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.

02 Nov

“It’s gratifying to think that I may be introducing a reader to a scientist whose life might inspire them.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for November 2018)


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

This month my Q&A is with author Mélina Mangal and illustrator Luisa Uribe, creators of the new picture book biography The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just.

The Vast Wonder of the World (Millbrook Press/Lerner Publishing) introduces readers to Just, an author, teacher, and expert in marine organisms. A South Carolina native, Just spent much of his career working in Europe to avoid limitations imposed by racism and segregation in the United States.

“Ernest was not like other scientists,” Mangal writes. “He saw the whole, where others saw only parts. He noticed details others failed to see. On the dock at dawn, he wrote poetry.”

In a starred review, School Library Journal calls the book a “must-purchase picture book biography of a figure sure to inspire awe and admiration among readers.”

I’m giving away a copy of The Vast Wonder of the World. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and want to be the 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 Mélina Mangal and Luisa Uribe.

Chris: I read a lot of biographies as a kid (and have continued to since then), but until your book I’d never heard of Ernest Everett Just.

How did you each become aware of him, and how do you feel knowing that — because of The Vast Wonder of the World — young readers are going to be much more aware of Just’s life and work than their parents and grandparents have been?

Author Mélina Mangal

Mélina: I had never head of Ernest Everett Just before the night I attended a Black History celebration at my daughter’s school. She picked up a coloring sheet that featured his picture and a brief bio. When I saw it, I wondered, Who is he? Because I’m a school library teacher, I’m familiar with quite a few scientists and other famous people from history. Ernest Everett Just was a mystery to me.

I went home, did a quick Internet search, and found out that Dr. Just had been featured on a US postage stamp. Dr. Kenneth Manning at MIT wrote a book about him called Black Apollo of Science: The Life of Ernest Everett Just. I bought it, read it, and became even more fascinated with Ernest Everett Just.

After reading more about him, I thought, this is a scientist that young people should know about. Very few kids are able to name important scientists, and even fewer know about other African American scientists.

I was also in awe of the quality of the book. Dr. Manning did such careful research and brought together so many facts in such an interesting way. His book inspired me too. I wanted to create for children what he had created for adults.

Throughout the over five years it took to research and write the book, I traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, poured through even more books and documents, and interviewed family members and scientists.

Knowing that my book will now be in the hands of young readers is such an uplifting feeling. It’s gratifying to think that I may be introducing a reader to a scientist whose life might inspire them. This is especially important to me as there were so few books about African Americans available to me as a child.

It’s so important for young readers to read about people who look like them, people who may have experienced some of the same challenges, yet persevered and succeeded. I’ve benefitted from the scholarship and work of so many before me. To be able to continue this legacy, and perhaps even inspire readers to actively pursue their dreams, is a dream come true for me.

Luisa: I heard about Ernest Everett Just when Alli Brydon at Bright Literary Agency wrote to me to see if I was interested in illustrating Mélina’s book, and after reading the manuscript and a bit more about EEJ I definitely was. As I am Colombian, as much as I love American history and culture, it would have been unlikely for me to find out about him before that.

Illustrator Luisa Uribe

Before I started working on the book, editor Carol Hinz recommended to me the book Mélina mentions. Black Apollo of Science truly is a fascinating book! I read it in one sitting (and then reread it just to take in all the details, references, and mentions). I also recommend it to any grownups who want to know more about EEJ or just read a great biography.

Luckily I was also able to visit Charleston and see the birthplace of EEJ, and it was a great opportunity to see up close the environment he grew up in and take in the history and atmosphere of some of the places represented in the book.

What Mélina says about seeing yourself represented in the media you consume is so true, and I don’t think there are enough books like this, and I’m glad I got to contribute to one. It makes me happy thinking that kids reading this book are going to have new figures to emulate and look up to that look like them.

Chris: Besides welcoming your Ernest Everett Just book into the world, what are you each working on or excited about now?

Luisa: These days I’m grateful to always be working on a couple of books and other projects, but something I’ve been wrestling with for some time now is my first picture book as an author/illustrator.

I have two different ideas I’m trying to develop, one for a silent book and another that I’m writing a manuscript for. The first one is about a journey, and the second one is a more complex idea about the thoughts inside your head that I’m trying to simplify in a fun way.

I’m learning as I go so it’s taking time and a lot of thinking (and some translating, as I’m writing in English) but I’m hoping to have something to show for it next year.

Mélina: I often have too many ideas whispering to me. I try to focus on the ones that start to shout!

One of those projects is a collection of short stories focusing on different kids in nature. It’s been really fun to follow these imaginary kids in their daily lives and help them find their voices. Working on these stories has been taking me outside more, which I love.

Another project involves research for my next picture book biography, this time about a woman from up here in the North Country. I’m in the early stages of research, poking around for articles and books she has written, looking through newspapers and notices.

This is the discovery phase for me where I sit with some of the facts that I find and try to see where they’ll take me. It’s a lot of fun. I’m enjoying taking my time to get to know her and hope to introduce young readers to this remarkable person in the near future.

06 Sep

Bringing back Grandpa Patten: the story of my favorite illustration in What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? (Featured post and giveaway for September 2018)

Welcome to the featured post for the September edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here)!

Instead of a two-question Q&A with another author, this month I’m focusing on What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, written by me, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, and coming September 25 from Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster.

Kirkus has given a starred review to this book, which it calls “a moving portrait of a true patriot who found ways to use her gift to work for change.”

I’m giving away five (!!!!!) signed copies of What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and would like to be one of the winners, just let me know via email before midnight on September 30, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

Now, let’s talk about Barbara Jordan’s grandfather.

The average time it takes one of my picture books to go from initial idea to publication is around five years, and sure enough it was five years ago this Saturday that I finished the first draft of what I was already calling What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?

Many parts of the text in the finished book — for instance, “The president, Barbara said, must go. The president went.” — were there from the very beginning. Some parts of the final text came later, as recently as the past few months.

And then there’s Grandpa Patten. Originally, he was right there in the opening paragraphs of the manuscript. On September 8, 2013, it began like this:

Growing up in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, Barbara Jordan didn’t look like other kids — not even her own sisters.
She didn’t act like other kids, either. Her father insisted on that. Grandpa Patten did, too, in his way.
And she sure didn’t sound like other kids. Not with that voice of hers.

Grandpa Patten, Barbara’s maternal grandfather, was special to Barbara. She would go visit him each weekend. In fact, the first chapter in her 1979 autobiography was titled “Grandpa Patten.”

Here’s part of what she said about him in Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait, co-authored by Shelby Hearon:

When I knew him best, those years of my going there every Sunday, he was in the junk business. He had a very large wagon and two mules, which he kept in the heart of the old Fourth Ward, which is now downtown Houston. … Grandpa didn’t want me to be like the other kids. That came through loud and clear. He would say this very directly. There were kids who lived just behind my grandfather’s house in Fourth Ward that he did not want me to associate with because he said: “You don’t have to be like those others.” In relation to other kids he would say: “You just trot your own horse and don’t get into the same rut as everyone else.”

Over the years, the opening lines in What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? changed in a few key respects, one of which was that Grandpa Patten went away. To streamline the text and get to that first mention of Barbara’s voice more quickly, by the end of 2013 I had delayed the introduction of her father and cut the reference to her grandfather entirely.

In 2015 Beach Lane Books bought the manuscript and brought on Ekua Holmes to illustrate the book. In her own research for this project, Ekua came across the story of Grandpa Patten and asked if I might be open to including in the text a mention of Barbara’s relationship with him. She even had a specific spot in mind.

Ekua’s insight was a great one. The ideal place for Grandpa Patten was right where she had suggested:

Barbara was proud of herself, and proud of her voice.
It was laying a path for her.
But where would that path lead?
On Sunday evenings, Barbara would talk things over with Grandpa Patten.
Would she become a preacher like her father, and like her mother could have been?
Or a teacher, like those who encouraged her at Phillis Wheatley High?
Or perhaps she’d become a lawyer.

Not only was bringing back Grandpa Patten — the person in Barbara Jordan’s childhood to whom she was the closest — the absolute right thing to do for the text, but it also set the stage for Ekua to create what has become my absolute favorite illustration in this entire book:

Thank you, Grandpa Patten, for all that you did to shape Barbara Jordan. And thank you, Ekua Holmes, for all that you did — cover to cover — to shape What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?

01 Aug

“Why are these two criminals so well known?” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for August 2018)

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

My conversation this month is with Dallas-based author Karen Blumenthal, whose YA nonfiction title Bonnie and Clyde: The Making of a Legend will be published on August 14 by Viking Books for Young Readers.

In Bonnie and Clyde, Karen — whose previous subjects have ranged from Steve Jobs to the Tommy gun to Title IX — cuts through mythology and pop-culture perceptions to get at the truth of what the notorious Texas outlaws did and why they did it.

Booklist gave a starred review to this “exquisitely researched biography,” also calling it an “extraordinarily successful resource about a painful time in history and a complicated, infamous pair.”

If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you to win Bonnie and Clyde, 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 Karen Blumenthal.

Chris: At the Texas Library Association conference this past April, as you were signing copies of Bonnie and Clyde, an attendee nearby pulled me aside and wondered aloud if your book glorified violence. Knowing you — even though I hadn’t yet read the book — I knew that you would have had other reasons for telling this story for young readers. So, what did motivate you?

Karen: That’s a great question! I actually came to this story with a similar idea — but from the opposite angle: Why are these two criminals so well known and, well, iconic? Why do they have that level of fame despite their unforgivable actions? And what would that tell us about celebrity today?

The modern comparison that stuck in my head are the Kardashians. Honestly, why are they famous?

Young people are familiar with the names Bonnie and Clyde. They are all over music lyrics and other cultural references, even though young people have likely not seen [the 1967 movie starring starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty] and know little about them. So telling their story seemed like a provocative way to show how a modern legend — even a questionable one — is made.

And then, as I got into the story, there were other themes about what contributed to who they became: intense poverty, police abuse (at a time when police forces were very different than today), and prison.

And, to answer the observer’s concern, the book does not glorify violence. In fact, the School Library Journal review says: “This historical true-crime story is recommended for providing nuanced perspective without glorifying the misdeeds that shaped its subjects’ lives and deaths.”

Chris: In addition to creating your books, you’ve also been an involved advocate for public libraries, and earlier this year you and Grace Lin cofounded the #kidlitwomen* online campaign to address women’s and gender issues in the children’s literature community. What are the common threads running through those three passions of yours?

Karen: Tough one! I guess I got involved in each because I care deeply about them and was foolish enough to believe I could bring something to the table.

I started writing nonfiction for young people after struggling to find strong narratives for a daughter who loved layered true stories. I felt like my decades as a journalist gave me the research and story-telling skills to make complex subjects accessible to younger readers. Honestly, I love everything about it!

Because I do a lot of research and I care about my community, libraries are incredibly important to me. In the years after the financial crisis, the Dallas city manager cut and cut and cut the library’s budget. And then one day, she proposed cutting the hours to 20 a week.

I think my head exploded. I did some research and discovered that the Dallas Public Library had become the worst funded urban library in the U.S.

I took this research to the Friends of the Dallas Public Library and ended up on the board and then as chair. An amazing team of library advocates worked for several years to help the City Council understand why libraries matter. Today, the budget has been restored and all branches are open at least six days a week for the first time ever.

We have a great director in Jo Giudice — in fact, this Bonnie and Clyde book is dedicated to her and the awesome library staff!

#kidlitwomen* came out of a conversation that Grace Lin and I started at a gathering in January and turned into an active Facebook group, with dozens of provocative essays in March. It’s still a work in progress, but hopefully, we have spurred some conversation and thinking about women’s and gender issues that will help make our community more fair and equitable.

13 Jul

“I’m a parent of two first-generation Muslim children. I want them to see themselves…” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for July 2018)


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

This month my Q&A is with author Saadia Faruqi and illustrator Hatem Aly, creators of early reader Meet Yasmin!, which will be published by Capstone on August 1.

The title character in Meet Yasmin! is an imaginative Pakistani American second-grader who is, by turns, an explorer, a painter, a builder, and a fashionista.

In its starred review of this boldly colored, “utterly satisfying” book, Kirkus Reviews says, “Readers will be charmed by this one-of-a-kind character and won’t tire of her small but significant dilemmas.”

If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner of Meet Yasmin! to be you, 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 Saadia Faruqi and Hatem Aly.

Saadia Faruqi

Chris: The four stories in Meet Yasmin! feel both universal and specific at the same time. We can all relate to smart, lively second-graders like Yasmin, but we also get to know the details of her particular family and school.

For those specifics, are there any elements of the art or text that your own family members, neighbors, community members, etc. are especially likely to recognize themselves in? Did either of you draw from the particulars of your own worlds?

Saadia: Yasmin is a character that’s very dear to my heart. She’s based on my own daughter, who was in kindergarten when I first began writing the story. Yasmin looks like my daughter and acts like my daughter. In fact most of the situations that Yasmin finds herself in are inspired by events in my daughter’s life.

The descriptions of Yasmin’s family are very much like the descriptions of my own family, and of course the everyday aspects of Pakistani culture that are woven into every Yasmin story are so similar to my own Pakistani American household.

At least in my family everyone will recognize those details, big and small, but also more importantly I think thousands of other children who come from first-generation Muslim or South Asian households will recognize themselves.

Hatem: The design process went on intuitively. I just went with what felt right putting in mind Yasmin’s character, family and background. There is, however, a collective nature of illustrating the stories since there are common aspects between myself and her.

Hatem Aly

I also added to the mix the inspiration of my own family members, especially my nieces, friends, and my life in Egypt in general and how by just looking at some pictures you could see attitude, cleverness and curiosity as well as culture!

There is a broad sense of relatability with Yasmin and also hints to her own experience as a part of a Pakistani Muslim family in America that I am hoping would be universal and also sort of recognizable by children of similar experience.

Chris: Saadia, you mentioned that your daughter was a kindergartner at the time you began writing Meet Yasmin!, and Hatem, you’re a parent as well. For either of you, did your child’s interest in books — or their identity as a reader, or your role as the parent of a budding reader — have any effect on you as you created this character and these stories?

Hatem: It took me a moment to think how to answer this question since there is no doubt my own experience as a parent affects the way I work one way or another.

What I want to say that it’s mostly unconscious since I also am a bit childlike, especially when I have to express a story visually. Though, I can see I sprinkled some humorous expressions and a comics-like style which could be elements influenced by my son.

Saadia: Yasmin was created because I’m a parent of two first-generation Muslim children. I want them to see themselves — their experiences, their lifestyle, and their traditions — in the pages of the books they read. So I wanted to write a story with a family that looked like theirs, and a main character that was completely familiar and comfortable for them.

I wanted this for all children, not just my own. Yasmin was inspired, not by something my children read, but by what they didn’t read, what wasn’t available to young readers before this series.

01 Jun

“Writing a book is like making a friend. Some … open up immediately…” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for June 2018)


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

This month I’m talking with novelist Samantha M. Clark. Her debut middle-grade novel, The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast, will be published later this month by Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster. Samantha is also the regional advisor of the Austin chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

(Full disclosure: I’ve been a member of Austin SCBWI my entire career, and through the chapter I’ll be teaching two online classes — here and here — next month.))

The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast is a lyrical adventure story with, at its center, an unconventional mystery: Who is the titular boy (he himself doesn’t know), how did he get to the island where he is now, and how will he get home, wherever that may be?

In its review of Samantha’s book, School Library Journal says, “With a sharp focus on the isolated protagonist and his internal struggle, it is character development that shines most clearly, though the external environmental dangers and the mystery keep the suspense taut.”

If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want to be the winner of The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast, 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 Samantha M. Clark.

Chris: Young readers often want to know how long it takes to write a book, and I find that there’s typically both a short answer and a long one to that seemingly simple question. So: In your experience, how long does it take to write a book?

Samantha: Hahaha I’m not sure there is a short answer to this question, unless it’s: It depends.

Writing a book is like making a friend. Some friends open up immediately and you feel like you know everything about that person really quickly; other friendships build over time, and you might discover something new about that person years after you meet.

For example, the first draft of The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast took about six months for me to write, and it wasn’t an easy draft to complete. I floundered through a lot of it, not knowing where the story should go next. I would basically say, let’s try this… and see what would happen. It wasn’t until I got to the end of that draft and I wrote that final scene — which is pretty much the same in the final book — that I truly understood what the boy’s journey was and why I was writing it.

I then had to go back to the beginning and revise with that in mind. I did around nine or ten revisions, each time getting to know the boy and his story a bit more, before I signed with my agent, then another two or three with her before it went on submission to editors. Then I did another big revision while it was on submission, and that’s the one that sold.

With my editor, I did a few more smaller revisions before it went to copy edits, and I even changed a few lines and one small section in the final passes before the book went to press. All that took about seven and a half years, but between those revisions I wrote and revised four more novels. Phew! So how long does it take to write a book? My answer is: As long as the story needs.

Chris: Four other novels, on top of The Boy, the Boat, and the Beast? That’s a whole lot of work, on top of your efforts these past few years as a regional advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. How have those two time-consuming pursuits — that inward-facing work of advancing your own writing, and that outward focus of supporting scores of others in advancing their own creative work — fed into and reinforced each other?

Samantha: Yes, writing is definitely inward-facing, because until the story is on paper — digital or print ;) — you are the only one who can live it. You’ll have critique partners and maybe an agent or editor who’ll read drafts and make suggestions, but only you know whether you’ve fully achieved what you see in your head. Only you can invent the world, breathe life into the characters, and grow this story through first draft, and revision and more revisions.

It’s kind of like playing singles tennis, where you might have your team of coaches and sponsors and fans behind you, but when it comes down to it, you’re the only one on your side of the net — in the good times and the bad. So that’s why it’s so important to have other people who support you.

Aside from my husband and family, I found those people with organizations like SCBWI and the Writers’ League of Texas. I’m generally a shy person, so volunteering was a great way for me to meet people and I jumped in with small jobs. But my last five years as the Regional Advisor for the Austin chapter of SCBWI has been especially valuable to me.

I took the position on the encouragement of friends who thought I’d do a good job, but I quickly realized that I was going to get out of it far more than I put in. I’ve met amazing people within our close to 330-member chapter; I’ve been able to learn and network with the speakers I’ve brought in to teach others; and the generous thank yous I’ve received from our members helped me feel a lot less of a failure when I received rejections for my manuscripts.

That old “do unto others…” guidance really is the best advice. I feel good every time I recommend a book by a friend, or share their good news, and I’m propped up by the feeling of accomplishment for every event I organize that goes off well.

Sadness and feelings of not being good enough tend to fester, dig into our hearts and spawn when we’re alone and spend too much time inward-facing. But when we’re looking out, inspired by those around us, and allowing them to lift us up with hope in our darkest moments, we will achieve as well.

04 May

“If you’ve never drawn a steamroller, I recommend it.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for May 2018)

Mighty Truck: On the Farm
Welcome to the Q&A for the May edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

This month I’m talking with illustrator and author Troy Cummings and giving away three signed books: his new picture book Can I Be Your Dog? (Random House) and our even-newer easy readers Mighty Truck: On the Farm and Mighty Truck: The Traffic Tie-Up (HarperCollins).

Our I Can Read books come on the heels — make that wheels — of our two picture books about Mighty Truck, his ordinary-pickup-truck alter ego Clarence, and various vehicular acquaintances.

In Can I Be Your Dog?, the canine main character embarks on a letter-writing campaign to come up with a human companion. Kirkus says in its review, “A large format and bold, exuberant illustrations are well-matched with Arfy’s enthusiastic personality and can-do attitude. The letter format makes this a fine choice for early-elementary students learning to compose letters.”

If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want to be the one lucky, lucky, lucky winner of signed copies of On the Farm, The Traffic Tie-Up, and Can I Be Your Dog?, 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 Troy Cummings.

Chris: There were some pretty big differences for me between the process of writing our Mighty Truck easy readers and my previous experiences writing picture books, but I’m curious about your perspective as an artist. How did illustrating for the I Can Read format compare to your prior work on picture books and your Notebook of DOOM series?

Troy: It’s been really fun to learn how to illustrate for these different types of books, and the types of reader each book serves.

Troy Cummings

In a picture book, the audience ranges from a baby on a lap, to pre-K kid studying the pictures, to a grade-schooler who can read, to the parent/teacher/librarian/stevedore reading out loud. It’s a wide audience, and I feel like we have lots of room to play in the illustrations.

I can put in some little background details that might be a surprise for the second or third reading, or visual jokes/surprises that happen across the page turn. And I think picture books work best when the illustrations aren’t just showing us what the words are saying, but instead are complementing — or even contrasting — what’s happening in the text.

As for the Notebook of DOOM series, which is a heavily-illustrated early chapter book series, my readers are a more focused group: students who know how to read, and are ready to transition into full chapter books. The DOOM books are structured like a middle grade book — many chapters, multiple characters, with a mystery in each book and an arc that connects the books together.

But they’re also heavily illustrated, with a lower word count and an easier vocabulary (both in terms of what the words mean, and how to “decode” the words for students learning to read). In these books, my illustrations can behave similarly to those in a picture book, but they also need to be a little more direct, in terms of supporting vocabulary or keeping the story clear for readers who come back to chapter 9 a couple days later.

But still, the DOOM books work as read-alouds for parents/teachers/librarians. They kind of straddle that line.

Finally, the I Can Read books have a very specific audience: students who are learning to read — right now! So to that end, I think my job is to support what’s going on in any given moment of the story. The illustrations need to be clear, and simple, and explicit, and show exactly what’s happening in the sentence on that very page. We can still put in some jokes and surprises, but they should never overcomplicate things, or make the reader have to pause and puzzle out what’s going on.

Chris: Mighty Truck and Mighty Truck: Muddymania! have centered on Clarence and his best pal, Bruno, but one of the things I’ve enjoyed about making these easy readers is that they’ve given us a chance to focus on the side characters. Stella is prominent in The Traffic Tie-Up, and Hattie and Mr. Dent get their turns in the upcoming third and fourth I Can Read books.

As the illustrator, do you have a favorite Mighty Truck supporting character, or one that you’re especially hoping to see more of?

Mighty Truck: The Traffic Tie-UpTroy: The supporting characters have all been a blast to dream up. I think my favorite may be Hattie, though, because steamrollers are super-fun to draw. (If you’ve never drawn a steamroller, I recommend it. Very therapeutic.)

I also really enjoyed drawing Zip and Beep, Hattie’s young bulldozer cousins. [Chris adds: These little ones were Troy’s idea, and they’ll be the title characters in our third I Can Read book, coming this December.] They’re loosely based on certain fast-running, sand-digging, early-reading family members of my own!

The character I want to see more of would have to be Throttle, the cat belonging to Mr. Dent, the surf wagon. Throttle has some funny surfing scenes with Mighty Truck in the fourth I Can Read book.

If you’ve never drawn a cat surfing with a monster truck, I recommend it! Less therapeutic, but really fun.

11 Apr

“It’s the story of female smarts and strength saving the day” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for April 2018)

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

This month I’m talking with author Sayantani DasGupta and giving away one signed copy of her demon-filled and very funny new middle-grade novel, The Serpent’s Secret (Scholastic Press).

In its starred review of The Serpent’s Secret, Booklist writes, “Inspired by Bengali folktales, this is an exciting, fantastical debut grounded by Kiran’s wry, clever voice and her experiences as a child of immigrants. With a vibrant supporting cast, a world steeped in Bengali folk stories, and an action-packed story line, this is a series starter that rivals Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief (2005). A breathtaking adventure.”

If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner of The Serpent’s Secret to be you, just 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 Sayantani DasGupta.

Chris: You’ve written about how your own children’s love of the Percy Jackson books helped inspire The Serpent’s Secret (“a story in which my own kids could see themselves being brave, dashing, smart, funny, strong and true”). Was the freshness of these Bengali folktales to American readers — compared to the familiarity of the Greek myths adapted by Rick Riordan — liberating to you as a writer, or did you feel a responsibility to be faithful to elements of these stories that you grew up with?

Sayantani: The Serpent’s Secret draws from many beloved Bengali children’s stories and folktales — regional stories that have, for the most part, an oral tradition to begin with. These were tales my grandmothers and aunts would tell to me when I was young, and would go on my long summer vacations to Kolkata, India. Even then, I was aware that each teller would slightly change the story as they were telling it, adding their own embellishments and moral lessons. (Say, if a cousin had been caught lying that day, suddenly a character in the story might have to face consequences for lying too!) Because oral stories have this tradition of adapting to context, of changing at each telling, I actually felt free while writing The Serpent’s Secret to mix and match, trying to stay true to the heart of any one character or story, but simultaneously putting them in a 21st century diasporic context.

Kiranmala, my heroine, is a Bengali folktale heroine — she comes from this story called “Arun, Barun, Kiranmala.” In the original folktale, Kiranmala’s older brothers Arun and Barun go off on adventures, leaving her at home because she’s the youngest and she’s the girl. Of course, when they get in trouble, it’s Kiranmala who has to go save them — so it’s the story of female smarts and strength saving the day, and I loved that even as a kid. So I wanted to stay true to that. But in The Serpent’s Secret, I got rid of Kiranmala’s brothers and made her the only daughter of loving, if kooky, immigrant parents living in New Jersey. Her friends, Lalkamal and Neelkamal, are princely brothers from an entirely different folktale, as is her talking bird companion Tuntuni. So clearly, I was playing fast and loose with many tales.

The one important point I want to make too is that while I draw from many children’s and folk stories, I don’t draw from myths in The Serpent’s Secret — in other words, stories based primarily on spiritual or religious traditions. While my own family’s particular identities undoubtedly creep into the novel, the Bengali folktales I draw from are regional not religious in nature — beloved by people of many faiths and multiple nations — both West Bengal, India and the country of Bangladesh as well, not to mention the entire Bengali speaking diaspora! I want to make that point because it’s really important to me that these wonderful stories don’t get falsely attributed to one nation of people or any one religious group. Bengal all used to be one common region prior to the bloody 1947 Partition of South Asia at the time India and Pakistan gained our independence from the British (Bangladesh later gained its independence from Pakistan in their own independence battle). So these are pre-partition stories shared by Bengalis of many faiths and nationalities!

Chris: With the arrival of The Serpent’s Secret, you’re now a published author of children’s books in addition to being a pediatrician and a teacher. Which of those three pursuits would be most surprising to those who knew you while you were growing up in Ohio?

Sayantani: While pediatrician, narrative medicine scholar, and children’s writer seem like they are three disparate careers, they’re ultimately each about giving and receiving stories, and being wholly present for another person. They’re also, of course, about power and justice — paying attention to issues like whose stories get heard and whose silenced, whose are centered and whose are marginalized. They’re about questioning who gets to tell the story, and who gets to be the hero.

As a lifelong lover of stories who grew up in an activist, immigrant household, I’m not sure any of my careers would surprise anyone who really knew me well as a kid growing up in Ohio. My best friend from third grade on is still a dear friend and actually flew out recently for the launch of The Serpent’s Secret. (Hi, Kari!) Would she be surprised at any of my careers? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so. We were the kids who lived in the library and inside the pages of books, we were always imagining our way into fantasy tales or out into the galaxy through our favorite space shows and movies. We were into science, and we were into stories — so really no surprise my careers are at the intersection of those two things!

I’ve been so lucky — to be able to explore so many different approaches to my interests and passions, to be able to contribute to the world in these different ways.

07 Mar

Two-question Q&A and giveaway for March 2018

There’s a story behind the Q&A for the March edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).

Last November I was speaking on a panel of nonfiction authors at the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. There was a question about subjects we’d wanted to write about, but which another author had gotten to first.

I mentioned two musicians that I had written multiple drafts about: trombonist Melba Liston (subject of Katheryn Russell-Brown and Frank Morrison’s Little Melba and Her Big Trombone) and bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, whose picture book biography — as I told the crowd — was on its way from author Barb Rosenstock.

I didn’t know Barb Rosenstock. All I knew was that she had beaten me to the punch.

Well, right after the panel ended, a grinning stranger approached me up at the dais. “I’m Barb Rosenstock,” she said.

Here we are a few months later, and I’m so glad that there’s now a splendid version for young readers of this tale I had hoped to tell, Blue Grass Boy: The Story of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass Music (Calkins Creek). And I’m also glad to be able to share that book with you through a giveaway — and with a quick Q&A with my friends Barb Rosenstock and illustrator Edwin Fotheringham.

In its review of Blue Grass Boy, School Library Journal says, “The author adeptly and squarely aims this book at the intended audience by highlighting details young readers can connect with, such as Monroe being the youngest of eight children and growing up with a left eye that turned inward (esotropia). In both the narrative and the back matter, readers witness Monroe’s trials with his eyesight and his resulting development of a fine-tuned sense of hearing which helps him make a big impression on the music world. The digital illustrations are vibrant with a retro feel. Natural elements ranging from trees to blue skies and animals are the most dominant images and complement the imagery of Monroe’s music.”

To a single winner, I’m giving away two author-signed copies of Blue Grass Boy — one to keep and one to share. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner to be you, just 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 Barb Rosenstock and Edwin Fotheringham.

Chris: Blue Grass Boy is one of relatively few literary-quality nonfiction books for young readers about country music or about musicians who have frequented the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, despite the massive, longstanding popularity and cultural influence of that genre. Did that lack of other books have anything to do with what drew each of you to the story of Bill Monroe and bluegrass music?

Barb: Yes and no. Initially, like almost all my books, the idea for Blue Grass Boy came about by accident. In this case while driving my older son back to college in Indiana, I wound up a bit turned around in the town of Bean Blossom, home to the longest-running bluegrass festival in the world.

I filled up my car in town, and kept seeing references to someone named “Bill Monroe.” I stopped near the festival site and found myself fascinated by some Monroe memorabilia in the small museum there. My younger son and my father are both traditional-country fans, but I was not at all familiar with bluegrass history. I could not believe Monroe was credited with inventing an entire genre of music — and really that no other human had ever done that before (or since!).

On the long way back to the interstate, I [listened to] Blue Grass Junction … as I drove through rural Indiana with the windows down. Something about this music and the landscape stuck in my head. At home when I started researching Monroe, I realized that there were few (any?) children’s books about bluegrass, country, or the Opry — this whole important, influential set of American music history. Since it didn’t already exist, that motivated me even more to tell Monroe’s history to children. I learned so much and hope kids will, too.

Edwin: Being the illustrator and not the author, when Barb’s manuscript about Bill Monroe was offered to me, I figured there was probably a void in this category, to be honest. ;)

Seriously though… I had an extraordinary prior experience that made me view Bill Monroe with real interest as a character for young readers. I was traveling on a solo overnight bike tour from my home in Seattle to Lopez Island in the San Juan archipelago, and decided to camp halfway at a place called Fort Worden outside Port Townsend.

Making my way to my campsite I noticed, unexpectedly, the sound of fiddle music — live fiddle music, not recorded. After setting up camp I walked to the common area and saw multitudes of folks outside their tents and vans playing fiddle music. I was astounded that the ages of these people lay in two distinct generations: younger (teens, twenties, early thirties) and older (late fifties, sixties). My generation (I’m now 52), having had punk rock take our musical interests elsewhere, was not very well represented!

The event, I found out, is called Fiddle Tunes. Attendees participate in workshops, impromptu late night jams, breakfast breakouts, concerts, and square dances, all while camping out together. Fiddlers (as well as bassists, guitarists, banjo and mandolin players) from all over the world converge and strut their stuff… be it Celtic, Old Time, Quebecois, Cajun or Bill Monroe’s American bluegrass. I could see that there was a connection between seemingly disparate generations that was linked by this music. I was impressed, and felt lucky to observe the scene completely by chance (bike touring is like that, by the way).

In Barb’s writing I felt the excitement that I witnessed at Fiddle Tunes. I was attracted to the notion that Bill Monroe was able to create a brand-new genre, an American genre, by keeping his ears open and putting together elements from physical and artistic sources borne by his interactions, history, and experiences. It is a great thing to impart on young readers: that new things come from what you already know and what you are about to find out.

Chris: Once you got involved in the actual creation of this book, what role did music — Monroe’s, or others’, or other sounds, or silence — play in your process?

Edwin: I listened to Monroe’s music to get a feel for the elements that make bluegrass distinct from other string genres — namely the banjo and his mandolin playing. After that I went back to my 20-year-old self and put on the Stooges. There’s nothing like music to pull back a few years and feel great, whatever the genre may be. I’m sure those kids playing bluegrass (and everything else) at Fiddle Tunes will feel the same way, just like their much older peers have figured out!

Barb: My writing process is not smooth — it’s a lot of stops and starts, with research before and between, so I keep my office pretty quiet (except for two old dogs snoring.) I look at a lot of pictures throughout a day, but I don’t typically write with any music or other sounds playing.

Blue Grass Boy was different. When I was writing and especially when the story got “stuck,” I listened to two things: nature recordings of Kentucky hill sounds, and Monroe’s own music. His lyrics are really autobiographical too, so I tried to focus on what was important by listening to him. There’s a great two-part video interview of Monroe on his farm in 1986. In a short section near the end, Monroe plays out in the open on his porch, you can hear the sounds around him.

One piece of music that helped a lot for emotional content is a recording of Monroe’s song “My Last Days on Earth.” It starts with water rushing, bird sounds, and then single notes on his mandolin. That song expresses everything I was trying to write about him. No one else’s music could really do that. Basically, Bill Monroe played his life better than anyone could ever write it down.

20 Feb

“I love stories of resilience and tenacity, and I look for hopeful stories everywhere”


As promised, my Q&A for the February edition of my Bartography Express newsletter is with my friend Rose Brock. Formerly a school librarian in the Dallas area, Rose is now assistant professor in the Department of Library Science at Sam Houston State University. She’s an expert in young adult literature, and she’s the editor of the soon-to-be-published Hope Nation: YA Authors Share Personal Moments of Inspiration (Philomel).

Hope Nation is a Junior Library Guild selection, and it includes stirring contributions by Libba Bray, Angie Thomas, Marie Lu, Alexander London, Christina Diaz Gonzalez, and many other accomplished members of the YA community. The authors are all donating their fees to charity, with the publisher matching those contributions.

In the book’s introduction, Rose talks a bit about her own story, including her family’s immigration from Germany when she was in elementary school, the hardships her new life entailed, and what helped her get past them.

“In my childhood home, finding hope was a directive,” she writes. “It was expected that the world’s lemons would be made into fresh lemonade. Perhaps that is the reason I’m an optimist. A dreamer. A hoper. And whether it’s in my genetic makeup to see the glass as half full or it’s a product of conditioning, I love stories of resilience and tenacity, and I look for hopeful stories everywhere—in books, in movies, and most importantly, in real life.”

I’m giving away one copy of Hope Nation. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the 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 Rose Brock.

Chris: I don’t know if the parameters you provided to your contributors were anything more specific than “Write something hopeful,” though I imagine you must have had a general idea of the sort of pieces they would create. But what did you receive in their essays that you weren’t expecting?

Rose: That’s a great question, Chris. I feel like when I first approached my contributors, I did give them a great deal of latitude in regard to the personal story/essay they wanted to share, but I did ask them to make dig deeply into their own experiences and share about those moments where hope felt elusive.

Since you’ve read the collection, you know that each author tackled this call differently. The one thing each selection in Hope Nation has in common with the others is that what each of these writers shares is simply a piece of a collective human experience. Each of them (and us) has been a teen, and we know that teens are as passionate as people come about the things that matter most in their lives. That’s why hard times for them feel so stinking hard. Without a bit more of what I call “butt time on Earth”, it’s difficult and sometimes impossible to have perspective—you need life experience for that. These writers have that in spades, and these personal stories capture that—abuse, family financial ruin, death, lost body parts, immigrant experiences—it’s all there and more.

So with that said, what was I not expecting? I didn’t expect these contributions to be so personal even though that’s what I asked for—my first idea of this book was that this would be a modern Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, and in some ways it is, but I believe it’s much more than that, too. It’s raw and it’s real, and the thing I love most is that these brave writers of YA (who love their readers the way I’ve loved the thousands of teens I’ve worked with over the years) is that they have opened themselves up in such intimate ways, allowing all of us to see the scars they’ve endured and wear as badges of honor. The stand on the other side of those experiences saying, “I’m still here, and I’m here for you.”

Chris: Hope Nation would be a terrific book to get into the hands of young people eligible to vote for the first time in 2018 or 2020. Are there other particular audiences that you hope will read this book, take it to heart, and get motivated by it?

Rose: In my mind, ALL readers can benefit from this book—I think regardless of age, I want teens to know that they can make hope a decision, one that is definitely rooted in advocacy for themselves and for others.

The inspiration for this book really goes back to two young women in my life who were pretty devastated by the outcome of the 2016 elections. For them, they hated that their voices as marginalized young women went unheard. They wanted a shot to speak up and out, and I think that’s the case with many teens.

As for how that plays out in regard to politics, I think a heightened awareness of the need to never be apathetic or complacent in regard to all types of leadership is essential; certainly that’s the case for our high elected offices, but it’s even a battle cry for us all in our personal worlds and local government.

Truly, it is my hope that this book will inspire all the young people who read it to fight for what they want and what they believe is right—shouldn’t we all do that?