Ruta Sepetys

Maintaining a Historical Perspective: A Conversation with Highly Acclaimed Author Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys burst onto the publishing scene with the release of her historical fiction book Between Shades of Gray (Philomel Books, 2011). It went on to receive more than 50 literary honors worldwide and to become an international bestseller. Her next book, Out of the Easy (Philomel Books, 2013), also skyrocketed on the New York Times bestseller list and, like its predecessor, was a Carnegie Medal nominee. Sepetys’ latest work, Salt to the Sea (Philomel Books, 2016), debuted at number two on the New York Times bestseller list. Here, Sepetys shares with Mackin a bit about her writing journey.

SaltToTheSeaRuta Sepetys, your historical fiction is devoured by young people and adults. When did you start writing? 

I wrote my first book in third grade—an irreverent novella called The Adventures of Betsy. My teacher, Mrs. Zimmer, allowed me to read chapters aloud to the class. That was so generous! She gave me the gift of creative courage. I also had a high school creative writing teacher who encouraged me and felt I should pursue humor writing. Of course now that suggestion sounds strange because my historical novels are far from humorous. Let’s just say that Betsy won’t ever make it out of my attic.

What is it about historical fiction that appeals to you? 

Writing historical fiction is like being a detective and that appeals to me. I enjoy uncovering secrets, hidden facts, and hidden heroes.

Do you believe historical fiction has a place in schools or is it better suited for recreational reading? 

Yes, I absolutely believe historical fiction has a place in schools. Through characters and story, historical statistics become human and suddenly we care for people we’ve never met, we can find their country on a map, and then—the history matters. Through historical fiction we give voice to those who will never have a chance to tell their story. That’s what keeps me writing!

“Stories are powerful because they provide a framework to understand and interpret complex situations. Lists of statistics can be boring. But through characters and story, suddenly statistics become human and we remember details and dates. Strong characters make a good story. If you feel invested in the characters, you will follow their journey (and hence the plot) passionately. You will care what happens.”

Though you have a countless number of fans worldwide, there are those who feel that you tie up your stories too nicely—that you don’t leave room for the reader to consider what-if possibilities. How do you respond to your critics?

Reviews are the personal opinions of readers and I absolutely respect that. Every reader interprets a story in their own unique way. Some might love an ending, some might hate it—and they’re all justified!

Speaking of open versus closed endings, Joana from Between Shades of Gray not only reappears in Salt to the Sea, but takes on a leading role. Did you know she needed to tell her story when you were writing Shades? 

As you mentioned, Joana was a character from Between Shades of Gray. It was only once I began plotting Salt to the Sea that I realized I could thread her into the story. And I was so excited when I made that realization because it allowed me to revisit Lina and the characters from my first book.

Skype Contest


Ruta Sepetys (Rūta Šepetys) is an internationally acclaimed author of historical fiction published in more than 50 countries and 36 languages. Sepetys is considered a “crossover” novelist as her books are read by both students and adults worldwide. Her novels Between Shades of Gray and Out of the Easy are both New York Times bestsellers, international bestsellers, and Carnegie Medal nominees. Salt to the Sea, her latest novel, was an instant bestseller and debuted at #2 on the New York Times list. Her books have won or been shortlisted for over 40 book prizes, are included on over 20 state reading lists, and have been selected for several all-city reading programs.

Sepetys is the daughter of a Lithuanian refugee. Born in Michigan, she was raised in a family of artists, readers, and music lovers. She attended college to study opera, but instead graduated with a degree in International Finance. Prior to publishing her first novel, she spent 20 years in the music industry helping artists and songwriters distill story through song.

Sepetys is the first American crossover novelist to address both European Parliament and the Library of Congress. She was awarded The Rockefeller Foundation’s prestigious Bellagio Resident Fellowship for Salt to the Sea. Sepetys was also bestowed the Cross of the Knight of the Order by the President of Lithuania for her contributions to education and memory preservation. She is intensely proud to be Lithuanian, even if that means she has a name no one can pronounce.

Sepetys lives in a treehouse in the hills of Tennessee.

Follow Ruta

BetweenShadesOfGrayI’m sure you have been revisiting Lina and company even more with the film adaptation of Between Shades of Gray. What was your role in the movie and how did you feel about releasing your work to be interpreted by others? 

Some authors are reluctant to option their novels for film. I understand that. But in this case, I wrote the book but it’s not my story. The story belongs to history, to Lithuania. I want the largest possible audience to learn of the 50 years of occupation that Lithuanians endured.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be involved in the film adaptation, Ashes in the Snow. The screenwriter discussed his early drafts with me, the director shared audition tapes, and I had dinner with the lead actors before filming even began. The movie is scheduled for the film festival circuit in early 2017 and we are hoping for release in fall of 2017.

OutoftheEasyCoverSo far you have written three books set during the 1940s/1950s that feature real life wrapped in fiction. What can we expect to see from you next? Will you revisit the themes that filled your previous novels?

Yes. I’m inspired by themes of identity, courage, and survival. Thankfully, history is rich with stories that contain those elements. I’m currently working on a historical novel set in 1950s Spain during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. The research has been fascinating!

Before we wrap up our conversation, I must ask about your home. You live in a treehouse in Tennessee? What does that mean? The idea conjures images of backyard forts!

Thanks for asking! My husband and I bought a house at the top of a hill and rebuilt it up into the trees. It feels like a traditional house inside but the walls are glass so we are surrounded by trees in every room. You can see a picture of the treehouse on my website. Just go to the About page. There’s a photo in the FAQ section.

Finally, do you respond to fan mail? What is the best way for readers to contact you?

Absolutely. Readers can contact me through the “Contact” page on my website

Download Resources

Between Shades of Gray

Out of the Easy

Salt to the Sea


Jane Yolen

Jane Yolen: Prolific Poet and Author Embraces Her Destiny in the Family Business

There was never any doubt or question in her mind: Jane Yolen always knew she would be a writer. Always.

“Growing up with writers who were surrounded by writer friends made me believe at an early age that ALL adults were writers. My father’s day job was as a PR man. My mother had a Master’s in Psychiatric Social Work. I thought when folks went home at night, they all wrote books and stories as mine did. So I assumed whatever else I did when I grew up (ballerina, horse farm owner, musical theater star, and lawyer were passions of mine as a 10 year old), I still knew I would write.”

“I sent out poetry and picture book manuscripts from the time I was in college. My first sale came after 113 poetry rejections—I papered my bedroom wall with them—and a solid year of more book rejections. But I sold my first children’s book Pirate in Petticoats (D. McKay Co., 1963) on my 22nd birthday. What a present!”

Though the young Yolen had designs on becoming a ballerina or a horse farm owner, she actually worked as a book editor upon completing college. “I was in publishing for the first five years after college—working at Saturday Review in the production department, Newsweek as a researcher, assistant editor at Gold Medal paperback books, associate editor at the packaging company Rutledge Books, and finally and longest and best as assistant children’s book editor at Knopf. The first book I worked on there was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. By then I also had four children’s books of my own published (one non-fiction about women pirates, three picture books, and had sold my first YA novel.) Years later I would edit my own line of fantasy and science fiction novels (and a few picture books) for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich for nine years.”

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Fast forward to the present, and Yolen has hundreds of books bearing her name, including The Devil’s Arithmetic (Viking, 1988), Sing a Season Song (Creative Editions, 2015), and What to Do with a Box (Creative Editions, 2016). And with nearly 30 more under contract, it is no wonder she has been dubbed the Hans Christian Andersen of America. “I should hit 365 published books in 2017 or 2018 at which point we want to do a big push: READ A JANE YOLEN BOOK A DAY FOR A YEAR!”


Qualifications for Excellent Books

“What makes a good read for young readers? For me the answer has always been: Munchy language that gets, in poet Sam Hamill’s line, ‘The exact crunch of carrots.’ Characters that leap off the page and either reach for your throat or your hand. A plot that pulls you along. A setting that is alive. And a theme that deep dives into your heart. Of course not all good books do all of these things. But the author should try to do as much of that as possible. A reader should demand as much as they can get. We writers and readers of children’s books should never settle for good enough.”

We Need Diverse Books

“Why is this even still an issue in 2016? I was writing diverse books in the 1960s. Alas, we have badly served our people of color, our children of different ethnicities and different religions, in our schools and in our children’s books for years. And of course we should be encouraging—and actively seeking out—authentic voices. But we should also be encouraging the use of diverse characters in all kinds of books that are not by people of the same color, ethnicity, etc., or we are in danger of Balkanizing children’s books further.”


Jane Yolen’s Compendium Titles

  • Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves & Other Female Villains
  • Bug Off!: Creepy, Crawly Poems
  • Centaur Rising
  • Color Me A Rhyme: Nature Poems For Young People
  • Day Tiger Rose Said Goodbye
  • Egret’s Day
  • Elsie’s Bird
  • Foiled
  • Girl in a Cage
  • Here’s a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry
  • How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food?
  • How Do Dinosaurs Get Well Soon?
  • How Do Dinosaurs Go to School?
  • Johnny Appleseed: The Legend and the Truth
  • Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs
  • Lost Boy: The Story of the Man Who Created Peter Pan
  • Naming Liberty
  • Not All Princesses Dress in Pink
  • On Bird Hill
  • Prince Across the Water
  • Queen’s Own Fool: A Novel of Mary Queen of Scots
  • Rogues
  • Sea Queens: Women Pirates Around the World
  • Sing a Season Song
  • Sister Bear: A Norse Tale
  • Sister Emily’s Lightship and Other Stories
  • Snow in Summer: Fairest of Them All
  • Sword of the Rightful King: A Novel of King Arthur
  • Troll Bridge: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fairy Tale
  • Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast
  • What to Do With a Box
  • When I Was Your Age: Original Stories About Growing Up
  • You Nest Here With Me

Yolen’s reading plan is ambitious, but she is also very realistic. “As much as we would have every child a reader and every child a writer, some just will never get it. I have three children, two avid readers and writers. One reads for information. Six grandkids, all good readers, three of them absolutely passionate about it. Two are terrific writers and may follow the ‘Family Business’ as we call it. But what we have done with our children and they with their children is what my parents did: model writing and reading and let them read anything in our house library. A day in the bookstore is an event. Ditto the library.”

Your Nest Here With Me   stranded-whaleCWP   howdodinosaurssaygoodnight   OwMoon


Edited manuscript page from Owl Moon

“After four years of marriage and five years in publishing, my husband and I left our jobs (he was a programmer at IBM much of that time), bought a blue VW camper bus in Germany, and toured Europe and the Middle East for about a year—it was the 60s after all!—returning to America when I was eight-months pregnant. I never had a long term job after that, but worked freelance. That was in 1966. The day we reached home, staying with my parents in New York City until husband David could find a job and we could buy a house, my agent called with the news that she’d sold three new books. One of them turned out to be my Caldecott Honor Book, The Emperor and the Kite (Putnam and Grosset, 1967) with glorious illustrations by Ed Young.”

Having completed even a fraction of the work Yolen has, many might consider retirement. But at 77 years old, Yolen has no intention of setting her career aside any time soon. “I am not so tired of writing, so at a loss for inspiration, that I have ever considered retiring from writing. I am in love with our wonderful, horrible world. Totally engaged with it. All sorts of things interest me: people, history, nature, old stories, music, art, literature, creatures, the natural sciences, worlds beyond our own. So why should I limit myself? How can I not want to learn and write about as much as I can for as long as I can? As I have said to my children more than once, ‘If I ever have no more ideas, put me on the ice floe.’”

The ice floe ride will have to wait, as Yolen has plenty of projects to work on and ideas to develop such as sequel(s) to What to Do with a Box. In addition, she continues to operate her four-day intensive workshop, Picture Book Boot Camp, at her Massachusetts home twice a year for published picture book writers. She regularly meets with her longstanding writers’ group composed of very successful authors, including Patricia MacLachlan, Leslea Newman, Corinne Demas, Barbara Diamond Goldin, Ann Turner, and Ellen Wittlinger. She also travels and takes time to respond to fan mail.


Jane Yolen’s Picture Book Boot Camp

“If I were really to become the Hans Christian Andersen of America (not just in name) wouldn’t that be a kick? But really, what I get out of this is a life of wonder. Invisible friends to talk to. Stories that entertain or even change a child or children or a school room or a community. What can be better than that?”

Fan Mail

Jane Yolen
Box 27
Hatfield, MA 01038
(Please include notes and letters from groups/classes of children in a single envelope.)

Henry Cole

Henry Cole: Award-winning Artist and Author Embarks on High-Flying Chapter Book Adventure

Having helped to create well over 100 books, you would think Henry Cole has been illustrating and authoring books his entire working career. That would be false. Known for books such as Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad (Scholastic Press, 2012), A Nest for Celeste (Katherine Tegen Books, 2010), and Spot, the Cat (Little Simon, 2016), Cole has built an impressive body of work in just over a 20-year time span.

Somewhat-True-Adv_Henry-Cole    Henry Cole Manuscript Page
“I was 40, I believe, when my first book Jack’s Garden (Greenwillow Books, 1995) was published simultaneously with another book I illustrated, Zipping, Zapping, Zooming Bats (HarperCollins, 1995). I was really lucky! I had been teaching elementary science and math for about 15 years when Jean George came to our school as a visiting author, and I asked her for the name of an editor. And she gave me one! What a generous person Jean was … and how lucky for me that she wrote Katherine Tegen’s name on a Langley School napkin that day.”

Though he grew up on a dairy farm, studied forestry in college, and spent his young adult years as an educator, it was practically inevitable that he would end up in the literary arts. “I have drawn and sketched since very early childhood. My mother was a fashion illustrator in New York City, then a dairy farm wife/mother, then an elementary librarian. So books and art have been in my life for a long time.”

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Concerned about the logistics of his retirement plan and health care insurance as well as his ability to stay on task, Cole continued to teach for two years after his first book projects debuted in 1995. “Turns out that I am very disciplined! I’ve helped create about 120 or 130 books. And the health insurance thing was just a small hurdle. I am an early riser (dairy farm upbringing!), and I get to work early. If I’m super involved in a book project, then you can’t pry me away. I spend all my free time working/thinking of book projects … airplane time, time in the car going to school visits … even vacation time!”


“I miss the classroom … some of my best friends are ex-colleagues or ex-parents of kids I taught. It’s one of those fields that you don’t ‘get it’ unless you ‘do it.’ There is nothing like working with kids.”

“If you are waiting for my signature style to emerge, don’t hold your breath. I see books by the same illustrator that ALWAYS LOOK THE SAME … no matter the content! Crazy! I call that being in a rut. I like changing things up, making things interesting.”

Sammy is a perfect length with great character and situational development, and LOTS of illustrations … just exactly right for kids beginning to pick up longer chapter books and diving in.”

“I think kids get enough dumbing down all the time. I see so many books that could have been written by … dummies! And how will that ever lead to an increase in a kid’s vocabulary? I remember the word ‘stalwart’ in a Walt Disney comic (in the early ’60s). How often do you get words like that these days? I was 8!”

One of Cole’s most recent projects to be published is The Somewhat True Adventures of Sammy Shine (Peachtree Publishers, Ltd., 2016) about a mouse that goes on an airplane adventure. It was inspired by his own childhood experiences and pet mouse.“There is lots of autobiography in Sammy. I am Hank (I have one great friend who calls me Hank), and Jimmy is my brother Jimmy who built a model plane painted dark green in his cellar ‘laboratory.’ As a kid I had a pet mouse named Sammy Shine … such a great mouse, makes such a great character. You can imagine mice ‘doing’ things [like] weaving baskets, at the control of an airplane, sipping a tiny cup of tea. It’s easy to picture their little paws manipulating, building, doing human things. Plus their size is good. Other animals … not so much. They can fit places. Imagine a deer at the controls of an airplane. Disaster! That plane is coming down!”

NestForCeleste    spot-the-cat    Jacks-Garden
Positive reviews have already begun pouring in, and readers are already asking if there will be more adventures for Sammy. Fortunately, Cole finds that idea very favorable. “I would so love to continue Sammy’s adventures. When I wrote the story, I wasn’t thinking that way … I just wanted Sammy to be happy.”

Though readers may see Sammy Shine again, for now Cole continues to work on other new projects that he is keeping under wraps. “No details … A very wise person told me years and years ago: The more you talk about a project, the more you’re letting your creative steam out of the bag. I focus my energy and thought into thinking and working on a project rather than talking about it.”

Unspoken   Three-Hens   Prairie-Chicken-Little   Lady-Lupin

Sherman Alexie and Yuyi Morales

Sherman Alexie’s and Yuyi Morales’ Thunder Boy Jr. Rocks Picture Book World

Sherman Alexie

Photo by Rob Casey

Sherman Alexie has long been known for giving voice to the Native American experience. Engaging his pen in “fancydancing” has paid off. He has received numerous accolades for his poetry, novels, and short stories.


In 2007, Alexie broke into the young adult genre with the semi-autobiographical novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). Not only has it received high praise, including the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, it has also raised its share of controversy, having been banned in several school districts.

“I think I get banned for the absolutely best reasons: Because I am honest about the way in which we flawed and fragile humans operate in this flawed and fragile world,” concedes Alexie. “I write about the glorious mess of being a walking, talking primate. And people sometimes get scared of that.”

But Alexie does not let the criticism get to him. He continues writing about the themes and issues he believes need to be addressed, especially in relation to living between the two worlds of Indian reservation and white society.

“Fancydancing, as a ceremony practiced by Native Americans, is a continually evolving art form based on ancient traditions. I hope my writing is the same.” — Sherman Alexie

“I have been so grateful for the response to my young adult novel,” Alexie shares, “and have received such amazing letters from young folks about how much the book means to them. And I just kept thinking that I needed to write a book for even younger children. Essentially, I wanted to write the kind of children’s book that I wish was around when I was a kid.”

That book he wished for is being released May 10, 2016 as Thunder Boy Jr. (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). In this book, a Native American child wrestles with discovering his own identity even though he is named after his father. As with many of Alexie’s other literary works, this picture book hits a nerve with Alexie and conveys messages he believes need to be addressed.

Thunder Boy Jr.

“My father was the primary source of my reading ambitions. He read everything and handed me books all the time. And they were books of all kinds. I am an egalitarian reader to this day because of my father. I read in all genres.” — Sherman Alexie

“I am vehemently against naming our children after ourselves. It’s too possessive. I always struggled with being named after my father, with the expectation that I would be like him. I think I rebelled precisely because I didn’t want to be exactly like my father. Turns out, you can’t avoid being mostly like your father and mother. I am good with being Sherman Jr. now, but I suspect that I would have given myself a name like Zephyr or Wonder Horse when I was a kid. Or Dr. Alexie, since my original life plan was to become a pediatrician.”


Photo by Antonio Turok

Though Thunder Boy Jr. is told from the perspective of a young boy, the illustrations by Yuyi Morales help bring all the characters to life. “I created the concept of the book as a story of a family in which they all let us hear their voices,” says Morales. “I decided that, even though the story is told from the point of view of Thunder Boy, there will be an opportunity to see the story evolve in conjunction with the family interaction—and the family as a part of the world. I knew that I wanted to make a connection between the intimate search for identity with family, community, and the people and things that we care for. I also wanted to explore how we all learn who we are from each other. As Thunder Boy builds strength and detaches from his father into his very own person, his sister is also observing Thunder Boy, wanting to play with him, fight with him, follow in his footsteps—all of it in her own search of learning who she is. At the end, nothing is separate, because we all find out about who we are as we learn from and care for each other.”

Morales is known for her boldly colored, dream-like illustrations. And though Thunder Boy Jr. incorporates features of her signature style, overall it is a departure from what she’s done in the past. “As I accepted to illustrate this book, I was looking for my own place to live and work, and I found a run-down house. The roof and many walls had to be re-built, and as the building came down, I realized how beautiful the old material was … bricks and wood that had been textured and colored by the weather and time. Not only did I use the rubble to rebuild the house and my studio, I also decided I would create the illustrations for Thunder Boy Jr. with all the colors and textures that were the core and bones of the house where I would be living this part of my own story.

“What I did in order to create the illustrations for Thunder Boy Jr. was to begin collecting the most luminous, out-of-the-ordinary, and even rotten pieces of wood from the piles of rubble that the construction workers were gathering. My own contractor would tell his workers, ‘Do not throw anything away until La Señora has had a chance to come and collect all that she wants from the garbage.’ He is my friend and was making fun of me, but what was true was that those pieces of discarded material were my treasures.

Thunder Boy Jr. Spread 1

Thunder Boy Jr. Spread 2

Interior spreads from Thunder Boy Jr.

“I scanned all those pieces of wood and the clay I had been collecting, and I created a digital palette in my computer. From the sketches, I painted the line-work using ink on textured paper, and then I also scanned those drawing into my computer. Then I began painting. Taking from all the colors and textures I had, I began filling up the blank spaces of the world of Thunder Boy Jr.

Thunder Boy Jr. came to me as I had just moved to live in my birth-town, Xalapa, in Mexico. I had for a while decided that I would only illustrate my own stories. When I got the manuscript for Thunder boy Jr. I was very taken by the fact they thought of me to illustrate a story written by one of my favorite authors ever (Sherman’s books have been very present in our home while my son was growing up). And then … the story is about one’s search for identity, which is something that had been very present during this time of change for me.” — Yuyi Morales

Thunder Boy Jr. has received excellent early reviews. But both author and illustrator have found fulfillment in creating Thunder Boy Jr., making it a success in their eyes.  “I am very pleased with the illustrations in Thunder Boy Jr.,” admits Morales, “but not only because I created these images, but because I was able to add my voice in proposing an exploration between children and parents, and among learning, emotions, and conquering challenges. I was able to be part of a narrative in which children know they do amazing things as they live everyday lives. Sometimes the biggest mountains to climb are right there on the shoulders of our elders, and the most amazing universe to discover is the world of our community.”

Satisfaction is short lived, however, and Alexie and Morales have moved on to new projects. So what can readers expect to see from them in the future? Morales shares, “What you will see next is RUDAS, a new Niño book, this time a celebration of his rude little sisters.” And from Alexie? “I am under contract for seven wildly different projects, so you’ll get something soon. I just don’t know what. And I plan on writing more picture books, yes, and am developing a few ideas now. I next want to write a book about an Indian girl’s adventures in the world. My ambitions are global and impossible to achieve, but they keep me motivated. I hope everybody in the world eventually reads one of my books.”

Sherman Alexie

Yuyi Morales


Megan McDonald

The School Library is Totally Rare!

Guess where I first met Pippi Longstocking? She was dancing on her front porch with a polka-dot horse, calling Tiddly-pom and piddly-dee!

The school library.

Guess where I first met Beverly Cleary’s Ellen Tebbits, she of the dreaded woolen underwear who goes to great effort to bring a giant beet to Show and Tell?

The school library.

Judy Moody sleeps with her feet on her pillow, à la Pippi. Judy Moody brings Stink’s belly button (from when he was a baby) to class in a jar.

I didn’t plan this. I didn’t even make these connections until years into writing the Judy Moody books. But on occasion, when I’d happen to re-read one of the the favorite books of my youth, I’d find things there that had been imprinted on me without my knowing. Homer Price and his unstoppable doughnut machine. The Borrowers and their postage-stamp paintings. The Moffats and their ghosts in the attic.

At home, we’d play library. I grew up with four older sisters and lots of books. So I made my own card catalog, and when my sisters wanted to check out one of my books, I’d write it down and stamp DATE DUE.

I still remember the thrill when my school librarian let me stamp DATE DUE in my library book. For real.

Enter to Win!

It’s no wonder I grew up to become a librarian. My husband was an elementary school librarian for a time. All over the country, school librarians have welcomed me as an author to their vibrant centers. School libraries are the heartbeat of the school.

When I first moved to California some twenty years ago now, I was invited to speak at my local elementary school. They told me I’d be speaking in the classroom, or in the cafeteria after the kids were done eating. I offered, “How about if we gather kids in the school library?”

The parent hosting the event did not think there’d be enough space. When I asked to see the library, I was stunned. It was in a small portable building at a far end of the campus. It was dark. It was locked.

I’d never met a school library that did not have an open door.

I asked why the door was locked. I asked why the library was not open. And I was told that the school did not have a librarian. I was told they hardly had any books anyway. I was told that once a week the bus driver opened the library and kids could check out a book.

It didn’t take long for me to try to do something about it. For years, I worked as a “consultant.” Translation: Friend to school libraries. I got a special library card and checked out hundreds of books from the public library. Armed with a trunk full of books, I wheeled them into schools where I book-talked to groups and committees of teachers who became wonderful advocates for the school library.

I wouldn’t be who I am without the school library. School libraries and librarians shape lives.

In fact, I overheard Judy Moody and Stink talking about it just the other day…

Judy Moody and Stink“Check it out, Stink.” Judy Moody held out a book for Stink to see. Stink and the Attack of the Slime Mold.

“Hey, wait. Hold everything! That kid in the book has the same name as me.”

“Weird, right?”

“That’s impossible,” Stink yelped.

“Stink! Shh! We’re in the school library!”

“Oh, yeah. Oops. My inside voice got way too excited.”

“And guess what, Stink. My teacher, Mr. Todd, read on the MackinVIA Community blog that the author, Megan McDonald, got her start at the school library.”

“Whoa,” said Stink. “For real?”

“No lie. Guess what her favorite book was?”

“Um…the dictionary?”

Judy laughed. “She does like the dictionary a lot, especially the big fat one with pictures, but her favorite book was a biography of Virginia Dare.”

“What! That’s the name of our school!”

“Duh,” said Judy. “How do you think our school got its name?”

“That’s cuckoo-crazy,” said Stink.

“And guess what else. She checked out that book so many times that the librarian had to ask her to give some other kids a chance.”

“Let’s go find it,” said Stink.

“I think it’s from a way long time ago. But they have other biographies. Tons of them. Like Snowflake Bentley and Sacajawea and George Washington Carver.”

“Whoa. Didn’t he invent peanut butter or something?”
“Or something. I’m not sure, Stink, but he invented a ton of cool stuff.”

“Did you know that kids will eat about 1500 peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches by the time they’re out of high school?” asked Stink.

“I did not know that!” said Judy. “C’mon, Stink. Let’s go look up the inventor of peanut butter.”

“Cool beans!” said Stink. “I love true stuff. True stuff is the best. No lie.”

Artist Kadir Nelson and Author Mildred D. Taylor Reintroduce Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

From a young age, Kadir Nelson demonstrated artistic skill. With encouragement, apprenticeship, education, and experience, Nelson has become recognized worldwide for his pieces in prominent collections, contributions to movies and music albums, and illustrations in books and magazines.

You began your artistic journey when you were three years old. Do you have copies of your early work? What were the main subjects in your drawings?

“Fortunately, my mother saved much of the artwork I created when I was a child. As a kid, I drew and painted superheroes, animals, basketball players, etc. Essentially, I drew what kids like at different ages.”

kadir-snoopycharlie-2    kadir-kiddrawing7-2

Can you remember books or artists you found inspiring as a youngster?

“I was very fond of the artwork of Ernie Barnes, Boris Vallejo, my uncle, and comic book artists. I also loved the book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.”

What did your parents do to encourage your creative side?
“Both of my parents were very supportive of my work. They had the ability to draw, but chose different career paths. My mother was discouraged from becoming an artist and chose to become an engineer instead. She regretted that decision, and when she saw that I could draw well as a kid, she made sure to encourage my artistic pursuits. She in particular always gave me plenty of paper for drawing. I thank the universe for her love and encouragement!”



It seems that artistic tendencies run in your family. In fact, I heard that in addition to your parents, your uncle Michael Morris, an artist and art instructor, also played a significant role in developing your talent and skills. Do you believe it is important for young people with artistic abilities to have mentors? 

“I think one of the best ways to learn is through a mentor. I was very fortunate to have an artist in the family like my Uncle Mike. My uncle babysat for my mother and put me and my brother and sisters to work drawing for the afternoon. He noticed I held the pencil I was drawing with very purposefully. He told my mother that I might be an artist and to keep an eye on me. Well, he was right. He also would send art supplies to me every so often to keep me motivated. I later apprenticed under my Uncle Mike for more formal instruction.”

After graduating from college, you found work and success quickly in magazines, movies, and books. Soon after, the awards followed. You’ve been awarded two Caldecott Honors, Coretta Scott King Awards, an NAACP Image Award, and many more. Did you ever expect this level of success? How have the awards influenced you and your career?

“I didn’t expect to receive awards, but I did expect to become a working artist. I love what I do too much not to do it full time. I made the decision that even if I had to starve, I’d become an artist. Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case. Regarding awards and their influence, I’ve always felt that if I do my best work, that in itself is an award. You never know when you’ll receive an award and it’s a lovely bit of encouragement to be acknowledged in that way. It’s so nice to receive recognition from your peers, and if adding a shiny sticker to the cover of my book makes a reader pick it up and look at it, then that makes it even sweeter.”

Speaking of shiny stickers and awards, you were selected to create new cover art for the 40th anniversary edition of Mildred D. Taylor’s Newbery Award-winning book, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Penguin Random House, 2016). Further, you are creating covers for Taylor’s entire series as well as her 10th book Logan (Viking) due out in 2017. Prior to being selected as the artist for the reintroduced series, had you read Taylor’s books? 

IfYouPlantASeed“Unfortunately, Ms. Taylor’s books weren’t part of my curriculum in school, so I hadn’t read them until I began working on the new covers. It was an easy ‘yes’ for me to create new covers for the series. I think the Mildred Taylor series is stellar.”

Last year your picture book If You Plant a Seed (Balzer + Bray, 2015) was published and the Mildred D. Taylor books have begun their reintroduction. What are you currently working on that readers can look forward to seeing from you soon?

“I’m currently working on a book about basketball, and another that celebrates the American flag; the latter will be published sometime next year.”

Mildred Taylor’s Logan Family Celebrates Ruby Anniversary

In 1975, Mildred D. Taylor introduced readers to the Logan family in her novella, Song of the Trees (Dial Press). And in 1976, Taylor’s better-known and Newbery Award-winning novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Dial Press) was published and later followed by additional books continuing the saga. Since then, the chronicles of the Logan family have been featured on many reading lists.

RollThunderTo celebrate the 40th anniversary of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the book is getting a new look and being reintroduced to a new generation of readers. Kadir Nelson, a multiple Caldecott Honor award winner whose work has been featured in books and magazines, on postage stamps, and on album covers, was selected to create the artwork for this new edition of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Penguin Random House, 2016), as well as new covers for the entire series.

“I’m not sure how I was chosen to paint new covers for Ms. Taylor’s classic novels,” Nelson shares, “but I was thrilled nonetheless to have the opportunity. It was an easy ‘yes’ for me to create new covers for the series. I love Ms. Taylor’s work. Her clear, poignant, informative, and powerful storytelling resonates very deeply with me and I’m honored to share her work with a new generation of readers and long-time fans of her books.”

Told from the perspective of nine-year-old Cassie Logan, Taylor’s series follows the Logans, an African American family living through the Great Depression. It addresses important issues of the time—racism, prejudice, and social justice—that are also relevant in America today.

“From the time I was a child, I was fascinated by the stories my father told about the history of my family and the history of others in his Mississippi community,” says Taylor. “The stories my father told, that my family told, were stories of the human experience and survival, to which many people, no matter the race or culture, could relate. I have simply written books based on the many stories that were told, and I have tried to be as true to them as when my father and other family members told them.”

Like Taylor, Nelson also grew up listening to stories passed down from prior generations. “Growing up hearing powerful stories had a great impact on my life and work, so when doing research for books like Heart and Soul (Balzer + Bray, 2011) or We are the Ship (Hyperion, 2008), I immediately identified with the historical characters because they reminded me of people in my family who were very present not only in my life, but in the stories I heard as a child. My father was a great storyteller so I always loved hearing stories; the African American saga is a long intriguing story full of ups and downs, humor, triumph, defeat, emotion, innovation, thrills, and drama.”

In recent years, there has been a growing emphasis and discussion about the level of diversity in children’s books. Organizations and movements, such as We Need Diverse Books, have campaigned for all types of young people to be reflected in literature. Nelson agrees.

“I always knew that there had been a lack of representation of people of color in children’s literature, but it wasn’t until I was shown the staggering numbers that substantiated the current situation that I understood the reasoning surrounding the current discussion, and why it has gained even more momentum. I wasn’t a big reader as a child, and I think it was partly because I didn’t see characters in children’s books that I could identify with in a deeper way. I think we all can agree that books resonate with readers much more when the reader can identify with the story and protagonist. Readers of all ages are done a great disservice when they are left out of the story.”

With the reintroduction of Taylor’s series, all readers will connect with the characters and the stories told—including African American young people who will find Black protagonists featured front and center. And Taylor believes young people will also find the issues addressed in the books to be relevant as well.

“The stories my father and other family members told dated back to slavery,” adds Taylor. “Those stories were meaningful to me as a child growing up in the 1940s into the 1960s. They gave me a solid foundation about who I was, who my family was, and what my people had been through. Of course, I also experienced firsthand the racism of America, the Jim Crow laws, and segregation. With the passing of so many who fought to end the laws that legally allowed racism in America, I believe the history of race relations becomes even more important to be known. Much has changed, but much has not.”

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

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.