Writing about nature is fun, especially when it comes to research. Long before sitting at the computer to compile my notes to write, I’ve met dozens of wonderful scientists such as apiarists, biologists, botanists, and geologists, who love nature as much as I do. Thanks to these experts, I’ve climbed many trees, surveyed the seas, and met a million or so buzzing bees, too.
I’ve found that it’s good to go little wild in the natural world, which helps me write a stronger story from what I’ve learned in my extensive research. Authors research and learn from other authors, too. We compare notes, writing tips, plotting techniques, and even share educator guide advice and bookmark designs, which we hope will help sell our books.
I’ve been fortunate as an author to meet friends who also have books published by Albert Whitman. My publishing mates Nancy Viau and Jacqueline Jules also research the topics they write about and they both share my passion for meeting young readers.
We’ve appeared at educator conferences, book festivals, libraries, bookstores, and shared our unique author journeys at our favorite outings—schools visits. As in any job, sometimes there are down days for authors, such as an educator event with low attendance or the huge outdoor festival that had to be quickly moved indoors because of whipping winds and rain due to an approaching hurricane. These down days are few, and my author friends agree that it only takes one young reader, one smiling face to change a less-than-perfect event into a great author day.
In the wild, sometimes authors climb trees and sometimes we meet a storm trooper who is interested in bees. Sometimes we get a group hug. Most authors I know agree—if people are reading our books, we’re smiling.
I write this on the eve of the autumnal equinox. The early morning air wafting through the open windows is softly crisp. The front lawn, an aging green, is littered with large curled sepia sycamore leaves. The house sits blissfully quiet, everyone else having left for school and work, except for “Autumn Music” playing on Pandora.
For me, the first day of fall heralds the decorating cycle—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas, Winter (snowmen!), Valentine’s Day, Lent, St. Patrick’s Day (family birthdays/wedding anniversary), and Easter—that will culminate with growing season next spring, when I’ll display my father’s collection of roosters in the bay window as it overlooks a young green yard carpeted with tiny purple violets and welcomes a symphony of birdsong into the house.
As a child, I learned about the changing year—bolstering what I learned in school—through the lens of what was happening in our yard. This became linked with the cultural holidays and religious feasts taking place in each season. For example, I remember crunching through crystalline snow in rubber boots to see if the fragile gold and amethyst crocus were blooming in the icy cold beneath the birdbath near the brook that divided our front lawn. No matter how miraculous this seemed, I learned it was a sign that spring and Easter were coming.
My parents and sisters populate these memories. My dad loved decorating the house for holidays and tended the yard with my grandfathers. In the kitchen, my mom turned garden peppers and eggplant into glorious feasts. Everyone wanted to eat at our house! Though my children find this bizarre, some of my happiest family memories involve raking leaves and shoveling snow together, talking and laughing while washing dinner dishes, and picking and canning endless pounds of plum tomatoes in late summer to jar for gravy (tomato sauce) for Sunday macaroni in the coming months.
In my developing mind, this exciting and inspiring cycle of seasons and holidays and feasts seemed to begin, not on January 1, but with the return to school and apple picking in September. It’s no wonder my first picture books are seasonal!
Today, while decorating the house for holidays, I display a variety of seasonal picture books. The most weathered copies are mine from childhood, some belong to my children, others I’ve collected since commencing my journey as a picture book author. I love them all, but the fall and Halloween picture books are especially dear. A favorite among favorites is Pumpkin Pumpkin, by Jeanne Titherington. The simple text and amazing textured illustrations distill the story of the seasonal year down to six amazing pumpkin seeds. It’s poetry.
It also represents everything I aspire to in my own writing—capturing the essence of an unfolding story in vivid and efficient text, and delighting in the privilege of watching as illustrators such as Susan Swan and Julia Patton elaborate in color, texture, and image.
My husband Jeff, a fourth grade teacher, and I love books. When we go on vacation, we enjoy visiting the local library and browsing their used bookstore. We always find a special treat to take home with us. At our thrift stores, we head to the book section to see what choice tidbits are on sale. We hang out at local bookstores. For Christmas and birthdays and “just-because” days, our wishlist often includes books.
Books! Books! Books! Our home overflows with books. Right now, I have 50+ library books spread out in various piles near our different comfy reading spots in different rooms. I used to feel bad about the stacks of books along with the overflowing bookshelves until one day I decided to embrace our passion and designate our home as a “nest of books.”
One of our family’s all-time favorite “eggs” in our nest is our permanent collection of Mother Goose and nursery rhymes as well as “visitors” of treasures that come and go from our local library.
When our boys were young, Mother Goose: The Original Volland Edition was nearly a daily read. The old-fashioned art and delicate colors set the tone for falling in love with the heritage Mother Goose has to offer our family as we passed down each nursery rhyme to the next generation.
And Tasha Tudor! Oh, what is any mother’s reading lap without the delightful and rich books of Tasha Tudor! Complete with sweet goslings and adorable kittens, Tasha Tudor’s Mother Goose brings fresh joy with every turn of the page.
In our home, however, Mother Goose wasn’t just confined to pages within a book. We still have the vinyl record, Walt Disney Presents Mother Goose Rhymes and Their Stories. We marched around in our own rhythm band clanging pots and pans with wooden spoons while singing along with the record. We sang the songs in the car together and while swinging on the swings. (Swinging simply MUST be accompanied by singing! It’s a tradition from my childhood days that we passed along to our sons and now to our grandson.)
Our collection of Mother Goose “eggs” in our nest still continues to grow as we add new favorites today. It’s little wonder then, that over the years I’ve dreamed of writing my own Mother Goose rhymes to add to the rich traction of childhood pleasures and treasures.
Raising two boys, pirates were a perennial favorite, so it was only natural for me to combine the rollicking good fun of piratey adventures with the beloved rhymes our family has always enjoyed. My hope is that this new generation of mommies, daddies, and little ones will learn to love Mother Goose and nursery rhymes in a fresh new way!
My new middle grade novel Night on Fire grew out of a question that baffled me when I was young: How can good people do cruel things?
My family was from the South—grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. I loved them dearly, and some of them were racists. For the life of me, I couldn’t reconcile those two facts.
Over the years, the question continued to haunt me. As I pondered it, a character emerged: thirteen-year-old Billie Sims. She lived in Anniston, Alabama, a pleasant town filled with good people. In 1961 the Freedom Riders came through town, a group of black and white college students challenging the practice of segregation on buses. Some people in town stopped the Greyhound bus they rode, set it on fire, and beat the students as they spilled out. All the while, good people watched and did nothing. Billie’s father was one of them. So was Billie.
With Billie, I stalked the streets of Anniston, an African American friend at my side, seeking answers and hungry for justice. We found our way to a church rally in Montgomery, where the night split open and we rang a bell—for those who had suffered, for those who stood by, for those who were sorry and wanted to do better.
Ask yourself the question. Then travel with me to Anniston.
My most vivid Halloween memories are about making—never buying—my costume each year. My three sisters and I would compete to see who came up with the most creative idea. My mom was very talented at crafts and sewing, and she supervised in the early years. I remember one truly fantastic papier maché mouse head my mother made for my youngest sister.
As an adult, I continued the homemade costume tradition. Here’s a photo of my first attempt, definitely not up to my mom’s high standards. My then two-year-old daughter was supposed to be a bunny rabbit. Clearly an alien species of rabbit; I had some trouble with the head and ears. (I did get better as the years went by!) Welcoming neighborhood trick-or-treaters is still one of the high points of my year, and I keep an extra candy bar for anyone with a homemade costume.
Dressing up for Halloween was, and still is, my favorite part of the holiday. One year in particular I was so excited to get one of those prepackaged Barbie costumes (nothing like today’s costumes, mind you.) This beauty consisted of a terribly scratchy mask and a preprinted sheathlike plastic ball gown that made me feel—and smell—like a crayon. Needless to say my dream costume quickly became my most loathed costume. But that has never stopped me from dressing up. Instead, I became more creative and designed most of the costumes for my children and myself. Over the years the costumes have consisted of a Football Powder Puff, Shark Boy and Lava Girl, Thomas the Train, Batman’s Poison Ivy and my most recent and favorite, I dressed up as VMA’s Miley Cyrus. The more bizarre the costume, the better, I say. –Dana Elmendorf, author of South of Sunshine (publishing April 2016)
Sam and David wanted to be vampires. Thank goodness for Halloween, I thought as we drove from California to our new home in Texas with Sam, 6, David, 4 and Josh, 1 in the back seats. To distract the boys from everything we were leaving behind, we talked about how quickly we could make the look happen when we arrived the morning of Oct. 31. (Josh’s main contribution was to spit up, which meant he was going to inherit the old pumpkin sleeper that had been worn by his brothers.) We dropped off our things at our new apartment and hit the ground running, seeking capes, white make-up and plastic pumpkins for candy. Over dinner, I read their new favorite book, Matt Novak’s Pete and Ghost, about a boy who finds a friendly ghost in his new house. And then, trick or treat! They ran from decorated house to house, gathering treats and, even better, smiles from the new kids that would become their best friends.
–Nancy Churnin, author of The William Hoy Story (publishing March 2016)
Is my son a zombie? It is possible. Here are the top five reasons why I think he might be: 5) He answers questions with a blank stare; 4) He’s good with directions. Have you noticed zombies always know which way to go? 3) My son played baseball as a kid and now works for a baseball team. Zombies never give up either; 2) He has lots of friends – zombies hate to be alone; and number 1) My son likes ripped shirts and old pants. If that doesn’t scream zombie – what does? So as another Halloween approaches, I’ll be thinking of my wonderful zombie and all the fun we used to have.
When author Jandy Nelson’s 2010 novel The Sky is Everywhere was optioned for film by Warner Brothers in late August, I let out a little “whoop!” The book is amazing, but more importantly, it launched my love of reading contemporary YA literature and inspired me to write my debut novel, Burn Girl.
Ever since her stepdad’s meth lab explosion, Arlie has avoided the stares from strangers and questions about her face. But can she stay hidden forever?
While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed fantasy, paranormal and dystopian YA series (you know which ones I’m talking about), I am especially drawn to stand-alone contemporary YA novels. There are a number of extraordinary writers tackling once-taboo subjects like death, physical and emotional abuse, sexual assault, drug abuse, bullying, gender identity and more. The prose is sometimes described as dark or gritty, although I think those labels are inadequate attempts to say that these books I love to read deal with real life.
I’m a huge fan of author Courtney Summers. Her latest book, All the Rage, addresses rape culture, class prejudice, and bullying, and has been called unflinching, powerful, brutal and heartbreaking. To me, that’s a good sign she’s hit a nerve with readers and is shedding light on subjects we’ve been reluctant to talk about in the past.
I believe that YA literature dealing with serious subjects gives teens (both female and male) a voice they may not have had otherwise. My two latest purchases are Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ about a self-proclaimed fat girl who’s comfortable in her skin, and Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not, which navigates subjects like suicide and gender identity in a skillful, honest way.
It’s not a surprise to me that so many of these books are being optioned for film. I don’t believe we’ll see a downturn in YA contemporary literature in the near future. There’s still so much that has to be said.
What contemporary YA title has made an impression on you?
I began meditation and yoga in high school after a knee injury kept me from playing sports. At first I struggled with being still and watching my breath. Some days I felt grounded and calm. Other days I felt like a failure because my busy mind was so loud. After thirty years of practice, my mind is still busy, but I watch it as if it were a fountain of colored lights and let it be. Difficulty comes not from mental movement but from becoming lost in thought.
Meditation has taught me to experience an expanded sense of being that is not limited to body or mind. It’s as if my skin disappears and nothing separates me from anything or anyone. In this state, I lack nothing, and I’m inspired to project compassion to those who need it.
After Hurricane Katrina upended New Orleans where I live, I volunteered as a creative writing teacher in a public school. I realized quickly that my fifth-grade students were suffering from stress and family dysfunction and couldn’t easily focus on writing. They fought on the playground and acted out in class. Nobody had taught them skills to self-regulate or resolve conflict.
I used simple meditation techniques with them — breathing and visualizations — and after some weeks, the children responded positively. “I feel like I’m floating on clouds,” one said. “It’s so peaceful,” said another. They began to concentrate more easily, to understand and follow my directions, and to write stories with more narrative depth. More importantly, they had a tool for responding to their own harmful emotions.
I wrote Meditation is an Open Skyso children can learn meditation on their own or in other classrooms or groups. I wish I’d written it sooner for my post-Katrina kids. Wherever they are now, perhaps they still remember how to focus their mind and heart and live with more ease and kindness.
I’m obsessed with nonfiction books. I like to read thick, technical science books for fun. I read piles of children’s nonfiction picture books to keep abreast of what’s on the market (and because I love them!) On the rare occasion when I do read fiction, it’s a refreshing treat, and I’m pleased to share a new fiction gem I enjoyed while on vacation this summer—Lilliput.
To become my official vacation read, Lilliput first had to earn a place in my suitcase. (Sidenote: After years of intensive training, my husband has converted me to a “ultra-light” packer, so this means there was room for only one book in my small bag.) The night before I was to leave on my trip I hadn’t selected a book yet; there were several on my nightstand I’d been wanting to read. I made the executive decision to read the first chapter of each to determine which one was worthy of the trip. Well, the first chapter of Lilliput (only seven pages) hooked me immediately, and it won the spot in my bag.
The book was so compelling I finished it long before I returned home from vacation. I love how the main character, Lily, is a great role model for young readers with her unwavering determination and kind nature, despite the constant challenges she faces while trying to make her way back home to Lilliput.
The giant villain, Lemuel Gulliver, who kidnapped Lily and held her hostage for proof of his discoveries, supplied wonderful humor—with just the right amount of evil. I enjoyed how the author developed this character, and found myself feeling a tad empathetic toward the giant as I learned of his hopes and disappointments.
Then there’s Finn, the hero, who was trapped by a unique prison of his own, yet he looked beyond his dire circumstances and bravely helped Lily escape.
To top it all off, the illustrations by Alice Ratterree are outstanding! The details she included are incredible, and her lovely action-filled pictures have heart.
In the book’s Afterword, the author, Sam Gayton, shares his initial hesitation to write a story based on characters from Jonathan Swift’s classic tale, Gulliver’s Travels, due to concerns about copyright infringement. He relates a charming family anecdote about how his mom allayed his copyright fears when she declared (with a mouth full of dry scone crumbs), “Miffs fin rer fubric fromay.” Translation—“Gulliver’s Travels is in the public domain.”
If you’re looking for a great read to finish off your summer vacation, especially before heading back to school, Lilliput is the perfect choice. This fresh, daring story about a small girl’s quest for big things—freedom, friendship, and family—is truly magical.
Suzanne Slade is the award-winning author of 100 children’s books. Most days you’ll find her researching new book ideas, reading, writing children’s books, or visiting a school near you!
As a child, my travels took place between the covers of books. I read and re-read kids books until I knew the landscapes like the back of my hand. While I haven’t been able to get to Narnia or Through the Looking Glass (yet!), I have visited the Paris of Madeline, the Central Park pond sailed by Stuart Little, the highlands of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and other storied places. Traveling to a book setting is a journey of discovery and a homecoming at the same time.
When our daughters were young we spent hours pouring over the pages of Jeannie Baker’s Where the Forest meets the Sea. In simple words, a young boy describes a day trip with his father to the Daintree Rainforest in North Queensland, Australia. The real story is in the illustrations. Using modeling clay, papers, textured materials, natural materials and paint, Baker has created stunning relief collages that draw the reader into each page. Along with the narrator, our eyes adjust to the light filtering through the trees and more details appear. The richness of plants, animals and insects is astounding; double exposures hint at creatures and people from the forest’s past, and the boy’s imagination adds to the sense of adventure.
Where the Forest meets the Sea encourages readers to slow down, explore, observe and ask questions, perfectly mirroring the way the boy in the book experiences the forest. The attention to detail and child’s eye view influenced and inspired my own work in creating kids books.
Recently, we followed one of our now grown-up daughters to Australia where we had the opportunity to visit the real Daintree wet rainforest, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The forest was so exactly like Jeannie Baker’s illustrations I thought my head would explode. I couldn’t stop leaping around, pointing and exclaiming. Buttress roots! It’s those ferns! Oh the vines! Look at the butterfly! Oh my gosh, look at the stream! Much to the relief of my family, I eventually was able to slow down, observe and absorb the spirit of the place.
Having read Where the Forest meets the Sea enriched my experience in the rainforest, and experiencing the rainforest heightened my appreciation of the book. This back and forth exchange between art and life is magic—almost like stepping through the looking glass.
Author and illustrator Barbara Reid lives in downtown Toronto with her husband and two daughters. At the Ontario College of Art and Design, her focus was illustration, and it was for a class assignment that she first experimented with plasticine artwork. While she likes working with authors and enjoys writing her own stories, she still loves making pictures best of all.
Lori Haskins Houran is a children’s book editor and the author of several books for young children, including How to Spy on A Shark. Lori shares some of her favorite tales to read out loud to her tweens in this week’s Friday Reads!
It is weird that I read to my kids every night?
They’re not little. My younger son is 9, and my older son turns 12 next month. They’ve been reading independently for years now, but they still insist that I read aloud at bedtime. The few times I’ve tried to beg off—I’m tired./I have a sore throat./Downton Abbey is coming on!—they’ve looked as shocked as if I suggested skipping dinner.
Not every selection has worked out as well as I expected. I thought my boys would enjoy The Borrowers, but they didn’t warm to it. A Wrinkle in Time felt confusing as a read-aloud, and I’m sad to say that we gave up on it after three nights. I hope my boys will read it to themselves soon and adore it as much as I do.
I don’t always choose the books, of course. My boys’ picks have included everything from comic books and movie tie-ins (I can tell you pretty much anything you need to know about Batman, Star Wars, and the Avengers) to gems that I might otherwise have missed, among them Jacqueline Davies’ The Lemonade War, Tom Angleberger’s Origami Yoda, and Cynthia Lord’s Rules.
I don’t know long I’ll continue reading aloud to my kids. Will I Skype them in college and read The Secret Garden? No, no, that would definitely be weird…right? But for now, I’ll keep going.
Do you still read to your tweens/pre-teens? What’s on your must-read list?