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.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Ghost Dogs, Magic Behind Edith Cohn's 'Spirit's Key'

Edith Cohn’s delightful debut novel Spirit’s Key (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014) weaves magic into an appealing girl-and-her-dog story. It tells of 12-year-old Spirit Holden, who lives among the islanders on tiny Bald Island. When dogs begin dying and the islanders become ill, Spirit's family is blamed. With the help of her ghost dog, Sky, guiding her, Spirit taps into her own power and finds a way to help.

Kirkus Reviews calls Spirit’s Key "an inventive story with a fresh setting and an upstanding moral compass." And Booklist, in a starred review, says, "Themes of belonging, standing up for what is right, and wildlife conservation pervade this strong debut." 

Question: What inspired you to write your book?

Edith CohnSpirit’s Key had several inspirations. The first was a dog named Marisol who went missing. She belonged to a friend of mine, and we searched the city for Marisol for months. I kept seeing her everywhere–even though it was never really her, and I got the idea about a ghost dog–about my friend never having closure. Later I decided I wanted the setting of the book to be an island, and I was deeply inspired by Ocracoke and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, which is a truly magical place. 

I was also inspired by my niece who went through a vegetarian phase, and I got to thinking about how kids that age are still figuring out what they think and still forming their beliefs. And then the idea that people's house keys can tell the future? That came from a handmade key ring I was wearing at the time.

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

EC: This is terribly ambitious, but I hope to write books that inspire people to see the world in a slightly different way. I hope people might see how fear is the root of hatred and injustice. I hope they might be a little kinder to each other and to animals. 

Q: What are you working on next?

EC: I am working on two books. One is a middle-grade fantasy and the other is a slightly futuristic middle-grade. I'm in the early stages of both, so I can't say anymore about them. There's magic in keeping the writing secret for a little while.

Monday, December 1, 2014

First Families Inspire Behrens' 'When Audrey Met Alice'

Rebecca Behrens' When Audrey Met Alice (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2014) makes a great read for anyone with an interest in the First Family or the agonies of being a First Daughter (see Turkey Pardon). Rebecca has great fun with the juxtaposition of her character Audrey Rhodes, who finds life in the White House to be confusing and confining, with Teddy Roosevelt's wild-eyed daughter Alice. Only when Audrey discovers Alice Roosevelt's old diary does she begin to feel better about her arrangement at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A story of holding on to your sense of self despite the chaos around you, this story hits with readers young and old.

Question: What inspired you to write your book?

Rebecca Behrens: I was a tween during the Clinton administration, and I always wondered what Chelsea Clinton's life was like in the White House: making the Yellow Bedroom her own, dealing with Secret Service agents chaperoning her dates, and having the media report on her grades, hobbies, and appearance. I wanted to explore the awesome and awkward aspects of life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for an ordinary girl, in a very extraordinary situation. That inspired Audrey's character.

And I've always been fascinated by Alice Roosevelt, the spirited and sometimes shocking daughter of Teddy Roosevelt. I thought it would be cool to have a contemporary First Daughter interact with Alice through a fictionalized diary–and interesting for readers to see how a First Kid's life in the White House once was, and might be today.

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

RB: First and most of all, I want to tell a good story! I'm always hoping that the book I write will be one that engages and entertains young readers. With When Audrey Met Alice, I also hoped that readers might be inspired to "meet" Alice Roosevelt and other First Daughters themselves by reading and researching after finishing the book. I like blending contemporary and historical fiction because I think it offers a window into the past–especially to readers who might be hesitant to try historical fiction. And, finally and hopefully without making it seem like my writing is didactic(!), I try to write about girls who are curious, smart, and resourceful–because those are the sharp-cookie heroines I loved to read about as a kid, and also because I think that's important for young readers.

Q: What are you working on next?

RB: My next book is Summer of Lost and Found, another middle-grade novel that blends contemporary and historical fiction. It will be released in early 2016 by Egmont USA. In it, a girl’s father mysteriously disappears and her botanist mother drags her to Roanoke Island for a research trip, where the girl decides to solve the mystery of the Lost Colony with the help of a peculiar local boy. I also have two historical short stories that will be published soon: Thatagirl! will appear in Scholastic classroom magazines in Fall 2014/Spring 2015, and A Piece of Cake will appear in Cricket magazine, in 2015 or early 2016 (date to be determined).

Monday, November 17, 2014

4-H Inspires Rebecca Petruck's 'Steering Toward Normal'

Rebecca Petruck's Steering Toward Normal (Abrams, 2014) is a must-read. Not only has it been an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce New Voices selection, a Spring Kids Indie Next List title, and an ABC Best Books for Children, Vanity Fair's Hollywood dubbed it a "book we'd like to see made into a film," made the L.A. Times' Summer Books Preview, but the Christian Science Monitor named it one of 25 Best New Middle Grade Novels. Phew! Not bad for a debut effort!

And she has one of the best covers ever!

Steering Toward Normal tells the story of Diggy, who has big plans for his eighth-grade year. He's ready to compete in the Minnesota State Fair, has a 4-H girl in his sights, and has conspired with Pop for April Fool's Day. But when his classmate's mother dies, a secret is revealed: Pop is this boy's father, too. Now Diggy has to figure out what family really means.

So what does this Minnesota girl (currently living in North Carolina) as well as former 4-H'er have to say about the writing life?

Question: What inspired you to write your book?

Rebecca Petruck: Steering Toward Normal began as a very different short story inspired by a photograph of two boys posed as if they were tough, but whose adolescent bodies betrayed their innocence. Though they were about the same age, I came to think of them as brothers and started wondering how that might have happened and what that would mean for them.

That story was only meant to be a writing exercise for a class during my MFA program. My planned thesis was about a teen girl in Idaho figuring out how to respect a mom who had always been passive in her marriage. (Also, there were potatoes.) But those two boys kept niggling at me, and I had set the story in a place I knew (Minnesota). The book kept growing around me without me trying!

It took me a while to find my way to the steers, though. I started with dairy cows (all that milk to deal with!) then fancy chickens (fun but too frou-frou for Diggy and Wayne), and finally stumbled on show steers. I fell for the competitors I interviewed. They all were very sincere in saying it’s better not to get too attached to the steers, while being very clearly attached to their steers. It was like meeting Diggy and Wayne in real life.

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

RP: I want to write stories for all those decent, ordinary kids out there trying to cope with a crazy world, so they know it’s okay to not understand what’s going on and to make mistakes even when they’re doing their best. I remember being perplexed by decisions my parents made, partly because many were bad decisions, yet I had to live with the consequences.

In Steering Toward Normal, several bad decisions made by adults lead to a total shakeup of Diggy’s world, so he clings even harder to a decision he had made for himself: to win Grand Champion Steer at the Minnesota State Fair. It saves him, though not in the way he expected.

Steers are only and ever beef cattle, so the thing about raising them is there is always an end date—they are sold to the packer for slaughter. Approaching a situation like this, year after year, and learning how to cope with the heartbreak is what has prepared Diggy to cope with his current difficult situation. He doesn’t realize it, of course, and there are times when he wants to give up. But raising steers has taught him how to keep his heart open, despite the inevitable pain, and that ends up being the gift he shares and that saves his family.

I think that’s part of what growing up is: learning to keep our hearts open in an imperfect world.

Q: What are you working on next?

RP: Will Nolan Eats Bugs is inspired by a National Geographic article about the nutritional value of eating insects. Since then, entomophagy has been spotlighted in other media outlets and become something of a niche foodie trend.

The idea of insects as an everyday part of our regular foodstuffs fascinates me. I was well into work on the project before I realized I was again writing a novel with a major element centered on food production! Steering Toward Normal features beef cattle. Bugs features a class presentation gone wrong when Will “serves” insects for snacks. The problem for me of course is that I’ll have to eat insects to ensure veracity in the WIP. I hope my next book involves chocolate!