Spotlight image: Cate Berry writing in her 1967 Shasta camper.
Austin author and fellow VCFA alumnx Cate Berry has a new picture book, Thank You, Teacher, illustrated by Sara Varon (Balzer+Bray, 2023). I was eager to catch up with her and get her take on rhyming picture books, finding balance and living a creative life.
What’s the inspiration behind Thank You, Teacher!?
It was a mix. My editor, Donna Bray, dangled the idea of writing a teacher appreciation book for Balzer+Bray. Lockdown was upon us, so I was serendipitously home brainstorming while listening to the heroic efforts of my two kid’s teachers, over zoom. My affection and admiration for teachers (which had always been high) shattered my heart listening to them, and this book spilled out of me. I showed it to a couple of trusted critique partners who liked it and then, luckily, my editor loved it as well.
I probably wouldn’t have gravitated towards writing a book like this had it not been for the pandemic. Now, it’s become the book of my heart. I cannot wait to get it out there! I want readers to celebrate all that teachers do for kids, all that’s behind being a great teacher. It’s so much more than math and reading (although we love those, too!). Teachers hold space for us, cheer us, comfort us, listen to us, along with teaching us. And to do it well, they wield a lot of creativity, and they have to care.
I hope this book shows thanks to the many kinds of teachers in our lives, giving so much, every day.
Thank You, Teacher! is described as “a hilarious, rhyming ode.” Writers are often advised against submitting rhyming picture books, yet I see them being published and winning awards all the time. What advice do you have for those working on a rhyming picture book? Are there any tricks or tools you use?
It seems miraculous that I’ve now published two rhyming picture books and I certainly don’t see myself as a “rhymer”. But when sitting down to draft a book about something that is so meaningful to me (thanking our heroic teachers, for example!) I needed something that elevated the language to match my emotional connection with the subject.
I see rhyming texts akin to performing Shakespeare or musical theater. What I mean is, the story sometimes needs verse, or something more formal than prose, as a vehicle to carry the emotional content of the story or character speaking.
How to do it? I’d be a millionaire if I could answer that definitely! I will say, if a writer finds themselves drawn to writing rhyme, I wholeheartedly agree with all the masters that teach it. Find the story you want to tell first. Then set yourself the task of telling it through rhyme.
Rhyming becomes a disease once you start hearing it in your head! It’s very hard to stop, reverse the process, and find the story after you’ve started writing couplets. Not to say it can’t be done! But I think it’s easier starting with a great prose draft and then shifting to rhyme.
You’ll definitely have more fun this way too, which will translate into a better book in the end.
When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?
Boy, howdy. I have had a devil of a time figuring out when and where to write, mostly because I have two kids with ever shifting schedules and a husband who is also a freelance artist (musician).
I think so much of having a successful writing schedule life boils down to knowing yourself. Do you need to be alone to write? In a loud coffeeshop? Away on retreat? Do you work best writing a little every day to keep yourself immersed in creativity or do you thrive writing in chunks of time seasonally?
There is absolutely no right way, only your way. Once you figure out what makes you tick, creatively, you can really get down to business.
For me, I like to do creative work on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. On Tuesdays I try and do business type things and answering emails. And Fridays I take care of myself—walks at Red Bud Isle, daydreaming about wallpaper, reading a friend’s book.
One thing that’s really changed over time is the absolute belief in down time. It’s essential for me now, post Covid. And no, I don’t have the time or financial luxury of taking downtime. But I take it anyway. I’ve been surprised that it’s buoyed my career and life in such surprising and positive ways.
And where do I write? I’m so glad you asked! I bought a pink, vintage 1967 Shasta camper and use it as my writing office. I love it so much. It has A/C, heat and a mini fridge I keep well stocked with Waterloo fizzy water. I took Virginia Woolf’s advice seriously. Every woman should have a camper of one’s own.
What do you love most about the creative life/being an author? Why?
I love attempting to serve my most authentic self through living a creative life. I know that sounds very “woo woo” so I’ll try to explain.
There are many careers I’m drawn to that have more tangible milestones of success and stability. They aren’t riddled with the intersectionality of art and commerce. But if you can get past your ego, proving yourself in an external way with the arts, you can fall deeply in love with the process of creating.
I’ve had many successful friends in a number of artistic fields who will swear that no matter how big the end results are, nothing was more fun and fulfilling than the creating part. I agree. It’s also the answer to anything that’s plaguing you. The process, not the product, has brought me so much joy. And can’t ever seem to ditch it for something else.
What do you have coming up next?
I have a picture book called, Scorch Hedgehog of Doom! (Page Street Publishing) coming out next spring, 2024. It’s a humorous book that flips ideas of self-acceptance in unexpected ways. And another title, releasing 2025, that I can’t talk about yet! It’s been a busy time.
I’m so very grateful every day.
Cate Berry has authored the picture books, Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! illustrated by Charles Santoso (Balzer & Bray/Harper Collins), Chicken Break! A Counting Book illustrated by Charlotte Adler (Feiwel & Friends/MacMillan), and Kobe Eats Pizza! with Ashley Wian, illustrated by Joy Ang, (Feiwel & Friends/MacMillan). Thank You, Teacher! illustrated by Sara Varon (Harper Collins/Balzer+Bray) is her fourth picture book. Cate holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been a featured author and presenter at the Texas Book Festival and many SCBWI conferences. Visit her at www.cateberry.com.
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.