Event: “Now and Then”

I recently attended a panel discussion at the opening of a new exhibition at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art titled “Now and Then: Contemporary Illustrators and Their Childhood Art”. This exhibit will be on display until May 10, 2020 and features the artwork of many artist/illustrators from their childhood to their published works.

The panel discussion was part of the opening events, with author/illustrator Grace Lin as the moderator. The panel was comprised of five artists, including Evan Turk, Barbara Lehman, Shadra Strickland, Raul the Third, and Don Tate.

The topic of discussion was “Supporting the Creativity of the Young Adult.” I’d like to share some of the highlights of the conversation with my readers. Throughout this month, I will be reviewing a book selection from each of the artists.

Note: The following conversations are paraphrased. My shorthand is rusty and I couldn’t keep up, but I did capture the essence of the responses.

Grace Lin (GL): I want to begin by sharing a quote with the panel and audience. To have a whole-hearted life, we need to be a maker of things. Tell me – Why is creativity so important?

Shadra Stickland (SS): I think it is innate. Without creativity, we become disconnected. Creativity is an energy that must come out.

Raul the First (RF): Creativity takes you to unexpected places.

Barbara Lehman (BL): I think it is wired into us. It keeps us focused and contributes to our sense of well-being. When I am creating, I have a great feeling of absorption.

Don Tate (DT): I am a person of faith. Our creativity is a gift from our Creator and I believe we should use our talents.

GL: Life is hard. Let art make it easier. Does it?

ET: Life is not easier, but art helps it be easier to make meaning of things.

BL: Art connects us to others. It expands my world.

SS: It is not easier. Every book is pain and misery! However, outside the studio, art is more magical.

RT:  Yes, I am so glad I am not doing any of the crummy jobs my parents wanted me to do! I think as artists we inspire others.

DT: I can’t imagine doing anything else. As a youth I was cripplingly shy. Art is my way to express myself and to communicate. I am beginning to love the art of the word as much as I love the art of drawing.

GL: Can you share a memory or give an example of how your books have inspired young readers?

BL: I can’t think of a single experience, but since I have been making wordless picture books I have heard from many teachers. They tell me about how they are using the books, especially when language is an issue.

ET: During school visits, I try to bring the children an understanding of the symbolism of a book. It is gratifying to see them experience the art in their own way.

SS: During my middle school visits, the students are so engaged. It’s humbling.

RF: These books really show where all our memories are. It is so nice for different people to share their experiences.

GL: I agree. You feel like saying, “This is the book I didn’t know I was waiting for.”

DT: The books also offer the opportunity to gain a different perspective. My father didn’t approve of my choice to be an artist, but the work showed him what an artist could be and he came to accept and respect it.

GL: It might be hard for parents to accept their child’s decision to be an artist. What advice can you give?

RF: Ignore your parents! My father’s philosophy was that art equaled laziness and laziness equaled art. Find people to support you.

DT: My father was not accepting of my work, but my mother covered our refrigerator with my pictures. I had an uncle who was a barber and whenever I went to his barber shop, he would tell people, “Here is the greatest artist ever.” Support your children with your words.

ET: I have family members who are also artists, so they had no issue with art as a career choice. However, I would like to point out that art takes hard work, practice, and diligence.

BL: As a kid I was not supported and I can understand the fear of choosing an unusual profession. Find people who are supportive of your choices.

SS: My mom believed in exposing me to everything. She took me to museums–even when I didn’t want to go!–so I would become aware of everything that is out there.

GL: Was there a moment in your youth when you knew you wanted to follow this path?

SS: There was no one “aha” moment. I had studied art in college. It was when I was teaching art to elementary school children that I realized that illustration could be a career. I went back to college to hone those skills.

RF: Where I grew up there was a comic book store that I used to visit all the time. The owner of the store used to draw comics and let me fill them in. Today, I draw comic book style illustrations.

DT: I was inspired by the television show “Good Times.”  The character JJ became a commercial artist at an advertising agency. I was also inspired by my aunt who was a writer.

ET: My parents were artists. I also had a high school art teacher who was an out gay man who provided a lot of inspiration to me. I did graphic design on the side and later studied graphic design in college.

GL: Do you have certain practices to keep you inspired, to keep the juices flowing?

SS: I leave my head and get into my body. I leave the studio, go to museums.

DT: I go on school visits to be around children.

ET: I go out and draw just because I love it. I go to museums. Reading is also helpful.

BL: I go to museums. You need to have a balance. I also feel you need to cultivate a connection to childhood memories. I try to remember what got my attention.

RF: I just fly by the seat of my pants!

GL: Do you have any advice for parents on ways to nurture their children’s creativity?

SS: Take them to museums. Make them see art.

RF: Give them options. Let them have the ability to choose what interests them.

DT: Pay attention to kids – and don’t forget the power of praise.

BL: Give them lots of unstructured time to explore and create. Be nonjudgmental.

ET: Be their cheerleader.

SS: As a child, I spent a great deal of time with my grandmother. She would garden, restore old furniture. You have to let kids see you being creative.

GL: Yes, you need to be in touch with your own creativity.

At this point, Grace Lin opened the questions to the audience members. Since these also provided inspiring responses, I’ll continue to share the conversation.

Q: Can you tell us something about your current work, but also about some risks that you have been taking?

ET: I am currently working on a picture book biography of Ben Shahn. As for risks – I try something new with every book. I try to find a new visual language.

BL: I am working on a longer book. I’ve had a change of direction. This book is humor-based, which is a return to a childhood interest.

SS: My risk is to switch media with each book. I am currently working on writing more poetry.

RF: I am currently trying to create my own cartoon/comic book. It will range right from picture books and the characters within the book will be recurring throughout the series. My risk? I am trying to create my own cartoon!

DT: I am working on a couple of new books, but my big risk is to be here on this stage. Public speaking is still a challenge.

Q: Talk about the joy you feel in your work.

SS: I don’t think of my work as joy. You know, the pain and misery thing. I do think of it as a privilege and a service. Drawing is fun, but it is work.

RF: It is lots of fun. I like to make people laugh.

ET: I find my work contains a mixture of excitement and anxiety. It is fun and I like the challenge, but I don’t think of it as joyful.

BL: My work often seems fear-driven. I love the feeling of accomplishment and I certainly feel that I am aligned with what I am supposed to be doing, even though there is often lots of struggle.

DT: I think that joy does come to the artist. For me, writing is pure joy; it doesn’t seem like work. Although that is not always true. I often have to redo work.

BL: I think the key is revision.  You have to have a passion to follow through.

ET: I love drawing and feel everybody should draw, but it requires practice.

SS: I am not a great drawer. What I am is a hard worker. I do the work that is behind that process; I build that muscle. Tools are very important. I like to change it up a lot.

RF: Join a gang. No! No! I don’t mean like that. I mean a gang of artists. I once belonged to an artist group. I learned so many things and it brought me so many opportunities and challenges.

Although the conversation ended here, stay tuned for more information on the work of each artist.


Interview: Lydia Lukidis (No Bears Allowed)

no bears allowedA few week ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing No Bears Allowed by Lydia Lukidis. It’s a great story of friendship and learning to understand other people’s view points. Don’t forget to check out the full review!

I’ve also had the exciting opportunity to discuss the book with Lydia Lukidis–and I’m sharing that interview with you today!

  1. Was there a particular incident that inspired this story?

NO BEARS ALLOWED was character driven, so the characters emerged before the narrative. Rabbit came to mind first, and I imagined him as reserved and afraid of everything. He lets fear and worry govern his actions. Then I thought it would be interesting to add a bear and somehow have them develop an unlikely friendship.

2.  I love the idea of cultivating empathy. Do you have suggestions for parents about ways to start a conversation on empathy?

As parents, one of our jobs is to help our children be self-aware and cultivate empathy. I think it starts with open communication, talking with your child and asking them to identify how they feel and why, then talking about how we can affect others. Encouraging them to see the other person’s point of view is also helpful, but it all begins with self-love and respect.

3. I know one of your goals is to foster the love of literacy. Again, do you have some quick tips to share with parents?

When your children are young, READ to them as often as you can! Set aside some cuddling time where you can share stories and enjoy each other’s company. After your read a book, engage in conversation. What did they like about the book? What else could have happened in the story? Help them understand how narratives are created, ie. there’s always a central conflict that needs to be resolved. When your children are older and can read on their own, find out what they like and buy/borrow as many books as you can. Encourage them to read every day, and then discuss what they liked about the books after.


Sounds like great advice! And NO BEARS ALLOWED might be just the place to get those conversations started!


*Note: I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Interview: Kelly Jones (Murder, Magic, and What We Wore)

I’m sure many of you will recall that a few months ago I reviewed Murder, Magic, and What We Wore by Kelly Jones. That was one of my favorite titles from 2017, so I’m very excited to have had the opportunity to interview Ms. Jones about her work. Check out our conversation below

1. I had been reading your blog and know that Murder, Magic and What We Wore had originally been written years earlier with a different title. Many writers think of their books as their children. Tell me how you developed that professional objectivity/attitude that allowed you to rewrite your novel. (By the way, the title is what caught my attention. I bought it without even reading the jacket!)

I taught myself to write novels with Glamour (the story that eventually became Murder, Magic, and What We Wore), alternating with a couple of other projects. I worked on it from around 2005 – 2008, spent a lot of time on sentence-level edits (choosing the perfect word here and there), and almost none on structural work (thinking about whether the plot made any sense or not.) I shelved it in 2009, when it didn’t find a fit with the agents I’d queried.

But, I still loved the characters, the world, and the ideas. So, my agent and I pitched it to my editor after my debut novel Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer was published, and she was interested in seeing a proposal.

Turns out, four years away from a project really helps with perspective! I’d worked on four more novels since I’d shelved Glamour, as well as critiquing many projects for other writers, and I’d learned so much from each project. Now, I could see issues that I hadn’t been focused on before, and I thought of ways to handle what critiquers had pointed out wasn’t working before. And, once I could see them, I really wanted to fix them. Perhaps my perspective is more that of a homeowner who looks up and notices the roof is leaking, than that of a parent?

The new version’s full title was originally How to Sew a Glamour, or, Murder, Magic, and What We Wore — a mouthful, to say the least! I’m glad the final version worked for you.

2. Can you tell us more about your revision process? Was there anything left of the original story when you finished? How did you know what to keep and what to discard? In your blog you mention that the process is not easier than writing a new book, but do you have a preference as to how you work?

I’d never attempted such a massive revision before, and I didn’t know if I could accomplish what I’d set out to do! Doubt is part of the process, for me, so I decided to try anyway. When I looked back at the most recent version, I could see right away that I wasn’t going to be able to change a little bit here and there to make it work. It needed a complete overhaul: first person point of view instead of third, a looser, less clipped historical voice, and a plot that made sense, for a start! I tried fixing a paragraph or two, and couldn’t squeeze a word in edge-wise. I couldn’t just change verbs to change the point of view, because the entire lens of what a character notices and what the reader sees changes when you look out from their eyes. And, working on all those other projects had grown and strengthened my writing (thank goodness!) My new writing didn’t match the old, and wasn’t going to slide into the old draft smoothly.

At that point, I made the best decision I could: I put that draft away, and rewrote the entire story again from scratch, the way I wanted to write it now, without looking at the previous one. I didn’t want to slip back into the same comfortable, familiar, structurally flawed flow. I’d done more than eighteen drafts, and I knew those characters, and what drove them forward. I didn’t need to look at the old words telling it, because they didn’t work with the way I wanted to tell it now.

So, as far as I know (I still haven’t looked back), there are no sentences that remain from the original version. But, most of the main characters came over unchanged. I feel like I finished telling the story I wanted to tell, even though all that wordsmithing on all those drafts never got used. (Well, aside from teaching me how to write — no small gift!)

It helped to know the story I was writing (in general, I don’t actually know what story I’m telling until I finish a first draft.) But, it wasn’t faster than writing a brand new first draft, and it still needed just as much revising. My editor had just as many suggestions. It was also harder in that I was trying to match this story to an idea I’d had long ago, and tried to capture. It always felt like chasing smoke, and I always wondered what I’d capture, in the end, and whether it would finally be what I’d wanted. My compass was the characters, what they wanted, what they struggled with. I wanted to stay true to them, even if everything else changed. I think I put far more pressure on this idea than I do on brand-new ones, because this was my chance to finally tell a story that had been important to me for years. What if I still couldn’t do it well enough? That constant wondering didn’t make anything go faster, or easier.

My preferred way to build a story, these days, is what I think of as a coral reef: I find and collect bits of ideas and characters and put them together in a place where they can grow a story for years, undisturbed. Once in a while I find something to throw in the tank with them, and they grow around it. Then, when I’m ready for a new project, I look in the tanks and see what I’ve grown, and what I want to do more with — what feels ready for more light, perhaps. Murder, Magic, and What We Wore was more of a sunken ship, but I love that it had the time to grow depths and reveal new aspects while it sat there in the dark. That coral reef process is my preference for the very early stage — after that, it’s writing and revision, over and over, regardless of how it started. But I find it hard to add new depths and organic growth in time for a deadline, so I try to build those in first.

3. Can we look forward to more magic, wildly wonderful garments and perhaps even a bit of romance? (I hope the answer is yes!)

Definitely more magic! I’m fascinated by “what if” stories, and magic is often a part of mine. I’m also fascinated by young people who feel a sense of responsibility, and are interested in the work they do, and who try to learn to do it better. I like stories about young people who aren’t very good at things yet, perhaps because I spent a lot of years not being very good at things, and trying to do them anyway.

The next couple of books I’ve been working on don’t have a fashion or romantic focus, though: the middle grade sequel to Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer will be out this fall, and although Are You Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken? follows a young woman determined to do the best she can with a difficult situation, it’s another novel about taking care of chickens with magical abilities, not sewing glamours. After that will be the tentatively-titled Sauerkraut, also a contemporary magical middle grade novel.

I do have a couple of coral reefs growing around more Regency magic, though, and I’d very much like to know what Millicent thinks of the adventures that come next, so perhaps one day? (I can assure you that Annis will not stop being concerned about what everyone is wearing anytime soon!) This is an area where readers have more power than writers: the sequel to Unusual Chickens happened because readers were interested in the characters, the world, and what came next. They read it, and talked about it, and shared it, and wondered. So, whenever you love a book and wish there were more, tell someone else about it!

While you wait, I hope your readers will try some of the books by other authors mentioned in my Author’s Note — as well as the Regency fantasy novels that come after!

Interview: Margaret Peterson Haddix

Children of Exile

Children of Exile by Margaret Peterson Haddix

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing two books by popular author Margaret Peterson Haddix. You can check out both of those reviews here and here. There are even discussion questions!

I also had the opportunity to conduct a brief interview, and I am very excited to share Ms. Haddix’s comments here.

1. You have had a wonderfully prolific career. What is the #1 piece of advice would you give to your readers if they, too, want to become writers?

For years, my basic advice to kids who want to become writers has been to 1) read a lot; 2) write a lot; and 3) think a lot, and I believe that all of those things are important (as well as kind of obvious). Lately, though, I’ve been coming down a lot harder on the third point. And sometimes I adjust it to say to kids, “Make sure you have time to think.” I know I sound like some cranky old person if I start complaining about kids constantly being glued to cellphones or tablets or video games—and always being entertained, instead of becoming acquainted with their own thoughts. That can sound like I’m going to follow it up with, “Back in my day, we had nothing to do but stare at a blank wall and think about nothing but our own miserable thoughts for eight hours a day—and we liked it!” Really, I think adults (including, um, me sometimes, too) can be every bit as bad as kids about over-entertaining themselves, and using every spare moment to obsess over social media or watch Netflix, etc., instead of reading and writing and thinking. And I don’t think that social media or Netflix (or cellphones or tablets or video games) are evil in and of themselves. It’s just that I think everyone (kids, adults, future writers, current writers, even people who hate to write…) needs to have some time every day just to daydream and imagine and puzzle out life, the universe, and everything—and just try to figure out what’s going on in their own head, and in their own life, and what they really think and believe, and how that fits with the rest of the world.

Everybody needs to make time to think.

2. Can you give us any hints as to what’s next for Edwy and Rosi?

Children of Refuge

Children of Refuge by Margaret Peterson Haddix

It’s always hard to give hints without giving too much away. But I’ll go with this: Things are going to get a lot harder for Edwy and Rosi before they manage to solve their problems.

3. What other books would you recommend to young readers? 

Oh, wow, that’s a tough question, because there are so many great books out there, and I always realize too late that I’ve left out something I really love.

If you want a recommendation of a book that I loved as a kid that I think still holds up really well, I’d go with FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, by E.L. Konigsberg. Granted, everything would be different if the book were set in the modern day (Because: cellphones! Amber Alerts! Etc.) But I think kids can still relate. And A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L’Engle. And…

Maybe I’d better move on to newer books. Some I’ve read relatively recently that I really love include WHEN YOU REACH ME, by Rebecca Stead; and THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE, by Kimberly  Brubaker Bradley; and GHOST, by Jason Reynolds; and all five books of the Lockwood & Co. series, by Jonathan Stroud; and WONDER, by R.J. Palacio (Of course, hasn’t everyone already won WONDER?) and ONE CRAZY SUMMER, by Rita Williams-Garcia…

And there are probably five billion other books that I’m probably still leaving out, but that’s a start.

Thanks again to Margaret Peterson Haddix for taking the time to answer my questions. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens to Edwy and Rosi in the next book!



Interview: Mark Thiessen (Extreme Wildfire)

extreme-wildfireLast week, we reviewed National Geographic’s Extreme Wildfire by Mark Thiessen with Glen Phelan. Be sure to test your knowledge of wildfires with this quiz and check out our review of the book. Today, we’ve been lucky enough to interview author Mark Thiessen and gain a little more insight into his work!
1.     How did you first “get bit by the fire bug?”
When I was a newspaper photographer in Idaho, I covered lots of forest fires and was drawn to wildland firefighters. They love the outdoors, have a thirst for adventure, are physically fit, and are amazed at seeing one of natures fiercest forces up close. Being “bit by the fire bug” is a phrase used by firefighters who keep coming back year after year. All the same things that appeal to firefighters appeal to me.
For most of them it’s a seasonal job and could be the most exciting experiences they have in their life. Yet there is often no one around to photograph it for them. Very few photographers get access to the inner world of wildland firefighters. I want to show readers what that amazing world is like from the inside, right on the fire line.
Fire is as beautiful as it is terrifying. And when you can anticipate the situation and get there when it’s going to happen, you just can’t take enough pictures of it. You end up in these other-wordly scenes. You’re in the middle of a forest with trees burning all around you – and it’s just magical. All of my favorite pictures all have this other-worldly feel to them. I hope to get into those situations where the light is doing things that it doesn’t normally do. I’m always drawn to photographing things where the light source is in the picture. So fire at night is a great opportunity for that.
2.     You talk about several dangerous incidents/wildfires in which you’ve been involved. What was the scariest?
Shooting forest fires is as unpredictable as the fires themselves—you never know what’s going to happen next. The key is to anticipate the action.
A fire was burning in the mountains near Sealy Lake, Montana, where firefighters were scrambling to complete a large burnout operation to clear the unburned vegetation leading up to the road.
I was riding along with the division supervisor, Ed Sanford, when word came over his radio that the wind had changed direction. Instead of blowing our burnout toward the flaming front, the wind was blowing it back toward us. In several places the fire had “jumped the road.” This was a bad situation.
As we drove along the fire line, firefighters were running all over the place trying to put out the spot fires. It was a lost cause. Burning embers were raining down on the unburned side of the road. Ed made the call to evacuate everyone from the area. We made sure everyone had made it out safely before we pulled out ourselves. In front of us on the road rose a thick wall of smoke that turned into flames on both sides of us.
“Are you ready?” Ed asked.
“Yep,” I gulped.
I pressed my camera to my face and decided I would keep shooting through the wall of smoke because who knows what’s waiting on the other side. We could feel the heat coming through the windows. We kept driving, and I kept shooting. One of those photos became the opening spread for the July 2008 National Geographic story “Under Fire” and is in the book Extreme Wildfire.
3.     When you talk about wildfires to young audiences, what is the information you most want to convey to them?
This is a book for families as much as it is a young audience. Wildfire is a mystery to most people. What we see on the news is never the full story of what it’s actually like inside a wildfire. I wanted to share the science behind wildfires; how it starts, how is spreads and how it’s stopped. There are amazing people fighting these fires, and I want to share my experiences with hotshots and smokejumpers.
I also wanted this book to be something that firefighters can give to their families.  This will help them explain what they do when they are away from home for 2 weeks.
I want kids as well as adults to become “Fire Smart”. To learn how to prevent wildfires and how we call can live safely with this powerful force of nature.
4.     What can you tell us about the process of writing this book?
Writing this book forced me to step outside of a world with which I was intimately familiar and think about it from the perspective of an outsider. Things I understood as normal inner workings of the fire world could be seen as extraordinary by readers not familiar with fire. I had assistance from writer Glen Phelan, who helped me craft my stories for a young audience.
5.     What are some of your hobbies?
 Although the fire season gets longer and longer, there is still time for me to enjoy other parts of life. Over the last year I have become a beekeeper. I’m fascinated with complexity of bee colonies. I manage our four hives on the roof of National Geographic in downtown Washington, DC, three blocks north of the White House. You would think bee hives in an urban area like DC would’t do very well, but in fact they do very well. There is variety of trees that bloom at different times that allow bees to make honey for more months than in the suburbs.
6.     What are some of your favorite books that you would recommend to child readers?
If you like this book then you might like a couple other books in our Extreme series from National Geographic Kids.
Extreme Weather – Thomas M. Kostigen – Based on cutting-edge science and first-hand accounts, this book helps kids learn about what’s going on and what to do about it.
Extreme Planet – Carsten Peter – Follow noted National Geographic explorer and photographer Carsten Peter as he shows us that our precious planet Earth is one wild and extreme place! His adventures involve tornadoes, ice caves, glaciers, and lightening.