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An Interview with Anna Crowley Redding – Author of The Gravity Tree

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH 

ANNA CROWLEY REDDING

AUTHOR OF

THE GRAVITY TREE:

THE TRUE STORY OF A TREE THAT INSPIRED THE WORLD

Illustrated By Yas Imamura

(HarperCollins; $17.99, Ages 4 to 8)

The Gravity Tree cover

 

 

Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews 

 

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

The Gravity Tree: The True Story of a Tree That Inspired the World

Written by Anna Crowley Redding and illustrated by Yas Imamura

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.

 

INTERVIEW:

 

Colleen Paeff: Hi Anna! Congratulations on the release of The Gravity Tree: The True Story of a Tree That Inspired the World. What sparked the idea for this book?

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!

 

 

The Gravity Tree int1
Interior art from The Gravity Tree written by Anna Crowley Redding and illustrated by Yas Imamura, HarperCollins BYR ©2021.

 

CP: Your books Elon Musk: A Mission to Save the World and Google It: A History of Google are for Young Adult readers. Black Hole Chasers: The Amazing True Story of an Astronomical Breakthrough (coming in September 2021) is for a middle-grade audience, and Rescuing the Declaration of Independence, Chowder Rules, and The Gravity Tree are all picture books. Is your research process different for picture books, middle grade, and YA? 

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!

 

The Gravity Tree int2
Interior spread from The Gravity Tree written by Anna Crowley Redding and illustrated by Yas Imamura, HarperCollins BYR ©2021.

 

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.

 

CP: You co-lead a couple weekly audio chat rooms for writers on Clubhouse, and I’m always so impressed with how welcoming and encouraging you are to new writers who join in. As I read your incredibly moving blog post, If Not for Tom Ellis: The Mentor Who Changed My Life and the Lessons he Leaves Behind, I found myself wondering if part of the appeal of Clubhouse for you is that it allows you to play a mentorship role for aspiring authors. Do you think that’s true?

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.

 

The Gravity Tree int3
Interior art from The Gravity Tree written by Anna Crowley Redding and illustrated by Yas Imamura, HarperCollins BYR ©2021.

 

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?

ACR: Do you actually know Colleen Paeff?

ACR: Yes, she is incredibly talented, a very nice person, and everyone should buy The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem and follow her on Instagram. (Seriously, you will not be disappointed.)

 

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 Photo credit Dave Dostie
Anna Crowley Redding      Photo Credit: Dave Dostie

BRIEF BIO:

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.

 

 

 


LINKS:

Website: annacrowleyredding.com

Instagram: @annacrowleyredding

Twitter: @AnnaRedding

 

FOR MORE ON ANNA CROWLEY REDDING:

Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb

Epic Achievements and Fantastic Failures

Kidlit411 Author Spotlight: Anna Crowley Redding

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

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

 

 

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An Interview with The Stars Beckoned Author Candy Wellins

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR CANDY WELLINS

ABOUT HER PICTURE BOOK

THE STARS BECKONED:
EDWARD WHITE’S AMAZING WALK IN SPACE

(Philomel; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

starsbeckoned cover scaled

 

 

                    ★                      ★                     ★   

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

The Stars Beckoned: Edward White’s Amazing Walk In Space, written by Candy Wellins and illustrated by Courtney Dawson, is a lyrical picture book biography of Edward White, the first American to walk in space, and an ode to the beauty and wonder of the stars that brought him there.

 

INTERVIEW:

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 feeland I think his children would agreeEdward 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.  

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An Interview with Your Mama Author NoNieqa Ramos

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NONIEQA RAMOS 

ABOUT HER DEBUT PICTURE BOOK 

YOUR MAMA

(Versify; $17.99, Ages 4 to 7)

 

 

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

Yo’ mama so sweet, she could be a bakery. She dresses so fine, she could have a clothing line. And, even when you mess up, she’s so forgiving, she lets you keep on living. Heartwarming and richly imagined, Your Mama, written by NoNieqa Ramos and illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara, twists an old joke into a point of pride that honors the love, hard work, and dedication of mamas everywhere.

 

INTERVIEW WITH NONIEQA RAMOS:

Colleen Paeff: Congratulations on the release of Your Mama (illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara)! This is your first picture book and it received two starred reviews––one from School Library Journal, which called it “an essential purchase” and one from Kirkus, which labeled the book “Perfectly dazzling.” That must have felt good! Or do you try not to pay attention to reviews?

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

CP: Thank you!

NR: If I said I didn’t pay attention to reviews, my friends would laugh so hard they’d fall off their chairs. Tail bones would crack. My writing is generally considered “experimental” or “unique” and reviews can vary wildly. So it is affirming and medicinal to get critical acclaim for a concept as “unique” as a Your Mama picture book, albeit one flipped into an ode of loving affirmation, for sure.

The reviews that light me up the most are from readers who find me on Instagram to tell me my writing has made them feel seen or from fellow writers I admire who show me book love. Their esteem is salve for my heart, food for my writer’s soul.

CP: Kwame Alexander’s imprint Versify published your book and Kwame himself book-talked Your Mama on YouTube. (!!!!) Was it extra special to have your book published by this particular publisher?

 

 

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

 

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

I remember when I saw the Tweet that Kwame Alexander was starting a new imprint and that it was open for submissions. I thought– this is Your Mama’s home. Talk about shooting your shot.  I emailed my agent in milliseconds. Two weeks after the submission, I got the call.

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

Every book journey is unique, and the field of publishing is like riding a bronco, no joke. I savor every second of success, but I measure my success differently with each new project. I’m feeling pretty hyped about this one.
 

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

NR: Picture book writing is my first love. When I was in elementary school, I started “N&N Company” with my cousin Nikki and attempted to sell picture books (paperdolls, bookmarks, and cards) to my classmates until a dispute over payment drew the nuns’ attention and had me shut down!

I started off my teaching career working with preschoolers. Picture books are portable theaters, concerts, and museums. There’s nothing I loved more than seeing an emerging reader take a picture walk and narrate the story to their friends.

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

I write in rhythmic verse, a type of free verse, the jazz of poetry. What I adore about picture books is the spoken and unspoken collaboration between author and illustrator. I marvel at the music Jackie and I made with keyboard and pen.

 

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

 

CP: What’s something you enjoyed about the experience of writing a picture book that wasn’t a part of writing for the YA audience?

NR: All my works are a platform to fight for social justice. Picture books are a unique way to rise up against inequity and systemic oppression of the marginalized with the power of pure joy. Picture books are unbridled hope. With these magical tools, we raise not just the individual reader, but the human family.  When I gift a child a picture book by Kirsten Larson (A True Wonder: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything), I am giving the gift of ingenuity and persistence. When I gift a child a picture book by Yamile Saied Méndez (De Donde Eres), I gift a child cultural and family pride.

My YA The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary is partially about burning the system down. The Truth Is is partially about dismantling the internalized racism and homophobia embedded in us from our inherently racist and homophobic society. In some ways, these protagonists inherited a world in ashes. My picture book protagonists inherit seeds.

With my debut Your Mama, I resisted the monolithic representation of Latinx women with nuanced exultation. I hope with Your Mama, all my readers celebrate how much they are loved by their caregivers, and all caregivers feel seen and revered.

CP: You’ve said you write to “amplify marginalized voices and to reclaim the lost history, mythology, and poetry of the Latinx community.” Did you grow up hearing those stories or did you discover them later in life?

NR: I discovered my first Latinx novel in graduate school, and I was transformed. Reading Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude spoke to me as a writer in a way absolutely no book ever had. He helped me find my voice.

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

CP: You’ve described yourself as a literary activist. What is that and how can I become one?

NR: I love your questions, Colleen! A literary activist creates works to disrupt texts, dismantle systems of oppression, and rebuild an equitable society. Every book gives you an opportunity to amplify your work’s message through article writing, conferences, and school visits. The Truth Is and The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary gives me a platform to talk about the lack of historical representation of BIPOC persons in school curriculums, the dire need for mental health services for the marginalized, and the still pervasive LGBTQIA+ homeless population.

Whenever I am in despair about the condition of the world, I turn to story to rewrite the narrative and I amplify the work of fellow authors who are changing the world with their work. Readers, check out Las Musas to learn about the works of my fellow Latinx writers whose work children’s literature “celebrates the diversity of voice, experience, and power” in Latinx communities. Check out https://www.soaring20spb.com/ for a beautiful diverse community of writers in children’s lit, where I met Colleen Paeff!

CP: I’m so glad it brought us together! I feel lucky to be a part of such an inspiring group of creators. What’s next for you, NoNieqa?

NR: I am working on a genderqueer picture book fairy tale retelling and my first dystopian novel. We’ll see where they land!

CP: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

NR: Thank you for this lovely chat, Colleen. Readers, don’t forget to add my future picture books Hair Story (September 7th, 2021) and Beauty Woke (February 15, 2022) on Goodreads. Thank you so much for your support! Hope you love Your Mama as much as I do.

 

NoNieqa Ramos Gentry Photography
NoNieqa Ramos ©Gentry Photography

BRIEF BIO:

NoNieqa Ramos wrote The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary, which received stars from Booklist, Voya, and Foreword. It was a 2019 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults Selection and a 2019 In the Margins Top Ten pick.

Versify will publish her debut picture book Your Mama, which received starred reviews from School Library Journal and Kirkus, on April 6th, 2021. Her second picture book, Hair Story, releases from Lerner September 6th, 2022.  NoNieqa is a proud member of Las Musas, The Soaring 20s, and PB Debut Troupe 21 collectives.

 

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SOCIAL MEDIA:

Website: www.nonieqaramos.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/NoNieqaRamos

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

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

 

READ MORE ABOUT NONIEQA:

Your Mama cover reveal & interview

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

Be Latina on Your Mama

On Writing Diverse Characters and Resisting the Status Quo by NoNieqa

Voice Lessons by NoNieqa

Hip Latina Interview

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

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

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An Interview with The Passover Guest Author Susan Kusel

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR SUSAN KUSEL

ABOUT HER DEBUT PICTURE BOOK

THE PASSOVER GUEST

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

 

The Passover Guest cover

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SHORT SUMMARY:

In The Passover Guest, written by Susan Kusel and illustrated by Sean Rubin, Muriel assumes her family is too poor to hold a Passover Seder this year, but an act of kindness and a mysterious magician change everything.

 

INTERVIEW:

GoodReadsWithRonna: Welcome, Susan! Congratulations on your debut picture book, The Passover Guest!

Susan Kusel: Thank you so much for having me here! I am honored to be on this blog

GRWR:  How does it feel as a synagogue librarian and indie bookstore book buyer to know your new book,
The Passover Guest, has landed on shelves? 

SK: It’s an absolutely surreal feeling to know that my book has a spot in some of my favorite libraries and bookstores. I am humbled by the idea of a child pulling it off the shelf and reading it.

GRWR: When did the seed to become a storyteller first plant itself in your soul? Can you recall the first books that sparked your imagination? 

SK: I’ve wanted to be a writer for so long, it’s hard to remember the exact moment I started. I do remember the first time I ever wrote a complete book though. It was for a 5th grade English assignment and was about a Russian Jewish girl named Rachel. I remember being very proud of the special folder I put the book into.

My mom used to read to me every night when I was a child and some of my favorite books then were Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry, Walter the Baker by Eric Carle, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton and of course, The Magician by I.L. Peretz, adapted by Uri Shulevitz.

 

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

 

GRWR: What inspired you to write The Passover Guest as a retelling of the classic I. L. Peretz’s story adapted by Uri Shulevitz in 1973 rather than create a new tale? 

SK: As I mentioned above, The Magician was in regular reading rotation by my mother when I was younger and so it’s a story I’ve been in love with for a long time. When I rediscovered the book in a library as an adult, I still thought it was an amazing story, but I noticed some plot elements that I wished were different. That started me down the path of doing an adaptation of Peretz’s story, a process that took about ten years.

GRWR: Aside from setting the story in 1933 Depression-era D.C. are there any other notable changes you wanted to make for 21st-century young readers? 

SK: The most significant change I made was adding the character of Muriel. In the Peretz version, the story is about a couple but I thought that it was very important to add a child character. There are also a number of subtle changes I added, such as Muriel putting a penny in the Magician’s hat, the rabbi coming to Muriel’s seder, the whole community filling the house, the matzah breaking itself in two, and several smaller plot points. My goal was to stay true to Peretz’s message while making the story my own.

GRWR: What were your go-to Jewish holiday books growing up and right now? Do you have a collection? 

SK: Jewish stories have always been very important to me, but when I was growing up, we owned very few. Our whole book collection, which took up half a shelf in my brother’s closet, was primarily obtained from library book sales. We supplemented these with library books. I only had a few Jewish books including The Power of Light by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Potato Pancakes All Around by Marilyn Hirsh (which we used then, and I still use now for the latke recipe).

As for now, I am typing this while sitting in my home library surrounded by picture books, including several shelves just for Jewish books. Current favorites include Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel (no holiday list is complete without it!), I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel by Caryn Yacowitz, The Matzah Papa Brought Home by Fran Manushkin (sadly out of print but still extraordinary), and Here is the World by Lesléa Newman. That’s really just a small sample though because there are so many Jewish holiday books I love.

GRWR: Has your experience on the Caldecott Medal selection committee or as chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee influenced your writing in any way? 

SK: One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to read extensively in your field. I think those committees, as well as others I’ve been on, have certainly helped me with that. When you are reading hundreds and hundreds of books in a genre, it does give you a better sense of what is currently published. Being on so many committees has helped me see what the conventions are, and how they can be broken and how I can be a better writer.

GRWR: Sean Rubin’s art is as magical as your prose and the mysterious guest himself. Do you have a particular favorite spread from the book you can tell us about? 

SK: I think Sean did a truly extraordinary job on the illustrations and picking just one of them is like trying to pick a favorite child. I think his work adds so much to the book and makes it complete.

I could easily go on at length about every individual spread and how much I love it, but if I can only pick one, it would be when Muriel goes to the synagogue to consult the rabbi. Over the course of one continuous spread, Sean shows us four completely separate and distinct scenes and the cause and effect of each one of them. And all of this against the astonishingly beautiful and majestic background of the Sixth and I Synagogue, a D.C. Jewish landmark. 

GRWR: Early on in The Passover Guest Muriel meets an unusual street performer to whom she gives her last penny. Can you speak to the story idea of magic and how, especially in tough times, this kind of belief can help people? 

SK: I think it’s always a good time to believe in the possibility of magic, especially during difficult times. You never know who that bedraggled stranger might turn out to be. Faith and hope are so important.

 

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

 

GRWR: Where do you find the time to write with all your other commitments? Do you have a daily routine? 

SK: I’d love to be able to say that I sit down in the same place at the same time every day and write for the same amount of time. But the truth, as you alluded to in this question, is that I have multiple jobs, commitments, and children, and I do my best to write as much as I can when I can.

GRWR: You mentioned in your author’s note that Passover has always been your favorite holiday, can you tell us why? 

SK: I love so many things about Passover: the coming of spring, getting the seder plate ready, singing songs, finding the afikomen, eating too much charoset, being with family, and much more. It’s always been a magical holiday for me and I’m delighted that this book lets me share some of that magic.

GRWR: Are you working on your next book? Will it have a Jewish theme? 

SK: I’m working on several next books, all with Jewish themes. I have a real commitment to telling Jewish stories.

GRWR: It’s been wonderful having you as a guest here today, Susan! I really appreciate your thoughtful replies and am looking forward to sharing a review of your book when we get closer to Passover.

Author Susan KuselBRIEF BIO:

Susan Kusel has turned a life as a book lover into many careers as an author, librarian, and buyer for a bookstore. She has served on many book award committees including the Caldecott Medal and the Sydney Taylor Book Award. She loves biking, cross-stitching, and of course, reading. Learn more about Susan on her website and by following her on social media.

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

 

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

AN INTERVIEW

WITH AUTHOR  SUZANNE KAMATA

 

PopFlies CVR

 

POP FLIES, ROBO-PETS, AND OTHER DISASTERS

Written by Suzanne Kamata

Illustrated by Tracy Bishop

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

 

 

INTRO

The release of this fast-paced and interesting middle grade novel was scheduled around Major League Baseball’s Opening Day events. We all know that’s been delayed due to the pandemic, but there’s no reason kids cannot enjoy the thrill of baseball season between the pages of an engaging novel. Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters offers readers just that with its insider’s perspective on the sport along with the ups and downs of being on a team. But that’s only part of the story as the title hints. It’s a diverse novel set in Japan that addresses repatriation, dementia, special needs, and bullying. Read below to find out more. Also a pdf of discussion questions is available here.

SUMMARY

Thirteen-year-old Satoshi Matsumoto spent the last three years living in Atlanta where he was the star of his middle-school baseball team—a slugger with pro potential, according to his coach. Now that his father’s work in the US has come to an end, he’s moved back to his hometown in rural Japan. Living abroad has changed him, and now his old friends in Japan are suspicious of his new foreign ways. Even worse, his childhood foe Shintaro, whose dad has ties to gangsters, is in his homeroom. After he joins his new school’s baseball team, Satoshi has a chance to be a hero until he makes a major-league error.

INTERVIEW

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

GOOD READS WITH RONNA: When did the idea hit you to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team set in Japan?

SUZANNE KAMATA: Hmmm. I did write a picture book baseball story, which was published in 2009, at my son’s request. Around that time, I started writing an adult novel based on my husband’s experience as a Japanese high school baseball coach. Originally, Satoshi was a character in that novel. Later, maybe about ten years ago, a friend suggested that I write a YA novel about Koshien, the extremely popular Japanese national high school baseball tournament. I took Satoshi out of my adult novel and tried to write a YA novel about him. Even later, readers suggested that it seemed more like a middle grade novel, so I made adjustments. That’s the long answer. I guess the short answer would be that I never set out to write a middle grade novel about a school baseball team in Japan.

GRWR: Let’s talk first about the pop flies portion of your novel’s title. With Major League Baseball put on hold due to the Corona Virus, readers get to vicariously experience the sport in your book. Have you been a baseball mom and, because you write about it so convincingly, do you enjoy baseball?

SK: I do enjoy baseball. My husband was a high school baseball coach for 12 years, and I used to go to his games. So, first, I was a baseball wife. My son played baseball from elementary school throughout high school, and I also taught at a couple of high schools in Japan that were known for their strong baseball teams. I feel like I know a lot about high school baseball in Japan, but I often checked with my husband and son about the details. I read an early draft to my son, and he corrected a few things.

GRWR: Upon his return to his old school, Tokushima Whirlpool Junior High, a private school founded by his grandfather, the main character Satoshi Matsumoto’s old friends and classmates “are suspicious of his new foreign ways.” I love how your book honestly explores the struggles of this thirteen-year-old’s readjustment upon returning to rural Japan after three years living in Atlanta. Can you speak to the pros and cons of the international experience to help readers understand his mixed emotions and the changes that occur in people after a move abroad.?

SK: Personally, I feel that there are no cons to having lived or traveled abroad. I am sure that many kids in Japan don’t feel that way now, but when they grow up they will understand the value of these experiences. For my own children, having a foreign mom and growing up with additional cultural elements (like the tooth fairy, and macaroni and cheese, and speaking English at home) set them apart and perhaps made them feel a bit lonely at times. This was especially true since we lived in a small town in a conservative, somewhat remote part of Japan. However, I wanted them  to understand that there was a world beyond the one that they lived in, that even though they were in the minority in the town where we lived, they had a tribe out there somewhere. When you live abroad, you start to look at your own country differently. You can see things that people who have never left cannot. I think, in many ways, you begin to appreciate your own country and culture more. In the book, Satoshi goes through the same thing.

GRWR: The novel’s supporting characters include Satoshi’s grandfather (Oji-chan) who now has dementia and once had a chance for a promising career in baseball before WWII, and younger sister, Momoko , age four, who has cerebral palsy and uses sign language to communicate and leg-braces or a wheelchair for mobility. Are they based on actual people in your life and how are special needs and disabilities treated in Japan?

SK: Yes and no. For many years, we lived with an elderly relative who showed signs of dementia, and my daughter is multiply disabled. She is deaf and has cerebral palsy, and, yes, she has leg braces, uses a wheelchair, and communicates mostly via sign language. But these characters are fictional.

As in the book, children with special needs and disabilities are not usually mainstreamed. There are separate schools for children who are deaf, blind, or who have intellectual or physical disabilities. For the record, my two children, who are twins, went to two different schools.

Children with disabilities, or some other difference, are sometimes bullied.

While accessibility is gradually improving, there is still a degree of shame in Japan surrounding mental health issues and disability. To be honest, certain members of my Japanese family don’t approve of my writing about disability so openly, even though I am writing fiction. However, I think it’s important to do so.

GRWR: A bully named Shintaro plays a prominent role in this story. He bullied Satoshi before his move abroad, and the fact that his dad has ties to gangsters makes him all the more scary. He picks on both Misa, a new student who is biracial and Satoshi, sometimes quite aggressively. Is bullying common in Japanese culture and how does the approach to dealing with bullying in school differ in Japan than in the U.S.?

SK: Bullying is a persistent problem in Japan. Typically, teachers try not to intervene, with the thinking that kids should try to work things out by themselves. Japanese schools have classes in morality, where they might discuss bullying, but most schools don’t have counselors, and some classes have up to 40 students, which is a lot for one teacher to manage.

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

GRWR: There’s a crucial part of the story where Satoshi’s ego is on full display when he chooses to ignore instructions from his coach. I was surprised by this display of disobedience, especially given all the examples of students being raised to be very respectful. Do you think there are too many rules in a Japanese student’s life and that’s why Satoshi preferred his life in America? Here is good spot to ask you to speak to any cultural differences about being a team player in the US and in Japan.

SK: Independence is valued more in the United States, whereas conformity is valued more in Japan. As a teacher, I have come into contact with many students who have gone abroad for a year or more. They are different when they come back. Generally, they enjoy the sense of freedom and self-expression that they experienced in the U.S. Satoshi enjoyed the more relaxed atmosphere of American school, and he finds it hard to buckle down. Also, in Japan, it’s not good to stand out. It’s better to be humble and to give credit to your teammates than to draw attention to your abilities.

GRWR: Satoshi’s grandfather has a therapeutic robo-pet seal known as Nana-chan. Where did this unusual idea come from because it’s sweet, funny and a plot driver as well?

SK: I first read about these therapeutic robo-pet seals in a Japanese textbook, and then I later saw one in person at a science exhibition. I was immediately charmed – a seal! How random! —  and I wanted to put it into a story.

GRWR: I like that there are illustrations included by Tracy Bishop in every chapter although I only saw an ARC and am not sure if there were any changes made before publication. Did you always picture the novel with illustrations?

SK: No. Actually, I didn’t expect that the novel would be illustrated, but I love having my work illustrated, so I was very excited about it. I am glad that the illustrator is Japanese-American, and that she was familiar with what I wrote about. I was very happy with the final result.

GRWR: What advice can you offer to readers who may have international students at their schools here in America?

SK: As they say, “variety is the spice of life.” Make an effort to get to know people who are different from yourself. Be patient with students from other cultures when they make “mistakes” or do something differently from you. You can learn so much from people from other countries.

I would also encourage students to read books, such as mine, about kids in other countries and from other cultures. There’s nothing like a book to build empathy.

GRWR: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

SK: If readers enjoy this book, perhaps they would be interested to know that I have written two other novels that  have a connection to Japan, and are appropriate for middle grade readers – Gadget Girl: The Art of Being Invisible and Indigo Girl. Both feature Aiko Cassidy, a biracial girl with cerebral palsy who aspires to be a manga artist.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about my writing!

BIO

Author Suzanne Kamata
Photo of Suzanne Kamata by © Solveig Boergen

Award-winning author Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Japan for over half of her life. Suzanne raised two kids and now lives with her husband in Aizumi, Japan.

Website: http://www.suzannekamata.com

Thank you so much, Suzanne, for your honest, enlightening replies. I loved learning about your experience as an ex-pat living and raising a family in Japan and how it’s informed your writing. I hope readers will get a copy of Pop Flies, Robo-Pets, and Other Disasters to find out all the things Satoshi dealt with upon his return to Japan. Good luck on your works-in-progress (an adult novel and several picture books), too.

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

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

 

cover photo by Caroline Arnold from Butteries in Room 6

 

REVIEW:

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

INTERVIEW WITH CAROLINE ARNOLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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An Interview With MG & YA Author Deborah Lytton

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

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


Read Our Q & A With Author Deborah Lytton

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

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

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

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

 

Q & A:

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

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

GRWR: What do you love most about her? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zinnia and the Bees, An Interview with Debut Author Danielle Davis

MEET DANIELLE DAVIS,
AUTHOR OF
ZINNIA AND THE BEES
Written by Danielle Davis
Illustrated by Laura K. Horton
(Capstone Young Readers; $14.95, Ages 9-12)

 

Cover image from Zinnia and the Bees written by Danielle Davis

 

Yesterday, August 1st, was the debut of local L.A. author Danielle Davis’s new middle grade novel, Zinnia and the Bees. Today I’m totally tickled (but not stung mind you!) to share my recent interview with Davis as she weighs in on the who, what, when, where and why of her delightful magical realism story. But first I’d like to share some of my own thoughts. If you’re eager to get to the Q&A with Danielle, please feel free to scroll down. Below that you’ll also find a trailer for the novel. 

REVIEW

Zinnia, the main character in Danielle Davis’s Zinnia and the Bees, struggles with several relationships throughout this introspective, humorous, and totally absorbing book. It’s filled with many of those confusing, sometimes immobilizing emotions that I recall experiencing in middle school (which was called junior high back then). Added to that are accounts of several uncomfortable situations Zinnia finds herself immersed in which will surely resonate with today’s tweens. And though she may seem to avoid friendships, she ultimately realizes that those connections are what she really needs. Her mom, a widow, dentist and community activist, always seems otherwise occupied. She practically lives at her practice, leaves impersonal post-it notes and is more into her rescue dog than her daughter. Then there’s Zinnia’s brother Adam. The book opens with a wacky and wonderful yarn bomb episode that pulls readers into the story and demonstrates the siblings’ close relationship, despite the six years age gap.

Zinnia and the Bees book with wool and some beesOn that very same day, Adam skips out on Zinnia and her mom, no warning, no note, nothing to let her know where he’s gone. That, after all they’ve shared, hurts more than also losing her group of friends NML, Nikki, Margot and Lupita. When they were pals they were NMLZ, but now Z was on her own. That is until a clever and curious neighbor’s nephew comes to town for summer. Far from perfect, yet not easy to push away, Birch demonstrates to Zinnia the magic of nature and the transformative quality of a good friend. His timing couldn’t have been better because after a visit to the local ice cream parlor, where some ice cream got in her hair, Zinnia has attracted a colony of crazed and kooky honeybees who find what they hope will be temporary accommodations in her long curly hair.

As Zinnia tries to make sense of her brother-less world, she’s also trying to figure out a way to get the bees off her head. We get vivid glimpses of a close relationship Zinnia has with her aunt, without which would make her mom’s indifference more intolerable than it already is. After all, it was her mom who pushed Adam away.

The humor shines through when reading the perspective of the hiveless bees hanging out in Zinnia’s hair. They get a chance, every several chapters or so, to share their thoughts on being homeless. This gives readers a chance to get into the bee narrator’s head and think about bees in a whole, hysterical new way. I now bravely scoop dive-bombing bees out of my pool instead of letting them drown thanks to Zinnia and the Bees! (No bees were hurt in the making of this novel, but do not attempt a rescue if you are allergic to bees!)

Davis has crafted a quirky and creative story where the presence of yarn in many ways can be seen as a connector of people, as well as something safe and comforting. The bees represent a longing for home, and Zinnia’s need to be heard and loved unconditionally, like her brother. There are truly many layers to the story of Zinnia and the Bees making this debut novel from Danielle Davis such a sweet, satisfying and thoughtful read.

  • Review by Ronna Mandel

INTERVIEW

Photo of Zinnia and the Bees author Danielle Davis
Author of Zinnia and the Bees, Danielle Davis

Good Reads With Ronna: What was the genesis for Zinnia and the Bees

Danielle Davis 🐝: The idea for this book came from an image my husband passed along to me that had come to mind of someone with bees on and around their head. I was interested in fairy tales and stories that contained an element of the bizarre and even wacky, so the idea appealed to me immensely. With his permission, I ran with it (this is one of many reasons the book is dedicated to him). I wanted to know more about the way the bees might be a stand in for anxiety and navigating difficulties. And I wanted to know more about the person who found themselves in this predicament.

GRWR: Zinnia struggles with several relationships throughout the book and, after her brother Adam’s abrupt departure, she feels completely abandoned and alone. Then a swarm of hiveless honeybees takes up residence in her curly hair. Since the bees feature prominently in your story, can you talk about the significance of this magical realism element and how you decided to have two different perspectives recount the story?

DD 🐝: I was curious about Zinnia, but I was also curious about those insects. Disappearing bees were in the news quite a bit when I was first writing this story, and I’d heard about agricultural bees who traveled around with beekeepers to pollinate fruits and vegetables for humans (it’s a real thing!). So, I dreamed up a colony of bees who, while happy enough in their existence, felt like something was missing and yearned for freedom. I wanted to hear from them, and hoped readers would too. Writing the bee sections was really fun for me—they’re communal and existential and, I hope, hilarious (they always made me laugh!).

GRWR: A yarn bombing episode propels the plot line forward. Zinnia finds comfort in knitting and it feels like there is some symbolism with yarn. Was that intentional? Also, Zinnia has practically yarn bombed every item in her bedroom. As a child, were you a knitter like Zinnia? Is there any particular reason you chose knitting versus another craft since I know you share a lot of crafts on your picture book blog, This Picture Book Life?

DD 🐝: While the yarn symbolism was, admittedly, unintentional, it’s certainly there since yarn can provide comfort and so relates to the concept of home, which is at the heart of the novel. For me, I’d made Zinnia a knitter in the vein of any artist or maker (or writer) who experiences that sensation of flow when immersed in their preferred activity (plus, I’d recently learned about yarn bombing). For Zinnia, knitting is a way she soothes her anxiety, helps make sense of her world, and takes her mind off, well, everything. It’s a way for her to both focus and escape.I was certainly not a knitter—Zinnia is way more talented than I am! But for me, reading was similar to what knitting is for her. As a child, books were a way to soothe my anxiety, focus, and escape. Stories also, subconsciously I imagine, helped me make sense of the world.

GRWR: Your sense of place, your characters, voice, dialogue and plot all come together seamlessly to create, like the knitted lens covers for Birch’s binoculars, a cleverly crafted story. What was the easiest part for you to write and which is the hardest?

DD 🐝: Thank you, and what a neat question! Once I crafted this for a middle grade audience (I started it as something for adults—what was I thinking?), the first draft was pretty easy to write. I was emerging from a very challenging period in my own life, so writing the first draft of Zinnia and the Bees felt sort of effortless and full of joy as an extension of that unburdening. The interactions between Zinnia and Birch were natural and fun to write, as were the bee sections, where I could be as wacky and dramatic as I wanted. But all the revisions that followed, which were numerous and spanned years, were probably harder in general. And then working with my editor, Ali Deering at Capstone, was a little of both. She had brilliant ideas for making the story better in important ways and I got to prove to myself that I could create under her amazing direction and necessary deadline. The harder part was that having an editor meant I also had the pressure of knowing this was going to be a real, published book and that someone might actually read it someday. 

GRWR: Though I really like Zinnia and her aunt Mildred, I’m especially fond of Birch who is visiting his Uncle Lou, the neighbor, for the summer. The friendship that slowly grows between Birch and Zinnia is so satisfying. Is there one character you relate to the most or is there a little bit of you in each one?

DD 🐝: I’m super fond of Birch as well—such a patient, loyal friend. While I’m confident there are parts of me in Zinnia, she feels to me like her own person (yes, these characters totally feel like real people to me!). I have a real soft spot for Birch’s Uncle Lou and both he and Zinnia’s Aunt Mildred are examples of the positive, caring adults every kid deserves to have in their lives.

GRWR: Dr. Flossdrop, Zinnia’s mom, is a memorable character. She’s distant, domineering and definitely not warm and fuzzy like the wool Zinnia knits with or her brother Adam whom she adores. How did you develop this dentist who relates better to her rescue dog than her own daughter?

DD 🐝: I knew I wanted Zinnia and her mom to start out feeling as different as possible and then learn that, emotionally, they have a lot in common even if it’s hard to tell from the outside. As for a neighborhood activist dentist who adopts a terrier and brings it to her office? I guess I was going for zany, and someone who would be as infuriating as possible to Zinnia.

GRWR: Do you have a preference when it comes to picture books and middle grade novels and which one do you read more of yourself?

DD 🐝: As in childhood, in adulthood I first fell in love with picture books, and then found middle grade novels. I read and enjoy both consistently, but I’m a bit more immersed in picture books in terms of quantity because of my blog.

And The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is my very favorite book.

GRWR: Where is your favorite place to write?

DD 🐝: I usually write in my apartment. I like the ease and comforts of home (like having neverending cups of tea when working), but I can still hear the sounds of the city and know it’s there. I like to revise out somewhere, preferably a coffee shop.

GRWR: How long did Zinnia and The Beestake you from concept to completion?

DD 🐝: I began the story in 2008, wrote the first middle grade draft in 2010, I believe, and sold it to and edited it for Capstone in 2016, and now it’s out in 2017.

GRWR: Can you talk about your passion for literacy and your volunteer work?

DD 🐝: I’ve been lucky enough to have the ability to volunteer with both WriteGirl and Reading to Kids respectively here in Los Angeles. The former is an organization that mentors teen girls through weekly one-on-one meetups to write together. Plus, the monthly workshops are epic and full of working writers sharing strategies and stories with teens. (And, an amazing WriteGirl who’s headed to college this fall is interning with me over the summer!)

The latter holds reading and crafting events at L.A. area elementary schools one Saturday a month. It is a total joy to participate and each child gets a free book to take home as well. That’s around 800 books given to 800 kids each month! It’s a privilege to be a small part of what the organization is doing to serve kids in my city. I wrote about the experience a couple of years ago here.

GRWR: Can you think of anything else I haven’t asked about that you’d like to share with readers about either Zinnia and the Bees or you?

DD 🐝: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a huge treat to be featured on Good Reads With Ronna!

Visit Danielle’s website here.
Find her at Twitter here.
Find her at Instagram here.
Click here to see Danielle’s Facebook page
And click here to for her Pinterest boards.
Visit illustrator Laura K. Horton’s website here.

 

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Fridays Featuring Flintridge – An Interview With Roderick Townley

Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On:

Hilary Taber of Flintridge Bookstore Interviews Roderick Townley

RT in restaurantI recently wrote to Mr. Townley to inquire if he would be agreeable to doing this interview with me. It all seemed something like tossing a penny into a wishing well, one of those moments in life when you shake hands with the universe on an agreement that you will both, ever so briefly say “Who knows? It could happen!” When Roderick Townley responded that he would do the interview, I was happy and completely astounded. I wondered what I would ask this “wizard of words?” This author’s writing always seems to have the charm of a fairy tale, the adventure of a contemporary fantasy novel and the depth of a poem. The Great Good Thing, The Blue Shoe, and The Door in the Forest are all among his literary treasures. Each of these works are well written, highly polished, deeply profound, and leave the reader the richer for having read them.

The Great Good Thing, his first children’s book, was published in 2001. Since then, Mr. Townley has continued to captivate readers of all ages. Possessing a rich background as a poet and also as a journalist, Roderick Townley manages somehow to pull on both imagination and reality. He has crafted books that have inspired his fans to create board games, blue shoes, dolls, and gorgeous illustrations. The author confesses that some of these tales once began as bedtime stories and then “grew up” into the wonderful books we know today – full of beauty, magic, mysteries, adventure, danger, villains, and heroes. It indeed makes sense that Townley’s books started as bedtime stories. As Prospero said in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

Hilary Taber: What is your full name and where did you grow up?

Roderick Townley: Grew up all around New York City: East Side, Greenwich Village, Brooklyn, Long Island.

coverH.T.: What was your family like? Did they encourage your writing?

R.T.: They read, but were not “literary,” conventional in tastes, but encouraged my writing. My mom always thought I should write children’s books. A decade after her death, I published my first.

H.T.: Who was the greatest inspiration to you in your young life? Is there any one person that stands out in particular?

R.T.: I’ve had encouragers all along the way. Teachers especially, several of whom I saw as father figures after my own dad died. Mostly, though, it was what I read that inspired me. I thought of myself as a poet, and as a teenager was imitating Lawrence Ferlinghetti and (disastrously) Dylan Thomas.

H.T.:  Are there a few writers that you could name that have influenced your writing for children and teens?

R.T.:  Every writer I’ve ever read has influenced me. Bad writers have shown me what doesn’t work; good writers what does. What I look for is intensity (e.g.,James Agee), wild imagination (John Crowley), and depth (Melville, Rilke). You’ll notice that these are not children’s writers. But writing is writing, and in my books for young readers I am always trying for those qualities: intensity, imagination, depth.

41dlFvL3GSL._SY380_H.T.:  I’ve read on your website that when you were a young boy you would write in a notebook, and that writing filled you with excitement that others didn’t seem to notice. What gave you that excitement? Do you still have that excitement now just as it was when you were young, or has it changed?

R.T.: Back then, I was just excited by the story as it unfolded under my racing pencil. It was also exciting to realize that I was creating it–and could change it! What’s different now is that my stories are more dimensional, and I erase almost as much as I write. That makes the process slower and more painstaking. Less “fun” at times, but in the end more satisfying.

H.T.:  I’m a great admirer of your heroine Sylvie from your book The Great Good Thing. If you could close your eyes to enter a more dream-like state and “see” Sylvie, how would you describe what you see?

R.T.:  I see her in motion, a flash of wind-blown hair, quick eyes, dirty knees, disgracefully muddy blue leather shoes. Equally interesting to me is the way others have seen her. The German edition has her sitting in a tree on a sofa (!); the Chinese edition depicts her in stylized woodcuts. And kids send me drawings of Sylvie that are wilder than anything I could have imagined. Every reader meets a different Sylvie, and that’s as it should be.

H.T.: I read that a few of your books begin as a bedtime story to your wife Wyatt. How much of Wyatt do readers see in your heroines like Sylvie, Emily, or Sophia?

R.T.: There’s some of Wyatt, a good deal of me, and a fair amount of our daughter Grace in Princess Sylvie. There’s a whole lot more of Wyatt in the two sequels, Into the Labyrinth and The Constellation of Sylvie, because I consciously wrote her in, as the character, Rosetta Stein. Wyatt, like Rosetta, teaches yoga, and both have the same restless hair–and restless spirit. But Wyatt’s presence in my books has to do with more than her resemblance to certain characters. She’s involved in the whole writing process, from the generation of plot ideas to the elimination of dangling modifiers.

cvr9780689853289_9780689853289_lgH.T.: It would seem unfair not to ask the same questions of you! How much of yourself do you see in your characters Daniel or Hap? Is there a character that you identify with most?

R.T.: I am, in fact, all of my characters, boys, girls, villains, grandmothers. Even the poisonous jester, Pingree. You shouldn’t write any character that you can’t find within yourself.

H.T.: A good deal of your books seem to be infused with poetry. This is not an easy question to answer perhaps, but how do you feel your background in poetry interacts with your writing for children and teens?

R.T.: Children’s literature, at its best, is closer to poetry than to any other kind of writing. I’m constantly distilling, cutting away the unnecessary modifier, the weak verb, the chatty dialogue. And always reaching for the magic that lies just beneath the surface of so-called ordinary life. Those concerns come right out of my apprenticeship a
s a poet.

H.T.: Madeline L’Engle made this statement, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” Do you agree? If so, why do you think this is true?

R.T.: It’s a striking statement, and reminds me of Philip Pullman, who said there are some themes so deep that they can only be addressed in a children’s book. That is true of a few extraordinary children’s books (Pullman’s among them), as well as of fairy tales and myths, which evoke archetypes of the unconscious. It’s not true, alas, of most “kid lit,” which tends to the cute, the shallow, and the vampiric.

labyrinth_smallH.T.: If books had a genealogy just as people do, what books might be in your family tree of the books you have written? For example, often I have a Harry Potter fan that wants a book similar to the series. So I explain to them that there are such things as “book cousins.”  Some books seem to be related to each other. They are somehow alike. What books might be considered cousins, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers and so on of your writing for children and teens?

R.T.: Publishers say they are looking for work that’s completely original. That is not true. Often they are looking for something very much like a well-known work–but with a twist. Let’s say, Harry Potter on ice skates. When I wrote The Great Good Thing, I didn’t think it was like anything I’d ever read. Reviewers later said it reminded them of Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke, although my book came out a year before hers. Basically, I try for stories that don’t remind me of other stories–why repeat what’s already been done? I leave it to others to discover the “cousins.” Those relatives do exist, but I don’t know about them beforehand and don’t concern myself about them later. Not my job.

H.T.: Are you in the process of writing a new book?

R.T.: I am. In the new novel, tentatively called The Black Rose, a woman disappears during a magic act, and her daughter, Cisley, is determined to find her and bring her back. The girl lives in a glass castle and walks her pet lobster on a golden leash along the seawall each morning. I’m open to suggestions about how it ends.

H.T.: What do you hope for most that your readers will remember after reading your books?

R.T.: Aside from the name of the author? I hope, of course, that they’ll think of the story with delight; but more important, that they’ll be left with a sense of their own inner world, the substratum of magic that is our deepest self.

H.T.: Imagine that you found a book in the woods behind your house. This book is a mystery. It has a short beginning and an equally short ending already written. However, there is nothing written in the middle of the book. You’ve asked around and it seems to belong to no one. In fact, it appears to be very old and possibly entirely magical. Would you finish writing it or would you leave it alone?

R.T.: Oh, of course I’d have a go at finishing it. The hardest parts of writing, for me, are finding the beginning and the end. If those are supplied, I’d be in writing heaven.

H.T.: Imagine an enchantress who has a magical ring on each of her fingers. These rings have magical powers. What does each one do?

R.T.: That’s ten powers, if she has ten fingers. (Does she? Does she have eleven?) I have no idea what her powers would be. If I had a ring, I’d hope it would magically do the dishes and put out the trash.

constellation_smallH.T.: Imagine that the wind is a friend who visits you and Wyatt every so often. What does the wind look like or can you see the wind at all? What do you three talk about?

R.T.: We live in Kansas, named after the Kanza Indians, called “People of the Wind.” Mostly the wind talks to us, rather than the other way around. It circles the house, enters and leaves our lungs, prowls through our poems. Its moods are unpredictable, one day furious (we live in “tornado alley”), the next day sweet natured. The thing I most admire is its fashion sense. Invisible itself, it dresses up in trees, smoke, flying debris, and the smell of violets. It’s why we live where we live.

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Many thanks to Roderick Townley from all of us at Good Reads With Ronna for his time, his talent, his insights and for bringing us “the magic that lies just beneath the surface of so-called ordinary life.” For more information about his wonderful books for children and teens, please visit www.rodericktownely.com.  Click here now to read Hilary’s post about his novels. Why not tell us your ending for his new novel tentatively titled The Black Rose? We’d love to hear from you.

Do you like fan art? Please click here to see some fab fan art. Find an artistic rendition of Princess Sylvie from The Great Good Thing with quotes from the books all along the edges. A huge tribute to Townley’s work by Shaylynn Rackers!

HilaryTaberStop by the Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse today to pick up your copy of these great books, buy gifts, enjoy their extensive selection of other great reads  and relax over a great cup of coffee.  Check out the website at www.flintridgebooks.com to keep up-to-date with story times, author events and other exciting special events. And when you stop by, keep a lookout for Hilary peeking out from behind a novel.

 
 
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An Interview with Author Kerrie Logan Hollihan by Debbie Glade

Kerrie Logan Hollihan is the author of: The Latin American Celebrations and Festivals 4-book series; Isaac Newton and Physics for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities (For Kids series); Theodore Roosevelt for Kids: His Life and Times, 21 Activities (For Kids series) and her latest book, Elizabeth I, the People’s Queen: Her Life and Times, 21 Activities (For Kids series).

After reviewing two of Kerrie’s fabulous nonfiction books for kids, Theodore Roosevelt for Kids and Elizabeth I, the People’s Queen, I asked her if she’d answer some questions for our curious readers. She said yes, and wow did she share some invaluable information!

Meet Author Kerrie Logan Hollihan

How did you get started writing nonfiction for children?

When I was a kid growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, I lived two blocks from an African American chemist whose home was firebombed when he moved in with his family. I did some research on him and discovered that my neighbor, Dr. Percy Lavon Julian, was the first black admitted to the National Academies of Science. He developed a plant substitute for cortisone in the 1930s — from soybeans! Dr. Julian fought racism his whole life.

So … I decided to write a middle grade biography about him. To make a long story short, the manuscript hasn’t yet found a home.

I connected with a local group from the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators. Two nonfiction authors saw me carrying a stack of books about Isaac Newton out of the library and connected me with their editor at Chicago Review Press, and that’s how I got started.

What a great story, and now you’ve got me interested in Dr. Percy Lavon Julian!

What made you decide to choose Queen Elizabeth I for your latest biography?

I figured that the Tudors always have a following, and I pitched the idea to Chicago Review Press. Over the course of a few months, the topic was refined a bit and we ended up with “Liz” as my subject. Because we develop at least 21 themed activities to our subjects, I was sure I’d have some fun thinking about what to go with. I tried to tap into a variety of activities that relate to life in Elizabethan England.

How on earth did you sort through and organize all the information out there about Elizabeth I for your book? That must have been quite a time-consuming challenge for you.

When I start with a topic like Elizabeth I, I read several adult biographies first. I try to choose one of the “classic” biographies from earlier in the 20th century, and at least another one published since 1990. That way, I have a feel of how history’s view of her has changed over the years. I also read several examples of juvenile biography to see how other authors have presented her since the 1960s. Then I dip into general histories of the time to help with context and background. My favorite go-to resource for historical overviews and authenticating details is Britannica.com.

I develop a timeline with key events and people — always keeping in mind what I want my middle grade readers to understand about Elizabeth and the backdrop of her life, the Reformation. I have to keep things simple but still explain the historical setting in which she lived. In writing about the Reformation, I tried to show both the Protestant and Roman Catholic point of view.

I use MS OneNote to organize all my research. It’s a wonderful tool. For Elizabeth, I wrote an outline for each chapter in a section and added other information that I wanted to include. By the time I start writing, I feel fairly familiar with the information I have and it goes from there.

That is quite a process! Before writing this book, did you find the British royal family tree to be as confusing as so many others do?

Yes and no…at one time I could have told you every English/British monarch from Alfred forward to Elizabeth II. I knew about the Tudor line of course, but when I studied Elizabeth’s family tree I gleaned a lot of new information…all those aunts and uncles and cousins and the sometimes crazy stories about what happened to them.

One cool thing I always enjoyed is that Elizabeth was a direct descendent (through her grandmother Elizabeth of York) of Katherine (Kathryn) Swynford, mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt. Back in the day, Anya Seton wrote a fabulous historical novel about her entitled Katherine.

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An Interview With Big Dreamer Kristi Yamaguchi

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I recently read Kristi Yamaguchi’s wonderful new children’s book, Dream Big, Little Pig! and thought it would be fun to find out just what makes this amazingly talented and committed woman tick. Please read my interview with this figure skating superstar, Olympic gold medalist, philanthropist and mother.

By the way, fans, she’ll be in L.A. to promote her book March 21st – 23rd! L.A. Parent is giving away four family four-packs of tickets to the Pasadena Ice Skating Center on March 22nd (6:30-8:30pm) where she’ll be skating around and signing books for her fans. Click here for more info, but please note that the contest ends 9:30 a.m. on March 17.

Q. In your new picture book for kids, Dream Big, Little Pig, Poppy the Pig never seems to get overly discouraged because she has such strong support and encouragement from family and friends. As a child, did you have the same type of “You can do it” encouragement?
A. I did have similar encouragement growing up. From my family as well as my friends and skating coach.

Q. What would you say to parents who push their children to achieve what they want for their kids, rather than what the children want?
A. It’s a fine line between pushing too hard and lending support and encouragement. Sometimes kids need a push to get them on track again, but if it is constant, maybe that’s a cue that it is just not for them. An athlete needs to have a certain passion for what they do, for their sport. Success doesn’t come easy and if they don’t absolutely believe in what they are doing, it’ll be a tough road for everyone involved. Let the child take ownership of his /her activities.

kristi-yamaguchi_credit-claire-deliman-for-m-magazine1Q. What words of advice can you offer to children who suffer from low self-esteem and are fearful to try something new?
A. As a mom now, I find myself faced with all of these issues. I ask my daughter what is it that makes her afraid. And then try to reason or alleviate her fear or anxiety. Then show her how fun it can be. I also try to stress that it is OK to make mistakes. That is how we learn. ie. when we go skating I will fall on purpose on the ice and say ” see, even mommy falls down.” It’s all about trying and trying again.

Q. Your Always Dream Foundation inspires children to reach for the stars. But down to earth, how do you as a busy mom positively influence your two daughters on a day-to-day basis?
A. Easier said than done. Sometimes I feel like I’m just trying to get through the day remembering everyone’s schedule:) But I try to be positive myself around them and try to instill in them the same values that my parents gave me – having manners, treating people how they want to be treated, responsibility of their own things, trying as hard as they can in whatever they are doing.
Q. How is writing for kids different than writing your previous books?
A. With Dream Big, Little Pig!, it was fun to come up with a character with personality. I had my own big dreams of what Poppy would be like and what she would try. I wanted it to be very whimsical rather than factual like my other books. I had to also imagine the illustrations that would go along with the story.

Q. What qualities do you admire most in Poppy the pig?
A. I admire the perseverance that Poppy has. She is willing to try new things and when she finds that they aren’t for her she continues to look for her “passion.” When she discovers her passion, despite the obstacles and doubters, she pushes on and enjoys her own feeling of personal accomplishment. I love her positive attitude, too!

Q. Will Poppy be back to conquer more challenges?
A. I certainly hope so!!!

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Target is On Target

As their name implies, Target is definitely On Target when it comes to promoting reading.  Let me tell you briefly about some of the literary luminaries and other amazing kids’ entertainers I laid eyes on and/or interviewed at the Target Children’s Stage during the L.A. Times Festival of Books this past weekend. I will write more about these authors’ books in another post, but couldn’t wait to share this info with you:

I saw Carl Reiner, Todd Parr, Nickelodeon’s The Fresh Beat Band, Caitlin Sanchez (the voice of Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer), Hip Hop Harry, Jade-Lianna Peters (the voice of Kai-lain from Nickelodeon’s Ni Hao, Kai-lan), Bernadette Peters, David Soman & Jacky Davis “Ladybug Girl at the Beach,” Peter Yarrow, Jimmy Gownley, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver, Megan McDonald, Shawn and Marlon Wayans, Carolyn Cohagan, Matthew Reinhart, and Justin Roberts & the Not Ready for Naptime Players. Phew! And that was just on Saturday …

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Join L.A. Parent live at L.A. Times Festival of Books

filler-banner_tdes2_finalCelebrity Authors Come Together

on Target Children’s Stage to Inspire Love of Learning

L.A. Parent Editor Carolyn Graham and I will be blogging and tweeting live behind the scenes this Saturday, April 24th, as we meet all your favorite authors.

What: Children of all ages and their families will gather at the Target Children’s Stage on the UCLA campus for the 15th annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The event, which is free to the public, will feature two full days of celebrity book readings and signings, live entertainment and musical performances – all in the name of helping to foster children’s love of reading as a fun and recreational activity.

In addition, Target is partnering with Times in Education to support local Los Angeles schools. All attendees of the Festival of Books are welcome to bring new and gently used books to the Target Donation Station. All books collected will be donated to nine Los Angeles area K-6 schools.

songs-for-little280a6eter-yarrowWho: Celebrity authors including John Carter Cash, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Holly Robinson Peete, Carl Reiner, Bernadette Peters, Henry Winkler, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, and Shawn and Marlon Wayans will appear on the Target Children’s Stage to bring their books to life for children of all ages and the young at heart, while seated on the larger-than-life Target filler-banner_tdes3_final“Big Red Chair” – a symbol of the company’s commitment to supporting education and fostering children’s love of learning. Families are also invited to enjoy live musical performances by some of today’s most popular children’s groups including Nickelodeon’s The Fresh Beat Band, Hip Hop Harry and Justin Roberts & the Not Ready for Naptime Players.

When: Saturday, April 24, 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. and Sunday, April 25, 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Where: UCLA Campus , Los Angeles, CA

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An Interview With Carl Reiner

51zybomaivl_sl500_aa240_Just in time for Halloween and all the haunting activities which typically accompany it, I was thrilled to interview multiple Emmy-winning comic icon, and a personal fave, Carl Reiner, about his new hit book, Tell Me Another Scary Story…But Not Too Scary! Illustrations are by James Bennett and the book, ($16.95, ages 4-8) published by Dove, an imprint of Phoenix Books, is available in stores everywhere as well as online. Fans will love the fact that a bonus ‘read-along’ CD of the book is included so they can take Reiner reading his Scary Story on the road.

carlrQ. Where did your idea for Tell Me Another Scary Story… come from as you certainly did not have a next door neighbor named Mr. Neewollah and how does it differ from your first Scary Story?
A. It came from the original Tell Me A Scary Story and it being a hit, and the publisher asking me for another Scary Story. In the second story, the boy becomes friends with the neighbor who one frightened him to death in the first story.

Q. The message in the story is an important one and so well conveyed. Do you think children today are less respectful, less thoughtful than when you were a child?
A. I think children have already reflected the mores of society and the disciplines that their parents instilled in them, and that has not changed.

Q. Has the media together with books actually helped make children of the 21st century more prepared for emergencies like the one in your story?
A. Yes, the media has prepared children. At the end of Tell Me Another Scary Story, the boy, faced with a man who obviously fainted, calls 911. Weeks before on TV, I had seen or heard or learned about a four year old who actually dialed 911 to get help for his mother, who had collapsed while driving.
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Q. Is it harder or easier to write for children?
A. Equally. It is the same process. I get a good idea and develop it.

Q. I love how you tease the reader with your warnings about turning the page. To me that’s the fun part of a scary story and Halloween; all the frightful possibilities.
A. I’m very proud of the fact that I found in the first Scary Story the idea of warning the children that they have an option…that if they get scared, they have the option of not turning the page.

Q. What elements come together to make a great scary story for kids?
A. The same elements that make any great story. Good characters, good situations, suspense, and ultimately, a happy ending.
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Q. Apart from the candy, what makes Halloween such an enduring holiday in our culture? I’m a sucker for Tootsie Rolls, what’s your treat of choice?
A. Dressing up. Kids always love to put on costumes and make believe they are somebody else, and this holiday makes it possible for them to live out their dreams… and get candy while doing so. I think Tootsie Rolls were everybody’s favorite, including mine.

Q. What do you say to children who ask you how to become a writer?
A. Write…write…write…write…write. Nobody can stop you from writing if you have paper, a pencil and an idea.
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Q. What is the best thing about writing for kids?
A. Hearing about how much they enjoyed reading and re-reading, and re-reading, and re-reading and re-reading the book you have written.

Q. Are people simply born funny?
A. I think people are born with a clean slate. If they are born where parents put a premium on laughter and expose children to television, movies and albums that are meant to make you laugh, they will appreciate and be honed by, this experience.
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Q. Who are some other authors you admire?
A. Let’s start with Mark Twain, who was probably the greatest writer of all time, and then of course, we have Phillip Roth and Richard Dawkins, and Doctorow, etc. etc.

Q. Do you know what you’ll be writing next?
A. If that’s the last question, then nothing…oh yes, for next year, I have written Tell Me A Silly Story and Tell Me A Sillier Story, which I think may be my best works. We’ll see.

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An Interview with Grammy-Nominated Trout Fishing In America

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Following a successful stop at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, four time-grammy nominated Trout Fishing in America will play in various venues around the country. You can see them at the Robert Irwin’s Central Garden at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles August 22 & 23.

This fantastic duo is on tour promoting their new storybook-music CD My Name Is Chicken Joe (for more information, please visit http://www.thesecretmountain.com) which I can wholeheartedly recommend. Not only is the book filled with funny illustrations and original, sometimes zany song lyrics, but when you listen to the accompanying music (11 songs in total) you’ll soon be humming along. I can see why it’s so easy to get hooked on Trout Fishing in America!

I recently interviewed the multi-talented Keith Grimwood who plays bass, sings, and writes songs with Trout Fishing in America. (In case you’ve seen a picture of the group, Grimwood is the shorter half of the band.) He’s really excited about the new book and I am sure you will be, too.

Q. Why write a book called My Name is Chicken Joe?

We have always felt that our songs are very visual and the idea of having them illustrated has always appealed to us. The trick was to make the connections to make it happen. Roland Stringer, of The Secret Mountain publishing company, and Dick Renko, our manager, are friends. Well, as I understand it, they got to talking one day and the idea of a book/CD came up. We jumped at the chance right away.

Q. Which came first, Chicken Joe lyrics or music?

Whew…you scared me! I thought you were going to ask, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Now that’s a really hard question.

dsf7008_medWhen we write, I generally start with lyrics and Ezra starts with music. Then we get together in a co-writing session and see if any of my words fit any of his chord progressions. That’s how this song got started. So the answer is that they started separately, but pretty much at the same time. Don’t you wish that chicken or the egg question was that simple?

Q. I love the character of Chicken Joe and how he pops up throughout the book. Is he based on a cat you know?

Chicken Joe is one of my cats. I have a lot of cats but Chicken Joe is one of our favorites. When he was a little kitten, he’d turn up missing when we went to feed the cats in the morning. We’d find him out in the chicken coop. He’s a smart cat. You may not know it, but hens generate a lot of heat. They really kept him warm. That’s how he got the name Chicken Joe.

Q. The illustrations are wonderfully evocative yet simple – how did you find your artist?

Roland sent us examples of several artists that The Secret Mountain had worked with before. We were particularly fond of the beautiful watercolor works of Stephane Jorisch. He sent us some initial sketches and we gave him a few suggestions. He really captured the personalities of all these animals. I especially like his chickens. They look like a bunch of punk rockers to me.

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