C.J. Zachary is a bestselling children’s book author who works exclusively with her illustrator husband, Zac. The husband and wife team is from Arkansas and work in elementary education. Zac is an art teacher while CJ is a Dyslexia Interventionist. She also has taught kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and has served as a Literacy Facilitator. Their first book, The Awkward Avocado, teaches the importance of acceptance and self-love. It has been a smash hit since its release in 2022. CJ and Zac just recently released the sequel, Awkward Avocado and the Interrupting Raptor. Their children are the inspiration behind their hit children’s books.
This interview transcription has been edited for length and clarity.
Joe: Hi CJ, thank you so much for being here! I’m excited to talk to you. I’ve been a fan of you and your books for a while now.
CJ: Thank you! I’m so excited to do this.
Joe: So, you work in education. Obviously, there is so much work that goes into that. There are long hours and I’m sure your schedule is busy. So, I’m curious what inspired you to take on this endeavor of becoming a children’s book author?
CJ: Well, I’ve been in education for 15 years. My husband Zac and I actually did something completely different than education before we decided to go back to school and be educators. We went to college for different things. He’s the artist. He went for graphic design, and I actually went for pediatric physical therapy. But I just knew I always wanted to work with kids.
I also always have loved writing. Since the first grade it was my passion. My teacher will actually still talk about it. I would write like little poems, and I stuck with poetry for a long time. Then when I graduated college, I decided I was going to write the great American novel. Fast forward 15 years later, I have not finished the novel.. which I’m sure many other novelists can relate to.. But Zac talked about wanting to do comic books. One day, we were just like, let’s pause on the novel and the comics and meet in the middle. Let’s try to make a children’s book. I’ll write it, you (Zac) will illustrate it. So, we just decided to do it.
I started putting ideas down in a little idea notebook and included what we thought kids would relate to and what kids would enjoy reading. That’s how it all began.
Joe: I’m always so fascinated by Children’s book authors because like, everything about children’s books is just so creative. In your instance, the characters are all fruit and vegetables but they convey such a deeply human story. How did you come up with the concept of the Awkward Avocado, its concepts, and themes?
CJ: So we were talking in our room, and we had our little idea notebook out. We had some cute stuff out and we were debating which one we wanted to start with and which one could really take off. And our daughter, who is very much shy and introverted, she walked into our room and didn’t say anything. She just started waving.
And then she just like walked out backwards. And we were like, okay that was awkward. And if we were cartoon characters, you would see a light immediately shine over our heads! I turned the page in that notebook and started writing down all her little quirks. You can read the book and you’ll see that there are 30 quirks in there that are completely her. Now, she likes sports and has friends, so she’s not completely anti-social. But, we just started writing these down and talked about how awkward she was. Then, it just flowed out. Then it was like I almost had the book right there in that instance.
As far as the title, I knew I wanted “Awkward” to be in it. Being an ex-kindergarten teacher, I really like alliteration and rhyme. Since I like alliteration, it was just the first thing that popped into my head. I was like, “oh! The Awkward Avocado”! So, that is the inspiration behind the title.
Then, Zac went into his workstation and drew out this little picture. And I knew right away that was it. It ended up being the cover you see on the book. That was the very first little idea and I knew that it was going to be the cover. It was the cutest thing and it just worked out.
Joe: It’s perfect and the way it came together is amazing. It’s such a great story and I think there’s a reason why people have loved it so much. I want people to buy the book and read it. So, without giving everything away, what is something that you would like children and families to take away from reading it?
CJ: I feel like kids these days are really struggling with self-doubt. They are really struggling with feeling like they have to conform to certain stereotypes and feel like they have to fit into norms. They have this idea of how they should behave and how they should look. There is a lot of negativity out there. I really just want people to be able to relate to the book and understand that there is no “norm”. There is no certain way that you have to be and live. Just be yourself, and it’s fine. It doesn’t matter if you’re different because if we weren’t all different, life would just be boring! I wouldn’t want us to all be the same.
Kids don’t really understand that. However, if you can just make something relatable to them, they can see that it is completely normal to be different. It’s a good thing to be yourself! They come to understand that there really is no such thing as “normal”, and our differences make us special.
Joe: I feel like this is really hard for kids to accept. Not until you get older do you realize that it’s cool to be different. You work in education, so you understand. It is not easy to be a kid.
CJ: Especially with like certain groups, there is always peer pressure. It’s also a confidence thing. With kids, it’s pretty much like you are one or the other. You’re either overtly confident or not at all. Sometimes kids just will want to do what other kids are doing because they are not confident enough to pave their own way. What I want is just for kids to love themselves. If a kid is more confident, I want them to be accepting of the kids who are not. Children need to understand that not everyone is the same, and that is a good thing.
Joe: I feel like just from what you post on social, it seems like a lot of people are getting the message and connecting with it. I see The Awkward Avocado and its message getting through to people. It’s just been such an amazing success for you and with that, I have a two part question.
Succeeding in self-publishing is about persistence and effort, so what types of initiatives did you do to promote and market the book?
And did you expect it to take off like it did?
CJ: Like most first time authors, I had an idea in my head that I was just going to make this cute book. I would put it out into the world, people are going to find it, buy it, and it’s just going to take off. But then you really have to learn the ropes. Luckily, we published with BookBaby and you guys have so many good articles, webinars, and blog posts. I would read every blog post, and do everything that BookBaby said to do. We followed your guidance and made a YouTube channel, a website, and our social media accounts.
And then, there are so many good Indie Author groups on Facebook and we joined all of those. It’s just such a great community that shares great advice. So, every resource and webinar I could utilize, I did. We just took it all and rolled with it because when you self-publish, you have to put in the work to put it all out there. Because like, when you first start, you don’t realize that people won’t find it unless you work hard promoting it. You can’t just put it out into the universe. You have to go and tell people and be active, or else no one is going to find your book.
Joe: It’s like starting a business. You have to build it from the ground up because like, your book is your business. You have to promote it. I love the work you do on social media and all of your in-person events. By the way that reminds me. The avocado suit. It’s the best! I love how there is always a kid wearing it.
CJ: Yes so we found that avocado suit and I didn’t care how much it cost because I knew we would use it at like every school event. Every time I go to a school visit or an author signing, I’ll ask a teacher who is the kid with the biggest personality because I’ve got a costume for them. There is always a kid willing to put that avocado costume on. The teachers always know exactly who the best candidate would be to wear it. It’s usually an older kid who is good with the younger kids and will get them hyped up.
Joe: So did you expect it to blow up in popularity like it has?
CJ: This may come as a surprise – but there’s something you have to know about me. I’m kind of… overly optimistic and overly hopeful. So, being the over-achiever that I am, I was like, “oh my gosh, this is going to be a hit. In its first week, it’s going to be a New York Times Best Seller. We’re going to be able to retire and move to the beach.” I had visions in my head of planning outfits and talking to Kelly Clarkson and being on the Today Show. Now, Zac is grounded. He would just laugh and do his best to bring me back down to Earth. He would remind me that it’s great to have such high hopes – but it’s going to take a lot of work.
I had to eat some humble pie right when it came out. Although it was doing well, in my head I was disappointed that I didn’t have the mansion on the beach. So it felt a little bit like we were failing.
Joe: The thing with children’s books is that there is no limit for their relevance. Books like yours share a timeless message. It’s a long process, but I will say that your book has been doing so well.
CJ: It is. I just have to breathe and bring myself back down.
Joe: Speaking of Zac… You know, you two make a unique team. I speak with a bunch of children’s book authors who collaborate with illustrators. But you are the first person I’ve met who collaborates with an illustrator who happens to be their husband. So, what is the creative process like with you two? What’s it like to have that working relationship and also your family/marriage dynamic?
CJ: So, Zac and I work really well together. We’ve been together since we were 14 and even when we weren’t dating, we were always really good friends. So, I married my best friend, and it all works so well.
He knows that he’s the artist and I’m the writer. We don’t really cross into each other’s feel. But we collaborate and throw ideas together. We’re open to each other’s ideas and there is plenty of give and take. I actually will sketch out little illustrations of an image I have in my head when I write. I’ll show it to him. I don’t get my feelings hurt if he doesn’t use that. But I always let him know exactly what I’m thinking. Since he is the artist, he always comes up with the best solutions that compliment my ideas. He’ll storyboard everything out and illustrate it.
We always look at every illustration together. We always decide as a team if it needs more color, or something else added to it. We just feed off each other and constantly brainstorm. It’s a perfect collaboration that works really well.
Joe: Yes I feel like a writer and illustrator each have different brains, and there is going to be give and take on both sides. When you decide to work together, you open your mind up to something the other one is saying and then vice versa. It’s really what makes a project work well. So, going back to The Awkward Avocado, how long was the process of creating the book – start to finish? This includes writing, illustrating, and completing every step of the self-publish.
CJ: I really think from the day we started writing it and mapping it out through storyboarding and illustrating, it was about 8 months. This seems really fast, especially if you compare it to the 25 years I’ve been working on that novel… But it was about 8 months to make this book a reality!
Joe: I think the book was just meant to be! It all started perfectly with your daughter walking into the bedroom and waving. Sometimes, when a project is meant to happen, it just rolls.
So, what did you find to be the most fulfilling aspect of self-publishing your first children’s book and getting your message out into the world?
CJ: With self-publishing, I really like that you are the creator. Nobody is holding your ideas back. You can do what you want. This was perfect for me as well since I wanted to work with Zac. If I went the traditional route, they would have paired me with an illustrator. We just wanted to say what we wanted and illustrate what we wanted. Having full creative control was very important to me.
I just really liked this whole journey. You get to see the direct impact of your book and listen to all of the feedback from it. Like you said, this is like your business, and you are pushing it out there for the world to see. It’s been a really good journey self-publishing and seeing the difference our book has made has been wonderful.
Joe: And now that you’ve done it once, you’re back for more with your new book!
CJ: Yes! Obviously my daughter was the inspiration for the first book. We also have a son, and we knew that we had to do the second book about him.
Our daughter is like Zac – reserved and shy. Our son is like me. And we were like, “oh yeah we’re going to make this one fun.” The first book was much more simplistic. It was all about the messaging. We knew that for the second book, we were going to have to put a little more detail on the illustration – more colorful and louder. It’s called Awkward Avocado and the Interrupting Raptor. Zac came up with the idea because my son literally roars like a dinosaur all the time. You can hear it in the book trailer we made. That’s him and both my kids’ voices. He interrupts all the time with his roaring! He doesn’t even have to be near you. He can just be somewhere in the house. You’ll be trying to have a conversation and you’ll just hear the interrupting roar! Anyway, so that is the inspiration behind the book. It’s a great story about my kids and their relationship as siblings. It will be helpful for a lot of kids who have little brothers or sisters. I too am a big sister. I’m almost 8 years older than my brother. So, some of the book is based on our relationship, but most of it is our kids. It’s about how they interact with each other and how my son lovingly annoys his older sister. It’s got a little humor, a little heart, and is just a really sentimental book for siblings. It makes me happy to read it and think back about growing up with my younger brother and I hope it does the same for others.
Joe: What was the creative process like creating a sequel? Was it any different or pretty similar?
CJ: It was really similar. I think we just felt more comfortable this time. It did take longer to write this one. In the first book, everything just happened right then and there when I thought about that interaction with my daughter. We had to think more closely about the second book since it involved both the kids.
I had to really think about what I wanted to write about. I know not everyone cares about every single thing that they do. So, I wanted to focus on what is really funny and relatable. I also wanted to keep the book similar to the first with verse and rhyme. When we write other books in the series, we probably will keep it like that. Maybe in the future we can do another series that is more of a story format. But for now and this series, I really just like to have the books be lyrical. Anyway, writing it took longer. But it was easier to manage self-publishing and getting logistics done with our second book.
Joe: I can imagine with the second book, you’re much more aware of how self-publishing works in general. I think you do a really nice job fitting the new book into the themes of the first, while making it its own unique story.
Anyway, I want to ask you something else. So, you work full time in education, have a family, and are a successful self-published author. How do you balance your busy career and personal life with the amount of work you put into writing and promoting your books?
CJ: Yeah. It’s tough. It’s a lot. We wake up pretty early in the mornings and try to get stuff done. We will go on social media and try to do some interacting before we start getting ready for the day. Then, we’re busy going at school all day. I was a kindergarten, first grade, and second grade teacher, and if I was still in that classroom setting, this would be a lot harder because you bring that work home with you. However, now I work strictly with dyslexic students as a dyslexia interventionist, and I can leave a lot of that at work.
So, when I get home from school, I get to do mom stuff and wife stuff, and focus on the books. I do always have my phone on me and check in on book updates periodically. But even though we try to fit in in during little pieces of the day, most of the work for our books gets done on weekends and on breaks.
Joe: What are some of your favorite ways to promote the books? I know that you like to do in-person events. You do amazing work on social media. So, what do you like to do the best?
CJ: Being in education, authors visits to schools is my favorite – hands down. You see so many kids! There are like 500 kids in a school and it’s amazing to interact with them. Our audience is mostly K-2 so most students that I visit are in that age range. But I’ve also started to visit older students as well. I have a PowerPoint that I share and a lot of them think it’s really cool that they can make their own book one day. The older kids show a genuine interest in the aspects of self-publishing a book. Working with older kids is not something I’ve done much before, and it’s been really fun.
Joe: And also, even though your books are written for younger children, the message is still super important for older kids! Insecurity is a huge issue with kids who are between 12 and 13 years old.
CJ: Oh, absolutely. I’ve even had some adults say that they totally get this book and that the message resonates with them.
Joe: Do you hear a lot of feedback from readers?
CJ: I do! I love social media for that reason. I hear from people who live in Canada and Australia. I hear from teachers who shared the book with their class because it’s a part of their lesson. I also hear from parents of children who feel different.
I’ll hear from moms of children with emotional learning troubles and parents of autistic children, and it brings me to tears. I’ve had someone tell me that their son reads the book every night because he loves the character, and it’s just like him. Hearing these stories is author validation. When you reach someone with a message and they love it, it means so much.
Joe: Just hearing from families like that, it’s what matters the most. It’s amazing to hear that you touch so many people’s lives. What your doing with your books, it’s going to continue to grow and help kids growing up.
CJ: I hope so.
Joe: Well, I have two more questions for you. Then I’ll let you get back to you busy life!
First, what advice do you have for authors who are similar to yourself? Those who have a story to tell, but might be hesitant to start the process of writing a children’s book.
CJ: I think if it’s something you’ve always wanted to do, and if it’s always been a dream, do it. Especially with self-publishing, it’s really easy with BookBaby. I’m biased, and don’t know how it is with other companies. But BookBaby offers so many different packages and really makes it easy for the author. Whatever you are willing or able to spend, there is an option for you. And if your lost and just don’t know where to go, there are so many people at BookBaby who are there to help you. If you’re reluctant, join author Facebook groups and speak with other indie authors. Just take the plunge because it’s so rewarding. That’s the biggest thing. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was little, and I finally did it.
So you know, it’s just the sense of accomplishment that you feel. Don’t be scared. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can always fix it with a second edition! Just jump right in. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a bestseller right away. You learn as you go. Then you’ll come out with that next one and build on it, better and better. But I would definitely say, do it if it’s something you’ve always wanted to do. You’re never too old to accomplish something.
Joe: Also, your great American novel might come one day! Do you think you’d ever write a novel?
CJ: Several older kids at my author visits had asked me to write a chapter book that’s more for them and I’ve considered it. But about the novel, I don’t know if I’ll ever finish that one.
Joe: What does the future look like for you, Zac, and The Awkward Avocado? I know you hinted that there will be more books coming in the future.
CJ: Hopefully this year we will publish our third book. It will be a Christmas themed book about our crazy, wonderful family. Zac is working on that as we speak because we’re at the illustration stage of it. I think he’s a little over halfway through. Like we talked about earlier with adding details, this one is going to be filled with details and colors because it’s Christmas! You’ll see all types of decorations and traditions. So, the illustration is just beautiful. Zac says this one is going to be his favorite.
We’re super excited about it. It will be filled with little Easter Eggs for our family to see. People who know our family are also really excited about it. Our heritage is Belgian and Italian, so we have all these crazy traditions that will end up in the book. It should be coming out this year for the holiday season! Then I think we might do a couple more with the Awkward Avocado series, and then we might try a new series from the ideas in my notebook.
Joe: Alright well this is plenty of content to produce! I’m excited. I also love Christmas. It’s my absolute favorite holiday. So I’m really excited for your Christmas book.
Anyway, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. This has been amazing. I’m so happy for the you and Zac. You’re doing amazing work.
CJ: Thank you. This was so much fun!