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An Interview with Author Christine Van Zandt

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

MILKWEED FOR MONARCHS

AUTHOR CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT

Illustrated by Alejandra Barajas

(Beaming Books; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Milkweed for Monarchs cover monarchs flying in milkweed plants.

 

 

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

Bold, gold, the chrysalis gleams. And deep down inside . . . the butterfly dreams.

Every year, monarch butterflies migrate to warmer climates for overwintering months. However, changing environments make it continually more difficult to find food and places to lay eggs. In this nonfiction picture book, the monarch’s life cycle is detailed in lyrical verse as stunning art accompanies each stage in the butterfly’s life.

The most recognizable butterfly, monarchs are classified as a vulnerable species by the IUCN, and face drastic challenges when it comes to locating food sources–milkweed. Milkweed for Monarchs is the perfect resource for young readers to learn more about these beautiful insects and how they can foster monarch-friendly environments in their own backyard. Backmatter includes actionable ways for readers to help this vulnerable species.

 

INTERVIEW:

GoodReadsWithRonna: How did you decide to write about butterflies in your new nonfiction picture book, Milkweed for Monarchs?

Christine Van Zandt: During the pandemic, we bought a milkweed plant with the vague idea that we were helping butterflies in some way. Little did we know that our plant was loaded with eggs and soon we had a bunch of very cute caterpillars. Sadly, they were eaten by various predators in our garden, but that set me out on this journey, wondering about monarchs.


GRWR:
What eats monarchs? I thought they were poisonous.

CVZ: When the monarch caterpillars eat milkweed leaves, they do retain some of the plant’s toxins. And they have the bright “stay away” body markings consisting of yellow, white, and black stripes. But they still end up being dinner for other insects, spiders, birds, lizards, and mammals. In our garden, we’ve seen ants carrying little caterpillars away; raccoons and birds pluck them off.

 

Milkweed for Monarchs int1 flitter flutter wings
Interior spread from Milkweed for Monarchs written by Christine Van Zandt and illustrated by Alejandra Barajas, Beaming Books ©2024.

 

GRWR: Did you encounter any obstacles trying to sell this book?

CVZ: It took me a while to figure out how to write it. I tried it in prose and verse, in fiction and nonfiction. The version that ended up working best was a short rhyming poem with facts in sidebars and in the backmatter.

An earlier version of this manuscript won first place at SCBWI-LA’s 2021 Writers Day and also earned me the annual Sue Alexander Grant. Even so, when the manuscript went out on submissions, some publishers passed stating they already had a monarch book on their list and they didn’t want to compete against their own products.


GRWR:
So it sounds like butterfly books are considered evergreens like dinosaur, alphabet, or things-that-go books?

CVZ: Yes they are, so both my area of focus for the story and how I presented the text had to come from a fresh angle. I’m passionate about trying to help the monarchs. The western monarch’s population went from 4.5 million in the 1980s to fewer than 2000 butterflies in 2020. The just-in 2023 count shows the population is still ~95% down.

Monarchs need milkweed because that’s the only plant their caterpillars can eat; that became my focus, how the milkweed plant is essential for this insect’s survival. Milkweed plants are also amazing: they get eaten down to nothing and keep regrowing. I welcome munched-on plants in my yard because that means insects are being sustained through their life cycle which, in turn, benefits the larger food web.


GRWR:
As picture book writers we’re often told not to write in rhyme unless it is extremely well executed. Was that a problem you encountered?

CVZ: I actually didn’t but I also feel my rhyme was solid by the time we sent it out on submissions because I’d applied the various checks such as scansion. However, writing in rhyme makes revisions much harder because each round with the publisher meant not just updating the text but also redoing the rhyme. Sometimes I had to scrap stanzas and write new ones.

And rhyming books have limitations because they are not as likely to be translated into a foreign language since so much more is involved in translating poetry, though it does happen. With my first book, A Brief History of Underpants—which was written in prose—a Korean-language translation came out not long after it was published. I’d love for Milkweed for Monarchs to be translated, especially into Spanish since many monarch butterflies overwinter in Mexico’s mountains and the butterflies have been part of Mexican culture for generations. Also because the gorgeous illustrations are by Alejandra Barajas who is from Mexico.

 

Milkweed for Monarchs int2 beyond human borders
Interior spread from Milkweed for Monarchs written by Christine Van Zandt and illustrated by Alejandra Barajas, Beaming Books ©2024.

 

GRWR: While the main text of the book is a short poem, the facts in the sidebar and backmatter are in prose, right?

CVZ: Yes, and that meant switching my brain back and forth as we worked through the various drafts!

GRWR: How did you do that?

CVZ: I would read through one pass focusing only on the poem, then on another pass, I’d work on the facts.


GRWR:
Beyond being a gardener, are you involved with monarchs in other ways?

CVZ: We’ve had our garden designated a sanctuary which basically means that we promise to garden without pesticides, providing a certain number and variety of different kinds of milkweed plants including native ones, and also providing nectaring plants for the butterflies and other pollinators.

Beyond that, I’ve applied for and been granted free plants for a local LAUSD inner-city school and started their butterfly garden. I’ve also volunteered for Xerces for several years now, helping count the butterflies overwintering along the Southern California coast, and uploading that data to their central database.


GRWR:
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

CVZ: I hope my book imparts a sense of wonder and a feeling of hopefulness. It doesn’t take much to make a difference whether for the monarchs or for other creatures in our world.


GRWR:
Thank you, Christine, for sharing your amazing experience with us today. I’ve learned so much!

BUY THE BOOK:

Support independent booksellers by purchasing a copy of Milkweed for Monarchs here.

FOLLOW ON SOCIAL MEDIA:

•Christine Van Zandt 

Twitter (X): www.twitter.com/christinevz

Facebook: www.facebook.com/christine.vanzandt.9

Instagram: christinevanzandt9

Bluesky: christinevanzandt.bsky.social

•Alejandra Barajas 

Instagram: ale.barajas.illustration

•Publisher – Beaming Books

Twitter (X): www.twitter.com/BeamingBooksMIN

Facebook: www.facebook.com/BeamingBooksPublishing

Instagram: www.instagram.com/beamingbooksmn

 

 

Christine Van Zandt author photo
Author Christine Van Zandt Photo Credit: Marlena Van Zandt

AUTHOR BIO:

Christine Van Zandt is an editor, writer, and award-winning author. Her nonfiction picture books include A Brief History of Underpants (becker&mayer! kids, 2021) and, Milkweed for Monarchs (Beaming Books, 2024). She lives in Los Angeles, California, with her family. You can find her at www.ChristineVanZandt.com.

 

 

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Kids Book Review – The Night Flower for National Garden Month

 

 

THE NIGHT FLOWER:
The Blooming of the Saguaro Cactus
By Lara Hawthorne
(Big Picture Press; $16.99, Ages 3-7)

 

The Night Flower by Lara Hawthorne book cover art

 

 

The Sonoran desert is busy with all sorts of activity. Lara Hawthorne’s 32-page nonfiction picture book, The Night Flower: The Blooming of the Saguaro Cactus invites the reader to explore this lively world. The book’s rhyming lines are upbeat and evocative: “Around the saguaro, in the shining moonlight, the desert is festive and thriving tonight.”

Facts bookend the text, deepening a reader’s understanding about the wonderful saguaro cactus’s spectacular bloom which occurs only one night each year. “During this short period, their strong scent and brilliant white petals attract rare pollinators, including bats, moths, and doves.” For a few hours in the morning, the pollen’s shared with day creatures such as birds and bees.

 

interior artwork from The Night Flower by Lara Hawthorne
THE NIGHT FLOWER. Copyright © 2018 by Lara Hawthorne. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

Kids will like the “Did you spot . . .?” section at the end which encourages them to connect the descriptions of ten animals back to the story. The colorfully illustrated saguaro life cycle and glossary are in kid-friendly language to engage even the youngest child. I enjoyed the fresh perspective on animals such as the grasshopper mouse, a “fierce, furry hunter” which is “known to stand on its hind legs and howl at night.”

 

 

The Night Flower by Lara Hawthorne interior artwork
THE NIGHT FLOWER. Copyright © 2018 by Lara Hawthorne. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

Hawthorne’s watercolor images introduce whimsy and beauty. This glimpse at something rare is educational and fun. I may have missed the saguaro’s amazing bloom, but, if our travels take us to the desert, I’ll keep a lookout for the gorgeous rainbow grasshopper.

 

 

 

 

 

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Butterflies in Room 6 by Caroline Arnold – A Review and Interview

BUTTERFLIES IN ROOM 6: SEE HOW THEY GROW
Written and photographed by Caroline Arnold
(Charlesbridge; $16.99, Ages 3-7)

 

cover photo by Caroline Arnold from Butteries in Room 6

 

REVIEW:

Caroline Arnold’s new nonfiction picture book, Butterflies in Room 6, is both an educational and enjoyable read. Its release last week could not have been more timely, especially for those of us living in SoCal who have been privy to a rare treat of nature.

“Those black-and-orange insects that seem to be everywhere you look in Southern California aren’t monarchs and they aren’t moths. They are called painted ladies, and these butterflies are migrating by the millions across the state,” says Deborah Netburn in a March 12 Los Angeles Times article.

If Butterflies in Room 6 doesn’t make you want to head back to Kindergarten, I don’t know what will. Arnold takes us into Mrs. Best’s classroom to witness first hand the amazing life cycle of a painted lady butterfly. Colorful and crisp photographs fill the the book and are most impressive when they accompany all four stages of this butterfly’s brief but beautiful life. The first stage is an egg. The second stage is a larva also know as a caterpillar. Following this is the pupa and third stage when the metamorphosis occurs that transforms the pupa into a butterfly. The forth or last stage is when the butterfly emerges as an adult and the cycle will begin again.

 

int photo pg 15 by Caroline Arnold from Butterflies in Room 6
“Inside the chrysalis the pupa is transforming into a butterfly.” Interior photo from Butterflies in Room 6 written and photographed by Caroline Arnold, Charlesbridge Publishing ©2019.

 

A host of illuminating facts are shared in easy-to-understand language complemented by Arnold’s fab photos. Helpful notations on each picture explains the process depicted. Seeing the faces of the delighted children engaged in Mrs. Best’s butterfly project is certain to excite young readers who may also be planning to participate in this “common springtime curriculum activity.” If there is no project on the horizon, this book (coupled with a video recommended in the back matter) is definitely the next best thing.

 

interior photo pg 22 by Caroline Arnold from Butterflies in Room 6
“One by one the butterflies come out of their chrysalises.” Interior photo from Butterflies in Room 6 written and photographed by Caroline Arnold, Charlesbridge Publishing ©2019.

 

Obviously a lot goes into raising butterflies and Arnold provides step by step details so anyone thinking about this will know exactly what’s involved. Pictures illustrate the process from preparing the eggs sent via mail, to leaving food for the soon-to-be caterpillars and then shifting their environment to one that is ready for the pupa stage before moving the chrysalis (thin shell) covered pupa into a special “flight cage” that resembles a clear pop-up laundry basket. Ultimately butterflies emerge. This particular part of Butterflies in Room 6 will thrill every reader who has vicariously followed along with the class’s journey. When Mrs. Best allows each child to hold a butterfly before they fly away, whether to a nearby flower or to find a mate, the reader will feel a sense of joy at having been privy to this unique experience. I know I was!

 

interior photo pg 28 by Caroline Arnold from Butterflies in Room 6
“It is time to let them go.” Interior photo from Butterflies in Room 6 written and photographed by Caroline Arnold, Charlesbridge Publishing ©2019.

 

The book contains enlightening back matter including “Butterfly Questions,” “Butterfly Vocabulary,” “Butterflies Online,” “Further Reading” and “Acknowledgements.” Arnold must have read my mind when she answered my question about the red stains on the side of the flight cage. Turns out they are due to the red liquid called meconium, “left over from metamorphosis.”

 

Interior photo pg 31 by Caroline Arnold from Butterflies in Room 6
“Each child gets a turn to hold a butterfly.” Interior photo from Butterflies in Room 6 written and photographed by Caroline Arnold, Charlesbridge Publishing ©2019.

 

While the book should certainly find a welcome place on the shelves of schools and libraries, I also hope it will find its way into homes across the country so families can share in the wonder and delight of butterflies that Arnold’s words and photos perfectly convey.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

INTERVIEW WITH CAROLINE ARNOLD

GoodReadsWithRonna: First there was Hatching Chicks in Room 6 and now there’s Butterflies in Room 6. What was the history of how this second book came to be?

Caroline Arnold: Several years ago, when I was doing an author visit at Haynes school in Los Angeles, I met Jennifer Best, a kindergarten teacher. Each spring, her students learn about life cycles. Two years ago I spent time in her classroom while they were hatching chicken eggs in an incubator. That resulted in my book Hatching Chicks in Room 6. At the same time, the class was also raising Painted Lady butterflies from caterpillars–watching the caterpillars grow in a jar, turn into chrysalises, and, after a week or so, emerge as beautiful butterflies. It seemed like the perfect sequel to Hatching Chicks in Room 6.

GRWR: Your photos are wonderful. How difficult is it photographing elementary school children whose awe at the butterfly project you capture so well? And the subject themselves – the images of the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis are an eye-opener! How hard was this?

CA: As with the book about chicks, I realized that the best way to tell this story was with photographs. I embedded myself in Jennifer Best’s classroom, which enabled me to follow the process along with the children and get the photos I needed. A challenge was that neither the children nor butterflies stayed still for long! My secret was to take LOTS of pictures. The story takes place in real time, so I had to get the photos I needed as they happened. There was no going backwards. For the close-up photos I raised butterflies at home. Even so, catching a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis isn’t easy. The whole process only lasts about a minute, so I had to watch constantly to catch it in time. And no matter how many times I watched a butterfly come out, it was always miraculous.

GRWR: Where do you go to enjoy nature in L.A.?

CA: I am a bird watcher and like to go for walks on the beach and watch sandpipers and other shorebirds skitter at the edge of the waves or pelicans flying in formation. I also enjoy walks on the path along Ballona Lagoon in the Marina, another great place for birdwatching. But, one of the best places to enjoy nature is my own backyard and my neighborhood near Rancho Park. Ever since writing Butterflies in Room 6 I have been much more aware of the variety of butterflies that one can see in Los Angeles—monarchs, swallowtails, painted ladies, white and yellow sulphurs, and many more. Last year I bought a milkweed plant for my garden and was delighted to discover several weeks later monarch caterpillars happily eating the leaves. A surprising amount of nature is around us all the time—we just have to look!

 

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