Colleen Paeff:Hi Candy! Congratulations on the release of your second picture book, The Stars Beckoned: Edward White’s Amazing Walk In Space (illustrated by Courtney Dawson)! You’ve said that when you started writing this book you weren’t really a space buff. Do you think that helped or hindered you during the research process?
Candy Wellins: I hope it helped! Most of what I knew about the history of NASA came from THE RIGHT STUFF, which does a good job of covering Project Mercury and I think everyone has a basic understanding of Apollo, but the Gemini missions are kind of like the forgotten middle children of the NASA missions. Not the first ones and not the flashy ones, but certainly important ones. I read the transcript of the entire Gemini IV mission–pages and pages of technical jargon—but once you get to the heart of the mission and “hearing” the astronauts speak, it’s pretty riveting.
CP: Would you consider yourself a space buff now?
CW: No, not a space buff by any means. Maybe an above-average space enthusiast at best!
CP: I’m always impressed by authors who can tell a story in rhyme, but I’m especially impressed by authors who can tell a nonfiction story in rhyme! Was rhyming something that was a part of The Stars Beckoned from the beginning or did it come later in the revision process?
CW: I knew I wanted to tell Edward’s story for a while and I didn’t have a plan whatsoever. I only wrote in prose at that point and I tried a few things, but didn’t like them at all. A writer in my critique group shared a biography written in verse that I thought was just lovely. It made me want to do something biographical in verse just to try it. Edward came to mind immediately. I had done a lot of the preliminary research and, honestly, if you’re going to get your feet wet in rhyme, might as well do it with someone who has a very rhymable last name like White. The opening lines came to me pretty quickly and I just let the story take me where it needed to go.
CP: Edward White’s children gave you feedback as you worked on the story, right? How did you get in touch with them and were they immediately open to you writing about their dad?
CW: During one of my many Google searches of Edward’s name, I found a post his granddaughter made celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his spacewalk. She is a realtor so I was able to find contact information easily and reached out to her. She put me in touch with her dad and aunt and I shared the manuscript with them. It was important to me that the book be as historically accurate as possible. They were especially helpful as we moved into the illustration phase–getting hair colors, clothing choices and airplane models exactly as they were was important to all of us. Most Americans know the names of other “first” astronauts like Alan Shepard, Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, but I feel—and I think his children would agree—Edward has been somewhat forgotten by history. I hope my book can change that just a bit because he really was amazing and did important work.
Bella’s beret blows away on a windy day, taking a ride through the seasons and landing in many places along the way. When the beret lands in a chef’s pan – hip, hip, soufflé! When it lands on the head of a dancer – hip, hip, ballet! As Bella searches for her missing beret, young readers can enjoy their own search for a few touchable felt berets inside the book.
Clarinet and Trumpet have a pitch-perfect friendship. But when Oboe convinces Clarinet that woodwinds should stick together, Clarinet and Trumpet’s harmonious relationship falls flat. Woodwinds and Brass face off – until music brings them back together. With pun-filled text and emotive illustrations, CLARINET & TRUMPET honors the important role music plays in creating community.
INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR MELANIE ELLSWORTH:
Colleen Paeff:Congratulations on the release of your second picture book, Clarinet & Trumpet (illustrated by John Herzog). I love all the wordplay in both this book and in your debut, Hip, Hip … Beret! (illustrated by Morena Forza). How did you get so punny?
Melanie Ellsworth: Thanks, Colleen! It’s so nice to chat with you on Good Reads With Ronna. I think punny might be in my DNA. I grew up with a father who slips puns into conversations whenever possible. He also composes limericks for any and every occasion. So I can’t help myself. Wordplay makes the creative process more joyful!
CP:The cover of Clarinet & Trumpet says “Shake this Book.” What happens when you shake the book and how did that idea come about?
ME:When I submitted the manuscript, I offered to include back matter on musical instruments. But my editor had a more innovative idea; she wanted a tactile element, so she suggested embedding a shaker/rattle so readers can join in the musical fun. When I received my author copies, I discovered that the sound-maker is cleverly embedded in the book’s spine. When you tip the book, it sounds (and works) a lot like a rainstick. It’s quite soothing!
Another neat musical feature about the book is that the “and” in the title is a G clef! I had never really noticed how similar the ampersand and the G clef were until I saw that switch. The art department was very clever!
CP:Do you play any instruments yourself or did writing a book about musical instruments require research? Or both?!
ME: Both! I did some googling of instrument terminology, sound words, and musical puns. But mostly, this book came from my own experience playing in bands, orchestras, district bands, and pit bands. I started piano lessons around age 7 and clarinet lessons around age 10. In high school, I took a few saxophone lessons just because saxophones are cool. Clarinet was always my favorite, though. I was hooked from the first time I heard its sound in an elementary school instrument “petting zoo.” I love the versatility of the clarinet – for classical, jazz, klezmer, big band, new age, you name it! I played clarinet through college and a bit afterward. Someday, I will whip my embouchure back into shape and join a local community band.
CP:You said in a previous interview that you’ve always loved picture books. Why do you think they’ve had such a long-standing appeal for you?
ME: The quality cuddling time with my mom as we read picture books together started my love for the genre. My local library also fueled that love. The combination of lyrical text and gorgeous pictures is pretty magical at any age. Now that I write picture books as well as reading them, I still appreciate many of the same things I always have: the quiet cuddle time they inspire, the rich vocabulary and themes, the introduction for our youngest readers to other types of families and communities, the way picture books kindle empathy, the stunning art, and the way the art often tells another story – like getting a two-for-one deal! And I love a good challenge – trying to write a humorous, heartfelt story with themes relatable to both children and adults, with an arc and interesting characters, with text that sings, leaving plenty of room for the illustrator, and in less than 500 words.
CP:You spent time backpacking around Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. What’s one of your favorite memories from that time?
ME:Hmmm, so many! One is staying with a family in Bomet, Kenya and helping with a community water-tank build. Now you’ve got me thinking about the delicious ground nut sauce I ate there. Another favorite memory is making it up to Annapurna Base Camp in the Himalayas and eating the Snickers I had saved for that moment. Best Snickers ever. (Seems like I may have to write a travel/food-themed picture book!)
CP:Did you learn any lessons as a world traveler that you apply to your writing life?
ME: I’ve actually been thinking about this question for years, looking for the intersections between my travels and the life I live now. I’m hoping to find a way to write about it. Travel presents an opportunity to see other people more deeply and to think about the way my choices, and all of our choices, ripple out to affect a global community. I think you have to travel with a sense of humor, keep an eye out for the funny, absurd, and unusual, recognize that what strikes you as absurd may not be universal, and be open to many ways of seeing. These are all things that apply to writing as well.
CP: If I asked you to curate a perfect day, guaranteed to get the creative juices flowing, what would it look like?
ME: It sounds a bit dull, but starting the day with coffee at my desk up in my barn office works best for me. A perfect day might start with me writing a haiku to warm up my creative senses. Ideally, I’d start every day with writing or revising, but I almost always start by checking email. Usually, I set a timer so I don’t get completely off track with that. A perfect day would definitely involve a walk down to the river with my dog. I get to do that most days, and sometimes I pay close attention to nature – like crocuses unfurling or a pair of hooded mergansers on the river. Other days, I look inwards on walks and end up with new story ideas that I text to myself so I won’t forget them.
CP:Is there anything else I should have asked?
ME: Thanks for your super interesting questions! If I asked myself questions like these every day, my creative juices would always be flowing. Here’s another question that might be useful for readers: What are some tips to stay focused on writing when so much else is going on?
A friend once told me to do a “brain dump” each day. It involves setting a timer for 5 minutes and writing down everything on your mind (grocery lists, errands, worries, etc.) so you can free yourself from those distractions before starting creative work. Something similar that helps me is to make a list of all writing and non-writing tasks I hope to do that day in my bullet journal. (I also have a weekly goals list.) And if you’re having one of those days or weeks when you’re feeling frustrated because you are not crossing much off your to-do list, try this tip from one of my critique partners, Anna Crowley Redding. As you work, keep a separate list of everything you actually do that day. There’s always so much that crops up that you weren’t expecting, so this is a good reminder that you actually WERE productive, even when you’re not feeling it. Try it when you need a little boost.
CP: What’s next for you?
ME:Several of my picture books are on submission through my agent, and I’m always writing/revising a few new ones. I hope to try some other genres this year, including an early reader graphic novel and a middle-grade novel (which would involve finishing a book I started writing years ago).
Melanie Ellsworth is the author of HIP, HIP… BERET! and CLARINET & TRUMPET. Over the years, Melanie has played a variety of instruments, including the piano, the saxophone, and the clarinet. She has yet to try out the trumpet! Melanie has worked as an ESOL teacher and a literacy specialist and now writes in an old house in Maine where she lives with her family.
I’m thrilled to have Alexis back on GRWR to talk about her latest picture book biography and the quirky visionary she chose to write about.
Melvil Dewey’s love of organization and words drove him to develop andimplement his Dewey Decimal system, leaving a significant and lasting impact in libraries across the country.
When Melvil Dewey realized every library organized their books differently, he wondered if he could invent a system all libraries could use to organize them efficiently. A rat-a-tat speaker, Melvil was a persistent (and noisy) advocate for free public libraries. And while he made enemies along the way as he pushed for changes–like his battle to establish the first library school with women as students, through it all he was EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often ANNOYING as he made big changes in the world of public libraries–changes still found in the libraries of today!
Buy the book from your local independent bookseller.
Good Reads With Ronna: It’s like the history of Melvil Dewey has been hiding in plain sight all these years. I never gave much thought to his decimal system of book organization for libraries, and definitely never figured it out. What sparked your curiosity into the man and his contributions?
Alexis O’Neill: I hadn’t given him much thought either, Ronna, until a librarian friend sent me a funny video she used to help teach kids the Dewey Decimal System. That made me realize I didn’t know a thing about the inventor of this seemingly ubiquitous system.
GRWR: Apart from what Melvil Dewey is most famous for, what other ideas did you discover during your research phase that he championed which have impacted our lives?
AON: Dewey really championed education for all. He was concerned about rural Americans as well as the waves of new immigrants having easier access to information. He also was a proponent of the Simplified Spelling movement, a precursor to today’s texting – getting rid of vowels and extra letters in words that hindered or were unnecessary to pronunciation – like “tho” for “though.” He chopped “Melville” down to “Melvil” but when there was an outcry, was convinced not to change “Dewey” to “Dui.”
GRWR: Let’s talk about Dewey’s dream of a librarian school at Columbia College where he was the chief librarian. Trustees did “not want women on their campus.” So how did he succeed?
AON: He got around them by following the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law. When Columbia College Trustees refused to have women on campus, Dewey bent rules to his needs: he opened his School of Library Economy in a storeroom over the chapel across the street. The entering class had seventeen women and three men.
GRWR: Dewey is referred to in the jacket flap as “EFFICIENT, INVENTIVE, and often annoying.“ Can you describe some of his quirky character traits?
AON: Even if Dewey had no fatal flaws (and he indeed had them), I still don’t think I’d be able to stand being in the same room with him for very long. He talked incessantly and rapidly. While the average American speaks at about 100-130 words per minute, one of Dewey’s students clocked him at a rate of 180 words per minute. When he tried to convince others about one of his ideas, he was like a dog on a bone. From a very young age and throughout his life, he obsessively kept lists of things such as his height, weight, assets, and more. And he fixated on the number 10, thus decimals. He wrote, “I am so loyal to decimals as our great labor saver that I even like to sleep decimally” (in other words, 10 hours a night.)
GRWR: Melvil approached every endeavor and encounter in his life at 100 mph. The train visuals speeding through the pages of your story perfectly convey this energy. Do you think he moved at this pace because he had so much to accomplish in his lifetime that was predicted to be short after he inhaled smoke during a fire in his youth?
AON: Dewey grew up in a deeply religious, restrictive household. He was always concerned with wastefulness and a desire “to leave the world a better place than when I found it.” But when he was recuperating from a fire at his school as a teen, this desire became an obsession as did his preoccupation with efficiency.
GRWR: There are a lot of words printed in bold throughout the book. You also ask young readers several questions throughout it as well. Can you explain why?
AON: I wanted readers to come along with the book’s narrator on a breathless ride in “real-time” as Dewey’s driving energy rushes through the years. I used present tense, direct questions, and bolded words to make the narrative voice break the fourth wall and emphasize the surprise the narrator feels while making observations about Dewey.
GRWR: What made Dewey fall out of favor in the public’s eye?
AON: A couple of decades into his career, Dewey was exposed as a racist, anti-Semite, and serial sexual harasser. He had created the Lake Placid Club that specifically excluded people of color, Jews, and other religious groups. And there had been justified complaints for years in the American Library Association, a group he helped found, about Dewey’s serial harassment of women. For his actions, he was censured by the NYS Board of Regents for his discriminatory practices, forced to resign from his positions as State Librarian and director of the library school, and ostracized by the ALA.
GRWR: How do you reconcile Dewey’s love of books and reading driving his initial motivation to help immigrants and those who cannot afford books with his bigoted views of Jews and others?
AON: I really can’t reconcile or explain this.
GRWR: Is it hard to write about someone whose personal views you may not necessarily like or agree with?
AON: Dewey’s goal was to make the world a better place. So the question is, did his classification system make the world a better place? I believe it did. It expanded educational opportunities for the general public by making access to information more efficient. There are countless examples of artists, scientists, and others whose negative personal behaviors are hard to reconcile with their contributions, but their contributions have made significant, positive differences in so many lives.
GRWR: You used to write fiction and of late have switched to nonfiction kidlit, primarily biographies. What about writing fact-based stories appeals to you? And what do you think kids like about them?
AON: I still write fiction, but I love American history! Early in my writing career, I wrote many articles for Cobblestone Magazine, and doing the research was a kick. Like me, I think kids are excited to know when something is real. Some facts–especially in history or science–just take my breath away.
GRWR: Where do you turn to for story inspiration?
AON: Footnotes in books, articles, videos – lots of things spark ideas for stories. I never know where the next spark comes from or if it will flame into a book.
GRWR: If you’re able to divulge this info, what is on your radar for your next picture book?
AON: Right now, I have a couple of fiction picture books circulating, and I’m working on a middle-grade nonfiction project. After so many years of writing “tight,” doing long-form work is challenging. I keep wanting to cut words!
Thanks for this opportunity, Ronna!
GRWR:What a treat it’s been to have you back here to share your insights about Melvil Dewey, Alexis. I will never look at those numbers in the library the same way again!
Alexis O’Neill is the author of several picture books including The Recess Queen, the winner of several children’s choice awards, and The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, a California Young Reader Medal Nominee. Her new picture book biographies are Jacob Riis’s Camera; Bringing Light to Tenement Children and The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey. Alexis received the California Reading Association’s award for making significant and outstanding contributions to reading throughout California and is an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
Her new book, When a Tree Grows, is a rollicking read-aloud that follows a zany chain of events triggered by a broken tree, a cranky Bear, a nut-loving Squirrel and his loyal friend Moose.
What’s a moose to do? If he’s got an itch on his antlers he could try scratching it on a tree for relief while his forest friends watch worriedly OR that tree could come crashing down onto a sleeping bear’s cave. CRASH-BOOM! That innocent action sets off a series of humorous events certain to bring out the smiles and laughter when read aloud to children, adding an emphasis on the sound effects presented in big and bold font.
Ultimately Moose manages to avoid a swerving truck and remain in the woods while a sassy squirrel hops on board the vehicle and heads into “the big city.” Squirrel envisions becoming a big star but when dreams of grandeur or a job fail to materialize, he longs for forest life. Will he find a way to get home and if he does, what will happen? Find out in this adorable, page-turning tale of what ifs with a happy ending that will not just satisfy but delight.
I love the sweet, digitally rendered illustrations by Kasia Nowowiejska, especially how she’s incorporated an acorn into the title. All of the forest friends are adorable although I’m partial to the wild boar. I’d like to see him in another story someday. Cathy’s come up with a clever premise for her debut picture book that will hook youngsters who’ll wonder where Moose’s and Squirrel’s misadventures will lead.
About the Author:
Debut author Cathy Ballou Mealey lives with her family north of Boston, where she delights in watching silly squirrel antics and is waiting patiently for a moose to appear. Her favorite nut is the hazelnut and her favorite cupcake is cardamom crème.
Good Reads With Ronna: Do you recall how we met?
Cathy Ballou Mealey: I’m looking forward to meeting IRL one day when our coastal paths cross! I recall subscribing to Good Reads with Ronna so I would not miss any of the stellar picture book reviews. After commenting on a few posts (OK, probably a lot of posts) I think we exchanged emails about adding me to the GRWR review team! What’s your recollection Ronna?
GRWR: Aww, thanks Cathy! I recall one day noticing I’d gotten several thoughtful post comments from a woman with the middle name of Ballou, the same name of the title character from one of my favorite films, “Cat Ballou” starring Jane Fonda. I asked if you knew the film. When you did I figured you were close to my age and we might have more in common than just a love of kidlit.
GRWR: What is an average CBM day like including beverage of choice and snacks?
CBM: My writing work is 100% done during the hours that my kids are at school. First I check email and respond to anything pressing. I try to post on Instagram next, peek at other social media, and then delve into writing, research or revising. I’m fueled by Earl Grey tea and Pepperidge Farm cookies, usually!
GRWR:Okay, now we have even more in common, but I’ll admit I’ve had to cut back on my Milano cookies consumption!
GRWR:On a down day, what/who are 3-5 of your go-to spirit lifter books or authors?
CBM: Thankfully, those days are few and far between. Although my first love will always be picture books, MG or YA are my preference for escapist reading about finding hope and building resiliency. I just devoured Kevin Henkes’ Sweeping Up The Heart, Sharon Creech’s Saving Winslow, and Kate Allen’s The Line Tender. Next up are two books I am savoring for the second time, Kelly Yang’s Front Desk and Linda Mullaly Hunt’s One for the Murphys.
GRWR: If you could be reincarnated as any animal which one would it be and why?
CBM: Definitely an otter. Doesn’t everyone love an otter? Whether river or sea, I’d love to juggle pebbles and float on my back, holding paws with my buddies. Doesn’t that sound ideal?
GRWR: Beach baby, city tripper or mountain mama?
CBM: Yes! Oh, I have to choose one? I love the sun, sand and tides of the summer beach because New England can be chilly! City tripping is fab for museums, bookstores and unique food options, but I could skip crowds, concrete and mass transit. Fresh air and mountain vistas thrill me, but not so much the switchbacks! So I’ll take a tiny taste of all three please, in alternating doses! BTW, that’s Cathy with her daughter in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
GRWR: Does music play a big role or any role in your life?
CBM: I like to write in quiet, and I’m an “NPR in the car” driver. Seeing live music is a real treat when I can get out. One of the best concerts I ever attended was Buckwheat Zydeco at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Garden. Music plays a role in my work when I’m writing in rhyme, because I feel the beat and crescendo of the lines and words in a different way. It’s hard to explain, but I want the tone and structure to feel musically resonant and complete!
GRWR: What’s in the pipeline?
CBM: Next up for me is a still-secret, super funny picture book with an amazing publisher in Canada. A sloth and a squirrel team up for a special mission. Look for an announcement soon, and a book sometime in 2021!
Cathy has generously offered two fab prizes to accompany this post! She’ll be happy to giveaway a #PB critique to one person (1000 words or less please!) and a signed copy of When a Tree Grows to another. (US residents only please). So whether you’re a writer or a reader, there’s something here for you! To enter please leave a comment on this post. Get a bonus entry for following me @goodreadsronna on Twitter or @goodreadswithronna on Instagram, but please let me know in your comment. Receive another bonus entry for following Cathy on social media mentioned above. This giveaway opportunity will end at 11:59 pm Pacific Time on Monday, July 1. Good luck and thanks for stopping by the blog!
Thanks tons, Cathy, for taking time away from your tea and cookies to help us all get to know you better. I knew I already liked you lots after our years of communicating online. Could you tell that I really wanted to ask you many more questions? Guess I’ll leave that until your next picture book releases in two years. In the meantime, I’ll continue to be your pen (okay Mac) pal and cannot wait for the day we meet IRL!
If you’re like me and you enjoy getting some interesting insight into Cathy and her writing, I recommend reading these other interviews about her below: