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An Interview with The Stars Beckoned Author Candy Wellins

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR CANDY WELLINS

ABOUT HER PICTURE BOOK

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

(Philomel; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

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                    ★                      ★                     ★   

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

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

 

INTERVIEW:

Colleen Paeff: Hi Candy! Congratulations on the release of your second picture book, The Stars Beckoned: Edward White’s Amazing Walk In Space (illustrated by Courtney Dawson)! You’ve said that when you started writing this book you weren’t really a space buff. Do you think that helped or hindered you during the research process?

 

Candy Wellins: I hope it helped!  Most of what I knew about the history of NASA came from THE RIGHT STUFF, which does a good job of covering Project Mercury and I think everyone has a basic understanding of Apollo, but the Gemini missions are kind of like the forgotten middle children of the NASA missions. Not the first ones and not the flashy ones, but certainly important ones. I read the transcript of the entire Gemini IV mission–pages and pages of technical jargon—but once you get to the heart of the mission and “hearing” the astronauts speak, it’s pretty riveting.  

 

CP: Would you consider yourself a space buff now?

 

CW: No, not a space buff by any means. Maybe an above-average space enthusiast at best!  

 

 

CP: I’m always impressed by authors who can tell a story in rhyme, but I’m especially impressed by authors who can tell a nonfiction story in rhyme! Was rhyming something that was a part of The Stars Beckoned from the beginning or did it come later in the revision process?

 

CW: I knew I wanted to tell Edward’s story for a while and I didn’t have a plan whatsoever. I only wrote in prose at that point and I tried a few things, but didn’t like them at all. A writer in my critique group shared a biography written in verse that I thought was just lovely. It made me want to do something biographical in verse just to try it.  Edward came to mind immediately. I had done a lot of the preliminary research and, honestly, if you’re going to get your feet wet in rhyme, might as well do it with someone who has a very rhymable last name like White. The opening lines came to me pretty quickly and I just let the story take me where it needed to go.  

 

CP: Edward White’s children gave you feedback as you worked on the story, right? How did you get in touch with them and were they immediately open to you writing about their dad?

 

CW: During one of my many Google searches of Edward’s name, I found a post his granddaughter made celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his spacewalk. She is a realtor so I was able to find contact information easily and reached out to her. She put me in touch with her dad and aunt and I shared the manuscript with them. It was important to me that the book be as historically accurate as possible. They were especially helpful as we moved into the illustration phase–getting hair colors, clothing choices and airplane models exactly as they were was important to all of us. Most Americans know the names of other “first” astronauts like Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, but I feeland I think his children would agreeEdward has been somewhat forgotten by history. I hope my book can change that just a bit because he really was amazing and did important work.  

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Kids Book Review for Presidents’ Day – The Superlative A. Lincoln by Eileen R. Meyer

THE SUPERLATIVE A. LINCOLN:
POEMS ABOUT OUR 16TH PRESIDENT
Written by Eileen R. Meyer
Illustrated by Dave Szalay
(Charlesbridge; $17.99, Ages 6-9)

 

 

 

No matter how many children’s books I read about Abraham Lincoln, I continue to learn something new in each one. Sometimes something I already knew, but had long forgotten, is presented in such a way that I’ll now always remember it. Both these experiences apply to The Superlative A. Lincoln by Eileen R. Meyer with art by Dave Szalay.

Perfect for Lincoln’s Birthday (yesterday, 2/12), Presidents’ Day or National Poetry Month, Meyer’s nonfiction picture book contains 19 poems that vary in style and content. Each poem is also accompanied by a factual paragraph on the bottom of the page to put the poem’s subject in context. Best of all, teachers can use the superlative poem titles such as “Best Wrestler”, “Worst Room Name,” and “Strongest Conviction,” and couple them with the excellent activities offered on Meyer’s website, for an engaging Language Arts lesson.

 

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The Superlative A. Lincoln: Poems About our 16th President written by Eileen R. Meyer and illustrated by Dave Szalay, Charlesbridge ©2019.

 

Did you know our 16th president was an inventor? Thanks to Meyer, in “Most Likely to Tinker,” we read how Lincoln’s penchant for problem solving resulted in his being awarded a patent for a design that helped “boats float over shallow river spots …” I didn’t recall Lincoln being a doting dad, but in “Most Permissive Parent,” we get a glimpse via Szalay’s charming woodcut looking illustration of First Sons, Willie and Tad, taking full advantage of their father’s parenting style. Throughout the book, Szalay’s art humanizes Lincoln and events whether in scenes of him chopping trees or meeting Frederick Douglass with a firm and friendly handshake. There’s a warm, folk art quality about the illustrations that pairs them perfectly with all of Meyer’s telling poems.

 

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The Superlative A. Lincoln: Poems About our 16th President written by Eileen R. Meyer and illustrated by Dave Szalay, Charlesbridge ©2019.

 

One of my favorite poems, “Best Advice” addresses Lincoln’s signature beard. What a surprise it was to learn he was the first president to sport one! I had no idea that growing whiskers had been recommended in a letter to candidate Lincoln by eleven-year-old Grace Bell. Lincoln even met with her on his travels to offer thanks. In addition to his beard, most children probably associate Honest Abe with his stovepipe hat. It certainly came in handy as a writing surface and a convenient place to carry things. “Best Use of an Accessory” cleverly conveys the hat’s perspective. “We don’t need a leather briefcase. / We don’t want an attaché. / You can keep that canvas knapsack. / I’m a traveling valet.” And by the way, “Least Favorite Nickname” enlightens young readers about Lincoln’s dislike of the nickname Abe. They would be hard pressed to find anyplace where he personally used it, preferring to sign his name Abraham Lincoln or A. Lincoln as in the book’s title.

 

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The Superlative A. Lincoln: Poems About our 16th President written by Eileen R. Meyer and illustrated by Dave Szalay, Charlesbridge ©2019.

 

The back matter in The Superlative A. Lincoln includes an author’s note, a comprehensive timeline as well as book and website resources and a bibliography.  I could easily describe every poem in the book because I thoroughly enjoyed them all, but I’ll leave that pleasure for you. Instead I’ve chosen to end my review with one of many popular A. Lincoln quotes:

“I want it said of me by those who knew me best,
that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower
where I thought a flower would grow.”

 

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Kids Picture Book Biography – Feed Your Mind by Jen Bryant

FEED YOUR MIND: A STORY OF AUGUST WILSON

Written by Jen Bryant

Illustrated by Cannaday Chapman

(Abrams BYR; $17.99, Ages 6-9)

 

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal

Jen Bryant, who has won numerous awards for her books for children, which include biographies of poet William Carlos Williams, and Charlotte’s Web author E.B. White, has written the biography of August Wilson. The picture book, presented in two acts and 48 pages, is an inspiring and lyrical introduction to the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Black playwright who died in 2005.

Young readers are probably unfamiliar with Wilson’s work and Bryant writes mostly about his early years at school and the beginning of his career.

 

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Interior spread from Feed Your Mind written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Cannaday Chapman, Abrams Books for Young Readers ©2019.

 

Frederick August Kittel, Jr. was raised with a sister and single mother, who cleaned houses. His mother, Daisy, made sure Frederick learned to read, telling him, “If you can read, you can do anything – you can be anything.” Bryant tells about the racism Wilson and his family experiencedbrick-throwing, name-calling, fights, and accusations of cheatingdriving Wilson from school after school, setting him on a course of self-education, reading all day in libraries. Wilson finds the “universe opens wide” when, as a teenager, he encounters Black authors Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.

His first paid writing job was completing his sister’s homework; he bought a used typewriter, composing poems after he finished washing dishes at the diner. The talk and stories of Black men in his community, many working at menial jobs, provided the dialogue for his poems and plays. Working odd jobs in a soup kitchen, Wilson listened to stories. “Who’s there? What are they saying … and why?” he asked himself, and these figures became characters in his dramas.

 

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Interior spread from Feed Your Mind written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Cannaday Chapman, Abrams Books for Young Readers ©2019.

 

Debut illustrator Cannaday Chapman uses a limited color palette of earth tones to show the expressions on Wilson’s face and his connection to his environment.

Bryant includes a detailed Author’s Note explaining her interest in Wilson, her extensive research, and her process for writing the book. Students will enjoy her description of spreading her pages down her hallway. Feed Your Mind is an important book about an author of color, who endured poverty and racism, and whose life shows the power of literacy and community.

  • Guest review by Julia Wasson, veteran educator and curriculum developer.

Read another picture book biography here.

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For Women’s History Month – Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird Blog Tour

AWAY WITH WORDS:
The Daring Story of Isabella Bird
Written by Lori Mortensen
Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell
(Peachtree Publishing; $17.95, Ages 6-10)

 

cover illustration by Kristy Caldwell from Away With Words by Lori Mortensen

 

Before Nellie Bly or Amelia Earhardt there was Isabella Bird and, thanks to this eye-opening new picture book biography, Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, children can read about what impressive inroads this English explorer made at a time in history when a woman’s place was in the home not out globetrotting around the world, and writing about it to boot!

This “unlikely candidate for adventure,” who never felt well as a child, was born in the Yorkshire countryside in 1831. Isabella Bird suffered from a multitude of ailments and rarely left the house. That worked for awhile because, according to Victorian societal norms that she would eventually challenge, “Young ladies wore dresses. / Young ladies didn’t go to school. / Young ladies stayed home.” Countless doctors couldn’t diagnose her with anything until one doctor recommended she get some fresh air. Her father took Isabella out with him on his horse and, with his encouragement, she made discoveries that would forever change the course of her life. “Out in the wild, Isabella forgot about her aches and pains. / She breathed in new ways to see and describe everything around her.”

Captured beautifully by Caldwell’s spread below, letters from relatives abroad and other news from overseas sparked a flame in Isabella. She felt deep inside that travel would feed her soul and she yearned for the possibilities it would provide but some days she could barely get up. The tide turned for the better when her doctor suggested a sea voyage and her parents agreed.

 

interior illustration by Kristy Caldwell from Away With Words by Lori Mortensen
Interior spread from Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird written by Lori Mortensen and illustrated by Kristy Caldwell, Peachtree Publishing ©2019.

 

She boarded a mail steamer for Nova Scotia and from then on there was no looking back for this intrepid young woman. Her red leather notebook accompanied her wherever she went. I love how Mortensen weaves quotations of text from Bird’s own published books wherever it adds atmosphere to the story. Caldwell’s colorful illustrations pair perfectly with those lines. One of my favorites is, “There was a small bed with a dirty buffalo-skin upon it; I took it up and swarms of living creatures fell out of it …”

Her first book, The Englishwoman in America, was published in 1856, smack in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. But when her father passed away Bird chose to end her explorations. That ultimately led to a flare up of her ailments and an onset of doldrums that, at her sister’s urging, could only be allayed by journeying across five continents. It took grit and guts and bravery to gallivant solo around the world to myriad destinations lacking in creature comforts, but Isabella persevered. Thanks to her detailed record keeping of all the places she visited, the nine additional books she wrote became bestsellers. People craved reading about the exotic locales and peoples that they’d never see in their lifetime whether that be climbing up Kilauea volcano in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), trekking across the dangerous frozen Persian “desert at the roof of the world,” or befriending a “notorious outlaw.”

 

int illustration by Kristy Caldwell from Away With Words by Lori Mortensen
Interior spread from Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird written by Lori Mortensen and illustrated by Kristy Caldwell, Peachtree Publishing ©2019.

 

As Mortensen’s story vividly demonstrates, the world was indeed Isabella’s home so it’s no surprise that in 1892, Bird was the first woman to ever be inducted into the Royal Geographical Society of London and a year later was presented to Queen Victoria. In 32 pages of lyrical prose, Mortensen shows young readers the personal growth and happiness that can come from travel and exposure to a vast range of cultures. Caldwell’s artwork includes just the right amount of soaring spirit a name like Bird implies.

Picture book biographies, when done well, provide a much needed window on the world of important people from the past that we might ordinarily never hear or read about. Away With Words: The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, does that and more. It offers inspiration and a role model for children who, long after Women’s History Month has ended, will no doubt want to seek out Bird’s impressions by turning to her original books to learn more about this trailblazer’s 19th century daring journeys. The back matter including an author’s note, a timeline of Bird’s travels and publications, Bird’s text quotations, and a bibliography make this nonfiction book ideal for both home and school. In fact, I’d give it as a gift to a child along with a journal to get them started on documenting their own travels, even if that’s just an outing to the zoo or a trip to another city.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Visit other stops below on this enlightening blog tour from Peachtree Publishing:

3/5: Let’s Talk Picture Books

3/6: Pragmatic Mom

3/7: Geo Librarian

3/8: Kid Lit Frenzy

 

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