The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Charlotte Watson Sherman
Charlotte Watson Sherman has loved words ever since Pippi Longstocking hijacked her imagination in third grade. She grew up, the only girl, with too many brothers, in the Pacific Northwest's Emerald City—Seattle. She currently lives in southern California.
A lifelong daydreamer, she first published a chapter book—Eli and the Swamp Man—decades ago, but never stopped writing.
Charlotte's debut picture book, Brown Sugar Babe (Boyds Mills & Kane), released in 2020.
Her newest picture book, Mermaid Kenzie, releases tomorrow.
Hi Maria, thank you for having me here and for your questions.
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?)
I was a bookworm in grade school, and decided I wanted to be a writer. Like many of us writers, I was lucky enough to have teachers throughout middle and high school who encouraged my reading and writing. When I was in seventh grade, a young white male teacher actually placed The Autobiography of Malcolm X in my hands and told me to read it. An Asian teacher introduced me to James Baldwin in high school. My Black social studies teacher introduced me to social justice, along with a Law and Society teacher. I’m an issues-driven writer, so the seeds for topics I’d explore over the next few decades were planted back then by a diverse crew of educators.
Since I wasn’t from Harlem, I doubted I’d ever make it as a writer, because at that time, who’d ever heard of a Black writer from Seattle? I hadn’t, but I got started on the publication path by trying to write poetry and published my first poem at nineteen. Once I saw those words in print – my thoughts, my words – I never looked back.
I’ve never needed a special place to write, I had two children, so had to find the time and space wherever I could when they were growing up. I read somewhere that Toni Morrison had said, “children don’t need a writer, they need a mother.” So I squeezed in writing wherever it would fit – early in the morning, late at night, etc. Now my best writing time is early morning before noon. A lot of plot problems and great ideas download when I wake in the middle of the night. I’ve learned to write them down then and not wait until I “really” wake up later. I have a writing desk, but rarely use it for writing.
My favorite type of book to write is whatever I’m obsessed about at the moment. I like novels because you have so much room to work in. I like kidlit because that’s where I find hope for the future. I like poetry because poems are shorter, but can still pack a punch. If I feel discouraged with a writing project or publishing in general, I switch to a totally different genre to re-establish my love of wordplay.
I love that strategy. Sometimes, a little distance makes the mind grow clearer. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
Well, even though I love water and try to live as close to it as I can, I can’t swim. When she was young, my mother almost drowned in a Mississippi pond and was deathly afraid of water. I absorbed her fear. But my children can swim and even swam in meets when they were young. And my grandchildren can swim, the oldest was invited onto a swim team when she was three years old, but didn’t join. I think 70% of African-Americans can’t swim and my natural father drowned as an adult, so I’m grateful to have witnessed the end of that generational hand-me-down during my lifetime.
That's a good thing not to hand down. Makes it all the more interesting for you to write about a mermaid! So, what was your inspiration for Mermaid Kenzie?
I was thinking about legacy, and the books I want to leave behind for future generations. Promoting self-love in Black children and protecting the earth for all of us are the primary inspirations for my kidlit books.
I’d read about the suicide crisis among Black youth, and one nine-year-old girl named McKenzie, who committed suicide due to racist bullying at her school. I wanted to write another ending to her story, turn the horror of it into something beautiful, make her immortal in a way.
WOW! I think you definitely succeeded in that. What a gift to give her. How many drafts, or revisions, did Mermaid Kenzie take from idea spark to publication?
LOL, too many to count. It took my acquiring editor telling me we couldn’t have pages and pages of trash for the illustrations, before it finally clicked that I needed to actually tell some kind of story and not just focus on plastic pollution, which is what I’d done in the earliest drafts. Then, the new editor wanted significant changes and I wasn’t sure I could make those changes because I’m still a newbie at kidlit writing, but in the end, I think we’re all happy.
I'm glad you stuck with it. As they said in Polar Express - "Lesson, learned." What was the hardest part of writing Mermaid Kenzie?
The hardest part was writing the story of it, and not writing it as a poem/story. Luckily, I was taking some Storyteller Academy classes and was able to apply what I’d learned to the many drafts of Mermaid Kenzie.
Nice. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or what was favorite book as a child?
My favorites as a child were Pippi Longstocking, Heidi, and Little House on the Prairie. I liked stories about adventure and survival.
Strong, spunky girls who stood up for what's right and just. The perfect models for your writing. When you first saw Geneva Bowers’ illustrations did anything surprised you? What is your favorite spread in the book?
Text © Charlotte Watson Sherman, 2022. Image © Geneva Bowers, 2022.
When I first saw her illustrations, I was surprised and pleased to see how she drew Kenzie as a mermaid. I have a pretty wild imagination but this story is realistic, so I wasn’t sure how she was going to pull that element off. I was thrilled with the result.
My favorite spread is actually the jacket. I had it made into a poster.
Note the colors of her Kenzie's skirt and look back up at that gorgeous cover to see how Geneva pulled off the realistic, imagination. What's something you want your readers to know about or gain from Mermaid Kenzie?
When I was a kid, we had “Don’t Be A Litterbug” commercials. We don’t seem to have anything comparable going on in the media now, so I hope readers who care about protecting the earth and marine life, know they aren’t alone and there are many of us working to make things better for the generations to come. And we can start right at home, in our own bedrooms and kitchens, and neighborhoods by picking up after ourselves, and using less single-use plastic in our lives.
We also had Woodsy the Owl's (Smokey the Bear's friend) cry - "Give a Hoot. Don't Pollute!" I totally agree that we need slogans like those now, more than ever. How are you staying creative these days? What are you doing to keep being inspired?
I’m allowing time for rest. And play. Taking naps. Walking. Daydreaming. I’ve given myself a reading challenge–a certain number of books in 2022. Giving myself permission to experiment with my writing. And cooking.
Those are all great ways to ensure self-care and inspiration. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I always imagined Mermaid Kenzie as a series, so more adventures for her.
Wouldn't that be fun! I wish you the best of luck. If you have a critique group(s) and writing partner(s), what have you learned from them over the years? Or from your writing journey so far?
A group of writer friends met with an established writer when we were much younger and she told us, “If you can stop writing, stop.” We were shocked at the time, but understand better now what she was preparing us for. The writing life is not easy, but none of us have stopped. So, this writing journey has taught me to never give up.
*Smiling* Last question, what is your favorite animal? Or one that you are enamored with at the moment? Why?
Orcas, because they’re sleek and beautiful and the grandmothers help their grandbabies survive.
Thank you Charlotte for stopping by to share about yourself and your newest picture book.
Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Mermaid Kenzie: Protector of the Deep.
To find out more about Charlotte Watson Sherman, or contact her: