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An Interview with Nora Nickum, Author of This Book is Full of Holes

KATRINA TANGEN INTERVIEWS

NORA NICKUM,

AUTHOR OF

THIS BOOK IS FULL OF HOLES

Illustrated by Robert Meganck

(Peachtree; $18.99, Ages 6-9)

 

 
Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews

PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY:

This book is chock full of holes—shallow and miles deep, microscopic and visible from space, human-caused and natural, mysterious and maddeningly familiar.

When you think of holes, what comes to mind? Maybe the irritating hole in your sock. Or the hole on the shelf where you plucked out this book. But did you know there are holes that suddenly devour entire gas stations? Big holes in the ocean that are visible from space? Small holes in balls that prevent a backyard home run?

A hole is a part of something where there’s nothing at all. Holes are investigated by scientists, used by artists, designed by engineers, and fixed by problem-solvers. They can be natural or human-made, big or small, plentiful or scarce, mysterious or painfully familiar. Many are important to our everyday lives, whether we give them credit or not.

 

INTERVIEW:

Katrina Tangen: THIS BOOK IS FULL OF HOLES is so fun and fascinating! You cover such a wide range of holes. How did you decide what to include and how to organize them?

Nora Nickum: Brainstorming all different kinds of holes was a fun part of the process. But the book did require a good structure so it wouldn’t be just a list. I was intrigued by the fact that a hole seems like empty nothingness, but in fact, it can be really useful, or annoying, or dangerous, or life-saving. And holes appear in all different STEAM disciplines, from engineering and ecology to music and art. I began writing about all the different qualities that holes could have, and eventually shaped it into a consistent opposite structure on every spread. Readers will find fascinating examples of how holes can be tiny or enormous, form slowly or quickly, be used to speed something up or slow something down, and so on.

 

KT: The idea of a hole is both really concrete and really abstract. For example, the idea that a hole can be closed on the bottom as well as open. I wouldn’t have said an indentation was a hole, even though there are other holes with bottoms that I do think of as holes, like golf holes. So it gets a little mind-bendy when you start thinking about what makes a hole a hole! Were there challenges in figuring out how to explain those concepts?

NN: That’s one of the things that made this topic so fun for me! I spent time researching definitions of holes, and felt like I got to a place where I had a solid one that wasn’t full of holes itself (haha). And I started the book with that definition: “A hollow place. An empty space. A part of something where there’s nothing at all.” 

 

KT: That’s such an intriguing definition! Which type of hole is your favorite? I was fascinated by blue holes and the holes in airplane windows—I hadn’t heard of either before!

NN: Those two kinds of holes were the genesis of the book! I used to travel a lot and often wondered why there was a tiny hole in the airplane window. And later, when I read about blue holes in the ocean and saw beautiful photos taken from the air, I was really intrigued and thought about doing a picture book focused on those, but it turned out there hadn’t been a lot of research about blue holes yet. Then a light bulb went off in my head and I combined them into a book about holes, which let me add lots of other fascinating examples. My favorite hole in the book is actually the seal’s breathing hole in the Arctic ice–I liked that I could make the same hole represent both of the opposing concepts, danger versus safety. And I love how Robert Meganck illustrated it with one scene carrying across both pages, with the seal and the polar bear.

 

ThisBookisFullofHoles int1 Seal and polar
Interior art from This Book is Full of Holes: Text © 2024 Nora Nickum. Illustrations © 2024 Robert Meganck. Used with permission from Peachtree Publishing Company Inc.

 

KT: Wow, that’s such a fun origin story! I love it when things come together like that. Were there holes that didn’t make it into the final book?

NN: Yes, sadly. Buttonholes, groundhog burrows, swimming holes, and holes in pinhole cameras were on my list at one point or another, but ultimately cut. Some types of holes didn’t make it in because they didn’t fit the opposites structure as nicely as I wanted. Others were too straightforward to feel interesting or to merit any sidebar text. Fortunately, all of my favorites made it in! 

 

KT: I’m glad you didn’t have to cut any of your favorites! The illustrations are great and add so much humor. Did any of them surprise you?

NN: Robert Meganck’s illustrations are so creative and funny, while also being accurate in the ways that are important for a nonfiction book. The one showing a person threading a needle was his idea–I hadn’t been that specific in the manuscript, and I updated the sidebar text to reflect his art. And I love how Robert has hidden other kinds of holes in the background of several illustrations (see what you can find in the “speed something up…slow it down” spread). But the illustration that might surprise readers the most is the one they’ll find on the flip side of the book jacket–it’s a big hide-and-seek playground scene where kids can search for all different kinds of holes!

 

ThisBookisFullofHoles int2 car and wiffle ball.
Interior art from This Book is Full of Holes: Text © 2024 Nora Nickum. Illustrations © 2024 Robert Meganck. Used with permission from Peachtree Publishing Company Inc.

 

KT: Kids will love that! I think my favorite is how the front and back cover play off each other. So clever! I also love the backmatter—how did it develop? Including hole-related idioms was such a good idea!

NN: The idioms in the back matter–like “loophole” and “square peg in a round hole”–were originally in the main text, but as my editor and I worked more on the opposites structure, we decided they didn’t quite fit there. I also revised the back matter later to discuss the actual holes that those terms refer to, like loopholes in castle walls, before talking about their current usages in English. I was so eager to see how Robert would depict those idioms, and of course his fabulously quirky art there is delightful.

 

KT: Do you have any suggestions for other great picture books that could be paired with yours?

NN: Definitely! A bundle of books about holes would be a whole lot of fun. I’m excited about Skylaar Amann’s new picture book, Alone Sometimes: Everybody Needs a Hole in the Ground, which also releases in March 2024. And I love Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s funny book Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. Melissa Stewart and Amy Hevron also have a wonderful nonfiction book about animals called Tree Hole Homes: Daytime Dens and Nighttime Nooks.

 

KT: What do you hope young readers will take away from your book?

NN: Some giggles, for one thing. But I also hope it will make readers look at the world around them differently, seeing holes and patterns and making connections they hadn’t made before. It was really fun for me to brainstorm different kinds of holes with my family, looking at things in our kitchen, outside on walks, and other places, and I think kids will have fun doing the same! 

KT: I know I definitely will! Thanks for sharing with us—it’s been a “hole” lot of fun!

BUY THE BOOK:

Click here to purchase a copy and support independent bookstores via Bookshop.org. 

Visit the Publisher’s Page here for more info.

 

AUTHOR BIO:

Nora Nickum is the author of This Book is Full of Holes (Peachtree, 2024) as well as the middle-grade book Superpod: Saving the Endangered Orcas of the Pacific Northwest (Chicago Review Press, 2023). Both are Junior Library Guild Gold Standard selections. Her stories and articles have appeared in children’s magazines like CricketLadybug, and Muse. Nora also leads ocean conservation policy work for the Seattle Aquarium. She lives on an island in Washington state. Learn more about her at www.noranickum.com

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AUTHOR’S SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

IG: https://instagram.com/noranickumbooks

Author website: www.noranickum.com

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Katrina Tangen lives in Southern California between Disneyland and the beach. At Harvard, she studied Folklore & Mythology, History of Science, Psychology, and Religion, so she knows a little bit about a lot of things. This turned out to be excellent training for writing nonfiction for kids! Her debut Copy That, Copy Cat!: Inventions Inspired by Animals (Barefoot Books, 2023) was a Bookstagang Book of the Year and a Cybils Award Finalist. Find her at katrinatangen.com.

Katrina’s Social Media:

Website: https://katrinatangen.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/katrinatangenauthor

Instagram: @katrinatangen

Twitter (X): @katrinatangen 

Threads: @katrinatangen 

Bluesky: @katrinatangen.bsky.social 

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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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Picture Book Review – Too Sticky!

TOO STICKY!
Sensory Issues with Autism

Written by Jen Malia

Illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff

(Albert Whitman & Company; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Too Sticky cover

 

Holly loved experiments.
But not today.
It was slime day.
And she didn’t want to
touch anything sticky.

 

My son has sensory processing issues which we first noticed when he was a baby. He cried when hearing the vacuum cleaner, coffee grinder, car horns, and blaring music. As he got older he also actively avoided loud people, shouting and rough and tumble behavior from his peers. These were not the only things that clued us into his sensory challenges. He didn’t like touching sand or walking on it, and never got into Play Doh, unlike his older sister, because of the smell and consistency. His diet was and still is limited, but he’s faced a lot of these sensory issues head on and has learned ways to adapt. He even traveled to Japan last summer, tried a host of new foods and was flexible when encountering the many different customs there.

Not everyone understands the challenges that children face with sensory processing issues that often accompany autism. Author Jen Malia, a woman who lives with autism and sensory issues does. It’s fantastic that Too Sticky! is available to help open people’s eyes and to encourage empathy for kids coping with sensory stimuli that can be overwhelming, and even immobilizing at times. You may also not be aware that it’s not as easy to recognize in girls.

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interior art6 Too Sticky
Interior artwork from Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism written by Jen Malia and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Albert Whitman & Company ©2020.

 

We meet the main character, Holly, at breakfast time at home. Lew-Vriethoff’s expressive and upbeat illustrations offer an excellent example of how kids like Holly react negatively to something that to other kids may seem like nothinggetting sticky pancake syrup on her hands. From both the art and prose, readers know immediately what makes this young girl uncomfortable. Holly is also reminded that “her science class would be making slime today” which gets her worrying.

 

interior art9 Too Sticky
Interior artwork from Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism written by Jen Malia and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Albert Whitman & Company ©2020.

 

What’s also terrific in this same scene is how Holly’s older sister, Noelle, is understanding and apologizes after her fork falls on the floor making a loud and sudden noise. Here Malia adds that Holly replies, “It’s okay,” because that social skill was taught to her by her father. Family support, guidance and modeling acceptable behavior are crucial for children on the spectrum.

At school, Holly’s mother explains to her second grade teacher, Miss Joy, that during slime play, Holly would like to have soap and water at her desk because “She doesn’t like sticky hands.” I remember having to discuss these same types of things with my son’s teachers since my son wasn’t old enough to self-advocate.

Throughout the school day, Holly dreads the approaching slime time. In fact she’s unable to focus on much else. She begins the science experiment reluctantly with the less difficult portion sensory-wise. Miss Joy then finds a clever way to get the overly cautious student to feel curious and involved. Her encouragement and compassion are evident in her dialogue and her poses. What could have been an upsetting experience turns out to be a positive one. It helps, too, that Holly’s not teased by her classmates and that her accommodations have been taken into consideration.

 

int art12 Too Sticky
Interior artwork from Too Sticky! Sensory Issues with Autism written by Jen Malia and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Albert Whitman & Company ©2020.

 

Since the main character experiences “the world differently” than her neurotypical classmates, readers see that it’s hard for Holly to navigate the many uncomfortable situations she faces at school. Her sensory issues and autism color a lot of her reactions and moods which is quite common. While the premise of Too Sticky! may appear straightforward and easily resolved, for children like Holly, such is not the case in real life.

Malia adds a candid Author’s Note describing how both she and her daughter live with Autism Spectrum Disorder and her goal in writing the picture book. With one out of every fifty-nine children in the U.S. diagnosed with ASD, it’s important more children, parents, teachers and caregivers learn about how these children experience the world. With Holly, readers on the spectrum can see a mirror on themselves. Too Sticky! is the ideal read not only for parents and children with these sensory issues, but for anyone wanting to understand the experience and struggles kids like Holly deal with on a daily basis. The backmatter also includes an easy slime recipe perfect for indoor science activities and silliness.

  •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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