Terri discusses the book’s unique format, which explores two “what-if” scenarios from the perspectives of characters Sarah and Leo, involving a school dance and a love triangle. She shares how she blends personal experiences with imagination and explains her writing process, which involves drafting in a Word document, indicating artwork in red type, and then adding sketches and final artwork. Zibby’s children, who are fans of the series, ask Terri about character names, book titles, and potential future books. Terri shares personal details, like her Turkish heritage, and then reveals the possibility of her series being adapted into a movie or TV show.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Terri. Thank you so much for coming back on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” this time to discuss Surprisingly Sarah, your latest book in the Emmie & Friends series.

Terri Libenson: Thank you so much for having me on again. This is such a pleasure.

Zibby: Our special guests today are my two kids, who are almost nine and ten years old and the biggest fans of yours ever. We have been going into different bookstores and always seeing, do they have the Terri Libensons? How many? You got some big boosters here.

Terri: That’s exciting. You guys might know more about my books than I do at this point because I’m very forgetful. You can fill in all the gaps that I miss.

Zibby: Before the kids ask questions, can you tell listeners what Surprisingly Sarah is about and how it fits into the whole series?

Terri: Surprisingly Sarah, it’s a lot like my other books in the sense that it stars two different kids. In this case, it’s Sarah and her best friend Leo. There’s a little bit of a different format with this one. I presented in kind of a what-if type of scenario. In this case, it takes you through scenario number one where the character Sarah, she decides to work up the courage to ask a boy that she has a crush on to the school dance. The second what-if scenario is, what if instead of asking him she completely chickens out? The book takes you through both storylines, one told from Sarah’s viewpoint and the other told from her best friend Leo’s viewpoint. You see how each of the storylines plays out and how each of them gets resolved. By the way, this boy that she wants to ask to the dance, it’s no ordinary boy. It happens to be Leo’s other really good friend named Ben. We get into kind of a weird, tricky, little triangle situation. Of course, the characters have to navigate through that. That tends to be a running theme through all these books, how when relationships, whether they’re friendships or crushes or family situations, whenever they get complicated or tricky, I like to have the characters really navigate each of them and see how they can resolve them and how they can come out on the other side. It’s actually a lot of very true-to-life stuff.

Zibby: Wow, and you illustrate all the books.

Terri: All the books, yep.

Child: Can I ask questions now?

Zibby: Yes, go ahead.

Child: What’s Izzy’s real name?

Terri: Izzy’s real name, I don’t know. It could be anything you want. I don’t even know her real name. It’s funny, I did that on purpose. I didn’t want to know.

Child: Which is your favorite book of the ones you wrote?

Terri: That’s a good question. It’s kind of like choosing my favorite child. I can’t choose that because all my children are my favorite children. It’s the same with my books. I love all of them in different ways. I could tell you which ones that I enjoyed writing the most. Definitely, Sarah was one of them. There she is. Some bookmarked pages in there. That one, weirdly enough, even though it was a more complicated format for me, it flowed out of me. I don’t know what happened. That was a really fun one to write. I loved writing the first one, Invisible Emmie. By the way, all the books can be read out of order. There’s no real order to them, but that was the first one I happened to write. I loved writing that, but I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I first dipped my toes into this whole author thing. Even though I enjoyed writing it, it came with a lot of doubts and self-doubts and not knowing if I could really write a book. Thankfully, it came together. Probably, my other really — actually, there are quite a few. I loved writing Ruby and Brianna. I think there were just two that I had a really hard time writing. That was the second one, Positively Izzy, .

Child: And Just Jamie?

Terri: That one, I loved writing. That was from a personal experience, or I should say my daughter. It came from my daughter’s experience. It wasn’t a fun situation. It was an experience where she was excluded from her friend group. That was deeply personal to all of us. She gave me permission to write about it years later. She’s absolutely fine now and has a lot of friends.

Zibby: How old is she now?

Terri: She’s twenty-three.

Child: It was Truly Tyler you had trouble writing?

Terri: Truly Tyler and Positively Izzy. Truly Tyler was my pandemic book. I think everyone was having a hard time then. Also, it was the first time I was writing from the perspective of a boy. I think I overthought it way too much, definitely. Once I stopped overthinking it, it was great.

Child: It was actually my favorite book of the series.

Terri: Was it really? I’m so glad to hear that.

Child: That was the first book I read.

Child: My favorite was Just Jamie.

Terri: Just Jamie, yeah. I’m happy to hear that about both of them. One of them was so personal. The other was just a really hard one. I appreciate that.

Child: For your next book, is it going to be about Dev?

Terri: I can’t tell you who it’s going to be about.

Child: Can you give us a hint?

Terri: I can give you one hint. Oh, I wish I could. I actually went to see if I could divulge anything about it, and they wouldn’t really let me. My publisher wouldn’t really let me.

Child: What color are you going to do the cover?

Terri: I could give you a couple hints. The cover is going to be purple, so a little different. A little different than the other purple. It’s going to be more like violet. It’s going to be really bright. The two characters, it’s going to be a boy and a girl again. That’s about all I could say. I think I’ll be revealing the cover in the next few months, so it should be coming out pretty soon.

Zibby: When is the book coming out? Can we ask? When is the book coming out, the next book?

Terri: It’s going to come out in May. It’s usually the first Tuesday in May. Once a year, each book comes out. I love doing them. I know I’m going to have at least books eight and nine, hopefully more.

Child: What happens when you run out of people to write with?

Terri: I guess I have to make up new people. I do get a lot of requests for Dev, by the way. I get a lot of requests for Dev, for Joe Lungo, and for Celia. The two least-favorite people of all the other characters, I get the most requests for, and Dev. Dev’s a nice boy.

Child: Can secondary characters or main characters be secondary characters in other books?

Terri: Yes, that happens quite a bit. I think that happened especially in my first few books where I would rotate the characters. First, there was Emmie. Then I rotated her best friend Brianna into the forefront. They both floated in the background in Just Jamie, so they were sort of side characters there.

Zibby: Another question?

Child: I had one. I forgot.

Terri: You guys have great questions.

Zibby: What’s the process like when you start the book? How do you think of the issues in the book? What’s the process like when you think of a new story? How do you come up with all the ideas? I know one you said was from personal experience. Where’d you come up with the other ones? What does the whole process look like when you attack a book?

Terri: Oh, boy, it’s a lot. Some of it’s come from personal experience. Like I said, Just Jamie, it was loosely based off of my daughter’s experience. Definitely, a lot of parallels there. Becoming Brianna was all about a girl having a bat mitzvah, which is something that is very close to my own family, as we happen to be a Jewish family, so I drew a lot of experience from there. That’s just rife with a lot of drama and friendship issues and things like that as well as trying to find yourself. Yes, you have a question.

Child: I have two.

Zibby: Wait, she was answering my question.

Child: I’m sorry.

Zibby: Are these totally different, or are they related?

Child: They’re related to her books.

Zibby: Are they related to what she’s talking about now? Let her just finish talking about the process. Then you ask those two questions. How about that?

Terri: We’ll get back to them. Others, it’s funny, I think as I’ve gone along, I’ve been making up more stories. Because my kids are a lot older and I’m drawing less on their experiences, it tends to be more about what I’ve read or sometimes what I can harken back on with my own experiences. A lot of it is just from my imagination combined with my own lived experiences. The process, oh, boy.

Zibby: The short version of the process.

Terri: This will be it in a nutshell. I just type out everything in a Word doc. I don’t draw anything right away because I’ve learned that the story has to change a lot. Sometimes I have to rewrite it from scratch, sometimes many times. If I have art in there too, the art has to be changed, so it’s a lot more work. I just indicate where the art’s going to go and what it’s going to be in red type. Anywhere you see red type, that’s artwork. Then once all that’s approved, I start with little loose sketches in pencil. I just plug them right into my typed story. That way we can see how the story and art flow together. Then once that’s all approved, I tackle all the final art at once. That takes a long time. That takes maybe about four to five months or so. All this is done in a year. This all has to be done in a year. Not a lot of time for outside projects, unfortunately, but good thing I love doing these.

Zibby: Wow, that’s amazing.

Child: I have two questions. First one, so you make one every year?

Terri: Every year.

Child: So you started seven years ago?

Terri: Even before that because my first book took a long time, even though it’s the thinnest book. Like I said, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t have a lot of time. I was actually writing a comic strip back then for newspapers. That had a daily deadline. That was a full-time job in and of itself. I was just writing anytime I could, so weekends, nights, whatever I could. It took me a long time to write that one.

Child: Another question that me and Sadie were wondering is that maybe when you run out of characters to write, you could maybe do their books again, but they’re in eighth grade instead of seventh grade.

Terri: That’s a great idea. Why not? They don’t have to stay in seventh grade forever. I do have one character that’s in eighth grade. She’s a little bit older.

Child: It’s Ruby’s sister.

Child: Oh, yeah, Mia.

Terri: Yep, you got it.

Zibby: Is this going to be a TV series or an animated show? Is it and I don’t know?

Terri: Oh, no, it’s not. I wish. They’re peddling it. So far, not yet. Hopefully, in the future.

Zibby: It seems such a natural fit for an animated show.

Terri: I know. That would be wonderful, especially for a series because there are so many characters. There are so many situations.

Child: I think it would be better as a movie.

Terri: You think? Okay, I’m with you. You guys have more questions?

Zibby: More questions, guys?

Child: How did you get the idea for their names in the first book?

Terri: That’s a great question. The first book, I knew I wanted the word invisible in it. I just wanted a girl’s name that would flow really well with invisible. That’s when I thought of Emmie. The name doesn’t have any real significance for me. Although, I’ve grown to really love it, of course. That’s how that came about. Ever since, it’s been really hard to figure out titles. I’ve got all these predetermined names for characters. Then when I switch them to become main characters, I’ve got to figure out a good adjective to go with them. It gets really, really tricky sometimes because it also has to pertain to the story too.

Child: Why, in the first two books, their names aren’t the same letter but the other ones going from book three to book seven are?

Terri: That’s a good question too. All the ones that have the same letters — do you know what that writing device is called?

Zibby: You guys know what that is, when words start with the same letters and they make the same sounds at the beginning of a word.

Terri: It starts with an A.

Zibby: The word itself starts with A. Alli…

Child: I don’t know.

Terri: Alliteration.

Child: I learned about that.

Zibby: You learned about that.

Terri: You did learn about it?

Child: He learned about it, and he forgot.

Terri: I’m going to tell you a little secret. I’m actually not a huge fan of alliteration. I didn’t really want my titles to use alliteration. Because I was having such a hard time finding catchy names or titles after the first two books, I just gave in. It just flows so much better if I use alliteration. Once Just Jamie happened, it was a domino effect from there.

Zibby: Do you start with a specific word count? I know some are longer than others. What is the word count range that you do for the books?

Terri: No, I should. I really, really should because they keep getting longer and longer every year. I keep trying to rein myself in. I don’t know what happens, but the books end up just getting longer. I love writing them so much. I just keep going and going. There is no real word count. Because it’s so illustration heavy, it’s really hard to have a word count because a lot of the words are actually in the illustrations. I can’t even tell you how many words are in each book. I just know that they keep getting longer and longer. Actually, I think the longest one may have been Tyler. I’m not sure. Let me compare the — yep, it’s actually longer than Sarah.

Zibby: What are all your little sticky notes?

Terri: Those are just references. Right now, I’m working on the eighth book. I’m doing all the artwork for it. I’ll actually go back into my other books, and I’ll earmark them for if I need to reference a certain character and how they look or maybe how it looks if someone’s holding a phone. I can go back and check. It’s all just my personal little bookmarks there.

Zibby: Amazing. Another question?

Child: No, I don’t think so.

Zibby: Graham, do you have another question?

Child: How did you choose the colors for the covers?

Terri: I have a great art team behind me at my publishers. Sometimes I’ll suggest the color. Sometimes they will. Then we work together to get the perfect orange or green or blue or pink. They’re really, really good at it. I probably couldn’t do it myself. They’re wonderful. I do illustrate all the covers, but they’re the ones who really come up with the gorgeous color.

Zibby: What’s something that we would be surprised to learn about you?

Terri: Oh, my gosh, let’s see. You might be surprised to learn that I’m half Turkish, a pretty big thing.

Zibby: That is a pretty big thing.

Terri: I love it because it’s just so unusual. I love to really delve into that side of my family history. I love the food that comes with it. I’m trying to of anything else. I’m usually such an open book that it’s hard to even surprise myself.

Zibby: If you had to pick an adjective for Blank Terri, what would it be?

Terri: You know what? Funny Terri. Maybe that’s something that’s kind of surprising. People who I grew up with probably wouldn’t necessarily give me that tag, but I’ve learned over many, many decades that I love humor. I really appreciate it. I’m actually kind of funny when I want to be.

Zibby: That’s a huge surprise. You don’t seem funny at all. No, I’m kidding.

Terri: Sometimes when I don’t mean to be funny, I’m funny.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love that.

Terri: What else?

Zibby: What else?

Child: How did you decide the little things here?

Zibby: The icons on the spines?

Child: Yeah.

Terri: The little icons, I’m thinking that was my publisher’s idea originally, to have the recognizable character on the spine of the book. Now we just know for every book, I know to do a little tiny illustration for the spine of each cover. That just makes them recognizable and stand out at the same time.

Zibby: Do you think about doing a different series next?

Child: No!

Terri: Oh, gosh, it’s funny. I would love to do all kinds of other projects. I haven’t thought about another series. I’ve thought about maybe trying my hand at picture books, things like that, things I might be able to squeeze in while I do this series. I haven’t thought about the end of this series yet because I’m still having so much fun doing this. Instead of trying to think of smaller projects I can do in between — I’ve started so many and just haven’t had time to finish.

Child: I have another question. Are you going to make a book about Maya and Grace?

Terri: Ooh, I love that idea. Maya was in Just Jamie, but I could always bring her back again, for sure. I do think about Grace a little bit too. There are so many characters I want to cover. I think that’s why I haven’t really thought about another series at this point. I just think all these characters have so much potential, if they haven’t been developed already. Until I run out of characters and ideas…

Zibby: Have you ever considered doing, not like a Disney World-type thing, but some sort of pop-up, experiential thing where you cast all the characters and people can come in and meet them?

Terri: Oh, wow. I’ve never thought of that. I think that’s a wonderful idea.

Zibby: That would be fun. You could get little tickets. They could do a little performance, maybe. You could have Instagram-type backgrounds and little sayings. People could write their own captions. Maybe they could all be turned into characters with some app or something while you’re there. They could name themselves, Zany Zibby or something.

Terri: We have done the “make your own label” kind of thing at book events. I love that idea. I’ll definitely take note. Thank you.

Child: There was something kind of like that in You-Niquely You. You take a quiz on, either you’re Brianne, Emmie, Joe, or Jamie.

Terri: That’s true. I wrote that a long time ago. I should do a follow-up just to that book because there are so many new characters.

Child: Why wasn’t Emmie in You-Niquely You? I mean, why wasn’t Izzy? Why isn’t Izzy in any of the other books?

Terri: Izzy’s kind of a unique character. I hate to give this away because it’s sort of a spoil alert, but she’s a character from the past. You don’t know that until the end. Since you guys read the books, it’s okay. I don’t think of her as much of a contemporary as the other characters are of each other. Does that make sense?

Child: Yeah, but she was in the same grade as Brianna because they did the talent show.

Terri: You’re right. She is. You’re right. Although, if you remember from the book, it took place in the past. Even though it seems like it’s the same talent show, it’s really not.

Child: No, it’s not. Is it? Oh, so Izzy’s a completely different timeline. Oh.

Terri: I know. It’s confusing.

Child: Wait, so they were actually in sixth grade?

Terri: They were both in seventh grade. Do you know Izzy’s relationship to Brianna? It’s a surprise.

Child: They didn’t meet in the book.

Terri: You have to go read the book.

Child: Are they cousins?

Zibby: You have to read the book again, you guys.

Terri: You have to read the book again.

Child: Oh, wait. Is it at the end when they say, “Happy birthday, Izzy”?

Zibby: We’re going to do a deep dive.

Child: No, because Brianna’s mom’s name is also Izzy.

Terri: Right.

Child: I had it. I just figured that out.

Terri: That was a hard one. A lot of people had questions with that book. That one wasn’t as obvious.

Zibby: Mind blown over here.

Terri: You have to go back and read the whole thing again, and you’ll see.

Child: That was a flashback to when Izzy, Brianna’s mom, was a kid.

Terri: Mm-hmm.

Child: That’s why they never met.

Child: Also, that’s why Brianna’s mom really wanted her to do lots of plays.

Zibby: Maybe.

Terri: You got it. They’re smart. That was a tough one. That was the tough twist ending. I would get a lot of letters about that.

Child: I like the plot twist in Remarkably Ruby.

Terri: Thank you.

Zibby: Don’t give it all away.

Child: Oh, my god, these are her sisters. These are her sisters. That’s her mother. No, this is Ashley. This is Dani.

Terri: I love witnessing this. This is great. I love being there while the aha moment takes place.

Zibby: Who knew? Live on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books,” kids catch up to the plot twist. Do you have any parting words for Terri?

Child: Thank you.

Child: Thank you for writing this amazing series.

Terri: Thank you, guys. You were just the best interviewers. I love it.

Child: Thank you for telling us about the Izzy thing.

Terri: You got it. I want to see them go off and start rereading the book.

Zibby: You both have to go reread this. You can write your homework about that chapter. Thank you for the patience you’re exhibiting here with the kids.

Terri: This is the best. I love it.

Zibby: Thank you, really, for the many hours of time that they’ve spent reading your books so I can interview people like you.

Terri: I really appreciate it.

Zibby: Say goodbye, guys.

Child: Bye.

Terri: Bye, guys.

Child: Bye.

Terri: Good seeing you.

Zibby: Bye. Thank you.

Terri: Bye. Thank you.


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