Today’s Simply 7 is about a picture book that deals with food waste, composting, and recycling in a FUN way. Oh yes it does!
Melissa Coffey spent years writing professionally for grown-ups before discovering her love writing for kids. She hopes her first picture book will inspire readers to become food waste warriors and planet-saving superheroes. Melissa lives with her food adventurous family in Austin, Texas. You can learn more about her at her website.
FRIDGE-OPOLIS is a very creative take on food waste and composting AND it’s Melissa’s debut picture book. YAY! The city of Fridge-opolis is in dire straights as the food has gone bad, fighting is breaking out, and Mayor Mayonnaise is at his wits’ end. How can this problem be resolved? Despite the fact that we can ALL relate to food going bad in the fridge at one time or another, I think it was the back matter that really nailed home for me what a problem this actually is. It’s not overly preachy, but simplified facts that kids can easily relate to (and see just why this IS a problem).
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what drew you to writing? What has your journey been like up to this point of the publication of your picture book?
Melissa: First, thank you so much for having me, Jena!
I have been a professional writer pretty much my entire career. As a child, I usually had my nose in a book or was scribbling in a beat-up spiral notebook and later my Trapper Keeper. I grew up in Wisconsin where my first job was at the public library. I graduated from UW-Madison with a degree in Journalism, moved to Atlanta and called CNN Center home for nearly a decade. I then launched my own freelance writing business, Coffey Creative.
After 20+ years of writing for Fortune 500 clients, CFOs and magazines, I rediscovered my love of picture books when my two sons were born. I was inspired to take my writing in a whole new direction. For the past five years, I’ve immersed myself in the wonderfully supportive kidlit community, joined SCBWI, honed my craft and found amazing critique partners and friends in the process. I’ve been represented by Charlotte Wenger at Prospect Agency for the past three years. FRIDGE-OPOLIS is my debut picture book.
Me: That is quite a journey. Congratulations! Using food in the fridge to teach about composting is a new angle I haven’t seen before. What gave you the idea?
Melissa: I have a hunch that a lot of people dread cleaning out their fridge. I know it’s one of my least favorite chores. Who hasn’t found some leftovers lurking in the back or forgotten produce that has turned mushy in the crispers? Or how about lovingly packing a child’s lunchbox only to have most of it come back home at the end of the school day? (Ugh.) Even now, with a lot of concerted effort, organization and meal planning to reduce our own waste, I admit that it still pains me whenever food goes uneaten.
I’m sort of a rabid recycler, but when I learned that food is the number one thing filling up our landfills and a major contributor to climate change, I started composting. Most people don’t automatically connect or equate food waste with global warming. I know I didn’t. So, I was pretty gob smacked to discover that we collectively waste up to 40% of all food in the US. I knew this was an overlooked (but very important and timely) topic I wanted to share with kids, but in a humorous and playful way.
Me: This story could easily have been nonfiction with more “how to” directions about avoiding waste. What made you choose fiction over nonfiction to tell this story?
Melissa: I love this question!
Food waste is a monumental environmental issue that impacts all of us and contributes to our global climate crisis. I felt that a fictional approach using funny, anthropomorphic characters (hello, mustachioed Mayor Mayonnaise!) would be a gentle, effective way to introduce these concepts without overwhelming young readers.
Often, we can feel paralyzed when faced with the vast complexity of these issues, but food waste is actually one problem where each of us can make an impact through our daily choices and habits. And that’s a really empowering message.
I chose to employ humor to entertain and engage readers because when we are laughing, we are more open and receptive. It’s easier to start having those bigger, serious conversations and digging deeper. I actually take this “hybrid approach” with a lot of my fictional manuscripts by including non-fictional back matter to encourage readers to explore more.
Me: I love that! What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Melissa: Honestly, just the scope of the problem. I strive to be environmentally conscious, but I honestly had no idea that we lose or waste about one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world—enough to feed billions of hungry people each year. It’s something I feel really passionate about in raising awareness, especially among kids who are inheriting the planet and will be its future stewards.
Me: Can you talk about this book’s path to publication? How was the book acquired by Little Bee?
Melissa: It was a bit unusual in how fast it happened. While my overall experience has been that publishing generally moves at a glacial pace, my debut, FRIDGE-OPOLIS, was an exception. Charlotte submitted the project right before Thanksgiving 2020 to my delightful (then) editor, Courtney Fahy, at Little Bee Books. Five weeks later, right before Christmas, we had an offer in hand. It was truly the most unexpected, incredible holiday present I could have received. Courtney was an absolute gem to work with, and our visions totally aligned. She and Charlie Ilgunas, my new editor, share my enthusiasm for wordplay, backmatter and environmental sustainability. AWARENESS and EMPOWERMENT are actually two of Little Bee Books’ five publishing pillars, so I feel like FRIDGE-OPOLIS found its perfect home. Shimul Tolia’s Little Bee marketing/publicity team is wonderful, and I was so happy and honored we got to celebrate the book at TLA together.
Me: The illustrations by Josh Cleland are wonderful. I especially love the end papers and how they change. Were there any illustration surprises for you? What was your favorite illustration?
Melissa: Aren’t they fabulous? I adore the shift in end papers too! Josh is a ridiculously talented illustrator, and he infused so many extra layers of humor into FRIDGE-OPOLIS. He gave these anthropomorphic food characters loads of personality with great expressions. He is also a master in creating perspective and movement. I was delighted by so many of his detailed touches and I think the avocado that uses its own pit to bowl down the baby carrots is hilarious. I’m thrilled Josh included Wisconsin cheddar in the art as a nod to my home state, cheese-head roots!
Me: I loved the avocado too! Any advice for new picture book writers?
Melissa: The single most helpful suggestion I can share is to find your critique people. I love my CPs! I am fortunate to belong to an online critique group with members across the US and Canada, as well as a local in-person author group in Austin. These amazing authors are some of my closest friends now and have both inspired and sustained me on my own creative journey. I also am honored to be part of an incredible 2022 picture book debut collective, Kid Lit Caravan. Publishing can feel like a wacky, wonderful, wild roller coaster, and it’s good to have others buckled in beside you on the ride. 🙂
Absolutely true! Thank you for stopping by my blog today Melissa.
But WAIT, dear readers! There’s more! Melissa has agreed to giveaway a copy of FRIDGE-OPOLIS to one lucky winner. You can enter the giveaway here. Even if you don’t win, be sure to check this picture book out. It’s definitely worth a read.