Bianca Schulze Discusses, Just Be Yourself, Dragon!

An interview with Bianca Schulze
The Children’s Book Review

In this episode, I talk with Bianca Schulze about her latest picture book, Just Be Yourself, Dragon, the third book in a delightfully fun series. Dragon is nervous about her first day of school!

Bianca is the author of Don’t Wake the Dragon and Who Loves the Dragon? and the founder and editor of The Children’s Books Review—a resource devoted to children’s literature and literacy. She is also the bestselling author of 101 Books to Read Before You Grow Up. She is a reader, reviewer, mother, and children’s book lover. Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, Bianca now lives with her husband and three children near Boulder, Colorado.

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Just Be Yourself, Dragon: Book Cover

Luisa LaFleur: Hi, Bianca. It’s great to be able to interview you for the Growing Readers podcast. This conversation is a bit of a turn. You’re usually the one doing the interviews, but this time I have the pleasure of asking you a few questions about your latest book, Just Be Yourself, Dragon! It’s been a real joy to read.

Bianca Schulze: Thanks, Luisa. It is so fun to be on the other side. I’m honored for you to be interviewing me.

Luisa LaFleur: It’s an honor for me, too. So, let’s get into it.

My first question is, Dragon is such a multifaceted character, which is usually not the case for dragons in picture books or fairy tales. Often, dragons are depicted as scary creatures that are to be vanquished or tamed. But that’s not the case here; Dragon is a sweet, playful character with the same fears and apprehensions as many of us do. Can you tell us why you chose the dragon as your main character and what or who inspired the creation of the Dragon?

Bianca Schulze: Yeah, that’s a fun question. So, for the first book in the Dragon series was Don’t Wake the Dragon, I was on an airplane with my family. It was a five-hour flight, and we were returning home from a vacation. And my youngest at the time was one and a half. He had just not been well the entire vacation, which was such a bummer. We hop on this airplane, knowing that it’s probably going to be a little bit of a miserable flight. He was crying. Everybody was rubbernecking looking at us. And he finally fell asleep, which is what he needed to do. My husband said to our other two kids, whatever you do, don’t wake the dragon. And, of course, I chuckled at that.

Don't Wake the Dragon

I’m sitting in the seat. He’s lying on my lap. I kept thinking about, don’t wake the dragon, don’t wake the dragon. And by the time we got off the airplane, Don’t Wake the Dragon was a fully formed picture book in my mind. That’s kind of how it was a dragon because of what my husband said. And in honesty, it really couldn’t have been any other creature or animal for me.

I just think, as you said, Dragon is multifaceted. We often think of dragons as breathing fire and maybe being a bit uptight. But really, the dragon creates the curiosity and the draw because, as we discover, maybe Dragon is just like us, multilayered and can be cool and calm and collected, can have fears as we find out in other books, like Just Be Yourself Dragon. But we’re always maybe a little bit curious about whether Dragon will become fiery like we know many dragons to be. So, I think that kind of builds the excitement around Dragon because you never quite know what you’re going to get.

Luisa LaFleur: I agree. I think that the reason Dragon is so relatable, and so, so much fun to read and interact with, is because Dragon feels just like a kid, feels just like a regular kid, not, you know, his. I think I think she’s got her moments where she might want to breathe fire or cause a little trouble. But then, you know, she’s also scared, and she gets worried. And that’s like all kids. So, I think that’s why Dragon is such a great character.

So, in this book, Dragon is heading off for her first day of school, which can be stressful for young children at any time, but particularly after the year that we’ve had. Was there a particular moment that inspired the story? And is there a reason why you wanted to alleviate the stress of the first day of school or shed light on it?

Bianca Schulze: You know, this is such a great question because there are lots of answers to it. I was so happy to have written Don’t Wake the Dragon. And my goal was for Dragon to always star in more picture books. And I’m just I’m so grateful that my publisher feels the same way, so they wanted more dragon books.

I can’t remember exactly how it went down, but I feel like they asked me if I would write a Christmas book that would star Dragon. But it was almost like they had a sixth sense because I feel like a few days before that, my nine-year-old—who was in third grade, she’s getting ready to go into fourth grade now—she had said to me that she felt like Dragon should be in a back-to-school story. And once she had said that, I was like, she’s 100 percent right. I think Dragon would be such an excellent character for a back-to-school story.

And I hadn’t started formulating a story yet. When my publisher had emailed me and said they wanted another dragon book, I responded and said, I’m happy to do a Christmas book, but what do you think about this? And I sort of pitched the back-to-school idea with a couple of thoughts I had, and they agreed.

So that’s kind of how Just Be Yourself, Dragon came about. But then for creating the story. I was writing it while all my three children were remote learning at home. And my youngest had just started kindergarten—he’s the youngest of three kids. Since he was born, he has walked to and from school almost every day because his older sister is going into 10th grade. So school is something he’s known, and he was so excited to go. But then, of course, his first year to start was Covid year. And so, he needed to start with remote learning.

He was super excited. But as I said, I have three kids, and we set everybody up with different stations in their own spaces. And occasionally, I would need to leave my kindergartener’s side. And I came back one time—and this was a kid who was so excited to go to school—I came back, and I found him crying under the table. It broke my heart. I was like, this is a kid that was so excited to go. I needed to stay and sit with him. So, I was working from my laptop on The Children’s Book Review just side-by-side, just there as his sort of companion. But in doing so, I got to feel like I was part of his kindergarten classroom.

Just Be Yourself Dragon Illustration
Just Be Yourself, Dragon, written by Bianca Schulze and Illustrated by Samara Hardy, Clever Publishing.

It was the best thing for writing this story because his kindergarten teacher had this repetitive phrase. And to be honest, I can’t even remember word for word what her expression was, but it was along the lines of in kindergarten, we just try our best. You know, it doesn’t matter if you make mistakes because we’re learning, and we just try our best. And I just thought, what does that mean to me?

It ultimately meant that you get to just come to that class, and you come to that space, and you come to that learning segment wherever you’re at. And in kindergarten, that can be so widely different for every child because you have kids that rock up to kindergarten already being able to read, you know, and then you have some that are still struggling with their letters. It’s such a diverse group. And then everybody has their different backgrounds, too.

I just was like, I want to write a story where kids can discover that they can come to school, whether it’s kindergarten, whether it’s second grade, and they just get to be themselves. So, for me, it all came about from, you know, my daughter having that idea of a back to school, you know, back to school story and then actually sort of feeling like I was in my son’s kindergarten class and watching all of the kids, you know, with their ups and downs during the day. And it just came about like that.

Luisa LaFleur: I love that you were able to pull something, create creatives out of what has been such a difficult year for so many of us. And I love that you got to share that moment, and you can see the beauty in that. I think that’s really special. And I’m really happy that the book came out of that experience.

Bianca Schulze: I’m really glad you said that. Thank you. It’s funny because I’m sure many people feel this way where they look back on it—it felt like kind of a tough year. I feel fortunate that I wrote two picture books during Covid one, which came out in February, Who Loves the Dragon? Again, I’m not sure I could have written that same story if it wasn’t for what was happening where everybody felt separated. In that story, Dragon is missing all her friends. And, you know, what can we do to cheer each other up and give love to ourselves?

Who Loves the Dragon Illustration
Who Loves the Dragon?, written by Bianca Schulze and Illustrated by Samara Hardy, Clever Publishing

And so, I don’t know why, but, you know, I feel fortunate that somehow, I managed to be creative during Covid. Somehow, I managed to tap into that—I don’t know how. Because if you just asked me out on a blanket day, I would be like, oh, yeah, that was such a challenging year. Nothing came of that. But if I really stop and look, a lot came of that for me, I don’t know if gratefulness is the right word for the experience, but I do feel like sometimes through adversity, you know, good things can come at the other end.

Luisa LaFleur: Sure, and maybe it’s just thankful for the results. Yes. And whatever, you know, everyone has a different lived experience. But I think if we can look back on it. And be happy about even the smallest thing. Yes, it changes your perception of the events. And so, the fact that you’ve created something that we can all share in, I think, is really special.

I enjoyed how you were able to take Dragon’s natural abilities, such as breathing fire, and turn them into something not scary and also quite useful. It’s a great way to get the message of just be yourself across without giving too much away. Can you tell us more about how you engineered this plot device? What was your thought process in getting to this point in the story?

Bianca Schulze: Yeah, so I’m pretty sure you’re referencing a grilled cheese sandwich. Am I right?

Luisa LaFleur: Yes. Without giving too much away.

Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I know. Right. We don’t want any plot spoilers here for this book.

So, my editor for Just Be Yourself, Dragon was Brett Wright. And I just loved working with him. The first draft of Just Be Yourself, Dragon was fine. But I loved how he described what it needed. He said, you know, your story needs another road bump. It needs another road bump to keep everybody excited.

I just didn’t know what the next road bump needed to be until a conversation with my sister. I don’t even know where she pulled this out—she’s a schoolteacher, so she is around children all the time—but she said something random, just like I don’t know how you would make this work, but what if a dragon breathes on a grilled cheese sandwich and burns it? I was like, that’s kind of funny. And knowing how Samara Hardy does the illustrations, I knew she could totally pull something like this off. So, I can’t claim full credit for this.

I guess I can claim credit for how I built it into the story. But my sister came up with this genius idea of there being sort of a mishap in the lunchroom. You know, the book is sort of it’s more geared towards kids, I guess, ages three through seven. I think it’s important for kids to know that everybody makes mistakes, and sometimes mistakes can turn out to be a good thing. Whether it’s just because we learn a good lesson or, you know, maybe it’s just a beautiful oops. Like, oh, oops, I didn’t mean to do this, but I’m glad I did because now this oops is something magical and everybody wants a piece of this action.

I feel like using Dragon’s fire; maybe some people might see that as a negative trait. But often, you know, our features can be both negative and positive. And so, turning that negative into a positive was just a natural and natural move.

Just Be Yourself Dragon Illustration
Just Be Yourself, Dragon, written by Bianca Schulze and Illustrated by Samara Hardy, Clever Publishing

Luisa LaFleur: And it’s all about perspective, right? Yes. Right. Because, you know, fire can be scary, but it can also be warming and provide food, provide cooked meals and you know. Absolutely. Who doesn’t love s’mores on a cold winter’s night? So, you know.

Bianca Schulze: Oh, my Gosh. I mean, maybe Dragon needs a camping story because I’m obsessed with s’mores. I think Jack needs to make some s’mores.

Luisa LaFleur: There you go. We can add that in the next one. Yeah. And it was, you know, it came about on this conversation, which is great. Yeah. So, I love the illustrations. They’re very playful and they bring the words to life and convey the nuances of dragons, emotions like kids like her quirky eye movements or the silly smiles; they really bring the message home.

So, I was wondering if you could tell us what has it been like working with Samara Hardy over the course of the three books?

Bianca Schulze: Yeah. Oh, my gosh. So, I have never met Samara. We have never spoken on the phone. I have sent her an email in which I thanked her for her amazing job and how grateful I am that her artwork is paired with my words. But beyond that, everything for most picture books goes only through the editor.

So, the editor will select the illustrator. If you’re lucky, like I am, I got to have some level of say in how I perceived the artwork should look. My editor for Don’t Wake the Dragon, Rebecca Frazer, presented me with a list of illustrators, and she said, just tell me who your top two are in this list. And I picked four of them. I would have been happy with any of the 10. She just did a great job with the illustrators she had selected. And I was thankful that Samara, one of my top four from that list, agreed and said yes, that she wanted to illustrate the dragon books.

And so, moving forward from that with your first manuscript, when you’re an unpublished picture book author, editors and agents prefer for you not to include any illustration notes. They want it just to be the text. And that allows the editor to sort of envision the artwork themself. So, you really don’t get a say right upfront.

It wasn’t until Rebecca presented me with this list to be part of selecting the illustrator that I had, you know, any say in it whatsoever. It was also part of my choice to work with Rebecca in that we talked about what the illustration style would be like. And since we were both on the page, that’s why we moved forward with the project together.

Book Illustration Don't Wake the Dragon
Don’t Wake the Dragon, written by Bianca Schulze and Illustrated by Samara Hardy, Clever Publishing

So then, with my future books beyond that, the editors have been so lovely and have asked me to include my illustration notes. With Don’t Wake the Dragon, once Samara had created that first round of illustrations, they invited me to participate in what I thought of the illustrations. And to be honest, I mean, Samara just nailed it with that first round.

And so then, with Who Loves the Dragon and Just Be Yourself, Dragon, I was able to work some illustration notes in with the text at my editor’s request. I only put minimal notes because I’m not an artist and I can already tell from that first book that Samara knows this dragon. She knows what to bring.

While I put in these notes, it’s really Samara who has bought all that extra life and that extra energy. And I’m just really, really grateful for that, for the fact that she said yes to that first dragon book to create the artwork. As you said, she brings the facial expressions to the dragon and all the characters. They just really emote so well in a way that kids can fully understand what’s going on and what Dragon is feeling throughout.

Luisa LaFleur: So, I completely agree with you. Thank you for that insight into how a picture book comes about. I had no idea that it’s an incredibly collaborative process and a very individual process. Yeah, in a way, it’s really fascinating.

Bianca Schulze: Yeah, it really is. If you’re in the industry, it’s a known thing that they keep the authors and the illustrator separate.

There are unique stories of authors and illustrators working together—usually, you know, creators that have maybe already created multiple books together. Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham have a great series, The Princess and Black. They have done another middle grade graphic novel series together. And so, they just did a picture book together, Itty-Bitty Kitty Corn. I interviewed them for this podcast and they’re amazing. And their story was completely collaborative, which is just a rare exception to the picture book.

Luisa LaFleur: Wild.

Bianca Schulze: Yes. So, most of us are very separate from the illustrator, and you usually just put a lot of faith and trust. You know, you might not necessarily want to sign on with the first editor that you that says yes to publishing your manuscript into a picture book because they may just have a different idea of what your story should look like. And, you know, I think it’s really, it’s really nice to find someone willing to collaborate more.

Luisa LaFleur: Yeah, I think it’s really eye-opening for me because I had no idea that the process was kind of like this, where you kind of have to give up control. Right, a little bit anyway. Of your manuscript to the editor and the publishing house and hope for. Hope for the result to be how you envision it.

Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I feel like if you do your homework to like leading up to it, you know, when it’s a good fit. Right. So, yeah, and it must be a good fit for everyone. And, you know, the editor needs to, you know, feel comfortable that the author is going to be able to take some feedback, too. So, it just needs to be an excellent collaborative process.

Luisa LaFleur: Right. So, you mentioned that the publisher had come back to you with some ideas for another installment in the series. But I was wondering if you could share with us if you have any ideas for future Dragon books?

Bianca Schulze: Yes. Well, I feel like I just said a non-truth before. I didn’t write two stories during Covid. I wrote three. I don’t even know why I spaced on that. But yes, I wrote another dragon story, which is Tell the Truth Dragon.

My publisher came to me and said, we want a story about telling the truth. And we think Dragon would be a great character for that story, to which I said I could 100 percent write that story. I think anyone who has kids knows that while they’re learning to sort of navigate through life, sometimes they make mistakes. And they don’t always want to own up to those mistakes. And so, having three kids, we have some pretty funny stories.

In Tell the Truth, Dragon, the castle cooks have baked a chocolate cake for somebody special. And Dragon, of course, loves chocolate cake. However, something happens to the chocolate cake where somebody had a little taste test, but nobody owns up. And so, it’s pretty clear who the chocolate cake taste tester may have been. And so, you might see where this is going. But that is based on a true story from my own house. And yeah, that is an upcoming story for Dragon, and it will come out in 2022. So not too long to wait.

Luisa LaFleur: Oh, that sounds so funny.

Bianca Schulze: I haven’t seen the artwork for that one yet, so I’m excited.

Luisa LaFleur: I think as parents, I think we’ve all got stories like that about our kids, but I’m pretty sure our listeners all have stories like that about adults, too. So, it’ll be a lot of fun to read. So, I can see Dragon and her adventures as an animated series for younger kids because the characters are likable and funny. And now, thinking about the cake taste testing gives me a whole other visual. So, have you had any similar thoughts about an animated series? Do you believe that the dragon can make the jump to the screen?

Bianca Schulze: Oh, my gosh. I think mostly because of how Samara has bought Dragon to life. I just think Dragon would look beautiful on a screen. So yes!

And no, I had never thought about it until you said that. So, when you said it, I was like, oh, my gosh, that would be amazing. That’s probably every author’s dream to have their book turned into—well, maybe not every author’s vision, not everybody loves TV or film adaptations of books—but I think it would be amazing.

Because there are so many people and families that love dragon stories out there, Dragon would be really appealing. And like we talked about before about why Dragon makes such a good character for these books is because there’s that unexpected sort of fieriness to her, but also the mystery of what’s going to happen next. What is this dragon’s personality like? You know, as she feels just like us. And I think there could be so many different TV episodes.

To be honest, I feel like Netflix is doing an excellent job of this right now with their Llama Llama series. I mean, Pinkalicious has been turned into a TV series. So many picture books right now are getting turned into these great TV series. And I think the producers are doing such a good job of those.

Luisa LaFleur: Yeah. And I think not to push too much TV, but I think there is a need for quality characters that aren’t the run-of-the-mill characters that we’ve kind of all come to expect. And I think Dragon would be just so great because of her multifacetedness and her ability to surprise us. But also feel so comfortable, right, looks like she’s someone that, you know, because she kind of is right. She’s kind of based on kids that we know and the things that kids do when the trouble that they get into, right.

Bianca Schulze: I feel like because she’s the dragon, she’s that little bit of a separation from where? Where? OK, so when you read the dragon books, you’re going to learn a few little life lessons throughout. And not everybody loves books that are all about teaching a lesson. But I think that the Dragon books work for teaching a lesson because Dragon isn’t a human. It doesn’t feel preachy. At least that’s my opinion.

Luisa LaFleur: Obviously, I agree with you. Yeah, it doesn’t feel preachy.

Bianca Schulze: It feels like a safe character to explore emotions versus if it was another child. I feel like kids are smart enough that they’re going to be like, oh, you know, I’m supposed to be taking a lesson because that character is just like me. But through Dragon, it just makes it a little bit more fun and a little bit of a safer exploration where, you know, the kid isn’t feeling accused themselves, like, oh, why did my mom bring home this book about telling the truth?

Luisa LaFleur: Absolutely. Absolutely. Thank you so much for joining us on this quest for growing readers. It was a pleasure to talk to you!

About the Book

Publisher’s Synopsis: In the third book of this delightfully fun series, Dragon is nervous about her first day of school! She’ll need readers’ help to soothe her anxieties and ease her nerves.

Our beloved main character, Dragon, is leaving the castle to attend her very first day of school. She’s excited about everything it has to offer: storytime with the fortune-teller, learning to count while juggling, exercising with the knights, and – best of all – being with her friends! But when the day finally arrives, Dragon is overwhelmed and scared! She’s got a bad case of first-day jitters, and something goes wrong during all of her morning activities. She can’t wait to have a break at lunch . . . until suddenly Dragon is left all alone and must summon the courage to make all new friends on her own.

Can you help Dragon overcome her fears and have the best first day of school ever?

  • Brought to life with colorful and humorous illustrations throughout, this read-aloud picture book encourages kids to interact with the text on every page.
  • Young readers will love following along with the seamlessly-incorporated directionsd uring this relatable story that will cure any young reader’s first day of school fears!
Buy the Book

Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Bianca Schulze Discusses, Just Be Yourself, Dragon! For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Back-to-School, Dragons, First Day of School Books, and Interactive Books.

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August 24, 2021 at 01:46AM Bianca Schulze