A Year of Everyday Wonders and a Talk With Cheryl Klein
Around a decade ago there was a regular occurrence in New York City called Kidlit Drink Nights. These were events when professionals working in the children’s literature industry would meet at a watering hole to talk shop and just generally relax in one another’s company. And many of them were organized, at least in the early days, by Betsy Bird and Cheryl Klein. Betsy, as you may know, was a librarian. Cheryl, an editor. Time passed, we got older, and both Cheryl and I have published books since that time. Her latest, A Year of Everyday Wonders, came out on December 8th and sports the art of the multi-talented Qin Leng. And so, I asked my old buddy a couple questions about this, that, and a whole lot of other:
Betsy Bird: First and foremost how are you and the family holding up these days?
Cheryl Klein: We’re doing pretty well all around. My husband was furloughed as part of the Broadway shutdown at the beginning of the pandemic, so that’s been hard, but it’s also been nice for both of us to be home with our son Dash (now fifteen months) and to see him grow over this past year. And of course I’m working from home editing for Lee & Low, and we’ve had some wonderful books come out this year. (Will I shout out Seven Golden Rings on the slightest pretext, Betsy? Why, yes, yes I will!)
BB: Well shouted (and deserved). Now let us in on where precisely this book, A Year of Everyday Wonders, came from. How did you come to write it?
CK: Even more than most books, this one came from the peculiarities of my brain — namely, that I often think things like “Hey, this is my first ice-cream cone of the summer,” or “Ah, it’s the first day I have to put on a jacket” in the fall. It’s a habit I’ve kind of cultivated over the last decade or so because it helps me pay attention to small things, which is good for gratitude and eventually happiness, and it’s also just fun to find the first in any one day.
I also really admire what I think of as modular picture book writing, where the entire text is written in a particular form that becomes part of the point and pleasure of the book. Some of my favorite examples are Five Creatures by Emily Jenkins with illustrations by Tomek Bogacki; A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak; Charlie Parker Played Bebop by Chris Raschka; or this underknown gem we published at Scholastic ages ago, My Chair by Betsy James, illustrated by Mary Newell DePalma. Often these texts don’t have obvious narratives or characters in the words themselves, so the illustrator supplies those things through the pictures, and with the right collaborators, the books feel like a magic trick: an effect that’s more than the sum of their parts.
So basically, with this book, I took a mental habit, made a list of the results, put them into a style I admired, and rearranged the pieces into a loose story. And then Qin Leng made the real magic happen.
BB: So many “firsts” for kids are happening right now at a time of quarantine, and so many more “firsts” are being put on pause for the year. With this in mind, what role do you feel A Year of Everyday Wonders provides to parents and children at this precise moment in time?
CK: I hope it might encourage them to look around and think, “What was remarkable or unique about today? What was a first or a wonder? How can we celebrate something we did or discovered for the first time, or let go of for the last time, even if this was a hard day?”
BB: I know you’ve got a little nubbin of your own. What “firsts” has he reached recently?
CK: In the past couple weeks, we’ve had “First Thanksgiving dinner”; “First time standing up from the floor without any boost”; “First Rankin-Bass holiday special”; and at the playground, “First time going down the slide headfirst,” “First curly slide,” and “First time knocking another kid over” (not in anger, though; Dash was just cruising along a play structure and this kid was in his way).
BB: Been there. So Qin Leng is one of those illustrators that zeroes into childhood feelings with the precision of a surgeon. I love each and every one of her books. Did you request her to be your illustrator or is this one of those heavenly editorial choices every author craves?
CK: A heavenly editorial choice arranged by our goddess editor, Emma Ledbetter! She wanted to work with Qin and bought the YEAR manuscript with her in mind — so really I should thank Qin for making this book possible!
BB: As both an editor and an author you see both sides of the coin. How does your editorial mind either help or hinder the picture book manuscripts you pen?
CK: I’m lucky because I get to think about picture books in my day job, where it’s my actual DUTY to collaborate with creators, to try to envision what their picture books should be and how the books can have the right narrative and visual and informational flow, and to help solve any problems that come up to impede that flow. So I’ve had a lot of practice thinking through picture book structure (that incredible 32-page framework) and page turns and how the emotional plot balances the external action and all those good things, and I think that makes it easier to find the right shape for my own manuscripts, at least. But filling in that shape with the right words — that’s hard for everyone!
BB: Last but not least, what else do you have coming up?
CK: My next book, out Fall 2021, is entitled HAMSTERS MAKE TERRIBLE ROOMMATES, with illustrations by the brilliant Abhi Alwar, making her picture-book debut. Abhi and I conceived the book as “No Exit” with hamsters, basically, and it’s a hoot with heart, if I do say so myself.
BB: Oh, man. I am SO THERE for “No Exit with hamsters.” Sold!
Many thanks to Cheryl for patiently answering my questions and to Brooke Shearouse and the good people of Abrams for setting up this talk. You can find A Year of Everyday Wonders at your favorite independent bookstore now.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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