Author Spotlight

Cynthia Mackey, author of Katie Shaeffer, Pancake Maker describes the process of writing her first children’s picture book.


How did you go about writing your story?

At first I signed up for a writer’s workshop over my summer break from teaching and then the class got cancelled. Of course I was pretty disappointed but I was determined so I did my own research online about how to write a good children’s story. I read about how to develop characters and the plot; I read about the importance of writing and revising. I started practicing and making up my story and then I started telling it to some of my preschool classes.

I learned that developing the characters was still important even in a children’s picture book and so I found a character profile sheet; by answering all the questions you get to know your character better and how that character would act in different situations.

I answered questions like, If Katie could be like anyone in the world, who would she want to be like and why? These sorts of questions helped my really know my characters and as a result, write a better story.

What else helped you write this book?

Reading. Lots and lots of reading. I’ve been reading children’s picture books for the past 30 years or more and I love reading them. I’ve read them to my preschool and kindergarten classes and I’ve read them to my children. I’m always inspired by a good book.

Also joining the SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). They are a fantastic resource for anyone who is interested in writing for children. I have learned so much just by becoming a member.

Do you do your own illustrations?

It would be wonderful if I felt confident enough with my drawing and painting skills to do the illustrations for my books but I’m not there yet. I would love to practice and become skilled at making beautiful illustrations but realistically, I need someone else to do that part.

How did you find your illustrator?

I started by talking about my book a lot with people I knew just letting people know about my project and that I was hoping to find someone who could do the illustrations. I was very lucky to make a connection with someone at the preschool where I was working at the time. She was our administrative support person but she was also going to art school at that time. I was excited to find out that she hoped to illustrate children’s books and loved children’s literature as much as I did. We discovered that we like some of the same children’s books for the same reasons so having a like mindset was really helpful.

How did you decide what would go into the illustrations?

Sometimes I wanted more illustrations but I knew that my budget was limited and keeping the number of illustrations down would help me finish the book. So I asked for some of the pages to be a two page spread with just one image and kept some of the images small and less detailed. Thinking visually was new for me and Paula asked me a lot of really detailed questions about what the characters should look like. I learned to consider details more carefully and tried to ensure that the illustrations matched the story as best as I could. I wanted the children in the book to look like real children. I wanted to avoid stereotypes of girls in pink flowery dresses and Paula was of the same philosophy so we were a great match to create a book together and we hope to do another one soon.

Was there any point during the project where you felt overwhelmed?

Yes! There were lots of times. Particularly at the beginning when my sister in law, who writes and self publishes novels, described the process of self-publishing. There were so many steps in the process. So many decisions to make. So many details to cover. But I was determined and now I’m glad I kept going even when it seemed like an almost impossible dream.

Which children’s authors are inspiring to you?

There are so many but I do love Phoebe Gillman, Salina Yoon, and Vera B. Williams. I admire their writing and hope that I can create books that are equally well loved by children, families, teachers and librarians.

What do you think is appealing about Katie Shaeffer, Pancake Maker?

I think there is huge appeal in a book about a character who has challenges and overcomes those challenges. Katie collects and creates with recycled and found items in the same way many children would do at home and at school. Children like Katie and Baxter have so many ideas and if given the chance can create some wonderful things out of their own imaginations. I hope this book will inspire children to try collecting and creating.

Cooking is one of the easiest ways for a child to get involved with science first hand. The learning that happens when helping Mom or Dad in the kitchen and the relationships that are built in the kitchen; those are things I really value. I think the book highlights how young children learn and that kind of self-motivated, creative, inspired play is exactly what we need to encourage.

And then there is the repetitive rhyme. This is so great for young readers! It is a huge confidence boost to know the words that are coming next in the story and memorizing the words morphs into reading as the children come to recognize the repeated words.

Do you have plans for any more books?

Yes! I have lots of ideas. The trick for me is just getting the time to focus on writing. I continue to teach preschool and private music lessons so writing picture books is something I just fit in where I can. This year I am participating in the 12 by 12 picture book challenge with a goal to write a picture book draft each month. I would like to create more books for children as I love to do my part to encourage young readers and am full of ideas for more stories.

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