Archive | Interviews

When Sue Found Sue

When Sue Found SueIs there any muse­um exhib­it more fas­ci­nat­ing than Sue, the T. rex, at The Field Muse­um in  Chica­go, Illi­nois? 

Now there’s a curios­i­ty-rais­ing, shy­ness-rec­og­niz­ing, dis­cus­sion-wor­thy book about the oth­er Sue, the woman who dis­cov­ered the T. rex dur­ing a dig in South Dako­ta. For ele­men­tary school stu­dents and your dinosaur-inspired kids in the library and at home, you can see from the cov­er that this book is irre­sistible.

Toni Buzzeo, the author, begins Sue Hen­drick­son’s sto­ry when she was a curi­ous child who spent a lot of time find­ing things. She was a shy girl, so for shy kids every­where, When Sue Found Sue is an inspi­ra­tion. I was a shy child myself (and a shy adult), so I’m cer­tain about this. If Sue Hen­drick­son could start the way she did, then all dreams are pos­si­ble.

The writ­ing is engag­ing, telling a well-researched and true sto­ry. 

Sue Hen­drick­son was born to find things:
miss­ing trin­kets,
pre­his­toric but­ter­flies,
sunken ships,
even buried dinosaurs.

The illus­tra­tor, Diana Sudy­ka, cre­ates a con­nec­tion through emo­tion, sus­pense, and “gouache and water­col­ors made from earth pig­ments for the Dako­ta scenes.” I’ve had fun imag­in­ing how she mixed those paints. The end­pa­pers are charm­ing, empha­siz­ing the theme of find­ing things.

illus­tra­tion from When Sue Found Sue, copy­right Diana Sudy­ka, Abrams Books for Young Read­ers

Think what you could do in the class­room and library with the theme of “find­ing things.” And talks about shy­ness, and curios­i­ty, and how our inter­ests as chil­dren can become our pas­sions as adults.

This inter­view with the author will help you talk with your stu­dents and patrons about When Sue Found Sue.

Toni Buzzeo, author:

How were you drawn to writ­ing a book about Sue Hen­drick­son?

Near­ly sev­en years ago, a fifth grad­er at a school vis­it in upstate New York asked me if I’d ever writ­ten non­fic­tion for kids. He was obvi­ous­ly a non­fic­tion lover. As I began to respond in the neg­a­tive, say­ing that I write fic­tion because it allows me to tell a sto­ry of a character’s jour­ney with a nar­ra­tive sto­ry arc, I real­ized that I was describ­ing a writ­ing endeav­or that def­i­nite­ly includes biog­ra­phy. I made a promise to that boy that I’d go home and find a bio­graph­i­cal sub­ject. Hap­pi­ly, I land­ed on Cyn­thia Moss, the sub­ject of my first pic­ture book biog­ra­phy, A Pas­sion for Ele­phants: The Real Life Adven­ture of Field Sci­en­tist Cyn­thia Moss, a woman who has ded­i­cat­ed her life to study­ing the African ele­phants of the Amboseli region of Kenya.

I loved the research, I loved find­ing the through-line from Cynthia’s child­hood to her adult work, and I ulti­mate­ly loved writ­ing the book, so much so that I deter­mined to write anoth­er pic­ture book biog­ra­phy of anoth­er strong woman of sci­ence. I sent the call out to my fel­low school librar­i­ans and found among their sug­ges­tions the per­fect next sub­ject in Sue Hen­drick­son, anoth­er strong self-taught woman of sci­ence who lives with pas­sion and ded­i­ca­tion — and who found the largest, most com­plete Tyran­nosaurus rex ever dis­cov­ered!

As a once and future librar­i­an, you’ve focused on Sue’s curios­i­ty. What do you find appeal­ing about her sense of curios­i­ty?

I’ve nev­er thought about the curios­i­ty aspect of Sue’s per­son­al­i­ty and my own, pri­mar­i­ly because so much of Sue’s curios­i­ty took an exter­nal turn. While she sure­ly was a curi­ous (and vora­cious) read­er, from an ear­ly age she went out with a mag­ni­fy­ing glass into the world while my curios­i­ty was always much more intel­lec­tu­al — lead­ing me all the way to the field of librar­i­an­ship where I could prac­tice curios­i­ty for a liv­ing!

You’ve also empha­sized how shy Sue Hen­drick­son was. How does that res­onate with you?

Yes­ter­day I vis­it­ed Thomp­son School here in Arling­ton, Mass­a­chu­setts where I live, and the stu­dents and I were talk­ing about just this ques­tion. I was the shyest child ever born — or at least it seems that way when I think back. In ear­ly ele­men­tary school, if my best friend Lin­da Benko was not at school, I would pass the entire day with­out speak­ing to any­one, and that includ­ed my teacher. So find­ing a bio­graph­i­cal sub­ject so much like myself as a child was a great plea­sure!

There’s a great deal of infor­ma­tion in the illus­tra­tions, com­ple­men­tary to your text. Did you and Diana Sudy­ka have any occa­sion to con­fer before she began her illus­tra­tions?

Diana and I did not con­fer before she began, no. Aren’t her illus­tra­tions just so amaz­ing? I love her work, her sen­si­bil­i­ty, the way she cap­tures char­ac­ter, set­ting, and dra­ma. I’m very excit­ed that she and I will be doing an event with Sue the T. rex at the Field Muse­um in Chica­go on June 26, 2019. I hope that some of your read­ers local to Chica­go will join us!

In work­ing with your edi­tor on this book, did the text or struc­ture change in any sig­nif­i­cant way?

Oh good­ness, yes, the con­tent, and thus the text, changed in a very sig­nif­i­cant way. The man­u­script that I first sub­mit­ted had a work­ing title of Find­er! As you may guess from that title, the text was much more wide-rang­ing than When Sue Found Sue. It exam­ined Sue Hendrickson’s uncan­ny abil­i­ty to find thing across all of her many pur­suits in much more detail, from amber inclu­sions to marine archae­ol­o­gy. My edi­tor, Tamar Brazis, wise­ly guid­ed me in the process of con­dens­ing all of that and real­ly con­cen­trat­ing on the T. rex dis­cov­ery. It’s a much more focused and suc­cess­ful book as a result.

Did you have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to inter­view Sue Hen­drick­son?

Sue Hen­drick­son is a very pri­vate per­son. She lives 40 miles off the coast of Cen­tral Amer­i­ca on the Hon­duras Bay island of Gua­na­ja, so no, I did not have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to inter­view her.

Both Sue Hen­drick­son and the book’s illus­tra­tor, Diana Sudy­ka, have spent time in The Field Muse­um in Chica­go, Illi­nois. Have you also spent time there? What is your favorite part of the muse­um?

It has been many, many years since I have been to the Field Muse­um but I already know that when I return on June 26, 2019 for my joint event with Diana, my favorite part of the muse­um will be the amaz­ing new gallery where Sue the T. rex now lives—Grif­fin Halls of Evolv­ing Plan­et. Have a look here and you’ll be as excit­ed as I am!

There is a quote that pre­cedes your Author’s Note. “The thrill of dis­cov­ery is a real emo­tion … like a ‘rush’ … the excite­ment is worth the days or months of hard work … and keeps me going on and on … look­ing for more.” As an author, do you feel a con­nec­tion to this state­ment?

Oh absolute­ly! When I final­ly have that last essen­tial piece of infor­ma­tion I need in order to begin writ­ing, I feel this way. When I look through all of my notes and final­ly spot the one uni­fy­ing aspect of my subject’s life or per­son­al­i­ty that I will build the sto­ry around, I feel this way. When I com­plete the first full draft, and I feel it glow­ing on the screen, I feel this way.

At Thomp­son School, with my audi­ence of sec­ond graders, I was talk­ing about the hard work it takes to write and pub­lish books for kids, the years invest­ed, the rejec­tions and revi­sions and ded­i­ca­tion to the process. One quite pre­co­cious and deeply thought­ful young man in the front row raised his hand, but it wasn’t ques­tion time yet. I asked if it was a ques­tion that could wait until ques­tion time at the end, and he said no, that it was about what I had just said. So I nod­ded for him to go ahead and that sev­en-year-old boy looked at me with earnest eyes and asked, “But is it worth it?”

Oh yes,” I said. “Oh yes, it is.”

When you talk with chil­dren about this book, what will you dis­cuss with them?

We talk about my life as a child and my key per­son­al­i­ty traits. We talk about me as a writer and the kinds of books that have come before this one. Then we talk about the things I need­ed to learn about Sue Hen­drick­son to write this sto­ry effec­tive­ly. Kids are won­der­ful­ly good at nam­ing those things, all the way down to her char­ac­ter traits. Then we talk about how my two T. rex books are aston­ish­ing­ly dis­sim­i­lar. No T. Rex in the Library and When Sue Found Sue have only a very large dinosaur in com­mon.  Next, we “dig” into the exca­va­tion, the chal­lenges, the serendip­i­ty, and the court case it inspired. And final­ly we talk about the new learn­ing that has allowed the sci­en­tists at the Field Muse­um to reunite Sue and her gas­tralia, a col­lec­tion of bones that had been omit­ted from her skele­ton as it was pre­vi­ous­ly on dis­play and is now reunit­ed with her skele­ton in the new hall and in her new pose. It’s all very inter­est­ing and excit­ing to kids.

Do you enjoy find­ing things?

Is this a trick ques­tion? I must lose my glass­es and my phone on an aver­age of five times a day. Love find­ing them! But yes, in seri­ous­ness, I love to find facts. I just adore that. v


The Lost Forest

The Lost ForestHow many books can you name that are about sur­vey­ing … and a mys­tery? I know. Right? And yet we see sur­vey­ors every day in fields, on busy street cor­ners, and in our neigh­bor­hoods. What are they doing? Would it sur­prise you to know that near­ly every acre of your state has been sur­veyed? That knowl­edge about those acres is record­ed on plat books and maps that peo­ple in gov­ern­ment and com­merce con­sult all the time?

What if 40 acres of old-growth trees (actu­al­ly 114 acres) were some­how record­ed incor­rect­ly by sur­vey­ors in 1882? What if those trees were left to grow, undis­turbed, because they appeared on maps as a lake? Then you would have The Lost Forty, which inspired The Lost For­est, by Phyl­lis Root, illus­trat­ed by Bet­sy Bowen (Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press).

So inter­est­ing to learn how those sur­vey­ors worked, the instru­ments they used, the cloth­ing they wore to fend off the snow, sun, and insects. Then the author invites us to think about the chal­lenges of sur­vey­ing:

If you have ever walked through the woods
you know the land does­n’t care
about straight lines.

This book’s for­mat is tall, just like those old-growth pines, and it con­tains all kinds of infor­ma­tion that will fit beau­ti­ful­ly into your STEM cur­ricu­lum.

The writ­ing is engag­ing, telling a true sto­ry and invit­ing us to use all of our sens­es to explore the sto­ry. Bet­sy Bowen’s illus­tra­tions cause us to linger, exam­in­ing each page care­ful­ly.

from The Lost Forty, text copy­right Phyl­lis Root, illus­tra­tions copy­right Bet­sy Bowen,
used here with the per­mis­sion of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press

In the back mat­ter, there’s a list of 15 trees, flow­ers, and birds that may live in old-growth forests. You and your fam­i­ly can trav­el to The Lost Forty Sci­en­tif­ic and Nat­ur­al Area in the Chippe­wa Nation­al For­est to con­duct your own expe­di­tion, using the book to iden­ti­fy these species.

In addi­tion, the book offers notes about how land is mea­sured (fas­ci­nat­ing … and some­thing you could do as a field trip), How to Talk Like a Sur­vey­or (“mean­der line”?), and How to Dress Like a Sur­vey­or (prac­ti­cal). Do not miss Bet­sy Bowen’s illus­tra­tions of Phyl­lis and Bet­sy on the last page!

Two admirable pic­ture book cre­ators, Phyl­lis Root and Bet­sy Bowen, have teamed up once again to bring us a fas­ci­nat­ing and beau­ti­ful book about those incor­rect­ly sur­veyed acres of trees. Bookol­o­gy asked them how this book, shar­ing an unusu­al his­to­ry, came to be.

Phyllis RootPhyl­lis Root, author:

I was work­ing on a count­ing book, One North Star, for the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press about habi­tats in our state and the plants and ani­mals that live in those habi­tats. That led me to Minnesota’s Sci­en­tif­ic and Nat­ur­al Areas (SNAs), and on a trip north to vis­it the Big Bog I made a detour to see the Lost Forty SNA and was enchant­ed. The trees, some four hun­dred years old, tow­er so tall that it’s hard to see the tops, and the trunks of some are so big it takes three peo­ple to wrap their arms around. Since then I’ve gone back at least once each year, not only to see these amaz­ing trees but also to look for the wild­flow­ers that grow around them — bunch­ber­ry, moc­casin flow­ers, rose twist­ed-stalk, spot­ted coral­root, wild sar­sa­par­il­la, Hooker’s orchid, gold thread. Hik­ing in the Lost Forty real­ly is a trip back in time to before Min­neso­ta was logged over.

The Lost Forty

In the course of writ­ing One North Star, I also wrote a book about the bog (Big Belch­ing Bog) and one about the prairie (Plant a Pock­et of Prairie). I want­ed to write a com­pan­ion book about Minnesota’s forests but strug­gled to find a way in that would be both engag­ing and also spe­cif­ic. Because the Lost Forty is one of the few remain­ing stands of old growth pines in Min­neso­ta, and because the sto­ry of how it got lost was fas­ci­nat­ing, I began to write about it.

Most­ly I con­cen­trat­ed on the plants and ani­mals, with a nod to how the for­est got lost. I remem­bered a sign at the entrance to the Lost Forty that talked about a sur­vey­ing error. But my mem­o­ry mis-remem­bered, and I wrote sev­er­al drafts before real­iz­ing that the error was made not by tim­ber cruis­ers, the peo­ple employed by lum­ber com­pa­nies to esti­mate the amount of usable lum­ber in a cer­tain area, but by land sur­vey­ors. This led me to research the fas­ci­nat­ing world of the cas­das­tral sur­vey that mea­sured off most of the land in the Unit­ed States, step by step, acre by acre, sec­tion by sec­tion. The Bureau of Land Man­age­ment has dig­i­tal records that include the map and jour­nal of the crew who sur­veyed what is now the Lost Forty. For some rea­son (there are sev­er­al the­o­ries as to how it hap­pened) they mis-sur­veyed part of the for­est as a lake. Spec­u­la­tors and tim­ber com­pa­nies who stud­ied maps weren’t inter­est­ed in buy­ing lakes, just for­est, and so the site was over­looked for 76 years. I couldn’t track down the exact per­son who “found” the Lost Forty, but I did find a let­ter dat­ed 1958 that request­ed a re-sur­vey which dis­cov­ered those vir­gin white pines.

Per­haps one of the biggest real­iza­tions for me work­ing on this sto­ry was under­stand­ing that how we mea­sure land reflects how we treat the land: as a com­mod­i­ty to be bought and sold, often with no attempt to under­stand the organ­ic nature of the land itself. It made me so hap­py when one review not­ed that the book’s “implic­it mes­sage that the nat­ur­al world is some­thing more than a mea­sur­able com­mod­i­ty.”

I have always loved maps (although I am also fre­quent­ly lost). Just pour­ing over the names of places fas­ci­nates me, as does know­ing that maps are only an approx­i­ma­tion of real­i­ty, and that some­times maps delib­er­ate­ly lie. You can find the Lost Forty on maps now, no longer lost but pro­tect­ed for any­one to vis­it who wants to take a trip back in time. And it makes me think about what oth­er won­ders might not be on maps but still wait­ing to be found. v

Betsy BowenBet­sy Bowen, illus­tra­tor:

When this man­u­script came to me from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, I eager­ly took it on. I have lived on the edge of the north­ern Min­neso­ta for­est for over fifty years, and there are only a few places to see the real­ly big, old trees. I’d had the expe­ri­ence of canoe camp­ing in Cana­da and find­ing sec­tions of the for­est that felt like no one had ever seen it before, thick spongy moss, deep green light, and gigan­tic trees. There was a mag­i­cal sense to it. My grand­fa­ther P. S. Love­joy was a forester in the ear­ly 1900s and an ear­ly con­ser­va­tion­ist voice who made an effort to save some wild places for us all to expe­ri­ence. I loved vis­it­ing The Lost Forty and feel­ing like a lit­tle kid try­ing to put my arms around such a big tree!

I used acrylic paint on ges­soed paper, first paint­ing the whole page flat black, and then draw­ing with a chalky ter­ra-cot­ta-col­ored Con­té cray­on.  I had help from some present-day foresters to find the orig­i­nal old sur­vey notes that I could page through online, and pho­tos of the sur­vey crew in 1882. My father, a civ­il engi­neer, was also a sur­vey­or, still using the same equip­ment that Josi­ah used to sur­vey The Lost Forty. I remem­ber look­ing at the moon through his old brass tran­sit. My moth­er was a car­tog­ra­ph­er in the 1930s and ‘40s, and I gained my love of maps from her. 

I love the sense of dis­cov­ery in Phyllis’s writ­ing of this sto­ry. The book was great fun to work on. v

Our thanks to Phyl­lis Root and Bet­sy Bowen for shar­ing their cre­ative process with us, a process that result­ed in this impor­tant book. We hope you’ll trea­sure it as much as we do.


Eliza Wheeler

Eliza Wheeler

Eliza Wheel­er

Eliza Wheel­er is the fas­ci­nat­ing illus­tra­tor of many books, includ­ing John Ronald’s Drag­ons: The Sto­ry of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Pome­gran­ate Witch, and Tell Me a Tat­too Sto­ry. You can read about her work on her Wheel­er Stu­dio blog. For this inter­view, we are focus­ing on a series she has illus­trat­ed for Can­dlewick Press, the Cody books by Tri­cia Springstubb.

Your atten­tion to detail is astound­ing. Do you work on an illus­tra­tion from start to fin­ish before begin­ning the next one?

Thank you! I don’t work on illus­tra­tions from start to fin­ish, but rather devel­op sev­er­al at a time. For the Cody books, I worked on all the sketch­es at once, then inked all the linework, then fin­ished with all the water­col­or wash­es. This helps when I’m try­ing to meet a dead­line, because each stage has its own unique set-up.

Do you decide where an illus­tra­tion is appro­pri­ate with­in the text?

Decid­ing on where illus­tra­tions will be is usu­al­ly a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the art direc­tor. I read through the book for the first time and make notes about scenes that stand out as ones I’d have fun draw­ing, but also we’re hav­ing to think about spac­ing illus­tra­tions out even­ly in each chap­ter. In the Cody book series, we tried to make an illus­tra­tion land once every 2 – 3 spreads.

illus­tra­tion © Eliza Wheel­er, text © Tri­cia Springstubb, Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on

Do you fig­ure out if it will be a spot illus­tra­tion or if it will spread across two pages? Do you decide where an illus­tra­tion will be on the pages?

When I sign the book con­tract, it’s stip­u­lat­ed how many spots, half page, full page, and spread illus­tra­tions there will be. So when I begin get­ting ideas for the illus­tra­tions, I’m decid­ing which for­mat would work best for that par­tic­u­lar one (with the help of the art direc­tor). For the Cody books, I was encour­aged to find var­ied place­ments for the illus­tra­tions on the page, and as long as it worked with the text space, I tried to have fun with the posi­tion of the illus­tra­tion.

revised sketch for Cody and the Heart of a Champion

illus­tra­tion © Eliza Wheel­er, text © Tri­cia Springstubb, Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on, revised sketch

Do you work with an art direc­tor? What kind of direc­tion does that per­son give you? Do you have to edit your illus­tra­tions?

For chap­ter books I work with the art direc­tor, but for pic­ture books I’m often work­ing with both an art direc­tor and the book’s edi­tor. The art direc­tor helps me decide if an illus­tra­tion is work­ing, how the illus­tra­tions are flow­ing from page to page, whether I might be miss­ing details from the text, if a char­ac­ter isn’t look­ing quite right, or if I’m being con­sis­tent with scene details. There’s a lot of team­work involved in mak­ing books, and there are always many steps of edits and revi­sions along the way to get things work­ing well.

an example of Wyatt's t-shirts from Cody and the Heart of a Champion

illus­tra­tion © Eliza Wheel­er, Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on Wyat­t’s t‑shirts

I love Wyatt’s t‑shirts. Why do you take such care with design­ing them?

Wyatt’s shirts are fea­tured in a few places in book 1 and 2, and Cody is often “bor­row­ing” them from Wyatt’s bed­room.  This is Tri­cia Springstubb’s clever way of show­ing us more about Wyatt as a char­ac­ter, as well as Cody’s rela­tion­ship with him. Key advice that writ­ers hear is “show, don’t tell”, and I think Tri­cia is a mas­ter of this with this book series — she makes it look effort­less. Because Tricia’s tak­en the care of incor­po­rat­ing these visu­al ele­ments in the text, it’s become a part of who Wyatt is — he wears him­self on his sleeves! I like to infuse all of his clothes with his per­son­al­i­ty when I can.

Heart of a Champion illustration

illus­tra­tion © Eliza Wheel­er, text © Tri­cia Springstubb, Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on, pages 54 – 55

On pages 54 – 55 (hard­cov­er), all of the feet and the shoes are unique to each per­son. There is no sense that you’re draw­ing the same per­son over and over. How do you man­age this?

It takes a lit­tle extra time, but even when there are side char­ac­ters that don’t come into the sto­ry, I like to try to give them their own iden­ti­ty. One way that I do this is by look­ing up pho­tos of kids in groups, on sports teams, or class pho­tos. Ref­er­enc­ing real kids makes it fun and easy to design groups of char­ac­ters.

illus­tra­tion © Eliza Wheel­er, text © Tri­cia Springstubb, Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on, pages 88 – 89

On page 88, when you draw a bird on a branch, it has some­thing in its mouth. Why do you weave these details into your draw­ings?

Adding lit­tle scene details are always impor­tant to me, whether they’ve been described in the text or not, because I feel that they add valid­i­ty and inter­est to the sto­ry world. If we have a scene in Cody’s room, I try to add objects around that reflect her per­son­al­i­ty. Also, I think kids have a much bet­ter eye for details than adults do, and it’s some­thing I remem­ber car­ing about a lot as a kid (and still do as an adult).

Cody and the Heart of a Champion cover

cov­er art © Eliza Wheel­er,
Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on

How do you decide the sub­ject of the cov­er … and the col­or palette for that cov­er?

I try to come up with an image that I feel cap­tures the gen­er­al spir­it of the book — it should give a sense of the char­ac­ters, the set­ting, and any promi­nent themes in the book. When I start­ed the Cody book series with book #1, I gave the art direc­tor and edi­tor sev­er­al ideas for dif­fer­ent lay­outs to choose from, and we revised those ideas until we land­ed on what the book cov­ers are now. For the books that fol­lowed, it was a mat­ter of keep­ing the same gen­er­al cov­er lay­out, but try­ing to give it a unique theme and col­or scheme, so that the books look like they belong to each oth­er while also stand­ing on their own. One thing that helped was that each book hap­pens over a dif­fer­ent sea­son dur­ing one year, so I was able to be inspired by the col­ors of each sea­son.

Do you work on the illus­tra­tions for one book at a time?

For books in a series, yes, I work on one book at a time in sequence. Often the author is writ­ing the next book while I’m illus­trat­ing their pre­vi­ous book. In gen­er­al, I’m often jug­gling book projects; illus­trat­ing for chap­ter books, mid­dle grade, and pic­ture books at the same time, and jump­ing between book worlds can be chal­leng­ing!

Do you have any tips for draw­ing char­ac­ters con­sis­tent­ly?

Yes! That is a par­tic­u­lar­ly chal­leng­ing task. I start the series by doing Char­ac­ter Stud­ies of the book’s char­ac­ters, and for each book add sketch­es of new side char­ac­ters as they’re intro­duced. After each book is fin­ished, I col­lage togeth­er a doc­u­ment with images of the char­ac­ters through­out the series, so that I can com­pare char­ac­ter draw­ings in the new book to make sure they look right.

Cody and the Heart of a Champion character studies

illus­tra­tion © Eliza Wheel­er, Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on, char­ac­ter stud­ies

Cody and the Heart of a Champion character collage

illus­tra­tion © Eliza Wheel­er, Cody and the Heart of a Cham­pi­on, char­ac­ter col­lage


Thank you, Eliza, for help­ing us bet­ter under­stand how you infuse enchant­ment into the books you illus­trate. The care you and Tri­cia take makes Cody an unfor­get­table char­ac­ter.

Learn more about Eliza Wheel­er.


Linda Sue Park

Linda Sue Park

Lin­da Sue Park

Melanie Heuis­er Hill recent­ly inter­viewed Lin­da Sue Park, curi­ous about her dai­ly work habits as a writer, and how Lin­da Sue bal­ances life and work.

Do you have spe­cif­ic writ­ing goals that you for­mu­late and work toward — a cer­tain num­ber of words/pages a day, a draft fin­ished by a cer­tain date, revi­sion done in x num­ber of weeks etc.?

Yes. First, I write in scenes (as opposed to chap­ters), and my goal is to write 500 words per day of that par­tic­u­lar scene. What I write can be and usu­al­ly is absolute­ly awful — the aim is the quan­ti­ty, not qual­i­ty!

I begin my writ­ing day by revis­ing the pre­vi­ous day’s 500, which is actu­al­ly the main task in terms of the time it takes me. I then fin­ish by writ­ing anoth­er 500 crap­py words.

But I don’t have a long-term goal oth­er than the dai­ly one: a nov­el takes as long as it takes. This means that I pre­fer to write my books on spec, with­out a con­tract. Con­tracts stip­u­late dead­lines! I’ve had to work with a dead­line as well, for some of my books. I don’t mind a dead­line for cer­tain tasks like copy­edit­ing or proof­read­ing, but I hate hav­ing one for a first draft.

Do these goals fluc­tu­ate or change for trav­el, fam­i­ly, hol­i­days, life’s inter­rup­tions, etc?

When trav­el­ing for work, I try to get at least a lit­tle writ­ing done, espe­cial­ly in air­ports or on flights. When I’m on vaca­tion, I take a break from writ­ing — vaca­tions for me are usu­al­ly a time to wal­low glo­ri­ous­ly in READING.

Like most writ­ers, I’ve always man­aged writ­ing in and around fam­i­ly time. That’s even more true now, because my hus­band and I are care­givers for our two (adorable and bril­liant, of course) grand­chil­dren.

Linda Sue Park and her grandchildren

Lin­da Sue Park and her grand­chil­dren

You pub­lish word counts and brief com­men­tary on writ­ing process on social media with the hash­tags #amwrit­ing and #amjug­gling. Why do you put this out there pub­licly? Do you keep track of these writ­ing word counts else­where, as well?

I began tweet­ing my word counts dur­ing a time when I was feel­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly over­whelmed by dai­ly life (see grand­chil­dren, above), and find­ing it dif­fi­cult to focus on writ­ing. I thought that announc­ing my word count in pub­lic would make me feel account­able. It worked real­ly well to moti­vate me.

To my sur­prise, I began to get respons­es from folks that my word counts and com­ments about jug­gling pri­or­i­ties were inspir­ing to them. So that was anoth­er rea­son to con­tin­ue.

I don’t keep track of the word counts any­where else, although I sup­pose some com­put­er whiz could fig­ure it out from the time and date stamps in the Word file?

How has the jug­gling of life and writ­ing changed over your career? Is it hard­er or eas­i­er now?

Hard­er or eas­i­er, hmmm … That would be a day-to-day answer. Two com­ments: 

1) For me, it’s all about desire and dis­ci­pline. I want to write so bad­ly that I estab­lished the nec­es­sary dis­ci­pline to do so. Some days, it’s hard­er than oth­ers. But the key is that I made writ­ing a HABIT.

When some­thing is a habit, it’s auto­mat­i­cal­ly built in to your day. Exam­ple: You don’t have to think about brush­ing your teeth, right? For me, writ­ing is a habit in exact­ly the same way. It took me months, twen­ty years ago, when my kids were young and I was teach­ing full time, to estab­lish that habit, but it was worth it. Now it’s not an “issue,” or a ques­tion of “find­ing the time.” It’s an auto­mat­ic part of my day.

2) I sit with my lap­top and type. I make up sto­ries. I play with words. For a liv­ing. That makes me one of the luck­i­est peo­ple on the plan­et. I have to admit that inward­ly, I snort and roll my eyes when folks talk about how HARD writ­ing is. Com­pared to what many or most oth­er peo­ple have to do all day long? Please.

Any chance you’d tell us a lit­tle about recent books and what you’re work­ing on now?

I’m delight­ed to have sev­er­al projects in the works. This month, in March, the third book of the Wing & Claw tril­o­gy was pub­lished by Harper­Collins. It’s called Beast of Stone and it’s the con­clu­sion of the adven­tures of Raf­fa, Echo, and their friends. Also in March, Col­by Sharp’s The Cre­ativ­i­ty Project was pub­lished, and I’m proud to have a con­tri­bu­tion in that amaz­ing book.

And I can hard­ly wait for May, for the pub­li­ca­tion of a YA col­lab­o­ra­tive his­tor­i­cal-fic­tion nov­el titled Fatal Throne: The Wives of Hen­ry VIII Tell All. Sev­en authors — one male, six female — each wrote from the points of view of the six queens and Hen­ry him­self. I had so much fun work­ing with the oth­er ter­rif­ic authors and writ­ing Cather­ine Howard’s chap­ter.

My cur­rent work-in-progress is anoth­er his­tor­i­cal fic­tion nov­el that I’m hop­ing to fin­ish in 2018. If you’d like to track my progress, I’m post­ing my word count on Twit­ter @LindaSuePark. 


Thank you, Lin­da Sue, for tak­ing time from your writ­ing and trav­el­ing to share your thoughts.

Learn more about Lin­da Sue Park.


Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award Committee

Sigurd Olson Children's and Young Adult Literature ConferenceWe’re in the midst of award sea­son, when best of the year lists and spec­u­la­tion about award win­ners pro­lif­er­ate on the social media plat­forms swirling around chil­dren’s and teen books. In Novem­ber, we attend­ed the award cer­e­mo­ny at the Sig­urd Olson Envi­ron­men­tal Insti­tute’s Chil­dren and Young Adult Lit­er­a­ture Con­fer­ence, which takes place at North­land Col­lege in Ash­land, Wis­con­sin (on the awe-inspir­ing south shore of Lake Supe­ri­or). Inspired by the authors, nat­u­ral­ists, and librar­i­ans who speak at this con­fer­ence, we inter­viewed the ded­i­cat­ed com­mit­tee who select this impor­tant award each year.

How do you select the award­ed books?

We have a com­mit­tee of eight mem­bers who all have an inter­est in pro­mot­ing both the nat­ur­al world and high qual­i­ty lit­er­a­ture for chil­dren. Because com­mit­tee mem­bers remain on the com­mit­tee from year to year we have a ded­i­cat­ed, knowl­edge­able group of pro­fes­sion­als. Each mem­ber first ranks books and then those results are tal­lied. The top ranked books becomes the focus of a com­mit­tee meet­ing. A final vote is tak­en with numer­i­cal rank­ings fol­low­ing that in-depth dis­cus­sion.

What are the cri­te­ria for this award?

The Sig­urd F. Olson Nature Writ­ing Award for Children’s Lit­er­a­ture is giv­en to a pub­lished children’s book of lit­er­ary nature writ­ing (non­fic­tion or fic­tion) that cap­tures the spir­it of the human rela­tion­ship with nature, and pro­motes the aware­ness, preser­va­tion, appre­ci­a­tion, or restora­tion of the nat­ur­al world for future gen­er­a­tions. (Here’s a full list of SONWA books since 1991.)

How do you gath­er the books?

Since most, if not all, pub­lish­ers are on Twit­ter, we estab­lished a SONWA Awards Twit­ter account two years ago (@sonwa_awards). For the past two years, we’ve pro­mot­ed the awards through our feed and by direct­ly tweet­ing to pub­lish­ers. We also post to the SOEI (Sig­urd Olson Envi­ron­men­tal Insti­tute) Face­book feed peri­od­i­cal­ly.

We active­ly ask pub­lish­ers to sub­mit books that fit the cri­te­ria. Since we’re one of the few nature writ­ing awards for young adult and children’s lit­er­a­ture, the pub­lish­ers of this type of book are aware of us.

What selec­tion cri­te­ria do you apply?

First of all, as the name of the award sug­gests, the book has to be about some aspect of nature and writ­ten for chil­dren appro­pri­ate to the age group. In addi­tion, it has to be writ­ten in the year pri­or to the year the award is received.

After that, we look at:

  • Human Rela­tion­ships with Nat­ur­al World: Does the book cap­ture the spir­it of the human rela­tion­ship with nature?
  • Lit­er­ary Val­ue: Does the book take on ele­ments such as char­ac­ter devel­op­ment, metaphor, cli­max, allu­sion, theme, motif, etc?
  • Val­ues: Does the book pro­mote the val­ues for nature this award seeks to pro­mote for future gen­er­a­tions: aware­ness, preser­va­tion, appre­ci­a­tion, restora­tion?
  • Illus­tra­tions: When books meet all the above cri­te­ria, then illus­tra­tions and the art­work are con­sid­ered.

What is the impe­tus you feel for donat­ing your time to this award process?

Liv­ing in the North­woods, whether an out­door per­son or not, cre­ates a strong con­nec­tion to the earth and con­cern for its future. Our com­mit­tee is also well aware of how lit­er­a­cy can impact our human­i­ty. This award process allows us to com­mit to two efforts that are impor­tant to us. We hope the chain from writ­ers to pub­lish­ers will be val­i­dat­ed for their efforts. And we hope the read­er will be enriched in mul­ti­ple ways.

You are housed with­in, and spon­sored by, the Sig­urd Olson Envi­ron­men­tal Insti­tute. Why is this a good fit for a nature-writ­ing award?

The mis­sion of the Sig­urd Olson Envi­ron­men­tal Insti­tute is to pro­mote expe­ri­ences of wild­ness and won­der, while also work­ing to pro­tect wild­lands for future gen­er­a­tions. Lit­er­ary depic­tions and accounts of wild nature and the won­der it evokes in peo­ple often inspire read­ers to seek sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences, or, if they’ve already had those expe­ri­ences, the lit­er­ary works help to fur­ther affirm the val­ue of those expe­ri­ences.

Sig­urd F. Olson’s writ­ing is one of the rich­est and most influ­en­tial parts of his lega­cy, and the nature writ­ing award is one of the ways that we car­ry that lega­cy for­ward.

Northland College

You’ll find the Sig­urd F. Olson Envi­ron­men­tal Insti­tute on the cam­pus of North­land Col­lege, Ash­land, Wis­con­son (in the fore­ground of this pho­to). That’s Lake Supe­ri­or in the back­ground.

Your focus was ini­tial­ly region­al­ly writ­ten adult books. Why did you devel­op a spe­cif­ic award for children’s books?

In part this was a cir­cum­stan­tial deci­sion: each year pub­lish­ers were sub­mit­ting children’s books, even though they didn’t meet the cri­te­ria we had estab­lished for the orig­i­nal adult award. Although we could not con­sid­er these sub­mis­sions for the adult award, we were impressed by their qual­i­ty and want­ed to rec­og­nize and pro­mote the work of the authors and illus­tra­tors of the children’s books.

Of course, we also rec­og­nize how impor­tant it is to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tions of chil­dren and the role that sto­ries can play in shap­ing their val­ues and visions for them­selves and their future. We want chil­dren to grow up hav­ing and valu­ing expe­ri­ences of wild­ness and won­der in their lives, and the children’s nature writ­ing award, as well as our children’s lit­er­a­ture con­fer­ence, help us to real­ize this goal.

Hav­ing read so many nature-themed children’s books, what trends are you notic­ing?

We do see top­ic trends from time to time. A few years ago it was whales and then water the next year. Just like pub­lish­ing in oth­er areas, the trends tend to fol­low what is going on in the world. This year we have a few hur­ri­cane books. Often times, grand­par­ents are depict­ed as nur­tur­er, guardian, or sto­ry­teller of nature.

 We are see­ing more diver­si­ty and inclu­sion. There are more pic­ture books with more white space but with detailed author notes or sup­ple­men­tal added val­ue. In recent year, non­fic­tion books for old­er read­ers will have side bars, graph­ics, cap­tioned pho­tos, and more along­side the main body. This can be either an enhance­ment or a dis­trac­tion.

What themes or top­ics do you wish were being addressed in children’s books?

We are always look­ing for books that have a strong rela­tion­ship to human inter­ac­tion with the nat­ur­al world. Books for old­er chil­dren with this aspect are not as read­i­ly avail­able. There are always some that stand out in this area but we would hap­pi­ly wel­come more.


Thank you for your com­mit­ment to read­ing and rec­om­mend­ing the very best in nature writ­ing for chil­dren and teens. Your focus on human inter­ac­tion with the nat­ur­al world is crit­i­cal to the lives of our chil­dren and our plan­et. Impor­tant work you’re doing!

[The sub­mis­sion dead­line for 2018 award con­sid­er­a­tion is Decem­ber 31, 2017. Learn more.]


Marion Dane Bauer

Mar­i­on Dane Bauer and her books are respect­ed and loved by chil­dren, par­ents, edu­ca­tors, librar­i­ans, edi­tors, and writ­ers. She began her career as a nov­el­ist, turn­ing to pic­ture books lat­er in her career. Cel­e­brat­ing the release of her newest pic­ture book, the charm­ing Win­ter Dance, we were curi­ous about how she writes these short books so we asked! And this long-time teacher of oth­er writ­ers pro­vid­ed heart­felt answers.

Marion Dane Bauer

Mar­i­on Dane Bauer (pho­to cred­it: Kather­ine Warde)

If You Were Born a KittenWhen you sit down to write a pic­ture book, what has inspired you?

Some­times I begin with an idea I want to share.  If You Were Born a Kit­ten, for instance, comes out of my very impas­sioned belief that the mir­a­cle of birth is hid­den from most young chil­dren in our soci­ety — from most of us, real­ly.  I want­ed to cel­e­brate birth in a way that would show it both as mir­a­cle and as part of our sol­id, every­day real­i­ty. 

Some­times the con­cept comes from some­thing I read or some­thing some­one says to me. Win­ter Dance came from an editor’s say­ing, “What about cel­e­brat­ing the first snow?” 

But the actu­al pic­ture book begins, always, with lan­guage.  I can’t even begin to flesh out my idea until the open­ing line is singing in my head.

The Longest NightDo you know the end­ing of your pic­ture book before you begin to write?

I always know the end of a nov­el before I begin to write, and if a pic­ture book is a sto­ry, I know the end of that, too. So when I began writ­ing The Longest Night, I knew before I put down the first word that the lit­tle chick­adee would bring back the sun. When I write con­cept books, though, like How Do I Love You?, I have to find my end­ing in the play­ing out of the lan­guage.

Do you write with a spe­cif­ic child in mind?

I write always for a child, and in the case of pic­ture books for the adult who will be shar­ing the book, but I have no par­tic­u­lar child in my heart … except maybe the small child I was so many years ago.

Do you envi­sion the illus­tra­tions while you are writ­ing?

I envi­sion space for the illus­tra­tions, which is a very dif­fer­ent thing. I don’t think what the illus­tra­tions will depict, specif­i­cal­ly, and I cer­tain­ly don’t think about what they will look like. That’s the artist’s ter­ri­to­ry. But I make sure I have cre­at­ed an active chang­ing world for the illus­tra­tor to take hold of.

How much do you con­sid­er the lev­el of the reader’s vocab­u­lary when you write a pic­ture book?

Hon­est­ly? Not at all. Because pic­ture books are usu­al­ly read to a child rather than by the child, I nev­er con­sid­er vocab­u­lary. Some­times a total­ly new word is, in itself, a kind of enchant­ment for a child. Think of Peter Rab­bit for whom let­tuce had a “soporif­ic” effect! No, I’ve nev­er used the word soporif­ic or any­thing like it, but isn’t it a won­der­ful­ly res­o­nant word? 

I should add, though, that there is one basic rule I use with all of my writ­ing.  I believe the best word in any piece of writ­ing for any audi­ence is always the sim­plest one.  Some­times, though, that best word might just hap­pen to be soporif­ic.

Winter DanceDo you ever begin a pic­ture book feel­ing at a loss for how to write it?

Yes, and when I do I always stop, set it aside, give it time. When it begins to sing to me—if it begins to sing to me — then there will be no more loss.

Win­ter Dance, my newest pic­ture book, actu­al­ly began with an editor’s com­mit­ting to a pic­ture book I had writ­ten about spring.  For a com­pli­cat­ed series of rea­sons the text the edi­tor con­tract­ed had to be altered sub­stan­tial­ly, and dur­ing that process, my drafts got far­ther and far­ther away from any­thing the edi­tor want­ed.  I men­tioned ear­li­er, it was the edi­tor who final­ly came up with the idea that I write about the first snow instead.  Great idea, but first I had to find my fox, and I had to dis­cov­er that fox­es mate in win­ter so he would have a rea­son to rejoice over snow.  And then, of course, I had to find the song to car­ry him through.

What is the word length you aim for in a pic­ture book?

A max­i­mum of 450 words.  Even that can be too long for some books. 

You were best known for your nov­els for mid­dle grade and teen read­ers. What influ­enced you to try a dif­fer­ent book form for a dif­fer­ent read­er?

The truth is I always want­ed to write pic­ture books. In the begin­ning, I sim­ply didn’t know how to write them, even though I had read them end­less­ly to my own chil­dren and to var­i­ous fos­ter chil­dren in my home. Pic­ture books are a bit tech­ni­cal to learn, and I had no one to teach me. In fact, I start­ed out try­ing to write pic­ture books and dis­cov­ered I didn’t know what I was doing. So I moved on and found it eas­i­er, not know­ing what I was doing, to mud­dle through a nov­el. 

The oth­er piece, though, was that my first edi­tor, at a time when we  writ­ers were owned by our first edi­tors, said to me when I showed him what I thought was a pic­ture-book man­u­script, “Mar­i­on, you are not a pic­ture book writer.” Now, he could legit­i­mate­ly have said, “Mar­i­on, that’s not a pic­ture book.” Because it wasn’t. But even when the pub­lish­ing world opened up and I did learn and began pub­lish­ing suc­cess­ful pic­ture books with oth­er hous­es, he refused to alter his vision of me as only a nov­el­ist. So I have him to thank for my career get­ting estab­lished in nov­els. Pic­ture books are so much fun, if he had been open to younger work from me, I prob­a­bly would have been off play­ing with pic­ture books much soon­er.


Thank you, Mar­i­on, for shar­ing your thoughts about pic­ture books in such an instruc­tive way. We’re always hap­py to learn from you.

Learn more about Mar­i­on Dane Bauer.


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?


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. 


Katherine Tillotson

Katherine Tillotson

Kather­ine Tillot­son

For this inter­view, we turn to the illus­tra­tor of a new book, all ears, all eyes, whose work I’ve long admired. This is a very spe­cial book. Open it and you’ll be cap­ti­vat­ed by the for­est at night. Such unusu­al art! But, then, her pri­or books have also been dis­tinc­tive, each in their own way. I hope you enjoy this vis­it with Kather­ine as much as I did.

In each of your recent books, Kather­ine, you’ve used a dif­fer­ent illus­tra­tion style. All the Water in the World is whoosh­es and swoosh­es, whirls and swirls, liq­uid on paper.

All the Water in the World

inte­ri­or spread from All the Water in the World, by George Ella Lyon, illus­tra­tion copy­right Kather­ine Tillot­son

For Shoe Dog, your pages were light-heart­ed, full of chaot­ic ener­gy that por­trayed Megan McDonald’s dog who finds shoes irre­sistible.

Shoe Dog

inte­ri­or spread from Shoe Dog, by Megan McDon­ald, illus­tra­tion copy­right Kather­ine Tillot­son

For It’s Pic­ture Day Today!, you assem­bled famil­iar home and school­room craft­ing sup­plies into adorable crea­tures prepar­ing for pic­ture day. I like to imag­ine you fold­ing paper and sort­ing through but­tons and peel­ing glue off your fin­gers dur­ing the mak­ing of this book.

It's Picture Day Today!

inte­ri­or spread from It’s Pic­ture Day Today!, by Megan McDon­ald, illus­tra­tion copy­right Kather­ine Tillot­son

In your newest book, all ears, all eyes, you’ve accom­plished yet anoth­er com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent look. Your por­tray­al of the for­est in the dark brings the night to life. The read­er is deep inside the for­est, see­ing it, feel­ing it, while Richard Jackson’s poet­ry pro­vides the sound track.

all ears, all eyes

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

I find myself with lots of ques­tions!

When an edi­tor sends you a man­u­script, what hap­pens in your mind as you’re read­ing it?

 I always hope to have my imag­i­na­tion awak­ened. I usu­al­ly do not have an idea where I might take a new sto­ry with the illus­tra­tions but I can per­ceive an open­ing for my part of the sto­ry­telling. If it is the right man­u­script for me, there is a feel­ing of excit­ed antic­i­pa­tion.

What moves you to agree to a project, know­ing it will take you (how long?) to cre­ate the illus­tra­tions?

I am slow and it is a long time from begin­ning to end. I can eas­i­ly slip into being hope­less­ly over­whelmed or impos­si­bly anx­ious. It is always best if I think of the process in small steps instead of a dis­tant des­ti­na­tion. Col­lab­o­ra­tors are also invalu­able. Many a time, my edi­tor or art direc­tor has helped me through a bumpy bit along the way. And I belong to a most won­der­ful cri­tique group. Togeth­er we cheer and help each oth­er move the books for­ward.

How do you begin a new book?

I love to sit down in a com­fy chair with a cup of cof­fee, the man­u­script, and a big pile of books. The books are often on artists but I also have a large col­lec­tion of Bologna Annu­als. I keep a sketch­book near­by and let my mind and my pen­cil wan­der.

all ears, all eyesFor all ears, all eyes, the title page reveals that you com­bined water­col­or and dig­i­tal tech­niques. Could you tell us more about this process?

I strug­gled a lot with tech­nique for this book. Ear­ly on, I exper­i­ment­ed with acrylic and oil. Nei­ther worked. I real­ly want­ed to use water­col­or and I even had a few lessons from my friend, Julie Down­ing, a very accom­plished water­col­or illus­tra­tor, I longed to lay down the paint with the con­fi­dence of a mas­ter, yet I did not have time to mas­ter the tech­nique. Water­col­or involves a lot of lay­er­ing (Julie tells me she can have fifty to eighty lay­ers on a paint­ing). Yet I found the more lay­ers I added to a paint­ing, the more I was afraid I would mess up. With each new lay­er, my ren­der­ing became stiffer and stiffer. In mulling over the prob­lem, I thought I might paint more expres­sive­ly if I knew I could lay­er in Pho­to­shop, thus dis­card­ing any lay­ers I did not like and keep­ing only those I did. This tech­nique gave me the free­dom I craved.

Do you make a con­scious effort to make each book quite dif­fer­ent? Why?

No, it real­ly isn’t a con­scious or intel­lec­tu­al choice. There are so many ways to make marks. Shoe Dog was orig­i­nal­ly going to be ren­dered in oil. When he devel­oped into a scrib­ble, it just felt right.

Well and then there is the fact that I love art sup­plies so much. I could spend almost as many hours in an art sup­ply store as in a book­store.

Do you study oth­er illus­tra­tors’ work? What do you see when you do?

Oh, yes! Def­i­nite­ly! There are won­der­ful illus­tra­tors — from all over the world. I have so many favorites. My shelves are over­flow­ing with their pic­ture books. I try to use the library or my book buy­ing habit could eas­i­ly spin out of con­trol.

Most of all, I love how illus­tra­tors extend and enhance the sto­ry­telling, stretch­ing beyond the words. An exam­ple would be Migrant, illus­trat­ed by Isabelle Arse­nault. Well, and then there is Chris Rasch­ka. I love the expres­sive pow­er of his work. Some­thing I am always aspir­ing to. I could keep going and going… I find so much to admire and inspire in my fel­low illus­tra­tors’ work.

For all ears, all eyes, you illus­trat­ed a Richard Jack­son man­u­script. He has been your edi­tor for 15 years. Now he’s the author. It is typ­i­cal in the pub­lish­ing process that author and illus­tra­tor don’t com­mu­ni­cate direct­ly, but rather indi­rect­ly through their edi­tor. How did that work for this book?

When we began, Dick was very involved in both author­ing and edit­ing the book. As the process con­tin­ued, he began to focus more on his writ­ing life. My com­mu­ni­ca­tion con­tin­ued with my new edi­tor, Cait­lyn Dlouhy, and my art direc­tor, Ann Bob­co.

I miss Dick as my edi­tor. He is real­ly the one who taught me how to think about pic­ture books, but I was los­ing my vision of the book and try­ing to please every­one. My process was becom­ing scat­tered and dis­con­nect­ed. When we returned to a con­ven­tion­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion mod­el, the book resumed tak­ing shape.

all ears, all eyes

inte­ri­or spread from all ears, all eyes, by Richard Jack­son, copy­right Kather­ine Tillt­son

There is noth­ing about the illus­tra­tions in this book that whis­pers “dig­i­tal” to me and yet the copy­right page says “a com­bi­na­tion of water­col­or and dig­i­tal tech­niques.” Would you share with us how your dig­i­tal skills have evolved?

Thank you! I use very few of the func­tions avail­able in Pho­to­shop. Most of my com­put­er time has to do with scan­ning and plac­ing the lay­ers (and there are lots of lay­ers). I am con­stant­ly try­ing to find ways to min­i­mize my time on the com­put­er and spend most of my time sketch­ing and paint­ing. I believe that the draw­ing board is where I can find the loose­ness and emo­tion I want.

When you went to art school, what was your vision of your artis­tic future?

I grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Col­orado with an art major with an edu­ca­tion minor. I have always loved mak­ing art, but I did not have a clear vision of how to find a career that incor­po­rat­ed art mak­ing. I took night class­es to devel­op new art-relat­ed skills and through hap­py coin­ci­dence met a fel­low stu­dent who intro­duced me to Har­court in San Fran­cis­co. For many years, I designed edu­ca­tion­al books dur­ing the day and worked on illus­tra­tion sam­ples at night and week­ends. It was­n’t until I paint­ed this lit­tle guy (an ear­ly ver­sion of what evolved into Shoe Dog) that doors began to open. Dick Jack­son saw the piece and took a chance on me.


What is your vision of that future now?

I would love to write and illus­trate a sto­ry. I have a cou­ple ideas that I am think­ing about and a few char­ac­ters rat­tling around in my head. Now if I could just get them to come out and play.…

Don’t miss Bookol­o­gy’s inter­view with the author of all ears, all eyes, Richard Jack­son.


Thank you, Kather­ine, for let­ting us peek inside your process, your work, and your pas­sion as an illus­tra­tor. We always look for­ward to the next book you’re cre­at­ing.


Creekfinding with author Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin

A stew­ard­ship for our one and only Earth are an abid­ing con­cern for many of our plan­et’s inhab­i­tants. When an author finds an oppor­tu­ni­ty to share with the world of read­ers her own pas­sion for con­serv­ing our ecosys­tems, the book Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry is cre­at­ed. We hope you’ll find inspi­ra­tion for your own explo­ration and con­ser­va­tion in this inter­view with Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin. Don’t miss read­ing the book … it’s a trea­sure.

Do you remem­ber when you first had the idea to write this sto­ry?

I had been want­i­ng to col­lab­o­rate on a sto­ry with Clau­dia because I love her art so much. So, I was noodling about what we might do. On Novem­ber 30, 2011, the Cedar Rapids Gazette pub­lished a sto­ry on Mike Osterholm’s creek restora­tion project. As soon as I read it I knew that was the sto­ry I want­ed to tell and I hoped Clau­dia would want to do the illus­tra­tions.

Have you met Dr. Michael Oster­holm? How did that meet­ing add to your sto­ry?

Short­ly after read­ing the arti­cle I con­tact­ed the reporter, Orlan Love. He said I should talk with Mike and gave me his email address. I emailed him. With­in a half hour I received an answer, “Call me. Mike.” That was the first of many con­ver­sa­tions. About a month after that con­ver­sa­tion my hus­band and I drove to North­field, Min­neso­ta to St. Olaf Col­lege where Mike was giv­ing a talk on creek restora­tion.

The Creekfinding team

Dr. Michael Oster­holm, Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin,
and Clau­dia McGe­hee, the Creek­find­ing team

Have you vis­it­ed Brook Creek?

I have now vis­it­ed Brook Creek. When I was writ­ing the sto­ry, I read many arti­cles about Mike’s restora­tion project and watched sev­er­al videos. I vis­it­ed Brook Creek in my imag­i­na­tion.

Your word choic­es are often evoca­tive in a way anoth­er word would not be.

Years lat­er, a man named Mike
bought that field and the hill­side.
Mike want­ed to grow a prairie in
the old corn­field,
to part­ner with the sun and soil,
grow tall grass­es and flow­ers.

The word “part­ner” evokes a sense of work­ing with the land, as though the land were a con­scious enti­ty. Do words like this come nat­u­ral­ly from your mind or do you find your­self hunt­ing for them? 

Author Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin get­ting to know Brook Creek

Mike had told me a sto­ry about the oak savan­nah that he also restored: once they cleaned out the weed trees so sun­light could get down to the for­est floor, seeds ger­mi­nat­ed that had been wait­ing for a hun­dred years. It just seemed like he was part­ner­ing with the earth. And that word came to me as I was think­ing about his work on the prairie.

There are rib­bons of text woven into the illus­tra­tions, often high­light­ing a fac­tu­al state­ment. Were these state­ments an orig­i­nal part of your man­u­script?

The state­ments were orig­i­nal­ly just side­bars. It was Claudia’s deci­sion to include them on a blade of grass or a rip­ple in the trout stream and I love the way the infor­ma­tion looks and works. It’s there if read­ers want to find it, but it’s unob­tru­sive if they just want to read the text.

illus­tra­tion from Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry
by Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin, illus­trat­ed by and copy­right Clau­dia McGe­hee

Did you dis­cuss the illus­tra­tions for the book with Clau­dia McGe­hee, the illus­tra­tor?

Clau­dia lives only 19 miles from me so we talked togeth­er with an Iowa geol­o­gist about the Drift­less. Clau­dia showed me her ear­ly sketch­es (and I loved them). And I went to her house to see her lat­er sketch­es arranged on her din­ing room table. Once I saw them I real­ized I need­ed to do some edit­ing — so that was a great part about work­ing so close­ly. We even removed a side­bar or two that were just get­ting in the way of the sto­ry.

CreekfindingThere are a num­ber of joy­ful words in this book, “laugh­ter” and “chuck­le.” Why did you choose these words?

The sound of water has always been joy­ous to me. When I was grow­ing up there was a sea­son­al “stream,” maybe a ditch, across the street from our house. I loved wait­ing next to that stream for the school­bus. Also, this is a joy­ful sto­ry of restora­tion. There is also a hint of anthro­po­mor­phiz­ing in the notion of “part­ner­ing” with the earth. I guess in my head it seemed as if the nat­ur­al world can be a part­ner maybe it can also have or express joy.

In recent years, you’ve been work­ing on books about peo­ple who are chang­ing our world. Will Allen, Alice Waters, Dr. Michael Oster­holm, and your newest book about Chef Roy Choi. Are these sto­ries you feel com­pelled to tell? 

I do. I love these sto­ries of peo­ple who act out of pas­sion (and that goes back to Wil­son Bent­ley), do what they must do to make our world whole — restore creeks, grow good food in school yards or urban lots, serve good food in food deserts. I think I do this for myself, to remind myself that, though we have many prob­lems in our world, many things to be wor­ried about, there are peo­ple who are work­ing out of love and con­vic­tion to make a bet­ter world for all.

As a writer, how do you see your role in cre­at­ing a bet­ter world?

I want to write books that chil­dren will car­ry with them for the rest of their lives. I will nev­er know if I suc­ceed. But if one of my sto­ries remained with chil­dren as part of “the fur­ni­ture of their minds” I would feel good. I hope chil­dren will mix that mem­o­ry with what­ev­er else they have stored up and do some­thing for this world that I can­not even imag­ine.

Don’t miss the com­pan­ion inter­view with illus­tra­tor Clau­dia McGe­hee or the Book­storm for Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry offer­ing com­pan­ion books and web­sites for fur­ther explo­ration or incor­po­ra­tion into les­son plans.

The restored Brook Creek


Creekfinding with illustrator Claudia McGehee

Claudia McGehee

Clau­dia McGe­hee (pho­to: Thomas Lang­don)

While tak­ing a clos­er look at Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry, it is impos­si­ble to sep­a­rate the nar­ra­tive and the illus­tra­tions because togeth­er they make the book whole. And yet two dif­fer­ent artists cre­at­ed the words and the illus­tra­tions that guide the read­er toward an under­stand­ing of the Brook Creek restora­tion project. Clau­dia McGe­hee notices the details, the encom­pass­ing emo­tions and the nuances of the land­scape that encour­age to walk along­side Team Brook Creek while they explore this restored ecosys­tem. Do add this book to your book­shelves. You’ll want to read it and soak in the art when­ev­er you need reas­sur­ance that we can be good stew­ards of this Earth..

When you begin work on a new book, what is the first thing that you do?

I find a qui­et place to read the man­u­script sev­er­al times, close my eyes, and imag­ine the “scenes” the words bring forth to me, keep­ing a sketch­book handy to get these “first blinks” of inspi­ra­tion. This goes for when I have authored the book as well; I don’t start illus­trat­ing until the man­u­script is com­plete.

Claudia McGehee at workIn the Illustrator’s Note, you state, “I made the rip­ply, stur­dy lines of earth, water, and sky in scratch­board and paint­ed the prairie greens, creek blues, and every­thing in between with water­col­ors and dyes.” Can you tell us a bit about the tools you use for scratch­board?

I use a sharp skin­ny X‑acto blade (a num­ber 16, with a beveled end) to carve into the scratch­board sur­face, reveal­ing the white chalky lay­er below. I scratch out what I want to be white or col­ored, and leave an out­line and detail in black. When all the line-work is com­plete, I scan the image into my Mac and print it onto water­col­or paper. From here I use water­col­or and dyes and paint tra­di­tion­al­ly at my board.

Claudia McGehee scratchboard artFor read­ers who would like to work with scratch­board, what type of paper do you use? What do you mean by dyes? How do you apply them to the paper? And why do you use them?

I use Ess­dee brand scratch­board. It is robust enough to be scratched, inked again if I want to make a cor­rec­tion and reworked. There is also a thin­ner grade of scratch­board (the com­pa­ny Melis­sa and Doug makes this kind) that younger peo­ple can scratch with wood­en sty­lus, much less sharp than an X‑acto blade.

Claudia McGehee applying the dyesThe dyes go by the brand name Dr. Ph. Mar­t­in’s. They’ve been around for­ev­er. They are essen­tial­ly water­col­or, known for their vivid, almost flu­o­res­cent qual­i­ty. I apply them just as I do water­col­ors, with a brush. They work very well for prairie and creek­side flow­ers and crit­ters.  I am very par­tial to the Doc Mar­tin char­treuse (frog green!). The dyes do tend to fade in the sun­light, so I keep my orig­i­nals in dark file draw­ers to pre­serve the col­or.

How do you pre­serve and store scratch­board art­work?

I have a large, old­er, flat file where a lot of work goes. I also archive in big plas­tic bins, sep­a­rat­ing the art­work by each indi­vid­ual book project.

Claudia McGehee painting with dyesAt what point in the mak­ing of the book do you cre­ate the end­pa­pers?

A high­light for me is to behold a pic­ture book’s end-sheets. Good ones will give an indi­ca­tion of the book’s over­all mes­sage or spir­it. Some­times they tell a sto­ry as well. I savor mak­ing my own end-sheets, usu­al­ly treat­ing myself to mak­ing them at the very last of a book project. The Creek­find­ing end-sheets are some­thing I’ve want­ed to try for a while, using them to sug­gest a pas­sage of time. The open­ing of the book is a sun­rise on the creek, com­plete with red-winged black bird, and the back sheet is a sun­set.

Claudia McGehee using crayonsYou vis­it­ed Prairie Song Farm, which is where the creek in this book was restored. As an artist, how do you look at a new loca­tion that you will make the focus of a new book?

I sim­ply try to observe and be in the moment when I vis­it a book setting’s loca­tion. I want the place to speak to me and I have to be qui­et to hear it. My work relies on small details that make the set­ting unique. Hope­ful­ly, my impres­sions will pass on suc­cess­ful­ly to my illus­tra­tions lat­er in the stu­dio.

You have a degree in archae­ol­o­gy. What does the knowl­edge you stud­ied bring to the work you do now?

In a prac­ti­cal sense, my archae­ol­o­gy back­ground helped me hone my research skills, as impor­tant to an illus­tra­tor as they are to a writer. There is also a lev­el of basic curios­i­ty in the archae­ol­o­gist, a love for the “what comes next?” that is sim­i­lar in the process of mak­ing a non­fic­tion-based pic­ture book.

Illus­tra­tions from Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry, copy­right Clau­dia McGe­hee

The humans, birds, fish, and insects in this book all look joy­ful. Was that a con­scious deci­sion on your part?

I may nev­er work for Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, but I believe that all ani­mals are capa­ble of “smil­ing” and show­ing hap­pi­ness like humans do and I nat­u­ral­ly want to show this. After all, I would be hap­py if I were a brook trout in Mike’s creek! I don’t want them to look too sweet or whim­si­cal how­ev­er, but I do hope my birds and fish et al express a sense of joy in liv­ing that all crea­tures feel.

CreekfindingThe art in this book is gor­geous, sump­tu­ous, an invi­ta­tion to rev­el in our nat­ur­al land­scapes. What do you feel while you’re work­ing on a book like this? And once it’s print­ed and in your hands?

Thank you! I real­ly am tak­en by our nat­ur­al world’s beau­ty. It sus­tains me. My per­son­al art mis­sion is for my work to entice read­ers out­doors after a good read to expe­ri­ence nature them­selves.

Actu­al­ly mak­ing book art is not as mag­i­cal a time as some imag­ine! It is hard phys­i­cal and men­tal work. Pub­lish­ing dead­lines are crit­i­cal to make, so at times I feel I am a marathon run­ner, pac­ing her­self through a long race. There are cer­tain­ly points of joy, like the com­ple­tion of thumb­nails or sketch­es. I will laugh out loud if I feel I have real­ly nailed a spread. But there are also frus­tra­tions when I just can’t get a page to come togeth­er.

The best part of mak­ing Creek­find­ing is that Jack­ie and I live quite close and are friends and we reg­u­lar­ly con­nect­ed to share the progress of the book. I looked at ear­ly ver­sions of her man­u­script and she looked at the art­work in progress.  It was nice to have this cama­raderie, and what we lat­er called “Team Brook Creek,” which includes Mike Oster­holm, the book’s sub­ject. It was tru­ly a unique project to be part of.

Thank you, Clau­dia for shar­ing with us an inside look at the incred­i­ble work you do.

Don’t miss the com­pan­ion inter­view with author Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin or the Book­storm for Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry offer­ing com­pan­ion books and web­sites for fur­ther explo­ration or incor­po­ra­tion into les­son plans.


Merna Ann Hecht and Our Table of Memories

Merna Ann Hecht

Mer­na Ann Hecht

When one poet, Mer­na Ann Hecht, and one edu­ca­tor, Car­rie Stradley, observed their com­mu­ni­ty, their schools, their stu­dents, and real­ized that a pletho­ra of life expe­ri­ences sur­round­ed them, they put their teach­ing and their hearts togeth­er to cre­ate The Sto­ries of Arrival: Refugee and Immi­grant Youth Voic­es Poet­ry Project at Fos­ter High School, in Tuk­wila, Wash­ing­ton.

These weren’t typ­i­cal high school sto­ries. Instead, these stu­dents have expe­ri­ences of leav­ing their homes, their friends, their schools, their coun­tries … to emi­grate to Amer­i­ca, where life is often astound­ing­ly dif­fer­ent.

Encour­ag­ing these Eng­lish Lan­guage Learn­ing stu­dents, more than 240 of them over the past six years from 30 coun­tries, to com­mu­ni­cate their sto­ries through poet­ry helps to empow­er them to find their voic­es and move con­fi­dent­ly into their cho­sen futures (a para­phrase of the project’s mis­sion).

Stories of Our Arrival

Com­bine this project with anoth­er, Project Feast, and you have not only a cook­book of world­wide appeal but a book of poet­ry that is often eye-open­ing, com­pas­sion­ate, and heartrend­ing. A recipe for under­stand­ing. A taste of the mem­o­ries, trav­els, and long­ing behind the poets’ words.

Togeth­er with their part­ners The Insti­tute for Poet­ic Med­i­cine (Palo Alto, CA), the Jack Straw Cul­tur­al Cen­ter (Seat­tle, WA), and Chatwin Books (Seat­tle, WA), these two women and their projects have cre­at­ed Our Table of Mem­o­ries: Food & Poet­ry of Spir­it, Home­land & Tra­di­tion. It’s a beau­ti­ful book, part poet­ry by high school stu­dents, part recipes from the tra­di­tion­al cooks from their coun­tries, and part art with illus­tra­tions by Mor­gan Wright, a recent col­lege grad­u­ate, new­ly enrolled in New York City’s Bank Street Col­lege to pur­sue her Mas­ter of Arts in teach­ing.

By pub­lish­ing this inter­view with Mer­na Hecht, it is the hope of Bookol­o­gy’s edi­tors that you will be inspired to con­sid­er a pro­gram like this in your own com­mu­ni­ty. Feel free to con­tact Mer­na with your ques­tions.

  Can you tell us a bit about your life, in par­tic­u­lar what pulled you toward poet­ry?

 There is not a moment I can recall when I wasn’t pulled toward poet­ry. I first heard the incan­ta­to­ry rhythms of poems from my grand­fa­ther who gave beau­ti­ful, mem­o­rized recita­tions of Longfel­low and John Green­leaf Whit­ti­er. I think it was sec­ond grade when I began writ­ing rhymed poems. Those child­hood poems were shaped by what then seemed the mag­ic of the nat­ur­al world. Notic­ing details of bugs, petals, leaves, cracks in the side­walks on my way to and from school often made me late. At the time it seemed like a secret world. Now I think that ear­ly impulse for close obser­va­tion and a deeply pri­vate inner world have shaped the poet I’ve become. I have always turned toward poet­ry to nour­ish my spir­it. As a young woman, I began to read many dif­fer­ent poets who spoke to me, chal­lenged me, pro­voked me and opened my eyes and heart to the beau­ty and suf­fer­ing of the world; I’ve not stopped turn­ing these pages. Poet­ry is the place where I find a well­spring for expres­sion of what seems most ten­der, most true and most unsayable. 

How did you find your way to teach­ing?

By a some­what gnarled and twist­ed path and I’m so glad I got there! I was a reg­is­tered nurse by the age of 21 and worked for five years as a pedi­atric nurse. I usu­al­ly car­ried fin­ger pup­pets in my pock­ets and offered impromp­tu sto­ried pup­pet shows at children’s bed­sides. Then came a real­iza­tion that I much pre­ferred the sto­ry­telling and pup­pets to the nurs­ing! “The rest is his­to­ry,” from work­ing with mid­wives on the Nava­ho reser­va­tion, to jaunt­ing about as a pup­peteer and poet in the schools in rur­al Ida­ho, to earn­ing a Mas­ters Degree as a children’s librar­i­an. Under the tute­lage of mas­ter sto­ry­teller, Pro­fes­sor Spencer Shaw at the Uni­ver­si­ty of WA, I fell in love with the art and craft of tale-spin­ning. Fast for­ward to work­ing as a children’s librar­i­an for Seat­tle Pub­lic Library to my first for­mal teach­ing job in a pro­gres­sive teacher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram and onward to becom­ing a teach­ing artist and a uni­ver­si­ty lec­tur­er.

You’re nation­al­ly known as a sto­ry­teller. In 2008, the Nation­al Sto­ry­telling Net­work pre­sent­ed you with their Brim­stone Award for Applied Sto­ry­telling, with which you cre­at­ed a pilot pro­gram as a poet and sto­ry­teller at Bridges: A Cen­ter for Griev­ing Chil­dren in Taco­ma. Can you tell us about applied sto­ry­telling? What does that mean and how do your sto­ries work toward that spe­cif­ic appli­ca­tion?

These days, sto­ry­tellers show up in many places: deten­tion cen­ters, hos­pi­tals, war torn coun­tries at cen­ters for young peo­ple in trau­ma and drug rehab facil­i­ties for teens. These racon­teurs bring the age old plea­sure of lis­ten­ing to a tale well told. This allows young peo­ple (and all of us) to tem­porar­i­ly walk in some­one else’s shoes; it sparks the imag­i­na­tion to life. Through ancient pat­terns of myth and folk­tales sto­ries can allow a trust in pos­si­bil­i­ties to take hold. To apply sto­ry­telling in set­tings for young peo­ple and adults who have expe­ri­enced loss or trau­ma helps cre­ate safe space and gath­er­ing places where deep lis­ten­ing can occur. There are uni­ver­sal truths in sto­ries from all cul­tures. Many sto­ries reflect the inevitabil­i­ty of loss in human life and they speak to our inter­con­nect­ed­ness to each oth­er, to ani­mals, trees, the moon, the stars and to mys­ter­ies beyond us. In this way sto­ries can ease a sense of iso­la­tion and lone­li­ness. Find­ing the right sto­ry for a sit­u­a­tion, a group, or an indi­vid­ual is part of apply­ing sto­ry­telling to spe­cial set­tings and using sto­ries to help oth­ers trust that they can over­come obsta­cles and find their inner strength and courage.

What drew you toward work­ing with refugee and immi­grant chil­dren?

The short answer is that these young peo­ple are my teach­ers! Their deter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed in high school, con­tin­ue on to col­lege and con­tribute to this coun­try and/or to return to their home­land to help oth­ers inspires me and gives me hope. They dream of becom­ing doc­tors, nurs­es, peace-mak­ers, envi­ron­men­tal­ists, actors, pilots and they do not bemoan the dif­fi­cul­ties they have expe­ri­enced at such a young age. Loss of fam­i­ly mem­bers, life in refugee camps, forced migra­tions, lack of enough food, health care, edu­ca­tion and still they are mod­el cit­i­zens. They are young peo­ple who are hope­ful, curi­ous, and deeply kind who wish to help cre­ate a more peace­ful, humane world.

Stories of Our Arrival poets

The Sto­ries of Our Arrival poets. Edu­ca­tors Car­rie Stradley (front row, left) and Mer­na Hecht (front row, sec­ond from right) feel priv­i­leged to have worked with more than 240 stu­dents over the past six years from 30 coun­tries.

You’re an organ­ic gar­den­er with respect for food tra­di­tions. How did this inspire you for Project Feast and how did the idea of the cook­book, Our Table of Mem­o­ries, with poet­ry and illus­tra­tions come into being?

Our Table of MemoriesWhen I heard about Project Feast and found that it was locat­ed with­in a mile of the school my idea for a col­lab­o­ra­tion sprang in part from years of “hands on” inten­sive gar­den­ing and cook­ing and from a pas­sion for explor­ing dif­fer­ent ways peo­ple across the globe pre­pare and share food. This love of cross cul­tur­al food is some­thing Car­rie and I share. When she heard the idea for col­lab­o­rat­ing with Project Feast her eyes lit up with a “yes!” We both rec­og­nize that when peo­ple leave their home­lands, a deep sense of home remains with them, in part, with eat­ing and grow­ing the foods of their cul­tures. We felt that a food-themed project would gen­er­ate a rich out­pour­ing of poems. Giv­en that food and poet­ry both speak lan­guages of fla­vor, scent, spice, tex­ture, and col­or we want­ed to include illus­tra­tions that would reflect the sen­so­ry feel of the poems — to cre­ate a pre­sen­ta­tion much like a mem­o­rable meal which the eye feasts upon before the palette! We also want­ed to cel­e­brate our stu­dents and the refugee women of Project Feast by includ­ing beloved recipes from their mem­o­ries, their fam­i­lies and their home­lands.

 Can you share a par­tic­u­lar sto­ry from this Project that gave every­one hope?

One of Carrie’s ELL class­es had four­teen boys and only two girls. Hope cer­tain­ly flour­ish­es when a group of ado­les­cent boys, all refugees from dif­fer­ent coun­tries, cul­tures and eth­nic­i­ties, open­ly sup­port and applaud each oth­er for writ­ing poems that are vul­ner­a­ble and emo­tion­al­ly expres­sive. Hope flour­ish­es when they tell us that they’ve found their voic­es and a way to tell their sto­ries through poet­ry. At the project’s con­clu­sion those who wished to apply for a schol­ar­ship were asked to reflect on what they learned from poet­ry. Their replies filled us with hope and in truth, with tears, here are a few short excerpts:

Khai, from Bur­ma

I can speak the truth in the poem I wrote… Poems will make oth­er peo­ple under­stand us (immi­grants). As an immi­grant and a lot of oth­ers who are just like me, we have a vast­ly hard life… One of the ways that we can explain our painful past is only by a POEM, it is the only way to make a con­nec­tion with every­one; poems make us two in one. Poems are vast­ly cru­cial to all of us because poems are ALIVE! There is peace, love, friends, fam­i­ly, and much more in a poem. This is why poems are extreme­ly impor­tant to us (immi­grants) and to every­one who has a heart.

Abdi A.

Abdi A.

Abdi A., from Soma­lia

I was born in a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, and lived there most of my life. Writ­ing poems helped me remem­ber and appre­ci­ate what I have now and also helped non-immi­grants to have a bet­ter under­stand­ing of what is it real­ly like to be a young boy with a hope­less dream of becom­ing a doc­tor. I remem­ber a white man who worked with the IOM ask­ing me what my dream was and I told him I want­ed to be a doc­tor and laughed at myself because I thought it was ridicu­lous and ‘’too big’’ for some­one like me. But here I am today liv­ing a hap­py life and work­ing towards my dream… Poet­ry does­n’t just show us how much we share, it helps us see the world in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent way. When I heard Kang Pu’s poem about how his mom died and the strug­gle that his fam­i­ly had and how the gov­ern­ment didn’t even help, I under­stood him bet­ter… Poet­ry is uni­ver­sal. ELLs can learn about or read poet­ry in their pri­ma­ry lan­guage, help­ing them bridge their worlds… I plan on going to a four-year col­lege and I still have that dream of becom­ing a doc­tor, so I can go back home one day and help the sick and the needy.

Has there been an effort made to repli­cate this project in oth­er high schools around the coun­try?

This is a next step that project co-direc­tor and ELL teacher extra­or­di­naire, Car­rie and I have want­ed and intend to accom­plish. Along with the won­der­ful engage­ment and sage advice of John Fox, founder/director of the Insti­tute for Poet­ic Med­i­cine, (we are proud­ly an IPM Poet­ry Part­ner Project) we intend to take the next step and pub­lish a tem­plate of poet­ry prompts and activ­i­ties along with a col­lec­tion of resource mate­r­i­al for repli­cat­ing this poet­ry project.


The poems in this book are lus­cious but, to tempt you fur­ther, the recipes includes Doro wet: an Ethiopi­an Chick­en Stew (pgs. 120 – 121), Arroz con Leche, (pgs. 130 – 131), Zawng­tah: Burmese Tree Beans with Tilapia (pgs. 136 – 137), Orange Iraqi Teatime Cake (pgs. 154 – 155) and many more. Is  your mouth water­ing yet? Every­thing about this book is invit­ing … you will embrace it!

Pub­lish­er, Chatwin Books

Your Local Book­seller


Kang Pu

Kang Pu

Here’s a sam­ple of one of the heart-touch­ing poems in Our Table of Mem­o­ries:

Kang Pu, from Bur­ma

When my mom cooked it smelled of sweet win­ter­time cher­ries,
of a soli­tary for­est with rain falling
and it smelled like the mur­mur of a lone­ly bird, singing,
I pic­ture the spher­i­cal smoke ris­ing from her kitchen
it was like the sound of sleep at night,
it was like arriv­ing home safe and sound
the sounds of her kitchen were peace­ful. 

I still long for the laugh­ter of those fam­i­ly meals
we all wait­ed for that table, my mom’s table,
how she pre­pared every fam­i­ly meal,
this is what I still long for,
so often I remem­ber my moth­er
noth­ing can take her mem­o­ry away from me,
it is tru­ly dif­fi­cult that I have depart­ed
from my moth­er­land,
and from my mother’s kitchen.

The rea­son I wrote this poem is for mem­o­ries of my mom and her kitchen. It was dif­fi­cult for me to write this poem because I still long for my mother’s kitchen. Some­times it makes it hard for me to study. Yet, no mat­ter how far away from my par­ents, I am still hold­ing their lessons and still using what they taught me. With­out lessons from par­ents it’s hard to be in com­mu­ni­ty with oth­ers and hard to stand on your own.

Nathaly Rosas

Nathaly Rosas

And anoth­er sam­ple:

Nathaly Rosas, from Mex­i­co

I am from a place where
The food is an art and every bite
Is a spicy piece of our cul­ture.
Where the smells call you to enjoy
And the fla­vors take you to your mem­o­ries.

Read more poems like these on Mer­na Hecht’s web­site.


Sto­ries of Immi­gra­tion and Cul­ture” poet­ry pod­casts are avail­able here, host­ed by the Jack Straw Cul­tur­al Cen­ter.

Insti­tute for Poet­ic Med­i­cine, found­ed by John Fox, where Mer­na and Sto­ries of Arrival are Poet­ry Part­ners.

Jack Straw Cul­tur­al Cen­ter

Sto­ries of Arrival: Immi­grant Youth Voic­es Poet­ry Project


Fantasy Gems

Lord of the RingsThe Christ­mas present that stands out most in my mem­o­ry was giv­en to me when I was 16. We opened our presents on Christ­mas Eve. At that age, I expect­ed clothes and prac­ti­cal gifts. Some­how, my moth­er knew to give me the boxed set of The Lord of the Rings. I hadn’t read any fan­ta­sy before this. So I was curi­ous. I slipped into my bed­room around nine o’clock and began read­ing. I read until the Nazgul’s pur­suit of the Hob­bits became too intense. I put the book down, dreamed about the book all night, picked up The Fel­low­ship of the Ring the next morn­ing, and nev­er came up for air for the rest of the hol­i­day. I had to fin­ish those books.

The Lord of the Rings start­ed me on a life­long love of fan­ta­sy. My master’s the­sis was on fan­ta­sy lit­er­a­ture. I enjoyed read­ing Cabell, Lord Dun­sany, Peake, Le Guin, Moor­cock, McKil­lip, McKin­ley, Susan Coop­er, Wal­ton, Kurtz, Nes­bit … I devoured them.

But at a cer­tain point, fan­ta­sy lit­er­a­ture felt repet­i­tive to me, with stock char­ac­ters, and pre­dictable plots. I sel­dom read it any­more, which is a sad thing.

But last Sep­tem­ber I met the author of a series about Jinx. She talked about the book as though I should know it … and I was curi­ous. So I began Jinx, then had to find Jinxs Mag­ic the next day, and Jinxs Fire a cou­ple of days lat­er. These are good books with char­ac­ters I hadn’t encoun­tered before in a world of wiz­ards and magi­cians and a deep con­nec­tion to the forests. It’s fun­ny and mag­i­cal and fea­tures a lot of warm and cap­ti­vat­ing rela­tion­ships. The main char­ac­ter, Jinx, is com­plex and like­able. There’s a good bal­ance between dia­logue, descrip­tion, action, a fast pace, and time to breathe. The main char­ac­ter starts out at age 12 and grows to age 14 so this is the right book to place in the hands of read­ers ages 10 and up (through adult).

Jinx series

I was so enthralled by Jinx’s tale that I had to ask the author, Sage Black­wood, a few ques­tions:

Did you con­struct the Urwald, Sama­ra, and the sur­round­ing coun­tries before you began writ­ing the first book, Jinx? Or did you invent the geog­ra­phy as you went along?

The Urwald came first— years before the sto­ry, in fact. Sama­ra I think also came before the sto­ry; I remem­ber draw­ing pic­tures of it. The sur­round­ing coun­tries weren’t real­ly devel­oped till I need­ed them.

Did you know the end­ing of Jinx’s Fire (Book 3) when you began Jinx (Book 1)?

As regards the Bone­mas­ter, yes, but the auton­o­my of the trees was some­thing that devel­oped as I wrote. I grad­u­al­ly real­ized that if the Urwald was a liv­ing enti­ty, then like any oth­er char­ac­ter, it had to have agency and flaws… and a Last Straw.

This series is found­ed on the bal­ance between good and evil. Did you start writ­ing with this premise or did you dis­cov­er it dur­ing your writ­ing process?

I think I start­ed out not real­ly believ­ing in evil. At least not of the hand-rub­bing “Mwuha­ha! Cringe before me, mor­tals!” vari­ety. So I guess it devel­oped as I wrote: Each of the major char­ac­ters has at some point touched evil. Not just as a vic­tim, but as a per­pe­tra­tor or poten­tial per­pe­tra­tor.  And each char­ac­ter is changed by the expe­ri­ence. That’s what evil is— some­thing we all either face down, or embrace. For­tu­nate­ly rel­a­tive­ly few of us do the lat­ter.

And, of course, we can’t always tell it’s evil at the time. Evil can come dis­guised as an unfor­tu­nate neces­si­ty, or a great job offer.

What aspect of your sto­ry under­went the most change dur­ing the writ­ing of the three books?

Jinx him­self, I think. At first he was a polite, dif­fi­dent boy. Then it became clear that he was nev­er going to sur­vive being raised by Simon. Not with his pro­tag­o­nist­hood intact, any­way. So he had to tough­en up and devel­op a sar­don­ic edge, and I real­ly became much fonder of him when he did.

I love the ambi­gu­i­ty of your main char­ac­ters. They seem ful­ly human for this rea­son. Does this part of craft­ing a char­ac­ter come nat­u­ral­ly to you or is it an effort?

Thank you. It is an effort, but not one I would forego. It’s impor­tant that each major char­ac­ter could con­ceiv­ably be the pro­tag­o­nist, if the sto­ry were slewed around a bit. And this is how they see them­selves, of course. None of us are side­kicks in real life.

Jinx can’t exact­ly read minds but he can see auras that show how a per­son is real­ly feel­ing. This is one of the most excit­ing aspects of your books. How did this char­ac­ter qual­i­ty come to you?

It hap­pened while I was writ­ing the ear­ly scenes. Emo­tions kept com­ing up in a very visu­al way, and I real­ized that that was because I was writ­ing from Jinx’s point of view and that’s what he was actu­al­ly see­ing.

Do you have an affec­tion for trees?

Oh yes! I am a tree-hug­ger. I spent a lot of time walk­ing in the for­est while I was writ­ing Jinx, and this was where I real­ized that the trees talk to each oth­er — some­thing sci­ence was appar­ent­ly also dis­cov­er­ing at more or less the same moment. (Peo­ple keep send­ing me arti­cles about this.)

Your over-arch­ing vil­lain, The Bone­mas­ter, is so rep­re­hen­si­ble that it’s hard for me to have his pres­ence in the sto­ry. How do you fig­ure out the para­me­ters of an evil char­ac­ter?

Well, I had to remem­ber that as far as he was con­cerned, he was the hero of the sto­ry.  A good vil­lain should always think he’s the hero. It’s what vil­lains think in real life.

There­fore, a vil­lain needs val­ues. They can be hor­ri­ble ones, but he’s got to have them. He has to have a self-con­struct­ed ide­al he’s liv­ing up to. (This is where some Dark Lords fall short.)

How long does it take you to fin­ish writ­ing a book from first draft to the edi­tor receiv­ing your man­u­script?

About a year, if I’ve got my act togeth­er. Before that there’s a peri­od of draw­ing pic­tures, tak­ing notes, and hang­ing index cards on the wall.

Have you been a long-time fan­ta­sy read­er? If so, which are your favorite books or series?

Drowned AmmetLike you, I loved Lord of the Rings as a kid. Lat­er I grew dis­il­lu­sioned with the genre. Then I dis­cov­ered Diana Wynne Jones. She was such a fresh, new voice, see­ing the humor in the genre and the mag­ic at the same time. And the way she estab­lish­es a world on page one with­out ever laps­ing into mere descrip­tion… I could­n’t believe every­one was­n’t talk­ing about her!

It was 20 years before I final­ly met a Diana Wynne Jones fan I had­n’t cre­at­ed, as it were. Now it turns out she was a major influ­ence on many (most?) of us who are writ­ing mid­dle grade fan­ta­sy today. We just all found her one way or anoth­er.

Some of my favorites of hers are Drowned Ammet, Cart and Cwid­der, The Lives of Christo­pher Chant, and The Home­ward Bound­ers (which is prob­a­bly struc­tural­ly her best nov­el).

Beyond Jones, the Har­ry Pot­ter series is also won­der­ful. And I absolute­ly love Ter­ry Pratch­ett— per­haps as much for the lan­guage as any­thing else.

Thank you for tak­ing the time for this inter­view, Sage. Your series of Jinx books ranks right up there with my favorite fan­tasies of all time.

Thanks so much, Vic­ki; that’s won­der­ful to hear. And thank you for com­ing up with all these great ques­tions that were fun to answer!


Karen Cushman, the Girl in Men’s Underwear

Karen Cushman

Karen Cush­man

We wel­come the oppor­tu­ni­ty to talk with Karen Cush­man, New­bery Medal and Hon­or recip­i­ent for The Mid­wife’s Appren­tice and Cather­ine, Called Birdy, as well as his­tor­i­cal fic­tion set in the west­ern Unit­ed States. Her most recent nov­el is the fan­ta­sy Grayling’s Song. We look for­ward to talk­ing with Karen because her sense of humor is always in play, some­thing you’d expect from read­ing her books.

 Are you work­ing on a new man­u­script? (Care to offer a teas­er)?

I’m strug­gling my way through a book set in San Diego in 1941, short­ly before Pearl Har­bor. Here’s the begin­ning, or the begin­ning at the moment:

Jorge lift­ed the slimy crea­ture to his lips and bit it right between the eyes.

I shud­dered as I watched. “Doesn’t that taste mud­dy and dis­gust­ing?”

Nah,” he said, wip­ing mud from his mouth. “Is only salty. This way they don’t die but only sleep, stay fresh.” He threw the octo­pus into a buck­et and slipped through the mud flats to anoth­er hole in the muck. He filled a baster from a mud-spat­tered Clorox bot­tle and squirt­ed the bleach into a hole.

When the occu­pant slith­ered to the sur­face, Jorge pulled it out and bit it, too. “You want? Make good stew.”

I shook my head. I pre­ferred fish that came in cans and was mixed with mayo and chopped cel­ery.

 Elvis PresleyAre there par­tic­u­lar mem­o­ries of grow­ing up that, look­ing back, you see as lead­ing you toward a writ­ing career?

My first 17 or so years seemed to be lead­ing me to a writ­ing career. I wrote all the time: poems, short sto­ries, a 7‑page nov­el, an epic poem cycle based on the life of Elvis (see the last ques­tion below). A lot of what I wrote was involved with cre­at­ing a world I’d like to live in star­ring a per­son I’d like to be.

Are there three books you’d rec­om­mend for gift-giv­ing in the upcom­ing hol­i­days?

I asked my daugh­ter, who works at Pow­ell’s Book­store in Port­land and knows more about books than any­one. She rec­om­mend­ed three illus­trat­ed non­fic­tion titles. I plan to buy them for myself.

  • Atlas Obscu­ra (by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Mor­ton). A fas­ci­nat­ing tour guide to the strangest and most curi­ous places in the world: glow­worm caves in New Zealand, Turk­menistan’s 40-year hole of fire called the Gates of Hell, salt mines in Poland, a par­a­sitol­ogy muse­um, bone muse­ums in Italy.
  • David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work Now. Packed with infor­ma­tion on the inner work­ings of every­thing from wind­mills to Wi-Fi, this extra­or­di­nary book guides read­ers through the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of machines and shows how the devel­op­ments of the past are build­ing the world of tomor­row. 
  • In the Com­pa­ny of Women (by Grace Bon­ney). Pho­tos and descrip­tions of inspir­ing, cre­ative women across the world who forged their own paths and suc­ceed­ed. 

Three book recommendations by Karen Cushman

What did you study in col­lege?

I entered col­lege as an Eng­lish major but quick­ly became enam­ored of the Clas­sics depart­ment because it was much small­er and more inter­est­ing and they had sher­ry par­ties every Fri­day after­noon. My final major was dou­ble — Greek and Eng­lish.

Did you tak­ing writ­ing class­es?

My uni­ver­si­ty had a grad­u­ate cre­ative writ­ing major but there was only one course for under­grad­u­ates. I took it, hat­ed it, and nev­er went. Peo­ple sat around and crit­i­cized each other’s work. Not for me. The night before the quar­ter was over, I stayed up all night and wrote twelve short sto­ries. The pro­fes­sor com­ment­ed that I seemed to have learned a lot dur­ing the class even though I nev­er came to class. Go fig­ure. That was my first and last writ­ing class.

men's boxers What was your first job?

I worked in the men’s socks and shorts depart­ment of a Tar­get-like store, where I was known as the girl in men’s under­wear.

What’s your strongest mem­o­ry of the 1950s?

Elvis. No ques­tion. I also remem­ber look­ing at all the unhap­py house­wives on our sub­ur­ban street, sip­ping mar­ti­nis and mak­ing lunch­es, and feared I would end up like that.  

PS:  I didn’t.


Charles Ghigna, Champion of Poetry

Charles Ghigna

Charles Ghigna at Fox Tale Book Shoppe in Wood­stock, GA

Our thanks to author and poet Charles Ghigna (GEEN-yuh) for tak­ing time out from his writ­ing, school vis­its, and con­fer­ence tours to answer these ques­tions which have been knock-knock-knockin’ on my brain since I first began read­ing his many books of poet­ry and, now, a non­fic­tion book about fas­ci­nat­ing ani­mals!  

Do you remem­ber when you first read a poem and it caught your atten­tion?

Mend­ing Wall” by Robert Frost, Fresh­man Eng­lish class.

At what point in your life did you real­ize you want­ed to write poet­ry? For a liv­ing?

I wrote lit­tle rhyming poems and sto­ries in ele­men­tary school and start­ed keep­ing a dai­ly writ­ing jour­nal in high school. Some of my entries were writ­ten as poems. I con­tin­ued writ­ing and keep­ing jour­nals through my col­lege years. When I began teach­ing high school Eng­lish, I had less time to write and my jour­nal entries began appear­ing as short, poet­ic pieces. That was my deli­cious late night writ­ing time— after grad­ing my stu­dents’ papers. 😉 Lat­er, I sub­mit­ted a few of those ear­ly poems and some of them were pub­lished in Harper’s and oth­er mag­a­zines. A few years lat­er, after my son was born, I began writ­ing poems for chil­dren. It was then I began dream­ing of “writ­ing for a liv­ing.”

What kind of poems did you like when you were young?

As a child I liked poems by Robert Louis Steven­son, Wordsworth, Longfel­low, Kipling, and oth­ers.

How do you stay tuned in to the kinds of poems very young chil­dren like?

I’m on the road this month vis­it­ing schools while pro­mot­ing my new Ani­mal Plan­et book. It’s easy to stay tuned in to the kinds of poems the very young like by see­ing so many “chil­dren’s faces look­ing up hold­ing won­der like a cup.” 

Score!50 Poems to Motivate and InspireI admire your book Score! 50 Poems to Moti­vate and Inspire. With the empha­sis on growth mind­set in class­rooms, it occurred to me that each of these poems could be used as a black­board or white­board encour­age­ment, a dis­cus­sion starter. The illus­tra­tions are excel­lent exam­ples of graph­ic design — they add even more depth to each poem. As teach­ers work with stu­dents to build graph­ic design skills, this is a men­tor text on sev­er­al lev­els. (In spite of the cov­er, this is not a sports-cen­tric book.)

Vic­ki, thank you so much for ask­ing about my Score! book. That book is near and dear to my heart. It was a true labor of love. I always want­ed to write a book of short quotable poems for young peo­ple to use when they need­ed a lit­tle extra nudge to keep them going toward their dreams. I want­ed to cre­ate a book of poems to inspire and moti­vate. I was thrilled to have Abrams pub­lish that book and even more thrilled to watch it become a pop­u­lar resource for teach­ers, coach­es, and par­ents. I’m hap­py to report the book has been adopt­ed by school sys­tems to use in their char­ac­ter edu­ca­tion pro­grams with prin­ci­pals read­ing a poem a day from it dur­ing their morn­ing announce­ments.

Strange, Unusual, Gross & Cool AnimalsYour newest book, Ani­mal Plan­et Strange, Unusu­al, Gross & Cool Ani­mals, appeals to any kid who’s lived around ani­mals or yearns to wel­come ani­mals in their lives. Do you have ani­mals around you?

Yes, but all my ani­mal friends are free range. I have a hawk who lives in a near­by tree and cir­cles over my tree­house each day to say hel­lo, a mul­ti­tude of squir­rels and chip­munks I watch from my win­dow, and two jew­eled hum­ming­birds who come each day to drink from the feed­er. I would add the menagerie of mon­archs that have been danc­ing out­side my win­dow this sum­mer, but they have since flown far­ther south for the win­ter. My hum­ming­birds will no doubt soon join them on their way south.

This book is a depar­ture from your poet­ry — how did you come to work on this project?

Yes, this book was a “depar­ture” for me. I wrote a piece for the Bermu­da Onion about how the project came to be. The first para­graph explains how the project got start­ed. 

I had just fin­ished spend­ing near­ly a year writ­ing a six-book ani­mal series for tod­dlers when the phone rang. It was a Time Inc edi­tor in New York ask­ing if I might be inter­est­ed in writ­ing a 128-page book for Ani­mal Plan­et about strange, unusu­al, gross, and cool ani­mals for kids ages 8 – 12. Sure. And it’s due in nine months. Wait. What? Let me think about it. I’ve writ­ten more than 100 books, but I’ve nev­er writ­ten a big, non­fic­tion, research-based book. I do write a lot about ani­mals though. Most­ly in rhyme. Most­ly for tod­dlers. Sure. What the heck. I can do that. Wait. Did you say nine months?” (read the full essay by Charles here)

Have you always lived in Alaba­ma?

I’ve lived in Alaba­ma for more than 40 years now. I was at Flori­da State Uni­ver­si­ty serv­ing as poet­ry edi­tor of Eng­lish Jour­nal when I received a two-year grant from the Nation­al Coun­cil on the Arts & Human­i­ties to begin the first Poet-in-the-Schools pro­gram for the state of Alaba­ma. I fell in love with this beau­ti­ful state — and with my wife. Peo­ple say to me, “You’re a writer. You could live any­where in the world.” I always smile and say, “Yes, I know. That’s why I live in Alaba­ma.”

Who have your poet­ic men­tors been?

Too many men­tors to name, but my very first poet­ic men­tor was my moth­er. She was the most cre­ative, inspir­ing “kid” I ever knew. She made each day an adven­ture. She had mag­ic in her eyes and she chal­lenged me to dream big — and to fol­low those dreams. I also had a high school Eng­lish teacher who on Fri­days told us to close our books, look out the win­dow, and make up sto­ries and poems. 

Tickle DayHow did you get the name Father Goose?

Many years ago when I first start­ed vis­it­ing schools, stu­dents and teach­ers began call­ing me “Father Goose.” The name stuck. It was a lot eas­i­er to say than Mr. Ghigna — and a lot eas­i­er to spell. The Walt Dis­ney Com­pa­ny sug­gest­ed I use that moniker for one of my first books with them, Tick­le Day: Poems from Father Goose. They cre­at­ed the first image of Father Goose. Since then my oth­er pub­lish­ers and illus­tra­tors have con­tin­ued the tra­di­tion, often includ­ing a goose or two in my books. I’m called Father Goose now more often than my real name!


Candace Fleming Tames the Wild West

credit: Michael Lionstar

cred­it: Michael Lion­star

Our thanks to author Can­dace Flem­ing for sit­ting still long enough to answer in-depth ques­tions about her con­cep­tion for, research into, and writ­ing deci­sions for Pre­sent­ing Buf­fa­lo Bill: the Man Who Invent­ed the Wild West, our Book­storm™ this month. Flem­ing’s answers will inform edu­ca­tors, pro­vid­ing direct quotes from an oft-pub­lished biog­ra­ph­er of beloved books that will be use­ful for teach­ing writ­ing and research skills in the class­room. 

When did you first sus­pect that you’d like to write about William Cody?

Buffalo Bill Cody 1875

William “Buf­fa­lo Bill” Cody, ©1875

My first inkling occurred the morn­ing I opened my email to find a mes­sage from edi­tor Neal Porter. The sub­ject-head­ing read: “Yo, Can­dy, want to do a book?” Neal had just returned from a trip to Cody, Wyoming, where he’d bumped into Buf­fa­lo Bill. Neal was not only intrigued by Bill, but he also real­ized that it had been decades since an in-depth biog­ra­phy of the show­man had been writ­ten for young read­ers. But who should write it? He thought of me. Even though Neal and I had nev­er worked togeth­er before, we’d been mak­ing eyes at each oth­er for years. He hoped this project would final­ly bring us togeth­er. But I wasn’t so sure. Buf­fa­lo Bill Cody? In my mind, he was just anoth­er dusty fron­tiers­man. A myth. A trope. Still, I decid­ed to give him a shot (no pun intend­ed) and ordered up his auto­bi­og­ra­phy through inter-library loan. As I opened the book’s cov­er, I remem­ber giv­ing a lit­tle yawn. My expec­ta­tions were low. And then … I fell into his life sto­ry. What a self-aggran­diz­ing, exag­ger­at­ing, exas­per­at­ing, endear­ing, amus­ing, ques­tion-pro­vok­ing sto­ry­teller! The man who wrote that book mys­ti­fied me. Who was Buf­fa­lo Bill? Was he a hero or was he a char­la­tan? Was he an hon­est man or a liar? Was he a real fron­tiers­man or was he a show­man? I found myself sud­den­ly brim­ming with ques­tions. And I was eager to dis­cov­er the answers. ©

At what point did you know that you’d present his life in terms of truth and maybe-not-so-true?

Buffalo Bill Cody by José Maria Mora

Buf­fa­lo Bill Cody by José Maria Mora

I knew right away that I would have to address the ambi­gu­i­ties in Will’s sto­ry. In fact, it was one of the rea­sons I was drawn to the project. I love the gray areas in his­to­ry. I’m not just talk­ing about gaps in the his­tor­i­cal records. You know, those places where we don’t know for sure what hap­pened. I’m talk­ing about those places where we don’t know what to make of the his­tor­i­cal truth. For exam­ple, Ben­jamin Franklin owned slaves. How do we fit that with with our image of the jovial, wit­ty inven­tor and states­man? What are we to make of that? Or, take Amelia Earhart. Many of the most often-repeat­ed sto­ries about her aren’t true. Amelia made them up out of whole cloth. She lied. How does that jibe with our image of the dar­ing, but doomed avi­a­tor? What are we to make of that?

Too often, espe­cial­ly in non­fic­tion for young read­ers, we avoid the gray areas. We don’t include these truths because we’re wor­ried what kids will make of them. But I believe these areas are espe­cial­ly impor­tant for young read­ers … and most espe­cial­ly for mid­dle school and teen read­ers. These are read­ers who are strug­gling to dis­cov­er who they are and what they can be; they’re strug­gling to fig­ure out their place in the world.

What’s right?

What’s fair?

What’s moral?

The last thing they need is anoth­er san­i­tized, pedestal-inhab­it­ing, nev­er-do-wrong per­son from his­to­ry.

Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West ShowAnd so I decid­ed to include both Will’s ver­sions of events, as well as accounts that con­flict with his. I inten­tion­al­ly incor­po­rat­ed oppos­ing view­points from both his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and mod­ern-day his­to­ri­ans. And I pur­pose­ly refrained from draw­ing any con­clu­sions from the his­tor­i­cal evi­dence. Instead, I chose to just lay it before my read­ers. Why? Because I want them to wres­tle with the ambi­gu­i­ties. I want them to come to their own con­clu­sions. I want them to see that sto­ries — espe­cial­ly true sto­ries from his­to­ry — are not black and white. They’re gray.

Who was right?

Who was wrong?

I don’t think it’s my job to tell them. I’m not sure I could tell them.

Rather, I choose to tell all sides of the Wild West sto­ry — Will’s side, the Native per­form­ers’ side — with what I hope was equal clar­i­ty and com­pas­sion. What choic­es do each make under pres­sure? Why? No one is all good. No one is all bad.

You see, it’s in the gray area between those oppos­ing val­ues that I hope read­ers will ask them­selves: What would I do in this sit­u­a­tion?

By includ­ing history’s ambi­gu­i­ties, I am “kick­ing it to the read­er,” as my friend Tonya Bold­en likes to say.

And this, I believe, is the pur­pose of non­fic­tion in the 21st cen­tu­ry — to encour­age thought, not sim­ply to pro­vide facts for reports.

When you begin your research, how do you lay out a strat­e­gy for that research?

I con­fess I nev­er have much of a strat­e­gy plan when I begin research­ing. Instead, the process is pret­ty organ­ic. I start with archival sources. What’s already been writ­ten and col­lect­ed? I focus on pri­ma­ry sources: let­ters, diaries, mem­oirs, inter­views. This is where defin­ing, inti­mate details are found. As I read, I keep an open mind. I’m curi­ous and nosy and I ask lots of ques­tions. I actu­al­ly write those ques­tions down on yel­low ledger pads. And let me tell you, I end up with lots of ques­tions. I won’t find the answers to all of them. I may not even try to find the answers to all of them. But in this way, I remind myself that I’m explor­ing, mak­ing dis­cov­er­ies. In truth, I have no spe­cif­ic idea of what I’m look­ing for or what I’ll find. I let the research lead me. And, slow­ly, I begin to under­stand what it is I want to say with this par­tic­u­lar piece of his­to­ry.

In those ini­tial stages, do you use the library? The inter­net? Oth­er sources?

In the first throes of research, I’ll use the Inter­net to dis­cov­er the col­lec­tions and archives that hold my subject’s papers. I’ll search for auto­bi­ogra­phies and oth­er first­hand accounts of the person’s life. I’ll note the names of schol­ars or his­to­ri­ans whose names pop up in asso­ci­a­tion with my sub­ject. That’s the very first step.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Did you vis­it the McCrack­en Research Library or the Buf­fa­lo Bill Cen­ter of the West?

The McCrack­en Research Library is part of the Buf­fa­lo Bill Cen­ter of the West. In fact, the library is just down the stairs from their muse­um. Yes, I vis­it­ed both. And I spent a week in the library, culling through years of scrap­books kept by Will, and Annie Oak­ley and oth­ers, read­ing mem­oirs and let­ters and diaries.

Would you rec­om­mend that your read­ers vis­it those loca­tions?

I would def­i­nite­ly rec­om­mend the muse­um to my read­ers. So much of the detri­tus of Will’s life is on dis­play: his buf­fa­lo skin coat, his favorite rifle that he named Lucre­tia Bor­gia, the famous stage­coach from the Wild West. They even have his child­hood home moved in its entire­ty from Iowa to Cody! The place real­ly brings Will and his times alive.

Buffalo Bill's personal saddle

Buf­fa­lo Bil­l’s per­son­al sad­dle

What do you find to be most help­ful about vis­it­ing a muse­um where arti­facts are on dis­play?

Those arti­facts — left­overs of a person’s life, if you will — are so human. Some­times we for­get that a per­son from his­to­ry was real flesh and blood. But then we’ll see that person’s well-worn car­pet slip­pers, or read a love let­ter he wrote to his wife, and we’re remind­ed of that person’s human­i­ty. Despite his place in his­to­ry, he still suf­fered from both love and sore feet, just like all of us do.

How do you go about find­ing an expert to con­sult with about your book?

 Dur­ing research, cer­tain names start­ing appear­ing again and again. I will not only note these names, I’ll do a quick Google to check on qual­i­fi­ca­tions, as well as how up-to-date their schol­ar­ship is. For exam­ple, a name that’s cit­ed again and again in Cody research is Don Rus­sell. But Rus­sell wrote his sem­i­nal work almost forty years ago. Cer­tain­ly, his work is valu­able, but it’s no longer the most recent schol­ar­ship. Young read­ers deserve the lat­est dis­cov­er­ies and newest inter­pre­ta­tions. His­to­ry is, after all, an ongo­ing process, one in which new facts are dis­cov­ered, and old facts are recon­sid­ered. So I turned to Dr. Louis S. War­ren, a high­ly respect­ed schol­ar of the West­ern US his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis, as well as author of the crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed Buf­fa­lo Bill’s Amer­i­ca. He very gen­er­ous­ly offered to read the man­u­script, mak­ing sev­er­al sug­ges­tions for changes, as well as point­ing me in the direc­tion of the lat­est Cody schol­ar­ship. He also sug­gest­ed I con­tact Dr. Jef­fery Means, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Native Amer­i­can His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wyoming and an enrolled Mem­ber of the Oglala Sioux Tribe for his unique per­spec­tive on my book, par­tic­u­lar­ly in regards to Great Plains Indi­an cul­ture.

Do you research the pho­tos you’ll include in the book at the same time as you research the his­tor­i­cal and bio­graph­i­cal ele­ments? Or is that a sep­a­rate process at a sep­a­rate time?

I do my own pho­to research. While research­ing, I keep an eye open for things that might make for inter­est­ing visu­als. I keep a list, and in most cas­es, a copy of those images. But I nev­er know what I’m going to use until I start writ­ing. The text real­ly does deter­mine what pho­tographs end up in the book. Because of this, I always end up search­ing for pho­tos late in the project.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West show poster

How did you write the dra­mat­ic scenes from the Wild West Show? They’re filled with ten­sion, vivid descrip­tions, and a movie-like qual­i­ty. Were these actu­al scenes in the Show? And were you present to see them per­formed? It sure seems like it.

Presenting Buffalo BillIt was impor­tant to open each chap­ter of the book with a scene from the Wild West. Not only was I try­ing to show the par­al­lels between Will’s per­son­al expe­ri­ences and the acts that even­tu­al­ly sprang from them, but also I want­ed read­ers to have a clear under­stand­ing of what the show entailed. The best way to do this, I decid­ed, was to write those scenes in a way that would make read­ers feel as if they were actu­al­ly sit­ting in the stands. I want­ed them to feel the ten­sion, the excite­ment, the dra­ma of the per­for­mance. I want­ed them to expe­ri­ence (at least in a small way) the awe that show goers felt when they watched those re-enact­ments of buf­fa­lo hunts and Pony Express rid­ers. After all, this is vital to the book’s theme — that the Wild West cre­at­ed our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of the Amer­i­can West; that we still tend to think in tropes, and those tropes come direct­ly from Buf­fa­lo Bill Cody. So, I wrote those scenes in great detail, almost in slow motion. Not a sin­gle descrip­tion is made up. Every­thing comes from the his­tor­i­cal record, includ­ing thoughts and com­ments from the peo­ple in the bleach­ers. I mere­ly used present tense to make the action feel more imme­di­ate. But the action real­ly and tru­ly hap­pened just as I’ve pre­sent­ed it.


One North Star, Three Creative Artists

One North Star

Bet­sy Bowen’s book, Antler Bear Canoe: a North­woods Alpha­bet, has been a favorite alpha­bet book for the last 25 years, remind­ing every read­er about the things they love in their unique envi­ron­ment.

Now, a count­ing book will sit allur­ing­ly on the book­shelf next to that title. One North Star: a Count­ing Book (Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press) has been writ­ten by Phyl­lis Root, and illus­trat­ed with wood­cuts by Bet­sy Bowen and Beck­ie Prange. We’re so tak­en with the book that we asked to inter­view the inspir­ing team who cre­at­ed it.

Phyllis RootPHYLLIS ROOT, writer

Which came first, the idea for the illus­tra­tions or the idea for the text? They’re both filled with so much won­der and imag­i­na­tion.

The text came first.  The book began when an edi­tor at Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press was inter­est­ed in a count­ing book, and we decid­ed on one about the flo­ra and fau­na and habi­tats in Min­neso­ta.  Ever since I moved to Min­neso­ta years ago I’ve been fas­ci­nat­ed with the vari­ety of places, plants, and ani­mals in the state along with all the still-wild places, so the book was great fun (and, as it turned out, a great chal­lenge). When in my research I learned that the Min­neso­ta mot­to is l’Etoile du nord, the star of the north, the struc­ture of the book took shape.

This is a cumu­la­tive tale in that we count num­bers, begin­ning at one, “one north star,” and add oth­er north woods crea­tures or geol­o­gy or flo­ra until we’re count­ing back­wards from ten. Unlike many cumu­la­tive tales (think A Par­tridge in a Pear Tree), the words aren’t repeat­ed each time, except for “under one north star.” How were you able to include such a vari­ety?

Lots and lots and lots of research and lots and lots and lots of writ­ing and rewrit­ing. One of the chal­lenges was fig­ur­ing out what lived where at what time of year and what num­ber you might see. You prob­a­bly wouldn’t see ten moose togeth­er, for exam­ple, and even if you did, I couldn’t imag­ine them all squeez­ing them into a pic­ture along with nine of some­thing, eight of some­thing, etc.

Bog, One North Star

How did you go about orga­niz­ing this book? Choos­ing which flo­ra and fau­na you would include?

First was the research. I learned so much read­ing about all the habi­tats and what you might see there and vis­it­ing places to see for myself. (I’d nev­er been to the bog, for exam­ple, and fell in love with the Big Bog when I did vis­it — enough to write a book just about the bog.) Once I had an abun­dance of infor­ma­tion, I began fit­ting the plants and ani­mals into num­bers and also into sea­sons so that the book fol­lowed through the year. So it made sense that in win­ter you’d have few­er plants and ani­mals avail­able, while lat­er in sum­mer you’d have many dif­fer­ent ones to choose from. Also, I tried to include fish, amphib­ians, rep­tiles, birds, and mam­mals along with flow­ers, trees, and fun­gi. I want­ed the book to be as inclu­sive as pos­si­ble. The whole book became a puz­zle to fig­ure out. And when I had a draft I checked with a nat­u­ral­ist friend and found out just how much I had got­ten wrong (a lot) and had to reor­ga­nize again — and again.

How did you work on your active verbs and your adjec­tives to get them to be so evoca­tive of the sights, sounds, and smells of the North Woods?

I decid­ed that, just to make the book a lit­tle more chal­leng­ing (what was I think­ing?) that I would try to nev­er use a verb more than once, and I want­ed each verb to be as strong and evoca­tive as pos­si­ble, to work as hard as it could so that the book would be fun to read as well.

When you were doing your research, did you dis­cov­er that any of the ani­mals or plants would not be grouped in the num­bers you wrote?

Plen­ty of times. More times than I can count.

Were there any descrip­tions that the illus­tra­tors asked you to change because they would be too hard to depict?

There were descrip­tions I was asked to change because they were incor­rect, for which I’m very grate­ful. I learned a lot about phe­nol­o­gy from Beck­ie, what you might see at the same time in the same place, and I learned even more from my nat­u­ral­ist friends. I’m awestruck and delight­ed at how the artists solved the prob­lem of fit­ting so many images on the lat­er pages of the book. I count­ed up rough­ly 220 images depict­ing 55 dif­fer­ent species in the book itself. The art­work and the artists are beyond amaz­ing.

You have exten­sive back mat­ter, divid­ed by the type of ecosys­tem, such as Aspen Prairie Park­land and Bog, with descrip­tions of each liv­ing crea­ture or plant you’ve includ­ed in the text of One North Star. Did you have a set of cri­te­ria so you could be  suc­cinct with those short para­graphs?

Just try­ing to write spar­e­ly, some­thing pic­ture book writ­ers are always strug­gling to do. I also tried to focus on what was the essen­tial or most inter­est­ing fea­ture about a place or a species, such as north­ern prairie skinks being able to break off their tails to escape cap­ture.

What do you find most sat­is­fy­ing about adding One North Star to your deep list of books?

I love how beau­ti­ful the artists have made the book, and I’m very glad to have a book that cel­e­brates Minnesota’s rich nat­ur­al diver­si­ty. I hope the book will make folks want to go out and see these places for them­selves.

Beckie PrangeBECKIE PRANGE, illus­tra­tor and wood­cut artist

How were you asked to work on One North Star? Why did you agree?

I was approached by a for­mer UMN Press edi­tor and was excit­ed about Phyl­lis’ con­cept for One North Star, and its scope.

When you work on a book like this, how much plan­ning goes into the illus­tra­tions before you begin to make your wood­cuts?

The amount of plan­ning and research is mas­sive. The for­mer edi­tor want­ed the illus­tra­tions to be real­is­tic scenes, which meant find­ing a way to fit all of the species into an image of what you could pos­si­bly see from a par­tic­u­lar view­point in nature.

For this book, there were two of you con­tribut­ing wood­cut illus­tra­tions. I know that you have been teacher and stu­dent in the past. Did that help when you worked on this book togeth­er?

Due to the quirks and tim­ing of life events I was unable to fin­ish the illus­tra­tion work on One North Star. There was a gap in the progress on the book after I had com­plet­ed most of the work on the draft illus­tra­tions. By the time we could get start­ed again, I had a full time posi­tion in a field I’m excit­ed about and found that I was unable to con­tin­ue as illus­tra­tor. I’m very thank­ful that Bet­sy was able to pick up so skill­ful­ly where I left off.

How did you work togeth­er to make the illus­tra­tions a cohe­sive whole?

All I can say here is that Bet­sy is total­ly awe­some, and did a beau­ti­ful job with the final illus­tra­tions with­out any help from me.

Was it chal­leng­ing to com­pose the chock-full, two-page spreads that includ­ed many crit­ters? How did you make deci­sions about where to place every­thing in the illus­tra­tion?

Cre­at­ing sin­gle scenes from one view­point which includ­ed all of the organ­isms Phyl­lis wrote about, while being faith­ful to those organ­isms’ habits and habi­tats was incred­i­bly chal­leng­ing. It was espe­cial­ly tough with the high­er num­bers, but there were chal­lenges with low­er num­bers too. For exam­ple, how do you put a noc­tur­nal crea­ture and a diur­nal crea­ture in the same scene and have it look at least mar­gin­al­ly believ­able? Lit­tle brown bats and rough-legged hawks just don’t hang out in the same space and time. I just had to play with it, and let it go until some­thing came to me.

Have you worked on projects before with this many dif­fer­ent objects includ­ed?

No! Nowhere close.

Number Three, One North Star

Which two-page spread in the book gives you the most sat­is­fac­tion?

I love all of them, but the one that makes me hap­pi­est right now is num­ber three, with the black bears, grouse and lynx. When I was draw­ing that one, I strug­gled with it. I could not get it to feel right. The per­spec­tive was both­er­ing me. I nev­er did solve it to my sat­is­fac­tion. Bet­sy trans­lat­ed what is basi­cal­ly the same lay­out into an image that real­ly works. It looks per­fect.

A big thanks to all three of you for shar­ing the way you worked on this book that all who are fond of the north woods will cher­ish.

Betsy BowenBETSY BOWEN, illus­tra­tor and wood­cut artist

How were you asked to work on One North Star? Why did you agree?

This is my third book with Phyl­lis, and I real­ly enjoy her lyri­cal and infor­ma­tive lan­guage.  I also like work­ing with Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press.

When you work on a book like this, how much plan­ning goes into the illus­tra­tions before you begin to make your wood­cuts?

In this case, Beck­ie had made the lay­outs in pen­cil and water­col­or for the num­ber pages.  I joined the project lat­er on, and so I used her designs. I added ideas for the parts before and after the num­ber sec­tion. And then I made the final ver­sion of the art.  Plan­ning and sketch­ing is a big part of the work (and the fun!).

Was it chal­leng­ing to com­pose the chock-full, two-page spreads that includ­ed many crit­ters? How did you make deci­sions about where to place every­thing in the illus­tra­tion?

This was Beckie’s doing, I think it must have been tricky.

Illus­tra­tors often use pho­tographs to plan their com­po­si­tion or get the details right. Is it the same when you’re carv­ing wood?

I like to look at pho­tos to help inform the draw­ing, and study the way ani­mals and plants real­ly look.  That is if I can’t get the moose to stand still long enough …

Betsy Bowen woodcut for One North Star coverHow long does it take to cre­ate a wood­cut for one two-page spread?

The carv­ing took me a few days for each spread.

Do you make mis­takes? Do you have to start over with a fresh block of wood?

Most mis­takes I can fix with either Elmer’s Glue® or a Band-aid®. Rarely I do start over with a new carv­ing. I try to shake out the ques­tions in the drawing/design phase before start­ing the longer process of carv­ing and print­ing. It’s not very easy to just move some­thing over  ”just a lit­tle” once the whole pic­ture is made.

Have you worked on projects before with this many dif­fer­ent objects includ­ed?

These were detailed pages! I think all more intri­cate than I have done before.

Number Seven, One North Star

Which two-page spread in the book gives you the most sat­is­fac­tion?

The Sev­en page, view­ing from under­wa­ter, was tricky for me.  I would try to see how the light came through water while I was swim­ming at the local pool.  I real­ly liked the result more than I expect­ed.


Anita Silvey

Let Your Voice Be HeardWe are so pleased to have author and edu­ca­tor Ani­ta Sil­vey talk with us about her book Let Your Voice Be Heard: The Life and Times of Pete Seeger, our Book­storm this month.

Do you remem­ber when you were first aware of Pete Seeger as a child or teenag­er?

In my sopho­more year in col­lege, I came down with mono and had to be sequestered from oth­er stu­dents. So I taught myself gui­tar as a way to pass the long con­va­les­cent hours. That was the semes­ter I fell in love with Pete Seeger.

What made you want to write a book about Pete Seeger?

I had inter­viewed Pete for Every­thing I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book. I was talk­ing to Dinah Steven­son of Clar­i­on about that inter­view, and she men­tioned that she had tried, unsuc­cess­ful­ly, to get one of her writ­ers inter­est­ed in a book on the Weavers. I myself didn’t see the Weavers as the sub­ject of a book but men­tioned that a biog­ra­phy of Pete, with a chap­ter on the Weavers, would be an excit­ing project. That con­ver­sa­tion began an eight-year pub­lish­ing process.

You begin the book with the Peek­skill con­cert which turned out to be life-threat­en­ing. Why did you choose to begin there?

Pete always talked about the Peek­skill con­cert and the ride home as among the most fright­en­ing moments of his life. That inci­dent show­cas­es one of the themes of the book. No mat­ter what hap­pened to him, Pete Seeger did not allow any­thing to keep him from singing.

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, 2011, Cre­ative Com­mons

Were there any “truths” you thought were true but your research proved were oth­er­wise?

There were so many things I didn’t know: for 10 years he was harassed dur­ing the McCarthy era; he had dif­fi­cul­ties appear­ing on tele­vi­sion, even after he was cleared. The extent of his activ­i­ties — for unions, civ­il rights, peace, the envi­ron­ment — amazed me. I could have writ­ten 10,000 words about any year in Pete’s life.

Did you find a lot of fac­tu­al mate­r­i­al that you had to check in sev­er­al sources before you includ­ed it in the book?

You have just described the process of writ­ing nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion — lots of sources, both pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary, lots of bal­anc­ing opin­ions. Basi­cal­ly I had to do that for every sen­tence that I wrote.

How do you plan an inter­view with the sub­ject of a biog­ra­phy?

With Pete it was easy. I would have a cou­ple of ques­tions that I need­ed clar­i­fy­ing. He would do all the rest. Two hours lat­er I’d be off the phone with infor­ma­tion I didn’t even know I need­ed.

When you inter­viewed Pete Seeger, what sur­prised you the most in his respons­es?

His gen­eros­i­ty of time. And he sang to me.

Pete Seeger's banjo

Pete Seeger’s ban­jo, Cre­ative Com­mons

What proved to be the hard­est infor­ma­tion for you to find about Pete Seeger?

Toshi Seeger and Pete clear­ly tried to keep fam­i­ly infor­ma­tion out of the press. In the end I hon­ored that desire and kept details about the fam­i­ly to a min­i­mum.

In your After­word, you write, “Biog­ra­phers have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to exam­ine the facts, remain as unbi­ased as pos­si­ble, and tell the truth about their sub­jects.” You fol­low this up by shar­ing that “When I read the files that the FBI had gath­ered about Pete Seeger, and I stud­ied the com­plete tes­ti­mo­ny of Pete Seeger’s appear­ance before the House Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties Com­mit­tee, I became angry and dis­turbed.” In con­clu­sion, you stat­ed, “I offer up his sto­ry in the hope that as a nation we nev­er again turn on our own cit­i­zens and do them the same kind of injus­tice.”

After writ­ing this book, do you feel that tak­ing a stance in a non­fic­tion book is accept­able for an author?

I think writ­ers for chil­dren need to admit to a bias if they have one. I didn’t make this type of state­ment in Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall. For that book, I remained much more impar­tial through­out the process. Alert­ing chil­dren to the bias of a writer helps them inter­pret non­fic­tion and can send them to oth­er sources. Some­times when asked by an adult friend about some­thing, I remind them that I am not impar­tial on this top­ic. I believe chil­dren deserve the same respect.


Melissa Stewart

Melissa StewartWe are so pleased to have author and sci­ence speak­er Melis­sa Stew­art take time away from her very busy book-writ­ing sched­ule to share her answers to burn­ing ques­tions we had after read­ing No Mon­keys, No Choco­late, our Book­storm this month.

Melis­sa, when do book ideas usu­al­ly come knock­ing on your brain?

Melissa's NotebookIdeas can come any­time, any­where — so I always have to be ready. I car­ry a small note­book with me every­where I go. The idea for No Mon­keys, No Choco­late start­ed per­co­lat­ing in my mind when I saw cocoa trees grow­ing in the rain for­est dur­ing a trip to Cos­ta Rica.

As ecosys­tems go, how do you iso­late one and stick to writ­ing about it?

To me, No Mon­keys, No Choco­late isn’t real­ly about the rain for­est ecosys­tem, it’s about a tree and all the crea­tures it depends on to grow. This is all hap­pen­ing with­in a rain for­est, of course, but my goal was to keep a laser-sharp focus on the tree itself.

Cocoa tree

You revised this man­u­script 56 times, which you share so thought­ful­ly in class­room-usable detail on your Revi­sion Time­line. Is this typ­i­cal for all of your writ­ing?

For most of my books, I revise a half dozen times, but con­cept pic­ture books like No Mon­keys, No Choco­late often take quite a bit more work. It can take time and a whole lot of tri­al and error to find the very best way to present the infor­ma­tion to young read­ers.

No Monkeys, No Chocolate bookwormsWhose idea was it to include the car­toon com­men­ta­tors on each spread? Do you remem­ber why you decid­ed to include them?

The book­worms were my idea. They have two func­tions — to add humor (which kids love) and to rein­force some of the chal­leng­ing sci­ence ideas pre­sent­ed in the in the book’s main text.

What’s the most vital take­away you hope to inspire with No Mon­keys, No Choco­late?

I hope it will help chil­dren (and adults) under­stand that every liv­ing thing on Earth is inter­con­nect­ed, and if we want to keep enjoy­ing our favorite things (like choco­late), we need to pro­tect and pre­serve the nat­ur­al world and its amaz­ing cast of crea­tures.

Allen YoungYou worked with a co-author on this book. What role did Allen Young play and how did you work togeth­er?

For this book, I need­ed to know all the dif­fer­ent crea­tures that cocoa trees depend on to live and grow and make more cocoa trees. I read every sci­en­tif­ic paper that had ever been writ­ten about cocoa trees, but they didn’t have the infor­ma­tion I need­ed. Since it wasn’t pos­si­ble for me to spend months observ­ing cocoa trees in the rain for­est, I need­ed to find some­one who had.

That’s where Allen Young came in. He’s the world’s lead­ing expert in cocoa tree growth and he stud­ied cocoa trees in the Cos­ta Rican rain for­est for more than 30 years.  I asked Allen if he’d share his knowl­edge with me, and he said, “Yes,” as long as he could be the co-author of the book.

So I asked him a bunch of ques­tions to get the infor­ma­tion I need­ed, and then I start­ed to write. Lat­er, Allen read the man­u­script to make sure that every­thing was accu­rate.

What are the sec­ond and third most fas­ci­nat­ing ecosys­tems for you?

Oh boy, every ecosys­tem is fas­ci­nat­ing to me. One ecosys­tem that I’m dying to vis­it is the Amer­i­can South­west­ern desert. I’m hop­ing to trav­el to Ari­zona some­time in the next year.

How do you make sure that the lan­guage and con­cepts in the book fit the intend­ed audi­ence?

Cur­ricu­lum stan­dards, such as the Next Gen­er­a­tion Sci­ence Stan­dards, spec­i­fy what top­ics and con­cepts stu­dents at var­i­ous grade lev­els are study­ing in school, so that helps me decide whether an idea I have will work best as a pic­ture book or an ear­ly read­er or as long-form non­fic­tion for old­er read­ers.  Once I know who my audi­ence is, I can adjust the voice, point of view, hook, and text com­plex­i­ty to make the writ­ing inter­est­ing and age-appro­pri­ate.

Melissa Stewart working with a student during a school visitWhen you’re at a school talk­ing about ecosys­tems, what kind of hands-on activ­i­ties do you do with this book?

Because teach­ers want to pro­vide stu­dents with real-life exam­ples of how revi­sion can improve writ­ing, my school vis­it for No Mon­keys, No Choco­late focus­es on my 10-year process of cre­at­ing the book. I explain why it took so darn long to write the book and why I didn’t just give up. My hope is that hear­ing my sto­ry of my strug­gle and ulti­mate suc­cess will encour­age stu­dents to devel­op sta­mi­na as writ­ers.

What has cap­tured your atten­tion cur­rent­ly in the sci­ence realm?

Oh, wow, there is always some­thing new and excit­ing. That’s why I love sci­ence. I think it’s real­ly inter­est­ing to see all the amaz­ing inno­va­tions in robot research. And I’m also close­ly fol­low­ing sto­ries about new dis­cov­er­ies in space. I’m espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in know­ing if there real­ly is anoth­er plan­et out there on the lone­ly out­er fringes of our solar sys­tem. More and more, it’s look­ing like the answer is “Yes!”


Roxane Orgill

I’d like to know a thou­sand things about this book because you’ve opened so many doors for my imag­i­na­tion. I’ll restrict myself to only a few of those ques­tions, pri­mar­i­ly to help stu­dents who are drawn in by all the sto­ries with­in this pho­to­graph and the poems you’ve writ­ten about it.

Roxane OrgillYou have been a jour­nal­ist and a music crit­ic. You’re a pic­ture book writer, a biog­ra­ph­er, a non­fic­tion writer. This is your first book writ­ten in poet­ry. How did you learn about poet­ic form so that you had con­fi­dence to write this book?

I wrote a cou­ple of sort-of poems and thought they might work as a way to tell the sto­ry of the pho­to­graph “Harlem 1958.” Then I start­ed read­ing poet­ry, and I attend­ed a poet­ry retreat. Most­ly I just kept writ­ing.

Jazz DayHow long did it take you to write Jazz Day? Is that more or less time than it nor­mal­ly takes you to write a pic­ture book biog­ra­phy?

I’m not sure, maybe a year and a half. Less time than my pic­ture book bios, but that’s not count­ing the time I spent try­ing oth­er forms in which to tell the sto­ry. That’s always the hard part for me, fig­ur­ing out what the sto­ry is and how I want to tell it. That peri­od can last many months.

How did you find the right place to ask per­mis­sion to use Harlem 1958 in your book?

I went through the Art Kane estate.

You wrote “This Moment” in the form of a pan­toum. That form uses four-line stan­zas. The sec­ond and fourth line from one stan­za become the first and third line of the fol­low­ing stan­za. How long did it take you to get this poem just right?

Not long. It’s like a puz­zle. But I wrote that poem near the end, when I was already famil­iar with the sto­ry and the peo­ple in the pho­to.

Do you recall when you first learned about the pan­toum form?

At the poet­ry retreat, from the teacher, a poet named Lesléa New­man.

Did you end up being hap­py you’d cho­sen to write the book in poet­ry or decid­ing this is the last time you’ll do this?

Absolute­ly, yes. Poems turned out to be the per­fect way to write about this pho­to­graph, jazz, a Harlem street, the 1950s — the whole thing.


Scuf­fle: The Boys,” from Jazz Day by Rox­ane Orgill, copy­right Fran­cis Valle­jo

How do you decide the sub­ject of your next book?

I fol­low my nose, I guess. What inter­ests me. It doesn’t always work; I have a few books which I spent a lot of time research­ing and writ­ing, and in the end, they didn’t work. My next book is not about music or the arts, and I had to muster the courage to tack­le some­thing com­plete­ly unfa­mil­iar.

 Were you drawn to this book because of your love for jazz or pho­tog­ra­phy or the 1950s? What pulled you into the project?

Jazz pulled me in, but I’d known about this par­tic­u­lar pho­to ever since I began learn­ing about jazz.

What dif­fer­ence did it make to the book that you were able to inter­view a pri­ma­ry source, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er Art Kane’s son, Jonathan Kane?

A big dif­fer­ence because there are lots of ver­sions out there of what hap­pened that day, whose idea it was to take the pho­to, etc. I basi­cal­ly used Jonathan Kane’s ver­sion of events.

You had no idea how your poems would be illus­trat­ed, how they would make that leap from sep­a­rate poems and illus­tra­tions to inte­grat­ed dou­ble-page spreads that work togeth­er to help us under­stand a time, a place, a feel­ing, a group of peo­ple. Did you find your­self alter­ing your poet­ry to allow room for the illus­tra­tor to make his own con­tri­bu­tions to the book?

No, not at all. The way it works is that I com­plete the man­u­script, revise it togeth­er with my edi­tor, and then the fin­ished text is sent to an illus­tra­tor who has been cho­sen by the art edi­tor. I may have changed a word or two to suit an illus­tra­tion or lay­out, but that’s all. I was sent sketch­es and invit­ed to com­ment, which I did, but for the most part, Fran­cis and I worked inde­pen­dent­ly. We didn’t even meet until after the book was pub­lished. That’s pret­ty much the norm.

Your list poem, for exam­ple, “What to Wear (from A to Z)” is illus­trat­ed bril­liant­ly in list fash­ion as well. Were you aware of includ­ing items in your list that could be eas­i­ly illus­trat­ed?

No, I don’t imag­ine how my words will be illus­trat­ed. I guess that’s why I am a writer, not an illus­tra­tor!

Names: Williams ‘Count’ Basie, pianist,” from Jazz Day by Rox­ane Orgill, copy­right Fran­cis Valle­jo

You state in the author’s note that you researched why some of the most famous jazz musi­cians aren’t in the pho­to. What drew you into doing this “extra” research? Or do you view it as extra?

It wasn’t extra, not to me. I knew many “greats” were miss­ing: Louis Arm­strong, Ella Fitzger­ald, Sarah Vaugh­an, Miles Davis, on and on. I thought it might be fun to focus on one of the miss­ing peo­ple, and maybe fig­ure out what he or she was doing instead of being at the pho­to shoot. It was also a way of talk­ing about the jazz life; most of these guys, and gals, were on the road all the time.

Rox­ane, thank you for tak­ing the time to share your insights with our read­ers. Your book has received six starred reviews from the major review jour­nals … it’s hard not to fall in love with Jazz Day.


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.


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.


Francis Vallejo

Francis VallejoWe are pleased to share with you our inter­view with Fran­cis Valle­jo, the illus­tra­tor of Jazz Day: the Mak­ing of a Famous Pho­to­graph, our Book­storm™ this month. This book is so rich with visu­al images that stir read­ers’ imag­i­na­tions. You’ll feel like you’re stand­ing on the street with the oth­er onlook­ers!

The title page says that you used acrylics and pas­tels to cre­ate this art. Are those famil­iar media to you? Did you use any oth­er media or dig­i­tal manip­u­la­tion?

I devel­oped this tech­nique for Jazz Day. Before this book I had exten­sive­ly used acrylics, but had not used pas­tels very much. As I was work­ing on the ear­ly sketch­es and think­ing about how I would paint the final images, I dis­cov­ered the illus­trat­ed books of John Col­lier. He used acrylic and pas­tel (although some­times gouache instead of acrylic). Also, my friend and incred­i­ble artist Jane Rad­strom has been cre­at­ing beau­ti­ful pas­tel works for a while. Her work kept exper­i­men­ta­tion with pas­tel fresh in my mind. So com­bin­ing a wet medi­um (acrylic) and dry draw­ing medi­um (pas­tel) seemed like the best of both worlds. I could cre­ate large wash­es and make big deci­sions, and then detailed mark mak­ing using draw­ing.

I also gen­er­al­ly like to devel­op a new fin­ish­ing process for every project I work on, so the next book will assured­ly have a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent look. I think it keeps me fresh. Final­ly, yes, I used a lit­tle dig­i­tal manip­u­la­tion in post to add a few details I may have missed in the phys­i­cal stage.


copy­right Fran­cis Valle­jo


copy­right Fran­cis Valle­jo

Before you begin cre­at­ing art, do you make sketch­es? Do you keep those sketch­es to refer to through­out your illus­tra­tion process?

My process before cre­at­ing the final image is bor­der­line obses­sive — scratch that — it IS rad­i­cal­ly obses­sive! My process is based on that of Nor­man Rock­well. I spent 3 years work­ing on the art for this book. 2.5 was spent on the sketch­ing and research and stud­ies and pho­tog­ra­phy to pre­pare for the final paint­ing. My pub­lish­er filmed this video of me going over my process:

Grays and blacks are pre­dom­i­nant in this book. There are some allur­ing uses of bright col­or, such as the yel­low taxi, the gold cor­net, and the hot pink on the cov­er. Can you share with us some of the deci­sion-mak­ing you did while you thought through your illus­tra­tions? Or is try­ing a bit of this and a bit of that?

An impor­tant part of design­ing the pages was to look at them as a whole, in one big group, on one sheet (or screen). Since books are sequen­tial projects, the images have to work in sequence and not just by them­selves. The col­ors, val­ues, and mood, has to flow with the emo­tions of the sto­ry. I ref­er­enced col­or keys from movies, par­tic­u­lar­ly Pixar movies, in how I designed the over­all col­or keys for indi­vid­ual paint­ings, and made a strong effort to group togeth­er pic­tures that took place in front of town­homes and sep­a­rate­ly images of the musi­cians at their venues.

Your “per­spec­tive” changes through­out the book. You look at scenes from dif­fer­ent angles, some­times from above, some­times from street lev­el, some­times from far away, some­times close up. When do these per­spec­tives enter into your plan­ning process?

Right at the very begin­ning I knew that that idea was going to be chal­leng­ing. Most of the pic­tures were going to be set in front of the same set of stairs. I had to cre­ate 15 illus­tra­tions all set in the same place and not make it repet­i­tive! So using unique and var­ied per­spec­tives was one of my very first pri­or­i­ties. Believe me, I was very excit­ed when I was able to take a break from the street scene and move into the jazz clubs for a few pic­tures.

Do you choose the fonts that will be used in the book? Why did you choose a sans serif font?

I didn’t choose the font out­right, but I was involved in the dis­cus­sion. We thought sans serif was appro­pri­ate­ly mod­ern and avant garde – just as jazz is.

Did you know from the begin­ning that there would be a fold-out of the orig­i­nal pho­to? Did you make the deci­sion to include the word “click” as a direc­tion to open the fold-out?

That was an edi­to­r­i­al deci­sion that was planned out before I was even involved with the project. It is everyone’s favorite part and I do think it was a smart design and pac­ing deci­sion!


copy­right Fran­cis Valle­jo

When you plan an illus­tra­tion, do you con­scious­ly leave room for the poem that will go with it?

Absolute­ly. The text is just anoth­er shape on the page, so it is inte­gral to plan for it from the very begin­ning. It is among my favorite things to do actu­al­ly. I am a nerd like that. I love the puz­zle of fig­ur­ing out how I can design a scene to organ­i­cal­ly allow text to fit so that it seems like the neg­a­tive shape the text is placed in is actu­al­ly a shape that fits into the pic­ture. Many of the most for­ward-think­ing illus­tra­tors from the 1960’s would real­ly explore this idea (Al Park­er is king at this) and they were a big influ­ence.

Did you always know the order in which the poems would be includ­ed in the book? Did that change how you thought about these illus­tra­tions?

I did. The order was giv­en to me at the begin­ning and is incred­i­bly impor­tant to con­sid­er. As I men­tioned pri­or, the images have to work sequen­tial­ly. There were numer­ous indi­vid­ual images that I was very fond of that I had to scrap as they did not fit the over­all flow.

Was there an illus­tra­tion that chal­lenged you the most?

Yes! There is an image of a girl look­ing out of a win­dow (appro­pri­ate­ly titled “At the Win­dow”) that took maybe 60 hours to sketch out then maybe 10 more to paint. In order to cap­ture the poem I had to cap­ture a pro­file shot of the girl from the side, as well as the top of the peo­ple’s heads. To do this I had to use a fish­eye warped per­spec­tive. Fig­ur­ing that out involved a lot of head scratching…and eras­ing!

Which of the illus­tra­tions in the book gives you the most plea­sure when you look at it now?

The one I just men­tioned. I bat­tled that pic­ture to get it right. I don’t always win those fights, but this one turned out well and the paint­ing of the girl might be one of my very best!


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!


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!


Lisa Bullard

Lisa BullardIn this inter­view with Lisa Bullard, author of Turn Left at the Cow, our Book­storm™ this monthwe asked nine ques­tions to which she gave heart­felt answers. 

Lisa, thank you for your will­ing­ness to share your writ­ing process and your thoughts about mys­ter­ies with us. Mys­ter­ies have rabid fans and you’ve writ­ten a book that’s not only smart and fun­ny and sassy, but it’s a taut thriller. We appre­ci­ate hav­ing such a good book to read and to share with oth­er fans.

Turn Left at the CowAt what point in writ­ing your nov­el, Turn Left at the Cow, did you know it was going to be about an unsolved bank rob­bery?

That’s a great ques­tion — it makes me think back to the whole excit­ing process of how this sto­ry evolved over time! When I first set out to write this book, I actu­al­ly imag­ined it as a mur­der mys­tery for adult read­ers. And then one day, when I had about 5 or 6 chap­ters writ­ten, I was revis­ing the open­ing to the sto­ry, and a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent voice marched in and took over the first-per­son nar­ra­tion — and it was the voice of a young teenage boy. He had so much ener­gy, and I could “hear” him so clear­ly, that I knew this was tru­ly his sto­ry to tell. And of course he want­ed to talk to oth­er kids more than he want­ed to talk to adults! But that meant I had to rethink many oth­er ele­ments of the nov­el to instead make it a sto­ry for young read­ers.

I thought it seemed unlike­ly that a 13-year-old would be able to get involved in a mur­der inves­ti­ga­tion in a way that felt real­is­tic, so I brain­stormed oth­er pos­si­ble mys­ter­ies. At about the same time, I read a news­pa­per arti­cle about a man who was con­vinced that infa­mous hijack­er D.B. Coop­er was actu­al­ly his broth­er. I used one of my great­est writ­ing tools — the ques­tion “What if?” — and start­ed think­ing along the lines of “What if my char­ac­ter dis­cov­ers that one of his rel­a­tives was involved in a noto­ri­ous rob­bery?”

You’ve set Turn Left at the Cow in a small, rur­al town. Trav’s grand­ma lives in a cab­in on a near­by lake. Why did you decide that the “place” for this sto­ry should be in this locale?

This loca­tion was at the heart of this sto­ry from the very begin­ning; it stayed the same no mat­ter what oth­er details changed, and to me, this set­ting speaks so loud­ly that it’s like anoth­er char­ac­ter in the book. It’s based pri­mar­i­ly on the loca­tion of my family’s lake cab­in, which is on Green Lake (near two very small Min­neso­ta towns, Spicer and New Lon­don), in west cen­tral Min­neso­ta. Since my fam­i­ly moved around when I was a kid, it’s the one place that I’ve con­sis­tent­ly returned to since I was a very small child, and it’s a place that has sunk deep into my bones. Our lake cab­in orig­i­nal­ly belonged to my grand­par­ents, and I’ve spent some of the most impor­tant times in my life there with fam­i­ly and friends. It’s even where my par­ents had their hon­ey­moon, so I’ve tru­ly been vis­it­ing there my entire life! But of course, my sto­ry is fic­tion, so I did take some lib­er­ties with the set­ting — for exam­ple, I gave the town in the book a (nonex­is­tent in real life) giant stat­ue of a bull­head (fish), because many of my oth­er favorite Min­neso­ta towns fea­ture giant stat­u­ary.

Parade in Spicer

Travis, your pro­tag­o­nist, is a 13-year-old boy whose dad died before he was born. This serves as a strong moti­va­tion for him run­ning away from his moth­er in Cal­i­for­nia to his grand­moth­er in Min­neso­ta. Does your sure-foot­ed knowl­edge of Trav’s moti­va­tion come from your own expe­ri­ence?

I have been so lucky to have a dad who has always been very active in my life. To this day, we still talk and laugh and argue with each oth­er like we did when I was a lit­tle kid and a teenag­er. But many of the peo­ple I’ve been clos­est to through­out my life are not so lucky. I’ve been close friends with sev­er­al peo­ple who lost their father when they were quite young, and my clos­est uncle died the sum­mer I turned nine — so my cousins no longer had a father of their own. As my mom explained to me, that meant I need­ed to “share” my dad with them.

As I men­tioned ear­li­er, one of my great­est writ­ing tools is the ques­tion “What if?” It chal­lenges me to expand my sto­ries beyond my own per­son­al expe­ri­ences and to live inside the expe­ri­ences of a char­ac­ter who is very dif­fer­ent from me. One of the biggest “What if” ques­tions in my own life has always been: “What if I didn’t hap­pen to have the dad that I was lucky enough to have?” I decid­ed that this sto­ry was the place for me to try to imag­ine what it might be like for some­one to des­per­ate­ly crave a rela­tion­ship with a lost father.

Read­ers are fas­ci­nat­ed by the “red her­rings” in a who­dunit, the clues that could, but don’t, solve the mys­tery. At what point in writ­ing the sto­ry did you con­scious­ly work with (plant your) red her­rings?

walking catfishI love quirky details, and I built a lot of them into the sto­ry: for exam­ple, there’s a human head carved out of but­ter, a walk­ing cat­fish, and a game where the win­ner is cho­sen by a poop­ing chick­en. But I don’t want to give away any clues to read­ers who haven’t yet had a chance to read my sto­ry, so I’m hes­i­tant to tell you here which details are red her­rings and which details are key clues! I’ll just say that some of the red her­rings were in place before I wrote a sin­gle word of the sto­ry, some of them wan­dered in out of the mys­te­ri­ous depths of my sub­con­scious as I was writ­ing the first few drafts, and oth­ers were things I cre­at­ed quite delib­er­ate­ly when I was revis­ing and reached a point where I felt I need­ed to mis­lead read­ers from fig­ur­ing out the solu­tion too eas­i­ly.

Since that’s a real­ly vague answer, how about this? After you’ve read the sto­ry, feel free to vis­it the con­tact page on my web­site (lisabullard.com) and send me an email with any ques­tions you have about the spe­cif­ic red her­rings in my sto­ry — I’d be delight­ed to send you an answer!

Your sto­ry is very tense as it approach­es its cli­max. Did you have to re-work your man­u­script to achieve this?

Yes, absolute­ly! The entire sto­ry required many rounds of revi­sion, but I received some key advice that real­ly helped me make this sec­tion more dra­mat­ic and sus­pense­ful. The nov­el took me about 3 years total to write, but one year in par­tic­u­lar was very pro­duc­tive. Dur­ing that year I took a series of class­es from mys­tery writer Ellen Hart, and got great advice and feed­back from her and the oth­er stu­dents in the class. One of the things I learned was that you should write in short, chop­py sen­tences when you want to cre­ate a scene that feels chaot­ic and quick-mov­ing. Those short sen­tences push the read­er for­ward through the sto­ry more quick­ly because they read more quick­ly. In my first draft, I had includ­ed lots of long and mean­der­ing sen­tences, and those had to be bro­ken up or delet­ed alto­geth­er.

No time to think!I had also writ­ten a lot of reflec­tive pas­sages in those tense scenes — para­graphs where my char­ac­ter was doing a lot of think­ing along the lines of “How did this even hap­pen?” But in real life, when some­thing real­ly high-action and stress­ful is hap­pen­ing, a per­son usu­al­ly doesn’t have time to stop and think too hard — they only have time to react and keep mov­ing. Stop­ping to fig­ure out exact­ly where things went wrong comes after­wards. So I went back and took out all of those places where my char­ac­ter was “over-think­ing,” and just had him respond­ing to the dan­ger of the moment as best he could.

When you write a mys­tery, how do you know that it’s mys­te­ri­ous enough?

Wow, that’s anoth­er great ques­tion. I’m not sure that I know how to answer it exact­ly, but I’ll do my best! To me, mys­tery sto­ries are puz­zles: as the writer, your job is to hand the read­er all the pieces of the puz­zle, but to do it in such a way that the puz­zle isn’t over­ly easy to solve. So for exam­ple, I’ve nev­er liked mys­ter­ies where the answer is some­thing the read­er couldn’t pos­si­bly have fig­ured out — when there’s some impor­tant clue that the author has held back, and then on the last page, the detec­tive says some­thing like, “This let­ter that was locked in a bank vault until 5 min­utes ago proves that the thief was Mr. Vil­lain!” As a read­er, I want a fair chance to put togeth­er all the puz­zle pieces for myself — and if the writer still fools me after play­ing fair, then good for them!

Clue MapSo when I was writ­ing this mys­tery, I knew I had to play fair — I had to give the read­er all of the impor­tant clues. It was okay if I spread out the clues over the whole book. And it was total­ly okay if I mis­lead the read­er into think­ing that some of those clues weren’t as impor­tant as they turned out to be in the end! After all, it’s the reader’s job to put the puz­zle pieces togeth­er to get the right answer — I trust my read­ers to be smart, so I don’t have to make it TOO easy for them!

As far as the actu­al writ­ing process, I made a long list of all the clues I knew in advance, and I thought about how I could work them into the sto­ry at inter­vals so there would be clues all through­out. I also built in things that seemed like fake clues to height­en the sus­pense and to make the puz­zle more excit­ing. Final­ly, as I was writ­ing, at any point where I felt like the sto­ry was slow­ing down too much, I would ask myself, “What is some­thing real­ly unex­pect­ed or sur­pris­ing that could hap­pen to my char­ac­ter next?” — and that approach pro­vid­ed some addi­tion­al clues.

I also worked to think of metaphors and set­ting details that would add a spooky atmos­phere to the whole sto­ry, and I tried to put my char­ac­ter into sit­u­a­tions that seemed dan­ger­ous. After all, anoth­er big part of mys­ter­ies is that they’re more fun if they’re kind of scary!

Do you read mys­ter­ies? How old were you when you began read­ing them? Can you remem­ber some of the first mys­ter­ies you read?

Three InvestigatorsI love mys­ter­ies! They’re still some of my absolute favorite books, and they’re some of the first books I remem­ber read­ing. When I was in ele­men­tary school, I was lucky enough to be giv­en a huge box full of books that had belonged to either my mom or my old­er girl cousins when they were younger. The box held a lot of mys­tery series, some of them pret­ty old-fash­ioned but still won­der­ful. The dif­fer­ent series includ­ed Judy Bolton, Trix­ie Belden, Nan­cy Drew, and the Three Inves­ti­ga­tors. And some of the first “grown-up” books I ever read were Agatha Christie mys­ter­ies and sus­pense sto­ries by Mary Stew­art. As a kid, I loved mys­tery sto­ries so much that I made up my own mys­ter­ies and forced my broth­er and friends to “play” Three Inves­ti­ga­tors in our base­ment — we even wrote secret mes­sages in invis­i­ble ink (lemon juice) and then decod­ed them by hold­ing them over the toast­er.

What is there about a mys­tery that you think appeals to kids?

puzzleIt’s fun to get that lit­tle spine-tingly feel­ing that comes when some­thing is a lit­tle bit scary, so that’s part of it. Many mys­ter­ies are action-packed and fast-mov­ing (rarely bor­ing), so that’s anoth­er part of it. But I think a big rea­son is that work­ing to put togeth­er the puz­zle of the sto­ry is kind of like a game — and if, as a read­er, you man­age to fig­ure out the mys­tery before the story’s detec­tive does, then you also feel pret­ty darn proud of your­self, and smart!

Can you share with us what you’re work­ing on now? Is it anoth­er mys­tery? (We hope so.)

I’ve writ­ten sev­er­al non­fic­tion books since Turn Left at the Cow was pub­lished, and now I’m wrestling with anoth­er mys­tery. My writ­ing process is pret­ty slow when it comes to nov­els (and my life in the last few years has been real­ly com­pli­cat­ed) — plus I write a lot of my first draft in my head before any of it actu­al­ly hits paper — so there isn’t a whole lot actu­al­ly writ­ten down yet. But I can tell you that this sto­ry is set in the north woods of Min­neso­ta, and like Turn Left the mys­tery has to do with a com­pli­cat­ed fam­i­ly sto­ry and a lot of quirky small-town char­ac­ters. Includ­ing Big­foot, by the way — now there’s a mys­tery for you!


Melissa Sweet

In this inter­view with Melis­sa Sweet, illus­tra­tor of A Riv­er of Words: The Sto­ry of William Car­los Williams, our Book­storm™ this monthwe asked six ques­tions and Melis­sa kind­ly took time from her busy days of vis­it­ing schools and cre­at­ing art.

A River of WordsDo you recall the first time you encoun­tered a William Car­los Williams poem?

My first intro­duc­tion to William Car­los Williams was when I was sev­en years old and went to the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. I saw a  paint­ing by Williams’s  friend Charles Demuth, based on Williams’s poem “The Great Fig­ure.” I loved both the paint­ing and the poem.

The Great Figure

Do you have a list of Most Favorite Poets? Was William Car­los Williams on that list before you began the research for this book? Is he on that list now?

My short list is Mary Oliv­er, Bil­ly Collins, and, yes, William Car­los Williams is now on that list.

When you begin to illus­trate a book like this, what is your very first step? And what do you do next?

William Carlos Williams prescription padFirst I decide how and where to research. I’m look­ing for clues as to what to draw to inspire the illus­tra­tions. For this book I read biogra­phies about Williams, his poet­ry, and news­pa­per arti­cles about him. It was impor­tant to trav­el to Ruther­ford and Pat­ter­son, NJ, to see where he lived and worked. At the Ruther­ford Pub­lic Library, I saw his bowler hat, his man­u­al type­writer,  and the pre­scrip­tion pads he used as a doc­tor. All those things became inspi­ra­tion for the art. Then, back in the stu­dio, I make a dum­my plac­ing the words on the page and begin to sketch to out the paint­ings or col­lages. Last­ly, I make the final art.

A River of WordsIn the book, we see hand­writ­ten bits of poet­ry in sev­er­al dif­fer­ent styles of hand­writ­ing and we also see type­set scraps of paper as well as intrigu­ing bits of type. Do you cre­ate these by hand? By com­put­er? With friend­ly help?

All my art is cre­at­ed by hand — I don’t use the com­put­er to make the illus­tra­tions. I cut up old books and use let­ter­ing from wher­ev­er I can find it. Incor­po­rat­ing cal­lig­ra­phy and hand – let­ter­ing into the art makes the piece more fun and live­ly. A type­set font would look very dif­fer­ent, maybe some­what sta­t­ic. In A Riv­er of Words I recre­at­ed Williams’s hand­writ­ing in places, and hand – let­tered his poems with­in the art. The con­tent of the poems became the inspi­ra­tion for what to draw.

A River of WordsAre there entire spreads you pre­pare that don’t make the final cut of the book? When you send the illus­tra­tion in for review by the edi­tor or art direc­tor, do you leave things unglued so they can be moved if request­ed? And what do you use to affix the parts of your col­lage? 

Some­times spreads need to be redone, but rarely. The edi­tor and art direc­tor see the dum­my, but typ­i­cal­ly they don’t see the art in progress, just the final art. It’s dif­fi­cult to plan or sketch a col­lage – it hap­pens as you go along adding and sub­tract­ing ele­ments to make it work visu­al­ly. (Even I don’t know exact­ly how the art will look in the end!) I use stick glue, white glue, and depend­ing on the mate­ri­als, I might need some­thing strong like epoxy. Kids often ask how my arts gets “in” the book. My work is gen­er­al­ly pho­tographed since there is too much dimen­sion in the pieces to scan them. Those pho­tos are down­loaded to the design­er and the text is added dig­i­tal­ly.

If you had met William Car­los Williams, what ques­tion would you have asked him?

I have two ques­tions: Where was the red wheel­bar­row? What did you think when you first saw it?

illus­tra­tions in this arti­cle are copy­right © Melis­sa Sweet


Jen Bryant

In this inter­view with Jen Bryant, author of A Riv­er of Words: The Sto­ry of William Car­los Williams, our Book­storm™ this month.

A River of WordsDo you recall the first time you encoun­tered a William Car­los Williams poem?

I was in high school — and it was part of an anthol­o­gy read­ing that we did for Eng­lish class. I had disliked/not understood/ been unmoved by all of the oth­er poems in this assigned read­ing (I recall that the lan­guage in those poems was archa­ic and flow­ery, and the forms very, VERY tra­di­tion­al) — and then — whooosh — like a breath of fresh air, here were a few select­ed W. C. Williams poems, which used lit­tle punc­tu­a­tion, were freeform in struc­ture, and focused on every­day scenes and real life. They were the first poems I enjoyed and felt “wel­comed” into.

Do you have a list of Most Favorite Poets? Was William Car­los Williams on that list before you began the research for this book? Is he on that list now?

He’s def­i­nite­ly on the list — and there are too many oth­ers to name here, so I’ll just start by list­ing a few of them: Emi­ly Dick­in­son, Mary Oliv­er, Yusef Komun­yakaa, Wen­dell Berry, William Stafford, Rita Dove, Marge Pier­cy, Robert Frost, Lucille Clifton, Phillip Levine, Mar­i­lyn Nel­son, Gary Soto, Gal­way Kinell, Eamon Gren­nan, Jane Keny­on … (see? way too many!)

When you turned your man­u­script in to your edi­tor, did you envi­sion how the book might be illus­trat­ed? What do you think when you first saw Melis­sa Sweet’s ideas for illus­trat­ing Williams’ life?

Melis­sa and I did not know each oth­er before Eerd­mans paired us for this book. Gayle Brown, the art direc­tor at EBYR, chose Melis­sa as the illus­tra­tor — and I believe that this sin­gle act has influ­enced my writ­ing life ever since! I’d already writ­ten three pic­ture book biogra­phies on cre­ative peo­ple (O’Keeffe, Mes­si­aen, and Moore) and I had nev­er met ANY of those illus­tra­tors. All of their styles were very dis­tinct, very dif­fer­ent from one another’s — so, no, I had no clue what an illus­tra­tor would do with this text. You can just imag­ine my reac­tion when I saw Melissa’s art for this book … I wept with hap­pi­ness. She’s tru­ly amaz­ing.

A River of Words

How did you find infor­ma­tion about this poet’s younger years?

I had to piece scenes togeth­er from many dif­fer­ent sources: fore­words and pref­aces to poet­ry col­lec­tions, a few audio record­ings, an old film, some archival records, etc. The key, though, was to keep the riv­er as the cen­tral image around which the rest of the sto­ry could spin. Once I had made that deci­sion, the rest became a bit eas­i­er.

A River of WordsDid you have to cut much mate­r­i­al from your orig­i­nal con­cept of the book? Did you go through a few revi­sions with the edi­tor or many revi­sions with the edi­tor?

I always pre­fer to give the edi­tors more than they need — then let them give me feed­back on which scenes/stanzas are more com­pelling and which are redun­dant or less com­pelling (and thus can be cut.) Yes, there were on-going revi­sions with this man­u­script — but if I recall cor­rect­ly, the orig­i­nal­ly-sub­mit­ted ver­sion was the one that was sent to Melis­sa and she got start­ed from that text. We didn’t make HUGE changes to this sto­ry, but we tweaked word­ing here and there — and then the back mat­ter was added lat­er on.

If you had met William Car­los Williams, what ques­tion would you have asked him?

If you had been able to quit your day-job (as a physi­cian) and could sup­port your fam­i­ly full-time by writ­ing, would you have done that? OR, did your dai­ly rounds — with all kinds of patients and in many dif­fer­ent set­tings — feed your art so much that you need­ed to do both in order to write well?”


Jen, thank you for shar­ing your answers with our read­ers. Your style of writ­ing biogra­phies is so unique, and so well researched, that it’s valu­able for us to know more about the process of this book’s cre­ation.

For use with your stu­dents, Jen’s web­site includes a dis­cus­sion guide that you’ll find use­ful as you incor­po­rate this book into your plan­ning.

illus­tra­tions in this arti­cle are copy­right © Melis­sa Sweet


Jennifer A. Bell

Jennifer A. BellIn this inter­view with Jen­nifer A. Bell, illus­tra­tor of many endear­ing books, we’ve asked about the process of illus­trat­ing Lit­tle Cat’s Luck, our Book­storm™ this month, writ­ten for sec­ond, third, and fourth graders as a read-aloud or indi­vid­ual read­ing books.Jennifer was also the illus­tra­tor for Mar­i­on Dane Bauer’s ear­li­er nov­el-in-verse, Lit­tle Dog, Lost.

What media and tools did you use to cre­ate the soft illus­tra­tions in Lit­tle Cat’s Luck?

These illus­tra­tions were ren­dered in pen­cil and fin­ished in Adobe Pho­to­shop.

Little Cat's LuckDo you use real ani­mals for mod­els? Are they ani­mals you know?

I do have a cat. I find Google image search­es to be a bit more help­ful when I need to find details of dif­fer­ent ani­mal breeds or spe­cif­ic pos­es.

How are the deci­sions you make about draw­ing in black-and-white dif­fer­ent than those you make about draw­ing in col­or?

I love work­ing in black-and-white. I get to nar­row my focus onto light­ing, val­ue con­trast, and tex­tures. It’s much faster than work­ing in col­or. Col­or adds anoth­er lay­er of deci­sion-mak­ing and can make things more com­pli­cat­ed.

Little Dog Lost

The cov­ers for Lit­tle Cat’s Luck and Lit­tle Dog, Lost are so vibrant­ly col­ored. Do you get to choose the col­or palette for the cov­ers or are you asked to use those col­ors?

Ini­tial­ly, I had sub­mit­ted many cov­er sketch­es for Lit­tle Dog, Lost. Most of them were moody night­time scenes with the excep­tion of a day­time park sketch. Simon and Schus­ter thought that image worked the best and we went from there. That cov­er went through many revi­sions. The dog changed, the com­po­si­tion was adjust­ed, and the col­ors got brighter and brighter. When we start­ed work­ing on Lit­tle Cat’s Luck the cov­er need­ed to look dif­fer­ent than the dog book but still coör­di­nate.

Little Dog, LostHow did you inter­act with the art direc­tor for these books?

There was a lot of back and forth on the cov­ers but I had more free­dom work­ing on the inte­ri­or illus­tra­tions. I had a set num­ber of illus­tra­tions to come up with and they set me loose with the man­u­script. The art direc­tor then used my sketch­es to lay out the book. Once they could see how it all came togeth­er we made some adjust­ments and I was able to work on the final art­work.

When does the book design­er get into the process?

The art direc­tors for these books were also the design­ers.

What does the book design­er do beyond what you’ve already done?

So much! They design the cov­er and book jack­et. They choose the fonts. They pag­i­nate the text and illus­tra­tions and pre­pare the book to be print­ed.


Jen­nifer, thank you for tak­ing the time to share these insights into your work with our read­ers. One of the rea­sons we fell in love with both Patch­es and Gus, and with Bud­dy in Lit­tle Dog, Lost, is because you have such a deft way with char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.

For use with your stu­dents, Mar­i­on’s web­site includes a book trail­er, a social-emo­tion­al learn­ing guide, and a teach­ing guide that you’ll find use­ful as you incor­po­rate this book into your plan­ning.


Marion Dane Bauer

Marion Dane BauerIn this inter­view with Mar­i­on Dane Bauer, we’re ask­ing about her nov­el-in-verse, Lit­tle Cat’s Luck, our Book­storm™ this month, writ­ten for sec­ond, third, and fourth graders as a read-aloud or indi­vid­ual read­ing books. It’s a good com­pan­ion to her ear­li­er nov­el-in-verse, Lit­tle Dog, Lost.

 When the idea for this sto­ry came to you, was it a seed or a full-grown set of char­ac­ters and a sto­ry­line?

I began by sit­ting down to write anoth­er Lit­tle Dog, Lost, but not with the same char­ac­ters, so it was eas­i­est to start with a cat. When I begin a sto­ry, any sto­ry, I always know three things: who my main char­ac­ter will be, what prob­lem she will be strug­gling with (know­ing the prob­lem, of course, includes know­ing about the story’s antag­o­nist, in this case “the mean­est dog in town), and what a res­o­lu­tion will feel like. So I knew Patch­es would be lost and I knew she would encounter “the mean­est dog in town” and I knew she and Gus must be believ­able friends in the end. I wasn’t sure, though, how their friend­ship would evolve. So I sent her out the win­dow after that gold­en leaf and then wait­ed to see what would hap­pen.

Little Cat's LuckYou’ve stat­ed that Lit­tle Cat’s Luck is a “com­pan­ion book” for your ear­li­er nov­el-in-verse, Lit­tle Dog, Lost. What does that term mean to you?

It’s not a sequel, because it’s not the same char­ac­ters or the same place (though it’s anoth­er small town). I have how­ev­er writ­ten it in the same man­ner — a sto­ry told in verse through a nar­ra­tor — which gives it the same kind of feel. The same artist, Jen­nifer Bell, did the illus­tra­tions, too. Each book stands alone, but they could also be read side-by-side, com­pared and enjoyed togeth­er. One sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence is that Lit­tle Cat’s Luck is entire­ly devot­ed to the world of the ani­mals where Lit­tle Dog, Lost is focused more on the humans. In Lit­tle Cat’s Luck we see the humans only tan­gen­tial­ly as they affect the ani­mals, and because the ani­mals stand at the cen­ter of the sto­ry I allow them to con­verse with one anoth­er. That doesn’t hap­pen from the human per­spec­tive of Lit­tle Dog, Lost.

When you’re writ­ing ani­mal char­ac­ters, which you do so well, from where are you draw­ing knowl­edge of their behav­ior?

I have always had ani­mals in my life, cats when I was a child, both dogs and cats as an adult, though in recent years I’ve grown some­what aller­gic to cats so no longer have them in my home. But I have lived with dogs and cats, paid close atten­tion to them, loved them all my life, and when I turn to them as char­ac­ters in a sto­ry I know exact­ly how they will be. In fact, since I can’t cud­dle real cats any longer with­out end­ing up with itchy eyes, I found deep plea­sure in bring­ing Patch­es to life on the page.

In cre­at­ing Patch­es, you’ve imbued her with char­ac­ter­is­tics and dia­logue that could be iden­ti­fied as human and yet you’ve main­tained her ani­mal nature. At what part of your process did you find your­self watch­ing for that bor­der between human and ani­mal?

RuntThe moment I give an ani­mal human speech, I have vio­lat­ed its ani­mal nature. We are who we are as humans pre­cise­ly because we talk, and we do it con­stant­ly, with good and bad results. We con­verse to under­stand one anoth­er, and we call one anoth­er names. In sto­ries it can be very dif­fi­cult to hold onto the ani­mal nature of a dog or cat while human words are com­ing from their mouths. When I wrote my nov­el Runt, about a wolf pup, I chose to give the ani­mals speech, fol­low­ing the pat­tern of mar­velous writ­ers such as Felix Salten, the author of Bam­bi, a Life in the Woods. And while that was a very inten­tion­al choice, it was a choice I found myself not want­i­ng to repeat when I con­sid­ered writ­ing a sequel to Runt. I returned to my wolf research in prepa­ra­tion for writ­ing that sec­ond book and found myself so impressed with the sub­tle, com­plex ways wolves actu­al­ly com­mu­ni­cate with one anoth­er that I put the idea for a sequel aside. I found I didn’t want to put speech into their mouths again. How­ev­er, when I wrote Lit­tle Cat’s Luck I put that con­cern aside eas­i­ly, part­ly I sup­pose because cats are domes­ti­cat­ed ani­mals, so speech felt less a vio­la­tion. I gave them roles that are famil­iar in our human world, too, for Patch­es be a moth­er and for Gus to be a hurt­ing bul­ly, which made it easy to know what they might say. Through­out, though, I retained their ani­mal nature by stay­ing close to their phys­i­cal­i­ty. Describ­ing the way they move and the things they do with their bod­ies kept their ani­mal natures in view.

Gus, the dog, is at once the “mean­est dog in town” and the char­ac­ter who earns the most sym­pa­thy and admi­ra­tion from read­ers. Was the “vil­lain” of your sto­ry always this dog? Did he become more or less mean dur­ing your revi­sion process?

Gus was always the vil­lain, and he always start­ed out mean. In fact, I didn’t know how mean he could be until he took pos­ses­sion of those kit­tens … and then of Patch­es her­self! But by that time I under­stood Gus, under­stood the need his pain — and thus his mean­ness — came from, and thus knew he was act­ing out of des­per­a­tion, not out of a desire to hurt. So that meant my sto­ry could find a rea­son­able and believ­able solu­tion, that Patch­es, the all-lov­ing, all-wise moth­er, could suc­ceed in reform­ing “the mean­est dog in town.”

How con­scious are you of your read­ers, their age and read­ing abil­i­ty, when you’re writ­ing a nov­el like Lit­tle Cat’s Luck or Lit­tle Dog, Lost?

Little Dog, LostWhen I’m writ­ing, I’m focused on my sto­ry and my char­ac­ters, not my read­ers. I hope there will be read­ers one day, of course, but I’m writ­ing through my char­ac­ters, through my sto­ry with­out giv­ing much thought for what will hap­pen to it out in the world. If I can inhab­it my sto­ry well, and if my sto­ry comes out of my young read­ers’ world, it will serve them. How­ev­er, read­ing abil­i­ty is anoth­er mat­ter, and one I must take into con­sid­er­a­tion. I have writ­ten many books for devel­op­ing read­ers, and I love the kinds of sto­ries that work for young read­ers, so I have loved writ­ing them. I wrote a series of books for Step­ping Stones aimed at devel­op­ing read­ers, ghost sto­ries The Blue Ghost, The Red Ghost, etc., The Secret of the Paint­ed House, The Very Lit­tle Princess, and more. And they were a great plea­sure to write. But after I time I grew rest­less over hav­ing to write in short sen­tences to make the read­ing man­age­able for those still devel­op­ing their skills. So when I came to write Lit­tle Dog, Lost, I said to myself, What if I wrote in verse? If I did that, the bite-sized lines would make it eas­i­er to read, and I wouldn’t have to alter the nat­ur­al flow of my style. I did it, and it seemed to work, not just for review­ers and the adults who care about kids’ books, but for my young read­ers them­selves. And I have been very hap­py with hav­ing dis­cov­ered a new — for me — way of pre­sent­ing a sto­ry. That’s why I decid­ed to do Lit­tle Cat’s Luck in the same way.

Lit­tle Dog, Lost was your first nov­el-in-verse. With Lit­tle Cat’s Luck, are you feel­ing com­fort­able with the form or do you feel there are more chal­lenges to con­quer?

I was much more com­fort­able with the form with Lit­tle Cat’s Luck. When I start­ed Lit­tle Dog, Lost I felt ten­ta­tive. Could I real­ly do this? Would any­one want it if I did? Was I just divid­ing prose into short lines or was I tru­ly writ­ing verse? So many ques­tions. But after a time, I grew to love the form, and when I was ready to start again with a new sto­ry, I knew verse was the right choice. The one change I brought to verse form in Lit­tle Cat’s Luck is that this time I began exper­i­ment­ing with con­crete verse, let­ting a word fall down the page when it described falling, curl when Patch­es curls into a nap and more. That was fun, too, but the chal­lenge was to play with the shape of the words on the page with­out mak­ing deci­pher­ing more dif­fi­cult for young read­ers. I’m guess­ing there will be more dis­cov­er­ies ahead if I return to this form.

Little Cat's Luck concrete poetry

Do you think visu­al­ly or pri­mar­i­ly in words?

Total­ly through words. Absolute­ly and total­ly. In fact, when I receive the first art for one of my pic­ture books, I always go through the entire thing read­ing the text. And then I say to myself, “Oh, I’m sup­posed to be look­ing at the pic­tures!” and I go back to look. I didn’t have to prompt myself to be more visu­al, though, to play with the con­crete poet­ry. Once I’d start­ed doing it, oppor­tu­ni­ties to do more kept pop­ping up, so even though I was using only words my think­ing became more visu­al.

What is the most impor­tant idea you’d like to share with teach­ers and librar­i­ans about Patch­es and Bud­dy that you hope they’ll take with them to their stu­dents and patrons?

Little Cat's Luck by Jennifer A. BellI believe that the most impor­tant thing a sto­ry does, any sto­ry, is to make us feel. By inhab­it­ing a sto­ry, liv­ing through it, we are trans­formed in some small — or some­times large — way. I know that when sto­ries are used in the class­room, they are used for mul­ti­ple pur­pos­es, and that is as it should be, but I hope adults pre­sent­ing Patch­es and Bud­dy will first let the chil­dren expe­ri­ence the boy, the dog, the cat, will let them feel their sto­ries from the inside. After the sto­ries have been expe­ri­enced, as sto­ries, there is plen­ty of time to use those words on the page for vocab­u­lary lessons or as a prompt for chil­dren to write their own verse sto­ries or any­thing else they might be use­ful for. But always, I hope, the sto­ry will be first.


Thank you, Mar­i­on, for shar­ing your thoughts and writ­ing jour­ney with us. 

For use with your stu­dents, Mar­i­on’s web­site includes a book trail­er, a social-emo­tion­al learn­ing guide, and a teach­ing guide that you’ll find use­ful as you incor­po­rate this book into your plan­ning.


Gennifer Choldenko

Bookol­o­gy is proud to fea­ture Gen­nifer Chold­enko’s Chas­ing Secrets as its Book­storm™ this month, shar­ing themes, ideas, and com­ple­men­tary book rec­om­men­da­tions for your class­room, lit­er­a­ture cir­cle, or book group dis­cus­sions.

Gennifer CholdenkoWere you a curi­ous child? How did this man­i­fest itself?

I was an eccen­tric child. I was curi­ous to the extent that I could find out new facts to feed my imag­i­nary world. I adored school and loved my teach­ers. I used to come home from school with an aching arm from rais­ing my hand with such unbri­dled enthu­si­asm.

When you grew up, where did your curios­i­ty lead you?

You know the clas­sic I Love Lucy episode with the can­dy con­vey­or belt? I once had a job squish­ing indi­vid­ual serv­ings of toma­to ketchup and mus­tard with a big mal­let. The goal, believe it or not, was qual­i­ty con­trol. You had to bang them hard. If they didn’t open, they were con­sid­ered secure enough to send out. Boy was it a messy job.

Chasing SecretsLizzie Kennedy, the hero­ine of Chas­ing Secrets, is a curi­ous child of thir­teen. She’s inter­est­ed in sci­ence and math­e­mat­ics, in find­ing out the truth. What do you admire most about her?

I admire how cer­tain she is about the right­ness of the world. I’ve had peo­ple tell me that Lizzie reveals her naïveté because she’s so sure she can make every­thing work out. That gave me pause. In Lizzie’s world­view, the truth pre­vails. I believe that to my very core. Maybe, that’s why I write for ten‑, eleven- and twelve-year-olds.

Jing and Noah are Chi­nese immi­grants. Only part of their fam­i­ly has trav­eled to San Fran­cis­co. Jing has aspi­ra­tions for his son. What drew you to writ­ing these char­ac­ters into the book?

I’m inter­est­ed in the Chi­nese, in part, because my daugh­ter is Chi­nese. We adopt­ed her from Chi­na when she was eight months old. She was a very small immi­grant. And not sur­pris­ing­ly, I adore her. Because of her I’ve become more aware of the anti-Chi­nese sen­ti­ment in today’s world and that in turn made me more inter­est­ed in the his­to­ry of the Chi­nese in Amer­i­ca.

You intro­duce the key play­ers in the sto­ry in the ear­ly chap­ters. We even get a glimpse of Bil­ly on the docks, long before he inter­acts with Lizzie. The rats have Chap­ter 3 named after them. Is this some­thing that hap­pens as you’re writ­ing the first drafts, or do you go back to set up the sto­ry dur­ing revi­sions?

Every book seems to evolve in a dif­fer­ent way. Chas­ing Secrets was built almost entire­ly in revi­sion. The only part of the book that was there from the get-go involved the rats. Bil­ly evolved with each draft. It took me a long time to per­suade him to come onto the page.

The num­ber “6” fig­ures promi­nent­ly in Chas­ing Secrets. There are Six Com­pa­nies, Six Lead­ers, and Six Boys. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of the num­ber 6 for you?

The Six Com­pa­nies actu­al­ly exist­ed. They held con­sid­er­able pow­er with­in the Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ty. The Six Com­pa­nies remind­ed me of my brother’s group of friends who all lived in a house in Mar­ble­head and called them­selves “Six of Six.” That gave me the idea it would be fun to have Noah be a part of a group of six kids who were lead­ers in the kids Chi­na­town com­mu­ni­ty.

There’s an exchange between Lizzie and Noah where we dis­cov­er that each of them has prej­u­dices. Lizzie has her notions about ser­vants and the Chi­nese, but Noah has his ideas about girls not being as smart as boys. He believes girls lie because one girl did. This feels like an impor­tant pas­sage in the book. Why did you include it?

If you are writ­ing about San Fran­cis­co 1900 and every char­ac­ter has the sen­si­bil­i­ty and mind­set of San Fran­cis­co 2016, then real­ly what you’re doing is putting your twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry char­ac­ters into his­toric dress. A cos­tume ball is fun but it isn’t his­toric fic­tion. On the oth­er hand, there is no such thing as a gener­ic 1900s sen­si­bil­i­ty any­more than there is a gener­ic 2016 sen­si­bil­i­ty. (Does Pope Fran­cis view our world in the same way as Lady Gaga? I don’t think so.) There always have been, and there always will be, peo­ple who are “ahead of their time,” peo­ple who are “behind the times,” and peo­ple who are whol­ly orig­i­nal thinkers. But every­one is formed to some degree from the time in which they exist.

Lizzie was more open-mind­ed than most of her peers. But the prej­u­dice against the Chi­nese was deeply embed­ded in San Fran­cis­co cul­ture. Lizzie had to have absorbed some of it. And, of course, Noah’s world was sex­ist. Almost no one ques­tioned either of these prej­u­dices in 1900.

Did you have trou­ble decid­ing which of the main char­ac­ters would get sick with the plague?

RatsHow did you know? I felt strong­ly that the per­son who got sick was not going to be Chi­nese only because many peo­ple believed that the plague only affect­ed Asians, which was and is false. But whom should I choose? It was a ghoul­ish ques­tion.

 It seemed log­i­cal that some­one like Mag­gy would get sick because she spent a lot of time clean­ing and there were an inor­di­nate amount of dead rats around in 1900, many of whom died of the plague. But I real­ly loved Mag­gy and I didn’t want her to suf­fer much less die. So ini­tial­ly I gave her a light dust­ing of the plague, from which she recov­ered pret­ty eas­i­ly.

 Then I got a let­ter from my edi­tor. She did not believe this was real­is­tic. I hap­pened to be on tour when I got the let­ter. I remem­ber wak­ing up one morn­ing in Nashville with the real­iza­tion that one char­ac­ter who I had mak­ing the “right” deci­sion would not have made that deci­sion at all. And from then on the book wrote itself.

There are many inter­est­ing real-life char­ac­ters in your book (Dr. Kiny­oun, Donal­d­ina Cameron). Did you vis­it muse­ums and libraries to do your research?

I spend half my life at the library. And of course I went to muse­ums in San Fran­cis­co and in New York in addi­tion to every his­tor­i­cal tour I could find in San Fran­cis­co and Sacra­men­to and in New York. His­tor­i­cal tours rarely give me a pic­ture of the exact time, place, and social sta­tus I’m look­ing for, but they are a leap­ing-off place. I pep­per the tour guides with ques­tions and source mate­ri­als and begin to devel­op a pic­ture of what the homes of my char­ac­ters might have looked like.


The Gate­way Arch today, San Fran­cis­co’s Chi­na­town, chen­siyuan, GFDL

Anoth­er thing I love to do is walk the neigh­bor­hoods I’m writ­ing about. Of course, San Fran­cis­co now looks noth­ing like San Fran­cis­co in 1900 and yet some things are the same. Weath­er, prox­im­i­ty to the bay, seafood, wildlife, birds, nat­ur­al geog­ra­phy are all large­ly the same. I spent a lot of time in Chi­na­town. Chi­na­town now is almost noth­ing like it was, except for one thing: it still feels like its own city in the mid­dle of San Fran­cis­co. By walk­ing the city now and study­ing old maps and old pho­tos, I was able to con­jure up Chi­na­town in 1900.

Chinatown today

The Street of Gam­blers (Ross Alley), Arnold Gen­the, 1898. The pop­u­la­tion was pre­dom­i­nant­ly male because U.S. poli­cies at the time made it dif­fi­cult for Chi­nese women to enter the coun­try. Pho­to by Arnold Gen­the, Fine Arts Muse­um of San Fran­cis­co. Trans­ferred from en.wikipedia to Com­mons.

Research is an ongo­ing detec­tive game. A syn­er­gy between what I can find out and what I can imag­ine. I research before I begin writ­ing, while I’m writ­ing, and while I’m revis­ing. My hus­band says when I’m in the mid­dle of a book I am pos­sessed. I can’t get enough infor­ma­tion. But I find the entire process thrilling. There is noth­ing like dis­cov­er­ing a juicy source that tells me exact­ly what I need to know.

Gus Trot­ter and his sis­ter, Gem­ma, are intrigu­ing friends who embrace Lizzie and her escapades. Were they in the sto­ry from the very begin­ning?

Al Capone Does My ShirtsNo! Gem­ma and Gus Trot­ter came lat­er. In the begin­ning, Aunt Hort­ense and Uncle Karl had a daugh­ter who was very close to Lizzie. But some­where around the third draft I real­ized she got in the way of the sto­ry. So I kicked her out of the book and as soon as I did Gem­ma and Gus appeared. The same thing hap­pened with Al Capone Does My Shirts. Ini­tial­ly, I had a dif­fer­ent group of kids on the island. I liked them, but they didn’t work very well with Moose, so I fired them. And when I did up popped Jim­my, There­sa, and Annie.

Writ­ing a book is a bit like hav­ing a din­ner par­ty. I’ve had din­ner par­ties where I invit­ed guests I know and love but the din­ner par­ty didn’t quite work because the dynam­ic between the guests fell flat. And then there have been oth­er par­ties where the guests bounced off each oth­er and the cumu­la­tive effect was incred­i­ble. This is, of course, what I’m look­ing for when I audi­tion char­ac­ters for my nov­els.

Do you find it sad to say good­bye to your char­ac­ters when you’ve fin­ished writ­ing the book?

Yes! I real­ly loved the world of Chas­ing Secrets. I found it utter­ly fas­ci­nat­ing. It takes a long time to devel­op a his­tor­i­cal set­ting to the point that it becomes quite that believ­able to me. At first the details sit on the sur­face and then grad­u­al­ly, draft by draft, they sink into the core of the book. And when that hap­pens I become so invest­ed in that world that it is quite chal­leng­ing to let go.


Thank you, Gen­nifer, for shar­ing your thoughts and writ­ing jour­ney with us. 

For use with your stu­dents, Gen­nifer­’s web­site includes A Writ­ing Time­line, a series of videos and pod­casts about Chas­ing Secrets.


Stephanie Roth Sisson

Stephanie Roth SissonThe first Princess Posey book was pub­lished in 2010. How long before that were you asked to illus­trate the book? And were the plans to have it be a sin­gle book at that time or were there already inten­tions to pub­lish more than one book about Posey?

Susan Kochan and Cecil­ia Yung at Pen­guin con­tact­ed me in Novem­ber of 2008 about the Princess Posey series. If I am remem­ber­ing this right, there were two books planned ini­tial­ly. The first book was well received, so I think that’s what expand­ed the series out.

Know­ing how impor­tant it is to have char­ac­ters in books look the same no mat­ter how they are stand­ing or sit­ting or mov­ing, how did you begin to cre­ate Posey’s look?

Princess Poeey and the Tiny TreasureStephanie Greene’s text cre­at­ed Princess Posey through her approach­able and clever text. After read­ing the first man­u­script, I thought that this is a real and relat­able kid- some­one we all know. As an aside, I loved that Posey’s fam­i­ly sit­u­a­tion is not explained. We don’t know why her father isn’t in the pic­ture. This isn’t a divorce book or a book about why dad isn’t there — her world is not about the absence of some­one. Posey has her fam­i­ly, her neigh­bors, friends, and a teacher who are lov­ing and nur­tur­ing and that’s enough.  

What type of draw­ing mate­ri­als and papers do you use when you’re illus­trat­ing the Posey sto­ries?

The Princess Posey illus­tra­tions are done tra­di­tion­al­ly with water­col­ors and paper. I do a lit­tle clean­ing up dig­i­tal­ly, but 90% or bet­ter is tra­di­tion­al media.

What do you think of dif­fer­ent­ly when cre­at­ing the black-and-white draw­ings and spot illus­tra­tions for Posey as opposed to cre­at­ing the illus­tra­tions for your newest book: Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mys­ter­ies of the Cos­mos?

Star StuffWhen I was work­ing on the illus­tra­tions for Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mys­ter­ies of the Cos­mos, I was prepar­ing for a life out­side of the U.S. on this lit­tle island called Mau­ri­tius. On Mau­ri­tius the air is humid (paper buck­les and molds) and qual­i­ty art mate­ri­als are dif­fi­cult to find,  plus ship­ping orig­i­nal art­work is an act of faith in an incred­i­bly unre­li­able ser­vice at best. I can’t even count on a let­ter mailed with­in Mau­ri­tius with clear­ly print­ed address­es to make it to its des­ti­na­tion. For Star Stuff, I used most­ly dig­i­tal media work­ing on a Wacom™ tablet with some scanned art — most­ly for back­grounds. I need­ed to teach myself a method that I could use that could be uploaded to an FTP serv­er. I uploaded the book short­ly before we moved to Mau­ri­tius and it worked!

Do you keep a file of images, either on paper or dig­i­tal­ly, that helps you with ideas?

Yes, I have files for all of my books. I am also a big fan of Pin­ter­est. When­ev­er I find images that I think I can use I col­lect them. This is a great way to cre­ate a book.

Posey has three friends, a teacher, Miss Lee, and her moth­er and grand­fa­ther as main char­ac­ters. Do you orga­nize your infor­ma­tion about each of them in a par­tic­u­lar way? What form does those records take?

Princess PoseyI keep a file with images of Posey’s world. It con­tains maps of her neigh­bor­hood, draw­ings of her house, a floor­plan of her house and draw­ings of each room. I do a bit of the same for the oth­er char­ac­ters, not­ing what sort of cloth­ing they wear. For exam­ple, Nik­ki wears a lot of tunics and wears a head­band, Posey likes her bling.  I have scans of the char­ac­ters in var­i­ous posi­tions and have a “line up” draw­ing with their heights rel­a­tive to one anoth­er.

Do you feel that you know Posey and her world quite well now? Does it feel like a real place to you?

Yes, def­i­nite­ly. Her world sits as a com­plete place in my mind.

On your web­site, you wrote that Tomie dePao­la was the first illus­tra­tor who made you real­ize that you could have a job writ­ing and illus­trat­ing children’s books. What kind of train­ing did you go through to make you con­fi­dent in your work?

Tomie dePaolaYes, I was lucky to have met Tomie dePao­la when I was in ele­men­tary school. I haven’t received any for­mal art train­ing. My col­lec­tion of books for chil­dren grows by the year and includes most of my favorites from child­hood. I study those books. I love every­thing about them from the feel of the paper,  how the sto­ry is laid out, the the­ater of this thing we call a book. I began draw­ing (like most of us) as soon as I could hold a pen­cil, I’ve just nev­er stopped.

What books would you rec­om­mend to bud­ding illus­tra­tors?

Show Me a StoryStudy the books you love  and ask your­self why you like them. Study how the sto­ry unfolds, how we meet the char­ac­ters in the book, and what we can tell about the char­ac­ters from the pic­tures. I’ve noticed that many suc­cess­ful illus­tra­tors come from a film back­ground. Watch movies and see what kind of light­ing is used to set a mood, how scenes are framed and how things are paced to height­en the emo­tion of the sto­ry. As a sto­ry­teller, my num­ber one focus is always the emo­tion­al con­nec­tion between the read­er and the char­ac­ters and the sto­ry. As far as books go, there are so many! Leonard Mar­cus has writ­ten some gems about chil­drens’ lit­er­a­ture, I love read­ing biogra­phies of illus­tra­tors and writ­ers for inspi­ra­tion, too. My first stop though in this process of becom­ing a cre­ator of con­tent for chil­dren is the SCBWI (Soci­ety of Chil­dren’s Book Writ­ers and Illus­tra­tors).    

Stephanie, it has been a joy to come to know Posey through the visu­als you cre­ate. Many of them show ten­der­ness, humor, and joy … all of which young read­ers appre­ci­ate. Thank you for shar­ing your tal­ents with us.


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.”


Interview with Julie Downing: Illustrating The Firekeeper’s Son

inter­view by Vic­ki Palmquist and Mar­sha Qua­ley

Firekeeper's SonThe illus­tra­tions in The Fire­keep­er’s Son are all dou­ble-page spreads. How did that design deci­sion affect your choic­es and work?

I decid­ed on the for­mat because the land­scape is an impor­tant part of the sto­ry. The orig­i­nal dum­my I made had few­er pages so I split many spreads into small­er images. For­tu­nate­ly, my won­der­ful edi­tor rec­og­nized the prob­lem and allowed me to make the book 40 pages instead of 32, so I could spread the sto­ry over 20 spreads. We both felt the expan­sive dou­ble-page spreads helped make the sto­ry feel big­ger.

My favorite spreads are on pp. 24 – 25 and pp. 30 – 31. Sim­i­lar in palate and sub­ject, one (pp. 30 – 31) is effec­tive­ly a close-up of the oth­er (pp. 24 – 25), and that helps so much to height­en sus­pense at a crit­i­cal moment. Did this image come quick­ly or was it reached slow­ly?

My favorite sequence of spreads is between pp. 24 – 25 and pp. 30 – 31. This is the cli­mac­tic moment in the text, and Lin­da Sue expert­ly builds the cli­max to Sang-hee’s moment of deci­sion. The sequence of images took a long time to get just right (most of my ideas come V E R Y slow­ly) I drew and redrew these 4 spreads many times so I could find just the right way to show how Sang-hee decides to put aside his desire to see sol­diers (as shown in the shad­ow on pp. 24 – 25) to the moment where he lights the fire.

FirekeeperIllustrationThe toy fig­ures Sang-hee plays with are a cru­cial ele­ment in the nar­ra­tive, yet they’re not men­tioned in the text. When and how did they become part of the sto­ry?

As an illus­tra­tor, my job is to bring some­thing new to the text. The text says that Sang-hee loves sol­diers and I want­ed to show his inter­est in a way that young read­ers could under­stand. I watched my own son, who was Sang-hee’s age, when I was illus­trat­ing this book. He spent a lot of his time mak­ing Lego® fig­ures and play­ing with them, so I start­ed won­der­ing what the 17th cen­tu­ry equiv­a­lent was to Lego® and came up with the idea of clay sol­diers.

Sang-hee plays with clay (or mud) sol­diers. Did you find exam­ples of these in your research? How do you go about mak­ing sure those toys were in use dur­ing the time peri­od in which the book is set?

Chil­dren did­n’t have toys in the small Kore­an vil­lages and any that they made would not have sur­vived, how­ev­er I spoke to a cura­tor at the Asian Art Muse­um and he sug­gest­ed that chil­dren might have fash­ioned sim­ple fig­ures out of mud or clay. The actu­al sol­diers were made by my 6‑year-old-son so they looked like some­thing a young boy would make.

Where did you do your research to find the uni­forms Kore­an sol­diers would have worn dur­ing this time peri­od? They seem to have reflec­tive riv­ets on their jack­ets. Is this some­thing you could detect from your research?

I love the research part of the process. San Fran­cis­co has a won­der­ful Asian Art Muse­um and I was able to go behind the scenes and look at some of the sol­diers’ actu­al uni­forms. The muse­um also pro­vid­ed me with tons of visu­al ref­er­ence for all the cos­tumes in the book. The reflec­tion in the riv­ets actu­al­ly rep­re­sents sparks from the 2nd coal. I want­ed to visu­al­ly blend real­i­ty and fan­ta­sy.

Did you use mod­els for the peo­ple in your paint­ings?

I do use mod­els. My son’s best friend posed for Sang-hee, and his moth­er posed as well. I find one of the hard­est parts of paint­ing the illus­tra­tions for a book is mak­ing the char­ac­ters look con­sis­tent. It helps me if I find a real per­son to pose.

Do you remem­ber mak­ing a deci­sion to paint Sang-hee’s imag­ined sol­diers with­in the fire?

The text does say he saw a huge bat­tle in the flames, so I was inspired by the text. One of the things I loved about the sto­ry are the lev­els of com­plex­i­ty, and yet the writ­ing is spare. Lin­da Sue touch­es on so many themes — fam­i­ly, duty, desire — with­in a sim­ple text that I had lots of oppor­tu­ni­ties to expand the sto­ry with the art.


You achieve a won­der­ful lumi­nes­cence with your fire. How did you accom­plish this?

I worked with a com­bi­na­tion of water­col­or and liq­uid acrylics. The acrylics are incred­i­bly intense col­ors so I watered them down and paint­ed in dozens of lay­ers. My stu­dio now has a big blue-green stain right near the door, because I pinned the paint­ing to the door, wet them with a spray bot­tle and lit­er­al­ly poured paint over them. All the excess dripped onto the floor. It cre­at­ed a nice wel­come mat!

The col­or palette for the paint­ings is blue, green, and pur­ple, with a beau­ti­ful light suf­fus­ing the land­scape. What led you to decide on that group of col­ors?

I chose the col­ors to con­trast with the warmth of the fire. I usu­al­ly do exten­sive col­or stud­ies so I can work out not only the col­ors in the indi­vid­ual spreads, but also how the col­ors affect the sto­ry arc.

Lotus and the Feather, illus by Julie Downing Disney Hyperion, 2016

Lotus and Feath­er, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Julie Down­ing, pp. 18 – 19. forth­com­ing from Dis­ney Hype­r­i­on, 2016

Many illus­tra­tors paint in water­col­or, but you’ve added pas­tel crayons. What do you feel this adds to a paint­ing?

I love paint­ing with water­col­or. The trans­paren­cy you can achieve with the medi­um was per­fect for the book. How­ev­er, some­times I want­ed a bet­ter dark, a lighter high­light, or a dif­fer­ent tex­ture, so adding pas­tel and col­ored pen­cil allowed me to do this.

The cov­er is not tak­en from pages already exist­ing in the book. It stands sep­a­rate­ly. What did you feel need­ed to be on the cov­er in order to draw peo­ple into the book?

I find cov­ers to be chal­leng­ing. I want to con­vey a sense of the sto­ry with­out giv­ing any­thing away. The edi­tor and I went back and forth on show­ing sol­diers in the flames because we were wor­ried it might reveal the end­ing. Final­ly, we decid­ed that if they were sub­tle, it just adds to the mys­tery of the sto­ry.


Interview with Linda Sue Park: Writing The Firekeeper’s Son

Firekeeper's SonHow do you begin the research for a sto­ry set long ago?

I go to the library. I live in New York state, which has a won­der­ful inter­li­brary loan sys­tem. My local library can get me books from any­where in the state. Many of my sources have come from the East Asian col­lec­tions of uni­ver­si­ty libraries.

The Firekeeper’s Son is set, accord­ing to the Library of Con­gress data on the copy­right page, in the ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry. Did you choose that time because you could ver­i­fy the fires were in use as a sig­nal sys­tem (as men­tioned in your author’s note)? Because it was a time of peace, which was cru­cial to Sang-hee’s long­ing to see sol­diers?

Both. I read about the sig­nal sys­tem in a traveler’s account of 19th cen­tu­ry Korea, and I also chose that time frame because there was no war.

bk_Park_stripThis pic­ture book was pub­lished after you’d writ­ten four nov­els. How much par­ing down of the sto­ry and text did you have to do from the first draft?

Actu­al­ly, I start­ed my writ­ing life as a poet. I’ve writ­ten poet­ry since I was a child, and pub­lished poet­ry as an adult long before I became a fic­tion writer. Good pic­ture-book text is a kissin’ cousin of poet­ry. So when I wrote the book, it felt like ‘com­ing home’ to me.

I did end up cut­ting words from the orig­i­nal draft; I can’t recall the exact num­ber, but it wasn’t dras­tic. As I implied above, I approached the man­u­script wear­ing my ‘poet­ry’ hat, not my ‘nov­el’ one!

How did you decide on the crit­i­cal ele­ment of ten­sion with­in the book?

In every sto­ry I write, the char­ac­ter has to face a prob­lem, make a deci­sion, and act on that deci­sion. Pic­ture books that tell sto­ries aren’t exempt from this struc­ture. So I knew I want­ed to put Sang-hee in a posi­tion where he would have to make a dif­fi­cult deci­sion: one where he would have to choose between his own desires and what he knew was the right thing to do. Even quite young chil­dren face this kind of dilem­ma in their own lives — I know I’m not sup­posed to throw this valu­able break­able fig­urine but I real­ly real­ly want to — so I was con­fi­dent that it would work in a pic­ture book.

You have trav­eled to Korea sev­er­al times. Do you feel that Julie Down­ing, your illus­tra­tor, cap­tured the land that you know?

Korea has of course changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly in many ways since the 19th cen­tu­ry, espe­cial­ly in the cities. I haven’t been able to vis­it the coun­try­side as much as I would like. But the moun­tains and the sea are for­ev­er — at least I hope so — and I think Julie did a ter­rif­ic job there. I also love her depic­tion of Sang-hee’s vil­lage.

FirekeeperIllustrationThe toy fig­ures Sang-hee plays with are a cru­cial ele­ment in the nar­ra­tive, yet they’re not men­tioned in the text. When and how did they become part of the sto­ry?

I was absolute­ly delight­ed to see the toy fig­ures in the illus­tra­tions. They were entire­ly Julie’s idea, and a per­fect way to show Sang-hee’s keen inter­est in sol­diers. I love how she brought her own vision to the sto­ry. That sort of detail is what makes a pic­ture book a true col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Why was it impor­tant to you to tell this sto­ry?

I think many of us feel that his­to­ry is some­thing that hap­pens out­side of our own expe­ri­ences — to famous peo­ple, as a result of momen­tous or tur­bu­lent events. But his­to­ry is hap­pen­ing all around us, all the time, and each one of us is par­tic­i­pat­ing, even if we don’t think we are! In all my his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, includ­ing this book, I want to explore how ordi­nary peo­ple are part of shap­ing his­to­ry. And of course I’m always inter­est­ed in learn­ing more about Korea, where my fam­i­ly comes from. For me, writ­ing is a way of learn­ing.




Beautiful Books: an interview with designer Marty Ittner

Untamed: the Wild Life of Jane GoodallFor young writ­ers who aspire to write infor­ma­tion books of their own, or read­ers who will enjoy the expe­ri­ence of read­ing more, we’d like to help them under­stand how a book design­er works.

Mar­ty Ittner designed Untamed: the Wild Life of Jane Goodall and gra­cious­ly agreed to answer bookol­o­gist Vic­ki Palmquist’s ques­tions.Flourish

When you start the process of design­ing a book, what pro­vides your inspi­ra­tion?

The design process actu­al­ly begins in the mid­dle of a book’s life. The project has already been con­ceived, researched and approved by the author and pub­lish­er to make sure it is a sto­ry worth the invest­ment. So when the design­er first receives the text and pho­tos, it is impor­tant to hon­or the life of the book and the author’s vision. There­fore most of the inspi­ra­tion comes from com­ing to know the sto­ry, and how to tell it visu­al­ly. Sim­ply put, inspi­ra­tion comes from with­in the book itself.

How do you phys­i­cal­ly orga­nize your ideas for the book lay­out?

At first I will do some rough pen­cil sketch­es in my Mole­sk­ine note­book, along­side the notes tak­en from ini­tial dis­cus­sions with the book team. But by and large the ideas are col­lect­ed dig­i­tal­ly in InDe­sign (a page lay­out pro­gram) and Pho­to­shop, a pro­gram which enables adjust­ments to pho­tographs such as adding col­or to an old black and white pho­to.

Do you start by know­ing the book will be a cer­tain size and num­ber of pages or do you decide the size and num­ber of pages after you’ve exam­ined the con­tent and cre­at­ed a rough design?

Nation­al Geographic’s mar­ket­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion teams deter­mine the size and num­ber of pages before it reach­es the design­er. These spec­i­fi­ca­tions are based on a long his­to­ry of pub­lish­ing and review­ing sim­i­lar books and prod­ucts.


There’s a lot of space on many pages where there is no print­ing and no pho­tographs: white space. Why is this impor­tant to you?

That’s fun­ny, because to me this book is brim­ming with col­or and images, com­pared with books that are designed for adults, which have much more white space. I wouldn’t fill an entire room with fur­ni­ture or sur­vive with­out sleep. Space is sim­ply the absence that allows us to see what is present.

You’ve used a graph­ic, screened back to 15% or 20% of a sol­id hue to lay behind the pri­ma­ry ele­ments on many pages. What does this do for the read­er?

On the first sketch­es for the book, I includ­ed some exot­ic vines and leaves that were meant to set the stage for Jane’s time in the jun­gle. The book team liked the idea and decid­ed to take it fur­ther by hir­ing an illus­tra­tor (Susan Craw­ford) to draw the spe­cif­ic plants found in Gombe Nation­al Park, where Jane was study­ing the chimps. At first the read­er may only see them as a back­ground, but even­tu­al­ly may devel­op a curios­i­ty to find out more, much like Ms. Goodall’s own work and note­books. We went so far as to include a page describ­ing each plant, some of which pro­vide food and shel­ter for the chimps. In this way, the read­er can dis­cov­er more about life in the jun­gle, and the inter­de­pen­dence of all species.


On some pages a pho­to cov­ers the entire page. On oth­er pages, a pho­to may take 1/12th or ¼ of the page. How do you make deci­sions about how big the pho­tos will be?

In children’s books, we use what’s called “track­ing”, which is that a pho­to must be on the same spread as its men­tion. For exam­ple, the pho­to of Jane with her stuffed toy Jubilee would run next to the text “her father bought her a large stuffed chim­panzee”. This can some­times be tricky, but for­tu­nate­ly I love solv­ing puz­zles. The oth­er fac­tor is the qual­i­ty of the image. We will high­light good images by run­ning them large and min­i­mize pho­tographs that don’t have the best qual­i­ty.


Do you work on a grid?

Absolute­ly! Struc­ture and form are the under­pin­nings that make a book cohe­sive — cre­at­ing a rhythm that is inher­ent­ly felt. The reg­u­lar­i­ty of the grid cre­ates an ease of entry for the read­er, as their eyes are not jump­ing around.

What com­put­er pro­gram do you use to lay out the book?

Adobe InDe­sign.

ph_knifeDo you do any of your work by hand?

I love the feel of a book as an object. So when design­ing, I always print and trim out the pages with an xac­to knife to see how they will look in the final book.

When a read­er picks up Untamed, how do you hope the book’s design will affect them?

It was a great hon­or to work with Nation­al Geo­graph­ic and Ani­ta Sil­vey to tell the impor­tant sto­ry of Jane Goodall and her beloved chimps. It touch­es on com­pas­sion, the envi­ron­ment, ani­mal rights and the strength of a remark­able woman. My hope is that the design delights and car­ries the read­er through the whole sto­ry. In this way, we can hope to inspire a new wave of com­pas­sion­ate con­ser­va­tion­ists.


Interview with Anita Silvey: Writing about Dr. Jane Goodall

For young writ­ers who aspire to write infor­ma­tion books of their own, we’d like to help them under­stand how a writer works.


Untamed: the Wild Life of Jane GoodallWhen do you remem­ber becom­ing aware of Dr. Jane Goodall?

I worked at Houghton Mif­flin when many of her books were being pub­lished and knew her edi­tor well. The first time I heard her give one of her bril­liant lec­tures, I became a total con­vert.     

What flipped the switch for you to con­sid­er writ­ing a biog­ra­phy of her?

My edi­tor, Kate Olesin of Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, asked if the project would inter­est me. They had access to pho­tos and could put me in touch for inter­views with peo­ple who had worked close­ly with her. Since her 80th birth­day was approach­ing, I loved the idea of a biog­ra­phy that cov­ered her entire life.          

Why was it impor­tant for you to write about Dr. Goodall’s life for young read­ers?

Her pas­sion, her ded­i­ca­tion to her cause, and her abil­i­ty to take a child­hood inter­est, a love of ani­mals, and turn it into her life’s work. I think chil­dren need hero­ines and heroes – and Jane Goodall qual­i­fies as one.

How many books do you esti­mate you read to write about Dr. Goodall’s life?

Prob­a­bly around 70 or so, and then I watched doc­u­men­taries, video clips, and read inter­views. You do so much more research for a non­fic­tion book than ever shows. But in the end, every­thing you exam­ine enters into what you write.

Where did you look to find info about her child­hood, which you use so effec­tive­ly to estab­lish what moti­vat­ed her choice of her life’s work?


For­tu­nate­ly a great deal has been writ­ten about her child­hood, both in sec­ondary sources and by Jane her­self. But to write that chap­ter I was often tak­ing a scene or idea from one book and com­bin­ing it with ideas and scenes from anoth­er. Writ­ing nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion is often like stitch­ing a quilt togeth­er, and scraps come from a vari­ety of sources.         

At what point did your ideas for writ­ing this book come togeth­er with a sin­gle, promi­nent thread that gave you a focus for Untamed?

By the time I had final­ized the out­line, I knew the direc­tion the sto­ry would take. Sol­id non­fic­tion writ­ing depends on a good scaf­fold. If you don’t get that right, you have to redo and redo until the struc­ture is sound.        

When did you start writ­ing Untamed and how long did it take you before you sent the final copy edits back to your pub­lish­er?

We had a sched­ule from the begin­ning of the project. I had a year for the first draft; we fin­ished edi­to­r­i­al revi­sion in 6 months. I have nev­er worked with an edi­tor as effi­cient and effec­tive as Kate. She knows how to keep a project on track!   

There are Field Notes at the end of the book that include facts about chim­panzees, biogra­phies of the Gombe chim­panzees, and a time­line of Dr. Goodall’s life, among oth­er things. Did these come out of your research? Did you begin by know­ing what you want­ed for back mat­ter or did that emerge after you gath­ered your infor­ma­tion?

Some of these I knew I need­ed, like a time­line. But the edi­to­r­i­al staff at Nat Geo, who work on non­fic­tion all the time, had a lot of cre­ative ideas – such as fun facts about chimps or the fam­i­ly pho­to album. Also because of their exper­tise, the back mat­ter has been designed to be attrac­tive and read­able for chil­dren.

Untamed, pp.34-35

Untamed, pp.34 – 35

What was your favorite part of cre­at­ing this book?

See­ing the bound vol­ume. I knew Untamed was going to be beau­ti­ful – but the final book took my breath away.      

What makes you the most proud about Untamed?

Jane Goodall her­self and the Jane Goodall Insti­tute read both the man­u­script and the final pages, check­ing for accu­ra­cy and inter­pre­ta­tion.  I am very proud that Jane Goodall con­sid­ered the book wor­thy of this atten­tion – and thought well enough of the book to write an intro­duc­tion.


Interview: Candace Fleming

credit: Michael Lionstar

cred­it: Michael Lion­star

Bulldozer’s Big Day is a per­fect read-aloud, with won­der­ful sound and action oppor­tu­ni­ties on most pages. Did those moments affect your deci­sion about what verbs to use?

How love­ly you think it’s a per­fect read aloud. I worked hard at the story’s read­abil­i­ty. Not only did I strive for a pace and cadence, but I want­ed the sto­ry to sound as active as the plot’s set­ting with lots of bump­ing and clang­ing and vroom­ing. Addi­tion­al­ly, I thought long and hard about those work­ing verbs. You know, the shift­ing, mix­ing, chop­ping each truck does. They had to have a dou­ble-mean­ing, apply­ing to both con­struc­tion trucks and bak­ing. And they had to be in groups of three, because… well… three just sounds good, doesn’t it?

While most read­ers and lis­ten­ers will think the “Big Day” is a birth­day, you nev­er use that term. Why?

It was redun­dant.  Read­ers can see that the big trucks made a cake for Bulldozer’s sixth birth­day. They don’t need me to tell them. Inter­est­ing­ly, every time I read the sto­ry aloud to kinder­garten­ers they spon­ta­neous­ly burst into the “Hap­py Birth­day” song. I’m not sure I’d get that response if I’d had the trucks shout the words. It’s one more way for them to find their way into the text – and I did it acci­den­tal­ly.

written by Candace Fleming  illustrated by Eric Rohmann  Atheneum, 2015

writ­ten by Can­dace Flem­ing 
illus­trat­ed by Eric Rohmann 
Atheneum, 2015

There is a per­fect turn-around late in the sto­ry, when we go from “mash­ing, mash­ing, mash­ing” to a qui­eter moment, then the sus­pense­ful “lift­ing, lift­ing, lift­ing.” This sug­gests to me that you are not only skilled at dra­mat­ic nar­ra­tive, but a vet­er­an class­room read­er as you qui­et the stu­dents down from that high-ener­gy mash­ing to get ready for a res­o­lu­tion.  Do you remem­ber your first author vis­it to a class­room? What have you learned over the years about read­ing your books aloud?

I do remem­ber my first author vis­it. I was ter­ri­fied. But the kids and teach­ers were so love­ly, I was imme­di­ate­ly put at ease. And this strange thing hap­pened. I turned into an actor. Seri­ous­ly. Stand­ing in front of that library full of first graders, I sud­den­ly dis­cov­ered a tal­ent for talk­ing in voic­es and act­ing like dif­fer­ent ani­mals. Me?! I became a sto­ry­teller. That’s what I know from years of read­ing my books – and oth­ers’ – aloud. You have to be dra­mat­ic. You have to be sus­pense­ful. You have to lick your chops if you’re read­ing about a hun­gry tiger, or wig­gle your bot­tom if you’re read­ing about a puff-tailed rab­bit. Kids love it. In truth, so do I.

Were you ever dis­ap­point­ed on a child­hood birth­day?

You mean that year I didn’t get a pony?

Do you enjoy birth­day cel­e­bra­tions now?

Absolute­ly! I’m espe­cial­ly enam­ored of the cake. And don’t you dare ask me how old I’ll be on my next one.





Interview: Eric Rohmann

Bull­doz­er’s Big Day
writ­ten by Can­dace Flem­ing
illus­trat­ed by Eric Rohmann
Atheneum, 2015

inter­view by Vic­ki Palmquist

What’s the illus­tra­tion tool you turn to more than any oth­er?

Graphite pen­cil. Sim­ple, effi­cient, erasable, feels good in the hand, makes a love­ly line with infi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties for line vari­a­tion. Did I men­tion that it’s erasable? Always for­giv­ing!

What illus­tra­tion tech­nique haven’t you tried that keeps call­ing out to you?

Relief print­mak­ing. The tech­nique gives you so much — the qual­i­ty of the mark, the lay­er­ing of col­or look dif­fer­ent than any­thing I can make with any oth­er tech­nique.

What do you do when you’ve run out of inspi­ra­tion? What gets you going again?

Mak­ing some­thing. Look­ing at some­thing oth­ers have made. It’s a big world out there and there is plen­ty to see.


Eric’s stu­dio

Who is your favorite illus­tra­tor who is no longer with us? And it could be more than one per­son.

William Stieg…and  Helen Sewell, Wan­da Gag, Mau­rice Sendak, Crock­ett John­son, Robert McCloskey, Vir­ginia Lee Bur­ton, James Marshall…just to name a few.

Did win­ning the Calde­cott (medal and hon­ors) change how you think about your work?

Yes. It made me more atten­tive, more ded­i­cat­ed, more aware of my audi­ence. It also took off the pres­sure of ever think­ing about such things again!

How and where do you and Can­dy talk over a new project?

bk_OhNoEvery­where and any­where. Bulldozer’s Big Day was begun on a car ride from Indi­anapo­lis to Chica­go. Giant Squid at an ALA hotel room. Oh, No! in Bor­neo while walk­ing in the jun­gle.

If you could sit down with four oth­er book artists, liv­ing or dead, and have din­ner and a con­ver­sa­tion, who would they be?

This is not fair! Just four? Hmmm… William Stieg, Beat­rix Pot­ter, M.T. Ander­son, Mau­rice Sendak. 


Interview: Ann Bausum

bk_Bausum_CourageClothWith Courage and Cloth: Win­ning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote
Ann Bausum
Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, 2004

inter­view by Vic­ki Palmquist

You state that you weren’t taught women’s his­to­ry in school. (Nei­ther was I. I remem­ber read­ing and re-read­ing the few biogra­phies in the library about Mol­ly Pitch­er, Clara Bar­ton, and Flo­rence Nightin­gale.) When you went look­ing for infor­ma­tion for With Courage and Cloth, how did you start?

I start­ed by vis­it­ing the places where the his­to­ry hap­pened. I went to Seneca Falls. I returned to the Sewall-Bel­mont House so that I could study it with adult eyes (hav­ing met suf­frage leader Alice Paul there when I was a child). I tracked down the loca­tion of the Nation­al Woman’s Par­ty at the time of the pick­ets and retraced the steps suf­frag­ists made on their dai­ly protest march­es to the near­by White House. I climbed on the base of the stat­ue to Lafayette, as women had done in 1918, and dis­cov­ered what it felt like to be perched just above the grounds of Lafayette Park on this slant­ed foun­da­tion. All of these things gave me the spa­tial ground­ing I need­ed to bet­ter under­stand the accounts of his­to­ry that I began to devour and study. It always helps to put your­self in the places and spaces of the peo­ple you’re try­ing to bring to life.

With Courage and Cloth was the third book you had pub­lished. Since then, you’ve had nine more books pub­lished. How has your process changed? If you wrote With Courage and Cloth today, would you approach it dif­fer­ent­ly?

bk_BausumDinosaurMany of the tech­niques I start­ed using for With Courage and Cloth remain at the foun­da­tion of my research and writ­ing process. I still trav­el to the places I’m writ­ing about when­ev­er pos­si­ble. I did my first research in the Library of Con­gress for this book, and I con­tin­ue to return there when­ev­er top­ics fit the col­lec­tions. I con­tin­ue to do exten­sive pho­to research on top­ics, some­thing I’d begun with my first book, Drag­on Bones and Dinosaur Eggs. I began orga­niz­ing my research on note cards with my third book, which I still do, even though it is a painful (lit­er­al­ly) and time-con­sum­ing process. So in many ways I enhanced and honed my writ­ing process through With Courage and Cloth. If I took up this top­ic with fresh eyes, I sus­pect I’d find myself on a famil­iar research road map.

There’s so much to write about on this top­ic, many approach­es to take. How do you devel­op cri­te­ria for nar­row­ing down your con­tent?

I write about what inter­ests me and what I think is impor­tant. I write about what hasn’t been writ­ten about before. I write with con­text so that some­one young can step into the past and not feel dis­ori­ent­ed. Although I write non­fic­tion, I think of myself as a sto­ry­teller — a sto­ry­teller where all the con­tent is true. So when I write, I’m con­struct­ing a nar­ra­tive that not only has to make sense and be accu­rate; it has to be engag­ing. I can’t let tan­gents dis­tract us from the tra­jec­to­ry of our sto­ry. Even favorite facts and side-sto­ries have to be left out, if they don’t con­tribute to the for­ward momen­tum. (Leav­ing things out is painful, but it’s part of the job.) I sus­pect that my process is akin to the process of edit­ing a film, where favorite scenes end up on the cut­ting room floor because they don’t con­tribute to the over­all sto­ry. Or it’s com­pa­ra­ble to build­ing a house where you have to keep the tim­bers in bal­ance.

In the end, I’m writ­ing for myself and the girl I was at 10 or 12 or maybe 14. And I’m writ­ing for the young peo­ple I meet dur­ing author vis­its to schools. I keep the read­er in mind and try to con­struct a sto­ry that sat­is­fies me at my core and will, I hope, inspire a new gen­er­a­tion of read­ers to love his­to­ry and feel empow­ered to take action in their own lives.

From the ear­ly chap­ters of your book, you include women’s suf­frage and the efforts to end slav­ery as often over­lap­ping. In your choic­es on focus­ing the nar­ra­tive, why did you decide to include the anti-slav­ery move­ment?

I found that I couldn’t iso­late one of these efforts from the oth­er. The two caus­es were linked in his­to­ry, and so they had to be linked in my chron­i­cle. Although the link­age might seem inci­den­tal before the Civ­il War, it became crit­i­cal after­wards because it helped to divide the woman’s suf­frage move­ment. There were peo­ple, such as Lucy Stone, who took com­fort in the grant­i­ng of vot­ing rights to for­mer male slaves, but there were oth­ers, such as Susan B. Antho­ny and Eliz­a­beth Cady Stan­ton, who resent­ed the omis­sion of women from the 14th and 15th Amend­ments. In order to under­stand why we end­ed up with two woman suf­frage orga­ni­za­tions after the Civ­il War, we have to under­stand how the pre-war alliance of activists was shak­en by this post-war out­come for vot­ing rights.

Your descrip­tion of the 1913 suf­frag­ist march in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., held at the time of the Pres­i­den­tial Inau­gu­ra­tion, cul­mi­nates with spec­ta­tors, near­ly 500,000 of them, pri­mar­i­ly men, inter­rupt­ing the parade in force­ful and dis­re­spect­ful ways, not stopped by police. You write that news­pa­per reports of the parade “trans­formed overnight” the suf­frag­ist move­ment into a “nation­al top­ic of dis­cus­sion.” Years after first read­ing your descrip­tion of this parade, I remem­ber it vivid­ly and think of it often when hear­ing about low vot­er turnout. What works well for you in build­ing that type of ten­sion in your nar­ra­tive?

It takes the right moments in his­to­ry. If an occa­sion held dra­ma at the time, one can rekin­dle it in the retelling. The secret is in the research. The more I know and the more I’ve seen, the bet­ter I’ll be able to bring the events to life. This is where I think my inter­est in pho­to research real­ly helps. I stud­ied every image of that parade that I could find (and it was well-doc­u­ment­ed). I vis­it­ed the route of the march. I read mul­ti­ple accounts of it — from news­pa­pers, from mem­oirs, from his­to­ri­ans. It’s detec­tive work, in a way, as if I’m recon­struct­ing a crime scene. After I’ve stud­ied the his­to­ry from all these angles, I can breathe life into a fresh por­tray­al of what tran­spired. The facts are at my fin­ger­tips, lit­er­al­ly, with note cards, and that frees my brain to share them through the lens of sto­ry­telling, dra­ma and all, as sup­port­ed by the his­tor­i­cal record.


If all the women in this coun­try went to the vot­ing booth, it would change his­to­ry. Yet, as you wrote, “That said, vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion — the prac­tice of actu­al­ly vot­ing — has rarely been low­er. Pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, which are always the most pop­u­lar, rarely draw more than about half of eli­gi­ble vot­ers to the polls. Many cit­i­zens nev­er even reg­is­ter to vote.” What can your read­ers do to encour­age women to vote?

Read­ers can share their knowl­edge with oth­ers about how hard women fought to achieve this right, and they can lead by exam­ple. Even read­ers who are too young to vote can par­tic­i­pate in peer elec­tions, vol­un­teer with orga­ni­za­tions such as the League of Women Vot­ers, and advo­cate for fur­ther change. A few states have begun to offer or are dis­cussing poli­cies that auto­mat­i­cal­ly enroll peo­ple as vot­ers when they obtain state forms of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, such as dri­ver licens­es. These poli­cies make vot­ing a one-step process. Any­time we reduce the com­plex­i­ty of vot­ing, we encour­age vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion. Con­cerns over vot­er fraud are great­ly exag­ger­at­ed and tend to mask efforts to dis­cour­age broad vot­er par­tic­i­pa­tion. Fight for the right to vote!

bk_Bausum_StonewallYour most recent book, Stonewall, is again about human beings fight­ing for their rights, in this case LGBT cit­i­zens. What ignit­ed your inter­est in human rights?

I grew up dur­ing the 1960s and 1970s, an era dri­ven by fights for human rights and social jus­tice, and I’m sure that frame­work helped to deter­mine my mind­set, helped to set my moral com­pass so that sto­ries of injus­tice res­onate for me. I have always believed in the pow­er of peo­ple to effect change, whether it’s through sci­ence, or lead­er­ship, or social action. I grew up in the South dur­ing the time of inte­gra­tion, the daugh­ter of for­ward-think­ing par­ents, and so the quest for equal­i­ty wasn’t just an abstract con­cept to me. I couldn’t appre­ci­ate the dimen­sions of it ful­ly at the time, but I am con­fi­dent that the strug­gle that played out in every­day ways around me helped to incul­cate me in the con­cept of equal­i­ty. It was part of the air I breathed, and it set me on a course where I’ve always felt empa­thy for sto­ries of injus­tice, and out­rage over sto­ries of injus­tice. I fight with my fin­gers. I hope my words can remind read­ers that the quest for equal­i­ty is nev­er-end­ing. Com­pla­cen­cy is not accept­able. Each gen­er­a­tion must car­ry on the fight.


Interview: Rita Williams-Garcia

Inter­view by Vic­ki Palmquist

photo by Jason Berger

pho­to by Jason Berg­er

When you wrote One Crazy Sum­mer, did you already know you had a longer sto­ry to tell? And if you didn’t know then, when did you know?

I was so focused on telling the one sto­ry of children’s involve­ment in the Black Pan­ther Move­ment. As I dug into my char­ac­ters’ back­sto­ries and pro­ject­ed their actions into the future, I knew I had anoth­er book to write. This hap­pened in the mid­dle of One Crazy Sum­mer when I was explain­ing Cecile’s choic­es and his­to­ry to myself. I could see those ear­ly days so clear­ly. How she came to live with Pa and Uncle Dar­nell. There’s some­thing about know­ing the past that allows you to project into the future. Before I knew it, the seeds were begin­ning to spring up for P.S. Be Eleven. Then as I began to work out the plot for PSBE, I played my actions and con­se­quences game. What are the short term con­se­quences of these actions? What are the long term con­se­quences? This helps me to real­ly con­struct real­ism in the plot, espe­cial­ly in a sto­ry where all things can’t be resolved. Some things have to con­tin­ue on in a nat­ur­al way in the read­ers’ minds. Well, those darn con­se­quences became food for Gone Crazy in Alaba­ma. I didn’t plan three nov­els, but the char­ac­ters had more sto­ry life in front of them. I believe this is the end. I didn’t get that sense of rays shoot­ing out into anoth­er sto­ry.

How did you decide which episodes to place in each of your three books about the sis­ters?

I didn’t have all three sto­ries. One Crazy Sum­mer was its own sto­ry. When I real­ized there would be a Book 2, I thought more about the over­ar­ch­ing theme, which would be change which seemed to explode dur­ing the late 60s, ear­ly 70s. Change in the fam­i­ly, change in the polit­i­cal struc­ture, the unspo­ken but under­ly­ing change in the black com­mu­ni­ty as a result of return­ing trau­ma­tized Viet­nam vet­er­ans and drug use, the change the women’s move­ment brought to homes, coun­try and com­mu­ni­ty, and most impor­tant, those deeply per­son­al changes of our nar­ra­tor.  The trick was to com­press all of those changes, even cheat time a lit­tle to give young read­ers a sense of what it was like to be in the midst of those changes and see­ing how they weren’t just abstrac­tion, but changes that had direct impact. The third book allowed me to talk about what we in the black com­mu­ni­ty talk about amongst our­selves — hold­ing onto fam­i­ly amid the break­down and evo­lu­tion of fam­i­ly. The plot­ting and focus of each sto­ry is dif­fer­ent. It is the incre­men­tal growth of the sis­ters — and even the fam­i­ly mem­bers — that is the con­tin­uüm that stretch­es across all three sto­ries. So, you can read any of the sto­ries in whichev­er order you chose, but you see and feel the change and growth of the char­ac­ters when the sto­ries are read from sum­mer to sum­mer.

Are you a busy, noisy-places writer or a qui­et-spaces writer?

I do a lit­tle of both. I need absolute qui­et at home. No radio, TV, inter­net, phones. When I’m out and about, I can work with the buzz and sirens of the city around me. My ears hear it as one noise. Cell phone noise, par­tic­u­lar­ly loud cell phone noise is hard­er. I car­ry ear plugs in my bag.

You’ve made this fam­i­ly so real, from when we first meet Del­phine, Vonet­ta, and Fern in One Crazy Sum­mer to the part­ing scene in Gone Crazy in Alaba­ma. I found myself want­i­ng to become a friend, stay­ing in their lives for­ev­er. What is the most impor­tant aspect of this family’s sto­ry for you, the writer?

I like the way that every­one feels they are right. This is good for me as a writer. It promis­es con­flict. But isn’t this at the source of most fam­i­lies and famil­ial con­flict? I hope in that way, I’ve asked the read­er to under­stand what they might not agree with. Oh, what a cool trick, if we can do this in gen­er­al!

Does writ­ing a first draft come quick­ly for you or do you weigh each word care­ful­ly as you’re writ­ing it?

bk_GW_PSI have a long incu­ba­tion peri­od. I spend a lot of my wak­ing hours day dream­ing the sto­ry. Telling myself the sto­ry. As I research and day­dream I begin to feel more con­fi­dent about the sto­ry. I start writ­ing a month or so lat­er. When I’m writ­ing the first draft the words are unim­por­tant. Occa­sion­al­ly, the con­nec­tion between myself and the nar­ra­tor is so strong that I’m a good 60%-75% close to final as I slog through the first draft. But I real­ly use my first draft to con­firm proof of sto­ry. To nail down direc­tion. But hon­est­ly, there are so many false starts. But the lan­guage of the sto­ry, the voice and tone of the sto­ry begins to take shape. I’m less anx­ious when I feel the sto­ry has its own voice and not just the few words I know. As I get clos­er to the final drafts I work hard on lan­guage. When the sto­ry is in good shape, I con­cen­trate on the lan­guage.

At what point do you revise your man­u­script?

I revise after I have my clear direc­tion. After I have the first draft. I write in my note­book by hand, and make notes along the way (“Nah”, “deal with this lat­er”, “not work­ing”, etc.). Some­times I stop the for­ward move­ment to nail down a few ear­ly chap­ters because they anchor the sto­ry. But I try to push for­ward to con­firm that the sto­ry works, or what I call “proof of sto­ry.” I revise chap­ters sev­er­al times and drafts sev­er­al times. I should say, I don’t begin typ­ing the sto­ry until it is a sto­ry. I don’t know if I rec­om­mend that prac­tice. It’s just the way I do it.

I want to so bad­ly to ask you if these three books are bio­graph­i­cal and yet my ratio­nal brain knows they are fic­tion. As a read­er, I want this fam­i­ly to be real. I want to hear Miss Trotter’s laugh and Ma Charles’ laugh and I want­ed to be in that room with the whole fam­i­ly after the storm. Can you tell us what per­cent­age of these sto­ries comes from your own back­ground?

Who will read this inter­view? Hope­ful­ly, not my young read­ers — no offense!! I don’t think my young read­ers want to hear this clin­i­cal thing about my char­ac­ters. Any­way, I con­struct them all and tend to stay clear of bas­ing them on actu­al peo­ple. The char­ac­ters have to mag­net­i­cal­ly fit into the fam­i­ly and sto­ry. If I have a respon­si­ble char­ac­ter, like Del­phine, I give her a rea­son to acti­vate her super pow­ers. Enter Vonet­ta and Fern — in their dis­tinct ways. If Big Ma is fear­ful, tra­di­tion­al, a good Chris­t­ian (at least in her mind), her daugh­ter-in-laws must be in oppo­si­tion to that in their dis­tinct ways. Big Ma’s moth­er must be a source of con­ster­na­tion. Her son, who is in between tra­di­tion and change, must be her ally at times and her oppo­si­tion at oth­er times when it comes to his daugh­ters and his mates. See how it works? I might take an aspect of my moth­er and drop it into Cecile — but as strong and off kil­ter as both can be, they are two dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent moth­ers and per­sons. My moth­er was into her Jimi Hen­drix and Janis Joplin, but she was the woman of the house­hold and there was no mis­tak­ing that. She did absolute­ly every­thing, while my sibs and I were respon­si­ble for home­work, play­ing and mak­ing our beds.

If you know me at all, you know that I love mak­ing things.  Mak­ing char­ac­ters is the best Play-Doh™ ever!

Del­phine and I were born the same year, so I was aware of the world spin­ning and chang­ing dur­ing the late six­ties, ear­ly sev­en­ties. I kept a diary that not­ed sev­er­al events like assas­si­na­tions of Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Sen­a­tor Robert F. Kennedy — as well as the man­hunts of their assailants. Apol­lo 11, etc., etc. I didn’t write these grand or pre­co­cious insights. I saw things as a child, so I kept that in mind as I wrote Delphine’s nar­ra­tive.

My own fam­i­ly isn’t like the Gaithers in the spe­cif­ic sense, but my par­ents migrat­ed from the south to Queens, New York in the 30s and 40s. My ear­ly life up until twelve was as an army brat. My father served in Viet­nam — no drug involve­ment, but that’s not to say he wasn’t affect­ed by the war.  There were three of us kids, all thir­teen months apart. My sis­ter Ros­alind is the old­est, broth­er Rus­sell is the mid­dle, and I’m the youngest. Am I Fern? Nah.  My ear­ly life up until twelve was an army brat liv­ing on army bases and army towns.  

I lived through this same era but not in the same neigh­bor­hoods (Oak­land, New York City, Alaba­ma). After read­ing these books, I feel that my under­stand­ing of my own his­to­ry got larg­er. Do you feel that way as the writer?

bk_GWGoneCrazyAbsolute­ly. There is so much untold his­to­ry. One of the parts of his­to­ry that Gone Crazy tells, is of the cross­ings between peo­ple, be they through bru­tal­i­ty, neces­si­ty or choice. We are made up of so many peo­ple and his­to­ries. It seems ridicu­lous to con­tin­ue to tell a sin­gu­lar sto­ry. The best his­to­ry, to me, is fam­i­ly his­to­ry. We are all wit­ness­es to our times, and most of us main­tain con­nec­tions with our elders. We should take note of what we see, feel and think dur­ing our time, but also take in the sto­ries of our elders while they’re with us.

How does Gone Crazy in Alaba­ma relate to the past?

Even though Gone Crazy  is set in the sum­mer of 1969, its reach extends back to the 1830s, up until the 1870s, through the turn of the cen­tu­ry, and so on. My grand­moth­er was raised by her great-grand­moth­er, who was a slave and whose father fought and died in the Civ­il War. My grand­moth­er was our family’s link to this peri­od. I thought about these human links and that they dis­ap­pear. So, I began to think about the Charles-Gaither-Trot­ter fam­i­ly tree.  I esti­mat­ed approx­i­mate­ly when the ances­tral char­ac­ters would be born and what was hap­pen­ing dur­ing those times. I immersed myself in Alaba­ma his­to­ry to bet­ter weave the cross­ings between African Amer­i­cans, Native Amer­i­cans and Euro­pean Amer­i­cans. (If not for every oth­er of my African Amer­i­can class­mates brag­ging about their “Indi­an” roots, I would have missed the Native Amer­i­can branch in this Alaba­ma his­to­ry!) My sis­ter even jumped on the “we’re part Chero­kee” band­wag­on, although I knew bet­ter. Alaba­ma was the per­fect set­ting! It had the rail­road sys­tem run­ning from the Okla­homa Indi­an Ter­ri­to­ries through Aug­tau­ga Coun­ty dur­ing Recon­struc­tion, plus a tex­tile mill dat­ing back to the 1800s. (The tex­tile mill was where Louis Gaither Sr., as well as Uncle Dar­nell worked — although I scrapped that fact from the nov­el.) The KKK was active in Alaba­ma from post-Civ­il War, peter­ing out in the late 1800s and then resurg­ing in the 1920s, and active through the 1960s in George Wallace’s Alaba­ma. So even though the three sis­ters were not raised in the Jim Crow South, and most of the “Whites Only” signs have been removed, they are breath­ing the air of the past that still has its pres­ence dur­ing their time.

I thought about the two sis­ters whose lives hadn’t changed much from the time their father was alive. They retain a lot of that past. Ma Charles wouldn’t have indoor plumb­ing if not for her neigh­bor. The idea of sub­sist­ing and shar­ing with neigh­bors is how both sis­ters lived, per­haps fol­low­ing the ways of their moth­ers. Ma Charles talks about how “oth­er folks” (you know she means white peo­ple) jumped out of win­dows dur­ing the 20s because of the mar­ket crash, while poor peo­ple with gar­dens sur­vived it. Her purist free-range eat­ing and organ­ic gar­den­ing is now all the rage. Both she and Miss Trot­ter keep true to the lives they lived as chil­dren born in the late 1800s, down using “sad irons” that are placed on a hearth or on a stove, instead of elec­tric irons. The bonus is, for Del­phine, who is serv­ing her penance while iron­ing the sheets she refused to iron ear­li­er, Del­phine is also touch­ing hands with his­to­ry. Hold­ing hands with women who knew slav­ery and eman­ci­pa­tion. She doesn’t know that, but I do! My hope is that the read­er does also.

I’m about change, but I love that nei­ther Ma Charles nor her half-sis­ter, Miss Trot­ter don’t want to change who they are. These are women who were edu­cat­ed in a one-room school, with kids from five to fif­teen, and as young women they prob­a­bly remem­ber when Okla­homa became a state.  They have to feel those times when Native Amer­i­cans need­ed work pass­es to work out­side of their des­ig­nat­ed ter­ri­to­ries and reser­va­tions. The 82 year-old sis­ters have to feel those times when African Amer­i­cans tes­ti­fy­ing in court would have pro­vid­ed enter­tain­ment for white peo­ple. And I have to under­stand what would have been humil­i­at­ing for them, their moth­ers and their father. I have to feel those times and what they mean to the char­ac­ters with links to the past. Mind you, it all can’t go inside the sto­ry, but time, place, and peo­ple must be a part of me while I write.


Nikki Grimes: Researching and Writing Chasing Freedom

Inter­view by Vic­ki Palmquist

Chasing FreedomChas­ing Free­dom
writ­ten by Nik­ki Grimes
illus­trat­ed by Michelle Wood
Orchard Books, 2014

Did you know more about one of your two char­ac­ters when you con­ceived of the book?

 Yes. I knew a fair amount about Har­ri­et Tub­man. Hers was one of the few sto­ries about African Amer­i­cans brought out every year dur­ing what, in my youth, was called Negro His­to­ry Month. I was far less famil­iar with the details of the life of Susan B. Antho­ny, though I cer­tain­ly had a pass­ing knowl­edge of her place in his­to­ry.

How did you decide there was a sto­ry to be told about these two women? Togeth­er?

 In 1988, I was asked to devel­op dra­mat­ic mono­logues on an assort­ment of his­tor­i­cal fig­ures for a stage pro­duc­tion to be done in Chi­na lat­er that year. I chose Har­ri­et Tub­man, Susan B. Antho­ny, and Fred­er­ick Dou­glass as my sub­jects. In the process of research­ing them indi­vid­u­al­ly, I learned that they were all con­tem­po­raries, and that their paths fre­quent­ly crossed one anoth­er’s. The fact that these his­tor­i­cal pow­er­hous­es knew one anoth­er was excit­ing, and led me to believe that many new sto­ries were pos­si­ble, but espe­cial­ly between these two women.

You wrote Chas­ing Free­dom in prose rather than verse, as a fic­tion­al sto­ry, rather than non­fic­tion. What led you in those direc­tions for this nar­ra­tive?

ph_Grimes_3The idea for this book began with the quin­tes­sen­tial lit­er­ary ques­tion “What if?” In this case, the ques­tion was, “What if Har­ri­et Tub­man and Susan B. Antho­ny sat down togeth­er for a long con­ver­sa­tion? What would that con­ver­sa­tion be like?” The germ of the idea was based on some­thing that, to my knowl­edge, nev­er actu­al­ly occurred, so while his­tor­i­cal facts shape the bulk of the nar­ra­tive, the fic­tion­al aspect of the con­ver­sa­tion itself dic­tat­ed that this sto­ry would be a work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. As for the choice of prose, that was dic­tat­ed by the over­whelm­ing amount of his­tor­i­cal mate­r­i­al and detail I wished to include in the piece. Poet­ry would not have giv­en me the room I need­ed, nor would it have allowed me to work in as many quotes from the sub­jects, them­selves. As it is, the brevi­ty of the pic­ture book for­mat, itself, required a con­stant par­ing down of the man­u­script. Oh, the sto­ries left untold for lack of space!

When you were col­lect­ing quotes from the two women, how did you record them? (e.g., on paper, in the com­put­er, on note cards) What type of nota­tion did you make? How did you orga­nize the quotes so you could find them again?

I made the bulk of my nota­tions on yel­low lined pads, in spi­ral note­books, and in assort­ed jour­nals. For the record, I always write in long­hand, whether the work is his­tor­i­cal­ly based or not. In any case, I did not keep quo­ta­tions sep­a­rate from oth­er notes. When I was ready to move from research to writ­ing, I read back through my notes, and marked quo­ta­tions with col­ored post-it notes so that I could find them as I need­ed to.


 Did you include trav­el in your research? Which sites did you find most use­ful?

 The sto­ry is set against the back­drop of the Under­ground Rail­road, the Civ­il War, and the ear­ly suf­frage move­ment. As such, I began research with a trip to Cincin­nati, Ohio to explore the Nation­al Under­ground Rail­road Free­dom Cen­ter, there. I also spent time in Cincin­nati’s main library, which hous­es one of the best col­lec­tions of lit­er­a­ture relat­ed to the Under­ground Rail­road, as well as sub­stan­tial mate­r­i­al by and about Susan B. Antho­ny. After­wards, I vis­it­ed Rip­ley, OH where sev­er­al homes on the Under­ground Rail­road have been pre­served. The library in Rip­ley was a worth­while stop, as well.  I devel­oped my list of ref­er­ence mate­ri­als as a result of vis­it­ing these sites, but more than that, they put me in the frame of mind to dig deep­er into the life sto­ries of these two women.

Are you able to soak up “the vibes” of a vis­it­ed site in a way that informs your writ­ing?

Always. In this case, the expe­ri­ences with the great­est impact were two. First, step­ping into the recon­struct­ed slave pen, shack­les in full view, at the Nation­al Under­ground Rail­road Free­dom Cen­ter. Sec­ond, a few days lat­er, descend­ing into a root cel­lar at The Rankin House, one of the sta­tions of the Under­ground Rail­road in Rip­ley, where run­away slaves were fre­quent­ly hid­den. Had I been alive in the 1800’s, I could have been one of those slaves, the real­iza­tion of which was enough to make me shud­der in that moment, and even now. I drew on those vis­cer­al feel­ings as I wrote the sto­ries of Har­ri­et’s har­row­ing jour­neys to and from the South to res­cue slaves des­per­ate for free­dom. As an African Amer­i­can author, these sto­ries are close to the bone.


Did you have any­thing to say about the choice of illus­tra­tor?

Yes. I felt strong­ly that, as this was a book about women, writ­ten by a woman, a female artist should be tapped for the illus­tra­tions. Michele Wood was first on my list, specif­i­cal­ly for her atten­tion to his­tor­i­cal detail. I con­veyed my thoughts to my edi­tor, who took them into account. Nei­ther of us was dis­ap­point­ed with the final choice, or the stun­ning work that result­ed.

What type of input did you have on the illus­tra­tions or the design of the book?

In this book, I had very lit­tle to do with either, although I occa­sion­al­ly com­ment­ed on some­thing in the sketch­es, which were sent to me ear­ly on.

Do you write the back mat­ter or does the pub­lish­er have some­one to do this?

I research and write all of my own back mat­ter.

If you write the back mat­ter, are you tak­ing notes for this as you do your research or how do you pre­pare for this part of the book?

I planned to pre­pare sub­stan­tial back mat­ter for this book from the very begin­ning, though I did not assem­ble this infor­ma­tion until the very end. As I went along, I made nota­tions about his­tor­i­cal fig­ures or impor­tant his­tor­i­cal events, or leg­is­la­tion that I might want to include in the back mat­ter. Fur­ther research into those sub­jects came at the end of the project when I was ready to draft that sec­tion of the book.

Are there any ques­tions I did­n’t ask that you wish I had asked you?

 How long did it take me to cre­ate this book? The idea first came to me in 1988. I took my ini­tial research trip in ear­ly 2008. Chas­ing Free­dom was final­ly pub­lished in 2015. My point? It’s impor­tant to remem­ber that some books take time!








Kekla Magoon: Writing Historical Fiction

inter­view by Ric­ki Thomp­son

cover image

Aladdin Books, 2009

RICKI: Kekla, thanks so much for join­ing me and your oth­er fans (old and new) on Bookol­o­gy! Your nov­els have been described as “well-paced,” “deeply-lay­ered,” and “ele­gant­ly craft­ed.”  I espe­cial­ly admire the uncom­fort­able issues you con­front and the risks you take in your sto­ries. You’ve authored a num­ber of engag­ing books, but today let’s talk about your com­pan­ion YA his­tor­i­cal nov­els, The Rock and the Riv­er and Fire in the Streets, and the research involved in writ­ing them.

Your nov­els take place in Chica­go, 1968, a pow­der keg time and place. 1968 was the year Mar­tin Luther King Jr. and Bob­by Kennedy were shot. It was the year that thou­sands of pro­test­ers and police clashed vio­lent­ly out­side the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion in Chica­go. Did you choose this volatile set­ting, or did it choose you?

KEKLA: I want­ed to write about the Black Pan­ther Par­ty, and though the orga­ni­za­tion was start­ed in 1966 in Oak­land, I want­ed to show a broad­er pic­ture of the civ­il rights strug­gle too. So I chose a city I was already famil­iar with, and where riots had erupt­ed in the wake of Dr. King’s assas­si­na­tion (this hap­pened in many cities nation­wide, but not Oak­land, because the Pan­thers helped calm the com­mu­ni­ty). Chica­go hap­pened to also be the city where the DNC [Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion] was held, which allowed Maxie’s sto­ry to open amid that mêlée.

RICKI: The Black Pan­thers was a con­tro­ver­sial par­ty. Many of your char­ac­ters, includ­ing your pro­tag­o­nist, Max­ie, are mem­bers. Why did you make this choice?

Aladdin, 2012

Aladdin, 2012

KEKLA: The Pan­thers were con­tro­ver­sial because a lot of peo­ple didn’t under­stand their goals. In the media and in his­tor­i­cal dis­cus­sions, they tend to be por­trayed as vio­lent and scary, when in real­i­ty their work in the com­mu­ni­ties was broad and often very pos­i­tive. Most peo­ple think of them as a mil­i­tant group, which they were, how­ev­er their “mil­i­tan­cy” was based on a strat­e­gy of self-defense against police bru­tal­i­ty. When they were not being attacked, they focused on cre­at­ing pos­i­tive change and empow­er­ing peo­ple with­in strug­gling black com­mu­ni­ties. The Black Pan­ther Par­ty oper­at­ed schools, ran food pro­grams, offered legal aid, and pro­vid­ed health clin­ics for poor peo­ple who did not have any­where else to turn. I wrote these books in part to offer up the Pan­thers’ side of the sto­ry and to show how excit­ing their pres­ence in the com­mu­ni­ty was to young peo­ple who longed to make a dif­fer­ence and were tired of march­ing and protest­ing for change and being beat­en down for their effort.

RICKI: The Black Pan­thers believed in car­ry­ing arms in order to police the police. A num­ber of the char­ac­ters in your books han­dle guns. What kind of research did you do to learn about firearms?

KEKLA: I read about the types of guns the Pan­thers used. I’ve nev­er had actu­al firearms as a part of my life. I’m a lit­tle bit intim­i­dat­ed by the idea of guns, and while it appeals to me in the­o­ry to learn to use them for the pur­pos­es of research, I didn’t ever take it that far.

RICKI: Chica­go, 1968, doesn’t exist any­more. But some of the peo­ple who inhab­it­ed that time and place still do. What role did per­son­al inter­views have in your research?

KEKLA: Not much for The Rock and the Riv­er. I didn’t per­son­al­ly know any for­mer Pan­thers at that point, though I had spo­ken to a num­ber of peo­ple who lived through the time and par­tic­i­pat­ed in the Civ­il Rights Move­ment in oth­er capac­i­ties. By the time Fire in the Streets came out, I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to speak to a hand­ful of for­mer Pan­thers, some of whom are still well known activists and edu­ca­tors.

RICKI: Did you explore the places in Chica­go where your char­ac­ters lived and worked? What did you learn from your explo­rations?

cover image

Hen­ry Holt, 2014

KEKLA: I went to col­lege in Chica­go area, but I lived in New York when I wrote these books. I have been to the neigh­bor­hoods where I pic­ture Sam and Max­ie liv­ing, but the com­mu­ni­ty I cre­at­ed for them is real­ly a con­glom­er­a­tion of places and things.

RICKI: Your nov­els make ref­er­ence to a num­ber of famous peo­ple — Mar­tin Luther King Jr., Coret­ta Scott King, Bob­by Seale, Huey New­ton, Fred Hamp­ton. If you could have  lunch with one of them, whom would you choose? Why?

KEKLA: Oh, wow. I would love to sit with any of them. Of your list, the only per­son still liv­ing is Bob­by Seale, so I will try for that one in real life at some point, along with Elaine Brown, Angela Davis, Kath­leen Cleaver and any­one else who will hang out with me. But in terms of those who are gone, I would prob­a­bly choose Fred Hamp­ton. He is the one on the list who had the least chance to speak in the world (short­est life, small­est plat­form dur­ing that life) and I can only imag­ine how much more he would have had to say.

RICKI: Authen­tic dia­logue is so impor­tant in his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. How did you learn the slang (such as “pigs” for “police”) and the every­day ver­nac­u­lar of the peri­od?

KEKLA: Just from read­ing the Pan­thers’ his­tor­i­cal writ­ings, I was able to pick up their lan­guage and style. I cer­tain­ly could have car­ried that aspect of the sto­ries fur­ther, but I want­ed mod­ern read­ers to be able to fol­low the slang, so I chose a few things to use reg­u­lar­ly. “Pigs,” to me, is Pan­ther-spe­cif­ic and very evoca­tive.

RICKI: What expe­ri­ences, ques­tions, crav­ings, in your own life con­nect you to Sam in The Rock and the Riv­er and/or Max­ie in Fire in the Streets?

cover image

Can­dlewick, 2015

KEKLA: Well, the main ques­tion that dri­ves ROCK is which path to choose — pas­sive resis­tance or self-defense, broad­ly speak­ing. And in FIRE, it’s how far will you go to stand up for what you believe in, which is a shade of the same issue. So these nov­els are part­ly dri­ven by my won­der­ing what I would have done if I had lived back then, what choic­es I might have made in that time and place.

RICKI: Can you talk about your research process?

KEKLA: I did a lot of read­ing about the Black Pan­ther Par­ty: books, mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers. I’d already stud­ied the civ­il rights move­ment in gen­er­al for many years already, but it was inter­est­ing and infor­ma­tive to dig into a less-often-dis­cussed top­ic. I watched doc­u­men­taries in which the founders and ear­ly mem­bers of the BPP spoke and the organization’s his­to­ry and con­tro­ver­sies were high­light­ed. I read their writ­ings and speech­es from the peri­od, and auto­bi­ogra­phies of, and I even viewed some old micro­film copies of the orig­i­nal Black Pan­ther news­pa­per. Lat­er, I trav­eled to Oak­land and viewed copies of the real news­pa­pers and oth­er ephemera in their archives.

RICKI: And how did you keep track of your research?

KEKLA: I was sup­posed to keep track of it?

RICKI: You said your mom helped you in your research. How?

KEKLA: I can imag­ine myself say­ing that, but out of con­text, I’m not actu­al­ly sure what I meant. She was a young teen in the late 1960s, so I’ve cer­tain­ly talked with her about her own expe­ri­ences and mem­o­ries of the time.

RICKI: You’ve no doubt heard the expres­sion “Your research is show­ing.” What riv­et­ing infor­ma­tion did you have to elim­i­nate for the sake of the sto­ries?

cover image

Blooms­bury, 2015

KEKLA: Well, 1968 was quite a rich year in terms of his­tor­i­cal con­text, so I left a lot of com­pelling mate­r­i­al out of these sto­ries. But it’s also a near enough moment in his­to­ry that the kinds of his­tor­i­cal details that authors some­times get bogged down in retelling — dai­ly food prepa­ra­tion rit­u­als, trans­porta­tion, peri­od tech­nol­o­gy — weren’t too much of an issue. I did have to pay close atten­tion to my own assump­tions about the world — I had to elim­i­nate ref­er­ences to Chicago’s Sears Tow­er (now Willis Tow­er), which hadn’t been fin­ished yet, and pens that “click” open had to become pens with caps. The long curly cords of tele­phones that I remem­ber from my 1980s child­hood weren’t in fash­ion yet, so you couldn’t walk around the kitchen while on the phone, you had to stand in one place to talk. This is the kind of detail that my mom and oth­er old­er read­ers helped me cor­rect. And, of course, I real­ize that the very detail of using a cord­ed phone may be news to some of my young read­ers!

RICKI: Fire in the Streets ends on a strong but edgy note. Can we hope for a third nov­el to join your oth­er two?

KEKLA: Oh, I doubt it. I guess you nev­er know when an idea will strike, but for the time being I’ve moved on to oth­er top­ics. The near­est thing to a third “com­pan­ion” for ROCK and FIRE is my non-fic­tion book on the his­to­ry and lega­cy of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty, which will be pub­lished by Clar­i­on in Fall 2016.




A Conversation Between Avi and Gary D. Schmidt

Avi and Gary D. SchmidtWhen Avi pub­lished his 1950s’ era nov­el, Catch You Lat­er, Trai­tor, he ded­i­cat­ed the book to Gary D. Schmidt, fel­low author, fel­low read­er, fel­low con­nois­seur of noir detec­tive nov­els and his­to­ry. The Bookol­o­gist is priv­i­leged to lis­ten in on this con­ver­sa­tion between two authors who are so great­ly admired for the depth and tex­ture with­in their books. Enjoy!

Gary D. Schmidt:
Ray Brad­bury once wrote a short arti­cle enti­tled “Mem­o­ries Shape the Voice” in which he talked about the pow­er­ful ways that his child­hood mem­o­ries affect­ed the mak­ing of his Green­town, Illi­nois. It wasn’t just the details that would come back to him as he cre­at­ed the world of his short sto­ries — it was how he felt about those details: the beau­ty (to him) of the town’s fac­to­ries, the ter­ror (to him) of the gul­lies. It seems to me that this is true also of your evo­ca­tion of 1951 Brook­lyn. Is that fair to say?

It is fair. It’s been many years since I’ve lived in NYC, but I con­fess I still think of myself as a New York­er. I’ve writ­ten more about the city than any oth­er place, from City of Light, City of Darka dystopi­an graph­ic nov­el — to Sophia’s Wara tale of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. It’s not just “home” in a phys­i­cal sense, it’s my emo­tion­al home. And yet, I now live in the Rocky Moun­tains, nine thou­sand feet up, in a com­mu­ni­ty of thir­teen, the near­est neigh­bor a mile away.

When writ­ing Catch You Lat­er, Trai­tor, which is set, for the most part, in my boy­hood neigh­bor­hood, it was easy for me to walk home from school, play stoop­ball, go to the local movie the­ater. I eas­i­ly recall sit­ting on the front stoop read­ing com­ic books with my friends — even which com­ic books.

Gary D. Schmidt:
One part of that world is the phys­i­cal set­ting: Pete’s apart­ment, the streets, the nurs­ing home, the school. Though I sus­pect that being in these set­tings brought a great deal of nos­tal­gic plea­sure, how did these set­tings play a part in the plot­ting of the book?

I think all writ­ers depend on sen­so­ry mem­o­ry. Con­sid­er Ritman’s Books where, in the book, Pete hangs out. There was such a book­store in my neigh­bor­hood, which I loved to go to. The same for that movie the­ater where I would go for the Sat­ur­day morn­ing kids’ shows. My Brook­lyn was very much a small town. There was every­thing I need­ed, and all I need­ed to con­struct the book. Even when I had to go beyond, by sub­way — I love the city sub­ways — it gave me great plea­sure to write about them.

Brooklyn Heights SchoolGary D. Schmidt:
The school is par­tic­u­lar­ly intrigu­ing to me, since it seems to me to be act­ing in inter­est­ing the­mat­ic ways. School, for Pete, is a place of mono­lith­ic pow­er: the teacher. There is one point of view, one way of respond­ing to Amer­i­ca, one way of sit­ting and respond­ing and behav­ing. Toward the end of the book, Pete calls his teacher, Mr. Don­a­van, a bul­ly — and it seems at that point that Mr. Don­a­van rep­re­sents all of the school. But does it seem to you as well that the school, with its insis­tent pow­er, also rep­re­sents the way the coun­try was act­ing toward dis­sent at this time?

Mr. Don­a­van is based on a teacher I did have. I describe him as I remem­ber him. But don’t for­get Mr. Malakows­ki, who is also real, and a nice guy. He was, in fact, my favorite teacher. Par­ents think they know about their children’s schools, but I think in some way schools con­sti­tute a par­al­lel uni­verse to home life. They don’t always inter­sect. Pete’s par­ents don’t real­ly know what’s going on there, and Pete doesn’t want them to get involved. That, I think, is typ­i­cal. In today’s world, the old­er a kid gets the less he/she wants par­ents to be involved in school. Yes, the school does rep­re­sent the coun­try at that time, but it’s impor­tant to remem­ber that it was not the whole coun­try.

Gary D. Schmidt:
And of course, there are the char­ac­ters that are so vivid — an Avi trade­mark. I think espe­cial­ly of Mr. Ord­son, the blind man to whom Peter reads. He reads the news­pa­per, because Mr. Ord­son wants to keep up with cur­rent events. And he is a wise and good friend to Pete. You’ve writ­ten that Mr. Ord­son is based on a real per­son to whom you, as a young ado­les­cent, read. Are there oth­er char­ac­ters based on folks from your past? Per­haps Pete’s father, a noble char­ac­ter? Have you, as William Faulkn­er once advised, cut up your rel­a­tives to use them in your plot?

How can I say this? Pete’s father is based on what my father was not. My father was not a nice man. Very hard on me. Abu­sive. Don’t get me going. Any­way, I think Pete’s father is what I would have liked my father to be. I bet you’ve worked from that kind of oppo­site, too. Cathar­tic, per­haps. On the oth­er hand, Pete’s old­er broth­er is some­what based on my own old­er broth­er who, like many old­er broth­ers, can be patron­iz­ing to younger broth­ers. That said, a major part of the sto­ry is not about fam­i­lies that pull apart — there is some of that — but how fam­i­lies stay togeth­er. And Kat — a key fic­tion­al char­ac­ter in the book — is drawn to Pete’s fam­i­ly as much as she is to Pete.

Gary D. Schmidt:
One oth­er ele­ment from the past: the noir voic­es, the sounds of the hard-boiled detec­tive fic­tion that you read, that I read, that we both still read. At times, Pete leaves the first-per­son nar­ra­tive to go into that hard-boiled voice. I think you prob­a­bly had a lot of fun with that, right?

I adored writ­ing those sec­tions. I think there is some­thing unique­ly Amer­i­can in that noir voice. The tough love. The sar­casm. The wit. The truth-telling. The very care­ful lit­er­ary con­struc­tion, all of which masks a deep-root­ed sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty, an embar­rassed, if you will, search­ing for love. Very com­plex. The thought that I can share that — intro­duce it — to my read­ers gives me great plea­sure.

Gary D. Schmidt:
In this McCarthy – era nov­el, Pete is thrown into a world in which fear inspires hatred. As news spreads that his father does not accept an easy vision of a per­fect Amer­i­ca but believes that the sto­ries of work­ers and African Amer­i­cans also need full play in tales of the devel­op­ment of the coun­try, Pete is ostra­cized, since it is assumed that his father must be a Com­mie! Since all his­tor­i­cal fic­tion is writ­ten both about a time in the past and for read­ers in the present, it seems to me that your nov­el is a pow­er­ful warn­ing against assum­ing that any nar­ra­tive about our coun­try is sim­ple and uncom­pli­cat­ed.

One of my favorite notions about his­tor­i­cal fic­tion is expressed in the open­ing lines of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. “The past is a for­eign coun­try: they do things dif­fer­ent­ly there.” I find that a fas­ci­nat­ing idea because I don’t entire­ly agree with it. What I mean is, yes, the past is a dif­fer­ent coun­try, but they do not always do things dif­fer­ent­ly there. I know, from what I’ve read of what you’ve writ­ten, you under­stand this. Our goal is to make the past mean­ing­ful to the present, right? To give it life. Amer­i­ca has such a com­plex and fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry. But how lit­tle peo­ple know of it! How many great sto­ries there are yet to tell!

Gary D. Schmidt:
Pete must deal with some hard truths: in the nov­el, he devel­ops strong anger toward both his broth­er and his great-uncle, anger which does not get resolved in the nar­ra­tive. At the same time, he comes to under­stand that his father lives a life that is larg­er and per­haps more noble and hon­or­able than he had imag­ined. Is it fair to say that in one way, this nov­el is about the lim­its of knowl­edge — that we can­not tru­ly know some­one else com­plete­ly?

Pete’s father tells Pete: “Noth­ing is sim­ple. Know that and you know half the world’s wis­dom.” Oh, how I believe that! Bet you do, too. Some­where I read, “Poor writ­ing makes what you know sim­ple. Good writ­ing makes it com­plex.” Right?

Gary D. Schmidt:
Per­haps this is the hubris of the McCarthy era as well — the assump­tion that I have the right to know every­thing about some­one else. I note this in the con­text of a world in which it seems to be the grow­ing assump­tion that we do have the right to know what we want to know about anoth­er per­son — some­thing that Pete’s father insists is not true at all.

Hey! Pri­va­cy, the last fron­tier! It’s one of the most impor­tant things about book read­ing. It’s tru­ly pri­vate. Far more so than even dig­i­tal read­ing! The oth­er day — in San Fran­cis­co — I passed a used book store. Out front was a box labeled “Free Books.” Think of it! No one would know if I picked up a book. Or read it. Or thought about it. Or what I thought. No one. And yet, and yet — and I know you believe this, too — noth­ing is more inti­mate than shar­ing thoughts. That said, one of the most pow­er­ful things a per­son can have — for good or ill — is a secret. As a kid I recall play­ing a game we called Secrets. The idea being that you and your friend each shared a real secret. A dan­ger­ous game, when you think about it.

You Never Heard of Willie Mays?Gary D. Schmidt:
Pete decides that he will be a Giants fan, going against Brooklyn’s fanat­ic loy­al­ty to the Dodgers — who, we know, will one day betray that loy­al­ty. I know this is, on one lev­el, sim­ply Pete’s desire to get back at the oth­ers around him for their hatred. But it also seems to me that Pete is assert­ing his right to be dif­fer­ent — exact­ly what McCarthy­ists feared and pros­e­cut­ed, and, per­haps, exact­ly what our own cul­ture seems to fear: the per­son who does not buy into the cur­rent vision of the Amer­i­can dream: to acquire. This is not a mes­sage nov­el; it first does what E. M. Forster claims the writer must do: make the read­er turn the page. But at the same time, you are mak­ing some pow­er­ful sug­ges­tions that warn against a too easy accep­tance of the culture’s claims upon us.

Being loy­al to a false ide­al can be very destruc­tive. Being loy­al to high ide­al can be very dan­ger­ous. Pete’s shift from being a Brook­lyn Dodger fan to a New York Giants fan is some­thing that came right out of my life — and, yes, in 1951 when the Giants won the Nation­al Pen­nant just as I recount it in the book. It was my first step in becom­ing inde­pen­dent from my fam­i­ly. But when you become inde­pen­dent of your fam­i­ly — or your cul­ture — you pay a price. More often than not you are reject­ed, told that you have aban­doned them, who­ev­er or what­ev­er them might be. But being dif­fer­ent, being inde­pen­dent, is lib­er­at­ing. In Catch You Lat­er, Trai­tor, the word trai­tor becomes a code word for “being dif­fer­ent.” In the sto­ry being dif­fer­ent enrich­es Pete’s life. The sto­ry begins by his no longer being a kid. It ends by his becom­ing a kid again — but far deep­er in expe­ri­ence. Hey, that’s why I ded­i­cat­ed the book to you. You’ve lived your life that way. Right?

Thank you both for this inter­view. It opens many paths to explore and ideas to con­sid­er, but we expect­ed no less from the two of you.


Interview with Sonny Liew

Shadow Hero coverThe Shad­ow Hero
writ­ten by Gene Luen Yang
illus­trat­ed by Son­ny Liew
First Sec­ond, 2014

Grow­ing up in Malaysia and Sin­ga­pore, what were the pop­u­lar com­ic books?

Well in terms of what you’d see at the news­stands , there was Old Mas­ter Q or Lao Fu Zhi from Hong Kong. In schools, there’d always be some­one read­ing Tin Tin, Aster­ix or Archie. Myself, I also read a lot of Beano, Richie Rich and, a bit lat­er on, Mad mag­a­zine. That last one prob­a­bly turned me into a life­long dis­si­dent.

How old were you when you start­ed draw­ing or paint­ing? What were your fre­quent sub­jects?

I think draw­ing comes very nat­u­ral­ly to kids, it’s just an instinct to pick an pen or cray­on and scrib­ble away. But I sup­pose I con­tin­ued draw­ing at an age when a lot of peo­ple stop — the ear­ly to mid-teens? By that stage I was very caught up with role-play­ing games like Dun­geon and Drag­ons and Drag­on War­riors, so a lot of it was fan­ta­sy art fea­tur­ing bar­bar­ians and elves.

What deci­sions took you on your life path from Cam­bridge [Uni­ver­si­ty] to the Rhode Island School of Design?

I start­ed doing a com­ic strip for a local Sin­ga­pore­an news­pa­per whilst I was still in Cam­bridge, and that whole process — think­ing up ideas, finess­ing a punch line, draw­ing the final art — it just felt like some­thing I could be total­ly engaged with. So I was pret­ty sure I want­ed to do some­thing arts-relat­ed after grad­u­at­ing, though it took me a while longer to fig­ure out that I ought to go to art school, to learn every­thing from paint­ing to sculpt­ing, col­or the­o­ry and com­po­si­tion.

p. 60 illustration excerpt

p. 60 illus­tra­tion excerpt

At what point did you decide that you’d like to be a comics artist?

Look­ing back at it now…I guess dis­cov­er­ing works by cre­ators like Chester Brown and Charles Burns—they opened up my mind to a dif­fer­ent kind of comics then what I’d been used to — com­plex, per­son­al sto­ries that took the medi­um to whole new places. I sup­pose I had a sense then that engag­ing with the medi­um could be a lifetime’s endeav­our.

How does it work in the comics world…how did you get signed on to The Shad­ow Hero as the illus­tra­tor?

Heh, I actu­al­ly think that’s the wrong term, “illus­tra­tor.” Comics is a com­bi­na­tion of text and images, there’s no real way to divide the two in the way the sto­ries are told. It’s more a case of sto­ry­telling as a whole, with the writ­ing and art­work being han­dled by dif­fer­ent peo­ple in some cas­es. It’s a minor detail maybe, but per­haps does have some sig­nif­i­cance in the way books are clas­si­fied or con­ceived in some places, espe­cial­ly those more  used to prose nov­els, where illus­tra­tions are seen as sec­ondary, an add-on rather than an inte­gral part of the sto­ry.

In any case…Gene and I had worked togeth­er on a short sto­ry for the Secret Iden­ti­ties anthol­o­gy a few years a back, and his sto­ry is that I was the first per­son he thought of when he had The Shad­ow Hero script ready. I’d like to believe that’s true! On my end, it was a no-brain­er to get the chance to work with Gene again on the project.

The col­or palette you chose for The Shad­ow Hero goes from a fair­ly neu­tral gray and brown palette to vivid­ly intense reds, greens, and golds. How did you choose those col­ors?

Top: from p. 3;  Bottom: from p. 87

Top: from p. 3;
Bot­tom: from p. 87

It’s usu­al­ly a mat­ter of tri­al and error, tweak­ing the palette until it looks right. It’s always a func­tion of sto­ry­telling, and in the this case, we need­ed dif­fer­ent palettes to mark out the past from present, as well as a look that evoked the feel of the orig­i­nal Green Tur­tle comics.

Did you con­fer with Gene Luen Yang while you were draw­ing the sto­ry? If so, did parts of the sto­ry change based on your dis­cus­sions?

Only minor things like lay­outs, rather than any deep­er struc­tur­al or the­mat­ic con­cerns. Gene’s scripts are won­der­ful­ly clear-head­ed, and the changes I sug­gest­ed were most­ly to add a lev­el of visu­al dynamism where pos­si­ble. Or maybe just to jus­ti­fy my pres­ence on the project.

Did you refer to Chu Hing’s Green Tur­tle comics when you were doing your sketch­es?

For sure! I don’t own any phys­i­cal copies of the com­ic, but for­tu­nate­ly these days you have access to dig­i­tal ver­sions.

Who was your favorite char­ac­ter to draw?

Uncle Wun Too. There was a won­der­ful eccen­tric­i­ty about him, and I got to draw him in a cos­tume that paid homage to Old Mas­ter Q.

Art of Charlie Chan coverWe’re look­ing for­ward to The Art of Char­lie Chan Hock Chye (Pan­theon, ear­ly 2016). What can you tell us about your work on that book?

The book con­tains three main strands, I think — the life of a long-for­got­ten comics artist, the sto­ry of Sin­ga­pore, and the sto­ry of comics. The main chal­lenge was to try to bring them togeth­er in a nar­ra­tive that would be both for­mal­ly inter­est­ing and com­pelling. It’s the most chal­leng­ing thing I’ve ever done, and it’s been called mul­ti-tex­tured and lay­ered… but I’m going to go with the blurb Gene wrote for the book: “A joy to read…masterfully weaves the his­to­ry of Sin­ga­pore with the his­to­ry of comics into some­thing you’ve nev­er expe­ri­enced before.”




Interview with Gene Luen Yang

Shadow Hero coverThe Shad­ow Hero
writ­ten by Gene Luen Yang
illus­trat­ed by Son­ny Liew
First Sec­ond, 2014

What qual­i­fies a comics char­ac­ter as a super­hero?

You’ve asked a ques­tion that lies at the very heart of geek­dom.  I don’t know if there’s a sol­id answer.  Most super­heroes have super­hu­man abil­i­ties, but not all.  Most super­heroes wear col­or­ful cos­tumes, but not all.  Most super­heroes have goofy alias­es, but not all.

Maybe a char­ac­ter just has to make her­self into a sym­bol of some­thing big­ger, some­thing more.

The Shad­ow Hero is an ori­gin sto­ry — you and artist Son­ny Liew cre­at­ed a back sto­ry for a char­ac­ter and series that had a brief, four-issue life back in the 1940s. You knew your end point: The Green Tur­tle would end up help­ing the Allies’ war effort dur­ing WWII, and because you want­ed to make the super­hero Asian, you had a start point. With those two points pinned on a board, what was the next step in writ­ing the sto­ry?

Lots and lots of think­ing.  I debat­ed how old the pro­tag­o­nist should be, where he should come from, who should be in his sup­port­ing cast.  Hav­ing pre­de­ter­mined begin­ning and end points actu­al­ly made things eas­i­er.  Often, I’m frozen by inde­ci­sion.  Those “pinned” points nar­rowed my options, at least a lit­tle bit.

I knew I want­ed the char­ac­ter to be of Chi­nese descent but raised in the West, like me.  I researched the his­to­ry of the Chi­na­towns in San Fran­cis­co and New York, and found some good sto­ry fod­der.

The pro­tag­o­nist, Hank, is con­tent to work at his father’s side in the fam­i­ly store when he’s thrust into extra­or­di­nary events.  He’s not born with his super­pow­er and he nev­er dreamed of being a super­hero. Why did you choose to work with this dra­mat­ic path?

Often, immi­grants’ kids are born into dreams.  We’re born into a set of expec­ta­tions.  I want­ed that to be a pri­ma­ry ten­sion of the book: Hank’s mom wants one thing for him, Hank him­self wants anoth­er.

Super­heroes are deeply Amer­i­can.  They were invent­ed in Amer­i­ca, they’re most pop­u­lar in Amer­i­ca, and at their best super­heroes express Amer­i­ca at its best.  Hank’s mom sees “super­hero­ing” as a way of becom­ing Amer­i­can, a way to final­ly be accept­ed by her family’s new coun­try.  Hank could care less, at least in the begin­ning.  He just wants to be com­fort­able.

Shadow Hero illustration

You’ve stat­ed in inter­views that The Shad­ow Hero is about the immi­grant expe­ri­ence — about being the child of immi­grants, espe­cial­ly.  Could you dis­cuss this for our read­ers, many of whom teach and oth­er­wise work with chil­dren of immi­grants?

Almost every major super­hero was cre­at­ed by chil­dren of Jew­ish immi­grants: Super­man, Bat­man, Spi­der-Man, the Hulk, Cap­tain Amer­i­ca, Iron Man, the X‑Men.  Con­scious­ly or not, they embed­ded their life expe­ri­ence into their cre­ations.

Immi­grants’ kids often grow up with one name at home and anoth­er at school, one set of expec­ta­tions at home and anoth­er at school.  We nego­ti­ate between two iden­ti­ties.  That’s a con­ven­tion in the super­hero genre.  Super­man isn’t just Super­man, he’s also Clark Kent.  Bat­man is also Bruce Wayne.  Spi­der-man is also Peter Park­er.

I some­times won­der if that’s why I loved super­heroes so much as a kid.  I saw myself in them.

Chinese in America coverPlease say a bit more about the research involved in writ­ing about pre-WWII Chi­na­town and oth­er set­tings or ele­ments.

 I read about ear­ly Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ties in San Fran­cis­co, New York, and Hawaii.  Iris Chang’s The Chi­nese in Amer­i­ca was par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful.

Have you ever made your own super­hero cos­tume?

I haven’t, but my friends have on my behalf.  For my bach­e­lor par­ty, they dressed me up as a char­ac­ter they called Wein­er Man –cape, under­wear on the out­side, an absurd and slight­ly inap­pro­pri­ate chest insignia.

My friends are mean.

You are also a vet­er­an high school teacher. Your grad­u­ate-school work focused on the val­ue of comics as an edu­ca­tion­al tool, and you’ve list­ed on your blog some comics that are a per­fect fit for a  S.T.E.M. cur­ricu­lum. On anoth­er site, Comics in Edu­ca­tion, you list pro­fes­sion­al resources to help teach­ers learn to inte­grate comics into the class­room. If you were to tell an uncon­vinced teacher the sin­gle­most rea­son to include graph­ic nov­els with­in the cur­ricu­lum, and not just as inde­pen­dent read­ing, what would that be?

Sim­ply put, cer­tain types of infor­ma­tion are bet­ter com­mu­ni­cat­ed through pic­tures.  I love words.  I read words for fun and I read words for work.  Words are incred­i­bly, incred­i­bly impor­tant to me and I nev­er want them to go away.  But words can’t do every­thing.  Can you imag­ine putting togeth­er a Lego set by fol­low­ing words-only instruc­tions?  So many con­cepts can be bet­ter explained with pic­tures: osmo­sis, the bina­ry num­ber sys­tem, fac­tor­ing.

I don’t see comics as a replace­ment for prose — I see comics as anoth­er tool in the tool­box.  Teach­ing is such a dif­fi­cult pro­fes­sion.  Shouldn’t teach­ers have access to as many dif­fer­ent tools as pos­si­ble?

Secret Coders coverYour forth­com­ing Secret Coders, Book 1 (illus­trat­ed by Mike Holmes) will be pub­lished this fall by First Sec­ond Books. Could you briefly tell us about this book and the series it launch­es?

I’m very, very excit­ed about Secret Coders.  This is my first explic­it­ly edu­ca­tion­al graph­ic nov­el series.  It’s also my youngest – it’s mid­dle grade.

Secret Coders is a bit like Har­ry Pot­ter – our young pro­tag­o­nists find a secret school.  How­ev­er, instead of teach­ing mag­ic, the secret school teach­es cod­ing.  Mike and I hope that, as our char­ac­ters learn to code, our read­ers will too.

A final ques­tion about The Shad­ow Hero: If you hopped into the way-back machine and land­ed in sev­enth grade and had to give a very short report on The Shad­ow Hero to your class­mates, what one thing about the book would you want to share with them?

It’s got punch­ing in it!  And mahjong!



Catherine Thimmesh: Researching Paleoartistry

cover image How did you learn about pale­oartists?

 While I was work­ing on my book Lucy Long Ago, part of that research revealed the work of a pale­oartist who recon­struct­ed liv­ing crea­tures from paleo times based on fos­sil evi­dence, includ­ing the hominid, Lucy.

 How did you decide which pale­oartists to con­tact?

I researched the world’s top pale­oartists — as defined by the pale­on­tol­o­gists and pale­oartists them­selves. Then, from those artists, I select­ed the art I per­son­al­ly con­nect­ed with and thought might mix well togeth­er in a book. I then con­tact­ed those artists to see if they would par­tic­i­pate in the project. (One artist con­tact­ed declined.)

How do you ask them for infor­ma­tion?

It’s pret­ty straight­for­ward — just ask! Most of the time, I’m able to con­tact the artists ini­tial­ly through email. That’s help­ful for a cold-con­tact. I am able to intro­duce myself and attach a link to my web­site to famil­iar­ize them with my work. Then, after some ini­tial cor­re­spon­dence with email, I set up a tele­phone inter­view.

from Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled, image copyright Tyler Keillor

from Scaly Spot­ted Feath­ered Frilled, copy­right Tyler Keil­lor

What’s the process you went through for obtain­ing per­mis­sion to use the art in this book? Where did you go to find the art?

Usu­al­ly the artists own the copy­rights to their art­work (or some­times a muse­um has the copy­right), so it’s just a mat­ter of nego­ti­at­ing a usage fee and the terms with which to use the work. I scoured the inter­net, some books, and artists’ web­sites to find the art. Lat­er in the process, after the artists were select­ed, I would email spe­cif­ic requests to see if any­one had, say, a Tricer­atops with the scale pat­tern fair­ly vis­i­ble (or some such).

How do you write so that both chil­dren and adults are inter­est­ed in your books?

Hmmm .… I choose top­ics that inter­est and excite me and that I feel will inter­est and excite kids. Both ele­ments must be present or I won’t do the book. I’ve start­ed sev­er­al books and then some­where along the way either I lost inter­est or I felt the inter­est lev­el for kids would­n’t be there and so I aban­doned the projects. I don’t con­scious­ly write for any age. I do pur­pose­ful­ly write with a fair­ly casu­al tone — which I think tends to make a book more kid-friend­ly. It sur­pris­es me, still, that so many adults tell me they enjoy my books and per­haps that’s because while I try to write in an acces­si­ble man­ner for kids, I also refuse to dumb any­thing down for them — which in turn, might make the mate­r­i­al more appeal­ing.

Were you inter­est­ed in dinosaurs as a child?


What was the most sur­pris­ing thing you learned while writ­ing this book?

My ini­tial thought — the thought that led to dig­ging deep­er into the top­ic (How do we know what dinosaurs real­ly looked like?) — was: ‘Well, obvi­ous­ly the artists just make this stuff up. They’d have to; there’s no ref­er­ence to draw upon.’ But that thought led me to this: ‘But how can they just make stuff up and present it in a sci­en­tif­ic con­text (with­out an attached dis­claimer: THIS IS COMPLETELY MADE UP)?’ This of course got me agi­tat­ed; which, in turn, led to: ‘The sci­en­tif­ic pre­sen­ta­tions of dinosaurs (as opposed to movie dinosaurs or pic­ture book dinosaurs) MUST be based upon some­thing. What could it be?’ So, it was enor­mous­ly sur­pris­ing and grat­i­fy­ing to learn that pale­oartists base their art not just on “some­thing”; not even just on a hand­ful of fos­sils, but on a tremen­dous back­bone of sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence and sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly based infer­ence (with some artis­tic license tak­en when absolute­ly nec­es­sary — for instance with col­or).

Thank you, Cather­ine, for writ­ing a book that address­es ques­tions we did­n’t even know to ask, but which intrigued you enough to research and write Scaly Spot­ted Feath­ered Frilled: How do we know what dinosaurs real­ly looked like? And thank you for shar­ing some of your book-writ­ing jour­ney with our Bookol­o­gy read­ers.



Ellen Oh: Researching and Writing the Prophecy Trilogy


prophecy trilogyBookol­o­gist’s note: Last month we fea­tured Cather­ine, Called Birdy and an inter­view with the author, Karen Cush­man. In that inter­view, non­fic­tion writer Claire Rudolf Mur­phy asked Cush­man about her research and incor­po­ra­tion of his­tor­i­cal fact into her fic­tion. Con­tin­u­ing that explo­ration, this month Bookol­o­gy vis­its with nov­el­ist Ellen Oh. King, the final vol­ume of her Prophe­cy tril­o­gy, was released in March (vol­umes 1 and 2 are Prophe­cy, Harp­er Teen 2013 and War­rior, Harp­er Teen 2014). A blend of his­tor­i­cal and fan­ta­sy fic­tion, the tril­o­gy is set around 350 AD or CE and weaves ancient his­to­ry from the area now known as Korea into a com­pelling and action-packed nar­ra­tive about a teen girl, Kira, who is a demon-hunter and also the ful­fil­ment of an ancient prophe­cy — the Drag­on Musa­do who would unite the many divid­ed king­doms into a sin­gle nation.

You have writ­ten on your web­site and spo­ken in oth­er inter­views about how your recre­ation­al read­ing of ancient Asian his­to­ry trig­gered your writ­ing. Have you always loved read­ing his­to­ry and/or his­tor­i­cal fic­tion?

Count of Monte CristoYes. I love his­to­ry. As a child my favorite books tend­ed to be the his­tor­i­cal ones. In fact, my all time favorite books were The Count of Monte Cristo and To Kill a Mock­ing­bird. I was that nerdy kid that enjoyed read­ing the school his­to­ry text­book. When I was 13, my par­ents got suck­ered into buy­ing the entire World His­to­ry Ency­clo­pe­dia book set and I am not ashamed to admit that I read every sin­gle vol­ume. And I read what­ev­er inter­ests me, which is how I got into Asian his­to­ry. I was fas­ci­nat­ed by the idea that Genghis Khan had been named Time’s Man of the Mil­le­ni­um and it led me to read every­thing I could get my hands on. And in the process, I learned all about Asian his­to­ry and I was hooked.

When you were first read­ing ancient Asian his­to­ry, you must have encoun­tered many things that rang the “how amaz­ing — should be in a book!” bell. How did you keep track of those bits of his­to­ry and mythol­o­gy for lat­er use?

Yes! So many awe­some things. If the book was mine, I would tab all the impor­tant pages. But I had bor­rowed so many library books that I kept a notes jour­nal filled with all the facts, leg­ends, folk­tales, myths, etc., that I came across. I have sev­er­al expand­able file fold­ers filled with papers and note­books on all my notes.

Can you cite one or two finds that a read­er will encounter in Prophe­cy or the lat­er books?

The most amaz­ing sto­ry I came across was the leg­end of the Rock of Falling Flow­ers, Nakhwa-am. Leg­end has it that dur­ing the Shilla and Tang inva­sion of Paekche in 638 C.E., 3,000 court ladies leapt to their deaths into the Baeng­ma Riv­er. From a dis­tance, the beau­ti­ful, mul­ti-col­ored han­boks of the court ladies looked like falling flow­ers — which is where the place gets its name. The leg­end is so visu­al­ly com­pelling that I knew I had to include it not only in my book, but also in my book trail­er

Can you cite one or two ele­ments in the tril­o­gy that would not show up in a his­to­ry book?

Oh yeah, well it is a fan­ta­sy and I want­ed the scary ele­ments to be real­ly creepy. So in Prophe­cy, you will come across demons that eat your organs and wear your skin like a Hal­loween cos­tume. But the best part is Kira and her tiger spir­it. Kira has yel­low eyes because she has a tiger spir­it that is part of her and pro­tects her. And it is the tiger spir­it that lets her see and smell demons, some­thing that no one else in her world has.

You have a fab­u­lous map on your web­site that shows the 7 King­doms from the nov­els. While you empha­size that your king­doms are not the his­tor­i­cal king­doms that would merge into mod­ern Korea, there is some sim­i­lar­i­ty, and you list those. Geog­ra­phy is so impor­tant in the books — the moun­tains, the rivers, the seas, the loca­tion of the walled cities. How did you keep all of this clear in your head while writ­ing?

I kept a copy of the map and a com­pass by my side the entire time I was writ­ing. Espe­cial­ly in the lat­ter books, where Kira has to lit­er­al­ly zig zag her way across the coun­try, I relied heav­i­ly on my map to course out the road she would trav­el.

Map-mak­ing can be a ter­rif­ic writ­ing prompt or exer­cise for uncov­er­ing details. Did you have any favorite writ­ing exer­cis­es that helped you devel­op Kira’s char­ac­ter or world?

I like to use Excel spread­sheets and include all my char­ac­ters in them and list out every­thing I know about them, even to their sor­did and some­times irrel­e­vant back­sto­ries. But by putting togeth­er a spread­sheet, I was able to know inti­mate­ly how every­one inter­act­ed with each oth­er and why they were nec­es­sary in any giv­en scene. It was, in a way, my char­ac­ter map.

Kira’s fam­i­ly gives lov­ing sup­port to her “dif­fer­ent­ness” and unique pow­ers rather than cast her out or attempt to sti­fle her. Can you talk about that writer’s choice?

It was impor­tant for me that Kira had a strong fam­i­ly that she could fall back on. No mat­ter how hard her life is, how hat­ed she is by the out­side world, hav­ing faith and being secure in her family’s love keeps her ground­ed. It is part of what devel­ops her into such a strong char­ac­ter. And being a mom myself def­i­nite­ly played into this deci­sion. You see, I have 3 won­der­ful and very dif­fer­ent girls and it is impor­tant for me to be as sup­port­ive as I can for them. No mat­ter what choic­es they make in life, I’ll always be there for them and love them uncon­di­tion­al­ly.

When you vis­it class­rooms, what sort of ques­tions do you get from stu­dents about the books?

The two most com­mon ques­tions are “Do you have a Jin­do dog?” and “When will it be made into a movie?”

Diverse Books LogoYou are the pres­i­dent of #WeNeed­Di­verse­Books. What’s ahead in the cam­paign for 2015?

So many great things! Our short sto­ry con­test for a spot in our anthol­o­gy is cur­rent­ly going on and we are get­ting a lot of amaz­ing entries! We have begun award­ing intern­ship grants to increase diver­si­ty in pub­lish­ing and we have opened up our Wal­ter Awards for best diverse book. And we are gear­ing up to pre­pare for our Diver­si­ty fes­ti­val which is cur­rent­ly set for July 2016 in Sil­ver Spring, MD.



Cathy Camper: Writing Lowriders in Space

Lowriders coverLowrid­ers in Space
writ­ten by Cathy Camper
illus­trat­ed by Raul the Third
Chron­i­cle Books, 2014

When did you first become aware of (or involved in) lowrid­er cul­ture?

Prob­a­bly in the ear­ly 1980’s, when I vis­it­ed a friend of mine who lived in the Mis­sion Dis­trict of San Fran­cis­co. There were a lot of lowrid­ers in the neigh­bor­hood, and since we were young women at the time, we’d get flir­ta­tious atten­tion from guys show­ing off their cars when we walked down the street.

How was the deci­sion made to make your three heroes non-human (the fourth hero, Genie, is a cat and I don’t need to ask why a cat is a cat)? They are an impala, an octo­pus, and a human … how did that come about?

Back when the book was just a day­dream, I thought up the names of the char­ac­ters first. I liked the name Elirio, and the name Elirio Malar­ia was real­ly fun to say. I’d walk around think­ing, Elirio Malar­ia, what kind of guy is he? Then one day it was as if a lit­tle voice whis­pered in my ear, “I’m not a guy, I’m a mos­qui­to!” Duh!

Lowriders cast

Heroes in Space

Lupe (short for Guadalupe) Impala also got her name because it was fun to say, and because Impalas are the cho­sen cars of lowrid­ers. She real­ly is an impala, which is like a deer, or gazelle. For some rea­son read­ers don’t seem to know what kind of ani­mal she is; they think she’s a fox, a wolf, a mouse?!? Raul and I thought it would be clear from her name, but you just nev­er know…

And Flappy…I was read­ing an arti­cle about octo­pus­es, and dis­cov­ered there real­ly is a super cute kind of octo­pus called a Flap­jack Octo­pus, because its ten­ta­cles are short and stub­by. Bam, you couldn’t ask for a bet­ter char­ac­ter.

It cracks me up when I hear the heroes described as a mos­qui­to, an impala and an octo­pus, because I nev­er thought of them as those ani­mals first. Their ani­mal nature came out of their names and per­son­al­i­ties.

For the kids who’d like to make their own comics, how did you find Raul the Third? And when you found him, did the two of you work on devel­op­ing the graph­ic nov­el togeth­er? Or was there the typ­i­cal sep­a­ra­tion of author and artist?

Lupe at the Wheel

Lupe at the Wheel

Raul and I met via a mutu­al friend, who was draw­ing anoth­er com­ic I’d writ­ten. He couldn’t com­plete it, so he emailed me to sug­gest his friend Raul might like to work on it. I nev­er fin­ished that com­ic, but sev­er­al years lat­er when I’d writ­ten the script for Lowrid­ers, I emailed Raul to see if was inter­est­ed in a kid’s book, because I liked his art and knew we both had a good work eth­ic – we like to meet our dead­lines.

He read it and wrote back, “This is the book I want­ed to read as a kid,” and start­ed send­ing me sketch­es the next day. He lives in Boston and I live in Port­land, and we even­tu­al­ly met in per­son before embark­ing on such a big project, but from the start, it was obvi­ous we had sim­i­lar goals and shared the same sense of humor and approach to get­ting things done. In gen­er­al, I write the sto­ry and he does the art, but we’re lucky that our pub­lish­ers have let us col­lab­o­rate a lot. Some­times Raul will sug­gest plot changes or add dia­log that fits with his chore­og­ra­phy of the sto­ry. Like­wise, some­times I’ll spec­i­fy some things that need to be shown in the art. It’s kind of like jazz, riff­ing off each oth­er, where jokes and plot lines move back and forth between words and pic­tures. We also both have to adjust what we do to fit our edi­tors’ and art director’s instruc­tions.

Because a com­ic book or graph­ic nov­el often lets a sto­ry be told between the pan­els, did you do more edit­ing to fit the illus­tra­tions than you might have with a pic­ture book?



When I write the script, it’s very descrip­tive, because I’m try­ing to con­vey a whole world to Raul, my edi­tors, and our art direc­tor. When Raul draws the thumb­nail sketch­es, a lot of the writ­ing falls out, because the sto­ry has now moved into the pic­tures. So if a char­ac­ter says, “Look, there’s a falling star!” once he’s drawn it, the char­ac­ter might just need to say, “Look!” I also try to leave some large spaces where big dra­ma occurs, so the art can take over.

I think our book is dif­fer­ent in this way from books like Dra­ma or El Deafo, in that their art fol­lows the plot line a lit­tle more direct­ly, where­as Raul and I want­ed some­times to let the art just enve­lope the read­er.

I don’t think it’s that dif­fer­ent from writ­ing a pic­ture book, except I have to use waaay more excla­ma­tion marks. There are some parts of the writ­ing I fight for, though, in order to main­tain a rhythm, a poet­ry and to retain deep­er lay­ers of mean­ing.

Did you set out to write a com­ic that had sci­ence ele­ments in it? Was lowrid­ing into out­er space always a part of the con­cept?

I love sci­ence; it’s where I get tons of my inspi­ra­tion because noth­ing is more unbe­liev­able than what is true. My first idea for this book was that it would be cool to have a car that was detailed by out­er space. So it was nat­ur­al to include not just space sci­ence but the tech­nol­o­gy of cars. I also thought it was weird that we rarely see kids’ books about cars, when you think of the big part they play in our lives, and all the jobs folks have involv­ing auto­mo­biles.

I love that this com­ic is vir­tu­al­ly read­able by any per­son of any age: was that a con­scious deci­sion?

Lowriders illustrationMy orig­i­nal tar­get audi­ences were kids in third through fifth grade, Eng­lish- Span­ish read­ers, and boys, since their lit­er­a­cy rate is drop­ping. I also want­ed some­thing that wouldn’t seem baby­ish to old­er kids read­ing below grade lev­el, since I work with a lot of kids like that as a librar­i­an. And then Raul and I are both avid comics read­ers, so we want­ed to include stuff that both par­ents and adult comics ‘ fans would enjoy. Plus a lot of it was just Raul and I mak­ing our­selves laugh.

Inte­grat­ing Span­ish into the sto­ry feels very nat­ur­al — and I know a lot of peo­ple will be grate­ful for the instant trans­la­tion on each page — which feels like a nat­ur­al part of the com­ic book style. Was this a sub­ject of dis­cus­sion with your edi­tor or art direc­tor?

Both Raul and I love Love and Rock­ets comics by the Her­nan­dez broth­ers, (an adult com­ic). They always used drop-down trans­la­tions and expla­na­tions beneath their comic’s frames for things read­ers might not under­stand. Our com­ic is def­i­nite­ly an homage to theirs (they have a female mechan­ic named Mag­gie who works on rock­ets, and who is Lupe’s role mod­el) and so we thought it was nat­ur­al to do this in our book as well. I want­ed to include a glos­sary for many rea­sons, but first and fore­most, to empow­er any kid to read. Incar­cer­at­ed kids, immi­grant kids, kids whose par­ents don’t speak Eng­lish or Span­ish, or don’t read super well. I want­ed to give kids the oppor­tu­ni­ty to fig­ure it out them­selves. Also, learn­ing to use a glos­sary is a skill in and of itself, which ties in with cur­ricu­lum goals, which schools need to meet. And then there’s the kids that tell me, “I just love read­ing glos­saries! “

Have you done any work on your own car?

Naw, although my car is kin­da low and slow. It’s old and faith­ful.

Do you have plans to go into out­er space?

No, I like look­ing at mete­or show­ers, and the night sky, and spy­ing on out­er space through tele­scopes. I guess I’m not focused on just one field of sci­ence. I love talk­ing to sci­en­tists and learn­ing what’s new and cool. There’s so much to dis­cov­er, and we live in an age where a lot is going on.

Does the group El Lupe y su Quin­te­to Impala have any­thing to do with Lupe’s name?

Ha! Nope, that’s a total coin­ci­dence. Although I do love cumbia!

For class­room teach­ers who might be work­ing with stu­dents who are writ­ing a com­ic book, what advice would you give them about the writ­ing side of this?

As a writer work­ing with an artist, you have to agree to col­lab­o­rate. So you want to fig­ure out right at the start who does what. Some artists want the writer to do all the writ­ing, break down the dia­log frame by frame, and even describe what they should draw in each frame. Oth­er artists pre­fer more free­dom. And the same can be true of writ­ers. Some demand to have a lot of artis­tic con­trol about how the art will look. Oth­ers are more open. If it’s clear from the begin­ning, no one’s feel­ings will get hurt.

Do a rough form of the com­ic, pen­cil­ing every­thing in loose­ly, before you com­mit to some­thing that will take a lot more work. That way, you can work out your mis­takes before you invest too much time in it. One very impor­tant thing is to fig­ure out where each page will fall. If you look at a com­ic, you’ll see how impor­tant it is, where each pan­el lands. A big dou­ble page splash page has to land on two pages that lay next to each oth­er. So it real­ly helps to make a rough mock-up of your com­ic to fig­ure this out.

I notice on the title page it says “Book 1.” Dare we hope for a Book 2?

Oh yes, book two is in the works as I write this, and it’s big­ger and just as over-the-top as book one. Our intre­pid heroes take a road trip in the oppo­site direc­tion, into the cen­ter of the Earth! It will be out in spring of 2016.


Raul the Third: Illustrating Lowriders in Space


Lowriders coverLowrid­ers in Space

writ­ten by Cathy Camper
illus­trat­ed by Raul the Third
Chron­i­cle Books, 2014

When did you first become aware of (or involved in) lowrid­er cul­ture?

I feel like I’ve been aware of lowrid­er cul­ture for my entire life. When I was in high school I would draw the type of imagery you might see used as décor on a lowrid­er. Besides the super­heroes, ros­es, clowns cry­ing tears, goth­ic let­ters in torn scrolls were all things you would find in my note­books. Plus I was a big fan of Lowrid­er mag­a­zine and espe­cial­ly of the Fan art which was usu­al­ly cre­at­ed with BIC pens.

Are either you or Cathy drawn into the com­ic?

I drew author pic­tures of the both of us. Cathy is drawn as a Fox in an astro­naut hel­met doing research for our book. I am a wolf. Raul means “swift wolf” so I thought it was appro­pri­ate, plus I am a shag­gy dude so it fits my per­son­al­i­ty. This book is incred­i­bly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal as well. I mod­eled Lupe’s hair on my Abueli­ta Catalina’s. I based el Cha­vo on my child­hood hero Ches­pir­i­to and the locale of the book is loose­ly based on El Paso/Juarez where I grew up. I also drew myself dri­ving a van on the very last page!


I read that you used Bic pens for a good deal of the draw­ing and col­or­ing. Is this a medi­um you’ve used on oth­er projects?

I have used them for oth­er projects. For some of the fine art draw­ings I have used it as a tex­tur­ing tool or to cre­ate text with­in the draw­ing. This was the first time I have used them in a project as involved as Lowrid­ers in Space. I felt that it was the per­fect instru­ment for this series. When I was a boy I learned to draw with the BIC pens my father had lying around the house. I want­ed to use mate­ri­als that most every­one could have access to. This is a book about dream­ers who use what they have to build the car of their dreams and I want­ed the approach to the art­work to reflect what is pos­si­ble when you have noth­ing, but dream big.

What type of paper did you draw this book on?

When I start­ed cre­at­ing con­cept draw­ings for the book before Chron­i­cle Books was in the pic­ture I drew pages on note­book paper and newsprint to give the look of a school kid draw­ing in their note­book. This would not have been pos­si­ble for the final art­work as this type of paper is very unfor­giv­ing to mis­takes. When I start­ed work­ing on the final art­work I used smooth plate Bris­tol board for the illus­tra­tions and typ­ing paper for the col­or lay­er.


From the art on your web­site, I see that you’ve used cof­fee as a tex­tur­ing agent before. Is there a sto­ry behind that? Did you use that tech­nique in Lowrid­ers in Space?

I love stain­ing my paper with cof­fee or tea. I use that tech­nique to age the paper. I love stuff that is old or appears beyond its years. I want­ed Lowrid­ers in Space to have that same feel. As if the char­ac­ters had been with us for­ev­er. The look of old pulpy paper and the way stuff in clas­sic com­ic books is often print­ed off reg­is­tra­tion is a huge inspi­ra­tion. The draw­ings in Lowrid­ers in Space are a love let­ter to so much about what I admire in car­toon­ing, com­ic books, and old prints by Jorge Guadalupe Posa­da.


Is this your first com­ic book or have you worked in this form before?

This is my first pub­lished work. I have self-pub­lished zines before Lowrid­ers in Space that were com­ic books, and I have been draw­ing them for a large part of my life.  

How did you work with Cathy to fit the text of the sto­ry into your pan­els?

It is a very col­lab­o­ra­tive process not just with Cathy but with our edi­to­r­i­al team as well, which includ­ed our art direc­tor Neil Egan. It begins with Cathy’s script which I then turn into a rough sto­ry­board. I then share this with Cathy and she makes adjust­ments to the script based on the new visu­al flow of the sto­ry. We then share this with our edi­to­r­i­al team, and they give it back to us with notes and sug­ges­tions, and we repeat the process until we get it just right. After all is set in stone I lock myself in a room and com­plete the final art for the book.


For class­room teach­ers who might be work­ing with their stu­dents to cre­ate a com­ic book, what advice would you pass along about the art­work?

Base char­ac­ters on your­selves. It makes draw­ing so much eas­i­er if you know what your char­ac­ters look like and you don’t know any­body like you know your­self. We also come with our own sup­port­ing casts so pick and choose char­ac­ter­is­tic from friends and fam­i­ly. There are not enough char­ac­ters out there that tru­ly resem­ble the won­der­ful peo­ple that make up our com­mu­ni­ties so it’s time we made our­selves into the inter­est­ing hero­ic char­ac­ters we know we are! Also draw what you love to draw and through your draw­ings go on the adven­tures of your choos­ing.


Karen Cushman: Researching and Writing

inter­view by Claire Rudolf Mur­phy

Karen Cushman

Karen Cush­man

Con­grat­u­la­tions, Karen. Your first nov­el and New­bery Hon­or book Cather­ine Called Birdy is 20 years old and still going strong. The sto­ry still res­onates with teen read­ers, espe­cial­ly girls, and is remem­bered fond­ly and reread by many read­ers who are grown up now. One such fan is actress Lena Dun­ham, who announced last fall that she is adapt­ing the nov­el into a movie with plans to direct it.

I am obvi­ous­ly very excit­ed. I’ve met with Lena, who is a love­ly per­son. She loves the book and has great ideas for a movie. I hope it will be made in Eng­land and I can get all my friends parts as extras.

How much research did you do about medieval Eng­land before you start­ed Catherine’s sto­ry? How much was done dur­ing the writ­ing and revis­ing of the nov­el? How do you bal­ance the research and the writ­ing?

Most of my research was done dur­ing the four-year writ­ing peri­od. I knew enough about medieval Eng­land to know that the sto­ry I had in mind would fit there and then, but I didn’t know what else I need­ed to know until I dug into the writ­ing. I start­ed by research­ing aca­d­e­m­ic his­to­ry books but they didn’t tell me what was inter­est­ing to me, like what peo­ple ate and wore, what they ate in win­ter, where they went to the bath­room, so I had to search for every­day-life sorts of books. Most­ly research and writ­ing hap­pened at the same time. Some­times I’d uncov­er facts impor­tant enough to find a place for in the book; at oth­er times I’d find a hole in the sto­ry and have to go back to research.

Ever since the feisty Cather­ine came alive on the page, read­ers and review­ers have debat­ed her fem­i­nist ten­den­cies. What do you think of that debate then and now?

I don’t think Cather­ine could be called a fem­i­nist in our mod­ern terms. She just want­ed the world to play fair — with females, with peas­ants, with Jews. And there were many exam­ples of feisty medieval females for me to look to, from Margery Kempe to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Women from all cen­turies prob­a­bly ran the gamut from feisty and assertive to sub­mis­sive, just as they do today. Cather­ine had dif­fer­ent lim­i­ta­tions and con­straints than we do today. She knew them and grew to under­stand and even accept some of them. For exam­ple, she nev­er thought about mar­ry­ing Perkin. A lady and a goat boy match was too far out­side the pos­si­bil­i­ties in her world. Oth­er lim­i­ta­tions she fought against because she is Cather­ine, and feisty, and that’s why we love her.

Your work is root­ed in his­to­ry, but kids today have no prob­lem relat­ing to your char­ac­ters and sto­ries. Could you share a few thoughts about how you make your his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters seem real and rel­e­vant to read­ers today?

Midwife's ApprenticeI con­scious­ly write about strong char­ac­ters so that read­ers can love, cheer for, and iden­ti­fy with them. I don’t set out to make them rel­e­vant to read­ers today. I just tell their sto­ries and, I believe, read­ers find what they need.  What young read­ers take from a book real­ly depends on them. I had a young girl tell me The Midwife’s Appren­tice was a book about a cat, and a high school class in a poor neigh­bor­hood in LA found it a sto­ry about home­less­ness. And a young woman hos­pi­tal­ized after a sui­cide attempt found in Cather­ine Called Birdy a mod­el for find­ing ways to be your­self when you feel hope­less and devoid of options. I nev­er could have antic­i­pat­ed those respons­es.

One of the most sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges in his­tor­i­cal fic­tion is how much or how lit­tle con­text to use. Do you believe that his­to­ry is the sto­ry or that the his­tor­i­cal peri­od should serve the sto­ry?

I think the two work togeth­er. His­tor­i­cal nov­els tell a sto­ry that could not fit in any oth­er time. In mod­ern Lon­don, Cather­ine would not have been faced with the same obsta­cles. Will Sparrow’s adven­tures were dis­tinct­ly Eliz­a­bethan. Rodzina’s sto­ry and the Orphan Trains both belonged to the late 19th cen­tu­ry. I chose Eliz­a­bethan Lon­don for Meg­gy Swann’s par­tic­u­lar sto­ry because alche­my and many oth­er sci­en­tif­ic endeav­ors were flour­ish­ing then. And I did not want to write of the medieval response to Meg­gy and her lame­ness; I want­ed some, though not all, peo­ple to under­stand dis­ease and defor­mi­ty as med­ical issues and not God’s curs­es.

Meggy SwannYour sto­ries are filled with the sights, sounds and smells of every­day peo­ple — dur­ing Medieval Eng­land, the Renais­sance, the orphan trains, and the Cal­i­for­nia gold rush. What kind of research did you do to come up with such rich sen­so­ry details?

I find those spe­cif­ic details most­ly in first per­son accounts — let­ters, diaries, jour­nals. And I use books about the nat­ur­al world of medieval and Eliz­a­bethan Eng­land and 19th cen­tu­ry Cal­i­for­nia. But some­times I just close my eyes and imag­ine from what I know.

In the nov­el Alche­my and Meg­gy Swann, how did you learn enough about medieval alche­my to bring it alive in the sto­ry?

I found many books about the phi­los­o­phy and prac­tices of alche­my. I under­stood very lit­tle — alche­my is arcane, eso­teric, mys­te­ri­ous, delib­er­ate­ly cryp­tic, and com­pli­cat­ed. The most help­ful, most acces­si­ble book was Dis­till­ing Knowl­edge: Alche­my, Chem­istry, and the Sci­en­tif­ic Rev­o­lu­tion by Bruce Moran. Online I found illus­tra­tions of alchem­i­cal lab­o­ra­to­ries and even sim­ple chem­i­cal exper­i­ments that explained the process in a sim­pli­fied man­ner.

Loud Silence of Francine GreenThe Loud Silence of Francine Green (2006) is set at a Catholic school in 1949 Los Ange­les that is mod­eled on one from your child­hood. How did your research for this book dif­fer from your oth­er nov­els set in long ago times, such as mid­wifery?

My research into mid­wifery was all from books, but I am close in age to Francine so some of that research took place in my own mem­o­ry and expe­ri­ences. I enjoyed hav­ing Francine hear the songs or swoon over the actors or say things that I remem­ber. Some­times this got in the way — I was includ­ing things in the sto­ry that hap­pened to me, not Francine. Or I’d say, “This real­ly hap­pened. I should include it,” even if it had noth­ing to do with Francine’s sto­ry. I had to be con­scious of the dif­fer­ences between Francine’s sto­ry and my own life.

You have two mas­ter’s degrees, one in muse­um stud­ies, and the oth­er in human behav­ior. Your Stan­ford under­grad­u­ate degree is in Greek and Eng­lish. How have those stud­ies affect­ed your writ­ing and your research?

The study and espe­cial­ly the teach­ing I did as part of my muse­um stud­ies degree intro­duced me to the process and val­ue of learn­ing about peo­ple from what we call mate­r­i­al cul­ture — the objects they made and used, the art they saw, the music and jin­gles and adver­tise­ments they heard. Dur­ing my last three years at the uni­ver­si­ty I worked with MA stu­dents on their the­ses, which taught me a lot about writ­ing, orga­niz­ing, edit­ing, and tak­ing a project from big idea to achiev­able prod­uct. I think that expe­ri­ence real­ly set me on my way to writ­ing a nov­el. Human behav­ior? I use that both in my writ­ing and my life. And I love find­ing ways to use the Latin I learned as part of my Clas­sics degree in my books.

Is there any­thing else you’d like to add about your writ­ing today or your many years of pub­lish­ing books for kids and young adults?

I could not real­ly imag­ine being pub­lished. As I was writ­ing Cather­ine Called Birdy, peo­ple told me to be pre­pared for fail­ure, that first nov­els don’t sell, his­to­ry is not pop­u­lar with young peo­ple, that the Mid­dle Ages are dead, and no one wants to read about girls any­way. How­ev­er I had a sto­ry to tell and it seemed impor­tant to me to tell it, no mat­ter what hap­pened, so I ignored every­one and just wrote. What sur­prised me was the incred­i­ble luck I had in find­ing an agent (first one I queried), a pub­lish­er (Clar­i­on is still my pub­lish­er), an edi­tor (she’s still my edi­tor), and cov­er artist (Tri­na Schart Hyman did my cov­ers until she passed away). And I was sur­prised by the cama­raderie, mutu­al sup­port, and friend­li­ness of every­one in the children’s book com­mu­ni­ty. I had heard so many hor­ror sto­ries about the pub­lish­ing world but my expe­ri­ence was splen­did every way pos­si­ble. I rec­om­mend any­one with a book inside her just to do it. Take the leap and write, with pas­sion and gus­to and hope. It could change your life. It changed mine.

Many of us writ­ers appre­ci­ate the Late Bloomer award you and your hus­band have set up through SCBWI. Could you tell us more about the award and how it came about?

I was hav­ing lunch with Lin Oliv­er of the SCBWI, and I told her I want­ed to con­tribute mon­ey to SCBWI. She asked whom I would tru­ly like to encour­age. I said, of course, late bloomers like me. And so the award was born. I love to imag­ine folks who think they are too old to begin writ­ing find­ing reas­sur­ance and inspi­ra­tion in the fact that many of us start after fifty and suc­ceed.


Chris Van Dusen: Illustrating Leroy Ninker Saddles Up


Chris Van Dusen

Chris Van Dusen

Leroy Ninker first appeared in Mer­cy Wat­son Fights Crime as the crim­i­nal. Did you con­scious­ly change his appear­ance for Leroy Ninker Sad­dles Up to make him a more sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter?

I’m not sure that I con­scious­ly changed his appear­ance. I tried to make him look like the same char­ac­ter. In the orig­i­nal series he was wear­ing a robber’s mask which gave him a slight­ly sin­is­ter look. Since he’s now a “reformed thief” I removed the mask which made him a warmer and more like­able char­ac­ter which is more fit­ting for the sto­ry.

Your palette for the Deck­a­woo Dri­ve books has a retro feel­ing. What do you think decid­ed you on work­ing with the col­ors you use in those books and now Leroy Ninker Sad­dles Up?

The orig­i­nal Mer­cy Wat­son Series def­i­nite­ly did have a retro feel. The col­ors I used were sim­i­lar to those that appeared in the pic­ture books I grew up with – col­ors that were pop­u­lar in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. The new series has BW inte­ri­or art but I end­ed up paint­ing the pic­tures in the same method using gouache.

Cover Sketch

Sketch of a reject­ed cov­er idea for Leroy Ninker Sad­dles Up

When Leroy runs through the neigh­bor­hood to res­cue May­belline, you use a flu­id line to indi­cate his rapid motion. For young read­ers who’d love to draw their own sto­ries, how did you learn to con­vey action in this way?

Motion lines are a clas­sic car­toon way of show­ing move­ment. I prob­a­bly picked this up from my ear­ly inter­est in com­ic strips and ani­ma­tion.

How is illus­trat­ing a chap­ter book dif­fer­ent from illus­trat­ing a pic­ture book?

In a pic­ture book there are few­er words, so the illus­tra­tions have to tell more of the sto­ry. Also, pic­ture book illus­tra­tions are usu­al­ly larg­er, often a full spread. In a chap­ter book, the illus­tra­tions sup­port the text rather than tell the sto­ry.

What words of advice would you share to encour­age young illus­tra­tors who’d like to fol­low in your foot­steps?

 You can do it. But you have to keep draw­ing. Good draw­ing skills are the basis for any career as an illus­tra­tor, ani­ma­tor, car­toon­ist, painter, etc. 

interior sketch

A pre­lim­i­nary sketch
for the spread on pages 86 and 87.