SPOTLIGHT: Lauren H. Kerstein and Remembering Grandpa
BACKGROUND: Some time ago, when Jodell Sadler’s KidLit College was in session, this wonderful learning and opportunity forum was the perfect place to find dedicated and talented writers for critique partners. Several of us "graduates" came together to form a group, including Lauren H. Kerstein. She was an excellent critique partner with well-executed stories. We all knew she would be published someday -- and now each and every one of us is multi-published, including Lauren, with her fourth book coming out this month - Remembering Sundays with Grandpa!
LYNNE MARIE: Looking back to that time, what did the goal of publication feel like for you? Did it feel realistic, or did you doubt? If realistic, what are some things you did to stack the deck in your favor? If doubtful, how did you handle the doubts?
LAUREN H. KERSTEIN: I am so happy you talked about KidLit College, and thank you for your kind words. Meeting you and other creators there changed my trajectory for sure. At first, I felt like publication was a realistic goal. I’d already published professional books and thought fiction might follow. But then, as rejections poured in, my doubts grew. Determination, persistence, and educating myself have always been my most powerful tools. Instead of succumbing to the doubt, I leaned into those tools and pushed to become the most knowledgeable writer I could become. (Chocolate, popcorn, and copious amounts of tea helped too!)
LM: Then, what did you think your first published book might be? Did you get the feeling it might be Rosie and Charlie? Why, or why not?
LHK: Interestingly, after writing Rosie and Charlie (originally a “how to” book), I really thought I was onto something. I remember truly feeling like I knew these characters inside and out and finally understood what “commercial” meant. I also finally felt like I’d nailed voice. I was hopeful this manuscript might be “the one.”
LM: As I recall, Rosie and Charlie started as a how-to guide, but went through a lot of changes on its path to publication. What advice do you have for writers who may be clinging too tightly to an original concept?
LHK: Yes, excellent memory. It went through so many changes, and you held my hand every step of the way. I would tell writers to cling to heart, not necessarily concept. The heart of our stories and characters can be our guiding force as we let go of plot and form. As long as the heart keeps beating, you’re on the right track!
LM: How did Rosie the Dragon and Charlie Say Good Night come about as a sequel to the first book. Was this planned? Not planned? What is your advice for those who believe that they are writing picture book one of a series?
LHK: In an interesting turn of events, Rosie the Dragon and Charlie Say Good Night was actually the first iteration of Rosie and Charlie’s adventures. My original “how to” was “How to Put Your Dragon to Bed.” (Which was originally “how to put your mommy to bed.”) Wise critique partners (present company included) encouraged me to stretch my concept to be more creative—more unique. This changed my writing life, not only because switching to a swimming dragon was acquired, but also because I realized first ideas aren’t always the strongest ideas. We must always think bigger…bolder!
And now to advice for writing picture book series: As Kevin Costner said in Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Okay, I think he said “he will come” but for our purposes, I shall make it gender neutral. I know people always tell us not to “think in a series.” While that isn’t wrong in some ways, it isn’t right, either. I think it is okay to write with a series in mind as long as your first book is as strong and unique as possible. The first book has to be an origin story that is strong enough to stand on its own, and includes intriguing, interesting characters who could hold up their end of the character arc in other situations/stories. But you also must know, a series may never happen. In fact, I have many more Rosie and Charlie books written that may never come to light. (SIGH!)
LM: As compared to Home for A While, Remembering Sundays with Grandpa feels more along the same lines than the Rosie books. These tap into your expertise as a licensed psychotherapist. Was this your original intention when pursuing publication, or did it just turn out that way? Why or why not?
LHK: Ironically, my original goal was to write books like Rosie and Charlie. I wanted to lean into my Jersey Girl humor and have fun. I actually wanted to separate the therapist side of me from the author in me. Little did I know that you can’t do that and that if I embraced that rather than fought it, my books would be stronger. While Rosie and Charlie look at courage, persistence, and friendship in a more humorous way, my therapist's heart is still large and in charge in those books too. Home for a While and Remembering Sundays with Grandpa were actually books I wrote at the beginning of my career, sat in the proverbial drawer, and were then extracted and revised a gazillion times after I realized it was okay to write with my therapist and author's hearts together.
LM: How did your original idea for Remembering Sundays with Grandpa come to you? How did it change during the revision and editorial process?
LHK: The original draft of this book was written many years ago (around 2013) and was inspired by my relationship with my grandmother. I was very close to her. I honestly think it was a way to work through my own grief and loss. I was also inspired to write this book because I wanted my daughters to have a book to read that might help them through grief they might experience as their great grandmother aged. In addition, as a mental health clinician, I’ve had the privilege to hold someone’s hands through their own grief. I wanted to write a book that would capture the fact that even when someone isn’t part of our day-to-day/ our physical world, their love still lives on. The final iteration includes bits and pieces of many important people in my life. From cucumber hiccups to dancing to the jewelry box, each scene represents a way that my loved ones will live on forever.
LM: This latest book deals with a difficult topic – the death of a grandparent, and SEL (social emotional learning). What advice do you have for those who are writing about difficult topics?
LHK: If you write from your heart, and lean into your knowledge and understanding of the ways in which children face and process social emotional situations, you will craft a book that helps children feel seen. It is far more important to look through a child’s eyes and remain focused on supportive, honest text, rather than an adult-centered lesson. Here is a spread from Home For a While that illustrates this idea of tackling hard topics with kid-sensibility.
LM: How might one incorporate SEL into a story?
LHK: I love this question. There are so many ways to incorporate SEL. I like to think about the story through a sensory lens. What we see, hear, taste, smell, and touch are often so much a part of our experiences. You can incorporate SEL by SHOWING us what the child is experiencing throughout your finely-tuned arc. Strong verbs and rhythmic text can be tools that help you incorporate SEL. And then, more on the nose text that shows SEL challenges and possible strategies. For example, in Remembering Sundays with Grandpa, I have the following text to SHOW rather than tell the intensity of their grief:
Henry dragged himself downstairs to his mom. “I miss grandpa,” he said. “I don’t want him to be gone.”
“I don’t either.”
Henry and his mom held each other. Sometimes hugs were better than words.
Nanette Regan’s incredibly beautiful illustrations added even more SEL and resonance to the illustrations.
LM: What is on the horizon for you book-wise? What direction do you see yourself going in as far as topics and themes for your books?
LHK: I have a few things on the horizon and I’m so excited. I have a very soon-to-be-announced book coming out with Union Square Kids. It is a lyrical nonfiction picture book, but I can’t share many details yet. I received initial black and white sketches this week and they are ABSOLUTELY INCREDIBLE. I am awaiting a contract for another picture book with SEL components that should be out in 2025 as well. I’m also working on many other picture books and a young adult novel. I love infusing my Jersey Girl humor where and when I can. Finally, I’m doing a lot of developmental editing for clients and ghost writing and having so much fun helping others bring their stories to life!
LM: Tell us about your brain child – #ReVISIONweek and how we can participate. What’s up next?
LHK: One day, a few years ago, I realized there was no revision challenge amongst all of the fabulous kidlit challenges. Not only am I one of those interesting people who loves revision, I also recognize (as I think we all do) that vomiting out the first draft is great, but the rest is all REVISION! With the help of you, Katie Frawley, Joana Pastro, Michal Babay, and Shannon Stocker (and guest bloggers), it has been so rewarding running this challenge. ALL creators are welcome to participate. Although we predominantly focus on picture books, the bite-sized quick-read crafty tips are applicable to all genres. We are days away from announcing this year’s winners and next year’s dates. We hope you’ll join us!
And speaking of joining us, I am hosting a Giving Party to benefit Judi’s House. They believe no child or family should grieve alone. I am also hosting a preorder giving challenge. Please join me in helping Judi’s House. You can find all of the information here. (PS: If you head over to IG, @LaurenKerstein, and add a few friends’ names to the Preorder Challenge post, you will be entered to win a Zoom critique from me.
Lauren H. Kerstein is an author and psychotherapist. She is a Jersey girl at heart who lives in Colorado with her husband, daughters, and rescue dogs. Lauren is the author of the Rosie the dragon and Charlie picture book series (Illustrated by Nate Wragg/Two Lions) and HOME FOR A WHILE (Illustrated by Natalia Moore/Magination Press). REMEMBERING SUNDAYS WITH GRANDPA (Illustrated by Nanette Regan/Beaming Books) is expected Fall 2023, and two soon-to-be announced picture books will be out in 2025. Lauren’s books include themes of courage, flexible thinking, friendship, social emotional learning, social justice, seeing your strengths, sensory issues, and emotion regulation. You can visit her at www.LaurenKerstein.net, on all socials at: @LaurenKerstein, and on FB at: https://www.facebook.com/laurenkersteinauthor or https://www.facebook.com/lauren.kerstein/. You can also follow my YouTube channel: @laurenkerstein2491.