Featuring author Michelle Sumovich
Interviewed by John Repplinger
November 14th, 2023
Michelle Sumovich is the author of picture books ONE MORE JAR OF JAM (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2023), EVERYTHING IS FINE (HarperCollins, 2024), and I HAVE THREE CATS (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2024). Michelle has a background working in bookstores and library program development for young children, as well as years of experience writing lyrics and music for children and adults. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, two children, and more than three cats.
Icebreaker: If you could choose to eat any dessert in the world, what would it be and why?
I’ll lean nostalgic and go with sour cherry pie á la mode for a delicious flakey-fruity-creamy combo. Growing up, I’d stake out the dessert table at family gatherings and sneak bits of crust until it was time to cut into the pies. As I remember it, I always saved the cherry pie for last because that’s the flavor that ought to linger.
So tell us, what inspired you to start writing children’s books?
I worked at a used bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas about 20 years ago– The Dusty Bookshelf. That’s where I first fell in love with illustrated children’s books, particularly those from the 1960s and 70s. I think the first one that really spoke to me was Rain Makes Applesauce by Julian Scheer and Marvin Bileck. It was so beautiful and weird, and that intersection was very appealing to me. Tomi Ungerer and Barbara Cooney were some other faves that I discovered during that time. I was amazed by how they could tell a whole story with deep worlds and commentaries in such a short span of pages.
When my first child was born, I started spending more time reading books by modern authors and illustrators and thinking about the format, and I narrowed in on books which were a bit subversive or strange, or books that told the truth in exciting ways. I realized that they reminded me of those older books written 50 years prior which I loved so much, and it was that connection that made me want to be a part of this work. It’s also what keeps me going– trying to write enjoyable books that are a little wise but not bossy.
Debut authors have a much harder time breaking into the publishing industry. What have been the most challenging aspects of writing and publishing for you?
A couple things– the first few years that I was writing, I was very focused on learning craft, generating work, and revising. The best time to work was after my kid was in bed, so I wasn’t getting very much sleep in the beginning. It was taxing, but I loved that development period. Since I was enjoying the process, I didn’t sweat the “breaking in” too much, nor the criticism and rejection which can sometimes be a sticking point, so that helped.
I signed with my agent, Hannah Mann (Writers House), in 2019 and we sold the second book we went out with. It was a thrill making my first sale, but finding patience during the four year period before its release was more challenging than I anticipated. I had this kind of self-imposed expectation to stay hyped up about the book for four years, which wasn’t really reasonable for me. But luckily I was able to refocus on development, and just kept getting excited about new work.
In your first children’s book, One More Jar of Jam, the writing is filled with beautifully rich and poetic descriptions such as “Gone to sticky Grandma’s table.” The reader feels how the summer is “fruitless and dry as toast” after a storm destroys the family's mulberry tree. How has your experience with writing lyrics and music for young children helped you with writing this book?
Thank you! I love this question because, to me, there’s a subtle rhythm built into this book which is present every time I read it aloud, and I wonder if some of that comes out when others read it, too. Writing song lyrics requires a lot of carving up the thing you want to say, so it fits into a line or a verse.
In this book I thought a lot about how many syllables certain words had, and where the syllabic emphasis fell, to create a lull in the text, even though it’s not a rhyming book. I thought about whether words were heavy or light, slow or fast. For example, it’s difficult to read “climb bending branches” aloud at a faster pace than “wicked winds rage through your town,” so in the story, there’s a rhythmic ease before the storm and a quickened pulse as the storm draws close. I suppose the refrain of the line, “If you ever have a mulberry tree,” also lends itself to a songlike structure, since you could think of it as kicking off each new verse.
I actually started recording a song trailer for this book in the eleventh hour, but when I didn’t complete it before launch, the project kind of fizzled. I’m fond of the song, but not everything gets made! Maybe there will be a song for the next book!
Another important aspect about this book is its theme about interracial families. Can you talk about this?
Yeah! I love to see it. When I submitted my manuscript, I didn’t include any context about the main character’s racial or gender identity. I am a white person, but/and my story doesn’t call for a white character. I’m happy that Gracey Zhang, the book’s illustrator, didn’t choose whiteness as a default. This story is about an experience, and I love to see it told with all the vibrance of this particular family and community.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book? If you could talk directly to your readers, what would you say?
I’m happy for readers to take whatever they need from this book. There’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster at play in the story. Things get bad for the main character, and they mourn the loss of their important tree for a good long while, but there are also some slow and silent glimmers of hope. I think that’s how life is– sometimes we experience loss, sometimes things feel unbearable, and when we’re ready, we can find hope in celebrating the things that can no longer celebrate themselves.
According to your website, you’ve been involved with children’s library programming. How did you get involved with libraries and what kind of things were you involved with at the library?
At 15 years old, my first job was in a library, actually, and I went on to work in three other public library systems after that. In Oregon, I worked for the Multnomah County Library, and had the opportunity to plan and lead an arts and crafts program for children in the Rockwood community. I loved that work. Many toilet paper rolls and sequins were given a new, exciting life in my tenure there and I was constantly (gleefully) slathered in glue. To support the program, I looked forward to finding tie-in material and getting books into kids’ hands.
I also organized passive programs like poetry stations and games and created displays and bulletin boards. Basically, I gobbled up any opportunity to do creative work to connect the library with the community. Families in particular were so receptive to those services and at the time there was a fair amount of autonomy among neighborhood branches, which made for happy staff and patrons.
You mention having your own children and more than three cats. How do you balance writing with life activities?
Quality childcare and educators! As I write this, my oldest kid has been home for two weeks due to a teacher’s strike in Portland, which has required a big shift in priorities. I’m suddenly integrating home education and picket line education into my schedule, and not a ton of writing is taking place.
I’m fortunate for the flexibility that comes with being a writer, but when things come up, I have to be very intentional about keeping work on the agenda because the pressure to hustle toward the next project or deadline always remains. I’m not sure if a balance between writing and parenting is something that really exists, but I’m getting better at pivoting between the two. As long as I’m chipping away at work, it usually feels like staying afloat. I’m eager to get our kids back to their amazing teachers and get back to my typical work routine.
Two other picture books are slated to be published in 2024 entitled, I Have Three Cats and Everything is Fine. Can you tell us about them? Do you have any other books or projects that you’re working on that you would like to mention?
Yes! I’m really excited about the picture books coming out next year! EVERYTHING IS FINE is coming out first, in October 2024. It’s a story about a chaotic child and her exhausted mother, with a healthy dose of magic elixir, missing persons, and spaghetti. I’m so excited about it. It’s illustrated by Sarah Jacoby (Forever or a Day, The Important Thing About Margaret Wise Brown) and it turned out extremely beautiful and weird– just how I like ‘em!
My other upcoming picture book is I HAVE THREE CATS, coming in Nov/Dec 2024. It’s a sweet and slightly ornery story about a child with three darling cats, and the stray that appears in the yard and upends their lives. It’s a semi-autobiographical account of lacking boundaries when it comes to adorable animals. Comic artist Laura Park (Unstoppable) is the illustrator on this one, and it’s so sweet and funny!
In addition to those, I just sold the text for my first graphic novel! I can’t say much about it yet, but the editorial consensus seems to be that it’s “unhinged,” which I feel really good about. I’m also taking my first drawing class, and imagining what it would be like to someday illustrate one of my own manuscripts. Gotta start somewhere!
EVERYTHING IS FINE, by Michelle Sumovich, will be published in October 2024