The Backstory: WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD
It is my pleasure to welcome author and illustrator, Abi Cushman to The Backstory. I am a huge fan of Abi's work and today she joins us with her latest, WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD. This humorous nonfiction picture book will have kids rolling on the floor as they learn fascinating facts about wombats.
AH: Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind Wombats Are Pretty Weird.
First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.
AC: Wombats Are Pretty Weird is a fun introduction to the elusive burrowing marsupial known as the wombat. It’s about all the specialized characteristics that make wombats unique, such as backward pouches, cartilage butts, and cube-shaped poop, and how those features make wombats pretty weird but also extremely cool. Along with wombat characters who boost the silliness of each fact with funny dialog and visual jokes, there is also a snake character who accidentally ends up in the book and chimes in with his perspective.
It was important to me to present the weird wombat facts in a funny and entertaining way. I think humor is a fantastic way to help people really understand and retain information. So hopefully kids will get a few laughs while learning a lot about a very special animal. And I also hope kids will come away with the message that being weird is a good thing!
AH: This is such a fun book! I don't think I had any idea that wombats were so unique. I love how you infused humor with your nonfiction. Kids and their grownups will have a blast reading this again and again.
AH: What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?
AC: When I studied abroad at the University of Melbourne in Australia in 2001, I went on a guided hike and came across a pile of cube-shaped poop. The guide told us they were made by an animal called a wombat. Later, I looked up what a wombat looked like, and discovered that wombats are adorable. I became obsessed with these very cute, but very weird animals. When I started writing picture books in 2015, I knew I wanted to have a book with wombat characters. AH: I love that spotting some strange poop over 20 years ago is what led to WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD. It sounds like the exact type of situation where someone would say, "You should make that into a book" and that is exactly what you did.
AH: How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now Wombats Are Pretty Weird? 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?
AC: I was really interested in the format of a narrator conveying actual science information and then the illustrations and characters highlighting just how weird/outlandish/fun those facts are with ridiculous dialog and antics. There’s a Disney short called The Art of Skiing that I used to watch all the time as a kid. In it, the narrator starts out very serious, like it’s a proper documentary about skiing. Except the subject of the show, Goofy, is not exactly the picture perfect model of a professional skier. And I loved that interplay between the serious narrator and the silliness of what was actually happening.
I wasn’t sure if the book would be better as a mashup of different weird animal facts or if there’d be enough to focus just on wombats. I played around with different facts and did a lot of doodling trying to come up with jokes for each. After I did more research, I realized there were enough weird facts about wombats, and they deserved a book of their own. I wrote the first draft in 2018, but at the time, I was working on final art for my debut picture book, Soaked!, and then soon after, my second picture book, Animals Go Vroom!. So my wombat book took a backseat for a couple years. In 2020, I polished it up and my agent sent it out on submission. AH: I am glad these wombats got their very own book! You packed so many cool facts into this story and your narrator, Joey the snake, adds a great layer of humor.
AH: Did Wombats Are Pretty Weird undergo any major changes/revisions from the original version? If so, what led you to make these changes?
AC: I got feedback on my early draft and there were concerns about where the book fit into the market. Was it fiction or nonfiction? Were wombats a strong enough hook? Did people really know what they were? I tried it out as a fiction picture book about a wombat where facts were just sort of peppered in. I tried it as a fiction early graphic novel as well. In those versions, I kind of liked them, but they really weren’t as informative as my original version and I really did want those facts to come through.
My agent submitted the original version to editors, and soon after, we had interest from an editor at Greenwillow who asked if I could make it into a nonfiction early graphic novel. I thought that would be fun and submitted a 20 page sample. She took it to acquisitions and… made an offer on the original picture book version.
AH: Ha! The publishing industry is a crazy place. Kudos to you for trying out so many different versions to find the perfect format for Wombats.
Are there any books/authors that you feel influenced your work on Wombats Are Pretty Weird?
AC: When I was growing up, we had an encyclopedia about animals called Disney’s Wonderful World of Knowledge: Animals. This had all sorts of information about animals illustrated with both photos and little vignettes of Donald Duck and other characters commenting on the facts. I loved reading it as a kid. It was informative AND entertaining, and it really inspired me to take an interest in animals and wildlife conservation. So again, this way of conveying the information was really interesting to me and inspired me to try my own story in that format.
When I was in the later stages of polishing up Wombats Are Pretty Weird and talking to my agent about how to pitch it, I looked at other funny informational picture books such as Maxwell Eaton III’s “The Truth About…” series and Elise Gravel’s “Disgusting Critters” series. I love both these series, and they showed me that YES, there is a place in the market for funny informational books about animals.
AH: And as a second-grade teacher I can tell you the kids love this subgenre of nonfiction books so keep them coming!
As writers there are so many amazing resources available from books to webinars to organizations. What kidlit resources have been the most beneficial to you?
AC: Storyteller Academy was in its early stages when I was trying to find my footing in the publishing world. Arree Chung runs it, and he is so encouraging and generous in sharing what he’s learned from his own publishing journey. I feel like it gave me the confidence and tools to keep going. I highly recommend it for folks who are just starting out or have been doing this a while but feel stuck. I also benefited a lot from attending my regional SCBWI conference because I was able to submit my portfolio and dummy to the portfolio showcase. With each conference, I was able to see what areas needed improvement in my portfolio and figure out ways to strengthen it. Then to my complete shock, I won the New England SCBWI Portfolio Showcase in 2018. Jim Hoover, art director for Viking, was one of the judges, and that connection led to my debut picture book.
Storyteller Academy is a wonderful organization. And while I have only been to one SCBWI regional conference so far, I couldn't agree more with you about the benefits of attending and the opportunity to make connections with fellow creators and industry professionals.
AH: Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?
AC: I have two books coming out in 2024! The first is written by the amazing Charlotte Offsay and illustrated by me. It’s called The Quiet Forest, about one mouse’s mischievous action snowballing into a chain of outrageous events. It was so much fun illustrating a bunch of adorable forest animals getting totally splatted with pancakes, paint and more. It comes out on March 12, 2024 from Paula Wiseman Books / Simon & Schuster.
AH: I can't wait to see this. I am a huge fan of Charlotte's other works and I am positive your talents combined have made an absolutely amazing book!
AC: Then on June 4, 2024, Joey the snake returns in Flamingos Are Pretty Funky, the second book in the “[Not So] Serious Guide” series from Greenwillow / HarperCollins. I think most of us are pretty familiar with these pink birds. You may have even heard the fact about how they get their color from the algae and shrimp they eat. But there are MANY more weird facts about flamingos including how they can casually stand around in toxic water that would burn our skin within minutes, and how they have special filter feeder beaks. I’m so excited to share this funny informative guide next year!
AH: Amazing! I am so excited for the return of Joey! Here's hoping there will be even more unique creatures Joey will get to tell us about in the future.
Where can people connect more with you?
AC: I have a monthly newsletter where I share my process for writing and illustrating my books. So you’ll get a sneak peek at what I have coming up, and I do giveaways as well. You can subscribe here: https://www.abicushman.com/join-my-email-list/ I’m also on X/Twitter, Instagram, and Threads. And you can always learn more about me at my website, abicushman.com.
AH: Readers, please connect with Abi on social media and check out her website for more information about WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD and her other incredible books. And while you are at it, please consider supporting WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD in any way you can.
This could include:
- ordering from your favorite indie
- marking as want to read on Goodreads
-leaving a review
- making a library request
Abi thank you so much for joining us! I appreciate you taking the time to fill us in on how this funny and informative book came to be.
Abi is generously offering one winner (US only) a copy of WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD.
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 ABI CUSHMAN
Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of Soaked! (Viking, 2020) and Animals Go Vroom! (Viking, 2021). She has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years, creating websites for libraries, towns, and local businesses. She runs two popular websites of her own: My House Rabbit, a pet rabbit care resource, and Animal Fact Guide, which was named a Great Website for Kids by the American Library Association. In her spare time, Abi enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.) She lives on the Connecticut shoreline with her husband and two kids.
ABOUT ANDREW HACKET
Andrew Hacket is a teacher by day, parent by night, and writer in the nooks and crannies of life. When it comes to his books, Andrew aims to create stories that tickle the funny bone and hug the heart of readers both young and old.
Andrew is the author of the early reader, CURLILOCKS AND THE THREE HARES (The Little Press, 2024) and the picture book, OLLIE, THE ACORN, AND THE MIGHTY IDEA (Page Street Kids, 2024). Additionally, his short story, THE TUNNEL, has been chosen for inclusion in the SCBWI anthology, The Haunted States of America.
Andrew lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three young children, and puppy, Gus.
Andrew is represented by Dan Cramer of Page Turner Literary.