Reviewed by Melissa Arnold
Johnny Cuomo has worn a lot of hats over the years. He’s a musician, storyteller, nature lover, teacher, husband, father, and each role has had a profound impact on his life. The 46-year-old Mount Sinai resident is full of stories and lessons he’s learned while working with all kinds of children.
Most recently, he’s been focused on how important it is to treat others with compassion in his new book, Katy Didn’t. When a new bug arrives at school, the other bugs won’t accept him — that is, except for Katy the katydid, whose kindness makes all the difference. The book shares a powerful message within an easy-to-grasp and vividly illustrated story. It’s also a great read for young bug lovers, who will be thrilled with the variety of insect characters.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Cuomo about his latest venture.
Did you grow up on Long Island? What was your childhood like?
Yes, I grew up in Stony Brook. Interestingly, when I was a kid I was more interested in sports, like skateboarding, wrestling, and martial arts. I was also very interested in making music, which is a major part of my life today. My artistic interests were focused mainly on singing and playing instruments.
Did you always dream of being a writer?
Not quite. I’ve been able to do a lot of traveling throughout my life, and one of my favorite things is to learn about the folk tales of different places and cultures. I also got to work closely with Native American children on a reservation in California for two summers when I was in my early twenties, and that was very formative for me. Working with those children was what led me to go back to school.
What did you choose to study?
I got my undergraduate degree in education from Dowling College, and then I went on to do a Master’s in history at Stony Brook University.
So how did you start writing?
As a songwriter, I tend to write a tune and then think about lyrics that could go with it. That process forces me to write mini stories. Many years ago, I actually wrote a short story called Moonglow, something I’m still proud of. It gave me a foray into the publishing world. I also put together a CD sharing some original folk tales that I had written, based on the stories and cultures of the people I’d lived with.
Where did the idea for ‘Katy Didn’t’ come from?
Even after I began teaching, I was still really grounded in nature. I’m an avid birdwatcher and the natural world is a daily part of my life. If you’ve ever seen or heard a katydid during the summers here on Long Island, you know they have a very rhythmic chirping. Some people even say it sounds like a repetition of, “katy-did, katy-didn’t, katy-did, katy-didn’t.” I always thought that was clever, and one day I started to wonder if I could work that into a story for kids — that Katy didn’t do something hurtful, even when everyone else was doing it. I ended up having a dream about some of the characters and storyline. I created about 95% of the framework for the story within a week of that dream.
Tell me a bit about the illustrator. How did you find one another?
A good friend of mine has a brother named Benjamin Lowery who is an artist. We became friendly about 10 years ago. I got lucky — it turned out that Ben was working on his portfolio and was looking for stories to illustrate. He heard that I was putting this new story together and asked if he could be a part of it. It was really exciting that we both found something we needed in each other and the timing was perfect. I gave him general themes, and then he sent me sketches. He had an amazing sense of knowing what we needed. When I saw the first full-color picture he created, I said, “This is fantastic — just go for it!” We’ve really enjoyed this process and looking out for each other.
How did you publish the book? Did you pursue self-publishing or find an agent?
It was a touch-and-go process. We had an agent for a while, but it didn’t work out, and we sent it to some publishers, but that didn’t work out either. They gave great feedback, but it wasn’t quite what they were looking for. Finally, we connected with Peter Pauper Press, and they said they were going to share the book at their board meeting because they had a great feeling about it. A few days later, they sent us an email that said, “Katy did it!” It was great. They’ve been a really wonderful, straightforward company to work with. The deadline was just before all the pandemic shutdowns began, so we were very fortunate to get it published when we did.
What message do you want kids to take away from reading your book?
I want kids to know that whenever they go somewhere new, there will always be a person out there ready to welcome them. You may face struggles and tough times, but there will always be at least one person willing to help you through it and support you with a positive outlook, even if everyone else is ignoring or teasing you. It’s also an encouragement to be that person for others, whether you’re visiting the park, at someone’s house or meeting someone from a different town.
Is there a recommended age group?
Kids from age 3 to age 8 will get different things from the book, whether that’s their interest in bugs, early reading, or the message about how to treat people. It’s worth noting that the bugs in the book are drawn in a cute, but scientifically correct way, so there are so many things you can teach and do with it.
Katy Didn’t is available at many online retailers, including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Target. For more about the book, visit www.facebook.com/katydidntbook or www.johnnycuomo.com. Teachers and librarians are welcome to contact Cuomo for information about online or in-person educational events by emailing [email protected].
Book Revue in Huntington will welcome Johnny Cuomo and Benjamin Lowery at 7 p.m. on Oct. 15 for a free, online event featuring readings, music, conversation and more. Registration is required by visiting www.bookrevue.com or by calling 631-271-1442.