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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Soaring 20's May and June 2023 Releases

The Soaring 20’s High Flying Books for Kids and Teens is a group of authors and illustrators hailing from California to New York (and Canada!), who’ve joined together to help promote their books.

Be sure to visit their website to “discover kidlit talent on the rise.” Their website includes “behind-the-scenes posts about how these books were made; resources for using these books in your classroom or library; places you can meet these talented authors and illustrators in person; and of course, GIVEAWAYS!”

Welcome Darshana, Valerie, Rajani, & Abi,


Tell us a little about yourself. (For instance, where/when do you write or illustrate? How long have you been writing or illustrating? What is your favorite type of book to write or illustrate?)

Darshana Khiani I’m An American (Viking BFYR 5/2/2023) – When I was a kid even though English was my hardest class, I always enjoyed and exceled at the creative writing assignments – short stories, poems in the margins of my notebooks. I was a voracious reader up until junior high. However, creative writing as well as leisure reading fell by the wayside once I went to college. Fast forward to my mid-30’s, I rediscovered picture books with my kids and decided to give it a try. Seven years later, I sold my first picture book. I got into writing with dreams of becoming an author but the thing I treasure is being in this wonderful and vibrant kidlit community and all the relationships I’ve made on this journey.


I am a full-time engineer working in high-tech with a family and a dog. I adjust my writing times around these responsibilities. When I first started years ago, I would take my writing bag to my kids’ gymnastics practices or write late at night. Now, I tend to write first thing in the morning and on weekends.

Valerie Bolling – The Gray Day: An Acorn Book (Rainbow Days #1)(Scholatsic 5/2/2023) - I have written all my life, Maria, but I started writing children’s books in Dec. 2016. My nieces were visiting, and I thought of an idea for a story in which each girl was the main character. After their visit, I wrote those stories.


I then decided to write other stories and investigate the possibility of having them published. Most of the books I’ve written are picture books. Rainbow Days is my first foray outside of the picture book genre. I’m also interested in writing other genres for children.

In terms of where and when I write, I can write anywhere and at any time. At first, I used to write predominantly in my office, but now I’ll write in different rooms in my house. On the deck, too, when the weather invites it. I can even write in the car – when my husband is driving, of course!

Rajani LaRocca – Summer is For Cousins (Abrams 5/16) and A Vaccine Is Like A Memory (little bee books 6/20/2023) – My first career is as a doctor, and it was only after about a decade of practicing medicine, when my kids were in school, that I returned to writing in about 2011. At first, I took some online and then in-person classes, and intended to write only for myself. But then I met other writers and formed critique groups, and once you have friends asking you what happens next, it makes you go and write the next chapter. Around 2013, I thought I might want to try to get published someday. After years of working on craft and gathering rejections, I signed with my agent in late 2017, and my first book released in 2019. Now, I can’t imagine not having writing as part of my life!

As a working mom, I’ve never been too precious about where I write. I’ve written early in the morning, late at night, parked in a lot waiting for my kids to come out, and in the lobby while they had their piano lessons. Once they grew older, I coopted their old playroom as my office, and last year we renovated it with built-in, beautifully lit bookshelves, a new desk, and a gorgeous light shade made from the pages of Red, White, and Whole. It’s a wonderful, restful, inspiring place to write, and I love it!

Abi Cushman – Wombats Are Pretty Weird: A [Not So] Serious Guide (Greenwillow 5/23/2023) - I like to work on my stories at night, after my kids have gone to bed and everything’s quiet. I’ve always been a night owl, so that’s when I feel the most productive and creative. I’ve been writing picture books seriously since 2015. But I’ve also enjoyed writing content for my animal websites, MyHouseRabbit.com and AnimalFactGuide.com, which I started in 2007. For picture books, usually the stories I write and illustrate are humorous. And they always feature animals because animals are my passion, both in terms of writing and illustrating.


What is something that helps when you are feeling uninspired?


Darshana Khiani – Some of the things I like to do are peruse through illustrator portfolios, reread my Storystorm idea journals, watch old baby movies of my kids or funny animal YouTube videos, or dig through the Atlas Obscura website. However, if you are really feeling uninspired, as I’ve been this past year then there is probably something deeper going on. Maybe there are other priorities which need your attention and are draining your energy. Maybe you’ve forgotten how to “play” and hence are too critical of your drafts. Maybe the role of writing in your life has changed. I don’t know what is keeping me stuck, but once I figure it out, I’ll let you know. 😉


Valerie Bolling – If I’m feeling uninspired, I don’t worry about it because I know inspiration will come. It may come when I’m taking a walk, reading, or having a conversation. There are many aspects of writing, so if I’m not feeling inspired to write a new draft, I can revise. If I’m not feeling I want to revise, I can send emails, plan for a presentation or my PB class, catch up on social media, update my website, or respond to blogger interview questions (as I’m doing now). I can always find something to work on related to my writing life.


Abi Cushman – A deadline. There’s nothing like a deep sense of urgency (aka panic) to get those creative juices flowing! If I don’t have a “real” deadline, then I look to critique group meetings, contests, or conferences as dates to get stuff done by


Now that we know a little more about all of you, what made you wonder about this topic or inspired you to write your book?

Darshana Khiani I’m An American (5/2/2023) – My initial inspiration came in the Summer of 2017, I watched a YouTube video of a White man conversing with an Asian man about being American. Even though the Asian man answered every question with an answer that was similar if not the same as the White man’s answers, it didn’t matter. The White man would not “see” the 4th generation U.S. born ethnically Chinese man as an American. I was flabbergasted. When is one considered an American? Initially, I wrote a narrative story about a biracial child questioning his identity. Unfortunately, the draft didn’t feel like a picture book and had veered from the heart which was “If America is your home and you believe in the ideals/values of this country then you are American, regardless of color, ethnicity, or even citizenship." From a conference critique, I received a suggestion to create a concept book with layered text, set in a diverse classroom. The American values would be prominently featured in the main text with the student’s family backstory in the secondary text.


Valerie Bolling – The Gray Day: An Acorn Book (Rainbow Days #1)(5/2/2023) - Zoya’s name is a combination of my nieces’ names, Zorah and Anyah. My younger niece, Anyah, loves art, so I decided to have Zoya be a girl who loves art. I hope this series will inspire children to create their own art. All children should see themselves as artists, knowing that with their imagination and a paintbrush, markers, or whatever they’d like, they can make something fantastic!


Rajani LaRocca – Summer is For Cousins (5/16) – This picture book all about summertime fun celebrates the resilient bond between extended family members.


A Vaccine Is Like A Memory (6/20/2023) – This timely book details the importance of vaccines and how they were developed throughout history, as well as how they work to protect your body and keep it healthy.



Abi Cushman – Wombats Are Pretty Weird: A [Not So] Serious Guide (5/23/2023) - I have been obsessed with wombats ever since I studied abroad in Australia in 2001 and learned that wombats have cube-shaped poop. So when I started writing and illustrating picture books years later, I knew I wanted to create one about this very special, very weird marsupial. I hope my passion comes through in the book and inspires young readers to learn even more about wombats.


It's amazing where inspiration can come from. What do you like to do outdoors - either by yourself or with your family and friends?


Darshana Khiani – I love hiking! It is one of the reasons I enjoy living in in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are so many hikes within a short drive. I’ll go hiking with my daughter and our dog. Two of my favorite hikes are costal trails at Point Lobos Nation Reserve near Carmel and Wilder Ranch State Park in Santa Cruz. Easy hikes with gorgeous views.


Valerie Bolling – What I do most outside is go for walks. I walk just about every day – alone, with my husband, or with friends. I often get ideas for my writing when I walk. It’s great therapy for the mind, body, and soul.


Rajani LaRocca – We love taking walks with our little dog in the woods near our house! It’s so lovely to be out in the sunshine, hear the wind whisper through the trees, and watch our little furry pal in his glory. We inevitably have some wonderful, deep conversations when we’re out together and away from screens.


Abi Cushman – I love going for runs, bike rides, and hikes outside. We have some wonderful state parks and nature preserves nearby which are great for exploring year round. And in the summer, I love playing tennis outside and going to the beach with my family.


I wonder if most authors and illustrators are walkers or hikers? Is there anything special you want your readers to know about your book? Do you have a favorite spread?

Text © Darshana Khiani, 2023. Image © Laura Freeman, 2023.


Darshana Khiani I’m An American (5/2/2023) – No matter who you are or how you came to the United States, if you believe you are an American then you are. Also for people who’ve been here for generations, to realize that the reasons people immigrate today such as the need for safety or basic human rights is no different than the reason people immigrated in the 17th through 19th centuries. Despite our differences and challenges as a nation is it our values that we continuously strive and try to uphold that make us American.


This book is blessed to have Laura Freeman as the illustrator. All of the artwork is rich and robust, and seamlessly ties the past and present together. Some of my personal favorites are the Somali and Russian Jew spreads. There is no way not to be moved by them. I do like the joyous spread of the Pride parade too.

Text © Valerie Bolling, 2023. Image © Kai Robinson, 2023.


Valerie Bolling – The Gray Day: An Acorn Book (Rainbow Days #1)(5/2/2023) - Maria, I can’t think of anything special I’d want readers to know other than what I already shared about the main character being inspired by my nieces. Regarding the illustrations, all of Kai’s art is wonderful; I don’t have a favorite drawing, but I do love how Kai has depicted Zoya’s expressions.

Text © Rajani LaRocca, 2023. Image © Abhi Alwar, 2023.


Rajani LaRocca – Summer is For Cousins (5/16) – Ravi can’t wait to spend summer vacation at the lake house with his family—especially his cousins! Summer vacation is for days at the beach, long hikes, paddleboarding, and—of course—ice cream. Ravi and his oldest cousin, Dhruv, had the same favorite flavor last year, but everything feels different now. Dhruv’s much taller and his voice is deeper. Ravi’s worried that Dhruv won’t be interested in spending time with him, the little cousin. The ice cream shop doesn’t even have their favorite flavor this year. But on the last night of vacation, the cousins decide to make dinner, and Ravi’s in charge of dessert. He only has one special thing in mind!

Text © Rajani LaRocca, 2023. Image © Kathleen Marcotte, 2023.


A Vaccine Is Like A Memory (6/20/2023) – Do you remember every time you've been sick? You may not, but your body does! With many illnesses, you can't get sick more than once because your body remembers and fights it off before you get sick again. But what if your body could recognize germs that you've never had before so you don't get ill? There's where vaccines come in! This book comes complete with extensive back matter all about types of germs and vaccines.

Text & Image © Abi Cushman, 2023.


Abi Cushman – Wombats Are Pretty Weird: A [Not So] Serious Guide (5/23/2023) - One of my favorite spreads in this book is this one about joeys. I like it because I got to include a whole gang of different marsupials, which makes it fun and really shows that ALL marsupial babies are called joeys. I also demonstrate a weird characteristic about wombats, which is that they have backward-facing pouches. In this image, I tried to emphasize the difference between a wombat pouch and a kangaroo pouch by having the mother wombat standing up, so you could see the baby wombat upside down as compared to the baby kangaroo. And for those eagle-eyed viewers, you may pick up on the fact that here, the mother wombat is picking bark and putting it in her basket in preparation for the bark dinner she makes in a later spread.


So, what was the hardest, or most challenging, part of writing or researching, your book? How long did it take from first draft to publication?


Darshana Khiani I’m An American (5/2/2023) – There were numerous new challenges with this story which was so different from anything I had written before. One of the concerns early on was the age of the audience, and making sure the content and language was appropriate. Since the story is told in layered text and vignettes, the adult reader has flexibility in choosing which stories to read based on age appropriateness. Another challenge was the volume of research. I had one main immigration book that I started with and took copious notes. I created a spreadsheet with all the different American values and then marked which groups had stories or experiences that could help showcase that value. I wanted to capture as much diverse representation as possible from older immigrant stories to newer ones, immigrants from different regions of the world, as well as those groups who are non-immigrants. There was a bit of shuffling around initially and then a bit more once the story sold. The challenge that I am concerned about even now is have I done an accurate job and handled these stories with compassion and care. The book has been fact-checked and has had accuracy reads, but sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. My motto while writing this book was do no harm.


In Fall 2017, the initial idea story idea was a narrative story with a biracial character asking the adults in his life “Who is an American?” For various reasons, it wasn’t working. I received an insightful conference critique in winter of 2018. At the time I was burnt out from the story and put it away. In the fall of 2018, I stumbled upon I’m an Immigrant Too! by Mem Fox. That book had a story structure similar to the one the teacher had suggested. Re-energized, I pulled out the feedback and began working. I knew I was on the right path now. The story went out on submission in February 2019, sold in November 2020, and released May 2023. From first draft to publication, it took about 5.5 years.


Valerie Bolling – The Gray Day: An Acorn Book (Rainbow Days #1)(5/2/2023) - I think the most challenging part was being sure to follow the guidelines for Scholastic Acorn books. I had to make sure the words I chose and the length of my sentences were aligned to expectations for early readers. I also had to think of fun art projects that a child could do independently.


Abi Cushman – Wombats Are Pretty Weird: A [Not So] Serious Guide (5/23/2023) - My writing journey for this book was very long and full of twists and turns. I made my first dummy in 2018. It was an informational picture book where a narrator shared facts about wombats, and the wombats and a snake made funny comments. After getting feedback, I proceeded to reimagine it as a fictional picture book and then a fictional graphic novel. After more revisions with my agent, we decided the original informational picture book was the strongest, and she sent it out on submission to editors in late 2020.


Virginia Duncan at Greenwillow Books asked if I would turn it into an informational graphic novel. I was on board with that, and reconfigured it into smaller, paneled out spreads. After taking it to acquisitions, Virginia made an offer… for the original informational picture book! So after all that, the final book stayed very true to my initial vision for the book. But I was happy to explore all those other formats, even if it was difficult at times, to make sure the book was the very best it could be.


Thank you for sharing these behind the scene glimpses intot he challenges of your books. Who was a favorite/special author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?

Darshana Khiani – I don’t have a very good memory so I can’t remember most of the books I read. However, I do remember loving Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day. I loved learning how things worked or how something was built. The best part was the way humor was mixed into the stories. So much action is going on in every page.

Valerie Bolling – My favorite books as a child were Frog and Toad, Curious George, Amelia Bedelia, Charlotte’s Web, James and the Giant Peach, and The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, the Betsy, Tacy, and Tib series, and books by Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume.


You’ll notice, Maria, that none of these books are about BIPOC children or written by BIPOC authors. Thus, I’m committed to writing children’s books that feature underrepresented children; it’s my small attempt to promote a world where all children are seen and heard and valued and validated.

Rajani LaRocca – My favorite childhood book was The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. I loved the mystery, the big cast of characters, and the heart of the book—that people who seem very different on the outside can work together and understand and help each other.

Abi Cushman – My favorite books were Frog and Toad, anything by Richard Scarry, and Disney’s Wonderful World of Knowledge: Animals. The running theme in all those books is that they featured animal characters. And as a kid, I not only enjoyed reading them, I also would use them as reference to draw pictures.


I love the range of books you all loved as children; many I read and loved as well. What’s something you can’t do without either for your writing or for yourself?


Darshana Khiani – My critique partners and friends. They provide me with the critical feedback I need to hear, the support and encouragement when I feel stuck, and are my loudest cheerleaders when there is something to celebrate. I also have to read a picture book or two at breakfast, this simple activity of 10 minutes of quiet time brings me such joy.


Valerie Bolling – As I said before … Walking. My daily walks, and other exercise, are vital. I enjoy movement; it feeds me. My agent, James McGowan, called me “a professional walker.” I never thought about that before, but I love it and will wear the title proudly.


Rajani LaRocca – I can’t do without my writing friends and critique partners. They read all my words (often many, many times) before they’re ready to show anyone else and help me believe in myself when I’m feeling unsure. I love writing because it connects me to other people, and I couldn’t write a thing without my friends.


Abi Cushman – Quiet time by myself is essential, even if it’s just while I’m driving or doing dishes. Then I can generate ideas or figure out how to revise a part of my story that’s not quite working.


Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

Darshana Khiani – I have another picture book Building a Dream: How the Boys of Koh Panyee Became Champions, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk, coming out in September.


Valerie Bolling – I recently sold two unannounced picture books – one is a biography, and the other is historical fiction. I’ve written three PBs this year and am also working on a chapter book and board books. A lot to keep me busy!

I’m also looking forward to two new PBs this year, Bing, Bop, Bam: Time To Jam! (illustrated by Sabrena Khadija, Abrams) and Together We Swim (illustrated by Kaylani Juanita, Chronicle). They will be released on August 8 and 15, respectively.

Rajani LaRocca – I have a fiction picture book, Masala Chai, Fast and Slow, illustrated by Neha Rawat, a nonfiction picture book Your One and Only Heart, illustrated by Lauren Paige Conrad, as well as a middle grade epistolary novel, The Secret of the Dragon Gems, which I co-wrote with my friend, Chris Baron!


And I’m just about finished revising my 2024 middle grade, a fantasy called Sona and the Golden Beasts. It’s an Indian-inspired fantasy that involves magic and animals as well as the issues of colonialism and who gets to tell history. I can’t wait for it to be out!


Abi Cushman – I am so excited to be working on the second book in the [Not So] Serious Guide series. It showcases an animal most people are very familiar with, but you would never guess just how weird they are. In the second book, Joey the snake is back to discover all the ways FLAMINGOS are unique. Through my research, I have learned that flamingos have so many special capabilities, and although they may not look it, they are TOUGH. This book is scheduled for 2024.


I also have another 2024 book coming out that I illustrated. The book, The Quiet Forest, is written by Charlotte Offsay, published by Paula Wiseman Books, and will come out in the spring. It is full of mischief, chaos, humor, and LOTS of forest animals. It was so much fun to draw, and I think kids will enjoy following the mischievous mouse and trying to guess what comes next.


We will have to keep an eye out for these books! Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

Darshana Khiani – Since I already answered my current local favorites, I’ll tell you my bucket list of places I still want to visit: Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion National Park, Badlands, and Amazon rainforest. Let me know if there are any other places I should add to my list.

Valerie Bolling – My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Yellowstone when we traveled there 10 years ago. The park I frequent most is Mianus River Park, which is a three-minute drive from my house. There are many wonderful trails, and it’s beautiful in all seasons. In the summer, the trees provide a respite on the hottest days.

Rajani LaRocca – We went to Utah several years ago, and it was breathtaking, from the hike through water-filled slot canyons to the exhilarating view at Angel’s Landing. I would love to go there again someday.

Abi Cushman – My family and I regularly visit Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve, which is about a mile and half from my house. It’s lovely and quiet with lots of different trails to choose from so you can mix it up. Plus you never know what animals you might encounter along the way. [HA! I think its lost.]


These are all stunning places to visit. Thank you all for giving us a little peek into you and your books. Wishing you all enormous success.


To learn more about these writers and illustrators, visit Soaring 20’s High Flying Books for Kids & Teens @ https://www.soaring20spb.com/.

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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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