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Curiouser and Curiouser with Melissa Stewart

Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and StinkersThis month we’re fea­tur­ing Melis­sa Stew­art, author of sci­ence books for young read­ers and a seem­ing­ly tire­less advo­cate for read­ing non­fic­tion books, par­tic­u­lar­ly expos­i­to­ry non­fic­tion (“5 Kinds of Non­fic­tion”). Melis­sa has writ­ten more than 180 books in her career, the first of which was pub­lished in 1998 and the most recent of which is Pipsqueaks, Slow­pokes, and Stinkers: Cel­e­brat­ing Ani­mal Under­dogs (illus­trat­ed by Stephanie Laberis, pub­lished by Peachtree Pub­lish­ers). We recent­ly put our heads togeth­er for an inter­view address­ing our curios­i­ty about Melissa’s books and her work. Pull up a chair to the table and join us!

Do you work on more than one book at a time?

Yes, I usu­al­ly work on at least a half dozen books at a time. I might be writ­ing the rough draft of one and revis­ing one or two oth­ers. I might be research­ing one, and wait­ing for research mate­ri­als for anoth­er. I could be review­ing illus­tra­tor sketch­es or check­ing lay­outs or review­ing notes from an edi­tor or copy edi­tor. There’s a lot of jug­gling. Each day, before I stop work­ing, I make a list of what I plan to work on the next day. This helps to keep me orga­nized.

Melissa Stewart

Melis­sa Stew­art

You work on many dif­fer­ent types of books with­in the pletho­ra of knowl­edge about our nat­ur­al world. How do you clear your head to work on a joke book after you’ve writ­ten about the droughts in our world?

Some­times it’s a strug­gle, espe­cial­ly when I need to shift gears between writ­ing with a live­ly, humor­ous voice and a more lyri­cal voice. If my voice is off, I stop writ­ing and start read­ing to get in the right mind­set. It’s sort of like cleans­ing my palate with sor­bet or pick­led gin­ger between dif­fer­ent cours­es of a meal.

You write for a vari­ety of pub­lish­ers includ­ing Peachtree Pub­lish­ers, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Kids, Beach Lane Books, and Harper­Collins. Do you pitch your ideas to these com­pa­nies or do they come to you with ideas for the books they’d like?

A lit­tle bit of both. When pub­lish­ers have a large mass mar­ket series, such as Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Read­ers or HarperCollins’s Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out-Science®, they usu­al­ly decide what top­ics they would like to add and then search for a writer. But for pic­ture books and oth­er trade books, I devel­op the idea. For pic­ture books, I need to sub­mit the com­plete man­u­script, and then the pub­lish­er may accept it or they may reject it. For longer books, I sub­mit a pro­pos­al with an out­line and writ­ing sam­ple.

author Melissa Stewart reading When Rain Falls with a kindergarten class

Author Melis­sa Stew­art read­ing When Rain Falls with a kinder­garten class

When you’re writ­ing a book that a pub­lish­er hired you to write, do you have para­me­ters with­in which you need to stay?

Yes. They give me a word count and usu­al­ly tell me what text fea­tures to include. I use exist­ing books in the series as mod­els.

Do you find that dif­fi­cult to do?

No. I find it com­fort­ing to have guide­lines. It’s sort of like putting togeth­er a jig­saw puz­zle. All the pieces are there. I just have to fig­ure out the right way to put them togeth­er.

With pic­ture books, I’m invent­ing the puz­zle. I find that chal­leng­ing, but I enjoy being able to exper­i­ment and play. It’s a more cre­ative expe­ri­ence.  

How do you keep your research orga­nized?

I don’t real­ly have a good sys­tem. I type all my notes into a Word file. Over time, it becomes unwieldy.

Before I start writ­ing, I think about the major cat­e­gories of infor­ma­tion I’ll need. Then I cut and paste, cut and paste to cre­ate major chunks of relat­ed infor­ma­tion. Depend­ing on the book, even these chunks can still be unwieldy. Thank good­ness Word allows me to do search­es to find exact­ly the infor­ma­tion I need.

Some­times I use index cards or sticky notes to help me decide the order in which these chunks will be pre­sent­ed in the book. I like that I can phys­i­cal­ly move them around.

Do you return to that research when you’re writ­ing a new book?

Some­times I try. After all, it would be more effi­cient, but there are two rea­sons that it usu­al­ly doesn’t work out.

  1. Because our knowl­edge of the world is chang­ing so quick­ly, notes I took 5 or even 3 years ago may be out of date.
  2. Even when I include the same ani­mal in two books, my hook is inevitably dif­fer­ent, so my notes may not have the spe­cif­ic details I need.

Who finds the pho­tos that are includ­ed in your books?

Some­times me. Some­times a pho­to researcher who works for the pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny. And some­times we work togeth­er. It depends on the pub­lish­er and the project.

Can an Aardvark Bark, Under the Snow, A Place for Birds

Do you have any input for the illus­tra­tors who have worked on books such as Can an Aard­vark Bark? and Under the Snow and A Place for Birds?

Some­times I play a role in select­ing the illus­tra­tor, and some­times I don’t. It depends on the pub­lish­er and the project. Some­times I pro­vide a pack­age of ref­er­ence mate­ri­als for the illus­tra­tor.

Because I’m the con­tent expert, I always have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to review the illustrator’s sketch­es and com­ment on any­thing that isn’t sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly sound. It isn’t unusu­al for the illus­tra­tor to do sev­er­al sets of sketch­es. S/he keeps work­ing until all the details in the art are accu­rate.

Melissa Stewart's office

a look at Melis­sa Stewart’s office

If you could break your week down into the per­cent­ages of what you do, how much time do you spend on the dif­fer­ent tasks required of a suc­cess­ful writer?

This has shift­ed a lot over the years. When my first book was pub­lished 20 years ago, authors weren’t expect­ed to play a role in mar­ket­ing. Most children’s books were sold to schools and libraries. But in the ear­ly 2000s, school book bud­gets were slashed and many school librar­i­ans lost their jobs. For a while, there were sev­er­al large brick-and-mor­tar book­store chains, and they were major play­ers in the mar­ket. But now, most of them are gone.

Today social media is explod­ing and authors are expect­ed to be active­ly involved in sell­ing their books. And so I spend a lot of time blog­ging and tweet­ing and devel­op­ing mate­ri­als for my web­site. That means I have less time to actu­al­ly work on books.

While there real­ly is no typ­i­cal day or week, I can say that I now spend only about 50 per­cent of my time work­ing on books. The rest of the time is devot­ed to mar­ket­ing, speak­ing at schools, attend­ing con­fer­ences, and read­ing recent­ly pub­lished children’s books.

Of the time I do spend work­ing on books, prob­a­bly about 50 per­cent of the time is spent phys­i­cal­ly writ­ing. The rest of the time, I’m doing research, devel­op­ing ideas for new projects, or read­ing adult books and arti­cles about sci­ence.

What’s your favorite aspect of your career?

The phys­i­cal act of writ­ing, espe­cial­ly those mag­i­cal hours “spent in the flow.” But a close sec­ond is spend­ing time in schools speak­ing with and lis­ten­ing to kids.

What do you wish were dif­fer­ent about your career?

I don’t think any­one likes rejec­tions, but it’s an inevitable part of the writ­ing process.

If you could select one of your back­list titles, which book would you like to see peo­ple read­ing with more fre­quen­cy? Can you tell us why?

Because sci­ence is always chang­ing, some of my old­er books con­tain infor­ma­tion that is out of date. In fact, I some­times cheer when I find out a title is going out of print. I’m more than hap­py to have young read­ers focus on titles I’ve pub­lished in the last 5 or 6 years.

Curi­ous about Melissa’s books? Vis­it her web­site.

Edu­ca­tors, don’t miss the many, many resources Melis­sa has made avail­able for you. Her site is a ver­i­ta­ble trea­sure lode!

Melissa Stewart's Educators' Resources

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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.

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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!

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Skinny Dip with Kathleen Baxter

Kathleen Baxter and Pete Steiner

Kath­leen Bax­ter and Pete Stein­er, the grand­son of the real-life Cab Edwards in the Bet­sy-Tacy books

Kath­leen Bax­ter, a librar­i­an for more than 30 years, a nation­al­ly-known book­talk­er, a co-author of the won­der­ful Gotcha! resource books, is best known as the woman who has worked tire­less­ly to keep Maud Hart Lovelace’s books in print, there­by intro­duc­ing new gen­er­a­tions of read­ers to the Bet­sy-Tacy books and the oth­er cher­ished nov­els set in Deep Val­ley. Her most recent book, My Bet­sy-Tacy Mir­a­cle: a Lit­er­ary Pil­grim­age to Deep Val­ley, shares the charm­ing, true sto­ry of Kathleen’s meet­ing and cor­re­spon­dence with the author Maud Hart Lovelace. 

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

Exer­cise bike, maybe? 

Do you keep your book­shelves in a par­tic­u­lar order? 

Not real­ly, though some book­cas­es have some rhyme or rea­son to them. 

How many book­cas­es do you have in your house? 

At least ten.

What’s the pre­dom­i­nant col­or in your wardrobe? 

Black, prob­a­bly. 

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

Anoka Coun­ty North­town, I worked there for 32 years. 

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

The Bet­sy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace

What’s your food weak­ness? 

sug­ar

What’s your favorite form of exer­cise? 

walk­ing, I guess

What do you con­sid­er to be your best accom­plish­ment? 

It astounds me that both my broth­er and I are in Who’s Who in Amer­i­ca and have been for years.

What’s your favorite flower?

lilacs and lilies of the val­ley

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

I love New York as well as the New Eng­land states. I have been to all the states but Hawaii and I turned down a chance to give a talk there because it would have been crazy to go on the sched­ule they gave me.

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

Eng­land, Scot­land, Ire­land. I am an Anglophile to the core, love the Queen, love all things British. And my DNA comes back 97.2% British Isles and Ire­land, so that may have some­thing to do with it as well. 

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

Assas­sins at The­ater Lat­te Da, two days in a row. I love Sond­heim. 

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

Stephen Sond­heim is right there, for his sheer genius. I great­ly admire peo­ple who are unfail­ing­ly kind and gen­er­ous.

When you walk into a bak­ery, what are you most like­ly to choose from the bak­ery cas­es? 

sug­ary things

What are your favorite piz­za top­pings?

pep­per­oni and olives

Do you remem­ber your dreams?

Almost nev­er. 

If you could have din­ner with any­one from his­to­ry, who would you choose (don’t wor­ry about lan­guage dif­fer­ences.)

Maud Hart Lovelace

Do you read the end of a book first?

nev­er

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

to be slen­der and only want to eat real­ly healthy food, and not miss any­thing. 

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Dearie Darling Cuddle Hug: A Tribute to Wendy Watson

Father Fox's PennyrhymesWhen our chil­dren were young we both spent many hours with them pour­ing over Wendy Wat­son’s illus­tra­tions for her sis­ter Clyde’s rhymes in Father Fox’s Pen­nyrhymes and delight­ing in the sounds and the silli­ness of the rhymes them­selves. We felt as though we had lost a per­son­al friend when Wendy Wat­son died, even though we had nev­er met her.

Here’s just one pen­nyrhyme:

Mis­ter Lis­ter sassed his sis­ter
Mar­ried his wife ‘cause he couldn’t resist her,
Three plus four times two he kissed her:
How many times is that, dear sis­ter?

The illus­tra­tions wel­comed us into Father Fox’s fam­i­ly, a large rol­lick­ing cre­ative crew in a house filled with writ­ing, art, music, and chil­dren, much like the Wat­son fam­i­ly. Clyde has said that their father was the orig­i­nal Father Fox, and Wendy wrote of the art, “Many fox­es wear favorite gar­ments that still hang in clos­ets in Put­ney; and spe­cial fam­i­ly occu­pa­tions and times of the year and occa­sions are in almost every poem and pic­ture.” In the pic­tures (and per­haps in the clos­ets) the clothes are patched show­ing both wear and care.

Small sto­ries unfold in the illus­tra­tions.

You might read,

Som­er­sault & Pep­per-upper
Sim­mer down and eat your sup­per,
Arti­chokes & Mus­tard Pick­le
Two for a dime or six for a nick­el.

Mean­while in four pan­els on a dou­ble-page spread, a horse gal­lops by draw­ing a coach piled high with bun­dles, a fid­dle case, and a young fox rid­ing on top. The coach hits a bump, the salt shak­er falls out the win­dow, a bowl of sup­per falls on the coach dri­ver, and, leav­ing bits and pieces behind, the coach dri­ves on.

Wendy WatsonWhen Wendy had chil­dren of her own she often hid famil­iar things in her art that only they would know, “like dish­es that we owned or fur­ni­ture.”

Our friend Liza Ketchum, who knew Wendy very well, said that the time she spent on each draw­ing was incred­i­ble. In a draw­ing of a coun­try store you can find boots, slip­pers, pots, pans, paint­brush­es, pen­ny can­dy, even bolts of fab­ric and a horse col­lar.

 “Wendy had a throaty laugh that was just won­der­ful,” Liza told us, “and she cared so much about every­thing. When she could not take her cat on an air­plane, she drove cross-coun­try with her cat instead.”

Bedtime BunniesWendy wrote and illus­trat­ed twen­ty-one books for chil­dren and illus­trat­ed over six­ty books by oth­er authors. We could say so much more about so many of her books that we love, (you can read a list and descrip­tions of her pub­lished books), but we have to share one more of our favorites, Bed­time Bun­nies. The bun­ny par­ents call to five lit­tle bun­nies, “Bed­time, bun­nies.” The heart of this spar­e­ly writ­ten book is verbs, four to a spread—skip, scam­per, scur­ry, hop—while the art shows the bun­nies com­ing in for the night, hav­ing sup­per, brush­ing their teeth—Squirt Scrub Splut­ter Spit—taking a bath, get­ting into their paja­mas, hear­ing a sto­ry, get­ting into bed—climb bounce jump thump, and get­ting tucked in—Dearie Dar­ling Cud­dle Hug. The book ends with “Good­night, Bun­nies.”

The illus­tra­tions are spare but full of expres­sion and love, and the col­or palette is soft and warm, with yel­lows, ros­es, green, blues. In each of the live­ly pic­tures the lit­tlest bun­ny does things in their unique style. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this bun­ny fam­i­ly, or Father Fox’s fam­i­ly? It’s as if Wendy Wat­son is call­ing to us—Dearie Dar­ling Cud­dle Hug. Each time we open one of her books, we are invit­ed in to her warm cir­cle of fam­i­ly. And that will nev­er change.

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Skinny Dip with Jerdine Nolen

Jer­dine Nolen is the ver­sa­tile author of pic­ture books, chap­ter books, and nov­els, includ­ing her most recent books, the Brad­ford Street Bud­dies series and Cal­i­co Girl. We enjoy hav­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn more about this writer and edu­ca­tor.

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

The weird­est place I have ever read a book is in a clos­et. It wasn’t a dark clos­et. There was a nice win­dow with lots of light and there was enough room for a small lamp. It was quite com­fy and cozy.

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

Fairy tales and tall tales, poet­ry

What’s your food weak­ness?

I like choco­late-cov­ered orange peels. Yum­my.

What’s your favorite form of exer­cise?

My favorite form of exer­cis­ing is walk­ing and row­ing, though not at the same time.

What’s your favorite flower?

Some of my favorite flow­ers: peonies, iris­es, hydrangea

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

Cal­i­for­nia, Con­necti­cut, Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon, Neva­da, Ari­zona, Texas, Louisiana, Mis­sis­sip­pi, Alaba­ma, Geor­gia, North Car­oli­na, South Car­oli­na, Vir­ginia, West Vir­ginia, Wash­ing­ton, DC, Delaware, New Jer­sey, Penn­syl­va­nia, New York, Mass­a­chu­setts, Rhode Island, Michi­gan, Wis­con­sin, Illi­nois, Ten­nessee, Ken­tucky, Indi­ana, and Iowa

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

I like France best because we have friends there and my favorite foods and restau­rants. I trav­elled for fun either alone or with my fam­i­ly to Italy, France, Cana­da, Israel, Ger­many, and Eng­land.

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

I’m plan­ning to see The Ice­man Cometh lat­er this year.

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

As a child, cucum­ber was a favorite word of mine. I think I still like it as much.

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

My par­ents and my ances­tors. Play­wright August Wil­son.

When you walk into a bak­ery, what are you most like­ly to choose from the bak­ery cas­es?

Almond or choco­late crois­sant

What are your favorite piz­za top­pings? 

Basil, pep­per­oni, extra cheese

Do you remem­ber your dreams?

Usu­al­ly, and I remem­ber them vivid­ly and with much detail. When this hap­pens, I have to write them down.

If you could have din­ner with any­one from his­to­ry, who would you choose (don’t wor­ry about lan­guage dif­fer­ences.)

William Shake­speare, Thomas Jef­fer­son, and Galileo for now

What for­eign lan­guage would you like to learn? 

I’m learn­ing French. 

Do you read the end of a book first?

Some­times.

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In Her Own Words:
The Impact of Personal Accounts on Biography

I admit it. I am a his­to­ry nerd.

Like all biog­ra­phers, I am fas­ci­nat­ed by the past. I love learn­ing about the world of long ago: what peo­ple wore, what they ate, the jobs they had, the wars they fought.  And noth­ing thrills me more when I am research­ing than to dis­cov­er a first­hand account, a per­son­al writ­ing … a pri­ma­ry source.

How do first­hand accounts help biog­ra­phers? Here are some exam­ples.

Biog­ra­phers put their read­ers “in the moment’ when they use a subject’s own words.

Bold Women of MedicineIn her book, Bold Women of Med­i­cine, author Susan Lat­ta describes the filthy, rat infest­ed hos­pi­tal Flo­rence Nightin­gale encoun­tered when she treat­ed sol­diers dur­ing the Crimean War. Lat­ta details these des­per­ate con­di­tions for her read­ers, infus­ing her descrip­tion with Flo­rence Nightingale’s own words from let­ters writ­ten at the time:

We have not a basin nor a tow­el nor a bit of soap nor a broom—I have ordered 300 scrub­bing brush­es … one half of the Bar­rack is so sad­ly out of repair that it is impos­si­ble to use a drop of water on the stone floors, which are all laid upon rot­ten wood, and would give our men fever in no time … I am get­ting a screen now for the ampu­ta­tions … “

When Lat­ta includes this can­did account in her writ­ing, she makes read­ers sit up and take notice. There is no dis­put­ing how awful things were. Nightingale’s own words make the con­di­tions real.

Biog­ra­phers use per­son­al writ­ings to get a glimpse into their subject’s per­son­al­i­ty, which helps with the por­tray­al of the sub­ject.

In my book, Aim for the Skies, I tell the sto­ry of an air race between two women, Jer­rie Mock and Joan Mer­ri­am Smith, in the 1960’s. Because the 1960’s are fair­ly recent his­to­ry, I was able to find a great deal of infor­ma­tion about the race—from both pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources—when I con­duct­ed my research. But I want­ed more. I want­ed to know the pilots. What were they real­ly like? What made them tick?

Three-Eight CharlieJer­rie Mock’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy, Three Eight Char­lie, gave me the insight I desired.  It gave me a much need­ed glimpse into Jerrie’s per­son­al­i­ty. News­pa­per accounts por­trayed Jer­rie as busi­ness-like and capa­ble, which she was, but pas­sages from her auto­bi­og­ra­phy revealed more. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, Jer­rie had a keen com­pet­i­tive nature:

I had just kept qui­et about the burned-out motor, so that no one would try to stop me. And since I couldn’t main­tain radio con­tact all of the time, I was care­ful to stay clear of clouds, so I wouldn’t run into anoth­er plane. I didn’t know how far back Joan Smith might be, and I didn’t intend to lose a race around the world because of a stu­pid burned out motor.”

But she also was vul­ner­a­ble and sec­ond guessed her­self at times:

I didn’t like to admit it, but I was ner­vous. There must have been an over­cast, because I couldn’t see any stars. There was no moon either. The soft red glow from the instru­ment lights was a soli­tary pool of light in the black night. Out­side, Charlie’s three nav­i­ga­tion lights and bright, flash­ing-red bea­con would be burn­ing in the emp­ty sky. But they weren’t where I could see them. I felt ter­ri­bly alone … I said a prayer. Lots of prayers.”

As I researched, I dis­cov­ered arti­cles authored by Joan Mer­ri­am Smith, too. In those writ­ings, Joan pro­vid­ed her own—sometimes very different—account of the race.  Talk about inter­est­ing! It was appar­ent from all these per­son­al writ­ings that Jer­rie and Joan were two smart, feisty women.

Biog­ra­phers use per­son­al writ­ings to reveal the fla­vor of the times. 

Miss Colfax's LightAs a biog­ra­ph­er, get­ting a sense of the era and my subject’s place in it may be my favorite thing about per­son­al accounts. That cer­tain­ly was the case with Har­ri­et Col­fax, the light­house keep­er I wrote about in Miss Colfax’s Light.

As part of her light­house keep­ing duties, Har­ri­et Col­fax had to keep a dai­ly log. Harriet’s log entries were a trea­sure trove of infor­ma­tion about her life, her work, and the dan­gers of Great Lakes ship­ping in the late 1800’s. They were full of Harriet’s musings—and occa­sion­al com­plaints. I read through decades of Harriet’s log entries, ulti­mate­ly com­ing to the con­clu­sion that the refrain I used in the book of “I can do this,” was some­thing Har­ri­et def­i­nite­ly would have repeat­ed over and over.

In addi­tion to pro­vid­ing great facts, though, Harriet’s log entries show­cased the lan­guage of the day: tra­di­tion­al words and phras­es, and an over­all for­mal­i­ty.  A num­ber of log entries are includ­ed in the book so young read­ers can get a sense of how dif­fer­ent­ly peo­ple spoke in the late 1800’s.

Miss Colfax's Light

Miss Colfax's Light

Per­son­al accounts allow biog­ra­phers to add rich­ness and authen­tic­i­ty to their work. They pro­vide a true sense of a subject’s view of the world. They pro­vide his­tor­i­cal facts and con­text. All of which makes the biographer’s job eas­i­er.

And, let’s face it, per­son­al accounts are just plain fun to read.

They are a lit­tle gift to the his­to­ry nerd in all of us. 

Tips for Stu­dents

How can stu­dents learn to mine the rich ter­ri­to­ry of a first­hand account (and expe­ri­ence the thrill biog­ra­phers get when they are lucky enough to dis­cov­er such a source)? Here are some ques­tions stu­dents and teach­ers can ask that will help them glean more than just the facts:

  1. What was the writer’s pur­pose for writ­ing this per­son­al account? Does this pur­pose make you think the writ­ing is more or less truth­ful?
  2. What his­tor­i­cal facts does the writer include in the per­son­al account? How is the writer’s world dif­fer­ent from today? How is it the same?
  3. What do the lan­guage, gram­mar, and word usage in the per­son­al account tell us about the writer? Was the writer poor, rich, well-edu­cat­ed?  
  4. If the writer is describ­ing an event from his­to­ry, why is the writer’s point of view impor­tant?
  5. What else can you tell about the writer from this per­son­al account?
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Working with an Editor

What’s it like to work with an editor?”is a ques­tion I often get from teach­ers, stu­dents, and aspir­ing authors and it’s one that takes some time to ful­ly answer. In the best sit­u­a­tions, an editor’s rela­tion­ship to her author is like a coach’s rela­tion­ship to an ath­lete: know­ing her author’s per­son­al­i­ty, tal­ent, and poten­tial, she encour­ages her strengths, while tact­ful­ly push­ing her toward improv­ing on her weak­ness­es. When the rela­tion­ship is work­ing well, the writer feels sup­port­ed, yet inde­pen­dent, and the edi­tor trusts that the writer is car­ry­ing out her sug­ges­tions, mov­ing the book toward their com­mon goal of mak­ing it the very best it can pos­si­bly be.  

When I began my writ­ing career in 1989, things were a lot dif­fer­ent in our indus­try. Sub­mis­sions were made through the reg­u­lar mail. I wrote my drafts long-hand on legal pads and then typed them into a huge, mono­chrome-screened com­put­er using MS-DOS. I spoke with edi­tors in per­son and by phone about cur­rent and future projects. Pub­lish­ers did all of the pro­mo­tion for my books (self-pro­mo­tion? author mar­ket­ing? What was that?) and I reviewed and approved every book con­tract myself.

Those times are long gone … and with them, some of the pre-dig­i­tal age advan­tages of real­ly know­ing your edi­tor as an indi­vid­ual (and vice ver­sa) and being able to con­cen­trate almost exclu­sive­ly on writ­ing. But some things about the author-edi­tor expe­ri­ence have not changed at all: edi­tors are still, at least the ones that I have worked with, very ded­i­cat­ed to mak­ing good lit­er­a­ture, extreme­ly hard-work­ing, and serve as an author’s #1 col­lab­o­ra­tor through the pro­duc­tion process.

But they are also indi­vid­u­als. Although their roles at the var­i­ous pub­lish­ing hous­es (acquir­ing man­u­scripts, offer­ing guid­ance to the author as he/she shapes the sto­ry, work­ing with the art direc­tor to choose an illus­tra­tor or cov­er artist, shep­herd­ing the book through the pro­duc­tion process, help­ing to plan mar­ket­ing strate­gies) may be sim­i­lar, their exe­cu­tion of that role can be very dif­fer­ent. Even so, the most impor­tant aspect of a suc­cess­ful author-edi­tor rela­tion­ship is com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Let’s say an edi­tor (we’ll call her Susan) has acquired a pic­ture book biog­ra­phy man­u­script I’ve writ­ten. It’s 75% done—which is to say, it’s a full sto­ry that shows good poten­tial, but it needs some rework­ing and some addi­tion­al back mat­ter mate­r­i­al. Susan will go over the draft sev­er­al times, mark­ing it up and mak­ing sug­ges­tions that she feels will improve the final text. She will send it back to me (email these days) and I will read her com­ments and do my best to address the issues she has high­light­ed. Some of these issues might be large ones (“Can we make the lit­tle broth­er more of an active char­ac­ter in the nar­ra­tive?”) and some are small ones (“I think we can delete this whole line—the art will show this.”)

The man­u­script bounces back and forth between us a few, sev­er­al, many times—depending on how much work it needs. The clar­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ca­tion between edi­tor and author is para­mount: I can­not make the nec­es­sary changes to the sto­ry if I have no idea what the edi­tor is sug­gest­ing. Most edi­tors are very, very good at this; it’s the focus of their train­ing and they take this part seri­ous­ly. Once the man­u­script has been “accept­ed and deliv­ered” (i.e., it’s a final draft that’s ready to go into pro­duc­tion, where it will increas­ing­ly look like a book …), there is usu­al­ly a peri­od where­in there is less com­mu­ni­ca­tion as the text is being illus­trat­ed. Nor­mal­ly, there is lit­tle, if any, com­mu­ni­ca­tion between the author and the illus­tra­tor (a fact that nev­er fails to astound at school vis­its) unless the illus­tra­tor needs help find­ing an orig­i­nal source, pho­to­graph, or has an accu­ra­cy-relat­ed ques­tion.

At this point, a good edi­tor will keep in touch peri­od­i­cal­ly to update an author about his/her book’s progress and to rein­force the rhythm of their rela­tion­ship. Even if it’s just a quick email every few weeks to check in, share any ques­tions from the illus­tra­tor, or just to say “everything’s on track for our pub­li­ca­tion date.” Remem­ber: a good author and a good edi­tor usu­al­ly make an excel­lent book—and like all rela­tion­ships, per­son­al and professional—both part­ners need to invest time and atten­tion to it. If they don’t, then you can bet that author will be more than hap­py to look else­where with her next man­u­script. This is not rock­et sci­ence, obvi­ous­ly, but in my own experience—and espe­cial­ly now that dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion has large­ly dis­placed in-per­son and phone communication—it’s the edi­tor who lets his/her author know that “I have your back”; “I am tak­ing good care of your man­u­script here as we search for just the right artist”; “I’m spend­ing time think­ing about how we can best posi­tion this book for some extra sales”; “I’m in touch with illus­tra­tor John Smith, and all is going real­ly well”; “I saw this new book XYZ and I think we may want to do some­thing sim­i­lar in yours regard­ing side­bars and author’s note”…it’s that kind of edi­tor with whom the author will want to keep work­ing.

Being an edi­tor is a tough job—always has been and always will be. They work long hours, wear many hats, jug­gle more dead­lines and projects than we can imag­ine. Yet all the good ones know that it’s clear and con­sis­tent com­mu­ni­ca­tion that keeps the good authors com­ing back.

Editor reflecting

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The Kindness of Teachers

Miss Rosemary Follett and David LaRochelle

Miss Rose­mary Fol­lett and David LaRochelle

I loved first grade.

Fifty-one years lat­er, I still have vivid mem­o­ries of my teacher, Miss Fol­lett. She played the piano every day. She read to us from her giant book of poet­ry. She showed us pho­tos of her trips to exot­ic places, like Alas­ka and Hawaii.

At Hal­loween we screamed in ter­ror and delight when she hob­bled into our class­room dressed as a witch. At East­er we fol­lowed “bun­ny tracks” through­out the school till they led us to a chest filled with panora­ma sug­ar eggs that Miss Fol­lett had hand­made, one for each of us. On our birth­days we sat at the spe­cial birth­day desk that was dec­o­rat­ed with crêpe paper stream­ers and bal­loons. Miss Fol­lett would light the can­dles on the plas­ter of Paris birth­day cake and the entire class would sing.

Miss Fol­lett was also seri­ous about learn­ing. That was fine with me. One of the rea­sons I want­ed to start first grade was because I des­per­ate­ly want­ed to read. Words were all around me; I want­ed to know their secrets.

Humpty Dumpty

Hump­ty Dump­ty

I also remem­ber Hump­ty Dump­ty, Miss Follett’s form of behav­ior man­age­ment. The Hump­ty Dump­ty cook­ie jar sat on the cor­ner of Miss Follett’s desk. If our class was very, very good, Hump­ty Dump­ty might (mind you, might) be mag­i­cal­ly filled with cook­ies for us. No one ever want­ed to do any­thing that would dis­please Hump­ty.

When I became a children’s author, Miss Fol­lett attend­ed one of my pub­li­ca­tion par­ties. It was a proud moment for both of us. When I auto­graphed her book, I includ­ed doo­dles of my favorite first grade mem­o­ries.

Years passed.

This last spring I came home from run­ning errands to find a large box wait­ing in front of my door. When I removed the lay­ers of bub­ble wrap, I dis­cov­ered Miss Follett’s Hump­ty Dump­ty cook­ie jar inside, along with this note:

Dear David,

Now that I am mov­ing to senior hous­ing and need to down­size,
it’s time for Hump­ty to find a new home. I thought
he might enjoy liv­ing in your stu­dio.

Your First Grade Teacher
Rose­mary Fol­lett

Miss Fol­lett did indeed teach me to read. But she taught me a lot of oth­er things as well. She taught me that adults can be both seri­ous and play­ful. She taught me that art and music and poet­ry make life more beau­ti­ful. She taught me that the world is full of fas­ci­nat­ing places, and that I can go vis­it them. She taught me that you are nev­er too old to use your imag­i­na­tion.

And she taught me that teach­ers nev­er stop car­ing about their stu­dents.

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Art and Words, Words and Art

Jun­gle Tales,” by J.J. Shan­non, 1895

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

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

San­cho, the Hom­ing Steer, by Can­dice Sylvia Far­ris

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

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

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

pre­lim­i­nary sketch­es for Aman­da Pan­da Quits Kinder­garten

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

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

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

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Tiny House, Cozy Cabin

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

But it was time for a change.

Time for more sim­plic­i­ty.

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

Mary Casanova cabin

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

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

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

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

Time to stoke the fire and grab a good book.

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Skinny Dip with Anne Broyles

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

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

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

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

What is your favorite part of start­ing a new project?

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

grilled cheese and tomato soupFavorite lunch as a kid?

Toma­to soup and grilled cheese sand­wich.

Bare­foot or shoes?

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

Why do you feel hope­ful for humankind?

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

Best inven­tion of the last two hun­dred years?

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

Long Way DownBook on your bed­side table right now?

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

Your most cher­ished accom­plish­ment?

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

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On Growing Older … Old

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

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

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

Can you name the num­ber?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From time to time, bits fall off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson

Richard Jack­son

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

Edi­to­r­i­al Career

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

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

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

I’ve nev­er been sub­ject­ed to a job inter­view.

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

Frances Keene and then Susan Hirschman at Macmil­lan.

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

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

What did your authors teach you?

Empa­thy.

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

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

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

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

Con­sid­er­ing the Books You’ve Writ­ten

Have a Look, Says Book

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

Have a Look, Says Book

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

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

In my head, often while dri­ving.

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

A ver­bal child was I. As opposed to ath­let­ic.

What sparked the idea for this book?

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

In Plain Sight

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

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

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

What inspired this uni­ver­sal sto­ry of love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

all ears, all eyes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________________

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

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

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Skinny Dip with Janet Taylor Lisle

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

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

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

The LeopardWhich book do you find your­self rec­om­mend­ing pas­sion­ate­ly?

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

What’s your favorite late-night snack?

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

Most cher­ished child­hood mem­o­ry?

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

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

Illustrator’s work you most admire?

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

Favorite sea­son of the year? Why?

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

Janet Taylor Lisle

Win­ter, Janet’s favorite time of year

What gives you shiv­ers?

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

Morn­ing per­son? Night per­son?

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

Janet Taylor Lisle

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

What’s your hid­den tal­ent?

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

Best tip for liv­ing a con­tent­ed life?

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

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My Work-Study Internship

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

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

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

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

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

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

I held myself to work­ing an eight-hour day.

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

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

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

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

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The Weasel Whisperer

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Life does not stop …

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Interpersonal Relationships!

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Writing on Vacation!!

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Skinny Dip with Pamela S. Turner

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

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

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

Most cher­ished child­hood mem­o­ry? 

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

Sir Richard Francis Burton

Richard Fran­cis Bur­ton by Rischgitz, 1864

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

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

Your favorite can­dy as a kid …

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

Is Plu­to a plan­et?

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

Cotton CandyBest tip for liv­ing a con­tent­ed life?

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

Your hope for the world?

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

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A Bit of Noise

 

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Marsha Wilson Chall and Jill Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WOOF!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Skinny Dip with Mélina Mangal

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

What’s your favorite late-night snack?

My favorite ANYTIME snack is white ched­dar pop­corn.  

Most cher­ished child­hood mem­o­ry?  

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

Illustrator’s work you most admire?

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

Melina Mangal's most admired illustrators

Favorite sea­son of the year? Why?

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

Morn­ing per­son? Night per­son?

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

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

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

Melina Mangal Books

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Bluetooth Guy

 

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Must. Get. Out.

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Eileen Ryan Ewen

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

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

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

Miss Colfax's Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Colfax's Light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WHY ???

 

Lynne Jonell - Why?

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Aimée Bissonette

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Colfax's Light log book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Colfax's Light

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

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

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

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

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Skinny Dip with April Halprin Wayland

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

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

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

Which book do you find your­self rec­om­mend­ing pas­sion­ate­ly?

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

Favorite city to vis­it?

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

Most cher­ished child­hood mem­o­ry?

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

What’s your dream vaca­tion?

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

April Halprin Wayland in the classroom

Best tip for liv­ing a con­tent­ed life?

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

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

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

Monkey-and-Eli-read-poetry-together_600px

Mon­key and Eli read poet­ry togeth­er.

Your hope for the world?

That we will be kind to each oth­er.

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Skinny Dip with Polly Carlson-Voiles

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

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

Jane Goodall.

Which book do you find your­self rec­om­mend­ing pas­sion­ate­ly?

The War That Saved My Life, by Kim­ber­ly Brubak­er Bradley

Most cher­ished child­hood mem­o­ry?

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

Illustrator’s work you most admire?

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

Favorite sea­son of the year? Why?

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

What’s your dream vaca­tion?

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

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

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

Morn­ing per­son? Night per­son?

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

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

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

Best tip for liv­ing a con­tent­ed life?

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

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

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

Your hope for the world?

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

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Skinny Dip with Eric Rohmann

 

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

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

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

Which book do you find your­self rec­om­mend­ing pas­sion­ate­ly?

The Lost CarvingLate­ly, The Lost Carv­ing by David Ester­ly.

What’s your favorite late-night snack?

Pop­corn.

Favorite city to vis­it?

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

Most cher­ished child­hood mem­o­ry?

Trav­el­ing in the Amer­i­can west.

First date?

Some­time in the fog of High School.

Illustrator’s work you most admire?

Like a per­son could name just one!

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

Cof­fee.

Favorite sea­son of the year? Why?

Autumn. Clear, cool, and col­or­ful.

What’s your dream vaca­tion?

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

What gives you shiv­ers?

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

Morn­ing per­son? Night per­son?

Morn­ing.

Paint­ing you could look at again and again.

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

gr_garden_of_earthly_delights

Hierony­mus Bosch, The Gar­den of Earth­ly Delights

What’s your hid­den tal­ent?

I can cook well, a lit­tle.

Milk DudsYour favorite can­dy as a kid …

Milk Duds.

Is Plu­to a plan­et?

Is Bron­tosaurus real­ly just a big Apatosaurus?

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

Haw Par Vil­la in Sin­ga­pore.

Har Paw Villa

Har Paw Vil­la

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

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

Best tip for liv­ing a con­tent­ed life?

Be curi­ous.

Your hope for the world?

Wish­ing for any­thing but peace would just be self­ish.

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Skinny Dip with Bobbi Miller

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

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

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

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

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

Which book do you find your­self rec­om­mend­ing pas­sion­ate­ly?

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

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

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

Favorite city to vis­it?

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

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

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

gr_plutoIs Plu­to a plan­et?

What a tricky good ques­tion!

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

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Skinny Dip with Barbara O’Connor

 

Which book do you find your­self rec­om­mend­ing pas­sion­ate­ly?

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

Favorite sea­son of the year? Why?

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

What gives you shiv­ers?

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

What’s your hid­den tal­ent?

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

Morn­ing per­son? Night per­son?

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

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Skinny Dip with Caroline Starr Rose

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

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

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

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

Which book do you find your­self rec­om­mend­ing pas­sion­ate­ly?

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

Most cher­ished child­hood mem­o­ry?

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

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

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

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

Best tip for liv­ing a con­tent­ed life?

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

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Lisa Bullard: My Not-So-Overnight Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Skinny Dip with Michael Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I’m going with table ten­nis.

What is your favorite line from a book?

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

What keeps you up at night?

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

You should have done this, Michael.”

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

This makes sleep­ing dif­fi­cult.

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

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

Michael, you should not have done that!”

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

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

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

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

 

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Stephanie Greene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Classics, Galdone-Style

by Vic­ki Palmquist

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

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

The Three Little Kittens

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

Little Red Hen

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

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

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

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

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

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The Scraps Book

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life

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

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