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An Interview with Colleen Paeff Author of The Great Stink

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

COLLEEN PAEFF

AUTHOR OF

THE GREAT STINK:

HOW JOSEPH BAZALGETTE SOLVED

LONDON’S POOP POLLUTION PROBLEM

(Margaret K. McElderry Books; $17.99, Ages 4 to 8)

 

 

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SHORT SUMMARY

The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem combines history and engineering to tell the true story of how one amazing engineer cleaned the stinking River Thames and stopped a deadly cholera epidemic by building London’s first modern sewer system. Illustrations by Nancy Carpenter provide humor, historical details, and plenty of STEM-related discussion starters, while the book’s back matter delves into “Poop Pollution Today” with tips to help young readers keep the waterways in their own communities clean.

 

INTERVIEW

Ronna Mandel: Welcome, Colleen! After two years of your fantastic interviews on this blog, it’s now your turn to answer some questions for our readers!

I’m so excited to share this Q+A about your debut picture book that kept me riveted. And who can close a book that opens with the Queen on her throne, and not the royal throne, but the euphemistic one!?

Now let’s go back to the day the idea for The Great Stink hit you like the foul odors you write about. Where were you and what do you remember thinking about when you first saw those three unforgettable words?

Colleen Paeff: I was reading How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman while waiting for a plane at the airport in Atlanta, Georgia, and I came across a line about “The Great Stink of 1858.” There wasn’t much information about it, so I did a quick Google search because the name was so intriguing. When I realized the Great Stink was caused by poop polluted water and an engineer saved the day by cleaning the River Thames, I knew this story had all the makings of a terrific children’s book.

 

RM: I’m so glad you did. What did your visit to the Crossness Pumping Station in London teach you?

CP: So much! First of all, it convinced me that I wanted to tell this story. The beam engines at the pumping station are incredible and a nonprofit group has been working on restoring them to their former glory, which was really nice to see! While I was there, I was very surprised to learn that Bazalgette’s plan involved pumping sewage back into the river, a practice that continued until 1887 when they started dumping raw sewage directly into the North Sea instead. (!!!) This continued until 1998!

 

 

Colleen at Crossness
Colleen visiting the Crossness Pumping Station.

 

RM: Who knew about all that raw sewage re-dumping so late into the 20th century? Not me! I could gag thinking how much North Sea shrimp I ate back in the ’90s when I lived in Frankfurt!

Your opening paragraph quickly pulls readers in and back in time. I’m curious if you had to work hard to get it as perfectly stinky as it now is? All those superb synonyms spoke to me!

CP: The first sentence is exactly the same as it was from my very first draft. The rest of the paragraph is probably pretty close. I knew I wanted to use all those synonyms for stink and I worked hard to get the right rhythm and then to match that rhythm in the penultimate sentence of the book. The rest of the book didn’t come so easy, though!

 

RM: How did you react when you heard Nancy was illustrating your book and again when you saw the preliminary artwork? What particularly struck you?

CP: I was already a huge Nancy Carpenter fan. She’s illustrated books written by some of my favorite authors (like Michelle Markel, Jonah Winter, Alexis O’Neill!!), so I felt incredibly honored to discover she’d agreed to create the art for my very first book. And, I felt really lucky to be working with a publishing team that thought to ask her! I didn’t see any illustrations until Nancy had completed sketches for the entire book and I was blown away. I really loved how she depicted the cholera epidemics and how Joseph Bazalgette’s character shines through every time we see him. And there’s so much humor! I died laughing when I saw the way our names are floating in the murky waters of the Thames on the cover of the book!

 

RM: I can just imagine. It’s so clever. And just look at the bird on the left side of the cover and those stench-sick people on the bridge. Too funny, although I don’t think anyone was laughing at the time.

I’ve always been fascinated with old England, London especially. I know you love it, too. Do you think that, knowing what you know about the sanitation problems that began in the early 1800s due to population growth and the use of flush toilets, whenever you read stories about this time period you’ll always be thinking about poop? In other words, has your research tainted your image of the Victorian era?

CP: It hasn’t tainted my image of the Victorian era, but it’s made watching movies set in that time period a little more difficult to enjoy because I can’t stop thinking about how the outdoor scenes should have more filth.

 

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Interior spread from The Great Stink written by Colleen Paeff and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, Margaret K. McElderry Books ©2021.

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RM: I feel the same way. And speaking of filth and now knowing the illness it can cause, we learn that Bazalgette was thirteen during the first Cholera epidemic. But by the time more deadly outbreaks come in the late 1840s, he’s already working as an engineer mapping London’s sewer system with the goal of making London “a better, cleaner, healthier place to live.” Were you surprised that no one had thought about this sooner? Can you speak to why his initial plan didn’t get wide approval and how it eventually did? 

CP: They had been talking about updating London’s sewers for decades. In fact, Bazalgette’s predecessor, Frank Forster, is largely thought to have died from overwork due to the stress of his job. A big part of the problem was finding the money to pay for such an enormous project. But when the problem started impacting the people in power—the Houses of Parliament are right on the Thames where the stench was intense—and people started to die by the thousands, they suddenly found the money and they found it fast.

 

 

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Interior spread from The Great Stink written by Colleen Paeff and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, Margaret K. McElderry Books ©2021.

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RM: There is SO much interesting, eye-opening stuff in The Great Stink, Colleen. Tell me what you had to leave out that you SO wish you could have kept in?

CP: I wish I could have included how Dr. John Snow tracked the source of London’s 1853 cholera epidemic to a water pump on Broad Street not far from Bazalgette’s office. It’s such a fascinating story. Grownups can read more about it in Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World.

 

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Colleen at the location of the Broad Street Pump

 

RM: As a bonafide Anglophile, I’m adding that book to my TBR list! How long did it take for you to gather all your research material and write the book?

CP: I started my research in August of 2016 and the manuscript went on submission in May of 2018. But I wasn’t working on that story alone for the whole time. I had other books I was writing and researching. I don’t work on different projects simultaneously, but I will work on one book for a while, send it out to my critique partners, and work on something else while I’m waiting on their feedback. Or sometimes if I can’t figure out how to solve a particular problem with a manuscript, I set it aside for a few months while I work on something else.

 

RM: What is it about nonfiction that resonates with you?

CP: I love nonfiction because it allows me to really dig into subjects that fascinate me. I never imagined I would be fascinated by sewers, though! I visited several wastewater treatment facilities over the course of my research and was astounded by the science behind how they treat waste. I was even more astounded by some of the amazing things they’re doing with human waste these days!

 

RM: Sounds like that could be fodder for a second sewage-themed book. 🙂 Do you have any tried and true research tips you can share with other authors starting their nonfiction journey?

CP: Keep track of where you find your information! I’m terrible at doing this, but it makes things so much easier when it comes time to copy edit and fact check a manuscript. I’ve started keeping an “Info Dump” file on Scrivener for each research project and I include source information for every fact. My hope is that later, when I’m fact-checking, I’ll be able to do a word search that will take me to the original source. I’m crossing my fingers that it works!

 

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Colleen visiting the Sir Joseph Bazalgette Memorial on the Victoria Embankment in London

 

RM: Ditto! I’ll be curious to hear how that works out.

Here’s my chance to officially wish you a happy book birthday! Yay! It must have seemed like 2021 was so far off when you first began The Great Stink. But at last, your book is out there on bookshelves (signed copies are at Once Upon a Time Bookstore). What are you most looking forward to?

CP: I can’t wait to hear the reactions of my young readers and to start doing school visits!

RM: By the way, if you’re reading this before 6pm PST or 9pm EST on 8/31/21, there’s still time to register for the virtual book launch this evening here: The Great Stink book launch with Colleen Paeff and Nancy Carpenter via Zoom | Once Upon a Time (shoponceuponatime.com)

 

 

Colleen with her new book at local indie Once Upon a Time
Colleen with her new book at local indie Once Upon a Time Bookstore in Montrose, CA.

 

RM: What resources for creatives do you turn to for inspiration and to keep your prose fresh?

CP: Books and long walks.

 

RM: Do you have any advice for nonfiction book authors who are seeking new subjects and people to write about?

CP: Pay attention to everything. News stories. Little tidbits in books you’re reading. Stories people tell you. Email newsletter content. (I love Atlas Obscura, Smithsonian, and JSTOR’s newsletters.) And if anything piques your interest, dig deeper—look for stories that have lots of angles. The Great Stink touches on germ theory, engineering, history, and environmental science, so teachers should be able to use it in the classroom in lots of different ways. I imagine that was one thing that made it appealing to my editor—though I’ve never asked. Maybe I should!

 

RM: I was one of the passionate members of your picture book study group. Please tell readers the benefits of creating this kind of group. 

CP: Our picture book publisher book club was THE BEST! When I first got serious about writing for kids (after many years of dabbling) I decided that the best way to learn what made each publishing house or imprint unique, would be to get a big pile of picture books published by the same house and read them all at once. So every month, I checked out about 25 books published in the last five years by one publisher, say Chronicle Books, for example, and invited other picture book enthusiasts (including you!) over to my house and we would take turns reading books aloud. The following month, we might do books from Roaring Brook or Holiday House. At first, we only read books from places that accepted unsolicited manuscripts because most of us were unagented, but after the first year, we broadened our scope. There were so many benefits to creating this group. We learned a ton about the market and what was being published. We started to pick up on the subtle (or not so subtle) differences in the books coming from different publishing houses. And, best of all, we made lasting friendships. I think that book club was one of the best things I ever did for myself as a writer.

 

RM: Before we say goodbye, I’m sure everyone wants to know what’s on the horizon for you?

CP: My next book, Rainbow Truck, comes out in 2023 from Chronicle Books. I co-wrote it with Hina Abidi and Saffa Khan is illustrating. It tells the story of a Pakistani decorated truck trying to discover her true purpose as she makes deliveries around the country. If you have never seen a decorated truck from Pakistan, Google it! They’re incredible!! And, in the meantime, I’m working on a new picture book biography and I’ve got a few other projects on the back burner, too. Thanks so much, Ronna, for interviewing me. I’m really glad to be celebrating my book’s birthday with you!

RM: And thank you, Colleen, for taking the time to go into such fascinating detail about The Great Stink. It’s been wonderful!

 

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Colleen Paeff Photo Credit: Warren Paeff

BRIEF BIO

Fueled by English breakfast tea, a burning curiosity, and a love of research, Colleen Paeff writes picture books from a book-lined office in an old pink house with a view of the Hollywood sign. She is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2021) and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi (Chronicle Books, 2023). Find her online at www.colleenpaeff.com and on Twitter and Instagram @ColleenPaeff.

 

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CLICK HERE TO BUY COLLEEN’S BOOK

 

LINKS

Website: www.colleenpaeff.com

Newsletter: https://www.colleenpaeff.com/newsletter/

Twitter: @ColleenPaeff

Instagram: @colleenpaeff

 

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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!

 

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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. 

 

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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!

 

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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 Animals Go Vroom! Author-Illustrator Abi Cushman

 

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

ABI CUSHMAN

AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR OF

ANIMALS GO VROOM!

(Viking Children’s Books; $17.99, Ages 2 to 5)

 

 

Animals Go Vroom cover

 

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

Animals Go Vroom!

Written and illustrated by Abi Cushman

With a nod to Richard Scarry, this inventive picture book surprises readers with every turn of the page!

Hiss! Screech! Roar! It’s a noisy day in Bumperville! But are the sounds what you think they are? That Honk! must surely be a goose. But turn the page and it’s the taxi that a goose is driving! Using cleverly placed die-cuts, this inventive book hints at what is making the sound, but with each turn of the page, it’s an eye-opening surprise and part of an unfolding story that is part guessing game and part giggle-inducing caper. Abi Cushman is the master of surprise and silliness in this absolutely delightful picture book.

 

INTERVIEW:

Colleen Paeff: Happy book birthday and congratulations on the release of your second picture book, Animals Go Vroom! Kids are going to love all the unexpected surprises in this book. The way you use die-cuts is so clever. Were they a key element of the story from the start or did they evolve over time?

Abi Cushman: Thank you, Colleen! I am so thrilled to be here. And congratulations to YOU on your wonderful upcoming debut picture book, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem. It is so wonderfully told, and the illustrations by Nancy Carpenter are fantastic.

CP: Thank you! I love Nancy’s illustrations, too!

AC: To answer your question, yes! I always envisioned die-cuts in the book. My initial thought was about how animal sounds and vehicle sounds sometimes overlap. And so I wanted the book to be a guessing game where readers had to guess who or what was making the sound.

 

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Die-cut windows are a wonderful device for guessing game type books because they give a little peek at the next spread, and then the page turn offers the reveal. 

 

 

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CP: I love the way even the background characters in Animals Go Vroom! have their own stories that play out over the course of the book. That must have been so much fun to illustrate! Can you tell me about coming up with those stories?

AC: Some of the background characters are inspired by family members. The sloth using the walker is based off of my grandmother who would cover great distances at the mall using her walker. She had a cap she’d wear whenever she’d go out. The two bunnies in the background of the bus scene are a tribute to my two house rabbits, Cosette and Coco. 

 

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And then I chose other background characters based on the sounds they make. The artist sea lion shouts out, “Art? Art?” and the baby crow points out the car by calling out, “Cah! Cah!”. The baby crow is actually also based on my son who would do the same thing every time he saw a car when he was younger. 

 

CP: How fun! I can’t believe I didn’t pick up on those sounds! And for more fun, outside of the book, I noticed that you have an Animals Go Vroom! memory game on your website. (It took me 46 seconds and 13 moves to solve it.) How did you come up with that idea and did you create it yourself? If so, how did you develop such impressive skills?!

AC: I have been a web designer/developer for over 15 years, so that coding experience definitely has benefits. Although I don’t specialize in making online games, I was able to find some open source code for a memory game, and then I tweaked it to work on my website and to use the images I created for all the cards. I actually had intended to make a memory game for my first book, Soaked!, but I didn’t have enough time. But Animals Go Vroom! actually worked even better for this sort of game because there is a large cast of characters to choose from.

 

CP: It definitely seems perfect for a game like that. You dedicated this book to your mom “who really loves snakes.” Is that true? Did you have pet snakes in the house when you were growing up?

AC: I showed this illustration:

 

IMG 8885

 

to my brother over a family Zoom so he could see how I made his headphone-wearing daughter into a character in the book, and my mom blurted out, “Oh no! Gross!” And we were all kind of laughing because although we all know she does NOT care for snakes or worms, we thought a cartoony-looking snake drawing might be ok. 

I didn’t set out to make a book that largely featured snakes, but that’s where the story took me since they make that wonderful hissing sound. I thought, “How can I make it so that my mom HAS to read this book with a bunch of snakes?” And so I dedicated it to her, and she did say recently that the illustration of the kid snake on the dedication was okay. 🙂 

 

dedicationsnake

 

And so to answer your second question, NO. There was absolutely no chance of us having pet snakes when I was growing up.

 

CP: Hahaha! I love that your family shows up in so many different ways in this book. Did you base any other characters on people you know? 

AC: Oh yes. I mentioned earlier that the baby crow is my car-loving son, and the kid snake is based on my niece who wore headphones the entire time we were on a family vacation one time. The mama snake is me. Actually the bear in Soaked! is also me. I guess I follow that advice, “Write what you know.” since I apparently just put myself in all my books.

 

CP: For StoryStorm 2020 you advised people to keep an ugly sketchbook and said the practice freed you up to do the drawings that inspired your debut picture book Soaked! (Viking Children’s Books, 2020). Is there any correlation between the vengeful sketchbook chipmunk at the end of that post and the chipmunk car salesman in Animals Go Vroom? And did any other ugly sketchbook characters make it into this second book? 

AC: Hahaha maybe this is the vengeful chipmunk’s origin story. A car salesmunk who becomes disillusioned with life after getting bonked in the head with a flat tire just hours after making his first sale. 

chipmunk-tire

 

But yes, the whole concept of the book came about from this Ugly Sketchbook character: a sea lion flying a jet going RAWRR! 

 

rawrr

 

This specific character didn’t end up in the final book, but another sea lion made it into the story as an artist just trying to share their beautiful art with everyone.

 

IMG 8884-1

 

CP: I loved the sea lion’s paintings! And I loved the otter taxi passenger, too. I happen to know that he is a published author. I read his research project Funny AND Female and noticed that he didn’t ask YOU to talk about being a funny woman in kidlit. (He’s got some nerve!) So, talk to me about being funny. Where do you find inspiration for your humor? Do you have any tried and true tricks to bring humor to a scene? 

AC: I find inspiration everywhere- TV, movies, books, my family. Unexpected random or absurd things are often very funny. So I like playing around with creating a pattern and then disrupting it with something ridiculous. Being specific helps create that absurd moment. For example, in Soaked!, I create a pattern in the first spread. “Not that badger. Not that bunny.” and then I disrupt it with something specific and out-of-place. “Not that hula-hooping moose.” 

 

Moose Soaked TX 1 Page 04

 

When I was thinking about a passenger for the taxi in Animals Go Vroom!, it was tough because really, it could be ANYONE in the backseat. So I made it fun by thinking of someone who would look glorious with a monocle (an otter, of course), and then I thought it would be pretty ridiculous if in every scene he was eating a different meal and was totally oblivious to the traffic jam. I started with tea because that would be a great contrast to the goose who was having a fit about being stuck behind the bus. And then the next spread, the otter is eating a filet of fish on a plate with a fork and knife. How did he get this fancy meal? Where did he get the utensils? In the next scene, he has an ice cream cone. Did he have the ice cream in the taxi the entire time? Why didn’t it melt? Does he have a freezer in there? I like creating scenes where the reader does a double-take and thinks, “Wait a minute- WHAT?? What’s going on there?” It’s a treat for the curious kid who takes a closer look at the pictures and sees that secondary storyline happening in the background. 

 

spreads_promo_goose_web

 

CP: You teach a couple of classes at Storyteller Academy. What do you enjoy most about teaching other picture book creators?

AC: Most people enrolled at Storyteller Academy have committed to making a real go at improving their craft. So it is incredibly satisfying to see them put in the work every week and make huge gains in their stories. I really believe that if you put in the work- which is to read and analyze current picture books, think about a compelling concept or character, and then just keep plugging away, that you can become a published author. But a lot of people give up. So it is wonderful to see the dedication from Storyteller Academy students. And I can’t wait to see the manuscripts I’ve critiqued become published books in a couple of years.  

 

CP: That’s definitely something to look forward to. Speaking of craft, what are three tools of the illustrator’s craft that you wouldn’t want to be without?

AC: 1. My Bic mechanical pencil. I use a mechanical pencil to draw all the characters in my                     books. I like that the pencil always stays sharp.

  1. My Wacom Cintiq tablet. I color all my illustrations digitally using Photoshop and my tablet. I like to apply the color this way because it is easy to correct mistakes, experiment with color, and keep the color palette consistent across spreads. I can also zoom in to apply details.
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  2. Google image search. Even though my books feature anthropomorphic animals, I still use a lot of reference photos. When thinking about a mouse riding a unicycle, I’ll look at photos of mice to imagine what one would look like sitting upright on a seat. How would its leg look while pedaling? Then I’ll look at photos of unicycles. How can I modify this unicycle if the rider had short (mouse) legs? And now what would it look like if that mouse was not only riding a unicycle but also holding a large cupcake? I have to use my imagination, but I still try to base parts of it on real-life so the illustration looks plausible.

 

mouse-stickers

 

CP: That’s fascinating. So, when you’re working on a story, do the pictures usually come first or is it the words? Do you find one is easier than the other?

AC: I usually think of a very general concept first. For Soaked!, I thought about how when you’re stuck in the rain, it actually becomes pleasant after you become thoroughly soaked. The idea of changing your perspective despite the situation staying the same was intriguing to me. Then for a couple months after that, I kept drawing a bedraggled soggy bear looking very disgruntled in the rain. But the whole thing flew together once I thought of the voice of Bear, the main character. The voice drove the story and the words came pouring out.

For Animals Go Vroom!, I again thought of the concept first: sounds that both animals and vehicles make. After brainstorming sounds and animals, I started to see a chain of events forming, so I made a book dummy to see how it would all work with the die-cuts. I started with a small dummy and gradually increased the size with each revision. From there, I was able to draw in a lot more details as it got closer to its final size, and secondary storylines started forming through the illustrations.

When I’m working on a story, I often see images in my head, and I’ll quickly jot them down as very ugly doodles. I’ll also write down little snippets of text. So in terms of what’s easier for me, I think it’s easy for me to picture little moments in a story. But what is hard is actually rendering those imagined scenes and characters properly in the final art. It’s tough to match the idealized images in my head. Plus, doing the final art is so labor-intensive, and there’s also a deadline. But that being said, it is AMAZING when the art director shows you a PDF of the book with the text properly typeset over the full-color art. It makes all those long hours worth it.

 

CP: I bet! What’s next for you?

AC: I have an unannounced picture book in the works that I’m very excited about. It’s an informational picture book that I would have LOVED as a kid. It’s a book where hopefully kids will be laughing and learning at the same time. 

CP: That sounds wonderful, Abi. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. And congratulations, again, on your terrific new book!

All artwork and photos courtesy of Abi Cushman.

 

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

BRIEF BIO: 

Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of Soaked! (Viking, 2020) and Animals Go Vroom! (Viking, 2021). She has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years, creating websites for libraries, towns, and local businesses. She runs two popular websites of her own: My House Rabbit, a pet rabbit care resource, and Animal Fact Guide, which was named a Great Website for Kids by the American Library Association. In her spare time, Abi enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.) She lives on the Connecticut shoreline with her husband and two kids.

 

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TO PURCHASE ABI’S BOOK CLICK
HERE

LINKS:

Website: abicushman.com

Newsletter: http://eepurl.com/dCUjeH

Twitter: @AbiCushman

Instagram: @abi.cushman

Facebook: @AbiCushmanArt

 

FOR MORE ON ABI CUSHMAN:

Animals Go Vroom Origin Story at SLJ’s Fuse 8

Author/Illustrator Spotlight at KidLit411

Picture Book Look Podcast A Conversation with Abi Cushman, Editor Tracy Gates, and Art Director Jim Hoover

 

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.

 

BLOG TOUR DATES

AGV blog-tour

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An Interview with Vicky Fang about Layla and The Bots and Friendbots

 

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH VICKY FANG

AUTHOR OF 

LAYLA AND THE BOTS: CUPCAKE FIX

AND AUTHOR/ILLUSTRATOR OF

FRIENDBOTS

 

 

SHORT SUMMARIES:

Layla and the Bots Cupcake Fix cvrCUPCAKE FIX 

Blossom Valley is opening a new community center! But they need to generate buzz for the grand opening. Layla and the Bots know how to help: they will build a cupcake machine for the party! But will their invention be a piece of cake… or a recipe for disaster? With full-color artwork on every page, speech bubbles throughout, and a fun DIY activity that readers can try at home, this early chapter book series brings kid-friendly STEAM topics to young readers!

 

 

 

 

Friendbots Blink and Block book1 cover

FRIENDBOTS

Meet the robots Blink and Block in this STEM-inspired, Level Two I Can Read Comic by debut author-illustrator Vicky Fang.

Blink is scanning the playground for treasure, but Block is pretty sure there’s no gold to be found. When Blink finds a penny and decides to make a wish, will these two new pals find treasure after all—or maybe something even better?
Blink and Block Make a Wish is a Level Two I Can Read Comic, geared for kids who are comfortable with comics, can read on their own, but still need a little help.

 

 

 

INTERVIEW:

Colleen Paeff: Hi Vicky! It looks like I caught you right in the middle of two book launches. Layla and the Bots: Cupcake Fix came out on June 1 and Friendbots hits bookstores on June 22. Congratulations! How exciting to have two books coming out in one month! How does it feel?

Vicky Fang: It’s so much fun but also quite exhausting! Social media is such a strange place and two book launches means I’m on it more than I’d like to be. But I had the amazing opportunity to do an in-person launch party for Layla and the Bots: Cupcake Fix with Linden Tree Books and it was amazing! Even though it’s my sixth book (gasp!), it was my first launch party! I had so much fun celebrating the book with friends, new readers, and even some Layla and the Bots fans I met for the first time.

 

CP: Oh, my gosh. That sounds amazing! It must have been so nice to see your fans live and in-person. Friendbots is your debut as an author/illustrator. How was the experience of creating that book different from your previous experiences writing the text alone? Were you surprised by any particular aspect of the author/illustrator process?

VF: Illustrating a book is so much work! I mean, writing a book is too, but there’s definitely a different kind of pressure to illustrate a whole book within a few months, including revisions and cover illustrations, etc. I do think that between Book 1 and Book 2 I got much better at designing panels that would be fun to draw. I also had a much better sense of how long the drawings would take. Creatively, I’m more comfortable incorporating wordless panels as the author-illustrator. Somehow, it feels less like I’m just leaving a hole there, because I know I’m the one who’s going to have to fill it!

 

CP: One thing I love about your Layla and the Bots books is that I can never anticipate what’s going to go wrong (and something always does!). When you set out to write those books do you start with the problem, the solution, or something else entirely?  

VF: Ah, that’s a great question! I usually start with the solution, in some rough form, just in the sense that I think about something that would be fun to design! So an amusement park for dogs (Happy Paws), a suped-up go-kart (Built for Speed), or a cupcake machine (Cupcake Fix). From there, I think about the problem they might try to solve and that leads to the specifics of the solution they come up with. It does feel a bit like a fun puzzle trying to plot those books!

 

Laylaandthe Bots in volleyball
Interior illustration from Layla and The Bots: Cupcake Fix Credit: Scholastic Inc., Vicky Fang, Christine Nishiyama (2021)

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CP: Coding plays a big part in your books–even the board books. What would you recommend to parents who are intimidated at the thought of coding, but who want to foster a love (or at least a level of comfort) with coding in their children? 

VF: A lot of people ask me this question! First off, I incorporate coding into the books because I think computational thinking is so important for all kids, whether or not they want to code or become software engineers. It’s really about being able to break down a problem logically and think through the solution in small, logical pieces. I’m just hoping kids start to think in these logical blocks: if/then, and/or, etc. And they do already naturally! It’s just about seeing those logical blocks and realizing that those blocks are how you give instructions to a computer. Besides books, there are also great tools and toys out there. Scratch/Scratch Jr., Code-a-pillar, and Sphero are just a few that parents might look into!

 

CP: Awesome. Thank you! You’ve written (and sold!) a picture book, chapter books, board books, and an early graphic novel series. What do you like about writing in so many different formats and do you have a favorite?

VF: As a former product designer, I get inspiration from the strengths and restrictions of the different formats! The format is part of the ideation process for me. I don’t have a favorite. I love the conceptual and tactile nature of board books, the poetic precision of picture books, the fun of chapter books, and the theatre-like quality of graphic novels!

 

LaylaandtheBots int Sweettooth
Interior illustration from Layla and The Bots: Cupcake Fix Credit: Scholastic Inc., Vicky Fang, Christine Nishiyama (2021)

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CP: How do you know which format is right for which story idea?

VF: I usually have an idea floating around in my head and it will click with a format, based on some of the qualities I described above. I have an ongoing list of ideas that I keep, usually of vague picture book ideas. But then separately, I’ll decide I want to try a particular format and read a lot of books and realize, oh, this is perfect for that idea about X! And then I start writing it. It becomes a bit of, what format has the right shape to fit the story I need to tell? Which will give me enough room for the characters and the plot? Which will support the visual needs? Which will fit the age group the best?

 

CP: I understand you worked as a technology product designer for Google and Intel. What exactly is a technology product designer and what are some of the coolest projects you worked on during that time?

VF: Yes! I designed the user experience for products, which means I designed how things should work. By the end of my time at Google, I was a design lead, which meant I oversaw the creative team, which included interaction designers, visual designers, writers, and even voice/audio designers. I loved working on projects that used technology to create surprising and delightful experiences! I designed DIY cardboard robots that you could build and code yourself, interactive voice games for kids, and a building that lit up and played music when you held hands in the space. Those are just a few of the projects that I loved!

 

CP: That sounds amazing! Tell me something I might not know about working for Google!

VF: Ah, what wouldn’t you know? Hmm … I think you hear all about the amazing perks and the amazing people. So what wouldn’t you know? One time, we took dozens of our cardboard robots and set up a giant robot dance party in the hallways in the middle of the night and videotaped it. We had a lot of fun—but we did a lot of work too!

 

CP: Hahaha! I love that!! I read that you were a theater major in college (me, too!) and an actress on Charmed and other TV shows. How did you get from theater to tech? 

VF: Oh, cool, I didn’t know that! I moved to LA to act but was working at some startups to pay the bills. One startup actually had very little work to do, so I spent my days teaching myself Photoshop and making little Quicktime animations in the most inefficient way possible. From that, I got jobs making Flash animations, which lead to coding Flash websites, and I eventually ended up going to grad school at Parsons School of Design to get an MFA in Design and Technology!

 

FriendbotsBook1pp4-5
Interior illustration from Friendbots written and illustrated by Vicky Fang, HarperCollins BYR ©2021.

 

CP: What skills from your previous professions have been most useful to you as a children’s book author?

VF: One of the things I love is that I feel like writing pulls from ALL of my experiences! Acting I think is an obvious one, in terms of story and character, and emotion. It also helped with understanding the agent landscape! But I also feel like all of the design work helps me craft stories, and understand how to respond to critique feedback, and be creative on demand, etc. Both acting and design have helped me as an illustrator, in thinking about color and layout, and visual focus. In some ways, I think of myself as somebody who just loves creating in different mediums—whether that be technology or pictures or words!

 

CP: What is your favorite thing about writing for children?

VF: I love that I feel like I can make a positive impact on even just one kid with a book. It never feels like a wasted effort. I love seeing kids embrace the books and become inspired to make fan art or invent something or write a story.

 

CP: What are the three most important tools in your “Writer’s Toolbox?”

VF: First off, my critique partners. I met Christine Evans and Faith Kazmi in 2017 and I wouldn’t still be here if not for their moral and creative support. Secondly, my agent. Elizabeth Bennett is an amazing partner who gives me the most insightful and inspiring directional guidance. The third, I would say, is creative brain space. I find that I have to give myself space to create and forgive myself when I’m not able to (which inevitably happens with life, more than I’d like!).

FriendbotsBook1pp6-7
Interior illustration from Friendbots written and illustrated by Vicky Fang, HarperCollins BYR ©2021.

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CP: What’s next for you?

VF: I’m finishing up Friendbots Book 2, which launches this fall. And I’m excited for Layla and the Bots Book 4, Making Waves, which launches in January 2022. I have an unannounced project coming in 2023, and I’m always working on new ideas!

 

CP: Great! I look forward to reading them all. Thanks, Vicky! 

VF: Thank you, Colleen! It’s been a pleasure chatting books with you!

 

Author Photo Vicky Fang
Vicky Fang Photo ©Lindsay Wiser

BRIEF BIO:

Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent five years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author of nine new and upcoming STEAM books for kids, including Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code, Layla and the Bots, and her author-illustrator debut, Friendbots. Find Vicky on Twitter at @fangmous or on her website at www.vickyfang.com.
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WHERE TO BUY VICKY’S BOOKS:

https://vickyfang.com/books/layla/#cupcake-fix

https://vickyfang.com/books/friendbots/

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Twitter: @fangmous

IG: @fangmousbooks

FB: @fangmousbooks

Website: www.vickyfang.com

 

FOR MORE ON VICKY FANG:

KidLit411 Author Spotlight

Get to Know Vicky Fang

12 x 12 Featured Author (On writing for different formats)

Storyteller Academy: Student Success Story

Google Product Designer Creates New Graphic Novel Series (BleedingCool.com)

Launch Countdown: Reflections and Results

CritterLit Interview

Cynsations: Journey to Publication

Awesome Activities from Vicky Fang

Code a Musical Instrument: An Introductory Scratch Activity

Build a Balloon Powered Speedboat

 

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.

 

Check out https://www.soaring20spb.com/to read about more debut authors, illustrators, and author/illustrators.

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An Interview with The Stars Beckoned Author Candy Wellins

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR CANDY WELLINS

ABOUT HER PICTURE BOOK

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

(Philomel; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

starsbeckoned cover scaled

 

 

                    ★                      ★                     ★   

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

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

 

INTERVIEW:

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

 

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

 

CP: Would you consider yourself a space buff now?

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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An Interview with Your Mama Author NoNieqa Ramos

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NONIEQA RAMOS 

ABOUT HER DEBUT PICTURE BOOK 

YOUR MAMA

(Versify; $17.99, Ages 4 to 7)

 

 

 

SHORT SUMMARY:

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

 

INTERVIEW WITH NONIEQA RAMOS:

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

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

CP: Thank you!

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NoNieqa Ramos Gentry Photography
NoNieqa Ramos ©Gentry Photography

BRIEF BIO:

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

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

 

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SOCIAL MEDIA:

Website: www.nonieqaramos.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/NoNieqaRamos

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

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

 

READ MORE ABOUT NONIEQA:

Your Mama cover reveal & interview

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

Be Latina on Your Mama

On Writing Diverse Characters and Resisting the Status Quo by NoNieqa

Voice Lessons by NoNieqa

Hip Latina Interview

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

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

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