Check This Out: How The Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea

With me on the blog today is the always lovely Kate Hosford. She’s here to talk about her latest picture book, How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea, which was illustrated by the amazing Gabi Swiatkowska. This book, published by Carolrhoda Books in March 2017, is too delightful for words.

  

Check out the book trailer:

Now, let’s talk to Kate!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Kate: (1) I love the tea set that my grandmother left me.

Kate’s grandmother’s Spode china

(2) When I studied in India during college, I loved drinking chai on trains.

Indian chai at the launch party at Books of Wonder in New York

(3) This summer, I got to drink tea at the Buckingham Palace Garden Café, where they have really nice paper cups.

Fancy to-go cups

(4) My new favorite place in New York is the Japanese tea house, Cha-An, where they have wonderful Matcha and a great selection of desserts.


Matcha with something sweet at Cha-An

El Space: How did you come up with the idea for this picture book?
Kate: At first, I simply had a vague idea about a queen going around the world and drinking tea with children from different cultures. But after several revisions, the story became about a lonely, pampered Queen who thinks she is searching for the perfect cup of tea, when she is actually searching for friends and meaning in her life. In the final version, tea still has a multicultural function in the story, but it is also a metaphorical device for tracking the Queen’s emotional state. Gabi Swiatkowska did such a great job showing the Queen’s many emotional states not only as she learns to make tea, but as she learns how to do other things as well, like snuggle a kitten.

El Space: This is your second collaboration with illustrator Gabi Swiatkowska. What was your process for working with Gabi? How long was the process from writing to production?
Kate: Gabi and I met in an illustrators’ group in 2000, back when I was doing illustration. We were good friends before we became collaborators, which was probably helpful. This book has a complex emotional arc, with the Queen making a bit more progress in each place she visits, but then backsliding to her old haughty ways at the beginning of each visit to a new place. Gabi did an amazing job of conveying all the emotional complexity in the book. Sometimes I offered opinions that Gabi took, and other times, she would stand her ground. I have learned that when Gabi stands her ground, she is always right!

Gabi and Kate at their launch party at Books of Wonder

I started this book with my faculty advisor, Uma Krishnaswami, in 2009, when I was getting my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I sold it to Carolrhoda Books in 2013, and it came out this spring. In my original drafts, I had the children in each country giving the Queen little gifts, and acting deferential. Uma encouraged me to “turn colonialism on its ear,” and create child characters that are completely unimpressed with royalty. This is when the book really came together. When the children treat her like a normal person, the Queen begins to evolve emotionally.

Interior illustrations © 2017 by Gabi Swiatkowska

El Space: Favorite tea? What, if anything, do you take in your tea?
Kate: I drink a lot of peppermint tea and honey, lemon tea and honey, green tea, and chai.

El Space: In a discussion of why picture books are important, Kwame Alexander said

Picture books are the great experience equalizer. We don’t have to leave the comforts of the beds in the rooms of our houses, and yet we can still travel through time and place and circumstance.

Erzsi Deak said

Picture books are also the groundwork for understanding innately how Story works, as the reader anxiously turns the page to see WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

Why do you think they’re important?
Kate: Oh there are so many reasons! I agree with everything that Kwame and Erzsi said, and here a few other reasons as well:

Picture books can create intimacy. Often picture books are read out loud, either by a teacher or parent. This sort of intimate experience allows the child and adult to bond over the book together, which then gives the child yet another reason to continue reading.

Picture books hone a child’s ear. When picture books are read out loud, they allow children to hear the rhythms and cadences of beautiful language, which hopefully makes them want to read more.

Picture books are good for the brain. The child who is seated next to a picture book reader is synthesizing the words on the page, the language of the reader, and the illustrations. The constant toggling back and forth between these elements is stimulating and complex, forging the neural pathways that are essential for increasing intelligence in a young child.

El Space: Name a favorite picture book from your childhood. Why was it a favorite?
Kate: Probably my favorite book was called Alexander and the Magic Mouse by Martha Sanders and Philippe Fix. It is a gorgeous, eccentric book about an old lady who lives on the top of a hill with a Magical Mouse, a Brindle London Squatting Cat, a Yak, and an alligator. One day, the Magical Mouse predicts that the town below will be endangered by thirty days of rain. It is then up to Alexander to make the treacherous journey into town to warn the mayor about the rain. The book’s illustrations are just spectacular, and I loved the fact that this eclectic group of animals lived with the Old Lady.

The cover where the Old Lady is serving tea

Strangely, I didn’t realize until I just reread the story that tea plays a rather important role in the book. The Old Lady gathers her friends every day in the drawing room for tea, she nurses Alexander back to health with ginger tea when he returns from warning the mayor, and at the end of the book, when the mayor comes to honor the Old Lady for saving the town, she gives the medal to Alexander instead, and invites the mayor and her animal family to tea.

  

The Old Lady, nursing Alexander back to health with ginger tea (left); the mayor, having tea with the Old Lady and her friends at the end of the book

El Space: What will you work on next?
Kate: A poetry collection about how brilliant the octopus is! I read Sy Montgomery’s incredible book, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonders of Consciousness. and then was lucky enough to meet Sy and interact with her namesake, Sy the Giant Pacific Octopus at the New England Aquarium. I also want to do something funny related to the life of a classical musician. This is a bit of a challenge since most of them had really difficult and tragic lives. However, Jonah Winter was able to do it in his fabulous picture book, The 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven, where he tries to figure out how Beethoven could have moved five legless pianos to 39 different apartments. It’s such a unique topic, and his treatment of it is wonderful.
I’m also very excited about a picture book I have coming out next spring with Abrams called Mama’s Belly. It’s about a little girl waiting for her sister to be born, and wondering if there will be enough love to go around. (Spoiler alert: There is!)

    

Thanks, Kate, for being my guest!

And thank you to all who visited this blog. You can find How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound.

Want a curriculum guide for How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea? Click here.

You can find Kate at her website, Twitter, and Facebook.

One of you will find her book in your mailbox or tablet. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. You could name your favorite tea as you comment. The winner will be announced on May 1.

Kirstea, the tea-loving Shoppie, gives Kate’s book five stars!

Book covers, author photo, interior illustrations, and book signing photos courtesy of the author. The Soul of an Octopus, Surf’s Up, and Pumpkin Time covers from Goodreads. Kirstea photo by L. Marie. Kirstea Shoppie doll by Moose Toys.

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Check These Out: Picture Books by Eric Pinder

Greetings from the frozen north! (Yes, we had a snow visitation recently.)

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’Tis the season to be jolly as the well-known Christmas carol goes. And I can guarantee some jolliness when you check out the following picture books by the erudite and extraordinary Eric Pinder.

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Both books were illustrated by Stephanie Graegin and published by Farrar, Straus Giroux. Eric is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette. Stick around till the end of the interview to learn about the giveaway. Ho-ho-ho!

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Kitty dressed as Santa? Perhaps she has something to do with this giveaway?

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Eric: (1) Once upon a time, I worked at an observatory on top of a mountain and commuted home—well, partway home—by sled. As job perks go, it’s hard to beat an eight-mile sled ride.
(2) The last time I bought a new vehicle, it was a unicycle.
(3) My summer job in high school was working on a dairy farm. But the cows there couldn’t type.
(4) I still want to be an astronaut when I grow up.

The author reading one of his picture books to a library lion

The author reading one of his picture books to a library lion

El Space: You’ve written two books in the sharing with a bear series. They are utterly delightful! What inspired this series?
Eric: Thank you! Building blanket forts and blanket caves with nephews inspired the setting of the first book. Usually character or plot comes to me first, but this time the first thing the Muses gave me was a clear image of the setting for the opening scene. I could picture the room, and the cave, and someone reading inside it by flashlight.

For a long time, the working title of what became How to Share with a Bear was just “Cave.” I didn’t have any idea yet how the story would end or even who all the characters were. But I knew right away it would start with a blanket cave. And what lives in caves? A bear!

After reading How to Share with a Bear, students at Polaris Charter School made blanket caves.—Polaris Charter School, Manchester, NH

After reading How to Share with a Bear, students at Polaris Charter School made blanket caves.—Polaris Charter School, Manchester, NH

The themes about sharing and siblings developed from there.

El Space: Picture books have had a resurgence in publishing lately. Why do you suppose that is the case?
Eric: Picture books are such amazing works of art that adults often appreciate them too. At craft fairs and book signings, sometimes adults will wistfully browse the picture books and confide, sounding almost embarrassed, “I wish I had grandkids, because I still love picture books.”

Of course, the elaborate pictures and design also make them expensive to print, which probably makes publishers and readers alike choosier when budgets are tight. I don’t know, but I’d guess the resurgence is a combination of the economy improving and the Millennial generation starting to have children and looking for good books.

White Birch Books made bear-shaped cookies for a recent How to Build a Snow Bear book signing. The kids approved.

White Birch Books made bear-shaped cookies for a recent How to Build a Snow Bear book signing. The kids approved.

El Space: What drew you to picture books?
Eric: Until almost age 30, I had no inkling that I’d someday write books for children. In high school, I wanted to write science fiction like Ray Bradbury. In college, a class about nature writing introduced me to writers like Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez, and since I’d always liked the outdoors, that became my focus. Then a funny thing happened: everyone in my circle of friends started having kids. Suddenly, their houses were full of books by Seuss and Boynton.

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There’s a poetry to picture books—a kind of music. While hiking with two friends and their six-month-old on the Imp Trail in the White Mountains one day, I heard them recite from memory the entire text of a Dr. Seuss book. The humor and the rhythm of the words, and the obvious delight of the audience—their toddler—gave me a real appreciation for the work and lyricism that go into picture books.

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I just wish I had the talent to illustrate them, too. I admire and envy those who do. At the end of one book signing, when things were slow, I was absentmindedly doodling on a scrap paper. A customer across the room noticed the book cover on display, and her eyes lit up. “Ooh!” she said excitedly. “Are you the illustrator?” Then, walking closer, she noticed my drawing, frowned, and said, “Oh. No, you’re not.

El Space: Oh my goodness! I guess she didn’t realize how rude that sounded. . . . In an interview awhile back with CNN, famed picture book author Mo Willems was asked how to create a timeless tale. Is that something you think about when you write a picture book? Why or why not?
Eric: I like that quote by Mo Willems, “Always think of your audience, but never think for your audience.” I think there are certain universal emotions or experiences, like sharing or anxiety or trying new things, that can help keep a story timeless even if it’s presented in a topical way. A century or two from now, I’m sure, there will be kids who want to drive the family spaceship instead of the bus. But I’d bet Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus would still resonate with them, because it’s not so much the topical vehicle that matters—it’s the underlying idea of imagining a pigeon or a child driving something big and bulky and thus capable of fun mayhem, which usually only the adults get to drive, that’s amusing and timeless.

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El Space: What advice do you have for budding picture book authors?
Eric: Because picture books are real aloud, performed in a sense by the parent or teacher or babysitter, the cadence of every sentence and the sound of every syllable is important. I recommend reading poetry, as well as picture books, to get a feel for the sounds of words and the moods and nuances they can convey. I like to think of poetry as “using the language as a musical instrument, to convey emotion or meaning.” Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled is a funny, informative book about poetic meter. It’s helped me a lot with writing picture books. But the biggest help was taking the picture book semester at VCFA.

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El Space: What will you work on next?
Eric: New ideas for picture books spring up all the time. Sometimes just witnessing a silly pet pratfall, or hearing a heartwarming anecdote, or noticing a strange word combination or phrase on a billboard can start the wheels in motion on a new story. Recently I’ve been revising a picture book about a little girl on Mars. I’m also finishing up a narrative nonfiction book about the joys and challenges of teaching in the era of standardized tests and student loans. When I teach nature writing at our college, we go on a lot of class field trips in the woods, so there’s a bear in that book, too.

My next picture book, The Perfect Pillow, is forthcoming in 2018. Surprisingly, that one does not include a bear, but there’s still a lot of sharing. And a dragon.

Thank you, Eric, for being my guest!

Looking for Eric? You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and his website.

You can find How to Share with a Bear, How to Build a Snow Bear, and other picture books by Eric Pinder at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Wal-Mart, Powells, and possibly on your own front doorstep. One of you will win How to Share with a Bear and How to Build a Snow Bear. Simply comment below, giving the title of a favorite picture book you had as a child (or now), to be entered into the drawing. The winner will be announced on December 15. Stayed tuned for more book giveaways and information on Kitty Santa!

Author photo by Jenn Pinder. Cookie photo by Eric Pinder. Book covers from Goodreads. Dr. Seuss image from cliparts.co. Snow and Kitty photos by L. Marie.

Suitable for Adults?

What items would you deem suitable for adults? Why do I ask? Let me elaborate in case your mind is going in a totally different direction than mine. If I go to a store and purchase a DVD or blu-ray for an animated show or movie, most of the time the cashier will ask if I want a gift receipt under the assumption that I’m making a purchase for a child. The question is never posed to me if I buy a live action movie.

The same question occurs if I enter a bookstore and purchase a middle grade book. I once told a cashier, “No, I’m going to read that.” She offered a “You’re kidding me” look. Never mind the fact that people who write books for kids can learn a lot by reading books other people have written for kids.

Several years ago, before miniseries like Galavant were even a gleam in the eye of ABC executives, a friend gave me this as a gift.

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(Um, not the books. The knight and horse.) Makes you think of this image, doesn’t it?

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She knew I loved stories about knights and was researching them for a book. Yet this knight and horse have drawn some disbelieving glances from others of the “Why would you want that?” variety.

When I was a kid, I remember asking my parents if I had to dress a certain way and like certain things when I became an adult. Would I have to give up Chuck Taylors? If so, being an adult would totally suck.

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Well, I’m an adult, and my love of the above has yet to dissipate. But I guess I sometimes make other adults uncomfortable, because I still love

bubblegumPicture books
• Puddles (though I don’t jump into them these days)
• Animated series
• Bubblegum
• Graphic novels
• Fairy tales

You’re probably ready to sing “My Favorite Things” now, aren’t you? Part of being an adult is admitting to being childlike without being childish. For example, sticking my tongue out and going, “Nyeah!” when someone looks askance at a purchase I’ve made (though I really want to do so), would be childish. But I have to wonder why being an adult means you have to give up something you love just because you cross a certain threshold age-wise.

The apostle Paul stated

When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.
1 Corinthians 13:11

But did Paul mean that being an adult means dictating how all other adults should behave? I can’t help thinking back to third grade when we used to say to each other, “Ewwww! You like that?” So are we suddenly more grown up if we utter the same statement about something harmless another adult happens to like?

Don’t get me wrong. I love books like this

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which is an award-winning adult fiction book. And I love these Prada boots

Prada boots

though I can’t afford them. And in the winter, I love this:

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(In case you can’t read the label, this is Windshield De-Icer. For those of you who live in warmer climates and don’t see products like this, it makes scraping ice off windshields a lot easier.) And I love this brand of lipstick no matter what season:

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So, I need to take joy in the things I love and not worry if I get “the look” from someone. Instead of scowling, I can say, “Okay, sure” when someone asks me if I need a gift receipt, simply because it’s not worth the time to justify a purchase I have every right to make for myself. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to watch Justice League: War. And I might chew some bubblegum while I’m at it.

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Chuck Taylors from shoebizsf.com. Galavant poster from melty.fr. Book cover from Goodreads. Justice League: War image from mundobignada.com. Bubblegum from whoguides.com.

Check This Out: Toby

Glad you stopped by the blog. Someone else is here too: the fabulous Stacy Nyikos. She’s here to talk about her latest picture book, Toby, published by Stonehorse Publishing, debuts June 30. Toby was illustrated by Shawn Sisneros, a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Stacy is represented by Stephen Fraser. To make your visit to the blog a profitable one, I’ll tell you about a giveaway at the end of the interview. Let’s talk to Stacy first, shall we?

El Space: Welcome to the blog, Stacy. Four quick facts about yourself?
Stacy: (1) I’m afraid to swim in the ocean—sharks!—but I love to write about it.
(2) I have a secret stash of dark chocolate in my desk drawer for those times when the writing gets tough. (3) I walked to the local high school when I was three by following the neighbor boy because I was bored. I thought school would be more exciting. It was! (4) I used to try to levitate rocks in bed at night because I wanted to be a Jedi.

Stacy photo

Stacy’s secret stash

El Space: Please walk us through the process for creating this picture book. How did you come up with the idea? How was the illustrator chosen? How long was the process from the initial concept to finished product?
Stacy: Toby was the brain child of a lot of very eager readers I met over the years while doing signings at aquariums. So many asked, “Would you write a picture book about a sea turtle?” I wanted to, but I could never quite come up with the right idea. Then a few years ago, I was driving back from an aquarium event, my head full or more requests for a sea turtle book. I think they must have reached some sort of critical mass—or bonded together and created their own idea—but by the time I got home, I had the outline of Toby in my head.

Shawn Sisneros loves underwater animals as much as I do. He’s illustrated two other aquatic picture books I wrote. He has this awesome way of creating a character who looks like the real animal but is generalized enough, sort of like a cartoon figure, so that the reader can imagine themselves in the role as they read the story.

How long did the project take? Well, if you skip the five years of mulling over to get the idea, from the moment I finally had one until the book came out was about four years. Writing books takes patience in a way I never imagined!

El Space: You have a number of sea-oriented picture books. What draws you over and over to the ocean habitat?
Stacy: I’m mesmerized by the ocean. I’m scared stiff of swimming in it, but at the same time can’t seem to learn enough about it. We know so little about what goes on underneath the surface of the water. For a long time, scientists didn’t think anything could live really, really far down in the ocean. It was too dark and cold and the water too heavy. Then they built subs that could travel really far down in the water and lo and behold, they found lots of life there. The ocean is full of possibility. I think that’s what draws my imagination back to it over and over.

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El Space: Awhile ago, Mac Barnett, Jon Scieszka, Lemony Snicket, and many other writers wrote a picture book manifesto. If you could write your own manifesto, what would you write to show your thoughts about picture books?
Stacy: Man, it’s hard to improve upon greatness. Their manifesto hits upon so many good points. Let’s see. Challenge your audience. They aren’t afraid of big words or topics. You shouldn’t be either.

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Murakami, HarukiEl Space: What books or authors influence you as a writer?
Stacy: I love all things written from Machiavelli to Berkeley Breathed to Mary Stewart, but I don’t like to reread (bad, bad author!), so when it comes to influences, it’s more these obscure nuggets I’ve collected and spun together in my own gyre of writing style—“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” from Tolstoy. Hemingway wrote standing up (or so the legends go) so that he only wrote what was absolutely necessary. “If you read the books everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking” (Haruki Murakami). The best piece of advice Stephen King got from an editor was: “2nd Draft = 1st draft – 10%.” And my daughter, Sophia, who taught me that making up words is fun: Geroninball!

El Space: What advice do you have for authors who want to write picture books?
Stacy: Imagination is everything. You can have lousy style. You can be the worst speller. You can overwrite, underwrite, break the unbreakable rules, but if it’s imaginative, you will find your way. Your imagination, the way you see the world, is what makes your work new and different and like nothing anyone has ever read before. Write from there.

El Space: What writing project are you working on now?
Stacy: I usually work on a couple of projects at a time. I’m rewriting a YA novel called Skin Deep which is basically a retelling of Moses set in a Blade Runner-esque world that I started during my MFA. I’m tweaking a picture book, Attack of the Glazed Donut Monster, and I’m in the end stages of research on an historical novel about an 18-year old’s adventures from the Mississippi River through the Battle of the Bulge that is loosely based on my grandfather’s life. When I first started writing, I worried the ideas would run out. Nowadays, I worry I won’t have time to explore them all!

Thanks, Stacy, for being my guest!

Looking for Stacy? You don’t have to head to the nearest ocean. You can find her at her website, Twitter, and Facebook. Or, check out the other picture books by Stacy: Shelby (illustrated by Shawn Sisneros), Squirt (illustrated by Shawn Sisneros), Rope ’Em! (illustrated by Bret Conover).

Toby is available here:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble

Two of you will win a copy of this picture book. Just comment to be entered in the drawing. Tell us your favorite marine animal as you comment. Winners will be announced on June 16. Thanks for stopping by!

Ocean photo from blirk.net. Haruki Murakami photo from bogbrokken.blogspot.com.

The Winner’s Circle

Bless you, Random Numbers Generator. I would give you a present, but you’re software. Still, you’ve been a big help to me today.

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The winners of Infinity and Me by Kate Hosford and illustrated by Gabi Swiatkowska are . . .

Are . . .

Are . . .

Are . . .

Sharon Van Zandt and beatthemtodeathwiththeirownshoes!!!

Books will be ordered from Amazon, so please email me at lmarie7b(at)gmail(dot)com to confirm snail mail addresses.

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The winner of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Professor VJ Duke!!!

Please email to confirm your snail mail address.

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For Janet Fox’s books, I’ve got a winner and a surprise winner.

The winner of the $20 gift card to purchase two of Janet’s books, one of which has to be Sirens, is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Andra Watkins!!!

But I’m also giving away a copy of Faithful—surprise—to someone. And that person is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Jill Weatherholt!!!

Andra and Jill, please confirm your snail mail addresses. Janet will also mail a bookplate to you.

Thank you to all who commented. Winners, please email me to let me know email addresses and all of that good stuff. Congratulations to you all!

Naruto-Opening01_222Recently, I watched two movies based on the popular manga series starring Naruto Uzumaki, a kid ninja in training. One was Naruto the Movie 3: Guardians of the Crescent Moon Kingdom.
Anyway, a quote of Naruto’s struck me:

I’m not giving up. Ever.

Maybe someone needed to see these words and take them to heart today. Maybe you’re a NaNoite who wonders if you’ll really crack that 50,000 words. Or, maybe you’re just someone who has a big task ahead and aren’t sure you can do it. Or, maybe you think you’ll never be published. The winner’s circle isn’t just for people who’ve won books. It’s for people who face the dance with discouragement, but like Naruto commit to keep going. That’s you, right?

I thought so.

P. S. A special shout-out to another good friend—Laura Sibson—who is running a marathon today. Run well, Laura! You can do this!

Infinity and Me cover courtesy of Kate Hosford. Naruto image from Wikipedia. Charlotte’s Web cover from Goodreads. Janet’s covers from her website.

Check This Out: Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods

Today, I have the privilege of featuring one of my advisors at VCFA—the awe-inspiring Mary Quattlebaum, noted teacher, book reviewer, and author of more books than you can shake a stick at. (And no, I’m not quite what that idiom means; probably something to do with divining rods.)

MQpictureblackshirtHere are just a few of Mary’s books:

Picture Books
Sparks Fly High (illustrated by Leonid Gore; Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The Hungry Ghost of Rue New Orleans (illustrated by Patricia Castelao; Random House)
Pirate vs. Pirate (illustrated by Alexandra Boiger; Hyperion Books)
Jo MacDonald Saw a Pond (2011) and Jo MacDonald Had a Garden (2012) (illustrated by Laura J. Bryant; Dawn Publications)

Middle Grade Fiction
Jackson Jones and the Curse of the Outlaw (Yearling/Random House)
Jackson Jones and the Puddle of Thorns (Yearling/Random House)

I don’t have room to list all of Mary’s books. In her spare seconds, Mary also reviews books for The Washington Post, Washington Parent, and the National Wildlife Federation (online). Oh yeah, she also teaches at VCFA, has a great website, and a canary named Petey!!! Because Mary is extremely busy, I asked her a few questions about her newest picture book, Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods. which debuts September 1!!! Woot! And if that title leaves you singing “Old MacDonald,” I won’t take responsibility.

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One of you will have an opportunity to get a copy of Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods, which has been endorsed by Gregory Miller, the president of the American Hiking Society. More on that giveaway later.

El Space: Welcome, Mary! I feel all giggly since you used to evaluate my packets, and now I get to ask you questions. Please tell us about Jo MacDonald.
Mary: Thanks so much for featuring my new book, L. Marie! This eco-friendly riff on the popular song “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” introduces children to the sights and sounds of a forest ecosystem and to the joys of hiking.

Since I know you are a fellow fan of wild birds, I have to tell you that Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods spotlights several, including a woodpecker and a Great Horned Owl.

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El Space: Cool!
Mary: Dawn Publications is the publisher. Their mission is to better connect children with the natural world through books. I have loved working with them on the Jo MacDonald series. In Spring 2013, they brought out board book editions of the first two picture books in the series—Jo MacDonald Saw a Pond and Jo MacDonald Had a Garden—so now the story-song is available to very young children in a format they can enjoy. Jo MacDonald Hiked the Woods is the final book in the series.

El Space: Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Mary: One of the greatest joys of writing this book, and the series in general, has been the chance to honor my dad and to revisit the landscape of my childhood. I grew up in the country in Virginia, and my dad introduced me and my six siblings and his numerous grandkids to the great outdoors. He is the model for Old MacDonald in my books and little Jo, the title character, is his grandchild.

El Space: How do you decide what you’ll write next?
Mary: Often I’ll get the glimmer of a character or story or a certain phrase or image will stay with me. And I’ll get curious, and start to mull, Where might this lead? Sometimes an idea grows, sometimes it fizzles out, and sometimes it will stay dormant for several years and then start to take root. I never know exactly how the process will evolve!

El Space: Sounds like the story of my life! Um, favorite place to hike? When you go hiking, is there one item you have to have with you that you can’t leave behind?
Mary: “Hike” may be too vigorous a verb for the place I’m about to describe. How about “amble”? Anyway, I love my daily amble with my dog, Yoshi, through the fields that form Fort Reno Park, which is the highest point of land in Washington, D.C., where I live. I love to see the seasons change here, to hear the birds, and to watch Yoshi’s joyous exploration of the grass, trees, and thickets. He’s a rescue dog and was crated for his first few years in a terrible puppy-mill environment. So when he came into my family, he didn’t know grass, trees, squirrels, or anything about the natural world. And my one “must have” for a hike? Comfortable shoes!

El Space: I’m glad you have Yoshi. What do you hope kids will take away when they read your Jo MacDonald series?
beautiful_male-cardinalMary: I hope kids enjoy becoming acquainted with the trees and wild creatures featured in the book, many of which they might even look for or listen to in their own backyards. It’s easy to devalue the cardinals, robins, butterflies, and bumblebees that we may see daily and to privilege the wild creatureslions, kangaroosof exotic locales or TV shows. With illustrator Laura Bryant’s vivid watercolors, hopefully the books model a way of experiencing and cherishing the extraordinary beauty that is part of the world around us. The back matter for educators and parents shares activities to help kids continue to learn about and engage with the natural world.

El Space: You’ve taught many aspiring writers over the years. If you could only give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?
Mary: I’ve certainly enjoyed working with you and your writing, L. Marie!

El Space: Awww. You’re going to get me all teary!
Mary: Gosh, everyone finds his or her own best way of working and trying to lead a creative life, so I can only offer this as a suggestion: Try to be alive to the world around you. Be curious, be open to word-play and experimentation and starting over. Ha, especially be open to starting over! Revising is the way that all writers bring those glimmers of story and character into full light.

I couldn’t be happier that you stopped by, Mary!!

Thanks to all who stopped by. You can get Mary’s book here:

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
Powell’s Books

One commenter today will get a $15 gift card to Amazon to get Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods. There are stipulations, however (sorry): You must be a follower of this blog or at least someone who regularly comments. Also, if you are a past winner (within the last few months), you are ineligible for this drawing. All eligibility will reset as of September. The winner will be announced on Thursday.

Great Horned Owl from guardiansofgahoole.wikia.com. Cardinal from wallpaperswala.com.

A Writer’s Process (4)

You’re just in time for another scintillating discussion of a writer’s process. Please help yourself to a bagel as we begin.

If you’re the kind of writer who works on more than one project at a time, this discussion has your name all over it. It certainly has mine! With me is—say it with me—another friend from VCFA—the awesome and wonderful Lori Steel!

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El Space: Welcome, Lori. Please tell the folks out there about yourself.
Lori: Well, let’s see. Most don’t know that I’ve worked as a: dishwasher, waitress, bartender, sub-delivery girl, secretary, hotel room service supervisor, nanny, egg-picker and deer-checker (yes, you read the last two right). I eventually ended up as a teacher and children’s library specialist. I “retired” from the classroom last year after completing my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

El Space: Woot!
Lori: Now I teach creative writing classes at Politics & Prose Bookstore and online for Johns Hopkins University. And, of course, I write.

The UK was home for about seven years. It started as a one-year study-abroad stint at Liverpool University. There, I joined the rowing team, went clubbing, sometimes studied. (My teenagers won’t read this, will they?) and met my husband. We eventually married, moved to Oxford, raised two children, and bought our first home. I continued rowing for Wolfson College—even won the “bumps” race when three months pregnant. Rather apt, don’t you think? Here’s a picture of my oar to prove it. Oh, and I took my first writing class. The rest is history.

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El Space: Impressive! So, what projects are you working on now?
Lori: I’ve recently completed a middle grade historical novel, Finding Lost River. Set in 1960s Appalachia, it’s about 13-year-old Catherine O’Flynn who channels her idol, Johnny Cash, by wearing black to bring some music and light into the dreary town of Dowstan.

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She never expects her Easter break to start with a secret. Instead, Cat finds River, a runaway boy, squatting in her chicken house. She soon becomes caught in the undertow of his story—one of abuse and survival—as River seeps into her skin. Cat’s story is about recognizing the redemptive power of truth and the comfort of family.

At the moment I’m writing a YA verse novel, still untitled. I chose the free-verse structure for this project, because it’s a story that deals with difficult themes. But I’m keeping mum about that one for the time being. It’s still marinating . . . too many cooks, and all that!

I’ve also just finished revisions on two picture books. In Murmur, a starling alights on the bow of a rowboat during a paddle on the loch before flying skyward—and turning into something quite extraordinary.

european-starlingThe bossy Sergeant in my concept picture book, Sandpiper School, gives orders to his Fledges until the GBC (Giant Blue Crab) arrives unexpectedly and his Fledges need to use their newfound skills to save him. I’m also wrapping up revisions for a picture book poetry collection titled Me, Tree, where the varying forms of poetry are all told from a tree’s perspective.

El Space: Sounds great! What do you find helpful as you juggle projects?
Lori: For me, writing picture books, early readers, and poetry is more akin to solving a puzzle. Working at the micro-level needed for these forms—where efficiency of language is paramount—helps me appreciate the value of each syllable, each word, each line. It’s not unusual for me to unlock issues I’m having in my larger WiP when I’m puzzling out a poem or a line of picture book text. Often when I’ve finished one set of novel revisions or find myself at an impasse, I switch gears and pull out smaller pieces. Having said all that, once I’m in the story, that’s it. It’s chocolate fueled, sleepless weeks of drafting and revising . . . until the next impasse!

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El Space: I’m always chocolate fueled, even when I’m not at an impasse! So, what authors inspire you? Why?
Lori: I always find this a tough question! Each author I read inspires me in different ways. But since we’re talking about writing in various forms and genres, how about Katherine Paterson? Her ability to craft picture books, early readers, and middle grade stories with finesse, honesty, and heart is remarkable. Jacob I Have Loved is one of my all-time favorites.

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Kate DiCamillo for sure—every time I reread Because of Winn-Dixie, I glean something new. And just to throw an adult author out there, Ian McEwan because his prose makes my brain tingle.

El Space: What advice do you have for someone working on more than one book project?
Lori: I’ve recently converted to Scrivener to keep track of my writing projects, and wonder how I ever managed without it! The program allows me to go in and out of projects at the scene level, so it’s easy to find where I’ve left off.

Consider joining critique groups that vary in focus. I belong to two different critique groups—one for picture books and one geared more towards MG and YA. Both keep me on regular deadlines, challenging me to produce more work than if I were going it alone. They also force me to write for different audiences. Choose colleagues who will encourage you to break outside your comfort barriers.

Finally, the great thing about working on more than one book project is that it allows you to experiment. Give yourself a challenge: Write a small piece in a genre you’ve never tried before. If you normally write YA, craft a picture book. Read widely and deeply across audiences and genres. Be fearless. The worst that can happen is that you to write something completely unexpected—and that’s not such a bad thing, is it?

Thanks, Lori! Great advice! Now it’s your turn to ask Lori questions about her books and process by commenting below. Thanks for stopping by!

Juggling image from honorcraft.com. Jacob Have I Loved cover from Wikipedia. Starling from cruciality.wordpress.com.