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An Interview with Your Mama Author NoNieqa Ramos

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NONIEQA RAMOS 

ABOUT HER DEBUT PICTURE BOOK 

YOUR MAMA

(Versify; $17.99, Ages 4 to 7)

 

 

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

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

 

INTERVIEW WITH NONIEQA RAMOS:

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

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

CP: Thank you!

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NoNieqa Ramos Gentry Photography
NoNieqa Ramos ©Gentry Photography

BRIEF BIO:

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

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

 

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SOCIAL MEDIA:

Website: www.nonieqaramos.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/NoNieqaRamos

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

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

 

READ MORE ABOUT NONIEQA:

Your Mama cover reveal & interview

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

Be Latina on Your Mama

On Writing Diverse Characters and Resisting the Status Quo by NoNieqa

Voice Lessons by NoNieqa

Hip Latina Interview

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

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

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An Interview with Clarinet and Trumpet Author Melanie Ellsworth

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR MELANIE ELLSWORTH

ABOUT HER PICTURE BOOK

CLARINET & TRUMPET

(HMH Books for Young Readers; $14.99, Ages 4-7)

 

Clarinet and Trumpet cover An Interview with Melanie Ellsworth

 

 

SUMMARIES OF MELANIE’S TWO PICTURE BOOKS:

Hip, Hip … Beret!HipHipBeret cover withFlocking Interview with Melanie Ellsworth
Written by Melanie Ellsworth
Illustrated by Morena Forza
(HMH BYR; $14.99, Ages 4-7)   

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.

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Clarinet and Trumpet
Written by Melanie Ellsworth
Illustrated by John Herzog
(HMH BYR; $14.99, Ages 4-7)
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Starred Review – School Library Journal
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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!

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Clarinet and Trumpet interior spread2 Interview with Melanie Ellsworth
Interior spread from Clarinet & Trumpet written by Melanie Ellsworth and illustrated by John Herzog, HMH BYR ©2021.

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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.

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Clarinet and Trumpet interior spread3 Interview with Melanie Ellsworth
Interior spread from Clarinet & Trumpet written by Melanie Ellsworth and illustrated by John Herzog, HMH BYR ©2021.

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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).

 

BRIEF BIO:

Melanie Ellsworth Author Photo
Melanie Ellsworth Photo Courtesy ©Amy Wilton

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.  

Website: www.MelanieEllsworth.com

Twitter: @melanieells

Instagram: @melaniebellsworth

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MelanieEllsworthAuthor

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READ MORE ABOUT MELANIE HERE:

KidLit411 Author Spotlight

Critter Lit Interview

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

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

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Read another interview by Colleen here.

 

 

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An Interview with I’m a Hare, So There! Author-Illustrator Julie Rowan Zoch

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH JULIE ROWAN-ZOCH

ABOUT HER DEBUT AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR PICTURE BOOK

I’M A HARE, SO THERE!

(HMH BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-7)

 

 

IAHST Cover

JOIN PICTURE BOOK AUTHOR COLLEEN PAEFF FOR

AN INTERVIEW

WITH JULIE ROWAN-ZOCH

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SHORT SUMMARY:

When a chipmunk mistakes Hare for a rabbit, Hare puts him in his place. But actually, the chipmunk is a SQUIRREL. Or so he says.

 

INTERVIEW WITH JULIE ROWAN-ZOCH:

Colleen Paeff: Hi Julie! Congratulations on the release of your author/illustrator debut, I’m a Hare, So There! The rabbit—I mean, hare—in this story has such a strong voice. (I love it!) Was that voice there from the get-go or did it develop over time? 

Julie Rowan Zoch: From the beginning, there was never any question about Jack’s personality, but recently I realized he has the same confidence as a close friend of mine. Must be why it felt so easy to write.

CP: I love the search-and-find element at the back of the book. Was that always part of the plan, or did that idea come later? 

JRZ: No, it was my editor, Kate O’Sullivan who suggested I added backmatter even before the contract was final. I wanted to keep it simple and we agreed visual elements with a few facts would be a good fit. The search-and-find was an extension of that idea.

CP: Can you talk a little about the process of writing and illustrating this book? Were there any big changes? 

JRZ: A big change in the ending happened before we submitted it as I had the plan to have the main character “carried off”! Luckily I was able to keep it kid-friendly AND still funny! Once it was with the editor she suggested some minor changes to the text and to add more similar-not-same elements, which I’m really grateful for – makes for a much better book. The art director, Celeste Knudsen also suggested a more colorful palette than I had originally intended, and I am grateful for that guidance too!

 

EarlyChippie from Interview with Julie Rowan-Zoch
Early sketch of Chippie from I’m a Hare, So There! written and illustrated by Julie Rowan-Zoch, HMH BYR ©2021.

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CP: Your debut picture book, Louis, was written by best-selling author/illustrator Tom Lichtenheld. How did you feel about creating illustrations for such a well-known illustrator? Did he have any say in what the illustrations looked like? 

JRZ: I was intimidated by the thought that the illustrations would be compared to his own, and luckily I quickly got over that! Just had to remind myself, anyone’s illustration style will always be compared to others! He did have a say, but that went through the editor, and she never gave me the feeling I had to adjust my own vision if I felt strongly about something. The HMH team was truly a joy to work with!

CP: What relationships (with individuals or groups) have been most helpful to you as you’ve made your way in children’s publishing? 

JRZ: Being a part of my regional SCBWI chapter and our local Connect group, (which I now facilitate) have helped me tremendously, especially with encouragement. I am also a 12×12 Picture Book Challenge member from the beginning, and some of the community I have met are very close friends now. Through both of these organizations, I have also found all of my critique partners, past and present, as well as the promotional groups I now enjoy being a part of – all of which have helped me through both book debuts happening during the pandemic! I do not want to imagine what it would have been like without them! I am also lucky to be able to trust my agent, Marcia Wernick, implicitly. She knows when to push and when to listen, shares a love of period drama, and has a great laugh! 

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ImaHareSoThere int7 from interview with Julie Rowan-Zoch
Interior spread from I’m a Hare, So There! written and illustrated by Julie Rowan-Zoch, HMH BYR ©2021.

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CP: Has failure played any part in your success? How? 

JRZ: Of course! No one learns without friction! I’ve racked up plenty of embarrassing moments in sharing awful manuscripts, first with my poor friends then with critique partners! And my agent can be very frank with me – thank goodness! I’ve had some tough art school teachers whose constructive criticism knocked the wind out of me as well as helped me get back up! Even the old neighborhood kids kept everyone’s ego in check – once they even left me hanging on a fence by my overalls! I suppose it’s all helped me grow a thick skin! 

CP: You’re a bookseller! How does that inform your work as an author and illustrator?

JRZ: I applied for the job thinking it would be interesting, and I was right! I see many books before they are released, so I am very aware of market trends; I hear what customers of different ages are asking for in children’s literature, and know that half of what sells are classics, and I learn that even books I like can be quite boring to a group of toddlers!

CP: If I asked you to curate a perfect day, guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing, what would it look like? 

JRZ: My gut reaction is to say I wouldn’t want to! I don’t know how it all works when it works, and randomness may be the key! BUT when all else fails … read poetry and read it out loud!

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IAHSTdummy from Interview with Julie Rowan-Zoch
Interior spread from dummy of I am Hare, So There! written and illustrated by Julie Rowan-Zoch, HMH BYR ©2021.

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CP: What’s your advice to people (of all ages) who like drawing, but get discouraged by their lack of natural drawing ability? 

JRZ: If you love it, draw. I really don’t know if anyone has natural drawing ability. But I do know one gains the ability by drawing.

CP: Is there anything else I should have asked? 

JRZ: Have beliefs about how I wanted to make picture books changed since I started out (later in life to boot!)? 

JRZ: Yes. I was quite certain I would not want to illustrate for someone else’s text, and now I know it’s just as exciting and in some ways even more so! 

CP: What’s next for you? 

JRZ: Fingers crossed that a current offer to illustrate moves to contract, and that a dummy I’ve been revisiting on and off for years is finally ready to go walkabout!

 

Headshot JRZ
Julie Rowan-Zoch photo courtesy ©Diane Specht

BRIEF BIO:

Author, illustrator, bookseller, and activist: Julie Rowan-Zoch grew up collecting freckles and chasing hermit crabs in NY, and spent years slicing rich breads in Germany before waking up to 300 days of blue Colorado skies. If she doesn’t answer the door, look in the garden! 

For signed books, please leave a personalization request in the online order/comment section with my local indie bookstore (and place of employment!) here.

SOCIAL MEDIA:

Website/Blog: https://julierowanzoch.wordpress.com/

Twitter: @JulieRowanZoch

Instagram: @jzroch

 

READ MORE ABOUT JULIE HERE:

Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog

12×12 Featured Author

Kidlit411 Illustrator Spotlight

The Picture Book Buzz

Mentor Text Talk

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

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

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The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL

Written by Stacy McAnulty

(Random House BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

Cover image from The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty

 

Until now, Stacy McAnulty has been best known for her picture books. (EXCELLENT ED is one of my favorites.) But her middle grade debut, THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL, puts her squarely in the category of must-read middle grade author, as well.

12-year-old Lucy Callahan narrates the book. Thanks to a chance meeting with a bolt of lightning, Lucy is a math genius. She’s been homeschooled for the four years since the accident and, technically, she should be going to college. Lucy’s grandma just has one requirement before sending her young charge off to university: “Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that’s not a math textbook!).” The mysteries of calculus, algebra, and geometry are easy for Lucy to solve. But the mystery of how to survive middle school? It’s an impossible equation—especially for Lucy.

Lucy’s not very good at making friends. And, though she’d prefer to blend into the background, a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder (another result of the lightning strike) makes her stand out. For example, she can’t just sit down. She needs to sit, stand, sit, stand, sit (otherwise she incessantly recites the numbers of pi in her head). And a germ phobia means she goes through a good number of Clorox wipes during the school day. (Lucy would want me to give you an exact here, but I can’t.) However, in spite of this, Lucy is comfortable with herself and I love that. In fact, McAnulty never gives the impression that the things that make Lucy so unique (and make middle school so difficult for her) are problems to be solved. They’re just part of Lucy—for better or worse. There are other problems too. Lucy’s mom is dead; her dad is absent; and her grandmother struggles to make ends meet. But these are all just part of Lucy’s life. McAnulty doesn’t let them become the focus of the book, which is just as it should be.

I don’t want to ruin the fun of reading this book by giving too much away. I will just say that I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the world through Lucy’s eyes. You don’t need to love (or even understand) math to love THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL. It’s a book for anyone who has ever felt out of place, vulnerable, or just plain weird. And I’m pretty sure that’s all of us.

Starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, and School Library Journal.

Interview with Author Stacy McAnulty at Librarian’s Quest

Author website

  • Reviewed by Colleen Paeff
    Read another review by Colleen Paeff
    here.
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A Picture Book and A Chapter Book, Two New Books by Author Hena Khan

CRESCENT MOONS AND POINTED MINARETS:
A MUSLIM BOOK OF SHAPES
Written by Hena Khan
Illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
(Chronicle Books; $17.99, Ages 3-5)

 

cover illustration from Crescent Moons and Pointed MinaretsCrescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes written by Hena Khan and illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini is a sequel to the duo’s highly praised 2012 book Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors.

Khan’s spare, rhyming text introduces readers to various shapes, but it’s much more than a book about shapes. Every spread spotlights a different aspect of Islam. For example, we learn that a minaret (with a cone-shaped roof) is the tower in a mosque from which the call to prayer is broadcast; a daff is a large circular drum; and the Ka’aba (a word which means “cube” in Arabic) is a holy temple in the city of Mecca. A glossary at the end of the book provides definitions and an author’s note explains the important connection between Islam, shapes, and geometry.

I savored every page of Amini’s exquisite mixed media illustrations. Vibrant colors and detailed patterns, including some incredible tilework, draw the eye in and keep it lingering long after Khan’s lilting, rhythmic text has been read. As an added bonus, every spread depicts a different country (though there’s no mention of it in the main text). In an interview with Deborah Kalb, Khan indicated that Turkey, Tanzania, and Malaysia are represented. I imagine that trying to guess where each scene is set could lead to some terrific conversations.

Usually, shape books are aimed at a very young audience, but Khan and Amini have added so many additional layers to the “shape” concept, that readers of all ages will surely be drawn to this beautiful book. And given that hate crimes against and harassment of Muslims have spiked in the past several years, a book that sheds light on their traditions and family life is especially important. After all, as Khan told School Library Journal in 2013, “Educating kids about different cultures is key to building tolerance and acceptance.”

While readers who practice Islam will enjoy seeing themselves on the pages of this gorgeously illustrated book, as a non-Muslim, I relished the opportunity to learn about some of the traditions, art, architecture, and culture surrounding the world’s second largest religion.

Author website: https://www.henakhan.com/

Illustrator website: https://www.myart2c.com/

 

Author Hena Khan is on tour with her new chapter book, Power Forward, the first in a series. Click here to see if she’s coming to your town!

 

 

POWER FORWARD: ZAYD SALEEM CHASING THE DREAM (BOOK ONE)
Written by Hena Khan
(Salaam Reads; $16.99, paperback $6.99, Ages 7-10)

Cover photo from Power Forward by Hena KhanI have to admit—I don’t read a lot of books about sports. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the first book in Hena Khan’s new chapter book series one bit. I bought a copy of Power Forward (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream) for my nephew at one of Khan’s book signings (the first on her tour) then, as soon as I got home, read the entire thing in one sitting.

Fourth grader Zayd Saleem eats, sleeps, and breathes basketball. He’s on the D team (for now) but with practice he knows he can make the Gold team. Tryouts are two weeks away and he needs all the help he can get. That’s why he bails on his early morning violin practice and plays basketball instead—and he’s actually improving. But when Zayd’s mom discovers he’s been skipping violin and lying about it, the punishment is harsh: no basketball for two whole weeks. And that means no tryouts.

Zayd narrates his tale with a good dose of humor, but the humor never comes at the expense of emotions. We feel deeply for our narrator as he tries to make space for his own dreams while meeting his parent’s expectations. But something’s got to give—and Zayd will need to stand up for himself if he wants to keep those dreams alive.

Family plays a big role in this story and Khan does a terrific job of crafting real characters that we want to spend time with. Zayd’s got an annoying older sister, a fun-loving uncle, an adoring grandmother, an understanding grandfather, and parents who really want what’s best for their son—readers may find themselves wishing for an invitation to dinner.

Sports fans might open Power Forward for the basketball, but they’ll keep reading for the humor, honesty, and cozy warm feeling of being part of the Saleem family. And luckily, they won’t have to wait too long to join the fun again. The next two books in the series hit the shelves soon. Look for On Point (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream, Book 2) on May 29, 2018 and Bounce Back (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream, Book 3) on October 2, 2018. Let’s hope there are many more to come!

• Both books reviewed by Colleen Paeff

 

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The Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, A Changing India, And A Hidden World of Art

THE SECRET KINGDOM:
NEK CHAND, A CHANGING INDIA,
AND A HIDDEN WORLD OF ART
Written by Barb Rosenstock
Illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
(Candlewick Press; $16.99, ages 7-10)

 

The Secret Kingdom by Barb Rosenstock cover art by Claire A. Nivola

 

The very first line of THE SECRET KINGDOM: NEK CHAND, A CHANGING INDIA, AND A HIDDEN WORLD OF ART written by Barb Rosenstock and beautifully illustrated by Claire A. Nivola, is so lilting, so rhythmic, you know you’re in for a treat before you even turn the page.

The book tells the true tale of folk artist Nek Chand. In the small village where Chand is born, recycling and repurposing objects is a way of life. Dented buckets become scarecrow hats. Scraps of fabric become blankets. Sticks become toy rafts. And woven throughout the texture of daily life, there are stories. Stories of kings and goddesses, geese and monkeys, jungles and temples fill Chand’s imagination until one day, using sand and sticks and rocks, he builds the world of his imagination on the banks of a river. When partition splits India into two countries, however, Chand and his family are forced to leave their village behind for the cold concrete of India’s first planned city, Chandigarh. Nivola’s watercolor and gouache illustrations show the stark contrast between the colorful village of Chand’s childhood and his life in the city, where variations of beige reign.

 

Int spread from The Secret Kingdom by Barb Rosenstock w/art by Claire A. Nivola
THE SECRET KINGDOM. Text copyright © 2018 by Barb Rosenstock. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Claire A. Nivola. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

Chand feels he doesn’t belong in the city, but then, he claims a patch of unused jungle on the outskirts of town. Over many years, using found objects and half-dead plants, he builds a secret kingdom of walkways, sculptures, arches, flowering plants, and trees. It’s a place where stories come to life, where castaway items are reborn, and where Chand, at last, belongs. Though his garden comes to cover many acres, Chand’s creation remains a secret for 15 years. When it’s finally discovered, government forces threaten demolition, but the people of Chandigarh step in. Chand’s secret kingdom comes to be known as “The Rock Garden of Chandigarh” and, to this day, draws visitors in the thousands from all over the world.

 

THE SECRET KINGDOM. Text copyright © 2018 by Barb Rosenstock. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Claire A. Nivola. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

Rosenstock’s text paints a vivid picture of Chand’s life in India as he battles “clouds of mosquitoes and slithering cobras,” walks past “plowmen singing behind oxen” and gathers “broken glass bangles in red, blue, and green.” With the added visual of Nivola’s illustrations, this story of a man who, quietly and with determination, created the world he imagined–simply because it brought him joy–truly comes to life.

THE SECRET KINGDOM. Text copyright © 2018 by Barb Rosenstock. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Claire A. Nivola. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Read a review of Barb Rosenstock’s The Noisy Paintbox here.

 

  • Reviewed by Colleen Paeff

 

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What’s a Mother to do? My Pet Wants a Pet by Elise Broach

MY PET WANTS A PET
Written by Elise Broach
Illustrated by Eric Barclay
(A Christy Ottaviano Book/Henry Holt BYR; $16.99, ages 4-7)

My Pet Wants a Pet by Elise Broach cover image

When I go to my local bookstore, I’m always on the lookout for a surprise–something new, that I haven’t heard of, that I know the kids in my book club (mostly 3- to 5-year-olds) will love. MY PET WANTS A PET, written by Elise Broach and illustrated by Eric Barclay is one of those books.

 

Interior illustrations by Eric Barclay from My Pet Wants a Pet
Interior artwork from My Pet Wants a Pet written by Elise Broach with illustrations by Eric Barclay, A Christy Ottaviano Book/Henry Holt BYR ©2018.

 

 

Broach’s story starts off in familiar territory. The main character wants a pet. He begs, and begs, and begs until, finally, his mother says YES! Barclay’s uncluttered, colorful illustrations show the boy and his new puppy playing, cuddling, riding a bike, and before long we leave familiar territory behind as the puppy realizes he wants a pet, too. Mom thinks this is a “terrible idea” but, puppy and boy prevail. And so it goes, throughout the whole story with one pet after another realizing that they, too, want something to care for. In each case, the pet chooses a pet that would, under normal circumstances, be considered a rival or–worse yet–food. But this is not a Jon Klassen book and no one gets eaten. The animals and insects are good to each other and when they do chase it’s “all in good fun.” Everyone is content, except one character–Mom. She progresses from concerned to harried to annoyed as more and more pets invade her house. (Look closely at the illustrations to see why!) The boy formulates a plan to console her, but I won’t tell you what it is. You’ll have to read the book!

 

Interior illustrations by Eric Barclay from My Pet Wants a Pet
Interior artwork from My Pet Wants a Pet written by Elise Broach with illustrations by Eric Barclay, A Christy Ottaviano Book/Henry Holt BYR ©2018.

 

Simple illustrations and an engaging story make MY PET WANTS A PET perfect for story time with a large group of kids. Even from several feet away, listeners will catch details in the illustrations that add humor and warmth to the story. And Broach’s text allows readers to anticipate what’s coming, but still manages to keep us on our toes. After all, we may think we know what’s going to happen, but when a bird takes a worm for a pet there’s no telling how things will end.

 

Interior illustrations by Eric Barclay from My Pet Wants a Pet
Interior artwork from My Pet Wants a Pet written by Elise Broach with illustrations by Eric Barclay, A Christy Ottaviano Book/Henry Holt BYR ©2018.

 

Click here for the publisher’s page to find a downloadable activity guide.
See another recent review by Colleen Paeff here.

 

  •  Reviewed by Colleen Paeff – Colleen lives in Los Angeles, California, where she writes fiction and nonfiction picture books. She hosts the monthly Picture Book Publisher Book Club and its companion blog, Picture Book Publishers 101. Look for her on Twitter @ColleenPaeff.

 

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How to Grow a Dinosaur – An Interview with Author Jill Esbaum

HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR
Written by Jill Esbaum and illustrated by Mike Boldt
(Dial Books for Young Readers; $17.99; Ages 2-5)

Cover illustration from How to Grow a Dinosaur by Jill Esbaum

 

If you’re looking for a gift for a child who is about to become an older sibling, look no further than Jill Esbaum’s hilarious and practical guide to big siblinghood, HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR with artwork by Mike Boldt. Here’s a description from Penguin Random House:

Good news: Your mom’s hatching a baby! Bad news: Babies take their sweet time. And when the baby finally hatches? He’s too little to play! He mostly screeches, eats, burps, sleeps, and poops. He doesn’t even know he’s a dinosaur! That’s where you come in. You can teach the baby just about everything–from peek-a-boo to roaring to table manners to bedtime. Growing a dinosaur is a big job, but you’re perfect for it. Why? Because one thing your baby brother wants more than anything . . . is to be just like you.

INTERVIEW: I was lucky enough to sit down for a chat (via Facebook Messenger) with Jill to talk about the book, finding time to write, and the perks of being a kidlit author.

Colleen Paeff: I love the way HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR is playful and funny, but it’s also a legitimate how-to guide for older siblings. Did the manuscript start out that way or did it evolve over time?

Jill Esbaum: Thanks, Colleen! That evolved over time. I wrote it to be a simple, entertaining book, but it sort of took on a life of its own. My editor grabbed onto the possibilities right away.

CP: Did you send it to your agent first or did it go straight to your editor?

JE: I sent it to my agent, Tricia Lawrence. I had my Dial editor, Jessica Dandino Garrison, in mind, though, and asked Tricia to send it to her first. It seemed like the kind of goofy humor she might like.

CP: So, you had worked with this editor before?

JE: Yes. We had worked together on both I HATCHED and I AM COW, HEAR ME MOO!

CP: Is it easier to work on something with an editor you’ve worked with before?

JE: Definitely, because you (sorta) know what might work for her/him and what probably
won’t.

interior artwork from How to Grow a Dinosaur
Interior spread by Mike Boldt from How to Grow a Dinosaur by Jill Esbaum, Dial BYR ©2018

 

CP: How long was the process from first draft to publication for HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR?

JE: I sent it to Tricia in May of 2015, and by October we had an offer. The process didn’t really start until March, when the contract was finally buttoned up. So March, 2016, to January, 2018. Not bad.

CP: Is that faster than usual? Or is that normal for you?

JE: That was about the same as my other recent books. I once waited nearly 5 years, though, so 2 years felt like lightning speed. My last 5 (or so) books have all been about 2 to 2 and a half years from sale to publication.

CP: Wow. That seems fast!

JE: Still seems fast to me, too. My earlier books were mostly 3-year books.

CP: I’m curious about the ratio of stories you write to stories you sell. Do you have many manuscripts in the proverbial “drawer” or do you sell most of what you write?

JE: That’s hard to say right now. My agent has 6-7 picture book manuscripts that started to make the rounds last year. Considering my entire career, though, I suppose I sell…50% of what I write? That’s probably just because I refuse to give up on some that deserve the drawer. I can’t help tinkering with rejected stories in hopes of making them irresistible the next time out. That persistence has often paid off for me. An offer came in last month for a picture book that had been rejected 7-8 times since I wrote it in 2014.

CP: Do you usually work on one project at a time or several?

JE: Several. Right now, I have a chapter book, 3 picture book manuscripts, and a nonfiction project all front and center on my computer desktop.

interior artwork from How to Grow a Dinosaur
Interior spread by Mike Boldt from How to Grow a Dinosaur by Jill Esbaum, Dial BYR ©2018

 

CP: Are you someone who writes every day or do you have a more flexible schedule? And how do you squeeze it in around farm work, grandchildren, school visits, and teaching a summer writing workshop?!

JE: I don’t feel like I’ve been doing a very good job of it lately, honestly. Working on that. But I can’t always make writing my priority. Family comes first, always. One thing that has also been squeezing out writing time lately is handling the business side of being published. I don’t love it, and it’s a huge time suck. Long, leisurely days of “Hmm, what should I work on first?” are VERY few and far between, these days.

CP: But it seems like you’re so prolific!

JE: I don’t feel that way. I always feel like I should be writing more. For instance, I wrote a quick draft of a new picture book and sent it to my online critique group about 10 days ago. They’ve all weighed in, and I’m chomping at the bit to start tweaking. But I haven’t yet been able to make the time. Part of that is because I have a new book out and am doing my best to promote it, including my first-ever launch party this next weekend. Partly it’s because the flu sidelined a grandson’s babysitter, so I stepped in there. Grammy duty is one of the best parts of my life!

CP: Is hanging out with your grandkids a big source of inspiration for you?

JE: It is! And I hadn’t really expected that. My fingers are tightly crossed for a project going to its final yes/no meeting next month that springs entirely from a moment I experienced while babysitting my granddaughter. Crazy.

CP: I know you write both fiction and nonfiction. Do you have a soft spot for one over the other?

JE: I suppose I have a soft spot for fiction, but only because that comes entirely from my own imagination, and it’s a blast to see that come to life. I love writing nonfiction, too, because all the information I need is easily available to me, and all I have to do is figure out a way to make it engaging for kiddos.

CP: Let’s get back to HOW TO GROW A DINOSAUR. I love the parts in the story where the text is vague, but the illustrations show something alarming, or moving, or downright hilarious. Did your manuscript go to the illustrator with art notes or was that all him?

JE: I did include brief art notes here and there. But much of it was left for the illustrator’s imagination. I don’t think I had an art note for the page in which the baby dino is teething on the cat. And that turned out to be one of my favorite illustrations.

CP: Yes! I love that one. And I love the one where the big brother roars and scares the baby. They both look so sad.

JE: I feel very fortunate that both Jessica and the illustrator, Mike Boldt, understood what I was trying to do.

 

How to Grow a Dinosaur interior spread
Interior spread by Mike Boldt from How to Grow a Dinosaur by Jill Esbaum, Dial BYR ©2018

 

CP: Do you have a favorite unexpected detail?

JE: My favorited unexpected detail is that Mike inserted picture books here and there with titles that are plays on books of his or mine. There’s I Don’t Want To Be a Stegosaurus (from his book with Dev Petty, I Don’t Want To Be a Frog); I Hatched; and I Am T. Rex, Hear Me Roar! (from my I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!) Too funny. Illustrators are brilliant.

CP: Yes! I love those, too. And I love how all the illustrations in the books are dinosaurs. It’s so clever. Did you see any artwork while it was in process or did you have to wait until it was complete?

JE: I did get to see the black and white sketches. It was obvious even then that this one would be special.

CP: Do you sometimes feel a sense of trepidation when you give up your manuscript to an illustrator?

JE: No, I never feel that way. I’m always excited to see what they bring to the story. Seeing their sketches feels like unwrapping a gift.

CP: What’s next for you?

JE: I have a couple of nonfiction books coming out in March. Picture book-wise, two projects are in the pipeline that I can’t yet talk about. And my fingers are tightly crossed for a third. Meanwhile, I’ll be writing whenever I can squeeze it in. Enough of that, and projects eventually get finished.

CP: What do you wish you’d known when you first started writing for children?

JE: I don’t think there’s anything I can say I wish I’d known. Getting to this point in my career has been one long, slow learning process, of course. But I can’t wish I’d had shortcuts, because everything that’s happened has made me a stronger writer.

CP: That’s good to know!

JE: The BEST thing that’s happened in the past 20 years: If anybody had told me, early on, that in 20 years I’d have this many amazing and talented author/illustrator friends all over the globe I would have thought that person was nuts. I mean, I live in Iowa; how would I meet them? Ha. Enter the internet. And SCBWI conferences and literature festivals. Meeting so many terrific book people has been one of the highlights of my life.

CP: It’s definitely one of the perks of this business. Thanks so much for doing this, Jill!

JE: Thanks, Colleen! I enjoyed it.

  • Interview by Colleen Paeff

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Open if You Dare by Dana Middleton

 

OPEN IF YOU DARE
Written by Dana Middleton
(Feiwel & Friends; $16.99, Ages 9-12)

is reviewed by Colleen Paeff.

 

Open if You Dare by Dana Middleton cover image

 

Open if You Dare by Dana Middleton begins at the end. It’s the last day of elementary school and three best friends Birdie, Rose, and Ally are about to embark on their very last summer together. Rose is moving back to England in August and Ally and Birdie will attend different middle schools come September. Nothing will ever be the same again and the girls know it.

They are looking forward to a blissfully predictable summer of swimming, softball, selfies, and lots of time together on their secret island. But the discovery of a mysterious box and its sinister contents takes the trio on an unexpected search for the identity of a dead girl and the villain who killed her.

Middleton expertly weaves mystery with coming-of-age, as the girls experience crushes and rivalries, bad decisions and harsh consequences, parental expectations and annoying siblings – in other words, Life – in the midst of their search for answers. When the clues run dry, Rose and Ally would happily give up the hunt in favor of milking as much fun as possible out of their last summer together, but Birdie, our narrator, can’t let it go. Perhaps it’s because, for her, solving the mystery of the dead girl seems easier than solving the mystery of what life will be like without Rose and Ally by her side.

Like any good mystery, there are twists and turns and startling connections. And the setting, based on Middleton’s hometown in Georgia, comes to life with evocative details and fully realized characters of all ages. Ultimately, though, Open if You Dare is a story about friendship and where Middleton truly shines is in her depiction of the joys and complexities of building relationships with the people who understand us most in the world and the heartbreak of letting them go.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away by telling you that, by the end of the book, the mystery of the dead girl is solved. But the mystery of what life will be like in middle school? Alone? Let’s just say Rose, Ally, and Birdie are ready to take it on. Let the adventure begin.

Click here to read an excerpt.

Author website:

http://www.danamiddletonbooks.com/

Interviews with Dana Middleton:

Kick-butt Kidlit – http://kickbuttkidlit.tumblr.com/post/165186394040/kicking-back-with-kick-butt-and-dana-middleton

StoryMammas – http://storymamas.com/wp/2017/10/16/open-if-you-dare-interview-with-dana-middleton/

 

  • Review by Colleen Paeff – Colleen lives in Los Angeles, California, where she writes fiction and nonfiction picture books. She hosts the monthly Picture Book Publisher Book Club and its companion blog, Picture Book Publishers 101. Look for her on Twitter @ColleenPaeff.

 

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