The Backstory: SLOTH AND SQUIRREL IN A PICKLE
Cathy Ballou Mealey joins us today to share the story behind SLOTH AND SQUIRREL IN A PICKLE (Kids Can Press, 2021). This "dill"icioulsy funny tale features an unlikely duo with an even more unlikely dream and the most unlikely job. Keep reading to learn the inspiration behind this pickle packing pair and for the chance to win a critique from Cathy.
Welcome to The Backstory! Thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind SLOTH & SQUIRREL IN A PICKLE.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
SLOTH AND SQUIRREL IN A PICKLE is a rollicking read-aloud that celebrates teamwork and ingenuity between two loveable but unlikely friends who get jobs packing slippery pickles in order to buy a tandem bicycle. Kirkus said “Sure to tickle more than a few ribs,” and praised Kelly Collier’s droll illustrations and the “entertainingly silly, original plot.”
Sloth and Squirrel were an instant favorite in our house. My daughter insisted on bringing it to her classroom after the first read. The pairing of Sloth and Squirrel together is genius and the way in which Kelly Collier illustrated their expressions brings their personalities and antics to life.
What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
A Wall Street Journal article about animal ambassadors entitled Sloths Hot, Armadillos Not: Zoos Seek Affection for Overlooked Species got me interested in learning more about sloths. I discovered that sloths spend 95% of their lives in the treetop canopy, so I knew my character would need a very animated, tree-dwelling buddy like Squirrel to enliven their funny friendship adventure.
I love how you can track the initial spark of an idea back to this article. And Squirrel was the perfect addition to add some pep to Sloth's step.
How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now SLOTH & SQUIRREL IN A PICKLE? 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?
The storyline evolved at a sloth’s pace! And an extraordinarily sluggish and unhurried sloth at that! I was mulling over potential escapades for a slow sloth and speedy squirrel when I noticed a billboard for “Brooklyn Pickle Packers.” I loved the crisp, funny alliteration. Coincidentally, I had just read Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks in which he praised both the ‘k’ sound and the word pickle for their innate humor. I decided that Sloth and Squirrel could become pickle packers in order to do something fun together, like ride a tandem bicycle!
Good for you for letting this story take the time it needed to evolve. It sounds like this incubation period was exactly what the story needed for the ideas to brew and for inspiration to strike. I will start paying much more attention to billboards now that I know about their inspiration potentional.
Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?
I highly recommend participating in Tara Lazar’s annual, world-renowned STORYSTORM event to hone your spark-seeking skills! On her website you can read posts from all the way back to 2009, when the brainstorming event was called PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month). You will discover all kinds of hints, tips and tricks on keeping your eyes, ears and heart open for finding story inspiration. Thanks to Tara I am in the habit of finding ideas here, there and everywhere on a daily basis.
And your backstory for SLOTH AND SQUIRREL IN A PICKLE proves it! You combined so many snippets of ideas and they truly came together in the most magnificent way to create an original, unpredictable, and very satisfying plot.
What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?
The craft book I find most helpful is Linda Ashman’s The Nuts and Bolts Guide to Writing Picture Books. Packed with writing tips, interviews with editors, and book excerpts that illuminate the lessons, I highly recommend getting a copy that you can mark up with your own notes! I also like The Magic Words by Cheryl Klein, especially if you dabble in writing MG and/or YA.
What are the ‘must haves’ for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference materials?
A window is a definite must-have for my writing space! My third-floor writing nook has a transom window where I can gaze out into the treetops and daydream. Er…brainstorm – I mean brainstorm!
Daydream away! This may be one of the few careers where daydreaming can be seen as productive. Who knows what adventure you might dream up next while staring at those treetops.
I love your workspace and if I am not mistaken I have seen that mug before in the pages of SLOTH AND SQUIRREL IN A PICKLE.
Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?
What works for me right now is to divide my work time into thirds. The first third is for reading, any kidlit, newspapers, magazines, even podcasts. The next third is for writing, which includes drafting and revising stories, critiques or book reviews. The last chunk is reserved for learning or developing craft: whether taking a webinar, attending a conference, or talking with teachers and librarians.
Amazing advice! The way you divide it up seems so easy to manage and would help any author be more well-rounded. I think many of us (because of time constraints) often feel the need to prioritize one third and neglect the others. I know I spend most of my time in the drafting/revising third and need to be better about seeing the value and benefits of investing my time in reading and craft.
Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
My next as-yet unannounced book is in rhyme! I’m so excited to take on this new, challenging format for the funny forest tale of a patient raccoon struggling to make tasty s’mores in the moonlight. And Sloth and Squirrel will be going on more wacky adventures in a new as-yet-untitled tale.
Congratulations! Raccoon sounds like he will be a riot and I am so pumped that Sloth and Squirrel get to continue their adventures. They really are the perfect duo to carry out many more escapades and I cannot wait to read about all of them.
Where can people connect more with you?
Readers are welcome to connect with me online! Tell me if you have seen a sloth in real life, or if you have ever joined a friend on an adventure gone awry. And do you like pickles?
Cathy thank you so much for joining The Backstory and for sharing the inspiration behind SLOTH AND SQUIRREL IN A PICKLE with all of us!
Readers be sure to check out Cathy's SLOTH AND SQUIRREL IN A PICKLE (Kids Can Press) illustrated by Kelly Collier as well as her first pb, WHEN A TREE GROWS (Sterling Children's Books) illustrated by Kasia Nowowiejska.
Cathy is generously offering a PB manuscript critique (< 1,000 words) 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. 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 CATHY BALLOU MEALEY
Cathy Ballou Mealey has never picked a peck of pickles, but she has been a crossing guard, pet-sitter, and professional gift-wrapper among many other jobs. Her favorite pickle is a crisp and tangy bread-and-butter chip. She lives with her family north of Boston, where she delights in watching silly squirrel antics and is waiting patiently for a sloth to appear. Cathy is the author of WHEN A TREE GROWS (Sterling Children's Books) and SLOTH AND SQUIRREL IN A PICKLE (Kids Can Press).
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.