New Voices: Shachi Kaushik & Susan Johnston Taylor Share Picture Book Advice

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Spotlight image: Shachi Kaushik celebrating Diwali with her new book.

I love sharing the success stories of Austin authors with Cynsations readers. Today I’m interviewing two debut picture book authors, Shachi Kaushik and Susan Johnston Taylor, about their paths to publication and advice for aspiring writers. Shachi is the author of Diwali In My New Home, illustrated by Aishwarya Tandon (Beaming Books, 2022) and Susan is the author of Animals in Surprising Shades, illustrated by Annie Bakst (Gnome Road, 2023).

Shachi Kaushik

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

My experience volunteering at the Round Rock Public Library inspired me to write for young readers. I hosted a bilingual Hindi-English Storytime and noticed a lack of books featuring South Asian characters. This realization motivated me to fill the gap. As a result, I set out to bring stories with universal themes while incorporating elements of my South Asian culture.

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

I was excited and uncertain when I began my writing journey. I wasn’t sure where to start or what path to take. That all changed when I discovered The Writing Barn and received a Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity scholarship from them for my first class, Perfecting the Picture Book I.

After completing the class with the amazing author Carmen Oliver, I was able to see picture books and the market in a whole new light. The knowledge and skills I gained from the class allowed me to take my writing from a beginner level to a more polished and publishable standard. I’m so grateful to The Writing Barn for being a crucial part of my journey and giving me the tools to bring my stories to life.

Being a part of the writing communities like the Writing Barn, SCBWI, and 12×12, has been an invaluable experience for me. The guidance and support I’ve received helped me gain the clarity and confidence I need to pursue my writing dreams.

Shachi celebrating Diwali at the Spicewood Springs library in Austin.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I got inspired to write Diwali In My New Home from the Round Rock Public Library. As a host of bilingual storytime for children at the Round Rock Public library, we organized an annual Diwali celebration for children.

Over the years, the event became a hit in the community, with many parents eagerly participating. Seeing the delight on the children’s faces inspired me to write my book, Diwali In My New Home. My goal was to share the joyous celebration of Diwali, the festival of lights, with those unfamiliar with the holiday.

Shachi was a finalist for Austin SCBWI’s 2019 Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award with the manuscript for Diwali in My New Home.

What were the challenges in bringing the text to life?

When I first started bringing my text to life, I struggled with learning the difference between “Show vs. Tell.” It was a hurdle that required me to dig deep and find the perfect words to breathe life into my story. Thankfully, books like Writing Picture Books – A Hands-On Guide From Story Creation to Publication by Ann Whitford Paul (Writer’s Digest Books, 2018) and The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression [by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (JADD Publishing, 2019)] provided me with the guidance I needed.

Then came the part of submission and rejections. The rejections were the biggest emotional challenge. The initial rejection letters left me feeling disheartened. I knew that rejection was a part of the process, thanks to my agent Lynnette Novak and my writing peers who kept pushing me forward.

With so many rejections, I changed the title and the character’s name at one point. My book was earlier called Diwali Away from Home. These small tweaks made all the difference in capturing the editor’s attention.

Ultimately, these challenges have taught me important lessons about persistence, patience, and the power of words in storytelling. Despite the emotional rollercoaster, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Shachi at the Twig Bookshop in San Antonio.

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

For beginning children’s-YA writers, I recommend not worrying about writing a perfect first draft when starting a new writing project. The initial draft is just a starting point, so allow yourself to explore and develop your ideas without overthinking or self-editing. Instead, focus on letting the words flow freely on the page.

It’s important to maintain consistency and persevere through tough times in writing. Having a support system can make all the difference in keeping you motivated and inspired to continue pursuing your writing goals. Surround yourself with people who cheer you on through your rejections and celebrate your writing victories. Remember to celebrate your victories, even the small ones, along the way. Treat yourself to acknowledge your progress and accomplishments.

Writing is a journey, and it can take time to develop your skills and find your voice. It’s important to be patient with yourself and not get discouraged if things don’t happen as quickly as you’d like. Keep writing, keep learning, and keep pushing forward, and eventually, you’ll see progress and success.

Susan Johnston Taylor

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Back in early 2020, I read about Malabar giant squirrels that are found in India and have fur that’s a lot more vibrant than the squirrels we see in North America. That got me thinking about writing a concept book celebrating animals in unexpected colors. As the idea took shape, I decided to present the animals in rainbow order (plus a multi-colored animal at the end and a few other variations). I love Jane Yolen’s STEM poetry collections, so I tried it as a poetry collection. Ultimately, my squirrel poem didn’t make the final cut, because I felt some of my other poems were stronger and more engaging. But reading about those squirrels started it all.

As an unagented author, how did you identify your editor and connect the manuscript with the publishing house?

By the end of 2020, I’d gotten a revise and resubmit (R&R) from an agent and several champagne passes from agents, but no offers of rep. I was almost out of agents to query with my poetry collection, but I still believed in that project and my CPs urged me to find another path to publication. I decided that if I wasn’t agented by January 2021, I’d start submitting the project directly to editors who are open to unagented submissions.

I saw that Gnome Road Publishing was interested in lyrical STEM picture books, so that potentially seemed like a good fit and I sent it in during an open submission window. In March 2021, the editor asked to chat over Zoom and our visions aligned, so she made an offer! Working with Sandra Sutter at Gnome Road has been fantastic.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

I admire Jane Yolen’s ability to spin a poem about almost anything, so Eek, You Reek! Poems About Animals that Stink, Stank, Stunk (co-written with Jane’s daughter Heidi E. Y. Stemple and illustrated by Eugenia Nobati, Millbrook Press, 2019) was a big inspiration when I started working on the project. I liked how it uses poetry and prose to explore different animals.

Then when I got my R&R, Bethany Hegedus recommended I look at Dictionary for a Better World: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z by Charles Waters and Irene Latham with illustrations by Mehrdokht Amini (Carlrhoda Books, 2020). I included some different poetic forms (a concrete poem, haiku, etc.) in the early version of the book I’d been querying. Reading Dictionary for a Better World inspired me to embrace poetic variety even more to reflect the biodiversity of the animals featured.

A few people didn’t care for that variety and recommended I use the same meter and rhyme scheme throughout. However, I’d read a few animal poetry books that repeated the same meter and rhyme scheme over and over. I found it limiting. To me, the poems started to sound the same after a while, so I continued with my vision, and I think it was one of the things that attracted my editor to the project.

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

Don’t go it alone! I’ve been a freelance journalist since 2008, and while freelancers like to meet up for happy hour to talk shop, it’s not as collaborative as kidlit (it also doesn’t take journalists years to produce a 500-word story, which is very common for picture book authors). Freelance writers and journalists spend much of their time working solo and often don’t workshop their writing with peers, but kidlit authors swap manuscripts with critique partners and form marketing groups to support each other. [Susan helps run the marketing group PB Spree in ‘23 and is also part of the groups GreenPB2023 and STEAM Team.]

You can learn So Much from others if you embrace the kidlit community by attending webinars and conferences, taking classes, engaging on social media, and joining critique groups. Don’t expect that you will find all the answers on your own. Even if you’re already established in an adjacent field (I’d been freelance writing full-time for nearly a decade when I started querying), children’s publishing works differently in many ways.

Cynsations Notes

Shachi Kaushik is a bilingual Hindi-English children’s media enthusiast who is passionate about sharing stories. Part of the Children’s Media Industry, she creates content for children that is entertaining, enlightening, and educational. Raised in India, Shachi previously lived in Austin, and currently lives in Vancouver with her husband. Shachi loves taking walks on the beach and eating gelato.


Susan Johnston Taylor writes for kids and adults. Her magazine articles have appeared in Dramatics, FACES, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Scout Life, and many others. A strong believer in the power of poetry, Susan co-teaches a summer poetry camp through Austin Bat Cave, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit that offers writing programs for kids and teens. She’s written several children’s books for the educational market, and this marks her picture book debut.

See the educator resource guide for Animals in Surprising Shades: Poems About Earth’s Colorful Creatures.

Susan will have a book launch event with author Sean J. Petrie at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 8 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd. in Austin. She will also be at the Texas Library Association Conference on April 20 at the Austin Conference Center.

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. She is a board member of Lago Vista’s Friends of the Library and an Austin SCBWI volunteer. She loves inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.