Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Author Interview with Barb Rosenstock

Here's an interview with Chicago-born author Barb Rosenstock (,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!

Friday, July 13, 2018

Author Interview with Maurene Goo

Today I bring to you an interview with YA author Maurene Goo ( Maurene was born in L.A. and raised in Glendale. At U.C. San Diego, Maurene studied Communication and at grad school at Emerson College, she studied Publishing, Literature, and Writing. I’ve read two of Maurene’s novels- SINCE YOU ASKED (Scholastic) and I BELIEVE IN A THING CALLED LOVE (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).  

In SINCE YOU ASKED, Holly, the candid protagonist, pens a high school column where she gets to vent about her school and offend the student body with her words. Holly also tries to find balance between living as both a carefree American girl from Southern California and being a dutiful daughter of a traditional Korean American family. When Holly rebels against her strict upbringing, she must face the consequences...

In I BELIEVE IN A THING CALLED LOVE, Desi, a love-struck teen, schemes with her friends to win the affections of the artistic Luca. Desi’s guidelines for her plan come from her self-composed guide “K-Drama Steps to True Love,” derived from Desi’s observations of the Korean dramas that her single father watches. From faking a love triangle with a complicit guy friend to staging a car accident, Desi is rewarded when Luca falls for her. But Desi’s reward is short-lived when her plans are exposed...

From the sarcastic and cynical Holly in SINCE YOU ASKED to the dreamy and optimistic Desi in I BELIEVE IN A THING CALLED LOVE, the female leads in both books were credible characters whose antics were often entertaining to follow.

In SINCE YOU ASKED, you offer a candid perspective of Holly's adolescent experience as a Korean American teen who is making her way through high school. What experiences and feelings did you have growing up, if any, that inspired this story? (And if this story wasn't conceived from your past, feel free to share how you were inspired to write this.) 

Maurene: I was definitely inspired by my own personal experiences. SINCE YOU ASKED was my first book and I initially wanted to write YA because I wanted to see a book that was close to my own high school experiences. So a lot of what Holly was going through—figuring out your place in high school, crushes, and family angst—came from a very personal place.  

While reading I BELIEVE IN A THING CALLED LOVE, there were times when I was feeling concerned with how Desi could redeem herself after her dishonest scheme to attract Luca comes to light. What advice do you have for crafting a flawed and sympathetic character that readers can care about, the way I cared about Desi?

Maurene: A lot of times, when I draft, my characters are pushed to the most extreme version of themselves, so that I can fully figure out their “archetypes.” Then as I work on revisions, I really figure them out. With Desi, I think she became fully sympathetic and undeniable once I figured out where all the overplanning, controlling nature came from. And the reason was a very sweet one, something that endeared her to the reader. Think about the best villains—the ones that stick out in the best stories are the ones that we can relate to on some level, to see where their major malfunctions came from.

Since you have named a number of your books after songs, I take it that you're into music. How does music inspire you as a writer? Do you listen to music as you write?

Maurene: I always have to listen to music when I write! Especially writing YA novels—I have to channel teenage feelings and there’s no better way to do that than with music. I make playlists for each book and pretty much listen to that on repeat the entire time I work on it. 

What books/authors did you like reading when you were a kid?

Maurene: I loved reading series books like THE BABY-SITTERS CLUB and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. I also went through a horse phase (THOROUGHBRED, THE SADDLE CLUB), a pen pal phase (PEN PALS), all the phases. Anything in series form about girls, I gobbled up. 

Tell me about your new book, THE WAY YOU MAKE ME FEEL. Feel free to share about any other projects you are working on. 

Maurene: THE WAY YOU MAKE ME FEEL is about an irreverent prankster named Clara Shin who takes one prank too far and, as punishment, she has to run her dad’s food truck with her nemesis over the summer. Over the course of this summer she becomes friends with her enemy, meets a cute boy named Hamlet, and learns to feel all the feelings. It’s also my love letter to LA, where I was born and raised!

Next year I have another YA coming out, SOMEWHERE ONLY WE KNOWIt’s a romance about a K pop star who spends one life-changing day with a boy she meets in Hong Kong. I can’t wait for everyone to read it! 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Author Interview with Deborah Hopkinson

Today I am bringing you an interview with award-winning author Deborah Hopkinson (
who lives near Portland, OR. I read Deborah’s recently published picture books INDEPENDENCE CAKE (Schwartz & Wade Books, illustrated by Giselle Potter) and ORDINARY, EXTRAORDINARY JANE AUSTEN (Balzer & Bray, illustrated by Qin Leng). INDEPENDENCE CAKE offers a “made-up tale” about Amelia Simmons, the author of America’s first cookbook who lived during the Revolutionary times. In Deborah’s story, Amelia makes 13 Independence Cakes, one for each colony. In ORDINARY, EXTRAORDINARY JANE AUSTEN, Jane Austen proves that the ordinary world can be written about in an extraordinary way. The reader sees how Jane Austen’s keen observation skills, simple English home life and upbringing, and her passion for books and writing contributed to her future success as an author.

The stories and illustrations in both books engaged me as a reader and brought me to two different historical regions- one in New England, and the other, England. 
From reading the preface of INDEPENDENCE CAKE, I could see there isn’t a lot of information out there about Amelia Simmons. So how did you venture out to write a story about her?
I wanted to write about that time period, and I love stories about little-known figures in history. Since historians have uncovered very little about Amelia Simmons, it seemed the perfect opportunity to underscore the difference between historical fiction and nonfiction, something I try to emphasize in my author visits in schools. I read articles by culinary historians including the late Karen Hess, who, in an introduction to the second edition of AMERICAN COOKERY, published in Albany in fall 1796, speculated that Amelia Simmons may have lived near the Hudson Valley and been influenced by Dutch settlers. Simmons used terms such as “slaw” based on the Dutch “sla” for salad, and “cookey,” from “koekje.” 

When I share the book with young readers, I also use it as a chance to talk about gender roles. I like to say that in our time, everyone helps at home, but who did the housework in 1789? We also look at Giselle Potter’s lovely spot art pages illustrating the various chores Amelia did, from picking apples to washing clothes, to spinning, sewing, and quilting and use that as a chance to talk about past and present and how technology has (or hasn’t) had an impact on daily life.

Unlike Amelia Simmons, there’s more out there about Jane Austen. How were you able to write an interesting book such as ORDINARY, EXTRAORDINARY JANE AUSTEN and make it unique from other books out there about Jane Austen? How did you research Jane Austen for your picture book?
I’ve read quite a bit about Jane Austen, but to research this book I splurged and purchased Deirdre Le Faye’s masterful book, A CHRONOLOGY OF JANE AUSTEN, which delves into basically everything we know about Jane and her family. Although another picture book, BRAVE JANE AUSTEN, was published at the same time as my book, there haven’t been, to my knowledge, any picture books about Jane until 2018.

The most difficult part of writing this book was to try to capture elements of Jane’s life that would be of interest to young readers. When I speak to students, I always emphasize that anything hard – whether it’s sports, playing a musical instrument, or writing– takes determination. What’s wonderful about Austen is that she began practicing her writing craft from the time she was a child. She embraced revision, and she persevered in the face of rejection.

I like how you shared historical details of how people lived in the past, from how young ladies would play cards and trim their bonnets with lace in ORDINARY, EXTRAORDINARY JANE AUSTEN to what food people ate during the Revolutionary times in INDEPENDENCE CAKE. How do you research the setting for the historic places and time periods in all your books? (I see you have written a lot of books with historical themes.)
The short answer is that I read a lot, and depend heavily on scholarly works as well as memoirs and first-person accounts, or, sometimes, fiction written during the time period in which my books are set.

I write both nonfiction and fiction, and sometimes find myself more stymied by research questions when writing historical fiction. In nonfiction, first-person accounts can guide the narrative. But in fiction you suddenly find yourself spending hours tracking down some seemingly insignificant detail that doesn’t seem to be mentioned in any secondary source.

Since you wrote a book about dessert and another book about Jane Austen (both things I love), please tell me what is your favorite dessert (besides Independence Cake) and what is your favorite Jane Austen novel.
Alas, since developing food sensitivities that require me to be gluten free, I don’t get to indulge in dessert much these days. However, I will say I am partial to an excellent gluten-free chocolate cookie.

As far as Austen novels, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is still at the top of my list, with PERSUASION and SENSE AND SENSIBILITY right up there too.

What books did you enjoy reading while you were growing up?
I loved THE SECRET GARDEN. I believe I first read Austen and Charlotte Bronte by the sixth grade, and also loved mysteries and read a lot of Dickens. (Whether I understood much about what I was reading then is another question!) In high school, I also read a lot of World War II books, adventure stories, and long historical fiction.

What upcoming book projects would you like to announce here?
Speaking of World War II, two of my new books are set in that period. D-DAY: THE WORLD WAR II INVASION THAT CHANGED HISTORY is a nonfiction title to be published by Scholastic in Fall 2018. In Spring 2019, my middle grade spy novel, HOW I BECAME A SPY, will be out from Knopf.

In addition, I am part of a YA project entitled FATAL THRONE: THE WIVES OF HENRY VIII TELL ALL, released in May 2018, and a picture book biography of the Buddha, UNDER THE BODHI TREE, coming this fall. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

IWSG: Turbulence

For new visitors, IWSG Day is a monthly event where authors in the blogosphere can share about insecurities...or in my case sometimes, just random thoughts. Today’s IWSG question is: How do you celebrate when you achieve a writing goal or finish a story? I fuel myself with chocolate quite a bit. Once I ran out of chocolate in my home and I don’t know if it was a coincidence that I was just less productive that week. 

Today I don't have an insecurity to share. 

Instead, I will share a short travel piece. During a recent plane flight I was on, the plane was experiencing turbulence near the end of the flight. Passengers were asked to remain in their seats. Then a passenger near me got up. She was chatting with her friend during most of the flight and might've missed the announcement. So as she was leisurely making her way down the aisle toward the bathroom, a flight attendant directed her back to her seat. With a dumbfounded expression, the passenger began to wander back to her seat. Then the plane really started shaking and before the passenger reached her seat, she fell over me. Although I was a bit annoyed, I was fine, as was she. Nonetheless, the moral of this particular story is to remain in your seat during turbulence on a plane flight.

But that doesn't mean when there is turbulence around us, that we must always remain in our seats. Lately, it has been hard for me not to feel affected by the turbulence from current events as well as stuff that has come up in social media. I'm relieved that people have been getting out of their seats and taking a stand for things that are worth standing up for. 

How do you deal with turbulence?

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

IWSG & Author Interview with Julie Dill

For new visitors, IWSG Day is a monthly event where authors in the blogosphere can share about insecurities...or in my case sometimes, just  thoughts on various subjects. Today's IWSG question is: What do you love about the genre you write in most often? Well, I can dish on what I love about any genre I write in. Since I'm working on a YA food novel right now, I will say that writing or reading about food allows me to think about something I enjoy doing, which is eating good food. Nom nom nom! 

Back in December, I shared here that I would like to profile authors here regularly again. 

For my first author interview of this year, I bring to you Julie Dill, an Oklahoma City resident whose debut young adult novel BLUFF (Amberjack Publishing) was released in 2017. You can follow Julie on Twitter @JulieDillOKC.

In BLUFF, 17-year-old Chelsea struggles with managing her cheer team expenses and her financially struggling household consisting of just herself and her single dad. Secretly, Chelsea assumes a new name and takes up playing poker at a local casino. Luck is on her side and a series of big cash wins at the table motivates Chelsea to keep returning. Things get challenging when sparks fly between Chelsea and a young pit boss. The pit boss doesn’t know that she’s an underage gambler. To keep up with her new hobby, Chelsea has to keep lying to those around her, and then things start to get out of hand...

What inspired you to write BLUFF? It’s weird how a character evolves. I really tried to create a unique character- a high school girl who wasn’t the norm. My personal life, as a teenager, could not have been more opposite than Chelsea’s so I really had to get outside of what I knew and what I was comfortable with to get in Chelsea’s head. I was reflecting on my first visit into a poker room, and in the early nineties there were hardly any women at all. Even today, you can still walk by a poker room and notice that the majority of the players are men. I think when you’re developing a character it’s important to raise the stakes as much as possible (pun intended). With BLUFF, I really wanted something different and that wasn’t already “out there.”

While BLUFF can be regarded as an “issues” story about a girl’s oncoming gambling addiction, I also considered this a fantasy fulfillment story. It was fascinating to observe the life of a teen who masquerades as a grown-up with some success. And don’t many teens wish they were adults? What would you say this story is about? Initially, it was Chelsea's attempt to try to get some quick cash. But long term, it became escapism for her. She could enter this world where she didn’t have to think about all of her responsibilities and just escape. My hope is that readers will recognize how easy an addiction can form.

Though I was often concerned for Chelsea’s safety and didn’t necessarily agree with her choices, I found myself looking forward to seeing what she’d do next. Tell me more about the character development for Chelsea.
Life is never easy for Chelsea, and that's what gives her some grit. She manages. She doesn’t have a choice. I think down deep Chelsea is longing for some maternal guidance, and that’s why I wanted her to have Ms. Stella. Overall, I view Chelsea as a good kid making bad choices, and that informed a lot of my decisions.

What books/authors did you enjoy reading when you were younger? THE BOXCAR CHILDREN was always my favorite. I still have the copy from my childhood with my name printed in the front. Bill Wallace (A DOG CALLED KITTY) visited my school when I was in fourth grade. I'll never forget it. I still have his book, too!

Tell me about the sequel for BLUFF. Will readers get to meet Chelsea’s mom? I continue to work on the sequel. Ms. Stella is my favorite character, and readers will get to spend a lot more time with her.