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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | author

Art and Words, Words and Art

“Jungle Tales,” by J.J. Shannon, 1895

Thirty years ago, I bought a poster of “Jungle Tales” by J.J. Shannon (1895) at the Met in New York City. I took it to my favorite framer, but when it was ready, I was horrified to see they’d cut off Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Children’s Bookshop at the bottom, framing just the image.  No one thought the words were important.  The framer ordered a new poster and framed it intact. “Jungle Tales” has been hanging over our den sofa ever since. I love the painting, but I also love the place names. In my mind, the two can’t be separated—art and words, words and art.

Like most kids, I wrote stories and drew pictures. I enjoyed words with illustrations—magazines with photographs and cartoons, comic books, middle grade fiction with inside line drawings. The experience was never hurried—I pored over the images and made connections between the art and the words. This was a world I never wanted to leave.

Sancho, the Homing Steer, by Candice Sylvia Farris

I planned to be both a writer and an artist, but after high school I realized I’d need formal art training. College of any kind was out of the question. I could teach myself to write and that was the path I chose.

Still, art remained a large part of my life. I watch children’s book illustrators work, envying those who can draw and paint and see results at the end of the day. In a writing session, I may produce one decent sentence, if that. To improve my craft—a daily struggle even after all these years—I start journals, but falter in the practice. New projects seem wrenched from me. Words, words, where are the words?

Two years ago, I was asked to write a picture book based on a character created by an illustrator. I agreed to try, though I was uncertain and nervous. I hadn’t written a picture book in more than ten years. And I’d never written a picture book based on a character. The editor sent me the illustrator’s sample sketches. I studied them, just as I’d once pored over the art in comics or mystery books. I photocopied the samples and carried them around with me.

preliminary sketches for Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten

Instead of having to visualize a character in my head, the way I usually wrote picture books (or anything), I could see the panda girl and her range of emotions, and appreciate Christine Grove’s sense of humor. I knew the kind of story this character needed. And I wrote it, Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten (2017). When I was asked to write a sequel, the illustrations from the first book inspired me. Amanda Panda and the Bigger, Better Birthday will be out next summer.

Amanda Panda Quits KindergartenA few weeks ago, Christine Grove sent me a new character. “What do you think?” she wrote. I printed out the character and carried it around with me. A month later, I had a new story. Art came to my rescue. It gave me the words I hadn’t been able to pull out of my head. 

I don’t know if this new story will become a published picture book, but I’ve learned my lesson. Don’t stray from art again. I’ll collect magazine photos, doodle, photocopy books (Pinterest doesn’t cut it for me), and paste the images into those fallow journals. Visuals will help me find the words. Art and words, words and art.

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Tiny House, Cozy Cabin

A few months ago, my husband and I sold our home of 30 years and decided to live full-time in our cozy cabin in the woods. We left behind greater square footage, a quaint and sometimes bustling village on the waterfront, and a home with lots of family memories.

But it was time for a change.

Time for more simplicity.

Ever since our kids left home, we’d been juggling life between our house and cabin, leaving us feeling fragmented and burdened. Something had to go. The decision wasn’t easy. A comfortable, well-appointed and spacious home? Or a tiny house / cozy cabin with a spacious outdoors? We opted for less house, more nature.

Mary Casanova cabin

On these 60 acres, the aspen and maple have nearly shed all their leaves. Winter is coming, and we heat our cabin with hand-split fire wood in our woodstove. Mornings start with coffee by the crackling fire, then we head out to feed three horses, clean stalls and paddock, gather eggs, and hike with our dogs to the river.

After breakfast, I like to tidy up my home before getting to my writing desk, which is in the loft. In a tiny space, cleaning takes minutes. Of course, moving into this smaller home first meant downsizing our possessions. We went on a crusade to rid our lives of clutter. We donated, trashed, recycled, and gifted away everything we could.

With less to manage and maintain, we lower our stress and free up more space for things that matter to us.

The cabin’s cooling a bit as I write this.

Time to stoke the fire and grab a good book.

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Skinny Dip with Anne Broyles

Anne BroylesAuthor Anne Broyles is a world traveler, explorer, and social justice advocate who writes books about historical journeys, family traditions, and the immigrant experience.  

Who was your favorite teacher in grades K-7 and why?

My fifth grade teacher at Schumaker Elementary School, Mr. George Willems, encouraged me to think of myself as a writer through our weekly writing assignments. One week he put on a scary piece of music called “Danse Macabre” and asked us to write the story that came to us as we listened to the music. My story was about skeletons in the graveyard. Another week, he took us out on the playground to lie on our backs and use the clouds for inspiration. I still have a lot of the work I did in his class.

I have few regrets in life, but I do wish I had returned to the school to thank him for his encouragement, but by the time I was old enough to realize that this might have meant something to him, he was already gone.

What is your favorite part of starting a new project?

I love the initial inspiration of a new project, then the research into making sure my ideas, setting, language, and details are all accurate. For instance, in my research for my middle grade novel-in-progress, Plenty Powerful, I spent two weekends in Arthurdale, West Virginia, a planned community that Eleanor Roosevelt helped found during the Depression. I spent time with the real-life people who, had my character been an actual person, would have been her classmates. They told me what it was like to move from extreme poverty in mining camps to a place where they had homes, running water, electricity, and a sense of community. Those are the kinds of details I love to include in writing fiction..

grilled cheese and tomato soupFavorite lunch as a kid?

Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich.

Barefoot or shoes?

I grew up in Tucson, so I am definitely a thongs/sandals person. I feel sad when summer is over and I have to start wearing “real shoes.” Though I backpacked through Europe for seven months right after college and loved my heavy hiking boots so much, I sometimes slept in them after I got home!

Why do you feel hopeful for humankind?

Like Anne Frank, I “believe, in spite of everything, that people& are truly good at heart.” I try to look for and find the light that is in everyone I meet.

Best invention of the last two hundred years?

The telephone, because it gave people opportunity to communicate with family and friends who were not geographically close. I use email and texts to stay in touch, too, of course, but there’s nothing as satisfying as hearing the voice of someone I love, and getting to have a back-and-forth conversation when we are apart.

Long Way DownBook on your bedside table right now?

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, which I just picked up today. I look forward to seeing how he pulls off the concept of “a novel that takes place in sixty potent seconds—the time it takes a kid to decide whether or not he’s going to murder the guy who killed his brother.”

Your most cherished accomplishment?

I received a Youth Mentor Award from the League of United Latin American Citizens.

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On Growing Older … Old

Growing OlderWhy is “older” an acceptable word and “old” almost forbidden?

To answer my own question, I suppose it’s because we’re all growing older, even the four-year-old next door. But old … ah, old smacks of incompetence, of irrelevance. Even worse, old smacks of that truly obscene-to-our-society word … death.

I am approaching my birthday month. It won’t be a “big” dividable-by-five birthday, but still one that feels significant for the number it stands close to. I will be 79 next month.

Can you name the number?

Forty didn’t trouble me a bit. I had a friend, several years older than I, who, when I turned forty, said, “Forty is such a fine age. It’s the first number you reach that has any authority, but you still feel so young.” And she was right! I sailed into 40 feeling mature, confident … and still young.

Sixty-five slipped past without much fanfare. As a working writer I wasn’t facing retirement, after all. Moreover, I could sign up for Social Security and Medicare, and for the self-employed that is no small thing. I’d been paying in, both the employee and the employer side, for a long time, and at last it was going to come back to me. Given the difficulty and expense of buying health insurance that isn’t handed down through an employer, being able to get Medicare was an even bigger deal. (I will never understand the flap in this country about “socialized medicine.” That’s what Medicare is, and it works! It works better than any other pay-for-care system this backward system offers.)

When I turned seventy my daughter threw me a big party … at my request, I should add. It was a lovely party, and it exhausted me. Mostly it reminded me that I’ve never liked parties.

“I won’t ask you to do that again,” I said.

She, who has always been a loving and willing daughter, said, “Good!”

But this is 79! And yes, I might as well name the number. Eighty is a very short hop, skip and hobble down the road!

It’s the first time I find myself facing changes in my body that I know I don’t have the power to fix. Not that I’ve given up trying. I walk vigorously two of three times a day. I do Pilates three times a week. I stretch and I meditate and I eat healthfully and I practice excellent sleep hygiene. Actually, my sleep hygiene is better and more reliable than my sleep. But my body continues on its ever-so-predictable downward trajectory.

From time to time, bits fall off.

And my mind? That’s harder to define and even harder to talk about. I can still produce a workable manuscript. I can still offer a useful critique of someone else’s manuscript, too. But I find myself too often going back to the refrigerator to locate the eggs I’ve just set out on the counter or struggling in the evening to remember some detail of what I’ve done that morning.

My omelets still please the palate, though, and I’ve shown up wherever I was expected to be in the morning and done whatever I said I would do.

Arriving at a place called old in this culture is a matter for some amazement. Who is ever prepared? After all, old has never been something to aspire to … despite the alternative. A friend said recently, “I went from wolf whistles to invisibility in a heartbeat.” And I went from “cutting-edge” to “veteran author” in the same incomprehensibly short time.

I find I want more than anything else to use these years I’ve been gifted, however many or few they may be. I want to use them to deepen my acceptance of my own life, blunders and accomplishments all. I want to use them to enrich the peace my presence brings to a room.

I want to use these years to live. Not just to move through my days stacking accomplishments, one on top of another. I have enough of those. We all have enough of those.

I want to use these years to breathe, deeply and mindfully. And now, being old, I want use these final years to be grateful for every, every breath.

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Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson

We are honored to interview the highly respected Richard Jackson, who is on to his next career as a writer. His most recently published book is all ears, all eyes, a lush and irresistible read-aloud book, illustrated by Katherine Tillitson (Simon & Schuster). We thought we’d take the opportunity to talk with him about the progression from his editorial career to his writing career and the four books he has written.

Editorial Career

Will you please tell us a bit about your editorial experience?

After Army service, I graduated from NYC in 1962 with a Master’s degree in education. I worked first at Doubleday, not with children’s books, then at Macmillan and David White.

In 1968, you co-founded Bradbury Press. You moved to Orchard Books in 1986 and then began the nonfiction publishing imprint DK Ink in 1996. Three years later, in 1999, you had your own imprint at Simon & Schuster with the venerated Atheneum Books. Has this journey taken you around unexpected bends in the road?

I’ve never been subjected to a job interview.

As you were gaining experience, which editors do you feel taught you the most?

Frances Keene and then Susan Hirschman at Macmillan.

Do you think most picture book editors are equal parts visual and verbal?

Most likely. For me, as writer, as editor, the words are of first importance.

What did your authors teach you?

Empathy.

While you were an editor, did you always have a yen to write your own books?

No. But retirement—in so much as I am retired; I still work on a few books annually by old publishing friends—suddenly stretched rather blandly before me. I began tinkering with words, with play, with wordplay…

You’re working with an editor now, a colleague. What do you look for from your editor?

Efficiency. A sense of humor. Taste. Candor—i.e., a willingness to see the possibilities of something not yet final.

Considering the Books You’ve Written

Have a Look, Says Book

interior spread for Have a Look, Says Book by Richard Jackson, illustration copyright Kevin Hawkes

Have a Look, Says Book

Have a Look, Says Book
illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Caitlyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schuster, 2016

Kevin Hawkes illustrated this book that is playfully focused on adjectives. The text rhymes but not in a way that feels read-aloud confining. How do you work on the poetry in a picture book?

In my head, often while driving.

Storytime librarians are focusing more than ever on teaching. This book offers an opportunity to talk about the pleasure of books, the love of words. Have you always been fond of words?

A verbal child was I. As opposed to athletic.

What sparked the idea for this book?

The simple but enormous word “touch” has at least two meanings… There are many see, hear books, a few smell and taste books—hardly any about touch. Watching children and grandchildren touch the pages and pictures of a book, I thought…let’s see if I can honor that young-kid impulse: to point out, to make contact with a finger, to search a book for a tactile dimension equal to seeing and hearing.

In Plain Sight

interior spread for In Plain Sight, by Richard Jackson, illustration copyright Jerry Pinkney

In Plain SightIn Plain Sight
illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Neal Porter Books
Roaring Brook Press, 2016

The story in this book is universal, a grandfather and granddaughter who enjoy each other’s company. Grandpa, who lives in a bedroom in Sophie’s house, always has something for them to do together, to find something he’s hidden In Plain Sight.

What inspired this universal story of love?

Well, I was the Grandpa, I think. Sophie, a sister who died at four. She always announced her presence with “Here I ahm.” In my imagination, the game element was as important as anything, so it was based upon a game my father played on us, his children, on Christmas night—find objects hidden in unlikely places, such as a dollar bill wrapped around a book’s spine in a bookcase—very tricky!

It’s so important for children who have older generations living with them to see themselves in books, to understand that families extend themselves when needed.

Was it your idea to have Grandpa supported by a wheelchair?

Jerry’s, I think. As was Grandpa’s athletic and military past, as was the cat.

This manuscript was interpreted by the much-admired author and illustrator, Jerry Pinkney. How was he brought into this project?

Neal Porter’s idea, at Roaring Brook. They had not worked together before. I asked Neal, quite casually, I remember, if this family might be black (they weren’t while I was following the conversation which accounts for the story here). Jerry widened and deepened every image; note Sophie’s school clothes, for instance. Or the illustration on the binding of the book—not a repeat of the jacket, but something new and on its own; that’s Grandpa’s nature, don’t you think; there’s always a little more to give.

all ears, all eyes

interior spread, all ears, all eyes, by Richard Jackson, illustration copyright Katherine Tillotson

all ears, all eyesall ears, all eyes
illustrated by Katherine Tillotson
Caitlyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schuster, 2017

Your text for this book is so evocative of being outdoors at night, particularly in a forested or wild area. Why did you want to share that experience with readers and listeners?

The setting is a bit of woods, across a brook near our house in the country north of New York City. Real country, if you can believe. One night a yodeling fox awoke me and my wife. Moon and mostly darkness. Stillness, except for Mr. Fox. Magical. We got the children up (they are part of my dedication for this book) and, barefoot, we went outside, across the grass, up to the brook’s bank. We listened and without entering the woods, let the woods enter us. I hoped to write a poem to that night, that fox, that family experience.

When you wrote the text for all ears, all eyes, did you have an illustrator in mind? Why?

Yes indeed, the text was for Katherine Tillotson always, once the opening words sprang from my memory. She suggested the project somehow, and inspired it all along, from a very early rendition of a lurking owl. Next came Caitlyn Dlouhy and Ann Bobco (Atheneum’s brilliant art director), and the four of us played for months and months. Until quite close to the “end,” I was fussing with rhymes and line breaks. Such fun.

Many people who want to write books for children have been told that they’ll never work directly with their illustrator. Did you include instructions for how the text might be illustrated? As an editor, does your mind work that way?

I give a little guidance when the artist will need it—the main boy wears glasses, for example. And I break the text into page and page turn units. In my head I’m imaging a movie. But the illustrator is the cameraman (or woman), and often comes up with totally surprising and often just-right new views.

Don’t miss reading our interview with Katherine Tillotson about this book.

interior spread from This Beautiful Day, by Richard Jackson, illustration copyright Suzy Lee

This Beautiful DayThis Beautiful Day
illustrated by Suzy Lee
Caitlyn Dlouhy Books / Atheneum Books
Simon & Schuster, 2017

In August of this year, we’ll be treated to another book you wrote, this one filled with humor and whimsy. It begins with a boring, rainy day, but the attitude of the three children and their mother brings out the sun.

With your considerable experience as an editor, do you reflexively envision your text on the page?

Reflexively? I think not. I do imagine page turns—and often, as suggested above, an illustrator will have a better idea and I’ll be tickled.

When you were an editor, did you look forward to the surprise of the illustrator’s rough sketches, their interpretation of the author’s story?

Father Time and the Day BoxesYou bet! I once published a picture book, George Ella Lyon’s and Robert Parker’s Father Time and the Day Boxes (o.p), using the sketches, which were perfect as they were. Had I imagined them as Bob presented them? No way. It’s ideal to be surprising and just right from the get-go.

Now that it’s your manuscript being interpreted, how does that experience differ?

Not much different. I hadn’t imagined a rainy beginning to this day, so was taken aback at first; eventually, I have come to see the wisdom of giving the narrative this “hinge” in mood. What you suggest (that sun is attitude induced) is irresistible—and completely Suzy’s idea.

____________________

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Richard Jackson!

I’ve admired the books he’s edited, some of the finest in the children’s literature canon, so it’s a pleasure to hear from him as he walks his next path as a writer. 

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Skinny Dip with Janet Taylor Lisle

Janet Taylor LisleFor this interview, we chat with Janet Taylor Lisle, Newbery Honor-winning author of Afternoon of the Elves, the Scott O’Dell Award-winning The Art of Keeping Cool, and the thriller Black Duck, along with many other reader favorites.

Which celebrity, living or not, do you wish would invite you to a coffee shop?

I’m quite sure Emily Dickinson, shy and secretive as she was, would never invite me to a coffee shop, but perhaps I could slip a note under her door in Amherst, Massachusetts and beg for a visit. I’d like to ask her why she made her poems, what some of them mean, and if it mattered to her that her work was unpublished during her life.

The LeopardWhich book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

My all-time favorite book is The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Every time I read it, the novel changes what I see around me. Lampedusa wrote only this one work but it’s enough to put the universe at your fingertips.

What’s your favorite late-night snack?

I am not nocturnal but my cat Nellie would like to mention here that she will take straight canned tuna fish and milk anytime after midnight. After 3 a.m., too, if it comes to that.

Most cherished childhood memory?

So, we three children are sailing off Martha’s Vineyard with my dad when a sudden storm hits. Violent sea! Howling wind! My dad is on deck reefing the sails when a huge wave rolls into the cockpit. It lifts my little brother up and is sweeping him overboard when I grab him by the arm and hold on with all my strength. Hugh is saved! (That was close.) I cry. He grows up to become a loved doctor who cares deeply for his patients.

Janet Taylor Lisle with one of Barry Flanagan’s “hare” sculptures, at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, in Washington, DC

Illustrator’s work you most admire?

I guess the illustrators I loved as a child still speak to me most directly. Beatrix Potter for her hedgehogs and rabbits; John Tenniel for his Mad Hatter and March Hare; N.C. Wyeth for his murderous, one-legged pirates and mysterious islands. So many others. Today, it’s anything by William Steig or Arnold Lobel for me and my grandchildren. (Nellie cozies up to these guys too.)

Favorite season of the year? Why?

Winter in New England. Stark. Quiet. When the leaves fall off the trees the land  opens to show its real face. The moon looks bigger.

Janet Taylor Lisle

Winter, Janet’s favorite time of year

What gives you shivers?

A recent arrival in my Rhode Island neighborhood is an otter-like animal known as a Fisher Cat. It hunts near the pond and screams most horribly at night. I pull the blankets over my head and Nellie’s. We don’t like even thinking about this creature.

Morning person? Night person?

I’m a morning person. I like to rise with the sun. Rosy-fingered dawn for me, and a walk on the beach. (My novel The Lampfish of Twill came from this daily  habit.)

Janet Taylor Lisle

Janet Taylor Lisle in front of the pond in Little Compton, the inspiration for my fictional Quicksand Pond.

What’s your hidden talent?

I love to sing and have sung in choral groups all my life. Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Bach. I’m not a religious person but the big requiems and masses sometimes bring me to tears even as I sing them. I’m a sucker for popular music too: a big crooner in the car. Radio always on.

Best tip for living a contented life?

For a contented life, keep it simple and keep out of the limelight. Fame never did anyone any good.

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My Work-Study Internship

World Telegram photo by Al Aumuller, Library of Congress, Creative Commons

World Telegram photo by Al Aumuller, Library of Congress, Creative Commons

The first college I attended was Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It had a work-study curriculum in which half your year was spent working off-campus on some job relating to your professional aspirations. At that time, being interested in the theatre, I was offered and took a job at a Cleveland television station. A few days before the job began it was canceled. I was offered a job at a bookstore, but decided to find a job on my own.

A family friend was Lee Hays, the baritone singer for the popular folk group, The Weavers. Lee also was a mentor to me and my would-be writing career. I don’t recall the circumstances but having learned that I was looking for a job, he sent me to Harold Leventhal, who managed The Weavers. Leventhal offered me a job.

It appeared that Mr. Leventhal was involved in some way with the estate of the late Woody Guthrie. What was the job? Guthrie was not just a famous performer, and a song writer, he was a writer. In 1943, he had published a “partially fictionalized” autobiography. Indeed, he left boxes of manuscripts. What job was I offered? Read through all those boxes and let Mr. Leventhal know if anything was worth publishing. I was next interviewed by Pete Seeger who was also involved in the Guthrie estate.

I got what I thought was a glamorous job. If this seems an odd job to be given to a nineteen-year-old—I would, in retrospect, agree The many boxes arrived.

I held myself to working an eight-hour day.

The problem was that Guthrie had Huntington’s disease, which is “a fatal genetic disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. It deteriorates a person’s physical and mental abilities during their prime working years and has no cure.”

Thus the Guthrie writing I had to read—from his late years—was at best erratic, and often disturbing. Whatever hero worship I might have had about this vital, hugely creative and important man, rapidly disintegrated. But being the age I was, I doggedly read on, eight hours a day for three months.

When, after the three months were up and I came in to report to Mr. Leventhal, he asked, “Is there anything worth publishing?” To which I replied, “Nothing.”

Why these folks trusted my judgment—or even if they did trust my judgment—I never learned. But I am perhaps one of the few people who—ever since—cannot bear to listen to the distinctive voice of Woody Guthrie. I had gotten too much into his ill mind.

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The Weasel Whisperer

Page Break - Weasel Whisperer

 

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Life does not stop …

Lynne Jonell Page Break

 

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Interpersonal Relationships!

Page Break: Interpersonal Relationships

 

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Writing on Vacation!!

Lynne Jonell Page Break

 

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Skinny Dip with Pamela S. Turner

For this interview, we visit with Pamela S. Turner, children’s book author with two new books out in 2016, Samurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune and Crow Smarts: Inside the Brain of the World’s Brightest Bird:

Pamela S. TurnerWhich celebrity, living or not, do you wish would invite you to a coffee shop?

Sir Richard Francis Burton, the Victorian anthropologist, translator, linguist, and African explorer. I’ve had a huge crush on him ever since I read The White Nile.  

Most cherished childhood memory? 

Getting my first library card at age four. Mom said I couldn’t get one until I could write my own name, so I learned in a flash.  

Sir Richard Francis Burton

Richard Francis Burton by Rischgitz, 1864

Tea? Coffee? Milk? Soda? What’s your favorite go-to drink?

Why isn’t “margarita” one of the options here?

Your favorite candy as a kid …

Abba-Zabba … or maybe Bit O’ Honey … or maybe Big Hunk … no, wait! Cotton candy. I still love cotton candy. I have the taste buds of a three-year-old.  

Is Pluto a planet?

No. But Pluto being demoted from planethood is a wonderful lesson in how science works. In science data matter, not tradition.

Cotton CandyBest tip for living a contented life?

I think Buddhists have the best motto of all: “compassion for all sentient creatures.”

Your hope for the world?

That we will find a way to live within our ecological means and not muck everything up for ourselves and for all other sentient creatures.

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A Bit of Noise

 

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Marsha Wilson Chall and Jill Davis

I recently had the honor of interviewing Marsha Wilson Chall, the author of the new picture book, The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo, and her editor, Jill Davis.

Marsha Wilson ChallMarsha Wilson Chall grew up an only child in Minnesota, where her father told her the best stories. The author of many picture books, including Up North at the Cabin, One Pup’s Up, and Pick a Pup, Marsha teaches writing at Hamline University’s MFAC program in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lives on a small farm west of Minneapolis with her husband, dog, barn cats, and books.

Jill DavisJill Davis has been an executive editor in children’s books at HarperCollins since 2013. A veteran of children’s books, she began her career at Random House in 1992, and worked there at Crown and Knopf Books For Young Readers until 1996, after which she worked at Viking until 2005. After that, she held positions at both Bloomsbury and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She is the author of three picture books, editor of one collection of short stories, and has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University

Secret Life of Fiiggy MustardoMark: The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo came about in a different way than most picture books. You were asked to write a story based on illustrations of a character. Could you tell us about this process and a little about the story?

Marsha: You’re right that this story evolved differently than my others. My amazing editor, Jill Davis, sent me Alison Friend’s thumbnails of an adorable canine character she had named Figgy Mustardo in a variety of human-like poses and costumes. For me, it was love at first sight! So I set about the process of creating Figgy’s story based on my impressions of him through Alison’s art and then, via Jill, Alison’s written notions of his characterization and story ideas.

Alison FriendAn imaginative, spirited fellow, Alison visualized Figgy zipping through many adventures on his scooter. In the book, I took the liberty of changing the scooter to a race car and also cast Figgy as a rock star and a pizza chef who organizes and stars in a neighborhood rock concert, pizzeria, and stock car race with his animal friends. Lots of Figgy fun, but this did not a story make. I needed to know why these activities mattered to Figgy and how he grew as a character.

Secret Life of Figgy MustardoI also had to think about the nuts and bolts of how Figgy might transform from dog to dilettante. I was fairly certain of my own dog’s boredom and loneliness while our family is away, so I started my story exploration there. We all know that dogs, as social creatures, dislike being left alone and are often fraught with anxiety leading to certain not-so-flattering behaviors and/or the escape of sleep. A story with a sleeping dog would not be too interesting, so I chose the much more exciting, destructive route. What if Figgy ate things–any things–in his frustration, fell asleep, and dreamed about himself as a manifestation of what he ate? We all know “you are what you eat,” so in Figgy’s case, for example, he eats Mrs. Mustardo’s Bone Appetit magazine, falls asleep, and dreams of being Italian Pizza Chef Mustardo serving Muttsarello and Figaro pizzas to adoring gourmands. When he wakes, he knows his dream is a sign, so he makes a real one of his own, “Free Pizza,” and serves his entire animal neighborhood at Figgy’s Pizzeria.

Most importantly, I needed to develop a motivation for Figgy’s adventures; how were these events connected to him? What did they mean? How would they affect Figgy’s world outside and inside? The answer arrived in the form of loss; every animal neighbor came to Figgy’s concert and pizzeria and car race except Figgy’s family, the Mustardos, especially George (his boy). In desperation, Figgy creates the sign “Free Dog” to find a family who will talk and walk and play with him like all the other families he sees through his window. Where are the Mustardos? The family Mustardo arrives in time to show Figgy how much they care with a promise to take him wherever they can and to provide him companionship when they can’t in the form of new pup named Dot. Figgy and Dot go on to enliven the neighborhood with Free Shows nightly.

Mark: What kind of revising/editing process did you and Jill go through?

Marsha: Once I knew my character and his problem, I dashed off the story, sent it to Jill who loved it at first sight, then sat back satisfied with a good day’s work.

Ha! Not the way it happened, but I did write a first draft within a few days that Jill found promising. So many drafts later that I can’t even recall the original, Jill exercised plenty of patience waiting for the story she and Alison hoped I could write. I know she’ll protest my tribute, but I have never worked with an editor so open to my trial and error. Her abundant humor carried us through the process that I think would have otherwise overwhelmed me.

Mark: Will there be any more books with Figgy and his further adventures?

Marsha: Figgy hopes so and so do Jill, Alison, and I. For now, I hope Figgy wags his way into the hands and hearts of many human friends where he belongs.

WOOF!

Mark: How was this project different having a character first and then having to find a writer to tell his story?

The Secret Life of Figgy MustardoJill: It was kind of hard. The illustrator had invented this little dog who she wanted to be an adventurer—yet she wasn’t sure how to make the story happen. When I saw the dog, I thought of Marsha’s One Pup’s Up—and I knew how talented she was. Seemed like a slam dunk! But all of us—Marsha, myself, and the illustrator, Alison Friend, had  to share plenty of feedback, edit, and revise a bit before Marsha was able to tell both the story she envisioned as well as the story Alison had in mind. Marsha pictured Figgy at home, and really loved the idea of using signs. Alison seemed to feel Figgy was some kind of James Bond. So how were those two visions going to meet? They finally did when Marsha realized that Figgy would go to sleep and dream about his exciting alter-ego. And we all loved the idea. The book may seem a little bit sad because Figgy is always being left at home, but Marsha told it in such a great way that Figgy showed his grit! If he’s hungry, he eats what’s there—but then the magic happens and he goes to sleep and dreams of something related to what he ate. It’s so fun and so imaginative. I love what Marsha did with Figgy’s story, and Alison did, too.

Mark: What was it like to work with Marsha in this new role as editor after being her student in the MFA in Writing for Children program at Hamline University?

Jill: It felt very wonderful and natural. Marsha does not use intimidation as a tactic in general. She’s the rare combination of brilliant and super silly. That’s one reason she’s so loved at Hamline and in the continental United States, generally speaking.

There were times when she should have been frustrated or wanted to spit at me, but she was cool as a cucumber in the freezer in the North Pole. So professional and what I loved also about working with her is how much I learned. I learned how she makes use of repetition, alliteration, and very careful editing. I can be sloppy, but Marsha walked straight out of Strunk and White. She’s exact and wonderfully detail-oriented. She was also involved at the sketch stage. Actually at several sketch stages. We worked on the phone, we worked at Hamline, and we worked until we thought it felt perfect. And she loved it because she could use it in her teaching! And I just loved working with Marsha!

Mark:  Thank you Marsha and Jill for taking the time to tell us about your collaboration on The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo. The book is now available at everyone’s local independent book store.

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Skinny Dip with Mélina Mangal

Mélina MangalFor this interview, we visit with Mélina Mangal, children’s book author and librarian:

What’s your favorite late-night snack?

My favorite ANYTIME snack is white cheddar popcorn.  

Most cherished childhood memory?  

Roaming through the north woods, climbing trees with my sister and brothers.  I loved being outdoors so much.   

Illustrator’s work you most admire?

There are so many illustrators I admire, such as Leo and Diane Dillon, whose vast body of work has inspired several generations.  Also: the late Vera B. Williams, David Diaz, Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu, Pat Cummings, Maya Cristina Gonzalez…. I could go on! 

Melina Mangal's most admired illustrators

Favorite season of the year? Why?

Summer is my favorite season.  I can work in the garden, swim outside, bike everywhere, and read in the backyard hammock next to the apple tree.  

Morning person? Night person?

Definitely a morning person.  I love to wake with the sun.

Brother and sisters or an only child? How did that shape your life?

I have one older sister and two younger brothers. Being in the middle made me flexible and helps me listen, mediate, and empathize.

Melina Mangal Books

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Bluetooth Guy

 

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Must. Get. Out.

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Eileen Ryan Ewen

Miss Colfax's LightWe are pleased to share with you our interview with Eileen Ryan Ewen, the illustrator of Miss Colfax’s Light, our Bookstorm™ this month. This book is a perfect example of the text and illustrations enhancing each other to make a picture book biography that is more than the sum of its parts. Have the book open near you when you read Eileen’s responses. With our interview, we hope to help you look more deeply at the illustrations.

In the first few pages of the book, when Harriet is walking through the door, why did you decide to draw her with one foot poised on the threshold? And was this picture always like this?

Yes, as I look back through my early sketches, Harriet’s foot is always on the threshold. Little is known about Harriet’s personality (though a bit comes through in her logs), and I was trying to imagine what it must have been like for her on that, her first day at the lighthouse. I tried to think about what it must have been like to be a woman in the 1860’s. How many women would have stepped away from a job as demanding as a lighthouse keeper? How many women (and men, for that matter) would have voluntarily stayed on for as long as Harriet did, as well as completed the job so thoroughly each day? I have to imagine that most women of that era never would have entertained such a livelihood. Yet Harriet, a former music teacher and typesetter, didn’t step away. She stepped up.

Miss Colfax's Light

You have many period details in your artwork, from a five-panel door to a log holder to changes in clothing styles. How do you do your research?

I love history! My father was a historian, and I’ve always had a soft spot for the subject. As far as research, I had the good fortune to visit the actual Michigan City Lighthouse, where wonderful docents gave me a tour, and provided great information about what the lighthouse looked like back in Harriet’s day (it wasn’t as large!), clothing from her era, and the tools she used. Combined with that information, I used the good old internet to make sure the fashions I was using were appropriate. For instance, if you search women’s clothing from the mid-nineteenth century, very formal ball gowns will be the most likely results. Harriet would have worn no such thing. So then a more refined search is needed, often with trips to the library to scour books that might fit the time period I’m trying to capture. I know some illustrators who look to period movies, and will study the costumes and sets for inspiration. In the end, I usually have loads of information about the time period, and only end up using a small fraction of it in my illustrations—just enough to hopefully give the piece an authentic feel, and accurately capture the era. The research side can be tedious and time consuming, but because I find it so interesting, it’s a lot of fun as well!

Are you in charge of deciding where you have two facing pages with different scenes and where you’ll have a two-page spread? What determines this for you?

It’s probably different for each Art Director and publisher. I have great appreciation for the trust that my Art Director at Sleeping Bear Press showed me. She gave me the manuscript with the text somewhat arranged on each page, and let me loose. I was allowed to move text if I wanted to, in order to fit my illustration ideas, and I had free rein to chose vignettes, full-page illustrations, or two-page spread illustrations. Now, all that said, I had to run all of my ideas and sketches by the Art Director, Editor, and Publisher, as well as a few other people, before I could start the final art. Sometimes they approved my decisions, and sometimes I had to tweak something small, and other times I had to do an entire illustration over. The cover of Miss Colfax’s Light was done twice.

Miss Colfax's LightIn the scene where Harriet is filling the lantern with whale oil, the light is shining up from her lantern on the floor. How do you determine where the light will originate, and where it falls, in your illustrations?

If I have to be honest, this is something I’m still working on—lights and darks. For the illustration mentioned above, I guessed. I reverted back to my figure drawing days in college, remembering studies of the planes of the face and folds of fabric, how subtle angles can be thrust into complete darkness, while a slight curve can create a sharp, bright contrast. Looking at illustrators and artists who’ve mastered lights and darks also helps (and intimidates!). I know of several illustrators who actually make models of their characters, and then place lights to mimic the lighting of their piece, and draw from that. This is something I hope to try in the future.

Miss Colfax's Light

In the double-page spread filled with small vignettes of Harriet working, how did you think how to lay out that page?

This was a challenging one for me! A lot of important information is being revealed, and all deserving of a visual component. One illustration per page just wouldn’t cut it. Add the fact that Aimée is describing the typical work Harriet would do in any one day, made me want to capture the feeling of what it was like for Harriet from sun up to sun down. For this reason, I chose to arch the vignettes around the words, starting with Harriet tending the light at the first crack of dawn, to Harriet lighting it again at dusk. But until I came up with that solution, I struggled with this spread quite a bit. I’m not sure why the solution came to me when it did, but it sort of popped up as I was walking my daughters home from preschool. I immediately had the image of clock hands, the passing of time, how the hands (and sun) arch and rotate from Point A, to Point B. It dawned on me to try to use this movement in the piece. Just goes to show that sometimes ideas pop up at the strangest moments. I wasn’t thinking about the problem that fall morning, or so I thought, but apparently some little part of my art brain was still churning, unbeknownst to me.

I love how woeful the postmaster looks when Harriet is reading the letter telling her she’s being replaced. When you begin an illustration, do you have in mind what the expressions will be on various characters’ faces?

Yes and no. Sometimes, I feel like I know the character right away, and other times I really have to sit back and let the scene marinate in my mind, create a few really awful sketches before I start to feel the true spirit of a character, even a minor one, like the postmaster. I remember reading Harriet’s obituary, which described the people of Michigan City as absolutely loving her, and holding her in high regard. So while there were some naysayers at the beginning of Harriet’s career, it seems as if almost everyone felt she was a beloved, stalwart fixture by the end of her career. The latter feeling is what I was trying to capture in the postmaster’s face.

You begin and end the book with that doorway. When did this idea for framing the story come to you in your process?

I think it came fairly naturally, and the framing is largely in Aimée’s writing, which made my job easy! And of course, doors make such nice analogies, don’t they? Comings and goings, beginnings and endings. I almost feel like this aspect of the storyline was a gift. It just made sense to me to start and finish the book with that door.

What did you want readers to know from the pages of illustrations you created for this book?

History can be such a dry subject. Until we realize that it’s all just a series of stories, made up of real people doing extraordinary things. So I hope that when people read Miss Colfax’s Light, they see a person who was courageous, and tired, and determined, with calloused hands and a smile for a friend or a cat who’s chasing the chickens again. I hope that I helped to make Harriet’s world a real, tangible place for readers, especially children. I hope to inspire someone to try something that might be out of their comfort zone, or to not back away from something they want to try just because someone says it’s not meant for them. There is so much to be learned from Harriet and her life. In some ways, her story is a small one, historically speaking. In other ways, it’s huge, and absolutely deserves to be told. It has been such an honor to be entrusted in helping bring her story to life!

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WHY ???

 

Lynne Jonell - Why?

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Aimée Bissonette

Aimée BissonetteIn this interview with Aimée Bissonette, author of Miss Colfax’s Light, our Bookstorm™ this monthwe asked about writing and researching this nonfiction picture book biography. 

Aimée, thank you for sharing your experiences and discoveries with our readers. We’re excited about this book that showcases an Everyday Hero, one of America’s female lighthouse keepers.

Miss Colfax's LightWhen you were writing this book, do you remember editing to include fewer details so the illustrator could do her work?

Yes, indeed! In fact, that’s half the joy of writing picture books — knowing the illustrator will fill in so many details. Eileen Ryan Ewen’s  illustrations in this book provide wonderful factual material. Harriet’s clothing and household items in the book are just like the things Harriet would have worn and owned in the late 1800’s. I did not need to include descriptions in the text. Eileen included so much historical detail in her illustrations.

How did you learn that some people in the city felt Harriet “got her job only because her cousin was a U.S. Congressman”?

In writing the book, I did a lot of research. There were several written accounts of Harriet’s life and the docents at the Lighthouse Museum had a treasure trove of information about Harriet. My favorite source of information was Harriet herself. She kept a daily journal, called a log, starting in the 1870’s. The idea that Harriet’s cousin, Schuyler Colfax, a U.S. Congressman who later became Vice President of the United States, helped Harriet get her job was mentioned frequently in my sources. Specifically, it is mentioned in a 1904 Chicago Tribune newspaper article by a reporter who interviewed Harriet right before she retired.

Miss Colfax's Light log book

The author and illustrator chose to include depictions of Miss Colfax’s log book throughout the book.

There are short segments of entries from Harriet’s journal included throughout the book. Did you have to get permission to use those? How did you know who to ask?

Those short segments are entries from the “log” I mentioned above. Harriet maintained that log as part of her official lighthouse keeper duties so the log technically is “owned” by the U.S. Government. Her log is kept in the National Archives. I did not need to get permission to use it because it is not protected by copyright. Keep in mind, though, much of the material a writer uncovers while doing research for a nonfiction book is protected by copyright. Writers need to be aware of this and ask permission when they use other people’s copyrighted work in the books they write.

Did you have to research the Lighthouse Board and the Lighthouse Inspector before you could write this book?

The references in the book to the Lighthouse Board and Lighthouse Inspector are based on Harriet’s log entries. There are many more log entries than are included in the book — 30 years’ worth, in fact! Reading them was tremendously eye-opening. Harriet referred often to the Board and the Inspector in her entries. I did additional reading about the Lighthouse Board and how lighthouses were managed in the 1800’s, but mostly relied on Harriet’s own words when writing about the Board and Inspector.

Other than “I can do this,” there is no dialogue in the book. Why did you choose to leave out dialogue?

That’s a good question! I think the main reason is that, although I had Harriet’s log entries and her letters and I had a sense of what she might say and how she might say it, I didn’t know exactly what she would have said in a conversation. I felt if I made up dialogue, it would take away from the factual accuracy of the book. We can’t even be 100% certain that Harriet would have thought or said “I can do this.” But given all I learned about Harriet — her drive, her intelligence, the hardships she faced — I felt it fit and I allowed that one exception.

Miss Colfax's Light

What do you want readers to know that they didn’t know before from the text you wrote?

I want readers to think about Harriet and others like her — the everyday heroes whose work makes life better for all of us. We don’t often think of lighthouse keepers as “heroes,” but the work Harriet did was critical to sea captains and sailors and the people of Indiana who depended on the goods brought in by ship. I also want readers to think about how Harriet and many other women of that time defied the restrictions placed on women and did incredible things — all without the cool technology we have today.

Would you have chosen to do Harriet’s job if you were alive then?

I like to think that I would have, yes. I think there is a little bit of me in Harriet. Like Harriet, I love a good challenge!

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Skinny Dip with April Halprin Wayland

April Halprin WaylandToday we welcome author and educator April Halprin Wayland to Bookology. Her most recent picture book, More Than Enough, is a story about Passover. April was one of nine Instructors of the Year honored by the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, Creative Writing.

Which celebrity, living or not, do you wish would invite you to a coffee shop?

I would LOVE to have coffee (one-shot latte with extra soy, extra foam) with Crockett Johnson, author/illustrator of Harold and the Purple Crayon but most notably for me, author/illustrator of Barnaby, a comic strip that ran during WWII (actually 1942-1952). I think of it as the predecessor of Calvin and Hobbes. Barnaby stars five-year-old Barnaby Baxter and his fairy godfather Jackeen J. O’Malley. Mr. O’Malley continually gets Barney into trouble. It’s brilliant.

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

You’re joking, right—one book? I’ll tell you right this very minute what books (plural) I recommend. But ask me in half an hour and my list will be completely different.

Favorite city to visit?

NYC! And Poipu, Kauai! And let’s not forget London, for heaven’s sake. And anywhere my husband, my son, or my best two friends are.

Most cherished childhood memory?

One August when I was nine or ten, I found a raft by the Feather River, which ran by our farm. I repaired it (I don’t remember if an adult helped me or not), then climbed aboard and lay back. The next month, at the beginning of the school year, my teacher asked us to choose a word and define it by writing about something that happened that summer. I wrote about that hot summer day on the river. My word? Bliss.

What’s your dream vacation?

Like my favorite books, this will change in the next half hour. For right this minute it would involve my husband, our lanky, knuckle-brained dog, Eli, our son and his girlfriend, hiking, biking, meadows, forests, and arriving at a different bed-and-breakfast each evening with farm-fresh, just-harvested food for dinner, a down quilt each night, and a one-shot latte with extra soy, extra foam each morning. 🙂

April Halprin Wayland in the classroom

Best tip for living a contented life?

I ask myself a central, touchstone question: Will this action or thought help me to like myself?

So, for example, each day I might ask myself: Should I say yes to this invitation to speak? Should I eat this whole bag of (fill in the blank)? Should I spend an extra half-hour with this person, even though I have a pile of work at home? Should I go to this political gathering? Should I volunteer to help put on an event? Should I skip meditation (or exercise or walking the dog) today? Should I pick up that piece of trash I just passed? Do I really need to eat the whole jar? Should I floss my teeth? Should I work on this poem or this book? Should I go to a meeting tonight? Should I turn off the computer and spend time with my husband, who just got home from work?

If I ask myself that question, the answer is always clear. I may not choose to act on the obvious answer, but if I do, I feel more content.

Monkey-and-Eli-read-poetry-together_600px

Monkey and Eli read poetry together.

Your hope for the world?

That we will be kind to each other.

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Skinny Dip with Polly Carlson-Voiles

Summer of the WolvesToday we welcome author Polly Carlson-Voiles to Bookology. Her book, Summer of the Wolves, has been a favorite adventure story with middle grade readers, a recent contender for the Maud Hart Lovelace Award.

Which celebrity, living or not, do you wish would invite you to a coffee shop?

Jane Goodall.

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Most cherished childhood memory?

Spending a summer on the windward side of Oahu, in Hawaii.

Illustrator’s work you most admire?

So very many…but I would have to say, Graeme Base…

Favorite season of the year? Why?

I love the season I am in … right now I love the spring with tiny green leaves misting the tree tops, the wild white blossoms of serviceberry and chokecherry. I always reluctantly say ‘good-bye’ to the last season and then fall passionately in love with the newness of the new season, with changes, new birds, new sounds, new colors.

What’s your dream vacation?

To go to Africa and see elephants and other creatures of the African wilds.

What a way to make a Skype visit with wolves in the background at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota.

What a way to make a Skype visit with wolves in the background at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota.

Morning person? Night person?

My best writing happens right after I wake up in the morning. I get some of my best ideas in those shadowy first moments of coming awake when my brain isn’t filled with distractions. But I am not one who wakes at dawn.

Brother and sisters or an only child? How did that shape your life?

I have one older brother who was expected to do wonderful important things. Since we were raised in a sexist time and my father was very traditional, I felt very unimportant as a girl child. It made me feisty, though, to feel that girls were expected to let boys win at games, to not excel in school too much, and to be afraid of physical risks. My rebellion against this was one of the greatest gifts of my childhood.

Best tip for living a contented life?

To find your passions and cultivate them like a garden. Do things you love.

Working with a school group at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota

Working with a school group at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota

Your hope for the world?

That we all keep evolving to learn from people who are different from us, and that we all learn to treasure the gifts of wild creatures and wild places.

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Skinny Dip with Eric Rohmann

 

Today we welcome author, illustrator, and Caldecott medalist Eric Rohmann to Bookology. He agreed to give us the skinny on several topics of vital importance.

Which celebrity, living or not, do you wish would invite you to a coffee shop?

Darwin, Newton, William Blake … and so many others I’ll need a big coffee shop.

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

The Lost CarvingLately, The Lost Carving by David Esterly.

What’s your favorite late-night snack?

Popcorn.

Favorite city to visit?

Vienna, New York, Paris, Madrid, Singapore … still gonna need a big coffee house in each one.

Most cherished childhood memory?

Traveling in the American west.

First date?

Sometime in the fog of High School.

Illustrator’s work you most admire?

Like a person could name just one!

red mug of coffeeTea? Coffee? Milk? Soda? What’s your favorite go-to drink?

Coffee.

Favorite season of the year? Why?

Autumn. Clear, cool, and colorful.

What’s your dream vacation?

The next one I have planned … so many places to see!

What gives you shivers?

Good shivers: watching dogs run, Bad shivers: conservative talk radio.

Morning person? Night person?

Morning.

Painting you could look at again and again.

Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights; any Rembrandt self-portrait; Cezanne’s apples; Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanopolus … lots of wall space in the coffee shop!

gr_garden_of_earthly_delights

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

What’s your hidden talent?

I can cook well, a little.

Milk DudsYour favorite candy as a kid …

Milk Duds.

Is Pluto a planet?

Is Brontosaurus really just a big Apatosaurus?

What’s the strangest tourist attraction you’ve visited?

Haw Par Villa in Singapore.

Har Paw Villa

Har Paw Villa

Brother and sisters or an only child? How did that shape your life?

Brother and sister. Good: I was never alone. Bad: I was never alone.

Best tip for living a contented life?

Be curious.

Your hope for the world?

Wishing for anything but peace would just be selfish.

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Skinny Dip with Bobbi Miller

Which celebrity, living or not, do you wish would invite you to a coffee shop?

My definition of celebrity is someone whom I admire, who I think has contributed to society in his actions or words. To me, celebrity is more than a pretty face. He does more than recite words that someone else wrote, acting out a story that someone else has planned out and directs.

Eric Kimmel is my favorite celebrity. I always love talking to him. Another celebrity I can’t wait to meet is Monica Kulling.  Of course, I’d love to talk to Mark Twain, too, about his adventures riding the stagecoach west and his time in San Francisco. And Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, about the times she lived in.

But let’s be real: my friends are the celebrities in my life.

Eric A. Kimmel, Monica Kulling, Mark Twain, Abigail Adams

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

John Adams by David McCullousI am currently reading—for the second time—John Adams by David McCullough. I love McCullough’s blending of narrative and research, creating such a powerful story. Of course, we know all of history is a story. He does it so well. I just finished Einstein, by Walter Isaacson. For a long time I always thought I’d love to meet Einstein, speaking of celebrity. It turns out, while he didn’t like the label “celebrity,” he certainly lived the life. Einstein was such a hound dog. For all his lofty thought experiments about space and time, he really didn’t have a clue about life on this planet. He had an interesting, complex life, and saw a lot of history. It would be more interesting to speak to one of his friends, wives, or girlfriends, to see their reaction to navigating such a complex personality. One of my favorite movies is IQ, in which Walter Matthau plays Einstein as an old man. I like that Einstein.

Even more interesting, I bet it would be cool to listen to a conversation between Einstein and Stephen Hawking!!

Another book I just read was Happy Birthday, Alice Babette, written by Monica Kulling and illustrated by Qin Leng. This books tells a gentle story about a birthday party between two friends, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Of course, we know the history of those two celebrity writers, which makes this book all the more impressive.

Favorite city to visit?

Big River's Daughter Girls of GettysburgI’ve visited many historical cities and towns as I researched my stories. I visited Gettysburg, PA several times, walking the battlefields, as I researched my Girls of Gettysburg. I’ve driven along the Mississippi River for a ways, as I researched life along the river for my Big River’s Daughter. I’ve been to Boston and the surrounding area, which is intently interesting as it relates to John Adams. I’ve been to Washington, DC, of course, and just love that history. I’d like to go again and check it out more, especially Arlington National Cemetery.  And I’d love to go to Philadelphia, for all the history.

Tea? Coffee? Milk? Soda? What’s your favorite go-to drink?

Diet Coke, most definitely. Although I’ve cut down quite a bit since my young years and now drink more water. I recently had my first cup of coffee, made very weak and included sugar free hazelnut creamer. Very tasty! And it did the trick: I was up at 4, and I had a long day of traveling ahead of me. I was able to make it through without nodding off.

gr_plutoIs Pluto a planet?

What a tricky good question!

Pluto is a hound dog, and he’s every bit as loyal a friend as Lassie and Old Yeller. Just like Mickey Mouse!

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Skinny Dip with Barbara O’Connor

 

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

Missing MayMissing May by Cynthia Rylant. I read it at a time when I was struggling to find my writing voice. I was so struck by the strong sense of place in that book. It was obvious that West Virginia was Rylant’s heart’s home. So I decided to write stories that were set in my heart’s home—the South—and specifically the Smoky Mountains. I wrote her a letter to tell her the impact her book had on me and she sent me a lovely hand-written note back, signed “Take good care. Cyndi Rylant.” *swoon*

Favorite season of the year? Why?

SUMMER all the way!! I love the heat. The flowers. The long days. Love it all.

What gives you shivers?

Heights. OMG….. And one more thing: snakes. *shivers*

What’s your hidden talent?

Tap DanceI’m actually a pretty good tap dancer. I took tap lessons for years, from childhood all the way up until just a few years ago. I love to tap dance. It totally suits me much more than yoga.

Morning person? Night person?

Morning all the way. I turn into a pumpkin about 8 o’clock. My writing day never extends beyond about 3 o’clock … cause I’m heading toward Pumpkin Town. (Trivia for you: There is actually a town near my hometown of Greenville, SC, called Pumpkin Town.)

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Skinny Dip with Caroline Starr Rose

Which celebrity, living or not, do you wish would invite you to a coffee shop?

L.M. MontgomeryAuthor L.M. Montgomery, of Anne of Green Gables fame. I’ve read all of her books several times over, including the journals she kept from fourteen until the time of her death. In fact, I’ve committed to revisiting Maud’s journals every ten years. So far, I’ve read all five volumes twice.

Though I have a feeling Maud wouldn’t approve of me (she was not fond of free verse), she has always felt like a kindred spirit. Like me, she was a teacher, a Presbyterian pastor’s wife, a mother to two boys, and an author. I’d like to think we’d have a lot to talk about!

Later this year my best friend and I are heading to Maud’s home, Prince Edward Island—a trip six years in the making and dream come true.

Which book do you find yourself recommending passionately?

The Phantom TollboothI adore Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. I’ve probably read it thirty times, first as a student, then as a student teacher, then with my students, and finally with my own children. It’s witty, it’s clever, it’s fun, and oh so quotable. It’s also great for teaching elements of story. There’s a reluctant hero on a classic quest, and even the climax takes place at the highest physical point in the story—the Castle in the Air.

Most cherished childhood memory?

Ernest HemingwayI’m going to change this one slightly to my most starry-eyed literary childhood memory. My family hosted a Spanish exchange student named Paula when I was in fourth grade. Since then, Paula’s family and my family have continued to remain close. The Maciciors own a home that is hundreds of years old, a grand thirty-four room structure in the Spanish countryside, near the city of Pamplona. In the 1920s Ernest Hemingway rented a room there while working on The Sun Also Rises.

I visited this house as a pre-teen and a teen. Though I hadn’t yet read anything by Hemingway, I knew his name and was thrilled to learn I’d get to stay in the room where a real-live author had temporarily lived. There are two beds in the room, and you better believe I slept in both, to cover my claim-to-fame bases.

Caroline Starr RoseBrother and sisters or an only child? How did that shape your life?

I have a half sister and half brother who are ten and twelve years older than I am.  I often describe myself as a semi-only child, as much of my childhood was spent as the only kid at home. This taught me to entertain myself, certainly, and meant I had plenty of time for reading and imagining and just making do.

Best tip for living a contented life?

This is one I’m still learning (and probably will be till I die). But so far I’ve learned contentment comes from gratitude, from realizing how many simple, wonderful, often-overlooked gifts we experience everyday. Like breathing. Have you ever considered how amazing it is that there’s air to fill your lungs every single moment? Contentment comes from loving and being loved. And it comes from acknowledging what you can control and letting go of what you can’t. Easier said than done, I know.

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Lisa Bullard: My Not-So-Overnight Success

ShoesEarly on, when people would ask my kid self what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d answer “Shoe Salesperson.” But then I discovered that feet sometimes smell, and I moved on to a different dream: Book Writer.

I could invent a great story and tell you that I crafted a long-term plan to realize my dream. But instead, this is a tale of false starts and misdirected wanderings. Perhaps you’ll find it inspiring if you’ve made missteps on the way to capturing your own dream!

I wrote all the time as a kid—songs, stories, poems, comic strips. But I didn’t believe that anyone would pay me to do something I loved so much. And my first several jobs didn’t serve as models for fulfilling work: babysitter, fast food employee, cardboard box maker, school janitor.

That meant my expectations for the world of work, even after graduating from college, weren’t all that high. With no clear ambition other than “it would be great to get a job that didn’t involve scraping gum off desks”—a key feature of the school janitor job—I moved to Minneapolis, rented a drafty apartment with my cousin, and took on a series of uninspiring temp jobs. I wrote in my spare time, but my efforts went no further than my file cabinet.

Insurance FormsThen one day I arrived home from my position as Forms Clerk (temporary) at an insurance company to find the first heat bill had arrived. It totaled over $800. And the insurance company had just offered me a job. That is the “carefully plotted” career trajectory that resulted in my position as Chief Forms Clerk (permanent)! But despite this meteoric rise, and my willingness to work very hard, I found I didn’t enjoy sorting forms. I started visiting the human resources department for guidance, and a very kind woman took me under her wing. She gave me a barrage of career assessment tests, then looked me in the eyes and said, “Lisa, I don’t think there IS a job in insurance that will make you happy.”

That HR person did me two great services. First, her notion that happiness might be a valid factor in job selection was a revelation to me. And second, she knew of the Denver Publishing Institute—an intensive summer course focusing on book publishing—and she recommended that I consider attending. A few months later I moved on from the world of insurance and attended the Denver program.

CockroachPerhaps the most important thing I learned there is that publishing houses are money-making enterprises. Publishing is a creative industry full of people dedicated to books and the written word, but it’s also a tough business. Very few people get rich off of books. Day after day at the Institute, publishing professionals came in to share the realities of working in the industry, and they’d all conclude by saying, “If you want to work really hard, make almost no money, and live in a roach-infested apartment in New York, this is the field for you!”

I was willing to take on everything other than the roaches. Fortunately I discovered there was a booming publishing industry in Minnesota, so I flew back home and began my sixteen-year career as a publishing employee. I worked with a lot of amazing people, both co-workers and writers, building relationships I still value highly. I reveled in being able to do work I was passionate about, despite the fact that the warning about low pay proved all too true.

Not Enough Beds!Towards the end of those sixteen years, I celebrated a life-changing event: my first book was published. I believe it finally happened partly because I had continued to refine my writing skills, partly because I had learned what makes a book concept salable, and partly because I had built important connections in the industry. I am the opposite of an overnight success: it took me fourteen years working in publishing to get published myself!

Later, with another book in the wings, I decided to shift my focus from publishing employee to writer, and I started officially calling myself a Children’s Book Writer—a job I am proud to have now celebrated through many years and ninety books. I still don’t make very much money. I still work really hard. Sometimes I even get bored. But I love that I’m actually living my dream, and nobody expects me to scrape gum off desks.

I’m thinking that’s not too shabby for a little girl who once dreamed of selling shoes.

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Skinny Dip with Michael Hall

Red: a Crayon's StoryWhat is your proudest career moment?

Several months before the publication of my book, Red: A Crayon’s Story, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial bemoaning the “gender industrial complex,” “cultural warriors,” and books—including mine—“that seek to engage the sympathies of young readers … and nudge the needle of culture.” I had written something good enough to provoke the wrath of the WJS editorial page. It was a proud moment, indeed.

In what Olympic sport would you like to win a gold medal?

The first thing that comes to my mind is baseball. But there are problems.

First of all, baseball isn’t an Olympic sport. (It became an official Olympic sport in 1992, but was ousted after the 2008 summer Olympics.) Nevertheless, since we’re talking about fantasy—and since I have a rich fantasy life—this is relatively easy to overcome. Let’s face it, if I can imagine the balding, pot-bellied, sixty-something me gracefully climbing the wall in left field to rob a batter of an extra-base hit (to the thundering approval of the crowd), I can certainly imagine that baseball has been reinstituted as an Olympic sport just in time for the summer of 2016.

Michael Hall sports fantasyBut there’s a more difficult problem: Having spent much of my life imagining myself as a star left fielder for the Minnesota Twins, my status as an amateur is clearly in doubt. If it came down to it, I wouldn’t sacrifice my imaginary Twins baseball star status in order to imagine winning an Olympic gold medal for the United States Olympic team.

So I’m going with table tennis.

What is your favorite line from a book?

“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.”

What keeps you up at night?

These pesky creatures called should’ves. I don’t know how they get into the house, but at night, they crawl into my bed and whisper in my ear.

“You should have done this, Michael.”

“And frankly, you should have done that as well, Michael.”

This makes sleeping difficult.

It’s well known that should’ves tire easily. If you ignore them, they’ll fall asleep. So I thought I could just wait them out. But it’s less well known that they snore loudly. So, even while sleeping, they keep me awake.

One night, after the should’ves fell asleep—and were snoring horribly—I picked them up, put them in a shoe box, and took them out the back door. I went back to bed and was dozing off, when I was visited by five angry shouldn’t’ves.

“Michael, you should not have done that!”

Which of your books would make a good movie and who would be the star?

It's an Orange AardvarkThe book with the most crisply drawn characters is probably It’s An Orange Aardvark, a book about five carpenter ants who awake to a noise outside their dark nest in a tree stump. One ant tries to get clues as to what it is by drilling holes in the stump. As each new hole reveals a different color, a second ant, who is convinced that it’s a hungry aardvark, twists the information to fit his preconceived belief, even as his version of the truth becomes more and more absurd.

For me, this was always a book about scientific method. The hole-drilling ant is a wide-eyed, dedicated, idealistic scientist. I think someone like Toby Maguire would be perfect for the role. (There is no love interest here. It’s a picture book after all. But I’m sure a talented screenwriter could fix that.)

The second ant, the one who’s convinced an aardvark awaits, is sort of a cross between Dick Cheney and Cliff Clavin from Cheers. I could suggest someone like Willem Defoe, but I don’t want to play up the sinister part too much (it’s a picture book, after all), so I’ll go with John Ratzenberger from the Cheers cast. 

 

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Stephanie Greene

Stephanie GreeneIs the “impossible game” something you ran across or is it something you invented?

I read about it on a blog or the Internet, I can’t remember. I try to keep abreast of what six-year-olds are doing by talking to my nieces, who have little girls, or friends who do, or the children on the street where we live – anywhere I can find information.

How do you maintain your sense of what a first grader thinks about, feels, and worries about?

When I was writing the books, I didn’t think about that. Posey got under my skin and I was able to convey the feelings and indignations and concerns of a little girl her age. But now that you ask and I look back, I think she’s probably a bit like me at that age. I’m glad I didn’t realize it at the time because I find it impossible to write if I think that who I’m writing about is myself. My mother once said I was always well-intentioned as a child and I think Posey is, too. I guess I unconsciously pulled on the often conflicted feelings of having four siblings, too. They’re the universal emotions of children.

Do you find yourself writing words, actions, concerns, and then checking with “authorities” to see if your writing is age-accurate?

No. I come up with the central concept and write it. My editor offers her opinion, of course, and sometimes questions what I’ve had Posey say or do. Together, we iron out anything that doesn’t feel authentic.

Did you keep a journal when your own child was this age … or when you were this age?

No, but I sure wish I had. I did jot down things my son said (and have used almost all of them in other books), but I never kept a journal when I was a kid. I didn’t dare – having read my older sister’s diary on a regular basis, I knew one of my siblings was bound to read mine.

You’ve written about an elementary-school boy, Owen Foote, and a middle school girl, Sophie Hartley, and the primary-school-aged Posey. From where do you draw your information about what’s a part of these children’s lives at different ages?

Owen Foote, Sophie Hartley, Princess PoseyMany things have led to what I’m proud to think are books that reflect the authentic lives of children at whatever age I’ve chosen. For starters, I remember a lot of the events and emotions of my own childhood. I’ve also spent many years as a volunteer in schools to keep abreast of what’s going on. And I spy and eavesdrop incessantly on children to this day – my own and others wherever I see them. I have a constant antenna out to see what’s going on in the world as it pertains to children. Everything in life is fodder to an author.

Your books read as contemporary fiction. Are you concerned about adding in cell phones and computers and video games?

Yes. Not computers and videos games, as much, because I can have a character sit down with one of those as part of a larger scene without having to go into detail as to what they’re doing. But cell phones? I only used those in one Sophie Hartley book and I kept their presence short. (Thad broke up with his girlfriend via a text, which I know kids do. Nora longed for one.) As an adult who sees more and more children texting and watching things on their cell phones when they’re with one another, or should be looking at the world around them, cell phones distress me. They have an adverse effect on young people’s ability to relate to one another or even hold a conversation. So far, I haven’t wanted to be party to that. Should I come up with an idea in which a cell phone played a crucial role …? I guess I’ll wait and see what I do with that.

Reading a Posey book on their own is comfortable for readers ages 5 to 7, depending on their reading skill. Do you think about the words you’re using when you write for these readers?

Not really, no. I write them using the language Posey and her friends use. If I’d made Posey ten, the books would have been written differently. The age of the protagonist determines the language.

Your mother, Constance C. Greene, wrote A Girl Called Al, which is a humorous book written for what we then called young adults, as well as the other books in that series. She also wrote a book about grief and sorrow called Beat the Turtle Drum that moved many readers. When you were growing up, were you aware of what your mother did for a living? Did she involve you in any way?

A Girl Called AlMy mother sold A Girl Called Al when I was a junior in high school. Before then, she wrote short stories for the New York Daily News and other newspapers, including a woman’s magazine in Scotland. She never directly involved any of us in her writing, but since she wrote on the dining room table, we were all aware of it. Writing was what she did. She was very good and she loved doing it, but she was matter-of-fact about it. All she ever did was caution me against ever showing my spouse anything I’d written – long before I started writing. Or was even dating.

At what age did you realize you wanted to write books for children … and why?

I guess I started when my son was little. Watching him with his friends was often hilarious. They were so absorbed by, and intent on, whatever it was they were doing. It wasn’t until the day I listened to Betsy Byars give an hilarious talk at an SCBWI conference, however, that I actually sat down and wrote. It was my first Owen Foote book and I was so inspired by her that I wrote it in one draft.

Here’s a tough question: how do you write a humorous book? What do you keep in mind?

As my editor Dinah Stevenson once said, “You can’t make kids laugh by saying something’s funny.” i.e., writing that a kid “cracked up” or “laughed so hard” when what made him/her do that isn’t very funny. Having kids doing awkward or embarrassing things is kind of a cheap trick (although farts and burps are helpful tools). As with all emotions, you have to earn a reader’s laughter. I think having a good sense of humor is important, or seeing the world in a humorous way, or having an ironic viewpoint about things. Writers who write humor well generally have a kind feeling for people, I think. The best humor isn’t mean-spirited. Plus that, children are basically funny. Their view of life is so untainted and they say what they mean. Sometimes the humor arises from the fact that what they’re trying to accomplish is completely at odds with the situation. If you can get inside their heads and put it on paper the way they see it, it can be funny.

In your daily life, would the people who know you think of you as funny?

Ha! That would depend on who they are and what their relation is to me. My friends consider me funny, I think, but I’ve been told that people who don’t know me very well think I’m forbidding or remote. It’s not my fault. I have my father’s forehead – it’s perpetually furrowed.

Where do you write and what is your routine for writing? (Can you send a photo of your writing space?)

Stephanie Greene's officeI write early in the morning. By about noon, I’m worn out and spend the afternoon doing other writing-related things. If I have several projects going at the same time, I might switch to one in a different genre. We’ve lived in several houses since I started writing, so my work area has changed. I’ve written in a tiny room off the laundry room, in the living room, in an extra bedroom, and now, in a small space at the end of our upstairs hall with a window overlooking the street. I’ve never had a formal office, per se. One place where I can’t work is in any public place.

Getting back to Posey, in particular, when you write a series, how do you keep your characters consistent?

I follow their lead. They become real people to me, so I put them in a certain situation, give them their heads, and watch what they do. As with people, they act in character most of the time. All I have to do is listen and write. I love writing character-driven books. Once I have internalized the character, he or she does most of the work.

Although this is a series, it is not presented in a “story arc” that requires reading the books in order. It’s helpful to start with Book No. 1, Princess Posey and the First Grade Parade, but otherwise the stories stand on their own. When you began writing Posey’s story did you make a decision to write in this particular way? Did you plan out what would happen over 10 books or did you think of her next story after you’d completed the first?

Princess Posey and the Crazy, Lazy VacationI wrote the first book as a one-off. The little girl was called Megan. It was prompted by the response I had to a sign I saw in front of a school. I never imagined in a million years that it would become a series. It was Susan Kochan, my editor at Putnam, who told me I’d created a “hook” in the pink tutu. She asked if I had any more ideas, so I thought for a bit, came up with a list of short scenarios, and she asked for three more. That’s the way the entire series has gone.

Do you have any fan mail about Posey to share with us? Something that particularly tickled or moved you?

Many of the letters and emails I get come from parents because their child is five or six. I got one from the mother of a boy with learning disabilities who loves Posey. She sent me a picture of him holding one. More recently, the mother of an eight-year-old girl with dyslexia wrote to tell me that her daughter hated reading before she discovered Posey, and that it makes her so happy to walk into the living room and see her daughter curled up on the couch with one of the books in the series. I’m thrilled to think that my books mean something to emerging readers, and that Posey becomes real to them so they care about her. Only when a book matters do children realize that books have something to offer them.

Stephanie, thank you sincerely for writing the books you do. It’s so satisfying to have a series of books to recommend that you know will appeal to readers of this age, all the while making them laugh, and feeding their “need to read.”

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The Classics, Galdone-Style

by Vicki Palmquist

Folk Tale Classics Treasury GaldoneAre you looking for a shower or baby gift that will be appreciated for a long time? A good birthday present for a young child?

The Folk Tale Classics Treasury, interpreted and illustrated by Paul Galdone (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013), is a good place for parents to start with retellings of western European folk tales. The stories included here are important for cultural awareness. Throughout their lives, children will hear references to the Three Little Kittens (“and you shall have no pie”) and Goldilocks and the Three Bears (“that porridge was just right”) so it’s good to introduce them to these stories early.

The Three Little Kittens

In his Little Red Hen, wonderful depictions of the cat, dog, mouse, and an alarmed and frustrated hen add insouciance to the story that both children and adults will enjoy. Delicious details in each drawing make it fun to read with someone by your side.

Little Red Hen

In his version of The Three Little Pigs, the big, bad wolf is wily but Pig No. 3 is even smarter, in a satisfying way that will have you cheering.

The bears in his Goldilocks tale are handsome and smart. We see their tale from the point of view of a family who is wronged by a mischievous little girl with golden locks who is both unthinking and careless. Where are her manners?!

The Three Billy Goats Gruff and The Gingerbread Boy round out the stories included in this volume. These are tales that have been passed down for generations, remembered fondly, but also understood.

Pig No. 3 was cautious and clever, the little Red Hen industrious and just, and the biggest Billy Goat Gruff proves that you should be careful who you challenge.

Paul Galdone was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1907, but after 1928 lived in New York and Vermont where he illustrated more than 300 books. His first illustrated book was Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars in 1951. In the second half of the last century, his work was ubiquitous, and much loved. Reissuing this volume will create a new generation of children who picture these stories with his illustrations. Mr. Galdone died in 1986. You can find more information about him at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, where a good representation of his original art and working materials is preserved. You’ll also find a good deal of information on his memorial website.

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The Scraps Book

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life

Sometimes I want to walk right into the pages of a book, know everything the author knows, share their lifetime of experiences, and be able to emulate their creativity. Scraps: Notes from a Colorful Life makes me feel that way. I’ve even enjoyed the feeling and texture of the paper because I want in! For […]

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