Kimberly Derting & Shelli Johannes, CECE LOVES SCIENCE

Kimberly Derting & Shelli Johannes, CECE LOVES SCIENCE

Zibby Owens: Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m here with the authors of Cece Loves Science and Libby Loves Science, Kimberly Derting and Shelli Johannes. Welcome. Welcome to my show.

Shelli Johannes: Thank you for having us.

Zibby: You were so nice to have sent me these. My kids lined all these up on the table yesterday, all the little cards of the different characters. We had this whole game with all of them. Thanks for sending these too. Of course, we’ve been reading Cece Loves Science since it came out. As I mentioned to one of you — sorry, I’m rambling here — I literally had just seen this in the bookstore and was so excited and had read it with my son. When you reached out, I was like, this is perfect.

Shelli: That was so weird. It was just crazy.

Zibby: Tell me how the two of you came to collaborate in the first place and how you came up with the idea for the series.

Shelli: You want to go, Kim?

Kimberly Derting: Shelli and I have been critique partners for twelve years. We actually met online, of all places, back when blogging was still a big thing. We both started in young adult novels. SCBWI held a summer conference every year in LA. We were communicating via blog back and forth. One of us would post a blog. The other one would comment, back and forth like that. I think I had said I was going to go to the SCBWI summer conference. All of a sudden, I get an email from Shelli saying, “Hey, I have this really great idea. How would you feel about rooming together at this conference?” We had not met.

Shelli: That’s not creepy or anything.

Kimberly: We had never met in person before. I go, “Sure.” My husband says, “That’s how Dateline starts.” We had kind of formed this friendship online. We met in LA and instantly formed a connection. We really liked each other. From there, we started critiquing each other’s young adult novels for years. We had become instant friends. We’d talk every day on the phone, just fast friends. Fast-forward, Shelli had this idea. She says, “I have this idea. My daughter –” Tell the story, Shelli, about your daughter.

Shelli: My daughter was nine at the time and loves science. We were writing YA, so we had never written picture books at all. I went to my daughter and was like, “Are you ready for science camp this year?” She’s like, “Well, I don’t know if I’m ready for science camp. Science is kind of for boys.” I was like, “What?” She said, “Yeah. Every club I go into, every camp I go into, it’s always boys.” My husband has a PhD in topography. I love science. I volunteer at the zoo. We do a lot of conservation stuff. I couldn’t figure out how she got that message. It kind of scared me that someone could get a message like that outside of the house that we had not given. It was such a strong message that she was deciding not to go to camp because of that message. It scared me that someone could have that kind of voice in my child’s head. I immediately got this — this little girl came in my head and was super sassy and was like, science is not for boys. Science is fun. Science is cool. I just thought maybe I could write a Fancy Nancy for science, was kind of the initial thought.

I called Kim and told her the story and just how bothered I was. She was like, “You know, that’s so weird because Abby said that too. She loves science, and she kind of got out of it during school.” I said, “I’m going to write it. I’ll send it to you.” When Kim and I critique, we write back and forth and obviously just do little notes and overviews. For some reason, this time, I would send it to her and it would come back completely edited. I was like, “Aren’t you just taking some liberty?” We were kind of kidding back and forth. I couldn’t find the voice. Kim’s really, really good at voice. I was like, “This is a really weird idea, maybe not as weird as going to a hotel at a CBWI, but close. Would you want to write a picture book with me?” She goes, “I would love to. I totally love this picture book. I think it’s a great idea.” That’s how it started. We went to our agents. We’re like, “We’re going to write a picture book.” They were like, “But you’re YA authors.” We’re like, “Yeah, yeah, we know, but we’re going to write a picture book.” They were like, “But you’re YA authors. You write thrillers.” We’re like, “Yeah, but we’re going to write a picture book.” We just started and studied for a really long time. That was how it got started.

Zibby: Wow. Wait, tell me more about that. What did you study? How did you learn how to do it?

Shelli: At the time, there wasn’t that much online. Now Josh Funk has a great blog. We just went through articles and studied picture books and tried to map out picture books and how the arcs were for stories. Kim, do you remember if we — there were no classes.

Kimberly: We had one friend who had just sold a picture book to Harper Collins. We went to her and said, “What format do you use?” She gave us the layout of how the spreads are. She was really helpful. We had another friend who was agenting, and she went through some picture books with us and showed us some dos and don’ts. We reached out to people we knew who were in the industry and said, “Give us some ideas of what works and what doesn’t work.” The internet was really helpful, but it was also helpful to make some personal connections with people and see what is working and what isn’t working. There’s a lot of what doesn’t work. There really isn’t a right way to do it because there are so many different kinds of books. One of the things we really did wrong is we didn’t understand word count at all. Our first book, Cece Loves Science, is probably over the word count anyway, but our first draft was maybe three thousand words, which is humongous in picture book terms. Our agents kept going, “You need to cut. You need to cut.” We had so many art notes for the illustrators. Illustrators, they want to have creative license to use their imagination, and they should because they’re so good at it. They’re so talented. They have so much more imagination than we possibly could ever have. We had so many notes down to what Cece should be wearing in the book. We’re not illustrators. We should’ve cut all of that out.

Shelli: That was Robin Mellom, right?

Kimberly: Yeah. Robin Mellom is the author we had gone to to ask for help.

Shelli: Zibby, both of our agents are at the same agency. When we say our agents, we just mean one —

Kimberly: — Our agents are friends too.

Shelli: We kind of put them together. What do we call them? . We kind of give them their Hollywood name because they both email at the same time. Then Zibby, when we talked over email, the person who ended up taking our book at Harper, Virginia Duncan at Greenwillow, her daughter had said the same thing. I think it was just that moment where our stars align and something clicks or there’s some kind of connection that accidentally happens. I think she clicked with that because her daughter was the same age as my daughter at the time. Her daughter had said the exact same thing to her in recent months. She was thinking, this is obviously a problem.

Zibby: Wow, how great to identify a problem and then just go ahead and solve it. This is how we’re addressing it, right now, boom, I’m done. Here’s my book. It’s great. Why wait for someone else when you can fix it yourself? That’s fantastic. When my daughter got home from school and we had this stuff waiting, I was like, “What was your special today at school?” Now they’re actually in school again, which is a miracle. She’s like, “Actually, it was science.” Then she held up the book. She’s only seven. Maybe by starting with earlier kids it will help. Do you have a lot of people who are going to love science? Is this a whole series with fifty kids? What’s your plan with the series?

Shelli: Yes, Virginia, this is a series for fifty kids. No, we have six books. We have the ICR coming out in February for Libby, so Libby’s I Can Read. The Cece I Can Read is out. Then we have Vivy Loves Science which comes out next summer. There’s six books right now in the series.

Kimberly: It’s three characters. The third character is Vivy. She is a little marine biologist. She’ll be going down to the seashore and exploring marine life and the ocean. Each character has their little specialty. Libby’s is chemistry, obviously. What we like to do is include little experiments or things that kids can do at home. It’s especially timely now with parents on the frontline with educators, a lot of parents at home trying to keep their kids busy and engaged. It’s nice to have those interactive things that they can do at home.

Zibby: Yes. As a mother of four, I will agree with that.

Shelli: We were thinking about starting to go out and do more virtual school visits to actually see if there was a way to see if we could do experiments over Zoom. Could we have them do the ice cream? It’s very simple to do that and lead them through that process while we read the book and have it be a little bit more hands-on. I think picture books right now are a great way to supplement and have it be fun at home because it’s hard right now. I’ve got kids at home. It is hard to keep it fun. My kids are older, but they’re struggling to stay engaged, I think is the hardest thing.

Zibby: How old are your kids?

Shelli: Mine? Thirteen and sixteen.

Zibby: How about you?

Kimberly: My kids are older. They’re out of the house. My youngest is nineteen. She just came back from college when COVID hit. My grandkids are six and three. My daughter is struggling with that. While my six-year-old grandson is online, I bring my three-year-old granddaughter over here. We do preschool. I’m teaching her her letters and numbers just to keep her out of my daughter’s hair while — not to say out of her hair, but to kind of keep her out of the way while she’s trying to keep my grandson online on school. They’re still in virtual.

Zibby: My goal now is to try to look more like you when I’m a grandmother. I would never think you had grandchildren ever. Wow, that’s awesome. Fantastic. Tell me about working with the illustrator. You gave her all these notes. Then did she hate you? What was it like?

Shelli: We took them out.

Zibby: You took them all out, okay.

Shelli: Vashti did not need any art notes. She’s amazing. We took them out just so that the illustrator could have creative liberty and just make Cece who she was. We love her. Joelle Murray is the new illustrator for Libby and Vivy. Vashti is so amazing. She got super booked. Virginia really wanted to have the books come out a lot faster. We actually found Joelle on Instagram. She seemed to have a similar style. She’s amazing as well. We didn’t give any notes. That’s what’s hard about picture books. There’s no book that’s just one author. There’s all these people that play into it. Illustrators are half of that.

Kimberly: Can I just say, we have been so fortunate in illustration. Picture books take so much longer than a novel to produce because it’s pairing — our editor, she probably took a year to find the right illustrator for Cece Loves Science. She searched far and wide. When she came to us, we had a vision of who Cece was going to be. Like I said, we had a million art notes. We had stripped all those out. It’s like handing your baby over to somebody and saying, now make it come to life. Vashti Harrison, if nobody knows who she is, you have to look her up. She is absolutely brilliant. When we got the first sketches, Shelli and I opened them together over Skype. I think both of us started to cry a little because Cece was almost exactly who we pictured. Vashti brought her to life so brilliantly. We just felt so blessed to work with Vashti. Then when Joelle came on board, she complimented the series so beautifully. It was just such a lovely pairing. An illustrator can make or break a book. Kids are so visual, almost more so than adults. Everybody’s visual, but kids, children, you say, don’t judge a book by a cover, but how do you not? Those characters can bring a story to life. We’ve just been so fortunate.

Shelli: We were so upset when Vashti couldn’t, obviously, because we had built three books together. When Virginia said Vashti can’t sign on, we were thinking, oh, my gosh, how are we going to find someone that can step into those shoes? When we started in 2015, Bold Little Leaders hadn’t come out yet. It was so new. She was so new. She grew so fast because Bold Little Leaders was so amazing. We were so nervous. Then when we found Joelle, it was exactly the same. We were just so grateful that she could step in and make it so seamless and colorful. We were really lucky. Starting in the middle of a series is really hard to find someone that can fill or even come close to filling Vashti’s shoes. I think Joelle does a great job of that.

Zibby: That’s great. Vashti, as you know, was on this podcast to talk about those books. She came to my book fair. Then I had her at a book club recently. She’s amazing. It was so sweet when she was here. She drew a little picture of a monkey and my son’s name. I don’t think he knows how precious that is. I’m like, this is so amazing. You will appreciate this as you get older. I’m such a huge fan of Vashti’s. You’re right. Even just holding them side by side, you wouldn’t even necessarily know. They certainly look complimentary, as you well know.

Shelli: The art direction, obviously, at Harper did a great job of doing that. It definitely was a nervous time to make that transition, but it’s worked out really well.

Zibby: Do you already have plans, maybe you have this and I just didn’t know, to do Cece Loves Science kits or kits you can buy or subscription boxes or something to bring that science-y experiment into the home even more?

Shelli: We would love that.

Kimberly: That’s a great idea. Cece has been included in some subscription book boxes already, Jambo Books I think just for September. I can’t remember the other one. I should know this off the top of my head. A science kit would be super fun.

Zibby: You should team up with — I can introduce you if you want, if I can find the email. There’s a company called Kiwi Crate which we subscribe to.

Shelli: I love Kiwi.

Zibby: You should do a Cece Loves Science-branded, at least, kit.

Shelli: Wouldn’t that be great?

Zibby: That wouldn’t even be hard. You could just include some of this stuff. That could be the craft.

Shelli: That’s a great idea.

Zibby: Foodstirs also has a box, I don’t know if you follow them, with fantastic baking and cooking crafts for kids. You could do the ice cream maybe in that.

Kimberly: In the Libby Love Science: I Can Read is mix and measure. It’s baking. That would be super fun.

Zibby: I know. It’s very similar. Anyway, that’s your assignment for today.

Kimberly: Thank you.

Shelli: hours on Skype coming up with assignments for ourselves and talking assignments and talking about the future and where it could go.

Zibby: I feel like this is such a natural thing. Those boxes already exist. I know we rip open our boxes because we’re so in need of stuff. Instead of having to scrounge for materials, it’s all right there.

Shelli: That’s a great idea. I hadn’t even thought about the subscription boxes, going to them ourselves.

Kimberly: The boxes are so fun, though. I’m a subscription box junkie.

Shelli: I am too.

Kimberly: I love the book boxes. I get the FabFitFun box.

Shelli: I love FabFitFun.

Zibby: I don’t have that box. Maybe I have to check it out. Is that a fitness one?

Shelli: It’s fab, fit, and fun. You get some kind of beauty supply. Then you get some kind of health thing. Then you get some kind of fun thing. It comes four times a year. I get mine and my daughter’s like, “Can I look at it with you?” I’m like, “No, this is my box. I have my own box. It’s a mom box.” Bubble baths and whatever comes for that season.

Zibby: I do Book of the Month. Then I also do — I know we’re totally off topic. I get the LOL box for my kids. It’s this huge craze. All they do is unbox and unwrap stuff. It’s basically like all we do is clean up packaging. They think it’s so fun, so whatever.

Shelli: Whatever works, right?

Zibby: They’re like, “Did you order us this present?” I’m like, “I think this is the box I ordered. I don’t know.”

Shelli: Which box is it?

Zibby: Which box is it? I know. I can’t even keep track. Anyway, that would, I feel like, be such a natural. I’m sure there’s so many other brand extensions. It’s just an approachable — I feel like there are other companies and things trying to get kids, and girls especially, to enjoy science. I feel like this is so important. Your brand is so playful and fun and young and targeted that it would be really easy.

Shelli: I think a lot of kids start to think science is a subject in school. Once kids get to middle school and it becomes like, you’re going to science now and then you’re going to social studies, you’re going to ELA, then somehow the fun of science I think gets lost that they have in elementary school. That’s what we always think about. What would be something fun that kids could do at home? Science is everywhere. It’s not just a subject in school. How do we keep kids off of that track that it’s just a subject that you’re supposed to get an A in? It’s everywhere. It’s outside. When I do some of my talks at schools, at the end I’ll have people raise their hand. I’ll say, “Who loves science?” They’re like — . I’m like, “It’s okay. You don’t have to love science. Just raise your hand if you love science. Keep your hand down if you don’t.” Then I’ll say, “Who loves baking?” Then people will raise their hand. I’ll say, “Who loves being outside in nature?” They’re raise their hand. Then I’ll just go down the list. There’ll always be a few kids that are just like, that’s not for me, you haven’t listed anything yet. Then of course I say, “Who loves computers?” They’re like, “.” Everyone raises their hand. They start screaming. I’m like, “That’s computer science.” They’re like, “What?” It’s so cute. They just don’t think of those things as science.

Zibby: I feel like science as a word, we need to rename it or something. I mean, not now because you have the books and everything. It has a negative connotation, which it shouldn’t. It’s not even representative of all the stuff. If you said Cece loves experimenting, everyone would be like, totally, of course she does. She loves potions and magic.

Kimberly: Asking questions. I feel like just the whole idea of keeping kids curious, asking questions, getting out there and exploring is kind of the whole thing. Don’t squash their curiosity.

Zibby: That’s all kids do. Why? Why? Why? So what’s going on in your other writing lives? Are you still doing YA? Have you stopped the other types of writing? How are you integrating this with the rest of your professional lives?

Kimberly: It’s interrupted it a little bit, but we’re both still writing. We both have projects in the works, nothing announce-able. We definitely are both writing. I think COVID has been the biggest hiccup. If anything, you would think that would give you more writing time, but it’s definitely been a creativity damper for me. I’ll speak for me personally. I know probably some people found it easier to hunker down at home and find time to write. For me, it’s actually been the opposite. I’ve found that it’s kind of taken away my creativity a little bit. Now I’m finding it again. The picture books are actually kind of nice. Shelli and I have other picture books in the works. We found that writing together, this team thing, works really well for us. Shelli has other individual picture books. Our team one, we have another one coming out in 2020. Wait, this is 2020.

Shelli: 2022.

Kimberly: 2022, it sounds forever away.

Shelli: I have a couple. I’m kind of an overachiever. With COVID, for me, it helped me focus because I wasn’t going to soccer. I feel bad because my husband built this super cute she-shed for me. It’s just amazing. I actually have two picture books coming out next year. I kind of moved away from YA and was just like, I love picture books. Kim and I do the STEM picture books. I’ve got Thesaurus, which is a dinosaur who loved words. That’s coming out with Penguin. You have a book coming out with Penguin, right?

Zibby: Flamingo is the new imprint under Penguin Random House, so it’s going to be through that.

Shelli: I love that emblem, the logo. I think it’s so cute.

Zibby: Yeah, so cute.

Shelli: Then I have Shine Like a Unicorn which is coming out with Harper that is a how-to book. How do you stand out? How do you be a unicorn in a herd of horses? is kind of the tagline. I went down the picture book a little bit more. I’m working on a YA now. It’s nice to get back. I’ve actually found that since I don’t have anywhere to be with my kids, it’s given me that space. I’m not driving all the time. I’m not in my car all the time. I’m not sitting at soccer fields, which is sad, but it definitely has given me time to focus.

Zibby: Is it sad, though? I don’t know. Do I miss sitting there, hockey or baseball and ice skating? I’m pretty happy here at my desk.

Shelli: I just feel like it gives you more space to be creative. Before, I felt like I was trying to squeeze it in. I also do marketing. I’m a copywriter on the side. I do freelance. I feel like I was always trying to squeeze my writing in between writing picture books and writing YA and being with the kids and doing that and being with the husband and cooking dinner. Now everybody’s just here. I have no place to go. Instacart’s taking care of me.

Kimberly: Except your fancy she-shed.

Shelli: My she-shed gets me away from the house, which is nice to have my own space.

Zibby: I totally agree, by the way. Not having to race around and get people to assorted things has been completely freeing for me.

Shelli: Maybe it’s because I have ADHD and I’m scattered. Maybe that is just too much scatter for me.

Zibby: I think it’s too much scatter for most of us. It was a lot. Now that we’ve slowed down, I’m like, oh, what was I doing? How did I even do that? Anyway, what parting advice would you guys have for aspiring picture book writers, or writers at all?

Shelli: I will tell you that I watched your podcast with Greer and Sarah. Kim and I would like to take them on in a battle of the coauthors. I was listening to their podcast. They were like, “No other writer writes like us. We’re on Skype all the time. We feel like our relationship’s different.” I was thinking, no, it’s not. We get on Skype every day. We talk every day, all day. In my head, I was a little bit competitive. I was thinking, I think we could take them. Maybe we know more about them than they know about us. That’s a challenge.

Zibby: I am going to find a way to pitch that as a TV show, Battle of the Coauthors or Author Battle or something. You guys will be the first contestants.

Shelli: Instead of the newlyweds, it’ll be The Authors That Know Each Other the Best. That would be my advice, though. I think when you do do a coauthor, the relationship has to be — you have to have trust first because you do have conflict. You do come across things that you are not expecting to come across. That is the first thing Kim and I made a pact from the very beginning. You are for me. I am for you. We are a team. No one else matters. We have to be with it first. If you don’t like something, I don’t want to like it. We both have to love it and move forward. No matter what, it’s you and I against the world.

Kimberly: Right, the friendship always comes first with the coauthoring.

Shelli: You have to really trust each other.

Kimberly: It doesn’t mean .

Shelli: Oh, yeah, we have our own challenges. I would say that’s the biggest. We are on the phone pretty much every day for hours. My daughter came out the other day and started talking. I said, “I’m on the phone.” She goes, “Yeah, but is it just Kim?” I said, “We’re working.” She goes, “It doesn’t sound like you’re working.” I’m like, “We work and we play at the same time.” We get a lot of work done. We just have to catch up a little bit. Kim was like, “Just Kim, that’s great.” What do you think, Kim, for advice?

Kimberly: For picture book authors in general, I think the best thing you can do is join a great organization like SCBWI. Get involved with meeting other authors. If you’re an illustrator, meet other illustrators. Get involved with the organizations out there in your area. Right now, you can’t actually do it in person. They have so many great virtual events. Find out what resources are available. Like I said, Shelli and I had to go out and scour the internet. Meeting, actually talking to other authors who are in the industry was more helpful even than the stuff we found online.

Shelli: I think writing picture books is hard. It is harder, I find, than it is for YA. Not saying that anyone doesn’t work as hard as a picture book author, but getting a story and a character in eight hundred words, six hundred words, enough to where people can connect to the character, enough to where you know what’s going on, it’s hard. We really struggle trying to pare back our words. I think really making sure that your characters have clear arcs. Just because they’re picture books, they still have to have a clear arc, clear story, personality, voice. That’s hard to do in six hundred words.

Zibby: Agree. Right before you, I interviewed Sophie Blackall, the author/illustrator. She’s starting, you should know, a retreat for children’s book authors and illustrators, like a Yaddo for children’s books, basically. I can’t find the little sticky here, but it’s called something-farm, Wilford — Milkwood. Milkwood Farm.

Shelli: It sounds like a picture book.

Zibby: Right? It does. She’s Australian. Anyway, check it out. She has a new Instagram for it. It would be really neat to go. I was like, when is this opening? Can I go on a retreat right now? Anyway, thank you, ladies, so much. This was so fun. I’m so thankful for all the little fun cards and books and everything. Your books are just fantastic. Thank you.

Shelli: It made me so happy when you said you’d already gotten Libby Loves Science. I thought, oh, that’s great. Libby’s been hard because it’s been over COVID.

Zibby: It jumped right out to me. It had great placement. I was at a bookstore. It was front and center. Idiotically, I didn’t even realize it was related to Cece Loves Science when I got it. I was like, oh, Libby. I was taking this with my son. I was like, “Look, it’s kind of like Zibby Loves Science.” It’s the closest title of a book to my name ever.

Shelli: You know what’s funny? When I was signing it to you, I got all nervous. Then I looked down and I had written “To Libby” because I flipped Libby/Zibby. Then I put it aside and had to make another one. I was like, oh, Zibby would be a cute name. I wonder if that would be weird.

Zibby: No, that’d be great. I was so excited. Even this is — I feel like I’m famous, so thank you. All right, have a great day, guys.

Kimberly: Thank you so much for having us.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Kimberly Derting & Shelli Johannes, CECE LOVES SCIENCE