Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Oldie but Goodie: ROUND TRIP by Ann Jonas

Happy Autumn, readers! 

To recognize literary blasts from the past, I am running an "Oldie But Goodie" series to recognize memorable books I read that were published back in the day. 

"I find myself drawn more and more often to designing books that involve some sort of visual play. It seems like a wonderful opportunity to encourage children to look at familiar things in different ways while offering the appeal of a game or a puzzle." - Ann Jonas

Someone at my school read Ann Jonas's picture book ROUND TRIP (Greenwillow) to me when I was a child. My son told me that his teacher read this book to him in kindergarten. Published in 1983, ROUND TRIP is an example of how a good book stands the test of time across generations.

ROUND TRIP is a story told in the first-person narrative about the narrator and companion(s) leaving home early in the morning. They journey past the town, a small farm, fields of wheat...and end up in the city. In the city, they ride a subway, see a movie, and then turn around. Now the book is flipped upside down so readers can view the journey back home...dining at a restaurant, picking up the car, leaving the city...and returning home.

The illustrations show one thing when the book is read one way, and when it's upside down, the images depict something else. Fields of wheat become rain when the book is turned upside down. Marshy inlets now, fireworks later. The black and white illustrations in the book are simple yet complex. I could only imagine the deliberation and planning that went into each page in order to create the convincing perspectives.

If we look at the situations we face in our own lives, what different scenes would we see if we turn these pictures upside down?

Friday, July 26, 2019

Author Interview with Sarah Aronson & BOOK GIVEAWAY!!!

Today I bring to you an interview with author Sarah Aronson, who wrote a picture book called JUST LIKE RUBE GOLDBERG: THE INCREDIBLE TRUE STORY OF THE MAN BEHIND THE MACHINES (Beach Lane Books). I was especially drawn to this book because I find Rube Goldberg machines so fascinating to explore whenever I attend science fairs. So I really got into reading about the man behind these machines in this engaging picture book written by Sarah and illustrated by Robert Neubecker. In the book, Sarah wrote that Rube Goldberg didn’t draw machines that solved real world problems but they challenged people to think: “He drew comics to make us look closer. And question logic. And tickle the imagination.”

I see you hold an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. What ideas and creative techniques did you learn from this program?
Getting an MFA jumpstarted my writing journey--it was like working in a writing lab. The program offered me two years to try everything--to draft, reimagine and revise all kinds of stories with the help of master writers like Kathi Appelt--who pushed me to explore picture books as well as novels. While there, I learned to take chances--to practice the craft of writing with intention, to read like a writer. Perhaps more important than all the lessons and techniques and craft talks, I gained a supportive and encouraging community of writers. For me, community is essential! (That's why I co-founded the Novel Writing Retreat at VCFA. It's why I love teaching at the amazing Highlights Foundation and writers.com.)

No one writes alone. We all need community. We all need fellowship to help us discover our voices--to push us to do our best. To boost our confidence. We all need to feel safe as we take chances with our hearts.


How did you come to work with Beach Lane Books to publish JUST LIKE RUBE GOLDBERG?
The old-fashioned way!

When my agent read my first draft of JUST LIKE RUBE GOLDBERG, she sensed that it might work for Allyn Johnston. And we were so excited when she let us know she loved it. Allyn's feedback and direction helped make the story stronger and more fun. She pushed me to recheck sources and find my voice and intent in the story.

And then she and her team gave the book to Robert Neubecker. I cried when I saw his sketches--I love his vision and art so much! The whole process was so humbling and thrilling! When we open a picture book, we inhabit the book through the art first. To see my words with those images...it's amazing!

How did you research Rube Goldberg’s life and decide which parts of it to use in the picture book?
You might say this book was 50 years in the making. I have loved Rube Goldberg machines since I saw the Breakfast Machine in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!

To find the narrative, I read lots of articles and books. I listened to video of Rube and his granddaughter, Jennifer. I visited the machine contest and heard Jennifer talk about Rube.

I learned that I love doing research! I love digging for stories. I am a curious person! It is so much fun finding more about a person or topic you care about!

If you could create the Rube Goldberg machine of your dreams, what would this machine accomplish?
My sensible self says an office cleaning machine! (Right now, mine is a MESS.) But the breakfast machine still calls to me. Check out the human Rube Goldberg machine the readers at Quest Academy made--to return Rube Goldberg to the library!

What books/authors did you enjoy reading when you were younger?


My first favorite book was The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss. I still adore this perfect 101 word story of determination.

As a young reader, I faced some struggles learning, so it took me a few years to feel confident reading. I owe my love of books to a very determined teacher (Thank you, Mr. Sigley), who helped me find the stories that would make me a reader. The first book was HARRIET THE SPY. I was convinced that Harriet was Jewish like me--since she wore glasses. Later, I also liked books with open endings, like THE PEARL, by John Steinbeck. I read a lot of Dickens when I lived in England. And of course, I loved books about girls by Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume.

It's interesting to me now that I never yearned to become a writer, although I certainly kept a journal and wrote stories when I was a girl. I became a writer after being dared to write! That night, I noticed that my daughter was reading ESPERANZA RISING. My son was reading BUNNICULA (probably for the 30th time). I began reading everything they were reading--with an eye for story. What I discovered: I loved these books! As an adult, I still understood the heart of these young protagonists. I still remembered what it was like to feel different.

Any upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?
I will soon be announcing a brand new picture book project--but you'll have to stay tuned!

I am working on two new PB ideas as well as a new middle grade novel that takes place in Chicago!

What I can say: I love writing stories! Every day, I welcome inspiration. Curiosity and reading lead me to stories. Walking by Lake Michigan makes my brain swirl. When I put down my phone and listen to the world, I always find something! Our creative community is supportive and encouraging. I am so glad that writing found me.

BOOK GIVEAWAY ANNOUNCEMENT! Readers, Sarah is super generous to offer a copy of JUST LIKE RUBE GOLDBERG to a lucky winner. 

Here are the details:

To enter, you must do at least one of these two things:
1. You can leave a comment on this post. That will get you one point.
2. You can re-tweet my Twitter post found @CynthiaSociety. That will also get you one point. 

If you follow me at this blog, you get an extra point. If you follow me on Twitter @CynthiaSociety, you also get an extra point.

The more points you have, the higher the chances of you winning the book. A winner will be picked randomly. The contest will end on Friday, August 2. If the winner doesn't respond to my attempts to reach out to them on social media, I will pick another winner.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Author and Illustrator Interview with Corinna Luyken

Happy Summer, readers! Today I bring to you an interview with author and illustrator Corinna Luyken. I first came across Corinna’s work when I read her picture book, THE BOOK OF MISTAKES (Dial). The book presents the perspective of an artist who is sketching a face and then makes a “mistake.” The mistake is corrected by another mistake...and there comes more mistakes, and more corrections. As I turn the pages, the artist is slowly building a scene with the mistakes and corrections until I see the masterpiece that has come from all the mistakes. Back in March, I read this book to my child’s class for Read Across America Day and all the kids loved it.
Hello Corinna! Where were you born and raised? Where did you attend school? Did you attend art school? I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and raised there as well as San Diego and Corvallis, OR. I went to college at Middlebury College in VT. Although I didn’t go to art school, I did take as many creative writing classes as they offered, and enough art classes to get into the printmaking class! I also took a number of dance improvisation classes. There were some incredible writing and dance teachers at Middlebury, and they had as much/more of an impact on my creative process (and the books that I’ve made so far) as any art class did. 
If an aspiring illustrator cannot or isn’t able to attend art school, what advice do you have for them to continue to develop their artistic skills?
Read, read read! And draw, draw, draw! I did the bulk of my learning by studying the picture books that I loved. And it was many years before I realized that the more I drew, the better my skill at drawing was getting. But in some ways I think fear that I would never be even close to the “best” artist in the class is one of the things that kept me out of art school. It was even more years before I learned that the most important thing (much more important than natural ability) is to LOVE what you are doing, and to be curious about the process of learning new skills. This means being willing to NOT be “good" at something. Because love, curiosity and a willingness to make mistakes are essential ingredients of persistence. And with persistence comes continued learning and growth. Slow, steady growth… which is often the best kind. 
I also joined SCBWI and learned quite a bit from getting critiques of my artwork through that organization. And I also tried to listen carefully and with curiosity (instead of despair or dismissively) to the rejection letters I was getting from editors in the early years of trying to get into this field. Which helped me to realize/admit to myself that my art was not yet at a professional level. (This was 18 years ago). So I spent at least 15 years developing and growing as an artist before I signed with an agent or sold my first book. My art changed a LOT during that time.
THE BOOK OF MISTAKES has inspired me personally. My takeaway from this story is that no creative work is ever truly wasted and that we should keep on going, even when we make mistakes along the way. What is your favorite mistake as an artist? I make so many mistakes when I draw! I always have, and probably always will… I’m not sure that I have a favorite. Though each mistake that I am able to transform into something beautiful becomes my new favorite for a while. I also love doing drawing exercises with my daughter (and with kids in schools) where we take turns bumping each other’s elbows while we are drawing…and then having to turn those squiggles and awkward lines into part of the art. It’s so fun!
I read ADRIAN SIMCOX DOES NOT HAVE A HORSE (Dial), written by Marcy Campbell and illustrated by you. The story of a girl who openly doubts that her classmate owns the horse he brags about and her eventual compassion toward him shows the gears in motion when character development takes place. What work and thought processes went into illustrating ADRIAN SIMCOX DOES NOT HAVE A HORSE?  ADRIAN was both a challenge and a delight to illustrate, in part because there were no illustration notes. Marcy left it up to me to decide whether to show Adrian’s horse or not. I spent a great deal of time sketching and experimenting and wandering around my neighborhood looking at houses/yards/trees/bushes/fences, trying to figure out how I might show Adrian’s horse. It wasn’t until I started drawing tall grasses against a fence that I realized how I might be able to use negative space to show Adrian’s horse. It was the perfect way to allow the horse to simultaneously exist and not exist. 
I read MY HEART (Dial), written and illustrated by you. I was moved by your figurative language used to describe the versatility of the human heart. How did you use illustrations to conceptualize the ideas presented in MY HEART? When you were putting this story together, what did you work on first- the art work or the text?  The text came first, as a poem, and then the art followed. But as the art changed and developed (morphing from watercolor and ink into monoprint printmaking in order to bring a roughness to the art that would better balance the sweetness of the text) the text changed as well. In a few places I cut out big chunks of the text when I realized that the words were repeating the art. And I had to cut and rearrange a fair bit to make the entire book shorter by one spread. So in the end, the art and words very much influenced each other.

Who were your favorite illustrators while you were growing up?      Maud and Miska Petersham, Diane Redfield Massie, Shel Silverstein, Mark Simont, Richard Scarry, Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel…
Are there any upcoming projects you’d like to share about?              WEIRD LITTLE ROBOTS, a middle grade novel written by Carolyn Crimi (and illustrated by me) is coming out this fall. NOTHING IN COMMON is the picture book I’m in the process of illustrating right now. It's written by Kate Hoefler and is about two kids who have nothing in common… but maybe they do? It will be out Fall 2020. I'm also working on another book with Marcy Campbell and my next book as author/illustrator is called THE ARGUERS. It is about a kingdom full of people having absurd arguments… and it is SO fun to draw!

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Oldie But Goodie: RUNNING OUT OF TIME by Margaret Peterson Haddix

To recognize literary blasts from the past, I started an "Oldie But Goodie" series to recognize memorable books I read that were published back in the day.


I'm not quite sure how I ended up being somebody who wrote more of the page-turner style books. I think it's because every time that I've started writing a book, I feel an urgency and I think that is conveyed to the reader as well, the urgency of wanting to get through the story and wanting to tell that story. So I think that is what probably drives the 'thriller' nature of the books that I've written.” 
-Margaret Peterson Haddix

RUNNING OUT OF TIME (Simon & Schuster), by Margaret Peterson Haddix, is a middle grade novel (that could also pass for young adult) that was published in 1995. This story centers on 13-year-old Jessie, who believes she is growing up in a rural Indiana village in 1840. In the beginning of the story, it is revealed that a number of children in her village have caught diphtheria, a disease that can be deadly. Jessie’s mother tells Jessie that she must escape from the village to help the sick children get access to medicine. Ma also reveals that the village they live in- the only world that Jessie has known- is actually a historical preserve that has gone haywire, and the villagers living here- grown-ups and children- are being held captive here. Outside, in the real world, it is 1996 and the overseers of this “historical preserve” have been withholding medicine from the villagers.

Without giving away major spoilers, I believe the author might have written this story to hint at a personal conviction. If my assumption is correct, she successfully conveyed her message without talking down to or overwhelming me, the reader, with it. I’m generally unenthusiastic about stories that are unable to grab me, and at the same time, are blatantly pushing a message or idea, even if it is one that I personally agree with.

RUNNING OUT OF TIME, on the other hand, hooked me with an element of intrigue right from the first chapter with Jessie’s observations of the mysterious village and the secret Ma was ready to share. The message of the story (or at least the one I picked up on) was artfully woven in- it was a visible thread rather than a distracting pattern that repeatedly called attention to itself. 

As a reader and writer, what story elements do you think should be included in a first chapter? What fictional stories with "messages" have you liked and/or not liked?

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Author Interview with Laurel Snyder

Today I bring to you an interview with Laurel Snyder. Laurel is from Baltimore, Maryland and now lives in Atlanta, Georgia. She graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop and has a background in journalism, in addition to being an award-winning author. Kidlit books by Laurel I have read include several of her middle grade novels-ORPHAN ISLAND (Walden Pond Press), BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX (Random House), and SEVEN STORIES UP (Random House), early readers CHARLIE & MOUSE (Chronicle) and CHARLIE & MOUSE & GRUMPY (Chronicle), and the picture book THE FOREVER GARDEN (Schwartz & Wade).



ORPHAN ISLAND deeply intrigued me from the start all the way to the last page. In this story, nine children live independently on an island without adult supervision. Each year, a toddler joins the group and the oldest child must leave. The backstory and epilogue is left up to the imagination of the reader. What kind of homework did you do to create the untold backstory and epilogue of ORPHAN ISLAND?
Oh, interesting question! This was a book that materialized very gradually. I knew I wanted to write a sort of allegorical story, and I knew I wanted to write about parentless kids. But it took awhile to arrive at the island.

Once I did, the job was all about creating the world and its rules, and I spent about a year on that. I painted a lot of it-- the foods and animals, the map and the kids. Designing their clothes and laying out the houses and other places they spent time in.

And then a lot tweaking had to be done. Figuring out how many kids had lived there in the past (counted in shoes), and how many could live there at once. (initially there were ten, but the math didn't work out that way, for Ess to be Jinny's Care kids).

So while there was very little traditional research, I spent a lot of time in prewriting.

Will readers get to see these details of ORPHAN ISLAND in any future projects? (I hope it’s “yes!”)
My next book (MY JASPER JUNE) isn't about the island-- I had something else in line first. But I'm working on a prequel. One never knows whether a book will work out well enough to be published. (I have lots of unpublished messes in a drawer, trust me). But I'm hopeful. The question is whether the second book is going to make the experience of the first better, or simply tie up the loose ends. I'm not interested in just answering people's questions. It needs to stand on its own.

In BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX, readers meet Rebecca, 12, who is struggling with her parents’ separation. Living with her grandmother, she stumbles across a bread box that grants her wishes. At first, this magic box seems like a dream come true, until Rebecca realizes that the box has a sinister method of producing the things she wants. It almost felt that this bread box was its own character. How did you create a character out of an inanimate object?

The bread box was actually the beginning of the book! I often begin a story with a question or a catalyst, and then I have to build the characters who will serve as the engine for the actual plot. That's exactly what happened in this case.

I wouldn't say I thought of the box as a character, while writing. But it makes sense you read it that way. Rebecca certainly has a relationship with the bread box, a struggle. It's teaching her something, and she's fighting with it.

You know what's interesting? Originally, that book had another character, a boy named Japheth. He became Rebecca's friend in Atlanta, and shared the adventure with her. But I had to remove him, because it felt like he was keeping her from getting lonely/sad enough to really do what she needed to do. I wonder if maybe I channeled that friend-energy into the box, when I took Japheth away. Hmmm.


In SEVEN STORIES UP, Annie accompanies her mother to meet her dying grandmother, a hotel heiress, for the first time. It seems that Annie’s mother and grandmother have never been close. Then Annie time travels to 1937 and befriends her grandmother as a young girl. In doing so, she alters history where it matters the most.

In the Author’s Note at the end of the SEVEN STORIES UP, you shared that you had to check all your facts about history, from finding out the price of a candy bar to learning about Ferris wheels. How did you research these historical details?

Oh, wow. It took forever. I'm not really a researcher or nonfiction writer by nature, and I seriously underestimated the amount of effort involved. My hat is off to people who write historical fiction for real! This book actually fell behind schedule and was published late because of all the time involved.

I used Google a lot, to be honest. And I kept a Pinterest page with maps and old ephemera I found, that helped me with the visuals and world-building. But in the end, I had to go to the library. Because there's just too much online, and I found myself falling down rabbit holes. At the end of the day, an Encyclopedia is a very useful tool. Sometimes, less is more.


In your middle grade books (e.g. ORPHAN ISLAND, BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX,and SEVEN STORIES UP) are an element of magic and fantasy. What rules do you adhere to when you incorporate magical realism into your work? (I hope magical realism is the right term to use.)

People call my books Magical Realism a lot, and I don't think that's exactly correct, from an academic standpoint, but it works.

I think the main thing is that you need to establish a logic to the individual magical system in the book. And you need to deal with any consequences that arise. If you bring a unicorn in through the window, you need to know how it got there, whether there are more unicorns waiting in the wings, and what, exactly, a unicorn is. Then you need to then feed the unicorn, deal with the unicorn poo, etc. I actually really love that part of the job-- figuring out that other world/logic.

THE FOREVER GARDEN tells a sweet story about how a garden can grow on even when its original owner leaves it behind. The CHARLIE & MOUSE books detail the experiences and musings of two young brothers.

How does your writing style differ between writing a picture book such as THE FOREVER GARDEN and early readers, such as the CHARLIE & MOUSE books? 

Hmmm. I'm not sure it does, really. I mean, the CHARLIE & MOUSE books are about my own kids, and so I have a sense of them as ongoing. I could write them forever, because my kids have adventures that inspire me daily. But I'm not sure the actual process of writing them is different.

Though, now that I've said that... I might say that Charlie and Mouse are character-driven (more like a novel). And my picture books typically aren't. So much of the character in a picture book comes from collaboration, from the art. So they tend to be more situational, more about the idea of the story. And less about the character as a person.

7. What books/authors did you enjoy reading when you were younger?

Oh, so many! I loved really gritty human books like DICEY’S SONG and BRIDGE TO TEREBITHIA. I loved magic books like HALF MAGIC and the NARNIA CHRONICLES. I loved old fashioned stories like BALLET SHOE and A LITTLE PRINCESS, books that painted a picture of another time and place. And I loved high voiced and comic stories, like MRS. PIGGLE WIGGLE or THE THIRTEEN CLOCKS.

A lot of these books, I realize now, need context if kids are going to read them today. The world has changed, and we now recognize the problematic elements. I feel strongly about that. But it doesn't change the fact that I loved them.

8. Are there any upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?
I'm always working on something! My next novel, MY JASPER JUNE, will be out in September. (https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2019/02/10/writing-for-the-middle-by-laurel-snyder/)And I have two new CHARLIE & MOUSE stories coming out this year too, and a picture book with Chuck Groenink, called HUNGRY JIM. Right now I'm working on my first graphic novel, a memoir called FAIRY HUNTER. And then the prequel to ORPHAN ISLAND which is Abigail's story, mostly.


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Oldie But Goodie: THE SNOWMAN by Raymond Briggs

HAPPY 2019! This year, I'd like to share more about books. So I'll continue to post author interviews and tweet about stuff I've read. (On Twitter, find me @CynthiaSociety). I'd also like to interview some illustrators too.

To recognize literary blasts from the past, I decided to start an "Oldie But Goodie" series to recognize memorable books I read that were published back in the day. Since it's still winter, I thought Raymond Briggs' THE SNOW MAN would make a good debut post.

"I don't believe in happy endings. Children have got to face death sooner or later. Granny and Grandpa die, dogs die, cats die, gerbils and those frightful things - what are they called? - hamsters: all die like flies. So there's no point avoiding it." -Raymond Briggs 

THE SNOWMAN (Random House) is a picture book told without words. On each page are square and rectangular boxes, similar to the layout of a comic book, with an illustration inside each one. The images tell the story of an unnamed boy who builds a snowman with meticulous care. After his mother tucks him in at night, the boy gets back up to check on the snowman. The snowman tips his hat and comes to life. When the new friends go outside, the snowman takes the boy's hand and together they fly through the dark and vast snowy sky for a glorious night on the town. Eventually, the snowman returns the boy back to his home. The boy heads back to his room, and the snowman goes back to the spot outside where he was constructed. The boy goes to sleep. In the morning, he sees that the snowman has melted.

Indeed this story doesn't have the cheeriest of endings. But not all hope is lost. If I were the boy, I would build another snowman. Sometimes the figurative snowmen that we build in our lives melt into meaningless slush. But we need to consider what we could do better and find the strength to build another one.

THE SNOWMAN was published in 1978, years before CALVIN AND HOBBES, a comic that I LOVE, became syndicated in 1985. The idea of a child befriending a seemingly inanimate object that comes to life for them really stirs something inside me.

Tell me about about a "snowman" you had to rebuild.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Author Interview with Barb Rosenstock

Here's an interview with Chicago-born author Barb Rosenstock (barbrosenstock.com),who has over a dozen books in print. I’ve enjoyed three picture books written by Barb-VAN GOGH PAINTS THE NIGHT SKY: VINCENT CAN’T SLEEP (Alfred A. Knopf, Illust. by Mary GrandPr√©), THE COLORS AND SOUNDS OF KANDINSKY’S ABSTRACT ART: THE NOISY PAINT BOX (Alfred A. Knopf, Illust. by Mary GrandPr√© ) and THOMAS JEFFERSON BUILDS A LIBRARY (Calkins Creek, Illust. by John O’Brien).


VINCENT CAN’T SLEEP (non-fiction) reveals Vincent Van Gogh’s lifelong insomnia, the glimpses of light the darkness brought him, and how his restlessness led him to paint the famous “Starry Night.” THE NOISY PAINT BOX (historical fiction) shows how, from a young age, Vasily Kandinsky would paint the sounds he heard from the colors of his paints to create his polychromatic abstract art. The author’s note explained that it is believed Kandinsky had synesthesia, a genetic condition where one bodily sense can activate another sense. In THOMAS JEFFERSON BUILDS A LIBRARY (non-fiction), I followed the story of the third president of the United States, a voracious reader and book collector who went on to organize the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. 

How did you start writing books?
I studied pre-law at the University of Illinois; but switched to psychology and graduated from Loyola University. Much later, I got my Master’s Degree in education and student-taught 2nd grade. I started writing books in order to do my lesson plans and wound up with a writing career instead of teaching full-time. Writing and school visits are the ways I teach. 

I find it interesting that in the author's note in THE NOISY PAINTBOX, it's suggested that Vasily Kandinsky had synesthesia and this condition could've triggered his artistic sensibilities. And in VINCENT CAN'T SLEEP, Vincent Van Gogh's insomnia is a driving force in his story. What are your thoughts about the idea that there could be a connection between artistic brilliance and conditions that affect the processes of the brain?

Wow! Well that is a question best left to brain scientists! But in my opinion, not so much. Reading Van Gogh’s letters it struck me how much he was struggling against his mental or physical illness(es) but still working on his art through his pain. He might have even produced more, and grown more artistically, had he more effective treatment in his day. It is my view that all people (certainly children!) are intrinsically creative and our most brilliant artists are just people who can hang onto that openness and express it in some way.


I was intrigued to learn more about the beginnings of Washington D.C.'s Library of Congress in THOMAS JEFFERSON BUILDS A LIBRARY. While you celebrated Jefferson's achievements in the course of the story, you shared in your author's note that Jefferson was a slaveholder. Here, you expressed the irony that the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence also withheld human freedom to African Americans. What were the challenges of writing a biographical story of an admired historical figure who was also responsible for unnoble deeds? 

I started the book with a note on his family’s slaveholding and ended it with one. But the book’s narrative itself was about his library, not his plantation or his gardening or his politics or his wine collection, only his library. That is the biggest challenge of writing a picture book vs. other genres: the author must stick with a tight theme or the book won’t work. Though obviously his slaveholding affected everything and everyone around him; it wasn't expressly the topic of this short narrative. Jefferson was notoriously private about his books, no one else was allowed in his library. So, working with experts, there wasn't an authentic way to write about individuals enslaved by Jefferson working with his books. Throughout the illustrations, John O’Brien had more leeway to show Jefferson’s slaves working and living their lives. But yes, it was a challenge and is hopefully handled as well as the author, illustrator, editor and publisher can at the time.

As I scan the list of books you've written, I notice you have an interest in history and art (also subjects I'm interested in). How did you start writing books on these subjects? Did you work in another industry before becoming a published author?

I had a long career in marketing and advertising management before even thinking of writing. But I’ve always loved history. I don’t think I really write about anything else because I’m not always sure there IS anything else. Everything's story, everyone’s story is hi-story, whether it's about art, science, music, politics, nature, athletics, construction, etc. My grandpa loved to tell stories about Chicago’s past, the people he met, and his immigrant family’s experiences. One of my latest books, OTIS & WILL DISCOVER THE DEEP, is about science history, and I can hear my grandfather’s voice in the writing choices I made. If you ask a group of kids if they like history, maybe two hands go up; but if you ask them if they like when someone in their family tells stories about the past, like 98% of the hands go up. I’m trying to do the latter.

I like the way you made history come alive in your books. What are your tips for presenting history or historical fiction in a way that engages young readers?

See Grandpa above. I really just try to “tell” a story, the way I would say it out loud. I find something that engages me— like that a poor, cross-eyed kid started a whole genre of music (BLUE GRASS BOY) or that a refugee rebuilt his village with recycled materials and hid it in the jungle for years (THE SECRET KINGDOM.) I hope that my engagement translates to kids. Though I know kids (and teachers) are my typical audience, I never want to be writing “down,” since I hated that as a child. I remember wanting to hear the “real story" and then just having the opportunity to ask questions if there was anything I didn’t understand. I think kids are way more capable than adults assume.

What books/authors did you enjoy reading when you were younger?

I don’t know if it was my own interest or because both my public and school library did not have many new children's books, but they’re all old historical fiction titles: The BETSY-TACY series by Maud Hart Lovelace, BALLET SHOES/ THEATRE SHOES by Noel Streatfield and THE FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS AND HOW THEY GREW by Margaret Sidney. I still have the few childhood favorites I was lucky enough to own, such as: HARRIET THE SPY (Louise Fitzhugh), CANDY FLOSS (Rumor Godden), JUDY’S JOURNEY (Lois Lenski) and MAGIC ELIZABETH (Norma Kassirer).

Are there any upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?

I always like to learn new things and share them with the students and teachers who read and use my books. I have a new baseball book coming out, YOGI! THE LIFE, LOVES AND LANGUAGE OF BASEBALL LEGEND YOGI BERRA (Calkins Creek, February, 2019) That’s followed by PRAIRIE BOY (Calkins, September, 2019) about the shapes that influenced American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and FIGHT OF THE CENTURY (Calkins, Spring, 2020) on the struggle for women’s voting rights for the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. LEAVE IT TO ABIGAIL (Little Brown, Fall, 2020) on Abigail Adams' contributions to our country. And finally Mary Grandpr√© and I have teamed up for a fourth artist biography called MORNINGS WITH MONET (Knopf, Spring, 2021) I hope everyone enjoys them!