06 Jan

“My teacher made everyone stay behind until the thief owned up. It was humiliating and frightening, and I cracked after about five seconds.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for January 2020)


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

My two-question Q&A this month is with author Abigail Rayner and illustrator Molly Ruttan. Abigail and Molly are the creators of the new picture book I Am a Thief!, a tale of light thievery by a girl named Eliza — and her subsequent emotional turmoil — that was published last September by NorthSouth Books.

Kirkus Reviews awarded the book a star, saying, “This humorous story speaks to anyone who has made a regrettable mistake.”

I’m giving away a copy of I Am a Thief! 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 January 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Abigail Rayner and Molly Ruttan.

Chris: If a young reader were to ask you, the creators of I Am a Thief!, if you yourselves ever stole anything and how did that work out for you, how would you plead?

Author Abigail Rayner; image by Karin Belgrave Photography

Abigail: Kids are usually too busy telling me what they have stolen to care about my petty crimes. But if they asked, I would plead guilty for sure.

I often open a reading by explaining the inspiration for I Am a Thief! which was my own act of thievery. I stole a magnet from my teacher’s desk when I was about six. (The nerve!) The teacher made everyone stay behind until the thief owned up. It was humiliating and frightening, and I cracked after about five seconds.

Many years later, when my own child tearfully confessed to stealing something — two full years after it happened — I realized something: We are far too quick to judge children for a mistake so many of us make.

We are horrified if our child steals something because it makes us look bad! Kids don’t have the context, or the self-control that adults have, and we need to help them learn why stealing is wrong in a non-judgmental way.

The book is not just about stealing, but about shame. The point is to foster empathy and give kids a safe place to talk about tricky mistakes.

Molly: When I’ve read I Am a Thief! to kids I’ve had a similar experience to Abi — it really gives them permission to talk about their own petty crimes!

But I’ve found the same is true with the adults! Even when I was working on the book, and would mention the project to adult friends, they would spontaneously tell me their story. The same thing now happens at book signings. Even as adults we appear to still be processing the shame and judgment we felt as kids, even as we tell our stories with a smile.

So, I completely agree with Abi — we are way too quick to judge kids for the mistakes they make. We have all been there! What kind of difference would it have made to all the adults walking around, still carrying around that shame, if they had been treated differently as kids? I think every opportunity we can take with kids to talk things out and explore feelings should be cherished, and this book provides one of them!

All that being said, I was a very shy kid; I barely spoke and avoided attention at all cost. I never stole a thing, or if I did I have no memory of it!

But, I might have to plead guilty to this: I have an identical twin sister, and one thing I clearly remember happened on the last day of school in first grade. My sister’s teacher stopped me in the hall, thinking I was her. I was too shy to correct her, so I sort-of stole her identity for a few minutes while the teacher poured out compliments about how I was so creative and such a nice kid to have in class! (Who knows if my own teacher would have said those things to me!)

I remember feeling so embarrassed and uncomfortable, I’m not even sure I told my sister! Eventually I learned to speak up, but not speaking up that time, and stealing my sister’s glory like that, felt as shameful to me as if I had stolen an object.

Chris: I appreciate both of you coming clean, but as Eliza realizes in I Am a Thief!, “Nobody is just a thief. Everyone is a lot of things!” So, what are some other things that you are?

Illustrator Molly Ruttan

Molly: I’m so glad you asked this question, because this is my favorite part of the story, when Eliza has that realization. She has realized that — like the stone she impulsively stole — people are multifaceted!

People can be different things to different people, and different things to themselves, in different situations. Plus, even as we are all so many different things from each other, we are also so many of the same things.

I love that Abigail didn’t shy away from introducing such a deep and beautiful concept in a children’s book. Talk about providing opportunity for inspired conversations with kids!

Anyway, yes — I, too, have many facets. I will share a few of my favorites!

First, as I mentioned earlier, I am a Twin! I’ve been one my whole life, haha! Next:

I am an Artist! … OK, obviously. But being an artist is also something I have been my whole life. :)

I am a Mother to three wonderful (grown-up) kids.

I am a Wife to my childhood sweetheart, Gabe, who is an amazing guitar player and a brilliant audio engineer.

I am a Singing Drummer in an eclectic folk-rock band called New Garden. We started out here in Los Angeles, but now occasionally perform around Boulder, Colorado, where my twin sister Linda (who is also in the band) and the singer-songwriter (her husband) live. I’m self-taught am have been playing since I was a teenager.

I am a Percussionist and Backup Singer in an art-rock band called Phideaux. (Linda and Gabe are also in this band.) One of our albums just got on Consequence of Sound’s list of 10 Progressive Rock Concept Albums Every Music Fan Should Own.

I am a Singer in a community choir run by a fantastic school called The Silverlake Conservatory.

I am a Pillion — someone who rides on the back of a motorcycle (piloted by Gabe) on day trips and camping trips! Oh, yes —

I am a Camper, too!

I am a Vegetarian

I am an Animal Lover and caretaker to three dogs, a cat, and a rabbit (my sweet animal babies).

I am a Table-Top Gamer — as in sudoku, crosswords, and jigsaw puzzles!

And last but definitely not least, the obvious: I am an Illustrator and Writer of Children’s Books!

Some of my earliest, most vivid memories are of poring over the illustrations in books. I also spent many hours creating my own little books with folded paper, staples, and magic markers. I’m super excited about my new book coming out in May, called The Stray (with Nancy Paulsen Books), which I both wrote and illustrated.

I also have to mention that, until very recently, I was a Caregiver to my wonderful elderly mother, who lived with us and brought grace and love into our home for 14 years. She passed away in October.

So, these “things” are at the top of my list. Of course I am many other things too — aren’t we all? We’re all human!

I’ll end with a confession — I had to look up “Pillion” and “Table-Top Gamer.” Who knew there were names for those?

Abigail: Molly makes my heart sing when she talks about our book! It was Molly who made the connection between facets in a jewel and the sides to people’s personalities, and I love it. At readings, I like to pause on this beautiful spread and talk about it with the kids.

So, my list of things:

I am a mother to two children. Both of my published picture books were inspired by my kids. They are hilarious, caring, and wonderful company, and have revealed to me a kind of love that is so deep and pure that it is… terrifying. (Thanks, a lot!)

I am a wife to Jon, a talented percussionist turned library IT professional (with obligatory, but superior, tattoos). Jon travels a lot and cannot sit still without coding. But we forgive him because he also makes a pretty mean mince pie, and his grown-up job pays the bills.

I am a Brit. I was born in Manchester, England, and grew up in York and Chelmsford, near London. I moved to the US when I was 26, and December was my 20th in the states. (I hope no one here can do maths).

I am a writer. For me, writing is something I am compelled to do. If I don’t write, I start to get grumpy, like a jogger with a bum knee. I’ve been writing since I knew how, and making stories since before then.

I am an artist. As a child, I spent hours drawing. I thought it would be my life. I did go to art school, but found a degree course that allowed me to focus on writing and visual arts. As I go about my day, I often stop in my tracks to marvel at an ice-encrusted leaf, a dog’s expression, or peeling bark in the woods, and my hand grasps for a pencil. I don’t draw enough, but I’m planning on taking a drawing class this winter.

I am a walker and hiker. One of the (many) great things about having dogs is that they need to be walked. We are always out exploring in the woods near my house, or following a nearby trail. I am lucky enough to live at the foot of the Sourland Mountains in New Jersey, and I am surrounded by trees and wildlife. I hike with a good friend, and we recently drove down to the Pinelands in South Jersey. It was all fir trees and sand underfoot. For most of it, we were completely alone and it felt like entering another world. I always considered myself a city girl, but as I get older, I am increasingly more content in the middle of a forest. Sometimes, I wish I could live in a tree.

I am a journalist. I worked for The London Times and The Financial Times as a reporter in London, and then in New York. Once a journalist, always a journalist. I still think like a reporter, and when big news stories break, I feel an ache to chase them.

I am an animal lover. My dogs — a rescue from Puerto Rico named Ruby Maria Pickaxe, and a goldendoodle called Pearlie Queen Peach (thanks kids) — are a big part of my life. Their unconditional love is pure gold, and their goofy antics keep us laughing when times are tough. (And if Pearl could stop peeing on the sofa when she gets excited, that would be great!) We also have a cat named George of the Basement because she hates the dogs and refuses to come out. She does a lot of loud singing so we feel her presence.

I am a celiac-mama! My daughter has celiac disease, which means I am an expert on the topic. If you ask me about it, I will talk your ear off. Having a child with celiac means planning ahead and being organized, so that your child can socialize without being poisoned! That’s a work in progress for me! Having a child with a disability, and watching her suffer (especially in social situations), is very hard, but it has made me stronger and more open to anyone with a difference.

I am a baker. When my kids were little, and there was no time to create, I poured my imagination into baking. My daughter was standing at her kiddie table stirring batter at 18 months, and yes, she ate most of it and threw the rest up the walls. I made ambitious birthday cakes, including princess castles, a Thomas train, and the universe of cake! They were not works of art, but it was fun. After my daughter was diagnosed with Celiac, baking was a challenge, but one which I took up with gusto. I was determined my child would still have fun food. Together we made unicorn cupcakes, homemade fondant, hot cross buns, chocolate-covered marshmallow reindeer pops, you name it, we brought it to the school/scout/birthday party.

I am a language lover. I can’t say I’m a linguist, because I have never mastered a second language, but my brain is like a multilingual scrapyard of Greek, Italian, French, and Spanish. I lived in Greece as a child, but forgot most of my Greek. As a reporter in New York, I took Italian lessons from an elegant and sweet Roman lady on 55th street, who gave me caffe latte and panettone, but didn’t teach me much Italian. Since America’s second language is Spanish, I took my kids to Spanish playgroup, where we learned immersion style. They are not bilingual, but definitely have a feel for Spanish and languages in general. They also switch between Brit and American accents with a seamlessness that would put Peter Sellers to shame. So, if nothing else, they’ll be able to support themselves with voice work.

02 Dec

“I was drawn toward tales of underdogs — especially when they banded together to achieve something none of them could ever do on their own.” (2-question Q&A and giveaway for December 2019)


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

My two-question Q&A this month is with author Scott Peterson, a transplant to the Pacific Northwest, and with illustrator and lifelong Mexico City resident José García.

Scott and José are the creators of the new dystopian YA graphic novel Truckus Maximus, which smashes together monster trucks, the Roman Empire, and a high-stakes reality TV competition and was published this fall by First Second.

The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, in recommending Truckus Maximus, summed up the book this way:

With its action-packed visuals, tricked-out cars, and edge-of-your-seat racing stunts, this sci-fi graphic novel holds plenty of tween and teen appeal. The plot reads like an alt-world action movie, complete with training montages and climactic race to the finish, but the story never loses its heart or its humor. Readers will be drawn to Axl, stubborn Piston, and the rest of Team Apollo’s crew. Give this broadly likable novel to fans of … Lowriders in Space, NASCAR, racing video games, and The Fast and the Furious franchise.

I’m giving away a copy of Truckus Maximus 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 New Year’s Eve , and I’ll enter you in the drawing.

In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Scott Peterson and José García.

Chris: How does Truckus Maximus fit in with what you yourselves read when you were in middle school and high school? Is this a book that would have been up your alley at that time in your lives, or does it reflect interests that you’ve acquired since then?

author Scott Peterson, as depicted by Mike Parobeck

Scott: Well, on one level, it’s nothing like anything I was reading in high school, because unlike most of my comics-creating peers, I didn’t read comics in high school.

I loved comics when I was in younger, but the small town I grew up in didn’t have a comic book store (not many did, back then), so it was only when I could convince my mom to buy one off a spin rack in the grocery store that I lucked out.

Fortunately, my oldest brother, Jay, got into comics for a few years, courtesy of our more sophisticated New Yorker cousin Dominic. But once Jay stopped collecting, I was out of luck. So I read and re-read that three-or-so-year period of comics over and over again. But I didn’t read any new comics from about 1978 to about 1988 or so.

Then I happened to see a spin rack of comics in a 7-Eleven one night in college and thought, hey, I haven’t read a comic book in forever! I picked one up — it was a Batman, naturally — and was instantly hooked. Then I discovered the work of the great writer Alan Moore and realized comics could actually be literature. A year or two later, my then-girlfriend/now-wife (children’s novelist Melissa Wiley) helped me to realize I might just want to try to make this my career.

But when it comes to the larger picture — the kind of story, and not just the medium — then yes, it fits in with what I was passionate about, the kinds of stories toward which I gravitated. I loved what’s now known as speculative fiction, but which back then was simply called sci-fi or fantasy, with some horror thrown in. (I don’t think I had yet read anything which could be called alternate history, which is very much part of the larger speculative fiction banner, and which is probably where Truckus Maximus fits best.)

But even within those genres, it was the type of story that attracted me most: I was drawn toward tales of the underdogs, the misunderstood, the outcasts — especially when they banded together (perhaps being forced to do so) in order to achieve something vitally important but which none of them could ever do on their own. The idea of a small group fighting against forces much bigger and stronger than themselves, and willing to make tremendous sacrifices, for some utterly imperative goal really resonated with me in a way I don’t think I fully realized for many, many years.

illustrator José García, in avatar form

José: Yeah, totally, as a young reader I was introduced to comics with the Death of Superman and Batman: Knightfall. I don’t think I understood them all that well at the time, but the drawings were cool so I got hooked into comics that way.

As great as those comics were, I wasn’t all that invested on following those gritty, more mature comics just yet. That’s were I found Uncanny X-Men. For me, Joe Madureira’s art was the hook! His drawing style, combining the best of American comics and manga, got me right away.

Once I got to read the adventures of the X-men, a bunch of underdogs trying to save the world while they were never really accepted was an appealing idea to me and my situation.

If I had seen Truckus Maximus back then, I would totally have picked it up. The one thing I never really liked about comics was how briefly action scenes would last. Sometimes an epic battle was cramped into one or two pages at best, but Truckus takes its time for the emotional and action scenes thanks to Scott’s awesome writing skills.

And of course, I’d pick a book written by Scott Peterson. At that time, Scott’s Batgirl was my favorite comic!

And the best thing is, Truckus Maximus is all in just one book — no need to hunt down every single issue or wait one month to get to another cliffhanger.

Chris: While you were working on Truckus Maximus, did either of you have other projects in the works that you can talk about, or are you one-project-at-a-time creators and/or secretive types?

José: I’d love to be able to work on just one project at the time, but that’s financially impossible for me. I’m usually drawing three or four books at the time, and I’m not secretive at all! (Unless the contract says otherwise.)

While I was working on Truckus, I finished three issues of an indie comic called Broken for Neat-O Comics, a mix of Pokemon battles and robots and teenage shenanigans. In total I believe I made 100 inked pages for that.

I inked, drew, colored, and lettered another 150-page comic called Comics in Academics Chapter One: The Discovery, an educational comic which I don’t really know if it was published or was a digital release.

Then I worked on two books for French publisher Ankama Editions called Death Road, Tome 1 and Tome 2 (art, colors, lettering), each 65 pages about a parent trying to keep her recently deceased daughter’s spirit from entering to hell, and one personal book called Egoista — around 90 full-colored pages for a contest I won in Mexico.

I might have missed a book or two in the middle, my first months drawing storyboards for Dreamworks TV, lots of commissions, and opening online art courses, but yeah, those were busy times.

Scott: I have to laugh, because I KNEW José and I were going to be giving such radically different answers to this one. :)

I’ve always had a tendency to go deep into something I’m into. So for a few years after I first went freelance, for instance, I listened to pretty much nothing but jazz. Then I listened to nothing but classical music for several years. Before I knew it, it’d been a decade since I’d listened to pretty much any rock and roll, any of the stuff I’d grown up obsessing over.

So when I work on one project, I tend to go deep. If I’m in Gotham, I’m in Gotham. Even visiting Metropolis or Tatooine or the Roman Empire or Oz or wherever will be jarring, so if I can help it — and I’m a freelancer, so I can’t always — I try arrange to work on things sequentially and not concurrently.

When I started writing Truckus Maximus, I think I worked on it and nothing else for about six months. I sent the first rough draft off to our editor at First Second and while I was waiting on her notes, I wrote a miniseries set in Mumbai. When the notes came in and it was time for my second draft, though, I still had a few issues of the Mumbai series left, so I just had to let Truckus sit until that was done.

A similar thing happened later when Jose started sending in Truckus pages. I was so excited to get them, but I was nearly done writing the Batman: Kings of Fear miniseries, and for about five months, that was all I did or could do: 100% Batman, 100% of the time. So I took a few days to finish up writing that and then took weeks and immersed myself in José’s amazing pages.

I wish I were more like José. :)

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.