Monday, November 23, 2020
Monday, November 16, 2020
Perfectly suited to her field of expertise, Amy's first title was the picture book biography The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A tale of the genius Ramanujan (Candlewick, April), about a young mathematical genius from India who grows up to reinvent much of modern mathematics. Her Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor: A Life (Enchanted Lion) came next in June, and Flying Paintings: The Zhou Brothers: A Story of Revolution and Art (Candlewick) landed on shelves in September.
Amy is active in SCBWI-Illinois and was a recipient of the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship, partnered with the incredible writing coach Esther Hershenhorn. Her writing has won an Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and a Christopher Award. We're so grateful Amy took a little time to talk about her creative process.
QUESTION: The Zhou Brothers' story has ties to Chicago, your hometown and mine. Can you talk about how this story came to be? How did you learn about them?
AMY ALZNAUER: Every third Friday of the month the Zhou B Center in Bridgeport (right down the street from the Sox stadium) holds an open-house. You can walk through the open studios of the artists who work there and also tour the permanent and rotating gallery spaces. Often there’s someone out front with a chainsaw carving up ice or wood into something beautiful (or at least fascinating). On one of these visits, I sat down in their bar and started thumbing through the Zhou catalogues. I soon came across a statement about the process of collaborative art that floored me.
People think collaboration is about harmony, said one of the brothers (and I’m pulling together a few different statements here). But they’re wrong. It’s like this: you make something beautiful. Someone comes along and destroys it, and you have to find a way to go on together.
I was immediately struck by how this statement captured not only the struggle of making art, but the struggle of loving another person, and even the struggle of loving a nation through turmoil. I imagined a story that would weave together those three strands – the brothers’ relationship to each other, to their country (through the Cultural Revolution which devastated their family) and to their style of collaborative art.
Q: Your year in books has been tremendous. How did it happen that you had three books hit shelves in 2020? Are there more to come?
AA: Thank you! Well, it wasn’t supposed to happen quite like that. Two of them got bumped from their original pub dates, which for better or worse landed everything in a short five-month period. There’s actually one other out this year, 1789: Twelve Authors Explore a Year of Rebellion, Revolution, and Change (Candlewick), which makes two books with “revolution” in the title released on September 1!
Right now, I’m doing so many projects surrounding these books – creating short films, working on a book-donation and classroom art initiative, helping to curate an exhibit at Emory University (on Flannery O’Connor and the Black artist Benny Andrews), working on designing a geometric art game, and putting together a huge math + storytelling conference. So I’m struggling to find time for my future projects, but also dying to get to them!
Q: Your books celebrate painting, literature, mathematics and speak to children in a sophisticated way. Who is your ideal audience and how do you want them to experience your stories?
AA: I’ve never stopped loving picture books, and I guess I assume others feel the same way, so I write for both children and adults. To me the best way to make a book function on multiple levels is through metaphor. Metaphor is really the process of bringing disparate things into relationship, so in that way it creates both plot and the working out of ideas (why do these unlikely things go together?). So for example, in Strange Birds, there’s a little girl on a quest to find the strangest, most beautiful bird. But there is also a girl becoming a woman who will strive to write the strangest, most beautiful stories. The quest is for everyone, but older readers might also be inspired to think about how our life’s work grows out of childhood fascinations, how birds are like stories are like people, and maybe even the nature of strangeness. And I think when you write this way, the illustrator often has the chance to infuse their art both with beauty and concept, which again makes it function on different levels.
Recently a mathematician contacted me about The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity, saying that he was inspired by the book to revisit one of Ramanujan’s theorems. And he actually wrote and published a paper that mentions my book as the inspiration. He opens with this: “We loved this book. It turned out that this book can be enjoyed by all ages from 0 to ∞.” Then he closes with what he calls “morals” for his adult, mathematician readers, the first of which is: “Read Children's books.” So that pretty much sums up my wildest hope – that my books will be read by all ages and that they’ll inspire creative work in others.
Monday, November 9, 2020
Illustrated by Richard Jones (Whale in a Fishbowl), this book is an instant classic. It's one you'll want to give as gifts for birthdays and holidays. And most importantly, it's the one kids will want to read again and again.
QUESTION: This book is flawless. Can you talk about its journey from idea in your head to copy on the shelf? Did you have it fully formed in your mind? Or did it take years to refine and rework?
ALICE MCGINTY: Small Bear has an interesting backstory, and I’m happy to share.
The idea for Small Bear actually came from a parenting principle. During the past 10 years or so, I’ve been helping a psychologist use what he’s learned from his decades of experience with adolescents and their parents to write a parenting book called Childproofing for Adolescence. One day, he and I got to talking about how some of the principles in the book might play out as stories for young kids. It was a fun thing to think about! One principle we batted around was what he calls “put the conflict in the kid,” which means that the parent doesn’t have to nag their child if they set things up for the child to be motivated (and able) to complete tasks themselves. That plays out well in bedtime rituals, if stories, which are the motivator, come before a set bedtime (say 8 p.m.). The sooner the child completes their bedtime tasks — like brushing teeth, cleaning up, and getting p.j.s on (tasks they often dilly-dally with) — the more time they have for stories before that 8 p.m. bedtime. Gosh I wish I’d known to do that when my kids were young!
Anyhow, thinking about ways to play with that concept, I came up with the idea of bears and hibernation, since that bed time is set by nature and not the more arbitrary timeframe set by parents. Once I figured that out, the story formed really quickly in my mind, and I couldn’t wait to start writing. That said, (ha – it’s never that easy!) it took another couple of years and many, many revisions to refine the story and get the telling, the language, and pacing just right. I also had to work hard (and my editor helped a lot with this) to not make it too teachy, but just let the story play out.
Q: You've written wonderful informative nonfiction picture books. How did you decide to change gears and write such a snuggly, dreamy bedtime story?
AM: In the case of Small Bear, the parenting principles were my bridge into the story, so in that sense it’s got more of a nonfiction bent than you might see on the surface. And I actually had to do some research for Small Bear too – to make sure she was eating the right foods, collecting the right types of boughs for her nest, and even to make sure it was possible that she, as a “toddler,” would be in the den preparing with Mama bear for the winter. As a nonfiction author, I couldn’t “bear” the thought that I might get my bear facts wrong, even though the story was fiction!
Related to that, no matter whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I love narrative arc and story. To me it’s always about finding the arc of the story, whether it’s the story in a life through biography or the story in a parenting principle. I guess I love stories as much as Small Bear!
Q: Were there favorite books that influenced your writing as you contemplated A Story for Small Bear? Did you have favorites that came to mind as you created your own?
AM: This is an interesting question! While I didn’t have any particular books in mind as I pondered and wrote, on a deeper, more subconscious level, I think all my writing is influenced by the cannon of literature I’ve read throughout my life. In the case of Small Bear, I think the influences were the books that evoked feelings of playfulness, love, and security because these were the feelings I wanted to evoke in Small Bear’s story.
Some of these books, ones I grew up with and then read to my sons, were Goodnight Moon, for the secure feelings it brings, Curious George and Blueberries for Sal for their playfulness, The Snowy Day for its earnestness, Are You My Mother for its love and sweetness, and Chicken Soup with Rice and anything Dr. Seuss for their word play and poetry.
I really loved creating a world that rang with these warm, fuzzy feelings. During my many revisions, it was such a great feeling to jump back into the secure, sweet, loving world of Small Bear and Mama Bear. I wish we all could live in that world!
Monday, November 2, 2020
Chicago children's author Liesl Shurtliff is one of the busiest writers I know in children's lit. When she's not working on a new book, she's speaking to students in classrooms all over the country about the power of storytelling, or she's racing around town with her own bustling brood.
A New York Times bestseller for Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin (Knopf, 2013), which was followed by three more delightful fairytale retellings in Jack, Red, and Grump, Liesl is wrapping up another exciting and engaging middle-grade series. Time Castaways (Katherine Tegen Books) kicked off with The Mona Lisa Key (2018), then featured The Obsidian Compass (2019), and now the third and final The Forbidden Lock (October 2020) has hit shelves.
See what I mean? That's seven novels in seven years! Who does that?
The Time Castaways series demanded deft writing skills, which Liesl has plenty of, to keep track of time travel, complex mysteries, high adventure, and the distinct personalities of the intrepid trio. The books tell the story of the Hudson kids—Mateo, Ruby, and Corey—who jump on the wrong subway train and wind up on wild escapades throughout time.
Liesl took a moment out of her own wild escapades to share some of the inspiration behind Time Castaways. Click here to enter for a chance to win a copy of Book 3, The Forbidden Lock.
QUESTION: You take your trio on great adventures through history. What was the most interesting period/moment that you encountered as you wrote the series?
Q: Time travel is hard! What was the most challenging part of writing the series?
LS: Time travel is SO hard! Aside from keeping track of all the timelines and destinations, I think the hardest part for me was the infinite possibilities and the constant decisions that needed to be made. A lot of people might assume we writers would want infinite possibilities, but the truth is a story needs some constraints in order to have power and flow. My character had the power to travel anywhere, any time, and yet they couldn't actually go everywhere and to all times. That might be a fun adventure for them, but probably boring and/or confusing for the reader. I needed to make some tough decisions about where and when the Hudsons would travel and why. And that was STRESSFUL! How do I choose one destination or time period over another? There's so much I left out! I stressed just writing about it now!
LS: I think I'm still an 11-year-old at heart! So much made me giggle while writing this. There are some pretty great high-speed chase scenes through time and space right in the beginning that I think will really keep readers on the edge of their seats. There's also a great scene where time periods start to clash, and we see things come together that really do not go together, like dinosaurs in Central Park, and Napoleon Bonaparte taking over the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's all a bit mad-cap, and I think that definitely would have appealed to 11-year-old me. Quirky, bizarre stuff always delights and makes me giggle, but it's all blended with a heaping of heart and emotional depth. I like that stuff too. I think these books really showcase both sides.
Monday, October 26, 2020
The next stage I can’t seem to change, and I’ve come to pretty much accept it: no matter how much I may wish to plan—even my blog posts—I seem to need to discover what I really want to say in a piece through the writing itself. Only poetry tends to capture a meaning-laden image or thought more immediately.
Q: Where did the spark for the character of Reeni come from?
Thank you so much for this opportunity to share my experience with, and the issues in Reeni's Turn, Kate. I look forward to conversations with readers, their guiding adults, and writers who want to include more body positive, weight neutral issues into their work.
Monday, October 19, 2020
Birds are everywhere, Jennifer Ward tells readers in the delightful How to Find a Bird (Beach Lane Books, August 2020). We just have to watch for them, listen, and stay quiet. Spectacularly illustrated by Diana Sudyka, the nonfiction picture book by this Illinois duo is possibly the perfect title to share with a child right now in our socially distanced world.
Drawing inspiration from the outdoors and combining nature with STEM learning, Jennifer has published more than 25 nonfiction books (Mama Built a Little Nest, Mama Dug a Little Den, both from Beach Lane Books). And Chicago artist Diana is no slack: her stunning illustration style can be found in such titles as The Mysterious Benedict Society and What Miss Mitchell Saw. And visitors to the beloved bookstore Booked in Evanston, Illinois, will recognize her artwork adorning the charming door that welcomes bookbuyers both short and tall.
These wildly talented creators recently took a few minutes to talk about their book with me, and what inspired them. AuthorOf is especially excited (and grateful!) to be able to share the perspective of the author and the illustrator. For a chance to win a copy of How to Find a Bird, click here.
QUESTION: This book is so informative. How much time researching did you have to take to get down all the details? Can you talk about resources and your process?
JENNIFER WARD: Well, I’m such a bird nerd, truly. Each day of my life is immersed in birds. When I take a break from author-related work, I study bird behavior and read scientific bird publications, such as Living Bird published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I also volunteer at a wild songbird rehabilitation center in St. Louis. Each and every bird rescue is unique and presents opportunities to learn more about bird life.
In my free time I garden for birds, photograph birds, and I go birding each day in some manner. THAT said, the text for How to Find a Bird came naturally—that’s not to say I didn’t do research for the book: Is the Ivory Billed Woodpecker truly extinct? Searches are still underway, but no success in spotting one so far. However, when I need facts checked, I often reach out to the great folks at Audubon, in addition to experts in the field of birding I’ve gotten to know over the years. Birders are like kidlit people—kind, passionate about their work, and eager to share that passion with others. As far as my process goes, I write at my kitchen table where I have a 180-degree view of old growth forest outside my windows. Needless to say, it’s remarkable I get any writing done at all because I will drop everything and head outside when I see something that piques my curiosity through those panes of glass.
DIANA SUDYKA: The short answer is that I have been researching for this my entire life!
The much longer answer: Since a very young age, I have been interested in natural history. I spent a lot of time outside as a kid, and was gifted my first bird field guide in second grade. I still have that Peterson guide with all on my notes scribbled in it. Many years later I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to volunteer in the Chicago Field Museum’s Bird lab, and work alongside the collection’s manager Dr. David Willard. David trained me and other volunteers to document and preserve salvaged birds (70,000 and counting) that had collided with windows of downtown Chicago buildings. My specific job was to use a form of taxidermy to preserve the bird’s shape and plumage for creating research specimens. It is something that required skills that I had developed as an artist. In my 10+ years there, I learned so much about our native species of migratory birds, and the impact urban landscapes and climate change are having on them. I had incredible access to these research collections, and would often paint from the specimens. I have held extinct species like Passenger Pigeons and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in my hand; not something I take lightly.
Everything that I put into the choices I made for the illustrations for How to Find a Bird can be all traced back to those 10+ years in the bird lab. It opened my eyes to the incredible diversity and beauty of the birds that come through our Chicago area, and thus why my illustrations focus on North American species. Jen’s writing was so wonderfully clear that it wasn’t difficult to come up with particular species to match her words. I developed the roughs and when they were shared with Jen, I think she only had one or two requests for added species.
As far as overall aesthetic, I love early Richard Scarry and Feodor Rojankovsky illustrations from the Golden Book era. I wanted my work for How to Find a Bird to reflect some of that influence. I work mainly in gouache paint on paper, as those illustrators did. While most of my work is done traditionally, I also do quite a bit of digital touch up in the final stages. How to Find a Bird is probably my most digital work to date.
Q: We all have a favorite, spirit-animal bird. Which one is yours?
JW: Although I had a very cool, spiritual encounter with a Pueo once (Hawaiian Short-eared Owl), the hummingbird is my favorite spirit-animal bird as it's the one bird species that surfaces in my dreams a lot.
DS: I have many favorites, and oddly several are NOT in the book, whoops!
|AuthorOf enjoying her favorite door,|
at Booked in Evanston and painted by Diana
Q: How do you want kids to experience the book?
JW: I love to imagine young readers poring over each and every detail of Diana's stunning art—again and again and again—maybe noticing a detail not noticed before or relishing a favorite illustration or bird species; it’s so great how Diana labeled each bird species she illustrated in the book! I hope kids are familiar with some of them and inspired to learn more about others. I like to imagine the kids imagining themselves as the children in the book having adventures with birds.
I hope the experience with this book will also encourage readers to engage mindfully and playfully with their senses when out in nature, noticing and hearing things new to them, especially related to birds. It’s a big, wide bird-world out there (close to 10,000 bird species on the planet), and birding can be both a classroom and a playground for kids, rich with opportunities to wonder, discover, hypothesize and practice awareness, empathy and stewardship.
DS: I want kids to come away from the book understanding that birds are everywhere, and even the most undervalued, common species have much to offer. It’s why my first illustration spread in the book is of an urban setting showcasing two species of birds so many dislike: pigeons and House sparrows. Observing these most common of birds can lead to other questions and observations by kids: Why are there so many house sparrows and pigeons, or European starlings? What is the difference between a native species and something that was introduced? If they were introduced, who brought them here? Why? What is beautiful about them? Etc.
Also, I want kids to know that you don’t have to live in a rural area or a forest to see and appreciate birds. You don’t have to travel thousands of miles away to see an extraordinary species of bird, and that there is incredible diversity right here in our cities and backyards. For example, Chicago is along a major migratory flyway: Lake Michigan. We get thousands of birds migrating through our area every fall and spring. I want kids to learn that nature is not other, or far over there. It is home to us and so many other species. So, let’s start at home, connecting to the nature that is here that we may grow to value and protect it.
Monday, October 12, 2020
For fans of nonfiction, this is a gripping read full of infuriating injustice, entrenched sexism, and an eye-opening look at both American history and women's history. Rebecca was nice enough to make time for a quick interview.
QUESTION: You flew in a single-engine plane in order to get a sense of what the pilots you were writing about went through. Can you talk about your creative process and what it was like to research and write To Fly Among the Stars?
REBECCA SIEGEL: My creative process is a little like a wild rollercoaster ride. Or, given the subject matter, it might be more appropriate to say it’s like an hour spent in the cockpit of an aerobatic biplane. There are highs, lows, and plenty of moments when I wonder if I’ll vomit.
I’m an obsessive researcher-outliner. To craft my epic outlines, I read every book, memoir and website. I watch every video and documentary. I listen to every podcast and interview. I try to totally immerse myself in the world I’m writing about—to become not just an expert but an inhabitant—and it’s mostly pretty fun. I get such pleasure out of putting together stories like this, brick by brick, fact by fact. But I also tend to lose myself checking facts, then checking my fact checks, then checking my—oh god I’m going to throw up.
To yank myself up and out of these information spirals and reconnect with the story I’m trying to tell, I’ve learned that I have to physically connect with my subject matter. For some books, that’s walking through a historic site, smelling the grass and listening to the leaves rustle in the wind. For others, it’s climbing into a cramped cockpit and practicing losing power at 3,000 feet.
Finally, when I’ve armed myself with all the information I can possibly process, I let myself loose on the page. It’s awesome.
Q: What made you want to tell this story? And did you consider writing it as fiction—either for middle-grade readers or young adult? Or even for the adult market?
RS: From the moment I stumbled upon this story, I knew it was going to be a middle-grade book. It just had everything I wanted in a MG story: youthful protagonists pursuing audacious dreams, adventure, danger, science, and so. many. fast. cars. It was *kisses hand in theatrical chef’s kiss motion* perfect.
I never considered making this book fiction because, frankly, the truth was spectacular enough on its own. I think I’d worry that taking liberties with this story might devalue the actual history. For example, if I decided that Jerrie Cobb got to train in a jet with John Glenn in the fictionalized version of this story, that detail might undermine the fact that in her real life, she flew in a Navy trainer as part of her Pensacola astronaut fitness tests.
Q: How do you hope young readers experience your book? What do you hope they take away from it?
RS: You know that delicious feeling you get when someone hints that you won’t be able to do something, and then you go and do it on your own anyway? And you get that glowing warmth in the pit of your belly that comes from exceeding everyone’s expectations? You’re a tiny bit annoyed with them but mostly just really, really proud of yourself. And then you start thinking about the other things that you’ve been discouraged from trying, and you start wondering if maybe you could do those things, too?
THAT’S the feeling I hope kids get from the book.