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