Monday, September 30, 2013

Matt Phelan Spotlights Buster Keaton With 'Bluffton'

For history buffs looking for interesting stories told in creative and compelling ways, Matt Phelan is the go-to author. Nominated more than once for an Eisner Award, the comic book equivalent of the Oscars, and recipient of the prestigious Scott O'Dell Award, Matt is an artist who can weave an engaging tale. Examples of his talent as an illustrator are many – The Higher Power of Lucky by Newbery-winner Susan Patron, Flora's Very Windy Day by Jeanne Birdsall, Xander's Panda Party by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, September 2013). But Matt's latest graphic novel, Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton (Candlewick, July 2013), showcases for the third time his talent as a storyteller.

In what Kirkus calls in a starred review, "Thrilling—a spirited, poignant coming-of-age vignette," Bluffton tells the story of Henry Harrison, a somewhat bored boy who becomes fascinated with vaudeville life when Buster Keaton and his outrageous troupe tumble into the Lake Michigan beach town of Bluffton for the summer. While Henry wants to learn all the tricks he can from Buster, who's known as the "human mop," young Buster just wants to be a regular kid. Using watercolor and pencil, Matt conjures up the simple pleasures of summertime – baseball, swimming in the lake, fishing off the dock, pulling pranks on unsuspecting neighbors. We see the boys' two very different childhoods through these summers together, and the story wraps up with a sweet ending as a mature Henry looks back.

Matt's other two graphic novels are both from Candlewick as well, and both earned starred reviews from Kirkus, too. Around the World (2011) spotlights three adventurers who set out on solitary journeys to circle the globe. Thomas Stevens pedaled a bicycle from San Francisco around the world to Japan in 1884. A few years later in 1889, daredevil journalist Nellie Bly took off on steam ship and train to beat the 80 days mentioned in Jules Verne's popular novel (and met the author along the way). And starting in 1895, seafarer Joshua Slocum set sail. Matt highlights their amazing physical feats as well as their internal, personal journeys. Booklist praises Around the World for ". . . tight research and a gift for evoking both an era and the personalities that lived in it, the stories are greatly abetted by the magic of Phelan’s art."

With The Storm in the Barn (2009), Matt tells the story of an 11-year-old loner named Jack, whose family is suffering through the Dust Bowl. In a blending of historical fiction and superhero action, Jack battles the demon that's tormenting his family and the small Kansas town. When Storm won the 2010 Scott O'Dell Award for historical fiction, it caused a bit of a dustup. It was a graphic novel after all, not a traditional, text-heavy story. The Horn Book's Roger Sutton defended the committee's choice, saying, "The Storm in the Barn has all the ingredients of great fiction–astute characterization, evocative atmosphere, a compelling story, a theme rewarding consideration–and gives us a unique vision of the Dirty Thirties." Read Matt's interview with the Horn Book about Storm.

Question: You have been the illustrator for a variety of children's books, from picture books to middle-grade novels. What made you want to wear the author's hat, too? And why?

Matt Phelan: It was really just that I got the idea for The Storm in the Barn. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the story and writing it myself seemed like the only way to get it done. I had what Orson Welles' called the "confidence of ignorance." I didn't know what would be involved in writing a graphic novel, so I just plunged ahead.

Q: Like your second graphic novel, Around the World, Bluffton looks at the life of a remarkable trail-blazer. What made you choose to explore Buster Keaton's life? Was it hard to find ways to make his experiences relate to today's kids?

MP: I've been a lifelong fan of Buster Keaton. I think he was a true artist. When I read about his summers spent in Bluffton in his autobiography, I realized it would be a great way to get to the heart of Buster. I think the idea of a child star, which he certainly was, is something today's kids can relate to. If you met a kid who could flip in the air backwards and land on his feet, you would find that pretty cool.

Q: Many graphic novels have a comic-book feel, but your illustrations are done in a softer style that creates a sense of nostalgia. Can you talk about your creative process and how you use your art to set the tone and help tell the story?

MP: I came to graphic novels from picture books where I was using watercolors, pastels, whatever was needed for the particular book. I applied that approach to comics. Personally, I find that by using paint as opposed to digital, I can get closer to the mood I'm trying to achieve. I experimented with digital for The Storm in the Barn, but quickly discovered that I could get a better dusty effect with watercolor.

Q: From first lightbulb of an idea to finished manuscript, how long does it take for you to produce a book? And are you generally working on other illustration projects at the same time?

MP: Well,  the lightbulb seems to be one of those long-lasting, environmentally friendly bulbs because my ideas tend to spend several years just slowly stewing. The idea for Storm first came to me in 2003, six years before it came out. The germ of the idea for Bluffton is nearly 20 years old. Once it really clicks and I figure out the story, the process of writing, sketching, and painting the book takes about two years. With the exception of Bluffton (for the most part), I'm usually also working on other books at the same time. I don't necessarily recommend this.

Q: Graphic novels are incredibly popular with young readers. My own boys devour them like candy. But your books tend to carry more heft and vitamins than the typical graphic novel. What do you hope to accomplish with your books?

MP: I see graphic novels as a wonderful medium for telling stories. You can tell any kind of story you want: silly stories, superhero stories, historical fiction, whatever. I'm interested in seeing if I can achieve the "heft" of a prose novel in a graphic novel. I like stories with a bit of emotional resonance.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Meghan McCarthy's 'Daredevil' Spotlights Woman Aviator

Pioneering aviator Betty June Skelton broke air, land, and sea records, and even trained to become the first woman in space. She broke so many barriers that she was nicknamed the "First Lady of Firsts." Award-winning author-illustrator Meghan McCarthy brings Betty's remarkable story to life in the brightly illustrated, information-packed  Daredevil: The Daring Life of Betty Skelton (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2013).

While some picture book biographies tend to play the illustrations straight and serious, Meghan's nonfiction books are recognizable immediately by her signature, wide-eyed style. In a starred review, Kirkus says the "acrylic cartoon illustrations play up Betty’s spunk and derring-do with McCarthy’s trademark googly eyed expressions." Her delightfully lively style makes her other titles easy to spot: Pop! The Invention of Bubble Gum (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2010), Seabiscuit the Wonder Horse (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2008), The Incredible Life of Balto (Knopf, 2011), and Strong Man: The Story of Charles Atlas (Knopf, 2007), to name a few.

Question: You've written about bubble gum, a legendary racehorse, a life-saving dog, among many other topics. What inspired you to choose the life of little-known aviation pioneer Betty Skelton?

Meghan McCarthy: I actually struggled with this topic at first because Betty seemed to have an awe-inspiring life. When I write a biography, I like to include a little struggle—something to give the story a nice arch. But Betty was such a positive person that I couldn’t find any struggle! She put a positive spin on everything! I know it seems odd that I, a writer for children, would be looking for some sad drama, but I kind of was. I couldn’t find any. Even when Betty wasn’t chosen to go to space, she was okay with it. She seemed to enjoy the experience and said she loved working with the astronauts. She’d followed the career of John Glenn her whole life and wrote him letters but said he never wrote back. She just laughed about it. She was such a good-natured lady.

Why is Betty Skelton the person to write about? Because she didn’t care if girls weren’t supposed to fly planes or race cars or jump boats or be advertising executives. She just did what she wanted to do. As a kid I was like that. I played on an all boys baseball team. I distinctly remember running home and telling my dad that I needed a glove and socks and a “cup.” My dad sheepishly explained why I didn’t need one of those! Betty did things bigger and better than I ever could and that’s what I think is so awesome.

Q: Writing picture book biographies for young readers is challenging, because you have to distill a life down to 32 pages. Was it difficult to choose what to include in Daredevil?

MM: I’m so glad you asked this question because I don’t think a lot of people know that authors are limited to certain page counts. Picture books are either 32, 40, or in certain cases 48 pages. I was fortunate enough to get 48 pages for Daredevil. I always have a vision for the overall look of the book, but a lot of times I have to alter it because of the page-count limit.

An example of a spread that I wanted in Daredevil and was able to keep because I had 48 pages to play with was the wordless spread of the young Betty flying solo. Flying solo was a turning point in her life, and it was a powerful one. I didn’t want words or other images to clutter the page. I wish I had more opportunities to spread out my stories and sentence structures. Doing so also makes it easier for kids to digest nonfiction text.


Even with 48 pages, I still had to limit what I could talk about. Betty did SO many things. I had to pick and choose. As with all picture book biographies, they’re snippets of someone’s life. I pulled out small pieces—things I thought kids would relate to and find interesting. The goal with my books is to get kids excited about the subjects they’re reading. I want them to run to the computer after reading one of my books and read more. Lots more. I want them to become the researcher.

Q: What I loved about the book is the positive tone. Betty experienced so many disappointments – especially training with the Mercury 7 astronauts only to be passed over for the ultimate flight. But there is no whiff of bitterness here; you just show a strong woman who moves on to other fascinating adventures. Was she really such a positive force?

MM: Betty was really that positive. I didn’t exaggerate or skirt over anything because I was writing for kids. If you watch the oral video biography with Betty done in the late 1990s you’ll see what I mean. Betty really wasn’t upset about not going to space, which I found a little perplexing. Some of the astronauts, such as John Glenn, were against women going into space and said some pretty sexist things. It seems hard to believe that she couldn’t have been a little upset about the way things were. She may have been somewhat angry, but she didn’t exhibit this anger publicly. From all accounts that I’ve read, everyone said she was really a sweet lady.

Q: Why have you chosen to write and research historical figures over writing fiction?

MM: I started out my career writing fiction. At the time when I decided to write my first nonfiction book—Aliens Are Coming – there weren’t a lot of fun choices for kids in the nonfiction genre. The fiction market, on the other hand, was flooded. I didn’t feel that if I continued writing fiction, I’d be contributing anything substantial to it. I thought that if I applied the same sense of humor and fun found in my fiction books to nonfiction works, I could contribute something new to nonfiction. As I delved into my topics I realized that I wasn’t just educating children, I was educating myself. I was really enjoying the process.

I have discovered that I have the ability to take adult subject matter and make it kid-friendly. If you approached the me as a grade-schooler and told me that I would be writing nonfiction books, I’d never believe it. That me was the space-cadet in the back of class doodling in a note pad. I’m writing books for the kids like I was.

Q: Who or what has been your favorite topic to write about so far?


MM: That’s a popular question kids usually ask when I do school visits.  My answer is that I don’t have a favorite book or topic. I learn something new from each book that I do. I do tell kids that Aliens Are Coming is important to me because it was my first nonfiction book. It is pretty cool that I got to paint so many slimy aliens for a nonfiction title.

My mom doubts that I don’t have a favorite subject. My favorite is always the current book that I’m working on. Right now I’m working on a graphic novel that is somewhat about Thomas Edison. I’m learning so many things about him. Some of the details are really surprising!

Q: What do you hope young readers take away from your books? What do you hope to accomplish as a writer?

MM: I want kids to get excited about history, science, and the world around them. There are so many interesting things to learn. It’s all in how it’s taught.

Q: What will we see next from you?

MM: My next book is called Earmuffs for Everyone! And it’s about the invention of earmuffs. There will be a lot of goofy paintings of people wearing silly contraptions that were considered early versions of earmuffs.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Billie Holiday Inspires Amy Novesky's 'Mister and Lady Day'

While much has been written for adults about the remarkable jazz singer Billie Holiday and her tragic life, telling her story to children is a bit trickier. With a childhood scarred by neglect and violence, and later a career marked by drug abuse and prison time, the singing legend's life is not easily boiled down into a simple storyline. But author Amy Novesky has found a way in.

Mister and Lady Day: Billie Holiday and the Dog Who Loved Her (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2013), vividly illustrated in mixed media by Vanessa Brantley Newton, tells the story of Billie Holiday's love of dogs, especially her loyal hound Mister, a boxer. Opening with images of a white poodle in her coat pocket and bottle-fed Chihuahuas, this story is sure to connect and appeal to young children. And as with Amy's other biographical picture books – about photographer Imogen Cunningham with Imogen: The Mother of Modernism and Three Boys (Cameron + Company, 2012),
artist Frida Kahlo with Me, Frida (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010), and Georgia O’Keeffe with Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O'Keeffe Painted What She Pleased (Harcourt Children's Books, 2012) – it's clear this author has a gift for telling the story of talented 20th century women.

Question: Billie Holiday is legendary and her music speaks to many generations. What made you want to write about "Lady Day"?

Amy Novesky: I've always loved Billie Holiday, and I couldn't believe that there weren't any picture books about her. Like Frida, Georgia, and Imogen, subjects of my other picture books, I'm inspired not just by Billie as an artist, but as a person. When I think of Billie Holiday, I think of her elegance, her signature gardenia flowers framing her lovely face, the unforgettable tone of her voice. She was an extraordinary person, in addition to being an extraordinary singer.

Q: Writing biographies for children is challenging, especially when the material about the subject's childhood is slim. But by framing your story around Billie's love of dogs, you've created an engaging tale that connects immediately with young readers. How did you land on this as your story? Can you talk about your creative process?

AN: When I set out to write a picture book about Billie, I quickly realized why there were no picture books about her: she had a tough life. A father who abandoned her, a mother in survival mode, prostitution, drug addiction and conviction, early death. Tough themes for a kid's book. But I like a good challenge. Just because she had a tough life, doesn't mean kids shouldn't know about her. Her challenges make her human, and that's something everyone can relate to. And she had this incredible gift! That said, I wanted to find an accessible way into her story. While I was researching Billie's life, I learned that she loved dogs and that she had several in her life, including a beloved boxer named Mister. That's when I knew I had a story (and the title for a book). Billie's dogs were my way into her story.

Some of my other stories have not been as immediately clear. I begin with an idea for a story and then I research. I learn everything I can about the subject, seek out primary sources when I can. I usually don't know what story I will tell, but when I do, I focus in. The challenge with the lesser known stories is that there is less known, less documented, less written. That was certainly the case with my book about Frida Kahlo. I chose to tell the story of her first trip to San Francisco, a footnote in her biography. It took some time for this story to become a story, many drafts and directions (factual and fictional; I invented an earthquake), a handful of rejections from publishers, even a few years in a desk drawer, until I happened upon the one detail (an art show, perhaps her first) that shifted this story from static to dynamic, and the story was acquired, and two years later, became a book. A few of my "too-slight" stories are still in the proverbial desk drawer to emerge, if ever, on their own time.

Q: While Billie Holiday's life is fascinating, some of her experiences are hard to explain for a young audience. But you handled her arrest and drug conviction deftly. How challenging was that to navigate?

AN: Very. I'm the mother of an eight year old boy. I certainly don't want to expose him, or any young reader, to anything that he is not ready for. And so, me and my editor, Samantha McFerrin, gave a lot of thought to just how much to say about Billie's drug conviction and prison term, the reason for her having to leave Mister behind for a year and a day. What we decided to focus on was this idea of Billie getting into trouble, something young readers can relate to. What that trouble was doesn't really matter. That said, because kids want to know the truth, the author's note explains why Billie got into trouble and where she went. (Author's notes are a great place to put everything that doesn't quite fit into the narrative.) I'm not sure if this works, but it's what we chose to do.

Q: You're the author of a variety of titles for young readers, including many that spotlight remarkable women. How do you decide on your subjects? And what do you want to accomplish with your writing?

AN: I write about what inspires me – people (Ganesh, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keeffe, Imogen Cunningham, Billie Holiday) and places (India, San Francisco, Hawaii). I'm always looking for stories. When I come upon an idea, I spend time researching it, and if I find the thread of a story, if I feel like I want to spend several years of my life with it and believe in it as a book, if I can envision promoting it, then I will start writing. Every story has a life of its own. My new picture book biography manuscript was inspired nearly eight years ago by a New York Times article. But when I started researching this particular artist, I did not connect with her life and her work, and so I put the idea aside, until a year and a half ago when I happened upon a new monograph of the artist's late work, which I very much connected with, and I immediately found the thread, an entire tapestry, of the story and wrote it in a week. It flowed.

I love writing picture book biographies, and as long as I am inspired, I will write them. That said, the more I write them, the more humbled I am by the responsibility of writing about a real person, of getting it right. I'm humbled by the responsibility of making a book public and promoting it. This is leading me to only write what I feel passionate about, what I believe in wholeheartedly. And so, I'm at a crossroads with my writing and my identity as a writer.

Q: What else will we see from you? What's next?

AN: What will I write next? I'm not sure. I have a handful of manuscripts out with editors right now, including the picture book biography mentioned above, and a baseball book, inspired by a story my son wrote. (His stories are much better than mine). Beyond that, something wonderful and true, I hope.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Her Father's Civil Rights Struggle Inspires Pamela Tuck

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and major milestones in the Civil Rights movement, Pamela Tuck's As Fast as Words Could Fly (Lee & Low Books, 2013) makes a timely and inspiring read. Based on her father’s real-life experiences dealing with 1960s school segregation in the South, As Fast as Words Could Fly tells the story of fictional Mason Steele, who helps his father by writing letters for him – first by hand and then using a manual typewriter.

Young Mason's typing skills are so good, he enters a typing competition and the chance to represent his new school – a "whites only" high school he's been allowed to attend through a court desegregation battle. Despite the injustice he faces from students and faculty, Mason uses his talents to triumph over racial prejudice.

Pamela's story was awarded Lee & Low’s New Voices award in 2007, which led to the publishing of this picture book, richly illustrated by Eric Velasquez.

Question: Where did the inspiration for As Fast As Words Could Fly come from?

Pamela Tuck: The inspiration to write As Fast As Words Could Fly was sparked by my husband, Joel. He found out about Lee & Low Books offering a New Voices Award, and after reading some of their titles, we agreed that my dad’s story would be perfect to submit to them.

Q: You were the recipient of the New Voices Award for this story. What did winning that award mean to you? And what did it mean for your story?

PT: Winning the award empowered me as a writer. Prior to submitting my dad’s story to Lee & Low Books, I had attended my first SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) conference in June 2007. I was delighted with all the helpful information from authors, editors, and agents, yet I left discouraged because I didn’t feel that I had the time to devote to my writing that was outlined by some of the speakers. I hit a writing slump and didn’t write for a while. Once my husband persuaded me to write my dad’s story, my hope began to grow. I submitted my manuscript to Lee & Low Books in September 2007, and in December 2007, I received a call from one of the editors announcing me as the winner of their New Voices Award!

I view the New Voices Award as an honorable recognition of my dad’s unrewarded triumph as a youth participating in the Civil Rights Movement. My dad’s ordinary acts of bravery can now be shared with the world and hopefully inspire others. I’m thankful to have his story included where it belongs: in African American history.

Q: What made you decide to write for a young audience? And how did you decide that picture books were your niche?

PT: I am a mother of 11 children, so I had a young audience long before I decided to write for them. I became interested in writing for children after a family night of storytelling. We sat around telling silly stories “off the top of our heads.” When my turn came around and I began speaking, my story unfolded and left my family captivated. I think that was when I decided to write picture books. Again, Joel served as the spark to my children’s book writing journey. We researched the children’s book market, joined SCBWI to learn more about the industry, shared the joy of my first publication contract, and he remains one of my biggest fans as I continue to hone my craft.

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

PT: I hope readers take away the spirit of hope and aspiration after reading about Mason. Although this story deals with the cold realities of the Civil Rights Movement, I want the rewards of hard work, determination, and perseverance to resonate. My desire is that every child who reads my book realizes that their accomplishments cannot be limited by the opinions of others.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? And what will we see from you next?

PT: As a writer for children, my goal is to enlighten and inspire my readers to believe in themselves, embrace diversity, and have the courage to make a positive difference. I have two historical fiction projects in the works: a picture book and a middle-grade novel. I hope both of these projects will be added to my list of published works.