When a Tree Grows + an interview with debut author Cathy Ballou Mealey AND a giveaway!

I could not be happier to bring you a chat with debut author Cathy Ballou Mealey. Cathy’s a long-time subscriber to PBB, so I’ve been counting down the weeks until I could post about WHEN A TREE GROWS! First, a look at her delightful book:

From the publisher: “When Moose sees the inviting tree where Squirrel has built his nest, he rubs his itchy antlers against the trunk—and sets in motion a chain of comic catastrophes. The tree falls and wakes Bear, who stumbles into Moose, who causes a truck driver to swerve off the road. But then Squirrel jumps onto that truck and ends up in the city, all alone. Who will help him get home? And how will Squirrel thank them? Kids will love this adorable picture book, with its irresistible animal characters and rhythmic text that’s made for reading out loud.”

I’ll say. This is a TREMENDOUS read aloud! But what do I like best about WHEN A TREE GROWS? The unexpected surprise of its unique structure. You can read about it in the interview, so let’s get started!

JE: Cathy, everybody loves a debut author! So, first question…how long have you been writing and submitting picture books?

CBM: I wrote my first picture book in 2010 to enter the Cheerios “Spoonful of Stories” contest. Even though “Ozzie the Oyster” was definitely not ready for publication, I discovered a passion for the craft of picture book writing. In addition to attending conferences and workshops, I joined SCBWI, the 2012 12X12 Challenge and two critique groups. I did a lot of homework by reading craft books and scouring the internet for book reviews, author interviews, and writing tips.

When critique partners urged me to submit WHEN A TREE GROWS, I used Querytracker to find agents accepting picture book manuscripts. In May 2015 I signed with Liza Fleissig of Liza Royce Agency and within a few months TREE was putting down roots at Sterling Books for Children with editor Meredith Mundy.

JE: WOW, that was quick (for the publishing world!). Do you recall what sparked this story? Was it fairly easy coming up with a draft, or was finding the story’s heart a longer process?

CBM: I was out in the woods, enjoying a hike with my family when we heard a distant, creaky Crash! Was it a falling tree? An animal? We froze, listened and after a long silence, hiked on. I began to wonder: What if that crash had scared a bear or frightened a deer?

Building on that “OR” question, I framed a wacky story with two different possible outcomes, one rather expected and one funny, unexpected outcome. Readers will find that “OR” spotlighted on the bottom corner of each recto page with a clever curled paper art effect. 

Finding the story’s heart took a bit longer as I experimented with using Moose, Squirrel or Bear as the protagonist. Moose and Bear insist they are not one bit jealous of Squirrel’s success in the spotlight, even though they would each like a turn someday.

JE: I love, love, love the clever “OR” page turns, Cathy. That structure feels so fresh to me. Was that how you envisioned the story? (Readers, take a look.)

CBM: The “OR” and the sound effects in big font are two holdovers from my early drafts. I was struggling to keep my storyline flowing smoothly with an equal amount of text per scene. To help visually gauge my progress, I enlarged the <SOUND> and <OR> typeface in my manuscript to denote possible page breaks.

I’m so glad that you like the structure! At first it felt risky to write in such a chunky manner with odd paragraph breaks. I was aiming to define the tone and pace for the story as a whole, using extra white space in the manuscript. Are writers allowed to do that?

I have found that it does add an especially fun element when sharing the book with a young audience. A “helper” waving a giant OR sign at the key moments keeps everyone engaged in the story!

JE: Ha. That would definitely have them giggling. What inspires you?

CBM: My inspiration typically comes from keeping my eyes and ears open, mixing in a little bit of research, and leaning on mentor texts to light the way. I often find inspiration from walks in nature, observations of animal behavior, the movement of water, or the growth of plants and trees.

When something seems to have story potential, I head to the library and research all the non-fiction sources I can find. Books on squirrels, moose and bears were informative and fun to read even though my story is fiction. Bonus – now I have lots of cool facts to share with readers at book events.

I often rely on mentor texts, studying favorite authors, recently published books or classic stories with interesting structures. When A Tree Grows was pitched with If You Give A Mouse A Cookie as a comp title, but One-Dog Canoe was the mentor text that helped boost my story structure. I loved the wacky ‘what could happen next?’ twists with each page turn!

Cathy’s workspace

JE: So…what’s next?

CBM: Next up for me is a still-secret, super funny picture book with an amazing publisher in Canada. A sloth and a squirrel team up for a special mission. Look for an announcement soon, and a book sometime in 2021!

A book about me? Sweet!

JE: THANKS, Cathy, and BEST of luck with WHEN A TREE GROWS!!! Readers, you can win a copy just by commenting below. A random drawing will determine the winner June 21.

Debut author Cathy Ballou Mealey lives with her family north of Boston, where she delights in watching silly squirrel antics and is waiting patiently for a moose to appear. Her favorite nut is the hazelnut and her favorite cupcake is cardamom crème.

Note from Cathy: Readers are welcome to connect with me online! Tell me if you have seen a moose in real life, or if you have ever rescued a friend from an adventure gone awry.”

Website: https://cathyballoumealey.wordpress.com/about/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CatBallouMealey

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/cathy.mealey

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/catballoumealey/

Illustrator Kasia Nowowiejska’s website:  http://www.kasianowowiejska.com

Jill Esbaum

Jill Esbaum has been picture book crazy since her 3 kids were little, and especially so after her first was published in 2004 (Stink Soup). Recent titles: Stinkbird Has a Superpower, Jack Knight's Brave Flight, Where'd My Jo Go?, Frog Boots, How to Grow a Dinosaur, Frankenbunny, If a T. Rex Crashes Your Birthday Party, Elwood Bigfoot– Wanted: Birdie Friends!, Teeny Tiny Toady, I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!, and more. Coming in 2024: Parrotfish Has a Superpower (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection) and Bird Girl: Gene Stratton-Porter Shares Her Love of Nature with the World (another JLG Gold Standard Selection). She's also the author of many nonfiction books for young readers, as well as an early graphic reader series, Thunder & Cluck. Learn more at http://jillesbaum.com.


  1. Congratulations Cathy! I enjoyed hearing about the structure and page turns. I’m looking forward to reading WHEN A TREE GROWS!

  2. Kathy Shanahan

    This looks like such a fun read aloud! I love the illustrations, as well. Congratulations Cathy! Can’t wait to add it to my library.

  3. Such a fun title and concept…can’t wait to read it!

  4. Love this. Congrats, Cathy, on your next book, too!

  5. I’m happy to say I’ve read this book and love it! Such a fun, clever concept, and so well done–I love the page flips and illustrations. Congratulations, Cathy!! 🙂

  6. I read this book and loved it! Then I ordered a copy! What a fun and clever concept 🙂

  7. I appreciate the insights on your manuscript format and thinking process, esp. given the unique format.

  8. Cathy L Murphy

    I’m thrilled for you, Cathy! Can’t wait to check out your debut. Congrats!

  9. Congrats on your book, Cathy! Looking forward to adding it to our collection and using it during storytime programs.

    • Oh that’s wonderful Janet! I have found that little listeners really love the page turns, and I ask a “helper” to hold up a sign that says “OR” at the page turn moments to boost their participation. It is SO fun! Hope you all enjoy the story.

  10. Congratulations, Cathy! Your debut sounds fabulous and can’t wait to read it!

  11. Michele Helsel

    I’m totally psyched! Can’t wait to read it. I love funny, and I love novel structure. So happy for you!

  12. I’m looking forward to reading WHEN A TREE GROWS and seeing how you worked those fun page turns! Congratulations on your debut, Cathy!!

  13. Oh, I can’t wait to read this one. I want to find your mentor text book as well. Thanks.

  14. Angie Quantrell

    Congratulations! I’ve been seeing the cover and had certain thoughts about what it was like. Now I know I was way off track and I can’t wait to read it! Yay!

    • My goodness – you know how to pique an author’s curiosity Angie! Was it the title, the artwork, or both that had given you a different impression? I’d love to know! I hope you enjoy it when you get a chance to read it!

  15. Thanks for posting, Jill! Congrats, Cathy! So looking forward to reading your book! I love the creative convention with the use of OR to propel the excitement, anticipation, and advance the story. Very fresh. Someone could win this book…



    Just saying… : )

    • Ha ha! That’s terrific Brian! You could win it OR you could borrow it from the library OR you could find it at a bookstore. I guess that’s a triple OR structure I had not considered! Hope you enjoy it!

  16. So excited to hear about your lovely book Cathy! Huge congratulations! There’s nothing more thrilling than your first book–and it looks like a winner. Hooray!

  17. Danielle Hammelef

    I love the ideas of your books and can’t wait to read them. Nature picture books are so much fun to read.

  18. elizabeth curry

    I just read a copy of this book yesterday and it is ADORABLE! I love the “OR” options throughout–such a clever idea. Congratulations on your success!

    • Oh Elizabeth – how exciting that you just read TREE and now here is this wonderful post that Jill and the PBB elves put together for me. I LOVE hearing that you liked the story. Thank you!

  19. I am always interested in structure possibilities when I write. I love this idea and can’t wait to see it! Congrats Cathy!! And Thanks Jill!

  20. Sounds like a great book. We love watching the antics of squirrels in our backyard. They are fascinating creatures. I will watch for this OR will i win one?

  21. Congratulations, Cathy. Thanks for sharing the inspiration for your book. I love learning about unique PB structures!

  22. Cathy, this is one gorgeous book! Congratulations!

  23. Congratulations, Cathy. I love moose books. Looking forward to reading this one soon!

    • Jill – fellow Moose fan! I’d say 99% of little listeners can tell me they’ve seen a squirrel before, but none have said they’ve seen a moose…YET! I’ll have to head North for some book readings soon!

  24. Hearty congratulations to you (and your squirrel), Cathy!! It’s a lovely book!

  25. Unique structure indeed! It’s a picture book I can’t wait to check out!
    Congratulations, Cathy on your debut!

  26. I loved the OR page turns. Very clever. I have seen Moose in the wild. In Grand Teton Nat’l Park, we watched a moose stand in a river munching on bushes. Then, in Yellowstone, a moose had her calf in a clearing near our cabin. They are adorable! Just like your book.

    • Oh Mary – that is super! I’d love to go to Grand Teton. I have seen Moose in Maine, waaaaay up almost to the Canadian border. Incredible creatures! Thank you for your kind comments about the book.

  27. What a clever structure! I am anxious to get this book in hand and check it out in detail.

  28. I cannot believe it-I just read this book at B&N! I loved the option the reader has with the “OR.” Would be great to use in my classroom for journal writing. Congratulations, Cathy!

  29. Patricia Nozell

    I love how you’ve structured this humorous story – and I love learning the story behind the story. Amazing things happen when you take a walk in the woods! Congratulations on your debut!

    • Thank you Patricia! I have to get back out in the woods soon, but phhhht! The black flies have been fierce and cut my walks quite short this spring. Bring on the bug spray! Thanks for sharing the post on Twitter too. You’re the best!

  30. I really like the duality of your story– very clever! In addition to writing, I am a second grade teacher. I would love to share your story with my class. I’m going to keep my eyes open for it!

  31. Congratulations on your first book, Cathy! I LOVE that you have combined the natural world and humor in your story, since both are essential for happiness – for kids and adults! And the layout and structure you envisioned and communicated have taken your story to that wonderful place where the blending of text, art, and design results in something that is greater than the individual components. And that’s what great picture book writing is all about! Bravo!

    • Janet – what lovely observations – thank you! I can’t imagine writing a book that does not feature nature and humor in some way, they are so essential to getting young readers hooked on stories. It’s ingrained in my writing and in the books that I love to read, many of them discovered right here at Picture Book Builders!

  32. Congrats, Cathy! My aunt and uncle own a summer home in northern Maine, so we’ve seen moose up there.

  33. Cassie Bentley

    I’m working on structures for multiple stories. I’l check this one out. This has been very helpful.
    I have seen a moose. It was resting in someones side yard. Moose tend to go wherever they want to and move when they want to.

  34. Congratulations, Cathy! I love hearing about how the story came to you. The “OR” page turns are very clever. Can’t wait to read this one!

  35. Your book looks absolutely wonderful. Definitely one kids will want to read again and again. Congratulations!

  36. Wow!!! This looks so fun and interesting!!! Congratulations on your debut and super-secret-squirrel book! I’ve seen Moose, Bear, and Squirrel all at Glacier National Park.

  37. Great interview, Jill and Cathy!! Cathy, I’m so excited for you and can’t wait to read your book! Congrats!!!

  38. Thanks for the fun interview, Cathy and Jill! I LOVE this book! 🙂

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