Menlo Park resident Stephanie Lucianovic is currently celebrating the release of two new books for children, just in time for the holiday season.
A longtime picky eater turned food writer, then children's book author, two of Lucianovic's books were recently published: "Hello, Star," a picture book about a child's passion for a dying faraway star, was released on Oct. 19, and "The League of Picky Eaters," a children's novel set in a fictional land ruled by foodies, came out on Nov. 2.
Lucianovic said that while the word count in children's books may be far shorter than books for grown-ups, writing for an underage audience is anything but easy.
"When you're writing for kids, there's not supposed to be an obvious didactic lesson in your book," she said. "What you want to do is try to bring an understanding of children and what they're going through."
"It's difficult," she added. "I love the challenge; I love all the picture books that come out and inspire me. It's a lot more fun."
Lucianovic said she started writing "Hello, Star" back in 2015 after being inspired by a conversation with her son, then a first-grader in the Menlo Park City School District. Her two children are now in seventh and third grade at district schools.
At the time she started writing "Hello, Star," she said, her son was very interested in learning about outer space and facts about planets.
At one point, she recalled, he said to her, "Hey mommy, did you know that stars die? Isn't that said?"
The conversation made her think of the fondnesses she'd developed for inanimate objects over her own lifetime – items like her beloved childhood teddy bear and a first car jointly bought with her husband – and then began to imagine how a child might take a fondness for a star and build it into a lifelong love of the cosmos.
That night she developed the first draft of what would become "Hello, Star," but it took years of working through the publishing process before that draft became a hard-copy illustrated book.
That process involved finding an agent who would advocate for it, then an editor who would advocate for a publishing house to acquire the manuscript, she said.
It also involved finding an illustrator to bring her words to life. Lucianovic said she'd been a fan of Vashti Harrison's work, particularly in how she illustrated light, and was thrilled when the illustrator agreed to take on the project.
"The League of Picky Eaters," released Nov. 2, is intended for readers who are between 8 and 12 years old and features a sixth-grader protagonist who is a picky eater in a fictional town called Muffuletta. The town was founded by foodies and eating is a subject in school, where students are expected to be good at eating, not just vegetables but many types of gourmet, "foodie" foods. The protagonist finds herself in "Remedial Eating To Change Habits" (RETCH for short) while her friends end up in the "Gifted And Gourmet" track (GAG for short).
"She has to come to terms with who she is as an eater and what a healthy friendship is as well," Lucianovic said.
The book weaves together the lessons that it's OK to find new friends if the ones you have aren't offering healthy friendships, and challenges the notion that people should be judged by their food preferences, she explained.
For locals, much of the novel – Lucianovic's first novel – may have a particular resonance.
Part of the idea behind the town of Muffuletta is drawn from what she saw as a parent of young kids in the region. As someone immersed in the San Francisco foodie scene – though not necessarily in Menlo Park, she said, "There was a level of competitive parenting coming in that I hadn't seen before."
Among the foodie crowd, that parental competitiveness appeared sometimes in comparisons over whose kids could eat the most sophisticated foods at the youngest ages, she said. For example: So-and-so is only 5 years old and already eating sardines!
The topic of picky eating is also a personal one for Lucianovic. She said she was a picky eater until around the age of 27, when she transformed into a full-blown foodie. She then attended culinary school, worked at the Cowgirl Creamery cheese counter at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, wrote about food and worked as a cookbook editor.
At that time, she said, "All I wanted to do was be immersed in the food writing culture."
Her first book, "Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate," is a nonfiction book for adults exploring the science and psychology of picky eating.
Picky eating, she said, is not a choice. It's a preference, the way many of us naturally gravitate toward certain types of art or music, she explained.
"It's not something you can control," she said. "We like the things we like."
Menlo Park readers of "The League of Picky Eaters" may also find other familiar elements in the story. As a first-time novelist, Lucianovic said, she drew upon the physical settings of her community in Menlo Park to shape her descriptions of the fictional Muffuletta.
The treehouse where the secret society in the story meets was inspired by El Palo Alto Park, near the Alma Street bridge connecting Palo Alto and Menlo Park, while the diner described in the story was inspired by Jeffrey's Hamburgers, down to the plastic oval baskets that the food is served in, she said.
"Hello, Star" is published by Little, Brown and "The League of Picky Eaters" is published by Clarion Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Lucianovic encourages people to support local bookstores if possible, such as Books, Inc. in Palo Alto, Linden Tree Books in Los Altos and Kepler's Books in Menlo Park. People purchasing copies as holiday gifts are encouraged to get their orders in early due to supply chain holdups, she added.