Children's Book Week Q&A: Stephanie Pearmain

Nov. 9, 2023
Stephanie Pearmain standing outside in front of flowers

Stephanie Pearmain

In recognition of Children’s Book Week (Nov. 6-12), SBS MarComm spoke with children’s book author, Stephanie Pearmain, an associate professor of practice and the undergraduate internships coordinator in the Department of English. In 2020, Pearmain received an SBS Undergraduate Teaching Award and in May 2022 was awarded a $28,000 Marshall Foundation Grant for the book-project proposal, Cooking up Science: Engaging Kids 3-5 in Scientific Thinking. Pearmain currently teaches English 389 (Introduction to Publishing) and oversees the Pine Reads Review, an online children’s and young adult literature publication run by University of Arizona undergraduates. In the Q&A, Pearmain reflects on how she got into writing children’s books, why they matter, and how she’s inspiring university students to support access to books, promote literacy, and explore publishing — for children.

What inspired you to start writing children's books specifically, and how do these stories help children learn and develop? 

As an undergraduate, I worked at Borders Books & Music and the children’s section was that horrible place we all stayed away from because it was a nightmare to clean up. Then, one night I strolled over and the guy who was in charge – also an undergrad – showed me some picture books. They were so beautiful! He told me about an education class he was taking on picture books and I signed up the following semester. I fell in love with the amazing artwork, but also the content. Books for young children deal with a multitude of situations and emotions. Like adult books, they transport the reader to other places, show them cultures and experiences different than their own, and provide tools to handle big emotions and uncomfortable or new situations.

Way back then I was inspired to write a picture book, I took some notes on a great idea and sketched out a story, but ultimately abandoned it because I had no idea what I was doing. Fast forward many years, and in the course of a couple of months, I had my first child and my father passed away a few weeks later. It was a moment of realizing life is short and I asked myself what I really wanted to be doing. I’d wanted to be a writer my entire life, so I finally gave myself permission to follow that dream and went to grad school to get an MFA in creative writing for children and young adults. Side note: During the in-between time, that great story idea I had got written and published by someone else! 

Writing for children requires a unique skill set. What about “kid-lit” or, children's literature, captivates you? 

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop said the often-used statement, “Children need windows and mirrors. They need mirrors in which they see themselves and windows through which they see the world.” The literature I grew up reading didn’t really reflect my experience or that of many people outside the societal norms of the time. Children’s literature today is captivating because, while it has a long way to go, it’s making progress toward inclusivity that reflects the demographics and experiences of our world. Also, kid-lit has the potential to create lifelong readers and great thinkers.  

How does your role as an English professor influence your writing and work for young readers? 

It keeps me reading current works and inspires me. I see college students gain an appreciation of how complex these short books are, as well as how — like books for adults — they reflect what’s happening in the world, what societies are thinking/valuing/contemplating/struggling with. 

What do students love most about your English 389 class?  

Well, I hope they love the engagement aspect. We partner with the local nonprofit Make Way for Books for half the semester. Students study the format and content of picture books and create stories, which they edit and revise. In the end, students put together a list of comparable titles, explain how their work offers a fresh story, and write an elevator pitch, jacket copy and final draft. To date, 17 manuscripts have been accepted for publication on the mobile app and students receive publishing credit. This fall, Arizona Public Media is following this project as part of a piece on the 25th Anniversary of Make Way for Books. It looks like 10 manuscripts from this fall class will be published — our most successful year! I think it’s important to know your community and make an impact. I hope students appreciate this aspect of the collaboration. 

Every time I teach the course, I try to come up with a unique project. In 2020, I ran the class as an editorial pop-up literary agency to give students real publishing experience. Six literary agents and an editor participated in our 389 Literary Project, agreeing to read students’ final selections. We received 280 picture book manuscripts from around the globe and over two semesters, gave feedback to every author.  

How do your roles at Pine Reads Review, community events, and academics intersect and enhance each other? What do your students and the community gain from your diverse literary involvement and dedicated promotion of literature?

Pine Reads Review is pretty amazing and a labor of love. This online publication actually started as a class project in my 389 class in 2016. Some students wanted to keep it running so it became an internship. It’s gone through re-branding and continues to expand every semester. I feel very lucky because it draws such talented students. And I’m proud that it’s launched students into the publishing industry. 

All these endeavors overlap. When we discussed the mission statement for PRR, it had to include community outreach. I fell in love with Make Way for Books and their mission to bring literature and literacy skills to underserved populations in Arizona, thereby setting up future generations for success. That’s why I bring them into the classroom. I think it’s important that students understand the difference they can make for young people and how important reading is. When young people are set up for success, we are all better off.  

Can you provide a glimpse into your upcoming projects? 

For the Marshall Foundation Grant award, I am the co-principal investigator with Colleen Kelley in the UArizona Department of Chemistry. The book we wrote, Charly’s Kitchen Chemistry Adventure, is a combination storybook, cookbook, and science book to be published in Spanish and English and will be distributed to children in Arizona. Additionally, Hewitt Learning picked up the book for publication this fall. I’m also participating in NaNoWriMo for the first time and working on a middle-grade science and art mystery novel, in addition to picture books and a young adult novel.

Lastly, I’m excited to announce that in 2025, I’m having a picture book published by Bloomsbury. That’s all I can say for now but stay tuned.