Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Mother Jones and Workers' Rights in Monica Kulling's 'On Our Way'

There aren't too many authors who get to share billing with literary heavyweights like Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. But versatile and prolific children's author Monica Kulling has done just that, and more. With her Stepping Stones series for Random House, as well as the Great Ideas series with Tundra Books, Monica writes with an eye toward making the complicated more accessible and the adventures real.

Her latest great adventure looks at Mother Jones and her famous march to emancipate children from hard labor. Titled On Our Way to Oyster Bay: Mother Jones and Her March for Children's Rights and illustrated by Felicita Sala, it is a lively look at an inspirational heroine and champion of the working class. It is sure to prompt great discussions around the kitchen table or in the classroom.

Question: What made you want to write about Mother Jones?

Monica Kulling: An astute editor at Kids Can Press came to me with the project. I’m not often asked to put words to someone else’s idea, but when I am, I always find it a fun challenge. The editor thought a book about Mother Jones, specifically her march against child labor in 1903, would fit the publishing house’s Citizen Kid series. As it states on the website:

“The collection aims to make complex global issues accessible for children ages 8 to 12.”

My book illustrates the complex issue of child labor both in the story and in the further discussion in the book’s back pages.

Q: You've clearly been bitten by the research bug. What makes you want to write non-fiction for children?

MK: Research is definitely the fun part. I think I write non-fiction for children so I can learn new and interesting things. It certainly is a beneficial side product. I didn’t know a thing about Mother Jones before beginning the project and now here I am … almost an expert!

As a subject for biography, Mother Jones was a good find. She was a courageous woman who triumphantly rose from the ashes of several disastrous events: the Irish potato famine, the yellow fever epidemic in 1867, and the Chicago fire in 1871. After teaching in Michigan and Tennessee, Mary married George Jones in 1861.

Mr. Jones was an ironworker and union supporter. When the yellow fever epidemic struck in 1867, Mary lost her husband and all four of her children, all under age five.

One has to imagine the torment she must have endured because there isn’t much written about this event, even in her autobiography.

Mary returned to Chicago and opened a dressmaking business. Once more, disaster struck, in the form of fire. Mary lost her home and business to the Chicago fire of 1871. She sought community and comfort in the Knights of Labor, and soon emerged as a labor organizer, fighting tirelessly for better working conditions and more humane wages for coal miners and railroad workers. Her caring manner inspired the coal miners to call her “Mother.”

Mother Jones was only 5-foot tall but what a firecracker! I hope kids will find her an inspiration, as the coal miners did, and as my two fictional characters, Aidan and Gussie, certainly do.

Q: Can you describe your creative process — sometimes it's challenging to make history feel relevant for young readers. How do you decide when to bring in fictional characters to your narrative?

MK: I guess the simplest answer is imagination. I try to imagine what it would have been like to be a particular person living under certain constraints with a personality entirely different from my own. It’s a bit like acting, I guess, since the character must come alive for me as I write or I won’t get the words right. If the person comes alive in my imagination then I can, hopefully, translate that to the page.

As for bringing in fictional characters, I don’t always do that. In my Great Idea series, stories of inventors and their a-ha moments, I stick to the facts, with dollops of imagined dialogue to keep interest high. In the case of On Our Way To Oyster Bay! I introduced the two children, at the suggestion of the editor. That’s why I like working with editors so much. They often hold the key to unlocking the kid friendly in a history.

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

MK: I’d be gratified if young readers took away similar thoughts and feelings to those I take away when I read biography or historical fiction — that is, to see the world through eyes other than your own and to come to a deeper understanding of the people who live in it. I’m often amazed by how much we are like people who lived hundreds of years ago even though we have amazing technological and scientific developments at our disposal; we are, at base, similar in the hopes, fears and desires we have.

Q: What are you working on next?

MK: I have so many people, places, and events that I’d like to explore, my head is fairly spinning! That said, lately I’ve been researching the Dust Bowl migration with the idea of writing the story of one family’s struggle as they migrate from Oklahoma to the greener fields of California. I’m particularly interested in how the 10 long years of dust, drought, and despair affected the children in the family.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Tricia Springstubb on Empathy, Issues With 'Every Single Second'

Tricia Springstubb loves to celebrate the start of summer, as she has done with her award-winning middle-grade books. A former Head Start teacher and a children's librarian, Tricia is tuned into how excited students get for that final bell to ring, launching them into three marvelous months away from school. So it seems fitting to kick off summer vacation by getting to know a bit more about this lovely and talented writer. 

Tricia’s titles include What Happened on Fox Street, its sequel, Mo Wren Lost and Found, and Moonpenny Island (all with Balzer and Bray), which Kirkus gave a starred review and called “so fresh and honest it will resonate widely.” The second book in her new chapter book series published in April, titled Cody and the Mysteries of the Universe. It follows Book 1, Cody and the Fountain of Happiness (Candlewick Press, 2015), and both are illustrated beautifully by the hugely talented Eliza Wheeler.

As if that list isn’t enough to make you breathless, there’s more. Tricia has a new middle-grade novel that hit shelves just a week ago titled Every Single Second (Balzer and Bray). And already it’s a Junior Library Guild selection and is earning starred reviews.

Book Giveaway! Winner chosen from comments below!

Question: Every Single Second takes on big issues for young readers. What made you decide to write this book? Can you talk about the “a-ha” moment when you first got the idea for it? 

Tricia Springstubb: I’ve always loved Jane Yolen’s analogy of how a story hatches. The baby bird working its way out of the quiet, secret egg, the Mama hovering and waiting: when the outside world and our own deepest feelings meet, the best stories are born.

Every Single Second began when a woman from our community, whose family we know a little, became an object of on-line ridicule and scorn. The details aren’t important. What struck me and haunted me is how easily we can judge others, even when we know only the most superficial things about them. I wanted to write a book that showed how stories begin long before the first page, and go on long after the last one, and how we’re all connected, often in ways we can’t begin to guess.

Q: Nella and Angela come from a very distinct community. Were you raised in the same kind of community? What are some of your inspirations for the characters and setting? 

TS: The way Nella and Angela, once best buds, gradually grow apart—I think at some point everyone experiences the wistfulness, sadness and guilt of a friendship like that. That part comes from my own life.

Their neighborhood is inspired by Cleveland’s Little Italy, a short walk from my house. It clings to the side of a hill, suspended between two other, very different neighborhoods. Who could resist a metaphor like that? I go to Little Italy for wonderful food, including heavenly donuts and cannoli, to admire the gardens, and for the annual Feast. I’m drawn to intimate settings—see Moonpenny Island and What Happened on Fox Street. The coziness and support of small communities has deep appeal, but the wide world beckons, and sometimes threatens. That tension is in all my books, and in Every Single Second it explodes.

Beautiful Lakeview Cemetery, where I love to take walks, inspired the story’s graveyard. There’s a certain statue/monument whose eyes always seem to follow me, and he became my Jeptha Stone. There’s also a statue of a girl reaching for the stars…

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Every Single Second?

TS: I always hope my stories keep readers turning the pages, their hearts thumping. Helping readers to see the world through others’ eyes—that’s an important goal, too. With Every Single Second, more than other books, I also hope that kids will ask some big questions about their own lives. How do we form our opinions and beliefs? What’s the true definition of goodness? Are we ruled by fate or do we have choices? How do our pasts affect who we are and how we act? How do we find the courage to stand up, instead of stand by? Nella is always asking questions, while worrying that they’re the wrong ones. I hope that, as readers see her find her way, they’ll believe they can do the same.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your books and writing? 

TS: One of my forever-favorite quotes comes from E.B. White. “All I hope to say in books, all I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” Love, empathy, wonder, hope! May they root and bloom.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Art Museum Intrigue in Bridgette Alexander's 'Souther Gothic'

Art museums and heists have been the subject of wonderful children's books from From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler all the way to Chasing Vermeer. Chicago middle-grade and young adult author Bridgette R. Alexander offers her twist on the tales with her debut novel Southern Gothic: A Celine Caldwell Mystery, (Paris 1865 Press, March 2016). As a modern art historian, Bridgette brings a deep knowledge of the field, having worked with some of the world’s finest museums in New York, Paris, Berlin and Chicago, and having developed art education programs, curated exhibits, as well as taught and published in art history.

With Southern Gothic, two mysterious paintings have disappeared from an upcoming exhibition at the esteemed Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. And Celine's mother, the imperious curator Julia Caldwell, is a prime suspect. Celine believes her mother is innocent and, despite their strained relationship, vows to find the paintings and keep her mother out of jail. Sixteen-year-old Celine is a delightful character, whose voice Kirkus describes as "conversational and snappy, making for a quick, sparkling read, and the details about art history throughout add an extra dimension of interest."

Question: What was your path to publication like? Not everyone follows the traditional route. Tell us about yours. 

Bridgette Alexander: Well, initially I took the traditional path of approaching agents, attending conferences to meet agents and editors, and even had a friend who works as a sales rep of a major publishing house to pass my manuscript along to editors she knew. However, after 45 rejection letters stating mostly that they couldn’t connect with the protagonist, Celine Caldwell, as a privileged bi-racial teenage girl – not one who’s living and struggling in a ghetto, and dealing with other social issues – I changed my strategy. I decided, to form my own publishing house, Paris 1865 Press, and produce the first book, Southern Gothic: A Celine Caldwell Mystery.

I would not recommend this path to every author. If I didn’t like the publishing business so much – the art-work, the promotion and marketing, the development, and the financing – I would have succumbed to challenges and given up. But I love that part of it. It’s fun! I have a background of working in the financial industry – futures and commodities; and in high-end retail and merchandising.

Q: Will you share your creative process? Who is Celine and where did she come from? Did she develop fully formed in your mind? Or did you labor over her character for years? Is she you, someone you know? 

BA: Celine Caldwell, her friends and the world she occupies are drawn largely from a world that I am familiar with – New York, and in particular the art world. I am fascinated by the art world for its alchemy of beauty and money, the sacred and the profane of humanity. The evening I started to put Celine together, I thought about women that I know who are art historians, curators, artists, archivists, gallery owners, board of trustee members, professors of art history, in New York and Paris. Ironically Celine’s friends, Baheera Amid, Reese Dreyfus, Troy Roberts, Sandy Brennan, her mom Julia Caldwell, her mother’s best friend Laurel, her dad Peter and his girlfriend Warner, and Julia’s love interest Nigel Peel, came flowing out of me like a river. I developed their personalities, how they looked, I could see them all so clearly in my mind. The clothes they wear, the restaurants they’d dine in, their favorite books, movies and TV shows.

It took a long time before I could do the same for Celine.

She was too close to my own personal world. I knew her age. I knew I wanted her to be bi-racial. I knew she would have to live in NYC on the Upper West Side but go to school and socialize on the Upper East Side. I even knew how she’d look – her hair long and curly, skin and eye color. But her personality and her soul took a long while before I could see and feel those elements of her.

It took a long while for me with Celine because I thought she ought to be some reflection of me. And I struggled with that notion. I am an art historian. I’ve loved art and its history since I was a child. So in a lot of ways, it felt like a no-brainer that this character would be like me. But she’s not. She could not be me. I am not Celine.

I realized this when I was holding my baby daughter and imagining her future. I had imagined that I was Celine relating to my mother, but just then I realized Celine is my daughter relating to me. Not that I am Celine’s mom, Julia. I was not as narrowly laser-focused professionally as Julia. Professionally I had a lot of fits-and-starts.

It’s at that moment Celine came alive and presented herself to me. From that moment forward, my role with her has been more like “dictating her story.”

Q: Kirkus called Celine an "uptown Nancy Drew." How easy or challenging did you find writing mystery? Is this a genre you love? Or is it one you came to recently? 

BA: That’s pretty cool. Celine is sort of an uptown Nancy Drew. She attends a private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and has a mom who’s a major figure in the New York art world. Her mother, Julia Caldwell, is a powerhouse curator of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – where Celine has an internship. Her dad, Peter Caldwell, is an investment banker. He’s what I refer to as a dot-portrait fixture on the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Celine’s world is quite privileged. Yet, there is an undercurrent of mayhem that is constantly brewing, and Celine is the only person who wants to set things right.

I’ve read mysteries all my life. Trixie Belden, of course, Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allen Poe.

Q: How do you hope readers respond to Celine in the story? What do you hope to accomplish with the book? 

BA: I want readers to love her as much as I love her. She’s smart, tart and loves arts. She’s a real cookie for the ages. More seriously, I want Celine to open doors for readers just as my grandparents did for me. My grandparents provided an entryway into art museums and galleries for me. They escorted me through the histories of art – the artists and the styles. They made art and the art museum feel as though it was an extension of my backyard. My grandparents did not have a lot to give me financially, but they did open up doors and point to what was on the other side of that door – hope, inspiration and the bounty of America.

Q: What are you working on next? What adventures lie ahead for you and Celine? 

BA: I am working on more Celine Caldwell Mysteries and further building and establishing Paris 1865 Press publishing house. Southern Gothic is a part of a long series. Next up there is the story of murder inside of a political group that has inspired some of its members to vandalize a student art exhibition. The book is called Sons of Liberty (2017), and the art involves American paintings about America’s founding revolution. After that Celine will tangle with a fatwa against a Middle Eastern art patron, Pasha (2018); and the murder of a Hollywood heart throb, Night on Mulholland Drive (2019).