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Starting Big Changes with Small Steps: Charlotte Offsay (Debut PB Author) and Illustrator Katie Rewse on THE BIG BEACH CLEANUP

By Sara Truuvert

One morning, when she was walking her young children to school, Charlotte Offsay picked up a piece of trash and threw it in a nearby garbage can. She had no idea that this simple action would spark a conversation with her children about doing their part to keep the environment clean, which would inspire her literary debut, The Big Beach Cleanup. You can find out more about Charlotte on her websiteTwitter, and Instagram

Katie Rewse, an illustrator based in Bournemouth, England, was touched by Charlotte’s story. Katie holds a BA and MA in Illustration and finds inspiration in her outdoor adventures. She has been shortlisted for a number of awards, including the AOI World Illustration Awards 2020. You can find out more about Katie on her websiteInstagramTwitter, and blog

The Big Beach Cleanup follows Cora, a young girl excited to enter a sandcastle competition. When Cora learns that the fun has been cancelled because there is too much trash on the beach, she and her Mama get to work cleaning up. But they soon realize they can’t do it alone. The Big Beach Cleanup launched March 1st, 2021 from Albert Whitman and is widely available to order.

Q: The Big Beach Cleanup is your debut picture book – congratulations! Would you speak a little bit about your journey to publication? 

Charlotte: I began writing picture books in early 2017. I was home with my two small children at the time and became inspired after an afternoon of baking with them. The manuscript rhymed (sort-of) and was a how-to baking book illustrated with pictures of my kids. I enjoyed the process so much that I took my first picture book class online that summer through UCLA extension. It was in this class that I really fell in love with writing picture books and began to understand how little I knew about what went into writing and publishing them.

From there I joined numerous groups such as SCBWI12×12 and Inked Voices and spent the next couple of years attending conferences, taking webinars, enrolling in online classes (Children’s Book AcademyLyrical Language Lab etc.), as well as reading every picture book and craft book (Big Magic, Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books, etc.) that I could get my hands on. Through these various groups and classes I connected with my invaluable critique partners and wrote countless manuscripts. 

In early 2018, I connected with my first agent via a Twitter pitch party, but ultimately it wasn’t a good fit and we parted ways. At the beginning of 2019, I reentered the query trenches and signed with my current agent, Nicole Geiger with Full Circle Literary. Working with Nicole has been a dream come true and essential to my author journey. Nicole is thoughtful, communicative, and her insight and feedback is invaluable. Together we have sold The Big Beach Cleanup to Albert Whitman (Spring 2021), How to Return a Monster to Beaming Books (Fall 2021) and A Grandma’s Magic to Doubleday/Random House (Spring 2022). I can’t speak highly enough about the value of finding an agent who connects with your work and advocates for your career as a whole!

Q: Something I love about this book is that it shows how people, especially children, have this instinct to help and to make a difference. But it’s easy to feel too small to make a difference! What do you think Cora would say to a child who feels this way?

Charlotte: I couldn’t agree more – children love to help and instinctively want to do the right thing and make a difference. I also agree that the world can seem like a big and scary place and that when faced with some of the aspects that need changing, it can seem quite overwhelming – even to adults! I think Cora would tell everyone, big and small, that big changes start with small steps. She would say that taking the first step will lead to the second, and if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, before you know it, you will have accomplished what at first seemed impossible. It is also important to remember that you don’t have to make a difference alone – joining hands with those around you can help break what at first may seem like an overwhelming goal into smaller more manageable steps. If enough hands join together, we can change the world. 

Q for Katie: Would you please tell me a bit about your illustration process for The Big Beach Cleanup?

Katie:After reading Charlotte’s brilliant text for The Big Beach Cleanup, I was so excited to start sketching. Looking after the ocean is important to me – I spend a lot of time at the beach, and I take part in beach cleanups when I can. For this reason I had lots of ideas in my head. I worked closely with the designer at Albert Whitman to develop the sketches, starting with some character development and then moving on to thinking about the setting and then sketching out each page. After the sketches were approved, I coloured the artwork digitally and also used some found and some handmade textures in the illustrations. We all agreed that the images should be bright and bold, so I had fun with the colour palette.

Q for Charlotte: As we see in the book, the changes we’d like to see in the world take the work of many hands. Is there a story from your own life that inspired you to share this message with children?

Charlotte: I began writing The Big Beach Cleanup when my son was three years old. At the time, he was obsessed with everything superhero. The longer I lived in his superhero world, the more important it felt to me that my kids understood that being a real hero and the problems facing our world weren’t going to just be fixed by cape-wearing characters with superhuman abilities appearing at the perfect moment to save the day.

Then one morning while walking my kids to school, I casually picked up a piece of trash and tossed it into a nearby garbage can. My kids wanted to know where the trash came from, why it was important to pick it up,  and all about the problems it would cause if we didn’t. My small action opened the door for the big conversation I had been looking to have with them. We spoke about how ordinary people can create big change with simple steps and how we didn’t need to be a superhero, we just needed to do our part and encourage others to do theirs.

I dropped them off that morning and went straight home and wrote the first draft of what would become The Big Beach Cleanup. I sat down to write a story that showed the power of small hands joining together to make big change. I wanted to write a story about an ordinary child taking ordinary steps to begin something that could eventually cause extraordinary change. It is my hope that young readers will hear Cora’s story and know they don’t have to be a superhero to make a difference. I hope that it will inspire someone somewhere to join hands with those around them and start to create the change they want to see in the world. 

Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?

Charlotte: I think the best work comes from the heart and writing about what you care most about in the world. My advice is to write about what you are passionate about – write the books you want to see in the world. I also strongly believe that it is important to find the path between not being too precious with your work and being willing to make changes while staying true to what inspired you to write your story in the first place – not an easy balance!

Q for Katie: Do you have any advice for young illustrators?

Katie: My advice for young illustrators would be to spend as much time drawing and developing your craft as possible, but also to make time for other hobbies and interests as these will inform your work too!

Q for Charlotte: Finally, any tips for building the perfect sandcastle?

Charlotte: What a fun question! I have to admit that I have never built a sandcastle that could rival the amazing ones that illustrator Katie Rewse dreamed up for The Big Beach Cleanup. That said, growing up, my family would often bury one another in the sand and turn legs into mermaid tails, which always seemed pretty perfect to us. For this, all we needed was a bucket filled with water and a shovel. The water was always key for packing the sand tightly enough in order to add the fun details at the end! If anyone has any fun sandcastle pictures to share, please tag me in them on social media (Twitter or Instagram) or contact me via my website – I would love to see them!

Sara Truuvert completed her MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews. She also holds a Certificate in Creative Writing from the Humber School for Writers and a BA in English, Drama, and the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Toronto. Her work has appeared in the Literary Review of Canada among other publications.