Author Spotlight: Janet Sumner Johnson
July 22, 2022
We are excited to feature author Janet Sumner Johnson and her new picture book, BRAVER THAN BRAVE, illustrated by Eunji Jung (Capstone), coming out on August 1, 2022. Enter to win a copy!
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
I am a cookie-eating, tennis-playing, laughter-loving author. I love walking on the beach, playing in rainstorms, and spending time with my husband and three kids doing all the things—board games, puzzles, exercise, movies, you name it. I previously worked as a linguist and translator (I speak French and a little Spanish), and love learning about and visiting different countries and cultures. I have been writing ever since I snagged one of three spots as a journalists for my first-grade class newspaper. I even got to interview the superintendent! I never planned to be an author, but I also never stopped writing.
Growing up, my mom cultivated in us a love for reading and books. She would read us picture books, chapter books, and middle grade books—even when we were in high school! No wonder when I started writing, my stories came out as children’s books. It’s impossible to undo so many years of being immersed in them!
Congrats on your new picture book, Braver Than Brave! Tell us about the story and what inspired you.
Thanks so much! Braver Than Brave is about Wanda, a little girl who really wants to be Brave like her big brother Zane. But Zane does things that terrify her! Like riding the Coaster of Doom. Still, Wanda is certain she can find her Brave if she just practices hard enough. With her brother and friends pushing her to join them on the Coaster of Doom, Wanda has to figure out a way to find her Brave.
This story was inspired when my 5th grade daughter complained that everyone kept telling her to “just be brave” about something she didn’t want to do. That made me wonder what bravery really looks like for a kid. Could bravery look different than we expect?
As I thought about that, I remembered a time my son faced down the “Chicken Exit” at the local roller coaster, and the story was born!
Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
My road to publication was a bit long and winding. I wrote my first MG novel in complete innocent bliss. Such a fun experience, but such a bad novel. One query which led to a request and quick pass, and I moved on to the next book.
I spent years writing my second MG novel. I learned to write as I went along, joining a critique group, and reading all the blog posts on writing that I could (during the heyday of the blogosphere). I queried that one twice (1 request & 1 pass) before setting it aside to try again.
MG #3 finally felt right and I queried widely, managing to snag an agent through Pitch Madness. Even with an agent, it took 2 years before we had an offer of publication. After that first book, it was 4 years (and an agent change) before my second book—a picture book—came out, and another 2 years before my third book (Braver than Brave!).
What projects are you working on now?
I recently sold a MG mystery series (The Winterton Bee is the working title). The first book comes out next year, so I am currently working on BOOK 2! It’s been a huge change from writing picture books. It’s also a huge change to be working on something that’s already sold. Very different!
But I confess, no matter what I’m working on and despite deadlines, I always have a few picture books in the background in various stages. I can’t help myself!
What are some of your favorite classic PBs? Recent ones?
As a kid, I was obsessed with The Monster at the End of the Book by Jon Stone and illustrated by Michael J. Smollin. We made our mom read it to us on repeat every night.
I also loved Micky in the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak. That refrain! “Milk, milk, milk for your morning cake.” We would giggle so hard.
And Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett fascinated me. What if, right? It sent my imagination soaring.
For more recent books, I am in awe of Watercress by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin. The story and art are both incredible. What a work of brilliance. It evokes so many emotions.
I’m also a big fan of Soaked by Abi Cushman. I love to laugh, and this book gives me the giggles!
And one more . . . this is kind of a hybrid between picture books and middle grade, but Before Music: Where Instruments Come From by Annette Bay Pimental and illustrated by Madison Safer. This non-fiction blew my socks off! I’d never thought about that question before, and I loved learning so much. I love that they expanded this beyond a picture book to give so much information.
What advice would you give your younger self? Is this the same that you'd give to aspiring authors?
My younger self shied away from hard things, so I would say, “Don’t be afraid to try hard things! Sometimes it takes a lot of tries to accomplish the thing we want. But all those tries aren’t failures, they’re how we learn and grow.” And yes! Absolutely. It can be hard to keep going when agents and editors pass on our work, but keep trying. Keep doing the hard thing. Keep writing. Because all that writing—even the stuff that is never published—is how we learn and grow.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
I am such an open book that this is a hard question! But I think I’ve found something . . .
I love writing parodies of songs (and I hugely admire Weird Al Yankovich who is brilliant at it!). It all started in 6th grade when I won a prize for writing a Halloween Parody to The First Noel. I still remember that first line (which I came up with in the first minute after they announced the contest).
The first Halloween, the witches did come, scaring the children for their Halloween fun.
And more recently—in a quarantine-induced moment of questionable judgement—I posted this AWESOME (lol!) video of a parody of “Dear Theodosia” from Hamilton– Dear Kids, I Told You.
Where can people find you online?
Janet Sumner Johnson lives in northern Utah with her husband, three kids, and a dog. As a kid, she loved riding roller coasters, but refused to enter Haunted Houses (she still won’t!). When she’s not writing or planning her next book, Janet loves eating cookies, laughing, and going on long walks. Sometimes she even does all three at once! She is the author of the middle-grade novel The Last Great Adventure of the PB&J Society, the picture book Help Wanted: Must Love Books, and many more soon-to-be-released children’s books. You can learn more about her at janetsumnerjohnson.com .