Just So Willow (Author Interview + Giveaway!)

I’m excited to share, JUST SO WILLOW by Sara Shacter (illustrated by Stephanie Laberis), which released last week from Sterling. This gorgeous book is humorous, beautiful, and SO perfect for today’s young readers as it shares the story of a polar bear who discovers that friendships and having fun is better than trying to keep everything “just so.” (A message we all need to be reminded of!)

So let’s get the inside scoop on JUST SO WILLOW with author Sara Shacter…

How did you get the idea for Just So Willow?

One morning, after a snowstorm, I opened the front door and my breath caught. My block was too beautiful to believe. As a Chicagoan, I knew the magic would be short-lived. Within hours, cars and pedestrians would disturb the impossibly smooth, clean surfaces and the world would turn from pristine to muddled.

As I gawked at the sparkling landscape, I remembered back to when I was a kid. On similar days, I’d try to walk lightly across the snow, hoping to leave no marks. I smiled at the memory. Then my imagination started going. Wouldn’t it be funny if some huge animal – like a hippo (or, in later revisions, a polar bear) – thought it could tiptoe across the snow without ruining it?

And a picture book idea was born.

What was your process for turning that idea into a salable story?

Ah. The word “salable” is a tricky one! This is such a subjective business – who really knows what’s “salable?” What I do know is that I wanted to write something funny, but emotionally true, for my readers. A huge, lumbering animal trying to tiptoe in the snow is silly. But the animal’s desire for beauty is not. Its fear of making a mistake, of “ruining” something, is not.

So I started my manuscript by conveying the main character’s desire for her surroundings to be orderly. When she sees the gorgeous snow, she’s compelled to go outside. Of course she makes a mess and her attempts to fix it make everything worse. Finally, in a moment of clarity, she finds beauty in the mess.

I revised and sent that manuscript out for years. I came close to getting a contract a few times, but it never flew. Finally, I received a critique at SCBWI-IL’s Prairie Writer’s and Illustrator’s Day from Brett Duquette, then an editor at Sterling. He noticed that the tone of the book was inconsistent. The first half was funnier than the second half. In particular, he loved the manuscript’s first three lines. He suggested I revise with those three lines in mind.

His comment made sense. Many previous critiques had mentioned that the ending didn’t quite work. Maybe it was because it didn’t match the beginning in terms of tone. So I sat down, deleted everything but the first three lines and began anew. The revision led to a very different story, and to a Sterling book contract. I will always be grateful to Brett for that critique.

Were there any surprises or unusual challenges you encountered on this book?

The biggest challenge was to keep at it. I went back recently to look at my rejection letters for this project. Let’s just say they span the millennia!

A surprise was that Sterling wanted to change my main character from a hippo into a polar bear, so the book would feel more like a “winter” title. At first I was a tad resistant. My main character had been a hippo forever. And hippos are funny! And the title of the book was The Just So Hippo! But then I realized I was being handed an opportunity. A polar bear not wanting to be in the snow is pretty funny. In addition, seasonal books sell well. Finally, if we went full-on polar bear, we could also go full-on Arctic! So all of the characters in the book became Arctic animals, which makes for some fun curricular tie-ins for teachers.

What do you hope readers take away from the story?

I hope readers see that they don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to worry about mistakes, or “ruining” things. I also hope they see it’s okay to be reflective. For example, there’s nothing wrong with being neat and tidy. But for Willow, her focus on that behavior gets in her way and prevents her from being truly happy. We all need to retool our actions from time to time, and that’s okay. That’s how we grow and learn.

Twitter: @SaraShacter

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sara.shacter

Website: www.sarafshacter.com

* * * * * * * * BOOK GIVEAWAY * * * * * * * * *

Enter to win your own copy of JUST SO WILLOW by leaving a comment on this post. One winner will be selected at random.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Winner of  Miep and the Most Famous Diary from the July 16 post was Maria Gianferrari!

Suzanne Slade

Suzanne Slade is the author of more than 100 books. A mechanical engineer by degree, she enjoys writing about science topics and fascinating historical figures. Recent books include: SWISH! The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping, High-Flying Harlem Globetrotters, A Computer Called Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Helped Put America on the Moon, The Daring Dozen, Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon, Astronaut Annie, Out of School and Into Nature: The Anna Comstock Story, Dangerous Jane, The Music in George's Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue, The Inventor’s Secret, and Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Coming soon -- MARS IS, JUNE ALMEIDA VIRUS DETECTIVE! THE WOMAN WHO DISCOVERED THE FIRST HUMAN CORONAVIRUS, THE UNIVERSE AND YOU, and TBA titles from Calkins Creek, Peachtree, and Random House. Learn more about Suzanne and her books at: www.suzanneslade.com


  1. I’m inspired by the fact that she worked on this project for years. Yay for perseverance!

  2. Becky Scharnhorst

    This sounds like such a fun and relatable tale! Thanks for sharing the process and journey with us!

  3. This sounds like a great book–love this character! Unscrambling spaghetti is hilarious!

  4. Here to cheer for my Sterling sister Sara! And I have a copy of JUST SO WILLOW en route, so please don’t enter me in the draw. Congrats!

  5. Lynne Marie Pisano

    Another Sterling Sister — congratulations! Wishing you ALL the best!

  6. Judith Wright Aplin

    Oh, yes..yes..yes….I NEED this book for a ‘too determined to be organized’ granddaughter…Thank you….

  7. Love the message that you don’t have to be perfect -so many kids need to hear it! Thanks for sharing your journey and glad you didn’t give up!

  8. Congrats! Sounds like an awesome book!

  9. My three-year-old granddaughter’s name is Willow. She’d love this book and I would love to read it to her.

  10. I can relate to Willow 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

  11. This book is so, so, SO darling!

  12. I love a book that tells me (and young readers) that complete tidyness is not realistic –or fun!

  13. Your willingness to persevere and revise is an encouragement to me this morning. I’mm looking forward to meeting Willow on the pages of your new book. Congratulations!

  14. Danielle Hammelef

    I am also happy you chose to consider the critique suggestions–the idea of a polar bear not wanting to play in the snow is hilarious. Thank you for the interview and insight into this adorable and entertaining book that kids will ask for over and over and parents like me will always agree.

  15. This looks like such a cute book! Thanks for sharing the interview. I found it very insightful.

  16. Great insights on process and rethinking a project! Thanks so much.

  17. This book looks adorable. I admire your tenacity on your road to publication.

  18. Sounds like a fun read with a great message. Congratulations, Sara!

  19. What a fun book and a wonderful message! Thanks for sharing your story.

  20. Congratulations Sara! Willow sounds like a great character. And just in time for winter!

  21. I love the illustration of her ironing her underwear. lol! Congrats on your book!

  22. Wonderful. I really look forward to seeing this!

  23. And to think it all stated with a snow storm! How fun!

  24. Congratulations to the author for keeping at it! And you have to admire any character who is so neat and careful that she unscrambles her spaghetti!

  25. Congrats to Sara! It’s hard to hit delete – but look at what happened when you got that conference critique and went back and revised!

  26. Congratulations, Sara! Your book offers a great message. Your perseverance is inspiring!

  27. Angela S Hendricks

    This book looks great! My little girl would enjoy it!

  28. Carole Calladine

    Love the idea that a big animal wants to walk on snow without leaving a trace! What a nugget of a fun story. And straightening spaghetti! Thanks for sharing the evolution of Willow.

  29. Thanks, Sara. I love the way you dove into a revision which left only three lines. I have to remember that. I’m glad that you published this story, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

  30. Who can resist an underwear-ironing polar bear? Not me! So fabulous 🙂

  31. I can’t wait to read this, Sara! Congratulations! 🙂

  32. This is such a needed story in today’s schools. Even in Kindergarten, I see children feeling the need to be perfect. Thank you for writing such a wonderful story about social and emotional learning.

  33. So adorable! You love the page you’ve shared! Perfect!

  34. Congratulations, Sara! The book sounds wonderful. I love that she unscrambles her spaghetti!!

  35. So cute, Sara! And it is so hard to change things up, but worth the challenge! And I can relate with Willow: I have a pic of me at about 4 years old, bawling b/c my neighbor walked through OUR snow in our front yard.

  36. Congratulations! It sounds so seeet and funny! I admire your persistence! Inspirational!

  37. Your courage to cast aside “just so” and forge ahead with a revision using just 3 lines from the original is inspiring. I’m glad it landed you a contract and we readers a new picture book delight. : )

  38. What a terrific interview!! Sara, I love the journey of this story, and how you pared it back to the first three lines to begin again (and still had more revising to do when the hippo became a polar bear!). Congratulations, and thanks for the interview, Suzanne!

  39. Janet Frenck Sheets

    I love that your perseverance — and flexibility — paid off. That’s so encouraging. And hurrah for insightful critiques!

  40. Lovely interview, Suzanne. This looks adorable and I’m so happy to hear Sara’s story of perseverance! Congratulations!!!

  41. I admire your tenacity! Great Job!

  42. I’m so glad your persistence with this story paid off, Sara. Adding it to my library requests and looking forward to reading it.

  43. I love the idea of this book. I have a daughter who is a perfectionist and this book is perfect for her!

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