Author Spotlight: Colleen Paeff

 Aug. 6, 2021

We are excited to feature author Colleen Paeff and her picture book, THE GREAT STINK: HOW JOSEPH BAZALGETTE SOLVED LONDON'S POOP POLLUTION PROBLEM, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Margaret K. McElderry Books), out on August 31. Enter to win a copy!

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

Hello, KidLit411! Thank you for everything you do for the KidLit community. I’m thrilled to be here.

I’ve lived in California (mostly Southern) my whole life, but I’m living in Manhattan for the next year (a big change!) because my husband is working on a film here. When I was young I wanted to grow up to be an entertainer. I danced en pointe as a kid and studied acting and set design in college, but I’ve always loved being around children. I used to be in a children’s theater troupe and I’ve worked as a camp counselor, Disney character, nanny, preschool teacher, and have taught classes and led clubs for homeschoolers. I’ve also always loved stories––reading them, telling them, crafting them in my mind on long car rides––so, I guess it was inevitable that I would end up writing stories for children. It combines two of my favorite things!

Congrats on your debut picture book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London's Poop Pollution Problem. The topic sounds so intriguing. Tell us about the book and what inspired you.

Thank you! The Great Stink was an olfactory event that happened in 1858 in London. When I first read about it, in Ruth Goodman’s book How to Be a Victorian, the name alone made it sound like the perfect topic for a picture book. Then, when I discovered it combined engineering, pollution, history, and poop (!!), I knew it was an event both kids and adults would find fascinating. So, I decided to write about it.

The book takes readers through time to show how London’s River Thames developed its terrible stench and what impact its polluted waters had on the people who lived there. (Spoiler alert: it involves cholera.) Then, it follows the efforts of engineer extraordinaire Joseph Bazalgette as he cleans the river and saves lives by building London’s first modern sewer system. The back matter delves into “Poop Pollution Today” and offers tips for kids who want to stop human waste and other pollutants from getting into their local waterways. 

It’s illustrated by the enormously talented Nancy Carpenter. Her illustrations are the perfect combination of historical fact and humor, and I especially love how she illustrates the cholera epidemics. I wasn’t sure how an illustrator would tackle such a dark subject in a book for children, but Nancy’s take on it is pure genius!

Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?

I guess it was something in between. I dabbled with writing off and on for decades, but I didn’t get serious about writing for children until my only child moved out of the house in 2014. That year, a picture book manuscript I wrote way back in college (and revised maaaaaaany times over the years) won a contest at a local SCBWI event. After that, I figured if I could win a contest, maybe I could win a publishing contract, too. So, I focused on learning as much as I could about children’s publishing, in general, and picture books, in particular. 

I went to workshops, conferences, and retreats. I started a book club where we read picture books by different publishing houses or imprints every month. I joined a critique group. I read a ton, wrote a ton, and, in the process, I created a community of writer friends who bolstered me when I was down and celebrated with me when I was up. Those people have been a really important part of my journey to publication.

In 2016, I signed with my former agent, Clelia Gore––who recently left agenting––and Margaret K. McElderry Books made an offer on The Great Stink in 2018. Then, in 2020, I sold a second picture book manuscript, Rainbow Truck (co-written with Hina Abidi). That book received five offers, which was really exciting!

What projects are you working on now?

Rainbow Truck, an informational picture book about a Pakistani decorated truck trying to find her true purpose, comes out from Chronicle Books in 2023 and I think we’re pretty close to being done with final edits on that one. I’m currently researching a new picture book biography and I’m in various stages of revision on three additional nonfiction picture books. And, of course, I’m getting ready for The Great Stink’s virtual launch party on August 31! A virtual launch means Nancy and I can take part in it together, so I’m thrilled about that. I have so many questions I want to ask her!

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

I would tell myself not to let rejection throw me off course. I look back now on some of the really nice, handwritten rejections I got when I first started to write for kids (back in the snail mail submission days) and I realize that I should have viewed those rejections as invitations––invitations to keep writing, to improve, and to submit again. 

And, yes. I’d tell aspiring authors the same thing. I’d also tell them to send thank you notes! Send them by snail mail if you can and by email or Twitter, if that’s the only option. This business is built on relationships and a well-crafted thank you note can be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship.

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

My car was in the 1991 cult classic “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” starring Christina Applegate. It’s the little Honda hatchback that gets covered in shaving cream. I have a different car now, but that Honda will always hold a special place in my heart.

Where can people find you online? 

Readers can learn more about me, sign up for my newsletter, or send me an email on my website at I’m also on Twitter (@ColleenPaeff) and on Instagram (@colleenpaeff) where I’ve been posting pictures of my adventures in New York City. 

Fueled by English breakfast tea, a burning curiosity, and a love of research, Colleen Paeff writes picture books wherever she can find a quiet place to sit. Usually, it’s in a book-lined office in an old pink house in Los Angeles, but lately she’s writing from at a tiny desk overlooking the Hudson River in New York City. 

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  1. This looks awesome! Carol Baldwin

  2. This topic is going to be popular with its targeted audience and I just added this book to my Goodreads because I can't wait to learn about this event and engineer. This is a new historical event for me.

  3. Congrats again, Colleen! I'm so excited for all these forthcoming fab books and all those you have in the works!

  4. I love the beautiful yet stinky cover! This book must be as fascinating as it is gorgeous!

    1. Isn't the cover amazing?! I see something new every time I look at it. :)

  5. My students will eat this book up! I'd love to add it to my classroom library!

  6. Can’t wait to get it. My grandkids are going to absolutely love it!

  7. What a fascinating topic that's sure to grab kids' attention! Congratulations, Colleen!

  8. This is such a great idea for a book! I can't wait to read it.

    1. Thanks, Christine! I thought the same thing when Ronna told me about your underwear book!

  9. Hooray, Colleen! And I'm really excited about Rainbow Truck, too.

  10. Oh wow, this book looks so great! Love the illustration style and the subject matter of course! Would love to read this to my twins!

  11. I smell a winner here! Congrats on your book, Colleen!

  12. Kids like stories about gross stuff so they'll certainly love this one. Thanks for the chance to win a copy.

  13. Congrats on your books. Loved your recommendation of thank you notes, the snail mail variety. May be old fashioned, but they make a big impression!

  14. What to do with poop is such a huge problem! I can't wait to read this gross tale. I know 2 grands who would LOVE it. Congratulations!


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