Simply 7 with Pat Zietlow Miller–“Be Strong”

There are so many things I wish I had learned about a growth mindset when I was a kid.  Some I learned myself the very hard way.  But if I had a book, like in today’s Simply 7, it would’ve helped a LOT.

Me1Pat Zietlow Miller has visited my blog once before (way back when I was first starting these interviews).  She written numerous picture books that have done well (23 so far!) and today is BE STRONG’s book birthday!  She started out as a newspaper reporter and wrote about everything from dartball and deer-hunting to diets and decoupage. Then, she joined an insurance company — and then another — and edited their newsletters and magazines.  Now, Pat focuses on her favorite thing — writing picture books.  You can learn more about her at her website.

BeStrong COVER“Be Strong” is a sequel to “Be Kind” which became a New York Times bestseller (for good reason!).  Here we see the same characters again, but this time Tanisha is telling the story.  She isn’t strong like some of her other classmates.  She can’t climb the rock wall at gym and sometimes she can’t lift her backpack either.  BUT she is surrounded by tons of family and friends who show her strength in millions of ways.  This gives her the strength to learn to be strong herself.  She keeps trying and learns that strength doesn’t always have to be physical either.  This book is mind blowing in its simplicity, it’s UN-preachiness, and beautiful storyline.  It will tug at your heart strings, just as the first book did, and it’s another one that I absolutely NEED in my classroom collection!

Welcome back Pat!

Me: This book is a sequel to “Be Kind.”  How did that come about?  Were you asked to write a sequel because the first book was so well received?  Or did you always have a series in mind for these characters?

Pat: I initially did NOT have a sequel in mind. I never do when I write my drafts. I’m just focused on writing the best possible story I can at that moment. And, understandably, publishers rarely want to commit to a series until there’s evidence there’s an audience for the first book.

So, we started talking about a companion book after BE KIND was doing so well. We brainstormed a lot of options before settling on BE STRONG. I don’t remember exactly why we settled on that topic. I think it just seemed like something I could work with.

Then, when I started writing, it all came together in a way that made me very happy.

Me: I adore “Be Kind” and “Be Strong.”  They have such good messages for young readers (without being didactic) and are excellent for use in the classroom to teach a “growth mindset.”  They even have great messages for me as an adult!  How do you balance a message with a plot?  How many revisions does it take for a story like this to not sound “preachy”? 

Screen Shot 2021-08-08 at 2.54.49 PMPat: My biggest goal for both books was NOT to make them sound preachy. That’s a terrible thing for a picture book. No one, of any age, likes to be told what to do or what to think.

My solution was to write the books in first person and have the main character in each be working out the answer to, “What does it mean to be kind?” and, “How can I be strong?” We, as readers, get to follow their thought processes and see how they reach their conclusions. Then, it’s a natural jumping-off point for readers to start thinking about how they would answer those same questions. Do they agree with what the characters decided? Are there other ways to be kind or strong that aren’t mentioned in the book? What would be do in a similar situation?

I wanted to get readers thinking without saying: There is just one right answer to these questions, and here’s what it is.

Me: This book is just as touching as the first one.  How did you feel about writing a sequel?  Did you enjoy being able to revisit the same characters again?

Pat: Writing BE STRONG was like hanging out with old friends. I really liked writing about them, and I liked seeing them again in Jen Hill’s awesome art even more. I always say that, in BE KIND, Jen drew the neighborhood I wish I lived in. And that was true, again, with BE STRONG.

Tanisha was a secondary character in BE KIND. She didn’t have the best day there. She spilled grape juice all over her new dress and didn’t handle it particularly well. So, I was very happy to make her the main character in BE STRONG where she has a much better time discovering how strong she really is.

talent show

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

Pat: I was surprised to realize how many different ways there are to be strong. Like most people, the first thing I think of is physical strength. Writing this story reminded me of all the quieter, less visible, ways there are to be strong. Ways that often are more difficult to master than physical strength.

Me: Yes!  I love that!  Dare we hope for any more stories with these characters?  Are there other books planned for the series?

Pat: Talks have taken place. There could indeed be another book if BE STRONG does well.

Me: Yay!  I’m delighted to see Jen Hill’s illustrations again and recognized many of the same characters from the first book.  Were there any illustration surprises for you?  What is your favorite illustration in this book? 

Pat: Nothing was a huge surprise in the illustrations. I really like the two-page spread where Tanisha is on stage at her school talent show.

And, there’s a page that shows Tanisha dressing up as three of her heroes. Her heroes aren’t named in the text, but they are real-life, super-talented Black women. When you see that page, I hope it’s obvious who they are. A hint: Two are current-day heroes. One is historical.

heroes

Me:  That was one of my favorites illustrations too.  That and grandma jogging!  Why are “being kind” and “being strong” important messages to you personally?  Why do you want to share them with young readers?

Pat: No matter which book I’m working on, I try to write something that I needed to read when I was a kid.

In the case of these two titles, it took me a long time to learn how to effectively be kind. I have memories of trying to do the right thing as a kid and having the person I was truly trying to be kind to not take it that way. And, it took me a long time to get over being timid and shy and realize all the ways that I was – and am – strong.

I love that.  I feel the same way about the things I learned when I was younger.  Thank you for stopping by my blog again Pat.  We are delighted to celebrate your book birthday with you.

Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance to read either “Be Kind” or “Be Strong” yet, I highly recommend them.  They help young readers to puzzle out how to do exactly what it says in the title, but they also speak to me as an older reader.  They are incredibly heart warming and give me such hope for our future generation.  I hope you will love them as much as I do.

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