Guest Interview with JJ Austrian, author of Worm Loves Worm

Worm Loves Worm cover


Hello there! Today, in honor of love (and this whole mid-February thing), we catch up with JJ Austrian. His adorable debut picture book, Worm Loves Worm (illustrated by Mike Curato) is one of my new favorites — funny and sweet and full of love!

From the flap: “When a worm meets a special worm and they fall in love, you know what happens next. They get married! But their friends want to know– who will wear the dress? And who will wear the tux?…”

Worm Loves Worm is a deceptively simple story that celebrates the triumph of unwavering love. Can you talk about your inspiration for this book?

The idea came to me several years ago—after having dinner at the home of good friends and former neighbors, two women who had been a couple for more than twenty years. My son, who was four years old at the time, had assumed that Pam and Leanora were married, since, like mommy and daddy, they lived together and loved each other. When my son asked me if Pam and Leanora were married, I tried to explain to him that, at that time, women couldn’t marry women and men couldn’t marry men. When my son asked, “Why not?” I said that some people thought it was only “natural” for men and women to marry each other. My son thought about this for a moment and said, “That’s dumb. Pam and Leanora love each other.” I agreed and wondered why other adults couldn’t see the truth that was so obvious to my son. How such love be anything but natural? Nature doesn’t care about gender. Look at earthworms!

Four years later, while earning my MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults at Hamline University, I was asked by one of my advisors, the children’s author Claire Rudolph Murphy, to write a picture book. Thinking back to the conversation I had with my son, I decided to write WORM LOVES WORM.

(Also, I’m delighted to report that in 2014 my son and daughter were part of Pam and Leanora’s wedding.)

How did your manuscript evolve from its first draft? (The pacing and language turns are so satisfying!)

 The story evolved and grew after each draft. The structure of the story never changed, but the first draft was very spare and the message was front-and-center, which didn’t work. Nobody, especially kids, wants to be lectured. So I added more wedding stuff: the tuxedos, cake, dancing, and rings. I also added Spider—after Claire suggested I give the worms an ally. It was also pointed out to me, in a workshop at Hamline led by the writers Gary Schmidt and Marsha Chall, that the other insects seemed very negative, which wasn’t what I wanted at all. I didn’t want the insects to be mean or nasty, just set in their ways and clueless. So, I changed the word “No” to “Wait” in order to show that the insects wanted to both plan and participate in the wedding—but a “traditional” one. Finally, I was incredibly fortunate to receive a Shabo Award from the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, which allowed me to work with author and illustrator Nancy Carlson. It was Nancy who helped me figure to out the refrain, “That’s how it always been done,” which made the ending come together.

Spiders sly line (about the cake and Cricket and Beetle) accomplishes so much! It’s a playful wink to the power of commas and, depending on inflection, is open to interpretation for more sensitive listeners. Was this line in the manuscript from the beginning?

Spider had that line the moment she joined the story. To me, it was Spider’s subtle way of telling cricket and beetle to get with the program. The funny thing is that adults always ask me about the line, but kids seem to get the joke right away. You can’t get anything past kids, which is why it’s so fun to write for them.

What do you hope your young readers will say when they reach the end of this book?

Most of all, I hope they laughed and enjoyed it. My main goal was to make sure the story is entertaining. Beyond that, though, I hope young readers will see that they should not only love themselves, but also stand up for themselves. Just because we have always done something a certain way doesn’t mean that it’s the right way and can’t or shouldn’t be changed. Of course, change can be scary, but it also can lead to opportunity. And, in the end, love is love.

What new stories can we look forward to from you, and how soon?

I’m finishing my Young Adult fantasy, THE SILVER COFFIN. It’s about a young, impulsive shepherd who sells his soul in a desperate attempt to save his sister from being sacrificed to the God of Death, and about how his headstrong sister does everything in her power to win his soul back. I’m trying to write a roller coaster of a story that has speed, twists, turns, and jolts. I’m having a lot of fun writing it and I hope readers will enjoy the story.

Some of your readers may not know that wildly patterned trousers are one of your trademarks. What is the origin of JJs wild pants?

My awesome dad is the reason I wear awesome pants. My father held jobs that demanded he wear a suit and tie, and, thanks to my mother, my dad always dressed well. He was stylish, but never flashy or trendy. However, way, way back in a mystical, groovy time known as the early ‘70s, there was a brief moment where wild prints were worn to summer cocktail parties and get-togethers. My straight-laced dad was one of these bold men in bold pants, and I loved him for it. I loved that he didn’t take himself too seriously. He was, and still is, a fun-loving person and a great dad. Years later, when I was fortunate to inherit his collection of vintage pants, I began wearing them to events and parties as a way to honor my dad and not take myself too seriously. Now, if I wear khakis, people seem disappointed. I’ve added to the collection over the years, and, while not all the pants are vintage, they are all fun and fairly loud. Like me.

Thank you so much for visiting, JJ! To see JJ’s wild pants (and more!) drop by



WHAT I HAVE ON MY WRITING DESK RIGHT NOW, in no particular order: a couple of drafty middle-grade novels. The inkling of a new picture book. A non-fiction young adult manuscript. And collection of folktales.

One of the above-mentioned drafty novels has been frozen for quite some time. This story held so much promise! So many readers said so! But at a couple of crucial points in my writing, my own belief in my ability was shaken by the gale-force winds that can blow you down when really smart people comment on your work.

Not sure if these notes blew apart the story’s roof or the foundation, but either way, I couldn’t sort it out, and this left me pretty broken up about it. Still, my writer friends assure me, what I’ve learned from writing this story is invaluable, even if this particular book will never bear fruit.

That happens, my writer friends assure me. And that’s okay. You’ll pluck a line or a character or an idea from it for a different project later. Deep breath. Let your hopes for this go. Move on.



Four years ago, on a Saturday whim, my now-husband and I bought a scraggly plum tree. The plant dude said we lived near enough to crabapples that it’d pollinate, and we’d have plums in the next year or two.

We tied it to the roof of our car, drove home, dug a hole in our pathetic, patchy backyard, and planted it – not too close to the house, just in case we built a porch someday.

The tree grew, but no plums the first year. (Lots of aphids, though – I wiped them off, day after day, with a mixture of watery dishsoap.)

Second year, we built that porch. Still no plums. But the tree grew, and flowered, and it was pretty and green.

Third year? No plums. (Still lots of aphids, though.) We’re guessing that plant dude was wrong. Our yard doesn’t have enough room for another tree. We’re disappointed, but Oh, well, we think. It’s a pretty tree.

We had super-crazy windstorms last spring. I mean, enough to blow siding off the house. The tree had a few small branches broken, but other than that, it was healthy. (No aphids this year! Coincidence?)

This summer, a family of robins nested in the tree, with three babies almost close enough to touch – and we got to watch them from the porch. So, plums or not, I loved the tree.

But as I looked at those babies in the nest, you know what else I saw? Tiny plums. Those gale-force winds? Must have blown some pollen our way.

It’s hot out today.
The babies have since left the nest. The plums are purple and big. When I finish this post, I’m going outside to gather fruit.

Now, I didn’t do anything to deserve this harvest, other than plant and care for that tree. I’m fully aware of that.

Sometimes, the things you give up on surprise you. Sometimes, we have to care for things for a long time before we see any fruit. I’m thinking a lot about that, about how things and people change, and about how the aftermath of a storm can bring such surprises.

So, after I’m done gathering outside, I’m coming inside to prune that manuscript. Maybe, to torture the metaphor a bit more, I’ll find that those confidence-shaking gale-force winds in fact carried much-needed pollen.

Maybe I’ll find some plums.

Hello! Welcome to my – occasional, probably – blog!

Today, I’m trying to manage to actually make some progress on a book or two… and my brain is creaky. My writing muscles feel weak. I’m searching a lot these days. Searching for things I’ve lost, searching for the right words, searching for something to say, here.

You know how when you’re looking for something, you find other things? I can’t even remember what I was initially searching for (told you my brain was creaky), but here’s the most interesting thing I’ve found this week – this picture of me and my very best friend of the moment. I am six. We are at Longleat Park in England.  

photo: Ruth Busch

On seeing this picture, I remember, instantly, what I felt. I remember the smells and the slight breeze and the sounds. I remember this, most: It was all I could do to not throw my arms around that long neck and hug hug hug. But:

I asked our guide, and he said no.

– NO??

– NO.

– Are you sure?

– Yep.

So, this. I had to be content with standing there – and while I was NOT content, I was still gleeful. Transported with joy at my luck.

Here it is: this weird, creaky realization that I had when I was six, and what I needed a reminder of: we can be full of joy, and still not be content. And that is okay. That is even, sometimes, preferable – contentment has rarely been known to spur us forward.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, um, everything. For me, anyway. Right now, as I struggle with my various stages of revision on several wildly divergent stories, I am uncomfortable and discontented. It’s so hard! So hard. And I love story so much – and I’m ridiculously lucky to be able to do this.

Wishing us all a bit of discontented joy today.