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An Interview with Darshana Khiani Author of How to Wear a Sari

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

DARSHANA KHIANI

AUTHOR OF

HOW TO WEAR A SARI

ILLUSTRATED BY

JOANNE LEW-VRIETHOFF

(VERSIFY; $17.99, Ages 4 to 7)

 

How to Wear a Sari cover

 

 

SUMMARY

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!

 

INTERVIEW

 

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.

 

How to Wear a Sari int1
Interior spread from How to Wear a Sari written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Versify ©2021.

 

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.

 

How to Wear a Sari int2
Interior spread from How to Wear a Sari written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Versify ©2021.

 

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.

 

How to Wear a Sari int3
Interior spread from How to Wear a Sari written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Versify ©2021.

 

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.  

 

How to Wear a Sari int5
Interior art from How to Wear a Sari written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Versify ©2021.

 

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. 

 

DKhiani
Author Photo Credit ©Lisa Noble

BRIEF BIO

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.

 

 

 

BUY DARSHANA’S BOOKS HERE

Hicklebee’s for signed copies – https://www.hicklebees.com/book/9781328635204

Bookshop – https://bookshop.org/books/how-to-wear-a-sari/9781328635204

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS

Website: www.darshanakhiani.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/darshanakhiani

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/darshanakhiani/

TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@darshanakhiani

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

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

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An Interview with Author Angela Burke Kunkel

 

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

ANGELA BURKE KUNKEL

AUTHOR OF

PENGUIN JOURNEY

ILLUSTRATED BY

CATHERINE ODELL

(Abrams Appleseed; $16.99, Ages 3 to 6)

 

 

Penguin Journey cover

 

 

SUMMARY

 

Packed Snow / Moon glow

Wind-blown / All alone

Penguin Journey is a picture book about the incredible lengths to which emperor penguins go for their young ones. Angela Burke Kunkel’s lyrical text and Catherine Odell’s gorgeous illustrations detail the penguins’ amazing journey, and an author’s note and bibliography provide added context.

 

INTERVIEW

 

Colleen Paeff: Congratulations on the upcoming release of your second book. Penguin Journey will be out in just under a week on October 26. Does it feel any different to have a book coming out once you’ve already experienced it?

Angela Burke Kunkel: Thank you so much! I don’t think it feels very different, no. Each book is its own journey (not to use the title as a pun), and I’ve really enjoyed the process for each one. So it’s equally exciting this time around. 

 

CP: I love the sparse rhyming language in this book. Did it start out that way or were you using spare, beautiful language right from the start?

ABK: It was always intended to be a spare, low-word count story, but the tone definitely changed through revision! Originally, it didn’t rhyme, the language wasn’t as lyrical, and it relied heavily on a refrain. I’m indebted to my editor, Meredith Mundy at ABRAMS Appleseed, for making these suggestions when she requested a revise and resubmit. They really resonated with me and helped guide the book into how it reads now.

 

 

Penguin Journey int1
Interior spread from Penguin Journey written by Angela Burke Kunkel and illustrated by Catherine Odell, Abrams Appleseed ©2021.

 

CP: I love Catherine Odell’s illustrationsespecially the nighttime spreads with the northern lights and the starry skies. They’re so soft and beautiful! Did you give any notes on illustrations in the manuscript? And what did you think when you saw the final art?

ABK: Interestingly enough, Meredith requested that I include art notes with my revision because the text was so spare. I think this throws a lot of picture book writers, who often hear that we should not include any art notes. I’m not sure how many of the notes Cat Odell actually ended up seeing through the process, but it was another tool that helped me communicate the overall story effectively at the time I submitted it.

I’m in awe of Cat’s artwork. She captured the bonds between penguins so beautifully and created such a soft, comforting feel for young readers. And the skies! Just from the stars to the Northern lights and the sunrise. It really takes you on a journey through Antarctica. 

 

CP: What do you hope young readers take away from Penguin Journey?

ABK: Two things, reallyfirst, I hope that this book is one of those bedtime books that families curl up with, that helps a parent feel connected to their child during those read-aloud moments, and where the child just feels immersed in the quiet tone of the book and that feeling of connection. Secondly, I hope that this book instills a love of wildlife even in the youngest readers. As mentioned in the author’s note, penguins have been severely impacted by climate change, and I hope that families will respond to the great lengths penguins go to to raise their young and be motivated to join efforts to protect the species.  

 

 

Penguin Journey int2
Interior spread from Penguin Journey written by Angela Burke Kunkel and illustrated by Catherine Odell, Abrams Appleseed ©2021.

 

 

CP: I hope so, too. Your debut picture book, Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library he Built, was incredibly well-received. It appeared on a number of “Best of 2021” lists and it won the 2021 Américas Book Award. You must have been thrilled to receive so much recognition for all your hard work. Was there one particular honor that really stands out?

ABK: This is a really tough question to answer because I hope that each one is a different opportunity to reach readers! I’m incredibly grateful for all of the recognition that the book has receivedincluding Paola Escobar’s incredible illustrations and the careful guidance of our editor, Ann Kelleyand I’m glad that José’s work resonates with readers. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a virtual panel through CLASP and the Library of Congress with other Américas Awards recipients Aida Salazar, Yamile Saied Méndez, and Raúl the Third, and that was a tremendous honor and a pretty surreal moment.

 

CP: That sounds incredible! Penguin Journey and Digging for Words are both nonfiction, but the styles are very different. Would you say one style comes more naturally than the other for you?

ABK: I would say both books had their joys and their challenges. I do think that despite differences in length and subject matter, Digging for Words and Penguin Journey both have lyrical language, which is a style I’m drawn to. I’ll also add that I found writing in rhyme very challenging, particularly for nonfictionyou have to be accurate and still consider rhyme at the same time, which created two sets of limitations to work within. 

 

CP: That does sound exceptionally challenging. You work as a school librarian. Was it being around all those books that inspired you to start writing for children or was it something else? 

ABK: I definitely think that working as a school librarian is a complementary career! I actually work with adolescents, but try to use picture books when and where I can (and get teens and other adults to buy in). Really it was having children of my own that led me to transitioning from the classroom to librarianship and to writing picture books. In addition to rediscovering old favorites, like Madeline, and Where the Wild Things Are and Miss Rumphius, my kids and I made weekly trips to the library. And suddenly, I was not only revisiting classics I thought I had outgrown and appreciating them with new eyes, but I was reading stacks and stacks of more recently published picture books that were charming, or funny, or feminist, or lyrical, or political, or subversive . . . you get the idea. I found I enjoyed picture books as much as my kids didif not more! and really wanted to try my hand at writing them.

 

CP: How do you manage to squeeze in writing time between work and family? Do you have any favorite productivity hacks?

ABK: I was about to say I wish I had some favorite productivity hacks, because I could definitely use some help, but then I remembered there are two I use regularly and really like. The first is that I gave up bullet journaling (I was spending too much time making it pretty) and now use a Passion Planner. The layout helps me juggle home, day job and writing to-dos all in one place. It’s helpful to have tasks and goals laid out in one notebook rather than separate ones because I tend to forget about what’s not right in front of me. 

I also recently started using a Pomodoro app (I use Focus Keeper) to get started on those tasks I’m dreading or just sort of unmotivated to do at the moment. Once I set the timer and get in the groove, 25 minutes goes by quickly and it’s easier to stay in that zone and continue working.

 

CP: I will definitely be trying those! Is there anything else I should have asked?

ABK: You should have asked me about my new hobby that I picked up during the pandemic: birdwatching! I started to keep a “life list,” or log of all the species I’ve spotted at the start of the pandemic, and I’m trying my hand at bird photography now. It’s snow goose migration season in Vermont, which is just a gorgeous sight.

 

CP: That sounds like an excellent hobby! What’s next for you?

ABK: My next book with illustrator Claire Keane, Make Way, comes out in spring 2023. It’s a dual picture book biography that parallels Robert McCloskey’s creation of Make Way for Ducklings and the work of Nancy Schön, who created the famous duck sculptures for the Boston Public Garden. It was a challenging structure to work within, but so satisfying when it came togetherI loved researching both McCloskey and Schön’s artistic process(es), and I can’t wait to see how Claire Keane represents their stories in her own artwork.

CP: I can’t wait to read it!

 

 

Angela Burke Kunkel
Author Photo Credit ©Mei Lin Barral

BRIEF BIO

Angela Burke Kunkel is a picture book author, school librarian, and former English Language Arts teacher. After soaking up the sun in the Southwest for a number of years, she now lives in Vermont with her family, two dogs, one guinea pig, and one rapidly-growing bearded dragon (really, it’s rather alarming). Her debut, DIGGING FOR WORDS: JOSÉ ALBERTO GUTIÉRREZ AND THE LIBRARY HE BUILT, received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal and has been recognized on multiple book lists. Her second book, PENGUIN JOURNEY, will be published October 26th and has already received a starred review from Kirkus. She has two more nonfiction picture books forthcoming, in 2023 and 2024. 

 

 

PREORDER PENGUIN JOURNEY HERE

https://www.vermontbookshop.com/book/9781419745898

BUY ANGELA’S OTHER BOOKS HERE

https://www.angelakunkel.com/books

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/angkunkel/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/angkunkel

Website: https://www.angelakunkel.com

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

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).

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An Interview with Author Rajani LaRocca

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

RAJANI LAROCCA

AUTHOR OF

WHERE THREE OCEANS MEET

(Abrams Books for Young Readers; $17.99, Ages 4 to 8)

MY LITTLE GOLDEN BOOK ABOUT KAMALA HARRIS

(Little Golden Books; $5.99, Ages 2 to 5)

THE SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU: ALL ABOUT YOUR DNA

(Little Bee Books; $17.99, Ages 4 to 8)

 

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

Where Three Oceans Meet coverWhere Three Oceans Meet, written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan

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.

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

Kamala-Harris LGB coverMy 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.

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

The Secret Code Inside You coverThe 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!

 

INTERVIEW:

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!

 

OCEANS Illustration 1
Interior spread from Where Three Oceans Meet written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Archana Sreenivasan, Abrams BYR ©2021.

 

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. Give yourself time if you need it. Some stories need years to take shape … and that’s ok!
  4. 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.
  5. 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. 

 

Kamala LGB spread 4
Interior spread from My Little Golden Book About Kamala Harris written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Ashley Evans, Little Golden Books ©2021.

 

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!

 

SECRET CODE Illustration 5
Interior spread from The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Steven Salerno, Little Bee Books ©2021.

 

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 Author 3
Photo credit: ©Carter Hasegawa.

BRIEF BIO:

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.

 

 

 

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BUY RAJANI’S BOOKS HERE:

WHERE THREE OCEANS MEET

SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS

BRACELETS FOR BINA’S BROTHERS

MY LITTLE GOLDEN BOOK ABOUT KAMALA HARRIS 

THE SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU 

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Website: www.RajaniLaRocca.com

Twitter and Instagram: @rajanilarocca

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

 

MORE ON RAJANI LAROCCA:

Writing Like a Doctor, Doctoring Like a Writer MG Book Village

SummerThyme Chocolate-Chunk Cookies with Citrus ZestThe Book Hive

Out to the Ballgame with Rajani LaRoccaKirkus Reviews Interview

How I Managed to Get Six Books Published in 2021Writer’s Digest

Reading with…Rajani LaRoccaShelf Awareness

One to Read: Rajani LaRoccaStory Monsters Ink

 

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 Annelouise Mahoney, Author-Illustrator of Julius and Macy

AN INTERVIEW WITH

ANNELOUISE MAHONEY

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR OF

JULIUS AND MACY:
A Very Brave Night

(Two Lions/Amazon Children’s Publishing; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

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Julius And Macy A Very Brave Night Cover

 

 

SUMMARY OF JULIUS AND MACY: A VERY BRAVE NIGHT

Julius and Macy like to play heroes. Julius pretends he’s the defender of the forest, while Macy has a quieter strength. When their snack disappears one night, they decide to track down the only one who could have taken it―the Night Goblin. They both have to be brave in their own ways, and they ultimately discover that the real thief isn’t anything like they imagined.

With its endearing characters, this gently told tale reminds us that we each have courage within us and that kindness can make all the difference.

 

INTERVIEW WITH ANNELOUISE MAHONEY

GoodReadsWithRonna: Congratulations on your author-illustrator debut, Annelouise! Does it feel surreal right now after all your hard work to hold Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night in your hands? How long has it been since you first began this creative journey in general and specifically for this picture book?
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Annelouise Mahoney: Hi Ronna. Thank you so much for having me over today. Yes! Surreal is the perfect word for how it feels. Surreal and grateful! It’s been a long journey into picture books. It took about 10 years of serious focus to break into children’s books and of those 10 years, it took 5 years for the making of Julius and Macy
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GRWR: I adore bravery stories since I was not the bravest of kids, nor were my children. Tell us how you decided on this topic for your picture book.
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AM: I adore bravery stories too! I didn’t set out with a definite topic for this book at the beginning. It was more finding the characters that resonated with me and asking questions as I drew them over and over again. So the characters came first. The more I drew Julius and Macy the clearer their story became.
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Julius and_Macy int2 interview with Annelouise Mahoney
Interior art from Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night written and illustrated by Annelouise Mahoney, Two Lions/Amazon Children’s Publishing ©2021.
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GRWR: Burning question. Are you more Julius or more Macy?  
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AM: That’s a fun question! Honestly, I think I’m a little bit of both. I love to go after something I’m passionate about but feel bravest with someone by my side. I feel the younger me is more adventurous like Julius, but the older me is more cautious like Macy.
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GRWR: Please walk us through your approach to writing and illustrating. Did you conceive the text first and then illustrate it, vice versa, or did everything happen simultaneously?
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AM: I’ve learned to stick to the illustrations first. Not full illustrations, but loose sketches of ideas, and build from there. I gather all the loose sketches into a folder and begin placing them into a small thumbnail template. The template is an 8×11 piece of paper where I can see the story in one place. When I can see the story, and feel the visual narrative is working, then it’s time to add the words. This part of the process takes a long time for me. It’s a lot of experimenting to get the words right. If I start with the text too soon, I usually end up straying from my story.
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GRWR: Can we talk about your gorgeous artwork and how you create it?
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Photo courtesy of Annelouise Mahoney
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AM: In the beginning when I’m moving away from the very loose thumbnail sketch and planning out the compositions for each spread, I use Post-it notes to redraw certain elements, or add to what I already have. This part of the process takes a long time for me. It’s figuring out compositions and looking for how to express a feeling. I’m also looking for areas that may be repetitive and looking for the most interesting way to show the story. There is a lot of experimenting happening at this stage. The Post-it notes help me to not get attached to any single idea as I can just take it off or move it around without having to redraw the whole spread.
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Photo courtesy of Annelouise Mahoney
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When I think what’s happening on the page is working, I scan the sketches into the computer and make the images bigger in photoshop. I’m looking for more specific information I can give to each spread, making sure the compositions work within the trim size and add the text to make sure everything reads well in the space. 
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This dummy stage will then repeat as I go through revisions with my agent and then my editor until the story is fleshed out and polished.
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Once the story is polished, I begin all over again with small thumbnails but this time I’m focusing only on color. For Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night, I made a color guide to help me navigate the color choice for each spread before going into final art. I found this part extremely helpful because I was painting in watercolor and I had to know how I was going to approach each painting.
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Photo courtesy of Annelouise Mahoney
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I then repeated the process of scanning in the tiny thumbnails in Photoshop and making them much bigger to fit into the book template. I was interested to see where I need to focus on adding details and how the images read in the true size of the book. It’s checking and double-checking that the text will fit and I’m getting the color transitions right. Once the loose wash looks right and I can see where I’m going, I took large sheets of Arches 140lb cold press watercolor paper and cut them down a little larger than print size.

I painted each page in watercolor, with lots and lots of wash layers. I would work on a few spreads at a time so there was time for the paint to dry, and time to look away from a work in progress. There is an uncomfortable moment in each illustration where it looks ugly and messy and doesn’t feel like it will work before it does. When the painting was dry and complete, I scanned each painting into the computer and used photoshop and my Wacom tablet to set each painting into the picture book template provided by my publisher, Two Lions.
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GRWR: Now that you have one book under your belt, are you busy with promoting it, or are you also making time for more artistic pursuits?
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AM: Promotion does take a lot of time, and I’m enjoying this moment very much. But yes, I’m working on two other book dummies at the moment and I’m hoping to get them submission-ready soon. 
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GRWR: Do you have a routine you like to stick to when working on a project?
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AM: I really need to be flexible as a working mom and often bring my book dummies, Post-it notes and pencils with me wherever I go. As far as a routine, I definitely wake up early each day before the demands of my family take over, and I work at night when there is another wave of calm. Those precious hours are protected for when I really need to concentrate.
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JuliusAndMacyAVeryBraveNight int3 Interview with AnneLouise Mahoney
Interior spread from Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night written and illustrated by Annelouise Mahoney, Two Lions/Amazon Children’s Publishing ©2021.
 
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GRWR: Is there a spread in Julius and Macy that really resonates with the child in you and the mother in you?
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AM: Oh wow, what a beautiful question. The spread of the book with panels of Julius and Macy walking into and through the dark cave resonates with me as a mother.  When my daughters were very young they would slip into pretend play very easily. They craved adventure and enjoyed little scary moments where they were challenged to be brave. The Los Angeles zoo has a man-made cave meant for little ones to explore. We’d visit it often and my girls would become more and more brave to venture through it, their imaginations on fire as they explored every corner.
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As an author, I find writing a children’s book a bit like walking in the dark. There are times when I don’t know where I’m going, I can’t see the story, I can easily spook myself, but there is the need to keep going even if the unknown feels scary. As a child, I craved adventure stories and had a very active imagination. I think I’d be excited to walk into a cave, as long as I had a friend beside me and it wasn’t completely dark.
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GRWR: What would you love for children to take away from reading your book?
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AM: I would love children to explore what bravery means to them and see the many ways they’ve been brave in their own life. I’d like children to know that there is a unique form of bravery to reach out to someone, especially when you notice someone struggling to belong, as well as the bravery and trust to reach back.
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GRWR: Has anyone in particular been influential in your kidlit career?
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AM: I had a brave moment myself, and enrolled in a class taught by Marla Frazee at Art Center College of Design. She lit the way for me when I was really struggling to understand the craft of writing for children. She taught in a way I could understand by breaking things down to get to the heart of the story, finding the emotion in the art, trusting what your sketches are trying to tell you. Most importantly, when writing as an illustrator, stick to the sketching first. I’m still learning and growing, but those lessons influence how I write and how I create a book. 
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GRWR: What important lesson or invaluable piece of advice have you learned along the way in your children’s publishing experience that you’d like to share today?
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AM: I believe that if you want to write for children, be passionate about it. Really put in the time and love to learn the craft. Be passionate about what you are working on. Publishing takes time and you want the love for your story to carry you through the rejections, revisions, and care that will ultimately polish your book better than you could ever do alone. 
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GRWR: What can we expect next?
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AM: I hope to make many more books! That’s really all I want to do. Whether I have the honor of working with another author to create a book together or have the opportunity to publish more of my own stories. It’s the greatest privilege to make books for kids. 
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GRWR: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to mention? 
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AM: I’d like to mention to your readers that I have activity pages that correspond to my book available for download on my website. www.WoodlandAbbey.com 
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Also, I’m a member of a wonderful group of children’s book authors, The Picture Book Scribblers. We are all available for school visits paired by theme or individually. You can find us here https://picturebookscribbl.wixsite.com/home
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Thank you so much, Ronna. It’s been an absolute pleasure to chat with you today!
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GRWR: What a wonderfully frank and informative interview. Thank you, Annelouise, and best of luck with Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night.
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BRIEF BIO

Annelouise Mahoney photo courtesy of ©Michael Chang

Annelouise Mahoney has worked in animation for DreamWorks, DIC Animation, Sony, and Saban Entertainment. She has also worked as a colorist for Marvel and Image Comics on such series as Uncanny X-Men, Generation X, and others. This is her first picture book, and it was inspired by the depths of her daughters’ friendships and the many ways they are brave, especially with someone on their side. She loves to explore the forest, can’t resist a cave, and has a lot of love for all those named Julius in her life. Annelouise lives in Southern California with her family. Learn more about her at www.woodlandabbey.com.
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Order your copy of Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night: Mahoney today.

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SOCIAL MEDIA

Facebook: Woodland Abbey

Twitter: @WoodlandAbbey

Instagram: Annelouise Mahoney 

 

CLICK HERE FOR DOWNLOADABLE ACTIVITY PAGES

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Julius and Macy A Very Brave Night-4 GiveawayTWO GIVEAWAY OPPORTUNITIES

1. Enter our Twitter giveaway @goodreadsronna for a chance to win a signed copy of Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night together with a special Giveaway Prize Package from Annelouise that includes an 8×11 print of cover, a sticker sheet, and a round sticker. Eligible for U.S.  only. One winner will be selected at random and announced at 6 pm PDT on Friday, April 9.

 

             WIN!          WIN!          WIN!          WIN!

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2. Additionally, five lucky winners will each receive three fabulous books celebrating the art of making and keeping friends, including Julius and Macy: A Very Brave Night, courtesy of Two Lions. Details and entry form can be found here (US addresses).

 

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Click here to read another recent author-illustrator interview.

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Picture Book Blog Tour – An Interview With Chick Chat Author Illustrator Janie Bynum

MEET JANIE BYNUM

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR OF

CHICK CHAT

(NorthSouth Books; $17.95, Ages 4-8)

 

CHICKCHAT cover

 

 

It’s Day One of the CHICK CHAT BLOG TOUR as well as its book birthday! Peep! Peep! GRWR is so happy to participate and celebrate the hatching. Please enjoy the following interview with Chick Chat author-illustrator Janie Bynum and her insights on this fun new read-aloud picture book for children.

 

CHICK CHAT SUMMARY:

Friendship comes in all shapes and sizes.

Peep, peep, peep! Baby Chick has a lot to say!

Everyone in Chick’s family is too busy to chat with her. But when chatty baby Chick adopts a large egg—she finally finds a friend who is a good listener. When her egg goes missing, Chick is heartbroken, until she finds that it has hatched into a brand-new friend!

INTERVIEW WITH CHICK CHAT AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR JANIE BYNUM

GoodReadsWithRonna: Hi Janie! Welcome to the blog. I’ve got lots of questions for you today.
In your author bio on the book’s copyright page, you mention how talkative you were as a child. Can you expand on this and how it influenced creating your main character Baby Chick?

Janie Bynum: Being an inquisitive, talkative, and determined child, I’m sure I tested the patience of my family—and quite a few teachers. Baby Chick and I share all of those personality traits—as well as being a fairly self-reliant youngest sibling. As I wrote and revised Baby Chick’s story, this very talkative youngest sibling emerged. So I ended up writing from a perspective (with a voice, as it were) that I understood as a kid.

In early versions of the manuscript, Baby Chick actually spoke instead of only peeping. But, I ultimately chose to have her peep in such a way that sounds like she knows exactly what she’s saying (and she does). This way kids can interpret what she may be saying—either inferred by the illustrations or by whatever words they imagine for her.

 

CHICK CHAT int1 breakfast
Interior spread from Chick Chat written and illustrated by Janie Bynum, NorthSouth Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: Which came first, the Baby Chick character design or the story?

JB: The Baby Chick character art came first.

GRWR: It was funny how everyone in Baby Chick’s family is unaffected (to the point of almost ignoring her while they’re otherwise occupied) by her nonstop peeping while she carries on joyfully by herself. Is there something to be learned from her sheer self-contentedness?

JB: Possibly … by enjoying our own company, not being entirely dependent on others to “make” our happiness for us. Baby Chick is creative and makes her own fun; and, in doing so, she discovers something to nurture, which ultimately hatches into a friend who listens.

GRWR: I was absolutely convinced Baby Chick had found a rock not a big egg. Was this deliberate?

JB: No. The giant Galapagos tortoise’s egg—which I used for reference—looks very much like a round stone. Only at first, when she hasn’t fully unearthed the object, does Baby Chick not know that it’s an egg. But once she uncovers it, she realizes it’s some sort of egg—maybe not a chicken egg because it’s so round. But Baby Chick either doesn’t notice the difference or doesn’t care. It’s an egg without anyone to tend it, so she decides to be its guardian.

GRWR: I’m curious why you decided to make the baby turtle a quiet character rather than one “with a lot to say” like Baby Chick?

JB: I could’ve made the baby turtle/tortoise even more talkative than Baby Chick, which would’ve been funny. But I wanted Baby Chick to be rewarded (for all her nurturing and protection of the egg) with a friend who likes to listen. It’s also a sort of celebration of the yin/yang relationship, how seemingly opposites are actually complementary (in this case extrovert/introvert).

 

CHICK CHAT int2 Sister
Interior spread from Chick Chat written and illustrated by Janie Bynum, NorthSouth Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: Do you see Chick Chat as primarily a friendship story or did you feel there were other themes you wanted the book to explore?

JB: The friendship theme is wrapped around a story about self-sufficiency; and, as you noted earlier, self-contentedness. So, it really has two main themes.

GRWR: What medium do you work in when creating your artwork?

JB: I used a combination of digital media and traditional watercolor, which is the way I generally work. For Chick Chat art, I worked on my iPad (in an app called Procreate) and in Photoshop on my Mac computer with large monitor. I used traditional watercolor for some areas, and added real paper and paint textures (with Photoshop layers) to give more depth to some of the digital color.

GRWR: As someone who began telling stories first visually, do you usually create your dummy with thumbnails and then add the prose later?

Studio paint 2
Painting space in Janie Bynum’s studio ©2021.

JB: I usually have a character in mind first that I must draw so that I can get to know them. A seed of a story germinates as I’m drawing. As I start writing the story, I sometimes create a simplified mind map to look at arc, action, and direction possibilities. Then I write some more. And I revise. And then I revise the text some more.

When I feel like I have a fairly finished manuscript, I start thumbnails. Inevitably, the text changes as I work on thumbnails and rough sketches. So, as I create the rough dummy, I work back and forth between words and pictures until I feel confident that the story (both visual and written) is ready to submit to my agent.

GRWR: I enjoyed a lot of the little unexpected details you included in the illustrations like Baby Chick’s grasshopper friend (or cricket), and the punny titles of the books Sister is reading. Did you do this in all the books you illustrate even if you didn’t write them?

JB: Thank you. Since I write/illustrate for a fairly young audience, I try to add details that older readers (especially adults) will enjoy. While I don’t include a small observer character (who sometimes participates) in all of the books I illustrate and/or write, I have done so in a few. In Otis, which I wrote, a red bird appears in many of the pictures; and, in Porcupining, written by Lisa Wheeler, a grasshopper observes and sometimes participates.

GRWR: What do you do to spark your creativity? Is your process to work daily, inspired or not?

JB: In addition to creating children’s books, I work as a creative director and graphic designer (outside of children’s publishing), so creative problem-solving is part of my day every day. But, one of the things I do as a creativity spark—at least several times per week—is just draw for no reason at all, with nothing in mind until pencil meets paper (or stylus meets iPad). Many times character ideas come from these sessions.

GRWR: How long did it take to complete Chick Chat from the idea stage to the final book we can order from bookstores today?

JB: Roughly two years: story and book dummy, spring 2019; art delivered January 2020; published book January 2021.

 

CHICK CHAT int3 NoAnswer
Interior art from Chick Chat written and illustrated by Janie Bynum, NorthSouth Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: Who are some of your current kidlit illustrator faves and why?

JB: I have soooo many favorites, and for so many different reasons.

I love the color and stylized work of Felicita Sala. I adore the haunting stylized art of illustrators like Isabelle Arsenault and the cheery whimsy of Louise Gay. Carter Goodrich’s dogs are divinely humorous, and he possesses quite a deft hand with paint. With Sophie Blackall’s art, I’m inspired by her use of color, texture, and pattern. Her work is retro and contemporary, both at the same time.

Oliver Jeffers’ composition on the page (including an amazing sense of negative space) and his sensitive use of color and line inspires me. Matthew Cordell’s spontaneous linework and non-complicated watercolor embodies a spontaneous loose feel that I aspire to in my own work.

I like Ryan T. Higgins’s ink line coupled with his graphic use of shape and color (and, of course, his humor); the gorgeously strange art of Mateo Dineen; and the Matisse’esque art of Olivier Tallec.

GRWR: What’s in the works for your next book?

JB: A very creative beetle is the hero of my current work-in-progress. Also, I’m considering creating something for Gary the Worm to star in. (To find out who Gary is, visit my Instagram @janiebynum.)

GRWR: Is there anything else you’d like to add that perhaps I haven’t addressed?

JB: I’d like to let educators (including parents and grands) know that they can find Chick Chat activities at my website (janiebynum.com) and at northsouth.com/resources. And last, but not least, thank you for including me in your blog!

GRWR: It’s been such a pleasure being the first stop on your blog tour and getting to know you and Chick Chat better. Thanks for your terrific answers!

 

AuthorIllustrator JanieBynumBIO:

Janie Bynum grew up in Texas and graduated with a BFA in graphic design with an emphasis on illustration. As an author/illustrator, she has created many lovable characters and stories for younger children. Her work has been recognized as a Junior Library Guild Selection. She loves to travel and experience other cultures, drawing inspiration from the people, landscape, and cuisine. Known to her friends as a bit of a nomad, Janie lives in a nearly-100-year-old storybook house in southwest Michigan—for now.

Website: janiebynum.com

Instagram: @janiebynum


CHICK CHAT BLOG TOUR PARTICIPANTS AND DATES

·       Dulemba.com – January 28

·       Dreamreaderkids – February 2 Instagram/Blog review +giveaway

·       Storymamas – March 10 review + giveaway

·       Kidlit411 – March 26 illustrator spotlight

 

CLICK HERE TO READ ANOTHER AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR INTERVIEW

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A Q+A with Author Alexis O’Neill about Melvil Dewey

AN INTERVIEW WITH ALEXIS O’NEILL

Author of

The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying)

Melvil Dewey

 

EFFICIENT MELVIL DEWEY cvr

 

 

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.

BOOK SUMMARY:

Melvil Dewey’s love of organization and words drove him to develop and implement 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.

The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey
Written by Alexis O’Neill
Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham
(
Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

 

INTERVIEW:

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.

 

Melvil Dewey int1
Interior spread from The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey, written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, Calkins Creek ©2020.

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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.)

 

MELVIL DEWEY int2
Interior spread from The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey, written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, Calkins Creek ©2020.

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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.

 

MELVIL DEWEY int3
Interior spread from The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey, written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham, Calkins Creek ©2020.

 

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!

 

AON Headshot by SonyaSones
Author Alexis O’Neill photo courtesy of ©Sonya Sones.

BIO:

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.

 

 

Website: www.alexisoneill.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/alexis.oneill.9

Twitter: @AlexisInCA

Instagram: @Alexis2017

 

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