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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Shannon Avra and Review of Molly & Nightmare

Shannon Avra is an anthropologist, a writer, and a seeker of adventure and kindness.

The joy in exploring stories led her to study different cultures, beliefs, and traditions. She has learned the beauty of imagination from people all over the world. She lives in Arkansas with her husband and daughter.


Her debut picture book, Molly & Nightmare, released on June 13.


Welcome Shannon, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about yourself and your debut book.


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 an anthropology instructor for the last 23 years. When I was in college, I had the opportunity to present my research on aberrant behaviors in captive chimpanzees to Jane Goodall. It was such an awesome experience and gave me a confidence boost in my research and writing abilities. And, yes, Jane Goodall was as kind and engaging as she seems in interviews!


My love of anthropology drives my joy in learning and exploring. The power of naming, connection, and impact fascinates me.


I was lucky to grow up in a family that valued and encouraged reading. Books were never off limits. Questions were answered and discussed. Research was fun and meaningful. Because I have a health condition, books were my way of participating in activities that were not physically possible for me. I had leg braces early in life and corrective shoes for many years after. So, for me, books have been a bridge rather than a boundary.


I write in the morning or early afternoon. I enjoy writing at our dining room table, outside on the deck, or in my office. I use each space in a different way. My office is for outlining or arranging my inspiration board. Outside is for dialogue ideas and magical elements. The dining room is where I put everything together – usually with lots of color-coded notecards.


I’ve been writing since I was a child. I love to write picture books and middle grade stories. There’s so much joy and healing in writing.


How exciting to present to Jane Goodall! And I love your image of books as a bridge. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?

I loved the Tell Me Why series. And I had a book about making glass that fascinated me. Anything I had to piece together made me happy.


Maybe a little insight into why you became an anthropologist. What was your inspiration spark of interest for Molly & Nightmare?

As kids, we are sometimes taught that something is scary when it isn’t. We learn this through cultural norms and various media. For me, being sick was scary. Monsters (and the rest of my extensive stuffed animal collection) were comforting. They were good students in my make-believe classroom. Excellent adventurers when I sent them rolling down the hall in my battery-powered doll car. And they stayed still when I put stickers and bows on them.


I used those memories, along with memories of my dad and a family friend, Fred, to create Molly & Nightmare.


It's an interesting composite of memories and experiences. What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written a manuscript?


Probably at a beach with my husband and daughter. While they did brave things like parasailing, I was happily plotting my middle grade book.


Ha! 😊 How long did it take from the first draft to publication for Molly & Nightmare?


It was years in the making. I started it as a middle grade manuscript. I revised it several times. Ran it past critique groups. Got stuck. Tried to pull and pry a full middle grade novel out of it one more time. But it didn’t fit. When I finally put it through revisions with my critique group as a picture book, they loved it.


That's funny. Usually, I hear it going the other way - a picture book MS that insists on being a chapter book or novel. What's something you want your readers to know about Molly & Nightmare?


That love transcends time. Friendships last beyond a lifetime. We impact each other in ways that shape how we perceive the world around us. I hope readers see the weight of a name. How we label others is reflective of our own ideas, hopes, and fears. Molly changes Nightmare’s name early on because she sees the good in him. She hopes for that good to be present in his own mind and actions. She fears that if he continues to call himself Nightmare, then he will never discover the joy of friendship or believe in himself.


That is very powerful! What we call each other, and ourselves, has a significant impact. Did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see David Spencer’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?

Text © Shannon Avra, 2023. Image © David Spencer, 2023.


David’s illustrations are magic. He did such a beautiful job of conveying personality, emotion, and imagination with each page. The details are incredible. It was wonderful to work with David. He is a kind, fun person. Everything he created amazed and delighted me. My favorite spread is the one with Molly and Nightmare gazing up at the stars. The memories depicted in that spread capture their relationship.


I fell in love with Molly and Nightmare from the beginning and this spread is so sweet! What was the hardest or most challenging part of writing Molly & Nightmare?


Navigating my own grief and trying to honor permanence instead of sinking into loss. My Dad died suddenly in 2020. It still feels shocking and surreal and irrevocably sad. He had read several revisions of Molly & Nightmare. So much of our relationship, and my relationship with Fred (who was a family friend), is in that story. So, bringing those memories to life in a new way was a challenge. Because I wanted to convey why love is worth the loss. Not why loss is the consequence of love.


That's a very interesting way to look at it. Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


I have a second picture book under contract! It’s a lyrical story that I hope will help inspire readers to live life with purpose and kindness. I’m also working on a middle grade novel that has ghost pirates, a star thief, and coded messages!


Interesting...we'll have to keep our eyes out for these books. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

I would love to visit Yosemite. It looks magical.


I hope you get to visit Yosemite; it is a stunning and majestic place. Last question, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing, publishing, or not ?


To be a student always. When we are seeking to learn, we are willing to understand.


Thank you Shannon for stopping by to share with us your debut picture book.


Thank you so much for this opportunity, Maria!


To find out more about Shannon Avra, or to contact her:


Review of Molly & Nightmare


I did not plan to do these two books on grief back to back. Honestly, it just happened to be when they were released. But they do make for interesting companion books. Primarily about friendship and imagination, this book also gently deals with aging and grieving.

Molly & Nightmare


Author: Shannon Avra


Illustrator: David Spencer


Publisher: POW! Kids Books (2023)


Ages: 4-7


Fiction


Themes:

Friendship, loneliness, grief, and imagination.


Synopsis:

An unusual friendship between Molly and her monster, Nightmare, who learn to love one another over the course of an entire lifetime.


Molly’s not like other girls...she wants a monster under her bed!


She’s lonely at school, so she decides to bring a friend. A big friend. A big, scary friend. She summons a monster called Nightmare, who tries his hardest to scare her—but he just can’t! Nightmare doesn’t understand why Molly is not frightened of him...but soon Molly and Nightmare become great friends, and go on many adventures together. And he promises to protect her from the things that do scare her, like loneliness and snapping turtles.


Molly & Nightmare is the story of a girl who turns an imaginary monster into a real friend...and of a monster who learns that he's more than a menace under a bed.


Opening Lines:

Molly wants a monster.


She doesn't know any magic words, so in her scariest, growliest,

voice demands, "Appear before me now, monster! I am your . . . your -"


What I LOVED about this book:

I love the spunk and imagination of Molly. A kid who wants to summon a monster/nightmare into her room, David Spencer's fun illustration with the inclusion of the poster and monster stuffed animals wonderfully helps expand this part of Molly's personality.

Text © Shannon Avra, 2023. Image © David Spencer, 2023.


But when the monster arrives, poor Nightmare is confused. After all, there are rules - he's supposed to "hide in closets, under beds, and rattle windows," and he's "supposed to be scary" to children. But Molly, who's lonely and isolated at school, instead smiles, hugs him, and declares him her friend; tucking him in under her bed, painting his nails, and tying bows on his horns. Afterall, having a brave and adventurous monster, means she'll never be lonely again. Molly even changes his name from "Nightmare" to Fred because, "Fred sounds reliable."

Text © Shannon Avra, 2023. Image © David Spencer, 2023.


I love David Spencer's softly colored illustrations for Molly and Fred as they start and grow their friendship. There is a lot of humor in both the text and illustrations (such as Fred in a tutu and eating a snowman's head - see Shannon's favorite image in the interview above), even as the book gently works through ideas surrounding how what we say or the names we give ourselves and others can be hurtful and self-fulfilling. Molly breaks all the rules and they end up forming a lifelong friendship.


But while monsters and other imaginary friends never age (I'm not sure why, but I kept being reminded of Puff, the Magic Dragon), kids grow up. In this story, I love that he and Molly remain friends for her entire life. Finally as we see her older, and Nightmare tucking himself under her bed, many adults (and perhaps some kids) will feel this image a foreshadowing of a heartbreaking ending.

Text © Shannon Avra, 2023. Image © David Spencer, 2023.


Molly grows as years swirl and blend and pass.

Nightmare watches rain the color of steel. Clouds the color

of marshmallows. Sunlight the color of Molly's bows.


But they would only be partially right. The ending is actually joyous and hopeful. But I'll leave you to discover that. This is a great book for opening discussions with kids on fears at night, grieving, friendship, loneliness, and the fun of imagination.


Resources:

- if you created your own monster, what would it look like? Draw or make your own monster. What adventures would the two of you have?

- do you have any suggestions or ideas for a kid like Molly "eating lunch by themselves or being picked last for games?"

- was Molly right that calling him Fred instead of "Nightmare" made a difference in how he saw himself and their friendship? Is there a name or nickname you wish you'd never been called? Why?

- pair with I Need My Monster by Amanda Noll, illustrated by Howard McWilliam and Moonlight Memories by Amanda Davis, illustrated by Michelle Jing Chan.

Comments


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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