Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

The Prize in the Cereal Box

A Nashville nanny enters a Cheerios contest … and wins a publishing contract

Nashville nanny Shellie Braeuner didn’t learn about the first Cheerios Spoonfuls of Stories Children’s Book Contest until the final day to enter. Undaunted, she came up with a charming rhyme about bathing the family dog and entered the contest online, barely in time to pick up the older children from school. Despite a typo in the title, The Great Dog Wash beat out a thousand other entries to win the grand prize—five thousand dollars—and become the first giveaway book in Cheerios boxes. (A hardcover of the book, illustrated by Robert Neubecker, has since been released by Simon & Schuster and is now available through booksellers.) Braeuner holds an undergraduate degree in theater and psychology from Middle Tennessee State University and a master’s degree in human developmental counseling from Vanderbilt.

Chapter 16: Have you always written stories, or did the Cheerios contest inspire you to try your hand at creative writing for the first time?

Braeuner: I have been telling stories for as long as I can remember. My family and the families I took care of as a nanny encouraged me to consider writing. I had been studying writing and submitting children’s books for a little more than two years when I entered the contest.

Chapter 16: Do you remember how you felt about your chances?

Braeuner: When I got home from work, I looked at the printed copy from my word processing program and noticed that I had a typo in the title. I remember telling my parents that I could kiss that contest goodbye! Lucky for me, I had to re-type the title into the entry form. So my typo didn’t make it to the judges.

Chapter 16: How did you find out you’d won?

Braeuner: Elizabeth was napping, and I was making chili for the family’s supper when I got the call. All I really remember is that I was babbling so much I thought they would never want to work with me again. And I almost burnt the chili. I was pretty much in a fog for the next week or so.

Since Cheerios wanted to announce everything, I couldn’t tell anyone but family (including, of course, the family I’ve worked with for thirteen years). But none of my friends knew what was happening. I can’t tell you how many times good friends asked me what was going on. One thought I had met some great guy and was having a secret love affair. She asked me to make sure he wasn’t married!

Chapter 16: Were you able to contribute to the illustration process at all?

Braeuner: My only regret is that I never got to meet the illustrator. Not that I wanted to tell him how to do his work—stick figures are the closest I come to drawing. But I would have loved to tell him personally how much I love his illustrations.

Chapter 16: How did the children react when they saw the printed book for the first time?

Braeuner: The kids I work with, as well as my own nieces and nephews, have been so excited. You would have thought I was famous! Each of the children had to have their own box of cereal. That became a little problematic when the dog discovered that there were Cheerios inside and they tasted a lot better than his dog food.

The kids were also excited when they got to be part of the publicity. Two of the boys went with me to the book launch, and one of them asked me if I was going to freak out if everything wasn’t perfect. I assured him that I wouldn’t.

Chapter 16: What was it like to appear in public as a published author for the first time?

Braeuner: I was lucky in that I went to the National SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writer’s and Illustrators) Conference just two weeks after the press release went out. So I was still on the emotional high from the freedom of telling everyone what had happened. (Not to mention proving to my friend that I was not seeing a married man!) So any awkwardness was smoothed over, or possibly ignored, by that rosy glow.

Chapter 16: Many aspiring writers believe their lives will be tremendously changed if they ever get a book published. Would you say your life is different now?

Braeuner: Well, I’m still single and I haven’t magically become a size four, so …

But, really, things have changed some. I am a lot busier. I have an agent, and I’ve been working on some projects that I hope will be picked up. While I was writing before, it is different to be writing for a deadline. I also have a website now that I try to keep updated. A lot of wonderful bloggers have asked for my thoughts on different aspects of children’s books. So I have tried my best to respond. I have considered creating my own blog, but I just don’t have time.

Time itself has become an issue. I have discovered that I need to balance my time differently. As much as I love the kids and they help with my writing, I still need time with other adults. My writing suffers if I don’t make sure that I have some social time for myself.

Chapter 16: Both as a nanny and as someone with a master’s degree in child development, you must have read thousands of children’s books by now.

Braeuner: Tomie De Paola has been one of my favorites for as long as I can remember. I love to look for the doves in each book. I also love Dav Pilkey. While he is known for his humorous picture books, there is an older book that he wrote that is deeply moving called God Bless the Gargoyles. When it comes to children’s novels, I love Richard Peck—I remember reading Ghosts I have Been when I was young. Kate DiCamillo is another author I really enjoy and respect, especially since she has been successful in both straight fiction and fantasy. Bruce Coville and Neil Gaiman are some of my favorites when it comes to fantasy and humor.

Chapter 16: What’s next? Any plans for more children’s books, or for other kinds of writing?

Braeuner: I have another picture book that is being considered right now. It’s another rhyming book, and I am very pleased with how it turned out. I also have a middle-grade novel that my agent is getting ready to send out. It’s set right here in the South and is very funny. Right now I’m working on the first draft of a Young Adult novel set in Europe.