A podcast interview with Kaz Windness
The Children’s Book Review
In this latest episode of The Growing Readers Podcast, we have an amazing guest—the talented author-illustrator Kaz Windness, who has joined us to give an exclusive insight into her most recent picture book, Bitsy Bat, School Star.
Kaz’s latest book is a powerful and insightful look at what it’s like to be autistic and how we can build more self-acceptance and understanding to become more compassionate individuals. In our conversation, Kaz talks about her own journey as a neurodivergent author writing about a neurodivergent character and the challenges and joys that come with this uniqueness. We also delve into the crucial themes of inclusivity in the classroom. Bitsy Bat, School Star isn’t only a book for the neurodivergent community; it’s an excellent choice for everyone.
Trust me—this conversation will tug at your heartstrings and inspire you to make a difference! So don’t forget to grab some tissues and tune in for this fantastic interview with Kaz Windness, exclusively on our show.
Listen to the Interview
Read the Interview
Kaz Windness: Hi, Bianca. I’m so glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, my gosh. I am so excited to talk to you about Bitsy Bat, School Star. But since this is your fifth book, following the wonderful Swim Gym, about a little crocodile who’s afraid of the water, and Worm and Caterpillar Are Friends, which is a story about friendship that goes through a big change. And I know you have even more books in the works.
Kaz Windness: I do.
Bianca Schulze: I’d love to begin with finding out what drives you and guides you in creating books for kids.
Kaz Windness: Oh, that’s been my passion for as long back as I can remember. Somebody would ask me when I was a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I would tell them, well, I would tell them I wanted to be a ballerina. But I would also tell them and a children’s book author and illustrator. The ballerina thing didn’t work out so well. I’m not very coordinated. I’m only five foot one.
But the book thing has always been my passion. I was really inspired by Marie Sindack as a kid and just monsters and creepy stuff that I was really into that, but I always wanted to tell my own stories with pictures. And it just took me longer to find my pathway into publication. I’m grateful for that now because I know what I want to talk about. I know who I am, and I have the kind of momentum that means I’ve had some really wonderful opportunities to do a lot of books lately. So I’m working on several things right now, but I’m, like, ready.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, you absolutely are. Well, there is this saying that to be a writer, you need to be a reader first. So is that a statement that feels true to you?
Kaz Windness: Oh my goodness.
Bianca Schulze: And, if so, was there a pivotal moment in which you considered yourself a reader?
Kaz Windness: I was a struggling reader. I think there was a learning disability involved with that, but it didn’t keep me from loving books. I had a mom who was very passionate about books coming from a very bookish family. My grandmother was an editor, a career editor, and she would just take us to the library. We didn’t have a TV by choice, by my mom’s choice, and she would take us to the library. We had to bring a wagon. We could pick as many books as we wanted. The librarian would be like; there’s no way you can possibly read all these books. And we always read all of those books.
I remember we lived where there were train tracks right behind us, and we’d be sitting on my mom’s lap, and she’d be reading us something like The Wizard of Oz. And she would just stop and wait for the train to go by and then start reading again as if it hadn’t been there. But like a lot of kids, I got my passion for reading—and it’s going to make me cry—in my mother’s lap. So I still have that passion for reading.
I did have hiccups in my education just because of the difficulty I had with reading, that it became a struggle for me when it became assignments and it became reading that I wasn’t able to keep up on. I got the nickname Kaz Cliff Notes in high school at some point because I had kind of jagged abilities, and I would be placed in these advanced gifted and talented programs, but I was missing some skills in order to really be able to keep up on that.
But it was always, like, me being able to choose the books that I wanted to read and also having great I had a friend whose parent noticed that I was struggling, and she said, you would really like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. And I remember her giving me her copy, and at first, I was like, reading not really my thing. But I fell in love with that book, and that reinvigorated my love of reading.
I have a massive book collection. I’m one of those people with a TBR pile up to here. I can’t really go anywhere without buying a book. It’s kind of a problem. I could probably use an intervention. I relate to that. Yes, I’m very passionate about that. But I think that’s why writing a book like Worm and Caterpillar Are Friends, which is my first leveled reader, felt so rewarding to me because I remember having books that had that simple vocabulary, but they weren’t talking down to me. They were inviting me to get into a great story and feel those characters.
I wanted to do that with Worm and Caterpillar Are Friends, and it’s very simple vocabulary, but we are not skimping on the heart. The story, the art, all of that is rich and well developed, and I really hope readers are enjoying it because we are not talking down to them. I get emails from parents all the time. They’re like, My child sat down and read it all by themselves. And they get through that 64 pages. And yes, it’s a graphic novel with a lot of illustrations, but they read the pictures too, and that just feeling of pride in being a reader is a huge thing that helps engage children and deeper interest in reading and trying out things that are even more complex.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, absolutely. Well, let’s talk about your new book, bitsy Bat School Star.
Kaz Windness: Yay.
Bianca Schulze: So this is an outstanding book about an autistic character’s first day of school and how she manages to help build an inclusive classroom that honors her neurodivergence. So as a neurodivergent person yourself, this must be a pretty vulnerable but very rewarding experience creating and putting this book out into the world. So, first of all, how does it feel to have Bitsy Bat School Star out there?
Kaz Windness: Well, it’s been a journey. Not only just like discovering my—I was late diagnosed. This happened as we were discovering that my oldest child was autistic. And I started to do the research. I think this happens for a lot of parents; start to do the research, start to recognize, oh, wow, I have those characteristics, too. And this explains a lot of my struggles growing up. So the idea for Bitsy Bat certainly came from my reflection on what it was like to be in a classroom and in a world that wasn’t really designed for me.
Bitsy is a bat. She’s the only character in a room full of nocturnal animals. She’s upside down; she doesn’t have fingers like the other kids. She eats different things than the other kids and communicates all those things differently than her classmates. And in the course of that, she tries to conform, or she’s asked to conform by particularly Winnie Whiskers. We all know a Winnie Whiskers, don’t we? And she’s told she’s wrong. So she tries to be like the other kids in the classroom, and that ends up making her more and more uncomfortable, and she ultimately has a meltdown. And once she comes out of it, she recognizes that she needs to find a way to help her classmates understand her differences and also to celebrate everyone’s specialness.
So this has been, I think it’s about six years into me knowing that I’m autistic, and then the journey of just deciding, hey, this is something that I feel I want to talk about publicly to advocate for my community. Something in the process of learning about autism is you find a lot of ableists and pretty abusive stuff going on out in the world. And to counteract that, we need more people that are of those communities, are of those lived experiences, to be able to tell their stories so we can correct some of that and have a greater understanding. And also just the point of inclusive classrooms and accommodating classrooms that mean that every child has the opportunity to learn and to shine.
Bianca Schulze: Hallelujah to everything.
Kaz Windness: Yes.
Bianca Schulze: So I understand why you wanted to write this book. So now I want to know, was there a specific moment when this specific story came to you?
Kaz Windness: Yes. So I teach art at an art college. Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. And one of my students, she came to me, and we discovered that we’re both autistic. We still talk almost every day. And I was in the process of just drawing in my sketchbook and talking to her. And I love bats. Bats are one of my special interests. If you tell me what’s my favorite thing to draw, it’s going to be bats. So I was just talking to her about that experience of being at school and how it’s different for us while I’m drawing bats. And it just, like, clicked, and I stopped. She was there. I’m like; this is the perfect analogy for what it’s like.
Originally, the idea was that Bitsy was the only bat in a classroom full of mice. But as I’m working with my editor and publisher, they suggested you draw really cute animals. And maybe we can show just the idea of more diversity in the classroom by introducing more animals. I’m so glad they pushed me in that direction, but that was the moment. Talking with her, I’m like; I have to go write this right now. And I did my first draft of Bitsy just right on the fly. It just went from there. I just had that feeling, you know, chills, like this is right. I’m supposed to write this. I’m meant to write this. This book is supposed to go out in the world. I just know it.
Of course, any book is going to have ups and downs and revisions and pushback and all the things a book has to go through to come out into the world. But that driving force of this is something that needs to be out there, has gotten me over all those hurdles. And now I have a copy in my hands.
Bianca Schulze: Also, like, the beautiful sort of embossed raised bat and then the shiny, glittery star on the cover.
Kaz Windness: I’ve always seen those books with the foil and the sparkle, and I’m like, how does that happen? How does someone get that? And then they set me up with that, and it’s just so beautiful. My art director is Laurent Linn. It’s Simon and Schuster, and he’s just him and my editor, Catherine Laudone. I just feel like we’re a dream team. It’s just been such a delight to work with them. And just when Laurent comes back with what he’s done with the type design, oh, my gosh, I’m always just so blown away and spot gloss shiny.
Bianca Schulze: It got the full treatment. I love it.
Kaz Windness: It really did.
Bianca Schulze: Well, since you’re also an art teacher, I’m excited to dig into your creative process. Yes, it sounds like Bitsy was always going to be a bat and that you also thought about doing all the mice, but then you came up with the idea with your art director and the team that it needed to be more diverse. So what kind of animals did you experiment with for the diversity of the classroom?
Kaz Windness: That’s interesting that you say that because initially, I wrote the book, and my editor liked it, but when she took it into the meeting where they decide whether or not they’re going to publish it, they said that Bitsy was too Halloween. And at the time, the design was she was a little black bat. When she had, like, candy corn-colored eyeballs and the whole thing. Like, I run a little Halloweenie, so it doesn’t surprise me that I got that pushback. And they were like, we really don’t want this to be pigeonholed—bat-holed. As a Halloween book, can you make Bitsy an owl? And I try not to initially say, no, absolutely not. So I went back, and I thought about it. Is there a way for Bitsy to be an owl in this story?
And I came up with a lot of possibilities, but it was so important for me for her to be so different that she was upside down compared to the other children. She had to be a bat. So I came back and said, well, what if she’s not a black bat? Honduras Bat was the one that inspired me. They’re like little cotton ball bats with yellow wings and yellow ears, and I just adjusted the color pink—as you can tell, I like pink. And so that’s how she ended up remaining a bat. But as far as the other animals, I just did a lot of research on nocturnal animals.
So we have a raccoon that’s Scout. And it’s funny because I had written a whole story for Scout years ago, and it got rejected. It never became something. But Scout showed up again in this book, which was really a delight. And Scout uses a wheelchair. There is a mole named Gilbert, a bunny rabbit. Winnie Whiskers. She’s our little Miss Perfect in the classroom. Benjamin Berry is a little mouse. Mo porcupine. Little porcupine. So it was just fun. I’m also thinking about what I want. Oh, there’s a fox named Piper. So I’m just thinking about what animals I like to draw, and also if it fits in the story world; also, it’s fun to go to my kids’ assemblies and listen to what the kids’ names are and kind of borrow names from them, so there might be a few of those in there.
Bianca Schulze: I love that. Which character was it that you had already drawn for a book? It was the raccoon.
Kaz Windness: The little raccoon.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. So I love that idea, too, that you had created this story for the raccoon, and yet that story didn’t work. But I think that a lot of creative people sometimes feel like, oh, well, it didn’t work, so that’s a bad idea. But that idea just hasn’t found its spot yet. And I feel like compost.
Kaz Windness: It’s compost. And I was rejected for so long. It took me about 15 years to break into children’s publishing. And I don’t say that to discourage anyone from doing this. For a lot of people, it happens a lot faster for them. But the persistence game has certainly paid off for me. So you can imagine how many stories I have over 15 years of pursuing this. And I did, at some point, feel like, hey, my work is never going anywhere. It’s never going to amount to anything. I also discovered—I’m not diagnosed with ADHD, but I’m certain that I have something going on in that world that helped make it more difficult for me to finish projects and get them out into the world and figure out how to do that.
But now that I am having the opportunity to publish— these characters are coming back to me, or the story concepts are coming back to me in a better and more developed way, so I always have to think of it. It’s not a failure. It’s compost. It’s something that has fertilized what I’m doing now so I can grow bigger flowers.
Bianca Schulze: So let’s go back to Bitsy. Because I think choosing a bat was genius because I love the perspective of everything being upside down. So when she’s in the safety of her bond, surrounded by her family, she’s upright, and everything else in the world around her is upside down. But when she leaves the bond, the safety of her own space, everything around her becomes a typical right-side-up perspective. And it makes her difference clear to readers in such a beautifully artistic way. So how fun was it for you to play with that perspective?
Kaz Windness: Both fun and challenging. These were a lot of conversations I had with my art director. We debated on whether or not, like, the big spread where she discovers that she’s in a classroom and she’s the one who’s upside down. Is it going to be over her shoulder looking into the classroom, and she’s right side up? Is it going to be that whole spread? Is it going to be flipped all the way around so she’s right-side up and everybody else is upside down? So we had a lot of conversations about how that perspective would change something I do with my illustrations.
I do think in terms of movies. Even when I’m writing my books, it’s kind of playing out like film scenes. And I love studying cinema for, how they compose the scenes, their storyboarding, and how that makes the reader feel. So always, as we were considering the perspective and flipping things up and down, how does that make the reader feel? So if she’s cozy and comfy in her own home, of course, they are going to be oriented in the same way she is, and they don’t have to turn their head to figure that out. But when she’s displaced, when she is put upside down in the classroom, then we see it from the other character’s perspective. So I’m so glad that you noticed that.
I think something I’m really proud of that I worked on with the team is the opening title page, where you first see the barn. And it has just the title lettering, but it’s upside down to our perspective. It’s upside down, and we can see the little characters up in the window, but then when you turn the page, you are oriented into Bitsy’s world. So at first, we had, like, let’s see the dad flying back into the barn and turning upside down. It was just a little too complex. So we just set it up. So here’s your setting. Here’s the barn; here’s where you’re at.
Bianca Schulze: I mean, picture books really are just a little piece of cinematography. So I love that you made that connection there. Will you talk to me about your color choices and the texture that you use? Because I love, love the texture that you put into your artwork. I mean, I love all types of different artwork. And if everybody’s artwork was the same, well, that would just be boring, right?
Kaz Windness: Sure.
Bianca Schulze: But I just love the texture. So anyway, talk to me about your colors and your texture.
Kaz Windness: Yeah, thank you so much. That’s something that kind of took me a while to gel together. So we always talk about style and art, your unique voice. And when you’re doing trade publishing, these books are meant to be specific and unique, and different. Like, that voice is really important, and it took me a long time to really discover my voice. I mean, I think my kind of whimsical style comes through. My sense of humor comes through. But it was when I found so as far as process, I like to do my drawings on paper. My brain thinks better on paper. I do a lot of my writing by drawing and figuring it out and then adding words to my drawing. But then I’ll just take a photo of it, and I’ll bring it into Photoshop.
And the wonderful thing about digital programs these days is there’s so much opportunity to find brushes that look like real analog paintings. Or, in the case of the texture you’re talking about, it’s a sponge brush. So I’m just using the selection tool, and I’m grabbing an area, and then basically, it kind of acts like a spray. So it just sprays this spongy texture into that area, and I’m just building that up and up and up until it’s a fully completed color fill. And then I’m also just working with push and pull lines, a lost and found line.
Also, as far as the color palette, we’re talking about the cinematic presentation of your illustrations. I am planning that all out. So once I get approval on my sketches, I spend a lot of time researching palettes and thinking about how the palette is going to make you feel in the book because palette color is also communicating feeling. In cinema, you have the luxury of a soundtrack, and of course, you’re using color as well, but you need more in a book to engage the reader in the feeling that you’re trying to emote specifically for Bitsy Bat. There are autistic people, actually a lot of autistic people, that can be overstimulated by a lot of color. I’m someone who balances between sensory seeking and sensory aversion. So I do like a lot of color, but that was something that I was being sensitive to as I selected that palette.
And I’m like; I want muted colors. I still want it to feel engaging, but I want it to feel cozy. So when you’re in those first few pages, when she’s in the barn, there are these soft grays and browns and blues and pinks, and it just feels like a tight hug. And when the only shift in that stronger color palette is when it comes to the point that she has a meltdown, and I intentionally popped the color up to be a little more saturated on a page, you see the paint on her wings. I just wanted you to feel—the reader to feel what it feels to us to be overstimulated and to be in a meltdown. But yes, absolutely. I’m so glad you noticed that because it was a very conscientious choice. The color palette and the structure of bringing you up to that climactic point where she’s having that meltdown and how it gets so saturated at that point, and then it gets darker right after that as she is in burnout and recovering from a meltdown because that’s exactly what it feels like.
Bianca Schulze: In terms of a lot of authors and illustrators say that their books are like their babies, and you can’t necessarily say you have a favorite or whatnot. But in terms of just Bitsy Bat, do you have a favorite part of the story? Like a highlight, a double-page spread?
Kaz Windness: Yes. So my favorite spread in the book is after she’s shared her differences with her classroom, and they’ve all filled out their stars. And this spread is the shine and share activity. So each of the characters is talking about what makes them special. So Gilbert the Mole is saying that he has pride in himself. The little Raccoon character Scout is saying, I wash my hands. Winnie Whiskers says I’m a leader.
Bianca Schulze: Yes.
Kaz Windness: Mr. Nibble says, I care about my students. Mo says I give great hugs. I like that as a porcupine. So, yes, this is my favorite spread just because the meaning how much it means to be able to share your specialness with a classroom and to be recognized but also to remember what makes you special.
Bianca Schulze: Well, we’ve mentioned Winnie Whiskers a couple of times, so I love that she got mentioned on your favorite page. So she’s the character that always tells Bitsy wrong, wrong. And then, in that double page spread on her star, she says, I’m a leader. It’s hard not to love Winnie because—so I have this therapist that’s my favorite, Dr. Becky. I’m sure a lot of listeners listen to her podcast. She believes that everybody is good inside. So even though Winnie is a real pain to Bitsy and tells Bitsy that everything Bitsy does is wrong, she is good inside. And at least she recognizes that she is a leader. I want to hear your take on her.
Kaz Windness: Well, I feel like she thinks she’s helping by having Bitsy conform, have Bitsy do things the right way. And all these characters are a little bit me. So there is something in autism where there’s following rules or expectations and getting really frustrated when other people don’t follow those. So part of Winnie is me and things that I’m embarrassed about. Looking back, when I told people that they were wrong and they needed to do it a right way. So maybe it’s kind of a cathartic thing, but I think we all know a Winnie Whiskers, just that real rule follower, the one that is making sure everyone’s doing everything correctly and knows everything, and they’re usually very smart, but kind of condescending about that. I think we all know a Winnie Whiskers, but I know Winnie Whiskers is probably going to grow up to be a boss.
So I like here when Bitsy starts sharing about her differences and the other kids start writing what makes them special. Winnie’s Star says, I looked at things in a new way, and that Star is upside down because Winnie is upside down painting with her toes, just like Bitsy did at the beginning of the book. So she is taking the opportunity to change a little bit and see things in a different way. So I do feel like there is a character arc with Winnie. She’s probably not going to completely change. But yeah, I’m glad that you saw that.
Bianca Schulze: I feel like it’s kind of that thing where we all only know what we know until we know something different. And I think that what’s lovely about Winnie, for anybody that’s paying attention to her character arc throughout, is that she only knew what she knew, but she made an effort to grow and to change. And so I loved that about her character.
Kaz Windness: Absolutely.
Bianca Schulze: Will you talk to me a little bit about this in a classroom setting? It’s about, obviously, Bitsy and her first day. But there’s just that beautiful message of creating an inclusive classroom. Do you have any hot tips on how teachers can use Bitsy Bat in the classroom?
Kaz Windness: Oh, absolutely. It’s actually very well set up to do that. Shining the share and shine activity in the classroom. And if you go to Bitsybat.com, I made it really easy. I hired someone to make lesson plans. We have three really great lesson plans. Social and emotional learning, recognizing your own specialness, and also having compassion and empathy for others in the classroom. And also, like, discovering your own—telling your own stories about times that you struggled or times that you felt left out or confused. So building that kind of compassion through self-compassion as well. Yes. I absolutely wanted to make this something that a teacher could take into a classroom. In the Barnes and Noble edition, the special edition, there is even a tear-out sheet in the back. You do not need the Barnes and Noble edition to get this. But it’s kind of nice because we have those activity sheets on the website for you. But I’m really excited to hear how students learn from it and how teachers are bringing it into their classrooms. Super excited about that.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, it’s going to be a great tool. And also just a fun storytime as well. It’s like a great combo.
I want to share one of my favorite parts, which you’ve already touched on this part. So I know that this particular page of text is an example of how a neurodivergent person may have a loss of control when feeling overwhelmed. But as a neurotypical person, I also found it wholly relatable. So if you don’t mind that I read—
Kaz Windness: For sure. Yeah, please. Thank you.
Bianca Schulze: Maybe it was the sticky paint on Bitsy’s wings or the emptiness in her tummy. Maybe it was the too-bright light in her eyes or the too-loud words in her ears. Or maybe it was the awful feeling that she would never, ever fit in. Whatever it was, Bitsy Bat had a five-star meltdown.
And Kaz, if you don’t mind, will you say the word screech? Because I feel like you’re going to do it better than I will.
Kaz Windness: Scre—
Bianca Schulze: You screeched so perfectly that it literally blanked out the sound. Okay, perfect.
Kaz Windness: It was my goal.
Bianca Schulze: So I just love that because, as I said, as someone neurotypical, it’s relatable to me. And I feel like every child and every adult that reads that it’s going to be like an A-HA connection moment of what that feeling is.
Kaz Windness: Yeah, that feeling of overwhelm. I mean, it is universal, and we live in a world that is just so fast-paced, and so much is coming at us all the time. It’s not just an autism thing. I’m sure everyone has had that moment, just like a breakdown at Walmart or whatever, because it’s just all too much.
That page still makes me cry because to be in that moment and it’s so embarrassing too. To have a meltdown, especially a public meltdown, is so it’s almost worse than the meltdown. And the fallout after the embarrassment of having lost control, having lost physical control, having lost vocal control, and just feeling so unsafe because that’s what’s happening. You’re going to the place where you were just trying to survive. It’s just pure survival. And it is that loss of control. And you can say things, do things, act in ways that a lot of people can’t understand and can’t necessarily forgive either.
So I hope that the book helps build a little more empathy and sympathy instead of, like, judging a person for having an out-of-control tantrum. To recognize that this is a physiological thing, that these people have no control—we have no control over this. And if you can just help us feel safe again and help us in the future to be in situations or be accommodated in a way that we have fewer meltdowns, that is what we also need, just forgiveness. There’s friendships that I will probably not get back just because, in hindsight, I know now that I was having a meltdown. But at the time, I didn’t know why I was out of control in the way, quote-unquote, out of control in the way. I was out of control. And it did damage to relationships. I lost trust. So also just the process of forgiving myself. I think that’s my journey into knowing that I’m autistic; it’s been a lot of me being able to look back on that, say, oh, that was a piece of autism. That was a piece of how my brain worked, or that was a piece of how the world didn’t understand me, and I was trying to be in the world. And eventually, there was a fallout from that. So thank you so much for reading that. If they ever do an audiobook amazing. You made me cry.
Bianca Schulze: Well, I have some notes here, but I feel like you just said why I loved that particular scene, and it was because of how it sets up what I find to be the most important aspects of the story that demonstrate you know, it goes on then to demonstrate the acceptance and the inclusivity in the classroom. And that what helps Bitsy most is the love and understanding of her friends and her family.
Kaz Windness: Yeah, exactly.
Bianca Schulze: So let’s move on to the fabulous backmatter. Will you share what listeners can expect to find there? Because anyone that’s listened to my podcast before, I love it when a picture book has back matter.
Kaz Windness: Oh, I love a good backmatter moment, too. So, for Bitsy Bat, we actually don’t say autism throughout the entire story. They say coded. She’s coded autistic. Once you get to the back, you’re invited to learn more about autism. So we have a whole page that talks about being neurodivergent, autistic accommodations, what a meltdown is, a shutdown, and stimming, special interests. So it gives you some good information there. I think that’ll be great to take into a classroom, too. Let’s have a little discussion about what these things are.
And then there’s also a letter from the author. So I talk about why I wrote Bitsy. I talk about being autistic and how I relate to Bitsy’s story. And I also say when I feel safe and happy, I can spread my wings and live my big star dreams, like writing and illustrating books for you. And I do that with the help and love of my friends and my family, and my community.
Bianca Schulze: Would it be okay if I ask you a personal question?
Kaz Windness: Sure.
Bianca Schulze: So what’s one thing in your day-to-day practices as somebody who is neurodivergent that you think would be the most surprising or relatable or helpful?
Kaz Windness: That is a good question. So I’m a high masking autistic, and I think that’s because I don’t want to throw my family under the bus, but I think I’m generations of undiagnosed autism. So we’ve taught each other. Females teach each other. Here’s how you’re supposed to look. Here’s how you’re supposed to perform. Here’s how you’re supposed to act. So there’s a lot of masking that’s happened and a lot of burnout in private. So, as I’ve uncovered being autistic and the benefits of stimming, these were things I was doing all the time anyway.
But now that I am embracing it more, like as we’re having this discussion, I have two stuffies with me, these emotional support stuffies. And I just think squeezing onto these; it just feels so comforting. And I think we live in a world that’s so full of anxiety. Maybe it’s okay for you to get a Squishmallow, too. Maybe you don’t need the excuse of being autistic to go get you a good Squishmallow. So that’s part of it. And also just for me to self-regulate. Something I do a lot, I’ll just clap really fast, and it just helps get me back into my body. And it kind of invigorates me in a way that feels really good.
I sometimes do that in public now. I don’t feel fully comfortable being unmasked, but I just think things like that and getting up and moving your body or even just pounding on your chest. If you’re feeling anxious, there’s things you can do that might look weird to other people. But in private, hug that Squishmallow and pound on your chest a little bit. Like, clap or shake your arms like this. There’s a reason why autistic people do this. It feels really good.
Bianca Schulze: Okay, I need to do it now, too.
Kaz Windness: It feels awesome. Flap your little bat wings. Feels good.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. That bottling up of energy that we can all just kind of hold in. It has to come out at some point in your body somewhere.
Kaz Windness: Like the tightness in the shoulders and the tenseness in your body. Maybe everybody should stem.
Bianca Schulze: I’m here for that.
Kaz Windness: Caz.
Bianca Schulze: I think you’re onto it. Yeah. Let’s see. Bitsy bat school star. What impact do you hope that it has on its readers?
Kaz Windness: Wow. I did write Bitsy initially for autistic kids out there, or even autistic adults that didn’t know until now. I wrote it for them to feel seen, to feel like they are not alone because I felt very alone growing up. I kind of felt like I was looking at the world through, like, thick glass or something. It was just not—I couldn’t access it, and I couldn’t explain why because I could see it. It was right there. But I couldn’t understand why. I didn’t understand people. I didn’t understand social expectations. I didn’t understand why I was so left out that people didn’t want to play with me or be my friend. I didn’t understand that. So I hope that the book helps that community feel seen.
But I also hope that it helps every child recognize their own specialness and feel part of a community. And I think everyone, not just autistic people or neurodivergent people, I think we’re all hiding some vulnerability or some things that we feel uncomfortable with or things that we feel are imperfect. I think we’re all hiding these things, and I want us to be able to be safer and more vulnerable with each other. So I hope it inspires those conversations, especially in the classroom. So I’m really hoping that this book is able to get out there in a big way, especially into those classrooms where students can talk about their differences and talk about their specialness. But we always talk about those windows and mirrors and also sliding doors. So we’re feeling empathy. We’re able to like Winnie Whiskers did—I saw something from a different person’s point of view, put myself in their shoes, and have that empathy for someone who’s maybe not like me.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. So beautiful. So will we see more books with Bitsy?
Kaz Windness: Can I say?
Bianca Schulze: I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m not the best one to ask.
Kaz Windness: By the time this comes out, I’m pretty sure it’ll be announced. There is another Bitsy Bat book in the works. I have the manuscript written right now. We’re just working on the editing piece of that. And remember how I told you the publisher wanted Bitsy to be a bat? There’s a new student. They wanted her to be an owl. Right. There’s a new student, and his name is Enzo, and he’s an owl, and he’s non-speaking, and he uses a communication device to communicate. So we’re covering a different aspect of autistic differences, but also, it’s a friendship story, and Bitsy feels displaced by the new students. So there’s jealousy in that. I think we can all relate to that. So, yes, you will see more Bitsy.
Bianca Schulze: Yay!
If the Growing Readers listeners, were to take away just one thing today, what would you want that to be?
Kaz Windness: You are loved. You are loved. Us out here making these books; we are doing it because we love you. And we’re also giving that love back to us as a child. But I just want you to know that you’re loved.
Bianca Schulze: Everybody needs to hear that.
Kaz Windness: Yes. Isn’t it surprising?
Bianca Schulze: Yeah.
Kaz Windness: I think we should be more fluid with being able to tell. I’ll do it to the point that I make people really uncomfortable, but I’m going to tell you that I love you. I think people need to hear that. Bianca, I love you.
Bianca Schulze: Kaz. I love you, and I love Bitsy Bat. And I’m so grateful to have had you on the show today. Thank you for writing and illustrating. It’s such a much-needed book for libraries at home and in classrooms. And I absolutely love the way you have demonstrated what it can look like to be autistic while also showing readers that it takes more than one star, one kind of star, for the sky to shine brightly.
Kaz Windness: Thank you. This has been awesome. I’ve loved every minute.
About the Book
Written and Illustrated by Kaz Windness
Ages 4+ | 48 Pages
Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books | ISBN-13: 9781665905053
Publisher’s Book Summary: A little bat struggles to fit in only to learn to celebrate differences in this “darling book for all children but especially those with autism” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) about starting school, making friends, and seeing what makes each person special.
Bitsy is a little bat with big star dreams of making friends at her new school. But when she arrives, Bitsy doesn’t feel like she fits in. The other kids sit on their chairs, but sitting upright makes Bitsy dizzy. The other kids paint with their fingers, but Bitsy would rather use her toes. Everyone tells Bitsy she’s doing things wrong-wrong-wrong, so she tries harder…and ends up having a five-star meltdown.
Now Bitsy feels like a very small star and doesn’t want to go back to school. But with help from her family, Bitsy musters her courage, comes up with a new plan, and discovers that being a good friend is just one of the ways she shines bright!
Buy the Book
Kaz Windness is an author-illustrator who loves to make her readers laugh. When she’s not writing or illustrating books, Kaz teaches illustration at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design and enjoys making deep-dish pizza. Kaz lives in Denver, Colorado, with her husband, two children, and a Boston terrier. She’s the author of picture books Swim, Jim! and Bitsy Bat, School Star. She also created the Level 1 Ready-to-Read Graphics Worm and Caterpillar Are Friends and the Level 1 Ready-to-Read Cat vs. Vac.
You can visit Kaz Windness at www.windnessbooks.com.
- The things that guide and drive Kaz Windness in creating books for kids.
- Struggling with learning while being a lover of books and reading.
- Being a neurodivergent author writing a book about a neurodivergent character.
- A look into the creative process of the picture book.
- Playing with the artistic perspective or an autistic bat.
- Inclusivity in the classroom.
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Kaz Windness Talks About ‘Bitsy Bat, School Star’ and Autism. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Autism, Bats, Neurodiversity Books, and Picture Book.