Like many authors before her, Shelley Johannes dreamed of one thing as a teenager but followed another, safer path for her career. Shelley went to college and became an architect. For her, it was a quantifiable career option within a creative field. And that was enough, for a time.
“I always wanted to be a writer or an artist, but I couldn’t envision what that would look like, or how I could make that happen,” Shelley told Cracking the Cover. “There were so many barriers in my mind — from my limited life experience, to my location, to my quiet personality. The world of children’s books was completely off my radar.”
Then Shelley became a parent and transitioned out of architecture into freelance work. The true turning point came when she began reading to her own children.
“One day, with my two-year-old on my lap and How I Became a Pirate in my hands, I fell in love instantly,” she said. “I realized that children’s books were a perfect combination of word and image that I’d never considered before. Doing something about that revelation was still a long way off, but my vague career dreams suddenly had clarity.”
Fast-forward a couple of years and Shelley is now the author of Beatrice Zinker Upside Down Thinker, the first book in a series from Disney-Hyperion. The book is a four-colored illustrated chapter book that features third-grader Beatrice Zinker who sees the world differently than those around her.
“I spent a lot of my life trying to camouflage the things that made me different,” she said. “One day I ran across a quote from Joss Whedon that said, ‘Whatever makes you weird is probably your greatest asset.’ The truth of that stayed with me for days and days.”
It was on Shelley’s next visit to her local library that Beatrice appeared for the first time. “I was standing in front of the New Books display, trying to decide how many books I could take without being a complete jerk, when she dropped from the ceiling in her ninja suit, ready to steal them all and make a quick getaway before being apprehended by library secret service. She was a manifestation of my love of books and my guilty conscience, and I knew immediately — way before she had a name — that Beatrice was my weird.”
Characters sometimes appear with certain truths already formed, says Shelley. Beatrice was one such character.
“When Beatrice showed up in my imagination, she was upside-down in a ninja suit,” Shelley said. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to make her think differently—it was just a piece of who she was. I couldn’t have put words to it, but like Beatrice’s ultrasound picture, Beatrice — as a figment of my imagination — was different from the very beginning, too.”
Finding the right context in which to showcase Beatrice’s character was the next step. “Beatrice started as a book thief in a picture book, then after spending a couple months in a convoluted plot in a boarding school, she finally found her home in a right-side-up family and very recognizable life. Within that familiarity, it was even more fun to explore all the sides of her upside down personality.”
Shelley thinks in text and images, so the creative process naturally involved both. First came the mental image of Beatrice and then a picture book dummy.
“On a page of that early draft, Beatrice was on an elevator ceiling, paired with the words, ‘Lucky for Beatrice, she did her best thinking upside down,’” Shelley explained. “It epitomized Beatrice as a character, and — thanks to my agent — eventually inspired the concept of Beatrice as a chapter book series.”
A combination of text and illustration inspired many moments of Shelley’s book. “The whole first chapter, for instance, sprang from an illustration of Beatrice’s ultrasound picture and the words ‘Beatrice, however, had been different from the very beginning.’ There was a point in the journey when I had to lock away by art supplies for a bit, so I could concentrate on the story. But if I ever lost my way, or got stuck, sketching Beatrice and her silly antics always brought me back.”
Shelley hopes Beatrice’s personality paired with playful illustrations will attract young readers. She says the ninja suit, spy moves, and a secret operation might help, too.
Once readers get started, though, they’ll realize “Beatrice is a little different and doesn’t fit in. She feels like an outsider at home, and is afraid she’s losing her best friend. Most of us, at any age, can relate to those feelings — but young people, especially, know them well. I hope Beatrice inspires kids to enjoy all the upsides of being themselves — and to give others the freedom to be themselves, too.”
Shelley is currently finishing edits for Book 2 in the Beatrice Zinker series, which is scheduled to come out in 2018. “Hanging out with Beatrice always makes me happy, and there are two new characters — Sam and Wes — that I can’t wait for readers to meet.”
Learn more about Shelley Johannes, including what character she’s most like in her book Beatrice Zinker Upside Down Thinker, by reading the complete transcript of her interview with Cracking the Cover.
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