Hi Math is Everywhere Readers,
Description of book from the publisher, Feiwel and Friends, Macmillan:
In Smile, Sophia, a smart, relatable picture book by author/illustrator Skylaar Amann, a serious dino-loving little girl just doesn’t feel like smiling…and that’s okay.
Sophia loves finding fossils and digging up dinosaur bones. But she doesn’t love the way all the grownups just want her to smile. What does smiling have to do with the very serious business of being a scientist?!
She’ll smile when she has something to smile about!
In this picture book by Skylaar Amann, a young girl shows that being strong, and smart, and really good at what she does is more than enough—and if she smiles, it’s because she wants to!
Kaitlyn: Hi, Skylaar, it’s so nice to have you back here today!
Skylaar: Hi Kaitlyn, it’s so great to be chatting with you again!
Kaitlyn: It’s always wonderful to chat with you, too! Can you start by sharing how this book came to be?
Skylaar: Sure, this story combines my love of fossils, bones, and paleontology … with my disdain of constantly being told to smile more. I think it’s interesting (and sad) how much adults can miss when they focus on certain things, like wanting a kid to smile, instead of learning about what they are passionate about or what they’re thinking about in that moment.
For Sophia, the main character in my book, she’s wrapped up in this whole incredible world of paleontology, investigation, discovery, and science -- and if you focus on her smile, you might miss out on a whole lot of her coolness.
When I was developing the idea for this story, I knew I wanted to combine those two topics, but I have no idea why exactly. The idea just kind of sprang into my mind and I quickly dashed out the first draft. I think juxtaposing a thing that is a source of joy for me with a negative pressure created an interesting tension that feels true to life -- and hopefully made for a unique story.
Kaitlyn: It definitely made the story unique, and I love that you’re bringing to light a topic that many people haven’t thought about and empowering kids (and adults) to think for themselves. Also, I just adore the archeology aspect here. Can you share a bit more about the archeological aspect of Smile, Sophia?
Skylaar: I love archeology and paleontology, and I think for a lot of people, especially kids, those fields represent discovery, possibility and adventure. These are fun concepts, but also hopeful ones that are breeding grounds for imagination and empowerment. That feels like a good balance for the negative pressure of smiling that Sophia faces in my story.
I grew up exploring fossils on the beaches of the Oregon Coast, and my mother was a strong science advocate, so I was exposed to a lot of things through her and from reading everything I could. I wanted to include my love of paleontology especially because I’m obsessed with bones and the natural world -- and because Sophia is obsessed with dinosaurs. I did sneak some elements from human history into the illustrations too, which is more closely tied to archeology.
Those who read the book can go on their own archeological hunt for everything from a viking ship to ammonites to Charles Darwin and more.
Kaitlyn: Wow, I didn’t even realize that you could explore for fossils in Oregon. That’s so cool! And I can’t wait to hear about all the kids discovering the human history aspects you put in the book. Now, if you had to pick, what is your favorite scene of this book?
Skylaar: That’s tough because I had a lot of fun getting to illustrate so many little details in the dirt, backgrounds, and back matter. But one of my favorite scenes is Sophia in the kitchen eating breakfast and reading her notebook. I hope it captures the spirit of the story -- Sophia is consumed by her passions, totally in her own world, while her mom looks on, a little bit confused or concerned perhaps. I remember voraciously reading and eating cereal or toast as a kid -- just getting totally sucked into a daydream or another world, thinking about something I loved or was looking forward to doing. I hope that resonates with readers and helps show Sophia’s character.
Plus, it was also super fun to design the silly dinosaur cereal on that spread!
Kaitlyn: Haha, love the dino cereal, and I think that scene truly captures Sophia’s personality! Can you share who your editor for this book was and why you enjoyed working with this editor?
Skylaar: Yes, my editor for Smile, Sophia is the incredible Holly West at Feiwel and Friends. She understood the essence of my story right away and connected with the science angle and Sophia’s desire not to conform to what the adults in the story want her to do. I really appreciate that she wants to make books about girls like Sophia. It was so easy working with Holly, and her ideas helped me cement the text into a better place, while letting Sophia be her smart, hole-digging, bone-collecting, only-smile-when-you-want-to self.
Kaitlyn: Holly sounds like a dream, and it’s just the best when you find that editor that really gets your story! Can you share a bit about your agent, and why you like working with this agent so much?
Skylaar: My agent is Jessica Watterson at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. I love working with Jess because she is so supportive and has a really keen eye for the business side of publishing. Somehow she can answer any question I ask and make me feel more confident. She helps me navigate that tough line between artistry and commerce to figure out where I fit in without giving up my creative vision for my stories. Jess signed me on my query for Smile, Sophia, and I could tell when we first talked that she really got that story and loves strong girl characters. I feel really lucky to get to work with her, and some days (many days lol) I’m pinching myself!
Kaitlyn: Having someone who can make you feel confident based on your questions, navigate the business, and someone who gets your work is just the best! Can you share with us what you’re working on now?
Skylaar: I’m developing a few more picture book ideas right now, and I’m finding my niche in science-y topics and social-emotional learning/mental health themes. All my current ideas are fiction but play around with those areas. I hope to be able to share more soon on these.
I’m also really excited to be working on middle grade stories now! I’ve been learning to write novels for a few years now, and I finally have one ready to see the light of day, so I’m excited to see where that goes. The whole MG space is new to me and makes me nervous, haha, so all I’ll say right now is that my stories in that space also have science themes, especially climate change. If you like strong girls, ocean science, and hopeful yet harrowing journeys, please keep your fingers crossed for me!
Kaitlyn: That sounds amazing; and I’m so happy to see that your passions are bringing books into the world that help give kids, girls, and science the power they deserve! If you recall, last time you shared some amazing advice. Do you have any new insights and advice since the last time you were here?
Skylaar: Oh, thank you! Right now, the advice I’m giving myself (so maybe it will help others too) is to work toward balance. I’ve struggled a lot in the last couple years as a newcomer to the publishing industry. One of the hardest paradigm shifts for me is around art vs. commerce. I spent fifteen years as an artist -- I was doing zines, comics, weird drawings, poetry, bookbinding, and printmaking. Some of that stuff I did sell or exhibit, but it was mostly on my terms. Learning the ins and outs of fine art and focusing on process over product was incredible … but it didn’t prepare me for publishing.
I think my background in emotion, metaphor, and voice from former art practice is in many ways a benefit to how I write commercially now. But … but I’ve had to work really hard to also overcome those same things. I have to figure out how to balance metaphor and subtleties with … writing a story people can understand. I have to work to balance weird humor and strange ideas with … concepts that fit into the children’s market in a sellable way.
I’m starting to get the hang of it, but it’s a shift for me. For anyone who has an art practice with no ties to the commercial world, my advice is to hold on to a piece of that just for yourself. It’s special and sacred, and it will nurture you in the tough down times of publishing. Those of us coming from that world, I think we learned the voicey stuff first and have to play catch-up with the technical craft and business elements. (For example, I’m finally willing to outline a novel after years of stubbornly refusing to, haha.)
So if that’s you, just know you’re not alone. And it is possible to make the switch. Figure out which elements of your art/writing are important for you to keep in your commercial stories and what you can compromise on. The more I view this work as business, the more successfully I can write for the industry. But in some ways, it’s very different from my personal, creative art practice, and I think that’s probably for the best.
Kaitlyn: Wow, lots of wonderful advice here that is going to help so many creators! Finally, if you could meet your favorite author, illustrator, or author-illustrator, would you chat by a fireside or go on an adventure?
Skylaar: Hmm, I wonder if we could wander around the beach chatting while on an adventure looking for cool bones and fossils and shells? If that combo happened, I’d be over the moon.
Kaitlyn: That sounds fantastic! And I want to be part; I would love to look for bones, fossils, and shells! Thank you so much for stopping by again to share about this wonderful book!
On Skylaar’s website: https://www.skylaaramann.com/books
Author-Illustrator Bio and links
Skylaar is the author-illustrator of Lloyd Finds His Whalesong (Page Street Kids) and Smile, Sophia (Feiwel & Friends). She is a picture book mentor for WriteMentor as well as an affiliated artist with the Climate Science Alliance. She writes and draws stories about the ocean, science, and kids with big feelings. Her illustration clients include Surfrider, Pinna, Sitka Sound Science Center, Kaiser Permanente, Adventure Children’s Museum & Scientific American. Skylaar lives in Oregon, where she enjoys exploring the shoreline, playing video games, making things, and occasionally playing the ukulele. She is represented by Jessica Watterson, Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. You can find out more about her on Twitter and Instagram at @skylaara and on skylaaramann.com.
Skylaar’s website: https://www.skylaaramann.com/
Kaitlyn’s Review the book
Smile, Sophia is an empowering book for all kids that helps them understand that you don’t have to do things, like smile, unless you want to. This story also introduces children to a wonderful profession that many kids aren’t aware of yet: archeology.
Giveaway- Win a PB text or sketch dummy critique from Skylaar Amann!
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Thank you all for supporting such wonderful creators! If you missed my first agent unboxing yesterday, check it out here: Agent Unboxing of MUSHROOM RAIN, and if you’re looking forward to the Spring Fling Kidlit Contest in April, I’m excited to share that the dates are up, and the prize donors for this year will be revealed soon!
Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez