AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Celebrating HAPPY BIRTHDAY TREES and A CROWDED FARMHOUSE FOLKTALE with Children’s Author KAREN ROSTOKER-GRUBER

Today I am thrilled to interview talented children’s book author Karen Roster-Gruber in celebration of not one, but TWO 2020 releases. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TREES, illustrated by Holly Sterling and published by Kar-Ben Publishing is a cheery board book celebrating Tu B’Shevat—Jewish Arbor Day. Told in song-like verse, it captures the joy of planting a tree with three diverse children working together to get the job done. A CROWDED FARMHOUSE FOLKTALE, illustrated by Kristina Swarner and published by Albert Whitman, is Karen’s delightful retelling of an old Yiddish folktale. Told in a combination of prose and spot-on cumulative verse, it had me smiling with each page turn. Kristina Swarner’s illustrations, rendered in ink and watercolor with lots of texture and humor, work well with Karen’s charming text to capture the feel of a traditional folktale, but with modern humor.

Both are delightful and would make wonderful additions to your home or school library. I will be recommending them for purchase at my local town library. Now, the moment, you’ve all been waiting for — the interview with my questions in bold.

Congratulations on the release of both of these fabulous books.  Let’s start with A CROWDED FARMHOUSE FOLKTALE.  I’m smitten with this cumulative tale based on a Yiddish folktale. What inspired you to retell it? Is there anything special about the names Earl and Marge?

My parents are named Earl and Marge and I finally got to use them in a book!  I tried getting my grandmother’s name in there as well, but the publisher took it out.  Her name was Zelda.

I wanted to reimagine a Yiddish folktale and make it a story that everyone could enjoy, so I took out the Rabbi and the Yiddish words, and added in a wise woman because times have changed.

I also wanted to make the tale a bit more lyrical.  I added a touch of rhyme–a repeated refrain, which kids love.  Kids also like when they can predict something. 

Right now this tale is perfect, as everyone is feeling like Farmer Earl, stuck in a too-small space with their cats, dogs, and kids during COVID; It’s too crowded!

HA! Yes, we can all relate to that cooped up feeling. That’s for sure!

The illustrations by Kristina Swarner mirror perfectly the folksy, whimsical feel of your text.  Can you offer any tips for caregivers for how to make the most of this pairing?  (Ex:  stop and count, play “find the…” etc?)

Everytime I look at my book, I find things that I didn’t see before.  Illustration-wise, the only thing I can take credit for is the  duck on the front cover taking a bite out of the letter “A” in the word “FOLKTALE.”  The duck was already on the roof in the sketches and sooooo very close to the letter “A,” that I thought it would be hysterical.  I called my editor and she agreed. 

She told the illustrator and it was done.  

There’s also a toilet paper scene that quacks me up!

Many people I know are telling me that they have their kids counting the ducks, the horses, and the goats on each page. And, asking them to find certain things–like the duck in the toilet or the mouse underneath the bed. 

 I tell people to take notice of the fabric on the wise woman’s dresses, the drapes, and the wise woman’s chair.  Look at the patterns on the wallpaper.  And, to pay close attention to what appears in the wise woman’s windows. It will give the children an idea of what the wise woman will say to Farmer Earl next.  Her plants grow in each instance as well.

In addition, the cats in the book are not amused with all of the ducks, horses, and goats coming into the house, so their facial expressions are a killer.

Here’s the toilet paper scene: 

I agree. There are SO many ways young readers can delight in the joy of discovering the many details in both illustration and text.

Oh my goodness, life is good. Two books out in the same month – each as darling as the other!  Tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TREES.

In the past, I’ve had two books come out in the same year, but I’ve never had two come out in the same month!  HAPPY BIRTHDAY TREES came about because I was invited to a luncheon sponsored by the PJ Library.  When they told us what they were looking for, they said that they needed good board books.  So, I went home and looked in my file for the many board books that I had written.  I found one called, “Happy Birthday to the Trees.” I sent it to the PJ Library and won a 2000 author incentive award.  Then my agent found a publisher for it.  

(For my first 14 books I didn’t have an agent though.  For these two I did.) 

You certainly have a gift for rhythm and rhyme. Both stories shared today have very distinct rhythmic voices and rhyme patterns. As an author, how do you decide the verse style you will use for a given story?  

It literally happens to me at 3am.  With A CROWDED FARMHOUSE FOLKTALE, after reading countless folktales from all over the world and settling in on two, the next morning I wrote this on a sticky note.  That note became the repeated refrain for the book.

I can relate to that! Good thing you keep sticky notes and a pen by your bedside. This has been such a lovely chat, Karen. In closing, where can interested readers find your books? 

You can order both of these books from any bookstore near your house. 
If you want signed copies, though,  I signed extra copies at my local bookstore: The Bookworm.  To get a signed copy here’s their number.  They can ship anywhere. 908-766-4599.  

BIO: Karen Rostoker-Gruber is a multi-award-winning author of over 16 books with hundreds of thousands of copies sold. Farmer Kobi’s Hanukkah Match, was named a National Jewish Book Award Finalist and was awarded the 2016 Outstanding Children’s Literature Award from the Church and Synagogue Library Association. Her books Bandit (Marshall Cavendish 2008), Bandit’s Surprise (Marshall Cavendish 2010), and Ferret Fun (Marshall Cavendish 2011) all received starred reviews in School Library Journal; Rooster Can’t Cock-a-Doodle-Doo (Dial 2004) and Bandit were both International Reading Association Children’s Book Council Children’s Choices Award recipients;  three of her books, Rooster Can’t Cock-a-Doodle-Doo(in 2005), Bandit (in 2009), and Ferret Fun (in 2012) were all chosen for the 100 Best Children’s Books in the Bureau of Education and Research’s Best of the Year Handbook.  Rooster Can’t Cock-a-Doodle-DooandFerret Fun were nominated for the Missouri Show Me Award; Bandit was nominated for the South Carolina Book Award; and Rooster Can’t Cock-a-Doodle-Doo was a Dollywood Foundation selection two years in a row (in 2007 the Dollywood Foundation bought 73,579 copies and in 2008 it bought 88,996 copies). Karen’s book, Maddie the Mitzvah Clown, published by Apples and Honey Press, a division of Behrman House, was named a PJ Library book selection in July of 2017 and went out to 21,000 4-year-olds in the US and Canada. Karen’s latest books, Happy Birthday, Trees (KarBen) and A Crowded Farmhouse Folktale (Whitman), will both be out in 2020.  Karen is an active member of SCBWI, has twice co-chaired the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature’s One-on-One Conference, and is one of the co-founders of The Book Meshuggenahs.  http://www.karenrostoker-gruber.com

[Note: Thank you to Kar-Ben Publishing and Albert Whitman for the sharing ARCs which I was under no obligation to review. The views and opinions expressed on this blog about books and other things are purely my own.]

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