"No, mon ami! You can't catch me!"
When an old Creole woman bakes dessert on King's Day, she has no idea what shenanigans will ensue. In this New Orleans adaptation of The Gingerbread Man, a mischievous king cake baby escapes his cake! He outruns a praline lady and a waiter at Café du Monde, but can he outsmart the clever baker? Chock full of Louisiana phrases and comic-book-style illustrations, this new take on an old tale brings the Crescent City to life from Jackson Square to the Creole Queen riverboat. This lively story is a great way to introduce children to the sights, sounds, and especially tastes of New Orleans. It even comes with a recipe for homemade king cake-just make sure to keep track of the baby!
I am pleased to devote this blog to an interview with debut author Keila Dawson, whose book The King Cake Baby will be released just in time for Mardi Gras. Kids will recognize familiar elements from The Gingerbread Man in this fractured New Orleans version of the fairytale in which the King Cake Baby tries to escape his fate inside the Mardi Gras cake.
The King Cake Baby
by Keila Dawson
Illustrated by Vernon Smith
Release Date: Februrary 1, 2015
THE KING CAKE BABY is a fairy-tale/folktale adaptation.
Please describe what the story/book is about in one sentence.
A little plastic baby that belongs inside a king cake escapes an old woman’s kitchen, runs through his French Quarter neighborhood, and everyone he meets tries to catch him.
Do you have a particular writing spot or do you move around?
Although I have a home office, I tend to move around. There are days I may feel like going to a coffee shop to write. Sometimes there are fewer distractions away from home. And if I must get dressed, I feel obligated to meet some writing goals from my to-do list.
Do you have a writing routine?
I do not have a set writing routine. I have a list of writing goals. Sitting down to write “x” number of hours a day doesn’t work for me. But I bet I still log in the same number of hours as most writers. For me, that may look like 15 hours in one day, and zero the next. Meeting in a critique group every other week is probably the closest thing I have to a routine.
Briefly, what led up to this book?
Two totally separate events led to creation of THE KING CAKE BABY. On an annual trip with two girlfriends one of them asked for us to share our “bucket list”. I said I’ve always wanted to write a children’s story and have it published. In very few words they said, then do it. I hadn’t taken any steps toward accomplishing that goal until months later when the idea came to me. Just like the old woman in the book, I decided to make a king cake during Carnival season. But in my case, when I went to the kitchen drawer to look for the little plastic baby, I couldn’t find one. Panic ensued. Because you can’t make a king cake without a king cake baby to hide inside! And I said out loud something like, “I know you were in there baby, where’d you run off to?” Then immediately thought that would be a cute story, a New Orleans gingerbread tale retold. I wrote the first draft that same night.
What was the time frame for writing this book, from idea to publication?
I wrote the first draft in January 2013 and Pelican Publishing acquired it in June 2013.
What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?
I learned that patience truly is a virtue! I had no idea how long it took from acquisition to publication. Selling a story may be the ultimate goal for a writer, but there’s so much more about publishing I needed to learn. And I am still learning everything I can about how a book evolves from an idea into manuscript, to publication, then into a physical book and onto the shelves of bookstores, libraries, classrooms, and homes. It’s both a craft and a business. As writers it is very important to study and practice writing, and create stories that children will love, but it’s equally important to understand the business end of the industry. There’s more than one viewpoint so learning the perspective of the publisher is helpful.
Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?
Firstly, I made a commitment to write. I do believe sharing my goal and hearing the encouragement from friends I admire inspired me. Secondly, I became a student again. As an educator, I knew the first draft was really, a first draft. I honestly didn’t even know what I didn’t know about children’s book publishing so started from scratch. I read all the gingerbread man tales I could find. By the way, there are lots! I found an online resource, Children’s Book Insiders. Their advice was to find other writers to critique your work. I reached out to a local community of writers and published authors who mentored me. I joined the national organization, SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I attended meetings, listened carefully to the advice by the professional writers I met, and independently researched and read everything I could about the craft and the industry.
On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?
After my story sold, I found many private online Facebook communities and blogs dedicated to picture book writing that I didn’t know existed. I also started participating on the SCBWI Blueboards. Writing is such a solitary act, but you don’t feel like you’re alone when you participate and contribute in different groups using social media. Children’s writers are wonderfully generous people who are helpful and kind. I’ve learned so much more by belonging to different groups, taking challenges, competing in contests, taking classes, listening to webinars, and following other writer’s blogs. Had I known about these groups and opportunities, I would have joined earlier.
Did you have a writer platform in place? Do you now?
No, I did not have a platform in place before the acquisition. Now I have a “developing” platform. Another huge learning curve for me is the ongoing development of a writer’s social media presence. I grew up in an era where computers looked like refrigerators and no one in my university was allowed near them unless you were a technology major. What I have learned is if you build it, they will come. So when I post something to THE KING CAKE BABY’s Facebook website or tweet, or upload a photo to Instagram, often times other friends and or Pelican’s promotion’s team will see it, share, retweet, or like it. I’m trying a bit of everything right now!
Were you involved with any sort of writing community? Was that helpful?
I was not affiliated with any sort of writing community when I wrote the first draft of THE KING CAKE BABY. However, after reading online that it was important for other writers to critique your work, I found a local SCBWI group that met near me. I wrote to Kerrie Logan Hollihan, the group leader at the time, and she invited me to a meeting. I remember how excited I was; to know I would meet real children’s book authors! It just happened that the meeting I attended was critique night so I read my very wordy, very rough, incorrectly formatted first draft. They loved it! Brandon Marie Miller, Diana Jenkins, Emma Berne, Andrea Pelleschi, and Nancy Parish all gave me great advice. I listened, revised, and kept going to meetings, and continued to research and learn about writing and publishing children’s books.
Do you have a website(s)?
Author website: www.keiladawson.com
Facebook: The King Cake Baby has his own Facebook page
Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.com/author/keiladawson
Best piece(s) of writing advice we haven’t discussed?
Read the genre in which you love to write. Find books by authors you admire and study them, and their voice to figure out what attracts you to their style of writing. Study the illustrations. Use those works as mentor texts.
Can you talk a little bit about yourself? Is there something personal about you people may be surprised to know?
I’ve done volunteer work in the different countries where I’ve lived and also in schools where my children were enrolled. Here in Cincinnati, I organized an event at our school to send king cakes to wounded warriors at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany through Soldier’s Angels. A very large group of elementary and middle school kids and adult volunteers made 50 king cakes one Carnival using the recipe I included in THE KING CAKE BABY.
Are you working on another project?
Always. Of the 150 or so “ideas” I have on file, three are a word or two away from being submission ready. Two are also retold fairytales set in New Orleans.
Some fun questions to get to know a little bit more about you:
Trick question! Picture books are my favorite genre, with middle grade a close second. There are so many wonderful books. I’m going to choose Carnivores by Aaron Reynolds. It’s a recent publication and I really enjoy stories that consider a different point of view. It’s told from the predator point of view and is laugh out loud funny.
I play tennis, love genealogical research, and travel.
Pen and paper or computer?
Chocolate on anything.
Research or imagination?
To use a gumbo analogy, I aim to cook up stories that include facts + make-believe + emotion.
When is your book available, and where can we find it?
THE KING CAKE BABY is due on February 1, 2015. It’s available at Pelican, Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and other online retail stores bookstores.
Do you have a book launch in the works?
Yes, I will be in New Orleans for THE KING CAKE BABY’S delivery!
As Keila mentioned, the recipe to make a King Cake is included in the book. Other activities to use with the book will be available on THE KING CAKE BABY's website, so watch for those.
What is the purpose of putting a baby in the King Cake, you ask? If you get the piece of cake with the baby inside, you must provide the King Cake next season!