Book Reviews, Spotlight on Writing

Interview with Meg Raby, author of My Brother Otto

Please enjoy my interview with children’s book author, Meg Raby, and her first picture book, My Brother Otto.

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photo credit: Michelle Sterling @averyandaugustine

During an Instagram story you gave viewers the opportunity to learn that My Brother Otto almost never happened. Tell us your thoughts about when you decided to send it off to Gibbs Smith Publishing.

About four years ago I had some eyes I highly respected take a look at my manuscript, which was then called PIPER AND OTTO, and tell me that it needed a lot of work and actually encouraged me to take the picture book in a whole different direction. If I had listened to this advice, I would have been writing something that was not my own—and not the point of MY BROTHER OTTO.
Because of the status of some of the people who provided initial feedback and because I found the whole process to be exceptionally vulnerable, I set the manuscript down and told myself to let it go—it wasn’t meant to be.
Fast forward about two years later and I’m in an accountability group all about taking risks (don’t worry, the healthy kind!), and they encouraged me to pick up the manuscript again—to risk the rejection all over. I picked it up, ended up making some significant, albeit important, changes to the manuscript and MY BROTHER OTTO was born.
Because Gibbs Smith Publishing publishes some of my family’s favorite books that seek to “Enrich and Inspire Humankind,” and because I thought it would be an incredible and more personal opportunity to actually get to meet the editor and other staff members of Gibbs, I put them at the top of my list. I will let you know my list was lengthy but that I never had to submit to any of the other publishers, because I heard back within 1 month.
Oh how my heart exploded!

Where/when did the idea to write My Brother Otto start?
I had known facts about autism spectrum disorders (ASD) but never had direct relationships with any child or adult with ASD until graduate school. I went to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and received my Masters in Speech and Language Pathology with an additional certification in ASD. Before graduate school, I could list off the common characteristics of autism and write a strong essay, but I did not truly know what it all meant.
In graduate school I had the chance to do a clinical experience, or practicum, at a local autism center. This experience lead me to my first job as a speech and language pathologist with kiddos on the autism spectrum. Oh how I wish I could share with the perfect words how much that practicum and job melted my heart and forever created a love for the children and their families.
I think it’s a common misconception that if you have a diagnosis of ASD then you are “living in your own world” and don’t have social needs. You see a bunch of odd behaviors and that’s it. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I became friends with a 3-year-old who was nonverbal and who displayed a high amount of tantrums and aggression. This child was merely communicating frustration in a way he knew how—he was upset, and I realized that if others weren’t understanding what I was trying to communicate that I’d be upset, too. This same child grew to trust me and to enjoy our interactions. He’d see me in the hallway and flap his hands in excitement. On the occasion, he’d even hug me. I knew this needed to get out there for others to hear—I’m cutting my response to this question a bit short, because I could discuss dozens of more children (and adult) relationships similar to this one.
I do want you to know that the very first thing that set off my pursuit of writing this picture book was Ellen Degeneres’s statement to “Be kind.” She says this at the end of each show, and I love it. I love her. In order to be kind, especially when a child and when something or someone seems different or maybe even weird, gaining understanding and walking in their shoes to get a new perspective is absolutely essential. Gaining understanding leads to love—to kindness.
Your Instagram account, Bedtime Stories Forevermore, blossomed quickly. What was your hope when you started the account and did you think it would bloom into what it has?
My goal was merely to do something creative and to connect with others who love children’s books as much as I do. Sure, as a speech and language pathologist I know the importance of literacy and want to always advocate for more time reading together (it’s insanely important), but I also know the magic and the fun that comes from falling in love with books. I want to share only books that I believe will be endlessly beloved and help along in the “falling in love” process.
I will say as soon as I learned MY BROTHER OTTO was being published that I took the opportunity to address awareness and acceptance of children and adults on the autism spectrum on my account. I am so excited to spread the love for a misunderstood or often-overlooked community on Bedtime Stories Forevermore. I’ve connected with inspiring parents and friendships have formed. If even one person can gain new understanding or one parent can help their child understand their classmate on the autism spectrum and encourage kindness, then my job on Instagram is worth it.
Some states have a large group of writer programs/events and groups, while others lack. How does Utah stack-up?
Utah is a hub for children’s authors and for writing seminars and conferences. I honestly did not know this prior to moving here three years ago, but if you are looking for support in the children’s literature world, this is certainly a great place! I’m actually on my way to grab brunch with author Lezlie Evans—we met when her book FINDING CHRISTMAS came out and became instant friends. She’s so lovely.
Do you have any other picture books in the works?
Sitting in the hands of the publisher? Yes. Given the green light for publishing one of the manuscripts yet? No. I currently have a sequel about Otto that is being reviewed and actually a holiday book not related to Otto that is also being reviewed. We shall see what happens! It’s definitely a practice of patience in this field of work—but totally worth it.
Screenshot_20190330-124212_Instagram.jpgMy Brother Otto released on March 19, 2019. What is your ultimate goal with its release (how do you hope it inspires/helps the Autism community)?
I want MY BROTHER OTTO in the hands of all young readers—whether they have any association with autism or not. Currently 1 in 59 children are diagnosed with ASD in the US, so it’s safe to say there is most likely 1-2(+) classmates or neighbor kids in their daily life with this diagnosis. My goal is to make ASD understandable to the youngest of readers and to show that these classmates and neighbors like to learn, play, have friends and have fun just like they do. I want everyone to fall in love with Otto.

You can purchase My Brother Otto on Barnes & Noble, Amazon and directly from Gibbs Smith

You can follow Meg on Instagram at: bedtime.stories.forevermore

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Spotlight on Writing

How I Wrote a Picture Book – The True Story of Nonnie and I

Xist Publishing, 2014
Xist Publishing, 2014

When I sat down to write Nonnie and I, it was called Nia and I. (I had used a baby name book to help me decide on an African orientated name, I changed the name later to Nonnie after a publisher was interested, but already had a book with that name).

I was intrigued seeing how animals interact with children and in turn how child react to animals. Essentially this is how my picture book started in 2005. Children’s play is always so free and imaginative and I had witnessed this over my years as a nanny. I also saw how new experiences were not always a welcoming part of childhood. I took the love children often have for animals and made it BIG. I had seen a documentary on giraffe adoption in Africa and how people could get close to them much like horses.

The idea sparked. How about a girl and her pet giraffe? The story had originally been more about an adoption, family, and caring for a pet, but that didn’t provide a deep story arc. I later realized school was a pretty traumatic change in a child’s life after seeing children grip onto their parents for dear life when being dropped at day-care or school. (I’ve worked in both settings). I’d also seen it happen to me with the three children I was a nanny for. (Screaming when I left, grabbing hold when I tried to put them on the floor in play group, fearful to nap because I hadn’t been there the last time they woke up).

I put the two together and created a story. The first of a dozen drafts moved from the adoption focus to a friendship focus, but was too much on both sides of the story. I trimmed and trimmed, removing beloved sentences, added new depth. (A big credit goes out to Dawn Young for telling me the giraffe seems like a piece of play ground equipment and not an animal. Also the biggest credit goes to (as mentioned before) Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books) After a failed 44 submissions (I had five OH SO CLOSE ALMOST CONTRACTS) I took a total of two months of reading (Writing Picture Books) and editing to get the manuscript into the format (more trimming and editing) I submitted to my now publisher (Xist Publishing).
Nonnie and I means a lot to me for a number of reasons, but what I hope most, and the reason I wrote it was to provide children with the comfort of a story that shows them they are not alone with their feelings.