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An Interview with Your Mama Author NoNieqa Ramos

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NONIEQA RAMOS 

ABOUT HER DEBUT PICTURE BOOK 

YOUR MAMA

(Versify; $17.99, Ages 4 to 7)

 

 

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

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 Ramos and 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?

NoNieqa Ramos: Thank you, Colleen! And congrats to you on your debut The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, and Rainbow Truck releasing in 2023!

CP: Thank you!

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?

 

 

Your Mama int pg.1
Interior illustration from Your Mama written by NoNieqa Ramos and illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, Versify ©2021.

 

NR: Working with poet, educator, New York Times Bestselling and Newbery Award winner, Kwame Alexander, on his new imprint Versify has been a montage of dreams-come-true! Watching him book-talk Your Mama on Youtube–and my fellow Versify sib Darshana Khiani (How To Wear A Sari, June 2022)– was a pinch-me moment.

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.

It’s an immense honor to be part of Kwame’s artistic mission to “change the world one word at a time.”  I mean, my work is in the same house as writers like Kip Wilson (White Rose), Raúl the Third (Lowriders In Space) and Lamar Giles (Fake ID), founding member of We Need Diverse Books.

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.
 

CP: Your first two books, The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary and The Truth Is, are both YA, what inspired you to try your hand at picture book writing?

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.

Brianne Farley, who illustrated Carrie Finison’s Dozens Of Doughnuts, said each picture book is like solving a puzzle, and I couldn’t agree more. I love the challenge of crafting rhyme with a narrative arc.

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.

 

Your Mama int pg.6,7
Interior spread from Your Mama written by NoNieqa Ramos and illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, Versify ©2021.

 

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 by Kirsten 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 by Yamile 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’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude spoke to me as a writer in a way absolutely no book ever had. He helped me find my voice.

My first discoveries of Latinx picture books for my first child and my students came from Lupe Flores’s Bilingual picture book The Battle Of The Snow Cones/La Guerra De Las Raspas and Lupita’s Papalote. Before that I was reading my child the staples like the disturbing Love You Forever and Runaway Bunny (Please read Leah Hong’s Happy Dreams, Little Bunny instead!). With our movements to diversify literature with #ownvoices perspectives, this narrative of invisibility and loss will one day be a thing of the past. Imagine the day when every child can find multiple books that make them feel seen, respected, nurtured, and celebrated. That day is coming!

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 out Las Musas to 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 out https://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 books Hair Story (September 7th, 2021) and Beauty 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 Gentry Photography
NoNieqa Ramos ©Gentry Photography

BRIEF BIO:

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.

 

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SOCIAL MEDIA:

Website: www.nonieqaramos.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/NoNieqaRamos

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/nonieqa.ramos/

Las Musas Bookshop: https://bookshop.org/books/your-mama/9781328631886

 

READ MORE ABOUT NONIEQA:

Your Mama cover reveal & interview

NoNieqa and illustrator Paola Escobar chat with Mr. Schu about Beauty Woke

Be Latina on Your Mama

On Writing Diverse Characters and Resisting the Status Quo by NoNieqa

Voice Lessons by NoNieqa

Hip Latina Interview

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

Colleen Paeff is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (available August 31, 2021 from Margaret K. McElderry Books) and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi and illustrated by Saffa Khan (available in the spring of 2023 from Chronicle Books).  Click here for more info.

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An Interview with Clarinet and Trumpet Author Melanie Ellsworth

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR MELANIE ELLSWORTH

ABOUT HER PICTURE BOOK

CLARINET & TRUMPET

(HMH Books for Young Readers; $14.99, Ages 4-7)

 

Clarinet and Trumpet cover An Interview with Melanie Ellsworth

 

 

SUMMARIES OF MELANIE’S TWO PICTURE BOOKS:

Hip, Hip … Beret!HipHipBeret cover withFlocking Interview with Melanie Ellsworth
Written by Melanie Ellsworth
Illustrated by Morena Forza
(HMH BYR; $14.99, Ages 4-7)   

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.

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Clarinet and Trumpet
Written by Melanie Ellsworth
Illustrated by John Herzog
(HMH BYR; $14.99, Ages 4-7)
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Starred Review – School Library Journal
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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!

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Clarinet and Trumpet interior spread2 Interview with Melanie Ellsworth
Interior spread from Clarinet & Trumpet written by Melanie Ellsworth and illustrated by John Herzog, HMH BYR ©2021.

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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.

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Clarinet and Trumpet interior spread3 Interview with Melanie Ellsworth
Interior spread from Clarinet & Trumpet written by Melanie Ellsworth and illustrated by John Herzog, HMH BYR ©2021.

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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).

 

BRIEF BIO:

Melanie Ellsworth Author Photo
Melanie Ellsworth Photo Courtesy ©Amy Wilton

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.  

Website: www.MelanieEllsworth.com

Twitter: @melanieells

Instagram: @melaniebellsworth

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MelanieEllsworthAuthor

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READ MORE ABOUT MELANIE HERE:

KidLit411 Author Spotlight

Critter Lit Interview

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

Colleen Paeff is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (available August 31, 2021 from Margaret K. McElderry Books) and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi and illustrated by Saffa Khan (available in the spring of 2023 from Chronicle Books).  Click here for more info.

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Read another interview by Colleen here.

 

 

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Cover Reveal for Picture Book Chicken Frank, Dinosaur!

Cluck,

Cluck,

Cluck,

ROAR!!!

        It’s a bird,

              It’s a dinosaur!

                     See for yourself in …

CHICKEN FRANK, DINOSAUR!

Written by S.K. Wenger

Illustrated by Jojo Ensslin

(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Chicken Frank Dinosaur cover reveal

 

 

Guest post by Moni Ritchie Hadley 
Author of The Star Festival
@bookthreader

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MY REACTION:

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. 

SHAUNDA’S REACTION:

“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.”

STORY INSPIRATION:

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.

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author sk wenger for picture book cover reveal

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.

SOCIAL MEDIA:

Twitter: @SKWenger  

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SKWengerChildrensAuthor

 

  • When preordering your copy of  Chicken Frank, Dinosaur! please support your favorite local independent bookshop.
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GIVEAWAY:

Head over to S.K. on Twitter to enter her generous picture book manuscript critique giveaway! 

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Click here to see the cover reveal for picture book, The Star Festival, Moni’s debut.

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THE 2021 SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD BLOG TOUR

WELCOME TO DAY 4 OF THE STBA BLOG TOUR

 

STBA 2021 Blog Tour


FEATURING INTERVIEWS WITH

AUTHOR RABBI MYCHAL COPELAND

&

ILLUSTRATOR ANDRE CEOLIN

DISCUSSING THEIR

HONOR-WINNING PICTURE BOOK

I AM THE TREE OF LIFE: My Jewish Yoga Book

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BOOK SUMMARY:


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.

INTERVIEW WITH RABBI MYCHAL COPELAND:

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!

 

Tree pose int1
Interior spread from I Am The Tree of Life written by Rabbi Mychal Copeland and illustrated by André Ceolin, Apples and Honey Press ©2020.

 

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.

 

Crescent moon int5
Interior spread from I Am The Tree of Life written by Rabbi Mychal Copeland and illustrated by André Ceolin, Apples and Honey Press ©2020.

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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.

 

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Interior spread from I Am The Tree of Life written by Rabbi Mychal Copeland and illustrated by André Ceolin, Apples and Honey Press ©2020.

 

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!

 

BIOS:

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 Religious Perspectives (SkyLight Paths, 2016) and I Am the Tree of Life: 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. 

Click here for my Facebook page where people can find me and yoga opportunities for their kids.

 

Ceolin photoAndré 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 website here.

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BOOKMARK THESE SITES:

Association of Jewish Libraries

Sydney Taylor Book Award
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STBA BLOG TOUR DATES

Below is the schedule for the 2021 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour. Please follow the links to visit the hosting blogs on or after their tour dates, and be sure to leave them plenty of comments!

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 8, 2021 

Lesléa Newman and Susan Gal, author and illustrator of Welcoming Elijah
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Picture Book Category
at A Fuse #8 Production at School Library Journal

Sofiya Pasternack, author of Anya and the Nightingale
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Middle Grade Category
at 100 Scope Notes at School Library Journal

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 9, 2021

M. Evan Wolkenstein, author of Turtle Boy
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Middle Grade Category
at Mr. Schu Reads

Jane Yolen and Khoa Lee, author and illustrator of Miriam at the River
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Picture Book Category
at 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast 

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2021

Anne Blankman, author of The Blackbird Girls
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Middle Grade Category
at The Paper Brigade Daily at The Jewish Book Council

Monica Hesse, author of They Went Left
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Young Adult Category
at Jewish Books for Kids

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2021

Tyler Feder, author of Dancing at the Pity Party
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Young Adult Category
at Out of the Box at The Horn Book

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2021

Tziporah Cohen, author of No Vacancy
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Middle Grade Category
at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors

Podcast interview at The Children’s Book Podcast

Blog Tour Wrap-Up at The Whole Megillah

Read about last year’s 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour here.

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Cover Reveal, Interview + Giveaway for 30,000 Stitches by Amanda Davis

30,000Stitches cover

 

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

 

 

Interviews:

30,000Stitches int3
The torn and tattered flag emerges after seven long years of waiting. Interior spread from 30,000 Stitches written by Amanda Davis and illustrated by Sally Wern Comport, WorthyKids ©2021.

 

GRWR: Thanks to you both for this revealing Q&A. I know I learned tons and am sure our readers did, too! 

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 extra entries 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.

To enter this portion of the giveaway:

  • Retweet this post on Twitter
  • 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 headshot
Author Amanda Davis and Cora ©Angela Wood Photography

BIO:

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.

MINIBLOGTOURGRAPHIC 30,000STITCHES

 

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An Interview with The Passover Guest Author Susan Kusel

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR SUSAN KUSEL

ABOUT HER DEBUT PICTURE BOOK

THE PASSOVER GUEST

(Neal Porter Books; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

The Passover Guest cover

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SHORT SUMMARY:

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.

 

INTERVIEW:

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.

 

The Passover Guest int1
Interior spread from The Passover Guest, A Neal Porter Book/Holiday House © 2021. Text copyright © 2021 by Susan Kusel Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Sean Rubin

 

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 Guest Muriel 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.

 

The Passover Guest int2
Interior spread from The Passover Guest, A Neal Porter Book/Holiday House © 2021. Text copyright © 2021 by Susan Kusel Illustrations copyright © 2021 by Sean Rubin

 

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.

Author Susan KuselBRIEF BIO:

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.

Twitter: @susankusel
Instagram: @susanhkusel
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Click here to read another picture book author interview.

 

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A Q+A with Author Alexis O’Neill about Melvil Dewey

AN INTERVIEW WITH ALEXIS O’NEILL

Author of

The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying)

Melvil Dewey

 

EFFICIENT MELVIL DEWEY cvr

 

 

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.

BOOK SUMMARY:

Melvil Dewey’s love of organization and words drove him to develop and implement 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.

The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey
Written by Alexis O’Neill
Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
(
Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

 

INTERVIEW:

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.

 

Melvil Dewey int1
Interior spread from The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey, written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, Calkins Creek ©2020.

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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.)

 

MELVIL DEWEY int2
Interior spread from The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey, written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, Calkins Creek ©2020.

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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.

 

MELVIL DEWEY int3
Interior spread from The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey, written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, Calkins Creek ©2020.

 

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!

 

AON Headshot by SonyaSones
Author Alexis O’Neill photo courtesy of ©Sonya Sones.

BIO:

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.

 

 

Website: www.alexisoneill.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/alexis.oneill.9

Twitter: @AlexisInCA

Instagram: @Alexis2017

 

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An Interview with Susan Lendroth About Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones

AN INTERVIEW WITH PICTURE BOOK AUTHOR

SUSAN LENDROTH

 

dinosaur bones cover

 

HERE WE GO DIGGING FOR DINOSAUR BONES
Written by Susan Lendroth
Illustrated by Bob Kolar
(Charlesbridge; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

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Interior spot art from Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones written by Susan Lendroth and illustrated by Bob Kolar, Charlesbridge ©2020.

SUMMARY

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.

INTERVIEW

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. 

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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.
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here we go digging spread-1
Interior spread from Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones written by Susan Lendroth and illustrated by Bob Kolar, Charlesbridge ©2020.

GRWR: Besides the additional facts on each page, I noticed the book had extensive back matter. Can you tell me a little about that?
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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?
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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.

 

here we go digging spread-2
Interior spread from Here We Go Digging for Dinosaur Bones written by Susan Lendroth and illustrated by Bob Kolar, Charlesbridge ©2020.

 

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?
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Susan Lendroth Instagram
Plastic Dino and Cat, photo courtesy  ©Susan Lendroth 2020.       

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.

Click here for an activity guide.
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Susan Lendroth with Pippi at Once Upon a Time Bookstore.

BIO

Author of eight picture books, Susan writes about everything from dinosaurs to history to an exuberant little girl in Japan. NASA flew her book Hey Ho, to Mars We’ll Go! to the International Space Station where Astronaut Christina Koch read it for for Story Time from Space (https://storytimefromspace.com/hey-ho-to-mars-2/). Susan works for the Los Angeles Public Library and shares her news on Instagram (@susanlendroth) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/SusanLendroth).

Susan, Good Reads With Ronna would like to thank you for channeling your inner paleontologist with us. We truly dug what you had to say!

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An Interview with Author Suzanne Kamata About Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters

AN INTERVIEW

WITH AUTHOR  SUZANNE KAMATA

 

PopFlies CVR

 

POP FLIES, ROBO-PETS, AND OTHER DISASTERS

Written by Suzanne Kamata

Illustrated by Tracy Bishop

(One Elm Books; $16.99, eBook available, Ages 9-14)

 

 

INTRO

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 Disasters offers 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.

SUMMARY

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.

INTERVIEW

PopFlies int page 031 R
Interior illustration from Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters written by Suzanne Kamata and illustrated by Tracy Bishop, One Elm Books ©2020.

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.

PopFlies page 205 r
Interior illustration from Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters written by Suzanne Kamata and illustrated by Tracy Bishop, One Elm Books ©2020.

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!

BIO

Author Suzanne Kamata
Photo of Suzanne Kamata by © Solveig Boergen

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.

Website: http://www.suzannekamata.com

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.

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An Interview with Author Alexis O’Neill About Picture Book Bio Jacob Riis’s Camera

 

AN INTERVIEW

WITH AUTHOR ALEXIS O’NEILL

 

RIIS Cover from BMK

 

 

JACOB RIIS’S CAMERA: BRINGING LIGHT TO TENEMENT CHILDREN

ILLUSTRATED BY GARY KELLEY

(Calkins Creek/Boyd Mills & Kane; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

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.

SUMMARY

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.

INTERVIEW

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?

Riis Interior with Flash
Interior illustration from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.

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 themnot just for himself, but for others.

 

RIIS Tenement Neighborhood
Interior spread from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.


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.

p23 RIIS Book116
Interior illustration from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.

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.

RIIS Five Cents a spot
Interior illustration from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.

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 Kelley in 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!

BIO

AON Headshot2 by SonyaSones
Alexis O’Neill, photo by ©Sonya Sones.

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.

Website: www.alexisoneill.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/alexis.oneill.9

Twitter: @AlexisInCA

Instagram: @Alexis2017

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.

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Middle Grade Books – An Interview With Margaret Finnegan About Happy Endings

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARGARET FINNEGAN

AUTHOR OF DEBUT MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL

WE COULD BE HEROES

 

 

For Autism Awareness Day 2020, I’m delighted to share this interview with author Margaret Finnegan about her debut middle grade novel We Could Be Heroes and her take on happy endings. At the end Margaret’s also included some helpful resources for readers.

INTERVIEW

GOODREADSWITHRONNA: Can you tell us a little bit about We Could be Heroes?

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 Heroes opens, 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 needat least sometimesfor “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 Weekly about We Could Be Heroes here.

Click here for a link to the Epilepsy Foundation.

Click here for autism information from the National Institutes of Health.
Click here for autism information from the Autistic Self Advocacy network.

ABOUT MARGARET

Author Margaret FinneganMargaret 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.

 

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Kids Book Author Interview with When a Tree Grows’ Cathy Ballou Mealey

AN INTERVIEW WITH CATHY BALLOU MEALEY

DEBUT AUTHOR OF

WHEN A TREE GROWS

Illustrated by Kasia Nowowiejska

(Sterling Children’s Books; Fiction, Ages 3-7)

 

when a tree grows book cvr

 

Review:

Her new book, When a Tree Grows, is a rollicking read-aloud that follows a zany chain of events triggered by a broken tree, a cranky Bear, a nut-loving Squirrel and his loyal friend Moose.

What’s a moose to do? If he’s got an itch on his antlers he could try scratching it on a tree for relief while his forest friends watch worriedly OR that tree could come crashing down onto a sleeping bear’s cave. CRASH-BOOM! That innocent action sets off a series of humorous events certain to bring out the smiles and laughter when read aloud to children, adding an emphasis on the sound effects presented in big and bold font.

Ultimately Moose manages to avoid a swerving truck and remain in the woods while a sassy squirrel hops on board the vehicle and heads into “the big city.” Squirrel envisions becoming a big star but when dreams of grandeur or a job fail to materialize, he longs for forest life. Will he find a way to get home and if he does, what will happen? Find out in this adorable, page-turning tale of what ifs with a happy ending that will not just satisfy but delight.

I love the sweet, digitally rendered illustrations by Kasia Nowowiejska, especially how she’s incorporated an acorn into the title. All of the forest friends are adorable although I’m partial to the wild boar. I’d like to see him in another story someday. Cathy’s come up with a clever premise for her debut picture book that will hook youngsters who’ll wonder where Moose’s and Squirrel’s misadventures will lead.

About the Author:

Debut author Cathy Ballou Mealey lives with her family north of Boston, where she delights in watching silly squirrel antics and is waiting patiently for a moose to appear. Her favorite nut is the hazelnut and her favorite cupcake is cardamom crème.

Interview:

Good Reads With Ronna: Do you recall how we met?

Cathy Ballou Mealey: I’m looking forward to meeting IRL one day when our coastal paths cross! I recall subscribing to Good Reads with Ronna so I would not miss any of the stellar picture book reviews. After commenting on a few posts (OK, probably a lot of posts) I think we exchanged emails about adding me to the GRWR review team! What’s your recollection Ronna?

GRWR: Aww, thanks Cathy! I recall one day noticing I’d gotten several thoughtful post comments from a woman with the middle name of Ballou, the same name of the title character from one of my favorite films, “Cat Ballou” starring Jane Fonda. I asked if you knew the film. When you did I figured you were close to my age and we might have more in common than just a love of kidlit.

tea and cookies GRWR: What is an average CBM day like including beverage of choice and snacks? 

CBM: My writing work is 100% done during the hours that my kids are at school. First I check email and respond to anything pressing. I try to post on Instagram next, peek at other social media, and then delve into writing, research or revising. I’m fueled by Earl Grey tea and Pepperidge Farm cookies, usually!

GRWR: Okay, now we have even more in common, but I’ll admit I’ve had to cut back on my Milano cookies consumption!

GRWR: On a down day, what/who are 3-5 of your go-to spirit lifter books or authors? 

CBM: Thankfully, those days are few and far between. Although my first love will always be picture books, MG or YA are my preference for escapist reading about finding hope and building resiliency. I just devoured Kevin Henkes’ Sweeping Up The Heart, Sharon Creech’s Saving Winslow, and Kate Allen’s The Line Tender. Next up are two books I am savoring for the second time, Kelly Yang’s Front Desk and Linda Mullaly Hunt’s One for the Murphys.

GRWR: If you could be reincarnated as any animal which one wsea otters book cvr ould it be and why? 

CBM: Definitely an otter. Doesn’t everyone love an otter? Whether river or sea, I’d love to juggle pebbles and float on my back, holding paws with my buddies. Doesn’t that sound ideal?

Author Cathy Ballou Mealey and child at NH White MtnsGRWR: Beach baby, city tripper or mountain mama? 

CBM: Yes! Oh, I have to choose one? I love the sun, sand and tides of the summer beach because New England can be chilly! City tripping is fab for museums, bookstores and unique food options, but I could skip crowds, concrete and mass transit. Fresh air and mountain vistas thrill me, but not so much the switchbacks! So I’ll take a tiny taste of all three please, in alternating doses! BTW, that’s Cathy with her daughter in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

buckwheat zydecoGRWR: Does music play a big role or any role in your life? 

CBM: I like to write in quiet, and I’m an “NPR in the car” driver. Seeing live music is a real treat when I can get out. One of the best concerts I ever attended was Buckwheat Zydeco at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Garden. Music plays a role in my work when I’m writing in rhyme, because I feel the beat and crescendo of the lines and words in a different way. It’s hard to explain, but I want the tone and structure to feel musically resonant and complete!

GRWR: What’s in the pipeline?

CBM: Next up for me is a still-secret, super funny picture book with an amazing publisher in Canada. A sloth and a squirrel team up for a special mission. Look for an announcement soon, and a book sometime in 2021!

Keep up with Cathy here:

Website: https://cathyballoumealey.wordpress.com/about/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CatBallouMealey

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/catballoumealey/

GIVEAWAY:

Cathy has generously offered two fab prizes to accompany this post! She’ll be happy to giveaway a #PB critique to one person (1000 words or less please!) and a signed copy of When a Tree Grows to another. (US residents only please). So whether you’re a writer or a reader, there’s something here for you! To enter please leave a comment on this post. Get a bonus entry for following me @goodreadsronna on Twitter or @goodreadswithronna on Instagram, but please let me know in your comment. Receive another bonus entry for following Cathy on social media mentioned above. This giveaway opportunity will end at 11:59 pm Pacific Time on Monday, July 1. Good luck and thanks for stopping by the blog!

 

  • Thanks tons, Cathy, for taking time away from your tea and cookies to help us all get to know you better. I knew I already liked you lots after our years of communicating online. Could you tell that I really wanted to ask you many more questions? Guess I’ll leave that until your next picture book releases in two years. In the meantime, I’ll continue to be your pen (okay Mac) pal and cannot wait for the day we meet IRL!

If you’re like me and you enjoy getting some interesting insight into Cathy and her writing, I recommend reading these other interviews about her below:

For writers, Susanna’s post has the most detail re: a debut PB:  https://susannahill.com/2019/04/02/tuesday-debut-presenting-cathy-ballou-mealey/
For a post with a children’s activity and a “what comes next” challenge, check out Kathy’s:  https://celebratepicturebooks.com/2019/05/07/may-7-its-get-caught-reading-month/
For a wacky, waffle read, there’s Mike’s post:  https://mikeallegra.com/2019/04/30/waffles-with-writers-cathy-ballou-mealey/

 

 

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The Sydney Taylor Book Award 2019 Blog Tour – An Interview With Rachel Lynn Solomon

 

graphic for Sydney Taylor Book Award 2019 Blog Tour

 

Welcome to day three! As one of the bloggers participating in the Sydney Taylor Book Award 2019 Blog Tour, I’ve had the privilege to interview author Rachel Lynn Solomon about her terrific debut novel You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone, an honor award winner in the teen readers category. Find out more about this week of enlightening interviews at the Association of Jewish Libraries website and at the official Sydney Taylor site. The full blog tour schedule is posted on the AJL blog and below if you scroll down following the interview.

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PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY OF YOU’LL MISS ME WHEN I’M GONE
Eighteen-year-old twins Adina and Tovah have little in common besides their ambitious nature. Viola prodigy Adina yearns to become a soloist—and to convince her music teacher he wants her the way she wants him. Overachiever Tovah awaits her acceptance to Johns Hopkins, the first step on hYou'll Miss Me When I'm Gone book cover image er path toward med school and a career as a surgeon.

But one thing could wreck their carefully planned futures: a genetic test for Huntington’s, a rare degenerative disease that slowly steals control of the body and mind. It’s turned their Israeli mother into a near stranger and fractured the sisters’ own bond in ways they’ll never admit. While Tovah finds comfort in their Jewish religion, Adina rebels against its rules.

When the results come in, one twin tests negative for Huntington’s. The other tests positive.

These opposite outcomes push them farther apart as they wrestle with guilt, betrayal, and the unexpected thrill of first love. How can they repair their relationship, and is it even worth saving?

From debut author Rachel Lynn Solomon comes a luminous, heartbreaking tale of life, death, and the fragile bond between sisters.

 

INTERVIEW WITH RACHEL LYNN SOLOMON 

Good Reads With Ronna: Please tell us what the source of your inspiration was for writing You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone (Simon Pulse, $17.99 + 12.99, Ages 14+)

RLS: Thank you for having me on your blog! As a kid, I remember watching a couple TV shows that centered on genetic testing, and the idea of being able to know your fate, to an extent, stuck with me. Years later in early 2014, I was doing some random Internet research, looking for something that might spark a book idea. I landed on a page about Huntington’s disease, which I knew a little about. What stood out to me was the fact that a child of a parent with Huntington’s has a 50/50 chance of inheriting it, and I wondered: what if twin sisters received opposite results?
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GRWR: Your bio says you write about ambitious, complicated, sometimes unlikable girls who are trying their best. Can you please expand on that in reference to your main characters, Adina and Tovah, the 18 year-old fraternal twin sisters who do not get along?
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RLS: Absolutely! I firmly believe we don’t need to like the characters we read about — we just need to relate to them. Likable characters, in fact, are often quite boring to read about. Rule-following characters who always make the right decisions, who never hurt anyone’s feelings…not realistic, for one, and not as interesting as a reader or writer. Furthermore, in fiction, male characters are often given much more “permission” to be unlikable. Their flaws are more easily forgiven.
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In YMMWIG, Adina and Tovah aren’t bad people, but they make mistakes, they hurt each other, and they occasionally sabotage themselves. But they’re trying, and they’re relatable (I hope!), and at the end of the day, those are the kinds of characters I’m always going to gravitate toward.
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GRWR: Do you share any qualities with your main characters aside from Adina’s love of Siren red lipstick? 
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RLS: There’s a bit of myself in all the characters I write. While I don’t play viola like Adina, I grew up playing piano and guitar, and in high school, I was a stereotypical overachiever like Tovah.
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GRWR: What are your thoughts about the need for Jewish authors to write about more than just Holocaust stories despite the need for those to continue being told? And what kinds of books would you like to see written? 
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RLS: My major thought about this is: YES. We need stories about all kinds of Jewish experiences. I’ve mentioned this in other interviews, but growing up, I truly believed we only had one story to tell, and that story was the Holocaust. And that’s just devastating, to think your entire culture can be summed up by a tragedy. It’s why it took me so long to write Jewish characters of my own — while YMMWIG was my first published book, it was my fifth completed manuscript since I decided to get serious about writing. It was also my first with Jewish characters.
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I would love to see more historical novels featuring Jewish characters that don’t center on the Holocaust. IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD OF TRUE by Susan Kaplan Carlton, which comes out in April, is a great example of this, and I highly recommend it! I’d also love to see more intersectional Jewish stories like YOU ASKED FOR PERFECT by Laura Silverman, coming out in March, and COLOR ME IN by Natasha Diaz, coming out in August. Aside from that, more contemporary stories about Jewish teens simply living their lives while also being Jewish — whatever “being Jewish” means to them.
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GRWR: Do you feel that books featuring Jewish protagonists and teens tackling illness fall under the diverse books heading since they are so underrepresented and often stereotyped? 
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RLS: This is a weighty topic, and one I’m still grappling with. Judaism occupies an interesting space in diversity discussions. I’m keeping a list of 2019 YA novels by Jewish authors and with Jewish protagonists, and I have only 14 books on that list. It’s so underrepresented in YA, and yet I’ve had a trade review insinuate Judaism isn’t diverse. Jewish friends writing Jewish characters have asked me whether their book “counts” as diverse. Conversely, one review told me I made my characters Jewish “for diversity points.” To me, Jewish books are diverse books, and I plan to continue advocating for them in the book community.
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GRWR: Your YA novel tackles a tough topic of a mother slowly succumbing to Huntington’s disease as her teen daughters witness the decline. Also, early on in the story, one of the twins will learn after genetic testing, that she will get the disease, too. Your second novel also deals with a character needing a kidney transplant. What compels you to write about characters coping with illness? 
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RLS: I’m drawn most to topics that interest me — with YMMWIG, I wanted to learn more about Huntington’s disease and genetic testing, and with OUR YEAR OF MAYBE, which deals with the aftermath of a kidney transplant, I was curious about organ donation. Curiosity is a huge part of my writing process. My background is in journalism, and I love research, and writing is such a magnificent way to learn more about the world.
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With regard to illness, specifically, I wanted to write characters who are not defined by their illness. In YMMWIG, Adina and Tovah’s mother is suffering from Huntington’s. It was important to me that Huntington’s was not her sole defining characteristic. She enjoys her job as a teacher, old movie musicals, and knitting, and she has a meet-cute backstory with the twins’ dad. In OUR YEAR OF MAYBE I focus more on the aftermath of the transplant and how it affects the two protagonists’ relationship. I aim to write sensitive portrayals of illness where the illness is a piece of the story but not the entire story.
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Author Rachel Lynn Solomon photo by Ian Grant
Rachel Lynn Solomon Photo by Ian Grant

GRWR: Of the two sisters, Tovah is the practicing Jew who keeps kosher, studies Torah and observes Shabbat along with her parents. It was encouraging to read a YA novel featuring Jewish main characters and their perceptions navigating life in a predominantly non-Jewish school and world. Was this your experience too? 

RLS: Thank you! Yes — I was one of only a handful of Jewish kids in my Seattle suburb. I actually don’t remember meeting other Jewish kids outside of temple until middle school. And it wasn’t until college that I found more of a Jewish community — I took a year of modern Hebrew, I joined Hillel, and for a while, I attended services every Friday. These days, I am more secular, but I’m happy to say I have close Jewish friends for the first time in my life, which I’ve realized is so incredibly important, especially in a world that often makes us feel like outsiders.

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GRWR: Adina can be cruel, jealous, socially aloof and manipulative, often using her beauty to control guys. Is it easier to write a more likeable character such as Tovah or one who’s not so likeable? 
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RLS: That’s a great question. I’m not sure what this says about me, but Adina was much easier to write than Tovah! It might be that I’m more similar to Tovah, so writing Adina allowed me to get more creative. To this day, her voice is the clearest of any main character I’ve written.
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GRWR: Tovah is a neophyte when it comes to sex while Adina has been sexually active since age 14. Tovah myopically dreams of attending Johns Hopkins to become a surgeon while Adina dreams of playing viola in an orchestra. One incident four years earlier has shattered their tight bond. Sisters yet complete opposites and strangers. What would they or anyone for that matter have to do to become close again and repair the wounds? 
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RLS: I’ve never experienced a rift quite like theirs, but my sister and I fought constantly growing up. It’s hard to admit you did something wrong, but I think that humility is the only way to at least begin to repair a broken relationship. I’m not sure if it’s something that gets easier as we grow up and grow older, but I know it’s especially difficult as a teen.
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GRWR: The twins’ story is told through alternating POV which works so well. What do you like about this approach and what other YA novels using this dual POV have you enjoyed? 
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RLS: Thank you so much. I felt strongly that this was the only way the book could be told — each sister is a full person but only half the story. It was the same with OUR YEAR OF MAYBE. The book explores the aftermath of a kidney transplant, complicated by the fact that the donor is in love with the recipient. The book doesn’t work unless we have both POVs and understand both characters, whose arcs are so closely entwined. Some other dual POV books I love: I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson, JUST VISITING by Dahlia Adler, HOW TO SAVE A LIFE by Sara Zarr.
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GRWR: I found it hard to say good-bye to Adina and Tovah. How do you feel upon completing a book? 
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RLS: It’s been an adjustment! In the past, my manuscripts felt like living documents — I could open one up and tweak a sentence any time I wanted. But now, the book gets to a point where I have to be done messing with it. It’s hard for me to say goodbye, but it’s heartening to know that the book is done because it’s going out to readers who will be able to experience it for the first time.
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For anyone else who’s interested, I wrote a “five years later” short story about Adina and Tovah that originally went out as part of a preorder campaign. It’s available on my website here for anyone to read: https://www.rachelsolomonbooks.com/extras/. There are some sad moments, but I hope it provides a bit of additional closure!
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GRWR: What other irons do you have in the fire? 
RLS: My second book, OUR YEAR OF MAYBE, came out last month, and I have two more YA novels contracted through Simon Pulse. My third, a romantic comedy, will be out in the summer of 2020. It takes place in 24 hours on the last day of senior year, and follows two rivals who realize, as they reluctantly team up to win a senior class game, that they might be in love with each other. While it’s lighter than my first two books, the two main characters also confront anti-Semitism in a way I haven’t written about before.
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GRWR: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to mention or call to readers’ attention? 
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These questions were wonderful — thank you for again having me!

2019 SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD BLOG TOUR

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2019

Emily Jenkins and Paul Zelinsky, author and illustrator of All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Younger Readers Category
At Out of the Box at the Horn Book

Barb Rosenstock and Mary GrandPré, author and illustrator of Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall’s Life
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers Category
At A Fuse #8 Production at School Library Journal

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2019

Jonathan Auxier, author of Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Older Readers Category
At The Prosen People at The Jewish Book Council

Jane Breskin Zalben and Mehrdokht Amini, author and illustrator of A Moon for Moe and Mo
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers Category
At 100 Scope Notes at School Library Journal

The Sydney Taylor Book Awards at ALA’s Youth Media Awards
At the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC) Blog

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2019

Rachel Lynn Solomon, author of You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Teen Readers Category
At Good Reads with Ronna

Elissa Brent Weissman, author of The Length of a String
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers Category
At Mr. Schu Reads

Susan Kusel & Rebecca Levitan, leadership of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee
At The Children’s Book Podcast

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 13, 2019

Vesper Stamper, author of What the Night Sings
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Teen Readers Category
At Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Erica Perl, author of All Three Stooges
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers Category
At From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2019

Blog Tour Wrap-Up at The Whole Megillah

Reflections on the 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Awards at ALA at Susan Kusel’s Blog

10th Anniversary of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour at The Book of Life

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Mary Malhotra Interviews Swing Author Kwame Alexander

AN INTERVIEW WITH KWAME ALEXANDER

by Mary Malhotra

 

Author Kwame Alexander
Swing Author Kwame Alexander at Skylight Books. Photo ©2018 Shan Malhotra

Kwame Alexander recently celebrated publication of his new book with Mary Rand Hess, Swing (Oct 2018, BlinkYABooks; $18.99), at a Skylight Books event that also featured his mentor, acclaimed poet and activist Nikki Giovanni. Alexander is the Newbery Award-winning, NYT-bestselling author of more than two-dozen books. Swing is a novel-in-verse about two high school juniors, Noah and Walt, trying to find their “cool.” I enjoyed the event, and later caught up with Alexander by phone to talk about the book and some of his other projects. (The transcript below is edited for clarity and length.)

 

MM [Mary Malhotra]: This is your third book with Mary Rand Hess, so I thought I’d start by asking, how did the two of you decide to collaborate, and how does that work for you?

KA [Kwame Alexander]: We’re in a writer’s group together, and we had critiqued each other’s work for a couple of years. It was her idea, and I thought, “Well, let’s try it.”  I’m a huge fan of collaboration and we just seemed to gel. There were certain times when I took the lead and she was cool with that, and there were times when she took the lead because she had the expertise and I was cool with that. It was almost like putting a puzzle together.

MM: Obviously music is important in the book, and I was curious if Walt’s musical loves mirror yours or Mary’s?

KA: I am a jazz aficionado; Mary loves jazz. Whenever I’m writing, I listen to instrumental jazz, preferably bebop or straight-ahead jazz. Mary plays piano. Music plays a huge role in our lives, and I think that’s why we wanted to write about rock and roll in [our first novel] Solo, and really pay a tribute to jazz in Swing.

Mary Malhotra with Kwame Alexander at Skylight Books 2018
Swing Author Kwame Alexander with interviewer Mary Malhotra at Skylight Books. Photo ©2018 Shan Malhotra

MM: I know lots of adults who are intimidated by poetry, [yet] on your website you say if you want to get a reluctant reader engaged with literature, start with poetry. How do you go about making the poetry so accessible and relatable that it’s actually easier for a reluctant reader than a prose novel?

KA: I try to write stories that have you as the reader forgetting that you’re reading poetry. I want to use all of the techniques and the strategies that poetry allows me to use — figurative language, sparse text, rhythm, sometimes rhyme — but ultimately I want to tell such a compelling story that by page ten or twenty-seven you’ve forgotten that you’re reading poetry.

MM: I’d seen a synopsis that talked about a biracial friendship at the center of the book, and it still took me awhile to identify what race different characters were. I like diversity not being handled super explicitly, but some people really feel like we should be explicit. What’s your feeling?

KA: Isn’t that the goal, for us to be less explicit about race in real life, and to really begin to look past all those superficial things, and treat each other as if we are all human beings? When I was growing up and I was in high school and I played tennis, one of my best friends was a white guy. I didn’t wake up each day and go to the tennis court and say, “Oh hey, here’s my white guy!” It’s not an authentic approach to life, so why should it be an authentic approach to literature?

MM: As a white person, I’ve tried to be sensitive to arguments I’ve read about people who feel like, if I say, “I don’t see your race,” then I’m not seeing them as a whole person.

KA: I’m definitely not saying you don’t see race. I’m saying the race is obvious and evident in all of the books that I write, in my estimation. The race is a matter of fact.

Nikki Giovanni and Kwame Alexander at Skylight Books Swing Panel
Nikki Giovanni with Kwame Alexander at Skylight Books. Photo ©2018 Shan Malhotra

MM: When you started out [writing Swing], were you planning to write something political?

KA: Everything I write is political. I think to live in America, especially during this time, you either — what one of the characters says: “You either uphold the status quo, or you see what’s wrong and try to change it.”

MM: I read about your imprint [Versify, at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt], and saw that it’s accepting unsolicited submissions. What are you looking for?

KA: I’m looking for good books. Picture books, middle grade novels, YA novels, graphic novels. I’m looking for books that highlight the beauties, the hurdles, the woes, and the wonders of children coming of age. I’m looking for books that are going to help kids ultimately imagine a better world. I’m looking for books that are intelligent and entertaining.

MM: I also read that you’re starting a #HUGLIFE commitment in classrooms?

KA: It’s really just borrowing from Walt’s philosophy on life. Sometimes the world is not so beautiful, but you’ve got to stretch every inch of good as far as you can. I’m a big fan of saying “Yes” to what’s possible in life, and hugging life.

Swing Author Kwame Alexander with Wendy Calhoun at Skylight Books 2018
Swing Author Kwame Alexander and Wendy Calhoun at Skylight Books. Photo ©2018 Shan Malhotra

MM: Transforming [Tupac Shakur’s acronym] “THUG LIFE” into “HUG LIFE” —

KA: If you look at what Tupac’s acronym stood for — The Hell You Give Little Infants F’s Everyone — if you flip that around, don’tgive them hell. Hug them. Show them love. I went to a school one day in a prison. I told my wife I was never going back, and she said “Why?” And I said, “Because it was the hardest work I ever had to do.” And she said, “Well, that’s cool. Those kids probably aren’t expecting you to come back.” And of course, I ended up going back. And it changed my life, and it changed theirs. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. I’m suggesting that hugging life, embracing the full humanity of all of us? It’s work, but the rewards are sacred, and beautiful, and life-giving, and life-saving.

Find more events at Skylight Books

Read Mary’s review of Swing here.

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An Interview With MG & YA Author Deborah Lytton

THE FANTASTIC LIBRARY RESCUE
AND OTHER MAJOR PLOT TWISTS
Written by Deborah Lytton
Illustrated by Jeanine Murch
(Sourcebooks Jabberwocky; $7.99, Ages 8 and up)

Cover art of Ruby Starr from The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists


Read Our Q & A With Author Deborah Lytton

On today’s post I’m excited to share a recent interview I had with author, Deborah Lytton, about book #2 in the Ruby Starr series, The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists, which came out earlier this month. Having thoroughly enjoyed this chapter book for middle grade readers* that includes illustrations of Ruby’s active imagination at work, I can see how much tweens and bibliophiles will gravitate to the series, and this new book in particular, especially since it tackles two important issues: libraries losing funding and friendship predicaments. I especially like that Ruby’s friend Will P is also in a bookclub, something I don’t usually see depicted in stories. Here’s how Sourcebooks Jabberwocky describes Lytton’s latest:

The second book in this fun series that’s perfect for younger fans of the Dork Diaries and Story Thieves series. Ruby Starr is an older Junie B. Jones with a big imagination and a love of reading.

Ruby Starr’s life is totally back on track. Her lunchtime book club, the Unicorns, is better than ever. And she and Charlotte, her once arch enemy, are now good friends. The only thing that’s really causing any drama is her upcoming poetry assignment. She’s a reader, not a poet!

But disaster strikes when Ruby learns that her most favorite place in the world, the school library, is in trouble. Ruby knows she and the Unicorns have to do something to help. But when Ruby’s plans end up hurting a friend, she’s not sure her story will have a happy ending after all.

 

Q & A:

GOOD READS WITH RONNA: Ruby is a charming, book-loving outgoing yet introspective fifth grader. And while she is not perfect she certainly is someone any parent would be proud of. Do you happen to know any Rubys? And if not, how did you wind up with her as a main character for your series?

DEBORAH LYTTON: I do know a Ruby. My inspiration for this series came from my younger daughter who was in fifth grade when I began writing the first book. My YA SILENCE had just been released, and my older daughter was reading it. My younger daughter wanted me to write something for her to read. She asked for a story that would make her laugh. I based the character of Ruby on her initially, but then as I began to write, the character took on her own qualities. My favorite part of writing is when the characters begin to shape themselves. That definitely happened with Ruby Starr.

GRWR: What do you love most about her? 

DL: I love that Ruby makes a lot of mistakes, but always tries to fix them. My favorite thing about Ruby is her kindness. She thinks about other people and their feelings and tries to help them when she can. This is a quality I truly admire. I also enjoy writing Ruby because she is so imaginative.

GRWR: I realize this is book #2 in the series but yet I felt fully up-to-speed. Can you please tell readers briefly what happens in book #1? 

DL: I am so happy to hear that you felt up-to-speed! It was really important to me to write a second book that would let readers jump right in. Book #1 establishes Ruby’s character and her love for reading. The story centers on friendship troubles. When a new girl joins Ruby’s fifth grade class, she begins pulling Ruby’s friends away from her. Then she threatens to destroy Ruby’s book club. Ruby has a difficult time, and then she learns something about the new girl that changes everything. Ultimately, books bring the friends together.

GRWR: Is there a book #3 on the horizon? 

DL: Yes, I am really excited about Ruby’s third adventure. I have just finished the manuscript and I can tell you that Ruby and her friends get into a little bit of a mix-up and that it all begins with a very special book.

int art from The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists
Interior illustration from The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists by Deborah Lytton with art by Jeanine Murch, Sourcebook Jabberwocky ©2018.

GRWR: As a kidlit reviewer I love that Ruby is in a book club (The Unicorns), and as a writer I love Ruby’s vivid imagination. Did your own childhood inform these traits or did you feel she’d need these qualities to be a role model for tweens or someone many young readers could relate to?

DL: Growing up, my sister and I were like Ruby. We loved reading. Both of us cherish books and have saved many of our favorites from when we were young readers. My own daughters also love to read. In spending time helping out in their school classrooms and libraries, I have seen how many students enjoy books. I loved the idea that a fifth grade student would be independent enough to start her own book club at school to celebrate reading. Then I thought it would be fun to see where her imagination would take her, especially since she would be inspired by all the books she had read and loved. I hope young readers who have stayed up late just to read the next chapter of a book will connect with a character who is like them.

GRWR: The hero’s journey that Ruby embarks on is to save the school library where the hours have been reduced and new book purchases have been shelved due to funding cutbacks. Was this plot line inspired by stories you’ve seen in the news or even closer to home here in L.A.? 

DL: I have volunteered in the libraries at my daughters’ schools so I have seen first-hand the way that budget cuts have impacted the libraries. I have also helped students search for the perfect book to read and then watched their faces light up when they discover something really special. Libraries are so valuable to our youth. I wanted to highlight that message in this story.

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