This week, I’m delighted to chat with Janna Matthies, a picture book author, who like me, writes books for both the mainstream and faith-based markets. And today, we are celebrating the release of her newest board book God’s Always Loving You, published by WorthyKids and illustrated by Airin O’Callaghan.
Here’s the publisher’s description:
This powerful little book is filled to the brim with hope and comfort. Simple, child-friendly verse outlines relatable moments of crisis, uncertainty, and fear common to a child’s life, and asks who helps us in each of those scenarios. “God, that’s who” is the reliable answer, forming a pattern kids will quickly pick up on. Each answer reinforces the book’s deeply comforting message: God is always there for us. He loves us, He knows us, and He cares about our needs.
This is such a needed message in today’s world. Thank you, Janna for writing it and thank you, WorthyKids, for publishing it! And in the extra neat department, Janna will be mailing one signed copy of the study to one lucky reader, so be sure to check out the details for that at the end of the post. And now, grab a cup of tea and join me as we chat with Janna with my questions bolded.
Thank you so much for joining me today, Janna. Let’s dig right in. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to write God’s Always Loving You.
When I’m not writing children’s books, I’m a music teacher for grades PreK, K and 1st, and I see all kinds of troubles touch the lives of my students. I also recently walked through a 3-year leukemia battle with a dear friend and her family. So I became interested in writing a book that brings hope and reassurance to kids going through hard times. But I didn’t want to offer platitudes or empty promises, because God’s ways aren’t that simple. My aim was to hone in on the absolute promise that God and His loving presence are always with us.
As one who has been through hard times with my own kids, I’m grateful that you dug deep to write this book, but, oh my, what a tall order. What was your greatest challenge in writing this book?
As I mentioned, I was focused on “the hard times,” but my editor—Melinda Rathjen at WorthyKids—suggested I add a couple stanzas featuring good times, too. At first I was hesitant, not wanting to dilute the impact for readers truly in the valley. But I followed her suggestion, and in the end agreed that the positive stanzas give balance and a vision for the gifts of peace, joy and redemption. I’m grateful to Melinda and also to the fantastic illustrator, Airin O’Callaghan, for her heart-felt, creative partnership.
Yes, I agree! The balance makes the message even richer. What is your greatest desire for the readers who read God’s Always Loving You?
The book is essentially a series of questions, all answered by the refrain, “God, that’s who.” My greatest desire is that readers would see God himself as the answer, and that they’d find His presence to be enough in the midst of whatever they’re going through. It’s natural when we’re down to focus on the thing that we want, the specific answer to prayer that we’re awaiting. My personal hope is that I’d learn more and more to focus on God as the answer, and to trust that the rest will follow.
Besides reading wonderful books such as this, what advice would you give parents and caregivers who want to share their faith with their kids?
In my experience as a mom, teacher, friend, I find that living life authentically in front of kids is critical. Let them see you take quiet time with God, pray in the good and bad times, need others to support you in your own faith journey. Include them in family devotions/movies/book discussions where they can express real feelings and questions. And notice teachable moments when they’re open to hearing stories of your own high and low points as a believer.
These are great and very do-able suggestions. Finally, what’s next? Are there more picture books in the pipeline? Also, where can interested readers find your books?
Yes! My next picture book, HERE WE COME! (Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster, coming spring 2022), is illustrated by Christine Davenier and features an impromptu parade of little musicians in the moonlight. Two more books are currently in contract phase, and a variety of others are being shopped around by my agent.
For buying options and to learn more about Gods’s Always Loving You, click here.
Thank you, Janna, for taking the time to answer these questions so thoughtfully. And now for the promised giveaway!
HERE ARE THE DETAILS FOR THE GIVEAWAY!!! If you’d like a chance to win a complimentary signed copy of God’s Always Loving You, simply post a comment below letting me know. (NOTE: Must be U.S. resident and at least 18 years old to enter.) Thank you, Janna, for providing the winning book. This giveaway ends Friday, 7/23/2021 at 11:59 pm EST.
May is in full bloom here in New Jersey and Little Ewe and I (and Little Owl too, as you will see below) have been joyfully counting our way through the week with FIVE wonderful book sharing opportunities! Here’s a roundup of the meadows we visited this week. Thank you for having us!
Meadow #1: VIRTUAL AUTHOR VISIT to Minnesota! Little Ewe and I kicked off the week with a kindergarten author visit at Gethsemane Lutheran Church and School. After a very interactive and enthusiastic reading, each and every kindergartner asked a question. They also wanted me to let illustrator Tommy Doyle know how much they loved his drawings of sheep. I kindly passed the message on, of course, much to his delight. Thank you for having us!
Meadow #2: FRONT STEP STORY TIME. On Tuesday, Little Ewe and I shared LITTLE EWE with the preschoolers at St. Michael’s School in Cranford. They counted along with Little Ewe each step of the way and made wonderful animal sounds – including hooting owls and, of course, sheep! We all enjoyed being outside on such a sunny spring morning. Hooray for front steps and stories!
Meadow #3: VIRTUAL LOVE IS KIND VISIT to Michigan Little Ewe made a brief appearance, but this visit with the k – 8th graders at South Olive Christian School was Little Owl’s chance to shine as I used LOVE IS KIND to show the kids how a book goes from inspiration to publication. Something extra special about this visit is that I actually know one of the teachers – we taught together way back in early 90s when we both just starting our teaching careers. How wonderful it was to reunite via zoom!
Meadow #4: LITTLE EWE BLOG INTERVIEW. This week I am delighted to be hosted by children’s author Mindy Baker in celebration of the release of LITTLE EWE (Beaming Books, 2021).What inspired me to write LITTLE EWE? What’s my writing process like? Find the answers to these and other fun questions in Mindy’s interview. Oh, and there’s a giveaway for one fresh-off-the-press copy of LITTLE EWE! Thank you, Mindy!
Meadow #5: On Wednesday, was interviewed on Instagram LIVE! by one of our local indie bookstores, The Book House in Millburn NJ. This is part of their Local Love Wednesday’s series where they chat with a local author. We chatted about all my books, and I even got dressed up for the occasion – sort of. Curious? Here’s the link. Enjoy!
Today it is my pleasure to introduce you to Laura Alary, author of Breathe: A Child’s Guide to Ascension, Pentecost, and the Growing Time. Published by Paraclete Press and gorgeously illustrated by Cathrin Peterslund, Breathe explores the comings and goings of Jesus and the Spirit through retellings of the biblical stories of Ascension and Pentecost, interwoven with contemporary reflections from the point of view of a child. Not only is Laura’s newest book a must-have resource for fostering meaningful faith conversations with our kids, Laura herself is a gem and her wisdom and love for God shine through her answers. My daughter and I plan to read Breathe together as part of our summer porch mama/daughter devotional time. Maybe you will decide to do something similar with your kids. Now, having planted that seed, here’s the interview with my questions bolded.
First off, thank you so much for creating this beautiful book that helps kids (and grown ups too!) grasp the wonder of God’s presence in their lives. What inspired you to share this story with the world?
Thank you, Laura, for your encouraging words, and for your interest in Breathe. What inspired me to write this book? There are two answers. The first is that I had already written two books about the circle of the Church year (Look! A Child’s Guide to Advent and Christmas and Make Room: A Child’s Guide to Lent and Easter) and I wanted to complete the series. However, it took me a few years to figure out what to do with Pentecost.
Both Look! and Make Room follow a similar pattern: they move through seasons of preparation (Advent and Lent) toward big celebrations (Christmas and Easter). But Pentecost doesn’t really have a getting ready time, and its connection to what follows (what we usually call Ordinary Time) felt anticlimactic to me. We often speak of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church and celebrate with a cake and candles—all fun, but at the end of the day it can feel like you pack the party decorations away and life goes back to normal. I figured there had to be more to Pentecost than that.
In the end, what helped me was looking at Pentecost in the context of the whole circle of the church year. I started to see the first half of the year—so full of stories and celebrations about the life of Jesus—as its own kind of getting ready time. We spend months letting these stories fall into us like seeds in soil. Then the Spirit breathes life and warmth into those seeds and they start to germinate. Pentecost becomes the threshold to a new season of growth and transformation, when we begin to bring those stories to life in our own place and time. In other words, Breathe looks at Pentecost as part of a much bigger story.
That brings me to my second reason for writing Breathe. Years ago I wrote a book called Mira and the Big Story. In it, one of the characters says to another, “Whenever you hear a story, you must ask yourself: What is this story doing to me? Is it making me bigger or smaller?” As a writer, I am continually thinking about how we are shaped by the stories we tell. I ask myself: What kinds of stories does our world need? I think we are desperately in need of stories that awaken us to how intimately connected we are to one another, to other living things, and to our environment. I wrote Breathe to be such a story.
Your writing is breathtaking – somehow managing to be kid-friendly with vivid, relatable imagery and yet soul-provoking for grown-up readers as well. How did you manage to strike this balance so beautifully?
Wow! That’s such a beautiful compliment. Thank you, Laura. Your question points to two qualities I value highly: simplicity and depth. Holding these qualities together is harder than it seems. I always begin with too many words. But I know that silence and space are essential for making meaning. So I am getting better at saying more with less.
When I write, I start with the assumption that children have big ideas and big questions. What they don’t have yet is a big vocabulary—the language to articulate some of the things they observe and wonder about. So I try to anticipate what some of their questions might be (and pay attention when they ask them), explore those questions deeply, then distill everything into a simpler form. To switch from a chemical metaphor to an electrical one, my dad, who is an electrical engineer, once jokingly called me a step-down transformer because I can take a “high voltage” idea and convert it into a form children can actually receive.
How do I go about that?
One thing I do is begin with my own wondering. When I am preparing to write I practise a kind of imaginative openness and jot down all the questions that arise for me about an idea or situation (especially the ones which have no definite answers). That stretches my imagination and keeps me honest.
Another thing I do before I put pen to paper is ask myself: what is this storyabout? What is its core meaning? If I can’t answer that in a sentence, I know I am still too muddled to start writing. This helps with simplicity and clarity.
Finally, while I am writing, I read every word out loud. Because most of my books will be read aloud, I need to know how the words sound, not just how they look on the page. I think that helps keep everything fresher and more vivid.
The concept of breathing and breathe is woven throughout your book. Even the title is BREATHE! Tell us about that.
I am actually really proud of the title. It seems simple, but there is a lot to it. As with Look! and Make Room I tried to capture the essence of the book in a word or two.
For one thing, spirit and breath are the same word in both Hebrew and Greek (and other languages), so the title plays with that etymological connection and alludes to the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost.
Breathe is also a subtle reference to the practice of mindfulness. When people are stressed or anxious we often remind them to breathe, because connecting with our breath helps settle those swirling thoughts and feelings so we can see more clearly. I’ve struggled a lot with anxiety over the years and learning to use my breath this way has been so helpful to me in many situations. If you look for it, you will notice that mindfulness is a theme throughout Breathe.
Finally, the title points to something universal: everyone and everything that lives, breathes. This past year we have been made more aware than ever of how precious our breath is. That simple act of inhaling and exhaling is an experience we all share—until it is taken away. So the reference to breathing is part of that larger theme of connectedness.
Before reading your book, I’d never heard of the concept “growing time” but it’s an essential and wonderful part of your message. Can you share with my readers what it is in a nut shell? (They’ll have to read the book for the full version.)
The Growing Time is a phrase used in Godly Play to talk about the part of the liturgical year we usually call Ordinary Time (the time between Pentecost and the start of Advent). It stretches from late May or early June all the way to late November or early December. In the northern hemisphere, this liturgical season coincides with late spring, summer, and autumn—a time for planting, growing, tending, and harvesting. I love the name The Growing Time because it captures some of the energy of this transformation is happening all around us—and inside us. There really is nothing ordinary about this time!
What is your greatest desire for the readers who read this book? Are there any other resources available for extending the reading?
One of the things I tried to do with Breathe is introduce themes that can be extended in other ways. Instead of reading the book straight through, you could read a section, then take it deeper through activities or picture books that develop specific ideas or themes.
For instance, you could read the sections on learning to pray with the wind and your breath, and write your own breath prayers, blow bubbles, or make prayer flags. Or you could explore mindfulness practices with the help of books like Breathe Like a Bear by Kira Willey and Anni Betts (Rodale Kids, 2017) and Sitting Still Like a Frog by Elin Snel (Shambhala, 2013).
Another example of this is reading the sectionthat describes planting a butterfly garden for bees and monarch butterflies. The book moves from talking about how butterflies migrate to human migration. You could carry the conversation further with a book like Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs and Nizar Ali Badr (Orca Books, 2016). Then you could make your own stone art inspired by the book. Or plant your own butterfly garden.
What Grew in Larry’s Garden (by Laura Alary and Kass Reich, Kids Can Press, 2020)is a picture book based on a true story about a teacher whose Kindness Project helped his students grow community alongside their tomatoes. Its themes—kindness, gratitude, cooperation—all connect really well with The Growing Time. This book might even inspire young readers to get outside this summer and grow things!
My biggest hope for Breathe is that readers will come away with a deeper sense of belonging and connection—to one another, to other living things, to the world we share, and to the Spirit who enlivens everything. Out of this awareness flows a way of living. Seeing our connection to the natural world prompts us to take more responsibility for caring for our environment. Seeing our connection to other people leads to acts of justice, hospitality, and kindness.
It all boils down to love. The more we love, the more we can see the divine presence in things. Or maybe the seeing leads to the loving. But love shows itself in how we live. So I guess that is my biggest hope—that the stories I write will nudge us toward becoming more loving people.
Finally, what’s next? Are there more books in the pipeline? Also, where can interested readers find your books?
I’m happy to say I have several new books in process. One of them is a non-fiction book about food webs—with a bit of a mystical slant! Like Breathe, it has a message about connectedness, but it expresses it through the language of science.
I am also really excited about my two picture book biographies about pioneering women astronomers (Maria Mitchell and Cecilia Payne). Those stories are both in the hands of illustrators right now. There are a few other manuscripts out there looking for homes—so I am hopeful there will be even more books to come!
All my books are available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or bookshop.org (or directly from the publishers). If you can find them at a local bookstore, so much the better. And if they don’t carry the books, you could always put in a request!
Laura has loved books since she was barely big enough to clamber up the steps to the bookmobile that rolled into her Halifax neighborhood once a week. At school, she made her own books out of manila paper, mucilage and crayons. The first story she can remember writing was about a little girl who kept spilling paint and having to figure out how to turn the messes into pictures (a good rule for life).
These days, Laura considers herself very lucky to work in a beautiful library and write her own books. They look more professional than the homemade ones, but the joy of creating them is much the same. Laura also loves to sing, play guitar (a work in progress) and try to keep up with what her three children are reading. She makes her home in Toronto where, along with clover and a whole lot of dandelions, she does her best to grow kindness.
If you’d like a chance to win a FREE copy of BREATHE, written by Laura Alary and illustrated by Cathrin Peterslund, let me know in a comment below. (NOTE: Must be U.S. resident at least 18 years old to enter.) The giveaway ends Friday, May 14th, 2021 at 11:59 pm EST. This giveaway is now over. The winner is announced here.
[Note: Thank you to Paracelete Press for the opportunity to preview the book with a digital ARC that I was under no obligation to review. The views and opinions expressed on this blog about books and other things are purely my own.]
I’m so excited to be teaching the Master Class on Picture Writing for the Write2Ignite Conference for Christian Writers of Children’s and Young Adult Literature this coming April 24, 2021. Taught virtually – so writers from near and far can attend – it’s going be a day full of learning and fun – all while stretching our story-telling skills. And today, as way of introduction, they’re interviewing me on their blog! I hope you’ll pop on over to check it out. Registration details are included at the end of the post… and there’s a giveaway! Here’s the link:
Today I am delighted to have the talented Vivian Kirkfield as my guest in celebration of her newest release From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves, written by Vivian, illustrated by Gilbert Ford and published by HMH Books for Young Readers. At 96-pages, it’s not your typical picture book, but it is a remarkable one that curious readers will gobble up. Interested in learning more? Then enjoy this interview with my questions in bold.Afterwards, be sure to check out Vivian’s generous giveaway offer.
Welcome, Vivian. Before we dig in, tell us a little bit about your journey into writing for kids.
I’ve had a love affair with picture books from the first moment my mother sat me on her lap to read me a story – The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton is the first story I remember hearing. As a kid, I loved scribbling little poems. And in school, English was probably my favorite subject because I enjoyed reading and writing so much. But I never seriously considered writing as a career until 2010 when I self-published a parent-teacher guide, Show Me How! Build Your Child’s Self-Esteem Through Reading, Crafting and Cooking. Filled with 100 picture book summaries, craft projects, and cooking activities, that book got me blogging because I wanted to spread the word and let people know about it. Blogging about picture books put me in contact with Susanna Hill and her Perfect Picture Book Friday. It was just about that time when my son gave me a very unusual present for my 64th birthday – he took me skydiving! And when my feet touched the ground, I knew that if I could do that, I could do anything. I’d already been contemplating writing my own picture books…and at the end of that year, when Julie Hedlund announced she was starting a new challenge: 12×12 in 2012, I jumped on board and never looked back.
I LOVE that sky-diving spirit! And you certainly have soared in your picture book writing career. On to my second question…
The former teacher in me is excited about the upcoming (January 19th!) release of your newest picture book From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves. At 96 pages, it’s not your typical picture book format. Can you tell us what makes this format different and special?
That’s a great question, Laura. I’ve just received my box of author copies – and the first thing that struck me was the size of the book. Unlike the usual picture books that average around 9×12 or larger, this book is 7×10 – the perfect size to tuck in a backpack. And inside, it’s very much like the chapter books that middle grade readers enjoy – but different because it’s fully illustrated. Perhaps you might say it’s a cross between a chapter book and a graphic novel because it has the illustrations of a graphic novel, but the text of a chapter book! The best of both worlds, we hope. I love that each chapter opens with a glorious illustration on the left side and the short opening lines of the chapter on the right. This format really invites the reader in.
It certainly invites THIS reader in! Just take a look at this interior spread:
What inspired you to tackle the topic “inventions that changed the way the world moves”?
A phone conversation inspired me to write the story of Eric Wickman, a Swedish immigrant who came to the United States in 1905 with only $60 in his pocket. He spoke no English, changed jobs several times, and failed in his car dealership venture. But he loved America and had experienced the difficulty of getting around such a big country. When the opportunity arose, he bought the showroom model that no one wanted, turned it into a shuttle service, and founded the Greyhound Bus Company. I LOVE stories about how the underdog overcomes obstacles and succeeds…especially when they are true stories. After writing the story, my agent sent it out on submission and Ann Rider, an editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt fell in love with it and asked if I would be willing to write several more similar stories about other visionaries whose inventions changed the way the world moves. To which I replied: YES!
Wow! I’m glad she had such creative vision and clearly loves your work.
Moving on (pun intended), I think readers of all ages will be interested in your process for first researching and then writing the book. Were there any amazing moments where you discovered something completely new to you?
One of the things I love best about writing nonfiction picture books is that I learn so much! I knew nothing about the back story/inside story of any of these inventions. And discovering the collateral tidbits were amazing. Did you know that Benjamin Franklin was in France at the very moment the first manned hot-air balloon flight took place? Yup…he was negotiating the Treaty of Paris between the United States and England and he wrote in his diary, “We observed it lift off in the most majestic manner.”
And, have you ever wondered who built the first bike…and why? It was all because of a volcanic eruption in 1815 which spewed so much ash into the atmosphere, the climate of 1816 changed and it was called the year without a summer. That’s the summer that Mary Godwin went on holiday in Switzerland with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. A week of unseasonably cold rainy weather kept them indoors and Byron challenged his companions to write the scariest story. And Mary rose to the challenge and penned Frankenstein. In Germany, the oat crops failed and horses died. Since cars, buses, and trains had not been invented yet, the only way to get around was to walk. Karl Drais thought he could to find a way to move more quickly using his own two feet.
I absolutely love stories like that – finding out the why behind commonplace things…and I think kids enjoy that type of discovery as well.
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?
Honestly, Laura, I think a teacher or parent could use this book for an entire semester. With nine individual picture book stories, there is a lot to choose from! Each chapter is brimming with opportunities for activities that integrate math, science, geography, art, and language – extending the learning experience. Here are just a couple:
Extension Challenge #1: Bertha Benz lived in a time when most people thought women were delicate and weak. But when her husband refused to take his gas-powered automobile for a test drive, she did! On the 65-mile road trip with her sons through Germany’s Black Forest, Bertha used her ingenuity…as well as her hat pin and garters to keep the car going. When she returned home, she gave Karl a to-do list of improvements he needed to create for the car. Bertha’s trip garnered lots of publicity – and newspapers spoke of how safe a car must be if even a woman could drive it. Business boomed as people read the reports and bought cars – Bertha’s plan had succeeded.
Ask your children:
Get your notebook and pencil. You’ve been asked to cover a big news story! It’s 1888 and a woman is driving a new-fangled automobile through your town. Write your article for the newspaper.
The first gas-powered auto had only three wheels and a hand-brake. What would the first gas-powered auto have looked like if you had designed it? Draw a picture of it.
Look at a map of Germany. Find the town Bertha lived in. Then find the town her mother lived in. Trace her journey on the map.
Extension Challenge #2: When Eric Wickman arrived in the United States at the age of 17, he had very little money and he spoke no English. Over the next decade, he tried logging, mining, and even opened a car dealership, but he couldn’t even sell one car. Then he started a shuttle service – driving miners from the town to the mine – 15 cents for a one-way ride and 25 cents for a round trip – it was so popular, he needed to buy another car.
Ask your children:
Eric is saving money to buy the new car. He can fit 10 passengers at a time in his old car. If the new car costs $100, how many round-trips (at 25 cents for each passenger) does he have to make in order to save up enough to buy the car?
Eric built his first bus using a truck chassis as the base. What materials would you need for a bus of your own design? Make a list and draw a picture.
Eric immigrated from Sweden, arrived in New York City, traveled to Arizona and then Minnesota to work. Find those places on a globe or world map and trace Eric’s journey.
Extension Challenge #3: Robert Goddard loved science fiction and dreamed of going to Mars. Climbing a cherry tree on his aunt’s farm, young Robert looked up at the sky and decided he was going to build a vehicle that would fly to the moon. He kept diaries and journals to record all of the observations he made and all of the experiments he did.
Ask your children:
If you built your own space vehicle, what planet would you visit and why? Which planets would be your next-door neighbors?
Draw a picture of your space vehicle and the clothes you would wear and what you would take.
You’ve arrived at your destination. Write a letter to your family. Write a letter to your best friend.
Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Laura!
The pleasure is all mine! Congratulations on this new book and I’m sure teachers and parents everywhere will want to add this to their collections.
NOW FOR THE GIVEAWAY!!! Vivian is thrilled to offer a giveaway of either a picture book critique (rhyming or prose/fiction or nonfiction – under 1000 words) OR a FREE copy of From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves. To enter, simply post a comment below letting me know that you’d like to enter. (NOTE: For the book prize, you must be U.S. resident.) The giveaway ends Wednesday, 1/13/2021, at 11:59 pm EST. THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW OVER. Winner named here.
About Vivian: Writer for children—reader forever…that’s Vivian Kirkfield in five words. Her bucket list contains many more words – but she’s already checked off skydiving, parasailing, and visiting kidlit friends all around the world. When she isn’t looking for ways to fall from the sky or sink under the water, she can be found writing picture books in the picturesque town of Bedford, New Hampshire. A retired kindergarten teacher with a masters in Early Childhood Education, Vivian inspires budding writers during classroom visits and shares insights with aspiring authors at conferences and on her blog where she hosts the #50PreciousWords International Writing Contest and the #50PreciousWordsforKids Challenge. Her nonfiction narratives bring history alive for young readers and her picture books have garnered starred reviews and accolades including the Silver Eureka, Social Studies Notable Trade Book, and Junior Library Guild Selection.
To connect with Vivian and learn more about her books:
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.]
A lovely 3rd grade teacher from Australia reached out to me because her students are writing their own stories and she thought it would be special if they could meet an author and ask questions about writing. This is the second time we have done this, but with a new group of students. Before the visit she read LOVE IS KIND to them. Next, because it was hard to get a steady “live” video connection, I sent them a short video introducing myself and welcoming them to ask me questions via email. I received their questions just before they went on holiday and returned them yesterday. Once again, their questions are WONDERFUL and I thought you might enjoy reading a few of them. I’m also including a short excerpt from my video chat with them. What a marvelous use of technology and wonderful way to inspire children near and far to be readers and writers.
First, the video clip:
Next, three of their amazing questions, along with my responses.
How much do you write in a day?
Sometimes I write a whole page. Sometimes I write a few sentences. Sometimes, if I’m at a tricky part and have some story bits that need working through, my writing will take the form of notes or lists. But even when I’m not writing, I’m very often thinking about writing and what is going happen next in a story I’m working on. That’s why I always keep pen and paper handy.
In your book, Love is Kind, why do you have different lengths of text on each page?
This is a very good question. It shows you are reading like a writer! I think it’s a matter of keeping the story varied and interesting. Just as it would be very monotonous to have every single sentence be exactly the same number of words, it’s very boring to have the text on every page look exactly the same. Variety is the spice of life, and that’s true in page layout as well.
What inspires you to write books that include morals?
It’s not that I purposely write stories with morals. It’s more that in a good story the protagonist needs to grow and learn something and be a better Little Owl, for example, by the end than he was at the beginning. This is true of life too, isn’t it? We hope to grow and learn as we journey along life’s way.
When I read the description of Jennifer’s newest book, A LITTLE BLUE BOTTLE, illustrated by Gillian Whiting and published last month by Church Publishing, I knew immediately that I wanted to interview her.
Here’s the publisher’s description:
“In this beautiful book for children, a child tells her story of losing a beloved neighbor and friend. A young girl remembers playing with her neighbor’s cat, stories that her neighbor told her, and the special mementos her friend kept on a shelf above her kitchen sink, including a little blue bottle she kept to remind her of Psalm 56:8: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” A Little Blue Bottle doesn’t provide pat answers or heavy-handed messages about life or death, but allows the grieving child to articulate her loss and her love for the deceased friend, while wondering how God is near when we suffer. A gentle and insightful resource for children who are grieving, and for those who care for them.”
Wow! I sure could have used a book like this when my mother passed away a few years ago and we all, including my then 9 year old daughter and 13 year old son, were grieving. In the special connection department, I have on my window sill the little collection of blue bottles that my mother kept on her window sill. So you see, interviewing Jennifer was meant to be. Thank you Jennifer! And now, the interview with my questions in bottle blue.
First off, congratulations. A LITTLE BLUE BOTTLE released on September 3oth! How has the launch been with the pandemic in full swing?
Thank you! I’m glad it is finally out! Launching a book in 2020, of course, has been very different from any of the other times I’ve released a book. I have a few favorite independent bookstores, including Prairie Path Books in Wheaton, IL, where I normally have book launch parties. The last one, for Maybe I Can Love My Neighbor Too (2019) was so much fun! My oldest and dearest friend came from out of state, my in-laws and mother from nearby, and many others were there to celebrate the book coming into the world. When I was in 7th grade, I had a special teacher who encouraged me in my writing; we’ve stayed in touch and she always comes to book launch parties in the Chicago area, which means the world to me. But this year, no launch parties…
My husband offered to set up something on Zoom, but after attending my daughter’s high school graduation, my son’s college graduation, and birthday parties—including my husband’s grandmother’s 100th birthday celebration—via Zoom, I just didn’t have the heart for it.
As you know, one of the delightful things about writing for kids is reading to them—it’s been strange just having the book slip out into the world and not to experience it with children, in person.
Yes, I know what you mean. Virtual is better than not at all, but there’s nothing as special as in-person connecting through reading.
You write for both adults and children. Tell us a little bit about your writerly journey.
I always wanted to be a writer when I was growing up. In college, I took all the creative writing classes I could and then went on to grad school, studying English and Creative Writing. The kind of winding path of my career has always involved writing. I’ve written annual reports, white papers, newspaper features and columns, blog posts, articles, and books. It’s been over the past 4-5 years when I’ve turned my attention toward children’s literature.
I’m so glad you did! What inspired you to write A LITTLE BLUE BOTTLE?
A friend of mine lives near Newtown, CT, and after the Sandy Hook tragedy, I asked her whether she was finding good picture books about grief or death to read with her young children, some of whom knew kids who were murdered at their school. She said she hadn’t found anything she wanted to share with them during that time. That planted a seed in my mind; I thought it would be an honor to write a story that might offer comfort to grieving kids. The main character of Mrs. Wednesday (the older woman who dies in the book) is based on a few real-life older neighbors I’ve had, both as a child and when I was raising my kids. Certain details, like the cat hiding under the bed, are taken from real experiences with older women I’ve known. Intergenerational friendships can be so rich; I wanted to celebrate them in this book, too.
What is your greatest desire for the readers who read this book? What other resources are available for extending the reading?
I thought for a long time before writing the dedication to A Little Blue Bottle. I think it answers your question, and it reads: “For all who grieve—may your loneliness be eased and your hope reawakened.”
That’s a beautiful dedication for a much-needed book. Just lovely.
Finally, what’s next? Are there more books in the pipeline? Also, where can interested readers find your books?
I’m currently working on two projects, and both of them will be released in Fall 2021.
One is a book for adults, from Broadleaf Books, called Dimming the Day: Evening Meditations for Quiet Wonder. It’s a book of 20 readings about things in nature (things as ordinary as dandelions and as ornate as starling murmurations). Each short chapter tells a story, includes scientific information on the topic at hand, and ends with some poetry or a part of Scripture, and then a prompt for sleep. The idea is to change up the way we end the day—rather than doom-scrolling through the news headlines or social media, feeling a sense of wonder and awe about the natural world to relax before sleep.
The other book I’m working on is a picture book, and, again, I’m collaborating with the amazing artist Gillian Whiting, who illustrated A Little Blue Bottle. It’s a story I wrote early on in the pandemic and tells the story, for young children, about what has happened, how things have changed, and more about this time. Gillian is using a very different style in these illustrations. They’re powerful.
Thank you so much for stopping by today, Jennifer. Best wishes with this and all your upcoming projects.
MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Grant is the author of five books for adults and several for children, including the award-winning picture book Maybe God is Like That Too. A former newspaper columnist and the mother of four young adult children, she lives with her bicycle-obsessed husband and rescue dog Scarlett in the Chicago area. More at jennifergrant.com or find her on Twitter @jennifercgrant.
It’s not every day that an author, or at least THIS author, is blessed with the opportunity to be interviewed by a senior librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library!
This lovely opportunity was set in motion at the HarperCollins booth at the ALA midwinter convention this past January where I had just beforehand had a book signing for the Spanish edition of LOVE IS KIND – EL AMOR ES BONDADOSO. That, too, was a wonderful experience with a line that snaked around the corner. I loved interacting with librarians from all across the country. I think I signed 150+ books that day!
After the signing ended, I was browsing the other booths, when I got a text from my host at HarperCollinsChristian, Selene Covarrubias, that Ana Campos, Senior Librarian from the International Languages Department of the Los Angeles Public Library wanted to video record me and set up an interview for their blog. I hurried back, of course.
The video never ran because it was an invitation visit the library – which closed for in-person visits less than two months after the convention due to the pandemic. But, Selene took a picture of me being recorded, so you can see that.
Then, with the lockdown, everything on the blog was pushed back. Finally last Monday, the interview posted! And even LITTLE EWE (my upcoming book) got a mention. What a lovely situation, all around. Thank you, Ana Campos and the team at the Los Angeles Public Library blog! Now, in case you are interested in reading the interview, here is the link: https://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/interview-author-laura-sassi
ONE FINAL THOUGHT: All this library talk has gotten me thinking. If you haven’t done so already, would you mind checking to see if YOUR library owns LOVE IS KIND and EL AMOR ES BONDADOSO (or any of my books)? If they don’t, would you make a quick call to the children’s department and recommend them? Or, if you prefer, many libraries also have a “Suggest a Purchase” forms on their websites. Let me know if you do — as it would make my day.
Today I have pastor, tv host, blogger, and Christian author Noelle Kirchner as my guest. For several years now I’ve been blessed by Noelle’s thoughtful reflections on Christian faith, motherhood, and life which can be found on her popular blog NoelleKirchner.com. And now, Noelle has published an amazing six-step study which offers just the dose of encouragement and grounding that I’m longing for during this season of uncertainty and worry. I have already ordered several as gifts for friends and family because I think they would make a perfect foundation for starting the fall rooted in the awareness and joy of God’s love for each of us!
Now, you’re in for a treat as I interview Noelle in this behind the scenes peek at how this special study came to be. I know you will be blessed. And in the extra blessing department, Noelle will be mailing one signed copy of the study to one lucky reader, so be sure to check out the details for that at the end of the post.
Now for the interview with my questions in bold.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to write How to Live Your Life Purpose: The Six-Step Journey to God’s Best.
My first book, How to Live Your Life Purpose: The Six-Step Journey to God’s Best, is now available on Kindle and in paperback through Amazon. I wrote it as a six-week individual or group study to help people connect with and live their God-given life purpose. I got the idea for my book years ago, largely because I am working in a way that I never imagined, but that feels right. As a pastor, I believe my position is a calling, but I do not believe that calling is exclusive to it. God needs ministers, people who want to serve him, in every field, and I wanted to write something that enables everyone to experience the thrill of embracing their calling or purpose.
Coincidently—or providentially, this book was scheduled to publish during the COVID–19 pandemic. With so many people out of work or living in flux, it is especially timely. As people reconsider where they live, what they do, what they want for their families, and how they occupy their time, my book can provide needed discernment, inspiration and hope. I learned as a New Yorker during September Eleventh that with tragedy also comes opportunity.
2. Your book is organized into six chapters, each examining what you describe as the “six steps of living our purpose”. How did you discover these steps? Are they universal?
I devised the book’s steps through reflection, preaching, writing, and filming about life purpose over the course of several years. As I crafted the end-of-chapter study materials, I marveled at how several interviews from my TV show involved purpose, even when it wasn’t planned. God helped me craft my book in ways that I didn’t even recognize at the time. It’s a testament to God’s great purpose—he’s active in each of our lives planting seeds along the way!
After writing my book, I compared my steps to others online. I found many alternative lists to be spiritually-lacking or void of the Christian perspective. Instead, I believe life purpose is highly spiritual. It’s one powerful way that we can experience the Creator’s love. Life purpose allows us to discover how God uniquely calls each of us by name—plus, following him can elicit our greatest joy!
3. What was your greatest challenge in writing this book?
Time! Setting aside the time to write a book was a discipline with children, but I found the sacrifice to be life-giving. It’s an honor to share my heart with readers in a book, a forum where I can dig deeper than an article or blog post.
Another challenge when writing this book was finding the right publisher. Two parties expressed interest, but in the end, I decided to use Amazon’s services. That allowed me to push my book in more formats, like the Kindle version, which really helps my media-driven study questions come alive! I think the next era in Bible studies will be more interactive like this one, engaging and entertaining readers while communicating poignant messages.
4. What is your greatest desire for the readers who read this book? What other resources are available for extending the reading?
My greatest desire for readers is that my book helps “fuel their fire” for God. That was the theme of my church’s confirmation class when I was in high school, and it’s an image that continues to stick with me. When we as believers are on fire for Christ, our entire lives not only give God glory, but they witness to the power of his glory at work in us. I want each of our lives to be a testament to all that God can do!
Scripture is the best resource on life purpose. I just wrote a blog post on five important scripture promises on purpose for the children’s book author Glenys Nellist. I am also fond of theologian Parker Palmer’s book on life purpose entitled Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. In fact, I quote one of my favorite passages, which involves a touching moment with his granddaughter, in my book!
5. What’s next? Do you have any more projects in the works?
Yes! My ministry spans media and writing, so I have projects on both fronts. Stay tuned for an upcoming episode of my faith and parenting TV series this fall on helping to navigate back-to-school anxieties, especially with COVID–19. I will be talking with a popular tween author and psychologist duo. I must note that your episode on the show (Episode #4), Laura, remains popular—it’s had almost 6K views!
Really, Noelle? Wow, that’s amazing. I highly recommend all the episodes. So much heart and effort is put into each one. (And now back to Noelle.)
Also, as a new writer for Crosswalk and long-standing writer for iBelieve, I will continue publishing faith articles and devotions online. My recent articles for each respectively are the 7 Biblical Characteristics of Risks Worth Taking and A Prayer for a New Purpose for a New Day, which both tie into my new book. Next, I will be writing a piece for iBelieve entitled “Why Jesus’ Plan for Your Child Is So Much Better.” The best way to read new articles or watch new episodes is by subscribing to my website!
Thank, you, Noelle, for inspiring us!
HERE ARE THE DETAILS FOR THE GIVEAWAY!!! If you’d like a chance to win a complimentary copy of How to Live Your Life Purpose: The Six-Step Journey to God’s Best, simply post a comment below letting me know. (NOTE: Must be U.S. resident and at least 18 years old to enter.) Thank you, Noelle, for providing the winning book. This giveaway ends Thursday, 9/17/20 at 11:59 pm EST. NOTE: THIS GIVEAWAY HAS ENDED. THE WINNER IS ANNOUNCED HERE.
[Note: Thank you to Noelle for a sneak peek at the book 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.]