Here Comes the Judge: Shaunda K. Wenger
What brought you to children’s books? How long have you been writing?
I’ve loved my books my whole life. When I was young (maybe a tween), I embarrassed my father on more than one sports-outing by keeping my nose in a book during the action of the game. Sorry, Boston Red Sox and New England Patriots! But in my defense, these teams were in the midst of a huge losing slump. So it’s not like I missed amazing plays on the way to a victory. I was drawn into writing after I finished my masters of science degree and was asked to collaborate on a natural history project with Jim Fergus. This project wasn’t for the children’s market, but my daughter was born soon after in 1995, and I began to fall in love with the picture books we brought into our home.
We didn’t have many picture books in my own home while growing up. Most of the illustrated titles were by Dr. Seuss or Richard Scary. Instead, my mother read to my brother and I on most nights from a hardbound collection of classic children’s stories and poems. I loved the sound of her voice as she read the longer stories. Hansel and Gretel, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Henny Penny, Over in the Meadow, as well as poems, like The Sugarplum Tree, The Goops, The Queen of Hearts, Little Tommy Tucker, and so many more.
I sold my first story to The Mailbox Company in 2000. It was an informational fiction story called, “Why So Brown, Isabelle?” which was included in a collective book for Grade 3 readers called: Short Short Stories for Reading Aloud.
Has your publication journey direction changed at all from the onset?
Yes! I really had no idea what I was getting into. (This was before the internet existed like it does now.) All I knew was that I loved books and had grown up reading them, and during my college years I had missed them (because there was no time for reading for leisure in the pursuit of science). When I finished graduate school, my first job offer came from author Jim Fergus who was writing a natural history guide for Rocky Mountain National Park. I had just spent two years in the park doing research in different wetland ecosystems from the peaks to the valleys, so Jim hired me to write about my experiences. His opportunity turned my attention (finally!) toward something that I had thought was out-of-reach. Although others in my life had encouraged me to pursue writing--my parents, a college English professor, a college advisor--I didn’t have any confidence that I could make that kind of career happen. I thought that being an author meant writing what someone told you to write, and I guess at the time the Rebel in me didn’t find that attractive. But while Jim Fergus had a specific project, he let me write what I wanted in the way that felt natural. (We call this voice.) Even though he left the project to write One Thousand White Women, my experience with him opened my eyes to the wide-scope of the publishing industry. (Along with its frustrations!) I went on to write a few children’s stories for educational publishers, articles for magazines, a handful of essays for local public radio, and poems for children’s magazines. Basically, I explored all sorts of literary forms that interested me.
I wouldn’t recommend this scattered approach to anyone. Although it certainly was not wasted. If I had the chance to re-do my education all over again, getting an English degree might seem logical. Yet, pursuing a literary degree first wouldn’t have left me with all the amazing experiences in nature and research in science to draw from, not to mention the teaching experience. In the end, everything happens for a reason, and my journey has been a valuable and necessary part of my path in publication.
Please tell us about the first book you published.
The first children’s books I published were actually four in 2007, as part of a set of 16-page, leveled-readers from Benchmark Education: Caterpillar Can’t Wait!, Watch a Butterfly Grow!, Farm Stand Mystery, and How Many Muffins? Writing these books opened me up to the importance of word choice, specificity, intense deadlines, and collaboration with an editorial team. And I was surprised to see that I actually enjoyed the very thing that had kept me from pursuing this career to begin with: writing what someone else wanted me to write. All it took was the willingness and courage to try. By this time, the confidence that I had gained from working with Jim Fergus definitely played a part in my application to Benchmark Education, as well as what I was learning through conferences hosted by SCBWI.
What genres of books will you be open to rating for Rate Your Story?
I am open to most genres in both fiction and nonfiction in PB, CB, and MG, including rhyme and free verse. I’m not a good match for high fantasy or science fiction in MG and YA, because I don’t read a lot of it.
List five things you look for in a successful story.
Hook, Emotional arc, Narrative arc, Character growth, and Resolution.
Name five subjects you love to read about.
Relationships, Interactions with Nature, Humor, Stories with Magic/Fantastical elements, STEAM
Name five subjects you don’t want to read about.
War. Suicide. Bullies. Historical NF. Mystery. (I don’t read enough of the last two to know what to look for, or evaluate, and I had to really work hard at passing my history courses in college).
What author has inspired you most on your journey?
The works and interaction of many authors inspire me every day. But there is one author who really stuck by me with encouragement, feedback, and opportunity from the first day we met in 1998 and that was the late Rick Walton (check out Rick's books here). I was connected to him through the late Ken Brewer, a former Utah poet laureate, who gave me Rick’s email after a writer’s meeting at the Logan Library. Rick responded to my inquiry and invited me to an upcoming conference in Salt Lake City. I tried to bow out because I had a 3-month old baby boy to take care of, but Rick told me to bring the baby along. After all, I’d be surrounded by children’s writers who LOVED babies! I thought Rick was a bit crazy, but I went anyway. It was the best decision ever. I found a whole network of amazing children’s authors who were living in Utah and teaching about their craft.
Even when I wanted to give up, Rick found ways to reel me into participating in events he
offered with other authors. It wasn’t that I was especially talented or anything. He was just tremendously generous and open to helping aspiring writers who wanted to write for children. I’m one of many who include Rick on their “journey list.” He was passionate about picture books and felt they were the greatest form of literature on the planet. He wrote an article about it, which described all the ways that picture books laid the foundation for society. As our friendship grew, we eventually co-wrote two “publishable” manuscripts together. While we couldn’t control the outcome of those manuscripts, we did enjoy the journey of the creative collaboration. Those manuscripts remain laugh-out-loud funny (in our opinion), but in a drawer.
From Rick, I learned that what mattered most was 1) devotion to the creative process and 2) finding a way to put in the time--not only for myself, but for others on the same journey, no matter if they are just beginning or quite seasoned. I’ve found that fostering these types of connections with writers fuels my spirit, which in turn, fuels my writing.
What do you feel is an important preliminary step before actually writing a story?
I believe that setting aside time to read books that stir an emotional connection whether it be to laugh, or smile, or cry, or reflect, is an important first step. And then reading some more, all the while letting inspiration build inside you, so that by the time you allow yourself to sit and write your first draft, the words are ready to cascade and flow all over the page.
Please share a writing Tip for our Members.
This tip is from the late Rick Walton, a dear friend and mentor. I’ve paraphrased it elsewhere. But his words during a conversation were pretty close to this: You can’t control if you’ll get published, but you can control what you create. And you can create a publishable manuscript. So focus on that, and let the rest fall into place.
Share a fun fact or two about YOU!
When I was a young--very young--an appetizer that I always looked for on restaurant menus was escargot. I’m not sure if I would still order this, if the opportunity arose. I also liked liver when my mother made it, and I didn’t understand why my brother didn’t share my enthusiasm. However, it’s a mystery as to why I never introduced my own children to these fine delectables.
S. K. Wenger is an author and awarded educator who grew up among the mountains and lakes of New Hampshire and then found another beautiful backdrop in Utah to raise three children with her husband. With a master’s degree in science Shaunda enjoys weaving tidbits of the natural world into her stories, and she feels extra sparkly when they pivot on humor. Her debut STEM picture book Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! (Albert Whitman) lands in print on October 1st, 2021. Her other publications include five work-for-hire titles with educational publishers (Benchmark and Richard C. Owen), poems in Babybug, Cricket, and anthologies by June Cotner (Earth Blessings and Miracles of Motherhood), and articles in various magazines. In 2020 she was recipient of the WIFYR Fellowship Grant for a middle grade work-in-progress and in early 2021 one of her pre-published works was selected as a 2021 PBParty Finalist. With a move to part-time teaching, she now enjoys more time than ever to read, write, revise, and share feedback with other writers.
CHICKEN FRANK, DINOSAUR! Written by S.K. Wenger and illustrated by Jojo Ensslin (Albert Whitman 2021)
Goodreads: S.K. Wenger
Purchase YOUR copy of Chicken Frank Dinosaur HERE.