When autumn arrives, it’s time to get ready for Rosh Hashanah, one of the Jewish high holy days. In Tzimmes for Tzipporah, written by Megan Hoytand illustrated by Christine Battuz, readers meet Tzipporah who lives on a farm and is thrilled to be finally old enough to pitch in with the preparations. Rosh Hashanah has always been one of my favorite holidays so I couldn’t wait to read this new story.
“The earth is almost ready to share a special secret.” Lovely lyrical, anticipatory language packs the pages of this celebratory picture book that is sure to make your mouth water. The story begins just three days before the Rosh Hashanah holiday (noted in red typeface) and Tzipporah is eager to join Papa on the tractor as it turns over the lumpy soil. Rutabagas, yams, turnips, potatoes, and carrots have been harvested. Now, with just two days until Rosh Hashanah, it’s time to dust off the dirt and put the vegetables in burlap bags. Friends help make the work fun and the time fly!
Kids will learn about farming life as they vicariously experience what’s involved through Tzipporah. It may not always be easy, and growing your own food is something so many children know little about, so I’m happy this book portrays the process, not just the end result. Tzipporah and her pals clean off the root vegetables with wire brushes. More hard work. This line, from later that evening when things are winding down, says it all. “Aching arms. Sore feet. Happy hearts.”
The next day, the last one before Rosh Hashanah means Tzipporah can cook at last. Along with brisket and honey cake, sweet tzimmes is on the menu and that’s what Tzipporah will help make. Using a tried and true recipe, this delicious dish is made from what the family has grown. Readers will see how Tzipporah spends a lot of time peeling with her father. He cheerfully assures her it will taste delicious despite her doubt.
After a visit to the synagogue for the Rosh Hashanah service and the traditional shofar blowing to ring in the new year, the family heads home to welcome friends and neighbors. Battuz’s bright and upbeat illustration above showing Tzipporah and her cute dog watching the tzimmes warm up in the oven is one of my favorite spreads. I can relate to it and likely many young readers can too! Tasing something you’ve helped make is quite exciting for a child. I only noticed the kitty in the basket by the plants after the second reading so see if your children spot it.
Capping off this fresh perspective on the holiday is a tzimmes recipe I intend to cook. There’s also an author’s note explaining the meaning of Rosh Hashanah and why Tzipporah’s experience is so meaningful for children to read about. I recommend adding this enjoyable picture book to your holiday collection. Why not have your child bring it to school so classmates can learn about the importance of Rosh Hashanah?
Discover how a young girl gains healing and hope as she processes the loss of a loved one in this beautifully sensitive story. e
… Whether children choose to use art as their outlet or find another way, the message is clear: they can carry the memories of their loved ones with them. An ending Note to Parents features guidance from a licensed children’s counselor about how to use the book and where to find additional resources. Written from a place of personal experience, this story strives to bring comfort to children hurting after loss.
Tiffany Golden: Let’s start with a speed round…
Top three favorite children’s books of all time? This is such a hard one, so I’m going to default to recency here and say, If You Find a Leaf, written and illustrated by Aimee Sicuro (love the imaginative text and mixed media illustrations), Saving American Beach by Heidi Tyline King and Ekua Holmes (loved learning about the life of MaVynee Betsch and am a big fan of Holme’s gorgeous collage art), I Love You Because I Love You by Muon Thi Van and Jessica Love (love the sweet, lyrical text and Jessica Love is another favorite artist of mine). I also love Muon Thi Van’s other book, Wishes, illustrated by Victo Ngai (spare text yet so powerful in both words and imagery)!
Coffee, tea (or neither)? Herbal tea all the way-caffeine makes me jittery!
Where is your safe place? The ocean and anywhere with my pup.
Dogs, cats, (or neither)? I love all animals, but our pup Cora is the best.
Early bird or night owl? Used to be a night owl but with an 18-month-old, I’ve been forced to take a serious look at my bedtime routine and have been making an effort to get to bed earlier as part of my self-care.
Three words to describe what it takes to make it in the kidlit world … a big heart.
Okay, now down to the serious stuff….
TG: Please dish us the dirt on who you are and your journey into the fabulous world of children’s books.
Amanda Davis:My love for art and writing stems back to my childhood. My father passed away when I was young, and I turned to art and writing to cope and process my emotions. This is what led me to teach art and later write and illustrate children’s books. I want to show kids the power in our stories-whether through writing, reading, or visual art. In 2012, I took a continuing education course at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, called, Illustrating Children’s Books, with illustrator Ilse Plume. This course was eye-opening for me and kick-started my career in kidlit. I realized that children’s books combine all three of my passions: art, writing, and stories. After completing that course, I dove headfirst into the craft of writing and illustrating for children (while balancing my job as a full-time high school teacher). I joined SCBWI, 12×12, and found a local and online critique group. I tried to soak in all the knowledge I could about the kidlit industry. I began to query literary agents and editors with a few of my stories. Looking back, I probably queried those stories too early, but hey, that’s part of the learning process. The story that finally landed me an agent and later a deal is my debut creative nonfiction picture book titled 30,000 STITCHES: THE INSPIRING STORY OF THE NATIONAL 9/11 FLAG, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport, which published in 2021 with WorthyKids/Hachette Book Group.
MOONLIGHT MEMORIES is my second picture book with the wonderful team at WorthyKids. The story is beautifully illustrated by Michelle Jing Chan and released earlier this month. This story holds a special place in my heart as it was inspired by my own personal experience with loss.
As mentioned above, my father died when I was young. After his death, I was unsure of how to cope with this unexpected loss. I don’t remember many people talking to me about it or being given any resources to help me process. It wasn’t until I found art and writing that I was able to fully process the thoughts and emotions surrounding his death. I found my outlet. I found my voice. I soon realized that my father would always live on through the memories I was creating with my words and visuals.
MOONLIGHT MEMORIES tells the story of a young girl who is dealing with the loss of a loved one and finds comfort and healing through creativity. I have a third (unannounced) nonfiction picture book forthcoming that also has themes of loss and healing in it. Clearly, this is an important topic to me, ha! I hope my books can offer hope to readers and foster meaningful dialogue to help children process and heal from essential life events.
TG: What inspires your work?
AD: My own experiences inspire my creativity. I like to write and draw about the things I’ve been through in my life (both joyous and difficult), the places I travel, people I meet, and the lessons I’ve learned. I’m inspired by kindness, nature, animals, and family. Often these aspects find their way into my work. Creativity is all around us, we just need to pay attention.
TG: What advice do you have for fellow kidlit creatives?
AD: There is no right or wrong way to get published. Each person’s story is different. Sometimes it’s a short, smooth journey, and sometimes it’s long and bumpy. Try not to compare. Instead, keep going. With every pass, send another query out. This industry has taught me not to take anything personally. You want to work with an editor or an agent who is going to love your work wholeheartedly. The truth is, not everyone is going to. And that’s okay. Art is subjective. With that in mind, there is strength in solidarity. This can be a very isolating business if we let it, so remember to reach out for help and to connect. The children’s book industry is one of the most welcoming communities I’ve been a part of. There is so much talent and wisdom. Connect with people. Ask questions. Never stop learning from one another. We are all on this creative journey together.
AD: Thank you for interviewing me, Tiffany, and thanks for hosting us, Ronna! Thanks to all those for reading and supporting my work!
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TIFFANY’S THOUGHTS ABOUT MOONLIGHT MEMORIES:
This book is such a love letter to those experiencing a profound loss. This book found its way to our family soon after the loss of my sister. There’s a sweetness in looking to the sky and processing through art. The words are heartwarming, and the images are enchanting. This is one we’ll read over again.
Amanda Davis is a teacher, artist, writer, and innovator who uses her words and pictures to light up the world with kindness. Amanda is the author of MOONLIGHT MEMORIES, 30,000 STITCHES: THE INSPIRING STORY OF THE NATIONAL 9/11 FLAG, and a yet-to-be-announced forthcoming title. She also has poetry and illustrations featured in The Writers’ Loft Anthology: Friends & Anemones: Ocean Poems for Children. When she’s not busy creating, you can find her sipping tea, petting dogs, and exploring the natural wonders of The Bay State with her family and her rescue pup, Cora. You can learn more about Amanda at www.amandadavisart.com and on Twitter @amandadavisart and Instagram @amandadavis_art.
Tiffany Golden writes picture books, middle-grade, and YA fiction, mostly inspired by her experiences as a Black, disabled woman. She is also the winner of Lee and Low’s New Visions Award for 2021. She teaches creative writing to third-to-fifth grade students, is a member of SCWBI, and received the Judith Tannenbaum Teaching Artist Fellowship.
Following up the success of Grandad’s Camper, is Grandad’s Pride featuring the same characters readers got to know previously. Much like that book, I was immediately pulled into this story by the folksy art and in this case, a focus on the inviting locale by the sea.
When playing in Grandad’s attic, Milly, who is visiting once again for the summer, stumbles upon Grandpa’s old Pride flag. Curious what Pride is, Milly gets a wonderful description from Grandad who used to participate in marches and other Pride events when Gramps was still alive. “Pride is like a giant party where we celebrate the wonderful diversity of our communities and demand that everyone should be treated with
equality and respect – no matter who they love or what gender they are.” After hearing how important Pride had been for Grandad, Milly suggests they go to the city to participate in the next Pride event, but Grandad no longer feels comfortable in the big city.
Milly proposes a locale parade in the village instead and soon the entire village is involved. Not only does her idea present the opportunity to get to make new friends, it also is a moving way to honor Gramps’ memory. Grandad leading the parade in his pink camper is a fitting way to kick off this new tradition and not even a brief downpour can curtail the festivities.
You’ll want to read this lovely picture book slowly to take in all the details that Woodgate has included from the slogans on the posters, the diversity of the primary and secondary characters and the big heart this story exudes on every page. I could easily live in this welcoming community and can’t wait to see what Milly and Grandad get up to next!
For starters, I want to point out illustrator Gonzalez’s art description on the credits page: “The illustrations are rendered with pencil, watercolors, colored pencils, and love.” If the inclusion of the word ‘love’ doesn’t speak volumes about the care and thought that went into creating this picture book, I don’t know what does.
Newman’s masterfully crafted rhyming couplets take the reader through spread after jubilant spread as readers follow the real and make-believe activities of six diverse and “splendiferous” children and one plucky pooch. Imagination rules as the youngsters try out dress up, and pretend play where anything except the judgment of adults is possible. “I can aim for the basket and practice my throws,/ or wear a pink tutu and twirl on my toes.” There is no need to label and no need to discuss gender, race, or religion. Prepare for pure enjoyment. Kids being “their true selves” is what’s celebrated on every delightful page of this recommended read.
This uplifting, inclusive picture book about making a like-minded friend and experiencing a first crush is getting a lot of buzz, and deservedly so. The cover alone conveys the pleasure these two girls find in each other’s company then the prose and art throughout continue to capture that emotion. Author Irving states in her website intro, “My deepest wish for my readers is for them to feel seen and special,” and The Wishing Flower beautifully accomplishes that.
We first meet Birdie as she’s wishing on a dandelion to find a friend who shares her interests. “Birdie felt inside out at home and at school.” She generally kept to herself clearly not connecting with other kids until … Sunny “the new girl” arrives in her class. With her nature name, Sunny, like Birdie, enjoys all the same things: reading, rescuing, and painting. The girls are drawn to each other and Birdie “blushed when Sunny sat next to her at lunch.” She knew she needed to be brave to pursue the friendship and looks for the biggest wishing flower. At recess playing Red Rover, Sunny calls for Birdie, and Birdie’s heart soars. That excitement is palpable in the warm, emotive illustrations that bleed off the page. When this wonderful day spent together with her new friend ends, it’s so rewarding as a reader to see the two happy souls have had their wishes come true.
“In the next ten years, I don’t think there will be many classrooms in America where there isn’t a gender-diverse child, and the rest of the students will have to be friends with that kid. And how to you manage that? You manage it like the child in the book does. With kindness and humor and inclusion and with playfulness.” According to bestselling author Dawson, this is the goal of her debut picture book and I appreciated her introducing the topic in a light-hearted way that emphasizes a people-not-gender-first approach to identity.
I love when a story begins with artwork only before the title page as it does here. The main character is walking with an older girl to school. Once the main character gets settled in, her classmates begin asking where her brother Bill is. They haven’t seen him in a while. This is a fun part to read aloud as the girl’s classmates take wild guesses about where her older brother can be. “Was he eaten by a WHALE or SHARK? Was he munched up just like krill?”/ “That simply isn’t true,” I say./ “And hey, you need to chill.” With inquiring young minds bombarding the girl with a constant flow of zany questions (illustrated as whimsically as those questions), the cool retort calms everyone down. The repetition of “Hey, you need to chill,” is catchy and I can imagine children being eager to say it along with the narrator. While the kids are curious and confused, they also say they’re concerned. I’m glad that was included.
The little girl tells her classmates that her older brother Bill is now Lily. She honestly explains how the change took getting used to but ultimately, as the art shows, she knows that Lily is still the same deep down inside and very loved. She’s her sister’s ally. And as such, together the two can tell anyone who has a problem with Lily being a trans girl to just chill.
While the rhyme is not always even, the spirit, energy, and humor of this important story about a transgender child coupled with the buoyant art carry it along and make You Need to Chill! a worthwhile, fulfilling, and accessible read. Read about genderspectrum.org, a charity working to create gender sensitive and inclusive environments for all children and teens.
Lili felt she didn’t belong, like a tiger among ducks. And if people found out more about her, she was sure she’d be left alone. Her solution then was to be more like a duck. If she changed things about herself then she’d fit in. And no one would know any better. No one would know her secret.
There was a catch, however. Trying to be someone she wasn’t made Lili feel sad. It’s definitely not easy to pretend to be something you’re not. So, after realizing this, she needed to confide in someone, someone who’d make her feel safe. Lili “revealed her secret” to Gran. “Her heart really raced.” But Gran confirmed that no matter who Lili was, one thing was certain. She was loved. And she should feel proud of who she was. Afterall, “Not everyone is a duck, and not all ducks flock together.” What is important is being her authentic, unique self. It may be tough, but in time, Lili could rest assured that she’d find her pride.
I always enjoy a picture book that offers hope to any child in Lili’s position, so they’ll know that one day they will be welcomed by people who appreciate the real them. This powerful message of acceptance should resonate with many young readers who feel like the other for whatever reason, not simply for being queer. I was surprised to learn that Jacobs is a self-taught artist. The gentle green palette she uses works well with the purple of her alter-ego, the tiger. I will note that in places the meter of the rhyme is not perfect and the rhymes slant in spots where ‘day’ is paired with ‘stayed’ or ‘terrible’ with ‘unbearable.’ However, picture books such as this affirming one are needed to bring comfort to children with its beautiful message of letting “your heart be your guide.”
Click here to read a review of a fave Pride picture book from last year.
Charlotte Cheng is the author of NIGHT MARKET RESCUE [Rocky Pond Books], illustrated by Amber Ren. Her picture book was released to the world on May 2, 2023. In this interview conducted by Maria Wen Adcock, author of IT’S CHINESE NEW YEAR, CURIOUS GEORGE and founder of the parenting blog BiculturalMama.com, Charlotte discusses her inspiration for the book, Taiwanese traditions, and more.
Maria Wen Adcock: What inspired you to write Night Market Rescue?
Charlotte Cheng: My family comes from Taiwan, and although I was born in the US, we made trips back to Taipei as often as we could to visit family. Each time we visited, my parents brought me to famous Taiwanese night markets so I could soak in the tastes and joys of their childhood. To this day, I can still recall the smells of sizzling sausage and the sights of colorful goods. I wanted to share these fond memories with others and chose to do so by writing Night Market Rescue!
MWA: Why did you decide to use a stray dog as the main character? How did you come up with his name?
CC: I was struggling to figure out how to write Night Market Rescue with an interesting perspective. A few years ago, we also learned that some street dogs rely on night markets to survive. I started exploring how a night market could be seen through the eyes of a street dog. In fact, during one of our family trips to Taiwan, I spent time taking photos of night markets from a dog’s perspective. I then chose to name the dog GoGo as the word “gou” is also the Chinese word for dog.
At the same time, we started helping rescue organizations and fostered a few dogs. Eventually, we decided to rescue one ourselves. His name is Waldo, and he is a proud and integral member of our family. In fact, GoGo might look a little like Waldo because we shared photos of him with Amber Ren, the talented illustrator for Night Market Rescue.
MWA: What Taiwanese traditions did you want to make sure you featured in the book?
CC:I focused a lot on sounds, tastes, and textures. I wanted people to feel like they’re with GoGo as he explores the night market. Some specifics I made sure to include were the scooters (one of Taipei’s preferred modes of transportation), sizzling sausage (a famous Taiwan treat), and haggling grandmas (a staple of any Asian market).
MWA: Why did you think it was important to write a book highlighting Taiwanese culture?
CC: Taiwan is a small island packed with a fascinating history. From Dutch castles to lantern festivals to marble canyons and mountains that rise above the clouds, my parents devoted a lot of time sharing their culture with me. I now have a young daughter and hope stories like Night Market Rescue will be an opportunity for me to do the same. Furthermore, Taiwan is a place that many people don’t have a chance to visit. I hope Night Market Rescue will be a way for them to learn about this special island.
MWA:What was the process like working with the publishing team?
CC: I’m a collaborative creature at heart, so working with the publishing team was a dream come true! Lauri Hornik is the President of Rocky Pond Books, a new imprint at Penguin. The moment Lauri acquired Night Market Rescue, she immediately began working with me to refine the manuscript. The book is in rhyme, so revisions were a little tricky, but the story is so much stronger now!
I then got to see this story come alive through the talented hands of our illustrator, Amber Ren. It began with character designs and pencil sketches. Then she added vibrant colors that brought movement and energy to each page. Throughout each stage, the Rocky Pond team invited me to provide feedback and suggestions. Sometimes, I even sent specific photos of my dog Waldo to help highlight how Taiwanese street dogs behaved in different scenarios! It was a pleasure witnessing the images transforming into the final illustrations that are now found in the book.
There are many others at the Rocky Pond team that have contributed to making Night Market Rescue as well: from art direction and book design to marketing and publicity. I’ll be collaborating with Lauri and her team on four more books over the coming years. I’m greatly looking forward to working with them all again, and I’m so grateful to be a part of the Rocky Pond family!
MWA: What did you and your publishing team love the most about the illustrations?
CC: Amber Ren is such a creative and detailed illustrator! She captured the sights and sounds of a Taiwanese night market with vibrant and colorful images that just jump from the page. There are so many details that I hope readers will catch. Someone is drinking boba in the background because the beverage was invented in Taiwan. Even my Ama makes an appearance as she briskly bargains with a vendor! Amber also hand-wrote each vendor sign in traditional Mandarin, and she even incorporated feedback from my parents on the exact phrasing of some of the vendor names. Most of all, Amber managed to illustrate the full spectrum of GoGo’s emotions – from curiosity to loneliness to joy. You root for GoGo because he’s so charming and eager when exploring the night market. I could not imagine working with a better illustrator than Amber, and I hope we can work together again! e
MWA: Do you have any books or projects coming up? If so, please describe them.
CC: I actually have several books coming out over the next few years! In 2024, Roar Choo, illustrated by Dan Santat, will be published by Rocky Pond Books. It’s a story of how a dragon recovers from a cold through the help of a phoenix friend. In the same year, A Name for Sister, illustrated by Sophie Diao, will be published by HarperCollins. It’s a magical new sister story inspired by a centuries-old naming tradition from China. In 2025, Rocky Pond Books will also publish two more of my stories: I Miss You Most (2025), illustrated by Xindi Yan, and Icy Fruit (2025), illustrated by Vivian Mineker. Both of these books are inspired by my two grandfathers. You can sign up for my newsletter or follow me on social media to stay updated about these books.
Charlotte has written and illustrated a variety of books, including Explore China: A Mulan Discovery Book and BoBo Loves Dumplings. With over 20 years of EdTech experience, Charlotte has also written and published K-12 curricula for a variety of companies, including CodeCombat, Disney, and Wonder Workshop.
You can learn more about Charlotte’s work at: www.charlotte.art. You can also find her social media sites above.
ABOUT INTERVIEWER MARIA WEN ADCOCK:
Maria Wen Adcock is the author ofIt’s Chinese New Year, Curious George [January 2023], published by Clarion Books/Harper Collins. Maria is a first-generation Chinese-American writer and founder of the award-winning multicultural parenting blog www.BiculturalMama.com. She has appeared on The Dr. Oz Show, Bloomberg News, Newsday, and Huffington Post. Maria is a board member of Multicultural Kid Blogs, an organization supporting diverse parenting bloggers, and co-host of the annual event Multicultural Children’s Book Day.
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An astronomer at heart, Jordie “even name[s] her dog Neptune.” When a literal out-of-this-world incident happens in her class one day, she is more than excited to explore it. A little black hole, “churning in [her] desk” is eating anything and everything around it and is hungry for more.
Like finding a pet, Jordie decides to keep the black hole, bringing it along with her on the bus ride home. After devouring belongings in her backpack, the black hole starts gobbling items in the closet where Jordie has put it to hide from her parents. The black hole doesn’t discriminate; all items are fair game–with one humorous exception.
Readers will love this zany concept of a black hole that appears out of nowhere and causes problems of cosmic proportions. Adding to the delightful absurdity is its disdain for Jordie’s unicorn underwear that it spits out on more than one occasion. Like Boyle’s language, Melmon’s adorable and vivid illustrations add personality and pizazz to the antics of this one-of-a-kind character.
When Jordie discovers Neptune’s empty collar, she finally decides enough is enough and finds a clever way to reclaim her possessions including her beloved dog. She sends the black hole back to where it belongs–in a galaxy far, far away.
A fun, early elementary-grade-level read, this STEM picture book includes intriguing facts about black holes and a link for further study.
It would be difficult to find a person unfamiliar with the Madeline Media Franchise, so when I learned that a new picture book was available based on the daily adventures of Madeline the character created by Ludwig Bemelmans, it was a welcome stroll down memory lane.
This new mini-book (the first of five) Love From Madeline takes the reader back to the Catholic boarding school where Madeline lives in Paris with her many friends and most notably her teacher, Miss Clavel. Salerno’s illustrations of the sole red-head playing around town, skiing in the snowcapped mountains, and sailing the waters, continue her adventures. But this time she teaches us the meaning of love.
We learn basic lessons that we often forget “Love is in the simple words: good morning and hello,” as Madeline and friends dressed in matching blue outfits with yellow hats wave to the doorman and the woman selling flowers. Each page turn teaches kids how love can be as simple as giving a hug to someone upset or giving someone a lift on their scooter. When the book ends, kids see that “love is always found at home” when Miss Clavel turns out the lights of the blue-shaded room with six beds lined up on each side and tucks the kids in for the night. This story gently and sweetly introduces kids to the real meaning behind Valentine’s Day—love. • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
I read What is Love? again and again and each time I got something new out of it. The water-colored art and heart-felt prose of this book are perfect to read on Valentine’s Day or any night as a bedtime story. It’s written by NYT bestselling author for children, Mac Barnett, the two-time Caldecott Honor winner. He teams up with illustrator and Caldecott Honor winner Carson Ellis, who is also an author and illustrator of bestselling picture books.
Ellis’s watercolor paintings of greens, pinks, and blues gloriously take the reader on an artistic adventure as the protagonist sets off on a journey into the world, suggested by his grandmother, to find the meaning of love. But he soon learns that love is different for everyone. He first meets a fisherman hugging a very large fish who smiles and says “Love is a fish” when asked what love is. The boy disagrees since he finds fish slimy and bad-tasting. “The fisherman sighed. You do not understand.”
The actor loves applause, the cat loves the night and the soldier loves his horse. The characters gather together in a beautiful spread showing, “A sports car, a donut, a lizard, a ring. The first snow of winter, a maple in summer. A grizzly bear, this pebble right here-these are all things people told me love is.”
Barnett returns the boy home taller and wiser to a grandmother who is older and still wise and asks “Did you answer your question?” Ellis closes the story with a loving embrace of the two smiling with a black background and butterflies flying nearby as the boy answers “Yes.”
This modern-day take on old-time classical picture books about love reminds us that love can be more than one thing and that we are all surrounded by it even on days when we feel like it’s lost. • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
With a lovely name like Mia Valentina Amore, which means My Valentine, Valentine’s Day is always an extra special one for the main character in The House of Love, a storybook from NYT’s bestselling adult author Adriana Trigiani with art from popular illustrator Amy June Bates.
Together with her Mama, Mia helps prepare the house for the holiday. Located in the Appalachian Mountains, the home is described as slightly run down with some broken window glass, faded wallpaper, creaky stairs but also a place that, when everyone was around, “… had rooms exploding with conversation, laughter, and sometimes even an argument.”
The youngest of seven children, Mia is concerned her siblings won’t be back in time for the Valentine’s Day party. But Mama takes Mia’s mind off things by keeping her busy crafting family Valentines, decorating, and baking. This delightful mother-daughter day is spent bonding and creating special memories that only they two share. At the day’s end, after the whole family has eaten and celebrated, Mia realizes that everyone has gotten a special Valentine except her, making her feel sad and forgotten. Little does she know that something special just for her awaits beneath her pillow. Bates’s beautiful art conveys charm and an old-world feeling, like peeking into the Walton’s home. This slice-of-life story reminds readers that a house and family may be far from perfect but when it’s filled with love, it’s THE BEST place to be. •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Here’s a rhyming picture book for Valentine’s Day, or any day really, that celebrates how special love is. Using plants as the inspiration, author Timms presents a lovely lyrical look at how the love that makes plants grow is the very same one that can nurture many different kinds of relationships in our lives.
Yes, thought and care are all love needs/to help it grow, like tiny seeds,/that might seem nothing much at first/till up into the light they burst.
This is such a beautiful sentiment and one that children will easily understand especially the spreads devoted to making friends. Love is about helping those in need, it’s about being there for those close to us and making time for new people too. Lee, in her picture book debut, has created rich art with diverse characters that is a delight to see page after page in various scenes. The illustrations exude the same warmth the plants do making it feel like spring is just around the corner. What an uplifting read to share this Valentine’s Day! • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
This new picture book cracked me up. Between its sweet surprise near the end and the inviting rhyme that is just perfect for beginning readers, Slug in Love is a terrific book to read aloud this Valentine’s Day.
Illustrator Shireen has added to Bright’s bouncy rhythm with bold colors and geometric-shaped animals that pop off the page and might be fun for kids to try drawing themselves.
The thing is that Doug, the slug, is a huggy sort of guy, but not everyone he encounters agrees. No one is eager to embrace this little slug. After looking for love from spiders, caterpillars, and other assorted creatures, Doug thinks he’s found the squelchy, slimy, yucky, sticky love he’s after, only he’s wrong. Is he destined to be alone? What’s a slug supposed to do? Well, as it happens, love comes to Doug in a most unexpected way. And that, it turns out, has made his search and this picture book worthwhile. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
NOTE:I was hoping to have a review copy ofLove in The Librarybefore this post went live so I could share this true love story set in a Japanese-American internment camp during WWII. But when I went to schedule this, it sadly had not arrived. I hope you will add this picture book to your reading list
Written by Camilla Reid illustrated by Ingela P. Arrhenius
(Candlewick Press; $9.99, Ages 0-2)
The latest interactive board book in the Peekaboo You series, Peekaboo: Loveis packed with things to “push, pull, or turn on every spread,” sure to entertain your little strawberries.
MY HEART GROWS Written by Jeffrey Burton Illustrated by Joanne Liu (Little Simon; $8.99, Ages 1-5)
A clever novelty board book, My Heart Grows features a die-cut heart that grows along with the love the parents in this story feel. Seeing a child experience new things fills the hearts of the parents and grandparents depicted in this story. The child-like art is vibrant and adorable making this a great Valentine’s Day gift for someone special in your life.
Being a little kid isn’t always fun and games. Sometimes, it’s downright annoying. When the fashionable main character of How to Wear a Sari tires of being treated like she’s TOO little, she sets out to prove to her family that she can do ANYTHING she puts her mind to . . . including putting on a colorful, twinkly, silky sari. Sure, they’re long and unwieldy—but that only means her family will be even more impressed when she puts it on all by herself. Naturally, there are some hiccups along the way, but she discovers that she’s not the only one in her family who has set out with something to prove, with hilariously chaotic results. That’s what photo albums are for!
Colleen Paeff: Hi Darshana! Welcome to Good Reads with Ronna. Your adorable debut, How to Wear a Sari, came out last June. What have been some of your favorite moments from the past four months?
Darshana Khiani: First I’d like to say thank you so much for having me. My favorite part has been hearing from parents about how their little ones loved seeing someone that looks like them (Indian character) in a book. My 4yr-old niece has taken her book to school four times already. Seeing the book face out at my local library was wonderful too. I love it when people send me pictures of the book in the wild. A surprising sighting was one from the Harvard Coop!
CP: That sounds wonderful! All of it! Joanne Lew-Vriethoff’s illustrations are so vibrant and full of motion. Did you include art notes on your manuscript since a lot of what happens in the story isn’t in the text?
DK: I try to leave room for the illustrator as much as possible. However, I do like to put humor in my stories where the setup is in text and the punchline is in the art, so I do use art notes when required. For example, the page before the climax says “remember not to run” and after the page turn is a wordless spread where the main character takes a colossal spill, so I had to have an art note for that. In the final spread, the text simply says “you now have a spot in the hall of fame album”, but it is the art note which specifies what types of photos the album contains.
CP: What did you think the first time you saw the illustrations? Did anything surprise you?
DK: It was such a wonderful, unexpected surprise. I thought my first look would be a sketch of a scene or characters instead it was the full book in black-n-white sketches. I loved seeing the story come to life. When viewing the colored art, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the illustrator had made the extended family interracial.
CP: Yes, I love that! Do you remember the first time you wore a sari? Did you have any of the same problems as the girl in your book?
DK: I think the first time I wore a sari was for my cousin’s wedding. I was 18 at the time. I’m fairly sure several elder female relatives helped me drape it. I’m still not very good at wearing a sari. If I have trouble draping a sari, what would it be like for a young girl? That was the seed for the story.
CP:You work full-time as a computer engineer. Do you find yourself using some of what you’ve learned as an engineer in your writing life? And vice versa?
DK:Surprisingly, yes! I am frequently requested to review docs or sit in on dry-runs of training presentations where I find I am giving big-picture feedback. The things we learn about good writing regarding keeping the reader engaged, knowing what your main story thread is, and having the right level of detail (not too much or not too little) are important anytime you are trying to convey information to someone. On the flip side, having worked in a company full of deliverables and deadlines helps me respect the business side of publishing. Though I will say things are so much slower in publishing than in the field I work in. That took getting used to. I also had to learn to set my own deadlines. I’ve realized I work better with external accountability.
CP: With a full-time job and a family, your writing time must be very valuable. How do you make the most of your time in the writer’s chair? Do you have any favorite productivity hacks?
DK:Balancing writing, work, and family is a constant juggling act. Over the years I’ve learned to find blocks of time whether it be early in the morning, during the lunch hour, or late at night. When the kids were little, I frequently took my writing stuff to their gymnastic and swim practices, or I would visit a coffee shop while they were at a birthday party. Currently, there is a lot going on with the family that has greatly reduced my writing time. To keep things going I set aside two hours early Saturday morning and meet online with a writing buddy. This keeps me accountable and moving forward. As for productivity hacks, I try to set up my desk area and computer the night before, so the next morning everything is ready to go. I try to stay off of social media and email until after I do the morning writing.
CP:Those are all great ideas. I especially like the thought of having a writing buddy you meet with online. I love checking the South Asian Kidlit lists on your website. What made you decide to create those lists and have they benefited you in any way?
DK: Back in 2016, I was writing a blog post on South Asian Kidlit literature only to realize I was unaware of the current writers and illustrators. I figure if I as an Indian person didn’t know these books existed then how would others? So I set out to spread the word. The benefit to me has been it gives me something to talk about when meeting with booksellers and librarians. It’s easier for me to pitch my South Asian Kidlit newsletter and the benefits of it instead of directly talking about myself.
CP: It’s so much easier to pitch other people’s books than it is to pitch our own! When did you know you wanted to write books for children and how did you go about getting started?
DK: In my mid-30s after I had my two daughters, I knew I wanted to do something more, something that allowed me to directly connect with people. I was reading tons of picture books to my kids and fell in love with them. They were short, funny, and I loved that they could be about nearly anything. I also thought how hard can it be to write? Famous last words. Well, it took me over ten years but I did it and I’ve loved every moment. Some of the groups and writing challenges that have been critical to my writing journey are Storystorm (formerly PiBoIdMo), 12×12, SCBWI, Making Picture Book Magic course, my Cafe Invaders critique group, my PB Debut Marketing Group the Soaring ’20s, my agent, and librarians, bookseller, and writing friends I’ve made along the way. I love that my family and friends have been so supportive and cheering me on. It really does take a village.
CP: Is there anything you wish you’d known back when you first started writing for children?
DK: Write, write, write as much as you can. This is one area I still struggle with as I love to revise but hate first drafts. I had a slow start in the first few years, where I would work on only one or two manuscripts over and over again. In the beginning, it should be about experimenting and trying lots of different types of stories because there is something to learn from each one of them.
CP: Any favorite books from the past year?
DK: Too many. Here are some of my favorite reads from the past year. THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL by Stacey Lee is a YA historical fiction novel set in 1890 Atlanta that is so smart and sassy. I can’t wait for the TV adaption to be released. FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER by Angeline Boulley was such a wonderful read. I love books where I’m learning about another culture, in this case, the Ojibwe people. In picture books, your book of course THE GREAT STINK is so engaging and informative. YOUR LEGACY: A BOLD RECLAIMING OF OUR ENSLAVED HISTORY by Schele Williams is gorgeous and empowering. I love her approach to the topic of African-American history.
CP: Aw! Thank you, Darshana. That’s so nice. I’ll be adding the other books to my TBR list! What’s next for you, Darshana?
DK: I am really excited about my next book I’M AN AMERICAN which is scheduled for Summer 2023 by Viking. In it, a classroom of students discusses what it means to be an American and the values we share. Each student, of a different ethnicity, tells a short story from his or her own family about their American experience.
CP: What a terrific idea. I can’t wait to read it! Thanks for the chat!
DK: Thank you so much for having me. It was a joy talking with you.
Darshana Khiani is a computer engineer by day and a children’s writer by night. She is a first-generation Indian American and enjoys writing funny, light-hearted stories with a South Asian backdrop. When she isn’t working or writing she can be found hiking, skiing, or volunteering. Darshana lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two daughters, and a furry pup. How to Wear a Sari is her debut picture book.
“A behind-the-scenes look at the creation and evolution of Wonder Woman, the iconic character who has inspired generations of girls and women as a symbol of female strength and power.
Perhaps the most popular female superhero of all time, Wonder Woman was created by Bill Marston in 1941, upon the suggestion of his wife, Elizabeth. Wonder Woman soon showed what women can do—capture enemy soldiers, defeat criminals, become president, and more. Her path since has inspired women and girls while echoing their ever-changing role in society. Now a new group of devoted young fans enjoy her latest films, Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984, and await a third installation being planned for theatrical release. This exceptional book raises up the many women who played a part in her evolution, from Elizabeth Marston to writer Joye Hummel to director Patty Jenkins, and makes clear that the fight for gender equality is still on-going.”
Hi Kirsten! Welcome to Good Reads With Ronna and congratulations on the publication of A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, a truly wonderful picture book that I’m so excited to discuss with you, especially on your launch day! Like you, I grew up on comic books (Archie) although to be honest the only superhero I followed as a child was Superman. Somehow I came late to the game with Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins’ first film was my first introduction to the backstory.
GOODREADSWITHRONNA:Can you believe the young girl in the 1970s who was a Lynda Carter fan is the one who’s written about Wonder Woman?
KIRSTEN W. LARSON:I wasn’t someone who always wanted to be an author when I grew up, so I feel lucky to have stumbled on a career later in life that feeds my curiosity. I love research and that thrill of feeling I’ve gotten a book “just right” in terms of voice, structure, etc.
GRWR:I’m curious if once the idea hit you to write the history of Wonder Woman, you knew you’d approach it with a comic book style format (which I ADORED by the way)? Did you do the research first and then decide how to find your way into sharing the story or did you always know how you’d do it?
KWL:I always envisioned this as a biography of the character of Wonder Woman, showing her character arc across the decades. This was a rare book for me. The finished book is very close to the original drafts. The main difference was the addition of some of the more modern incarnations of Wonder Woman that bring the character up to the present. I always envisioned comic-book style illustrations, but of course, the choice to illustrate the book that was entirely up to editor Jennifer Greene, the art director, and illustrator Katy Wu.
GRWR:A TRUE WONDERcould not have been an easy manuscript to write for someone used to the more traditional nonfiction structure. What was that like having to write a script with setting, narrative, thoughts, speech, and sound effects?
KWL:You may be surprised to know that I wrote A TRUE WONDERjust like any narrative nonfiction picture book. I did have a global illustration note suggesting the comic book style, as well as the trading card format for the sidebars about significant people who contributed to the Wonder Woman character. But it was illustrator Katy Wu who broke out the illustrations into panels and dropped the quotes I included into speech bubbles. She deserves all the credit.
GRWR: Whoa, I sure hope Katy sees this and all your compliments because the art and prose work seamlessly. Did you and the illustrator Katy Wu get to collaborate?
KWL:Katy and I didn’t collaborate at all, which is fairly typical for picture books. She did all her own research. I provided some minor comments on her dummy, but that’s it. We’ve only corresponded since we started marketing the book.
GRWR:I am so impressed! So, do you have a favorite spread?
KWL:Yes! The final spread, which talks about how Wonder Woman inspires us to become heroes of our own stories is my hands-down favorite. I tear up every time. Katy illustrated it with a diverse group of women, and it is perfect.
GRWR:Based on your previous STEM books and NASA background, writing about Wonder Woman is a departure for you though it is definitely a STEAM read. What are your feelings about that, and do you think you might write more non-STEM books in the future?
KWL:I love to write about underdogs and women who defy expectations, and the character of Wonder Woman falls into that theme. Plus, comic books are a big part of geek culture. Just think about how much time the Big Bang Theory characters spent at the comic bookstore, or trying to get tickets for San Diego Comic Con.
GRWR:LOL!InA TRUE WONDER I learned SO much about the early days of comic books, especially how the business was populated by white men keen on keeping superheroes men. Yet it was an exceptionally enlightened man, Bill Marston, with a wife working full-time as the family bread-winner who pitched the idea of Wonder Woman to Charlie Gaines of All-American Comics, the precursor to DC. Tell us more about that fateful turn of events in the male-dominated industry.
KWL:This probably won’t surprise anyone, but comic books have been under attack almost since their inception. Just before Wonder Woman was introduced, parents and educators complained about the violence in comics. They argued that comics were a poor substitute for classic literature too (sound familiar)? But Marston thought comics could be a force for good. It was his wife, Elizabeth Marston, who suggested the idea of a female superhero. And that’s what Bill Marston pitched – a female superhero who he hoped would be a good influence on children.
GRWR:Women writers and staffers behind the emergence of Wonder Woman ultimately played crucial roles in empowering the character and women in general during WWII when a majority of men were off fighting. You mention more than a handful and even write in your back matter about Joye Hummel (who wrote under a male pen name) and several others who made an impact on the representation of Wonder Woman including Gloria Steinem. Can you speak to how they contributed to feminism?
KWL:Through the years and often behind the scenes and uncredited, women have contributed to Wonder Woman as authors, artists, editors, and consultants. These women were ahead of their time in what continues to be a male-dominated industry. At the same time, second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and Joanne Edgar grew up reading Wonder Woman comics and sort of adopted her as their mascot, putting her on the first cover of Ms. Magazine. Even today, we tap into Wonder Woman as a short-hand way to talk about strong and powerful women and sisterhood.
GRWR:What would like your young readers to take away from readingA TRUE WONDER?
KWL: I hope that children will find a way to channel their inner superheroes and make their own contributions to their communities and the world. We need everyday heroes now more than ever.
KWL: I find story ideas everywhere: books, movies, magazine articles, museums, you name it. Normally I do some initial research to learn whether the resources I need (like primary sources) are readily available, and to figure out if someone is already writing a book about the subject. If everything checks out, I start with secondary sources to get context, then dive into primary sources to hear the characters’ voices. The research normally guides me to a structure and voice, but there’s always a lot of experimentation. And walking, along with showers, meditating, and mentor texts, are great for when I get stuck during the writing process.
GRWR:That’s so helpful to know. Do you have a writing routine and a preferred place to write?
KWL:I write all over the place–in the living room, outside on my back patio, in my office. I get up before everyone else and try to write for at least an hour Monday through Friday after checking in with my accountability partner. Most days I dedicate another two hours to writing before turning to other things.
GRWR:What’s your go-to creativity beverage or comfort food when feeling frustrated?
KWL: I work with so many amazing contributors on STEM Tuesday, led by Jen Swanson. Each month, team members put together a themed book list plus classroom activities and ELA/writing activities. The last week of the month we have an interview with an author and a book giveaway. I write about writing. There is so much creativity happening in nonfiction and STEM writing right now. I love showing educators how they can use STEM books to teach writing craft.
GRWR:I agree that STEM reads and nonfiction have never been more exciting than right now. What’s a recent nonfiction book that you couldn’t put down?
KWL:Next year, illustrator Katherine Roy and I have THE FIRE OF STARS with Chronicle Books. It’s a dual narrative picture book about Cecilia Payne, who discovered the composition of stars, told alongside the process of star formation. After that, I have two more books under contract but not yet announced. One is a lyrical, STEM book for younger readers, the second is a middle-grade historical fiction, which I did write in full graphic novel script form.
GRWR:Thanks tons for taking the time today to chat, Kirsten. We could not be more excited aboutA TRUE WONDERand wish you every success with it. And happy book birthday, too!
KWL: Thanks for having me, Ronna! It’s been my pleasure. I love to connect with folks at my website Kirsten-w-larson.comand on social media @kirstenwlarson.
Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. Kirsten is the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything (Clarion, Fall 2021), illustrated by Katy Wu, and THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2022), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Sign up for her monthly newsletter here.
It only takes a quick glance at the title to know that we’re in for a treat! In Bella’s Recipe for Success, the debut picture book by Ana Siqueira, we can assume that Bella, the Latina main character, will be engaging in disastrous recipes, resulting in a delicious and successful outcome.
The story begins with Bella and her Abuela in the kitchen. As her siblings brag about piano playing and cartwheeling, Bella wonders about herself. She attempts to discover her own talents but loses hope and resigns herself to not being good at anything. Taking comfort with her Abuela, she asks to make polvorones con dulce de leche. To Bella’s surprise, her brother and sister make mistakes too. So she persists. Sometimes the dough is hard as a rock. Other times it crumbles apart. But Bella keeps trying. She beats, blends, stirs, and bakes her way to success! In the end, she realizes that she is good at more than baking polvorones!
Ana Siqueira does a great job writing language that reads quickly and light in the spirit of cheering Bella up. She creates delightful similes comparing her somersaults to jirafas rolling downhill and dulce de leche to cocodrilo skin. Spanish words are easily understood through context and round out the setting in the Latinx, intergenerational home. Playful images by illustratorGeraldine Rodriguezalso capture Bella’s emotional journey making this an engaging book for young readers.
This book reinforces that everyone makes mistakes and that they are okay and even necessary to achieve success. It is el perfecto libro for kids who might need a little boost in confidence.
A sweet bonus: The polvorones con dulce de leche cookie recipe at the end of the story. Are you ready to put your baking talents to the test?
Starla Jean – Which Came First: The Chicken or the Friendship?is the first in a new early chapter book series by author Elana K. Arnold. Divided into four chapters and written in first-person, the book begins with Starla Jean and her father going to the park where Starla Jean happens upon a chicken. Her father tells her, “If you can catch it, you can keep it” not believing that she actually will. But Starla Jean can do anything she sets her mind to! So, of course, she does catch the chicken and they take it home. She names her Opal Egg, so the chicken will feel more comfortable and know they don’t want to eat her “because you don’t give a name to your dinner.” Back home Mom is not too pleased although baby sister Willa eventually benefits from Opal Egg.
However, the big question remains: if Starla Jean found a chicken, does that mean someone lost a chicken? The family puts up ‘Found’ signs to locate her owner but when the chicken’s owner does show up, does that mean Starla Jean will have to say goodbye to her new friend?
A. N. Kang’sillustrations are crisp and plentiful on every page, encouraging early readers who are attempting to read this book on their own. Humor is also abundant in each picture, whether it’s showing a chicken taking a dust bath or Opal Egg wearing one of Willa’s diapers, an idea Starla Jean has to satisfy her mother’s complaint against her.
Yo’ mama so sweet, she could be a bakery. She dresses so fine, she could have a clothing line. And, even when you mess up, she’s so forgiving, she lets you keep on living. Heartwarming and richly imagined, Your Mama, written by NoNieqa Ramosand illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, twists an old joke into a point of pride that honors the love, hard work, and dedication of mamas everywhere.
INTERVIEW WITH NONIEQA RAMOS:
Colleen Paeff:Congratulations on the release of Your Mama (illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara)! This is your first picture book and it received two starred reviews––one from School Library Journal, which called it “an essential purchase” and one from Kirkus, which labeled the book “Perfectly dazzling.” That must have felt good! Or do you try not to pay attention to reviews?
NR: If I said I didn’t pay attention to reviews, my friends would laugh so hard they’d fall off their chairs. Tail bones would crack. My writing is generally considered “experimental” or “unique” and reviews can vary wildly. So it is affirming and medicinal to get critical acclaim for a concept as “unique” as a Your Mama picture book, albeit one flipped into an ode of loving affirmation, for sure.
The reviews that light me up the most are from readers who find me on Instagram to tell me my writing has made them feel seen or from fellow writers I admire who show me book love. Their esteem is salve for my heart, food for my writer’s soul.
CP: Kwame Alexander’s imprint Versify published your book and Kwame himself book-talked Your Mama on YouTube. (!!!!) Was it extra special to have your book published by this particular publisher?
I remember when I saw the Tweet that Kwame Alexander was starting a new imprint and that it was open for submissions. I thought– this is Your Mama’s home. Talk about shooting your shot. I emailed my agent in milliseconds. Two weeks after the submission, I got the call.
Every book journey is unique, and the field of publishing is like riding a bronco, no joke. I savor every second of success, but I measure my success differently with each new project. I’m feeling pretty hyped about this one.
NR: Picture book writing is my first love. When I was in elementary school, I started “N&N Company” with my cousin Nikki and attempted to sell picture books (paperdolls, bookmarks, and cards) to my classmates until a dispute over payment drew the nuns’ attention and had me shut down!
I started off my teaching career working with preschoolers. Picture books are portable theaters, concerts, and museums. There’s nothing I loved more than seeing an emerging reader take a picture walk and narrate the story to their friends.
I write in rhythmic verse, a type of free verse, the jazz of poetry. What I adore about picture books is the spoken and unspoken collaboration between author and illustrator. I marvel at the music Jackie and I made with keyboard and pen.
CP:What’s something you enjoyed about the experience of writing a picture book that wasn’t a part of writing for the YA audience?
NR: All my works are a platform to fight for social justice. Picture books are a unique way to rise up against inequity and systemic oppression of the marginalized with the power of pure joy. Picture books are unbridled hope. With these magical tools, we raise not just the individual reader, but the human family. When I gift a child a picture book byKirsten Larson(A True Wonder: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything), I am giving the gift of ingenuity and persistence. When I gift a child a picture book byYamile Saied Méndez (De Donde Eres), I gift a child cultural and family pride.
My YA The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary is partially about burning the system down. The Truth Is is partially about dismantling the internalized racism and homophobia embedded in us from our inherently racist and homophobic society. In some ways, these protagonists inherited a world in ashes. My picture book protagonists inherit seeds.
With my debut Your Mama, I resisted the monolithic representation of Latinx women with nuanced exultation. I hope with Your Mama, all my readers celebrate how much they are loved by their caregivers, and all caregivers feel seen and revered.
CP:You’ve said you write to “amplify marginalized voices and to reclaim the lost history, mythology, and poetry of the Latinx community.” Did you grow up hearing those stories or did you discover them later in life?
NR:I discovered my first Latinx novel in graduate school, and I was transformed. Reading Gabriel García Márquez’sOne Hundred Years Of Solitudespoke to me as a writer in a way absolutely no book ever had. He helped me find my voice.
CP:You’ve described yourself as a literary activist. What is that and how can I become one?
NR:I love your questions, Colleen! A literary activist creates works to disrupt texts, dismantle systems of oppression, and rebuild an equitable society. Every book gives you an opportunity to amplify your work’s message through article writing, conferences, and school visits. The Truth Is and The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary gives me a platform to talk about the lack of historical representation of BIPOC persons in school curriculums, the dire need for mental health services for the marginalized, and the still pervasive LGBTQIA+ homeless population.
Whenever I am in despair about the condition of the world, I turn to story to rewrite the narrative and I amplify the work of fellow authors who are changing the world with their work. Readers, check outLas Musasto learn about the works of my fellow Latinx writers whose work children’s literature “celebrates the diversity of voice, experience, and power” in Latinx communities. Check outhttps://www.soaring20spb.com/for a beautiful diverse community of writers in children’s lit, where I met Colleen Paeff!
CP:I’m so glad it brought us together! I feel lucky to be a part of such an inspiring group of creators. What’s next for you, NoNieqa?
NR: I am working on a genderqueer picture book fairy tale retelling and my first dystopian novel. We’ll see where they land!
CP:Is there anything else you’d like to share?
NR: Thank you for this lovely chat, Colleen. Readers, don’t forget to add my future picture booksHair Story (September 7th, 2021) andBeauty Woke(February 15, 2022) on Goodreads. Thank you so much for your support! Hope you love Your Mama as much as I do.
NoNieqa Ramos wrote The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary, which received stars from Booklist, Voya, and Foreword. It was a 2019 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection and a 2019 In the Margins Top Ten pick.
Versify will publish her debut picture book Your Mama, which received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus, on April 6th, 2021. Her second picture book, Hair Story, releases from Lerner September 6th, 2022. NoNieqa is a proud member of Las Musas, The Soaring 20s, and PB Debut Troupe 21 collectives.
Bella’s beret blows away on a windy day, taking a ride through the seasons and landing in many places along the way. When the beret lands in a chef’s pan – hip, hip, soufflé! When it lands on the head of a dancer – hip, hip, ballet! As Bella searches for her missing beret, young readers can enjoy their own search for a few touchable felt berets inside the book.
Clarinet and Trumpet have a pitch-perfect friendship. But when Oboe convinces Clarinet that woodwinds should stick together, Clarinet and Trumpet’s harmonious relationship falls flat. Woodwinds and Brass face off – until music brings them back together. With pun-filled text and emotive illustrations, CLARINET & TRUMPET honors the important role music plays in creating community.
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR MELANIE ELLSWORTH:
Colleen Paeff:Congratulations on the release of your second picture book, Clarinet & Trumpet (illustrated by John Herzog). I love all the wordplay in both this book and in your debut, Hip, Hip … Beret! (illustrated by Morena Forza). How did you get so punny?
Melanie Ellsworth: Thanks, Colleen! It’s so nice to chat with you on Good Reads With Ronna. I think punny might be in my DNA. I grew up with a father who slips puns into conversations whenever possible. He also composes limericks for any and every occasion. So I can’t help myself. Wordplay makes the creative process more joyful!
CP:The cover of Clarinet & Trumpet says “Shake this Book.” What happens when you shake the book and how did that idea come about?
ME:When I submitted the manuscript, I offered to include back matter on musical instruments. But my editor had a more innovative idea; she wanted a tactile element, so she suggested embedding a shaker/rattle so readers can join in the musical fun. When I received my author copies, I discovered that the sound-maker is cleverly embedded in the book’s spine. When you tip the book, it sounds (and works) a lot like a rainstick. It’s quite soothing!
Another neat musical feature about the book is that the “and” in the title is a G clef! I had never really noticed how similar the ampersand and the G clef were until I saw that switch. The art department was very clever!
CP:Do you play any instruments yourself or did writing a book about musical instruments require research? Or both?!
ME: Both! I did some googling of instrument terminology, sound words, and musical puns. But mostly, this book came from my own experience playing in bands, orchestras, district bands, and pit bands. I started piano lessons around age 7 and clarinet lessons around age 10. In high school, I took a few saxophone lessons just because saxophones are cool. Clarinet was always my favorite, though. I was hooked from the first time I heard its sound in an elementary school instrument “petting zoo.” I love the versatility of the clarinet – for classical, jazz, klezmer, big band, new age, you name it! I played clarinet through college and a bit afterward. Someday, I will whip my embouchure back into shape and join a local community band.
CP:You said in a previous interview that you’ve always loved picture books. Why do you think they’ve had such a long-standing appeal for you?
ME: The quality cuddling time with my mom as we read picture books together started my love for the genre. My local library also fueled that love. The combination of lyrical text and gorgeous pictures is pretty magical at any age. Now that I write picture books as well as reading them, I still appreciate many of the same things I always have: the quiet cuddle time they inspire, the rich vocabulary and themes, the introduction for our youngest readers to other types of families and communities, the way picture books kindle empathy, the stunning art, and the way the art often tells another story – like getting a two-for-one deal! And I love a good challenge – trying to write a humorous, heartfelt story with themes relatable to both children and adults, with an arc and interesting characters, with text that sings, leaving plenty of room for the illustrator, and in less than 500 words.
CP:You spent time backpacking around Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. What’s one of your favorite memories from that time?
ME:Hmmm, so many! One is staying with a family in Bomet, Kenya and helping with a community water-tank build. Now you’ve got me thinking about the delicious ground nut sauce I ate there. Another favorite memory is making it up to Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayas and eating the Snickers I had saved for that moment. Best Snickers ever. (Seems like I may have to write a travel/food-themed picture book!)
CP:Did you learn any lessons as a world traveler that you apply to your writing life?
ME: I’ve actually been thinking about this question for years, looking for the intersections between my travels and the life I live now. I’m hoping to find a way to write about it. Travel presents an opportunity to see other people more deeply and to think about the way my choices, and all of our choices, ripple out to affect a global community. I think you have to travel with a sense of humor, keep an eye out for the funny, absurd, and unusual, recognize that what strikes you as absurd may not be universal, and be open to many ways of seeing. These are all things that apply to writing as well.
CP: If I asked you to curate a perfect day, guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing, what would it look like?
ME: It sounds a bit dull, but starting the day with coffee at my desk up in my barn office works best for me. A perfect day might start with me writing a haiku to warm up my creative senses. Ideally, I’d start every day with writing or revising, but I almost always start by checking email. Usually, I set a timer so I don’t get completely off track with that. A perfect day would definitely involve a walk down to the river with my dog. I get to do that most days, and sometimes I pay close attention to nature – like crocuses unfurling or a pair of hooded mergansers on the river. Other days, I look inwards on walks and end up with new story ideas that I text to myself so I won’t forget them.
CP:Is there anything else I should have asked?
ME: Thanks for your super interesting questions! If I asked myself questions like these every day, my creative juices would always be flowing. Here’s another question that might be useful for readers: What are some tips to stay focused on writing when so much else is going on?
A friend once told me to do a “brain dump” each day. It involves setting a timer for 5 minutes and writing down everything on your mind (grocery lists, errands, worries, etc.) so you can free yourself from those distractions before starting creative work. Something similar that helps me is to make a list of all writing and non-writing tasks I hope to do that day in my bullet journal. (I also have a weekly goals list.) And if you’re having one of those days or weeks when you’re feeling frustrated because you are not crossing much off your to-do list, try this tip from one of my critique partners, Anna Crowley Redding. As you work, keep a separate list of everything you actually do that day. There’s always so much that crops up that you weren’t expecting, so this is a good reminder that you actually WERE productive, even when you’re not feeling it. Try it when you need a little boost.
CP: What’s next for you?
ME:Several of my picture books are on submission through my agent, and I’m always writing/revising a few new ones. I hope to try some other genres this year, including an early reader graphic novel and a middle-grade novel (which would involve finishing a book I started writing years ago).
Melanie Ellsworth is the author of HIP, HIP… BERET! and CLARINET & TRUMPET. Over the years, Melanie has played a variety of instruments, including the piano, the saxophone, and the clarinet. She has yet to try out the trumpet! Melanie has worked as an ESOL teacher and a literacy specialist and now writes in an old house in Maine where she lives with her family.
When a chipmunk mistakes Hare for a rabbit, Hare puts him in his place. But actually, the chipmunk is a SQUIRREL. Or so he says.
INTERVIEW WITH JULIE ROWAN-ZOCH:
Colleen Paeff:Hi Julie! Congratulations on the release of your author/illustrator debut, I’m a Hare, So There! The rabbit—I mean, hare—in this story has such a strong voice. (I love it!) Was that voice there from the get-go or did it develop over time?
Julie Rowan Zoch: From the beginning, there was never any question about Jack’s personality, but recently I realized he has the same confidence as a close friend of mine. Must be why it felt so easy to write.
CP: I love the search-and-find element at the back of the book. Was that always part of the plan, or did that idea come later?
JRZ: No, it was my editor, Kate O’Sullivan who suggested I added backmatter even before the contract was final. I wanted to keep it simple and we agreed visual elements with a few facts would be a good fit. The search-and-find was an extension of that idea.
CP: Can you talk a little about the process of writing and illustrating this book? Were there any big changes?
JRZ: A big change in the ending happened before we submitted it as I had the plan to have the main character “carried off”! Luckily I was able to keep it kid-friendly AND still funny! Once it was with the editor she suggested some minor changes to the text and to add more similar-not-same elements, which I’m really grateful for – makes for a much better book. The art director, Celeste Knudsen also suggested a more colorful palette than I had originally intended, and I am grateful for that guidance too!
CP: Your debut picture book, Louis, was written by best-selling author/illustrator Tom Lichtenheld. How did you feel about creating illustrations for such a well-known illustrator? Did he have any say in what the illustrations looked like?
JRZ: I was intimidated by the thought that the illustrations would be compared to his own, and luckily I quickly got over that! Just had to remind myself, anyone’s illustration style will always be compared to others! He did have a say, but that went through the editor, and she never gave me the feeling I had to adjust my own vision if I felt strongly about something. The HMH team was truly a joy to work with!
CP: What relationships (with individuals or groups) have been most helpful to you as you’ve made your way in children’s publishing?
JRZ: Being a part of my regional SCBWI chapter and our local Connect group, (which I now facilitate) have helped me tremendously, especially with encouragement. I am also a 12×12 Picture Book Challenge member from the beginning, and some of the community I have met are very close friends now. Through both of these organizations, I have also found all of my critique partners, past and present, as well as the promotional groups I now enjoy being a part of – all of which have helped me through both book debuts happening during the pandemic! I do not want to imagine what it would have been like without them! I am also lucky to be able to trust my agent, Marcia Wernick, implicitly. She knows when to push and when to listen, shares a love of period drama, and has a great laugh!
CP: Has failure played any part in your success? How?
JRZ: Of course! No one learns without friction! I’ve racked up plenty of embarrassing moments in sharing awful manuscripts, first with my poor friends then with critique partners! And my agent can be very frank with me – thank goodness! I’ve had some tough art school teachers whose constructive criticism knocked the wind out of me as well as helped me get back up! Even the old neighborhood kids kept everyone’s ego in check – once they even left me hanging on a fence by my overalls! I suppose it’s all helped me grow a thick skin!
CP: You’re a bookseller! How does that inform your work as an author and illustrator?
JRZ: I applied for the job thinking it would be interesting, and I was right! I see many books before they are released, so I am very aware of market trends; I hear what customers of different ages are asking for in children’s literature, and know that half of what sells are classics, and I learn that even books I like can be quite boring to a group of toddlers!
CP: If I asked you to curate a perfect day, guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing, what would it look like?
JRZ: My gut reaction is to say I wouldn’t want to! I don’t know how it all works when it works, and randomness may be the key! BUT when all else fails … read poetry and read it out loud!
CP: What’s your advice to people (of all ages) who like drawing, but get discouraged by their lack of natural drawing ability?
JRZ: If you love it, draw. I really don’t know if anyone has natural drawing ability. But I do know one gains the ability by drawing.
CP:Is there anything else I should have asked?
JRZ: Have beliefs about how I wanted to make picture books changed since I started out (later in life to boot!)?
JRZ: Yes. I was quite certain I would not want to illustrate for someone else’s text, and now I know it’s just as exciting and in some ways even more so!
CP: What’s next for you?
JRZ:Fingers crossed that a current offer to illustrate moves to contract, and that a dummy I’ve been revisiting on and off for years is finally ready to go walkabout!
Author, illustrator, bookseller, and activist: Julie Rowan-Zoch grew up collecting freckles and chasing hermit crabs in NY, and spent years slicing rich breads in Germany before waking up to 300 days of blue Colorado skies. If she doesn’t answer the door, look in the garden!
For signed books, please leave a personalization request in the online order/comment section with my local indie bookstore (and place of employment!) here.
The Torah is called the Tree of Life. Just as a tree is always growing and changing, the Torah’s ideas can help us grow and change, too. Yoga can do the same. Both can help us strengthen ourselves, calm our minds, and learn to appreciate the world around us.
Written by rabbi and certified yoga instructor Mychal Copeland, I Am the Tree of Life encourages us to explore both the world of yoga and the stories of the Bible and find meaning in both.
GoodReadsWithRonna: Congratulations on your great honor, Rabbi!What a pleasure to have you as our guest today.
“How might it feel to stand at Mount Sinai? To dance at the red sea?” are the inviting opening words to your lovely picture book. This gentle and meaningful introduction to yoga through Torah exploration is a wonderful idea for a story. Please share your inspiration with us. Is this a practice you use with children?
Rabbi Mychal Copeland:This book came together organically, doing yoga with children at Jewish summer camps and synagogues. We imagined, together, which stories we could form with our bodies. I loved seeing kids use their imagination and how easily they understood what it means to embody, or become, an animal, object, or character. Those ideas evolved over many years into the poses in the book, alongside poses I brought into my adult Jewish yoga classes based on the weekly Torah readings and holidays.
GRWR:The beautiful blend of the spiritual and physical come together seamlessly in I AM THE TREE OF LIFE. What do you feel your book offers to youngsters especially now when they have been coping with an unprecedented pandemic?
RMC: Parents of young children are striving to bring grounding, healthy practices into their kids’ lives, especially during this pandemic. Yoga teaches adults and children that we can regulate our own breathing, calm ourselves down when necessary, pay attention to what we are feeling, and to be empowered in our bodies. Children have lost their daily opportunities for movement, so I’ve been thrilled to hear that this book has helped them get moving during this time. I hope that has, in turn, connected them to their spiritual selves and to the world around them as they embody a mountain, tree or a fish.
GRWR:I love how there’s a boat pose to signify Noah’s Ark. Did you have trouble finding poses to correlate to the various stories? Or did you select the stories based on existing poses?
RMC: I have been teaching yoga in a Jewish context for many years, and in my practice I connect the poses to the weekly Torah portion or Jewish holiday wherever there is a meaningful link. I have collected so many poses that fit perfectly with our stories. In fact, I had a tough time choosing which ones to drop to make the book the right length for children!
GRWR:Do you have a particular favorite illustration and if so, why?
RMC: The book is based around the image of the tree, both as a metaphor for our Torah and of our bodies. The cover so perfectly brings those images together with a child coming into Tree Pose against the backdrop of a tree so we can see how our feet are like roots, legs like a trunk, and arms like branches. I also love the way he integrated the Torah stories we are about to read into the Tree of Life while we are forming Tree Pose on the opening pages. I also love the Crescent Moon, because Andre so beautifully captured the sweeping feeling of this pose and the story in Genesis.
GRWR:The book is filled with a variety of wonderful Torah stories. Is your hope that, in addition to wanting to try yoga, children reading your book might also become interested in further Jewish study?
RMC:Yes! My hope is that the short glimpses into the Torah stories will pique a child’s curiosity to know the full stories. Perhaps at a Passover seder, they will hear the Exodus narrative and remember that they tried a yoga pose from that formative story. If they feel like that story is theirs because they embodied it, even better. I hear so many young adults say that they don’t feel Jewish enough, that they didn’t learn enough to feel it’s theirs, or that the Jewish community doesn’t accept them as being fully Jewish. My hope is that our upcoming generation of kids feel like they own their own Judaism. It is not someone else’s tradition that they are peering into. It is wholly theirs to live, learn, and create.
GRWR:I love how at the end of the book you address what’s Jewish about yoga. For those reading who do not yet have the book, what’s your answer?
RMC: Yoga emerges from the Hindu philosophical tradition. Jews have a long tradition of being open to learning and incorporating wisdom from other traditions that surround us (medieval liturgy based on Arabic poetry, piyyut, is another great example). But movement also has a long history in Judaism. Our ancient rabbis discussed how to move our bodies during prayer, recognizing that words are not the only way to pray. One medieval Jewish mystic matched Hebrew letters and vowels with head movements. Other kabbalists envisioned different aspects of God as a chart in the shape of a tree, the Tree of Life, and mapped that chart onto the human body. And Hasids used body movements to enhance their prayer.
So yoga is a practice that Jews are borrowing, but spiritual movement is not new to our people.
GRWR: This is such a feel good, calming read. What other Jewish or non-Jewish children’s books have you enjoyed reading for your own writing inspiration?
RMC: Howard Schwartz and Kristina Swarner’s Gathering Sparks (a Sydney Taylor Award winner) has been such an inspiration to me, inviting children to contemplate a complex spiritual, mystical idea in a way that is both relatable and calming. Their book, Before You Were Born, has that same mystical, whimsical quality. I have also been heavily influenced by Rabbi Sandy Sasso’s work (In God’s Name, God’s Paintbrush and so many others), bringing a depth of spiritual conversation to an ecumenical audience.
GRWR:What else would you like to mention about your experience writing the book?
RMC:In early conversations with Apples and Honey Press, we wanted to make sure that the children pictured in the book would represent the diversity of the Jewish community. They brought Brazilian artist, André Ceolin, to the project and I am overjoyed with the illustrations. Portraying children of color in books does not solve the deep-seated issues we face in the Jewish community or our larger American culture. Yet making sure People of Color are represented in Jewish children’s literature is one way we can show kids they are visible in Jewish life, while showing white children that a diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds is what Jewish looks like. We can offer the next generation an invitation to connect themselves to Jewish stories and other Jews.Collectively, we can make intentional choices about which stories and images are passed on.
INTERVIEW WITH ANDRE CEOLIN:
GRWR:Congratulations on your great honor!What a pleasure to have you as our guest today, André.
On the very first spread of the book readers see the tree of life pose along with the tree itself representing the Torah. Can you speak to some of the wisdom shown on the different branches of the tree, the preview of stories to come, and how you imagined this particular illustration?
André Ceolin: Both Ann Kofsky, from Behrman House, and Rabbi Mychal have given me the guidelines and important insights for that illustration, coming up with the idea of the tree showing the passages in each branch.
The tree is strong and healthy, and each branch of it shows an image which represents a passage from the Torah. For me it shows that the wisdom from each passage lead us to a balanced, steady and healthy life.
GRWR:Can you please tell us how you created the artwork? Was it done digitally? And what made you choose this color palate? How long did it take to complete the illustrations?
AC: On a piece of paper and using a good pencil, I always start with several small sketches, the size of a thumbnail, for each illustration to be done. In doing so, I experiment several approaches, having a general idea of the drawing structure, without being distracted by the details.
After evaluating all the miniature sketches, I shoot some photos of the best ones and then, start to work at the computer in a bigger and more detailed version, which will be sent later to the editors and authors for evaluation .
Once approved, I get started with the final version of the illustration, more elaborate and colorful. This step is made digitally as well.
Regarding the color palates, each drawing has its own one in order to express the feeling and the time period in which the story takes place.
Normally, it takes from 2 to 4 days for each illustration, from the sketches to the final version, depending on its complexity.
GRWR:Do you have a particular favorite illustration and if so, why?
AC:The illustration with Jonah inside the giant fish is my favorite, because it was really fun to illustrate that monster-fish. Besides, the image shows some tension, at the same time that it shows hope.
GRWR: You made all the poses look so easy and fun. Did you have to learn yoga to be able to illustrate this book?
AC:Yes, I had to learn a little bit about Yoga, despite not being able to do many of the poses (maybe one day I will take some Yoga classes). Rabbi, through her feedback helped me a lot to correct and make right each of the poses illustrations, as shown in the book.
GRWR:Who are some of the illustrators who have influenced your art?
AC:There are many artists whose work I admire. Stephen Michael King, Rodney Mathews, Rebecca Dautremer and Edivaldo Barbosa de Souza are some of the artists who inspire me.
GRWR:Is there anything else you’d like to mention about your experience illustrating this book?
AC:Illustrating The Tree of Life was a very rich and enjoyable experience in which, in addition to learning about yoga, I learned about the wisdom of the Torah and Jewish culture.
GOODREADSWITHRONNA THANKS YOU BOTH SO VERY MUCH FOR YOUR THOUGHTFUL REPLIES!
You can find Mychal getting into yoga poses while teaching, writing, reading Torah, and even leading Shabbat services at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco. Mychal is both a Reconstructionist and Reform rabbi, earned a masters and teaching credential from Harvard Divinity School, and is a certified yoga instructor, fusing Jewish spirituality with movement through yoga. She co-edited Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American ReligiousPerspectives (SkyLight Paths, 2016) and I Am the Tree ofLife: My Jewish Yoga Book (Apples & Honey Press, 2020) is her first children’s book. She leads yoga sessions that are steeped in Jewish thought and prayer, melding breath and posture practice with Jewish ideas. Her interests span Jewish magical texts, interfaith dialogue, Jewish issues of inclusion, and teaching Judaism as a spiritual path.
Clickherefor my Facebook page where people can find me and yoga opportunities for their kids.
André Ceolin is a self-taught illustrator from Brazil He started his first attempt at sketching around the age of four when his father brought home some reams of paper from work. It was in that moment that he fell in love with painting and drawing. André initially got a degree in pharmacy at UNIMEP. Though he worked in this field for several years, his artistic passion was too strong to ignore. As a young father, he was surrounded by beautiful children’s books and was always drawn to the spontaneity of the imagery. He then decided to switch gears and studied at School of Visual Arts in NYC, Melies, and Escola Panamericana de Artes to develop a signature look and learned new illustration techniques. He illustrated his first book “Um Dia na Vida de Micaela” de Cauê by Steinberg Milano, published by Editora Roda & Cia in 2009. Ever since, he has illustrated over 20 books by great publishers in Brazil such as Roda & Cia, Saber e Ler, SM, Moderna, FTD, Editora do Brasil, Editora Abril. He loves working with books targeting juvenile readers from the very young age to middle-grade and young adult. When not illustrating, he creates toys and small sculptures for his son. He also enjoys bicycling, playing his guitar, and, singing. Visit his websitehere.
Sy Montgomery’sNew York Times best-selling memoir, How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, inspired the picture book, Becoming a Good Creature. Herein she conveys her beliefs that we can—and should—learn from animals. Montgomery’s fundamental messages include “respect others,” “find good teachers,” and “see for yourself.” She encourages us to take a closer look at the world and everything inhabiting it. In doing so, we are bound to “love little lives” and find ways to nurture them because we’re all in this together.
While naturalist and adventurer Montgomery has led an extraordinary life, traveling the world and living with animals, we don’t have to fly far away to find something worth exploring.
During the pandemic, my family has discovered and interacted with previously overlooked insects in our garden. Becoming a Good Creature reinforces such behavior. It also shows that women can make their own families and forge their own paths.
Rebecca Green’s paintings, full of delightful animals, depict Montgomery from girl through woman and showcase how curiosity inspired her positive interactions with animals around the globe. For example, alongside the beautifully poignant illustrations of an octopus, a young Montgomery wonders what could we possibly have in common with them; the answer is playing! This uplifting book stresses the importance of communication and caring—much-needed actions for successful coexistence on our planet.
Click herethen scroll down the page to learn more about Rebecca Green’s artwork.
Read a review of another picture book about animals here.