Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, I’m SUPER excited to welcome one of my mentors and pioneer of nonfiction, Melissa Stewart. Check out her new book Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme, illustrated by Steve Jenkins and published by Beach Lane Books. See her journey below…
What inspired you to write Fourteen Monkeys: A Rain Forest Rhyme? This book was inspired by a single paragraph in The Life of Mammals by David Attenborough. It explained how a half dozen species of guenon monkeys can all live together in the forests of Africa because they have different lifestyles and habits. As I was reading this passage, I immediately thought of the fun poem “10 Little Monkeys” and wondered if I could create a nonfiction version with facts about this group of monkeys.
Please describe the book’s journey to publication. My initial idea didn’t work out, but researching those guenons rekindled the fascination I first felt for monkeys in 2005 when I visited Tortuguero National Park, a rain forest in Coast Rica. I became obsessed with monkeys and talked about them every chance I got.
In 2017, I had the good fortune to meet children’s book illustrator Katy Tanis, who is on a quest to see every monkey species in the world in its natural environment. She suggested that I read High Moon over the Amazon: My Quest to Understand the Monkeys of the Night by Patricia Wright. That book led me to the very special community of monkeys that inhabit Manú National Park in Peru. The more I learned about them, the more convinced I became that they were the perfect fit for the book I wanted to write.
Because I knew curious kids would want to know more about the monkeys than I could possibly incorporate into the poetic main text, I added secondary text full of additional details as well as rich backmatter bursting with even more information.
I was lucky that my editor, Andrea Welch, loves monkeys as much as I do. Her feedback really helped me revise the book to make it more of what I wanted it to be.
When Steve Jenkins agreed to illustrate the book, I was elated. I loved the art he created for our first book together, Can an Aardvark Bark? and was excited to work with him again. His monkeys are amazing (One reviewer said their “fur appears palpably plush”)! I’m especially happy with the little infographic trees he created to show the rain forest layer where each monkey lives, and the backmatter design packed with infographics is fantastic.
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project? Yes, it does vary. For Fourteen Monkeys, I was initially having trouble keeping the fourteen monkey species in the book straight. I kept having to doublecheck their characteristics: Which one was it that eats tree sap? Which species sleeps with their tails twisted together? Which one is nocturnal? To solve this problem, I decided to make monkey flashcards. I printed out photos of each monkey, cut them out, and glued them to index cards. Then I wrote out a quick list of the monkey’s notable characteristics on each card. These mini cheat sheets worked great, but then I realize I could also place them on a large table and move them around to experiment with different ways of organizing the text. Trust me, it’s SO much more fun than cutting and pasting text in a computer file. Because Fourteen Monkeys has four key categories of information—diet, body size, height in the rain forest, and characteristic behaviors, it was easy to bogged down in all the details I was trying to include. Luckily, the index cards helped me stay focused by providing physical representations of the book’s big-picture components. And the act of sorting them helped me with pacing and text structure. I may never end up using this index-card strategy again, but it’s a good tool to have at my disposal.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from your book. Here’s a spread that I just love.
Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, please welcome Brandon Marie Miller, an author who writes extraordinary YA. Check out her new YA biography Robert E. Lee, The Man, The Soldier, The Myth, published by Calkins Creek/Boyds Mill & Kane, and see her journey below…
BUT first- YAY! Brandon is generously giving away a free signed copy of her book (US only). All you have to do is comment on this blog post. Contest ends June 18, 2021.
Please describe the journey to publication for Robert E. Lee, The Man, The Soldier, The Myth. I had written for editor Carolyn Yoder years ago, and through another author, I heard she was interested in a bio of Lee. I spent a few months working up a proposal (book overview, annotated outline, market analysis, competing titles, author bio, proposed bibliography, and sample chapter) and they offered a contract based on the proposal. Then the real work started! A note here: Lee did not follow the project described in my book proposal. The finished book went from MG 40,000 words, 8 chapters to YA 70,000 plus words, 20 chapters. It truly is a journey!
Where did you draw the book’s inspiration? Robert E. Lee is one of the most mythologized men in American history. I hoped this book might help young people question what myths we are taught as history. For instance, some people today believe firmly that Lee did not own slaves, he did not believe in white supremacy, and that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. But all of these things are true. Having Lee in the news as I researched and wrote the book put extra pressure on me. I needed to give my readers context for Lee’s time that helps us understand our own. I needed to use Lee’s own words to help readers discover the real man, and not just the symbol that was too-good-to-be-true. That was my inspiration.
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project? My books are MG or YA history and biography, so I pretty much follow the same process for each. I start with research because you cannot write what you don’t know! I put together a list of books and articles (tip: scour the bibliographies in other books to find great resources) and search for documents, images, and other sources online. I begin with general books and articles on the subject and then narrow my focus onto different aspects of my topic. Most importantly, as well as secondary sources, I use primary sources like period letters, diaries, newspapers, photographs, etc. If possible, I visit places and soak up details. And I talk to experts. But before you travel or talk to someone have enough research under your belt to make it meaningful. When I feel I have a firm grasp on my subject, I start writing.
I break things down into “scenes”. I love incorporating quotes from my primary sources—these add intimacy, immediacy, and sensory details to the story. My favorite part of the process is revision where I take my first drafts and make a mess of things. A large part of this is done not on the computer, but old-fashioned brain, to hand, to paper, with a row of sharpened pencils and a pink eraser. Also, keep careful track of your sources. It’s miserable when you need to find where a quote came from, and you don’t have it written down.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from your book. Set up: Lee has just surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, April 9, 1865 “Lee left the house and mounted Traveller. Union officers in the yard raised their hats as a show of respect as he rode by. Word of his surrender spread like an electric current through the ranks on both sides. When he reached his camp, hundreds of ragged, loyal men broke their lines and engulfed Traveller, reaching out to touch Lee, touch his horse. Tears streamed down Lee’s cheeks and men cried at this, the end, the loss. But there was also a numb sense of relief that the blood and carnage was over. Lee tried to speak but failed, so overcome with emotion.”
How long does it take you to research and craft YA nonfiction? It takes me at least a year once the contract is signed and a few times I’ve had to ask for more time. I also do the photo research for my books which is time consuming finding images and applying for permissions. After I’ve turned in my manuscript there are still months of work ahead with editorial and copy editor notes and questions. And there are also source notes, the bibliography, index, timeline and other back matter to create.
Where do you see your career headed? Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention? Right now I am switching things up working on a couple YA historical novels based on previous research. Will these manuscripts ever find a publishing home? I have no idea, but for a nonfiction writer it is fun and freeing to MAKE STUFF UP!
Please share your favorite books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts. There are so many wonderful writers tackling history and biography for young people. Some of my favorites include MG and YA books by Deborah Heiligman, Candace Fleming, Gail Jarrow, Steve Sheinkin, and PB by Carole Boston Weatherford, Don Tate, and Lesa-Cline Ransome.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers? Find the little gems in your primary sources for insights, details, and the emotion to carry you and your reader through to the end.
And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any animal, what would you be and why? Long ago I had a horse and I’d love to experience the power of running free with your ears flat, the wind tossing your mane, and the rhythmic tattoo of your hooves on the ground!
Brandon Marie Miller writes award-winning history and biography for young people. She writes about famous people and common folk, about great events and everday life. Her newest book, ROBERT E. LEE, THE MAN, THE SOLDIER, THE MYTH earned a starred review from Booklist and was named a National Council for the Social Studies/Children’s Book Council Notable Book, a Bank Street College Best Book of the Year, and an Illinois Reads Title. Her books have also been honored by the International Reading Association, the New York and Chicago Public Libraries, and YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association/American Library Association), among others. A long time ago she earned her degree in American History at Purdue University and lives in Cincinnati OH where she drinks tea and eats dark chocolate.
Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, please welcome an author who writes stellar fiction and manages to make me (and pretty much everyone else, kids and adults alike), laugh out loud. Check out her new book BLOOP, illustrated by Mike Boldt, and published by HarperCollins, and see her journey below…
Please describe the journey to publication for BLOOP. Where did you draw the book’s inspiration? I’m not great at parties. I’m the one in a separate room, petting the family dogs. I think dogs are lucky—they can sleep all day, people feed them, walk them, pet them, even pick up their poop. Dogs have no worries in life. “If an alien visited earth,” I told a friend at a party, “they’d think the dogs were in charge.” “Tara,” she replied, “that should be your next book!”
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project? There’s a lot of thinking involved. My ideas usually come in the form of titles (ha, except this one), so I have to discover the story to fit that title. Who is the main character? What is their problem? And above all—WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? I have to be firm with all those details before I begin to write a single word. Weeks or months will pass between forming an idea and sitting down to write it.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from your book. The emperor summoned Bloop. “Mission accomplished, Bloop. Return to Planet XYZ ASAP. Your kingdom awaits.”
You write hilarious books, and you seem like a naturally funny person. For the writers who struggle with infusing their stories with humor, do you have any bits of advice? Much humor comes from surprise, the unexpected. Misdirection, incongruity. Fitting things together in a unique way is key. Then again, I don’t necessarily think that humor can be taught. Go with your strengths. I can’t write sweet and lyrical. It just comes out sappy, syrupy and laden with purple prose. Therefore, I don’t write sweet and lyrical books. I write humor instead.
Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention? Oh wow, I have a bunch of things under submission, but of course, this year has been slow in publishing. I remain hopeful that I’ll get some of my silliest stories out there. A third book in the 7 ATE 9/PRIVATE I series called TIME FLIES: DOWN TO THE LAST MINUTE will release next year, of course with Ross MacDonald illustrating again.
Please share your favorite books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts. I don’t believe in using mentor texts. Perhaps it’s great as you’re learning how to construct a story, but I don’t want someone else’s voice or ideas to inadvertently seep into my writing.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers? Keep writing new stories to discover your own process and what works best for you. Lots of people will give you advice, but you shouldn’t necessarily take it as gospel. Find who you are as a writer.
And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any animal, what would you be and why? Well, that’s easy! A dog, of course!
Street magic performer. Hog-calling champion. Award-winning ice sculptor. These are all things Tara Lazar has never been.
Instead, she writes quirky, humorous picture books where anything is possible.
My Twitter is @taralazar and my Instagram is @taralaser
Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, please welcome an author who defines perseverance, Debra Shumaker. Check out her new nonfiction book Freaky, Funky Fish, illustrated by Claire Powell, and published by Running Press Kids, and see her cosmic journey below…
BUT first- YAY! Debra is generously giving away a free signed copy of her book (US only). All you have to do is comment on this blog post. Contest ends May 21, 2021.
Please describe the journey to publication for Freaky, Funky Fish. Surprisingly, this book came about quite quickly! I wrote the first draft for FREAKY, FUNKY FISH during Paula Yoo’s NaPiBoWriWee the first week of May, 2018. By July, I had started sending it out to my various critique groups. After revisions, I sent it to my then-agent in September. She asked for some tweaks to the ending and we went out on submission at the end of October. In December, one editor emailed that she was taking it to acquisitions and we had an offer on January 15th! Eight months from conception to book offer floored me—usually it takes me years from idea to submission-ready.
Where did you draw the book’s inspiration? The funny thing is that this book is inspired by one of those older, unsold books that I wrote. Back in 2013, I wrote a humorous fiction picture book called NOT A GOLDFISH. I had several close calls with it but it never sold. In April 2018, I had been focusing much of my time on writing picture book biographies. My agent encouraged me to try something different and after reading a stack of rhyming picture books about bugs, squirrels, water, etc. I decided I wanted to try writing a rhyming nonfiction picture book. As I brainstormed a topic to tackle, I remembered all the fish I discovered while researching for NOT A GOLDFISH. So the old became new!
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from the book. “Fish have fins and gills and tails. All fish swim and most have scales. But. . .” You have to turn the page to discover what comes next—but. . . not all fish look or act alike! Some fish dance, some “sing”, and some coat themselves with snot! Fish have adapted to live in their environments in so many unique and cool ways. I hope kids who read this book realize our natural world is AMAZING!
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project? As varied as my projects are, my writing process is pretty much the same. After an idea strikes, if it needs research, I start gathering information from websites and books—both kid and adult. When I’m ready to start writing, I handwrite my first draft—my thought process is more “freeing” with pen on paper. That first draft is awful—a bunch of incomplete sentences and scribbles that I can barely read. After letting it sit for a few days, I type up the rough draft. From then on, I work on my computer. . .though when I’m digging in deep with my revisions, I do print it out and scribble and scratch all over it. After several rounds of revision, I bring it to my various critique groups—I’m in four. When it’s as far as I can take it, I send it to my agent.
I’ve been following your career for a while now, and I’ve seen how hard you worked to get to where you are. What were some of the elements that helped you secure an agent? Being open—being open to joining writing challenges for motivation, being open to studying craft, being open to feedback on my work, and being open to revising. But probably most importantly, being open to setting a book aside and starting something new. As I shared in my previous blog posts with you, it was my 11th polished PB that landed an agent, but that book never sold. The 5th project that we subbed together finally sold—a year and a half after I signed with that agent. Will any of those first 10 or 15 other PBs become published? While one is, the others likely not. But they were not a waste of time. I learned something about writing from every single one of them. (Patience and perseverance are VERY important elements, too.)
Where do you see your career headed? Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention? I’m thrilled to say I have more picture books coming! TELL SOMEONE—a picture book that encourages kids to talk about things, both the easy stuff and the hard stuff–comes out in October with Albert Whitman. It is illustrated by the amazing Tristan Yuvienco. A companion book to FREAKY, FUNKY FISH is in the works with Running Press Kids—PECULIAR PRIMATES will be hitting bookshelves Fall 2022. Thankfully Claire Powell signed on to illustrate it. I’ve recently seen the cover and it is adorable! A fourth, unannounced picture book is slated for Fall of 2024—a lyrical, nature one. I am so excited and grateful to be in the place I am in my career. I’m savoring every moment.
Please share your favorite books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts. Pick one classic and one contemporary book. What is it about them that moved you? For the classics, when my boys were young, we checked out a series of seasonal, alphabet acrostic picture books by Steven Schnur, illustrated by Leslie Evans. They were gorgeous. The simple and lyrical acrostic poems with linoleum-cut illustrations made me FEEL each season. Those books inspired me to become a picture book writer. For contemporary, Miranda Paul’s WATER IS WATER. I love how that book’s gorgeous text explains the water cycle in such a unique and fun way. And it rhymes! Perfection.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers? Find a critique group in your genre. By having other writers read your stories and provide feedback, your stories will improve. You don’t have to make every change suggested, but be open to making revisions. And by critiquing other writers, you’re writing will also improve. I would not be a published author without my critique groups.
And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any animal, which one would you be and why?? I have to go with the barreleye fish. Not that I want to BE one, but it is probably my favorite fish from my book. A see-through head?! How cool is that? How can you not want to know more about that fish! I realize it’s probably terrible of me to have a favorite from my book, but when I stumbled on the video of the barreleye fish, I KNEW I had to have it in my book. Thankfully I found a rhyming word for head that worked!
My bio: Debra Kempf Shumaker loves weird and fascinating facts. When she isn’t reading or writing, Debra enjoys cooking, gardening, and watching Jeopardy. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband, three sons, and two cats who miss the days the youngest son owned an aquarium full of fish. FREAKY, FUNKY FISH is her debut picture book. She is also the author of the upcoming TELL SOMEONE (October 1, 2021), and PECULIAR PRIMATES (Fall 2022).
Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, please welcome an award winning author who’s not only talented, but one of the kindest people I have ever met, and my own dream agent, Miranda Paul. Check out her new lyrical nonfiction book Beyond: Discoveries from the Outer Reaches of Space, illustrated by Sija Hong, and published by Millbrook Press/Lerner Publishing, and see her cosmic journey below…
BUT first- YAY! Miranda is generously giving away a free copy of her book (US continental only). All you have to do is comment on this blog post. Contest ends May 4, 2021.
Please describe the journey to publication for Beyond: Discoveries from the Outer Reaches of Space. Sometimes I work on books for so long, the journey becomes a blur. I think it was in 2014 or 2015 when a scientist friend and I dreamed up a book for kids that captured the wonder of places in outer space—including exoplanets—that most kids’ books at the time didn’t yet cover. (Most books seemed to cover the solar system only.) We were originally going to co-author a book, but his plans changed course, and so I continued tinkering with the idea that turned into a book of interstellar space poetry. Beyond sold in 2019 and published in 2021. So many breakthroughs in astronomy came out from the day I “finished it” until it published, which was a wild ride for my editor and me in deciding when last-minute editing and additions would have to stop.
Where did you draw the book’s inspiration? When I was in fourth grade, we were learning about the solar system. Every model we made had Pluto as the outermost planet. But a teeny-tiny footnote in our textbook (that no one read except me) read that from February 1979 to 1999, Neptune was actually further away from the Sun because of elliptical orbits. At that time, our models were WRONG! It got me wondering what other little details about space weren’t being taught or talked about? And as a grown up, I’m flabbergasted at just how many stars—and planets orbiting those stars—there are in our cosmos. We’ve learned so much, and kids’ books didn’t seem to be catching up fast enough.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from the book. I’ll share with you one of the most important aspects of the book—something I already knew, but the Cosmologist and Astronomers at LaunchPad Astronomy reinforced again and again—that if there are just a few things to understand about outer space, it’s the sheer size of it and the fact that so much of it is comprised of dark matter, which we know little about. We often focus on all the things (planets, stars, gases) that we can see or detect, but it’s important for kids to realize how much of space is a giant, dark, unknown. So here’s a part of the poem that’s also printed on the back of the jacketflap.
THE FARTHER YOU GO, THE CLOSER SOMETHING BECOMES:
THE VAST DISTANCES AND POWERFUL EMPTINESS ARE SO COMMON OUT HERE, EVERY OTHER ACTUAL THING BECOMES RARE.
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project? My writing process often looks like thinking, dreaming, or doodling for months or years before I get a solid draft down. It really depends on the project, though. I want to let writers know not to beat themselves up if their process is messy or varied from book to book. Especially women who are writing “in the cracks of life,” as my friend Susan Manzke once told me. The real world doesn’t always embrace a steady, routine process—and if it did maybe we’d all be churning out the same book one after the other. Who wants that?
An open-ended question- what are some of the characteristics of commercial nonfiction? I think of commercial nonfiction as having a hook that pulls in a wide range of readers. I don’t think of myself as a lover of history or social studies, but I’ll grab a book with a great premise or exceptional writing. Reaching audiences who wouldn’t normally gravitate toward a book about XYZ, or making something academic or curricular seem relevant and entertaining to kids today are some of the best “ways in” to turning true stories into compelling ones that do well in trade markets.
How do you balance writing and agenting? To be honest, a lot of writers have full time jobs and already play a balancing game. That’s how I began as a writer—I was a teacher and a writer. So now that I’m not teaching in the classroom everyday, I play a similar balancing game between writing and agenting. But I use a lot of the same skill sets for both, so there is definitely overlap. I suppose it’s not all that different from writers or illustrate who also freelance or work other jobs. Not to mention a lot of writers I know are also parents and we’re used to wearing multiple hats.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers? “Beware of being only a writer.” Sometimes, I hear from people who want publication so badly, it’s as if they’ve forgotten that it’s the living and acting upon what we care about that informs our emotions and our knowledge. Getting consumed by the business of publishing might cause a person to overlook all the other beautiful aspects of who you are and the roles you play that inform your writing.
And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any animal, which one would you be and why?? A dolphin! I love these animals. They’re both playful and intelligent. A second runner up would be any of my spoiled cats. They’re living the good life!
BIO MIRANDA PAUL is the award-winning author of several science and nature themed books for children, including One Plastic Bag, Water Is Water, and I Am Farmer. While finishing Beyond, she was able to visit the Wyoming Infrared Observatory during nighttime data collection. Miranda lives in Wisconsin with her family. And yes, it’s true—Miranda is also the name of one of the moons of Uranus. Learn more about her books and resources for teachers at www.mirandapaul.com.
Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, please welcome yet another talented nonfiction writer: Kim Zachman. Here she is, discussing her book There’s No Ham in Hamburger, a middle grade nonfiction book illustrated by Peter Donnelly and published by Running Press Kids. I was interested to hear what she said about crafting compelling nonfiction proposals, so read below for more information.
BUT first- YAY! Kim is generously giving away a free copy of her book (US only). All you have to do is comment on this blog post. Contest ends April 30, 2021.
Please describe the journey to publication for There’s No Ham in Hamburger. After twelve years of writing for magazines and newspapers, I finally gave in to my secret desire to be a children’s author. In 2010, I joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and started learning everything I could about kids’ lit. The idea for this book came when I wondered why there wasn’t any ham in hamburgers. What I thought would be a quick internet search, turned into a year-long binge on food history and a proposal for a middle grade nonfiction book. I started querying agents and collected a sizable batch of rejections until John Rudolph of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret offered me representation. He gave me suggestions to revise the proposal, which I did, and then he sent it out on submission. A few months later, we got an offer from Running Press Kids. From concept to publication was a total of eight years.
Where did you draw the book’s inspiration? As I researched the origin stories of our favorite foods, it became clear that there was much more to tell than just who invented what and when. Societal changes had a big influence, specifically immigration, but science, technology, and religion also impacted our favorite foods. For example, the hydrogenation of peanut butter made an occasional treat into a pantry staple.
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project? I used to work for Scholastic Book Fairs and didn’t get much writing done during the busy months when the schools were in session. So, I crammed most of my writing work into the summer break. Since the Pandemic has put me on permanent break, I try to be at my computer each afternoon for three to four hours. More than that, if I’m on a deadline. I don’t know how to quantify my research time because I’m almost always reading something that pertains to my current project or possible future project.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from your book. “We can’t talk about the history of ice cream without talking about the history of ice. About four thousand years ago, people discovered that ice helped keep foods from spoiling. However, getting ice was a problem. People knew how to build a fire and boil water, but only Mother Nature could freeze it.”
Can you give us some strategies on how to write a compelling MG nonfiction proposal? I think the most important thing is that the proposal starts with a hook that is written with the same voice and style that you plan on using for the book. The second most important thing is to show the publisher why your book will be successful for them. Who is the target audience? How will it stand out? A strong market analysis with comparative titles is a must.
Where do you see your career headed? Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention? I plan on continuing with more nonfiction titles that are based on the social sciences. I’m researching a couple of topics right now, but I hesitate to mention them until after my agent has approved. I would also like to publish MG fiction. I have two first drafts completed, but they are NOT ready for anyone to read.
Please share your favorite books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts. When I read How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg and Poop Happened: A History of the World From the Bottom Up by Sarah Albee, I knew that I wanted a similar format and humorous tone for my book. They were both so much fun to read and packed with great information.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers? There’s no RIGHT way to write. There are, however, lots of wrong ways. Learn to avoid the wrong ways.”
And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any animal, what would you be and why? A river otter. I love how playful and curious they are. But, I don’t like cold water, so maybe that’s not the best choice. I can be reptilian about my need for heat.
BIO Kim Zachman is an author and freelance writer with more than a decade of experience contributing to regional and national publications. There’s No Ham in Hamburgers: Facts and Folklore About Our Favorite Foods is her debut children’s book.
Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, please welcome yet another talented nonfiction writer: Cynthia Levinson. Here she is, discussing her book The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art, illustrated by Evan Turk and published by Abrams. The title alone captures the hook of the story, and I encourage you all to read it.
BUT first- YAY! Cynthia is generously giving away a free critique of of the first 1000 words of a nonfiction picture book. All you have to do is comment on this blog post. Contest ends April 16, 2021.
Please describe the journey to publication for The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art. As with all of my books, the journey was long and circuitous. I am deeply grateful to my critique partners in both Austin and Boston as well as to veteran picture book author Chris Barton for helping me focus the story and hone the arc. From the beginning, which was way back in 2016, the manuscript (I’m too superstitious to call anything I’m working on a “book” until a publisher buys it) concentrated on Shahn as a story-teller. This approach allowed me to show how he bucked artistic conventions of the time by displaying real life instead of the pastoral scenes his teachers advocated. However, the early drafts read too much like a magazine article rather than a picture book. They were about Shahn’s life but not through his eyes. The book is layered—merging art and politics—and it took me a while to work out how to do that without having text that was dense.
Where did you draw the book’s inspiration? Since all of my books so far deal with social justice in some way, you would think that I would have figured out more quickly that fairness and justice, which compelled Shahn’s life work, would form the backbone of my approach! Once I realized his concerns for immigrants, working people, civil rights, voting rights, basic human rights, anti-war activism, and other causes needed to be the core, I, too, felt inspired. In addition, I’ve known about Shahn for many years because of his installations in synagogues, his Passover Haggadah, incorporation of Hebrew lettering, and other Jewish-related themes. He stood for tikkun olam, Hebrew for “repair the world.”
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project? I wish my process had evolved over time! But, regardless of the project, I always do too much research. Then, I write multiple versions from different perspectives, throw them at my very patient and perceptive critique groups, slow-walk them past my agent, and, finally, after literally years and multiple drafts, hope to land with an editor who will really show me how to write the book.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from your book. The final spread includes the line, “Ben drew until the end of his life, handing down his stories of justice from generation to generation.” But, what’s really compelling his Evan Turk’s art.
Many say the market for PB bios is saturated at the moment, do you have any tips on how to create fresh bios that capture the editor’s attention? First, write the stories to which you feel and can show a personal connection. Secondly, consider writing historical fiction.
Where do you see your career headed? Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention? I have no idea where my career is headed! Two books are under contract. One, which I think of as a biography of a place in free verse, is about the Highlander Folk School. The other is—surprise!—a historical fiction picture book about a Supreme Court case. Other WIPs remain manuscripts not books!
Please share your favorite books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts. For picture books, I strive but have so far failed to write with the economy and poetry of Patricia MacLachlan, Barb Rosenstock, Deborah Freedman, Barb Kerley, and Candace Fleming. Candy’s middle grade books, along with those of Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Steve Sheinkin, Deborah Heiligman, and Ann Bausum, whose research and story-telling skills are exemplary, guide me.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers? Listen to your book. Let it tell you what it needs to be.
And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any animal, what would you be and why? An elephant because they’re so empathetic.
BIO Cynthia Levinson writes (mostly) nonfiction for (mostly) young readers, focusing on social justice. Her books have won a number of awards including the Jane Addams Book Award, SCBWI Golden Kite and NCTE Orbis Pictus Honors, NAACP Image Award Finalist, Junior Library Guild and Parents’ Choice selections, and the ILA Social Justice Award. She and her husband live in both Austin and Boston.
Instead of my usual Q & A with authors regarding their new books, here’s a fun post about the Fall Writing Frenzy contest I co-host with Kaitlyn Sanchez. Author Jolene Gutiérrez won with her entry, and she won a special prize: a collaboration with musical artist/writer Annie Birdd. Here’s their conversation, and don’t forget to check out the wonderful song they created together!
Jolene: I “met” Annie Lynn in KidLitLand a few years ago. If you’ve been a member of the KidLit community for any time at all, you know that it’s a wonderfully supportive and generous group. Annie is an important part of this community. She’s always cheering others on, sharing resources, and creating and sharing songs about books. When I heard the song that Annie, Megan Lacera, and Jorge Lacera created for the Laceras’ book Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies, I set a goal of working with Annie one day. And then my dreams came true when I was chosen as one of the Fall Writing Frenzy winners and learned that I’d won the opportunity to work with Annie!
Annie: Jolene, I was so happy we won each other in the Fall Writing Frenzy. Kaitlyn Sanchez and Lydia Lukidis matched us beautifully. We share some similar backgrounds in Elementary Education, but your work has been focused on students with learning differences and the majority of my students have been neurotypical. I’ve also worked with children with sensory issues for a few decades. I had toyed with the idea of writing an SEL song years ago, so the opportunity to do this now, with guidance and input from someone with current hands-on experience made this an attractive challenge.
Jolene: Annie, you are an amazingly talented musician and creator, and I’m so honored to work with you! I know you’ve been teaching yourself the banjolele because you felt this song called for that specific instrument. How often do you push yourself to learn new instruments, music genres, or technologies?
Annie: Thanks for those kind, enthusiastic words, Jolene, and the honor is mine as well. I feel like I won the lottery, with your education and writing credentials!
About the banjolele…..I actually bought it with my part of the Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies commission. The reason I wanted to use it was because it was a new sound. I wanted to start including it in writing and recording. Because it’s portable, it’s a great choice for when I perform. I’ve been teaching myself ukulele the last four years, and when I found out the banjolele had the same string formation as the uke, I was attracted by the fact that I could immediately play it fairly well, right out of the case. I enjoy learning new instruments, and the ones I take to right away (harmonica, pan flutes, ocarinas) seem to have ties to piano, my first instrument, and I can play them almost immediately by ear.
New technology for me is learning how our mixing program Pro Tools works, learning about loops, and learning what NOT to ask the Recording Engineers to attempt to do, lol. My husband, Walt Wilczewski, does most of the physical recording as well as mixing, and can also be found playing tasty leads on specialty guitars. Our Lead Engineer, Chris Arms is responsible for the final mix, production, and any killer guitar sounds.
I especially enjoy when our Engineers let the kids try mixing their own voices on the computer. Their looks of wonder and magic are heart swelling. Nothing like an impromptu STEAM lesson! While we’re discussing STEM and STEAM, how did you end up writing a STEM book, and then an SEL book? Did you feel confident taking on STEM writing for children’s books?
Jolene: That’s a great question, Annie! My SEL book, Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader (illustrated by the amazingly talented Heather Bell), came naturally because of my teaching background and because of neurodiversity within my own family, so writing about personal space and friendship felt like I was drawing on my own expertise, kind of like your comfort with instruments with ties to the piano. My STEM book, Bionic Beasts: Saving Animal Lives with Artificial Flippers, Legs, and Beaks, took more work. I can’t say I felt confident when I started, but I was writing about something I’m passionate about: helping animals. I used my librarian researching skills and immersed myself in the science and engineering–all of that was a big learning curve for me, but it was so inspiring to learn how people are using science to help animals. And since you mentioned science, can we talk about the science of music? Our classroom and parenting experience has shown us firsthand how music helps kids remember things. Can you speak about this?
Annie: You’ve touched on one of my favorite topics, Jolene…(Annie inhaling deeply and smiling). There are now many positively documented studies showing the clear links between Music, Singing and Literacy. Obvious connections are singing and memorization of content, and development of auditory processes, which includes elements of literacy, including phoneme awareness, discrimination between siimilar auditory elements, speech signals, auditory memory and more. Here’s a little graphic I made from one of my favorite articles on the subject of Music, Art and Literacy, by LiteracyMN.org.
Music has been shown to increase social skills, so I liked the idea of coming up with a song that could teach all students who were beginning to learn social skills, not just kids on the Autism spectrum. I didn’t want it to sound naggy, and I was so happy to realize that you and I were both fans of positive reinforcement and listing action points as “To Do” more often than “Not To Do.”
So, I started the song off with positive words and chorus… and that was where I stopped. I ALWAYS get stuck after the first chorus. This was where MY dreams came true. Jolene… a real lyricist jumped in, continued in the same vein, but improved it, added a blueprint for what to do when someone invades your personal space, and did it all with humor and grace, two words that describe you, Jolene. The first time I read your soon to be famous, now whispered line in Verse 3, I spit ginger ale. I wasn’t expecting this song to be THIS much fun.
One fun experience I had with this song was envisioning dance moves for it; your descriptions inspired me. I’m looking forward to us making a music video of these moves so students can use this song for Phys. Ed. as well as music and SEL lessons. When you were writing the lyrics, where did you get the exact suggestions for dealing with personal space, and the descriptions?
Jolene: So fun! I think this song can be used in so many ways, and I love the thought that PE teachers could use in their classes, too.
In writing Mac and Cheese, much of the literature around teaching personal space skills to students mentioned keeping about 18” between people. Some teachers and occupational therapists help kids envision this space by wearing a hula hoop (like Oliver tests out in my book) or by spreading their arms out. So I knew I wanted to mention a space bubble in the lyrics and teach kids how to create their own personal space bubble. I also knew I wanted the lyrics to show kids that they have the power to control how they interact with others, including speaking up if they feel their personal space is being invaded.
I think many of us have had experiences with people who invade our personal space. Some of these people may not even know they’re doing so–like the aunt who kisses your cheek, the friend who comes in for a hug, or the person who stands close to you when talking. And some people do it intentionally. I wanted to address all of these awkward situations in order to help kids learn to both respect others’ personal space and empower them to speak up and defend their own boundaries.
But these lyrics came from various meetings we had and lots of research. You created an amazing framework for the song, Annie, and then we discussed other important topics we wanted to include. Do you remember one of the first facts we uncovered when we were looking for how to approach writing songs that would consider the needs of both neurotypical and non-NT students? Also, how did you settle on a call-and-repeat-song?
Annie: One thing I think surprised us was learning about kids on the spectrum… almost thirty three percent of non-verbal children enjoy singing. Language is accessed by the left part of the brain, but music is accessed by the right brain, so this may explain the increased participation.
Call and Repeat (a.k.a. Echo Song) is one of my favorite kinds of songs to write, because the students can participate immediately, by repeating back what the leader sings. It’s a useful teaching tool in that students have an opportunity to listen and imitate, and gain confidence in their singing. Singing promotes language acquisition, listening skills, memory and motor skills.
The video you’re about to watch at the end of this post is a typical Lyrics Video that I use to teach a new song to students. They learn at home, and come in ready to sing.
Jolene: Oh, I can’t wait for the unveiling of the video!! And it sounds like music should be utilized in every home and classroom! One thing I noticed about our Space Creator song is that while it touches on personal space, boundaries, and consent just like my book Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader does, Space Creator is general enough that it could be used with any book that ties in to personal space and body autonomy. Is there a way that publishers or authors could get permission to use Space Creator?
Annie: We wrote this song as generally as possible, addressing several body autonomy preferences in order to accurately accommodate the largest amount of users. We know there have been a number of personal space SEL books published recently–click here for the list of the titles we’re currently aware of. Reach out to Annie or Jolene through social media or their websites if you have a book you’d like included on the list (contact info is at the bottom of this post). If you have interest in using this song, please contact Annie Lynn at email@example.com . This song is also available for school licensing.
Jolene: Wow, music sounds like the ultimate way for publishers and authors to advertise their books and help students have fun and learn new content!
Annie: I love that Kidlit songs have so many applications: for Teacher Guides, Book Trailers, School Visits, radio broadcast, podcast…and the best reason of all….to remember the book and its song, for many years to come. I love leaving songs behind for students to continue using, enjoying and learning.
A quick thank you to Lydia Lukidis for having us on her blog today and sharing the release of “Space Creator” as well as teaming up with Kaitlyn Sanchez to unite a Kidlit Author with a Children’s Songwriter. We appreciate the time you took to make this match. Also we’d like to thank Tara Lazar, for creating and leading the magical Kidlit event, Storystorm. It was both helpful and exciting to read her blog as well as other guest posts, as we worked on this song, throughout January. We’re grateful and feel very supported and encouraged from both the Kidlit and Educational communities.
And now, the SEL song you didn’t know you needed (but now you do!)
**Before enjoying your first “song tasting,” please grab your 🎧 headphones so you can experience both treble and bass.**
Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, please welcome a talented NF writer who’s a mentor to me, and who also just became an agent at Storm Literary, Lisa Amstutz. After writing over 150 books, she still had time to release another: Mammal Mania, middle grade nonfiction, published by Chicago Review Press. Check out her book journey below.
BUT first- YAY! Lisa is generously giving away a free critique of a PB or up to 10 pages of a longer ms (double-spaced). All you have to do is comment on this blog post. Contest ends April 6, 2021.
Please describe the journey to publication for Mammal Mania. I had previously written a book for Chicago Review Press’s Young Naturalists series called Amazing Amphibians. CRP was wonderful to work with, so my agent and I pitched some more ideas and this was the one my editor chose. My background is in ecology, so both of these books were right up my alley and fun to research and write.
Where did you draw the book’s inspiration? Connecting kids with nature has always been one of my passions. Like the others in this series, this book is aimed at helping kids discover nature through engaging text, photos, and hands-on activities.
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project? It definitely varies by the project. The two books I wrote for this series were very research-heavy, so I would take one topic at a time, research it, and then figure out a good way to share that information in a kid-friendly way. Some of my others, like Applesauce Day and Finding a Dove for Gramps, were more like writing poetry – a spark of inspiration that flowed out onto the page—followed, of course, by lots of revisions.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from your book. “Imagine that you took a beaver and a duck and mixed them together—you might come out with something like a platypus. In fact, when European scientists first saw a platypus specimen, they thought it had to be a fake! But they were eventually convinced that this odd-looking mammal was real.”
You’re skilled at writing nonfiction, what are some effective strategies to engage young readers while disseminating information? Writing nonfiction is really no different from writing fiction, except that you can’t make stuff up. The same rules of good writing apply – use strong nouns, active verbs, metaphors/similes, wordplay, a compelling story arc (if writing narrative NF) – in other words, general good writing techniques.
Please share your favorite books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts. Because this was part of a series, I used previous books in the series as mentor texts. Others that have inspired me in terms of engaging middle grade nonfiction include Some Writer by Melissa Sweet, All Thirteen by Christina Soontornvat, Something Rotten by Heather Montgomery, Astronaut-Aquanaut by Jen Swanson, and many more.
You recently became an agent at Storm Literary, how do you balance writing and agenting? Well, my pace has slowed a bit, but I’ve always had to fit my own writing in around freelance client work (writing, editing, etc.), so this doesn’t feel much different. Like anyone else with a day job or other full-time responsibilities, I write in my spare time – evenings, weekends, etc.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers? When an opportunity presents itself, don’t let fear and ‘what if’s’ stop you. Say yes—then go figure out how to do it. My writing mentor gave me this piece of advice early on, and it has served me well, even though it often stretches me out of my comfort zone.
And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any animal, what would you be and why? Hmm. Maybe a cat—judging by my own three, it’s a pretty luxurious life!
BIO Lisa Amstutz is the author of ~150 science and history books for kids. She spent eight years as a freelance editor, working with individual authors as well as corporate publishers. She also served as Assistant Regional Advisor for SCBWI: Ohio North and as a volunteer judge for Rate Your Story. Lisa recently joined Storm Literary Agency as an Associate Literary Agent. Lisa’s background includes a B.A. in Biology and an M.S. in Environmental Science/Ecology. A former outdoor educator, she specializes in topics related to science, nature, and agriculture. She lives on a small farm with her family.
Welcome to my book blog, Blissfully Bookish. For this Q & A, please welcome an author who needs no introduction, and who landed a Caldecott Honor in 2015 among many other awards: Barb Rosenstock. Read below to see her journey creating Mornings with Monet, a nonfiction picture book, illustrated by Mary Grandpré and published by Knopf / Penguin Random House. It’s fascinating how she sifted through various facts during her research phase, and focused on what she felt a personal connection to, and what had kid-appeal.
BUT first- YAY! Barb is generously giving away a free copy of Mornings with Monet (U.S. shipping only). All you have to do is comment on this blog post. Contest ends March 29, 2021.
Please describe the journey to publication for Mornings with Monet. I grew up in Chicago and have loved the Monet and his artist friends since first seeing their work in the Impressionist Wing at The Art Institute as a child. It’s easy art to love, colorful and for the most part gentle subject matter. Mary Grandpré and I have done 3 art books together: The Noisy Paint Box, Vincent Can’t Sleep and Through the Window. I kind of wanted to round it to an even number of four books. I first started looking into female Impressionist, Mary Cassatt. After a bit of research, I just wasn’t drawn to the subject. I decided to try to tackle the most famous Impressionist, the first Impressionist, Claude Monet. I thought I’d be writing about Monet and his garden, or Monet and the first Impressionist exhibition, or his Haystack series paintings, which were all big topics. But books do what they need to do, and this one needed to be a very small story.
Where did you draw the book’s inspiration? I would typically attempt to start a book in a subject’s childhood, but Monet’s young years were not all that compelling. Also, as I began researching, there was a lot about Monet the man that I found unappealing. In spite of his many character flaws, his glorious art kept calling me. I decided to look into specifically how he created his art, his process. I wasn’t originally aware that at times Monet actually painted from a boat. I liked that boat more than anything else in his whole life, and so I thought I’d set myself the challenge of building an entire picture book biography that takes place in about a roughly 4-hour painting session on the boat. It worked, thanks to Mary Grandpré’s stunning art!
What is your writing process, and does it vary depending on the project? I’m never sure enough of myself as a writer that I’m at all clear on what my “writing process” is anyhow. I sit down and write, sometimes it goes well, sometimes it does not, that is the process. Every book takes the time and energy it needs and each time I sit down to do a book, I’m not sure how (or if) it’s going to work out. Basically, I just keep asking questions, first of the research and later of my own words. Questions like: So what? What does that mean? Is that what you’re trying to say really? Is that logical? What does it feel like? Will kids find this interesting? For me the process is answering my own questions. After a decade at it, it’s just a process of trusting that my curiosity will eventually shape itself onto the page.
Please paste a short and compelling excerpt from your book. Wow, maybe you should tell ME which parts are compelling. But here goes, at least this is my favorite part, drawn from my own life (as well as Monet’s): “Anyone who creates understands—that art is not magic. It is work…and work…and work, and then…it is magic.”
What draws you to the world of nonfiction? I have always liked true stories ever since my maternal grandfather told me “true” (or mostly true J) family stories. I liked historical fiction and history-based nonfiction the most as a child and read a ton of it at my public and school libraries. I still like true or “based on truth” movies better than anything fictional. I think the idea that a story is real makes is MUCH more compelling than anything made up.
Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention? I have a book on citizen science and monarch butterflies coming out next year with illustrator Erika Meza from Knopf. And I’m excited to be working with Katherine Roy again on a book about the Sargasso Sea from Norton. It was great to take a step away from history for a bit, but I’ll get back to it I’m sure. There’s a few more titles in the works, but no use talking about them so early, you know how long picture books take!
Please share your favorite books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts. The picture books that started me writing are still mentors: The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins by Barbara Kerley, Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, and my all-time favorite, Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann. Favorite picture book authors include: Jen Bryant, Carole Weatherford, and Candace Fleming. I have been obsessed with every single thing Cynthia Rylant ever put down on paper for almost 30 years. I have favorite illustrators too other than the ones I’ve worked with: Elisha Cooper, Kadir Nelson, Emily Sutton, Floyd Cooper, Eliza Wheeler, The Fan Brothers, Jason Chin, Brendan Wenzel, Frank Morrison, Hadley Hooper, and the late Mordicai Gerstein.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers? Get the actions right and the feelings right, and the rest will follow.
And a bonus question just for kicks! If you could be any animal, what would you be and why? A dog, because…DOGS! They are curious, loyal, loving, understanding, people feed them and they can take naps virtually any time they want.
BIO Barb Rosenstock likes true stories best. She is the author of eighteen nonfiction and historical fiction picture books that combine deep research with playful language. Her book, The Noisy Paint Box, illustrated by Mary Grandpré, received a Caldecott Honor in 2015. Other awards include the SCBWI Golden Kite, an Orbis Pictus Honor, a Sydney Taylor Honor, and the South Asia Book Award, as well as numerous national and state recognitions. Barb loves sharing stories and inspiring students in schools and libraries across the country. She lives with her family north of Chicago.