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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Karlin Gray

I have the pleasure of introducing you to Karlin Gray whose second picture book, An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth, released last Thursday. Unlike her debut nonfiction picture book, Nadia: The Girl Who Couldn't Sit Still (2016) and her upcoming nonfiction release Serena: The Littlest Sister (2019), this picture book is fiction and rhyming.

Karlin Gray grew up as a Navy “brat”—moving every year or two. After living in ten houses and attending eight schools, Karlin moved again to Florida (where she worked on her B.A. in Creative Writing at Florida State University), Virginia (where she worked for newspaper publishers), New York (where she worked for book publishers), and Connecticut (where she works now as a mom and picture-book writer).

Welcome Karlin.

ME: 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?)

KARLIN: I try to stay on a Monday-Friday schedule, writing at my kitchen table and taking breaks for the gym, dog walking, and sometimes lunch with friends.

At this point, I only write picture books. In my pre-mom life, I tried to write two novels but never finished. Once I had my son (10 year ago), my brain was too tired to think beyond 1,000 words so that’s when I started writing picture books. The irony? By the time I finished all the revisions on a picture book, I probably could’ve written several novels. Maybe one day...

Oh, I definitely know what you mean. Those picture books are so deceptively "simple." What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

While working on the final proofs for this book, I spotted a moth on the wall. Insects aren’t usually welcome inside my house. But it seemed wrong to shoo the moth out, so I let it stay for a few days until I finished.

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

I was an only child, so I gravitated toward stories with lots of siblings like Little Women and The Chronicles of Narnia (and TV shows like Eight is Enough!). I also loved Shel Silverstein’s poetry collections—wacky and wise all at once.

Where did the inspiration for An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth come from?

When my son was three, he started clapping at a moth on our deck. At first, I thought he was trying to catch it but then I realized that he was clapping FOR the moth. “It’s my favorite bug,” he said. I imagined the moth overhearing that comment. It must’ve made the moth’s day to be called someone’s “favorite.” After all, moths aren’t usually greeted with applause.

That's a great inspiration story. How long did it take to come up with the title?

I sold it as “An Ordinary Moth” which comes from the first line in the book. I never considered any other title until my publisher’s sales team said that the title was underwhelming. My editor suggested adding “Extraordinary” to it and that worked for me.

Interesting. I love hearing the backstory to the title! As the first rhyming picture book you’ve published, what was your greatest struggle in writing this picture book?

I have a hard time hearing a rhyme’s meter, so I have to graph it out to make sure the stress is in the right place. To learn more about writing in rhyme, I recommend the website

How did the research and writing of An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth differ from your debut picture book Nadia: The Girls Who Couldn’t Sit Still?

The research was the same—diving into books, newspaper and magazine articles, online resources, etc. Also was a treasure trove of information.

The writing was different in that An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth is in rhyme, so I agonized over every single word. And even though the word count in An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth is a fraction of the one in Nadia, I workshopped it twice as long before sending it out to publishers. So shorter is not always faster!

Those rhymes and rhythms can be so complicated to get right. Since your next book is Serena: The Littlest Sister (2019), would you say you prefer to write biographies more than nature books?

It doesn’t matter to me if a manuscript is fiction or nonfiction. It just needs a heart—that certain-something that connects the reader to the story. As long as I can hear the heartbeat, I’m happy.

I love your image of listening for the heartbeat of a story. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

A first draft is not the place for “perfection.” Let it be messy—don’t stress about grammar, spelling, etc. Just get it all out and worry about fixing it later. There’s magic in that mess.

My son’s third-grade teacher taught the kids to write for ten minutes without correcting anything. Then she gave them time to go back over it and make corrections. It took me 40 years to learn that!

What is the hardest thing about writing children’s books?

As a mom, I have a tendency to teach or guide. But as a storyteller, it’s my job to entertain. I have to ignore the mom in me and just focus on telling a good story. Kids will learn a few things about moths in my book, but that’s a bonus. The real story is about how a moth went from feeling plain and unlikeable to feeling special and loved.

And this balancing act is even more complicated by having with two sets of readers (the child & the adult). What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer.)

My son. Being with him has given me so many story ideas. (It’s only fair since he caused so much sleep deprivation in those first few years!) I also write for my younger self, remembering the subjects that fascinated me.

Touché! Is there anything special you want your readers to know about An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth?

When my son announced that the moth was his favorite bug, my response was . . . “Ew.” Seeing his little hurt expression made me realize that wasn’t the best reaction. I took a closer look at moths and learned a few things (like moths are insects, not bugs). So really, I’m the little girl in the book!

What fun insight to learn, thank you. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I am working on a nonfiction picture book about an effeminate boy who was bullied for being different and then grew up to be a man who made a difference in the world of beauty.

That sounds very intriguing. I look forward to reading that book. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or something you are grateful you did not know at the beginning?

I learned so much about children’s writing in my workshops with author Victoria Sherrow ( and wish I had started taking classes earlier.

Do you have any advice on querying agents, surviving rejections, managing bouts of success, or anything else for authors or illustrators?

I don’t have an agent so I guess I’d like children’s writers to know that you can get published without an agent.

Here is a partial list of publishing companies that accept unsolicited manuscripts and links to their submission guidelines:

Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.:

Holiday House Books for Young People:

How generous of you to take the time to locate and list all of these. Thank you Karlin! What is your favorite animal? Why?

I love all cats—house cats, bob cats, ocelots, snow leopards, panthers, etc. Please don’t tell my dog.

Promise! Thank you, Karlin for stopping by for this interview. I really enjoyed talking with you.

Thank you Maria for being a part of my blog tour and for sharing An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth with your readers.

Be sure to stop back by on Friday for my #PPBF post on An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth.

To find out more about Karlin Gray, or get in touch with her:

Twitter: @KarlinGray

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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