Guest Post by Maria Gianferrari, Author of Penny & Jelly: The School Show

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Processed with VSCOcam with a6 presetTo follow on from my review of Penny & Jelly: The School Show last Friday, I am very happy to have the author, Maria Gianferrari on the blog today to share about the inspiration for her debut picture book and offer some great writerly tips. Maria writes both fiction and nonfiction picture books from her sunny, book-lined study in northern Virginia, with dog, Becca as her muse. Maria’s debut picture book, Penny & Jelly: The School Show, illustrated by Thyra Heder, will be released on July 7th, 2015 (HMH Books for Young Readers). A companion Penny & Jelly book titled, Penny & Jelly Slumber Under the Stars, will be released in spring 2016. Maria has five additional books forthcoming from Roaring Brook and Boyds Mills Presses as well as Aladdin Books for Young Readers in the coming years. To learn more about Maria, visit her website: or on Facebook. You can also visit Penny & Jelly at their website, pennyandjelly.comTo win a copy of Penny & Jelly, please leave a comment about your or your kid’s best or worst school show moment! Winner will be drawn on Monday July, 6th!


Thanks for having me here today, Joanna!

I wanted to share the story behind my debut fiction picture book, Penny & Jelly: The School Show, illustrated by Thyra Heder, since its release is right around the corner—July 7th!

The main character, Penny, is on a quest to find a talent in time for the Peabody Elementary School Talent Show. Though she has the help of trusty canine companion, and BFF, Jelly, her search is quite a challenging one, since Penny doesn’t have a talent: she can’t sing, or dance, or play an instrument. So being the list-maker that she is, Penny begins writing lists of possible talents, all of which fail. Except one. You’ll have to read the book to find out what it is!

My daughter, Anya, and her sweet dog sister, Becca inspired this story. Like Penny, Anya is an only child, and Becca is really like her sibling in many ways, except that they don’t fight J. They’re playmates and truly best friends, and I wanted to explore a bond like theirs in my story.

Best Friends

Best Friends

Anya’s creativity was also an inspiration for the story. She’s quite an amazing artist and I’m her biggest fan! Here are some samples of her work:

This is a humpback whale drawing she created last year.

Whale by Anya

Whale by Anya

Here’s an owl acrylic, with a small polymer clay owl figurine.


And here are some cute owl pillows.

photo 1

As you can see, Penny’s creativity is very much inspired by Anya.

The third inspiration for the book is the movie High Fidelity, starring John Cusack, one of my very favorite films! It’s one of those rare movies that’s actually better than the book (no offense Nick Hornby!) The main character, Rob, is a charming cad who owns a record store and confesses to the camera like he’s our friend. He and his musical snob sidekicks, Dick and Barry, make “Top 5” lists for: Mondays, memorable break-ups, death. Watching the movie inspired me to insert lists into Penny & Jelly. And my good friend and critique partner, Lisa Robinson gave me the brilliant idea to actually insert cross-outs—thank you, Lisa!!

Since I’m a list-lover, just like Penny, I thought I’d end this post with my Top 5 recommendations for aspiring picture book writers:

  1. I can’t recall where I initially read this, but someone, somewhere said before you attempt to write a picture book, you should read at least 1,000 picture books and I heartily agree! And read 100 picture books in the genre you’re planning to write. Then participate in Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) in November founded by picture book author extraordinaire, Tara Lazar: and Paula Yoo’s National Picture Book Writing Week (NaPiBoWriWee) in May:
  2. Study mentor texts for voice, point of view, use of white space, line, rhythm and refrain. Slip on their skins by hand-writing or typing out the text to feel their pulse and breath in your fingers. Join in writer-educator Carrie Charley Brown’s Read for Research Month (ReFoReMo) in March:
  3. Above all, write and research what you LOVE! The road to publication can be long and winding and this will give you staying power through countless revisions and inevitable rejections. I don’t actually know how many times my nonfiction picture book, Coyote Moon was rejected, but I was obsessed with coyotes. I initially wrote it as an article for Highlights magazine, so even though it was rejected, the coyotes kept howling in my head, and in my heart. So it morphed into a poetic picture book, underwent a gazillion revisions, and was eventually acquired by Emily Feinberg of Roaring Brook Press. To give you an idea of the timeline, the initial research began in the winter of 2007; it was rejected by Highlights in the summer of 2007; it won a Letter of Commendation from SCBWI for a Barbara Karlin Grant in 2010; was acquired in May 2013. Coyote Moon will be published in spring 2016, with incomparable illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline—they’re just stunning!
  4. Don’t feel wedded to your first draft. Play. Experiment with different voices, imitate different books that you love, and incorporate interesting structures like lists, recipes, dialogue, etc. And reading Ann Whitford Paul’s classic, Writing Picture Books is the perfect place to start:
  5. If you want to write picture books, read poetry, and lots of it! Poets are master wordsmiths and experts on craft who know how to distill language, and touch our hearts. I love Joyce Sidman’s lovely nature poetry; Marilyn Singer’s reversos in Mirror Mirror and Follow Follow, the zany poetry of Jack Prelutsky or Douglas Florian, the powerful verse of J. Patrick Lewis or Nikki Grimes. Read verse memoirs and novels that pack an emotional punch and powerful language such as those of Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander, Karen Hesse, Sonya Sones, Helen Frost, Sharon Creech and Margarita Engle.

We can learn about the writing journey from Joyce Sidman’s profound poem, “What   Do the Trees Know?”

What do the trees know?
To bend when all the wild winds blow.
Roots are deep and time is slow.
All we grasp we must let go.

What do the trees know?
Buds can weather ice and snow.
Dark gives way to sunlight’s glow.
Strength and stillness help us grow.
(from Winter Bees & Other Poems of the Cold).

Write what you know, and what you feel in your heart!

Thank you again, Joanna, for allowing me to muse on my inspiration for Penny & Jelly!

Please follow the rest of Maria’s blog tour on the following blogs:

  • Friday, June 26th: Kidlit411/Sylvia Liu & Elaine Kiely Kearns
  • Monday, July 6th – Friday, July 10th: Emu’s Debuts virtual book week launch
  • Monday, July 13th: Bildebok/Cathy Ballou Mealey

Updated on July 8th to say the winner, picked at random of PENNY & JELLY: THE SCHOOL SHOW is Carrie Charley Brown!

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20 Responses to Guest Post by Maria Gianferrari, Author of Penny & Jelly: The School Show

  1. Lovely post! I’ve very much enjoyed getting to know Maria through social media comments, and now much more to confirm my affinity! ThNks for letting us ‘walk along’ for some of your journey, Maria! All the best!

  2. That’s one of my favorite poems from “Winter Bees”! Love that you connect it to the writer’s journey. Hanging it over my desk this morning to inspire and sustain me!

    • Thanks, Cathy!! I’ve hung another of Joyce’s poems on the bulletin board above my desk that’s equally inspirational, How to Write a Poem :). Can’t wait to meet you in person!!

  3. This is a wonderful follow-up to the interview of Maria at KidLit411! Excellent advice, and I heartily agree with the poets she lists! I modeled a rewrite of my story about an endangered bird (which will likely be extinct if and when an editor finally buys it) after Joyce Sidman’s books. Love her writing.

    I really enjoyed reading about how this book’s story came to be! And I am wowed by Anya’s creativity and artistry at such a young age.

    • Thank you, Teresa! I’m a complete bird nerd, so I’ll look forward to reading your book! Can you share what bird it is (you can always PM me). I’ll share your comments with Anya 🙂

  4. I really enjoyed the follow-up interview with Maria. What a sweet bond between Anya and her dog-sister, Becca. Sounds like a great title for a book. Anya is a very talented artist. I enjoyed learning the story behind Penny and Jelly. When it is based on real life, it doesn’t get any better.

  5. Lois Sepahban says:

    I love the story of your inspiration for Penny and Jelly, Maria! And thank you for all of the wonderful advice you’ve shared here. 🙂

  6. Excellent story quest! Also, thank you for the shout-out, Maria! Reading mentor texts is so important! I’d also like to add how wowed I am by your daughter’s talent. Go, Anya, go!

  7. You’re welcome, Carrie–you deserve it!

  8. Thanks again for hosting me, Joanna! 🙂

    • Joanna says:

      I am so excited to follow Penny and Jelly and your career, Maria! I loved hearing all about your inspiration for this story and seeing your daughter’s creative gifts, too!

  9. Sheri Dillard says:

    What a thoughtful post, Maria! Thank you so much for sharing your story!

  10. Your love for animals and your love for writing unite in the most wonderful ways and it is wonderful to see Anya’s connections to art and story too.

  11. L. Robinson says:

    Thanks for the mention, Maria. Sometimes it takes a village, doesn’t it?!

  12. Pingback: Thyra Heder – Illustrator Interview & Book Giveaway (Blog Tour for Penny & Jelly) | Miss Marple's Musings

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