Dakota Crumb: Tiny Treasure Hunterby Jamie Michalak with art by Kelly Murphy is both a rollicking story with a dash of danger and, in its final eye-popping spreads, a seek-and-find challenge. As the clock in the great museum tick-tocks past midnight, a little mouse with a sack and a treasure map scurries past the guards. Plucky Dakota Crumb scours the museum for artifacts, including the rare purple jewel of Cairo (a gumdrop stashed in an exhibit). By day, the little mouse shares her carefully curated finds with fellow tiny creatures that flock to Miss Crumb’s tiny Mousehole Museum. A feast for sharp-eyed readers—who’ll delight in circling back after the story to pore over the illustrations in search of treasure—this gently suspenseful tale, splashed with soft, dusky hues, evokes a world of wonders after dark.
GOODREADSWITHRONNA: Welcome, Jamie! I’m so happy to be on this blog tour and have you as a guest today!
JAMIE MICHALAK:Thank you for having me on your blog, Ronna! 🙂 I love your questions.
GRWR: I love the idea of a treasure-hunting mouse. And in a museum, to boot, where visitors young and old leave lots of things behind! Did you always know you wanted to write Dakota’s story this way or did it evolve as you imagined what things a daring mouse could get up to?
JM:This story absolutely evolved, and I wrote many, MANY iterations of it. I originally imagined an artsy concept book full of tiny objects. Then I built a story around them starring an acorn, who gave readers a tour of his tiny collections and shared stories about his adventures finding them. Finally, I realized it would be more fun to take readers on those adventures. But it wasn’t until I was in line at the Met museum and imagined a mousehole museum underneath it that the story finally clicked into place.
GRWR: Okay, so I’m scared of mice but yet it’s such fun reading about their antics. Are you a fan of mice stories and if so, which ones in particular?
JM: Yeah, I don’t want to run into a real one. Eep! But there’s something about a miniature world that sparks my imagination. I want to visit a mouse house. One with furniture, of course.
My favorite mouse books are Mouse Soup and Mouse Tales by Arnold Lobel, Noisy Nora by Rosemary Wells, Lily’s Plastic Purple Purse by Kevin Henkes, and so many more.
GRWR:The pairing of prose and art in your book works seamlessly. One of my favorite scenes is the guest book one since you had me wondering how little Dakota would make off with a museum masterpiece. What did you think when you first saw Kelly Murphy’s evocative illustrations? Do you have a favorite spread?
JM:Oh, thank you! Kelly’s art is incredible. She’s captured all of the excitement of a night-in-the-museum heist. I also loved that she worked in some nods to Indiana Jones, since there’s a little of Indiana in Dakota. But if I had to choose one spread it would be the one of the Mousehole Museum with all of its exhibits, small animal visitors, and even a cafe of tiny treats! It took my breath away the first time I saw it. It’s the page kids love to linger on and pick out their favorite tiny treasures.
GRWR: The harmless museum heist is just part of the story’s intrigue. Readers have more fun in store! In the last few pages, they find out about the miniature museum run by Dakota Crumb underneath the larger one and are then invited on a seek-and-find mission of their own. I couldn’t resist tracking down the items shown at the end and am sure children will feel the same. Was this cool combination story your intention all along?
JM: I layered on the interactive seek-and-find details after I’d written the heist story. Because Dakota finds only a handful of treasures in the story, I needed to do something with all of the many other teeny objects from my original exhaustive list of them. So I created a treasure hunt list for the reader, and Kelly hid the tiny objects in the art for kids to find.
GRWR:What do you hope children will take away from this reading adventure?
JM:Well, I always hope that they’ll have fun. But I also hope that the familiarity of Dakota’s coveted finds will inspire kids to see that tiny treasures are around us all the time. We just need to slow down and pay attention to them.
GRWR:Thanks so much for this wonderful interview, Jamie! I hope you’ll come back again to share more insights about your books.
Jamie Michalak is the author of many children’s books, including Dakota Crumb: Tiny Treasure Hunter, illustrated by Kelly Murphy; Frank and Bean, illustrated by Bob Kolar; the highly praised Joe and Sparky early readers series, illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz; as well as the forthcoming picture book Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites, co-written with Debbi Michiko Florence and illustrated by Yuko Jones, and many more.
When not writing, she can often be found singing off-key, drinking too much coffee, or hanging out with her two sons. Jamie lives with her family in Barrington, Rhode Island. For more info, visit her at www.jamiemichalak.com
A Book Review, and Interview with Author Chris Baron
by Karol Silverstein
★Starred Review – Booklist
In The Magical Imperfect, Etan has had trouble speaking since his mother checked into a hospital to get well, and his friends at school don’t know what to make of his silence. Baseball is about the only thing he can share with his father, but luckily, 1989 is looking like a good year for their Giants. Spending time with his immigrant grandfather, a shopkeeper in the local village, is much easier for Etan. Though his family is Jewish, their small hometown north of San Francisco is home to many refugees from various countries, so he’s exposed to many different cultures.
On an errand to deliver items for one of his grandfather’s fellow shopkeepers, Etan meets Malia, a girl who has severe eczema and began being homeschooled when the bullying at the local school became too much. These two outcast kids have an instant connection and build a moving friendship. Etan’s grandfather has a small supply of clay from “the old country,” which is supposed to have curative properties. Could the clay possibly cure Malia’s eczema? Etan wonders. Malia has tried many medicines and “cures” and is more interested in connecting with and learning from the nature that surrounds her, particularly the trees. Malia also dreams of singing in the town’s talent contest—unthinkable before she met Etan. As the talent show—and the World Series—draw closer, Malia practices her performance with Etan’s encouragement and Etan secures some of his grandfather’s “magic clay,” hoping it will help a particularly bad eczema outbreak Malia is experiencing. If only the scary tremors would let up…
As was the case in author Chris Baron’s 2019 debut All Of Me, the gentle unfolding of character and emotion through evocative verse is again on full display in The Magical Imperfect. The juxtaposition of Etan and Malia’s small tremors of growth with San Francisco’s devastating 1989 earthquake provides a potent metaphor for how life can shake you up but not necessarily knock you down. I worried a little that this book might delve into “magical cure/disability that needs to be fixed” territory that hampers many books with disabled and/or chronically ill characters and can actually be harmful to that community. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Etan’s clay isn’t really the magic fix he’d hoped for, and I believe both kids come to realize that acceptance and small victories are, in the end, what matter most.
Ultimately, the intertwined themes of love, culture, baseball and just a touch of magic . . . or is it faith? . . . make this a wonderful and wonder-filled read.
Karol Silverstein: The Magical Imperfect is set around the time of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. How and at what point in the writing process did you decide on that time period? What led to this decision?
Chris Baron: This is a great question with a very twisty-turny answer. Let me see if I can straighten it out enough. Just like in All of Me, this book takes place in the Bay Area, where I went to middle school. This place is just a part of me. The setting lives in my heart—from the ocean to the redwoods and beyond. I’d experienced earthquakes before, but somehow this one, in the middle of the World Series seemed to disrupt life in such an unpredictable and deep way. This story is all about the ways in which life is disrupted for the people in the story in unexpected ways by things that are beyond their control. Something as a big as an earthquake is terrifying, but it also has a chance to bring people together.
Karol: Baseball, music, food, and cultural traditions are wonderfully intertwined in your book. Can you talk about how you worked with these themes to tell Etan’s story?
Chris: Intertwined is actually a beautiful word for this. I think all of these things are intertwined in the story. When we hear a song, we feel the beat and hum the melody. We can remember the words no matter how long it’s been. Not only that, if the song has a special meaning to us, the music and the lyrics come together to fuel the memories that bind us together. I think it’s the same with cultural and sacred traditions, (which of course include food). The traditions, the tastes, the people—they become intertwined in who we are. They connect us. Even though Etan and Malia are from different cultures, and even though traditions might look different, they find that their values are actually intertwined.
As for baseball: Baseball is its own tradition—a symbol, an activity played at every level, and just a very fun game. For so many of us, baseball represents normal life, but it’s powerful enough to bring so many kinds of people together. For Etan, baseball is one of the only ways he can connect with his father. When things get tough, they at least can talk about baseball.
In 1989, when a unifying tradition like the world series was shaken by an earthquake, it caused many of us to feel scared and uneasy, but the quake also brought many people together. I tried to weave that into the backdrop of the story. There is so much news coverage from that day, and it’s fascinating to watch. I wanted to explore what it would be like for this close-knit town to experience this event together. I also have to confess that writing poetry about the earthquake was all-consuming. I think I wrote one hundred pages of “moments’ from the quake, but of course only a few made it into the book.
Karol: Both Etan and Malia have health conditions. What drew you to create characters with selective mutism and eczema, respectively? If you don’t have personal experience with these conditions, what type of research did you do?
Chris: Great question. I have the deepest respect and empathy for those of us who live with these health conditions. Both selective mutism and eczema are extremely complex.
I wrote about the life of an artist’s family quite a bit in All of Me. But there was one behavior that Ari didn’t express that Etan does in The Magical Imperfect. In the book, Etan stops speaking when his mother has to leave because of her severe depression. He didn’t choose it. His anxiety came on suddenly, and like most kids his age (and especially in 1989), he doesn’t know how to recognize it. In Etan, I am writing a character I know well—someone who suffers from anxiety. Because my mom is an artist, we moved all the time. Whenever I moved to a new town, a new state, a new school, I may have seemed calm on the outside, but inside of me was a storm of emotions: There was always joy and excitement of moving to a new place, new friends, new adventures, but of course it was all mixed together with the brutal pain of being taken out of one life (routine, friendships, and environment), and then suddenly dropped into another. I suffered from anxiety. I didn’t know how I would fit. For a kid, it can be a complete loss of control. Often, the way I reacted to this loss of control was to find something I could control. It was sometimes eating, but it was also something quieter. I found myself often unable to speak, so I embraced that. I stopped talking at school. I was quiet. I kept all my words to myself. Eventually, I found friends and teachers I could trust who helped me through it, and slowly the words came out.
Eczema is very complicated. Most people have rashes that itch, but as my wife Ella deCastro Baron explains it, she has itches that rash. Ella has had extreme eczema off and on her whole life. Her memoir,Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment(2012) is all about a life lived with eczema. When we first got married, she had eczema that ravaged her body from head to toe. The triggering effects of the condition caused so many secondary problems: depression, insomnia, isolation, and hopelessness. If you know Ella, then you know that she is a luminous, hilarious person full of life. Watching her deal with chronic bouts of eczema has been some of the hardest parts of our life together (and still are at times). In The Magical Imperfect, Malia experiences a similar bout of eczema. It’s so bad that she is isolated from school because of the way other kids treat her and because of her own discomfort.
The healing process for both of these conditions is not simple magic. In each case, it’s a complex journey, but the hope itself leads to moments of magic that provide joy and healing from the most unexpected places. That’s a big part of what I explored in the book.
I also want to note. Even though these conditions are integrated into my own life, I did more research than I expected. I know that these conditions vary from person to person, so I talked to many. I interviewed doctor friends about both subjects, and a few others who have firsthand experiences with these conditions. I also read Christina Collins’sstunning book, After Zerowhich I highly recommend.
Karol: The “magic” in your book is very much left up to your readers’ interpretation. Can you discuss what role you feel magic plays in helping Etan and Malia get to a better place emotionally by story’s end?
Chris: I know one thing I hope readers don’t take away—the idea that magic is some sort of cure for everything. Without too many spoilers, I would say that the magic in the story connects the many worlds of the characters. There is ancient magic from the worlds more connected to Etan’s grandfather and the other immigrants in town, but also hidden everywhere. This is the part I had the most fun writing. I think the magic is crucial for Etan and Malia—not because it cures things—but because it provides hope and makes it tangible in their everyday lives. The story is rooted in the idea that magic is all around us—that if we might only stop and listen—pay attention—we will see and hear the trees, or discover the ancient things living right beside us.
But also—I love trees—and I know that they are made of magic.
From Emmy Award-winning journalist Anna Crowley Redding comes a captivating nonfiction picture book that explores the fabled apple tree that inspired Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. From a minor seed to a monumental icon, it inspired the world’s greatest minds, including Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. This tale is an ode to the potential that exists in all of us to change the world
“A sweet windfall of history and inspiration.” —Kirkus (starred review)
“This picture book may resonate with science-minded children.” —Booklist.
ACR: I came across an article that not only mentioned Isaac Newton’s apple tree, but mentioned there were descendants of the tree on every continent except Antarctica. Then I found out the original tree was still alive. It blew my mind!
CP: I love the way you start and end with the idea that something small can change the world. Was that story structure there in your early drafts or did it develop over time?
ACR: Thank you! Those were the first words I actually wrote because that’s what really struck me about this particular tree … that a tiny seed could indeed change everything. I loved the truth of it.
CP:Were you particularly surprised by anything you learned as you conducted your research?
ACR: I did not originally know that Albert Einstein had visited the tree until I stumbled upon a newspaper article written at the time of his visit. I could NOT believe it. I was literally jumping for joy in front of my computer. There was even a picture!
CP: What was your reaction when you saw Yas Imamura’s wonderful illustrations for the book?
ACR: Her work is just stunning. The texture, the layering, and the contrast. She uses these elements to really drive the visual storytelling. What surprised me is how her work has an innovative edge and yet feels very classic. I love that!
ACR: My process is really the same in terms of learning as much as I can about a topic. With a longer format piece, I’ll dig way more into the details whereas picture books I’m constantly honed in on the heart of the story with every single word.
CP:Can you tell me three favorite research tips or resources that you wouldn’t want to be without?
ACR: The ability today to access primary sources from your computer is an unbelievable gift. And I love reading old newspaper articles, research papers, photos, contemporaneous drawings, and maps. But I also love talking to people and experts and asking lots of questions. That really helps with context. Eeep! I think that was more than three!
CP: No problem! The more the better. How do you decide which age level is most appropriate for a story idea?
ACR: Sometimes the amount of information available and the scope of a story will dictate that. But if ever I am debating it, I’ll check in with a librarian and look for books that handle similar material. And I will also talk to my agent and bounce these ideas and questions off of her. She has a sharp eye for this!
CP:Do you find it easier to write for one age group or another?
ACR: No! Each type of book comes with its own challenges and sweet spots!
CP:In addition to being a talented author, you’re an Emmy Award-winning investigative television reporter! Tell me about how you won that Emmy and what it felt like.
ACR: I was covering an ice storm in North Carolina and as my photographer shot video of line workers trying to restore power on the main lines. And there was a house nearby. And in the window was a little boy with his flashlight absolutely loving every minute the whole show… the ice, the workers, the trucks, the power outage, the flashlights… all of it. We found him just four hours before deadline and put together a story that celebrated the childhood joy of ice storms. I loved everything about it. Winning an Emmy for that story was really an honor. It was a difficult category to win. But as a little girl, I never dreamed that such a thing was possible for me. And so it felt really rewarding. And I was sure to mention that little boy by name in my acceptance speech!
CP:Wow! It really sounds like you were meant to tell children’s stories! What are some skills you used as an investigative television reporter and news anchor that have served you well in your career as an author of books for children?
ACR: The research skills have come in super handy and not quitting. Becoming a TV News Reporter can be as impossible as becoming a published author … so not giving up is super important. In both fields you need to put your work in front of people who know more about it than you do and get their feedback and learn from it. It’s scary, humbling, and SUPER helpful. So having a thick skin or ability to receive criticism is useful.
CP: Do you think you’ll ever go back to reporting the news on television?
ACR:No plans for that at this stage. I love writing for children and young adults. There is a freedom and creativity to it that I just adore.
ACR: Thank you for reading that post.Tom Ellis was a superstar Boston TV anchor who was so generous to me with his time, talent, and expertise. And I think we all need someone to remind us that we can accomplish difficult things and then give us some tools to get there. So, yes, having been the recipient of enormous generosity in both of my careers makes me so excited to hopefully be that little beacon of light to others who may need it. It’s also wonderful to join with other authors, illustrators, and agents to do that together, as a group. It’s been very moving and rewarding for me.
CP: I know you love visiting schools. Can you tell me about a school visit activity that’s been especially successful and fun?
ACR: I love handing kids a clipboard, magnifying glass, some primary sources that relate to a particular book or story, and then asking them to prove or disprove the story based on their research. It’s so much fun and the kids love it!
CP: What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you on a school visit?
ACR: I got a migraine headache midway through. The teacher had Excedrin on hand. I took it. It did not touch this headache. I was leading a super hands-on writing exercise and I was starting to sweat from the pain. There were just twenty minutes left of the clock. I was desperate–begging God to get me through it. Finally, the school bell rings. YES! And then the active-shooter alarm is activated. We had to hide in the dark library. Thirty minutes later the police cleared the school. All was well and I grabbed my special tote Macmillan gave me and started to drive for home. But at a stoplight I was overcome with migraine nausea. Quickly dumped the books out of my special tote … and threw up in it!
CP: Oh no!!! That’s terrible! At least you made it out of the school before you threw up. Haha! Let’s move on to a happier topic. What’s the best part about being a children’s book author?
ACR: I think when you have the opportunity to enter the sacred space of a book being held by a child … it’s like being the honored host of a critically important conversation, a special experience that could shape this young person by inspiring them, or seeing them, or making them laugh, or regain hope. I mean, how awesome is that?!
CP: Is there anything else I should have asked you?
CP:Aw! Thank you! That’s very kind. What’s next for you?
ACR: I’m working on a couple of picture books right now that I am wild about. And I’ve decided to try my hand at memoir writing and have to say, I really love it.
CP:How exciting! Based on what I know about your life so far that is a memoir I will definitely want to read. Thanks for chatting, Anna, and best of luck with The Gravity Tree and all your upcoming projects.
ACR:Thank you so much! This was so much fun and such a thoughtful conversation and I really appreciate it!
Anna Crowley Redding is the author of Chowder Rules!, Rescuing the Declaration of Independence, Google It, Elon Musk: A Mission to Save the World, and Black Hole Chasers. The recipient of multiple Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards, Crowley Redding uses her Emmy award-winning investigative reporting skills to dig into compelling topics that are shaping our world. Her works have been translated into multiple languages, garnered national news coverage, and been recognized by the National Association of Science Teachers for excellence. Crowley Redding lives outside of Portland, Maine with her family.
Colleen Paeff:Hi Candy! Congratulations on the release of your second picture book, The Stars Beckoned: Edward White’s Amazing Walk In Space (illustrated by Courtney Dawson)! You’ve said that when you started writing this book you weren’t really a space buff. Do you think that helped or hindered you during the research process?
Candy Wellins: I hope it helped! Most of what I knew about the history of NASA came from THE RIGHT STUFF, which does a good job of covering Project Mercury and I think everyone has a basic understanding of Apollo, but the Gemini missions are kind of like the forgotten middle children of the NASA missions. Not the first ones and not the flashy ones, but certainly important ones. I read the transcript of the entire Gemini IV mission–pages and pages of technical jargon—but once you get to the heart of the mission and “hearing” the astronauts speak, it’s pretty riveting.
CP: Would you consider yourself a space buff now?
CW: No, not a space buff by any means. Maybe an above-average space enthusiast at best!
CP: I’m always impressed by authors who can tell a story in rhyme, but I’m especially impressed by authors who can tell a nonfiction story in rhyme! Was rhyming something that was a part of The Stars Beckoned from the beginning or did it come later in the revision process?
CW: I knew I wanted to tell Edward’s story for a while and I didn’t have a plan whatsoever. I only wrote in prose at that point and I tried a few things, but didn’t like them at all. A writer in my critique group shared a biography written in verse that I thought was just lovely. It made me want to do something biographical in verse just to try it. Edward came to mind immediately. I had done a lot of the preliminary research and, honestly, if you’re going to get your feet wet in rhyme, might as well do it with someone who has a very rhymable last name like White. The opening lines came to me pretty quickly and I just let the story take me where it needed to go.
CP: Edward White’s children gave you feedback as you worked on the story, right? How did you get in touch with them and were they immediately open to you writing about their dad?
CW: During one of my many Google searches of Edward’s name, I found a post his granddaughter made celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his spacewalk. She is a realtor so I was able to find contact information easily and reached out to her. She put me in touch with her dad and aunt and I shared the manuscript with them. It was important to me that the book be as historically accurate as possible. They were especially helpful as we moved into the illustration phase–getting hair colors, clothing choices and airplane models exactly as they were was important to all of us. Most Americans know the names of other “first” astronauts like Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, but I feel—and I think his children would agree—Edward has been somewhat forgotten by history. I hope my book can change that just a bit because he really was amazing and did important work.
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.
It’s a cover reveal for picture book Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! and it definitely invites intrigue!
A chicken steps into the imprint of a gigantic claw. The white bird takes center stage with a body resembling a halved teardrop composed against a green, feathered-grass background. Tying in the white of the chicken, the quirky, bold lettering in the title, shouts, read me! The cover clearly portrays a bird with an investigative mind on a mission. Illustrator Jojo Ensslin’s simple shapes, contrasting colors, and gentle shading offer young readers the perfect engagement.
“I fell in love with the cover as soon as I saw it! I think it captures Chicken Frank’s perception of his connection to a T. rex perfectly, as well as his interest in exploring and accepting the belief that he IS a modern dinosaur! Jojo Ensslin did a fantastic job of bringing Chicken Frank and his friends to life.”
One of Shaunda’s first jobs out of college involved capturing, banding, and tracking wild birds for a research study. At the time, she didn’t realize that all the different birds were actually modern dinosaurs!
Fast forward to a change in career, and an idea was born!
“Inspiration for Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! came from a fun class discussion after watching Jack Horner’s Ted Talk video about dinosaurs and birds. My students were enthralled and amused by the idea that dinosaurs still walk among us … in the form of a chicken! Some students bought into it. Others didn’t. A lively debate followed, and the sparks for Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! began to stir.”
A PEEK INTO THE WRITING PROCESS:
“After being inspired to write Chicken Frank, Dinosaur!, it took me about a year to get the story into shape and submission-ready, another 6 months or so of R&R with the publishing editors, 1 day to get that R&R rejected, 1 hour at 3 am to completely rewrite the story in a different structure, and another 3 months to find the courage to resubmit the manuscript, which was ultimately accepted for publication. Thank goodness for strong beliefs and second chances!”
ABOUT THE STORY:
Cluck-a-doodle-ROAR! Chicken Frank is on a mission to prove to his fellow farm animals that he’s related to a T. rex because of evolution! But no one believes him—until DNA test results show Alligator Ike on Frank’s family tree. What will happen when he shows up at Frank’s family reunion? Complete with chicken and dinosaur tidbits, this 32-page picture book blends information with a fictional, humorous, comic style. The creators made sure to add just what young readers crave, chuckles and heart.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
I have the pleasure of being in a debut picture book group with Shaunda, and here’s what I know about this fascinating author. Not just a writer, she also holds a degree in a self-designed major in environmental and social sciences from the University of Vermont. As a high school teacher, Shaunda has been honored with educational awards. While Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! is her first picture book, kids may have seen some of her writings about science published in the educational market. A nature lover at heart, she is an avid hiker, swimmer, and plant lover. Visit her website for more fun facts and to find out more about her debut in October 2021.
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.
30,000 STITCHES: THE INSPIRING STORY OF THE NATIONAL 9/11 FLAG
Written by Amanda Davis
Illustrated by Sally Wern Comport
Associate Publisher-WorthyKids/Hachette Book Group: Peggy Schaefer
What I Love About the Cover:
My husband, children and I were living overseas on 9/11 and remained there for a handful of years afterward so I’ve primarily gleaned info about the tragic events of that day through children’s books, friends’ accounts and documentaries. I continue to learn more new things about 9/11 which is why the cover (by Sally Wern Comport) for Amanda Davis’s new picture book, 30,000 Stitches: The Inspiring Story of the National 9/11 Flag intrigued me when I first saw it. It reminded me of when my children would play the parachute games at nursery and that feeling of joy, exuberance, pride and connectivity their faces conveyed. Add to that the multicultural, multi-generational and multi-abled group of people holding up the iconic flag, and you have all the makings of a moving picture book cover. And though we cannot tell a book by its cover, we can surely get a sense. Here Comport conveys texture, optimism, and subtle details about the myriad individuals involved in the 9/11 flag. There’s no way anyone seeing the book on a bookstore shelf, in the library, in a newsletter or on social media will not want to find out what the story is behind the cover and the book’s title. Read on to get the inside scoop of why this story of hope in the shape of a flag should be added to your TBR lists.
GoodReadsWithRonna:Amanda, now you know my reaction to the cover, what was your initial reaction to the cover? How do you feel it captures the essence of your story?
Amanda Davis: My initial reaction to the cover was that it filled me with light and hope. The bright colors that Sally chose along with the choice to depict a diverse group of people working together to hold up the flag, perfectly highlights the themes of unity, strength and healing, that are the essence of the story. I’m also really happy that the cover is inclusive of all types of people since the flag was stitched by many different people in diverse communities throughout the United States.
AD: Peggy, what direction (if any) was given to Sally regarding inclusivity and the cover concept in general?
Peggy Schaefer: Sally is an amazing and accomplished artist, so we didn’t give her a lot of specific cover direction. The art director talked with her about the cover in general, and she came back with two options. We chose to move forward with this one because, as you said, it captured the emotion and essence of the story. We actually didn’t talk about the cover design until after the interior was storyboarded. This can be helpful, because details come to the forefront as artists work through their sketches.
Inclusivity is a topic that we talk about for every project. In this case, it was essential to accurately portray the story of the flag and all those involved in its journey. We also want every child to be able to find themselves in our books. The importance of being inclusive for young readers cannot be overstated.
GRWR: Amanda, can you talk a bit about the process and challenges of writing a creative nonfiction picture book about a difficult topic in history?
AD: Great question, Ronna. 30,000 Stitches is a creative nonfiction story and with that, in my opinion, comes an added weight of getting the facts and details in both the text and art accurate. On top of that, I wanted to make sure the text navigated the topic of 9/11 in a way that was not just factual but also accessible to children and highlighted the hope that came out of the tragic events. With that said, one of my favorite parts of this process was researching and interviewing the sources for the story. I have a background in journalism so this is right up my alley! I connected with the Ground Zero Superintendent, Flag Tour Staff, and founder of the New York Says Thank You Foundation. I’m honored to have spoken with such selfless, kind, and generous people whose dedication to helping America heal after 9/11 was inspiring. To this day, they continue to give back and be of service to others, which is truly exceptional. I’m grateful they’ve been so generous with their time in helping us get the story right and their willingness to check and recheck for accuracy.
AD: Peggy, can you talk about this fact-checking process from the editor’s perspective?
Peggy:This was an interesting project in that regard. The body of the book, as you said, is creative nonfiction, and there are not a lot of specific details in the story itself. Most of the factual detail is in the back matter, which came from your interviews with those involved in the flag’s journey. Their willingness to review for accuracy was so valuable. A different challenge came in being precise in the art details. Sally is incredibly detail-minded in her art, so it was clear she was paying a lot of attention to detail, and that gave us a big head start. But even as we were drawing to the conclusion of the work, we were checking details in the art, things like uniforms and locations and such.
GRWR: Amanda, were you familiar with Sally Wern Comport’s work before she was chosen as your illustrator? Did you have any say in this process?
AD: Yes! I love Sally’s art! I was a huge fan of her work in Ada’s Violin and thought her textured mixed media style would be perfect in depicting the torn and tattered nature of the flag. There’s actually a funny and fateful backstory here. Before WorthyKids acquired 30,000 Stitches, I had interest from another publisher who asked my agent and I to reach out to illustrators and come back to them with some names. Sally was one of the artists I reached out to and connected with. As fate would have it, after I signed with WorthyKids, Sally found her way onto Peggy’s list of suggested illustrators. When Peggy shared the list with me, I tried to contain my excitement when I saw Sally’s name on there but told her that it was a BIG yes from me.
In the end, it all worked out, and I’m beyond thrilled with the way Sally interpreted the text. Her illustrations bring life and emotion to the text; expanding on the story in a way that words alone can’t do. Through her visuals, we see the many hands and hearts the flag touched. The visual techniques she used convey a beautiful and symbolic parallel between the transformative healing of both the American people and the flag. As the flag heals, the people do, too.
AD: Peggy, how did you find Sally Wern Comport and what factors made you eventually land on her for 30,000 Stitches? Why did you feel Sally’s style was a good fit to help bring the story to life?
Peggy:I’ll answer your second question first. I fell in love with Sally’s style when I saw her portfolio online. Her work is so rich and dynamic. Honestly, her style wasn’t what we had gone out looking for, but it just felt so right. I bought copies of a couple of Sally’s books, including Ada’s Violin—and seeing those reinforced my feeling that Sally was the right choice for the book.
Selecting the artist was a fairly collaborative process. I worked closely with the art director, who sent me a selection of possible styles, and I shared my suggestions with him. And, of course, I shared with you as well. After we narrowed it down, I reached out to several agents about possible artists. Sally’s agent is actually the one who brought her to my attention, based on the description I gave him of what I was looking for. Later, I found out that you had been in touch about Sally. I don’t know if the agent remembered that or if it was a coincidence. I like to think of it as serendipity! Everyone on the team was blown away by Sally’s style. It was so unexpected and conveys so much emotion. I couldn’t be happier that we were able to work with Sally on this project.
GRWR:Amanda, can you tell us about the submission process for 30,000 Stitches?
AD: The submission process for 30,000 Stitches was a good old-fashioned slush pile success. I submitted the story (then called, THE FABRIC OF AMERICA) in February of 2019 via snail mail and seven months later received an email from one of Worthy’s assistant editors asking if the story was still available. I of course said yes, and connected her to my agent for the story, Melissa Richeson. Melissa connected with Peggy and the rest is history! 🙂
AD: Peggy, how did you get your eyes on 30,00 Stitches, and what made you say yes to the project?
Peggy: As you mentioned, the manuscript first came in through the slush pile. As is sometimes the case, we were intrigued from the start, but the book was a little outside the core area that we publish into, so we didn’t act immediately. But it stuck with us, and when we reached out again, you connected us with Melissa. I was so happy to be able to acquire the book because 1) it’s a story I’d love more people to be familiar with; 2) the underlying themes of unity and healing and resilience are so important for kids; and 3) our readers are a generation who did not experience 9/11 firsthand and this is an age-appropriate introduction to this critical moment in U.S. history. But really it was your lyrical use of language that drew me in from the start. Everyone on the team who read the manuscript had an emotional reaction to it—and asked “Why didn’t I know about this?” And more than one told me it brought tears to their eyes or gave them goosebumps. That’s the kind of book I want to publish—books that touch the heart as well as the mind.
GRWR: Amanda and Peggy, this year will mark the 20th remembrance of 9/11, and we recently reached a generation that was not alive to witness the tragic events of that day. What do you hope readers, both young and old, take away from 30,000 Stitches?
AD: Especially after the challenging year we all just faced, I hope that 30,000 Stitches can inspire others. I hope it offers healing to all those in need. I hope it serves as a reminder that light can come from darkness. That we can rise from the shadows if we unite and come together. We are resilient. We are strong. We are connected through our stories. Stories of suffering. Stories of loss. Stories of compassion. Stories of kindness. Our stories are stitched together. Our stories are the fabric of America.
Peggy: I don’t think I could have said it better than Amanda. That’s why she’s the writer!
GRWR: Thanks to you both for this revealing Q&A. I know I learned tons and am sure our readers did, too!
How can readers get their hands on this beautiful story?
You can pre-order a signed copy of 30,000 Stitches through:
And we’re wrapping the reveal with a DOUBLE GIVEAWAY!
1. Complete the form below for a chance to win one of ten (10) signed copies of 30,000 STITCHES. Winners will be selected in May.
2. Amanda is also giving away a 30-minute Zoom call for a picture book author or author-illustrator to discuss a current project and/or answer industry questions OR a 30-minute classroom visit for educators and librarians.
Get extraentries when you pre-order a signed copy of 30,000 Stitches from Silver Unicorn Bookstore here. Please DM a screenshot of the receipt to Amanda on Twitter @amandadavisart.
In the comments below, share a recent bright spot you experienced that gave you hope or joy. Please note that all posts are moderated prior to appearing so be assured your comments will be seen and posted and your name will be added to Amanda’s generous giveaway. Good luck!”
Deadline to enter the contest is Thursday February 4th, at 5:00 PM EST. Amanda will announce winners on Friday, February 5th via Twitter.
Amanda Davis is a teacher, artist, writer, and innovator who uses her words and pictures to light up the world with kindness. After losing her father at the age of twelve, Amanda turned to art and writing as an outlet. It became her voice. A way to cope. A way to escape. And a way to tell her story. She was thus inspired to teach art and pursue her passion for writing and illustrating children’s books.
Through her work, Amanda empowers younger generations to tell their own stories and offers children and adults an entryway into a world of discovery. A world that can help them make sense of themselves, others, and the community around them. A world where they can navigate, imagine, and feel inspired—over and over again.
Amanda is the recipient of the 2020 Ann Whitford Paul—Writer’s Digest Most Promising Picture Book Manuscript Grant and teaches art at a public high school in Massachusetts where she was selected as 2020 Secondary Art Educator of the Year. Amanda is the author of 30,000 STITCHES: THE INSPIRING STORY OF THE NATIONAL 9/11 FLAG and has poetry and illustrations featured in The Writers’ Loft Anthology, FRIENDS AND 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 partner and rescue pup, Cora. You can learn more about Amanda at www.amandadavisart.com and on Twitter @amandadavisart and Instagram @amandadavis_art.
Check out all the other websites on this exciting cover reveal blog tour.
In The Passover Guest, written by Susan Kusel and illustrated by Sean Rubin, Muriel assumes her family is too poor to hold a Passover Seder this year, but an act of kindness and a mysterious magician change everything.
GoodReadsWithRonna:Welcome, Susan! Congratulations on your debut picture book, The Passover Guest!
Susan Kusel:Thank you so much for having me here! I am honored to be on this blog
GRWR: How does it feel as a synagogue librarian and indie bookstore book buyer to know your new book, The Passover Guest, has landed on shelves?
SK: It’s an absolutely surreal feeling to know that my book has a spot in some of my favorite libraries and bookstores. I am humbled by the idea of a child pulling it off the shelf and reading it.
GRWR:When did the seed to become a storyteller first plant itself in your soul? Can you recall the first books that sparked your imagination?
SK:I’ve wanted to be a writer for so long, it’s hard to remember the exact moment I started. I do remember the first time I ever wrote a complete book though. It was for a 5th grade English assignment and was about a Russian Jewish girl named Rachel. I remember being very proud of the special folder I put the book into.
My mom used to read to me every night when I was a child and some of my favorite books then were Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry, Walter the Baker by Eric Carle, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton and of course, The Magician by I.L. Peretz, adapted by Uri Shulevitz.
GRWR:What inspired you to write The Passover Guest as a retelling of the classic I. L. Peretz’s story adapted by Uri Shulevitz in 1973 rather than create a new tale?
SK:As I mentioned above, The Magician was in regular reading rotation by my mother when I was younger and so it’s a story I’ve been in love with for a long time. When I rediscovered the book in a library as an adult, I still thought it was an amazing story, but I noticed some plot elements that I wished were different. That started me down the path of doing an adaptation of Peretz’s story, a process that took about ten years.
GRWR:Aside from setting the story in 1933 Depression-era D.C. are there any other notable changes you wanted to make for 21st-century young readers?
SK:The most significant change I made was adding the character of Muriel. In the Peretz version, the story is about a couple but I thought that it was very important to add a child character. There are also a number of subtle changes I added, such as Muriel putting a penny in the Magician’s hat, the rabbi coming to Muriel’s seder, the whole community filling the house, the matzah breaking itself in two, and several smaller plot points. My goal was to stay true to Peretz’s message while making the story my own.
GRWR:What were your go-to Jewish holiday books growing up and right now? Do you have a collection?
SK: Jewish stories have always been very important to me, but when I was growing up, we owned very few. Our whole book collection, which took up half a shelf in my brother’s closet, was primarily obtained from library book sales. We supplemented these with library books. I only had a few Jewish books including The Power of Light by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Potato Pancakes All Around by Marilyn Hirsh (which we used then, and I still use now for the latke recipe).
As for now, I am typing this while sitting in my home library surrounded by picture books, including several shelves just for Jewish books. Current favorites include Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel (no holiday list is complete without it!), I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel by Caryn Yacowitz, The Matzah Papa Brought Home by Fran Manushkin (sadly out of print but still extraordinary), and Here is the World by Lesléa Newman. That’s really just a small sample though because there are so many Jewish holiday books I love.
GRWR:Has your experience on the Caldecott Medal selection committee or as chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee influenced your writing in any way?
SK:One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to read extensively in your field. I think those committees, as well as others I’ve been on, have certainly helped me with that. When you are reading hundreds and hundreds of books in a genre, it does give you a better sense of what is currently published. Being on so many committees has helped me see what the conventions are, and how they can be broken and how I can be a better writer.
GRWR:Sean Rubin’s art is as magical as your prose and the mysterious guest himself. Do you have a particular favorite spread from the book you can tell us about?
SK:I think Sean did a truly extraordinary job on the illustrations and picking just one of them is like trying to pick a favorite child. I think his work adds so much to the book and makes it complete.
I could easily go on at length about every individual spread and how much I love it, but if I can only pick one, it would be when Muriel goes to the synagogue to consult the rabbi. Over the course of one continuous spread, Sean shows us four completely separate and distinct scenes and the cause and effect of each one of them. And all of this against the astonishingly beautiful and majestic background of the Sixth and I Synagogue, a D.C. Jewish landmark.
GRWR:Early on in The Passover GuestMuriel meets an unusual street performer to whom she gives her last penny. Can you speak to the story idea of magic and how, especially in tough times, this kind of belief can help people?
SK:I think it’s always a good time to believe in the possibility of magic, especially during difficult times. You never know who that bedraggled stranger might turn out to be. Faith and hope are so important.
GRWR:Where do you find the time to write with all your other commitments? Do you have a daily routine?
SK: I’d love to be able to say that I sit down in the same place at the same time every day and write for the same amount of time. But the truth, as you alluded to in this question, is that I have multiple jobs, commitments, and children, and I do my best to write as much as I can when I can.
GRWR:You mentioned in your author’s note that Passover has always been your favorite holiday, can you tell us why?
SK:I love so many things about Passover: the coming of spring, getting the seder plate ready, singing songs, finding the afikomen, eating too much charoset, being with family, and much more. It’s always been a magical holiday for me and I’m delighted that this book lets me share some of that magic.
GRWR:Are you working on your next book? Will it have a Jewish theme?
SK: I’m working on several next books, all with Jewish themes. I have a real commitment to telling Jewish stories.
GRWR: It’s been wonderful having you as a guest here today, Susan! I really appreciate your thoughtful replies and am looking forward to sharing a review of your book when we get closer to Passover.
Susan Kusel has turned a life as a book lover into many careers as an author, librarian, and buyer for a bookstore. She has served on many book award committees including the Caldecott Medal and the Sydney Taylor Book Award. She loves biking, cross-stitching, and of course, reading. Learn more about Susan on her website and by following her on social media.
I’m thrilled to have Alexis back on GRWR to talk about her latest picture book biography and the quirky visionary she chose to write about.
Melvil Dewey’s love of organization and words drove him to develop andimplement his Dewey Decimal system, leaving a significant and lasting impact in libraries across the country.
When Melvil Dewey realized every library organized their books differently, he wondered if he could invent a system all libraries could use to organize them efficiently. A rat-a-tat speaker, Melvil was a persistent (and noisy) advocate for free public libraries. And while he made enemies along the way as he pushed for changes–like his battle to establish the first library school with women as students, through it all he was EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often ANNOYING as he made big changes in the world of public libraries–changes still found in the libraries of today!
Buy the book from your local independent bookseller.
Good Reads With Ronna: It’s like the history of Melvil Dewey has been hiding in plain sight all these years. I never gave much thought to his decimal system of book organization for libraries, and definitely never figured it out. What sparked your curiosity into the man and his contributions?
Alexis O’Neill: I hadn’t given him much thought either, Ronna, until a librarian friend sent me a funny video she used to help teach kids the Dewey Decimal System. That made me realize I didn’t know a thing about the inventor of this seemingly ubiquitous system.
GRWR: Apart from what Melvil Dewey is most famous for, what other ideas did you discover during your research phase that he championed which have impacted our lives?
AON: Dewey really championed education for all. He was concerned about rural Americans as well as the waves of new immigrants having easier access to information. He also was a proponent of the Simplified Spelling movement, a precursor to today’s texting – getting rid of vowels and extra letters in words that hindered or were unnecessary to pronunciation – like “tho” for “though.” He chopped “Melville” down to “Melvil” but when there was an outcry, was convinced not to change “Dewey” to “Dui.”
GRWR: Let’s talk about Dewey’s dream of a librarian school at Columbia College where he was the chief librarian. Trustees did “not want women on their campus.” So how did he succeed?
AON: He got around them by following the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law. When Columbia College Trustees refused to have women on campus, Dewey bent rules to his needs: he opened his School of Library Economy in a storeroom over the chapel across the street. The entering class had seventeen women and three men.
GRWR: Dewey is referred to in the jacket flap as “EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often annoying.“ Can you describe some of his quirky character traits?
AON: Even if Dewey had no fatal flaws (and he indeed had them), I still don’t think I’d be able to stand being in the same room with him for very long. He talked incessantly and rapidly. While the average American speaks at about 100-130 words per minute, one of Dewey’s students clocked him at a rate of 180 words per minute. When he tried to convince others about one of his ideas, he was like a dog on a bone. From a very young age and throughout his life, he obsessively kept lists of things such as his height, weight, assets, and more. And he fixated on the number 10, thus decimals. He wrote, “I am so loyal to decimals as our great labor saver that I even like to sleep decimally” (in other words, 10 hours a night.)
GRWR: Melvil approached every endeavor and encounter in his life at 100 mph. The train visuals speeding through the pages of your story perfectly convey this energy. Do you think he moved at this pace because he had so much to accomplish in his lifetime that was predicted to be short after he inhaled smoke during a fire in his youth?
AON: Dewey grew up in a deeply religious, restrictive household. He was always concerned with wastefulness and a desire “to leave the world a better place than when I found it.” But when he was recuperating from a fire at his school as a teen, this desire became an obsession as did his preoccupation with efficiency.
GRWR: There are a lot of words printed in bold throughout the book. You also ask young readers several questions throughout it as well. Can you explain why?
AON: I wanted readers to come along with the book’s narrator on a breathless ride in “real-time” as Dewey’s driving energy rushes through the years. I used present tense, direct questions, and bolded words to make the narrative voice break the fourth wall and emphasize the surprise the narrator feels while making observations about Dewey.
GRWR: What made Dewey fall out of favor in the public’s eye?
AON: A couple of decades into his career, Dewey was exposed as a racist, anti-Semite, and serial sexual harasser. He had created the Lake Placid Club that specifically excluded people of color, Jews, and other religious groups. And there had been justified complaints for years in the American Library Association, a group he helped found, about Dewey’s serial harassment of women. For his actions, he was censured by the NYS Board of Regents for his discriminatory practices, forced to resign from his positions as State Librarian and director of the library school, and ostracized by the ALA.
GRWR: How do you reconcile Dewey’s love of books and reading driving his initial motivation to help immigrants and those who cannot afford books with his bigoted views of Jews and others?
AON: I really can’t reconcile or explain this.
GRWR: Is it hard to write about someone whose personal views you may not necessarily like or agree with?
AON: Dewey’s goal was to make the world a better place. So the question is, did his classification system make the world a better place? I believe it did. It expanded educational opportunities for the general public by making access to information more efficient. There are countless examples of artists, scientists, and others whose negative personal behaviors are hard to reconcile with their contributions, but their contributions have made significant, positive differences in so many lives.
GRWR: You used to write fiction and of late have switched to nonfiction kidlit, primarily biographies. What about writing fact-based stories appeals to you? And what do you think kids like about them?
AON: I still write fiction, but I love American history! Early in my writing career, I wrote many articles for Cobblestone Magazine, and doing the research was a kick. Like me, I think kids are excited to know when something is real. Some facts–especially in history or science–just take my breath away.
GRWR: Where do you turn to for story inspiration?
AON: Footnotes in books, articles, videos – lots of things spark ideas for stories. I never know where the next spark comes from or if it will flame into a book.
GRWR: If you’re able to divulge this info, what is on your radar for your next picture book?
AON: Right now, I have a couple of fiction picture books circulating, and I’m working on a middle-grade nonfiction project. After so many years of writing “tight,” doing long-form work is challenging. I keep wanting to cut words!
Thanks for this opportunity, Ronna!
GRWR:What a treat it’s been to have you back here to share your insights about Melvil Dewey, Alexis. I will never look at those numbers in the library the same way again!
Alexis O’Neill is the author of several picture books including The Recess Queen, the winner of several children’s choice awards, and The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, a California Young Reader Medal Nominee. Her new picture book biographies are Jacob Riis’s Camera; Bringing Light to Tenement Children and The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey. Alexis received the California Reading Association’s award for making significant and outstanding contributions to reading throughout California and is an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
Young paleontologists and dinosaur enthusiasts are invited on a fossil dig, set to the tune of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush.” Hike the trail, scan the ground, and make a find – then discover how to build a T. Rex from its bones. Includes hand-play motions for sing-alongs and bite-size science sidebars.
GoodReadsWithRonna: There are a lot of dinosaur picture books on the market; how did you try to make your new book Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones stand out from the rest?
Susan Lendroth: Obviously, one of the main differences is that you sing it! The primary verse is set to the tune of “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,” but there are also additional bite-sized facts in smaller text on each page, making it a “twice-through” book. Sing it once for the primary verse, and then page through it a second time for the additional text.
The focus on paleontology is also less common, describing the science of excavating fossils, studying them and reconstructing what dinosaurs were like for a very young audience.
GRWR: Besides the additional facts on each page, I noticed the book had extensive back matter. Can you tell me a little about that?
SL: This is my third book for Charlesbridge, and I love that my editor likes to load in more science to the back of the book. I was given room in Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones for such additional tidbits as the theory that many dinosaurs may have had feathers. Plus, the book’s wonderful illustrator, Bob Kolar, included a page identifying all the modern day birds and animals that he scattered through his fossil dig illustrations. You could page through the book a third time just to hunt for and name each of those critters.
GRWR: You included one more thing in back matter, didn’t you? e
SL: Early literacy practices emphasize five elements for reading stories with children: reading, singing, writing (looking at words together), talking and playing. By illustrating interactive arm movements children can make to mime the actions in the book, play was added to the other four practices that the book already encourages.
GRWR: In our current situation where many communities may still be on lockdown with libraries and book stores closed or offering curbside pickup, are you doing anything different to market your book? e
SL: Funny you should ask! My book was released just a couple of weeks before the area where I live was put on lockdown. I was fortunate enough to do readings at two book stores before that happened, but by the time a box of plastic dinosaurs that I had ordered for props arrived, my other readings had been cancelled.
So the dinos and I are having fun on Instagram instead. I am pretty new to posting, having just started my account six months ago. I am learning to market the book without being too heavy-handed by posing dinos around my apartment and patio. Not only am I sharing the title with a broader community, and gaining a few new followers, but I am also relieving the tedium of lockdown. That’s a win win in my books! (Pun intended) Check out dinosaur antics at susanlendroth.
(One Elm Books; $16.99, eBook available, Ages 9-14)
The release of this fast-paced and interesting middle grade novel was scheduled around Major League Baseball’s Opening Day events. We all know that’s been delayed due to the pandemic, but there’s no reason kids cannot enjoy the thrill of baseball season between the pages of an engaging novel. Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disastersoffers readers just that with its insider’s perspective on the sport along with the ups and downs of being on a team. But that’s only part of the story as the title hints. It’s a diverse novel set in Japan that addresses repatriation, dementia, special needs, and bullying. Read below to find out more. Also a pdf of discussion questions is available here.
Thirteen-year-old Satoshi Matsumoto spent the last three years living in Atlanta where he was the star of his middle-school baseball team—a slugger with pro potential, according to his coach. Now that his father’s work in the US has come to an end, he’s moved back to his hometown in rural Japan. Living abroad has changed him, and now his old friends in Japan are suspicious of his new foreign ways. Even worse, his childhood foe Shintaro, whose dad has ties to gangsters, is in his homeroom. After he joins his new school’s baseball team, Satoshi has a chance to be a hero until he makes a major-league error.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA: When did the idea hit you to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team set in Japan?
SUZANNE KAMATA: Hmmm. I did write a picture book baseball story, which was published in 2009, at my son’s request. Around that time, I started writing an adult novel based on my husband’s experience as a Japanese high school baseball coach. Originally, Satoshi was a character in that novel. Later, maybe about ten years ago, a friend suggested that I write a YA novel about Koshien, the extremely popular Japanese national high school baseball tournament. I took Satoshi out of my adult novel and tried to write a YA novel about him. Even later, readers suggested that it seemed more like a middle grade novel, so I made adjustments. That’s the long answer. I guess the short answer would be that I never set out to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team in Japan.
GRWR: Let’s talk first about the pop flies portion of your novel’s title. With Major League Baseball put on hold due to the Corona Virus, readers get to vicariously experience the sport in your book. Have you been a baseball mom and, because you write about it so convincingly, do you enjoy baseball?
SK: I do enjoy baseball. My husband was a high school baseball coach for 12 years, and I used to go to his games. So, first, I was a baseball wife. My son played baseball from elementary school throughout high school, and I also taught at a couple of high schools in Japan that were known for their strong baseball teams. I feel like I know a lot about high school baseball in Japan, but I often checked with my husband and son about the details. I read an early draft to my son, and he corrected a few things.
GRWR:Upon his return to his old school, Tokushima Whirlpool Junior High, a private school founded by his grandfather, the main character Satoshi Matsumoto’s old friends and classmates “are suspicious of his new foreign ways.” I love how your book honestly explores the struggles of this thirteen-year-old’s readjustment upon returning to rural Japan after three years living in Atlanta. Can you speak to the pros and cons of the international experience to help readers understand his mixed emotions and the changes that occur in people after a move abroad.?
SK: Personally, I feel that there are no cons to having lived or traveled abroad. I am sure that many kids in Japan don’t feel that way now, but when they grow up they will understand the value of these experiences. For my own children, having a foreign mom and growing up with additional cultural elements (like the tooth fairy, and macaroni and cheese, and speaking English at home) set them apart and perhaps made them feel a bit lonely at times. This was especially true since we lived in a small town in a conservative, somewhat remote part of Japan. However, I wanted them to understand that there was a world beyond the one that they lived in, that even though they were in the minority in the town where we lived, they had a tribe out there somewhere. When you live abroad, you start to look at your own country differently. You can see things that people who have never left cannot. I think, in many ways, you begin to appreciate your own country and culture more. In the book, Satoshi goes through the same thing.
GRWR:The novel’s supporting characters include Satoshi’s grandfather (Oji-chan) who now has dementia and once had a chance for a promising career in baseball before WWII, and younger sister, Momoko , age four, who has cerebral palsy and uses sign language to communicate and leg-braces or a wheelchair for mobility. Are they based on actual people in your life and how are special needs and disabilities treated in Japan?
SK: Yes and no. For many years, we lived with an elderly relative who showed signs of dementia, and my daughter is multiply disabled. She is deaf and has cerebral palsy, and, yes, she has leg braces, uses a wheelchair, and communicates mostly via sign language. But these characters are fictional.
As in the book, children with special needs and disabilities are not usually mainstreamed. There are separate schools for children who are deaf, blind, or who have intellectual or physical disabilities. For the record, my two children, who are twins, went to two different schools.
Children with disabilities, or some other difference, are sometimes bullied.
While accessibility is gradually improving, there is still a degree of shame in Japan surrounding mental health issues and disability. To be honest, certain members of my Japanese family don’t approve of my writing about disability so openly, even though I am writing fiction. However, I think it’s important to do so.
GRWR:A bully named Shintaro plays a prominent role in this story. He bullied Satoshi before his move abroad, and the fact that his dad has ties to gangsters makes him all the more scary. He picks on both Misa, a new student who is biracial and Satoshi, sometimes quite aggressively. Is bullying common in Japanese culture and how does the approach to dealing with bullying in school differ in Japan than in the U.S.?
SK: Bullying is a persistent problem in Japan. Typically, teachers try not to intervene, with the thinking that kids should try to work things out by themselves. Japanese schools have classes in morality, where they might discuss bullying, but most schools don’t have counselors, and some classes have up to 40 students, which is a lot for one teacher to manage.
GRWR:There’s a crucial part of the story where Satoshi’s ego is on full display when he chooses to ignore instructions from his coach. I was surprised by this display of disobedience, especially given all the examples of students being raised to be very respectful. Do you think there are too many rules in a Japanese student’s life and that’s why Satoshi preferred his life in America? Here is good spot to ask you to speak to any cultural differences about being a team player in the US and in Japan.
SK: Independence is valued more in the United States, whereas conformity is valued more in Japan. As a teacher, I have come into contact with many students who have gone abroad for a year or more. They are different when they come back. Generally, they enjoy the sense of freedom and self-expression that they experienced in the U.S. Satoshi enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere of American school, and he finds it hard to buckle down. Also, in Japan, it’s not good to stand out. It’s better to be humble and to give credit to your teammates than to draw attention to your abilities.
GRWR:Satoshi’s grandfather has a therapeutic robo-pet seal known as Nana-chan. Where did this unusual idea come from because it’s sweet, funny and a plot driver as well?
SK: I first read about these therapeutic robo-pet seals in a Japanese textbook, and then I later saw one in person at a science exhibition. I was immediately charmed – a seal! How random! — and I wanted to put it into a story.
GRWR:I like that there are illustrations included by Tracy Bishop in every chapter although I only saw an ARC and am not sure if there were any changes made before publication. Did you always picture the novel with illustrations?
SK: No. Actually, I didn’t expect that the novel would be illustrated, but I love having my work illustrated, so I was very excited about it. I am glad that the illustrator is Japanese-American, and that she was familiar with what I wrote about. I was very happy with the final result.
GRWR:What advice can you offer to readers who may have international students at their schools here in America?
SK: As they say, “variety is the spice of life.” Make an effort to get to know people who are different from yourself. Be patient with students from other cultures when they make “mistakes” or do something differently from you. You can learn so much from people from other countries.
I would also encourage students to read books, such as mine, about kids in other countries and from other cultures. There’s nothing like a book to build empathy.
GRWR:Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
SK: If readers enjoy this book, perhaps they would be interested to know that I have written two other novels that have a connection to Japan, and are appropriate for middle grade readers – Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible and Indigo Girl. Both feature Aiko Cassidy, a biracial girl with cerebral palsy who aspires to be a manga artist.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my writing!
Award-winning author Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Japan for over half of her life. Suzanne raised two kids and now lives with her husband in Aizumi, Japan.
Thank you so much, Suzanne, for your honest, enlightening replies. I loved learning about your experience as an ex-pat living and raising a family in Japan and how it’s informed your writing. I hope readers will get a copy of Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters to find out all the things Satoshi dealt with upon his return to Japan. Good luck on your works-in-progress (an adult novel and several picture books), too.
I’m so happy to share this interview with popular SoCal author, Alexis O’Neill. Her new picture book biography introduces Jacob Riis, a determined New Yorker born in Denmark, to a new generation of readers. It’s hard not to feel as though you’ve traveled back in time as you learn about Riis, who is best known for his moving photographs of the plight of the poor tenement dwellers in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
In Jacob Riis’s Camera, a penniless immigrant, who becomes a reporter and social activist, uses new flash powder technology to illuminate desperate tenement living conditions and brings about changes for children and their families.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA:Did you happen upon Jacob Riis’s photos one day and find inspiration to write this picture book or did you intentionally set out to write his story?
ALEXIS O’NEILL: I’ve always been interested in photography and photographers. I used to live pretty much with a camera in my hand, and when I lived in central New York, I belonged to the Syracuse Camera Club, one of the oldest in the nation. I met Riis’s photos when I was researching child labor issues for other projects. Then later, I read his autobiography, The Making of an American. He wrote so vividly and personally that I felt as if he were right beside me, chatting with me in my living room. That’s when I knew I wanted to write a book about him.
GRWR:Despite my familiarity with Riis’s haunting b + w photos, I had no idea how influential he had been during his lifetime. What fact or facts about Riis surprised you the most?
AON: I was really surprised that Riis didn’t consider himself a photographer. In fact, he later carelessly tossed his glass plate negatives into his attic. Then, just before a wrecking ball was about to destroy the family home, the images were rescued, thanks to photographer Alexander Alland, Sr., and donated by Riis’s son, Roger William, to the Museum of the City of New York.
GRWR:Riis was a champion of the poor as early as his youth in Denmark. What impact would you say his photos have had on the way this segment of our society is treated?
AON: Riis’s photos were revolutionary. They inspired accountability and gave documentary evidence that helped force compliance of landlords with sanitary and building regulations.
GRWR: How big a role did Riis’s immigrant background play in his career?
AON: Like most immigrants, he had a driving work ethic. He was an educated Dane with carpentry skills, but he had a hard time finding work in America. He did all kinds of menial tasks in order to survive. He experienced homelessness and hunger. He experienced injustices and wanted to fix them—not just for himself, but for others.
GRWR: Is there a particular photo of Riis’s that particularly resonates with you?
AON: To me, his most heartbreaking photo is “The Baby’s Playground.” A toddler with a shaved head and filthy dress stands in front of an overflowing public sink at the top of a dark staircase that has a railing held together with rope. The wall behind the baby is coming loose. No child should have to live like that.
GRWR:Obviously this nonfiction bio involved a lot of research. How did you choose what to include or leave out when his rags to not-so-riches-but-fame story is so fascinating? Was there a portion or time period of his life that was most difficult to nail down?
AON: Riis’s relationship with his Danish sweetheart was complicated, so I treated that with a broad brush stroke.
GRWR:Why do you think no professional photographer had captured the lives of shelters and tenement dwellers prior to Riis?
AON: At the time, most photographers made pretty portraits or, like Matthew Brady, recorded historical events. Riis, in contrast, showed the underbelly of life. I think that when Riis read about the invention of flash powder, it came at the right time for him. Photographs taken with this new technological tool helped him convince officials to make changes in the tenements.
GRWR:Do you attribute Riis’s success to his talent as a photographer, his perseverance, good timing or all three?
AON: I believe Riis’s success can be attributed to his determination and tireless work to tell a complete story of the social injustice experienced by impoverished city inhabitants. He lived during a time of great interest in social reform.
GRWR: As a former New Yorker and lover of NYC’s Tenement Museum, I’ve always admired Riis’s photos. Why do you think his accomplishments are not better known today?
AON: Riis’s photos continue to impress people, and his contribution was unique. In his advocacy for improving substandard housing, he was one among many of his contemporaries who also advocated for changing laws on child labor, suffrage, public health, housing, and schools.
GRWR: What’s one of your favorite illustrations by Gary Kelleyin your book?
AON: I love Gary’s illustration of Jacob giving a lecture and pointing to his photograph of a tenement mother holding her swaddled infant. As he talks, Jacob gestures to the poignant image. This image makes me wish I could have heard Jacob in person!
Alexis O’Neill is the author of several picture books including The Recess Queen, the winner of several children’s choice awards, and The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, a California Young Reader Medal Nominee. Her new picture book biographies are Jacob Riis’s Camera; Bringing Light to Tenement Children and The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey (due Fall 2020). Alexis received the California Reading Association’s award for making significant and outstanding contributions to reading throughout California and is an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
Thank you so much, Alexis, for sharing your insights about Jacob Riis and giving us the inside scoop about your new picture book biography, Jacob Riis’s Camera. It’s so great to know how many children will now have a chance to learn about Riis’s important contributions to society.
For Autism Awareness Day 2020, I’m delighted to share this interview with author Margaret Finnegan about her debut middle grade novelWe Could Be Heroes and her take on happy endings. At the end Margaret’s also included some helpful resources for readers.
MARGARET FINNEGAN:We Could be Heroes is about Hank Hudson and Maisie Huang, two very different kids. They become friends as they try to help a dog with epilepsy—Booler—who is tied day and night to a tree. Their friendship is complicated by the fact that Hank has autism, and so he can’t always tell if Maisie is really trying to be his friend or if she is manipulating him for her own reasons.
GRWR:Your book deals with some very serious issues, but it is always funny and it ends on an adorably happy note. These days, a lot of middle-grade fiction is embracing more complicated and ambivalent endings, what made you decide to go full on happy?
MF:I wrote this book for my daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is not Hank, but she did inspire a few of his qualities, such as his painful aversion to really sad stories. She feels so connected to the characters she reads about—and she feels their heartbreaks and pain so personally—that for a number of years she refused to read new novels. The uncertainty was too much for her. So she read her favorite books over and over. Hank is like that too. When We Could be Heroesopens, Hank is trying to destroy a tragic book his teacher has been reading to the class. He can’t take how sad it makes him.
Since I set out trying to write a book that Elizabeth would read, I knew from the start that it would have to have a big, sloppy happy ending. But Hank needed a happy ending too, and I think he earned it. Like any hero, he is tested and found worthy of reward. But more than that, in a meta sort of way, the story needed a happy ending that would contrast the terrible ending of the story within the story—the one Hank’s teacher is reading the class.
GRWR:Do you think Hank and Maisie’s happy ending can last?
MF:I’m not sure. Maisie’s mom definitely has her doubts. And although Hank and Maisie are “rewarded” something amazing, I think that reward will present Hank—who struggles with change and unpredictability—with challenges. But challenges can help us grow, so I guess that isn’t a bad thing.
GRWR:There are so many challenges that young readers face today—like climate change. How does that factor into thinking about happy endings? Don’t we need books that go to those dark places so kids can see their reality reflected and then face that reality with resiliency? Or is there still a need—at least sometimes—for “big, sloppy, happy endings”? MF:We need all kinds of stories with all kinds of endings—and there are many wonderful middle-grade novels that go dark and yet are filled with transcendent beauty. Those books actually win lots of awards. But unabashedly happy endings also have something important to offer readers. Our kids are not growing up in bubbles. They have a whole world of experiences and entertainments that teach them the complexities and hardships of the world. And it is exactly when things are going horribly that some readers need stories that make them laugh and that instill hope.
I have been very open about the challenges Elizabeth has had with autism and epilepsy. There was a long stretch of years where she was being bullied, experiencing lots of seizures, and dealing with horrible medication side effects. And what were the books she turned to repeatedly during this time? The Fudge books by Judy Blume. They made her feel good. They made her believe that better was possible. She knows about the pain of the world. She lives it. She—like many others—longs for stories that remind her that there is joy and fun in the world and that sometimes—just sometimes—everything turns out great.
Read a review in Publishers Weeklyabout We Could Be Heroeshere.
Click herefor autism information from the National Institutes of Health.
Click herefor autism information from the Autistic Self Advocacy network.
Margaret Finnegan is the author of We Could Be Heroes. Her work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, the LA Times, Salon, and other publications. She lives in Southern California, where she enjoys spending time with her family, walking her dog, and baking really good chocolate cakes. Connect with her @margaretfinnegan.com or on Twitter @FinneganBegin.