The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Melissa Coffey, Sneak Peek at Fridge-Opolis, and Giveaway
Melissa Coffey has always loved words. She grew up in Wisconsin toting around an overstuffed book bag and a dog-eared spiral notebook of poetry and stories. Unsurprisingly, her first job was at the public library. After earning a journalism degree from UW-Madison, she moved to Atlanta and called CNN Center home. Melissa was a freelance writer for Fortune 500 companies, CEOs, and magazines before pursuing her passion as a children’s author. Now Melissa gets to author stories of her heart…stories she hopes spark delight, wonder, curiosity, empathy, and connection.
Melissa lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two sons—who thankfully inherited her book-loving genes.
Her debut picture book, Fridge-Opolis, releases September 6th.
Welcome Melissa, thank you so much for coming by to talk about your newest book and your writing.
It’s my pleasure, Maria. Thank you for having me on the Picture Book Buzz!
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?)
I’ve been writing since I was a kid and penned a lot of poetry growing up. Apparently, I was passionate about the earth at an early age as you can see from this elementary school assignment! I was writing about pollution and conservation back in second/third grade. (Yes, my mom saved boxes of my art and schoolwork.)
My first job in high school was at the library, where I loved being surrounded by books and the endless drawers of the card catalogue. I’ve been a professional writer for 20+ years and started my own freelance writing business, Coffey Creative. Then when I had my two sons, I really rediscovered my love of picture books from reading mountains of them at bedtime.
I admire writers who can plop down anywhere with their laptop and churn out brilliance. I almost always write in the same place at home, at my desk. I have random pieces of paper, receipts, and notebooks all over the place where I jot down ideas or something funny or poignant one of my kids says. I write fiction, non-fiction, and what I call hybrid: fiction with backmatter. Most of my manuscripts actually start with a title, and I try to let the story figure out what it wants to be and how it wants to be told.
What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
When my husband and I were newlyweds in 2008, we were featured on an HGTV home makeover show called “Designed to Sell”. We had two homes and needed to consolidate. Being chosen for a home remodeling show was a very interesting experience, and we did sell my townhome quickly thanks to all the buzz. Both our kids love HGTV, so it was a treat to re-watch the old tv episode that Mom and Dad starred in together! They thought it was hilarious.
That's so funny! Where did you get the inspiration for Fridge-Opolis?
Caring passionately about the interconnected nature of everything on our planet is very much part of my values. Food is something that connects families, communities, the world. Growing up in Wisconsin, I definitely have a practical Midwestern sensibility. I was taught by my family not to waste food or litter, to turn off the lights, and to respect our natural resources.
I strive to live in an environmentally conscious, sustainable way and model that for my own two sons who are ages 9 and 13. I’m a rabid recycler, hybrid car owner, and before we moved to Texas, our California home had solar panels and garden boxes. I’m definitely not perfect in my green efforts (there are always more ways to reduce, reuse and recycle), but perfection isn’t the goal. I’m not the world’s best gardener or composter by any stretch, but I’m learning and teaching my own kids in the process.
Also, when my two sons were little, I was constantly eating the leftovers from their plates. (Anyone?) It felt awful scraping dinner dishes and seeing how much of a meal went down the disposal. One of my least favorite chores is cleaning out the fridge and finding leftovers lurking in the back or forgotten, mushy produce. (Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?) When I learned the gob smacking statistic that collectively, we waste up to 40% of all food in the United States, I knew I had a really important and overlooked topic for a picture book that aligned with my values.
Your passion definitely comes through the book. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?
Such a hard question! One of my favorites was Tell Me a Mitzi by Lore Segal, illustrated by Harriet Pincus, because my childhood nickname was Mitzi, and I remember my mother reading this to me all the time. It’s quintessential 1970s. Also, I gobbled up Judy Blume, because…Judy Blume. In fifth grade, I chose to read Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND because it was the longest book on the reading list at 1,072 pages, and I like a challenge. 😉
I actually spent many hours as a child poring over my grandparents’ World Book Encyclopedia set circa 1960s. I can still picture their gold, cream and dark green bindings. Oh how I wish I still had those vintage beauties!
Ooh, I remember those. When looking up information required opening a book. Is there anything special you want your readers to know about Fridge-Opolis?
I think you can probably tell how strongly I feel about shining light on this global environmental and social issue. We lose or waste about one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world—enough to feed billions of hungry people each year. The pandemic has only worsened the problem and made us more acutely aware of the fragility of the food supply chain and how we access, budget, cook, use, share and store food.
But here’s what I discovered. When most of us think about pollution, we don’t necessarily or automatically equate it with food waste the way we do with say, fossil fuels or plastics. I know I didn’t. Yet, it’s a major contributor to climate change since the number one thing in landfills is rotting food which produces methane.
I wrote Fridge-Opolis to entertain and inform young readers in a humorous way. The anthropomorphized, food characters and their city hijinks are meant to be a playful introduction to these serious topics.
Sometimes when we are faced with huge, complex problems, they can seem overwhelming to tackle, and we feel paralyzed. But food waste is one problem where EACH of us individually can have a major impact through our daily choices and habits---whether that’s recycling, composting, or packing our lunchbox. That is empowering! Especially for kids who are inheriting our environmental crisis. That’s why I chose to include some “Food for Thought” non-fiction backmatter.
When we become more aware of our own footprint, we can start to make shifts. I hope readers come away from Fridge-Opolis knowing they can make a positive difference and that they feel inspired to become food waste warriors and planet-saving superheroes!
The backmatter gives kids (and adults) not just the stats, but ideas for making their own impact and lessening the issue. How many revisions did FRIDGE-OPOLIS take from first draft to publication?
Many---before it went out on submission. Early drafts focused on food insecurity (an empty versus full fridge) before I learned more about the staggering scope of food waste. Too many kids face hunger and the issues are interwoven.
Courtney Fahy was my delightful, acquiring editor while she was at little bee books. Luckily, our visions were totally in sync. The only significant change we made was that Doctor Baking Soda was originally General Baking Soda. Other than that character shift and maybe a couple line edits, the published story is nearly identical to what my wonderful agent, Charlotte Wenger, submitted to Courtney.
What was the toughest aspect of writing or revising the book? What was the silliest thing that didn’t make it into the book?
The toughest was probably finding the right balance with the wordplay. Oh, and of course, rhyme. I never set out to write in rhyme, but sometimes that’s just the way the story wants to unfold. Or maybe my muses were just hungry?! The silliest thing that didn’t make it in was an art note that had a giant pizza box descending on Fridge-Opolis, but I don’t think anyone is going to miss it. 😉
I think you're right. When you first saw Josh Cleland’s illustrations in Fridge-Opolis, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?
Text © Melissa Coffey, 2022. Image © Josh Cleland, 2022.
I adore Josh’s creative vision. He is brilliant in the way his art employs color, perspective and movement to make the story jump off the page. The humor he infused into these food characters and their expressions is incredible—from the avocado bowling down the baby carrots with its pit—to the olives throwing the pickles some serious shade. He even put pacifiers in the baby carrots’ mouths! Even the endpapers are hilarious. My favorite spread, though, has to be the story’s climax, the food fight! But I’ll keep that one a surprise.
It's amazing how much personality Josh imbues to the food. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I have several picture book projects currently out on submission, and I’m actually working on my first early graphic novel manuscript based off a story concept with an awesome main character (and sample illustrations) created by my nine-year old son. He loves to storyboard and draw, and it’s been incredibly fun and rewarding to brainstorm on it with him!
That sounds like lots of fun! Good luck Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?
I’m going to have to say Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. We were supposed to take a family trip there this past July, but unfortunately, Covid squashed our plans. ☹ We’re going to try again next summer. I’m grateful to have visited the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve in Costa Rica last year, as it is in danger of disappearing (just like the majestic glaciers) by the end of this century.
I hope you're successful next year. Thank you, Melissa for participating in this interview. It was wonderful to get to know you.
Thank you, Maria, for the opportunity! I hope your readers had as much fun as I did. 😊
To find out more about Melissa Coffey, or contact her:
Review of FRIDGE-OPOLIS
This picture book highlights the global issue of food waste with a delightful combination of textural humor and hysterical illustrations, as a wonderful way to introduce and involve kids in working toward a solution.
Author: Melissa Coffey
Illustrator: Josh Cleland
Publisher: little bee books (2022)
Humor, food waste, recycling, and composting.
In the jam-packed city of Fridge-opolis, Swiss cheese has turned moldy and bleu. The broccoli is in a cruciferous mood. And the dressings are cloudy with gloom. With the city in chaos, Mayor Mayonnaise calls on Doctor Baking Soda at Undersink Labs for help. Will they be able to save Fridge-opolis from utter rancid ruin? This pun-filled picture book is a humorous introduction to food waste, recycling and composting for young readers.
Past Microwave Meadows and Dishwasher Downs
lay the infamous, polluted city of . .
It was cold and cramped.
Dark and drippy.
Smelly as sauerkraut.
What I LIKED about this book:
Using lettering reminiscent of magnetic fridge alphabet, and lots of anthropomorphized food and condiments, the cover snags your attention. Fans of Josh Funk's Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast series are sure to enjoy the food puns and "fridge-capades" in this book, too.
Josh Cleland magnificently depicts the "fridge of nightmares" in his opening image. Complete with eerie eyes peering from the darkness, mysterious oozing purple "mist," swirling green vapors, and drippy, slimy shelves.
Text © Melissa Coffey, 2022. Image © Josh Cleland, 2022.
With a dash of rhyme and sprinkling of puns, the narrator climbs through the fridge city. Exploring the rotting, spoiling food in the "Midtown deli drawer," "Downtown crispers," and "Eastside high-rises." Even "Uptown" had issues - "The butter was whipped in a frenzy. /Soy milk was curdling and sour./Bagels and lox were ready to box./Sushi felt mushy and dour."
Text © Melissa Coffey, 2022. Image © Josh Cleland, 2022.
"Oy Vey!" indeed. Poor, Mayor Mayonnaise. On a quick aside - I love his striped suit, spectacles, & moustache. Just when the mayor thought it couldn't get worse, the fridge erupts in a - oh wait, we're leaving this for you all to discover. Let me just say, you're going to enjoy hunting through Josh Cleland's awesome, brightly colored illustrations for all the extra bits of humor and texture he's added. Having reached his limit and declaring a state of emergency, Mayor Mayonnaise sends an envoy to seek the expertise and assistance of Doctor Baking Soda, from "Undersink Labs." With a little spit and polish, and the addition of two new kitchen occupants . . . well you can guess, it is a picture book after all.
This is another book with fun end papers that do a good job of visually wrapping up the story. I love the shift in the color and attitude. Instead of vapor swirls and grumpy, spoiled food, we see cool condiments and superpowered, happy food.
Image © Josh Cleland, 2022.
The backmatter - "Food for Thought" offers just that. Along with some sobering and startling statistics, it offers the reader ideas for making their own impact and lessening the food waste issue through thoughtful planning, composting (with or without worms), and recycling. Including offering a quantifiable result in saved energy for recycling a can or a glass bottle. The visual and textural humor helps keep this from being preachy, while still making the point of how we can all make a significant impact through individual actions.
- make your own worm composting bin or check out composting/yard waste options in your city.
- follow some of Doctor Baking Soda and Mayor Mayonnaise's Food Hero Tips.
- what do you imagine happens in the fridge after you close the door? Write, or draw, your own story about the adventures of your food.
- pair this with Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner, illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal and Jory John and Pete Oswald’s silly food series - The Bad Seed, The Good Egg, ,....
I hope you enjoyed this preview peak. In anticipation of its release in two weeks, Melissa is offering One lucky reader a copy of FRIDGE-OPOLIS.
- Simply comment below to be entered in the random drawing on August 30th.
- 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.*