Interview With Debut Picture Book Author Cathy Stefanec Ogren

As I type out the words ‘Debut Picture Book Author’ in front of Cathy’s name, I feel a surge of excitement and pride course through me. Cathy is one of my very own critique group partners. It was (and still is) her picture book manuscripts that, over the past couple of years, have helped teach me the craft of writing engaging, heart-tugging, and succinct stories for young children.

Often, when drafting my submission to our critique group for a given month, I will ask myself, How would Cathy do this? I knew it was only a matter of time before one of her picture books got picked up for publication. So, I am thrilled to share that her debut picture book PEW! The Stinky and Legen-Dairy Gift from Colonel Thomas S. Meacham will be released on March 15th by Sleeping Bear Press! It is beautifully illustrated by Leslie Breen in a manner that reflects the old-fashioned beauty of 1800’s America.

Front cover of Pew!

I read this book, then read it again for fun, and have been dipping into it here and there because it amuses me and makes me happy. Ever do that with books? You will with this one. And so will the children in your life. Cathy is here with us today on the blog, and I plan to talk with her all about it.

Hilary Margitich: Cathy, I’m thrilled to be interviewing you on your debut picture book. Welcome to the blog! We are so happy to have you here today.

Cathy Stefanec Ogren: Thank you so much, Hilary. It’s “Gouda” to be here with you.

HM: Pew! is quite possibly the most unique, fun, and unexpectedly educational story I have read in quite some time. You have a nose (see what I did there?) for humor, and I know that about you, but I have to ask: how did you first find out about this outrageous piece of United States history?

CSO: I found out about this slice of history while my husband was watching a program on the history channel. I overheard someone talking about cheese. I’m a turophile – a cheese lover. I can eat it any time of the day. I stopped what I was doing and joined my husband to watch. It was there I learned about a 1,400-pound wheel of cheese that was given to the president of the United States in 1836 and sat in the White House entry hall for over a year. That’s what I call a wheely big cheese!

Interior page spread from Pew!

HM: There is so much to enjoy in this tale. We learn about surprisingly true historical events, and we also learn about the art and science of making cheese. All of it is served up in a way that feels far more entertaining than educational. Can you tell us about how all these different elements came together for you as you were researching and drafting?

CSO: The 1,400-pound cheese fascinated me. I thought it would make a great story. I checked to make sure there were no other picture books written about the same event. When I found nothing, I began my research. My first try was a fictional story, using historical facts. The manuscript didn’t receive a grate response. So, I followed my own advice to never give up and began again.

My next try was a nonfiction version. I had to dig deep to find specific information. I searched through archived books, newspapers, internet sites, and blogs, and I contacted historical societies. After that, it was time to separate the curds from the whey and cut my information. I asked myself what is the core part of my story? Answer:  Cheese! The focus of the story was all about the cheese – who made it, how it was made, how it traveled to the White House, what happened after it began to stink, and the odiferous aftermath.

Interior page spread from Pew!

To give the manuscript an upbeat feeling, I used a bit of humor and wordplay to bring all the elements together. This book can be used as an entertaining educational tool, especially for teachers and parents. It has a connection to history, math, and science. The back matter includes “More to the Story” and “Cheesy Facts” that every age will enjoy.

HM: Tell me about your path to writing for children. When did you first decide that you wanted to do this, and what has that journey been like for you?

CSO: My path to writing has been a very long and winding road with lots of pit stops. I’ve always loved to write. I began writing before critique groups, webinars, and writing classes became popular. Early on, I had two early chapter books published (now out-of-print) and contributed articles, stories, fingerplays, and action poems to educational and children’s magazines. Then, life got in the way, and my writing became sporadic.

It wasn’t until 2015 that I became a serious full-time writer. In 2017, I joined the 12 x12 PB Challenge and found online critique groups and a local critique group. In 2018, I signed with my agent as a result of winning first place in Vivian Kirkfield’s #50PreciousWords Contest. Everything I’ve chosen to do in the last few years has helped move my writing career forward.

I signed the contract for my debut nonfiction picture book in 2021. My writing career has had its up and downs, but I try to keep focused and move forward at all times. My greatest pleasure is meeting other writers and supporting them in their writing journey.

HM: Cathy, what advice do you have for aspiring picture book writers (like me!) who dream of publishing their own debut picture book?

CSO: My first bit of advice is to join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). It’s invaluable. Take classes to hone your craft. Join critique groups. Go to conferences. Network with other writers. Enter writing contests. Take advantage of any free webinars that deal with the genre you’re most drawn to. Participate in Pitch Parties.

Read. Read. Read. If you find books you love, and wish you could write like that, use them as mentor texts. Study the different elements of each book and what makes them special. Finally, if writing is your true passion and you feel down when you get rejections, pick yourself up and keep moving forward. NEVER GIVE UP! 

HM: Can you tell us what you’re working on next, and where our readers can follow you on social media?

CSO: I’m excited to announce that I have a new picture book coming out in the fall of 2024
from Sleeping Bear Press. Little Red Chair is about a special relationship between
a young girl and a little red chair. Alexandra Thompson is the illustrator. She has the
perfect vision for my book. In the meantime, I’m revising a manuscript that is close to
my heart. I also have an idea that has been rolling around my head. I need to knock it
out and see what happens. You can follow me on these social media sites.


Facebook:  Cathy Stefanec Ogren  

Twitter: @CathySOgren

Instagram:  @cathyo.likes

Blog:  Humor Me

HM: Now for a very serious question, because I know you are a serious person. What is your favorite kind of cheese and why?

CSO: To Brie or not to Brie, that is the question. I love Brie. It’s rich and buttery, but I usually save it for holidays and special occasions. My go-to cheese is cheddar – extra sharp cheddar. It’s very satisfying, goes with everything, and it’s good for your teeth!

HM: Brie that as it may, I bet you would not want it after it had been sitting in an entry hall for over a year. Sorry, was that too cheesy? Cathy, this has been so much fun. Thank you! I can’t wait to read more of your books and have you on the blog again.

CSO: This has been a pleasure, Hilary. I look forward to being part of this blog again. It was fun!

Cathy Stefanec Ogren believes in writing and reading books that spark curiosity and imagination. Before becoming a full-time writer, she was an elementary school teacher, working with second and third-grade students. Her last years in education were spent as a school librarian where she was passionate about introducing new and diverse books to her students. She is a PAL member of SCBWI and the 12 x12 Picture Book Challenge. Surrounded by lots and lots of books, Cathy lives with her husband in their New Hampshire home and makes frequent visits to the library.


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