Harvesting a Great Book with Pat Zietlow Miller

pat-portrait

It’s August. The garden is overflowing with ripe tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, and squash. It’s time to harvest the crop. In among those tasty treats, there might be a seed of a great story. Pat Zietlow Miller discovered a creative seed in a butternut squash and let it grow into a story beyond compare.

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Sophie’s Squash is Pat Zietlow Miller’s debut picture book. When Sophie’s mom purchases a butternut squash at the farmer’s market, it doesn’t become dinner as she expected. Sophie draws a face on the squash, names it Bernice, and the two become inseparable friends. No matter how hard her parents try, they can’t convince Sophie to give up Bernice. When the squash begins to rot, Sophie realizes Bernice will not last forever. Sophie does what she needs to do with Bernice and is rewarded with a delightful surprise come spring. Anne Wilsdorf’s charming ink and watercolor illustrations and playful end pages combine with Miller’s appealing story to produce a book worth adding to your collection.

Pat Zietlow Miller is a very talented writer and has worked diligently to achieve her goals. She was gracious enough to “Humor Me” and answer some burning questions I had for her.

Pat, Sophie’s Squash is your debut picture book. You’ve received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and Booklist. Can you share some of your emotions after seeing these fabulous reviews?

I was a mixture of thrilled and stunned. Thrilled, because I’d always hoped other people would like Sophie and think she was worthy of attention. And, stunned, because it’s a way more positive response than I ever anticipated.

I’ve wanted to be an author for so long that just having the book out and looking as lovely as it does would have been enough. That was always my goal. I never really thought about what would happen after that. So getting the stars and nice comments and seeing which parts the reviewers especially liked was something happy I hadn’t expected.

It’s also been a little humbling because there are many books I adore that haven’t gotten starred reviews, so I know how subjective the process is. I feel disproportionately fortunate.

How did you come up with the idea for your book?

When my youngest daughter was small, I took her grocery shopping and put a butternut squash in the cart. By the time we got to the checkout, she was rocking it in her arms, like a baby. When we got home, she drew a face on it and carried it everywhere.

I took that idea, expanded it greatly, and there was the beginning the book.

Have you always wanted to write for children?

Yes. I wrote my first draft of a children’s story when I was in college. But I had no idea what to do with it and hung on to it for years, thinking, “Someday, I’ll pursue this.” But jobs and life got in the way, and I didn’t seriously think about writing for children again until I was 39. That’s when I realized two things:

  1. If I didn’t at least try to become a published author, I was going to regret it when I was 80.
  2. That no editor from New York was ever going to call me and ask me to write a children’s book. If I wanted to be an author, I was going to have to sit down and actually … you know … write a manuscript.

Once I realized those two things, my next steps became pretty obvious. (And, yes, I still have that manuscript draft from college.)

Who are some of your favorite children’s authors and illustrators?

There are so many that making a list could get me into trouble, but I adore picture book writers Kari Best, Dori Chaconas, Kelly DiPucchio, Jill Esbaum, Candace Fleming, Mem Fox, Kevin Henkes, Mary Lyn Ray, Jacqui Robbins, Liz Garton Scanlon and Judith Viorst. Outside the picture book realm, I also love anything by Sharon Creech, Kate DiCamillo, John Green, David Levithan, Ellen Raskin and Gary Schmidt. Oh, and I should mention J.K. Rowling, because I am a total Harry Potter geek. And Ann Brashares, because I love The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

And, I admire all illustrators because I can’t draw at all. Anne Wilsdorf did a spectacular job bringing Sophie and Bernice to life and Jill McElmurry and Eliza Wheeler, who are working on future books of mine, are amazingly talented, as well.

Has any particular book influenced you and your writing career?

No one book has influenced me, but authors who have are Erma Bombeck, Nora Ephron and Judith Viorst. That probably sounds like an odd mix, but I read them all when I was a middle schooler, and I remember just being floored by how well they used words. Sometimes I’d honestly be so overwhelmed by how well they shared a thought or turned a phrase that I’d have to put the book down for a moment and just regroup.

They showed me what was possible, and I spent lots of time trying to write like they did. And, ultimately, that helped me figure out how to sound like myself.

You have three more picture books coming out, Sharing the Bread with Schwartz & Wade in Fall of 2015, The Quickest Kid in Clarksville with Chronicle in 2015, and Wherever You Go with Little, Brown in 2015. Besides writing, you also have a full-time job, a husband, and two children. How do you balance everything?

I run after whatever fire is most out of control at the moment. Once I stomp out those flames, I move on to the next.

But really, I’m fairly good at concentrating on whatever task I’m handling at the moment. When I’m at work, I’m working. When I’m writing, I’m writing. And some things I’ve just given up on. My house is not clean, my garden is overgrown, I watch very little TV and I don’t have much of a social life. But that’s OK, because usually I’d rather be writing.

What advice would you give an aspiring writer?

  1. Dedicate time to achieving your goal. You can spend that time reading, or analyzing why books you like worked, or writing your next book. As I learned, merely wishing won’t get you anywhere.
  2. Expect your book to need a ridiculous amount of editing and revising before it’s ready to submit. Expect it to need even more once it sells. Realize that even when you think your book is absolutely, positively done, in all likelihood, it isn’t I’ve been amazed at how much better my books have gotten long after I thought they were complete.
  3. Don’t over-react to rejection. It’s just part of the process, and it’s not personal. Even my books that sold were rejected many, many times. Just hang in there, always be open to making your book better, and move forward.

What’s next for you, Pat?

I have editing to do on one my picture books that sold, and I have two others out on submission. Plus, I’m working on a very rough first draft to see if it has the potential to turn into something more. And, I have a list of new books that I can’t wait to read.

Congratulations, Pat, on your charming book and thank you for sharing your time and providing some great writing advice for all of us.

You can find Pat at her blog, READ, WRITE, REPEAT http://www.patzietlowmiller.com   and on Twitter:  @PatZMiller

If you’re in the Madison, WI area on Saturday, August 17 at 1:00 p.m., don’t miss the book launch party for Sophie’s Squash at:

Barnes and Noble

7433 Mineral Point Road

Madison, WI

(Near West Towne Mall)

There will be crafts, a prize drawing, snacks, and Pat will be reading and signing her book!

Below are some excerpts from the starred reviews Sophie’s Squash has received.

Kirkus: “From her bouncy braids to her red shoes, Sophie’s vibrant, determined nature shines forth charmingly.”

Publishers Weekly:  “Debut author Miller takes the idea of playing with one’s food to another level in this sensitive but funny story about a girl’s affection for a squash.”

School Library Journal:  “With lessons on life, love, and vegetable gardening, this tale will be cherished by children, and their parents will be happy to read it to them often.”

Booklist:  “In a perfect blend of story and art, the humorous watercolor-and-ink illustrations are bursting with color and energy on every page …”

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2 Comments on “Harvesting a Great Book with Pat Zietlow Miller”


  1. Thank you so much for having me, Cathy! And for all your support along the way.


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