Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

An Interview with Book Birthday Winner John Sullivan


Congratulations on winning the September Happy Book Birthday promotion!

Your book Kitten and the Night Watchman was based on a real-life experience: what was it like translating those experiences into a book?

Translating real-life experiences into a book is a pleasure if those experiences are remembered, as in this case, with fondness. The translation honors and memorializes treasured past events.


Was there anything that had to be embellished for the sake of the story?

Yes. A picture book story, even one based on real-life experience, is a literary art form. Facts are sometimes embellished in order to underscore the truth of human experience. The night watchman in the book, for example, is a husband and father. I’ve been single all my life.


Were there any parts of your personal story that you wanted to add but had to leave out?

No. The story contains all essential information, no more and no less.


Your prose gives the machinery at the construction site their own personality. Was this characterization something you developed during your time at the construction site?

Personifying machines or comparing them to animals is something that children and adults do quite naturally. A certain style of Volkswagen, for example, is called a Beetle or Bug. For me, a backhoe resembles a scorpion or praying mantis.


What was it like seeing the familiar machines depicted as illustrations?

Illustrator Taeeun Yoo did a wonderful job. She took my words and ran with them. Her shadows, in particular, were bold and inspired.


As a debut author, was there any part of the writing publishing process that was surprising or unexpected?

The process progressed smoothly. I learned some new terms, like F & G’s and interior proofs. I learned that some book reviews appear a month or more before the book’s publishing date.


What advice would you give to any writer working on their debut book?

Don’t expect happiness to come with your debut book. Happiness comes with maturity, decency, and gratitude for the blessings you already have.

Get a good picture book guide, like Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books, and go over it thoroughly. Know the difference between showing and telling, and between scenes and narrative summary.

Don’t bet everything on one manuscript. Write a dozen manuscripts that you and your editor think are worthy of publication. If one of them gets published, you’re doing fine.


Is there anything else you would like to tell SCBWI members about Kitten and the Night Watchman?

I wrote the first version of the story as a magazine piece and a winter story. I wanted to highlight the snow trucks in action. Ladybugpublished it in 2007. Years later, I rewrote the story as a picture book and a summer story, the season during which the actual encounter with the kitten took place. Ladybug’s legal departmentgranted me permission to market the rewrite as a children’s book. At Prairie Writer’s and Illustrator’s Day 2013, Simon & Schuster’s Sylvie Frank critiqued it and kept it.