Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

A Chat With Cindy Chambers Johnson and the Smooch-Tastic Russell

by Liz Bedia

RUSSELL WRESTLES THE RELATIVES ​by Cindy Chambers Johnson, illustrated by Daniel Duncan (Aladdin–Simon & Schuster)

Who doesn’t remember family gatherings as a child where one of your relatives gave you a bear hug so tight that you couldn’t breathe for the next half an hour or another who planted a big kiss – bright red lipstick and all – right on your cheek. Times haven’t changed that much for kids. There are still family gatherings and there are still those relatives. In Cindy Chambers Johnson’s debut picture book, RUSSELL WRESTLES THE RELATIVES (Aladdin – Simon & Schuster) – she deftly guides the reader through this hilarious story with heart about Russell, a scrawny kid, and his brawny wrestling relatives. By the end, the smooch-tastic Russell has won the hearts of the reader and his relatives with a few moves of his own.

Cindy was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to chat with us about Russell and all of his wrestling relatives.


LB: Thanks for joining us, Cindy!


CCJ: Thanks for having me, Liz! I’m excited to be here!


LB: What sparked the idea for this book?


CCJ: I was squatting down, getting the kids ready for bed one night when my son ran up and gave me a great big kiss and knocked me over. We laughed about his “smack down” and the seed of the story was planted.


LB: Tell us a little about the story?


CCJ: The story is about a boy, Russell, whose family are all wrestlers and are coming for a family reunion. Russell is small and scrawny and plans to hide from them all, but his plan is thwarted. He has to figure out other ways to escape their various greetings-disguised-as-wrestling-moves. (A handshake turns into the vice grip, a pat on the back into a back-buster.) At first they get the better of him, but after he accidentally evades a couple of “moves,” he begins thinking up moves of his own and gains confidence.

LB: Tell us about your road to publishing this book?


CCJ: It was long and winding. Which is common, I think. After my wonderful critique groups had read and re-read the manuscript’s numerous revisions, I decided it was ready to submit. I googled “quirky picture book agents” and found three to send to. One immediately rejected it, but another asked me for an exclusive and after seeing my other writing and a revision, Minju Chang at BookStop Literary agreed to represent me. You’d think that would be the end of the story, but it was just the beginning. Many revisions later, Minju finally sold it to Karen Nagel at Aladdin. In all there were about 48 revisions. I did my first draft in 2011 and got the offer from Aladdin in November of 2015.


LB: Were there any major changes from the manuscript you originally submitted to what we see now in the book?


CCJ: Lots of things changed, but the title was a major change. Originally, the story was called Super Grammy Smackdown. When Minju began sending it out, editors would comment that it wasn’t as boisterous as they expected. Then one editor said it was too violent for her and compared it to THE HUNGER GAMES. That made me realize that the title was setting up expectations that the manuscript wasn’t fulfilling, and someone in my critique group pointed out that it also gave away the ending. We tossed around ideas for a different title and it sold shortly after being submitted with the new title.

LB: Daniel Duncan did a fantastic job with the illustrations. Did you have input? Anything surprise you?


CCJ: Didn’t he? I love what he did with all of the characters! I had imagined framed photographs of all of Russell’s relatives, but hadn’t mentioned it, so I was thrilled and surprised to see that Daniel had the same idea. Another thing that surprised and pleased me, was that my editor let me see the illustrations and asked for feedback. They were all so wonderful, the only thing I remember asking to be changed was Grammy’s outfit. At first it had saguaro cactus on it. She is supposed to be from Kansas, and I pointed out that saguaro cactus aren’t native to Kansas. Daniel is from London, so that’s not something he would know. He switched it to corn, which is a much better fit.


LB: What’s up next for you?


CCJ: More writing and revising. I’m working on a couple of new picture book manuscripts right now and hoping my agent will decide that they are fit to submit.


LB: Thanks so much for chatting with us, Cindy!


CCJ: My pleasure!


RUSSELL WRESTLES THE RELATIVES is out in stores June 12, 2018.

From her book —

“Cindy​ Chambers Johnson grew up in Hutchinson, Kansas, where she received her fair share of Kansas Crusher hugs and visits from far-flung relatives. Cindy’s interest in family ties and inherited traits led her to a career as a genetic counselor, but a love of reading and writing passed down from her mother led to her career as an author. Cindy now lives with her husband and two children in Des Moines, Iowa, and only administers the Texas Ticklehold when absolutely necessary.”


You can visit her at