In her 15 years of teaching second grade, Shannon Olsen never intended to become a best-selling children’s book author. She just couldn’t find the type of book she was looking for to use in her classroom, so she decided to write it herself.
Her book, Our Class is a Family, recognizes that teachers do so much for their students outside the walls of a classroom. They really help create a sense of community and give students a much-needed feeling of family, every single day.
Turns out, Shannon wasn’t the only one who wanted a book with this theme. Since she first published it in May 2020, more than 130,000 copies have been sold. The book also reached the #1 spot for children’s books on Publishers Weekly as well as other lists. We caught up with Shannon to ask her about becoming a children’s book author while still working as a teacher, and we learned so much. Take a look at how she really defied the odds of becoming a best-selling children’s book author. And it was all inspired by her life as a teacher!
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WeAreTeachers: Do you have a background in writing?
SO: I’ve always wanted to be an author since I was a kid. Really, I actually knew I wanted to be an author before I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I majored in English at UC Irvine and minored in education, but that is my only writing background. I became more inspired to write children’s books after I started making other resources for the classroom on Teachers Pay Teachers. Once I started creating materials, I started a blog and a teacher Instagram account.
WeAreTeachers: When did you first have the idea for your book?
SO: It was during the beginning of the school year back in 2019. I was reading aloud several back-to-school books to my students at the time. I thought, I wish there was a book that expressed the message that our class is like a family.
WeAreTeachers: Why was that topic interesting to you?
SO: Just like many teachers, one of the things I’ve always told my classes is that we are like a family. It not only makes classroom management and class community stronger, but this idea has really helped students feel accepted and that our class is a place where they belong. Since I couldn’t find a book like it, I took advice from one of my favorite childhood authors, Beverly Cleary. She once said, “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.”
WeAreTeachers: What happened next?
SO: I had the idea, but I didn’t even think about how I would publish it or market it at that point. I just sat down and wrote it out first. Then after that, I thought, Now what? I had no idea how to go about publishing a book, so I started reaching out to make connections. I spent a lot of time doing research about the different options, like traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. Initially, I thought I wanted to try the traditional route. Then I realized that even on the slim chance that a traditional publisher would accept my book, it could still take years before I’d actually have the book in my hands. So I thought I’d give self-publishing a go instead. I figured even if nobody bought the book, at least I went for it and then could read it to my students.
WeAreTeachers: How did you decide on illustrations for the book?
SO: The illustrations were really important to me because, as a teacher, I know you can have a great story or book, but if you don’t have the right illustrations or visuals to go with it that it won’t work. I spent a lot of time—hours and hours—searching for and contacting different illustrators. I finally found Sandie Sonke, who didn’t live too far away from me in Southern California. Other than her talent, I loved that she was open to collaboration.
WeAreTeachers: After the illustrations were finished, how did you go about getting physical copies?
SO: As a busy working mom, my time is very valuable to me. I knew that I would probably be able to save a lot of time and frustration by hiring someone to help me get the book properly formatted and uploaded to sell on Amazon. Once the listing was live, I just announced it on my Instagram page with a picture of me holding the book. It was very scary to put myself out there like that because you just never know how your work will be perceived, but the teaching community was so supportive.
WeAreTeachers: Have you heard from any publishers or agents who want to publish your work now?
SO: Yes. I have been lucky to have several publishing companies, including a couple of “big five” publishers, reach out to me. I’m humbled that some have made me very generous offers for licensing rights to the book, and in the future, I may choose to sign with a publisher and go down that path.
I enjoy the creative aspect of being an author and not so much the business and finances, but my husband is like my CFO and is a great advisor. So, for now, I am enjoying learning more about the self-publishing process and seeing where it takes me. I have started selling copies independently on my website. And I did recently sign an agreement for an exclusive edition of Our Class is a Family to be released with a major retailer, which will be coming out this summer.
WeAreTeachers: Are you working on any new projects?
SO: Yes. I have written a couple of new books, and Sandie and I are currently collaborating on the illustrations. I’m planning to have the first one released in the late spring of this year. I have also just started offering virtual author visits, which has been a fun new adventure so far.
WeAreTeachers: What’s your advice to others who might want to write or publish?
SO: Writing the book is the easy part. It’s everything that comes after that’s the challenge. If you’re a new author who wants to self-publish, you need to have a solid marketing plan in mind. Social media, paid advertising, and email marketing can be helpful. Plus, it helps if you can create an established platform or network in your field prior to launching your book.
A lot of aspiring authors reach out to me to ask for advice. I try to be as helpful as I can, but I always tell them that the biggest thing is putting in the time and doing the research. We all have different things in our lives that we’re balancing.
When I wrote and published this book, I was teaching full-time and running a business on TPT. I’m also very family-oriented and want to spend a lot of quality time with my husband and two young daughters. It would’ve been easy to say I don’t have enough time or had too much on my plate, but when something matters enough to you, you make the time.
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