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?

KEIR GRAFF:
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?

KG:
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!