Shelli R. Johannes, SHINE LIKE A UNICORN

Shelli R. Johannes, SHINE LIKE A UNICORN

Children’s book author Shelli R. Johannes joins Zibby to talk about her two most recent releases, Shine Like a Unicorn and Theo TheSaurus: The Dinosaur Who Loved Big Words. Shelli shares that although her kids are older now, the lessons her characters learn are often inspired by real things her own children have experienced. She also tells Zibby about her publishing journey, from her time self-publishing to achieving her ultimate goal: world domination, of course!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Shelli. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Shine Like a Unicorn and also Theo TheSaurus: The Dinosaur Who Loved Big Words.

Shelli R. Johannes: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: There are a lot of big words in the unicorn book also.

Shelli: That is true. Unicorns do like big words.

Zibby: Also, what was flawsome? I think that was my favorite word.

Shelli: I saw that a long time ago. My daughter bought a shirt that said “flawsome” at some little, cute boutique store in a mountain town. I was like, that’s brilliant. I’m sure people have said it before, but that was where I heard it.

Zibby: I hadn’t heard it. There was another word. Wait, hold on, I have to find it. Then I’ll ask you the .

Shelli: I hope it’s not the one I can’t pronounce.

Zibby: No, wait, hold on. It was right above gobsmacked.

Shelli: Was it grandiloquent?

Zibby: Where did it go? Hold on. It was gobsmacked. I’ll find it.

Shelli: The one where he talked about how he likes questions and big words?

Zibby: I’ll just flip through while — what is wrong with me? I can’t find this word. I’ll find it later. Anyway, why don’t you tell everybody what Shine Like a Unicorn is really about? What inspired you to write it? I know you’ve written so many other books. You’ve mastered the whole Cece Loves Science, Libby Loves Science genre. You’ve cornered the market. Why this book? Why this book after? Why now?

Shelli: It’s world domination.

Zibby: World domination, I love it.

Shelli: As you well know. Shine Like a Unicorn, it’s a book that really is about celebrating yourself and celebrating standing out, trying to stand out in a crowd, not trying to hide, and trying to just show off your best features. This came about because my kids are always struggling to stand out or be what everybody wants them to be. My daughter’s a senior. My son’s a freshman. I always say when they go to school, “Do you. Be brave. Be bold. Be you,” is kind of what I say whenever they leave the house. My son had some bullying going on a few years ago. He kept saying, “I’m different than everyone else. They’re picking on me.” I used to always say, “Be a unicorn in a herd of horses. You don’t want to be a horse. If someone walks up and sees a unicorn in a group of horses, they’re going to go for the unicorn. You just don’t know that yet.” That was kind of where it started, was just that bullying and trying to help him see that the people who stand out are going to possibly sometimes get picked on. That’s okay because they’re different. This was just a funny way of a unicorn coming out and saying, you know what, I stand out all the time. Here are the steps that you have to do to stand out and be yourself and be you. Don’t hide yourself. Be out there. That was where it came from.

Zibby: I love that. That is so cool. Grandiloquent is the word, by the way. I finally found it.

Shelli: That was the one I have a hard time pronouncing.

Zibby: Grandiloquent, I love that. Is that actually a word?

Shelli: Yeah.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Sorry, not that that was even important, but I’m glad we closed the loop on that. I love how you have all these steps. It’s not just, it would be nice to be a unicorn. This is like, let me transform you into a unicorn. Then you have this real feeling of accomplishment at the end.

Shelli: This is the secret steps that no one knows. Glitter Poop is coming in to let us know how he does it. If you only do these nine steps, then you’ll be a unicorn by the end.

Zibby: How come in “u do u” and “u did it” and all that, you’re just using the letter U and not Y-O-U? Just curious.

Shelli: I don’t know. It was just fun, different.

Zibby: It is fun.

Shelli: To spell out you just seems like a lot of letters to get it across. It seemed like it could be a banner. U do u.

Zibby: Totally. Love it. What is your unicorn name? That’s step one, by the way, is choosing a unicorn name.

Shelli: My unicorn name is in the back. I am Sassy Sparklepants.

Zibby: It’s in the back? Did I miss it? Oh, it’s in your author description. I didn’t even read it. I’m so unprepared.

Shelli: How cute is that? Maddie Frost did those. She’s a great illustrator. I love her art so much. She is Spunky Happyhooves.

Zibby: Aw, I love that.

Shelli: That was her idea to come up with our author bios.

Zibby: Sassy Sparklepants, you can’t really beat that. That’s pretty good.

Shelli: Right? I thought so. I had to get sassy in there. I debated on sparklepants for a while because I don’t really wear sparkly pants, but I feel like I do.

Zibby: The unicorn you does wear sparklepants.

Shelli: Yes. I walk as if I wear sparklepants.

Zibby: That’s awesome. It’s an interesting question. Do you want your child to stand out in a crowd from day one? Is that the easiest path? Is it an essential path?

Shelli: I don’t think it’s the easiest path. I just think that some kids don’t fit into that — I don’t know what the mold is called, the popular mold, the one that’s just easy. They make friends easily. They keep friends easily. For some reason, my kids have definitely struggled in that. I don’t know why. They seem a little bit older for their age, so I think sometimes they don’t quite connect. This is going to sound bad. I’m not putting people down in a, oh, your emotional intelligence isn’t there, but I just think they think differently. I always want them to be proud of who they are. I think someday, it will pay off. I think that a lot of times, the people who are different later stand out. The ones who aren’t as different later blend in. I just didn’t ever want them to feel bad about who they were and to actually celebrate it. Celebrate that you love science. Celebrate that you’re not into makeup. Celebrate that you love playing with earthworms more than makeup. I think we should celebrate our kids’ differences. We should encourage them to be different. We don’t want them to be the same.

Zibby: I love that. Your earthworm holder is one day going to be a Nobel-winning scientist. That’s what always happens.

Shelli: Hopefully, she’s going to be a vet.

Zibby: Oh, a vet. That’s so great.

Shelli: She just got accepted to a university in North Georgia, so she’ll be going there.

Zibby: Congratulations. That’s great. It’s true. I used to think there was an inverse correlation between popularity in seventh grade and long-term success. If you peak in seventh grade, that is not a good thing. I think you have to, slow and steady, climb up. You don’t want to peak too soon.

Shelli: No. You always want to be going up.

Zibby: You always want to be going up. Exactly.

Shelli: Sometimes we go back to the reunions. It’s interesting to see how people end up. Those people who were on top in high school, maybe not so much anymore. I think we take it too seriously when we’re in that moment, but it’s hard. In high school, we’re forced together with people. Really, it’s the only time in our life that we don’t choose to be there. You choose a college. You choose your job. You choose your friends in college. Usually, those are out of things that you have in common. In high school, it’s whoever you got lunch with that year. Sometimes you don’t really fit in with that.

Zibby: That’s true. What about Theo TheSaurus? How did that one come about, The Dinosaur Who Loved Big Words?

Shelli: It’s funny. I don’t know if you feel this way, but a lot of my books do come from my kids even though they’re older. Theo TheSaurus came about because my son, when he was a little bit younger, always tried to impress his teachers with big words. I would read because I’m the editor. You’re probably the editor in the house. I’m the editor in the house. I would read some of these words and say, “Did you look this word up? I’m not sure this is the context that this word should be used in.” He’s like, “Teachers love big words.” There was one day I was in the kitchen cooking, which is not normal. I don’t cook often. I was cooking. He was yelling. My son was yelling from the back saying, “What’s another word for happy, a bigger word for happy?” I was like, “Look at a thesaurus.” He’s like, “A what?” I was like, “A thesaurus!” We’re screaming. In our house, we don’t walk to the other room. We scream back and forth. I’m screaming back and forth.

Zibby: That’s so weird. I’ve never heard of that happening. I never scream at all, ever. No, I don’t even know. Anyway, go on.

Shelli: I said, “A thesaurus.” He said, “A what?” I said, “A thesaurus, as in the dinosaur, the saurus.” I thought, surely that’s been done. It was just that kind of thing. Oh, that’s been done. There’s no way someone hasn’t done the dinosaur who loved big words as a thesaurus. I just started looking it up. It had not been done. Theo also sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s the only thesaurus in his class. No one’s ever heard of a thesaurus. He has very peculiar things that he does, that he eats, crudités. They’re like, ew. It also is really about a dinosaur trying to be himself and be accepted. I guess there’s a little theme there.

Zibby: I think so. Should I put my therapist hat on for you?

Shelli: I probably need to get a couch.

Zibby: Shelli, are you feeling like you’re not accepted lately? Are you feeling a little bit on the outskirts of things?

Shelli: I’m feeling left out of a lot of things, evidently. You saved me hundreds of dollars in therapy. Thank you.

Zibby: No problem. You can just replay this anytime. It’s fine. I feel like everybody’s left out because what is even going on anymore? We’re all stuck, most of the time, in some — it seems like with the kids going back to school, maybe some life is going back, somewhat, sort of, cautiously, but I don’t know. I don’t know what everybody else is doing. I’m constantly like, everybody’s probably out doing stuff, but I’m not. I’m in here doing these interviews all day. I guess I’m missing out too.

Shelli: I’m not. It’s JOMO, right? The joy of missing out is what it’s become.

Zibby: Exactly. I know. I’m like, why is it, whenever I’m out, I can’t wait to get back home? It’s so sad. I enjoy it, but I’m always really happy to get home.

Shelli: It’s just that relief. Right now, there’s a tension when you go out. I just feel kind of like an agoraphobe looking, who’s too close? Who’s too this? Who’s not wearing a mask? I get home, I’m like, mask off, can just be myself again, and don’t have to be slightly paranoid and on guard.

Zibby: I know you’ve already told me your story, but just in case this is the first time listeners are hearing from you, how did you end up becoming a children’s book author?

Shelli: I’ve always written young adult. The way I fell into picture books is — Cece Loves Science was my first picture book with Kimberly Derting. My daughter, who was much younger then, probably nine or ten, had always done science camp. She came home one day. I said, “Are you excited about science camp next week?” She said, “No, not really.” This was someone who, like I said, earthworms, outside in the yard. While girls are standing in a circle talking about fashion, she’s trying to catch a frog. She always loved science. She said, “No, not this year.” She’s like, “Science is for boys.” I immediately got this picture of this little girl who was just like, science is not for boys. I thought, I wonder if I could do a Fancy Nancy for science. It’s nice to teach our kids to love pink and to be fancy, but why are we not teaching our girls to love science and be smart, smart and fancy, or fancy-smart, however you want to put it together? That was what kicked off that series. Kim, who had studied biology, we were like, let’s write this book together. That was how it started. Now somehow, I am down a picture book track, which was not my intention. Hopefully, at some point, I would love to do a YA, a young adult book. I love picture books. I love talking with the kids when they’re that age and getting letters from them. “I didn’t think science was for girls either until you came.”

Zibby: Aw.

Shelli: I know. You’re just like, okay, that’s it. I touched one person.

Zibby: What if that one person develops a cure for some disease because all of a sudden, they realized that this is something that can be accessible to them because of this book? How powerful is that?

Shelli: I might have talked about this with you before, but I think what scared me the most was that someone, because it wasn’t — my husband has a PhD in topography. I love science. I do a lot of conservation efforts in Atlanta. I couldn’t figure out, how does someone like that get that message? It made me realize that I think we underestimate these young kids, how much they absorb. They’re like little sponges. These messages sneak in that aren’t necessarily messages that their teachers give. I know teachers aren’t saying science is for boys. I’m not saying that. Where did she get that message that was so strong that within a short period of time she had gone from loving science to “science is for boys”? That seems like that would be a big message somewhere, like a big billboard or something. Where did that come from? I started realizing we can really make an impression on these kids at a very young age and help them think about the things that are important. I think we focus on teens. We forget that those five, six, seven-year-olds, they’re out there seeking answers and asking questions. That was what we loved about that Cece Loves Science series.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love it. As I’ve told you, my kids loved it. Still love it. I just interviewed this author named Meg Cabot who writes rom-coms and stuff.

Shelli: Oh, who’s Meg Cabot? I’ve never heard of her.

Zibby: Okay, fine.

Shelli: Please, Princess Diaries.

Zibby: Yes, Princess Diaries. Not everybody knows.

Shelli: Really?

Zibby: Who knows? I don’t know. Maybe somebody’s listening right now who just — maybe it’s a child listening who loves your picture books. Who knows? Now what was I even saying about Meg Cabot? Oh, because she’s a YA — not even YA. She’s a middle-grade graphic novel-type author, like of a Dog Man series-ish. People are always telling the character in the book, I used to love your books. She’s like, that sounds bad. I don’t want people to have used to have liked my books. The person that she hangs out with, the other author, they’re always like, your books are amazing. I used to like your books. When I said that to you, I wanted to bite my tongue. They used to like your books. They still love your books. Used to read them more often, I guess. I don’t know. Anyway, so what’s on the horizon? You must have so much other stuff coming.

Shelli: I do. It’s hard because as a writer, I think I spent fifteen years just, rejection, rejection, rejection. I self-published some books that got rejected. They sold a lot of copies, but I still wanted to break in. Then all of a sudden, you get lucky. You hit something at the right time. Then some things happen, but I don’t take that for granted. Each book is special. I don’t expect another one. Each one that comes in, I love. It’s the right time. I hope it makes a difference. I’m not expecting anything else because I think this business is hard. We do have some more. We have three more Loves Science, I Can Reads, coming out. That’s great. We’ve got Vivi Loves Science: Sink or Swim, which is coming out in February. I have another Theo book coming out, Theo Finds the Perfect Pet. He finds a pet that is maybe not so perfect. He has to figure out how to communicate with this pet that he doesn’t really know much about. Then Kim and I just announced that next fall we have Penny: The Engineering Tale of the Fourth Pig. Penny is the younger sister of the three little pigs. She comes home to help them rebuild, but the wolf returns. She decides to help them out in a different way. That’s what’s on the horizon.

Zibby: That’s great. How fun. Did you ever think, when you were a kid reading, and reading picture books, that this is where you might end up?

Shelli: I don’t even think I thought that authors were real. I thought someone was just in a warehouse somewhere cranking these things out under different people’s names. I don’t know if I ever thought there was a person sitting behind a desk creating a story when I was reading Babysitter’s Club or Nancy Drew. Did you? I never thought of it.

Zibby: I used to write authors letters. Sometimes they wrote me back, and so I kind of knew they weren’t computers.

Shelli: And this was before computers, so I was obviously advanced.

Zibby: No, I shouldn’t have said that. I shouldn’t have said computers. I got my first computer when I was eight or nine or something like that. It was the biggest deal. My grandmother ruined the surprise by calling first thing and being like, “Do you like your new computer?” My mother was like, ah!

Shelli: You’re like, I thought that was a TV. Those were so big.

Zibby: Exactly, a hundred feet wide or whatever it was.

Shelli: I always read, but I don’t know if I ever thought about who was behind the book.

Zibby: What do you like to read when you’re not writing picture books? What are some of your go-to books that you read for fun? Assuming you do.

Shelli: I follow your book club, so I try to read as many of those as possible.

Zibby: You come armed with quotes every time, which I can’t thank you enough for. That’s amazing.

Shelli: Some of them just call out to me. This week is The Plot, right? Is that the one this coming week? Yeah. I just finished that. Right now, I’m reading The Husbands by Chandler Baker. I try to read a YA too, so I’m also reading Lore by Alexandra Bracken. Very mythological book.

Zibby: Interesting. Awesome. Excellent.

Shelli: What are you reading?

Zibby: What am I reading?

Shelli: You’re like six months down the road, right?

Zibby: Well, no. I’m behind, actually. Some books, I’m okay, but some books — I just did a book today that came out in May. The person already had a new book coming out. I’m like, oh, I prepared the wrong book. Mira Jacob, I did her today, A Memoir in Conversations. It’s a graphic novel for grown-ups. I don’t usually like graphic novel. She drew these pictures and then put them over photography.

Shelli: That’s great. She did the art too?

Zibby: She did the art, yep.

Shelli: That’s great.

Zibby: It’s really cool, about parenting and race. She’s Indian, married a Jewish guy. Anyway, really off topic now, but I happen to love this book. It’s very different, but I like different.

Shelli: I like how it bounces around. Especially with your book club, I love how it mixes it up a little bit.

Zibby: Yeah, nobody wants to get bored reading all the same stuff, I guess. I don’t know. Amazing. Thank you so much, Theo TheSaurus: The Dinosaur Who Loved Big Words and Shine Like a Unicorn. I will try to shine a little extra today on this very tired, feeling non-shiny day for me.

Shelli: By the way, let me give a shout-out to the illustrators. Maddie Frost is the illustrator on Shine Like a Unicorn. How adorable is her art?

Zibby: I love it. Totally love it. This feels like it should be a picture. The cover looks like it should be framed on a kid’s wall.

Shelli: We made some posters because we’re going to do some anti-bullying — don’t be a bully; be a unicorn. Then Theo TheSaurus is Mike Moran. It’s so fun. We’ve got some virtual visits and stuff coming up in September and October. It’s so fun to watch them draw. They’re very simple shapes. As they’re drawing, I’m like, I could totally be an illustrator. Then he holds up his or she holds up hers. I hold up mine. It’s clearly different, but I did the same shapes they did. It’s definitely not in me. The illustrators are a huge part. Joelle Murray is our newest illustrator for the Cece Loves Science series. She’s great. Shout-out to the illustrators. Without them, these books wouldn’t be.

Zibby: It’s true. I tried to do a drawing class, an Instagram Live drawing thing, during the pandemic at one point. Even with these very specific instructions, what I held up at the end was not at all what it should have been.

Shelli: I know. It’s amazing. I don’t know where I went wrong. I was like, I did the oval. I did the triangle. It just somehow ended up a blob. I don’t know how my shapes are ending up blobby.

Zibby: You know what, Shelli? You do you.

Shelli: Yes, you do you.

Zibby: We don’t have to be artists. We can paint pictures with words instead.

Shelli: Yes.

Zibby: Thank you so much. Thanks for coming on again.

Shelli: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Shelli: Bye.

Zibby: Thanks.

Shelli R. Johannes, SHINE LIKE A UNICORN

SHINE LIKE A UNICORN by Shelli R. Johannes

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