Throughout 2020, I’m interviewing the new authors & illustrators of the group Perfect 2020 PBs. Today, the spotlight is shining on author Jolene Gutiérrez. Her debut picture book, Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader, illustrated by Heather Bell, is out today from Spork of Clear Fork Publishing! And she’s got plenty more books where that came from…
Welcome, Jolene! Happy Book Birthday! Tell us about the many titles you have releasing over the next year.
Thank you for having me! I have 6 books coming out this fall through the winter of 2021! My fiction picture book Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader releases today, as you mentioned. Mac and Cheese is about a boy, Oliver, who wants to learn how to be a good friend, so he watches classroom pets Mac and Cheese to see how friends treat each other. My nonfiction middle grade book Bionic Beasts: Saving Animal Lives with Artificial Flippers, Beaks, and Legs is being published by Lerner/Millbrook Press on October 6, 2020. Bionic Beasts tells the story of five animals from around the world and how people use STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) to help build prosthetic devices for these animals. In January 2021, my nonfiction Stars of Latin Pop series will come out with titles about artists Shakira, J Balvin, Sofía Reyes, and Ozuna.
Brava! It sounds like you have a fabulous year ahead. What can you tell us about your personal journey to publication? How long have you been pursuing this dream?
I’ve been a member of SCBWI since 2008. I self-published a paranormal young adult romance in 2011 and then I set a goal of being traditionally published. It took me a while, but I made it!
From what age did you consider yourself a writer ? What spurred you to pursue this path professionally? What other fields have you worked in?
My second-grade teacher offered to “publish” anything we wrote, and I took him up on that! I wrote books of short stories that I illustrated after he and his wife typed them up (on a typewriter!). Holding that “published” book in my hands was the best feeling, and I was hooked.
I’ve always loved writing, but I’ve been a teacher-librarian for the past 25 years. I told myself that I’d pursue writing “someday.” A close friend, Rae, passed in 2006–a friend with whom I used to talk about books and writing. Soon after Rae’s death, an author, Denise Vega, visited the school where I teach to present to a small group of my students. She asked each of us if we considered ourselves writers. I said yes. She asked if I was currently writing something. I told her no, but I would someday. She asked me, “Why not now? Why not today?” Her words resonated. My friend had died, reminding me that there are no guarantees in life. She was right—why NOT today? I started writing and in 2008, I joined SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), where Denise was a regional advisor. I’m so grateful for her gentle reminder that today is the best day to start working toward achieving our goals.
So from that point on, you took your writing seriously. And eventually, you broke through to publication! Do you remember the turning point? Maybe “The Call” or “The Email” or whatever moment you knew that your dreams were about to come true?
Yes! I paid for a critique with Callie Metler-Smith, editor and publisher at Clear Fork/Spork. I chose to work with her on a manuscript I thought she’d be able to give me unique insights into, a manuscript I called THE PERSONAL SPACE INVADER. Even though I never say so in the book, my character Oliver is on the autism spectrum and is based off of some of my students and my daughter’s struggles with social skills. Callie is the mom of and an aunt to children with autism, so I felt that she’d be the perfect person to critique my manuscript. She gave me amazing feedback and said she’d like to see my edits. And when Callie saw the edits I’d made, she offered me a contract!
A truly Happy Ending…or rather, beginning!
Today, what do you like to write about? What are your preferred genres and target audiences?
I like to write a little bit of everything! I write funny fiction picture books. I write history, science, and biography picture books and middle grade. And I write middle grade and young adult horror, coming of age, and verse novels.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
Pre-Coronavirus, I would get up at 5:00 to drop my son off at school and get myself to work. I teach from 7:45-4:15. The school I work at is 1st-12th grades, and since I’m the only librarian, I work with kids of all ages. I teach a huge variety of lessons but focus on researching skills, online citizenship, diversity, social justice, and finding “just right” books. When I’m done with work, I drive to my son’s school and wait for him to be done with his after-school activities. We’d get home around 7:00 most evenings. Teaching from home has been challenging, but it saves me at least 3 hours a day because I don’t have to commute, so that’s a silver lining. Most of my writing was done in the time I was waiting for my son, on weekends, and during school breaks.
What keeps you going as a writer? Or helps you out of that “funk”? Hobbies? A certain routine? A particular comfort food/drink?
I usually have multiple projects in various states of development. I love doing that because if I get stuck on one manuscript, I’ll move to another and give my mind a break to work things out with the first manuscript, or I’ll do research for a nonfiction project, or I’ll do publicity work or check social media. So switching between projects is most helpful for me.
My comfort drinks include caffeine: I love Yogi’s Sweet Tangerine Positive Energy tea or True Lemon Energy Wild Cherry Cranberry powder to add to my water, and my guilty snacks rotate from sweet to savory. . .I love Albanese gummy bears or Trader Joe’s new “The Crispy Crunchy Mochi Rice Nuggets.” ☺
(A snack with an almost book-ish title, ha!) What tips would you offer other creatives?
Keep working toward your goals! What I tell myself is this: I have 2 choices—to give up, or to keep going forward. If I give up, I’ll never achieve my goals. But if I keep working, I’ll achieve those goals eventually. Work hard, be kind to yourself and others, and always keep learning and growing!
Now, back to your debut, with that classic question: How did the idea of Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader come to you? Do you remember your lightbulb moment?
One of my favorite students would always be too close—in my personal space and others’. I took her aside a few times to explain that she was invading others’ personal space and that it feels uncomfortable to many people when this happens. Eventually, we began to joke about it and I told her that I was going to write a book about being a personal space invader. She knows she’s the main inspiration for this book, but I’ve worked with many kids over the years who struggle with personal space. Whenever I tell teachers what my book is about, they nod and say, “Oh, yes, I could use that book in my class!”
As of today, your dream of publishing your very first picture book has officially come true! What’s next? What do you still hope to accomplish in the future?
I’m over-the-moon excited because I just signed with agent Kaitlyn Sanchez—finding an agent was one of my dreams and goals for myself. My other goals are to publish the picture book and middle grade biographies I’ve written. I’ve interviewed some fascinating people with important stories, and I’d love to share their stories with the world!
That’s wonderful news–congratulations! Are there any upcoming promotional events where we can look forward to seeing you, either virtually or in person?
On August 15 at 4:00 MDT, I’ll have my official book launch and read-aloud with local bookstore, Second Star to the Right. The event is free but tickets are required: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/book-launch-with-jolene-gutierrez-tickets-115409032523 The video will be available after the event on their website at www.secondstartotherightbooks.com.
On August 3, Melissa Stoller will host me on her blog to talk about MAC AND CHEESE AND THE PERSONAL SPACE INVADER as well as my MG nonfiction, BIONIC BEASTS!
On August 13, Jedlie will be interviewing me for his Reading With Your Kids podcast.
On August 14, Vivian Kirkfield will host MAC AND CHEESE for Perfect Picture Book Friday!
On August 18, I’ll be hosted by the Detroit Writing Room along with Perfect2020PBs authors Randi Sonenshine and Lisa Katzenberger. Learn more and get tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/picture-book-publishing-tips-from-6-debut-authors-tickets-112071278210
Where can readers keep in touch with you and your work?
Thanks for sharing your book birthday with us today, Jolene. Here’s wishing you success in your many writing endeavors!
So many author events and book launches have been cancelled due to the current pandemic. Help Jolene Gutiérrez today by ordering her new book at any of the links below. (IndieBound helps you order directly from your local independent bookstore, which could surely use the support as well!)