Today I’m delighted to have children’s author, Denette Fretz, as my guest. Denette and I met at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference this past June where we both had book signings for our upcoming Zonderkidz releases. Denette’s first book, PIRATES ON THE FARM (Zonderkidz, 2013) received a starred review from Publishers Weekly who described it as a “well-crafted, entertaining story [that] delivers a subtle but powerful message”. CONRAD AND THE COWGIRL NEXT DOOR, her newest book from Zonderkidz, which hits shelves everywhere this month, is off to a similarly positive start. Kirkus describes it as a “rootin’, tootin’ ranch tale” and I have to say that, from the peek I got of the folded galley in Las Vegas, Denette is a talented storyteller, who expertly weaves messages of forgiving and loving one’s neighbors into rollicking, knee-slapping plots. Today she’s joining me to celebrate the launch this second in her NEXT DOOR SERIES books. Welcome, Denette, and let’s get started.
LAURA: Have you always been a writer? Tell us a little bit about your writerly journey.
DENETTE: Writing is a “good and perfect gift” I have been given and continue to work to develop. At an early age, I received encouragement from teachers—my second grade teacher remarked about my “very long stories,” a fifth grade teacher wrote I had “a way with words” (I still have that paper), and my sixth grade instructor entered my fiction piece into a contest—which fostered the confidence to keep writing through high school, adulthood, and rejection letters. My mom’s children’s book collection and my career as an elementary educator translated into a fondness for picture books and the goal to author one.
LAURA: What inspired you to write first PIRATES ON THE FARM and now THE COWGIRL NEXT DOOR? Is there a connection between the two books?
DENETTE: PIRATES ON THE FARM (PIRATES) and CONRAD AND THE COWGIRL NEXT DOOR (CONRAD) are the first and second books of The Next Door Series. My inspiration relates back to prayer and my vocation as an educator: I desire to write humorous, engaging parables that pique kids’ imaginations and offer parents (or teachers) one more way bind the second greatest commandment,”love your neighbor as yourself,” on the hearts of their children. Each story in the series presents a creative life-application of this biblical truth. The message of PIRATES is love your neighbors—no matter who they are; while the message of CONRAD focuses on love your enemies. The parable format gives voice to these biblical truths in both secular and Christian markets.
LAURA: The illustrations really add to the rootin’ tootin’ feel of your story. Tell us a little bit about the artist. Do you have a favorite spread? What makes it your favorite?
DENETTE: I could not be happier with Gene Barretta’s humorous and engaging illustrations. There is so much to discover on each page.
Gene is a former animator for Sesame Street and Between the Lions who has illustrated more than 25 books. He is probably best known for writing and illustrating his award-winning inventor series: NOW AND BEN, NEO LEO, and TIMELESS THOMAS.
My favorite image is a large picture of Conrad’s face expressing disappointment. Conrad is so likeable and the illustration I’m describing (while attempting to avoid spoilers) evokes strong “I wish I could give him a hug” emotions.
LAURA: One thing that makes this book special is its spiritual tie-in. Can you explain a little bit about that tie-in and what you, as an author, have done to facilitate some kid-friendly post-reading discussion? Do you have any extension activities your readers might enjoy?
DENETTE: At the end of each Next Door Series book is a letter to parents that connects the story’s latent love-your-neighbor message to specific Bible verses. I include possible discussion questions and encourage parents to use the resources in the letter in ways that are developmentally appropriate for their children.
Creative story vocabulary is also included the end of each Next Door Series book. For PIRATES, the vocabulary is written in pirate lingo and gives humorous insights into Captain Greybeard, Stretch, Digger, Ratty, and Pooch’s personalities. For CONRAD, the vocabulary is presented in cowboy poetry. Since different types of poems are employed (list, acrostic, ode, limerick, diamante, hyperbole) my hope is that teachers utilize CONRAD’s vocabulary section as a resource to teach poetry writing.
There are a couple more extensions on my website. Stretch (the pirates’ storyteller) authored a “How to Write Like a Pirate” guide and Joey (who lives next door to the pirates) has some journal entries that tell what it is like to live next door to pirates. Since CONRAD is full of cowboyisms (traditional and original), I am working on a website page that introduces biblical, historical, and cowboy proverbs. My goal is to run a contest at the end of September where kids write their own wise sayings. It should be “a hoot.”
“When you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.”
LAURA: Finally as a parent, writer, and former teacher, I’m always interested in how other writers balance their time between writing, their day jobs, parenthood, and life. Any tips for productivity and balance?
DENETTE: Maintaining balance is an ongoing tension I have not fully mastered. My faith challenges me to “keep first things”—which means relationships always trump. Having just hugged my daughter goodbye for her freshman year of college, I feel the wisdom of this hierarchy.
There are high task-oriented expectations for teachers and writers. When I am overwhelmed by my list of teachery or writery demands, I ax non-essentials, prioritize, and chunk—completing jobs inch-by-inch. What is especially difficult is that both professions use numbers (standardized test scores, sales, followers, likes) to measure “success.” I try to live Colossians 3:23-4 and work at whatever I do with all my heart, but I also remind myself that “success” is not the result of my efforts, but God’s grace. He “sets up kings” and gets to define the “success” of my work. (See Proverbs 16:3, Proverbs 16:9, and Daniel 2:21.)
I have enjoyed answering your great questions, Laura, and look forward to you stopping by my blog to talk about GOODNIGHT, ARK in a few weeks.
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