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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.]

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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.

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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.

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Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson

Richard Jack­son

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

Edi­to­r­i­al Career

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

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

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

I’ve nev­er been sub­ject­ed to a job inter­view.

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

Frances Keene and then Susan Hirschman at Macmil­lan.

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

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

What did your authors teach you?

Empa­thy.

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

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

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

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

Con­sid­er­ing the Books You’ve Writ­ten

Have a Look, Says Book

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

Have a Look, Says Book

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

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

In my head, often while dri­ving.

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

A ver­bal child was I. As opposed to ath­let­ic.

What sparked the idea for this book?

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

In Plain Sight

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

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

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

What inspired this uni­ver­sal sto­ry of love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

all ears, all eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________

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

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

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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.

"If

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

WHERE TO BUY OUR TABLE OF MEMORIES

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

SAMPLE

Kang Pu

Kang Pu

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

MY MOTHER’S KITCHEN
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.

Kang Pu – 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:

WHERE FOOD IS ART
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.

RESOURCES

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

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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.

gr_jazzday_boys_600px

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.

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Marsha Wilson Chall and Jill Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WOOF!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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copy­right Fran­cis Valle­jo

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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!

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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!

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Eileen Ryan Ewen

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

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

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

Miss Colfax's Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Colfax's Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aimée Bissonette

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Colfax's Light log book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Colfax's Light

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

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

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

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

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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!

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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

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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?”

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Chinatown

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.

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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.

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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.

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Stephanie Greene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

firekeeper_2

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.

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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 ten­