Wishes Granted through Successful Grant Writing

by Maurna Rome, 4th/5th Grade Humanities Teacher
Evergreen Park World Cultures Community School, Brooklyn Center, MN


As I reflect on a decade of successful grant writing and more than a dozen projects that have received local, state or national funding, I notice a common thread running through them.

In addition to offering a catchy title, often using an acronym, each of these projects:

  1. Promote a unique approach to learning
  2. Involve partnerships
  3. Are fairly easy to replicate
  4. Can be sustained with minimal or no additional funding

I was fortunate to attend an excellent full day seminar on grant writing many years ago, and much of what was shared at that event has proven to work. I hope that the tips I am sharing here will help other educators who, like me, are eager to have their teaching and learning wishes granted. It may not be as easy as rubbing Aladdin’s magic lamp, but with a little creativity, effort, and research, successful grant writing is well within reach.

P.I.E. (Partners In Education) Night

This project was awarded the very first Paul Wellstone Memorial Award from MAASFEP (Minnesota Association of Administrators of Federal Education Programs).  Unlike many parent involvement events that simply strive to get parents in the door, this project offered programming designed to improve at-home learning by teaching parents specific literacy strategies. Acknowledging the important role parents play as their children’s first and forever teachers is an essential component to educational grant projects.  The grant covered the cost of thousands of books that kids were given to expand home libraries.

TIP: When looking for funding for common yet highly sought after items such as books or ipads, think of a new or clever way to utilize the resources.

I D.E.C.L.A.R.E. it’s a Library Fair:

Discover, Experience, Connect, Learn, Achieve, Read, Explore

This project, funded by a library mini-grant through the MN Department of Education, required a partnership to promote community involvement. Securing partnerships with other organizations may be a stipulation for some grants or it may help your project stand out from others. The “I DECLARE” grant funded several field trips to three libraries around the state and emphasized access to e-books and audio books with 30 Samsung tablets during the summer.

TIP: When designing a project, connecting with a worthy organization in your community such as a nursing home, library, college or youth group, may require more planning and communication, but can give your project more potential to make a positive difference.

M.A.P. to Literacy – Mentor texts + Authentic experiences = Powerful literacy

This project received funding from two sources, the Regie Routman Teacher Recognition Grant and a classroom grant from Education Minnesota. The idea was to promote literacy with an author visit and exceptional texts to encourage kids to write their own books. This grant project is one that can easily be copied by other teachers and schools because of its broad appeal and connection to state reading standards.

TIP: Most grant competitions feature funded projects on their website. The goal is to inspire others to offer similar programming. The easier it is to recreate your program, the better your chances of getting funded.

Cardboard L.I.F.T. Club; Linking Imagination, Fun & Text

Inspired by “Caine’s Arcade” this successful grant project featured an after school project that brought kids together to participate in books clubs while also incorporating hands-on integration of the arts. With funding from the MN Reading Association, after reading and discussing a book with their group, kids created a cardboard display representing the book. Kids then gave presentations to their peers.

TIP: Grant projects that make an initial investment in materials that can be used again in the future offer a solid sustainability factor. Mentioning additional ways the materials will be used in the future, after the grant funding has ended, is excellent way to convince potential funders of the expanded value of your grant project.

There are several excellent resources to help both the rookie and veteran grant writer. NEA offers an informative article called “Write a Grant” by Cynthia McCabe.

Education World also weighs in on the topic with a lengthier overview of tips and resources for those interested in becoming a successful grant writer.

Grants secured by Maurna Rome from 2005-2015

Ice Cream For Books
$6,000 – PATCH (Painters and Allied Trade for Children’s Hope)

P.I.E. (Partners In Education) Night
$2,500 – Paul Wellstone Memorial Award from MAASFEP
(Minnesota Association of Administrators of Federal Education Programs)
$1,000 – MN Reading Association
$1,000 – Albert Lea Education Foundation

I D.E.C.L.A.R.E. it’s a Library Fair:
Discover, Experience, Connect, Learn, Achieve, Read, Explore
$3,600 MN Department of Education
$1,500 WEM Outstanding Educator Award

M.A.P. to Literacy – Mentor texts + Authentic experiences = Powerful literacy
$2,500 – Regie Routman Teacher Recognition Grant
$3,000 – Education MN Foundation Grant

Cardboard L.I.F.T. Club; Linking Imagination, Fun & Text
$1,000 – MN Reading Association
$1,000 – Private Donor

Summer Book Club
$2,000 – PATCH (Painters and Allied Trade for Children’s Hope)

National Board Certification
$750 – Education Minnesota’s Foundation for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

Stephanie Watson

Stephanie Watson, Finding Humor and Inspiration in the Ordinary

“When I was a kid, I met Tomie dePaola, the creator of some of my favorite books,” reminisces Stephanie Watson. “He drew a picture of Strega Nona with a marker on a big pad of paper, right in front of me like it was no big deal. The lines he drew formed Strega Nona but they also formed a connection between magical books and regular people. That day I started believing that I could make books, too.”

Though the dream to create books was born when she met dePaola, Minnesota-based author Stephanie Watson already loved books and reading from the time she was very young. “When I was four, I memorized the book Thumbelina (by Hans Christian Andersen) and then recited it to anyone who would listen hoping that they thought I was reading for real. When I was a little older (and actually knew how to read), I would ride my bike to the Washburn Public Library in Minneapolis, check out a backpack full of books, and then bring them home to read in bed. Harriet the Spy (Harper & Row, 1964) was probably the first book I truly loved and wanted to live in.”

“Reading was cool, reading was powerful, and it was something I was in a hurry to learn to do.”

As Watson grew and made her way through the educational system, writing was always her passion and writing books for young people was her dream. However, when she graduated from college, she began writing web content for businesses and started her own company, Plumlines. “Since 2002, I’ve written in both the fields of children’s fiction and web content because my heart is in one and the steady paycheck is in the other. Writing websites for businesses (the work I do with Plumlines) is totally different than crafting stories for kids. One doesn’t feed the other creatively. But Plumlines has supported my fiction writing in other ways: financially and with a flexible work schedule. One day I hope to transition to just writing fiction, but for now I am still juggling both.”

Though she was well known in the business community for her writing skills, it wasn’t until she emerged on the children’s book scene with her debut book, Elvis & Olive (Scholastic Press, 2008), that she became known to younger readers. Immediately she garnered a following of fans, as well as critical acclaim, when the book was named a 2008 Junior Library Guild Selection and a Washington Post Book of the Week. “I wasn’t sure what to expect when my first book came out. Parades? Plane tickets to bookstores around the world? Dead silence? I was very happy when Elvis & Olive was singled out by the Junior Library Guild and the Washington Post.”

Since 2008, Watson has followed up Elvis & Olive with a sequel, Elvis & Olive: Super Detectives (Scholastic Press, 2010), and a picture book, The Wee Hours (Disney-Hyperion Books for Young Readers, 2013).

“I thought writing a sequel to Elvis & Olive would be easy. After all, I was in the Published Authors Club now, and I had all the characters I needed from book one. But when I sat down to write the sequel, I was surprised at how much pressure I suddenly felt to write something good, and that pressure gave me severe writer’s block. What would people think? Would it measure up to the first book? I had to get back to the who-cares-no-big-deal place from which I wrote Elvis & Olive. I had to let myself write some really shaggy drafts. And once I gave myself this permission, I was able to write freely and find the story I wanted to tell. It was rough going for a while, but Elvis & Olive: Super Detectives turned out to be an even stronger book than the first one.”

“My parents made sure we had lots of books in the house, they read to us at night, and took us to the library a lot. At Clara Barton Open School in Minneapolis, I had great teachers who read aloud in class and sent books home (Mary Ellen Lien and Chris Jaglo, I’m talking to you).”

This month Watson’s fourth book, Behold! A Baby (Bloomsbury, 2015), will be published. Where did she get the inspiration for this comedic book? “Behold! A Baby didn’t come out of my experiences as a child. The idea for the book came to me when my daughter, Ivy, was eighteen months old. She was still toothless. By that point, I had tossed all the teething rings and gels, having completely given up on baby teeth. I had decided Ivy would be a Toothless Wonder until she was six when her adult teeth would grow in.

“One day, while having lunch with friends, I put a piece of apple in Ivy’s mouth. My finger slid over something hard and bumpy protruding from one of her gums. I gasped and cried, ‘Oh my GOD!’ My friends clutched their chests in alarm, ‘WHAT’S WRONG?’ I said, ‘Ivy has a MOLAR.’ I waited for their reactions of awe and wonder. ‘It’s her first tooth!’ I insisted. My friends, who had two older kids with lots of teeth, mustered a polite ‘Wow, cool.’ And I understood: The tooth was simultaneously miraculous and mundane. Nearly all moments with a growing baby are like this. I find this polarity hilarious. So I wrote a story that played with this idea of a baby being at once awe-inspiring and commonplace.”

“At the library, the summer program that rewarded reading with prizes totally worked on me. I read stacks of books in the hopes of earning a cloth book bag.”

In addition to inspiring the picture book, Ivy has spurred her to create Stephanie Watson Comics. “When my daughter started talking, she had a LOT to say. I began writing down the things that struck me as funny or strange or wise. I treasure these quotes the way other mothers might cherish locks of hair or outgrown clothes. Last summer, I realized that I had collected a lot of Ivy’s quotes and that it would be fun to turn them into little comics. I started doing it just for fun and as a keepsake for myself and Ivy. But then I began sharing them online, and people seem to like them. I’m currently searching for someone to publish a collection of these comics.”

Watson’s next book, How to Be Best Friends: A Book of Dos, Don’ts and Dance, is being illustrated by LeUyen Pham and will be available by Scholastic Press in 2017. “Aside from that, I have a bunch of picture books in the works. A couple of these I’m hoping to illustrate myself. And there’s a middle-grade novel that takes place in both the real world and a fantasy world.”

Jarrett Krosoczka

Jarrett J. Krosoczka: Celebrating Comics and Creativity

True story: back in the “olden days” of the early 1990s when Jarrett J. Krosoczka was a youngster, he would walk miles to get new reading material. “I didn’t consider myself an avid reader as a kid because comics weren’t considered real reading back then. But I devoured comics! I read them in the newspaper every day, even cutting out the Garfield daily strips and collecting them in scrapbooks. And if I couldn’t get a ride to the comic book shop, I would walk—and it was 1 1/2 miles each way. So I was walking three miles to get reading material, but adults weren’t celebrating that fact.”

Today graphic novels (aka comic books) are viewed as real and important by teachers and librarians alike, and author and illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka has become a leader in the genre with popular series such as Lunch Lady (Knopf Books for Young Readers) and Platypus Police Squad (Walden Pond Press).

“I have had a lifelong obsession with telling stories with words and pictures. I put my imagination down on the page and create something out of nothing. I invent characters and they live in my head and on the pages. And, as author and illustrator, I get to decide what part of the story will be told with the words and what part will be told with the pictures. I brainstorm, make a rough draft, lay out the story, revise—just like I was taught to by my third grade teacher!”

“I was raised by two people who came of age during the Great Depression. My grandfather came from nothing and worked so hard to become a successful entrepreneur. He made sure I knew the importance of hard work. And I hope that young authors and illustrators know that you need to work hard to carve out a career in the arts.”

Raised by his grandparents from the age of three, Krosoczka was drawn to art from a young age. “Art has always been a part of the very fabric of my being. One of my earliest memories of drawing happened when I was in preschool. We were asked to draw a portrait of our families, and I drew my grandparents, a few aunts, uncles, and myself. (My grandparents’ youngest children were in their late teens and living at home when they took me in.) Art was always an escape for me.

“My grandparents were remarkably supportive. They sent me to art classes at the Worcester Art Museum starting in 6th grade when public funding slashed the arts budgets in public schools. But even bigger than that, they always made sure that I had paper and drawing utensils available to me and in a drawer that I could access independently. My grandfather would bring home manila folders from work, and I would use them as my book covers.”

“Having kids, and reading to them, has given me a deeper appreciation for many of the classics, like I am a Bunny (Golden Books, 1963). I like to read that to them in a French accent. (I read The Very Hungry Caterpillar (World Publishing Company, 1969) to my girls in a German accent in honor of Eric Carle.) It’s all about making reading a joyous experience for your kids. New parents need to know to have fun with great books! If you are miserable reading the book, your kids will see right through whatever facade you put up, so curate a collection that you will love as much as your pre-readers.”

Tenacious about his craft and eager to enter the art world, Krosoczka pitched his first project to the syndicates when he was in ninth grade: a comic strip called Freshmen. A few years later, he landed a paid job creating a twice-a-week comic strip called Peter’s Summer in the local newspaper. “I was paid $25 a comic strip. It taught me that I wasn’t interested in making daily strips and that my work had value.”

Supercharge your classroom or school library with a ten-volume set of Jarrett Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady graphic novels courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf publishers and Mackin.

Win 1 of 2 complete sets of Lunch Lady books. Contest closes March 31, 2015.

“In high school my art teacher, Mr. Shilale, told us that every artist gets at least two years worth of rejections before anything would happen. That stuck in my head and when I was a junior at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) I thought, ‘I need to start getting those rejections out of the way!’ I knew that I needed to prove to my grandparents that I could make a living off of this art thing. As fate would have it, I received my first contract two years after my first book rejection, which was also six months after graduating RISD. I have a very nice folder of about twenty-something rejection letters.”

In addition to those rejection letters, Krosoczka now has more than 25 books, two TED Talks, and a weekly radio segment on SiriusXM. In addition, he has hosted the Children’s Choice Book Awards, makes school visits, and has two movies in the works.


“High-concept books with a strong picture-to-text connection are crucial to creating a literate society. Every single age group benefits from these books, but I believe our emerging readers benefit most of all. From the toddler who can read the pictures in a wordless picture book to the fifth grader who gets hooked onto books because of a graphic novel, these books foster confidence. Insecurity breeds illiteracy.”

“All of that is indeed true! I’m on SiriusXM every week to give book suggestions on The Absolutely Mindy Show for a segment called The Book Report with JJK. I catalog the suggestions on a Pinterest board with the aim to spread the word on a diverse group of books that are fun and inspiring for kids and their grown-ups. I am an executive producer on all of the film adaptations that are in the works, and I’m hopeful that we will get to see one of those on screens soon enough! I’m also involved with various media outlets like SiriusXM, I have become a regular contributor to FamilyFun magazine, and I’m on the Thought Leader Board for Amazon Studios developing preschool programming that encourages creativity. And I’m itching to give a third TED Talk. But above all that, I am a husband and a father. (Check my Twitter bio for proof!)”

Giving Back In Memory

“When my grandfather died, I reflected on everything he and my grandmother did for me. (My grandmother had passed a few years earlier.) And what stuck out to me the most was their enrolling me in classes at the Worcester Art Museum. Those classes were crucial to my development. I had the opportunity to be surrounded by like-minded peers, I learned about having deadlines in my comic book and animation classes, and more than anything—I learned that art could be a career.

“My grandparents always supported youth activities in the city, and my grandfather especially loved the city of Worcester. Realizing there were so many kids in my hometown that were in similar familial situations to mine, I wanted to help them get the same opportunities and experiences I had as a kid. I was lucky enough that my grandparents could afford the tuition for an art class here and there. The Joseph and Shirley Krosoczka Memorial Youth Scholarships at the Worcester Art Museum support artistic kids who don’t have the same financial means.

“I mainly fund the Joe and Shirl Art Scholarships through an annual online auction. (It always happens on Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving. Mark your calendars!) It is also funded via personal donations, local book sales at Worcester-area signings, and a sketchbook that I self-published. (I intend to publish more sketchbooks in the years ahead.)

“How many kids have benefited? How much money have I raised? I don’t know, because I don’t pay close attention to those details, they aren’t important to me. I just know that every year I raise thousands of dollars and the Worcester Art Museum is able to change lives with it. That’s the only gratification I need. The young artists who benefit do know the connection they have with me, and I hope that they know there are brighter futures ahead.”

Celebrating Unsung Heroes

“This will be the third year we celebrate School Lunch Hero Day, an annual celebration held the first Friday in May. And man, it has taken off to be so much bigger than I had dreamed.

“When the Lunch Lady books were first published, we launched at the Worcester Public Library. My childhood lunch ladies and the inspirations for the series, Jeanne and Betty, were on hand. I presented them with artwork and books, and the audience gave them a standing ovation. I would later learn how much that meant to them when, two years later, Jeanne passed away and her family put that painting of the Lunch Lady next to her casket. Her widower told me how much my thank-you meant to her. As you can imagine, I was very moved. It was just a simple gesture, but a thank-you can go so very far.

“I founded the day with the help of the School Nutrition Association—and social media. I am lucky to be in touch with so many educators on a daily basis via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The celebration was embraced, and everyone who participated commented on what an emotional day it was.

“My objective was simple: get kids to thank their lunch staff via creative projects. Everyone benefits when gratitude is expressed. I’ve never met a ‘lunch lady’ who didn’t love her or his job, but it can be a very thankless job. These folks keep our schools running by keeping our students fed. And in so many cases, these are meals that our students absolutely depend on.”

So what can readers expect to see from this busy man next? “Well after the third installment of the Platypus Police Squad series, Last Panda Standing, the fourth installment, Never Say Narwhal, will publish in May 2016. On September 8, 2015, my next picture book, It’s Tough to Lose Your Balloon (Random House), will publish. That book is the first that is directly inspired by life as a father. In 1999, when I was a senior at RISD, I wrote a picture book called Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches in the Sand that listed the injustices of childhood. But it was sort of a downer and I never did anything with it. Fast forward to 2012 when our oldest daughter was three and she lost her balloon at a birthday party. She was devastated. My wife, Gina, reassured her by telling her that her grandparents, who were on a trip, would see the balloon from the sky. It was that positive twist that unearthed my old manuscript. When Balloon publishes it will be the 30th book with “Krosoczka” on the spine. Also, a shout-out to the second volume in the Comics Squad (Random House Books for Young Readers) anthology series, which will hit bookshelves in early 2016. Editing that series with Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm has been such a blast.”

Krosoczka welcomes notes from his readers via Facebook, Twitter, email, or the United States Postal Service. “I am proud to say that I do respond to fan mail. (Because I’m ashamed to say that I was negligent and let it pile up for some time…) I like getting physical mail the best. And for some reason that is just easier to stay on top of and respond to. I have a dedicated email for fan mail, and I respond to every single tweet or Facebook post. It can be hard to stay on top of it all, but I am so lucky that people are reaching out to me and so, so fortunate that I get to use my imagination for my full-time job.”


J. Patrick Lewis

J. Patrick Lewis, Former Children’s Poet Laureate

“Poetry hit me, at the age of 40, like a pie in the face. A banana cream pie happily, which I love,” shares J. Patrick Lewis, an award-winning children’s poet.

Though a bit unconventional, Lewis’ pathway to becoming one of America’s celebrated poets began when he was an economics professor at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio. What prompted him to switch emphasis from the study of prosperity to the study of poetry? “Quite simply, the realization that I was in the wrong field with the wrong grasshoppers,” admits Lewis. “Of course I couldn’t afford to quit my day job—teaching college economics—so I soldiered on for another decade in the classroom before I retired early from teaching.”

Before embarking on his second career, Lewis decided to take time off to study the craft. “Sadly, I never had that magical teacher or librarian who showered me with poetry, so I had to discover it on my own. When I did, I became a fool for it, which is how I think of myself now. But loving poetry is a necessary but insufficient condition for writing it. I knew nothing about verse, except that I was infatuated with it, which is why I spent over three years reading the classics—both adult and children’s poetry—before I even thought of employment at the writer’s trade.”

“I can remember haunting the local library regularly as a child. But we were blessed in having parents who read to us, and that made all the difference. I won’t claim that I always wanted to be a writer, but my love of words—and playing with words—was born on my mother’s lap.”

That diligence of study paid off. And in 1985, after seven years of rejections, Lewis’ first manuscript was accepted. Since then he has published nearly 100 books of poetry, has received numerous awards and accolades, and was named Children’s Poet Laureate for 2011-2013. Currently, there is significant praise for Harlem Hellfighters (Creative Editions, 2014) including being chosen by The New York Times as one of the “Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2014.”

“The Children’s Poet Laureateship was indeed welcome and to me vindication for years of hard work. But of course one does not write for awards, which are as ephemeral as pots of gold at rainbows’ ends. Like everything else in life, they are fleeting. I’m enormously gratified with the reception for Harlem Hellfighters, especially because it highlights the art of Gary Kelley. Gary and I have published seven books thus far, and in my opinion, each one of them deserves the recognition that Harlem Hellfighters has received. I would like to add that this is true for every book that has been published by the nonpareil Creative Editions.”

In 2015, Lewis has 10 books coming out. “Three of them are by my favorite publisher, Creative Editions: Make the Earth Your Companion; The Navajo Code Talkers (another Gary Kelley book, I’m happy to say); and Always, Jackie: The Incredible Story of Ron Rabinovitz and Jackie Robinson. And I should mention my anthology sequel to National Geographic’s Book of Animal Poetry (National Geographic Society, 2013), Book of Nature Poetry, another collection of 200 poems with glorious National Geographic Society photos due out in the fall of 2015.”

Always busy, Lewis is currently working on a book he calls Blue which is a collection of “ekphrastic” poems written about specific, blue-dominated paintings. In addition, he continues to respond to fan mail (jplewis42@gmail.com), and is scheduling school visits to get children excited about poetry.

“Good poetry for young people, in my opinion, is not ‘giggle poetry,’ or poetry that plays to the basest emotions. Good poetry eschews sentimentality and is rife with metaphor, the bedrock of any poet. It relies on personified action verbs, not adjectives and adverbs. A diamante, for example, relying as it does on listing adjectives, does not even rise to the level of a verse form. It should come with a label: do not try this at home!”

“Children will most definitely not gravitate to poetry. Poetry must be brought to them. At every school visit I make, I say that I am hoping to make children hate poetry…less than most Americans do! Those who claim to hate poetry simply have either not read the best or been force-fed poems for ‘analysis’ in college courses. Try Frost, Dickinson, Auden, Larkin, and so many others. They can transport you in a way no video game or TV program will ever do.”

Though he has retired from his professional teaching career, Lewis has no intention of retiring from poetry any time soon. Rather, he aspires to get better and better. “Putting together words in a way no one has ever done before is an exhilarating experience. It doesn’t happen every day, but when it does, the trumpeters go off in the little room of my mind. As Donald Hall has said, ‘Wake up every day in the hope of producing great poetry.’ Do I succeed? No, but when was that ever the point? To that end, I’d like to make each poem, each book better than the last.”


A whole in your pocket
A hitchhiker’s guide
A road to time travel
A ticket to ride

A bundle of wonder
A mystery unsolved
(In which you will soon
Be directly involved)

A windfall in lap-lad
A bedside surprise
A serving of sun
Under rain-wrecked skies

Rarely a lemon
But lemon meringue
The big enchilada
The whole shebang

~J. Patrick Lewis
Everything is a Poem: The Best of J. Patrick Lewis (Creative Editions, 2014).

Nick Bruel, It’s All About That Face…And Trouble

nick_bruelTen years ago readers were introduced to a persnickety, cunning, mischievous housecat known simply as Bad Kitty. It all started with Bad Kitty (Roaring Brook Press, 2005), an alphabet picture book revealing all the things Bad Kitty would like to do—including eat Uncle Murray. Yes, Uncle Murray. That is one bad cat.

“As with almost all of my books, the title actually came first,” says acclaimed Bad Kitty author Nick Bruel. “I occasionally like to give myself simple creative exercises in which I’m not challenging myself to think of an entire story. Instead, I think of just a title and then contemplate what I could do with it. So about a dozen years ago, I was sitting at home jotting down titles onto a piece of paper when the words ‘Bad Kitty’ stood out to me. I started wondering about what terrible things a cat could do. Pretty soon I came up with a long list of mayhem. But it wasn’t until I realized that I could put this list into alphabetical order that the book started to take shape.

“When I completed the first Bad Kitty book, I didn’t intend for there to be a series at all. And I don’t think I even wanted to make a series. Those alphabets are hard! It wasn’t until a few years later, when I first came up with the idea to make chapter books about the character, that the notion that I could sustain a series came into play.”

“I was always a pretty good reader, but I can’t say that I was ever a voracious reader. And even though I had wonderful teachers and librarians as a child, it wasn’t until I discovered comic books that I really became obsessed with books. It’s almost certainly the reason I chose to make books that are also ‘graphic novels’ in the most literal sense of both those words.”

A decade after the Bad Kitty empire was created, it is still going and growing strong. In fact, 2015 will be a banner year for Bad Kitty. There will be a Bad Kitty birthday party in May during Children’s Book Week and new books will be introduced during the year. “2015 will see three new Bad Kitty books in addition to Bad Kitty: Puppy’s Big Day (Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press). In May, there will be Bad Kitty Makes Comics…and You Can Too (Neal Porter Books/Square Fish), a fun instructional guide that shows kids how to make their own comic books. Also in May, the first two early readers featuring Kitty—Bad Kitty Does Not Like Dogs (Neal Porter Books/Square Fish) and Bad Kitty Does Not Like Candy (Neal Porter Books/Square Fish). And the first book Bad Kitty will have a special 10th anniversary edition. The cover will be a little different, but more importantly, it will include a special free poster of Kitty and Puppy and a birthday cake.”

In addition to participating in anniversary celebrations for Bad Kitty, school visits, and book events, Bruel continues to create new adventures for the feisty feline. “I’ll keep writing these books for as long as I’m able. I have no idea when I’ll stop. But if I ever do stop, I’ll tell you why. It will be because writing these books stopped being fun. If I’m not enjoying myself while writing these books, then that lethargy will come out in the work itself, and the last thing I want to do is compromise the integrity of the series as a whole with even a single book I didn’t have fun writing.

Nick Bruel, Bad Kitty and Neal Porter

Nick with Bad Kitty herself and Nick’s editor Neal Porter

Bad Kitty Happy Birthday Bash

Bad Kitty Happy Birthday Bash

“If you want kids to read, then you have to set the example. I honestly think that kids need to see the adults in their lives reading. And I think it also really helps if the adults are reading the same thing as the kids. Most people don’t think of books this way, but books really are the most interactive of media. Two different people who live thousands of miles apart can read the same book and talk about it together while holding it in their hands. What a marvelous notion!”

“Right now I’ve just finished the Bad Kitty chapter book that will come out in 2016—Bad Kitty Goes to the Vet, a topic that’s already been suggested to me by hundreds of kids over the years. This one goes in some pretty wild directions that I don’t think anyone will predict. At some point, I’ll be making another Bad Kitty picture book, but I don’t have a story for that one yet. And A Wonderful Year (Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press, 2015) has just been published. I truly hope this one is embraced by my readers even though it’s not a Bad Kitty book. I often tell people that I do not have a favorite book of mine, and it’s true. But having said that, A Wonderful Year may be the best book I’ve ever made.”  Reviewers seem to agree. The book has received two starred reviews so far including one from Kirkus Reviews that said, “From silly to quite touching, an array of emotions spans this whole, wide wonderful year.”

Nick Bruel Contest

Fact and Fiction

“The notion of having fact sections in the Bad Kitty books came to me when I started contemplating who my reader would be. I never had a particular age group in mind when I began writing these chapter books. So instead I began thinking about that thorny creature that educators call ‘the reluctant reader.’

“I already knew that I wanted to make the kind of book that would be a bridge book from picture books to chapter books. When I started contemplating what little I knew about those kinds of kids who needed a little help transitioning, I remembered my nephew who was a reluctant reader early on. I discovered by watching him that he was not a reluctant reader so much as a reluctant fiction reader. Early on, he liked facts like the ones he would find inside The Guinness Book of World Records (Guinness World Records). Facts were useful to him and gave him the encouragement he needed to read.

“So that’s why I felt as if a section of facts, not hidden or integrated into the story itself, was needed. Even though the fact sections don’t integrate into the stories themselves, they always need to be on topic. So really it’s the story that dictates what’s going to be discussed in the fact sections.

“I chose Uncle Murray as the facts guy almost completely for practical purposes. When I first began writing Bad Kitty Gets a Bath (Square Fish, 2009), the first in the chapter book series, I needed a spokesperson. He was the only character who actually talked even though he barely appeared in the original book. I created him as a simple gag for the letter ‘U’ in the foods that Kitty wants to eat. He’s based on my own real-life Uncle Murray, a lovely ol’ guy from my childhood.”


Grace Lin

Grace Lin

“I’ve always loved books. I remember, even before I was able to read, tracing a lot of Richard Scarry drawings as a child. I particularly remember tracing a pig with a sausage, and only now realize how sly Richard Scarry’s sense of humor was,” reminisces Grace Lin, an award-winning author and illustrator who masterfully weaves Chinese folklore and family tales into mesmerizing novels and entertaining picture books.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

“As I grew older, I fell in love with fairy tale illustrations—the classics like Arthur Rackham and then more contemporary artists like Trina Schart Hyman. However, even though I loved fairy tales full of magic, I also loved more realistic books like B is for Betsy (Harcourt Brace, 1939) by Carolyn Haywood, the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, and the Noel Streatfeild Shoes books. My favorite books of all time are the Anne of Green Gables books by L.M. Montgomery. I love them so much that I even went on a pilgrimage to Prince Edward Island.”

Though she enjoyed reading and drawing, it did not occur to Lin that she could be an author/illustrator until a teacher introduced the possibility.

“Even in elementary school I loved making books. For almost any class assignment, I would make a book. I even made books for fun. One day, a teacher of mine gave me a little brochure about a national book contest—where students could submit their written and illustrated books and the winner would get their book published. With her encouragement, I sent my book in. I did not win first place, but I did win fourth place and that win opened my eyes to the possibility of one day becoming a ‘real’ author and illustrator. So, without that teacher’s awareness of my interests and willingness to suggest something outside of the curriculum, I might not be making books professionally today.”

Lin’s professional career as a writer and author began with her first book The Ugly Vegetables (Charlesbridge, 1999). It was a simple picture book about an Asian girl coming to terms with her mother’s vegetable garden and learning about the joys of community. And like most of her follow-up books, The Ugly Vegetables gave nod to her family.

“When my first book, The Ugly Vegetables, came out, my sisters were a bit upset that I didn’t include them. ‘You’re NOT an only child,’ they told me and made me promise that I wouldn’t publish anymore personal narratives without them in it. So you’ll notice a lot of my books have three girls in them—that is because they are my two sisters and me! I do take liberties with scenarios and the characters. My mother insists my father is nowhere near as funny as he is in the books (he disagrees); and my older sister loves to point out how impossible the timeline is in my books. For example, the Taipei 101 building in Dumpling Days (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2012) was not even built when we were kids. But even though I do change things around, I always try to keep close to the spirit and emotions that truly happened.”

Beyond her family, Lin gains more and more devoted fans with the release of each new book. Her work has also received high praise and garnered significant accolades including the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Little, Brown, 2009) and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same (Little, Brown, 2010).

“Receiving the honors has been such a gift and I will be forever grateful. For a long time I had identified myself as a multicultural author/illustrator and was resigned to the glass ceiling of the label. But after being given the awards, my multicultural adjective changed to ‘Newbery Honor,’ and the reading audience of my books broadened beyond anything I had expected before. What is even more amazing is the response that I began to receive from readers—not only were they reading my books, but they loved them, too. It proved to me once and for all that the multicultural label was just a label and not indicative of which readers would enjoy my books.”

With a growing repertoire of more than 20 books that includes picture books, early readers, and novels, Lin offers something for everyone. “I hope my legacy is a shelf of good books that people love and read and share over and over again. I admit to being introverted and having a hard time making friends. But so much of myself (perhaps the best parts of me) are in my books. They are my way of holding out my heart and trying to embrace everyone as a true friend. So I hope that is what people associate with my life and my work—that my books are their friends, just as other books have been mine.”

Kevin Henkes, Author and Illustrator of Award-winning and Beloved Children’s Books

Rarely are the highest honors in children’s literature for illustration and for text bestowed on the same person. Most recipients are awarded either the Caldecott or the Newbery Medal for a book they helped to create. But, there is always an exception to the status quo. Kevin Henkes is that exception. Most recently, Henkes’ The Year of Billy Miller (Greenwillow, 2013) was named a Newbery Honor book. A few years back, Olive’s Ocean (Greenwillow, 2005) was also named a Newbery Honor book; Owen (Greenwillow, 1993) was named a Caldecott Honor book; and Kitten’s First Full Moon (Greenwillow, 2004) was honored with the Caldecott Medal.

As a beloved author and illustrator of books for children and young adults, it makes sense that Henkes’ childhood was filled with positive reading and drawing experiences. “I’ve always loved books and I cannot remember a time when I did not love to draw. I think I was born an artist. Writing came much later; although I did attempt writing a novel in fourth grade. I do remember my first ‘favorite’ book. It was Is This You (W.R. Scott, 1955) by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson. It is essentially a manual for making a book about oneself. I like to think of it as a perfect guide for a future writer and illustrator of picture books. It was one of the few books I owned. I adored it and still have it.”

It seems that this “perfect guide for a future writer and illustrator” truly served Henkes well. In addition to the Caldecott and Newbery awards, Henkes has been honored with numerous other awards including the Phoenix Picture Book Award from the Children’s Literature Association, the Charlotte Zolotow Award, and many “best of” book awards.

With such success, one would assume Henkes would feel pressure to meet the high expectations of devoted readers as well as awards committees. “It’s truly thrilling to be recognized by the Newbery and Caldecott committees. I suppose the best thing the awards do is to ensure that the honored book will have a longer life and therefore reach more kids. That’s huge. I don’t think the awards have changed me nor have they made me feel pressure of any kind. When I’m deep into my work all those kinds of external things disappear. It’s just me and the book.

“Although I didn’t own many books, my parents took us to the public library on a regular basis and so I always had books in my life. Going to the library was part of life like going to the grocery store or to school. My family had a wonderful relationship with our children’s librarian. She always had suggestions for new things to read. I was lucky with teachers too—I had a few who inspired me greatly.”

“I always begin with characters. To make the story interesting, my characters have to grow or change in some way. I’m drawn to interior, quiet books—or small domestic stories. So, often there is a new awareness about life or self that happens to my character as he or she grows. But I don’t work with an outline, so those kinds of changes take place on the page as I’m working and are not planned.”

Henkes created his first book, All Alone (Greenwillow, 1981), while in high school. It was later accepted by a publisher while Henkes was in college and released in 1981. Now, just over 30 years later, Henkes has published nearly 50 books including picture books, chapter books for new readers, and middle grade novels. Most feature quiet storylines focusing on the stages and emotions of children with bits of humor sprinkled throughout.

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“I’m drawn to writing about childhood because it is such a complex time of life. Children face the world from a position of powerlessness. And, yet, the world of a child can be full of wonder and discovery. That’s complicated. And compelling. Flannery O’Connor wrote: ‘I think you probably collect most of your experiences as a child—when you really had nothing else to do—and then transfer it to other situations when you write.’

“I love weaving humor into my books, particularly my mouse books. Small details can speak volumes and are often more powerful than if I’d tried to use words to convey the same idea. That’s one of the great joys of making a picture book—to take advantage of both the visual and the written elements and how they work together to make a thickly textured, concise whole. I don’t think I’ve ever hidden a picture within a picture, but I do like to have layers of meaning to discover within my illustrations.”

“I think the best way to encourage a love of reading is to expose kids to books early on, and to continue to do so with enthusiasm. Early and regular exposure to books leads to understanding relationships, to having a substantial vocabulary, to learning to think in a complex way. And maybe, most important is the personal bond—the human connection—that takes place when sharing a book one on one with a child. It is invaluable.”

Henkes’ work has found a place in the hearts of readers. In fact, Henkes has been identified as a genius by Bruce Handy, a New York Times book reviewer. Even without that acknowledgment, fans consider him a favorite author. So what can eager readers expect to see from Henkes in the near future?

“My next book is a picture book called Waiting. I wrote and illustrated it. It will be published in the fall of 2015. Coming after that, in the spring of 2016, is When Spring Comes. It is also a picture book. I wrote the words and my wife Laura Dronzek did the illustrations.”


Lane Smith and Bob Shea

Lane Smith and Bob Shea, Comical Collaborating Picture Book Creators

“Why are people so anxious for kids to move on from picture books?” asks Bob Shea, picture book author and illustrator. “When my son was in Kindergarten, there was a little girl in his class who was particularly impressed with me. Not because I can stay up late watching all the TV I want eating candy until I pass out (which I can totally do) but because I write picture books. She used to come to all my events in town and sit right in the front. It was very sweet.

“She was in Ryan’s first grade class, too. When a new book of mine came out, I had him bring her a copy. The next time I saw her mom she said, ‘Oh, thank you for the book! Of course Penelope (not her real name) doesn’t read picture books anymore. She reads chapter books, but thank you just the same. We’ll burn it in front of her so that she knows that world holds nothing for her now and it’s best to forget childhood ever happened.’

“Most of that is true.”

“People are quick to abandon picture books and dismiss them as ‘babyish’. This is simply not true. A well done picture book, (like every one of mine) should make your head explode with possibilities and inspiration.” – Bob Shea

Unlike Penelope and her mother, Shea has never grown out of his love for picture books and his own mother’s influence. “The older I get the more I appreciate my mother. She never forced anything on me; she just made things available. She subscribed to a service that brought new picture books to our mailbox every month. Lots and lots of Dr. Seuss, but I was a pretty huge fan of the Berenstain Bears. I remember reading Inside Outside Upside Down (Random House, 1969) by Stan and Jan Berenstain to my mother and being showered with praise. I’ve been chasing the praise dragon ever since, but it’s somehow not the same.”

The praise may not be the same today as it was from his mother, but Shea’s efforts have cultivated a dedicated fan base and some pretty flattering recognition.  Shea started out at Comedy Central then began creating characters and animations for PBS Kids and Nick Jr. before moving into the picture books space. Today, he has written and/or illustrated more than a dozen books, including a couple with two-time Caldecott Honoree Lane Smith.

“There was a turning point when I saw The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales (Viking Press, 1992) by Jon Scieszka and some Lane Smith person. It was the first time I saw a kids’ book that was both funny and beautifully illustrated and designed. Around the same time, I was designing corporate newsletters for the local hospital. So you know, I didn’t want to bail on that sweet gig for something as foolhardy as happiness. It seemed to make sense at the time. Shortly after I permitted myself to give writing a go. I met Lane Smith and he casually set me up with a career.”

“Picture books are the launch pad to a lifelong love of reading. I think (and this should be regulated at the federal level) only people who like good stories should read them. Share them with kids. Always have them around. Buy multiple copies of my titles for family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. Demand them at the library and local bookstore. Or, just the first and second thing.” – Bob Shea

“Dude, you are hilarious!” Lane Smith interjects.

“Lane, where did you come from?” asks Shea.

“Bob, I’ve been here the whole time! I didn’t want to interrupt. Besides, you said everything I would’ve said. Except maybe the part about the Berenstain Bears. Don’t get me wrong. I like them too, but I was always more of a Munro Leaf kinda guy. In fact, the Happy Hocky Family (Puffin Books, 1996) books are a direct homage to Mun’s ‘Can be Fun’ books. In those books I wanted to do something as playful as he did, and Molly pushed it even further with her take on retro 1940s/1950s primer design.”

Smith, a multiple recipient of The New York Times Best Illustrated Book award and twice a Caldecott Honoree, is quick to give credit to his wife, Molly Leach, a book designer extraordinaire. “Molly designs all of my books, including Kid Sheriff. She always brings much more to them than I could ever envision in my little brain.”

Smith and Shea (and Molly Leach) have collaborated on Big Plans (Hyperion Press, 2008) and the newly released Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads (Roaring Brook Press, 2014). Both feature very, very secure kids as leads and not-soon-to-be forgotten illustrations.

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“My favorite characters are overly confident and incompetent. Put them in any situation and there’s a chance for humor,” says Shea. “We’ve actually worked on the story for a long time. Lane and his wife, Molly, both have a great ear for the story so they would give me notes on what was and wasn’t working. They were always spot on. By the time the story was ready to go, it was really tight. Then Lane took the manuscript and created the artwork. It’s a joy for me, sometimes I forget he’s Lane Smith. He’s just my friend Lane. Then he sends me a sample and I think, ‘Oh, yeah, THAT Lane Smith.’”

In addition to their most recent collaborative work, Shea and Smith have new books coming out soon. “If it were up to me, Lane and I would work together exclusively. Unfortunately, he has his own ideas. I just finished the first in a series of early readers called Ballet Cat (Disney-Hyperion, 2015) about, get this, a cat who loves ballet.” “And I have a middle grade novel coming out early next year,” adds Smith. “It’s called Return to Augie Hobble (Roaring Brook Press, 2015). It’s funny and dark and somewhat autobiographical. It also has a lot of pictures.”

Both Smith and Shea welcome readers to contact them through their websites. “Or,” adds Smith, “You can reach me by leaving a message with Bob at his home phone number. I know he works hard during the day so it’s probably best to call after midnight when you’re sure to catch him.”

Our Take on eBooks

“Sometimes I wish I were a smart person,” confesses Bob Shea. “The specter of eBooks doesn’t frighten me, but I also spend my summers playing the fiddle and dancing instead of storing food for the winter. What’s more, I laugh at the folly of those who do. I’m just kidding. I can’t play the fiddle.

“Things evolve. I don’t think the eBook evolution will leave printed picture books behind. My relationship with books as a kid can’t be reproduced digitally. Books are physical, visceral things. There’s a spontaneity and immediacy that a digital device can’t match even with a retina display. (The laptop I’m using has one and it’s plenty sweet!) I can’t chew a screen, scribble on a screen, or drop a screen to the floor and have it flop to my favorite page.

“Books are perfect. Don’t get me wrong. If I saw a guy reading a physical newspaper, I’d lead a chanting crowd to derisively mock him until he cried; but actual picture books make a lot more sense than a ‘newspaper.’

“Oh man, where was I? Oh, right, eBooks. You know, I write stories. Whether the story is on the printed page or beamed into our heads by our inevitable digital overloads as a reward for obedient kowtowing is of little concern. I’ll probably be living underground in the sewers then anyway, my dance troupe and I planning an uprising.

“The difference to me is form. An eBook lacks the texture and physicality of a printed book. You lose timing of the page turn and the warmth of the page. As far as what gets me excited in picture books, simply the amount of talent out there right now. It also scares me to death. Guys like Greg Pizzoli and Zach Ohora and my nemesis Jon Klassen are eating my lunch. At least it’s fun to watch.”

“I’m a fan of books in any format,” says Lane Smith. “It’s all good. But personally? I can’t read eBooks. I’ve tried. I have lots downloaded onto my iPad, but I always end up buying the real book. Maybe it’s a generational thing. I’m old.”

Lane Smith

Bob Shea