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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Melissa Stoller, Callie Metler, and Shirin Rahman

Today, I have the privilege to interview the terrific trio of authors who joined forces to create a picture book on friendship spanning three cultures and religions.

Melissa Stoller loves writing stories that highlight friendship, cultural heritage, and family connections. Melissa is a founding member of The Book Meshuggenahs, a group that supports writers and the larger community, and a member of the Jewish Book Council’s Literary Society. Melissa lives in New York City with her husband, three daughters, and one puppy.

Melissa is the author of The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection Series, Sadie's Shabbat Stories (2020), Ready, Set, GOrilla! (2018), and Scarlet's Magic Paintbrush (2018).

Callie Metler is the owner of Clear Fork Media Group in Stamford, Texas and the editor for Clear Fork/Spork. She has owned the Stamford American since 2009 and Clear Fork Publishing since 2014. When not working on her corner of the Stamford Square, she is spending time with her two sons, Logan and Ben.

Callie is the illustrator of The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection Series and the author of How to Babysit a Logan (2019), Ben's West Texas Snow (2018), and A Hug for the World Anthology (2018).

Shirin Rahman, born and raised in the U.K, has lived on three continents and sees herself more as a global citizen. She and her husband live in the suburbs of Chicago, where they raised their three children. Through sharing stories from her heritage, Shirin hopes to inspire an appreciation for all the beauty and diversity of our beautiful planet.

Shirin is the author of Laila and the Sands of Time (2019).

Their jointly created picture book, Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom, released October 19th.

Welcome Melissa, Callie, & Shirin. Let's start with you all telling us a little about yourselves. (Where/when do you write/illustrate? How long have you been writing/illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)

Melissa – First, thank you so much Maria for hosting us on your wonderful blog! You are a gem in the kidlit world! I have been writing for years now. I am working on picture books and chapter books – my favorite books to read and write. Generally, I am most efficient during the day when my youngest daughter is at school (she is a high school junior!). I also love doing school and library visits and spending time just listening to kids!

Callie – Hi Maria! Thanks for featuring us! I have been writing all my life and love the idea of educating and enlightening children through picture books. I love getting to work in all areas, from writing and illustrating, to publishing, and selling them in my bookstore. I have enjoyed writing on topics that are close to my heart such as cotton, autism, and with Planting Friendship I got to share my love for friendship and diversity.

Shirin – Hi Maria and thank you so much for this. I began writing for children when I became a mother. My main reason was that I wanted my children to see stories that represented their lives, culture and heritage. It has been my dream to spend my days creating stories for children – and I am so grateful to be living my dream. Mornings are definitely my most creative time. I usually leave the editing and critiquing for later in the day.

What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

Melissa – Not everyone knows that I’m a lawyer, and what I loved most about practicing was the research, writing, analysis, and problem-solving. I have definitely used my knowledge and legal skills in the kidlit world!

Callie – Most people don’t know that I am a huge movie buff and love to go to the movies. I usually go at least once a week so I can be up on the current movies. I also love classic movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Some Like it Hot, and Pillow Talk.

Shirin – I don’t think anyone knows how long I have been writing. It has been a very long journey. Many decades in fact. It was a dream I had for a very long time. I feel more strongly than ever now, that if you pursue your dreams and put in the hard work, it will happen – no matter how long it takes.

Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

Melissa – That’s an easy one for me! I love From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. I live near the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and I always wanted to sleep over! I even presented about themes and secrets in that book and in my writing life at the University of Pennsylvania, Kelly Writers House.

Callie – My absolutely favorite was There is a Monster at the End of this Book. I also loved Judy Blume, Trixie Beldon, and Nancy Drew Mysteries.

Shirin – Enid Blyton’s books were my favorites. Although I also loved Hans Anderson’s fairy tales. When I first read Hans Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, I felt it was the saddest story I had ever read. It was very different from the Disney version.

Great books! Now that we know a little bit about each of you, what was the inspiration for Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom? And what was the motivation for each of you to become involved with this book?

Melissa – I am so blessed to be involved in this project with Callie and Shirin and our collaboration is truly a joy in my life! Shirin came to us with the idea of three women from three different faith traditions writing a story about girls from the same faith traditions and of course I said yes! We all wanted to tell a story about friendship and understanding to hopefully bring about more peace and kindness to the world.

Callie – I grew up (and still live in) a community of 3,000 people that had little to no diversity. Especially in religion. When I met Melissa and Shirin I was so blessed by their willingness to share their faith traditions and beliefs with me. We had such amazing discussions and when Shirin suggested the book idea I felt like it would give the world a look at what child versions of ourselves would have thought of meeting each other. It has been an extremely special project to work on.

Shirin – I had the idea of an interfaith story for many years. I feel strongly that all faiths have more in common, and that we need to focus on what connects us, instead of falling into the negative narratives that divide us. I’m so passionate about this idea of unity and coming together as one human family, but I knew I could not write this alone. When I met Callie and Melissa, I knew we three could partner together and write this. I’m so blessed to have these two wonderful women in my life!

Shirin, I am glad you had the initial idea. It is a beautiful book. Although, it’s somewhat unusual for three, unrelated, authors to collaborate on a picture book (especially one that is not an anthology). How did you divide up the work on Planting Friendship? What was the biggest difficulty in having three authors for the story?

Melissa – I have been collaborating with Callie on our chapter book series, and we had met in person several times! And then I met Shirin in Chicago and we spent a whole day brainstorming. So I knew from the beginning that we would gel as a group. We all worked equally in planning and writing the book. We had so much fun meeting almost weekly for several years to write, revise, edit, and plan for the next books in the series. This collaboration has been an incredible joy, and then when illustrator Kate Talbot joined the team it became even better! #DreamTeam!

Callie – I feel like this has been an amazing experience as far as discussions. We wrote the stories together over zoom and revised and discussed each part. It has fingerprints of each of our styles. The only issue we have had is time zone translation and scheduling is sometimes hard.

Shirin – I look forward to our weekly chats and zoom meetings. It has been an absolute joy to work on this and I’m so happy we are continuing this collaboration.

When you first saw Kate Talbot’s illustrations did anything surprise or amaze you about them? Which is your favorite illustration?

Text © Melissa Stoller, Callie Metler, & Shirin Rahman, 2021.

Image © Kate Talbot, 2021.

Honestly, I get tears every time I read the book and stare at Kate’s illustrations. She brought her vision to the story and really propelled our book even farther than I had imagined. I just love her color palette and I especially love the scenes where the girls are together in each other’s houses. Kate includes cultural objects from each heritage and we added back matter so readers can learn more about each object and also have fun spotting the objects throughout the pages. Also – Kate is just absolutely lovely and we are so lucky to be working together!

Text © Melissa Stoller, Callie Metler, & Shirin Rahman, 2021.

Image © Kate Talbot, 2021.

Callie – Oh wow, Kate has been such a dream to work with. Her art was the piece we were missing. We knew it would take a special person to put it all together and we were right. She has been the person for the job and I am so glad she brought the characters to life.

Text © Melissa Stoller, Callie Metler, & Shirin Rahman, 2021.

Image © Kate Talbot, 2021.

Shirin – I was moved to tears by Kate’s vision on paper – in glorious color! They take my breath away each time I look at them. Beautiful.

What is the hardest thing for each of you about writing and/or illustrating children’s books? About writing Planting Friendship in particular?

Melissa – It’s always important to make sure that we are representing our cultures well and we were careful about doing research to get it just right. For me, I want to make sure that readers will want to keep turning pages and also come back to the book over and over. I hope they will!

Callie – I sometimes have trouble putting my thoughts into the spreads of a book. I have this amazing concept, but the meat just isn’t there to fill it out. With Planting Friendship, I wanted to represent my faith in a way that would teach people about it, but not be preachy. It is sometimes a hard balance.

Shirin – Research is always the most difficult aspect for me. I am so afraid of getting something wrong. It is all about getting every fact exactly right. Whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction, research and authenticating facts is important.

Seems accurate research and authenticity are the biggest hurdles for all of you. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer or illustrator.)

Melissa – Well, we each dedicated the book to our mothers . . . and I would definitely say that my mother is my lifelong inspiration! And of course my family inspires me every day as well!

Callie – My children and family are my inspiration. I find a million stories from observing them and having discussions with them.

Shirin – My mother was my first storyteller, so of course the credit goes to her. Seeing my mother hold the book in her hands and read the dedication, was such a gratifying moment for me. No words can describe that moment. My children also inspire me – they are the reason I began writing children’s stories.

I imagine a signed copy will be a glorious holiday present for each of your mothers. What's something you want your readers to know about Planting Friendship?

Melissa – I hope readers take away from reading Planting Friendship that we are more alike than different. The girls in the story start our nervous on the first day of school and they all feel a little different . . . but they soon realize that they have many similarities too as they connect over a planting project at school. As their plants bloomed, their friendship blossomed. And readers who love Judy Blume will note that we named the teacher in the story Ms. Blume! [Nice touch! 😊 ]

Callie – I want our readers to enjoy the girls’ journey and see themselves in the three girls. I think it is important to realize that our similarities and differences are something to be celebrated.

Shirin – Yes to everything Melissa and Callie said. Our beautiful world is just one tiny spec in the universe. We should cherish our world and respect every living creature on this tiny planet. We are here for a brief moment in time. Let us work together for the good of all – and spread joy!

I think your book definitely captures and projects this sentiment. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Melissa – We are working together on the next story in the series – Building Bridges: Peace, Salam, Shalom. Kate is working on the illustrations now and it’s going to be absolutely amazing! The release date is in 2023!

Callie – In my personal writing, I am writing on my first non-fiction picture book about a special woman in our history. I am also working on a middle grade novel, the illustrations for The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection books, and of course Building Bridges!

Shirin – I Have Two Books Being Released Under My Name, Shirin Shamsi. Zahra’s Blessing: A Ramadan Story (Barefoot Books, March 2022) And The Moon From Dehradun (Atheneum, Fall 2022) I’m So Excited For Those Two, And Also For Building Bridges With Callie And Melissa. I Look Forward To Writing More Stories For Children. Each Story Brings Me Joy. What A Great Honor To Be Sharing Stories With The Children Of The World – That Is A Dream Come True!

Sounds like some great books to keep our eyes open for. How are, or have you been, staying creative during these times? Have you found anything that helps you “prime the well”?

Melissa – I love taking walks in Central Park and at the beach on Long Island. Being outside in nature clears my head and also I have been inspired so often by just observing the world around me!

Callie – I love going for walks on the square in my town and enjoying hanging out with my kids. I find these things help me keep creative.

Shirin – Art classes have helped me to stay creative. Listing things for which I’m grateful helps keep me in a positive frame of mind. Staying in touch with friends and family across the globe, even though we cannot meet in person; it has been a blessing to have access to Zoom, Facetime and such tools to stay connected. Taking each day as a gift – and reminding myself how fortunate I am to be serving stories to the most important people in the world.

Okay, last question. What is your favorite animal? Or maybe a current animal you are enamored with. Why?

Melissa – I love dogs – my dog Molly is 7. She is half Shih-tzu and half Maltese and she is a character in The Enchanted Snow Globe Collection: Return to Coney Island!

Callie – Gosh, there is too many to name! I love animals, but especially love my Rabbit Oden (who is getting his own book) and my cat, Stormie.

Shirin – Bramble, my cat, has been my constant companion. He follows me around and watches me as I write – I have promised him I will write a book about his adventures one day.

Thank you so much Melissa, Callie, & Shirin for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you all.

Thank you so much, Maria! This was so much fun!

Be sure to come back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Planting Friendship: Peace, Salaam, Shalom.

To find out more or get in touch with each of them:

Melissa Stoller

Callie Metler

Shirin Rahman


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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