Author Spotlight: Kaitlyn Wells
|© Sarah Kobos|
May 20, 2022
We are happy to feature author Kaitlyn Wells and her debut picture book, A FAMILY LOOKS LIKE LOVE, illustrated by Sawyer Cloud (Flamingo Books/ Penguin Random House), out on May 31. Enter to win a copy!
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
That is such a big question. Like many authors, I've been writing and telling stories since childhood. Although, I didn't get serious about writing for children as an adult until recently. But let me back up a bit.
My name is Kaitlyn Wells and I'm a technology and service journalist who's passionate about helping people make sense of the world and the tech in their lives. I've written for Consumer Reports, TIME, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among others. Currently, I work at The New York Times' product review site Wirecutter where I cover the intersection of pets, style and technology. And I've covered diverse literature for BookPage, Diverse Kids Books, and NYT Book Review.
Since I also write book reviews, I've always enjoyed a good story and have never shied away from reading books for younger audiences. In fact, I've been energized by new voices from the kidlit community in recent years. Those voices reignited a dormant desire to tell my own stories that resonate for people who look like me. With guidance from a friend/kidlit author, I came up with an idea, went through revision after revision, and attended multiple workshops to hone my voice. Along the way, I discovered BlackCreatorsHQ (formerly Black Creators in KidLit), a community that aims to "increase Black representation across all genres of literature." The support I received, and continue to receive, remains an invaluable part of my author journey. I'm now proud to say that I'm a children's book author, and my debut picture book, A Family Looks Like Love hits shelves May 31!
2. Congrats on your debut picture book, A Family Looks Like Love! Tell us about the story and what inspired you.
Honestly, the inspiration for A Family Looks Like Love comes from a painful place. I drew inspiration from my own childhood because I was constantly told that as a Black biracial kid my family wasn't my own. Sometimes I felt like I had to accept other people’s assumptions about who I was and who my family should be. I felt silenced in order to make room for the louder (and fallacious) voices in the room. And when I did speak up, it hardly led to acceptance. On easier days, people assumed I was lying when I pointed to the white woman in the room as my mother. On harder days, my extended family decided it wasn’t worth knowing their Black relatives, and refused to shake my hand in greeting. And as a little girl, I found myself looking for ways to fit into the mold these people told me I needed to be in to gain their acceptance.
After a lifetime of being told what I thought about myself didn't matter, fellow author Nancy Redd gave me permission to revisit these painful memories when she reminded me that my voice does matter. Then, I began thinking about what I wanted other people to know about what it felt like to be told you didn't belong and that your family wasn't your own simply because of the color of your skin. While brainstorming this manuscript, I remembered that my dog Sutton looks completely different from her own family, too. She's a Chihuahua-mix with a brown tricolor coat. Two of her siblings have scruffy blond coats, and another has a black tricolor coat. Sutton's also a dog who sees the best in everyone and loves them no matter what you look like. Telling a difficult story with my dog as the conduit fit perfectly with what I wanted to do, and made it a tad easier to write the story too.
A Family Looks Like Love reminds every young reader (and even young readers at heart) that what other people say about who you are and who your family should be is irrelevant. The only perspective that matters is your own. And it’s normal (and amazing!) for no two families to look exactly the same. I learned these lessons and more from my parents and friends who reminded me that love transcends skin color (or, in this case, fur color). I hope anyone who picks up A Family Looks Like Love feels empowered to embrace only the goodness that surrounds them.
Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
My path to publication depends on how you define it. I've been writing stories since middle school, and have been a journalist for too many years to count. I've been honing my craft—as a writer, journalist, author or whatever you want to call me—my entire career. But I didn't get serious about writing children's books until a couple of years ago.
I began scribbling down thoughts for the A Family Looks Like Love manuscript in August 2019. But I didn't write my first draft until December 2019 because I was too stuck in my head on what the story should be about—I'll plan a mix of perfectionism and imposter syndrome on that delay. Then I went through several revisions with my critique partner. That same partner and friend shared my manuscript with her agent in hopes of gleaming some advice on what I should do next. Then things took a surprising turn. The agent fell in love with the manuscript and offered to represent me. I signed with her that following May. After a few more revisions we went on submission. I can't fully express how emotionally draining the submission process was because it was always accompanied by a "no" from publishing houses. This was an #ownvoices manuscript, so I internalized every rejection and thought that my voice, that my lived experience, wasn't good enough for the publishing world. One day, my agent finally called with good news. In September 2020 I accepted an offer with Penguin Random House/Philomel Books (now under Flamingo Books). As of May 31, 2022, you can find A Family Looks Like Love in bookstores, libraries, and e-shelves across the country!
What projects are you working on now?
I have several picture book projects that I'm excited about, but I can't announce them just yet. There's a STEM picture book biography; a dramatic kitty cat; a crafty kid; and a lyrical retelling of a legendary hero. Someday, I hope to dust off a partial first draft of book one in a middle grade speculative fiction fantasy series.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Is this the same you'd give to aspiring authors?
If I could travel back in time, I'd tell my younger self who enjoyed drawing horses and dragons to keep at it. I really wish I had stuck with drawing as a hobby because I feel like there's a lot more freedom to tell stories a certain way when you can create both the words and images on the page. I would also tell my adult, but also younger, self with writer's block to just put the words on the page. They don't need to be perfect; they just need to exist. You can always fix imperfect words, but you can't fix a blank page.
The aforementioned advice may resonate with some aspiring authors, and this is for everyone, too: Everyone deserves to be represented in the books that they read. Don't be afraid to push boundaries and stay true to the authentic, respectful stories that you want to tell.
If someone tells you that your experiences as a diverse author don't have merit, those aren't the people for you. Surround yourself with people who respect you as a creator. Also, if someone actively keeps your story and the stories of your literary peers out of the hands of readers, know that you can act. Report book censorship to the American Library Association or the National Coalition Against Censorship, and run for local office to combat proposed censorship laws. When authors, illustrators, and literary creators remain united in telling diverse stories, that's when true change happens for the better.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
If I didn't own cats and dogs, I'd definitely be a snake person. I've been obsessed with them since I was a kid, but alas my parents found that proclivity to be a bit weird. But don't get me wrong, I love my pets and wouldn't give them up for the world.
Where can people find you online?
I love connecting with new people. You can visit my website at KaitWells.com to subscribe to my newsletter that explores how Black, Indigenous, and womxn of color navigate the world. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter.
Kaitlyn Wells is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in The New York Times,The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, among others. Her commentary on diverse literature can be found in The New York Times Book Review, BookPage, and Diverse Kids Books. Bring her chocolate or ask about her pets to become fast friends. A Family Looks Like Love is her debut children’s book. She lives in New York City with her wonderful husband, rambunctious dog, and demanding cat. You can visit Kaitlyn online at www.kaitwells.com and on Twitter @KaitWells.
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