interior spread from Mr. Thatcher’s House, illustrated by Kristin Wauson, used with permission.

Mr. Thatcher’s House has a little bit of humor and a lot of heart which, to me, is the perfect kind of picture book. And it draws from all of my favorite childhood stories. Mr. Thatcher can’t seem to get his house just right and that comes from my own struggle with perfectionism. Sometimes we get so focused on details, and trying to do everything over the top, that we miss what’s right there in front of us. Our friends and family don’t need us to work any harder to be perfect. They don’t need us to change or fix anything. To the people who love us, we’re already complete.

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

I always knew Mr. Thatcher’s House would be pretty complicated to illustrate. For the house, I had to figure out how to make it look small and modest in the beginning, and then incorporate that same original house into the design of the larger one. I wanted there to be the sense that he had been adding onto it for years. I had already finished the art for the first spread, which shows him building the original house, when I realized the roof was sloping in the wrong direction to match the ceiling in the interiors. It might sound nitpicky, but I had to redraw it. There were just a lot of those kinds of things I had to pay attention to for consistency.

Interior spread from Mr. Thatcher’s House, illustrated by Kristin Wauson, used with permission.

The interiors were very complicated, and it took a lot of work to get the perspectives right. One of the main features of the living area is a spiral staircase that is built around a tree trunk. I studied a lot of reference for that and also used a model that my husband made for me that was just a bunch of nails sticking out of a cardboard tube so I could visualize the angles of the stair treads as they climbed up the tree.

I also collected a lot of reference photos of real fairytale houses and furniture to create both the interior and exterior of the house. The house and furniture have elements of timber framing, Hobbit houses and Craftsman style.

In addition to that, the surrounding storybook houses are all different. Felicia Macheske, who was the designer and art director, helped me create a map of Mr. Thatcher’s neighborhood to help us figure out where each house would be in different scenes. Felicia actually built a model of the neighborhood with cardboard boxes to help us get the placement right from various perspectives.

And did I mention the story has about 25 different characters? As the house fills up with characters some of the final pages have 16-18 characters in each spread.

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with his or her representation, connecting your work to a publisher?

I started submitting my dummy for Mr. Thatcher’s House to literary agents in 2018, and I got rejections from maybe five or six. I had gotten really promising feedback on it from a couple of editors at a SCBWI Austin Conference, but none of those had led to anything, so I made some revisions and was preparing to try again when I decided to participate in #PBPitch. I had participated before, but hadn’t gotten much of a response to my pitch. But this time was different. I got hearts from multiple agents and a publisher.

One of those agents was Adria Goetz. I submitted my query to her the next day and within about 12 hours, on a Saturday morning she emailed me back with a request to see more work. A couple of weeks later we had a phone call and she offered me representation. We worked together on my dummy for the next few months and in October of 2019 she sent it out on submission.

Then 2020 came. Lots of publishers were not having acquisitions meetings as scheduled. Furloughs were happening and publishing seemed to be moving even more slowly than it usually does. It wasn’t until February of 2022, we had almost given up on it, and we suddenly had interest from two publishers at the same time. We finally landed with Sleeping Bear Press.

Interior spread from Mr. Thatcher’s House, illustrated by Kristin Wauson, used with permission.

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

Keep going! Don’t give up. Even if it seems like you’re not getting any traction from what you’re doing, keep putting in that consistent work. Over time, small amounts of effort add up and one day you’ll realize how far you’ve come!

Cynsational Notes

Melissa Coffey is the author of Fridge-Opolis, her debut picture book, published by Little Bee Books and illustrated by Josh Cleland. She grew up in Wisconsin toting around an overstuffed book bag and a dog-eared spiral notebook of poetry and stories. Unsurprisingly, her first job was at the public library. After earning a journalism degree from UW-Madison, she moved to Atlanta and called CNN Center home. Melissa was a freelance writer for Fortune 500 companies, CEOs and magazines before pursuing her passion as a children’s author.

She now lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two sons—who thankfully inherited her book-loving genes. She is a member of SCBWI and represented by Charlotte Wenger at Prospect Agency.

Since she learned to hold a pencil, Kristin Wauson has been making pictures and stories. She grew up in the Texas Hill Country, inspired by fairy tales, C.S. Lewis, music, horses and classic Disney animation. A graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, and former graphic designer, Kristin came to kidlit after rediscovering picture books via her two sons. In 2015 she was awarded the SCBWI Austin Emerging Voice Illustrator Mentorship, and in 2019 she was nominated for the Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award.

She’s a member of many groups including Puddle Jump Collective, The Big Dillustrators, and the 6 Ladies and a MANuscript Critique group. When she’s not perfecting her craft, you’ll find her cooking, or possibly upside down. Kristin loves whimsical stories with lots of heart and elements of magic. Picture books are her primary focus, but she would love to illustrate middle grade covers, interiors or even a graphic novel.

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults. Now she focuses her energy on inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.