Monday, November 23, 2020

Lisa Katzenberger's 'Regular Average Ordinary Day' Worth Celebrating

Chicago-area children's author Lisa Katzenberger is active with SCBWI-Illinois and beyond, and her picture book career is taking off! Lisa's clever and oh-so-engaging National Regular Average Ordinary Day, illustrated by Barbara Bakos, published this past June with Penguin Workshop, her Triceratops Would Not Make a Good Ninja, illustrated by Steph Calvert, from Picture Window Books hit shelves in 2018, and coming February 2021 we'll see It Will Be Ok: A Story of Empathy, Kindness, and Friendship, illustrated by Jaclyn Sinquett, publish with Sourcebooks Explore.

Lisa's National Regular Average Ordinary Day thrills me to no end, as I get such a kick out of celebrating our lesser-known national holidays. Today, for example, is National Cashew Day, National Eat a Cranberry Day, and National Espresso Day. Who knew? (Lisa did!) And while you may think Thursday is Thanksgiving, don't forget it's also National Cake Day. (Move over pumpkin pie!) And after the holiday frenzy of Zoom calls with family, you might really want to celebrate November 30th—National Personal Space Day.

In her adorable picture book, young Peter does not like being bored, so he comes up with a way to have a little fun—by celebrating a different holiday each day. But one day he wakes up to find there isn't any designated holiday, so he's got to make one. After nothing goes right, Peter realizes that even a regular, average, ordinary day can be something worth celebrating. 

QUESTION: Your book is, frankly, GENIUS! I can imagine teachers having great fun with it, and letting kids choose their own holiday to celebrate as well as looking up the obscure ones. Can you talk about how you wrote and imagined your story? Did it come out in dribs and drabs, or did you have an ah-hah moment?

Lisa Katzenberger: I first scribbled down the idea for this book in 2017's Storystorm, where the goal is to come up with one story idea every day of the month. I wrote down "weird national holidays" and just let the idea float around. I didn't even write a first draft until December of that year, and it came out fast! I worked on that revision a lot during December and January, and it went out on submission in February. That was super fast and has never happened since!

Q: How do you hope kids experience the book? And their parents, librarians, and teachers too?

Oh, I hope they have fun. With all that is going on in the world, I'm hoping that books can help readers escape and be silly. After reading National Regular Average Ordinary Day, I hope kids are inspired to use their imagination and get back to basics of plain ole ordinary pretending. I hope they hop into a cardboard box and let it take them anywhere and everywhere! And I hope parents, librarians, and teachers encourage creative, imaginative play no matter what the age of the child. There is also a free activity kit they can download to extend the fun after reading the book.

Q: I am a big fan of April 28th, which is not only National Superhero Day but also National Blueberry Pie Day. What is your favorite national day? 

LK: Oh that is a great date! Who wouldn't love a blueberry pie-eating superhero? I have to say my favorite is National Read a Book Day, on September 6th. I love how educators celebrate this holiday and encourage kids to read, read, read!

Monday, November 16, 2020

Amy Alznauer Inspires with 3 New Picture Book Biographies

We can all agree that 2020 has been A Year. But for Chicago author Amy Alznauer, there have been some fantastic bright spots to celebrate. A Northwestern University lecturer in calculus and number theory, Amy saw not one, not two, but THREE of her picture books publish this year! 

Perfectly suited to her field of expertise, Amy's first title was the picture book biography The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A tale of the genius Ramanujan (Candlewick, April), about a young mathematical genius from India who grows up to reinvent much of modern mathematics. Her Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor: A Life (Enchanted Lion) came next in June, and Flying Paintings: The Zhou Brothers: A Story of Revolution and Art (Candlewick) landed on shelves in September.

Amy is active in SCBWI-Illinois and was a recipient of the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship, partnered with the incredible writing coach Esther Hershenhorn. Her writing has won an Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and a Christopher Award. We're so grateful Amy took a little time to talk about her creative process.

Click here for a chance to win a copy of Amy Alznauer's Flying Paintings!

QUESTION: The Zhou Brothers' story has ties to Chicago, your hometown and mine. Can you talk about how this story came to be? How did you learn about them?

: Every third Friday of the month the Zhou B Center in Bridgeport (right down the street from the Sox stadium) holds an open-house. You can walk through the open studios of the artists who work there and also tour the permanent and rotating gallery spaces. Often there’s someone out front with a chainsaw carving up ice or wood into something beautiful (or at least fascinating). On one of these visits, I sat down in their bar and started thumbing through the Zhou catalogues. I soon came across a statement about the process of collaborative art that floored me.

People think collaboration is about harmony, said one of the brothers (and I’m pulling together a few different statements here). But they’re wrong. It’s like this: you make something beautiful. Someone comes along and destroys it, and you have to find a way to go on together.

I was immediately struck by how this statement captured not only the struggle of making art, but the struggle of loving another person, and even the struggle of loving a nation through turmoil. I imagined a story that would weave together those three strands – the brothers’ relationship to each other, to their country (through the Cultural Revolution which devastated their family) and to their style of collaborative art. 

Q: Your year in books has been tremendous. How did it happen that you had three books hit shelves in 2020? Are there more to come?

: Thank you! Well, it wasn’t supposed to happen quite like that. Two of them got bumped from their original pub dates, which for better or worse landed everything in a short five-month period. There’s actually one other out this year, 1789: Twelve Authors Explore a Year of Rebellion, Revolution, and Change (Candlewick), which makes two books with “revolution” in the title released on September 1!

Right now, I’m doing so many projects surrounding these books – creating short films, working on a book-donation and classroom art initiative, helping to curate an exhibit at Emory University (on Flannery O’Connor and the Black artist Benny Andrews), working on designing a geometric art game, and putting together a huge math + storytelling conference. So I’m struggling to find time for my future projects, but also dying to get to them!

Q: Your books celebrate painting, literature, mathematics and speak to children in a sophisticated way. Who is your ideal audience and how do you want them to experience your stories?

AA: I’ve never stopped loving picture books, and I guess I assume others feel the same way, so I write for both children and adults. To me the best way to make a book function on multiple levels is through metaphor. Metaphor is really the process of bringing disparate things into relationship, so in that way it creates both plot and the working out of ideas (why do these unlikely things go together?). So for example, in Strange Birds, there’s a little girl on a quest to find the strangest, most beautiful bird. But there is also a girl becoming a woman who will strive to write the strangest, most beautiful stories. The quest is for everyone, but older readers might also be inspired to think about how our life’s work grows out of childhood fascinations, how birds are like stories are like people, and maybe even the nature of strangeness. And I think when you write this way, the illustrator often has the chance to infuse their art both with beauty and concept, which again makes it function on different levels.

Recently a mathematician contacted me about The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity, saying that he was inspired by the book to revisit one of Ramanujan’s theorems. And he actually wrote and published a paper that mentions my book as the inspiration. He opens with this: “We loved this book. It turned out that this book can be enjoyed by all ages from 0 to ∞.” Then he closes with what he calls “morals” for his adult, mathematician readers, the first of which is: “Read Children's books.” So that pretty much sums up my wildest hope – that my books will be read by all ages and that they’ll inspire creative work in others. 

Monday, November 9, 2020

Big Rewards in Alice McGinty's Lyrical, Lovable 'Story for Small Bear'

Alice McGinty knows what she's doing. An award-winning author of more than 40 children's books, the longtime Regional Advisor for SCBWI-Illinois, and a writing instructor for teens and adults, Alice has storytelling down pat. And her latest title, A Story for Small Bear (Schwartz & Wade Books, October 2020), about a playful bear cub getting ready for hibernation and leaving just enough time for Mama to share a story, is a perfect example.

Illustrated by Richard Jones (Whale in a Fishbowl), this book is an instant classic. It's one you'll want to give as gifts for birthdays and holidays. And most importantly, it's the one kids will want to read again and again.

 Click here for a chance to win a copy of A Story for Small Bear.

QUESTION: This book is flawless. Can you talk about its journey from idea in your head to copy on the shelf? Did you have it fully formed in your mind? Or did it take years to refine and rework?

ALICE MCGINTY: Small Bear has an interesting backstory, and I’m happy to share. 

The idea for Small Bear actually came from a parenting principle. During the past 10 years or so, I’ve been helping a psychologist use what he’s learned from his decades of experience with adolescents and their parents to write a parenting book called Childproofing for Adolescence. One day, he and I got to talking about how some of the principles in the book might play out as stories for young kids. It was a fun thing to think about! One principle we batted around was what he calls “put the conflict in the kid,” which means that the parent doesn’t have to nag their child if they set things up for the child to be motivated (and able) to complete tasks themselves. That plays out well in bedtime rituals, if stories, which are the motivator, come before a set bedtime (say 8 p.m.). The sooner the child completes their bedtime tasks — like brushing teeth, cleaning up, and getting p.j.s on (tasks they often dilly-dally with) — the more time they have for stories before that 8 p.m. bedtime. Gosh I wish I’d known to do that when my kids were young!

Anyhow, thinking about ways to play with that concept, I came up with the idea of bears and hibernation, since that bed time is set by nature and not the more arbitrary timeframe set by parents. Once I figured that out, the story formed really quickly in my mind, and I couldn’t wait to start writing. That said, (ha – it’s never that easy!) it took another couple of years and many, many revisions to refine the story and get the telling, the language, and pacing just right. I also had to work hard (and my editor helped a lot with this) to not make it too teachy, but just let the story play out. 

Q: You've written wonderful informative nonfiction picture books. How did you decide to change gears and write such a snuggly, dreamy bedtime story?

AM: In the case of Small Bear, the parenting principles were my bridge into the story, so in that sense it’s got more of a nonfiction bent than you might see on the surface. And I actually had to do some research for Small Bear too – to make sure she was eating the right foods, collecting the right types of boughs for her nest, and even to make sure it was possible that she, as a “toddler,” would be in the den preparing with Mama bear for the winter. As a nonfiction author, I couldn’t “bear” the thought that I might get my bear facts wrong, even though the story was fiction!

Related to that, no matter whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I love narrative arc and story. To me it’s always about finding the arc of the story, whether it’s the story in a life through biography or the story in a parenting principle. I guess I love stories as much as Small Bear!

Q: Were there favorite books that influenced your writing as you contemplated A Story for Small Bear? Did you have favorites that came to mind as you created your own?

AM: This is an interesting question! While I didn’t have any particular books in mind as I pondered and wrote, on a deeper, more subconscious level, I think all my writing is influenced by the cannon of literature I’ve read throughout my life. In the case of Small Bear, I think the influences were the books that evoked feelings of playfulness, love, and security because these were the feelings I wanted to evoke in Small Bear’s story.

Some of these books, ones I grew up with and then read to my sons, were Goodnight Moon, for the secure feelings it brings, Curious George and Blueberries for Sal for their playfulness, The Snowy Day for its earnestness, Are You My Mother for its love and sweetness, and Chicken Soup with Rice and anything Dr. Seuss for their word play and poetry.    

I really loved creating a world that rang with these warm, fuzzy feelings. During my many revisions, it was such a great feeling to jump back into the secure, sweet, loving world of Small Bear and Mama Bear. I wish we all could live in that world!  

Monday, November 2, 2020

More Exciting Adventures from Liesl Shurtliff in 'Forbidden Lock'

Chicago children's author Liesl Shurtliff is one of the busiest writers I know in children's lit. When she's not working on a new book, she's speaking to students in classrooms all over the country about the power of storytelling, or she's racing around town with her own bustling brood.

A New York Times bestseller for Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin (Knopf, 2013), which was followed by three more delightful fairytale retellings in Jack, Red, and Grump, Liesl is wrapping up another exciting and engaging middle-grade series. Time Castaways (Katherine Tegen Books) kicked off with The Mona Lisa Key (2018), then featured The Obsidian Compass (2019), and now the third and final The Forbidden Lock (October 2020) has hit shelves. 

See what I mean? That's seven novels in seven years! Who does that?

The Time Castaways series demanded deft writing skills, which Liesl has plenty of, to keep track of time travel, complex mysteries, high adventure, and the distinct personalities of the intrepid trio. The books tell the story of the Hudson kids—Mateo, Ruby, and Corey—who jump on the wrong subway train and wind up on wild escapades throughout time. 

Liesl took a moment out of her own wild escapades to share some of the inspiration behind Time Castaways. Click here to enter for a chance to win a copy of Book 3, The Forbidden Lock.

QUESTION: You take your trio on great adventures through history. What was the most interesting period/moment that you encountered as you wrote the series?

LIESL SHURTLIFF: Eek! There are so many fun and interesting moments to choose from. I went down a thousand rabbit holes of research, it feels like. But really, the one that sticks out the most for me is the Hudson kids' first time-travel adventure, when they land in Paris in the year 1911 on the very day the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. I did not know about this famous art theft until I started writing this series, but once I did, I became a wee bit obsessed with Vincezno Peruggia and his theft of the Mona Lisa. Peruggia kept the painting hidden in a trunk with a false bottom for two years until he was caught trying to sell it to a museum in Italy. (Part of the reason he stole her is because he thought she rightfully belonged to Italy. The other part is he wanted to get rich!) The theft of the Mona Lisa is actually a big part of why the painting is so famous today. She wasn't all that famous before then. 

Q: Time travel is hard! What was the most challenging part of writing the series?

LS: Time travel is SO hard! Aside from keeping track of all the timelines and destinations, I think the hardest part for me was the infinite possibilities and the constant decisions that needed to be made. A lot of people might assume we writers would want infinite possibilities, but the truth is a story needs some constraints in order to have power and flow. My character had the power to travel anywhere, any time, and yet they couldn't actually go everywhere and to all times. That might be a fun adventure for them, but probably boring and/or confusing for the reader. I needed to make some tough decisions about where and when the Hudsons would travel and why. And that was STRESSFUL! How do I choose one destination or time period over another? There's so much I left out! I stressed just writing about it now! 

Q: With Book 3, The Forbidden Lock, things start to come unhinged as historical figures return to life as well as dinosaurs. These scenes must have been fun to write. What were some of the things that made you laugh as you worked on the book? What scenes would have appealed to 11-year-old you?

LS: I think I'm still an 11-year-old at heart! So much made me giggle while writing this. There are some pretty great high-speed chase scenes through time and space right in the beginning that I think will really keep readers on the edge of their seats. There's also a great scene where time periods start to clash, and we see things come together that really do not go together, like dinosaurs in Central Park, and Napoleon Bonaparte taking over the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's all a bit mad-cap, and I think that definitely would have appealed to 11-year-old me. Quirky, bizarre stuff always delights and makes me giggle, but it's all blended with a heaping of heart and emotional depth. I like that stuff too. I think these books really showcase both sides. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Carol Coven Grannick Takes the Spotlight with 'Reeni's Turn'

Carol Coven Grannick has been an encouraging, uplifting force for other authors in the Chicago children's writing community, so the publication of her debut novel Reeni's Turn (Fitzroy Books, September 2020) is an exciting moment for cheering on one of our best cheerleaders. Aside from contributing a column for Illinois children's book creators via SCBWI's Prairie Wind, Carol’s poetry and short fiction appear in Cricket, Ladybug, Babybug, Highlights, and Hello, and her poetry and essays for adults appear in a number of venues.  

In Reeni's Turn, Carol writes about preteen Reeni and the tumultuous world of middle school, complete with roiling social waters and pernicious body-image issues. Reeni commits to dancing a solo for her retiring ballet teacher, but a lifelong fear of performing holds her back. Peers encourage Reeni to try dieting, but that only leads to disaster. Losing a best friend, as well as her focus on school work and dance, Reeni has to make some big decisions about who she's going to be.

Carol generously took some time to talk about what inspired her middle-grade novel. Enter here for a chance to win a copy of Carol Coven Grannick's Reeni's Turn!

QUESTION: Can you talk about your creative process? Why did you decide to write Reeni's Turn in verse?

CAROL COVEN GRANNICK: My creative process generally involves, initially, dreaming and mulling, none of it deliberate or forced, but rather quite intentional and organic. I may jot down ideas or short poems quickly, but before my first drafts of stories comes this dreamy time. I always think of my print of a painting hanging in Dickens’ office in London called “Dickens’ Dream.”

During that time, whether it’s weeks, months, or in the case of Reeni's Turn, years, I will probably be working on other pieces, as well, whether that’s poetry, an article or blog post, or a different picture book. But the other process continues, as I’m certain it does for many who work in the arts and sciences.

The next stage I can’t seem to change, and I’ve come to pretty much accept it: no matter how much I may wish to plan—even my blog posts—I seem to need to discover what I really want to say in a piece through the writing itself. Only poetry tends to capture a meaning-laden image or thought more immediately.

In terms of Reeni's Turn becoming a verse novel, I’ll try to condense the many turns in the journey. I began my career as a children’s writer in 1999 when I wrote what would become the “seed” story for Reeni's Turn. By the time I wrote a first draft in prose in 2008 I’d written another novel and many picture book manuscripts. But Reeni was always on my mind. It was how Reeni was “always on my mind” that determined its ultimate life as a verse novel. After my then-critique partners read a first draft in prose and encouraged me to continue, the second draft danced around in my brain in free verse. It felt right. It felt like it mirrored the rhythms of music and dance, ballet in particular.

Over the years and many revisions, multiple critiques from colleagues and two professionals, I rewrote it in prose at the request of a first critique with a professional editor, but it was a struggle. I don’t mind “struggle.” But this struggle was my hands trying to write in prose (I did finish a draft) vs. the rhythmic, lyrical language swirling in my brain.

“Dickens’ Dream.”
My second professional critique, with another author I respected, got this response first: “Is there a reason you didn’t write this in verse?” So the summary is: at a certain point, learned to trust myself that this needed to be in verse, but also that I needed to make certain the poetry was honest. There are certain sections of dialogue, including Reeni’s “Huge, Loud Voice” that feel more like prose, deliberately calling attention in a different way.

I suppose I also knew on some level that this touchy issue of body image, fat bias, and the diet culture’s negative impact on young children could be well-handled with less narrative, a lyrical touch, and plenty of restful white space—was, in fact, better handled  his way. And while I consider myself a poet first, I wouldn’t automatically write everything in verse unless the story and voice would benefit from that form.

Q: Where did the spark for the character of Reeni come from? 

CCG: I trace the true roots of Reeni's Turn to my childhood, when I learned incorrectly that my value seemed to depend on the size and shape of my body. But the seed for Reeni's Turn began with “The Inside Ballerina,” my first children’s story which I mentioned above, published in Cricket in 2001. By that time I had long since found peace and respect for my body and was working to help others find comfort with eating, their bodies, and themselves as a clinical social worker. I felt the issue was (and still is) underrepresented in middle-grade lit, particularly for fourth- and fifth-grade readers. This age group experiences an extremely high incidence of diet experimentation which always causes disordered eating, and plants seeds for possible development of adolescent eating disorders.

Q: You take on big topics like body image and dieting and the signals society sends to children about appearance. How do you want young readers to experience the book and the message?

CCG: I would love readers to be engaged and also comforted by the verse, which offers “snapshots” of Reeni’s journey. And I hope they’ll be thoughtfully provoked by the multiple thematic issues—the reality of what dieting does to body, mind, and spirit; the presence of weight bias in our culture and literature; the value of using or developing “inner” strengths of self-awareness and self-reflection to encourage growth and change—in Reeni's Turn, I celebrate the introverted child’s strengths as a model for all children; and the discovery that we are far better off when we face our obstacles directly and with the courage to tell ourselves the truth about who we are, and who we want to become.

In summary, I’d say there are all kinds of meaningful conversations that Reeni's Turn can begin, from body, to the pull between many sets of emotions (fear and longing, love and loss, confidence and self-loathing, and more), to the feeling of separating a little bit—not too much!—from loving parents and siblings, to the reality that persistence and emotional resilience does not come easily for everyone. The journey to become who we want to be without giving up who we are can be hard!

Thank you so much for this opportunity to share my experience with, and the issues in Reeni's Turn, Kate. I look forward to conversations with readers, their guiding adults, and writers who want to include more body positive, weight neutral issues into their work.

Monday, October 19, 2020

'How to Find a Bird' Proves the Perfect Pandemic Book for Kids

Who knew how much joy birds could bring? Hummingbirds flitting around my back garden were a daily highlight this summer. Oriole-spotting seemed to be the pandemic favorite for those of us who weren't baking sourdough bread. A friend in Austin can't get enough of the owl that's come to roost in her back yard.

Birds are everywhere, Jennifer Ward tells readers in the delightful How to Find a Bird (Beach Lane Books, August 2020). We just have to watch for them, listen, and stay quiet. Spectacularly illustrated by Diana Sudyka, the nonfiction picture book by this Illinois duo is possibly the perfect title to share with a child right now in our socially distanced world.  

Drawing inspiration from the outdoors and combining nature with STEM learning, Jennifer has published more than 25 nonfiction books (Mama Built a Little Nest, Mama Dug a Little Den, both from Beach Lane Books). And Chicago artist Diana is no slack: her stunning illustration style can be found in such titles as The Mysterious Benedict Society and What Miss Mitchell Saw. And visitors to the beloved bookstore Booked in Evanston, Illinois, will recognize her artwork adorning the charming door that welcomes bookbuyers both short and tall.

These wildly talented creators recently took a few minutes to talk about their book with me, and what inspired them. AuthorOf is especially excited (and grateful!) to be able to share the perspective of the author and the illustrator. For a chance to win a copy of How to Find a Bird, click here.

QUESTION: This book is so informative. How much time researching did you have to take to get down all the details? Can you talk about resources and your process?

JENNIFER WARD: Well, I’m such a bird nerd, truly. Each day of my life is immersed in birds. When I take a break from author-related work, I study bird behavior and read scientific bird publications, such as Living Bird published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I also volunteer at a wild songbird rehabilitation center in St. Louis. Each and every bird rescue is unique and presents opportunities to learn more about bird life. 

In my free time I garden for birds, photograph birds, and I go birding each day in some manner. THAT said, the text for How to Find a Bird came naturally—that’s not to say I didn’t do research for the book: Is the Ivory Billed Woodpecker truly extinct? Searches are still underway, but no success in spotting one so far. However, when I need facts checked, I often reach out to the great folks at Audubon, in addition to experts in the field of birding I’ve gotten to know over the years. Birders are like kidlit people—kind, passionate about their work, and eager to share that passion with others. As far as my process goes, I write at my kitchen table where I have a 180-degree view of old growth forest outside my windows. Needless to say, it’s remarkable I get any writing done at all because I will drop everything and head outside when I see something that piques my curiosity through those panes of glass.  

DIANA SUDYKA: The short answer is that I have been researching for this my entire life! 

The much longer answer: Since a very young age, I have been interested in natural history. I spent a lot of time outside as a kid, and was gifted my first bird field guide in second grade. I still have that Peterson guide with all on my notes scribbled in it. Many years later I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to volunteer in the Chicago Field Museum’s Bird lab, and work alongside the collection’s manager Dr. David Willard. David trained me and other volunteers to document and preserve salvaged birds (70,000 and counting) that had collided with windows of downtown Chicago buildings. My specific job was to use a form of taxidermy to preserve the bird’s shape and plumage for creating research specimens. It is something that required skills that I had developed as an artist. In my 10+ years there, I learned so much about our native species of migratory birds, and the impact urban landscapes and climate change are having on them. I had incredible access to these research collections, and would often paint from the specimens. I have held extinct species like Passenger Pigeons and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in my hand; not something I take lightly. 

Everything that I put into the choices I made for the illustrations for How to Find a Bird can be all traced back to those 10+ years in the bird lab. It opened my eyes to the incredible diversity and beauty of the birds that come through our Chicago area, and thus why my illustrations focus on North American species. Jen’s writing was so wonderfully clear that it wasn’t difficult to come up with particular species to match her words. I developed the roughs and when they were shared with Jen, I think she only had one or two requests for added species. 

As far as overall aesthetic, I love early Richard Scarry and Feodor Rojankovsky illustrations from the Golden Book era. I wanted my work for How to Find a Bird to reflect some of that influence. I work mainly in gouache paint on paper, as those illustrators did. While most of my work is done traditionally, I also do quite a bit of digital touch up in the final stages. How to Find a Bird is probably my most digital work to date. 

Q: We all have a favorite, spirit-animal bird. Which one is yours?

JW: Although I had a very cool, spiritual encounter with a Pueo once (Hawaiian Short-eared Owl), the hummingbird is my favorite spirit-animal bird as it's the one bird species that surfaces in my dreams a lot.

DS: I have many favorites, and oddly several are NOT in the book, whoops!

Sandhill Cranes
Brown Creepers
Chimney Swifts
Common Nighthawks

AuthorOf enjoying her favorite door,
at Booked in Evanston and painted by Diana

Q: How do you want kids to experience the book?

JW: I love to imagine young readers poring over each and every detail of Diana's  stunning art—again and again and again—maybe noticing a detail not noticed before or relishing a favorite illustration or bird species; it’s so great how Diana labeled each bird species she illustrated in the book! I hope kids are familiar with some of them and inspired to learn more about others. I like to imagine the kids imagining themselves as the children in the book having adventures with birds. 

I hope the experience with this book will also encourage readers to engage mindfully and playfully with their senses when out in nature, noticing and hearing things new to them, especially related to birds. It’s a big, wide bird-world out there (close to 10,000 bird species on the planet), and birding can be both a classroom and a playground for kids, rich with opportunities to wonder, discover, hypothesize and practice awareness, empathy and stewardship. 

DS: I want kids to come away from the book understanding that birds are everywhere, and even the most undervalued, common species have much to offer. It’s why my first illustration spread in the book is of an urban setting showcasing two species of birds so many dislike: pigeons and House sparrows. Observing these most common of birds can lead to other questions and observations by kids: Why are there so many house sparrows and pigeons, or European starlings? What is the difference between a native species and something that was introduced? If they were introduced, who brought them here? Why? What is beautiful about them? Etc. 

Also, I want kids to know that you don’t have to live in a rural area or a forest to see and appreciate birds. You don’t have to travel thousands of miles away to see an extraordinary species of bird, and that there is incredible diversity right here in our cities and backyards. For example, Chicago is along a major migratory flyway: Lake Michigan. We get thousands of birds migrating through our area every fall and spring. I want kids to learn that nature is not other, or far over there. It is home to us and so many other species. So, let’s start at home, connecting to the nature that is here that we may grow to value and protect it. 

Monday, October 12, 2020

Rebecca Siegel Explores Space Race in 'To Fly Among the Stars'

Chicago-area author Rebecca Siegel takes a hard look at the space race in her non-fiction middle-grade To Fly Among the Stars (Scholastic Focus, March 2020). In fascinating detail, she contrasts the experiences of the all-male Mercury 7—the seven superstar test pilots of NASA's astronaut class—with those of the 13 female candidates who were accomplished air racers, test pilots, and flight instructors. While the women were put through the same astronaut tests as the men, their journey was conducted in secret, as they hoped to defy the norms of the day and and earn a their place flying among the stars.

For fans of nonfiction, this is a gripping read full of infuriating injustice, entrenched sexism, and an eye-opening look at both American history and women's history. Rebecca was nice enough to make time for a quick interview.

Enter here for a chance to win Rebecca Siegel's To Fly Among the Stars!

QUESTION: You flew in a single-engine plane in order to get a sense of what the pilots you were writing about went through. Can you talk about your creative process and what it was like to research and write To Fly Among the Stars?

REBECCA SIEGEL: My creative process is a little like a wild rollercoaster ride. Or, given the subject matter, it might be more appropriate to say it’s like an hour spent in the cockpit of an aerobatic biplane. There are highs, lows, and plenty of moments when I wonder if I’ll vomit. 

I’m an obsessive researcher-outliner. To craft my epic outlines, I read every book, memoir and website. I watch every video and documentary. I listen to every podcast and interview. I try to totally immerse myself in the world I’m writing about—to become not just an expert but an inhabitant—and it’s mostly pretty fun. I get such pleasure out of putting together stories like this, brick by brick, fact by fact. But I also tend to lose myself checking facts, then checking my fact checks, then checking my—oh god I’m going to throw up. 

To yank myself up and out of these information spirals and reconnect with the story I’m trying to tell, I’ve learned that I have to physically connect with my subject matter. For some books, that’s walking through a historic site, smelling the grass and listening to the leaves rustle in the wind. For others, it’s climbing into a cramped cockpit and practicing losing power at 3,000 feet. 

Finally, when I’ve armed myself with all the information I can possibly process, I let myself loose on the page. It’s awesome. 

Q: What made you want to tell this story? And did you consider writing it as fiction—either for middle-grade readers or young adult? Or even for the adult market?

RS: From the moment I stumbled upon this story, I knew it was going to be a middle-grade book. It just had everything I wanted in a MG story: youthful protagonists pursuing audacious dreams, adventure, danger, science, and so. many. fast. cars. It was *kisses hand in theatrical chef’s kiss motion* perfect.

I never considered making this book fiction because, frankly, the truth was spectacular enough on its own. I think I’d worry that taking liberties with this story might devalue the actual history. For example, if I decided that Jerrie Cobb got to train in a jet with John Glenn in the fictionalized version of this story, that detail might undermine the fact that in her real life, she flew in a Navy trainer as part of her Pensacola astronaut fitness tests. 

Q: How do you hope young readers experience your book? What do you hope they take away from it?

RS: You know that delicious feeling you get when someone hints that you won’t be able to do something, and then you go and do it on your own anyway? And you get that glowing warmth in the pit of your belly that comes from exceeding everyone’s expectations? You’re a tiny bit annoyed with them but mostly just really, really proud of yourself. And then you start thinking about the other things that you’ve been discouraged from trying, and you start wondering if maybe you could do those things, too? 

THAT’S the feeling I hope kids get from the book.