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. 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Carol Coven Grannick Takes the Spotlight with 'Reeni's Turn'

Carol Coven Grannick has been an encouraging, uplifting force for other authors in the Chicago children's writing community, so the publication of her debut novel Reeni's Turn (Fitzroy Books, September 2020) is an exciting moment for cheering on one of our best cheerleaders. Aside from contributing a column for Illinois children's book creators via SCBWI's Prairie Wind, Carol’s poetry and short fiction appear in Cricket, Ladybug, Babybug, Highlights, and Hello, and her poetry and essays for adults appear in a number of venues.  

In Reeni's Turn, Carol writes about preteen Reeni and the tumultuous world of middle school, complete with roiling social waters and pernicious body-image issues. Reeni commits to dancing a solo for her retiring ballet teacher, but a lifelong fear of performing holds her back. Peers encourage Reeni to try dieting, but that only leads to disaster. Losing a best friend, as well as her focus on school work and dance, Reeni has to make some big decisions about who she's going to be.

Carol generously took some time to talk about what inspired her middle-grade novel. Enter here for a chance to win a copy of Carol Coven Grannick's Reeni's Turn!

QUESTION: Can you talk about your creative process? Why did you decide to write Reeni's Turn in verse?

CAROL COVEN GRANNICK: My creative process generally involves, initially, dreaming and mulling, none of it deliberate or forced, but rather quite intentional and organic. I may jot down ideas or short poems quickly, but before my first drafts of stories comes this dreamy time. I always think of my print of a painting hanging in Dickens’ office in London called “Dickens’ Dream.”

During that time, whether it’s weeks, months, or in the case of Reeni's Turn, years, I will probably be working on other pieces, as well, whether that’s poetry, an article or blog post, or a different picture book. But the other process continues, as I’m certain it does for many who work in the arts and sciences.

The next stage I can’t seem to change, and I’ve come to pretty much accept it: no matter how much I may wish to plan—even my blog posts—I seem to need to discover what I really want to say in a piece through the writing itself. Only poetry tends to capture a meaning-laden image or thought more immediately.

In terms of Reeni's Turn becoming a verse novel, I’ll try to condense the many turns in the journey. I began my career as a children’s writer in 1999 when I wrote what would become the “seed” story for Reeni's Turn. By the time I wrote a first draft in prose in 2008 I’d written another novel and many picture book manuscripts. But Reeni was always on my mind. It was how Reeni was “always on my mind” that determined its ultimate life as a verse novel. After my then-critique partners read a first draft in prose and encouraged me to continue, the second draft danced around in my brain in free verse. It felt right. It felt like it mirrored the rhythms of music and dance, ballet in particular.

Over the years and many revisions, multiple critiques from colleagues and two professionals, I rewrote it in prose at the request of a first critique with a professional editor, but it was a struggle. I don’t mind “struggle.” But this struggle was my hands trying to write in prose (I did finish a draft) vs. the rhythmic, lyrical language swirling in my brain.

“Dickens’ Dream.”
My second professional critique, with another author I respected, got this response first: “Is there a reason you didn’t write this in verse?” So the summary is: at a certain point, learned to trust myself that this needed to be in verse, but also that I needed to make certain the poetry was honest. There are certain sections of dialogue, including Reeni’s “Huge, Loud Voice” that feel more like prose, deliberately calling attention in a different way.

I suppose I also knew on some level that this touchy issue of body image, fat bias, and the diet culture’s negative impact on young children could be well-handled with less narrative, a lyrical touch, and plenty of restful white space—was, in fact, better handled  his way. And while I consider myself a poet first, I wouldn’t automatically write everything in verse unless the story and voice would benefit from that form.

Q: Where did the spark for the character of Reeni come from? 

CCG: I trace the true roots of Reeni's Turn to my childhood, when I learned incorrectly that my value seemed to depend on the size and shape of my body. But the seed for Reeni's Turn began with “The Inside Ballerina,” my first children’s story which I mentioned above, published in Cricket in 2001. By that time I had long since found peace and respect for my body and was working to help others find comfort with eating, their bodies, and themselves as a clinical social worker. I felt the issue was (and still is) underrepresented in middle-grade lit, particularly for fourth- and fifth-grade readers. This age group experiences an extremely high incidence of diet experimentation which always causes disordered eating, and plants seeds for possible development of adolescent eating disorders.

Q: You take on big topics like body image and dieting and the signals society sends to children about appearance. How do you want young readers to experience the book and the message?

CCG: I would love readers to be engaged and also comforted by the verse, which offers “snapshots” of Reeni’s journey. And I hope they’ll be thoughtfully provoked by the multiple thematic issues—the reality of what dieting does to body, mind, and spirit; the presence of weight bias in our culture and literature; the value of using or developing “inner” strengths of self-awareness and self-reflection to encourage growth and change—in Reeni's Turn, I celebrate the introverted child’s strengths as a model for all children; and the discovery that we are far better off when we face our obstacles directly and with the courage to tell ourselves the truth about who we are, and who we want to become.

In summary, I’d say there are all kinds of meaningful conversations that Reeni's Turn can begin, from body, to the pull between many sets of emotions (fear and longing, love and loss, confidence and self-loathing, and more), to the feeling of separating a little bit—not too much!—from loving parents and siblings, to the reality that persistence and emotional resilience does not come easily for everyone. The journey to become who we want to be without giving up who we are can be hard!

Thank you so much for this opportunity to share my experience with, and the issues in Reeni's Turn, Kate. I look forward to conversations with readers, their guiding adults, and writers who want to include more body positive, weight neutral issues into their work.

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!