New Voice: Cate Berry on Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime!

By Traci Sorell
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I’m so pleasured to feature my interview with Cate Berry, debut picture book author of Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime, illustrated by Charles Santoso (Balzer + Bray, 2018).

Publishers Weekly described it as “…a buoyantly subversive antibedtime tale,” and I couldn’t agree more.

The witty repartee between Penguin and Tiny Shrimp, coupled with the digital artwork of Charles Santoso make this 2018 Junior Library Guild selection a fun and engaging read for little ones.

My visit with Cate yielded lots of helpful takeaways for those new to the field and some salient thoughts on when to ask for help.

Kate, what advice would you share with beginning children’s-YA writers? 

Personally, I urge my new students to read at least three hundred picture books before even beginning a manuscript (or at least while you begin drafting).

Picture books are like learning a new language. There is a rhythm, a vibe, and implicit rules are attached to the form. Taking a class or reading a craft book is great, but reading a heap of picture books is even better.

Cate’s students at The Writing Barn discuss picture books.

So reading more than you are writing is my advice, especially with picture books. You want the form to wash over you; the economy of words, the give-and-take with the illustrator, the brilliant idea, the strong beginning, the twist endings.

After you read a jillion of them, their residue is left behind and it’s easier to get out of the way and write something uniquely fresh and your own. I think every kid (and editor!) is looking for this in your next picture book.

Cate with VCFA faculty member A.S. King

I’d also say it’s very important to pay it forward. There are writers who have been so generous with their time and talent towards me over the years and continue to be so. I will never forget it.

I write a new mission statement for my writing each year and I always end it with “give back as much as I receive.” I hope I can encourage beginning writers to remember this unspoken tradition in our community and pay it forward as they move along in writing and publishing.

How are you approaching the transition from writer to author in terms of your self-image, marketing and promotion, and moving forward with your literary art? 

I love this question. You’ve made me think about it a lot. There is a lot of change right now. There are school visits, conferences, panels, social media and blog posts where there was once just writing time.
I’m not someone who believes in balance, which isn’t very on trend right now.

I don’t do yoga. I meditate until I have to stop and jot down “a very important note.” I like moving at full speed, falling into a project and not coming up for air until it’s done. I also like saying “yes” to everything. But all this isn’t very realistic.

So, I’ve incorporated two things into my life during this transition from writer to author. The first is asking for help from amazing women, in all fields, who are a step or two ahead of me.

I’ve watched successful men, including my dad, ask for assistance when they need it. Why shouldn’t I? A friend of mine in women’s marketing offered to be my project manager. She’s brilliant, helping me organize my new book/author commitments and not get overwhelmed with the process.

One of my students is helping me with the extra social media that comes along with launching a new book. And I’ve enlisted the help of another writer who is much farther along in publishing than myself to critique new manuscripts for me each month so my writing remains on the front burner.

And speaking of burners, I don’t want to burn out. That leads me to my second life change: making downtime a priority.

It was suggested I do this everyday and my first thought was, That’s nuts. There’s too much to do! I can’t stop until it’s done (see above paragraph)!

But, I want to be writing for many years. It’s a slow burn not a hot mess— this business of long-time book making. Taking twenty minutes a day to curl up with my cat isn’t going to slow me down at all.

In fact, I’m finding I’m more productive with less time on the days I keep this commitment of regular downtime.

As an MFA in Writing graduate, how did that experience impact your literary journey?

A week after I was accepted into the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program, I signed with my agent.

Some writing friends were scratching their heads at my decision to attend because, yes, MFAs are expensive and demanding. And hey, you just got an agent. Do you need to do this? I also knew it would be hard on my family.

But my mentor at the time gave me great advice: getting an MFA will put you on a fast track with your writing and ultimately your career. At the time I thought, Great! I will gain a degree along with accruing a lot of publishable work.

Turns out, I misunderstood her completely. To be clear, I don’t believe you must gain an MFA to write or publish, many writers I admire don’t have one. But for me, it allowed me to claim my space as a writer.

Is it Hogwarts or Narnia or Wonderland or Brigadoon?
Vermont College of Fine Arts is a low residency MFA and comes with a grueling schedule of critical writing, creative writing and an enormous amount of reading every month. We all know life gets in the way when you try and write. Going to VCFA took away any excuse for not putting writing at the top of my To Do list. And now I feel that commitment is embedded in my DNA.

I think that’s what my mentor really meant. It was a fast track, for me, in that it cemented my writing process.
One thing that surprised me is that working towards an MFA at VCFA was not linear.

Looking back, it’s strange how much I learned without academic scaffolding holding everything in place (ex. detailed curriculum uniformly followed by all students). I had four completely different advisors throughout my two years in the program, and I gleaned four different skill sets under their wings.

One semester was spent entirely on picture books. I had experience writing in this genre so I was able to dive deep, annotating hundreds of picture books and writing three to five drafts each month as well as revising and working intimately with my advisor and five other students through an online forum.

I received a certificate at the end of that semester which felt a little like “The Wizard of Oz” ending. Ultimately, it’s just a piece of paper, and yet, it gives me strength and confidence when I glance at it (which I do often!) knowing the effort behind it.

I will admit I was intimidated and frustrated by all the critical writing at first. But after some guidance, I grew to love it. My critical thesis and lecture were based around humorous picture books. I made time to delve into humor theory and research, applying it to currently published picture books, which now informs my daily writing. More importantly, it sharpened my analytical skills.

Why is this important for creative writing? Well, how can you write a great novel or picture book without being able to pull apart the mechanics of the story and embed your heart into it at the same time?

In the end, the greatest gift from my master’s program was understanding and valuing the long game. Faculty member Cynthia Leitich Smith’s inspired series on longevity and publishing in children’s writing also highlights these sentiments.

Sometimes life happens no matter how much you plan for an uninterrupted writing day.

This past week my son had the flu—pfft —I lost four days. But you can always keep your finger in the creative pie.

Even on the crazy days, I’ll jot down a poem or a new picture book title. My advisors, whom (lucky me) are now some of my writing pals, taught me about attending my work with care and dedication because we are writers for life, not sprinters in a writing contest.

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews said of Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime!:

“Ironic counterpoint abounds in this humorous picture book, which sees the eponymous characters rejecting typical bedtime-book activities and accouterments through speech-balloon text, as all the while humorous, expressive, digital illustrations doggedly present them…. A definite do for bedtime.”

Cate Berry is a faculty member with the Writing Barn in Austin, Texas and an active member in the SCBWI and Writers’ League of Texas.

She also speaks at schools, libraries and conferences year round on such topics as “Gender Stereotyping and Poetic Devices” and “From Stand Up to Sit Down: Funneling Surprise and Stand-Up Comedy into Humorous Picture Books.”

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.

Cover Reveal: Penguin & Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Debut author Cate Berry interviews illustrator Charles Santoso about Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! (Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins, May 2018)

Cate: Hi, Charles! I’m here with Penguin and Tiny Shrimp to talk about—

Penguin: Hey, Charles! Love the cover, but what’s with the pajamas?

Tiny Shrimp: We don’t do bedtime, Charles. (Although I love my nightcap and I’m keeping it.)

Cate: Guys! Let’s slow down here! I want to talk about the cover for our new book Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! (J’dore, Swoon, Applause!).

Charles: Hi, Cate! Hello, Penguin! Hello, Tiny Shrimp! Thank you for the kind words about my work.

Cate: You’re such a versatile illustrator. I’ve fan-girled over your books I Don’t Like Koala (by Sean Ferrell, Atheneum, 2015), Ida Always (by Caron Levis, Atheneum, 2016) and Peanut Butter and Brains (by Joe McGee, Abrams, 2015) just to name a few.

You don’t seem afraid to try new styles.

Can you talk about this as it relates to our book and the cover?

Charles: Yes, I’m weird like that. I always try different styles for different books I’m illustrating.

I try to “listen” to the story carefully and let my gut feelings guide me towards finding the right style for the book. I want to make sure the words and illustrations blend in and compliment each other as much as possible. It’s all about the story!

Cate: Yes! It’s always about the story! Hey, speaking of story, can we get a glimpse into the illustrator’s life and peek at your studio?

Penguin: Yes!

Tiny Shrimp: Ooooo, where the magic happens.

Charles: Here you go. My other pictures are unfortunately super messy.

Charles’s studio

Cate: Hey, don’t knock messy. I love how sly Penguin and Tiny Shrimp’s expressions are on the cover. There is so much there. They seem indignant—

Penguin: We are indignant. We’re not sleeping.

Tiny Shrimp: Dial back the big words, lady.

Charles: There you go, Cate! I told you they would evolve on their own!.

Cate: It sure seems so! The cover makes me laugh. When I teach, I like showing how humor is a mix of something serious with something silly. You have to find the balance. Does this come into play with illustrating for you?

Charles: I have to care about the characters. When I said that I “listened” to the story, I really meant knowing how both characters sound for me personally.

Both Penguin and Tiny Shrimp say things that might be funny to us but they are 100 percent sincere! So I have to make sure I’m portraying them genuinely— as close to their unique characters and personalities as I hear and see them in my mind.

Cate: That’s so neat. I love what you say about listening. I feel that’s true with the whole picture book making process. It’s like a duet at first, writer and illustrator. I’m writing and discovering these characters. And then you listen and have them come to life through your art. Then it’s a quartet when the editor and art director collaborate with us. Making picture books is so amazing.

Penguin: Hey, let’s get back to basics!

Tiny Shrimp: Did he ever answer about the pajamas?

Cate: Oh! You’re right, Tiny Shrimp! Let’s talk about those adorable red striped pajamas.

I love the entire color palette throughout the book. Can you talk a little about the choices you made?

Charles: Penguin and Tiny Shrimp love things that are fun! Full of energy! But, I did want them to go to sleep too, so I added more night colours to balance things out.

Cate: What else should we know about the cover?

Charles: The illustrations are done digitally but with the same attention to detail as I normally do with traditional media. It was time consuming, but I’m happy with the result.

Cate: I’d love to hear about something that’s unique to our book. Something you discovered along the way that shows up on the cover?

Charles: Penguin and Tiny Shrimp weren’t looking like they do now. I went and did lots and lots of explorations before finding the final look.

Cate: Did I miss anything else other than…

Penguin: Shhh! Don’t spill!

Tiny Shrimp: They have to read the book!

Charles: I don’t know what you’re talking about, Cate… Ha!

But, yes! Go read the book when it’s out!

Cynsations Notes

Charles Santoso (Chao) loves drawing little things in his little journal and dreaming about funny, wondrous stories. He gathers inspiration from his childhood memories and curiosities he discovers in his everyday travels.

He has illustrated several picture books, including The Snurtch (Atheneum, 2016) and I Don’t Like Koala (Atheneum, 2015) – both written by Sean Ferrell, Ida, Always by Caron Levis  (Atheneum, 2016), Peanut Butter & Brains by Joe McGee (Abrams, 2015) and Spy Guy: The Not-So-Secret Agent by Jessica Young (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

He worked at Animal Logic as a concept artist/art director and was involved in various animated feature film and tv commercial projects.

His work has been exhibited in Sydney and also internationally in North America and France. He currently lives and works in Sydney, Australia.

Cate Berry is a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adult MFA program (July/2017), receiving her Picture Book Intensive Certificate in the process.

Cate is an active member of SCBWI and the Austin children’s literature community.

She teaches numerous picture book classes at the Writing Barn, including the upcoming Perfecting the Picture Book II, starting January 8, 2018.

She lives in Austin with her husband and two children.

Guest Post: Cate Berry on VCFA at Bath Spa University

By Cate Berry
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Looking back on your undergraduate years, do you have remorse? What got away?

Mine is easy. I regret not spending a semester abroad.

Enter my grad school: Vermont College of Fine Arts. I graduated this July with an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, but not without savoring a wonderful and rich residency in Bath Spa, England the previous summer. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Corsham Court
Summer Residency in England is now in it’s third year. A select group of VCFA students in the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program travel to Bath Spa each summer for a week of scholarship, study and cultural immersion alongside fellow children’s writers, who’re attending Bath Spa University.

Suma Subramaniam, Michele Prestininzi, Tricia McLaughlin Carey, Cate Berry & Ginny Dukek

Bath, England is a tidy one-hour train ride from London. As I speed past quaint English villages, I caught myself humming the “Downton Abbey” theme song and counting sheep dotting the countryside.

Donna Janell Bowman at Jane Austen Centre

The elegant city of Bath is my retirement fantasy. It holds all the necessary requirements: small population, ample bookstores, lush English gardens, great restaurants and a bustling artistic scene.

The Jane Austen Centre boasts rare portraits of the author, her history and fabulous period clothing you can actually try on.

We toured the Roman Baths during our stay and dined at The Pump Room. Also, the world famous Thermal Baths (not to be missed if you attend residency) are situated discreetly downtown.

On our first day of residency, we traveled to Corsham Court where Bath Spa University is located. This is a real castle inhabited by a real duke.

As our bus arrives, peacocks strut around the manicured grounds.

The vastness and beauty of the estate left us gob-smacked.

We were going to study here?

David Almond and Louise Hawes

Esteemed Bath Spa faculty David Almond, Lucy Christopher and Julia Green greeted us along with the current Bath Spa writing students. Throughout the week faculty shared lectures, readings and group discussions, alongside our own two VCFA faculty members, Jane Kurtz and Louise Hawes.

In previous and post years, VCFA faculty Martine Leavitt, Tim Wynne-Jones, Sharon Darrow and Tom Birdseye led and attended residencies.

Julia Green, one of the Bath Spa University faculty members, commented on mixing workshops with students from both programs.

“It was a great experience, working with the MFA students from VCFA alongside our MA Writing for Young People students at Bath Spa University. 

“We found the exchange of ideas about the selected picture books, middle grade and YA novels from either side of the Atlantic an enriching experience.

“For me, there was something truly exciting about bringing together people from around the world, from different backgrounds and cultures, and finding how much we had in common, as passionate, committed writers for young people. 

“This is surely how we change the world, create understanding, and help create a more peaceful and compassionate society—for ourselves and for young people.”

Since this was part of our accredited residency at VCFA, we also attended writing workshops with our own faculty, Jane Kurtz and Louise Hawes.

Michele Prestininzi and Jane Kurtz at the Pump Room

Compared to residencies in Vermont, our group of students were smaller and more intimate. “It was great to have the same small group of writers seeing everything together,” Jane reflected. “Being part of the same lectures and readings, doing workshop together–I think the intimacy built a feeling of trust so we could all let go a bit more and play and let our creativity zing.”

In Oxford, next to the Narnia Lamppost 

Quickly, we bonded as our own group: “The Bath Goddesses.” Our workshops were generative. We tromped outside gathering sensory objects and honing our critical “observing” eye. Jane and Louise gave powerful and provocative lectures.

Gardens at Oxford University

As a writer, being so far away and immersing myself in craft and culture for a week resulted in a brand new project. The following semester, these “pages” became my creative thesis and resulted in a finished novel by graduation.

Illustration from The Hobbit.

Perhaps my favorite part of the week was our excursion to Oxford University. Our guide took us on a specific Children’s Literature tour, pointing out the colleges of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis among others.

High Table at Oxford University

We had lunch and conversation at the High Table with acclaimed novelist Meg Rosoff. And finished our day with a tour of the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest libraries in Europe.

VCFA alum Anita Fitch Pazner said: 

“Oxford was one of my favorite stops on the Bath Spa journey. Not only did we get to walk near Alice’s Wonderland and Harry Potter’s dining hall, but we also got a glimpse of the original Narnia map.”

At the end of the week, flying back for a few treasured days on the main campus at VCFA, I thought back on my Bath Spa experience.

Bath at dusk

Did I still have remorse about missed opportunities abroad as an undergraduate?


VCFA and the Summer Bath Spa Residency gave me the luxury of marrying an intensely satisfying learning experience with a cultural feast. Thanks, VCFA!

Cynsational Notes

Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Summer Residency in England: “Students seeking an international experience have the opportunity to attend the program’s summer residency abroad in Bath, England. This alternative residency is open to students entering their second semester or above, as well as alumni.”

About the VCFA MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Program: “The Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts allows students to earn a 64-credit MFA degree over a period of two years through a combination of ten-day, on-campus residencies followed by six-month semesters of self-created study, [each] supported and guided by a faculty mentor.
A semester’s study may focus on a particular area such as picture book, middle grade, or young adult and include in-depth reading and critical writing of the wider field, including poetry and nonfiction.”

Cate Berry is a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adult MFA program (July/2017), receiving her Picture Book Intensive Certificate in the process.

Cate is an active member of SCBWI and the Austin children’s literature community. She teaches numerous picture book classes at the Writing Barn in Austin, including the upcoming Picture Book III, starting November 1.

Her debut picture book, Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! (Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins) releases in May, 2018.

She lives in Austin with her husband and two children.

Guest Interview: Emma Walton Hamilton on Picture Book Summit

By Cate Berry

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The third annual Picture Book Summit online writing conference will be Oct. 7.

To find out more about this opportunity, which not only allows, but encourages attendance in pajamas, I interviewed one of the founders, Emma Walton Hamilton.

What prompted you to start the Picture Book Summit?

Jon and Laura Backes Bard, Katie Davis, Julie Hedlund and I are longtime friends and colleagues in the children’s lit community. We all regularly contribute to each other’s various programs and endeavors. 

One day we were chatting about the challenges of attending all the conferences we love – the travel, the accommodations, the cost factor, etc. – and it occurred to us that together we could create an online conference specific to picture books that would give people all the value of attending a conference – keynotes, workshops, submission opportunities and so forth – but they could attend from home in their PJs at a fraction of the cost. Thus, Picture Book Summit was born!

The Picture Book Summit seems like such great idea. A whole conference without ever leaving your couch…heaven! Besides the convenience of the online format, what are some specific features that attract a picture book writer?

Tomie dePaola

Picture Book Summit is a world-class conference, jam-packed with value throughout the entire day. There are keynotes from three different Superstar Speakers – this year it’s Tomie dePaola, Carole Boston Weatherford and Adam Rex – who each deliver their own complete session, discussing their craft, giving actionable advice and answering questions.

There are also four separate workshops focusing on a range of craft issues, like nonfiction, writing without preaching, the multiple layers in picture books and pitching and submitting manuscripts to agents.

There are interviews with agents and editors, addressing questions that attendees have asked and submission opportunities to them. 

There are also tons of extra bonuses, like a PJ party the weekend before, handouts and access to recordings after the Summit, networking opportunities via group chats and a Facebook group, free Facebook Live events during the year, and more.

It’s incredible value for the price!

Who is the ideal candidate for your conference?

The Summit is open to anyone who writes, illustrates, or dreams of writing or illustrating picture books. Beginners get a ton of information that helps bring them up to speed quickly, and experienced authors and illustrators get re-energized and inspired.

Is there anyone who is not qualified to attend?

No. There is no question too basic, and no publishing experience or knowledge is required to attend.

If you were attending for the first time, what is a goal you would advise a writer to shoot for during the conference?

It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the work of our speakers and presenters beforehand, and to have some questions ready to ask.

Beyond that, just watch, listen and learn! It will be a lot of information, but we provide handouts, slide decks and recordings of all the presentations after the fact… so you can pace yourself and just enjoy the day.

Is there anything I haven’t addressed about the Picture Book Summit that you’d like our readers to be aware of?

Picture Book Summit is an all-day live broadcast in webinar format. You log in, sit back and enjoy each session one after the other. But even if you can’t attend on the day, or have to miss part of a presentation, the entire event is recorded and available for playback within a few days. All registrants have access to the recordings.

Also, every year Picture Book Summit donates a generous portion of our proceeds to a different charity. To date, we have donated over $10,000. Charities we’ve partnered with so far include Reading Partners and We Need Diverse Books.

This year, Picture Book Summit is giving to students “coast to coast.” Proceeds from Picture Book Summit 2017 will be donated to two Title 1 schools – Harrison Elementary in Cottage Grove, OR, and Lincoln Elementary, in New Britain, CT. A portion of each Summiteer’s ticket will go directly to each school’s library.

Cynsations Notes

Emma Walton Hamilton is a best-selling children’s book author, editor and writing coach.

With her mother, actress/author Julie Andrews, Emma has co-authored over thirty children’s books, eight of which have been on the New York Times Bestseller list, including The Very Fairy Princess series, illustrated by Christine Davenier (Little Brown, 2010).

She is director of the Children’s Lit Fellows program at Stony Brook University.

Cate Berry is a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, Writing for Children and Young Adult MFA program (July/2017) receiving her Picture Book Intensive Certificate in the process.

Cate is an active member of SCBWI and the Austin children’s literature community. She teaches numerous picture book classes at the Writing Barn in Austin, where she lives with her husband and two children.

Her debut picture book, Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! (Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins) releases in May, 2018.