Monday, December 16, 2013

Grandson Inspires Esther Hershenhorn's 'Txtng Mama'

Esther Hershenhorn is known widely among Illinois children's authors as the heart and soul of SCBWI in this part of the country. Not only did she serve on the board of advisors for 10 years, she was the Illinois director 17 years, which means she's crossed paths with plenty of Midwestern authors, as well as more far-flung writers. 

As a teacher at the University of Chicago's Writer's Studio and Chicago's Newberry Library, and a writer herself – of the middle-grade novel The Confe$$ion$ and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut (Holiday House, 2002), poetry The Poetry Friday Anthology (Pomelo Books, 2012), and non-fiction S Is for Story: A Writer's Alphabet (Sleeping Bear Press, 2009) to name just a few – Esther brings her vast knowledge of children's literature to her role as a writing coach. She is a tireless champion of aspiring children's writers, both in her hometown of Chicago and beyond.

She returns to writing for the youngest readers with her latest book, Txtng Mama Txtng Baby (Sleeping Bear Press, 2013), a sort of ode to her out-of-state grandbaby.

Question: You're the author of poetry, picture books, a middle-grade novel. What made you want to write for the very youngest audience with Txtng Mama Txtng Baby?

Esther Hershenhorn: Most folks don’t know that Txtng Mama Txtng Baby marks my return to writing for the very youngest audience. I first began working to realize my Children’s Book Author Dream when Jimmy Carter was President, creating a personalized alphabet book to mark my son’s first birthday. Knowing that my son’s son inspired my newest book still has me smiling.

My raised Baby Antennae had traveled far and wide while my grandson was in utero, bringing me images of mamas thumbing their hand-held devices and babies finger-swiping the same.

Texting mamas, I repeated to myself. Texting babies. . . What’s up with that?


 It took out-of-the-box thinking, time, and some doing to figure out the story and consider the telling’s possibilities. I eventually settled on tunefully arranged familiar text expressions (think: I C U, xoxox, LOL) that created a through-the-day conversation between a mama and her baby. I’d always envisioned the board book as a cell phone look-alike, so I was especially pleased when Sleeping Bear Press created just that vertical (finger-swiping) format and chose colorful, baby-loving, easily identifiable emoticons as the illustrations.

My first book, The A to Z of Me, came close to being published by both Western Publishing and a toy manufacturer.  However, the technology did not exist to produce the book in a cost-effect manner. Ironically, today’s technology – i.e. laptops, cellular phones, iPads, reading devices – is the story that Txtng Mama Txtng Baby tells, and thinking about that fact widens my smile. Of course, the message remains the same in both baby board books: Mama loves Baby.

Q: You've cleverly merged our busy, electronic world with what you call "the ultimate hand-held device." What was your goal with Txtng Mama Txtng Baby? What did you set out to accomplish?

EH: I knew from the get-go I wanted to bring today’s Techy-Teachy World to the pages of a board book. Babies live and breathe this wired world. 

Giving babies a way to see themselves and this world in a book seemed smart to me. Which is not to say I didn’t consider apps and/or ebooks and story-telling with all sorts of bells and whistles as the perfect vehicle. However, my love for The Book trumped all other story-telling possibilities. I wanted babies to be able to hold this phone look-alike, to open it, close it, turn it, even eat it. I wanted these newest of readers to be exposed to letters, and to be eyeing those letters from left to write. I wanted them looking at cheery images that told a familiar story. I wanted these newest of listeners hearing the pleasing rhythm of the chosen text expressions. I wanted them to have fun!

And I wanted them sharing this experience with Someone Who Mattered – a parent, a grandparent, a sitter, a sibling.

I knew there would be folks who wouldn’t get the idea; I knew there would be those who wondered if I’d “lost it.” I could hear their responses: “I thought you loved literacy, Esther?! But I knew in my heart there would be many more Mamas and Babies, and their older siblings too, who would grab the book and hold it tight for countless fun re-readings.

Technology is a given.

Text is a language, now taught in some schools, believe it or not, so students can text their parents at the end of the day. Research has proven that when babies and toddlers interact with technology, engaging, interacting humans must be present too.

Q: Some readers and writers still shy away from digital books, even though this format is here to stay. But I believe storytelling is storytelling, no matter whether the delivery form is a paper book or a tablet. Where are you on ebooks, paper books, and early literacy?

EH: Well, back in the day, when I was teaching young children and parenting, I was happy as long as the child – mine or another’s – was reading, period. Comic books? Cereal boxes? Baseball cards? Game boards?

It didn’t matter. I simply wanted the child to be reading.

I still want that. So many folks now distinguish the vessels that deliver the content (ebook, iPad, book) from the delivered stories. Visiting classrooms, I see so many Kindles and Nooks stacked at the back of the room with students’ books for Free Reading Time. Text books are digital. Kids blog daily.

A Luddite at heart, I first balked at and bashed many of those technological “vessels.” I’ve come to see that, again, I want the child reading, no matter the vessel – good stories, told well, so well they resound in the reader’s heart.

Q: You've been an author and a teacher for years, but you're also a professional writing coach. Where does your heart lie? Are you happy wearing all three hats? Do you feel that each role has informed the other?

EH: In a true Quest story, the Hero returns with something so much better than that which he first sought. Such was my Writer’s Journey: I not only uncovered and recovered my voice, so I could go on to author my children’s books; I became a Writing Teacher and Writing Coach, working with adults who want to tell their stories to children.

Lucky me! as it says on my website.

I am indeed happy wearing all three hats. I began my career teaching fifth grade. Once a teacher, always a teacher. And in 87 Lifetimes, I could never meet the singular people with whom I’ve had the privilege of working; I could never know such amazing stories.

As I wrote in a recent TeachingAuthors post – because that’s what I am, a TeachingAuthor, I learn more than my students do. I invest in the writer, I invest in his story, researching content, exploring comparable tellings, coming to know his Writer’s story, drawing from the reader the story that needs telling.

In many ways, each class I create, each narrative I offer a writer, is a mini-story all its own.
I learn what the writer wants and needs, I spend time learning the why, and then I figure out the how. I do the same for my characters.

Sometimes, of course, like now (!), when I’ve needed to put my own writing aside to help another, my character begins expressing her anger, jabbing at my bones from the inside-out. The Good News is: when I do return to my novel, I’ll be so much smarter, thanks to the writers I coach and the students I teach.

All three roles allow me to live and work within the Children’s Book World. Again, Lucky me!

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? What do you hope readers take away from your books?

EH: I’ve heard it said that a writer writes the same story, just in different ways, each time he writes. There’s an underpinning – or what I think of as a heart, a belief a writer holds that he wants the world to know. That insight certainly applies to me and the books I’ve written and published.

No matter the format in which I’ve chosen to tell my story, I want my reader knowing: he or she is important. Not in the sense of famous or glorified. Simply in the sense of bearing weight, of deserving to be heard.

The Latin root of the word is importare – “to be of consequence, weigh.”

I want my reader thinking, when he closes one of my books: I matter too, just like Lowell Piggott or Rudie Dinkins or Pippin Biddle or Howie Fingerhut, or even the esteemed children’s book writers I referenced in S Is for Story.

Mama hearting Baby is but one more way of sharing that sentiment.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Beth Finke's 'Safe and Sound' Makes an Inspiring Holiday Gift

Christmastime for me growing up meant one thing: my annual plea for a dog. I was obsessed with them, begged Santa to slip one under the tree, read all sorts of books about them, memorized every breed. For kids and families with an interest in dogs, Chicago author Beth Finke's beautiful story of her relationship with her Seeing Eye dog, Hanni, makes a fascinating, uplifting holiday gift.

Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound (Blue Marlin, 2007), illustrations by Anthony Alex LeTourneau, received the ASPCA Henry Berg Award for children's literature, and it was featured on the Martha Speaks ReadAloud Book Club on PBS. Booklist says, "The pairing of Finke’s clear and animated writing with LeTourneau’s precise and expressive illustrations perfectly reflects the lively relationship between proud and responsible Hanni and proud and intrepid Beth. . ."

Hanni and Beth tells the story of how Beth, who is blind, travels safely around the city – to work, shopping, even to baseball games – with the help of Hanni, a specially-trained Golden/Labrador Retriever. It also includes factual information about how Hanni was raised and trained, how Beth and Hanni learned to work together as a team, and what it's like to be blind.

Beth's memoir for grown-up readers, Long Time, No See, was published by University of Illinois Press in 2003 and is required reading in disability studies programs at universities across the country. And her essays air on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

And readers can keep up with Beth's latest adventures around Chicago and beyond with her current Seeing Eye dog, Whitney, over at her Safe & Sound blog.

Question: You are a print journalist, you have contributed essays to Chicago Public Radio and National Public Radio's Morning Edition, and you teach memoir classes for the City of Chicago's Department on Aging. What made you decide to write a children's book?

Beth Finke: My first book was a memoir. I lost my sight when I was 26 years old,  and Long Time, No See was about my marriage, raising our son, and the adaptations my husband Mike Knezovich and I have made to survive – and thrive – after losing my sight. After Long Time, No See was published I started doing book signings and presentations at book fairs, conferences, schools, libraries, and bookstores all over the country. One chapter of Long Time, No See focuses on training with my first Seeing Eye dog, a Black Lab named Dora. Over and over again, the questions most people asked during the Q & A sessions after my presentations dealt with that particular subject: my Seeing Eye dog.

People – especially children – are fascinated with Seeing Eye dogs. They may have seen Animal Planet shows about guide dogs, but the people I met didn't know much about how the dogs were trained, or what the rules are when they see a guide dog at work leading a person who is blind. I thought a children’s book might be a fun way for children and the adults in their lives to learn more.

Q: You are clearly a communicator and comfortable in any medium. And your school visits with Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound are enthusiastically received. Is there one medium you prefer best?

BF: I am old school. I prefer face-to-face communication.

Q: Your book can be appreciated by a wide audience – adult and child, teacher and student, blind and sighted, dog lovers and cat people. What kind of feedback do you get from audiences when you talk about Safe & Sound?

BF: Audiences seem to be taken by my honesty. Children like the way I treat them as adults during school presentations. Sometimes I wonder if that's because I can't see them – I picture them as peers, and talk to them that way.

Q: What about from the Seeing Eye school and other guide dog organizations – do they know about the book and your work?

BF: They sure do – my publisher, Blue Marlin Publications, put together a special edition with information about the Seeing Eye on the cover, and the Seeing Eye sold the book on its website and gave the book away to puppy raisers, the wonderful volunteers who raise our dogs to become Seeing Eye dogs and help people like me, who are blind, to keep safe. I work part-time for Easter Seals, too, and Blue Marlin Publications published special copies of the book for Easter Seals to give away to contributors as well.

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

BF: I hope Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound helps children understand that while having a disability presents challenges, that doesn't necessarily stop people like me from having a rich and active life. I hope that kids who read Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound might develop traits of empathy, not sympathy, as they relate to people with disabilities. And, for that matter, as they relate to all people.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish as a writer?

BF: You want an honest answer? I'd like to make enough money as a writer to support my husband, a man I love, rather than vice-versa!

Q: What are you working on now?

BF: I lead three memoir-writing classes a week for senior citizens in Chicago and am working on a book about what I am learning from those classes.

Q: Will there be another children's book from you hitting shelves anytime soon?

BF: I had no plans to write another children's book until last month. The mother of a 5-year-old who is blind contacted me to thank me for a Braille copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound and lamented that there are  not many books for children about Braille. It has me thinking. . .

Monday, December 2, 2013

Dahl, Nesbit Inspire 'Art of Flying' Author Judy Hoffman

Chicago-area author Judy Hoffman's new contemporary fantasy, The Art of Flying (Disney-Hyperion, October 2013), may be her debut, but her writing style makes it clear she's no novice.

A fun and engaging middle-grade novel, The Art of Flying features 11-year-old Fortuna Dalliance, who is typically a down-to-earth kind of kid. When her eclectic neighbors turn out to be witches, and they desperately need Fortuna's help, she's ready for adventure. The Baldwin sisters have gotten themselves into a pickle by turning three birds – an owl and two sparrows – into a bullying man and two boys. And they want Fortuna to talk some sense into one of them, Martin, to let the witches turn him back into a bird.


Fortuna isn't so sure she believes in magic. But once she gets to know Martin, she's certain she doesn't want to lose his friendship. The pressure is on, since the witchy Baldwin sisters face stiff penalties for their magic if they don't get those humans turned back into their feathery old selves within five days.

"Silly witches, transformed birds and a plucky heroine equal 'real, live adventure,' writes Kirkus Reviews. The Art of Flying makes a great holiday gift for middle-grade readers who like uplifting, spirited fantasy.

Question: Witches, birds transformed into children, talking animals. What made you want to write The Art of Flying? And why a fantasy?

Judy Hoffman: I've always been a big fan of fantasy, especially stories about magic coming into regular kids' lives. I think there are many things happening around us that we just don't pay attention to. The Art of Flying came from a story I carried inside me for a long time about children and birds and flying and merging those worlds together. I had ideas for the overall plot and the main characters, but much of it evolved as I went along.

Q: This is your debut novel, but your don't write like a rookie. Where did you develop your craft and how long have you been at it?

JH: I've written quietly for a number of years and taken writing courses along the way. My educations is really from the reading I've done all my life. I have always leaned toward books that are considered classics. I think I draw from some of the older styles of writing. I write and write and revise incessantly until the words feel and look right on paper and sound right when read aloud.

Q: A Kirkus review likened your haphazard witches, the Baldwin sisters, to those in Roald Dahl's The Witches. What authors and books influence your writing? What or who inspires you?

JH: The Wizard of Oz books started me on the magical journey when I was very young. E. Nesbit is a huge influence. The Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows, E.B. White (Charlotte's Web). Roald Dahl (but I never read The Witches). The list goes on and on.

J.K. Rowling is my hero. She brought magic and reading back into the world. Her background without a formal education in writing gave me the courage to submit my own book for publication.

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

JH: So far, I've never had a big seated theme or message I want to impart when I write. I mostly want to entertain and captivate the reader so that they want to keep reading. At the end of the book, I'd like them to reluctantly close it and say, "That was fun. I want to read this again." That, to me, is the ultimate.

Q: What will we see from you next?

JH: I'm finishing up a book about a meerkat endowed with special powers who is discovered by three children and their grandma in their backyard in Texas. I also am working on a story about a girl named Clarissa who is the niece of Selena and Ellie - the witches from The Art of Flying.

I hope to finish both these books up soon and see what happens!