Author Spotlight: Stephanie Watson

Feb. 22, 2019

Today we are excited to feature picture book and MG author Stephanie Watson and her latest picture book, BEST FRIENDS IN THE UNIVERSE, BY HECTOR AND LOUIE, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Orchard Books 2018). Be sure to enter to win a copy!

Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.

Like most authors, before I was ever a writer I was a reader and lover of books. The first book I really fell in love with was HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh. It was the first story world I wished I could live in and it certainly wasn’t the last. Over time the desire to enter story worlds that others had created expanded into the urge to create my own. I wondered: Could I write a book that made other kids feel the way that Harriet the Spy made me feel? I wanted to try. 

I think another reason I write children’s books is that I spent a good chunk of my childhood acting in plays at the Children’s Theater Company in Minneapolis, where I’m from. Among other roles, I was Alice in Wonderland, the voice of the Velveteen Rabbit, and ne of the 12 little girls in two straight lines in Madeline’s Rescue. Instead of merely reading about story worlds, I was literally entering them—embodying the characters and acting out their transformative journeys. I think this experience on stage taught me a lot about storytelling. 

Congrats on your recent picture book, BEST FRIENDS IN THE UNIVERSE. Tell us about it and what inspired you.

Thank you! This book started with two voices, which took turns listing the reasons why they were friends. I had fun coming up with the reasons, some of which were strange. Like: We are friends because we are both dying for a pet python, but our moms gave us fish instead. We both named our fish Python. I’m intrigued by the offbeat reasons why we connect with other people. For example, one of best my adult friendships began with a mutual love of the show So You Think You Can Dance. We liked watching it together while eating tofu chocolate pudding. Our friendship grew from there, but it all began with choreographed dance and pudding. 

For a while the manuscript was called 22 Reasons We Are Friends, and it was simply a list. But my critique partners challenged me to put more of a frame around it—why are these kids listing the reasons they’re friends? That question prompted me to play with the idea that the boys are writing a book about their friendship, which is the book you are holding. I liked breaking the “fourth wall” as they say in the theater world, and addressing the reader directly. I also liked playing with the fact that the boys are loudly proclaiming their perfect friendship, while unintentionally revealing that it’s not perfect at all. 

You write both MG and PB. What's the hardest part of writing MG? PB?

For me, the hardest part about writing a MG novel is sustaining attention and energy for the project. MG books usually take me years to develop, write and refine, and it can be challenging to stay with the project for such a long time. It’s a marathon. 

The challenge in writing PBs for me is boiling the story down to the essential, and removing what doesn’t belong. I often want to keep too much in, which can result in a manuscript that feels unfocused and too long. To be able to clearly see what belongs in the story and what’s gotta go, I’ll set a PB text aside for a while.  When I come back to it I’m more detached and ready to cut, cut, cut. 

Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
After I wrote my first MG novel, ELVIS & OLIVE, the first agent I sent it to agreed to represent it (thanks Joy Tutela!). Once she submitted the manuscript to editors, two of them offered to buy it. I accepted the offer from Scholastic and was like, oh, this getting published thing is EASY. But that was the last easy-breezy publishing experience I had in the 13+ years since then. 

One book had 4 different editors. Some manuscripts were rejected 10+ times before finding the right home. Some stories went out on submission and didn’t have any takers. One book took 5 years to come out after I sold it. Amidst these challenges, there have been real bright spots on the path—winning grants and getting to work with amazing illustrators and getting to know incredible authors. So I’d say the path has been short and long, straight and winding, light and dark. I’ve learned that I can’t control all the twists and turns on the publishing path. My job is to stay on the path and keep going forward no matter what comes—keep writing. 

What projects are you working on now?

Wellllll, I don’t share details about current projects because it feels like lifting the lid off a pot of water that you’re trying to bring to a boil. It dissipates the necessary to cook up the story. But I can say that I’m working on a couple new stories, and I’m having a lot of fun dreaming them up.

What advice would you give to your younger self? Is this the same as you'd give to aspiring authors?

To both my younger self and anyone wanting to write, I’d say my fresh-faced little dumpling, please know that there will be days when you will sit down to write and it will all come so easy, and you’ll feel so great about your choice to pursue a writing career and live a creative life. There will also be days when you loathe the idea of sitting down to write, because your ideas are boring and stupid and your words are unoriginal and clunky, and maybe is the coffee shop down the street is hiring? 

Get comfortable with the reality that some writing days will be wonderful and some will be a slog—and some days you won’t be able to get any words down at all. That’s okay, my darling dumpling. Don’t panic and flee to a career as a barista. Trust that if you sit down to write—every morning, if possible—then even if some days are terrible, in the long run there will be enough great writing days to cobble together stories. You can build a vast body of great work in a hodgepodge of awesome and okay and terrible writing sessions. Just keep going. 

Also, my dearest dumpling writer friend, focus your energy on writing the best story you can. Give your attention to developing your craft and your voice, not reading up on discouraging industry trends. Don’t spend your time worrying about how to get an agent, get published, win awards, and then get Netflix to turn your book into a critically acclaimed 7-part series starring Reese Witherspoon. Those things can come later, and they don’t need or deserve your attention now. You need to shut all that out and turn to yourself, so you can hear the quiet voice inside you that wants to tell you a story. And if you do that, then you may create a wonderful story that will organically lead to agent representation, publication, and maybe Reese Witherspoon. 

What is one thing most people don't know about you?

I can do a cartwheel. Relatedly, when I was just out of college the only job I could find was as an administrative assistant in a big office building downtown, where everything was gray. Gray carpet, gray plastic cubicles, gray chairs, gray telephones.  All day long I had to file papers and schedule meetings; it was soul crushing. I kept my spirits up by doing secret cartwheels down the long gray hallways. It was always risky—someone could come by at any moment and catch me in the act! But I couldn’t resist an empty hallway, and whenever I found myself in one I’d whip out a cartwheel. 

I no longer work in a gray office building, but I still do cartwheels.

Ha! That's great. Where can people find you online?

Stephanie Watson’s picture books include BEHOLD! A BABY  (2016 MN Book Award finalist, illustrated by Joy Ang), THE WEE HOURS (illustrated by Mary GrandPr√©), and THE BEST FRIENDS IN THE UNIVERSE (illustrated by LeUyen Pham, 2018). She is also the author of the middle-grade novels ELVIS AND OLIVE and ELVIS AND OLIVE: SUPER DETECTIVES, both Junior Library Guild selections. 
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  1. Congratulations on your success and thank you for sharing your journey, complete with cartwheels!

  2. I'm in an off-white office right now. (Shhhh) Not going to attempt a cartwheel, but I'm enjoying reading about your journey and I'm so happy for you, Stephanie! Congratulations.

  3. Careful cartwheels cultivate creativity! Fun post!

  4. Lovely book! I especially loved what you said about it taking you years to flesh out an MG novel, I relate to that :)

    1. Thanks Lydia! Yes--no shame is going slow and steady.

  5. HAPPY cartwheeling! It's been a while since I tried one. But mental cartwheels sound like fun, too, and much more doable!

  6. Fun idea for a book! I'm excited to read it and can't wait to study your work for my mentor text. I don't know what to cut from my manuscripts--picture books are difficult to write so I admire you. And now I want to make chocolate tofu pudding!

    1. Enjoy:

  7. Thanks for the writing advice and sharing your journey.

  8. This little dumpling is no longer fresh-faced and is grateful for the reminder that refusing to give up is key to success. Love those cartwheels!

  9. What a great interview! I too first loved Harriet the Spy as a child. It sparked my love of mysteries. Thank you for the advice & insight into writing & publishing. I will be adding your books to my shelves!

  10. Let's hear it for cartwheels! Great way to bring some fun into a dull life, right? Congratulations! Sounds like a great book!

  11. I love books about friends and friendship for children.

  12. Congratulations! Thank you for the writing advice. It's helpful to hear all those things you go through happen to everyone.


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