Jun 16, 2011 • By

Cheerios and a story

Laurie Isop is no longer an aspiring children’s author… she’s published!

Her “How Do You Hug a Porcupine?” was tucked into 3 million boxes of Cheerios this spring, thanks to her win in the Cheerios New Author Contest in 2009.

Laurie, from Washington, was chosen out of a field of 8,000 entries. Her book tells the story of a boy’s attempts to befriend a shy porcupine and involves a lesson in trust and (spoiler alert!) marshmallows.

The contest is part of the Spoonfuls of Stories initiative, a partnership with nonprofit First Book and Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing that’s resulted in the distribution of 50 million children’s books inside specially marked boxes of Cheerios since 2002.

As winner, Laurie received a contract with Simon & Schuster and a $5,000 cash prize.

We asked her about her inspiration, writing style and how winning what she calls the “literary lottery” has changed her life:

What got you interested in writing for kids?

Isop: I was always hopeful I would be an author someday, and when you have hope, it’s an inspiring thing to have! When my boys were little, I made stories with clip art on the computer and used their names in the story. It was a fun project and gave them a positive connection to reading. As for me, it made me “feel” published. After that I started writing more seriously.

Where do you get your ideas?

Isop: From life mostly, or funny things I overhear. With “Porcupine,” my family was sitting around the dinner table talking about people who are difficult to warm up to. You know, the kind who are cold and “prickly.” I realized there was something here that could be a story concept. Kids love animals and are receptive to learning from animals, so an animal would be part of the story. My family brainstormed – there are fun animals, cute animals and animals that might not be so easy to love.

At its most basic level, the story is about hugging all sorts of critters, but at a deeper level it’s about perseverance and being persistent – even the impossible can be done!

How did you find out about the Cheerios New Authors Contest?

Isop: My sister told me about the contest, so I entered. I learned a lot along the way. I still remember the day I received the call that I won the contest. I was stunned. It was a miserable afternoon, and when I picked up the phone, I heard a lovely voice. At first I thought it was a solicitor and almost didn’t answer the phone! When she told me that I won, I was so excited and emotional. First thing I did was call my mom to tell her the good news.

How has winning the contest changed your life?

Isop: It’s motivated me to write every day, and has made me feel so validated. I’ve been recognized a couple of times from the cereal box, which is thrilling, and asked to speak and read to kids. I’ve also heard from total strangers all over the country telling me how much they love the story. One mom wrote and said that “How Do You Hug a Porcupine?” was her son’s first complete sentence! Now that feels good!

What’s your latest book project?

Isop: I have two right now: “How to Finagle a Bagel” and “Charlie’s Bucket.”

What’s your advice for aspiring writers?

Isop: Read what you write to your intended audience, and watch them to gauge their interest level. Join a critique group, get hooked up with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and take out a subscription to The Writer. Read the kinds of books you want to write, develop a voice, and then practice, practice, practice!

Editor’s note: You can watch a video interview with Isop here and also preview some of her writing at her website. And if you miss getting Isop’s book inside a box of Cheerios, it will be in bookstores beginning July 26. This year’s Cheerios New Author Contest is open through July 15. For more information, visit SpoonfulsOfStoriesContest.com.