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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Cathy Ballou Mealey

Debut author Cathy Ballou Mealey lives with her family north of Boston, where she delights in watching silly squirrel antics and is waiting patiently for a moose to appear. Her favorite nut is the hazelnut and her favorite cupcake is cardamom crème.

Her new book, When a Tree Grows, is a rollicking read-aloud that follows a zany chain of events triggered by a broken tree, a cranky Bear, a nut-loving Squirrel and his loyal friend Moose. It releases tomorrow!

Welcome Cathy,

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

CATHY: First, thank you for hosting me! I enjoy reading the Picture Book Buzz and getting the behind-the-scenes peek at so many exciting books and authors. It is a real honor to be here!

I wrote my first picture book in 2010 to enter the Cheerios “Spoonful of Stories” contest. Even though Ozzie the Oyster was definitely not ready for publication, my prize was discovering a passion for the craft of picture book writing.

After attending conferences, classes and workshops, I joined SCBWI, the 2012 - 12X12 Challenge and two critique groups. I have been writing, revising and studying ever since!

I love that it was a Cheerios contest that got you started and hooked on writing! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I can fold a king-sized fitted sheet to crisp-cornered, shelf-square perfection.

That's a great skill. Those rounded corners always mess me up. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

As I was learning to read, I loved the Richard Scarry Busytown books, colorful and carefully labeled. No doubt my love of anthropomorphic animals stems from those early reads! My favorite read-to-me book was Corduroy by Don Freeman, and my all-time favorite picture book was Crictor by Tomi Ungerer.

*["A highly diverting picture book about an agreeable pet boa constrictor that earns the affection and gratitude of a French village." HarperCollins (1983) (first published 1958)]*

I've never seen this book. I added the blurb above for anyone else who's never seen the book. Where did the idea for When a Tree Grows come from?

My inspiration arrived during a woodsy family hike. As we trudged along, enjoying nature, we heard a distant creaky Crash! Was it a tree? An animal? We froze, and after a long silence, hiked on. I continued to wonder: What if that crash had scared a bear or frightened a deer?

Building on that “OR” question, I framed a wacky story with two opposite possible outcomes, one rather expected and one funny and unexpected. Readers will find the “OR” spotlighted on the bottom corner of each recto page with a clever curled paper art effect.

How fun - this is one of the things that captured my attention when I first read the book. What was the most rewarding part of the publishing process for When a Tree Grows?

The entire process has been surreal. It is very rewarding to hold a book that has been years in the making! I am especially looking forward to sharing TREE with young readers at bookstore and library events soon.

Not long now! Is there something special you want your readers to know about When a Tree Grows?

I would be super excited to see photos of kiddos reading my book in school, at the library, to their dogs and cats, or under a blanket fort. Please take pictures and send them my way!

You heard it here, send her those pictures of kids (or squirrels) reading her book! Who/what is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)

As a child, on Tuesday nights at 7:30 you could always find me watching Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show. I had been hooked on Sesame Street as a kid, and idolized the Muppets with their distinctive personalities and sly, gentle humor. I loved making puppets, writing puppet shows and performing them for my family with weird Muppet-voiced inflections!

So adorable! Thank you for sharing this photo. If you could share one thing with your younger self and/or kids today what would that be?

Never leave home without your library card!

HA! I love it. Did you have any input into the illustrations of your book(s)? Either at the beginning or in a later review stage?

I saw sketches and proofs throughout the process, which I never expected but found very exciting! I knew from the thoughtful questions Sterling art director Ryan Thomann posed that we shared a vision for how the final illustrations might look. I’m grateful to illustrator Kasia Nowowiejska for her dedicated efforts to make When A Tree Grows the very best book it could be.

I am so glad you had a good experience. What is something you learned from your critique partners?

Have faith. Trust your process. Speak up (with questions, perspectives, ideas that need clarification or fall outside the realm of the expected). Keep working!

Sounds like you have good partners. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Next up for me is a still-secret picture book with an amazing publisher in Canada. A sloth and a squirrel are involved! Look for an announcement soon, and a book sometime in 2021!

Yeah, another book! I look forward to your next one. Any advice you can give those on the cusp of getting an agent or getting published?

There is a lot of time spent waiting in this business. Waiting to hear back on a critique, query, a revision, to see sketches, etc. If you can learn early on how to use that waiting time productively by developing new projects, writing blog posts or book reviews, and/or doing critiques for friends, the better off you will be!

Very sound advice. But that waiting is so hard... What is your favorite animal? (Or one you are currently enamored with) Why?

I can’t pick one! I definitely slant toward the hard-to-find (moose, narwhal), the unusual (sloth, tapir), and the specially-adapted (platypus, pangolin). If a David Attenborough nature documentary comes on TV, it is a sure bet I am going to be thoroughly engrossed from beginning to end.

I'd be sitting right next to you!

Thank you Cathy for stopping by and sharing with us.

Be sure to stop back by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book post on When A Tree Grows.

Please come connect and say hello! Tell me if you’ve seen a Moose in real life, or if you need a recipe for cardamom crème cupcakes.

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

Speaking of silly squirrel antics, here are a few from Cathy and I:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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