Author Spotlight: Michelle Cusolito
May 25, 2018
Today we're delighted to feature author Michelle Cusolito and her debut picture book, FLYING DEEP, illustrated by Nicole Wong (Charlesbridge, May 2018).
Be sure to enter the giveaway for a special signed copy (it is the first copy Michelle has ever signed)!
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write picture books.
I’ve always had diverse interests. In high school, I took classes in art and music, but also in biology, chemistry, and trigonometry. I was part of the drama department, so I was in the musicals and variety shows each year. I feel lucky to have found two jobs that suit my varied interests so perfectly. As an elementary school teacher, I taught every subject to my students, so I was able to share my interests with them.
Now, as an author, I get to follow my passions to write books for kids. Many people say they write the books they want to read. I also write the books I wish I had as a teacher or parent- the books I knew my kids or students would have loved or the books I wasn’t able to find to support my curriculum.
Congrats on your debut, FLYING DEEP! Tell us about it and what drew you to writing about the Alvin.
Thank you! It all started back in my 4th-grade classroom. I met a former Alvin pilot in a social setting and invited him to talk to my students about his work on Alvin. I was just as riveted as my students when I heard stories of hydrothermal vents spewing hot water full of toxic chemicals and the amazing animals that lived around the vents. I was fascinated to hear his stories of the long journey to the seafloor and food chains that did not begin with the sun. It made sense to follow my interests to write a book about Alvin.
It’s been a long journey. I got my first “good” rejections back in 2008 (This was in the days of snail mail submissions. I got a handwritten note from one editor and a typed, personalized letter from another).
Once you get personalized rejections people say, “That’s great! It means you’re close.” Well… I had to wait 8 more years to sell my first manuscript. Perseverance is the name of the game in this industry.
You are very active on social media sharing information for other writers about school visits. How did this come about and what are the top three tips you'd give to authors visiting schools?
I used to be a teacher, curriculum developer, and educational consultant. Once I left the elementary classroom, I taught in Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education. Shortly after that, I became the Chairperson of the PTO Cultural Committee at my kids’ school, which means I was the person responsible for hiring authors and illustrators to visit the school. Then I was elected to the School Committee (School Board) and later became the committee’s Chairperson. All the while, I was working hard on manuscripts and trying to get published. All of these things informed my understanding of school visits.
I hadn’t sold a book yet, but I knew what a good school visit looked like. I knew what made me hire a person to visit my kids’ school and I knew what I was looking for as a teacher. I also understood how school budgets worked and the challenges of paying for such visits. It seemed like a perfect place for me to contribute to the KidLit community.
I had been an active member of SCBWI since 2008 and wanted to give back, so I pitched a workshop- Create Engaging School Visits- for the annual New England conference back in 2013. Since then, I’ve done workshops for The Writers Loft in Sherborn, MA and for NESCBWI multiple times. I also did a webinar on the topic for Picture Book 12x12 a few years back and for The Author’s Guild last month. (You can see a free replay here).
My top 3 tips for school visits:
1. Bring yourself to your school visits. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Dress in clothes that make you feel comfortable. If you like performing for large groups, great! But many creative people are not comfortable with big groups. If you’re introverted, develop programs that suit your personality. (Watch the webinar replay to hear my tips for that).
2. Engage students in the program. Don’t simply stand in front of them and talk.
3. If you’re new to school visits, invest the time to prepare one great program and stick to it. Once you get more comfortable, you can branch out and offer multiple programs if you want.
What projects are you working on now?
I have a few different projects I’m thinking about and working on, but they’re little baby ideas right now, not yet ready for sharing. I’ve learned not to say too much about my projects too early. If I try to describe my project and the other person doesn’t like it or “get it,” that can take the juice out of it for me. So, I keep my ideas private until I’ve had time to explore them enough to see if they’re viable.
I can tell you about the manuscript I have on submission right now. It’s a picture book biography about Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka, natural history artisans who made exquisite, anatomically correct, glass models of marine invertebrates and flowers back 1800s. By the 1880s they ran a thriving business shipping models of squid, jellies, octopuses, and anemones all over the world to places like Tokyo, Calcutta (Kolkata), Dublin, Geneva, and Boston.
Then Harvard University commissioned them to make the famous glass flowers that still draw more than a quarter of a million visitors to the Harvard Museum of Natural History each year. I’m fascinated by the impact they two men had on both science and art.
What advice would you give your younger self? Is this the same you'd give to aspiring authors?
I wouldn’t change what I did on my path to publication. I mean, of course, I wish I sold a manuscript sooner, but I honestly don’t think I should have done anything differently.
I would say two things: Keep working on your craft and keep persevering. If you truly want to be a published author or illustrator, you need to stick with it and learn all you can. Join SCBWI. Take a class. Dig into the resources on KidLit 411. Read books on the craft of making children’s books. Attend a conference. Network with KidLit people in your area. There are many ways to approach this. Do the ones that suit your personality and budget.
But then, you must do the work. You need to write. Don’t get sidetracked taking class after class. Jane Yolen tells us…BIC. Butt in chair, pen in hand (or fingers on a keyboard). It’s the only way.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
I played violin/fiddle for 7 years. I was never very good at it. Once I discovered that my voice was my preferred instrument, I was much happier. I was a member of Acapella choir and I competed in state-wide singing competitions in high school. My senior year of high school I was in All-State Chorus. I also played Bloody Mary in the musical South Pacific (an alto part) even though I'm a high soprano. Nowadays, I sing and strum my ukulele with my family or around the occasional camp fire.
Where can people find you online?
My website is http://www.michellecusolito.com/
I’m on Twitter and Instagram @mcusolito
Michelle Cusolito has been exploring natural places since she was a child growing up on a farm in Southeastern, Massachusetts. She has lived in the Philippines, where she first observed colorful fish in their native environment, and in Ireland, where she and her family hiked “The Burren,” an otherworldly landscape made of limestone. She has trekked to places such as Machu Picchu in Peru and the Sahara Desert in Morocco. She hopes readers will be inspired to explore their worlds.
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