Colleen Nelson on Bringing Playfulness to Picture Books, Her Favourite Canadian Kids' Books, & More
Whether you're a parent or just remembering your own school days, everyone can relate to the jangling nerves that come with starting a new school or new stage as a student. In Colleen Nelson's loveable new picture book, Teaching Mrs. Muddle (Pajama Press), the nerves belong to Kayla, on her first day of kindergarten.
Kayla's not too sure about the whole idea of being away from her parents and meeting so many new kids at once. But it turns out she's not the only one with worries - her teacher, Mrs. Muddle, is having an even tougher time than Kayla. She's mixing up classrooms and names, getting lost, and even having a slide malfunction until plucky Kayla steps up to help out. You can't help cheering for Kayla as Nelson's narrative and Alice Carter's sweetly funny illustrations take readers on an adventure. And you'll find yourself rooting for the entirely endearing Mrs. Muddle.
We're pleased to welcome Colleen, a former kindergarten teacher and decorated young adult novelist, to talk about her first picture book. She tells us about how her teaching background helped to inspire the story, the magic of working with an illustrator to see her characters come to life, and why Mrs. Muddle's so-called mix ups might be both intentional and effective strategies.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
I’m so excited for Teaching Mrs. Muddle because it’s my first picture book! Teaching Mrs. Muddle is about Kayla on her first day of Kindergarten. She’s a little nervous about missing her mom, not being able to find the washroom, and all kinds of other things kids worry about on their first day of school. Things go sideways when her Kindergarten teacher keeps mixing things up, but luckily Kayla takes charge.
The idea came about when I was working as at Teacher Librarian at an elementary school. The Kindergarten teacher brought her class to the library on a tour and I jokingly said, 'Welcome to the Gym!' Of course, the kids were quick to correct me by pointing out the books. I went home that night and wrote about a silly teacher who takes kids on a tour and intentionally mixes things up to help ease their nerves.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
As a former Kindergarten teacher, I know that some children are nervous about the first day of school. I hope this book helps to show them that school is a fun place to be, filled with friends and people who care about them. As I was writing the book, I thought about ways to make it interactive and engaging for the reader and the audience. The kids will love to correct Mrs. Muddle and point out all the mistakes she’s making—I hope teachers and caregivers have fun with it too.
Did the book look the same in the end as your originally envisioned it when you started working, or did it change through the writing process?
Since this is my first picture book (I usually write MG or YA), I learned a lot about how a picture book comes together. The original version was very wordy. Gail Winskill, the publisher at Pajama Press, and Erin Alladin, the editor, explained that I’d been filling in lots of details with words, which were unnecessary since there would be illustrations. I also learned how to think in terms of pages, as opposed to paragraphs. The whole experience was a great learning experience. I definitely gained an appreciation for picture book writers!
Then, of course, I found out Alice Carter was the illustrator and I was so excited! She literally took the characters I’d imagined in my head and drew them into life. Her attention to detail, colour, and humour makes the book engaging to readers of all ages.
Is there a character in your book that you relate to? If so, in what ways are you similar to your character and in what ways are you different?
Mrs. Muddle has lots of clever strategies to put her students at ease. She mixes up their nametags when they arrive at school, which helps them to break the ice and talk to each other. Teachers get good at reading students and figuring out what they need to be comfortable. Sometimes, it’s humour, other times it’s a good book, or a sympathetic ear. I don’t have curly red hair or Mrs. Muddle’s stylish outfits, but I hope that I bring the same playfulness to teaching that she does, like practicing letter writing with pudding and having fort building competitions in grade 8.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
The first time I saw the cover for Teaching Mrs. Muddle was memorable! I was in Toronto for the OLA Super Conference and Gail sent it to me. I stared at it for a few minutes, hardly believing how beautiful it was. It was kind of surreal to be honest because my original intention was to write children’s books. It took many attempts and fifteen years to get one published. Anyone who thinks writing picture books is easy is very, very wrong! I’m really lucky that Gail and Erin saw something special in it and wanted to work with me to make it better. Seeing that cover for the first time and the way Alice had captured the spirit of the book made the long wait worth it!
What defines a great book for young readers, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great kids books, whether you read them as a child or an adult.
I read a lot of picture books and use them all the time in my grade 8 classes. One that has resonated with me lately is Heather Smith’s The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden. I got a sneak peek at the galley of this book when Heather visited my class on the TD Book Week Tour. The story behind the book and the illustrations make it a powerful, moving story. It gave me chills reading it out loud to the class. Another book that I’ve read to many classes is My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo. The artwork and narrative of a boy dealing with trauma made for excellent discussions. Finally, Tokyo Digs a Garden by Jon Erik Lappano is another favourite. The illustrations are so engaging—very graphic and quirky, and the story provides a jumping off point to talk about our communities and what’s important. Honestly, I could go on and on talking about picture books. There are so many incredible story tellers and illustrators in Canada!
How, if at all, does social media feature in your writing process?
I’ve connected with many authors, teachers, librarians, book sellers and readers through social media—it’s a wonderful way to share and learn from others. For Teaching Mrs. Muddle, I made a book trailer. Releasing a book during Covid has been an interesting experience. Without the fanfare of a book launch, authors and publishers have to rethink the marketing strategy. I’m one of the organizers behind MG Lit Online Book Club, which my friend Kathie MacIsaac and I started as a way to help newly released titles gain some exposure. Over the last few months, we’ve enjoyed building a community of authors and readers and want to keep it going. We have a long list of MG titles we’d like to feature at our monthly meetings. Social media has allowed us to spread the word.
Colleen Nelson earned her Bachelor of Education from the University of Manitoba in her hometown of Winnipeg. Her previous novels include Blood Brothers, selected as the 2018 McNally Robinson Book of the Year for Young People, and Pulse Point, selected as one of the CBC’s Most Anticipated YA Books of 2018. Colleen writes daily in between appearances at hockey rinks and soccer fields in support of her two sports-loving sons.