A picture book writer by night and a writer for an insurance company by day, Pat Zietlow Miller fulfilled a longtime dream when Schwartz & Wade published her first picture book, Sophie’s Squash, in 2013. In the book, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf, a girl befriends a squash her family buys at the farmer’s market. It was an auspicious debut for Miller: the picture book received four starred reviews, including one from PW, an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor, and a Charlotte Zolotow Honor. The author’s second book, Wherever You Go, featuring art by Eliza Wheeler, was released by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers last April. Illustrated by Jill McElmurry, Miller’s third picture book, Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story, was published by Schwartz & Wade in September. The Madison, Wis.-based author talked with PW about breaking into the children’s book field, her close-to-home inspirations for her stories, and Sophie’s second appearance.
What was your first inkling that you might be a writer?
In seventh grade, I was given an assignment to write an essay about my favorite place. My grandmother was a square dancer, and she used to hang all her huge square dancing skirts from ceiling hooks in a room in her house. I loved lying on the floor and looking at them hanging above me. This image stayed with me, and I wrote about it in my essay. My teacher said that it was the first time a student’s writing had given her the chills – and that was one of the first times I remember a teacher saying that I was a good writer. And that definitely stayed with me.
]And sparked your interest in continuing to write?
Yes. I went on to write for my high school paper, and worked with a teacher, Ron Harrel, who was a force of nature. He had the highest standards, and pushed his students to be the best we could be. I was a shy kid at that point, and I can’t say enough about him and how he gave me confidence and made me such a better writer. And then I pursued English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
And after college?
Honestly, from the time I was 19, I knew I wanted to write picture books, since I’d always loved reading them. I remember being in fifth or sixth grade, and sneaking off to the children’s section of the library and reading picture books when I was supposed to be doing research. But I just didn’t know how to go about actually writing a picture book – this was before the Internet, and I couldn’t just Google it. So when I graduated from college, I went to work for a newspaper, and eventually became a writer for an insurance company. But writing picture books was always at the back of my mind.
Would you say that those experiences came in handy when you took the leap into picture books?
I would say so. Picture books are also condensed, and I like that idea of structure, and finding the right words. It’s a satisfying challenge – kind of like a verbal Sudoku puzzle. You have to put the right words into a framework, and have them all line up so that they make sense and tie-up the story. I think that structural aspect of writing is awesome.
What finally inspired you to take a stab at picture-book writing?
Sophie’s Squash was actually inspired by something my younger daughter, Sonia, who’s now 13, did when she was about three. We went shopping and bought a butternut squash, and on the way home in the car she began rocking it like a baby. Then she drew a face on it, and we never did eat it. I recall being grateful that it was a squash and not a bag of flour, which would have made a mess if she dropped it in the living room! So I added some things to the story, but it is totally based on Sonia and her squash.
And how did you land a publisher for the book?
I sent it to Anne Schwartz at Schwartz & Wade, and she picked it from the slush pile and told me she wanted to publish it.
A rarity these days!
Yes – I was totally blown away, and extremely grateful. Before Sophie’s Squash was accepted, I’d received 126 rejections from publishers for many stories over a number of years. I’d had some close calls, with editors saying they liked this or that story, but no acceptances. But given the positive feedback, I persisted, knowing that if I really wanted to publish picture books, I couldn’t give up!
At what point did you sign on with an agent?
A former neighbor, who is an aspiring YA author, had told me that I really should get an agent, so I had that in the back of my mind. But I’d also heard that no publisher will want to publish a picture book of mine because I am not an illustrator as well! After I heard Ammi-Joan Paquette, an agent at Erin Murphy Literary Agency, speak at an event, I sent her five stories, and she asked to represent me. She’s been the best thing to happen to my career, so I totally lucked out, and I guess I really owe that former neighbor after all!
Interestingly, since a squash inspired your debut story, your third, Sharing the Bread, is also food-themed. A coincidence?
I guess it is! One day, I was in a very mundane meeting at my day job, and wasn’t thinking of anything food-related, but the first two lines of a story suddenly popped into my head: “Mama fetch the cooking pot. Fetch our turkey-cooking pot.” And then I began thinking, “What am I going to do with this?” All I had was Mama fetching a pan, so I thought about doing a kids’ activity book with a kitchen theme, and then I thought about doing a cooking story, and eventually wrote a full draft about a family making an everyday meal together.
How did that meal become a Thanksgiving feast?
That was the suggestion of Anne Schwartz. So I went back to the story, and quickly discovered that nothing rhymes with turkey, stuffing, or cranberry! But I worked it out, and Anne also decided the verse needed a refrain, and that definitely made it a much better story. In fact, the more people who gave me input, the better the story got.
And how did the story come to be set in the 19th century?
Since the family was cooking on a wood stove, I knew that the story couldn’t be set in modern times, but it was Jill McElmurry and Anne who came up with the idea of the 19th-century New England setting, which worked perfectly. Jill did a ton of research and her historical vision is awesome. And I didn’t really have to tinker with the text, because it’s not at all tied into an era.
And in so many ways, Thanksgiving is timeless.
Yes, and it brings family together, which is why I love the holiday. And at the heart of Thanksgiving is everything I was going for in this story: warmth, security, family, and love.
And is it true that Sophie is scheduled to make a reappearance?
It is! Sophie’s Squash Go to School, which is also illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf, will be published by Schwartz & Wade next June. On the first day of kindergarten, Sophie brings her two best friends, Bonnie and Baxter, baby squash she grew in her garden, with her. She has no interest in making friends with the other kids – who don’t appreciate Bonnie and Baxter. So it’s a story about friendship – and making real friends.
Did Sonia play a role in inspiring this story as well?
In a way. Sonia didn’t actually take her squash to school, but I do remember trying to explain to her why having friends was a good idea. I think she’s very proud that these stories are inspired by her – and that I dedicated Sophie’s Squash to her. But she’s very quick to correct me on one fact: she tells me that Sophie’s parents in the book are much nicer than I was, since I took away her squash when it began to rot!
Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story by Pat Zietlow Miller, illus. by Jill McElmurry. Random House/Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 Sept. ISBN 978-0-307-89182-0