Author and MFAC alum Jonathan Hillman talks about his debut picture book, Big Wig (forthcoming from Paula Wiseman Books, February 1, 2022) illustrated by Levi Hastings.

In the spirit of Julián Is a Mermaid, this irrepressible picture book celebrates drag kids, individuality, and self-confidence from the perspective of a fabulous wig!

When a child dresses in drag to compete in a neighborhood costume competition, they become B.B. Bedazzle! A key part of B.B. Bedazzle’s ensemble is a wig called Wig. Together they are an unstoppable drag queen team! But Wig feels inadequate compared to the other, bigger wigs. When Wig flies off B.B.’s head, she goes from kid to kid instilling confidence and inspiring dreams in those who wear her:

Wig remembers what wigs can do.
Wig brushes the world,
Wig hears whispered wishes…
and turns them into
something true.
The bigger their dreams,
the bigger Wig seems.

This wonderful read aloud celebrates the universal childhood experience of dressing up and the confidence that comes with putting on a costume. And it goes further than that, acknowledging that sometimes dressing differently from how we were born is how we become our truest and best selves.

What inspired Big Wig?

I was initially attracted to the drag phrase “wig flew,” which is a way of saying you’re blown away or astonished by some element of a drag performance. For example, if you see a fierce look or a show stopping dance move, you might say, “girl, my wig flew!” In particular, I was intrigued that the phrase communicated a simple story all on its own. You have a character: Wig. And you have an action: flew. I was curious: what causes Wig to fly? Where does she fly? What does her journey add up to? In subsequent drafts, the story began to explore what happens when a person puts on a wig: they become bigger, larger than life. And in the context of drag, a costume and persona allows a queer person to rise above their circumstances and create a more empowered self. As writers of picture books we ask ourselves, “where is the emotional reality of the child in this book?” I saw a natural connection between drag and the child’s experience of playing dress up. This led to the idea of Big Wig, a wig that doesn’t feel big enough on a journey to discover what makes her bigger. 

What were the challenges (literary, psychological, logistical, etc.) in bringing this book to life?

This picture book took many, MANY drafts to find its proper form. What started as an epic 750-word saga of Wig flying through the streets of New York City, into outer space and back again, became a simpler story of a neighborhood dress up competition with a child drag queen at the center. Changing the setting and the age of the character helped narrow its focus to the one clear thing we hope to communicate in picture books. This book received a lot of kind rejections and feedback from editors in its early form. The questions that plagued me were: What are the ethos of drag? How does drag resonate with children? And how can I communicate all that in less than 500 words? Answering these questions proved so difficult that I shelved the book indefinitely for over a year. Finally, I decided to write a hypothetical version for myself, thinking “this book never sold, but what would it have looked like if it did?” Before I knew it, I had a working draft that felt like a drag performance: structured loosely like a pop song, bursting with vibrant language, and designed for a read aloud. Ultimately, I wanted to communicate three key tenets of drag: drag inspires confidence, drag makes the world more beautiful, and drag empowers us to imagine bigger, better realities.

What did you edit out of this book?

Almost everything about the original draft changed, including the title. What started as a 750-word book became a 280-word book. In one draft there was a dumpster full of sentient garbage which Wig befriended. There was an antagonistic pigeon! A journey into outer space! There were other child characters named Ella and Benji! But the cut I miss the most is B.B. Bedazzle’s rival queen named Umbrella Shade. I also miss the comedic lines of old drafts. Wig, digging herself out of the dumpster: “I WILL NEVER BE GARBAGE AGAIN!” 

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I work in the Equity and Inclusion Division at a community college, where I’m part of a brilliant team and get to do meaningful work every day. When I’m not working, I spend most of my time reading, playing video games, and re-watching old seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race. There’s also a good chance I’m petting my kitties, Cleo and Dot.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

My writing life changed significantly when I found a community of writers. First, I joined a critique group (The Uncommon Writers) with whom I’ve been sharing work since 2015. Together, we’ve seen our stories through from the earliest stages, to signing with agents, to having several book deals between us. Second, I got my MFA in writing for children from Hamline. Of course, critique groups and MFA programs help you to hone your craft. But the biggest benefit is the sense of community and encouragement. Writing is a lonely and unpredictable business. I’ve found that the real joy is the journey itself and the companionship of fellow artists who travel that journey with you. I’ve had multiple book offers, but the thrill of those can’t compare to gushing with my critique group about our YA and pop music heartthrobs or seeing my grad school friends after months away. Wherever you might find them—a critique group, an MFA program—find your people. Love them. Share your stories and your struggles.

What is next for you? What are you working on now?

My work was recently featured in Fat and Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives, where I discussed how my critical thesis at Hamline helped inform my work (and I made my first-ever attempts at poetry!). I recently sold a second picture book, which I’ll be able to talk more about later this year. And after a lengthy hiatus, I’ve completed a new draft of my Hamline creative thesis, a YA novel titled The Weight of Everything. Next month, I hope to start work on my long-shelved middle grade fantasy project.

Big Wig arrives on bookshelves February 1, 2022, and is available for pre-order from wherever books are sold!

And now for the cover…

Jonathan Hillman is a graduate of Hamline University’s Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program, where he won the Walden Pond Press Award for Excellence in Middle Grade Fiction. His debut picture book, Big Wig, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in Spring 2022. His work has been featured in Fat and Queer: An Anthology of Queer and Trans Bodies and Lives (Jessica Kingsley Publishers). He lives near Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his two cats. He can be found on Instagram and Twitter @jhillmanbooks.