Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Q&A with Kaz Windness




Kaz Windness is the author and illustrator of the new children's picture book Bitsy Bat, School Star. Her other books include Swim, Jim!.


Q: What inspired you to write Bitsy Bat, School Star, and how did you create your character Bitsy?


A: Bats are my favorite animal to draw. In Fall 2019, I challenged myself to draw bats every day (#100DaysofBats). I struck up a conversation with an illustration student who is autistic like me about growing up neurodivergent. I compared it to being like a bat in a school for mice. Everything felt upside down, and when I tried to act like everyone else, it made me feel more confused, upset, and more prone to meltdown or shutdown.


I began to realize bats were the perfect symbol for being autistic. They have sensitive hearing, light-sensitive eyes, like to flap their wings, have particular diets, and need our understanding and protection. Bats are also negatively stigmatized through no fault of their own.


I realized I could tell my story through Bitsy Bat, and help give voice to a character who is female presenting and coded as a high-masking autistic. This perspective isn’t well-covered, but is also relatable to any kid who has ever felt like they are different.


Q: Did you work on the text first or the illustrations--or both simultaneously?


A: It’s a bit of both. My books are character-driven, so getting to know the character by drawing them inspires the story. In publishing, the manuscript usually comes first, so as I’m working with my wonderful editor, Catherine Laudone at Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster, I provide her with a synopsis, then a rough manuscript, and we work through several rounds of edits.

I’m also drawing some of the scenes in my sketchbook, and often discover that the illustration will work in place of words, and I’ll indicate that with an art note. If I get stuck on something in writing, a drawing will help me unlock solutions. I think and communicate better in doodles than I do in words.


Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Because I’m a plotter, I did know that the story would end with the special star exercise celebrating the uniqueness of each student. I wanted the book to have a way of bringing this affirming celebration into the classroom, and it’s still my favorite part of the book and something the publisher loved, too.


Other things changed quite a bit throughout the process, including Bitsy’s design. The publisher thought a spooky black bat with fangs and candy corn eyeball coloring would read too much like a Halloween book, and this is a back-(BAT)-to-school book with an autism acceptance and appreciation perspective, so I was happy to change the character design.


I love Honduras bats—they look like tiny cotton ball bats with yellow ears and wings, so I used them as inspiration and color shifted the yellow to pink to match the palette I wanted to use for the final artwork.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story, especially about autism and neurodivergence?


A: In one word, acceptance. Neurodivergent people should not be asked to perform neurotypical behavior in order to appear “normal.” This is very harmful to us. We do need accommodation so our classrooms, workplaces, and social environments are accessible. Usually, these things are not difficult to provide. The biggest accommodation is compassion. My hope is that Bitsy Bat, School Star helps all kids feel seen, celebrated, and accepted.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Bitsy Bat has more stories in her. Stay tuned! At the time of this interview, I am finishing artwork on two books:


Cat vs. Vac, a funny level 1 Ready-to-Read with SimonSpotlight, out Fall 2023


Ollie, the Acorn, and the Mighty Idea, written by Andrew Hackett with Page Street Kids, out early 2024


I’m also promoting my most recent release, Worm and Caterpillar Are Friends (SimonSpotlight). It is my first graphic novel and a level 1 early reader about friendship and acceptance, even when a friend goes through a big change.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes! I’ve hired a wonderful teacher and curriculum expert, Leah Robinson, to create lesson plans for Bitsy Bat, School Star and Worm and Caterpillar Are Friends. You can find those pinned on my blog at www.KazWindness.com.


Please visit me at https://linktr.ee/KazWindness for book links, social media links, and ways for me to visit your community. I love presenting at schools and event centers and sharing the process of storytelling and illustrating with young readers.  


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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