Today I get to introduce you to a writer who is truly versatile. Not only has she written a picture book (which I get to share with you today), but she’s also written early readers, middle grade, and YA!
Shelli R. Johannes is coauthor of nine books in the LOVES SCIENCE picture book series including CECE LOVES SCIENCE, (co-authored with Kimberly Derting; published through Greenwillow). She also has two of her own picture books due out this year: THEO THESAURUS (06/15/21) and SHINE LIKE A UNICORN (HarperCollins 09/21/21).
Writing as SR Johannes, she is also the critically-acclaimed author of the teen novels in the NATURE OF GRACE series (Untraceable, Uncontrollable, Unstoppable) and REWIRED, as well as the middle grade novel ON THE BRIGHT SIDE. Shelli lives in Atlanta with her pack: British husband, two kids, one bird, one fish, and two crazy Doodles who hate vegetables. You can learn more about her at her website.
Her debut as a solo picture book author comes out TODAY! Yay! Happy book birthday! “Theo Thesaurus: the Dinosaur Who Loved Big Words” is a story about a dinosaur who doesn’t fit in. He and his family love using big words. It’s in their DNA! Theo becomes incredibly anxious when he moves to a new school and worries he won’t make friends because they won’t be able to understand him. I also love big words and love that there could be a dinosaur breed who is genetically predisposed to use them! What a wonderful idea! And kids are consumed with making friends and keeping them. This story hits all the marks.
Me: You have written in several other genres, like MG and YA among others. That’s quite an amazing range! What is it then that draws you to writing picture books?
Shelli: I love writing for all ages for different reasons. Picture books is just one genre in my publishing career. I love writing picture books because I feel like I can get my messages out to younger kids, and hopefully I can make an impact when they’re younger. I have a lot of silly ideas too, so it works for picture books.
Me: The mashup of a thesaurus and a dinosaur is brilliant. How did you come up with this idea?
Shelli: When my kids were little, they always loved using big words. The bigger, the better. Sometimes, they used words out of context, even when a smaller word might have worked much better. But, I always loved that they tried to find different words.
The idea for Theo TheSaurus came out of a conversation with my son. One day, my son was writing a paper for class and wanted to impress the teacher. He yelled to me from his bedroom.
“What’s another word for happy?”
I was cooking dinner at the time (which is very rare!), so instead of walking back to his room, I did the most natural Mom thing I could think of—and hollered back down the hall.
“Use a thesaurus.”
“A what?” He hollered back again.
“A thesaurus! You know, The. SAURUS. As in the dinosaur!”
I immediately got a vision of a little dinosaur who loved spouting off “colossal” words. Sometimes he used them wrong, and sometimes he used them right. But most of the time, no matter what words he used, no one could understand a word he was saying. That day, Theo TheSaurus was born.
Me: Aww! I love your character of Theo and his worries about moving to a new school and making friends. He is rightfully concerned that this will be hard because of his uniqueness. Is this a topic that you wanted to discuss with young readers? Why is that important to you?
Shelli: My kids have never quite fit in, and it’s always been hard on them. They have been bullied at past schools to the point where we had to pull them out and move them. Both of my kids are kind of quirky and unique, which doesn’t bode well for middle school and high school.
So, I think all of my books tend to focus on a key theme of kids being different – no matter the genre. Whether it’s Grace who would rather hike in the woods than hang with friends (Untraceable); Gabby who is a misfit angel (On the Bright Side); a dinosaur that is completely misunderstood (Theo); or a unicorn who teaches the reader how to stand out the most—they all focus on that same theme.
Me: I’m a word nerd and LOVE the idea of a character that loves a variety of big words. I once watched a movie when I was younger that talked about favorite words. I then randomly picked “viscosity” from a commercial on TV because of how it rolled around the tongue. Do you have a favorite word? Did it get used in the book?
Shelli: I don’t really have one favorite word, except I always loved (like many people did) the word “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins. I always did well on vocabulary tests because I thought breaking down words was fun. I do think that sometimes, a small word, like love or sorry, can have big impact on a person. It’s about using the right word, not necessarily the biggest one.
Me: I love that. The illustrations by Mike Moran are perfect. Were there any illustrating surprises for you?
Shelli: I was so excited to see Mike’s drawings. How cool is it that we got to make up our very own dinosaur?! Since a TheSaurus obviously isn’t a real species, I had suggested to my editor that Theo look different from any dinosaur we’ve seen before. When the sketches came back, we chose the one that looked the most unique. I think Theo ended up a mishmash of real dinosaurs. I loved the little touches Mike added: Theo is blue, he has little books for scales along his “spine,” and his bow tie is different and quirky.
Me: Any advice for new picture book writers?
Shelli: For me, picture books are hard to write! Somehow, we authors have to find a way to get a full story arc and characterization on the page in less than 800 words. Writers should learn the craft of writing a picture book and even spend time reading them at a bookstore or library. I spent hours looking through picture books and reading them out loud to hear the cadence and language. I actually buy as many picture books as I do novels now. If you study what works in the market, you can find your place.
Me: Can you tell us about your upcoming projects? You have at least one other picture book coming out this year, correct?
Shelli: In addition to working on a YA, I have seven more picture books coming out by 2023. In addition to a new coauthor project that just sold and four more Loves Science books coming out with Kimberly Derting (nine books in total), I also have “Shine like a Unicorn” coming September 21st with HarperCollins. In that book a unicorn is given the secret steps to being a unicorn and standing out in a herd of horses. And Theo Thesaurus #2 is scheduled for next summer.
Wow! A sequel already! Fantastic news. Congrats Shelli and thank you for stopping by my blog.
Dear readers, if you too are a word nerd, then this is the book for you. There are many exquisite words used in this story, like forlorn, cantankerous, and flibbertigibbet! Plus there’s a cute blue dinosaur full of heart too. You won’t want to miss it.