Release Interview: CHICKEN BREAK – Cate Berry ’17
Cate Berry plucks humor from real life in her newest book, Chicken Break!
Laurel Abell: What was the inspirational “flash of genius” for writing this delightful and hilariously punny counting picture book?
Cate Berry: Usually, my picture book ideas are plucked (couldn’t resist) from my imagination. However, this book evolved from real life.
LA: Wait! What? That’s hilarious already! Was the sky falling? Do tell us the true story!
CB: My family ordered six gorgeous chicks from mypetchicken.com. We picked them up, cheeping, from the post office and immediately fell in love. As they grew, my neighbor informed me she wanted nothing to do with raising chickens. Taking all necessary precautions (we clipped their wings! we locked our gates!), they broke out and had a spa-day in her begonias. Our beloved flock decapitated every one of her flowers and dug a three-foot hole in her mulch. When I drove up, they were huddled together, deep in blissful sleep.
Later that night, Ocean’s 11 was on TV, and the whole story gave way to Chicken Break.
LA: Did you plan to write in rhyme from the beginning? When you chose rhyme, how did you select your meter? What struggles did rhyming bring?
CB: It flowed as a first draft in rhyme, and I silently cursed the page. I tried it in prose, but once you start something in rhyme—and it’s clucking, I mean clicking—it’s like switching majors halfway through medical school. You can’t stop because you’re already too invested. (I mean, I’ve never been to medical school but this is what they tell me.)
We all know how hard rhyme and meter are to do just right. I thought it would be hard. But I didn’t realize I’d be revising this book for over three years. I started working on it as a class assignment and I continued revising it all through VCFA.
Writing in rhyme always starts out so fun! I quickly had a decent draft. But what’s easy to forget, is that you owe it to your readers to organically fuse the rhyme and the meter into a great story. That simply takes time to get right. It did for me, at least. My favorite part of the book is at the end:
CB: That poop line didn’t drop in until the third year of revision! But I’m so glad I kept working on it until I knew it was ready.
LA: Most concept books have no plot, but this one seems to. Can you describe how the plot evolved?
CB: Ha! Well, I’m interested in “mash-up” books. By that I mean books with multiple ideas woven into thirty-two pages. Once I knew I was going to write a counting book I asked myself, “What else?” From there I added humor. Presto, chickens! And then I tried to incorporate an interesting structure. I’d always been fascinated with mirrored structured picture books, in other words, books whose rising action is reflected back in reverse order for the second half. From there the idea of chickens breaking out of their coop fit beautifully with chickens winding back from a frenzy towards sleep. And finally, having a title with a double meaning really pushed it all into playful territory. I can’t resist a playful chicken, can you?
LA: Nope, definitely not! If you need an immediate chicken fix, watch Break Time! And then buy Cate’s book! You’ll memorize it in no time!
Can you tell us a bit about working with illustrator Charlotte Alder? What was your reaction to her illustrations when you first saw finished products?
CB: Thrilling! I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect match for the text. Those chickens are whimsical and hysterical, and she drew them with continuity. You can follow each chicken throughout the narrative. It’s remarkable and will be so fun for kids (and adults, like this YaYa right here) to read and re-read again and again.
LA: I have to say, Chicken Break! reminds me an awful lot of you! Outgoing, funny, colorful, and lovable. Do you relate to your zany characters?
CB: Yes! Especially the group that’s headed to Bantam of the Opera. Oh, and the little chicken that’s wandering around with a paper bag over her head. We could be twins.
LA: Yeah, I definitely see the resemblance!
Where and when did the Chicken Break! Launch?
CB: It broke into bookstores nationwide on Tuesday, October 29. And I held a book launch party Sunday, November 3rd from 2-3 pm at our local independent bookstore—Book People—in Austin, Texas. There was singing, flapping, and raffling off of a TEN-person Scrambled Egg Breakfast. What a crack up!
LA: This is your second book since you graduated from VCFA. Can you tell us about your publication journey?
CB: I actually sold my first book in my first semester of VCFA. I signed with my agent right before first residency and we went on sub during Res! I highly recommend this because I was too busy to get nervous and refresh my email constantly. It took a while to get an offer—four months. But then we got four in two days. That’s publishing in a nutshell. Peaks and valleys. I didn’t sell my second book until two years later. Ironically, my first book took three years from contract to release date. But my second book took one year from start to finished-product. So oddly, I ended up with two published books in two years. It’s been a wild ride.
“I actually sold my first book in my first semester of VCFA.” – Cate Berry
LA: What was your VCFA experience like? What year (class name?) did you graduate? Was there an aspect of your time at VCFA that prepared you for this project? What are your favorite memories from VCFA?
CB: I am an esteemed member of The Dead Post-Its Society, class of ’17. Doing the Picture Book Intensive with Mary Quattlebaum was invaluable. Picture books remind me of the Sunday New York Times Crosswords Puzzle. So small, so tough to crack. A lot of people say they are harder than a novel, but I think they are just hard in a different way. It’s a completely different skill set, and at the same time, it’s still about great storytelling. One thing for sure, VCFA gave me stamina. That’s something I’m grateful for every day.
LA: What advice would you give to incoming or prospective VCFA students who want to write (rhyming or prose) picture books?
I think we often overlook the middle path with rhyming. You can actually add it here and there. I recently drafted a picture book that is mostly in prose, but I added a jaunty rhyming refrain to highlight the humor. It gave it movement and rhythm and an ear tickle. In other words, it elevated my book in ways my prose wasn’t reaching. And it felt effortless and fun in the process. Don’t underestimate the fun part. That’s a recipe for a good read-aloud.
LA: And if all this didn’t make you want to run out and buy Chicken Break for every kid ever, then take a look at Cate’s zany book trailer!
Thanks, Cate, for sharing your memories of VCFA and telling us about this exciting new book!
CHICKEN BREAK is published by Feiwel & Friends, October 29, 2019.