Faculty Spotlight: Professor Joanne Robertson-Eletto

Author, Illustrator and Graduate School of Education Assistant Professor Shares Vital Advice on Publishing a Book

September 14, 2020
Joanne Robertson-Eletto, Professor at the Graduate School of Education

Question: Congratulations on your children's book! Can you tell us a bit about it? 

A: My purpose for writing The Littlest Coo Discovers His Gifts was to share some life lessons with young readers and to cultivate their appreciation of difference as a resource, not a deficit.  Through the actions and struggles of one steadfast coo (the Scottish Highlanders name for cow) named Fergus, I show how his selfless act positively affects an entire community. The story highlights the strength of family and faith in times of need and shows how support from his loved ones enables Fergus to achieve greatness in a time of need. From an early age, it’s vital that children understand that they should stand out and it’s okay to not always feel like they fit in. No matter who you are, your shape or abilities, we all have gifts that need to be shared with the world.  

Question: Can you talk about the challenges in writing and illustrating your own book? 

A: This was actually my third children’s book and the experience was truly joy. It gave me the excuse to sequester myself in a calm and quiet place for an extended period of time. I really enjoyed this experience and was able to unleash my creativity. Although writing is not necessarily the easiest thing to do, it was important to me to write this story and keep the message simple enough so that every child could understand and learn from it. My grandchild once told me that I’m like Dr. Seuss and I thought that was a great compliment. Something that might set me apart from other people who write books is that I actually self-published this one. I had to do tons of groundwork to find the right publishing partner as many who are in the business just want to make money and don’t care about the project you’ve worked so hard on. In fact, one publisher actually told me they couldn’t use my illustrations if they weren’t cartoons. I knew we couldn’t work together as I wanted to give children beautiful artwork to look at, complete with landscapes and vibrant colors. For some kids, this book might also serve as their first introduction to landscape art. I used watercolors and even collaged little pieces of red yarn and straw to get the pictures to look like exactly as I remembered. The message here is that it’s important to stay true to yourself and your beliefs, no matter what outsiders say.  

Question: What advice would you give to someone else interested in publishing a children's book? 

A: I would tell someone considering following this path to visit book stores and libraries as often as possible. When you’re there, look at the way the children’s books are formatted and take some time to study and read them. Everyone thinks its so easy to write a picture book, but it’s really not as the vocabulary needs to be understandable and the message direct. Also, if you’re rejected by a publisher, don’t take it personally. Remain dedicated to honoring the message of the book and always do what you feel is right. 

Question: As a professor, why would you say reading to children is so important to their overall development? 

A: Reading and writing are critical for children to start understanding basic concepts like letters and words. Introducing young kids, who absorb everything they’re taught like sponges, to literature and pictures opens them up to a whole new world of being, acting, and thinking. Stories that highlight diversity help youngsters develop a sense of empathy for those unlike themselves. I think teachers at all grade levels should be reading aloud to their students. Many classrooms these days have tons of reading programs with basic story structures, little sentence variety, and lackluster descriptive language. I think we need to adjust the literacy curriculum throughout our school districts to share books with rich vocabulary, developed story lines and strong themes to prompt children to get creative. I see this problem in many urban schools, where community and school libraries are sparse and lacking resources. Equity and access to quality books has been and will always be a key part of a well-rounded education. 

Question: What do you hope the key takeaways will be for readers after finishing your book? 

A: The Littlest Coo is a springboard for having conversations about making the world a better place.  After reading my book, students can discuss what “standing out” means and how it can enrich their lives. In the story, I emphasize that you’ll be known for what you do to underline the fact that our actions often define who we are. Therefore, we must be mindful of our behavior for it always has a ripple effect. As competent and compassionate educators, we know the importance of differentiating academic instruction to meet the needs of our linguistically, physically, and culturally diverse populations of students.  We must also nurture their social and emotional growth, their concepts of inclusivity, and their acceptance of those who are different. We must initiate conversations about bravery, integrity and strength despite all odds as well.   

Joanne Robertson-Eletto is an Assistant Professor with the MS Teaching Literacy program since 2015Her students describe Robertson-Eletton as being incredibly compassionate, knowledgeable and passionate about her field.