Shining a light on kids who love music, Andrea J. Loney talks 'Double Bass Blues'

Double Bass Blues by Andrea Loney, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez

Double Bass Blues by Andrea Loney, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez

Andrea J. Loney has a heart for kids who feel different. From Bunny Bear (Illustrated by Carmen Saldana, Albert Whitman & Company), the story of a bear who acts like a bunny, to her latest, Double Bass Blues, (illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez, Knopf Books for Young Readers), a book inspired by music-loving students who told her that no one would be interested in a story about them.

She describes herself as “a small, bespectacled chick of African-American, Jamaican and Panamanian descent escaped from her tiny suburban Jersey town to study writing in New York City.” She graduated from New York University, earned an MFA and joined a traveling circus, traveling with clowns, elephants and carnies. She’s written for Hollywood (Chicken Soup for the Soul), 1999-2000), worked as a teacher, written novels, performed comedy and is now an author of middle grade and picture books. And now, get ready, because she’s topping off the excitement by talking about Double Bass Blues on THE KIDS ARE ALL WRITE.

Andrea J. Loney

Andrea J. Loney


What inspired you to write Double Bass Blues?

I grew up in a family full of musicians. My grandfather studied at Juilliard and during World War 2 he traveled as a piano soloist in Europe with a London orchestra. My mom plays piano too. I played the marching xylophone, the glockenspiel, and the marimba. Many afternoons in my high school days were spent lugging a heavy bell set home after class. And my sister’s kids (who are all named in the dedication) play various musical instruments as well.

But the idea for Nic specifically came from my life as a computer teacher. I was running an after school program for Black and Hispanic boys in LA, and some of my students were frequently late or absent. But when they got to class, we all had a great time and they did amazing work. When I finally asked them what was up, they revealed all the obstacles they’d encountered to make it to my classroom — walking long distances, missing bus connections, bullies, girls teasing them, people making them feel bad for enjoying a computer class, and more.

One day in class, after I asked one teen what kind of stories he’d like to see written about a kid like him, he just cocked his head and replied, “Nobody wants to see who we really are, Ms. Andrea. Nobody cares about us.” Ouch. His words broke my heart into a zillion pieces that day, but they also gave me the drive to write Double Bass Blues.

Double Bass Blues by Andrea J. Loney, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez (Knopf Books for Young Readers)

Double Bass Blues by Andrea J. Loney, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez (Knopf Books for Young Readers)

Tell us about your book journey. How much did the book change from the time you got your idea to when you finished the manuscript? Did it find a home right away?

At first the story for this book was two different stories — the story of a kid listening to the sounds of the world around him and creating a new song from that, and the story of a kid playing an instrument one way in the school orchestra and another way with his jazz-playing grandpa. Eventually I realized that they were the same story. Then one night, I sat down at my kitchen table with a legal pad and wrote the whole thing out. There were maybe nine word changes from the submitted manuscript to the published book.

This book found a home fairly quickly, but not right away. My fantastic agent at the time, Jill Corcoran, was a fierce champion of the story, so she kept submitting it until she found someone who could see the vision. That person was the ever-awesome Erin Clarke of Random House Knopf.

What was your inspiration for the child at the heart of the story?

There were two inspirations for Nic. One was a cheerfully tenacious young student at the after school computer class I’d taught. The other inspiration was my oldest niece, who liked to switch from classical to jazz style when she was learning how to play the cello.

Bunny Bear by Andrea J. Loney, illustrated by Carmen Saldana (Albert Whitman & Company)

Bunny Bear by Andrea J. Loney, illustrated by Carmen Saldana (Albert Whitman & Company)

Was there anything about the illustrations by Rudy Gutierrez that surprised or particularly delighted you? Do you have a favorite spread in the book?

Rudy Gutierrez’s illustrations just blow me away! I love how he captures the world inside and outside of Nic with color and movement. Even when the book is just sitting there on the table, the whole story seems to pour from the pages in waves of constant motion.

The thing that surprised me the most is that Nic looks like a younger version of the cheerful and tenacious student I’d taught in that after school program! I never described the kid’s hair or his complexion or his sweet countenance, but Rudy somehow managed to capture it all.

What do you hope that kids will take away from Double Bass Blues?

After experiencing Double Bass Blues, I hope that kids will tune into the sounds all around them and notice that there is music everywhere. I hope that it might encourage them to be kind to strangers, because we never know what kind of burden another person is carrying and why. And I hope it might inspire them to take up a musical instrument — I’m a huge fan of music and arts in the schools.

Take a Picture of Me James Van Der Zee! by Andrea J. Loney. Illustrated by Keith Mallett (Lee & Low Books)

Take a Picture of Me James Van Der Zee! by Andrea J. Loney. Illustrated by Keith Mallett (Lee & Low Books)

You’ve had a pretty extraordinary journey, including working in a circus and on a television show. Can you tell us how that has affected your approach to picture books?

When I was at the Big Apple Circus, they had a special program called “Circus of the Senses” for children who were either hearing-impaired, visually impaired, or both. The performers would put on their regular show, but sign-language interpreters would translate the show for the sighted children and audio interpreters would describe the show in vivid detail to the hearing children. Both sets of kids were equally thrilled by the performances. Experiencing a show I’d seen a zillion times before as just audio or just visuals really informed my approach to picture books. What do the words do? What do the pictures do? When to they overlap? How do these overlapping senses elicit tension and emotion?

As for my script writing experience, it’s probably part of why I spend so much time running each picture book idea through my head from beginning to end, as if it were a movie, before I write any of it down.

Is there anything you’re working on now that you’d like to share about?

Yes! In September 2020, Charlesbridge will publish a picture book anthology called No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, illustrated by Jeanette Bradley, and edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf and Keila Dawson. It features poetry about 14 different amazing youth activists. I am so thrilled, delighted, and humbled to be a part of it.

Thanks so much for visiting us on The Kids Are All Write, Andrea! Is there anything you would like to add?

Thanks for having me!

Don’t miss Double Bass Blues, which comes out Oct. 22. It has already received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and Horn Book. Plus, if you leave a comment, you are entered for a chance to win a free autographed copy.

You can visit Andrea on Facebook here: Andrea J Loney, Author

On Twitter: @AndreaJLoney

Instagram: @AndreaJLoney

Pinterest: @AndreaJLoney

And her website: andreajloney.com


Talking to Ann Marie Stephens about how Math + Fun = 'Arithmechicks Add Up'

Arithmechicks Add Up by Ann Marie Stephens, illustrated by Jia Liu (Boyds Mill Press)

Arithmechicks Add Up by Ann Marie Stephens, illustrated by Jia Liu (Boyds Mill Press)

One of the great challenges for teachers is finding ways to make math fun — and who should know better about that than a teacher who does that for her students? Ann Marie Stephens is an author and elementary school teacher who transformed one of her own math lessons into Arithmechicks Add Up (illustrated by Jia Liu, Boyds Mill Press). Check out her Q and A on THE KIDS ARE ALL WRITE to see how she added her love of math to her love of writing to create a book that your kids will number among their favorites! For a chance to win a copy of Arithmechicks Add Up, tweet or retweet a link to this post and tag Ann Marie @AMStephens_ and me @nchurnin.

Ann Marie Stephens

Ann Marie Stephens

What was your inspiration for Arithmechicks Add Up?

Arithmechicks came from a math lesson I created for my students. They made chicks out of construction paper and put math facts on them. We called them the Arithmetic Chicks. I jotted “arithmetic chicks doing math” in my idea journal and years later ARITHMECHICKS ADD UP hatched.

What was your journey with this story from idea to manuscript? Did you come up with the name, Arithmechicks, right away?

The name came pretty quickly though I was bouncing back and forth between Arithmetic Chicks and Arithmechicks. I asked the opinions of my writer friends and it was unanimous decision for Arithmechicks. The idea itself worked in two parts. I needed a strong storyline while also incorporating math. I came up with the story line first, then snuck in the math problems.

Cy Makes a Friend by Ann Marie Stephens, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Boyds Mill Press)

Cy Makes a Friend by Ann Marie Stephens, illustrated by Tracy Subisak (Boyds Mill Press)


I see a theme of unlikely friendships and how to make them in Arithmechicks and your other books, Scuba Dog and Cy Makes a Friend. Is that a coincidence or intentional?

It’s definitely coincidence that the first books I’ve sold have been about friendship, though it is a topic I find important. As a teacher, I see kids struggle with friendships all the time. But because I teach younger kids, I have the benefit of seeing friendships in their innocent and unbiased forms. In other words, the world hasn’t tried to influence their choice of friends. They just like people who like them back. SCUBA DOG proves there are no barriers to making a friend, even if you have to carry heavy scuba equipment! CY MAKES A FRIEND reinforces the bravery it takes to put your true self out there, hoping someone will like you.

Tell us about your love of scuba diving. When and how did that happen? Did your scuba diving inspire Scuba Dog?

I received my scuba certification back in the mid-90s. That previous summer I had been snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. I was having complications, (choking on water due to giggling with my sister), when I looked below me. I saw a group of scuba divers having way more fun than I was. I spit out my snorkel and said to my sister, “That’s what I want to do!” My love for diving absolutely inspired my book, SCUBA DOG. I feel connected to animals in the ocean and oddly enough, they are drawn to me. Animals such as fish, sharks, an eel, and sea turtles have followed me. I like to say I’m friends with them all. I’ve been diving all over the world and I’m not finished yet.

Scuba Dog by Ann Marie Stephens, illustrated by Jess Golden (little bee books)

Scuba Dog by Ann Marie Stephens, illustrated by Jess Golden (little bee books)

You’ve been an elementary teacher for more than 28 years. Did you always want to write books or did that come later? How has teaching kids helped you with writing for them?

My love for writing really began in 5th grade with Mrs. Ripol. I remember writing about the passing of my dog. She encouraged us to read our stories aloud. I got choked up and Mrs. Ripol did too. I remember feeling the power of words in that moment. She encouraged writing throughout the year, and that’s when I started planning my future as an author.

Teaching kids has helped me because I’m lucky enough to read hundreds of picture books a year. It exposes me to what’s out there, what entertains kids, and what doesn’t! On the flip side, teaching while being an author is pretty difficult. Elementary teaching takes so much time and energy before, during, and after school that it doesn’t allow me much time to write.

I suspect that elementary school teachers are looking for ways to make math fun. How does Arithmechicks Add Up help them with that?

This is very true. We’ve struggled over the years to find picture books at just the right level for our students. Many are too advanced, others are very long, and some are perfect, such as Corey Rosen Schwartz’s TWINDERELLA (illustrated by Deborah Marcero, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers). Anytime I find a mathy book with a storyline, and a clear mathematical approach, I snatch it up! ARITHMECHICKS ADD UP introduces addition with clear, countable illustrations, as well as eight different approaches to adding. The storyline and the search for Mouse, makes readers want to keep turning the pages.

Twinderella, A Fractioned Fairy Tale by Corey Rosen Schwartz, illustrated by Deborah Marcero (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers)

Twinderella, A Fractioned Fairy Tale by Corey Rosen Schwartz, illustrated by Deborah Marcero (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers)

Please tell us about your upcoming book, Arithmechicks Take Away. Did you sell it at the same time as Arithmechicks Add Up? Will the mouse be back?

I did sell them at the same time. I knew my editor was extremely interested in ARITHMECHICKS ADD UP. She wasn’t necessarily looking for a second book yet. I figured I had nothing to lose by pitching the idea. It paid off because she wanted both! ARITHMECHICKS TAKE AWAY is almost complete. The chicks are subtracting, hiding, and including Mouse in the adventure. He received much love in the first book so there was no way I could leave him out.

Look forward to your comments below! And remember, for a chance to win a copy of Arithmechicks Add Up, tweet or retweet a link to this post and tag Ann Marie @AMStephens_ and me @nchurnin.

Ann Marie Stephens is the author of several picture books including Scuba DogCy Makes a FriendArithmechicks Add Up, and the forthcoming, Arithmechicks Take Away. She has been an elementary teacher for over 28 years. She was a contributing writer for Kwame Alexander's The Write Thing, a co-writer for Trait Crate Plus for grades 3 and 5, and has had dozens of original ideas published in Instructor and The Mailbox magazines. Represented by Emily Mitchell at Wernick and Pratt Agency, Ann Marie is a seasoned presenter for both children and adults. When she isn't writing or teaching, she's off scuba diving somewhere tropical.

Visit Ann Marie Stephens:

On Facebook: Ann Marie Stephens

On Twitter: @AMStephens_

On Instagram: @AMStephens_

On the 2 Happy Teachers blog

I See 'I See Sea Food' by Jenna Grodzicki, plus a giveaway!

I See Sea Food: Sea Creatures that Look Like Food by Jenna Grodzicki (Millbrook Press)

I See Sea Food: Sea Creatures that Look Like Food by Jenna Grodzicki (Millbrook Press)

I’m always a little in awe of writers who make science thrilling for kids as Jenna Grodzicki does in her delicious new book, I See Sea Food: Sea Creatures That Look Like Food (Millbrook Press). Check out this week’s Q and A on The Kids Are All Write to find out what made Jenna bite on this tasty idea. Leave a comment and you’ll be entered for a chance to win your very own autographed copy!

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What inspired you to write I See Sea Food: Sea Creatures that Look Like Food?

Believe it or not, I came across this idea completely by accident. I was researching lemon sharks for what would later become Finn Finds a Friend (Clear Fork Publishing), when I came across an online article about sea animals named after food. I was fascinated because some of these animals looked EXACTLY like the food they were named after! I made a list and continued on with my lemon shark research. A couple of months passed, and I couldn’t get these sea food lookalikes out of my head. I was not a nonfiction writer, but these creatures wouldn’t leave me alone. So, I started researching them and never looked back. I’m so glad I followed my gut.

Tell us about your book journey. How much did the book change from the time you got your idea to when you finished the manuscript?

This manuscript changed a LOT. When I wrote my first draft, I had no idea what I was doing. I was learning more about crafting nonfiction, but my first draft was basically a list of facts about each animal. I went through MANY rounds of revisions before I found the right format and voice. Studying mentor texts was invaluable in this process, as was a critique by the incredible Lisa Amstutz. (Note from Nancy: Lisa Amstutz and I are both members of the Nonfiction Ninjas and I can personally attest that her critiques are incredible!).

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What were the hardest and easiest sea creatures to find a food connection for?

Some of the sea creatures I researched look more like food than others. The Australian pineapplefish, the chocolate chip sea star, the lettuce sea slug, and the egg yolk jellyfish look so much like their namesake, the connection was obvious. However, some of the sea animals I started with didn’t look like food at all. For example, I researched a bright red tiny fish called a cherry barb. The only connection to cherries was its color. This little guy, plus a few others, never made it into the manuscript. To keep the wow factor, I only wanted sea creatures that truly looked like food.

Are there any sea creatures you love that didn’t make it into the book? Which ones and why did they miss the cut?

Yes, there were a couple of creatures I loved but ultimately had to cut. In most cases, this was because I couldn’t find enough information about them. One such creature was the orange-peel doris. This is a sea slug that looks exactly like an orange peel. It definitely had the visual wow factor. But scientists have not studied it enough to conclusively know much about it. So, it had to go. Fortunately, I had another amazing nudibranch that could take its place – the pizza crust sea slug.

Finn Finds a Friend  by Jenna Grodzicki, illustrations by Alexis St. John (Spork) is the fish that started it all.

Finn Finds a Friend by Jenna Grodzicki, illustrations by Alexis St. John (Spork) is the fish that started it all.



Who took the amazing photos? At what point did you know that your book would be using photos rather than illustrations and how did you feel about that decision? Do you have any favorites among the photos?

I was very fortunate because Millbrook Press took care of all the photo research, securing the rights for the photos, and the fees. I always envisioned photographs for this manuscript. Seeing the actual animal really makes its similarity to food stand out. I knew photographs would have a bigger impact on the reader than illustrations. I’m beyond thrilled with how every spread turned out, but I think my favorite is the one with the chocolate chip sea stars. Seeing the ocean floor covered with them is surreal.

What do you hope that kids will take away from I See Sea Food?

I hope young readers will walk away with a renewed sense of wonder about the world’s oceans. I hope my book will spark their curiosity and compel them to learn about more sea creatures they may never have heard of. A handful of sea animals, such as sharks and dolphins, get all the love. I want kids to get excited about what else is out there.

You have a new book coming out in 2020, Harmony Humbolt — Perfect Pets Queen (Clear Fork Publishing). Can you tell us about that?

Sure, I’m glad you asked about this one. It has a special place in my heart because it was inspired by my daughter. This picture book follows Harmony who learns that her special Perfect Pets collection is even more special when it’s shared with friends. To clarify, Perfect Pets are stuffed animals. It’s being illustrated by the insanely talented Mirka Hokkanen. (Note from Nancy: Mira Hokkanen also did the amazing illustrations for Vivian Kirkfield’s lyrical Four Otters Toboggan: An Animal Counting Book, published by Pomegranate).

Mirka Hokkanen, who illustrated Vivian Kirkfield’s  Four Otters Toboggan , will illustrate Jenna’s next book,  Harmony Humbolt  for Clear Fork Publishing.

Mirka Hokkanen, who illustrated Vivian Kirkfield’s Four Otters Toboggan, will illustrate Jenna’s next book, Harmony Humbolt for Clear Fork Publishing.

Thanks so much for having me, Nancy! I greatly admire your writing, so it was an honor to be on your blog!

It was an honor to have you here, Jenna! Thank you for providing an autographed copy of your beautiful book to one lucky person, living in the U.S., who comments on this post. To stay in touch with Jenna and be up to date on her latest book news, visit her on her website here:

www.jennagrodzicki.com

On Facebook: Jenna Grodzicki

Twitter: @jennawritesPB

Instagram: @jennawritespb

Thankawakaloch to Chana Stiefel, author of 'My Name is Wakawakaloch!' for a special gift!

My Name is Wakawakaloch! by Chana Stiefel, illustrations by Mary Sullivan (HMH Books for Young Readers)

My Name is Wakawakaloch! by Chana Stiefel, illustrations by Mary Sullivan (HMH Books for Young Readers)

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually, when you’re a kid and everyone is pronouncing it wrong and it never shows up on a T-shirt. Chana Stiefel taps into those feelings with her funny and affirmative new picture book, My Name is Wakawakaloch! Talking to Chana — always a joy — made me think about the great grandmother I never met and how my grandmother always called me by her name — Nechama. Just as there are magical words — abracadabra!— there is magic in names. And speaking of names, you’ll find in this interview that there’s a lot more to Wakawakaloch than the 12 letters that meet the eye. And there’s a lot more to this interview as you’ll find out in the end— because Chana is giving away a free, autographed copy to one lucky U.S. resident who leaves a comment on this post!

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Can you tell us about your journey from idea to finished and acquired manuscript?

Thanks for having me Nancy! I came up with the idea for MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH! in 2014, during Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (now Storystorm). The original draft was called THAT’S NOT MY NAME!, about a girl named Chana (ahem) who wants to change her hard-to-pronounce name to Sue. “Sue’s a nice name,” says her Grandma. “But did you know there was another Chana who came before you?” Grandma then weaves a tale about Chana’s namesake, her great grandmother who arrived in America and despite many challenges was a kind and generous person. (Guess which name Chana keeps?) My critique partners liked that the story came from my life experience, but they thought that Chana needed more agency--she needed to solve her own problem. I agreed, but struggled to find a solution.

Then in the summer of 2015, I read a blog post by my agent John Cusick. “In life, if you’re in a funk, you might need a change of scenery,” John wrote. “Chances are your characters feel the same way. Try switching up the setting.” Around that time, I switched up my own setting and went hiking with my husband in the Canadian Rockies. Surrounded by gorgeous rocky scenery, I thought to myself, “What if Chana wasn’t a suburban soccer player. What if she was a cave girl instead?” and “What if her name wasn’t Chana--but it was...Wakawakaloch?” (The name just popped into my head.) Suddenly, a whole new world opened up! At 5 a.m. the next morning, I started writing and revising with a new setting, a new geologic time period, nutty Neanderthal characters, silly dialogue and a strong, savvy main character who not only solves her own problem but also helps others.

 I shared my polished manuscript at a round table at the NJ-SCBWI Fall Craft Weekend. With a thumbs up from my peers, I sent it off to my agent, who loved it. We submitted to publishers at the start of 2016 and received a small pile of rejections. Then the amazing Kate O’Sullivan at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said “YES!” She brought the hilarious illustrator Mary Sullivan on board--and it’s been a wild Waka ride ever since!


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Do you remember the first time someone pronounced your name wrong? What are some of the ways your name been mangled? And how did it make you feel?

I can’t remember the first time, but someone mangles my name virtually every day. Telemarketers, Starbucks baristas, doctors…you name it! They call me China, Kahana, Chayna. As a kid, I could never find my name on a T-shirt, mug, magnet, or keychain. It’s often frustrating to correct people, and I’m usually ok with Hanna. To hear the correct pronunciation, click here. https://www.teachingbooks.net/pronounce.cgi?aid=15753

Not everyone can say the Ch- sound, but I appreciate it when people try.

Did you, like Wakawakaloch, ever think about changing your name? And did you, like Wakawakaloch, have a revelation where you began to appreciate the beauty and history of it?

 YES! Like many Jewish American children, I was given two names at birth--one English (which was Cheryl Anne) and one Hebrew (Chana). Jewish parents often name their children after relatives whose traits they hope their children will emulate. I was named for my great grandmother Chana Epstein, who emigrated to America in 1920. Because my grandmother started calling me Chana (instead of Cheryl) when I was three years old, Chana stuck. But legally I was still Cheryl Anne Freiman. (Freiman is my maiden name.) By the time I got married and was working as an editor at Scholastic, I had too many names! I was Chana Cheryl Anne Freiman Stiefel, and the IRS didn’t know what to do with me. So in 1996, after the birth of my first child, I went before a judge and legally changed my name to Chana Freiman Stiefel. I think it’s important to maintain family traditions and keep the memory of my namesake alive.

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Was there anything about Mary Sullivan’s illustrations that surprised you? Do you have any favorite scenes? Was it your idea or hers to slip a little shirt with the name Chana on it near the end?

I LOVE Mary’s illustrations. It’s amazing to see my characters come to life. Mary added many sweet touches and I continue to find new ones every time I read the book. Some include Wakawakaloch’s puffy pigtails (they have their own personality!) & magnificent facial expressions, hilarious cave details like indoor plumbing, cave drawings, lava cake, stone computers, Elder Mooch’s bone earring, cup of tea...and so many more! It’s hard to choose a favorite scene, but the heart of the story--where Wakawakaloch places her hand on the ancient handprint of her mighty namesake--that really got me! I did include an illustrator’s note to add T-shirts with names on them, including mine! It was a dream come true to see my name on a T-shirt! Also...the case cover has a big surprise!

 Has the book inspired kids to talk to you about their names and the names of their friends?

Yes! Many kids, parents, and teachers are finding the book relatable. Many people are sharing the book on social media and sharing their #namestory. I presented Wakawakaloch at a local public school and asked a group of kindergarteners if anyone ever messes up their name and most of their hands went up. I also love to hear that teachers are using the book in their classrooms. For those who are interested, I created a free Teaching Guide with name-related activities, discussion questions, and writing prompts. https://chanastiefel.com/books/my-name-is-wakawakaloch/

 I understand you have a very supportive husband who has gotten a whole bunch of celebrities to record themselves saying Wakawakaloch. Can you tell us about that?

In publishing, it’s so important to surround yourself with positive people. I’m very blessed to have a super-supportive husband who keeps me laughing through my publishing journey. For the Wakawakaloch launch, he reached out to celebrities through cameo.com and asked them to share videos wishing me congratulations on my book launch. Colin Mochrie of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” wrote me a hoedown! And I LOVED the way Vladimir Furdik, the Night King from Game of Thrones, killed it with his Czech pronunciation of “Vaka-vaka-loch.” Most of the celebrities bungled my name and the title of my book, but they were all hilarious and so much fun! The cameos received over 5,000 views in a few days. In terms of marketing, you can never know what will increase sales but it’s worth trying something fun & fresh. As for my husband, he’s a keeper. You can watch the cameos here: https://chanastiefel.com/news/.

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You’ve written more than 25 books for kids and many of them have been non-fiction, including last year’s Animal Zombies…& Other Real-Life Monsters (National Geographic Kids). What do you like about writing both fiction and non-fiction? Do they use different creative muscles?

Yes--and after sitting all day I need to flex many more muscles. I got my start in journalism. I earned a Master’s in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting at NYU. While in grad school, I interned down the block at Scholastic, which led to a job as an editor of Science World, a bi-weekly magazine for middle schoolers. Once I started writing for kids, I was hooked. I love being able to explain tough science or history topics to kids in a fun and relevant way. I’ve written books about earthquakes, volcanoes, “Ye Yucky Middle Ages,” and more. It’s amazing to see kids’ eyes pop out when they see the internal organs of a translucent ghost frog or a blood-sucking lamprey in ANIMAL ZOMBIES. Enabling kids to learn science and appreciate the wonders of nature is truly rewarding.

I started writing fiction in 2008. My debut picture book, DADDY DEPOT, began with a bedtime story. My daughter Maya, who was seven at the time, was upset with my husband so we spun a tale about a girl who returns her father to the daddy store. I ran downstairs and began writing. DADDY DEPOT was published by Feiwel & Friends in 2017. Along the way, I learned the ropes of writing fiction picture books (of course I’m still learning every day). When you’re accustomed to non-fiction research and fact-finding missions, there’s something very liberating about freeing your mind and using your imagination to create fictional characters and whole new worlds. I like being able to alternate between writing fiction and non-fiction, and see where my heart--and brain--take me.

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Your next book, Let Liberty Rise (Scholastic, 2021), is the true story of how children helped build the Statue of Liberty. What inspired that book and how far along is it on its book journey?

It’s a bittersweet story. A dear friend from Scholastic, Jackie Glasthal, shared this amazing story with me--how children mailed in pennies to build the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. Jackie had written a middle grade novel about this story called LIBERTY ON 23rd STREET (Silver Moon Press, 2006). I felt that the true story had to be shared as a picture book and asked Jackie if she would collaborate on it. We went on a research trip to visit Lady Liberty. (The Bob Hope Library dedicated to the history of the statue is on Ellis Island.) Sadly, a few months later, Jackie became sick and she handed me the reigns to work on the book. She passed away nearly three years ago. I will be dedicating the story in her memory. I have seen sketches by illustrator Chuck Groenink and they are fabulous. Jackie would have loved it!

 Thank you, Chana, for visiting The Kids are All Write! Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just keep writing! Especially stories from your heart! If you’re passionate about your stories, your writing will shine through.

Wow, wow Wakaloch! Chana has kindly offered to give a FREE, autographed copy of My Name is Wakawakaloch! to one reader of THE KIDS ARE ALL WRITE who resides in the U.S. Leave a comment on the post to be entered into the drawing.

Want to stay in touch with Chana?

Visit her on her website: chanastiefel.com

On her blog: kidlittakeaways.com

On Twitter: @chanastiefel

And check out her other recent titles:

ANIMAL ZOMBIES! (National Geographic Kids, 8-28-18)

DADDY DEPOT (Feiwel & Friends, 2017)


 

A Prize and a Promise: My Year of Writing Dangerously

Toby surveys multiple translations of Manjhi Moves a Mountain from Room to Read, a non-profit based in San Francisco, dedicated to getting books to kids in literature-deprived communities in the language they speak.

Toby surveys multiple translations of Manjhi Moves a Mountain from Room to Read, a non-profit based in San Francisco, dedicated to getting books to kids in literature-deprived communities in the language they speak.

It’s been a big, thrilling year for me. This marks the first year of my taking the plunge into being a full-time children’s book writer. My seventh book, Beautiful Shades of Brown, the Art of Laura Wheeler Waring, is at the printer for a Feb. 2020 release. My eighth book, For Spacious Skies, Katharine Lee Bates and the Inspiration for “America the Beautiful” will be going to the printer this month for an April 2020 release.

On Friday, I fly to New York City to accept the Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Award for Manjhi Moves a Mountain — an award that the Westchester Library Association gives out once every two years. My fellow honorees include Jane Yolen, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, Emily Jenkins, Carmen Deedy and Oge Mora! You can be sure I’ll be packing translations that Room to Read did for kids in India, Sri Lanka and the African continent as well as the Braille translation published by the National Braille Press.

Where I’ll be Saturday, Sept. 14!

Where I’ll be Saturday, Sept. 14!

On Sunday, I’ll head over to the Hillcrest Jewish Center in Queens to share Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing and Martin & Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank with the students there. Irving Berlin is a 2019 Sydney Taylor Notable and 2019 Social Studies Trade Book for Young People Notable. My amazing year with Martin & Anne, a book that looks at the parallel stories of these great spirits, both born in 1929, kicked off with The Ruby Bridges Reading Festival at the National Civil Rights Museum in May and the Tulisoma South Dallas Book Fair at the African American Museum in Dallas in August and continues with presentations at the Jewish Community Center in Dallas and the National Conference of NYC Public School Librarians at CitiField in Queens in November.

I’ll return Sunday to a busy schedule of writing, of Skype and in person Author Visits and supporting fellow writers through my work for SCBWI-North Texas, my Non-Fiction Ninjas group and my Book Meshuggenahs group. I’ll also start teaching the first of my two six-week online classes on picture book biographies for The Writing Barn starting Tuesday. I’ve been working hard this week, preparing Power Points for the class, distilling the best of what I have learned on my journey into six cogent lessons. Well, actually, I’ve created five detailed lessons and left the sixth open for critiques and questions aimed at helping my students get their manuscripts where they want them to be.

I’ll be teaching two six-week online picture book biography classes for The Writing Barn in Austin.

I’ll be teaching two six-week online picture book biography classes for The Writing Barn in Austin.

So what have I learned? Lots of craft, to be sure, but also courage, passion and love. I’m increasingly aware that as I write about the journeys of those I admire, I am on my own hero quest. Every book is a step into a void where I’m creating something that didn’t exist before. Every book comes with challenges, dangers, moments when it may seem that the goal is beyond my grasp. Every book asks me to persevere, to part doubts like brambles blocking my way and disregard scratches and tears until I find my heart beating in rhythm with that of my subject’s. Only then can I hope to craft a tale that young readers will want to take, with stories that may beat in rhythm with their hearts. I write in the hope that these stories will bring a little light to them in their journeys that I may never see, that I may have but a glimmer of knowing, of sensing.

It’s been a big, wonderful, glorious responsibility, this year of writing dangerously. I am grateful to be on this quest and will strive every day to be worthy of it.

Beautiful Shades of Brown, the Art of Laura Wheeler Waring, illustrated by Felicia Marshall, is at the printers and will be released Feb. 5, 2020.

Beautiful Shades of Brown, the Art of Laura Wheeler Waring, illustrated by Felicia Marshall, is at the printers and will be released Feb. 5, 2020.

You will find teacher’s guides, resources, trailers, projects here on nancychurnin.com

Come visit me on Facebook at Nancy Churnin Children’s Books and The Book Meshuggenahs, on the Non-Fiction Ninjas website; on Twitter @nchurnin and Instagram @nchurnin. You can book me for an Author Visit at authorsandmore.com.



Rise! Bethany Hegedus shares what inspires her to inspire others

Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Dr. Maya Angelou by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Tonya Engel (Lee & Lowe Books)

Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Dr. Maya Angelou by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Tonya Engel (Lee & Lowe Books)

Even though my first encounter with Bethany Hegedus was not in person, I was, even then, moved by her kindness. I was meeting up with a group of writers of non-fiction at the Writing Barn. Bethany, the award-winning author of Alabama Spitfire: the Story of Harper Lee and the lavishly reviewed Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Dr. Maya Angelou, founded and runs this mystical, marvelous place where creativity mixes with the intoxicating scent of flowers and the trees on this oasis in Austin, Texas.

While Bethany wasn’t there, her giving spirit was. She made sure each of us had a gift with a message to keep creating. There was definitely something special in the air of her Writing Barn. My group bonded so thoroughly, we became the Nonfiction Ninjas with our own blog, where we share nonfiction writing tips.

I was already grateful to Bethany as the thread that wove the Nonfiction Ninjas together. So you can imagine my joy when I met and got to hug her in person at the Texas Library Association last year. That led to much talking, laughter, her gracious invitation for me to teach at the Writing Barn and to be featured on her Courage to Create podcast. And now, finally, I am proud and delighted to be the one to host Bethany as she joins us on THE KIDS ARE ALL WRITE to talk about what inspires her to inspire others.

Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Dr. Maya Angelou by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Tonya Engel (Lee & Lowe Books)

Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Dr. Maya Angelou by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Tonya Engel (Lee & Lowe Books)

What inspired you to write Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Dr. Maya Angelou?

When it comes to picture book biographies I have written about activists and authors. With Dr. Maya Angelou, with her life and her legacy, she is, was, and always will be both. I always write about my own personal heroes and sheroes: Gandhi, Harper Lee, Jimmy Carter--and Maya Angelou is no different. She is a writer whose words changed me as a young girl who moved from the North to the South in middle school. Her work, from poetry to memoirs, to her incredible speeches and interviews have been a long-term literary companion to me for most of my life.

Did you find it difficult to make her story accessible for children? Did anyone try to discourage you?

Early on some writer friends questioned whether or not Maya’s life story was appropriate for kids as it deals with childhood sexual abuse. My agent also asked me when I mentioned Dr. Angelou as my next subject how I would handle her childhood. I said, “with metaphor--just like Maya did.” The image of the caged bird comes not just from Dr. Angelou’s seminal memoir but is a literary allusion from the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, “Sympathy.” Maya was a poet as well as memoirist so I chose, for the first time, to write a picture book biography in verse. So metaphor worked perfectly.

Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou is meant for readers in 4-8th grades, and even older. A distinction the publisher Lee and Low has made that reviewers have also commented on.

Handling the sexual abuse Maya endured as a child, of course, is a sensitive topic. And through writing this book I have discovered more women, women I know well, coming forward and sharing their #metoo stories with me. Like most topics that I care deeply about, I am working hard to have us all be comfortable with the uncomfortable. It’s the only way we can move forward and as the text of Rise:! says, “There is no safety in silence.” There are resources in the back matter for anyone who has suffered from abuse or who is supporting someone who has, as well.

Maya-Angelou-quotes-Amazing.jpg


There’s a one page spread that deals very sensitively, sparingly but clearly with sexual abuse. Can you share with us your thoughts as you not only decided it needed to be in the book but how you would write about it in a way that was honest without being too much for children to process?

Maya Angelou went selectively mute as a girl--not just because of the sexual abuse--but because in her child’s mind the fact that she named her accuser and he was then killed (mob justice after being only held one night in jail) because in her childhood mind she thought her voice wielded that power. Her turning inward seems to have been both a processing of what happened to her as well as an internal protection of herself. She discovered her voice again when Mrs. Flowers, a woman in Stamps, Arkansas asked her to read aloud. Maya had long been a reader, silently letting the words of others move inside her. But the poetry of the spoken word called Maya out of her protective shell. There can be no hiding from the things we have survived. And when we speak them aloud we help others survive what they may be going through as well.

I long believed this--even before I began writing this book--speaking frankly about my mother’s mental illness and how it impacted me as a child. And I think in part I was able to speak my truth because Dr. Angelou spoke her truth in Tell Me Why the Caged Bird Sings, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary of publication in 2019/2020.

I don’t think I could have--or should have--told Dr. Angelou’s life story without addressing the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of Mr. Freeman. The fact that his name, Mr. Freeman, was what it was, also allowed me to be delicate and direct at the same time. The lines read:

“One day, Maya, left alone with Mr. Freeman, is anything but free.”

As far as I know, it is the first picture book biography to deal directly with sexual abuse and the personal aftermath.

How do you feel about the way your illustrator, Tonya Engel, handled that illustration?

Tonya Engel is an incredible creative. A woman of deep and profound talent. She is a fine artist who is a relative newcomer to the field of children’s publishing and she did three pieces as samples before being the chosen illustrator for Rise! This scene was one of the ones Tonya did as a sample. I cried when I saw it then. I get teary-eyed when I see it now. The shadow of the curtains creating bars on the bed. Maya curled up holding her legs. Her body creating an image of a bird. And then Mr. Freeman’s looming shadow as he exits the room. The pain is evident but it is handled gracefully. Tonya talks in a video where we are interviewed about our individual work on the book and she mentions her color choices and purple is oppression. And yellow is hope.

Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Dr. Maya Angelou by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Tonya Engel (Lee & Lowe Books)

Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Dr. Maya Angelou by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Tonya Engel (Lee & Lowe Books)

There is a magical realism to Tonya Engel’s artwork — it feels like the visual equivalent of poetry, non literal but realer than reality. Were you surprised, overall, when you first saw her artwork? Do you have favorite images in the book?

Oh, Nancy, how I love this question. That is exactly what Tonya Engel’s work achieves--a visual realer than reality. Tonya talks about being influenced by folk art and being a self-trained artist. She speaks about her illustrations needing the fluidity of a jazz song. There is nothing I don’t love about her approach to the text and what she brought from her own personal life and lived experience to the page. She is a brilliant creator and is even more luminous when you meet her in person, which I am so honored to have met her and to continue to deepen a friendship as we visit schools and speak together at events and book festivals now that Rise! is out on shelves.

While I love every image in the book, there are two that are my favorite. Maya and her brother Bailey walking to school and the town and the surrounding areas are in their bodies. As well as the image of Maya rising.

What for you, is the heart of what you hope kids will take away from Maya Angelou's story?

That we are all survivors, in our own way. That we can each ‘rise, rise, rise…” even if we must do so--again and again.

You wrote Rise! in a verse that is rich in metaphor and imagery. To what extent did Maya Angelou’s poetry influence the way you chose to write her story? How much revision did it require before you got it where you wanted it to be?

The writers I write about, their words live inside me for many many years. Decades even. With Dr. Angelou’s work, while I was writing the verse, I listened to her read her poetry. As a performer, there is no one as gifted as Maya in performing her own verse. I was on a writing retreat when I wrote the first draft of what became Rise! And I listened to her over and over working to catch the cadence and spirit of the way she strung words together.

The revision process was both a delicate and a deep one and I have my editor, Jessica Echeveria, to thank for knowing when to push and when to pull, on both the verse and the life events we covered.

Your 12-year journey with your first book, Grandfather Gandhi, reminds me so much of my debut with The William Hoy Story — they both took around the same amount of time, too! What kept you pushing past the rejections as you struggled to get the book where you wanted it to be and found an editor who believed in the story as much as you did?

Ah, rejections and learning how to deal with the nos or the not yets...is such a challenging part of the writer’s life. It’s become something I talk about routinely on The Courage to Create podcast and with the writers we serve at The Writing Barn. We all have to face the nos. And in my creative life I work to embrace those nos on the way to the yeses. What keeps me going is different with each book. (I’ve had a book sell in a pre-empt in two weeks and books sell after years of rejections. ) With Grandfather Gandhi, it was my promise to myself after surviving 9/11 to bring something beautiful and healing into the world and the fact that Arun Gandhi, the Mahatma’s grandson, put his trust in me to help share his story that kept me going. But overall, it’s my desire to be heard.

And I am willing to hear those nos on the way to the yes by keeping in mind this Wallace Stephens’ quote: “After the final no, there is a yes, and on that yes the future world depends.” We have to say and keep saying yes to ourselves as creatives. Over and over. It’s the only way to get our work out into the world. To be heard. To offer change.

The Writing Barn, courtesy of Bethany Hegedus

The Writing Barn, courtesy of Bethany Hegedus


You have devoted yourself to inspiring and helping others through the Writing Barn, which offers many wonderful classes — I am honored to be one of your teachers! You also have your podcast, Courage to Create, and your presentations. Why is it so important to you, as a writer, to encourage other writers, as well as children?

Being the Founder and Creative Director of The Writing Barn is such a privilege. It’s part of our mission to support writers at every stage of their journey, and that includes working artists, such as yourself. And we are so thrilled to have you as part of our well-published teaching artist faculty.

One of the reasons I feel the work we do at the Barn and with this new Courage to Create Community I am forming in 2020 (get an early invite here) is important is because I want writers, all creatives, to lead lives where both they and their art can thrive. And for me a thriving creative life is broken down into a few categories: the writing, submitting and the support we need in both.

It’s so easy to feel publishing is this nameless faceless ogre that just tells us “no” and to engage with the business side in a way that leaves us with no power. My goal with the Courage to Create podcast and the community is to create a more intimate and vulnerable space where we peel back the curtain on what it takes to publish, and publish well, as we do with in-person and online programming at The Writing Barn. We all need encouragement. I know I do and I also find I write better when I am championing other writers, just like I do when I am out in the schools talking to kids. We can all come together in community and get what we need to do our best work and to live our most creative lives.

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, Illustrated by Julie Morstad (Chronicle Books) inspired Bethany Hegedus as a mentor text for Rise!

Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, Illustrated by Julie Morstad (Chronicle Books) inspired Bethany Hegedus as a mentor text for Rise!

The current trend in picture book biographies is to focus on a slice of a person’s life — a pivotal moment. You give us Maya from the time she is a little girl, going to stay with her aunt and uncle, until her death. Why did you decide to give us as much of her life as you did? How hard did you work to get so much information in the small space allowed by a picture book, all while keeping a melodic flow?

Ah, yes! Slice of life picture book biographies are the rage and I haven’t managed to write one yet. I’ve been lucky enough that the subjects I have written about haven’t been written about before (aside from Gandhi) and therefore portraying someone’s full life has been wanted. When it came to Dr. Angelou, I was inspired early on by Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder and illustrated by Julie Morstad (Chronicle Books) and used it as a mentor text. I decided to write about Dr. Angelou after her passing and I just couldn’t help but depict the fact that her words still call us to rise. I also loved the image of a bird flying free, and that Dr. Angelou’s work serves as a resurrection for us all.

What is the most important thing you want young readers to know?

Childhood matters. Their childhood--the one happening right now--matters and whatever their personal challenges are, they have power and agency--and that power and agency can be used for the good of all.

Thank you, Bethany, for spending time with us on The Kids Are All Write!

Thank you for having me on The Kids Are All Write! Thank you for the work you do, Nancy, in your books and your support of fellow creatives.

Hanging out with the wonderful Bethany Hegedus at the Texas Library Association convention in Austin

Hanging out with the wonderful Bethany Hegedus at the Texas Library Association convention in Austin

Visit with Bethany

On her website: bethanyhegedus.com

Facebook: Bethany Hegedus
Twitter: @bethanyhegedus

Instagram: @bethany.hegedus

Bethany Hegedus’ children’s picture books include the award-winning Grandfather Gandhi and Be the Change: A Grandfather Gandhi Story, both co-written with Arun Gandhi (grandson of Mahatma Gandhi) and illustrated by Ethan Turk (Atheneum Books for Young Readers) as well Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird (illustrated by Erin McGuire, Balzer & Bray). Her latest release is the SLJ starred reviewed Rise!: From Caged Bird to Poet of the People: Dr. Maya Angelou (illustrated by Tonya Engel, Lee & Lowe Books), and forthcoming is Hard Work But It’s Worth It: The Life of Jimmy Carter (illustrated by Kyung Eun Han, Balzer & Bray). Her books have been included in numerous “best of” lists such as A Mighty Girl’s Best Books of 2018 and Kirkus’ Best Books of the Year. A former educator, Bethany is an in-demand keynote speaker, workshop leader, and mentor who speaks and teaches across the country about writing, creativity, resilience, and privilege. She is also the Founder and Creative Director of The Writing Barn in Austin, Texas and host of The Courage to Create podcast. She graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults.

Bethany Hegedus

Bethany Hegedus

Tara Lazar on juggling 'Your First Day of Circus School,' Storystorm & more

Your First Day of Circus School by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Melissa Crowton (Tundra Books)

Your First Day of Circus School by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Melissa Crowton (Tundra Books)

I had the pleasure of getting to know Tara Lazar through her PiBoIdMo, which evolved into Storystorm — a challenge that encourages participants to come up with picture book ideas, with the help of a different blogger each day for a month. I love participating in this challenge and was thrilled to get the chance to be one of the guest bloggers. Now, it’s my honor to welcome Tara on my new blog, THE KIDS ARE ALL WRITE, to talk about her fun and perfect back to school book, Your First Day of Circus School.

Welcome, Tara! As the creator of Storystorm, the kid lit world’s annual idea generator, can you share with all your fans and friends how you came up with the idea for Your First Day of Circus School? Did you use any tips from your challenge or did it come from somewhere else?

Gosh, I wrote the original manuscript TEN YEARS AGO so I forget exactly what prompted the original idea. I do recall wanting to write a story with visual gags and puns, and this was the result. In the story, an older brother who's BTDT shows his younger sibling all there is to learn at Circus School--at first in a teasing sibling way. By the end of the book, the Big Brother gets his just desserts and the two are friends again.

What was the journey of your idea? At what point did you know it was viable? Was it fully grown when your editor bought it or did the journey continue after that?

The idea was fully formed when Tundra bought it. There was some going back and forth with the illustrations and wording so the jokes shined.

Tara Lazar (courtesy of Tara Lazar)

Tara Lazar (courtesy of Tara Lazar)


Congratulations on Melissa Crowton’s work being chosen for the Original Art 2019 featured artists exhibition at the Society of Illustrators museum in NYC! So many of the jokes are visual riffs on your words. Did you provide art notes?

Lots of art notes. I talk about that on my blog.

actionnotes.jpg

Was there anything that surprised you about Melissa’s work? What are your favorite spreads and why?

The cafeteria is my favorite spread! So much to discover. Melissa added so many fun details to every page. Did you notice the Little Brother's mouse pal? Or the typing poodle?

The typing poodle! Illustrations by Melissa Crowton for Your First Day of Circus School by Tara Lazar (Tundra Books)

The typing poodle! Illustrations by Melissa Crowton for Your First Day of Circus School by Tara Lazar (Tundra Books)


You’ve been making kids laugh for a long time with word play and spunky characters who don’t follow the rules and find unexpected and satisfying ways to solve their problems. Do you see any common themes in your body of work? Why do you think those themes connect with you?

The common theme is laughter. That's all I really try to do with my stories. I want kids to have fun reading, to help instill a lifelong love of books.

In 2009 you created PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) which you renamed Storystorm in 2017. Since then, you've offered a month-long Storystorm challenge in January, with blog posts by kids lit creators, aimed at inspiring folks to come up with ideas for their own books. I have been honored to be one of your bloggers as well as enjoying being one of the participants. What inspired you to do this and to keep doing this? I am guessing it is a tremendous amount of work!

When I began Storystorm, there was no writing challenge or community for picture book writers. NaNoWriMo challenged novel writers to complete a first draft in one month, but completing a picture book in 30 days was not much of a challenge. Writing one picture book a day for a month was crazy-making! So then I thought one IDEA a day was doable. And fun! I thought maybe a dozen people would want to do it with me. I was shocked when a couple hundred joined. Every year since then, more participants have joined in, so it now hovers around 2,000. And I've hosted the event so many times now that I've streamlined the work required to make it happen.

What are some of your proudest success stories from Storystorm? How does it feel when someone shares that their new book was originally a Storystorm idea?

I am proud of all the writers who take the challenge. Yes, some get published, but everyone who joins Storystorm is serious and working hard toward that goal.

The thing I hated when I was working to become published was people thinking I had a "nice little hobby". It was not a hobby to me; I was working toward a dream job, a career. I think that everyone who joins the Storystorm challenge is likewise trying to get to that place, and that having a structured, free challenge with kindred spirits lifts them up.

The cafeteria zoo in Your First Day of Circus School by Tara Lazar. Illustrations by Melissa Crowton (Tundra Books)

The cafeteria zoo in Your First Day of Circus School by Tara Lazar. Illustrations by Melissa Crowton (Tundra Books)

Storystorm is actually just one of the many things you do for the kid lit community. You mentor, you teach, all this while raising two daughters. How do you do it all? And why do you do it all?

Well, I love what I do. When you love something, you don't even have to make the time for it, you just do it. It's in your nature. But honestly, I'm just sitting on a comfy chair all day, so what else am I gonna do???

What’s the most valuable writing advice you’ve ever received — and have you understood it differently or more deeply over time?

Jane Yolen's B.I.C.: butt in chair. (I would change that to butt in COMFY chair.) Stories don't write themselves. So get to work.

If you’d gone to circus school, what would your major have been?

Juggling! I taught myself to juggle when I was 10, but I never went beyond the typical three beanbags. I could juggle two in one hand, and do a couple fancy tricks, but I would have loved to learn something more impressive.

Thanks, Tara for talking with us on The Kids Are All Write!

Tara is the author of many funny picture books, including Your First Day of Circus School (Tundra Books, June 2019) and The Upper Case, Trouble in Capital City (Disney/Hyperion, Oct. 2019). She created and runs PiBoIdMo, now called Storystorm, an annual, free, month-long challenge to brainstorm ideas. She’s co-chair of the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Plus Conference and an SCBWI member. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, two daughters and the world’s cutest hamster, Ozzy. You can visit Tara at the links below:

Website: taralazar.com

Twitter: taralazar

Instagram: taralaser

Pinterest: taralazar

Andrea Wang's Magical Journey to 'Magic Ramen'

Magic Ramen, the Story of Momfuku Ando  by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Kana Urbanowicz. Published by little bee books

Magic Ramen, the Story of Momfuku Ando by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Kana Urbanowicz. Published by little bee books

Happy Instant Ramen Day! Aug. 25 is National Instant Ramen Day in Japan, which makes it a perfect day to celebrate the launch of Andrea Wang’s tasty new picture book biography, Magic Ramen, The Story of Momofuku Ando, illustrated by Kana Urbanowicz, and published by Little Bee Books. Andrea’s Magic Ramen is one of the 19 picture book biographies in 19PBbios along with my Martin & Anne, The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank. It has been wonderful getting to know Andrea and to follow her remarkable journey with this lyrical biography which you may think is about food, but is really about heart, passion and how much good each of us can do when, like Momofuku Ando, we have a vision to make the world a better place and we won’t let anyone deter us from seeing it through.

Andrea Wang, photo by Elaine Freitas Photography

Andrea Wang, photo by Elaine Freitas Photography

How did you first hear about Momofuku Ando? When and why did it strike you that he would be a great subject for a children’s book?

I first heard about Momofuku Ando from my husband, Tim. Years ago, he brought home a new cookbook called Momofuku by David Chang and Peter Meehan, and I asked him about the unusual title. Being a foodie, he explained that it was both the name of a hip noodle restaurant in New York City owned by Chang and the name of the inventor of instant ramen. Both of our sons were (and still are) huge instant ramen lovers and I was immediately curious about Ando’s story. As I learned more about Ando and the circumstances that led to him creating instant ramen, the more I wanted to write a picture book biography about him. Instant ramen is everywhere and I thought it would be fun to share how one person’s invention helped feed millions of people around the world.

How did you come to frame this as a story about peace and his mission to create a more peaceful world through providing affordable, nutritious food?

Reading Ando’s autobiographical essays, I was struck by how haunted he was by the sight of the starving people lined up at a black market ramen stall after WWII. While I don’t condone the Japanese government’s imperialist policy that led them to attack other countries in their quest for food and natural resources (among other things), I can empathize with the hunger that, in part, helped drive them to it and that was also a result of the wars they waged. Hunger is a powerful motivating force. Uttered in the aftermath of World War II, Ando’s words, “The world is peaceful only when everyone has enough to eat,” felt especially compelling. They also gave me the perfect framework for the story.

Momofuku Ando in his laboratory. Photo courtesy of Nissin Foods

Momofuku Ando in his laboratory. Photo courtesy of Nissin Foods

I love how you show so many failures on the way to his success. Why do you think he never gave up? What message do you hope this sends to kids?

Ando had “Six Key Ideas” that are displayed in the Cup Noodles Museum in Yokohama, Japan. I think these ideas show why he never gave up (especially #6) and also embody the messages that Ando hoped kids would take away from his story, so I’ll let him speak for himself.

Momofuku’s Six Key Ideas (from the Cup Noodles Museum brochure)

1. Discover something completely new: Seek things that the world has never seen but would be nice to have.

2. Find hints in all sorts of places: There are inspirations that spark new ideas all around you just waiting to be found.

3. Nurture an idea: An invention isn’t for just one person; have everyone use it.

4. Look at things from every angle: Investigate every perspective.

5. Don't just go with the status quo: Think over what you think are usual.

6. Never give up: Even if you fail the first time and the second time, keep on trying.

I hope kids see that even someone with no experience (Ando was a sock manufacturer and businessman and had no idea how to make noodles) can succeed, through hard work, grit, and perseverance. Of course, there’s no guarantee of success at the end, but failure is just another step on the path -- if you let one failure stop you, you definitely won’t achieve your dream.

What was your biggest challenge writing the book?

I reached a point where I felt I really needed Ando’s own thoughts, beyond what he expressed in interviews and articles that I found online. I knew that he had written a series of autobiographical essays that were compiled into a book, but it was only available in Japanese, which I don’t know. Then I found that the book had been translated into English, but had only been published in-house by Nissin. I couldn’t find a copy available for sale anywhere. Finally, I wrote to Nissin USA asking for help and after initially being told they didn’t have any copies, an incredibly kind and generous employee located a copy and sent it to me. I couldn’t have written Magic Ramen without it.

Cover of Ando's autobiography.jpg

How do you feel about the illustrations? Were there any surprises there? Any favorite images?

I LOVE the illustrations that Kana Urbanowicz drew! I had never seen that manga style of illustration in a US picture book before, so that was a delightful surprise. My favorite image is the one where Ando sees the line of starving people – it’s so powerful and packs an emotional punch. Kana is Japanese (Urbanowicz is her married name), and she did an amazing job conveying a difficult setting authentically and sensitively.

Magic Ramen, the Story of Momofuku Ando  by Andrea Wang, illustration by Kana Urbanowicz

Magic Ramen, the Story of Momofuku Ando by Andrea Wang, illustration by Kana Urbanowicz

It’s so cool that a Japanese astronaut took ramen into outer space. Was it the same as the ramen we have here or is it made differently for astronauts?

Space Ram is very different from earth ramen! The International Space Station has low gravity (also called microgravity), so the soup had to be thicker/denser in order for it not to float. It also turns out that it’s very difficult to boil water on the ISS, so the ramen noodles had to be different in shape, size, and ingredients in order to cook in water that is only 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

What was your own first personal experience with ramen? Do you have any favorite flavors?

My only real memory of eating instant ramen as a child is in a motel room with my family. We had driven somewhere for vacation and my parents had packed an electric hot water kettle, packages of ramen, and chopsticks. In hindsight, they did it to save money, but as a child, it seemed fun and magical to make noodles in our motel room and eat them sitting on our beds. Plus, it was soothing to have chicken ramen soup after a long day in the car. My favorite flavor is still the original chicken ramen!

I hear you have at least one wild and wacky ramen recipe. Can you share it with us?

The idea of eating cold noodles is probably not too wild – pasta salad is popular in the US, after all. But how about eating cold noodles that taste like cinnamon buns? I definitely think that’s wacky. But one creative individual did just that, making noodles into a dessert. He used regular lo mein noodles in his recipe, but using instant ramen would make it super fast and convenient!

Yi Reservation’s Sweet Cinnamon Cold Noodle Dessert was the inspiration for Andrea Wang’s recipe, courtesy of Yi Reservation

Yi Reservation’s Sweet Cinnamon Cold Noodle Dessert was the inspiration for Andrea Wang’s recipe, courtesy of Yi Reservation

Sweet Cinnamon Cold Noodle Dessert

Ingredients:

• 2 packages of instant ramen, noodle blocks only (discard the seasoning packets or save for another use)

• 1 medium-sized apple

• Sliced toasted almonds for garnish (optional)

Cinnamon Dressing

• ½ stick butter

• 1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon

• ¼ cup brown sugar

Frosting

• 2 oz. or ¼ block cream cheese, softened

• ¼ cup confectioner’s sugar

• ¼ cup milk

• 1 tsp vanilla extract

Directions:

Make the dressing by melting the butter in a sauce pan over low heat (or use a microwave). Mix in the brown sugar and cinnamon, stirring until well combined. Set aside.

Make the frosting by beating the cream cheese, milk, and vanilla together. Gradually beat in the confectioner’s sugar until smooth. Transfer the frosting to a ziploc bag, seal, and snip off the tip of one corner to make a pastry bag. Set aside.

Peel the apple and cut into thin slices or strips. Set aside.

Prepare the instant ramen by boiling in water for 3 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse the noodles in cold running water until chilled.

In a mixing bowl, combine the chilled noodles with the apple strips. Add the cinnamon dressing and toss until the noodles are evenly coated. Divide the noodles into 4 portions on separate plates. Pipe the frosting on top of the noodles by squeezing the ziploc bag gently. Garnish with toasted almond slices if desired. Enjoy!

(adapted from Yi Reservation, yireservation.com/recipes/sweet-cinnamon-cold-noodle-dessert/)

Is there anything you would like to add?

In Japan, August 25th is Instant Ramen Day, to commemorate that groundbreaking day in 1958 when Momofuku Ando and his company Nissin Foods released Chicken Ramen to the world. I hope you’ll celebrate with me by enjoying some instant ramen, whether it’s a recipe “hack” from the internet or a simple-but-satisfying bowl of hot ramen noodle soup!

I’m thrilled that Magic Ramen is a Junior Library Guild Selection and received a starred review from School Library Journal! You can purchase Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando through your local indie bookstore or on Amazon.

A free teacher’s guide for Magic Ramen is available on my website at andreaywang.com. I’ll also be posting a bibliography for the book on my website soon, in case any students or educators need it. Follow me on Facebook at Andrea C. Wang, on Twitter at @AndreaYWang, or on Instagram at @AndreaWhyWang.

For Denver-area folks, I’ll be at the Tattered Cover Educator Nights on Sept. 4th and 5th and at BookBar’s BookFest on October 19th. I’ll also be presenting at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention in Baltimore on Nov. 23, 2019, and at the Colorado Council of the International Reading Association (CCIRA) conference on Feb. 6, 2020.

Thank you, Andrea, for hanging out with us on THE KIDS ARE ALL WRITE!

Celebrating the real Charlie of 'Charlie Takes His Shot' on the anniversary of his historic win

Charlie Sifford made history at the Greater Hartford Open Invitational on Aug. 20, 1967. This is John Joven’s illustration of Charlie’s historic win in CHARLIE TAKES HIS SHOT, published by Albert Whitman

Charlie Sifford made history at the Greater Hartford Open Invitational on Aug. 20, 1967. This is John Joven’s illustration of Charlie’s historic win in CHARLIE TAKES HIS SHOT, published by Albert Whitman

One of the joys of writing about real people is the real people you get to meet that are connected to that person’s life. Writing CHARLIE TAKES HIS SHOT, HOW CHARLIE SIFFORD BROKE THE COLOR BARRIER IN GOLF put me in touch with two extraordinary people in their own right: Charlie Sifford’s son, Charles Sifford, Jr., and Matthew Mosk, grandson of Stanley Mosk, the lawyer and former California State Supreme Court Judge who intervened with the PGA Tour to eliminate the Caucasian Clause in their constitution that prevented the right of Charlie and all other golfers of color to compete in their tournaments.

Tuesday, Aug. 20 marks a key moment in Charlie Sifford’s life, in the history of golf and in the ongoing fight for civil rights. It is the anniversary of the day Charlie Sifford won the Greater Hartford Open Invitational in 1967 — the first PGA Tour win by the first African American on the PGA Tour. The enormity of what Charlie Sifford accomplished, persevering with his dream of playing golf at the highest level, has been acknowledged by President Barack Obama, who awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.

I’m very grateful to Charles Sifford Jr. and Matthew Mosk for sharing their memories with us here on THE KIDS ARE ALL WRITE. Here’s a Q and A with Charles Sifford Jr. followed by words from Matthew Mosk.

Charlie Sifford is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama at The White House in 2014. Photo courtesy of Charles Sifford Jr.

Charlie Sifford is awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama at The White House in 2014. Photo courtesy of Charles Sifford Jr.

My Q and A with Charles Sifford Jr.

Aug. 20 marks the 52nd anniversary of your father’s win at the Greater Hartford Open Invitational in 1967. Did you know then the significance of this win? How do you feel about it now, looking back?

I was 20 years old when my father won the tournament in 1967 and at that time I did not realize the significance of his tournament win. I knew it was a career goal but in the moment it did not loom large other than as a means to support our family.

I now realize it was a major accomplishment. In fact, it was a significant achievement considering no one expected an African American to play on the PGA tour let alone win a major tournament at the age of forty-five.

When your father started his career as a professional golfer, there were a lot of people who didn’t think that golf would ever be integrated. What do you think gave your parents the will to go for his goal?

My father was a fighter; he was very determined and was not going to let anyone or anything stop him from achieving his teenage dream. My mother had a quiet demeanor but an even stronger resolve in support of his golf career. She was always encouraging and supported him in pursuit of his dream as well as taking care of the family while he was on the tour.

Charlie Sifford with his granddaughter Julie and great-grandson Gregory at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House in 2014.

Charlie Sifford with his granddaughter Julie and great-grandson Gregory at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House in 2014.

Did you understand growing up what he was trying to do? How did you feel about it?

Growing up I did not understand what he was attempting to do; he was driven to make his mark in golf – he always wanted to pursue the sport he loved and knew he had to work hard to achieve success.

I have become aware that he did something amazing. He would often say if a person has a dream and works hard, he has a good chance of becoming successful regardless of the obstacles faced.

Were there some rough or scary experiences along the way for your family? What were the biggest sacrifices your family had to make?

The most frightening experience my father faced was his personal security. He often played amid death threats; disrespectful treatment by professionals and businesses; as well as the racial indignities and insults by golf fans. Several times he was told if he appeared at the golf course he would leave in a body bag. There were other issues associated with his tour travel, especially in the southern part of the country. There were many restaurants would not serve him; and hotels refused accommodations. In addition, many times tournaments clubhouse facilities refused him access to the locker room. He would often change his clothes in the car.

I would say the biggest sacrifice our family made was my father’s daily absence from the family. While on tour he was often away weeks at a time. In the early tour years it was not safe for my mother or me to accompany him. In addition, my mother also worked to assist in supporting the family. In the move to Los Angeles for more tour opportunities we left our strong family support system in Philadelphia.

Your father got to experience some amazing recognition in his lifetime. Can you tell us what it meant to him to go the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2014?

Being selected as the first African American golfer to receive the Medal of Freedom Award was one of the greatest experiences. The award was most notable as it was presented by the first African American President of the United States, Barack Obama. My father was 92 years old. He was overly excited upon hearing he would receive the award. He wanted new clothes and shoes, expressing his desire to look his best to meet the President. He shared the good news with family and friends. Although, this was an unexpected award he was extremely grateful and beamed with pride. He wore his award attire with the distinguished medal to church still beaming with pride.

Charlie Sifford wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom

Charlie Sifford wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom

What was it like for him to see the rise of Tiger Woods?

He was very happy Tiger came along and made significant accomplishments in golf. He was disappointed that other golfers of color took so long to win major tournaments and there are so few minority players on the tour. Calvin Peete won many tournaments in the 80s.

What are some of the honors for your father that have made you proud?

The family witnessed his induction in the World Golf Hall of Fame- another extraordinary accomplishment. We were proud of him when we watched in awe as he spoke to acknowledge his award. Family pride was on display again as my brother and I accompanied him to Scotland. He received an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree from the University of St. Andrews. He was extremely proud of this honor because he did not get an opportunity to graduate from high school.

(Top) Charlie Sifford and sons Charles Sifford Jr. and Craig Sifford at the University of St. Andrews where Charlie Sifford received an honorary doctorate degree in 2006. (Bottom) Charlie Sifford, Charles Sifford Jr., Charles Sifford Jr.’s daughter, Julia, and his wife, Annie at the World Golf Hall of Fame induction in 2004.

(Top) Charlie Sifford and sons Charles Sifford Jr. and Craig Sifford at the University of St. Andrews where Charlie Sifford received an honorary doctorate degree in 2006. (Bottom) Charlie Sifford, Charles Sifford Jr., Charles Sifford Jr.’s daughter, Julia, and his wife, Annie at the World Golf Hall of Fame induction in 2004.


In 2015, after your father passed away, you accepted the award for your father being inducted in the PGA Hall of Fame. How did that feel?

I felt immense pride to accept the award on my father’s behalf for the PGA Hall of fame. I only wish he was around to personally accept the award.

One thing that surprised me in working on CHARLIE TAKES HIS SHOT, was how few people outside the golf world knew about your father’s courage, persistence and incredible achievements. Do you have any thoughts on why his story isn’t more widely known?

My father was not known outside of golf because many of his accomplishments happened long ago – he played as early as the 40’s 50’s. In addition, golf is a game that was played by the rich, on private country clubs where people of color could only hold menial jobs. This history of golf did not recall his early days, only later did he get the national recognition that made most golf enthusiasts aware of his accomplishments.

I am very grateful for your family’s support for the book. I hope it makes a difference in bringing his story to life for a new generation. Do you have any favorite parts?

I have read the book several times. One paragraph the stood out is the law suit filed to eliminate the Caucasian only clause; as a result he received his PGA tour card.

I understand you have a grandson who likes to play golf. Does he know his grandfather’s story? Does it make him proud?

My grandson, Gregory, is very proud of his Papa- he has his picture clipped on his book bag and several favorite pictures throughout his bedroom. He treasures the autographed copy of the book; he knows the story but may not fully comprehend all of the obstacles faced. He proudly states his Papa was the first African American golfer on the PGA tour.

Charlie Sifford’s great-grandson, Gregory, loves to play golf, too! Photo courtesy of Annie Sifford.

Charlie Sifford’s great-grandson, Gregory, loves to play golf, too! Photo courtesy of Annie Sifford.

Gregory standing in front of a portrait of his great-grandfather, Charlie Sifford. Photo courtesy of Annie Sifford.

Gregory standing in front of a portrait of his great-grandfather, Charlie Sifford. Photo courtesy of Annie Sifford.


Is there anything else you would like kids to know about your dad?

Children should know that my father was very fond of them – he specifically encouraged them to stay in school and get a good education. He encouraged them to work hard and not to give up on their dreams.

I would also like to say that my father always acknowledged the support as well as expressed admiration for his network of fellow African American golfers. Many were very close – Pete Brown; Jim Dent; Lee Elder, George Johnson, Walter Morgan; Calvin Peete; Ted Rhodes; Chuck and Jim Thorpe and entertainment or athletic professionals as well - boxer Joe Louis; singer Billy Eckstine; baseball player Jackie Robinson. In addition, he had a number of friends that supported him early on by providing lodging; meals and transportation as he pursued his professional golf career.

Baseball great Jackie Robinson is one of the many athletes and friends Charlie Sifford admired and appreciated for his support, Charles Sifford Jr. says. Illustration by John Joven for CHARLIE TAKES HIS SHOT by Nancy Churnin, published by Albert Whitman

Baseball great Jackie Robinson is one of the many athletes and friends Charlie Sifford admired and appreciated for his support, Charles Sifford Jr. says. Illustration by John Joven for CHARLIE TAKES HIS SHOT by Nancy Churnin, published by Albert Whitman

Thank you, Charles Sifford Jr. for this wonderful interview! And now a few words from Matthew Mosk, grandson of Stanley Mosk, who fought for Charlie Sifford’s right to play.

From Matthew Mosk:

Thank you for your interest in Stanley Mosk, and for your thoughtful portrayal of his role in helping Charlie Sifford erase the color lines. Stanley was very proud of that and other landmark cases — like his role in defeating racial covenants in housing. Stanley was my grandfather, and I think generally quite modest, so he didn’t talk much about it with me. (He used to joke that when he started his legal career in Los Angeles he had a $25 case and two smaller ones!)

But my father Richard, who was also a judge, was extraordinarily proud of this legacy and spoke of it often. And I believe he got to know the Sifford family as well as others who had worked with my grandfather to champion civil rights causes during the middle and latter part of the 20th century. My father wanted Stanley to be remembered for these legal fights, which took courage and creativity to win. So thanks to you for fulfillng that wish. 

Stanley Mosk and Charlie Sifford becoming friends in this illustration by John Joven in  Charlie Takes His Shot  (Albert Whitman & Company)

Stanley Mosk and Charlie Sifford becoming friends in this illustration by John Joven in Charlie Takes His Shot (Albert Whitman & Company)

—————————————————————-

Thank YOU, Matthew Mosk, for these kind words and also for sharing this extraordinary photo of Stanley Mosk with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom Stanley Mosk admired and supported.

Stanley Mosk and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo courtesy of Matthew Mosk

Stanley Mosk and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo courtesy of Matthew Mosk


CHARLIE TAKES HIS SHOT, HOW CHARLIE SIFFORD BROKE THE COLOR BARRIER IN GOLF (written by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by John Joven, published by Albert Whitman & Company) was selected as a Silver Eureka winner by the California Reading Association and was featured at the Ruby Bridges Reading Festival at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee in 2018.

I’ll be presenting it next at the Tulisoma South Dallas Book Fair Saturday, Aug. 24 at the African American Museum in Fair Park in Dallas.

You’ll find a free Teacher Guide, resources and more on nancychurnin.com/charlie-makes-his-shot

You can request autographed copies at Interabang Books. Schools and non-profits can request autographed copies through Express Booksellers. Books are also available at IPG Books, Amazon, Barnes & Noble and your local independent bookstore. If your library doesn’t carry Charlie Takes His Shot, please ask for it to be ordered and then, check it out! Your reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are free and greatly appreciated. And yes, in case you were wondering, I am available for author visits through Authors & More. Thank you in advance for spreading the word about Charlie Sifford, Stanley Mosk and the great things that can happen when we take our shots and help others take theirs.


Happy 160th Birthday, Katharine Lee Bates, Poet of "America the Beautiful"!

Katharine Lee Bates in 1925 in her study, photo courtesy of Melinda M. Ponder and the Wellesley College Archives

Katharine Lee Bates in 1925 in her study, photo courtesy of Melinda M. Ponder and the Wellesley College Archives

Most people know Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Some people know that Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America.” But on my author visits to schools across the country, I found that hardly anyone — kids or teachers — knows who wrote “America the Beautiful.”

That’s why I’ve been so excited to work on FOR SPACIOUS SKIES, KATHARINE LEE BATES AND THE INSPIRATION FOR ‘AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL,’ a picture book biography of the poet, suffragette and Wellesley English professor who wrote this beautiful poem that became one of America’s most famous and beloved songs.

The book, edited by Wendy McClure (a wonderful author in her own right), releases April 2020 from Albert Whitman & Company, with fabulous illustrations by Olga Baumert that will make you feel the spray of the waves in Katharine’s native Falmouth, Massachusetts. I’m thankful to Katharine Lee Bates’s great-great-grandnieces, Katharine Lee Holland and Elizabeth Olmstead Null and author Melinda M. Ponder for their help in reading the manuscript for accuracy.

I think Katharine would be pleased to see an all-women team making her picture book biography happen!

While it’s too soon to show you a cover (or provide you with a pre-order link!), I want to celebrate Katharine now — because Aug. 12, 1859 marks her 160th birthday. Happily we can celebrate now with the wonderful adult biography, Katharine Lee Bates, From Sea to Shining Sea, by Melinda M. Ponder who, like Katharine, is a Wellesley graduate who has gone on to become a professor. Not only has Melinda written a terrific, detailed and impressively researched book, she has been kind enough to encourage and help me with my own research for my picture book biography.

Thank you, Melinda for taking time to answer questions about Katharine and your book!

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What inspired you to write about Katharine Lee Bates?

When I was nine years old, I learned to sing “America the Beautiful” at school in Indianapolis, and my mother proudly told me that a woman from her women’s college, Wellesley College, had written it. But I didn’t realize then how surprising it was that a woman could write such a song! And when I went to Wellesley College myself, we sang all four of its verses on special occasions. But it was not until years later, when I was on a panel with three other experts on the great American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, that we singled out wonderful commentaries by someone named Katharine Lee Bates as the very best. I wondered if this woman could possibly be the poet of “America the Beautiful”…..How could she have written such patriotic words and also know so much about Hawthorne?

Since I had been looking for a little-known woman to write about, I went to the Wellesley College archives to check out she had written. There I found boxes of her letters, diaries, her more than 30 published books, and best of all, the scrapbooks into which she had pasted every tiny clipping of the many poems and stories that she had published in newspapers and magazines, since she was quite a popular writer. Once I started reading them, I tried to imagine her life more than 150 years ago.

Katharine Lee Bates as an infant, courtesy of Melinda M. Ponder and the Wellesley College Archives

Katharine Lee Bates as an infant, courtesy of Melinda M. Ponder and the Wellesley College Archives

To do that, I became a detective, searching out newspaper stories that chronicled American life from 1859-1929, Katharine’s lifetime. I tracked down Wellesley graduates who could tell me what it was like to be her student, especially when she taught classes in her home that she called The Scarab, named for an insect that she said was “always climbing,” as Katharine herself was throughout her life, traveling to distant countries, speaking up for exploited factory workers and for girls to be educated. I got to know Bates family members who remembered their aunt, one of whom told me that my biography of her had brought her back to life for him!

Since Katharine had loved to travel, I went to the places that were important to her—her birthplace on Cape Cod, Boston, Chicago, Colorado, London, Oxford, Spain, Egypt, and the Verdun, France battlefields where soldiers had stood and sung “America the Beautiful” when the war stopped on Nov. 11, 1918. I wanted to understand what each place had meant to her.

Melinda M. Ponder at the house where Katharine Lee Bates was born and raised in Falmouth, Massachusetts

Melinda M. Ponder at the house where Katharine Lee Bates was born and raised in Falmouth, Massachusetts

As we approach what would have been her 160th birthday, what do you want readers to know about her?

Katharine Lee Bates was a complicated, multi-faceted woman who wanted Americans to learn about their history, their writers, and each other. She was a trailblazer who wanted to create a kind of Inclusive global community. She used her talents as a writer to help her readers empathize with people from different classes and nations.

Did you know from the start how you were going to structure the book and that you would call it Katharine Lee Bates: From Sea to Shining Sea? Or did you discover all this on your journey with the writing?

I loved doing research on Katharine for fifteen years, even though I was busy teaching at a women’s college. Then I spent ten more years writing and revising Katharine’s story so that readers could feel that they knew her and root for her. Having moved from the Midwest to Boston myself, I loved the seacoast and could picture Katharine’s childhood, as she put it, “rock’d in a clamshell.” She read and wrote poems about early explorers and adored beginning each of her many journeys, writing, the “tide is calling: the anchors lift." So I saw her life as a long journey to reach more readers and make America better. The more I worked on the book, that became its theme, especially because, at the end of her life, she saw that her words about the “sea to shining sea” could describe the seas circling the globe and creating one giant community.

Melinda M. Ponder on the seacoast of Katharine Lee Bates’ childhood

Melinda M. Ponder on the seacoast of Katharine Lee Bates’ childhood

Did anything surprise you or move you unexpectedly in the course of your research?

Once I found a strand of her hair in her diary! But I also discovered the two men who courted and loved her. But in those days, she could not have remained a Wellesley professor if she had married. This was a painful dilemma for her, since she needed to support herself, and very few careers were open to women. So she never married, but she was surrounded at Wellesley by young energetic colleagues, social activists who pulled her into the challenges facing America after the Civil War of overcrowded cities, unfair working conditions, and immigrants who needed help. And her creative drive enabled her to be a social activist through what she wrote.

What was it like for you as an alumna of Katharine Lee Bates’ school, Wellesley College, to walk on the same ground she walked? Did that give you any special insight or connection with her?

Although the campus has many new buildings since Katharine’s days there, it is still a beautiful place on a lake, with giant trees and lovely landscaping. But I gained a new appreciation of the college working on my book as I learned about its early history. Its creator and founder was a man who believed that his female students could re-form the country after the Civil War. He was an important mentor to Katharine because he understood her burning desire to become a poet since he had once had that dream himself. He took Katharine to meet his poet friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, then a rock star as a popular poet, who praised Katharine’s poem in the Atlantic Monthly. I could imagine her visit in detail since I live down the street from Longfellow’s house.

Wellesley’s College Hall that Katharine entered in 1876 in the class of 1880 to become “Katie of ’80.” Photo courtesy of Melinda M. Ponder and the Wellesley College Archives

Wellesley’s College Hall that Katharine entered in 1876 in the class of 1880 to become “Katie of ’80.” Photo courtesy of Melinda M. Ponder and the Wellesley College Archives

I get the sense that as an English professor yourself at Pine Manor College, you have a strong identification with Katharine Lee Bates. Can you tell me what insights your life has given you into hers and what insights studying her life has given you into your own?

Yes, I was interested in how she brought poetry to life for her students, how she mentored younger poets like Robert Frost, and I understood how she felt when she wrote, “Lived through classes only to play golf…”!

I am very grateful to you for the help and support you’ve given me with the picture book I’ve written for children, For Spacious Skies, Katharine Lee Bates and the Inspiration for “America the Beautiful” coming out in April 2020 from Albert Whitman & Company. How do you feel about a new generation of kids knowing about this amazing woman and what she contributed to America?

It is wonderful that kids will know about her at an early age since her favorite audiences were children and young people. I hope children who read your book, when they are a little older, will want to read the book that I am working on now-- a biography of Katharine Lee Bates for middle-grade readers. And what a great role model she is for us all as a fearless woman who still helps Americans voice their love for their country when we sing her words.

Melinda M. Ponder, Author

Katharine Lee Bates: From Sea to Shining Sea (available on Amazon here)

www.melindaponder.com

Facebook: KatharineLeeBatesBOOK

Twitter: melinda_ponder

Instagram: katharineleebates


Melinda M. Ponder

Melinda M. Ponder

When Katharine returned to teach at Wellesley in 1885, she was greeted by young president Alice Freeman, second from left standing next to the column, appointed when she was 26 years old. Photo courtesy of Melinda M. Ponder and the Wellesley College Archives

When Katharine returned to teach at Wellesley in 1885, she was greeted by young president Alice Freeman, second from left standing next to the column, appointed when she was 26 years old. Photo courtesy of Melinda M. Ponder and the Wellesley College Archives

Manjhi in Many Languages: Room to Read Moves Mountains

toby and manjhi.jpg

I was thrilled to open up a fat envelope and find copies of Manjhi Moves a Mountain in eight languages spoken in India and Sri Lanka.

Thanks goes to Room to Read, a remarkable charitable organization, based in San Francisco, that is dedicated to providing children in literature-deprived communities with books in their spoken language.

“The children we serve do not have access to any high quality children’s books in a language they can read,” Christabel Pinto, the organization’s Global Literacy Director, wrote me in an email. “An early childhood with zero books seems unimaginable to me, but it’s an unfortunate reality for too many. And Room to Read (RtR) works in communities that do not have a culture of reading in countries that do not have developed children’s book publishing industries, so we are starting from scratch.”

Manjhi Moves a Mountain  in Tamil, a language spoken in Sri Lanka

Manjhi Moves a Mountain in Tamil, a language spoken in Sri Lanka

It seems fitting that the story of Dashrath Manjhi, the hero of Manjhi Moves a Mountain, would promote literacy. After all, Manjhi spent 22 years chiseling a path through a 300-foot mountain in his native India to help kids in his poor village get to school on the other side.

I created a program to honor Manjhi called MOVE YOUR OWN MOUNTAIN where kids share how they are moving mountains in their schools and communities by doing kind things for others. There’s no question in my mind that Room to Read is moving mountains every day by commissioning these translations and bringing them to kids in need.

On the Move Your Own Mountain page: Pia Allibhoy, 8, is making a difference like Manjhi by inviting friends who sit on the buddy bench to join her games. She also volunteers at her local pet shelter once a week. She says that when she grows up she is going to become a culinary chemist and invent new foods to help the world get healthy. Thank you, Pia, for spreading kindness and sharing this beautiful picture of yourself playing with a kitten at the animal shelter. #PiaMovesMountains

On the Move Your Own Mountain page: Pia Allibhoy, 8, is making a difference like Manjhi by inviting friends who sit on the buddy bench to join her games. She also volunteers at her local pet shelter once a week. She says that when she grows up she is going to become a culinary chemist and invent new foods to help the world get healthy. Thank you, Pia, for spreading kindness and sharing this beautiful picture of yourself playing with a kitten at the animal shelter. #PiaMovesMountains

Manjhi never expected or wanted anything in return for helping the people in his village. When the government of India thanked him by giving him land, this man who had never owned any land in his life gave it to his village in the hope that people would build a school and a hospital.

Now the story of this man who dedicated his life to helping kids get an education is educating kids who live in India and Sri Lanka, who speak Hindi, Gujarati, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Nepali, Tamil and Sinhala, thanks to Room to Read. Plus, in a separate and also wonderful effort, National Braille Press has made Manjhi available in Braille. While Room to Read translations aren’t available to the general public — yet — you can buy Manjhi in Braille on the National Braille Press website here.

Manjhi Moves a Mountain in Gujarati, translated by Room to Read

Manjhi Moves a Mountain in Gujarati, translated by Room to Read

I am grateful that this true story, exquisitely illustrated by Danny Popovici in watercolors, published by Creston Books and distributed by Lerner Books, has won many awards that have brought it attention. Among them: the 2018 South Asia Book Award, the 2019 Anne Izard Storytellers Choice Award, a Junior Library Guild selection, a National Council for the Social Studies Notable, an International Literacy Association Choice and a California Reading Association Silver Eureka.

When I thanked Christabel Pinto from Room to Read for choosing Manjhi to translate, the awards were never mentioned. Instead, I received this lovely response that suggests Manjhi made his own special connection with the committee that chooses books: “We are equally thrilled to have your wonderful book as part of the collection of books we can offer some of the world’s neediest children! Thank *you* for your gift of storytelling and for joining us on our mission in this way. We are very grateful. When we shared options for books that could be translated for use to our country teams, they chose your book. It’s a sweet and inspiring story, and I love it too.”

I’ve been turning the translated books over and over in my hands, filled with wonder. It’s always a thrill to see books translated and to imagine the adventures they will have in other lands. But in this case, the best part has been seeing Manhi’s story fulfill the mission of the real Manjhi — to help the children and make the world a better place. That makes me most thankful of all.

For more on Room to Read and how to support its mission, click here.

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Manjhi Moves a Mountain  in Sinhala, translated by Room to Read

Manjhi Moves a Mountain in Sinhala, translated by Room to Read



Leslea Newman's Moving, Decades-long Journey to telling 'Gittel's Journey'

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One of the thrills of being a part of the children’s book community is meeting people like Leslea Newman, who has become both a friend and a mentor who has opened my eyes to the magic of historical fiction for kids. While my first book, The William Hoy Story, How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game debuted three years ago, Leslea broke ground three decades ago with Heather Has Two Mommies in 1989, one of the first popular children’s books to show a family with two moms. Being a voice for those who needed one when voices like hers were being attacked is impressive enough. But Leslea has gone on to create a rich, full body of work that runs a wide gamut of subjects, from the serious to light-hearted.

If there’s a strand that connects Leslea’s books, it’s her love and support for ordinary people (and cats) who just want to enjoy their lives. While all her books her personal, woven with deep feelings and connection, her latest, Gittel’s Journey, an Ellis Island Story (with glorious illustrations by Amy June Bates), seems to hit the most close to home. This story of a young immigrant who must draw on all her courage when she finds herself alone on a boat making her way to Ellis Island is inspired by the stories of two of Leslea’s relatives.

As someone whose grandparents made similar journeys to America, I had lots of questions about how this beautiful book came to be and Leslea, being Leslea, graciously agreed to take the time to answer them all. Thank you, Leslea!

Leslea with her Aunt Phyllis, now 91, whose family stories helped inspire the book, illustrated by Amy June Bates and published by Abrams Books for Young Readers. Photo by Mary Vazquez

Leslea with her Aunt Phyllis, now 91, whose family stories helped inspire the book, illustrated by Amy June Bates and published by Abrams Books for Young Readers. Photo by Mary Vazquez

You’ve been a published author for three decades, with more than 70 books to your credit. You write for adults, teens and kids. You write poetry and prose. Did you know right away how you were going to tell Gittel’s Journey — whether it would be historical fiction, fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose, a picture book or for older readers?

Leslea: I knew right away that it would be a story for children and that it would be fiction. And of course, since it is based on a true story, it would be historical fiction by default. I didn’t know at first whether it would be a picture book or a chapter book. It turned into a picture book with a fair amount of text. Several members of my writers group suggested that I turn it into a chapter book, but I really felt that it needed a substantial amount of art to support the text. Amy June Bates did an amazing job.

“You must be very brave, Gittel. Take this.” — from Gittel’s Journey by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates (Abrams Books for Young Readers)

“You must be very brave, Gittel. Take this.” — from Gittel’s Journey by Leslea Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates (Abrams Books for Young Readers)

Do you usually know how you are going to tell a story and who the audience will be?

I let the writing lead me to where it wants to go. Sometimes I know how a story is going to take form, but more often, I am greatly surprised. That’s the fun part of writing!

Can you tell us about your journey to Gittel’s Journey? When did you first become aware of the family stories that inspired your book?

The story about my grandmother Ruth Levin's journey to America and the story of my godmother Aunt Phyllis' mother Sadie Gringrass are engraved on my bones. I grew up with these stories. I have known them since the cradle.

Leslea and her Grandma Ruthie, who gave her the brass candlesticks that play a key role in the book. Leslea continues to light candles in them on Shabbos. Taken in 1989 by Sue Tyler.

Leslea and her Grandma Ruthie, who gave her the brass candlesticks that play a key role in the book. Leslea continues to light candles in them on Shabbos. Taken in 1989 by Sue Tyler.

Why do you think it took you so long to turn this story into a book? How do you feel it reflects on issues that America is wrestling with now? Is it coincidental or intentional that Gittel’s Journey reminds America of young, hopeful immigrants of yesterday at a time when immigrants are increasingly under attack today?

We are all treasure chests full of stories. Sometimes something triggers one of those stories that has been lying dormant to wake up and demand to be told. In this case, I saw a photo of Syrian refugees on a small boat off the coast of Turkey. Their faces were full of fear, hope, longing, and sorrow. And all of a sudden the stories of my ancestors’ journeys flashed before my eyes. Of course Gittel’s Journey has great relevance to what is going on today. At the start of the 1900’s, there were many issues concerning immigrants just as there are right now. I suppose there will always be people who are generous and welcoming, and unfortunately, there will always be people who are just the opposite. I think that unwillingness to make room for others stems from fear. I hope that kindness will win in the end.

I am honored to have been the recipient of one of your wonderful critiques. I remember one thing that made me laugh but then think more deeply was your advice to limit if not eliminate the use of exclamation points. The more I thought about it, the more I thought how that fits into the type of people you write about. You don’t tend to write about “exclamation point” people — people who draw a lot of attention to themselves. Instead, from Heather in Heather Has Two Mommies to Gittel in Gittel’s Journey, you write about the quiet beauty of people trying to live their lives with love and hope. What do you — and we -- learn from focusing on everyday people as opposed to famous people?

We are all people. I don’t think there are “People” with a capital “P” and people with a lower case “p.” Everyone has an interesting story to tell and we can all learn a great deal from each other. The key is listening with an open heart.

Where do you find the details for your books, things like the heavy woolen skirt and sweater, the two apples, hunk of bread, wedge of cheese, the donkeys and horse-drawn carts, the scratchy straw mattress on the ship? Do you store notes about these details and refer to them while you write?

I love love love doing research. When I’m writing a story I keep the forward momentum going, so if I need a detail that I don’t have, I leave a blank space and come back to it later. In the case of Gittel’s Journey, I read books that contain oral histories of people who immigrated around the same time as my ancestors, I spent a lot of time on the Ellis Island website, and best of all I went to Ellis Island which has a fantastic museum.

Leslea’s Ketzel the Cat Who Composed was also illustrated by Amy June Bates. (Candlewick)

Leslea’s Ketzel the Cat Who Composed was also illustrated by Amy June Bates. (Candlewick)

Did you have any input into the gorgeous illustrations by Amy June Bates? Were you surprised when you saw them? What feelings did they evoke for you?

I did not give Amy any input. She had illustrated a book of mine previously (Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed) and she’d done such a fantastic job with it, I knew the art work for Gittel’s Journey would also be quite beautiful. But I didn’t know just how beautiful it would be! Amy surpassed all my expectations. The way she visually captures the emotions of the characters is truly stunning. When I showed the book to my Aunt Phyllis (the real Gittel’s daughter) she was so moved, she cried.

What has surprised you most on your journey with this book? What has made you happiest? Has any part of it been difficult or sad?

What has made me happiest is sharing the book with my Aunt Phyllis, her sons, her grandsons, and her great-grandchildren. I am very sad that my grandmother and my parents did not live to see this book.

The brass candlesticks that Leslea’s Grandma Ruthie brought from the Old Country and gave to her. Photo by Mary Vazquez.

The brass candlesticks that Leslea’s Grandma Ruthie brought from the Old Country and gave to her. Photo by Mary Vazquez.

Please share your feelings about the candlesticks that your Grandma Ruthie gave to you that inspired the ones that Gittel brings with her to America. Now, when you light them on Shabbos, do they feel any different now that they are stars of your book? (Do they know they are stars of your book?)

I love the idea of my grandmother’s candlesticks being “stars.” My grandmother gave me her Shabbos candlesticks when she was 99 years old and knew that she was at the end of her life. I always think of her when I light candles and sing the blessing on Friday night. Having her candlesticks appear in a book doesn’t change that. She has been gone for 30 years and I miss her every day.

What inspired you to combine the story of your Grandma Ruthie’s candlesticks with the story of your beloved Aunt Phyllis, to whom you dedicate the book: For Aunt Phyllis — I love you to pieces!

It’s hard to answer this question. Writing is very much an intuitive process, and this just felt right. The more one writes, the more one learns to trust one’s intuition. Either something feels right or it doesn’t. So in this case, I asked myself, what would a mother and daughter bring with them from the Old Country to America? And I wanted them to bring something that reminded them of home and was of great emotional value. So I gave Gittel a doll that belonged to her best friend, and I gave her mother a pair of Shabbos candlesticks. And of course when Gittel and her mother get separated and it turns out that Gittel has to make the journey alone, the candlesticks become even more important, as they are Gittel’s link to her family.

Sadie Gringrass (the real Gittel), courtesy of Phyllis Rubin.

Sadie Gringrass (the real Gittel), courtesy of Phyllis Rubin.

Do you have any presentations or events coming up for Gittel’s Journey? What books can we look forward to next?

I have made a short documentary called “We Are A Country of Immigrants” which is basically a conversation between my Aunt Phyllis and me about her mother’s journey, what is was like for her to be the child of immigrants, how she feels about what is going with immigration today, etc. Since my aunt is in her 90’s, she can’t travel around with me to speak about the book (though we did have a wonderful event at the Jewish Community Center of which she is a member). I made the film so others could “meet” her. I have some presentations coming up at various schools, synagogues, and Jewish Community Centers in the coming year.

Leslea’s new book, Welcoming Elijah, A Passover Tale with a Tail is illustrated by Susan Gal and published by Charlesbridge. It comes out in 2020.

Leslea’s new book, Welcoming Elijah, A Passover Tale with a Tail is illustrated by Susan Gal and published by Charlesbridge. It comes out in 2020.

And, speaking as someone owned by two cats, can you tell us about YOUR cat and which of your cat books is the favorite in your house?

I am owned by a beautiful cat named Neshama, which is the Hebrew word for soul. And just as I could never choose a favorite cat (I have had many) I could never choose a favorite cat book. I do have a cat book coming out in January 2020 called Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale With A Tail which takes place on the first night of Passover.

Want to know more about Leslea Newman? You can visit her here:

Website: lesleakids.com

Abrams Books: abramsbooks.com

Twitter: @lesleanewman

'Beautiful Shades,' beautifully illustrated by Felicia Marshall


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One of the great joys of writing picture books is handing words to an illustrator who absorbs the story and then, somehow, magically comes out with interpretive art that tells its own parallel journey, adding ideas, moments, flourishes and feelings that help the words take flight. I have been beyond lucky with each and every one assigned to my eight picture book biographies.

I am grateful to Jez Tuya for his bright, inviting illustrations for The William Hoy Story and to Danny Popovici, for his delicate watercolors that deepen the folkloric feel of the true story of Manjhi Moves a Mountain. John Joven’s art for Charlie Takes His Shot captures Charlie’s unstoppable spirit as well as his swing and James Rey Sanchez’ jazzy drawings and signature red scarf flowing through the pages of Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing enchant.

Luisa Uribe’s delicate brushstrokes give a fairy tale princess feel to the story of The Queen and the First Christmas Tree. And Yevgenia Nayberg’s penetrating colors and angles for Martin & Anne deepen and add insight to this story of two people of different genders, races, religions and countries whose hearts beat with the same hope that “one day all babies would be considered beautiful. As all babies are.”

I am grateful to illustrators Jez Tuya, Danny Popovici, John Joven, James Rey Sanchez and Yevgenia Nayberg for the gorgeous illustrations in my first six picture books. I look forward to adding ‘Beautiful Shades of Brown,’ illustrated by Felicia Marshall, to this happy bunch.

I am grateful to illustrators Jez Tuya, Danny Popovici, John Joven, James Rey Sanchez and Yevgenia Nayberg for the gorgeous illustrations in my first six picture books. I look forward to adding ‘Beautiful Shades of Brown,’ illustrated by Felicia Marshall, to this happy bunch.

My seventh book, Beautiful Shades of Brown, The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring, will go to the printer this month for a Feb. 5, 2020 release. Houston artist Felicia Marshall did the honors here. What you will see is incredible. Laura Wheeler Waring was an artist of the 1930s who dreamed of seeing African American faces in portraits on museum walls. This seemed like an impossible idea for someone growing up in a segregated America. But she studied and persisted and today, there are more than a half dozen of her portraits at the Smithsonian.

We received permission from Laura Wheeler Waring’s wonderful great-niece and heir, Madeline Murphy Rabb, and the individual Smithsonian Institute museums to reproduce the paintings in the book. Felicia not only worked the actual paintings into her illustrations, she channeled the spirit of Laura Wheeler Waring with an elaborately detailed and realistic style. Felicia’s paintings leap off the page in a way that would have made Laura Wheeler Waring proud.

Self-portrait by Felicia Marshall

Self-portrait by Felicia Marshall

To celebrate sending our baby to the printer’s, I peppered Felicia with a few questions:

What made you want to be an artist?

I have always wanted to be an artist. When I was younger, I would draw pictures for relatives and friends. I had wonderful parents that believed in me and my talents and would buy me sketch books and art supplies. I also had wonderful teachers that helped me grow as an artist and introduced me to all kinds of different art materials. I am so lucky to have had all of these people.

What made you want to illustrate this story?

Before returning to children’s book illustration, I spent years selling artwork online while I raised my children. A couple of the themes I focused on where children and museum patrons interacting with artwork. When I read the manuscript for Beautiful Shades of Brown, I thought this was an incredible story! And the story seemed like a perfect fit based off of what I had previously found interesting as a painter.

What was the biggest challenge with the cover?

The most challenging part of the cover was making sure I was leaving enough space for the title. I always want to draw things as big as possible. I find covers terrifying because that one image has to do so much. It has to hint at the story, make the story look interesting enough to pick up and read, and has to look good. Wow! The pressure. This cover was originally going to be of Laura as an adult. Over half way into painting the book, it became obvious to me that the cover should be about Laura as a child because children would be reading it.

‘Beautiful Shades of Brown,’ illustrated by Felicia Marshall, written by Nancy Churnin

‘Beautiful Shades of Brown,’ illustrated by Felicia Marshall, written by Nancy Churnin

What was the biggest challenge with all the art?

The biggest challenge with the artwork was making sure each character feels and looks like a real person that the reader likes and can relate to.

How do you settle on your images — do you see them in your head first or do you discover them in the act of sketching?

I work from reference photos. When I am reading a manuscript, I envision the character, then I try to think about friends or family members that look like the character. I am lucky because I come from a large family, so I can usually make a match easily.

How do you feel now that the book will soon be on its way to the printers and then, off to see the world?

I am excited. It feels like I have created something special, and now I am sending it off into the world.

Felicia Marshall in her own words:

I earned my BFA from Pratt Institute. As an illustrator I constantly pull from childhood experiences. Most summers were spent in the country at my grandmother’s small home. She lived in a rural community in central Texas. You can see these experiences in just about every book I’ve illustrated. In the years I’ve worked as a children's book illustrator I’ve worked on over ten books for publishers in the children's book industry. I live and work in Houston with my husband and three children.

Website: Feliciamarshallartist.com

Instagram: @feliciamarshallartist

Look for Beautiful Shades of Brown, The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring Feb. 5, 2020 from Creston Books/Lerner Books

Nancy with a Laura Wheeler Waring painting of Alice Dunbar Nelson at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. The painting is reproduced in the book, ‘Beautiful Shades of Brown,’ illustrated by Felicia Marshall

Nancy with a Laura Wheeler Waring painting of Alice Dunbar Nelson at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. The painting is reproduced in the book, ‘Beautiful Shades of Brown,’ illustrated by Felicia Marshall

Available now for preorder on Amazon , at Barnes & Noble, Interabang Books and additional bookstores (if it’s not there, please request). Don’t forget to ask your local library to stock a copy or two — and check them out. Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are a great, free way to help authors and illustrators, too. Please help spread the word on how amazing Felicia Marshall’s illustrations are; she deserves recognition!

Contact Nancy Churnin for Author Visits and presentations at Authors and More.


Celebrate July 4 with Linda Skeers' 'The Impossible Patriotism Project'

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How do you explain July 4 to kids? Is it all about fireworks, cookouts and band music?

There’s something about Linda Skeers’ The Impossible Patriotism Project that reminds me of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. No, Linda’s book doesn’t rhyme and I’m not thinking about Christmas in July. But there’s something about the challenge Caleb faces in Linda’s book that reminds me of the question the Grinch ponders in Dr. Seuss’ classic.

Caleb’s school assignment is “Make something showing patriotism" — which makes him struggle to understand what patriotism is. What he ultimately decides to share proves a moving revelation for his teacher, his classmates and the reader.

The Grinch struggles, too, to understand what Christmas is — especially after the Whos sing and celebrate even after he’s taken all their presents and food for the feast away.

“And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

Linda’s inspiration came from personal experience.

“I began writing The Impossible Patriotism Project after my husband left the Air Force and we settled back in Iowa,” she wrote me.

“Suddenly we didn’t have that incredible support system and the proud and patriotic feeling that we had as part of the close-knit military family. I wanted to write about patriotism from a child’s point of view. I knew Caleb would be struggling with a school project that would show what patriotism is – but I wasn’t sure what his final project would be. The story stalled. And then my nephew returned home from the military, moved into an apartment which was having a balcony decorating contest for the 4th of July. Not able to afford fancy decorations, he hung his uniform from his balcony with a sign that said, “I served my country.” He won. I knew right then that Caleb would realize that patriotism means honoring all those that serve in the military – especially his dad who won’t be home to see his class project.”

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I met Linda in 2016 at a WOW writing retreat in Georgia where she was one of the instructors. A longtime popular teacher and speaker, she impressed me immediately with her humor and spirit and her dedication to writing books that make a positive difference for kids. I’m proud to share that we have not only remained friends, but reconnected at the wonderful Writing Barn in Austin where we and fellow authors, 11 in all, joined forces to become the Nonfiction Ninjas, dedicated to sharing great books and mentoring aspiring writers.

Our tagline: Count on us for instruction, mentor texts, author visits, and more. Between us we have more than 415 titles and 230 years of writing experience!

Linda has been writing terrific fiction and non-fiction books for a long time. The Impossible Patriotism Project, illustrated by Ard Hoyt, came out in 2007 from Dial Press. In 2017, her mammoth undertaking, Women Who Dared: 52 Stories of Fearless Daredevils, Adventurers, and Rebels, illustrated by Livi Gosling, was published by Sourcebooks. Now she’s hard at work on Dinosaur Lady — The True Story of How Mary Anning Became the First Paleontologist, illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens. It will be released from Sourcebooks in 2020.

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I asked Linda what inspires her to write.

“I’ve thought about that a lot,” she wrote. “The simple answer is I can’t NOT write. I’ve “quit” many times but then a fresh new idea pops into my head and I’m back at it. I write to learn more about the world around me and how I fit into the world. I love figuring out how to share what I’ve learned with children. I stumble on a fascinating fact or event or get an idea that makes me laugh every day.”

Linda digs deep for each book.

“Each book has a special place in my heart – for different reasons. I wrote Toymakers because I wanted to know IF I could write a book. I profiled people that I admired and who were incredibly creative and determined! The Impossible Patriotism Project is personal since we were a military family and having a family member away from home is something we knew about firsthand.

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Tutus Aren’t My Style is very much autobiographical! Yes, I am clumsy, awkward and never once in my life wanted to be a ballerina. Women Who Dared was a chance to introduce readers to women who I admire and that inspired me and gave me the courage to pursue my dreams. And Mary Anning is an incredible example of someone with an insatiable curiosity who refused to let anyone, or anything stand in her way. How she went from an uneducated young girl to being one of the world’s first paleontologists and foremost experts on fossils is simply remarkable!”

It’s a tribute to Linda that a dozen years after The Impossible Patriotism Project came out, it remains a touching and timely reminder to be thankful for those who sacrifice to protect our lives, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

As Linda says: “I hope children look past the sparklers and fireworks and think about patriotism and what it means to be an American.”

Where you can find Linda:

lindaskeers.com

Non-FictionNinjas.com

Facebook: Linda Skeers

Twitter: @skeerswriter

And if you’re looking for fabulous Fourth of July flag-making crafts for the kids, check out Vivian Kirkfield’s lovely Perfect Picture Book Friday post on Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing.

Photo courtesy of https://iheartcraftythings.com/12-fabulous-american-flag-crafts-kids.html

Photo courtesy of https://iheartcraftythings.com/12-fabulous-american-flag-crafts-kids.html



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"God Bless America" and THREE books about an immigrant named Irving Berlin

“God Bless America, The Story of an Immigrant Named Irving Berlin’ by Adah Nuchi, illustrated by Rob Polivka (Disney Hyperion)

“God Bless America, The Story of an Immigrant Named Irving Berlin’ by Adah Nuchi, illustrated by Rob Polivka (Disney Hyperion)

I never imagined that my IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING would be one of THREE Irving Berlin books that came out in 2018. But sometime after I could see my cover, illustrated by James Rey Sanchez, emerge on Amazon, boom! Leslie Kimmelman’s WRITE ON, IRVING BERLIN! popped up with illustrations by David C. Gardner, followed by Adah Nuchi’s GOD BLESS AMERICA, THE STORY OF AN IMMIGRANT NAMED IRVING BERLIN, illustrated by Rob Polivka. Whoops! Was I in trouble?

“Write On, Irving Berlin!” by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by David C. Gardner (Sleeping Bear Press)

“Write On, Irving Berlin!” by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by David C. Gardner (Sleeping Bear Press)

“Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing” by Nancy Churnin. Illustrated by James Rey Sanchez (Creston Books/Lerner Books)

“Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing” by Nancy Churnin. Illustrated by James Rey Sanchez (Creston Books/Lerner Books)

I worried: Would there be enough room for three books about Irving Berlin? Slowly, the irony of my concerns began to dawn on me. If there’s one thing all three books have in common it’s the message to welcome newcomers. After all, wasn’t Berlin, a child refugee, hoping that this new country his family was going to, America, would have room for them?

When I read Adah’s and Leslie’s books, not only did I realize that there was plenty of room for each book, each with its own unique perspective and pleasures, but the books resulted in me making two new friends: Adah and Leslie. Who knows if we would have met if not for this unexpected Berlin triple header?

As we head into the July 4 celebration of America, it’s a great time to think about what it means to be American.

“God Bless America” by Adah Nuchi, illustrated by Rob Polivka

“God Bless America” by Adah Nuchi, illustrated by Rob Polivka

All three books address the immigrant experience. Adah’s book, God Bless America, teems with crowds and noise, both in the story and in Polivka’s illustrations. “The Bowery was bustling!” the book begins and every page is packed with with people and with story. Adah’s book and Leslie’s book, Write On, Irving Berlin! included another element, too — the prejudice immigrants faced. From Adah’s God Bless America: “And while some people didn’t like that the voice of America belonged to an immigrant and a Jew, most people felt that a refugee was the jut the right person to celebrate the hope America held.”

From Leslie’s Write On, Irving Berlin! on Irving writing the song “God Bless America”: “Some people were angry that someone Jewish, who hadn’t even been born in America, had written it.”

Another detail Leslie has in her story, which Adah has it in her back matter and I have it in my free, downloadable Teacher Guide, is Irving’s insistence that black and white actors be integrated in his show and live, eat and travel together, years before any other units in the U.S. Armed Forces had such a policy. Irving did his best to make sure that the America had welcomed him was inclusive of everyone of all races and all religions. That, for him, was what America was all about. 


“Write On, Irving Berlin!” by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by David C. Gardner

“Write On, Irving Berlin!” by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by David C. Gardner

But while Leslie’s book addresses the immigrant experience, the most prominent theme in her book is persistence. She focuses on the tremendous obstacles Irving faced through his life, from the pogroms that drove his family from Russia, to his struggles in school, where he was criticized for daydreaming and singing to himself. She includes the death of his father, the death of his first wife and how, throughout everything life threw at him, he “wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.” More than anything, her story is about following a dream and she takes us to the very end of Irving’s life when he dies at 101.

“Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing” by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by James Rey Sanchez

“Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing” by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by James Rey Sanchez

My book, Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing, saved a lot of details about Irving’s marriages and professional successes for the back matter, as I focused in on what fascinated me most: how Irving, as an immigrant, took what was most precious to him — the shema prayer that he learned from his father, the cantor — and melded notes with the sounds of America to create a new sound and a new song, “God Bless America” to honor his new home.

For me, this is what immigrants do over and over again — bring the gifts of their heart to America and mix it with what they find to create something wonderful that never existed before and wouldn’t exist if not for these immigrants. Irving was a keen businessman. He made a fortune from many songs, including “White Christmas,” the best-selling Christmas song of all time. The fact that he never took a penny for “God Bless America” and donated all the royalties, worth millions of dollars to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, underscored that this was a song from his soul — a prayer for his country, not unlike the prayers that his father sang in synagogue. In the words of my book:

“It was his thank you to the country that opened its arms to countless people from all over the world, including a homeless boy who came to America with nothing but music in his heart.”

(top l-r) Adah Nuchi and Leslie Kimmelman (bottom) Nancy Churnin

(top l-r) Adah Nuchi and Leslie Kimmelman (bottom) Nancy Churnin

Three authors, three illustrators, three different approaches. In May, Maria Marshall interviewed all three of us for her The Picture Book Buzz blog. Her interview reveals, in our own words, our writing journeys, what fascinated ourselves about Irving Berlin why we made the choices we did, the challenges we faced and the joy we found in digging deep into Irving’s incredible life and legacy.

What I have confidence in saying is that none of us expected that there would be so much company and that we would enjoy the company on this journey. It is a beautiful thing to think about as we celebrate America’s beauty. Because one of the greatest gifts America can give is the welcome it provides the stranger, the message that there is not only room for everyone, but room for everyone’s gifts and ideas and that there is something in the American air that transforms those gifts and ideas into something wonderful and new.

Happy birthday, America. Thank you for the gift of Irving Berlin and for all our immigrants. Thank you for the gift of the new friends we three have made by writing about him.


"Was this the famous Statue of Liberty?...One day, Irving promised himself, I am going to write a song just for her."-- IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING by Nancy Churnin (photo by David Granberry)

"Was this the famous Statue of Liberty?...One day, Irving promised himself, I am going to write a song just for her."-- IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING by Nancy Churnin (photo by David Granberry)

lesliekimmelman.net

On Facebook: Leslie Kimmelman Writer

Adah Nuch on Twitter: @AdahNuchi

nancychurnin.com

On Facebook: Nancy Churnin Children’s Books

On Twitter: @nchurnin

On Instagram: @nchurnin









Rob Sanders: an ordinary man with an extraordinary dream

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I remember getting the chills the first time I read these lines in Rob Sanders’ picture book, Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag from Random House Books for Young Readers:

“Harvey Milk was an ordinary man, but he had an extraordinary dream. That dream would change history. Harvey dreamed that everyone — even gay people — would have equality. He dreamed that he and his friends would be treated like everyone else. He dreamed that one day, people would be able to live and love as they pleased.”

Rob was signing copies at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association conference in Oakland, where I was signing copies of Manjhi Moves a Mountain in 2017. My sister, Sharon Churnin Nash, who is my constant cheerleader and support was with me. She found Rob’s book first and came to me concerned. She knew I had a manuscript about the rainbow flag in a drawer, a manuscript that despite my best intentions and hard work, never seemed to come alive. She worried I might be upset.

Instead, I read Rob’s book and was immediately elated by the melody of his words and Steve Salerno’s bright, vibrant illustrations. I knew in that moment that I no longer had to work on that manuscript. Rob’s book had accomplished everything I’d hoped for. I realized that what I had really wanted, deep in my heart, was for a book like this to exist. Now, because of Rob, it did.

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Rob took the true story of the creation of the rainbow flag and captured its significance in a simple, engaging way that the youngest kids could understand. It is a story about equality, about fairness, about hope and love. While the focus is on the LGBT community and the discrimination they have faced, ultimately it’s an inclusive book that affirms the fundamental rights of everyone to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Rob started writing the book on June 26, 2015 to celebrate that uplifting day when the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land. What began as a joyful journey was tempered by subsequent setbacks for equal rights, from attacks on the ability of transgender to serve in the military to a refusal to protect the GLBT community from employment discrimination.

Those challenges made him more determined to create a book that children could understand. And that is another reason that this book is so important. If people in the LGBT community are to have equal rights going forward, kids need to grow up with awareness of how the community has struggled for fairness.

Rob didn’t shy away from the tragedy of Harvey Milk’s murder. But he quickly pivots to the hope, exemplified by the rainbow flag, that didn’t die and, instead, continues to grow.

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“Equality. Pride. Hope. Love. Harvey’s dream became a flag for us all.”

I owe another debt to Rob that I will thank him for right here. The eloquent authenticity of his pivot helped me when I wrote Martin and Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, illustrated by the marvelous Yevgenia Nayberg (Creston Books/Lerner Books). I knew I had to address the tragedy of the loss of these great souls who would have celebrated their 90th birthday this year, but I knew I needed to move quickly, as he had done, to what would never die — their words and their spirits. And so I wrote:

“But no one could kill the way Martin inspired others. Just as Anne’s words will never die.”

I love how Rob describes Harvey Milk as an ordinary man with an extraordinary dream because, after all, that’s what Rob is. Every school day, he walks into an ordinary classroom and teaches ordinary kids how to read and write which, when you think about it, is the thing teachers ordinarily do.

And like Harvey Milk, Rob has a dream. His dream to create books that makes kids feel loved, affirmed and supportive of others.

Rob continues to fulfill that dream with more terrific books: Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights, a story about standing up peacefully for what’s right (illustrated by Jared Andrew Schorr, Simon & Schuster, 2018), and Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution. (illustrated by Jamey Christoph), which released April 23 from Random House Books for Young Readers.

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With Stonewall, Rob has taken on another tough topic — talking to kids about the Stonewall uprising where people in the LGBT community took a stand for their rights 50 years ago.

There are many different accounts of what happened. Rob thought and thought and ultimately decided to let the walls of the building where people rose up tell the story.

“Two stable houses, side by side. For more than 100 years, we witnessed history. Then came a night when we became part of history.”

The brilliance of the concept becomes increasingly apparent over the course of the narrative. By telling the story from the point of view of the buildings, Rob gives us the perspective of time from walls that are free from the prejudices that plague people. It’s the power of that gentle clarity that made Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse so effective — telling war through the eyes of a horse that sees no differences between people on opposing sides other than who is kind and who is not — and the reports of astronauts who remind us how the differences we fuss over so much on the earth are nothing from the long view of space.

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Again, as in Pride, the writing is simple. Clear. Easy for children and all ages to understand.

“Leading up to the 1960s, our neighborhood welcomed gays and lesbians — men who loved men, and women who loved women. We were a home for people who were told that they didn’t fit in or belong.”

His words make you wish people could be as wise as the walls that watch them. Maybe some day we will be.

In the meantime, I’m glad I have a front row seat watching Rob’s lovely, lyrical and important books enter and exist in the world.

Want to learn with Rob? Rob Sanders and Lesléa Newman are leading a workshop entitled Writing the Rainbow: Crafting Picture Books with LGBTQ+ themes for the Highlights Foundation, October 27-30, 2019. It’s an immersive experience to help authors of all skill levels learn how to create LGBTQ+ themed fiction and nonfiction picture books for today’s market.

Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Steve Salerno, Random House Books for Young Readers

Peaceful Fights for Equal Rights by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Jared Andrew Schorr, Simon & Schuster

Stonewall: A Building. An Uprising. A Revolution by Rob Sanders, illustrated by Jamey Christoph, Random House

Website: robsanderswrites.com

Facebook: Rob Sanders

Twitter: RobSandersWrite

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We Can All Be Heroes: Sophia Gholz and The Boy Who Grew a Forest

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People who do things to help others without the desire for reward inspire me. They walk humbly among us, but they are the true treasures of this world. Every time I spot one, I think of the Jewish legend of the Lamed Vovniks, the 36 people in every generation whose goodness saves humanity.

Among the wonderful qualities of these pillars of the world is that they are so humble, they don’t think of themselves as righteous or holy . They care for others because it’s the right thing to do. In their minds, isn’t that what everyone should do? They are all too rare, but they are also right.

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Jadav Payeng, the hero of Sophia Gholz’s beautiful book, The Boy Who Grew a Forest, the True Story of Jadav Payeng, literally saves his world by planting trees in a desolated patch of his Indian community. Lushly illustrated by Kayla Harren, and published by Sleeping Bear Press on March 15, the story begins:

“In India, on a large river island, among farms and families hard at work, there lived a boy who loved trees.”

But trees are just the start of Jadav’s amazing journey. After planting tree after tree, he brings a 1,300-acre forest into being. Native plants and animals follow. Sophia’s book gave me the same thrill I had when I discovered Dashrath Manjhi, who became the hero of my Manjhi Moves a Mountain, with lyrical watercolors by Danny Popovici, from Creston Books (distributed by Lerner Books).

Manjhi Moves a Mountain, illustrated by Danny Popovici

Manjhi Moves a Mountain, illustrated by Danny Popovici

Manjhi, also from India, spent 22 years chiseling a path through a 300-foot mountain so the children in his poor village could get to school on the other side, the sick could get to doctors and the elderly and those who were not as skilled at climbing as he could get to the work or shop.

Sophia sees the connection. As she wrote me in an email:

“Both The Boy Who Grew A Forest and Manjhi Moves A Mountain focus on the power of the individual and how it only takes one person with a dream to make a difference. Manjhi's and Jadav's stories are those of hard work and the simple and selfless desire to help others.”

Persistence, rather than strength or riches or power becomes the key to their success. In Sophia’s words:

“Mountains can’t be moved in a day, and forests don’t grow overnight. When the work was hard, when their journey seemed impossible, when others thought they were crazy, neither of these individuals gave up. Instead, they slowly kept chiseling and planting one rock, one seedling, one day at a time.” 

Manjhi Moves a Mountain, illustrated by Danny Popovici

Manjhi Moves a Mountain, illustrated by Danny Popovici

Most children’s book biographies focus on famous people. Let’s face it, it’s easier to sell a book on the person who invented this or the person who won that.

But Jadav and Manjhi aren’t big or strong or famous. They’re unskilled laborers who were strong in their hearts, as we can all be strong in our hearts. That is a very important lesson for kids, one that nourish them not only through school but throughout their lives.

Too often kids — and adults — think of life in terms of winners and losers. The winners of the championship. The star of the school play. The highest score on the test.

But guess what? The majority of us don’t win the championship or star in the school play or get a perfect score on the test. However there is something that we can all achieve throughout the school years and beyond. We can all be kind. We can all make a positive difference in the world.

And persistence — that quality that Jadav and Manjhi have in abundance — that can be a more powerful determinant than talent in getting you where you want to go.

As Calvin Coolidge said: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

One of the reasons I was so determined to tell Manjhi’s story is that in my own small way, I felt I lived it. My first book, The William Hoy Story, How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game took 13 years from the time I promised my friend, Steve Sandy, a friend of the Hoy family, that I would write the book and the year, 2016, when it was published. Persistence and my belief that a promise made must be fulfilled no matter how many times people raise their eyebrows or laugh or whisper just close enough for you to hear: “Is she really still working on that thing?”

Sophia is also someone who knows about persistence.

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Like Jadav, Sophia invests in the community, caring for future generations with longterm projects aimed at benefiting children she has yet to meet. Since 2017, she has helped oversee The Henry L. Gholz SEEDS (Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability) National Field Trip Endowment for the Ecological Society of America, in honor of her late father, esteemed scientist Henry L. Gholz. SEEDS provides opportunities for underrepresented students to participate and lead in ecology by sponsoring field trips that help explore the broad range of ecological research.

She’s also a board member of KidLiteracy, Inc., a brilliantly innovative nonprofit organization that raises money to bring books and author visits to schools in need. With both SEEDS and KidLiteracy, she helps plant seeds that are already growing into wonderful opportunities to make a positive difference in the world.

Both Sophia and I had our work cut out for us by writing about heroes who were not glamorous.

I’ll admit that I worried if Manjhi Moves a Mountain would find readers that would care about an ordinary laborer who spent 22 years chiseling a path through a mountain. But the critics and the kids took him to their hearts right away. A Junior Library Guild selection, winner of the 2018 South Asia Book Award, the 2019 Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Award and more, kids love to help me tell the story, repeating the words “Hold. Aim. Swing!” as Manjhi strikes his chisel.

Jadav’s story has connected with the critics, too. The book has been featured on many prominent lists. The School Library Journal called it an "inspirational read aloud" and Booklist said "Payeng's story is eloquently told and beautifully illustrated. It will inspire readers to recognize the power of individual determination."

Manjhi Moves a Mountain, illustrated by Danny Popovici

Manjhi Moves a Mountain, illustrated by Danny Popovici

The kids understood that what Manhi was all about was the fact that we can all move mountains. That we can all make things better.

And to that thought I can now add Jadav Payeng’s lesson — that we can all plant a seed. We can all make something grow. And that every time we plant something, the growth brings unexpected miracles. Payeng’s forest brought back the birds and the insects and the animals. It brought back fresh, healing air. It brought joy.

I grow excited when I think of all the children around the world who will be inspired by Payeng to plant something, to help it grow.

And just as moving your own mountain doesn’t mean moving an actual mountain, planting something doesn’t have to mean planting an actual seed. It can be encouraging someone to realize his or her potential and dreams, to grow into all that person can be.

The Boy Who Grew a Forest, illustrated by Kayla Harren

The Boy Who Grew a Forest, illustrated by Kayla Harren

The Boy Who Grew a Forest and Manjhi Moves a Mountain remind us that we can all make a difference, at all ages and stages of life. And no one needs to wait a moment to begin.

The Boy Who Grew a Forest: The True Story of Jadav Payeng by Sophia Gholz, illustrated by Kayla Harren. Sleeping Bear Press

Website: sophiagholz.com

On Facebook: Sophia Gholz Author

On Twitter: @sophiagholz

On Instagram: @sophiagholz

Manjhi Moves a Mountain by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Danny Popovici. Creston Books Lerner Books

Why books for Anne Frank are more important than ever

Anne Frank school photo, courtesy of Creative Commons

Anne Frank school photo, courtesy of Creative Commons


June 12, 2019 would have been Anne Frank’s 90th birthday.

It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the fact that this teenager, who died at 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, could have been alive today if not for the hate that fueled the Holocaust.

There are those who wonder what more there is to say about someone who has written her own account in the form of Anne Frank, the Diary of a Young Girl, and who has had innumerable representations of her life in print, on stage and on the small and big screens.

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This year, two picture books address that question. Meeg Pincus’ exquisite Miep and the Most Famous Diary, The Woman Who Rescued Anne Frank’s Diary, coming out Aug. 15 from Sleeping Bear Press, brings passion and purpose to a story told through the point of view of Miep Gies, the woman who hid Anne, the Frank family and their friends for two years before they were discovered and arrested by the Nazis.

By focusing on a friend who risked her life to do the right thing, this book, with evocative illustrations by Jordi Solano, silently floats the question of what it means to be a friend and what the reader would do in the face of injustice.

The other book, which looks at Anne from a different angle, is mine. Martin and Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, brilliantly visualized by Sydney Taylor Honor-winning illustrator Yevgenia Nayberg (Creston Books, Lerner Books), gives Anne’s story a historical and sociological subtext. The book was released March 5. It was featured by eMissourian Newspapers in Education in March and at the Ruby Bridges Reading Festival at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn. in May. I will present it at the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in Pasadena, Ca. in June.

Both Dr. King and Anne Frank were born in 1929, the year of the Great Depression. As I considered the significance of two people I admire so much, people who talked of love being the answer even in the face of unbearable hate, it came to me that if I told their stories in a parallel fashion, that would illuminate that prejudice, ultimately, has less to do with race or religion than it does with who is part of a vulnerable minority when times are hard and people in the majority are angry or desperate to find someone to blame or plunder.

At the same time, I focused on how Dr. King and Anne Frank responded to the hate that segregated, persecuted and ultimately killed them. They both used words to articulate a vision of a better world — a world of love in which every child is seen as beautiful as all children are — a compelling, shared vision that continues to inspire.

By showing the similarity of their beliefs, I hope those who revere Dr. King will find a window into the world of Anne Frank and the victims of the Holocaust and those who revere Anne Frank will find a window into the world of Dr. King and the victims of racism. This year, I experienced those possibilities when I addressed multiple groups of children in Texas who knew about Dr. King and his legacy, but hadn’t heard of Anne Frank or the Holocaust.

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In Miep and the Most Famous Diary, Meeg Pincus shows us how Miep’s love for Anne drives her to find and hide the diary before the Nazis return for the last of the family’s possessions. She risks her life to do it because, as Meeg writes: “She pictures Anne leaning over her cherished diary, her hair skimming its pages. She knows Anne dreams of publishing it as a book after the war. It has been Anne’s paper friend, her lifeline, during two lonely years in hiding.”

Children will feel the deep unspoken question of what it means to be a good person. As they follow Miep’s choices, they’ll see how she protects her friends by defying unjust rules and, I hope, consider what actions they would take in such a situation . The story of the Holocaust is filled with people who helped the Nazis — because after all, discrimination was the law of the land — or stood by and did nothing which is all that you need for evil to flourish.

Miep’s courage sends a message that should resonate with every child who has to make a decision about whether or not to stand up against a bully that threatens the vulnerable.

And here’s another note of many to treasure, found in the back matter of this beautiful book:

“But, Miep did not want to be viewed as a hero,” Meeg writes. She goes on to quote Miep: “Imagine young people would grow up with the feeling that you have to be a hero to do your human duty,” she said. “I am afraid nobody would ever help other people, because who is a hero? I was not.”

The other element I love about Miep and the Most Famous Diary, which echoes a theme of my book, is the reminder that friendship is bigger than our differences. Religion isn’t mentioned, but it’s clear that Miep isn’t Jewish; if she were, she would have gone in hiding, too. But being of different religions is not important to their friendship — another great message for kids.

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I like to point out the differences between Dr. King and Anne Frank when I present Martin & Anne to kids. We talk about how they were of different genders, races, religions, were from different countries and spoke different languages, yet their hearts beat with the same hope for humanity.

Sometimes when confronted with the horrors of the Holocaust, we can be complacent, thinking that such things couldn’t happen here or now. Telling the stories in parallel underscores how horrible deeds are not unique to any culture or time and how important it is to recognize the signs of segregation and bullying and to stand up to the forces that would divide and persecute.

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In James Q. Whitman’s Hitler's American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton University Press), Whitman makes the case that Adolf Hitler, the leader and mastermind of the Nazi party, sent his lawyers to the Jim Crow South to study American segregation policies as a model for the ones he would use against the Jewish people.

In a story I wrote for Religion News Service to run in time for what would have been Dr. King’s 90th birthday in January, I talked with another children’s book writer, Sarah Aronson, whose lovely Just Like Rube Goldberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Behind the Machines came out this year, too.

Sarah shared stories about how her late grandfather, Joseph Klein, a rabbi in Worcester, Mass., invited Dr. King to his synagogue to address the congregation. (Audio of Dr. King’s address is here.) She talked about her grandfather and Dr. King, a Baptist minister, were of one mind and heart on the concept of tikkun olam, the Hebrew words that refer to healing the world. “What Dr. King did was meld the righteousness of faith and equality with repairing the world,” she told me. “He had the faith of God in him and my grandfather did as well.”

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I know from talking with Meeg that Miep and the Most Famous Diary is deeply personal to her.  Meeg met Miep years ago when she interviewed her for a newspaper. This book exemplifies the mission that Meeg has set for herself, to write “Solutionary Stories” for elementary-age children—nonfiction & informational books that inspire kids to make a difference. Meeg is Jewish, but has a diverse family that fires her compassion for all beings and everyone who is marginalized.

Like Meeg, I am a former journalist. I am Jewish with an extended diverse family. I have always been haunted by family members I never got to meet because of the Holocaust: a great grandmother, great uncles, great aunts and their children that were herded into a synagogue and set on fire by Nazis. That is why Martin and Anne is dedicated “For those whose lives were cut short everywhere, including Bialystok June 27, 1941. Your memory is a blessing. Love lives on.”

It’s hard for me to express how much comfort this dedication has given me. In a way that I feel more than I understand, these words have provided a place in my heart for these lost loved ones to live.

I’ve heard some express concern that picture books are aimed at elementary school children who may be too young to be exposed to the Holocaust.

The issue of what age is appropriate for these books is a matter for adult discretion. But I have read Martin & Anne and would read Miep and the Most Famous Diary without hesitation to elementary school children. Both books are careful, both in how they are written and how they are illustrated, to be honest but not developmentally overwhelming.

Personally, too, I defer to the great Jewish songwriters Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, who won a Pulitzer Prize for drama for South Pacific in 1950, in considering when we need to start teaching children about the dangers of the hate that mass media makes it ever more difficult to hide. The iconic song in this great musical that inveighed against American racism is the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

Consider these lyrics: “You've got to be taught/Before it's too late/Before you are six/Or seven/Or eight/To hate all the people/Your relatives hate.”

If that’s when kids are most vulnerable to the lessons of hate, then that’s the age you may need books that show children the importance of love and what it means to be a friend.


I’m proud that both Meeg and I have had our books endorsed by representatives of Anne Frank organizations which have dedicated themselves to speaking out against hate and discrimination and speaking up for those at risk. In my book, Kristen Carvalho, Board Member of the Anne Frank House, Inc. of Washington, D.C. writes: “A wonderful weaving of the stories of two amazing and courageous people who both answer hatred with love.”

Elisa Rapaport, Ph.D. and Chief Operating Officer of the Anne Frank Center of Mutual Respect in New York City writes in Meeg’s book: “In a time when we ask children to resist negativity and instead respect one another as people, the story of Miep Gies helping others and rescuing Anne Frank’s famous diary truly resonates; even more, it helps restore our faith in the human spirit.”

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Anne’s diary

In her diary, Anne wrote: “I want to go on living even after my death!”

There is only one way for people to live on after their deaths: in our memories.

We must remember Anne and Martin and Miep along with the millions who lost their lives, those who escaped and those who risked everything to save or make things better for others.

Even through the pain of the aching emptiness where a beloved presence should be, it is good to remember. Because in these dark times, when hatred feels once again on the rise, when the vulnerable are increasingly at risk, Anne and Martin and Miep and so many others, including those whose stories are waiting to be told, remind us to love, to hope, to have courage and to do the right thing no matter the consequences.

Happy birthday, Anne. May there be many, many more books.

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Miep and The Most Famous Diary

Martin & Anne



What 'Sweat' taught me about Dr. King and Anne Frank

For years, I’ve been living a double life.

No, I’m not a spy. Nor do I have another family stashed away in another state. In the last decade, I have been writing children’s books while reviewing and writing about theater for The Dallas Morning News. Carefully, cautiously, I’ve kept those worlds separate. Then two enormous things happened.

On Jan. 7, I was one of 43 staffers laid off at the newspaper where I’d worked proudly for 19 wonderful years. That meant I could let one world go — the world of theater criticism — and enter fully into the world of children’s books. Trust me, I thought about it.

(from l-r) Christopher Llewyn Ramirez, Sally Nystuen Vahle, Jon Shaver and Liz Mikel in Dallas Theater Center’s regional premiere of Lynn Nottage’s ‘Sweat’ at the Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas

(from l-r) Christopher Llewyn Ramirez, Sally Nystuen Vahle, Jon Shaver and Liz Mikel in Dallas Theater Center’s regional premiere of Lynn Nottage’s ‘Sweat’ at the Kalita Humphreys Theater in Dallas

Then On Jan. 23 I saw Dallas Theater Center’s regional premiere of Sweat at the Kalita Humphreys Theater and it was like the “water” moment from The Miracle Worker where the blind and deaf Helen Keller realizes for the first time that the word that her teacher, Annie Sullivan, has been spelling into her hand was not just a way to get water, but was water itself.

Just as I’m readying to release my sixth book into the world, Martin & Anne, the Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, the insights from DTC’s powerful production of Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play turned on a switch. Yes!

'Martin & Anne' by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg


While my book for children points out the common humanity and inspiration we’ve drawn from two iconic figures of different genders, faiths, races, languages and countries, Nottage’s play reminds us how we are still living with the toxic hate, anger and hurt that stems from desperation and fear.

Dr. King and Anne Frank were both born in the same year — 1929 — the year of the worldwide depression, a year where sadly, instead of pulling together, vulnerable people looked for even more vulnerable minorities in their community to blame and hurt.

Nottage’s play, while fictional, is drawn from the deep well of interviews she did with workers in Reading, Pa., whose lives and friendships were upended by factory shutdowns, layoffs and the erosion of workers’ rights in the 2000s. It’s a time which is still very much with us.

(from l-r) Jon Shaver, Sally Nystuen Vahle, Christopher Llewyn Ramirez, Liz Mikel in 'Sweat.' Photo by Evan Michael Woods.

(from l-r) Jon Shaver, Sally Nystuen Vahle, Christopher Llewyn Ramirez, Liz Mikel in 'Sweat.' Photo by Evan Michael Woods.

The play, which moved from off-Broadway in 2016 to Broadway in 2017, opens with an interrogation of an angry, tattooed young man, Jason (an explosive Kyle Igneczi), by a concerned police officer trying to control his exasperation (a resilient, patient Tyrees Allen). Like the craftsmanlike dramatist she is, Nottage shoots to flashback scenes, framing the story with tantalizing hints about a crime that will ultimately be revealed.

As the journey progresses, however, it becomes increasingly clear that there are larger crimes being committed by people we don’t see. These are the economic crimes where the well-off executives that run the factory in Sweat play financial games with workers that are barely scraping by.

In wrenching performances, Sally Nystuen Vahle and Liz Mikel. play Tracey and Cynthia, two best buds who grew up together and went straight from high school to work in the factory. Cynthia applies for a promotion to a managerial position. Tracey views managers as natural enemies of the workers. As friction sparks, racial tensions which never seemed to be in play before rise to the surface, crackling and popping as these two actresses masterfully portray a friendship that frays amid stress and suspicion.

Igneczi’s despairing Jason and Ace Anderson’s vulnerable Chris play the next generation — trying to carry on or do better than their parents while opportunity is being snatched away faster than they can comprehend what’s happening. They’re like animated characters who keep running in the air because they don’t realize they’ve run off a cliff — but the hurt is too real and familiar to be funny.

Christopher Llewyn Ramirez’s quiet, wounded Oscar, the bartender’s assistant who thinks getting a job in the factory as a way of moving up in a world of limited opportunities, fleshes out the picture as besieged workers denounce his willingness to work for less as a threat.

The revolving set by William Bloodgood serves as a reminder that the different planes where their lives play out — the bar, outside the bar, their apartments, prison — flow one into another as part of the same watery world. Projections by Shawn Duan pepper the top of the scenes with dates and news that put the stories in context of real events.

What’s important to remember is that the forces behind events have a way of repeating themselves. To quote Jackson Browne from “Lives in the Balance”: “…there's a shadow on the faces/Of the men who send the guns/To the wars that are fought in places/Where their business interest runs.”

Browne was writing about the unseen faces who press for wars that others fight. It’s an idea that applies to business wars on the domestic front. In Sweat, the wise bartender, Stan, tries to point out that instead of punching down, the workers should look up and confront those pulling the strings. He is, however, like Cassandra in The Illiad — cursed with the ability to see in a world where no one listens.

Martin & Anne is the sixth of the eight books I have sold. Each book has turned the spotlight on someone that most kids didn’t know about, someone who achieved what seemed an unlikely dream through persistence and heart, someone whose dream was not just about themselves, but made the world a better place.

They are all close to my heart, but Martin & Anne has a dedication that bleeds: “For those whose lives were cut short everywhere, including Bialystok June 27, 1941. Your memory is a blessing. Love lives on.”

My grandfather, Sam Farber (right), with my grandmother, Mary Farber. He escaped Bialystok, Poland where his mother and two of his brothers, their wives and children were killed in the Holocaust.

My grandfather, Sam Farber (right), with my grandmother, Mary Farber. He escaped Bialystok, Poland where his mother and two of his brothers, their wives and children were killed in the Holocaust.

Among those who were herded into a synagogue in Bialystok and set on fire that day were my great grandmother, great uncles and their wives and their children, none of whom I’d ever meet in this world, but whose losses have given my mother nightmares all her life.

My relatives were not unlike the factory workers of Sweat. My grandfather fled on foot as a teen in the early 1920s to America, but others in his family didn’t have the means or access to escape when the threat of the Nazi regime rose.

The fragility of living amid scarcity is something Dr. King understood as he reached out across race and faith lines, speaking in synagogues as I wrote in my recent op ed about Martin & Anne for Religion News Service. He emphasized the need to join together in the fight for economic justice. He tried to explain that prosperity would rise from unity and could not and should not be achieved from division and discrimination.

The stock market crashed in 1929, the year in which Dr. King and Anne Frank were born, leaving people out of work, homeless and begging for bread. How different would the world have been if people who were hurting reached across the superficial lines that divide us to lift each other up? What could the human race accomplish even now, in our times, if we helped each other rather than viewing life through the cold lens of a zero sum game where one person’s advance is another person’s loss?

(from l-r) Sally Nystuen Vahle and Liz Mikel in Dallas Theater Center’s ‘Sweat.’ Photo by Evan Michael Woods.

(from l-r) Sally Nystuen Vahle and Liz Mikel in Dallas Theater Center’s ‘Sweat.’ Photo by Evan Michael Woods.

I strongly recommend DTC’s production of Sweat, continuing through Feb. 10. It’s a cautionary reminder that instead of learning from the most heinous of crimes, the human race remains capable of destroying itself, doubling down on its mistakes again and again. Art, whether in the form of theater, books, music or visual images, offers hope to remember, to help us walk in each other’s shoes — and do better.

And that is the reason, in addition to writing children’s books, I will continue to write about theater. Like people, art is stronger together.

Want to talk about theater, books, art and why it all matters? Join me on my new Facebook group Where The Drama Is. If you want to keep the conversation focused on children’s books, please join my Facebook page Nancy Churnin Children’s Books. Or bookmark this blog where I’ll be sharing conversations with artists and what’s on my mind. I look forward to visiting with you.

Sweat continues through Feb. 10, presented by Dallas Theater Center at the Kalita Humphries Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas. $20-$101, subject to change. DallasTheaterCenter.org. Performance reviewed was Jan. 23. Running time: 2 hours, 28 mins.

Martin & Anne, The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank (illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg, published by Creston Books, distributed by Lerner Books) launch party March 10 at 2 p.m. at Interabang Books, 10720 Preston Rd., Dallas. Free. interabangbooks.com

Twitter: @nchurnin

'Martin & Anne,' by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg