Rajani LaRocca, recipient of a Newbery Honor and Walter Award forRed, White, and Whole, is back with an evocative novel in verse about identical twin sisters who do everything together—until external pressuresthreaten to break them apart.
Darshana Khiani: What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
Rajani LaRocca:Mirror to Mirror started with a single poem. In April 2020, I took an online workshop with renowned poet Lesléa Newman in which she talked about several types of formal poetry, including the ghazal—a poetic form, often set to music, that is popular in South Asia and the Middle East. Inspired by the workshop, I wrote a ghazal about a twin lamenting that her sister had changed and the two were no longer close.
So then I started thinking: why did these two grow apart? What happened to them? And I started to create the characters. Because ghazals are often sung, I knew that the twins would be musical. I also thought that one would be hiding a secret that was eating away at her—and that secret would be the heart of her separation from her beloved twin.
DK: What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?
RL:One challenge I faced was the same one I always face when writing a dual-POV book: how do I make the voices distinct from one another? How do I make sure each one moves the story forward? At first, I wrote Maya’s voice in poetry and Chaya’s in prose, but that felt jarring. When my editor suggested I change it so that both voices were in poetry, that felt much better, but I still had to work hard to make the voices different from one another using the content and attitude in the poems, as well as structure, imagery, and word choice. The book starts with a couple of short paired poems, each titled “She’s the One,” where the twins express how they think about each other. These poems were drafted during that first revision, and I thought they vividly set the tone of the book and established the viewpoints of each twin.
I interviewed several sets of identical twin sisters for this story, and it was fascinating! Not only were they closer than other siblings, but some described each other as “soulmates.” They told me stories about eerie connections they had, and how no matter what else was going on in their lives, their bond was unshakable.
But there is room for misunderstanding even in the closest relationships. I tried to create a story where each twin thinks she’s doing something to help the other, but instead drives a wedge between them.
2020-2021 were difficult years for me and my family. Thanks to the pandemic, we had to contend with separation, illness, anxiety, and death. It was challenging to write a book at this time, but I had to keep going.
DK:What do you hope young readers get from this book?
RL: I wanted to explore anxiety and mental health in a poetic way. I wanted to show that people can struggle not only with symptoms but also with telling others, even those who know them, that they are struggling. I wanted to depict the helplessness we can feel when someone we love is going through something hard.
I hope that young readers understand that we all go through difficult times, even when we are surrounded by friends and family. I hope they learn that although we may sometimes struggle with anxiety and depression, we don’t have to deal with these feelings alone, and it’s important to share with those we love and trust because only through sharing can we start to get help.
DK: You are a doctor and a prolific award-winning writer, so clearly you’ve got this writing thing figured out. What do you feel are the key ingredients to keep the writing flowing?
RL: You’re too kind, Darshana! I feel very fortunate to be writing books for young people today. Here’s my advice:
Write what you love, what you’re interested in, what makes you happy. Don’t worry about what anyone else is writing.
Write a lot! I always try to have multiple projects going.
Figure out what’s most challenging for you to do, and work on that when you’re at your best. For example, drafting (as opposed to revising) novels is challenging for me, so when I’m working on drafting a novel, I make sure to devote time to this in the morning when I’m refreshed and less likely to get interrupted. In contrast, I find that I can draft a picture book or revise something (long or short) at just about any time.
Live your life! It’s important to do things other than write to feed that writing soul. Spend time with family, friends, and in nature.
Support your friends and other creators.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. In publishing, there are only so many things we can control—including making our books as good as they can possibly be.
Have fun! I always try to write from a place of joy.
Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she practices medicine and writes award-winning books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor-winning middle grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, prose and poetry. She finds inspiration in her family, her childhood, the natural world, math, science, and just about everywhere she looks. Learn more about Rajani and her books at www.RajaniLaRocca.com. She also co-hosts the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast.
Darshana Khiani is an author, engineer, and advocate for South Asian children’s literature. She is infinitely curious about the world and enjoys sharing her findings with young readers. If she can make a child laugh even better. Her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari (Versify), was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She enjoys hiking, solving jigsaw puzzles, and traveling. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and a furry pup. You can visit Darshana here.
Vicky Fang: Elisa, HIDDEN HOPE is such an inspiring book. I love that you’re able to share a story that is so historically rich in such a compelling way. How did you come up with the idea for this book?
Elisa Boxer: Vicky, thank you so much. Great to be here with you. The idea for this book began when I first saw this photoon Yad Vashem’s website:
Yad Vashem is the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, and this hollowed-out wooden duck is part of the artifacts collection. When I learned that this duck was made with a secret compartment to hide documents from the Nazis during World War Two, and that the French Resistance worker who used it to smuggle those documents was a teenager, I knew this was a story I wanted to tell.
VF:It’s such a fascinating story! In addition to writing children’s books, you’re also a journalist. How does your background as a journalist affect your work as a children’s book author?
EB: I definitely combine the two on a daily basis. Whether it’s doing research, conducting interviews, writing a narrative, distilling complex issues down to manageable bits of information, or zeroing in on areas of emotional resonance with the audience, the processes with journalism and book writing are very similar. And the result, telling a (hopefully) compelling story with a strong emotional takeaway, is always my goal.
VF: I would say you’d definitely succeeded withHIDDEN HOPE. In the backmatter, you also talk about your personal connection to this topic … could you share a bit about that?
EB: My personal connection is two-fold: Both sides of my family are of Eastern European descent, and relatives on each side were killed during the Holocaust. As both a journalist and an author, I definitely feel compelled to help shine a light on these atrocities. But also, growing up, I often felt like I had to hide my Jewish voice because my childhood was filled with so many personal and hurtful incidents of Antisemitism. I wasn’t strong enough back then to stand up to hate; to expose injustice. So in a way, I suppose I’m making up for lost time. When I first saw that picture of the duck, it struck me that here is this artifact, in an international museum, on display for all to see. And yet it was never supposed to be there, according to Hitler’s plan. If anything, it was supposed to be in his intended “museum of an extinct race.” As were all Jewish artifacts and all Jewish signs of life. So on a personal level, as I mention in my Author’s Note, I want to help bring more and more stories like this out of the darkness and into the light.
VF:Could you talk about your experience in writing this book? Was it hard to spend so much time on such a difficult topic?
EB:It’s so interesting, this question has come up quite a bit. People ask whether it’s been hard to write about such a dark topic. And while there’s no question that this was an unimaginably devastating time in history, the whole point of the Holocaust was to create a master race and erase the Jewish people from the face of the earth. And yet so many of us are here writing about it. We’re bringing these stories to light. We’re the descendants that were never supposed to be here. And not only are we here, we’re raising our voices to tell the stories that the Nazis never wanted told. There is something incredibly uplifting and empowering about that. I never want to stop doing it.
VF:What a wonderful message, thank you. Amy June Bates’ illustrations also do such a good job of highlighting the mood and the action of HIDDEN HOPE and I love that there’s an Artist’s Note in the end from her. What did you think when you first saw her illustrations?
EB:Oh I love Amy’s Artist’s Note too! And exactly about highlighting the mood and the action. I have been researching the French Resistance for years, and have so many images in my mind. But Amy has an incredibly unique gift for creating old-world style art that takes you back and makes you feel like you’re right there, in the middle of it all, riding along with Judith and the duck on the streets of Paris. I was in awe of her work from the time I first saw her preliminary sketches. Her art is so authentic that it makes the whole book feel like an artifact in itself. One of the most powerful details to me is the contrast of vibrant, saturated color from Judith’s beret with the more muted, cloudy, shadowy watercolor illustrations that so perfectly capture the somber feel of what was happening. A recent Booklist review highlighted one of my favorite spreads: “One particularly haunting spread casts the reader’s gaze through a jagged, broken windowpane to bear witness to soldiers’ cruelties.” I mean, the art on every page is extraordinary, but that scene really stands out.
VF:What do you hope young readers take away from this story?
EB: Initially, I wanted to tell this story because it’s so full of hope and intrigue and I wanted young readers to find inspiration in this little-known hero who was filled with determination in such a dark time. And I wanted this book to take its place alongside others that are opening up wider conversations about Antisemitism. But as I began really feeling into the deeper layers, which for me comes during the writing process, I began to realize that this is, ultimately, a story about the importance of never having to hide the truth of who you are. Although certainly nothing can be directly compared to the horrors of the Holocaust, I do think many of us have aspects of ourselves that maybe we feel unsafe showing to the world. I actually found myself asking some uncomfortable questions, like: “Where and with whom do I feel like I have to hide the full truth of who I am?” These aren’t always conscious questions. But I do hope one of the takeaways for young readers (and older ones too) is deciding to show up in any given situation as the most authentic version of who they are. Not hiding. Bringing their fullest selves into the world.
EB: With nonfiction picture books, I’m looking for that “YES!” in my gut that keeps drawing me back to the topic. I’m initially looking for inspirational people, places, or events that I find intriguing enough to spark my curiosity and make me want to dig deeper. And then there has to be something more. For example, with SPLASH! Ethelda Bleibtrey Makes Waves of Change, it was impressive that Ethelda was the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. But when I learned that she used swimming to help heal from polio, and that she got arrested for standing up to sexist laws that said all women had to swim with socks, I knew this story had the potential to inspire young readers to break barriers in their own lives.
With COVERED IN COLOR: Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s Fabrics of Freedom, I knew that Christo and Jeanne-Claude were a dynamic duo who created massive displays of public art like wrapped buildings and islands. But when I researched more about Christo’s background, I learned he grew up under Nazi rule and then under Communism. This fascinated me, how someone whose childhood was filled with so much suppression could dream up and generate these wild, large-scale, outside-the-box creations. And so this became a story about courage, and pushing the limits of what appears to be possible, and creativity that refuses to be contained. So with each topic, in order to pursue it as a book, there has to be the potential for a strong inspirational theme and emotional takeaway.
VF:So what’s next for you?
EB:Right now I’m looking forward to this book launching into the world on March 14th! I’m so happy to have heard from teachers around the country who will be incorporating it into their Holocaust education curriculum, and am looking forward to virtual author visits to support that.
Next year, I have four more books on the way: DEAR YOUNGER ME: What 35 Trailblazing Women Wish They’d Known as Girls (Rowman & Littlefield), THE TREE OF LIFE: How a Holocaust Sapling Inspired the World (illustrated by Alianna Rozentsveig, published by Penguin/Rocky Pond Books), BEAM OF LIGHT: The Story of the First White House Menorah (illustrated by Sophia Moore, published by Penguin/Rocky Pond Books) and one that hasn’t been announced yet. 2024 is going to be a busy year! Meanwhile, I’m working on more picture books, as well as a middle-grade novel and a middle-grade collective biography that I’m really excited about.
EB: Thank you so much for this interview, Vicky. And to Ronna, for hosting us. And to everyone who supports our books!
VF:Thank you, Elisa, for sharing your personal story behind this beautiful book, HIDDEN HOPE: HOW A TOY AND A HERO SAVED LIVES DURING THE HOLOCAUST. It’s been an inspiring conversation!
Elisa Boxer is an Emmy and Murrow award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in publications including TheNew York Times and Fast Company. She has reported for newspapers, magazines and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change. She is the author of several nonfiction picture books including The Voice That Won the Vote, A Seat at the Table, One Turtle’s Last Straw, SPLASH! (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection), Covered in Color (called “compelling from cover to cover” in a Kirkus starred review) and Hidden Hope (called “an important true account to add to all collections” in a School Library Journal starred review). Elisa lives in Maine, and has more children’s books on the way. Visit her at https://www.elisaboxer.com/
Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of nineteen new and upcoming books for kids, including the Layla and the Bots series, Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code board books, Friendbots series, and the forthcoming Ava Lin series, Best Buddies series, AlphaBot, and The Boo Crew Needs You! You can visit Vicky at vickyfang.com.
Kirsten, you make the dual narrative structure look easy. But I know it is anything but! Did you set out with the intention to write a dual narrative? If not, at what point in the process did you decide on this format?
Kirsten W. Larson:This was a last-minute decision, believe it or not. In May 2017, my agent Lara Perkins (of Andrea Brown Literary Agency) and I were preparing to sub this book as a run-of-the-mill picture book biography. Meanwhile, I was working on a blog post featuring Hannah Holt’s query letter for THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY (Balzar + Bray, 2018). The book itself was still over a year away from release, but the query stuck with me. Hannah pitched her biography of Tracy Hall, who invented lab-produced diamonds, as “a two-tale picture book—a turn and flip. … The two stories meet in the middle with a shared phrase.”
That was a total lightning bolt moment. I finally saw a way to add more hooks to my story and appeal to readers of both biography and informational books – by telling two stories at the same time. I went back and added the story of star formation alongside Cecilia’s formation as a star scientist.
EB: That’s fascinating! The story is so seamlessly woven, I never would have guessed that it was a last-minute decision. What was the most challenging part about writing a book with this structure?
KWL: I think what sets this book apart from other parallel biographies (and made it very challenging to write) was the idea of having a shared line of text on every spread that applied to both stories – the star and Cecilia. It seemed like a good idea when I came up with it, but then it proved to be much harder to pull off. At one point I told Lara I couldn’t do it, and we should forget about it. But she kept encouraging me. She knew I could do it. But it was so, so hard.
Then, once I was working with editor Melissa Manlove of Chronicle Books, she had the additional idea of wanting to be able to read those shared lines only, without the additional text about Cecilia, and have it make sense for the youngest readers. The whole thing was a real puzzle, but I’m so happy we were able to get everything to work. It makes this book truly special.
EB: I’m so glad that Lara kept encouraging you, and that you stuck with it. You’ve created the perfect mentor text for aspiring authors of dual narratives. What advice would you give them?
KWL: I think this is a case where you have to be careful about the form not overtaking the writing, much like when you are writing poetry or even lyrically. For me, it helped to plot out both stories independently, step by step. I nailed down Cecilia’s major plot points, asking myself questions like “What’s the inciting incident?” “What’s the all is lost moment?” etc. Then I wrote down step-by-step how stars formed before trying to line the two stories up and brainstorming what language might connect them. I am a very visual writer, and I actually thumbnailed the stories in my journal trying to match things up and experimenting with language. You can see some of my journal pages here.
EB: I love the scene at the beginning, where Cecilia’s mother sets her down in the snow, and she expects a warm blanket, but instead finds her toes freezing! “It’s the first time Cecilia learns things aren’t always as they seem,” is such a powerful statement that foreshadows her discoveries to come. At what point in your research did you come across that particular anecdote, and how instrumental was it in building your scenes and threading that theme?
KWL:The theme of this book was always the “ingredients” of a successful scientist, characteristics like being a good observer, curiosity, passion, and persistence. The book always showed how Cecilia exhibited those characteristics even as a child. For example, the scene where she watches slimy slugs in the garden was there from the start as was the scene about the bee and the bee orchid, which really set her on her quest for discovery.
But, to your question, I came across that story of Cecilia and the snow very early on in my research. Yet even though I knew about that story from the beginning, I didn’t include it until I started working on the parallel structure! I needed something that came before Cecilia in the dust and dirt of the garden, something that nodded to the star she would become.
That’s when I added this moment in the snow. I just tracked down a document on my computer when I “unwrote” Cecilia’s story, summarizing what needed to happen spread-by-spread in a line or two. That’s the last thing I wrote before I pieced the two stories together.
EB: Those same ingredients of curiosity, passion, and persistence clearly apply to you and your research as well! Can you tell us a bit more about your research process?
KWL:This book was a bit of a departure from my usual research process. Typically, I like to start with secondary sources for context before digging into primary sources to hear my characters’ voices in letters, diaries, and autobiographies.
At the time I started my research, there weren’t many book-length secondary sources about Cecilia at all. Dava Sobel’s GLASS UNIVERSE wasn’t out yet, nor was Donovan Moore’s biography. So I moved pretty quickly to primary sources like Cecilia’s published autobiography, her oral history from Harvard, and her research papers including her dissertation.
I did a lot of research around the edges, including the women who worked at Harvard Observatory and the field of astronomy and astrophysics to understand what was known in the field of astronomy at the time Cecilia was working. I talked to physicists and astronomers to discern the magnitude of her contributions.
EB: How much of yourself do you see in Cecilia?
KWL:What I’ve learned through this book and WOOD, WIRE, WINGS is that “STEM people” and “creative people” have so much in common. We’re all creative. We’re all problem solvers. We all take feedback. We all fail. So, yes, I feel a great affinity for Cecilia, especially that feeling of being lost and feeling hopeless, as well as that thrill of the shiny bright moment when an idea comes together and a new piece of knowledge or art comes into the world.
EB: Speaking of shiny and bright and everything coming together, Katherine Roy’s illustrations are breathtaking. What was it like seeing her preliminary sketches and watching them evolve?
KWL:Katherine’s work on this book is incredible, and it’s such a thrill to see her splattering paint and using toothbrushes to give the impression of star formation.
The original visual idea for this book, which I put in art notes for our editor, was to split the story horizontally, with the star’s story on the top and Cecilia’s below. I saw some early sketches, and it wasn’t working the way we hoped. The star story seemed very disconnected from Cecilia’s. When Katherine shifted the two stories to a side-by-side the whole thing really started coming together. This just goes to show you the tremendous power of illustrators who know far more about visual storytelling than authors do. This book was such an adventure!
EB: I couldn’t agree more, from a reader’s perspective, that this book is an incredible adventure! One of my new all-time favorite picture books. Thank you so much for giving all of us a peek into your process.
Elisa Boxer is an Emmy and Murrow award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in publications including TheNew York Times and Fast Company. She has reported for newspapers, magazines, and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change. She is the author of several nonfiction picture books including The Voice That Won the Vote, A Seat at the Table, One Turtle’s Last Straw, SPLASH! (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection), Covered in Color (called “compelling from cover to cover” in a Kirkus starred review) and Hidden Hope (called “an important true account to add to all collections” in a School Library Journal starred review). Elisa lives in Maine, and has more children’s books on the way. Visit her at https://www.elisaboxer.com
NOTE FROM RONNA: As a grammar fanatic,I’m thrilled to be able to share this fun and informative interview by Moni Ritchie Hadley with Rebecca Kraft Rector and Shanda McCloseky, author and illustrator respectively of the new picture book LITTLE RED AND THE BIG BAD EDITOR. Celebrate its book birthday with us by reading on because I know you’re going to devour this chat!
Moni Ritchie Hadley: Welcome, Rebecca Kraft Rector and Shanda McCloskey! Thank you for taking the time to chat about your new book and writing and illustration processes. Rebecca, this story creatively spins a popular fairytale with a new narrative. What was the original pitch for LITTLE RED AND THE BIG BAD EDITOR?
Rebecca Kraft Rector: In this fractured fairytale, the Big Bad Wolf is so distracted by Little Red’s poorly written thank you note to her grandmother that he keeps missing the chance to eat her.
MRH:Based on the educational subject matter and the structure of a fractured fairytale, this story seems to be the type of book a kid would love, and a parent or teacher would want to purchase. How did you come up with the concept?
RKR: I like to play with words and came up with Little Red WRITING Hood. The idea that Little Red’s poorly-written thank you note to Granny would distract the Big Bad Wolf grew from there.
MRH:Do you begin your stories with pencil and paper or on the computer?
RKR: I mostly use the computer, but I also jot down phrases and ideas in a notebook that I keep beside my bed. Some of my best ideas come when I’m only half awake.
MRH:Today, kids primarily use technology to communicate. Do you feel that kids will relate to a thank-you note written with pencil and paper?
RKR: I hope so! Kids still use pencil and paper in the early grades, and the Common Core Standards include things like using capital letters and punctuation. I’ve heard from teachers that there’s even a letter-writing unit in most first-grade classes.
MRH:Shanda, as the illustrator, what attracted you to this manuscript?
Shanda McCloskey: The happiness I felt when I read it for the very first time! Rebecca definitely knows how to have fun with words :)
MRH:Can you tell us about your process?
SM: I spent a few days drawing/redrawing character look possibilities for this book. When I saw something good in a character sketch, I would just “follow the light” and then tried drawing the character again, leaving in the good and stripping the bad, over and over until the characters felt “right-ish.”
LITTLE RED AND THE BIG BAD EDITOR was drawn digitally, printed onto paper, and painted with watercolors.
Little Red’s cape had to be red (obviously), so I started there. I found that Little Red popped best when her colors were warm in contrast to a cooler background. Wolf needed to blend into the background sometimes, so he is cool-toned as well. Then, I stuck in some of my favorite colors for fun, like Little Red’s pink and purple outfit.
The first dummy took me two months or so. Then it went through a couple of versions with feedback from the publishing team over several months. Things like character consistency, spread variation (ex., full bleeds, vignettes, panels), hair and skin color, etc., were tinkered with.
MRH:Were you able to collaborate?
MRH:Shanda, when illustrating a book based on an existing story, how do you separate the images of the past and make them fresh?
SM:It happens automatically when you are working with new characters in a new world. But it’s also cool when my “style” shows through in all my books, at least a little bit. Also, every book is a leveling-up experience for me. There may be a new technique I’m using or a mood I’m trying to achieve. There’s always something in my craft to tinker with or improve upon with each book.
MRH: You are an author of children’s books as well as an illustrator. Is it easier to illustrate someone else’s words or to illustrate your own? How is the process different?
SM:They both have various perks! When illustrating my own stories, I can add a speech bubble with a joke if the notion hits me. But it’s not really my place to do that when I’m illustrating someone else’s words. But on the flip side, having limitations can sometimes be nice and clean, and it sure is nice to launch a book with a partner. If it flops, it’s not just on you!
MRH:Rebecca, this is your second picture book. Where do you usually get stuck in the writing process, and how do you get out of it?
RKR: Ha! I get stuck all over the place—the beginning, the middle, the end—everywhere! Sometimes I’ll print out what I have, and seeing it on paper makes it easier to figure out what to do next. If I can let myself play and have fun with the story, I find my writing goes more smoothly. My critique groups are big help with both brainstorming and pointing out where I’ve gone astray.
MRH:Are you more like Little Red or the Big Bad Editor? How so?
RKR:Hmm, I guess I’m more like the Big Bad Editor because, like him, I’m frequently frustrated by bad grammar and punctuation.
SM: Hmmm. I identified with both of them! I can definitely be a stickler for what I think is “the right way” to do something. But I can also appreciate how Red didn’t wait until she had a perfect letter to say thank you to her granny. She just went for it and improved along the way! #amwriting #amillustrating
MRH: Are there any other secret insights that you can share about this book?
RKR:Unlike all the other stories I’ve written, I wrote the last line first. Also, the entire time I was writing and revising the story, I thought I was filling the story with fun metaphors. Nope! Every single one was really a simile. I still can’t write metaphors.
SM: I put my own real kids’ artwork on the refrigerator in Granny’s kitchen :) And there’s usually some nod to a book I’ve previously worked on. Such as the fire truck (FIRE TRUCK VS. DRAGON) and the snuggle bunny (BEDTIME BALLET) on Little Red’s shelf in her room on the first spread.
LITTLE RED AND THE BIG BAD EDITOR releases today! Thank you both for chatting with us.
THE TRUE STORY OF THE INVENTION OF CRAYOLA CRAYONS
(Clarion Books; $17.99, Ages 6 to 9)
In 1903, a man’s innovative invention appeared in homes in a bright green box for only a nickel – Crayola crayons. In a world where children are given crayons almost as soon as they are born, where the smell of crayons is more recognizable than coffee and peanut butter, what must it have been like to live at a time when crayons were a novelty? TheCrayon Man, illustrated by Steven Salerno, is a story of the inspirational inventor Edwin Binney, the man who loved color and nature, who listened and created one of the world’s most enduring, best-loved childhood toys—empowering children around the world to imagine and draw ANYTHING!
Colleen Paeff: Happy National Crayon Day! It’s so nice to have the opportunity to talk to you about The Crayon Man, Natascha, because it happens to be the favorite book of one of my favorite 4-year-olds. I have it at my house and every time she comes over, she wants me to read it aloud.
Natascha Biebow: Wow, that’s so much fun to hear, thank you!
CP: I was listening to your interview on the Nonfiction4Life podcast and I loved hearing you talk about the extensive research you conducted. What were some of the highlights of your research process?
NB: I was very fortunate in that my research took me to some really cool places: I visited the inside of the Crayola crayons factory in Easton, PA, and saw first-hand how the crayons are made today with super-speedy machines; I went to the Smithsonian Museum of American History archives in Washington, DC, to view the Binney & Smith company archives; I connected with Binney’s great-granddaughter and so many helpful librarians and experts, who were incredibly generous in fact-checking my research.
CP:That sounds amazing! Did you learn anything particularly surprising?
NB: I did! Previously published nonfiction books about the invention of Crayola crayons focused on the manufacturing process and how Binney’s wife, Alice, helped to name the crayons, but none of these delved into Binney as a man and what motivated him. In my detective work researching, I uncovered just how much he loved color and was influenced by nature. Because he worked for a factory that made black stuff – printing ink, dye, lamp black – I was instantly hooked on the contrast: all day long, he was surrounded by black, yet he loved color. THAT was why he wanted to create colored crayons!
CP: I’m always hoping to find new tricks for organizing my research. How do you keep information organized as you conduct research?
NB: Ha! I wish I could say I have some amazing system. I know some people use index cards or similar, but the fact is I collate all my references into a folder of printed out articles and notes, etc., and keep an MSWord document with key facts and website links/dates. The best tip is to use EasyBib, which allows you to create a project-based record of all your sources (which is also excellent for when you need to create a correctly-formatted bibliography).
CP:Yes! Thank goodness for EasyBib! You mentioned earlier that you connected with one of Binney’s descendants. What was her reaction to the book?
NB: Crayola kindly put me in touch with Binney’s great-granddaughter, who generously shared her memories and photos. After publication, though, magic happened – Binney’s great-great-granddaughter sent me a fan letter, and she connected me with more relatives. When we met up in person, she shared a precious photo album and stories about other members of the family. Attics were dug into and more photos and artifacts uncovered, including a stunning snap of Alice Binney with her daughters, Dolly and Helen, standing by the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair Crayola display. It’s a rarity, given how few photos were taken then. No smartphones! I really wish we’d have had it in time to include in the book. Now, these family photos and artifacts have been donated to the Smithsonian to be added to their archive, which is fantastic.
CP:That’s incredible! What do you hope young readers take away from this story?
NB:Edwin Binney had a knack for listening and making what people needed. He loved nature and turned to it for inspiration. Binney was also a generous entrepreneur who gave back to his community. His flair for innovation, creativity, persistence, and ability to listen are all attributes that future generations will need to make our world a better place. In this fast-paced world of ours, where kids are so often on devices, I’d love it if the book were to encourage kids to just doodle with crayons or to be inspired to look more closely at nature, ask curious questions and invent something.
CP:Wonderful! I know it will. You’re a writer, but you’re also an experienced editor who has worked on a number of award-winning books. How did you get started in editing?
NB:I studied Developmental Psychology at Smith College and have always loved writing and editing (I edited our high-school newspaper). I wanted to combine my interest in words and young children’s development so after I graduated, I decided I would start with the 6-week Radcliffe Publishing course (now Columbia Publishing course) so I could learn about children’s publishing. Soon after, I moved to London where I had family, and was lucky to land a job as an editorial assistant at a very small, independent publisher. It was the perfect place to get hands-on experience in all the aspects of how a book is made, before moving on to more senior editorial roles.
CP:That sounds like a good place to start. Was it your interest in editing that led you to start coaching writers through your Blue Elephant Storyshaping business?
NB: Yes, after several years in senior commissioning roles in-house at large publishing houses, I decided I wanted to spend less time on managerial and budgeting tasks and get back what I was most passionate about – hands-on editing and storyshaping. So now I coach and mentor authors and illustrators at all levels to help them fine-tune their work pre-submission, doing all the creative thinking and editing that I love; I am also developing a small, independent list as the Editorial Director of Five Quills, which is a huge privilege! I love the collaborative process of the picture book journey. A key part of this is helping creators to tease out the stories they want to tell.
CP:It sounds like you’re getting to do all the things you love! Are there any particular books you’ve edited that we should be on the lookout for?
NB: Always! Five Quills is thrilled to launch some very talented debuts – Paul Morton’s Bug Belly, a hilarious chapter book series about a greedy frog, who is an ingenious inventor; I Am Nefertiti by Annemarie Anang and Natelle Quek, an empowering, joyful picture book that celebrates identity and belonging; and Lottie Loves Nature by bestselling author Jane Clarke and James Brown, an exciting new eco-adventure series for younger readers.
CP:Those sound wonderful! How do you divide your time between writing, editing, and coaching?
NB: My editing business – coaching and mentoring authors and commissioning and editing for Five Quills – is my day job. I feel very fortunate to be doing work I am passionate about and that I enjoy. Alongside this, I try to carve out time each week to at least noodle away at my new writing projects. Sometimes, I am writing when I’m not writing – in my head, on journeys, waiting for my son’s tennis lesson, as I fall asleep at night . . . In the summer when school is out, I earmark time to work on larger writing projects that involve research. I also spend time each month doing virtual school visits. Connecting with young readers is a fun, rewarding aspect of promoting your work and a source of inspiration. And then there is volunteering as Co-Regional Advisor SCBWI British Isles, which is a daily commitment. Some advice I got from Tim Grahl was to plan out your days so that you can be more focused and not distracted by ‘bitty’ tasks. That works well for me. But some days, the list just doesn’t get done, so my motto is to be kind to myself, eat some chocolate (dark), and try again tomorrow.
CP:That’s such good advice. And I think being kind to ourselves (and eating dark chocolate!) is key to doing good work. It sounds like you’ve created a perfect combination of structure and ease. I was very impressed when you received the 2019 Stephen Mooser Member of the Year from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) to recognize your contribution as Regional Advisor since 1998, building the British Isles region into the largest international region of the organization. What an accomplishment! But now I know you also received the MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), which was presented by HRH Prince Charles himself. That must have been exciting! Tell me about it. How did you get it? What was the ceremony like? How on earth did you decide what to wear?!
NB:Yes, it was all incredibly exciting and also a bit surreal. I am fortunate to work with a very talented and generous team of dedicated volunteers, some of whom decided to nominate me for the MBE. It takes a couple of years for the Queen’s approval. It was a complete surprise and is, of course, a huge honor. I didn’t know who would be presenting the award until the actual day of the investiture at Buckingham Palace. My son scored the day off school and my mom, partner, and uncle were guests. Figuring out what to wear was an interesting challenge – a day jacket and fancy hat are de rigueur, and of course, if you know me, they had to be . . . blue! The ceremony is held in the stunning Ballroom at Buckingham Palace. I met some fascinating people from all kinds of professions and voluntary services, who were also being recognized for honors. The investiture is meticulously choreographed. We were briefed about how to approach the royals: HRH Prince Charles would say a brief word to each of us, pin on our medals, shake hands, and then we should back away – no mean feat if you’re wearing heels. I was so afraid I would trip up or get muddled! Afterward, I signed a copy of THE CRAYON MAN and asked a staff member to pass it on to HRH Prince Charles. Later, I got a thank you note from his office! The MBE is really an award to celebrate with ALL the hard-working volunteers who have contributed to making the British Isles the largest international region of SCBWI.
CP:That sounds so wild! What is one thing you wish more aspiring children’s authors understood about breaking into this business?
NB: I love elephants – they have thick skins (which allow them to keep cool). We authors also need thick skins to keep cool (heads), because this is a business that requires a huge amount of perseverance to weather its ups and downs. Sometimes, it’s incredibly challenging to stay positive and to keep re-imagining your work until an editor says ‘yes’ to your book. Aspiring authors sometimes don’t realize publishing is a slow, long game. Even when you do secure a book deal, the work is just beginning! However, I feel very fortunate to be able to be part of the business of making children’s books, and to be doing something I love – writing!
CP:What’s next for you, Natascha?
NB: I have a number of books out on submission, and am constantly dreaming up new ideas.
I am also writing a young fiction chapter book series, which is a bit of a steep learning curve, but fun.
CP: It sounds like you have lots of good things in store for readers! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me.
NB: Thank you for inviting me to celebrate National Crayon Day on GoodReadswithRonna.com!
Natascha Biebow’s favorite crayon color is periwinkle blue because it makes her heart sing. She loves to draw and make stuff, just like the inventor of the Crayola crayons. She lives in London, where she writes, edits, coaches, and mentors children’s book authors and illustrators at Blue Elephant Storyshaping, and is the long-time Regional Advisor of SCBWI British Isles. In 2018, she was awarded an MBE for her services to children’s writers and illustrators. The CRAYON MAN: THE TRUE STORY OF THE INVENTION OF CRAYOLA CRAYONS is the winner of the Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature, voted for by children, and an NSTA Best STEM book and JLG Gold Selection. She loves true stories and is currently working on more nonfiction picture books, a chapter book series, and a novel. Find her at www.nataschabiebow.com
Colleen Paeff received a Bachelor’s Degree in set design for theater from California State University Fullerton, before becoming a bookseller, preschool teacher, and newspaper columnist. (She never did become a set designer!) Eventually, she figured out how to combine books, kids, and writing into one career––as a children’s book author. Her debut picture book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (illustrated by Nancy Carpenter), won the SCBWI’s 2022 Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction Text for Young Readers and was named a 2022 Robert F. Sibert Informational Fiction Honor Book. Colleen lives in Los Angeles, CA and Brooklyn, NY. Learn more about her at www.colleenpaeff.com or visit her on Instagram and Twitter @ColleenPaeff.
★Starred Review – School Library Journal 2021 National Jewish Book Award Winner – Children’s Picture Book 2022 Sydney Taylor Book Award Honor for Picture Books Chicago Public Library Best Informational Books for Younger Readers 2021 The Best Jewish Children’s Books of 2021, Tablet Magazine
In Eliza Davis’s day, Charles Dickens was the most celebrated living writer in England. But some of his books reflected a prejudice that was all too common at the time: prejudice against Jewish people. Eliza was Jewish, and her heart hurt to see a Jewish character in Oliver Twist portrayed as ugly and selfish. She wanted to speak out about how unfair that was, even if it meant speaking out against the great man himself. So she wrote a letter to Charles Dickens. What happened next is history.(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
Welcome to the GoodReadsWithRonna blog today, Nancy and Bethany. Congratulations onDear Mr. Dickens being recognized with a Sydney Taylor Honor in the children’s picture book category! I’m happy to be able to talk to you both about Eliza Davis, Charles Dickens, and his history of negatively portraying Jewish characters in his writing and how that changed because of Eliza’s letters.
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NANCY CHURNIN
GoodReadsWithRonna:Nancy, you mention in your acknowledgments that Dear Mr. Dickens had a long, joyful journey. Please tell us more about when and why you decided to dig into this not well-known but enlightening correspondence which is the basis for the book
Nancy Churnin:When I was a child, my mother always encouraged me to read whatever I wanted. The only time she questioned me was when I fell in love with the books of Charles Dickens. She couldn’t understand how I could like a writer that had created the ugly Jewish stereotype of Fagin in Oliver Twist. Didn’t I understand, she asked me, how that character fueled antisemitism, leading readers to believe that all Jewish people were liars and thieves like Fagin?
She was right. Ugly Jewish stereotypes were part of what made people lack compassion for the Jewish people who were tortured and killed in the Holocaust – where we lost so many family members. These were the kind of images that made neighborhood bullies persecute her and other Jewish children growing up in New York City. I wished I could have written Dickens a letter asking him why someone who had so much compassion for children and the poor could treat the Jewish people with such antipathy. Flash forward to 2013, three years before my first book, The William Hoy Story would be published, when I was in the library researching baseball and I flitted around the computer screen, landing on an article about Dickens.
That’s when I found two lines in an article that mentioned Eliza Davis, a Jewish woman who wrote to him – just as I’d dreamed of doing!—and changed his heart, inspiring him to write his first compassionate Jewish character, Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend. I had to know more! But all the article had was snippets from one of the letters. I asked the librarian for help. She found three places that had the letters: the University of Southampton in England, where you had to make a special appointment to view them; and two places in the U.S., one of which was at the University of North Texas rare book collection, less than 40 minutes from my home.
I called the University of North Texas librarian who put me in touch with Professor J. Don Vann, a Dickens scholar that had found Charles Dickens and His Jewish Characters, a 1918 out-of-print book from Chiswick Press in England that contained the letters and donated it to the library. Don and his now late wife Dolores, invited me to tea to discuss Eliza Davis. That’s when I felt compelled to turn this story into a book that I could share with my mother. I had rejections at first from editors that didn’t think a story about letters was exciting enough. It didn’t fit into the usual biography template as it wasn’t the story of either person’s life, but rather an encounter that changed their lives and changed the way English people who read Dickens thought about the Jewish people. I visited The Charles Dickens Museum in London in 2014, deepening my research. But even when my career as a published author began taking off in 2016, Dear Mr. Dickens sat there, waiting, not seeming to fit into any category anyone wanted. It just seemed to be a story that needed to simmer and be revised as I grew more confident in my ability to tell the story the way it needed to be told.
Finally, in 2020, Wendy McClure, my then editor at Albert Whitman, asked if I had something new. She said, for the first time, she wasn’t looking for biographies, but stories about history-changing encounters and events. I pulled Dear Mr. Dickens out of the drawer and gave it to her. She loved it right away. So did her editorial team. It was acquired with dizzying speed for a manuscript that had been waiting years to dance at the ball. But it was worth every moment. Because Wendy and our illustrator, Bethany Stancliffe, really got the story. When it went to print, it said everything I had wanted and hoped to say. I couldn’t wait to share it with my mother. When I did, she held it in her hands and read it over and over. Her face softened. I felt an old pain dissolve as she forgave Dickens – and me. We hugged as she read this true story about how people can, sometimes, change for the better if you speak up, persist and then, when the person who does wrong makes amends, forgive.
GRWR:We’re often told as children’s book writers to make the main characters kids but Eliza Davis is a woman and mother of 10 children. As an adult and Dickens fan, I found the information you shared about Eliza’s positive influence on Dickens fascinating. What do you think makes her a compelling character for young readers to learn about and what can they take away from the book?
Nancy:The most compelling stories for me are the journeys not of a person, but of a person’s dream. In most cases, those dreams start in childhood, so it’s natural to start the book with the character as a child. That’s not the case for Eliza Davis in Dear Mr. Dickens. She didn’t grow up dreaming of writing Charles Dickens a letter! But I had grown up dreaming that. I could put the urgency I felt as a child into what she did as an adult. I also did something I’ve never done in a picture book before. I appealed to young readers by starting my book in the second person: “Think of someone famous you admire. What would you do if that person said or wrote something unfair? Would you speak up? Would you risk getting that person angry? Eliza Davis did.” I believe these are questions that kids – and all ages – can relate to. I believe these are questions that can lead kids – and all ages – to speak up, stand up, and become upstanders when they see someone do or say something that isn’t right.
GRWR:When doing your research forDear Mr. Dickens, was there one particular piece of information you uncovered (included or not included in the book) that has had an impact on you?
Nancy:I hope people will read the Author’s Note which gives context to how important Eliza’s action may have been in historical impact. England was once one of the most hostile places for Jewish people. In 1275, centuries before Nazis introduced the yellow star, King Edward I decreed that Jews older than seven had to wear a large yellow badge of felt shaped like the tablet of the Ten Commandments on their outer clothing. Jewish people were segregated and had to live in restricted areas, were forbidden to lend money, and were unwelcome in trade guilds. In 1290, England expelled Jews who refused to convert; this was two centuries before the Spanish expelled their Jewish people during their Inquisition.
After Eliza Davis helped Dickens see the Jewish people with understanding and compassion, he not only created the kindly Mr. Riah, he advocated in his magazine for them to be treated fairly. Dickens wasn’t the only advocate for Jewish people, but his influence was enormous. Everyone from all classes, chimney sweeps to the Queen of England, read and revered him. Attitudes began to change during his lifetime. The Jews Relief Act of 1858 allowed Jews to serve in Parliament for the first time. I credit the change in English attitudes for the welcoming way that Great Britain opened its arms to thousands of Jewish refugee children during the Kindertransport at the start of World War II.
Eliza Davis wasn’t powerful or famous. All she did was write a letter. But speaking up and not backing down when justice is at stake can make a powerful difference. That’s what I learned from Eliza Davis. That’s what I hope young readers – and all readers – take to heart.
GRWR:Can you speak to your passion for writing nonfiction and also about sharing the stories of notable and in Eliza’s case less notable Jewish individuals?
Nancy: I love and read every genre and I hope, someday – maybe soon – to expand the type of books I write. But I’ll always pay homage to true stories — my mother’s favorite — because, as she’s told me, real people doing great things remind us that we can all do great things, too.
When I look for people to write about, I’m drawn to those who might not be known otherwise – such as Eliza Davis — or who have aspects of themselves that might not otherwise be known – such as Charles Dickens and his evolving view of Jewish people. I feel that every time I shine light on otherwise forgotten people, I’ve helped bring them back into our living, collective heart because it’s only when we have forgotten people or their deeds that they truly disappear.
I’m honored that Dear Mr. Dickens was given a Sydney Taylor Honor because Sydney Taylor provided positive Jewish role models for Jewish children like myself at a time when they were scarce. At first, Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books were like a little island in a sea of books about non-Jewish characters or Jewish characters that were ugly stereotypes. But since the awards were founded in 1968, they’ve done enormous good in encouraging the creation of books with positive Jewish role models for kids that need Jewish windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors. I’m grateful for this encouragement from the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee and for the Notable award for A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah (and for my 2019 Notable for Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing). Now, with sons planning marriages and, I hope, with grandchildren around the corner, I feel more passionate than ever about the mission bring more Jewish stories into the world that fill children’s hearts with courage, hope, and determination to heal the world.
INTERVIEW WITH ILLUSTRATOR BETHANY STANCLIFFE
GRWR:Bethany, what struck you most after reading Nancy’s manuscript?
Bethany Stancliffe:I was immediately impressed with the wonderful portrayal of Eliza in this story. Nancy’s writing beautifully captured what it must have felt like to be in Eliza’s shoes.
GRWR:How much research did you have to do to bring 19th century London, and in particular Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens, to life?
Bethany:It was important to gather a lot of visual references to make sure my illustrations were true to the characters and settings. Studying information and images documenting Charles Dickens and Victorian England was a significant step in the design process. There weren’t many photographs of Eliza available so it was a pleasant challenge to design her character in a way that conveyed her personality.
GRWR: One of my favorite illustrations is the one where two scenes, Dickens in his home and Eliza in hers, flow together with sheets of correspondence. Do you have a favorite spread and if so, what about it do you love?
Bethany: Thank you! One of my favorite spreads to paint was the scene of Eliza and her son walking together to post a letter to Mr. Dickens. While I was illustrating this book I had a toddler of my own running around which really helped me appreciate that Eliza was speaking up not only for herself but for others who may not be able to do so for themselves.
Thank you both so very much for taking the time to share your experiences working onDear Mr. Dickens. I’m also grateful that many misconceptions I and perhaps others had about Charles Dickens have been cleared up and hope everyone will read the book to see how one person’s voice made such a powerful impact.
Nancy Churnin is the award-winning author of multiple picture book biographies. The former theater critic for the Dallas Morning News and Los Angeles Times San Diego Edition, she’s now a full-time writer and peace negotiator between her dog and cats. She lives in North Texas.
Bethany Stancliffe grew up in the Rockies and studied art and illustration at Brigham Young University-Idaho. When she’s not painting, she enjoys exploring outside with her son, Max, and creating original stories with her husband.
“Trumpets, trombones, tubas, and saxophones sing louder, faster, faster, louder!
With help from her bisa (great-grandma), a young girl in Brazil prepares for Carnaval: bright costumes, feathers, flowers, and plenty of glitter. But bisa must stay home. As the girl hugs bisa goodbye, the music pulls her in. Excitement is everywhere, on every sight, sound and scent. But…
Carnaval isn’t the same without bisa.
With the blow of a whistle and lots of love, the girl will make sure BISA’S CARNAVAL is the best one ever!
Colleen Paeff: Hi Joana! Congratulations on the starred Kirkusreview for Bisa’s Carnaval! This book is receiving such a warm welcome. That’s got to feel good. What are you doing to celebrate the launch of your second picture book?
Joana Pastro: It’s so nerve-wracking sending our book babies out in the world. We never know how they’ll be received, so when we see an enthusiastic response from readers and from reviewers it’s a huge relief. And if it has a star next to it? Even better! To celebrate, today (Tuesday, 12/7 at 12noon EST) I’m having an Instagram live event with Carolina Coroa, where we’ll chat about BISA’S CARNAVAL and answer questions from whoever shows up. Then tomorrow (Weds., 12/8), I’ll be on Scholastic’s #BookParty on Instagram at 7pm EST. It’ll be fun! (See Instagram links below)
CP:That sounds great! Your debut picture book Lillybelle, a Damsel NOT in Distress was one of my favorite books of 2020. Does the launch process feel any different this time around?
JP: Awwww That’s so great to hear! I love my little LillyBelle!
The launch process feels different, but still not what I had dreamed it’d be. I had hoped to do both launches in person at a bookstore, but it wasn’t possible. Last year, I chose not to have a launch event, but because we were home, I was able to plan a three-month pre-order campaign, and I was a lot more active on social media.
This year, with kids back to in-person learning, and a lot of driving around, I didn’t have as much time on my hands. Like I mentioned before, we’re doing Instagram live. Having a virtual launch is great because I can have it with Carolina, my family, and friends from Brazil and all over the world, but I miss interacting in person. I hope my next launch will have the best of both worlds: virtual and in-person.
CP:When did you get your first glimpse of Carolina Coroa’s wonderfully vibrant illustrations for Bisa’s Carnaval? Did anything about the illustrations surprise you?
JP: The first glimpse was when my editor shared Carolina’s color palette research and character studies. I was in awe. I knew then and there that we had hit the jackpot when she accepted the job!
There’s so much to love in her work! I was surprised by her attention to detail on every spread: the costumes, the buildings, the Portuguese words . . . a guy playing harmonica on his balcony! So amazing. Oh, and she even named the whole family on her character studies. So cool!
CP: I love that! I really liked how, in the story, you mention that carnaval is a time when people can forget their troubles and you go on to list some of the troubles people might have. Was that part of the book from the beginning or did it develop over time?
JP: That was a suggestion I received from an editor who requested a revise and resubmit. She wanted the story to expand on the social-economic aspects. I believe her note truly helped elevate the story, and make it much better.
CP: What do you hope young readers take away from Bisa’s Carnival?
JP: From the cultural aspect, I hope readers will want to expand their horizons by learning more about Brazil and about other countries too, and that Brazilian-American children will see themselves in it, be proud of their heritage, and want to share this story with their friends.
From the family aspect, I hope both children and adults will be inspired to put their electronic devices aside, and spend quality time, and create new memories with their loved ones, especially the older ones.
CP: You were an architect before you started writing for children. Have you discovered any crossover between architecture and writing?
JP: Definitely! The creative process is very much the same. In both you get some sort of prompt, then you do a bit of research, you let it simmer for some time, and start drafting. Then you revise a thousand times because there’s always something you can make better. In the future, once it becomes a book or a building, you’ll probably find something that you would have done differently. I imagine this to be true in all creative areas.
CP: Do you have any favorite productivity tricks or anything you do that helps you to stay focused on your writing work?
JP: Whenever I notice that I’m not being productive and that I’m becoming frustrated with a project, I leave it alone. Allowing myself to rest, work on something else, or doing other unrelated activities is the best way to get the creative juices flowing again. The brain will be doing the work even when we’re not paying attention! When I finally go back to it, the roadblock is usually gone.
CP: What’s next for you?
JP: The Spanish version of BISA’S CARNAVAL comes out in 2022. I have two picture books that haven’t been announced yet, but I believe will publish in 2023 and 2024.
I’ve been focusing on writing chapter books, and I’m out on submission with a board book series that I absolutely love writing. Hint: I get to travel the world without leaving my desk! Fingers crossed!
CP: How exciting! Thank you so much for chatting with me, Joana. Happy book birthday!
JP: My pleasure! Thank you so much for having me, Colleen!
Joana Pastro is an architect who became a children’s book author. Her debut picture book, LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS, illustrated by Jhon Ortiz, was published by Boyds Mills Press (now Astra Kids), in 2020. Her second book, BISA’S CARNAVAL, illustrated by Carolina Coroa, will be published by Orchard Books on December 7th, 2021. Originally from Brazil, Joana lives in Florida with her husband, her three extremely creative children, a rambunctious Morkie, and a needy Maltipoo. You can find her on Twitter @jopastro, Instagram on @joanapastro, on her website at www.joanapastro.com
Being a little kid isn’t always fun and games. Sometimes, it’s downright annoying. When the fashionable main character of How to Wear a Sari tires of being treated like she’s TOO little, she sets out to prove to her family that she can do ANYTHING she puts her mind to . . . including putting on a colorful, twinkly, silky sari. Sure, they’re long and unwieldy—but that only means her family will be even more impressed when she puts it on all by herself. Naturally, there are some hiccups along the way, but she discovers that she’s not the only one in her family who has set out with something to prove, with hilariously chaotic results. That’s what photo albums are for!
Colleen Paeff: Hi Darshana! Welcome to Good Reads with Ronna. Your adorable debut, How to Wear a Sari, came out last June. What have been some of your favorite moments from the past four months?
Darshana Khiani: First I’d like to say thank you so much for having me. My favorite part has been hearing from parents about how their little ones loved seeing someone that looks like them (Indian character) in a book. My 4yr-old niece has taken her book to school four times already. Seeing the book face out at my local library was wonderful too. I love it when people send me pictures of the book in the wild. A surprising sighting was one from the Harvard Coop!
CP: That sounds wonderful! All of it! Joanne Lew-Vriethoff’s illustrations are so vibrant and full of motion. Did you include art notes on your manuscript since a lot of what happens in the story isn’t in the text?
DK: I try to leave room for the illustrator as much as possible. However, I do like to put humor in my stories where the setup is in text and the punchline is in the art, so I do use art notes when required. For example, the page before the climax says “remember not to run” and after the page turn is a wordless spread where the main character takes a colossal spill, so I had to have an art note for that. In the final spread, the text simply says “you now have a spot in the hall of fame album”, but it is the art note which specifies what types of photos the album contains.
CP: What did you think the first time you saw the illustrations? Did anything surprise you?
DK: It was such a wonderful, unexpected surprise. I thought my first look would be a sketch of a scene or characters instead it was the full book in black-n-white sketches. I loved seeing the story come to life. When viewing the colored art, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the illustrator had made the extended family interracial.
CP: Yes, I love that! Do you remember the first time you wore a sari? Did you have any of the same problems as the girl in your book?
DK: I think the first time I wore a sari was for my cousin’s wedding. I was 18 at the time. I’m fairly sure several elder female relatives helped me drape it. I’m still not very good at wearing a sari. If I have trouble draping a sari, what would it be like for a young girl? That was the seed for the story.
CP:You work full-time as a computer engineer. Do you find yourself using some of what you’ve learned as an engineer in your writing life? And vice versa?
DK:Surprisingly, yes! I am frequently requested to review docs or sit in on dry-runs of training presentations where I find I am giving big-picture feedback. The things we learn about good writing regarding keeping the reader engaged, knowing what your main story thread is, and having the right level of detail (not too much or not too little) are important anytime you are trying to convey information to someone. On the flip side, having worked in a company full of deliverables and deadlines helps me respect the business side of publishing. Though I will say things are so much slower in publishing than in the field I work in. That took getting used to. I also had to learn to set my own deadlines. I’ve realized I work better with external accountability.
CP: With a full-time job and a family, your writing time must be very valuable. How do you make the most of your time in the writer’s chair? Do you have any favorite productivity hacks?
DK:Balancing writing, work, and family is a constant juggling act. Over the years I’ve learned to find blocks of time whether it be early in the morning, during the lunch hour, or late at night. When the kids were little, I frequently took my writing stuff to their gymnastic and swim practices, or I would visit a coffee shop while they were at a birthday party. Currently, there is a lot going on with the family that has greatly reduced my writing time. To keep things going I set aside two hours early Saturday morning and meet online with a writing buddy. This keeps me accountable and moving forward. As for productivity hacks, I try to set up my desk area and computer the night before, so the next morning everything is ready to go. I try to stay off of social media and email until after I do the morning writing.
CP:Those are all great ideas. I especially like the thought of having a writing buddy you meet with online. I love checking the South Asian Kidlit lists on your website. What made you decide to create those lists and have they benefited you in any way?
DK: Back in 2016, I was writing a blog post on South Asian Kidlit literature only to realize I was unaware of the current writers and illustrators. I figure if I as an Indian person didn’t know these books existed then how would others? So I set out to spread the word. The benefit to me has been it gives me something to talk about when meeting with booksellers and librarians. It’s easier for me to pitch my South Asian Kidlit newsletter and the benefits of it instead of directly talking about myself.
CP: It’s so much easier to pitch other people’s books than it is to pitch our own! When did you know you wanted to write books for children and how did you go about getting started?
DK: In my mid-30s after I had my two daughters, I knew I wanted to do something more, something that allowed me to directly connect with people. I was reading tons of picture books to my kids and fell in love with them. They were short, funny, and I loved that they could be about nearly anything. I also thought how hard can it be to write? Famous last words. Well, it took me over ten years but I did it and I’ve loved every moment. Some of the groups and writing challenges that have been critical to my writing journey are Storystorm (formerly PiBoIdMo), 12×12, SCBWI, Making Picture Book Magic course, my Cafe Invaders critique group, my PB Debut Marketing Group the Soaring ’20s, my agent, and librarians, bookseller, and writing friends I’ve made along the way. I love that my family and friends have been so supportive and cheering me on. It really does take a village.
CP: Is there anything you wish you’d known back when you first started writing for children?
DK: Write, write, write as much as you can. This is one area I still struggle with as I love to revise but hate first drafts. I had a slow start in the first few years, where I would work on only one or two manuscripts over and over again. In the beginning, it should be about experimenting and trying lots of different types of stories because there is something to learn from each one of them.
CP: Any favorite books from the past year?
DK: Too many. Here are some of my favorite reads from the past year. THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL by Stacey Lee is a YA historical fiction novel set in 1890 Atlanta that is so smart and sassy. I can’t wait for the TV adaption to be released. FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER by Angeline Boulley was such a wonderful read. I love books where I’m learning about another culture, in this case, the Ojibwe people. In picture books, your book of course THE GREAT STINK is so engaging and informative. YOUR LEGACY: A BOLD RECLAIMING OF OUR ENSLAVED HISTORY by Schele Williams is gorgeous and empowering. I love her approach to the topic of African-American history.
CP: Aw! Thank you, Darshana. That’s so nice. I’ll be adding the other books to my TBR list! What’s next for you, Darshana?
DK: I am really excited about my next book I’M AN AMERICAN which is scheduled for Summer 2023 by Viking. In it, a classroom of students discusses what it means to be an American and the values we share. Each student, of a different ethnicity, tells a short story from his or her own family about their American experience.
CP: What a terrific idea. I can’t wait to read it! Thanks for the chat!
DK: Thank you so much for having me. It was a joy talking with you.
Darshana Khiani is a computer engineer by day and a children’s writer by night. She is a first-generation Indian American and enjoys writing funny, light-hearted stories with a South Asian backdrop. When she isn’t working or writing she can be found hiking, skiing, or volunteering. Darshana lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two daughters, and a furry pup. How to Wear a Sari is her debut picture book.
(Margaret K. McElderry Books; $17.99, Ages 4 to 8)
The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problemcombines history and engineering to tell the true story of how one amazing engineer cleaned the stinking River Thames and stopped a deadly cholera epidemic by building London’s first modern sewer system. Illustrations by Nancy Carpenterprovide humor, historical details, and plenty of STEM-related discussion starters, while the book’s back matter delves into “Poop Pollution Today” with tips to help young readers keep the waterways in their own communities clean.
Ronna Mandel:Welcome, Colleen! After two years of your fantastic interviews on this blog, it’s now your turn to answer some questions for our readers!
I’m so excited to share this Q+A about your debut picture book that kept me riveted. And who can close a book that opens with the Queen on her throne, and not the royal throne, but the euphemistic one!?
Now let’s go back to the day the idea for The Great Stink hit you like the foul odors you write about. Where were you and what do you remember thinking about when you first saw those three unforgettable words?
Colleen Paeff: I was reading How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman while waiting for a plane at the airport in Atlanta, Georgia, and I came across a line about “The Great Stink of 1858.” There wasn’t much information about it, so I did a quick Google search because the name was so intriguing. When I realized the Great Stink was caused by poop polluted water and an engineer saved the day by cleaning the River Thames, I knew this story had all themakings of a terrific children’s book.
RM:I’m so glad you did. What did your visit to the Crossness Pumping Station in London teach you?
CP: So much! First of all, it convinced me that I wanted to tell this story. The beam engines at the pumping station are incredible and a nonprofit group has been working on restoring them to their former glory, which was really nice to see! While I was there, I was very surprised to learn that Bazalgette’s plan involved pumping sewage back into the river, a practice that continued until 1887 when they started dumping raw sewage directly into the North Sea instead. (!!!) This continued until 1998!
RM: Who knew about all that raw sewage re-dumping so late into the 20th century? Not me! I could gag thinking how much North Sea shrimp I ate back in the ’90s when I lived in Frankfurt!
Your opening paragraph quickly pulls readers in and back in time. I’m curious if you had to work hard to get it as perfectly stinky as it now is? All those superb synonyms spoke to me!
CP:The first sentence is exactly the same as it was from my very first draft. The rest of the paragraph is probably pretty close. I knew I wanted to use all those synonyms for stink and I worked hard to get the right rhythm and then to match that rhythm in the penultimate sentence of the book. The rest of the book didn’t come so easy, though!
RM: How did you react when you heard Nancy was illustrating your book and again when you saw the preliminary artwork? What particularly struck you?
CP:I was already a huge Nancy Carpenter fan. She’s illustrated books written by some of my favorite authors (like Michelle Markel, Jonah Winter, Alexis O’Neill!!), so I felt incredibly honored to discover she’d agreed to create the art for my very first book. And, I felt really lucky to be working with a publishing team that thought to ask her! I didn’t see any illustrations until Nancy had completed sketches for the entire book and I was blown away. I really loved how she depicted the cholera epidemics and how Joseph Bazalgette’s character shines through every time we see him. And there’s so much humor! I died laughing when I saw the way our names are floating in the murky waters of the Thames on the cover of the book!
RM:I can just imagine. It’s so clever. And just look at the bird on the left side of the cover and those stench-sick people on the bridge. Too funny, although I don’t think anyone was laughing at the time.
I’ve always been fascinated with old England, London especially. I know you love it, too. Do you think that, knowing what you know about the sanitation problems that began in the early 1800s due to population growth and the use of flush toilets, whenever you read stories about this time period you’ll always be thinking about poop? In other words, has your research tainted your image of the Victorian era?
CP:It hasn’t tainted my image of the Victorian era, but it’s made watching movies set in that time period a little more difficult to enjoy because I can’t stop thinking about how the outdoor scenes should have more filth.
RM:I feel the same way. And speaking of filth and now knowing the illness it can cause, we learn that Bazalgette was thirteen during the first Cholera epidemic. But by the time more deadly outbreaks come in the late 1840s, he’s already working as an engineer mapping London’s sewer system with the goal of making London “a better, cleaner, healthier place to live.” Were you surprised that no one had thought about this sooner? Can you speak to why his initial plan didn’t get wide approval and how it eventually did?
CP:They had been talking about updating London’s sewers for decades. In fact, Bazalgette’s predecessor, Frank Forster, is largely thought to have died from overwork due to the stress of his job. A big part of the problem was finding the money to pay for such an enormous project. But when the problem started impacting the people in power—the Houses of Parliament are right on the Thames where the stench was intense—and people started to die by the thousands, they suddenly found the money and they found it fast.
RM:There is SO much interesting, eye-opening stuff in The Great Stink, Colleen. Tell me what you had to leave out that you SO wish you could have kept in?
CP: I wish I could have included how Dr. John Snow tracked the source of London’s 1853 cholera epidemic to a water pump on Broad Street not far from Bazalgette’s office. It’s such a fascinating story. Grownups can read more about it in Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World.
RM:As a bonafide Anglophile, I’m adding that book to my TBR list! How long did it take for you to gather all your research material and write the book?
CP:I started my research in August of 2016 and the manuscript went on submission in May of 2018. But I wasn’t working on that story alone for the whole time. I had other books I was writing and researching. I don’t work on different projects simultaneously, but I will work on one book for a while, send it out to my critique partners, and work on something else while I’m waiting on their feedback. Or sometimes if I can’t figure out how to solve a particular problem with a manuscript, I set it aside for a few months while I work on something else.
RM:What is it about nonfiction that resonates with you?
CP:I love nonfiction because it allows me to really dig into subjects that fascinate me. I never imagined I would be fascinated by sewers, though! I visited several wastewater treatment facilities over the course of my research and was astounded by the science behind how they treat waste. I was even more astounded by some of the amazing things they’re doing with human waste these days!
RM:Sounds like that could be fodder for a second sewage-themed book. :) Do you have any tried and true research tips you can share with other authors starting their nonfiction journey?
CP:Keep track of where you find your information! I’m terrible at doing this, but it makes things so much easier when it comes time to copy edit and fact check a manuscript. I’ve started keeping an “Info Dump” file on Scrivener for each research project and I include source information for every fact. My hope is that later, when I’m fact-checking, I’ll be able to do a word search that will take me to the original source. I’m crossing my fingers that it works!
RM:Ditto! I’ll be curious to hear how that works out.
Here’s my chance to officially wish you a happy book birthday! Yay! It must have seemed like 2021 was so far off when you first began The Great Stink. But at last, your book is out there on bookshelves (signed copies are atOnce Upon a Time Bookstore). What are you most looking forward to?
CP: I can’t wait to hear the reactions of my young readers and to start doing school visits!
RM: What resources for creatives do you turn to for inspiration and to keep your prose fresh?
CP: Books and long walks.
RM:Do you have any advice for nonfiction book authors who are seeking new subjects and people to write about?
CP: Pay attention to everything. News stories. Little tidbits in books you’re reading. Stories people tell you. Email newsletter content. (I love Atlas Obscura, Smithsonian, and JSTOR’s newsletters.) And if anything piques your interest, dig deeper—look for stories that have lots of angles. The Great Stink touches on germ theory, engineering, history, and environmental science, so teachers should be able to use it in the classroom in lots of different ways. I imagine that was one thing that made it appealing to my editor—though I’ve never asked. Maybe I should!
RM: I was one of the passionate members of your picture book study group. Please tell readers the benefits of creating this kind of group.
CP:Ourpicture book publisher book clubwas THE BEST! When I first got serious about writing for kids (after many years of dabbling) I decided that the best way to learn what made each publishing house or imprint unique, would be to get a big pile of picture books published by the same house and read them all at once. So every month, I checked out about 25 books published in the last five years by one publisher, say Chronicle Books, for example, and invited other picture book enthusiasts (including you!) over to my house and we would take turns reading books aloud. The following month, we might do books from Roaring Brook or Holiday House. At first, we only read books from places that accepted unsolicited manuscripts because most of us were unagented, but after the first year, we broadened our scope. There were so many benefits to creating this group. We learned a ton about the market and what was being published. We started to pick up on the subtle (or not so subtle) differences in the books coming from different publishing houses. And, best of all, we made lasting friendships. I think that book club was one of the best things I ever did for myself as a writer.
RM:Before we say goodbye, I’m sure everyone wants to know what’s on the horizon for you?
CP: My next book, Rainbow Truck, comes out in 2023 from Chronicle Books. I co-wrote it with Hina Abidi and Saffa Khan is illustrating. It tells the story of a Pakistani decorated truck trying to discover her true purpose as she makes deliveries around the country. If you have never seen a decorated truck from Pakistan, Google it! They’re incredible!! And, in the meantime, I’m working on a new picture book biography and I’ve got a few other projects on the back burner, too. Thanks so much, Ronna, for interviewing me. I’m really glad to be celebrating my book’s birthday with you!
RM: And thank you, Colleen, for taking the time to go into such fascinating detail about The Great Stink. It’s been wonderful!
Fueled by English breakfast tea, a burning curiosity, and a love of research, Colleen Paeff writes picture books from a book-lined office in an old pink house with a view of the Hollywood sign. She is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021) and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi (Chronicle Books, 2023). Find her online at www.colleenpaeff.com and on Twitter and Instagram @ColleenPaeff.
A child, mother, and grandmother travel all the way to the end of the earth in this picture book that celebrates multigenerational love—perfect for fans of Drawn Together and Alma.
“I want to see what’s at the end of the earth!”
Sejal, Mommy, and Pati travel together to the southern tip of India. Along the way, they share meals, visit markets, and catch up with old friends.
For Pati, the trip retraces spaces she knows well. For Mommy, it’s a return to the place she grew up. For Sejal, it’s a discovery of new sights and sounds. The family finds their way to Kanyakumari, where three oceans meet, and delight in making it to the end of the earth together.
This own voices picture book celebrates the beauty of India and the enduring love of family.
My Little Golden Book About Kamala Harris, written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Ashley Evans
Help your little one dream big with a Little Golden Book biography all about the first female Vice President Kamala Harris! The perfect introduction to nonfiction for preschoolers!
This Little Golden Book about Kamala Harris–the first woman, first African American woman, and first Indian American woman to be elected Vice President of the United States–is an inspiring read-aloud for young girls and boys.
The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA, written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Steven Salerno
Learn about the secret code that is DNA in this vibrant and informative picture book!
Why can’t humans breathe underwater? Why are some people tall and others short? Why do we resemble our parents and grandparents? This book explores all this and more in flowing, rhyming text, explaining cells, DNA, and genetics in a way that is simple and easy for children to understand. Colorful and brilliantly illustrated, The Secret Code Inside You illustrates that while DNA may be the blueprint for how a person looks, what you choose to do with your body is entirely up to you!
Colleen Paeff:Rajani, congratulations on an incredible three years! As a big fan of your work––and of you as a person––it has been such a joy to watch your career take off. You burst onto the kidlit scene in 2019 with your deliciously fun middle-grade novel Midsummer’s Mayhem and followed it up with the picture book Seven Golden Rings in 2020. Now, in 2021, two more highly acclaimed MG novels, Red, White, and Whole and Much Ado About Baseball, and two wonderful picture books, Bracelets for Bina’s Bothers and Where Three Oceans Meet, have already hit bookshelves. Plus, two additional picture books, My Little Golden Book About Kamala Harris and The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA are coming out in the next few weeks! You are a book-making machine, Rajani! But, seriously, are you a book-making machine?
Rajani LaRocca: Haha, not really! I do love writing, and I try to write a lot. But having six books come out in one year is mainly due to a combination of good luck and coincidence. Some of those stories I wrote quickly, and others took years. Of my books publishing in 2021, two were sold in 2018, two in 2019, and two in 2020! I’m incredibly fortunate!
CP: Ok. So you’re mortal like the rest of us. In that case, what would you say are the five most important productivity tools, mindsets, or life hacks that enable you to be such a prolific writer while also working as a primary care physician?
RL: Ooh, this is such an interesting question! I would say:
Write a lot. Capture ideas when they come to you, and when you feel like writing, do it—even if you only have a few minutes. I like to have multiple projects at various stages going at once so when I’m “stuck” on one thing, I can move forward on something else. Productive procrastination!
Figure out what’s hard for you, and save your “clear head” time for that. I find writing novel first drafts challenging, so I try to work on my drafts in the morning, before I get caught up with work and email and my brain turns to mush. But I’ve found that I can revise at almost any time, including the evening and late at night. And I can also work on picture book manuscripts at any time.
Give yourself time if you need it. Some stories need years to take shape … and that’s ok!
Set deadlines for yourself. This can be as simple as an upcoming critique group meeting you want to submit something for, or a workshop or conference that you need to prepare for.
Exercise, walk, shower, meditate, and do other things that get your subconscious mind going. That will help you figure out your stories!
CP: That’s all such great advice. Thank you! So, what does a typical day look like for you?
RL:It depends on whether I’m in the office seeing patients. On those days, I try to get up early, write or exercise (depending on what’s more urgent), head to work, and then squeeze in some writing after dinner. On days I’m not in my office, I try to write early, then walk the dog, exercise, and keep writing in between checking messages for work and doing other errands, cooking, etc.
CP:In the author’s note for Where Three Oceans Meet, you mention that, though the book is fiction, it was inspired by a childhood trip you took when you were visiting extended family in Bangalore, a city in Southern India. What was it like to see such a deeply personal story come to life through Archana Sreenivasan’s illustrations?
RL: Archana lives in Bangalore, where most of my extended family lives! She is such an incredible illustrator — from her first sketches, I knew she was the perfect person to illustrate this book! As a South Indian woman, she was able to depict the clothing, the scenery, and the food in such an authentic way.
She put a lot of details about her own grandmother into the art, so this is a very meaningful book to both of us.
CP: It sounds like you were both really lucky to come together on this project. It was clearly meant to be! I grew up with Little Golden Books (The Poky Little Puppy was my favorite!), so I was really excited to see you’d written a Little Golden Book about Kamala Harris. What was your favorite Little Golden Book and how did the Kamala Harris book come about?
RL: I grew up on Little Golden Books — The Poky Little Puppy was my favorite, too! I love that generations of readers have grown up reading these stories.
I was so thrilled to be able to write a Little Golden Book about our remarkable Vice President! When the publisher approached my agent in November 2020, I had to say yes! But they needed my draft the next month, so it was an extra fun challenge to research and write a book in that time frame. They signed on the incredible illustrator, Ashley Evans, and then the book came together very quickly!
CP:How amazing that it all came together so fast! In another one of your picture books, The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA, you explain DNA to the youngest readers––which already sounds tricky––but you do it in rhyme. What an impressive feat! Tell me about the process of writing this book. Was it a rhyming text right from the start?
RL: This was the first picture book I ever wrote! It was always in rhyme, which is not easy, especially with a nonfiction book explaining the basics of genetics to young readers! I tried very hard to un-rhyme it, but the book persisted (and perhaps insisted?) on staying in rhyme. It wasn’t until years later, after the book had been sold, that I realized why my brain insisted that the book be written in rhyming verse. DNA nucleotides always pair up in the same way: adenine with thymine, and cytosine with guanine, which is similar to the “pairing” that occurs with rhyming words!
The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA explains the basics of genes and chromosomes and discusses why baby animals look like their parents and we look like our family members. But it also touches on the limits of DNA, and how our choices also determine who we become. It contains back matter with more DNA facts and an experiment that kids can do at home!
CP: I LOVE that experiment and I can’t wait to try it and that makes perfect sense about why it had to rhyme! You host a fabulous podcast with Artemis Roehrig called STEM Women in KidLit which has featured Melissa Stewart, Vicky Fang, Kirsten Larson, Jennifer Swanson, Stacy McAnulty, and so many more incredible authors! Have you noticed any similarities between all these STEM-focused women?
RL:Thanks so much! Artemis and I have had such a wonderful time doing the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast and talking to a wide variety of women with STEM backgrounds who write or illustrate books for kids. One of the common themes we’ve noticed among these creators is that they all have a sense of wonder about the world we live in and how it works, and they feel compelled to share this wonder with young readers. Another common theme is that these creators are willing to try different things and risk failure—because hypothesizing, experimenting, and learning from failure are all part of the STEM process as well.
CP:Of course! That makes perfect sense. At the start of this interview, we talked about making room for the different parts of your work life. I wonder if you’d mind talking about making room for different parts of your emotional life, as well. I know you lost a beloved family member to Covid-19 and it happened at a time when you were having so much success in your writing life. It must have been difficult to balance the sorrows and joys brought on by two such wildly contrasting life events. What helped you through it?
RL: This has been such a difficult time for the entire world. All I can say is that there is still joy to be found in the midst of sorrow, and the people we love stay with us long after they’re gone. One side effect of all this time spent at home with family is that we try to enjoy the little moments and live in the present. It’s not always possible, but we keep trying.
CP: Thank you, Rajani. What powerful reminders. So, what’s next for you?
RL: I have a picture book and another middle-grade novel coming in 2022!
I’ll Go and Come Back will be published by Candlewick on March 29, 2022. It’s a picture book about a little girl named Jyoti who visits her family in India and feels lonely and homesick. Then her grandmother makes her feel better through play and reading and food. When the grandmother visits the girl in the U.S. and feels homesick herself, Jyoti makes her feel better. This story, which is close to my heart, is built around a phrase people use in Tamil: they never say “goodbye,” but instead “I’ll go and come back,” which holds the promise of return. It’s the first book I sold, way back in March 2018.
My next middle-grade novel with HarperCollins comes out in fall 2022. It’s called Switch, and it’s about musical twin sisters who grow apart, impersonate each other at their summer camp on a dare, and find that music helps them find their way back to each other.
CP: Those sound terrific! I can’t wait to add them to my growing Rajani LaRocca collection. Thanks for making time to chat and best of luck with all your upcoming books!
RL: I loved chatting with you, Colleen! Thanks so much for having me and for asking such great questions!
Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she practices medicine and writes award-winning novels and picture books, including Midsummer’s Mayhem (2019), Seven Golden Rings (2020), Red, White, and Whole (2021), Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers (2021), Much Ado About Baseball (2021), and more. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she is an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, prose and poetry. She finds inspiration in her family, her childhood, the natural world, math, science, and just about everywhere she looks.
Colleen Paeff:Hi Candy! Congratulations on the release of your second picture book, The Stars Beckoned: Edward White’s Amazing Walk In Space (illustrated by Courtney Dawson)! You’ve said that when you started writing this book you weren’t really a space buff. Do you think that helped or hindered you during the research process?
Candy Wellins: I hope it helped! Most of what I knew about the history of NASA came from THE RIGHT STUFF, which does a good job of covering Project Mercury and I think everyone has a basic understanding of Apollo, but the Gemini missions are kind of like the forgotten middle children of the NASA missions. Not the first ones and not the flashy ones, but certainly important ones. I read the transcript of the entire Gemini IV mission–pages and pages of technical jargon—but once you get to the heart of the mission and “hearing” the astronauts speak, it’s pretty riveting.
CP: Would you consider yourself a space buff now?
CW: No, not a space buff by any means. Maybe an above-average space enthusiast at best!
CP: I’m always impressed by authors who can tell a story in rhyme, but I’m especially impressed by authors who can tell a nonfiction story in rhyme! Was rhyming something that was a part of The Stars Beckoned from the beginning or did it come later in the revision process?
CW: I knew I wanted to tell Edward’s story for a while and I didn’t have a plan whatsoever. I only wrote in prose at that point and I tried a few things, but didn’t like them at all. A writer in my critique group shared a biography written in verse that I thought was just lovely. It made me want to do something biographical in verse just to try it. Edward came to mind immediately. I had done a lot of the preliminary research and, honestly, if you’re going to get your feet wet in rhyme, might as well do it with someone who has a very rhymable last name like White. The opening lines came to me pretty quickly and I just let the story take me where it needed to go.
CP: Edward White’s children gave you feedback as you worked on the story, right? How did you get in touch with them and were they immediately open to you writing about their dad?
CW: During one of my many Google searches of Edward’s name, I found a post his granddaughter made celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his spacewalk. She is a realtor so I was able to find contact information easily and reached out to her. She put me in touch with her dad and aunt and I shared the manuscript with them. It was important to me that the book be as historically accurate as possible. They were especially helpful as we moved into the illustration phase–getting hair colors, clothing choices and airplane models exactly as they were was important to all of us. Most Americans know the names of other “first” astronauts like Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, but I feel—and I think his children would agree—Edward has been somewhat forgotten by history. I hope my book can change that just a bit because he really was amazing and did important work.
Bella’s beret blows away on a windy day, taking a ride through the seasons and landing in many places along the way. When the beret lands in a chef’s pan – hip, hip, soufflé! When it lands on the head of a dancer – hip, hip, ballet! As Bella searches for her missing beret, young readers can enjoy their own search for a few touchable felt berets inside the book.
Clarinet and Trumpet have a pitch-perfect friendship. But when Oboe convinces Clarinet that woodwinds should stick together, Clarinet and Trumpet’s harmonious relationship falls flat. Woodwinds and Brass face off – until music brings them back together. With pun-filled text and emotive illustrations, CLARINET & TRUMPET honors the important role music plays in creating community.
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR MELANIE ELLSWORTH:
Colleen Paeff:Congratulations on the release of your second picture book, Clarinet & Trumpet (illustrated by John Herzog). I love all the wordplay in both this book and in your debut, Hip, Hip … Beret! (illustrated by Morena Forza). How did you get so punny?
Melanie Ellsworth: Thanks, Colleen! It’s so nice to chat with you on Good Reads With Ronna. I think punny might be in my DNA. I grew up with a father who slips puns into conversations whenever possible. He also composes limericks for any and every occasion. So I can’t help myself. Wordplay makes the creative process more joyful!
CP:The cover of Clarinet & Trumpet says “Shake this Book.” What happens when you shake the book and how did that idea come about?
ME:When I submitted the manuscript, I offered to include back matter on musical instruments. But my editor had a more innovative idea; she wanted a tactile element, so she suggested embedding a shaker/rattle so readers can join in the musical fun. When I received my author copies, I discovered that the sound-maker is cleverly embedded in the book’s spine. When you tip the book, it sounds (and works) a lot like a rainstick. It’s quite soothing!
Another neat musical feature about the book is that the “and” in the title is a G clef! I had never really noticed how similar the ampersand and the G clef were until I saw that switch. The art department was very clever!
CP:Do you play any instruments yourself or did writing a book about musical instruments require research? Or both?!
ME: Both! I did some googling of instrument terminology, sound words, and musical puns. But mostly, this book came from my own experience playing in bands, orchestras, district bands, and pit bands. I started piano lessons around age 7 and clarinet lessons around age 10. In high school, I took a few saxophone lessons just because saxophones are cool. Clarinet was always my favorite, though. I was hooked from the first time I heard its sound in an elementary school instrument “petting zoo.” I love the versatility of the clarinet – for classical, jazz, klezmer, big band, new age, you name it! I played clarinet through college and a bit afterward. Someday, I will whip my embouchure back into shape and join a local community band.
CP:You said in a previous interview that you’ve always loved picture books. Why do you think they’ve had such a long-standing appeal for you?
ME: The quality cuddling time with my mom as we read picture books together started my love for the genre. My local library also fueled that love. The combination of lyrical text and gorgeous pictures is pretty magical at any age. Now that I write picture books as well as reading them, I still appreciate many of the same things I always have: the quiet cuddle time they inspire, the rich vocabulary and themes, the introduction for our youngest readers to other types of families and communities, the way picture books kindle empathy, the stunning art, and the way the art often tells another story – like getting a two-for-one deal! And I love a good challenge – trying to write a humorous, heartfelt story with themes relatable to both children and adults, with an arc and interesting characters, with text that sings, leaving plenty of room for the illustrator, and in less than 500 words.
CP:You spent time backpacking around Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. What’s one of your favorite memories from that time?
ME:Hmmm, so many! One is staying with a family in Bomet, Kenya and helping with a community water-tank build. Now you’ve got me thinking about the delicious ground nut sauce I ate there. Another favorite memory is making it up to Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayas and eating the Snickers I had saved for that moment. Best Snickers ever. (Seems like I may have to write a travel/food-themed picture book!)
CP:Did you learn any lessons as a world traveler that you apply to your writing life?
ME: I’ve actually been thinking about this question for years, looking for the intersections between my travels and the life I live now. I’m hoping to find a way to write about it. Travel presents an opportunity to see other people more deeply and to think about the way my choices, and all of our choices, ripple out to affect a global community. I think you have to travel with a sense of humor, keep an eye out for the funny, absurd, and unusual, recognize that what strikes you as absurd may not be universal, and be open to many ways of seeing. These are all things that apply to writing as well.
CP: If I asked you to curate a perfect day, guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing, what would it look like?
ME: It sounds a bit dull, but starting the day with coffee at my desk up in my barn office works best for me. A perfect day might start with me writing a haiku to warm up my creative senses. Ideally, I’d start every day with writing or revising, but I almost always start by checking email. Usually, I set a timer so I don’t get completely off track with that. A perfect day would definitely involve a walk down to the river with my dog. I get to do that most days, and sometimes I pay close attention to nature – like crocuses unfurling or a pair of hooded mergansers on the river. Other days, I look inwards on walks and end up with new story ideas that I text to myself so I won’t forget them.
CP:Is there anything else I should have asked?
ME: Thanks for your super interesting questions! If I asked myself questions like these every day, my creative juices would always be flowing. Here’s another question that might be useful for readers: What are some tips to stay focused on writing when so much else is going on?
A friend once told me to do a “brain dump” each day. It involves setting a timer for 5 minutes and writing down everything on your mind (grocery lists, errands, worries, etc.) so you can free yourself from those distractions before starting creative work. Something similar that helps me is to make a list of all writing and non-writing tasks I hope to do that day in my bullet journal. (I also have a weekly goals list.) And if you’re having one of those days or weeks when you’re feeling frustrated because you are not crossing much off your to-do list, try this tip from one of my critique partners, Anna Crowley Redding. As you work, keep a separate list of everything you actually do that day. There’s always so much that crops up that you weren’t expecting, so this is a good reminder that you actually WERE productive, even when you’re not feeling it. Try it when you need a little boost.
CP: What’s next for you?
ME:Several of my picture books are on submission through my agent, and I’m always writing/revising a few new ones. I hope to try some other genres this year, including an early reader graphic novel and a middle-grade novel (which would involve finishing a book I started writing years ago).
Melanie Ellsworth is the author of HIP, HIP… BERET! and CLARINET & TRUMPET. Over the years, Melanie has played a variety of instruments, including the piano, the saxophone, and the clarinet. She has yet to try out the trumpet! Melanie has worked as an ESOL teacher and a literacy specialist and now writes in an old house in Maine where she lives with her family.
In The Passover Guest, written by Susan Kusel and illustrated by Sean Rubin, Muriel assumes her family is too poor to hold a Passover Seder this year, but an act of kindness and a mysterious magician change everything.
GoodReadsWithRonna:Welcome, Susan! Congratulations on your debut picture book, The Passover Guest!
Susan Kusel:Thank you so much for having me here! I am honored to be on this blog
GRWR: How does it feel as a synagogue librarian and indie bookstore book buyer to know your new book, The Passover Guest, has landed on shelves?
SK: It’s an absolutely surreal feeling to know that my book has a spot in some of my favorite libraries and bookstores. I am humbled by the idea of a child pulling it off the shelf and reading it.
GRWR:When did the seed to become a storyteller first plant itself in your soul? Can you recall the first books that sparked your imagination?
SK:I’ve wanted to be a writer for so long, it’s hard to remember the exact moment I started. I do remember the first time I ever wrote a complete book though. It was for a 5th grade English assignment and was about a Russian Jewish girl named Rachel. I remember being very proud of the special folder I put the book into.
My mom used to read to me every night when I was a child and some of my favorite books then were Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry, Walter the Baker by Eric Carle, Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton and of course, The Magician by I.L. Peretz, adapted by Uri Shulevitz.
GRWR:What inspired you to write The Passover Guest as a retelling of the classic I. L. Peretz’s story adapted by Uri Shulevitz in 1973 rather than create a new tale?
SK:As I mentioned above, The Magician was in regular reading rotation by my mother when I was younger and so it’s a story I’ve been in love with for a long time. When I rediscovered the book in a library as an adult, I still thought it was an amazing story, but I noticed some plot elements that I wished were different. That started me down the path of doing an adaptation of Peretz’s story, a process that took about ten years.
GRWR:Aside from setting the story in 1933 Depression-era D.C. are there any other notable changes you wanted to make for 21st-century young readers?
SK:The most significant change I made was adding the character of Muriel. In the Peretz version, the story is about a couple but I thought that it was very important to add a child character. There are also a number of subtle changes I added, such as Muriel putting a penny in the Magician’s hat, the rabbi coming to Muriel’s seder, the whole community filling the house, the matzah breaking itself in two, and several smaller plot points. My goal was to stay true to Peretz’s message while making the story my own.
GRWR:What were your go-to Jewish holiday books growing up and right now? Do you have a collection?
SK: Jewish stories have always been very important to me, but when I was growing up, we owned very few. Our whole book collection, which took up half a shelf in my brother’s closet, was primarily obtained from library book sales. We supplemented these with library books. I only had a few Jewish books including The Power of Light by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Potato Pancakes All Around by Marilyn Hirsh (which we used then, and I still use now for the latke recipe).
As for now, I am typing this while sitting in my home library surrounded by picture books, including several shelves just for Jewish books. Current favorites include Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric Kimmel (no holiday list is complete without it!), I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel by Caryn Yacowitz, The Matzah Papa Brought Home by Fran Manushkin (sadly out of print but still extraordinary), and Here is the World by Lesléa Newman. That’s really just a small sample though because there are so many Jewish holiday books I love.
GRWR:Has your experience on the Caldecott Medal selection committee or as chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee influenced your writing in any way?
SK:One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is to read extensively in your field. I think those committees, as well as others I’ve been on, have certainly helped me with that. When you are reading hundreds and hundreds of books in a genre, it does give you a better sense of what is currently published. Being on so many committees has helped me see what the conventions are, and how they can be broken and how I can be a better writer.
GRWR:Sean Rubin’s art is as magical as your prose and the mysterious guest himself. Do you have a particular favorite spread from the book you can tell us about?
SK:I think Sean did a truly extraordinary job on the illustrations and picking just one of them is like trying to pick a favorite child. I think his work adds so much to the book and makes it complete.
I could easily go on at length about every individual spread and how much I love it, but if I can only pick one, it would be when Muriel goes to the synagogue to consult the rabbi. Over the course of one continuous spread, Sean shows us four completely separate and distinct scenes and the cause and effect of each one of them. And all of this against the astonishingly beautiful and majestic background of the Sixth and I Synagogue, a D.C. Jewish landmark.
GRWR:Early on in The Passover GuestMuriel meets an unusual street performer to whom she gives her last penny. Can you speak to the story idea of magic and how, especially in tough times, this kind of belief can help people?
SK:I think it’s always a good time to believe in the possibility of magic, especially during difficult times. You never know who that bedraggled stranger might turn out to be. Faith and hope are so important.
GRWR:Where do you find the time to write with all your other commitments? Do you have a daily routine?
SK: I’d love to be able to say that I sit down in the same place at the same time every day and write for the same amount of time. But the truth, as you alluded to in this question, is that I have multiple jobs, commitments, and children, and I do my best to write as much as I can when I can.
GRWR:You mentioned in your author’s note that Passover has always been your favorite holiday, can you tell us why?
SK:I love so many things about Passover: the coming of spring, getting the seder plate ready, singing songs, finding the afikomen, eating too much charoset, being with family, and much more. It’s always been a magical holiday for me and I’m delighted that this book lets me share some of that magic.
GRWR:Are you working on your next book? Will it have a Jewish theme?
SK: I’m working on several next books, all with Jewish themes. I have a real commitment to telling Jewish stories.
GRWR: It’s been wonderful having you as a guest here today, Susan! I really appreciate your thoughtful replies and am looking forward to sharing a review of your book when we get closer to Passover.
Susan Kusel has turned a life as a book lover into many careers as an author, librarian, and buyer for a bookstore. She has served on many book award committees including the Caldecott Medal and the Sydney Taylor Book Award. She loves biking, cross-stitching, and of course, reading. Learn more about Susan on her website and by following her on social media.
I’m thrilled to have Alexis back on GRWR to talk about her latest picture book biography and the quirky visionary she chose to write about.
Melvil Dewey’s love of organization and words drove him to develop andimplement his Dewey Decimal system, leaving a significant and lasting impact in libraries across the country.
When Melvil Dewey realized every library organized their books differently, he wondered if he could invent a system all libraries could use to organize them efficiently. A rat-a-tat speaker, Melvil was a persistent (and noisy) advocate for free public libraries. And while he made enemies along the way as he pushed for changes–like his battle to establish the first library school with women as students, through it all he was EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often ANNOYING as he made big changes in the world of public libraries–changes still found in the libraries of today!
Buy the book from your local independent bookseller.
Good Reads With Ronna: It’s like the history of Melvil Dewey has been hiding in plain sight all these years. I never gave much thought to his decimal system of book organization for libraries, and definitely never figured it out. What sparked your curiosity into the man and his contributions?
Alexis O’Neill: I hadn’t given him much thought either, Ronna, until a librarian friend sent me a funny video she used to help teach kids the Dewey Decimal System. That made me realize I didn’t know a thing about the inventor of this seemingly ubiquitous system.
GRWR: Apart from what Melvil Dewey is most famous for, what other ideas did you discover during your research phase that he championed which have impacted our lives?
AON: Dewey really championed education for all. He was concerned about rural Americans as well as the waves of new immigrants having easier access to information. He also was a proponent of the Simplified Spelling movement, a precursor to today’s texting – getting rid of vowels and extra letters in words that hindered or were unnecessary to pronunciation – like “tho” for “though.” He chopped “Melville” down to “Melvil” but when there was an outcry, was convinced not to change “Dewey” to “Dui.”
GRWR: Let’s talk about Dewey’s dream of a librarian school at Columbia College where he was the chief librarian. Trustees did “not want women on their campus.” So how did he succeed?
AON: He got around them by following the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law. When Columbia College Trustees refused to have women on campus, Dewey bent rules to his needs: he opened his School of Library Economy in a storeroom over the chapel across the street. The entering class had seventeen women and three men.
GRWR: Dewey is referred to in the jacket flap as “EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often annoying.“ Can you describe some of his quirky character traits?
AON: Even if Dewey had no fatal flaws (and he indeed had them), I still don’t think I’d be able to stand being in the same room with him for very long. He talked incessantly and rapidly. While the average American speaks at about 100-130 words per minute, one of Dewey’s students clocked him at a rate of 180 words per minute. When he tried to convince others about one of his ideas, he was like a dog on a bone. From a very young age and throughout his life, he obsessively kept lists of things such as his height, weight, assets, and more. And he fixated on the number 10, thus decimals. He wrote, “I am so loyal to decimals as our great labor saver that I even like to sleep decimally” (in other words, 10 hours a night.)
GRWR: Melvil approached every endeavor and encounter in his life at 100 mph. The train visuals speeding through the pages of your story perfectly convey this energy. Do you think he moved at this pace because he had so much to accomplish in his lifetime that was predicted to be short after he inhaled smoke during a fire in his youth?
AON: Dewey grew up in a deeply religious, restrictive household. He was always concerned with wastefulness and a desire “to leave the world a better place than when I found it.” But when he was recuperating from a fire at his school as a teen, this desire became an obsession as did his preoccupation with efficiency.
GRWR: There are a lot of words printed in bold throughout the book. You also ask young readers several questions throughout it as well. Can you explain why?
AON: I wanted readers to come along with the book’s narrator on a breathless ride in “real-time” as Dewey’s driving energy rushes through the years. I used present tense, direct questions, and bolded words to make the narrative voice break the fourth wall and emphasize the surprise the narrator feels while making observations about Dewey.
GRWR: What made Dewey fall out of favor in the public’s eye?
AON: A couple of decades into his career, Dewey was exposed as a racist, anti-Semite, and serial sexual harasser. He had created the Lake Placid Club that specifically excluded people of color, Jews, and other religious groups. And there had been justified complaints for years in the American Library Association, a group he helped found, about Dewey’s serial harassment of women. For his actions, he was censured by the NYS Board of Regents for his discriminatory practices, forced to resign from his positions as State Librarian and director of the library school, and ostracized by the ALA.
GRWR: How do you reconcile Dewey’s love of books and reading driving his initial motivation to help immigrants and those who cannot afford books with his bigoted views of Jews and others?
AON: I really can’t reconcile or explain this.
GRWR: Is it hard to write about someone whose personal views you may not necessarily like or agree with?
AON: Dewey’s goal was to make the world a better place. So the question is, did his classification system make the world a better place? I believe it did. It expanded educational opportunities for the general public by making access to information more efficient. There are countless examples of artists, scientists, and others whose negative personal behaviors are hard to reconcile with their contributions, but their contributions have made significant, positive differences in so many lives.
GRWR: You used to write fiction and of late have switched to nonfiction kidlit, primarily biographies. What about writing fact-based stories appeals to you? And what do you think kids like about them?
AON: I still write fiction, but I love American history! Early in my writing career, I wrote many articles for Cobblestone Magazine, and doing the research was a kick. Like me, I think kids are excited to know when something is real. Some facts–especially in history or science–just take my breath away.
GRWR: Where do you turn to for story inspiration?
AON: Footnotes in books, articles, videos – lots of things spark ideas for stories. I never know where the next spark comes from or if it will flame into a book.
GRWR: If you’re able to divulge this info, what is on your radar for your next picture book?
AON: Right now, I have a couple of fiction picture books circulating, and I’m working on a middle-grade nonfiction project. After so many years of writing “tight,” doing long-form work is challenging. I keep wanting to cut words!
Thanks for this opportunity, Ronna!
GRWR:What a treat it’s been to have you back here to share your insights about Melvil Dewey, Alexis. I will never look at those numbers in the library the same way again!
Alexis O’Neill is the author of several picture books including The Recess Queen, the winner of several children’s choice awards, and The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, a California Young Reader Medal Nominee. Her new picture book biographies are Jacob Riis’s Camera; Bringing Light to Tenement Children and The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey. Alexis received the California Reading Association’s award for making significant and outstanding contributions to reading throughout California and is an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
HEY, KIDDO BY JARRETT J. KROSOCZKA (Scholastic; $14.99, Ages 12-18)
A REVIEW & BRIEF INTERVIEW COURTESY OF HILARY TABER
“It must be hard to write a graphic novel about one’s own childhood,” I thought to myself as I opened the book Hey, Kiddo. I remembered meeting the author, Jarrett Krosocszka, years ago in California. He was a bright, sweet man with an open demeanor and ready smile. He reminded me so much of my own brother. I had put that memory right next to his Lunch Lady books in my mind, and they sat on the shelf of memory happily together, side by side. I remember hearing about his forthcoming book, Hey Kiddo, and I knew both the writing about a troubled youth and the reading about it would be a challenge.
As it turns out, Jarrett has written so beautifully about that time that I could not be prouder of him if he had been my own family. Jarrett’s mother, Leslie, suffered from a heroine addiction. She was in and out of jail, and in and out of Jarrett’s young life. He never knew who his father was until he was older. His amazing and often exasperating grandparents stepped in as true parents. This book feels close to home in my heart because it’s about family. It’s Jarrett’s grandparents that I wanted to hug for all the sweet things they did for him. And at times I wanted to sit them down for a good talk! Still, how wonderful they were to him. Wonderful because they loved him deeply and it showed. For all that they smoked, drank, and quarreled all the while they loved Jarrett with a heart and a hat.
Hey, Kiddo sometimes reads as though Jarrett has written it from the perspective of a loving investigator of his own childhood. The author includes small and intimate touches like an image of the actual wallpaper pattern from his grandparent’s home. As we read we step into his childhood world. Also included are photographs of the family along with letters from his mother, Leslie, originating from her time in prison. There are drawings by Leslie just for Jarrett. It’s those letters that show how much she loved him and missed him. I read the book in one sitting, and when I put it down, I thought of Jarrett’s grandparents, Joe and Shirl. I thought that for all that Jarrett had been through, Joe and Shirl were always there for him. Actually, they still are in the way that love can never pass from us completely when it is given with such readiness and generosity. That kind of love death cannot touch. So, now on that same shelf of memory I have about Jarrett are his endearing personality, his ready smile, the Lunch Lady books, a difficult childhood and right beside that childhood is a place for Joe, Shirl, and their Love for him. That was, and is, a love with a capital “l” for sure.
Hey, Kiddo was a finalist for the National Book Award and is a highly recommended graphic novel for teens and grownups.
HT:This is perhaps less of a question and more of an opportunity to tell us why author/illustrator visits to schools are so important. Clearly, a school visit from an illustrator changed your life. What would you say to a debut author or illustrator about what that school visit meant to you?
JJK: Yes, I vividly remember being a third-grader and sitting on the creaky, wooden floor of my school’s auditorium and listening to Jack Gantos talk about writing. While he said, “Nice cat,” to me that day, I have since had so many opportunities to say, “Nice Lunch Lady,” to many young artists. When I was in college, working towards a BFA in Illustration, none of my professors taught me about school visits. From a business perspective, it is a great way to promote your book, but it runs so much deeper than that. To newly published authors I would say:
Work on an engaging presentation to keep the students’ attention.
Enjoy the quiet moments where you can connect on a more one-on-one with the students.
Make sure you bring hand sanitizer. There’s always that one kid whose finger is up their nose throughout the entire presentation. That kid is going to want a high five. Just sayin’…
HT:I think what I learned from reading your book, and reading in general, is that when we feel alone in a painful situation we seldom are. I think this book will resonate with so many readers. Thank you for it. It’s beautiful. To a kiddo who identifies with you while reading your book, who struggles with a parent who suffers from addiction, what would you tell them?
JJK: For those readers, I left a little something for you in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. I hope that you take solace in those words.
Writing transparently is cathartic but self-care is paramount—so write within your comfort zone but push yourself when you are ready.