The Backstory: MAC AND CHEESE & BIONIC BEASTS
Backstory readers, you are in for a treat! Jolene Gutiérrez is joining us to share the inspiration behind TWO of her latest books.
Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind not one, but TWO of your books.
Thank you for hosting me, Andrew! I’m so excited to be here!
First off, please tell us a little bit about MAC AND CHEESE AND THE PERSONAL SPACE INVADER.
Oliver wants nothing more than to be a good friend. As he’s studying class guinea pigs Mac and Cheese, Oliver hears his teacher mention how Mac and Cheese are the best of friends. Oliver thinks, “Oh, NOW I know how to be a good friend!” But when he tries nuzzling and snuggling his classmates like guinea pigs do, Oliver’s classmates quickly show him that they don’t like when he invades their personal space bubbles. With the help of his teacher and classmates, Oliver learns that being a friend means respecting personal space.
Your approach to this topic is so kid-friendly and accessible. It is wonderful how you have the teacher and classmates come together to help Oliver.
What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration?
I’m a teacher librarian at a school for diverse learners and a mom to diverse learners. My students and kids sometimes struggled with social skills, so I thought a book about personal space would be a helpful tool. Oliver is a compilation of many people, but every time I share the synopsis of MAC AND CHEESE with teachers, they say, “Oh, I know a student like Oliver! I could use this book to help discuss personal space with my class!” That was my goal.
I think any teacher would agree, you nailed it! I will absolutely be using this story in my classroom at the beginning of next school year.
How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now MAC AND CHEESE? 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 story was a bit more complex when I first drafted it. Originally, I’d written a story about personal space invaders who were tiny aliens from outer space and a human boy who could see them and kept getting in trouble as he chased the aliens around. I love punny stories and if I come up with a funny concept or title, I try to keep that humor and momentum and get a draft written as quickly as possible. I did that with this concept of personal space invaders and had fun with it, but something about the story wasn’t working. Editor Callie Metler looked at it with me and said, “I think you’re making this too complex. What if you take out the aliens and make this a story about a boy who struggles with personal space?” That was an aha moment for me--yes, that’s what I really wanted to explore. And when I did some character exploration around Oliver, I realized he was an animal lover and kept a journal that he used to sketch animals and other bits of nature. Having Oliver observing class pets followed naturally and the story fell into place.
What a transformation and those aha moments are to die for! I love how exploring Oliver's character more deeply helped guide where the story needed to go. I also love what Heather Bell did with the illustrations. They pair perfectly with your text.
And Backstory readers, if you want to know more about what inspires Heather, hop on over to Laura Roettiger's latest blog post, here.
Now, Jolene, I’d love to know more about BIONIC BEASTS. For any of our readers who haven’t had the chance to check it out yet, could you please give us a quick synopsis?
Absolutely! Here’s information about my nonfiction middle grade book, BIONIC BEASTS: What happens when a young elephant steps on a buried landmine? What happens when a sea turtle’s flipper is injured by a predator? Thanks to recent advances in technology, we have new ways to design and build prosthetic body parts that can help these animals thrive.
Meet an Asian elephant named Mosha, a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle named Lola, a German Shepherd named Cassidy, a greylag goose named Vitória, and Pirate, a Berkshire-Tamworth pig. Each of these animals was struggling, but through a variety of techniques and technologies, humans created devices that enabled the animals to live and move more comfortably. Discover the stories of how veterinarians, doctors, and even students from around the world used 3D printing and other techniques to build bionic body parts for these amazing animals.
Wow! This is incredible! My son and I just read it together and we couldn't get enough. This book is so inspirational and I can see it being the catalyst for my explorations and STEM lessons in upper elementary and middle school classrooms.
Where did the idea come from?
My BIONIC BEASTS book journey started in 2018 when Millbrook/Lerner Publishing editor Carol Hinz put out a call for STEM picture books. I’d never written a nonfiction picture book, but I’m fascinated by many STEM topics, so I decided to give it a try! I chose to write about animals with prosthetic limbs/body parts because I grew up on a farm where injured animals were oftentimes “put down.” I wanted to explore the ways humans are helping animals through science, technology, and engineering, so I wrote a 1,000 word picture book titled BIONIC BEASTS. Within a few months, I heard back from Carol. She asked if I’d be willing to expand the book from a picture book to a middle grade book with five chapters, each about a different animal. Of course, I said yes!
That is wonderful how you were able to take inspiration from your childhood and channel it to meet an editor's needs. I also love hearing how you used notes from your editor and applied them to your book while staying true to the heart of your original idea.
It is incredible how much information you were able to incorporate into BIONIC BEASTS. The activities really take the text to another level and would be a great extension for parents or teachers to use with kids.
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
Everywhere! I find inspiration in things I’m interested in, in things my kids and students say, in articles I read, and in topics I’d like to explore with my students but can’t find books about. I participate in Tara Lazar’s StoryStorm every year to generate ideas, and I keep that list going after the StoryStorm event is over.
StoryStorm is a great kickoff to the year and a good exercise in opening our minds to receive all of the inspiration we are surrounded by. I think your strategy of exploring those topics your students can't find books about is so smart. Chances are if one student is looking for it, there is a whole audience out there also hoping for it.
What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?
I’m a librarian and there are SO many books I love, but a few of my favorites are After the Fall by Dan Santat, Ode to an Onion: Pablo Neruda and His Muse by Alexandria Giardino, Lubna and the Pebble by Wendy Meddour, The Elephant's Girl by Celesta Rimington, Efren Divided by Ernesto Cisneros, and Clap when you Land by Elizabeth Acevedo.
What are the must haves for your workspace?
I’m so used to writing about anywhere I have a few minutes that I regularly write while sitting in my car waiting for my kids, while sitting on the couch in the evening buried under dogs, or while seated at the desk that I set up in my bedroom when I started teaching virtually last spring. I have a filing cabinet with notes, research, and various drafts and a bookshelf filled with friends’ books and mentor texts. But really, all I need when I’m writing is my laptop, a pen, my notebook/research files. It’s also wonderful to have some snacks and drinks. I love Yogi Sweet Tangerine tea for caffeine and Albanese gummy bears for a sweet treat. :D
That is so true about writing anywhere and everywhere we can. It is seldom that I am sitting at my desk when inspiration strikes. It seems like you have all bases covered, including snacks!
Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
Read, write, learn, connect! Make sure you’re reading lots of books within the level/genre that you write. Write, write, write--to get good at something, you have to practice! Attend classes, read books on the craft of writing, enter contests. There are so many amazing writing organizations, mentorships, and critique groups. Connect with others so you’ll have support as you continue learning and growing!
All of this! Such great, usable advice! I love how you condensed it so succinctly into "Read, write, learn, connect!"
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
I just released the series Stars of Latin Pop with Rourke Educational, and I learned that a poem of mine will be included in a poetry anthology from Charlesbridge. My other news is that I signed with agent Kaitlyn Sanchez this past July! Kaitlyn is amazing and has helped me get some of my manuscripts ready for submission, so hopefully I’ll have other exciting news in the near future! :)
Congratulations on your latest projects and on signing with Kaitlyn. She is amazing and such an asset to the kidlit community. I am excited to see what you two come up with next.
Where can people connect more with you?
Here’s where you can find me online:
Both MAC AND CHEESE AND THE PERSONAL SPACE INVADER and BIONIC BEASTS are available now. Make sure to check them out if you haven't done so already. You won't be disappointed.
Jolene is generously offering a non-rhyming picture book critique <700 words. (<1000 words for NF) One lucky winner will be announced on Tuesday.
To enter you can...
1. Leave a comment on this post.
2. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!
Interested in being featured on The Backstory? Click here
Dates are still available for October, November & December.
ABOUT JOLENE GUTIÉRREZ
Jolene grew up on a farm, surrounded by animals, plants, and history. She is an award-winning teacher-librarian and has been working with diverse learners at Denver Academy for the past 25 years. She holds a Master’s degree in Library Science. She’s a wife of 22 years and mama to two teenage humans, three preteen dogs, a kitten who plays fetch, and an ever-rotating variety of other animals including a crested gecko, a ferret, and a rescue squirrel. She’s an active member of SCBWI and The Author’s Guild, a We Need Diverse Books mentorship finalist, a Writing with the Stars mentee, a Highlights Foundation scholarship winner, and the winner of the Cynthia Levinson nonfiction picture book biography scholarship to the Writing Barn. She’s an active member of the Perfect 2020 PBs group, a member of the critique group 6 Ladies and a MANuscript, and a co-creator of #KidlitZombieWeek.
Jolene is the author of a picture book, MAC AND CHEESE AND THE PERSONAL SPACE INVADER (Spork, 8/20), a nonfiction middle grade book, BIONIC BEASTS: SAVING ANIMAL LIVES WITH ARTIFICIAL FLIPPERS, LEGS, AND BEAKS (Lerner, 10/20), and the biographical series STARS OF LATIN POP (Carson Dellosa, 01/21).
ABOUT HEATHER BELL
Heather Bell whole-heartedly believes that hidden within our everyday lives is a secret realm glimpsed through books, music, and children’s laughter. Holding a BFA in Painting from the Kansas City Art Institute, she is a member of SCBWI, a participant in the 12 x 12 Picture Book Challenge, a Children’s Book Academy graduate, and a mommy. When not illustrating and writing, she searches out story ideas as an undercover school bus driver.
Heather Bell is an author/illustrator represented by Kaitlyn Sanchez at Olswanger Literary Agency.
Find Me: https://linktr.ee/heatherbell37
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
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.