Zibby is joined by Clothilde Ewing to talk about her very first picture book, Stella Keeps the Sun Up, which is out this week from Denene Millner Books. Clothilde shares how an op-ed from Denene was what originally inspired her to begin writing and how her own childrens’ sleep habits helped her shape the story. Clothilde also tells Zibby about her time working as a producer for The Oprah Winfrey Show as well as what she is working on now, both for her second picture book and as Vice President of Strategic Communications at The Chicago Community Trust.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Clothilde. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your picture book, Stella Keeps the Sun Up, illustrated by Lynn Gaines.

Clothilde Ewing: Thanks so much for having me. I’m super excited.

Zibby: It’s so fun. I was telling you how obsessed I am with your end papers. I have a thing for end papers. I’m going to share my screen for a minute so I can post this on social media as I’m releasing your episode. Just look how amazing this is. I’m obsessed. Gorgeous.

Clothilde: Beautiful. Lynn Gaines is the illustrator, as you said. She did such a magnificent job. The attention to detail, both with Stella and Roger and the end papers and the sparkle, it’s awesome.

Zibby: It’s amazing. Okay, well, I won’t give away the whole book. By the way, I had Denene Millner on this podcast too, who’s your publisher.

Clothilde: She’s amazing. I feel so blessed that I was able to work with the one and only Denene. She helped to bring Stella in the world. I’ll forever be grateful.

Zibby: Tell us the story, Stella Keeps the Sun Up. Do you have a friend who lives around the world that you kept in mind for where the sun rises and falls? First of all, explain what this book is about and then how you came up with this whole idea.

Clothilde: For sure. The book is about a little girl named Stella and her buddy Roger, who happens to be a stuffed hippopotamus who comes alive for her, and the adventures that they go on. This is a series. This is the first in the series. In this book, they decide that they’re over bedtime. They feel like they’re old enough to stay up forever, and so they need to figure out how to do that. As kid logic goes, they’re like, well, we usually have to go to bed when it gets dark, so if we can keep the sun up, then we’ll never have to go to bed again. That’s the story. They go on a series of adventures to try and keep the sun up and then realize, uh, oh, maybe that’s not what we should do, and come up with a plan B.

Zibby: They were very crafty about it, I have to say. They were not dissuaded by anything and just kept trying to come up with ideas on how to do it, outsmarting dinner and all the rest.

Clothilde: They had a plan.

Zibby: How did this become your story and your book?

Clothilde: I have two children myself. My kids are now seven and a half and almost six. He said he was five and three quarters this morning, so almost six. Like a lot of parents of young kids, the bedtime struggle is real. We have gone through everything. We have tried having them sleep on the floor in our room. We have said no to our bed and then woken up with multiple feet in our face. We have been up until midnight. We have done it all. It was born from that. We’ve tried a lot of things that didn’t work. In talking to my kids and trying to figure out, okay, what would actually click for you guys? it turns out that they feel bad for other kids more than they would for their own parents who are sleep-deprived, and so we came up with this idea together. It was a lot of fun.

Zibby: Kids have no — they don’t care at all about parents being tired. I’m like, “Don’t you care that I’m going to be in a bad mood all day? I’m not going to be a good mom because I’m going to be so tired.” They’re like, yeah, whatever.

Clothilde: It didn’t do it for them. It’s zero effect. I worked on this story a lot with my critique group and my own kids, like I said. I think it works. It’s a lot of fun.

Zibby: It is a lot of fun. I love it. I like, also, just the determination. Kids believe that if they just try hard enough — they have an idea, they’re going to just make it happen, even if it’s the entire universe. I love that. When does that go away?

Clothilde: I know. It’s interesting because when I look at my own kids, the world is their oyster. As you said, if I believe it, I can make it happen. I’m not sure. I don’t know if it’s when we’re teenagers, young adults when a little bit of that dies. The sense of awe and wonder and determination to realize what they think should happen, it’s amazing to see. It can be frustrating as a parent, for sure, but it’s also pretty amazing.

Zibby: It is amazing. I feel like I need, maybe, a little dose of that.

Clothilde: They also have a lot of wonderful opportunities to live in that world without the responsibilities of adulthood. I think a nice mix would be great.

Zibby: Have you found any good solutions? I’m always looking for help with the bedtime. We have one in the bed often. Last night, I was just like, why? Why has the bedtime scooched up to almost ten o’clock? This is ridiculous.

Clothilde: You know, I can say it ebbs and flows. There are times where we feel like, okay, we’ve got it. Inevitably, when we make the mistake of giving each other, my husband and I, a high-five, that’s when it just goes downhill again. Okay-to-wake clock worked well with my daughter. My son, forget about it.

Zibby: I tried that.

Clothilde: He’s like, I don’t care if the light’s green. I’m getting up whenever I want. I can’t say that we have totally figured it out. I do think that the routine helped in our house. We are out of your room, for my daughter, at eight o’clock. We’re out of your room, for my son, around 7:45. That helped somewhat. Then this helped with my daughter more than my son. We did go through the phase where it’s like, okay, you’re welcome to come into our room, but that means you sleep on the floor. Bring a pillow. You can bring a blanket. We’re not going to make it too comfortable for you because we are not trying to encourage them. My son, he just finds a way to worm his way in when he comes in. By no means am I an expert yet.

Zibby: We’ve had one kid start sleeping in the dog bed. The kid is in the dog bed. The dog’s on the floor.

Clothilde: Even the dog’s like, figure it out.

Zibby: I know, right?

Clothilde: The struggle is real.

Zibby: Clothilde, what was your life before this book? What are you from? What’s your story?

Clothilde: What’s my story? I am from a town called Shaker Heights, Ohio. It’s right outside of Cleveland. Born and raised. My parents are still there. I have friends that I grew up with that are still there. It’s a great, great city. I ended up going to school in New York. Went to Syracuse and then worked in communications for the last twenty years or so, which I still do now. I started my career in news. Worked at CBS News, then moved over to The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was awesome, and then moved into politics and now, nonprofit world. I’ve bounced around, but always in communications trying to tell great stories.

Zibby: What did you do on The Oprah Winfrey Show?

Clothilde: I was a producer there. I went there in 2004. My first day at work was the day that she gave away all those cars.

Zibby: No way.

Clothilde: Yeah, it was crazy. I’m sitting there waiting to get walked up from a member of the HR team to my desk. The screaming was so loud. I could hear, from the studio, all this screaming. I have no idea what I got myself into because I had just moved over from CBS. I remember I had professors from college at the time who were not so impressed with my choice to leave journalism and go to The Oprah Winfrey Show. I’m sitting there thinking, oh, my goodness. It turns out that was a huge TV moment, an SNL moment, and all of that. It was a really great experience to do great television, tell great stories. We did everything from stories that tackled topics as heavy as abuse to the bra makeover show, which changed so many lives, you how to find the perfect bra. I’ll be forever grateful for that experience and the friends that I made on that show.

Zibby: I just interviewed, on Monday, Jacquelyn Mitchard whose new book is The Good Son. Originally, it was The Deep End of the Ocean, which was Oprah’s very first book club pick. She was telling the story of how Oprah left her three different messages on her machine. The last one, she was like, “Listen, would you at least call me back?” She’s like, wait, did I really just upset Oprah? Was that really her? She thought it was a joke.

Clothilde: That’s awesome. Life-changing moment, I’m sure, once her book was chosen.

Zibby: What are you in doing in the nonprofit world now?

Clothilde: I work at The Chicago Community Trust, which is a community foundation based here in Chicago working on strengthening the Chicago region. Our strategic goal right now is aimed at closing the racial and ethnic wealth gap. Really important work and very of-the-moment. Lucky to have that opportunity.

Zibby: Amazing. Tell me your history with writing. Have you ever written for adults? You’re a communications person. I’m sure you’ve been writing your whole life. Tell me about that.

Clothilde: I’ve always worked in communications. I’ve always written for my jobs. I’ve been an avid reader my whole life. To be honest, I never thought of myself as a future writer when it came to books. I never thought that I would write a book. I thought that other people did that, but always enjoyed what they did. It wasn’t until I came across an article that Denene wrote about four years ago — she wrote this op-ed piece in The New York Times that was titled “Black Kids Don’t Want to Read About Harriet Tubman All the Time.” I read the article from beginning to end. Something told me to cut that article out. I cut it out. I put it on my vision board, which at that point was in my bedroom positioned against the wall. I walked past it for a couple of weeks. I’m not sure why, in that moment, I cut it out, to be honest, but I did. Then I had this lightbulb moment and thought, I think I’m supposed to try and do something about this.

The article was essentially about how there wasn’t enough diversity in children’s literature. There’s been a lot of talk about that in the past. It talked about how there hadn’t been a huge shift from the time that she had children. At that point, I think it was about twenty years prior to where we are right now. So many of the books that did feature black characters were about people who achieved firsts in their career or in the world or about our people and our endurance and ability to overcome. It resonated with me. It resonated. Like a lot of parents of color, and I’m sure others, when I went out to build my own children’s libraries, I was really conscious of trying to find books that would reflect the community that they were going to live in and that reflected our own family. It didn’t mean all of the books needed to feature diverse characters, but I wanted a number of them to. I was able to find them, to be sure, but it was a little harder than I thought it should be. Just kind of packaged that away and went about parenting. Then when I found that article, it clicked, and so I decided to give it a try.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Wow.

Clothilde: The crazy thing about it is that then a couple years later my agent was able to get the book to Simon & Schuster and to Denene in particular. It was kind of a full-circle, Oprah Show moment in a lot of ways. It’s just like, wait, what? It’s crazy. That article’s still on my vision board. It’s yellowed and frayed, but it’s still there.

Zibby: That is so cool. I love it. You’re like Stella. You’re putting your mind to something. You just made it happen.

Clothilde: Tried to make it happen. I’m now in this moment where I’m a bit terrified about it all, but I’m excited as well.

Zibby: You said at the beginning this is going to be a whole series. Tell me about that.

Clothilde: It’s a series. I sold two books initially to Simon & Schuster. The first one is Stella Keeps the Sun Up. The second one, I don’t think we have finalized a title yet. It’s an awesome story about a hunt for a missing tooth. That’ll be the second story. Then I have a couple others that I have worked on. Hopefully, I’ll get to show them soon.

Zibby: Exciting. Very cool.

Clothilde: It’s exciting.

Zibby: Amazing. What do your kids think about the book?

Clothilde: They are very excited. In fact, my daughter in particular has outed me to her entire class and all of her sports friends. That’s fun. My kids — I’ll say their names. My daughter’s name is Stella. My son’s name is Jackson. The story was inspired by both of them, to be sure, though Stella, for sure, feels like she is going to be famous and that she should get a Lego set for this once it’s out in the world. We’ll see how that goes.

Zibby: In my picture book coming out, Princess Charming, one of the main events of the book is when this movie star comes to Princess Charming’s castle. Her name is Stella Sparkle. Isn’t it crazy?

Clothilde: We’ll have to do something together.

Zibby: Right? I was reading this book to my kids last night on the computer, which is where I have it. My husband comes behind me to look over my shoulder. He was like, “Oh, my gosh, is this your next book?” I was like, “What? No. That’s not Princess Charming.” He’s like, “Look, it says Stella Sparkle.” I was like, “No, no.” Anyway, it’s very cool.

Clothilde: That is very cool. We’ll have to do something with our books together at some point.

Zibby: Yes, for sure. That would be fun. What advice would you have for aspiring authors, especially of picture books?

Clothilde: I would say to believe in yourself and find your village. The critique group that I worked with was hugely helpful for me, in part because they were going through the process themselves and also because they know the challenges. They know the challenges when it comes to feeling a bit blocked. They know the challenges in terms of feeling self-doubt. They know the challenges in terms of finding your agent, trying to get published. It’s a like-minded group. I’d say when you’re trying to find that group, know that not every group’s going to be a perfect fit for you. It’s okay to move around and find that group. I feel like between my critique group and then also friends and family who were there to root me on, that was really, really helpful. This doesn’t have to be a totally solitary experience. You can find a group of people who are invested in helping you to achieve your goal.

Zibby: Amazing. Love it. Excellent. Clothilde, thank you so much. Thanks for coming on to talk about Stella and the power of believing, really.

Clothilde: Thank you. Thanks for having me. Really, good luck to you and your book as well. I can’t wait to get it.

Zibby: Thank you. We’ll do something fun.

Clothilde: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop!

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts