Thursday, April 2, 2015

Celebrating Peanut Butter and Jelly Day with Janet Nolan

Of course you already know today is National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day! So in celebration, it's only fitting to talk to Janet Nolan about her adorable picture book PB&J Hooray!: Your Sandwich's Amazing Journey from Farm to Table, illustrated by Julia Patton (Albert Whitman & Company, September 2014). Janet has a knack for finding fascinating topics to delve into for young readers. Her Firehouse Light illustrated by Marie Lafrance (Tricycle Press, 2010) tells the story of a lightbulb at a California firehouse that's been burning for 100 years.

Janet was nice enough to talk about writing and researching her books.

Question: You clearly enjoy research in your writing for young readers. What was it like researching the story of peanuts, grapes, and grain for PB&J Hooray? Can you talk about your process? 

Janet Nolan: The story begins:

"Peanut butter,
PB&J Hooray!

Easy to make,
yummy to eat.
But where does the food come from?
The Grocery Store."

Working in reverse order—in a question and answer format—the book takes readers through the shopping, delivery, production, harvesting, farming, and planting processes.

The book ends with the planting of seeds for peanuts, grapes, and wheat. In essence, PB&J Hooray! is the backstory for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Regarding my process, I think I’m drawn to writing non-fiction because I love researching. And when I want to learn something new, I know exactly where to go. I head to the children’s section of my local library. The chairs might be a little small and the tables a tad too short, but while doing the initial research for PB&J Hooray! I was like a kid in a candy store pulling books about farming, manufacturing, and shipping off the shelves.

I love the visual and visceral appeal of children’s books and believe the word usage and imagery is a great starting point for acquiring knowledge. Once I feel I have a handle on a topic, which in this case was how peanuts, grapes, and wheat are grown, I’d moved onto other sources: articles, interviews, non-fiction adult books.

This book was particularly fun to write, because I had such a great time with the language.

"Bread in the bread aisle,
peanut butter stacked on shelves,
jars of jelly lined up in a row.

Put in a shopping cart,
pay on the way out.
Carry into kitchens where sandwiches are made.
PB&J Hooray!"

Q: Is it true your illustrator had never tasted a PB&J sandwich? What sorts of hands-on researching have you had to do (or taste) for your books? 

JN: Yes, my amazing illustrator, Julia Patton, who resides in Northumberland, England, had never eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before. She had her first—research for the book—and claims to have like it! Her artwork is amazing; there is so much to see and absorb on each page.

Regarding hands-on research, it depends on the book. For The Firehouse Light, I was blessed by generosity and endless knowledge of the Lightbulb Committee Members: residents of Livermore, California, retired firefighters, local historians, and members of the Livermore Heritage Guild.

As part of my research, I travelled to Shelby, Ohio, where the lightbulb was made. While there, I met with documentarian Chris Leps, who was making a film about the lightbulb. He graciously interviewed me for his film. So, I now get to say I’m in movie: The Century of Light.

I also took a trip to Livermore, California, for the lightbulb’s 110th birthday party. Over 500 people attended, and I can say—with some certainty—singing happy birthday to a lightbulb is an experience I will never forget.

Q: The Firehouse Light, The St. Patrick's Day Shillelagh, where do you get the ideas for your books? How do you know when you’ve hit upon something great? 

JN: Ideas are everywhere. Conversations, radio, TV, articles. It’s just a matter of tuning my ears to the interesting channel. I’m always on the lookout for that special idea that sparks my imagination.

Finding interesting topics to write about isn’t difficult. The hard part is determining if the topic will make an interesting book. Facts are great, but what matters is the heart of the story within those facts. If I can’t find that, then I don’t have a story. But when I do, it’s amazing!

Q: Your books are fun, fascinating, and full of information. What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? What do you want kids to take away from your books? 

JN: What I hope kids take away from my books is what I felt writing them – that the world is an interesting place. We live in the digital age with an endless amount of information, but that doesn’t always mean the information is connected. Instead of PB&J Hooray!, I could have written three
non-fiction picture books. The first could have been about how grapes are made into jelly. The second book could have been about growing peanuts and making peanut butter. And the third book could have been about how wheat is made into bread. But by connecting the three ingredients, and by describing how food goes from farm to table, I was able to create something bigger than three separate ingredients: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!

Q: What are you working on next?

JN: Right now I’m working on the final edits for Seven and a Half Tons of Steel (Peachtree Publishers, 2016). The book is about the Navy ship, USS New York, whose bow contains seven and a half tons of steel from the World Trade Center Towers. It will be out for the 15th anniversary of 9/11.

Monday, March 23, 2015

History's Dark Underbelly in Brianna DuMont's 'Famous Phonies'

Looking for a good book to celebrate April Fool's Day? Pick up a fun read from Brianna DuMont called Famous Phonies: Legends, Fakes, and Frauds Who Changed History. This is the first book in a new non-fiction middle-grade series from Sky Pony Press that explores the underbelly of history, questioning whether the most noted figures are actually fakes. From Confucius to Pythagoras, Hiawatha to George Washington, Brianna "debunks many of history's legends, both those who really existed and some who never did," writes School Library Journal. 

Question: What made you want to write about the “scandals, swindles, and closeted skeletons” of history? And why a children’s book?

Brianna DuMont: Honestly, I love history. Even as a kid, I never had to be told that history was fascinating. My favorite vacations when I was little were to Colonial Williamsburg or the castles in Germany. That kind of thing.  But I know that not every kid is like that, so I was looking for a great lens through which I could tell these incredible stories and make history come alive. The sensational, the quirky, the scandalous—they make history fun and they help kids learn. It was a perfect combination. Writing for kids is a no-brainer. They’re discerning readers, so you can’t be pretentious. Which is just the sort of way I like to write.

Q: What was the research like in putting together Famous Phonies? Is your background in history? Or do you just like digging up the past for fun stories?

BD: Yes, my background is definitely history and research based. In college, my degrees were in Art History and Classical Archaeology, and Classics—which is the study of mythologies and dead languages. (I specialized in Attic Greek.) For Famous Phonies, one day of writing has at least a week’s worth of research behind it. Luckily, I live near a university where I have access to all the scholarly books I could ever want.

Q: Can you describe your creative process for Famous Phonies? Once you had some juicy material, how did you decide what went into the book and what should be left out?

BD: Famous Phonies stemmed from my first book idea ever about thieves who changed history. I was reading my mythology book for fun one day (yes, for fun), and I realized how many ancient stories were about thieves. That grew into a non-fiction idea about thieves who changed history, then snowballed into a four-book series. Once I started thinking about quirky things that changed history, the possibilities were endless.

Famous Phonies itself began when I realized a lot of famous ancient people never actually existed—like Homer and Pythagoras. That’s my Classics background coming into play again! Although I love history, I tried to keep each chapter streamlined. I especially didn’t want to bog them down with too many technical details or scholarly debates. It’s a kids’ book after all, not a dissertation.

Q: There is a great spirit of fun to your book. What do you hope kids take away from it? What do you hope to accomplish?

BD: I want to get kids interested in history and research. They’ve had enough of the dry, dusty textbooks that often leave out the interesting bits. If I tell another side of the story in a humorous way, I hope to show kids (and adults) how fun and alive history really is. It’s my favorite subject, and I want to showcase why it’s so fascinating. These were real people (some of them) who lived and breathed and made mistakes while making history. It’d be a disservice to put them so high on a pedestal that we forget the real person beneath the myth.

Q: What are you working on next?

BD: I’m finishing up the second book in the series, Fantastic Fugitives: Criminals, Cutthroats, and Slaves Who Changed History. It’s about 12 fugitives who changed history while on the run. After that, I’ll immediately start my third book, which is the untitled one about thieves who changed history. In between, I like to mull over a middle-grade fantasy and historical fiction, just to keep things interesting.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Remarkable Pioneers in Anna Lewis's 'Women of Steel and Stone'

In celebrating Women's History Month, I thought it fitting to feature a non-fiction title about some seriously smart, capable, amazing women. Anna M. Lewis's Women of Steel and Stone: 22 Inspirational Architects, Engineers, and Landscape Designers (Chicago Review Press, 2014) spotlights 22 women who were pioneers in their chosen, male-dominated fields. Spanning from the 1800s to current times, these stories explore the childhood passions, perseverance, and creativity that carried these remarkable women through daunting challenges all the way to the top of their professions.

A few favorites of mine were profiles of Julia Morgan, who built "America's Castle" in San Simeon, California, for William Randolph Hearst; Emily Warren Roebling, who took over the role as chief engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband's illness; and Marion Mahony Griffin, known as Frank Lloyd Wright's "right-hand man."

Question: What made you want to write a book devoted to women architects and engineers? Do you have a background in math and science, or do you just like research and a good story?

Anna M. Lewis: My father ran his own consulting engineering firm in Cincinnati, Ohio, for over 50 years. During the summers, I would work in his office—helping with drafting on drawings and field inspections of sites.

Actually, my degree is in Product/Industrial Design. In college, there were definitely more male than female students. Also, I took several design and architectural history classes in college for fun. Working with my editor, I set out to write a proposal for a book in their Women Of Action series. While looking for topics, I found one website that listed the top 100 architects—with only two women on the entire list. That didn’t sound right to me. I started researching women architects and found some amazing women whose stories hadn’t been told. From there, I also discovered several women engineers and landscape architects, and the book grew from there.

Q: Was it hard to decide on which women to include in the book? Can you talk about your process and how you found these amazing women? How you decided which stories to tell?

AML: My daughter’s favorite number is 22, so I felt that I had to appease her and the karma gods and write about 22 women. Luckily, I found 22 fabulous women with stories that would be interesting to young readers. Also, my book contract stated that I had to have at least one good publishable photo of each woman and that became harder than you may think.

I found that almost all the women didn’t boast about their accomplishments, and I had to dive deep into research to find their stories, much less a photo. Maybe that’s why we haven’t heard of them before now. They were working in their fields because they truly loved the profession, not because they wanted the fame and notoriety.

Kidlit Celebrates Women's History MonthQ: Do you have a favorite story among them? Is there one woman with whom you really connected as you learned about her life and her accomplishments? And why?

AML: Great question. Truly, I fell in love with all the women in the book. Their stories were all so different—yet woven together with common threads. They all liked art and math. They all had a strong passion to want to work in their chosen fields. And, they all had supportive parents.

The story that bothered me the most was the story of why Natalie de Blois was fired (in the 1940s) at age 23 by an architecture firm. A male architect asked that Natalie be fired because she hadn’t responded to his “advances.” I still get mad thinking about that! I was honored to connect with Natalie while I was writing the book. At age 92, she was still handling her affairs and sent to me a never-before published picture of herself for my book. I sent her a final draft of her chapter a few months before she passed in 2013.

I spoke to several women or their descendants while researching the book. Denise Scott Brown even called one day to talk about the book. Her eloquent message in her beautiful accent is still on my answering machine. I can’t bear to erase it.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your book? What do you hope to accomplish by sharing these women's stories?

AML: It is my greatest wish that someday a young reader will come up to me and tell me that she or he was inspired to become an architect, engineer, or landscape architect while reading my book. My quest is to get these stories into the hands of as many readers as I can to inspire them. One day, a male adult fan came up to me at a signing and said that he thought Women of Steel and Stone should be made into a Ken Burns documentary. I totally agreed.

Q: What will we see from you next?

AML: Right now, I’m working with several editors on a wide range of projects from picture books to YA non-fiction. My goal is to promote creative thinking in my writing. And, I’m finally writing a young adult historical mystery that’s been running around my head for years. Rather fastidious about research, I even found one error on the British Monarchy’s website… so far.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Sally Walker on Her Huggable Non-Fiction 'Winnie: The True Story'

Sometimes we come across books that we simply fall in love with. For me, I've fallen hard for the Sally Walker's fascinating and adorable non-fiction title Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh (Henry Holt and Co., January 2015), gorgeously illustrated by Jonathan D. Voss. This is one of those books you leave out on the kitchen table so family and friends can pick it up. It lingers in the imagination, makes other writers smack their heads and wish they'd thought of it first, entertains and informs. Just like the bear on the cover, this book is huggable, irresistible.

Sally, a Chicago-area author of fiction and non-fiction for young readers, including early readers, series, and a long list of non-fiction for older readers, has hit it out of the ballpark with Winnie. It tells the story of a World War I veterinarian named Harry, from Winnipeg, and the bear cub he meets and decides to buy. With detailed endpapers showing photographs of the real-life Harry, Winnie, and a boy named Christopher Robin, Sally takes readers through the sweet story of friendship, caring, and separation. Jonathan Voss's warm illustrations enhance the story beautifully.

Question: How did you decide to write this story? Can you talk about your creative process from "ah-ha" moment to finished product?  

Sally Walker: I first heard of Harry and Winnie at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville, Illinois. Mystery writer Jacqueline Winspear was in the store speaking about the latest book in her Maisie Dobbs series, which are set during and after World War I. As an aside, Winspear mentioned the importance of the veterinary corps and their care of horses used in battle. She briefly noted that a Canadian veterinarian, Harry Colebourn, had purchased a bear cub who later inspired Winnie-the-Pooh. Right away, I knew I had to find out if the story was true.

Even though preliminary research seemed to confirm Winnie and Harry’s story, I wanted to confirm what I’d read on the internet in other sources. I contacted Gord Crossley, the archivist at the Fort Garry Horse Museum and Archives (Harry’s first unit), in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Mr. Crossley told me that Colebourn’s WWI diaries were available at the Archives of Manitoba. Interlibrary loan got them for me. In them, Harry notes when he bought Winnie, how much he paid for her, when he brought her to the zoo, and his subsequent visits to her.  

I went to the London Zoo, in England, because I wanted to read the materials in the “Winnie Files” in the zoo’s library. They contained a lot of information about Harry, Winnie and her personality, and letters submitted by Fred Colebourn, Harry’s son. They confirmed Winnie and Harry’s relationship. While in the library, I read the Daily Occurrence books, a set of volumes that contain the zoo’s old records—animals donated, the weather, the number of visitors to the zoo, etc. I also stopped by the Mappin Terraces, which were in a transitional stage and unoccupied when I was there in 2012.

With regard to my creative process…so much material ended up on the “cutting room floor”! I started with a much longer book, one for readers age 10-12. But after consideration, my editor Sally Doherty and I realized that most children meet Winnie-the-Pooh at a much younger age. We decided it would be fun for them to learn about the real Winnie at about the same time they meet the fictional Pooh. Approaching the topic of WWI had to be carefully handled.  I needed to provide the wartime setting, but I didn’t want to alarm or upset my audience. Harry’s diaries contained some very fascinating material about caring for injured horses and airplane bombing raids, but that information was outside the scope of my book, which is essentially a biography about Winnie. 

I told Winnie and Harry's story in the way that I believe readily and effectively communicates my research and information to very young readers and listeners. 
Q: Written in Bone, Secrets of a Civil War Submarine, you've clearly been bitten by the research bug. Do you find story ideas everywhere you look?  

SW: Life is a story. All I do is look and listen. The stories find me.

Q: How do you tend to make your decisions about the stories you'll research and write? 

SW: If I hear a story and it sticks in my mind—and my heart—day after day, week after week, I pretty much know it’s a tale I want to tell.
Q: I imagine you're committing to a long stretch of research; how long do you typically spend researching your material?  

SW: The length of research time totally depends on the story and how hard it is to assemble the material I need to do the story justice. It can range from a few months to as long as three years. If travel is necessary, I have to schedule the trips around other events going on in my life. (After all, I am a grandma who loves to visit her grandson!)
Q: What will we see from you next? 

SW: I have a few books in the works. One is with an illustrator who is working on preliminary art. Two others are middle-grade nonfiction: one is science oriented; the other is a historical story (with a smidgen of science!). I really like interdisciplinary tales. They remind us how impossible it is to separate history from science, from literature, from art.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

Celebrate Stories on World Read Aloud Day, March 4

I am participating in World Read Aloud Day, coming up March 4, 2015.

Sponsored by Lit World, a nonprofit organization that combats illiteracy around the world, World Read Aloud Day draws attention to the need for more literacy efforts for young people – helping them gain access to books, encouraging them to engage with books and stories (including their own), and fostering a community that values the role of books and learning.

To help boost the message, authors and publishers are joining in with Lit World to promote World Read Aloud Day and #ReadingInColor.

A few tidbits about this movement:
  • LitWorld was founded in 2007 by Pam Allyn, an American literacy educator and author, after visiting a Kenyan community and seeing how passionately the kids there wanted to read, write, and share their stories.
  • World Read Aloud Day is now celebrated by over a million people in more than 80 countries and reaches over 31 million people online. 
  • The growth of the movement can be attributed in large part to a network of partner organizations and “WRADvocates” – reading advocates and supporters taking action in their communities and on social media.
This year's WRAD project will showcase young people's perceptions of color in literature. Using Instagram, participants will share photos of their interpretations of #ReadingInColor. Tagging the post in this way enters them into a random drawing to win a book by chosen authors whose works represent diversity in the middle-grade and young adult genres.

WRAD offers an exciting opportunity to work with students, teachers, parents and social media to stress the importance of reading out loud, reading to and with each other, reading diverse materials, and ultimately sharing those experiences with the global community.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Inviting a Variety of Voices and Cultures to the Bookshelf

Today marks an effort by book lovers and bloggers to celebrate Multicultural Children's Book Day. It's an opportunity to introduce readers young and old to new characters and voices, to step inside worlds we're not familiar with and meet families that are new to us. I think of it like those early years of school, when we piled together on the reading rug and were transported to new places.

This past Friday at the cozy 57th Street Books on Chicago's South Side, the Chicago writing community gathered to hear four authors talk about their books and to call for more variety in publishing through the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. Their stories are worth checking out.

Photo by Betsy Rubin
From left: Crystal Chan, Ami Polonsky, Claudia Guadalupe Martinez, and Natasha Tarpley.
Claudia Guadalupe Martinez is the author of two middle-grade novels, the award-winning The Smell of Old Lady Perfume and Pig Park (both from Cinco Puntos). Claudia calls Chicago home now, but she grew up in El Paso, Texas. The Smell of Old Lady Perfume is set along the border, both literally and figuratively, as the main character, Chela, is on the cusp of adolescence. It's a heartfelt portrayal of a family in turmoil and the pain of growing up.

Her more recent book, Pig Park, tells the story of Masi, who fears what's ahead as her neighborhood becomes like a ghost town since the biggest business, a lard company, has moved out. She begins to build a giant pyramid in the nearby park in the hopes of attracting visitors. From the jacketflap: "Pig Park is a contemporary Faustian tale that forces us to look at the desperate lengths people will go to in the name of community–and maybe love."

Natasha Tarpley's I Love My Hair and Bippity-Bop Barbershop are celebrations of African American identity as well as universal rites of passage all children can identify with. As noted at the panel discussion: "We all have hair! We all get haircuts! We all brush our hair!" These are beautifully written and adorably illustrated books that will resonate with readers of all stripes. Natasha is also the founder of Voonderbar productions, an independent publishing company that produces multicultural books for children.

Ami Polonsky's debut novel, Gracefully Grayson, poses the question, What if who you are on the outside doesn't match who you are on the inside? It tells the story of sixth-grade Grayson who is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender's body. Kirkus Reviews calls it "A kind and earnest look at a young transgender adolescent’s experience."

Crystal Chan's Bird (Atheneum) is about a girl who belongs to the only mixed-race family in her town and the tragedy that haunts them. Crystal tapped into her experiences growing up in Wisconsin as one of the few mixed-race kids in her community. School Library Journal calls Bird a "powerful story about loss and moving on."

Looking for more multicultural titles to explore? PragmaticMom has some great lists, as does School Library Journal.
Standing room only for the Jan. 23 SCBWI South Chicago panel discussion on diversity in children's literature, part of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Stinky Socks Behind Louise Galveston's 'By the Grace of Todd'

What can happen when kids leave their socks under the bed for too long? In her clever middle-grade debut By the Grace of Todd (Razorbill, 2014), Louise Galveston tackles that (somewhat disgusting) question. Twelve-year-old Todd is really, really messy. He's so messy that his dirty sweat socks have spawned a civilization of ant-sized people called "Toddlians." When a malicious neighbor learns of Todd's secret, conflict ensues.

The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books says, "The gratifying conclusion sees the Toddlians to safety, and an epilogue that reveals that the whole story has been recounted by an elder of Toddlandia suggests that the Toddlians might return for future adventures, sure to be welcome news to the fans of both the smart and the gross that will take to this one."

Question: What inspired you to write your book?

Louise Galveston: I have five sons ages 17-5. They generate a lot of stinky sweat socks! When my editor pitched the premise of a boy who inadvertently grows a civilization from his lucky baseball sock, I felt like I definitely had the expertise to run with the idea! I was especially glad the book dealt with bullying and being true to yourself despite being mocked. I definitely dealt with that in middle school.

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

LG: My first mission is to give kids (and boys in particular) a reason to read. Once they're hooked by the fun (and sometimes gross) stuff, I want them to relate to and care about the characters so that the lessons they learn along the way go down easily. But most of all I want kids to fall in love with reading!

Q: What are you working on next?

LG: The sequel to By the Grace of Todd–In Todd We Trust–comes out in March! In this book, the Toddlians (the tiny people that grow from Todd's sock and worship him as their god) decide they need to find a more responsible leader. It's full of first crushes and hair-raising adventures as the little people build an "ark" and attempt to sail to a new destiny.