Simply 7 interview with Rebecca Kai Dotlich and Fred Koehler & GIVEAWAY–“What If…? Then We…”

I’m so excited to share today’s book with you!  I get the honor of starting off the blog tour, as well as interviewing both the author and the illustrator (who both had fantastic answers you won’t want to miss!).

oneday COVERLast fall, I made the cross-country journey to Highlights all over again to go to a workshop near and dear to my heart: poetry.  It was there I met the lovely Rebecca Kai Dotlich and Georgia Heard in person (as well as many others you’ve heard or will hear me mention again).  I read Rebecca’s picture book “One Day, The End” a few years ago and was absolutely blown away by its deceptively simple premise.  There had to be a complete short story on every page with the same character running throughout.  What a concept!


RKDRebecca Kai Dotlich is an incredibly prolific poet who has been in MANY poetry anthologies (picture book as well as other).  She has also written several picture books, as well as science books, concept books, and easy readers.  You can learn more about her at her website or follow her on Twitter.

what-ifHer latest book “What If…? Then We…” is her follow up to the amazing “One Day, The End” picture book I previously mentioned.  I wouldn’t call it a sequel (you’ll soon see why), but it is definitely connected.

Welcome Rebecca!

Me: You are a very gifted poet and have written in several genres over the last few years. What draws you to writing picture books?

Rebecca: Poetry will always be what I love most. And yet, it seems a natural transition to go from loving and writing poetry to writing and loving picture books. Both share many things in common; here are just a few :

Every word counts. Every. Word.

They are rich in language.

They have heart.

They often use metaphor and other poetic elements.

They bring the reader into the moment.

They can be deep & emotional or playful & hilarious.

Both tell a story, but allow the reader to imagine their own.

Sometimes there is rhyme, although absolutely not always.

But there is always rhythm.

When I was young, we didn’t call them picture books. Just books. Mostly we had Golden Books, bought at the grocery, and I was enchanted by turning page after page and being in a different world between covers for those few minutes.

I think I was drawn to writing picture books because they often held magical, wonder-filled things in them like puddles and umbrellas, giants and mermaids, stars and snowmen and raindrops and frogs. I always adored picture books when I read them to my own children and grandchildren. Years ago when I began my journey of trying to get published I would type out my favorite picture books so that I could visualize the words on the page.


Me: I love that.  When I run across a really good picture book I want to study, I tend to type it up too.  I also love the origin story for the idea of “One Day, The End.” Can you share that here?

Rebecca: One hot summer day, I was doing errands with my then 5 year old grandson in the backseat. While we waited for something or someone, he wanted a story. But I wanted to make a grocery list, think about directions, and other “important” things. But he wanted a story. Not now, I told him, when we get home. Just a short one? Please, grandma?

Ok, a really short one. I looked at him over my shoulder and quickly said, “One day, I lost my dog. I found him. The end.” And he laughed. A deep laugh that burst from him like a bubble. And then he said, tell me again! And I did. And he laughed again. Who could refuse? So another. As we drove home I began thinking about these shortest stories ever, and how just the silly brevity of them made him laugh. So I began to think of compiling them as is into a picture book: (I lost him, I found him. I wanted to, I did it. I went, I came home, etc). But I knew an artist would be the one to fill in the middles of each story. And hoped right away that this could nudge children to look at their own small moments and to make up their own shorter than ever stories, then create their own middles. I wanted them to see that every little thing they experience can be a story. From losing a dog, to giving your dog a bath, to stomping in a puddle. I am indebted to my editor Rebecca Davis for choosing Fred Koehler to be the illustrator that brought this book to life. He is creative and amazing and I am so thankful. By the way, my very favorite spread and story is the lost dog. The magnifying glass! The camera! The ruler! The notebook! That little girl Fred created has such determination and verve.


Me: Would you say “What if…? Then We…” is a companion book to “One Day, The End” not necessarily a sequel? Was this story inspired in the same way as “One Day, The End”? 

fred and rebecca_BGHBRebecca: Absolutely. It is a companion book. And the idea for this book was entirely thought up in Boston where Fred and I were awarded the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor award. We were having a celebration dinner with our BMP publishing team, my agent and Fred’s daughter, and we started noodling ideas around.

We were trying to come up with another concept similar to ONE DAY, THE END; possibly something with night, or . . . we just kept throwing ideas around, then one of us said “but what if we … and the other interrupted and said THAT’S IT!” Now I don’t remember which said which. Maybe Fred does. But that’s how we came up with the title. WHAT IF. I can’t remember exactly when we chose THEN WE for the 2nd part, creating a wonder about & imagine a solution for concept. Later, (and on the plane home) I started scribbling WHAT IF possibilities in a little blue notebook.

Me: The illustrations by Fred Koehler really bring this book to life. Were there any illustration surprises for you?

Rebecca: Oh, they sure do! And Fred always surprises me. I would say my favorite illustration surprise was seeing who the bears were (artist & explorer) and their backpacks spilling out with either art supplies or a compass and canteen, among other small things. Every single page is a delight. And the cover is amazing. All that blue and white and gloss . . .


Me: Blue is my favorite color so the cover is certainly striking! What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?

Rebecca: The WHAT IFS, or the possibilities, were easier to imagine, but imagining the satisfying solutions weren’t always as cut and dry. An example: “What if every crayon in the world broke?” The obvious answer seemed to be “Then we’d use a pencil.” But when you think about it, even broken crayons can still be used to color with.

So (and I believe my editor came up with this one) we decided that they had to melt. Not break. Then, as I was writing the straightforward “then we’d use a pencil,” the poet in me rewrote it as “then we would grab our pencils and fall in love with gray.”

Me: That’s beautiful.  Great line!  Any advice for other aspiring picture book writers?

Rebecca: The best advice I can give is to always keep your inspiration radar on; what do you see or hear that amazes you, makes you laugh, touches your heart? Keep a notebook and write it down. Take out stacks of picture books from the library and pour over them, type them out and study the page breaks and line breaks.

And the traditional, tried and true; never give up. If it is what you love, keep doing it, pay attention to that idea that bubbles up inside of you. Put it on paper, then mold and shape it and live with it and rewrite it. Get into a good support or critique group, go to writing workshops, like Highlights Foundation workshops and others. Make time to write and make it a priority.

WHAT IF interior spread_1

Me: Are there any upcoming books or projects that you’re working on that we can look forward to?

Rebecca: My picture book GOODNIGHT, OLIVER WIZARD illustrated by Josee Masse and published by Boyds Mills Press will be coming out later this fall. Two picture book companions to WHAT IS SCIENCE? illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa and published by Christy Ottaviano Books will be coming out over the next few years. And I am revising a few other picture book and poetry collections that are in the pipeline.

Thank you Rebecca for stopping by.  I look forward to reading them!  But wait, dear readers!  There’s more!  You don’t want to miss Fred’s interview too.

fredFred Koehler is every bit as creative as Rebecca has led you to believe.  He is the illustrator of “Flashlight Night” (which we just talked about here on the blog not too long ago), as well as other picture books and a novel.  You can learn more about him at his website or follow him on Twitter.

Welcome Fred!

Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start drawing and/or painting?

Fred: Artists, by nature, don’t tend to fit in with normal people. We’re wired funny.

Creation is an expression of longing for a world where we fit in. I discovered at a young age that art and writing were doorways to that world. A world where things make more sense. Where wrongs are rewritten into rights. Where dreams can be painted into reality. Where hope thrives.

My journey has been how to constantly improve my craft so that I can better describe the beauty and value of this other world. The more art I make, the wider the doorway to this world swings on its hinges. And the wider I can wrench that door open, the more people can discover it for themselves. And maybe feel a little less alone.

WHAT IF_interior spread_2

Me: What an amazing image!  Can you talk a little bit about your process? How do you create? Do you use traditional media or do you create digitally? Or do you use parts of both?

Fred: Every story is a new life. The writer provides for half of that life, and when I illustrate, I’m completing the story’s DNA. Before I ever put pencil to paper, I study the shape of the story; its personality, mood swings, and where it hides its magic. With each read through the manuscript, I discover a little more about this emerging life and what it wants to be. Is it more of a dancer or a singer? How long can it hold its breath? What’s it most afraid of?

To really love a story, you have to give it whatever artistic medium it demands. I’ve worked traditionally in pencil. I’ve worked 100% digitally. I’ve done hybrids of both. I’ve even used cut paper and blowtorches to make art for a book. Whatever technique will help this new life grow into something fresh and beautiful. 

Me: I love the work you did in “One Day, The End” (as well as “Flashlight Night”). The work in “What If …? Then We…” is also an amazing trip through the imagination. I know you traveled to England for research on “Flashlight Night.” Did you travel to the Arctic for this book? Can you talk a little bit about your vision for the book?

Fred: The combination of travel and making books is a wonderful way to go broke. And I mean that sincerely. It is wonderful. And it will make you go broke. My trip through England researching FLASHLIGHT NIGHT will remain one of my dearest memories. I got to have nearly every adventure the kids had in that story, from climbing waterfalls to exploring caves to rowing a hundred-year-old boat across a mountain lake. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

On the other side of that whole going broke thing, I could not travel to the Arctic for WHAT IF, THEN WE. What I could do was gift the characters in the story (two polar bears) with unlimited imagination. For every question they imagine, an unexpected solution is formed, often from the things around them. In this way, I got to travel alongside them for every step of their adventure.

 Me: What is one thing that surprised you in illustrating this story?

Fred: My illustrations didn’t flow from one scene to the next quite as easily as they had with ONE DAY, THE END. I love how the book turned out, but I still wonder WHAT IF… I’d had six more months to work on it? It’s good, but could I have made it brilliant? I’m sure I ask these same questions of each book I help bring to life.

Me: What is one of your favorite illustrations from the book?

Fred: The origami scene, where one bear is in tears because his iceberg boat has melted, and the other bear makes him not just a new boat, but an entire oceanic landscape of folded paper.


This scene is the story of my life. We’ve all sunken our ships, either literally or figuratively. (I’ve done both.) What I love is the unexpected rescue, the comfort of a companion, and the new beginning you never thought possible–that’s a story we each need in our lives.

Me: Yes we do!  Any advice for other picture book illustrators?

Fred: Live a story worth telling. Do things. Experiment. Make colossal mistakes. Fall flat on your face. Success is the sum total of every failed attempt in your life plus one. I’ll say that another way because it’s really important. Success is giving it one more try even though you’ve (yet again) failed spectacularly. Because this time, it might work. This chance could be your big break. But if you give up now, you’ll never know.

Me: I love that.  Do you have any other projects that you’re currently working on or that we will be seeing in the near future?

rat-cellularFred: I’ve got the sequel to GARBAGE ISLAND (my debut illustrated novel) coming out in 2020. The title of the sequel is THE SAILING CITY. I can’t wait to show the cover because it’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous.

After that, you can tag Heidi Stemple and Jane Yolen in this post, because the three of us are totally making a picture book together. None of our publishers know it yet, but they will. 🙂

Then I’ll be shopping another illustrated middle grade novel. This one’s still top-secret but I’ll send along a sketch. It’s about a gang of sewer rats who compete to make humans miserable.

And finally, if I’m lucky, I’ll head back across the pond this summer to research fairies and folk tales for what is currently just an inkling of a story idea. The trip will be wonderful.

Ohhh!  The trip sounds fun and the books sound wonderful.  Thanks for stopping by Fred.  I can’t wait to see what you produce next.

But wait dear readers!  There’s even more!  Boyds Mills Press is giving away one copy of “What If…? Then We…” to one lucky reader.  Enter the rafflecopter here!

9 thoughts on “Simply 7 interview with Rebecca Kai Dotlich and Fred Koehler & GIVEAWAY–“What If…? Then We…”

  1. I loved ONE DAY, THE END. I used it to teach kids in a PB writing workshop for our library. Can’t wait for the companion.

  2. ONE DAY, THE END is a delight. And so, too, Rebecca’s sharing of the origin of that, inspired by her 5-year-old-grand story-needer! So glad he laughed at that moment! WHAT IF?… THEN WE… is a jolly wide open daring jump off of their now-signature short spectacular. Down the tunnel, can’t wait for Fred’s scurrying rats & also Rebecca’s Goodnight, Oliver Wizard. Jena Benton, I’ve learned a lifetime of advice from your Qs & the creative’s As from these creatives. Hope we sit side by side at a Highlights workshop some morn.

  3. Pingback: Simply 7 with Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Georgia Heard, & Deborah Freedman: WELCOME TO THE WONDER HOUSE | Jena Benton

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