AUTHOR and ILLUSTRATOR SPOTLIGHT: A Chat with Pepper Springfield and Kristy Caldwell in Celebration of their newest release: BOBS and TWEETS PERFECTO PET SHOW

Today I am delighted to be doing a joint interview with early reader author Pepper Springfield and illustrator Kristy Caldwell. Last spring this dynamic team made their debut with Meet the Bobs and the Tweets, their first book in the new BOBS AND TWEETS series for emerging readers published by Scholastic. Today they’re here to chat about the recent release of the second book in the series, BOB AND TWEETS: Perfecto Pet Show. Thanks so much for joining us, Pepper and Kristy. Let’s get started.

Question #1: First of all, welcome. Since this is our first time meeting, please tell us a little bit about yourselves and your journey into the world of children’s book writing/illustrating. 

Pepper: Thank you Laura, we really appreciate having the opportunity to talk with you about the Bobs and Tweets!

I deftly avoided going to law school after college, instead attending the Radcliffe Publishing Program, and started working at Dell Publishing as a publicity assistant. I worked with really talented adult book authors such as Richard (Revolutionary Road) Yates, Danielle Steel, Belva Plain, Gay Talese, and Gordon Liddy.  I loved my job but I also liked being in school so I went to NYU at night to get an MBA.  Shortly after I graduated, I was approached by someone at Dell who wanted the company to start a classroom book club to compete with Scholastic.  I took the job, started a classroom book club called the Trumpet Club and have worked in children’s book publishing ever since.

I think now is a good time to come clean that my real name is Judy Newman and after running the Trumpet Club for 7 years, I came to Scholastic in 1993 and am now the President of Scholastic Book Clubs.

And while for all those years, I wanted to write a book I never had the courage to actually sit down and get my stories out of my head and onto a piece of paper (yes, paper in those days!).  I am supposed to be an expert on children’s book publishing and I think I was terrified that if a book I wrote wasn’t perfect that I would be exposed as a fraud.  But eventually—decades later—I finally got up enough nerve to start writing, find Kristy, and work with an editor.  But I still felt the need—until very recently—to hide behind my pseudonym…Pepper Springfield. Although I’m still getting used to being an author and having people know that I am Pepper, it’s been wonderful to finally be able to talk openly to wonderful and supportive people like you about my passion for the Bobs and Tweets books and my journey as an author.

Well, henceforth, you will always be both Pepper and Judy to me. I’m so glad you overcame your hesitation to write!  

Kristy:  To me, it always looked like children’s book illustrators had the most fun, but initially I didn’t know how to become one of those people. I always hacked my jobs to incorporate some illustration duties. Everyone needs illustration at some point. Eventually, I moved from Monroe, Louisiana, to New York to attend the ‘Illustration as Visual Essay’ graduate program at the School of Visual Arts. Rachael Cole, the art director of Schwartz & Wade, generously agreed to be my thesis adviser, and she guided me to an understanding of what the process of creating a picture book can be, at its best. I also worked as an intern at Schwartz & Wade during that time. I think I was their first intern! After graduation I participated in Pat Cummings’ Children’s Books Boot Camp. I didn’t have a lot of confidence at that point, and Pat taught me a lot about standing behind my work.

I was very lucky to receive the initial email about Bobs and Tweets based on the strength of my portfolio on the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators website (SCBWI for short).  Judy saw something in my work that made her think I could be trusted with these characters, and I’m so grateful for that.

What a wonderful story of how you got your start! I hope this inspires other illustrators to keep building their portfolios.  

Question #2: I’m so delighted you found each other! Now, Pepper (aka Judy), please us a little bit about the inspiration behind the BOBS AND TWEETS books. And Kristy, what was your creative process for bringing Pepper’s characters to life pictorially?  

Pepper (Judy): I visit many classrooms all over the country as part of my day job and I was always inspired to find books for kids who aren’t great readers—particularly 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade emerging readers—those kids who struggle with vocabulary but don’t want to read “baby books.”  I know those kids need books that have interesting stories and well developed characters that are funny and relatable but easy enough to read if you’re not a confident reader.

We know that rhyme—and engaging color illustration—work really well in helping kids read successfully so I wanted to try an unorthodox format: an 80 page rhyming, fully-illustrated chapter book.

One night the phrase “Bob the Slob” popped into my head.  Bit by bit, I developed that one phrase into a cast of characters who all live on Bonefish Street. There are the Bobs, a family of real slobs, but the youngest member of the family, Dean Bob, is quite fastidious.  He and his dog, Chopper, navigate life with a family who is not above driving their jet ski into the Bonefish Street community pool and building a half pipe ramp for skateboarding in the middle of the street. Fortunately, Dean meets Lou Tweet—the youngest member of the Tweet family of neatniks who have unwittingly moved directly across the street from the Bobs. Lou is NOT like the rest of her family. She loves rock ‘n’ roll and isn’t too neat.  Quickly, Dean and Lou become best friends.

There’s also Mo, the self-proclaimed Mayor of Bonefish Street.  Lifeguard Mark, in charge at the Bonefish Street Community Pool, Ms. Pat, the kids’ incredible teacher, and a whole cast of kid and adult characters.

Kids have a lot of pressure on them—including dealing with complicated family lives—and I wanted to create empathic characters that readers would cheer for and feel connected to.
Meet the Bobs and TweetsI think one of the most gratifying things so far is that Meet the Bobs and Tweets was voted by kids as one of 32 “Young Readers” titles chosen from 12,5000 for the ILA/CBC Children’s Choices 2017 Reading List.  That says to me that kids are finding the books and liking them organically.

I LOVE your phrase “and finding them organically”! That is a great tribute to your books and what we, as writers, parents, teachers etc. want kids to be doing – finding and falling in love with books “organically”!

Kristy:  The characters are so wild and woolly—even the Tweets, who are wound so tightly that they are always a hair’s breadth away from total breakdown—that there’s a lot of fun to be had in the details. The stories really embrace the messiness of family and friendship.

Since it’s a series, the biggest challenge was to design characters kids would want to spend a lot of time with. The Bobs play a lot of pranks, and I wanted to make sure they don’t feel mean. The Tweets can be very rigid, and I wanted to make sure they feel capable of having a good time, too. Pepper (aka Judy) had already done a great job of digging into the characters’ backstories. I think I did three or four rounds of character design before it started to feel right. I have some secret inspirations. I thought about some of the more eccentric members of my family and pulled details directly from them. That helps me think about the characters more three-dimensionally, too.

Note from Pepper: Me too! Some of the characters are definitely inspired by real people in my life.

Yep, I have to agree.  The real-life people we know can certainly be inspirational.  

Question #3: You are only the second author/illustrator team I’ve had the chance to interview.  I’m curious to know how much and in what ways you collaborated in the process of bringing your first book and now this second illustrated reader to final publication stage?  

Pepper (Judy):  This is actually the first interview Kristy and I have done together as a team and it’s so much fun. And you are asking a key question about our collaboration.  I know many picture book authors and illustrators never meet (and I just read about how you met Jane Chapman—your illustrator—for the first time. ).  I do understand how the writer and the illustrator working on a project from different perspectives (and different countries even!)  bring their individual visions to the book to create something special and amazing.

But for Bobs and Tweets I knew I needed to find an illustrator who could collaborate with me along the way at every step.  I was so excited to find Kristy Caldwell through the SCBWI website.  Her portfolio wasn’t that extensive at the time but there was something about the whimsical way she drew that just resonated with me.

Kristy artwork 2011

An example of Kristy’s artwork from 2011 (5 years before Meet the Bobs and Tweets was published!)

She was brave enough to take a cold call and come and meet me for breakfast in Soho and then we just got started. I realized I had to be clear—in the text as well as in my verbal conversations—about who these characters are.  Over many breakfasts at The Cupping Room in Soho in New York City, we worked through the personalities and signature behaviors of Lou and Dean and the whole cast of characters.  Bit by bit we developed these characters over breakfasts—and that is saying a lot since really neither I not Kristy are morning people—but those breakfast meetings were the best for our schedules and creative flow.

I would write about the characters and Kristy would draw them and it felt like magic, watching the two points of view come together. There are so many characters in these books and each of them requires lots of discussion and back and forth. We also want to make sure the world of Bonefish Street includes diverse characters and feels real and relatable.

Kristy: I don’t remember much about our first meeting except that I almost immediately knocked my water over, but I guess it went well from there!

We met the most frequently in the beginning, during the concept stage for the first book. But we have continued to meet in person at critical stages like the early writing and thumbnailing—for Perfecto Pet Show and now for Book Three too. I think it sets us down a good path. In person it’s easy to see which ideas Pepper is particularly excited about, and that’s really helpful. We try to support each other. By talking together in the early stages we also have a rare opportunity to discuss new characters and dig deeper into the community we’re slowly building with each book.

Question #4: Teachers and parents are always looking for ways to tie books into the curriculum or extend the enjoyment with post-reading activities. Do you have any extension activities your readers might enjoy? 

Pepper: Because Meet the Bobs and Tweets was a non-traditional format we created a handmade dummy of the text with black and white illustrations.  We sent out about 50 copies of that dummy—along with a survey—to teachers to share with their students and get some feedback.  From those survey responses we knew that teachers would use Bobs and Tweets to do a variety of lessons:  comparing and contrasting, rhymes and rhythm, conventions and usage of standard English grammar, recall and retelling, and more. We actually had a really wonderful teacher send us a lesson plan on these topics that is free to download on pepperspringfield.com!

The original dummy cover and our first student survey.

We are working on a program where kids can say whether they are a Bob or a Tweet, holding up a Tweet or Bob specific paddle, and then explain why they say that.  We’ve been trying this out informally with kids we know and the responses are fascinating.  I think teachers will get really rich lessons when kids use their critical thinking skills and stretch their vocabulary to describe their opinions about themselves within the Bobs and Tweets framework.

We don’t want to make these books too heavy handed or curricular but I do think they really lend themselves to be class conversation starters and generate very insightful and meaningful feedback. Also, to help teachers get some insight into students’ family lives.

Kristy:  A third-grade class did put on a play based on the first Bobs and Tweets book. I was totally blown away. The school emailed me a few photos, and it was inspiring to see how big the actors’ smiles were. I recognized specific illustrations from the book in the painted backdrop, and I think they improved everything!

Like Pepper said, I think the strong contrasts throughout the books are an opportunity for kids to appreciate each other’s unique strengths. The relationship between the Bobs and the Tweets evolves. It was important to Pepper and to me that the “slobby Bobs” get to be the good guys sometimes.

These sound like wonderful extension ideas and I LOVE that a class decided to put on a play based on your first book. That’s a sure sign the loved it!

Question #5: Finally, what’s next for each of you?  Any more collaborative, or independent, works in the pipeline?

Pepper (Judy): It took us three years to get Meet the Bobs and Tweets from that first coffee shop meeting to a published book. Since then we have spent so much time and creative energy developing the characters and the world of Bonefish Street that there is so much rich material to mine for future books.

We love Ms. Pat, Lou and Dean’s marvelous, pet loving teacher who has a real penchant for children’s literature (hint: check out the names of her pets!); the kids in the class, the colorful adults in the Bonefish Street community, and the always surprising Bobs and Tweets themselves.

Right now we are working on a Halloween book for Fall 18 and have lots of ideas for future books and interstitial material.  My dream would be for this world to be turned into an animated series as a companion for the books!  What I have learned in this process, is that if you believe in your characters and your stories strongly enough and have the courage to NOT hide (like behind a pseudonym!) anything is possible if kids love your books.

Kristy: As Pepper said, we are actually at work on Book 3 as we speak! The world of the Bobs and Tweets is growing richer. We get to explore new emotions and new connections between characters, and—not to give anything away—I’m having a lot of fun mapping out all of Bonefish Street, which we hadn’t done before.

I also have a picture book coming up that will tell the life story of Isabella Bird, a trailblazing adventurer who lived in the 1800s. Away with Words is written by Lori Mortensen and will be published by Peachtree Publishers in Spring 2019.

 Congratulations to both of you!  I shall look forward to the Halloween book with many more to follow, I hope.  And AWAY WITH WORDS sounds marvelous, Kristy!  Can’t wait to read that as well. Thanks for stopping by and best wishes for continued success. Enjoy the journey!


About the Author:

Pepper Springfield (aka Judy Newman to close friend and family) was born and raised in Massachusetts. She loves rock’n’roll and chocolate, just like Lou Tweet. And, like Dean Bob, she loves to read and do crossword puzzles. Judy hates the spotlight, but Pepper is getting used to it! If Pepper had to choose, she would be a Tweet by day and a Bob at night.

About the Illustrator: 

Kristy Caldwell  received an MFA in Illustration from the School of Visual Arts. She is a full-time illustrator and part-time Tweet. While working in her art studio in Brooklyn, NY, Kristy gets her creativity on like Lou Tweet, drinks tea like Dean Bob, and hangs out with her energetic dog, Dutch.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: A Chat with Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan in Celebration of the Release of her Debut Picture Book MRS. MCBEE LEAVES ROOM 3!

Today I am honored to have debut picture book author Gretchen Brandenburg McClellan as my guest in celebration of the recent release of Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3, illustrated by Grace Zong and published by Peachtree Publishers.  It’s the story of a class saying goodbye to their beloved teacher – a perfect book for this time of year!  Thank you so much for joining us, Gretchen. Let’s get started – with my questions in blue to match your delightful cover.

Question #1: What inspired you to write Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3? 

For many students, school is their ground. Their sense of security is rooted in the geography of the school–knowing that Ms. A’s room is there and Mr. B’s room is across the hall. (Many very young students believe teachers live at school!) I’ve had students who were heading off to middle-school ask me through tears if I would still be in my room the next year. They needed to know that this part of their lives was stable as the tectonic plates of their lives shifted.

This connection to the geography of the school inspired me to write Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3. Originally, Mrs. McBee was leaving to move to a new school, but my editor and I decided to expand the possible reasons why Mrs. McBee might be leaving by not being specific. Teachers leave for so many reasons: to have babies, to return to the university, to move to a new school or away from the area, to change careers, to care for themselves or family members who are ill, or finally to retire. All of these moves are bittersweet.

Around the time I was writing this book, a dear friend and former co-worker was dying of breast cancer. She had to say good-bye to her own elementary classroom and her students to her. I was able to share the sale of Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3 with her and my decision to dedicate my book to her. It brought us both a bittersweet joy, knowing she wouldn’t live to see the art or the book in print. A memorial library has been established in her honor at Hathaway Elementary in Washougal, Washington where we taught together. I look forward to adding Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3 to her shelves. I am sure she would love it!

I always love hearing the stories behind a book’s dedication. How very special that you decided the book to your dear teacher friend. I’m sure that means a lot to her family.

Question #2: Did you always want to be a writer? Tell us a little bit about your writing journey?

My journey writing for children started with motherhood. I was passionate about reading and passionate about the kinds of toys I provided my kids. I was just as passionate about the toys I didn’t want them to have. At that time, I was involved in an advocacy group in my area that promoted creative play called SNAP—Support Non-Aggressive Play. I read a picture book by Charlotte Zolotow called William’s Dollabout a boy who wanted a doll, much to the disapproval of his father. I couldn’t find a picture book that addressed the concerns that so many of us in SNAP had about violent toys. So I decided to write one. My manuscript, Joseph and His Toys,f eatured a boy who was not allowed to have violent toys and the creative ways he found to feel a sense of power and control over “bad guys” and find a sense of justice. At a local book fair, I met children’s author Erik Kimmel and asked him how to submit my book for publication. He told me to join SCBWI, get the manuscript in the mail, and focus on writing my next story. At that time I didn’t intend for there to be a next story. But I was a goner. I fell in love with picture books and writing picture books and both have been my passion ever since.

Question #3: Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3 is your debut picture book.  How does it feel to be “post-publication”? What do you like best about this exciting new stage?  

The joys and challenges of being a debut writer are still unfolding, and I expect more surprises along the way as I go through my debut year. The best part of this new stage is sharing my book with children in schools and bookstores. In schools I ask teachers to select a student who needs a little sparkle in his/her life to pass on a little magic wand to, and when I start my presentations I say, “Somebody must have a magic wand out there, because my dream is coming true right now.” The child is delighted to hold up the wand and I am just as delighted to explain how the dream of being an author isn’t complete without having kids to share books with.

I am also having a blast writing and improving my presentations and activities that go along with the book. At first I felt like I was working on a Masters in Anticipatory Anxiety and was really apprehensive about the public/performing life of being an author. But I’ve switched programs and now am heading straight to my PhD in excitement and joy. I love being an author and presenter!

Ha! Love that Masters in Anticipatory Anxiety and I think your magic wand set up is absolutely brilliant. And I’m so happy to hear that you’ve almost earned that delightful Phd!  =)

Question #4: As a former reading specialist, what three tips would you give parents for keeping the love of reading alive over summer? 

 Three tips for keeping the love of reading alive over the summer are 1) join the summer reading program at the public library, 2) have books available everywhere for kids to read, including the car, bathroom and tent and 3) share books together regularly. I firmly believe that children should be read aloud to through grade school for a multitude of reasons, including their development as readers, because reading comprehension doesn’t catch up with listening comprehension until about sixth grade. Reading aloud has so many positive effects on family relationships too. And it is so much fun! The health of the audio book industry attests to the pleasure of hearing a story read aloud. Who hasn’t wanted to keep on driving to finish a chapter or remain sitting in the driveway to listen to just one more?

These are wonderful suggestions. My daughter’s in sixth grade and we still love reading aloud to each other!  

Question #5: What’s next? Are there more picture books in the pipeline?  

I am very excited about three picture books releasing in 2018. I’m Done!, illustrated by Catherine Odell, is about an impulsive and playful little beaver who finally learns what it means to be done (Holiday House, Spring 2018).  When Your Daddy’s a Soldier, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, is the story of a brother and sister whose father goes off to war (Beach Lane, Fall 2018).  Button and Bundle, illustrated by Gillian Flint, tells the story of first friends whose world is disrupted when one moves away, but who find a way to preserve their special world of play even though they are miles apart (Knopf, Fall 2018).

Thank you so much for joining us, Gretchen.  It’s always fun to share in the joy of a debut book release!

IMG_8515e edit-1 (2)BIO: Gretchen Brandenburg McLellan is a former elementary reading specialist who now devotes herself to writing for children and visiting schools as an author. She just celebrated the release of Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3, illustrated by Grace Zong (Peachtree) and looks forward to the release of three more picture books 2018. She is an active tribe-member of SCBWI and writes chapter books and middle-grade fiction as well.  

Gretchen grew up as a global nomad, daughter of a career Army officer, and lived on three continents.  She has settled in Camas, WA where she lives with her husband, cat and dog, stunt squirrels, nomadic neighborhood chickens, and celebrates when her children and grandchildren come home. Children will find a home in her heartfelt books about community, courage and compassion.

When she isn’t writing or teaching, Gretchen can be found playing word games, hiking in the woods, x-country skiing and attending plays.  Please visit Gretchen at gretchenmclellan.com for more information about her books, events and author visits. 

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: A Chat with Laurie Wallmark in Celebration of her Latest Release – GRACE HOPPER: QUEEN OF COMPUTER CODE

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Today I’m delighted to have children’s author, Laurie Wallmark, as my guest. Laurie and I met several years ago at the NJSCBWI annual conference, and I’ve been impressed by her passion for highlighting the careers and lives of notable women in the science field.  Her first book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (Creston Books, 2015), celebrated the life of a 19th-century female mathematician who is considered to be the world’s first computer programmer.  Her newest book, Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code (Sterling, 2017) celebrates the life of Grace Hopper, a 20th century female trailblazer in the field of computer programming.  Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code is engaging, informative, and fun and has already earned strong reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and more. Welcome, Laurie and let’s get started.

Q: What inspired you to write Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code?

A: Since I teach computer science and am a former programmer, the early years of computing fascinate me. Grace was among the first computer scientists. I’m amazed at how her insight and creativity shaped the world of computers today

Q: There are so many fun – and fascinating – moments in this delightful picture book biography, including one particularly amusing moment involving a bug. What was your research process like? Were there any amazing moments where you discovered something completely new to you? 

A: It’s interesting that you ask about that computer bug. I had always heard that Grace discovered a moth in a computer relay, which caused her to coin the word “bug.” Well in doing the research, it turns out neither part of this sentence is quite true. Grace was not the person who discovered the bug, but rather someone on her team did. And as far back as Thomas Edison, the word “bug” was used to describe a glitch in a mechanical device. Grace was the first person to use the term “computer bug,” though. This is why research is so important when writing nonfiction for children.

Q: Most of your text is written in creative nonfiction, but on many spreads you also have special text that is set apart in large and colorful fonts. Can you share with us why you chose this distinction? 

A: Grace was known for her witty sayings, and the set-apart text contains some of the most interesting ones. Because not all of her quotations would easily fit as part of the story, we chose to separate them out like this.

Q: Katy Wu’s illustrations really enhance your text. I love the mid-century funky feel she creates in each spread.  What was it like to work with Katy?

A: In general, and that was true in this case, the author doesn’t work directly with the illustrator. Instead, my notes and suggestions went through my editor and the art director. I provided Katy with lots of pictures of Grace, computer equipment, and even a math problem to show on the blackboard. I was fortunate that Sterling solicited my opinions on the illustrations. That’s not common.

Q: Finally, teachers and parents are always looking for ways to tie picture books into the curriculum, and I think that’s especially true for a STEM rich book like this. Do you have any extension activities your readers might enjoy? 

A: On the teacher page of my website (http://www.lauriewallmark.com/teachers.php), I have a discussion guide for use with this book. Among other things, it includes the following activity:

Is there some gadget or gizmo you wish existed? Write the name of your invention and what it does on a blank sheet a paper. Draw a picture of what your invention might look like. Share you invention with your classmates and describe how it works. Listen as they explain about their own inventions.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Laurie.  I wish you the best with this remarkable new book.

Laurie-Wallmark-100dpi-4x6BIO:

Award-winning author Laurie Wallmark’s debut picture book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (Creston Books, 2015), received four starred trade reviews (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal) and several national awards, including Outstanding Science Trade Book and the Eureka Award. It is a Cook Prize Honor Book. Her recently released picture book biography, Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code (Sterling Children’s Books, 2017), earned a Kirkus star and was well-reviewed in several trade journals. Laurie has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from VCFA. When not writing, she teaches computer science at Raritan Valley Community College.

Click here to join Laurie as she travels from blog to blog to introduce her picture book biography, Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code.

Follow Laurie on:
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/laurie.wallmark
Twitter: @lauriewallmark
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/lauriewallmark/

 

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR SPOTLIGHT: A Chat with Mary Morgan in Celebration of PIP SITS

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Author-Illustrator Mary Morgan’s newest book, PIP SITS  (I Like to Read®), released last month. Published by Holiday House as part of their I Like to Read Series, it’s the sweet story of Pip, a porcupine, and the little ducklings who think he’s their mama. PIP SITS has received some lovely reviews.  Kirkus Reviews calls it “A good read for hatching new readers” and SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL compliments Mary’s illustrations as “endearing”.  I’m thrilled today to have Mary as my guest. Thank you for joining us, Mary!  I believe this is the first time I’ve had an author-illustrator here to chat about a book!  Well, let’s get started.

What is the inspiration behind PIP SITS?

 I was inspired by an antique photograph of a young girl sitting in the grass with many ducklings on her lap. The look on her face was pure joy. I tried to find an original idea that would also capture the bliss children have when relating to animals. I thought about birds imprinting on whoever they first see when they hatch. I have raised baby birds and it is very interesting to have a tiny bird imprint on you. So this was how the idea of the story was hatched.

How wonderful for your readers, Mary, that you had the creative instinct to write a story based on these bits of inspiration. 

PIP SITS is not your first book. Tell us a little bit about your journey as an author/illustrator.

I was born in Chicago and grew up in Kansas City. My summers were spent in Tulsa with my grandmother where I first took art classes at the Philbrook Art Gallery and later was an assistant art teacher. I could do what I loved there, draw! My grandmother always encouraged my art with trips to the ballet and art museums. She let me keep all kinds of animals to draw from: mice, guinea pigs, chicks and even a small bat. My father’s nightly readings of Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and the Wind in the Willows also inspired me. I was enthralled by these books and knew I wanted to create books too.

What a wonderful way to grow up!  And I’m so glad you listened to that inner voice that said “I want to create books too!”

Since you are my first author-illustrator, I know my readers will be extra interested in hearing what your process was like as both author and illustrator in creating this story.

I wrote the story in a rough form first. Then I made many character sketches of Pip, the porcupine. After this, I imagined the scenes in the book. I drew very rough ideas of what the images would look like on each page.

Then I rewrote the story many times working out all the details. When at last I was content with the story I did the finished drawings.

I find it interesting that you wrote the story first.  I, for some reason, imagined that you would begin with sketches. But, I can see that both are integral in your creative process.  Fascinating!

Teachers and parents are always looking for ways to tie picture books into the curriculum or extend the enjoyment with post-reading activities. Do you have any extension activities your readers might enjoy?

 My web site is www.marymorganbooks.com. On my web page there is a section called, fun page. There I show you how to make dragon pizzas, draw a dragon and help Little Mouse find another place to sleep. Here is an example…

In the book, Sleep Tight Little Mouse, Little Mouse found many places to sleep. He slept upside down with bats in a cave, inside kangaroo pouches and even in a bird’s nest. Can you think of other ways animals sleep that Little Mouse might like to try?
Make a drawing of him sleeping like these different animals.

That “Fun Page” is a treasure, Mary. I also did a little poking around, Mary, and discovered a terrific  educator’s guide for PIP SITS available at Holiday House.

Finally, what’s next? Are there more picture books and projects in the pipeline?  Also, where can interested readers find your books and other work for sale?

I have many projects I am working on. One is a fantasy about a young girl that migrates with the Monarchs. I hope this story will bring interest to the difficulties the Monarch Butterfly is having with its environment. I am also working on a book about a bilingual bird and another about magical tutus. My books can be bought on Amazon.com.

Thank you so much for joining us, Mary! 

About the Author

Mary walkingAfter studying art at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Instituto de San Miguel de Allende in Mexico; Mary worked as an illustrator at Hallmark cards for ten years.

Mary illustrated her first book in 1987. In the past twenty years she has illustrated over forty books, many of which she also wrote: from Jake Baked a Cake, Sleep Tight Little Mouse to her most recent book, Pip Sits.

Mary and her husband divide their time between France, their home is in a small medieval village, Semur en Auxois, their sailboat, which is now in The Canary Islands and their families, especially their grandchildren!

 Web site: www.marymorganbooks.com

CHAOS TO CALM: My First TV Interview!

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Last night I had my first tv interview on a Christian parenting show called Chaos to Calm with Noelle Kirchner. We chatted about books, life, and faith.

Here’s Noelle’s official description of the  episode: “Children’s book author Laura Sassi is this month’s guest on my parenting TV series, Chaos to Calm with Noelle Kirchner! The episode topic is “The Calm of Building Faith Foundations,” and Laura will weigh in on that as an author, mother, and educator. The magic that makes her stories come alive will open new avenues for sharing faith in your own home!”

If you’d like to watch the episode, here is the link.  Be sure also to enter the wonderful 10-book giveaway that Zonderkidz has authorized in conjunction with Noelle’s episode.  For details and to enter, please visit Noelle’s blog.

JOINT-INTERVIEW: A Chat with Picture Book Author Jodi McKay and Illustrator Denise Holmes in Celebration of the Release of WHERE ARE THE WORDS?

words_coverToday I am delighted to be doing a joint interview with picture book author Jodi McKay and illustrator Denise Holmes.  WHERE ARE THE WORDS? (Albert Whitman, 2016) is Jodi’s debut work.  Denise has illustrated numerous books, but this their first collaboration.  Thanks so much for joining us today.

Synopsis: Period wants to write a story but can’t find the words, so his friends offer their help. Question Mark asks around and Exclamation Point finds some enthusiastic words from some unexpected places. Now all Period needs is an idea, but from whom?

Now for the interview with my questions bolded.

Jodi, congratulations on your debut!  Tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind the story.

Jodi: Thanks so much, Laura! The idea behind this book came from a horrible case of writer’s block. No amount of chocolate or deep breathing exercises helped me untangle a good idea for a story and I literally sat in front of my computer and asked, “Where the heck are the words?” or at least that’s the PG version. Oddly enough, that question was the spark that I needed and the concept quickly came together afterwards. Knowing that there were books already available about writing or telling stories, I knew that I needed to put a different spin on it and I wanted it to be in the form of a quirky kind of character. Cue the punctuation marks!

Denise, you have illustrated quite a few picture books. What drew you to Jodi’s WHERE ARE THE WORDS story?

Denise: I have to admit this book was new territory for me. My other books have had children as the main characters, so I have been so used to drawing kids. When my agent sent me the manuscript and I got really nervous! But after reading it a few times, the characters started coming to me and I knew I had to get out of my comfort zone and illustrate this book. The words are so funny and the characters are so wonderful. I really fell in love with it!

One of the themes of this book is collaboration – coming together and combining your strengths to create a great story. This is humorously depicted in the delightful interactions between Period and his punctuation pals and in the interplay between picture and text.  How collaborative was the process for you as author and illustrator? What kind of communication was involved, if any?

Jodi: First, I would like to say that I got lucky when they chose Denise to illustrate our book. I didn’t want to say too much regarding the art because, 1. I wanted it to be a surprise, and 2. I knew she would add so much more to the story that I wouldn’t have even thought of and I didn’t want to hinder her process. There were a few times that I was given the opportunity to provide suggestions or ask questions all of which Denise graciously addressed. That was done through my editor and I’m assuming their art director, never directly to each other. Now we communicate fairly often to chat about our teacher’s guide and promotional work. She’s great!

Denise: I think this might be standard in the industry, but the editor is the middle person when it comes to working on picture books. In this case, Jordan gave me the art directions and I just went for it. I did finally get talk with Jodi after I finished the book. We have collaborated on promo materials and I look forward to collaborating on events and maybe even a follow up book! What do you say Jodi? I think Period needs to go on another adventure!

Laura: What would you like readers to take away from this story?

Jodi: Gosh, a few things really. I hope readers will see how the punctuation marks are speaking and connect that to that actual role of each mark. That is the educational component of this book and one I think is helpful for little learners. I also want kids to see what is possible when they open their eyes to what is all around them rather than just focusing on what’s in front of them. You never know what you can discover! Last, I hope children capture the importance of helping each other and working together for any cause. That piece of the story was created as a result of my own experience with the kidlit community and how helpful everyone has been over the years.

Denise: That it’s good to have friends to help you out, even if they are a little silly!

Laura: What one piece of advice would you offer to young writers/artists who find themselves staring at a blank page?

Jodi: Engage your senses to find that spark! Look in all directions, listen closely to what’s going on around you, pick up different objects to feel what they are made out of, make something that’s smell reminds you of a loved one’s cooking, eat what you made to see if you can go deeper into the memory. Take all of that and see what comes up for you. Creativity comes in various forms so be open to everything.

Denise: I often have days where I have artist’s block. I will step away from trying to force a drawing; go for a walk, read a book, or grab a snack and come back to it. When you get back, just start filling up the page with doodles, something will eventually come out of it.

Finally, what’s next for each of you?  Any more collaborative works in the pipeline?

Jodi: I’m still writing and working with my agent on different picture books. There is one particular that is a companion to WHERE ARE THE WORDS? and I hope it works so that I can team up with Denise again!

Denise: I have a book called Phoebe Sounds It Out (written by Julie Zwillich | Owlkids Books) coming out in April 2017 and I am working on the 2nd book in the series called Phoebe’s Day, Today. As far as collaborating, I would absolutely love to work with Jodi again. I was very inspired by her writing and would jump at the chance to work together again!

Thank you both for inspiring us with your thoughtful responses.  We wish you the best of success with this clever new picture book!

img_8920Bio: Jodi lives in Grosse Pointe, Michigan with her husband, son, a couple of mischievous pets, and at least one ghost. She discovered that she loved to write when she was 8 years old, but decided to finish school before pursuing it full time. Now she is an active member of the incredible kid lit community and is proud to be represented by Linda Epstein at Emerald City Literary Agency. Jodi’s debut picture book, WHERE ARE THE WORDS? is set to release on December 20th and she can’t wait to share it! If you would like to chat with Jodi, you can find her on Facebook and Twitter. You can also connect with her at www.JodiMcKayBooks.com (Look for the teacher’s guide!) or by email at Jodi@JodiMcKayBooks.com

drawingportrait_smallBio: A native of the Detroit area, Denise graduated with a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003. She has sine been a freelance illustrator working on many different projects from logos and greeting cards to magazine publications. Her other picture books include IF I WROTE ABOUT YOU, THE YOGA GAME BY THE SEA, and THE YOGA GAME IN THE GARDEN. She lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter.  Visit her online at www.niseemade.com.

Jodi’s Blog tour:

November 14thhttps://albertwhitman.wordpress.com/2016/11/14/qa-with-jodi-mckay/

November 18thwww.KidLit411.com

December 5thhttps://laurasassitales.wordpress.com

December 12th–  http://www.karlingray.com/blog.htm

December 19thhttp://jumpingthecandlestick.blogspot.com

Stop by the BHPL BOOK BLOG for a FUN INTERVIEW!

13507225_10153848033924094_2368832568996490477_nIn anticipation of my GOODNIGHT, ARK story time visit at the Berkeley Heights Public Library next Tuesday, I was interviewed by the librarian! We had the nicest time chatting about writing  picture books, working with an illustrator, living in New Jersey and more. Curious? Then hop on over. I’ll make it easy. Press here.

NOTE:  The GOODNIGHT, ARK story time will take place next Tuesday, July 19th at 10:30 in the Children’s Room of the Berkeley Heights Public Library. Please join us if you can.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Interview with Jody Jensen Shaffer

Today I am delighted to have my talented friend and critique partner Jody Jensen Shaffer as my guest.  Jody and I have known each other for quite a few years now, and it’s been exciting for me to follow her writerly journey. Jody has written 27 children’s books. She’s here today in celebration of her newest release THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLED with illustrations by Kelly Kennedy (Simon Spotlight, July 2016). Forthcoming titles include PRUDENCE, THE PART-TIME COW which will be published by Laura Godwin at Holt Children’s in 2017 and A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK which will be available in 2018 from Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin. Well, let’s get started. 
Thanks so much for joining us today, Jody. Now that re-introductions have been made, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you become a writer? 
Thanks for having me, Laura! Like many authors, I liked to write and read when I was young. When I finished high school, I went to college and got a degree in English. (I also got my first paying magazine job. But it was for adults, not kids.) Lots of folks thought I might be a lawyer. But I had other plans. I knew I wanted to teach college students how to write, so I got a master’s in English and taught for a few years, while I was working in the corporate world. When I had kids, I wanted to stay home with them, and that’s when I got hooked on children’s literature. Oh my goodness! I loved those books! I began writing seriously for children then.
THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLED has been out now for just over a week.  What do you hope readers will take away from it?
I had such a good time researching the history of cookies! I hope readers will enjoy learning about it as much as I did. The history of cookies is a fascinating story of cultures and ingredients and technology and pluck. (You’ll have to read the book to see what I mean about that last part!)
This seems like a delicious topic to research.  Was a lot of cookie nibbling involved?  But, seriously, I know readers of all ages will be interested in your process for first researching and then writing the book. Can you share a few tasty tidbits with us? 
Cookie nibbling is always a part of my research, Laura, whether my topic is cookies or not! I began my research by scouring the internet and my local libraries. I dug up all the information I could about baking and cookies and spices. I actually thought I’d discover when, where, and what the Very First Cookie was. But guess what? It wasn’t even a cookie! (Again, you’ll understand once you read the book.) After I was comfortable that I had a handle on the history of cookies, I had to decide what information to put in the book and what to leave out. Since this is a book for 6-8 year olds, I wanted to be sure I was adding the right amount of sugar and not overloading them with too much salt, if you know what I mean. I’m happy with the way it turned out, and I think readers will be, too.
Teachers and parents are always looking for ways to tie picture books into the curriculum or extend the enjoyment with post-reading activities. Do you have any extension activities your readers might enjoy?
Great question! There are all kinds of possible curriculum-extenders for this book, including studying the geography of the history of cookies, the math that recipes use, the technology of ovens, refrigeration, and factories, maybe even a little chemistry for what heat does to specific ingredients. If that’s not enough, how about how cookies are used in various cultures, including ours? The tie-ins are endlessly delicious!
Finally, what’s next? Are there more picture books in the pipeline?  Also, where can interested readers find your books?
Yes, there are more picture books in the pipeline! PRUDENCE, THE PART-TIME COW (Holt) releases in 2017, A CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin) releases in 2018, with more to follow! Readers can find my books at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Simon & Schuster, WalMart and Target. They can find me at my blog at Just Kidding and on Twitter @jodywrites4kids.
Thanks so much for having me, Laura!
Thank YOU for coming!
AND NOW FOR THE GIVEAWAY!!!!  If you’d like a chance to win a FREE, SIGNED copy of THE WAY THE COOKIE CRUMBLED (Simon Spotlight, July 2016) simply name your favorite cookie in the comment space below.  (NOTE: Must be U.S. resident and at least 18 years old to enter.) The giveaway ends Thursday, 7/14/16 at 11:59 pm EST. The winner will be announced on Friday!  The giveaway is now over. Press here to see the winner.

ILLUSTRATOR SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Jennifer Zivoin

Last week the mailman delivered the June issue of Clubhouse Jr. which includes my story “Bugged and Blue”. It begins on page 24, if you care to take a peek. The editorial team did a wonderful job with layout.  But what I especially admired was their choice of illustrator. I was immediately smitten by Jennifer Zivoin’s darling depiction of the characters and setting of my story.  In fact, I was so charmed that I looked her up online. Jennifer Zivoin earned her Bachelor of Arts degree with highest distinction from the honors division of Indiana University. She worked as a graphic designer and then as a creative director before finding her artistic niche illustrating children’s books.  This is Jennifer’s first collaboration with Clubhouse Jr. She has also illustrated 29 published children’s books and about 17 magazine stories and covers. Here’s the best news yet – she has agreed to an interview!  So without further ado, let’s get started.

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Have you always loved illustrating?  Tell us a little bit about your journey as an artist.

I have always loved art and drawing, but didn’t always realize that I wanted to be an artist.  In fact, when I was very young, I wanted to be an astronaut or a paleontologist!  However, when I was in 4th grade, I saw “The Little Mermaid” for the first time in the movie theater, and was absolutely captivated.  That was when I knew that I wanted to be an artist….or a mermaid!  I loved the beauty of telling stories with pictures, and began working towards that goal: sketching the human figure, exploring different illustration styles, taking classes, and researching the animation industry.  For the longest time I was convinced that I would become an animator, but towards the end of college, I realized that my true passions were the still image and being connected to creating all of the visuals for a story, not just a small piece of a larger whole.  I began my professional career as a graphic designer, and later became a creative director at a multimedia marketing firm.  All the while, I was building my illustration portfolio, building a client base, and learning the skills that I would use in running my own freelance illustration business.  My first children’s book project was the “Pirate School” young reader series, released by Grosset & Dunlap in 2007.  In 2008, I signed on with MB Artists and officially left the corporate world to pursue illustration full time.  Since then, I have had the opportunity to illustrate so many interesting projects!

I love how you depict the characters and setting of my story.  As an illustrator, how do you go about creating visually appealing and engaging spreads?

Before I draw any sketch, I begin with scribbly thumbnails, always in ink.  The idea is to quickly try out as many compositions as possible and not to get caught up in erasing or perfecting any line work.  I love to explore interesting perspectives.  My goal is to find designs that will bring out the essence of each character and capture the mood and movement of each scene.  After I design the characters and decide on a composition, it is time to work on the full size sketches.  When it is time to paint, I look for a color palette that will support the imagery in expressing the tone of the piece.

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What is the revision process like when illustrating? 

When the art director receives the artwork, the team must make sure that the images not only meet the visual goals for the story, but that they work functionally within the type layout.  For “Bugged and Blue” the very last sketch originally showed the roller coaster in more of a profile.  However, when it was put into the layout, it turned out not to be the best solution when text was wrapping around it.  For the revision, I changed the view to show the track in more of an “S” shape, with the head of the roller coaster coming towards the viewer.

Many of my readers are writers. From the illustrator’s perspective, what do you look for when agreeing to illustrate a piece? Do you like illustrator notes?

I enjoy being able to work on a variety of projects.  I have illustrated everything from educational work, magazine illustrations, product illustrations, museum exhibit facades, early readers and picture books.  I love when something about a project strikes a personal cord with me.  Sometimes, particularly with educational work and anything with a quick deadline, I need art notes so that I can work quickly and correctly.  However, with some of my picture books, which have longer timelines for completion, the art directors have given me tremendous freedom, with little to no art notes.  I love having the opportunity to rise to the challenge that having complete illustrative freedom allows, and always try to bring something extra to those projects, to live up to the art directors’ faith in me, as well as to try new things for myself as an artist.  However, for every assignment, no matter what the size or deadline, I try to give my clients illustrations that are beautiful and that will meet the visual goals for the project.

As a parent, writer, and former teacher, I’m always interested in how other writers/illustrators balance their time between writing, other jobs, parenthood, and life. Any tips  for productivity and balance?

I have two daughters, age 5 and 1, so finding time to work can be difficult.  I work after the kids go to bed, early in the morning, weekends, holidays….whenever I get a chance.  I have a babysitter who comes one morning a week to play with the kids while I am in the office, and I have great support from family members.  However, being a mother has changed how I have to approach a work day.  Work-at-home moms of young children rarely get long stretches of uninterrupted time to work.   Learning to paint my art digitally has made a huge difference in helping me manage work and motherhood.  If the kids give me 15 minutes, I can work for 15 minutes, save the file, and come back to the piece later.  Being able to capture short periods of time for work throughout each day adds up throughout the week and helps keep the projects moving forward.

Finally, what’s next? Are there more picture books and projects in the pipeline?  Also, where can interested readers find your books and other work for sale?

I am blessed to have multiple projects in the works at any given time!  Right now, I am working on illustrations to accompany as story to appear this fall in Ladybug Magazine, an educational young reader book, and a picture book with Magination Press which will be released in 2017.  My art has also recently appeared in the newest issues of Babybug and Clubhouse Jr.  For updates about other upcoming publications in which my art appears, to view my portfolio or to check out my books, visit my website at www.JZArtworks.com.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Jennifer. It was wonderful having you and thanks again for so beautifully illustrating “Bugged and Blue”.

“Bugged and Blue” written by Laura Sassi and illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin appears in the June 2016 issue of Clubhouse Jr. magazine. (Copyright 2016, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.)

 

INTERVIEW: A Chat with Picture Book Author Rebecca J. Gomez (and a Giveaway!)

Join me in welcoming fellow rhymer and picture book author, Rebecca J. Gomez, whose brand new picture book, HENSEL AND GRETEL: NINJA CHICKS (Putnam May 2017), co-authored with Corey Rosen Schwartz and illustrated by Dan Santat, just released! HENSEL AND GRETEL has received lovely reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews for its top-notch rhyme and expressive illustrations. To give you a sense of the book, please take a look at the delightful book trailer.  Then, enjoy my chat with Becky below!

1. Thanks so much for joining us today, Becky.  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you become a writer?
      I have been writing poetry for as long as I can remember being able to write. Every now and then the thought of “I should publish a book of poems someday” would enter my mind as a teen and young adult, but actually becoming an author wasn’t something I ever thought I would do. That changed in my mid-twenties after I started writing my own Bible study curriculum for the youth group my husband and I were leading. Writing curriculum led to writing stories for the youth group newsletter, which took me in directions I never thought my writing would go. With three young children at home at the time, I had plenty of inspiration, and there was no stopping me!
 2. HENSEL and GRETEL NINJA CHICKS is a fractured fairy tale. What inspired you and Corey to create this new version? What do you hope readers will take away from it?
      After the success of THE THREE NINJA PIGS and NINJA RED RIDING HOOD, Corey’s publisher asked her to write a third ninja book, but she wasn’t sure which fairy tale to ninja-fy. So, since we had been writing together for years and years, she asked me to write one with her. I had always wanted to write a new version of Hansel and Gretel, and I thought the idea of Hansel and Gretel as ninjas was ideal! I was right. And Corey was right about them being chickens. 
      Most of all, I want readers to enjoy HENSEL AND GRETEL: NINJA CHICKS as a fun, kick-butt story. But there is also that element of working hard to reach your goal, and not giving up when things get hard or scary. 
3. I’m intrigued that you and Corey collaborated on this story.  What was it like to co-author this and your first book WHAT ABOUT MOOSE?  Can you tell us a little bit about how that came about?
      Corey and I first met when she joined an online critique group I was part of back in…2005, I think. She had co-written her first book, HOP! PLOP!, and she thought that she and I would make a great team. I was hesitant to collaborate at first, but I figured it was worth a shot, especially since she already had one book deal. 
      Writing with Corey has been an incredible experience that has helped sharpen my skills as an author, especially as it comes to writing rhyming stories. She and I always begin a manuscript with a brainstorming session, and then we open up a document in Google drive and begin writing, usually from the beginning. I’ve heard that, with some collaborations, one author will write a draft, then the other author will revise it and send it back, and that continues until they have a finished manuscript. Not so with me and Corey. We generally collaborate on each line from beginning to end, draft to draft. Occasionally we will work separately if we get stuck, or if one of us feels particularly inspired, but in general we move through a manuscript together. And, in case you’re wondering, we do argue now and then. 
4. Teachers and parents are always looking for ways to tie picture books into the curriculum or extend the enjoyment with post-reading activities. Do you have any extension activities your readers might enjoy?
      The publisher created a story time kit with some fun ninja-themed stuff that kids will enjoy. I’ve also created my own activity pack, including a maze, a word search, and a finger puppet craft that can be used to act out the story.  
5. What’s next? Are there more picture books in the pipeline?  Also, where can interested readers find your books?
      No official news yet, but there are some things brewing, both for my collaborative work with Corey and my own work. Stay tuned!
      I always like to send people to the local independent book store, but HENSEL AND GRETEL: NINJA CHICKS is available wherever books are sold. You should also be able to find it at your local library. If they don’t have it, you can request it!

IMG_1314Bio: Rebecca J. Gomez is a picture book author whose only ninja training involved a few Karate lessons when she was in third grade and a few self-defense moves she learned from her son, a real live ninja. She lives in Omaha, Nebraska with her husband and three kids. Connect with Becky on Twitter and Facebook.  You can also visit her website

Don’t forget to enter  the GIVEAWAY!!!!! If you’d like a chance to win a FREE copy of HENSEL AND GRETEL: NINJA CHICKS (Putnam May 2017), co-authored with Corey Rosen Schwartz and illustrated by Dan Santat, simply post a comment below. (NOTE: Must be U.S. resident and at least 18 years old to enter.) The giveaway ends Thursday, 6/2/16 at 11:59 pm EST. The winner will be announced on Friday!  THE GIVEAWAY IS NOW OVER.  Thank you to all who entered.