Monday, September 28, 2020

Celebrate Autumn with Wendy McClure's Adorable 'It's a Pumpkin!'

We're almost to October, that glorious time of year when pumpkin spice fills the air and we embrace all things gourdlike. Well, at least I do. Can't get enough of them—pumpkins on the porch, gnarly goosenecks on the coffee table, acorn squash in the oven. Gourdgeous! That's why I fell madly in love with Wendy McClure's adorable new picture book It's a Pumpkin! (Albert Whitman, September 2020),  whimsically illustrated by Kate Kronreif, where the characters explore the many uses of these seasonal wonders.

As both an editor and a writer, Wendy is a familiar face to Chicago writers—and beyond. A dynamic member of the Chicago writing community, she can be found speaking at conferences and workshops and always willing to share her expertise with both aspiring and established authors. Aside from her picture books, Wendy is also the author of the middle-grade historical fiction series Wanderville (Razorbill, 2014, 2015, 2016); is an authority of all things Laura Ingalls Wilder, as demonstrated in her award-winning nonfiction The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie (Riverhead Books, 2012); and author of memoirs for adults.

Enter here for a chance to win Wendy McClure's It's a Pumpkin!

QUESTION: This story is delightful, and it's easy to imagine a classroom of kindergartners exploring the many things THEY can do with a pumpkin. Did the idea come to you fully formed? What was your process like in getting this story down?

WENDY MCCLURE: It was an idea that popped into my head around midday at work about a year ago. I was thinking about all our uses for pumpkins in the fall, and how different all these things are, and that Thoreau quote, “I’d rather sit on a pumpkin than a velvet stool,” was bouncing around in there too. At some point dialogue was starting to come to me, so I typed a few notes into a document and saved it. When I got home, I started writing. I had to stop and start over after a couple hundred words in order to get the pacing right, but then I had a draft that night. It’s almost never that fast!

Q: As an editor, you have to think both visually like an illustrator AND about the narrative like an author. Did you wear both hats as you wrote It's a Pumpkin?

WM: I did not! Somehow it did not even occur to me to put that other hat on. I left the pagination up to my editor, Christina Pulles. When Whitman did the illustrator search, I did have a couple thoughts about what the art style should be—I wanted great color, an immersive world, a certain sweetness, but a touch of humor too—and I may have used my editor brain in figuring that out. And when I was shown Kate’s samples I was thrilled. Otherwise, though, I enjoyed staying on the author end of things—less stuff to think about!  

Q: It's pumpkin-spice season. Are you all in?

WM: Yes. Give me the tea, the butter, the beer, the bread! I just saw a 6-pack of canned organic pumpkin at Costco and I BET I can find a way to use them all before the year is out. I’ll keep you posted!

Monday, September 21, 2020

Keir Graff Cobbles Together More Hilarity with 'Tiny Mansion'

Chicago author Keir Graff has taken us a lot of places with his middle-grade novels, and I am especially excited about the setting for his latest effort, The Tiny Mansion (Putnam's Books for Young Readers, September 8, 2020). While Keir has other titles on the shelf, both for young readers as well as adult (as part of a writing duo under the pen name Linda Keir), his not-exactly-a-series run of The Matchstick Castle (2017), The Phantom Tower (2018), and now Tiny Mansion offers readers fast-paced action, laugh-out-loud humor, and as Kirkus describes "quirky" treats and "wacky" plots. 

In a word, fun.

Aside from the immediate charm of setting his story in a tiny house, Keir peoples it with a delightful cast of characters. We follow Dagmar, age 12, as her family is forced to live off-the-grid in the redwoods of Northern California where the neighbors aren't exactly typical. An eccentric tech billionaire, his brother the woodsman, his sister the crunchy animal lover. As well as the billionaire's son, who could use a friend.

Keir took a little break from writing to talk about the book and where his ideas come from.

QUESTION: The world you build for Dagmar is fascinating. What prompted you to choose a tiny home in the redwoods? Can you talk about the creative process and how you came to write The Tiny Mansion?

When I was a kid, my family visited an artist friend who lived in a trailer in the redwoods of Northern California. I slept on the ground outside, under a towering tree, and woke up covered in spiderwebs! And a couple of years ago, when I was on tour for The Phantom Tower, I visited the enchanting community of Canyon, California, where a teacher gave me a tour that included hand-hewn, un-zoned wooden houses. Those events, decades apart, definitely played their parts—and my writing process has always been a little bit like literary quilting.

But the real truth is that I did it backward! After books called The Matchstick Castle and The Phantom Tower, I was looking for another architecturally themed title that would create a question in the minds of young readers. After I hit on The Tiny Mansion, I knew it would have to be set in a tiny house, which was perfect, because I really want one of my own!

The tiny house also felt like a writing challenge I wanted to accept—after going big, with big structures in the previous two books, could I create an even bigger adventure, this time starting with an even smaller home?

Q: Billionaires, survivalists, New Agers. How much fun did you have creating these characters? Who did you enjoy writing the most?

Obviously, I love eccentric characters, as evidenced by the daffy van Dash family of The Matchstick Castle and the elderly residents of The Phantom Tower. In The Tiny Mansion, Dagmar’s family isn’t exactly ordinary, given that her dad is a renegade handyman and her stepmom is an artist working with found materials. But supporting characters offer more opportunities for exaggeration because they don’t generally need to be quite as three- dimensional.

I loved writing all of them, and Vladimir, Blake’s hulking Exurbistanian bodyguard, most of all. He looks scary but turns out to have a pretty good heart. (The audiobook narrator did him with a Russian accent, something she said was on her bucket list!)

Q: How do you want young readers to experience the book?

KG: Repeatedly! All joking aside, while I do tackle issues in my books—and this one touches on plenty of them—I try hard to avoid didacticism, because I really want kids to read for the same reason I did: for fun! In these times especially, kids need opportunities to escape and live for a while in the worlds of their imaginations.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Amy Timberlake's 'Skunk and Badger' an Immediate Classic

Newbery Honor-winner Amy Timberlake's new read aloud is part Frog and Toad, part Odd Couple, and all kinds of wonderful. Skunk and Badger, publishing tomorrow with Algonquin Young Readers and illustrated by Caldecott-winner Jon Klassen, has already chalked up multiple starred reviews and was called "exceptionally sweet" by Kirkus. 

Amy's story is perhaps the book for our tumultuous time, as Badger and Skunk, in the classic opposites-attract dynamic, demonstrate how we must look for the things we share rather than focus on all the ways we're different. Badger keeps busy with his Important Rock Work while the more spirited, free-form Skunk tends to disrupt treasured routines. (An improvisational chef, I'd love to eat one of this guy's meals. )

Enter here for a chance to win a copy of Skunk and Badger!

Throw in some curious chickens, and Skunk and Badger is utterly irresistible. Filled with delightful sound effects, hilarious dialogue, and satisfying "mouth words," this read aloud will bring down the house—be it a classroom, library gathering, or bedtime. Thank goodness this is a series, and there will be more adventures to come. 

Amy, another treasured member of the Chicago children's book community, was nice enough to talk a little shop. Here's what she had to say:

QUESTION: So are you Skunk or are you Badger?

AMY TIMBERLAKE: I’m both. Like Badger, I struggle for focus, focus, focus for my Important Rock Work. AND I have many of Skunk’s qualities too — enthusiasm, earnestness, a wide-eyed sense of wonder (at times). My inner-Badger and inner-Skunk are at odds on a regular basis.

Q: There are so many delightfully funny scenes and lines throughout the book. What made you laugh the hardest as you wrote this?

AT: Thank you! I am so glad you enjoyed it. That is very good news! 

Right now, the line that most amuses me about Skunk and Badger is a sentence about the "chicken biome of the Tropical Chicken Forest sort." But that’s only because that was the last thing I wrote for Skunk and Badger. The truth is that almost everything amused me at some point. I chuckle as I write. I do! It’s been one of the great gifts of this project.  

Q: Where did the spark for Skunk and Badger come from? Did you grow up watching The Odd Couple? Were you and your siblings opposites? Do you live it already with your husband?

AT: I don’t know! Isn’t that awful? The roots of this one go WAY back! I wrote a story with a skunk in it a long, long time ago. This was in a period when I was trying to write a Nate the Great type story. (That story did NOT work.) Also, I like the word "skunk" because it sounds like someone whose nose is stuffed up. "Skunk" — those two K’s are funny!   

Doing research for another book project, I was reading all these bear stories — bear fairy tales, bear mythology, stories about toy bears — and so, I re-read A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories. I liked the voice Milne chose for those stories. I admired the crafting. How did he manage to maintain lightness with all this emotional life? I also liked that these were stories that were read aloud to kids. I thought, "I want to write a read aloud." I think wanting to write a read aloud was the seed that started Skunk and Badger. 

Okay, now I’ve got a question for you, Kate! Ha! Since you’ve written several series, are celebrating the publication of Cape right now (Book 2 of The League of Secret Heroes), and finishing up Book 3 in the same series, I’m wondering what advice you’d give someone like me who is new to writing a series. Anything? I’m all ears! 

Thanks for having me on your blog, Kate! This was fun!

Kate answers: I'm hardly one to give YOU advice! But here's what I found helpful: Don't ever stop talking to the characters, even when you're in between writing! This way when you sit down again to work on the next book, you've got everyone still chatting and fresh in your mind!

Monday, August 31, 2020

Emily Ecton's 'Great Pet Heist' a Laugh-Out-Loud Caper

I've long been a fan of the hilarious Emily Ecton, a former Chicagoan and wonderful member of the local children's writing community who now calls Virginia home. Pick up any of her eight middle-grade novels (The Ambrose Deception, Project Jackalope) and you'll see her humor showcased throughout, as well as her sheer sense of fun. Emily's latest, The Great Pet Heist (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, June 2020), had me at hello. From the moment we meet the ragtag collection of animals as well as their perfectly named human, Mrs. Food, we're in for a delightful, utterly engaging ride.

A former producer and writer for NPR's comedy quiz show Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell MeEmily clearly understands comedic timing and delivery. And as a devoted dog owner, she gets the nuances of living with pets and the very real possibility (probability?) that they have lives outside of what we see when we're home with them.

In The Great Pet Heist, described as Ocean's Eleven meets The Secret Life of Pets, an apartment dog named Butterbean sees its owner slip and fall, and head off to the hospital. What's ahead, Butterbean asks. Enlisting a few neighboring animals in a scheme to support themselves in case Mrs. Food can't care for them anymore, the clever pets plan a heist. 

I laughed from start to finish, and I'm so happy to learn there's a sequel in the works! It's called The Great Ghost Hoax, and in it Butterbean and the others investigate a haunted apartment in their building. It should be out next year. Emily was nice enough to talk about how this book came to be.

Enter here for a chance to win a copy of Emily's "The Great Pet Heist"!

QUESTION: Where did the idea for The Great Pet Heist come from? Was it a fully formed story or did you have just one or two characters in mind? Can you talk about the evolution of the project?

EMILY ECTON: I read a newspaper article about a woman who'd left all of her money to her dog, and I started thinking about what would happen to a pet who thought he'd inherit a fortune and then found out that he wouldn't. What would he do? That's how I came up with the idea for the heist, and then it was just a matter of putting together the heisting team.

Oscar the mynah bird was the first character who I knew would be in the book (since he's the brains behind the operation), and Walt the cat and Butterbean the dog weren't far behind. Before I started writing, I had to figure out how the animals would pull off the heist, which special skills they'd need to make it work, and which pets would make the best team.

Q: Are you a plotter or a pantser? What drives the storytelling for you—working from the character or from the plot?

EE: I'm definitely a plotter! I like to have all of the major details worked out before I start writing—it makes it easier for me to keep track of where I'm going, so I don't have to revise as much afterward. (I don't love revising.)  

Emily's brilliant dog Howdy
But I think character and plot are both equally important in developing a story. Even though I have a pretty clear outline when I start, the plot choices have to come from the characters or they won't work. Butterbean wouldn't suddenly start doing research on the computer, for instance, no matter how much I wanted her to. She'd need to be a different dog to make that plot point work.

Q: Mrs. Food, animal quirks, laugh-out-loud hijinks. I found The Great Pet Heist to be hilarious. Do you find humor hard to write? Do you look to other authors or shows for inspiration?

EE: That's great to hear! I have a background writing in comedy, so at this point, I think it's easier for me to write humor than to write more serious stories. I get inspiration more from news stories or random things that I see that spark ideas, but books that have humor in them are some of my favorites—I love authors like Terry Pratchett, Jaclyn Moriarty, and Polly Horvath.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Lori Degman Shows Off Rhyming Skills in 'Travel Guide for Monsters'

Anyone with an interest in rhyme should race to their bookstore right now and pick up one of Lori Degman's wonderful picture books. This Chicago-area author knows her way around stressed syllables and similar sounds, as she demonstrated in Just Read (Sterling, 2019) illustrated by Victoria Tentler-Krylov and Cock-A-Doodle-Oops! (Creston Books, 2014) illustrated by Deborah Zemke. Lori is a master at zingy wordplay and she's done it again with her latest adorable picture book, Travel Guide for Monsters (Sleeping Bear, 2020) illustrated by Dave Szalay, which Kirkus calls a "giggly geography lesson for trip planners and daydreamers." 

I reached out to Lori to talk about her books and how she cracked the code on writing rhyme.

QUESTION: Can you talk about your creative process? How do ideas work through your mind—do they evolve slowly over a stretch of time, or do they appear fully formed?

LORI DEGMAN: Usually, I get the idea for the story and/or the title immediately. Then I figure out the opening and how I want it to end, and go from there. Plotting is where I struggle most, so it usually takes a while until I finally figure out the middle. For my stories that are a series of vignettes and don’t have typical plots, like Travel Guide for Monsters, Just Read, and Like a Girl illustrated by Mara Penny (Sterling, 2019), I finish my first drafts pretty quickly, once I’ve decided on the rhyme scheme and the book’s structure. I tend to work on more than one story at a time. I’ll open up several stories on my laptop and start with one, then when I get stuck, move on to another. That suits my ADHD brain well.

Q: Rhyme is hard, but you make it look effortless. How much refining and reworking did you do in writing Travel Guide for Monsters?

LD: I’m lucky that rhyming comes pretty easily to me—I have a good ear for meter. Still, I spend a lot of time tweaking the meter to make it as close to natural speech patterns as possible, so the reader doesn’t have to think about how they’re reading it—they just read it as if it were prose. For Travel Guide for Monsters, once I decided on a location and the behavior I wanted to highlight, it came pretty easily. One thing I’ve learned is, at least for me, writing in rhyme is easier than writing in prose because of the parameters it creates. But editing in rhyme is much harder. If you make one change, it has a domino effect and other words and lines need to be changed. In prose, you take out a word, phrase, or sentence and that’s it!

Q: What helped you most in the writing and revising of Monsters? Reading out loud? Creating a dummy to get a feel for page turns? What devices really help you bring a manuscript to its best possible version?

LD: I always read my stories out loud—even the non-rhymers. I also ask other people to read them so I can hear where the meter is off or where they trip up. When I don’t want to bother my friends and family members, I’ll paste the story in Text Edit (on Mac) and it will read it out loud. Because Travel Guide for Monsters doesn’t have a plot, I didn’t have to worry about page turns. I did have to think about the order of the locations they’d visit. 

I always check to make sure I don’t use the same words multiple times or more than once for the rhyming words. I’ve only made one book dummy, and it helped a lot with reducing the word count and for creating page turns. It was for Norbert’s Big Dream (Sleeping Bear Press, 2016), which is my only published book in prose. It’s something I’m sure I’ll do again when I have a “near submission ready” prose manuscript. 

And of course I have to mention my many critique partners who always give me thoughtful and helpful feedback! The best thing is when they tell me a manuscript is submission ready—I know I can trust them, so I can send it out with confidence!

Monday, August 17, 2020

'Me & Mama' Author-Illustrator Cozbi Cabrera Does It All

There seems to be nothing Chicago multimedia artist Cozbi Cabrera cannot do. Her talents range from gorgeous illustration to lyrical written word to delicate textile art. Just glimpsing her website, visitors get an immediate sense that she is a special creative force to behold. In 2020, Cozbi has two children's books hitting shelves—Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, written by Illinois' own Suzanne Slade (Abrams, April 7th); and Me & Mama, for which she is both author and illustrator (Simon & Schuster, coming August 25th)—joining a stack of others titles that she has either written or illustrated. And lucky participants in November's SCBWI Illinois Interactive 2020 virtual conference will get to experience Cozbi's incredible talents upclose, as she works with artists in breakout sessions.

Cozbi has drawn national attention with her handmade collectible cloth dolls, called Muñecas. And her growing collection of children's books (including Thanks A Million, written by Nikki Grimes and published by Greenwillow Books; My Hair Is A Garden, Albert Whitman) have earned starred reviews. We thought it would be interesting to hear from Cozbi about her creative process.  

QUESTION: Both Exquisite and Me & Mama feature such loving depictions of the everyday, as well as evocative images of sheer joy. Can you describe your creative process and how you approach a story and illustrating picture books?

COZBI CABRERA: When illustrating a manuscript I've received from a publisher, I'm careful not to "over-read." That first reading is simply to grasp the scope and nature of the content and to see if I love the language or can pinpoint its strengths. I'm reading only to say yes or no. 

In the case of Suzanne Slade's EXQUISITE, I fell in love with her rhythmic, inspired, and well-researched prose. I was delighted to dig in and tease out the visual details of Gwendolyn Brooks' life. I reserve that closer reading for when I'm ready to break the manuscript into page turning chunks. I'm relying on a fresh reading, or the power of the first impression. This is where I can imagine scenes in my head and sketch out thumbnails in a variety of ways. 

I want those drawings to be relevant while throwing the stone of intention a little further, a bit like a visual reading in between the lines or the visual body language for the message. Sometimes I'm able to capture something right away, or am alerted that I need to do further research. Other times, I'm doing what I call "putting the junk down"—getting those obvious solutions on paper. This immersion affords me the ability to scratch a little deeper to find a better answer, to find the heart, while I'm washing the dishes, or just waking up the next morning.

I think our everyday surroundings are steeped with insight and tell a story.  Anthropologists would agree, I love to insert those clues. As far as emotion is concerned—it's the artist's job to help rearrange the viewer's emotional furniture, as painter Jim Parker used to say, to reaffirm what connects us and reveal the heart of the matter.

Q: You're an artist in a variety of media. Do you prefer working with fabric, creating dolls and quilts? Or do you find painting more satisfying? Or does writing feel equally satisfying?

CC: I've always enjoyed working in a variety of mediums. Each discipline is like a plant in my garden, requiring its own care, attention, and tending. It keeps me humble as a wide-eyed infant tumbling into limitless rabbit holes. There is no end to the many levels of mastery and powerful distinctions in each discipline. Naturally, there are points of confluence, where my work in one medium feeds into the next. I think of it as facets of the same stone, or expression.

Q: Do you have multiple projects going at once? Or do you like to focus on one thing at a time? And what is the next project we'll see from you?

CC: I always have many things in the fire. I'm able to get it all done by prioritizing and eliminating unnecessary chatter, wasteful actions, and emotions. I keep returning to play and to laughter. It's my most productive frame of mind. When I was younger I'd answer my phone in sympathy and allow someone to do an emotional dump, zapping my energy allowance and polluting my creative headspace. That headspace is really like a garden, you can't let just any weed grow or anything waltz in and trample underfoot! It's the octane and every creative has a responsibility to stand guard to protect it so it can expand. 

So, though there are many projects, I throw everything into the one that I'm prioritizing—it's the only way I'm able to get those flashes of insight when I'm drifting off to sleep or just waking up. Those insights are like gifts, but they don't present themselves until I've done the heavy lifting, and sometimes that work is giving the task before me my full concentration, even if it feels like I'm knocking on the door and it's not letting me in, or stumbling in the dark. Will I show up the next day, and the day after that? At times, week after week, after week? That's when the gift shows up—once it's been earned and I've shown myself approved!

I can speak about one of the next picture books, a biography about Elizabeth Jennings Graham, written by Amy Hill Hearth, to be published by Greenwillow Books/Harper Collins. And of course, there's a doll commission and several textile projects quietly taking shape at my sewing table.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Patricia Hruby Powell's 'Lift as You Climb' Spotlights Ella Baker

Lots of Illinois authors have new books hitting shelves right now. And while so many important national issues are rightly demanding our attention, it can feel like new picture books or novels serve little purpose. But they do. Now more than ever, it's important that we talk to young readers about American history, about the brave members of society who fought for justice and pushed the national dialogue forward, who challenged the status quo. Patricia Hruby Powell's Lift as You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker (Margaret K. McElderry Books, June 2020), illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, does just that. 

Powell is the author of award-winning picture book biographies, including Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, illustrated by Christian Robinson, and Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case, illustrated by Shadra Strickland. With Lift as You Climb, she turns her attention to one of the most influential female figures in the Civil Rights movement.

QUESTION: Ella Baker shunned the spotlight and preferred to work behind the scenes. Why did you choose to tell her story and bring her life to young readers' attention?

PATRICIA HRUBY POWELL: Ella Baker was a hero—both as a Black rights and women’s rights advocate. She believed that rather than one strong leader, it’s better to have many local leaders. What a great model for young activists! We need young activists more than ever right now. We need to remake our world. 

Ella Baker’s grandparents were enslaved people, who, once emancipated, worked, then bought the land on which they’d worked while enslaved. They became leaders of their community. The book includes stories of Ella working with Dr. Martin Luther King and a hundred Black preachers, of Ella and the young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members, but one story that is not in the book is this: Ella Baker told Dr. King that she didn’t think that a movement run on one charismatic personality was a healthy movement. She asked him, what did he think would happen once he was gone? She was right, of course. Sadly, the movement pretty much fell apart when Dr. King was assassinated. 

Ella Baker and Dr. King had huge respect for one another but they didn’t always see eye to eye.

While Dr. King was recruiting the “elite” into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP (that’s the lawyers, educators, preachers, doctors), Ella felt it was as important to recruit the “common” people and particularly, women (maids and clerks). At the same time Ms. Baker was showing the powerful Black men, who she worked alongside, to respect her as their equal. The preachers were accustomed to working with women who were subordinate to them—serving women. 

They had a lot to learn about respecting women as leaders. Poised, respectable, wise Ella challenged them and broke ground for women.

Q: What is your creative process like? As a dancer, you've spent a lifetime focused on movement. And even in your writing, movement and energy pulse through each line. How are you able to convey such vitality on the page?

PHP: I identify first and foremost as a dancer. I’ve been a dancer much longer than I’ve been a storyteller or writer. I live inside my dancing body. I am my body, which may sound a little corny. I don’t mean the shell of my body, but my kinesthetic body. My moving body. And I write from who I am, as we all do. 

I cannot sit still for long. I think best when I’m moving—walking, swimming or working out in water, bicycling, skating, dancing. I record notes on my phone or on slips of paper (or if necessary, in my brain;-). Then I return to my computer for the writing. But the thinking happens when I’m on the move. Sometimes I enact my characters, moving as I see them moving on film, and try to discover who they are, physically. I feel that I can “become” them by moving as they do. Try it.

I recommend turning on music, inserting earbuds, going a little ways out into the country where there are fewer eyes upon you and dance. I do this while watching my dog run through fields tracking bunnies and jumping into ponds. So nature helps too. Thoughts rush in. 

Q: “What do you hope to accomplish?” is a refrain throughout the story. What do you as a writer for children hope to accomplish?

PHP: I always want children to love reading. I hope that they’ll be fascinated by my stories and want to read extensively. But nowadays, more than that, I want young readers to become inspired to be social activists. I want them to figure out what they care about, and work for that. There is SO much in our society that needs correction. 

Activism? Maybe you’re excited or concerned about Black Lives Matter, the vote, police reform, gun control, zoning laws, segregated education, the health of the Earth and our environment, sustainable living, renewable resources. The list goes on and on. 

Helping other people gives you a life purpose—especially in this challenging time. We need to remake our world. Everyone will win.

We all need to ask ourselves, What do I hope to accomplish?