Interview with Mom’s Choice Award-Winner Cheryl Johnson

Cheryl Johnson MCA Interview Series Featured image

Mom’s Choice Awards is excited to announce another post in our interview series where we chat with the inventors, designers, publishers, and others behind some of our favorite family-friendly products.

Welcome, Mom’s Choice readers! Today we’re speaking with Cheryl Johnson, an award-winning wildlife photographer and a woman with many careers who, luckily for us and young readers everywhere, became an author, as well. Her fourth book, Backyard Critters, which won a Mom’s Choice Award, reminds kids ages 3­–10 that nature is amazing—how the world around us is filled with different creatures and critters in every size, shape, and color imaginable—and that they don’t have to go far to discover this amazing world. All they have to do is step right outside their door! Today, we hope she’ll share what it’s like to turn a rejection into a triumph—and discover the beauty of nature in one’s own backyard.

MCA: Cheryl, we’re so glad to have you with us today. Please tell us something about yourself to let our readers get a chance to know you better.

First of all, I wear a lot of hats! I’m a business owner, photographer, and author; but more importantly, I’m a wife, mother, sister, and friend. During the day I can be found running a boutique advertising agency, developing marketing campaigns, producing television commercials, and designing print material for customers. In the evenings I put on my wife hat, to enjoy an “empty nest” with my husband and our dog. On the weekends I can often be found with camera in hand, exploring the wilds of nature and adding images to my award-winning photography portfolio. In between all this craziness, I love to squeeze in some time to sit at my computer to write and design books for children and adults.

MCA: What was your path to becoming a writer like? What inspired you?

For me, it all started with a bird walk. I’ve dabbled in photography all my life, but when I got married and we started our family, photography took a backseat to the responsibilities of being a wife, mother, and business owner. In 2014 I rediscovered photography and spent the next few years dabbling here and there but not really finding my passion. In 2016, while writing a magazine article about the birding and nature trails in our local park, I grabbed my camera with the intention of taking some bird photos to use in the article, because, really, how hard is it to photograph birds?

The answer: Stupid hard!

Not to be outdone by the little feathered beasties, I vowed to figure out how other people were getting those amazing nature photos… and an obsession was born. Since then, I’ve gone on to take literally hundreds of thousands of photos and rack up quite a few photography awards in the process, but writing a children’s book was never, ever on my radar. Then, in 2019, a friend called and asked if I could put a picture book together for her goddaughter who loves birds. That phone call led to the publication of my first book, My Backyard Bird Book.

I was as surprised as the next person to discover that not only did I enjoy writing children’s books, but I was actually quite good at it, with my first four titles being picked up by a traditional publishing company and going on to sell tens of thousands of copies. I find nature fascinating, and each time I photograph a new bird, insect, animal, etc., I find myself driven to discover all I can about it. I think this love of discovery and wonder is very similar to what a child feels as they look around their world where there’s a new discovery around every corner. And as a photographer, these children’s books are the perfect outlet for my photography and love of discovery… and useless trivia.

MCA: What was your inspiration for writing Backyard Critters and Creatures

Backyard Critters and Creatures is probably my favorite of all the books I’ve written. I’ve traveled all over the world photographing the most amazing creatures, but with this book, I wanted children to know that they don’t have to travel any further than their own backyard or park to discover the wonder of nature. Most of the photos in the book were actually taken in my own backyard.

This book was written on the heels of my first four books being traditionally published. I had fallen into that trap of thinking that because I’d had four successes in a row, everything I did moving forward would also, automatically, be a success. When I turned this book in to my publisher, I was shocked and crushed when they turned it down. But, once I got over my hurt feelings, took a step back, and really really looked at what I had created, I discovered that the publisher was correct because it really wasn’t that good. I had fallen into children’s book publishing so quickly and had success right off the bat, that I had never taken the time to develop a focus, plan, and goal for any of my books.

That rejection forced me to reevaluate what I was doing, hone in on my publishing goals, and develop a much stronger and focused product. I think Backyard Critters and Creatures is one of my best books, but without that rejection, it would have remained just “okay.”

MCA: What are some of the key lessons found in the book?

Through this book I have two goals: Introduce children to the amazing animal kingdom that’s all around them and teach them to respect nature and be safe explorers. I hope that they gain a wonder and appreciation for the world of nature that’s all around us.

MCA: What kind of response from readers and parents have you received? What element(s) seem to make the greatest impact on young readers—the stunning four-color nature photography? the fun facts?

Funnily enough the biggest response I get from parents is how I show the weight of the creatures in ways that kids can understand… a skunk weighs as much as a tennis ball, etc.

MCA: That’s a brilliant idea—making comparisons that children can easily relate to. Are you asked to do readings in schools?

I’m actually asked to do more presentations for adults than kids! I do have a presentation that I’ve developed and presented to preschoolers (which resulted in a book idea that I recently published) and I am in the process of developing a program for older elementary school children. Once I get both programs in place, I’ll make a full push into the schools.

MCA: Beyond those new projects, do you have anything else in the pipeline?

I do have a new project in the pipeline that’s completely different for me! I live in a small town in South Texas and in 2024 we will be celebrating our bicentennial. In honor of the event, I’m writing a book where my character (Charli) explores the culture, history, and things to do in our community from the perspective of a 4th grader. She is going to go on 21 different adventures ranging from historical reenactments to kayaking to exploring our downtown and more. This is the first time I’ll be working with an illustrator and will combine her illustrations with photographs.

MCA: With all that you have going on, Cheryl, we’re so glad you could join us today. Please keep us posted about your latest project!

You can learn more about Cheryl Johnson and her award-winning book, Backyard Critters and Creatures by visiting her MCA Shop pages.

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