Meet the Author:
Shelly Vaughan James

Welcome to Elephant Notes . . . our periodic take on some of the ideas, issues, and news impacting parents, children, and reading.

February 2022

Shelly Vaughan James’ book is all about a curious flamingo with a big personality. We were eager to learn more about what inspired this vibrant read and the story behind Lola, the not-so-pink protagonist in Fussy Flamingo.

Fussy Flamingo follows Lola, a young flamingo who is not interested in her family’s typical diet of shrimp. As she tries all kinds of new foods, she finds her feathers turning every shade she can imagine–except pink! We hope you enjoy learning all about what inspired the fun facts in this engaging story in our interview with author Shelly Vaughan James.

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A self-proclaimed “word-nerd,” you’ve worked with words throughout your career as a copy editor, copywriter, magazine editor, book editor, cookbook author, and freelance writer. What inspired the decision to start writing picture books for kids? 

The real decision was to pursue representation to publish my picture book texts. I’d been writing stories for children since I was in college. I first crafted the story that became Fussy Flamingo nearly 25 years ago. In 2013, I pivoted to editing cookbooks instead of writing them. Not kitchen-testing recipes freed up a lot of time. I decided to query picture book agents. Bada-bing bada-boom! Five years and 81 rejections later, I signed with my agent Laurel Symonds of The Bent Agency.

Fussy Flamingo features plenty of fun food! Did your work as a cookbook author influence any of the colorful fruits Lola sneaks off to eat in this story? 

Perhaps indirectly, yes. The original working title of Fussy Flamingo, those 25 years ago, was Glowing Green Maxine. Why? Because the main character ate ladybugs, honeybees, and fireflies. Sourcebooks’ editor Eliza Swift expressed concern about the young flamingo gobbling up kid-adored insects; fun fruits kids can eat could be a better concept. I, then, had to specify a species of flamingo to know where in the world Lola and her parents live so I’d know what fruits grow in that area. I guess I did need to use some knowledge of regional cuisine.

The adventurous but stubborn character Lola the flamingo is not interested in trying shrimp. She eventually learns that there are plenty of benefits to her family’s diet—a message that encourages readers to keep an open mind when trying new things. How did the idea for a book about a flamingo with a selective appetite come about? 

I’ve always been a collector of interesting trivia and useless facts. When I learned that flamingos’ feathers turn pink based on their diet and lose that coloring when molted, I entertained every writer’s enduring question: What if? What if a flamingo ate something else? What if a flamingo became conspicuous among the flock?

We loved the fun, informative “flamingo facts” at the end of Fussy Flamingo. Why did you decide to include a nonfiction component?

Thanks. The publisher actually asked for the addition to give readers facts on feather coloring and other fun flamingo info. Since we were still uncertain as to our direction for the nonfiction piece, they referred me to the incredible backmatter in Shark Lady by the fabulous Jess Keating, which helped me immensely in finding my focus. Who knew a shark would lend a helping fin to a flamingo?

Matthew Rivera’s bright and colorful illustrations complement your alliterative descriptions —from shattered avocado shells to Lola’s dillies, dallies, and dips. What was it like collaborating with him to create Fussy Flamingo?

I was tickled Lola pink when I learned that Matthew Rivera signed on to illustrate Fussy Flamingo. I loved his artwork and thought his style was perfect for the book. I, then, discovered that flamingos were his favorite bird. Perfectly perfect! Matthew and I never worked together directly, but through the editors and directors at the publishing company. I did get to see sketches, the cover, and inside illustrations throughout the process.

What is the best part about being a children’s author? Who were your favorite authors as a child?

The fan mail is definitely the best. Having my debut picture book released during the pandemic proved the uncertainty and isolation bled into every facet of life. Schools and libraries were closed, storytimes cancelled. The drawings and photos and smiling faces that I’ve received make my day every time. I truly appreciate the teachers and librarians and parents who take the time to share their students’ and children’s love of Lola.

My very favorite picture book as a kid was Dr. Seuss’s Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! (I guess I’ve always enjoyed my alone time.) I also loved The Poky Little Puppy written by Janette Sebring Lowrey and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren.

When I was a little older, I became a fan of Jon Stone’s and Michael Smollin’s The Monster at the End of This Book.

During a children’s literature course in college, I discovered the lyrical greatness of Owl Moon by Jane Yolen (illustrated by John Schoenherr) and the adaptation Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears written by Verna Aardema and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Of course, I believe you are never too old to discover a great picture book.

When you look around at the current state of kids and reading, what are the biggest challenges for parents or opportunities to address?

I am deeply disturbed by the current push to ban books in the name of protecting children from difficult topics. I’d like for parents to trust that their children know their own interests and for parents to trust themselves to navigate those difficult discussions that arise.

I’m encouraged by the industry’s push for more diverse books addressing previously unspoken issues and even just heretofore overlooked everyday subjects from underrepresented creators. I hope publishing’s commitment continues and flourishes. Every child deserves to see a reflection in a book—both in the present and in the potential.

Any chance you are working on another children’s book we can look forward to reading?

I’m always working on new stories, all in various stages from the spark of an idea, teasing out the concept, writing text, predicting page turns, getting feedback, revising, submitting, editing to re-writing. Hopefully, one of these stories, someday, will be a real book. (Are you listening, Blue Fairy?)

Thank you to Shelly Vaughan James for sharing some of the inspiration behind Fussy Flamingo and thoughts on children’s books, past and present. We look forward to sharing the story of Lola with our subscribers and seeing what great stories come next! Read more about Shelly Vaughan James here.

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