Today I’m excited to talk with Karlin Gray about how moths became extraordinary in her eyes, what types of characters she’s drawn to, and what might be the best holiday in the world
Did you like to write as a child? How did you get started writing books for children?
Yes, I did like to write as a child. When I was little, I would retell stories like Alice in Wonderland, changing the names and some details. Someone must have explained ‘plagiarism’ to me and, eventually, I learned to write my own stories.
I started writing picture books when my son was a toddler (about seven years ago). I joined a local writing center where I workshopped all three of my contracted books, including AN EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY MOTH.
Before you began working in the publishing field and writing for children, you worked for newspapers. Can you talk a little about that experience? What did you like most about it? Has it influenced your work for children?
After college, my first two jobs were graphic design positions at weekly newspapers in Northern Virginia and D.C. I loved learning about the publishing process—how words and images were selected, designed, printed, and distributed. It’s a fast-paced, exhausting business. But those jobs taught me to work on a deadline which helps me as a children’s book writer, for sure!
What inspired you to write about moths?
My son. When he was three, he announced that the moth was his favorite insect. I imagined that moth was having a bad day—comparing himself to “cooler” moths like the Luna moth or Spider moth—and then overheard my son’s statement. It’s a nice reminder that sometimes it takes just one kind comment to improve someone’s day.
What do you think makes the “ordinary” extraordinary?
Perspective. My son saw something special in a creature that I never really considered. But his interest piqued my interest, so I did some research. That led me to learning several amazing things about moths. Now, instead of shooing them away, I celebrate moths in An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth.
What was your process in writing An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth?
Once the first line popped into my head—“I’m an ordinary moth, as you can plainly see…”—the story was set in rhyme. Usually, I research then write a story. But here, I did my research as I wrote the manuscript. The first draft took a couple days and was MESSY. I workshopped the manuscript on and off for two years, tightening the story, rhyme, and meter. I eliminated a whole stanza where the ordinary moth compares itself to other moths like the poodle moth. Trust me, it wasn’t easy cutting out the poodle moth! But, like they say, sometimes you have to kill your darlings.
Do you have a favorite place to write? If so, can you describe it a little? Do you have a favorite thing on your desk or in your writing space?
In my house I have an office but I don’t do much writing there. I usually move from the dining table to the kitchen table to the outside table when it’s warm.
In an earlier interview, you mentioned that you had “stories about presidents, magicians, explorers, athletes, mermaids, monsters, scarecrows, cats, mice, and one sad moth” in your desk drawer. What types of characters—or personalities—attract your creative interest? Do you have a preference for nonfiction? If so, why?
Oh yeah, I guess I’ll have to change that since the “sad moth” is out of the drawer and on the cover of a book. I’m a sucker for characters whose “flaws” are really their strengths, and I love a good finding-your-tribe story. Both nonfiction and fiction stories appeal to me but I enjoy the challenge of taking a true story and translating it into a picture book—selecting a character and timeframe, finding dialogue and active details, setting the tone and style, and staying true to the facts as well as the heart of the story.
In your website biography you have links to “things you like.” These are amazing and range from The American Mural Project to Storyline Online to the Landfill Harmonic. Can you talk about what draws you to these types of projects? Why do you think they are important not only for those directly involved in them, but for all kids—and adults?
Those two projects have a lot of heart. I met Ellen—she is a tiny person who has a big personality and a HUGE dream. The fact that one person had a goal to make the biggest indoor art installation is worthy of a book right there! And the Landfill Harmonic group—kids making music with trash!—was made into a book, Ada’s Violin by Susan Hood. I think both of those stories appeal to kids because it shows them that there are no limitations in art.
What’s the best part about writing for kids?
So many things…but probably the best is when kids tell me that they want to be a writer when they grow up. My response is always: “If I could do it, you can do it.”
You share your books at school and bookstore events. Do you have any anecdote from an event you’d like to share?
Twice a month I volunteer at a nearby school where I read books selected by the teacher. When I read my first book NADIA to the kids, the first graders had a hard time believing that I was the author. They knew me as someone who visited every other week and read a book from their shelves. They didn’t know me as a writer so that was a fun surprise for them.
What’s up next for you?
My next picture book is a biography of Serena Williams—SERENA: THE LITTLEST SISTER—and will be published in early 2019.
What is your favorite holiday and why?
Probably New Year’s Eve. We can see the town fireworks from our back deck so we invite a few families over for a casual get-together. It’s a nice way to end the year and the kids love staying up past midnight.
And, until your email, I didn’t know there was a Moth-er Day. (Not to be confused with Mother’s Day.) Very cool. The moth is also celebrated during National Moth Week in July: http://nationalmothweek.org
Do you have any anecdote from a holiday that you’d like to share?
When I was 10-14 years old, I lived in Japan because my dad worked with the military. I remember feeling sorry for Japanese kids because they didn’t celebrate holidays like Christmas or Halloween. But once I discovered that they had an even better holiday—Children’s Day!!—then I just felt sorry for myself.
Thanks so much for this great chat, Karlin! I wish you all the best with An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth and all of your books!
You can find An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth at these booksellers:
You can connect with Karlin Gray on
Moth-er Day Review
About the Holiday
Did you know that some moths are even more beautiful than butterflies? It’s true! Adorned in vibrant oranges, greens, blues, and reds and with patterns more intricate than the finest fabrics, moths are some of nature’s loveliest creatures. With spring right around the corner, moths will once again be emerging in woods, fields, and gardens, so today take a little time to celebrate these often overlooked insects and learn more about them and their habitats.
An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth
Written by Karlin Gray | Illustrated by Steliyana Doneva
As a grayish-brown moth flits among the leaves framed by the full moon, he says, “I’m an ordinary moth, / as you can plainly see. / A dusty, grayish, dull insect— / nothing-special me.” He compares himself to the Luna Moth “who floats in graceful green” and to the Spider Moth who’s “so cool at Halloween!” He’s nothing like the Hummingbird Moth who mimics its namesake bird, and he can’t hide like the Wood Nymph Moth that looks like “birdy dung.” He’s much smaller than the Atlas Moth and not as pretty as a butterfly. While all of these are special—extraordinary even—this little guy thinks he is just “a dusty, grayish moth— / very ordinary.”
But then a little boy runs through the yard shouting “‘A moth! A moth!’” The moth freezes against a wall, afraid and unsure and hoping to hide. But when the moth sees the excitement in the boy’s eyes, he moves “toward his joyful light.” He lands in the boy’s hands, uncertain still if he’ll be shooed away. And sure enough, the boy’s sister screams, “‘Ew, a bug!’” When she knocks her brother’s hand away, the moth flies off.
The moth hears the boy tell his sister, “‘Hey, it’s an insect—not a bug— / and my favorite kind!’” then he sees the boy trailing him “all through the yard. / with her two steps behind.” She thinks the moth is nothing special, but her brother disagrees. And as the moth alights on his finger, he shows her why. What looks like dust are really “‘scales that keep him warm at night. / And they flake off in a web so he escapes all right.’”
The little girl’s a bit more interested but thinks his color is “kind of blah.” The boy explains that the moth is the color of tree bark and can camouflage himself during the day while he sleeps. Then at night he’s ready to fly, guided by moonlight and the scents he smells through his antennae. Now the little girl thinks the moth is pretty cool. She calls their mom to come and see, and when Mom wants to know what bug they found, “the girl says, ‘Mom—a moth’s an insect, / and out favorite kind!’”
Hearing that, the moth soars in the moonlight with a new self image—“So how ‘bout THAT?! / I’m someone’s FAVORITE! / Little grayish me— / proof of how / EXTRAORDINARY / ordinary can be.”
Ten Extraordinary Facts about Moths, as well as an activity for constructing a moth observation box follow the text.
Through her vivacious rhymes, Karlin Gray elevates the “ordinary” back-porch moth to star status with fascinating facts that will lure kids to discover more. The conversational verses echo a sweet sibling relationship while the moth, overhearing them, begins to appreciate himself. The bookending of the children’s story with the moth’s thoughts—first comparing himself to other moths and later realizing his own merits—will encourage readers to think about the nature of nature and about the importance of positive interactions with others. Told from the moth’s point of view, the story also has a deeper meaning, reminding readers that, like this moth, people also have special talents that make them exceptional. Taking extra time to really learn about another’s unique qualities and to get to know them is exciting and has benefits for all.
Steliyana Doneva’s gorgeous illustrations of moths and butterflies will dazzle insect-loving kids and convert the more squeamish. Doneva captures each delicate marking and texture of the little grayish moth as it flits in the light and camouflages itself on the wall and tree. The moth is also well spotlighted against Doneva’s vibrant backyard oasis where the little boy and his sister discover him. Nighttime scenes sparkle with starlight, and the full moon brings out the rich blues of an evening sky. The boy’s enthusiasm for moths and nature is infectious and will captivate young readers, enticing them to look closer at the world around them.
An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth is a beautiful, eye-opening book that would spur further discovery for nature and science lovers at home and in science or STEM classrooms.
Ages 4 – 8
Sleeping Bear Press, 2018 | ISBN 978-1-58536-372-8
Sleeping Bear Press sent me a copy of An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth to check out. All opinions are my own.
Discover more about Karlin Gray and her books on her website.
View a portfolio of work by Steliyana Doneva and learn more about her on her website.
Download and have fun with these An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth Activity Sheets!
Moth-er Day Activity
Beautiful Moths Game
Moths go through many stages of metamorphosis—from egg to caterpillar to cocoon— before they finally emerge as a moth. In this game, help six moths emerge from their cocoons to win!
- Print a Tree Branch Game Board and set of Moth Cards for each player
- Print one Moth Playing Die
- Choose a player to go first
- The first player rolls the die and places the matching moth card on one of the cocoons on the Tree Branch Game Board
- Play then moves to the player on the left
- Players continue to roll the die and place moths on each cocoon
- If a player rolls a moth that they already have placed on their game board, they pass the die to the next player and wait for their next turn.
- The player who fills their Tree Branch with moths first is the winner
Picture Book Review