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An Interview with AlphaBot Author and Illustrator Vicky Fang

 

RAJANI LAROCCA INTERVIEWS VICKY FANG,

AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR OF

ALPHABOT

(MIT Kids Press/Candlewick Press; 14.99, Ages 3-7)

AlphaBot cover mix and match robots

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

Found your circuit-board head? Your voice-control torso? Your hydrojet feet? Hooray! You’ve made one of the 729 mix-and-match robots that are possible with this innovative flip-flap book. Alongside the bright and cheery illustrations of robot parts is a basic alphabetical listing of terms—from android to gearsneural network to program, wheels to Z-drive—and a basic definition of each. With a concealed spiral binding and sturdy card stock pages to hold up to enthusiastic flap-turning, AlphaBot is full of appeal for young robot lovers, preschoolers who love machines, and anyone looking for STEM books for the younger set. Back matter includes a brief explanation of the three key abilities of robots: to sense, think, and act.

INTERVIEW:

Rajani LaRocca: How did you come up with this idea?

Vicky Fang: ALPHABOT actually started off with the title! As a former designer of robots for kids, I think about robots a lot, haha. Once the title and the idea of a robot alphabet book were in my head, I knew I wanted to make something interactive. I thought about different novelty formats (flaps, cutouts, etc.) until I had the idea for mix-and-match flaps. This meant kids would be able to mix-and-match the A-Z robotics terms to create their own robots. How fun and exciting! I spent a long time thinking about what terms would work and making paper dummies to prove out the concept.

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RL: What kind of challenges did you face coming up with a novelty book idea like this?

Alphabot int2 circuit fan treads
Interior illustrations and text from AlphaBot written and illustrated by Vicky Fang, MIT Kids Press ©2023.

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VF: This book was definitely a puzzle to put together! I have several paper dummies where I was working to make sure I could make all the terms work together. Once I had a working dummy, it was also challenging to sell the book! Novelty books are expensive to construct, so even though several editors were interested, it took time to find a publisher that could figure out how to make the numbers work. I’m so glad that MIT Kids Press/Candlewick found a way and I’m so happy with the quality of the book!

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RL: I see a strong parallel between this book and your debut, INVENT-A-PET. What do you see as the similarities and differences between them?

VF: I love introducing kids to STEM concepts, but really, I want kids to be creative problem solvers. This is at the heart of both books! Even though INVENT-A-PET is a fiction story about a girl inventing fantastic pets and ALPHABOT is about non-fiction informational book about creating robots, you can see that both books invite kids to be inventive! Maybe the different approach will appeal to a different kid, but hopefully, all kids find a way to engage their imagination from the STEM content in these books.

AlphaBot int1 gears hydrojets
Interior illustrations and text from AlphaBot written and illustrated by Vicky Fang, MIT Kids Press ©2023.

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RL: I loved the mix of familiar and not-so-familiar terms in this book! Was it hard to come up with a concept for each letter of the alphabet?

VF: There were letters that were more challenging than others, especially to make sure they would work in their positions in the book (head, torso, or feet.) I tried several different options, as well as shifting which flaps the letters would fall on. But since I was also illustrating, I was able to think creatively about how these robot parts might work and all fit together!

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RL: What do you hope kids get from this book?

VF: Well, of course, I hope they understand robots a little bit better! The back matter is a pretty simple explanation of the capabilities of robots and came from my engineering partner, Chaitanya Gharpure. Hopefully, kids understand a little bit more about how robots work and what kinds of parts they might have!

But ultimately, as I was saying before, I want kids to have fun and be creative, I hope that this book sparks their imagination and gives them the confidence to create.

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RL: What’s next for you?

VF: I am very excited about my next early reader series, BEST BUDDIES, illustrated by Luisa Leal, which is releasing in October with Scholastic. It’s about a dog named Sniff and a cat named Scratch who are best friends and get into mischief at home. It’s been fun to explore themes of friendship and teamwork with these two characters who approach things differently, but together.

After that, I have many more books coming! I’m currently working on a new early chapter book series, AVA LIN, about a relatable and funny 6-year-old Chinese-American girl with a knack for getting herself into—and out of—trouble. Keep an eye out for it, launching with Candlewick in June 2024!

BUY THE BOOK:

Support a local independent bookstore and get a signed copy. (Please type in the comments how you’d like the book inscribed): https://www.lindentreebooks.com/alphabot.html

Also: https://vickyfang.com/books/alphabot/

AUTHOR BIO:

Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of nineteen new and upcoming books for kids, including the Layla and the Bots series, Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code board books, Friendbots series, and the forthcoming Ava Lin series, Best Buddies series, AlphaBot, and The Boo Crew Needs You!. You can visit Vicky at vickyfang.com.

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Twitter (X): https://twitter.com/fangmous

IG: https://www.instagram.com/fangmousbooks/

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

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she writes award-winning books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor and Walter Award-winning middle-grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole. She has always been an omnivorous reader, and now is an omnivorous writer of novels and picture books, fiction and nonfiction, in poetry and prose. You can learn more about her atwww.RajaniLaRocca.com.

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An Interview with Rajani LaRocca, Author of Your One and Only Heart

DARSHANA KHIANI INTERVIEWS RAJANI LAROCCA,

AUTHOR OF

YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART

ILLUSTRATED BY LAUREN PAIGE CONRAD

(Dial BYR; $18.99, Ages 5-8)

 

Your One and Only Heart Cover

 

 

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:
A lyrical introduction to the many wonders of the human heart, from award-winning author and practicing doctor, Dr. Rajani LaRocca

In this stunning non-fiction picture book, poetry and science come together with playful cut-paper illustrations to create a moving ode to the human heart and all that it does. Complete with illustrative diagrams and copious backmatter, this is a one-of-a-kind non-fiction picture book that gently guides readers through the various systems make up our most vital organ.

 

INTERVIEW:

Darshana Khiani: YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART is amazing in how it takes a complex organ and breaks it down into chunks. What inspired you to write about the heart?

Rajani LaRocca: Ever since medical school, when I learned about the heart and how it works, I’ve been fascinated by this most vital organ. I wrote a first draft of this book way back in 2013 (!), and it was called “The Hardest Working Muscle.” It was written in prose and was over 800 words long. But it didn’t have a unifying theme or a hook.

I worked on this book on and off (mainly off) for years, but I couldn’t figure out how to write it. Then one day in 2018, I had a breakthrough: I discovered the theme I wanted to carry through the book. I realized I wanted to write about contrasting characteristics of the heart! Then I immediately decided to write about these characteristics in poetry—with several sets of paired poems. This made sense because to me, the beauty of poetry reflects the beauty of the human body.

 

DK: Well, you are one of the hardest-working writers I know. You do an amazing job at getting the main ideas across without getting bogged down in details. How did you master that balance? Also, the nerd in me wants to know why larger organisms have slower heart rates. I was surprised to learn that a mouse’s heart beats 310-840 beats/min while an elephant is only 30!

RL: I tried to focus on keeping the poetry simple enough for young kids to understand, yet interesting enough to capture their attention. There are plenty of facts that I reserved for the back matter so that the poetry could shine.

In terms of the answer to your question, are you ready to nerd out a bit? Smaller animals have higher surface area to volume ratio than larger ones. Because of this, smaller animals (especially warm-blooded animals like mammals and birds) lose heat much more quickly than their larger counterparts. So their hearts (which are smaller, too) need to beat faster to circulate more blood to offset the heat loss and maintain their body temperatures.

 

YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART Int1 Your heart is Singular
Your One and Only Heart written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Lauren Paige Conrad, Dial BYR ©2023.

 

DK: Wow! Thank you for geeking out with me. Surface area … never would’ve guessed that. The book is divided into 15 poems, 7 pairs of antonym poems (yup, I made that up), and then a final stand-alone one. It is a unique structure, one I can’t say I’ve seen before. At what point in the writing process did you decide to organize the poems in this way?

RL: I designed those first 14 poems as “antonyms” or paired poems from the moment of that epiphany in 2018! When the book got acquired and my editor contacted illustrator Lauren Paige Conrad, Lauren came back with the incredible idea of using shades of different colors for each pair of poems. For example, “Singular” and “Cooperative” are in shades of red; “Simple” and “Complex” are in shades of orange; “Energetic” and “Relaxed” are in shades of yellow, and so on, resulting in a rainbow of colors! The back matter is also “color coded” to link back to the appropriate pages! Lauren works in cut paper collage, and it blows my mind how beautifully and precisely she depicted so many aspects of the heart with her art.

There are two poems at the end, and the very last poem brings everything together by restating the contrasting characteristics of the heart and noting that kids share the same characteristics themselves!

 

DK: I must admit the last poem took me by surprise since it is so matter-of-fact. I could almost hear the EKG flatline as I read the last words. Did you always know you wanted to end the story with this poem?

RL: Years ago, when I was at a writing retreat, I shared this manuscript with renowned nonfiction author Elizabeth Partridge. She loved it and advised me that I absolutely needed to include what happens when the heart stops beating. She said that death is something that children are curious about, and that by including it in a nonfiction book about the heart, I could demystify it and put it in perspective for kids from a scientific point of view. It took me a while to figure out how to write that poem; Lauren Paige Conrad’s illustration on that spread is absolutely perfect.

 

DK: Smart suggestion, and you presented it in such a matter-of-fact way. You’ve authored two novels-in-verse, MIRROR-TO-MIRROR and RED, WHITE, and WHOLE, and a rhyming non-fiction picture book, The SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU. Do you have any tips for writers who want to write lyrically?

RL: My first tip would be to understand what you want to say—for novels in verse, that means knowing at the very least the broad outlines of the plot and emotional arcs. And for nonfiction, that means compiling all the information you want to convey.

Next, I recommend getting in a “poetic mindset” by going out into nature, reading poetry, and/or listening to music.

And then you should just try writing the poems! Don’t worry too much about whether they’re any good.

When it’s time to edit: avoid cliches, use powerful words, condense and eliminate as much as possible, and endeavor to convey your message in a fresh or different way. I always read my poetry aloud in revision, because sometimes our ears are better than our eyes at noting when something isn’t quite right.

 

YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART Int2 Your Heart is Muscular
Your One and Only Heart written by Rajani LaRocca and illustrated by Lauren Paige Conrad, Dial BYR ©2023.

 

DK: What’s up next for you?

RL: YOUR ONE AND ONLY HEART is my fourth out of six books releasing this year!

Next up is THE SECRET OF THE DRAGON GEMS, an epistolary novel that I co-wrote with my friend Chris Baron. It’s about Tripti and Sam, two kids who meet at summer camp and find some unusual silvery rocks, which they each take home to California and Massachusetts. Then they start communicating via letter, email, texts, and video chats, because strange things keep happening, and they begin to wonder whether the rocks are more than just rocks. THE SECRET OF THE DRAGON GEMS releases on August 29!

My picture book MASALA CHAI, FAST AND SLOW, beautifully illustrated by Neha Rawat, releases on September 5. This is a story about a boy who likes to go fast and his grandfather, who likes to take things slow. Every day, they make masala chai together. One day, the grandfather sprains his ankle and can’t make masala chai, and the grandson decides to make some to cheer up his beloved grandfather . . . and hilarity ensues. This story is about learning to slow down and enjoy moments with those we love.

And next year on March 12 comes the release of my first middle grade fantasy, SONA AND THE GOLDEN BEASTS! Set in an Indian-inspired fantasy world, this story involves music and magic, and animals, but also contends with colonialism and who gets to tell history. I can’t wait to share it with the world!

DK: Yay for more books! We’ll be keeping a look out for them.

 

 

Author Rajani LaRocca headshot
Rajani LaRocca Photo Credit ©Carter Hasegawa

AUTHOR 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 books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor-winning middle grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she 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. Learn more about Rajani and her books at www.RajaniLaRocca.com. She also co-hosts the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast.

BUY THE BOOK: 

https://www.rajanilarocca.com/picture-books/your-one-and-only-heart/

LINKS TO SOCIAL MEDIA:

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Darshana Khiani is an author, engineer, and advocate for South Asian children’s literature. She is infinitely curious about the world and enjoys sharing her findings with young readers. If she can make a child laugh even better. Her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari (Versify), was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She enjoys hiking, solving jigsaw puzzles, and traveling. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and a furry pup. You can visit Darshana here.

 

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An Interview with Vicky Fang, Author of The Boo Crew Needs You!

 

 

AN INTERVIEW BY ABI CUSHMAN

WITH VICKY FANG, AUTHOR OF

THE BOO CREW NEEDS YOU!

(Sourcebooks Jabberwocky; $12.99,  Ages 3-8)

 

 

boo crew needs you cover Vampire Skeleton Ghost

 

PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY:

Trouble’s come to Monster Town, and emergencies abound!

There’s no time to wait around… get the Boo Crew!

Get ready for a spooky interactive story experience with Lula, Bones, and Fang—a ghost, skeleton, and vampire team who need YOUR help fixing all the messes and frights of a Halloween night gone wrong! Whether it’s tapping the page to mend a broken pumpkin or turning the book to set a toppling haunted house back upright, the action prompts let kids join in on the fun and save the day.

 

Boo Crew Needs You Ring-a-Ling
Credit: Sourcebooks, Text ©2023 by Vicky Fang, Illustrations by Saoirse Lou

 

INTERVIEW:

Abi Cushman: THE BOO CREW NEEDS YOU! is such a fun Halloween story with a fantastic cast of
spooky characters. You and Saoirse Lou, who illustrated the book, did a wonderful job of making
this book really engaging. What inspired you to write a Halloween-themed story?

Vicky Fang: Aw, thank you! My kids LOVE Halloween. My little one thinks about his costume probably
year-round. I think it was inevitable that I would try to write a Halloween book! Of course, looking
at my drafts, my peak inspirations definitely came right around Halloween, so the annual
reminder kept me coming back to it.

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AC: I love the interactivity in this book. There are so many fun action prompts like pushing
buttons and switches, clapping, searching for objects in the illustrations, and more. Did the book
always include interactivity? And how did you come up with these interactive elements?

 

Boo Crew int1 what a sight
Credit: Sourcebooks, Text ©2023 by Vicky Fang, Illustrations by Saoirse Lou

 

VF: The book always included interactivity, though my first pass only had one, big interactive
moment. When I shared it with my agent, she suggested I weave interactivity throughout. Ouf, I
put it away for two years after that, because the thought was so daunting! But eventually, on
another Halloween when I had run out of NYTimes crosswords, I pulled it back out again and
tackled it like a difficult word puzzle!

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AC: Yes! I agree writing a picture book is often like solving a word puzzle. It must have been
incredibly satisfying to solve this one after two years! Now, this is your first rhyming book. Can
you tell us about your process for writing in rhyme?

VF: The book started with a rhyming phrase that popped in my head: “It’s a glitch! There’s a
hitch! Something’s screwy with this switch!” At that point, it wasn’t a Halloween story, but once I
decided to pursue that rhythm for my Halloween book, I needed to learn how to write in rhyme! I
signed up for Renee LaTulippe’s amazing Lyrical Language Lab course and learned and
practiced meter and rhyme. I highly recommend the course for anyone interested in writing in
rhyme.
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Boo Crew Needs You int2 yay_ ooray
Credit: Sourcebooks, Text ©2023 by Vicky Fang, Illustrations by Saoirse Lou

 

AC: I remember a Tweet where you mentioned how your 8-year-old complained that you only
wrote robot books. And I have to say, it’s true that you do have quite a flair for writing really
great robot books, like FRIENDBOTS and LAYLA AND THE BOTS. I noticed that THE BOO
CREW NEEDS YOU! has a distinct lack of robots. Did your kid’s comments spur you on to write
more non-robot books, like this one?

VF: Hahaha, the things we do to try to impress our kids! Well, it was a bit more of a desire to
prove to the industry that I can write more than just robot books. I love writing STEM books, but I
didn’t want to get pigeon-holed and I wanted to show a broader range as a writer. Of course,
now that I have seven non-STEM books coming out, I worry that I’m losing my niche as a STEM
author for my readers! In the end, of course, I don’t think it really matters and we just need to
write what inspires us—as you know!

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AC: Haha I think no matter what you do, people will definitely remember you have a knack for
STEM themes as well. In fact, even though THE BOO CREW NEEDS YOU! is not a robot book,
I think the interactivity element does give this book a STEM flavor because it shows kids that
one action (or input) yields a certain result. Can you talk a bit about why STEM topics interest
you as an author?

VF: I love writing STEM books because there are so many fundamental lessons that help all
kids, whether or not they want to specialize in STEM when they get older. I want kids to be able
to break down a problem, to brainstorm solutions, and to generate solutions. That lesson holds
across all of life! THE BOO CREW NEEDS YOU! fits into this as well, with the team working
together with the reader to solve problems and save Halloween. Ultimately, I want to inspire
creative and bold problem-solvers!

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AC: I love that! Your debut book, INVENT-A-PET (which definitely encourages kids to solve
problems) came out in 2020. Since then you’ve had 9 more books published, with 10 more to
come. Do you have any tips for writers who would like to be as prolific as you?

VF: I think what’s really helped me write so many books is writing across different categories.
Sometimes my ideas work better as a board book, or as a chapter book. Logistically, it’s also
easier for my agent to be pitching multiple books of mine when they aren’t in the same category.
Board books, early readers, and chapter books also are often sold as series. That would be my
practical advice for being prolific as a children’s book author—but I would add that it’s probably
best not to worry about the numbers and write the best book you can that comes from your
heart, because that’s what will make your book stand out to editors!

 

AC: That’s such great advice! And I think it works well on a practical level as well as a creativity
level. So speaking of being prolific, what’s next for you?

VF: I’m so excited for my new books launching this fall! Releasing in September, ALPHABOT
(MIT Kids Press) is a mix-and-match novelty book of robotics terms from A to Z that lets kids flip
the flaps to create their own robot. And then in October, the first book in my new early reader
series, BEST BUDDIES (Scholastic), releases! It’s about a dog named Sniff and a cat named
Scratch and their silly adventures at home. It’s illustrated by Luisa Leal and comes from the
same editorial team that was behind LAYLA AND THE BOTS!

I’m currently also working on a new chapter book series that I’m incredibly excited about, called
AVA LIN. It’s a heavily illustrated chapter book about an optimistic and creative six-year-old
Chinese American girl with a knack for getting into—and out of— trouble. I’m in the middle of
final art for Book 1, sketches for Book 2, and manuscript edits for Book 3, and I love working on
it, so I’m hoping readers will love it too! Keep an eye out for it in Spring 2024!

AC: Wow! I am so excited about all of these books. They sound super fun, and again, I see you’ve
got something coming out for a wide range of ages. I can’t wait to read them all.

Thanks for sharing your process and writing tips with us, Vicky! Congratulations on the release
of THE BOO CREW NEEDS YOU!

 

BUY THE BOOK

Support a local independent bookstore and purchase a signed copy below.

(type in the comments how you’d like the book inscribed):

https://www.lindentreebooks.com/the-boo-crew-needs-you.html

or here: https://vickyfang.com/books/the-boo-crew/

LINKS TO SOCIAL MEDIA FOR VICKY FANG:

Website: https://vickyfang.com 

Twitter: https://twitter.com/fangmous

IG: https://www.instagram.com

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

 

Author Bio:

Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of nineteen new and upcoming books for kids, including the Layla and the Bots series, Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code board books, Friendbots series, and the forthcoming Ava Lin series, Best Buddies series, AlphaBot, and The Boo Crew Needs You! You can visit Vicky at vickyfang.com.

 

 

 

Illustrator Bio:

Saoirse Lou is a freelance illustrator from the seaside town of Poole in the UK. When she’s not
drawing, she loves reading books, walks in the countryside, drinking lots of tea, and snuggling
down under blankets with her family to watch movies. Saoirse enjoys using color and texture to
bring warmth and emotion and diversity to book characters, in particular, she loves drawing from
her experience as a mother to bring sensitivity to her artwork. See more of Saoirse’s work at
saoirselou.com or on Instagram @Saoirselouscribbles.

 

Interviewer Bio:

Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of Soaked! (Viking, 2020), and Animals Go Vroom!,
worked as a web designer for over 15 years. She runs two popular websites of her own:
MyHouseRabbit.com, a pet rabbit care site, and AnimalFactGuide.com, which was named a
“Great Website for Kids” by the American Library Association. Abi lives in a small Connecticut
beach town with her family. In her spare time, she enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating
nachos. (Yes, at the same time.) Learn more at abicushman.com.

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

 

VICKY FANG INTERVIEWS ABI CUSHMAN

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR OF

WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD

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

 

 

Wombats are Pretty Weird cover four wombats

 

 

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

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

 

INTERVIEW:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

e

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

BUY THE BOOK:

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

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

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AbiCushman

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

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

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

 

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

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR BIO:

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

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

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

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

 

INTERVIEW BIO:

Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of nineteen new and upcoming books for kids, including the Layla and the Bots series, Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code board books, Friendbots series, and the forthcoming Ava Lin series, Best Buddies series, AlphaBot, and The Boo Crew Needs You!. You can visit Vicky at vickyfang.com.

 

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An Interview by Rajani LaRocca with I’m an American Author Darshana Khiani

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH DARSHANA KHIANI

ABOUT HER NEW PICTURE BOOK

I’M AN AMERICAN

ILLUSTRATED BY LAURA FREEMAN

(Viking BYR; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

I'm An American cover flags diverse children

 

 

PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY:

 

INTERVIEW:

Rajani LaRocca: What was the inspiration for this book?

Darshana Khiani: My initial inspiration came in the Summer of 2017, I watched a YouTube video of a White man conversing with an Asian man about being American. Even though the Asian man answered every question with an answer that was similar if not the same as the White man’s answers, it didn’t matter. The White man would not “see” the 4th generation U.S. born ethnically Chinese man as an American. I was flabbergasted. When is one considered an American? Initially, I wrote a narrative story about a biracial child questioning his identity. Unfortunately, the draft didn’t feel like a picture book and had veered from the heart which was “If America is your home and you believe in the ideals/values of this country then you are American, regardless of color, ethnicity, or even citizenship.”  From a conference critique, I received a suggestion to create a concept book with layered text, set in a diverse classroom. The American values would be prominently featured in the main text with the student’s family backstory in the secondary text.

 

I'm an American int1 classrom
Interior spread from I’m an American written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Laura Freeman, Viking BYR ©2023.

 

RL: What kind of research did you do? How did you decide which people/which stories to include?

DK: Since this book covered immigration history at a higher level, I first started with a middle-grade nonfiction text on immigration history and then dug deeper into specific events and facts delving into topic-specific books.I wrote copious notes of whatever details were significant or interesting to me. I created a spreadsheet with all the different values and then marked which groups had stories or experiences that could help showcase that value. This was important since I wanted to capture as much diverse representation as possible from older immigrant stories to newer ones, immigrants from different regions of the world, as well as those groups who are non-immigrants. 

 

I'm an American int2 MexFilipAmer
Interior spread from I’m an American written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Laura Freeman, Viking BYR ©2023.

 

RL: Laura Freeman’s art is stunning! Was there a lot of revision once the illustrations came in?

DK: There was plenty of revision of the text for a few of the vignettes for accuracy and sensitivity reasons, and even some shuffling around of page spreads for story flow. All good stuff. There weren’t any changes needed as a result of the art. I agree Laura’s art is breathtaking and I do hope she gets some professional recognition for it. I don’t think this was an easy book to illustrate.

 

RL: What do you hope young readers get from this book?

DK: No matter who you are or how you came to the United States, if you believe you are an American then you are. Also for people who’ve been here for generations, to realize that the reasons people immigrate today such as the need for safety or basic human rights is no different than the reason people immigrated in the 17th through 19th centuries. Despite our differences and challenges as a nation is it our values that we continuously strive and try to uphold that make us American.

 

BUY THE BOOK:

Click here to purchase I’m an American.

LINKS TO SOCIAL MEDIA:

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D Khiani headshot by Lisa Noble
Darshana Khiani  – Author Photo ©Lisa Noble.

AUTHOR BIO:

Darshana Khiani is an author, engineer, and advocate for South Asian children’s literature. She is infinitely curious about the world and enjoys sharing her findings with young readers. If she can make a child laugh even better. Her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari (Versify), was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She enjoys hiking, solving jigsaw puzzles, and traveling. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and a furry pup. You can visit Darshana here.

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INTERVIEWER BIO:

 

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Darshana Khiani Interviews Mirror to Mirror Author Rajani LaRocca

 

 

DARSHANA KHIANI INTERVIEWS RAJANI LAROCCA,

AUTHOR OF

MIRROR TO MIRROR

(Quill Tree Books; $19.99, Ages 8-12)

 

 

MirrortoMirror cover twin sisters scaled

 

SUMMARY:

Rajani LaRocca, recipient of a Newbery Honor and Walter Award for Red, White, and Whole, is back with an evocative novel in verse about identical twin sisters who do everything together—until external pressures threaten to break them apart.

 

INTERVIEW:

Darshana Khiani: What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

MIRROR TO MIRROR Title PageRajani LaRocca: Mirror to Mirror started with a single poem. In April 2020, I took an online workshop with renowned poet Lesléa Newman in which she talked about several types of formal poetry, including the ghazal—a poetic form, often set to music, that is popular in South Asia and the Middle East. Inspired by the workshop, I wrote a ghazal about a twin lamenting that her sister had changed and the two were no longer close.

So then I started thinking: why did these two grow apart? What happened to them? And I started to create the characters. Because ghazals are often sung, I knew that the twins would be musical. I also thought that one would be hiding a secret that was eating away at her—and that secret would be the heart of her separation from her beloved twin.

 

DK: What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the text to life?

RL: One challenge I faced was the same one I always face when writing a dual-POV book: how do I make the voices distinct from one another? How do I make sure each one moves the story forward? At first, I wrote Maya’s voice in poetry and Chaya’s in prose, but that felt jarring. When my editor suggested I change it so that both voices were in poetry, that felt much better, but I still had to work hard to make the voices different from one another using the content and attitude in the poems, as well as structure, imagery, and word choice. The book starts with a couple of short paired poems, each titled “She’s the One,” where the twins express how they think about each other. These poems were drafted during that first revision, and I thought they vividly set the tone of the book and established the viewpoints of each twin.

MIRROR TO MIRROR Page3

I interviewed several sets of identical twin sisters for this story, and it was fascinating! Not only were they closer than other siblings, but some described each other as “soulmates.” They told me stories about eerie connections they had, and how no matter what else was going on in their lives, their bond was unshakable.

 

MIRROR TO MIRROR Page 4 continuation of poem

 

But there is room for misunderstanding even in the closest relationships. I tried to create a story where each twin thinks she’s doing something to help the other, but instead drives a wedge between them.

2020-2021 were difficult years for me and my family. Thanks to the pandemic, we had to contend with separation, illness, anxiety, and death. It was challenging to write a book at this time, but I had to keep going.

 

DK: What do you hope young readers get from this book?

RL: I wanted to explore anxiety and mental health in a poetic way. I wanted to show that people can struggle not only with symptoms but also with telling others, even those who know them, that they are struggling. I wanted to depict the helplessness we can feel when someone we love is going through something hard.

I hope that young readers understand that we all go through difficult times, even when we are surrounded by friends and family. I hope they learn that although we may sometimes struggle with anxiety and depression, we don’t have to deal with these feelings alone, and it’s important to share with those we love and trust because only through sharing can we start to get help.

 

MIRROR TO MIRROR Page5

 

 

DK: You are a doctor and a prolific award-winning writer, so clearly you’ve got this writing thing figured out. What do you feel are the key ingredients to keep the writing flowing?

RL: You’re too kind, Darshana! I feel very fortunate to be writing books for young people today. Here’s my advice:

  • Write what you love, what you’re interested in, what makes you happy. Don’t worry about what anyone else is writing.
  • Write a lot! I always try to have multiple projects going.
  • Figure out what’s most challenging for you to do, and work on that when you’re at your best. For example, drafting (as opposed to revising) novels is challenging for me, so when I’m working on drafting a novel, I make sure to devote time to this in the morning when I’m refreshed and less likely to get interrupted. In contrast, I find that I can draft a picture book or revise something (long or short) at just about any time. 
  • Live your life! It’s important to do things other than write to feed that writing soul. Spend time with family, friends, and in nature.
  • Support your friends and other creators. 
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. In publishing, there are only so many things we can control—including making our books as good as they can possibly be.
  • Have fun! I always try to write from a place of joy.

 

BUY THE BOOK:

The Silver Unicorn Bookstore: https://silverunicornbooks.com/events/23095

Link to Publisher page including activities, discussion topics, etc.
An educator’s guide is forthcoming.

Purchase Mirror to Mirror on Rajani’s website.

 

Rajani LaRocca Author Photo Credit Carter Hasegawa
Author Rajani LaRocca Photo Credit: Carter Hasegawa

AUTHOR 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 books for young readers, including the Newbery Honor-winning middle grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she 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. Learn more about Rajani and her books at www.RajaniLaRocca.com. She also co-hosts the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast.

LINKS TO SOCIAL MEDIA:

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Darshana Khiani is an author, engineer, and advocate for South Asian children’s literature. She is infinitely curious about the world and enjoys sharing her findings with young readers. If she can make a child laugh even better. Her debut picture book, How to Wear a Sari (Versify), was an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She enjoys hiking, solving jigsaw puzzles, and traveling. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family and a furry pup. You can visit Darshana here.

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Vicky Fang Interviews Elisa Boxer, Author of Hidden Hope

 

VICKY FANG INTERVIEWS ELISA BOXER,

AUTHOR OF

HIDDEN HOPE: 

How a Toy and a Hero
Saved Lives During the Holocaust

(Abrams BYR; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Hidden Hope cover girl with toy duck

 

Starred review – School Library Journal, Booklist

 

INTERVIEW:

Vicky Fang: Elisa, HIDDEN HOPE is such an inspiring book. I love that you’re able to share a story that is so historically rich in such a compelling way. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Elisa Boxer: Vicky, thank you so much. Great to be here with you. The idea for this book began when I first saw this photo on Yad Vashem’s website:

 

Wooden Toy duck Credit Yad Vashem Artifacts Collection
Wooden Toy Duck Credit Yad Vashem Artifacts Collection

 

Yad Vashem is the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, and this hollowed-out wooden duck is part of the artifacts collection. When I learned that this duck was made with a secret compartment to hide documents from the Nazis during World War Two, and that the French Resistance worker who used it to smuggle those documents was a teenager, I knew this was a story I wanted to tell.


VF: It’s such a fascinating story! In addition to writing children’s books, you’re also a journalist. How does your background as a journalist affect your work as a children’s book author?

EB: I definitely combine the two on a daily basis. Whether it’s doing research, conducting interviews, writing a narrative, distilling complex issues down to manageable bits of information, or zeroing in on areas of emotional resonance with the audience, the processes with journalism and book writing are very similar. And the result, telling a (hopefully) compelling story with a strong emotional takeaway, is always my goal.

 

VF: I would say you’d definitely succeeded with HIDDEN HOPE. In the backmatter, you also talk about your personal connection to this topic … could you share a bit about that?

EB: My personal connection is two-fold: Both sides of my family are of Eastern European descent, and relatives on each side were killed during the Holocaust. As both a journalist and an author, I definitely feel compelled to help shine a light on these atrocities. But also, growing up, I often felt like I had to hide my Jewish voice because my childhood was filled with so many personal and hurtful incidents of Antisemitism. I wasn’t strong enough back then to stand up to hate; to expose injustice. So in a way, I suppose I’m making up for lost time. When I first saw that picture of the duck, it struck me that here is this artifact, in an international museum, on display for all to see. And yet it was never supposed to be there, according to Hitler’s plan. If anything, it was supposed to be in his intended “museum of an extinct race.” As were all Jewish artifacts and all Jewish signs of life. So on a personal level, as I mention in my Author’s Note, I want to help bring more and more stories like this out of the darkness and into the light.

 

VF: Could you talk about your experience in writing this book? Was it hard to spend so much time on such a difficult topic?

EB: It’s so interesting, this question has come up quite a bit. People ask whether it’s been hard to write about such a dark topic. And while there’s no question that this was an unimaginably devastating time in history, the whole point of the Holocaust was to create a master race and erase the Jewish people from the face of the earth. And yet so many of us are here writing about it. We’re bringing these stories to light. We’re the descendants that were never supposed to be here. And not only are we here, we’re raising our voices to tell the stories that the Nazis never wanted told. There is something incredibly uplifting and empowering about that. I never want to stop doing it.

 

Hidden Hope int1 interior objects
Interior art from Hidden Hope written by Elisa Boxer and illustrated by Amy June Bates, Abrams BYR ©2023.

 

VF: What a wonderful message, thank you. Amy June Bates’ illustrations also do such a good job of highlighting the mood and the action of HIDDEN HOPE and I love that there’s an Artist’s Note in the end from her. What did you think when you first saw her illustrations?

EB: Oh I love Amy’s Artist’s Note too! And exactly about highlighting the mood and the action. I have been researching the French Resistance for years, and have so many images in my mind. But Amy has an incredibly unique gift for creating old-world style art that takes you back and makes you feel like you’re right there, in the middle of it all, riding along with Judith and the duck on the streets of Paris. I was in awe of her work from the time I first saw her preliminary sketches. Her art is so authentic that it makes the whole book feel like an artifact in itself. One of the most powerful details to me is the contrast of vibrant, saturated color from Judith’s beret with the more muted, cloudy, shadowy watercolor illustrations that so perfectly capture the somber feel of what was happening. A recent Booklist review highlighted one of my favorite spreads: “One particularly haunting spread casts the reader’s gaze through a jagged, broken windowpane to bear witness to soldiers’ cruelties.” I mean, the art on every page is extraordinary, but that scene really stands out.

 

VF: What do you hope young readers take away from this story?

EB: Initially, I wanted to tell this story because it’s so full of hope and intrigue and I wanted young readers to find inspiration in this little-known hero who was filled with determination in such a dark time. And I wanted this book to take its place alongside others that are opening up wider conversations about Antisemitism. But as I began really feeling into the deeper layers, which for me comes during the writing process, I began to realize that this is, ultimately, a story about the importance of never having to hide the truth of who you are. Although certainly nothing can be directly compared to the horrors of the Holocaust, I do think many of us have aspects of ourselves that maybe we feel unsafe showing to the world. I actually found myself asking some uncomfortable questions, like: “Where and with whom do I feel like I have to hide the full truth of who I am?” These aren’t always conscious questions. But I do hope one of the takeaways for young readers (and older ones too) is deciding to show up in any given situation as the most authentic version of who they are. Not hiding. Bringing their fullest selves into the world.

 

Hidden Hope int2 girl on bike
Interior spread from Hidden Hope written by Elisa Boxer and illustrated by Amy June Bates, Abrams BYR ©2023.

 

VF: I think that’s such a wonderful aspect of your books. You tell such specific and inspiring stories, but the themes are so big and universal. You’ve written a wide range of wonderful nonfiction picture books, from COVERED IN COLOR: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Fabrics of Freedom to SPLASH!: Ethelda Bleibtrey Makes Waves of Change. How do you find story ideas and decide which ones to pursue?

EB: With nonfiction picture books, I’m looking for that “YES!” in my gut that keeps drawing me back to the topic. I’m initially looking for inspirational people, places, or events that I find intriguing enough to spark my curiosity and make me want to dig deeper. And then there has to be something more. For example, with SPLASH! Ethelda Bleibtrey Makes Waves of Change, it was impressive that Ethelda was the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. But when I learned that she used swimming to help heal from polio, and that she got arrested for standing up to sexist laws that said all women had to swim with socks, I knew this story had the potential to inspire young readers to break barriers in their own lives.

With COVERED IN COLOR: Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s Fabrics of Freedom, I knew that Christo and Jeanne-Claude were a dynamic duo who created massive displays of public art like wrapped buildings and islands. But when I researched more about Christo’s background, I learned he grew up under Nazi rule and then under Communism. This fascinated me, how someone whose childhood was filled with so much suppression could dream up and generate these wild, large-scale, outside-the-box creations. And so this became a story about courage, and pushing the limits of what appears to be possible, and creativity that refuses to be contained. So with each topic, in order to pursue it as a book, there has to be the potential for a strong inspirational theme and emotional takeaway.

 

VF: So what’s next for you?

EB: Right now I’m looking forward to this book launching into the world on March 14th! I’m so happy to have heard from teachers around the country who will be incorporating it into their Holocaust education curriculum, and am looking forward to virtual author visits to support that.

Next year, I have four more books on the way: DEAR YOUNGER ME: What 35 Trailblazing Women Wish They’d Known as Girls (Rowman & Littlefield), THE TREE OF LIFE: How a Holocaust Sapling Inspired the World (illustrated by Alianna Rozentsveig, published by Penguin/Rocky Pond Books), BEAM OF LIGHT: The Story of the First White House Menorah (illustrated by Sophia Moore, published by Penguin/Rocky Pond Books) and one that hasn’t been announced yet. 2024 is going to be a busy year! Meanwhile, I’m working on more picture books, as well as a middle-grade novel and a middle-grade collective biography that I’m really excited about.

EB: Thank you so much for this interview, Vicky. And to Ronna, for hosting us. And to everyone who supports our books!

VF: Thank you, Elisa, for sharing your personal story behind this beautiful book, HIDDEN HOPE: HOW A TOY AND A HERO SAVED LIVES DURING THE HOLOCAUST. It’s been an inspiring conversation!

 

BUY THE BOOK:

Local indie for signed copies (type in the comments how you’d like the book inscribed): https://www.printbookstore.com/book/9781419750007

 

Author Elisa Boxer photo credit Melissa Mullen
Author Elisa Boxer Photo Credit: Melissa Mullen

AUTHOR BIO:

Elisa Boxer is an Emmy and Murrow award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in publications including The New York Times and Fast Company. She has reported for newspapers, magazines and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change. She is the author of several nonfiction picture books including The Voice That Won the Vote, A Seat at the Table, One Turtle’s Last Straw, SPLASH! (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection), Covered in Color (called “compelling from cover to cover” in a Kirkus starred review) and Hidden Hope (called “an important true account to add to all collections” in a School Library Journal starred review). Elisa lives in Maine, and has more children’s books on the way. Visit her at https://www.elisaboxer.com/

Links to social media:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/eboxer

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

IG: https://www.instagram.com/boxerelisa/

Illustrator’s website: https://www.amyjbates.com/

 

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of nineteen new and upcoming books for kids, including the Layla and the Bots series, Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code board books, Friendbots series, and the forthcoming Ava Lin series, Best Buddies series, AlphaBot, and The Boo Crew Needs You! You can visit Vicky at vickyfang.com.

 

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Elisa Boxer Interviews Author Kirsten W. Larson

 

AN INTERVIEW

WITH

KIRSTEN W. LARSON

AUTHOR OF

THE FIRE OF STARS

(Chronicle Books; $18.99, Ages 5-8)

 

 

The Fire of Stars cover Cecilia Payne

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness

INTERVIEW:

Elisa Boxer: I’m so happy to be here interviewing my Soaring 20s colleague and friend Kirsten W. Larson about her newest picture book, The Fire of Stars: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars are Made Of. It’s an absolutely stellar book! Kirsten weaves together two stories in one: The creation of a star, and the evolution of astronomer Cecilia Payne, who discovered what stars are made of …

Kirsten, you make the dual narrative structure look easy. But I know it is anything but! Did you set out with the intention to write a dual narrative? If not, at what point in the process did you decide on this format?

Kirsten W. Larson: This was a last-minute decision, believe it or not. In May 2017, my agent Lara Perkins (of Andrea Brown Literary Agency) and I were preparing to sub this book as a run-of-the-mill picture book biography. Meanwhile,  I was working on a blog post featuring Hannah Holt’s query letter for THE DIAMOND AND THE BOY (Balzar + Bray, 2018). The book itself was still over a year away from release, but the query stuck with me. Hannah pitched her biography of Tracy Hall, who invented lab-produced diamonds, asa two-tale picture book—a turn and flip. … The two stories meet in the middle with a shared phrase.”

That was a total lightning bolt moment. I finally saw a way to add more hooks to my story and appeal to readers of both biography and informational books – by telling two stories at the same time. I went back and added the story of star formation alongside Cecilia’s formation as a star scientist.


EB:
That’s fascinating! The story is so seamlessly woven, I never would have guessed that it was a last-minute decision. What was the most challenging part about writing a book with this structure?

KWL: I think what sets this book apart from other parallel biographies (and made it very challenging to write) was the idea of having a shared line of text on every spread that applied to both stories – the star and Cecilia. It seemed like a good idea when I came up with it, but then it proved to be much harder to pull off. At one point I told Lara I couldn’t do it, and we should forget about it. But she kept encouraging me. She knew I could do it. But it was so, so hard.

Then, once I was working with editor Melissa Manlove of Chronicle Books, she had the additional idea of wanting to be able to read those shared lines only, without the additional text about Cecilia, and have it make sense for the youngest readers. The whole thing was a real puzzle, but I’m so happy we were able to get everything to work. It makes this book truly special.

 

EB: I’m so glad that Lara kept encouraging you, and that you stuck with it. You’ve created the perfect mentor text for aspiring authors of dual narratives. What advice would you give them?

KWL: I think this is a case where you have to be careful about the form not overtaking the writing, much like when you are writing poetry or even lyrically. For me, it helped to plot out both stories independently, step by step. I nailed down Cecilia’s major plot points, asking myself questions like “What’s the inciting incident?” “What’s the all is lost moment?” etc. Then I wrote down step-by-step how stars formed before trying to line the two stories up and brainstorming what language might connect them. I am a very visual writer, and I actually thumbnailed the stories in my journal trying to match things up and experimenting with language. You can see some of my journal pages here.

 

EB: I love the scene at the beginning, where Cecilia’s mother sets her down in the snow, and she expects a warm blanket, but instead finds her toes freezing! “It’s the first time Cecilia learns things aren’t always as they seem,” is such a powerful statement that foreshadows her discoveries to come. At what point in your research did you come across that particular anecdote, and how instrumental was it in building your scenes and threading that theme?

 

The Fire of Stars int1 young Cecilia Payne with mother in snow
Interior art from The Fire of Stars written by Kirsten W. Larson a nd illustrated by Katherine Roy, Chronicle Books ©2023.

 

KWL: The theme of this book was always the “ingredients” of a successful scientist, characteristics like being a good observer, curiosity, passion, and persistence. The book always showed how Cecilia exhibited those characteristics even as a child. For example, the scene where she watches slimy slugs in the garden was there from the start as was the scene about the bee and the bee orchid, which really set her on her quest for discovery.

But, to your question, I came across that story of Cecilia and the snow very early on in my research. Yet even though I knew about that story from the beginning, I didn’t include it until I started working on the parallel structure! I needed something that came before Cecilia in the dust and dirt of the garden, something that nodded to the star she would become.

That’s when I added this moment in the snow. I just tracked down a document on my computer when I “unwrote” Cecilia’s story, summarizing what needed to happen spread-by-spread in a line or two. That’s the last thing I wrote before I pieced the two stories together.

 

EB: Those same ingredients of curiosity, passion, and persistence clearly apply to you and your research as well! Can you tell us a bit more about your research process?

KWL: This book was a bit of a departure from my usual research process. Typically, I like to start with secondary sources for context before digging into primary sources to hear my characters’ voices in letters, diaries, and autobiographies.

At the time I started my research, there weren’t many book-length secondary sources about Cecilia at all. Dava Sobel’s GLASS UNIVERSE wasn’t out yet, nor was Donovan Moore’s biography. So I moved pretty quickly to primary sources like Cecilia’s published autobiography, her oral history from Harvard, and her research papers including her dissertation.

I did a lot of research around the edges, including the women who worked at Harvard Observatory and the field of astronomy and astrophysics to understand what was known in the field of astronomy at the time Cecilia was working. I talked to physicists and astronomers to discern the magnitude of her contributions.

EB: How much of yourself do you see in Cecilia?

KWL: What I’ve learned through this book and WOOD, WIRE, WINGS is that “STEM people” and “creative people” have so much in common. We’re all creative. We’re all problem solvers. We all take feedback. We all fail. So, yes, I feel a great affinity for Cecilia, especially that feeling of being lost and feeling hopeless, as well as that thrill of the shiny bright moment when an idea comes together and a new piece of knowledge or art comes into the world.

 

The Fire of Stars int2 astronomer Cecilia Payne studying stars
Interior art from The Fire of Stars written by Kirsten W. Larson and illustrated by Katherine Roy, Chronicle Books ©2023.

 

EB: Speaking of shiny and bright and everything coming together, Katherine Roy’s illustrations are breathtaking. What was it like seeing her preliminary sketches and watching them evolve?

KWL: Katherine’s work on this book is incredible, and it’s such a thrill to see her splattering paint and using toothbrushes to give the impression of star formation. 

The original visual idea for this book, which I put in art notes for our editor, was to split the story horizontally, with the star’s story on the top and Cecilia’s below. I saw some early sketches, and it wasn’t working the way we hoped. The star story seemed very disconnected from Cecilia’s. When Katherine shifted the two stories to a side-by-side the whole thing really started coming together. This just goes to show you the tremendous power of illustrators who know far more about visual storytelling than authors do. This book was such an adventure!

EB: I couldn’t agree more, from a reader’s perspective, that this book is an incredible adventure! One of my new all-time favorite picture books. Thank you so much for giving all of us a peek into your process.

Click here to purchase a copy of the book.

Click here for the publisher page for a good way to access activities, discussion topics, etc.

Social Media Links: @kirstenwlarson @kroystudio (Twitter) @chroniclekids

 

AUTHOR BIO:

Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. Kirsten is the author of the picture books: WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, illustrated by Katy Wu (Clarion, 2021), THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, February 2023), and THIS IS HOW YOU KNOW, illustrated by Cornelia Li (Little, Brown 2024). She also is the author of the middle-grade, graphic nonfiction, THE LIGHT OF RESISTANCE, illustrated by Barbara McClintock, (Roaring Brook, 2023), along with 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Kirsten lives near Los Angeles with her husband, lhasa-poo, and two curious kids. Visit her website at https://kirsten-w-larson.com

 

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Elisa Boxer is an Emmy and Murrow award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in publications including The New York Times and Fast Company. She has reported for newspapers, magazines, and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change. She is the author of several nonfiction picture books including The Voice That Won the VoteA Seat at the TableOne Turtle’s Last Straw, SPLASH! (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection), Covered in Color (called “compelling from cover to cover” in a Kirkus starred review) and Hidden Hope (called “an important true account to add to all collections” in a School Library Journal starred review). Elisa lives in Maine, and has more children’s books on the way. Visit her at https://www.elisaboxer.com

 

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An Interview with Beth Anderson Author of Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

BETH ANDERSON

AUTHOR OF

TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE:

PANDEMONIUM AND PATIENCE IN THE PRESIDENT’S HOUSE

ILLUSTRATED BY S. D. SCHINDLER

(CALKINS CREEK; $18.99, AGES 7 to 10)

 

 

Tad Lincoln's Restless Wriggle cover

 

 

 

SUMMARY

Tad Lincoln’s boundless energy annoyed almost everyone but his father, President Abraham Lincoln. But Tad put that energy to good use during the tough times of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln guided Tad’s wriggle on visits to hospitals, to the telegraph office, and to army camps. Tad greeted visitors, raised money for bandages, and kept his father company late into the night. This special and patient bond between father and son was plain to see, and before long, Tad had wriggled his way into the hearts of others as well. Beth Anderson and S. D. Schindler follow Tad’s antics during the Civil War to uncover the generous heart and joyful spirit that powered Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle.

 

INTERVIEW

Colleen Paeff: Hi Beth! Congratulations on a busy couple of years! If I’m not mistaken, your debut picture book, An Inconvenient Alphabet: Ben Franklin and Noah Webster’s Spelling Revolution, came out in 2018 and by the end of 2023, you will have eight picture books out in the world, all nonfiction! That’s amazing! How do you manage to be so prolific?

Beth Anderson: Thank you, Colleen! It’s all very surreal! I don’t feel prolific. It takes me a long time to get a manuscript in shape. I think the surge for 2022 is due to a few manuscripts that I had worked on earlier that are finally making it out in the world, along with a scheduling change. I feel like my production of new stories has slowed as I learn to juggle more tasks. Only three of the eight technically qualify as nonfiction, but I think all but one will be shelved as biographies.

 

CP: Your books have covered stories from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. When you started writing for children did you know you would focus on mostly true stories from history or has your career evolved that way over time?

BA: I started off playing with fiction. But when I worked on a story I’d become familiar with in college (which sat in my head for a very long time!), I found my niche with historical stories. I love the discovery of little-known bits of history that open your eyes to a wider understanding of the world. The bonus of humor is irresistible. And ultimately, if a story opens your heart, too, that’s the best!

 

Tad Lincoln int1 goat sled
Interior spread from Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle written by Beth Anderson and illustrated by S. D. Schindler, Calkins Creek ©2022.

 

CP: Do you have a favorite time period to write about?

BA: While I don’t have one favorite, I find the era surrounding the American Revolution fascinating. It may be because there is so much more there than what made it into textbooks and curriculum. There are so many contradictions and ironies, and so many aspects of revolution playing out in people’s lives. I love that Hamilton, the musical,  has brought intense interest to that time along with new ways of looking at it. Suddenly history is popular culture! Gotta love it!

 

CP: Absolutely! I love that Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle shows readers a side of Abraham Lincoln that we don’t usually see in books. How did you discover this sweet relationship and what made you decide it would make a good book?

BA: I started out looking into Tad Lincoln as the instigator of the first presidential turkey pardon. (Lincoln had previously granted a pardon to one of Tad’s toy soldiers. 😄) When I dug deeper looking for the heart of the story, I discovered the very tender relationship between father and son. Each provided the other with what they desperately needed. Tad provided joy and hope when his father was in the depths of despair. And Papa patiently guided Tad with love and understanding when everyone else just wanted to shut him down. It was powerful to see a child play such an important role, and that became the heart of the story. For me, the goal is always to find the humanity in history, to connect as people. Seeing Lincoln as a caring father is a great reminder that historical figures are much more complex than the images we usually encounter.

 

CP: In the back matter you mention that the book focuses on one year in Tad Lincoln’s life. Why did you choose to limit yourself to one year and what made you choose 1863?

BA: As I collected stories of the two, I found a sort of transformation of Tad in 1863. By focusing on that year, I could eliminate some of the other Lincoln events, like Willie’s death and the assassination, and really hone in on Tad and Papa. I found an arc of events that took Tad from disruptive, to well-intentioned annoying, to slowly finding ways to appropriately help his father and others. The turkey pardon became a culminating event in which Tad found his voice and agency.

 

CP: What are some of your favorite stories about Tad that didn’t make it into the book?

BA: One that was cut—he sawed up the dining room table and used barrel staves to construct rocking chairs for the Old Soldiers’ Home. His toolbox disappeared after that one.

There are stories about Tad and Willie playing with the bell system in the President’s House and causing problems. They also played on the roof with pretend cannons, and they found all sorts of fun stuff in the attic. Tad used to ride his pony as “security detail” to accompany his parents in the carriage. There are many touching anecdotes that helped me get to know him.

 

CP: What fun stories! What do you hope readers will take away from Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle?

BA: I hope children will see goodness and capableness in themselves and others despite what might appear to be annoying behavior or uncomfortable differences. To me, the story is about perspectives, too. Incapable boy vs a child with learning differences.  Undisciplined trouble vs unbridled good intentions. The President’s House vs home.

 

Tad Lincoln int art2 errands
Interior art from Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle written by Beth Anderson and illustrated by S. D. Schindler, Calkins Creek ©2022.

 

CP: How do you go about finding little-known stories from history? Do you have any favorite resources?

BA: I subscribe to various news feeds, keep my eyes and ears tuned for possibilities, and often find something while I’m looking into a different topic. I explore history sites sometimes, but there’s no one place.

 

CP: How do you keep your research organized?

BA: I’ve slowly developed my system. I use a spiral for gathering information. I label the first page Table of Contents and use what has become a standard list of things I know I’ll need – like sources, contacts, title ideas, structure ideas, key concepts/themes, back matter possibilities, teacher ideas, timeline, character details, and much more. I need to be able to sort what I find into usable categories and capture ideas as they pop so I can locate those pieces when I need them. I did a post on my blog a few years ago called Organization Optimization. I often buy used copies of books I need so I can mark them up. I copy or print a lot of articles and relevant pages to have in hand. I keep all my accumulated pieces in a pocket file.  [see the photo of spiral below]

 

 

TAD spiral TofC
Table of Contents page for Tad Lincoln’s Restless Wriggle from Beth Anderson’s spiral notebook courtesy of the author.

 

CP: That sounds like a terrific system! I will definitely be stealing some organization ideas from you! What are some of the most surprising things you’ve learned in researching your books—all of them, not necessarily just the most recent?

BA: Now that I think about it, I think they are all about something that surprised me—like Ben and Noah’s efforts to change our spelling and “Smelly” Kelly’s nose. I guess that’s a lot of what draws me to a story.

A few tidbits. I was surprised to learn that Black men could have served on a jury in New York in 1855. To attend court, Elizabeth Jennings’ family would have had to walk across the ice to get from Manhattan to Brooklyn in February 1855. I was totally shocked that James Kelly pulled a 30” eel out of a subway sink drain. There are phones in the subway tunnels marked by blue lights. Horns were used as hearing aids—per S. D. Schindler’s illustration in Tad’s story. I didn’t know that men paid bounties for others to serve in their place in the Continental Army. (So really, the wealthy finding a way out of military service is nothing new. Actually, I get those surprises often, that some of the problems and situations we have are really nothing new.) Every story is full of surprises. There are the ones that bring you to the story, and then so many more as you write and vet for accuracy.

 

CP: Those kinds of surprises are what I love about writing nonfiction! What’s next for you, Beth?

BA: 2022 is a busy year with three releases! REVOLUTIONARY PRUDENCE WRIGHT: LEADING THE MINUTE WOMEN IN THE FIGHT FOR INDEPENDENCE, illustrated by Susan Reagan, releasing Feb. 1, and FRANZ’S PHANTASMAGORICAL MACHINE, illustrated by Caroline Hamel, releasing May 3 are up for pre-order now. CLOAKED IN COURAGE: UNCOVERING DEBORAH SAMPSON, PATRIOT SOLDIER, illustrated by Anne Lambelet, comes out Nov. 15.

I’m on pins and needles waiting to see what Jeremy Holmes does for our 2023 release, THOMAS JEFFERSON’S BATTLE FOR SCIENCE: BIAS, TRUTH, AND A MIGHTY MOOSE. And there’s another title in process, as yet unannounced.

 

CP: Incredible! I look forward to reading them all! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat.

BA: Thanks so much for inviting me to share TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE with your readers! I’m honored!

 

Beth Anderson Headshot
Beth Anderson Photo ©Tina Wood Photography

BRIEF BIO

Beth Anderson, a former English as a Second Language teacher, has always marveled at the power of books. With linguistics and reading degrees, a fascination with language, and a penchant for untold tales, she strives for accidental learning in the midst of a great story. Beth lives in Loveland, Colorado where she laughs, ponders, and questions; and hopes to inspire kids to do the same. She’s the award-winning author of TAD LINCOLN’S RESTLESS WRIGGLE, “SMELLY” KELLY AND HIS SUPER SENSES, LIZZIE DEMANDS A SEAT!, and AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET. Beth has more historical picture books on the way, including three more stories of revolution, wonder, and possibility in 2022.

 

BUY BETH’S BOOKS HERE

Click here or here for orders and pre-orders.

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS

Website: bethandersonwriter.com

Twitter: @Bandersonwriter

Instagram: @Bandersonwriter

Pinterest: @Bandersonwriter

Facebook: https://www.beth.anderson.33671748

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

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

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

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

DARSHANA KHIANI

AUTHOR OF

HOW TO WEAR A SARI

ILLUSTRATED BY

JOANNE LEW-VRIETHOFF

(VERSIFY; $17.99, Ages 4 to 7)

 

How to Wear a Sari cover

 

 

SUMMARY

Being a little kid isn’t always fun and games. Sometimes, it’s downright annoying. When the fashionable main character of How to Wear a Sari tires of being treated like she’s TOO little, she sets out to prove to her family that she can do ANYTHING she puts her mind to . . . including putting on a colorful, twinkly, silky sari. Sure, they’re long and unwieldy—but that only means her family will be even more impressed when she puts it on all by herself. Naturally, there are some hiccups along the way, but she discovers that she’s not the only one in her family who has set out with something to prove, with hilariously chaotic results. That’s what photo albums are for!

 

INTERVIEW

 

Colleen Paeff: Hi Darshana! Welcome to Good Reads with Ronna. Your adorable debut, How to Wear a Sari, came out last June. What have been some of your favorite moments from the past four months?

Darshana Khiani: First I’d like to say thank you so much for having me. My favorite part has been hearing from parents about how their little ones loved seeing someone that looks like them (Indian character) in a book. My 4yr-old niece has taken her book to school four times already. Seeing the book face out at my local library was wonderful too. I love it when people send me pictures of the book in the wild. A surprising sighting was one from the Harvard Coop!

 

CP: That sounds wonderful! All of it! Joanne Lew-Vriethoff’s illustrations are so vibrant and full of motion. Did you include art notes on your manuscript since a lot of what happens in the story isn’t in the text? 

DK: I try to leave room for the illustrator as much as possible. However, I do like to put humor in my stories where the setup is in text and the punchline is in the art, so I do use art notes when required. For example, the page before the climax says “remember not to run” and after the page turn is a wordless spread where the main character takes a colossal spill, so I had to have an art note for that. In the final spread, the text simply says “you now have a spot in the hall of fame album”, but it is the art note which specifies what types of photos the album contains.

 

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

 

CP: What did you think the first time you saw the illustrations? Did anything surprise you?

DK: It was such a wonderful, unexpected surprise. I thought my first look would be a sketch of a scene or characters instead it was the full book in black-n-white sketches. I loved seeing the story come to life. When viewing the colored art, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the illustrator had made the extended family interracial. 

 

CP: Yes, I love that! Do you remember the first time you wore a sari? Did you have any of the same problems as the girl in your book?

DK: I think the first time I wore a sari was for my cousin’s wedding. I was 18 at the time. I’m fairly sure several elder female relatives helped me drape it. I’m still not very good at wearing a sari. If I have trouble draping a sari, what would it be like for a young girl? That was the seed for the story.

 

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

 

CP: You work full-time as a computer engineer. Do you find yourself using some of what you’ve learned as an engineer in your writing life? And vice versa?

DK: Surprisingly, yes! I am frequently requested to review docs or sit in on dry-runs of training presentations where I find I am giving big-picture feedback. The things we learn about good writing regarding keeping the reader engaged, knowing what your main story thread is, and having the right level of detail (not too much or not too little) are important anytime you are trying to convey information to someone. On the flip side, having worked in a company full of deliverables and deadlines helps me respect the business side of publishing. Though I will say things are so much slower in publishing than in the field I work in. That took getting used to. I also had to learn to set my own deadlines. I’ve realized I work better with external accountability. 

 

CP: With a full-time job and a family, your writing time must be very valuable. How do you make the most of your time in the writer’s chair? Do you have any favorite productivity hacks?

DK: Balancing writing, work, and family is a constant juggling act. Over the years I’ve learned to find blocks of time whether it be early in the morning, during the lunch hour, or late at night. When the kids were little, I frequently took my writing stuff to their gymnastic and swim practices, or I would visit a coffee shop while they were at a birthday party. Currently, there is a lot going on with the family that has greatly reduced my writing time. To keep things going I set aside two hours early Saturday morning and meet online with a writing buddy. This keeps me accountable and moving forward. As for productivity hacks, I try to set up my desk area and computer the night before, so the next morning everything is ready to go. I try to stay off of social media and email until after I do the morning writing.

 

CP: Those are all great ideas. I especially like the thought of having a writing buddy you meet with online. I love checking the South Asian Kidlit lists on your website. What made you decide to create those lists and have they benefited you in any way?

DK: Back in 2016, I was writing a blog post on South Asian Kidlit literature only to realize I was unaware of the current writers and illustrators. I figure if I as an Indian person didn’t know these books existed then how would others? So I set out to spread the word. The benefit to me has been it gives me something to talk about when meeting with booksellers and librarians. It’s easier for me to pitch my South Asian Kidlit newsletter and the benefits of it instead of directly talking about myself.

 

CP: It’s so much easier to pitch other people’s books than it is to pitch our own! When did you know you wanted to write books for children and how did you go about getting started?

DK: In my mid-30s after I had my two daughters, I knew I wanted to do something more, something that allowed me to directly connect with people. I was reading tons of picture books to my kids and fell in love with them. They were short, funny, and I loved that they could be about nearly anything. I also thought how hard can it be to write? Famous last words. Well, it took me over ten years but I did it and I’ve loved every moment. Some of the groups and writing challenges that have been critical to my writing journey are Storystorm (formerly PiBoIdMo), 12×12, SCBWI, Making Picture Book Magic course, my Cafe Invaders critique group, my PB Debut Marketing Group the Soaring ’20s, my agent, and librarians, bookseller, and writing friends I’ve made along the way. I love that my family and friends have been so supportive and cheering me on. It really does take a village.

 

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

 

CP: Is there anything you wish you’d known back when you first started writing for children?

DK: Write, write, write as much as you can. This is one area I still struggle with as I love to revise but hate first drafts. I had a slow start in the first few years, where I would work on only one or two manuscripts over and over again. In the beginning, it should be about experimenting and trying lots of different types of stories because there is something to learn from each one of them. 

 

CP: Any favorite books from the past year?

DK: Too many. Here are some of my favorite reads from the past year. THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL by Stacey Lee is a YA historical fiction novel set in 1890 Atlanta that is so smart and sassy. I can’t wait for the TV adaption to be released. FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER by Angeline Boulley was such a wonderful read. I love books where I’m learning about another culture, in this case, the Ojibwe people. In picture books, your book of course THE GREAT STINK is so engaging and informative. YOUR LEGACY: A BOLD RECLAIMING OF OUR ENSLAVED HISTORY by Schele Williams is gorgeous and empowering. I love her approach to the topic of African-American history. 

 

CP: Aw! Thank you, Darshana. That’s so nice. I’ll be adding the other books to my TBR list! What’s next for you, Darshana?

DK: I am really excited about my next book I’M AN AMERICAN which is scheduled for Summer 2023 by Viking. In it, a classroom of students discusses what it means to be an American and the values we share. Each student, of a different ethnicity, tells a short story from his or her own family about their American experience.  

 

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

 

CP: What a terrific idea. I can’t wait to read it! Thanks for the chat!

DK: Thank you so much for having me. It was a joy talking with you. 

 

DKhiani
Author Photo Credit ©Lisa Noble

BRIEF BIO

Darshana Khiani is a computer engineer by day and a children’s writer by night. She is a first-generation Indian American and enjoys writing funny, light-hearted stories with a South Asian backdrop. When she isn’t working or writing she can be found hiking, skiing, or volunteering. Darshana lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two daughters, and a furry pup. How to Wear a Sari is her debut picture book.

 

 

 

BUY DARSHANA’S BOOKS HERE

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

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

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS

Website: www.darshanakhiani.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/darshanakhiani

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

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

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

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

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An Interview with Author Angela Burke Kunkel

 

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

ANGELA BURKE KUNKEL

AUTHOR OF

PENGUIN JOURNEY

ILLUSTRATED BY

CATHERINE ODELL

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

 

 

Penguin Journey cover

 

 

SUMMARY

 

Packed Snow / Moon glow

Wind-blown / All alone

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

 

INTERVIEW

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

CP: I can’t wait to read it!

 

 

Angela Burke Kunkel
Author Photo Credit ©Mei Lin Barral

BRIEF BIO

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

 

 

PREORDER PENGUIN JOURNEY HERE

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

BUY ANGELA’S OTHER BOOKS HERE

https://www.angelakunkel.com/books

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS

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

Twitter: https://twitter.com/angkunkel

Website: https://www.angelakunkel.com

 

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

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

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An Interview with Mariana Llanos Author of Run, Little Chaski!

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

MARIANA LLANOS

AUTHOR OF

RUN, LITTLE CHASKI!:

AN INKA TRAIL ADVENTURE

ILLUSTRATED BY

MARIANA RUIZ JOHNSON

(Barefoot Books; $16.99, Ages 3 to 7)

 

 

RunLittleChaski JLGCover

 

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SUMMARY:

In this tale set in the ancient Inka (sometimes spelled Inca) empire, Little Chaski has a big job: he is the Inka King’s newest royal messenger. On his first day delivering messages he stops to help several creatures in need along the way, causing him to nearly miss his sunset deadline. But the kindness he bestowed on these animals winds up helping him in surprising ways. Descriptive language and bold illustrations give readers insight into Little Chaski’s nervousness and excitement as he runs the Inka Trail, working earnestly to fulfill the responsibilities of his new role.

 

INTERVIEW:

Colleen Paeff: Hello, Mariana! There is so much I want to talk to you about, but let’s start with your most recent book. Run, Little Chaski: An Inka Trail Adventure, which I had the pleasure of seeing when it was just a manuscript! Congratulations on the two starred reviews and the Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selection! Can you explain to our readers what a chaski is?

Mariana Llanos: Hi Colleen! I’m excited to be talking about it with you! You’ve seen this story from its first drafts. The word chaski means messenger in Quechua. Chaskis were a relay system of messengers used during the Inka Empire. They delivered official messages through the vast territory of the Tawantinsuyu. When the Spanish invaded, they were so impressed by the organization of this system, they even kept it running for some more years.

 

black and white chaski sketch

 

CP: Did you first hear about chaskis as a child growing up in Perú, or did you learn about them later in life?

ML: I learned about chaskis in Perú. They’re an important part of Peruvian history and culture so I learned about their system in school. The word chaski is also used as a name for different tourism-based businesses so I was familiar, although I did research more in-depth when writing this book. I read several non-fiction books to make sure I was getting everything right. I discovered there was a lot more to learn about the Inka, since the studies of their culture keep on advancing and more theories develop. Writing a book rooted in your own culture is a huge responsibility to bear on one’s shoulders. I really wanted to get it right.

 

 

Int art2 Run Little Chaski
Interior spread from Run, Little Chaski!: An Inka Trail Adventure written by Mariana Llanos and illustrated by Mariana Ruiz Johnson, Barefoot Books ©2021.

 

 

CP: You manage to pack so much information into the backmatter of this book. You talk about the Inka empire, animals of the Andes, chaskis, and more–and it’s all told in a way that the youngest readers will understand. Did you know from the start the book would have an informational aspect to it or did that develop over time?

ML: It evolved. In the beginning I had an author’s note with some information about the Inka and the Chaskis, but then my editor, Kate DePalma, thought it would be best to break down the information. I really like it now because it’s easier to see and process, especially for young readers. The team at Barefoot Books took what I had already written in the author’s note and added more sections. Later, I went over it and made corrections, and added additional information.

 

 

Int art from Run Little Chaski
Interior illustration from Run, Little Chaski!: An Inka Trail Adventure written by Mariana Llanos and illustrated by Mariana Ruiz Johnson, Barefoot Books ©2021.

 

CP: In 2017 you received an Oklahoma Human Rights Awards from the Oklahoma Universal Human Rights Alliance, and the United Nations Association Oklahoma City Chapter. That must have been such an honor. How does writing for children help you to address human rights?

ML: It was an honor that I take very seriously. I feel like writing for children allows me to plant a seed of peace. It allows me to offer a mirror and a window. All children have a right to live in peace and they should have the right to see themselves reflected in books. Books allow kids to imagine a world that is inclusive for all, they allow them to dream of a fair and just society. Through books we can also tackle big important issues like climate change, sustainability, so that’s the direction I’m heading with my stories. Writing for children is a tremendous responsibility.

 

 

Mariana Llanos with award
Author Mariana Llanos receives her award.

 

 

CP: Your book Luca’s Bridge/El Puente de Luca tackles immigration and deportation—very tough topics—but it’s also about resilience and family. What was the process of writing that book like? How did you find a way to add hope to such a difficult story?

ML: There was a lot of crying involved. It’s such a tough topic, but it was a story I wanted to tell. In the story, Luca’s parents are deported as they’re undocumented, while he is an American citizen but has to travel to Mexico with his parents. It is reversed from the immigration stories we usually hear, but I knew from the news that there are thousands of children in this situation. I know I couldn’t give this story a traditional satisfying ending, but I knew I had to at least weave some hope into it. As an immigrant myself I know how terrifying the thought of being deported is, but I also tried to put myself in Luca’s shoes. To me, as long as I have laughter, music, and family I’d know that eventually, I would be okay. It was important to offer my readers an opportunity to empathize with a person in this situation. We often hear a lot of judgment against people who are undocumented, but what would YOU think if you were part of a mixed-status family, like so many in the United States?

 

cover LucasBridge Mariana Llanos

 

 

CP: You did such a wonderful job of putting the reader in Luca’s shoes. And the illustrations by Anna López Real add such a beautiful, dreamy quality to the story. What did you think when you first saw them?

ML: Colleen, there was even more crying! They are so evocative and powerful. Anna is such a talented person and couldn’t be happier to have shared Luca with her. It was a similar feeling when I saw Run Little Chaski’s illustrations. I had no idea they could make the story so much fun. I am in constant awe of the talent of the illustrators I’ve been paired with.

 

int art from Lucas Bridge
Interior spread from Luca’s Bridge written by Mariana Llanos and illustrated by Anna López Real, Penny Candy Books ©2019.

 

 

CP:  In addition to writing (and raising a family and working!), you do a lot of school visits. How do you fit it all in!? Do you have any favorite productivity hacks you can share with us?

ML: I schedule everything in my phone calendar. If I don’t immediately add it to the calendar, then forget it, it won’t happen. It took me a long time to learn to organize myself, but I think I have managed to learn to block my time. My mornings are for my writing and school visits. Afternoons for other work and kids. Family always comes first though, so I don’t feel bad if I have to cancel anything when my family needs me.

 

CP: In addition to being a traditionally published author, you have also self-published some books. What’s the biggest bonus to each of the different types of publishing?

ML: I have really enjoyed my journey in self-publishing. The biggest bonus is that I tell the stories I want to tell however I want to tell them. Self-publishing allows me to be creative without having to stick to industry standards for format, word count, long waits, even language. On the other hand, it is very hard to get noticed and for picture books, it gets expensive—I’m not an illustrator. But self-publishing is a great way to get our stories out, and I would consider it again to publish in Spanish as traditional publishing still doesn’t publish many authentic books in Spanish written by Spanish-speaking authors from the U.S. Most of what’s published in Spanish in the U.S, are translations, which is fine (there are very good translations of great books), but I think it’s a big bonus when the author writes in their own native language too.

 

CP: This past year, you started teaching writing classes in Spanish. Can you tell us a little about your classes?

ML: Yes, I began giving workshops about publishing. My goal is to reach Spanish-speaking people who want to begin publishing their stories. Most are bilingual, but like me, feel more comfortable speaking in their language, so this class is directed to them. One of my classes is an overview of the publishing industry. How to go from writing to publishing and the different paths to publish our stories. The class that I’m putting together now is called “El abc de los cuentos” and it will be about craft.

 

CP: That sounds terrific! In addition to teaching and school visits, what’s next for you?

ML: Currently, my awesome agent, Sera Rivers, is submitting my manuscripts. We have two chapter book series out on sub and a couple of PBs. Hopefully, I’ll get good news in the next few weeks. Everything in publishing moves slowly, but I keep myself from biting my nails by writing more and more stories.

 

CP: That’s an excellent strategy. I use it myself! Thanks for chatting Mariana. And good luck with your submissions!

ML: Thank you so much for having me, Colleen. My fingers and toes are crossed for my manuscripts and yours too. Thanks, everyone, for reading.

Headshot Mariana LlanosBRIEF BIO:

Mariana Llanos is a Peruvian-born writer of children’s books and poetry. She was raised in Lima, Peru, and moved to the United States in 2002. In 2013 she self-published her first book, Tristan Wolf. Nine books later, Mariana debuted as a traditionally published author in 2019 with Luca’s Bridge/El Puente de Luca (Penny Candy Books, illustrated by Anna Lopez Real). This book was selected as a 2020 ASLC Notable Book. Her next book Eunice and Kate (2020, Penny Candy Books, illustrated by Elena Napoli) won the Paterson prize Books for Young People 2021. Her latest book Run Little Chaski (2021, Barefoot Books, illustrated by Mariana Ruiz Johnson) is a JLG Gold Standard Selection and received starred reviews from Kirkus and SLJ.

Mariana lives in Oklahoma with her family.

 

BUY MARIANA’S BOOKS HERE:

English: https://bookshop.org/books/run-little-chaski-an-inka-trail-adventure/9781646861644

Spanish: https://bookshop.org/books/run-little-chaski-an-inka-trail-adventure/9781646862177?aid=1797&listref=las-musas-translated-spanish-more

 

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Website: https://www.marianallanos.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/marianallanos

Instagram: https://instagram.com/marianawritestheworld

Facebook: https://facebook.com/marianallanosbooks

 

MORE ON MARIANA LLANOS:

Creators Corner Luca´s Bridge: Creator Corner with Mariana Llanos LUCA’S BRIDGE, EL PUENTE DE LUCA

Poems in Poetry Magazine:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mariana-llanos

NBCLX Interview about co-founding #LatinxPitch – https://www.lx.com/social-justice/these-authors-want-latinx-kids-to-be-represented-in-childrens-books/43082/

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).

 

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An Interview With Kirsten W. Larson Author of A True Wonder

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

KIRSTEN W. LARSON

AUTHOR OF

A TRUE WONDER:

The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything

ILLUSTRATED BY KATY WU

(Clarion Books; $17.99, Ages 4 to 7)

 

 

A True Wonder cover

Starred reviews – Booklist and Kirkus

 

 

SUMMARY

“A behind-the-scenes look at the creation and evolution of Wonder Woman, the iconic character who has inspired generations of girls and women as a symbol of female strength and power.

Perhaps the most popular female superhero of all time, Wonder Woman was created by Bill Marston in 1941, upon the suggestion of his wife, Elizabeth. Wonder Woman soon showed what women can do—capture enemy soldiers, defeat criminals, become president, and more. Her path since has inspired women and girls while echoing their ever-changing role in society. Now a new group of devoted young fans enjoy her latest films, Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984, and await a third installation being planned for theatrical release. This exceptional book raises up the many women who played a part in her evolution, from Elizabeth Marston to writer Joye Hummel to director Patty Jenkins, and makes clear that the fight for gender equality is still on-going.”

 

INTERVIEW

Hi Kirsten! Welcome to Good Reads With Ronna and congratulations on the publication of A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything, a truly wonderful picture book that I’m so excited to discuss with you, especially on your launch day! Like you, I grew up on comic books (Archie) although to be honest the only superhero I followed as a child was Superman. Somehow I came late to the game with Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins’ first film was my first introduction to the backstory.

 

GOODREADSWITHRONNA: Can you believe the young girl in the 1970s who was a Lynda Carter fan is the one who’s written about Wonder Woman?

KIRSTEN W. LARSON: I wasn’t someone who always wanted to be an author when I grew up, so I feel lucky to have stumbled on a career later in life that feeds my curiosity. I love research and that thrill of feeling I’ve gotten a book “just right” in terms of voice, structure, etc.

 

GRWR: I’m curious if once the idea hit you to write the history of Wonder Woman, you knew you’d approach it with a comic book style format (which I ADORED by the way)? Did you do the research first and then decide how to find your way into sharing the story or did you always know how you’d do it?

KWL: I always envisioned this as a biography of the character of Wonder Woman, showing her character arc across the decades. This was a rare book for me. The finished book is very close to the original drafts. The main difference was the addition of some of the more modern incarnations of Wonder Woman that bring the character up to the present. I always envisioned comic-book style illustrations, but of course, the choice to illustrate the book that was entirely up to editor Jennifer Greene, the art director, and illustrator Katy Wu.

 

A True Wonder int1
Interior spread from A True Wonder written by Kirsten W. Larson and illustrated by Katy Wu, Clarion Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: A TRUE WONDER could not have been an easy manuscript to write for someone used to the more traditional nonfiction structure. What was that like having to write a script with setting, narrative, thoughts, speech, and sound effects?

KWL: You may be surprised to know that I wrote A TRUE WONDER just like any narrative nonfiction picture book. I did have a global illustration note suggesting the comic book style, as well as the trading card format for the sidebars about significant people who contributed to the Wonder Woman character. But it was illustrator Katy Wu who broke out the illustrations into panels and dropped the quotes I included into speech bubbles. She deserves all the credit.

 

GRWR: Whoa, I sure hope Katy sees this and all your compliments because the art and prose work seamlessly. Did you and the illustrator Katy Wu get to collaborate?

KWL: Katy and I didn’t collaborate at all, which is fairly typical for picture books. She did all her own research. I provided some minor comments on her dummy, but that’s it. We’ve only corresponded since we started marketing the book.

 

GRWR: I am so impressed! So, do you have a favorite spread?

KWL: Yes! The final spread, which talks about how Wonder Woman inspires us to become heroes of our own stories is my hands-down favorite. I tear up every time. Katy illustrated it with a diverse group of women, and it is perfect.

 

A True Wonder int5
Interior spread from A True Wonder written by Kirsten W. Larson and illustrated by Katy Wu, Clarion Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: Based on your previous STEM books and NASA background, writing about Wonder Woman is a departure for you though it is definitely a STEAM read. What are your feelings about that, and do you think you might write more non-STEM books in the future?

KWL: I love to write about underdogs and women who defy expectations, and the character of Wonder Woman falls into that theme. Plus, comic books are a big part of geek culture. Just think about how much time the Big Bang Theory characters spent at the comic bookstore, or trying to get tickets for San Diego Comic Con.

 

GRWR: LOL! In A TRUE WONDER I learned SO much about the early days of comic books, especially how the business was populated by white men keen on keeping superheroes men. Yet it was an exceptionally enlightened man, Bill Marston, with a wife working full-time as the family bread-winner who pitched the idea of Wonder Woman to Charlie Gaines of All-American Comics, the precursor to DC. Tell us more about that fateful turn of events in the male-dominated industry.

KWL: This probably won’t surprise anyone, but comic books have been under attack almost since their inception. Just before Wonder Woman was introduced, parents and educators complained about the violence in comics. They argued that comics were a poor substitute for classic literature too (sound familiar)? But Marston thought comics could be a force for good. It was his wife, Elizabeth Marston, who suggested the idea of a female superhero. And that’s what Bill Marston pitched – a female superhero who he hoped would be a good influence on children.

 

 

A True Wonder int2
Interior spread from A True Wonder written by Kirsten W. Larson and illustrated by Katy Wu, Clarion Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: Women writers and staffers behind the emergence of Wonder Woman ultimately played crucial roles in empowering the character and women in general during WWII when a majority of men were off fighting. You mention more than a handful and even write in your back matter about Joye Hummel (who wrote under a male pen name) and several others who made an impact on the representation of Wonder Woman including Gloria Steinem. Can you speak to how they contributed to feminism?

KWL: Through the years and often behind the scenes and uncredited, women have contributed to Wonder Woman as authors, artists, editors, and consultants. These women were ahead of their time in what continues to be a male-dominated industry. At the same time, second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem and Joanne Edgar grew up reading Wonder Woman comics and sort of adopted her as their mascot, putting her on the first cover of Ms. Magazine. Even today, we tap into Wonder Woman as a short-hand way to talk about strong and powerful women and sisterhood.

 

GRWR: What would like your young readers to take away from reading A TRUE WONDER?

KWL: I hope that children will find a way to channel their inner superheroes and make their own contributions to their communities and the world. We need everyday heroes now more than ever.

 

A True Wonder int3
Interior spread from A True Wonder written by Kirsten W. Larson and illustrated by Katy Wu, Clarion Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: Let’s talk craft. I read in Storystorm 2020 (Kirsten Larson | Writing for Kids (While Raising Them) (taralazar.com) that you turn to walks in nature for inspiration. I’d love to hear more about what you do to find story ideas and then how you proceed after an idea strikes you.

KWL: I find story ideas everywhere: books, movies, magazine articles, museums, you name it. Normally I do some initial research to learn whether the resources I need (like primary sources) are readily available, and to figure out if someone is already writing a book about the subject. If everything checks out, I start with secondary sources to get context, then dive into primary sources to hear the characters’ voices. The research normally guides me to a structure and voice, but there’s always a lot of experimentation. And walking, along with showers, meditating, and mentor texts, are great for when I get stuck during the writing process.

 

GRWR: That’s so helpful to know. Do you have a writing routine and a preferred place to write?

KWL: I write all over the place–in the living room, outside on my back patio, in my office. I get up before everyone else and try to write for at least an hour Monday through Friday after checking in with my accountability partner. Most days I dedicate another two hours to writing before turning to other things.

 

GRWR: What’s your go-to creativity beverage or comfort food when feeling frustrated?

KWL: Coffee, coffee, coffee.

 

GRWR: You’re also a regular contributor for STEM Tuesday online at STEM Tuesday – From The Mixed Up Files. Can you speak to that experience?

KWL: I work with so many amazing contributors on STEM Tuesday, led by Jen Swanson. Each month, team members put together a themed book list plus classroom activities and ELA/writing activities. The last week of the month we have an interview with an author and a book giveaway. I write about writing. There is so much creativity happening in nonfiction and STEM writing right now. I love showing educators how they can use STEM books to teach writing craft.

 

 

A True Wonder int4
Interior spread from A True Wonder written by Kirsten W. Larson and illustrated by Katy Wu, Clarion Books ©2021.

 

GRWR: I agree that STEM reads and nonfiction have never been more exciting than right now. What’s a recent nonfiction book that you couldn’t put down?

KWL: My current favorite read is SURVIVOR TREE by Marcie Colleen and Aaron Becker. The interplay of art and lyrical text are stunning. In fact, I’m using it as a mentor text in a class I’m teaching at The Writing Barn next month.

 

GRWR: What’s on the horizon?

KWL: Next year, illustrator Katherine Roy and I have THE FIRE OF STARS with Chronicle Books. It’s a dual narrative picture book about Cecilia Payne, who discovered the composition of stars, told alongside the process of star formation. After that, I have two more books under contract but not yet announced. One is a lyrical, STEM book for younger readers, the second is a middle-grade historical fiction, which I did write in full graphic novel script form.

 

GRWR: Thanks tons for taking the time today to chat, Kirsten. We could not be more excited about A TRUE WONDER and wish you every success with it. And happy book birthday, too! 

KWL: Thanks for having me, Ronna! It’s been my pleasure. I love to connect with folks at my website Kirsten-w-larson.com and on social media @kirstenwlarson.

 

 

PURCHASE KIRSTEN’S BOOK

Preorder A TRUE WONDER through Once Upon a Time Bookstore for an
autographed copy plus a 6 x 9 art postcard designed by illustrator Katy Wu.

https://www.shoponceuponatime.com/autographed-books-kirsten-w-larson

TEACHER’S GUIDE  HERE

 

SOCIAL MEDIA

Kirsten-w-larson.com

Twitter: @KirstenWLarson

Instagram: @KirstenWLarson

 

katycwwu.tumblr.com

Twitter: @thewildkat

Instagram: @thewildkat

 

KirstenWLarson headshot
Author Kirsten W. Larson                  Photo ©Tammie Halcomb

BRIEF BIO

Kirsten used to work with rocket scientists at NASA. Now she writes books for curious kids. Kirsten is the author of WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILIAN TODD INVENTS AN AIRPLANE, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Calkins Creek, 2020), A TRUE WONDER: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything (Clarion, Fall 2021), illustrated by Katy Wu, and THE FIRE OF STARS: The Life and Brilliance of the Woman Who Discovered What Stars Are Made Of, illustrated by Katherine Roy (Chronicle, Fall 2022), as well as 25 nonfiction books for the school and library market. Sign up for her monthly newsletter here.

 

 

 

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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)

 

 

GreatStink HighResCover

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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.

 

GreatStink 1819 INT
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.

 

 

GreatStink INT Cholera is back
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.

 

 Colleen_the_Broad_Street_Pump
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!

 

Sir_Joseph_Bazalgette_Memorial_on_the_Victoria_Embankment
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!

 

_colleen_paeff_author_photo
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!

 

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

 

CP: Ok. So you’re mortal like the rest of us. In that case, what would you say are the five most important productivity tools, mindsets, or life hacks that enable you to be such a prolific writer while also working as a primary care physician? 

RL: Ooh, this is such an interesting question! I would say:

  1. Write a lot. Capture ideas when they come to you, and when you feel like writing, do it—even if you only have a few minutes. I like to have multiple projects at various stages going at once so when I’m “stuck” on one thing, I can move forward on something else. Productive procrastination!
  2. Figure out what’s hard for you, and save your “clear head” time for that. I find writing novel first drafts challenging, so I try to work on my drafts in the morning, before I get caught up with work and email and my brain turns to mush. But I’ve found that I can revise at almost any time, including the evening and late at night. And I can also work on picture book manuscripts at any time.
  3. Give yourself time if you need it. Some stories need years to take shape … and that’s ok!
  4. Set deadlines for yourself. This can be as simple as an upcoming critique group meeting you want to submit something for, or a workshop or conference that you need to prepare for.
  5. Exercise, walk, shower, meditate, and do other things that get your subconscious mind going. That will help you figure out your stories!

 

CP: That’s all such great advice. Thank you! So, what does a typical day look like for you? 

RL: It depends on whether I’m in the office seeing patients. On those days, I try to get up early, write or exercise (depending on what’s more urgent), head to work, and then squeeze in some writing after dinner. On days I’m not in my office, I try to write early, then walk the dog, exercise, and keep writing in between checking messages for work and doing other errands, cooking, etc. 

 

CP: In the author’s note for Where Three Oceans Meet, you mention that, though the book is fiction, it was inspired by a childhood trip you took when you were visiting extended family in Bangalore, a city in Southern India. What was it like to see such a deeply personal story come to life through Archana Sreenivasan’s illustrations?

RL: Archana lives in Bangalore, where most of my extended family lives! She is such an incredible illustrator — from her first sketches, I knew she was the perfect person to illustrate this book! As a South Indian woman, she was able to depict the clothing, the scenery, and the food in such an authentic way.

She put a lot of details about her own grandmother into the art, so this is a very meaningful book to both of us. 

 

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

 

CP: It sounds like you were both really lucky to come together on this project. It was clearly meant to be! I grew up with Little Golden Books (The Poky Little Puppy was my favorite!), so I was really excited to see you’d written a Little Golden Book about Kamala Harris. What was your favorite Little Golden Book and how did the Kamala Harris book come about?

RL: I grew up on Little Golden Books — The Poky Little Puppy was my favorite, too! I love that generations of readers have grown up reading these stories.

I was so thrilled to be able to write a Little Golden Book about our remarkable Vice President! When the publisher approached my agent in November 2020, I had to say yes! But they needed my draft the next month, so it was an extra fun challenge to research and write a book in that time frame. They signed on the incredible illustrator, Ashley Evans, and then the book came together very quickly! 

 

CP: How amazing that it all came together so fast! In another one of your picture books, The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA, you explain DNA to the youngest readers––which already sounds tricky––but you do it in rhyme. What an impressive feat! Tell me about the process of writing this book. Was it a rhyming text right from the start?

RL: This was the first picture book I ever wrote! It was always in rhyme, which is not easy, especially with a nonfiction book explaining the basics of genetics to young readers! I tried very hard to un-rhyme it, but the book persisted (and perhaps insisted?) on staying in rhyme. It wasn’t until years later, after the book had been sold, that I realized why my brain insisted that the book be written in rhyming verse. DNA nucleotides always pair up in the same way: adenine with thymine, and cytosine with guanine, which is similar to the “pairing” that occurs with rhyming words! 

The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA explains the basics of genes and chromosomes and discusses why baby animals look like their parents and we look like our family members. But it also touches on the limits of DNA, and how our choices also determine who we become. It contains back matter with more DNA facts and an experiment that kids can do at home!

 

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

 

CP: I LOVE that experiment and I can’t wait to try it and that makes perfect sense about why it had to rhyme! You host a fabulous podcast with Artemis Roehrig called STEM Women in KidLit which has featured Melissa Stewart, Vicky Fang, Kirsten Larson, Jennifer Swanson, Stacy McAnulty, and so many more incredible authors! Have you noticed any similarities between all these STEM-focused women?

RL: Thanks so much! Artemis and I have had such a wonderful time doing the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast and talking to a wide variety of women with STEM backgrounds who write or illustrate books for kids. One of the common themes we’ve noticed among these creators is that they all have a sense of wonder about the world we live in and how it works, and they feel compelled to share this wonder with young readers. Another common theme is that these creators are willing to try different things and risk failure—because hypothesizing, experimenting, and learning from failure are all part of the STEM process as well.

 

CP: Of course! That makes perfect sense. At the start of this interview, we talked about making room for the different parts of your work life. I wonder if you’d mind talking about making room for different parts of your emotional life, as well. I know you lost a beloved family member to Covid-19 and it happened at a time when you were having so much success in your writing life. It must have been difficult to balance the sorrows and joys brought on by two such wildly contrasting life events. What helped you through it? 

RL: This has been such a difficult time for the entire world. All I can say is that there is still joy to be found in the midst of sorrow, and the people we love stay with us long after they’re gone. One side effect of all this time spent at home with family is that we try to enjoy the little moments and live in the present. It’s not always possible, but we keep trying.

 

CP: Thank you, Rajani. What powerful reminders. So, what’s next for you?

RL: I have a picture book and another middle-grade novel coming in 2022!

I’ll Go and Come Back will be published by Candlewick on March 29, 2022. It’s a picture book about a little girl named Jyoti who visits her family in India and feels lonely and homesick. Then her grandmother makes her feel better through play and reading and food. When the grandmother visits the girl in the U.S. and feels homesick herself, Jyoti makes her feel better. This story, which is close to my heart, is built around a phrase people use in Tamil: they never say “goodbye,” but instead “I’ll go and come back,” which holds the promise of return. It’s the first book I sold, way back in March 2018.

 My next middle-grade novel with HarperCollins comes out in fall 2022. It’s called Switch, and it’s about musical twin sisters who grow apart, impersonate each other at their summer camp on a dare, and find that music helps them find their way back to each other.

 

CP: Those sound terrific! I can’t wait to add them to my growing Rajani LaRocca collection. Thanks for making time to chat and best of luck with all your upcoming books!

RL: I loved chatting with you, Colleen! Thanks so much for having me and for asking such great questions!

 

Rajani LaRocca Author 3
Photo credit: ©Carter Hasegawa.

BRIEF BIO:

Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area, where she practices medicine and writes award-winning novels and picture books, including Midsummer’s Mayhem (2019), Seven Golden Rings (2020), Red, White, and Whole (2021), Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers (2021), Much Ado About Baseball (2021), and more. She’s always been an omnivorous reader, and now she is an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, prose and poetry. She finds inspiration in her family, her childhood, the natural world, math, science, and just about everywhere she looks.

 

 

 

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BUY RAJANI’S BOOKS HERE:

WHERE THREE OCEANS MEET

SEVEN GOLDEN RINGS

BRACELETS FOR BINA’S BROTHERS

MY LITTLE GOLDEN BOOK ABOUT KAMALA HARRIS 

THE SECRET CODE INSIDE YOU 

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Website: www.RajaniLaRocca.com

Twitter and Instagram: @rajanilarocca

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

 

MORE ON RAJANI LAROCCA:

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

SummerThyme Chocolate-Chunk Cookies with Citrus ZestThe Book Hive

Out to the Ballgame with Rajani LaRoccaKirkus Reviews Interview

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

Reading with…Rajani LaRoccaShelf Awareness

One to Read: Rajani LaRoccaStory Monsters Ink

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

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

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