I’m honored to have been invited to host this NorthSouth Books interview exclusively in the U.S. Elena Rittinghausen, Zurich-based editor of NordSüd Verlag/NorthSouth Books recently spoke with Ishita Jain, debut illustrator of The Forest Keeper written by Rina Singh, (on sale April 18 and available for preorder now), and the timing couldn’t be better as we approach Earth Day 2023.
Elena Rittinghausen:What part does nature play in your life? How would you describe your relationship with nature? For you personally, what is the main lesson we can learn from this true story?
Ishita Jain: I consider myself a part of nature, all humans are, even though it’s easy to forget it in our fast-paced lives. I grew up in New Delhi and now live in New York, both of which are big, urban cities, yet I have been fortunate to spend a lot of my childhood and my present days in the midst of greenery.
When I moved to NY, I was often homesick, and trees and parks became a source of comfort to me. I love going on long walks and it is fascinating to watch the seasons turn in my neighborhood. The same tree that is lush green turns to a fiery red in the fall and is then almost unrecognizable in the winter. Watching all these visceral changes in natural things around me has made me far more open to change and evolution within myself.
I am often told that individual acts matter very little when it comes to changing the world- that it all comes down to corporations and government policies. I don’t entirely agree, and this story is a reminder that no matter how small you are, you matter and even if you can’t change the world, you can change your world around you.
ER:You’ve lived in the US for some years now. Did it feel special to go back to illustrating a story set in India?
IJ:It’s interesting, the longer I live in the U.S., my sense of identity of being Indian and thinking of India as my home only grows stronger. So, in some ways, it didn’t matter where I was when I illustrated this book. Though I did illustrate some of the trees for the endpapers while I was in India, and to be drawing a neem tree when there is one right outside your window makes the process so fun!
ER:What was your first thought when you received our e-mail asking if you wanted to illustrate for a Swiss publisher?
IJ:This is my first picture book and when I got the email from you, I thought it was wild that someone was asking me to do this because I have very few drawings of kids, or even people in my portfolio! I am so grateful that you took that chance because I enjoyed the process, and it was a huge learning curve for me.
Funnily, the first time when I traveled outside of India was to Switzerland. I was 10 or 11 and my grandparents took me with them to Lucerne and I have very vivid memories of that trip. I used to spend all the loose change from the day on ice creams and for years, if anyone I knew went to Switzerland, I would jokingly ask them to bring me an ice cream. I was very close to my grandfather and I think he would have been thrilled to know that I got to work with a Swiss publisher!
ER:How did you approach the illustrations? Which technique did you use? Did you look for specific references for your images?
IJ: I love working analog and all the pictures are done in ink and watercolor. For this book, I also did my thumbnails as loose little paintings. It was important for me to get a sense of the color, texture, and mood in the sketch phase to be able to proceed to finals. I also made a tiny dummy to flip through to get a sense of the page turns and the visual pacing of the story.
In some illustrations, all the elements are painted separately and then stitched together digitally. This gives me the flexibility to make changes without having to start from scratch. Other times I just go for it and love embracing the unpredictability that comes with watercolor.
India is huge and very diverse in terms of its people, its culture, and its geographies. I am from Delhi, which is quite far, and different, from Majuli. I did extensive research and referenced movies, news, documentaries, and the work of photographers from Assam and the northeast to make sure that I understood the flora and fauna, the physical features of the locals, their attire, and the visual geography of the region. I also looked for videos about the Brahmaputra floods, time lapses of bamboo growing, and travelers’ videos of Majuli to get a sense of the overall environment.
ER:Would you like to illustrate picture books in the future?
IJ:Without a doubt, yes!
Thank you Elena Rittinghausen and NorthSouth Books for this exciting opportunity to introduce Ishita Jain and her artwork to readers here in the U.S.
Click hereto order a copy ofThe Forest Keepertoday
Click hereto read an interview with The Forest Keeperauthor Rina Singh
Ishita Jain is an illustrator from Delhi, India, though she is now based in New York. She is an alumnus of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India, and the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Program at the School of Visual Arts, New York. Ishita loves to draw on location and enjoys documenting the people, places, and stories that surround her. Her work is inspired by day-to-day moments and the wonder that comes from being around nature. The Forest Keeper is Ishita’s first picture book. Find her on social media here: @ishitajain24
Vicky Fang: Elisa, HIDDEN HOPE is such an inspiring book. I love that you’re able to share a story that is so historically rich in such a compelling way. How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Elisa Boxer: Vicky, thank you so much. Great to be here with you. The idea for this book began when I first saw this photoon Yad Vashem’s website:
Yad Vashem is the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, and this hollowed-out wooden duck is part of the artifacts collection. When I learned that this duck was made with a secret compartment to hide documents from the Nazis during World War Two, and that the French Resistance worker who used it to smuggle those documents was a teenager, I knew this was a story I wanted to tell.
VF:It’s such a fascinating story! In addition to writing children’s books, you’re also a journalist. How does your background as a journalist affect your work as a children’s book author?
EB: I definitely combine the two on a daily basis. Whether it’s doing research, conducting interviews, writing a narrative, distilling complex issues down to manageable bits of information, or zeroing in on areas of emotional resonance with the audience, the processes with journalism and book writing are very similar. And the result, telling a (hopefully) compelling story with a strong emotional takeaway, is always my goal.
VF: I would say you’d definitely succeeded withHIDDEN HOPE. In the backmatter, you also talk about your personal connection to this topic … could you share a bit about that?
EB: My personal connection is two-fold: Both sides of my family are of Eastern European descent, and relatives on each side were killed during the Holocaust. As both a journalist and an author, I definitely feel compelled to help shine a light on these atrocities. But also, growing up, I often felt like I had to hide my Jewish voice because my childhood was filled with so many personal and hurtful incidents of Antisemitism. I wasn’t strong enough back then to stand up to hate; to expose injustice. So in a way, I suppose I’m making up for lost time. When I first saw that picture of the duck, it struck me that here is this artifact, in an international museum, on display for all to see. And yet it was never supposed to be there, according to Hitler’s plan. If anything, it was supposed to be in his intended “museum of an extinct race.” As were all Jewish artifacts and all Jewish signs of life. So on a personal level, as I mention in my Author’s Note, I want to help bring more and more stories like this out of the darkness and into the light.
VF:Could you talk about your experience in writing this book? Was it hard to spend so much time on such a difficult topic?
EB:It’s so interesting, this question has come up quite a bit. People ask whether it’s been hard to write about such a dark topic. And while there’s no question that this was an unimaginably devastating time in history, the whole point of the Holocaust was to create a master race and erase the Jewish people from the face of the earth. And yet so many of us are here writing about it. We’re bringing these stories to light. We’re the descendants that were never supposed to be here. And not only are we here, we’re raising our voices to tell the stories that the Nazis never wanted told. There is something incredibly uplifting and empowering about that. I never want to stop doing it.
VF:What a wonderful message, thank you. Amy June Bates’ illustrations also do such a good job of highlighting the mood and the action of HIDDEN HOPE and I love that there’s an Artist’s Note in the end from her. What did you think when you first saw her illustrations?
EB:Oh I love Amy’s Artist’s Note too! And exactly about highlighting the mood and the action. I have been researching the French Resistance for years, and have so many images in my mind. But Amy has an incredibly unique gift for creating old-world style art that takes you back and makes you feel like you’re right there, in the middle of it all, riding along with Judith and the duck on the streets of Paris. I was in awe of her work from the time I first saw her preliminary sketches. Her art is so authentic that it makes the whole book feel like an artifact in itself. One of the most powerful details to me is the contrast of vibrant, saturated color from Judith’s beret with the more muted, cloudy, shadowy watercolor illustrations that so perfectly capture the somber feel of what was happening. A recent Booklist review highlighted one of my favorite spreads: “One particularly haunting spread casts the reader’s gaze through a jagged, broken windowpane to bear witness to soldiers’ cruelties.” I mean, the art on every page is extraordinary, but that scene really stands out.
VF:What do you hope young readers take away from this story?
EB: Initially, I wanted to tell this story because it’s so full of hope and intrigue and I wanted young readers to find inspiration in this little-known hero who was filled with determination in such a dark time. And I wanted this book to take its place alongside others that are opening up wider conversations about Antisemitism. But as I began really feeling into the deeper layers, which for me comes during the writing process, I began to realize that this is, ultimately, a story about the importance of never having to hide the truth of who you are. Although certainly nothing can be directly compared to the horrors of the Holocaust, I do think many of us have aspects of ourselves that maybe we feel unsafe showing to the world. I actually found myself asking some uncomfortable questions, like: “Where and with whom do I feel like I have to hide the full truth of who I am?” These aren’t always conscious questions. But I do hope one of the takeaways for young readers (and older ones too) is deciding to show up in any given situation as the most authentic version of who they are. Not hiding. Bringing their fullest selves into the world.
EB: With nonfiction picture books, I’m looking for that “YES!” in my gut that keeps drawing me back to the topic. I’m initially looking for inspirational people, places, or events that I find intriguing enough to spark my curiosity and make me want to dig deeper. And then there has to be something more. For example, with SPLASH! Ethelda Bleibtrey Makes Waves of Change, it was impressive that Ethelda was the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. But when I learned that she used swimming to help heal from polio, and that she got arrested for standing up to sexist laws that said all women had to swim with socks, I knew this story had the potential to inspire young readers to break barriers in their own lives.
With COVERED IN COLOR: Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s Fabrics of Freedom, I knew that Christo and Jeanne-Claude were a dynamic duo who created massive displays of public art like wrapped buildings and islands. But when I researched more about Christo’s background, I learned he grew up under Nazi rule and then under Communism. This fascinated me, how someone whose childhood was filled with so much suppression could dream up and generate these wild, large-scale, outside-the-box creations. And so this became a story about courage, and pushing the limits of what appears to be possible, and creativity that refuses to be contained. So with each topic, in order to pursue it as a book, there has to be the potential for a strong inspirational theme and emotional takeaway.
VF:So what’s next for you?
EB:Right now I’m looking forward to this book launching into the world on March 14th! I’m so happy to have heard from teachers around the country who will be incorporating it into their Holocaust education curriculum, and am looking forward to virtual author visits to support that.
Next year, I have four more books on the way: DEAR YOUNGER ME: What 35 Trailblazing Women Wish They’d Known as Girls (Rowman & Littlefield), THE TREE OF LIFE: How a Holocaust Sapling Inspired the World (illustrated by Alianna Rozentsveig, published by Penguin/Rocky Pond Books), BEAM OF LIGHT: The Story of the First White House Menorah (illustrated by Sophia Moore, published by Penguin/Rocky Pond Books) and one that hasn’t been announced yet. 2024 is going to be a busy year! Meanwhile, I’m working on more picture books, as well as a middle-grade novel and a middle-grade collective biography that I’m really excited about.
EB: Thank you so much for this interview, Vicky. And to Ronna, for hosting us. And to everyone who supports our books!
VF:Thank you, Elisa, for sharing your personal story behind this beautiful book, HIDDEN HOPE: HOW A TOY AND A HERO SAVED LIVES DURING THE HOLOCAUST. It’s been an inspiring conversation!
Elisa Boxer is an Emmy and Murrow award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in publications including TheNew York Times and Fast Company. She has reported for newspapers, magazines and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change. She is the author of several nonfiction picture books including The Voice That Won the Vote, A Seat at the Table, One Turtle’s Last Straw, SPLASH! (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection), Covered in Color (called “compelling from cover to cover” in a Kirkus starred review) and Hidden Hope (called “an important true account to add to all collections” in a School Library Journal starred review). Elisa lives in Maine, and has more children’s books on the way. Visit her at https://www.elisaboxer.com/
Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of nineteen new and upcoming books for kids, including the Layla and the Bots series, Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code board books, Friendbots series, and the forthcoming Ava Lin series, Best Buddies series, AlphaBot, and The Boo Crew Needs You! You can visit Vicky at vickyfang.com.
“An iceberg shears from a glacier and begins a journey through Antarctica’s seasons. In the spring, penguins trek across the ice while krill stir beneath. With summer comes more life…the sun softens its edges and undersea currents wash it from below. When autumn arrives with cooling temperatures, the sea changes and the iceberg is trapped in the ice for the winter freeze. Then spring returns and the iceberg drifts into a sheltered bay and falls, at the end of its life cycle. But if you think this is the end of the journey, look closer ― out in the ocean, an iceberg shears from a glacier and settles to the sea, beginning the process anew.”
Claire Saxby’s beautiful, poetic language and Jess Racklyeft’s luminous art bring this nonfiction concept to life for young readers who’ll never see this ecosystem with their own eyes. Here, “ocean, sky, snow and ice dance a delicate dance.”
Though most people think of Antarctica as a cold, barren icescape, ICEBERG proves otherwise. Racklyeft even includes an amazing center gatefold highlighting the beauty and life thriving just below the ocean surrounding Antarctica.
Originally published in Australia by Allen & Unwin, Groundwood Books adds an author’s note and a glossary explaining the effects of climate change (without being moralistic) and positioning ICEBERG for use in the classroom. *Highly recommended!
Strong is the kind of feel-good picture book that demonstrates to children, through a real-life example, the benefits of being true to themselves and following their dreams.
In this accessible biography, readers learn how, from an early age, Rob Kearney showed an affinity for lifting heavy things whether that was milk bottles or bags filled with groceries. As he grew so did his strength. He could easily pull a tug-of-war rope or lift cheerleaders sky-high. This powerful ability made him feel good about himself as his interest in weightlifting blossomed. “But Rob’s favorite sport was weightlifting. It required him to use every muscle in his body.” Sentences like this one give readers a wonderful understanding of what it was that appealed to Rob and why he ultimately pursued weightlifting as a career.
Rob’s life was forever changed after being introduced to the Strongman competition at age 17. He learned it was SO much more than lifting heavy weights. To qualify, he’d have to be able to pull a vehicle, flip an enormous tire, lift a log over his head, and lots more that’s described in fascinating backmatter. The art and prose depict how committed Rob became and how he trained before school by running, swimming, and lifting all sorts of things. At his fittest, he could lift over 400 pounds which is more than a refrigerator!
Without ever stating the main character’s queerness outright, the authors describe how, when not in his workout garb, Rob had a truly original style with his hair cut in a Mohawk, along with a flair for dressing in bright, bold colors and patterns that were 100% him. They also show Rob coming in last place at his first competition which is realistic as well as smart to demonstrate to children. People do not automatically win. Success takes hard work. And Rob was determined. He also was in love. Chanani’s vibrant art pairs perfectly with the text and reflects Rob’s personality in all its Strongman glory. A favorite spread of mine is below.
While training Rob met Joey who motivated Rob to be himself. While it’s not clear how long after meeting Joey Rob went on to win the North American championship, what is clear is that Rob’s personal growth helped him overcome any challenges such as bullying and self-doubt he may have had on his journey. This picture book, full of hope and positivity is recommended for any child questioning their self-worth. Rob’s candid Author Note on how being openly gay helped “smash stereotypes” about sexual orientation and perceived strength reminds me of my former gay roommate in London who was a proud tri-athlete in the ’80s when laws still criminalized homosexuality. I believe this book does a great job of acknowledging and encouraging any children feeling unsure about themselves whether that relates to their sexuality or their self-confidence.
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Also highly recommended:
THE RAINBOW PARADE Written and illustrated by Emily Neilson (Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
“Can we talk?” If little ones don’t recognize this signature question from the late comedian Joan Rivers, perhaps parents or grandparents reading the board book to them will. Rivers is just one of the more than three dozen famous Jews presented in this board book that I wish I’d written. Told in rhyme, My First Book of Famous Jews written by Julie Merberg and illustrated by Julie Wilsonis a fabulous introduction to the talented individuals who have made lasting and significant contributions to science, literature, music, film, politics, and the judiciary—even activism, an important inclusion.
It’s never too soon to start sharing the broad impact Jewish people have made in every field. This book sings the praises of everyone from Anne Frank to Helen Frankenthaler, from Steven Spielberg to Gloria Steinem in their respective categories. Wilson’s vibrant art throughout this 24-page book brings members of the tribe alive, in particular Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Bella Abzug, and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Descriptions of these iconic figures are brief. “EMMA GOLDMAN rallied to help workers unite./ “BERNIE SANDERS said “’Health care is a human right.’” But just enough to make a great introduction and prompt further reading as kids get older.
A helpful page of back matter expands on some of the people mentioned. This board book offers a great jumping-off point for a conversation about Jewish identity and the influence and importance of these famous Jews with children during year-round and especially during Jewish American Heritage Month.
THE TRUE STORY OF THE INVENTION OF CRAYOLA CRAYONS
(Clarion Books; $17.99, Ages 6 to 9)
In 1903, a man’s innovative invention appeared in homes in a bright green box for only a nickel – Crayola crayons. In a world where children are given crayons almost as soon as they are born, where the smell of crayons is more recognizable than coffee and peanut butter, what must it have been like to live at a time when crayons were a novelty? TheCrayon Man, illustrated by Steven Salerno, is a story of the inspirational inventor Edwin Binney, the man who loved color and nature, who listened and created one of the world’s most enduring, best-loved childhood toys—empowering children around the world to imagine and draw ANYTHING!
Colleen Paeff: Happy National Crayon Day! It’s so nice to have the opportunity to talk to you about The Crayon Man, Natascha, because it happens to be the favorite book of one of my favorite 4-year-olds. I have it at my house and every time she comes over, she wants me to read it aloud.
Natascha Biebow: Wow, that’s so much fun to hear, thank you!
CP: I was listening to your interview on the Nonfiction4Life podcast and I loved hearing you talk about the extensive research you conducted. What were some of the highlights of your research process?
NB: I was very fortunate in that my research took me to some really cool places: I visited the inside of the Crayola crayons factory in Easton, PA, and saw first-hand how the crayons are made today with super-speedy machines; I went to the Smithsonian Museum of American History archives in Washington, DC, to view the Binney & Smith company archives; I connected with Binney’s great-granddaughter and so many helpful librarians and experts, who were incredibly generous in fact-checking my research.
CP:That sounds amazing! Did you learn anything particularly surprising?
NB: I did! Previously published nonfiction books about the invention of Crayola crayons focused on the manufacturing process and how Binney’s wife, Alice, helped to name the crayons, but none of these delved into Binney as a man and what motivated him. In my detective work researching, I uncovered just how much he loved color and was influenced by nature. Because he worked for a factory that made black stuff – printing ink, dye, lamp black – I was instantly hooked on the contrast: all day long, he was surrounded by black, yet he loved color. THAT was why he wanted to create colored crayons!
CP: I’m always hoping to find new tricks for organizing my research. How do you keep information organized as you conduct research?
NB: Ha! I wish I could say I have some amazing system. I know some people use index cards or similar, but the fact is I collate all my references into a folder of printed out articles and notes, etc., and keep an MSWord document with key facts and website links/dates. The best tip is to use EasyBib, which allows you to create a project-based record of all your sources (which is also excellent for when you need to create a correctly-formatted bibliography).
CP:Yes! Thank goodness for EasyBib! You mentioned earlier that you connected with one of Binney’s descendants. What was her reaction to the book?
NB: Crayola kindly put me in touch with Binney’s great-granddaughter, who generously shared her memories and photos. After publication, though, magic happened – Binney’s great-great-granddaughter sent me a fan letter, and she connected me with more relatives. When we met up in person, she shared a precious photo album and stories about other members of the family. Attics were dug into and more photos and artifacts uncovered, including a stunning snap of Alice Binney with her daughters, Dolly and Helen, standing by the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair Crayola display. It’s a rarity, given how few photos were taken then. No smartphones! I really wish we’d have had it in time to include in the book. Now, these family photos and artifacts have been donated to the Smithsonian to be added to their archive, which is fantastic.
CP:That’s incredible! What do you hope young readers take away from this story?
NB:Edwin Binney had a knack for listening and making what people needed. He loved nature and turned to it for inspiration. Binney was also a generous entrepreneur who gave back to his community. His flair for innovation, creativity, persistence, and ability to listen are all attributes that future generations will need to make our world a better place. In this fast-paced world of ours, where kids are so often on devices, I’d love it if the book were to encourage kids to just doodle with crayons or to be inspired to look more closely at nature, ask curious questions and invent something.
CP:Wonderful! I know it will. You’re a writer, but you’re also an experienced editor who has worked on a number of award-winning books. How did you get started in editing?
NB:I studied Developmental Psychology at Smith College and have always loved writing and editing (I edited our high-school newspaper). I wanted to combine my interest in words and young children’s development so after I graduated, I decided I would start with the 6-week Radcliffe Publishing course (now Columbia Publishing course) so I could learn about children’s publishing. Soon after, I moved to London where I had family, and was lucky to land a job as an editorial assistant at a very small, independent publisher. It was the perfect place to get hands-on experience in all the aspects of how a book is made, before moving on to more senior editorial roles.
CP:That sounds like a good place to start. Was it your interest in editing that led you to start coaching writers through your Blue Elephant Storyshaping business?
NB: Yes, after several years in senior commissioning roles in-house at large publishing houses, I decided I wanted to spend less time on managerial and budgeting tasks and get back what I was most passionate about – hands-on editing and storyshaping. So now I coach and mentor authors and illustrators at all levels to help them fine-tune their work pre-submission, doing all the creative thinking and editing that I love; I am also developing a small, independent list as the Editorial Director of Five Quills, which is a huge privilege! I love the collaborative process of the picture book journey. A key part of this is helping creators to tease out the stories they want to tell.
CP:It sounds like you’re getting to do all the things you love! Are there any particular books you’ve edited that we should be on the lookout for?
NB: Always! Five Quills is thrilled to launch some very talented debuts – Paul Morton’s Bug Belly, a hilarious chapter book series about a greedy frog, who is an ingenious inventor; I Am Nefertiti by Annemarie Anang and Natelle Quek, an empowering, joyful picture book that celebrates identity and belonging; and Lottie Loves Nature by bestselling author Jane Clarke and James Brown, an exciting new eco-adventure series for younger readers.
CP:Those sound wonderful! How do you divide your time between writing, editing, and coaching?
NB: My editing business – coaching and mentoring authors and commissioning and editing for Five Quills – is my day job. I feel very fortunate to be doing work I am passionate about and that I enjoy. Alongside this, I try to carve out time each week to at least noodle away at my new writing projects. Sometimes, I am writing when I’m not writing – in my head, on journeys, waiting for my son’s tennis lesson, as I fall asleep at night . . . In the summer when school is out, I earmark time to work on larger writing projects that involve research. I also spend time each month doing virtual school visits. Connecting with young readers is a fun, rewarding aspect of promoting your work and a source of inspiration. And then there is volunteering as Co-Regional Advisor SCBWI British Isles, which is a daily commitment. Some advice I got from Tim Grahl was to plan out your days so that you can be more focused and not distracted by ‘bitty’ tasks. That works well for me. But some days, the list just doesn’t get done, so my motto is to be kind to myself, eat some chocolate (dark), and try again tomorrow.
CP:That’s such good advice. And I think being kind to ourselves (and eating dark chocolate!) is key to doing good work. It sounds like you’ve created a perfect combination of structure and ease. I was very impressed when you received the 2019 Stephen Mooser Member of the Year from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) to recognize your contribution as Regional Advisor since 1998, building the British Isles region into the largest international region of the organization. What an accomplishment! But now I know you also received the MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), which was presented by HRH Prince Charles himself. That must have been exciting! Tell me about it. How did you get it? What was the ceremony like? How on earth did you decide what to wear?!
NB:Yes, it was all incredibly exciting and also a bit surreal. I am fortunate to work with a very talented and generous team of dedicated volunteers, some of whom decided to nominate me for the MBE. It takes a couple of years for the Queen’s approval. It was a complete surprise and is, of course, a huge honor. I didn’t know who would be presenting the award until the actual day of the investiture at Buckingham Palace. My son scored the day off school and my mom, partner, and uncle were guests. Figuring out what to wear was an interesting challenge – a day jacket and fancy hat are de rigueur, and of course, if you know me, they had to be . . . blue! The ceremony is held in the stunning Ballroom at Buckingham Palace. I met some fascinating people from all kinds of professions and voluntary services, who were also being recognized for honors. The investiture is meticulously choreographed. We were briefed about how to approach the royals: HRH Prince Charles would say a brief word to each of us, pin on our medals, shake hands, and then we should back away – no mean feat if you’re wearing heels. I was so afraid I would trip up or get muddled! Afterward, I signed a copy of THE CRAYON MAN and asked a staff member to pass it on to HRH Prince Charles. Later, I got a thank you note from his office! The MBE is really an award to celebrate with ALL the hard-working volunteers who have contributed to making the British Isles the largest international region of SCBWI.
CP:That sounds so wild! What is one thing you wish more aspiring children’s authors understood about breaking into this business?
NB: I love elephants – they have thick skins (which allow them to keep cool). We authors also need thick skins to keep cool (heads), because this is a business that requires a huge amount of perseverance to weather its ups and downs. Sometimes, it’s incredibly challenging to stay positive and to keep re-imagining your work until an editor says ‘yes’ to your book. Aspiring authors sometimes don’t realize publishing is a slow, long game. Even when you do secure a book deal, the work is just beginning! However, I feel very fortunate to be able to be part of the business of making children’s books, and to be doing something I love – writing!
CP:What’s next for you, Natascha?
NB: I have a number of books out on submission, and am constantly dreaming up new ideas.
I am also writing a young fiction chapter book series, which is a bit of a steep learning curve, but fun.
CP: It sounds like you have lots of good things in store for readers! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.
NB: Thank you for inviting me to celebrate National Crayon Day on GoodReadswithRonna.com!
Natascha Biebow’s favorite crayon color is periwinkle blue because it makes her heart sing. She loves to draw and make stuff, just like the inventor of the Crayola crayons. She lives in London, where she writes, edits, coaches, and mentors children’s book authors and illustrators at Blue Elephant Storyshaping, and is the long-time Regional Advisor of SCBWI British Isles. In 2018, she was awarded an MBE for her services to children’s writers and illustrators. The CRAYON MAN: THE TRUE STORY OF THE INVENTION OF CRAYOLA CRAYONS is the winner of the Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature, voted for by children, and an NSTA Best STEM book and JLG Gold Selection. She loves true stories and is currently working on more nonfiction picture books, a chapter book series, and a novel. Find her at www.nataschabiebow.com
Colleen Paeff received a Bachelor’s Degree in set design for theater from California State University Fullerton, before becoming a bookseller, preschool teacher, and newspaper columnist. (She never did become a set designer!) Eventually, she figured out how to combine books, kids, and writing into one career––as a children’s book author. Her debut picture book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (illustrated by Nancy Carpenter), won the SCBWI’s 2022 Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction Text for Young Readers and was named a 2022 Robert F. Sibert Informational Fiction Honor Book. Colleen lives in Los Angeles, CA and Brooklyn, NY. Learn more about her at www.colleenpaeff.com or visit her on Instagram and Twitter @ColleenPaeff.
In 2021 malaria is a preventable and treatable disease but it wasn’t always the case. Hundreds of thousands used to die from it annually but the mortality rate has declined since the medicine to cure it was approved. That’s why I was curious to read about Tu Youyou, the woman whose determination led to finding a cure for malaria and becoming the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize.
InTu Youyou’s Discovery written by Songju Ma Daemickewith art by Lin, readers are brought back in time to Beijing, China in the 1930s. Youyou attended school when most girls her age stayed home but contracted tuberculosis as a teenager and had to drop out.
Fortunately, she survived due to antibiotics prescribed by her physician but was greatly weakened. A steady diet of “her mother’s herb soups slowly nursed her back to full strength.” This sparked her interest in how both “modern and traditional” medicines had helped her get well. Always a compassionate person, Youyou chose to pursue a career in science in order to help save lives. Little did she know then what a major contribution she would ultimately make when in 1969 malaria, like Covid-19 now, swept across the world bringing death in its path. After graduating from Peking University, “in 1955” she “became a researcher at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing.” As part of a research group, Youyou was determined to find a cure for malaria and was in the right place at just the right time.
Youyou traveled around the country to document cases in hopes of gaining new insight into the disease. She found it when she met a farmer who had cured his own high fever by eating a local plant called qinghao, known in English as sweet wormwood. In her lab, she and her team tried various methods to create a cure using the qinghao, but nothing worked. However, Youyou did not give up. Despite little to no funding for the latest equipment, Youyou’s team performed experiment after experiment with no luck.
Then what appeared to be a breakthrough came from an unexpected place. Studying her family’s indispensable “A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies, an ancient Chinese remedy book,” Youyou revisited the qinhao remedy only to realize that the book recommended just soaking the herb in water when all along her team had been boiling it. Perhaps the healing part of the plant had been destroyed during the experiments. Much to her dismay, this too yielded no results. Again, Youyou persevered. Many male colleagues had questioned her commitment to traditional medicine but “After 190 unsuccessful experiments, the test result of sample 191 stunned the team.” Sample 191 completely killed the parasites and so in 1971 a successful cure had been found. And while Youyou initially credited her entire team in research papers, over time “other scientists finally realized how involved she had been in the discovery.” In October of 2015, Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine at a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden. Her commitment to finding a cure for malaria has saved millions of lives and continues to do so to this day.
I’m so glad Songju has introduced Tu Youyou to me and to children in such an accessible way. I felt as if, despite knowing the outcome, that I was right alongside a detective solving a mystery. This nonfiction picture book bio provides engaging STEM reading for budding scientists, doctors, and inventors and puts Youyou’s name up there alongside other women in STEM history makers such as Marie Curie, Marie Maynard Daly, and Ada Byron Lovelace. Lin’s nice use of contrasting flat color palettes creates bright illustrations that have a print-making quality to them. Songju shares how labor-intensive the six steps of the scientific method are (see back matter for this info) but also how crucial. While not all experiments yield life-changing results, Youyou’s story is a great example of how teamwork and not giving up can make a difference. I was surprised to learn in the Author’s Note that although the first clinical trials for the malaria medicine known as artemisinin took place in 1972, it wasn’t until 1986 that the drug gained approval from the Chinese government and started being used around the globe.
Tad Lincoln’s boundless energy annoyed almost everyone but his father, President Abraham Lincoln. But Tad put that energy to good use during the tough times of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln guided Tad’s wriggle on visits to hospitals, to the telegraph office, and to army camps. Tad greeted visitors, raised money for bandages, and kept his father company late into the night. This special and patient bond between father and son was plain to see, and before long, Tad had wriggled his way into the hearts of others as well. Beth Anderson and S. D. Schindler follow Tad’s antics during the Civil War to uncover the generous heart and joyful spirit that powered Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle.
Colleen Paeff:Hi Beth! Congratulations on a busy couple of years! If I’m not mistaken, your debut picture book, An Inconvenient Alphabet: Ben Franklin and Noah Webster’s Spelling Revolution, came out in 2018 and by the end of 2023, you will have eight picture books out in the world, all nonfiction! That’s amazing! How do you manage to be so prolific?
Beth Anderson: Thank you, Colleen! It’s all very surreal! I don’t feel prolific. It takes me a long time to get a manuscript in shape. I think the surge for 2022 is due to a few manuscripts that I had worked on earlier that are finally making it out in the world, along with a scheduling change. I feel like my production of new stories has slowed as I learn to juggle more tasks. Only three of the eight technically qualify as nonfiction, but I think all but one will be shelved as biographies.
CP: Your books have covered stories from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. When you started writing for children did you know you would focus on mostly true stories from history or has your career evolved that way over time?
BA: I started off playing with fiction. But when I worked on a story I’d become familiar with in college (which sat in my head for a very long time!), I found my niche with historical stories. I love the discovery of little-known bits of history that open your eyes to a wider understanding of the world. The bonus of humor is irresistible. And ultimately, if a story opens your heart, too, that’s the best!
CP: Do you have a favorite time period to write about?
BA: While I don’t have one favorite, I find the era surrounding the American Revolution fascinating. It may be because there is so much more there than what made it into textbooks and curriculum. There are so many contradictions and ironies, and so many aspects of revolution playing out in people’s lives. I love that Hamilton, the musical, has brought intense interest to that time along with new ways of looking at it. Suddenly history is popular culture! Gotta love it!
CP: Absolutely! I love that Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle shows readers a side of Abraham Lincoln that we don’t usually see in books. How did you discover this sweet relationship and what made you decide it would make a good book?
BA: I started out looking into Tad Lincoln as the instigator of the first presidential turkey pardon. (Lincoln had previously granted a pardon to one of Tad’s toy soldiers. 😄) When I dug deeper looking for the heart of the story, I discovered the very tender relationship between father and son. Each provided the other with what they desperately needed. Tad provided joy and hope when his father was in the depths of despair. And Papa patiently guided Tad with love and understanding when everyone else just wanted to shut him down. It was powerful to see a child play such an important role, and that became the heart of the story. For me, the goal is always to find the humanity in history, to connect as people. Seeing Lincoln as a caring father is a great reminder that historical figures are much more complex than the images we usually encounter.
CP: In the back matter you mention that the book focuses on one year in Tad Lincoln’s life. Why did you choose to limit yourself to one year and what made you choose 1863?
BA: As I collected stories of the two, I found a sort of transformation of Tad in 1863. By focusing on that year, I could eliminate some of the other Lincoln events, like Willie’s death and the assassination, and really hone in on Tad and Papa. I found an arc of events that took Tad from disruptive, to well-intentioned annoying, to slowly finding ways to appropriately help his father and others. The turkey pardon became a culminating event in which Tad found his voice and agency.
CP: What are some of your favorite stories about Tad that didn’t make it into the book?
BA: One that was cut—he sawed up the dining room table and used barrel staves to construct rocking chairs for the Old Soldiers’ Home. His toolbox disappeared after that one.
There are stories about Tad and Willie playing with the bell system in the President’s House and causing problems. They also played on the roof with pretend cannons, and they found all sorts of fun stuff in the attic. Tad used to ride his pony as “security detail” to accompany his parents in the carriage. There are many touching anecdotes that helped me get to know him.
CP: What fun stories! What do you hope readers will take away fromTad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle?
BA:I hope children will see goodness and capableness in themselves and others despite what might appear to be annoying behavior or uncomfortable differences. To me, the story is about perspectives, too. Incapable boy vs a child with learning differences. Undisciplined trouble vs unbridled good intentions. The President’s House vs home.
CP: How do you go about finding little-known stories from history? Do you have any favorite resources?
BA: I subscribe to various news feeds, keep my eyes and ears tuned for possibilities, and often find something while I’m looking into a different topic. I explore history sites sometimes, but there’s no one place.
CP: How do you keep your research organized?
BA:I’ve slowly developed my system. I use a spiral for gathering information. I label the first page Table of Contents and use what has become a standard list of things I know I’ll need – like sources, contacts, title ideas, structure ideas, key concepts/themes, back matter possibilities, teacher ideas, timeline, character details, and much more. I need to be able to sort what I find into usable categories and capture ideas as they pop so I can locate those pieces when I need them. I did a post on my blog a few years ago called Organization Optimization. I often buy used copies of books I need so I can mark them up. I copy or print a lot of articles and relevant pages to have in hand. I keep all my accumulated pieces in a pocket file. [see the photo of spiral below]
CP: That sounds like a terrific system! I will definitely be stealing some organization ideas from you! What are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned in researching your books—all of them, not necessarily just the most recent?
BA: Now that I think about it, I think they are all about something that surprised me—like Ben and Noah’s efforts to change our spelling and “Smelly” Kelly’s nose. I guess that’s a lot of what draws me to a story.
A few tidbits. I was surprised to learn that Black men could have served on a jury in New York in 1855. To attend court, Elizabeth Jennings’ family would have had to walk across the ice to get from Manhattan to Brooklyn in February 1855. I was totally shocked that James Kelly pulled a 30” eel out of a subway sink drain. There are phones in the subway tunnels marked by blue lights. Horns were used as hearing aids—per S. D. Schindler’s illustration in Tad’s story. I didn’t know that men paid bounties for others to serve in their place in the Continental Army. (So really, the wealthy finding a way out of military service is nothing new. Actually, I get those surprises often, that some of the problems and situations we have are really nothing new.) Every story is full of surprises. There are the ones that bring you to the story, and then so many more as you write and vet for accuracy.
CP: Those kinds of surprises are what I love about writing nonfiction! What’s next for you, Beth?
BA:2022 is a busy year with three releases! REVOLUTIONARY PRUDENCE WRIGHT: LEADING THE MINUTE WOMEN IN THE FIGHT FOR INDEPENDENCE, illustrated by Susan Reagan, releasing Feb. 1, and FRANZ’S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE, illustrated by Caroline Hamel, releasing May 3 are up for pre-order now. CLOAKED IN COURAGE: UNCOVERING DEBORAH SAMPSON, PATRIOT SOLDIER, illustrated by Anne Lambelet, comes out Nov. 15.
I’m on pins and needles waiting to see what Jeremy Holmes does for our 2023 release, THOMAS JEFFERSON’S BATTLE FOR SCIENCE: BIAS, TRUTH, AND A MIGHTY MOOSE. And there’s another title in process, as yet unannounced.
CP: Incredible! I look forward to reading them all! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat.
BA: Thanks so much for inviting me to share TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE with your readers! I’m honored!
Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. With linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and a penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth lives in Loveland, Colorado where she laughs, ponders, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same. She’s the award-winning author of TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE, “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES, LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT!, and AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET. Beth has more historical picture books on the way, including three more stories of revolution, wonder, and possibility in 2022.
(Margaret K. McElderry Books; $17.99, Ages 4 to 8)
The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problemcombines history and engineering to tell the true story of how one amazing engineer cleaned the stinking River Thames and stopped a deadly cholera epidemic by building London’s first modern sewer system. Illustrations by Nancy Carpenterprovide humor, historical details, and plenty of STEM-related discussion starters, while the book’s back matter delves into “Poop Pollution Today” with tips to help young readers keep the waterways in their own communities clean.
Ronna Mandel:Welcome, Colleen! After two years of your fantastic interviews on this blog, it’s now your turn to answer some questions for our readers!
I’m so excited to share this Q+A about your debut picture book that kept me riveted. And who can close a book that opens with the Queen on her throne, and not the royal throne, but the euphemistic one!?
Now let’s go back to the day the idea for The Great Stink hit you like the foul odors you write about. Where were you and what do you remember thinking about when you first saw those three unforgettable words?
Colleen Paeff: I was reading How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman while waiting for a plane at the airport in Atlanta, Georgia, and I came across a line about “The Great Stink of 1858.” There wasn’t much information about it, so I did a quick Google search because the name was so intriguing. When I realized the Great Stink was caused by poop polluted water and an engineer saved the day by cleaning the River Thames, I knew this story had all themakings of a terrific children’s book.
RM:I’m so glad you did. What did your visit to the Crossness Pumping Station in London teach you?
CP: So much! First of all, it convinced me that I wanted to tell this story. The beam engines at the pumping station are incredible and a nonprofit group has been working on restoring them to their former glory, which was really nice to see! While I was there, I was very surprised to learn that Bazalgette’s plan involved pumping sewage back into the river, a practice that continued until 1887 when they started dumping raw sewage directly into the North Sea instead. (!!!) This continued until 1998!
RM: Who knew about all that raw sewage re-dumping so late into the 20th century? Not me! I could gag thinking how much North Sea shrimp I ate back in the ’90s when I lived in Frankfurt!
Your opening paragraph quickly pulls readers in and back in time. I’m curious if you had to work hard to get it as perfectly stinky as it now is? All those superb synonyms spoke to me!
CP:The first sentence is exactly the same as it was from my very first draft. The rest of the paragraph is probably pretty close. I knew I wanted to use all those synonyms for stink and I worked hard to get the right rhythm and then to match that rhythm in the penultimate sentence of the book. The rest of the book didn’t come so easy, though!
RM: How did you react when you heard Nancy was illustrating your book and again when you saw the preliminary artwork? What particularly struck you?
CP:I was already a huge Nancy Carpenter fan. She’s illustrated books written by some of my favorite authors (like Michelle Markel, Jonah Winter, Alexis O’Neill!!), so I felt incredibly honored to discover she’d agreed to create the art for my very first book. And, I felt really lucky to be working with a publishing team that thought to ask her! I didn’t see any illustrations until Nancy had completed sketches for the entire book and I was blown away. I really loved how she depicted the cholera epidemics and how Joseph Bazalgette’s character shines through every time we see him. And there’s so much humor! I died laughing when I saw the way our names are floating in the murky waters of the Thames on the cover of the book!
RM:I can just imagine. It’s so clever. And just look at the bird on the left side of the cover and those stench-sick people on the bridge. Too funny, although I don’t think anyone was laughing at the time.
I’ve always been fascinated with old England, London especially. I know you love it, too. Do you think that, knowing what you know about the sanitation problems that began in the early 1800s due to population growth and the use of flush toilets, whenever you read stories about this time period you’ll always be thinking about poop? In other words, has your research tainted your image of the Victorian era?
CP:It hasn’t tainted my image of the Victorian era, but it’s made watching movies set in that time period a little more difficult to enjoy because I can’t stop thinking about how the outdoor scenes should have more filth.
RM:I feel the same way. And speaking of filth and now knowing the illness it can cause, we learn that Bazalgette was thirteen during the first Cholera epidemic. But by the time more deadly outbreaks come in the late 1840s, he’s already working as an engineer mapping London’s sewer system with the goal of making London “a better, cleaner, healthier place to live.” Were you surprised that no one had thought about this sooner? Can you speak to why his initial plan didn’t get wide approval and how it eventually did?
CP:They had been talking about updating London’s sewers for decades. In fact, Bazalgette’s predecessor, Frank Forster, is largely thought to have died from overwork due to the stress of his job. A big part of the problem was finding the money to pay for such an enormous project. But when the problem started impacting the people in power—the Houses of Parliament are right on the Thames where the stench was intense—and people started to die by the thousands, they suddenly found the money and they found it fast.
RM:There is SO much interesting, eye-opening stuff in The Great Stink, Colleen. Tell me what you had to leave out that you SO wish you could have kept in?
CP: I wish I could have included how Dr. John Snow tracked the source of London’s 1853 cholera epidemic to a water pump on Broad Street not far from Bazalgette’s office. It’s such a fascinating story. Grownups can read more about it in Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World.
RM:As a bonafide Anglophile, I’m adding that book to my TBR list! How long did it take for you to gather all your research material and write the book?
CP:I started my research in August of 2016 and the manuscript went on submission in May of 2018. But I wasn’t working on that story alone for the whole time. I had other books I was writing and researching. I don’t work on different projects simultaneously, but I will work on one book for a while, send it out to my critique partners, and work on something else while I’m waiting on their feedback. Or sometimes if I can’t figure out how to solve a particular problem with a manuscript, I set it aside for a few months while I work on something else.
RM:What is it about nonfiction that resonates with you?
CP:I love nonfiction because it allows me to really dig into subjects that fascinate me. I never imagined I would be fascinated by sewers, though! I visited several wastewater treatment facilities over the course of my research and was astounded by the science behind how they treat waste. I was even more astounded by some of the amazing things they’re doing with human waste these days!
RM:Sounds like that could be fodder for a second sewage-themed book. :) Do you have any tried and true research tips you can share with other authors starting their nonfiction journey?
CP:Keep track of where you find your information! I’m terrible at doing this, but it makes things so much easier when it comes time to copy edit and fact check a manuscript. I’ve started keeping an “Info Dump” file on Scrivener for each research project and I include source information for every fact. My hope is that later, when I’m fact-checking, I’ll be able to do a word search that will take me to the original source. I’m crossing my fingers that it works!
RM:Ditto! I’ll be curious to hear how that works out.
Here’s my chance to officially wish you a happy book birthday! Yay! It must have seemed like 2021 was so far off when you first began The Great Stink. But at last, your book is out there on bookshelves (signed copies are atOnce Upon a Time Bookstore). What are you most looking forward to?
CP: I can’t wait to hear the reactions of my young readers and to start doing school visits!
RM: What resources for creatives do you turn to for inspiration and to keep your prose fresh?
CP: Books and long walks.
RM:Do you have any advice for nonfiction book authors who are seeking new subjects and people to write about?
CP: Pay attention to everything. News stories. Little tidbits in books you’re reading. Stories people tell you. Email newsletter content. (I love Atlas Obscura, Smithsonian, and JSTOR’s newsletters.) And if anything piques your interest, dig deeper—look for stories that have lots of angles. The Great Stink touches on germ theory, engineering, history, and environmental science, so teachers should be able to use it in the classroom in lots of different ways. I imagine that was one thing that made it appealing to my editor—though I’ve never asked. Maybe I should!
RM: I was one of the passionate members of your picture book study group. Please tell readers the benefits of creating this kind of group.
CP:Ourpicture book publisher book clubwas THE BEST! When I first got serious about writing for kids (after many years of dabbling) I decided that the best way to learn what made each publishing house or imprint unique, would be to get a big pile of picture books published by the same house and read them all at once. So every month, I checked out about 25 books published in the last five years by one publisher, say Chronicle Books, for example, and invited other picture book enthusiasts (including you!) over to my house and we would take turns reading books aloud. The following month, we might do books from Roaring Brook or Holiday House. At first, we only read books from places that accepted unsolicited manuscripts because most of us were unagented, but after the first year, we broadened our scope. There were so many benefits to creating this group. We learned a ton about the market and what was being published. We started to pick up on the subtle (or not so subtle) differences in the books coming from different publishing houses. And, best of all, we made lasting friendships. I think that book club was one of the best things I ever did for myself as a writer.
RM:Before we say goodbye, I’m sure everyone wants to know what’s on the horizon for you?
CP: My next book, Rainbow Truck, comes out in 2023 from Chronicle Books. I co-wrote it with Hina Abidi and Saffa Khan is illustrating. It tells the story of a Pakistani decorated truck trying to discover her true purpose as she makes deliveries around the country. If you have never seen a decorated truck from Pakistan, Google it! They’re incredible!! And, in the meantime, I’m working on a new picture book biography and I’ve got a few other projects on the back burner, too. Thanks so much, Ronna, for interviewing me. I’m really glad to be celebrating my book’s birthday with you!
RM: And thank you, Colleen, for taking the time to go into such fascinating detail about The Great Stink. It’s been wonderful!
Fueled by English breakfast tea, a burning curiosity, and a love of research, Colleen Paeff writes picture books from a book-lined office in an old pink house with a view of the Hollywood sign. She is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021) and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi (Chronicle Books, 2023). Find her online at www.colleenpaeff.com and on Twitter and Instagram @ColleenPaeff.
A topic on everyone’s tongues these days is vaccinations. When she wrote this book, Linda E Marshalllikely had no idea how relevant her book would be today and how once again, an innovative vaccine is saving lives around the world.
The book opens with four-year-old Jonas Salk sitting on top of his father’s shoulders during the victory parade celebrating the end of World War I. But Jonas doesn’t understand the cheering when all he sees are injured soldiers. Jonas, readers learn, sees things differently. Find out about the man and the story behind the life-changing vaccine he developed in THE POLIO PIONEER: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccinewritten by Linda Elovitz Marshallwith illustrations by Lisa Anchin.
Anchin’s art brings a warmth to the subject of science painting in soft colors of oranges and blues as the reader walks through the life of the main character Jonas. Whether that’s refereeing his friends’ games when not reading because he knows the rules or helping his Yiddish-speaking mother learn English after his Jewish family migrates to New York City. The kindness and love of the Salk family are depicted with each page turn as the family celebrates Shabbat with freshly baked Challah and Jonas’ inner thoughts are shown “when Jonas prayed that he might someday, help make the world a better place.”
Marshall writes about the financial difficulties the Salk family faced, but Jonas kept moving forward “attending the City College of New York where tuition was free and where, unlike at many other colleges and universities, Jews were welcome.” With a grin on his face and apron tied around his neck, Jonas discovers chemistry while mixing liquids amongst classmates in the college lab. Salk is determined to gain a better understanding of science so that he can make medicines to help people and decides to become a doctor. Illustrated wearing glasses and a white lab coat, Jonas enters medical school where he befriends his teacher Dr. Thomas Francis and the pair team up with an idea as the flu is killing millions. “What if … a person was given some flu virus that was killed by chemicals so it could not cause disease?” Dr. Salk and Dr. Francis thought this could be a way of fighting the flu. And they were right.
With men, women and children lined up on the streets, dressed in their Sunday bests, a nurse in white stands next to one of Anchin’s realistic illustrations with a chalk-written sign reading FLU VACCINE CLINIC. “Since then, flu shots have saved thousands of lives each year.”
“But another disease was raging … Polio”. Readers see Franklin Delano Roosevelt sitting in a wheelchair in the oval office, as others are lined up in beds, victims of this new disease. People are shown hiding in their homes, just as we all have done these past fifteen months from COVID, and the similarities are not unnoticed. Today’s scientists learned a lot from Dr. Salk. “He and his team of scientists labored day and night, night and day.”
“On April 12, 1955, Dr. Francis joins the team and announced to the world: “The vaccine WORKS!” POLIO could be CONQUERED!” Dr. Salk continued his studies by establishing the Salk Institute for Biological Studies where they have worked on cures for cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and many other problems.
Marshall writes in a way that makes a tough topic easy to follow with her understandable language and flowing sentences, while Anchin’s drawings transport the reader to 1918 and beyond. The timing of the release of this book last year during the pandemic could not have been more prescient and still resonates today with over 49% of the population vaccinated for Covid-19. As for polio, America has been free of the disease since 1979 due to the amount of participation. Maybe a picture book about our current pandemic will be next to teach future kids about what we have been experiencing. Marshall’s book is fabulous for elementary-age children and higher. In the Author’s Note, Marshall heartwarmingly explains the backstory behind her reasons for writing the book and how Dr. Salk is her hero. She thanks the Salk family for sharing family stories and photos, including writings from Michael Salk, grandson to Jonas. Dr. Salk, as Marshall tells, was a Mensch, the perfect Yiddish word to describe a man whose good work, kindness, and dedication helped make the world a better place. And he did.
Colleen Paeff:Hi Candy! Congratulations on the release of your second picture book, The Stars Beckoned: Edward White’s Amazing Walk In Space (illustrated by Courtney Dawson)! You’ve said that when you started writing this book you weren’t really a space buff. Do you think that helped or hindered you during the research process?
Candy Wellins: I hope it helped! Most of what I knew about the history of NASA came from THE RIGHT STUFF, which does a good job of covering Project Mercury and I think everyone has a basic understanding of Apollo, but the Gemini missions are kind of like the forgotten middle children of the NASA missions. Not the first ones and not the flashy ones, but certainly important ones. I read the transcript of the entire Gemini IV mission–pages and pages of technical jargon—but once you get to the heart of the mission and “hearing” the astronauts speak, it’s pretty riveting.
CP: Would you consider yourself a space buff now?
CW: No, not a space buff by any means. Maybe an above-average space enthusiast at best!
CP: I’m always impressed by authors who can tell a story in rhyme, but I’m especially impressed by authors who can tell a nonfiction story in rhyme! Was rhyming something that was a part of The Stars Beckoned from the beginning or did it come later in the revision process?
CW: I knew I wanted to tell Edward’s story for a while and I didn’t have a plan whatsoever. I only wrote in prose at that point and I tried a few things, but didn’t like them at all. A writer in my critique group shared a biography written in verse that I thought was just lovely. It made me want to do something biographical in verse just to try it. Edward came to mind immediately. I had done a lot of the preliminary research and, honestly, if you’re going to get your feet wet in rhyme, might as well do it with someone who has a very rhymable last name like White. The opening lines came to me pretty quickly and I just let the story take me where it needed to go.
CP: Edward White’s children gave you feedback as you worked on the story, right? How did you get in touch with them and were they immediately open to you writing about their dad?
CW: During one of my many Google searches of Edward’s name, I found a post his granddaughter made celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his spacewalk. She is a realtor so I was able to find contact information easily and reached out to her. She put me in touch with her dad and aunt and I shared the manuscript with them. It was important to me that the book be as historically accurate as possible. They were especially helpful as we moved into the illustration phase–getting hair colors, clothing choices and airplane models exactly as they were was important to all of us. Most Americans know the names of other “first” astronauts like Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, but I feel—and I think his children would agree—Edward has been somewhat forgotten by history. I hope my book can change that just a bit because he really was amazing and did important work.
I’m thrilled to have Alexis back on GRWR to talk about her latest picture book biography and the quirky visionary she chose to write about.
Melvil Dewey’s love of organization and words drove him to develop andimplement his Dewey Decimal system, leaving a significant and lasting impact in libraries across the country.
When Melvil Dewey realized every library organized their books differently, he wondered if he could invent a system all libraries could use to organize them efficiently. A rat-a-tat speaker, Melvil was a persistent (and noisy) advocate for free public libraries. And while he made enemies along the way as he pushed for changes–like his battle to establish the first library school with women as students, through it all he was EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often ANNOYING as he made big changes in the world of public libraries–changes still found in the libraries of today!
Buy the book from your local independent bookseller.
Good Reads With Ronna: It’s like the history of Melvil Dewey has been hiding in plain sight all these years. I never gave much thought to his decimal system of book organization for libraries, and definitely never figured it out. What sparked your curiosity into the man and his contributions?
Alexis O’Neill: I hadn’t given him much thought either, Ronna, until a librarian friend sent me a funny video she used to help teach kids the Dewey Decimal System. That made me realize I didn’t know a thing about the inventor of this seemingly ubiquitous system.
GRWR: Apart from what Melvil Dewey is most famous for, what other ideas did you discover during your research phase that he championed which have impacted our lives?
AON: Dewey really championed education for all. He was concerned about rural Americans as well as the waves of new immigrants having easier access to information. He also was a proponent of the Simplified Spelling movement, a precursor to today’s texting – getting rid of vowels and extra letters in words that hindered or were unnecessary to pronunciation – like “tho” for “though.” He chopped “Melville” down to “Melvil” but when there was an outcry, was convinced not to change “Dewey” to “Dui.”
GRWR: Let’s talk about Dewey’s dream of a librarian school at Columbia College where he was the chief librarian. Trustees did “not want women on their campus.” So how did he succeed?
AON: He got around them by following the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law. When Columbia College Trustees refused to have women on campus, Dewey bent rules to his needs: he opened his School of Library Economy in a storeroom over the chapel across the street. The entering class had seventeen women and three men.
GRWR: Dewey is referred to in the jacket flap as “EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often annoying.“ Can you describe some of his quirky character traits?
AON: Even if Dewey had no fatal flaws (and he indeed had them), I still don’t think I’d be able to stand being in the same room with him for very long. He talked incessantly and rapidly. While the average American speaks at about 100-130 words per minute, one of Dewey’s students clocked him at a rate of 180 words per minute. When he tried to convince others about one of his ideas, he was like a dog on a bone. From a very young age and throughout his life, he obsessively kept lists of things such as his height, weight, assets, and more. And he fixated on the number 10, thus decimals. He wrote, “I am so loyal to decimals as our great labor saver that I even like to sleep decimally” (in other words, 10 hours a night.)
GRWR: Melvil approached every endeavor and encounter in his life at 100 mph. The train visuals speeding through the pages of your story perfectly convey this energy. Do you think he moved at this pace because he had so much to accomplish in his lifetime that was predicted to be short after he inhaled smoke during a fire in his youth?
AON: Dewey grew up in a deeply religious, restrictive household. He was always concerned with wastefulness and a desire “to leave the world a better place than when I found it.” But when he was recuperating from a fire at his school as a teen, this desire became an obsession as did his preoccupation with efficiency.
GRWR: There are a lot of words printed in bold throughout the book. You also ask young readers several questions throughout it as well. Can you explain why?
AON: I wanted readers to come along with the book’s narrator on a breathless ride in “real-time” as Dewey’s driving energy rushes through the years. I used present tense, direct questions, and bolded words to make the narrative voice break the fourth wall and emphasize the surprise the narrator feels while making observations about Dewey.
GRWR: What made Dewey fall out of favor in the public’s eye?
AON: A couple of decades into his career, Dewey was exposed as a racist, anti-Semite, and serial sexual harasser. He had created the Lake Placid Club that specifically excluded people of color, Jews, and other religious groups. And there had been justified complaints for years in the American Library Association, a group he helped found, about Dewey’s serial harassment of women. For his actions, he was censured by the NYS Board of Regents for his discriminatory practices, forced to resign from his positions as State Librarian and director of the library school, and ostracized by the ALA.
GRWR: How do you reconcile Dewey’s love of books and reading driving his initial motivation to help immigrants and those who cannot afford books with his bigoted views of Jews and others?
AON: I really can’t reconcile or explain this.
GRWR: Is it hard to write about someone whose personal views you may not necessarily like or agree with?
AON: Dewey’s goal was to make the world a better place. So the question is, did his classification system make the world a better place? I believe it did. It expanded educational opportunities for the general public by making access to information more efficient. There are countless examples of artists, scientists, and others whose negative personal behaviors are hard to reconcile with their contributions, but their contributions have made significant, positive differences in so many lives.
GRWR: You used to write fiction and of late have switched to nonfiction kidlit, primarily biographies. What about writing fact-based stories appeals to you? And what do you think kids like about them?
AON: I still write fiction, but I love American history! Early in my writing career, I wrote many articles for Cobblestone Magazine, and doing the research was a kick. Like me, I think kids are excited to know when something is real. Some facts–especially in history or science–just take my breath away.
GRWR: Where do you turn to for story inspiration?
AON: Footnotes in books, articles, videos – lots of things spark ideas for stories. I never know where the next spark comes from or if it will flame into a book.
GRWR: If you’re able to divulge this info, what is on your radar for your next picture book?
AON: Right now, I have a couple of fiction picture books circulating, and I’m working on a middle-grade nonfiction project. After so many years of writing “tight,” doing long-form work is challenging. I keep wanting to cut words!
Thanks for this opportunity, Ronna!
GRWR:What a treat it’s been to have you back here to share your insights about Melvil Dewey, Alexis. I will never look at those numbers in the library the same way again!
Alexis O’Neill is the author of several picture books including The Recess Queen, the winner of several children’s choice awards, and The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, a California Young Reader Medal Nominee. Her new picture book biographies are Jacob Riis’s Camera; Bringing Light to Tenement Children and The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey. Alexis received the California Reading Association’s award for making significant and outstanding contributions to reading throughout California and is an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
Did you know Srinivasa Ramanujan was one of the greatest mathematicians the world has seen? I didn’t, but was thankful to come across The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity by Amy Alznauerand learn a little bit about this man whose amazing accomplishments are still studied today.
Born in a small South Indian village in 1887, Ramanujan began questioning the world at an early age: “What is small? And what is big?” He spent endless hours writing and erasing on his slate, trying to capture his thoughts about numbers and size. “Ramanujan was a number theorist, a person who studies the properties and patterns of numbers.” This book’s examples make these large concepts easy to understand such as when Ramanujan takes food to the man by the river who claims to see odd creatures that aren’t there. To this, Ramanujan says, “Sometimes even invisible things can be real.” Kids can relate to this while their parents have a greater understanding of what Ramanujan meant.
This self-taught genius felt alone with his thoughts until reaching out to Cambridge University in England because of its great mathematical center where he finally connects with top mathematician, G. H. Hardy (whose pamphlet on infinity Ramanujan had recently discovered). Just six years after making that connection, Ramanujan died in 1920, at the age of thirty-two. “The profound originality of his ideas has been a source of inspiration for mathematicians ever since.”
Daniel Miyares’s lovely illustrations show us Ramanujan’s India blended skillfully with the boy’s thoughts. One of my favorite scenes discusses how numbers whisper to Ramanujan in his sleep; he tries catching ideas before they disappear. The accompanying art has multiple images of Ramanujan leaping and climbing on numbers, set against a night sky. Get this book for the kid in your life with big thoughts—whether anyone else can see them or not.
Click here to order a copy of The Boy Who Dreamed of Infinity. e Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks! e Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/19/20
(Sterling Children’s Books; $16.95, Ages 5 and up)
I like the play on words in the title, The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box, written by Marcie Wessels and illustrated by Beatriz Castro, which you’ll understand after you read the review of this interesting and recommended nonfiction picture book.
The book’s main character, Ralph Baer, was born in Cologne Germany and enjoyed doing things other kids his age did, like riding his scooter or playing stick hockey. Wessels doesn’t mention specific dates, but adults and older readers will know the action was unfolding in the 1930s during Hitler’s rise to power, which is mentioned. Around that time, readers are told, Hitler began making life difficult for the country’s Jewish people. And, since Ralph was Jewish, “Even former friends became enemies.” He was bullied, and attacks by the Nazis were not uncommon.
“With no one to play with, Ralph spent more time indoors, tinkering with his construction set.” Not only was Ralph able to complete all the models in the manual, he also came up with many clever ideas of his own.
Restrictions on Jews didn’t stop Ralph from learning even despite being kicked out of school at age 14 for being Jewish. In 1938 Ralph and his family fled Germany. Once in America, his inventiveness proved invaluable. When he saw a way to speed up handiwork that he, his sister and his mother were doing to help make ends meet, Ralph created a prototype machine. Soon they doubled the amount of projects being completed, increasing their earnings. Always industrious, Ralph took a radio repair course which led to “… fixing radios for the entire neighborhood.”
In the army, since necessity is the mother of invention, Ralph constructed a radio for his barracks from whatever bits and pieces he could find. Then, after WWII he learned how to build a TV set (the box in the title I referred to earlier). The advent of television heralded in a new era in family entertainment and Ralph saw immense “possibilities.” I was impressed with how Ralph’s career anticipated or paralleled the rise of home technology.
While Ralph saw the TV as a vehicle for playing games, his ideas were initially disregarded. He eventually held jobs building equipment for the U.S. military and for NASA. In fact “he embedded a radio transmitter in the handle of the video camera that astronaut Neil Armstrong took to the moon.” As time passed Ralph still envisioned the potential of TV and imagined “using an external box to control the TV to play games.” With the blessings and funding from one of his bosses, Ralph secretly created a home gaming system and “… the Brown Box, was born!” After numerous rejections, Magnavox took on Ralph’s invention and in 1972, the first iteration of the Odyssey went on sale. As we all know, the video game industry would grow in leaps and bounds over the decades and Baer can be credited with being one of its pioneers.
Wessels has made the story of Ralph Baer’s innovations an accessible and fascinating one. She’s managed to take a lifetime of Baer’s ingenuity and whittle it down to just 48 pages. While the book may read quickly, it definitely invites revisiting to let the scope of Baer’s achievements sink in. When children read the book or have it read to them, they’ll learn about more of Baer’s inventions and can find further sources for information in the back matter. Castro’s comic-like art wonderfully complements Wessel’s words. There is just enough realism to the illustrations when detailing the technology. She also conveys the right mood with the red palate during the dark days of Hitler. I’d love to see her do a graphic novel and could easily see Wessel’s story succeed in that format, too. The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box is a motivating STEM bio that will definitely resonate with unconventional thinkers and could very well inspire kids to pursue exciting new paths in learning.
Wednesday, April 22, is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day which will be celebrated around the globe. Read below about some new picture books, both fiction and nonfiction, that Christine Van Zandt recommends to help your children understand the significance of this holiday.
One of my favorite things about Henry Cole’s gorgeous, wordless picture book, One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey, is the prologue. I was hooked from the first image: a forest where one tree—colored brown—stands out. Cole’s amazingly detailed black-ink drawings are juxtaposed by brown-colored items: the tree, first made into paper, becomes an unassuming lunch bag.
In the Author’s Note, Cole shares how, in 1970 for the first Earth Day, he decided to not throw out has lunch bag that day. Or the next one. Eventually, he used that bag about 700 times! Then, when he went to college, he passed the velvet-soft bag to his younger friend who used it for another year. Wow! This really hit home with me. I’m conscientious about noncompostables, but will now consider the possibilities of paper products.
Using a humble brown bag as its central element, the story follows the bag’s journey from creation to conclusion. We are emotionally engaged with the little boy as he grows to adulthood and the family members we meet along the way. This story drives home the messages that even seemingly insignificant choices matter and that kids have the power to change things. These workhorse lunch bags are relatively inexpensive and typically don’t garner a second thought. Cole’s true-life story brings this simple item to the front page of his book and the forefront of our attention. Bravo! ★Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews
When I think of the mischievously adorable Peter Rabbit, of course his creator, Beatrix Potter, comes to mind. But, who was the woman behind this famous character? Linda Elovitz Marshall’s picture book, Saving the Countryside: The Story of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbitfills in the blanks.
Potter was a bright artistic girl who lived in the city but cherished the family’s summers in the country. Too soon, it was back to the constraints of being a Victorian-era girl. Focusing on her drawings, Potter, later, was able to land a job—but only because the publisher thought she was a man. Throughout the story, we see Potter pushing against and past the bonds of what a woman was “supposed to do.” While these actions were commendable, Potter also took on the role of conservationist, buying up more than 4,000 acres of beloved land to keep it peacefully undeveloped; her donation to the UK’s National Trust allowed the area’s preservation.
The illustrator, Ilaria Urbinati, enlivens Potter’s story in a muted old-fashioned style complementary to the text. Be sure to check beneath the cover for a clever second image: a before-and-after of Potter in her cherished landscape.
This behind-the-scenes look at Potter’s life will engage kids because it’s relatable and inspirational—showing you can make a career doing what you love, break through societal limits, and care for our planet. What Potter managed in her 77 years was exceptional. ★Starred Review– Foreward Reviews
Land Wilson’s rhyming picture book, The Girl Who Spoke to the Moon: A Story About Friendship and Loving Our Planet, is a gentle story packing a powerful message. Little Sofia befriends the Moon and, one night when he’s blue, she imagines herself up there, seeing the Earth from a new perspective. The Moon sadly tells her, “With dirty waters, land, and air, it looks as though she’s in despair. Her people seem so unaware that what Earth needs is better care.”
Sue Cornelison’s soothing images are in the muted tones of a bedtime book, yet, the swoops of sparkles throughout give the story movement and feeling. Once Sofia realizes she must share her findings, we’re shown glimpses of children from around the world doing their part to help our planet.
The end matter provides explanations of how the Earth’s air, land, and water are polluted, followed by simple suggestions such as creating less trash and eating less meat. In the Author’s Note, Wilson shares how astronauts love looking back at our planet, but how that distance also brings an understanding of Earth’s vulnerability and precious importance. Wilson urges us to make the Earth’s well-being a priority: “When people work together, our power grows. But we need to work faster, harder, and smarter”—a message that should be taken to heart as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. I like how Wilson’s commentary is both realistic and optimistic, hopefully inciting readers to action.