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,
jelly,
bread.
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.