Raleigh mom, kids turn stress, boredom into top-ranked picture book
Posted December 18, 2016
Updated December 19, 2016
One day this fall, Kerry Anna Stenke was tired and stressed as she followed the campaign for president. Her two kids, Klaus, a second grader, and Willa, a preschooler, were just getting bored.
Together, they took what might have been an average Saturday and started on a Christmas-themed rhyming picture book that has since been downloaded more than 700 times and has risen to top lists for free Kindle downloads.
For Stenke, she's living a long-time dream. Though her career took her into graphic design, Stenke, who works at the Duke Clinical Research Institute, has always wanted to be a writer.
Stenke, who lives in Raleigh with her husband and kids, shared more about the story behind her book, "15 Letters to Santa." Here's a Q&A:
Go Ask Mom: Why did you choose to write the book?
Kerry Anna Stenke: The main reason I started writing is that I’ve always wanted to be an author. A published author. I spent several years transcribing my old middle school notes and papers to put together as a book about an insecure girl growing up in the 80s. But then I got sidetracked with marriage, kids, work, etc. I never thought seriously about writing a children’s book.
I didn’t realize why I started this book at this time until I was talking to a friend at work who had just written his own children’s book (for the same reason): I did it because of the horrible, horrible election cycle.
I am not a huge fan of either main candidate. Hillary could have done herself and everyone else a favor by not lying, particularly when it was so, so obvious. But Trump embodies everything I’m trying to teach my kids to not be: greedy, loud, boisterous, insulting, name-calling, bullying, lying, angry, manipulative, bigoted, selfish, intolerant, etc., etc. The fact that this is the man who kids are going to be thinking of when they say, “I want to be president when I grow up,” is heart-breaking. I just don’t get it. I am truly stunned.
After "15 Letters to Santa" was done and I started thinking of the next book, ideas for Valentine’s Day came to mind. I think Henry, the main character of the book, will probably not want to give a Valentine to the kid in his class who is considered “different.” I’m not sure what different will mean yet for the story.
GAM: Do you create stories and characters with your kids a lot? Or was this the first time?
KAS: Sometimes my son and I come up with outlandish stories when I’m trying to get him to do something he doesn’t want to do. For instance, he doesn’t want to brush his teeth. I say, “I know. I wish we had a tooth brushing machine that would brush and floss us in two seconds and we wouldn’t have to do anything.”
He then comes up with a spray that makes all our teeth slippery and all the food and yuck would just slip right off. Then the next time he doesn’t want to do it, I just say, “We don’t have that spray yet, so we have to brush tonight."
This is the first time we created a character together.
GAM: What was the process like creating something like this with your kids?
KAS: It was one of those Saturdays that I didn’t want to go anywhere and the kids were clearly at that just-about-to-explode-from-boredom stage where you have to weigh your slothfulness against the fact that the dog is about to be an unwilling participant in living room fort building. I wanted to come up with something that would entertain them, but not require leaving the house, so I suggested we make a book.
I would write and get help from them and they would draw pictures based on the story. I wrote several pages that day and when they decided to go swing in the backyard, I sat in a rocker and kept writing.
Henry must have been lodged in my throat somewhere because, after I started, the story just vomited out on paper (sorry about the phrase; it’s just kind of how it felt). I started on Oct. 24 and had a full first draft less than a month later. My kids did a bunch of drawings for it, and when I realized it might be something I’d like to publish, I asked my friend, Kim, if she would have time to do some illustrations. She did!
Klaus asked me to read it to him every night, no matter how far along we were in the story. Each night, I would print it out and read it to him before bed, with a pencil in hand for making notes. Night after night, he told me that it had to start out with a sentence saying where Henry was from, but I would stubbornly go into his room every day without that first stanza. Finally, I added it and then the ending came! He was right. It needed that.
Unfortunately, Klaus vetoed the (hilarious?) name I came up with for our Publishing Company: Stenke Feet Publishing. We settled on “My Dog Phil Publishing,” named after our dog, Agent Coulson. I got a Library of Congress Control Number and everything! My inner/outer geek is so happy.
GAM: Tell us a little bit about the story.
KAS: Henry is a second grader who can’t wait for Christmas because he wants tons of new toys — even though he’s already got so many toys he doesn’t even have room to play with him. He comes up with a plan so he can get everything he wants. He'll trick Santa by asking for presents for everyone else in his family. (But the presents are really things Henry wants for himself.)
Henry starts feeling guilty and tries to fix it by sending even more letters, telling Santa what his family really wants and why they “accidentally” asked for something else. But there’s one thing he doesn’t fix until Christmas Eve. I like the fact that he comes up with the right thing to do himself.
GAM: What's been the response? Will there be more stories from Henry?
KAS: It’s bizarre to be able to self-publish. It feels like cheating. I mentioned this to a family friend who is a “real” author, with a real agent and a real publishing company. She told me that it wasn’t cheating, that the hard part was getting the story out. I really appreciated hearing that and I tried to make this book with the care (and proofreading) that goes into the books you see at the store.
I submitted it to a few “free Kindle book” web and Facebook sites during a two-day free promotion and "15 Letters to Santa" was downloaded more than 700 times — and got *one* review. I became adept at stalking the Amazon rankings and was thrilled when it became No. 1 in free Kindle children’s books on Values and No. 5 for Christmas, two ridiculously narrow categories, but great just the same. It’s sold 11 paperback copies, and only one was purchased by me!
I think Henry has a lot to learn, but he’s only eight-years-old, so there’s still time. He’s already worked on greed and a little bit on lying. I’m hoping he’ll be conquering intolerance, name calling, bullying, and a penchant for interrupting in 2017. I’d like to write four to six more books this coming year, but I’m a little scared at how quickly and easily this one came. I don’t want to be that author who writes a second book that disappoints.
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