Student Success Stories: LaRonda Gardner Middlemiss
Some of you may have read an earlier version of my interview with Storyteller Academy student LaRonda Gardner Middlemiss, but that version was lost with our website in May, and her picture book has a cover now! So, I'm updating our interview and giving away a copy of her picture book. The book doesn't release until next summer, so the winner of this giveaway will have a bit of a wait. But I'll preorder the book now so that I don't forget.
Feast your eyes!
Myrna: What is your background?
LaRonda: My educational and professional background is engineering.
Myrna: What made you want to start writing and illustrating picture books?
LaRonda: You know, it came out of nowhere. I mean, it wasn’t something I ever thought of doing or pursuing. My son really loved story time, and I really enjoyed how engaged he was, so I was always in pursuit of new and different books that I thought he’d enjoy. Even though I really liked picture books, writing, or attempting to write one, was never a thought that crossed my mind. Until one day, I was cleaning the bathroom and the words of a picture book (or so I thought at the time, it was way too short) popped into my mind.
That inspiration came from me thinking about my son and his bi-racial identity. After that initial spark, I began to think more about my son as a child with a disability, and how important it was for him to see himself reflected in the stories he reads. I also thought about the importance of planting positive seeds of his racial identity, and how encouraging loving and believing in himself through literature can be effective and critical – but those books are rare. And it’s even rarer to find a main character, in books, with Down syndrome. It seems that people don’t realize that a child with Down syndrome is still a child who learns, plays, explores, and overcomes challenges; including the silliness, joy, tears, mischief, and stubbornness that go with it. I wanted to bring that voice to the children’s book landscape. And once I started on this path, various story ideas and characters came to mind. He sparked a creativity that I didn’t realize I had inside, waiting to be explored.
Myrna: How long have you been writing?
LaRonda: I started my writing journey in 2015, so around three years.
Myrna: Have there been any people angels who’ve helped you along your path?
LaRonda: Yes, a few, but I’ll speak on the first one I encountered: Vanessa Brantley-Newton, author-illustrator of Grandma’s Purse and illustrator of books galore. I was fortunate enough to connect with her within a few months of starting on this path. Mind you, I was very new and trying to figure things out, and my writing was nowhere near a stage for talking to anyone about illustrations. I was researching illustrators in my state, and I found her profile on a website. I decided to send her an email, and honestly, I wasn’t sure I’d get a response, but I sent it anyway. Guess what? She responded! I had a consultation with her, and she was quite generous with her knowledge and time. She gave me insight into the industry, how things typically worked, talked about the push for diversity and inclusion, and how my voice and the stories I wanted to tell were needed. She also talked about the desire for author-illustrators in the picture book world. This part of the conversation put me on the path to drawing, something I desired to do when I was younger but never fully committed to or had the confidence to pursue, even recreationally. Vanessa asked if I could draw and asked that I share something with her, and then she gave feedback and tons of encouragement and guidance on how I could improve and become stronger. I’ve talked with her several times since that initial meeting, and I finally got to meet her in person at our 2018 regional SCBWI-Carolinas conference.
Myrna: Vanessa inspires me almost every time she opens her mouth. Thank you for sharing that story.
Have you ever felt frustrated by trying to get a picture book right?
LaRonda: Perhaps I’m being too literal here, but when I think about the definition of frustrated, getting to a point of feeling annoyed or distressed by something, I would have to say no. I don’t think I’ve ever reached that point in this work.
Myrna: (I'm going to share a little clip where LaRonda and some other students talk about what they DID struggle with.)
Myrna: When and why did you take Arree Chung’s Making Picture Book Stories and Dummies? (This class has since been split into two classes: Crafting Picture Book Stories and Making Picture Book Dummies.)
LaRonda: I am in a SCBWI regional illustrators’ group on FB, and in the summer of 2017, someone shared a link with information about a free six-week picture book dummy course through something called Storyteller Academy. I signed up for the free course. I found it highly beneficial as I worked on story idea about a robot. Arree had a genuineness about him; the way he approached instruction, breaking down a story, building a community of writers, etc. So, when he opened enrollment for Fall of 2017, I joined the academy.
Myrna: I didn't know anything about Arree before I took his class, either, and it completely changed the way I looked at picture books. How did taking Arree's class change the way you write picture books?
LaRonda: My process, which seems generous to call it that, starts the same. And idea pops in my head and I move it around up there for some time. I usually see scenes, similar to bits of animation. Eventually, I capture it on paper or digitally. Sometimes, if I have some elements that I think I may lose, not remember, I will key it into my phone.
I later realized that the non-linear nature of story building in my head aligns with what happens in Arree’s course, except he wants it out of your head and onto paper ☺. Capturing those images and moments on paper and putting it together in a dummy, so you can hold it – flip through it, helps you to better visualize and re-work the story. The change that has come since Arree’s class is, first I try to expedite the time between getting an idea and actually capturing it on paper or digitally. Once I have written it out in story format, I do a little storyboard. I create a grid for a 32-or 40-page layout and then draw stick figures and break up the text within each frame to see if the transitions (page turns) work with just the rough manuscript. I make adjustments based on this exercise. The step after this is making a rough dummy.
Myrna: I love your robots! Could you tell us about your recent book deal?
LaRonda: Yes. I pitched the story during a Twitter event last year. Beaming Books, whose mission is to publish books that help kids thrive, liked my pitch. After reading the full manuscript, they felt it aligned with their mission and made me an offer. The book is called I Love Me! It uses those three simple, yet powerful words to self-affirm, encourage movement and promote body positivity. It’s currently slated for publication in Spring 2020.
Myrna: It sounds wonderful! Do you have any advice that might help our blog readers find satisfaction or joy in writing picture books?
LaRonda: Know why you’re doing it. And enjoy the process. Don’t pre-occupy your mind with what you think should have happened by a certain point.
Myrna: I love that! What’s next for you?
LaRonda: My agent has some of my work on submission, so I am hoping for good news on that end. I am also working through a couple of stories with my Storyteller Academy critique group and continuing to work on improving my art skills. My ultimate goal is to both author and illustrate my own work.
Myrna: Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with us! Where can we find you on the Internet?
Book Giveaway Details
I’m giving away a copy of LaRonda's I Love Me! To enter, just let me know something you love about yourself (I love that my eyes change color, and I love the way my brain analyzes stories. Go, you!) in the comments by midnight on July 31. You don’t have to buy anything or be a student.
Please share this post on social media for extra entries, and paste the link to wherever you shared as a reply to your original comment.
Thank you for reading!
Myrna Foster writes and edits content for Storyteller Academy and the WriteRiders Newsletter for SCBWI Nevada. She has spent a lot of time teaching and coaching children, including five years as a preschool teacher. She's also worked as a journalist, and Highlights High Five has published six of her poems.
Arree Chung is an author/illustrator and the founder of Storyteller Academy. Arree’s Ninja! series has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. Kirkus also gave a starred review to Mixed, which recently won the FCGB award.
Today Arree lives a creative life, making stories for children. Arree spends most of his time making picture books, writing middle grade novels, and sharing his love for art, design, and storytelling with kids and dreamers everywhere.