Monday, October 19, 2020

'How to Find a Bird' Proves the Perfect Pandemic Book for Kids

Who knew how much joy birds could bring? Hummingbirds flitting around my back garden were a daily highlight this summer. Oriole-spotting seemed to be the pandemic favorite for those of us who weren't baking sourdough bread. A friend in Austin can't get enough of the owl that's come to roost in her back yard.

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!

Sandhill Cranes
Brown Creepers
Chimney Swifts
Common Nighthawks

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

Rebecca Siegel Explores Space Race in 'To Fly Among the Stars'

Chicago-area author Rebecca Siegel takes a hard look at the space race in her non-fiction middle-grade To Fly Among the Stars (Scholastic Focus, March 2020). In fascinating detail, she contrasts the experiences of the all-male Mercury 7—the seven superstar test pilots of NASA's astronaut class—with those of the 13 female candidates who were accomplished air racers, test pilots, and flight instructors. While the women were put through the same astronaut tests as the men, their journey was conducted in secret, as they hoped to defy the norms of the day and and earn a their place flying among the stars.

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.

Enter here for a chance to win Rebecca Siegel's To Fly Among the Stars!

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. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Sally Walker Takes Readers into Chicago Fire with 'Fiery Night'

Sally Walker is the real deal. One of Illinois' finest children's authors, Sally has written more than 60 nonfiction books ranging from the history of climate change to the Mason-Dixon line, how Winnie the Pooh came to be to how Bessie Coleman took to the skies. And because of the high quality of Sally's research and writing, her titles earn recognition, making state recommended-reading lists, becoming Junior Library Guild selections, and earning prestigious honors like the Robert F. Sibert Medal as well as the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction.

Her latest title, Fiery Night: A Boy, His Goat, and the Great Chicago Fire! and illustrated by Kayla Harren (Capstone Editions, August 2020), tells the story of a real-life boy who, along with his pet goat, survived the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Since I also published a Chicago Fire book for kids this year, I sat up and took notice of Sally's effort! It is fantastic, and I hope teachers will pair her nonfiction picture book with my nonfiction graphic novel, The Great Chicago Fire: Rising from the Ashes, when they introduce the Chicago Fire to their students.

As a big fan of Sally's work over the years—Champion: The Comeback Tale of the American Chestnut Tree (Henry Holt and Co., 2018) and Winnie: The True Story of the Bear Who Inspired Winnie-the-Pooh (also Henry Holt, 2015) are two of my all-time favorite examples of top-tier nonfiction for kids—I was delighted she had time to talk about her Chicago Fire book.

QUESTION: Fiery Night features an illustration done by Justin Butterfield of his family's escape from the fire. Was that the launching point for your decision to write the book? 

SALLY WALKER: It absolutely was the launching point. The Chicago Fire has interested me for a long time. Some years back, I was reading a book about the fire that included Judge Tree’s reminiscence of his experience during the fire. He was the Butterfield’s neighbor who gave them a ride. Tree mentioned offering the Butterfield family a ride, and that Justin had a goat with him. That made me curious. Immediately, I wanted to know more about the Butterfields and if I could find any further information about the boy and his pet. I was over-the-moon when I came across Justin’s drawing—conveniently labeled—of his family as the fled the fire. The text of Justin’s letter to his friend, which we couldn’t include in the back matter due to space concerns, can be found here. This website, The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory, has tons of other great stories and photos of the fire.

Q: Can you talk about your creative process and how you approached the Chicago Fire story?

SW: My approach was to view the fire from Justin’s perspective. While Mother ran for family heirlooms, the most important thing to Justin was saving and protecting Willie. I empathized with Justin immediately: The first step in my family’s exit plan in case of a house fire is to grab our two cats!  

As I wrote, I tried to incorporate instances from other accounts of the fire. For example, one person remembered their dog running away from the family. Another described standing in the cold lake water for hours, surrounded by horses and people. Keeping the age of my audience in mind, I did not trivialize Justin and Willie’s fears, but tried to express them in ways that the reader could relate to without be terrorized.   

At times, I brought my own perspective to the story. For example, many of Chicago’s sidewalks were wooden. I don’t know that Justin had trouble getting Willie to step up onto the sidewalk. But I know, firsthand, that horses are often scared to step onto a platform or ramp. From that, I extrapolated that Willie might be too. By the way, Justin did not mention the goat’s name in his letter. I named him Willie, because at times he behaved almost as stubbornly as my sister’s cat, Willie.  

Q: Your subjects range far and wide, from sunken submarines to beloved bears to chestnut trees. How do you decide what you're going to write about? 

SW: I don’t always decide what I’m going to write about, sometimes a subject takes hold and insists that I write about it.  While I was researching for my book Sinking the Sultana (Candlewick, 2017), I “met” Louis Miskoguon and Amos Ashkebugnekay, two survivors of the explosion. They were Anishinaabe men who enlisted in a Civil War regiment of sharpshooters from Michigan. The enlisted men in the company they joined were all Native Americans. Their stories, and those of the men who served alongside them, filled my thoughts.  They just wouldn’t leave me alone until I wrote about them. Their experiences during the war became my book Deadly Aim (Henry Holt and Co., 2019).

Ideas seem to find me. In the newspapers. On the internet. Talking with and listening to people.

Whenever I run across information that makes me think “Whoa!  I didn’t know that,” I usually have a million questions about it. I want to learn more. 

Q: How do you know when you're onto something good?

SW: Lots of the time, an idea doesn’t pan out.  It’s only when there is a good, solid story, one that continually intrigues me and one that I feel will reach out to young readers in some way, that I decide to write about it. I like stories that make me think; that tease my imagination in ways that make me happy, sad, or even angry. And in doing so, change me, and how I look at the world.

Q: Your nonfiction books are the gold standard. Can you talk about how you go about researching your books? 

SW: Whenever possible, I visit the places that I am writing about to absorb not only the atmosphere, but to get a real sense of the geography of the place.  For example, walking the area in Michigan where Amos Ashkebugnekay lived and on the battlefields in Virginia where he fought. The documents in online archives give me a chance to become familiar with the subject through census reports, war records, or old scientific papers.  BUT visiting an archive in person is even better.  That’s when I find the gems that are not digitized:  personal letters, health records, and plenty of photographs. If I had a few pizzas and some jugs of water, I’d happily camp out for weeks in the National Archives, in Washington, D.C.

Libraries and historical societies are my favorite hangouts.  It’s helpful to read what other authors have written about the subject that I’m exploring.  It’s kind of like brainstorming with the author for additional ideas and avenues for me to explore. Libraries contain published diaries and the kinds of books that contain reminiscences like those of Judge Tree, Justin’s neighbor. Historical societies have lots of unpublished documents and manuscripts that I can’t find elsewhere. And there are lots of maps, too.  I adore old maps! 

I also always talk with experts.  They offer wonderful insights and often lead to amazing adventures.  My interviews with experts led to working on an archaeological dig for my book Written in Bone (Carolrhoda Books, 2009) and to inoculating American Chestnut trees for Champion.

My filing cabinet has a folder filled with newspaper and magazine clipping of possible future books. And I have a similar file on my computer. I have no idea what Google docs is.  

SW: Finally, I have a question for you: When you decided to write a novel, were there any books regarding planning/techniques that you found helpful? Young writers might find it useful. Old ones, too!

KATE HANNIGAN: Like you, I turn to experts! When I was trying to figure out the magic, I attended many writing workshops, conferences, critique groups, anything I could find that would help unlock the mysteries. Three were tremendously helpful.

First was hearing the lion of children's literature Richard Peck talk about finishing a novel and then immediately throwing out the first chapter and rewriting it, since that was when he finally had the full picture. Second was hearing Holly Black talk about plotting and outlining, planning story arcs and thinking hard about when to hit the big notes in the story you're telling. And the third was working with Franny Billingsley, another Chicago author and incredibly helpful human! She talked to me about the story's beating heart, and how the pulsing arrows we shoot at the start of the book had better hit their mark. This advice, along with reading as many books as I can in the middle-grade genre, has helped me muddle along!

Monday, September 28, 2020

Celebrate Autumn with Wendy McClure's Adorable 'It's a Pumpkin!'

We're almost to October, that glorious time of year when pumpkin spice fills the air and we embrace all things gourdlike. Well, at least I do. Can't get enough of them—pumpkins on the porch, gnarly goosenecks on the coffee table, acorn squash in the oven. Gourdgeous! That's why I fell madly in love with Wendy McClure's adorable new picture book It's a Pumpkin! (Albert Whitman, September 2020),  whimsically illustrated by Kate Kronreif, where the characters explore the many uses of these seasonal wonders.

As both an editor and a writer, Wendy is a familiar face to Chicago writers—and beyond. A dynamic member of the Chicago writing community, she can be found speaking at conferences and workshops and always willing to share her expertise with both aspiring and established authors. Aside from her picture books, Wendy is also the author of the middle-grade historical fiction series Wanderville (Razorbill, 2014, 2015, 2016); is an authority of all things Laura Ingalls Wilder, as demonstrated in her award-winning nonfiction The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie (Riverhead Books, 2012); and author of memoirs for adults.

Enter here for a chance to win Wendy McClure's It's a Pumpkin!

QUESTION: This story is delightful, and it's easy to imagine a classroom of kindergartners exploring the many things THEY can do with a pumpkin. Did the idea come to you fully formed? What was your process like in getting this story down?

WENDY MCCLURE: It was an idea that popped into my head around midday at work about a year ago. I was thinking about all our uses for pumpkins in the fall, and how different all these things are, and that Thoreau quote, “I’d rather sit on a pumpkin than a velvet stool,” was bouncing around in there too. At some point dialogue was starting to come to me, so I typed a few notes into a document and saved it. When I got home, I started writing. I had to stop and start over after a couple hundred words in order to get the pacing right, but then I had a draft that night. It’s almost never that fast!

Q: As an editor, you have to think both visually like an illustrator AND about the narrative like an author. Did you wear both hats as you wrote It's a Pumpkin?

WM: I did not! Somehow it did not even occur to me to put that other hat on. I left the pagination up to my editor, Christina Pulles. When Whitman did the illustrator search, I did have a couple thoughts about what the art style should be—I wanted great color, an immersive world, a certain sweetness, but a touch of humor too—and I may have used my editor brain in figuring that out. And when I was shown Kate’s samples I was thrilled. Otherwise, though, I enjoyed staying on the author end of things—less stuff to think about!  

Q: It's pumpkin-spice season. Are you all in?

WM: Yes. Give me the tea, the butter, the beer, the bread! I just saw a 6-pack of canned organic pumpkin at Costco and I BET I can find a way to use them all before the year is out. I’ll keep you posted!

Monday, September 21, 2020

Keir Graff Cobbles Together More Hilarity with 'Tiny Mansion'

Chicago author Keir Graff has taken us a lot of places with his middle-grade novels, and I am especially excited about the setting for his latest effort, The Tiny Mansion (Putnam's Books for Young Readers, September 8, 2020). While Keir has other titles on the shelf, both for young readers as well as adult (as part of a writing duo under the pen name Linda Keir), his not-exactly-a-series run of The Matchstick Castle (2017), The Phantom Tower (2018), and now Tiny Mansion offers readers fast-paced action, laugh-out-loud humor, and as Kirkus describes "quirky" treats and "wacky" plots. 

In a word, fun.

Aside from the immediate charm of setting his story in a tiny house, Keir peoples it with a delightful cast of characters. We follow Dagmar, age 12, as her family is forced to live off-the-grid in the redwoods of Northern California where the neighbors aren't exactly typical. An eccentric tech billionaire, his brother the woodsman, his sister the crunchy animal lover. As well as the billionaire's son, who could use a friend.

Keir took a little break from writing to talk about the book and where his ideas come from.

QUESTION: The world you build for Dagmar is fascinating. What prompted you to choose a tiny home in the redwoods? Can you talk about the creative process and how you came to write The Tiny Mansion?

When I was a kid, my family visited an artist friend who lived in a trailer in the redwoods of Northern California. I slept on the ground outside, under a towering tree, and woke up covered in spiderwebs! And a couple of years ago, when I was on tour for The Phantom Tower, I visited the enchanting community of Canyon, California, where a teacher gave me a tour that included hand-hewn, un-zoned wooden houses. Those events, decades apart, definitely played their parts—and my writing process has always been a little bit like literary quilting.

But the real truth is that I did it backward! After books called The Matchstick Castle and The Phantom Tower, I was looking for another architecturally themed title that would create a question in the minds of young readers. After I hit on The Tiny Mansion, I knew it would have to be set in a tiny house, which was perfect, because I really want one of my own!

The tiny house also felt like a writing challenge I wanted to accept—after going big, with big structures in the previous two books, could I create an even bigger adventure, this time starting with an even smaller home?

Q: Billionaires, survivalists, New Agers. How much fun did you have creating these characters? Who did you enjoy writing the most?

Obviously, I love eccentric characters, as evidenced by the daffy van Dash family of The Matchstick Castle and the elderly residents of The Phantom Tower. In The Tiny Mansion, Dagmar’s family isn’t exactly ordinary, given that her dad is a renegade handyman and her stepmom is an artist working with found materials. But supporting characters offer more opportunities for exaggeration because they don’t generally need to be quite as three- dimensional.

I loved writing all of them, and Vladimir, Blake’s hulking Exurbistanian bodyguard, most of all. He looks scary but turns out to have a pretty good heart. (The audiobook narrator did him with a Russian accent, something she said was on her bucket list!)

Q: How do you want young readers to experience the book?

KG: Repeatedly! All joking aside, while I do tackle issues in my books—and this one touches on plenty of them—I try hard to avoid didacticism, because I really want kids to read for the same reason I did: for fun! In these times especially, kids need opportunities to escape and live for a while in the worlds of their imaginations.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Amy Timberlake's 'Skunk and Badger' an Immediate Classic

Newbery Honor-winner Amy Timberlake's new read aloud is part Frog and Toad, part Odd Couple, and all kinds of wonderful. Skunk and Badger, publishing tomorrow with Algonquin Young Readers and illustrated by Caldecott-winner Jon Klassen, has already chalked up multiple starred reviews and was called "exceptionally sweet" by Kirkus. 

Amy's story is perhaps the book for our tumultuous time, as Badger and Skunk, in the classic opposites-attract dynamic, demonstrate how we must look for the things we share rather than focus on all the ways we're different. Badger keeps busy with his Important Rock Work while the more spirited, free-form Skunk tends to disrupt treasured routines. (An improvisational chef, I'd love to eat one of this guy's meals. )

Enter here for a chance to win a copy of Skunk and Badger!

Throw in some curious chickens, and Skunk and Badger is utterly irresistible. Filled with delightful sound effects, hilarious dialogue, and satisfying "mouth words," this read aloud will bring down the house—be it a classroom, library gathering, or bedtime. Thank goodness this is a series, and there will be more adventures to come. 

Amy, another treasured member of the Chicago children's book community, was nice enough to talk a little shop. Here's what she had to say:

QUESTION: So are you Skunk or are you Badger?

AMY TIMBERLAKE: I’m both. Like Badger, I struggle for focus, focus, focus for my Important Rock Work. AND I have many of Skunk’s qualities too — enthusiasm, earnestness, a wide-eyed sense of wonder (at times). My inner-Badger and inner-Skunk are at odds on a regular basis.

Q: There are so many delightfully funny scenes and lines throughout the book. What made you laugh the hardest as you wrote this?

AT: Thank you! I am so glad you enjoyed it. That is very good news! 

Right now, the line that most amuses me about Skunk and Badger is a sentence about the "chicken biome of the Tropical Chicken Forest sort." But that’s only because that was the last thing I wrote for Skunk and Badger. The truth is that almost everything amused me at some point. I chuckle as I write. I do! It’s been one of the great gifts of this project.  

Q: Where did the spark for Skunk and Badger come from? Did you grow up watching The Odd Couple? Were you and your siblings opposites? Do you live it already with your husband?

AT: I don’t know! Isn’t that awful? The roots of this one go WAY back! I wrote a story with a skunk in it a long, long time ago. This was in a period when I was trying to write a Nate the Great type story. (That story did NOT work.) Also, I like the word "skunk" because it sounds like someone whose nose is stuffed up. "Skunk" — those two K’s are funny!   

Doing research for another book project, I was reading all these bear stories — bear fairy tales, bear mythology, stories about toy bears — and so, I re-read A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories. I liked the voice Milne chose for those stories. I admired the crafting. How did he manage to maintain lightness with all this emotional life? I also liked that these were stories that were read aloud to kids. I thought, "I want to write a read aloud." I think wanting to write a read aloud was the seed that started Skunk and Badger. 

Okay, now I’ve got a question for you, Kate! Ha! Since you’ve written several series, are celebrating the publication of Cape right now (Book 2 of The League of Secret Heroes), and finishing up Book 3 in the same series, I’m wondering what advice you’d give someone like me who is new to writing a series. Anything? I’m all ears! 

Thanks for having me on your blog, Kate! This was fun!

Kate answers: I'm hardly one to give YOU advice! But here's what I found helpful: Don't ever stop talking to the characters, even when you're in between writing! This way when you sit down again to work on the next book, you've got everyone still chatting and fresh in your mind!

Monday, August 31, 2020

Emily Ecton's 'Great Pet Heist' a Laugh-Out-Loud Caper

I've long been a fan of the hilarious Emily Ecton, a former Chicagoan and wonderful member of the local children's writing community who now calls Virginia home. Pick up any of her eight middle-grade novels (The Ambrose Deception, Project Jackalope) and you'll see her humor showcased throughout, as well as her sheer sense of fun. Emily's latest, The Great Pet Heist (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, June 2020), had me at hello. From the moment we meet the ragtag collection of animals as well as their perfectly named human, Mrs. Food, we're in for a delightful, utterly engaging ride.

A former producer and writer for NPR's comedy quiz show Wait, Wait . . . Don't Tell MeEmily clearly understands comedic timing and delivery. And as a devoted dog owner, she gets the nuances of living with pets and the very real possibility (probability?) that they have lives outside of what we see when we're home with them.

In The Great Pet Heist, described as Ocean's Eleven meets The Secret Life of Pets, an apartment dog named Butterbean sees its owner slip and fall, and head off to the hospital. What's ahead, Butterbean asks. Enlisting a few neighboring animals in a scheme to support themselves in case Mrs. Food can't care for them anymore, the clever pets plan a heist. 

I laughed from start to finish, and I'm so happy to learn there's a sequel in the works! It's called The Great Ghost Hoax, and in it Butterbean and the others investigate a haunted apartment in their building. It should be out next year. Emily was nice enough to talk about how this book came to be.

Enter here for a chance to win a copy of Emily's "The Great Pet Heist"!

QUESTION: Where did the idea for The Great Pet Heist come from? Was it a fully formed story or did you have just one or two characters in mind? Can you talk about the evolution of the project?

EMILY ECTON: I read a newspaper article about a woman who'd left all of her money to her dog, and I started thinking about what would happen to a pet who thought he'd inherit a fortune and then found out that he wouldn't. What would he do? That's how I came up with the idea for the heist, and then it was just a matter of putting together the heisting team.

Oscar the mynah bird was the first character who I knew would be in the book (since he's the brains behind the operation), and Walt the cat and Butterbean the dog weren't far behind. Before I started writing, I had to figure out how the animals would pull off the heist, which special skills they'd need to make it work, and which pets would make the best team.

Q: Are you a plotter or a pantser? What drives the storytelling for you—working from the character or from the plot?

EE: I'm definitely a plotter! I like to have all of the major details worked out before I start writing—it makes it easier for me to keep track of where I'm going, so I don't have to revise as much afterward. (I don't love revising.)  

Emily's brilliant dog Howdy
But I think character and plot are both equally important in developing a story. Even though I have a pretty clear outline when I start, the plot choices have to come from the characters or they won't work. Butterbean wouldn't suddenly start doing research on the computer, for instance, no matter how much I wanted her to. She'd need to be a different dog to make that plot point work.

Q: Mrs. Food, animal quirks, laugh-out-loud hijinks. I found The Great Pet Heist to be hilarious. Do you find humor hard to write? Do you look to other authors or shows for inspiration?

EE: That's great to hear! I have a background writing in comedy, so at this point, I think it's easier for me to write humor than to write more serious stories. I get inspiration more from news stories or random things that I see that spark ideas, but books that have humor in them are some of my favorites—I love authors like Terry Pratchett, Jaclyn Moriarty, and Polly Horvath.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Lori Degman Shows Off Rhyming Skills in 'Travel Guide for Monsters'

Anyone with an interest in rhyme should race to their bookstore right now and pick up one of Lori Degman's wonderful picture books. This Chicago-area author knows her way around stressed syllables and similar sounds, as she demonstrated in Just Read (Sterling, 2019) illustrated by Victoria Tentler-Krylov and Cock-A-Doodle-Oops! (Creston Books, 2014) illustrated by Deborah Zemke. Lori is a master at zingy wordplay and she's done it again with her latest adorable picture book, Travel Guide for Monsters (Sleeping Bear, 2020) illustrated by Dave Szalay, which Kirkus calls a "giggly geography lesson for trip planners and daydreamers." 

I reached out to Lori to talk about her books and how she cracked the code on writing rhyme.

QUESTION: Can you talk about your creative process? How do ideas work through your mind—do they evolve slowly over a stretch of time, or do they appear fully formed?

LORI DEGMAN: Usually, I get the idea for the story and/or the title immediately. Then I figure out the opening and how I want it to end, and go from there. Plotting is where I struggle most, so it usually takes a while until I finally figure out the middle. For my stories that are a series of vignettes and don’t have typical plots, like Travel Guide for Monsters, Just Read, and Like a Girl illustrated by Mara Penny (Sterling, 2019), I finish my first drafts pretty quickly, once I’ve decided on the rhyme scheme and the book’s structure. I tend to work on more than one story at a time. I’ll open up several stories on my laptop and start with one, then when I get stuck, move on to another. That suits my ADHD brain well.

Q: Rhyme is hard, but you make it look effortless. How much refining and reworking did you do in writing Travel Guide for Monsters?

LD: I’m lucky that rhyming comes pretty easily to me—I have a good ear for meter. Still, I spend a lot of time tweaking the meter to make it as close to natural speech patterns as possible, so the reader doesn’t have to think about how they’re reading it—they just read it as if it were prose. For Travel Guide for Monsters, once I decided on a location and the behavior I wanted to highlight, it came pretty easily. One thing I’ve learned is, at least for me, writing in rhyme is easier than writing in prose because of the parameters it creates. But editing in rhyme is much harder. If you make one change, it has a domino effect and other words and lines need to be changed. In prose, you take out a word, phrase, or sentence and that’s it!

Q: What helped you most in the writing and revising of Monsters? Reading out loud? Creating a dummy to get a feel for page turns? What devices really help you bring a manuscript to its best possible version?

LD: I always read my stories out loud—even the non-rhymers. I also ask other people to read them so I can hear where the meter is off or where they trip up. When I don’t want to bother my friends and family members, I’ll paste the story in Text Edit (on Mac) and it will read it out loud. Because Travel Guide for Monsters doesn’t have a plot, I didn’t have to worry about page turns. I did have to think about the order of the locations they’d visit. 

I always check to make sure I don’t use the same words multiple times or more than once for the rhyming words. I’ve only made one book dummy, and it helped a lot with reducing the word count and for creating page turns. It was for Norbert’s Big Dream (Sleeping Bear Press, 2016), which is my only published book in prose. It’s something I’m sure I’ll do again when I have a “near submission ready” prose manuscript. 

And of course I have to mention my many critique partners who always give me thoughtful and helpful feedback! The best thing is when they tell me a manuscript is submission ready—I know I can trust them, so I can send it out with confidence!

Monday, August 17, 2020

'Me & Mama' Author-Illustrator Cozbi Cabrera Does It All

There seems to be nothing Chicago multimedia artist Cozbi Cabrera cannot do. Her talents range from gorgeous illustration to lyrical written word to delicate textile art. Just glimpsing her website, visitors get an immediate sense that she is a special creative force to behold. In 2020, Cozbi has two children's books hitting shelves—Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, written by Illinois' own Suzanne Slade (Abrams, April 7th); and Me & Mama, for which she is both author and illustrator (Simon & Schuster, coming August 25th)—joining a stack of others titles that she has either written or illustrated. And lucky participants in November's SCBWI Illinois Interactive 2020 virtual conference will get to experience Cozbi's incredible talents upclose, as she works with artists in breakout sessions.

Cozbi has drawn national attention with her handmade collectible cloth dolls, called Muñecas. And her growing collection of children's books (including Thanks A Million, written by Nikki Grimes and published by Greenwillow Books; My Hair Is A Garden, Albert Whitman) have earned starred reviews. We thought it would be interesting to hear from Cozbi about her creative process.  

QUESTION: Both Exquisite and Me & Mama feature such loving depictions of the everyday, as well as evocative images of sheer joy. Can you describe your creative process and how you approach a story and illustrating picture books?

COZBI CABRERA: When illustrating a manuscript I've received from a publisher, I'm careful not to "over-read." That first reading is simply to grasp the scope and nature of the content and to see if I love the language or can pinpoint its strengths. I'm reading only to say yes or no. 

In the case of Suzanne Slade's EXQUISITE, I fell in love with her rhythmic, inspired, and well-researched prose. I was delighted to dig in and tease out the visual details of Gwendolyn Brooks' life. I reserve that closer reading for when I'm ready to break the manuscript into page turning chunks. I'm relying on a fresh reading, or the power of the first impression. This is where I can imagine scenes in my head and sketch out thumbnails in a variety of ways. 

I want those drawings to be relevant while throwing the stone of intention a little further, a bit like a visual reading in between the lines or the visual body language for the message. Sometimes I'm able to capture something right away, or am alerted that I need to do further research. Other times, I'm doing what I call "putting the junk down"—getting those obvious solutions on paper. This immersion affords me the ability to scratch a little deeper to find a better answer, to find the heart, while I'm washing the dishes, or just waking up the next morning.

I think our everyday surroundings are steeped with insight and tell a story.  Anthropologists would agree, I love to insert those clues. As far as emotion is concerned—it's the artist's job to help rearrange the viewer's emotional furniture, as painter Jim Parker used to say, to reaffirm what connects us and reveal the heart of the matter.

Q: You're an artist in a variety of media. Do you prefer working with fabric, creating dolls and quilts? Or do you find painting more satisfying? Or does writing feel equally satisfying?

CC: I've always enjoyed working in a variety of mediums. Each discipline is like a plant in my garden, requiring its own care, attention, and tending. It keeps me humble as a wide-eyed infant tumbling into limitless rabbit holes. There is no end to the many levels of mastery and powerful distinctions in each discipline. Naturally, there are points of confluence, where my work in one medium feeds into the next. I think of it as facets of the same stone, or expression.

Q: Do you have multiple projects going at once? Or do you like to focus on one thing at a time? And what is the next project we'll see from you?

CC: I always have many things in the fire. I'm able to get it all done by prioritizing and eliminating unnecessary chatter, wasteful actions, and emotions. I keep returning to play and to laughter. It's my most productive frame of mind. When I was younger I'd answer my phone in sympathy and allow someone to do an emotional dump, zapping my energy allowance and polluting my creative headspace. That headspace is really like a garden, you can't let just any weed grow or anything waltz in and trample underfoot! It's the octane and every creative has a responsibility to stand guard to protect it so it can expand. 

So, though there are many projects, I throw everything into the one that I'm prioritizing—it's the only way I'm able to get those flashes of insight when I'm drifting off to sleep or just waking up. Those insights are like gifts, but they don't present themselves until I've done the heavy lifting, and sometimes that work is giving the task before me my full concentration, even if it feels like I'm knocking on the door and it's not letting me in, or stumbling in the dark. Will I show up the next day, and the day after that? At times, week after week, after week? That's when the gift shows up—once it's been earned and I've shown myself approved!

I can speak about one of the next picture books, a biography about Elizabeth Jennings Graham, written by Amy Hill Hearth, to be published by Greenwillow Books/Harper Collins. And of course, there's a doll commission and several textile projects quietly taking shape at my sewing table.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Patricia Hruby Powell's 'Lift as You Climb' Spotlights Ella Baker

Lots of Illinois authors have new books hitting shelves right now. And while so many important national issues are rightly demanding our attention, it can feel like new picture books or novels serve little purpose. But they do. Now more than ever, it's important that we talk to young readers about American history, about the brave members of society who fought for justice and pushed the national dialogue forward, who challenged the status quo. Patricia Hruby Powell's Lift as You Climb: The Story of Ella Baker (Margaret K. McElderry Books, June 2020), illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, does just that. 

Powell is the author of award-winning picture book biographies, including Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, illustrated by Christian Robinson, and Loving vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case, illustrated by Shadra Strickland. With Lift as You Climb, she turns her attention to one of the most influential female figures in the Civil Rights movement.

QUESTION: Ella Baker shunned the spotlight and preferred to work behind the scenes. Why did you choose to tell her story and bring her life to young readers' attention?

PATRICIA HRUBY POWELL: Ella Baker was a hero—both as a Black rights and women’s rights advocate. She believed that rather than one strong leader, it’s better to have many local leaders. What a great model for young activists! We need young activists more than ever right now. We need to remake our world. 

Ella Baker’s grandparents were enslaved people, who, once emancipated, worked, then bought the land on which they’d worked while enslaved. They became leaders of their community. The book includes stories of Ella working with Dr. Martin Luther King and a hundred Black preachers, of Ella and the young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee members, but one story that is not in the book is this: Ella Baker told Dr. King that she didn’t think that a movement run on one charismatic personality was a healthy movement. She asked him, what did he think would happen once he was gone? She was right, of course. Sadly, the movement pretty much fell apart when Dr. King was assassinated. 

Ella Baker and Dr. King had huge respect for one another but they didn’t always see eye to eye.

While Dr. King was recruiting the “elite” into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP (that’s the lawyers, educators, preachers, doctors), Ella felt it was as important to recruit the “common” people and particularly, women (maids and clerks). At the same time Ms. Baker was showing the powerful Black men, who she worked alongside, to respect her as their equal. The preachers were accustomed to working with women who were subordinate to them—serving women. 

They had a lot to learn about respecting women as leaders. Poised, respectable, wise Ella challenged them and broke ground for women.

Q: What is your creative process like? As a dancer, you've spent a lifetime focused on movement. And even in your writing, movement and energy pulse through each line. How are you able to convey such vitality on the page?

PHP: I identify first and foremost as a dancer. I’ve been a dancer much longer than I’ve been a storyteller or writer. I live inside my dancing body. I am my body, which may sound a little corny. I don’t mean the shell of my body, but my kinesthetic body. My moving body. And I write from who I am, as we all do. 

I cannot sit still for long. I think best when I’m moving—walking, swimming or working out in water, bicycling, skating, dancing. I record notes on my phone or on slips of paper (or if necessary, in my brain;-). Then I return to my computer for the writing. But the thinking happens when I’m on the move. Sometimes I enact my characters, moving as I see them moving on film, and try to discover who they are, physically. I feel that I can “become” them by moving as they do. Try it.

I recommend turning on music, inserting earbuds, going a little ways out into the country where there are fewer eyes upon you and dance. I do this while watching my dog run through fields tracking bunnies and jumping into ponds. So nature helps too. Thoughts rush in. 

Q: “What do you hope to accomplish?” is a refrain throughout the story. What do you as a writer for children hope to accomplish?

PHP: I always want children to love reading. I hope that they’ll be fascinated by my stories and want to read extensively. But nowadays, more than that, I want young readers to become inspired to be social activists. I want them to figure out what they care about, and work for that. There is SO much in our society that needs correction. 

Activism? Maybe you’re excited or concerned about Black Lives Matter, the vote, police reform, gun control, zoning laws, segregated education, the health of the Earth and our environment, sustainable living, renewable resources. The list goes on and on. 

Helping other people gives you a life purpose—especially in this challenging time. We need to remake our world. Everyone will win.

We all need to ask ourselves, What do I hope to accomplish?

Friday, June 26, 2020

Things I Tried to Bring to 'The Great Chicago Fire' Graphic Novel

When I was presented with writing the script for The Great Chicago Fire: Rising From the Ashes, I was a little intimidated. Chicago school kids study this topic inside and out. They become experts. Their teachers are already experts. Stacks of books have been written about this subject. What could I possibly bring to this that hasn't already been done?

As I began compiling research into this fascinating moment from history, I couldn't help but be impacted by current events happening all around me. A ban on Muslims entering America. Immigrants turned away at the southern border. Condemnation of refugees. Looking back at 1871 Chicago, Irish Catholic immigrants like Mrs. O'Leary were at the bottom of the social pecking order. And therefore easy to scapegoat.

So that's how I landed on telling the story through the eyes of two poor immigrant kids. While the graphic novel is nonfiction in that it relays the facts of the fire and includes first-hand accounts, I did use a device for the narrative arc: The fictive Franny and J.P., our protagonists, take us through the story and, I hope, make readers feel as if they're there in the action. Together with these siblings—and an orphaned puppy because we need kids to really care about what happens in the fire—we race down burning streets, past collapsing buildings, and into the lake to cool off.

I wanted kids to identify with Franny and J.P. and think about how frightening this disaster would feel. Unfortunately, devastating fires are not a thing of the past, as we see with Australia's terrifying wildfires in late 2019 and ongoing fires in the American West. I also wanted young readers to think about social issues, too, like how their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents might have been treated when they arrived in America. And how we currently treat newcomers to our shores. The Irish who populated American cities in the middle of the 1800s were fleeing famine, starvation, and oppression, seeking a better life where their kids could thrive and prosper. How different is that from today's immigrants?

And through these protagonists' eyes twenty years later at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, we see the city reborn with skyscrapers, new inventions and ideas, and hope. This part of the story was essential to me, in that when we write books for children, we need to give them hope. And we need to show them that while devastating things can and do happen in life, we can move forward. We can emerge better for it. Chicago burned to the ground, and it was terrifying. But like the phoenix that became a symbol of the city's rebirth, Chicago rose from the ashes.

Why should a child read this book? To start to understand that history isn't an isolated moment but rather a continuum. A raging river. And that we, both as individuals and as a people, learn from the hard times and work toward making things better. In the current moment of pandemic, economic instability, and push for social justice that is Summer 2020, let's hope again that we emerge from this better both as individuals and as a society.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Remy Lai's 'Pie in the Sky' a Sweet but Sad Graphic-Novel Hybrid

One of my favorite recent reads is Pie in the Sky by debut author-illustrator Remy Lai. Winner of the SCBWI Sid Fleischman Humor Award and an NPR "Best Books of 2019" selection, Pie has received all kinds of love since its publication last year from Henry Holt. A hybrid graphic novel blended with traditional novel, it's like a perfect cake: the emotional content is challenging, but the humor keeps it light.

Middle-grade readers will go through a range of feelings as they get to know 11-year-old Jingwen. Not only has his mother uprooted the family to Australia, forcing Jingwen to adapt to a new home and new language, but he's got to be the responsible big brother to his utterly annoying younger sibling, Yanghao.

As the story unfolds, we learn about Jingwen and the almost paralyzing sadness he experiences over the loss of his father. Baking fancy cakes together on Sundays brought them closer — toward a "pie in the sky" dream of someday opening up a cake shop and leading a better life. But Jingwen carries too much sadness and guilt to adapt, and Lai shows us all the hurt: feeling like a literal alien at school, watching his little brother soar, realizing his old friend has forgotten him, disobeying his mother's orders.

Pie in the Sky satisfies on so many levels, accomplishing that most enviable feat of making readers laugh through their tears. This is a must-read.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Cindy Copeland's Graphic-Novel Memoir 'Cub' Celebrates Journalism

I grew up reading newspapers at the breakfast table each morning, starting on the funny pages and gradually working my way into the news sections. When I reached high school, I knew that my natural nosiness about other people, knack for eavesdropping, and love of language and wordplay were a good combination for working on the school newspaper. On to college to study journalism formally, and then work at national newspapers. I absolutely loved walking into the newsroom every day, and I can't read enough about Nellie Bly, Martha Gellhorn, Lee Miller, Margaret Bourke-White, and other female journalists.

When I stumbled onto Cub (Algonquin, 2020) by Cynthia L. Copeland, I fell hard! Race to the bookstore and pick this book up for the budding journalist in your life! Both funny and smart, Cub is Cindy's memoir in which she recalls being a 12-year-old reporter shadowing a local news reporter. Set in 1972-73, there’s so much here: Watergate, Vietnam, ERA, groovy fashions like bell bottoms. John Denver. How girls and women were treated at the dinner table and in the newsroom. As well as the shifting sands of friendships and the agony of first crushes.

A complete joy and a good prompt for discussing how far we've come and how far we still need to go.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Heartbreak, Hope of a Better Life in Graphic-Novel Memoir 'Stars'

World Refugee Day is coming up this Saturday, June 20, and for parents and teachers who want to better understand the refugee experience as they talk with their kids, there are plenty of books to turn to. Among the best I've seen is the new nonfiction graphic novel When Stars Are Scattered (Dial, 2020), written by Somali refugee Omar Mohamed in collaboration with Victoria Jamieson, the Newbery-Honor winning author-illustrator of the beloved Roller Girl (Dial, 2015).

The story is told from the perspective of Omar, who was forced to flee his home at age four with his baby brother, Hassan, after their father was killed and they became separated from their mother. Their childhood was spent in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, and young readers might find it shocking to see how different life is for refugee kids compared to their own day-to-day concerns. The boys go to bed hungry, spend hours in line for basic necessities like water and food rations. School is something Omar can only dream about, and once he's able to attend classes, he feels conflicted that he has to leave his little brother behind. Especially powerful is what happens to Omar's female classmates.

The back matter makes Omar's experience even more real, as he talks about where he's living now and the life he leads today. And how he's working to help other refugees who also dream of a better future. I found myself close to tears throughout. This is an important book for all readers, no matter the age, and for every day—not just World Refugee Day. As we work with children to understand the covid pandemic and how it impacts populations in our cities and around the world, as well as the anti-racism protests and calls for social justice, this is another part of that conversation about building a more just and inclusive world.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

'Go With the Flow' the Graphic-Novel Period Book We All Need

Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann are the brilliant team behind Go With the Flow (First Second, 2020), the informative graphic novel that examines periods in all their embarrassing, confounding glory. While the four friends featured in the story are sophomores in high school, this book is the perfect thing to hand to middle-schoolers who want to learn more about the mysteries of menstruation, cramps, tampons, and fighting the system. While I know it's a fictional tale of friendship, I read it as a nonfiction primer on periods.

Abby, Brit, Christine, and Sasha challenge their school to put feminine hygiene front and center, and keep the tampon and pad machines stocked as a basic service (basic human right) for their students' well-being. Thought-provoking, humorous, spot on (okay, my puns are terrible), you can see how these talented author-illustrators did it via First Second's Comics Relief discussion. Well-written and beautifully illustrated in a palette of reds, Go With the Flow is the book I wish I'd had back in the day—and wish I could have shared with my daughter in her preteen years. A great pairing with American Girl's The Care and Keeping of You.