VCFA Graduate, Cate Berry, Launches New Book: PENGUIN & TINY SHRIMP DON’T DO BEDTIME!

Penguin and Tiny Shrimp DO NOT have a bedtime story to share with you. There are fireworks! And shark-infested waters! This book will never make you sleepy! Not at all. Not even a little…

Cate, I know you are really excited about this new picture book. Tell us about how you sold the manuscript. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?

I signed with my agent a month before starting VCFA. It was a grand bit of luck-meets-hard-work. She sent my manuscript out on submission during my first residency in July 2015. I was so busy and freaked out about grad school I didn’t have time to check my email every five seconds.

So, I checked it every ten seconds.

We waited. The rejections came. My first packet went off. More rejections came. I received what you call “lovely” rejections. Editors liked it, some of them a lot. But no one seemed to love it enough to buy it. My agent had faith and kept sending it out. More rejections came. My second grad packet went out. The months ticked by until it was October. I hit “send” on my third packet.

I had a massive panic attack the morning of October 23rd. It had been too long. My husband assured me, “It just takes one yes.” Driving home that afternoon my phone rang. Who’s calling? No one calls on the phone anymore, I thought. So, I pulled over. It was my agent and she said we had an offer.

I screamed. Several dogs howled, concerned, behind fences. It was hot. I screamed again. I called my husband. “We got the one yes,” I said.

I went home and within twenty-four hours we had another offer. Then, two more. My agent set up phone calls with all the editors. I remember thinking, “Wow. This is Science-Fiction. You spend years settling for scraps as an artist and suddenly— overnight—people are wooing you.”

In the end, we had a four-house auction. It was a fairy tale. It was remote and surreal.

After we accepted, I got in my car (why are my important moments always in cars?) and sobbed. Not from happiness, but from fear. In my gut, I guess I hadn’t truly thought I’d clear the final hurdle.

And what if it never happened again (I actually thought this)?

Then again, what if it did.

That’s the thing about publishing. You can’t control when it’ll be your turn. The stars have to be aligned ten thousand different ways for it to happen and that’s the truth. But, it’ll never happen if you don’t cast your stories into the grind of the business.

My second book has not been a fairy tale, by the way.

But who wants to write the same book twice?

What an amazing ride. Can you tell us what was the spark that ignited this book?

I like to write in rapid-fire succession, one picture book after the next, until I hit upon something worthy of revising.

When this book popped out, it felt joyful.

I’ve worried as my debut approaches that my book is not “important” enough faced with the world’s current landscape. There are huge problems we face and important things to write about for children.

But I believe in connection.

For me, that’s at the end of the day. After dinner, before sleep, when I slow down and read with my people at bedtime.

I hope this book reaches lots of children, parents, care-givers, grandparents and many more. And I hope it helps us connect with a full heart and a cozy snuggle before we fall asleep.

I have to say I really appreciate your honesty about your doubts and fears. Can you tell us how attending VCFA affected your writing life?

It saved me time. I am sure that people learn craft in many ways, and you certainly don’t have to go to an MFA program to be a writer. But, even more than learning my craft, VCFA made me a jump into hyper-space and define myself as a writer. I learned how to meet deadlines, carve out and defend my writing time and gain confidence. I am most definitely a different writer post MFA.

Who did you work with in the program?

An Na, Mary Quattlebaum, Jane Kurtz, Martine Leavitt

What is your favorite VCFA memory?

I loved the late night “Advisor Posting” each residency. It was thrilling to find out who you’d be working with that semester. Some called it the Sorting Hat. I just thought it was great drama and it felt like Grown-Up-Writer Camp.

What was special about your VCFA graduating class?

My class, the Dead Post-Its Society, is the best. Everyone says that. But we really are. We span five decades with our ages and we beat with one loyal heart.

What’s special about the VCFA-WCYA program?

I love that it’s situated in a tiny Vermont city. It’s hard to get too! But that makes it all the more like a middle grade novel. You have to journey to this special place, tucked away from everything, and immerse yourself in writing.

What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?

It will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. And it will be worth it ten-fold. In the end, you and your friends and family will never understand why you took so long to go.

What do you wish you had known before you first set foot on the VCFA campus?

I wish I’d known that there was nothing to be intimidated or scared of. Whether you are just beginning your first novel or picture book or your tenth, it’s the most welcoming place in the world.

Thanks so much, Cate Berry, for sharing your writing process and your VCFA experiences. Happy Book Birthday to your fabulous new picture book Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime!

Cate Berry is the author of Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! (Balzer & Bray/Harper Collins). It was pinned a Junior Library Guild selection and Publisher’s Weekly called it, “A buoyantly subversive anti-bedtime book. (Picture book. 3-7).” She has forthcoming publications TBA and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cate is a faculty member with the Writing Barn in Texas and an active member in the SCBWI and Writers’ League of Texas. She also speaks at schools, libraries and conferences year round. Visit her at to learn more.