Pat Zietlow Miller

My day jobs are children’s author and editorial lead at American Family Insurance.

I’ve always loved picture books and wanted to be an author but didn’t really know how to go about doing that. I’ve lived in the Midwest my whole life; I didn’t have any connections in the publishing world and I never knew anyone who’d written a book.

When I was 19, I wrote my first picture book. This was before Google, so I wasn’t sure what to do next. I looked inside a book to get a publisher’s address, copied it down and sent them my manuscript. I got a Xeroxed, form rejection letter and thought to myself, “Well, I tried.”

I put that dream away for 20 years. I graduated from college, got married, had kids. But in the back of my mind there was always that thought, “I want to write a book.”

When I turned 39, I thought to myself, “If I don’t try again now it will be the one thing I’ll regret when I’m 80.”

I started researching online, I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators—which is a great community of writers and would-be writers—and I started writing, writing, writing every night.

I had 126 rejections and it took four years, but finally I sold my first book, Sophie’s Squash, which is based on my youngest daughter. She used to have a butternut squash that she fell in love with, drew a face on and carried around like a doll. Since then I’ve published 19 more.

It’s really hard to get published. Publishers get tens of thousands of manuscripts and only publish a miniscule number. It’s kind of like playing the lottery and there was definitely an element of luck—I feel very fortunate.

Sophie’s Squash sold well, which helped to sell the next book. But I still get rejected. It helps to have other books, but it’s no guarantee you’ll get the next one published. And whether or not people buy your book is completely out of your control.

To some extent it’s about having a good story. But there are instances when your topic is timely—for instance, right now social and emotional learning books are really big. Some of my latest books fit into that category: Be Kind, When You Are Brave, Remarkably You.

When you’re writing a picture book you have to think about your dual audience: the child and the adult who’s making the decision to buy your book.

Although it’s hard to pick a favorite book, Sophie’s Squash, Be Kind and The Quickest Kid in Clarksville are three I’m especially fond of. The last one is about Olympic athlete Wilma Rudolph. After she won her Olympic medals, Wilma said she’d only do a victory parade if it was an integrated event in Clarksville, Tennessee (she was born in Saint Bethlehem, TN, which is now part of Clarksville). That required a lot of research and was a special book.

My employer, American Family, has been very supportive of my work as an author. I write on my own time, of course, but they’re enthusiastic about my writing and don’t look at it as a conflict—they’ve even done a video about it. AmFam’s ad campaign is, “Your dream is out there, go get it.” They recognize and support my dream, which I greatly appreciate. I’m a big AmFam fan.

As editorial lead, I’m the last set of eyes when it comes to managing the internal content that goes out to our employees.

I work with a lot of different writers and communicators to ensure the information we’re sharing with our employees is as interesting, complete and cool as it can be. We want to come at topics in an interesting way and deliver stories our employees want to read on their own, not just because they’re supposed to.

I’m the AP Style queen and my AP Style Book was one of the critical things I grabbed as we were packing up to work at home during the pandemic. My other go-to sources are Merriam Webster and Grammar Girl—they’ve got great videos. My favorite book on writing is On Writing Well. It’s a tool for non-fiction writing that applies to all writing with a focus on being simple, clear and not including things you don’t need.

I’ve been at AmFam for about 17 years in a variety of communication roles. When my current job was available, I didn’t appreciate what a good fit it was—but my boss did! It’s been the perfect fit and I didn’t see it at the time.

My most memorable caffeine is the amazing chocolate drink I had on a walking food tour I did with my family in Chicago. I’m a huge Food Network junkie and this was a great chance to tour Chicago restaurants, sample delicious food and get to go behind the scenes. At one stop they brought us an ice-cold chocolate drink. I thought, “How good can this really be?” But it was one of the best things I’ve ever consumed in my life! Unfortunately, I can’t remember where it was from, which is a huge disappointment as it was so good.

My current caffeine of choice is always some kind of chocolate.

My favorite places for caffeine are Beans ‘n’ Cream Bake House on Main Street in Sun Prairie. Even in the midst of the pandemic, you can get something at their drive-through. I also love Batch Bake House on Willy Street. Their desserts are the best thing ever.

The people I’d love to share a cup of caffeine with are Carla Hayden, Judith Viorst and Debbie Ridpath Ohi.

Carla was appointed by Barack Obama to be the head librarian at the Library of Congress and she’s the first person who was actually a librarian before serving in that role. I’ve read her articles and they’re just amazing.

Most people probably know Judith as the author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  She’s the queen of picture books: The way she puts words together is so good, sometimes you just have to put the book down and process for a while. Judith’s also written hilarious books for adults.

My last pick, Debbie, is both a children’s book author and an illustrator. She’s creative and funny and has a great Twitter feed.

World problem that could be solved with the right amount of caffeine: Making sure the right books get to the right kids at the right times. We often hear about food deserts, but there are lots of kids living in book deserts. They don’t live near a library or bookstore, they’re less likely to have books in their home. I’d love to connect them to that right book that turns the light on for them. One organization that does an amazing job of this locally is Madison Reading Project