The Backstory: BRAINSTORM!
Rebecca Gardyn Levington joins The Backstory today with her idea-inspiring picture book, BRAINSTORM! (Sleeping Bear Press, 2022) with illustrations by Kate Kronreif. Keep reading to learn how this story came to be and for your chance to win a 30-minute AMA with Rebecca.
Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind Brainstorm!
1. First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
BRAINSTORM! is a rhyming poem-picture book that begins with a little girl sitting in a
classroom, frustrated because she can’t think of anything to write about. As she stares at the storm brewing outside – kerplink! – a tiny thought falls from the sky! The girl gradually finds herself engulfed in a whirlwind of words, pictures, and ideas swirling all around her, eventually becoming caught up in a happy downpour of her own creativity.
BRAINSTORM! is targeted to children in grades K-5, who are beginning to learn how to shape and sharpen their idea-generation and storytelling skills. The back matter includes a ton of kid-friendly writing prompts (“Cloudy With A Chance of Ideas!”) as well as a glossary (“A Tornado of Terminology,”) which includes both parts of speech as well as storytelling terms that are sprinkled throughout the book) that parents and educators can use to encourage kids to enjoy playing with their ideas!
I’m excited to share that BRAINSTORM! received a great review from Kirkus. You can read it here: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/rebecca-gardyn-levington/brainstorm-levington/
This sounds so good, Rebecca! It will make the perfect addition to any elementary classroom. As a second-grade teacher, I can tell you I needed this book yesterday. The fun and playful text paired with the incredible art from Kate Kronreif are a recipe for sparking creativity in children. And the back matter provides the perfect extension for students to put their new skills to the test.
2. What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea
Over the last couple months, on my #BrainstormBlogTour, I’ve shared the story about how there was a rainstorm brewing out my window on the day I first drafted BRAINSTORM! and how that sparked my initial curiosity of what a literal “brain-STORM” of ideas falling from the sky would look like. However, there was another inspiration for this book. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but I wrote BRAINSTORM! for my two boys – and other reluctant writers like them -- who often complain about how “boring” writing is. Brainstorming is SO fun and it saddens me that sometimes the enjoyment that comes with letting your imagination go wild gets forgotten when kids feel they “have to” write. My hope is that this book – with its fun rhythm and colorful
illustrations -- will inspire kids to start playing with words and having fun with their ideas again!
In my classroom I see this attitude towards writing every year. Thank you, thank you, thank you for creating this book and providing teachers with a strategy as well as the inspiration to bring the fun back into writing. We all know that kids' imaginations know no bounds, however when it comes to the written word I think they often do not feel empowered to explore these ideas. Let's hope your book can spark some change and turn it from "having to" write to "wanting to" write.
3. How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now Brainstorm!?
Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit
with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?
This particular story came to me lightning fast (pun intended!). I love wordplay, so once I started thinking about a “brainstorm” as a literal idea, the words just flowed out of me (this pun also intended). I immediately (like within an hour or so) wrote a poem about a little girl caught in a storm of creativity. I was super happy with the poem and thought that was all it would be, but over the course of the next few months I kept coming back to it and adding more and more. Once I realized that maybe this could be a picture book, I took a step back and wrote my pitch. It was in thinking about the marketing angles and audience that I realized that not only was this a fun story, but it could also be a tool for teachers and homeschooling parents to use in any writing, storytelling, or poetry lessons, when teaching about parts of speech, or when talking to kids about ANY kind of brainstorming. That’s when I started to add even more to the story and began
revising with that focus in mind.
I appreciate hearing how your thoughts on marketing and audience helped guide your revision process. While of course we want to write the stories that are in our hearts, considering these other aspects can inform our decisions and increase the chances of our books being acquired.
4. Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
Titles often come to me first. As I said, I love wordplay. So, a lot of my ideas come to me in the form of words that can be taken literally (like a “brain-storm!”) and thinking about them in different ways. I often look to idioms and puns as a way to create fun titles and stories. Many (if not most) of my picture book drafts begin as poems, and many of those poems started with just one word (I’m part of a Poem-a-Week Challenge with a few critique partners where we give each other a word that must be used as part of a rhyme pair in the poem). MANY of my story drafts began this way. Just thinking about one word – it’s meaning, associations, and rhyme pairs is a great way to spark ideas for me. In fact, my next book WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW (Barefoot Books, Spring 2023) began from a poem inspired by the word “surprise” (although, ironically, the couplet that originally contained that word didn’t end up in the final version!)
I also get a ton of ideas from things I did or feelings I felt as a child, or things or feelings that my own kids do or feel. I have a book coming out next fall (unannounced as of yet) that was based upon my son’s frustration while learning how to ride his bicycle. The story is not at all about learning how to ride a bike, but was inspired by his impatience and desire to do something perfectly IMMEDIATELY and how he ultimately learned that it takes a lot of practice and perseverance to achieve hard things.
What great sources of inspiration! It is wonderful to hear how your Poem-a-Week exercise has led to sparks of ideas that have grown and become stories of their very own. It is a wonderful example of how these smaller writing routines can benefit writers in the long run. I may not be able to commit an hour to writing a day, but I can steal five to ten minutes to jot down ideas, brainstorm, or do a writing exercise. And who knows where those ideas could lead.
5. What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?
Oh, man, this is tough. SO many amazing books and writers. I’ve loved Shel Silverstein’s poetry since I was a kid and definitely see his influence in my own work, especially in my children’s poetry, where my work tends to lean more punny and funny and (sometimes even a little irreverent). In terms of picture books, I’m a HUGE Julia Donaldson fan. My two absolute favorites are Room on the Broom and The Snail and the Whale. Both are impeccably done — both in terms of story AND in rhyme/meter.
Both such AMAZING influences!
6. What are the must haves for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference
The most important thing for me -- other than my computer (I can’t write by hand!) – is LIGHT! I prefer working during the day, when natural light pours into my office (there’s a big window you can’t see in this photo). But if I must work at night (or during the winter months when 4pm LOOKS like night), I use bright lamps. My office has five! I also hate being thirsty, so I always keep a big water bottle (at least 24 oz or more) by my side. In addition, I have my hand-written day planner nearby and each day I write down ONE thing that I “have to” get done, along with 3-5 things I’d “like to” get done. I also keep several running “to-do” lists, just in case I get through all the “have tos” and “like tos” (it never happens). In terms of resources, I have RhymeZone.com and WordHippo.com (thesaurus) open at all times when I’m drafting.
I love how you organize your to-dos and that you stick to only one "have to." This seems like a great balance of productivity and self-preservation. We all know we could make those "have to" lists a mile long and stress ourselves out before we even begin.
7. Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
I have so much advice I could give! But three things I wish I’d been told by someone earlier in my career are:
1) Write the books YOU love to write. I personally love writing rhyming (often plotless)
poem-picture books. But initially when I was starting out, I didn’t write these types of books because I thought I had to follow the “rules” — ex: “have a main character with a problem who tries 3 times to solve it,” “don’t write in rhyme,” etc. But my heart was always leading me back to these kinds of books. It wasn’t until I listened to my heart (cue the 80s tune!) that my writing finally started feeling authentic and I began selling books.
2) Publishing is a BUSINESS. As I say in #1, first and foremost, write what you love! BUT, at the end of the day, if you want your book to be published by a traditional publisher, you also need to think about how you will SELL that book to a publisher. It’s not just one editor you need to convince, but her whole editorial team, as well as marketing people and financial people, etc. So, what are your “hooks”? Who will buy your book and WHY? Can your book be sold during a holiday? Can teachers use your book in a classroom (if so, consider adding back matter!). Does it have social-emotional themes that make it easy to explain a difficult subject matter? Etc. As I mentioned doing with BRAINSTORM!, once I’ve created a first draft, I will stop, write my pitch and logline, and research comp titles. As I continue to revise, I have a very clear idea of what the
book is really about, what the hooks are, and how I will sell the idea to a publisher.
3) Put yourself and your work out into the world as much as you can! You NEVER know
where opportunity will arise. Enter ALL the contests, join ALL the groups, go to ALL the
conferences and webinars you can, and enter ALL the mentorship programs. If I hadn’t applied for the #PB Chat mentorship in 2019, I wouldn’t have connected with my mentor Lori Degman and she wouldn’t have connected me with my editor at Sleeping Bear Press who ultimately bought and published BRAINSTORM! Also, if you are unagented and have an opportunity to send your work to an editor, DO IT! (I sold my second book, I WILL ALWAYS BE… to HarperCollins via a submission opportunity after a conference and that helped me land my agent as well!).
Thank you for sharing your advice. You have given us great, actionable tips that I hope can benefit our readers.
8. Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
YES! I’m excited to share that I have four more rhyming picture books coming out in the next two years! (It actually may be five – my agent is working on an offer now!) Three have already been announced: WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW (Barefoot Books, Spring 2023) is a lyrical picture book about strength, courage and resilience in the face of the unknown, inspired by my own lifetime struggle with anxiety. AFIKOMAN, WHERE'D YOU GO? (Penguin Random House/Rocky Pond Books, Spring 2024) is a Passover hide-and-seek rhyming romp about a smug and sneaky piece of matzah on the run, which I describe as "Where's Waldo?" meets "The Gingerbread Man." And I WILL ALWAYS BE… (HarperCollins, Spring 2024) is an inspirational concept book that encourages kids to always celebrate their passions, whether or not they ever make it to Broadway or the big leagues. “Doing what you love and loving what you do” regardless of what comes of it is a motto I really try to live by, especially in my writing.
I also have a bunch of new poems coming out soon in magazines like Highlights High Five, Cricket, Spider,, and several of The School Magazine’s publications (Blast Off, Countdown, and Launchpad). I have many other picture books in the works or on submission, including a poetry collection, that I hope will find their forever homes soon!
You are on fire!!! This is all such amazing news and I feel so lucky that we won't have to wait too long to get more of your books in our hands. Congratulations on all of the successes.
9. Where can people connect more with you?
I’d love to connect with all your readers! Here are all the links and things:
To order a signed copy of BRAINSTORM!, visit Rebecca’s local indie:
Or purchase wherever books are sold!
Please download the FREE BRAINSTORM! Teacher’s Guide and Activity Sheets from my
Readers and teachers make sure to get your copy of BRAINSTORM! (Sleeping Bear Press, 2022) with pictures by Kate Kronreif. You will love it and your students' minds will be swirling with ideas and inspiration. While you are at it be sure to connect with Rebecca on social media to keep updated on her latest publishing news.
Rebecca, thank you so much for participating. I loved hearing the story behind BRAINSTORM!
Rebecca is generously offering a 30-minute AMA to one lucky winner.
Ways to enter:
1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!
2. Leave a comment on this post.
3. Post about this interview on FB/Instagram and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT REBECCA GARDYN LEVINGTON
Rebecca Gardyn Levington is a children’s book author, poet, and journalist with a particular penchant for penning both playful and poignant picture books and poems – primarily in rhyme. Her debut picture book BRAINSTORM! (Sleeping Bear Press, 2022) hits bookshelves this summer. She has four more rhyming picture books being published in the next two years, including WHATEVER COMES TOMORROW (Barefoot Books, 2023), AFIKOMAN, WHERE’D YOU GO? (Penguin Random House/Rocky Pond Books, 2024), and I WILL ALWAYS BE… (HarperCollins, 2024). Rebecca’s award-winning poems and articles have appeared in numerous anthologies, newspapers, and magazines. She lives in the suburban jungles of New Jersey with her husband and two boisterous boys. Find out more about Rebecca at www.RebeccaGardynLevington.com and follow her on Twitter at @WriterRebeccaGL.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
ANDREW HACKET always dreamed of writing picture books, but never believed it was possible. Then one day he thought, “I could. I should.” So he did (with a lot of hard work). And while he hopes no one swallows acorns as a result of his story, OLLIE, THE ACORN, AND THE MIGHTY IDEA (Page Street Kids, 2024), he does hope kids will be inspired to grow kindness in their communities and stand up for themselves — without eating anyone, of course.
Andrew lives in Holden, Massachusetts with his wife and three children, all of whom are very mighty.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Page Turner Literary.