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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Interviews

Eliza Wheeler

Eliza Wheeler

Eliza Wheeler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

revised sketch for Cody and the Heart of a Champion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heart of a Champion illustration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cody and the Heart of a Champion cover

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have any tips for drawing characters consistently?

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

Cody and the Heart of a Champion character studies

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

Cody and the Heart of a Champion character collage

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


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

Learn more about Eliza Wheeler.


Linda Sue Park

Linda Sue Park

Linda Sue Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda Sue Park and her grandchildren

Linda Sue Park and her grandchildren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Learn more about Linda Sue Park.


Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award Committee

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

How do you select the awarded books?

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

What are the criteria for this award?

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

How do you gather the books?

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

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

What selection criteria do you apply?

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

After that, we look at:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northland College

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Marion Dane Bauer

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

Marion Dane Bauer

Marion Dane Bauer (photo credit: Katherine Warde)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you write with a specific child in mind?

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

Do you envision the illustrations while you are writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Learn more about Marion Dane Bauer.


Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson

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

Editorial Career

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

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

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

I’ve never been subjected to a job interview.

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

Frances Keene and then Susan Hirschman at Macmillan.

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

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

What did your authors teach you?


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

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

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

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

Considering the Books You’ve Written

Have a Look, Says Book

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

Have a Look, Says Book

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

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

In my head, often while driving.

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

A verbal child was I. As opposed to athletic.

What sparked the idea for this book?

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

In Plain Sight

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

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

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

What inspired this universal story of love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

all ears, all eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Katherine Tillotson

Katherine Tillotson

Katherine Tillotson

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

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

All the Water in the World

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

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

Shoe Dog

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

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

It's Picture Day Today!

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

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

all ears, all eyes

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

I find myself with lots of questions!

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

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

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

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

How do you begin a new book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

all ears, all eyes

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

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

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

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

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


What is your vision of that future now?

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

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


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


Creekfinding with author Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Jacqueline Briggs Martin

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

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

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

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

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

The Creekfinding team

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

Have you visited Brook Creek?

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

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

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

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

Author Jacqueline Briggs Martin getting to know Brook Creek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The restored Brook Creek


Creekfinding with illustrator Claudia McGehee

Claudia McGehee

Claudia McGehee (photo: Thomas Langdon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you preserve and store scratchboard artwork?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustrations from Creekfinding: A True Story, copyright Claudia McGehee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Merna Ann Hecht and Our Table of Memories

Merna Ann Hecht

Merna Ann Hecht

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

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

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

Stories of Our Arrival

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

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

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

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

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

How did you find your way to teaching?

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

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

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

What drew you toward working with refugee and immigrant children?

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

Stories of Our Arrival poets

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

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

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

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

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

Khai, from Burma

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

Abdi A.

Abdi A.

Abdi A., from Somalia

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

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

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


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

Publisher, Chatwin Books

Your Local Bookseller


Kang Pu

Kang Pu

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

Kang Pu, from Burma

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

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

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

Nathaly Rosas

Nathaly Rosas

And another sample:

Nathaly Rosas, from Mexico

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

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


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

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

Jack Straw Cultural Center

Stories of Arrival: Immigrant Youth Voices Poetry Project


Fantasy Gems

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

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

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

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

Jinx series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have an affection for trees?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Karen Cushman, the Girl in Men’s Underwear

Karen Cushman

Karen Cushman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three book recommendations by Karen Cushman

What did you study in college?

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

Did you taking writing classes?

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

men's boxers What was your first job?

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

What’s your strongest memory of the 1950s?

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

PS:  I didn’t.


Charles Ghigna, Champion of Poetry

Charles Ghigna

Charles Ghigna at Fox Tale Book Shoppe in Woodstock, GA

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

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

Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, Freshman English class.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you always lived in Alabama?

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

Who have your poetic mentors been?

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

Tickle DayHow did you get the name Father Goose?

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


Candace Fleming Tames the Wild West

credit: Michael Lionstar

credit: Michael Lionstar

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

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

Buffalo Bill Cody 1875

William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, ©1875

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

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

Buffalo Bill Cody by José Maria Mora

Buffalo Bill Cody by José Maria Mora

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

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

What’s right?

What’s fair?

What’s moral?

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

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

Who was right?

Who was wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffalo Bill Center of the West

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

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

Would you recommend that your readers visit those locations?

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

Buffalo Bill's personal saddle

Buffalo Bill’s personal saddle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buffalo Bill's Wild West show poster

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

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


One North Star, Three Creative Artists

One North Star

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

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

Phyllis RootPHYLLIS ROOT, writer

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

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

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

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

Bog, One North Star

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

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

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

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

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

Plenty of times. More times than I can count.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beckie PrangeBECKIE PRANGE, illustrator and woodcut artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No! Nowhere close.

Number Three, One North Star

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

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

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

Betsy BowenBETSY BOWEN, illustrator and woodcut artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The carving took me a few days for each spread.

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

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

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

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

Number Seven, One North Star

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

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


Anita Silvey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger, 2011, Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His generosity of time. And he sang to me.

Pete Seeger's banjo

Pete Seeger’s banjo, Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

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


Melissa Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

Cocoa tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What has captured your attention currently in the science realm?

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


Roxane Orgill

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

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

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

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

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

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

I went through the Art Kane estate.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

How do you decide the subject of your next book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Marsha Wilson Chall and Jill Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Francis Vallejo

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

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

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

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


copyright Francis Vallejo


copyright Francis Vallejo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


copyright Francis Vallejo

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

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

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

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

Was there an illustration that challenged you the most?

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

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

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


Eileen Ryan Ewen

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

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

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

Miss Colfax's Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Colfax's Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Aimée Bissonette

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Colfax's Light log book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Colfax's Light

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

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

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

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


Lisa Bullard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parade in Spicer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Melissa Sweet

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

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

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

The Great Figure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

illustrations in this article are copyright © Melissa Sweet


Jen Bryant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A River of Words

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

illustrations in this article are copyright © Melissa Sweet


Jennifer A. Bell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Dog Lost

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

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

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

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

When does the book designer get into the process?

The art directors for these books were also the designers.

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

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


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

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


Marion Dane Bauer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Cat's Luck concrete poetry

Do you think visually or primarily in words?

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

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

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


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

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


Gennifer Choldenko

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Chinatown today

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Stephanie Roth Sisson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What books would you recommend to budding illustrators?

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

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


Stephanie Greene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Interview with Julie Downing: Illustrating The Firekeeper’s Son

interview by Vicki Palmquist and Marsha Qualey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you use models for the people in your paintings?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why was it important to you to tell this story?

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




Beautiful Books: an interview with designer Marty Ittner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


Do you work on a grid?

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

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

Adobe InDesign.

ph_knifeDo you do any of your work by hand?

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

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

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


Interview with Anita Silvey: Writing about Dr. Jane Goodall

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Untamed, pp.34-35

Untamed, pp.34-35

What was your favorite part of creating this book?

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

What makes you the most proud about Untamed?

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


Interview: Candace Fleming

credit: Michael Lionstar

credit: Michael Lionstar

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

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

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

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

written by Candace Fleming  illustrated by Eric Rohmann  Atheneum, 2015

written by Candace Fleming 
illustrated by Eric Rohmann 
Atheneum, 2015

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

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

Were you ever disappointed on a childhood birthday?

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

Do you enjoy birthday celebrations now?

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





Interview: Eric Rohmann

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

interview by Vicki Palmquist

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

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

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

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

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

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


Eric’s studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you could sit down with four other book artists, living or dead, and have dinner and a conversation, who would they be?

This is not fair! Just four? Hmmm… William Stieg, Beatrix Potter, M.T. Anderson, Maurice Sendak. 


Interview: Ann Bausum

bk_Bausum_CourageClothWith Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote
Ann Bausum
National Geographic, 2004

interview by Vicki Palmquist

You state that you weren’t taught women’s history in school. (Neither was I. I remember reading and re-reading the few biographies in the library about Molly Pitcher, Clara Barton, and Florence Nightingale.) When you went looking for information for With Courage and Cloth, how did you start?

I started by visiting the places where the history happened. I went to Seneca Falls. I returned to the Sewall-Belmont House so that I could study it with adult eyes (having met suffrage leader Alice Paul there when I was a child). I tracked down the location of the National Woman’s Party at the time of the pickets and retraced the steps suffragists made on their daily protest marches to the nearby White House. I climbed on the base of the statue to Lafayette, as women had done in 1918, and discovered what it felt like to be perched just above the grounds of Lafayette Park on this slanted foundation. All of these things gave me the spatial grounding I needed to better understand the accounts of history that I began to devour and study. It always helps to put yourself in the places and spaces of the people you’re trying to bring to life.

With Courage and Cloth was the third book you had published. Since then, you’ve had nine more books published. How has your process changed? If you wrote With Courage and Cloth today, would you approach it differently?

bk_BausumDinosaurMany of the techniques I started using for With Courage and Cloth remain at the foundation of my research and writing process. I still travel to the places I’m writing about whenever possible. I did my first research in the Library of Congress for this book, and I continue to return there whenever topics fit the collections. I continue to do extensive photo research on topics, something I’d begun with my first book, Dragon Bones and Dinosaur Eggs. I began organizing my research on note cards with my third book, which I still do, even though it is a painful (literally) and time-consuming process. So in many ways I enhanced and honed my writing process through With Courage and Cloth. If I took up this topic with fresh eyes, I suspect I’d find myself on a familiar research road map.

There’s so much to write about on this topic, many approaches to take. How do you develop criteria for narrowing down your content?

I write about what interests me and what I think is important. I write about what hasn’t been written about before. I write with context so that someone young can step into the past and not feel disoriented. Although I write nonfiction, I think of myself as a storyteller—a storyteller where all the content is true. So when I write, I’m constructing a narrative that not only has to make sense and be accurate; it has to be engaging. I can’t let tangents distract us from the trajectory of our story. Even favorite facts and side-stories have to be left out, if they don’t contribute to the forward momentum. (Leaving things out is painful, but it’s part of the job.) I suspect that my process is akin to the process of editing a film, where favorite scenes end up on the cutting room floor because they don’t contribute to the overall story. Or it’s comparable to building a house where you have to keep the timbers in balance.

In the end, I’m writing for myself and the girl I was at 10 or 12 or maybe 14. And I’m writing for the young people I meet during author visits to schools. I keep the reader in mind and try to construct a story that satisfies me at my core and will, I hope, inspire a new generation of readers to love history and feel empowered to take action in their own lives.

From the early chapters of your book, you include women’s suffrage and the efforts to end slavery as often overlapping. In your choices on focusing the narrative, why did you decide to include the anti-slavery movement?

I found that I couldn’t isolate one of these efforts from the other. The two causes were linked in history, and so they had to be linked in my chronicle. Although the linkage might seem incidental before the Civil War, it became critical afterwards because it helped to divide the woman’s suffrage movement. There were people, such as Lucy Stone, who took comfort in the granting of voting rights to former male slaves, but there were others, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who resented the omission of women from the 14th and 15th Amendments. In order to understand why we ended up with two woman suffrage organizations after the Civil War, we have to understand how the pre-war alliance of activists was shaken by this post-war outcome for voting rights.

Your description of the 1913 suffragist march in Washington, D.C., held at the time of the Presidential Inauguration, culminates with spectators, nearly 500,000 of them, primarily men, interrupting the parade in forceful and disrespectful ways, not stopped by police. You write that newspaper reports of the parade “transformed overnight” the suffragist movement into a “national topic of discussion.” Years after first reading your description of this parade, I remember it vividly and think of it often when hearing about low voter turnout. What works well for you in building that type of tension in your narrative?

It takes the right moments in history. If an occasion held drama at the time, one can rekindle it in the retelling. The secret is in the research. The more I know and the more I’ve seen, the better I’ll be able to bring the events to life. This is where I think my interest in photo research really helps. I studied every image of that parade that I could find (and it was well-documented). I visited the route of the march. I read multiple accounts of it—from newspapers, from memoirs, from historians. It’s detective work, in a way, as if I’m reconstructing a crime scene. After I’ve studied the history from all these angles, I can breathe life into a fresh portrayal of what transpired. The facts are at my fingertips, literally, with note cards, and that frees my brain to share them through the lens of storytelling, drama and all, as supported by the historical record.


If all the women in this country went to the voting booth, it would change history. Yet, as you wrote, “That said, voter participation—the practice of actually voting—has rarely been lower. Presidential elections, which are always the most popular, rarely draw more than about half of eligible voters to the polls. Many citizens never even register to vote.” What can your readers do to encourage women to vote?

Readers can share their knowledge with others about how hard women fought to achieve this right, and they can lead by example. Even readers who are too young to vote can participate in peer elections, volunteer with organizations such as the League of Women Voters, and advocate for further change. A few states have begun to offer or are discussing policies that automatically enroll people as voters when they obtain state forms of identification, such as driver licenses. These policies make voting a one-step process. Anytime we reduce the complexity of voting, we encourage voter participation. Concerns over voter fraud are greatly exaggerated and tend to mask efforts to discourage broad voter participation. Fight for the right to vote!

bk_Bausum_StonewallYour most recent book, Stonewall, is again about human beings fighting for their rights, in this case LGBT citizens. What ignited your interest in human rights?

I grew up during the 1960s and 1970s, an era driven by fights for human rights and social justice, and I’m sure that framework helped to determine my mindset, helped to set my moral compass so that stories of injustice resonate for me. I have always believed in the power of people to effect change, whether it’s through science, or leadership, or social action. I grew up in the South during the time of integration, the daughter of forward-thinking parents, and so the quest for equality wasn’t just an abstract concept to me. I couldn’t appreciate the dimensions of it fully at the time, but I am confident that the struggle that played out in everyday ways around me helped to inculcate me in the concept of equality. It was part of the air I breathed, and it set me on a course where I’ve always felt empathy for stories of injustice, and outrage over stories of injustice. I fight with my fingers. I hope my words can remind readers that the quest for equality is never-ending. Complacency is not acceptable. Each generation must carry on the fight.


Interview: Rita Williams-Garcia

Interview by Vicki Palmquist

photo by Jason Berger

photo by Jason Berger

When you wrote One Crazy Summer, did you already know you had a longer story to tell? And if you didn’t know then, when did you know?

I was so focused on telling the one story of children’s involvement in the Black Panther Movement. As I dug into my characters’ backstories and projected their actions into the future, I knew I had another book to write. This happened in the middle of One Crazy Summer when I was explaining Cecile’s choices and history to myself. I could see those early days so clearly. How she came to live with Pa and Uncle Darnell. There’s something about knowing the past that allows you to project into the future. Before I knew it, the seeds were beginning to spring up for P.S. Be Eleven. Then as I began to work out the plot for PSBE, I played my actions and consequences game. What are the short term consequences of these actions? What are the long term consequences? This helps me to really construct realism in the plot, especially in a story where all things can’t be resolved. Some things have to continue on in a natural way in the readers’ minds. Well, those darn consequences became food for Gone Crazy in Alabama. I didn’t plan three novels, but the characters had more story life in front of them. I believe this is the end. I didn’t get that sense of rays shooting out into another story.

How did you decide which episodes to place in each of your three books about the sisters?

I didn’t have all three stories. One Crazy Summer was its own story. When I realized there would be a Book 2, I thought more about the overarching theme, which would be change which seemed to explode during the late 60s, early 70s. Change in the family, change in the political structure, the unspoken but underlying change in the black community as a result of returning traumatized Vietnam veterans and drug use, the change the women’s movement brought to homes, country and community, and most important, those deeply personal changes of our narrator.  The trick was to compress all of those changes, even cheat time a little to give young readers a sense of what it was like to be in the midst of those changes and seeing how they weren’t just abstraction, but changes that had direct impact. The third book allowed me to talk about what we in the black community talk about amongst ourselves—holding onto family amid the breakdown and evolution of family. The plotting and focus of each story is different. It is the incremental growth of the sisters—and even the family members—that is the continuum that stretches across all three stories. So, you can read any of the stories in whichever order you chose, but you see and feel the change and growth of the characters when the stories are read from summer to summer.

Are you a busy, noisy-places writer or a quiet-spaces writer?

I do a little of both. I need absolute quiet at home. No radio, TV, internet, phones. When I’m out and about, I can work with the buzz and sirens of the city around me. My ears hear it as one noise. Cell phone noise, particularly loud cell phone noise is harder. I carry ear plugs in my bag.

You’ve made this family so real, from when we first meet Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern in One Crazy Summer to the parting scene in Gone Crazy in Alabama. I found myself wanting to become a friend, staying in their lives forever. What is the most important aspect of this family’s story for you, the writer?

I like the way that everyone feels they are right. This is good for me as a writer. It promises conflict. But isn’t this at the source of most families and familial conflict? I hope in that way, I’ve asked the reader to understand what they might not agree with. Oh, what a cool trick, if we can do this in general!

Does writing a first draft come quickly for you or do you weigh each word carefully as you’re writing it?

bk_GW_PSI have a long incubation period. I spend a lot of my waking hours day dreaming the story. Telling myself the story. As I research and daydream I begin to feel more confident about the story. I start writing a month or so later. When I’m writing the first draft the words are unimportant. Occasionally, the connection between myself and the narrator is so strong that I’m a good 60%-75% close to final as I slog through the first draft. But I really use my first draft to confirm proof of story. To nail down direction. But honestly, there are so many false starts. But the language of the story, the voice and tone of the story begins to take shape. I’m less anxious when I feel the story has its own voice and not just the few words I know. As I get closer to the final drafts I work hard on language. When the story is in good shape, I concentrate on the language.

At what point do you revise your manuscript?

I revise after I have my clear direction. After I have the first draft. I write in my notebook by hand, and make notes along the way (“Nah”, “deal with this later”, “not working”, etc.). Sometimes I stop the forward movement to nail down a few early chapters because they anchor the story. But I try to push forward to confirm that the story works, or what I call “proof of story.” I revise chapters several times and drafts several times. I should say, I don’t begin typing the story until it is a story. I don’t know if I recommend that practice. It’s just the way I do it.

I want to so badly to ask you if these three books are biographical and yet my rational brain knows they are fiction. As a reader, I want this family to be real. I want to hear Miss Trotter’s laugh and Ma Charles’ laugh and I wanted to be in that room with the whole family after the storm. Can you tell us what percentage of these stories comes from your own background?

Who will read this interview? Hopefully, not my young readers—no offense!! I don’t think my young readers want to hear this clinical thing about my characters. Anyway, I construct them all and tend to stay clear of basing them on actual people. The characters have to magnetically fit into the family and story. If I have a responsible character, like Delphine, I give her a reason to activate her super powers. Enter Vonetta and Fern—in their distinct ways. If Big Ma is fearful, traditional, a good Christian (at least in her mind), her daughter-in-laws must be in opposition to that in their distinct ways. Big Ma’s mother must be a source of consternation. Her son, who is in between tradition and change, must be her ally at times and her opposition at other times when it comes to his daughters and his mates. See how it works? I might take an aspect of my mother and drop it into Cecile—but as strong and off kilter as both can be, they are two distinctly different mothers and persons. My mother was into her Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, but she was the woman of the household and there was no mistaking that. She did absolutely everything, while my sibs and I were responsible for homework, playing and making our beds.

If you know me at all, you know that I love making things.  Making characters is the best Play-Doh™ ever!

Delphine and I were born the same year, so I was aware of the world spinning and changing during the late sixties, early seventies. I kept a diary that noted several events like assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Senator Robert F. Kennedy—as well as the manhunts of their assailants. Apollo 11, etc., etc. I didn’t write these grand or precocious insights. I saw things as a child, so I kept that in mind as I wrote Delphine’s narrative.

My own family isn’t like the Gaithers in the specific sense, but my parents migrated from the south to Queens, New York in the 30s and 40s. My early life up until twelve was as an army brat. My father served in Vietnam—no drug involvement, but that’s not to say he wasn’t affected by the war.  There were three of us kids, all thirteen months apart. My sister Rosalind is the oldest, brother Russell is the middle, and I’m the youngest. Am I Fern? Nah.  My early life up until twelve was an army brat living on army bases and army towns.  

I lived through this same era but not in the same neighborhoods (Oakland, New York City, Alabama). After reading these books, I feel that my understanding of my own history got larger. Do you feel that way as the writer?

bk_GWGoneCrazyAbsolutely. There is so much untold history. One of the parts of history that Gone Crazy tells, is of the crossings between people, be they through brutality, necessity or choice. We are made up of so many people and histories. It seems ridiculous to continue to tell a singular story. The best history, to me, is family history. We are all witnesses to our times, and most of us maintain connections with our elders. We should take note of what we see, feel and think during our time, but also take in the stories of our elders while they’re with us.

How does Gone Crazy in Alabama relate to the past?

Even though Gone Crazy  is set in the summer of 1969, its reach extends back to the 1830s, up until the 1870s, through the turn of the century, and so on. My grandmother was raised by her great-grandmother, who was a slave and whose father fought and died in the Civil War. My grandmother was our family’s link to this period. I thought about these human links and that they disappear. So, I began to think about the Charles-Gaither-Trotter family tree.  I estimated approximately when the ancestral characters would be born and what was happening during those times. I immersed myself in Alabama history to better weave the crossings between African Americans, Native Americans and European Americans. (If not for every other of my African American classmates bragging about their “Indian” roots, I would have missed the Native American branch in this Alabama history!) My sister even jumped on the “we’re part Cherokee” bandwagon, although I knew better. Alabama was the perfect setting! It had the railroad system running from the Oklahoma Indian Territories through Augtauga County during Reconstruction, plus a textile mill dating back to the 1800s. (The textile mill was where Louis Gaither Sr., as well as Uncle Darnell worked—although I scrapped that fact from the novel.) The KKK was active in Alabama from post-Civil War, petering out in the late 1800s and then resurging in the 1920s, and active through the 1960s in George Wallace’s Alabama. So even though the three sisters were not raised in the Jim Crow South, and most of the “Whites Only” signs have been removed, they are breathing the air of the past that still has its presence during their time.

I thought about the two sisters whose lives hadn’t changed much from the time their father was alive. They retain a lot of that past. Ma Charles wouldn’t have indoor plumbing if not for her neighbor. The idea of subsisting and sharing with neighbors is how both sisters lived, perhaps following the ways of their mothers. Ma Charles talks about how “other folks” (you know she means white people) jumped out of windows during the 20s because of the market crash, while poor people with gardens survived it. Her purist free-range eating and organic gardening is now all the rage. Both she and Miss Trotter keep true to the lives they lived as children born in the late 1800s, down using “sad irons” that are placed on a hearth or on a stove, instead of electric irons. The bonus is, for Delphine, who is serving her penance while ironing the sheets she refused to iron earlier, Delphine is also touching hands with history. Holding hands with women who knew slavery and emancipation. She doesn’t know that, but I do! My hope is that the reader does also.

I’m about change, but I love that neither Ma Charles nor her half-sister, Miss Trotter don’t want to change who they are. These are women who were educated in a one-room school, with kids from five to fifteen, and as young women they probably remember when Oklahoma became a state.  They have to feel those times when Native Americans needed work passes to work outside of their designated territories and reservations. The 82 year-old sisters have to feel those times when African Americans testifying in court would have provided entertainment for white people. And I have to understand what would have been humiliating for them, their mothers and their father. I have to feel those times and what they mean to the characters with links to the past. Mind you, it all can’t go inside the story, but time, place, and people must be a part of me while I write.


Nikki Grimes: Researching and Writing Chasing Freedom

Interview by Vicki Palmquist

Chasing FreedomChasing Freedom
written by Nikki Grimes
illustrated by Michelle Wood
Orchard Books, 2014

Did you know more about one of your two characters when you conceived of the book?

 Yes. I knew a fair amount about Harriet Tubman. Hers was one of the few stories about African Americans brought out every year during what, in my youth, was called Negro History Month. I was far less familiar with the details of the life of Susan B. Anthony, though I certainly had a passing knowledge of her place in history.

How did you decide there was a story to be told about these two women? Together?

 In 1988, I was asked to develop dramatic monologues on an assortment of historical figures for a stage production to be done in China later that year. I chose Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass as my subjects. In the process of researching them individually, I learned that they were all contemporaries, and that their paths frequently crossed one another’s. The fact that these historical powerhouses knew one another was exciting, and led me to believe that many new stories were possible, but especially between these two women.

You wrote Chasing Freedom in prose rather than verse, as a fictional story, rather than nonfiction. What led you in those directions for this narrative?

ph_Grimes_3The idea for this book began with the quintessential literary question “What if?” In this case, the question was, “What if Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony sat down together for a long conversation? What would that conversation be like?” The germ of the idea was based on something that, to my knowledge, never actually occurred, so while historical facts shape the bulk of the narrative, the fictional aspect of the conversation itself dictated that this story would be a work of historical fiction. As for the choice of prose, that was dictated by the overwhelming amount of historical material and detail I wished to include in the piece. Poetry would not have given me the room I needed, nor would it have allowed me to work in as many quotes from the subjects, themselves. As it is, the brevity of the picture book format, itself, required a constant paring down of the manuscript. Oh, the stories left untold for lack of space!

When you were collecting quotes from the two women, how did you record them? (e.g., on paper, in the computer, on note cards) What type of notation did you make? How did you organize the quotes so you could find them again?

I made the bulk of my notations on yellow lined pads, in spiral notebooks, and in assorted journals. For the record, I always write in longhand, whether the work is historically based or not. In any case, I did not keep quotations separate from other notes. When I was ready to move from research to writing, I read back through my notes, and marked quotations with colored post-it notes so that I could find them as I needed to.


 Did you include travel in your research? Which sites did you find most useful?

 The story is set against the backdrop of the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and the early suffrage movement. As such, I began research with a trip to Cincinnati, Ohio to explore the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, there. I also spent time in Cincinnati’s main library, which houses one of the best collections of literature related to the Underground Railroad, as well as substantial material by and about Susan B. Anthony. Afterwards, I visited Ripley, OH where several homes on the Underground Railroad have been preserved. The library in Ripley was a worthwhile stop, as well.  I developed my list of reference materials as a result of visiting these sites, but more than that, they put me in the frame of mind to dig deeper into the life stories of these two women.

Are you able to soak up “the vibes” of a visited site in a way that informs your writing?

Always. In this case, the experiences with the greatest impact were two. First, stepping into the reconstructed slave pen, shackles in full view, at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Second, a few days later, descending into a root cellar at The Rankin House, one of the stations of the Underground Railroad in Ripley, where runaway slaves were frequently hidden. Had I been alive in the 1800’s, I could have been one of those slaves, the realization of which was enough to make me shudder in that moment, and even now. I drew on those visceral feelings as I wrote the stories of Harriet’s harrowing journeys to and from the South to rescue slaves desperate for freedom. As an African American author, these stories are close to the bone.


Did you have anything to say about the choice of illustrator?

Yes. I felt strongly that, as this was a book about women, written by a woman, a female artist should be tapped for the illustrations. Michele Wood was first on my list, specifically for her attention to historical detail. I conveyed my thoughts to my editor, who took them into account. Neither of us was disappointed with the final choice, or the stunning work that resulted.

What type of input did you have on the illustrations or the design of the book?

In this book, I had very little to do with either, although I occasionally commented on something in the sketches, which were sent to me early on.

Do you write the back matter or does the publisher have someone to do this?

I research and write all of my own back matter.

If you write the back matter, are you taking notes for this as you do your research or how do you prepare for this part of the book?

I planned to prepare substantial back matter for this book from the very beginning, though I did not assemble this information until the very end. As I went along, I made notations about historical figures or important historical events, or legislation that I might want to include in the back matter. Further research into those subjects came at the end of the project when I was ready to draft that section of the book.

Are there any questions I didn’t ask that you wish I had asked you?

 How long did it take me to create this book? The idea first came to me in 1988. I took my initial research trip in early 2008. Chasing Freedom was finally published in 2015. My point? It’s important to remember that some books take time!








Kekla Magoon: Writing Historical Fiction

interview by Ricki Thompson

cover image

Aladdin Books, 2009

RICKI: Kekla, thanks so much for joining me and your other fans (old and new) on Bookology! Your novels have been described as “well-paced,” “deeply-layered,” and “elegantly crafted.”  I especially admire the uncomfortable issues you confront and the risks you take in your stories. You’ve authored a number of engaging books, but today let’s talk about your companion YA historical novels, The Rock and the River and Fire in the Streets, and the research involved in writing them.

Your novels take place in Chicago, 1968, a powder keg time and place. 1968 was the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were shot. It was the year that thousands of protesters and police clashed violently outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Did you choose this volatile setting, or did it choose you?

KEKLA: I wanted to write about the Black Panther Party, and though the organization was started in 1966 in Oakland, I wanted to show a broader picture of the civil rights struggle too. So I chose a city I was already familiar with, and where riots had erupted in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination (this happened in many cities nationwide, but not Oakland, because the Panthers helped calm the community). Chicago happened to also be the city where the DNC [Democratic National Convention] was held, which allowed Maxie’s story to open amid that melee.

RICKI: The Black Panthers was a controversial party. Many of your characters, including your protagonist, Maxie, are members. Why did you make this choice?

Aladdin, 2012

Aladdin, 2012

KEKLA: The Panthers were controversial because a lot of people didn’t understand their goals. In the media and in historical discussions, they tend to be portrayed as violent and scary, when in reality their work in the communities was broad and often very positive. Most people think of them as a militant group, which they were, however their “militancy” was based on a strategy of self-defense against police brutality. When they were not being attacked, they focused on creating positive change and empowering people within struggling black communities. The Black Panther Party operated schools, ran food programs, offered legal aid, and provided health clinics for poor people who did not have anywhere else to turn. I wrote these books in part to offer up the Panthers’ side of the story and to show how exciting their presence in the community was to young people who longed to make a difference and were tired of marching and protesting for change and being beaten down for their effort.

RICKI: The Black Panthers believed in carrying arms in order to police the police. A number of the characters in your books handle guns. What kind of research did you do to learn about firearms?

KEKLA: I read about the types of guns the Panthers used. I’ve never had actual firearms as a part of my life. I’m a little bit intimidated by the idea of guns, and while it appeals to me in theory to learn to use them for the purposes of research, I didn’t ever take it that far.

RICKI: Chicago, 1968, doesn’t exist anymore. But some of the people who inhabited that time and place still do. What role did personal interviews have in your research?

KEKLA: Not much for The Rock and the River. I didn’t personally know any former Panthers at that point, though I had spoken to a number of people who lived through the time and participated in the Civil Rights Movement in other capacities. By the time Fire in the Streets came out, I had the opportunity to speak to a handful of former Panthers, some of whom are still well known activists and educators.

RICKI: Did you explore the places in Chicago where your characters lived and worked? What did you learn from your explorations?

cover image

Henry Holt, 2014

KEKLA: I went to college in Chicago area, but I lived in New York when I wrote these books. I have been to the neighborhoods where I picture Sam and Maxie living, but the community I created for them is really a conglomeration of places and things.

RICKI: Your novels make reference to a number of famous people—Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Fred Hampton. If you could have  lunch with one of them, whom would you choose? Why?

KEKLA: Oh, wow. I would love to sit with any of them. Of your list, the only person still living is Bobby Seale, so I will try for that one in real life at some point, along with Elaine Brown, Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver and anyone else who will hang out with me. But in terms of those who are gone, I would probably choose Fred Hampton. He is the one on the list who had the least chance to speak in the world (shortest life, smallest platform during that life) and I can only imagine how much more he would have had to say.

RICKI: Authentic dialogue is so important in historical fiction. How did you learn the slang (such as “pigs” for “police”) and the everyday vernacular of the period?

KEKLA: Just from reading the Panthers’ historical writings, I was able to pick up their language and style. I certainly could have carried that aspect of the stories further, but I wanted modern readers to be able to follow the slang, so I chose a few things to use regularly. “Pigs,” to me, is Panther-specific and very evocative.

RICKI: What experiences, questions, cravings, in your own life connect you to Sam in The Rock and the River and/or Maxie in Fire in the Streets?

cover image

Candlewick, 2015

KEKLA: Well, the main question that drives ROCK is which path to choose—passive resistance or self-defense, broadly speaking. And in FIRE, it’s how far will you go to stand up for what you believe in, which is a shade of the same issue. So these novels are partly driven by my wondering what I would have done if I had lived back then, what choices I might have made in that time and place.

RICKI: Can you talk about your research process?

KEKLA: I did a lot of reading about the Black Panther Party: books, magazines, newspapers. I’d already studied the civil rights movement in general for many years already, but it was interesting and informative to dig into a less-often-discussed topic. I watched documentaries in which the founders and early members of the BPP spoke and the organization’s history and controversies were highlighted. I read their writings and speeches from the period, and autobiographies of, and I even viewed some old microfilm copies of the original Black Panther newspaper. Later, I traveled to Oakland and viewed copies of the real newspapers and other ephemera in their archives.

RICKI: And how did you keep track of your research?

KEKLA: I was supposed to keep track of it?

RICKI: You said your mom helped you in your research. How?

KEKLA: I can imagine myself saying that, but out of context, I’m not actually sure what I meant. She was a young teen in the late 1960s, so I’ve certainly talked with her about her own experiences and memories of the time.

RICKI: You’ve no doubt heard the expression “Your research is showing.” What riveting information did you have to eliminate for the sake of the stories?

cover image

Bloomsbury, 2015

KEKLA: Well, 1968 was quite a rich year in terms of historical context, so I left a lot of compelling material out of these stories. But it’s also a near enough moment in history that the kinds of historical details that authors sometimes get bogged down in retelling—daily food preparation rituals, transportation, period technology—weren’t too much of an issue. I did have to pay close attention to my own assumptions about the world—I had to eliminate references to Chicago’s Sears Tower (now Willis Tower), which hadn’t been finished yet, and pens that “click” open had to become pens with caps. The long curly cords of telephones that I remember from my 1980s childhood weren’t in fashion yet, so you couldn’t walk around the kitchen while on the phone, you had to stand in one place to talk. This is the kind of detail that my mom and other older readers helped me correct. And, of course, I realize that the very detail of using a corded phone may be news to some of my young readers!

RICKI: Fire in the Streets ends on a strong but edgy note. Can we hope for a third novel to join your other two?

KEKLA: Oh, I doubt it. I guess you never know when an idea will strike, but for the time being I’ve moved on to other topics. The nearest thing to a third “companion” for ROCK and FIRE is my non-fiction book on the history and legacy of the Black Panther Party, which will be published by Clarion in Fall 2016.




A Conversation Between Avi and Gary D. Schmidt

Avi and Gary D. SchmidtWhen Avi published his 1950s’ era novel, Catch You Later, Traitor, he dedicated the book to Gary D. Schmidt, fellow author, fellow reader, fellow connoisseur of noir detective novels and history. The Bookologist is privileged to listen in on this conversation between two authors who are so greatly admired for the depth and texture within their books. Enjoy!

Gary D. Schmidt:
Ray Bradbury once wrote a short article entitled “Memories Shape the Voice” in which he talked about the powerful ways that his childhood memories affected the making of his Greentown, Illinois. It wasn’t just the details that would come back to him as he created the world of his short stories—it was how he felt about those details: the beauty (to him) of the town’s factories, the terror (to him) of the gullies. It seems to me that this is true also of your evocation of 1951 Brooklyn. Is that fair to say?

It is fair. It’s been many years since I’ve lived in NYC, but I confess I still think of myself as a New Yorker. I’ve written more about the city than any other place, from City of Light, City of Darka dystopian graphic novel—to Sophia’s Wara tale of the American Revolution. It’s not just “home” in a physical sense, it’s my emotional home. And yet, I now live in the Rocky Mountains, nine thousand feet up, in a community of thirteen, the nearest neighbor a mile away.

When writing Catch You Later, Traitor, which is set, for the most part, in my boyhood neighborhood, it was easy for me to walk home from school, play stoopball, go to the local movie theater. I easily recall sitting on the front stoop reading comic books with my friends—even which comic books.

Gary D. Schmidt:
One part of that world is the physical setting: Pete’s apartment, the streets, the nursing home, the school. Though I suspect that being in these settings brought a great deal of nostalgic pleasure, how did these settings play a part in the plotting of the book?

I think all writers depend on sensory memory. Consider Ritman’s Books where, in the book, Pete hangs out. There was such a bookstore in my neighborhood, which I loved to go to. The same for that movie theater where I would go for the Saturday morning kids’ shows. My Brooklyn was very much a small town. There was everything I needed, and all I needed to construct the book. Even when I had to go beyond, by subway—I love the city subways—it gave me great pleasure to write about them.

Brooklyn Heights SchoolGary D. Schmidt:
The school is particularly intriguing to me, since it seems to me to be acting in interesting thematic ways. School, for Pete, is a place of monolithic power: the teacher. There is one point of view, one way of responding to America, one way of sitting and responding and behaving. Toward the end of the book, Pete calls his teacher, Mr. Donavan, a bully—and it seems at that point that Mr. Donavan represents all of the school. But does it seem to you as well that the school, with its insistent power, also represents the way the country was acting toward dissent at this time?

Mr. Donavan is based on a teacher I did have. I describe him as I remember him. But don’t forget Mr. Malakowski, who is also real, and a nice guy. He was, in fact, my favorite teacher. Parents think they know about their children’s schools, but I think in some way schools constitute a parallel universe to home life. They don’t always intersect. Pete’s parents don’t really know what’s going on there, and Pete doesn’t want them to get involved. That, I think, is typical. In today’s world, the older a kid gets the less he/she wants parents to be involved in school. Yes, the school does represent the country at that time, but it’s important to remember that it was not the whole country.

Gary D. Schmidt:
And of course, there are the characters that are so vivid—an Avi trademark. I think especially of Mr. Ordson, the blind man to whom Peter reads. He reads the newspaper, because Mr. Ordson wants to keep up with current events. And he is a wise and good friend to Pete. You’ve written that Mr. Ordson is based on a real person to whom you, as a young adolescent, read. Are there other characters based on folks from your past? Perhaps Pete’s father, a noble character? Have you, as William Faulkner once advised, cut up your relatives to use them in your plot?

How can I say this? Pete’s father is based on what my father was not. My father was not a nice man. Very hard on me. Abusive. Don’t get me going. Anyway, I think Pete’s father is what I would have liked my father to be. I bet you’ve worked from that kind of opposite, too. Cathartic, perhaps. On the other hand, Pete’s older brother is somewhat based on my own older brother who, like many older brothers, can be patronizing to younger brothers. That said, a major part of the story is not about families that pull apart—there is some of that—but how families stay together. And Kat—a key fictional character in the book—is drawn to Pete’s family as much as she is to Pete.

Gary D. Schmidt:
One other element from the past: the noir voices, the sounds of the hard-boiled detective fiction that you read, that I read, that we both still read. At times, Pete leaves the first-person narrative to go into that hard-boiled voice. I think you probably had a lot of fun with that, right?

I adored writing those sections. I think there is something uniquely American in that noir voice. The tough love. The sarcasm. The wit. The truth-telling. The very careful literary construction, all of which masks a deep-rooted sentimentality, an embarrassed, if you will, searching for love. Very complex. The thought that I can share that—introduce it—to my readers gives me great pleasure.

Gary D. Schmidt:
In this McCarthy–era novel, Pete is thrown into a world in which fear inspires hatred. As news spreads that his father does not accept an easy vision of a perfect America but believes that the stories of workers and African Americans also need full play in tales of the development of the country, Pete is ostracized, since it is assumed that his father must be a Commie! Since all historical fiction is written both about a time in the past and for readers in the present, it seems to me that your novel is a powerful warning against assuming that any narrative about our country is simple and uncomplicated.

One of my favorite notions about historical fiction is expressed in the opening lines of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” I find that a fascinating idea because I don’t entirely agree with it. What I mean is, yes, the past is a different country, but they do not always do things differently there. I know, from what I’ve read of what you’ve written, you understand this. Our goal is to make the past meaningful to the present, right? To give it life. America has such a complex and fascinating history. But how little people know of it! How many great stories there are yet to tell!

Gary D. Schmidt:
Pete must deal with some hard truths: in the novel, he develops strong anger toward both his brother and his great-uncle, anger which does not get resolved in the narrative. At the same time, he comes to understand that his father lives a life that is larger and perhaps more noble and honorable than he had imagined. Is it fair to say that in one way, this novel is about the limits of knowledge—that we cannot truly know someone else completely?

Pete’s father tells Pete: “Nothing is simple. Know that and you know half the world’s wisdom.” Oh, how I believe that! Bet you do, too. Somewhere I read, “Poor writing makes what you know simple. Good writing makes it complex.” Right?

Gary D. Schmidt:
Perhaps this is the hubris of the McCarthy era as well—the assumption that I have the right to know everything about someone else. I note this in the context of a world in which it seems to be the growing assumption that we do have the right to know what we want to know about another person—something that Pete’s father insists is not true at all.

Hey! Privacy, the last frontier! It’s one of the most important things about book reading. It’s truly private. Far more so than even digital reading! The other day—in San Francisco—I passed a used book store. Out front was a box labeled “Free Books.” Think of it! No one would know if I picked up a book. Or read it. Or thought about it. Or what I thought. No one. And yet, and yet—and I know you believe this, too—nothing is more intimate than sharing thoughts. That said, one of the most powerful things a person can have—for good or ill—is a secret. As a kid I recall playing a game we called Secrets. The idea being that you and your friend each shared a real secret. A dangerous game, when you think about it.

You Never Heard of Willie Mays?Gary D. Schmidt:
Pete decides that he will be a Giants fan, going against Brooklyn’s fanatic loyalty to the Dodgers—who, we know, will one day betray that loyalty. I know this is, on one level, simply Pete’s desire to get back at the others around him for their hatred. But it also seems to me that Pete is asserting his right to be different—exactly what McCarthyists feared and prosecuted, and, perhaps, exactly what our own culture seems to fear: the person who does not buy into the current vision of the American dream: to acquire. This is not a message novel; it first does what E. M. Forster claims the writer must do: make the reader turn the page. But at the same time, you are making some powerful suggestions that warn against a too easy acceptance of the culture’s claims upon us.

Being loyal to a false ideal can be very destructive. Being loyal to high ideal can be very dangerous. Pete’s shift from being a Brooklyn Dodger fan to a New York Giants fan is something that came right out of my life—and, yes, in 1951 when the Giants won the National Pennant just as I recount it in the book. It was my first step in becoming independent from my family. But when you become independent of your family—or your culture—you pay a price. More often than not you are rejected, told that you have abandoned them, whoever or whatever them might be. But being different, being independent, is liberating. In Catch You Later, Traitor, the word traitor becomes a code word for “being different.” In the story being different enriches Pete’s life. The story begins by his no longer being a kid. It ends by his becoming a kid again—but far deeper in experience. Hey, that’s why I dedicated the book to you. You’ve lived your life that way. Right?

Thank you both for this interview. It opens many paths to explore and ideas to consider, but we expected no less from the two of you.


Interview with Sonny Liew

Shadow Hero coverThe Shadow Hero
written by Gene Luen Yang
illustrated by Sonny Liew
First Second, 2014

Growing up in Malaysia and Singapore, what were the popular comic books?

Well in terms of what you’d see at the newsstands , there was Old Master Q or Lao Fu Zhi from Hong Kong. In schools, there’d always be someone reading Tin Tin, Asterix or Archie. Myself, I also read a lot of Beano, Richie Rich and, a bit later on, Mad magazine. That last one probably turned me into a lifelong dissident.

How old were you when you started drawing or painting? What were your frequent subjects?

I think drawing comes very naturally to kids, it’s just an instinct to pick an pen or crayon and scribble away. But I suppose I continued drawing at an age when a lot of people stop—the early to mid-teens? By that stage I was very caught up with role-playing games like Dungeon and Dragons and Dragon Warriors, so a lot of it was fantasy art featuring barbarians and elves.

What decisions took you on your life path from Cambridge [University] to the Rhode Island School of Design?

I started doing a comic strip for a local Singaporean newspaper whilst I was still in Cambridge, and that whole process—thinking up ideas, finessing a punch line, drawing the final art—it just felt like something I could be totally engaged with. So I was pretty sure I wanted to do something arts-related after graduating, though it took me a while longer to figure out that I ought to go to art school, to learn everything from painting to sculpting, color theory and composition.

p. 60 illustration excerpt

p. 60 illustration excerpt

At what point did you decide that you’d like to be a comics artist?

Looking back at it now…I guess discovering works by creators like Chester Brown and Charles Burns—they opened up my mind to a different kind of comics then what I’d been used to—complex, personal stories that took the medium to whole new places. I suppose I had a sense then that engaging with the medium could be a lifetime’s endeavour.

How does it work in the comics world…how did you get signed on to The Shadow Hero as the illustrator?

Heh, I actually think that’s the wrong term, “illustrator.” Comics is a combination of text and images, there’s no real way to divide the two in the way the stories are told. It’s more a case of storytelling as a whole, with the writing and artwork being handled by different people in some cases. It’s a minor detail maybe, but perhaps does have some significance in the way books are classified or conceived in some places, especially those more  used to prose novels, where illustrations are seen as secondary, an add-on rather than an integral part of the story.

In any case…Gene and I had worked together on a short story for the Secret Identities anthology a few years a back, and his story is that I was the first person he thought of when he had The Shadow Hero script ready. I’d like to believe that’s true! On my end, it was a no-brainer to get the chance to work with Gene again on the project.

The color palette you chose for The Shadow Hero goes from a fairly neutral gray and brown palette to vividly intense reds, greens, and golds. How did you choose those colors?

Top: from p. 3;  Bottom: from p. 87

Top: from p. 3;
Bottom: from p. 87

It’s usually a matter of trial and error, tweaking the palette until it looks right. It’s always a function of storytelling, and in the this case, we needed different palettes to mark out the past from present, as well as a look that evoked the feel of the original Green Turtle comics.

Did you confer with Gene Luen Yang while you were drawing the story? If so, did parts of the story change based on your discussions?

Only minor things like layouts, rather than any deeper structural or thematic concerns. Gene’s scripts are wonderfully clear-headed, and the changes I suggested were mostly to add a level of visual dynamism where possible. Or maybe just to justify my presence on the project.

Did you refer to Chu Hing’s Green Turtle comics when you were doing your sketches?

For sure! I don’t own any physical copies of the comic, but fortunately these days you have access to digital versions.

Who was your favorite character to draw?

Uncle Wun Too. There was a wonderful eccentricity about him, and I got to draw him in a costume that paid homage to Old Master Q.

Art of Charlie Chan coverWe’re looking forward to The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Pantheon, early 2016). What can you tell us about your work on that book?

The book contains three main strands, I think—the life of a long-forgotten comics artist, the story of Singapore, and the story of comics. The main challenge was to try to bring them together in a narrative that would be both formally interesting and compelling. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, and it’s been called multi-textured and layered… but I’m going to go with the blurb Gene wrote for the book: “A joy to read…masterfully weaves the history of Singapore with the history of comics into something you’ve never experienced before.”




Interview with Gene Luen Yang

Shadow Hero coverThe Shadow Hero
written by Gene Luen Yang
illustrated by Sonny Liew
First Second, 2014

What qualifies a comics character as a superhero?

You’ve asked a question that lies at the very heart of geekdom.  I don’t know if there’s a solid answer.  Most superheroes have superhuman abilities, but not all.  Most superheroes wear colorful costumes, but not all.  Most superheroes have goofy aliases, but not all.

Maybe a character just has to make herself into a symbol of something bigger, something more.

The Shadow Hero is an origin story—you and artist Sonny Liew created a back story for a character and series that had a brief, four-issue life back in the 1940s. You knew your end point: The Green Turtle would end up helping the Allies’ war effort during WWII, and because you wanted to make the superhero Asian, you had a start point. With those two points pinned on a board, what was the next step in writing the story?

Lots and lots of thinking.  I debated how old the protagonist should be, where he should come from, who should be in his supporting cast.  Having predetermined beginning and end points actually made things easier.  Often, I’m frozen by indecision.  Those “pinned” points narrowed my options, at least a little bit.

I knew I wanted the character to be of Chinese descent but raised in the West, like me.  I researched the history of the Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York, and found some good story fodder.

The protagonist, Hank, is content to work at his father’s side in the family store when he’s thrust into extraordinary events.  He’s not born with his superpower and he never dreamed of being a superhero. Why did you choose to work with this dramatic path?

Often, immigrants’ kids are born into dreams.  We’re born into a set of expectations.  I wanted that to be a primary tension of the book: Hank’s mom wants one thing for him, Hank himself wants another.

Superheroes are deeply American.  They were invented in America, they’re most popular in America, and at their best superheroes express America at its best.  Hank’s mom sees “superheroing” as a way of becoming American, a way to finally be accepted by her family’s new country.  Hank could care less, at least in the beginning.  He just wants to be comfortable.

Shadow Hero illustration

You’ve stated in interviews that The Shadow Hero is about the immigrant experience—about being the child of immigrants, especially.  Could you discuss this for our readers, many of whom teach and otherwise work with children of immigrants?

Almost every major superhero was created by children of Jewish immigrants: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, the X-Men.  Consciously or not, they embedded their life experience into their creations.

Immigrants’ kids often grow up with one name at home and another at school, one set of expectations at home and another at school.  We negotiate between two identities.  That’s a convention in the superhero genre.  Superman isn’t just Superman, he’s also Clark Kent.  Batman is also Bruce Wayne.  Spider-man is also Peter Parker.

I sometimes wonder if that’s why I loved superheroes so much as a kid.  I saw myself in them.

Chinese in America coverPlease say a bit more about the research involved in writing about pre-WWII Chinatown and other settings or elements.

 I read about early Chinese communities in San Francisco, New York, and Hawaii.  Iris Chang’s The Chinese in America was particularly helpful.

Have you ever made your own superhero costume?

I haven’t, but my friends have on my behalf.  For my bachelor party, they dressed me up as a character they called Weiner Man –cape, underwear on the outside, an absurd and slightly inappropriate chest insignia.

My friends are mean.

You are also a veteran high school teacher. Your graduate-school work focused on the value of comics as an educational tool, and you’ve listed on your blog some comics that are a perfect fit for a  S.T.E.M. curriculum. On another site, Comics in Education, you list professional resources to help teachers learn to integrate comics into the classroom. If you were to tell an unconvinced teacher the singlemost reason to include graphic novels within the curriculum, and not just as independent reading, what would that be?

Simply put, certain types of information are better communicated through pictures.  I love words.  I read words for fun and I read words for work.  Words are incredibly, incredibly important to me and I never want them to go away.  But words can’t do everything.  Can you imagine putting together a Lego set by following words-only instructions?  So many concepts can be better explained with pictures: osmosis, the binary number system, factoring.

I don’t see comics as a replacement for prose—I see comics as another tool in the toolbox.  Teaching is such a difficult profession.  Shouldn’t teachers have access to as many different tools as possible?

Secret Coders coverYour forthcoming Secret Coders, Book 1 (illustrated by Mike Holmes) will be published this fall by First Second Books. Could you briefly tell us about this book and the series it launches?

I’m very, very excited about Secret Coders.  This is my first explicitly educational graphic novel series.  It’s also my youngest – it’s middle grade.

Secret Coders is a bit like Harry Potter – our young protagonists find a secret school.  However, instead of teaching magic, the secret school teaches coding.  Mike and I hope that, as our characters learn to code, our readers will too.

A final question about The Shadow Hero: If you hopped into the way-back machine and landed in seventh grade and had to give a very short report on The Shadow Hero to your classmates, what one thing about the book would you want to share with them?

It’s got punching in it!  And mahjong!



Catherine Thimmesh: Researching Paleoartistry

cover image How did you learn about paleoartists?

 While I was working on my book Lucy Long Ago, part of that research revealed the work of a paleoartist who reconstructed living creatures from paleo times based on fossil evidence, including the hominid, Lucy.

 How did you decide which paleoartists to contact?

I researched the world’s top paleoartists—as defined by the paleontologists and paleoartists themselves. Then, from those artists, I selected the art I personally connected with and thought might mix well together in a book. I then contacted those artists to see if they would participate in the project. (One artist contacted declined.)

How do you ask them for information?

It’s pretty straightforward—just ask! Most of the time, I’m able to contact the artists initially through email. That’s helpful for a cold-contact. I am able to introduce myself and attach a link to my website to familiarize them with my work. Then, after some initial correspondence with email, I set up a telephone interview.

from Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled, image copyright Tyler Keillor

from Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled, copyright Tyler Keillor

What’s the process you went through for obtaining permission to use the art in this book? Where did you go to find the art?

Usually the artists own the copyrights to their artwork (or sometimes a museum has the copyright), so it’s just a matter of negotiating a usage fee and the terms with which to use the work. I scoured the internet, some books, and artists’ websites to find the art. Later in the process, after the artists were selected, I would email specific requests to see if anyone had, say, a Triceratops with the scale pattern fairly visible (or some such).

How do you write so that both children and adults are interested in your books?

Hmmm …. I choose topics that interest and excite me and that I feel will interest and excite kids. Both elements must be present or I won’t do the book. I’ve started several books and then somewhere along the way either I lost interest or I felt the interest level for kids wouldn’t be there and so I abandoned the projects. I don’t consciously write for any age. I do purposefully write with a fairly casual tone—which I think tends to make a book more kid-friendly. It surprises me, still, that so many adults tell me they enjoy my books and perhaps that’s because while I try to write in an accessible manner for kids, I also refuse to dumb anything down for them—which in turn, might make the material more appealing.

Were you interested in dinosaurs as a child?


What was the most surprising thing you learned while writing this book?

My initial thought—the thought that led to digging deeper into the topic (How do we know what dinosaurs really looked like?)—was: ‘Well, obviously the artists just make this stuff up. They’d have to; there’s no reference to draw upon.’ But that thought led me to this: ‘But how can they just make stuff up and present it in a scientific context (without an attached disclaimer: THIS IS COMPLETELY MADE UP)?’ This of course got me agitated; which, in turn, led to: ‘The scientific presentations of dinosaurs (as opposed to movie dinosaurs or picture book dinosaurs) MUST be based upon something. What could it be?’ So, it was enormously surprising and gratifying to learn that paleoartists base their art not just on “something”; not even just on a handful of fossils, but on a tremendous backbone of scientific evidence and scientifically based inference (with some artistic license taken when absolutely necessary—for instance with color).

Thank you, Catherine, for writing a book that addresses questions we didn’t even know to ask, but which intrigued you enough to research and write Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled: How do we know what dinosaurs really looked like? And thank you for sharing some of your book-writing journey with our Bookology readers.



Ellen Oh: Researching and Writing the Prophecy Trilogy


prophecy trilogyBookologist’s note: Last month we featured Catherine, Called Birdy and an interview with the author, Karen Cushman. In that interview, nonfiction writer Claire Rudolf Murphy asked Cushman about her research and incorporation of historical fact into her fiction. Continuing that exploration, this month Bookology visits with novelist Ellen Oh. King, the final volume of her Prophecy trilogy, was released in March (volumes 1 and 2 are Prophecy, Harper Teen 2013 and Warrior, Harper Teen 2014). A blend of historical and fantasy fiction, the trilogy is set around 350 AD or CE and weaves ancient history from the area now known as Korea into a compelling and action-packed narrative about a teen girl, Kira, who is a demon-hunter and also the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy—the Dragon Musado who would unite the many divided kingdoms into a single nation.

You have written on your website and spoken in other interviews about how your recreational reading of ancient Asian history triggered your writing. Have you always loved reading history and/or historical fiction?

Count of Monte CristoYes. I love history. As a child my favorite books tended to be the historical ones. In fact, my all time favorite books were The Count of Monte Cristo and To Kill a Mockingbird. I was that nerdy kid that enjoyed reading the school history textbook. When I was 13, my parents got suckered into buying the entire World History Encyclopedia book set and I am not ashamed to admit that I read every single volume. And I read whatever interests me, which is how I got into Asian history. I was fascinated by the idea that Genghis Khan had been named Time’s Man of the Millenium and it led me to read everything I could get my hands on. And in the process, I learned all about Asian history and I was hooked.

When you were first reading ancient Asian history, you must have encountered many things that rang the “how amazing—should be in a book!” bell. How did you keep track of those bits of history and mythology for later use?

Yes! So many awesome things. If the book was mine, I would tab all the important pages. But I had borrowed so many library books that I kept a notes journal filled with all the facts, legends, folktales, myths, etc., that I came across. I have several expandable file folders filled with papers and notebooks on all my notes.

Can you cite one or two finds that a reader will encounter in Prophecy or the later books?

The most amazing story I came across was the legend of the Rock of Falling Flowers, Nakhwa-am. Legend has it that during the Shilla and Tang invasion of Paekche in 638 C.E., 3,000 court ladies leapt to their deaths into the Baengma River. From a distance, the beautiful, multi-colored hanboks of the court ladies looked like falling flowers—which is where the place gets its name. The legend is so visually compelling that I knew I had to include it not only in my book, but also in my book trailer

Can you cite one or two elements in the trilogy that would not show up in a history book?

Oh yeah, well it is a fantasy and I wanted the scary elements to be really creepy. So in Prophecy, you will come across demons that eat your organs and wear your skin like a Halloween costume. But the best part is Kira and her tiger spirit. Kira has yellow eyes because she has a tiger spirit that is part of her and protects her. And it is the tiger spirit that lets her see and smell demons, something that no one else in her world has.

You have a fabulous map on your website that shows the 7 Kingdoms from the novels. While you emphasize that your kingdoms are not the historical kingdoms that would merge into modern Korea, there is some similarity, and you list those. Geography is so important in the books—the mountains, the rivers, the seas, the location of the walled cities. How did you keep all of this clear in your head while writing?

I kept a copy of the map and a compass by my side the entire time I was writing. Especially in the latter books, where Kira has to literally zig zag her way across the country, I relied heavily on my map to course out the road she would travel.

Map-making can be a terrific writing prompt or exercise for uncovering details. Did you have any favorite writing exercises that helped you develop Kira’s character or world?

I like to use Excel spreadsheets and include all my characters in them and list out everything I know about them, even to their sordid and sometimes irrelevant backstories. But by putting together a spreadsheet, I was able to know intimately how everyone interacted with each other and why they were necessary in any given scene. It was, in a way, my character map.

Kira’s family gives loving support to her “differentness” and unique powers rather than cast her out or attempt to stifle her. Can you talk about that writer’s choice?

It was important for me that Kira had a strong family that she could fall back on. No matter how hard her life is, how hated she is by the outside world, having faith and being secure in her family’s love keeps her grounded. It is part of what develops her into such a strong character. And being a mom myself definitely played into this decision. You see, I have 3 wonderful and very different girls and it is important for me to be as supportive as I can for them. No matter what choices they make in life, I’ll always be there for them and love them unconditionally.

When you visit classrooms, what sort of questions do you get from students about the books?

The two most common questions are “Do you have a Jindo dog?” and “When will it be made into a movie?”

Diverse Books LogoYou are the president of #WeNeedDiverseBooks. What’s ahead in the campaign for 2015?

So many great things! Our short story contest for a spot in our anthology is currently going on and we are getting a lot of amazing entries! We have begun awarding internship grants to increase diversity in publishing and we have opened up our Walter Awards for best diverse book. And we are gearing up to prepare for our Diversity festival which is currently set for July 2016 in Silver Spring, MD.



Cathy Camper: Writing Lowriders in Space

Lowriders coverLowriders in Space
written by Cathy Camper
illustrated by Raul the Third
Chronicle Books, 2014

When did you first become aware of (or involved in) lowrider culture?

Probably in the early 1980’s, when I visited a friend of mine who lived in the Mission District of San Francisco. There were a lot of lowriders in the neighborhood, and since we were young women at the time, we’d get flirtatious attention from guys showing off their cars when we walked down the street.

How was the decision made to make your three heroes non-human (the fourth hero, Genie, is a cat and I don’t need to ask why a cat is a cat)? They are an impala, an octopus, and a human … how did that come about?

Back when the book was just a daydream, I thought up the names of the characters first. I liked the name Elirio, and the name Elirio Malaria was really fun to say. I’d walk around thinking, Elirio Malaria, what kind of guy is he? Then one day it was as if a little voice whispered in my ear, “I’m not a guy, I’m a mosquito!” Duh!

Lowriders cast

Heroes in Space

Lupe (short for Guadalupe) Impala also got her name because it was fun to say, and because Impalas are the chosen cars of lowriders. She really is an impala, which is like a deer, or gazelle. For some reason readers don’t seem to know what kind of animal she is; they think she’s a fox, a wolf, a mouse?!? Raul and I thought it would be clear from her name, but you just never know…

And Flappy…I was reading an article about octopuses, and discovered there really is a super cute kind of octopus called a Flapjack Octopus, because its tentacles are short and stubby. Bam, you couldn’t ask for a better character.

It cracks me up when I hear the heroes described as a mosquito, an impala and an octopus, because I never thought of them as those animals first. Their animal nature came out of their names and personalities.

For the kids who’d like to make their own comics, how did you find Raul the Third? And when you found him, did the two of you work on developing the graphic novel together? Or was there the typical separation of author and artist?

Lupe at the Wheel

Lupe at the Wheel

Raul and I met via a mutual friend, who was drawing another comic I’d written. He couldn’t complete it, so he emailed me to suggest his friend Raul might like to work on it. I never finished that comic, but several years later when I’d written the script for Lowriders, I emailed Raul to see if was interested in a kid’s book, because I liked his art and knew we both had a good work ethic – we like to meet our deadlines.

He read it and wrote back, “This is the book I wanted to read as a kid,” and started sending me sketches the next day. He lives in Boston and I live in Portland, and we eventually met in person before embarking on such a big project, but from the start, it was obvious we had similar goals and shared the same sense of humor and approach to getting things done. In general, I write the story and he does the art, but we’re lucky that our publishers have let us collaborate a lot. Sometimes Raul will suggest plot changes or add dialog that fits with his choreography of the story. Likewise, sometimes I’ll specify some things that need to be shown in the art. It’s kind of like jazz, riffing off each other, where jokes and plot lines move back and forth between words and pictures. We also both have to adjust what we do to fit our editors’ and art director’s instructions.

Because a comic book or graphic novel often lets a story be told between the panels, did you do more editing to fit the illustrations than you might have with a picture book?



When I write the script, it’s very descriptive, because I’m trying to convey a whole world to Raul, my editors, and our art director. When Raul draws the thumbnail sketches, a lot of the writing falls out, because the story has now moved into the pictures. So if a character says, “Look, there’s a falling star!” once he’s drawn it, the character might just need to say, “Look!” I also try to leave some large spaces where big drama occurs, so the art can take over.

I think our book is different in this way from books like Drama or El Deafo, in that their art follows the plot line a little more directly, whereas Raul and I wanted sometimes to let the art just envelope the reader.

I don’t think it’s that different from writing a picture book, except I have to use waaay more exclamation marks. There are some parts of the writing I fight for, though, in order to maintain a rhythm, a poetry and to retain deeper layers of meaning.

Did you set out to write a comic that had science elements in it? Was lowriding into outer space always a part of the concept?

I love science; it’s where I get tons of my inspiration because nothing is more unbelievable than what is true. My first idea for this book was that it would be cool to have a car that was detailed by outer space. So it was natural to include not just space science but the technology of cars. I also thought it was weird that we rarely see kids’ books about cars, when you think of the big part they play in our lives, and all the jobs folks have involving automobiles.

I love that this comic is virtually readable by any person of any age: was that a conscious decision?

Lowriders illustrationMy original target audiences were kids in third through fifth grade, English- Spanish readers, and boys, since their literacy rate is dropping. I also wanted something that wouldn’t seem babyish to older kids reading below grade level, since I work with a lot of kids like that as a librarian. And then Raul and I are both avid comics readers, so we wanted to include stuff that both parents and adult comics ‘ fans would enjoy. Plus a lot of it was just Raul and I making ourselves laugh.

Integrating Spanish into the story feels very natural—and I know a lot of people will be grateful for the instant translation on each page—which feels like a natural part of the comic book style. Was this a subject of discussion with your editor or art director?

Both Raul and I love Love and Rockets comics by the Hernandez brothers, (an adult comic). They always used drop-down translations and explanations beneath their comic’s frames for things readers might not understand. Our comic is definitely an homage to theirs (they have a female mechanic named Maggie who works on rockets, and who is Lupe’s role model) and so we thought it was natural to do this in our book as well. I wanted to include a glossary for many reasons, but first and foremost, to empower any kid to read. Incarcerated kids, immigrant kids, kids whose parents don’t speak English or Spanish, or don’t read super well. I wanted to give kids the opportunity to figure it out themselves. Also, learning to use a glossary is a skill in and of itself, which ties in with curriculum goals, which schools need to meet. And then there’s the kids that tell me, “I just love reading glossaries! “

Have you done any work on your own car?

Naw, although my car is kinda low and slow. It’s old and faithful.

Do you have plans to go into outer space?

No, I like looking at meteor showers, and the night sky, and spying on outer space through telescopes. I guess I’m not focused on just one field of science. I love talking to scientists and learning what’s new and cool. There’s so much to discover, and we live in an age where a lot is going on.

Does the group El Lupe y su Quinteto Impala have anything to do with Lupe’s name?

Ha! Nope, that’s a total coincidence. Although I do love cumbia!

For classroom teachers who might be working with students who are writing a comic book, what advice would you give them about the writing side of this?

As a writer working with an artist, you have to agree to collaborate. So you want to figure out right at the start who does what. Some artists want the writer to do all the writing, break down the dialog frame by frame, and even describe what they should draw in each frame. Other artists prefer more freedom. And the same can be true of writers. Some demand to have a lot of artistic control about how the art will look. Others are more open. If it’s clear from the beginning, no one’s feelings will get hurt.

Do a rough form of the comic, penciling everything in loosely, before you commit to something that will take a lot more work. That way, you can work out your mistakes before you invest too much time in it. One very important thing is to figure out where each page will fall. If you look at a comic, you’ll see how important it is, where each panel lands. A big double page splash page has to land on two pages that lay next to each other. So it really helps to make a rough mock-up of your comic to figure this out.

I notice on the title page it says “Book 1.” Dare we hope for a Book 2?

Oh yes, book two is in the works as I write this, and it’s bigger and just as over-the-top as book one. Our intrepid heroes take a road trip in the opposite direction, into the center of the Earth! It will be out in spring of 2016.


Raul the Third: Illustrating Lowriders in Space


Lowriders coverLowriders in Space

written by Cathy Camper
illustrated by Raul the Third
Chronicle Books, 2014

When did you first become aware of (or involved in) lowrider culture?

I feel like I’ve been aware of lowrider culture for my entire life. When I was in high school I would draw the type of imagery you might see used as décor on a lowrider. Besides the superheroes, roses, clowns crying tears, gothic letters in torn scrolls were all things you would find in my notebooks. Plus I was a big fan of Lowrider magazine and especially of the Fan art which was usually created with BIC pens.

Are either you or Cathy drawn into the comic?

I drew author pictures of the both of us. Cathy is drawn as a Fox in an astronaut helmet doing research for our book. I am a wolf. Raul means “swift wolf” so I thought it was appropriate, plus I am a shaggy dude so it fits my personality. This book is incredibly autobiographical as well. I modeled Lupe’s hair on my Abuelita Catalina’s. I based el Chavo on my childhood hero Chespirito and the locale of the book is loosely based on El Paso/Juarez where I grew up. I also drew myself driving a van on the very last page!


I read that you used Bic pens for a good deal of the drawing and coloring. Is this a medium you’ve used on other projects?

I have used them for other projects. For some of the fine art drawings I have used it as a texturing tool or to create text within the drawing. This was the first time I have used them in a project as involved as Lowriders in Space. I felt that it was the perfect instrument for this series. When I was a boy I learned to draw with the BIC pens my father had lying around the house. I wanted to use materials that most everyone could have access to. This is a book about dreamers who use what they have to build the car of their dreams and I wanted the approach to the artwork to reflect what is possible when you have nothing, but dream big.

What type of paper did you draw this book on?

When I started creating concept drawings for the book before Chronicle Books was in the picture I drew pages on notebook paper and newsprint to give the look of a school kid drawing in their notebook. This would not have been possible for the final artwork as this type of paper is very unforgiving to mistakes. When I started working on the final artwork I used smooth plate Bristol board for the illustrations and typing paper for the color layer.


From the art on your website, I see that you’ve used coffee as a texturing agent before. Is there a story behind that? Did you use that technique in Lowriders in Space?

I love staining my paper with coffee or tea. I use that technique to age the paper. I love stuff that is old or appears beyond its years. I wanted Lowriders in Space to have that same feel. As if the characters had been with us forever. The look of old pulpy paper and the way stuff in classic comic books is often printed off registration is a huge inspiration. The drawings in Lowriders in Space are a love letter to so much about what I admire in cartooning, comic books, and old prints by Jorge Guadalupe Posada.


Is this your first comic book or have you worked in this form before?

This is my first published work. I have self-published zines before Lowriders in Space that were comic books, and I have been drawing them for a large part of my life.  

How did you work with Cathy to fit the text of the story into your panels?

It is a very collaborative process not just with Cathy but with our editorial team as well, which included our art director Neil Egan. It begins with Cathy’s script which I then turn into a rough storyboard. I then share this with Cathy and she makes adjustments to the script based on the new visual flow of the story. We then share this with our editorial team, and they give it back to us with notes and suggestions, and we repeat the process until we get it just right. After all is set in stone I lock myself in a room and complete the final art for the book.


For classroom teachers who might be working with their students to create a comic book, what advice would you pass along about the artwork?

Base characters on yourselves. It makes drawing so much easier if you know what your characters look like and you don’t know anybody like you know yourself. We also come with our own supporting casts so pick and choose characteristic from friends and family. There are not enough characters out there that truly resemble the wonderful people that make up our communities so it’s time we made ourselves into the interesting heroic characters we know we are! Also draw what you love to draw and through your drawings go on the adventures of your choosing.


Karen Cushman: Researching and Writing

interview by Claire Rudolf Murphy

Karen Cushman

Karen Cushman

Congratulations, Karen. Your first novel and Newbery Honor book Catherine Called Birdy is 20 years old and still going strong. The story still resonates with teen readers, especially girls, and is remembered fondly and reread by many readers who are grown up now. One such fan is actress Lena Dunham, who announced last fall that she is adapting the novel into a movie with plans to direct it.

I am obviously very excited. I’ve met with Lena, who is a lovely person. She loves the book and has great ideas for a movie. I hope it will be made in England and I can get all my friends parts as extras.

How much research did you do about medieval England before you started Catherine’s story? How much was done during the writing and revising of the novel? How do you balance the research and the writing?

Most of my research was done during the four-year writing period. I knew enough about medieval England to know that the story I had in mind would fit there and then, but I didn’t know what else I needed to know until I dug into the writing. I started by researching academic history books but they didn’t tell me what was interesting to me, like what people ate and wore, what they ate in winter, where they went to the bathroom, so I had to search for everyday-life sorts of books. Mostly research and writing happened at the same time. Sometimes I’d uncover facts important enough to find a place for in the book; at other times I’d find a hole in the story and have to go back to research.

Ever since the feisty Catherine came alive on the page, readers and reviewers have debated her feminist tendencies. What do you think of that debate then and now?

I don’t think Catherine could be called a feminist in our modern terms. She just wanted the world to play fair—with females, with peasants, with Jews. And there were many examples of feisty medieval females for me to look to, from Margery Kempe to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Women from all centuries probably ran the gamut from feisty and assertive to submissive, just as they do today. Catherine had different limitations and constraints than we do today. She knew them and grew to understand and even accept some of them. For example, she never thought about marrying Perkin. A lady and a goat boy match was too far outside the possibilities in her world. Other limitations she fought against because she is Catherine, and feisty, and that’s why we love her.

Your work is rooted in history, but kids today have no problem relating to your characters and stories. Could you share a few thoughts about how you make your historical characters seem real and relevant to readers today?

Midwife's ApprenticeI consciously write about strong characters so that readers can love, cheer for, and identify with them. I don’t set out to make them relevant to readers today. I just tell their stories and, I believe, readers find what they need.  What young readers take from a book really depends on them. I had a young girl tell me The Midwife’s Apprentice was a book about a cat, and a high school class in a poor neighborhood in LA found it a story about homelessness. And a young woman hospitalized after a suicide attempt found in Catherine Called Birdy a model for finding ways to be yourself when you feel hopeless and devoid of options. I never could have anticipated those responses.

One of the most significant challenges in historical fiction is how much or how little context to use. Do you believe that history is the story or that the historical period should serve the story?

I think the two work together. Historical novels tell a story that could not fit in any other time. In modern London, Catherine would not have been faced with the same obstacles. Will Sparrow’s adventures were distinctly Elizabethan. Rodzina’s story and the Orphan Trains both belonged to the late 19th century. I chose Elizabethan London for Meggy Swann’s particular story because alchemy and many other scientific endeavors were flourishing then. And I did not want to write of the medieval response to Meggy and her lameness; I wanted some, though not all, people to understand disease and deformity as medical issues and not God’s curses.

Meggy SwannYour stories are filled with the sights, sounds and smells of everyday people—during Medieval England, the Renaissance, the orphan trains, and the California gold rush. What kind of research did you do to come up with such rich sensory details?

I find those specific details mostly in first person accounts—letters, diaries, journals. And I use books about the natural world of medieval and Elizabethan England and 19th century California. But sometimes I just close my eyes and imagine from what I know.

In the novel Alchemy and Meggy Swann, how did you learn enough about medieval alchemy to bring it alive in the story?

I found many books about the philosophy and practices of alchemy. I understood very little—alchemy is arcane, esoteric, mysterious, deliberately cryptic, and complicated. The most helpful, most accessible book was Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution by Bruce Moran. Online I found illustrations of alchemical laboratories and even simple chemical experiments that explained the process in a simplified manner.

Loud Silence of Francine GreenThe Loud Silence of Francine Green (2006) is set at a Catholic school in 1949 Los Angeles that is modeled on one from your childhood. How did your research for this book differ from your other novels set in long ago times, such as midwifery?

My research into midwifery was all from books, but I am close in age to Francine so some of that research took place in my own memory and experiences. I enjoyed having Francine hear the songs or swoon over the actors or say things that I remember. Sometimes this got in the way—I was including things in the story that happened to me, not Francine. Or I’d say, “This really happened. I should include it,” even if it had nothing to do with Francine’s story. I had to be conscious of the differences between Francine’s story and my own life.

You have two master’s degrees, one in museum studies, and the other in human behavior. Your Stanford undergraduate degree is in Greek and English. How have those studies affected your writing and your research?

The study and especially the teaching I did as part of my museum studies degree introduced me to the process and value of learning about people from what we call material culture—the objects they made and used, the art they saw, the music and jingles and advertisements they heard. During my last three years at the university I worked with MA students on their theses, which taught me a lot about writing, organizing, editing, and taking a project from big idea to achievable product. I think that experience really set me on my way to writing a novel. Human behavior? I use that both in my writing and my life. And I love finding ways to use the Latin I learned as part of my Classics degree in my books.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about your writing today or your many years of publishing books for kids and young adults?

I could not really imagine being published. As I was writing Catherine Called Birdy, people told me to be prepared for failure, that first novels don’t sell, history is not popular with young people, that the Middle Ages are dead, and no one wants to read about girls anyway. However I had a story to tell and it seemed important to me to tell it, no matter what happened, so I ignored everyone and just wrote. What surprised me was the incredible luck I had in finding an agent (first one I queried), a publisher (Clarion is still my publisher), an editor (she’s still my editor), and cover artist (Trina Schart Hyman did my covers until she passed away). And I was surprised by the camaraderie, mutual support, and friendliness of everyone in the children’s book community. I had heard so many horror stories about the publishing world but my experience was splendid every way possible. I recommend anyone with a book inside her just to do it. Take the leap and write, with passion and gusto and hope. It could change your life. It changed mine.

Many of us writers appreciate the Late Bloomer award you and your husband have set up through SCBWI. Could you tell us more about the award and how it came about?

I was having lunch with Lin Oliver of the SCBWI, and I told her I wanted to contribute money to SCBWI. She asked whom I would truly like to encourage. I said, of course, late bloomers like me. And so the award was born. I love to imagine folks who think they are too old to begin writing finding reassurance and inspiration in the fact that many of us start after fifty and succeed.


Chris Van Dusen: Illustrating Leroy Ninker Saddles Up


Chris Van Dusen

Chris Van Dusen

Leroy Ninker first appeared in Mercy Watson Fights Crime as the criminal. Did you consciously change his appearance for Leroy Ninker Saddles Up to make him a more sympathetic character?

I’m not sure that I consciously changed his appearance. I tried to make him look like the same character. In the original series he was wearing a robber’s mask which gave him a slightly sinister look. Since he’s now a “reformed thief” I removed the mask which made him a warmer and more likeable character which is more fitting for the story.

Your palette for the Deckawoo Drive books has a retro feeling. What do you think decided you on working with the colors you use in those books and now Leroy Ninker Saddles Up?

The original Mercy Watson Series definitely did have a retro feel. The colors I used were similar to those that appeared in the picture books I grew up with – colors that were popular in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s. The new series has BW interior art but I ended up painting the pictures in the same method using gouache.

Cover Sketch

Sketch of a rejected cover idea for Leroy Ninker Saddles Up

When Leroy runs through the neighborhood to rescue Maybelline, you use a fluid line to indicate his rapid motion. For young readers who’d love to draw their own stories, how did you learn to convey action in this way?

Motion lines are a classic cartoon way of showing movement. I probably picked this up from my early interest in comic strips and animation.

How is illustrating a chapter book different from illustrating a picture book?

In a picture book there are fewer words, so the illustrations have to tell more of the story. Also, picture book illustrations are usually larger, often a full spread. In a chapter book, the illustrations support the text rather than tell the story.

What words of advice would you share to encourage young illustrators who’d like to follow in your footsteps?

 You can do it. But you have to keep drawing. Good drawing skills are the basis for any career as an illustrator, animator, cartoonist, painter, etc. 

interior sketch

A preliminary sketch
for the spread on pages 86 and 87.





Katherine Tillotson: Illustrating Shoe Dog

bk_shoe-dog1Shoe Dog

written by Megan McDonald
illustrations by Katherine Tillotson
Richard Jackson Books / Simon & Schuster, 2014

Your illustration of the Shoe Dog is so unusual. What inspired you to use this ropy scribble?

Shoe Dog sketchWhen I first visualized Shoe Dog, it was as a black and white bull terrier. In fact, I created an entire book dummy with that image. I had even asked a woman in the neighborhood if I could use her bull terrier as a model. But there was something about my sketches that didn’t feel quite right to me and when I happened to come across some scribbly sidewalk chalk drawings made by children, I immediately went home and began revising my sketches. It was the energy and life in the children’s pictures that inspired me.

What tools did you use to create the various elements in the book, such as the movement lines, the speech bubbles, the fence, the exotic shoes?

Artwork from Shoe DogI have always been attracted by collage. In the past, I have enjoyed cutting up patterned paper and arranging the pieces in unexpected ways. The computer has made it possible to re-imagine the technique of collage. Now I am able to combine marks that would have been impossible to mix if I was working conventionally.

I love to work with handmade marks. For Shoe Dog I used marks made by a brayer, crayon rubbings, a flat pencil and charcoal, then collaged them in the computer.

What did you do to “loosen up” your line for the highly active Shoe Dog?

I have recently been experimenting in watercolor and I find that by the time I have rendered any more than five layers, I am completely stiff and tight. I think that tension is caused by the fear that the entire painting can be ruined with the next brush stroke. In contrast, Shoe Doggie was a loosey-goosey ride. Since I was using the computer, I knew that I could scribble and scribble until I created a dog I wanted to use. Know that I could make tons of mistakes helped me to keep the mark-making loose and relaxed.

Color MovesHow do you go about choosing a color palette? It’s so luminous that it exudes good cheer, until we get to the BAD DOG! part of the book. Marvelous contrast. You express so well something we’ve all felt.

Thank you! I always try many color combinations until one feels right. I have to give a call-out to Atheneum’s Excecutive Art Director, Ann Bobco. From time to time she sends me inspiring packages. While I was working on a color palette for Shoe Dog, Ann sent me the book, Color Moves: Art & Fashion by Sonia Delaunay. The fabrics of Sonia Delaunay greatly influenced my color choices.

Did you select the font used throughout the book or did the book designer do that? Is it usual for an illustrator to choose the book’s font? What was it about this font that you felt suited the book?

Credit for the font choice goes to Ann Bobco. I love the bounce and animation it gives to the words.

In my experience, it is unusual for the illustrator to choose the book font. However, I know that there are many exceptions. Recently, I was reading The Adventures of Beekle written and illustrated by Dan Santat. I looked to see what font had been used and it was Santat.

How did you go about deciding to leave human faces out of the book?

I am so glad you asked! I believe that it was originally Megan who suggested that the woman in the story, She, Herself, would be a presence, a very significant presence, but just off-camera. She, Herself would be mostly hidden until the very end. It was particularly challenging to figure out how to establish the closeness between woman and dog early in the story. I wanted a hug. The solution was to adorn She Herself with a very large hat.

Shoe Dog

Illustration from Shoe Dog.

 Did you and the author, Megan McDonald, talk together about the art for this book?

We spoke a teeny tiny bit at the beginning of the art making. Megan and I do speak regularly, but usually not about any books that are underway. We both follow our customary practice of communicating about the book with Dick Jackson, our most excellent editor. This arrangement works well for everyone.

Are you already working on your next project?

I am! A nighttime story set in a forest. Then I am going for a romp in the mountains with another story.



Nancy Bo Flood: Creating Cowboy Up!

Cowboy Up!When you conceived of Cowboy Up! was the poetry format a part of your plan? If not, when did that occur?

I was standing next to the fence watching a young girl riding her horse barrel-racing, speeding around the arena, kicking up dirt and smiling from ear to ear. I thought, I want to do that. I want to be a rodeo-rider…and the first poem came to me, right from that yearning. I once raised and rode horses and there is nothing like galloping across a field with the wind in your face and the feel of the horse moving under you. On the Navajo Nation I have enjoyed the “back-yard rodeos” watching kids with their families groom their horses, braid tails, shine hooves and get ready to ride. I wanted to capture and share the experience with others. From the poems developed the book.  

Did you work from the photos or did Jan Sonnenmair select photos from her collection based on your poetry?

I had never met Jan but discovered her photo gallery online while I was researching about rodeos.  She captured the feelings within the rodeo riders. The editor and publisher agreed and contracted with Jan to come to Arizona and shoot the images for the book. She did. First as strangers and soon as friends we traveled together with her young son, Eli, for a couple of weeks across the Navajo Nation going to small junior rodeos to the bigger ones searching for the images that complemented the text.

Did Jan specifically take photographs for this book or does she regularly photograph rodeos?

Photography by Jan Sonnenmair.  Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Photography by Jan Sonnenmair.
Used with permission. All rights reserved.

All the images in the book—and several thousand more—were taken for Cowboy Up! Jan was usually in the rodeo arena, wearing boots, jeans, western shirt and cowboy hat—all required—with several cameras slung over both shoulders, shooting close-ups. Once a bucking bronco charged toward her. She snapped the image (on the book’s back cover) and I ducked to the ground with arms around her son and my grandkids. It was an exciting moment. Another day we both stood in a howling sandstorm, tears streaming down our faces from the grit and wind, as she tried to take photos of little ones competing in the Wooly-Riding event. And then there was the morning we stood in ankle-deep mud at the Junior Rodeo Champion Competition, rain pouring, wind blowing, wishing we could quit and go home. The sun came out and Jan took many of the photos of young rodeo riders that you see in the opening and closing “gallery.”

You’ve captured the inner dialogue of these rodeo participants in such an effective way. Do you know these children? Have you talked with them about their lives in rodeo competition?

Some of them, yes. I do wander the “back areas” of the rodeo grounds listening and watching. I’ve talked with the parents and grandparents sitting in the bleachers or standing along the fence, watching their kids compete. I can’t imagine watching my own child compete in bull riding. But I’ve also had the opportunity to watch the children practice—like any athlete—on mechanical bulls or roping goats, leaping out of a chute, going from standing still to full gallop, turning tighter around a barrel—practicing all the skills that are essential to getting better, stronger, faster. And also the other part of working with animals, taking care of them. Carrying bales of hay, mucking out stalls, filling up water tanks, pail by pail, cleaning tack, scraping hooves, bandaging cuts, washing and brushing your horse, talking to them… They love their horses, feel such pride about wearing a champion belt buckle, and a strong sense of “this is my family and I’m part of it.”

Do you have a rough guess (or an actual statistic) about what percentage of children participates in the Navajo Rodeo in these communities?

Good question and I have no idea. When I do school visits at a Navajo school, I ask, “How many of you are rodeo riders?” Always more than half the children raise their hands (with big grins on their faces).

Do you recall your planning for “Woolly Rider”? There’s a sense of time in that poem, which is very hard to do in print. Was this format present from the first draft?

I knew I wanted something different for this poem, something that conveyed the feeling of being on that bucking, dodging sheep and how long eight seconds could be. When I’m watching a child (imagine, sometimes only three years old) come shooting out on top of a bucking sheep, in my head I am always counting the seconds, hoping the little one can hang on just one more, one more…until that buzzer rings. That became the structure for the poem. I wrote what I “saw” as my mind clicked the seconds. At first the seconds were done “backwards,” from eight down to zero, and the editor pointed out, that didn’t make sense.

Adding the announcer’s voice gives the reader a sense of being present at the rodeo. When did it occur to you to add this third voice to the book (the other two being the poem and the factual narrative)?

I give credit to our amazing editor, Marcia Leonard. We were struggling with what to do about titling each poem, how to indicate a shift to the next event, etc. I don’t quite remember how the idea unfolded but I did have a poem about the announcer—such an important part of any rodeo and also a person who has been a champion rider. He knows not only everything about the events, but the riders, the horses, even the bulls. Then Marcia suggested we keep his voice guiding us through the day, as it is at any rodeo.

You chose to have the last poem speak in the voice of a child who did not win at the rodeo. What felt right to you about that?

This poem was important to me. At first the editor, Marcia, was concerned it was too much a “downer.” I did shorten the poem but this poem is the “heart” for me. Whatever we do, whatever our age, we experience again and again, “nope, didn’t come in first.” What’s important is not the winning, but the getting back up, dust off your jeans, and try again.

What is your connection to the children who take part in the Navajo Rodeos?

Photography by Jan Sonnenmair.  Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Photography by Jan Sonnenmair.
Used with permission. All rights reserved.

I watch them, cheer them on, and wish I was one of them.

I know you teach on the Navajo lands, but do you teach children? Of what ages? And are you currently teaching?

I was teaching teachers for Northern Arizona University Distant Ed and also teaching undergraduate classes for Dine’ (Navajo) College. I also did short writing workshops with school children, all ages. Currently I am writing and doing author visits with a bottom line message of read, read, read.

Our book club often talks about authenticity: it’s a bewildering topic for us as we see many sides of this challenging topic. I know our groups will ask, so I include this question: are you of Native American descent?

I am not of Native American descent. I do have a grandchild who is. But this question is important. How does a writer create an authentic and honest book—and a book with a good story? This doesn’t happen quickly or easily. For myself, I need to listen, listen, and listen even more deeply. Research involves libraries and books but it also involves feeling the dirt, smelling the air, eating the food, being with the people. Again, asking questions, talking, taking time, and then eventually, asking for feedback. Did I get it right? Part of my motivation for writing Cowboy Up! Ride the Navajo Rodeo is that the kids I was talking with at their schools, wanted to see themselves in books. Not Indians in teepees waving tomahawks and wearing buckskins. Where were their stories? I feel strongly that the heart of “we need diverse books” is that every child should find their people, their stories, on the pages of a book. And contemporary stories, not just historical or “past tense.” Navajo people have an amazing culture with rich traditions. Rodeo is part of that. And rodeo is also part of universal feelings we all share. I wanted to celebrate both. When I get discouraged and not sure about “slapping off the dust and getting back up,” I think about the kids who come up to me with a big grin and say, “I am in this book.”