Julie Murphy—author of middle grade, YA, and adult romance novels such as Dear Sweet Pea, Dumplin’, and If the Shoe Fits—makes her picture book debut with Chubby Bunny, illustrated by Sarah Winifred Searle, also making their picture book debut. The story follows effervescent young Barbara “Bunny” Binks, who is excited to participate in her school’s upcoming field day, until an incident at the event prompts negative feelings about her appearance. Through a series of schemes and mishaps, Bunny strives to overcome her insecurities surrounding anti-fat bias in this affirming picture book. Murphy spoke with PW about her experience navigating a new medium, collaborating with Searle, and how her mother influenced her love of picture books.

What was it that drew you to Bunny’s story and the picture book world?

I’ve always, always wanted to write a picture book. My mom is a former daycare director, so picture books have always been something we’ve really bonded over. I would buy her picture books every year for Christmas. What’s funny is that our bond over picture books actually came about later in life, after she had grown in her career and as I was becoming an adult. I remember us going to book signings for picture book artists and authors at the Dallas Museum of Art.

But picture books are such a hard medium to nail, you know? Most people don’t realize how incredibly difficult it is to tell stories in this way; you have such a limited capacity, and you have to choose just the right words.

What I truly love about my editor, Alessandra Balzer, is that she doesn’t buy something just to buy something. As much as we love each other, she’s not going to buy it just because I wrote it. She really wants to acquire things that she has a vision for, and that she sees as a good next career move for me. I really appreciate that she respects me enough to not let me go off the rails. I talked to her about a bunch of different ideas, and we discussed some things that we could do. And when I pitched her Chubby Bunny, it was like a light bulb moment for us both. It wasn’t so much that Bunny’s story compelled me; it was more like Bunny’s story was finally the right one to tell.

In a previous interview about your first middle grade novel, Dear Sweet Pea, you said that you transitioned from a teen narrative into a younger voice easily, but felt that there was still a level of rethinking that you had to do to reframe your perspective. Did you find yourself facing similar mind shifts when writing Chubby Bunny?

Honestly, it’s the biggest writing challenge I’ve ever had. Even now, [while] thinking about my follow-up picture book, I still think I’m just feeling my way through it. It’s such a big story to fit into such a small medium. So, when you’re making a big statement, you have to really consider what you’re going to say. But it’s also been, without a doubt, the most thrilling thing I’ve done in a long time. It was just fun to be challenged.

When I pitched Chubby Bunny, it was like a light bulb moment.

As someone who’s contributed to numerous anthologies and who’s co-written several adult romances with Sierra Simone, you have extensive experience in collaborating with other writers. How much were you able to interact with illustrator Sarah Winifred Searle? Can you talk about the process of watching Chubby Bunny come to life through their art?

I was actually a huge fan of Sarah before we hired them to do the art, so I was thrilled to see them as one of the candidates being considered. I love their graphic novels so much and was really excited to see how that sensibility would translate into a picture book. I think that there’s that graphic novel style embedded into Chubby Bunny that Sarah so deftly handles without it feeling overdone.

I was thankfully really involved in the creation of the artwork. Sarah would send us art, and we would provide feedback and talk about what we’d like to see. And if there was something I wasn’t sure about, hearing Sarah’s justification for why it made sense, and why it mattered that they were doing it this or that way, was really enlightening. It was really cool to collaborate in such a new way, especially since we were both bringing something completely different to the table to make the story work. We were both diving into new mediums together, so I think it was a really good fit.

It was also a huge priority for us to have a plus-size artist on the project. I love all the cover artists I’ve worked with, but sometimes you can tell when an artist is trying to be too polite, in a way, when designing plus-size characters. They think that they’re crossing a boundary by drawing a character too big, or with too much of a double chin, but that was never a problem with Sarah. Sarah is a plus-sized person as well, so they were also really passionate about the story; they really embraced Bunny and Bunny’s character design—everyone’s design, really, even down to Bunny’s mother. Sarah never saw anything that they were doing as potentially insulting, which was really, really cool.

Are there any other literary forms that you haven’t previously explored that you’re looking to tap into, like graphic novel scripts or screenplays?

Right now, I’m thinking about my next picture book. We’re still parsing out what that might be. And while I can’t say too much about it, I’m also working on a solo adult project. So that’s been really fun to delve into, because I’ve done one solo adult project (If the Shoe Fits) and then the rest of my adult books have been co-authored by my best friend, Sierra.

I did write the screenplay for Dear Sweet Pea when it was picked up by Disney but, you know, after everything that’s gone on [with the strikes], it’s not a Disney project anymore. So, I would love to dabble in writing a screenplay again. Other than that, the next frontier that I’m keeping my eye on is actually chapter books; I would really love to work on a chapter book series. There’s something about the books that I write where it’s so character first. Even when it’s a romance novel, for me, I always start with this one front-facing character who’s really definitive of the book, and then the plot comes after. I think that a lot of chapter book series really lend themselves to that. Creating that sort of huge anchor character and having them go on adventures, I think that I would be well suited for that, that I would have a lot of fun doing that.

Chubby Bunny by Julie Murphy, illus. by Sarah Winifred Searle. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $19.99 Oct. 24 ISBN 978-0-06-301118-2