Zinnia and the Bees, An Interview with Debut Author Danielle Davis

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MEET DANIELLE DAVIS,
AUTHOR OF
ZINNIA AND THE BEES
Written by Danielle Davis
Illustrated by Laura K. Horton
(Capstone Young Readers; $14.95, Ages 9-12)

 

Cover image from Zinnia and the Bees written by Danielle Davis

 

Yesterday, August 1st, was the debut of local L.A. author Danielle Davis’s new middle grade novel, Zinnia and the Bees. Today I’m totally tickled (but not stung mind you!) to share my recent interview with Davis as she weighs in on the who, what, when, where and why of her delightful magical realism story. But first I’d like to share some of my own thoughts. If you’re eager to get to the Q&A with Danielle, please feel free to scroll down. Below that you’ll also find a trailer for the novel. 

REVIEW

Zinnia, the main character in Danielle Davis’s Zinnia and the Bees, struggles with several relationships throughout this introspective, humorous, and totally absorbing book. It’s filled with many of those confusing, sometimes immobilizing emotions that I recall experiencing in middle school (which was called junior high back then). Added to that are accounts of several uncomfortable situations Zinnia finds herself immersed in which will surely resonate with today’s tweens. And though she may seem to avoid friendships, she ultimately realizes that those connections are what she really needs. Her mom, a widow, dentist and community activist, always seems otherwise occupied. She practically lives at her practice, leaves impersonal post-it notes and is more into her rescue dog than her daughter. Then there’s Zinnia’s brother Adam. The book opens with a wacky and wonderful yarn bomb episode that pulls readers into the story and demonstrates the siblings’ close relationship, despite the six years age gap.

Zinnia and the Bees book with wool and some beesOn that very same day, Adam skips out on Zinnia and her mom, no warning, no note, nothing to let her know where he’s gone. That, after all they’ve shared, hurts more than also losing her group of friends NML, Nikki, Margot and Lupita. When they were pals they were NMLZ, but now Z was on her own. That is until a clever and curious neighbor’s nephew comes to town for summer. Far from perfect, yet not easy to push away, Birch demonstrates to Zinnia the magic of nature and the transformative quality of a good friend. His timing couldn’t have been better because after a visit to the local ice cream parlor, where some ice cream got in her hair, Zinnia has attracted a colony of crazed and kooky honeybees who find what they hope will be temporary accommodations in her long curly hair.

As Zinnia tries to make sense of her brother-less world, she’s also trying to figure out a way to get the bees off her head. We get vivid glimpses of a close relationship Zinnia has with her aunt, without which would make her mom’s indifference more intolerable than it already is. After all, it was her mom who pushed Adam away.

The humor shines through when reading the perspective of the hiveless bees hanging out in Zinnia’s hair. They get a chance, every several chapters or so, to share their thoughts on being homeless. This gives readers a chance to get into the bee narrator’s head and think about bees in a whole, hysterical new way. I now bravely scoop dive-bombing bees out of my pool instead of letting them drown thanks to Zinnia and the Bees! (No bees were hurt in the making of this novel, but do not attempt a rescue if you are allergic to bees!)

Davis has crafted a quirky and creative story where the presence of yarn in many ways can be seen as a connector of people, as well as something safe and comforting. The bees represent a longing for home, and Zinnia’s need to be heard and loved unconditionally, like her brother. There are truly many layers to the story of Zinnia and the Bees making this debut novel from Danielle Davis such a sweet, satisfying and thoughtful read.

  • Review by Ronna Mandel

INTERVIEW

Photo of Zinnia and the Bees author Danielle Davis

Author of Zinnia and the Bees, Danielle Davis

Good Reads With Ronna: What was the genesis for Zinnia and the Bees

Danielle Davis 🐝: The idea for this book came from an image my husband passed along to me that had come to mind of someone with bees on and around their head. I was interested in fairy tales and stories that contained an element of the bizarre and even wacky, so the idea appealed to me immensely. With his permission, I ran with it (this is one of many reasons the book is dedicated to him). I wanted to know more about the way the bees might be a stand in for anxiety and navigating difficulties. And I wanted to know more about the person who found themselves in this predicament.

GRWR: Zinnia struggles with several relationships throughout the book and, after her brother Adam’s abrupt departure, she feels completely abandoned and alone. Then a swarm of hiveless honeybees takes up residence in her curly hair. Since the bees feature prominently in your story, can you talk about the significance of this magical realism element and how you decided to have two different perspectives recount the story?

DD 🐝: I was curious about Zinnia, but I was also curious about those insects. Disappearing bees were in the news quite a bit when I was first writing this story, and I’d heard about agricultural bees who traveled around with beekeepers to pollinate fruits and vegetables for humans (it’s a real thing!). So, I dreamed up a colony of bees who, while happy enough in their existence, felt like something was missing and yearned for freedom. I wanted to hear from them, and hoped readers would too. Writing the bee sections was really fun for me—they’re communal and existential and, I hope, hilarious (they always made me laugh!).

GRWR: A yarn bombing episode propels the plot line forward. Zinnia finds comfort in knitting and it feels like there is some symbolism with yarn. Was that intentional? Also, Zinnia has practically yarn bombed every item in her bedroom. As a child, were you a knitter like Zinnia? Is there any particular reason you chose knitting versus another craft since I know you share a lot of crafts on your picture book blog, This Picture Book Life?

DD 🐝: While the yarn symbolism was, admittedly, unintentional, it’s certainly there since yarn can provide comfort and so relates to the concept of home, which is at the heart of the novel. For me, I’d made Zinnia a knitter in the vein of any artist or maker (or writer) who experiences that sensation of flow when immersed in their preferred activity (plus, I’d recently learned about yarn bombing). For Zinnia, knitting is a way she soothes her anxiety, helps make sense of her world, and takes her mind off, well, everything. It’s a way for her to both focus and escape.I was certainly not a knitter—Zinnia is way more talented than I am! But for me, reading was similar to what knitting is for her. As a child, books were a way to soothe my anxiety, focus, and escape. Stories also, subconsciously I imagine, helped me make sense of the world.

GRWR: Your sense of place, your characters, voice, dialogue and plot all come together seamlessly to create, like the knitted lens covers for Birch’s binoculars, a cleverly crafted story. What was the easiest part for you to write and which is the hardest?

DD 🐝: Thank you, and what a neat question! Once I crafted this for a middle grade audience (I started it as something for adults—what was I thinking?), the first draft was pretty easy to write. I was emerging from a very challenging period in my own life, so writing the first draft of Zinnia and the Bees felt sort of effortless and full of joy as an extension of that unburdening. The interactions between Zinnia and Birch were natural and fun to write, as were the bee sections, where I could be as wacky and dramatic as I wanted. But all the revisions that followed, which were numerous and spanned years, were probably harder in general. And then working with my editor, Ali Deering at Capstone, was a little of both. She had brilliant ideas for making the story better in important ways and I got to prove to myself that I could create under her amazing direction and necessary deadline. The harder part was that having an editor meant I also had the pressure of knowing this was going to be a real, published book and that someone might actually read it someday. 

GRWR: Though I really like Zinnia and her aunt Mildred, I’m especially fond of Birch who is visiting his Uncle Lou, the neighbor, for the summer. The friendship that slowly grows between Birch and Zinnia is so satisfying. Is there one character you relate to the most or is there a little bit of you in each one?

DD 🐝: I’m super fond of Birch as well—such a patient, loyal friend. While I’m confident there are parts of me in Zinnia, she feels to me like her own person (yes, these characters totally feel like real people to me!). I have a real soft spot for Birch’s Uncle Lou and both he and Zinnia’s Aunt Mildred are examples of the positive, caring adults every kid deserves to have in their lives.

GRWR: Dr. Flossdrop, Zinnia’s mom, is a memorable character. She’s distant, domineering and definitely not warm and fuzzy like the wool Zinnia knits with or her brother Adam whom she adores. How did you develop this dentist who relates better to her rescue dog than her own daughter?

DD 🐝: I knew I wanted Zinnia and her mom to start out feeling as different as possible and then learn that, emotionally, they have a lot in common even if it’s hard to tell from the outside. As for a neighborhood activist dentist who adopts a terrier and brings it to her office? I guess I was going for zany, and someone who would be as infuriating as possible to Zinnia.

GRWR: Do you have a preference when it comes to picture books and middle grade novels and which one do you read more of yourself?

DD 🐝: As in childhood, in adulthood I first fell in love with picture books, and then found middle grade novels. I read and enjoy both consistently, but I’m a bit more immersed in picture books in terms of quantity because of my blog.

And The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is my very favorite book.

GRWR: Where is your favorite place to write?

DD 🐝: I usually write in my apartment. I like the ease and comforts of home (like having neverending cups of tea when working), but I can still hear the sounds of the city and know it’s there. I like to revise out somewhere, preferably a coffee shop.

GRWR: How long did Zinnia and The Beestake you from concept to completion?

DD 🐝: I began the story in 2008, wrote the first middle grade draft in 2010, I believe, and sold it to and edited it for Capstone in 2016, and now it’s out in 2017.

GRWR: Can you talk about your passion for literacy and your volunteer work?

DD 🐝: I’ve been lucky enough to have the ability to volunteer with both WriteGirl and Reading to Kids respectively here in Los Angeles. The former is an organization that mentors teen girls through weekly one-on-one meetups to write together. Plus, the monthly workshops are epic and full of working writers sharing strategies and stories with teens. (And, an amazing WriteGirl who’s headed to college this fall is interning with me over the summer!)

The latter holds reading and crafting events at L.A. area elementary schools one Saturday a month. It is a total joy to participate and each child gets a free book to take home as well. That’s around 800 books given to 800 kids each month! It’s a privilege to be a small part of what the organization is doing to serve kids in my city. I wrote about the experience a couple of years ago here.

GRWR: Can you think of anything else I haven’t asked about that you’d like to share with readers about either Zinnia and the Bees or you?

DD 🐝: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a huge treat to be featured on Good Reads With Ronna!

Visit Danielle’s website here.
Find her at Twitter here.
Find her at Instagram here.
Click here to see Danielle’s Facebook page
And click here to for her Pinterest boards.
Visit illustrator Laura K. Horton’s website here.

 


A Different Kind of Passover by Linda Leopold-Strauss

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A DIFFERENT KIND OF PASSOVER
Written by Linda Leopold-Strauss
Illustrated by Jeremy Tugeau
(Kar-Ben; Hardcover, $17.99;
Paperback, $7.99; eBook, $6.99, Ages 4-9)

 

Cover image of grandpa in bed from A Different Kind of Passover by Linda Leopold-Strauss

 

Any child who has ever celebrated a holiday when someone special couldn’t attend will relate to        A Different Kind of Passover. But even those who haven’t will appreciate the sentiments expressed and the lovely twist author Linda Leopold-Strauss has added in this heartwarming story I’m delighted to share.

Grandpa is sick and has just come back home from the hospital. That means the Passover seder will be different this year and narrator Jessica wonders how that will change things, especially now that she’s going to ask the Four Questions in Hebrew. And since she’s finding it hard to imagine a seder without Grandpa, Jessica soon realizes it doesn’t have to be that way. Grandpa may be nearby tucked in bed, and wearing pajamas, but how convenient that “… Grandpa’s door opens to the dining room?” notes an enthused Jessica. When Grandpa questions his participation in such attire, Grandma remarks, “Does God care if you’re in your pajamas?” The plan is hatched and the seder will take place  with most things remaining the same as always and just a few things different like Grandpa reclining in bed and cousin Mark “getting to sip sweet wine instead of grape juice, since he has just had his bar mitzvah.”

The joy of family and tradition in this story is wonderfully conveyed through Tugeau’s muted illustrations. I love the varied perspectives he shares, especially the ones where we know it’s Grandpa looking out on his family seated around the dining room table. Nothing says everyone must be in the same room for a seder so when Jessica comes up with the great idea to include Grandpa by leaving his bedroom door open, it’s symbolic in so many meaningful ways. Leopold-Strauss has created a sweet and thoughtfully written seder story that will resonate with young readers for years to come.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Show Me Happy by Kathryn Madeline Allen

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SHOW ME HAPPY
Written by Kathryn Madeline Allen
Photographs by Eric Futran
(Albert Whitman & Company; $15.99, Ages 3-7)

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From the team that brought you A Kiss Means I Love You comes their latest, Show Me Happy. This photograph-rich, 24-page picture book with kids populating every page is the perfect introduction for little ones still learning “how to use their words.” Kids are picking up important early concepts and experiencing a range of emotions long before they have the language to express them so, by sharing books like Show Me Happy, we can help youngsters learn to communicate effectively.

Show Me Happy is actually more than just a book depicting emotions. With easy to interpret images that demonstrate actions such as a mom helping her son with measuring while cooking up a tasty treat (show me helping), an older boy handing a ball to a younger girl (show me giving), a little girl cutting the lawn with a toy mower (show me pushing), a boy cupping his mouth and yelling (show me NOISY), it’s a fun read-aloud with some subtle rhyme:

Show me pushing,
show me pulling,
show me sharing when we play.

Show me NOISY,
show me quiet,
show me putting things away.

This cheerful picture book would also be ideal to read with special needs children. Many kids on the Autism Spectrum, for example, may have difficulty identifying how they are feeling or what’s appropriate behavior in a certain situation. Furtran’s warm and inviting photos and Allen’s simple, upbeat text are both appealing and engaging. It sometimes feels as if the kids in the photos are smiling right at me! Books like Show Me Happy that are accessible to everyone, provide photographic examples that children can relate to making this picture book one your kids will certainly enjoy and one you’ll be happy to have on hand.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Finding Forever by Ken Baker, A Blog Tour

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FINDING FOREVER: A Deadline Diaries Exclusive
Written by Ken Baker
(Running Press Teens; Trade paperback, $9.95, Ages 13 and up)

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In Finding Forever, E! News Correspondent and SoCal resident, Ken Baker, has used his entertainment news background to enthrall readers with a riveting fictional tale of life inside the celebrity scene and its fascination with Hollywood’s Holy Grail, the elusive fountain of youth. His main character, a teen blogger named Brooklyn Brant, covers celebrity news in her blog Deadline Diaries, but in her latest quest she uncovers more than she bargained for.

When sixteen-year-old celebrity sweetheart Taylor Prince goes missing from her birthday party in L.A., tabloid blog STARSTALK splashes headlines that Taylor is in rehab for drug addiction. Taylor’s assistant, Simone, enlists the help of Brooklyn Brant to help find the missing starlet, as she insists Taylor is not on drugs and this is more of a conspiracy. However, with Simone’s shady past, it’s hard to know whom to trust. Brooklyn must use her sleuthing skills to uncover the truth before time runs out on Taylor.

While the mystery behind Taylor’s disappearance had my attention, what really drew me in was Brooklyn’s backstory, including her late father’s mysterious death and his legacy she is trying to uphold. As a police officer, Brooklyn’s father believed in getting at the truth. Ever since his death, Brooklyn has tried to follow in her father’s footsteps, finding the truth and revealing it with integrity, but as a journalist not a cop, trading the gun for a pen. Her blog Deadline Diaries began as an outlet for her to cope with his passing, but it grew into a passion and potential future. And the story of Taylor Prince’s disappearance, in all its web of secrets and lies, is perhaps the big break in her budding career that she’s been looking for.

Using a dual narrative, bouncing back and forth between Taylor’s and Brooklyn’s points of view, Baker kept me wondering what was going on and what would be revealed next. The more I read, the more I began to see that the rehab place was suspect and almost cult-like, and its head, Dr. Kensington, creepily Peter Pan obsessed. I found myself rooting simultaneously for Taylor to escape and for Brooklyn to save her. While the ending seemed a little rushed, it still provided the satisfying closure I would expect as a reader, and reinforced the fact that eternal youth is as much a façade as a Hollywood set.

Read more about Ken Baker here.

  • Reviewed by Krista Jefferies

 

 

 


I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien

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I’M NEW HERE
Written and illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien
(Charlesbridge; $16.95, Ages 5-8)

Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews

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Across America the back-to-school season is in full swing. Some kids are returning to school, others are first timers. Many are not just entering a new school, but starting again in a new city. I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien, introduces three students, Maria from Guatemala, Jin from South Korea, and Fatimah from Somalia, beginning their educational life in an entirely different country, our country, and facing perhaps the biggest challenge when many have come here under a variety of circumstances.

We easily get into the head of each character and learn their hopes and fears. There are new words to learn, sounds strange to their ears and memories of life back home that at first makes adjusting difficult at many levels. Who hasn’t been new at something, full of apprehension and self-doubt? Will I ever learn the new ways in this new land?

“Back home I knew the language.
My friends and I talked all day long.
Our voices flowed like water and flew between us like birds.”

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Interior artwork from I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien, Charlesbridge Publishing, ©2015.

“Here I am alone.
Here I am confused.
Here I am sad.”

But when Maria uses some newly acquired English words in an attempt to join a soccer game, “someone understands.” The same for Jin when he discovers a fellow classmate also shares his love of super heroes and creating comics. Fatimah’s artistic talent attracts positive attention, too. Ultimately the story reinforces a positive message of acceptance, encouraging our kids to see life through someone else’s eyes and maybe make an interesting new friend at the same time.

O’Brien’s lyrical language gently moves the story forward and helps us walk in the main characters’ shoes. We understand they are not whining or complaining, just expressing real concerns that children in their situations are apt to feel. Often though, assisted by O’Brien’s evocative, muted watercolor illustrations, few to no words are required.

 

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Interior artwork from I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien, Charlesbridge Publishing, ©2015.

In the end page’s A Note from the Author, O’Brien explains that children like Maria or Fatimah, “may have left home not by choice but by force, fleeing from political persecution, violence, or war.” Others, like Jin “may have left behind close family members.” Keeping this in mind when you read the story with your children, you’ll help build awareness and empathy that may encourage youngsters to reach out to children just like Maria, Fatimah or Jin in their schools and make them feel welcome and a part of the community.

To learn about I’m Your Neighbor — a project cofounded by O’Brien promoting the use of children’s literature featuring “new arrival” cultures and groups — please head to www.imyourneighborbooks.org.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 


ALLY-SAURUS & the First Day of School by Richard Torrey

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Ally-saurus & the First Day of School
Written and illustrated by Richard Torrey
(Sterling Children’s Books; $14.95, Ages 3-6 )

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

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Even dinosaurs get starting school jitters, in fact, maybe even those who are actually little girls pretending to be dinosaurs.

“Do you think there will be other dinosaurs in my class?” asked Ally-saurus.
“I think you’re going to make a lot of new friends,” said Mother.

Introducing Ally-saurus, an enthusiastic, pig-tailed little girl with an active imagination. At first it seems that making friends will not be easy. None of Ally-saurus’ classmates chomp their snack with fierce teeth or “ROAR!” like she does. Instead they eat quietly much to Ally-saurus’ surprise. She was expecting everyone to be wild about dinos just like her.

Torrey cleverly uses black and white plus a lot of shading in his illustrations so the snippets of color that he adds stand out and really a make a statement. For example, a pink tail and ridges crayoned onto Ally-saurus throughout the book indicate that Ally is imagining herself as a Stegosaurus. Later, Robert is the first classmate to get his hint of blue color as he imagines himself to be an astronaut when he and Ally-saurus cut out nameplate designs for their cubbies. During a lesson on the weather followed by one about letters, three princesses begin voicing their opinions as gold crowns and dresses are outlined on them.

Then, at lunchtime Ally-saurus is told by these princesses that:

“These seats are saved for princesses, not dinosaurs,” said Tina.
“You’re not a real princess!” roared Ally-saurus.
“You’re not a real dinosaur,” said Tina.
“Then why am I eating dinosaur food?” asked Ally-saurus.
“That’s baloney!” said Tina, and the other princesses giggled.

Ally-saurus is left to sit alone elsewhere until she is joined by several other students, all eager to share what they enjoy pretending to be. “Soon the whole table was roaring and chomping.” It isn’t long before Ally-saurus and the kids from her lunch table are running around during recess playing make-believe and having a blast. Ally-saurus realizes too that dinos and princesses can find common ground over pretend cups of tea.

Class Picture.jpg

Reprinted with permission from Ally-saurus & the First Day of School © 2015 by Richard Torrey, Sterling Children’s Books, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. Illustrations by Richard Torrey.

Best of all, in the school library, (my favorite place), Ally-saurus along with her classmates discover there are books about all kinds of things … including bunnies. And guess who’s got a pink bunny tail and bunny ears drawn on when she hops out of bed the next morning? Note: There’s an unassuming little bunny lamp on a night table in the last illustration. Plus, Torrey has cleverly covered the endpapers in front with dinos and at the back with bunnies, something I only noticed on the second read! That’s sure to make children want to go back again and again to look for more details.

Add Ally-saurus & the First Day of School to your back-to-school list for an ideal picture book to share with youngsters. It’ll help them realize they’re not the only ones who get nervous starting school. It’s also a great way to start the conversation about the give and take necessary to form and keep friendships.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel


Mr. Happy & Miss Grimm by Antonie Schneider

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Mr. Happy & Miss Grimm
Written by Antonie Schneider
Illustrated by Susanne Strasser
(Holiday House; $16.95, ages 4-8)

 

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First published in Germany as Herr Glück & Frau Unglück, Mr. Happy & Miss Grimm shows us how kindness, unstoppable and contagious in its nature, can soften even the hardest of hearts.  

As his name suggests, Mr. Happy is happy. All the time. Morning to night time. Rain or shine. His belongings, too, have an air of cheerfulness and comfort to them. On the day he moves to his new home, Mr. Happy brings with him a big cushy chair, lots of books, a teapot, friendly pets, plants, and a ladder we come to find out he uses to climb up to light the moon’s lantern. As we read the stickers on his luggage of the countries he has visited, we know Mr. Happy has spread his cheerfulness to all corners of the earth.

Moving next to neighbor Miss Grimm, however, proves to be a challenge and a nuisance-that is, for Miss Grimm. From her “bleak little” unit #13 home to her drab clothing and suspicious disposition, Miss Grimm seems to take morbid curiosity in Mr. Happy’s everyday tasks. Mr. Happy plants flowers and trees. He “greet[s] the rain when it rain[s], the snow when it snow[s], and the wind when it bl[ows].”  The more annoyed Miss Grimm is with her neighbor, the more lush Mr. Happy’s garden grows and the more friendly her and Mr. Happy’s pets become with each other. Like children innocent of adult prejudices, the animals take an immediate liking to each other, thus beginning the slow transformation of Miss Grimm’s home.  

It first starts with the small plant on Miss Grimm’s windowsill, lifeless at first, but after Mr. Happy arrives it springs to life almost overnight. Soon enough, too, the neighbors’ roofs share a wire. Strasser’s mixed media, monoprint, crayons, and digital collage produce an Alice in Wonderland effect for Mr. Happy’s side of the spread, while, on Miss Grimm’s side, sudden bursts of color and texture highlight her gradual change. Readers will enjoy flipping the pages back and forth to mark how and when these changes take place.

Despite her every effort to remain her mean old self, even slamming the door in Mr. Happy’s face, Miss Grimm is not the same person.  Like the way the wind carries Mr. Happy’s seeds or the way his garden thrives, love grows simply because it’s there–simply because it has its own set of rules that change us to become a better version of ourselves.  

– Reviewed by Armineh Manookian