Mac Barnett and Jory John

Mac Barnett and Jory John: Award-winning Authors Creating Tales of Hilarious Hijinks

George Burns and Gracie Allen. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. The list of great American comedic duos spans generations and is nearly endless. And with the introduction of a new series of books, get ready to add Mac Barnett and Jory John to that list.

826-logoIn January 2015, Barnett and John introduced readers to another comedic duo, rival pranksters Miles and Niles, in The Terrible Two (Amulet Books, 2015). In this first book in the series, cows are plenty and pranks are even more so. Add to that the angst of being the new kid in school and some hilarious surprises, and this funny book becomes a silly but sentimental story that just about any middle schooler will find irresistible.

John and Barnett first met years ago as interns for Dave Eggers’ 826 National, an organization that provides creative writing and tutoring centers for under-resourced students. It was a fateful day. Not only were they becoming involved in an important cause, but they began a working relationship that would lead to an amazing collaboration.

“Jory and I met on our first day of work—he was an intern at 826 Valencia, and I was interning at McSweeney’s. Both had offices in the same building,” says Barnett. “We became friends almost immediately, and about ten years later ended up writing this series together.

Books by Jory John

“A lot of people wonder how two people write one book, and the answer is actually simple. I put my right hand on the keyboard, and Jory puts his left hand on the keyboard, and then we just move our fingers around a whole bunch. I should say that most of it makes no sense.”

“Yep. It’s all garbled,” agrees John. “Thank goodness for autocorrect. So yeah, Mac and I lived down the street from each other when we started working on this series, and I’d go over to his house every week and we’d just hammer out ideas while taking walks around the neighborhood, or drinking coffee, or pacing around his living room.

Books by Mac Barnett

“I think Mac has a good term for how we write, which is: ‘We back into it’ by having long conversations about other things, entirely, then maybe watching a Daily Show episode, then brewing some coffee, then walking his dog, and then finally getting to work. That’s why this book only took 16 years to write!”

Though it took more than a decade and a half to write, the first book was a hit on the New York Times Bestseller List. Barnett and John introduced The Terrible Two to more than 4,000 readers in a whirlwind promotional tour to more than 20 schools in just one week. One week! “It was crazy,” admits Barnett. “How did we survive? Well, Jory filled his hotel bathtub with hand sanitizer every night.” “And every morning,” interjects John. “It was a double-pronged hand-sanitizing approach. And I only got sick once! (Twice, maybe.)”

In January 2016, book two in the Terrible Two series hits the shelves, The Terrible Two Get Worse. “The next book is in part about a prank that goes too far,” hints Barnett, “and explores Mile’s and Nile’s responsibility for the consequences.” And what comes next after book two? “We have four books in the series planned out,” says John. “Let us know if you have any ideas for a fifth.” Ideas can be forwarded through their website www.terribletwo.com.

Beyond working on the Terrible Two series, John and Barnett are highly acclaimed authors in their own right with other projects in the works, too. “I’ve got some more picture books coming out,” says Barnett. “And we just started writing a script for a Terrible Two movie, which is in development at Universal.”

Besides writing the movie script and his own picture books, John likes to work on a variety of projects. “I occasionally still conduct interviews, and I still write the occasional essay, and I’m actually preparing a little bit of radio work right now … but I’m mostly focused on writing books at this point. There are so many things I want to do, but sometimes it’s in your best interest to just focus on one thing at a time (unless you’re Ryan Seacrest).”

Gary D. Schmidt

Gary D. Schmidt: From Pumpkin to Professor

Gary D. Schmidt is a prolific, award-winning author who has received a Printz Honor and two Newbery Honors for his work. He has also completed numerous academic degrees including doctoral studies in Medieval Literature. Yet, as a child, Schmidt was pegged as a poor reader with low prospects and was assigned to the “Pumpkin Group” of students. Here, Schmidt shares what made the difference.

How did you move from being a struggling, reluctant reader to a successful one?

This is an easy one: I had a great teacher. Not long after being put in the Pumpkin Group—the poorest readers—I met Miss Kabakoff, who, in later grades, taught the Track One students—the best students. Somehow, and I don’t know how, she decided that I would come into her class, and when I did, she filled my desk with books. They were way too young for me in terms of grade level, but I struggled with all of them. She spent hours catching me up, and really instilling within me a love of reading. And it all happened very quickly after that: I began reading at grade level, then past grade level, and then reading everything I could on my own.”

gary5You have been faculty in the English Department at Calvin College for 30 years. Your work has been acknowledged with outstanding awards including Newbery Honors, a Printz Honor, and a National Book Award Finalist. In your opinion, what makes good literature for young people?

A good story always comes first. All readers—but especially young readers—are attuned to the story that is really a sermon in disguise: that book that is meant to change your behavior into something more along the lines of some current orthodoxy. So a good story first. And with that good story should come honesty about the world, which is not a place where things always end like a Hallmark card, which is not a place where people are one-dimensional, but which is a place where complex characters inhabit settings which are messy and broken.

Many of your books are written to feature historical events and former time periods, and they address topics such as racism and war. Why have you chosen to write meaty books that deal with real-life topics and situations faced by kids of yesterday and today like loss and rites of passage?

It’s an exciting time in the world of children’s and middle-grade and YA literature. There are so many writers doing so many interesting things—and the huge benefit is that everyone brings his or her own skills, perspectives, ways of telling to the table. And I suppose this has always been true of literature: that it can be such a banquet offered to a culture. Today, I read books like the Wimpy Kid books and the Captain Underpants books and marvel at their brilliance. I could never do what these folks do. But I can bring my interests and style and ways of telling to the table, and for me, that means focusing on certain kinds of questions that I think kids are asking—and that they should be asking.

Your books seem to start quietly but are so emotionally charged. What is your process for developing such intense stories? Do you purposely bury details which require the reader to dig in?

I tend to write for middle-grade readers, and in writing about those years, it seems to me I am writing about a very intense time in our lives. It’s a time when a kiddo is beginning to leave childhood, and look at the intensity of that leavetaking: suddenly, the kiddo is thrown into a world filled with others who, like herself, are trying to understand who they are in every way we can imagine: socially, intellectually, politically, economically, religiously, aesthetically. The kiddo’s own body is acting bizarrely. And in all this, the middle-grade kid is taking on all sorts of new identities and perspectives as he grapples with new ideas, new social relationships, and the startling realization that she can have ideas and beliefs that are truly her own instead of those of parents and peers. It’s an intense time. So I do want to depict that. As far as process, again, story has to come first. I want a story that is set in that intensity, and that depicts the complexity of a middle-grade kiddo’s world. And as a storyteller, of course I am shaping that experience, because I am not writing a transcript, but a novel that does not imitate life in its exactitude, but in its essence and meanings. So yes, details are buried early on that will come to fruition later in the story—hopefully with greater meaning than when the reader first encountered them. Liza Ketchum, from whom I have learned a great deal as a writer, calls these endowed objects—and I think there can be endowed actions as well.

Orbiting Jupiter (Clarion Books, 2015) was published in October. It is a most unique, yet beautiful, tale with several storylines woven within. Where did this story come from? 

Orbiting Jupiter was inspired by a kiddo I met in a juvenile prison, though this is not his story in any way. It was also inspired by a 13-year-old boy I read about years ago. He lived in Arkansas, I think, and at age 13 had had two children. It’s perhaps not as remarkable as we think, but it struck me at the time that he now has to think about this quandary: He is a father, and he is also a middle-grade kid. Is it possible to live both roles in any meaningful way? That seems to me a really interesting question, and one that might be best answered in the context of a story.

Do any of the characters in your books reflect you? 

I am beginning to wonder if, in fact, all of a writer’s characters are, in some way, reflections of the writer. This does not mean that the writer is always writing autobiography, but it might mean that the writer is always working out those things that are critical to him or her. So, in many ways, yes—Holling is me, or I am Holling (The Wednesday Wars, Clarion Books, 2007). But I also think there is much in Doug (Okay for Now, Clarion Books, 2011) that is me, and in Jack and in Joseph (Orbiting Jupiter). That’s why the beginning of Walden (Ticknor and Fields, 1854) always strikes me as so true: Thoreau insists that he will talk about himself because who else does he know better?

What do you wish others knew about you? Is there a question you wish interviewers asked?

Is there a question I wished interviewers asked? What a good question. But in the end, I’m sorta this private guy and a Calvinist to boot, and there isn’t too much I’m all that eager to trot out! I have too much New England blood for that.

What you are working on or what we can see from you next? 

I have three picture books written with Elizabeth Stickney that are finished, and am working on a picture book with Phyllis Root on the writer Celia Thaxter. I’m currently working on the next two novels, both within the Wednesday Wars universe. And—since I also like to work on academic books—I’m finishing a book on three New England historians who wrote during the 1790s—the kind of book that won’t exactly hit a bestseller list, but that I learn a great deal from.

Roger Sutton and Gary D. Schmidt

Roger Sutton, Editor in Chief of The Horn Book and Gary D. Schmidt

How can teachers, librarians, and parents best use your books to encourage young people to not only read, but also to engage with what they are reading?

I think all good stories ask questions; if they don’t, then okay, you’ve had a beach read—and that’s fine occasionally. But a good story must ask questions—and sometimes very hard questions. That’s the difference between To Kill a Mockingbird (J.B. Lippincott, 1960) and some faddish book that gets made into a slick movie and then disappears. So to engage with a book, a reader needs to engage with the questions that book poses. I think that so many extraordinary books today pose questions that a young reader grapples with: Rick Riordan’s questions about how a kid comes to new understandings about who he is, or Ron Koertge’s novels about kids grappling with definitions that they have been burdened with, or Linda Urban’s funny books that ask how a kid comes to authentically take on new roles, or Walter Dean Myers’ books about kids facing a larger culture that might be hostile. To engage with a book is to engage with the questions the author is asking.

What is the best way for readers to connect with you? 

Best way to reach out is through a letter. No kidding. A real, honest-to-goodness letter that arrives in an envelope and that I open and read and then answer with another real, honest-to-goodness letter. I am not active on social media. There’s a Facebook page set up by one of my students and now managed by my daughter, but I’ve never been on it. I have done the occasional Skype thingy, but have never liked the format. You’re so distanced from the people you are talking to, it feels cold. I know: I’m a dinosaur.

rachel-banner

Rachel Renée Russell Encourages Young People to Embrace Their Inner Dorks

Mention Dork Diaries to nearly any middle-school girl and you are likely to get an enthusiastic “Squee!” This wildly popular, award-winning series is composed of personal diary entries chronicling the life of 14-year-old Nikki Maxwell—the good, the bad, and the dorky.

The series began in 2009 with the publishing of Dork Diaries: Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life (Aladdin) and quickly skyrocketed to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Now, with the 10th book due to hit shelves this month, Dork Diaries is a world-wide phenomenon with 20 million books in print in 34 languages.

Surprisingly, the primary author, Rachel Renée Russell, was not a well-known author prior to Dork Diaries. In fact, she is a former attorney turned children’s author; but that has not stopped her from sharing tales from her own middle-school years as well as those of her daughters, Erin and Nikki. Here the three of them candidly share their experiences, views, and plans with Mackin readers.

Rachel, do you remember your first reading and writing experiences? Were you an avid book lover from the beginning? What did your parents and educators do to encourage you in your literacy journey?

Rachel: I have always loved both reading and writing. When I was a child, my parents supported my literacy journey by reading to me, encouraging me to read, and by providing lots of books at home. I still have fond memories of being in elementary school and excitedly spending an hour just reading over the book order forms that came attached to our Weekly Readers newspapers and deciding which books I wanted most. I would often order a dozen or more paperbacks and, surprisingly, my parents never complained about paying for my large order. Then, a few weeks later, the new books would be delivered by the school office staff in two small boxes—one box for me and one box for the rest of the class! I loved books!

Did you always plan to be an author? Did you or your daughters ever have or pursue other career aspirations?

Rachel: We all pursued different careers that ultimately led us back to writing and illustrating. When I was in elementary school, I dreamt of being an author and would write and illustrate picture books using construction paper and markers as gifts for family and friends. In college, I took a writing course with a professor who had published a successful children’s book, but he strongly advised me to select a different career since he felt I didn’t have the necessary skills to become an author. At that point, I changed my career aspirations, and decided to go to law school. I later opened a private practice specializing in consumer bankruptcy law. But, when my daughters went off to college and I had extra time on my hands, I joined an online writers group and started working on a children’s manuscript just as an enjoyable hobby.

Erin in Middle School

Erin in Middle School

Nikki in Middle School

Nikki in Middle School

My daughters, Erin and Nikki, both loved drawing so much that they attended art camp at Kendall College of Art and Design during the summers for 10 years during their childhood. They also collected manga and anime. Nikki’s hobby was drawing and she’d spend hours with her sketchbook. However, she earned a degree in elementary education and became a third-grade teacher.

Erin, my older daughter, majored in English and received a national award for a comic strip series she wrote and illustrated for her school newspaper at the University of Michigan. Then, after college, she briefly pursued her dream of launching a nationally syndicated comic strip, but newspaper subscriptions were declining so it was a more difficult goal to achieve than ever. She eventually ended up in the mortgage banking industry.

So, in spite of our careers, the three of us were lucky enough to be able to finally pursue our first love, creative writing and illustrating.

With careers in different fields and locations, how did your working relationship begin? And how do you decide who does what?

Nikki: Due to the popularity of the series, my mom went from a schedule of one book a year to two books a year which was very grueling. So she asked if I was interested in helping her with illustrations, and I quickly jumped at the opportunity. I knew it would be fun and I loved drawing so much that I did it in my spare time as a hobby. As more books were published and my mom’s writing demands increased, I put my teaching career on hold and took over the illustration duties for Dork Diaries on a full-time basis. As an illustrator, I can vividly retell my own stories of being bullied and teased through my artwork. Today, my middle-school challenges serve as an inspiration for my work on Dork Diaries.

Pencil sketches by Nikki

Erin: My mom asked me if I wanted to help with writing Dork Diaries on the fourth book in the series. I was happy to assist because the timing was perfect. I was looking to relocate to Virginia and I had always enjoyed collaborating with my mom back when I was working on my comic strips. Soon I was a full-time contributing writer for the Dork Diaries books and living just a few miles from my family. I had the best job ever! I was able to take my trials and tribulations from middle school and turn them into triumphant stories to share with readers all over the world.

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Calendar of events for Dork Diaries #6

Rachel: Writing and illustrating a Dork Diaries book is a fluid process that can take five to six months to complete. Even though both Erin and Nikki are talented writers and illustrators, they initially only focus on one area of the series. Erin has a wicked sense of humor and enjoys writing, so as my co-author, I have her concentrate on providing content. Nikki is very artistic and enjoys drawing, so as my illustrator, I have her focus on the artwork in the book.

The first step when starting a new book is to determine the main storyline and underlying subplots. Once I’ve established the pivotal scenes and written an outline, I brainstorm with Erin on the story. I usually write a few pages and then go back and decide what the art is going to be. Next, I provide art instruction to Nikki for the illustrations in the book and I assign vignettes to Erin who begins her writing process. While I’m writing, Erin and Nikki work simultaneously on their assigned tasks and then turn them in for me to edit and approve. Due to the illustrated format of my books, I may delete or rewrite a scene multiple times if it does not inspire funny artwork. The above steps are repeated over and over until the initial draft of the book is written.
This process works well for us since we are all leveraging our skills and doing the things we enjoy most. Once the book is written and illustrated, I continue to make tweaks to the manuscript and artwork until I am confident that we’ve created a book that our fans will love.

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Nikki, Rachel and Erin

Rumor has it that the storylines, characters, and general ideas came from the middle-school experiences of all three of you. So did at least one of you attend a private school where you felt out of place? Is there really a dad who was/is an exterminator?

Erin: As much as I would’ve loved getting driven to school in a van with a six-foot cockroach on top of it, our dad isn’t really an exterminator. LOL! However, it IS true that some of the characters in the book are based on real people. Our most infamous character, MacKenzie, is based on a real mean girl who bullied me from elementary school, all the way to high school! Nikki and I also did attend a private school at one point. And, we often felt out of place and were teased for being dorky and shy. But once we embraced the fact that we were different from most of the other students (which, by the way was a good thing) we started to appreciate our uniqueness and all of our peculiarities. We were, and still are, Dorks and we’re proud of it!

In your official opinions, what is a Dork?

Nikki: We define a Dork as a person who doesn’t fit in with or aspire to be like the most popular kids. A Dork tends to be independent in their thinking, tastes, and clothing styles and often marches to the beat of a different drum. When my mom coined the term, “Always remember to let your inner Dork shine through” she wanted kids to embrace the word “Dork” and define it as a positive word that signifies uniqueness, intelligence, empowerment, and confidence. Dorks are cool, smart, friendly, super talented, and make the best friends ever. So, when you let your inner Dork shine thorough, you are embracing all of those positive characteristics and being your true self!

Practically with the release of the first Dork Diaries book, young Nikki Maxwell became an international sensation. Since then, the Dork Diaries books have not failed to maintain top billing on the bestsellers lists and have secured award after award. What is it about your books that make them so popular?

Rachel: I think Dork Diaries is a huge success because young readers can relate to Nikki Maxwell and the other characters in the series. The day-to-day challenges Nikki encounters in middle school, and with her family and friends, resonate with my readers across the globe. At some point we can all probably recall an awkward period in our lives when we just didn’t fit in, we had our first crush, or we felt insecure.

The series is also very popular with parents and educators alike because it is very engaging and can serve as a great introduction to reading chapter books and novels. I often receive letters from adults thanking me for writing Dork Diaries because it introduced their reluctant reader to literature and turned their student or child into an avid reader. With each book in the series, I make sure there’s lots of drama and humor to keep fans entertained, laughing, and wanting to read more.

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Interior spread from Dork Diaries 9: Tales From a Not-So-Dorky Drama Queen

Recently Dork Diaries 9 was released and Dork Diaries 10 comes out this month. How many Dork Diaries books will there be? Will Nikki Maxwell be a middle schooler into perpetuity or will you age her? What can readers look forward to in the near future?

Rachel: For now, I just keep writing the books, my publisher keeps publishing them, and fans keep reading them! Sometimes I think about what Nikki Maxwell would be like in high school, college, and even as a young adult, but I don’t think my fans are ready to see her grow up just yet. With all of the drama my daughters and I experienced in middle school and high school, we certainly have enough material to keep Nikki Maxwell alive and her world thriving for many more years to come.

Dork Diaries has a huge following on Facebook and Twitter and a very active community of followers on the Dork Diaries website. How does “Nikki Maxwell” find the time to keep up with her diaries as well as a blog/online diary, an advice column on the website, and social media?

Rachel: I am very proud of our Facebook, Twitter, and Dork Diaries website following since we’ve gained our loyal fan base the old-fashioned way, mostly by word of mouth. I do receive lots of letters and email (domestic and international) and I even receive mail from entire classrooms and schools. Sometimes there’s a delay in my response to fan mail due to my writing schedule, but I do try to respond to each and every letter as soon as I possibly can.

When it comes to website updates and blog posts, Nikki handles the illustrations and Erin and I are responsible for the blog posts. I also read and moderate all fan comments before they are posted to the site, which can be quite time consuming. Since keeping my website content updated can easily turn into a full-time job, I also utilize my publisher and web designers for the technical and design work as needed.

My dream is to create a website that tweens can go to that is positive, fun, exciting, informative, and safe. Having interactive sections, like the advice columns, keeps the website current and allows kids to see that there are many other individuals out there who have some of the same experiences, interests, and challenges as they do. My website also allows children to interact with other children from different cultures around the world. And, it provides a forum where kids can show their creativity and talent by writing fan stories and posting original artwork that will be read and/or viewed by possibly millions of other children from around the world.

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From the “Ask Nikki” blog on DorkDiaries.com

In addition to your work on social media and the website, what projects are each of you working on individually and collaboratively? Will there be books or a series not related to Dork Diaries?

Rachel: The year 2016 will be a monumental one for Team Dork! In April, I will be launching a new series called The Misadventures of Max Crumbly. I’m really excited about this series because kids will have a new hero to root for and laugh with, as Max navigates the pitfalls of middle school and the secrets that literally hide behind a NOT-so-ordinary locker. Dork Diaries fans will be the first to see Max since he’ll be introduced in Dork Diaries Book 10: Tales from a Not-So-Perfect Pet Sitter (Aladdin, October 2015). And Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment, the film studio behind such great book-to-movie adaptations as the Twilight Saga, the Hunger Games trilogy, and the Divergent series, is developing the Dork Diaries movie as we speak! I hope to have more official news soon. Stay tuned! Of course, I will continue to collaborate on the Dork Diaries series with my daughters. Erin and Nikki are especially excited about 2016 because they’ll each start working on their very own children’s book project.

Earlier this year Rachel, you won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for children. Congratulations!

Rachel: I feel blessed and humbled when I receive any type of award for my work. Each honor inspires me to keep writing and is validation that I am positively impacting my readers. The NAACP Image Award, however, will always stand out because it was given by an organization that truly understands the struggles of African Americans in the fields of motion picture, television, music, and literature, and seeks to increase racial diversity in those fields. I am a cheerleader for diversity in literature, be it a character, author, or publisher. So, receiving this award was validation that my efforts have not gone unnoticed. Writing Dork Diaries is a dream come true! And, sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m awake and all of this is actually happening to me!

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Rachel receiving the 2015 NAACP Image Award

Why is diversity in literature so important in general and to you personally? What was the impetus for your very generous donation last fall to the We Need Diverse Books campaign?

Rachel: Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that almost half of American children under the age of five are people of color. We need to make a concerted effort to ensure that the books they’ll be reading are a reflection of the world around them. These books must contain characters as diverse as the children reading them. The We Need Diverse Books campaign advocates for changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.

When I’m writing, I want my readers to see themselves in my books and identify with the characters by way of experiences, race, gender, ethnicities, culture, and/or religion. For example, Nikki Maxwell is Caucasian, Zoeysha Ebony Franklin is African American, Chloe Christina Garcia is Latina, Jenny Chen and Lisa Wang are Asian, Sarah Grossman is Jewish, and Violet Baker is an individual who uses a wheelchair. And, these are not even all of my diverse characters. I really feel compelled to be a catalyst for change by doing more and saying more because our children deserve it.

Dan Gutman

Dan Gutman: Funny Author Serious About Reading and Writing

 

Though it is difficult to believe, prolific children’s author Dan Gutman was not a fan of reading when he was younger. Well, that might be putting it mildly.

“I hated to read when I was a kid! I thought reading was boring and hard to do. My parents were big readers, so I guess they were pretty disappointed. My mother used to buy me comic books hoping it would get me interested in reading. It didn’t really work.”

So what did work for this award-winning author of more than 100 books for young people? “Oddly enough, it wasn’t a ‘real’ author. It was Jim Bouton, a pitcher with the Yankees. I was a big baseball fan as a kid, and I was 15 when Bouton’s book Ball Four (World, 1970) came out. It was the first time I ever read a book in which the author simply spoke to the reader as if he was having a conversation. There was no flowery language, no fancy adjectives. It wasn’t ‘literature’ like all those books I was SUPPOSED to like. I loved it. I got the same feeling when I started reading Kurt Vonnegut in high school.”

After high school, Gutman headed to Rutgers University to study, of all things, psychology. “Writing always came naturally to me. I remember seeing the other kids in school struggle to put a sentence together or write an essay. With me, it just flowed; but it never occurred to me that I could write as my profession until the end of college.

“I was a total failure writing for grownups! It wasn’t working for me. As soon as I started writing for kids, I said, ‘THIS is what I’m good at! This is what I should have been doing all along!’”

“Just for the fun of it, I wrote a short article titled ‘How To Be Cool’ and submitted it to the Rutgers newspaper. They printed it, and the next day I saw students all over campus reading my article and telling me how much they liked it. That was powerful and a big ego trip, too! I think it planted a seed in me to try writing professionally. But I never took any writing classes in college.”

That initial writing success was enough to convince Gutman that he wanted to be a writer. So, for the next several years, Gutman tried his hand at various styles and tasks. He wrote screenplays, essays, and magazine articles as a freelancer. And although he did sell some of his pieces, he never really found his place. “I wasn’t earning a living, and I wasn’t good at playing the game: hustling for assignments, making connections, and all the business aspects of being a professional freelance writer. So basically I spent 16 years figuring out what to do with my life.”

“I started blending fact and fiction together after my book The Kid Who Ran For President (Scholastic, 1996). I thought the book was just for laughs, but schools all over the country started using it to teach kids how the government runs, how constitutional amendments are passed, and so on. So I started slipping interesting facts into all my books, and hopefully kids learn something without even realizing it while they think they’re just reading a cool story. Sometimes that’s the best way to learn.”

When his son was born in 1990, Gutman began reading a lot of children’s books. What he found did not impress him. “I didn’t think they were very good. I thought I could write better than that. Because nothing else was working for me, I decided to give children’s books a shot.”

In 1994, Gutman sold his first novel, They Came From Centerfield (Scholastic, 1995). But success was not a sure thing, and Gutman experienced rejection after rejection after rejection before finding success again.

“I like to think I have the brain of a 10-year-old, and I really have a good sense of what kids want to read. So when publisher after publisher was rejecting my first baseball card adventure, Honus & Me (HarperCollins, 1997), it wasn’t hard to convince myself that they were wrong. I just knew that kids would like the story, and I’m glad I didn’t give up on it. When I visit schools and talk to kids, I bring along those rejection letters and show them off. I tell the kids that Honus was rejected by 10 publishers over the course of two years, but I never gave up on it. Hopefully kids will get the message that everybody encounters obstacles in their lives, and we can overcome those obstacles and become successful.”

“I try to write like I am having a conversation with the reader. A lot of kids seem to like that style—especially reluctant readers. I relate well to those kids because I was one.”

So what literary challenges now face Gutman? “I would get bored if I just wrote one kind of book all the time. Sometimes I want to work on a project for beginning readers, and the next day I might want to work on something for older kids. One day I might want to write funny, and the next day I might be in a more serious mood. I think it keeps things fresh to do something different every day.

“I really don’t know if studying psychology for six years helped my writing or simply delayed my career for six years. I never felt like I learned very much about what makes people tick, which is a big reason why I stopped studying psychology. The one thing I did learn was how we human beings crave novelty, and that has impacted my writing. I figured out how to hold the reader’s attention by taking him or her on a roller coaster ride from page to page. I learned to constantly surprise the reader so he or she cannot get bored.”

With a variety of series like The Genius Files (HarperCollins), the Baseball Card Adventures (HarperCollins), and My Weird School (HarperCollins) that are full of travel, sports, and alien encounters, young readers definitely have no chance of getting bored. But these series have ended. What is next?

RappyRaptor-c“Now that The Genius Files is finished and the Baseball Card Adventure series is finished, I’m working on a new series called Flashback Four (HarperCollins). I have always loved photography, and this series is about four time-traveling kids who go on missions to take photographs of historical events that were never photographed when they actually happened. For instance, you’ve never seen a photo of Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. It’s not that photography didn’t exist in 1863. The thing is that the Gettysburg Address only took two minutes to deliver, and the photographers who were there that day didn’t have time to set up their big, bulky cameras. So I’m sending these kids back to 1863 to get that shot.

 

 

FlashbackFour1 HC“The first Flashback Four book, The Lincoln Project (HarperCollins, 2016), is done. Now I’m working on the second one, in which they have to go back to April 1912 and take a photo of the Titanic as it’s sinking. I’m also working on a picture book for younger readers called Rappy the Raptor. It’s about a dinosaur who raps.

“My goal is for that boy or girl to look up after reading for a few hours and say, ‘Wow, that didn’t even feel like reading! It felt like I was watching a movie in my head.’”

Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann

A Conversation With Award-Winning Author/Illustrator Team, Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann

How does one encourage young people to read and contribute to the literacy development of children? This is a question that many librarians, teachers, and parents consider; and the answer may be found in the experiences of author Candace Fleming and author/illustrator Eric Rohmann.

the-family-romanov-candace-flemingKnown for writing celebrated fiction, as well as nonfiction such as The Family Romanov (Schwartz & Wade, 2014), Fleming read anything and everything as a young girl. Her family was comprised of readers, so she began reading picture books, nonfiction, novels, and even classics from an early age. Favorites included Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (Windmill Books, 1969), Misty of Chincoteague (Rand McNally, 1947), Island of the Blue Dolphins (Houghton Mifflin, 1960), The Witch of Blackbird Pond (Houghton Mifflin, 1958), and The Snowy Day (Viking Press, 1962). “All the people in my life read,” Fleming says. “It makes sense that I would also read.”

“Picture books are small slices of life that talk about big subjects.  Because the audience lacks experience, the writing in the best books is clear and unencumbered by irony, flummery, poppycock, malarkey, hokum, twaddle, gobbledygook, codswallop, and complex secondary stories.” — Eric Rohmann

For Rohmann, a Caldecott Honoree for his first book Time Flies (Crown Books, 1994) and a Caldecott Medalist for My Friend Rabbit (Roaring Brook Press, 2002), his first books of choice were about dinosaurs, oceans, astronauts, and aquanauts. He had eclectic interests that ranged from books like The Sea Around Us (Oxford, 1951) to superhero comics. And though his parents and educators tried “anything and everything” to encourage him to broaden his reading experiences, Rohmann admits, “It didn’t usually work. Candy [Fleming] was reading Jane Eyre (Smith, Elder & Co, 1847) in grade school while I was still reading The Fantastic Four (Marvel Comics, 1961). But if you have been reading with your kids and encouraging them to read, they will progress naturally.”

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That natural progression directed Rohmann to eventually create his own books. “I have always made pictures that tell stories. Then, in my 30s, I began teaching kids. I then realized this was the audience for my art and stories. So I made a dummy and sent it off to agents and publishers. After 15 rejections in two years, I travelled to New York to show a portfolio—old school. I found that looking people in the eye made a difference.”

bk_ohno_300dpi_4inFleming, on the other hand, took a different path into the book world. “I wrote articles for history journals and children’s magazines. From there, books seemed to be the best way to tell the stories I wanted to tell. I was at a conference and an editor, Anne Schwartz, read part of a story I had written. She invited me to send the finished manuscript.”

For years, both Fleming and Rohmann worked on separate projects—both garnering accolades and fans—and then Fleming wrote Oh, No! (Schwartz & Wade, 2012), and Rohmann knew it was a project perfectly suited to him. “I gave it a go and Oh, No! was born.” Since then, the couple has collaborated on several projects including the recently published Bulldozer’s Big Day (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2015) and the upcoming Giant Squid (Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook, 2016).

“When creating Bulldozer’s Big Day, Candy tried to tap into a situation familiar to the smallest child. She asked, ‘What do six-year-olds think about?’ and then wrote something that would make them think and smile,” says Rohmann. “It was a challenge as I had no idea how to make an inanimate object emote—so instead of relying on facial expressions I used composition and posture: where the Bulldozer is placed in the image.”

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“After years of research on a project about, say, Russians, I find it refreshing and liberating to play and write about a rabbit or a bulldozer. The switch keeps me sane and happy and creatively fresh,” says Fleming. “We are interested in many things in the world. I love to explore and read and discover, and that usually leads to finding something interesting.”

“I believe some books translate well into a digital form, but we can’t forget that a picture book is not just made of words and pictures…the book form has a say. I recall back in the 1960s scientists said that we could replace food with pills that would give the same nutritional value.  They ignored the fact that we like to eat. Eating is a sensual experience, as is reading. Most importantly, the signature characteristic of the picture book form is the page turn. That does not translate well into digital media.” — Candace Fleming

So what can readers expect to see next from this successful duo? There is Giant Squid (Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook, 2016) coming out next year. And, according to Rohmann, beyond that readers can expect Presenting Buffalo Bill (Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook, 2016), Go Sleep in Your Own Bed (Schwartz-Wade/Random House, 2017), Strongheart The Wonder Dog (Schwartz-Wade/Random House, 2017), Emma’s Circus (Margaret Ferguson Books/FSG, 2017), The Amazing Collection of Joey Cornell (Schwartz-Wade/Random House, 2018), and Bulldozer Helps Out (Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/Atheneum). “We hope the books will delight kids.”

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Jen Bryant: An Award-Winning Career Influenced by Dr. Seuss, Obituaries, and Libraries

For author Jen Bryant, her love of reading, writing, and verse began with Dr. Seuss. “My mother read stories to us every night before bed. She has a very expressive voice, so titles like P.D. Eastman’s Go Dog GO! (Random House Books for Young Readers, 1961) and Are You My Mother? (Random House, 1960), and Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop (Random House, 1963) and Green Eggs and Ham (Random House, 1960) were books that I was happy to listen to as many times as she would read them. I think my first glimmer of reading comprehension came as she was reading Green Eggs and Ham out loud one evening. All of a sudden, some of those squiggles on the page matched what she was saying. Wow! I didn’t sleep much that night.”

Bryant, an author of highly acclaimed poetry, nonfiction picture books, and novels, began writing at a young age as well. “My father was (and still is) a funeral director and his office is next to the house where I grew up. Back then my grandparents lived above the funeral home. To get to their apartment, I had to pass through the office where my dad could often be found typing obituaries. He did this on a manual typewriter—a machine that fascinated me. When I was old enough, I was allowed to practice typing, and, of course, I used to try and copy whatever material happened to be lying around: drafts of obituaries. And what are obituaries, really, but one’s life summed up in a paragraph or two? Good ones leave an impression of the person as an individual. I suppose as I practiced typing them, I must have absorbed some of the craft behind the writing of these little ‘biographies.’”

Training to become a writer also came from Bryant’s exposure to reading and books as a child. “I was fortunate to grow up in a family with parents and grandparents who did a lot of reading. There were probably hundreds of books in the house—many of them on history and science, but there were novels, too. The adults also read newspapers every day and did The New York Times crossword puzzles. My parents also loved the opera, so there was always some Italian tenor or French-speaking soprano booming out of the living room stereo. Looking back, I see this as a building block of my own literacy and my ‘ear’ for language in general.”

And like in many great authors’ experiences, libraries played—and continue to play—an essential role in Bryant’s life and career path. “I LOVED my town’s library (the Flemington Public Library on Main Street). How lucky I was to be able to walk just two blocks and spend as much time there as I liked. As a young child, I went to Saturday morning story time with Mrs. Bamber (whose impish Chihuahua sometimes snored underneath her chair). Later, when I could read longer books on my own, another librarian, Mrs. Bigger, was always handing me titles that she thought I’d enjoy. My favorite series was Walter Farley’s Black Stallion (Random House). I read each of those books three or four times.”

 


Quotes

I think it’s important that children hear poetry as well as read it. Ideally, this sharing-mentoring-teaching should come from someone who genuinely loves poetry, too. The person who says they ‘hate’ poetry is the person who hasn’t yet found the right poet. I’m a big advocate of allowing teachers and parents to discover poems and poets whom THEY love—so that they can communicate their own joy and enthusiasm for the genre. Kids know when you’re faking it. What a shame if they get turned off early to poetry because the adults haven’t taken the time to love it themselves!

I haven’t written my own obituary . . . but I could easily see something brief and poetic like this: “She fed the birds,/she couldn’t cook;/she was always happiest/reading a book.”

How do I begin to count the ways that physical libraries are not only relevant, but essential—critical!—to our human culture?! I suppose I can start by listing the ways that I use them: as a workplace (I’m writing these sentences while seated at my favorite quiet table at my local branch); as a research source (the people, the books, the films, the e-files, the inter-library loan items, the maps, the special archives, the audio recordings); for obtaining leisure reading and films; for finding out about community events (I read, on the bulletin board here today, about a community recycling event I plan to contribute to); for attending arts and educational events; for viewing art (there’s currently a photography show at my branch). I’m sure I’ve missed some things, but you get the idea. I don’t think the digital world will ever replace what physical libraries have done so well for so long. The buildings may change, the services may evolve . . . but the critical mission will remain the same, I think.

I DO think that composing obituaries would be an excellent teaching tool because it forces the writer to be clear, brief, and accurate. I’m always telling students that much of writing is about making decisions, and composing something short and simple about something long and complex (a person’s life), forces you to make those decisions: What’s most important? What one anecdote or example will illuminate this individual’s character? What’s appropriate for this public context? –and so on.

 


right-wordToday, Bryant still becomes excited by what she reads. Recently, she spent a great amount of time researching Peter Mark Roget for The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus (Eerdmans Books, 2014) which was named a 2015 Caldecott Honor Book, 2015 Sibert Medal Winner, and 2015 Orbis Pictus Honor Book.

“Whenever I begin a new book, I feel as if I’m setting out on a great adventure. Much like a physical journey—say, a long sea voyage or hiking the Appalachian Trail—I begin with a few supplies (some basic reading on my subject, a few photos, and a timeline perhaps) and a LOT of curiosity. Because setting is very important to me, I try to travel to places where my subject (in the case of biographies) has lived and worked, or, in the case of historical novels, places where the real events occurred. Not everything I see, hear, or take notes on ends up in the book. But somehow, everything informs the book, and I am always a better writer for having ventured so deeply into the materials.

Bryant-Pieces-of-Georgia-2in“Occasionally, distractions lead me to my next big project. In 2003, I was doing research at the Brandywine River Museum for my novel Pieces of Georgia (Random House Children’s Books, 2006) when I first spotted Horace Pippin’s painting ‘Saying Prayers.’ I loved it. I’d never seen a Pippin painting before, and when I read the small sign next to it that said Pippin was a self-taught veteran artist from West Chester, I became intrigued. I scribbled down a few things right then, and those first notes launched me on the book that later became A Splash of Red (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2013).”

Bryant-Splash-of-Red-2inSo what has captured Bryant’s attention for her current project? That remains under wraps for now. However, she is likely enjoying time in the library and wandering about towns finding juicy details and refining the direction of her next title. She is also visiting schools and enjoying fan mail.

“Working with illustrators, editors, and art directors, we are creating bridges between noble lives like Pippin’s or Roget’s and tens of thousands of young readers everywhere who otherwise might not have known them. If the letters we’re getting from these readers are any indication, they are being changed and inspired by these stories. And what more can we ask than that?”

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Pete Hautman: National Book Award Author and Explorer of Oddity

Outliers. For those familiar with statistics, it is a common term used to describe pieces of data that fall outside the boundaries of a main grouping. But for Pete Hautman, author of the National Book Award-winning Godless (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2004), outliers are people who live outside of the norm, and they make great protagonists.

“I’m more interested in the outliers. They are simply more interesting, both in fiction and in real life. Some writers prefer to take ‘normal’ characters and have weird stuff happen to them.  I prefer my characters to be a bit quirky from the outset. Although I do have some pretty normal kids in The Big Crunch (Scholastic Press, 2010).”

Perhaps Hautman is fascinated by outliers because he is one. He attended college for a handful of years but didn’t graduate. Instead, he went on to hold a series of different jobs in unrelated fields. Finally, he decided to write a novel and in 1993 Drawing Dead (Simon & Schuster) hit the shelves. Today, he has an extensive collection of books to his credit written for both adults and young adults.

“We had lots of books around the house and made weekly trips to the library. I think the availability of books was the most important thing. We didn’t get any direct guidance, and I don’t remember any rules about what we could read. I was raiding my dad’s detective and Western fiction by the time I was ten. Also, when I was reading I wasn’t doing something destructive or dangerous, and my mom liked that.”

Hautman’s interest in reading and writing began far earlier than his adulthood, however. “I think I was eight or nine. It was probably Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint (McGraw Hill Book Company, 1965). Or possibly it was The Enormous Egg (Little, Brown, 1956) in which a kid finds a big egg that hatches into a Triceratops. I’ve been pursuing that sense of wonder in my reading ever since. As for writing, I started out making comic books at age twelve. Over the next several years the pictures went away, and I became more interested in the words.”

His fascination with words led Hautman to write several novels for young adults about the angst of growing up and coming to terms with matters of the heart and of faith. “I think everybody should question their beliefs—every day if possible. I try to do so. It’s hard work! Teens question more than adults; I think that is entirely age appropriate.”

“My imagination is little more than the willingness to remember, rearrange, and distort memories. I used to be a teen, and a big part of me still is. I never kept journals (and still don’t), so those memories have been heavily distorted by time. The teens I know today aren’t that different from teens back then. As for teens ‘sharing their angst’ with me…it comes off them in waves of ripe sneakers and Axe body spray. I don’t like to get too close.”

There is one series of books that steps away from Hautman’s usual writing style and genre: The Klaatu Diskos trilogy (Candlewick Press) featuring The Obsidian Blade, The Cydonian Pyramid, and The Klaatu Terminus. Though the three large volumes still address the underlying themes of relationships and religion, the multiple stories, overlapping timelines, and time-jumping adventures keep readers guessing until the end.

“The Klaatu Diskos trilogy took a long time to write, and I’m happy with it. True, it can be challenging to follow at times, and it is not for every reader. No book is. But the story really does make sense in the end, and readers who are willing to climb on board and take the ride are suitably rewarded and, I hope, entertained by the journey.”

In April 2015, Hautman introduced readers to yet another tale set outside of most people’s experience. Eden West (Candlewick Press) follows a young man who has grown up inside a cult compound. As the pages are turned, readers discover the intricacies of the teen’s world and sympathize with him as he discovers cracks in his belief system and questions his faith and commitment. View Pete’s elaborate and hilarious unboxing ceremony upon receipt of the first bound copy of Eden West.

“I use my writing to help myself think. More than that, I use it to try to understand how other people think.”

“I worked on that book for more than a decade, and during that time there was a lot of research on cults and mainstream religions. I re-read the Bible and most of the Mormon scripture and assorted biblical Apocrypha and everything I could find on cults. One of the challenges in writing Eden West was to keep all that research out of the story, but I needed the background to create a coherent epistemology that is mostly just hinted at in the books.”

So what can readers look forward to seeing next from this versatile author? “I just finished a draft of a YA novel about birth order and pizza, and I have a middle-grade book coming out in September: The Flinkwater Factor (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2015). It’s a near-future comedy about a girl growing up in Flinkwater, Iowa, home of the world’s largest robot manufacturer.”

“I believe I do my best work when I’m trying something new—when I’m a little bit scared and uncertain—hence the genre shifting. I don’t believe in reincarnation, so I’m trying to live and work as if this is my only shot. I’ll set my writing aside when I’m dead, and the last wild rhinoceros will die, and the sun will become a red giant and swallow Earth, and the universe will contract, and we’ll start all over again.”

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2015 Caldecott Honor Book Author and Artist is Self-Taught

Though she always loved drawing and creating, Yuyi Morales never set out to become an author and illustrator. In fact, the idea didn’t occur to her until she was an adult visiting a branch of the San Francisco Public Library in California with her son. However, the seeds of art appreciation were planted early in her life and were just waiting for the right time to blossom.

Learn how to pronounce Yuyi’s name in this audio clip from Teachingbooks.net!

Growing up on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, Morales enjoyed vibrant color, an expressive life, and a close family. “When I was a child, I loved drawing. My main practice was to copy everything I found—family photos, Disney characters, scenes from magazines. When learning to make my first drawings, my mother would instruct me by showing me how to draw a child’s face by first drawing a circle and then using the lower part of it to place the features. It was also my mother who encouraged me to make creative things. When I was five, she taught me how to crochet and I made myself a colorful vest and a hat. Since I was very interested in making clothes for my baby dolls, she also taught me how to cut, sew, and even embroider, so that I could come up with my own creations.”

“I am a very fearful person. Among my strongest memories of my childhood are of me being terrified of things I imagined such as extraterrestrials coming to my house to abduct me. I can tell you that during my adulthood I have also had to deal with many fears. And so, in my living and in my work, after I fear, I push myself to dare. And then I like to celebrate it because yes, I love parties and celebrations!”

When it came time to become serious about a career, Morales set aside her interest in creative things and chose to study something more practical in college—physical education. Once she graduated, Morales began working as a swimming coach. She also met her husband, Tim O’Meara, who had come to Mexico to set up a recording studio. After a few years, Morales’ father-in-law became gravely ill, and her little family which now included a son, picked up and moved to California. Morales spoke very little English and quickly became lost in a world foreign to her; that is, until she entered the children’s department at the San Francisco Public Library.

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“I am living part time in the two lands of my heart, Mexico and the USA. At this moment in my life, I feel tremendously privileged to be a citizen of two countries. I feel like I have a motherland, Mexico, and a fatherland, the USA, who nurture me and still see me growing up.”

“The picture books I found for the first time in the library were a huge challenge to me because they were written in English. But I do remember that the first one I ever opened from the shelves of the public library had illustrations of a little girl with Asian features. As I began to understand the books better, I was able to recognize them and remember them. A Mother for Choco (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1992) was one of them—oh how I loved that book with that yellow baby bird looking to find a mother who was also the mother of all those other babies from other species! One book that caused me much impact was Chato’s Kitchen (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995). Imagine my surprise upon seeing that there was a book that celebrated being Latino!”

“Have books everywhere, in each nook of a place, next to the bed, on top or instead of the television, inside the bathroom, by the dinner table, by the windows. Put books inside paper bags and give them as surprises, give them as presents, read them as gifts. And make your own books, don’t wait until you have time, or until inspiration hits; make your books now with what you have and as you are; don’t wait until the stars are all aligned to make your dreams come true. Do it now!”

As Morales learned English from those picture books, she also began thinking about creating her own picture books. “When I knew I wanted to illustrate picture books like the ones they had at the library, I embarked on the process of learning how to paint. My way to learn it was by returning to my old childhood practice of copying. Using picture books I brought home from the public library, I practiced on my dining table trying to emulate paintings like the ones I saw in the picture books I most admired.”

“I just finished the illustration for Thunderboy (Little, Brown), which is Sherman Alexie’s first picture book, and I am most excited about it. Also, already on my table is Rudas (Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press), another Niño book where we will get to wrestle a second Lucha match.”

Morales’ strategy proved effective. Today the self-taught artist has been awarded numerous and incredible honors including the 2015 Pura Belpré Medal (her fourth) and a 2015 Caldecott Honor for Viva Frida (Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press, 2014). viva-frida “Making my books is such an act of love for me. Yes, there is pressure, but it is one that I have exerted on myself from the very beginning. For instance, I have promised myself that I will never hold back when creating a new book, and that with every new book I make I will strive for it to be my best book ever. I have also promised myself that when in doubt I will always go for the most unexpected choice or the direction that would make me say, ‘Oh, I would never do that, it is too crazy.’ My last promise to myself is to only make books that I love. These resolutions have been part of my work from the very beginning, and they aren’t changing even years after I started this journey. My rule is to pursue joy.”

“I hope that my legacy will be my books as a celebration where the readers can honor the struggles as much as the triumphs, the fear as much as the brave actions, the search as much as the finding, and that together we dare to become the protagonists of our own life stories.”

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