In I AM TODAY, a young girl hears from adults that she is the future. But she doesn’t want to wait, so she starts making a positive difference in the world today. This inspiring, heartfelt picture book literally gave me goosebumps with its hopeful message. Due to supply-chain issues, the book is launching February 8, but you can preorder it for an inspirational boost in the new year! See below for how to order a signed copy.
Author Matt Forrest Esenwine joins us to talk about the making of this book.
Marianne Knowles: Welcome to the blog, Matt! Is this really your first Writers’ Rumpus visit?
Matt Forrest Esenwine: Thank you so much, Marianne! It feels like we’ve known each other for so long through SCBWI and our local conferences, yet I’ve never had the pleasure of being here before, so it’s a special treat for me.
MK: I love this book for so many reasons, but especially the sense of empowerment it conveys to small children. What inspired this story? Is there a real-life child who said she wants to be Today, instead of waiting for the future?
MFE: There wasn’t a particular child who inspired me, although I would say that raising two kids during the pandemic certainly helped! I wrote the manuscript in late summer/early fall of last year, in the middle of all the chaos, and I was wondering how to help my children feel like they had some control of their life. I mean, really, even we adults felt like we had no control – so imagine how difficult it was for kids to deal with. I spent some time kicking around ideas, and the phrase “I am today” came to me. I thought about that for a while and realized that kids are always being told they are the “Future”… but what if a child doesn’t want to wait? Once I had that phrase – which I immediately knew was the title – I had my narrative.
MK: Writer/illustrator relationships run the range from never-met to full collaborators. Did you have a working relationship with the illustrator, Patricia Pessoa? How did the process compare with your earlier books?
MFE: Indeed, it’s pretty rare for an author and illustrator to meet or collaborate, but usually we do eventually connect with each other. The process for this book was similar to others I’ve done, whereby the illustrator was hired by the editor (Jordan Neilsen) and they worked closely together; however, I did get several updates from Jordan along the way, showing me Patricia’s progress. One thing that was different was that Jordan sent me a list of names and portfolios of illustrators she was considering, and asked me if there were 2 or 3 that I preferred. I looked them all over and told her who I felt was the best suited for the project…and it turned out that Patricia was also the one Jordan preferred, too! So I think that contract got sent out pretty quickly. Ha!
MK: The text of I AM TODAY is so spare, and the story told in the illustrations is so perfectly matched to the text, that I have to ask—how much information did you put in the illustration notes?
MFE: Well, the first thing I needed to do was make sure I wasn’t writing something didactic; I cringe whenever I hear an author say, “I wrote this book to teach kids blah, blah…” I want to write stories, and story is first and foremost. Yes, a book can teach or inspire or challenge or uplift – but the story always has to come first. Kids are smart – if they get a whiff of being taught something, they’re outta there. So my focus was on writing something enjoyable to read.
The other thing I did was leave plenty of room for an illustrator. I know lots of folks who struggle with adding too much detail or information to their manuscripts, but that’s one thing that’s not much of an issue for me; I love leaving details to the illustrator! If it’s not pertinent to the plot, I don’t mention it!
The only illustrator note I gave was, “a child recognizes an injustice . . . and decides they need to take action.” Patricia took it from there!
What I really enjoy doing is creating ‘story skeletons’: loose narrative arcs that create a structure, or flow, to the book yet leave a significant amount of the story-telling to the illustrator. For example, I AM TODAY is about a young girl who wants to save sea turtles, recognizes she needs to take action, decides to spread the news using origami turtles, rallies the town, gets everyone together to clean up the beach and stop factory pollution, and is finally happy with her accomplishment. But NONE of that is in my story! There are no turtles, no pollution, no origami – there isn’t even a girl. The text I wrote is simply a narrative arc that needed an illustrator to flesh it out. The only illustrator note I gave was, “a child recognizes an injustice, perhaps a park being torn down or a bully at school, and decides they need to take action.” Patricia took it from there!
Perhaps it’s because I got into children’s literature through poetry, talking with and learning from folks like Jane Yolen, Lee Bennett Hopkins, J. Patrick Lewis and others. I love creating rhyming or poetic picture books that require both text and art to work in tandem to tell the entire story. I did this with both FLASHLIGHT NIGHT (Astra Young Readers, 2017) and ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME (Beaming Books, 2021), and am doing it again with another lyrical, non-rhyming picture book I’ll have out hopefully in about a year or so. None of these books have a main character or a typical exposition or use a Fichtean Curve or Rule of 3s or Freytag’s Pyramid…but there is a narrative structure that leads the reader from beginning to end. I’ll admit, it does take some finesse (there’s a fine line between being creatively ambiguous and just being vague) but it can be done! By the way, creating non-traditional narratives was the theme of a presentation I gave at LitYoungstown’s Fall Literary Fest in Ohio this past October…and when you actually start looking, you’ll find lots of other books like this, as well, like Joyce Sidman’s Before Morning (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2016) and Henry Herz’ I Am Smoke (Tilbury House).
MK: You’re a poet as well as a picture book author. How many of your picture books are rhyming, like I AM TODAY? Do you write in prose at all?
MFE: I write in prose, but other than my board book, ELLIOT THE HEART-SHAPED FROG (Rainstorm Publishing, 2021), which came out back in January, everything has been either rhyming or very poetically-written, aka lyrical. When it comes to poetry, it can rhyme or not rhyme – free verse poetry is a wonderful way to be poetic without rhyming – but I do differentiate between rhyming picture books and poetry. FLASHLIGHT NIGHT and ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME both rhyme and are very poetic; I AM TODAY rhymes, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it poetry. And that book I have coming out late next year is very poetic – it started off as a poem – but it doesn’t rhyme. I think how picture books are defined is less important than how they are received.
I think how picture books are defined is less important than how they are received.
MK: Kidlit writers are advised not to write in rhyme—but you do it so well. What resources would you recommend for writers who want to try rhyme?
MFE: Thank you! Reading rhyming picture books is the first and best resource, to begin with. Reading out loud, listening to the meter/rhythm, and paying attention to the words that rhyme is a great way to become acclimated to writing in the same way. One certainly doesn’t need a background in poetry to write in rhyme, but it has served me well; I spot things like internal rhyme and natural cadence and stuff like that, but what it boils down to is having an ear for it.
I recently got into an unintended argument in a Facebook group with a woman who claimed that meter and rhyme don’t matter with rhyming picture books, that plenty of top-selling authors don’t use proper meter, and that we should throw away all the rules because they’re outdated. Not surprisingly, this woman has zero children’s books published – yet she was acting like some sort of expert, and I just couldn’t stay there any longer.
MK: I heard about an art class where the professor showed a realistic painting, and no one recognized it as a Picasso! The instructor’s point was that Picasso had mastered the rules before breaking them.
MFE: Exactly! The fact is, you do need to understand the rules before breaking them. Charles (“Father Goose”) Ghigna and I change up the rhythm of our lines every few pages in ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME, which is something you’d probably never want to do, but for our book it worked very well. However, we knew how to adjust the meter and pacing so that it worked with the page-breaks; consequently, the change-ups never felt awkward or forced.
As for specific resource books, I recommend POEM-MAKING: WAYS TO BEGIN WRITING POETRY (HarperCollins, 1991) by the great Myra Cohn Livingston, which is designed for people learning to write poetry, but is a fantastic resource nonetheless. Every children’s writer should read some of the late Paul Janeczko’s books like A KICK IN THE HEAD and A FOOT IN THE MOUTH, both from Candlewick, that show how to create poetry in fun, easy-to-understand terms; again, these are written from a poetic point of view, but are invaluable nonetheless. Newcomers might also want to check out the websites of folks like my friends Josh Funk and Harold Underdown, both of whom offer great information and resources.
MK: This has been great, Matt! Thanks so much for sharing the story of the story, I AM TODAY!
Matt Forrest Esenwine is the author of picture books FLASHLIGHT NIGHT, ONCE UPON ANOTHER TIME, and DON’T ASK A DINOSAUR, and has contributed to numerous poetry anthologies including THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC BOOK OF NATURE POETRY (N.G. Children’s Books, 2015) and EXCEPT FOR LOVE: NEW ENGLAND POETS INSPIRED BY DONALD HALL (Encircle Pub, 2019). I AM TODAY is his latest book. Matt lives in New Hampshire with his wife, kids, and more pets than he has fingers.