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!
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!
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.
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/.
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.
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)