The Backstory: FIRST DAY OF UNICORN SCHOOL
Hello everyone and welcome to my new blog series, The Backstory, where you'll discover the story behind the story from the author herself.
Today I am thrilled to introduce our first-ever guest. to The Backstory, Jess Hernandez.
Welcome, Jess! Thank you for joining us today and sharing with us the inspiration behind FIRST DAY OF UNICORN SCHOOL.
To get us started, please tell us a little bit about your story.
FIRST DAY OF UNICORN SCHOOL is the story of Milly, a donkey with dreams of attending the prestigious unicorn school. With a few creative photos in her application, she’s accepted and must make it through the school without anyone realizing what she really is: a donkey in a party hat.
That sounds amazing! I can not wait to read it when it comes out on January 1!
What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
On one level, the idea for this book came from watching my kids fight over a cardboard tube. Each of them wanted to use it as a unicorn horn. My daughter grabbed the tube and told my son, “You’re not a unicorn! You’re just a horse!” A few days earlier, she’d asked for a bedtime story about a unicorn, so I told her one about a klutzy unicorn who had to perform at a school talent show. The idea of a unicorn school and the horn thing sort of melded into the final story.
On another level, this book came from conversations I’ve had with other grown-ups. It seems like no matter where we are in our lives or careers, most of us feel like we’re totally faking it and live in fear of the day someone notices we aren’t special, we aren’t unicorns – we’re just donkeys in party hats. It made me realize that everyone feels like that sometimes. Normalizing imposter syndrome makes it feel less scary when it happens, and I think that’s a message both kids and adults could benefit from.
Oh man, I know those sibling fights over what appears to be trash all too well.
I love how you took inspiration from the mash-up of interactions with your children and also the more adult noticings about insecurities. It sounds like the perfect blend to result in a story that will appeal to both children and adults on multiple levels. And I love your approach to imposter syndrome. "We're all just donkeys in party hats." Can I get a shirt that says that?
How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now FIRST DAY OF UNICORN SCHOOL? 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?
It’s been three years since I wrote the initial draft, so I’m a little fuzzy on the details. I do remember I tried to write the talent show story, but canned it because it wasn’t working. I think I was able to write the first draft of FIRST DAY OF UNICORN SCHOOL in one go, but it’s gone through 12 rounds of revisions since then based on feedback from critique partners, my agent, and my editor.
Isn't it amazing how much an idea can grow over time? I love the way feedback from critique partners can help take an idea to the next level.
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
I get a lot of my ideas from watching my kids, but I also love reading nature articles, eavesdropping on other people’s conversations (a leftover habit from my years as a teacher), and just noticing the weird stuff I come across. That includes random ideas that, as an adult, you might be tempted to self-censor because it’s too “out there.” Anything that makes me wonder and feel like the world is a bizarre, incredible, hilarious place eventually works its way into my writing.
It seems like you have a great ability to see and hear the world as a child would. Those bizarre, incredible, and hilarious bits you find in the world are exactly the pieces that children love.
What books have been the most inspirational/impactful to your writing?
I love funny books that use a dry tone and subvert the reader’s expectations. There have been several but some that stick out are STUCK by Oliver Jeffers, the SNAPPSY THE ALLIGATOR books by Julie Falatko, and YOU WOULDN’T WANT A UNICORN by Ame Dyckman. They’re a masterclass for anyone who tries to write humorous picture books.
Those are amazing suggestions! I know my own children have been obsessed with READ THE BOOK LEMMINGS! by Ame Dyckman, which may have led me to take a deep dive into all of her published works and they are everything you describe them as and more.
What are the must-haves for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference materials?
I absolutely must have a composition notebook and a pencil for writing down the random, ugly ideas. Also a computer, tea, and an app that blocks social media so I can actually get stuff done because otherwise I have the attention span of a fruit fly.
I love "the random, ugly ideas" so much. For me, those ideas are usually found in my Notes app after inspiration strikes in the middle of the night. They definitely aren't pretty (or intelligible) but boy can they yield some great stories.
Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
Find friends, especially if you plan on trying to publish. Writing is a lonely gig and can be soul-crushing at times. You need people to vent to, people to inspire you, and people to tell you when you need to get over yourself.
Yes to all of this! Finding your people makes the lows bearable and the celebrations even better!
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
Nothing yet, but I’m hoping for big things from 2021. (ACK! I hope I didn’t jinx it!)
Fingers crossed for 2021! I can't wait to see what is next from you.
Where can people connect more with you?
I spend WAY too much time on Twitter at @FinkHernandez and I have a website at jesshernandezwrites.com. There’s coloring pages and lesson plans on the website, so it’s totally worth checking out.
Thank you so much Jess for spending time with us. It was a pleasure hearing the story behind FIRST DAY OF UNICORN SCHOOL and getting to know all about what inspires you.
Be sure to check out FIRST DAY OF UNICORN SCHOOL by Jess Hernandez and illustrated by Mariano Epelbaum, out on January 1, 2021, from Capstone.
Jess has generously offered a pitch critique to one lucky winner. To enter, follow Jess and Andrew on Twitter and retweet this post. For an additional entry, subscribe to Andrew's blog. Best of luck to all who enter. The winner will be announced Tuesday, January 5.
Interested in being featured on The Backstory? Click here
ABOUT JESS HERNANDEZ
Jess Hernandez is a writer, librarian, teacher and all-around word girl.
When not being used as a human canvas for baby food art, she writes books for kids. Her debut book, FIRST DAY OF UNICORN SCHOOL, illustrated by Mariano Epelbaum, comes out on Jan. 1, 2021 from Capstone.
Sometimes she writes essays, poems, and short stories for grown-ups, too. Jess lives in a very small, very LOUD house in Washington with her husband, their three children, a blind Labrador, and seven chickens.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
Andrew Hacket is a writer and a second-grade teacher of 16 years.
Andrew’s background of being surrounded by children, both at work and at home, has been a treasure trove of inspiration.
A nature lover, Andrew can be found exploring the woods of Massachusetts with his wife and three kids.
While often witty and imaginative, Andrew’s stories can also delve into the more serious and emotional topics that children can experience.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Flannery Literary.