Monday, March 26, 2018

Stepping Up to the Plate With Heather Lang's 'Anybody's Game'

In celebrating Women's History Month, we've heard about bold women who changed society through their ground-breaking actions, from astronaut Mae Jemison to marathoner Bobbi Gibb to "dangerous" activist Jane Addams. Through the #31Women31Books campaign, we have stacks and stacks of picture book biographies ready to introduce us to even more historical figures who upended traditional roles and set women on entirely new and exciting courses.

One of those figures is Kathryn Johnston, who broke barriers for young baseball fans in the 1950s. In Heather Lang's exciting Anybody's Game: The Story of the First Girl to Play Little League Baseball (Albert Whitman & Company, March 2018), illustrated by Cecilia Puglesi, we see how this dynamic girl changed Little League forever.

Heather is no stranger to topics like this, offering up an impressive list of titles spotlighting barrier-busting women: Swimming with Sharks: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine, The Original Cowgirl: The Wild Adventures of Lucille Mulhall, and Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion. She took a few minutes to talk to us about her fascinating books.

Question: Who is Kathryn Johnston, and how did you learn about her?

Heather Lang: Kathryn Johnston was the first girl to play Little League Baseball. Back in 1950 girls weren’t welcome on Little League teams. Kathryn loved baseball more than anything and wanted desperately to play on a real team. So she cut off her braids and tried out as a boy!

As a child, I adored baseball. I didn’t go anywhere without my mitt and played catch constantly with my father and brother. I played on a travel softball team in fifth grade, and I continued to play throughout middle school and high school.

When my kids began playing Little League, those special memories came flooding back. I decided to see if there was a story there. When I read about Kathryn’s struggle to play, I tried to imagine what my childhood would have been like without baseball and softball, and that was the spark for Anybody's Game.

Q: What is your creative process like? How do you find ideas, and how do you take them from spark in your mind to bookshelf?

HL: Sometimes I go looking for ideas, and sometimes they find me. When I go looking for a person to write about, I usually start with a subject that interests me. One day I made a list of my top five fears, and two picture book biographies came from that exercise: Swimming With Sharks and Fearless Flyer. Exploring and researching personal fears (like sharks and flying) is challenging, but so rewarding!

I read widely to identify the right person to write about, but I always have a gut feeling when I’ve found them. Next the treasure hunt begins, and I dig into the research. No two research experiences are alike. One of the things that surprised me most is how generous experts are with their time and knowledge. And I try to do experiential research for every book, which can be a little scary sometimes. I have been paragliding, scuba diving, and horseback riding all in the name of research! My favorite research moments by far are meeting with the women I am writing about. I was so fortunate to spend time with Alice Coachman, Eugenie Clark, and Kathryn Johnston.

I don’t start writing a first draft until I have done a lot of research, thinking, and free writing about the book. What is the story going to be about? How am I going to enter this story? What’s my angle? Is it going to be focused on an event or cover a larger time period? What are the themes? What narrative style suits the story? Will I incorporate quotes? What’s the narrative arc? There are so many choices, false starts, twists, and turns. I am fortunate to be in an awesome critique group who supports me every step of the way.

Q: Your stories spotlight remarkable women from history who many people might never have heard of.  What are you trying to accomplish with your books?

HL: I always try to create a book that will teach and inspire kids. There are so many lesser-known women from history who have accomplished extraordinary things. I hope kids will see how these brave women from the past made things better for us today. Nothing makes me happier than when kids want to dig deeper into a topic or person. And I hope my books will inspire kids to follow their own dreams and persevere through challenges.

Q: Who has been the most fascinating woman you’ve written about?

HL: Yikes that’s a tough one. If I had to choose, I’d say Eugenie Clark, who was the first scientist to dive in and study sharks in their natural environment. I was amazed at her courage and the depth of her knowledge and passion. I got lost in the research. I read dozens of her scientific publications, even though I knew I didn’t need to for the book, and I have become a huge shark fan. I began the project with an intense fear of sharks and could never have anticipated that journey from fear to passion—all inspired by Eugenie Clark.

Q: Who’s next?

HL: My next picture book biography is about tree canopy biologist Margaret Lowman, and it is near and dear to my heart for so many reasons. Meg was one of the first scientists to really climb up into the canopy and explore its enormous biodiversity. She has done such important work to protect our trees, and she works tirelessly to mentor girls and women interested in the field. Last summer I spent an incredible week with Meg in the Amazon!

She is a phenomenal person and scientist.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Cynthia Grady on a Librarian for Japanese Internment Children

On this date in American history—on February 19, 1942—President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forced relocation and incarceration of more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry into camps located in the the western interior of the United States. Specifically targeting Japanese residents living along the Pacific coast, an estimated 60 percent of those rounded up and imprisoned were American citizens. 

History is fascinating but also useful. Crucial. Essential. If we don't know it and learn from it, we truly are doomed to repeat it. 

That's why stories like Cynthia Grady's Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind (January 2018, Charlesbridge) is such an important book. Illustrated by Amiko Hirao, it tells the moving story of Clara Breed, a librarian in San Diego who corresponded with her young Japanese American library patrons during World War II when these children were locked up in internment camps. 
It's a a hard story for kids to understand, but it's useful, crucial, essential for them to know. And to realize that even in the United States, a shining beacon to the world of the principles of tolerance and freedom, that an entire population could be so cruelly treated and see their individual rights as American citizens so heartlessly and systematically trampled.

Author Grady (Like a Bird: The Art of the American Slave Song, I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery) pulled powerful direct quotes from the children's letters, which are archived at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. I reached out to her to find out more about her creative process in bringing Miss Breed's story and those of her young friends to a new generation of readers.

Question: How did you come across this story? 

Cynthia Grady: I first learned of Clara Breed's story in about 2002. I had read a review of a documentary that had been put together by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. The film featured her work on behalf of Japanese Americans during World War II and long afterward, and the children she knew and corresponded with during the war.

I had been a librarian for about three years by then, and I was learning quickly how many librarians, past and present, have worked for social change. I wanted to be that kind of librarian. I wanted to know more about Clara Breed, but I couldn't find anything published—I did find articles written by her and a book she had written, and I learned more about her life by digging into some pretty old documents, but nothing that satisfied my curiosity about her. So, I decided to try to write a book about her myself.

Q: Everyone has a different way of going about gathering information. What was your creative process like?

CG: I began my research with secondary sources—reading all kinds of books about the war against Japan. Then I read published memoirs and poetry written by those Japanese Americans who lived in the prison camps. I visited museums and attended historical society lectures. I read government reports and I listened to congressional hearings that took place decades later.

Finally, I read the letters that the children wrote to Clara Breed. More than 250 letters are held at the Japanese American National Museum. While I knew I wanted Write to Me to be a picture book, I was mistaken, at first, to think I should only use the letters from the youngest children. The teens and young adults detailed the experience of their confinement in a way that the younger children weren't able to, and I'd wanted the letters the children wrote to tell their story as much as possible.

Q: This book is deeply researched, which takes so much time. Did you have some hiccups along the way?

CG: Unfortunately, at that time (about 2006 by now), the letters had not been digitized, so any further research would require me to return to LA. I was living and working in Washington, D.C., at the time, so that wasn't going to happen any time soon.

Like so many stories you hear, this book had a long road to publication. I began sending it out in 2006 and it was promptly returned with kind notes of "this is too slight" or "It feels more like a magazine article than a book." That sort of thing. One publisher asked me to expand it in very specific ways, which I appreciated. I worked on it for another year and resubmitted it. That editor kept it for a year and a half, but finally decided against it, another year later.

In the meantime, I re-worked it as a picture book biography in poems. I'm more comfortable with poetry than anything else, so I decided to play to my strengths. But I heard more of the same from still more publishing houses: "This should be a verse novel rather than a picture book of poems..." "The writing is lovely, but . . . ."

I'd all but given up on the Clara Breed manuscript, and I had expressed my exasperation about the whole thing at a writing retreat in 2014. An editor eating lunch at the same table overheard my conversation and asked me to send the manuscript to her. She had me cut, cut, cut the manuscript so it was back to nearly what I had written in the first place! Then over the following two years, we reworked it, especially the back matter.

Q: Writing teaches us many things as we see a project through. What did you learn along the way?

CG: I discovered through this whole process that I love doing back matter! Writing nonfiction still terrifies me, but I might try it again because I loved writing the end-notes so much.

Each project I've taken on comes together differently, so it's hard to comment on my creative process. I do have regular (almost daily) writing sessions that always begin with poetry, and then afterwards, I dig in to my current project. When the creative juices stop flowing, I usually need to stop, go for a long walk, and begin work on a new quilt, so my writing output is slow going, and my quilting progress even slower.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Mother Jones and Workers' Rights in Monica Kulling's 'On Our Way'

There aren't too many authors who get to share billing with literary heavyweights like Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. But versatile and prolific children's author Monica Kulling has done just that, and more. With her Stepping Stones series for Random House, as well as the Great Ideas series with Tundra Books, Monica writes with an eye toward making the complicated more accessible and the adventures real.

Her latest great adventure looks at Mother Jones and her famous march to emancipate children from hard labor. Titled On Our Way to Oyster Bay: Mother Jones and Her March for Children's Rights and illustrated by Felicita Sala, it is a lively look at an inspirational heroine and champion of the working class. It is sure to prompt great discussions around the kitchen table or in the classroom.

Question: What made you want to write about Mother Jones?

Monica Kulling: An astute editor at Kids Can Press came to me with the project. I’m not often asked to put words to someone else’s idea, but when I am, I always find it a fun challenge. The editor thought a book about Mother Jones, specifically her march against child labor in 1903, would fit the publishing house’s Citizen Kid series. As it states on the website:

“The collection aims to make complex global issues accessible for children ages 8 to 12.”

My book illustrates the complex issue of child labor both in the story and in the further discussion in the book’s back pages.

Q: You've clearly been bitten by the research bug. What makes you want to write non-fiction for children?

MK: Research is definitely the fun part. I think I write non-fiction for children so I can learn new and interesting things. It certainly is a beneficial side product. I didn’t know a thing about Mother Jones before beginning the project and now here I am … almost an expert!

As a subject for biography, Mother Jones was a good find. She was a courageous woman who triumphantly rose from the ashes of several disastrous events: the Irish potato famine, the yellow fever epidemic in 1867, and the Chicago fire in 1871. After teaching in Michigan and Tennessee, Mary married George Jones in 1861.

Mr. Jones was an ironworker and union supporter. When the yellow fever epidemic struck in 1867, Mary lost her husband and all four of her children, all under age five.

One has to imagine the torment she must have endured because there isn’t much written about this event, even in her autobiography.

Mary returned to Chicago and opened a dressmaking business. Once more, disaster struck, in the form of fire. Mary lost her home and business to the Chicago fire of 1871. She sought community and comfort in the Knights of Labor, and soon emerged as a labor organizer, fighting tirelessly for better working conditions and more humane wages for coal miners and railroad workers. Her caring manner inspired the coal miners to call her “Mother.”

Mother Jones was only 5-foot tall but what a firecracker! I hope kids will find her an inspiration, as the coal miners did, and as my two fictional characters, Aidan and Gussie, certainly do.

Q: Can you describe your creative process — sometimes it's challenging to make history feel relevant for young readers. How do you decide when to bring in fictional characters to your narrative?

MK: I guess the simplest answer is imagination. I try to imagine what it would have been like to be a particular person living under certain constraints with a personality entirely different from my own. It’s a bit like acting, I guess, since the character must come alive for me as I write or I won’t get the words right. If the person comes alive in my imagination then I can, hopefully, translate that to the page.

As for bringing in fictional characters, I don’t always do that. In my Great Idea series, stories of inventors and their a-ha moments, I stick to the facts, with dollops of imagined dialogue to keep interest high. In the case of On Our Way To Oyster Bay! I introduced the two children, at the suggestion of the editor. That’s why I like working with editors so much. They often hold the key to unlocking the kid friendly in a history.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your book?

MK: I’d be gratified if young readers took away similar thoughts and feelings to those I take away when I read biography or historical fiction — that is, to see the world through eyes other than your own and to come to a deeper understanding of the people who live in it. I’m often amazed by how much we are like people who lived hundreds of years ago even though we have amazing technological and scientific developments at our disposal; we are, at base, similar in the hopes, fears and desires we have.

Q: What are you working on next?

MK: I have so many people, places, and events that I’d like to explore, my head is fairly spinning! That said, lately I’ve been researching the Dust Bowl migration with the idea of writing the story of one family’s struggle as they migrate from Oklahoma to the greener fields of California. I’m particularly interested in how the 10 long years of dust, drought, and despair affected the children in the family.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Tricia Springstubb on Empathy, Issues With 'Every Single Second'

Tricia Springstubb loves to celebrate the start of summer, as she has done with her award-winning middle-grade books. A former Head Start teacher and a children's librarian, Tricia is tuned into how excited students get for that final bell to ring, launching them into three marvelous months away from school. So it seems fitting to kick off summer vacation by getting to know a bit more about this lovely and talented writer. 

Tricia’s titles include What Happened on Fox Street, its sequel, Mo Wren Lost and Found, and Moonpenny Island (all with Balzer and Bray), which Kirkus gave a starred review and called “so fresh and honest it will resonate widely.” The second book in her new chapter book series published in April, titled Cody and the Mysteries of the Universe. It follows Book 1, Cody and the Fountain of Happiness (Candlewick Press, 2015), and both are illustrated beautifully by the hugely talented Eliza Wheeler.

As if that list isn’t enough to make you breathless, there’s more. Tricia has a new middle-grade novel that hit shelves just a week ago titled Every Single Second (Balzer and Bray). And already it’s a Junior Library Guild selection and is earning starred reviews.

Book Giveaway! Winner chosen from comments below!

Question: Every Single Second takes on big issues for young readers. What made you decide to write this book? Can you talk about the “a-ha” moment when you first got the idea for it? 

Tricia Springstubb: I’ve always loved Jane Yolen’s analogy of how a story hatches. The baby bird working its way out of the quiet, secret egg, the Mama hovering and waiting: when the outside world and our own deepest feelings meet, the best stories are born.

Every Single Second began when a woman from our community, whose family we know a little, became an object of on-line ridicule and scorn. The details aren’t important. What struck me and haunted me is how easily we can judge others, even when we know only the most superficial things about them. I wanted to write a book that showed how stories begin long before the first page, and go on long after the last one, and how we’re all connected, often in ways we can’t begin to guess.

Q: Nella and Angela come from a very distinct community. Were you raised in the same kind of community? What are some of your inspirations for the characters and setting? 

TS: The way Nella and Angela, once best buds, gradually grow apart—I think at some point everyone experiences the wistfulness, sadness and guilt of a friendship like that. That part comes from my own life.

Their neighborhood is inspired by Cleveland’s Little Italy, a short walk from my house. It clings to the side of a hill, suspended between two other, very different neighborhoods. Who could resist a metaphor like that? I go to Little Italy for wonderful food, including heavenly donuts and cannoli, to admire the gardens, and for the annual Feast. I’m drawn to intimate settings—see Moonpenny Island and What Happened on Fox Street. The coziness and support of small communities has deep appeal, but the wide world beckons, and sometimes threatens. That tension is in all my books, and in Every Single Second it explodes.

Beautiful Lakeview Cemetery, where I love to take walks, inspired the story’s graveyard. There’s a certain statue/monument whose eyes always seem to follow me, and he became my Jeptha Stone. There’s also a statue of a girl reaching for the stars…

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Every Single Second?

TS: I always hope my stories keep readers turning the pages, their hearts thumping. Helping readers to see the world through others’ eyes—that’s an important goal, too. With Every Single Second, more than other books, I also hope that kids will ask some big questions about their own lives. How do we form our opinions and beliefs? What’s the true definition of goodness? Are we ruled by fate or do we have choices? How do our pasts affect who we are and how we act? How do we find the courage to stand up, instead of stand by? Nella is always asking questions, while worrying that they’re the wrong ones. I hope that, as readers see her find her way, they’ll believe they can do the same.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your books and writing? 

TS: One of my forever-favorite quotes comes from E.B. White. “All I hope to say in books, all I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” Love, empathy, wonder, hope! May they root and bloom.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Art Museum Intrigue in Bridgette Alexander's 'Souther Gothic'

Art museums and heists have been the subject of wonderful children's books from From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler all the way to Chasing Vermeer. Chicago middle-grade and young adult author Bridgette R. Alexander offers her twist on the tales with her debut novel Southern Gothic: A Celine Caldwell Mystery, (Paris 1865 Press, March 2016). As a modern art historian, Bridgette brings a deep knowledge of the field, having worked with some of the world’s finest museums in New York, Paris, Berlin and Chicago, and having developed art education programs, curated exhibits, as well as taught and published in art history.

With Southern Gothic, two mysterious paintings have disappeared from an upcoming exhibition at the esteemed Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. And Celine's mother, the imperious curator Julia Caldwell, is a prime suspect. Celine believes her mother is innocent and, despite their strained relationship, vows to find the paintings and keep her mother out of jail. Sixteen-year-old Celine is a delightful character, whose voice Kirkus describes as "conversational and snappy, making for a quick, sparkling read, and the details about art history throughout add an extra dimension of interest."

Question: What was your path to publication like? Not everyone follows the traditional route. Tell us about yours. 

Bridgette Alexander: Well, initially I took the traditional path of approaching agents, attending conferences to meet agents and editors, and even had a friend who works as a sales rep of a major publishing house to pass my manuscript along to editors she knew. However, after 45 rejection letters stating mostly that they couldn’t connect with the protagonist, Celine Caldwell, as a privileged bi-racial teenage girl – not one who’s living and struggling in a ghetto, and dealing with other social issues – I changed my strategy. I decided, to form my own publishing house, Paris 1865 Press, and produce the first book, Southern Gothic: A Celine Caldwell Mystery.

I would not recommend this path to every author. If I didn’t like the publishing business so much – the art-work, the promotion and marketing, the development, and the financing – I would have succumbed to challenges and given up. But I love that part of it. It’s fun! I have a background of working in the financial industry – futures and commodities; and in high-end retail and merchandising.

Q: Will you share your creative process? Who is Celine and where did she come from? Did she develop fully formed in your mind? Or did you labor over her character for years? Is she you, someone you know? 

BA: Celine Caldwell, her friends and the world she occupies are drawn largely from a world that I am familiar with – New York, and in particular the art world. I am fascinated by the art world for its alchemy of beauty and money, the sacred and the profane of humanity. The evening I started to put Celine together, I thought about women that I know who are art historians, curators, artists, archivists, gallery owners, board of trustee members, professors of art history, in New York and Paris. Ironically Celine’s friends, Baheera Amid, Reese Dreyfus, Troy Roberts, Sandy Brennan, her mom Julia Caldwell, her mother’s best friend Laurel, her dad Peter and his girlfriend Warner, and Julia’s love interest Nigel Peel, came flowing out of me like a river. I developed their personalities, how they looked, I could see them all so clearly in my mind. The clothes they wear, the restaurants they’d dine in, their favorite books, movies and TV shows.

It took a long time before I could do the same for Celine.

She was too close to my own personal world. I knew her age. I knew I wanted her to be bi-racial. I knew she would have to live in NYC on the Upper West Side but go to school and socialize on the Upper East Side. I even knew how she’d look – her hair long and curly, skin and eye color. But her personality and her soul took a long while before I could see and feel those elements of her.

It took a long while for me with Celine because I thought she ought to be some reflection of me. And I struggled with that notion. I am an art historian. I’ve loved art and its history since I was a child. So in a lot of ways, it felt like a no-brainer that this character would be like me. But she’s not. She could not be me. I am not Celine.

I realized this when I was holding my baby daughter and imagining her future. I had imagined that I was Celine relating to my mother, but just then I realized Celine is my daughter relating to me. Not that I am Celine’s mom, Julia. I was not as narrowly laser-focused professionally as Julia. Professionally I had a lot of fits-and-starts.

It’s at that moment Celine came alive and presented herself to me. From that moment forward, my role with her has been more like “dictating her story.”

Q: Kirkus called Celine an "uptown Nancy Drew." How easy or challenging did you find writing mystery? Is this a genre you love? Or is it one you came to recently? 

BA: That’s pretty cool. Celine is sort of an uptown Nancy Drew. She attends a private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and has a mom who’s a major figure in the New York art world. Her mother, Julia Caldwell, is a powerhouse curator of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – where Celine has an internship. Her dad, Peter Caldwell, is an investment banker. He’s what I refer to as a dot-portrait fixture on the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Celine’s world is quite privileged. Yet, there is an undercurrent of mayhem that is constantly brewing, and Celine is the only person who wants to set things right.

I’ve read mysteries all my life. Trixie Belden, of course, Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allen Poe.

Q: How do you hope readers respond to Celine in the story? What do you hope to accomplish with the book? 

BA: I want readers to love her as much as I love her. She’s smart, tart and loves arts. She’s a real cookie for the ages. More seriously, I want Celine to open doors for readers just as my grandparents did for me. My grandparents provided an entryway into art museums and galleries for me. They escorted me through the histories of art – the artists and the styles. They made art and the art museum feel as though it was an extension of my backyard. My grandparents did not have a lot to give me financially, but they did open up doors and point to what was on the other side of that door – hope, inspiration and the bounty of America.

Q: What are you working on next? What adventures lie ahead for you and Celine? 

BA: I am working on more Celine Caldwell Mysteries and further building and establishing Paris 1865 Press publishing house. Southern Gothic is a part of a long series. Next up there is the story of murder inside of a political group that has inspired some of its members to vandalize a student art exhibition. The book is called Sons of Liberty (2017), and the art involves American paintings about America’s founding revolution. After that Celine will tangle with a fatwa against a Middle Eastern art patron, Pasha (2018); and the murder of a Hollywood heart throb, Night on Mulholland Drive (2019).

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Christmas Chaos in Jennifer Ziegler's 'Revenge of the Angels'

With the countdown to Christmas on, it's a great time to explore another holiday title. This time we get to know middle-grade author Jennifer Ziegler, whose hilarious Revenge of the Angels (Scholastic Press, August 2015) will put tween readers in just the right spirit. 

Angels tells the story of the Brewster triplets, Dawn, Darby, and Delaney, who want very much to play the Three Wise Men in the annual Christmas pageant but instead are handed wings and told they have to play angels instead. It's the second book in this wonderful series, after Revenge of the Flower Girls (Scholastic Press, 2014) featured the triplets wreaking havoc on their big sister's wedding.

Jennifer has written YA too, with How Not to Be Popular (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2008), Sass & Serendipity (Delacorte, 2011), and Alpha Dog (Delacorte, 2006), as well as contributed to a variety of anthologies. And there's still more: Jennifer also works for The Writers’ League of Texas, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, where she lives with children's author Chris Barton (see last week's interview) and their four kids. Phew!

Question: The Brewster triplets from Revenge of the Flower Girls are back! What made you decide to set these latest adventures against the peace-love-and-joy season of Christmas?

Jennifer Ziegler: I had several follow-up stories in mind, but this was the one my publisher and I like best. There is something inherently dramatic about setting a tale during the end-of-year holidays. Already the stakes are higher, emotions are heightened, and expectations are raised.

Plus, with the first book the triplets were focused on a family problem. In this one, it’s a community issue. And what better backdrop than during the time of peace and goodwill to all?

Q: Your books are hilariously funny. Can you talk about your creative process? Do you hole up alone and laugh maniacally? Or do you test out your humor on family members or friends?

JZ: Thank you! I suppose I do both. Early on in the process I might test out a section on whichever poor, unsuspecting family member might be passing by. Later, when I’m steeped in the world of my book, my characters tend to take over. There are scenes where I feel more like a court reporter than a writer – just setting down what I see and hear. In that mode, my characters will often crack me up.

Q: There are a lot of hijinks in your stories. Were you as spirited as Dawn, Darby, and Delaney? Is there a bit of you spread out over the triplets? Or in your other titles?

JZ: No, I wasn’t nearly as outspoken or bold as the triplets. I was rather withdrawn and cautious, but I had a vivid inner life. On the other hand, I could get up to shenanigans if I was in a group. Sometimes with my siblings or with a pack of good friends I’d be the one saying, “Hey, you know what would be funny?” And the next thing you know we’re all answering our teacher in a funny accent or doing chalk outlines of ourselves on the pavement.

Q: What is the dinner table conversation like at your house with your husband, Chris, being a fellow children's author? Do you talk a lot of shop?

JZ: We do. Dinner conversation runs the gamut – especially when the kids are there. We had a lively conversation recently on what would be appropriate music for an Elfin garden party and another on what kind of voice our dog would have if he suddenly became human. Every evening Chris and I take Ernie, the dog, for a long walk. It’s our chance to check in with each other and talk out concerns about the kids or the finances or our works-in-progress. He’s especially great at helping me with the logistics of my story. I’m usually confident in characters, emotions, themes, and other big-picture items, but I struggle with intricacies of plot. He is brilliant with that.

Q: Both you and Chris have Christmas books out this season. Are the holidays especially fun at your house this year?

JZ: Well, they are especially busy! But I do think they will be extra fun. The kids were early readers of my triplet stories, and we all helped Chris with his Nutcracker book research by going to see the ballet and then discussing it at length. So I think there’s a shared sense of ownership and pride in our projects. But also, we’re looking forward to celebrating family -- the Brewsters, the Christensens, and the Barton-Ziegler clan. For us, the best thing about the holidays is gathering with all the special people in our lives. And this year there will be a few extra characters in the mix.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Holiday History in Chris Barton's 'Nutcracker Comes to America'

If your house is like ours, it's Nutcracker mania right now. We're eating, sleeping, and dreaming (of Sugar Plum Fairies, of course) about the Christmas spectacular based on the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, as are countless dancers and their families across the country. So it seems the perfect time to spotlight a wonderful new picture book about the Nutcracker's American roots, The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition (Millbrook Press, September 2015), from the multi-talented Chris Barton.

Illustrated by Cathy Gendron, The Nutcracker Comes to America has earned starred reviews from School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly. It tells the story of brothers William, Harold, and Lew Christensen, who staged the Christmastime story during World War II in San Francisco and watched it grow – from a 19th-century Russian ballet into a beloved American ritual.

Readers might be familiar with a few other non-fiction books from Chris, who has an incredible, enviable knack for finding fascinating topics to write about. Also from this year is The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynchwhich published in April with Eerdmans. It is illustrated by the remarkable Don Tate and has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, as well as being named to the 2016-2017 Texas Bluebonnet list.

Chris is also the mind behind the charming New York Times best-seller Shark Vs. Train (Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010), illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, and the 2010 Sibert Honor Book The Day-Glo Brothers (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2009), illustrated by Tony Persiani.

And making the holidays even brighter, Chris's wife Jennifer Ziegler has her own Christmas book out too – within one week of his – titled Revenge of the Angels (Scholastic, September 2015). Look for an interview with Jennifer here next week.

Question: How did you decide to write about the three Christensen brothers and the birth of the Nutcracker tradition?

Chris Barton: I’d never even heard of the Christensens or given any thought to how ballet developed in America until I read Willam Christensen’s obituary in 2001. But I’m a big fan of filling in gaps in my own knowledge, and in the case of the Christensen brothers, there was also the gap of the vaudeville circuit, which they’d spent time on. Telling the brothers’ story was what first interested me, and I thought it made sense to end a picture book about them with their mid-career staging of the first American Nutcracker. Editor Carol Hinz at Millbrook Press, however, helped me see that the big story here was The Nutcracker itself, so while the book is still very much a biography of Willam, Harold, and Lew Christensen, it’s all oriented toward showing how that holiday tradition came to be.

Q: The Day-Glo Brothers, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, a forthcoming picture book biography of Barbara Jordan: how do you choose the subjects you write about? Is there a common thread among them? 

CB: I think it’s more of a web than a single thread.

I do see a thread connecting The Day-Glo Brothers and The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, in that both books tell a story of how the world we know today came to be. For Day-Glo, it’s a story about how the world looks, with those superbright orange, yellows, and greens. For John Roy Lynch, it’s a story about why we as a nation are so far behind where we would have been had Reconstruction’s progress in civil rights, voting rights, and social justice not been turned back by the forces of hate and indifference.

And I also see a thread between the story of John Roy Lynch – one of the first black Americans in Congress – and Barbara Jordan, whose 1972 election (alongside Andrew Young of Georgia) made her one of the first African Americans in seven decades to join Congress from a former Confederate state. She benefited from the Voting Rights Act passed 100 years after the beginning of Reconstruction, and in Congress she worked to expand the Voting Rights Act to protect the rights of Spanish-speaking Texans, among others.

By the time my book about Barbara Jordan, What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?, is published in 2018, who knows what new threads will connect it to the books of mine that follow?

Q: You're also the author of Shark Vs. Train and other children's books. Do you have a favorite genre? Have you been bitten by the research bug and see yourself sticking with non-fiction biographies?

CB: This work would not be nearly as fun if I couldn’t satisfy the silly side of my personality as well as my research-loving side. I’m pleased to say that I have four picture books coming out in 2016, and three of those – That’s Not Bunny!, Mighty Truck, and 88 Instruments – are all purely playful fiction.

Q: The Christensen brothers aren't quite triplets like the siblings in your wife, Jennifer Ziegler's books, but they're close. Do you and Jennifer ever consider collaborating on a project?

CB: We’ve talked about it, and there’s at least one project – a music-related YA novel – that I think would be lots of fun to write together. We listen to music constantly, so in that sense, maybe we’ve already started laying the groundwork for that collaboration. Jenny knows tons about novel-writing, and I know my way around a research-heavy project, and maybe those skills would complement each other. If there’s an editor out there who thinks, “These two should definitely write a book together,” I think we’d be game.

Q: Both you and Jennifer have Christmas books out this season. How do the holidays feel for you this year?

CB: Serendipitous! For one spouse’s middle-grade novel from one publisher and the other spouse’s non-fiction picture book from another publisher to coincide with similar themes (siblings+holidays), publication dates (one week apart), and covers (the stage curtains!) is some pretty interesting luck. Not to be mawkishly romantic or overly woo-woo about it all, but like so much of our lives together, this particular aspect of them feels like it was meant to be.