I am delighted to be sharing an interview with Stef Wade, the author of the fabulous new picture book, The Very Last Leaf, illustrated by Jennifer Davison. This tree-mendous picture book with a blossoming balance of nature facts and an autumnal story about overcoming anxiety, is one of my top picks for 2020!
Hi Stef, please can you tell us a little bit about the book and the inspiration behind it?
Hello! And thank you for having me! THE VERY LAST LEAF tells the tale of Lance Cottonwood, a leaf who is the best and brightest student in his class, but he’s afraid of his final exam…falling. Lance struggles with anxiety, embarrassed and unsure of himself, until he works through his fears with his teacher, Mrs. Timber.
When coming up for ideas for my books, I often try to turn things on their head. In this case, I was inspired to write about trees, the buddying process, autumn, etc. by a unit my son was learning in school.
My mind took me to that leaf you often see hanging on at the very end of the season as the snow begins to fall. “What could that little guy be thinking?” I asked myself. And that’s when the idea for Lance sprouted (pun intended)!
It was also important for me to address the idea of fear and anxiety and lay out how best to deal with it. In THE VERY LAST LEAF, instead of the old “you’re fine” line (don’t worry parents, I’m guilty of it as well), Lance lays out what exactly it is that he’s afraid of and why. He learns it’s okay to be scared and how best to deal with that fear.
You have cleverly woven facts about Cottonwood trees and leaves into the story – I loved Lance’s progress report! – how did you go about striking the perfect balance between fact and fiction?
It is a passion of mine to blend fiction and non-fiction. I love books where kids are learning and they don’t realize it. My own children tend to re-read those types of books the most. What’s important to me when blending fact and fiction is that I don’t just plop facts in. The facts need to somehow be important to the story. I did this in my first book, A PLACE FOR PLUTO, as well as THE VERY LAST LEAF.
For example, Lance gets his name from the Lance Cottonwood tree.
His stages of development are presented as his classes and the process of falling is written through his fear. There may be big words like Photosynthesis in THE VERY LAST LEAF, but as long as a book isn’t laden with giant words, I’m all for kids having to ask what words mean. And if the parents need a little help explaining (I know I sometimes do!) I added more factual information in the progress report at the end.
What is your favourite spread from the book?
Oooh, that’s a tough one! I love the first spread in the book with Lance in his sunglasses after his Photosynthesis class, but I have to say that my favourite spread is where Lance is thinking about all the possible outcomes from falling. I can’t wait to read this book aloud to kids and classrooms and I know I will hear lots of giggles when Lance thinks about landing where the dog “does his business!” Poop is always funny!
Did you always want to be a writer? Can you tell us about your publishing journey?
I’ve wanted to be a writer from the first day I ever sat down to write a story. As a kid, I was always coming up with clever writing projects like funny songs and poems or my very own edition of school gossip magazine called THE SIXTH GRADE INTRUDER.
I decided to take the “safe” path in college and majored in Advertising while taking all my extra electives in creative writing.
I planned to be a world-renowned commercial copywriter, with dreams of Super Bowl advertisements, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I worked in public relations and marketing where I primarily wrote about cardboard boxes. It may sound boring, but I like to say, if you can make boxes sound exciting, you can write about anything.
It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my first son that I decided I was going to put everything I had into becoming a published writer. I started writing young adult contemporary fiction and then moved into picture books. I signed with my agent after about a three-year search and A PLACE FOR PLUTO was published two years later. It is certainly a roller coaster of a profession, but the extreme highs more than make up for the plunging lows that inevitably happen along the way.
What were your favourite picture books growing up?
My all-time favourite picture book as a child (that I can still recite today) is EACH PEACH PEAR PLUM by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Other favourites include: IF YOU GIVE A MOUSE A COOKIE by Laura Numeroff, STREGA NONA by Tomie dePaola, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS by Shel Silverstein and any of the MAGIC SCHOOL BUS books by Joanna Cole.
What is next for you, in terms of writing projects?
My third picture book, Q AND U CALL IT QUITS, illustrated by the amazing Jorge Martin, releases from HarperCollins on June 15, 2021. In this story, U is tired of Q being so needy and decides to take a break from him for awhile. When word gets around of their split, the other letter blends separate and chaos ensues! I absolutely adore the illustrations for this book and cannot wait to share it with everyone!
I have a bunch of other picture books in the pipeline that I’m hoping I will get to share with everyone soon, some of them with a blend of fiction and non-fiction, others just straight fun and silliness. I’ve been working on a couple contemporary middle grade projects that I hope to see on the shelf some day as well!
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
The phrase I’ve always stated over and over to myself is: What do you have to lose?
I find a lot of inspiring authors get so hung up on getting that perfect first manuscript put together that they never actually get out there and try. I have plenty of failed novels that will never see the light of day, but those books were important to help me grow as a writer and to learn how this industry works.
I’m a busy mom of three boys and it would be very easy to make excuses for being too busy, but excuses don’t get books on the shelf, they don’t make dreams come true. So, if you’re truly passionate about becoming a published writer, you owe it to YOU to put yourself out there.
You will never regret writing that book. The worst thing you’ll get are rejections, and you learn from those.
So, stop reading this and go put your story into the world!
Thank you so much for telling us all about Lance and your fantastic straight-talking writing advice. I do hope you’ll stop by again next year when Q AND U CALL IT QUITS is released – it sounds HILARIOUS. I cannot wait to read it!
The Very Last Leaf is my favourite picture book of 2020 so far (and I’ve read some fabulous picture books this year!). Stef has blended facts and fiction seamlessly and the humour throughout is excellent. I laughed out loud as Lance blossoms in budding class and breezes through air-resistance lessons. Jennifer’s autumn-coloured illustrations are gorgeous – she conveys so many different emotions in Lance’s leafy-facial expressions!
Making a leaf school where the brightest leaf is afraid of falling (aka failing!) is just pure genius. Behind this fact-packed story is very real and common childhood anxiety. Stef has used a light touch to show readers that talking about worries can help you overcome them.
I adored the clever progress report at the end of the book that explains all of the subjects Lance took and the science behind them which as Stef said in her interview is very useful for us parents to refer to, when discussing the book with children!
This is a picture book that children will want to read again and again, I certainly do! It has a great story whatever time of year, but it will be the perfect read for when autumn sets in and children can spot Lance on the tree, getting ready to take his big leap in the world.
THE VERY LAST LEAF will be published on 1 August – be sure to pre-order a copy so you have it in time for autumn/the fall!
Publication date: 1 August 2020
I am very grateful to the publisher for letting me read this book via Net Galley. This voluntary review contains my honest opinion.