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.

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.