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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan and a Giveaway

Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan moved around the East and South coasts of the U.S. and Germany as a child in a military family. She attended the University of Maryland in Munich, Germany, Universität München, where she studied in German, and even took university classes in Tehran, Iran. Her love of literature lead to a B.A. in English from George Mason University. Later, she studied to become an English teacher and reading specialist at the University of Oregon. As an elementary reading specialist, she had the privilege to help lots of struggling readers find a pathway into books and a love of reading, too.

But she had other dreams as well–to shape the world with her own stories and share them with readers. She especially wanted to write stories about kids who were also army brats and global nomads. With four published picture books, and more to come, she’ll never stop being a student of writing and literature. And will never stop reading!

Gretchen’s the author of No Party Poopers! illustrated by Lucy Semple (2020), Button and Bundle illustrated by Gillian Flint (2019), I’m Done! illustrated by Catherine Odell (2018), and Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3 illustrated by Grace Zong (2017).

For additional information on Gretchen, see our earlier interview (here).

Her newest picture book, When Your Daddy’s a Soldier, releases tomorrow!

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

Did you find anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and writing these past couple of years?

The last couple of years were really challenging for us all. My on-line communities were key to keeping me sane. It was really reassuring to know that others in the writing community were having the same trouble I was generating new work. Like many, I worked on revisions—in my case mostly on a couple novels. My incredible critique group met weekly over ZOOM. I attended a lot of virtual events and stuck with my routines like participating in Storystorm, visiting schools on World Read Aloud Day, and offering professional critiques through SCBWI Great Critique events. I joined the 12x12 picture book community too. I’m relieved to say new ideas are popping up again.

It was tough, but thank goodness for Zoom and everyone's quick pivot to virtual offerings. What was the inspiration for When Your Daddy’s a Soldier?

This particular story has deep roots and was being written way before I sat down almost 20 years ago on a Veterans' Day and put pen to paper. The US was newly at war in Afghanistan and Iraq and my heart went out to all the children who were having to say good-bye to their fathers and mothers “for a maybe forever long time.” Those are the words my protagonist uses in my book. I’d been there myself. My heart went out to the mothers and fathers left behind too. I wanted to honor their experience with the emotional truth of what that meant from the point of view of a child, to write a story that held an authentic mirror up for military children and gave others a window into the expectations, uncertainties, sacrifices, and joys of being a military child. I wanted to write a book to help people outside the community develop compassion for the little people caught up in situations that demand so much of them.

Many forget that the children often carry a big burden and pay a price for their parent's service. What was the toughest aspect of writing When Your Daddy’s a Soldier? (Does it mirror your experience as a child or perhaps a sibling's?)

The story wrote itself, so in that aspect it was not difficult at all. It has been one of my lifetime goals to give voice to the unheard voices of military kids and this story was one way that goal manifested itself. But I did want to make sure that my experience mirrored others’. So I visited Operation Purple summer camp for kids whose parents were deployed. This was not only validating but very emotional. When I was a kid we didn’t have this kind of support. I also vetted my story with many sensitivity readers from the community.

I’m the daughter of a career soldier and veteran of three wars. Although I was only alive to experience my father’s deployment directly once, the weight of all those wars was still there. The year he was in Viet Nam was an extremely difficult year for our whole family. A lot fell onto my shoulders. But my five siblings and I were lucky that he was only deployed once. It’s hard for me to imagine how difficult it has been for the soldiers and families who have experienced multiple deployments in recent wars. I had students whose parents were deployed and witnessed how hard the comings and goings were for them. The characters in this story are an amalgam of many and while the story is fictional, it is emotionally true.

With the multiple deployments and varied reactions of the main character and his sister, I think you succeeded validating military kids' feelings/reactions and helping others understand a little. How long did it take from the initial idea to publication for When Your Daddy’s a Soldier?

From 2003-2022. That is no typo! Its path to publication is a story itself of resilience and persistence--and a lot of intense rollercoaster riding. The story was nearly published three times. It made it to acquisitions in two different companies, once through the slush pile and once after an editor heard it at open mic at an SCBWI retreat and took it home with her. When it wasn’t acquired because it wouldn’t be profitable enough, I hid it in my drawer of disappointments. I was ready to quit writing for publication altogether but, as a last hurrah, I booked a critique for a novel with an agent at a SCBWI retreat in 2011. When she asked for the novel in full at our session, I asked her if she’d like to look at a picture book too. She tucked it in her bag and called within a week wanting to rep the picture book. It sold in a week—her fastest sale to date. That contract was signed in early 2012 and the book was finally illustrated by 2018. But this version ran into troubles and the rights to my text eventually reverted back to me in 2020. The story sold again in less than 24 hours. I was thrilled it landed at Philomel, a dream imprint, and into my editor’s hands. When she moved to Viking, my book went with her and on October 18th I can finally pop a cork!

When you write an authentic story rooted in deep experience that tells an emotional truth, it will find an audience. The path that it takes may take almost everything out of you but persist and trust.

Wow, I think there are many who will identify with and need that last comment. Thank you. Is there something you want your readers to know about When Your Daddy’s a Soldier?

The dandelions you see in the book have special meaning. They are the official flower of the military child because of their resilience, adaptability, and heartiness. Most military children move a lot and need to take root quickly in new cultures to survive and thrive. I’d moved seven times and attended five different elementary schools in two different countries by the end of 6th grade.

Most of us can remember the first time we saw ourselves in a book. The first time I saw the culture of my childhood was as an adult in a sociological treatise. Please don’t let today’s military children wait so long. Please request this book at your public library and consider giving it to teachers or school librarians to share on Veterans Day or during April, the Month of the Military Child. Share this story with the children in your life so that they better understand the lives of the families we rely on for our safety.

Even though I'm a military kid, I didn't know we had an official flower. When you first saw E.G. Keller’s illustrations in When Your Daddy’s a Soldier, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?

First of all, it was essential to our editor that both Gerald and I had “lived experience” as children of veterans to ensure this story was authentic. Both our daddy’s were soldiers, mine career.

Text © Gretchen McLellan, 2022. Image © E.G. Keller, 2022.

I was delighted with the life and energy and love that Gerald infused into each spread. Surprised? Yes, often by which moments he chose to capture in pictures and by how he used setting to reveal emotion and relationship. For example, I wrote that the boy had a fort, but I never imagined a tree fort. Gerald drew the father up in the boy’s tree fort, holding his son as he cries. I love that picture. The way the daddy wraps his son in his arms here and holds him in other pictures is so beautiful. All in all, I am deeply grateful that Gerald created a loving and safe space for the children in this story to express their feelings. Gerald infused his illustrations with tenderness and love and it is the love that sustains which is the thread of the story.

He definitely captured the range of emotions the family feels. We didn’t get to chat about your last picture book, No Party Poopers! Is there anything you want readers to know or that you want to share about this funny book?

I really care about inclusion and community, and in this book I wanted to explore the role that stereotypes play in preventing some people from opening themselves to others. I definitely wanted to do this through humor, and animals were a perfect choice for characters. The premise is that two bears are planning a party. One wants to invite everyone in the neighborhood; the other, only other bears. This character fears that other animals will be party poopers. Eventually, he discovers that he is the party pooper and was wrong about his neighbors. The book is a funny primer on stereotypes that can lead to more serious conversations. We need books that open doors and build bridges and this is definitely that kind of book.

What a fantastic way to show how easy (and wrong) it is to jump to conclusions about others. Which is your favorite spread in this book?

Text © Gretchen McLellan, 2020. Image © Lucy Semple, 2020.

I have a terrible time with questions about favorites. Lucy Semple’s delightful characters and scenes draw me in for so many different reasons in different spreads. One I really enjoy is the wild and hilarious swimming pool spread because it absolutely surprised and delighted me. I never imagined my camels drinking from an inflatable pool with twisty straws or my racoons washing their cake with a hose connected to a fire hydrant! So much fun!

I also like the camel-racoon water fight! Lucy did a great job with this book! Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

My fingers are crossed for my middle grade novel TRESPASSING that will soon be out on submission. It is a historical novel set in Germany on a military base during the cold war.

My fingers are crossed, too. Good luck! What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

I’ve never been asked that question! I love so many places for different reasons, the redwoods for their quiet majesty and delicious oxygen, the oceans for their nurturing rhythms and mystery, Yellowstone for its variety of amazing geological surprises, Shoshone for its unparalleled starry nights. I would love to see The Wave in Arizona with its earthy swirls of amber and orange. Pick a favorite? Impossible!

No worries. I chose no one has mentioned yet © puttsk/Shutterstock

Thank you, Gretchen for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you again.

Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on When Your Daddy's A Soldier.

To find out more about Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan, or contact her:

When Your Daddy's A Soldier Giveaway

Great news, Gretchen is offering one lucky reader a copy of When Your Daddy's A Soldier.

- Simply comment below or on Friday's #PPBF post (or both) to be entered in the random drawing on October 21st.

- Be sure to say where (if) you shared the post (Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram), and I'll add additional entries for you.

- *Sorry US Residents only.*

To see Gretchen, in-person or virtually, check out these book events. More information is on her website:

  1. BARNES & NOBLE STORYTIME October 19 @ 10:00 am - 11:00 am

  2. Green Bean Books Virtual Storytime October 20 @ 11:00 am - 11:30 am

  3. Words & Pictures Festival–Ridgefield Public Library October 29 @ 11:00 am - 12:00 pm

  4. Words & Pictures Festival–Goldendale, WA November 3 @ 10:30 am - 11:30 am


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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