Celebrating National Poetry Month with Marilyn Singer

Marilyn_officeAs the inventor of reverso poetry and the author of numerous books of poems, Marilyn Singer is a poster child for National Poetry Month. “Usually, when April rolls around, I get to celebrate poetry by doing interviews, Skype visits with schools, and sometimes bookstore appearances,” the award-winning author and poet says.

Singer has been writing poetry since third grade. Often she will recite one of her first poems, “My Ocean Fright,” when making presentations. “I think that even with its problematic grammar, it gives an indication of some of my early interests in language, humor, love of animals, and imagination.” That love of language, nature, and imagination grew as the years passed, and Singer became an English teacher in order to share her appreciation of language with young people.

“My parents read poetry and sang to me, so I developed an appreciation at a young age. I loved the musicality and I loved the words.”

“I taught high school English,” shares Singer, “which involved both literature and composition. Poetry was a major part of my curriculum. I used both poems and lyrics frequently, and I always read those aloud. I think that appreciating poetry starts with hearing it.”

Though she does not believe a love of poetry can be “taught”, Singer is a strong proponent for encouraging an appreciation of poetry by modeling it. “Teachers and parents can become more comfortable with poetry by reading it themselves and finding the poems that sing to them—and that includes a lot of works written for children. Then they can read these to their students and children and encourage the kids to read or recite them back. Parents and teachers can and should be playful with poetry. On my website is a piece I wrote for School Library Journal entitled “Knock Poetry Off the Pedestal” which includes a variety of ideas for using poetry in classrooms and can also be adapted by parents.”

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Mirror Mirror

Mirror Mirror

“Today, I’m still moved by how poems get to the heart of the matter (and often the matters of the heart). I really appreciate the specificity of language and the capturing of perception and emotion in a small space.”

These days, poetry seems to come in all forms. But what makes a good poem? For those who are learning to appreciate poetry, Singer has some counsel: “Poetry is not always easy to define. If it rhymes, it’s a poem—but it may not be a good one. And, of course, not all poems need to or do rhyme. Recent Wilder Award-winner Nikki Grimes once said about verse novels that if you read ‘page after page after page without once encountering a metaphor, a simile, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme, meter, or any other poetic element,’ it’s not poetry. That’s not saying those books are bad—just that they’re not actually verse. Not only do I agree with that, but I think it tells you something of what a poem is. It needs those elements. Again, though, the elements alone don’t create a good poem. A good poem, whether narrated by a character or by the poet her/himself, uses words wonderfully, and it uses them to capture specific moments in a fresh way, a way that makes the reader exclaim with delight, ‘Yes, that’s it! That’s right!’”

Mirror Mirror_Resized

Mirror Mirror


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Echo Echo

As many teachers, librarians, and parents can attest, not everyone loves poetry. In fact, there are some who think they despise it. Singer has advice for these readers as well. “To those who are convinced they ‘hate’ poetry, I say you just haven’t found the poetry you like yet. One of my good friends thought he disliked poetry until he read my book, Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse (Dutton Children’s Books, 2010). He, his wife, and her family took turns reading it around the dinner table. He said he’d never enjoyed poems before. Heaven only knows which ones he’d encountered before, but I do think he is now more willing to look at other poetry collections with a less-jaundiced eye to discover what he does, in fact, like.”

“Poetry is a reflection of the imagination—a combination of seeing things in a new way, wondering about those things, and appreciating that wonder. It pairs beautifully with all studies. It’s fun to compare what fog is scientifically and how a poet views it, or to read a prose piece on a president and see how that person is presented in a poem, or to discover how a myth can be turned on its head or to put into words the feeling you get when you hit a home run. Poetry can make you think, and through its music, it can also aim straight for the soul.”

Singer’s first collection of poetry, Turtle in July, was published by Simon & Schuster nearly 30 years ago. However, in the early 2000s, she accidentally discovered a new form of poetry she later called reverso poetry. “One day I was watching my cat snuggled in a chair and this popped into my head:

A cat                        Incomplete:
without                   A chair
a chair:                   without
Incomplete.           a cat.

“That little poem got me excited and I wondered if I could write more like it. So I did. The poems were on a variety of topics, but quite a few of them were based on fairy tales. I called the poems ‘reversos,’ but it was my wonderful husband, Steve Aronson, who actually came up with the word. Before that I was calling them ‘up and down poems,’ but he said we needed something better, and presto, the word ‘reverso’ was born!”

Writing reversos is not as simple as it may seem. There are strict rules to follow which qualify poems to be included in this poetry category.

1. Each reverso consists of two halves.
2. When the lines of the first half are reversed, they can have changes ONLY in punctuation and capitalization.
3. The second half must say something completely different from the first half.

Feel the Beat

Feel the Beat

Echo Echo

Echo Echo

“I’ve spoken with school groups and have been delighted to discover that kids of all ages have been trying to write reversos, sometimes with really fine results. Some published poets have been writing them as well. Jon Arno Lawson published several good ones in his book, The Hobo’s Crowbar (Porcupine’s Quill, 2016).”

Of course, Singer also has several collections of reversos to her credit with Mirror Mirror being the first. “I don’t yet know when or if I’ll be writing more collections of reversos, but I have been slipping single poems into other poetry books of mine. For example, there’s a reverso about Richard Nixon in Rutherford B., Who Was He? (Disney-Hyperion, 2013), illustrated by John Hendrix, and there’s one in my forthcoming book of poems about New Year celebrations entitled Every Month Is a New Year, which will be published by Lee & Low this coming fall (2017) and illustrated by Susan L. Roth. I intend to keep sneaking them into other books as well.”


Rutherford B. Who Was He?

In addition to writing reversos, Singer continues to write poetry books, picture books, and even a novel. “Coming out next year are Have You Heard About Lady Bird? (Disney-Hyperion), poems about our First Ladies, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter; I’m the Big One Now (Wordsong/Boyds Mills), poems about seminal moments for five- and six-year-olds, illustrated by Jana Christy; and my sixth picture book about Tallulah, a young ballet student, Tallulah’s Ice Skates (Clarion), illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Currently, I’m working on another poetry book about presidential pets for Disney-Hyperion and, heaven help me, a middle-grade novel, which is a ghost story.”

“Poetry can make you laugh, as well as cry, think, get angry or happy!”

And what is Marilyn Singer doing for National Poetry Month? “This year, to kick off the month, I’m having a party/signing to launch my latest poetry book, Feel the Beat!: Dance Poems that Zing from Salsa to Swing (Dial, 2017), illustrated by Kristi Valiant. It’s a series of poems in the rhythms of social dances and it includes a CD of me reading the poems to original music by Jonathon Roberts. There will be readings, demos, and, oh yes, dancing!”

Marilyn at podium_Mirror_Mirror


By Marilyn Singer, Age 8

When I was walking on the ocean floor,
there were many sights to adore.
But one sight gave me a fright.
It was a whale with a long tail
that I simply drat,
and I went so close that with his tail
he went spat, spat, spat.


By Marilyn Singer

  1. Pay attention to the world around you—little things, big things, people, animals, buildings, events, etc. What do you see, hear, taste, smell, feel?
  2. Listen to words and sentences. What kind of music do they have? How is the music of poetry different from the music of songs?
  3. Read all kinds of poetry. Which poems do you like and why?
  4. Read what you write out loud. How does it sound? How could it sound better?
  5. Ask yourself: does this poem have to rhyme? Would it be good or better if it didn’t? If it should rhyme, what kind of rhyme would be best? (For example, 1st and 2nd lines rhyme; 3rd and 4th lines rhyme—“Roses are red/So is your head/Violets are blue/So is your shoe”; or 1st and 3rd lines rhyme; 2nd and 4th lines rhyme—“What is your name?/Who is your mother?/This poem is quite lame/I should try another.”
  6. Ask yourself: does this poem sound phoney? Don’t stick in big words or extra words just because you think a poem ought to have them.
  7. A title is part of a poem. It can tell you what the poem is about. It can even be another line of the poem.
  8. Before you write, think about what you want your whole poem to say.
  9. If you end up saying something else, that’s okay, too. Poet X.J. Kennedy says, “You intend to write a poem about dogs, say, and poodle is the first word you’re going to find a rhyme for. You might want to talk about police dogs, Saint Bernards, and terriers, but your need for a rhyme will lead you to noodle and strudel. The darned poem will make you forget about dogs and write about food instead.”
  10. Go wild. Be funny. Be serious. Be whatever you want! Use your imagination, your own way of seeing.

Duncan Tonatiuh: From Comics to Codex

Duncan_Medal_ Alma-Ramos_McDermott“I became interested in writing when I was in elementary school,” says Duncan Tonatiuh, award-winning author and illustrator. “A cousin of mine came to visit me during the summer. He brought a stack of comic books with him. Soon after, I began collecting Spider-Man and X-Men comics myself. I also began to imagine my own superheroes and make little books with the drawings and stories I created. I have been drawing since.”

Tonatiuh spent his early years in San Miguel de Allende, a small city in central Mexico. When he was 16, he came to the United States. “I did not like my high school in San Miguel, and an American cousin of mine encouraged me to visit his school in Massachusetts. It was an arts-oriented progressive boarding school called Buxton. I liked it so I applied and got a very good scholarship to attend. After I graduated from Buxton, I went to Parsons School of Design and Eugene Lang College—both schools are part of the New School University in New York City. There I focused on illustration and writing.”


The Princess and the Warrior page spread


The Princess and the Warrior page spread


The Princess and the Warrior page spread

“I think it is important for children to see themselves in the books they read. When a child sees people like him in a book, he feels excited to read and feels proud of his culture. He realizes his voice and experiences are important.”

At college in New York, Tonatiuh made a friend named Sergio who was a Mixtec. That friendship influenced Tonatiuh to discover and develop his signature style inspired by ancient codices. “My thesis in college was about my Mixtec friend, Sergio. Mixtecs are an indigenous group from the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla in Mexico. My thesis was a short comic book about his journey to the U.S. When I first began working on the project, I went to my university’s library and looked up Mixtec artwork. I found images of Mixtec codex from the 14th century. I had seen similar artwork before, but that day I was struck by how the images were stylized by the flatness, geometry, and repetition of color. I decided I was going to draw in a similar style and make a modern-day codex of my friend’s journey.”

DearPrimoThis thesis project became Tonatiuh’s key to entering the publishing world. “A professor in college really liked the artwork I was creating for my thesis. She had illustrated some children’s books and was friends with an editor at Abrams. She showed him my work and introduced me to him. Howard, the editor, liked my artwork and told me that if he received a manuscript that suited my style, he would get in touch with me. I told him that I liked writing, too, and that I was taking some classes in school. Sometime later, while I was still finishing my thesis project, I had an idea for a picture book. It was about two cousins that would write letters to each other. One lived in a rural community in Mexico, and one lived in an urban center in the United States. I revised the story many times but it eventually became my first book, Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010).”

Since Tonatiuh’s books were published, his award-winning work has stood apart. His stories focusing on Hispanic culture and issues have won high recognition including multiple Pura Belpré Medals, multiple Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Awards, and inclusion on the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books list. He has even presented a Tedx Talk entitled “Life on the Other Side/La Vida en el Otro Lado.Princess and the Warrior with Medal

“I am both Mexican and American. I have lived in both countries. I have family in both nations and I feel at

home in both places. I feel very lucky that I have two passports and that I can enter and exit Mexico and the U.S. as I please. A lot of people don’t have that privilege.”

Though Tonatiuh has not walked the path of undocumented migrants or experienced discrimination, he has chosen to write stories addressing these perspectives, such as Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale (Abrams, 2013) and Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Méndez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation (Abrams, 2014).

“As a Mexican American author and illustrator, I feel it is important for me to talk about critical issues since such a limited number of books do so. I definitely agree with and support the call for more diversity in children’s literature. The statistics are very upsetting. Even though Latinx children are one of the largest groups in U.S. schools, only about 3% of all the children’s books are about or by a Latinx. Diverse books are important for all children, not just Latinx. When kids encounter people that are different than themselves in books, they are less likely to be afraid or have prejudices towards others when they are adults.”

Funny-BonesWorking from his home in San Miguel, Mexico, Tonatiuh stays busy creating books and making school visits in person and via Skype. He also speaks at public libraries, universities, and conferences. “My presDuncan_Daughter_Diego_Rivera_Statueentations for children are not that different from my presentations for adults. I usually share a little bit about my journey to becoming an author-illustrator. I talk about the process of making a book, and about the issues and topics that inspire my work.”

Currently, Tonatiuh is in the process of revisiting his thesis project from college; with an anticipated publish date for next year. “It will fold out like an accordion the way Mixtec codex did. This book is geared towards adults and teenagers. It will tell the story of a Mixteco’s journey to the United States, but it will also be about his fight to improve the working conditions at his job regardless of his legal status.” And later this year, Tonatiuh’s newest book will be published. “It is called Danza! Amalia Hernández and el Ballet Folklórico de México (Abrams, August 2017).

“For a year or so I did not have a TV in my house. I would borrow a book from my school’s library every day to entertain myself in the afternoons. My favorite books were the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Because I liked reading, I became interested in writing. Whenever I had a writing assignment at school, I would get carried away. That interest continued and grew in high school and later on in college.”

“I feel very fortunate for all the support my books have received. I really love making books, and I want to continue doing it for many, many years. Hopefully in the years to come, people will still find my work interesting and relevant.”

What’s in a Name?image1

“My full name is Duncan Tonatiuh Smith Hernández. Tonatiuh is my middle name. My father’s last name is Smith and my mother’s is Hernández. I decided to sign my books Duncan Tonatiuh because I think it better reflects what my work is about. Tonatiuh means sun or god of the sun in Nahuatl. Nahuatl is the language the Aztecs and other people from the central region of Mexico spoke. Since my artwork is inspired by pre-Columbian art, it made sense to me to use Tonatiuh.”

What is Latinx?

“Latinx (pronounced “La-TEEN-ex”) is a gender-inclusive way of referring to people of Latin American descent. Used by activists and some academics, the term is gaining traction among the general public, after having been featured in publications such as NPR to Latina.”

Author S.E. Hinton

S.E. Hinton: Celebrating 50 Years of The Outsiders Staying Gold

Fifty years ago, The Outsiders was first introduced to readers. A young outsider herself, Susan Eloise (S.E.) Hinton wrote about the life she saw and lived as a teenager. She wrote about the passion and the pain involved in finding one’s place, making one’s mark, and staying true to one’s self. And readers responded—then and now. HiresContractINTSince first being published in 1967 by Viking Press, The Outsiders has sold more than 14 million copies making it the bestselling young adult novel.

Hinton was just a 16-year-old student at Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when she wrote The Outsiders. But she had been writing for years prior. “I began writing in grade school, eager to make my own stories happen the way I wanted to. I had access to the local library, but my family thought my writing was some weird phase I would outgrow. I had some great English teachers who encouraged me through grade school, middle school, high school. I also made a D in creative writing the year (junior in high school) I wrote The Outsiders.”

“My first memories of reading? I loved it!! I was one of those little girl horse nuts and distinctly remember checking Peanuts the Pony (D.C. Heath and Co., 1941) out of the library. I loved all the horse books, but the book I read over and over again was Duff, The Story of a Bear (Longmans, 1950). I recently re-read it and was very proud of my young self. It’s no Disney bear story!”

Though she wrote The Outsiders as a high school student, it didn’t sell until she was a freshman at the University of Tulsa. Many considered the book and the author immediate sensations, but Hinton takes a more modest approach. “Honestly I did not get much attention and success, it built gradually.”

Hinton went on to complete her education and her student teaching before getting married, starting a family, and settling into a writing career. “I realized early on I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher. Teachers are my heroes. They have more guts and energy than I’ll ever have. So many are coming up with creative ways to use The Outsiders in the classroom—they have better ideas than I do!”

The Outsiders in Chinese

The Outsiders in Chinese

The Outsiders in Dutch

The Outsiders
in Dutch

The Outsiders in Hebrew

The Outsiders in Hebrew

The Outsiders in Spanish

The Outsiders in Spanish

The Outsiders in German

The Outsiders in German

Eventually The Outsiders was made into a feature film, as were other Hinton novels, and she continued to publish new books as the years passed. Though many of her follow-up works attained success in their own right, nothing has matched the following of The Outsiders. In many classrooms it has been used as required reading. However, the popular book has not been welcomed in every school—a fact that doesn’t bother Hinton too much. “It’s been required much more than it’s been banned. And now grandparents are sharing it with their grandkids. I think the first hostile reaction was to the idea that not all teens were living in a ’50s sitcom. People know better nowadays.”


“Aspiring authors: Read and practice. Worry about the writing, not the publishing. Publishing is changing rapidly. Make sure you have something worth publishing before you try. I was writing constantly for eight years before I wrote The Outsiders. If you’re young, you will have to come up with a book as good as the adults are publishing. Nobody is going to say ‘pretty good for a fourteen-year-old’ and invest in a book. It has to be good.”

In honor of the golden anniversary of The Outsiders, Penguin Random House released a 50th Anniversary Edition in 2016. It not only contains the classic tale, but also bonus material and photographs. “I love the 50th anniversary edition of The Outsiders. By now, I’m not really surprised it still has a following. I was surprised by that on the 20th anniversary. I think everyone identifies with the feeling of being an outsider, even in their own ‘group.’ I wrote it at the right time of life, teens still identify with the strong swings of emotion.”

Platinum paperback

The Outsiders Platinum Paperback

premium paperback cover

The Outsiders Premium Paperback

The Outsiders Alternate Viking Hardcover

The Outsiders Alternate Viking Hardcover

Viking 40th anniversary edition

The Outsiders Viking 40th Anniversary Edition

These days, Hinton continues to write. Her focus has been mostly on screen plays and she has been working on an adult paranormal comedy thriller. Beyond that, the notoriously private author really doesn’t offer many more details other than: “I am so bored with myself that I could live happily ever after with no more questions!”


Award-winning Author and Illustrator Don Tate Charts His Own Path to Success

PoetFrom a young age, Don Tate loved drawing. But reading? No. That was of no interest to him—unless the books and magazines had to do with art or drawing.

“As a child, I could read well. I just wasn’t interested in reading. Reading, writing, words were not me. In fact, speaking was not me either, as that involved the use of words which always seemed to fail me. I was an artist, and I preferred drawing and making things over reading. I liked reading our Better Homes and Gardens Family Medical Guide and our Funk & Wagnalls Young Students Encyclopedia. These books were filled with real stuff. I’ve always preferred nonfiction, I guess.”

Tate’s aunt, Eleanora E. Tate, was a journalist and writer of middle grade novels. So through her work, he saw book illustrating as a possible career option. But he never considered himself an author nor did he develop an interest in the written word.

“Art was my way of expressing myself.”

When it came time to pursue a college education, Tate attended a two-year community college. Illustration classes were limited, so he learned by trial and error. “I’m a self-trained illustrator. When I wanted to learn how to paint in oils, I bought a book about oil painting. Same with acrylic and watercolors.”

DonPeachtree booth - Must use After college, Tate was hired as a book designer for an education publishing company in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa. His illustration skills were quickly discovered, and he became the company’s illustrator as well, illustrating books and posters, advertising pieces, and teaching guides. It was a good start for a young artist facing racial challenges.

“I had been told over and again by members of my family, a college illustration instructor, and some early employers that commercial art was not a field for black people in Des Moines, where I grew up and graduated college. In fact, a boss at a print shop where I worked shortly out of college told me that I was welcome to work for his company as long as I wanted because, as a black person, no one else in town would hire me. My second employer, an advertising executive, said the same thing.”

Many would find those statements offensive and discouraging, but not Tate. “Honestly, I don’t think they meant any harm; they were being realistic. The field of commercial art, at that time in Des Moines, was not a welcome place for a black person.” BookCovers_2

Tate didn’t let the naysayers hold him back. He was confident in his work and tenacious in his efforts to create. For example, he convinced an art director at a publishing company to hire him full time even though there was great skepticism. “He gave me a chance at a very low salary, and I set out to prove to the company that I was just as capable as everyone else—if not better. Within a year my salary was raised three times to get my pay in line with everyone else. And when I left seven years later, they were the ones begging me to stay.”
So when did the award-winning artist finally break into children’s book illustration? It was when he worked as a graphics reporter for the newspaper industry creating infographics for stories. “I felt like a fish out of water. My art was best suited for picture books, and I knew that all along. So while I worked for newspapers, I moonlighted for the children’s publishing business. When newspapers nearly died out, I was let go. And I’ve been writing and illustrating full time ever since.”

Today, Tate has illustrated more than 50 children’s books and has authored two titles, including the multi-award winning Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree Publishers, 2015) that he also illustrated. Most of the books Tate works on tell the stories of black people who made significant contributions to society but haven’t received the recognition that was due them.

“Black people have always been the focus of my art because that’s who I am and that’s what I know best. I know about white people too—I mean, geez, I’m from Iowa. But my art has always been a reflection of my black experience. When I entered publishing, I took that world along with me.”

Whoosh Beyond his art, Tate has chosen to write about great black people, too. “I’m inspired by stories of little-known people who accomplished great things in the face of adversity. Early on, as a writer, I wrote about historical figures suggested by friends. It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw (Lee & Low Books, 2012) and Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton were suggested to me by writing friends Diana Aston and Chris Barton, respectively. Hopefully these figures will inspire children to dream big in spite of obstacles that may seem to stand in their way.”


Don posing inder Poet historical marker
“In high school, Edgar Allen Poe, John Steinbeck, and Henry David Thoreau were assigned reading. That along with a lot of Greek and Roman myths. I’m sure they were wonderful books, but I refused to read them. It wasn’t until I was out of school, after college, when I discovered a book called Black Boy by Richard Wright, and I became a forever reader. Honestly, I don’t even remember what the story was about, that was 30 years ago. I do remember the main character was black and male, something I wasn’t used to seeing in books. I went on to read many of Richard Wright’s other books, and books by Gordon Parks, Claude Brown, Alex Haley, Malcolm X, others—all books featuring black male characters. After a lifetime with no interest in books, I’d finally found myself.”

Don_Tate_Drawing Tate has also branched out beyond picture books to write short stories for middle-grade readers, including pieces submitted to Been There, Done That: School Dazed (Grosset & Dunlap, 2016). “ʽDance Like you Draw’ is my short story contribution to the anthology. It’s a humorous story about a boy whose mother forces him to participate in a ‘charm school’ cotillion. The piece was inspired by my nonfiction story, a personal memoir, ‘Wiz Kid,’ also in the anthology. Picture books are my first love, so I’ll never move away from them. But I do plan to write longer pieces, maybe branching off into middle grade novels, or perhaps YA—but who knows?”

Though Tate’s schedule is filled with tour activities, school visits, and speeches, he continues to focus his time on creating books to inspire young people. “I have several books in the works. My next book, which I authored and illustrated, is called Strong As Sandow: How Eugen Sandow Became the Strongest Man on Earth (Charlesbridge, August 2017). It’s a picture book biography of Victorian strongman Eugen Sandow, who popularized physical fitness (and six-pack abs), and inspired men, women, and children across the globe to pay more attention to their health. I also have a book coming out soon about William Still, a free black man who helped hundreds of enslaved people escape through the Underground Railroad system.”

“I’ve visited hundreds of schools. Kids are the reason I get to have this amazing career, so I always welcome the opportunity to meet my readers. In my presentations, I cover my journey from young artist and reluctant reader to published author and illustrator, and I keep it interactive—it’s not about me, it’s about the kids, they want to get involved. There are many young doodlers and poets who may not realize they can turn their talents into a great career. I strive to give kids a memory they can carry with them for a lifetime.”

Don in studioAfter 30 years in art and publishing, Tate knows breaking into the children’s book market can be tough. Though he felt frustrated at the challenges he faced, he never stopped trying. “I’m one of the lucky ones; I’m blessed. That said, finding success came slowly. Success does not happen overnight. For me, it took 30 years before anyone even realized I was here! Early on, the publishing industry lured me with the promise of publishing my work by filling a niche—white editors were looking for talented black illustrators to create art for books writing about the black experience. So that was the path I followed. It was a good one for me.”


Jennifer L. Holm: Self-Proclaimed “Boringly Practical Person” Finds Great Success as Multiple Newbery Honoree

Holm_Full of Beans The cat got out. That was the reason New York Times bestselling author Jennifer L. Holm missed the call announcing her second Newbery Honor. But that wasn’t the only Newbery call she missed. She also missed the first . . . and the third.

“The first time, I had no idea about it,” Holm recalls, “and my father was in the hospital. (It was also before everyone had cell phones.) The second time, our indoor cat had run outside and I was chasing her. The last time I blame on my kids—I was taking them to school.”

It is not every day that one meets an author who has received three Newbery Honors, an Eisner Award, and numerous other accolades. It is even rarer to meet one who received a Newbery Honor for her very first book, Our Only May Amelia (Harper Collins, 1999).

Holm, the only girl in a family of five children, developed a love of reading as a young child.little babymouse and the christmasShe was nearly always seen with a book in hand, but she also had an affinity for comics. “My late father was the biggest comic fan in the house, and he encouraged our comic habit. He adored the classic newspaper strips, particularly Prince Valiant and Flash Gordon. I grew up reading the bound volumes of those strips and loving them. On the book side, I was a very insane fangirl when it came to Lloyd Alexander. The Black Cauldron (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965) was the book that turned me into a reader. #TeamTaran.”

“Graphic novels are uniquely suited to nurture and sustain many kinds of readers. Kids are growing up in a visual society. Comics harness visuals. They also build confidence. A child can plow through a ninety-six-page Babymouse book and feel accomplished. (Then they can read it again!)”

Though she was passionate about reading, Holm did not pursue a college degree in English or literature. “I attended Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and majored in international relations. My senior thesis was on the Middle East. I wanted to be a foreign service officer, but that didn’t work out. I moved to New York City the day after I graduated and was hired as a secretary at a public relations firm. After that short-lived job, I ended up at an animation production company, and I fell into the film production world.”

Gradually, Holm began writing her own manuscripts while working as a producer. In 1999, her novel Our Only May Amelia was published, and in 2000, it was named a Newbery Honor title. “It was an astonishing honor, and I still can’t believe it some days. My late father told me I should take writing seriously after it happened. Unfortunately, I still had to pay the bills. The myth of a writer living in a garret apartment is just that: a myth. I worked full-time as a broadcast producer and wrote my first three of four books at night or on film sets. I slowly transitioned to working freelance as a producer so I could write more. I finally stepped out to be a full-time author when I felt I could pay the bills. I have always been a boringly practical person.”

Holm’s Newbery Honors have all been given to her historical fiction, and many of her stories are inspired by her own heritage. What is it that draws Holm to this genre? Keeping history alive.
“I’ve always been interested in the quieter stories. I’m especially curious about kids’ points of view. My idea of fun is hanging out in an archive, digging through newspaper clippings. Mostly, I want these people and times remembered. I specifically wrote Penny from Heaven (Random House, 2006 because the older generation of the Italian side of my family had started to die and I desperately wanted to remember them. In the case of Full of Beans (Random House, 2016), I stumbled on the story of Key West being reinvented as a tourist destination during the Great Depression after I saw a photo. It was a picture of a little lane piled high with garbage. It turned out that the city had gone bankrupt and they couldn’t afford to pay garbagemen. That photo said it all about how bad things had gotten.” Manuscript_2

Despite finding great success with historical fiction, Holm has chosen to explore other genres and formats as well, including horror, picture books, and graphic novels. Some may find this risky, but she doesn’t. “I’ve always had the opinion that I have nothing to lose by trying. And I’ve certainly had quite a lot of rejection along the way. My dad was a role model in terms of being adventurous. He was a poor farm boy who ended up becoming a navy pilot who flew off aircraft carriers, and then had a whole second career as a pediatrician. That’s a pretty inspiring act to follow!”

About ten years ago, Holm and her brother Matthew burst onto the graphic novel scene when they brought Babymouse to life in the popular and award-winning series. “I’m the middle child of five. Matt is the indulged baby and is six years younger than me. Matt started drawing comics when he was in elementary school, and I was always his biggest fan. He would give me comic strips for my birthday. We were both living in New York City doing other things (me: advertising; Matt: editor at a magazine) when we decided to try to collaborate. Random House was enthusiastic from the get-go!”

“The first Babymouse came out in 2005 (!), so Matt and I have been fighting the good comics fight for over a decade now. We are so thankful for all the support that librarians have given us and the genre as a whole. They are truly our partners.”

The Babymouse collaboration has been a smashing success, with more than two million copies in print, numerous awards, and even a spin-off series about an amoeba named Squish. This year the duo introduced youngsters to Little Babymouse in Little Babymouse and the Christmas Cupcakes (Random House, 2016). “It was our first picture book, and it was inspired by our readers. When we do bookstore events, the kids inevitably bring ‘littles’ with them (little brothers and sisters). We wanted to have something to share with this younger generation.”


But wait, there’s more. In addition to introducing readers to a younger Babymouse in the picture books, the Holm siblings have breaking news for Babymouse fans: “We are very excited to announce that after ten years and twenty books, Babymouse is graduating from elementary school and heading to . . . middle school! July 2017 will see the publication of a new Babymouse middle school series—Babymouse: Tales from the Locker. The first book will be Babymouse: Lights, Camera, Middle School!” (Random House, 2017)


Sara Pennypacker: Artist and Award-winning Author Stamps Young Readers’ Passports to Adventure

As an author of nearly 20 books for children, is it safe to assume that you always knew you would eventually be a writer?

I was a quiet, shy kid, happiest drawing or reading or wandering outside in nature. While I adored reading, I never imagined I could become an author. I had this idea that auhors were “special” somehow, and certainly not shy like I was. We never had an author come to my school, so I had no idea they could be regular people. My fourth-grade teacher appreciated the stories I wrote and told me I was going to be an author one day. I thought she must have been crazy!Clementine_Series

So you pursued art instead of writing? Why and when did you decide to become an author?

I wrote the Dullards as kind of a cautionary tale for grown-ups! Sometimes I think we can get so wrapped up in safety or maintaining norms that we forget how exciting and fun this world can be.

Yes, I was a watercolor artist. I tended toward semi-abstract naturalism—I certainly wasn’t an illustrator at all. When I had my two children, I discovered how amazing children’s fiction had become and I was absolutely smitten: I HAD to learn to write for children! It was a very deep, very sure, conviction: I was meant to write for children. Luckily, I didn’t know how difficult it was to break into the field—I charged in with all my heart and energy, and assumed I’d get published.

How did you get published?

Amazingly enough, I simply submitted a novel to a couple of publishers. My editor later told me it initially caught her attention because I was such a compulsive copy editor—she’d never seen such a clean manuscript.

The Library of Congress has your work listed under two names: Sara Young and Sara Pennypacker. Why is this? Is one a maiden name? A pen name?
Both the names are real. I was born Sara Young, and I’m that again now. But for 22 years, including the time when I started writing for children, my married name was Pennypacker. When I wrote my first novel for adults, I decided to separate it from my work for children by using my maiden name.

meet the dullardssummer of the gypsy mothsBeyond writing, you have been and continue to be involved in outreach work involving literature. Why?

I am a passionate believer in the power of books to change lives. Reading stamps a child’s passport to humanity and offers her/him tickets to wherever s/he wants to go. Books show readers both who they are, which is reassuring and validating, and who they could become, which opens up their possibilities. Maybe best of all, though, is that with enough exposure to stories, kids learn to see and express their own life experiences as narrative “Hero’s” journeys.

Please explain a bit about the Share Our Books and the DREAM programs.

I am a very small part of the DREAM (Developing Reading Education through Arts Methods) Program out of Cal State San Marcos: my Clementine books are used, and I visit several of the schools participating in the program.

Share Our Books was a program where authors donated significant numbers of their books to be used in school reads. It was a wonderful experience, and I’m so grateful to the authors who participated; but we’ve ended the program due to maintenance difficulties. If my life ever slows down a bit, I would like to start it up again, maybe in partnership with a foundation—stay tuned…

With a new series of books introduced this year, it doesn’t look like your life will be slowing down anytime soon! So tell us about Waylon.

waylonI decided it was time to write a Clementine-ish series about a boy character. I wanted him to be very different from her, but like her in that he’s a great kid, with a great family, struggling with the ordinary things that go on in life. I describe Waylon as “the scienciest kid in school” and also as having a fabulous optimism and sense of what could be possible—through science of course! I love writing about kids and their pets, so the Waylon books (Disney-Hyperion) have a big story-line about a stray dog named Dumpster Eddy that flows through the whole series.

If there are any take-aways from the series, it might be these: First, Waylon is interested in the science of emotions—he gets it that emotions are not anti-science, and science is not anti-emotion. Second, I love the game he invented called One Awesome Thing. Even on the worst of days, it’s helpful to name one awesome thing that happened.

Right now, I think it will be a three-book series, but nothing is definite.

Speaking of Clementine, last year Completely Clementine (Disney-Hyperion, 2015) was published. That girl is quite a work in progress! Is she based on someone you know? What about Margaret?

Ah, Clementine! She was inspired by my son, who was told to “Pay attention!” a lot (and unfairly!) when he was little. I blended some of my daughter’s personality into her as well, so she really feels like one of my own kids. Because she has that real-life pedigree, I’ve filled the books with real anecdotes shared by kids I know—that’s made her even more fun to write.

Margaret is an old writer’s trick: to provide drama and humor, the author often creates a secondary character who is the opposite of the main character. Clementine and Margaret are attracted to each other, but also drive each other crazy because they are opposites.

Will there be additional adventures for Clementine fans to look forward to?

A long while back, I decided that seven was the right number for the series. I had seven main storylines, and they would take Clementine all the way from the beginning of the third grade to the last day in June. I never wanted her to get stale, so I’ve ended the series. What I didn’t predict was how much I’d miss her, and how much I’d miss writing chapter books about the everyday trials of elementary-age kids in school and with their families and friends. Sooooo…enter Waylon!

Some of the names you assign characters in your books are quite unexpected and humorous. Waylon’s sister is “Neon” and Clementine’s cat is “Moisturizer.” What would ever give you the idea to call a cat Moisturizer and write that into the story?

Oh, I LOVE naming characters—it feels like one of the sweetest perks of my job! Names are never given lightly, although sometimes the importance of a name is a secret only I know. By the way, I can’t take credit for Moisturizer—my son knew a little boy who actually named his cat that!

Flat stanley intrepid canadian'

flat stanley great egyptian grave robbery

flat stanley japanese ninja

flat stanley mount rushmore calamity






How did you get involved in writing Flat Stanley (HarperCollins) adventures? Were the topics chosen for you or did you select the themes? And do you anticipate writing any more books?

Actually, I don’t know how I got chosen for the job—I just learned that Jeff Brown’s heirs and publisher had requested me. It was a great honor to carry on with Flat Stanley’s adventures, but four books is all there will be from me. And yes, the topics/storylines were chosen for me.PAX _Pennypackerhc c

One of your latest books, Pax (Balzer + Bray, 2016), is an amazing story of love, loyalty, and loss. Apparently the National Book Award committee was touched, too, as it made this year’s long list. In your opinion, what makes this story so special? And why did it need to be told?

I’m thrilled by the reception Pax is getting. The book is so close to my heart, and was such a challenge to write. All along I knew it was a risky book—not easily categorized—so I figured it might get ignored. But that didn’t matter—it was the kind of story that demanded to be written, and I felt lucky it had chosen me.

In my view, Pax needed to be written because kids suffer so much from wars around the planet—30 million children are refugees tonight, for example—and it felt necessary to start counting the things children lose among the costs of war. But I think the reason kids are connecting with it is the other storyline—the one from the fox’s point of view. Pax must access his wild side in order to survive and become fully himself—that’s a pretty interesting idea…

“I love seeing libraries that are rich in all kinds of books, featuring all kinds of characters. When my books are used in classrooms, my big hope is that instead of trying to find lessons or morals in them, kids start asking questions.”

Do you still make school visits? What kinds of things can students look forward to when you come to their classrooms or libraries?

I do school visits because I really enjoy them and I get so much out of spending time with readers. I talk about what it’s really like to be a writer, and encourage kids to think about how the job might suit them—the world will always need storytellers. We spend a fair amount of time with Q & A, especially with the older grades, because we get into some wonderful conversations that way. Unfortunately, I’m limited in the number of visits I can make in a year, though: first, because I’m writing so much right now, and second because travel takes a toll on my back.

SparrowGirlDo you respond to fan mail? What is the best way for readers to contact you?

Sadly, I cannot respond to fan mail. I have to stay disciplined because I have so many books that need to be written! The best thing to do is write to my comments column on my website. I read everything, although I can’t respond to very much.

What books can your fans look forward to seeing from you in the near future?

I’m just finishing the third book in the Waylon series. The second will be out in 2017 and the third in 2018. I’ve got a novel going, too, that I’m really excited about—maybe 2019 for that one. I seem to be going at a pace of one book a year and I expect that will continue

In other news, Pax will be a movie! There’s no date set for its release yet, but I’ll let you know…


For Markus Zusak, It Is All or Nothing

As a child, award-winning author Markus Zusak knew what he wanted to be when he grew up: a rugby player and a house painter. “As a kid I was obsessed with a type of rugby, and I thought I could do that and be a house painter like my dad. That said, I was never quite good enough, strong enough, or fast enough! I also realized there was so much pain involved.”

The fourth child in his German Austrian family, Australian-born Zusak wasn’t especially studious, but he was a determined young person. “I was essentially focused on what I loved—it was all or nothing—so I did well in English and terrible in things like woodwork. I remember everyone making these nice spice racks and mine was two pieces of wood with a nail in it. It was the same with English in some ways: I dutifully read books I didn’t like as much, but the ones I loved I would read outside of school as well, over and over.”

It wasn’t until he was a teenager that Zusak resolved to embark on a writing career. “When I was 16, I decided I wanted to be a writer and that nothing would stop me,” shares Zusak. “I attribute a lot to S.E. Hinton, who showed us that kids could write books by writing The Outsiders (Viking Press, 1967) at 16. Then, when I read Taming the Star Runner (Dell, 1988) at that exact age, in which the protagonist gets a book published, I decided I’d give it a try myself—and those eight pages could be entered into a competition for the worst book ever written.”

“There’s likely as much pain in writing a book as there is when a 100-kilo oaf lands on you, but I’d always been slightly different from my rugby-playing friends and foes. Not only was I one of the few immigrant kids who played in the area I grew up in, but I loved books. I loved English. When I read books, I would want to look like the characters, talk like them, become them.”

However, Zusak never lost sight of his goal to be a writer. He went on to be a substitute teacher, but continued to write on the side until he could dedicate himself to his passion full-time. Since then, he has published five novels, with one, especially, finding unexpected success.

Ten years ago, Zusak’s young adult novel The Book Thief (Knopf Books for Young Readers) took the literary world by storm. First published in 2006, it spent the equivalent of more than seven years on the New York Times Best Seller list. It received award upon award and was finally made into a movie that was released in 2013. This year, Knopf released a 10th-anniversary edition of The Book Thief, and Zusak embarked on a promotional tour in the United States.

“I didn’t ever think The Book Thief would be successful at all,” confesses Zusak. “Actually, I thought it would be my least successful book. In that sense, I decided that I would follow its vision completely. I figured since no one was going to read it anyway, I might as well do it exactly how I wanted; I felt like I had nothing to lose. It was supposed to be a small book, but that changed as soon as Death came in as narrator. From there, it just kept growing, and I didn’t ever really attempt to rein it in. I also loved the toil of it, and it meant everything to me. Maybe that’s what people pick up on—but such books can also go unrewarded. It’s always been a lucky book.”

Book Thief 10th Anniversary EditionBookThief Manuscript_PageI am the messenger

Though he believes The Book Thief is a lucky book, he does not believe success comes by luck. A disciplined writer, Zusak is diligent about dedicating time to write and following established methods. “I’m a real believer in rituals, yet I often find myself trying to reestablish routine. Sometimes you can spend too much time clearing everything else out of the way and you never get to the real work of writing. I like to be at my desk around the same time every day, which is usually a little before the actual start time. I try to work for five hours as a base and see what happens after that. The idea is to get to my desk feeling strong rather than tired. Then I try to labor to the point where it doesn’t feel like work anymore.

“I always wanted to write novels. Even when I tried to write other forms for training purposes, I found I wasn’t really trying. Again, it was all or nothing.”

“Sometimes I also go away to work, just to be totally alone for a few days, although I do take our two dogs with me. They generally sit with me in my office anyway and give me dirty looks when I’m not working. Or remind me it’s time to go out.”

In addition to touring for The Book Thief, maintaining a blog and social media accounts, and balancing family life, Zusak has also been working on his next book, Bridge of Clay, about Clay Dunbar, who leaves his four brothers to build a bridge with their father.

“In the end, I consider myself lucky that I realized what I wanted to do quite early. Even on bad writing days, there’s nothing else I’d rather be.”


Manuscript of The Book Thief

On Tour With The Book Thief

“The first tour was special because I’d never had that sort of success, and this one was special because the book wasn’t so fresh in my mind anymore. It’s been through its ups and downs and come out the other side.

“This time around it was especially great to meet so many readers, and also come to the realization that in every city there were people ranging from 10 years old up to people in their 80s. When you see a range like that it gives you faith that people are definitely still reading, and that books are still meaningful to people of all ages. Also, seeing kids with their parents, where the mum or dad says ‘My daughter (or son) introduced me to this book’ is always a highlight.”

How to Raise Good Readers and Writers

“I’m finding more and more as a parent that I just try to read more visibly myself, so that my kids see me reading. There’s no point telling them they should read more when you could actually be saying, ‘Hey, listen to this bit—’ We never make reading a chore. It’s always nice when kids walk around quoting the book they’ve been reading. A real favorite lately has been my son quoting Hagrid telling Dudley Dursley, ‘Budge up, yeh great lump!’


“My parents could have poured a whole lot of time and effort into helping me at school, or giving me greater encouragement, but they pretty much left me alone, and that was a good thing, I think.

“It was very important to them that we had a lot of books in our house. We had hundreds of Dr. Seuss books, hundreds of other books. We had an environment rather than a schedule; we were expected to do well, but not forced. In my case, I had my own standards too, and I’m grateful to my parents for the fact that I was left to find my own interests, and obsessions. The greatest gift they gave us was telling their stories.

“I went to a very standard public school. I always had good English teachers, but even then I was never noted as a particularly creative student. My best marks were always for essays; whenever there was a creative task it didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, but I always believed that was what I was going to do.

“Even now, I tell kids not to be too concerned with their results or winning writing competitions. Kids who win writing competitions tend to win everything—they just have that knack; they’re just good at winning things, and it’s all the toil and sustained groundwork that gets books written, not flashes of brilliance.”

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National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Aims to Draw People Out of Their Comfort Zones

The newest National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature is not a novelist. He is not a poet. He does not create picture books, in the traditional sense. Gene Luen Yang does not fit nicely in a box like many other award-winning, notable authors do. He is an Asian American comic book creator, and he is on a mission to push kids out of the La-Z-Boy® and into literature.

Yang’s American Born Chinese (First Second Books, 2006) was the first graphic novel to win the Printz Award and the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award. His two-book set Boxers & Saints (First Second Books, 2013) was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Yang follows Kate DiCamillo as National Ambassador and has this to say about his plans:

“My platform, Reading Without Walls, challenges young people to read outside of their comfort zones. The Children’s Book Council, the Library of Congress, and I have put together some material to support librarians and teachers who want to issue the Reading Without Walls Challenge to their students. Specifically, I want kids to do this challenge in one of three ways:

  1. Choose a book about someone who doesn’t look or live like them.
  2. Choose a book about a topic they might find intimidating.
  3. Choose a book that’s in a format they don’t normally read for fun. This can be a graphic novel, a prose novel, a picture book, or a book in verse.”

In past years, it was a challenge to find books featuring a diverse cast of characters. But with the We Need Diverse Books campaign becoming more influential, and with the broadening base of diverse authors and illustrators, classroom and library shelves now feature a variety of excellent choices. Yang, a member of the campaign’s advisory board, believes this change is a good thing:

“As American readership gets more and more diverse, it’s natural for us to want more diverse stories. The We Need Diverse Books agenda is this: We want our stories to more accurately reflect our world. Our world’s heroes come from every sort of background imaginable. The same should be true of the heroes of our books.”

Many of Yang’s books seem to focus on the Asian American experience and the challenges involved in discovering and accepting cultural identity. However, he is not writing specifically to or for Asian American kids—rather, he is writing primarily to develop empathy in readers from any background.

“Stories ought to be experienced in community, because they’re often expressions of community. And that’s why libraries and librarians are so important. They are community for children who otherwise have none.”

“When I’m writing, my primary goal is to keep my reader with me from the first page to the last. I don’t really think about the reader’s background too much. Stories develop empathy. A good story is an empathy workout. We need to build empathy for every member of society, especially those at the margins. That said, I really do want to see better representation of Asian Americans in American media. We’re often left out of the American conversation about race.”

With at least one of his latest projects, Yang continues to keep Asian Americans front and center.

“Right now, I’m working on a few different projects. Secret Coders is a series of middle-grade graphic novels that teaches kids how to code computers. I’m working on that with cartoonist Mike Holmes. The second volume [of that series], Paths & Portals (First Second Books, 2016), was released on August 30. I’m also doing the next installment of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series from Dark Horse Comics with Studio Gurihiru. And I’m writing New Super-Man for DC Comics. This is a monthly series about a kid in Shanghai who becomes the Superman of China. The art is by Viktor Bogdanovic, Richard Friend, and HiFi Color. Finally, I’m writing and drawing my next graphic novel, a nonfiction book about a high school basketball team that I followed for a season. This is going to be a long one, and it will be titled Dragon Hoops (First Second Books, 2018).”

Comics vs. Graphic NovelsGene LuenYang_Thumbs2 copy

“The term ‘graphic novel’ began as a way of separating comic books from the genres—superheroes and funny animals—that had dominated them for decades. The folks who popularized the term wanted to show that you could use illustrated panels to tell any sort of story you wanted. And I have to say, the effort has largely worked. But to my mind, ‘graphic novel’ and ‘comic book’ are essentially the same thing. I sometimes define graphic novel as a comic book that’s thick enough to need a spine.”

“Some people do find reading comics hard, and I get that. You use one part of your brain to process the pictures, another to process the words. What I say to these folks is, don’t be afraid to take it slow. Don’t be afraid to read pages over. And spend some time enjoying the art, because the artist spent a lot of time making it.”

Are Graphic Novels Too Graphic?

“Reluctant reader settings are a great place to introduce comics into a school community, but they’re not the only place comics belong. For example, many teachers have found success using comics to teach visual literacy. The interplay between words and pictures can be very complex. Getting students to think critically about the images in a graphic novel can help them think critically about the images in the media that surround them.”

“We live in a world that’s full of both wonders and horrors. Our children do, too. I’m a parent of four children and my parenting style tends toward paranoia, so I totally understand that deep, primal need to keep kids safe. But ultimately, perfect safety is impossible. Our main task as parents is to teach our children to deal with the world as it is, not as how we want it to be.

“Books, including graphic novels, play an important role in that task. The horrors in stories like Maus (Pantheon, 1991), March (Top Shelf Productions, 2013/2015/2016), and Boxers & Saints (First Second Books, 2013) are all real-world horrors. They’re a part of our history and our children’s history. Our children have to know their history.

“That said, I do believe in scaffolding, in building bridges between young people and difficult material. My four children can have vastly different responses to the same book. They need different levels of scaffolding.

“I know this is idealistic, but my hope is that when a young person encounters something difficult, whether it’s in a prose book or a graphic novel or a movie, they’ll have someone in their community with whom they can process. Stories ought to be experienced in community, because they’re often expressions of community.

“And that’s why libraries and librarians are so important. They are a community for children who otherwise have none.”

More About Gene Luen Yang

According to his mother, Yang began drawing when he was two. Yang’s first memories of drawing came a little after that, however.


“I remember when I first figured out how to draw the five-pointed star. I’m not sure how old I was… four, maybe? But it was a big deal because stars are freaking complicated. I remember drawing stars on every piece of paper I could lay my hands on, and then bragging to my older cousins. They were not impressed.”

In fifth grade, the budding artist started making comics. And in his early 20s, Yang began self-publishing his work under the moniker Humble Comics while working as a high school computer science teacher.

“I originally wanted a cool name like ‘Space Monkey Comics’ or something, but I was having a lot of self-esteem issues. Specifically, my self-esteem was attached to how well or poorly I drew. And as I got into the comics industry, I met cartoonist after cartoonist who could draw the socks off of me. I just started feeling bad, you know? A priest at my home church used to say that humility and truth are the same thing. If you take a truthful look at yourself and your place in the world, you’ll feel humble—and grateful, too. The name Humble Comics was meant to remind me to look at myself truthfully. The self-esteem issues have gotten less intense as I’ve gotten older—mostly because I’ve gotten too tired to keep up that sort of intensity—but they’re still there. I think it’s just a lifelong thing.

Gene LuenYang


“Anyway, I began as a self-publisher. I used to photocopy comics at the local copy store, staple them by hand, and then sell them through local comic book shops and at conventions. ‘Comic Relief’ in Berkeley was the first store to carry my comics. Eventually, publishers started to notice me. I signed on with First Second Books after about 10 years of self-publishing comics. A lot of folks in middle grade and YA graphic novels have similar career paths: Raina Telgemeier, Kazu Kibuishi, Jason Shiga.”

In 2014, a year after Boxers & Saints made its debut, Yang left his teaching post to pursue drawing and writing full time.

“I’m a cartoonist, but on some projects I call myself a writer because someone else handles the art. When I both write and draw, I have complete control over the project. Every word written and every line drawn comes from me. There’s something very satisfying about that. When I collaborate, I give up some of that control, but in return I get someone else’s vision. The final product becomes a melding of visions, mine and my partner’s. Almost always, it surprises me in fun and interesting ways. Almost always, it turns out better than I’d imagined in my head. There’s something very satisfying about that, too.

“When I first started making comics, I would make my stories up as I went along. That didn’t work so well. My characters would end up in these corners, and I would have no idea how to get them out. Eventually, I moved to outlining, which means I write a short summary of the entire story before I start on the script. When I’m drawing, I do lots of thumbnail sketches before starting on the final art. Similar concept. I need to carefully plan things out. For me, the battle is often won or lost in the planning.”

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Boxers & Saints

Level Up

The Shadow Hero

Secret Coders is included in comprehensive Middle Grade Graphic Novel Teacher Guide