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Perfectly Lovable Exactly the Way You Are with Kaz Windness

Kaz Windness, Bitsy Bat, School Star (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books) and Worm and Caterpillar Are Friends (Simon Spotlight), creates stories with themes of navigating relationships, building resilient friendships, and being accepted for the spicy little weirdo you are. 


Listen along:


About the book: Bitsy Bat, School Star by Kaz Windness. Published by Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books.


Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor-winning author-illustrator Kaz Windness about starting school, making friends, and seeing what makes each person special.


Bitsy is a little bat with big star dreams of making friends at her new school. But when she arrives, Bitsy doesn't feel like she fits in. The other kids sit on their chairs, but sitting upright makes Bitsy dizzy. The other kids paint with their fingers, but Bitsy would rather use her toes. Everyone tells Bitsy she's doing things wrong-wrong-wrong, so she tries harder...and ends up having a five-star meltdown.


Now Bitsy feels like a very small star and doesn't want to go back to school. But with help from her family, Bitsy musters her courage, comes up with a new plan, and discovers that being a good friend is just one of the ways she shines bright!


Backmatter includes a More About Autism facts page, making this "a particularly helpful resource for all kids" (BookPage, starred review).



About the book: Worm and Caterpillar Are Friends by Kaz Windness. Published by Simon Spotlight.


This heartwarming and affirming Level 1 Ready-to-Read Graphics book celebrates the beauty of true friendship!


Worm and Caterpillar are friends--best friends. Worm loves how they are just alike, but Caterpillar has a feeling there is a big change coming. Then Caterpillar disappears for a while and comes back as Butterfly. Will Butterfly and Worm still be friends?


Ready-to-Read Graphics books give readers the perfect introduction to the graphic novel format with easy-to-follow panels, speech bubbles with accessible vocabulary, and sequential storytelling that is spot-on for beginning readers. There's even a how-to guide for reading graphic novels at the beginning of each book.




Episode Transcript:


INTRO


Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.


I am a teacher, a librarian, a writer, and a fan of kids. 


Today I welcome Kaz Windness to the podcast.


There are a lot of things you should know about Kaz, but I think the best way to know her is by reading her books. And my goodness does she make some great books!


Bitsy Bat, School Star (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books) is about starting school, making friends, and seeing what makes each person special.


Worm and Caterpillar Are Friends (Simon Spotlight) is a heartwarming and affirming first graphic novel that celebrates the beauty of true friendship!


To quote Kaz, “You're definitely going to see themes of wanting to be accepted for the spicy little weirdo that I am. And also navigating relationships and building resilient friendships. That's a common theme through a lot of my writing because friendships were the thing I wanted the most and the thing that challenged me the most.” 


Let’s step into my conversation with Kaz Windness. Ready? Here we go.



INTERVIEW


Kaz: Perfect. Hi, I'm Kaz Windness, and I am the artist and author of lots of books for kids, including Bitsy Bat School Star. 


Matthew: Kaz, I'm so glad you're here. Um, I feel like I've got about a million things I want to talk to you about. We're going to see what we can get through today. Awesome, 


Kaz: let's get into it. 


Matthew: I, um, as I was preparing for this, And by preparing, I mean reading, reading your books and really trying to be in your books, really allowing myself to just be there and connect as this reader.


Um, I could not shake the feeling that this is a person that feels an incredible respect for their readers and for their agency. And so whether that's true or not, I assume that's true at the turn of the day. Let me just give you that and, and, and then I'm going to lead us through this conversation, probably Cass, because it's going to be me asking you probably a lot about who you are.

I have a feeling. 


Kaz: Yeah, I'm, I'm, I'm up for that. I'm an open book. 


Matthew: Okay, well, well, why don't we start with Bitsy Bat and the first book, because I was so excited as we were preparing for this interview to learn that there's another one coming in a year. 


Kaz: There is. There's more than one coming, actually. 


Matthew: Oh, very exciting.

Well, congratulations. But first, let's Thank you so much. As Julie Andrews sang, let's start at the very beginning. Um, talk to me about how you would describe Bitsy Bat School Star for a reader that's new to this book. 


Kaz: Sure. So Bitsy Bat School Star is about a little bat who goes to school hoping to make lots of bat friends.


And when she gets there, she discovers that she is the only bat in a school for nocturnal animals. And because she's the only bat, she's the only one who's upside down, um, she plays and eats and does everything differently than everyone else, but in order to fit in she tries to do things like they're doing, and of course she gets everything wrong, which becomes more and more difficult until she has a big meltdown.


And so after she has some time to recover from that meltdown, she realizes the thing that makes her special is her being herself. So she thinks of a way that she can introduce her specialness to her classmates. And she brings in some stars and asks everybody to write down something that makes them special.


And then they have a big shine and share activity where they exchange those, but it's really about being authentic, okay. to yourself and accepting people exactly for who they are and also for their differences. And, um, I, I'm sure we'll get into it, but for me, it's, uh, so Bitsy is coded autistic. I'm autistic and ADHD.


I have a kiddo who's autistic and ADHD. So I always felt, um, different. Then my classmates, kind of like, everything was upside down to me, so using a bat in a classroom full of nocturnal animals or mice, it's, it was the perfect analogy or metaphor for what it felt like to be different in the classroom and the kind of acceptance that I wish I'd had and the kind of acceptance that I really want kids to experience.


Matthew: Yeah, I can see that in all of your books. The, the, the, the three that I read leading in were Swim, Gym, Worm, and Caterpillar are Friends, and of course, Bitsy Bat, School Star. But about Bitsy Bat, I saw in you the goal that you, that you had of painting, painting the world that, that you wish. was there for you.


Um, I think so often, maybe in teaching, especially we are speaking to our, our inner child. We're talking back to that child that was in school or in these cases, reading books and, and, and finding those connections and, and, and pulling them up to where we are now. Um, And what I loved in Bitsy Bat was how it felt much less like a being new to this school story, of which we have a lot of new to this school stories, and there's a great place for them, but it felt more like, Like a learning about yourself through new to me situations that it didn't have to be school.


It could have been pick whatever, an amusement park. It could have been visiting a different set of relatives. It could have been a number of different things. It was a location, uh, an environment that was giving me the chance to learn more about me, how I operate in this space or Bitsy in this case, and how they operate in that space.


Kaz: Yeah, I think that's really true that when you do have a new experience, it does help you uncover things that you didn't know about yourself or needs that you had that you didn't realize that you had. I think, you know, you see that in Swim Jim too, because that's definitely a new experience book where he's, he's going to different places and ends up in a human pool.


And so, so I do think of that as, you know, a new experiences kind of book, but, uh, fish out of water, right? Yeah, of course. 


Matthew: Yeah. And I guess, I guess, again, being a teacher of nearly two decades, the, the feeling I have is just, we have new kids all the time. And I think it's, it's not an uncommon experience for new kids to feel like they need to assimilate into whatever that school environment is.


Um, but with Bitsy Bat, I, I don't. I don't feel that way in this story. I feel like what you've done is give, again, I'm going to bring up that word agency because it came up over and over when I was reading your books, um, the feeling that Bitsy has it in her to, she has all the tools that she needs in order to, um, make that environment suitable for her, comfortable for her, an environment that she can thrive in and show up as her whole self.


She doesn't need the teacher, to change everything. The classmates to change everything. They should, they should come along. They should be part of that welcoming. There should be a symbiosis there, but our story focuses on, perhaps it's too strong a word, but the turmoil felt by this child to be in this new space, but also not only finding the accommodations they know will help them feel comfortable.

like they can participate fully, but inviting everyone to capital F participate fully in themselves. Wow. That's beautifully, 


Kaz: that's beautifully said. Yeah. I didn't, you see so many of these stories, like these inspirational stories where. Yeah. The child is valued because of the something special they do.


Um, and I think we get that as autistic people, like this expectation that we're like geniuses in some way, or it's what we're performing for society that makes us valuable and accepted. And I absolutely did not want to write that book. I wanted to write a book that said She is perfectly lovable exactly as she is, and she shouldn't have to adapt herself to make others comfortable.


She might need some adaptations to be able to be included in the classroom, but, uh, she is perfectly perfect the way she is. And I want every child to feel like that. 


Matthew: Yeah. Did that work of getting a story, multiple drafts, getting to that manuscript where you felt like this is the thing I've been trying to say.

Did that for this book take time or was it one that you felt like, I know sometimes stories just sort of come out to us in a, in a fully present way. What was it like for this one for you? Yeah. 


Kaz: Worm and Caterpillar came out pretty much fully formed. Um, it did go through some process. You're always going through that editorial and you know that you have great editors and great art directors that make the book so much better than you could have yourself.


Bitsy was fully formed in who she was and what the objective of the story was. I remember her character design was pretty creepy as I was told. She looked like a little Halloween bat. She had candy corn colored eyeballs. So when I presented that story and my little pitch package, they were like, Oh, we absolutely love this, but we can't do a Halloween book.


Like this is not a Halloween book. So can you make her an owl? 


Matthew: Oh, I tried the animal. 


Kaz: Right. I tried, I tried to take on feedback. I try not to have a knee jerk reaction to that. So I, you know, I really thought about it. Like, can I make her an owl? And there was just no way that inverted piece of it had to be there.


So I came back and I readdressed the character design and to make her as non Halloween and as cute and approachable as possible. Um, so that went through a change. And the other thing was my, my metaphor was that it was a bat in a classroom full of mice, because people are often saying, Hey man, mice are flying, you know, bats are flying mice and they are so physiologically different. They are not the same. So that was the metaphor I had. But, uh, Laurent Linn and Catherine Ledone, who are my amazing You are 


Matthew: with Laurent Lin! 


Kaz: Laurent Lin! That's a name I haven't heard in a little while. I like that. Oh, I love him so much. So he was my art director on Swim Jims and Catherine was my editor.

So this is my second book with that team. It's my dream team. Um, so So they both came back to me and they're like, Kaz, you draw really cute animals. Don't you want to draw a lot of animals, not just mice? And I fought them. I'm like, no, it's got to be a classroom full of mice. And they're like, well, just think about it.


Think of all the fun nocturnal animals you could draw. So I, I went back and did some research and started drawing cute animals. And I was like, Oh, They're right. I mean, because it does demonstrate a more diverse and inclusive classroom if it's not just mice against bats, you know what I mean? Um, so it did visually, essentially go through those changes.


Um, but the story itself and that piece of advocacy and the objective of the, the story was, was all there from the beginning. Of course, it's much better with edits. 


Matthew: I think, uh, having a, a, a, a, a wider, more diverse cast of characters, um, just gives us even more opportunity to see ourselves in different spaces in that classroom, right?


That makes sense. And it makes it, as you just said, much less, uh, us versus them, me versus whomever, and much more, Oh, you just haven't had a kid like me in your class yet. And that is a phrase that I bet a lot of us can, can connect to is, I just don't quite do things the way you do. I talk a little funny.


I process in a different way. I'm sensitive in a way that you're not, or I, I, my skin is a, uh, a different shade than yours is or different things that just feel that just feel different. Othering, yeah, but, um, goodness. I, I, I feel compelled to tell you that the. A beautiful thing I felt coming out of Bitsy Vat was just, oh my word, I could see all of us, all of us doing the activity that Bitsy does with her class in the end, and that also felt like a gift that I can pick this up and go, we read this, let's go write these amazing affirmation, affirmations of this is what I'm assuming.


Star at, I'm great at this. Yes. And what can we tell Cs? I see that you're wonderful at doing this thing too. Let me give you star. Yes. You giving me stars and it just felt like, oh, it's all right there. And then this is, it's okay. Silly me that it took me this long to get there. But you mentioned about.


Bitsy having a meltdown, but didn't mention that, that the language you use is that it's a five star meltdown. We've got stars all over the place here. It's, it's layered in. Yeah. But I was gonna say, it's as if that that is, is something that anchors Bitsy in that way. And why wouldn't it anchor Bitsy? I don't mean to play too heavy on a metaphor, but to be a bat, to be under stars all the time, to be able to show up in a way that makes.

that makes you shine, that makes you connect. There's so much there. You, you just did a great job, Kaz. You did a really great job. 


Kaz: Oh, thanks. Well, you'll notice her special interest is space and in the second book she has a, a squishy. I have always had my squishy with me. She has a squishy rocket and you see the constellations.


I love that last spread where her classroom is, is You know, she's not just a star on her own. She's a star in a beautiful constellation. A 


Matthew: big, beautiful constellation. I think that I want to, I want to keep us moving into your other books, but I think that another thing I appreciated just to, just to give it back to you.


Um, I love a good book that helps a kid feel seen truly, but the way that you. The way that you presented that representation of neurodiversity in that way through Bitsy, of sensitivity to sound, of different examples like that, just the way you let her show up without needing to go to school. Well, this is what this is called, or this is what this is a feeling about, or I'm hypersensitive to these things.


Thinking of my own words that I could place about myself on here.


It's edited or presented in such a way that we just don't even need to worry about that. Bitsy knows who she is, and in that way, she knows what she needs to. She never once makes the decision to never come back to this school ever again. She thinks 


Kaz: about it for a hot minute. 


Matthew: Sure thinks about it. I guess it is a picture book.


We do gotta, we gotta move on, Bitsy. We only have a couple pages. Yeah, yeah, right. Only have a couple page turns. Right. But, um. Um, I don't know. I'm just, uh, it's beautiful the way she shows up and I also love the way you show up in the end of the book. I should say that author note that you wrote, uh, is really great.


I don't know that I've read an author note that was so present that you take up a whole page and just write in a larger font. with your illustrated face on there, speaking right out to your readers. I thought that was a nice touch. Oh, thank you. Didn't need to be there. It was really nice. Well, 


Kaz: I have to give some of that to, you know, Catherine and Laurent who've made space for it.


I mean, it's a 48 page book. So a lot of books are 32 pages. So they really, they, they thought that back matter about autism or about autism was really important. And they wanted me to have that room in order to. include that author's note and let, let kids see that this is me. And that was part of the fear of going into this book was I hadn't talked publicly about being autistic before it was something that I'd hidden for a long time, but, you know, looking at my own child, I just knew that I wanted kids to have that representation. And I'm so glad that there are more of us who are of that identity that are telling our stories and having our stories read because it is different than having someone tell them for us. So yeah, it's pretty normal for me to show up with headphones and I don't want to have to explain it all the time.


Um, you know, and I have heard Kids, kids coming up to me and their parents coming up to me and saying this book meant so much to us because it's the first book that we've ever seen a kid in a classroom wearing headphones, which is what we do, but we haven't seen it in a book. So just that representation, just so visually you're seeing that it's there kind of normalizes it and makes it more accepted.


Matthew: Yes. And it gives. all of us reading it, a chance to, to look out into beyond the book, into our own experiences and, and see people wearing. Headphones to stick with your example and to say, well, I wonder why they're wearing headphones. I wonder, oh, I can hear how noisy it is, or I can hear how there's so much going on.


It gives us, uh, an opportunity to, to connect through empathy in a way that doesn't have to be othering, but can be, uh, inquisitive. It can be curious to make that connection. 


Kaz: Yeah. I wonder if that would 


Matthew: help me. I wonder if, yeah. 


Kaz: Yeah, right. And building that curiosity and understanding. Yeah. Beautifully said.


Matthew: You, it, it feels to me like you write often about characters on the margins, as it were, feeling different, seeking acceptance, finding their place in different spaces and loving themselves. I think, does that feel fair to say that? Yeah. Go ahead. Has that always been your focus, the focus of your voice as a storyteller?


From, from whenever you can think of that the story started to come out, you started to express through story. Um, truly, I don't think there's a better way for us to be engaging children than to be Continuously pulling everyone in and going, Oh, you, you feel outside. Let's bring you in. You feel outside.


Let's bring you in. Tell me, I guess what I'm really asking you, Kaz is why are you that way? Why are you, what, how did you become this amazing human that I respect just reading your books, but I, I say that to say probably much like your readers, the way. The way you present your characters to me, to this reader, again, endears me to you as a storyteller because I can tell to write a character like that, you have to be a person like that.


Kaz: Yeah, you have to have experienced it. And I think that's the point of the point. I, I am graphical on some level. Um, so yes, you're definitely going to see themes of wanting to be accepted, uh, for the spicy little weirdo that I am and also navigating relationships. And, uh, building resilient friendships.


That's a common theme through a lot of my writing because friendships were the thing I wanted the most and the thing that challenged me the most. 


Matthew: You're 


Kaz: going to see a lot of trying to understand that, trying to work through it, and wanting to be accepted. Um, even though I'm different. Um, so, so yeah, I think you do see those common themes and I do know that it resonates with, with other kids.

Um, so yeah, just wanting to create that, that acceptance that I wish I had had for myself and I have found in my adulthood, thank goodness. 


Matthew: Yeah, that is a wonderful thing that you not only have found it in your adulthood, but also I think that you've chosen to tell stories and have the opportunity to tell stories to kids.


And so I, I would like to think you now have the opportunity to see classrooms changing, space being made for all kids. I've seen that in my time. I know we're roughly the same age. Um, and we've been working with children in roughly the same, um, timeline. Um, I'm sensitive of our time, but I think perhaps I've been avoiding bringing this book up because it's, it's, it's very nearly swept me off my feet in a way that I don't know that I'm going to have the words to talk about it, but we're going to jump in and talk if you don't mind about Worm and Caterpillar are friends.


And the way I wrote it to you is, can we talk about this coming out of the Chrysalis story? Yeah, that's, 


Kaz: that's right. 


Matthew: Because, um, I think a lot of things, Kaz. I'm going to just give you some words here though, that I feel like, uh, it made me, it made me rapidly feel how much I was projecting onto the story.


Maybe I was also reading what you were putting onto the story, but certainly I was feeling like, uh, Oh, I'm, I'm making this book about me in a wonderful way, but wow, I was really feeling seen as a reader. It was that Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop windows and mirrors concept. I was really getting a mirror that I didn't expect out of that.


I was sharing it with some friends. Um, and, and, and was bringing up the comparison to the last book that that happened to me with, which would have been Corey Dorfeld's, uh, The Rabbit Listened because of this book being about all the reactions we have to things happening. But that first, first, we just need someone to listen to us.


I'm going to make me cry. It's going to make me cry to talk about that book. It's gonna make me cry to talk about this book. Um, it's, it's almost cliche to write a book about. A caterpillar turning into a butterfly because like about five billion that come out every year. And that's okay. There's a beautiful symbolic transformation that happens as well as a physical transformation.


And it's a miracle of nature that it does happen. Kaz, when this, your spin on this is something I've never read before. And it was, like staring me in the face to read it. And it was beautiful. Can you talk to me about, you said this book just came out of you. I would like to hear how this came out. I came 


Kaz: pretty much fully formed.


These were characters that had something to say and you know, it went through. edits, but I would say the story came out in about two days, which is not usual for me. Um, but it's about a friendship that goes through a big change as Caterpillar becomes Butterfly and Worm learns to accept their friend, even though they are very different than each other.


Um, and so, yes, there are a lot of ways to read this book, and also a lot of ways some adults are misreading it. Uh, but yes, it could absolutely be seen as a coming out story, um, and it's also no secret that I'm a member of the alphabet community, as well as an ally, and everybody deserves love and acceptance, so when you see it, you see it, and, um, I, wrote it in this way so that it could be read by lots of kids.


We are in an environment of banning and flagging, and I just wanted to write a story of acceptance that any kid could read. So, um, I can validate 


Matthew: what you're 


Kaz: experiencing with that book. 


Matthew: I'm so grateful to hear it. Yes. Okay, so listen, listeners, I'm gonna, I'm gonna break form here. Kaz and talk to the people that are listening to just share that.


I'm going to read your first pages. Is that okay? Yeah, please. Um, do you have it handy? Do you want to read with me? It's two voices. 


Kaz: Yeah. 


Matthew: Um, Oh, who do you want 


Kaz: to be? 


Matthew: Uh, why don't, why don't I, I would love to read Caterpillar and why don't we go to, I don't know, we'll go up to birds. We'll go up to page 15.


Kaz: Okay, great. 


Matthew: Uh, so I will start, um, and say, Hello. Hello. We, oh that's you, sorry. 


Kaz: We are friends, Caterpillar. 


Matthew: Yes, Worm, best friends. 


Kaz: Because we are the same. 


Matthew: We, we're not the same. We look alike. I suppose that's true. 


Kaz: And we both eat dirt. 


Matthew: I do not eat dirt. 


Kaz: You do not eat dirt. We both eat dirt. 


Matthew: No, I am more of a leaf person.

This leaf looks like you, Worm. 


Kaz: That is a cute leaf! This dirt looks like you, Caterpillar! 


Matthew: And then we panic, oh no, birds, hide! Hide! Hide! Um, and then where, where you go is that there's a exchange that says, uh, Caterpillar says, can we still be friends, Worm? And Worm says, yes, I like you just the way you are, never change.


Kaz: Right. And 


Matthew: then Caterpillar And the little leaf, 


Kaz: did you notice the little leaf floating? The little leaf. 


Matthew: Yes! And Caterpillar saying, what if I change? 


Kaz: Why would you do that? 


Matthew: Right. So never have I ever read a book about a butterfly where it felt like, like social pressure that we're friends. I love you just the way you are.


Why would you, why would you change? Don't do that. If you change, you might not be the person that I love. You should stay who you are. 


Kaz: Well, and I love you because we're alike. 


Matthew: Because we're alike. Even though I want to assert that we're different. No, no, no. You're my best friend. We're alike. It's. The, the, the heartache, perhaps.


I don't know that I felt was Caterpillar pushing back. Cause it felt like to me, what Caterpillar was saying was, there's something I know about me that you don't know about me, and I'm afraid that when you find out you're not going to be my friend anymore. 


Kaz: Now you're going to make me cry too. Yeah, that's exactly right.

And this is the truth about who I am. 


Matthew: And it's 


Kaz: my nature and there's nothing that I can change about who this is. 


Matthew: Yes. We've never talked about this before and yet you call me your best friend and I'm afraid, I'm afraid that my existence might change, redefine everything about our friendship. Right.

That's beautiful.


I'm recognizing that I want to protect this space for you and for me, Kaz. And so I think what I want to say in this space is I appreciate all of the readers that you saw, those future readers you saw when you made this story. I think we've shared plenty for people listening to know where it goes. And for those that haven't read it yet, pick it up, read 


Kaz: it. Yeah. 


Matthew: Um, it is such a beautiful. Easy reader. Such a beautiful, exceptional story to share to that beloved space of Elephant and Piggy and many, many other frog and toad in many, many other beloved stories.


Exactly. Those a percent 


Kaz: books, a hundred percent. 


Matthew: Mm-Hmm mm-Hmm. . And, um, gosh, I just wanna say how grateful I am that I got to connect with you over this book, over all of your books, CS. But, um, you, you really. You really reached this reader with that one. Thank you for that. 


Kaz: Thank you. 


Matthew: Kaz, I will see a library full of children tomorrow morning.

Is there a message that I can bring to them from you? 


Kaz: Sure. I thought of three things. Number one, you can draw anything if you figure out what shapes they are made of. So a lot of people are intimidated by drawing but if you can look for the shapes and you can draw those shapes, you can draw anything. I teach college students the same thing.


Number two, be afraid and do it anyway. So I still get nervous starting a book project or speaking on a cool podcast. But there's always a big payoff for facing your fears. And number three, break things down into smaller chunks. So I'm meeting a lot of young writers who are starting off with not just writing a novel, they are writing a trilogy, and most of them get stuck about a couple, couple, a few chapters in.


Write short stories. Write a lot of short stories. Little chunks add up to big things.



OUTRO


Matthew: Thank you to Kaz Windness for joining me on The Children’s Book Podcast. 


You can pick up your own copy of Bitsy Bat, School Star (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books) or Worm and Caterpillar Are Friends (Simon Spotlight) wherever books are found. Consider supporting independent bookstores by shopping through Bookshop.org. You can also use my affiliate link by clicking on the book’s name in our show notes.


Our podcast logo was created by Duke Stebbins (https://stebs.design/). 


Our music is by Podington Bear. 


Podcast hosting by Libsyn. 


You can support the show and buy me a coffee at www.matthewcwinner.com.


And on that note…


Be well. And read on.



End Of Episode

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