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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/ Cathy Ogren and Review of PEW! The Stinky Legendary Gift

Cathy Stefanec Ogren began her writing career scripting plays with her neighborhood friends and persuading their parents to come and watch with a promise of Oscar-winning performances. Cathy’s parents filled their home with books and encouraged reading, which fueled Cathy’s desire to write.

After graduating from college, she was an elementary school teacher, working with second and third graders. Her last years in education were spent as a librarian in a small school where she was passionate about introducing new and diverse books to her students. She has had two early chapter books published and has been published in educational and children’s magazines. She believes in reading and writing books that children can use as magical tools to feed their curiosity and teach them about the world.


Her debut picture book, PEW!: The Legen-Dairy Gift from Colonel Thomas E Meacham, released on March 15th.


Cathy, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your debut book and writing.


Thank you for having me, Maria. I’m happy to be here with you.


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


Writing is my passion. I love every aspect of it. (Maybe not the rejections so much…) After doing the mundane chores that need to be done around the house in the morning, I grab a cup of coffee and head to my office to write. Unless something else interrupts me, I write until dinnertime rolls around. After dinner and dishes, my husband and I spend time together in the evening. If he happens to be watching a program on television that I’m not interested in seeing, I often get my computer and write a bit more while we’re together.


I’ve written both fiction and nonfiction picture books. When it comes to nonfiction, I enjoy finding unusual events that have happened in history. For fiction books, when I see or hear something that inspires me, I jot it down and let it simmer until an idea is ready.


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


There are so many authors and illustrators I admire for various reasons. I like nonfiction books that are unique in their approach, and I love picture books that have beautiful illustrations and a

story with heart. I don’t want to play favorites by naming anyone. So, I’ll keep you guessing.

When I was young, my all-time favorite book was Better Homes and Gardens Story Book. I still have it in my book collection. It’s filled with stories, poems, and nursery rhymes from children’s literature. When I look through it, it fills my heart with joy and good memories. My other favorite book is The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. My imagination went wild envisioning what the secret garden might look like filled with flowers and trees.


What made you wonder about this topic or inspired you to write PEW!: The Legen-Dairy Gift from Colonel Thomas E Meacham?


If it hadn’t been for my husband watching the history channel, I would never have known about this topic. When I heard cheese mentioned, I immediately took note. I’m originally from Wisconsin, and I’m a cheese lover. The program talked about a 1,400-pound cheese made for the president of the United States in 1836. My curiosity was piqued. I researched the historical cheese trail that resulted in this Edam-up book.


Ha! It is interesting what you discover in TV shows. What is the most fun or unusual place where you’ve written a manuscript?


The bathroom!


I have a very active mind. I often wake up at night with an idea that can’t wait to be written. I grab my notebook and pen at my bedside and tiptoe into the bathroom. I find a comfy place to sit. (Yes, it’s probably the toilet – lid down.) I scribble down my thoughts as fast as I can before they can wander off into the sleepy night. In the morning, I have a very rough first draft ready for me to begin revising.


*Chuckling* I'm impressed that you can read your early morning scribbles. How long did it take from the first draft to publication for PEW!?


After doing my research about Thomas Meacham’s cheese, I wrote a fictional first draft. That was in February of 2019. I continued to revise and tweak it until my agent thought it was ready to submit. After receiving rejections from editors, I changed the focus of the manuscript. It became a nonfiction telling of the colossal cheese event. At the beginning of 2021, I received a champagne rejection. I used comments from the rejection, and I revised the manuscript again. My agent submitted it to a few more editors, and in November of 2021, I signed my contract with Sleeping Bear Press. I just celebrated the release of my book on March 15, 2023. It took four years from beginning to end, but the work and the wait were worth it.


Great job pivoting between genres. What's something you want your readers to know about PEW!?


Beware of leaving a wheel of cheese sitting around in hot, humid weather for too long. PEW! [HA! 😄]


History is amazing – especially American history. Uncovering fascinating facts about this unusual cheese event made for entertaining research.


I can just imagine! What was the hardest part of writing and/or researching PEW! ? Were there any fun facts that you couldn’t fit into the manuscript?


A significant part of my research was done during the COVID lockdowns. I was able to request some books from the library, but most of my research was done online. Some information from the 1800 era was challenging to find, and some of it conflicted with others. I had to dive deeper into my research to make sure what I put into the book was accurate. There were many facts that I was unable to use in the text of the book and the back matter. Below are some of the Cheesy Facts that didn’t make it into the book.


Eating cheese before bed can help you sleep.

A turophile is a person who loves cheese.

American cheese was invented by James L. Kraft of Kraft Cheese. Is it really cheese?


Great facts. Thanks for sharing them with us. And I am not sure it's really 'cheese.' When you first got to see Lesley Breen’s illustrations did anything surprise or amaze you? Which is your favorite spread?

Text © Cathy Ogren, 2023. Image © Lesley Breen, 2023.


When I saw Lesley Breen’s final illustrations, I was amazed at her attention to detail. She’s very talented. My favorite spread is the one that takes place outside the White House. There’s a “ghastly odor” coming from the White House that is depicted by a green swirl and is called an “evil-smelling horror” by one Washingtonian.


I just cringed when you mentioned how long the President left the cheese sitting in the entrance hall! Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


I’m excited to announce that I have a new picture book coming out in the fall of 2024 from Sleeping Bear Press. Little Red Chair is about a special relationship between a young girl and a little red chair. Alexandra Thompson is the illustrator and has a perfect vision for my book. In the meantime, I'm working on revising a manuscript that is close to my heart that I hope makes it into print someday.


We'll have to keep our eyes open for these books! What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

I love the Public Garden in Boston. Our family has always enjoyed Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey. Nancy Schön’s sculptures of the ducklings are a treat to visit – especially when they’re dressed up for the holidays or special events. When the flowers and trees blossom in the spring and the swan boats arrive, the Public Garden is magical.

© Joann Vitali © Charlene E. Entwistle.


Last question, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing/ illustrating or not?


Believe in yourself and never give up!


Awesome advice, Cathy! Thank you for stopping by to share with us your debut picture book.


Thank you, Maria. I’ve enjoyed being here and answering your questions. It has been a pleasure.


To find out more about Cathy Stefanec Ogren, or to contact her:


Follow along on Cathy’s BLOG Tour:

This Little Birdie Blog, February 10, 2023

Writers’ Rumpus, Friday, March 10, 2023

The Picture Book Buzz, March 22, 2023

Vivian Kirkfield Reviews, March 24, 2023

Susanna Hill Blog, March 28, 2023

Beth Anderson Blog, April 21, 2023


Review of PEW!: The Legen-Dairy Gift from Colonel Thomas E Meacham


A great way to learn about a moment in history and the process of making cheese.

PEW!: The Legen-Dairy Gift from Colonel Thomas E Meacham


Author: Cathy Stefanec Ogren


Illustrator: Lesley Breen


Publisher: Sleeping Bear Press (2023)


Ages: 7-8


Nonfiction


Themes:

Cheese, stinky history, and humor.


Synopsis:

In 1835, Colonel Thomas S. Meacham wanted to give the president of the United States a present that celebrated the achievements of his upstate New York farming community. Believing that big is always better, he decided a colossal, legen-dairy gift was in order: a wheel of cheese measuring four feet in diameter, two feet thick, and weighing 1,400 pounds.


Transporting the cheese to Washington D.C. was another big undertaking. It traveled by wagon and by ship, before being delivered to the White House on New Year's Day in 1836. But with a big cheese comes a big smell, and after a year the president had a stinky situation on his hands. How can he get rid of this cheesy gift? Readers of all ages will enjoy this slice of American history. Back matter includes science facts on cheese making.


Opening Lines:

Colonel Thomas S. Meacham

of Sandy Creek, New York,

owned acres of fertile land,

wooly sheep, and

150 dairy cows!


In late summer of 1835,

Thomas Meacham

wanted to give the

President of the United States

a gift to show off the talents

of his farming community.

A slice of an idea grew

into a huge idea,

a colossal idea . . .


What I LIKED about this book:

Can you imagine a wheel (circle) of cheese "four feet in diameter, two feet thick, and weighing 1,400 pounds"? Thomas Meacham could. Determined to feature his community in upper New York, Thomas Meacham decided to make a "legen-dairy" gift, a mammoth round of cheese.

Text © Cathy Ogren, 2023. Image © Lesley Breen, 2023.


Interesting, softly colored illustrations help explore the steps and tools needed for making this ginormous cheese. I would never have expected pitchforks! Having never really watched the construction of cheese, these couple of spreads were really fascinating as Thomas Meacham created his "Udderly amazing" cheesy gift.


But how does one get a round of cheese which weighs almost "as much as one of Meacham’s dairy cows" to the Whitehouse? With lots of pomp and circumstance, as well as with horse drawn carriages and a schooner. I found this image an ingenious way to incorporate a map, the sailing journey, and important buildings along the way.

Text © Cathy Ogren, 2023. Image © Lesley Breen, 2023.


Two months later, upon arrival at the White House, the giant cheese was placed in the entrance hall for all to admire. But after a hot and humid summer, the cheese began to reek. And the President decided to offer pieces to everyone who visited him on George Washington's birthday. If his guests had been better behaved, perhaps that would have been the end of it. But it seems he left a gift for the incoming president . . .

Text © Cathy Ogren, 2023. Image © Lesley Breen, 2023.


The lighthearted, punny text and humorous illustrations make this book a lot of fun. Leading the reader to a wonderful surprise ending. "More to the Story" and "Cheesy Facts" notes expand on the story, making cheese, and the humor. It's almost too silly to be true. But overall, it's an entertaining way to learn about the science of making cheese and a particularly stinky moment of Presidential history.


Resources:

- check out the Sleeping Bear Press Activity Pages.

- with an adult, try making your own mozzarella cheese.

- make a list of some smelly things. What's the smelliest thing you'd never want in your house?

- pair this with From Milk to Cheese (Who Made My Lunch?) by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman.

Comments


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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