Six Questions with Ellie Peterson
Ellie Peterson is the author and illustrator of multiple picture books, including How to Hug a Pufferfish (Roaring Brook Press) and School is Wherever I Am (Roaring Brook Press). Her work is inspired by 20 years as a classroom teacher and her experience growing up as a biracial army brat. When she's not in the classroom, you can find her making art in her backyard studio or exploring the beautiful Pacific Northwest, where she lives. You can learn more about Ellie and her work on her website.
1. Did you have a favorite teacher when you were a child? What made them so special?
Hands down, Mr. Luther, my 3rd grade teacher, was my absolute favorite. I think he was likely EVERYONE’S favorite. Mr. Luther was a masterful improvisational storyteller, so good that other classes would come visit for stories from time to time. He would spin fantastic tales, give each character unique voices, and have us in stitches from beginning to end. He structured his classroom in the round, with a two-decker hand-built fort in the corner. Sometimes, he’d hang a punching bag (an army duffel filled with old clothes) in the center of the room for the extra energetic kids to wail away. It was a wonderful place to be a child.
2. What are some of the best and hardest parts of writing for kids?
The best part of writing for kids is reliving your childhood. The worst part of writing for kids is reliving your childhood.
3. Do you work on multiple projects at the same time?
Yes, by necessity, not by choice. Right now I’m working on illustrations for a book about butterfly migration written by Katherine Pryor, finishing sample spreads for a graphic novel I’d like to sub soon, revising a set of character designs for a project proposal, and hammering out a manuscript for a new PB about unicorns. It’s difficult to shift focus between three or four projects at a time like this. A couple strategies that help me: 1) keep a running to-do/to-done list for each project (I keep mine in a bullet journal) and 2) set distinct and specific sub tasks for each project.
4. Where did you get the idea for School is Wherever I Am? What was your inspiration?
My students! I’m a teacher in my other life and have been for the past 20 years. When the pandemic hit and schools closed, I felt so disheartened. I could only focus on what my students were missing out on by not attending school in-person. It wasn’t long however, before kids started sharing new adventures they were having, observations they were making, and skills they were learning. Kids were noticing birds in their yard, learning to bake and garden, going for long walks with their family, making movies, creating giant cardboard forts… I was so inspired by their discoveries. As a teacher, I needed this reminder that kids learn WHEREVER they go, whatever they do.
5. What was the process or timeline for this book, from idea to publishing?
The timeline on this book felt rather quick! While this book is not about the pandemic, it was inspired by the pandemic and Roaring Brook, my publisher, wanted to be as timely as possible. On May 9th of 2020, I tweeted, “When you just had an amazing idea and you busted out a manuscript and you know you need to build in some distance from it so you look at it more objectively, but you want to work on it some more right NOW!” Along with a gif of Joey Tribbiani trying not to eat more dessert. That manuscript was SCHOOL IS WHEREVER I AM. By July I’d created character sketches and by the end of February, the dummy was ready to submit. I was on vacation in Hawaii in April of 2021 when I found out a deal was on the table! Final art was due July of 2021 and here we are, with a publishing day of May 3rd, 2022. Almost two years exactly from the day of inception.
6. If you read this book to a room filled with kids, what message would you want them to leave with?
I’ve had the opportunity to preview this book with a couple small groups of students and they all love sharing their pandemic stories with me. “Ms. Ellie, I made a bird house, too!” “Ms. Ellie, I baked sourdough bread when we stayed home!” What I’d like them to remember when I leave is that those experiences are just as important as the ones they have in school. I want them to value themselves and their learning, wherever they are.