The Backstory: MY SCHOOL STINKS!
Becky Scharnhorst joins us today to share the inspiration behind her wild back-to-school story, MY SCHOOL STINKS! Her humorous debut is the perfect first day of school read aloud to set the tone for community building, friendship, and lots of laughs.
Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind MY SCHOOL STINKS!
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
Thanks so much for having me, Andrew! I’m thrilled to be here. My School Stinks is a humorous back-to-school picture book about a young boy who accidentally ends up in a classroom of WILD animals. Not even deep breaths and happy thoughts can calm Stuart’s nerves after discovering his deskmate stinks (skunk), his locker buddy bites (crocodile), and his teacher is unBEARable. Worst of all, his parents don’t believe him! According to them, ALL little kids are wild animals. But Stuart soon learns friends come in all shapes, sizes, and species.
Becky this is an absolutely perfect story for the beginning of the school year. The inherent humor will have students giggling like crazy, while the underlying message will serve as an optimal jumping-off point for discussions of class culture and friendship. Julia Patton's illustrations complement your words so well and up the fun factor. I especially love her design for Stuart and the manner in which the diary entries and characters are arranged on each spread.
What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
As someone who has struggled with anxiety, I tend to catastrophize everything. Even though things rarely end up being as scary as I imagine, there are still times when it’s hard to calm my anxious thoughts. I wanted to address that in a humorous way, so I asked myself what if the worst thing DID happen to a nervous kid going to a new school for the first time? When I wrote this manuscript, I lived at a camp in the middle of a forest in Northeast Pennsylvania where wild animal sightings were a regular occurrence. At first, my kids were terrified of the bears wandering through our backyard, but the more they encountered the animals without incident, the more comfortable they became. They soon grew to appreciate the wildlife and their fear turned to excitement whenever we spotted bears, porcupines, and even snakes. Watching their transformation was what inspired me to plop Stuart into a classroom full of wild animals. Thankfully, things do not turn out as badly as Stuart first imagines either.
One of my favorite things about picture books is learning the seemingly unlikely components that can come together and inspire wondrous ideas. I love that this started as a way to address anxious feelings and was infused with humor through the inspiration right outside of your doorstep.
How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now MY SCHOOL STINKS? 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?
I wrote the first draft fairly quickly because I knew I wanted to work on it at an upcoming workshop at the Highlights Foundation. On the first night of the workshop, the leaders asked us to rewrite the beginning of our manuscript with a different POV, setting, character, or format. My original manuscript was written in 3rd person and took place in a school. For the exercise, I rewrote it in an epistolary format and changed the setting to a camp. It completely changed the voice, and I loved it! I decided to rewrite the entire thing and was surprised by how easily it flowed onto the page. For the next two years, this manuscript was a camp story told in letters home. When I queried it, I got requests for more manuscripts from several agents, and I got into the Rutger’s One-on-One Plus conference where I ended up meeting my editor, Cheryl Eissing. I went through a couple rounds of revisions with Cheryl before she took it to her team in July of 2018. Her team liked it, but thought the camp setting was too niche, so she asked if I would consider rewriting it as a school story. By this point, I was attached to the camp version, but I decided to try it anyway. I sent the new school version (written in diary entries) to Cheryl in September, but I continued querying the camp version to agents. By the time I signed with my agent James McGowan in November, I assumed Cheryl wasn’t interested in the school version, so I didn’t even show him! Thankfully, Cheryl WAS interested, and she made an offer in February of 2019.
I am impressed with your willingness to experiment with your idea and try new approaches, structures, and settings. It seems like this openness led you to find the perfect elements for MY SCHOOL STINKS!
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
If I’m looking, I can find inspiration anywhere. In a funny phrase, an unusual newspaper article, a school project, or even my own anxiety. But I have to be paying attention. When I’m too busy or moving through life too quickly, ideas elude me. When that happens, I turn to brainstorming activities or idea-generating exercises to get my creativity flowing again. I also try to slow down! Giving myself time and space to wonder is what helps me the most.
Slowing down is so necessary. I think so many of us are on the go 24/7 with those pesky grownup responsibilities and that time to be calm, quiet, and let ourselves wander around in our own heads is so hard to come by.
What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?
I love funny books, so the ones that have the biggest impact on me and my writing are the ones that make me laugh over and over again. Some of my favorites are Dandy, If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School Don’t, Neck & Neck, Don’t Feed the Coos, Mother Bruce, Claymates, Stuck, I Got a Chicken for My Birthday, How to Give Your Cat a Bath, Experiment #256, and Find Fergus. I also read everything Tammi Sauer writes. Her books are a master class in pacing!
Being surrounded by quality picture books is a great way to study craft and discover new inspiration. And you have given us a list of some of the best humorous PBs out there. I will be adding many of these to my next library haul for sure!
What are the must haves for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference materials?
The only thing I must have is silence. I’m easily distracted, so I need to find a quiet place when I’m writing. I also always have a glass of ice water by my side. Most of the time I work on my computer unless I’m outlining or brainstorming. Those things I do in a notebook with a pencil. I do have an office space, but I tend to move around my house a lot. Lately I’ve been writing in my three-season room which is my favorite place to work. I also usually have giant stacks of picture books piled up around me.
Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
Find your people! This business is full of extreme highs and extreme lows, but the one constant has been the friendships I’ve built with other writers. I met a wonderful group of women at the first Highlights workshop I attended in 2016, and we’ve been writing together ever since. Without their encouragement, support, and friendship, I’m not sure I would have been able to stick it out. Everyone says persistence is the key to success, and I 100% agree! But there may be times when you feel like quitting, and you need people in your life who believe in you when you stop believing in yourself. Some of my dearest friends are people I have met on this journey, and my life is so much richer because of it. They also push me to be the best writer I can be. All of my critique partners are smart, funny, and passionate about the craft. They won’t let me get by with “good enough.” I am certain I would not be published without them.
So perfectly stated! It is amazing the relationships and bonds that can be formed in this industry and the way in which kidlit folks support and root on one another. It is unlike anything else and something every aspiring author should seek out.
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
I have two more books coming out in the next couple years. This Field Trip Stinks is a sequel to my debut and will come out in 2022, and How to Get Your Octopus to School will come out in 2023. I also have another picture book out on sub right now, and I’m working on several other projects that I’m excited to share with my agent.
This is such wonderful news! I look forward to reading both upcoming releases and I wish you the best of luck with your current submissions.
Where can people connect more with you?
I love connecting with others on Twitter and Instagram!
You can find me here:
You can also contact me through my website which is www.beckyscharnhorst.com.
Readers be sure to follow Becky and check out her book, MY SCHOOL STINKS! (Philomel Books, 2021) illustrated by Julia Patton.
Becky thank you so much for joining The Backstory and sharing your inspiration and advice with us. I loved learning all about MY SCHOOL STINKS and I cannot wait to share it with my class next school year.
Becky is generously offering a copy of THIS SCHOOL STINKS! to one lucky winner. (US only)
Ways to enter:
1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!
2. Leave a comment on this post.
3. Like our FB page and comment on this week's post.
4. Post about this interview on FB/Instagram and tell me in the comments that you did.
Each method earns an extra entry!
ABOUT BECKY SCHARNHORST
Becky grew up in Northeast Wisconsin and spent most of her childhood playing in lakes and reading books. Shortly after receiving a BA from Luther College, Becky spent a year working as a children’s bookseller at Barnes & Noble. She soon discovered she enjoyed reading picture books more than anything else. Much, much more.
Now Becky spends her days writing children's books and working at her local library. Her debut picture book My School Stinks will be published by Philomel Books in 2021, followed by This Field Trip Stinks (2022) and How to Get Your Octopus to School (2023). When she’s not reading or writing, Becky can be found hiking through the woods with her dogs, losing a game of monopoly to her kids, or biking to the local ice cream shop. She currently lives in Central Wisconsin with her husband, two kids, and a few too many pets.
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.