5 QUESTIONS with Rachel Vail, author of “Sometimes I Grumblesquinch”

We’re back with the fourth installment of “5 Questions 2.0” — the new & improved interview format that invites some of the best folks in children’s literature to answer five — and only five! — questions. 

My guest today is Rachel Vail, a wide-ranging writer with many books to her credit. I think of Rachel as an intentional writer. Rachel knows what she is doing — and exactly why she is doing it — and who she is doing it for — with each and every book. A total pro and a very conscious writer.


1. Are you one of those people who knew she wanted to be a writer from a young age?

Absolutely not. I always loved reading, listening to stories, telling stories, and writing. A good sentence has always had the power to make my day. But what I wanted to be was never a writer. I thought all writers were at least old if not dead, neither of which I was at the time, and anyway it didn’t seem like a real job. I always knew exactly what I wanted to be. That thing changed often but I was always certain. (Not knowing seemed terrifying to me, and like proof that I wasn’t “gifted” or “a genius” or “meant” to do the thing, which made me feel like a plodder, a fake.) Also I wanted to do something hard, like be a spy or an actor or a senator. Writing, I naively believed, was easy.

2. So I’m looking at the Oxford English Dictionary — the annotated, expanded version — and  I’m not seeing the word Grumblesquinch in there anywhere. Then I realized that twenty years ago you published Sometimes I’m Bombaloo. What’s going on? Did you decide, after 20  years, “It’s obviously time for sequel!”

Was that not an obvious move?

Katie Honors, the narrator of Sometimes I’m Bombaloo, has lived in my imagination all these years, and in fact there were two sequels already (Jibberwillies at Night; Flabbersmashed About You).

Ah, my bad. Flabbersmashed? Pretty sure that happened to me last Saturday night. No regrets! I’m sorry, I interrupted. 

Sometimes I’m Bombaloo, in particular, has continued to sell and even be studied by a wide range of childhood specialists, from psychologists to educators and beyond. When my brilliant gang –- editor Liza Baker and agent Amy Berkower –- asked if there were any more Katie Honors books in my mind, I jumped at the chance to listen to her again. The illustrator of Bombaloo, the great Yumi Heo, had unfortunately died, so I’d thought that was the end of Katie’s journey. But Liza and Patti Ann Harris of Scholastic were able to engage Hyewon Yum to illustrate the new book, and oh my gosh her seemingly simple art just absolutely blows me away with its evocative emotions and hidden magic.

About those WORDS: I am writing about BIG feelings in little kids. Feelings so big they sometimes feel bigger than the kids can contain. It felt to me like feelings that big, and that complex, need new words to describe them. I want to put the parent and the child in the same position: of beginner, intuiting what the word means from the context, becoming fluent together. Also, I wanted to invent feelings-words that sound like what they mean.

3) To me, the heart of Grumblesquinch — what elevated the book — was the mother’s  response. Was that there from the beginning?

It was.

As a grumblesquincher myself, I know intimately the desire to please the people I love, to be a pleasure, to feel in my bones that it’s my job to be easy to be around. It is such a challenge to own the negative feelings, and to share them.

What I have found, as a recovering good girl, is that the world is often very accepting of us in all our chaotic, contradictory, flawed selves, if we find the courage to share them. It is a balm to discover that. I try to be that kind of mom to my kids –- open to hearing all their feelings and thoughts, even the angry, hostile, frustrated, sad, worried thoughts. There’s such a temptation to push the rough feelings away, as a parent: NO! Don’t be melancholy! Don’t be anxious! Don’t be rageful! When you see a little person for whom you are responsible in pain, you naturally want to just ERASE IT immediately. Your child’s pain is too painful for a parent to bear! So we want to solve it, or deny it, or cajole it away. That comes from love. BUT. I think it feels awful for a kid (or an adult!) to have their negative feelings erased, denied, even solved for.

Sometimes we just need to be heard. We need to know the people who love us can still love us, and can hear the full thing we are feeling. So it was important to me that, though the parents do have the impulse to keep the day light and happy, they can also eventually really be present and understanding. That there will be room for the whole Katie. I had the idea of Chuck being a frustrating buttery baby in my mind for years, and Katie holding in her feelings about him. It was only when I realized what she was really afraid of (letting down her parents, exposing who she really was and disappointing them with her imperfection) that the story clicked for me.

Also, my own mom is really, really nice, deeply accepting, and loving. So that is a constant struggle for me, as a writer.

That’s the genius of this book — and, really, any great picture book. To take something that’s complex and distill it to its essence in a way that conveys a simple, clear, authentic truth. I mean to say: You are spectacular, Rachel Vail.  I also love that you write a range of books. I have a similar affliction. You know, totally confuse any  potential “audience” that might possibly exist. (This does not count as a question! Please ignore.)

It is a problem. We suck. 

4) I remember a conversation I had with an editor at Scholastic, my old pal Craig Walker. We were  talking about the strengths and weaknesses of different writers. He said to me — this is back in the 90s — “Rachel Vail knows girls. She really, really knows that world.” Yet I think one of the  challenges with getting older (sorry), and then having your own children become adults, is  staying in touch with the world of our readers. Is there anything that you do to help keep that  connection strong?


Ah, Craig Walker! What a lovely man. Thank you for that!

Yeah, it’s deeply rude of my kids to grow up so quickly. I do like getting their input. (Though it’s not always pleasant, it is useful!)

I continue to talk with kids, and listen to them, more importantly -– friends’ kids, family, at school visits (virtual and now again in person!) and online -– to stay current with what’s going on in their minds, hearts, and language. But I also think that many of the issues facing kids are the same as when we were growing up, when our grandparents were growing up, when their grandparents… we’re trying to figure out who we are in the world and in our souls, how to be a friend, what love costs and is worth, how to choose when neither or both options seem good. The details change (having a way to contact the other person easily at any point wrecks many old plots, from Shakespeare to Tolstoy and beyond, for example) and keep changing, so that’s a lot to stay on top of, and important. I’m finding it nearly impossible to write a truly “contemporary” novel, now. The circumstances of our lives in these past 3-5 years change so quickly that by the time I get something to an editor, it’s already historical fiction. Nothing written with details of, say, May 2020 would be current now. It’s definitely easier to write contemporary fiction for younger kids in that sense –- the big dramas of their lives will continue to be a too-early bedtime or too-big feelings about how annoying their toddler brother is, regardless of whether there is an ongoing global pandemic, or whatever happens with the newest technological or world political upheaval.

And of course, we are all so distractible now, the forms may need to change, too.

5) When I first saw your book, A Is for Elizabeth, I thought: Wow, you’d think a professional writer of Rachel Vail’s caliber wouldn’t make this kind of careless error. Then I thought: Oh, hold  on a sec. Um, seriously. I love (love!) the format of this book. The size, length, content,  everything about it. I don’t think we see enough very young chapter books that contain real stories and characters with depth. Well done. You’ve given me something to aspire to. Tell us  where this book came from and what’s happening with this series.


Ahahahahaha thank you! 

I love love love these books, too. I love Elizabeth, so bold and forthright and trying so very hard. I also find her hilarious. I loved writing her so much I actually spent time scheming: how can I make the publisher need to publish tons of these; all I want to do for the next few years is write from Elizabeth’s perspective! That’s why you’ll notice the alphabetical theme of the first four books… they’d have to let me do 26, I thought!

But so far, no. JUST 4. Time will tell. I haven’t given up hope.

Elizabeth started as the younger sister in my 3 books about Justin Case. Justin is a really terrific third grader with a lot of worries. I wrote them because I wanted a book about a really terrific third grader with a lot of worries to give my son Liam, when he fit that exact description. Justin was in some ways like Liam but also a bit like my older son Zachary, and also of course like me, and also just himself. But his little sister Elizabeth (who was also like all of us but also sui generis just herself) kept stealing the scene, for me. She cracked me up. So I knew I wanted to give her center stage. I loved writing in her voice, which became so clear to me.

My favorite part of the writing process is definitely revision –- when the book is clearly a full story and you just have to cut it, hone it, improve it… and you can feel it getting there. There’s a moment in that stage, usually, where something your main character says is just so perfectly them, so not a thing anybody else would say or has said… and you feel it, you feel that thing where it’s like you’re taking dictation from this person who has until that moment existed only in your imagination but now seems to exist whole, complex and vivid, beside you. Oh, man, that’s the buzz I chase, the magic that makes the whole writing flog worth it.


JAMES PRELLER is the author of many books for young readers, including Bystander, Blood Mountain, Six Innings, A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, and the popular Jigsaw Jones mystery series. Look for the first book in his strange & mysterious middle-grade series, EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines, available in stores in February, 2023. 


  1. Ann says:

    Loved this interview. Want to go out and find these preK books now for my grandgirl. Thank you both!

  2. Eileen Vail says:

    Rachel, you never cease to amaze me. You are “spectacular.”

  3. Mitch Elkind says:

    What an awesome interview. You are both so talented! Thank you!

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