04 Nov

“I’ve definitely become the Betty Crocker of fry bread since production of the book started. People expect it now wherever I go.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for November 2019)

Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the November edition of my Bartography Express newsletter, which you can read here and sign up for here.

My Q&A this month is with Kevin Noble Maillard, a New York-based author and law professor who is a member of the Seminole Nation, Mekusukey band, and Peruvian-born, Arizona-based, Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal.

Kevin and Juana are the creators of the new picture book Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story, which was published last month by Roaring Brook Press. The text begins:

FRY BREAD IS FOOD
Flour, salt, water
Cornmeal, baking powder
Perhaps milk, maybe sugar
All mixed together in a big bowl

In one of several starred reviews that the book has received, Booklist said:

Fry Bread celebrates the thing itself and much, much more. … Maillard and Martinez-Neal bring depth, detail, and whimsy to this Native American food story, with text and illustrations depicting the diversity of indigenous peoples, the role of continuity between generations, and the adaptation over time of people, place, and tradition. Fry bread becomes a metaphor for resilience, born ironically, as Maillard explains, from the most basic of government-issued ingredients. Martinez-Neal’s (Alma and How She Got Her Name, 2018) illustrations are meant to be relished, lingered over. … A lengthy author’s note provides valuable context and history, as well as the author’s personal evolution into the “fry bread lady” with his own modern take on the recipe.

I’m giving away a copy of Fry Bread to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want to be that winner, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on November 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez-Neal.

Chris: Fry Bread is a visual feast, a feast of story, and a feast of information. There’s just so much to it. What’s the one thing that you each learned in the process of creating this book that you believe most contributed to its succeeding in all those ways?

Author Kevin Noble Maillard

Kevin: That picture books are one of the purest forms of creative collaboration. It literally took a children’s book village to make this thing.

We have not only the author and the illustrator, but also our editors, publicists, agents, tribal members, bloggers, influencers, and librarians. I may have had a semantic idea in my head, but then Juana put it to picture and it turns into something greater. Then our editors ask questions and request justifications for these choices, and the publicists seek crystal clear articulations of what this book really means. And when it comes to media influencers and librarians, they directly promote our book to parents, teachers, and students.

This process of creation is dialectical. Everything is push and pull. Other eyes see opportunities or problems in the smallest of potentially huge issues. We debated over the shape of grandma’s hips for a few weeks, and we also had many deep discussions about whether the characters should wear shoes, the curve of a facial expression, and the amount of redness in the skin tone of the characters.

Because picture books are resplendent with meaning and the representation of Native subjects is a very complicated issue, we really wanted to cover all possibilities and preempt any missteps. None of us could have done this alone.

Illustrator Juana Martinez-Neal; photo by Jade Beall

Juana: I agree with Kevin. This book has been a collaborative project which wouldn’t be what it is now if it wasn’t for the participation, support, and vision of everyone involved in it. We all poured our own personal life experiences while working on Fry Bread. It was very important to push back on common misconceptions, and avoid stereotypes.

Chris: Kevin’s author’s note states, “Fry bread as a daily cuisine is no solution. Like the previously mentioned birthday cake, fry bread is not an every-meal staple, like naan bread or jasmine rice. It is best enjoyed in moderation.”

That said, did either of you consume more fry bread than usual during your making of this book, and what’s your plan for handling all the fry bread — which may or may not have been made according to Kevin’s recipe — that’s sure to await you at school visits and other events?

Juana: I’m SO waiting for the chance to taste Kevin’s fry bread. But in the meantime, I have a few places around Phoenix where I have to stop by. As for what I’ll do with all the fry bread that may be waiting for us at school visits and events, I plan to enjoy it with no moderation.

Kevin: It’s so easy for me to make fry bread now, which is a huge turnaround since I started making it on my own. I’ve definitely become the Betty Crocker of fry bread since production of the book started. People expect it now wherever I go.

But the way I make it is pretty time consuming, so it’s hard to throw it together quickly like guacamole or fruit salad. It tastes best right out of the skillet, so I like to fry and serve immediately.

If I can plan ahead of time, and make it in my own kitchen at home, I can really crank it out. But I made enough fry bread for 98 students last week, and while I was waiting for the dough to rise, I prepared for class, did some radio interviews, and checked my emails. When the dough was ready, I kept on doing these three tasks — all while frying the bread.

07 Oct

“While there certainly are rivalries that grow into friendships, it generally takes more than one kickball game (and possibly more than one freakout) to get there.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for October 2019)

Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the October edition of my Bartography Express newsletter, which you can read here and sign up for here.

This month my Q&A is with Texas illustrator and author Beth Mills. Beth’s debut picture book, Ella McKeen, Kickball Queen, was published last month by Carolrhoda Books. School Library Journal summed up its review of the book by saying, “Emotions ring true in this relatable story. A good read-aloud choice to spark discussion.”

I’m giving away a copy of Ella McKeen, Kickball Queen to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want that winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on October 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Beth Mills.

Chris: There’s an attention-getting, epic freakout at the center of Ella McKeen, Kickball Queen, but I think readers are also going be intrigued by something much lower-key: the ending, which has a sort of itchy, unresolved feeling, as things don’t get entirely squared away between Ella and her new kickball rival, Riya Patel.

Was that always how you envisioned concluding this story? Were you ever tempted — or pressured — to wrap things up a bit more neatly?

Beth: I knew from the beginning I didn’t want a completely tied-up ending. In fact, the last line of my first draft is essentially the same as the last line in the published book.

Part of my motivation was wanting Ella and Riya to stand out from the plethora of “enemies to friends” characters out there, but I also wanted to reflect real life. While there certainly are rivalries that grow into friendships, it generally takes more than one kickball game (and possibly more than one freakout) to get there. I wanted to leave some space for the reader to think about Ella and Riya’s relationship and imagine where they might go from there.

I was lucky enough that both my agent, Claire Easton, and my editor, Carol Hinz, liked my ending, so changing it was never brought up. I don’t think the story could end any other way — Ella and Rita are both way too competitive!

Chris: Readers of this Q&A may not know that in most picture books, typically on the copyright page, there’s a mention of the medium that the illustrator used. For Ella McKeen, Kickball Queen, it says, “The illustrations in this book were painted digitally.” What’s the appeal to you of working in digital media, and when do you prefer not to work digitally?

Beth: I work from home where I also have a two-year-old and a five-year-old, so I love the “pick it up and put it down easily” aspect of digital media; I don’t have to worry about dry times, mixing colors (and then matching that mix when I invariably run out of paint), cleaning brushes, or scanning and formatting final art. I can jump into a piece and do a little work in the small increments of time I might have during the day.

That said, I don’t like doing my preliminary sketches or character designs digitally. If I work on them digitally, I tend to get too locked into a concept too early. Honestly, I would love to go back to mostly traditional work – it’s what I did in art school, and I miss it a lot! I think there’s often something in my work that’s lost when I do everything digitally; the finished piece can look too slick to me. I am currently exploring a work process that combines digital and traditional tools and am excited with some of the effects I’m getting.

09 Sep

“I told my editor, ‘I want to write a Pakistani American version of Little Women, but Beth can’t die and Jo can’t marry the old guy.’” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for September 2019)

Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the September edition of my Bartography Express newsletter, which you can read here and sign up for here.

This month my Q&A is with Maryland author Hena Khan, whose new middle-grade novel, More to the Story, was inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. More to the Story is published by Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, as was her previous novel, the much-lauded Amina’s Voice.

Instead of Jo March and her sisters in Civil War-era Massachusetts, More to the Story follows Jameela Mirza and her Muslim family in contemporary Atlanta. In its starred review of the book, Publishers Weekly says, “Khan nimbly incorporates details of modern life and allusions to Alcott’s classic — including financial troubles and a health scare — into a tale that is, fittingly, strongest in the moments when family dynamics are on display.”

I’m giving away a copy of More to the Story to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want to be that winner, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on September 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Hena Khan.

Chris: How did paying homage as a writer to a book that you loved as a reader compare to what you thought the experience would be like? Are there ways that the process was different, or more challenging, or more beneficial to your writing skills than you had anticipated?

author Hena Khan; photo by Zoshia Minto

Hena: When I had originally thought about writing a book inspired by Little Women, I imagined the process would be smoother.

I adored the classic growing up and for years had thought it would adapt well to a retelling that featured a Pakistani American family. After all, I saw many aspects of my culture in the book, like overly worrying about reputation, marriage proposals, and traditional gender roles.

When I spoke to my editor Zareen Jaffery about the idea, I told her “I want to write a Pakistani American version of Little Women, but Beth can’t die and Jo can’t marry the old guy,” and I’m pretty sure she cheered with joy.

But when I sat down to write the book, which I imagined as a young adult novel, I couldn’t capture the voice I wanted. I didn’t like my protagonist, Jameela, as a high schooler, and realized I didn’t want to immerse myself in marriage proposals or romance or struggles against societal rules.

Instead, I wanted to write the book from a middle-grade perspective, and to focus on universal issues and the strong relationships I savored in the original book. But then it wouldn’t quite be the retelling I imagined. In the end, the story I wrote includes nods to my favorite book and aspects of it that I love, like a memorable scene or moment or the basic personalities of the characters.

It ended up being liberating, because I stopped worrying that readers would compare it to the original book, since it’s now so different. I hope it will be fun for fans of the classic to recognize the similarities or tributes to the Louisa May Alcott classic, and for new readers to enjoy an original story with characters they connect with.

Writing the book was a test in expressing new emotions, pushing my dialogue scenes, and trying to write flirting, which I’m really bad at in real life!

Chris: Speaking of flirting, the character doing most of that is Ali — a eighth grade, Pakistani British version of Laurie from Little Women. I loved reading your author’s note and learning that your assumptions about Briticisms paralleled the Mirza sisters’ curiosity and observations about Ali’s cultural background. What’s your response going to be to readers who inevitably want more about Ali and his soccer playing in a follow-up book?

Hena: I hadn’t considered that parallel, but you’re so right! The silly things the girls say to Ali probably reflect a lot of things I assumed myself about British culture. And like Jameela, as a child I was curious the first time I met a South Asian with a full British accent.

I’m so glad that while I was writing More to the Story I had a real British teen, living in London, who I could call and read my Ali dialogue scenes to, and have him very patiently correct my completely made-up or TV-inspired Briticisms. The best was when I said “lumps” (referring to sugar cubes because of my extensive knowledge of proper tea terminology from Looney Tunes) and he cracked up and thought it sounded perverted.

I loved writing Ali as a character, someone who is a little mysterious but also super charming and kind. And I ultimately had fun including the flirting and the slightest hint of romance without hitting anyone over the head with it. My husband read the book and asked, “What romance?” But I promise it’s in there!

I hadn’t thought about readers asking for more about Ali, although now that I think of it, readers wanted more of Mustafa from Amina’s Voice, too! Honestly, I hadn’t considered extending the story before, but if readers clamor for it, I’d be more than happy to give it to them!

05 Aug

“I’ve had to create my own education … I learned how to be subversive in picture books, to say more than meets a first read.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for August 2019)

Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the August edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

My Q&A this month is with Las Vegas-based author and illustrator Daria Peoples-Riley, creator of the new picture book I Got Next. I Got Next was published last week by Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins, which also published her ballet-focused 2018 debut, This Is It.

In one of several enthusiastic reviews that I Got Next has received, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books declared, “Peoples-Riley’s art is witty and superb … The sharp-edged, mixed-gender group of playground kids … are a highly individual, deeply plausible collection. Use this [book] to demonstrate how stories often have deeper meanings and to elicit discussion, but also just to revel in the city life made beautiful.”

I’m giving away a copy of I Got Next to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want that winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on August 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Daria Peoples-Riley.

Chris: I’ve read that This Is It was inspired by your family’s first trip to New York City, but what about the setting of I Got Next? It seems so specific and genuine. Did you base it on a particular real-life neighborhood, or did you incorporate elements from various places, including your imagination?

Daria Peoples-Riley (photo by Kelsey Arrington)

Daria: When I wrote This Is It and placed it in NYC, I knew then I wanted I Got Next to take place in Brooklyn mainly because it is where I romanticize street ball and street ball legends, so the art is definitely inspired by Brooklyn’s outdoor basketball courts.

However, I didn’t get a chance to go back to NYC to visit Brooklyn before final sketches or final art for I Got Next, but I did visit Washington, DC, for the first time, and sat at an outdoor basketball court, and observed the kids, the parents, and the natural elements of what playing basketball in an outdoor urban setting might feel and look like through a child’s eyes.

So, essentially, the art is specifically inspired by that court in Washington, DC. It was important to me that the art in I Got Next came from that same sense of childlike wonder that I experienced when I visited NYC for the first time.

What I noticed, and what I hope is conveyed in I Got Next, is that a child’s environment is often their adversary. Instead of the universe conspiring on the hero’s behalf (like it does for the heroine in This Is It), the environment conspires against the hero, as it often does for young people who come from marginalized, under-resourced communities.

Chris: On the endpapers of I Got Next, readers will find the text, “in loving memory of Sonia Lynn Sadler,” the illustrator of the 2010 picture book Seeds of Change. How have her life and work shaped your own?

Daria: I learned of Seeds Of Change and Sonia Lynn Sadler when I was chosen to receive an illustration award in her honor through the Salisbury Children’s Book Festival. After receiving the award, Sonia’s art and life became a mentor text for me, which was very influential for my work.

Because I have no formal art training, I’ve had to create my own education, and from Sonia’s work, I learned how to be subversive in picture books, to say more than meets a first read. I also learned to approach each project as its own entity, which gives me permission to trust myself and change media and art processes according to the heart of the story.

Also, Sonia’s entry into children’s literature came later in life, as a second career, as it did for me, and within a few weeks of her passing, I took my first portfolio to a Illustrator’s Day in LA, which I thought was very symbolic in my journey. Her art and work allows me to see myself in this industry, thriving and contributing in a way I wouldn’t have been able to imagine without her legacy.

I included a dedication in the endpapers, and Greenwillow added it to the jacket of the book to bring more awareness to Sonia’s work and hopefully more financial support for her award. Honestly, I was disappointed that I hadn’t known of her before receiving the honor, and I want young readers, librarians, parents, teachers, and aspiring artists to know her and celebrate her contribution to children’s literature.

New generations of writers and artists of color should know we are here because others paved the way, and began the breaking of barriers on our behalf long before we entered the arena.

04 Jul

“In this story, it’s not that we’re uncovering a villain, we’re uncovering the helper, the one who connects us to our inner resources.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for July 2019)

Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the July edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

My Q&A this month is with Katherena Vermette and Julie Flett, creators of the new picture book The Girl and the Wolf, published by Theytus Books, a First Nations-owned and operated publisher of Indigenous North American voices.

Katherena Vermette, a Métis writer from Treaty One territory in Manitoba, is also the author of novels for adults (The Break), poetry (North End Love Songs), and graphic novels (A Girl Called Echo) in addition to several other picture books.

Julie Flett is a Cree-Métis illustrator and author of children’s books whose previous titles include When We Were Alone, Little You, My Heart Fills with Happiness, and Wild Berries. She lives in British Columbia.

In a starred review of The Girl and the Wolf, Kirkus Reviews described the book as “A tale about knowledge, power, and trust that reminds readers we used to speak with animals and still do — it already feels like a classic.”

I’m giving away a copy of The Girl and the Wolf to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want to be the winner, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on July 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Katherena Vermette and Julie Flett.

Chris: Anyone accustomed to picture books where the wolf character is a villain from the get-go, or is revealed to be one by the end of the story, is in for something entirely different with The Girl and the Wolf.

What books or stories influenced — positively or negatively — the way you each portrayed the wolf in this book?

author Katherena Vermette

Katherena: Well, the most obvious influence is the Little Red Riding Hood stories — no matter what the version, the wolf is always the bad guy. Same with many Western faery tales, the wolf symbolizes the unknown and roams the shadowy, dangerous woods.

Conversely, in a lot of the traditional Indigenous stories — the ones I know from Inninew and Anishnaabe traditions, anyway — the wolf is a teacher, a helper, and like a friend/sidekick figure.

Julie: I was so happy to work with Katherena on The Girl and the Wolf. I’ve always loved folk and traditional stories, many from my own community, Cree and Métis stories, and other stories adapted from oral traditions, including western stories; Russian folk stories of Baba Yaga, Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf; Grimm’s collections; Perrault’s Bluebeard and others. Some of those stories influenced the tension in the artwork.

That said, it’s a very different story. There is no villain, though the tension is connected to something just as real and scary: being lost. As Katherena points out, in a lot of our traditional stories, the wolf is a teacher, helper, friend, or sidekick. The text and pictures portray the wolf as just this, the helper.

In this story, it’s not that we’re uncovering a villain, we’re uncovering the helper, the one who connects us to our inner resources.

Chris: I know there will be librarians and other educators reading this who are going to be excited to connect The Girl and the Wolf to those traditional stories — or to set the stage so that kids can make those connections themselves.

As far as other contemporary stories, and contemporary storytellers, whose work have you loved lately? What authors, illustrators, or specific books for young readers have you been enthusiastically recommending recently, and why?

Julie: Focusing on illustrated books, all fairly current, here are a few that I recommend as a start:

illustrator Julie Flett

And here are a few great Indigenous children’s picture book resources:

Katherena: What a beautiful list, Julie! Thanks for putting that together. I wholeheartedly second all those recommendations.

Leaves my job pretty easy. My inspiration was from old faery stories from Europe but mostly, traditional stories from this place. Traditional storytellers are absolute treasures. I highly recommend seeking out (and paying honourably) local traditional storytellers. They will blow your minds!

03 Jun

“I’m shocked by how readers in all states ask, ‘Did you train surf like Bryan?’ Readers reread those scenes, a lot.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for June 2019)

Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the June edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

My Q&A this month is with teacher and author Torrey Maldonado, whom you can learn more about at his website and follow on Twitter at @TorreyMaldonado.

Torrey’s tense, brisk middle grade novel Tight (available here!) was published last year by Nancy Paulsen Books. In the book, comics-loving seventh-grader Bryan grapples with conflicting feelings when his interactions with new classmate Mike turn increasingly toxic.

School Library Journal gave Tight a starred review, saying, “The complex emotional lives of young boys of color are portrayed through a nascent friendship,” adding that the author “excels at depicting realistic and authentic interactions between middle school boys. An excellent addition to libraries.”

I’m giving away a copy of Tight to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want that winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on June 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Torrey Maldonado.

Chris: As a teacher, as a parent, and as someone who used to be a kid, you may have had the chance to see relationships like the one between Bryan and Mike from multiple perspectives. What’s something about that sort of dynamic that you only really came to understand by writing Tight — something you maybe wish you’d realized earlier?

Torrey: Have I seen and experienced Bryan’s and Mike’s dynamic? My whole life, everywhere. We all have. THAT is what I know after writing Tight. In states I author-visit, people of all ages and positions tell me about their Mikes. A fifth grade girl said, “I broke up with my friend since she’s Mike.” A school principal who also is a parent said, “I made my family read Tight. We all have Mikes.”

Mike may be in your life, too — a friend, relative, or person who sometimes doesn’t act so friendly? Someone who may be a frenemy? Just now I Googled ambiguous ambivalent friend. There are 6 million of us with Mikes! I hope Tight helps us put Mike on a bully spectrum so we better handle our Mikes.

Chris: Well, let’s talk about those author visits to other states. You’re a lifelong Brooklynite, I believe, and that’s where Tight is set. (My maternal grandmother was from there, by the way, but you could probably tell that from my accent.) Even if Tight didn’t have the A train and C train on the cover, that sense of place would still be strong as can be.

As you’ve visited readers in other states, have they responded to — or connected with — the Brooklyn setting and your Brooklyn background in any ways that have surprised you?

Torrey: I’m Brooklyn, born and raised, with so much Brooklyn-love that I yell with Miles Morales “BROOKLYN!!!!” as he takes his leap of faith in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Thanks for saying even without the trains on the cover that Brooklyn in Tight is as strong as it can be. I’m always wowed at how book buyers stage-dive at that cover. The cover is a nice hint at the train-surfing scenes. I’m shocked by how readers in all states ask, “Did you train surf like Bryan?” Readers reread those scenes, a lot.

It’s cool that so many ask, “How does Bryan sound?” They’re glad to learn that his voice is in the audiobook of Tight. Guess who narrated it? Woohoo! [Note from Chris: It’s true! You can listen to a bit of Torrey’s narration here.] It’s my first audiobook narration, so I’m still impressed that Tight was named an ALA Notable Children’s Recording.

How my Brooklyn background amplifies the Brooklyn flavors of Tight surprises me so much that I sometimes reread the award announcement. Here, I’ll read it now: “Maldonado’s dynamic Brooklyn accent perfectly suits his story of Bryan, as he struggles with finding the right friends, set against the backdrop of the city streets.” Whoah.

06 May

“It was meant to be funny. This little zombie kid embracing a big ol’ root vegetable like it was his teddy bear. But then it hit me: That was Mo.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for May 2019)


Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the May edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

My Q&A this month is with married collaborators Megan and Jorge Lacera, the creators of the picture book Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies!, published last month by Lee & Low Books.

In a starred review, Kirkus said, “Tasty and homegrown, this hits a strange and specific trifecta: a lightly bilingual book that feels inclusive not only for Latinx kids, but also for different eaters and for those who aren’t afraid of gory, monster-themed humor.”

To a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address, I’m giving away one copy of Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies! If you want to be that winner, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on May 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Megan Lacera and Jorge Lacera.

Chris: Side-by-side collaboration between author and illustrator is the exception in picture books — usually the author creates the text and then, for the most part, steps aside while the illustrator brings in the visual aspect of the storytelling.

What’s something that Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies! would have lost if the two of you had worked on it in that traditional way? Is there a particular page or attribute or other element of the book or story that comes to mind?

Megan Lacera

Megan: Such a great question, Chris! I don’t think we would have arrived at the same story if we hadn’t collaborated so deeply.

Early on, after I had written several versions and Jorge had storyboarded out the book numerous times, we were looking at all of the different pieces together. There was good stuff happening, but it wasn’t gelling the way we hoped. While we talked about the issues, Jorge sketched. The result was an image of Mo hugging a carrot. It was meant to be funny — and it was! This little zombie kid embracing a big ol’ root vegetable like it was his teddy bear. We both cracked up.

But then it hit me: That was Mo.

Veggies were much more than something he liked to eat. He loved them. Growing them, harvesting them, mincing them, dicing them. All of it. They were essential to who he was. That realization led to a key discovery for our story: that Mo had to fully embrace his differences. There wasn’t another choice because this wasn’t a food preference. It was love.

Jorge: Megan is a pun master, and we tossed a lot of them back and forth that we thought were funny and worked with the story.

Early on in the story we had a series of vignettes where Mo is trying to convince his parents to give veggies a try. We knew we wanted a bunch of visual gags, so I went to the list we kept of puns and spotted “head of lettuce” and immediately the visual of a scarecrow but with a lettuce head popped into my head.

I think the whole time it was an organic back and forth between the art and the text.

Jorge Lacera

Chris: Your website credits your six-year-old as “Studio Lacera’s Chief of Research and Story Development.” Reading abilities and interests can grow and change so quickly at that age — are there ways that your own storytelling has evolved as a result?

Jorge: Thankfully for us, Kai’s interests seem to match ours. From the start we knew we wanted to collaborate on a variety of stories, from picture books to middle grade and beyond. We hope Kai keeps up with us — otherwise he might need to be transitioned to another department.

Megan: Maybe because he is a only child, or maybe it’s just who he is, but Kai has always wanted to be involved in our work. He loves stories of all kinds and has a gigantic imagination.

The truth is that part of including him on our site is because he wanted to be — and he certainly is a big part of what we do. He loves to share his thoughts on projects and has very strong, definite ideas.

I think our own storytelling has evolved with Kai because we see how he (and other kids) has so many things vying for his attention, like tablets and smartphones and all kinds of gadgets. Instead of being deterred by that, we embrace that there is “competition.” We think about how we can grab his attention with a character or idea — and tell stories that keep that attention. It’s a big challenge!

03 Apr

“Being able to recreate a slice of my border town was a truly magical experience.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for April 2019)


Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the April edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

My Q&A this month is with Raúl the Third, the illustrator of the Lowriders graphic novels (written by Cathy Camper) and now a creator of picture books.

Raúl’s first book as author and illustrator, ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market!, was published yesterday by Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He now lives in Boston, but the book evokes Raúl’s childhood in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

¡Vamos! has received four starred reviews, including one from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books that says the book’s “grab bag of bilingual terms embedded in dialogue, signage, and stray scraps of text invite[s] all readers to have a grand time latching onto what they know and figuring out what they don’t.”

I’m giving away one copy of ¡Vamos! to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want that winner to be you, please let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on April 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Raúl the Third.

Chris: After illustrating the three Lowriders graphic novels, what were the biggest surprises in making your first picture book?

Raúl: I would say that the biggest surprise was how many more books I would complete if I was only making picture books! We are nearly done with the second ¡Vamos! book.

I really enjoyed the entire process and being able to recreate a slice of my border town was a truly magical experience.

Chris: The title page for ¡Vamos! has a credit that may be familiar to graphic-novel readers, but one that I don’t think I’ve seen before in a picture book: “Colors by.”

For the uninitiated, what does a colorist do, and for this picture book where did your work leave off and her work begin?

Raúl: Elaine Bay is the colorist for ¡Vamos! Let’s go to the Market! I am so incredibly lucky to be working with her on this series as the colors have the feel of the border town we were both raised in.

As the illustrator, I am turning over black and white line art to Elaine Bay that she then colors using a wide array of media. She has a library filled with stains and marks, and using a Cintiq she colors the book both digitally and traditionally.

I love exploring the different marks, patterns and textures she has been using.

05 Mar

“I don’t think there’s a kid in the world who hasn’t felt like an underdog at some point.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for March 2019)


Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the March edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

My Q&A this month is with Melissa Stewart and Stephanie Laberis. Melissa and Stephanie are the author and illustrator, respectively, of Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs, an acclaimed nonfiction picture book published last year by Peachtree.

The biggest animals, the fastest ones, the strongest, etc., get plenty of attention in picture books — but not in Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers, which instead shines a light on species (zorillas, anyone?) whose survival-aiding attributes are less heralded.

I’m giving away one copy of Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want to be that winner, please let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on March 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Melissa Stewart and Stephanie Laberis.

Chris: Was there a certain animal — a particular pipsqueak, slowpoke, or stinker — that you gravitated toward when creating this book? One that drew you to this topic in the first place or that you were especially excited to write about or depict?

Melissa: I was a clumsy, uncoordinated, unathletic kid, so the western fence lizard is kind of my hero. See how its “weakness” helps it catch prey?

Let’s face it. Eating is pretty important if you want to stay alive, and this lizard has come up with a completely unique way to get the job done.

This lizard’s surprising hunting strategy is just one example of this book’s core concept. Pipsqueaks, Slowpokes, and Stinkers: Celebrating Animal Underdogs is a book about animal adaptations and celebrating the traits that make us different and unique.

I think that’s an important message for kids because we all have our weaknesses, our foibles, and I don’t think there’s a kid in the world who hasn’t felt like an underdog at some point.

Stephanie: I’ve got to say, it was the okapi that won me over from the start. They’re one of my favorite animals, and I didn’t even know they existed until I was in my late 20s.

Illustrator Stephanie Laberis

I was at the San Diego Zoo and wandering about, sketching the animals. I glanced up and saw a gorgeous okapi just emerge from the bushes of its habitat and couldn’t believe what I was seeing! I love how they look like they’re cobbled together from other animals.

I was happy to not only have an excuse to illustrate an okapi, but to introduce kids to them! They don’t get enough recognition as other African animals do, like elephants or lions.

Originally, I was going to have the okapi depicted with a paper bag over its head, because they’re so shy! It was deemed a little too silly in the end and didn’t make it to the final artwork, but that’s typically how I like to approach my animal artwork: light hearted, with a splash of fiction.

I’m happy with the representation of all the species in the book and hope that readers are intrigued to find out more about their favorite underdogs!

Chris: What’s next for you? What do your readers (and their parents, teachers, librarians, etc.) have to look forward to in the not-so-distant future?

Stephanie: I’m happy to say that I have a lot of animal-themed books on the horizon, both fiction and nonfiction! March 5th marks the release of Unhappy Birthday, Grumpy Cat!, marking Grumpy Cat’s first book in the Step Into Reading series by Random House.

Later this year and in 2020 we’ll see two more picture books, Peppermint Post by Bruce Hale and Just So Willow by Sara Shacter. I also have completed a nonfiction book focused on nocturnal animals with Highlights, but it’s a little too early to reveal details on that one!

Author Melissa Stewart

Melissa: I’m really excited for the publication of my next book with illustrator Sarah S. Brannen. Seashells: More than a Home will hit bookshelves on April 2. It’s a companion title to our 2014 book Feathers: Not Just for Flying.

Seashells describes some of the unexpected ways sea creatures use their shells to swim, anchor themselves, find and eat food, avoid enemies, and more. It has received a starred review from Booklist and is a Junior Library Guild selection.

05 Feb

“Her life is changed forever because of the kindness of strangers she meets along the way.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for February 2019)


Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the February edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

My Q&A this month is with author Lesléa Newman and illustrator Amy June Bates, creators of the new picture book Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story, which is officially published today by Abrams Books for Young Readers.

Based on Lesléa’s own family history, Gittel’s Journey tells the story of a child’s immigration across the Atlantic — on her own, after a dramatic separation from her mother — and the compassionate welcome she receives from a port worker upon her arrival in America. This second collaboration by Lesléa and Amy has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal.

I’m giving away one copy of Gittel’s Journey to a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address. If you want that winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on February 28, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Lesléa Newman and Amy June Bates.

Chris: Gittel’s Journey isn’t your first collaboration. How have your experiences of making this book and bringing it into the world compared to those of your previous effort together, Ketzel, the Cat who Composed?

Leslea Newman. Photo by Mary Vazquez.

Lesléa: I started writing Ketzel, The Cat Who Composed and Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story in the same way I always start writing: from a deep, heartfelt connection to the subject matter.

Ketzel and Gittel have a lot in common: Both books are based on true stories, both books contain Jewish themes that translate into universal themes, and both books are about finding home.

In the case of Ketzel, a homeless cat is taken in by composer Moshe Cotel. Because of Mr. Cotel’s kindness, Ketzel’s life is changed and in turn, she rewards him in a completely unexpected and delightful way. In the case of Gittel, persecution forces her to leave her home and journey to a new land. Her life is also changed forever because of the kindness of strangers she meets along the way.

In terms of writing, the idea for each book came about in a totally different way. Let’s start with Ketzel:

I found out about this story purely by happenstance. One day I was sitting in my writing room with a blank piece of paper in front of me and not an idea in my head. Bored, I picked up my synagogue’s newsletter from the coffee table in front of me, hoping for distraction. The theme of my Rabbi’s monthly column was the concept of being open to the unlikely opportunities that lie in every moment and which offer delight and surprise.

As an example, he cited the true story of Ketzel, who ran down Moshe Cotel’s piano keyboard one morning for no apparent reason. Mr. Cotel jotted down what he heard and sent it into a contest, and lo and behold, Ketzel’s composition won honorable mention and Ketzel became world famous! Before I even finished reading the Rabbi’s column, I knew this was a children’s book waiting to happen.

The story of Gittel is one that I have known all my life.

My Aunt Phyllis’ mother, the real Gittel, came to America at the turn of the 20th century by herself when she was just a child. She was given a piece of paper with the name and address of a relative written on it and told to hold that piece of paper tight and give it to an immigration officer when she got to the USA. She did so, but to her surprise, all the ink had worn off on her hand and the note could not be read. Her photo was put in the newspaper and her relatives recognized her and came to Ellis Island to claim her.

In 2015, I kept seeing images of Syrian refugees in small boats washing ashore with fear, relief, sorrow, and hope etched on their faces. I kept thinking of the fact that my own grandparents traveled across an ocean with the same hopes and fears. And that’s when the story of Gittel resurfaced in my heart and my mind and I knew it was time to tell this story.

I wrote many many drafts of both books and did a great deal of research, so that I could get the details right. The absolutely gorgeous illustrations for both books added so much depth and brought the stories to life in a way that I never could have imagined. I know Amy June Bates worked very very hard on both books, and in my opinion, she is a genius!

Amy June Bates

Amy: I love hearing these stories, Lesléa. Lesléa is an amazing genius writer and I have been profoundly lucky to work with her on these two books.

In the case of Ketzel: The year I illustrated Ketzel, I did two books back to back about stray animals being befriended. Now I have two dogs.

It’s a funny process illustrating a book, getting into the mind of the characters, sympathizing with them and imagining how they must have felt. One of the things that I love about Ketzel is that the two, they save each other. Moshe saves Ketzel, but Ketzel also saves Moshe. I really feel like that is what animals do for us. Especially when you rescue an animal, it is A LOT of work to rehabilitate an animal, but I also feel like it is repayed in full.

I took piano lessons for 18 years, and my mother was very happy to learn that I put my piano knowledge to good use. For example, in the spread where Ketzel the cat was across the keyboard, the keys that the cat is walking on are the notes in the music.

I want to emphasize, however, that dogs should not play the piano. If my dog Chester walked across my keyboard, we would none of us recover.

Gittel’s Journey is such an important book for this time, and for all times because it is the story of so many Americans, no matter if you immigrated today or hundreds of years ago. Many don’t want to leave their homes, but are forced to leave because of danger or economics. Either way it is difficult and dangerous.

In light of recent events it is particularly excruciating to think of the fear that Gittel must have felt with no way to communicate or find her mother or family. Terrifying. Her story is everyone’s American story. Every immigrant is America’s story.

I enjoy illustrating history. I love doing the research. I found travel logs of boats that carried immigrants like Gittel and traced their routes. I could look up a specific steamer, find its brochure with pictures of the bunks and and even menus. Sometimes I do fall down a rabbit hole…but that is the fun of it, I guess.

Chris: Your dedications for this book each seem so fitting. Amy, you dedicated Gittel’s Journey “For all children who come to this country seeking freedom and safety,” and Lesléa, you went with “For Aunt Phyllis — I love you to pieces!”

I’m curious — whenever either of you dedicates a book to a specific person, as you both did with Ketzel, when and how do you let them know? Or do you let them discover that for themselves?

Amy: This is dedicated to the one I love:

Usually when I do a book there is a sentiment or a feeling, or something going on in my life that connects me to this book at this time and in a specific way. Sometimes that is outside my immediate friends and family, for example in the the case of Gittel’s Journey. I have ancestors that crossed that ocean to escape famine and hunger and economic despair or religious freedom, and I am grateful for their sacrifice, but when I was making this book I was thinking of the people that are going through those same sacrifices right now.

When I dedicate a book to a specific person, I like to let them find it themselves.

Lesléa: I never realized how much a book dedication meant until a book was dedicated to me (Cat Talk by Patricia MacLachlan). Usually I know to whom I am going to dedicate a book the moment I start writing it. Though I keep that knowledge to myself until the book is published (which in at least one case took ten years!). Luckily I am very good at keeping secrets! When the book comes out, I send a copy to the person named in the dedication.

In the case of Gittel, the choice was obvious. The book is about my Aunt Phyllis’ mother, so of course I dedicated the book to Aunt Phyllis, from whom I heard the story. My Aunt Phyllis ends every phone call (and I speak to her almost every night) with the words, “I love you to pieces.” I presented the book to her in person, and when she read the dedication she laughed and then she cried. Being able to give my aunt that much joy is one of the highlights of my literary career.