Today I would like to introduce you to my friend, Gretchen McLellan, author of I’m Done, as well as Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3 and, coming soon, Button and Bundle. Gretchen has been a friend of mine through SCBWI (that’s the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Oregon Chapter for many years. I hope you’ll enjoy her and her writing as much as I do.
LL: What was your inspiration for I’m Done?
Gretchen: Kids! In my former life I was a reading specialist in elementary schools. I heard, “I’m Done!” over and over and over again, but the children making this very public announcement rarely understood what being done meant.
I knew that I wanted to write a book with that title, and one day after work I decided to give it a try. I still only had a title, or so I thought. I said to myself, I’ll try this out as an animal story. (I usually write human characters.) Pick an animal, any animal. It was no stroke of genius that a beaver popped into my mind. Then my pen started moving, and this story poured out of me like water breaking through a proverbial dam.
But the unconscious inspiration for this story is much deeper. “I’m Done” is a deceptively simple phrase. Said with joy, frustration, or despair it takes on many meanings, all that resonate with me in the process of writing and in the journey toward publication and beyond.
LL: Describe I’m Done in 5 words:
Gretchen: a joyful celebration of perseverance
LL: What theme/s play an important role in I’m Done?
Gretchen: Perseverance. I am the poster child of perseverance. My journey to publication was as lengthy and arduous as an epic tale. At one point, I thought I was done. Finished. I was quitting writing, abandoning my dream. I knew I could not show up at another conference or retreat unpublished, ever again. I didn’t want to be an object of pity. But at the eleventh hour, I signed up for an SCBWI retreat for the last time, partially lured by the last-day-of-the-early-bird-discount email and the news that there was still a critique slot left with an agent, and partly because I wanted to see my friends.
It turns out I wasn’t done yet.
In that critique slot, I met my wonderful agent. I have two published picture books with three more on the calendar.
I didn’t give up and neither does Little Beaver.
LL: What is it about I’m Done that has turned out to be the most meaningful to you?
Gretchen: Definitely the relationships I’ve made in the making of the book, first with my editor, second with my illustrator.
Working with my editor was a joy. We had several rounds of written revisions that made the story better and better. Finally, the story was ready for the art. Then the f&gs (the folded and gathered pages of the printed but unbound book) arrived, and we had a phone meeting to discuss them. Sometime during the nearly two hours we spent on the phone together, I stopped and said, “Can you believe that we get to do this for work! This is so much fun!” Revising with her was a peak experience.
Next, the unexpected relationship with my illustrator, Catherine Lazar Odell, has been meaningful as well. Authors and illustrators rarely communicate. I have never written or spoken directly with any of my four illustrators during the process of making our books. If I’m invited to comment on the illustrations, my comments are filtered by the editor and art director, and rightfully so. I respect this process. Maybe it’s because Catherine’s and my editor realized how close we lived to each other that she broke protocol. But after the book had gone to press, she asked us if we’d like to exchange emails. We both did. What came next was up to us. Now I have the pleasure of gushing in person about how wonderful her artwork is and doing events together.
LL: What is the most fun you’ve had with I’m Done since its release?
Gretchen: Doing story times at bookstores with an audience of families. I love creating all the adjunct activities that go with my books for story times. My story times involve puppets, fingerplays, chants and crafts, and are always under revision as I try to improve each time. Sharing the stage doing Little Beaver’s voice and not only reading aloud with Catherine but watching her draw Little Beaver with kids is fantastic.
LL: Which of your picture books was easiest to write? Why?
Gretchen: I think I’m Done!, probably because it had been incubating, unbeknownst to me, for a long time. When I sat down to write, it came to me whole with a nibble, nibble, snap. Naturally, I made lots of changes to the first draft, and after the book sold (to Holiday House) made a lot more, before and after the art was in. But the story was there from the beginning.
But being “done” with a manuscript is often defined by the deadline to get the book to print so it can make its release date😊. I’d still like to make a change or two.
LL: Which of your picture books is your favorite?
Gretchen: I’m working with one of my editors on a picture book named I Hate Favorites! Does that answer your question?
LL: Funny! …on to the next question– How does your training as a reading specialist influence your writing?
Gretchen: I have shared a lot of books with a lot of children. I know the spell a good story can cast. Those that speak beautifully to children’s curiosity and hearts and honor who they are and their current developmental challenges are received with a quiet, active listening that is magic during a read-aloud. I try to write so that magic can occur. That involves knowing where kids are in their development as readers and as little human beings.
When I use repetition, rhyme, assonance and word play, I know I am writing in a way that is both pleasing to the ear, but also developing phonemic awareness, a necessary skill in becoming a reader. The nibble nibble snap, scoop scoop pat repetition and onomatopoeia of flish flish swish and wing wing zing in I’m Done! are examples.
When I use an unfamiliar word (for the picture book set) I know I am adding to their vocabulary, sometimes giving children a word at the center of an experience that they don’t yet have a name for. For example, in Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3, I explore the word bittersweet. The story is about the bittersweet of saying good-bye to a beloved teacher at the end of the school year. In the story Mrs. McBee explains the word to her class with a simile. “It’s like a swirly ice-cream cone with sad and happy twisted together.”
I am intentional about my word choice, aware of the role of picture books in building vocabulary. I don’t write down to the picture book audience, but I also try not to overload them with too many new vocabulary words either. In the reading field we talk about concept load. I can remember having too many new vocabulary terms loaded on me in school. It made me feel both ignorant and like screaming. I don’t want to make this mistake with my readers.
I am very aware that children’s background knowledge, or schema, influences their comprehension of a text. I ask myself what I can reasonably assume that a child knows about the topic (including vocabulary) and this influences what I state directly and what I can leave to the reader to infer. This is important in fiction and nonfiction texts. Reading builds schema, which improves future comprehension. Furthermore, illustrations in picture books do lots of heavy lifting in providing visual information that aids comprehension. I write with the illustrations in mind too.
LL: Describe your early life as a reader/writer.
Gretchen: One of my most precious memories of school is my teacher reading Charlotte’s Web aloud. I couldn’t wait to go to school every day to hear more of that book. I can’t separate my early life as a reader/writer from my life as a listener. I still love the spoken word and listen regularly to books on CD.
I became a letter writer early, because I moved so much. Back in the days before instant communication, if I didn’t write the friends I had to leave behind, these friendships would die. I lived overseas and making international calls was too expensive. So I wrote letters.
My dreams of being a writer came much later when I discovered picture books as a mom.
LL: Describe your “literate lifestyle” now.
Gretchen: On the back flap of I’m Done! is the following:
Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan writes everywhere she can–in barns and bookstores, bathtubs and beds, cars and coffeehouses. She has yet to write in a beaver lodge.
That about says it all. I write where ever I can with whatever time I have, and I try to write every day. I have several projects going at once, setting one aside to gain the perspective of distance and shifting to another. Since publication, I have been doing a lot of business and promotional writing. This kind of writing doesn’t exactly feed my soul. But it is an unanticipated necessity in the life of an author. I need to write fiction to feel balanced.
LL: What are you presently working on, and what’s next for you?
Gretchen: I am revising several picture books and a couple middle-grade novels. I’m always open to the rush of a new idea and honor ideas when they come, because they come with their tanks full. I’ve got a lot of projects stuck in a long line at the pumps.
LL: How can Literate Lives readers help you get the word out about I’m Done?
Gretchen: If readers are willing, requesting the book at their local library is always helpful. Libraries usually honor patrons’ requests, and it’s easy to make one from the comfort of your favorite chair and computer.
Reviewing books on Amazon and Goodreads is helpful as well. This can be as simple as rating the book with the number of stars it deserves for you or writing a quick review that could guide readers to the book.
I think I’m Done! is right for many audiences for many reasons.
- For children it’s an entertaining and humorous story about the value of perseverance/persistence and the joy of completing a task that you are proud of.
- For parents and teachers, it’s a story that can lead to discussions about what it means to be done and what it takes to stick with something.
It’s a story that promotes social and emotional development. How many of us were criticized for not doing something well when no one ever defined what the job at hand entailed in the first place? I’m hoping that at home and at school, the story will help adults help children understand expectations more clearly and experience success more regularly.
If Literate Lives readers have Preschool-2nd grade teachers in their lives, a recommendation would be fantastic. Every teacher has heard “I’m Done!” and every teacher is looking for texts that promote emotional intelligence, reading development, community, and the value of perseverance.
In addition, I have resources available on gretchenmclellan.com for teachers to download e.g. a Readers’ Theatre adaptation of the story, chants, and blackline masters for crafts.
It wasn’t until I held the f&gs for I’m Done! that I realized the story is a metaphor for writing—and so much more. How do you know when you’re done with a novel? How do you develop the internal guide that tells you to stop writing or painting or carving before it’s too late? I think this book speaks to young and old alike in so many ways. It speaks about the support we need in our creative work, how comradery can be so important to completing a project (and a distraction too!) and how we must develop an inner sense of quality, form, and beauty to know when we are done. So this book is for you too!
LL: Thank you, Gretchen! It is so interesting to learn about I’m Done! in particular, and how you craft your books to help build early literacy skills in young readers. Little Beaver’s story, and your own, are both so encouraging.
I don’t know about my readers, but I most definitely have a little one on my Christmas list who I think might be receiving a copy of I’m Done! this December.
Gretchen’s story about her first book sale continues to inspire me as I seek publication for my own novels.
Have you ever felt, after a lot of hard work, that you were “done” before life surprised you with a wonderful opportunity? Please use the comment box below to share your story.