Monday, October 26, 2020

Sky Gazing with Meg Thacher

 


My guest today is Meg Thacher https://megthacher.com/, author of Sky Gazing, a brand-spanking new, bright and beautiful introduction to all things astronomy. Its chapters invite the reader to step into the sky, moon, sun, planets, and stars with clear explanations, tidbits from history, legends from diverse cultures, and hands-on activities. This comprehensive book is the perfect introduction to the universe for kids, and for adults. It even includes a star map you can cut out to use for your own night sky explorations. I can’t wait to try it.

Meg Thacher has also written over thirty science articles for kids on topics ranging from coral reef critters to chemotherapy. She is a Senior Laboratory Instructor for the Astronomy Department at Smith College. She’s also the Academic Director for Smith College’s Summer Science and Engineering Program for high school girls. She’s an advocate for women and underrepresented minorities in science.

Sky Gazing is your first book. What was it like opening your box of author copies?

Fantastic! It really hit home that Sky Gazing is now a real thing that I made that exists in the world. My book designer and illustrator made it look so much better than I ever could have imagined.

What do you love most about writing nonfiction?


Everything. I love writing an outline (I’m a plotter), getting lost in research, and even revising my work. I love learning new things. But the thing I love the very most is explaining cool science so that kids can understand it and also think it’s cool. I want kids to understand their world and be excited about everything we haven’t discovered yet.

Were you interested in science as a child? What got you hooked on the field of astronomy?

Yes and no. My dad used to take us on “nature walks”, and I was always interested in why and how things worked. But I didn’t really think about science as a career until college, when I took introductory physics and astronomy from two amazing professors. I love the hands-on nature of science and the way that math helps us explain natural phenomena.

Where has your career as an astronomer taken you? Do you have any science adventures to share with us?

I visited Kitt Peak National Observatory (outside Tucson, AZ) several times while I was in graduate school, to do research. It was amazing being around all those giant telescopes and hanging out with other astronomers. One morning, after a 13-hour night of observing, I ran into a coati (“co-WATT-ee”, a racoon-like desert critter) in the entryway of my telescope building. It had somehow gotten in and knocked over a trashcan to retrieve a Snickers bar. When it saw me, it didn’t know whether to eat or run. It finally gave a little snarl in my direction, grabbed the Snickers, and ran for the back door. *

You are an advocate for women and minorities in science. Have you faced any difficulties as a woman in science?

Author at Kitt Peak: 


I’ve had a high school teacher tell me and other girls that we should be in home economics class instead of physics, and I’ve been mistaken for a secretary while making copies in my department office. Only about 20% of astronomers are women, so I do feel underrepresented at professional meetings. But because I’m a middle-class, straight, cisgender white woman, no one has ever truly questioned my right to be in those spaces. The culture of physics and astronomy is much less welcoming to intersectional folks—people who differ from the majority in more than one way, like BIPOC or LGBTQ+ women. It’s past time for us to change the culture of astronomy and physics into one that is comfortable for everyone. Otherwise, we’re losing a lot of talent to fields that have already figured this out!

During the school year, you teach college students, and in the summer your students are teens. Yet your writing for middle grade readers is pitch perfect, clear, lively, and engaging. Was writing for this younger audience a challenge for you? How did you manage it?

Thanks very much! Most of what I know about writing for kids I learned writing for magazines. My first article in Ask (for ages 7-10) needed a ton of help from an extremely patient editor, but I’ve improved with each article. Magazines require an engaging voice and concise style. The first draft of Sky Gazing was really a series of articles, though it became much more coherent through my dozens of revisions.

Your articles have appeared in noteworthy magazines such as Highlights, Ask, and Muse. Most have been about astronomy, but you’ve also tackled other topics: the history of the text message, chemotherapy, ocean reefs, and wastewater treatment, to name a few. You even wrote a reader’s theater for an old Welsh tale. Where do you find your subjects, and how do you approach your research?

Subjects are pretty easy to find: most nonfiction magazines list either their monthly themes or a wish list of article topics. I check out their submission webpages and then let my mind wander. The chemotherapy article was for an issue on poison, and the wastewater article was for an issue on trash.

Honestly, the way I approach initial research is Google and Wikipedia! I also check out books from my local library about the topic—for both adults and kids. I look for articles about current research by professional scientists. I can read scholarly articles in astronomy and physics, but for subjects I wasn’t trained for, I stick to magazines written for popular audiences—like Discover, Scientific American, and Science News—and the News section of university and lab websites. These are very good sources of people to interview, too.

I take notes on my computer, typing them into the appropriate section of my outline. That becomes the an extremely rough first draft of my article. Most magazines require a list of sources; I list them in the draft as I go.

What is the hardest part of translating research into an engaging piece for young readers?

Probably figuring out what is developmentally appropriate. For that, I look to the Next Generation Science Standards, which is like the Common Core for science. It’s got topics arranged by grade level, so I can check if, for example, my target audience understands what atoms and molecules are. If not, I have to find another way to explain the concept, or provide a sidebar (a box with explanatory text) or glossary term. The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is another fantastic reference.

Sky Gazing is your debut book, though I’m sure there will be many more. What challenges have you faced in launching a book during a pandemic?

I really think the only thing I’ve missed is a fun, in-person book launch party. A lot of marketing is already done online. I’ve watched plenty of webinars about how to leverage your online presence; the best advice I’ve seen is to do as much as you are comfortable doing and what you have time to do. As long as I do something, I feel fine.

Do you have anything else you’d like to share with our readers? What’s the next project on your horizon?

I’d like to tell every pre-published author to write a few magazine articles. It’s a great way to get published, and it gives you experience working with editors and illustrators that is really valuable going forward. And it’s so satisfying to see your work in print and have your family and friends brag about you!

I’m currently working on a fact-based middle grade novel about a girl who loves astronomy and plans an adventure for her family that doesn’t go as expected. And like all kids’ writers, I’ve got several picture books that I’m slowly submitting to editors and agents.

Thank you so much for being my guest! Readers can find out more about Meg Thacher and her work at https://megthacher.com/

 

*Coati photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MexicanCoati2.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Cameron Kelly Rosenblum and raffle for THE STEPPING OFF PLACE


Lets welcome, Cameron Kelly Rosenblum https://www.cameronrosenblum.com/, author of The Stepping Off Place. Released in July 2020, her book has already earned high praise from Booklist and a starred review in Kirkus. Given the books passion and unforgettable characters, I predict it will receive many more accolades.

The Stepping Off Place deals with shifting friendships and romances, grief and mental health, with profound realism. When Reids inseparable friend Hattie leaves for her familys private island in Maine the summer before their senior year, Reid isnt sure she can navigate the dynamics of her new position in the popular crowd alone. Reid is devastated when, days before Hattie is due to return, she learns Hattie has drowned. As she uncovers the circumstances surrounding her friends death, Reid is forced to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about her friend.

I’ll be raffling off a copy of The Stepping Off Place to one of the lucky people who leave a comment on this post.


The Stepping Off Place is your debut novel, Cameron. Can you tell us about your journey to publication? Did you have mentors along the way?

Mine is the Aesop’s tortoise of publishing journeys. But, like the tortoise, I’ve enjoyed the trip! For eight years I worked (and reworked) the same middle grade novel. I remember speakers at workshops telling us that first novel attempts often end up in a drawer, that they’re a sandbox for honing your craft, and I thought, "Nope, not mine!" But that MG currently resides in a Staples box in a closet.

Through rejections and painfully close calls, I’ve been buoyed by wonderful mentors and writing friends, most of whom I met through SCBWI events in New England. During one Nashua conference, I met a pre-published woman named Lynda Mullaly Hunt at a peer critique roundtable. She read her first page and I remember the whole table going quiet. We all looked at each other, like, “You can go next.” “Oh no, you. I insist.” Lynda and I remain great friends, and she got me hooked on the Whispering Pines Retreat, which inspired me and my writing pal Julie Kingsley to start a small retreat on Squam Lake in NH. 



All along, I gained wisdom from the industry professionals at SCBWI events. Many gave me powerful feedback, and many are just excellent teachers. Laurie Hals Anderson, M.T. Anderson, Cynthia Lord, Jo Knowles, Jennifer Jacobson, editor Christian Trimmer and agent John Cusick left lasting impressions on how I think about writing and my career. SCBWI is a network like no other and I am so glad I joined, lo, those many years ago!

The novels settings of Scofield, CT and a private island in Maine are palpably real. So are the characters who inhabit them. You grew up in Connecticut and now live in Maine. How much of this novel is taken from your own experience?

Scofield is an enhanced version of my hometown in Connecticut, because this book is a highly fictionalized tribute to a dear friend of mine from childhood. My friend died by suicide when we were adults, but we were so close in our formative tween/teen years, her loss remains very powerful to me. I wanted to write about that kind of friendship. I also wanted to address mental illness in a nuanced, respectful way that encourages healthy conversations among readers. As for the characters, writing The Stepping Off Place was art therapy for me. I was processing a loss and I wanted to give myself distance. By exaggerating Reid’s dependence on Hattie, and also taking Hattie away from Reid when the girls are still in high school (not adults, as in my personal situation), I was able to tackle my subject with a clearer eye. I imagined totally different backstories for both of them, including adding Reid’s brother, Spencer, who has autism. My son has severe autism, so I felt comfortable imagining how that would shape Reid’s outlook on things. As for Maine, I moved here with my husband in 1999, and I continue to appreciate the bold  beauty of the landscape every day.  In The Stepping Off Place, liked how the dual settings ended up working as metaphor— Reid is groomed rosebushes and clean sidewalks; Hattie is wild sea roses and waves crashing on cliffs.

Love that metaphor!

You didnt write The Stepping Off Place in linear sequence. Instead you shifted back and forth between Reids current experiences and her memories, until sometimes the two seemed to bleed together. Why did you choose this format? What challenges did you face and how did you manage to keep your timeline straight?

In the first draft I wrote by instinct, focusing on alternating emotionally raw scenes with fun, carefree ones. In the process, I found this back-and-forth created its own tension, simply by the juxtaposition. The “before” scenes were built as Reid's memories, which came whether she was ready or not; I wanted the structure to reflect the chaos of a grieving mind. In revision, I nailed down Reid’s character arc. She grows from being a sidekick to a person ready to stand in her own light. As such, Reid’s story starts where Hattie’s life ends. So, for me, this format worked on a bunch of levels.

Challenges? Oh, yes! But mostly during revisions. The trickiest part was moving scenes around. I had to make sure all the details matched where the scene fell in the story. In a linear narrative, that isn’t so hard. Think: Goldilocks can’t sit on Baby Bear’s chair before she sits on Papa Bear’s chair. But without the traditional timeline of events, we needed to triple check all the details. Foreshadowing hints had to be traced through three timelines. It’s the difference between a domino effect and an echo effect. Thankfully, I had wonderful editorial co-agents (Brianne Johnson and Allie Levick of Writers House) guiding me, and later my awesome editor Karen Chaplin at HarperCollins.

Hattie appears to Reid after her death. Is that her ghost?

On a deep level, I was grappling with big questions through writing this story: Why would my friend take her own life? And more universally, what happens to a beautiful soul after its corporeal vessel ceases to exist? For Reid, its simply impossible to believe that Hattie is gone, poof. Maybe Reid is imagining Hatties appearances to cope with the shocking loss. Or maybe the essence of Hattie stays to help Reid. I don’t know the answer myself, but wouldn’t dismiss either possibility.

The Stepping Off Place tackles the topic of mental illness and you provide a number of resources where people can get help in the back of your book and on your website. Can you talk a little about this issue and why it is so important to you?

As I said, this book is a tribute to my friend. It’s true I saw myself as a bit of a sidekick to her superhero in real life; that’s why her loss remains difficult to wrap my mind around. I thought she had it all. But mental illness doesn’t discriminate.

Initially, I shied away from the teen suicide topic— it’s so important to do right. But I very quickly realized that the suicide is the story. And that for suicide loss survivors, there is often no answer to why, other than simply, she or he succumbed to depression or another mental illness. The deeper into the story I got, the clearer my mission became: To stoke constructive conversations about mental illness and its stigma so that we can address the alarming trends in suicide rates.

Originally you thought youd like to write middle grade novels. What made you pivot to writing for young adults? Do you think youll write middle grade books in the future, or have you discovered your true audience in teens?

When I finally surrendered my middle grade novel, it was because I had turned it into a Frankenbook. I made the mistake of listening to everyone’s advice over the years and choosing their ideas over my own. The narrative got all out of whack. It’s definitely important to listen, but I know better now when to trust myself. Our novels are our own, first and foremost! I was a more skilled and informed writer by the time I started The Stepping Off Place, so it may be a coincidence that I executed it better than my previous work. Or maybe I should have been writing YA all along. In any case, I’m staying with it!

Is there anything else youd like to share with our readers? Do you have a new project in the works? I certainly hope so! The world is eager to hear from you again.

I’m working on a second YA for HarperCollins, due out in winter 2022. This time I’m going after sexual assault in a #MeToo aware world, and the boys are coming in for the conversation.

To learn more about Cameron Kelly Rosenblum and The Stepping Off Place, visit her website at https://www.cameronrosenblum.com/

And to be entered in our raffle for a copy of The Stepping Off Place, just leave a comment on this post. Good luck, people!



Monday, September 7, 2020

Heather Gerry Kelly on Collaboration and Community

 


Today I’d like to introduce Heather Gerry Kelly, founder of the Writer’s Loft https://www.thewritersloft.org/ in Sherborn, Massachusetts. As a teacher, editor, author, and director, Heather strives to find ways to help writers become more prolific storytellers.

Welcome, Heather! Collaboration is a theme that runs through all you do, from running the Writers’ Loft to publishing your remarkable series of anthologies. Could you tell us why you think collaboration is so important?

Thank you so much for having me! I am so humbled to be here with you! There are so many ways I could answer this question, but I’m going to say that collaboration is so important for two reasons—one: this writing thing is hard to do alone, and exponentially better when we do it with others. When we think about the work we do with our fellow authors—critiquing, supporting, cheerleading—something magical happens when we think of those jobs as collaboration rather than simple support. Two: every single time I’ve collaborated with another author, the outcome far exceeds my expectations. Alone, I can shoot for the moon, and I can also get there, but when I collaborate, I shoot for the moon and we find ourselves out on Saturn. I can’t stress enough how amazing books can become when you add collaboration into the mix. And it doesn’t hurt that you do so much less work when you collaborate. Imagine finishing drafting a book in half the time, and it’s ten times as good! I challenge every writer reading this to think about collaborating in some small way with someone right now.


What exactly is the Writers’ Loft and what drove you to create it? How has the function of the Loft changed during the pandemic?

I started the Writers’ Loft in 2013, and it was such a huge risk! I thought, if I am finding this writing business hard, I’m sure other people are too! I wanted to be a support for other writers to find a place to write, and start a community of serious and kind writers. We grew the Loft by word of mouth, so that we knew the caliber of writers joining us. We leaned on our roots with NESCBWI (I was helping to run the conference when I started the Writers’ Loft) and will forever be grateful to that community. We think of the Writers’ Loft as a yearlong conference, a place you can find critique partners, knowledge, support, and access to industry professionals, like agents and editors. We always wanted to have a virtual component to the Loft, but we were way too busy organizing in-person events to figure it out (we run exclusively on volunteer energy!). When the pandemic hit, we immediately brought all of our features and events online and started to expand our outreach to support writers no matter where they live. We’ll continue to offer virtual events even after things return to normal; we always seek to protect the most vulnerable among us. If you are writing, and are supportive and kind to other writers, please seek us out!

You mentioned that you’re collaborating on a YA series with Natasha Sass. How exciting! Can you tell us about it?

I LOVE collaborating with Natasha. She’s amazing. This project started with a mentorship opportunity with the founders of Sterling and Stone, and we met some blockbuster self-publishers along the way. Natasha and I are writing a very cool dystopian series together, utilizing our different skillsets—my favorite part of writing is world-building; hers is dialog. We can’t wait to publish the series in 2021. The most important feature of our collaboration is that every day, even when we are focused on our own projects and not the Surge series, we are pushing each other forward. Right now, my main focus is my non-fiction workbooks—Natasha helps me with those—while her main focus is her amazing cozy mystery series, featuring the sassiest cat ever. (Check her out under her pen name at JulieKoty.com—especially if you love cats with attitudes.) We support each other’s careers on a daily bases, along with our collaborations! 


You’ve written two craft books for writers, Jumpstart Your Writing in 30 Days and another book coming out this fall, Jumpstart Your Querying in 30 Days. How did those books come about? Where can our readers purchase them?

I love helping other writers—especially on a one-on-one situation. When the Loft was smaller, I used to try to support and mentor writers when they walked in the door. Now that it’s grown so much (we have over 500 active writers and illustrators involved) I found I couldn’t reach all the writers that I wanted to personally. My workbooks are a way to share my knowledge and support with writers doing the hard work on a daily basis. You can buy them anywhere books are sold—although the pandemic has certainly slowed down their delivery! I’m also busy writing a revision workbook and a marketing workbook. The workbooks follow the idea of small goals each day that make a big change over the course of a month. Kinda like I’m there, holding your hand, as you face the mindset, skillset, and knowledge barriers that can block the path to writing success.

You created your own publishing house, Pocket Moon Press, to publish these. How did you go about that? What special challenges did you face? What joys?

The idea behind Pocket Moon Press (another collaboration with my brilliant friend, Kristen Wixted) is that we all have moons in our pockets—amazing secret stories that need to be told! I love to think outside the box with publishing and I love the idea that I can be an entrepreneur and control the creative aspects of my production. We have amazing teams that assist in publication—editors, copyeditors, book designers (shout out to Bob Thibeault of Teabow Designs), cover artists, etc. But to be clear, this is a self-publishing venture. Everything that Kristen and I do, you can do too! We are learning the ins and outs of Kickstarted right now, to push forward some of our Pocket Moon Press ventures in creative ways!


Every two years the Writers’ Loft puts out an anthology created by its members. So far there has been three: An Assortment of Animals, Firsts, and Friends and Anemones all fine examples of creative collaboration. What is your process for pulling these anthologies together?

The Writers’ Loft Press is spearheaded by Kristen Wixted. We do a call for submissions for poems (for Firsts it was a call for short stories) in the summer and then we take the authors on a whirlwind process of critiques, edits, copy edits, etc. In the winter, we put out our call for illustrators and work with them on the same process—critiques, edits, art direction and book design. Right now, we are in my favorite part of the process—showing the authors their illustrated pieces. I can’t tell you how beautiful Friends and Anemones will be when published Nov. 2020! We have some blockbuster authors and illustrators involved—and that’s a part of the thrill. New authors sit alongside Jane Yolen. New illustrators rest side-by-side with Brian Lies.

You offer a number of workshops including “Creatively WIN Your Writing,” “Nurturing Big Ideas,” and “Stick with your Buddy.” Who are your workshops for and how did you develop them?

I’ve developed these workshops for several conferences; Hollihock (which will be online October 24,25,26) and NESCBWI (April 30-May 2 2021), along with various workshops I give at the Writers’ Loft. It’s always my goal to help writers become more effective and productive writers. I love talking to a room of writers and helping them connect and get to the next level! My workbooks are now an extension of these workshops and all the mentoring I still do.

What is your background beyond writing and how did it lead you to all you do today?

In high school, I was chosen to attend a journalism conference with other young writers from around the United States—two students from each state, I believe. One of the first speakers we heard from was Cornell West. Right then and there, I gave up my idea of being a journalist or novelist; I studied Sociology and Psychology at Colby College, instead of English classes which had originally been my plan. I thought I could always write, but I wanted to understand societal and psychological struggles and help people. I was on track to become a social worker, but the work I was doing was way too emotionally draining to also raise kids. So, I decided to put my mind to writing instead! I’ve been producing novels for over ten years, and am excited to start to see some of the fruits of my labor out in the world!

You are so prolific! Is there anything I missed? Anything else you do? Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I’d like to say that writing is still hard. I commend anyone who is on this journey. If you are looking for community, everyone is welcome at the Writers’ Loft, regardless of who you are or where you are on the road to publication. And now, where you live in the world! If you need community, check out our classes and webinars at our website www.writersloftma.org or our Facebook group: www.facebook.com/groups/writersloft/

Thank you so much for being my guest today! You can find out more about Heather Gerry Kelly at https://www.heatherkellyauthor.com/

 

 

 

Friday, August 7, 2020

Meet Prolific Author, Debbi Michiko Florence

 

Debbi Michiko Florence https://debbimichikoflorence.com/ is the author of a multitude of books for young readers, including the highly successful Jasmine Toguchi and My Furry Foster Family chapter book series. I don’t have room to list all the accolades she’s won. (Jasmine Toguchi Mochi Queen alone garnered ten awards.) She recently launched her debut middle grade novel, Keep It Together Keiko Carter which has already earned glowing reviews and been chosen as a New England Book Award Finalist.

I just finished Keep It Together Keiko Carter and I loved how Keiko cared so much about everyone around her and tried to make everyone get along. Sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn’t, but she learned much about herself and others in the process. You’ve captured the complex dynamic of middle school perfectly. How do you manage to connect so well with this age group?

Thank you so much! As for connecting with this age group, my strongest memories are from middle school – so many big changes and big emotions! And I think my internal age is stuck somewhere between 12 – 14.

Most of your previous books were early chapter books for 7-10-year-olds. My granddaughters adored them. How is writing for the chapter book set different than writing for middle schoolers? Which age group is more challenging?

I’m so happy to hear your granddaughters enjoyed my chapter books. While writing chapter books and middle grade novels both require strong character development, the plots for chapter books are more straight-forward. Since chapters books are for the newly independent reader, I focus on one main story arc and one main emotional arc with no subplots. While I am a pantser by nature and do not outline for my novels, I do outline for my chapter books. There isn’t a lot of room for me to stray and wander off. I think writing for any audience comes with their own challenges. I love writing for both chapter book and middle grade readers.

You draw on your Japanese heritage in your writing, yet each of your books is totally relatable for readers of other cultures, even when you address the difficult topic of bigotry. How do you decide what aspect of the Japanese culture to highlight in a book? Do you rely on your own experience or do you couple your experience with research?

It’s important to me to write contemporary stories starring Japanese American characters. When I was growing up in Los Angeles, I was fortunate to have a large Asian American community. While being Japanese American is integral to who I am, back then, I saw myself as a typical American teen. I loved reading contemporary stories when I was a young reader, but I never saw Japanese American characters dealing with friendship challenges, crushes, and family drama.

When writing my books, I always start with a premise – usually focusing on relationships, such as family or friendship or in the case or my middle grade novels, romance – and a character. My characters are always Japanese American, and being Japanese American involves more than just that identifier. Culture and tradition run deep and it’s natural that many of my own experiences and emotions become part of my characters.

I also research when necessary, making sure I get facts right, particularly in the Jasmine Toguchi series since Japanese culture played a big part in each book. For Jasmine Toguchi Drummer Girl, I took a taiko lesson so I would know how Jasmine would feel learning to play the Japanese drum. That was so much fun!

I remember that you had a group of Japanese drummers at your book launch, too. They were amazing.

You’ve volunteered as a raptor rehabilitator and worked as a zoo educator. Your family includes a rescue dog, rabbit, and duck. Your love for animals comes through in My Furry Foster Family series. A dog has an important role in the plot of Keep It Together Keiko Carter, too. How do you approach creating animal characters for your stories?

With the exception of the My Furry Foster Family series which obviously had to have animals as a focus for each book, I didn’t purposefully intend to add animals to my other books. It just kind of happened. It makes sense, though, because I have been an animal lover all my life and I have a degree in zoology.

The flamingo in the Jasmine Toguchi series came about because my editor asked me what Jasmine’s favorite animals was. I knew that Jasmine, due to her independent nature, wouldn’t choose a typical animal and because my editor was originally from Miami, the flamingo seemed like a fun choice. I did research flamingos, particularly for the fourth book Flamingo Keeper. The ultimate reward was getting to feed juvenile flamingos for my book launch at the L.A. Zoo!

For Keep It Together Keiko Carter, I gave Conner a dog because it added layer to make him likeable since he is not very nice to Keiko at the beginning of the book. He was a dog-lover so he couldn’t be all bad, right? And then it just became a great connection between Keiko and Conner that she loved dogs and wanted one, too.

Readers can expect to see other animals pop up in future books for sure. Having worked at a pet store, the Humane Society, and having now had six dogs in my life definitely helps me write dogs into my books. (I’ve also had fish, hamsters, a guinea pig, snakes, birds/parrots, and a cat.)

You’ve traveled widely and have lived in China and Mexico. Have you mined those experiences in your books? Will you in the future?

I haven’t yet, although I do have a few ideas for books set in Japan where I spent many summers when I was young and is one of my favorite places to visit. And I love books about traveling so don’t be surprised if I write a travel story.

Both Jasmine Toguchi and My Furry Foster Family were series. I hear that there will be a sequel to Keep It Together Keiko Carter, too. How is writing a series different than writing a one-off title? Do you have any advice for writers who’d like to see their books made into a series?

I think writing a series is not hugely different than writing any book, you need a strong main character and a good story. To be honest, I originally wrote the first Jasmine Toguchi book as a stand-alone because I had the idea for Mochi Queen and couldn’t let go of it. I’d been writing novels up till then and knew that the idea for this book wasn’t quite right for a middle grade novel since my main character was in 3rd grade. So, after studying many chapter books, I wrote my first chapter book. But when my editor made an offer on Mochi Queen, she asked for a series which was wonderful, and I came up for three more ideas.

A similar thing happened for Keep It Together, Keiko Carter. My editor asked if I had an idea for a sequel and I told her I really wanted to write a book from the point-of-view from Keiko’s best friend – and so I got to write Just Be Cool Jenna Sakai, which will be published in August 2021. I’m very excited about this book!

One thing I can share about writing series is to give your main character unique traits that can be carried throughout the series – such as Jasmine’s love for flamingos. I’m co-teaching a virtual workshop at The Highlights Foundation in a few weeks about writing chapter book series. I’m hoping it will become an in-person workshop in the future.

Do you have another project in the works? What final thoughts do you have for our readers?

I just turned in copyedits for Just Be Cool Jenna Sakai. I feel very lucky to have been able to write Jenna’s story. While Keiko is a people-pleasure, Jenna is a bit more prickly and independent, so she was a fun character to write. Readers will get to see Keiko in this book, too. I’m working on another middle grade book with my editor at Scholastic, hopefully to be published in 2022, and I’m currently revising a middle grade fantasy about a girl who ends up in a Japanese fable. I have ideas for a chapter book series, as well.

I co-authored a picture book biography with Jamie Michalek, Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites with gorgeous art by Yuko Jones that will be published in fall of 2021 (Farrar Straus Giroux). This will be my picture book debut and I’m very excited!

While at a glance one may be awed (as I am) that since 2016 I have had 16 chapter books and one novel published with two more novels and a picture book biography on the way, it’s important for me to share that I have had a very long journey. I started writing with the intention of getting published in 2001. I have collected hundreds of rejections. I have written books that will never see the light of day (rightly so). I didn’t give up. And now my dreams are coming true.

I am in awe, not only of the number of books you’ve published, but of all the projects you have in the works. Wow! Thank you so much for stopping by.

You can purchase personally signed copies of Debbi’s books from Bank Street Books through these links: Keiko Carter: https://www.banksquarebooks.com/keiko-carter

Jasmine Toguchi: https://debbimichikoflorence.com/books/jasmine-toguchi/

If you’d like to learn more about Debbi Michiko Florence and her books, visit her website at https://debbimichikoflorence.com/

 

 

 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Jeannine Atkins and her Pioneering Women


Today I welcome Jeannine Atkins, the acclaimed author of over a dozen books for young readers and for adults.  Through the years, her books have garnered a galaxy of starred reviews and awards. Jeannine teaches writing at Simmons University and makes her home in western Massachusetts.

Welcome, Jeannine! You have written about pioneering women in science, math, the arts, religion, and more. So many courageous women! Did you make a conscious decision to concentrate on writing about women or is this a theme that evolved in your work?

I tend to write in forms I love to read and as a girl some of my favorite books were biographies. And my favorites featured girls, including fiction and biographical blends such as Little Women. As an undergraduate at UMass I took a course called Lost New England Women Writers and learned the joys of research, which set a course.

How do you find your women? What draws you to a subject? Are you always on the lookout for someone new to write about?

One woman often opens a door to another. Recently I’ve focused on women in math and science, and while some names have been more preserved than others, the well-known women often worked with and were friendly with other women, just as famous men worked with men whose names are now barely known. I’m drawn to people who were dedicated to various kinds of wonder, but also those who appreciated ordinary and beautiful parts of life such as spending time with children, working in gardens, having tea with friends.

Have you traveled in the course of your research? Where and for whom? What do you seek in traveling to a place where your subject lived or worked?

Place is really important to me, and is one reasons I like writing historical verse rather than biography. The places where someone lived can fill in details that add texture and may even bloom to metaphor. I like traveling when I can and feeling a sort of mystical connection that also happens in archives, but sometimes I rely on letters or photographs. Concord, Mass. is close enough to feel almost like a second home and it was a treat to walk where May Alcott walked. One Mother’s Day, my daughter walked with me from the Alcott’s home to Walden Pond.

You’ve discussed some women, such as Mary Anning and the Alcotts, in more than one book. How do you manage a fresh approach to a subject you’ve written about before?

Mary Anning and Louisa and May Alcott had such rich lives that have affected me long before and after I’ve written about them. Becoming Little Women: Louisa May at Fruitlands, was the first book I wrote, though not the first to be published. I deeply connected with Louisa as a young writer. Learning about her led me to her artistic sister, May, and many years later I focused on her after seeing her wonderful drawings and paintings in the historic Orchard House, where Louisa wrote Little Women, and being flabbergasted that she could be so dismissive of May/Amy’s art. Unlike the Alcott family where much was recorded, we don’t know many facts about Mary Anning, and I wanted to go back in Finding Wonders and explore more than I could in the picture book, Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon. I loved visiting her home by the sea in England, a small town where by the end of the day a shopkeeper greeted me by saying, “You must be the woman who loves our Mary.”

I interviewed you on Lupine Seeds in 2009, soon after your picture book, Anne Hutchinson’s Way, came out (http://lcbrennan.blogspot.com/2009/). In that interview we discussed your approach to “creative nonfiction” and the line you draw between fiction and nonfiction. I noticed that Finding Wonders and Little Woman in Blue are shelved in my library’s fiction stacks. Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon and Wings and Rockets are in nonfiction. How do you view the differences between these books? Was your writing process different?

No, my writing process wasn’t different and I don’t really see them differently. My technique does pose problems for librarians as there’s a blend of nonfiction and fiction, so most shelve where they think readers who want such books are likeliest to find them. Historical fiction like Little Woman in Blue is easier, but I think of my books as being based on true stories, and I stick with the known facts, but imagine my way into the gaps. Poetry has historically blended fact and fiction, which is one reason I love it.

Your next book, coming out in August, is Grasping Mysteries: Girls Who Loved Math. It’s written in verse, as was Stone Mirrors, Borrowed Names and Finding Wonders. How do you choreograph the dance between poetry and fact? Do you practice poetry regularly? Do you have any advice for those who aspire to writing poetry?  

For me the core of writing free verse about history is compression, so my guideline as I revise is: Can I say this more succinctly? Often details help. I hope small things taken from particular places not only add to setting, but also characterization and even plot and theme as I show how something appeared at one moment, then seems changed in another. I practice poetry regularly, but for me it works best in alliance with story, which is why I like verse narrative. I also read poetry regularly. Some of the tomes, letters or articles I rely on for research are not beautifully written, so for balance, I look to poetry to remind me what language can do.

Most of your books have been for children, but Little Woman in Blue, a historical novel about May Alcott, was written for adults. What made that subject more suitable for adult readers? Do you think you’ll write for adults again?

I was moved by May’s story, but there wasn’t anything in particular about her childhood I wanted to explore. The themes that mattered to me were that of ever-present work versus romance along with sisterly rivalry/ambition and love, so those were adult themes.

Do you have anything new in the works?

I’m smitten with another scientist!

Wonderful! I can't wait to discover who it is. Anything else you’d like to share with our readers? 

Thank you for reading!

Indeed! And thank you so much for joining me on Lupine Seeds. To find out more about Jeannine Atkins and her books, visit https://www.jeannineatkins.com/.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Monday, May 25, 2020

Interview: Hayley Barrett

My guest today is Hayley Barrett, the author of three very distinct picture books. 

In the lyrical Babymoon, a tiny new person has arrived. Mom and Dad and Baby learn the rhythm of being together through this dawn to dusk story of a baby’s day, taking the time they need to fall in love as a family. (This is the perfect gift for new parents or toddlers welcoming a new brother or sister.) 


Hayley’s second book, What Miss Mitchell Saw, recounts the story of astronomer Margaret Mitchell’s amazing discovery of a comet. Back in 1847, her find caused an international sensation. Could a woman claim the gold and glory of a royal reward? What Miss Mitchell Saw garnered a starred review from School Library Journal and was named a Mighty Girl’s Book of the Year.  

 


Hayley adds, since we last connected, it was named a MA Book Must Read and longlisted for a MA Book award. It’s also one of five NE finalists for SCBWI’s Crystal Kite Award. J I couldn’t be more proud of it. 

Hayley’s third book, Girl Versus Squirrel, is the rollicking tale of an intrepid girl and a resourceful squirrel’s battle of wits. It will be coming out on August 11th and I can’t wait to read it. 


Hayley, you’ve written fiction and nonfiction, poetic books and funny books, books for the very young and books for school age readers. Everything you write is a new and delightful surprise. What threads tie your body of work together? You’ve mentioned that there are elements of nonfiction in everything you write, can you tell us more about that? 

As a young person, I was more information-hungry than entertainment-hungry. I looked to books to teach me about the world. When I read (and reread) the LITTLE HOUSE books, I wanted more than to pal around with the Ingalls family. I longed to learn how to build, grow, and make whatever I might need. When I read (and reread) BLACK BEAUTY, I learned how to respectfully care for horses and how to avoid the careless mistakes that ruin them. In books, information was there to be found, and I wanted all of it. 

This is why I try to include solid, well-researched facts in all of my books, even the lighthearted, fictional ones. For example, in GIRL VERSUS SQUIRREL, the animal character’s behavior is believable because it’s scientifically accurate. I know because during my research, I consulted a well-known squirrel expert. Yep. 

Why newborns? Why Maria Mitchell? Why squirrels? What was the spark that generated each of your projects? What do you hope your books accomplish? 

Well, this world is a fascinating place, isn’t it? I find I’m interested in nearly everything, so naturally, I like to write about nearly everything. That’s one of the joys of writing picture books. I can write about whatever catches my fancy. 

The inspiration for BABYMOON happened many years ago. At that time, I was attending Penn’s nursing school in preparation to become a Certified Nurse Midwife. Although our family plans changed and I did not complete the program, I never forgot what I learned about the importance of welcoming babies with gentleness and respect. A new family must be allowed to rest and bond, but in our increasingly busy and distracted world, such families are often pressured to “bounce back” to “normal life.” We forget to take time to nurture and protect those who need it most. BABYMOON—the term was coined by a British anthropologist—is my effort to reclaim that sense of restful space. 

I must have read about Maria Mitchell when I was a girl, and she stayed with me. From time to time, I’d come across her name in something I was reading, and it always piqued my interest. Finally, I was interested enough to research her life and accomplishments in earnest. That’s when I began writing WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW. 

GIRL VERSUS SQUIRREL also came from my childhood days. As a kid, I spent hours watching the squirrels that lived in my neighborhood. If they were feeling sociable, they’d sometimes sit on the fence and let me talk to them. I’d cluck and chirp as best I could and they’d reply in fluent squirrel. If they ever tried to speak my language, I never noticed, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Squirrels are mighty smart people. 

What obstacles have you had to overcome in your writing process? Is there a particular aspect of the writing journey that challenges you most or is each project different? 

Some writers enjoy the revision process, but I find it deeply challenging. A picture book’s text is necessarily spare, yet its story and characters must be well-developed and engaging. To accomplish this requires painstaking work and focus, and the resulting manuscript is delicate, much like a sandcastle. Changing even one small part of the whole invites collapse of the structure. 

Still, unless I want my work to molder in a drawer, I must revise. The process of revising BABYMOON was profoundly instructive and, to be honest, something of an ordeal. Revising any manuscript is tricky, but one that rhymes? Doubly so. To follow the sandcastle metaphor, it’s like trying to modify a castle that’s finished and dry. At the slightest touch, those seemingly solid walls with their boxy battlements will disintegrate and must be resurrected into an entirely new, structurally stable, and equally compelling creation. GULP. 

I’ll probably spend the rest of my life making peace with the revision process, but that’s a happy prospect. I’m fortunate to be doing the work I love. 

Your picture books have all been illustrated by others. What is your experience with the author/illustrator dance? 

I love partnering with illustrators! They get to do what they like to do best—create art—and I get to do what I like—wrangle words. There’s a strange sort of disconnected collaboration that’s required to make a picture book. Both parties are creatively separate and yet somehow, they end up in a new place together. That’s the magic we all hope for and work toward. When it happens—that magical pairing of words and images—the result is something truly special. 

Now that I have a few books in the world, I realize how much I enjoy having books that differ from one another visually. BABYMOON bears no resemblance to WHAT MISS MITCHELL SAW, and GIRL VERSUS SQUIRREL looks nothing like THE TINY BAKER. I appreciate each of my illustrators, and I’m committed to supporting not only our shared “book babies,” but all of their future work too. 

In the middle of creating these books, you also contributed to a poetry anthology, An Assortment of Animals. What was it like collaborating with other authors on this project? Does your work as a poet influence the way you approach picture books? 

The Writers’ Loft is the center of my writing life, and I’m glad I can contribute to their anthologies. I only rarely write poetry, but I adore rhyming. Once I begin to hear the music and rhythm of a poem in my head, I can’t help but work on it. That’s what happened for the first anthology, AN ASSORTMENT OF ANIMALS, for which I wrote a poem about a prehistoric equid. There’s another anthology coming, all about the ocean and its creatures, and I contributed two poems, one about diatoms and another about right whales. 

I hear that there is a fourth book, The Tiny Baker, on its way. Illustrated by Alison Jay; it will be published by Barefoot Books.  Could you tell us a little about that? 

Gladly! THE TINY BAKER is a sweet story about the proprietress of a bustling teashop that caters to stylish ants and other elegantly attired insects. When kitchen disaster strikes, her can-do clientele work together to help their baker friend. I just saw the color proofs, and the art by Alison Jay could not be more perfect. Wait ‘til you see the sugary delights she cooked up! 

Oh, sounds delicious! Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers? 


I’d like to add that the children’s literature community is wonderfully friendly and welcoming. If any of your readers are thinking about writing or illustrating for young people, they should go ahead and jump right in. The water’s fine, I promise. 

Thank you so much for being my guest today! You can find out more about Hayley Barrett and her books at https://hayleybarrett.com/.    

 

 


Monday, May 18, 2020

Author Roundup: Hazel Mitchell

Hazel Mitchell and Toby
When I interviewed Hazel Mitchell back in 2012, http://lcbrennan.blogspot.com/2012/02/hazel-mitchell-interview-and-contest.html, she had just illustrated her first nonfiction book, Hidden New Jersey. She was hoping that project would lead to others.
Boy, did it! At this point Hazel has illustrated or written and illustrated twenty-two books. Here is just a partial list of her titles:
Oceanly, written by Lynn Parrish Sutton and illustrated by Hazel Mitchell, a sweet lullaby for beach-going toddlers.

Borrowing Bunnies, illustrated by Hazel Mitchell, a heartwarming book written by Newbery Honor winning author, Cynthia Lord, about her experience fostering rabbits.
Imani’s Moon, written by JaNay Brown-Wood and illustrated by Hazel Mitchell, about tiny Imani and her Maasai village where the animals always have something to say and a girl can touch the moon. (Reading is Fundamental Multicultural Booklist) 

How Do Fairies Have Fun In The Sun?, Fairies 1,2,3,  and Do Fairies Bring The Spring? all part of a fun fairy series written by Liza Gardner Walsh and illustrated by Hazel Mitchell. 
Toby, written and illustrated by Hazel Mitchell, about a rescue dog’s struggle to adjust to life within a family and the boy who helps ease him into his new home. (Dog Writer’s Association Children’s Book of the Year) This book was inspired by Hazel's poodle, Toby. 

Hazel’s 23rd book, The Fall Fairy Gathering, the last of her seasonal fairy series, will be coming out in July from Down East Books.

She has another book coming out in 2021 which she will write and illustrate. What is it about? That’s still a secret, but there just might be kittens…You can find out more about Hazel Mitchell and her delightful books at http://www.hazelmitchell.com/


Sky Gazing with Meg Thacher

  My guest today is Meg Thacher https://megthacher.com/ , author of Sky Gazing, a brand-spanking new, bright and beautiful introduction to a...