Simply 7 with Jess Hernandez–“First Day of Unicorn School”

It’s the first day of a new year (yay!) and this is the first Simply 7 of the year.  What better book to discuss than a “first day” book (and on it’s book birthday no less!)?

Jess HeadshotJess Hernandez is a writer, librarian, teacher and all-around word girl. When not being used as a human canvas for baby food art, she writes books for kids. Her debut book, FIRST DAY OF UNICORN SCHOOL, illustrated by Mariano Epelbaum, comes out TODAY from Capstone. Sometimes she writes essays, poems, and short stories for grown-ups, too. Jess lives in a very small, very LOUD house in Washington with her husband, their three children, a blind Labrador, and seven chickens.  You can learn more about her at her website.

thumbnail_Unicorn_School_CVR JPEG“First Day of Unicorn School” is exactly what it sounds like: a book that combines the first-day-of-school trope and the comedy plot where someone lies on a resume.  Smash those two plot lines together, throw in unicorns, and you’ve got comedy gold.  The main character Milly is actually a donkey (not a unicorn).  She may have embellished on her application to the much coveted Unicorn school (including photos with her party hat horn).  She is now worried that she will be turned out as an imposter.  There are some fun twists in this story that will have young readers giggling all throughout the book.  It’s a clever premise and I’m surprised it wasn’t thought of long ago!

Welcome Jess!

Me: Congratulations on your debut picture book.  I understand you write in many different genres: poetry, memoir, short stories, etc.  What is it that draws you to writing picture books in particular? 

Jess: There’s a lot of things I love about picture books – the economy, for one. You have very little room to work with to get your point across. The second thing I love is the partnership with the illustrator. I read a lot of comic books as a kid and I adore any medium that relies on art as well as words to tell a story.

Me: As a school librarian, I’m sure you know that kids love unicorn books (and some would say there aren’t enough).  What gave you the idea for this story?

Jess: On one level, the idea for this book came from watching my kids fight over a cardboard tube. Each of them wanted to use it as a unicorn horn. My daughter grabbed the tube and told my son, “You’re not a unicorn! You’re just a horse!” Boom. Instant story.

Screen Shot 2020-12-13 at 2.17.57 PMOn another level, this book came from conversations I’ve had with other grown-ups. It seems like no matter where we are in our lives or careers, most of us feel like we’re totally faking it and live in fear of the day someone notices we aren’t special, we aren’t unicorns – we’re just donkeys in party hats. It made me realize that everyone feels like that sometimes. Normalizing imposter syndrome makes it feel less scary when it happens, and I think that’s a message both kids and adults could benefit from.

Me: I love that.  That’s a great way to look at imposter syndrome.  We all know that it can take years for a picture book to be published.  Were there already a lot of books about unicorns on the market when you started to pitch your story?  If yes, did that effect your marketing of this story?

Jess: When I went on sub with this book, the market was already glutted with unicorn books. Most of the rejections we got were along the lines of, “Thanks but we already got one.” I was honestly surprised that this book found a home so quickly. I thought we’d have to shelve it and wait for the market to change. In terms of marketing, I’ve tried to capitalize off the “unicorn wave” as much as I can. Kids are already interested in them, so it’s an easier sell.

Me:  The illustrations in this book are so fun!  Did you communicate with the illustrator, Mariano Epelbaum, about his work at all?  Were there any illustration surprises for you?

Screen Shot 2020-12-22 at 9.42.32 AMJess: I first got to see character sketches for Milly and give feedback on those. Some of the illustrations had to be tweaked to fit the text better, but I’ve been so happy with the way the illustrations look. Mariano is extremely talented and has put this book together at light speed. I signed the contract in early January and we had ARCs ready to go by July. That’s unheard of in the picture book world.

Me: Wow!  That is rare.  What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?

Jess: I’ve been surprised at how positive the reviews are, to be honest. People seem to really resonate with the story. As an author, you really hope that’s going to happen but I’m very grateful it seems to be the case with this book.

Me: Any advice for new picture book writers?

Jess: Read, read, read, read. Read as many new picture books as you can. The last five years will tell you more about the market and picture book trends than any number of classics can. Also, find a critique group. A good critique partner is worth their weight in gold. SCBWI, Twitter, and writing conferences are all excellent places to meet other writers, especially if you live out in the boonies like I do.

Me: Do you have any future projects you can talk about?  Are there any upcoming books we can be on the lookout for?

 Jess: I have some things on submission but nothing else has been sold yet. I’m also trying to branch out to chapter books and middle grade this next year, so we’ll see how that goes.

Good luck!  And thank you for stopping by my blog Jess.  

Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to check this book out, find a copy.  This is a story that does multiple things right.  It uses known successful plots and twists them.  It capitalizes on an evergreen topic and it was able to get published despite the market being flooded with similar stories.  It also lets the young reader feel superior as they figure things out in this story LONG before Milly does and they will laugh all along the way at how silly she is.  Any book that can do all of that?  That is one to study!

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