CAROL GORDON EKSTER: I met Jamie at the NESCBWI ’18 conference. We were both attendees at one of Jane Yolen’s boot camps and so we gathered together with other bootcampers to lunch together before the conference officially began. I immediately loved Jamie’s warmth and positive spirit. Her book, with such an uplifting message, WHEN GRANDMA GIVES YOU A LEMON TREE, comes out in Spring 2019 with Sterling.
Jamie, can you tell us about the journey of this beautiful and surprising picture book?
JAMIE L. B. DEENIHAN: I’d love to share this book’s journey and thank you for the kind words, Carol! You’re the best!
When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree is about a girl who asks for electronic gifts for her birthday, but instead receives a lemon tree from her Grandma. It’s a story that celebrates the pleasures of patience, hard work, nature, community, and putting the electronic devices down just for a while. Readers will love getting lost in the art, created by the talented Lorraine Rocha, who fills the pages with warmth and surprising details that brought the story to life.
This story was inspired by childhood memories of trying to grow citrus trees at my grandparents’ house from the seeds we found in our fruit, growing up on a farm, and of course, the popular saying, When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. In 2015, I was a first-grade teacher, picture book-lover, and parent of three- and four-year-olds at the time. I remember thinking it would be funny to give a kid a lemon tree for their birthday and see how they’d react. I scribbled down a few notes and that’s how the very first draft was born. Ironically, I wrote the first draft one month before my husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor which is when the story took on a whole new meaning and became a labor of love and source of hope for my family. Although my husband has health challenges and ongoing treatments to face, he carries on with strength and a hopeful outlook thanks to his incredible team of doctors and our family and friends who have been there for us every step of the way. So, although this story was written to be light-hearted and funny, I also hope that readers will be inspired to turn whatever lemons they’re facing, into lemonade.
CGE: Can you tell us about how you came to writing and about your path to becoming a published author?
JD: Abbreviated version:
March 2015 – wrote the first draft of When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree
February 2016 – submitted the manuscript to Sterling Publishing (slush pile)
March 2106 – Sterling Editor, Christina Pulles, asked for an R&R (revise and resubmit)
March – revised and resubmitted, then waited and received more rejections from agents
April – continued waiting and receiving more rejections from agents
June – received an offer from Sterling
I’ve always dreamed of publishing a book and wrote a few manuscripts during college and throughout my teaching career. I had the honor of teaching first grade for about ten years until my husband got sick in 2015 and I resigned from my full-time position to be home with my family. That’s when writing picture books went from being a hobby to something I decided to pursue seriously.
The first people I shared this manuscript with were my mom and my critique partner, Nicole Markel. They didn’t tell me to throw it in the trash, so I stuck with it. After more than thirty revisions later and with a lot of guidance from many people, I decided to start submitting to agents. Sadly, every agent I submitted to sent me a rejection, so I decided to try a different approach. I put my agent queries on hold and started researching editors who were open to submissions.
I found an interview with Sterling editor, Christina Pulles, where she said she’d love to find a manuscript about a tree. I sent my query and manuscript to Christina via snail mail in February 2016 and into the slush pile it went. In March 2016, Christina sent me a request to revise and resubmit and I got those revisions back to her pretty quickly. Then, I waited through April, May, and the beginning of June which is when I built up the courage to send a gentle nudge. I remember thinking, “who am I to be nudging an editor?” But I went for it and Christina responded within an hour saying the editorial team loved the revisions and my manuscript was going through the acquisitions process! A few weeks after that, Christina reached out with an offer, which is when the excitement of submitting my work turned to panic.
I didn’t have an agent and I had no idea what I was doing, so I called an author friend, who graciously offered his input on how to handle the situation. I asked Christina for two weeks to reach out to my favorite agents and I ended up signing with Linda Camacho. Linda and I had met earlier in the year at the NESCBWI Conference and I was really impressed with her background in publishing and her attitude about working in the industry. She spoke about kindness and making meaningful connections with people and wanting to work together long-term, not just for this one manuscript which I already had a contract for. She made me believe that there was going to be much more than a first picture book and she was right. She’s a rockstar agent and I’m so grateful to have her and the Gallt & Zacker team in my corner.
I think what’s most important about my journey to publication is that I decided to pursue a new career during a really challenging time in my and my family’s life. 2015 was total chaos and there were thousands of times I caught myself saying, “What am I thinking? I can’t do this.” But thanks to my family, friends, and critique partners, I stuck with it and wrote through the chaos and doubt, revised through the chaos and doubt, submitted through the chaos and doubt, and sold my first picture book through the chaos and doubt. I hope my path to publishing inspires others to follow their dreams even in the face of adversity.
CGE: I know you were a first grade teacher and had your Masters in Reading. How do you think that influenced your writing?
JD: I’ve been waiting to give my former elementary school a proper shout out, so here it is: Memorial Elementary School hired me as a first grade teacher right after I student-taught with first grade teacher extraordinaire, Diane Hewes. The administration, staff, and students continue to support my family through my husband’s ongoing health challenges and have been cheering me on as a picture book author from day one. I can tell you right now, it’s a lot easier to turn lemons into lemonade when you have a supportive community rallying around you, which is also a theme you’ll see in my book.
Being a first grade teacher with a Masters degree as a reading specialist influenced my writing very much. For years, a big part of my job was researching and implementing strategies that would help kids become confident and engaged readers and writers. It brought me so much joy to see students using mentor texts, writing independently or with a co-author, revising, editing, illustrating, taking risks as writers, and creating books they were excited to share with others. In 2015, my students’ enthusiasm and courage to share their stories, inspired me to share the very first draft of my story, When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree. Those students are now in fifth grade and I can’t wait to visit them, share the published version, and thank them for being an important part of this journey.
CGE: What are you most excited about regarding becoming a published author? And what are you afraid of?
JD: There are so many things I’m excited and scared about as my journey as a published author unfolds.
5 things I’m excited about as a published author:
- Checking “published author” off my bucket list
- Sharing this experience with my family, friends, and critique partners.
- Working with amazing illustrators like Lorraine Rocha
- School visits and book signings
- Writing more picture books
5 things I’m afraid of as a published author:
- Writer’s block
- Marketing myself and my books
- The lingering fear that I don’t have what it takes (Yes, those thoughts still exist even after you sign with an agent and have several deals.)
CGE: What is your writing schedule like?
JD: Uh-oh. I’m supposed to have a schedule? I don’t have a specific time blocked off to write every day, but I do try to accomplish something writing related every day whether it’s jotting down notes for a new concept, writing, revising, researching, networking online, working with critique partners, or doing other writing related work like this. On the days when none of those things happen, I’ve learned that it’s okay to get “nothing” done because even if I’m not putting words on the page or producing something tangible, I’m always thinking about my projects and observing the world in search of new inspiration. My favorite time to write is when I’m with my two children. We love brainstorming and writing and revising together and we’re always on the lookout for new picture book ideas. They’ve played a huge role in creating every manuscript I’ve sold so far, and I couldn’t have accomplished any of this without them. They’re the best and I’m so lucky to be their mom. My most productive time to write is late at night after everyone else is asleep, at my dining room table or in my comfy writing chair, fueled by cheese popcorn, dark chocolate, and tea. That way I get all the snacks to myself!
CGE: What does the future hold for Jamie L. B. Deenihan?
JD: Becoming a picture book author has been a dream come true and I’m so excited to share my debut picture book, When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree, with the world. I’m hoping that with my background in education and new credentials as a published author, I’ll have lots of opportunities to book author events, school visits, and writing workshops to share my journey, my books, and inspire kids to be brave writers. I’m also thrilled to be working with my amazing editor, Christina Pulles, and the team at Sterling on my second book titled WHEN GRANDPA GIVES YOU A TOOLBOX, which is also being illustrated by Lorraine Rocha.
Other up and coming projects that I am thrilled about include, THE TOOTH FAIRY VS. SANTA (Penguin, Fall 2019) and THE NEW BIRD IN TOWN (Responsive Classroom, Spring 2019).
When Grandma Gives You a Lemon Tree is available for preorder now!
If you’d like to connect with Jamie online, please visit her at:
Meet the illustrator, Lorraine Rocha, on Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating blog.