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Even Monsters … by A.J. Smith Virtual Tour & Giveaway

Welcome to the EVEN MONSTERS Virtual Tour & Giveaway courtesy of Sourcebooks Jabberwocky!

Even Monsters … written and illustrated by A.J. Smith, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2014.

Be sure to scroll down to devour every last morsel of our exciting EVEN MONSTERS by A.J. Smith art contest, giveaway, interview & EVEN more!!

MONSTER ART CONTEST: Even the bravest little monsters can be scared of what’s lurking in a closet or under the bed. Author and illustrator A.J. Smith’s family-friendly picture book, Even Monsters (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, $16.99, Ages 4-8 ) written and illustrated by A.J. Smith, is perfect for helping children understand that sometimes the things we are afraid of are not scary at all. In fact, they can be quite funny – see Fur of The Loom undies above!! To help kids overcome their fear of the dark and see how silly monsters can be, A.J. invites them to participate in the Monster Art Contest. Children ages 2-9 can send in their best monsters drawings for the chance to have their art animated into their own music video! The best 100 drawings will appear in a special Even Monsters art gallery, and the top 20 drawings will be animated into their own music video. WOW!



Hi AJ! EVEN MONSTERS is ADORABLE and something both my kids would have loved when they were younger.  There’s something to discover on every page meaning kids will want to go back again and again to see if they can find something new. Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 5.43.03 PMGRWR: With that last sentence in mind, did you deliberately include those tiny cute orangey-red, big-eyed creatures for kids to seek out on every page (and perhaps count)?

A.J. SMITH: Certainly I want the story to be fun and engaging in its own right, but yes, the little cooties were added as a way to extend the life of the story by inviting kids to come back for multiple reads and explore the book for cooties. Taking it even a step further, kids can print and play this cootie-counter game:

GRWR: I noticed a lot of broken items scattered throughout the book and thought you got into the young monsters’ heads quite well. Were you a monster when you were growing up?

A.J. SMITH: Kids (and monsters) can sometimes be destructive even when intentions are at their best. That said, I was an exceptionally gentle and thoughtful child who never did anything wrong. It’s possible my parents may have their own perspective on the matter, however.

GRWR: What prompted you to take this picture book one step further by introducing the digital element where kids (with help from their parents) can scan the QR codes throughout the book for assorted fun activities?

A.J. SMITH: I like the idea that a children’s book is a toy. Yes, it’s hopefully an eventual gateway to bigger literary endeavors. But in the meantime, a picture book should encourage interactivity and play. QR codes were just one more way for me to help facilitate that, which then brings you to more content online that revolves around Even Monsters. Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 5.52.51 PM GRWRAside from the fact that you’re obviously very talented, what else would you say influenced you to first enter the world of animation and designing?

A.J. SMITH: Thanks for the kind words. I’ve always liked to draw from a young age … Always enjoyed cartoons and books. I could talk all day about specific influences from pop culture to everyday events in childhood. But mostly I just always wanted to create stories and make people laugh. Animation, design, illustration, and writing became the best ways (for me) to make that happen.

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An Interview With London Ladd, Illustrator of Under The Freedom Tree


Under The Freedom Tree – a 2014 Junior Library Guild Selection!

Illustrator London Ladd, Under The Freedom Tree, Copyright © 2014 Charlesbridge Publishing.

Today Good Reads With Ronna and London Ladd discuss how, as the illustrator of Under The Freedom Tree (Charlesbridge, $16.95, Ages 6-9) by Susan VanHecke, he came up with the illustrations for this picture book which we’re highlighting for African American History Month (also known as Black History Month). If you didn’t see yesterday’s post where we interviewed author Susan VanHecke, please click here to read it.

We’re joining other reviewers this week as part of a special Charlesbridge Publishing blog tour and hope you’ll take the time to visit all the bloggers’ sites. We’re also delighted to be giving away one copy of Under The Freedom Tree, so enter by clicking here for a chance to win. This giveaway ends at midnight PST on February 24, 2014. Please be sure to write Freedom Tree in the subject line and include your address. Like us on Facebook for an extra entry. A winner will be chosen by and notified via email on February 25th. Good luck!

Under The Freedom Tree shares the story of three captured slaves, Frank, James and Shepard, during the Civil War, who take an enormous risk to escape across dangerous waters in Virginia to reach the Union Army on the other side only to discover they are still not totally free. However, with the help of clever General Butler, a lawyer before the Civil War, the three fugitives are able to remain with the Union side on a technicality. The winds of change were beginning to blow in the right direction.

Cover image, Under The Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke with illustrations by London Ladd, Copyright © 2014, Charlesbridge Publishing.

VanHecke delivers a powerful tale told poetically in free verse and based on actual accounts of the creation of America’s first “contraband camps.”  After word of Frank, James and Shepard’s successful escape, others followed suit. First hundreds then thousands.



Barefoot, mud-crusted.

Better forward than back.

Former slaves built a community in what was known as Slabtown, or the Grand Contraband Camp. By day they worked for the Union, but they were freer than they’d ever been, some living in a home of their own for the very first time.  Silent witness to this all was the majestic old oak tree, the Freedom Tree. Illustrator Ladd conveys so much spirit and emotion in every spread, whether by depicting children being taught under the shade of the oak or the joyful gathering of the community to hear the reading of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. “Lives forever changed under the Freedom Tree.”

Be sure to sit down with your kids and read this fantastic picture book that helps shed light on a little-known yet inspiring event of the Civil War. Also included are a bibliography and author’s note at the end providing more historical information that helps place many of the events in Under The Freedom Tree in context.


Good Reads With Ronna: When a publisher approaches you with a book to illustrate, do you see the completed manuscript or is it still rough round the edges? I’m curious because I wonder if your illustrations have ever influenced the direction a book can take?

London Ladd: It depends on the publisher. Most of the time I’ll get a completed script, but there have been a few times I will get something that’s in the last stages of editing. It’s minor wording that doesn’t affect my ideas.

Good Reads With Ronna: What is your illustration process, i.e. do you research the subject matter, then sketch and finally paint the art to be used?

London Ladd: I’ll usually read and reread the manuscript, then I do a few small quick thumbnail sketches. After that I start diving into the research and this is the most fun because I get to learn new things, but sometimes I get so involved I get lost and have to pull myself back into focus. After gathering myself I do more sketches to storyboard all the pages. Then I take A LOT of reference photos. I draw the final sketches and send to the publisher for feedback and after things are approved I paint the final artwork.

GRWR: In terms of medium for Under the Freedom Tree, did you use acrylics and combine them with pastels and colored pencils like your bio describes or did you try something different with this book?

Ladd: I primarily use acrylic paint, but recently for Under the Freedom Tree, I’ve combined colored pencils and pastels. I feel it adds more depth to the art and creates a signature look. When I’m working I get messy so my clothes will get covered in paint. It’s a bad habit I’ve tried to stop but I get so locked in I can’t help it. In the past I’ve tried oils on top of the acrylics but when it got on my skin I had bad reactions and discontinued use.

Under-The-Freedom-Tree p4-5_300-jpg
Interior spread from Under The Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke with illustrations by London Ladd, Copyright © 2014, Charlesbridge Publishing.

GRWR: What is your favorite illustration in Under the Freedom Tree?

Ladd: That’s a difficult answer because I really love each illustration in this book for various reasons. If I had to pick one right now it would be the first page with them running because when I first read the manuscript that page came alive so clearly in my mind’s eye and heart. I could vividly hear the sound of the crickets chirping, the pounding feet of the three men in the tall grass, the hurried sound of their breathing in the night as they sneak off. If you watch the book trailer that’s exactly how I saw it in my head.

GRWR: Which was the most difficult to complete and why?

Ladd: I think the page where the people are rebuilding after the Confederate soldiers torched Hampton. I didn’t know how to approach it. What do I show? How do I convey in my illustration the words effectively? When I traveled to Hampton to do more extensive research and see landmarks like Emancipation Oak, Fort Monroe and Sewel’s Point (the spot where the men escaped from) I stopped in the Hampton History Museum and they had this amazing exhibit from that era. There was a replica of a burnt brick wall with an actual photo of Hampton after the fire in 1862. When I saw that I knew exactly how that page should look. It’s funny because without visiting I would have never created that page.

GRWR: Is it difficult as an illustrator to try to capture a unique moment in time and have your illustration convey a mood or incident?

Ladd: Wow that’s a good question. I guess it depends on the project. For March On I wasn’t born during the march on Washington so wanted to capture the moment. What would it be like if I was there and to be a part something so special? For Oprah I felt a connection to her story. I’m also an only child who had a fierce determination to better myself and succeed. With Under the Freedom Tree it was a spiritual experience for me as an African American. The issue of slavery can be a sensitive subject, that’s why it was so important for me to visit the sites and gain a deeper understanding of what I’m illustrating. To see the Emancipation Oak, a 400 year old tree that still stands to this day in person at Hampton University, and to stand on the very shore in Norfolk, VA and look across the Chesapeake Bay, filled me with so many ranges of emotions. The contraband slaves are not widely known in history so I wanted to illustrate their amazing story of bravery, courage and strength with honor.

UnderFreedomTree -0-11_300-jpg
Interior spread from Under The Freedom Tree by Susan VanHecke with illustrations by London Ladd, Copyright © 2014, Charlesbridge Publishing.

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An Interview with Aaron Becker

An Interview With Aaron Becker

Headshot of Aaron Becker, author and illustrator of JOURNEY, Copyright © 2013 courtesy of Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA., 2013.
Aaron Becker, author and illustrator of JOURNEY, Copyright © 2013 courtesy of Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA., 2013.

Today’s interview with Aaron Becker, author and illustrator of JOURNEY (Candlewick Press, $15.99, Ages 4-8), comes to us courtesy of Hilary Taber and just before the naming of the 2014 Caldecott winner and honors announcement later today.

NOTE: At the time of posting we did not know that JOURNEY was named a 2014 Caldecott Honor Book. Congratulations to Aaron Becker!

Treat yourself and your children to one of 2013’s most talked about picture books, Aaron Becker’s JOURNEY. Though wordless, this colorful tale speaks to its readers in so many different ways, a big part of why JOURNEY will continue to bring immense pleasure to so many for years to come. Find out about Aaron Becker here with Hilary’s insightful interview.

Hilary Taber: Thank you for this interview, and thank you so much for the book as well. It’s gorgeous, so beautifully and wonderfully illustrated. My family has enjoyed it so much.

Aaron Becker: Thank you.

Hilary Taber: Congrats, too, on all the starred reviews! Horn Book Best of 2013, a New York Times Notable Children’s Book, so many accolades for JOURNEY. It must have been so fun to get those, and very affirming.

Aaron Becker: Yeah, it is and has been an amazing response. Like nothing I anticipated or was really imagining.

HT: Was your family delighted?

AB: Well, for sure. Totally, yeah … I mean, that’s something I always wanted to do … a children’s book, and to get to do one is delighting enough. And then people respond to it in ways I wouldn’t have even anticipated. It’s just very exciting.

HT: So, you have always wanted to write a children’s book or illustrate one?

AB: Oh, yeah. When I was a kid I made my own books … I wrote my own stories and drew pictures … it was one of my hobbies. This is my first book and I’m almost forty … there was a career in the middle there. I spent about a decade working as an illustrator on motion pictures.

Cover of JOURNEY by Aaron Becker. Copyright © 2013 by Aaron Becker, from Candlewick Press.
JOURNEY. Copyright © 2013 by Aaron Becker. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

HT: Do you feel that your career in movies helped you as a picture book illustrator?

AB: It sure does. Certainly there’s the technical side of just learning the craft of telling stories through pictures. We do that in film and in books. So, there’s just a lot of technical stuff I learned – composition, how to lead the reader’s eye, where you want them to go – but it’s a different craft as well. So, there’s some crossover for sure.

HT: I have some familiarity through my family with film production. I read that you refer to the picture book as having sets in it. Are the main characters like actors?

AB: I know, I caught myself using that word (sets), I noticed that too. It’s how I think, only right now I’m working on the third … there are three Journey books … I do think in terms of film. In some ways I think that if films were easier to make, less capital intensive, and less time intensive, I’d be making short films, not books. The nice thing about a book is that the scope of the project can be taken on by one person … it’s easier for me to be just like, “Okay, I’ll work with an editor – you know, with an agent.”

HT: Do you feel that you had people in your past, family or mentors, or somebody that was very key or crucial to you becoming an illustrator today?

AB: It’s easy for me to think in terms of books I like, but my parents definitely were important. Especially my mom, she was very focused on feeding my interests. She bought me a pad of paper, she bought me markers, and she made sure I had trips to the library to get out my drawing books and stuff.  So, I was encouraged, but I wouldn’t say there was anyone around me doing this kind of work. It was my own interest for sure.

HT: It was your own journey.

AB: Yes, it was absolutely my journey.  I started working on this book just after my daughter was born, and I had lost my job with the film company … I had always wanted to do this children’s book thing, a now or never kind of feeling, all my cards on the table, just a “Hail Mary pass.” It definitely felt like a journey, especially because it took so long for the book to come out. You know, it was about a three year process from inception to publication, which actually isn’t long for a book. It seemed like forever.

Interior spread from JOURNEY. Copyright © 2013 by Aaron Becker. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
JOURNEY. Copyright © 2013 by Aaron Becker. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
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An Interview With K. G. Campbell, Illustrator of Flora & Ulysses

Illustrator and author, K. G. Campbell discusses Flora & Ulysses, The Illuminated Adventures
and more with Ronna Mandel!

K. G. Campbell is the illustrator of Flora & Ulysses, The Illuminated Adventures written by Kate DiCamillo.
Illustrator and author K. G. Campbell

I had the good fortune to sit down with K. G. (Keith) Campbell earlier this month when he joined Kate DiCamillo for a Flora & Ulysses book event at Vroman’s in Pasadena. He’s a charming L.A. local with an intoxicating accent who’s not only an extremely talented and versatile illustrator, but an author, too. This Q & A focuses mostly on his artwork.


Click here now to enter our giveaway. Thanks to Candlewick, we’re giving away 3 copies of Flora & Ulysses, The Illuminated Adventures (Candlewick Press, $17.99, ages 8-12). Please write FLORA in the subject line, include your address and enter by midnight on Sunday, November 10, 2013.


GRWR: A quote I read called you an “up and coming illustrator.” How do you know when you’re no longer up and coming, but have arrived? What’s changed?

K. G. CAMPBELL: Well I think that’s a description from Candlewick Press and at the time I’d had only published one book, Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters for which I won the (2013) SCBWI Golden Kite Award. But since then I won the Golden Kite and an Ezra Jack Keats (New Illustrator) Honor for Lester. Flora & Ulysses had just come out and also Tea Party Rules by Ame Dyckman had also just released. I think you know you’re no longer up and coming when you no longer have to search for work. Candlewick just came to me recently and offered me another project

GRWR: Did you take it?

K. G.: Yes, actually. And also I’ve turned down a few. I guess that’s when you know – when you don’t have to pound the pavement.

GRWR: Tea Party Rules is with which publishing house?

Tea Party Rules by Ame Dyckman with illustrations by K. G. Campbell
Tea Party Rules by Ame Dyckman with illustrations by K. G. Campbell, Viking Children’s Books.

K. G.: Tea Party Rules is with Viking. My second picture book with Kids Can Press, which is my manuscript, is due to come out next spring. It’s called The Mermaid and the Shoe.

GRWR: Can you please tell us the process when you try to develop the characters after after receiving Kate’s (DiCamillo) manuscript and how long it takes?

K. G.: So obviously the first thing that you do is read the manuscript. You try and get a feel for the characters which isn’t difficult for Kate because her characters are so three dimensional, quirky and hilarious. You look for visual clues you have to be really careful to see if there’s any physical descriptions in there. And you go from there.

Kate DiCamillo's Flora & Ulysses from Candlewick Press with illustrations by K. G. Campbell.
Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses from Candlewick Press with illustrations by K. G. Campbell.

Being an LA local, what I tend to do is a little casting. I go in search of the perfect Flora or the perfect Phyllis or whoever it is. But unlike a casting director, I can select from anyone who’s ever lived. They can be friends or family, they can be famous actors They can be TV actors. They can be film actors. They can be theatre actors. They can be fictional. I try to find a type that will fit that character. Then that sort of gives me a feeling how they’re going to react physically in any given situation they’re faced with, expressions and all that stuff. And then I do the sketches based on that. And then, in this case, but it’s not always the case .., well, they always go through the art director and the art director has some input as to whether they think that physical manifestation of the character is appropriate. In this case, because Kate is Kate, they (the sketches) also went to her. Often, usually in fact, they wouldn’t go to the author. The author has very little input in the illustrations. But Kate had something to say. Some characters were modified from my original sketches. Now they are what they are so that’s perfect.

GRWR: Who was the most difficult character to draw or create?

K. G.: I think the most difficult was probably Ulysses himself, because, and it’s actually technical reasons. It’s a middle grade novel so the format is quite small. All of the images are printed as 5×7. I drew them very slightly larger just so it would crisp up as it was reduced, but I didn’t want to draw so much larger that I didn’t know what was going to happen to them. Ulysses is a squirrel and everybody else is a human being and human beings are much larger than squirrels. And in fact, I made Ulysses slightly larger than real life so that he would be visible. So getting the amount of character that we wanted to into Ulysses when his scale was so small, that was the most difficult part.

Flora, Ulysses and neighbor Mrs. Tickham with the Ulysses Super Suction vacuum as illustrated by K. G. Campbell. Candlewick Press.
Flora, Ulysses and neighbor Mrs. Tickham with the Ulysses Super Suction vacuum as illustrated by K. G. Campbell. Candlewick Press.

GRWR:  Who was the easiest to draw?

K. G: Phyllis.

GRWR:  I love the look of Phyllis. I feel like I’ve met her before.

K. G.: I wanted someone with a crazy, curly hairstyle, girlie, melodramatic.  And I actually had a person in mind for Phyllis. She was inspired by a Broadway actress. Phyllis is like my original sketch. Some changed a bit, some changed a lot. But not Phyllis.

GRWR: What medium do you work in?

K. G.: I usually work in water color and colored pencils combined but Flora & Ulysses was executed entirely with colored pencils, no water colors.

GRWR: You’ve lived in Kenya, Scotland and California. Is one locale particularly more inspiring for you as an artist?

K. G.: Yeah, I would say Scotland, probably. The weather and the atmosphere make it a less attractive place to live, but it’s definitely a very romantic and gothic setting. And it makes for a good location for the kind of gothic stories that I like. Not that Scotland was the setting for either Lester or Ulyssses. It wasn’t. But in my future writing I think some of it will be set there.

GRWR: Since you do not consult with the author, is it scary interpreting their vision or is that a challenge you enjoy?

K. G.: It’s definitely more difficult illustrating for other people’s manuscripts than my own. Obviously not all illustrators are in my position. Not all illustrators write as well so they may not make that comparison. For me I do have that comparison and it’s definitely more difficult and more time consuming because you have more parties involved who make changes, so it becomes a bit more difficult. I wouldn’t say it’s more intimidating or daunting, but it’s more of a challenge.

GRWR: Do you prefer to illustrate others’ books or do the entire book yourself.

K. G.:  It’s easier to illustrate my own, but illustrating other people’s work does take me to places that I wouldn’t have gone. So in that sense the product that emerges at the end is perhaps more surprising and unexpected. It becomes something of a team effort almost like a play, I suppose, or when you have several screenwriters working together it becomes a collaborative process and the creation is the product of that.

GRWR: You studied art history, did interior design yet always felt the call to illustrate even as a child. What stopped you from pursuing that from the start?

K. G.: Well that’s quite a complicated answer. And to be honest I’m not 100% sure that I have an answer to that. I was flattered and encouraged to take an academic route as I graduated from high school. My academics were pretty strong and I wound up going to a fairly prestigious school which is Edinburgh University. And really at that point I made the decision not to go to art school and I put down the pencil and I didn’t pick it up again for decades. I got onto a different path.

Cover artwork from Lester's Dreadful Sweaters by K. G. Campbell.
Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters written and illustrated by K. G. Campbell, Kids Can Press.

GRWR: But it was always tugging at you to return to it?

K. G: Yeah. And the more I delved into exploring children’s literature and illustration, the more I felt compelled to do it, the more I felt very strongly that I had the talent and the skill to participate in that world. So I began to take it more and more seriously and so here I am.

GRWR: At that point, did you go back to school?

K.G.: No. As an artist I’m more or less self-taught. I’ve done some life drawing classes. Obviously I’ve done a bit of research on the materials and stuff online, but on the whole you would call me a self-taught artist. I did however go to UCLA and Art Center Pasadena for some night classes in creative writing, in children’s writing and specifically in illustrating. I did a class with Marla Frazee who’s a well-known children’s writer and illustrator who lives here in L.A. She teaches at Art Center. While it wasn’t an art class per se, it wasn’t teaching you to draw, it was teaching you how to use whatever skills you had and whatever style you had to illustrate and how images participate in a book and how they enhance a text. I did a great writing class with Barney Saltzberg who’s another local author/illustrator who has had a string of books published. He teaches a night class at UCLA in writing for kids basically.

GRWR: Did you find when you weren’t working in the field of children’s books that you were still drawn to it, that you still loved wandering around the children’s books department of a bookstore?  

K. G.: Oh all the time! In fact I never really stopped reading children’s literature which a lot of my adult peers find a little odd. But definitely my favorite books probably are children’s books or perhaps adult books that have a fairy tale quality to them to some degree. I love sort of sophisticated middle grade novels. Philip Pullman, who wrote The Golden Compass, is one of my favorites.

GRWR: Which illustrators have most influenced you?

K. G.: Edward Gorey, Tim Burton and Lisbeth Zwerger, an Austrian artist.

GRWR: How many hours per day do you devote to your projects?

K. G.: Well, I try to do a full workday. I am my own boss. I’m probably not working a full eight or nine hours, but maybe about six or seven hours a day. And depending on where I am in a project will dictate how much of that time is allocated to illustrating and how much is allocated to writing. An ideal scenario is kind of half and half – three and half hours writing and three and half hours illustrating. Something like that. But  in the real world, as deadlines loom for my illustrating projects, I find that the writing has to take a back seat to some extent because the illustrations have to get done and that’s what happens.

GRWR: Any advice for new illustrators?

K.G.: I would certainly say if you haven’t, then take a class, some classes, in illustrating specifically because it is a distinct branch of artistic output and it’s about bringing to a text something that perhaps the text doesn’t already contain. But it has to be complementary. And in many cases, especially in picture books, you’re telling a story along with the text. Sometimes you are a carrying a subplot as well, and you can throw in characters, usually a pet or something, that aren’t mentioned in the main text and you can have things going on, a whole storyline, that’s purely visual. So I think understanding what illustration is is very important. It’s more important than any level of artistic skill or style.






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Super Schnoz Blog Tour And Book Giveaway



Super Schnoz and the Gates of Smell (Book 1) (Albert Whitman, $14.99, ages 8 -12) by Gary Urey with illustrations by Ethan Long is reviewed today by Ronna Mandel.  The book is available in print both online and at local independent bookstores. Find the ebook at Open Road Media ( Please also read on for a Q&A with the author and the signed book giveaway details then remember to visit the next stop on the blog tour & book giveaway: Monday, September 23, 2013 Gary Urey Interviews Ethan Long and Signed Book Giveaway.

Book Summary:

In this riotous romp around Denmark, New Hampshire (yes, something is rotten in this city), readers meet 11-year-old Andy Whiffler. With his exceptionally large nose, Whiffler will experience the trials and tribulations common to many just-moved-to-town tweens, only more so because his nose knows no boundaries.

Super Schnoz and the Gates of SmellAndy’s intelligence, wit and uncanny ability to sniff out trouble (in addition to a variety of vile stinky things such as a rotting pastrami sandwich, feet fungus and armpit odor) soon turns around the kids who so often tease him about his oversized honker. Now, as a member of a group who have dubbed themselves the Not-Right Brothers along with one female friend named Vivian, Andy embarks on unearthing what’s causing the horrendously horrible noxious fumes at James F. Durante Elementary.

Soon something seriously fishy is discovered. In fact it’s downright criminal and it may cause the school to close down leaving kids to lose their summer vacation. However, if all goes according to plan, The Not-Right Brothers, aided by a Mardi Gras masked, flying crime fighter known as Super Schnoz, will rid school of its evil element, foiling a dastardly plan to pollute cities across the planet. Can Super Schnoz close the Gates of Smell and help reopen James F. Durante Elementary? Don’t let only the nose know! Pick up a copy today at your local independent bookseller and find out what part some snot and cayenne pepper play in this mad dash to deliver Denmark from certain disaster.

Today, as part of this week long  Albert Whitman blog tour, Good Reads With Ronna interviews Super Schnoz debut author Gary Urey.

Author Gary Urey
Author Gary Urey

Q&A with Gary Urey:

GRWR: Please tell us how you decided that a boy with a humongous nose should be a super hero? Why not ears or big feet?

Gary Urey: Big noses are just funny! They can smell good things and bad things, expel mucous, wiggle, and you can pick it. If you ever got stranded on a desert island, your nose could provide hours of idle entertainment. Also, people are generally obsessed with their nose. Is it too big or too small? Why is it red? Should I get a nose job?

GRWR: I love being entertained and your book is pure entertainment. What does it take nowadays to entertain children with their oh so many distractions?

Gary Urey: Children are very easy to entertain if you have a laptop, a TV, and Netflix. Seriously, I think that children innately love books. We as adults just need to put the right book into a kid’s hands and they will gobble it up. A Newbery Medal winning book may very well be a beautifully told tale, but a kid who likes comic books, laughs at fart jokes, and makes goofy videos with his friends and then uploads them to YouTube probably won’t be interested in a story about a kid who lives in a small Kansas town during the depression. But that same fart joke-loving kid will eagerly read books like Captain Underpants, Super Schnoz, and The Day My Butt Went Psycho.

GRWR: You’ve said that you were nasally challenged as a child like Andy Whiffler. What kind of teasing did you endure and is that when your keen sense of humor was born?

Gary Urey: Yes, I was born into a family of large noses! Our family reunion looks like a nose convention. My maternal grandfather’s nose was so HUGE you could use it as a storm shelter. His honker actually affected the tides.

Somewhere in my childhood, I got an unfortunate nickname that left me wide open for teasing. Everybody referred to me by that name, even teachers and my own family. To this day, if I went back to my hometown they would call me by that name. So, to answer your question, when you go through childhood and adolescence with a humiliating nickname you develop a healthy sense of humor.

Illustrator Ethan Long
Illustrator Ethan Long

GRWR: Was this book originally conceived as an animated TV show because between Long’s artwork and the madcap adventures embarked upon, it seems to shout series?

Gary Urey: No, I didn’t consciously start writing Super Schnoz with an eye for an animated TV show—although that would be great! I grew up in a home without books so Saturday morning and after-school cartoons were my main source of entertainment. Shows like Hong Kong Phooey, Johnny Quest, Bugs Bunny, the Flintstones, Land of the Lost, Super Friends, and dozens of others were a major influence on me as a writer for children.

GRWR: There are snot and sickening smell type jokes up the kazoo in this book. How do you know when you’ve reached capacity with this type of humor in a kids’ book? For example – do you show it to some kids for their input?

Gary Urey: I let my eleven-year-old daughter and her friends read the manuscript. Half said it was gross, the other half didn’t, so I figured the avalanche of booger and snot jokes were okay. Also, my editor at Albert Whitman will let me know if I have gone too far.

GRWR: Did you decide to add all the name references to nose related things such as Principal Cyrano and James F. Durante Elementary School for the grown-ups who might read this to their children? I looked up the Russian city of Nizhnevartovsk you included in the story thinking it was going to be a translation of nose, but it wasn’t. Did you do that on purpose?

Gary Urey: Yes, I did add all the big nose references for the grown-ups. The Russian city of Nizhnevartovsk just popped into my head the day I was writing that chapter. I think I heard of the city from some documentary. Although, your idea of naming the city after the Russian word for nose is much funnier. (According to Google Translate, nose in Russian is hoc.)

GRWR: The whole idea of Andy being able to fly is so totally imaginative.  Did you have to do some research to make his ability to lift off the ground thanks to inflated nostrils believable?

Gary Urey: I did a bit of research on how hot-air balloons work, just to make it bit more believable.

GRWR: Where did you draw your inspiration for the four other members of Andy’s Not-Right Brothers and girl partner-in-crime fighting?

Gary Urey: The Not-Right Brothers are composites of friends I had during elementary school. As for Vivian, all the great super hero teams like the Fantastic Four have a kick-butt girl in the gang. Vivian fit the bill perfectly!

GRWR: Is there a second book in the works?

Gary Urey: Yes. I just finished Super Schnoz II. He will battle snotty aliens who are intent on taking over the world!

GRWR: What writers inspired you as a child and who are those you still enjoy reading as an adult today?

Gary Urey: The book I remember most from childhood is How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell. I still love that book! The book that made me want to become a children’s writer was Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. It’s my favorite book ever, and it won the Newbery back in 1991. I also love every book by Gary Paulson, Avi, Cynthia Rylant, and Dav Pilkey. They’ve had a tremendous influence on me.


We’re excited to give away 2 autographed by the author (Gary Urey) copies of SUPER SCHNOZ AND THE GATES OF SMELL. Each of the winners will have their signed copy mailed to them by Albert Whitman & Company who are graciously providing the books.

The giveaway begins today, Sunday, September 22, 2013 and runs through Sunday, October 6th ’til midnight. Each of the winners of (1) one copy of SUPER SCHNOZ AND THE GATES OF SMELL by Gary Urey with illustrations by Ethan Long will be selected via and notified on Monday, October 7th. Send your name and address to Good Reads With Ronna by clicking here. Be sure to write SCHNOZ/Albert Whitman Giveaway in the subject. For an extra entry, please LIKE our Facebook page by clicking here.  Also remember to send us your name and contact info in an email to by midnight Sunday, October 6, 2013 and you’ll be entered to win.

Please click here for a link to our contests page if you need more info. Good luck!

 See the trailer here:

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Odd is the New Normal: Meet Cecil Castellucci

Ronna Mandel interviews Odd Duck author Cecil Castellucci. Odd Duck, published by :01 First Second Books, $15.99, ages 6-10, is illustrated by Sara Varon.

mail-3Cecil Castellucci, an L.A. author, has written everything from picture books to young adult novels. Her latest projects are Odd Duck and Letters for Kids, a bi-monthly subscription program through The Rumpus. In Odd Duck we meet Theodora and Chad, neighbor ducks who both waddle to the beat of a different drum yet actually have tons in common. Although the two become BFFs each one thinks the other is the strange one. Upon overhearing someone call one of them, odd, Theodora and Chad clash over which duck was being referred to. This winning picture book is a salute to individuality and uniqueness, a recurring theme for Castellucci.

mail-2How much of you is in Theodora?

I think all of me is in Theodora and Chad. It took a long time for me to figure out that my oddness was also what made me interesting.

Why do you think opposites Theodora and Chad attract?

I have always been a big fan of opposites. Some of my favorite friendships are the ones where we see the world in a similar way but we like radically different things. In Odd Duck, Chad and Theodora might move through the world very differently, but I think fundamentally they feel the same way about things.

Why do people shy away from what they don’t consider “normal”?

It’s hard to be odd. I’m no psychologist, but I think that we tend to gravitate toward groups to feel safer and that is what “normal” means. But I think that being odd is normal to other odd people. So I say, find your odd tribe and you will be “normal”! Because I think really there is no such thing as normal. And I think that everyone on the entire planet is a little odd about something.

Learn more about Cecil Castellucci and her other books at For info about Letters for Kids and more about Odd Duck, read the extended interview at

Find the extended interview at and remember to pick up their new May issue.

Click here for the link to my review of Castellucci’s First Day on Earth, a fantastic YA novel from 2011.

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The Magic of Pop-Up Books: An Interview with Paper Engineer Bruce Foster

Debbie Glade was overwhelmed by the detail of America’s National Parks: A Pop-Up Book, so she asked Bruce Foster, the paper engineer if he’d answer some questions and enlighten our readers.

bruce-fosterBruce Foster is one of those lucky people who lives his passion every day through his rare talents as a paper engineer. He has designed many intricate pop-up books and also designs pop-up scenes in movies such as Disney’s Enchanted. Today he shares his passion with our readers and provides us with insight into the fascinating and often painstaking process of creating pop-ups.

How old were you when you realized you had artistic talent?

Well, I had been doodling space ships for awhile (I gorged myself on superhero comic books as a child) when in the 5th grade I discovered a set of three books:  The Lord of the Rings. On each cover was a beautiful foil embossed elven symbol. Fascinated, I copied them over and over. In hindsight, that was my first awareness of graphic design, a skill that I have used throughout my career. But my first true artistic validation was as a freshman in college. Actually entering in Pre-Med, I was introduced by a friend to a class in drawing. The class was magic and shortly thereafter I changed my major to art.

Please tell us how you went from majoring in Art/Painting at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to becoming a paper engineer.

So here is the rest of that story. As a grad student in painting, I became friends with several people in the sculpture department. This exposure began to inform my choices, and before long my work was more like sculptured abstract paintings.

Later I became a graphic designer and art director. And then years after that, I had an assignment for a direct mail piece for Hi-C Juice that stipulated 3-D. I conceived a pop-up element, even though I do not recall ever seeing a pop-up before in my life! Really! So I grabbed a few pop-up books and taught myself how to make this pop-up, although I would never do it that way now.

The realization that I could create sculptures using my graphic design skills was a revelation. Later, a publisher in Baltimore saw it and offered me some freelance paper engineering work. From there I pursued it with a passion, buying books and studying them inside and out (I call them book autopsies!) Eventually I made a breakthrough in New York with Simon & Schuster.

How did you even know what you were doing with that first project?

Actually, I did NOT know what I was doing! I was just inventing it as I went along and had to use an elastic band inside the pop-up to make it work. Today I would not need that crutch. Maybe one day I’ll revisit that project to see what I could do with it today.

In designing the pop-ups for America’s National Parks, how does the process work? Do you give the artist direction first or do you determine the pop-up function from whatever the artist provides for you?

The publisher, Don Compton, gave me a list of the parks to concentrate on, sending me a box full of books I could study and draw inspiration from. Then I shared thumbnail sketches and photo inspiration with Don and our illustrator, Dave Ember. Dave would do some pencil sketches that furthered my own sketches, and from there I began to work out the engineering. I built a dummy and sent it to Dave along with templates of the pieces, and he began illustrating. It was very much a back and forth exercise over the course of nearly two years, much longer than I normally spend on a book.

Dave was illustrating with point and click Vector drawing tools, so it was extremely time consuming for him. From spread to spread we discussed features we thought would be good for the park and the book’s flow as well. We certainly didn’t want a book full of nothing but rock! So for instance, Everglades very quickly focused on wildlife. Even later, we had decided that the red jammer cars would be the focus for Glacier, but after designing it, we felt we had tilted too far toward inanimate objects and decided that Glacier needed to be refocused on a living thing. Inside one of the small booklets is the logo for the Great Northern Railway that was cut through those mountains. It features a mountain goat, so I actually designed the pop-up now to feature a mountain goat in the exact same position!

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So it actually took you two years to complete those six National Park spreads featured in the book?

Yes! I was first contacted for this project in March of 2010. We wrapped up the files and sent them to Thailand in March of 2012.  However, individual spreads would usually take me two weeks each to work out, although over the course of the two years, I would refine them over and over, especially when Dave’s illustrations began arriving.

The book is so complex and spectacular, I’m not all that surprised by how long it took to complete. Have you personally visited any of those National Parks in the book and which is your favorite? 

Well of course, as a student in Tennessee, I was basically at the foot of the Smoky Mountains, so I would visit and camp up there a lot. I miss it so much! I would even go white water rafting down the Ocoee. Other than that, I have not visited any of the parks in this book! So in a way, I am a perfect example of one segment of the public we would like to reach: those who do not know what they are missing! Hopefully I will be able to visit some of them soon.

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Grand Canyon National Park

I watched the fascinating Smithsonian Library video about Paper Engineering where you are featured. During the process of designing pages, do you have many different prototypes you experiment with to get it right? And is this process ever frustrating to you?

It depends. Some pops only need two or three builds. Some may require multiple. The Hogwarts castle in Harry Potter took seven attempts to reach the point that all of us working on it felt it was nailed. And if you think building something seven times isn’t frustrating, well, let’s just say um, yes. There are times when I am attempting an idea for a pop and after days and days of working, just have to decide that my approach is a dead end, and I must start all over with a new idea. So there are times when this is nothing but pure fun and others, nothing but frustration. But it’s important to not give up! Persistence is behind the efforts of every paper engineer. There is a lot of experimentation that sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t.

Thank you for sharing that. I think it’s important for admirers of these kinds of books to understand just how much work is involved. Are you involved in the printing process of these books in any way? I’d imagine it is fascinating to watch the pages being printed and even more amazing being assembled.

You know, I’ve been doing this for more than 23 years now, and despite my pleas to travel to Asia to see this process, it was not until this wonderful book and the patronage of Mr. Compton, that I was finally able to do so. Publishers usually have their art directors travel for the press checks and as a freelance talent, there was never a budget for my travel expenses. Mostly I would receive models via FedEx or DHL that the printers constructed. From those I made my comments and suggestions for refinement.

Sometimes however, the publishers never consult with me at all after I submit the dieline files, which I firmly believe is a mistake. Being at the printer, with America’s National Parks Sirivatana, in Bangkok and Laos, I was able to make refinements on the spot, discussing issues with the assemblers, and working with them to solve any problems. I can look back at past books that might have something not working as smoothly as it should, and realize that if I had had the opportunity to see what they were doing and work with them, sometimes a very, very small adjustment would have completely fixed the issue.

You have designed both pop-up books and pop-up scenes for movies. Can you explain to us what is entailed in making a pop-up scene?

The processes are not that different, except for books that have a defined purpose for each spread (like popping up the Taj Mahal). Designing the whole of a book is very much like designing the scenes for a stage play or movie. Just as the stage designer has to decide what the overall scene is going to be in a particular act, even though many things may happen during that act, its the same for the book. I have to decide what is important in this spread, how to get it to where it needs to be and make sure it flows in a way that carries the story logically. Sometimes the small pops inform or provide exposition to carry the story forward.

Are there specific projects you’ve done that you consider your favorites, or is it impossible for you to choose?

Any given project I’m working on at the moment is usually a favorite, because I’m still discovering it. However, looking back, there are a few favorites, for different reasons:

  • Little Red Riding Hood my first book for a New York publisher. Wow!
  • The Pop-Up Book of Sports – I just loved the creative team at Sports Illustrated and they were so supportive of my solutions
  • Harry Potter – I love that series and I used to read the books aloud to my daughters. My eldest daughter, Nicole, was actually the same age as Harry at the same time
  • America’s National Parks – This book is beautiful but more than that, it has a soul. It is infused with Don Compton’s love of the great parks and conservation efforts. Our parks are more in danger now than at any other time. Both because of climate change and the other our national politics. The budget cuts are very harmful to the present and future of these national treasures. Our hope is that this book will help foster an urgency in people to help these parks survive for our future generations.


From The Pop-Up Book of Sports

Can you tell us more about the Harry Potter pop-up book you engineered? I have seen photographs of it, and I was blown away by how detailed and spectacular it looks.

First of all, that was a true labor of love for me, and as I said, it was already a favorite series for my family. I was given permission to really pull out the stops and try to accomplish something extraordinary. But then the icing was that Warner Bros. was fully involved with this and arranged for us to have their great concept artist, Andrew Williamson, as our illustrator. The resources that were at his command were immense. Working at the London studio itself gave him access to details that no one else could even begin to replicate. In the water below Hogwarts most people don’t even notice, but there are tiny mermaids in the water. It was just that detailed. And the speed that he was able to turn these out still amazes me. But he was able to go into actual concept art and use them to inform his illustrations. Sometimes we would ask for reference and he was able to just walk over to the set and take a photo. Like the opening spread – it’s a view of Dumbledore’s office, but from his desk’s point of view. Andrew was able to actually walk into the set and take a shot from a vantage that was never seen in the movies! Access like that and talent like he possesses was a dream come true for this project!

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Hogwarts in 3D

That is truly amazing. Now that we understand a bit more about the work these books require, do you have any tips on using and preserving pop-up books?

First I’d like to stress to people that pop-up books may look like toys, but they are not. These are delicate, hand-assembled works of art. Also people often think pop-ups are just for kids, but in truth, most of my body of work is not aimed at children. However, my advice is to take advantage of the opportunity for bonding with your children that a pop-up book offers. Sit with your child in your lap and share the book with him or her. Teach her to turn the pages with respect and the books will last long enough for their children to enjoy. Other than that, its good to keep them in their acetate sleeves when you can.

I love the fact that pop-ups must be physical books that are to be held and are interactive. What is your opinion about the recent shift away from paper books as e-books are becoming more and more the publishing norm?

Well, we are at a turning point in history. Not just for pop-up books, but books as a whole. A pop-up book, in its current form, is the only way to truly “get” them. It is a magical transformation of something that your mind tells you shouldn’t be happening! If and when someone figures out how to electronically reproduce a pop-up book, it still will not have that “magic.” We suspend disbelief for everything computer. Of course it can do that; it’s a computer! But a book that transforms… ah. Magical.

Unfortunately, the ease of downloading electronic books is also endangering the bookstore. If you don’t see a pop-up book on display in a store, how do you know it’s there? If you can’t open it to experience the magic, how do you know it’s something you must have?  And facing limited budgets, publishers have little recourse but to divert money from pop-up books – among many types of books – to the electronic versions. A librarian once told me I must be very lucky because with so few skilled paper engineers, I must have a built in market for my skills. You can’t have a pop-up book without a paper engineer, after all. But in reality, if a publisher can’t see a way to make a profit on a project, it…just…won’t….happen.

Do you have any advice for artists who want to become paper engineers?

First, don’t let my previous answer discourage you! I don’t know how much of a career there is going to be for this in the future, but if you love this art form, think of it as just that: an art form. There is never any guarantee of financial rewards with art, and that has never stopped artists from doing what they are born to do. Since there are very few schools that even teach paper engineering courses (and no such thing as a degree program), study as many pop-up books as you can. The best way to learn this, short of interning for an established paper engineer, is just to do it. Copy the mechanisms. Rebuild them. Change something to make it your own. Do it again until it works the way you envisioned. Some of you will figure a way to make a career out of this, even if the established model of going through publishers is diminished further. As the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. I’m constantly looking for those opening doors and you should, too!

When you are not designing, what do you most like to do?

I love movies, and I love to read and cook. We’ve been fans of Top Chef from its beginning and I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of them and dine in their restaurants. So it’s a hobby to be inspired by their dishes as I prepare meals. My wife and I have a menagerie of pets (three dogs and five cats) all of whom I love. I also love to travel, although now that my children are recently out on their own, we have a bit of problem with the pet-sitting situation!

Bruce, I am in awe of your work, and I have truly been enlightened by your words. All of us at Good Reads with Ronna are so grateful to you for taking the time to share your passion with our readers. If everyone could see and touch a copy of America’s National Parks, pop-ups books would certainly endure! Best of luck to you with your next project; I for one can’t wait to see what that will be!

Readers, click here to purchase your copy of America’s National Parks. For every copy of the book sold, $8 will be donated to the National Park Conservation Association (NPCA) For more information about Bruce Foster and his pop-up books and movie scenes, visit his website.

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Writing Nonfiction American History Books for Children: An Interview with Author Brandon Marie Miller

Today we are delighted to share with you our interview by Debbie Glade with author Brandon Marie Miller. Brandon is an author of many nonfiction books for children, all based on American History.  Debbie reviewed Benjamin Franklin: American Genius back in 2009 and most recently reviewed her wonderful book, Women of the Frontier.

Author photo

Ms. Miller has won literary awards from the International Reading Association, the National Council for the Social Studies, the Society of School Librarians International, Voice of Youth Advocates, Bank Street College, the Junior Library Guild, the New York Public Library and the Chicago Public Library, among others. What we love about her books is that her stories feature both famous figures and lesser-known Americans, all of whom have demonstrated extraordinary courage through their struggles and have achieved greatness in ways that awe and inspire us. Brandon lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.

You mention on your website that through your parents’ encouragement, you developed an interest in history at a young age and then later got your degree in American History from Purdue. Did you set out to become an author or did you fall into it somehow? And why did you choose to write for children?

I fell into it! Everything came together this way: I was a stay-at-home mom with small children and one day I read about a new history magazine for kids called Cobblestone. Two former teachers started the venture and they needed writers. I knew nothing of how to submit a query or write an article. But I sent off a self-addressed- stamped envelope requesting the writer’s guidelines—that’s how long ago this was– no websites or e-mail! I submitted an outline for an article on cowboy clothing. Cobblestone accepted my proposal, I wrote the article, and that was my start. So I began writing for children almost accidentally and I’m glad I did. I hope young people will feel inspired by history’s stories.

That’s a terrific way to start a writing career. How did you get the idea to write Women of the Frontier?

I had just finished writing seven books set in the colonial and Revolutionary War periods—including biographies of Founding Fathers Washington, Franklin and Jefferson, and was ready for a change. I also wanted to return to women’s history. My very first book had been about women of the old West. That book, Buffalo Gals (1995), had been out of print for many years, but I still loved the topic. Chicago Review Press was starting a new series introducing Women of Action. I sent them a copy of Buffalo Gals and was thrilled when they decided I could rework the original book. I added so much more great information, some dealing with more mature topics, and included mini biographies of some of the women. Buffalo Gals transformed and expanded from 16,000 words to 61,000 words. I had so much fun returning to women of the frontier!


What was the process like finding the stories of the women you wrote about in your book, especially considering most were not famous? What sources did you use?

I read lots of great books, most written by academics specializing in women’s western history. I also had the advantage this time of using the internet to find sources. Some of the women’s firsthand accounts have been published online which is wonderful. You feel like you’ve found a jewel when a source pops up online! I was able to read Miriam Colt’s Went to Kansas, Virginia Reed’s story of the Donner Party, Carry Nation’s autobiography and Amelia Knight’s diary, as well as speeches by Mary Lease, online. State historical societies (Kansas has a good one) and the National Park Service were also great online resources. Being able to find out-of-print books online is another help.

Over the years I’ve also traveled out west, following parts of the Oregon Trail, visiting Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, Fort Laramie and Independence Rock as well as a sod house at Homestead National Monument. I always buy books along the way.

Of all the women featured in the bios, Clara Brown was probably the most difficult to research and write. Unlike most of the other women, she left behind no written record of her life. You have to go by what records do exist and what others said about her. The same was true of Cynthia Ann Parker who left no written record of her years living as a Comanche or her life after she returned to white society.

It sounds like a challenging, time-consuming process. How long did it take you to research and write the book?

It took me about 18 months to research, write and revise the book.

Of the 16 women you featured in your book, is there one in particular you admire or can relate to most?

What a tough question! I felt such involvement in their stories and admired them all for different reasons. Margret Reed and Rachel Parker Plummer survived unspeakable situations. Bethenia Owens transformed from an illiterate girl married at 14 to a college-trained physician. Mary Lease, Carry Nation and Martha Maxwell found that their work outside a “woman’s sphere” cost them their marriages. Native Americans Susette La Flesche and Sarah Winnemucca fought corrupt government Indian policies. Clara Brown was nearly 60 when she began life anew, freed from slavery. She worked so hard and helped so many others. I enjoyed the humor and stoic diary of Amelia Stewart Knight who traveled to Oregon with her husband and 7 children, giving birth to another baby on the trail. She never mentions the pregnancy in her diary—you don’t find out until she simply states she gave birth to a baby boy. Then you backtrack, thinking, wow, she is heavily pregnant and doing all this. I could go on…I can’t choose! Please don’t make me!

With all those inspiring women, I could see how you’d be torn like that!

After reading Women of the Frontier and learning of their hardships, I personally felt a bit ashamed about the complaining I do on a daily basis. Getting stuck in traffic in a car for 15 minutes is not quite the same as traveling across country in a covered wagon in blizzard conditions with little food, widespread illnesses and no medicine. Did your research for the book change the way you think about modern conveniences and just how much our “comfort zones” have changed since pioneer days?

Strangely, I’m always struck by this when I’m doing the laundry. In Women of the Frontier I include one woman’s 11-step recipe for laundry day. It includes fetching and boiling tubs of water, stirring and scrubbing the clothes, wringing them out—real back-breaking work. Then she finishes off by scrubbing her porch with the rinse water and dumping the rest into her flowerbed. As the last point on her recipe she writes: “Go put on a clean dress, smooth hair with side combs, brew cup of tee, set and rest and rock a spell and count blessings.”  Her recipe makes me vow to never complain about carrying a clothes basket to the basement, sorting, and dumping my wash into a machine!

What a terrific way to remind us all that modern conveniences make life much easier.  

Women of the Frontier is not your only book about people who demonstrated great courage and persevered against all odds.  If you could interview one person you’ve written about, who would that be and what would you most like to ask that person?

I would love to interview George Washington (George Washington for Kids: His Life and Times, Chicago Review Press, 2007). One of things I would like to ask is this: When you sat on horseback facing the advancing British army in New York and your raw American recruits fled, what was going through your mind? Did you really want to die, as one of your generals wrote? Also, I’d like him to discuss the hatred between Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and how that splintered his cabinet. It really broke his heart, I think, and I’d love to hear his own thoughts. And since we live in a world of tabloid journalism, I guess I’d have to ask if he ever stepped-out on Martha. For that question I would deserve first-hand experience of Washington’s famous temper.


Now that sounds to me like possibly the best interview of all time.

Your books are so important for our children’s education. As an author who visits schools and speaks to students, do you find that children are extremely interested in American history, or not so much?

I find students very interested in American history, especially stories about how people lived in the past. They love hearing about the chores, schooling, medical treatments, fashion and how society viewed things. They love hearing little stories that make famous men more relatable. They love hearing people’s stories told in their own words. What better way to connect with someone than through their own words! And kids have questions about everything. My favorite question was asked twice, in different schools, in different states—if a woman jumped off a cliff wearing her bell-shaped hoop skirt would she float to the ground like a parachute?!

What do you find most rewarding about what you do?

So many things! I find the research very rewarding—my head is so filled with trivia I can amaze my family when we play games. I love seeing what bits of information from my books kids latch onto—one fact kids love (at least girls do) is that boys of the past wore dresses until around the age of 5! I loved the time I talked about pioneer life out west and showed a photo of African American homesteaders in front of their sod house. An 8th grade African American girl approached me afterward and said she’d never known there were black pioneers and this was a happy discovery for her. I felt I’d made a difference to someone that day. Maybe most rewarding personally is the connection I’ve made with other writers—this community is filled with wonderful people willing to share, hand-hold, sympathize and celebrate when the time comes!

What is your opinion about the shift away from printed books with the focus more on ebooks and apps, particularly for nonfiction children’s books like yours?

I’m certainly no expert and publishing is changing so quickly most authors are scrambling to keep up. Apps include an interactive quality which is greatly appealing for kids, but apps may lack the depth of information that comes from a good nonfiction print book. Most publishers have ebook versions of print books which is great for authors as the number of readers turning to ebooks continues to grow. My main concern with nonfiction ebooks is that many will be self-published without the benefit of editorial standards for quality of research and writing. As the number of self-published ebooks continues to grow, the glut on the market will make it harder for consumers to choose the best investment of their time and money.


I imagine you often get asked about your name. Being an author with the first name of Brandon, are people sometimes surprised when they meet you to find you are a woman and not a man?  I bet it makes for some great conversation!

It is definitely a conversation starter, and when people write me it is often as Mr. Miller! I always include my middle name “Marie” in all my bylines so people have a tiny clue that I am a female “Brandon.” When my mother was pregnant she read a book that featured a woman called Brandon and liked the name. Years later I read that book, and discovered the character was a seducer and murderer! Thanks, mom.

What advice do you have for an aspiring author who is thinking about writing a nonfiction book for children?

Take time with your research. Everything develops from the research—inspiration, stories, quotes, facts. Choose a topic you have a passion for and dig in. Work at organizing your material so your writing flows smoothly and logically. Write and rewrite. Persevere! Educate yourself about the publishing industry which is changing so quickly now. Read books, attend conferences, join a writer’s group. Read and write like crazy.

Can you tell us what project you are working on next?

Right now I am working on a novel set during the California Gold Rush based on some of the women featured in Women of the Frontier. I don’t know if this will ever be published, but I’m enjoying the process. I also have ideas for several nonfiction book proposals.

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The author with the head of Emperor Constantine on her recent trip to Rome

I certainly would love to read that. When you’re not reading or writing, what do you most enjoy doing?

I love getting together with friends and talking; usually there is food involved. I love to travel—exploring nature or museums, I like them both! I love playing games of all sorts and watching sports. I also enjoy watching old movies from the 1930s and 1940s and attending the ballet.

Brandon, we cannot thank you enough for taking time out of your busy writing schedule to share your personal story about life as a writer and giving our readers insight into the process of writing nonfiction for children. Like the many Americans you write about in your history books, you, too, are a great inspiration.

For a list and description of all of Brandon’s books, check out her website. To find out how to book Brandon Marie Miller as a speaker at your school or event, click here. To get marvelous ideas for hands-on nonfiction activities for kids, check out the blog by Brandon and two other children’s book authors, including Kerrie Logan Hollihan, whom we’ve interviewed before and Mary Kay Carson.

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From Mechanical Engineer to Children’s Book Author: An Interview with Jerome Pohlen

After giving Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities and Thought Experiments a glowing review, Debbie Glade was thrilled when Jerome Pohlen, author and Senior Editor at Chicago Review Press, agreed to an interview with Good Reads with Ronna.

After receiving his Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Notre Dame University, Jerome joined the U.S. Peace Corps, volunteering for two years in the Republic of Benin, West Africa. Upon his return stateside, he started his career as an engineer, but soon realized he’d rather be teaching so he returned to school for a Master’s Degree in Education. That of course, led him to a teaching position and later, a job with an educational toy company where he created science kits for kids. Next he wrote a series of Oddball travel books, and most recently, Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids.

Author Jerome Pohlen

Can you tell us a little bit about your work in the U.S. Peace Corps?

I worked with a group that taught wood conservation, specifically through tree planting and efficient (and easy-to-build) mud stoves. For most villagers, who cooked on open fires, these mud stoves could cut their wood consumption in half, saving them money, time, smoke in their eyes . . . and it was pretty good for the forests, too.

What a fascinating experience that must have been. Was it that work that inspired you to write your Oddball travel books? And in any way did it influence your desire to educate or write for children?

The Oddball books came after I was a teacher. I traveled a lot for my job with the educational toy company, and started writing a self-published travel magazine about the goofy destinations I visited on the side. That magazine turned into the Oddball series.

What made you decide to get your Master’s Degree in Education and teach rather than continue in the field of mechanical engineering?

After working as an engineer for a few years, I realized that I didn’t have the passion I needed to make it a career. Engineering can be very specialized, narrowing your focus, and I was more interested in a variety of subjects, some having nothing to do with science. Plus, I wanted a job where I had more human interaction.

With your experience as a teacher, what is your opinion about the level of science education in America’s schools?

It’s pretty sad. It’s certainly understandable that the emphasis needs to be on reading and math, particularly in the early grades. But science often gets pushed to the background until students reach middle school where there are dedicated science teachers. By then, a lot of kids have written it off as something they can’t understand (which is nonsense).

As the parent of a college undergrad studying science – Geology – I am well aware of the shortage of scientists in America, and in particular women scientists. My daughter’s physics classes have been 98% men. Why do you suppose there is a shortage of American students here who want to study science and in particular, women?

Sadly, I think that there remains an underlying sexism that too often comes through peer pressure as to what should interest girls and boys. And on top of that, I think there’s an even larger anti-science bias in the general culture. A parent would NEVER say, “Don’t worry about reading—I didn’t understand it in school, either.” . . . but you hear that all the time in regard to science.

That’s sadly so true! How does one go about creating science kits for children? That must be both time consuming and challenging.

I worked for an educational toy company that wanted to develop science kits for the retail market. They could get all the components, but they needed a writer. I was the company’s science editor at the time, and when the intended author backed out, they asked me if I could write them . . . and fast. I did, and it was a lot of fun.

What inspired you to write Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids?

I’ve always loved physics and I wanted to give myself a challenge. After reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein, I was convinced that kids needed to know more about this remarkable man.

I am so glad you wrote that book! I interviewed author Kerrie Logan Hollihan, about her Queen Elizabeth I Kids Press book.  (She also wrote Isaac Newton and Physics for Kids and Theodore Roosevelt for Kids.) She informed me she was responsible for gathering all the photos and illustrations for her books. Did you do the same?

Yes, I went through the same lengthy process with my book.

How did you go about finding them?

All of the historic photos I researched and purchased online. With a subject as popular as Einstein, the question was more of cost than availability. A fair number of the photos in the book I took myself during a trip to Switzerland—the schools he attended, his homes, the train station where he waited with the red rose—they’re all still there, and look pretty much the same way today as they did when he was alive.

So you went to Switzerland for the purpose of learning more about Einstein?

Yes, I wanted to get a sense of where Einstein lived, studied, and worked, as well as visit the two Einstein museums in Switzerland. The trip helped my writing more than I expected.

That must have been an amazing experience! What was the process like, researching and then putting together copious amounts of information for the book? How long did that process take?

Start to finish it took about two years—a year and a half researching and reading, then six months writing. So much has been written about Einstein; the more I read the more inconsistencies I found. I was determined to include only those items that I could confirm with three independent sources.

I have so much respect for you for taking the time to make certain your facts were completely accurate. You have a unique and extraordinary talent of writing about a difficult topic in such a way that every reader, young or old can understand it. Your explanations of Relativity and Special Relativity are the first I’ve ever been able to totally comprehend. Does this ability come naturally to you, and do you credit your years of teaching experience?

I have to give my father credit on this one. When I was growing up my dad was working on the Viking mission, the first spacecraft to land on Mars. He would always tell me and my brothers the latest developments, even though we were still in elementary school, but he always made it understandable. The summer the spacecraft was launched, my family lived down in Florida, so we got backstage tours of Cape Canaveral. We even got to play around in the actual Apollo simulators, which by then had been mothballed in an old building. So science has been a part of my life from an early age, and I know it can be made understandable because it was made understandable to me.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Einstein when researching this book?

I was shocked at how brave Einstein was, all through his life. As a kid, he challenged his teachers, and as an adult, he challenged physicists who could have made his career difficult, and sometimes did. He opposed World War I while living in Germany. At a very real risk to his life, he also stood up to Hitler’s followers—again, in Germany—in the lead up to World War II, and he criticized Joseph McCarthy before almost anyone else did.

After reading your book, I realized that many Americans have misconceptions about Einstein. One is that he forgot to eat at times because he was too absent-minded; in fact there was a shortage of food that kept him from eating regularly. Another is that his brain was donated to science, rather it was taken without permission. Did you come across any other misconceptions about the scientist during your research?

One popular misconception was that he was a poor student—he wasn’t. Not until his last few years in college, when he spent a lot of time on his own course of study, did his grades slip.

If you could ask Albert Einstein one question in person, what would it be?

The one question no historian seems to be able to answer: What happened to your daughter Lieserl?

I wondered about that too. What advice do you have for anyone who wishes to write science books for children?

Never talk down to kids—you may have to adjust your vocabulary, but never your tone, which should be one of intellectual respect.

When you’re not writing, what do you most like to do?


What is your next writing project?

Oddball Michigan.

Jerome, thank you for sharing your interesting background with us and especially for sharing details about the extensive process of writing a non-fiction book for children.  Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids is an extraordinary book. Best of luck with your upcoming Oddball book, and please let us know when your next children’s book is due out. I want to be the first to read it!

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Soaring in the World of Illustration and Falconry

 An Interview with Illustrator Tim Jessell

After reviewing hundreds of children’s picture books here at Good Reads with Ronna, we’ve seen the best in illustrations. Occasionally an illustrator stands above most others and really wows us. After reading and reviewing Tim Jessell’s wonderful book, Falcon, Debbie Glade was hooked. She was eager to ask the author/illustrator some questions about his spectacular gift of illustrating, what inspires him and what it is that he loves about falcons.

Tim Jessell is a master of illustration, having completed many illustrations for corporations, magazines and books. Among his many credits are the best-seller series Secrets Of Droon, Stan Lee of Marvel Comics first children’s picture book, and covers for the reissue of Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s Newbery Honor Books. Tim has been the recipient of many art awards including the Gold Medal Award and numerous Best in Show Awards from the Society of Illustrators and the Illustrator of the Year by ADWeek Magazine.

  © Tim Jessell. Tim Jessell’s love for falconry led him to pen and illustrate the children’s book, Falcon 

You attended The University of Tulsa where you earned your degree in Fine Arts. How old were you when you first got interested in art?

Ever since I could first hold a pencil I was drawing when the mood struck me. My mom tells the story of challenging me when I handed her a drawing of a stick figure on family vacation …in the car, on the way to Florida via Indiana. When I was three years old, she asked me to draw something I was excited to see from our Florida trip. I liked the show “Sea Hunt,” so I drew a scuba diver. The lore is after she questioned my stick figure (she was an ex math and art teacher – dual brain hemispheres) I grabbed the drawing back in a huff, and proceeded to draw and articulate a figure complete with diving tanks, bubbles, fins, etc. She was stunned when I handed it back to her.

What a great story! It sounds like your mom deserves a bit of credit for encouraging you to draw. When did you first realize you could make a living as an artist?

I wouldn’t say there was a first piece that proved I could do it. I just knew from an early age that I was born with an innate skill beyond most kids and that somehow, someway I was going to make a living doing it.

Amorak, another of Tim Jessell’s books – a story about how the wolf and the caribou became brothers

Can you describe your art style?

Realism with a bit of a twist.

Can you briefly explain to our readers the process of creating your art graphically using a drawing tablet?

I use a Wacom Intuos4 tablet. That is the real key hardware interface to drawing and painting digitally. It makes painting with a mouse feel like a painting with a rock dipped in paint. It’s very pressure sensitive and is wireless with no battery. It takes little time to get used to, at least for me. You follow your cursor on the screen with the pen on the tablet.

Have you always illustrated digitally?

No, I’m in my  ’40s! I switched to digital around 2000.

Does it often surprise people when they discover your art process includes using a computer, since your illustrations do not look “graphic?”

Yes. I fooled an art director just this past week. Looking at my web site he had no idea I was digital. I spent many hours tweaking brushes and textures to make it look “analog” when I sit down to paint.

© Tim Jessell. From his book, Falcon

It is truly amazing. I am impressed by your art for so many reasons and in particular wanted to ask how you accomplish such great success and realism with your use of light in your illustrations?

Thank you. Lighting to me is like the melody to music, it’s just about everything in my view. It can create mood, atmosphere, and point of emphasis. When I look at the world around me, I constantly asses light and shadow color, low light effects, etc. But ironically I look at Norman Rockwell, and virtually all his lighting is flat and camera-like, yet it is gorgeous. It just goes to show you in art there are rules and no rules.

How do you know when you’re “done” with an illustration?

Ahh, I guess one can get “OCD” about many details in a piece, especially when not being known as a “loose” painter. I can honestly say looming deadlines often are a big help in knowing when to stop.

© Tim Jessell. From the book A Night in Santa’s Great Big Bag  

I was so impressed with your recent book, Falcon and was fascinated to learn that falconry is one of your hobbies. How on earth did you get interested in falconry?

In the summer of 1986 my family and I took a vacation to New York (had our car stolen, so we got the full NY treatment). My younger sister and I were to meet our parents at a concert in Central Park. I thought I took a short cut to the park, but instead stumbled upon a statue called “The Falconer.” I had an epiphany right then and there that that was what I wanted to do – become a falconer.

Wow, that’s really quite a story – that a statue inspired you to that degree. How does one go about training a falcon, and what exactly do you train the falcon to do?

The training is basically the same for most raptors, but can be different according to what type of bird you are flying. The knowledge and much of the equipment design has been passed down for thousands of years, despite modern advances. This helps greatly, as one doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

As for training, birds of prey are like bird dogs in that what you ultimately want to do (hunt live wild quarry) is already inside of them. The falconer is really teaching them to allow you to be a partner and where to direct it, like with bird dog training.

© Tim Jessell. Look twice – Tim Jessell’s illustrations are not photographs, from Falcon

Where do you get your falcons and is there a specific age of a falcon that is ideal for training?

I get mine from falconers who are also breeders. Many falconers don’t like to train young birds. They like to start with birds that are several months old (chamber birds, we call them). Thus, they avoid all the bad manners of downy birds who tend to make screaming noises at the falconer. This can eventually lead to a falcon treating his trainer like a mate or sibling. But these “imprints” can make for very aggressive hunters. I tend to take the hard road sometimes so I like training imprints.

Can you explain a bit more what you mean by “imprints”?

Imprint means it was raised by a human, and the bird sees humans as either its parents, sibling, or eventually its mate. This makes the bird tame and relaxed around people. But there is a trade off – they tend to be very vocal (annoyingly so). This is a deal killer for quite a few falconers.

That is fascinating. Does training require any certification on your part?

Yes, I am state and federally licensed (passing written tests and facility inspections) and served an apprenticeship under a master falconer.

Tim’s book cover for Racing the Moon

Can you tell us anything interesting or surprising about falcons?

The females are all bigger than the males in virtually all raptors, and in general the males are not more brightly colored like in other bird species.

Do your children share your love of falcons?

They share an appreciation, but to the level of my passion, the answer is no. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt with many falconers’ children?

Hahaha! What advice do you have for our readers, one of whom may be interested in falconry?

Study and know your wildlife and the natural world around you. Know that it is a hunting sport at its core. If you are not able or have the desire to regularly hunt your bird, or have access to places to hunt, falconry is not for you. We are not mere “pet keepers”, though we love out birds like pets.


© Tim Jessell. Incredible attention to detail – from Falcon

And what advice do you have for someone who is just starting out and wants to become a successful illustrator like you?

Work hard. Have a well-rounded education in graphic design. There’s always room at the table for someone talented and dependable.

Can you tell us what book art projects of yours we may look forward to seeing soon?

I have a series of books I have illustrated for Random House called “Dog Diaries,” which young readers I think will really enjoy and another couple of series for Scholastic called “Pet Hotel” and “S.T.A.T,” which are tales of NBA’s Amare Stoudemire as a young boy.

Thank you, Tim, for sharing your expertise and illustrations with us as well as your fascinating passion for falconry. Your art is extraordinary, and we all look forward to seeing all your future projects. Any author who has his or her story illustrated by you is indeed fortunate.

Visit Tim Jessell’s website to view more of his art work. Click here to contact Tim.

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Smart is Cool: An Interview with Author Dom Testa

Good Reads with Ronna is all about reading and expanding the mind. Well, today we promise your mind will indeed be full of new and inspiring information as you read Debbie Glade’s interview with YA author and dynamic radio personality Dom Testa.

Dom Testa has been an award-winning morning radio host for Denver’s Mix 100 for nearly 20 years. He’s also the author of the YA novels, The Galahad Series. The first book in the series, The Comet’s Curse won the EVVY Award for Best Novel. In addition to his radio and literary achievements, Dom is the founder of the non-profit foundation, The Big Brain Club. Let’s find out what it’s all about.

You have said you knew you always wanted to be in radio. How did you get started at the young age of 16?

It sounds hard to believe, but I actually just walked in and asked for a job. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time, and because they were desperate for help (especially at ridiculously low wages at the time), they were willing to teach a kid how to do it. What makes it funny is that I was a pretty shy kid at the time. I really stepped outside my comfort zone by applying for a job in broadcasting.

That was really courageous and inspiring! Can you tell us a little bit about your current radio show, The Dom and Jane Show on Mix 100 in Denver?

I’ve hosted the morning show at Mix 100 for almost twenty years, and in early 1999 Jane joined us from a station in Columbus, Ohio. We’ve been the top-rated morning show in Denver for quite a few years, and I think it’s because we talk about relatable – and fun – topics. Many of the things we discuss come straight out of our personal lives, but there’s a good chance that our listeners have dealt with exactly the same issues.

Besides Jane and me, we have a couple of producers (Jeremy and Emily) who are on the show with us, along with Kris, our traffic diva. It’s an interesting mix of personalities.

Is it difficult to come up with fresh material for the radio show day after day?

No, not really. Real life is full of material, whether it involves spouses or significant others, career, family, pets, day-to-day observations, and anything else that occurs to us. You can listen to our show anywhere in the world, at Plus, we have a ton of free podcasts available on iTunes. Just search for Dom and Jane on Mix 100 in Denver.

I am certainly going to listen! How did you get started writing for middle grade readers and young adults?

I’ve been working with students for about twenty years, visiting classrooms and hosting writing workshops. After a few years of that I realized that it made sense to write something for that age group. Up to that point, most of my work had been short fiction and essays, all aimed at adults.

I was inspired as a young reader by action/adventure series, like The Hardy Boys, and I wanted to create a series of books that got kids interested in reading. I like the idea of books that are gateways into reading, something that first attracts a student to books. Plus, when I was a student I was constantly reading science fiction classics (Asimov, Clarke, Bova), so it just felt right to create a contemporary sci-fi series with characters that today’s students could relate to.

You have penned the Galahad Series of books, containing 6 titles. The first book in the series, The Comet’s Curse, won a national book award for YA novels.  Can you briefly tell us the premise of this series and what inspired you to write these books?

It’s the story of a group of 251 bright teenagers, assembled from countries all over the world, and explores a theme of how they would handle being sent away on their own to colonize a new world – with no adults around.

There are multiple books about “troubled kids,” and that’s fine. But I wondered how the world’s best and brightest would fare in an extremely challenging situation. Obviously there are problems along the way as they journey to their new home, and that creates the backdrop for the six-book series. And, because they come from nations all over the world, it’s truly a melting pot aboard the ship. The series grows and develops, with several surprises at the end. Some authors are sad when a series ends, but I was very, very pleased with how it all came together.

That certainly is a unique and fascinating premise for a book series. Is there another book or series for you in the near future?

Yes, and yes. I’m just now finishing a non-fiction book that examines a rarely discussed issue with today’s students. The book is called Smart Is Cool, and is based on the work I do with my non-profit foundation, The Big Brain Club. I’m also working on the second book in a new mystery series for students. I’m waiting until I finish the first three before I sell the series. I’m actually very excited about this project!

What is The Big Brain Club, and what inspired you to create it?

We’re concerned in America with the state of education, but the majority of ideas to “fix” the situation come from above (the government, school boards, unions, etc). I’m convinced that the most important work we have to do with education is to improve the students’ attitudes about academic achievement.

Way too many young people throw away their education in some misguided attempt to be “cool.” For students, image is everything, and if doing well in school brands them as a nerd, or a dork, then no matter how much money we spend on education, it will be wasted. If a student believes it’s more important to be cool than to do well academically, then we’re lost.

My foundation, The Big Brain Club, helps young people recognize that Smart Is Cool. It’s the only cool that lasts. They’re quick to ignore their education for the sake of fitting in with some cool clique for five or six years, and then they regret it for the rest of their lives. We visit schools and host presentations that help students see the actual repercussions of the choices they make today. Teenagers often have a hard time visualizing how their choices in school today affect them tomorrow, so we help them to connect the dots.

I love the fact that you not only encourage middle school students to write, but you also publish their stories. Where are they published, and what has been the reaction of the students who have been published?

We professionally publish the creative writing of middle school students, generally grades six through eight. The writing includes short fiction, poetry, and essays. Not only does this make stars out of the students – they are truly the big shots on campus – but it opens their eyes to the fact that they have real talent. It gives them a shot of confidence that they truly can achieve so much if they stay focused.

And beyond that, you should see the reaction of the parents. At some of the assemblies where we’ve unveiled these books, the parents come up to me afterward with tears streaming down their faces. It’s very moving, and probably the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.

Have you seen any children involved with The Big Brain Club drastically turn their love of reading and writing around for the better?

The stories we hear from the teachers and media specialists are so inspiring. Several teachers have told us about students who had never before participated in anything involving creative writing, or creative expression, and how they came out of their shell with this program. And it’s so cool to hear of students who intend to use their new publishing experience as a note on their college applications. I love that! Overall, the schools tell us that The Big Brain Club’s message and programs really do reach what were previously considered to be “unreachable” students.

How do you convey the message to children that reading is cool?

A lot of what we do involves profiles of young people who have achieved astounding success through using their brains. As a nation we tend to obsess over athletes and so-called celebrities, but we have such an incredible pool of talented thinkers that never get enough attention.

We don’t focus simply on reading, but rather on an overall well-balanced education, including math and science. We’re closely involved with several STEM school programs. We stress that Smart Is Cool; that doesn’t have to mean straight “A”s, or honor rolls (although we love those). Instead, we help young people to become the best version of themselves, whatever that may be. It almost always begins with a good education.

Your message to those students is wonderful. What can American schools do better to help struggling readers and prevent them from slipping through the cracks?

I know there are a lot of people who urge parents to continually read to their kids, and I’m a fan of that. However, I think we often neglect to recognize that we’re role models in many other ways, too. What’s the attitude around your house regarding education? I was doing a book signing about a year ago when a young man, maybe around eleven or twelve years old, stopped and looked at my book series. He held it up to his dad to get his opinion, and the dad said: “Don’t look at me, I haven’t read a book since I was ten. But get it if you want.” Are you kidding me? The boy put the book down and walked out of the store with his father, likely to never again consider the idea of reading.

I’m aware that a lot of people reading this already get it – in essence, I’m preaching to the choir – but there are millions upon millions of households where reading and education are not only on the back burner. The children are actually discouraged.

I think schools are only one part of the equation. I’m much more concerned about how pop culture informs a young person’s attitude toward education, along with that student’s experience at home. We place an exorbitant amount of pressure on teachers to solve the entire crisis, while the students themselves get a hall pass. I think that’s wrong.

What are your thoughts on the shift toward e-readers and e-books rather than traditional paper books, with more and more physical bookstores closing? And how do you think this affects the youngest generation of readers?

I look around and see some people who are devoted to their electronic readers, and I see people who will never put down traditionally published paper books. Perhaps I’m naive, but I think we make much too big of a deal out of the “differences” between them. They’re both books! They both involve creative and inspiring writing, and I think they both have their place. Personally, I use both, and I enjoy both. I think I speak for a lot of people who don’t see it as a divide; instead, we see it as yet another option to enjoy something.

As for how it affects young people: I’m concerned with simply getting them hooked on reading, one way or another. If that means paper books, great. If it means e-readers, terrific. If it means blogs or ezines or old-fashioned pen-and-paper, great. It’s all about the content, I believe, more than the delivery vehicle.

That’s a very positive way of looking at it. What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a program for children to encourage the love of reading and writing?

I say (and this isn’t very popular) quit focusing exclusively on “classics,” and let a young person find out what turns them on. We also tend to follow the herd in our society, focusing exclusively on the handful of book titles that are deemed “hits.” That’s too bad. An awful lot of fantastic books fall through the cracks because they’re not vampire novels or dystopian nightmare tales. Reading groups are fine, but they assume that everyone’s taste is the same.

I found my favorite books as a kid by wandering through the library for hours at a time. Sure, I didn’t have the same distractions that young people have today, but I wasn’t steered to some NY Times bestseller list. Today we seem to pick five books that EVERYONE must read. I don’t get it.

As for writing, the same thing applies. I visited a school that assigned subjects for all of their creative writing. I even asked one of the teachers about that: “How is it really creative writing if you tell them everything they’re supposed to write?” Writing, like reading, is about exploration. We find what excites us, and go from there. And there’s no shortage of outlets for any kind of writing. If a students are into sports, or horses, or science fiction, or unicorns, or whatever…they’ll be able to find an almost limitless supply of examples to study.

More than anything, students often come to look upon writing as a school assignment, rather than something they can do for their own personal enjoyment. It’s maybe why a simple journal can be a gateway to expressing themselves.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to visit with you about all of this!

Dom thank you for answering our questions so thoughtfully. Your perspective is truly refreshing and enlightening. Please stay in touch and let us know when your next book comes out. We wish you continued success in all your endeavors.

Readers, for more information about The Big Brain Club, click here. To listen to Dom and Jane on Mix 100, check out the website and click on the “Listen Live” link. To purchase Dom’s books, click here.

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Passion + Hard Work = Great Success: An Interview with Science Writer Beverly McMillan

We are thrilled to share with you Debbie Glade’s interview with science writer and children’s book author, Beverly McMillan.

Beverly McMillan

Beverly McMillan is a powerhouse of a science writer with numerous impressive journal and book titles to her name. From textbooks and ocean science journals to her extraordinary new children’s title I reviewed, A Day in the Life of Your Body, Beverly is educating the world in the most wonderful way with her work. In this interview with the author, we get a rare and inspiring perspective of the life and work of a dedicated science writer.

You have an undergraduate degree in Linguistics. What made you decide to focus on science writing in grad school?

I’d started a linguistics PhD program when I realized that what I really wanted to do was write. I’d always been interested in science, and even thought about medical school, but I wasn’t sure I could handle the required math courses for that, and I was also a single mom with a special needs four-year-old. The Graduate School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley offered a journalism Master’s degree that required students to specialize, and one of the specialties was science writing. That seemed like a way to pursue both my interests, so I applied and was admitted.

Does a Master’s in Science Writing require an equal amount of science classes as writing classes, and how long did it take you to earn the degree?

My degree is a professional Master’s of Journalism (MJ) with an emphasis in science writing. In grad school I took more writing classes than science classes, though I’d already done some undergraduate science coursework in chemistry and biology. It took me two years, which is pretty typical. Today, the programs in science writing that I know about—and there are several really good ones—generally require students to have a double major in a science and the writing curriculum, or a prior degree in a science. Some science writers have Masters or PhD degrees in the area of science they want to write about. Of course, we also see MDs taking up science writing and broadcast journalism.

The author with her grandsons

When and what was your very first paid science writing assignment?

The Berkeley G-School required students to have a publishable Master’s thesis, which could be either a longer piece of writing or a broadcast journalism project. I researched and wrote an in-depth magazine piece on wind-powered cargo ships, which was a technology some entrepreneurs in the San Francisco area were pursuing at the time. My piece was published in Science 81, a popular science magazine that had been launched (no pun intended) by the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Today, of course, the AAAS still publishes Science, one of the top scientific journals in the world, as well as a suite of other print and online products.

Can you share with us a brief explanation of how the process works when writing a human biology textbook, from research to publication?

Usually, an educational publisher recruits authors for books it wants to publish, in part because textbook writing is fairly specialized. The author or authors work with editorial staff to develop a detailed plan for the book, and they write or work with experts in different content areas to develop the initial manuscript and art plan. For my human bio text,which is for non-science majors, I do all my writing using the publishing software InDesign, which lets you work on an electronic version of the actual book pages. Professional artists and technical illustrators create the necessary line art, and we license photographs from stock houses or other professionals. Once the text and art are reviewed by experts and revised accordingly, the publisher manages the production end of things—copyediting, art development, photo research, putting it all into final electronic files, and printing.  There are many review and revision steps right up until the book goes to press, because it is so crucial that a textbook be accurate and up-to-date.

Do you work with medical doctors and other scientists?

I insist that scientists with expertise in the topic I’m writing about review everything for accuracy. Before I sit down to write I also do considerable research in the peer-reviewed scientific and medical literature. I sometimes visit reputable Web-based medical or health sites to get ideas on in-the-news health topics. There’s a lot of good information on the National Institutes of Health websites, and sites of organizations like the Mayo Clinic and the American Cancer Society.

How did you come to write A Day in the Life of Your Body for kids? It is unquestionably an extraordinary book.

I love this book! A British publisher I’d worked with on the Sharks and Oceans Insiders books and some other projects contacted me and said they had this idea to do a book on what happens in a young person’s body over a 24-hour period—showing kids how all the body’s parts and systems work “behind the scenes.” I thought that was a super idea, because the kids in my life are all so curious about their “innards,” and they also have normal worries about small injuries and minor illnesses. They want to know what makes them yawn or throw up, and why their ears pop sometimes. It is so important to answer kids’ questions in an age-appropriate way, and to nourish that natural curiosity. I had free rein to develop the plan for every single spread, and the publisher brought in expert artists to work with me and the editorial staff in developing the amazing artwork.

I imagine writing a science book like that is quite challenging. How did you write such technical information in such understandable terms for a younger audience?

Writing about technical stuff for any lay audience is challenging, and doing it for kids is the hardest of all. Not only do the facts need to be right, but the writing has to be bright and interesting, and the vocabulary has to work. Sentences have to be short, and the flow of ideas has to be crystal clear. When writing for children you have to be always thinking: which details are important, and which ones aren’t? I do a ton of tinkering to try to get all those things right, and I also try to use analogies that kids will get—relating some body process to something kids know about from their daily experience. For example, it’s pretty easy to visualize the blood cells moving through your arteries being like cars on a freeway. I like to make the titles of chapters and subtopics work hard, too. So instead of having a title say “the respiratory system” or even “breathing,” in A Day in the Life I have “Air In, Air Out.” Those four words are easy to read and they convey exactly with the spread is about. Finally, I think it’s vital to respect kids’ intelligence. While I know I have to make the material fun and interesting and easy to understand, I believe an author should never, ever talk down to kids.

Well said! I review so many children’s book and am instantly turned off by patronizing prose. It is indeed difficult to write in the right tone for kids without talking down to them, and you certainly mastered that in your book.

Who illustrated A Day In The Life of Your Body?

The book’s line art is by very talented and knowledgeable artists at Argosy Publishing in Boston. I’ve worked with them on a couple of other projects, and they’re top notch.

This book and the others you have written must take a great deal of time to complete.

Well, I’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time, so it goes faster now that it used to. A Day in the Life of Your Body probably took three or four months, not counting production. When I revise Human Biology, we’re talking six months at hard labor. A book like The Shark Chronicles took more than a year, and I do mean 365-plus consecutive days writing. But I’m a workaholic. I do some kind of writing at least six days a week.

It’s so important for writer wannabes to know just how much research, writing and rewriting work goes into drafting superior quality prose. You have shown us that it requires non-stop dedication and discipline.

Do you have any thoughts on health education, which seems to be greatly lacking in the US?

The U.S. public education system seems to be in disarray, especially in these difficult times of deep budget cuts. I have a stepdaughter who is an elementary school science teacher, so I know what hurdles and challenges she faces on a daily basis. As you know, many, if not most, school districts have felt they must curtail health education because it’s an “extra.” That puts the burden on parents to be knowledgeable about so many key health issues. If I were Queen of the World, I’d want young people to get at least some solid health education, especially in middle school and high school, in courses offered by teachers who’ve had some training in the field, just so kids and youth can have a better understanding of how things like regular exercise and proper diet and getting enough sleep are so important to their lifelong well-being. I’d want the classes to talk about illicit drug use and tobacco and sun exposure, too.

I am fascinated by the books you wrote about sharks. Can you tell us about your journey writing The Shark Chronicles, which you coauthored with John Musick?

My husband John (Jack) Musick is a college professor and a Harvard PhD in marine science. He is an internationally recognized expert on sharks and marine ecology. We’ve collaborated on several books for kids that deal with sharks and life in the oceans, including Insiders:Sharks! and Insiders:Oceans! published by Simon & Schuster. We also coauthored The Shark Chronicles, a book for adults on how Jack and other researchers around the globe have learned about all the different kinds of shark, how their body systems work, how they find prey, their amazing sensory systems, and so forth. Jack and I got the idea to do a book that takes readers to the actual places where shark researchers do their fieldwork, and then to use that to set the scene for describing shark biology and ecology. Our agent sold the project to Times Books/Henry Holt, and they gave us enough of an advance that we were able to travel all over the world—places like Japan and Bimini, Key West and Mexican fossil deposits—to see the research in action and interview the scientists. It was wonderful. The only bad part was that for the chapter Shark Worlds I had to interview Jack about his work on shark ecology, sitting at our dining room table for days and days, which was not so appealing! And at the end the schedule was so tight that I had to write for 120 days straight, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.

Your travel experience sounds fascinating, worthy of an interview on its own perhaps! What is your next writing project?

I’m working on a novel in between revising my human biology text and another textbook I work on. Who knows where that will go, though! I’m also talking with a publisher about possibly doing another children’s book project.

Snowshoeing in Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park

I’d love to read your next children’s book! What advice do you have for someone who is considering a career in science writing?

Educate yourself and be ready to work very hard. Research the graduate science writing programs that are available, and if you want to go that route, plan on getting at least an undergraduate science degree, if not an advanced degree, first. Look for ways to begin publishing your work, whether it’s in your local newspapers, magazines, or online. You’ll need clips or samples of your published work to get almost any kind of science writing job. Be dedicated to accuracy, because in science writing, over time your reputation will be your calling card. Read every kind of science writing you can get your hands on, and learn from what others are doing. Network with other writers. From a pragmatic perspective, until you’re more established you’ll probably need some other way to make a living. I worked as an assistant project manager arranging signage for shopping centers and did freelance editing on the side. But if you are passionate about science writing and you put in the work, you can have a very rewarding and satisfying career.

When you are not researching or writing, what do you enjoy doing most?

Beverly and her fishing guide celebrate catching this 35-lb. King Salmon on Alaska’s Kenai River summer 2011

I love to power walk and try to put in at least 15 or 20 miles a week. It keeps the brain lubricated, somehow. Jack and I enjoy spending time with our kids and G-babies. Both of us do sort-of gourmet cooking, and I bake all our bread. We have a simple cottage in a part of northern California where we go trout fishing and snowshoeing and hang out in the old hot tub under a redwood tree. I’m so grateful for all the good things in my life.

And we are so grateful to you, Beverly, for taking the time to give us such thoughtful and meaningful answers to our questions. Your passion for science writing shows, and your work is so important to the future of science.

To our readers, I highly recommend you purchase a copy of Beverly’s book A Day in the Life of Your Body for your children. It is an essential addition to your home library that can be used for reference over and over again. Your children will understand the basics of how the body works and how important it is to eat healthy foods and exercise – something they will not likely learn in school. Click here to check Beverly McMillan’s other books.

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Meet a Children’s Author Who Loves Words, Sunshine and Anything Delicious!

I selected this post to be featured on Book Review Blogs. Please visit the site and vote for my blog!

Ronna Mandel discusses the love of words and language with San Francisco Bay Area debut author Sandra V. Feder.

Whoever said there are no new ideas has not spent time blogging about kids’ books!

One of my favorite things about writing on Good Reads With Ronna is getting to meet first time authors and I did just that in Larchmont Village one Saturday earlier this month, when I sat down to speak with Sandra V. Feder, author of Daisy’s Perfect Word from Kids Can Press. After spending a delightful time discussing our mutual love of language, I can honestly say I would read anything Sandra wrote because her enthusiasm was not only contagious, but refreshing and totally genuine! Find out more about Sandra on her website, There’s also some information about how parents can continue the discussion about words with their children after they read Daisy’s Perfect Word.  Sandra’s also included useful information for teachers and librarians about how to use the book in a school setting. 

Daisy is a girl who loves words.  She compiles lists of words, and using the right words for the right situations makes all the difference in the world to her. Her best friend Emma appreciates Daisy’s love of language and they both adore Miss Goldner, their teacher. What happens when Daisy and Emma learn that Miss Goldner is going to get married? Will Daisy be able to find just the perfect present that will have meaning for Miss Goldner long after her wedding day?  Daisy is determined to give a gift that will bring smiles to her teacher while being both unique and something money cannot buy. Share the delight that Feder’s wonderful words can bring by reading a copy of Daisy’s Perfect Word today!

When did the seed of this story begin growing?

The seed began growing from watching my own children and other people’s children have fun with language.  I think a lot of kids go through a phase of experimenting with words. They like the way some of the words feel in their mouth. One of my daughters went through a phase of using the word actually a lot.  For example she would say, “actually, mother, I’d like some orange juice,” because it made her sound more grown up than the usual kid language.  And I noticed a lot of other children having fun learning new words and putting words together, so the idea of a character that enjoyed words and language was born.

Is this an early reader/chapter book or an MG (middle grade) novel? I ask because the different categories can be confusing for parents.  So what is it exactly and what age group do you see it for?

I see it for ages 7-10 and it’s called, by me
and the publisher, an early chapter book.
It is not an MG novel, which tends to
be a bit older and to deal with more
mature themes. The early chapter book
is not a first reader. It does have some
bigger words than kids might find in
a first reader.  Mine has 11 short chapters.
It’s meant for kids ages 7-10 but also is a fun
book for parents to read with their kids when
they are 5 or 6 years-old.
There’s nothing in it that is not age-appropriate.

It’s a nice read. Kids will feel good about themselves after they complete it. It’s nothing too daunting at first glance.

Yes, and the type is a little bigger, and there are a lot of illustrations, more illustrations than typical MG chapter books.  There are fun, big illustrations in almost every chapter and then lots of smaller ones as you go along.

And the illustrations were good, too. I really like them. You were lucky.

I am so grateful that the publisher paired me with a wonderful Canadian illustrator, Susan Mitchell. She really created the world that I imagined, and she did it so beautifully. I am very grateful. 

The cover, with the purple polka dots, is simply perfect.  It’s appealing.

That’s the art director from Kids Can Press, who did the cover design.  They are a terrific Canadian publishing group.  They are one of the top places to go for early chapter books. They are really interested in this market right now. They put so much care and love into Daisy’s Perfect Word. You can tell by the way it looks and how it was put together. They really did a beautiful job.

So were you a lot like Daisy growing up?

That’s a good question. I definitely have curly hair! I have always enjoyed words and language. I was interested in becoming a children’s book author from about age 9. And the reason is that I had a wonderful elementary school librarian who not only loved introducing us to books but also would bring authors to the school to talk to us. I think when you are a kid and you meet somebody who has created this world that you love and enjoy so much, it’s a magical thing.  And I thought, wouldn’t that be about the most wonderful thing in the world to create a world and characters that children would love? And so it was always a part of me, that seed, and I ended up going into journalism as a career and was a newspaper reporter for many years.   I had the opportunity to work as a news assistant for the New York Times in Washington, D.C. when I got out of college.  And when you write for The New York Times you really do see the power words have.  This was something that always resonated with me, and I finally have the opportunity to bring that passion of mine to a new generation.

Is this your first book?

It’s my first book, and it’s a series so there will be at least four Daisy books and they all have to do with how we use words and language.  In Book 2, Daisy discovers alliteration and has fun putting words together in new ways and in Book 3 she’s going to discover poetry. And Book 4, I haven’t decided on yet, but it will be something fun having to do with words.

Everybody has a Samantha in their life as a classmate, a snooty know-it-all kind of girl or boy in many cases. Do you recommend ignoring girls like that as Daisy did quite successfully?

Sometimes Daisy doesn’t like to be around Samantha because of the way Samantha talks and the words Samantha chooses. Samantha uses words such as “Stop!” “Follow me” and “Mine.” I think it’s an interesting lesson for kids to think about the language they use and how other kids hear them.  So I wanted to include this character, Samantha, who uses words in a way that isn’t the way that Daisy likes using words. Daisy doesn’t want to have Samantha’s words stuck in her head. She wants to have happier, more pleasant words in her head.  

Daisy is a good role model for girls and is empowering. I like the story because it’s not about purchasing anything. It had nothing to do with electronics. It just had to do with what came inside from Daisy as a person.

Thank you for recognizing that!

Daisy spends a good portion of the book searching for the right gift for her favorite teacher Miss Goldner. And then she decides it’s got to be the perfect word, something Miss Goldner will always remember. What is your perfect word?

One of my favorite words is sunshine because I think sunshine is both something we need in our lives, and I think there are people who spread sunshine, like Daisy. And I really appreciate those people in my own life. I’ve also always loved the word delicious because I have a sweet tooth like Daisy, and I also like the word delicious because I think when you apply it to children it’s cute: “What a delicious little baby!”

Daisy and her best friend Emma are really sweet girls, what do you think are the qualities that make them so appealing?

I think that they are girls who value each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I think Emma appreciates Daisy’s fondness for words and Daisy appreciates Emma’s kindness and her sense of fun.  They share a lot together. To me what I like about the friendship is that I don’t see them as having the same personality, I see them as having complementary personalities. And as the series goes along, we’ll see different things in their relationship that come up where they diverge a little bit on at least one thing. Daisy wants to do it one way and Emma, who is equally strong, says, “this is what I want.”   I think they complement and balance one another.

Talking about Daisy’s love of words – as a writer you had to come up with this story that grew out of your love of words, yet I wonder, who has the better imagination, you or Daisy?

I like to think we both have good imaginations!

I thought Daisy coming up with the idea of a gift in the form of a word and Samantha even approving was huge!

I think it does happen that writers have a concept for a story, which for me was this idea of playing with words and language, but then you need a real storyline to go with it.  So I came up with idea of Daisy wanting to give her teacher a gift and then making that gift a word.   That’s what moves the story forward. And I also, as you mentioned, wanted something that wasn’t about going out and buying but was something that a child, any child, could come up with. It’s been so wonderful to see the reactions of children to the book; one little girl in Canada wrote a review in the National Post and she said that she loves that Daisy likes making up words because she likes making up words, too.  And she included one of her favorite made up words. We made a little book trailer for Daisy’s Perfect Word and went out and asked children, “What’s your favorite word?” and basically, without missing a beat, every child came up with a word.  Some had a particular reason they liked the word, and some just said, “I like the way it sounds.” The video trailer is on my website.  I think the idea of having fun with words really does touch a chord with children.

You mentioned earlier that you had written right out of college for The NYT.  Do you have a full time job, Sandra?

I am committed now to writing children’s books.  I am very excited about this new phase for me and feel very fortunate that Kids Can has put their faith in me for four books. As a new children’s book author, to have a series is really exciting and fun.  Once I started expanding the Daisy story and really getting to know Daisy in her world, I felt there were so many great places that I could continue to go with her. And the fact that Kids Can saw that as well and believed in me and Daisy is really wonderful.  I am also working on some other children’s book projects that I hope will come to fruition.

Will you go on tour?

Right now it’s meeting interviewers like you when I am in a particular city or over the phone, and I’m doing a lot of speaking around the Bay Area where I live, as well as school visits. 


Thank you so much Sandra for sharing your time, experience and love of the English language.  I cannot wait to read more of your wonderful words! It’s been belotzi (my son’s made up word for fantastic) spending time with you and learning about Daisy’s Perfect Word.

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People, Jazz and Life: The Inspirations of Illustrator Eric Velasquez

In honor of Black History Month, we’re thrilled to share Debbie Glade’s interview with the fascinating, ultra talented illustrator, Eric Velasquez.

Eric Velasquez

As a parent and book reviewer I’ve read more children’s books than I could possibly count. Indeed, there are many good ones, but only once in a while do I find a book that is extraordinary. Recently I reviewed My Uncle Martin’s Words for America and quickly discovered the story was awe-inspiring and the illustrations were in a league of their own. This is a sister book to My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart, which Eric also illustrated. I studied the pictures over and over again, shared them with family and friends who were equally as impressed, and then contacted illustrator Eric Velasquez to ask him if he’d do an interview with Good Reads with Ronna.

Eric Velasquez started his successful career as an artist, illustrating book covers. In 1997 he added picture book illustrations to his repertoire and has since won awards for his work. Growing up in Spanish Harlem, he credits his multi-cultural approach with his art to his rich, Afro-Puerto-Rican heritage. You will learn through this interview how Eric’s attention to people and their emotions, as well as his love of jazz play a significant role in the richness of his exceptional illustrations.

How old were you when you realized you had a talent for art?

About 7 or 8 I believe.

Were any of your family members artistically inclined?

Yes, my uncle Louie is a photographer.  Also, my two cousins Edgard and Dennis both draw.

Your illustrations are unquestionably exceptional. I read that you have a BFA from New York’s School of Visual Arts. What is your view on how much natural ability plays a role in an artist’s work vs. techniques learned while receiving an art education?

Many people have a mistaken notion as to what natural ability is. True natural ability is often overlooked. To think like an artist is a true natural ability. Form will always follow function. Artists will develop the technical abilities to give life to their visions. People often confuse technicians with artists. Unfortunately, technicians have very little to say with their work.

That is the best definition of an artist I’ve ever heard. Did you know you wanted to illustrate books from the beginning of your career?

One of the illustrator’s many book covers

Yes, I wanted to tell stories. I thought that I would become a comic artist, but I fell in love with painting my senior year in the High School of Art and Design.

Do you remember how you landed your very first project as a paid artist?

 I won second place in a contest. RSVP Directory of Illustration. Aside from a little money, a page containing three images of my work was published in the directory and distributed to every publishing house, design firm and ad agency in America. I began working shortly after graduating college.

What a wonderful way to get your career started! Since then you have completed hundreds of illustrations for book jackets and interiors, including series such as Encyclopedia Brown. You have said that Journey to Jo’burg and Chain of Fire are your favorite books. What did you like about those books in particular?

Both of those books were highly political.  They dealt with the racism going on in South Africa before Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Those books were my introduction into the genre of historical nonfiction.

You illustrated two books about Martin Luther King, Jr. – My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart and My Uncle Martin’s Words for America, written by Angela Farris Watkins. It is rare for one to see images of people as remarkably lifelike as yours. Did the fact that MLK’s legacy is larger than life make the project intimidating for you in any way?

I wanted to add something different to the stories. For “My Uncle Martin’s Big Heart” I began to think about my uncle and the possibility of him being an important world figure, but as a child I only knew him as my uncle.  My goal for the book was to inspire children to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts and loving care of the people in their own families.

And you certainly did accomplish that goal. For these MLK books you painted with oils on watercolor paper. How did that combination come to be?

My original painting surfaces were wooden masonite panels. However, for a book containing 15 -20 illustrations, the panels can get heavy, and they aren’t flexible to fit in a drum scanner. Hot press watercolor paper has a wonderful surface to draw on. After I sketch the picture, I then spray the drawing with crystal clear fixative and apply several coats of acrylic matte medium. Once the surface is completely dry, I begin to paint in oil. The 300-pound paper is flexible enough to fit in a drum scanner.

What inspires you most, and do illustrators ever get “inspiration block” like writers do?

People, music and life inspire me. “Inspiration block” is something I choose not to believe in. Sometimes my art takes on different forms and one has to allow for that, whether it is writing, storytelling, cooking, carpentry, photography, etc.  I think we create the block when we are tired and want to move onto something else. Other times we allow the words of others to destroy our inspirations, which at times can come from the silliest notions or actions.

Is there one specific character in a book you illustrated with whom you can really relate?

Not only one. I relate with most of my characters. I think it’s part of my job as a storyteller.

On average, how many hours do you draw/paint each day?

I work every day, 7 to 8 hours a day.

Can you tell us about your love of Jazz and how you have incorporated that into your art?

I have always loved music, ever since my grandmother introduced me to salsa in her living room in Spanish Harlem.  What I love about Jazz is its improvisational nature. I believe that if more of us were to adapt a more offhand approach to our work, we’d have a more successful and original outcome.

You illustrated and penned the autobiographical picture books, Grandma’s Gift and  Grandma’s Records. Briefly, what is Grandma’s Records about, and what inspired you to write it? 

With a cover like this, who wouldnt want to read this book?

Grandma’s Records is the story of how I spent my summers as a child with my grandma, listening to her records.  Whenever Grandma played this one special song, she would put one hand over her heart and raise the other as she sang along. Later on, she would sit and reminisce about the old days in Puerto Rico with my Grandpa. One day her nephew, Sammy, who was a percussionist in the band “Cortijo Y su Comdo” came over with his fellow band-mates, Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera. We got tickets to their first New York show and the experience changed our lives forever.

I imagine you are flooded with offers to illustrate books. How do you decide which projects you want to take on?

First I read the manuscript thoroughly.  Afterwards, I’ll start doodling right on the actual script, and if I like what I see in the sketches, I’ll decide to take the job.

Can you explain how the process of illustrating a picture book works? Are you generally given specific artistic direction by the editor of the book? Or are you free to depict the story as you see it yourself? 

Usually I am free to depict the story the way I see it.  Although, often with a new client, I’ll receive specific instructions from the editor and the art director.

Are artists involved in the printing process of the picture books, to ensure that the qualities of the illustrations are not compromised in any way?

From time to time the publisher will invite me to come in and color correct the art proofs.  It’s a lengthy process and it can be quite exhausting.

It’s no surprise you have won numerous coveted awards for your illustrations. What does it feel like to receive prestigious recognition, such as the Pura Belpré Illustrator Award or the Coretta Scott King Award?

It’s always an honor to be recognized for one’s talent and contributions.  It is especially rewarding to be recognized for educating children about historical events in history.

Do you have an absolute favorite illustration you’ve ever done?

The artist at work in his studio

Not one in particular; that question is difficult to answer.

Do you sell any of your paintings or illustrations?

Yes, I usually sell them myself.  I am also represented by the R.Michelson Gallery in North Hampton, Mass.

When you are not painting, what do you like to do?

 I enjoy going to Jazz clubs and restaurant /clubs that feature Cuban bands because I love listening to live music.

What advice do you have for artists out there who dream of great success, such as yours, illustrating picture books?

Follow your passion first and be willing to work very, very hard to achieve your dream.  I also emphasize the importance of reading about the artists and illustrators that interest you.

Eric, we thank you so much for sharing your beautiful work and your wisdom with our readers. We cannot wait for your next book!

To contact Eric Velasquez or to schedule a school visit, click here. To purchase his books, click here.

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