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An Interview with Author Christine Van Zandt

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

MILKWEED FOR MONARCHS

AUTHOR CHRISTINE VAN ZANDT

Illustrated by Alejandra Barajas

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

 

 

Milkweed for Monarchs cover monarchs flying in milkweed plants.

 

 

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

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

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

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

 

INTERVIEW:

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

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


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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

GRWR: How did you do that?

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

BUY THE BOOK:

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

FOLLOW ON SOCIAL MEDIA:

•Christine Van Zandt 

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

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

Instagram: christinevanzandt9

Bluesky: christinevanzandt.bsky.social

•Alejandra Barajas 

Instagram: ale.barajas.illustration

•Publisher – Beaming Books

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

Facebook: www.facebook.com/BeamingBooksPublishing

Instagram: www.instagram.com/beamingbooksmn

 

 

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

AUTHOR BIO:

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

 

 

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An Interview with Wombats are Pretty Weird Author-Illustrator Abi Cushman

 

VICKY FANG INTERVIEWS ABI CUSHMAN

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR OF

WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD

(GREENWILLOW BOOKS; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Wombats are Pretty Weird cover four wombats

 

 

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

Wombats might be pretty weird, but they’re pretty awesome, too! Wombats Are Pretty Weird is funny, kid-friendly, and informative, and features sidebars, comic panels, extensive backmatter, and a map. Acclaimed author-illustrator Abi Cushman’s nonfiction debut contains everything anyone could ever possibly want to know about wombats!

 

INTERVIEW:

Vicky Fang: Abi, WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD is such a funny and informative book! I love how you use humorous dialog and illustrations to introduce so much fascinating information about wombats! How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Abi Cushman: Thank you, Vicky! I’ve been obsessed with wombats ever since I studied abroad at the University of Melbourne in Australia in 2001. I learned on a guided hike that wombats are the only animals in the world that have cube-shaped poop. This very odd tidbit of information along with the fact that wombats are adorable quickly made them one of my favorite animals. 

But it didn’t occur to me to write about them in a book until 2018 after I’d written several other fiction picture books. I was thinking about the cube poop fact, and I thought it would be funny to make a little comic where a wombat makes a tower out of its cubes of poop (similar to how a kid would make a tower out of blocks) and then is just really proud of how tall it was. I wasn’t sure at that point if there was enough there for a book, so I did more research, gathered more weird facts about wombats, and gained momentum.

 

VF: I love that scene in the book with the cube poop tower! Hilarious. Could you tell us about your process in writing this book?

AC: I started with a lot of research about wombats. I listened to podcasts, watched videos, and read everything I could about them. Then I compiled the weirdest, most interesting facts. The next step was to see if I could make a joke about each fact. I have pages and pages in my sketchbook of facts plus doodles. I tried to come up with as many jokes as possible, and then and then really hone in on the funniest dialogue, facial expressions, and scenes. 

Once I was satisfied with the jokes, I worked on putting them together in a dummy (a rough mockup of the book) in a way that made sense and that would also build to a final scene with all the wombats together. 

 

Wombats are Pretty Weird Dummy Sample
Wombats are Pretty Weird Dummy Sample

 

 

VF: I love the addition of the snake adding color and commentary throughout the book. What made you decide to include the snake in a book about wombats?

AC: Adding the snake was a way for me to put a stand-in for the audience in the book. He could react and make comments that the reader was thinking when learning about these very weird animals. And this animal character had to be something other than a wombat. After all, the wombats wouldn’t consider themselves weird at all. In their world, it’s strange when poop is round. I chose a snake specifically because I wanted an animal that could technically live in the same area as a wombat, but was vastly different from them. 

 

WAPW burrowing marsupial spread
Interior spread from Wombats are Pretty Weird written and illustrated by Abi Cushman, Greenwillow Books ©2023.

 

VF: Your illustrations do such a wonderful job of balancing humor and information. You’ve written funny books before (SOAKED! and ANIMALS GO VROOM! are so good!), but what was it like writing and illustrating non-fiction for the first time?

AC: Writing and illustrating non-fiction for the first time was a wonderful challenge. For this book, which includes factual information but also talking animals and other silly stuff, it was very important to me that kids didn’t think the facts were made up. One of the things I was very careful about was to ensure the narration was factual and accurate, and then have the wombats and snake react to those facts in the illustrations and speech bubbles. That way there was a clear separation.

For research, I consulted science journals and talked to wombat experts to verify and ensure the way I phrased things was correct. It was pretty wild to me that my work entailed being knee-deep in these dense scientific papers, trying to distill the information and make sense of them, and then using that to make the best poop joke I could.

For the illustrations, I wanted them to be very accessible and fun, but I also wanted them to show a decent resemblance to actual wombats and to clearly convey scientific information where appropriate. So I used a lot of references. I looked at photos of wombats’ feet, watched videos of them moving, and really studied the differences between three species. Then I drew them using hair dryers and wearing party hats.

 

VF: Can you talk about how you approach humor? Do you have any tips for writers who want to write funny books?

AC: The books I find funniest always contain a bit of absurdity. So that’s something I like to play with a lot in my books. For this book with weird animal facts, it was a chance to push the absurdity in the actual facts to a higher level. 

For example, one of the facts in the book is that there are three species of wombats: the southern hairy-nosed wombat, the northern hairy-nosed wombat, and the bare-nosed wombat. And I just thought the names were pretty silly. So I wanted to play with that idea of hairy (or unhairy) noses and push it further into absurdity by having two of them talk about nose hair styling to the annoyance of the bare-nosed wombat. 

e

WAPW hairy and bare noses
Interior spread from Wombats are Pretty Weird written and illustrated by Abi Cushman, Greenwillow Books ©2023.

 

 

I think with humor, you have to let yourself be pretty vulnerable. I put everything I think is funny into a story and then show it to people with the full knowledge that a lot of the jokes will absolutely not land. But I have NO IDEA which ones those are. The trick is to put the weirdest, totally out-there jokes into your story and then see how many you can get away with.

 

VF: That’s such great advice, and it has clearly paid off for you. What do you hope young readers take away from this book?

AC: I hope this book will get kids excited about wombats and animals in general. There is so much in the natural world that is bizarre and captivating. Kids have a natural curiosity so I think it’s our job as authors to foster and encourage it. I also hope kids come away with the idea that being weird is a good thing. It’s what makes all of us special and unique. And finally, I just hope kids laugh and find this enjoyable to read. 

 

WAPW multiple joeys
Interior spread from Wombats are Pretty Weird written and illustrated by Abi Cushman, Greenwillow Books ©2023.

 

VF: I love that. I feel like you’ve definitely accomplished those goals with this book and kids are going to love it. So what’s next for you?

AC: I am currently polishing up the next book in the “[Not So] Serious Guide” series. This follow-up to WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD is all about the very strange, very tough FLAMINGO! And I’m happy to report that Joey the snake is back to experience it all with the reader. This book is scheduled to release in the summer of 2024.

I also recently finished illustrating a wonderfully clever book written by Charlotte Offsay called THE QUIET FOREST. This book will be released in March 2024 from Paula Wiseman Books. It’s about a very mischievous mouse who starts a chain of chaos in a formerly quiet forest, and it involves a lot of very disgruntled forest animals. It’s a ton of fun, and I’m really excited about it. This was the first time I illustrated a book I didn’t write, and it was fun to see how Charlotte’s words and my pictures came together.

 

VF: Those both sound fantastic! I look forward to seeing them next year. Thank you so much for sharing your journey for WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD with us. I’ve learned so much from chatting with you and from getting a peek at this hilarious book!

AC: Thanks so much for the interview, Vicky! This was fun. And I’m looking forward to chatting with you again later this summer about your upcoming book, THE BOO CREW NEEDS YOU!

VF: Looking forward to it too! Thank you again for sharing your insights with us today, Abi!

 

BUY THE BOOK:

Click below for a local indie to purchase signed copies (type in the comments how you’d like the book inscribed): https://www.banksquarebooks.com/book/9780063234437

Publisher’s Page: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/wombats-are-pretty-weird-abi-cushman

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AbiCushman

IG: https://www.instagram.com/abi.cushman/

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

Author/Illustrator Website: https://abicushman.com

 

Author-Illustrator Abi Cushman Photo credit: P.A. Smith

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR BIO:

Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of SOAKED! (Viking, 2020), ANIMALS GO VROOM! (Viking, 2021) and WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD (Greenwillow, 2023).

She has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years. She runs two popular websites of her own: My House Rabbit, a pet rabbit care site, and Animal Fact Guide, which was named a “Great Website for Kids” by the American Library Association. Did you know that wombat poop is cube-shaped? You do now! (And no, you’ll never un-know that.)

Abi lives in a small Connecticut beach town with her family. In her spare time, she enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.)

She is represented by BookStop Literary Agency and is a proud member of the Soaring 20s, a group of picture book authors and illustrators who debuted in 2020/21.

 

INTERVIEW BIO:

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.

 

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