OFF-LIMITS by Helen Yoon

Hello, friends! Jill Esbaum here. We were terribly sorry to lose from the blog our friend Michelle Meadows. Michelle’s voice was always one of positivity and light, her insights (and tips!) smart and spot-on. While I’m sad she left us, I’m happy her career is going so well. She also gave me plenty of notice, thoughtful person that she is, so my search for the next Picture Book Builder began months ago. Eventually, after considering many equally wonderful folks, I wondered: What if we did something different and brought in a talented and dedicated, “in-the-trenches” picture book writer? I know many of our subscribers are pre-published, so I thought it might be fun to pull one of you aboard to capture that viewpoint.

Enter Sara Ackerman. Sara was a #PBChat mentee of mine a couple of years ago, and her writing was so strong, so polished, it gave me goosebumps. It’s rare that I read one manuscript and say, “Oh, wow. She’s going to make it.” But that’s what happened. Plus, every email she sends me makes me laugh out loud. (No pressure, Sara.) I wasn’t at all surprised when she signed with a top agent. I asked her to join us here on PBB, and, like, a week later, she sold a manuscript less than an hour after it was submitted. And then she sold a second (to a different editor).

Whoa.

Technically, she’s still pre-published, but she’s definitely on her way. Sara, before your first post, could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Thanks for the warm welcome, Jill!

I live in Brooklyn, NY but my picture book writing journey started in Ethiopia where I lived for several years. I took a few online classes and joined SCBWI and the 12×12 challenge. Things really took off when Jill selected me as one of her 2019 #PBChat mentees, and she continues to be a mentor to me. Before I tried my hand at writing picture books, a large part of my job was reading them. No, I don’t have a background in publishing, but I do teach kindergarten.

Classroom read alouds in a pandemic begin with me fiddling with a voice amplifier. The setting between inaudible and earsplitting is elusive. I project the book on an interactive whiteboard so my socially distanced kindergartners can see. The glare on the screen prompts half the children to move. Then I change into a clear mask so my mouth and facial expressions are visible. It immediately fogs up, obscuring my face.

By now, the children who haven’t yet moved want to move, and the children who already moved want a snack. I open the book while they all look at me like, this better be good.

And this is.

From the moment the unnamed protagonist in Helen Yoon’s OFF-LIMITS peeks into her dad’s gray-toned office, my kindergartners know exactly what she is about to do. Or at least they know she’s about to do something she’s not supposed to.

But this predictability builds rather than dampens their anticipation. When she steps inside, the office lights up with color, and she announces, “I’m just looking.” Of course kindergartners know she is absolutely NOT “just looking.”

Indeed, looking leads to pilfering “one little teeny-tiny piece of tape.” And then things escalate. Soon the lamp and the girl are covered with tape, and binder clips and paper clips join accordion-style sticky notes in a kaleidoscope of chaos. The girl begins to sing, which means begin to sing, which means the children giggle until their masks shake and they are rolling off their socially distanced floor spots. 

Once the office is entirely bedecked in colorful sticky notes, legal pad stars, paperclip chains, and paper dolls, the protagonist tiptoes to her room, dreading the consequences of her office supply free-for-all.

The children hold absolutely still as I turn the page very, very slooooowly.

Their gasps turn into shrieks of laughter (or just shrieks) when we catch the girl’s dad creating mischief of his own. 

Yoon’s first-person text is a spare and hilarious celebration of low-level mischief. It encapsulates the joy kids get from messing with harmless but forbidden grown-up stuff. 

Her illustrations are bright and whimsical. Humorous details fill the pages from the tape stuck to the protagonist’s eyebrows, to the trail of office supplies she leaves in her wake as she creeps away, to the family dog’s guilty expression in the final spread. 

But what my students love most about this book is the utter relatability. Many of them have seen their parents work from home during the pandemic, sometimes while they were home themselves learning remotely. And when kids are stuck at home, they make their own fun—fun that occasionally involves a thousand binder clips. Pandemic aside, what child doesn’t have a story about touching some irresistible, “off-limits” object at home? 

After their laughter dies down, my kindergartners want to hear OFF-LIMITS again. But not before a snack.

23 Comments:

  1. Joyce Patricia Uglow

    This is a Friday 12X12 Dance Party at its best. I am thrilled to see your name in lights here in Picture Book Builders. Congratulations!

  2. An utterly delightful book! I really enjoyed the ‘fly on the wall’ perspective from the kindergarten classroom. Looking forward to Sara’s PBB posts!

  3. Sara, my sister has been teaching kindergarten for 35 years and one of my favorite things to do is to visit her classroom and read aloud. In fact one of my goals is to read my own published book to her class before she retires! I’m going to order OFF LIMITS for her!!

  4. OFF LIMITS looks and sounds fantastic! I can’t wait to get a copy. Sara sold a ms an hour after submitting?!- wow! How wonderful!
    Heartfelt congratulations to Andrea Wang and Jason Chin!

  5. I just checked this book out of my library. It is such a hoot! Thank you for sharing it, Sara, and congratulations on your book sales. I can’t wait to see your work in print!
    Welcome to PBB!

  6. This sounds like a grassroots story inspired by the pandemic. Can’t wait to read it. Thanks for sharing.

  7. This sounds fantastic – just put it on my library request list! Thanks for the recommendation and the great post. (And congrats on your own forthcoming titles!)

  8. I’m not sure which is funnier–Helen Yoon’s Off-Limits or Sara’s description of reading it to her class!

  9. Jilanne F Hoffmann

    Oh my, yes. My son used to be enthralled with white-out (remember that stuff?). And paper clips. And rubber bands and and and and. This sounds like an engaging read aloud!

  10. This looks hilarious! Thanks for the recommendation, Sara. Welcome to PBB and congratulations on your upcoming books!

  11. This sounds totally adorable and relatable even not in pandemic times!

  12. Our library (in Australia) have Off-Limits! Clever library!

  13. Sara, your book is charming and funny! I love funny books.

  14. Sara, I totally identify with the kid in OFF LIMITS. It’s not fair I always got into trouble. I must get hold of this book. And how amazing that you sold your first PB so quickly! Congratulations!!! And I’m confident there will be many more. I look forward to reading them.

  15. Hi Sara! This sounds like an ADORABLE story! Can’t wait to check it out. And welcome and congrats on your new role as a Picture Book Builder! So fun. 🙂

  16. Being great at read-alouds is a tragically underrated skill. 🙂

    Congrats on your upcoming picture books, Sara, as well as congrats to Helen for her hilarious-looking book! I will keep an eye out for all of them! 🙂

  17. Welcome Sara and thanks for this review – looks like a fun read ?

  18. Janet Frenck Sheets

    Welcome, Sara. I’ve actually got OFF-LIMITS checked out right now If only we could all have as much fun as that little girl!

  19. What a wonderful post! ?

    I’m so happy you are a part of Picture Book Builders!

  20. This sounds wonderful! Truly important for these pandemic times and virtual or socially distanced learning. Welcome and thanks for sharing!

  21. Sara, I SO enjoyed this first blog posting! You must have a very full idea file from teaching kindergarteners! Their perspectives are so fresh, and they don’t hold back!
    And Jill, glad you did the shout out to Andrea for Watercress. I was at my local library two days ago for an book event planning meeting, and while waiting I was able to sit down and read it cover to cover. Andrea’s spare and moving text brought tears to my eyes! A picture book starts with the words, and Jason Chin did a wonderful job adding to the depth of a beautiful story.

  22. Hi Sara,
    Thanks for sharing this post. As a fellow kindergarten teacher, I can’t wait to share this book! I look forward to reading your books in the not-so-distant future.

Comments are closed