Rajani LaRocca, recipient of a Newbery Honor and Walter Award forRed, White, and Whole, is back with an evocative novel in verse about identical twin sisters who do everything together—until external pressuresthreaten to break them apart.
Darshana Khiani: What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
Rajani LaRocca:Mirror to Mirror started with a single poem. In April 2020, I took an online workshop with renowned poet Lesléa Newman in which she talked about several types of formal poetry, including the ghazal—a poetic form, often set to music, that is popular in South Asia and the Middle East. Inspired by the workshop, I wrote a ghazal about a twin lamenting that her sister had changed and the two were no longer close.
So then I started thinking: why did these two grow apart? What happened to them? And I started to create the characters. Because ghazals are often sung, I knew that the twins would be musical. I also thought that one would be hiding a secret that was eating away at her—and that secret would be the heart of her separation from her beloved twin.
DK: What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?
RL:One challenge I faced was the same one I always face when writing a dual-POV book: how do I make the voices distinct from one another? How do I make sure each one moves the story forward? At first, I wrote Maya’s voice in poetry and Chaya’s in prose, but that felt jarring. When my editor suggested I change it so that both voices were in poetry, that felt much better, but I still had to work hard to make the voices different from one another using the content and attitude in the poems, as well as structure, imagery, and word choice. The book starts with a couple of short paired poems, each titled “She’s the One,” where the twins express how they think about each other. These poems were drafted during that first revision, and I thought they vividly set the tone of the book and established the viewpoints of each twin.
I interviewed several sets of identical twin sisters for this story, and it was fascinating! Not only were they closer than other siblings, but some described each other as “soulmates.” They told me stories about eerie connections they had, and how no matter what else was going on in their lives, their bond was unshakable.
But there is room for misunderstanding even in the closest relationships. I tried to create a story where each twin thinks she’s doing something to help the other, but instead drives a wedge between them.
2020-2021 were difficult years for me and my family. Thanks to the pandemic, we had to contend with separation, illness, anxiety, and death. It was challenging to write a book at this time, but I had to keep going.
DK:What do you hope young readers get from this book?
RL: I wanted to explore anxiety and mental health in a poetic way. I wanted to show that people can struggle not only with symptoms but also with telling others, even those who know them, that they are struggling. I wanted to depict the helplessness we can feel when someone we love is going through something hard.
I hope that young readers understand that we all go through difficult times, even when we are surrounded by friends and family. I hope they learn that although we may sometimes struggle with anxiety and depression, we don’t have to deal with these feelings alone, and it’s important to share with those we love and trust because only through sharing can we start to get help.
DK: You are a doctor and a prolific award-winning writer, so clearly you’ve got this writing thing figured out. What do you feel are the key ingredients to keep the writing flowing?
RL: You’re too kind, Darshana! I feel very fortunate to be writing books for young people today. Here’s my advice:
Write what you love, what you’re interested in, what makes you happy. Don’t worry about what anyone else is writing.
Write a lot! I always try to have multiple projects going.
Figure out what’s most challenging for you to do, and work on that when you’re at your best. For example, drafting (as opposed to revising) novels is challenging for me, so when I’m working on drafting a novel, I make sure to devote time to this in the morning when I’m refreshed and less likely to get interrupted. In contrast, I find that I can draft a picture book or revise something (long or short) at just about any time.
Live your life! It’s important to do things other than write to feed that writing soul. Spend time with family, friends, and in nature.
Support your friends and other creators.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. In publishing, there are only so many things we can control—including making our books as good as they can possibly be.
Have fun! I always try to write from a place of joy.
Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she practices medicine and writes award-winning books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor-winning middle grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, prose and poetry. She finds inspiration in her family, her childhood, the natural world, math, science, and just about everywhere she looks. Learn more about Rajani and her books at www.RajaniLaRocca.com. She also co-hosts the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast.
Darshana Khiani is an author, engineer, and advocate for South Asian children’s literature. She is infinitely curious about the world and enjoys sharing her findings with young readers. If she can make a child laugh even better. Her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari (Versify), was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She enjoys hiking, solving jigsaw puzzles, and traveling. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and a furry pup. You can visit Darshana here.
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.
Kirsten, you make the dual narrative structure look easy. But I know it is anything but! Did you set out with the intention to write a dual narrative? If not, at what point in the process did you decide on this format?
Kirsten W. Larson:This was a last-minute decision, believe it or not. In May 2017, my agent Lara Perkins (of Andrea Brown Literary Agency) and I were preparing to sub this book as a run-of-the-mill picture book biography. Meanwhile, I was working on a blog post featuring Hannah Holt’s query letter for THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY (Balzar + Bray, 2018). The book itself was still over a year away from release, but the query stuck with me. Hannah pitched her biography of Tracy Hall, who invented lab-produced diamonds, as “a two-tale picture book—a turn and flip. … The two stories meet in the middle with a shared phrase.”
That was a total lightning bolt moment. I finally saw a way to add more hooks to my story and appeal to readers of both biography and informational books – by telling two stories at the same time. I went back and added the story of star formation alongside Cecilia’s formation as a star scientist.
EB: That’s fascinating! The story is so seamlessly woven, I never would have guessed that it was a last-minute decision. What was the most challenging part about writing a book with this structure?
KWL: I think what sets this book apart from other parallel biographies (and made it very challenging to write) was the idea of having a shared line of text on every spread that applied to both stories – the star and Cecilia. It seemed like a good idea when I came up with it, but then it proved to be much harder to pull off. At one point I told Lara I couldn’t do it, and we should forget about it. But she kept encouraging me. She knew I could do it. But it was so, so hard.
Then, once I was working with editor Melissa Manlove of Chronicle Books, she had the additional idea of wanting to be able to read those shared lines only, without the additional text about Cecilia, and have it make sense for the youngest readers. The whole thing was a real puzzle, but I’m so happy we were able to get everything to work. It makes this book truly special.
EB: I’m so glad that Lara kept encouraging you, and that you stuck with it. You’ve created the perfect mentor text for aspiring authors of dual narratives. What advice would you give them?
KWL: I think this is a case where you have to be careful about the form not overtaking the writing, much like when you are writing poetry or even lyrically. For me, it helped to plot out both stories independently, step by step. I nailed down Cecilia’s major plot points, asking myself questions like “What’s the inciting incident?” “What’s the all is lost moment?” etc. Then I wrote down step-by-step how stars formed before trying to line the two stories up and brainstorming what language might connect them. I am a very visual writer, and I actually thumbnailed the stories in my journal trying to match things up and experimenting with language. You can see some of my journal pages here.
EB: I love the scene at the beginning, where Cecilia’s mother sets her down in the snow, and she expects a warm blanket, but instead finds her toes freezing! “It’s the first time Cecilia learns things aren’t always as they seem,” is such a powerful statement that foreshadows her discoveries to come. At what point in your research did you come across that particular anecdote, and how instrumental was it in building your scenes and threading that theme?
KWL:The theme of this book was always the “ingredients” of a successful scientist, characteristics like being a good observer, curiosity, passion, and persistence. The book always showed how Cecilia exhibited those characteristics even as a child. For example, the scene where she watches slimy slugs in the garden was there from the start as was the scene about the bee and the bee orchid, which really set her on her quest for discovery.
But, to your question, I came across that story of Cecilia and the snow very early on in my research. Yet even though I knew about that story from the beginning, I didn’t include it until I started working on the parallel structure! I needed something that came before Cecilia in the dust and dirt of the garden, something that nodded to the star she would become.
That’s when I added this moment in the snow. I just tracked down a document on my computer when I “unwrote” Cecilia’s story, summarizing what needed to happen spread-by-spread in a line or two. That’s the last thing I wrote before I pieced the two stories together.
EB: Those same ingredients of curiosity, passion, and persistence clearly apply to you and your research as well! Can you tell us a bit more about your research process?
KWL:This book was a bit of a departure from my usual research process. Typically, I like to start with secondary sources for context before digging into primary sources to hear my characters’ voices in letters, diaries, and autobiographies.
At the time I started my research, there weren’t many book-length secondary sources about Cecilia at all. Dava Sobel’s GLASS UNIVERSE wasn’t out yet, nor was Donovan Moore’s biography. So I moved pretty quickly to primary sources like Cecilia’s published autobiography, her oral history from Harvard, and her research papers including her dissertation.
I did a lot of research around the edges, including the women who worked at Harvard Observatory and the field of astronomy and astrophysics to understand what was known in the field of astronomy at the time Cecilia was working. I talked to physicists and astronomers to discern the magnitude of her contributions.
EB: How much of yourself do you see in Cecilia?
KWL:What I’ve learned through this book and WOOD, WIRE, WINGS is that “STEM people” and “creative people” have so much in common. We’re all creative. We’re all problem solvers. We all take feedback. We all fail. So, yes, I feel a great affinity for Cecilia, especially that feeling of being lost and feeling hopeless, as well as that thrill of the shiny bright moment when an idea comes together and a new piece of knowledge or art comes into the world.
EB: Speaking of shiny and bright and everything coming together, Katherine Roy’s illustrations are breathtaking. What was it like seeing her preliminary sketches and watching them evolve?
KWL:Katherine’s work on this book is incredible, and it’s such a thrill to see her splattering paint and using toothbrushes to give the impression of star formation.
The original visual idea for this book, which I put in art notes for our editor, was to split the story horizontally, with the star’s story on the top and Cecilia’s below. I saw some early sketches, and it wasn’t working the way we hoped. The star story seemed very disconnected from Cecilia’s. When Katherine shifted the two stories to a side-by-side the whole thing really started coming together. This just goes to show you the tremendous power of illustrators who know far more about visual storytelling than authors do. This book was such an adventure!
EB: I couldn’t agree more, from a reader’s perspective, that this book is an incredible adventure! One of my new all-time favorite picture books. Thank you so much for giving all of us a peek into your process.
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
“Trumpets, trombones, tubas, and saxophones sing louder, faster, faster, louder!
With help from her bisa (great-grandma), a young girl in Brazil prepares for Carnaval: bright costumes, feathers, flowers, and plenty of glitter. But bisa must stay home. As the girl hugs bisa goodbye, the music pulls her in. Excitement is everywhere, on every sight, sound and scent. But…
Carnaval isn’t the same without bisa.
With the blow of a whistle and lots of love, the girl will make sure BISA’S CARNAVAL is the best one ever!
Colleen Paeff: Hi Joana! Congratulations on the starred Kirkusreview for Bisa’s Carnaval! This book is receiving such a warm welcome. That’s got to feel good. What are you doing to celebrate the launch of your second picture book?
Joana Pastro: It’s so nerve-wracking sending our book babies out in the world. We never know how they’ll be received, so when we see an enthusiastic response from readers and from reviewers it’s a huge relief. And if it has a star next to it? Even better! To celebrate, today (Tuesday, 12/7 at 12noon EST) I’m having an Instagram live event with Carolina Coroa, where we’ll chat about BISA’S CARNAVAL and answer questions from whoever shows up. Then tomorrow (Weds., 12/8), I’ll be on Scholastic’s #BookParty on Instagram at 7pm EST. It’ll be fun! (See Instagram links below)
CP:That sounds great! Your debut picture book Lillybelle, a Damsel NOT in Distress was one of my favorite books of 2020. Does the launch process feel any different this time around?
JP: Awwww That’s so great to hear! I love my little LillyBelle!
The launch process feels different, but still not what I had dreamed it’d be. I had hoped to do both launches in person at a bookstore, but it wasn’t possible. Last year, I chose not to have a launch event, but because we were home, I was able to plan a three-month pre-order campaign, and I was a lot more active on social media.
This year, with kids back to in-person learning, and a lot of driving around, I didn’t have as much time on my hands. Like I mentioned before, we’re doing Instagram live. Having a virtual launch is great because I can have it with Carolina, my family, and friends from Brazil and all over the world, but I miss interacting in person. I hope my next launch will have the best of both worlds: virtual and in-person.
CP:When did you get your first glimpse of Carolina Coroa’s wonderfully vibrant illustrations for Bisa’s Carnaval? Did anything about the illustrations surprise you?
JP: The first glimpse was when my editor shared Carolina’s color palette research and character studies. I was in awe. I knew then and there that we had hit the jackpot when she accepted the job!
There’s so much to love in her work! I was surprised by her attention to detail on every spread: the costumes, the buildings, the Portuguese words . . . a guy playing harmonica on his balcony! So amazing. Oh, and she even named the whole family on her character studies. So cool!
CP: I love that! I really liked how, in the story, you mention that carnaval is a time when people can forget their troubles and you go on to list some of the troubles people might have. Was that part of the book from the beginning or did it develop over time?
JP: That was a suggestion I received from an editor who requested a revise and resubmit. She wanted the story to expand on the social-economic aspects. I believe her note truly helped elevate the story, and make it much better.
CP: What do you hope young readers take away from Bisa’s Carnival?
JP: From the cultural aspect, I hope readers will want to expand their horizons by learning more about Brazil and about other countries too, and that Brazilian-American children will see themselves in it, be proud of their heritage, and want to share this story with their friends.
From the family aspect, I hope both children and adults will be inspired to put their electronic devices aside, and spend quality time, and create new memories with their loved ones, especially the older ones.
CP: You were an architect before you started writing for children. Have you discovered any crossover between architecture and writing?
JP: Definitely! The creative process is very much the same. In both you get some sort of prompt, then you do a bit of research, you let it simmer for some time, and start drafting. Then you revise a thousand times because there’s always something you can make better. In the future, once it becomes a book or a building, you’ll probably find something that you would have done differently. I imagine this to be true in all creative areas.
CP: Do you have any favorite productivity tricks or anything you do that helps you to stay focused on your writing work?
JP: Whenever I notice that I’m not being productive and that I’m becoming frustrated with a project, I leave it alone. Allowing myself to rest, work on something else, or doing other unrelated activities is the best way to get the creative juices flowing again. The brain will be doing the work even when we’re not paying attention! When I finally go back to it, the roadblock is usually gone.
CP: What’s next for you?
JP: The Spanish version of BISA’S CARNAVAL comes out in 2022. I have two picture books that haven’t been announced yet, but I believe will publish in 2023 and 2024.
I’ve been focusing on writing chapter books, and I’m out on submission with a board book series that I absolutely love writing. Hint: I get to travel the world without leaving my desk! Fingers crossed!
CP: How exciting! Thank you so much for chatting with me, Joana. Happy book birthday!
JP: My pleasure! Thank you so much for having me, Colleen!
Joana Pastro is an architect who became a children’s book author. Her debut picture book, LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS, illustrated by Jhon Ortiz, was published by Boyds Mills Press (now Astra Kids), in 2020. Her second book, BISA’S CARNAVAL, illustrated by Carolina Coroa, will be published by Orchard Books on December 7th, 2021. Originally from Brazil, Joana lives in Florida with her husband, her three extremely creative children, a rambunctious Morkie, and a needy Maltipoo. You can find her on Twitter @jopastro, Instagram on @joanapastro, on her website at www.joanapastro.com
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.
Being a little kid isn’t always fun and games. Sometimes, it’s downright annoying. When the fashionable main character of How to Wear a Sari tires of being treated like she’s TOO little, she sets out to prove to her family that she can do ANYTHING she puts her mind to . . . including putting on a colorful, twinkly, silky sari. Sure, they’re long and unwieldy—but that only means her family will be even more impressed when she puts it on all by herself. Naturally, there are some hiccups along the way, but she discovers that she’s not the only one in her family who has set out with something to prove, with hilariously chaotic results. That’s what photo albums are for!
Colleen Paeff: Hi Darshana! Welcome to Good Reads with Ronna. Your adorable debut, How to Wear a Sari, came out last June. What have been some of your favorite moments from the past four months?
Darshana Khiani: First I’d like to say thank you so much for having me. My favorite part has been hearing from parents about how their little ones loved seeing someone that looks like them (Indian character) in a book. My 4yr-old niece has taken her book to school four times already. Seeing the book face out at my local library was wonderful too. I love it when people send me pictures of the book in the wild. A surprising sighting was one from the Harvard Coop!
CP: That sounds wonderful! All of it! Joanne Lew-Vriethoff’s illustrations are so vibrant and full of motion. Did you include art notes on your manuscript since a lot of what happens in the story isn’t in the text?
DK: I try to leave room for the illustrator as much as possible. However, I do like to put humor in my stories where the setup is in text and the punchline is in the art, so I do use art notes when required. For example, the page before the climax says “remember not to run” and after the page turn is a wordless spread where the main character takes a colossal spill, so I had to have an art note for that. In the final spread, the text simply says “you now have a spot in the hall of fame album”, but it is the art note which specifies what types of photos the album contains.
CP: What did you think the first time you saw the illustrations? Did anything surprise you?
DK: It was such a wonderful, unexpected surprise. I thought my first look would be a sketch of a scene or characters instead it was the full book in black-n-white sketches. I loved seeing the story come to life. When viewing the colored art, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the illustrator had made the extended family interracial.
CP: Yes, I love that! Do you remember the first time you wore a sari? Did you have any of the same problems as the girl in your book?
DK: I think the first time I wore a sari was for my cousin’s wedding. I was 18 at the time. I’m fairly sure several elder female relatives helped me drape it. I’m still not very good at wearing a sari. If I have trouble draping a sari, what would it be like for a young girl? That was the seed for the story.
CP:You work full-time as a computer engineer. Do you find yourself using some of what you’ve learned as an engineer in your writing life? And vice versa?
DK:Surprisingly, yes! I am frequently requested to review docs or sit in on dry-runs of training presentations where I find I am giving big-picture feedback. The things we learn about good writing regarding keeping the reader engaged, knowing what your main story thread is, and having the right level of detail (not too much or not too little) are important anytime you are trying to convey information to someone. On the flip side, having worked in a company full of deliverables and deadlines helps me respect the business side of publishing. Though I will say things are so much slower in publishing than in the field I work in. That took getting used to. I also had to learn to set my own deadlines. I’ve realized I work better with external accountability.
CP: With a full-time job and a family, your writing time must be very valuable. How do you make the most of your time in the writer’s chair? Do you have any favorite productivity hacks?
DK:Balancing writing, work, and family is a constant juggling act. Over the years I’ve learned to find blocks of time whether it be early in the morning, during the lunch hour, or late at night. When the kids were little, I frequently took my writing stuff to their gymnastic and swim practices, or I would visit a coffee shop while they were at a birthday party. Currently, there is a lot going on with the family that has greatly reduced my writing time. To keep things going I set aside two hours early Saturday morning and meet online with a writing buddy. This keeps me accountable and moving forward. As for productivity hacks, I try to set up my desk area and computer the night before, so the next morning everything is ready to go. I try to stay off of social media and email until after I do the morning writing.
CP:Those are all great ideas. I especially like the thought of having a writing buddy you meet with online. I love checking the South Asian Kidlit lists on your website. What made you decide to create those lists and have they benefited you in any way?
DK: Back in 2016, I was writing a blog post on South Asian Kidlit literature only to realize I was unaware of the current writers and illustrators. I figure if I as an Indian person didn’t know these books existed then how would others? So I set out to spread the word. The benefit to me has been it gives me something to talk about when meeting with booksellers and librarians. It’s easier for me to pitch my South Asian Kidlit newsletter and the benefits of it instead of directly talking about myself.
CP: It’s so much easier to pitch other people’s books than it is to pitch our own! When did you know you wanted to write books for children and how did you go about getting started?
DK: In my mid-30s after I had my two daughters, I knew I wanted to do something more, something that allowed me to directly connect with people. I was reading tons of picture books to my kids and fell in love with them. They were short, funny, and I loved that they could be about nearly anything. I also thought how hard can it be to write? Famous last words. Well, it took me over ten years but I did it and I’ve loved every moment. Some of the groups and writing challenges that have been critical to my writing journey are Storystorm (formerly PiBoIdMo), 12×12, SCBWI, Making Picture Book Magic course, my Cafe Invaders critique group, my PB Debut Marketing Group the Soaring ’20s, my agent, and librarians, bookseller, and writing friends I’ve made along the way. I love that my family and friends have been so supportive and cheering me on. It really does take a village.
CP: Is there anything you wish you’d known back when you first started writing for children?
DK: Write, write, write as much as you can. This is one area I still struggle with as I love to revise but hate first drafts. I had a slow start in the first few years, where I would work on only one or two manuscripts over and over again. In the beginning, it should be about experimenting and trying lots of different types of stories because there is something to learn from each one of them.
CP: Any favorite books from the past year?
DK: Too many. Here are some of my favorite reads from the past year. THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL by Stacey Lee is a YA historical fiction novel set in 1890 Atlanta that is so smart and sassy. I can’t wait for the TV adaption to be released. FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER by Angeline Boulley was such a wonderful read. I love books where I’m learning about another culture, in this case, the Ojibwe people. In picture books, your book of course THE GREAT STINK is so engaging and informative. YOUR LEGACY: A BOLD RECLAIMING OF OUR ENSLAVED HISTORY by Schele Williams is gorgeous and empowering. I love her approach to the topic of African-American history.
CP: Aw! Thank you, Darshana. That’s so nice. I’ll be adding the other books to my TBR list! What’s next for you, Darshana?
DK: I am really excited about my next book I’M AN AMERICAN which is scheduled for Summer 2023 by Viking. In it, a classroom of students discusses what it means to be an American and the values we share. Each student, of a different ethnicity, tells a short story from his or her own family about their American experience.
CP: What a terrific idea. I can’t wait to read it! Thanks for the chat!
DK: Thank you so much for having me. It was a joy talking with you.
Darshana Khiani is a computer engineer by day and a children’s writer by night. She is a first-generation Indian American and enjoys writing funny, light-hearted stories with a South Asian backdrop. When she isn’t working or writing she can be found hiking, skiing, or volunteering. Darshana lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two daughters, and a furry pup. How to Wear a Sari is her debut picture book.
Penguin Journeyis a picture book about the incredible lengths to which emperor penguins go for their young ones. Angela Burke Kunkel’s lyrical text and Catherine Odell’s gorgeous illustrations detail the penguins’ amazing journey, and an author’s note and bibliography provide added context.
Colleen Paeff: Congratulations on the upcoming release of your second book. Penguin Journey will be out in just under a week on October 26. Does it feel any different to have a book coming out once you’ve already experienced it?
Angela Burke Kunkel: Thank you so much! I don’t think it feels very different, no. Each book is its own journey (not to use the title as a pun), and I’ve really enjoyed the process for each one. So it’s equally exciting this time around.
CP: I love the sparse rhyming language in this book. Did it start out that way or were you using spare, beautiful language right from the start?
ABK: It was always intended to be a spare, low-word count story, but the tone definitely changed through revision! Originally, it didn’t rhyme, the language wasn’t as lyrical, and it relied heavily on a refrain. I’m indebted to my editor, Meredith Mundy at ABRAMS Appleseed, for making these suggestions when she requested a revise and resubmit. They really resonated with me and helped guide the book into how it reads now.
CP: I love Catherine Odell’sillustrations—especially the nighttime spreads with the northern lights and the starry skies. They’re so soft and beautiful! Did you give any notes on illustrations in the manuscript? And what did you think when you saw the final art?
ABK: Interestingly enough, Meredith requested that I include art notes with my revision because the text was so spare. I think this throws a lot of picture book writers, who often hear that we should not include any art notes. I’m not sure how many of the notes Cat Odell actually ended up seeing through the process, but it was another tool that helped me communicate the overall story effectively at the time I submitted it.
I’m in awe of Cat’s artwork. She captured the bonds between penguins so beautifully and created such a soft, comforting feel for young readers. And the skies! Just from the stars to the Northern lights and the sunrise. It really takes you on a journey through Antarctica.
CP: What do you hope young readers take away from Penguin Journey?
ABK:Two things, really—first, I hope that this book is one of those bedtime books that families curl up with, that helps a parent feel connected to their child during those read-aloud moments, and where the child just feels immersed in the quiet tone of the book and that feeling of connection. Secondly, I hope that this book instills a love of wildlife even in the youngest readers. As mentioned in the author’s note, penguins have been severely impacted by climate change, and I hope that families will respond to the great lengths penguins go to to raise their young and be motivated to join efforts to protect the species.
CP:I hope so, too. Your debut picture book, Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library he Built, was incredibly well-received. It appeared on a number of “Best of 2021” lists and it won the 2021 Américas Book Award. You must have been thrilled to receive so much recognition for all your hard work. Was there one particular honor that really stands out?
ABK:This is a really tough question to answer because I hope that each one is a different opportunity to reach readers! I’m incredibly grateful for all of the recognition that the book has received—including Paola Escobar’s incredible illustrations and the careful guidance of our editor, Ann Kelley—and I’m glad that José’s work resonates with readers. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a virtual panel through CLASP and the Library of Congress with other Américas Awards recipients Aida Salazar, Yamile Saied Méndez, and Raúl the Third, and that was a tremendous honor and a pretty surreal moment.
CP: That sounds incredible! Penguin Journey and Digging for Words are both nonfiction, but the styles are very different. Would you say one style comes more naturally than the other for you?
ABK: I would say both books had their joys and their challenges. I do think that despite differences in length and subject matter, Digging for Words and Penguin Journey both have lyrical language, which is a style I’m drawn to. I’ll also add that I found writing in rhyme very challenging, particularly for nonfiction—you have to be accurate and still consider rhyme at the same time, which created two sets of limitations to work within.
CP: That does sound exceptionally challenging. You work as a school librarian. Was it being around all those books that inspired you to start writing for children or was it something else?
ABK: I definitely think that working as a school librarian is a complementary career! I actually work with adolescents, but try to use picture books when and where I can (and get teens and other adults to buy in). Really it was having children of my own that led me to transitioning from the classroom to librarianship and to writing picture books. In addition to rediscovering old favorites, like Madeline, and Where the Wild Things Are and Miss Rumphius, my kids and I made weekly trips to the library. And suddenly, I was not only revisiting classics I thought I had outgrown and appreciating them with new eyes, but I was reading stacks and stacks of more recently published picture books that were charming, or funny, or feminist, or lyrical, or political, or subversive . . . you get the idea. I found I enjoyed picture books as much as my kids did—if not more!— and really wanted to try my hand at writing them.
CP:How do you manage to squeeze in writing time between work and family? Do you have any favorite productivity hacks?
ABK: I was about to say I wish I had some favorite productivity hacks, because I could definitely use some help, but then I remembered there are two I use regularly and really like. The first is that I gave up bullet journaling (I was spending too much time making it pretty) and now use a Passion Planner. The layout helps me juggle home, day job and writing to-dos all in one place. It’s helpful to have tasks and goals laid out in one notebook rather than separate ones because I tend to forget about what’s not right in front of me.
I also recently started using a Pomodoro app (I use Focus Keeper) to get started on those tasks I’m dreading or just sort of unmotivated to do at the moment. Once I set the timer and get in the groove, 25 minutes goes by quickly and it’s easier to stay in that zone and continue working.
CP: I will definitely be trying those! Is there anything else I should have asked?
ABK: You should have asked me about my new hobby that I picked up during the pandemic: birdwatching! I started to keep a “life list,” or log of all the species I’ve spotted at the start of the pandemic, and I’m trying my hand at bird photography now. It’s snow goose migration season in Vermont, which is just a gorgeous sight.
CP: That sounds like an excellent hobby! What’s next for you?
ABK: My next book with illustrator Claire Keane, Make Way, comes out in spring 2023. It’s a dual picture book biography that parallels Robert McCloskey’s creation of Make Way for Ducklings and the work of Nancy Schön, who created the famous duck sculptures for the Boston Public Garden. It was a challenging structure to work within, but so satisfying when it came together—I loved researching both McCloskey and Schön’s artistic process(es), and I can’t wait to see how Claire Keane represents their stories in her own artwork.
CP:I can’t wait to read it!
Angela Burke Kunkel is a picture book author, school librarian, and former English Language Arts teacher. After soaking up the sun in the Southwest for a number of years, she now lives in Vermont with her family, two dogs, one guinea pig, and one rapidly-growing bearded dragon (really, it’s rather alarming). Her debut, DIGGING FOR WORDS: JOSÉ ALBERTO GUTIÉRREZ AND THE LIBRARY HE BUILT, received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal and has been recognized on multiple book lists. Her second book, PENGUIN JOURNEY, will be published October 26th and has already received a starred review from Kirkus. She has two more nonfiction picture books forthcoming, in 2023 and 2024.
(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.
From Emmy Award-winning journalist Anna Crowley Redding comes a captivating nonfiction picture book that explores the fabled apple tree that inspired Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. From a minor seed to a monumental icon, it inspired the world’s greatest minds, including Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. This tale is an ode to the potential that exists in all of us to change the world
“A sweet windfall of history and inspiration.” —Kirkus (starred review)
“This picture book may resonate with science-minded children.” —Booklist.
ACR: I came across an article that not only mentioned Isaac Newton’s apple tree, but mentioned there were descendants of the tree on every continent except Antarctica. Then I found out the original tree was still alive. It blew my mind!
CP: I love the way you start and end with the idea that something small can change the world. Was that story structure there in your early drafts or did it develop over time?
ACR: Thank you! Those were the first words I actually wrote because that’s what really struck me about this particular tree … that a tiny seed could indeed change everything. I loved the truth of it.
CP:Were you particularly surprised by anything you learned as you conducted your research?
ACR: I did not originally know that Albert Einstein had visited the tree until I stumbled upon a newspaper article written at the time of his visit. I could NOT believe it. I was literally jumping for joy in front of my computer. There was even a picture!
CP: What was your reaction when you saw Yas Imamura’s wonderful illustrations for the book?
ACR: Her work is just stunning. The texture, the layering, and the contrast. She uses these elements to really drive the visual storytelling. What surprised me is how her work has an innovative edge and yet feels very classic. I love that!
ACR: My process is really the same in terms of learning as much as I can about a topic. With a longer format piece, I’ll dig way more into the details whereas picture books I’m constantly honed in on the heart of the story with every single word.
CP:Can you tell me three favorite research tips or resources that you wouldn’t want to be without?
ACR: The ability today to access primary sources from your computer is an unbelievable gift. And I love reading old newspaper articles, research papers, photos, contemporaneous drawings, and maps. But I also love talking to people and experts and asking lots of questions. That really helps with context. Eeep! I think that was more than three!
CP: No problem! The more the better. How do you decide which age level is most appropriate for a story idea?
ACR: Sometimes the amount of information available and the scope of a story will dictate that. But if ever I am debating it, I’ll check in with a librarian and look for books that handle similar material. And I will also talk to my agent and bounce these ideas and questions off of her. She has a sharp eye for this!
CP:Do you find it easier to write for one age group or another?
ACR: No! Each type of book comes with its own challenges and sweet spots!
CP:In addition to being a talented author, you’re an Emmy Award-winning investigative television reporter! Tell me about how you won that Emmy and what it felt like.
ACR: I was covering an ice storm in North Carolina and as my photographer shot video of line workers trying to restore power on the main lines. And there was a house nearby. And in the window was a little boy with his flashlight absolutely loving every minute the whole show… the ice, the workers, the trucks, the power outage, the flashlights… all of it. We found him just four hours before deadline and put together a story that celebrated the childhood joy of ice storms. I loved everything about it. Winning an Emmy for that story was really an honor. It was a difficult category to win. But as a little girl, I never dreamed that such a thing was possible for me. And so it felt really rewarding. And I was sure to mention that little boy by name in my acceptance speech!
CP:Wow! It really sounds like you were meant to tell children’s stories! What are some skills you used as an investigative television reporter and news anchor that have served you well in your career as an author of books for children?
ACR: The research skills have come in super handy and not quitting. Becoming a TV News Reporter can be as impossible as becoming a published author … so not giving up is super important. In both fields you need to put your work in front of people who know more about it than you do and get their feedback and learn from it. It’s scary, humbling, and SUPER helpful. So having a thick skin or ability to receive criticism is useful.
CP: Do you think you’ll ever go back to reporting the news on television?
ACR:No plans for that at this stage. I love writing for children and young adults. There is a freedom and creativity to it that I just adore.
ACR: Thank you for reading that post.Tom Ellis was a superstar Boston TV anchor who was so generous to me with his time, talent, and expertise. And I think we all need someone to remind us that we can accomplish difficult things and then give us some tools to get there. So, yes, having been the recipient of enormous generosity in both of my careers makes me so excited to hopefully be that little beacon of light to others who may need it. It’s also wonderful to join with other authors, illustrators, and agents to do that together, as a group. It’s been very moving and rewarding for me.
CP: I know you love visiting schools. Can you tell me about a school visit activity that’s been especially successful and fun?
ACR: I love handing kids a clipboard, magnifying glass, some primary sources that relate to a particular book or story, and then asking them to prove or disprove the story based on their research. It’s so much fun and the kids love it!
CP: What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you on a school visit?
ACR: I got a migraine headache midway through. The teacher had Excedrin on hand. I took it. It did not touch this headache. I was leading a super hands-on writing exercise and I was starting to sweat from the pain. There were just twenty minutes left of the clock. I was desperate–begging God to get me through it. Finally, the school bell rings. YES! And then the active-shooter alarm is activated. We had to hide in the dark library. Thirty minutes later the police cleared the school. All was well and I grabbed my special tote Macmillan gave me and started to drive for home. But at a stoplight I was overcome with migraine nausea. Quickly dumped the books out of my special tote … and threw up in it!
CP: Oh no!!! That’s terrible! At least you made it out of the school before you threw up. Haha! Let’s move on to a happier topic. What’s the best part about being a children’s book author?
ACR: I think when you have the opportunity to enter the sacred space of a book being held by a child … it’s like being the honored host of a critically important conversation, a special experience that could shape this young person by inspiring them, or seeing them, or making them laugh, or regain hope. I mean, how awesome is that?!
CP: Is there anything else I should have asked you?
CP:Aw! Thank you! That’s very kind. What’s next for you?
ACR: I’m working on a couple of picture books right now that I am wild about. And I’ve decided to try my hand at memoir writing and have to say, I really love it.
CP:How exciting! Based on what I know about your life so far that is a memoir I will definitely want to read. Thanks for chatting, Anna, and best of luck with The Gravity Tree and all your upcoming projects.
ACR:Thank you so much! This was so much fun and such a thoughtful conversation and I really appreciate it!
Anna Crowley Redding is the author of Chowder Rules!, Rescuing the Declaration of Independence, Google It, Elon Musk: A Mission to Save the World, and Black Hole Chasers. The recipient of multiple Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards, Crowley Redding uses her Emmy award-winning investigative reporting skills to dig into compelling topics that are shaping our world. Her works have been translated into multiple languages, garnered national news coverage, and been recognized by the National Association of Science Teachers for excellence. Crowley Redding lives outside of Portland, Maine with her family.
Colleen Paeff:Hi Candy! Congratulations on the release of your second picture book, The Stars Beckoned: Edward White’s Amazing Walk In Space (illustrated by Courtney Dawson)! You’ve said that when you started writing this book you weren’t really a space buff. Do you think that helped or hindered you during the research process?
Candy Wellins: I hope it helped! Most of what I knew about the history of NASA came from THE RIGHT STUFF, which does a good job of covering Project Mercury and I think everyone has a basic understanding of Apollo, but the Gemini missions are kind of like the forgotten middle children of the NASA missions. Not the first ones and not the flashy ones, but certainly important ones. I read the transcript of the entire Gemini IV mission–pages and pages of technical jargon—but once you get to the heart of the mission and “hearing” the astronauts speak, it’s pretty riveting.
CP: Would you consider yourself a space buff now?
CW: No, not a space buff by any means. Maybe an above-average space enthusiast at best!
CP: I’m always impressed by authors who can tell a story in rhyme, but I’m especially impressed by authors who can tell a nonfiction story in rhyme! Was rhyming something that was a part of The Stars Beckoned from the beginning or did it come later in the revision process?
CW: I knew I wanted to tell Edward’s story for a while and I didn’t have a plan whatsoever. I only wrote in prose at that point and I tried a few things, but didn’t like them at all. A writer in my critique group shared a biography written in verse that I thought was just lovely. It made me want to do something biographical in verse just to try it. Edward came to mind immediately. I had done a lot of the preliminary research and, honestly, if you’re going to get your feet wet in rhyme, might as well do it with someone who has a very rhymable last name like White. The opening lines came to me pretty quickly and I just let the story take me where it needed to go.
CP: Edward White’s children gave you feedback as you worked on the story, right? How did you get in touch with them and were they immediately open to you writing about their dad?
CW: During one of my many Google searches of Edward’s name, I found a post his granddaughter made celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his spacewalk. She is a realtor so I was able to find contact information easily and reached out to her. She put me in touch with her dad and aunt and I shared the manuscript with them. It was important to me that the book be as historically accurate as possible. They were especially helpful as we moved into the illustration phase–getting hair colors, clothing choices and airplane models exactly as they were was important to all of us. Most Americans know the names of other “first” astronauts like Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, but I feel—and I think his children would agree—Edward has been somewhat forgotten by history. I hope my book can change that just a bit because he really was amazing and did important work.
Yo’ mama so sweet, she could be a bakery. She dresses so fine, she could have a clothing line. And, even when you mess up, she’s so forgiving, she lets you keep on living. Heartwarming and richly imagined, Your Mama, written by NoNieqa Ramosand illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, twists an old joke into a point of pride that honors the love, hard work, and dedication of mamas everywhere.
INTERVIEW WITH NONIEQA RAMOS:
Colleen Paeff:Congratulations on the release of Your Mama (illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara)! This is your first picture book and it received two starred reviews––one from School Library Journal, which called it “an essential purchase” and one from Kirkus, which labeled the book “Perfectly dazzling.” That must have felt good! Or do you try not to pay attention to reviews?
NR: If I said I didn’t pay attention to reviews, my friends would laugh so hard they’d fall off their chairs. Tail bones would crack. My writing is generally considered “experimental” or “unique” and reviews can vary wildly. So it is affirming and medicinal to get critical acclaim for a concept as “unique” as a Your Mama picture book, albeit one flipped into an ode of loving affirmation, for sure.
The reviews that light me up the most are from readers who find me on Instagram to tell me my writing has made them feel seen or from fellow writers I admire who show me book love. Their esteem is salve for my heart, food for my writer’s soul.
CP: Kwame Alexander’s imprint Versify published your book and Kwame himself book-talked Your Mama on YouTube. (!!!!) Was it extra special to have your book published by this particular publisher?
I remember when I saw the Tweet that Kwame Alexander was starting a new imprint and that it was open for submissions. I thought– this is Your Mama’s home. Talk about shooting your shot. I emailed my agent in milliseconds. Two weeks after the submission, I got the call.
Every book journey is unique, and the field of publishing is like riding a bronco, no joke. I savor every second of success, but I measure my success differently with each new project. I’m feeling pretty hyped about this one.
NR: Picture book writing is my first love. When I was in elementary school, I started “N&N Company” with my cousin Nikki and attempted to sell picture books (paperdolls, bookmarks, and cards) to my classmates until a dispute over payment drew the nuns’ attention and had me shut down!
I started off my teaching career working with preschoolers. Picture books are portable theaters, concerts, and museums. There’s nothing I loved more than seeing an emerging reader take a picture walk and narrate the story to their friends.
I write in rhythmic verse, a type of free verse, the jazz of poetry. What I adore about picture books is the spoken and unspoken collaboration between author and illustrator. I marvel at the music Jackie and I made with keyboard and pen.
CP:What’s something you enjoyed about the experience of writing a picture book that wasn’t a part of writing for the YA audience?
NR: All my works are a platform to fight for social justice. Picture books are a unique way to rise up against inequity and systemic oppression of the marginalized with the power of pure joy. Picture books are unbridled hope. With these magical tools, we raise not just the individual reader, but the human family. When I gift a child a picture book byKirsten Larson(A True Wonder: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything), I am giving the gift of ingenuity and persistence. When I gift a child a picture book byYamile Saied Méndez (De Donde Eres), I gift a child cultural and family pride.
My YA The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary is partially about burning the system down. The Truth Is is partially about dismantling the internalized racism and homophobia embedded in us from our inherently racist and homophobic society. In some ways, these protagonists inherited a world in ashes. My picture book protagonists inherit seeds.
With my debut Your Mama, I resisted the monolithic representation of Latinx women with nuanced exultation. I hope with Your Mama, all my readers celebrate how much they are loved by their caregivers, and all caregivers feel seen and revered.
CP:You’ve said you write to “amplify marginalized voices and to reclaim the lost history, mythology, and poetry of the Latinx community.” Did you grow up hearing those stories or did you discover them later in life?
NR:I discovered my first Latinx novel in graduate school, and I was transformed. Reading Gabriel García Márquez’sOne Hundred Years Of Solitudespoke to me as a writer in a way absolutely no book ever had. He helped me find my voice.
CP:You’ve described yourself as a literary activist. What is that and how can I become one?
NR:I love your questions, Colleen! A literary activist creates works to disrupt texts, dismantle systems of oppression, and rebuild an equitable society. Every book gives you an opportunity to amplify your work’s message through article writing, conferences, and school visits. The Truth Is and The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary gives me a platform to talk about the lack of historical representation of BIPOC persons in school curriculums, the dire need for mental health services for the marginalized, and the still pervasive LGBTQIA+ homeless population.
Whenever I am in despair about the condition of the world, I turn to story to rewrite the narrative and I amplify the work of fellow authors who are changing the world with their work. Readers, check outLas Musasto learn about the works of my fellow Latinx writers whose work children’s literature “celebrates the diversity of voice, experience, and power” in Latinx communities. Check outhttps://www.soaring20spb.com/for a beautiful diverse community of writers in children’s lit, where I met Colleen Paeff!
CP:I’m so glad it brought us together! I feel lucky to be a part of such an inspiring group of creators. What’s next for you, NoNieqa?
NR: I am working on a genderqueer picture book fairy tale retelling and my first dystopian novel. We’ll see where they land!
CP:Is there anything else you’d like to share?
NR: Thank you for this lovely chat, Colleen. Readers, don’t forget to add my future picture booksHair Story (September 7th, 2021) andBeauty Woke(February 15, 2022) on Goodreads. Thank you so much for your support! Hope you love Your Mama as much as I do.
NoNieqa Ramos wrote The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary, which received stars from Booklist, Voya, and Foreword. It was a 2019 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection and a 2019 In the Margins Top Ten pick.
Versify will publish her debut picture book Your Mama, which received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus, on April 6th, 2021. Her second picture book, Hair Story, releases from Lerner September 6th, 2022. NoNieqa is a proud member of Las Musas, The Soaring 20s, and PB Debut Troupe 21 collectives.
In The Passover Guest, written by Susan Kusel and illustrated by Sean Rubin, Muriel assumes her family is too poor to hold a Passover Seder this year, but an act of kindness and a mysterious magician change everything.
GoodReadsWithRonna:Welcome, Susan! Congratulations on your debut picture book, The Passover Guest!
Susan Kusel:Thank you so much for having me here! I am honored to be on this blog
GRWR: How does it feel as a synagogue librarian and indie bookstore book buyer to know your new book, The Passover Guest, has landed on shelves?
SK: It’s an absolutely surreal feeling to know that my book has a spot in some of my favorite libraries and bookstores. I am humbled by the idea of a child pulling it off the shelf and reading it.
GRWR:When did the seed to become a storyteller first plant itself in your soul? Can you recall the first books that sparked your imagination?
SK:I’ve wanted to be a writer for so long, it’s hard to remember the exact moment I started. I do remember the first time I ever wrote a complete book though. It was for a 5th grade English assignment and was about a Russian Jewish girl named Rachel. I remember being very proud of the special folder I put the book into.
My mom used to read to me every night when I was a child and some of my favorite books then were Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry, Walter the Baker by Eric Carle, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton and of course, The Magician by I.L. Peretz, adapted by Uri Shulevitz.
GRWR:What inspired you to write The Passover Guest as a retelling of the classic I. L. Peretz’s story adapted by Uri Shulevitz in 1973 rather than create a new tale?
SK:As I mentioned above, The Magician was in regular reading rotation by my mother when I was younger and so it’s a story I’ve been in love with for a long time. When I rediscovered the book in a library as an adult, I still thought it was an amazing story, but I noticed some plot elements that I wished were different. That started me down the path of doing an adaptation of Peretz’s story, a process that took about ten years.
GRWR:Aside from setting the story in 1933 Depression-era D.C. are there any other notable changes you wanted to make for 21st-century young readers?
SK:The most significant change I made was adding the character of Muriel. In the Peretz version, the story is about a couple but I thought that it was very important to add a child character. There are also a number of subtle changes I added, such as Muriel putting a penny in the Magician’s hat, the rabbi coming to Muriel’s seder, the whole community filling the house, the matzah breaking itself in two, and several smaller plot points. My goal was to stay true to Peretz’s message while making the story my own.
GRWR:What were your go-to Jewish holiday books growing up and right now? Do you have a collection?
SK: Jewish stories have always been very important to me, but when I was growing up, we owned very few. Our whole book collection, which took up half a shelf in my brother’s closet, was primarily obtained from library book sales. We supplemented these with library books. I only had a few Jewish books including The Power of Light by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Potato Pancakes All Around by Marilyn Hirsh (which we used then, and I still use now for the latke recipe).
As for now, I am typing this while sitting in my home library surrounded by picture books, including several shelves just for Jewish books. Current favorites include Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel (no holiday list is complete without it!), I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel by Caryn Yacowitz, The Matzah Papa Brought Home by Fran Manushkin (sadly out of print but still extraordinary), and Here is the World by Lesléa Newman. That’s really just a small sample though because there are so many Jewish holiday books I love.
GRWR:Has your experience on the Caldecott Medal selection committee or as chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee influenced your writing in any way?
SK:One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to read extensively in your field. I think those committees, as well as others I’ve been on, have certainly helped me with that. When you are reading hundreds and hundreds of books in a genre, it does give you a better sense of what is currently published. Being on so many committees has helped me see what the conventions are, and how they can be broken and how I can be a better writer.
GRWR:Sean Rubin’s art is as magical as your prose and the mysterious guest himself. Do you have a particular favorite spread from the book you can tell us about?
SK:I think Sean did a truly extraordinary job on the illustrations and picking just one of them is like trying to pick a favorite child. I think his work adds so much to the book and makes it complete.
I could easily go on at length about every individual spread and how much I love it, but if I can only pick one, it would be when Muriel goes to the synagogue to consult the rabbi. Over the course of one continuous spread, Sean shows us four completely separate and distinct scenes and the cause and effect of each one of them. And all of this against the astonishingly beautiful and majestic background of the Sixth and I Synagogue, a D.C. Jewish landmark.
GRWR:Early on in The Passover GuestMuriel meets an unusual street performer to whom she gives her last penny. Can you speak to the story idea of magic and how, especially in tough times, this kind of belief can help people?
SK:I think it’s always a good time to believe in the possibility of magic, especially during difficult times. You never know who that bedraggled stranger might turn out to be. Faith and hope are so important.
GRWR:Where do you find the time to write with all your other commitments? Do you have a daily routine?
SK: I’d love to be able to say that I sit down in the same place at the same time every day and write for the same amount of time. But the truth, as you alluded to in this question, is that I have multiple jobs, commitments, and children, and I do my best to write as much as I can when I can.
GRWR:You mentioned in your author’s note that Passover has always been your favorite holiday, can you tell us why?
SK:I love so many things about Passover: the coming of spring, getting the seder plate ready, singing songs, finding the afikomen, eating too much charoset, being with family, and much more. It’s always been a magical holiday for me and I’m delighted that this book lets me share some of that magic.
GRWR:Are you working on your next book? Will it have a Jewish theme?
SK: I’m working on several next books, all with Jewish themes. I have a real commitment to telling Jewish stories.
GRWR: It’s been wonderful having you as a guest here today, Susan! I really appreciate your thoughtful replies and am looking forward to sharing a review of your book when we get closer to Passover.
Susan Kusel has turned a life as a book lover into many careers as an author, librarian, and buyer for a bookstore. She has served on many book award committees including the Caldecott Medal and the Sydney Taylor Book Award. She loves biking, cross-stitching, and of course, reading. Learn more about Susan on her website and by following her on social media.
(One Elm Books; $16.99, eBook available, Ages 9-14)
The release of this fast-paced and interesting middle grade novel was scheduled around Major League Baseball’s Opening Day events. We all know that’s been delayed due to the pandemic, but there’s no reason kids cannot enjoy the thrill of baseball season between the pages of an engaging novel. Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disastersoffers readers just that with its insider’s perspective on the sport along with the ups and downs of being on a team. But that’s only part of the story as the title hints. It’s a diverse novel set in Japan that addresses repatriation, dementia, special needs, and bullying. Read below to find out more. Also a pdf of discussion questions is available here.
Thirteen-year-old Satoshi Matsumoto spent the last three years living in Atlanta where he was the star of his middle-school baseball team—a slugger with pro potential, according to his coach. Now that his father’s work in the US has come to an end, he’s moved back to his hometown in rural Japan. Living abroad has changed him, and now his old friends in Japan are suspicious of his new foreign ways. Even worse, his childhood foe Shintaro, whose dad has ties to gangsters, is in his homeroom. After he joins his new school’s baseball team, Satoshi has a chance to be a hero until he makes a major-league error.
GOOD READS WITH RONNA: When did the idea hit you to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team set in Japan?
SUZANNE KAMATA: Hmmm. I did write a picture book baseball story, which was published in 2009, at my son’s request. Around that time, I started writing an adult novel based on my husband’s experience as a Japanese high school baseball coach. Originally, Satoshi was a character in that novel. Later, maybe about ten years ago, a friend suggested that I write a YA novel about Koshien, the extremely popular Japanese national high school baseball tournament. I took Satoshi out of my adult novel and tried to write a YA novel about him. Even later, readers suggested that it seemed more like a middle grade novel, so I made adjustments. That’s the long answer. I guess the short answer would be that I never set out to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team in Japan.
GRWR: Let’s talk first about the pop flies portion of your novel’s title. With Major League Baseball put on hold due to the Corona Virus, readers get to vicariously experience the sport in your book. Have you been a baseball mom and, because you write about it so convincingly, do you enjoy baseball?
SK: I do enjoy baseball. My husband was a high school baseball coach for 12 years, and I used to go to his games. So, first, I was a baseball wife. My son played baseball from elementary school throughout high school, and I also taught at a couple of high schools in Japan that were known for their strong baseball teams. I feel like I know a lot about high school baseball in Japan, but I often checked with my husband and son about the details. I read an early draft to my son, and he corrected a few things.
GRWR:Upon his return to his old school, Tokushima Whirlpool Junior High, a private school founded by his grandfather, the main character Satoshi Matsumoto’s old friends and classmates “are suspicious of his new foreign ways.” I love how your book honestly explores the struggles of this thirteen-year-old’s readjustment upon returning to rural Japan after three years living in Atlanta. Can you speak to the pros and cons of the international experience to help readers understand his mixed emotions and the changes that occur in people after a move abroad.?
SK: Personally, I feel that there are no cons to having lived or traveled abroad. I am sure that many kids in Japan don’t feel that way now, but when they grow up they will understand the value of these experiences. For my own children, having a foreign mom and growing up with additional cultural elements (like the tooth fairy, and macaroni and cheese, and speaking English at home) set them apart and perhaps made them feel a bit lonely at times. This was especially true since we lived in a small town in a conservative, somewhat remote part of Japan. However, I wanted them to understand that there was a world beyond the one that they lived in, that even though they were in the minority in the town where we lived, they had a tribe out there somewhere. When you live abroad, you start to look at your own country differently. You can see things that people who have never left cannot. I think, in many ways, you begin to appreciate your own country and culture more. In the book, Satoshi goes through the same thing.
GRWR:The novel’s supporting characters include Satoshi’s grandfather (Oji-chan) who now has dementia and once had a chance for a promising career in baseball before WWII, and younger sister, Momoko , age four, who has cerebral palsy and uses sign language to communicate and leg-braces or a wheelchair for mobility. Are they based on actual people in your life and how are special needs and disabilities treated in Japan?
SK: Yes and no. For many years, we lived with an elderly relative who showed signs of dementia, and my daughter is multiply disabled. She is deaf and has cerebral palsy, and, yes, she has leg braces, uses a wheelchair, and communicates mostly via sign language. But these characters are fictional.
As in the book, children with special needs and disabilities are not usually mainstreamed. There are separate schools for children who are deaf, blind, or who have intellectual or physical disabilities. For the record, my two children, who are twins, went to two different schools.
Children with disabilities, or some other difference, are sometimes bullied.
While accessibility is gradually improving, there is still a degree of shame in Japan surrounding mental health issues and disability. To be honest, certain members of my Japanese family don’t approve of my writing about disability so openly, even though I am writing fiction. However, I think it’s important to do so.
GRWR:A bully named Shintaro plays a prominent role in this story. He bullied Satoshi before his move abroad, and the fact that his dad has ties to gangsters makes him all the more scary. He picks on both Misa, a new student who is biracial and Satoshi, sometimes quite aggressively. Is bullying common in Japanese culture and how does the approach to dealing with bullying in school differ in Japan than in the U.S.?
SK: Bullying is a persistent problem in Japan. Typically, teachers try not to intervene, with the thinking that kids should try to work things out by themselves. Japanese schools have classes in morality, where they might discuss bullying, but most schools don’t have counselors, and some classes have up to 40 students, which is a lot for one teacher to manage.
GRWR:There’s a crucial part of the story where Satoshi’s ego is on full display when he chooses to ignore instructions from his coach. I was surprised by this display of disobedience, especially given all the examples of students being raised to be very respectful. Do you think there are too many rules in a Japanese student’s life and that’s why Satoshi preferred his life in America? Here is good spot to ask you to speak to any cultural differences about being a team player in the US and in Japan.
SK: Independence is valued more in the United States, whereas conformity is valued more in Japan. As a teacher, I have come into contact with many students who have gone abroad for a year or more. They are different when they come back. Generally, they enjoy the sense of freedom and self-expression that they experienced in the U.S. Satoshi enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere of American school, and he finds it hard to buckle down. Also, in Japan, it’s not good to stand out. It’s better to be humble and to give credit to your teammates than to draw attention to your abilities.
GRWR:Satoshi’s grandfather has a therapeutic robo-pet seal known as Nana-chan. Where did this unusual idea come from because it’s sweet, funny and a plot driver as well?
SK: I first read about these therapeutic robo-pet seals in a Japanese textbook, and then I later saw one in person at a science exhibition. I was immediately charmed – a seal! How random! — and I wanted to put it into a story.
GRWR:I like that there are illustrations included by Tracy Bishop in every chapter although I only saw an ARC and am not sure if there were any changes made before publication. Did you always picture the novel with illustrations?
SK: No. Actually, I didn’t expect that the novel would be illustrated, but I love having my work illustrated, so I was very excited about it. I am glad that the illustrator is Japanese-American, and that she was familiar with what I wrote about. I was very happy with the final result.
GRWR:What advice can you offer to readers who may have international students at their schools here in America?
SK: As they say, “variety is the spice of life.” Make an effort to get to know people who are different from yourself. Be patient with students from other cultures when they make “mistakes” or do something differently from you. You can learn so much from people from other countries.
I would also encourage students to read books, such as mine, about kids in other countries and from other cultures. There’s nothing like a book to build empathy.
GRWR:Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
SK: If readers enjoy this book, perhaps they would be interested to know that I have written two other novels that have a connection to Japan, and are appropriate for middle grade readers – Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible and Indigo Girl. Both feature Aiko Cassidy, a biracial girl with cerebral palsy who aspires to be a manga artist.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my writing!
Award-winning author Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Japan for over half of her life. Suzanne raised two kids and now lives with her husband in Aizumi, Japan.
Thank you so much, Suzanne, for your honest, enlightening replies. I loved learning about your experience as an ex-pat living and raising a family in Japan and how it’s informed your writing. I hope readers will get a copy of Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters to find out all the things Satoshi dealt with upon his return to Japan. Good luck on your works-in-progress (an adult novel and several picture books), too.
BUTTERFLIES IN ROOM 6: SEE HOW THEY GROW
Written and photographed by Caroline Arnold
(Charlesbridge; $16.99, Ages 3-7)
Caroline Arnold’s newnonfiction 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 6doesn’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.
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.
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!
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.”
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!
THE FANTASTIC LIBRARY RESCUE AND OTHER MAJOR PLOT TWISTS
Written by Deborah Lytton
Illustrated by Jeanine Murch
(Sourcebooks Jabberwocky; $7.99, Ages 8 and up)
Read Our Q & A With Author Deborah Lytton
On today’s post I’m excited to share a recent interview I had with author, Deborah Lytton, about book #2 in the Ruby Starr series, The Fantastic Library Rescue and Other Major Plot Twists, which came out earlier this month. Having thoroughly enjoyed this chapter book for middle grade readers* that includes illustrations of Ruby’s active imagination at work, I can see how much tweens and bibliophiles will gravitate to the series, and this new book in particular, especially since it tackles two important issues: libraries losing funding and friendship predicaments. I especially like that Ruby’s friend Will P is also in a bookclub, something I don’t usually see depicted in stories. Here’s how Sourcebooks Jabberwocky describes Lytton’s latest:
The second book in this fun series that’s perfect for younger fans of the Dork Diaries and Story Thieves series. Ruby Starr is an older Junie B. Jones with a big imagination and a love of reading.
Ruby Starr’s life is totally back on track. Her lunchtime book club, the Unicorns, is better than ever. And she and Charlotte, her once arch enemy, are now good friends. The only thing that’s really causing any drama is her upcoming poetry assignment. She’s a reader, not a poet!
But disaster strikes when Ruby learns that her most favorite place in the world, the school library, is in trouble. Ruby knows she and the Unicorns have to do something to help. But when Ruby’s plans end up hurting a friend, she’s not sure her story will have a happy ending after all.
Q & A:
GOOD READS WITH RONNA:Ruby is a charming, book-loving outgoing yet introspective fifth grader. And while she is not perfect she certainly is someone any parent would be proud of. Do you happen to know any Rubys? And if not, how did you wind up with her as a main character for your series?
DEBORAH LYTTON: I do know a Ruby. My inspiration for this series came from my younger daughter who was in fifth grade when I began writing the first book. My YA SILENCE had just been released, and my older daughter was reading it. My younger daughter wanted me to write something for her to read. She asked for a story that would make her laugh. I based the character of Ruby on her initially, but then as I began to write, the character took on her own qualities. My favorite part of writing is when the characters begin to shape themselves. That definitely happened with Ruby Starr.
GRWR:What do you love most about her?
DL:I love that Ruby makes a lot of mistakes, but always tries to fix them. My favorite thing about Ruby is her kindness. She thinks about other people and their feelings and tries to help them when she can. This is a quality I truly admire. I also enjoy writing Ruby because she is so imaginative.
GRWR:I realize this is book #2 in the series but yet I felt fully up-to-speed. Can you please tell readers briefly what happens in book #1?
DL: I am so happy to hear that you felt up-to-speed! It was really important to me to write a second book that would let readers jump right in. Book #1 establishes Ruby’s character and her love for reading. The story centers on friendship troubles. When a new girl joins Ruby’s fifth grade class, she begins pulling Ruby’s friends away from her. Then she threatens to destroy Ruby’s book club. Ruby has a difficult time, and then she learns something about the new girl that changes everything. Ultimately, books bring the friends together.
GRWR:Is there a book #3 on the horizon?
DL:Yes, I am really excited about Ruby’s third adventure. I have just finished the manuscript and I can tell you that Ruby and her friends get into a little bit of a mix-up and that it all begins with a very special book.
GRWR:As a kidlit reviewer I love that Ruby is in a book club (The Unicorns), and as a writer I love Ruby’s vivid imagination. Did your own childhood inform these traits or did you feel she’d need these qualities to be a role model for tweens or someone many young readers could relate to?
DL:Growing up, my sister and I were like Ruby. We loved reading. Both of us cherish books and have saved many of our favorites from when we were young readers. My own daughters also love to read. In spending time helping out in their school classrooms and libraries, I have seen how many students enjoy books. I loved the idea that a fifth grade student would be independent enough to start her own book club at school to celebrate reading. Then I thought it would be fun to see where her imagination would take her, especially since she would be inspired by all the books she had read and loved. I hope young readers who have stayed up late just to read the next chapter of a book will connect with a character who is like them.
GRWR:The hero’s journey that Ruby embarks on is to save the school library where the hours have been reduced and new book purchases have been shelved due to funding cutbacks. Was this plot line inspired by stories you’ve seen in the news or even closer to home here in L.A.?
DL:I have volunteered in the libraries at my daughters’ schools so I have seen first-hand the way that budget cuts have impacted the libraries. I have also helped students search for the perfect book to read and then watched their faces light up when they discover something really special. Libraries are so valuable to our youth. I wanted to highlight that message in this story.