Monday, December 14, 2020

Suzanne Slade Scores Another Nonfiction Winner with 'Swish!'

Chicago's favorite rocket-scientist-turned-children's-author Suzanne Slade has another fantastic nonfiction picture book hitting shelves, and illustrated by the wonderfully talented Don Tate, it's an irresistible book to add to your shelf. Telling the true story of the endlessly entertaining Harlem Globetrotters, it examines the team that changed basketball forever.

Both Suzanne and Don are prolific children's book creators, and Swish!: The Slam-Dunking, Alley-Ooping, High-Flying Harlem Globetrotters (Little, Brown, November 2020) highlights their storytelling talents.

Click here to enter for a chance to win a copy of Swish!

QUESTION: It's so exciting to see the legendary Globetrotters' story come to life! In a tiny caption on one of the final pages, readers see the name Fred Buckingham. Can you talk about the place the Globetrotters have in your heart?

SUZANNE SLADE: What a keen eye you have, Kate! The book's endsheets contain fantastic Globetrotter photos, including the one you noted with the name "Fred Buckingham" in the caption. That picture was taken in 1977 when the Globetrotters came to my little hometown, Goshen, Indiana, and the infamous Curly Neal (No. 22) pulled my younger brother, Fred, from the audience to "volunteer" in a hilarious stunt. Fortunately, the local paper captured the moment, and I was able to track down the photo and get permission to include it in the book. So yes, the Globetrotters hold a very special place in the hearts of my entire family.

Q: Your nonfiction is so well-researched. How do you go about gathering material for your stories? How long do your stories take to research?

SS: As you know authors utilize many types of sources for a book. The main goal of my research is to find great primary sources. But getting access to certain primary sources can take considerable time and effort. For example, it took three years of asking (AKA politely pestering) various people at the Globetrotter organization before a helpful person in their PR department decided to supply wonderful photos for the book. Persistence has proven to be effective in other projects too, such as the many emails I sent to astronaut Alan Bean, the fourth man on the moon, before he finally agreed to two interviews for my book Daring Dozen: The Twelve Who Walked on the Moon. (Actually, after our conversations he agreed to write an afterword for the book.) For Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, I *patiently* waited for two years to get access to Gwendolyn Brooks' handwritten poetry journals. Then it took another year to obtain permission to include her unpublished poems "Clouds" in the book. My advice on research: Don't be afraid to ask. Be patient. And be persistent. Regarding the length of time my research takes, that varies greatly for each book. For Countdown: 2979 Days to the Moon, the research ironically took about 2979 days (over 8 years!)  

Q: Can you talk about your writing process? Do you have the story in your head as you're researching? Or does the material you uncover lead you to the story?

SS: When a book topic finds me (I never go looking for a book idea), first I do some quick initial research to see if this subject has the basic elements of a picture book: a compelling hook (something readers will find fascinating and want to know more about), a unique theme or thread to carry the story, and a satisfying ending. If the idea meets those criteria, I write up a basic story outline based on the initial research. Then I dive into deep research and begin to flesh out the story. Sometimes, as happened with Swish!, I end up uncovering a compelling event which completely changed my storyline plan. So while it's important to have an idea of the main event(s) you plan to include in a picture book, an author needs to be flexible and keep an open mind during the research process, and be willing to make changes to create the best story possible. 

Monday, December 7, 2020

Doug Cenko Takes Off with 'Little Monster Trucks GO!' and More

This is the perfect time of year to get your hands on Chicago author-illustrator Doug Cenko's picture books and boardbooks. Charming illustrations and engaging storylines make his titles the ones kids return to again and again. And they show that Santa's got good taste when he's thinking about the youngest readers.

Doug's newest title, Little Monster Trucks GO! (Blue Manatee Press, April 2020), features five adorable trucks that have their own talents but ultimately shine when they work together. His sweet messaging appears in other Blue Manatee titles as well, like My Mama Is a Mechanic (2019) and My Papa Is a Princess (2018). And Monsters isn't Doug's only title for 2020. His latest installment in the educational series with Dr. John Hutton, Bugs! (April 2020), has crawled onto the shelf beside Cows!, Dogs!, and Cats!

Click here to enter for a chance to win 1 copy of Doug's newest books, Little Monster Trucks GO! or My Papa Is a Princess or My Mama Is a Mechanic.

QUESTION: Okay, your Monster Trucks book is just about the cutest thing ever! How did you come up with this? Did the idea arrive in a flash, or did you play around with it for a while?

DOUG CENKO: Thank you! The initial idea for Little Monster Trucks GO! came about while I was attending a book event in Cincinnati. I was talking with the publisher,  Dr. John Hutton, about how we'd both love to work on a truck book. Once I got that idea in my head, it just stuck there and I had to start working on it. The previous books that I had written: My Papa is a Princess and My Mama is a Mechanic were definitely more illustration-based than word-based, so it took me a little while to figure it out. I started with sketches of how I wanted the story to progress and then worked out the words to go along with the sketches afterward. For me, doodling out rough ideas is the best way to come up with new stories and characters.

Q: I know my kids would have taken their toys and raced them along the roads in your book. Can you talk about your creative process? Do you draw for the kid you were or for the kids you know?

DC: My daughter sounds exactly like your kids. Whenever there's a road or a dashed line in a book, my daughter always has to stop and follow the path with her finger. I wanted to include one or two spreads with branching pathways so that kids could race along the tracks themselves. Also, I liked drawing the trucks smaller on each spread to be able to see more of the track and really give an idea of which truck was in the lead.

My Papa is a Princess and My Mama is a Mechanic were definitely based on the relationship that I have with my daughter, but Little Monster Trucks GO! was written for the 6-year-old version of myself. If you asked me at 6 to create a book about whatever I wanted, the end result would probably be pretty close to Little Monster Trucks GO!, only drawn with crayons. 

Q: There's a lot of energy and joy in your book. What was the most fun you had putting this story together? Naming the trucks? Imaging the characters?

DC: I definitely enjoyed designing the trucks and the Monster-Bot. Monster-Bot went through quite a few revisions before we came up with the final version. The trucks form a giant Voltron-esque robot at the end of the book and it was important that the reader could still identify each individual truck. I didn't want this book to be labeled as a "boy book," so I made sure to include a variety of trucks that all kinds of kids would enjoy. My daughter loves cats, so including a cat truck was a must.

I think that the part I had the most fun with was the rhyming. It's my first rhyming book and trying to come up with words that rhyme but also advance the story was tough. I tend to read rhyming books at a faster pace. Since this book is about a race, making it a rhyming book seemed to make the most sense to me. In the long run, I think that it added to the story and was worth the extra effort.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Tossing Glitter for Alex Willan's 'Unicorns,' 'Jasper' Sequel, and 'Revver'

I was lucky enough to meet Chicago author-illustrator Alex Willan a few years back. It was at the 2016 Los Angeles conference of SCBWI, and when I saw his work, I knew he was destined for big things. Fast-forward to 2020, and Alex is celebrating the release of his second and third picture books AND his first middle-grade venture.

With the charming Unicorns Are the Worst! (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, September 2020), Alex has created a humorous and adorable world where magic is taken seriously but unicorns just aren't carrying their weight. It's up to a hard-working goblin to save the glitter-filled day. For the unicorn-loving readers in your life who, like me, cannot get enough of the horned heroes, this book is a must-read!

Alex's Jasper & Ollie Build a Fort (Doubleday Books for Young Readers, May 2020) is the sequel to his odd-couple story about the unlikely friendship between an impatient fox and a thoughtful sloth, Jasper & Ollie (May 2019).

And with Revver the Speedway Squirrel (Bloomsbury, October 2020), Alex teams up with best-selling and beloved Chicago-area author Sherri Duskey Rinker to illustrate the adorable story of Revver, a little squirrel with big dreams to drive a race car.

QUESTION: You’ve published three books this year! How busy has your life been lately? Can you describe your creative process, especially juggling three projects?

ALEX WILLAN: Things have definitely been busy for me lately, but I couldn't be more grateful for these opportunities. Thankfully I was able to rotate through each project without too much overlap. I could send in artwork for Jasper & Ollie Build a Fort and then, while I was waiting to get feedback on that work, I could start sketching out Unicorns are the Worst! And once I was ready to send in the latest round of artwork on Unicorns, I could switch over to sketching on Revver the Speedway Squirrel. I usually find the beginning stages of a project to be the most creative part. Nothing has been decided yet, so you can just let your imagination run wild. Whereas the later stages are more focused on execution. In that sense, I found that jumping back and forth between projects helped to keep me in that creative mindset throughout.

Q: Illustrating a manuscript must be great fun. Writing and illustrating a manuscript must be a kick! Can you compare pros and cons of each?

AW: That was actually the other wonderful thing about all of these projects was that they were each so different. The challenge in writing and illustrating a new picture book idea (like with Unicorns) is that you have a limited amount of space with which to introduce your audience to a whole new world and an unfamiliar cast of characters. Working on a follow up to a previous book (like Jasper & Ollie Build a Fort) has its own challenges because you want to write something that seems true to the characters you have already established, but still feels like a fresh, new idea that could stand on its own, even if you haven't read the first book. 

Working on Revver was not only my first time illustrating someone else’s text (which was written by the incredible Sherri Duskey Rinker), but it was also my first time illustrating a middle-grade novel. But I think that the biggest pro for each of these projects was the challenges they posed. I don't think that it would be very rewarding to work on a project if it didn't challenge you in some way.

Q: All three books are so charming. What did you enjoy most about the projects. Glitter? Cranky goblins? Studying squirrels?

AW: Thank you so much! I had a lot fun working on each of these projects. The first time I got to see the actual glitter on the cover of Unicorns are the Worst! was definitely a highlight, but I think the most enjoyable part of working on any book is having it out in the world and getting to see how kids react to it. The pandemic has obviously changed all the ways in which you would normally be able to interact with your audience, but whether it’s a virtual school visit, a socially distanced sidewalk signing, or just hearing from a parent online about how much their kid enjoyed one of your books, that is the most rewarding part for me.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Lisa Katzenberger's 'Regular Average Ordinary Day' Worth Celebrating

Chicago-area children's author Lisa Katzenberger is active with SCBWI-Illinois and beyond, and her picture book career is taking off! Lisa's clever and oh-so-engaging National Regular Average Ordinary Day, illustrated by Barbara Bakos, published this past June with Penguin Workshop, her Triceratops Would Not Make a Good Ninja, illustrated by Steph Calvert, from Picture Window Books hit shelves in 2018, and coming February 2021 we'll see It Will Be Ok: A Story of Empathy, Kindness, and Friendship, illustrated by Jaclyn Sinquett, publish with Sourcebooks Explore.

Lisa's National Regular Average Ordinary Day thrills me to no end, as I get such a kick out of celebrating our lesser-known national holidays. Today, for example, is National Cashew Day, National Eat a Cranberry Day, and National Espresso Day. Who knew? (Lisa did!) And while you may think Thursday is Thanksgiving, don't forget it's also National Cake Day. (Move over pumpkin pie!) And after the holiday frenzy of Zoom calls with family, you might really want to celebrate November 30th—National Personal Space Day.

In her adorable picture book, young Peter does not like being bored, so he comes up with a way to have a little fun—by celebrating a different holiday each day. But one day he wakes up to find there isn't any designated holiday, so he's got to make one. After nothing goes right, Peter realizes that even a regular, average, ordinary day can be something worth celebrating. 

QUESTION: Your book is, frankly, GENIUS! I can imagine teachers having great fun with it, and letting kids choose their own holiday to celebrate as well as looking up the obscure ones. Can you talk about how you wrote and imagined your story? Did it come out in dribs and drabs, or did you have an ah-hah moment?

Lisa Katzenberger: I first scribbled down the idea for this book in 2017's Storystorm, where the goal is to come up with one story idea every day of the month. I wrote down "weird national holidays" and just let the idea float around. I didn't even write a first draft until December of that year, and it came out fast! I worked on that revision a lot during December and January, and it went out on submission in February. That was super fast and has never happened since!

Q: How do you hope kids experience the book? And their parents, librarians, and teachers too?

Oh, I hope they have fun. With all that is going on in the world, I'm hoping that books can help readers escape and be silly. After reading National Regular Average Ordinary Day, I hope kids are inspired to use their imagination and get back to basics of plain ole ordinary pretending. I hope they hop into a cardboard box and let it take them anywhere and everywhere! And I hope parents, librarians, and teachers encourage creative, imaginative play no matter what the age of the child. There is also a free activity kit they can download to extend the fun after reading the book.

Q: I am a big fan of April 28th, which is not only National Superhero Day but also National Blueberry Pie Day. What is your favorite national day? 

LK: Oh that is a great date! Who wouldn't love a blueberry pie-eating superhero? I have to say my favorite is National Read a Book Day, on September 6th. I love how educators celebrate this holiday and encourage kids to read, read, read!

Monday, November 16, 2020

Amy Alznauer Inspires with 3 New Picture Book Biographies

We can all agree that 2020 has been A Year. But for Chicago author Amy Alznauer, there have been some fantastic bright spots to celebrate. A Northwestern University lecturer in calculus and number theory, Amy saw not one, not two, but THREE of her picture books publish this year! 

Perfectly suited to her field of expertise, Amy's first title was the picture book biography The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity: A tale of the genius Ramanujan (Candlewick, April), about a young mathematical genius from India who grows up to reinvent much of modern mathematics. Her Strange Birds of Flannery O’Connor: A Life (Enchanted Lion) came next in June, and Flying Paintings: The Zhou Brothers: A Story of Revolution and Art (Candlewick) landed on shelves in September.

Amy is active in SCBWI-Illinois and was a recipient of the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship, partnered with the incredible writing coach Esther Hershenhorn. Her writing has won an Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and a Christopher Award. We're so grateful Amy took a little time to talk about her creative process.

Click here for a chance to win a copy of Amy Alznauer's Flying Paintings!

QUESTION: The Zhou Brothers' story has ties to Chicago, your hometown and mine. Can you talk about how this story came to be? How did you learn about them?

: Every third Friday of the month the Zhou B Center in Bridgeport (right down the street from the Sox stadium) holds an open-house. You can walk through the open studios of the artists who work there and also tour the permanent and rotating gallery spaces. Often there’s someone out front with a chainsaw carving up ice or wood into something beautiful (or at least fascinating). On one of these visits, I sat down in their bar and started thumbing through the Zhou catalogues. I soon came across a statement about the process of collaborative art that floored me.

People think collaboration is about harmony, said one of the brothers (and I’m pulling together a few different statements here). But they’re wrong. It’s like this: you make something beautiful. Someone comes along and destroys it, and you have to find a way to go on together.

I was immediately struck by how this statement captured not only the struggle of making art, but the struggle of loving another person, and even the struggle of loving a nation through turmoil. I imagined a story that would weave together those three strands – the brothers’ relationship to each other, to their country (through the Cultural Revolution which devastated their family) and to their style of collaborative art. 

Q: Your year in books has been tremendous. How did it happen that you had three books hit shelves in 2020? Are there more to come?

: Thank you! Well, it wasn’t supposed to happen quite like that. Two of them got bumped from their original pub dates, which for better or worse landed everything in a short five-month period. There’s actually one other out this year, 1789: Twelve Authors Explore a Year of Rebellion, Revolution, and Change (Candlewick), which makes two books with “revolution” in the title released on September 1!

Right now, I’m doing so many projects surrounding these books – creating short films, working on a book-donation and classroom art initiative, helping to curate an exhibit at Emory University (on Flannery O’Connor and the Black artist Benny Andrews), working on designing a geometric art game, and putting together a huge math + storytelling conference. So I’m struggling to find time for my future projects, but also dying to get to them!

Q: Your books celebrate painting, literature, mathematics and speak to children in a sophisticated way. Who is your ideal audience and how do you want them to experience your stories?

AA: I’ve never stopped loving picture books, and I guess I assume others feel the same way, so I write for both children and adults. To me the best way to make a book function on multiple levels is through metaphor. Metaphor is really the process of bringing disparate things into relationship, so in that way it creates both plot and the working out of ideas (why do these unlikely things go together?). So for example, in Strange Birds, there’s a little girl on a quest to find the strangest, most beautiful bird. But there is also a girl becoming a woman who will strive to write the strangest, most beautiful stories. The quest is for everyone, but older readers might also be inspired to think about how our life’s work grows out of childhood fascinations, how birds are like stories are like people, and maybe even the nature of strangeness. And I think when you write this way, the illustrator often has the chance to infuse their art both with beauty and concept, which again makes it function on different levels.

Recently a mathematician contacted me about The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity, saying that he was inspired by the book to revisit one of Ramanujan’s theorems. And he actually wrote and published a paper that mentions my book as the inspiration. He opens with this: “We loved this book. It turned out that this book can be enjoyed by all ages from 0 to ∞.” Then he closes with what he calls “morals” for his adult, mathematician readers, the first of which is: “Read Children's books.” So that pretty much sums up my wildest hope – that my books will be read by all ages and that they’ll inspire creative work in others. 

Monday, November 9, 2020

Big Rewards in Alice McGinty's Lyrical, Lovable 'Story for Small Bear'

Alice McGinty knows what she's doing. An award-winning author of more than 40 children's books, the longtime Regional Advisor for SCBWI-Illinois, and a writing instructor for teens and adults, Alice has storytelling down pat. And her latest title, A Story for Small Bear (Schwartz & Wade Books, October 2020), about a playful bear cub getting ready for hibernation and leaving just enough time for Mama to share a story, is a perfect example.

Illustrated by Richard Jones (Whale in a Fishbowl), this book is an instant classic. It's one you'll want to give as gifts for birthdays and holidays. And most importantly, it's the one kids will want to read again and again.

 Click here for a chance to win a copy of A Story for Small Bear.

QUESTION: This book is flawless. Can you talk about its journey from idea in your head to copy on the shelf? Did you have it fully formed in your mind? Or did it take years to refine and rework?

ALICE MCGINTY: Small Bear has an interesting backstory, and I’m happy to share. 

The idea for Small Bear actually came from a parenting principle. During the past 10 years or so, I’ve been helping a psychologist use what he’s learned from his decades of experience with adolescents and their parents to write a parenting book called Childproofing for Adolescence. One day, he and I got to talking about how some of the principles in the book might play out as stories for young kids. It was a fun thing to think about! One principle we batted around was what he calls “put the conflict in the kid,” which means that the parent doesn’t have to nag their child if they set things up for the child to be motivated (and able) to complete tasks themselves. That plays out well in bedtime rituals, if stories, which are the motivator, come before a set bedtime (say 8 p.m.). The sooner the child completes their bedtime tasks — like brushing teeth, cleaning up, and getting p.j.s on (tasks they often dilly-dally with) — the more time they have for stories before that 8 p.m. bedtime. Gosh I wish I’d known to do that when my kids were young!

Anyhow, thinking about ways to play with that concept, I came up with the idea of bears and hibernation, since that bed time is set by nature and not the more arbitrary timeframe set by parents. Once I figured that out, the story formed really quickly in my mind, and I couldn’t wait to start writing. That said, (ha – it’s never that easy!) it took another couple of years and many, many revisions to refine the story and get the telling, the language, and pacing just right. I also had to work hard (and my editor helped a lot with this) to not make it too teachy, but just let the story play out. 

Q: You've written wonderful informative nonfiction picture books. How did you decide to change gears and write such a snuggly, dreamy bedtime story?

AM: In the case of Small Bear, the parenting principles were my bridge into the story, so in that sense it’s got more of a nonfiction bent than you might see on the surface. And I actually had to do some research for Small Bear too – to make sure she was eating the right foods, collecting the right types of boughs for her nest, and even to make sure it was possible that she, as a “toddler,” would be in the den preparing with Mama bear for the winter. As a nonfiction author, I couldn’t “bear” the thought that I might get my bear facts wrong, even though the story was fiction!

Related to that, no matter whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction, I love narrative arc and story. To me it’s always about finding the arc of the story, whether it’s the story in a life through biography or the story in a parenting principle. I guess I love stories as much as Small Bear!

Q: Were there favorite books that influenced your writing as you contemplated A Story for Small Bear? Did you have favorites that came to mind as you created your own?

AM: This is an interesting question! While I didn’t have any particular books in mind as I pondered and wrote, on a deeper, more subconscious level, I think all my writing is influenced by the cannon of literature I’ve read throughout my life. In the case of Small Bear, I think the influences were the books that evoked feelings of playfulness, love, and security because these were the feelings I wanted to evoke in Small Bear’s story.

Some of these books, ones I grew up with and then read to my sons, were Goodnight Moon, for the secure feelings it brings, Curious George and Blueberries for Sal for their playfulness, The Snowy Day for its earnestness, Are You My Mother for its love and sweetness, and Chicken Soup with Rice and anything Dr. Seuss for their word play and poetry.    

I really loved creating a world that rang with these warm, fuzzy feelings. During my many revisions, it was such a great feeling to jump back into the secure, sweet, loving world of Small Bear and Mama Bear. I wish we all could live in that world!  

Monday, November 2, 2020

More Exciting Adventures from Liesl Shurtliff in 'Forbidden Lock'

Chicago children's author Liesl Shurtliff is one of the busiest writers I know in children's lit. When she's not working on a new book, she's speaking to students in classrooms all over the country about the power of storytelling, or she's racing around town with her own bustling brood.

A New York Times bestseller for Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin (Knopf, 2013), which was followed by three more delightful fairytale retellings in Jack, Red, and Grump, Liesl is wrapping up another exciting and engaging middle-grade series. Time Castaways (Katherine Tegen Books) kicked off with The Mona Lisa Key (2018), then featured The Obsidian Compass (2019), and now the third and final The Forbidden Lock (October 2020) has hit shelves. 

See what I mean? That's seven novels in seven years! Who does that?

The Time Castaways series demanded deft writing skills, which Liesl has plenty of, to keep track of time travel, complex mysteries, high adventure, and the distinct personalities of the intrepid trio. The books tell the story of the Hudson kids—Mateo, Ruby, and Corey—who jump on the wrong subway train and wind up on wild escapades throughout time. 

Liesl took a moment out of her own wild escapades to share some of the inspiration behind Time Castaways. Click here to enter for a chance to win a copy of Book 3, The Forbidden Lock.

QUESTION: You take your trio on great adventures through history. What was the most interesting period/moment that you encountered as you wrote the series?

LIESL SHURTLIFF: Eek! There are so many fun and interesting moments to choose from. I went down a thousand rabbit holes of research, it feels like. But really, the one that sticks out the most for me is the Hudson kids' first time-travel adventure, when they land in Paris in the year 1911 on the very day the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. I did not know about this famous art theft until I started writing this series, but once I did, I became a wee bit obsessed with Vincezno Peruggia and his theft of the Mona Lisa. Peruggia kept the painting hidden in a trunk with a false bottom for two years until he was caught trying to sell it to a museum in Italy. (Part of the reason he stole her is because he thought she rightfully belonged to Italy. The other part is he wanted to get rich!) The theft of the Mona Lisa is actually a big part of why the painting is so famous today. She wasn't all that famous before then. 

Q: Time travel is hard! What was the most challenging part of writing the series?

LS: Time travel is SO hard! Aside from keeping track of all the timelines and destinations, I think the hardest part for me was the infinite possibilities and the constant decisions that needed to be made. A lot of people might assume we writers would want infinite possibilities, but the truth is a story needs some constraints in order to have power and flow. My character had the power to travel anywhere, any time, and yet they couldn't actually go everywhere and to all times. That might be a fun adventure for them, but probably boring and/or confusing for the reader. I needed to make some tough decisions about where and when the Hudsons would travel and why. And that was STRESSFUL! How do I choose one destination or time period over another? There's so much I left out! I stressed just writing about it now! 

Q: With Book 3, The Forbidden Lock, things start to come unhinged as historical figures return to life as well as dinosaurs. These scenes must have been fun to write. What were some of the things that made you laugh as you worked on the book? What scenes would have appealed to 11-year-old you?

LS: I think I'm still an 11-year-old at heart! So much made me giggle while writing this. There are some pretty great high-speed chase scenes through time and space right in the beginning that I think will really keep readers on the edge of their seats. There's also a great scene where time periods start to clash, and we see things come together that really do not go together, like dinosaurs in Central Park, and Napoleon Bonaparte taking over the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's all a bit mad-cap, and I think that definitely would have appealed to 11-year-old me. Quirky, bizarre stuff always delights and makes me giggle, but it's all blended with a heaping of heart and emotional depth. I like that stuff too. I think these books really showcase both sides.