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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Gretchen McLellan

Today, I have the fun privilege of interviewing a friend and fellow Washington writer, Gretchen McLellan. Her debut picture book, Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3, involves the range of feelings experienced by children at the end of the school year. Her book was reviewed by Vivian Kirkfield on her blog - Picture Books Help Kids Soar - last Friday, for Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF.

Take a seat and enjoy some fun insight into Gretchen and her amazing upcoming books.

Gretchen, thank you so much for stopping by to visit with us.

Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

My favorite type of book to write is the one that I’m in the flow with. Sometimes that’s a picture book, but at other times a chapter book or middle-grade novel. My first love is picture books, but since my nature is to complicate rather than simplify and write longer rather than shorter, the novel allows me more room and I continue to be called into that form of narrative. Still, I have difficulty limiting myself in novels. I’ve got a 93,000 word historical novel I’m trying to cut right now. Yikes! Cutting words is definitely my least favorite task in writing.

I’ve been writing in some form most of my life. I moved a lot as a kid and took to letter writing like an otter to the ocean. In college, I did a lot of critical essay writing, but never fiction. Even though I majored in English, I never took a creative writing class. The mostly male writers we studied in my literature program were put on such a high pedestal that I couldn’t even entertain the thought that I could write fiction, too. I turned to fiction when I had my own children and fell in love with picture books.

What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

Have you ever heard of a bathtub desk? I’ve tricked one out! But baths aren’t the only place I write—barns, beds, book stores and coffee shops are great too. I can write almost anywhere—and do. My purse and pockets are full of scribbled phrases on the oddest of surfaces.

ME: A "bathtub desk"? Wow never heard of this but it sounds intriguing.

Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

I loved Charlotte’s Web in primary school—I had great taste in books early on! But a favorite? For which age and for which experience? When I hear the word favorite, I want to qualify the beejeebers out of it, rendering it powerless over me. It’s not that I’m indecisive, but being asked about having a favorite this or that makes me feel somehow deficient, like everyone has favorites, duh, why not you. I’m hoping to find my people somewhere out there who think like I do. Full disclosure: I’ve written a picture book called I Hate Favorites, which doesn’t yet have a pub date, but stars a little girl much like me.

ME: Gretchen what a great, and unusual (for my interviews to date) answer. Charlotte’s Web had a special place on my shelf as a child. I can’t wait to see your book on the shelves. I am sure there are many others who balk at “favorites.”

What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)


Honestly, superlatives stop me every time. I should wear a round button with the word superlatives in the center with a big emphatic red slash through it. I can’t put sources of inspiration into any hierarchy. I’m just grateful when any inspiration comes to me and takes me into the inimitable flow of story writing.

ME: I think life is a great, powerful inspiration. :-)

In 2018, you have two other books coming out. I’m Done and When Your Daddy’s a Soldier, how different are these three? Do you have a favorite? Was one easier or particularly harder to write? (Or is this like choosing your favorite child?) How different were the journeys of each book?

Actually, I have three picture books for 2018, but one hasn’t been officially announced yet, pending the signing of the illustrator. I can’t wait to find out who that will be and to tell the world!

My books are all very different from one another. Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3 is a school story about the bittersweet end of the school year. I’m Done! is a story about a playful and highly distractible little beaver learning what being done really means. When Your Daddy’s a Soldier is the very realistic story about a boy whose father is going off to war. As distinct as they are in setting and subject matter, they are similar in the attention I pay to using poetic devices in the text, using alliteration, assonance, consonance and rhyme, repetition, and the magic of threes in the structure and always, always writing with the ear.

Each story came to me in a different way. When Your Daddy’s a Soldier is the oldest story and is closest to my heart. When it appears next year, a lifetime goal for me will have been achieved—that of bringing the voice and experience of military children into print. I’m an army brat and never once saw myself in print. Military kids are in a subculture that is very underrepresented in children’s literature. I wanted to change that.

I’d been tinkering with a story called When I was a Kid in the Army, about the nomadic life of an army brat, and that story emerged in a new way when I sat down to write the first draft of When Your Daddy’s a Soldier on a Veteran’s Day during the early days of the Iraq War. Veteran’s Day always hits me personally, because my father served in three wars and was in Vietnam when I was young. I’m also married to a Vietnam Vet.

When Your Daddy’s a Soldier is an apolitical story that depicts the authentic emotional journey of one boy whose daddy is going to war. I am so grateful that my boy and his family are coming to life through the gifted hands of E.B. Lewis. The book will be beautiful and worth the long journey it traveled and seven year wait from offer to publication. It is the first story I sold, but not the first published.

Mrs.McBee Leaves Room 3 holds that distinction. It sold quickly, in part because there were no books like it in the market and in part because it landed on the desk of an editor who had a personal connection to how discombobulating even physical changes in a school can be for kids. Writing Cupid did his job really well matching us up!

Most books about the end of the school year are full of cheers and unbridled excitement about escaping the confines of school into the glories of summer. You know the “No more teachers, no more books…” chant. But for some children, the experience of saying good-bye at the end of the school year is bittersweet at best. For a few, leaving a beloved teacher and the nurturing and predictability of school is terrifying.

Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3 grew out of an experience of uncertainty in my school district. Like many communities, mine was growing fast. A new elementary school was slated to open in the fall. Staff and students alike didn’t know which school they’d land in. Knowing how children love to visit their last year’s teacher first thing in the fall, and how reassuring it is to see him/her in the halls throughout the year, I thought about how unsettling it would be to find that teacher gone. For many children, school is their ground and such a change would have seismic effects. Mrs. McBee was born.

I’m Done! came out of my classroom experience as a reading specialist too. “I’m done!” is an annoying phrase I heard too often in my career. Kids shout out “I’m done!” when half their paper is blank, sometimes to impress the teacher or other kids with their lightning speed and sometimes because they are clueless. Savvy teachers always have a next step for kids who finish early. Kids who yell, “I’m done!” ignore all that beautiful preplanning for the glory of being first.

So I knew that I had to write a story about that phrase. One day after work, I came home, plopped down on my bed and decided to play with the idea. What the heck, I thought. I’ll make it an animal story--pick an animal, any animal. How about a beaver? I immediately got the phrase “Nibble, nibble, snap. Nibble, nibble, snap…” and the story poured out, with a beginning, middle and end. I loved it right away. I think my sneaky side-kick subconscious had been working on the story for a while for me. I love it when that happens! The story found a home pretty quickly with Holiday House and comes out next spring.

ME: I can't wait to read I'm Done! because I am intrigued with your phrase and When Your Daddy’s a Soldier because I too was an army brat. Life definitely was your inspiration from your childhood to you teaching experiences.

Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I’m revising a middle-grade historical novel set in West Germany during the Cold War. I’m also experimenting with new forms in picture books—new to me that is. One is a Q-A form that requires lots of illustration suggestions. Another a retelling of a folk tale substituting the animal characters for… you’ll have to wait for the reveal on that one. And yet another is a non-fiction picture book about learning.

ME: These all sound like fun. Good luck.

Is there anything about writing or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started?

There is a Writing Cupid. Here’s what I shared about this flighty fellow on Vivian Kirkfield’s wonderful blog Will Write for Cookies.

“So many factors need to fall into place to ultimately publish—factors that are out of a writer’s control. Rejection doesn’t mean that a story is unpublishable. It means that that fickle Cupid was busy doing other matchmaking when the submission was read. Cupid needs to pierce the heart of the right editor at the right time with the right space on her list in the right company that will be so smitten with the story that they’ll find it a worthwhile investment. It’s all about love. And money. The publisher must believe that Cupid will strike the heart of the reading public and that they will put up cash to possess the book.

Those are a lot of variables that a writer has no control over. All a writer can do is write, improve her craft, write, read and write and read some more, and strive to get her work in Cupid’s quiver by going to conferences to make connections with agents and editors who are open to submissions. This involves a lot that is out of the comfort zone of most of us introverts. Cupid may strike during your open mike reading! All in all, the writer must persevere.”

ME: Thank you Gretchen for this. "Writing Cupid" is a wonderful metaphor for this crazy, fickle submission business. Unfortunately, no one is ever immune from his flighty inattention.

What is your favorite animal? Why?

There is that favorite word again and here come my qualifications: Dogs for sweet companionship and stunning interspecies communication. Cats for feeling like a warm newborn baby when they sleep on your chest. Whales for wonder. Sea turtles and tropical fish for a close up of the divine. Deer for introverted beauty. Bumblebees for dancing. Dolphins for playfulness. Beavers for starring in my story . . . I could go on and on and on. Lucky are we to live on such a beautiful planet with never-ending sources of inspiration and delight. Lucky are we who have our basic needs met and have the impulse to create. Lucky are we who have a dream and have it come true.

Thank you for inviting me to your blog!

Gretchen, thank you for such interesting and inspiring conversation. I really enjoyed spending time with you and interviewing you.

To find out more about Gretchen McLellan, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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