The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Mark Ceilley and Rachel Smoka-Richardson
Today I get to introduce you to the co-authors of the newly released picture book, Cinderelliot.
Mark Ceilley has taught Pre-K, Kindergarten, First and Second grades, and is currently a Reading Interventionist. He holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University.
In his free time, Mark loves cooking, trying new recipes, reading, watching movies, and attending theater productions and orchestra concerts. He also enjoys traveling and hiking in state parks, yoga, and going to bookstores.
Rachel Smoka-Richardson has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults and a certificate in Picture Book Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she’s not writing, Rachel is constantly reading, especially YA and adult contemporary novels. She is an avid crafter and her award-winning crochet and cross stitch items can be found at local fairs. Rachel loves to travel and often goes to New York to see Broadway musicals—but is equally happy watching too much TV with her pilot husband Dan and sweet rescue dogs Charlotte and Hazel at their Minnesota home.
Her books include, Cheer Fears (2022), Track And Field Trick (2022), and Millicent Simmonds: Actor And Activist (2021).
Their newest picture book collaboration, Cinderelliot, released May 3, 2022.
Welcome Mark and Rachel, tell us a little about how you got started writing? Where/when do you work? What is your favorite type of book to write?
MARK – I wrote stories in elementary school and junior high. I worked on the school newspaper and yearbook in high school. In college, as I studied to be a teacher, I took a children’s literature class which I loved. Later when I had my own classroom, I read picture books every day to my students. In 2005, I took some children’s writing classes. I enjoyed it and wanted to learn more. So, I joined SCBWI where I attended many conferences. In 2012, I earned an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Hamline University. From 2005-present, I have written mostly picture books. I have written one MG novel, but I have put it on the shelf for now to concentrate on my picture books.
I have a home office where I write my stories. I always write the first draft long hand on paper. Next, I type it out on my computer. I work mostly in the evening after dinner and on weekends.
RACHEL – I've been reading and writing my entire life, but finally got serious about professional writing after I graduated with a master's degree in arts management. After a short attempt at becoming the next David Sedaris, during NaNoWriMo 2008 I wrote 25,000 words of a really terrible young adult novel and declared myself a children's book author. This surprised no one, as I've always preferred to read books for kids and young adults. A generous military scholarship helped me achieve my goal of earning my MFA in writing for children and young adults (as well as a picture book certificate) from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
I don't have a specific location where I write - on the couch, at the dinner table, and out on the back porch. While I was in graduate school, my husband and I lived in a one-bedroom condo so I'm totally used to writing with the TV on, listening to Dan play Call of Duty, and the dogs running around. If I'm in the zone, I don't hear anything. I have found that my optimum writing time is from 9-10 PM. I envy those that can get up and write at 5 AM. That doesn't work for us night owls.
There is something satisfying about writing a picture book and being able to see the entire draft on two pages, I'm more creative when I have some sort of restrictions like the picture book form. I prefer writing silly picture books that are fun to read out loud.
Nice to meet you both. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
MARK – I worked in Walt Disney World for two years after I graduated from high school. I worked in Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom where I worked on such attractions as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Peter Pan’s Flight, Snow White’s Adventures, and many more. During that time, I was asked by my manager if I would be interested in training new employees on how to run and operate some of the attractions. I readily agreed and enjoyed it very much.
RACHEL – I love musical theater--during and after college I performed in a number of community theater musicals, including THE PAJAMA GAME, BRIGADOON, BYE BYE BIRDIE, SOUTH PACIFIC, CARNIVAL, GUYS AND DOLLS, KISS ME KATE and JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT. I stopped performing to focus on my writing, but I still love going to Broadway shows and singing along with my soundtracks.
Sounds like some very interesting fodder for picture books! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?
MARK – I had many favorite books! I loved Harriett the Spy and the Danny Dunn series by Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin. I also read many of the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigator books. (About three boys who solve mysteries.)
RACHEL – My favorite books as a child are still my favorite books today - Charlotte's Web, The Westing Game, and the entire Betsy-Tacy series (with a special affinity for Emily of Deep Valley). And Beverly Cleary is my hero. When I was a kid I really related to Beezus, the misunderstood, tortured older sister of a goofball like Ramona.
What was each of your inspirations for Cinderelliot? And how did this collaboration get started?
MARK – I came up with the idea after reading the book Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack. This is a picture book about a prince and knight who fall in love and get married. Soon after I read it, I thought about Cinderella and wondered what it would be like to write a gay version. I wrote the first draft in July 2018.
The first draft had a sporting competition and two stepbrothers. That version had some trouble spots. I sent it to Rachel for feedback as we were friends and had met through Minnesota SCBWI conferences. We had also given each other feedback on other stories before Cinderelliot. Rachel gave me feedback and I revised. I sent it back to her and then she asked me if I wanted to collaborate. She also suggested that Cinderelliot might be a fashion designer or a baker. I said yes, as I thought both were great ideas.
RACHEL – I'll defer to Mark as the story was originally his idea, but I'm grateful that he took me up on my suggestion to collaborate.
Making Cinderelliot a baker was a fun twist to this retelling. How many drafts did it take for you to work out the fracture of this fairy tale? And how long did it take Cinderelliot to go from idea to publication?
MARK – It’s hard to say exactly how many drafts, but it was at least ten or more. We kept sending the story back and forth from July 2018-Spring 2019. It took four years from idea to publication. (July 2018-May 2022)
RACHEL – Many, many, many drafts. We started working together in the summer of 2018; I sent the manuscript to my agent in fall 2019; we received the offer in December 2019 and signed the contract shortly during the pandemic. The book went to print in summer 2021 and released in May 2022.
So, how did your collaboration work? Did you each draft certain sections? Or work on it all together? How did revisions for your collaboration?
MARK – After we agreed to collaborate, we sent the story back and forth through email giving each other feedback on the draft the other had written. We each wrote comments and asked questions for the other to think about for the next draft. We worked on it together.
We also got feedback from other writers and got a professional critique by Rob Sanders, the author of Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, Two Grooms on a Cake, and others. Rob was very helpful. He encouraged us to use more baking vocabulary, further develop Cinderelliot’ s character, and develop some scenes a bit more.
RACHEL – We passed the manuscript back and forth through email for an entire year. Personally, it’s easier for me to write/edit while by myself so our process seemed to work well for the both of us. We did have some different ideas about the plot, and Rob Sanders’ two critiques proved invaluable for us to make choices and move forward.
I can see where an outside opinion might help when you got stuck or were at odds. Is there something you both want your readers to know about, or take away from Cinderelliot?
MARK – For me, our book recognizes and affirms GLBTQ+ people, their relationships, and their families. I think it will be affirming for kids, same sex couples, and straight allies. To me, the message is “love is love.” It doesn’t matter who you spend your life with. What matters is love. Not only was this theme important, but we also tried to add some humor with the stepsiblings and with the fairy godfather.
RACHEL – Adult readers (including our illustrator) have shared with me that CINDERELLIOT is the book missing from their own childhoods. Representation matters, and I’m thrilled to be part of a book that makes readers feel seen. Everyone should be able to fall in love and marry “their person,” regardless of gender, race, or social status, just like Cinderelliot and Prince Samuel.
Love and acceptance of two very strong messages. What is the hardest or most challenging thing for you about writing children’s books? How about writing Cinderelliot in particular?
MARK – I think the most challenging part for me is to establish what the character wants and weave that seamlessly throughout the story making sure that the plot is fully developed.
The challenging part for me in writing Cinderelliot was once we decided to change from a sporting competition to a baking one, we had to rework what Cinderelliot wanted and intersperse that throughout using baking vocabulary and names of pastries and figure out how to create our own unique spin on the Cinderella story.
RACHEL – Writing picture books can be challenging--especially as an author only. You have to trust that the illustrator will complement your script. Add with a co-writer, now there are three creatives working on one book. Negotiation and compromise skills are essential.
I can see where it make the load a little easier and also a bit trickier. Did anything surprise or amaze each of you when you first got to see Stephanie Laberis’ illustrations? What is your favorite spread?
MARK –I was amazed at the clever facial expressions that she did for all the characters. She captured their personalities perfectly by her illustrations. I also loved the humor she brought to the story and added details that were not in the text.
I loved the wedding scene! It’s full of love and happiness. I thought it was funny to have the stepsiblings be waiters. I also enjoyed seeing Ludwig cry tears of joy.
Text © Mark Ceilley & Rachel Smoka-Richardson, 2022.
Image © Stephanie Laberis, 2022.
RACHEL – Stephanie Laberis is amazing. She so perfectly captured the visual essence of Cinderelliot and his friends. My favorite illustrated character is Stepsibling Gertrude and her enormous hair and mid-century wardrobe. And I still tear up when I see the illustration on the final page.
Well, we do know how it ends, but sharing the final spreads felt like ruining a bit of the book's mystery. So I compromised with this spread - big hair and awesome expressions. How are you, or have you been, staying creative these days?
MARK – When the pandemic started, I wrote many new picture books. I had lots of time since everything was shut down and I stayed at home. I also tried many new recipes since we weren’t going out to eat much. For the last few months however, I haven’t written much. I have been devoting my time for marketing and publicizing Cinderelliot.
RACHEL – Besides writing, I love crafting--primarily crochet, cross stitch, and sewing. I'm working on a few projects for the local county and state fairs.
Good luck with the marketing and crafts! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
MARK – I’m revising a Ghost/Halloween story. I also have a story that I just finalized and sent to an editor. But I can’t share yet until it is officially announced.
RACHEL – I've got a couple more princess-themed books in the works, a chapter book series, a middle grade novel in revision, and a head full of ideas.
Interesting. We'll have to keep an eye out for future news. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
MARK – My favorite National Park is Yellowstone. I’ve been several times and each time I am amazed at the beauty and wildlife. I would love to someday visit Yosemite, since I have heard so many wonderful things about it. During the pandemic, my husband and I visited many Minnesota state parks. We want to see more.
RACHEL – I'm lucky to live close to Minnehaha Falls and the lakes system in south Minneapolis. It's also fun to drive up to northern Minnesota and visit Gooseberry Falls. Minnesota is a beautiful state to live in, and it's so easy to stumble upon another lake or river.
Thank you, Mark and Rachel for stopping by and sharing some behind the scenes information about your collaboration. It was delightful to chat with you both.
Maria, thank you for this opportunity to be featured on your blog.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Cinderelliot.
To find out more about Mark Ceilley, or contact him:
To find out more about Rachel Smoka-Richardson, or contact her: