I love a picture book that manages to blow my mind by being both a fresh take AND something that makes me smack my forehead for not thinking of it myself. That’s today’s Simply 7.
Katelyn Aronson was raised in southern California and spent six years working in independent children’s bookstores before moving to Europe. Today she divides her time between France and Switzerland, where she teaches at the prestigious Institut Le Rosey and writes children’s books. You can learn more about her at her website.
CLOVIS KEEPS HIS COOL is her third picture book. Here is the story of the bull in the China shop from that old idiom most of us have heard of before. That’s the obvious part. But I can’t recall one single picture book based on that premise. Katelyn took the ball and ran with it here, as Clovis is a genuinely memorable character. He is simply someone who is surviving a loss of some sort (we don’t really get the whole story) and trying to change himself for the better. He used to be someone who was known to be … well, he was bullish. He was angry and self-focused, but his grandma always knew he could be better. Clovis wants to be that better person and tries to find his inner peace, but his past comes back to haunt him. Isn’t that a story we can all relate to? It’s so brilliantly obvious and yet, no one but Katelyn could’ve written it. This is a book you will want to read for yourself to see just how she managed to do it.
Me: This is your third picture book in the last two years and you have three more coming out in the next three years. Each one is different from the others! How did you manage to have six picture books coming out so closely together? What is the secret of your success?
Katelyn: I am grateful beyond words for finding several editors who have responded well to my work. The picture book market is absolutely flooded at the moment and therefore highly competitive. My only strategy has been to write a lot. I still get rejected all the time, but am constantly cooking up new things (well, as best I can while working full time). I tell myself it’s a numbers game and the only thing I can control is the amount of effort I put in to creating new and interesting stories. More easily said than done!
Me: Can you tell us about this book’s journey? How long did it take to write? How many revisions did it undergo?
Katelyn: I don’t keep count of my revisions—I often “save” right over top of them on my computer (Hard-core Darlings Killer, ha). But it’s safe to say that Clovis got more revisions than any of my other stories. A common issue of mine is having too many ideas, too many themes going on in one manuscript, and needing to streamline. My first version of Clovis was very different from today’s published version, in that it was about a bull in a china shop…who loved to dance.
Thanks to the support of my visionary CP Jen Bagan (to whom the book is dedicated in part), my first tale eventually metamorphosed into a story about a bull struggling to control his temper. I’m glad it did, because I later found out that Page Street Kids had already acquired a book about a dancing bull! Today’s published version of Clovis still retains most of the same themes addressed in my first version: gender roles, body positivity, society’s pressure on boys to be “macho,” and the importance of grace in every sense of the word.
Me: I love that. Most of us have heard the idiom “like a bull in a China shop.” Is that where you got the idea from? What gave you the idea for this story?
Katelyn: Yes! I’ve always loved the “bull in the china shop” idiom—the idea of a bull’s brute strength juxtaposed with shelves of fragile porcelain. That image was begging me for more backstory, and I wondered what kind of character might find themselves in such a situation—being big and strong, yet working in close quarters surrounded by breakable things. Gradually, Clovis’ “gentle giant” persona took shape. It turned out that this gentle giant had an aggressive past, and one that would come back to haunt him!
Me: Clovis is such a wonderful character. I love his back story and his fight to control his temper. I’ve worked with kiddos who struggle with anger and I can see them identifying with this story. Why is controlling your anger and finding inner peace an important message you want to share with young readers?
Katelyn: I think Clovis’ struggle is a very human one. When it comes to feeling frustrated, angry, or simply pushed to the limits of our patience, we can reach a breaking point. It felt important to show, through the character of Clovis, that despite our very best efforts, we don’t always keep our cool. At times, we might react in destructive ways. But maybe there is still grace and forgiveness to be found, for ourselves and for others. In this story, grace is something of a legacy bestowed on Clovis by a loved one. It isn’t until he embraces that forgiveness for himself that he can extend it to his rivals.
Me: Wow. I just got chills. That’s an amazing concept. The illustrations by Eve Farb are wonderful. I love Clovis’ many expressions. Were there any illustration surprises for you? What was your favorite illustration?
Katelyn: I had the huge honor of cherry-picking Eve Farb to work on this project (thank you to her and to Kristen Nobles for agreeing to that and making it all possible). I had been following Eve’s work for a while, dreaming of some kind of collaboration. My biggest thrill was looking at her first sample illustration (on right) and thinking, “That’s him! My Clovis! I recognize him!” Eve’s depiction was exactly how I’d imagined him. I still get goosebumps just thinking about it.
I have two favorite illustrations. First, the book jacket, which has the exact expression I hoped would be on Clovis’ face. (I asked that he look peeved. Did Eve gave us peevish perfection, or what?! ) I never get over looking at it. My other favorite illustration falls at the climax of the story, so I won’t show a spoiler. But it’s the double spread where the little tea bag drops into view. I got choked up when I wrote this part of the story and Clovis’ tear says it all.
Me: I got choked up reading it! Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Katelyn: I won’t sugar coat things: I don’t think the industry has been this hard to break into in a long time, if ever. To those of you trying to find an agent and/or editor right now: you have my respect. If this (painful) process ends up taking time—longer than you expected—please find other little goals along the way that are within your reach and that can give you a sense of victory. Often, while in the query trenches, I submitted poems to contests and magazines. These mini wins and publications really kept me going, kept me proud of my work, and proved to me that my investment wasn’t in vain. There are many ways to become a “published author” on the way to your ultimate goal.
Everyone in this industry says, “We don’t do it for the fame,” and, “We don’t do it for the money,” and while that may be true, creators DO need some kind of positive reinforcement along the way, some kind of acknowledgement from the void. Otherwise, we can curl up and die creatively. At the beginning, you may need to find ways of manufacturing that positive reinforcement on your own. Reward yourself when you reach goals. Create a system for yourself in which you get something back for the work you put in, so that writing is something you yearn to do, instead of something daunting or drudgerous.
Me: That is absolutely fantastic advice. Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming books?
Katelyn: I’d love to!
Poo-Dunit? A Forest Floor Mystery is my silly, rhyming, STEM tale, releasing from Candlewick next year and hilariously illustrated by Stephanie Laberis.
Then, in 2023, I have a peanut butter and jelly origin story, PB & J, which is basically West Side Story starring kitchen condiments, releasing with Viking of Penguin Random House and illustrated by Sesame Street illustrator Sarah Rebar.
And in 2024, I have another book out with Candlewick that hasn’t been announced yet and the suspense is just killing me. It will be my first book starring humans…and mermaids. A dream come true!
Wow! Those all sound incredible. I can’t wait to read them Katelyn. Thank you for stopping by my blog.
Dear readers, if you’re wondering where to find inspiration, look no further. This book capitalizes on an idiom we use quite frequently and yet Katelyn was able to find the nugget of a story at its heart that led to gold. This isn’t one you want to pass by. It’s a great read that gave me all the feels.