Taking Time for a Close Look

Jack­ie: Searching for Minnesota's Native WildflowersPhyl­lis is on the road with her beau­ti­ful and infor­ma­tive new book Search­ing for Minnesota’s Native Wild­flow­ers. [While Phyl­lis is out of the room, I will say that I love this book. It makes me want to get out and find flow­ers. Iowa has many plants in com­mon with Min­neso­ta and I look for­ward to tromp­ing with Phyl­lis and Kel­ly.)

Search­ing for Minnesota’s Native Wild­flow­ers puts me in mind of April Pul­ley Sayre’s won­der­ful nature books. She’s writ­ten many, but today I want to focus on a few of her bird books, plus one.

My first encounter with Sayre’s writ­ing was Vul­ture View (illus­trat­ed by Steve Jenk­ins, 2007). Sayre cap­tures the lives of vul­tures in few words.

Vulture ViewWings stretch wide
To catch a ride
On warm­ing air.
Going where?
Up, up!
Turkey vul­tures tilt, soar, scan
To find the food that vul­tures can…

Vul­tures like a mess.
They land and dine.
Rot­ten is fine.   

We see them eat­ing, clean­ing, preen­ing, and sleep­ing. Then the sto­ry cir­cles back to the begin­ning as the sun comes up and “Wings stretch wide/to catch a ride.”

We learn all we need to know to appre­ci­ate vul­tures in these terse rhymes. And if we want to know more, the book has two dense pages of back mat­ter. Turkey vul­tures are easy to spot, range — in the sum­mer — all over the east­ern U.S. They would be a great bird for begin­ning bird­ers to study.

Woodpecker Wham!In 2015 Sayre took a look at wood­peck­ers—Wood­peck­er Wham! (illus­trat­ed by Steve Jenk­ins). Once again, the birds’ sto­ry is told with quick, live­ly rhymes:

Swoop and land.
Hitch and hop.
Shred a tree stump.

In the case of this book, dessert comes first. Steve Jenkins’s gor­geous cut and torn paper col­lages com­bine with April Pul­ley Sayre’s rhyth­mic telling of wood­peck­ers’ lives to keep us turn­ing pages until we get to the back mat­ter — six pages packed with addi­tion­al infor­ma­tion about wood­peck­ers. “How do wood­peck­ers know where to dig? First the wood­peck­er taps the tree. This caus­es insects inside to move. The wood­peck­er hears the move­ment or feels the vibra­tions through its bill.” Sayre also tells read­ers how they can help wood­peck­ers. “Plant bush­es, trees, and cac­ti that sup­ply fruits and nuts.

And she pro­vides tips on how to find wood­peck­ers. 

This books is a sim­ple and thor­ough intro­duc­tion to wood­peck­ers. Per­fect pre­lude to a walk in the woods.

Warbler WaveAnd just this year Beach Lane books has pub­lished War­bler Wave, an amaz­ing book about war­blers with pho­tographs tak­en by Sayre and her hus­band. I have trou­ble iden­ti­fy­ing war­blers with binoc­u­lars. I am amazed that April and Jeff Sayre were not only able to spot these busy birds but spot them long enough to pho­to­graph them.

I want to quote the entire book but will leave you to find that plea­sure. We learn that they fly at night, cross oceans, “Then bedrag­gled, they drop. /A refu­el­ing stop. /They must find food/ or die.” Then fol­lows a few pages of stun­ning pho­tographs. “They flit, like fly­ing flow­ers.”  They snag insects and are on their way north again.

For those who want to learn more about war­blers, there are again six fact-packed pages con­cern­ing war­bler life his­to­ry, how to help war­blers, and the impor­tance of war­blers. “War­blers and oth­er migrat­ing birds cross moun­tains, oceans, and human polit­i­cal bound­aries. …Their beau­ti­ful songs, col­or­ful pat­terns, and sea­son­al arrival bring joy to peo­ple from Alas­ka to Peru. Whether you live in North Amer­i­ca, South Amer­i­ca, or the Caribbean, you can help wel­come the war­blers and share in this nat­ur­al con­nec­tion between diverse habi­tats, wild birds, and peo­ple.”

The book was a labor of love. April Sayre writes in the Acknowl­edg­ments sec­tion “For twen­ty-eight years, my hus­band, Jeff, and I have set aside the first cou­ple weeks of May to cel­e­brate war­bler migra­tion. So, it’s extra spe­cial to me that he’s joined me by tak­ing some of the pho­tos and review­ing text for this book about our shared love: war­blers.”

Raindrops RollFinal­ly, anoth­er book with April Sayre’s stun­ning pho­tographs Rain­drops Roll (2015). The book opens with a tree frog look­ing quite philo­soph­i­cal about rain. (A pho­to­graph Sayre notes that was tak­en by her hus­band). We see a drenched blue jay, rain drops on leaves, petals, pump­kins, even a moth.

These books make me want to get out­side, to look, to see again what I have been miss­ing.

I hope — and I know Phyl­lis joins me in this — that you have that kind of sum­mer, that you are stunned by the beau­ty in your neigh­bor­hood, see again and see anew.

We’ll be back with more books in the fall.


Swimming in a Sea of Ideas

Aimee Bissonette

Where do suc­cess­ful non­fic­tion writ­ers get their ideas? So many places! The top­ics a non­fic­tion writer can write about are lim­it­less. Sure, some ideas have been writ­ten about before, but non­fic­tion writ­ers take that as a chal­lenge. They ask what unusu­al angle they might take or if there is a dif­fer­ent (or bet­ter) for­mat in which to deliv­er the infor­ma­tion. Is there a way to add mys­tery or intrigue? Is there a lit­tle known fact beyond that’s not com­mon­ly known?

Yes, non­fic­tion top­ics are lim­it­less. Truth be told, though, it can be hard for non­fic­tion writ­ers to set­tle on a par­tic­u­lar idea even when they’re swim­ming in a sea of them. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true for young writ­ers who are try­ing their hand at writ­ing non­fic­tion for the first time. Young writ­ers not only have to come up with engag­ing ideas, but they have to mas­ter a bevy of oth­er skills in their ear­ly writ­ing assign­ments: how to write a rough draft, choose rich words and phras­es, order events, use prop­er punc­tu­a­tion, and more.  Choos­ing a top­ic some­times only adds to the anguish.

So how can we help young writ­ers see that good non­fic­tion ideas are all around them? How can we help them dis­cov­er a top­ic that excites them and makes their writ­ing more enjoy­able? We need to teach them to do what oth­er non­fic­tion writ­ers do: dive deep!

Here are some sug­ges­tions — tried and true — from some­one who swims in that sea and is on the hunt for new ideas every day:

Expand your social net­work. Befriend peo­ple of dif­fer­ent ages, back­grounds, regions of the coun­try or pro­fes­sions. Talk to them about what inter­ests them and what is hap­pen­ing where they live. Friends and fam­i­ly mem­bers often have great sug­ges­tions for non­fic­tion top­ics based on things they’ve expe­ri­enced that you have not.

Miss Colfax's LightRead broad­ly. Read region­al news­pa­pers with sto­ries that have not bro­ken nation­al­ly or spe­cial­ized pub­li­ca­tions for peo­ple with spe­cif­ic inter­ests (e.g. dog mag­a­zines, trav­el mag­a­zines). Read about cur­rent and his­tor­i­cal events, oth­er coun­tries, music, books, food, cul­ture, and tra­di­tions.  I got the idea for Miss Colfax’s Light from a small excerpt I read in anoth­er book about women of the Great Lakes.  I wrote Aim for the Skies after read­ing Jer­rie Mock’s obit­u­ary in an Ohio news­pa­per.

North Woods GirlSpend time in nature. Do you know there are sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies that prove that our cre­ativ­i­ty is boost­ed when we spend time out­doors? It’s true. And when we get out­doors, we also see that nature pro­vides an end­less sup­ply of things to write about — like the ani­mals, plants, and chang­ing sea­sons depict­ed in my book North Woods Girl.  I have sev­er­al works in progress that focus on the nat­ur­al world — all of which are the result of hik­ing, canoe­ing, and tak­ing pho­tographs in the great out­doors. When I am stumped for ideas, I put on my walk­ing shoes and head out.

Talk with experts. Experts are chock-full of infor­ma­tion and most of them love to share it. Just ask! And if you are think­ing you don’t know any real experts, keep in mind there are “every­day experts” all around us who know about all sorts of things. Have you ever toured a fire sta­tion with a fire­fight­er? I have. And I learned lots of cool stuff when I did. For instance, did you know that fire­fight­ers have to use spe­cial wash­ers and dry­ers to clean their gear to remove car­cino­gens? Or that they have to hang their fire hoses after fight­ing fires so the hoses can dry out? (Which — fun fact — also means they need more than one set of hoses for their trucks!) Talk­ing to an expert helps you learn uncom­mon and inter­est­ing facts you can share in your non­fic­tion work.

Vis­it web­sites that report on fun facts and odd­i­ties. There are a num­ber of web­sites that spe­cial­ize in inves­ti­gat­ing and report­ing all sorts of fun facts — facts that make great non­fic­tion top­ics. Here are a few of my favorites:

Now I Know

Now I Know email newslet­ter (and web­site with archives) by Dan Lewis 

Curios­i­ty web­site    

Eurekalert! The Glob­al Source for Sci­ence News 

When read­ing mate­r­i­al on these sites, I try to keep an eye out for “tip of the ice­berg” frag­ments or “unturned stones.” There are always bits of unmined mate­r­i­al there — ideas that lie buried or hid­den under oth­er infor­ma­tion. That infor­ma­tion is per­fect for a non­fic­tion piece.

an idea you love

illus­tra­tion: bbtreesub­mis­sion | 123rf.com

Be sure to choose an idea you love.  Once you set­tle on an idea, the research and writ­ing begins. That takes time and ener­gy — so don’t choose a top­ic you’re only mild­ly inter­est­ed in or your work might start to feel like just anoth­er assign­ment. You want the excite­ment you feel for your top­ic to show in your work. You want your read­ers to feel that excite­ment, too. The best way to do this is to choose a top­ic you tru­ly enjoy — per­haps one you always wished some­one else had writ­ten about so you could read it.

In her les­son plan “Call­ing all Non­fic­tion Writ­ers,” Mag­gie Knut­son sug­gests a num­ber of ques­tions teach­ers can ask stu­dents when select­ing non­fic­tion top­ics for their writ­ing. I’ve includ­ed a few of her pro­posed ques­tions below. You can find her whole les­son plan here.  Ques­tions like these help guide writ­ers, young and old, in their search for good non­fic­tion ideas. They help writ­ers choose ideas they care about — and that con­tributes to writ­ing suc­cess.

Calling All Nonfiction Writers

So tell your young writ­ers to put on their flip­pers, snorkels, and masks and dive in! Tell them to swim around in a big sea of ideas — one they’ve gen­er­at­ed them­selves using some of the sug­ges­tions above. They are sure to find one that is a good fit. Then, let the writ­ing begin.

Ques­tions for Stu­dents

Brain­storm a list of all the pos­si­ble top­ics about which you might write. Don’t judge them or exclude any­thing that pops into your mind.

  1. Think about each top­ic with your eyes closed. Notice how you feel. Does the top­ic excite you? Does your body get warm, cold, or feel some­thing else, such as ener­gized, heavy, sad, hap­py, or excit­ed? Do ideas begin to come to mind?
  2. Do a two-minute quick write on your top­ics — use notes, key­words, or bul­let points, not full sen­tences.
  3. Based on your quick write, choose the top­ic that most appeals to you.

Skinny Dip with C.M. Surrisi

C.M. Surrisi

C.M. Sur­risi

Have you read the Quin­nie Boyd mid­dle-grade mys­ter­ies? The May­pop Kid­nap­ping, Vam­pires on the Run, and A Side of Sab­o­tage? I dis­cov­ered them this spring and I stayed up sev­er­al nights to read them. The author of those books, C.M. Sur­risi, is just as inter­est­ing as you’d think the writer who dreamed up Quin­nie, her friends, and her vil­lage in Maine would be. When I real­ized she had a pic­ture book out, The Best Moth­er, I won­dered if she could car­ry that sense of humor over to a short­er sto­ry­telling form. Yes, indeed. That book’s delight­ful, too. We know you’ll want to learn more about this intrigu­ing author.

What’s the weird­est place you’ve ever read a book?

In a tent in the Rantham­bore Tiger Pre­serve in Sawai Mad­hop­ur Rajasthan, India

Do you keep your book­shelves in a par­tic­u­lar order?

By sub­ject mat­ter. Not quite Dewey Dec­i­mal Clas­si­fi­ca­tion.

How many book­cas­es do you have in your house?

An embar­rass­ing­ly large num­ber.

pho­to: tarzhano­va | 123rf.com

What’s the pre­dom­i­nant col­or in your wardrobe?

Jeans. Is that a col­or? So, blue, I guess. I spent so many years in a world where jeans were not accept­able dress that when I left that world, I embraced jeans again in a big way. I have sev­er­al forms of den­im again now. Light, dark, patched, ripped, cropped, boyfriend, skin­ny, jack­et, cut­off. Sor­ry. I’m all about com­fort now.

Which library springs to your mind when some­one says that word? What do you remem­ber most about it?

When I think library I think of the mid­dle grade fic­tion shelves, with their chunky nov­els, in plas­tic cov­ers, with col­or­ful jack­ets, swollen pages from wear, the deli­cious smell of paper, and scent of glue and ink. That’s where I go first in every library I vis­it.

Which book you read as a child has most influ­enced your life?

The Children of Primrose Lane by Noel StreatfieldThe Chil­dren of Prim­rose Lane by Noël Streat­field.

When I was in fourth grade, I picked this book off the shelf for its size, weight, jack­et image, and all around library book smell.  I didn’t know who Noël Streat­field was, and I hadn’t read any of the bal­let books. I fell into this sto­ry about a group of kids liv­ing in Eng­land dur­ing WWII who took over an aban­doned house on their dead end street as a club­house. Soon they real­ize they were shar­ing the house with a man they sus­pect­ed was a shot-down Ger­man pilot pre­tend­ing to be British. They played along with him until he acci­den­tal­ly over­heard one of the chil­dren say some­thing about the war effort that the child should not have shared. Their mis­sion became keep­ing the pilot from trans­mit­ting the infor­ma­tion to his base.

This was my first expe­ri­ence with chil­dren being involved with high stakes. The kids were all dif­fer­ent, the cir­cum­stances were sear­ing, the dra­ma intense. I have nev­er for­got­ten it. I found a copy of the book as an adult and reread it, only to find some cul­tur­al­ly inap­pro­pri­ate aspects that were asso­ci­at­ed with war pro­pa­gan­da. I real­ized  those aspects of the book didn’t go over my head. I had been indoc­tri­nat­ed by them. The book would have been just as pow­er­ful from a sto­ry per­spec­tive with­out them. I con­tin­ue to hold it in high regard because it opened my world and trans­port­ed me to a place where chil­dren did some­thing noble.

What’s your food weak­ness?

If the item is edi­ble, and attrac­tive­ly pre­pared, I will gen­er­al­ly give it a go.

What’s your favorite form of exer­cise?

Danc­ing. I wish that ball­room danc­ing could be eas­i­ly accom­plished alone. Drat, it’s so pairs ori­ent­ed. Yes, Fred Astaire pulled it off much of the time, but I’m no Fred. I love the feel­ing of pairs danc­ing, but I don’t have a dance part­ner and don’t real­ly want one. So I dance around the house by myself and make do.

Blue Hyacinth

pho­to: Melanie Faul­stick | 123rf.com

What’s your favorite flower?

Blue Hyacinth. The col­or is impor­tant. It adds to the already spec­tac­u­lar­ly cloy­ing smell. I love the spikes with their crowds of bells and the fleshy, glossy, green leaves. When I was a child, my moth­er had a ceram­ic flower pot that was an eight-inch cube that looked like a white woven bas­ket. She filled it with blue hyacinths every spring. They sat in the cen­ter of the kitchen table. A close sec­ond would be old-fash­ioned ros­es. We had a big, unruly old-fash­ioned rose bush next to the back door, and every time we banged the screen door open when we ran out to play, it shook the bush and released the fra­grance.

Who’s at the top of your list of Most Admired Peo­ple?

My hus­band, Chuck. He had a stroke nine years ago, and the full range of emo­tion, ener­gy, deter­mi­na­tion, and humor he’s sum­moned to cope with it has made him my hero.

What for­eign lan­guage would you like to learn?

All of them.

Do you read the end of a book first?

Oh, no. Nev­er.

If you had a choice, would you live under the ocean or in out­er space, and why?

The very thought of either of these makes my head explode. I’m claus­tro­pho­bic.

If you could write any book and know that it would be pub­lished and tens of thou­sands of peo­ple would read it, which book would you write?

If I knew this, I would have already writ­ten it, but then again know­ing it and being able to write it are two dif­fer­ent things, aren’t they? So the answer I guess would have to be “the biggest-heart­ed book.”

If you could be grant­ed one wish, what would you wish for?

That chil­dren would be safe. Safe from adults and safe from each oth­er.


Little Women

Dar­ling Daugh­ter and I watched the recent PBS ver­sion of Lit­tle Women last weekend.I was out of town when the first episode aired, but she wait­ed for me and we streamed it Fri­day night so we’d be caught up to watch the final two episodes Sun­day night.

I liked Lit­tle Women just fine as a kid. I read it tucked between the ban­is­ters and “the old book cab­i­net” at the top of my grand­par­ents’ stairs when I was prob­a­bly nine or ten. I liked Jo very much, and Beth, too. I found Meg too grown-up to iden­ti­fy with, and Amy…well, she seemed like a bit of a brat to me. I thought her sis­ters were…generous with her. I start­ed the nov­el again when I was in col­lege after an Amer­i­can Lit class taught me about the friend­ship of Emer­son, Thore­au, and the Alcotts, but I didn’t make it very far. There was a lot of tran­scen­den­tal preach­i­ness to it, I thought. I didn’t remem­ber those parts from my perch at the top of my grand­par­ents’ stairs.

Dar­ling Daugh­ter lis­tened to an audio­book of Lit­tle Women dur­ing a pneu­mo­nia recov­ery when she was nine-ish. She loved it. Kept lis­ten­ing to it over and over again, even after she was well. I think of that time as The Lit­tle Women Era. I could hear the tran­scen­den­tal ser­mons from her bed­room all the way down in the kitchen — right away in the morn­ing as I made break­fast. Again at night as she got ready for bed. Some­times I won­der if her mighty work eth­ic, dili­gence, and focus comes right out of that book. She lis­tened to those twen­ty-three CD’s over and over and over again. And when I got her the thick nov­el to read, she pored over that, too.

Last sum­mer, we took a trip to Con­cord, Mass­a­chu­setts, a place I’d want­ed to vis­it since I was in high school. I’m a Thore­au fan, you see, and it was a thrill to walk around beau­ti­ful Walden Pond accessed via the very trail (or close to it) Ralph Wal­do Emer­son used to vis­it his friend out in the lit­tle cab­in in the woods. It was also great fun to tour the Alcott house and hear about the fam­i­ly. Dar­ling Daugh­ter was as elat­ed with that part as I was with tramp­ing around Walden Pond. As we moved room to room, she whis­pered sup­ple­men­ta­tion to the (very good) tour guide’s words. Her cheeks were pink, her eyes aglow. She was in her ele­ment.

Some­where along the line, I’m sure we’ve watched a cou­ple of movie ver­sions of the famous March family’s adven­tures and tri­als. The PBS series was not that — a movie, that is. It was more like a col­lage we decid­ed — episodes, snap­shots, very short acts—gor­geous­ly pre­sent­edIt deserves a cin­e­matog­ra­phy award, I think. Stun­ning light and images. We quib­bled hap­pi­ly over whether the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion was just right…or not. We glo­ried in our recog­ni­tion of cer­tain places in the Con­cord area. We ful­ly appre­ci­at­ed the self-reliance footage of the Alcott gar­dens, hen­house, and orchards. And we teared up with Beth’s death, even know­ing it was com­ing, rejoiced at the birth of Meg’s twins, felt all the con­flict­ed emo­tions sur­round­ing Amy’s jour­ney to Europe with Aunt March, root­ed for Jo through­out, and found Lau­rie very hand­some, indeed…. Though we missed the sub­tle­ty of Jo and Laurie’s rela­tion­ship in the book. They rather upped the roman­tic ele­ment in this pro­duc­tion.

At times I looked over at my girl, her face aglow by the light of the tele­vi­sion screen. Some­times her eyes were danc­ing, some­times her lips were pursed. She tends to be a purist…and as she said sev­er­al times, “the movie is nev­er as good….” But this was a special…“presentation,” we decid­ed. We won­dered if it would intro­duce a new gen­er­a­tion to a clas­sic, sort of doubt­ing that a pre-tween would find it very inter­est­ing.

As for me…I loved watch­ing with my Lit­tle Women-obsessed kid­do. I might’ve missed it with­out her, but I wasn’t about to know­ing that this book has so been her book. (Mine is Anne of Green Gables—and I watch all movie adap­ta­tions with my heart in my throat, wait­ing to see if they get it right.) As I brushed my teeth Sun­day night I won­dered about read­ing Lit­tle Women togeth­er this summer…we haven’t done that. Maybe this sum­mer is the time to do so.



Groundwood Books

Groundwood BooksGround­wood Books cel­e­brates diver­si­ty. In the words of the late Sheila Bar­ry, for­mer pub­lish­er, their com­mit­ment is to pub­lish “the most excit­ing Cana­di­an voic­es we can find. Whether it’s a pic­ture book from Nunavut in the Arc­tic or a Car­ni­val sto­ry about a new Cana­di­an from the Caribbean ….”  

Ground­wood pub­lish­es not only all things Cana­di­an but much more — sto­ries about First Nations peo­ple, refugees, chil­dren caught in the ter­ror of war, the grief felt by immi­grants as well as the gift of their expe­ri­ences and tal­ents they bring to their new coun­try. Themes are uni­ver­sal. Sto­ries are spe­cif­ic. Voic­es are authen­tic. Their books say take notice, these are pow­er­ful, impor­tant sto­ries. These are beau­ti­ful sto­ries. Often, these are “in our own voice” sto­ries.

Regard­ing immi­gra­tion and refugee sto­ries, one of my favorite pic­ture books about the strug­gle of fam­i­lies to seek asy­lum in the Unit­ed States con­tin­ues to be Two White Rab­bits. Oth­er Ground­wood books on this top­ic that speak to chil­dren are Migrant and Malaika’s Cos­tume.

Two White Rabbits, Migrant, and Malaika's Costume

The Bread­win­ner tril­o­gy and also Chil­dren of War, both by Deb­o­rah Ellis, are some of the most pow­er­ful and poignant books about the courage of Afghan and Iraqi chil­dren. The Bread­win­ner Tril­o­gy is now avail­able as a graph­ic nov­el and just recent­ly, an ani­mat­ed movie. Deb­o­rah Ellis’s books — fic­tion and non­fic­tion — give voice to chil­dren and teens caught in war or flee­ing from war. Deb­o­rah Ellis is a mas­ter sto­ry­teller who has received the high­est lit­er­ary awards giv­en in Cana­da. She has donat­ed near­ly $2 mil­lion in roy­al­ties to orga­ni­za­tions such as Women for Women in Afghanistan, UNICEF, and Street Kids Inter­na­tion­al. Check them out.

I sent Fred Hor­ler, mar­ket­ing man­ag­er for Ground­wood, sev­er­al ques­tions. I’ve nev­er had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask a mar­ket­ing man­ag­er why they love their job: sell­ing books, not just any books, but Ground­wood Books. I think you will enjoy read­ing Fred’s reply.

Fred Horler

Sto­ry­time with Fred’s daugh­ters (2012). Pho­to used with per­mis­sion.

Ques­tions to Fred Hor­ler:

What is most reward­ing about work­ing in mar­ket­ing?

There is a lot that I love — I work in children’s books after all — but one aspect ris­es above the rest: work­ing at an edu­ca­tion or library con­fer­ence and shar­ing my favorite books with the atten­dees.

I recent­ly had a con­ver­sa­tion with a librar­i­an at one of these con­fer­ences and we talked about the plea­sure of read­ing a pic­ture book for the first time. That feel­ing of dis­cov­ery as you move from one page to the next — being tak­en on a trip that has been so care­ful­ly and painstak­ing­ly plot­ted out by the books’ cre­ators. (And which is why I have been known to chas­tise those who insist on flip­ping through a pic­ture book from back to front.) That first read­ing can be a pow­er­ful expe­ri­ence and will nev­er be repeat­ed in quite the same way.

Grant­ed, there is a lot to be gained by mul­ti­ple re-read­ings, but you will nev­er get that first-time expe­ri­ence again. Except that I do — I get to relive that jour­ney every time I intro­duce a favorite book to a vis­i­tor at my booth who is will­ing to take a few min­utes to ful­ly immerse them­selves. And while I may appear to leave them alone while they read, I am very aware of the emo­tion­al ride they are expe­ri­enc­ing. And I get to trav­el along with them shar­ing the goose bumps, the laugh­ter, and some­times even the tears. That’s a gift I nev­er get tired of receiv­ing.

What helps you mar­ket Ground­wood books?

Children’s pub­lish­ing is a crowd­ed mar­ket — walk­ing through the exhibits of a library con­fer­ence quick­ly illus­trates the chal­lenge of get­ting our books noticed. For­tu­nate­ly, we pub­lish very good books — we wouldn’t get any­where with­out that. But that isn’t enough — there are a lot of great books being pub­lished every year.

We are very grate­ful to the review jour­nals that take the time to con­sid­er our books and pub­lish their reviews. Awards are also very grat­i­fy­ing, though, as a Cana­di­an com­pa­ny who pub­lish­es direct­ly into the U.S., I may have been over­heard grum­bling about the num­ber of awards for which we are not eli­gi­ble. And we adver­tise and still pro­duce a print­ed cat­a­logue – with all that gor­geous art in our books, we can’t help but show it off.

But ulti­mate­ly, I still think it’s that old stand-by — word of mouth — that con­tributes the most to sell­ing our books. Fans of children’s books are incred­i­bly enthu­si­as­tic about the books they love — just try and stop them from talk­ing about their favorites. And so part of my job, not unlike that of a children’s librar­i­an, is to match the right books with the right read­ers — and then let them take it from there.

Tell us about a few of your recent pub­li­ca­tions and why they are unique?

I love our books that elic­it a vis­cer­al reac­tion. We just pub­lished a beau­ti­ful pic­ture book about a young girl’s expe­ri­ence at her first funer­al. Matt James’ The Funer­al is sen­si­tive and hon­est and can affect peo­ple in very dif­fer­ent ways but invari­ably evokes a very per­son­al response.

The same is true for Louis Under­cov­er by Fan­ny Britt and Isabelle Arse­nault, and Walk with Me by Jairo Buitra­go and Rafael Yock­teng. Both these books have the abil­i­ty to touch peo­ple in pro­found ways. More than once I’ve had peo­ple who have had to walk away after read­ing them because their emo­tions made them unable to even talk. That’s pow­er­ful stuff.

Ground­wood has always had a strong rep­u­ta­tion for pub­lish­ing sto­ries that per­haps can’t be found else­where and I am par­tic­u­lar­ly proud of our books from North Amer­i­can Indige­nous cre­ators such as the bilin­gual (Eng­lish and Cree) pic­ture books nipêhon / I Wait and niwî­ci­hâw / I Help. We have made free audio book ver­sions avail­able on our web­site for both of these titles so peo­ple can hear the lan­guage spo­ken aloud.

And this fall we con­tin­ue this tra­di­tion with a list that includes a book set in Haiti (Aun­tie Luce’s Talk­ing Paint­ings by Fran­cie Latour and Ken Daley); a sto­ry about a Black com­mu­ni­ty in Nova Sco­tia that was demol­ished in the 1960s (Africville by Shauntay Grant and Eva Camp­bell); a tale about a friend­ship between plants from an Iran­ian author and illus­tra­tor (I’m Glad That You’re Hap­py by Nahid Kaze­mi), and a book that cel­e­brates Jew­ish cul­ture (Bit­ter and Sweet by San­dra V. Fed­er and Kyrsten Brook­er).

Nan­cy: Ground­wood Books is a trea­sure trove of edi­tors, authors, and illus­tra­tors whose sto­ries speak to the hearts of read­ers with poignan­cy, authen­tic­i­ty, and pow­er.

Take a look! And don’t miss their resources for teach­ers and librar­i­ans.


Skinny Dip with Phuoc Thi Minh Tran

Phuoc Thi Minh Tran

Phuoc Thi Minh Tran

We are pleased to Skin­ny Dip with Phuoc Thi Minh Tran this week. As a librar­i­an, author, sto­ry­teller, and moth­er, she adds her per­spec­tive to the rich­ly tex­tured quilt of books for chil­dren.

What’s the weird­est place you’ve ever read a book?

In the hos­pi­tal, I read my new­ly released book My First Book of Viet­namese Words : An ABC Rhyming Book of Lan­guage and Cul­ture to my 94-year-old father-in-law as a bed­time sto­ry. Every­thing was saf­fron yel­low that day from the hos­pi­tal gown to my father’s in-law ‘s jaun­dice  to  my book cov­er. It was weird and depress­ing. I read aloud page by page and I saw tears in his eyes, but his hap­py smile bright­ened the room. He told me that he loved my fam­i­ly and the chil­dren and he was always very proud of us. He passed away 10 days lat­er.

Which library springs to your mind when some­one says that word? What do you remem­ber most about it?

Alham­bra Civic Cen­ter Pub­lic Library in Cal­i­for­nia was the very first library I vis­it­ed in Amer­i­ca. These words still stuck with me until today “Rental Best Sell­er Books, $1 for 2‑week rental.“ I thought I would be charged for a library card and books, and I couldn’t afford it. I nev­er asked her any­thing due to my lan­guage bar­ri­er and my shy­ness. I left Cal­i­for­nia with­out hav­ing a library card and nev­er checked out a sin­gle book dur­ing my short stay there.

What’s your favorite form of exer­cise?

Storiga­mi. Fold­ing papers while telling a sto­ry because each fold has a twist and turn that mes­mer­izes the audi­ence and young­sters. My favorite storiga­mi is my “Jour­ney in Search for Free­dom.”

What’s is your favorite flower?

Def­i­nite­ly the lotus flower because the beau­ti­ful lotus flower grows in mud­dy water and ris­es above the sur­face to bloom. It is also the nation­al flower of Việt Nam.

Phuoc’s daugh­ter and sis­ter at a lotus pond dur­ing their short stay in Việt Nam

Have you trav­elled out­side your state? Which state draws you back? (How many states have you vis­it­ed?)

Cal­i­for­nia and Texas are the most loved states because our fam­i­lies live there. I have vis­it­ed Cal­i­for­nia, Texas, Wis­con­sin, Neva­da, Illi­nois, New Jer­sey, New York, Con­necti­cut, and Mis­souri. I live in Min­neso­ta.

Have you trav­eled out­side of the Unit­ed States? Which coun­try is your favorite to vis­it? Why?

Dubai. It was our very first fam­i­ly trip out of the coun­try  We had fun rid­ing the camel in the desert and vis­it­ing Burj Khal­i­fa, the world’s tallest build­ing.

Vietnamese Children's Favorite StoriesIf you could be grant­ed one wish, what would you wish for?

Be able to lis­ten to the ani­mals’ lan­guage like Da Trang in my book, Viet­namese Children’s Favorite Sto­ries.

If you had a choice, would you live under the ocean or in the out­er space, and why?

It would be under the ocean because the sea king­dom always amazes me. I imag­ine that I could swim along with the singing mer­maids, the giant thou­sand-years-old tur­tle, the Loch Ness mon­ster, and the great white shark, but I doubt it.  

What do you con­sid­er to be your best accom­plish­ment?

Rais­ing our chil­dren in a bilin­gual home.

Thank you, Phuoc, for shar­ing your expe­ri­ences with us. Dear read­ers, here is a video that express­es more of Phuoc’s insights about sto­ry­telling, includ­ing Da Trang’s abil­i­ty to lis­ten to the ani­mals, which Phuoc described as her wish.


Curves Ahead

I was thrilled when Teenage Nephew 1 grew old enough to mow my yard.

We nego­ti­at­ed a price and then head­ed out­side. I knew that at his house, his father was King of the Rid­ing Mow­er, so mow­ing was a com­plete­ly new skill to Teenage Nephew. So I care­ful­ly reviewed the basics with him: mow­er oper­a­tion, safe­ty issues, how he shouldn’t plow over my rose bush­es.

It nev­er occurred to me that I need­ed to teach him the con­cept of a straight line.

As I peeked out win­dows, mon­i­tor­ing progress and watch­ing for any trou­ble, I began to notice a strange pat­tern emerg­ing. Zigza­gs and curves of mowed grass dis­sect­ed clumps of uncut lawn. Some sec­tions remained untouched while he re-mowed oth­ers five or six times. Even in the thor­ough­ly mowed sec­tions, peri­od­ic “lawn mohawks” popped up across the land­scape. It was like a dis­or­ga­nized alien had land­ed to cre­ate Picas­so-esque crop cir­cles in my yard.

It even­tu­al­ly occurred to me that my nat­ur­al incli­na­tion towards order­li­ness and effi­cien­cy had in this case skipped a gen­er­a­tion, and I stopped the yard work long enough to do a li‚ttle les­son on mow­ing in a grid pa‚ttern.

But the image of those lawn mohawks are a fun­ny and use­ful reminder to me when I set out to teach young peo­ple writ­ing, too: not all stu­dent brains are hard­wired the same. When I remem­ber to peri­od­i­cal­ly mix up my approach— find­ing activ­i­ties that appeal to stu­dents who learn dif­fer­ent­ly than I do — I have more suc­cess engag­ing them in the act of writ­ing.

Teenage Nephew 1, for exam­ple, is the kind of kid who learns best when he can move or phys­i­cal­ly inter­act with some­thing. He would respond best to writ­ing activ­i­ties like those I describe in my posts “Col­lect­ing Sou­venirs” and “For­get­ting How to Dri­ve.” He’s also an incred­i­bly social per­son who would perk up as soon as a teacher intro­duced activ­i­ties such as the peer review I out­line in “You Be Thel­ma, I’ll Be Louise.”

Dif­fer­ent learn­ing styles might throw you some curves as a writ­ing teacher, but remem­ber: there are ways to write and teach around them.


Read-Alouds That Leave a Lasting Imprint

The gift of a favorite teacher read­ing aloud an unfor­get­table book is an expe­ri­ence like­ly to leave a last­ing imprint on a student’s heart. For me, it was Ramona the Pest, intro­duced by my sec­ond-grade teacher. I’ll always remem­ber Tam­my Burns, the girl in my class who had beau­ti­ful ringlets just like Ramona’s class­mate Susan. And just like Ramona, I was always tempt­ed to give those curls a good tug to see if they would go “boing.” I was enchant­ed by Ramona, and want­ed to be just as feisty and bold. She quick­ly became my first “best book friend” and her clas­sic series would make me the vora­cious read­er I am today.

Dur­ing my three decades as a teacher, I have savored many chap­ter book read-alouds with my stu­dents in upper ele­men­tary class­rooms. And like teach­ers every­where, it is my great­est wish to make a last­ing impact on stu­dents. I believe shar­ing the very best of mid­dle grade lit­er­a­ture is a sure-fire approach to achiev­ing this goal. The gems on my list of must-have titles pos­sess tremen­dous poten­tial for enter­ing and remain­ing in the hearts of teach­ers and stu­dents alike.

Sahara Special  

Sahara Spe­cial
writ­ten by Esme Raji Codell 
Dis­ney-Hype­r­i­on, 2004

Puz­zling, Time Trav­el and World Explor­ing, Mad Sci­ence, Read Aloud, Read Togeth­er, Read Alone, Art of Lan­guage. Not your typ­i­cal 5th grade dai­ly sched­ule, but it is what Sahara gets with Madame Poiti­er, aka, Miss Pointy. Labeled as an under­achiev­er who actu­al­ly has seri­ous writ­ing tal­ent that she keeps hid­den, Sahara has opt­ed out of spe­cial edu­ca­tion class­es and is instead repeat­ing 5th grade. With help from her eccen­tric teacher, she final­ly finds the kind of sup­port and encour­age­ment that might help her over­come her fears, accept her­self and embrace her gifts. Share this book to build empa­thy and bring humor to your read aloud.


Home of the Brave  

Home of the Brave
writ­ten by Kather­ine Apple­gate
Square Fish, 2008

A beau­ti­ful sto­ry of one boy’s strug­gle to adapt to a new life in Min­neso­ta. Far from his home­land of Sudan and the school expe­ri­ence he had at a refugee camp, this exquis­ite book is a per­fect choice to pro­mote win­dows and mir­rors with stu­dents. Writ­ten in free verse, read­ers will be drawn to Kek and his desire to adapt to the frigid Min­neso­ta win­ter and life in Amer­i­ca. He is deter­mined to learn of his mother’s fate as he remains hope­ful despite his old­er brother’s pes­simism. Applegate’s descrip­tive writ­ing, rich with idioms, brings atten­tion to what it’s like to try to make sense of a new sur­round­ing and strange lan­guage. Share this book to raise aware­ness of and appre­ci­a­tion for the refugee expe­ri­ence, mak­ing new friends and hang­ing onto hope when you have lit­tle else.


Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane  

The Mirac­u­lous Jour­ney of Edward Tulane
writ­ten by Kate DiCamil­lo
Can­dlewick Press, 2006

This fan­tas­ti­cal adven­ture fea­tures a stuck up, ego­cen­tric chi­na rab­bit who is trans­formed through repeat­ed episodes of loss and love as his sto­ry spans decades. Although at first meet­ing, he is a heart­less char­ac­ter, Edward’s jour­ney is about recap­tur­ing his humil­i­ty and dis­cov­er­ing the true pow­er of love. It all begins with a fall over­board and con­tin­ues through a series of res­cues and aban­don­ments. Edward and his read­ers will face a wide range of emo­tions as the tale unfolds across unex­pect­ed set­tings with a unique ensem­ble of sup­port­ing cast mem­bers. Share this sto­ry to explore mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives and oppor­tu­ni­ties for engag­ing in char­ac­ter analy­sis. 


The War That Saved My Life


The War That Saved My Life
writ­ten by Kim­ber­ly Brubak­er Bradley
Dial Books, 2015

Win­ner of numer­ous awards, includ­ing a New­bery Hon­or, this unfor­get­table WWII saga tells the sto­ry of Ada, a bright but severe­ly neglect­ed nine-year-old girl, liv­ing in Lon­don. Born with a club foot and unable to walk due to lack of treat­ment, Ada has been locked in her cru­el mother’s shab­by sec­ond sto­ry flat her entire life. When the city’s chil­dren are evac­u­at­ed to the coun­try­side as Hitler’s bombs begin to fall, Ada fol­lows her younger broth­er and grasps her only chance to escape her dis­mal exis­tence. TWTSML is the kind of read aloud that cap­tures the lis­ten­er and holds on tight. Share this his­tor­i­cal fic­tion title to offer stu­dents com­pelling insight into the lives, strug­gles and hard-won vic­to­ries of two resilient chil­dren and the woman who res­cues them.


Out of My Mind  

Out of My Mind
writ­ten by Sharon Drap­er
Run­ning Press Kids, 2010

Fifth grade, spelling extra­or­di­naire Melody pos­sess­es a pho­to­graph­ic mem­o­ry and is like­ly the bright­est stu­dent in the entire school. She is fun­ny, feisty and fierce. Yet no one knows any of these things about her because she is trapped and unable to demon­strate any of her tal­ents or traits. Born with cere­bral pal­sy, Melody yearns for the abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate and expe­ri­ence friend­ships like oth­er kids her age. The arrival of “Elvi­ra” trans­forms Melody’s life and the world around her. Share this book to delve into the dif­fi­cult yet nec­es­sary top­ic of bias towards oth­ers who are dif­fer­ent­ly-abled.


The One and Only Ivan  

The One and Only Ivan
writ­ten by Kather­ine Apple­gate
Harper­Collins, 2012

The poignant, inspired by true events, sto­ry of the shop­ping mall goril­la, Ivan. A beau­ti­ful blend of friend­ship and faith, art and humor, is sprin­kled through­out the pages of this endear­ing tale. A favorite New­bery Medal win­ner, Ivan has found a home in the hearts of read­ers in thou­sands of class­rooms. A gen­tle giant, Ivan learns about the essence of life from inside his glass walls dur­ing his 27 years of cap­tiv­i­ty. He finds strength, courage and love among his small but mighty group of mall friends; Julia, the mall custodian’s daugh­ter, Bob, the spir­it­ed dog, Stel­la, the wise, old­er ele­phant and Ruby, the new­ly arrived baby ele­phant. Share this book to inte­grate fan­ta­sy fic­tion and non-fic­tion accounts of the incred­i­ble sto­ry of Ivan, encour­ag­ing research and ani­mal rights advo­ca­cy.


A Long Walk to Water  

A Long Walk to Water 
writ­ten by Lin­da Sue Park
Clar­i­on Books, 2010

Anoth­er book based on a true sto­ry, this heart-rend­ing sto­ry of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” presents the par­al­lel sto­ries of two unfor­get­table chil­dren. Alter­nat­ing the third per­son nar­ra­tives, Park shares the dif­fi­cult sto­ries of Sal­va, a Din­ka boy escap­ing the hor­rors of the Sudanese civ­il war in 1985 and that of Nya, a mem­ber of the Nuer tribe, who devotes the major­i­ty of her time to retriev­ing water for her fam­i­ly in 2008. While both trag­ic and uplift­ing, share this book to raise aware­ness of the strug­gle for sur­vival due to war and lack of basic nat­ur­al resources such as water.  


Hello, Universe  

Hel­lo, Uni­verse
writ­ten by Erin Entra­da Kel­ly
Green­wil­low Books, 2017

Hel­lo Uni­verse by Erin Entra­da Kel­ly

The 2018 win­ner of the New­bery Award, this enchant­i­ng sto­ry is sure to become an all-time favorite. The sto­ry of sur­vival in both small and very big ways is woven togeth­er from the very dif­fer­ent life expe­ri­ences of four mis­fits – a bul­ly, a psy­chic, a deaf girl and a shy but kind boy. The uni­verse works in mys­te­ri­ous and some­times epic ways as this charm­ing tale of friend­ship and courage will attest. Share this book to launch a unit about fam­i­ly sto­ries, under­stand­ing and stand­ing up to bul­ly­ing, how var­i­ous cul­tures are rep­re­sent­ed in lit­er­a­ture or the idea of fate ver­sus free will.


Ms. Bixby's Last Day  

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day
writ­ten by John David Ander­son
Walden Pond Press, 2016

Three sixth grade boys with noth­ing much in com­mon oth­er than a shared out­cast sta­tus and an affin­i­ty for their beloved Mrs. B, hatch a plan to deliv­er “the per­fect last day”.  As teach­ers go, Ms. Bix­by is “one of the good ones”, a teacher who under­stands the impor­tance of rela­tion­ships, respect and rec­og­niz­ing spe­cial qual­i­ties in each and every stu­dent. When she sud­den­ly takes a med­ical leave to deal with a seri­ous ill­ness, the boys embark on a com­i­cal and at times heart­break­ing quest to see her at least one more time.  Filled with a per­fect mix of hard truths and much need­ed humor, this adven­ture will keep lis­ten­ers beg­ging for just one more page. Share this book as a per­fect end-of-the-year selec­tion that leads to an emo­tion­al and mem­o­rable con­clu­sion!




Summer Reading

When I say “sum­mer read­ing,” you think about … a good nov­el, right? I have a cou­ple of sug­ges­tions.

Every kid should have these two books tucked in their beach bags, ready for a car trip, or packed for sum­mer camp. Seri­ous­ly.

In between the read­ing out loud of those nov­els you’ve been sav­ing up all year, or the lis­ten­ing to an audio book on the car radio, or the flash­light read­ing in the pitched tent in your back­yard, I hope you will share these books. They’re stuffed with facts pre­sent­ed in the most deli­cious ways.

Some­times a sto­ry is over­whelm­ing dur­ing a busy day but your read­ers and non-read­ers can dip into these books, read one para­graph … and they’ll be hooked. If they only read two pages at a time, so be it, but the dis­cus­sions that will fol­low can be price­less. 

I have not failed 10,000 times; I’ve suc­cess­ful­ly found 10,000 ways that will not work.” (Thomas Alva Edi­son)

Life will be up, life will be down … You can laugh at it or you can cry at it, and laugh­ing feels bet­ter.” (Rachael Ray)

I love that there are inten­tion­al mis­takes on these pages, dar­ing the read­er to find them … and I appre­ci­ate that there’s an answer key.

There are out­ra­geous inven­tions memo­ri­al­ized. Red­di-Bacon? Coca Cola, that headache reliev­er? McDon­ald’s Hula Burg­er?

Many peo­ple stand firm­ly on these pages. Michael Jor­dan. Tina Fey. Albert Ein­stein.

You can read about one top­ic, laugh, learn, ques­tion, dis­cuss … and find it irre­sistible to turn the page for more.

Every­thing is pre­sent­ed in a high­ly visu­al way with graph­ic design and lay­out that makes read­ing eas­i­er.

High­ly rec­om­mend­ed.

Happy Accidents from Famous Fails

Hap­py Acci­dents” from Famous Fails, Crispin Boy­er, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Kids

For your sec­ond mag­ic act, you can add Mas­ter­Mind, anoth­er Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Kids book. In case any­one won­ders why you’re hand­ing them a book on fail­ures, this book finds your inner genius.

Once again high­ly visu­al, this book relies on read­ing, math, sci­ence, and com­mon sense to address the games and puz­zles. Many of the pages include a lit­tle-know fact. Do you know about super­tasters? Do you sus­pect you are one? Enjoy that next anchovy piz­za.

While you’re play­ing the games and tack­ling the exper­i­ments, you’ll learn about how the brain works … and we all need to fig­ure that out.

It’s anoth­er ide­al book­ing for dip­ping into when time allows, but espe­cial­ly per­fect for lazy days at the cab­in and long car trips. 

Don’t miss out on pro­vid­ing a well-round­ed read­ing expe­ri­ence for your young ones.

Secret Sens­es” from Mas­ter­mind, Stephanie War­ren Drim­mer, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Kids

Both books will work well for that mid­dle grade, ages 8 to 12 group, but I sus­pect the adults in your fam­i­ly won’t be able to keep their hands off of them either.

Famous Fails!
Crispin Boy­er
Nation­al Geo­graph­ic, 2016
ISBN 978−1−4263−2548−9

Mas­ter­mind: Over 100 Games, Tests, and Puz­zles to Unleash Your Inner Genius
Stephanie War­ren Drim­mer
Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Kids, 2016
ISBN 978−1−4263−2110−8


You Write Books with … Messages?

Eliz­a­beth Verdick

Yes. Yes I do.

Sure, I know there’s a whole school of thought that says “shar­ing a mes­sage” in a children’s book is some­thing to avoid. That chil­dren will learn more, feel more, by read­ing books—sto­ries—that evoke an emo­tion­al response and increase empa­thy through strong char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and vivid lan­guage. Yes. Yes that’s true. But.…

Some­times chil­dren, and the adults rais­ing and teach­ing them, need straight­for­ward tools that address social and emo­tion­al chal­lenges and mile­stones. Non­fic­tion books can fit that pur­pose. Espe­cial­ly if they’re cre­at­ed with cer­tain age groups in mind.

Let’s talk tod­dlers. This is one of my favorite groups of peo­ple — and read­ers (even though they can’t yet read). Tod­dlers are ener­getic, curi­ous, effer­ves­cent. They soak up the sights, sounds, and tex­tures of the world — everything’s new. Tod­dlers have big emo­tions, ones they often can’t ful­ly under­stand or explain because they don’t yet have the words. My tod­dler books aim to give them these words — sim­ple, straight­for­ward phras­es that help their days go more smooth­ly. I have a series of board books called “Best Behav­ior,” in which the titles are the basis for recur­rent phras­es in the text: Teeth Are Not for Bit­ing, Words Are Not for Hurt­ing, Germs Are Not for Shar­ing, Paci­fiers Are Not For­ev­er. You can see the mes­sage loud and clear — no guess­ing here!

The sim­plic­i­ty has its pur­pose — the phras­es are a cue. You see a child start to bite a friend, and the phrase “Teeth Are Not for Bit­ing” is a sim­ple reminder. And it’s a more pos­i­tive use of lan­guage than “No bit­ing” or “Don’t bite” or “Stop!” I’m hap­py that the books steer clear of “Nos” and “Don’ts.” Par­ents and edu­ca­tors using the series have found that the words in their own homes and class­rooms shift in a more pos­i­tive direc­tion, just as the behav­ior even­tu­al­ly does. Edu­ca­tors keep send­ing me top­ic sug­ges­tions, includ­ing the recent Voic­es Are Not for Yelling and Noses Are Not for Pick­ing. (Thank you, teach­ers, you’re amaz­ing brain-storm­ers!)

I also write “mes­sage” books for old­er kids, includ­ing a series called “Laugh and Learn,” for chil­dren ages 8 – 13. In the books, advice and humor go hand in hand. It’s lots of fun titling these books: Dude, That’s Rude, Get Some Man­ners! or Stress Can Real­ly Get on Your Nerves! Any­time I talk to teach­ers about this series, I sug­gest they write a book for it. Who knows kids bet­ter than teach­ers? Edu­ca­tors care so much and see what kids need. When writ­ing non­fic­tion that has a mes­sage, the “way in” can be humor. No one wants a mes­sage-heavy or preachy book. But one that’s infor­ma­tive and enter­tain­ing — while help­ing a stu­dent grow social/emotional skills — serves an impor­tant need. Chil­dren may not always want to open up about per­son­al chal­lenges they face. But open­ing a book that cov­ers the top­ic? That’s eas­i­er.

I’m no spe­cial expert. I’m a mom who loves kids, books, and writ­ing. When I write non­fic­tion that aims to help chil­dren under­stand their emo­tions or the social world, I think about a voice that can reach and teach with­out mak­ing a child slam the book shut in bore­dom. I want kids to feel heard. I want them to feel strong. I want them to know they’re not alone. Just like you do. When you stand in front of a class­room or do a pre­sen­ta­tion in the library, you find cre­ative ways to get kids’ atten­tion and sus­tain it. You sense their needs and ques­tions. You invite them in.

Want to try your hand at non­fic­tion that address­es children’s social and emo­tion­al needs?

  1. Know your age group: There are board books for babies and tod­dlers, illus­trat­ed books for PreK and ear­ly ele­men­tary, books for upper ele­men­tary and mid­dle school, and more com­pre­hen­sive ones for teens. The length and use of lan­guage reflects the age of read­ers.
  1. Explore edu­ca­tion­al pub­lish­ing: Many pub­lish­ers specif­i­cal­ly serve the edu­ca­tion mar­ket, with books designed main­ly for class­room or school library use. Find books you like, and look for the pub­lish­er infor­ma­tion locat­ed on the Library of Con­gress (LOC) page, which usu­al­ly appears before the Ded­i­ca­tion and Table of Con­tents. Edu­ca­tion­al pub­lish­ers may also list the age/grade, inter­est, and read­ing lev­els there. Once you know the pub­lish­er, seek out its guide­lines for writ­ing and sub­mis­sion (usu­al­ly avail­able online).
  1. Don’t wor­ry about the illus­tra­tions: Writ­ers don’t have to become artists — and don’t have to bring in an illus­tra­tor. A poten­tial pub­lish­er is main­ly inter­est­ed in your words.
  1. Go to the source: If you’ve got kids of your own or you work in a school, you’re able to observe how chil­dren grow, change, and inter­act. What books might serve their needs? What types of books are their par­ents look­ing for? 
  1. Find your voice: Are you fun­ny? Warm and wise? A researcher/fact find­er? Do you like to cre­ate fun side­bars? Do you enjoy inter­view­ing peo­ple? Do you want to use quotes from kids? Do you have an idea for a whole series? There are many “ways in.” Exper­i­ment to find what works for you.

Becom­ing a children’s writer is often a long process of self-dis­cov­ery, and patience is key (just as in teach­ing). Your love of kids is a great start. I’m root­ing for you!


The Giant Jam Sandwich

Recent­ly, I was invit­ed to a baby show­er. I love shop­ping for baby show­ers, because I almost always give books and knit a wee lit­tle hat — two of my most favorite things. I had the hat all done except for the top lit­tle curly-cues, but I was fresh out of board books and so went on a hap­py lit­tle jaunt to one of my local book­stores.

And there — BE STILL MY HEART — was a book I’d not thought of in over forty years, but which had so cap­ti­vat­ed my imag­i­na­tion when I was ear­ly-ele­men­tary age that I’ve nev­er for­got­ten it. The Giant Jam Sand­wich, sto­ry and pic­tures by John Ver­non Lord, with vers­es by Janet Bur­roway. I bought it imme­di­ate­ly for the baby. And I bought myself a copy, too.

I nev­er had this book as a child. My mem­o­ry of it is entire­ly a tele­vi­sion expe­ri­ence. We didn’t watch much tele­vi­sion, so I was very curi­ous as to where I might’ve seen it. I’m too old to have watched Read­ing Rain­bow as a child, so I did a lit­tle dig­ging, and found that it was read on Cap­tain Kan­ga­roo in 1977 (we did watch Cap­tain Kan­ga­roo). The book was read, per­haps by the Cap­tain him­self, and the cam­era zoomed in on the pages — very low-tech.

I didn’t read this book to my own kids — it wasn’t repub­lished until 2012 — but you can bet I’ll be read­ing this sto­ry of the four mil­lion wasps that come into Itch­ing Down one hot sum­mer day to any kid who cross­es the thresh­old from now on. Because, I am still utter­ly enthralled with this book! The detailed pic­tures, the effort­less rhyme, May­or Mud­dlenut and Bap the Bak­er….  So great!

I think it was the very idea of cre­at­ing an enor­mous jam sand­wich to trap those four mil­lion wasps that got me. The logis­tics are astound­ing. My moth­er made bread — I knew all about the knead­ing and the ris­ing and the bak­ing and I was floored by the efforts of the cit­i­zens of Itch­ing Down. The bread dough filled an entire ware­house-like struc­ture — the towns­peo­ple had to crawl all over it to knead it. They had to build an oven on a hill….

For hours and hours they let it cook.

It swelled inside till the win­dows shook.

It was pip­ing hot when they took it out,

And the vil­lagers raised a mighty shout.

Isn’t it crusty! Aren’t we clever!”

But the wasps were just as bad as ever….


A giant saw is used to slice the loaf, eight fine hors­es pull the slice to the gigan­tic pic­nic cloth set out in a field. A truck dumps the but­ter and the peo­ple use spades and trac­tors to spread it out! Same with the jam!

Six fly­ing machines ‘whirled and wheeled” in the sky wait­ing for the wasps, who came at last lured by the smell of the jam. They dived and struck…and they ate so much that they all got stuck!

Ker­splat! The oth­er slice came down and only three wasps got away. The rest were stuck in that giant jam sand­wich….

I thought a lot about this book as a kid. (Rich Inte­ri­or Life, they call this.) The improb­a­ble prob­lem solv­ing, the bak­ing logis­tics, the sheer amounts of but­ter and jam…..  An amaz­ing effort.

[The wasps] nev­er came back to Itch­ing Down,

Which is not a waspish sort of town,

But a very nice place to dance and play,

And that’s what the vil­lagers did that day. 

What became of the sand­wich, you ask? Well, you’ll just have to pick up a copy your­self. It’s a pret­ty per­fect pic­ture book, in my opin­ion. And inter­est­ing­ly enough, I count only a cou­ple of kids in the illus­tra­tions…. Fas­ci­nat­ing all the way around!


The Gift of Books:
Terrific Titles for the Classroom Library

As teach­ers across the coun­try take to the streets to push for ade­quate com­pen­sa­tion and work con­di­tions, it’s a won­der we still have young peo­ple enter­ing this noble pro­fes­sion. And yet, at col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty grad­u­a­tion cer­e­monies every­where, new teach­ers will be receiv­ing their cre­den­tials as they embark on what will like­ly be one of the most chal­leng­ing and reward­ing career choic­es pos­si­ble. Thank good­ness we still have peo­ple who are brave enough, smart enough, strong enough, and kind enough to become teach­ers. Where would we be with­out the next gen­er­a­tion of edu­ca­tors (aka heroes)?

If you know of some­one who is just join­ing the ranks, the titles on this list of trea­sured books in my per­son­al library might be just what he/she needs to start things off in the class­room. Or maybe you know of a teacher who is fin­ish­ing up their first or sec­ond year in the class­room, what a love­ly “you sur­vived so far” gift one of these books would be. Or per­haps you should treat your­self to your own “Teacher Appre­ci­a­tion Day” gift? Regard­less of the rea­son, I am con­vinced any or all of these books would be a delight­ful addi­tion to anyone’s col­lec­tion. Be sure to check out the links pro­vid­ed for ter­rif­ic resources relat­ed to each title.

Be Who You Are!  

Be Who You Are!
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Todd Parr
Lit­tle, Brown, 2016

With col­or­ful, charm­ing illus­tra­tions, Parr reminds us that cel­e­brat­ing and embrac­ing our unique selves is the tick­et to a hap­py life. Share this book on the very first day of school to cre­ate a cli­mate of accep­tance and com­mu­ni­ty.


Duck! Rabbit!  

Duck! Rab­bit!
writ­ten by Amy Krouse Rosen­thal
illus­trat­ed by Tom Licht­en­held

An abstract con­cept made sim­ple for kids of all ages to grasp … the wit­ty visu­als clear­ly sup­port the notion that accept­ing and hon­or­ing mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives is an impor­tant and wise idea. Share this book to help kids see things from anoth­er person’s point of view, pro­mot­ing empa­thy and under­stand­ing. 


Let Me Finish!  

Let Me Fin­ish!
writ­ten by Minh Lê
illus­trat­ed by Isabel Rox­as
Dis­ney Hype­r­i­on, 2016

Who would have thought that a sim­ple desire to read with­out inter­rup­tions could turn into such an adven­ture? This sweet sto­ry not only tells the tale of an avid read­er, it also offers up illus­tra­tions that will gen­er­ate plen­ty of pre­dic­tions, oohs and ahs! Share this sto­ry ear­ly on in the school year to estab­lish suc­cess­ful expec­ta­tions and shared agree­ments for inde­pen­dent read­ing time.   



The Word Collector


The Word Col­lec­tor
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Peter Reynolds
Orchard Books, 2018

A per­fect pick for fos­ter­ing a love of words. Share this book to cel­e­brate the joy of dis­cov­er­ing new words and expand­ing one’s vocab­u­lary. Jerome will delight read­ers with his pen­chant for col­lect­ing words. Chances are he will also inspire at least a few logophiles along the way. 



writ­ten by Sta­cy McAn­ul­ty
illus­trat­ed by Joanne Lew-Vri­ethoff
Run­ning Press Kids, 2016

A play­ful book about girls, how­ev­er it’s def­i­nite­ly not just for girls. In addi­tion to some fun, it presents plen­ty of wise words to con­sid­er. Share this book to rein­force the beau­ti­ful mes­sage to all chil­dren that girls can be and do any­thing. Also a great choice for teach­ing the com­pre­hen­sion strat­e­gy of visu­al­iz­ing. The men­tal imagery that is gen­er­at­ed from a text-only read-aloud will like­ly be dif­fer­ent from the illus­tra­tions when revealed.


Elephant & Piggie Biggie!  

An Ele­phant and Pig­gie Big­gie
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Mo Willems
Dis­ney Hype­r­i­on, 2017

A col­lec­tion of five favorite titles fea­tur­ing the endear­ing duo cre­at­ed by Mo. Two lov­able best friends help kids learn a lot about life and impor­tant themes includ­ing fac­ing fears, per­se­ver­ance, shar­ing, adven­ture and so much more. Share this book to encour­age flu­en­cy prac­tice with part­ner read­ing or per­haps some read­ers the­ater per­for­mances.



Shaking Things Up  

Shak­ing Things Up:
14 Young Women Who Changed the World
writ­ten by Susan Hood
illus­trat­ed by Sophie Black­all, Emi­ly Win­field Mar­tin, Shadra Strick­land, Melis­sa Sweet, LeUyen Pham, Oge Mora, Julie Morstad, Lisa Brown, Seli­na Alko, Hadley Hoop­er, Isabel Rox­as, Erin Robin­son, and Sara Pala­cios
Harper­Collins, 2018

A won­der­ful col­lec­tion of poems and stun­ning illus­tra­tions, fea­tur­ing diverse trail­blaz­ers who will inspire a new gen­er­a­tion of girls to change the world for the bet­ter. Share this book to teach biogra­phies and con­nect to a vari­ety of social stud­ies, math, art and sci­ence top­ics includ­ing pre­his­toric ani­mals, WWI and WWII, school inte­gra­tion, med­ical dis­cov­er­ies, and space explo­ration.


The Important Book  

The Impor­tant Book
writ­ten by Mar­garet Wise Brown
illus­trat­ed by Leonard Weis­gard
Harper­Collins, 1949

An excep­tion­al men­tor text for inspir­ing young writ­ers. Fol­low­ing a sim­ple pat­tern and fea­tur­ing every­day objects, this clas­sic title demon­strates how to cre­ate a poem or para­graph focused on what mat­ters most to the writer. Share this book in a les­son to launch writer’s work­shop, teach deter­min­ing impor­tance or as a clever way for new class­mates to intro­duce them­selves with a class book enti­tled “The Impor­tant Book about Our Class.”



Ideas Are All Around
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Phillip Stead
Roar­ing Brook Press, 2016

A per­fect choice for help­ing chil­dren reflect on the won­ders and ideas that fill each day. Over­flow­ing with pos­si­bil­i­ties for extend­ing the sto­ry, this first-per­son nar­ra­tive from the author, reminds us that small moments can tru­ly become big inspi­ra­tions. Share this book and its mixed media illus­tra­tions to offer an engag­ing art and writ­ing les­son.


Jabari Jumps  

Jabari Jumps
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Gaia Corn­wall
Can­dlewick Press, 2017

Every­one needs a bit of encour­age­ment now and then. Kids will eas­i­ly relate to Jabari, brave on the out­side, a bit ner­vous on the inside, as he pre­pares to jump off the div­ing board for the first time. With sup­port from his patient dad, Jabari shows read­ers how to be a risk tak­er and achieve suc­cess. Share this book to intro­duce or rein­force what it means to have a growth mind­set and over­come one’s fears.



Skinny Dip with Becky Kruger

Becky KrugerWe are so for­tu­nate to have ded­i­cat­ed and inspir­ing librar­i­an edu­ca­tors work­ing with chil­dren in many schools through­out our land. Becky Kruger not only serves as the librar­i­an at Ray Miller Ele­men­tary School in Mis­souri but she also helps orga­nize the annu­al Tru­man State Uni­ver­si­ty Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val.

Which book you read as a child has most influ­enced your life?

It is not so much that the sto­ry influ­enced my life – but the book that I remem­ber most from my child­hood is The Five Lit­tle Pep­pers and How They Grew. My Mom and Dad gave it to me for Christ­mas when I was in the 3rd grade and I still have it and trea­sure it!!

What’s your favorite form of exer­cise?

My favorite form of exer­cise is work­ing in my veg­etable and flower gar­dens!

Who’s at the top of your list of Most Admired Peo­ple?

The per­son that I admire most in this world is my daugh­ter. She is the most kind, car­ing, fun­ny, hard work­ing and intel­li­gent per­son that I have ever known. She nev­er ceas­es to amaze me.

 What for­eign lan­guage would you like to learn?

I wish that I could speak flu­ent Span­ish.

Do you keep your book­shelves in a par­tic­u­lar order?

I orga­nize my books by sub­ject (non-fic­tion) or author (fic­tion). I also group my children’s books togeth­er.

What’s your food weak­ness?

Dessert. Def­i­nite­ly dessert.

What’s your favorite flower?

I have nev­er met a flower that I didn’t love, but if I had to choose, I would say that peonies are prob­a­bly my favorite. It is unfor­tu­nate that they are so fleet­ing.

Copy­right Tere­sa Kasprzy­c­ka | 123rf.com

What’s your favorite word because you like the way it sounds?

I love words! Rather than name a favorite word, I would like to name a few books that I love because of the author’s use of words: Natal­ie Lloyd’s A Snick­er of Mag­ic and Kather­ine Hannigan’s Ida B. If you haven’t read them, you should!!

Do you read the end of a book first?

Nev­er!! But…I do have this very annoy­ing habit of skim­ming a few pages in advance when a book gets very sus­pense­ful, or I am wondering…is the dog going to die? Is she going to tell the secret? Are they going to move again? It is like I just have to know before I real­ly read it!! Ha! Does any­one else do that??

If you could be grant­ed one wish, what would you wish for?

I would wish that every per­son in this world had access to clean water and abun­dant, nutri­tious food and that we could all live in har­mo­ny. (If it is all in one sen­tence, can it count as one wish?)

Child drinking clean water

Copy­right: bor­gog­niels / 123RF Stock Pho­to


Some Illustrator!

In my next life, I’m com­ing back either as a cat liv­ing in our house (think Canyon Ranch for cats), or Melis­sa Sweet. I’ve fol­lowed her career since she illus­trat­ed James Howe’s Pinky and Rex (1990). I love this book for its atyp­i­cal char­ac­ters (Pinky is a boy who loves pink and stuffed ani­mals, and Rex, his girl friend, is into dinosaurs), but also for Melissa’s fresh-faced char­ac­ters and bright water­col­ors.

Then I heard her speak at a con­fer­ence in 2005 about illus­trat­ing The Boy Who Drew Birds by Jacque­line Davis. I was enchant­ed by the col­laged snip­pets — maps, music notes, hand­writ­ing — among her water­col­or illus­tra­tions. One dou­ble-spread show­cas­es a dried frog, a nest with eggshells, a dried lizard, lichen, a tiny skull. An insa­tiable col­lec­tor, she used what was in her stu­dio.

I too am a col­lec­tor. I have at least 20 vin­tage suit­cas­es filled with old mag­a­zines, pho­tos, office sup­plies, scrap­books, bought because peo­ple dump greet­ing cards, pho­to­graph albums, report cards and I have this pathet­ic need to res­cue unwant­ed fam­i­ly mem­o­ra­bil­ia.

Candice Ransom Mixed Media Collage

Can­dice Ran­som’s mixed media col­lage

I was mov­ing away from scrap­book­ing to mak­ing — well, weird stuff. See­ing Melissa’s work, I real­ized I was cre­at­ing mixed-media col­lages with her­itage pho­tographs (I nev­er scrapped reg­u­lar pho­tos, like trips to Dis­ney World, because I nev­er went any­where). Melis­sa uses col­lage to “say what I need to say.”

Each book got bet­ter: A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pip­pin, A Riv­er of Words: The Sto­ry of William Car­los Williams (both writ­ten by Jen Bryant), Fire­fly July: A Year of Very Short Poems (writ­ten by Paul B. Janeczko). Then Melis­sa wrote and illus­trat­ed Bal­loons Over Broad­way, about Tony Sarg, pup­peteer and cre­ator of the Macy’s parade bal­loons. She made toys and pup­pets to under­stand what it “felt like to be in Sarg’s world.” I pored over the art, real­iz­ing how com­mit­ted Melis­sa was to the research and her illus­tra­tions. She takes no short­cuts.

In The Right Word, she stepped up her game. The assem­blages in the final dou­ble-spread caused my head to explode. And then … Some Writer! The Sto­ry of E.B. White, a mash-up of old­er kids’ non­fic­tion, pic­ture book, and scrap­book. After I came to from swoon­ing, I car­ried it around and made peo­ple look at it. Much of the art is con­tained in shad­ow box­es, like those of Joseph Cor­nell. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be the scene of Wilbur at the fair.

Being a Melis­sa Sweet fan, I’ve learned it’s pos­si­ble to com­bine research, art, words, and found things into a project. A few years ago, I began mak­ing scrap­books for my nov­els, a sort of illus­trat­ed out­line. From mag­a­zine clip files, I choose images that rep­re­sent a char­ac­ter or scene. By not try­ing to match an image to what’s in my head, I keep the sto­ry mine. I add bits of dia­log and descrip­tion. If the sto­ry changes, that’s okay. I just keep mov­ing for­ward in both the scrap­book and the writ­ing.

The book I’m work­ing on now is com­plex in set­ting, char­ac­ters, and plot. I’ve start­ed a new scrap­book, but the vin­tage and mod­ern mag­a­zine images don’t seem to be enough. It needs real art. I’m not an artist, but I decid­ed to include a drawn ani­mal char­ac­ter, sort of the way Melis­sa Sweet com­bines water­col­or paint­ings and col­lage. Draw like she does! But her art is decep­tive. I gnawed my fin­ger­nails study­ing the expres­sive slant of the dog’s ears in Tupe­lo Rides the Rails. It looks easy — it’s not.

Illus­tra­tor Tri­na Schart Hyman once wrote about try­ing to copy the style of Tomie dePao­la. In ten min­utes, she fig­ured, she’d whip up a “Tomie” draw­ing. “Six hours lat­er sweaty, frus­trat­ed, and thor­ough­ly puz­zled, I tore up the thir­ty-eighth ruined piece of paper in despair,” she admit­ted. His folksy style and child­like col­or was more sophis­ti­cat­ed than she real­ized. If an accom­plished artist like Tri­na Hyman couldn’t imi­tate Tomie dePao­la, there was no hope for me to draw a Melis­sa Sweet-type cat. One pen line on my fin­ished scrap­book page, and it would be ruined.

Pag­ing through The Sleepy Lit­tle Alpha­bet by Judy Sier­ra, I noticed Melis­sa Sweet’s clouds. They appear to be pen­ciled on graph and loose-leaf paper, cut out, and past­ed on water­col­or skies. I could draw cats on note­book paper, snip out one that isn’t too awful, and paste it in my scrap­book! Using unim­por­tant paper makes the draw­ing seem less pre­cious and should lessen my anx­i­ety.

In her author’s note for Bal­loons Over Broad­way, Melis­sa stress­es she tried to con­vey the sense that her sub­ject was hav­ing fun. “[Sarg’s] lega­cy reminds me that ‘play’ may be the most impor­tant ele­ment in mak­ing art!” A sense of play is a hall­mark of Melis­sa Sweet’s work. A les­son for all of us who make children’s books!


Don’t Let the Dinosaur Drive the Bus

DinosaurOne of my favorite stu­dent sto­ries fea­tured a char­ac­ter whose beloved pet was a hor­ri­bly behaved dinosaur — def­i­nite­ly on the T. rex rather than the Bar­ney end of the dinosaur social­iza­tion spec­trum. As the con­clu­sion of the sto­ry, the char­ac­ter says: “But it doesn’t mat­ter if my dinosaur is naughty all nine days a week. I love him any­way. Because he is my dinosaur.”

I’m moved by what that con­clu­sion says about the uncon­di­tion­al love that young writer was obvi­ous­ly receiv­ing from some­body impor­tant to him. But it’s also a great reminder that there are some basic sto­ry lines that rarely fail to pro­vide excel­lent start­ing points for strug­gling young writ­ers. Ask a young author, “What pet do you real­ly wish you could have, and can you think of how to turn that into a sto­ry?” — and most kids are on a roll.

In fact, the han­ker­ing for pets (even those less exot­ic than a dinosaur) has proved gold­en for estab­lished writ­ers too. From my pic­ture book­shelf alone I can pull out Peter Brown’s Chil­dren Make Ter­ri­ble Pets, Karen Kaufman’s I Wan­na Igua­na, Cath­leen Daly’s Pru­dence Wants a Pet (at one point poor Pru­dence has to set­tle for a branch), and David LaRochelle’s The Best Pet of All.



Peter Lourie

Peter Lourie

A well-known jour­nal­ist in a local bagel joint, after not see­ing me for a few weeks, would always greet me with, “Wel­come back, Pete.” It wasn’t because he knew where I’d been, but he knew I trav­eled a lot to write my children’s adven­ture books. Since I’d seen him last, I’d prob­a­bly been out climb­ing Aztec or Mayan tem­ples, pad­dling a riv­er, accom­pa­ny­ing biol­o­gists study­ing polar bears, whales, or man­a­tees. What I love about my job as a children’s adven­ture writer is research. I tell stu­dents, “to research is to explore.”

Recent­ly I trav­eled to the very top of Nor­way, near Rus­sia, to learn what a 19th-cen­tu­ry polar explor­er felt when he returned from a har­row­ing three-year Arc­tic sojourn. I’ve been writ­ing a new adven­ture biog­ra­phy for Hen­ry Holt, my sec­ond in a series, after Jack Lon­don and the Klondike Gold Rush.  It’s a Shack­le­ton-sort of sto­ry before Shack­le­ton, a sto­ry few in this coun­try know any­thing about.

The Fram

Fridtjof Nansen’s ship The Fram with which he explored in the Arc­tic and Antarc­tic
(pho­to cred­it: Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

In 1893 the Nor­we­gian zool­o­gist and polar explor­er Fridtjof Nansen sailed for the North Pole with a crew of 12 in a spe­cial ship he had built called the Fram (mean­ing “for­ward” in Nor­we­gian). His object was to col­lect valu­able sci­en­tif­ic data on the unknown Arc­tic and maybe to reach the North Pole, a feat unac­com­plished in 400 years of try­ing. Nansen had the crazy idea that if he could build a ship strong enough, with the right pro­por­tions to with­stand the forces of crush­ing ice, he could lock his ship into the Arc­tic ice pack above Siberia and just drift toward the pole. The ice would pick his boat up just like a cork. Trav­el­ing on an Arc­tic cur­rent at one or two miles a day (Arc­tic ice is in con­stant motion), he’d “float” for a num­ber of years (he had pro­vi­sions for five years) right up to the top of the world and over to the oth­er side near Green­land. 

Vet­er­an Arc­tic trav­el­ers thought he was crazy, that he would jeop­ar­dize his and his crew’s lives. It was obvi­ous­ly a fool’s mis­sion. Yet Nansen had already become famous for his dar­ing. In 1888 he was the first to cross Green­land on skis. Unlike Admi­ral Peary and oth­ers who attempt­ed the trek, Nansen trav­eled from the unin­hab­it­ed east­ern side of the ice cap to a town in the west, lat­er say­ing, “I demol­ish my bridges behind me, then there is no choice but to move for­ward.” After his Green­land suc­cess he set his com­pass for the region of the North Pole, where ships on pre­vi­ous expe­di­tions were inevitably crushed, all hands div­ing for lifeboats or trudg­ing on foot over ice back to Siberia, many dying along the way.

Vardø, the north­ern­most fish­ing port in Nor­way (pho­to cred­it: Peter Lourie)

Nev­er­the­less, Nansen and the Fram set out from Oslo in 1893, sailed the 1600 miles around the top of the coun­try to Vardø, the last lit­tle fish­ing port in Nor­way, and then hunt­ed for the pack ice above the Siber­ian coast to try out the Fram’s ice-wor­thi­ness.  When the ship was locked in for the first time, the whine and roar of ice scrap­ing against the hull sent shiv­ers of hor­ror into the men’s hearts.  But the Fram did what its ship­wright designed it to do.  With a super wide, thick hull, it was lift­ed right up on top of that dead­ly frozen mass, slip­ping “like an eel out of the embraces of the ice” as its builder said, and was car­ried creak­ing and moan­ing toward its goal.

After near­ly a year and a half trapped in ice, Nansen real­ized Fram would miss the pole by 300 miles. So he and fel­low crewmem­ber Hjal­mar Johansen pre­pared to make a dash for it. They took 28 sled dogs, three sleds, two small can­vas-cov­ered kayaks and 1500 lbs of food and sup­plies, and head­ed into the white world know­ing they’d nev­er find their ship again. They couldn’t bring enough food for the dogs, so they planned to feed the weak and fail­ing dogs to stronger dogs to keep them going. For 15 months the men dragged their sleds over pres­sure ridges and jum­bled blocks of ice.  They jumped the lanes of water that opened beneath them. They fell into the water so many times they walked with clothes like armors of ice. When they final­ly found land after five months, they sur­vived the long polar win­ter on wal­rus and polar bear meat in a crude hut hard­ly wide enough to sleep stretched out. 

When all their dogs had died, and they were reduced to their tiny, frag­ile kayaks about to pad­dle hun­dreds of miles of open water to Spits­ber­gen, Nansen heard the bark of a dog some­where on the edge of the ice. He scram­bled to inves­ti­gate. Amaz­ing­ly he saw the fig­ure of a man, who turned out to be anoth­er polar explor­er, a Brit named Fred­er­ick Jack­son, whom Nansen had actu­al­ly met in Lon­don years ago. 

Jack­son took the two men into this camp. They shaved and washed and ate well until Jackson’s sup­ply ship returned the Nor­we­gians to Vardø almost three years after leav­ing the small fish­ing vil­lage. A year lat­er Nansen penned a best­seller called Far­thest North, an account of one of the great­est polar adven­ture tales ever told. 

I need­ed to go to Vardø to under­stand Nansen’s feel­ings when he left Nor­way, and when he returned to Nor­way. So I rent­ed a car in Trom­sø, a beau­ti­ful city above the Arc­tic Cir­cle and drove across the top of the coun­try, a region called Finn­mark, prac­ti­cal­ly to Siberia. I drove through bound­ing rein­deer, around mas­sive fjords and past moun­tains aflame with yel­low birch trees to reach that town where the famous Nor­we­gian explor­er had bought his last sup­plies in July 1893, won­der­ing if he’d ever return.

When I pulled into Vardø, I found a gem of a fish­ing vil­lage, with Russ­ian sig­nage in the har­bor. Fish­er­man in small boats sort­ed through their night’s catch. The autumn Arc­tic Sea wind on my face helped me imag­ine Nansen and his small crew head­ing out to sea in 1893. I pic­tured the famous Nor­we­gian on the Fram gaz­ing back at the sleepy town, feel­ing this silent exit was just the right way to leave his beloved coun­try, no crowds and shouts of good luck and farewell. (He and his crew had been fet­ed for weeks in towns up and down the coast of Nor­way.) Now every­thing was silent.

The masts in the har­bor, the house-roofs, and chim­neys stood out against the cool morn­ing sky. Just then the sun broke through the mist and smiled over the shore — rugged, bare, and weath­er-worn in the hazy morn­ing, but still love­ly — dot­ted here and there with tiny hous­es and boats, and all Nor­way lay behind it….”

Boats in the peace­ful har­bor at Vardø (pho­to cred­it: Peter Lourie)

I strolled around the vil­lage for a few hours to imag­ine the scene of Nansen’s and Johansen’s return after three ice-bound years. On that ear­ly June morn­ing in 1896, no one spot­ted Jackson’s sloop glid­ing into the peace­ful har­bor at Vardø. The two sur­vivors jumped ashore and raced to the tele­graph sta­tion. They stamped their feet on the ground to feel their native soil. They were laugh­ing and smil­ing. A fish­er­man walked by them star­ing at Johansen’s odd jack­et he’d made from a blan­ket back in their tiny stone hut, where for nine win­ter months they had lived like cave­men.

A cow in the Vardø street gazed at them. Just a few hours before the whole world would dis­cov­er they were still alive, before Nansen would become the most famous man in Europe, Nansen reached out to pet the cow because, as he said, it looked so “sum­mery.”

Truth is, I had to go to all the way to Vardø to under­stand what Nansen meant by the word “sum­mery.”


Summoning Spring

Jack­ie: Spring is a lit­tle late com­ing to the Mid­west this year. But we can remem­ber sun­ny days with vio­lets and tril­li­um bloom­ing and rainy days that turn the grass green (instead of the snow we con­tin­ue to get in mid-April). Rainy days make us think of ducks and we are going to beck­on reluc­tant spring with sto­ries of ducks.

In the Rain with Baby Duck I want to start with an old favorite In the Rain with Baby Duck by Amy Hest, with illus­tra­tions by Jill Bar­ton. This is one of those books I wish I had writ­ten. The sto­ry sets up the prob­lem imme­di­ate­ly. Baby Duck has to go out in the rain. She hates the rain. But at the end of the walk are pan­cakes — and Grand­pa. Baby Duck loves both pan­cakes and Grand­pa as much as she hates the rain.

And the lan­guage is so much fun! First there’s the sound of rain, “Pit pat. Pit-a-pat. Pit-a-pit-a-pat.” And then there are the verbs: Mama Duck and Papa Duck love the rain. They wad­dled, and shim­mied, and hopped. Baby Duck hates the rain that brings wet feet, wet face, mud. She daw­dled and dal­lied and pout­ed.

Leave it to Grand­pa to solve the prob­lem with a trip to the attic. Once she’s equipped Baby Duck and Grand­pa go out in the rain. And Baby Duck and Grand­pa wad­dled and shim­mied, and hopped in all the pud­dles.

I need new boots.

Phyl­lis: Jack­ie, if Amy hadn’t writ­ten this book, and if you hadn’t writ­ten it either, I would have want­ed to have writ­ten it. I, too, love this book for its lan­guage, its won­der­ful rhythms and verbs, and its under­stand­ing Grand­pa who remem­bers what Mama Duck has for­got­ten, that she, too, once didn’t like rain.  And of course, I love pan­cake Sun­day. My red rub­ber boots are still going strong, and once the rain comes down (rain, not snow), I plan to go splash in some pud­dles.

The Tale of Jemima Puddle-duckJack­ie: Beat­rix Pot­ter can help us sum­mon spring. Jemi­ma Pud­dle-duck wants to hatch her own eggs, instead of let­ting one of the farm hens sit on them. “I will sit on them all by myself,” she says. And she leaves the farm to make a nest in the wood. “Jemi­ma Pud­dle-duck was not much in the habit of fly­ing,” but she man­ages to get up over the tree­tops and flies to an open place in the woods. She encoun­ters an “ele­gant, well-dressed gen­tle­man” with two black ears and a long full tail. We are told “Jemi­ma Pud­dle-duck was a sim­ple­ton.” And we see that in action as she agrees that the gen­tle­man has a won­der­ful spot for a nest in a wood­shed full of feath­ers. Nor does Jemi­ma sus­pect any­thing after the eggs are laid, when the “gen­tle­man” sug­gests they share a meal. He asks Jemi­ma to pro­vide from the farm two onions and var­i­ous herbs. While gath­er­ing these sup­plies she runs into the farm dog Kep, who is not a sim­ple­ton. And Jemi­ma is saved from her impend­ing doom by Kep and two fox­hound pup­pies. Unfor­tu­nate­ly the pup­pies eat the eggs before Kep can stop them. Jemi­ma goes back to the farm and even­tu­al­ly hatch­es four duck­lings. I love this sto­ry. There’s such fun in know­ing more than the char­ac­ters in the sto­ry.  And we can sym­pa­thize with Jemima’s wish to do it her­self, even if she’s not quite up to it on her own. Per­haps the best part of the sto­ry for me is Kep, whose nature seems to be to watch over the sim­ple­tons.  We need more of Keps in our world.

Phyl­lis: Along with the accu­rate and beau­ti­ful water­col­ors, Beat­rix Potter’s won­der­ful lan­guage evokes the coun­try­side of her time so vivid­ly:  the two bro­ken buck­ets on top of each oth­er for the “gentleman’s” chim­ney, the “tum­ble­down shed make of old soap box­es.” I sym­pa­thize with Jemi­ma, who wants to hatch her eggs her­self and who, although we are told she is a sim­ple­ton, seems guilty main­ly of igno­rance and inno­cent trust. Our fam­i­ly once fos­tered a duck­ling for a month that had hatched lat­er than its fel­low egglings, and it was indeed a sweet and trust­ing duck­ling who fol­lowed us every­where, peep­ing wild­ly if left alone.  Pot­ter is also unsen­ti­men­tal in her assess­ment of farm life:  when Jemi­ma final­ly does get to sit her own eggs, we learn that she is not real­ly much of a sit­ter after all, but she looks con­tent with her own four duck­lings, hatched by her­self in the safe­ty of the farm­yard, under the pro­tec­tion of Kep.

Duck! Rabbit!Jack­ie: Last April we cel­e­brat­ed the work of Amy Krouse Rosen­thal, who had recent­ly died. We want to hon­or her again with a look at Duck, Rab­bit. This book is such a fun exer­cise in per­spec­tive, thanks to illus­tra­tor Tom Licht­en­held. “Hey, look! A duck!” And we see long bill, slight­ly open, oval head and eye.

That’s not a duck./ That’s a rab­bit.” And what had been the duck bill becomes the rabbit’s ears, the rab­bit is look­ing in the oppo­site direc­tion. Turn the page and the illus­tra­tion is the same, but the con­ver­sa­tion con­tin­ues. “Are you kid­ding me?/It’s total­ly a duck.”

It’s for sure a rab­bit.”

The two con­tin­ue. Is the ani­mal cool­ing its long ears or get­ting a drink in the pond? Is it fly­ing or hop­ping? Then the argu­ment caus­es the crea­ture to leave. And the two reverse (what could be more fun?) “You know, maybe you were right./Maybe it was a rab­bit.”

Thing is, now I’m actually/thinking it was a duck.”

This sto­ry is so much fun. I can imag­ine that it would spark many dis­cus­sions and exper­i­ments about objects or crea­tures that could be eas­i­ly tak­en for oth­er objects or crea­tures.

Phyl­lis:  The book itself is its own exer­cise in tricks of per­cep­tion and point of view:  it’s all in how you inter­pret what you see and where you see it from.  And the book ends with a won­der­ful twist:  each voice hav­ing con­ced­ed that per­haps the oth­er is right after all, one says,

Well, anyway…now what do you want to do?”

I don’t know.  What do you want to do?”

Hey, look! An anteater!”

Thant’s not an anteater. That’s a bra­chiosaurus!”

This bold and clever book makes me smile. All win­ter I’ve been watch­ing the city bun­nies in my back yard (who have eat­en my rasp­ber­ry canes down to the top of the snow).  Now maybe I’ll look out and find they have turned into ducks.

Jack­ie: There are so many duck sto­ries. Of course, Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Duck­lings is the clas­sic.

The Ugly DucklingAnd if it’s not a clas­sic already, Jer­ry Pinkney’s The Ugly Duck­ling soon will be. His inter­pre­ta­tion of the Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­son fairy tale takes us so close to the Mama duck’s nest and the new duck­lings, it’s as if we are stand­ing in the barn­yard. We know the sto­ry — the biggest duck­ling is so ugly that even­tu­al­ly even his broth­ers and sis­ters chase him and taunt him. He leaves, only to encounter hunters, and dogs with huge mouths. Even­tu­al­ly he finds tem­po­rary shel­ter in the bro­ken-down cab­in of an old woman who has a cat and a hen. The ani­mals can’t under­stand anoth­er who nei­ther lays eggs or purrs but they don’t chase after him. After three weeks the duck­ling leaves to find water to swim in. When icy win­ter freezes him into the ice he is res­cued by a kind man who takes him home to his warm cab­in and chil­dren. The chil­dren want to play, but the duck­ling, hav­ing seen most­ly taunts and cru­el­ty, does not rec­og­nize play and runs away. Pinkney does not dwell on the rest of the win­ter, except to say it was mis­er­able. Relief comes in the spring when the “duck­ling” finds a home with his own kind, the swans. There are many ver­sions of this sto­ry but this is my favorite. Pinkney takes the sto­ry so seri­ous­ly. His ducks are real ducks and he wants us to notice them and the cat and the hen.  He grabs our atten­tion with his own atten­tion to the details of these crea­tures’ lives. He makes them real while also imbu­ing them with the human char­ac­ter­is­tics of judg­ment, cru­el­ty, curios­i­ty, and even kind­ness.

Phyl­lis: And who doesn’t want to find fel­low crea­tures and be rec­og­nized just for being their own self?

The ugly duckling’s moth­er loves him so much she gives up her bath to sit on his egg after her oth­er eggs have hatched, and she fierce­ly tries to pro­tect him from the oth­er barn­yard ani­mals. But even a mother’s love can’t always con­quer prej­u­dice and nei­ther is the world kind. Our hearts hurt for the “duckling’s” suf­fer­ings and are immense­ly sat­is­fied when he finds his own place in the world.

DuckA few oth­er duck books among a flock of them, Duck by author and illus­tra­tor Randy Cecil, about a carousel duck who longs to fly and who  ends up fos­ter­ing a lit­tle lost duck­ling. Duck real­izes it’s up to him to teach the lit­tle duck­ling how to fly, but his lessons are only part­ly suc­cess­ful, so she straps Duck­ling to her back with her scarf and walks off to find the ones “who could teach Duck­ling what she could not.” When they do find a flock of ducks, the ducks take off, and the lit­tle duck­ling flies up to join them. But Duck, still strapped to Duck­ling, weighs Duck­ling down and real­izes she must lit­er­al­ly let duck­ling go.  She frees her­self from the scarf, duck­ling goes up, duck does down down down. The ducks fly away, a scarf­less duck limps home, and the long win­ter com­mences, with so much snow duck that almost dis­ap­pears in the drifts. Come spring, a grown-up duck wear­ing a scarf returns with his flock and takes duck on his back. 

The book ends with the immense­ly sat­is­fy­ing last line: “And final­ly Duck knew what it was to fly.”

Cold Little Duck, Duck, DuckCold Lit­tle Duck Duck Duck by Lisa West­berg Peters, with illus­tra­tions by Sam Williams, tells a rhyth­mic and rhyming sto­ry of a duck who comes a lit­tle too ear­ly in a mis­er­able and frozen spring,  and her feet freeze to the ice. She warms her­self with thoughts of spring:  bub­bly streams, glassy pud­dles, wig­gly worms, shiny bee­tles, cro­cus­es and apples buds and blades of grass and squishy mud.  By the time a vee of ducks fly in to join her, the ice is melt­ing, and the lit­tle duck dives into spring. With many won­der­ful rep­e­ti­tions of con­so­nant sounds — quick quick quick, blink blink blink, creak creak creak — the book is a delight to read aloud.

And, like the cold lit­tle duck duck duck, we might be find­ing spring right now as well. The snow out­side my win­dow has almost melt­ed, the first wild­flow­ers are bloom­ing, and our hearts are hap­py in the sun­shine. Good work, ducks. Thanks, thanks, thanks!


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.


Skinny Dip with Pat Schmatz

Pat SchmatzPat Schmatz is the smart, well-read, insight­ful, and tal­ent­ed author of books such as Lizard Radio, Mouse­traps, Blue­fish, and her most recent The Key to Every­thing. She occa­sion­al­ly teach­es writ­ing, espe­cial­ly to mid­dle school and high school stu­dents. If you have a chance, attend one of her class­es.

What’s the weird­est place you’ve ever read a book? 

Inside a snow cave that I had built by tun­nel­ing far into an enor­mous drift, by can­dle­light. I start­ed feel­ing kind of funky, so I crawled out­side. Didn’t occur to me until (much) lat­er that the can­dle was using all of the oxy­gen in my lit­tle snow cave!

How many book­cas­es do you have in your house?

6 – in a 2BR apart­ment.

The Outsiders by S.E. HintonWhich book you read as a child has most influ­enced your life?

The Out­siders by SE Hin­ton

What’s your favorite form of exer­cise?

Cross-coun­try ski­ing in the win­ter, swim­ming in the sum­mer, sculling on the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er in the spring and fall.

Have you trav­eled out­side of your state? Which state draws you back? (How many states have you vis­it­ed?)

The best trip I ever had was a ten-day walk­ing tour in West­ern Ire­land. That was amaz­ing. But I think my favorite coun­try to vis­it is still Japan. I spent sev­er­al months in Kyoto and every bite of food was amaz­ing and the beau­ty every­where was almost more than I could stand.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Kyoto

Kiy­omizu-dera Tem­ple in Kyoto (pho­to: cow­ard-lion | Adobe Stock)

What’s the last per­for­mance you saw at a the­ater?

The Pink Uni­corn at Illu­sion The­ater in Min­neapo­lis. It was excel­lent!

The Key to Everything

Pat Schmatz’ most recent book

What would you wear to a cos­tume par­ty?

I like to go as road kill. Take your clothes and lay them on the dri­ve­way. Pour black paint on the car tires. Dri­ve back and forth over your clothes. Add a grue­some mask and you’re all set.

If you could be grant­ed one wish, what would you wish for?

Glob­al Jus­tice (peace would fol­low)

What for­eign lan­guage would you like to learn? 

 I love lan­guage study. I’m cur­rent­ly study­ing Amer­i­can Sign Lan­guage, Span­ish, Japan­ese, and Hebrew. I would love to be flu­ent in all of these, and also pick up Gael­ic and Ital­ian.


What’s So Special about Shakespeare?

What's So Special about Shakespeare?We cel­e­brate William Shake­speare’s birth­day on April 23rd (or there­abouts). Con­sid­er read­ing excerpts of this book to your class­es.

In What’s So Spe­cial about Shake­speare?, the author, Michael Rosen, walks into a house with us, peek­ing into rooms where Shakespeare’s plays are being enact­ed. Such vari­ety! It’s an inspired way to place young read­ers among the peo­ple of Shakespeare’s time.

Here’s a strik­ing state­ment: “All this may sound extra­or­di­nary, but Shake­speare lived in extra­or­di­nary and dan­ger­ous times.”

Rosen shows us those dan­gers, the propen­si­ty for war over land, mon­ey, and pow­er, and the very real threat of hav­ing one’s head chopped off.

Reli­gion and pol­i­tics were all mixed up in Shakespeare’s day, in Eng­land and on the Con­ti­nent. It was easy to be found guilty of trea­son, to lose your life. Rosen’s live­ly text helps us under­stand that when Shake­speare wrote his plays, there was polit­i­cal and reli­gious com­men­tary woven into through his dia­logue. He placed him­self in dan­ger.

It’s inter­est­ing to won­der what effect this might have had on audi­ences in Shakespeare’s time. After all, when the play was writ­ten [Mac­beth], many peo­ple still thought that kings and queens were almost like gods. What hap­pens if they’re also crim­i­nals?”

What was school like for Shake­speare? How did ordi­nary peo­ple live? Why did they go to the the­ater? What do we know about Shake­speare’s life? (Not much.)

Plac­ing Shake­speare with­in his world, explain­ing that world, we see that print­ed books were rel­a­tive­ly new, and peo­ple who knew how to read … that was fair­ly new as well. Shake­speare was well read. He was often inspired by oth­er texts, some­times bor­row­ing the ideas and the sto­ry. Rosen shows us a com­par­i­son between a Plutarch pas­sage and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopa­tra. It is evi­dent that Shakespeare’s ver­sion is more inter­est­ing. He was a very good writer who knew how to hold an audi­ence.

Then you’ll see that Shake­speare didn’t real­ly write books, he wrote scripts — scenes and speech­es for peo­ple to say out loud and act out in front of oth­er peo­ple.”

There are in-depth expla­na­tions of four plays: Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, Mac­beth, King Lear, and The Tem­pest. In-depth? Four to six heav­i­ly illus­trat­ed pages are devot­ed to each play. This is read­able!

Sarah Nayler’s draw­ings are down­right fun­ny, often reit­er­at­ing the text but under­lin­ing it with broad and ram­bunc­tious humor.

The type is big with a good deal of space between the lines, mak­ing this quite easy to read. And those draw­ings! They break up the text.

A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this book, Shake­speare: His Work & His World, writ­ten by Michael Rosen, was pub­lished by Can­dlewick in 2006. That vol­ume was intend­ed for ages 12 and up. What’s So Spe­cial About Shake­speare? sees a change in book design and it’s appro­pri­ate for younger read­ers. The trim size is just right for tuck­ing into a back­pack. A Shake­speare time­line and bib­li­og­ra­phy are appre­ci­at­ed.

Do you have stu­dents who love the the­ater, act­ing, plays? This books tells the his­to­ry of the­ater in a much short­er fash­ion than the semes­ters I sat through in col­lege! For stu­dents who are reluc­tant to study Shake­speare, this book will enliv­en their curios­i­ty about his plays. High­ly rec­om­mend­ed.

Here’s an effec­tive book­talk for this book by the author him­self!

What’s So Spe­cial about Shake­speare?
Michael Rosen
Sarah Nayler, illus­tra­tor
Can­dlewick Press, 2018
ISBN 978 – 0763699956


Planting Giant Pumpkin Seeds

How to Grow World Class Giant Pumpkins the All-Organic WayAs I write this, Min­neso­ta is in line to get hit with anoth­er Major Win­ter Storm.

I know many of you in the north­ern lat­i­tudes can sym­pa­thize as we’ve all been hit, but it’s mid-April, and even by Min­neso­ta stan­dards, this is demor­al­iz­ing. Proms are being can­celled this week­end, the gro­cery stores are crazy, everyone’s watch­ing the radar while they make soup, and I … I have avert­ed my eyes from the win­dow so as to bet­ter ignore the wet slop com­ing down and bet­ter focus on my gar­den plan­ning!

We hope to have straw­ber­ries this year for the first time, and I have a bazil­lion flower seeds to start this week­end, but I’m also plan­ning ahead just a cou­ple weeks so we’re ready for Giant Pump­kin Seed Start­ing Day on May 1st.

In Giant Pump­kin Suite, Rose and Thomas find the mys­te­ri­ous seed their neigh­bor, Mr. Pick­er­ing, has start­ed on May 1st. May Day is the day I start my giant pump­kin seeds — this is, I believe, our 5th year grow­ing giant pump­kins. We are not the least bit com­pet­i­tive, but it is always an amaz­ing expe­ri­ence, and the start­ing of the seeds is my favorite part.

I get my seeds from the St. Croix Grower’s Asso­ci­a­tion. These are sol­id seeds from prize-win­ning pump­kins and the mon­ey sup­ports a great local orga­ni­za­tion. Look online for your own local sup­ply.

First, I file the edges with a fin­ger­nail file. This helps water pen­e­trate the hard cas­ing of the seed. Once filed, the seeds soak for a few hours. Water is very impor­tant for ger­mi­na­tion — water is impor­tant in the whole growth process for giant pump­kins, in fact!

Soaking giant pumpkin seeds

Final­ly, when the soil tem­per­a­ture in the pots is above 85 degrees (this requires a bit of a set up, as you can see below — and, yes, I use a ther­mome­ter to check the tem­per­a­ture) and the soil is just past damp, but not sog­gy, I plant the seeds, pointy end down. These seeds are noto­ri­ous­ly fussy and dif­fi­cult to ger­mi­nate; hence, I always start more than I will need.

Growing Giant Pumpkins

They will spend a cou­ple of weeks indoors in the laun­dry room’s make-shift giant pump­kin nurs­ery, then I’ll take the pre­cious fussy lit­tle plants out­side for a few hours each day for a good week so they can accli­mate before they go in the ground.

Usu­al­ly, the pump­kin patch is full of tulips in May … but maybe not this year.

Giant Pumpkin SuiteMay in Min­neso­ta is noto­ri­ous­ly unpre­dictable. We’ll wait for moth­er nature to even out a bit before sub­ject­ing the plants to the ele­ments. In Giant Pump­kin Suite, Rose and Thomas have to build a tent over the pump­kin plant and use a space heater — I’m always hop­ing to avoid that.

Last year was kind of a bust for us on the giant pump­kin scene. A hail­storm in ear­ly June shred­ded the leaves and the plants nev­er quite recov­ered. Hop­ing this year will have a bet­ter show­ing. I want to be clear — we do this for fun at our house, not for com­pe­ti­tion. Once the plants are in the ground, they most­ly fend for them­selves. Grow­ing real giants takes a lot more work.

My favorite part, as I said, is the start­ing of the seeds — it’s astound­ing how fast they grow. The details in Giant Pump­kin Suite are not exag­ger­at­ed at all. If you’d like to see some pic­tures from last year, you can find them here.

If you’d like to fol­low our household’s grow­ing adven­tures this year, check out my Insta­gram.


If you are a Fresh Bookol­o­gy sub­scriber, don’t hes­i­tate to enter our give­away for an auto­graphed copy of this book, but you must do so by mid­night CT on April 20, 2018. Instruc­tions for enter­ing are in your most recent e‑newsletter. If you aren’t yet a sub­scriber (it’s free), sign up today.


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.