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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Kristin L. Gray

Kristin L. Gray is the author of the middle grade novel, Vilonia Beebe Takes Charge, a 2018 Bank Street Best Children’s Book. She lives in Arkansas with her family, two dogs, and an alert bearded dragon, who is clearly NOT a dragon as he has never once breathed fire. Kristin's first picture book Koala Is NOT A Bear, releases tomorrow.

Welcome Kristin! Thank you so much for stopping by to chat about your books and writing.

Thanks for having me! I’m a big fan of your posts.

ME: Aw, thanks. *Goofy smile* 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?)

KRISTIN: I write at home, while my kids are in school. Sometimes I work at my desk, sometimes at the kitchen table – it’s great for spreading out index cards or manuscript pages.

I’ve been writing for kids for about nine years now. Wow! I started off writing picture books, assuming they were easy. Ha. Then at one editor’s suggestion, I tried something longer. That middle-grade novel is staying on my hard drive, but my next attempt became Vilonia Beebe Takes Charge. It took me a bit to find my voice, and truthfully, I feel like I’m still discovering it.

My favorite type of book to write is the next one.

That seems to be a common sentiment. What's something no one (or few) knows about you?

I’m a twin! My brother and I were born fourteen minutes apart.

How long were you writing and submitting before you signed with your agent, Caryn Wiseman? Any hints for those still seeking an agent?

Roughly three years off and on. We actually met at a writing workshop where I had brought sample pages. She waited a year for me to finish that manuscript. So, if you’re still seeking an agent, keep at it! Keep writing, keep submitting. If this story isn’t the right match, the next one could be.

Great advice. Where did the inspiration for Koala is NOT a Bear come from? Did that core idea change as you started writing or doing revisions?

The title came to me first. I knew they weren’t bears but had forgotten. Then one day, scrolling online, I saw a news link which reiterated the point. I thought it’d make a cute picture book. The core idea stayed the same throughout though the POV and setting changed many times.

You had the nugget but had to find the right voice. How hard is it for you to switch between these two genres (middle grade novel and picture book)? Having now written two novels and two picture books , do you have a favorite genre? Is one harder for you?

I like fluctuating between many projects – novels and picture books. If I’m stuck on one, I can work on the other. Each bring their own set of challenges. As does each story! At the moment, I’m in final edits for my next novel, The Amelia Six, and am exploring two new novel ideas for what to pitch next, while also juggling a list of picture books I’d like to revise and/or write. There’s never enough time.

No kidding! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

Beverly Cleary for author. Then Ann M. Martin for The Babysitters Club. Though I probably read more mysteries than anything else and was devastated to learn Carolyn Keene wasn’t real! I’m still not over it. (I know what you mean.)

The first book I recall being read to me at the library was Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears.

I was unfamiliar with that book. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about Koala is NOT a Bear?

It’s also illustrator Rachel McAlister’s debut picture book! I adore her and her whimsical artwork. Rachel’s also a visual development artist at Dreamworks TV. You can follow her online (

Nice shout-out! How long did it take to develop the idea of comparing the animal’s characteristics in a camp setting? (How many revisions?)

Many rounds! I knew I was close when I received a R&R (revise and resubmit) from one publisher. I had changed the camp setting to a first day of school, but I couldn’t get the logistics just right. In frustration, I emailed my agent saying I wanted to set the whole camp on fire. I’m glad I kept at it!

Me too. You ultimately succeeded in creating a fun "summer camp"/science story. Were the illustrations what you imagined as you wrote the manuscript or did Rachel McAlister surprise you?

Rachel’s art is much more vibrant and playful than anything I could have imagined. I especially love the cafeteria spread. Her ingenuity for showing what each animal’s plate is the best!

As Koala is NOT a Bear is a fiction, or informational fiction, picture book, how much research did you have to do?

More research than I thought, but it was all so fun. Who knew koalas didn’t have tails? The gathering of information is one of my favorite parts of writing, where anything is possible. I have to step back and say, okay, Kristin. You have enough information now to write a cohesive draft. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds so to speak. But at some point, I have to actually start the work of writing to have a finished book!

But that rabbit hole of research is so interesting and fun! What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer.)

My children. The world around me. And other creatives. I’m continually amazed by my fellow writers and artists. Also, scientists. I studied science in college and never tire of following new discoveries.

Aw, so you're a recovering scientist. Can you tell us about your upcoming novel, The Amelia Six, and/or your next picture book, A Party for Rover?

I’d be happy to.

A Party for Rover is now titled Rover Throws a Party. It’s brilliantly illustrated by Scott Magoon and is inspired by NASA's Curiosity rover. This picture book tells the story of a lonely Mars rover that hilariously throws itself a birthday party. Like Koala, it has real facts woven in. Plus, I just saw art proofs. Scott’s art is out of this world! Look for Rover next spring from Knopf.

The Amelia Six is my next middle-grade novel with S&S/Paula Wiseman Books, and it has been a true labor of love. It’s part mystery, part girl-power friendship story. With a big dose of STEM and history thrown in. Six STEM-savvy girls are invited to spend the night at The Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum in Atchison, Kansas, when one of the museum’s historical artifacts disappears, much like Amelia’s plane. It’s been a blast to research and write. We’re aiming for a 2020 release.

Those both sound like so much fun. Love the weaving of science and facts into your stories! Assuming you have some, what is something you learned from your critique partners?

Yes, I’d be lost without my CPs. They help me streamline my plots and tell me when my humor works or not.

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?

There’s so much waiting and reworking and waiting some more and more re-writing. And yes, even rejection. I thought I knew, but I truly did not. Always be writing the next thing! It could be the one that sticks.

I suppose it is hard to be truly prepared for this career, no matter how much you know. What is your favorite animal? Why?

It’s a toss between a flamingo and a penguin at the moment. Birds (while amazing) are often awkward. Like me.

Thank you, Kristin for participating in this interview.

Thank you, Maria!

Be sure to stop by on Friday for the #PPBF post on Koala is NOT a Bear.

For more information about Kristin L. Gray, or to contact her:

If you are in the area, visit Kristin at these book signings:

May 11th – Barnes & Noble, Rogers, AR @ 11:00 AM

May 11th – Barnes & Noble, Fayetteville, AR @ 2:00 PM

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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