The Reindeer Remainders – a tribute to (and interview with) the late Katey Howes

As most of you know by now, Katey Howes, an extraordinary author, poet, and human, very unexpectedly passed away last month.

I’ve known Katey for several years and I was so very excited that we were going to be presenting together on a poetry panel at ALA in San Diego at the end of this month. We bonded over our nervousness…this was going to be our first time at ALA and we were sitting on a panel with Margarita Engle(!), Janet Wong(!), and Chris Baron(!), superstars whom we’ve both admired for so many years. We were in the midst of planning the slides for our presentation when I got the news of Katey’s sudden death. As I write this, I am still in shock. It makes absolutely no sense that someone so young and talented and giving and kind should be taken so soon.

Months ago, I asked Katey if she would share the ARC of her upcoming book, The Reindeer Remainders, illustrated by Marie Hermansson. I immediately fell in love with everything about it — the title alone is just brilliant, isn’t it? The whole thing is so cleverly done and in perfect rhyme (which you know by now, I can’t resist) and I couldn’t wait to share it with you all. I sent Katey some interview questions with a deadline of June 3rd. Katey being Katey and always on top of everything, sent them back to me on May 13, just a week before we lost her.

I wasn’t sure whether or not I should continue with posting this interview or not. Reading back her answers, chock full of her boundless enthusiasm, joy, and love of the craft, was so difficult. And yet, how could I not share this incredible book with you and help pay tribute to such a beautiful creator?

Reading Katey’s words, knowing that she’s no longer here, may be difficult for anyone who knew her personally, so for those for whom that is the case, I urge you to stop reading here.

Here’s my interview with Katey….

RGL: When I do my BRAINSTORM! presentations in schools, one of the tools I share with kids for coming up with ideas is what I call “Weird Addition,” which is basically encouraging them to combine two things that don’t normally go together in order to spark an idea. When I first heard about this book, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is that how Katey came up with this idea?  I mean Reindeer + Math = a great story idea!? So, tell us, where DID you come up with this idea (and it’s amazing title)?

KH: That’s a great idea! I should definitely try more Math of the Imagination! In this case, the story started – as all the best things in life do – with a pun. My family and I are pretty competitive with our punny-ness, so when I managed to introduce the word “remaindeer” into good old dinner conversation, I knew I had a winner. I made sure to take the time to play with it more. The word pretty quickly defined itself as a reindeer who was left out when animals split into groups – and the possibilities for that idea were endless! I experimented with a number of settings, styles, and plotlines before finding one that felt very clear and age-appropriate to me. Then I fell down the deep hole of a writer who feels like they HAVE to rhyme this time. It’s a dark and dangerous place, I’ll admit. But sometimes you just can’t resist it! 

RGL: We all know that having hooks and layers is SO important in order to snag the attention of editors. Here you have both STEM elements (introducing division and prime numbers) and SEL elements (a story about feeling left out and including others) which is obviously something kids deal with a lot at school. And, of course, it’s in rhyme, which makes everything SO much more difficult. Which of these layers came first and how did you piece it all together? What was your writing process for this one?

KH: For this title, the math concept definitely came first. I dug into current teaching styles and was pleased to see that modern educators start grounding students in the concept of grouping quite early. Thinking of division in this way – splitting into groups – makes it so much more intuitive for many people, and very accessible for young learners. It’s not the scary long division I grew up on! I made sure to familiarize myself with hands-on activities and phrasing current teachers are using to provide a basis for this variety of math in kindergarten to third grade students. Then I played with reasons classrooms might split into groups. With a prime number for the classroom size, someone was always getting left out – which felt very real and familiar to me. 

Rhyming came in next. I did write out a few drafts in prose, but potential rhymes kept sneaking up on me, and I let myself start playing with them. It quickly felt natural to the story. I think the structure of stanzas really made sense to me as a way of demonstrating the various different math problems (13 divided by 3, by 4, by 6…) without feeling too repetitive or boring. Is it nerdy of me to think of poetry as mathematical? The two things really work together in my mind! 

In early versions – in fact, in the version that went out on submission – the SEL layer of the story was pretty light and same character was left out of groups again and again. It was the smart and thoughtful editor Anna Sargeant at Sourcebooks who saw that that could be very upsetting for readers. She suggested we could revise to have different characters left out each time the class split into groups. With some discussion of that plan, we realized it would also allow us to show different reactions – both positive and negative – to being the odd one out in these situations. The SEL layer intentionally became stronger and more centered as we revised. 

I wrote and rewrote – and got feedback from people who knew way more than I did! I had had some excellent interactions with parenting specialists, school psychologists, and other experts when writing and sharing a previous title (Rissy No Kissies) and its consent and autonomy messages. I turned to several of these smart-thinking heart and mind pros to get their perspective on how kids feel, react, and process being left out. In several cases, I paid the experts for their knowledge and advice on this project, knowing that they had a solid understanding of the ways books are used in the home and classroom to deliver SEL messages, a familiarity with what was already out there, and insight into what parents and teachers could really use! They heavily influenced the content and the back matter, and I could not have made this happen without them. 

RGL: What was the submission process like for this book. Did it sell right away, or was it a longer journey? I’m especially curious if you had pushback from editors who felt the math concepts might be too advanced for picture book readers? (I’ve run into this stumbling block before in my subs, as I tend to write to the older end of the PB crowd as well, so I’m curious if this was an issue for you!)

KH: My agent had a strong sense of her top choices for a book like this. She was definitely looking for a house that valued educational concepts, sold well to both schools and the commercial market, and brought fun and energy to educational titles. If I am remembering correctly, Sourcebooks showed interest fairly quickly after our first round of submissions – though several other editors came back with kind words and passes for a variety of reasons. Once we had word of the editor’s interest in the book, it went to acquisitions fairly quickly. I was so pleased! 

RGL: The back matter is absolutely fabulous (I LOVE back matter!) In it, you explain more about division and prime numbers, but also give kids tools for managing their feelings when it comes to being left out AND tools for kids to help their friends when they feel left out. So great! Was this back matter included in your original submission or did you add it later? 

KH: First of all, thank you! I’m so glad the back matter carries so much information! A quick check tells me that we did not have the SEL back matter included in the submission for this title. We did have math back matter attached as an option, and made it clear I was happy to change back matter style and formatting.  Much of the back matter as it is presented now happened later with the input of the Sourcebooks team and the guidance of parenting and education experts. They reviewed the manuscript and my initial back matter drafts and provided me with feedback and suggestions. The editor, art director, copy editor, and I played with formatting and layout to make sure the content felt accessible and interesting, not too overwhelming. 

RGL: Lastly, my signature question: What is one question no one has yet to ask you about the making of this book that you would love to answer? (And what’s the answer?!)

KH: That’s a fun question! No one has yet to ask me why it isn’t snowy in the book. After all, don’t reindeer live in snowy places?? 

I did a lot of research on the range of locations reindeer live, and what their school year might be like.  In early drafts, the reindeer are split in groups while preparing for the school’s Snow Ball, and pull a sleigh in a snow parade – but I worked to move that toward a more every day set of circumstances to avoid being pigeonholed as a winter-time-only book. The version that went out on submission did reference the tundra – and I personally imagined the story taking place, at least in part, in a snow-covered region. 

The team at Sourcebooks was so insightful, recognizing that many people will keep books that look snowy tucked away until winter (why do we do that??) – and that these themes of math and social emotional learning needed to feel accessible all year round! My research paid off then, as I was able to quickly provide them with the option of setting the book in the taiga, or boreal forest. 

In an email exchange from the very start of revisions, I describe the taiga as “a large region of forest south of the tundra, throughout Canada, Alaska, Europe and Asia. It has seasons (though the warm ones are brief), lakes and streams, plenty of coniferous trees, a few varieties of deciduous trees that indeed change color in the fall, and some flowering plants, in addition to the lichens reindeer often feed upon.” I tell them that, “this choice would keep the opportunity for learning about a significant and fascinating biome, keep the story populated with interesting northern creatures, and still allow for a greener palette that doesn’t limit the book seasonally.”

I know this change influenced the illustrator search and choice, too – and am so thrilled that it led us to Marie Hermansson, whose depiction of different biomes and environments is as well-researched as it is beautiful!! She did an incredible job and I am so happy we got to work together on this book. 

RGL: Katey, you will be so missed. Thank you for this book and ALL the beautiful books you have brought into this world. We are all blessed to have your words and voice still with us.

To learn more about all of Katey’s books, please visit her website at www.kateyhowes.com.

One last thing, the winner of last month’s giveaway of a copy of Michelle Schaub’s picture book, Leafy Landmarks is….

**Judy Sobanski**

Congratulations, Judy! Please email me at [email protected] to claim your prize.

Rebecca Gardyn Levington

Rebecca Gardyn Levington is a children’s book author, poet, and journalist with a particular penchant for penning both playful and poignant picture books and poems – primarily in rhyme. She is the author of BRAINSTORM!, WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW, and AFIKOMAN, WHERE’D YOU GO? A PASSOVER HIDE-AND-SEEK ADVENTURE, and has seven additional rhyming picture books forthcoming, including LITTLE DREIDEL LEARNS TO SPIN (Scholastic, 9/3/24), WRITE HERE, WRITE NOW (Capstone, 1/1/25) and ALWAYS ME (HarperCollins, 4/15/25). Her award-winning poems and articles have appeared in numerous anthologies, newspapers, and magazines. She lives with her family in Summit, N.J., where she enjoys bouncing on a mini-trampoline, playing Mah Jongg, and eating chocolate-peanut butter ice cream (although not usually at the same time!). Find out more and sign up for Rebecca’s monthly newsletter where she shares tips learned throughout her writing journey at www.RebeccaGardynLevington.com.

26 Comments:

  1. What a wonderful book on so many levels. Thank you for sharing her thoughts on it.

  2. Michael Henriksen

    In time, every butterfly sheds its cocoon,
    but gosh, Howes it possible she’s gone so soon?🦋

    If sadness at missing her sometimes should find us,
    the light in her books will shine bright to remind us.📚

    So thanks for this preview of Katey’s “Remaindeer”;
    The gift of her wordplay in print will remain here.💙🦌

  3. Debra Kempf Shumaker

    I can’t wait to get my copy of this book. Katey will truly be missed in the KidLit world. My heart goes out to her family and friends.

  4. Great interview and fun concept for this book. That’s so neat you were able to interview her. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Such a great loss. Thanks for sharing this wonderful interview.

  6. Oh, this is a wonderful interview! And such a huge loss. Thank you for sharing this post!

  7. Oh Rebecca, what a great loss! I’m so sorry. Thank you for sharing this wonderful book and her process. It’s a delight. Requiescat in pace, Katey!

  8. Katey lives on through her words and through those who knew her best. Thank you for sharing both. Can’t wait to read it.

  9. I was shocked to hear about Katey’s passing. Such a loss. But I’m excited to read her final published book.

  10. Bittersweet and also wonderful to read your exchange with Katey! Thank you for sharing it with us. I pre-ordered the book right away and will treasure it.

  11. Claire Freeland

    My copy is on order. How could I not acquire this brilliant book. Thanks for this meaningful interview.

  12. I’m so glad you decided to share this interview, Rebecca. I had a chance to review this book a few months ago, and I think my last communication with Katey was sharing how much I loved it. So many things she did right in this book–so many ways it could be used in a classroom and appeal to a variety of readers. It’s wonderful to hear Katey’s voice in this interview.

  13. I’m so glad you’ve shared your interview with Katey, Rebecca. The book is so clever! And, like you, I can’t resist a book wonderfully written in rhyme. It’s a great book to use in the classroom, and also addresses the problem of being the “odd man out” at times.

  14. Thank you Rebecca. Katey will be missed by so many. I appreciate your thoughtfulness in posting this.

  15. I’m so sorry to hear of Katey’s passing. It’s wonderful and so thoughtful that you shared this post.

  16. Thank you for sharing her lovely book.

  17. I’m glad you shared Katey’s post. Her “voice” made me smile. She was a treasure and her books are a gift for us.

  18. Thank you for sharing this post on Katey. What a great talent gone too soon.

  19. Thank-you for sharing your interview with Katey. She left this world way too soon, but her amazing books and lovely voice are thankfully still with us for a long time to come.

  20. Wonderful interview, Rebecca. Thank you for shining a light on Katey’s delightful book. She will be missed.

  21. Janet Frenck Sheets

    It’s clear that Katey was not just a talented writer, she was deeply loved. Reading about her makes me think of the line from Charlotte’s Web: “It is not often that someone who comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”

    I’m sorry for your loss.

  22. Rebecca, I’m so glad you shared this interview with us! Katey was amazing, and left us with so many wonderful reminders of what a talented and special person she was.

  23. I’m glad you decided to still post this interview.
    What a wonderful person. And it sounds like she wrote another great book. I look forward to reading it

  24. what a beautiful interview and remembrance.

    And wow she sure packed a lot into this book which kids will enjoy in classrooms for many years to come.

  25. Wonderful interview. I’m excited for my pre-order to come in. Katey was such a talented writer and beautiful person.

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