Hi Math Is Everywhere Readers,
We have an extra special interview today with author AJ Irving about her beautiful debut picture book beautifully honoring grandparent relationships, Dance Like a Leaf.
Kaitlyn: Hi AJ, to start off, can you share what inspired this story?
AJ: This story traveled straight from my heart to my pen. My grandma and I were very close. I visited her in Montana every summer growing up. We were also pen pals all my life. My grandma always signed her letters the same way:
The last letter I wrote her was the inspiration for DANCE LIKE A LEAF. I went on three walks the day I learned my grandma’s life was nearing the end. It was a gorgeous autumn day. I brought a notebook with me on the third walk to write her a letter. This is the first paragraph of that letter:
I’m walking beneath a tree tunnel of yellow, orange, and red. It’s your favorite season and your story is nearing the end. Tears slide under my sunglasses and skip off my chin. You loved fall the most. Painted trees. Scarves. Hot tea.
I read the letter at her service. So many folks told me how much they were moved by my words. That’s when I knew I had to write a picture book for her.
Kaitlyn: I totally teared up reading that. I agree with your grandma, you are a born writer. For this book, I love that you mix beautiful descriptions with a great story, how did you decide what descriptions to include?
AJ: Thank you, Kaitlyn. The descriptions just came to me. This story didn’t change very much from the first draft to the final book. My first draft poured out of me just like the letter did. I have a huge collection of scarves. I call them my “rainbow of scarves. This spread makes me tear up every time:
Nearly naked trees shed the last of their leaves.
Grandma’s bed is empty.
Our teacups sit in a tidy stack.
Our scarves hang like a rainbow, quiet but vibrant.
Kaitlyn: Stunning, that’s all I can say, stunning. If your own grandma was able to be with you when you received the first copies of your beautiful book, what do you think she would say/do?
AJ: First, I think she would hug me and cry happy tears. Then, we would put on fun hats and go out for tea and dessert to celebrate. My grandma had a huge sweet tooth. We always had dessert. She is the reason I love cheesecake, tea, and big hats. I am sure she would say that she was proud of me for following my dream. Her lifelong dream was to be a published author, too.
Kaitlyn: I love that she always inspired you and continues to, plus hats and sweets, she sounds like my kinda girl! You mentioned at your book launch that you never thought to query this story to agents because it was too quiet, can you share what prompted you to send it to Barefoot Books?
AJ: I participated in Twitter pitch events often. I pitched all my polished manuscripts, even the ones I wasn’t actively submitting to agents. I pitched DANCE LIKE A LEAF in #KidPit on Twitter in 2018, and received a heart from my editor. I never expected this book to be my debut book.
Kaitlyn: Wow! That shows that you should always put your work out there! Love it! Can you share how you got your agent?
AJ: Quite a few exciting things were finally starting to happen when I submitted to Jordan. I sent her an LGBTQ manuscript. In my query letter, I mentioned that I was working on a revise and resubmit with an editor, another editor was interested in my LGBTQ manuscript, and that I had just received an offer from Barefoot Books for DANCE LIKE A LEAF. I submitted to Jordan on a Friday morning. She responded the same afternoon, requesting more work and to schedule “the call.” I did a happy dance in the middle of the library. Jordan and I chatted the following Monday. I knew immediately she was the agent for me.
Kaitlyn: I got the chills; what an awesome how-you-got-your-agent story! Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
AJ: My motto is dream big and never give up. My three publishing Ps are passion, persistence, and patience. There will be a lot of nos along the way, but it only takes one yes. Over the years, I have seen so many of my kidlit friends sign with agents and get book deals. I happy dance for them every single time.
Kaitlyn: Yes, never stop dreaming, put in the work, and celebrate, celebrate, celebrate! I love it! Okay, final question about the story, what do you hope readers get out of this story?
AJ: I hope DANCE LIKE A LEAF shows children and families that there are beautiful ways to remember loved ones after they are gone, and that they never truly leave us because they live on in our hearts, memories, and traditions.
Kaitlyn: That’s absolutely beautiful. Any chance you can share a bit about what you’re working on now?
AJ: I am working on a queer girl picture book. My agent also recently sent me an idea that I am excited about. It made my heart smile that she thought of me for this project.
Kaitlyn: That sounds amazing, especially working on a story from your heart and your agent knowing you so well that she shared an idea with you; that’s so awesome–go Jordan! Finally, if you could spend a day with your favorite author or illustrator, would you sit by a fireside and chat or go out on an adventure together?
AJ: I would LOVE to meet my mentor, Laura Gehl, in person. She is very adventurous! I think we would be great camping buddies. I picture a day of hiking, canoeing, and fishing. Laura adores chocolate so I imagine we would end the night sharing s’mores around the campfire.
Kaitlyn: YUM! That sounds awesome, and Laura is so cool; I bet you ladies would have a blast together! Thanks so much for joining us today, AJ, and congrats again on your beautiful book!
Dance Like a Leaf Book Info
BOOK DESCRIPTION: As her grandmother’s health declines, a young girl begins to lovingly take the lead in their cozy shared autumn traditions. Poetic prose paired with evocative illustrations by Mexican illustrator Claudia Navarro make for a beautiful celebration of life and a gentle introduction to the death of a loved one.
Every autumn AJ Irving remembers her grandma by sipping tea, painting trees and dancing under falling leaves with her two children. She writes picture books and poetry on her big back porch in a little town near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
AJ Irving grew up in Boise, Idaho, writing stories and daydreaming about becoming an author. Now, she writes picture books and poetry on her big back porch in a tiny town near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. AJ reads kidlit every day and dances every chance she gets. Her debut picture book, DANCE LIKE A LEAF, released from Barefoot Books on August 21, 2020.
As an author and former bookmobile librarian, AJ is passionate about inspiring children to read. She received a B.A. in journalism and women’s and gender studies from the University of Oregon. AJ is represented by Jordan Hamessley of New Leaf Literary.
Kaitlyn’s review of Dance Like a Leaf
Dance Like a Leaf is stunning on all levels. The imagery, story, and art are all absolutely gorgeous and heartwarming. I cried reading this beautiful progression from having fun with an exciting, vibrant grandma to dealing with grandma passing away to finally remembering and celebrating the inspiring woman that the child loved so much. Everyone should get a copy of this book to celebrate the wonderful relationships between kids and grandparents.
Do you want to win a SIGNED copy of Dance Like a Leaf? (Contiguous US only please)
Here are all the ways to get into the giveaway (each one is an extra entry):
- Comment on this post
- Share in the comments below that you added Dance Like a Leaf to your Goodreads “Want to Read” list and/or your Amazon Wishlist
- Share in the comments that you ordered a copy of Dance Like a Leaf
- Share in the comments that you did a purchase request for Dance Like a Leaf at your library
- Quote retweet my tweet about this blog post on Twitter and tag three friends.
Thank you all for reading and sharing and supporting authors by buying, borrowing and reviewing their books!
Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez
PS. Have you heard about the Fall Writing Frenzy??? It’s happening again! Get all the info to start working on your submission here: https://lydialukidis.wordpress.com/fall-writing-frenzy-contest-2020/ I hope you’re as excited about the contes as we are! Please tweet about it and use the hashtag #FallWritingFrenzy and tag Lydia and me 🙂 (@KaitlynLeann17 and @LydiaLukidis)