29 Aug

Bartography Express: “Something vast and dazzling, something constantly unfolding”


The Q&A for the August edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with author Paige Britt and illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko. The three of them have collaborated on Why Am I Me? (Scholastic), which is being officially published today.

This month, one newsletter subscriber will win a copy of Why Am I Me?, which The New York Times included in this past weekend’s book-review roundup, “You Can’t Teach Kids Empathy, but These Picture Books Inspire It.

Chris: What can you tell me about the inspiration for the book? I think my readers would be interested in knowing how the concept came to you and took shape, Paige, and how you arrived at the specifics of the characters and the setting, Sean and Selina.

Paige: The inspiration for Why Am I Me? came straight out of my own life. When I was four years old, I was like most kids — curious about everything. I was constantly asking questions. What’s this? What’s that? Who are you? Who am I?

The last question was the one closest to my heart … and the most baffling. Who am I?

Sometimes I would look at a person — a boy or girl, a man or woman (it didn’t really matter) — and wonder why I was me and not them. The question was way too big for my little brain. It went round and round inside my head — whyamIme? whyamIme? whyamIme? — until my mind gave up. And in that moment of giving up, everything gave way and I felt that I was part of something BIG — something vast and dazzling, something constantly unfolding. That’s when it dawned on me. Maybe there actually wasn’t a “me” and “you” after all. Maybe there was just us.

Even though I’m grown up now, the question “Why am I me?” is still rattling around in my head. That’s why I wrote the book. To this day, I’ve never come up with an answer, but I do have a hint. The answer is in the asking. Certainty creates labels, but curiosity creates space — space for empathy and connection, for wonder and delight. So … stay curious!

Selina: When Sean and I first read the manuscript for Why Am I Me? we fell in love with the idea of creating a picture book asking life’s biggest questions by our littlest people. Right away we connected with the themes of empathy and wonder. But, we knew it would be a challenge to create a narrative to go along with the simple — yet profound — words.

Our first task was thinking of a setting where a variety of very different people would naturally come together. It took some brainstorming before we came up with the subway, but when we did it was an “Aha!” moment for us. It just felt right.

As Brooklynites we frequently ride into the city along with people from all walks of life. Each subway car can seem almost like a microcosm of the world; so many people from all over coming together (often uncomfortably close to one another) to ride to their destinations in peace.

On the subway platform our protagonists (a biracial African American/Caucasian boy and biracial Asian/Caucasian girl) gaze at each other and simultaneously wonder the same things. The crowded setting is ripe for the two to indulge their curiosities beyond each other, as more and more people join them on their journey home.

At a certain point we decided to have them look beyond their subway car to parks and outdoor concerts, places where we could show even more people mixing together — demonstrating that this is the diverse and beautiful world we live in. We wanted the main characters to look very different from each other initially only to realize by the end, after they have gazed up at the sky and then into each other’s eyes, that essentially they are made from the same “star stuff” and are not so different from one another after all.

Why Am I Me? author Paige Britt (left) and illustrators Sean Qualls and Selina Alko (right)

Chris: Advance copies of Why Am I Me? have been out in the world for a few months now. Of the early responses to the book, is there one that’s been especially memorable or meaningful to you?

Sean: What I like about the reviews overall is that they each discuss the book as a whole unit, focusing on how both the words and illustrations work together to tell the story. As Selina has already said, we immediately fell in love with Why Am I Me?, and one of the reasons for me was that Paige left plenty of room for the illustrations. Her words created an ideal backdrop for us to imagine and bring to life the characters and world that her words suggest, in a way that is unique and personal to us.

I see the book as one indivisible whole, words and art unified by its universal themes. It makes me happy that reviewers seem to think the same.

Paige: I absolutely agree with Sean! Why Am I Me? has received multiple starred reviews and in each case the reviewer has acknowledged how the words and pictures work together to evoke these universal themes. My favorite early response, however, didn’t come from a reviewer. It came from my 86-year-old aunt with Alzheimer’s disease from Sulphur Springs, Texas.

Chris, you’re from Sulphur Springs, so you know that it’s a small and extremely conservative town in East Texas. My aunt has lived there for 60 years. When I showed her Why Am I Me? she pored over it, commenting on the colors, turning it this way and that to examine the collage, and reading the words out loud. The questions made her laugh and every so often she’d look at me and ask, “What’s the right answer?” I told her to keep on reading.

When she got to the last page and saw the image of the boy and the girl with their faces overlapping, she said, “They each have one eye of their own and one eye shared.” I held my breath and then asked, “Do you have an answer now?” She thought about it a long time and then said, “White people think they are all there is, but they’re not. We need to think about that.” I burst into tears.

This book is about unity and diversity. It’s about that one eye of your own and the one we share. And if an 86-year-old woman with dementia can realize this, then it means the words and pictures are working together on multiple levels. Because, after all, these aren’t lessons of the mind, so much as the heart.

26 Jul

Bartography Express: “We couldn’t actually have murder in the mystery”


The Q&A for the July edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with Jason Gallaher, my fellow Austinite and the debut author of Whobert Whover, Owl Detective, and with the book’s Belgian illustrator, Jess Pauwels.

This month, one newsletter subscriber will win a copy of this wordplay-packed picture book (published just last week by Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster), which Kirkus Reviews could not resist calling “A cracking whooooo-dunit.”

Chris: Every thriller needs a twist, and the fate of Perry the possum provides that twist in Whobert Whover. Considering the age of your audience, what were the challenges in making the case solvable by readers without that twist being too obvious?

Jason: Your question totally hits on the unique situation that this book at its heart is a murder mystery, but since this book is for young readers, we couldn’t actually have murder in the mystery.

My first clue that everything was going to turn out fine was by making the victim a possum. Among older readers, it’s known that possums who appear to have met an untimely end often times are a-okay.

So I thought with that knowledge, adults could read Whobert’s story with assuredness that Perry is going to walk away in the end, and have this bonding moment with youngsters in which they get to learn about possums and their physical hijinks.

I also did what so many writing workshops tell you not to do: I included illustration notes in the manuscript that my agent (Tricia Lawrence of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency) submitted to editors. But this was only because the text of what Whobert says does not match what is being shown on the page.

And those illustration notes weren’t “Jess, you must illustrate this scene this way or else,” but more, “Here’s what I’m thinking is going on so it’s clear that Whobert’s perceptions are off.” At least, that’s how I hope those notes came across to Jess!

Jess: Usually, my job is to bring a shift between the text and the illustrations, avoiding redundancy.

Here, as Jason said, there is already a shift between the text and the scenes. It’s the whole concept. Everything happens unsaid.

Jason’s notes were super important for me to get exactly the plot. They were part of the story, as the text was.

His point was absolutely not to “direct” my work but to help me to draw what was essential.

Respecting his notes, everything was still open for me to bring my ideas about composition, ambiance, expressions, details and fun.

I saw my job here as an opportunity to bring my “visual touch” to Jason’s fantastic humour.

I just did a kind of a funny “Usual Suspects” casting to an already well-constructed movie.

Whobert Whover, Owl Detective illustrator Jess Pauwels (left) and author Jason Gallaher


Chris: Jess, Whobert Whover is your first U.S. picture book, and Jason, this is your first book, period. It’s a milestone for each of you. How did you each decide who to dedicate this book to?

Jess: Whobert Whover, Owl Detective is indeed my first USA picture book, and I’m so proud of it! I couldn’t have hoped for a better story to try my luck over there. In the USA you have a total different way of telling stories. I found it — and Jason’s writing — fabulous.

I dedicated it, “For Julien ‘Harfang,’ best owl detective ever.” Julien is my husband, He has supported me a lot since I decided to focus on illustration. And thanks to his passion for stories, images, and investigations he coached me to direct the forest drama Jason has created.

The funny part is that Whobert is a owl, and Julien’s Boy Scout name was “Harfang,” which is a snow owl. I couldn’t miss the occasion to thank him.

Jason: My dedication in Whobert reads, “To Grandma Joan, who, who always knew I would be a writer.”

And it’s true! G-Ma J knew I was going to be a writer even before I did. I was always telling her stories and always making her take me to the library when we would go visit her in Billings, Montana.

I distinctly remember the day one summer when I was about 8 and we arrived at her house where she had a typewriter and a huge stack of blank paper waiting for me. She said, “Now get writing, John Grisham.” She set that typewriter up for me from then on every time we would see her.

While I went more the Dr. Seuss route than the Grisham route, she never stopped encouraging me to write. She got to hear the news that I was getting published about six months before she passed. Even though she’s gone, I can still feel her reading over my shoulder every now and then while I’m writing, and I know she’s cheering me on.

21 Jun

Bartography Express: “I hope I wasn’t the mean cousin Eddie!”

The Q&A this month in my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here) is with my friend Debbi Michiko Florence, whose Jasmine Toguchi chapter book series debuts next month.

This month, I’m giving away to one subscriber a set of the first two books in the series, Jasmine Toguchi: Mochi Queen and Jasmine Toguchi: Super Sleuth, both of which will be available July 11. The books have illustrations by Elizabet Vukovic and are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I’ve already read Mochi Queen, which Booklist‘s review describes as “an adorable and heartwarming story about a kid who wants to feel special and do something first for once, along with a nice overview of a Japanese New Year celebration.” I’m eager as can be to get my hands on Super Sleuth.

Chris: To what extent are your Jasmine Toguchi books in general — and Mochi Queen in particular — rooted in your own experiences? Did you have a “mean cousin Eddie”? Were you the mean cousin Eddie?

Debbi: Your question about mean cousin Eddie made me laugh out loud, and gave me pause. I hope I wasn’t the mean cousin Eddie! And no, he is not based on anyone in my family. I will admit, however, that I was like Sophie and was a bossy big sister to my younger sister. In my defense, my sister always seemed happy to go along with any of my games and ideas.

There is much in the Jasmine books based on my own childhood. Little things, like I grew up in Los Angeles in a neighborhood very much like Jasmine’s. I really did have a neighbor who let me climb her apricot tree. My mom, like Jasmine’s, did make a lot of rules. (My daughter who is grown will tell you I was the same kind of rule-maker when she was a child.) We used chopsticks for many meals. My maternal grandmother (who lived with us) spoke broken English and my paternal grandparents lived in Hiroshima like Jasmine’s obaachan does.

Growing up in my family, I enjoyed Japanese traditions. While we never made our own mochi, we did have big New Year celebrations with extended family with a lot of food (including store-bought). Food has always been a big deal in all our celebrations. In book 2, Super Sleuth, just like Jasmine and her sister, my sister and I celebrated Girl’s Day at home by setting up the special dolls and taking photos. When we got older, my mom invited our girlfriends over to celebrate — much like a birthday party. I loved Girl’s Day!

Author Debbi Michiko Florence. Photo by Roy Thomas.

Chris: The Toguchi family’s mochi-making reminded me a lot of the tamalada that my in-laws host each year, and Mochi Queen makes me want to pay enough attention next time we make tamales to be able to view that process through the eyes of an eight-year-old like Jasmine. Since your family didn’t make your own mochi, what were the challenges in researching that part of the story and telling it right?

Debbi: Oh, I love tamales! What fun! I’d never heard of a tamalada and I’m very intrigued now.

While I’d never made mochi in the traditional way, I have eaten a LOT of mochi over my lifetime. I’m kind of a mochi snob and don’t like the pre-packed ones sold in markets (not that I can find any here in coastal Connecticut). I love fresh mochi best and when I lived in the Bay Area in California, I would drive to the specialty shops that made fresh mochi in J-Town (Japantown) in San Jose and San Francisco. I miss that! My favorite mochi is the one with azuki (red bean) in the middle.

But that certainly didn’t prepare me for writing Jasmine’s story. My research consisted of interviewing my mom about her memories and experience making mochi, watching a LOT of YouTube videos, and going to a mochi-tsuki event. I had hoped to be able to have a turn pounding mochi, but it was an event for kids so only kids were invited up. It helped to watch a little girl close to Jasmine’s age try to pound mochi. The hammer was heavy and she needed assistance from an adult.

I haven’t given up the dream of being able to pound mochi, though. I’m keeping my eye out for mochi-tsuki events and someday maybe I’ll get a chance to pound the steamed sweet rice into mochi!

17 Feb

H.M. Bouwman on writing A Crack in the Sea: “I am adding my words to a giant pile of kindling”

From the February 2017 issue of my Bartography Express email newsletter:

I’m delighted this month to feature A Crack in the Sea (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), the magical new middle-grade novel by my friend H.M. Bouwman, with beautiful illustrations by Yuko Shimizu.

The starred review the book received from Publishers Weekly began this way: “The Middle Passage and the fall of Saigon: two terrible events, separated by centuries, with seemingly nothing in common. But for Bouwman anything is possible, including the existence of a second world.”

Also, that second world? It includes sea monsters.

I’m giving away a signed copy of A Crack in the Sea to one Bartography Express subscriber residing in the US. If you’d like that winner to be you, just say so in a reply to this email before midnight on February 26, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, as always, I’ve got a brief Q&A with the author. But H.M. — I know her as Heather — did a terrific interview recently with Caroline Starr Rose. I recommend their conversation so highly that my feelings will not be one bit hurt if you go read that first and then come back for the one I had with Heather.

Chris: You mentioned [in the interview with Caroline Starr Rose] that, after your writing of A Crack in the Sea began with the image of a giant raft and the story of the Zong slave ship, “More images and stories and real world events influenced the writing as the manuscript progressed.” Can you please talk a little more about that interplay between the fiction you were creating and the unfolding of real life around you?

Heather: It’s hard to remember exactly how things progressed in drafting and revising, Chris! I feel like I’m making up a story about how the book was written….

That said, I do remember very clearly revising this book as I was seeing and hearing news reports about boatloads of people fleeing Syria. There are particular photos and stories….

I know, too, that I felt then (and still feel) in some ways very helpless to change world events. I can give money to organizations that help others, I can vote and write letters to support change, I can show up at marches — but I’m not myself a lawmaker or a doctor without borders or an aid worker.

But I do write stories. I think that writing for young people is a long game — you are putting stories out there that have the power (as all stories do) to influence people’s hearts and lives, but you don’t see any evidence of that for years sometimes, if ever. I hope that 20 years from now there will be a teacher or politician or medical professional or store clerk who will be a better person because of something they read when they were a kid — maybe even something I wrote. I feel sometimes like I am adding my words to a giant pile of kindling, all these loving and thoughtful and creative works for kids, and that immense bonfire burns so bright, and I love thinking that I’ve contributed to it.

In this illustration by Yuko Shimizu, the characters Caesar and Kinchin ride on the head of a Kraken.

Chris: I see lots of ways in which A Crack in the Sea will have just that power for its audience — and many ways in which your book will seem especially timely to readers. I’m struck not only by the themes of escape, immigration, and refuge, but also by the ways that different cultures and abilities (in both humans and in sea monsters!) are appreciated, and in how citizens of Raftworld intervene when their leader is prepared to make a decision out of pure self-interest that would have a dramatic and damaging effect on his own people.

Do you yourself see any of that? Now that your book has been published while life around it goes on, are you still noticing new ways in which A Crack in the Sea may resonate with kids, new ways in which readers may interpret its stories, new ways in which educators can put your book to use?

Heather: With this book, I was thinking mostly about issues of escape, immigration, and refuge (as you put it so well). For sure.

But yes, there were other issues, too, that floated to the surface as I was writing. For example, I have a friend and the son of a friend who are both faceblind, so I was thinking about that — and about my own struggles over the years with chronic back issues — thinking about the ways that invisible (or somewhat invisible) differences are handled in our society.

And I was thinking a lot about villains as I wrote this book: What makes for a good antagonist, and how might an antagonist be also a basically good person — a person capable of growth and change and empathy just as much as a protagonist?

And I was thinking, from 2011 forward (in other words, not just in the past couple of months, though it might seem that way) about how political leaders should make decisions, and how they should govern — not through autocratic or dictatorial means, and not through condescension, but through careful listening to the people and tending of their best and most noble hopes and dreams. (In this sense, Jupiter the storyteller is the ideal politician…which is kind of interesting, yes?)

I’m sure there were other things I’m not thinking of right now. Oh! I was thinking about food; I get hungry when I write. I’m fairly sure that’s why Caesar is always hungry.

28 Oct

October 2016 Bartography Express: “They are amazed at what he accomplished.”

To get Bartography Express in your inbox each month — and to have a shot at the November giveaway of Space Dictionary for Kids: The Everything Guide for Kids Who Love Space, written by Amy Anderson and Brian Anderson — you can sign up on my home page.

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30 Sep

September 2016 Bartography Express: “If children learn to love and respect the elephant through this book, I will be overjoyed”

To get Bartography Express in your inbox each month — and to have a shot at the October giveaway of Tiny Stitches, written by Gwendolyn Hooks and illustrated by Colin Bootman — you can sign up on my home page.

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31 Aug

August 2016 Bartography Express: The smashiest, the crashiest — and the animalsiest

To get Bartography Express in your inbox each month — and to have a shot at the September giveaway of This Is Our Baby, Born Today, written by Varsha Bajaj and illustrated by Eliza Wheeler — you can sign up on my home page.

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