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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.

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“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!”

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“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!”

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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


 

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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.”

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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!”

RollThunder

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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 www.terribletwo.com.

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

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

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Rachel Renée Russell Encourages Young People to Embrace Their Inner Dorks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erin in Middle School

Erin in Middle School

Nikki in Middle School

Nikki in Middle School

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

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

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

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

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

Pencil sketches by Nikki

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

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Calendar of events for Dork Diaries #6

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

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

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Nikki, Rachel and Erin

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

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

In your official opinions, what is a Dork?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From the “Ask Nikki” blog on DorkDiaries.com

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

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

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

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

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Rachel receiving the 2015 NAACP Image Award

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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2015 Caldecott Honor Book Author and Artist is Self-Taught

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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