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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Rebecca Gardyn Levington and Review of Whatever Comes Tomorrow

Rebecca Gardyn Levington is a children’s book author, poet, and journalist with a particular penchant for penning both playful and poignant picture books and poems – primarily in rhyme.

Photo of author Rebecca Gardyn Levington

Rebecca’s award-winning poems and articles have appeared in numerous anthologies, newspapers, and magazines.


Rebecca has a master’s degree in magazine journalism from NYU and a bachelor’s degree in communication studies, with a specialization in business administration, from UCLA. In her life B.C. (“Before Children”), she was a freelance magazine and newspaper journalist, writing feature articles and cover stories for The New York Observer, Ladies Home Journal, Working Mother, Bride’s, New York Newsday and The Chronicle of Philanthropy, among many others. Prior to that, she was Senior Editor at American Demographics (a now defunct marketing magazine that was far more interesting than it sounds!) where she wrote and edited stories about what motivates people’s purchasing decisions and lifestyle choices. She lives in the suburban jungles of New Jersey with her husband and two boisterous boys.

Book cover of Brainstrom!

She’s the author of Brainstorm!, illustrated by Kate Kronreif (2022).


For more information on Rebecca and Brainstorm!, see our earlier interview (here).


Her newest picture book, Whatever Comes Tomorrow, was released on March 7th.


Rebecca, thank you so much for stopping back by to talk about your newest book and writing.


Thank you so much for having me, Maria! I’m a huge fan of your blog!


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?)


A friend gave me a T-Shirt a few years ago that pretty much sums up my life: “Write. Eat. Workout. Repeat.” She forgot “Meal Prep, Schlepping Kids Places, and Loading/Unloading The Dishwasher” but, other than that, she pretty much nailed it.


I generally like to do my “real writing” in the morning when my kids and husband are gone and the house is quiet, then I take a break to work out and eat lunch around midday. In the afternoon, between shuttling kids and wearing my “mom” hat, I try to sneak in other writing-related work like doing critiques, writing blog posts, posting on social media, reviewing contracts, writing reviews, setting up author visits, etc.


I’ve been writing pretty much since I could hold a pencil. I received my very first journal around age 7 or 8 and that’s when discovered writing stories and poetry as a tool for processing my emotions. As a kid, I kept a special journal (which I still have) in which I copied poems I loved and created my own poems using similar forms and structures. In fact, I recently was contacted by my old elementary school because they’d found a poem that I’d written (and framed!) as a gift to the school upon my graduation from 6th grade -- 37 years ago!


One might assume from the above story that I was destined to become a children’s book author and poet (and I do believe I was!) but it took me a LONG time to get here. I’ve always loved writing, but once I became an adult in the “real world” I assumed I had to get a “real job.” I first went into advertising then into journalism, wasting years of my life realizing that neither was the right fit for. I’m so happy to now be finally doing the thing that makes my heart sing!


Oh, and my favorite books to write are rhyming picture books (of course!)


And we are glad you are writing children's books, too. What was your inspiration or spark of interest for Whatever Comes Tomorrow ?

Book cover of Whatever Comes Tomorrow

For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with anxiety. Of course, as a child, I had no idea that’s what it was called, but I’d always craved structure and found safety and comfort in predictability. Any unexpected change to my schedule or any uncertainty of what the future might hold made me very uncomfortable.


I wrote this book because there are so many kids who struggle (like I did, and still do) with anticipatory anxiety, kids who worry constantly about what might happen tomorrow, kids who panic at any unexpected change or disruption to their normal routine, big or small – a new sibling, a friend moving away, a substitute teacher, a fire drill…a pandemic.

The book is essentially a poetic mantra, written to myself as a child and to all children (as well as adults like me, who still need to hear it!). It is a reminder that no matter what happens tomorrow – be it good, bad, or in-between - we will find a way to endure. We have all done or faced hard things in the past and we will continue to do and face hard things in the future. The trick is to remember that strength during the hard times and know that, for better or worse, this too shall pass.


This book is a calming and affirming mantra for us all. What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written a manuscript?


I’d have to say the most “fun” place I’ve written a manuscript has to be at the amazing Highlights Foundation retreat center in PA. I’m SO lucky that live within a 2-hour drive, so I’ve had the opportunity to do several on campus personal writing retreats over the last few years. Picture it: a quiet cabin in the woods with no distractions other than birdsong and an incredible, doting staff who interrupts 3x/day only to stuff my face with glorious, delicious comfort food. Definitely my “most fun” place to write, hands down! 😊


It is such a wonderful place to work and spend time with other writers. How long did it take from the first draft to publication for Whatever Comes Tomorrow? How does this compare to writing Brainstorm!?


The first draft of Whatever Comes Tomorrow (as is usually the case with me) began as a short poem that I wrote in November 2020. It went through 20 revisions before going out on submission in March 2021. I received two offers of publication in November 2021. I accepted Barefoot Books’ offer and the book came out in March 2023. So from first draft to publication was a little under 2 ½ years.


Brainstorm! was similar. The first draft was written in December 2019, was submitted to Sleeping Bear in March 2020, and I received the offer in August 2020. It was published in August 2022. So first draft to publication was a little over 2 ½ years.


Interesting. What's something you want your readers to know about Whatever Comes Tomorrow?


I’d like readers to know that this book comes from a very authentic place. I was given the most beautiful compliment recently by someone who said that the book doesn’t feel at all didactic or preachy, and I think the reason is that the “you” I’m speaking to in the book is really myself. Every word in this book comes from a true feeling I experienced as a child. As I mentioned, it is basically me writing a letter to the girl I used to be, telling her all the things I so desperately needed to hear back then (and still need to hear -- I read my book to myself quite often!).


Over the decades (with the help of many therapists and self-help books), I’ve compiled an arsenal of tools to help me manage my anxiety. I’ve tried my best to weave in many of those tools within the text of Whatever Comes Tomorrow, and others are included in the back matter. For instance, whenever I am faced with something difficult or scary, I remind myself: “you’ve confronted fear before and reached the other side.” And when I am worried about something that is beyond my control, I tell myself: “the only thing in your control is YOU. Right here. Right now.”


I think it is important to not only be vulnerable with my readers, but also realistic and honest. Worried feelings will not just disappear because we want them to. BUT there are things we can do to help ourselves move past those thoughts and feelings.


I think that reality and honesty is what helps readers identify with it. Did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Mariona Cabassa’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?


Honestly? EVERYTHING that Mariona Cabassa did in her gorgeous illustrations surprised and amazed me! I was so grateful that she and I (and our editor Lisa Rosinsky at Barefoot Books) really were on the same page in terms of wanting beautiful, yet accessible and concrete, illustrations to accompany the text so that the concepts of “tomorrow” and worries about the unknown would be relatable to very young children.


One of my favorite stories to tell about the illustrations is about the butterflies. It all began with Mariona’s very first set of sketches when, in one of her spreads, she had depicted a caterpillar turning into a butterfly to go along with the stanza: “Tomorrow may bring changes that confuse or make you mad/Tomorrow may bring confidence you never knew you had.” Neither that text nor Mariona’s initial illustration made it into the final version of the book, for various reasons, but the idea of butterflies seemed to stick in all of our minds.

Internal spread of kids riding off on butterflies.

Text © Rebecca Gardyn Levington, 2023. Image © Mariona Cabassa, 2023.


When I received Mariona’s sketch of the final spread (my favorite!), with the children all riding on the backs of their butterflies, I had an “AHA!” moment. I’m not sure if it was intentional (you’ll have to ask Mariona!) but to me, all I could see was this gorgeous metaphor of butterflies AS worries (all those “butterflies” we feel in our belly when we are nervous). To me, the kids riding on the backs of their butterflies represents how they have finally learned a way to manage their worried feelings.

Book jacket - moon & butterflies on the left. Butterlies and tittle on the right.s

I loved this idea so much that I asked Lisa if we could lean into this metaphor even more and she, in turn, asked Mariona to incorporate at least one butterfly into every spread throughout the book. In the end, the butterflies (and the little caterpillar!) even made it onto the cover (Btw, this wasn’t the original cover! It was changed at the very last minute to feature the butterflies!). That’s the beauty that comes out of a true collaboration of creative minds at work!


I love the caterpillar crawling across the swoop of the "s" in "comes." And the butterflies against the full moon on the back. Such a gorgeous image and metaphor! What was the hardest, or most challenging, part of writing Whatever Comes Tomorrow?


I think the most challenging part was rewriting the ending. Because Barefoot Books publishes its books in both the US and the UK markets simultaneously, all the phrasing in the book needed to work for readers in both countries. The original ending of the book (as acquired) was:


Whatever comes tomorrow,

you can, and will, push through.

Whatever comes tomorrow,

you’ve got this.

Yes, you do.


My editor, Lisa (who is American) loved the ending as is, but someone on the Barefoot Books team pointed out that the term “You’ve got this” isn’t commonly used in the UK. They also pointed out that the phrasing of the final line wasn’t grammatically correct in context (Technically, it should be “Yes, you have” rather than “Yes, you do.”)


Lisa and I did an unscientific poll of all the Brits we knew. Some agreed it should be changed while others had no problem with the ending as it was. Ultimately, Lisa left it up to me whether to change it or not.


I decided that I wanted everyone – regardless of whether they live on this side or that side of the pond – to walk away from the book with a warm feeling in their heart (rather than nagging doubts about my grammatical prowess).


So, after many sleepless nights and hair-pulling (yes, all that over ONE 4-line stanza! Gotta love being a rhymer!), I came up with what is the current ending of the book (inspired, by the way, by one of Mariona’s glorious spreads, originally intended for a different part of the book but moved to the end to match this text):


Whatever comes tomorrow,

however steep the hill,

you’ll find your path,

you’ll journey on,

you’ll make it through.

You will.


I am SO much happier with this ending, by the way. So, for anyone who is worried about edits after acquisition: embrace them! Sometimes pushing yourself beyond what you think you can produce can result in magic you never knew was there!


Rhyming can be so hard! Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Book cover of Afikoman, Where'd You Go? A Passover Hide-And-Seek Adventure

Yes! Thank you so much for asking! I’m excited to share that I have SIX more rhyming picture books coming out in the next few years! The only two I can talk about right now are Afikoman, Where'd You Go? A Passover Hide-And-Seek Adventure (Penguin Random House/Rocky Pond Books, Spring 2024) which is a rhyming romp about a sneaky piece of matzah on the run. I describe it as “Where’s Waldo?” meets “The Gingerbread Man.”


And I Will Always Be . . . (HarperCollins, Winter 2025) which is an inspirational concept book that encourages kids to always celebrate their passions, whether or not they ever make it to Broadway or the big leagues. The other four books are still unannounced, but hopefully they will be very soon!


SIX more books! Wow. Congrats. Last question, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing/ illustrating or not ?


I think the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten is that while we should, of course, always write stories from the heart, it is crucial to remember that publishing is a BUSINESS. An editor may think a story is “cute” or “funny” or “heartfelt,” but before she can acquire it, she has to prove to all the financial and marketing people that the story will SELL.


Understanding this has completely changed how I approach my stories now. I used to just pants my way around until I had some semblance of a story that I was having fun with. But now, while I always (ALWAYS!) start with fun and/or heart, I stop everything as soon as I have a first draft written and write my pitch, research comp titles and think about hooks. I ask myself: Who is going to buy this book and WHY? Can it be sold during a holiday? Does it have social-emotional themes that make it easy to explain a difficult subject matter? Can teachers use it in a classroom (if so, I’ll think about what back matter I can add).


At this point, I will also often write an Author’s Note, just so I can be very clear about my WHY. As I continue to revise, this gives me a very clear idea of what the book is about and how I can convince an editor that it is worth acquiring.


Great advice and wonderful suggestions. ! Thank you Rebecca for stopping by to share with us your newest picture book.


Thank YOU, Maria! I truly appreciate you featuring me and Whatever Comes Tomorrow!


To find out more about Rebecca Gardyn Levington, or to contact her:


Review of Whatever Comes Tomorrow


Dedicated to all of us, young child and adults, dealing with changes, worries, and fears that threaten to overwhelm, this book is a beautiful, gentle hug assuring us that we can and will survive whatever life throws at us.

Book cover of Whatever Comes Tomorrow.

Whatever Comes Tomorrow


Author: Rebecca Gardyn Levington


Illustrator: Mariona Cabassa


Publisher: Barefoot Books (2023)


Ages: 4-9


Fiction


Themes:

Anxiety, changes, managing worries, empowering, and rhyming.


Synopsis:

Lyrical rhyming text and whimsical illustrations reassure readers that they have the resilience to navigate whatever life brings their way.


Empower kids to manage anxiety! We might not know what the future holds, but the lyrical rhyming text in this beautiful book reassures readers that they have the resilience and strength to face whatever comes their way. Whimsical illustrations make for a captivating read-aloud or bedtime story. Inspired by the author’s own experience with anxiety, this book offers gentle wisdom applicable to both children and adults. End matter includes a discussion guide and activity ideas for managing worries.


Opening Lines:

Tomorrow

may bring endless sun

or swirly, snowy skies.

Tomorrow may bring new hellos

or difficult goodbyes.


What I LIKED about this book:

The opening lines, combined with this image, create such a powerful beginning. Even if one wouldn't normally find "swirly, snowy skies" to be beautiful or intriguing, Mariona Cabassa's soft toned illustration is both. I love the swirl of flower petals and delicate soft pink butterflies around the friends saying goodbye.

Internal spread. Left - swirling snow storm. Right- two friendgs hugging goodbye.

Text © Rebecca Gardyn Levington, 2023. Image © Mariona Cabassa, 2023.


With a very child-friendly and honest voice, Rebecca's rhyming text explores situations which affect kids on a daily basis; situations that could happen tomorrow. Such as the inevitable ups and downs of friendships, life changes (to themselves or their environment), fears, challenges, or lots of questions. The bright, bold illustrations, diverse cast (including a kids with a hearing aid), and expressive faces invite both identification and empathy in the reader as they experience possible scenarios.


Anyone whose every had something particularly exciting (upcoming travel or a special day) or scary impending, or just a generalized sense of worry or foreboding of doom about the next day, knows how hard it is to turn off your brain and sleep. Rebecca and Mariona beautifully capture this feeling with the verse and vine (of thoughts) curving and expanding throughout the child's room.

Internal spread of child in bed with vines of worry spread throughout his room.

Text © Rebecca Gardyn Levington, 2023. Image © Mariona Cabassa, 2023.


Tomorrow may bring anything —

you have no way to know,


and sometimes that uncertainty

gives worries room to grow.

They sprout and bloom, consume your mind.

You want to run and hide.


The shift to the second person and inclusion of encouragement or advice in the second couplet, "But you've confronted fear before/ and reached the other side," signals the offering of concrete mantras or actions the reader can take to manage their worries or anxiety. It offers specific actions to control the only thing over which you have power - YOU. The final spreads are encouraging and thoughtful, full of joy, friendship, and the ever present gorgeous butterflies. Culminating in the magnificent ending spread Rebecca mentioned above - "You will."

nternal spread of kids riding off on butterflies.

Text © Rebecca Gardyn Levington, 2023. Image © Mariona Cabassa, 2023.


The conversational author's and illustrator's notes talk about worries or anxieties and strategies for managing the associated butterflies. In "Tips for Managing Worries" the remaining back matter offers five possible ways to deal with worries or anxieties. This is a wonderful book for children and adults. It is comforting, encouraging, and empowering; honestly acknowledging and accepting a child's fears and concerns and giving them tools to handle them.


Resources:

photo of nature crafts and activities - bark owl, flower braclet, nature portrait, and nature tic-tac-toe.

- pick an activity or two (like a flower portrait, a hedgehog friend, or nature game), then go for a walk to find your supplies.


- make a calming rock - find a smooth rock that feels good to rub or turn over in your hand. Then paint a design or image of something calming.


- check out Rebecca's activity pages for other ideas to cope with worries.

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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