Monday, February 25, 2013

Judith Bloom Fradin, Cheerleader for Non-Fiction

Judith Bloom Fradin's remarkable writing career has spanned three decades already. And there's much more still to come. Writing with her husband, Dennis Fradin, who passed away in August, they have produced more than 150 non-fiction books for children and won countless awards, such as the ABC Choice Award, IRA Teacher's Choice Award, and School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. They have made a tremendous contribution to feeding hungry minds with fascinating information on topics ranging from tsunamis to Sacagawea to slavery.

Their most recent recent books include Zora! The Life of Zora Neale Hurston (Clarion Books, 2012), which gives a detailed and fascinating account of the life of the Harlem Renaissance darling and author of Their Eyes Were Watching God; and The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery (Walker, 2013), about how the townspeople of Oberlin, Ohio, banded together to protect a runaway slave.

Question: Many of your books focus on African American history and the lives of prominent black Americans. What has inspired you to write stories like Zora! and The Price of Freedom?

Judith Bloom Fradin: Dennis and I got hitched in March of 1967. The following September, we both started teaching in all-black schools. I taught English at Marshall High School on Chicago's west side and he taught second grade across the street at Faraday Elementary School. Since we only had one rickety used car, that worked well for us.

Both schools were educational wastelands. Classes were large. There were few books in either building worthy of our eager-to-learn students. The literature anthologies at Marshall contained brief excerpts from novels and plays, most of those less than riveting. Once Dennis's second-graders learned to read, there were no engaging books for them. So we took matters into our own hands.

I had my students purchase a paperback called Black Voices, a compendium of African-American prose, poetry, drama and essays by the likes of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen and Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin and Richard Wright and Malcolm X. Dennis held his second-graders' attention at the end of the day by spinning stories about remarkable figures in black history. The deeper we delved into these topics, the more intrigued we became. One thing led to another, as Dennis loved to say. . .

Q: You and Dennis have been prolific writers. Where does the spark of an idea for a book come from?

JBF: During the second half of the 1990s, we worked together on From Sea to Shining Sea, a series of state books. The last full chapter of each book focused on that state's famous people. The seeds of many future Fradin books were found in the course of researching those chapters.

In other cases, a publisher asks us to do a series of books, such as the Marshall Cavendish series Turning Points in U.S. History, or we collaborate at designing a project like the Witness to Disaster series we wrote for National Geographic Children's Books.

We've had the good fortune to work with many of the best editors in the business on these various projects. But our favorite books are those born from ideas that we propose.

Dennis's favorite of those was his Samuel Adams: The Father of American Independence (Clarion).  He loved reading and writing about colonial history. My personal favorite thus far is our Ida B. Wells:  Mother of the Civil Rights Movement – also a Clarion book. One "Father," one "Mother." I think Ida is my favorite because it's our first literary child – the first extensive book we worked on together. Also because Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a complex, difficult, intrepid, and mesmerizing woman.

Our Clarion biographies paved the way for our other stand-alone books like 5,000 Miles to Freedom, Stolen into Slavery (both National Geographic Children's Books), and The Price of Freedom (Walker).

Q: The details you include in books like Zora! – such as when she finished her manuscript to a book but could not afford the $1.83 it cost to mail it to her Philadelphia publisher – are fascinating and lend so much to the richness of your biographies. How much research do you do for your books? And how long does it take to write them? 

JBF: I like to tell schoolchildren that my name is Judy "Research" Fradin. I LOVE research. For Dennis, library research was his means to the end of writing the book. For me, the picture research is primary. Ultimately, the two are endlessly intertwined, pulling us and, we hope, our readers, deeper and deeper into our story.

Q: What stories do you enjoy writing the most? What stories resonate most with you? 

JBF: We're both drawn to the quirky story that either hasn't been told before or that has been forgotten. There are still a few such Fradin books in the pipeline!

Q: Considering your body of work, what do you hope to accomplish as a writer?

JBF: I can't speak for Dennis, who has accomplished so very much. We frequently spoke, however, about non-fiction as a method of reaching a wider group of students.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your books?

JBF: Again, speaking for myself, I'd hope our books would inspire students to read more non-fiction, discovering how fascinating our world can be. Just call me a cheerleader for non-fiction!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ben Hatke and His Hero for All Ages, Zita the Spacegirl

When my second-grade son brought home  Zita the Spacegirl (First Second, 2011), a graphic novel about an intergalactic heroine on a quest to rescue her best friend, Joseph, and find her way back home, he slipped into his own sort of time-space portal just like Zita. He sat down with the book and didn't move until he'd finished reading  it. So off we went to scoop up the sequel, Legends of Zita the Spacegirl (First Second, 2012), from the school library.

But as a sure sign of the popularity of the Zita books, the sequel was checked out. And there was a lo-o-o-o-o-ng list of students who were eagerly awaiting their turn for Book 2. And a quick survey of his classmates revealed that most all of them – girls and boys – had read and adored at least one of the Zita books already.

Zita is conquering the reading universe. And with a third book in the series due to be released this year, we thankfully have more thrilling adventures to anticipate.

The creative force behind Zita is Ben Hatke, a classically trained artist, writer and comics creator. With a good dose of inspiration from his wife and four daughters, Ben has created a charming hero who leaves all of us cheering – including critics like Kirkus Reviews, which called Legends one of its Best Children's Books of 2012.

Question: Did Zita spring fully formed from your mind? Or did she evolve into the heroine we see in the books?

Ben Hatke: As a character, Zita took years to develop. Also, she’s originally the creation of my wife, Anna.

When I first met this adorable girl in college she showed me some comic strips she had drawn in high school. They featured a futuristic character called Zita the Space Girl. I started developing the character, mostly as a way to impress her. This girl eventually married me, so it’s still the best thing comics has ever done for me.

Those early Zita stories, the ones I made for Anna, were very silly, but that’s where her look started to develop. Later, when I started making short webcomics, I came back to Zita, and she began to get younger, eventually hovering around 10 or 11. And she became more of a world-hopping traveler, lost in space, and she started picking up friends. Her personality also evolved a little bit, and she became more headstrong.

When I got the opportunity to do the graphic novels, it was a chance to finally tell the story of why this girl was drifting from world to world.

Q: Were your wife and four daughters the inspiration for writing the Zita books? And if so, in what ways?

BH: Well, I already mentioned how my wife is the original creator of Zita, but she’s also a big influence on Zita’s character.

My daughters also find their way into the mix. They tend to influence the books in different ways. My eldest girl, Angelica (10), has even made coloring suggestions that have ended up being better than what I was doing at the time.

Also, when I’m writing a book, and before I start the artwork, I run the whole story by my family, verbally, and those initial reactions have a profound influence. When I was telling them the story for Zita 3, nobody wanted to sit down to dinner until I had finished. That was a good sign.

Also, it’s really handy from a drawing standpoint, to have a lot of adventurous kids running around as I try to catch their gestures and movements on paper.

Q: Often it's just the boys who get to be heroes on wild adventures and have all the fun, while girl protagonists are more often the stars of realistic fiction. Were you trying to fill that void with Zita? Why or why not?

BH: I don’t think I was consciously working to fill the void. I grew up with adventurous sisters, and now I have adventurous daughters. I think girl protagonists and adventurers just seem natural to me.

Q: While Zita offers up plenty of girl power, boys adore the stories, too. So often books for children are marketed just to one gender – boy books or girl books. Do you find you have both genders among Zita fans, and that perhaps we underestimate young readers? That a good story is a good story, regardless of whether the hero is a girl?

BH: I think we underestimate readers of all ages! I certainly don’t think of Zita as a boy book or a girl book, or even 100 percent children’s literature for that matter. It’s really a book crammed as full as possible of stuff that I, personally, think is cool.

I’m going for a true all-ages story. Hopefully there’s something for just about everyone to love.

I do find that the letters I get from fans of the books are close to even, gender-wise. I probably get slightly more letters from girl readers, but not a LOT more.

Q: As an author-illustrator, you have not only to write and conceptualize your book, you have to pace it and draw it too. How long does each book take, from idea to finished illustration? Can you speak to the creative process of your books?

BH: Writing, drawing, coloring and lettering a graphic novel takes a lot of time. There’s no way around that. Looking at the three Zita books, Zita 3 went extremely quickly at 9 or 10 months. Legends of Zita (the second book) took about a year and a half to finish. So it averages about a year.

I’m becoming a little more confident in my creative process these days. Getting the framework of the story settled is always the first phase. At this point, the writing and art are still separate. I make outlines on my computer and I also keep a sketchbook, dedicated to the book, for character designs and setting. I’ve learned to work very hard on the story outline.Later, when I start thumbnailing scenes, the writing and art start to come together. Though I work with a pretty solid outline for the story, there’s still a fair amount of detail and dialogue that I get to make up as I go. That’s part of the fun, and it keeps a sense of freshness to the process. A lot of the humor is stuff I probably made up on the fly.

The last phase comes after I have all the linework finished and scanned. I move on to coloring (and lettering). It’s like having a 200-page coloring book. I do my coloring with Photoshop, and it takes a couple months. I put in long hours and listen to a lot of podcasts during this phase!

Q: What's ahead for Zita? And for you? (And what's the story behind the Irish tin whistle?)

BH: The Return of Zita the Spacegirl (Zita 3) is completed and will be out later this year. I had a lot of fun writing and drawing this book, and I can hardly wait to share it with people!

Right now I’m working on a picture book called Julia’s House. It’s about a girl who hangs a sign outside her door that opens her house up to all the creatures no one believes in (trolls, dragons, mermaids, gnomes, etc.) and what happens when they actually show up.

The art for this book is all ink and watercolor, and I feel like I’m getting a good chance to stretch myself artistically. It’s a good feeling! Scary and exciting.

And after Julia’s House? I’ve got a lot of projects cooking. . .

Oh! And Tin Whistles! I usually carry one around in my bag. You know, just in case. . .

Monday, February 11, 2013

Carolyn Crimi on Pugs, Bugs, and What Makes Her Laugh

Some writers are born with a knack for plotting. Others with an ear for dialogue. But few come into the world with as finely tuned a funny bone as author Carolyn Crimi. She has written 13 picture books that are sure to elicit laughs and snorts from the youngest readers – as well as their adult companions. Carolyn is back with another of her joyful romps through storyland with Pugs in a Bug, illustrated by Stephanie Buscema (Dial, 2012). Part counting book, part rollicking adventure, Pugs in a Bug also features greyhounds in a bus, sheepdogs in a jeep, and even bulldogs driving cabs. It is a great fit for dog lovers everywhere.

Question: Pugs are adorable and inherently funny. Volkswagen Beetles are adorable and inherently fun. How did you hit on the stroke of genius to put the two together?

Carolyn Crimi: It just so happens that I own a Volkswagen Bug, although unlike the one in the book, mine is rarely a “clean,” green Bug. It is simply “green.” The very first time I put my pug, Emerson, in my VW Bug, I squealed, “A pug in a Bug!” That was about 10 years ago. I still have both my pug and my Bug, and now I also have a book about them.

Q: Lots of people have great ideas all the time. How do you take your creative, clever notions from idea stage to published book?

CC: A lot of my ideas never make it into books. That’s fine. Not all of my manuscripts are good enough to be made into books. Many people are surprised when I tell them that I have about 100 manuscripts of different lengths and degrees of completion in my computer, and yet I only have 13 books published. I’d say that most of my picture-book writing friends have just as many unsold manuscripts. Troubles arise when you feel you must publish a manuscript. Sometimes I’ll spend a long, long time on a manuscript and think that just because I’ve spent so much time and energy on it, I’ll sell it. Unfortunately that’s not the way it works.

If I really believe in a manuscript, I’ll revise it many times before sending it out to a publisher, while some manuscripts are just exercises that never leave my computer. It’s a different journey for each.

Q: Where does your creativity happen? On long walks in the woods, while scrubbing the dishes after dinner, at writer's retreats in the Vermont mountains?

CC: I’d say D, All of the Above. Although I’ve gotten an inordinate number of story ideas on my daily walk through the streets of Evanston.

Q: Because you write for the youngest readers, you must have a strong sense of the joys of being a child. Do you draw on memories from your childhood? Or have you just maintained a great connection to your younger self?

CC: I’d say that I actually have a strong sense of the agonies of childhood. Although I like to think that my books end on a hopeful note, they usually start with a problem that I’m having now or that I had as a child.

No one ever believes me, but I was a shy child. Right now I’m working on a book about a shy bunny who won’t say hello. I remember hating that whole, “Say hello to Mrs. Brown” rigmarole. I have always had stage fright, even though I love being on stage (go figure!), so Rock ‘N Roll Mole (Dial, 2011) stemmed from many memories of being petrified while on stage. I think if I started from a joyful or blissful memory of childhood, I’d write a pretty boring book.

Q: With characters from your books like these pugs, a rock-n-role mole, and a buccaneer bunny, you clearly have a sense of humor. What inspires you to write such fun and funny books? What makes you laugh? 

CC: I like taking stereotypes and turning them inside out. A bear pirate isn’t nearly as funny as a bunny pirate. Likewise, a lion rock star would be expected, but a mole?

These are the kinds of things I think about. Like, all day. Hippo fairies, pig princesses, warthogs in love, professorial monkeys, it’s all funny to me. Animals make me laugh in general. There’s not a day that goes by when I’m not laughing at my pug.

I write humor because I need humor. When I’m sad or frustrated, I’ll watch a funny movie or read a funny book. I cope with the world through humor. And hey, it’s a lot cheaper than therapy.

Monday, February 4, 2013

My Funny Valentine: Brenda Ferber's 'Yuckiest' Picture Book

Valentine's Day is almost here, and love is in the air. Or if that's not love, it's a serious craving for chocolate. We'd like to celebrate the big day by talking to Brenda Ferber, author of the brand-new picture book The Yuckiest, Stinkiest, Best Valentine Ever (Dial, December 2012). Brenda has also published two middle-grade novels with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire and Julia's Kitchen, winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award in 2007.

Question: Your other books are middle-grade novels. What inspired you to write The Yuckiest, Stinkiest, Best Valentine Ever and speak to a younger audience? 

Brenda Ferber: With my novels, I write for the adolescent I used to be because those memories are so close to my heart. But I honestly don’t remember much from when I was very young. However, when I wrote Yuckiest Stinkiest, I had two second-graders and a first-grader, so I was knee-deep in story ideas for that age-group.

The impetus for this particular story came when I was charged with bringing a Valentine’s Day book to my daughter’s class party. I looked in the book store and the library, but I didn’t find anything I thought would appeal to this group of sophisticated second-graders. I knew they’d be bored by anything moralistic, and they’d cringe at anything too lovey-dovey. I was looking for an adventurous, humorous book to share with them about Valentine’s Day, and I couldn’t find one. So I decided to try to write one myself.

I remembered the year before, when my then first-grade son had come home from school on Valentine’s Day and begun sorting his class valentines into two piles – good and bad. I wondered how he was determining which valentine went into which pile, especially since he wasn’t even opening them. It turned out he didn’t know or care who the cards were from; the good ones had candy attached. For him, Valentine’s Day was Halloween in February. It was all about the candy.

Contrast that with my younger son, who was a born romantic. He had big crushes since preschool, and he was very giving and demonstrative with his love. For him, Valentine’s Day was the perfect holiday because it was a day to share and celebrate love, his favorite thing. I wanted to write a story showing these two ways of approaching the holiday, because in my opinion, Valentine’s Day is about both candy and love. To make it funny, I exaggerated my sons’ characteristics and turned things upside down by having the valentine – who you’d think would be all for love – be the character who prefers candy to anything mushy or romantic. Then, to make it adventurous and to raise the stakes, I created a big chase.

In the original story that I read to my daughter’s class, the chase actually went around the world and ended with the valentine jumping into a bubbling volcano. Alas, I discovered a valentine suicide is not the best ending to a picture book! Over the next five years, I revised the story extensively, changing just about everything except the main concept. It was great fun and rewarding to see the story develop into what it is today.

Q: Did you find writing a picture book to be freeing in some ways from a middle-grade book? Were there more opportunities to tap your funny bone? 

BF: I don’t know if freeing is the right word. I felt a ton of pressure. I have a good sense of humor, but I’m not actually funny. I surround myself with funny people, and I love to laugh, but I’m not usually the person who makes other people laugh. Yet, here I was, determined to write a funny picture book. I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I tried. The thing that helped was that whenever I write, I approach it as a reader, so even though I’m putting the words on the page, I’m imagining reading those words for the first time and reacting internally the way a reader might. When I made myself laugh, I knew I was on the right path.

Q: What were you hoping to convey to young readers with Yuckiest? Not so much hitting them with a message, but in the spirit of the book? 

BF: Ultimately, it’s a book about vulnerability. It takes a ton of courage to tell someone how you really feel, especially when you can’t be sure if those feelings will be reciprocated. But nothing risked is nothing gained. Leon starts the story not even considering vulnerability. He’s never been hurt, so why should he worry? But the valentine and everyone he meets on the chase make him aware of just how complicated and risky love is. 

The image of Leon totally freaked out when he realizes this cracks me up because it's so real. Love is complicated! Love involves risk and vulnerability. But in the end (spoiler alert!), of course Leon’s crush loves him back, and not only that, but the valentine falls in love, too. So I guess what I’m saying is, it’s okay to be afraid of love, but don’t let that stop you. That said, readers might come away from the book with a completely different interpretation, and that's okay with me.
Book Giveaway Alert! Brenda will send a free, autographed copy of her book to one lucky reader who adds a comment to this post!
Q: Having an illustrator, and such a remarkable one as Tedd Arnold, can add an exciting dimension to a story – for both the reader and the author. Can you speak to what it was like seeing Tedd's interpretation of your story? And what his illustrations do for readers? 

BF: I absolutely fell in love with Tedd Arnold’s illustrations for my book! He added a whole other level of depth and humor to the story. There are so many fun details that make multiple readings a joy. For example, you might notice that when Leon is thinking about his crush, his pupils are heart-shaped. And the little girl who loves all this romance has a small tear in her eye that grows bigger as the story progresses. And then there’s the teen who goes on and on about how she can find out if Leon’s crush loves him back. She talks so much that her words literally get squeezed off the page.

Tedd makes the characters truly come alive. I imagine kids and adults will enjoy poring over the illustrations time and time again. I also love the way the book looks like a large, vibrant Sunday comic. I think this format will especially appeal to older picture book readers, and since the story concept is funnier the older you get, this illustration style seems to me to be the perfect fit.

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your books – from Yuckiest to Jemma to Julia?

BF: I think reading is such a personal experience that I can’t really care what people take away from my books. I just hope they take something. When I first started out on my writing journey, I created a mission statement, and it holds true today. It goes like this: I aim to write books that touch the heart and soul and allow readers to see themselves and the world in a new way. So if I can make you laugh with this picture book, or cry with one of my novels, or if something I’ve written gives you that aha moment where you see things in a fresh and different way, then I’ve done my job.