I’m excited to tell you all about today’s picture book about the oddballs in the fish world. I had to share it with you!
Debra Shumaker is a member of SCBWI, as well as the cohost of #PBPitch, a Twitter pitch party for picture books. She is represented by agent James McGowan at BookEnds Literary. You can learn more about her at her website.
“Freaky, Funky Fish” is a fun look at the freakiest, funkiest fish in the ocean that will both entertain and educate readers. You know how much I love fish and I even attempted a picture book manuscript on the topic myself. But this is a brilliant way to get young readers interested. Especially when paired with the hilarious illustrations by Claire Powell. This book is such a fun read!
Me: You went from a career in Nutrition and Dietetics to eventually becoming one of the hosts of #PBPitch on Twitter. What is it that draws you to writing picture books?
Debra: First, Jena, thank you for having me on your blog!
Yes, my careers have been varied throughout the years! But I think every career I have had “helps” in some way. I see picture books, both fiction and nonfiction, as a way to help kids see worlds they might not see otherwise. Picture books can bring laughter, comfort, knowledge, and so much more.
Me: I love that. After swimming with fish in Hawaii, I fell in love with fish and started studying them. So your book “Freaky, Funky Fish” is about a topic near and dear to my heart. What gave you the idea? Why did you write this particular picture book?
Debra: Oh, that’s a long story! I’ll try to keep it short. Way back in November 2012 we took our boys to Disney. And when we were in the aquarium and I was reading all the information cards, I noticed that many fish were named after animals. I was doing Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month, now known as StoryStorm in January) and wrote down this: Fish in a zoo – all fish named after animals. That eventually lead to a fiction picture book I wrote called NOT A GOLDFISH about two goldfish who imagined becoming various animals. It included back matter on the various fish in the book. While I had a couple of close calls with that story, it never sold.
Fast forward to spring 2018. I had been focusing a lot on writing picture book biographies but not having any luck selling those either. After a phone call with my agent, I decided to switch gears and look for some science/nature topics to write about. After reading rhyming books about bugs, squirrels, rocks, water, etc. I tried to think of a subject I could write about that had a lot of variety and remembered all the strange fish I read about when I was writing NOT A GOLDFISH. Idea born!
Only two of the fish I used in NOT A GOLDFISH ended up in FREAKY, FUNKY FISH—the porcupinefish and catfish. Everything thing else was fresh research.
Me: Only two? Wow! You wrote this book in such a clever way. It’s funny, fast paced, and educational. Was it difficult to write? Were there a lot of revisions?
Debra: Actually, this is one of the quickest books I have ever written. Most of my various picture books have taken years from idea to “submission-ready” status with 20, 30, 40+ revisions. I wrote FREAKY, FUNKY FISH in May 2018. While it wasn’t easy—I found so many fish I wanted to include but couldn’t find rhymes to go with them and had to give some up because I couldn’t get the meter to work—it was so much fun to write. It came together quickly. I started sending it to my various critique groups from June thru August. I did about 10 or 11 revisions in that timeframe and by early September I sent it to my agent. She asked for some minor tweaks and a rewrite of the ending and we were out on submission by the end of October. Five months from an idea to submission was definitely a record for me.
Me: Incredible! What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Debra: I am blown away by our natural world. I knew there were a lot of species of fish but had no idea how numerous they are—over 32,000! And how varied and incredibly cool they were. Seriously, I could write another book with fish that I couldn’t include. Their adaptions to survive in the environments they live in are amazing.
Me: I agree! The illustrations in this book are hilarious! How did you get paired up with Claire Powell? I’m SO in love with her work. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Debra: As is typical for traditionally published books, my publisher, Running Press Kids, found Claire. Her work is AMAZING and I am so thrilled with how she brought my words to life! Because I had seen so many photos while I was doing research, I didn’t put much thought into what an illustrator might do. And oh my, when I saw the first sketches I almost cried. I was so happy. The personalities she added to each and every fish was such a fun surprise. She understood that this book was meant to be fun and she delivered 110%.
Me: Any advice for other aspiring picture book writers?
Debra: Join a critique group if you don’t have one. There is no way I would be a published writer without them. Outside eyes from others who read and write picture books is so crucial. They’ll help you see things from a more objective eye.
Me: I understand you have another picture book coming out later this year as well. Can you tell us a little bit about that one?
Debra: Thanks for asking! Yes, TELL SOMEONE comes out on October 1st. This story came about very differently. Early in 2020 an editor from Albert Whitman had asked my agent if she had writers who might be willing to write a story on spec. They were hoping to publish a book to encourage open communication for young kids in both happy and hard situations. Since I had written a different picture book about dealing with tough emotions my agent encouraged me to give it a try. So I did. And it worked out. 🙂
In addition, if you love FREAKY, FUNKY FISH I am excited to say I have a companion book with Running Press Kids coming out in Fall 2022—PECULIAR PRIMATES. I am thrilled that Claire Powell has agreed to illustrate this one, too!
Ooooohhh! Both of those sound amazing. I can’t wait to read them. Thank you for stopping by Debra.
Dear readers, if you like the funky, the freaky, the funny, and the fascinating, this book is one you will want to get your hands on. It has all that and more.