Raising Readers –Tips from an editor, an author, and an illustrator

If you follow Carol Hinz (@CarolCHinz Editorial Director of Millbrook Press and Carolrhoda Books at Lerner Publishing Group) you know she has tweeted many wonderful stories about her boys READING.

 Author Katey Howes (RISSY NO KISSIES / Lerner 2021; WOVEN OF THE WORLD / Chronicle 2021; MAGNOLIA MUDD /Sterling; and BE A MAKER /Carolrhoda —details here.) has written many insightful #RaisingReaders posts. *See archives over at kateywrites.wordpress.com.

Illustrator Luciana Navarro Powell (EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY ELLA/ Amicus Ink, 2020; TINY BROWN MONKEY ON THE BIG BLUE EARTH / Amicus Ink 2019; GRANDMA’S FAVORITE & GRANDPA’S FAVORITE / Kane Miller/ 2018) often shares her sons’ unbelievable (!) reading positions on Insta at @LucianaIllustration

How on earth have these busy moms

raised such amazing young readers?

What better way to celebrate I-Love-To-Read Month, than to find out?   

READ ON, friends:

Q1. How old was your young reader when you realized he/she was hooked on books?  

Katey: It’s hard for me to put a finger on the moment I realized my 3 kids loved books – in part because I never thought about it being any other way. I grew up bookish in a family that walked to the public library every weekend and brought home literal wagon loads of books, so my kids’ interest in books and reading from babyhood seemed as much a foregone conclusion to me as their love of chocolate chip cookies and mushing around in mud puddles. In fact, it wasn’t until I started blogging in 2013 that I realized that a reading household like ours wasn’t the norm.

One more book!

My kids were 8, 6 and 4, and I was a stay-at-home mom for the first time. The blog was my outlet, and I was writing posts about a variety of topics, trying to figure out what I had to contribute that was unique and helpful to other parents. Anytime I posted about our trips to the library, our afternoons acting out our favorite stories, or the nights I despaired of ever getting to sleep because my kids needed “one more book,” I got drastically increased traffic to my site, and lots of comments and questions. Those reactions helped me recognize that we had something special, and that I could analyze it and share it with other families to help them raise readers, too.

Turning “disaster” to magic.

Carol: I feel like it’s happening before my eyes with my 6-year-old son, who is in first grade. While he’s been read to since he was a baby, he’s just starting to read on his own. It’s interesting because we’d been struggling with a “book in a bag” assignment, in which the teacher selects books that are 8-16 pages and coded with a reading level, which get sent home to give kids extra practice reading. It was a disaster! We spent more time fighting about reading these books than he spent actually reading.

One day I realized that the problem was that he wasn’t engaged by the stories. So just after winter break, I asked his teacher if we could opt out and choose early readers from the library instead. To my great relief, she said yes! And now instead of fighting about reading, my son has started insisting on it. He’s suddenly becoming a much better reader, and it feels like magic to see him excited so about reading on his own!

World Book Day 2019 by Luciana Navarro Powell

Luciana – It was probably when my boys were in early elementary. They were really early readers, my youngest got out of pre-school a reader already. They are now in 5th and 7th grade. I started noticing that we were running out of bookshelf  room rapidly in our house, a great problem to have of course. Library alone wasn’t doing it – and a confession here, I was not organized enough to keep track of all the books around the house and was always paying late fees. We started to buy a lot of books as well and those teeny book shelves from their toddler years just weren’t enough.

Q2. Please share more tips or insights as to how your kids got hooked on reading. 

“Let them pick and choose when, WHERE and what to read.”

Katey: I maintain that children are great big copycats – and that modeling behaviors is one of the best ways to influence them. My best advice is to not only read to and with your kids, but to read in front of them – for pleasure, for information, for any reason at all. My second best advice is to make reading a choice and not a chore – keep a variety of reading material readily available, and let them pick and choose when, where and what to read (or to have read to them.)

Carol: Since I work full time and there are only so many hours in the evening before bedtime, I’ve found it helps to be a bit creative and flexible about how reading happens. So rather than cuddling together every night on the couch to read books, sometimes I read to my 6yo while he eats his snack. Sometimes it’s while he’s in the bath. Some nights he draws while I read to him. It felt like a great discovery when I realized I there wasn’t one “right” way to do bedtime reading. 

My other tip dovetails with Katey’s–keep a variety of reading material on hand and don’t box kids in. Especially in early elementary school, it’s amazing what a range of topics kids are drawn to. When my older son was 5 or 6 I realized I was checking out a lot of picture books from the library with male protagonists. Once I got over my horror at this realization, I started checking out a wider variety of books, and he took just as much interest in them as he had in any other type of books.

Luciana – I agree with Carol and Katey’s answer. In our case, because I’ve been illustrating books before they were born, I had a full collection of picture books already once they reached that age. Another factor in my family is that we are avid outdoorsy people, so we’ve been taking the boys backpacking ever since they were really young. No electronics are allowed in the car, even now that they are older.

There is always a pile of books in the middle seat. Reading in the car is not for everyone, but thankfully my guys don’t get sick. We’ve done epic 12-hour drives with them reading almost the whole time. When they start to get shifty, we ask them to read out loud to us from one of their “Candy Books” (Wimpy Kid, Timmy Failure) They take turns reading to us and enjoy immensely when we burst out laughing, because that’s the beauty of candy books – they are hilarious!

Flip their reading: “Re-Tell us a story!”

Another way we foster reading is during long hikes. I’m talking about all day long hikes. When they start complaining we ask them to re-tell us recent books they’ve read. It is a thing of wonder, it works every single time. Now my youngest will just start on his own, telling us about different subject matters that interest him. On the last hike we took, it was the series of events that led to WWI. He talked non-stop for an hour and a half. In another hike about 2 years ago they were really into the Apollo missions, and would take turns in telling details about every Apollo mission until the program was shut down.Needless to say my husband and I learn a lot when we hike with them these days!

Q3. I confess wasn’t a voracious reader as a child, thus I’m wondering–were you? 

Katey: I was a big reader all through childhood. I was a very anxious kid, and books were an amazing escape, a safe place to explore, and a good way to learn how to navigate emotions, friendships, and challenges. In fact, they still serve all those purposes for me as a (somewhat less anxious) adult.

Carol: I was a big reader as well. If I was reading instead of doing something else I was supposed to (such as Saturday morning chores), my parents would threaten to take my book away! My older son enjoys reading but not quite in the way that I did, and sometimes I have to remind myself that just because he’s not at my level of obsession with books, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy reading.

Carol’s oldest with his cousin. Reading to others is fun too!

Luciana – I was a big reader too and have great memories of my mom taking us to the library every week. I grew up in Brazil and the publishing industry there doesn’t even come close to the breadth and richness of the industry in the US, specially children’s literature. It is slowly improving but books in Brazil are extremely expensive, sadly, and libraries are not as numerous as they are here. I moved to the US as an adult. The more involved I got with the picture book world, the more I wished I had had the access that children – and adults! – have here in the states.

The Illustrator, Luciana, and one of her Readers–at work…

Endless thanks to Carol Hinz, Katey Howes, and Luciana Navarro Powell for sharing their tips and wonderful photos. Here’s an idea–let’s READ THEIR BOOKS! You can learn more about the fabulous work of these three #kidlit women by clicking the links in their names above, or following them on social media.

#ReadingIsPower

 

Blog takeover: Happy #YA Book Birthday to RED HOOD by Elana K. Arnold

It’s a Blog Takeover by my favorite teen writer, Victoria Krol, who has questions for another fav of mine, Elana K. Arnold. Win-win! Are you excited as I am? Check out these starred reviews for RED HOOD:

“In the wake of her Printz Honor–winning Damsel, Arnold blazes a new and equally powerful trail through toxic masculinity. Read, shed your pelt, and be transformed—for blades are being sharpened.” ~Booklist /starred review

“It’s unsettling how seamlessly Arnold incorporates dark fantasy elements of beastly wolves and cunning hunters into her all-too-realistic tale. A fantastic novel in the #MeToo era, empowering women to share their stories by reaching out, speaking up, and demanding a change.”

~School Library Journal starred review

Victoria: I am honored to interview Elana K. Arnold following the publication of Red Hood, her newest novel. Read on for some insights about her older works, and a discussion about this much-awaited #YA. For starters, here’s the flap copy for RED HOOD: (no spoilers here).

Elana K. Arnold, author of the Printz Honor book Damsel, returns with a dark, engrossing, blood-drenched tale of the familiar threats to female power—and one girl’s journey to regain it.

You are alone in the woods, seen only by the unblinking yellow moon. Your hands are empty. You are nearly naked. And the wolf is angry.

Since her grandmother became her caretaker when she was four years old, Bisou Martel has lived a quiet life in a little house in Seattle. She’s kept mostly to herself. She’s been good.

But then comes the night of homecoming, when she finds herself running for her life over roots and between trees, a fury of claws and teeth behind her.

A wolf attacks. Bisou fights back. A new moon rises. And with it, questions.

About the blood in Bisou’s past, and on her hands as she stumbles home.

About broken boys and vicious wolves.

About girls lost in the woods—frightened, but not alone.

Let the Q & A begin!

Q1: I have recently read DAMSEL–A National Book Award finalist and Printz Honor winner, released last month in paperback–, and with the release of your new, and highly-anticipated novel, RED HOOD, I noticed that the idea of traditional fairy tales are “fairy-ly” apparent in both. What more can you tell us about RED HOOD and its themes?

Elana K. Arnold: I like to think of RED HOOD less as a retelling of a fairy tale and more as a reincarnation—some of the same plot points as Little Red Riding Hood, but also an infusion of the things that interest, fascinate, engage, and anger me: menstruation, sisterhood, poetry, moon cycles, werewolfism, “incels,” or “involuntary celibates,” rape culture, and power.

★ “This incisively written allegory [DAMSEL] rips into a familiar story and sets it aflame.”

~School Library Journal starred review.

★ “Arnold’s pitch-black fairy tale [DAMSEL] isn’t subtle, but this isn’t a tale that requires subtlety. For teens learning to transform sadness and fear into active, productive fury, it’s an essential allegory. Eat your heart out, Sleeping Beauty: this brutal, devastating, powerful novel won’t soon be forgotten.”   ~Booklist starred review. 

Q2: DAMSEL, is also relatively dark. What prompted you to twist the idea of seemingly happy-go-lucky fairy tales to your own will, and put DAMSEL on such a dark path?

Elana K. Arnold: I think we make art with that which has filled us up. I am fortunate that many wonderful, healthy experiences have contributed to the person I have become, but many less happy experiences are part of who I am as well, and I tap into all my experiences when I write. Compounding my personal experiences with the reading I’ve done all my life and my observations of larger American culture, the stories I create rise up almost like organic things. I don’t choose to write dark books; those stories insist on being told. I also write soft, gentle books.

Look for An Ordinary Day, next month, Illus. Elizabeth Vukovic/ Beach Lane Books.

Elana K. Arnold: We contain multitudes, and no writer should feel compelled to produce one sort of art over and over again.

Q3: Speaking of dark themes, I am a huge fan of WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF. From what I can see, there is next to nothing cloaking the blatant reality of the themes in that book. Everything you meant to say seems to be clearly spelled out, whether spoken or thought, by the main character Nina. Did you encounter resistance because of your themes when you went to find an editor/publisher? 

Elana K. Arnold: I don’t think it’s strictly true that everything I say in WHAT GIRLS ARE MADE OF is clearly spelled out, as my protagonist Nina does not have a complete, clear understanding of herself, the elements of her history, her parents’ history, or the history of women in religion and the world, to clearly speak about all the things she feels. Nina is an unreliable narrator; she’s not trying to lie to the reader, but she (like all of us) has incomplete information. Her perspective is limited by her age and experience, as well as by a number of other factors, including her privilege.

All this being said, I did not encounter resistance from the Lerner Publishing Group or their imprint Carolrhoda Lab who ultimately published the book. They honored my authorial decisions and stood behind them, which was ultimately rewarded when this book was named a National Book Award Finalist.

“Each of us has the right to take up space, and I believe that each of us has the responsibility to help others take up space as well.”

Q4: I think that women of all ages can tend to forget how powerful they are. If you hear something enough, you will start to believe it. What would you tell someone to do if you see someone forgetting how special they are, each in their own way?

Elana K. Arnold: I agree that it’s very common for women to lose sight of their power. There are many ways that people are discounted and undervalued, especially those who are young and female presenting. I think it’s important for each of us to find a community of people who honor and respect us, and to consume art that centers the vision we wish to see in the world. Each of us has the right to take up space, and I believe that each of us has the responsibility to help others take up space as well. I have found that when I make room to recognize the achievements of others, I feel emboldened to give space to my own work. Remember that there is room for all of our brilliance, all of our art.

“Life is not a zero-sum game.”

Q5: What made you discover that writing is your passion? Correct me if I’m wrong, but based off of your blog post “What About the Girls” (a must-read), you use literature as a way to tell the world the stories of the real, the scary, and the messed up. What inspired you to even begin writing in the first place?

Elana K. Arnold: As a kid, I was myopic, anxious, and socially untalented. Books were a place where I felt safe. It seemed to me, from a very young age, that the only thing better than reading stories would be writing stories of my own. Even when I’m writing the most fantastical story, I’m writing from my own lived experience in some essential way. I write to entertain myself, to challenge myself, to explore the things that fascinate and repel me. Life is beautiful and terrible, and writing is my way of engaging with it.

Q6: Do you have a Recommended Reading List you might share?

Elana K. Arnold: 

Thirteen Doorways, Wolves Behind Them All, Laura Ruby

Out of Salem, Hal Schrieve

Calling My Name, Liara Tamani

Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan

The Eyes of the Dragon, Stephen King

Serpentine, Cindy Pon

Dark and Deepest Red, Anna-Marie McLemore

To learn more about Elana K. Arnold and her books, see ElanaKArnold.com  and follow her on Instagram @elanakarnold and Twitter @ElanaKArnold.

Thanks to Elana for answering my questions,and to Erin for letting me take over her blog! To everyone out there, keep believing, creating, and inspiring!  ~ Victoria

Victoria Krol is 15 year-old Freshman in high school with an absolute passion for reading, writing, the arts, and horseback riding. She is currently working on a novel with her co-partner Charley Ramos, which is in the midst of its second revision and currently has a plot that resembles lasagna. She met Erin dressed in full 70’s gear at the  2019 SCBWI LA Summer Conference, where their instant friendship resulted in her as a guest blogger. 

You can find her at www.victoriaakrol.weebly.com.

 

Happy Book Birthday to Jennifer Longo’s new YA, WHAT I CARRY

It’s here–Jennifer Longo’s new #YA,

WHAT I CARRY

(Random House Books* January 21st, 2020)

In celebration, I’ve asked Jen a few questions about her book and her process. (See below.)

People, I can’t say enough about this wonderful, much-needed novel which seamlessly combines themes of #fostercare, #adoption, and John Muir!

But don’t take my word for it:

Check out this KIRKUS STARRED review–

“The power of relationship—both those experienced and those denied—is expertly explored throughout this novel with nuance and humanity. An exceptional addition to the coming-of-age canon.

At 17, Muiriel needs to make it through one more placement, then she will age out of foster care and into state-sanctioned self-sufficiency.

Muir is white, woke, and keenly aware that her experience of not knowing any family from birth isn’t representative of most foster kids. She meticulously follows the wisdom of her hero and namesake, John Muir, and keeps her baggage light. However, it quickly becomes apparent that her new temporary home will challenge her resolute independence. The island forest beckons to her. Francine, her latest foster mother, is insightful and socially aware. Kira, a heavily tattooed artist, is brimming with best friend potential. And then there’s Sean, the beautiful boy who understands that the world can be terrible and wonderful at the same time. As these people show up for Muir, the survival strategy she clings to—don’t get attached—diminishes in validity. This is terrifying; Muir has only ever learned to depend on herself. The trauma she contends with is not perpetrated by a villain; it is the slow boil of a childhood in which inconsistency has been the only constant. The power of relationship—both those experienced and those denied—is expertly explored throughout this novel with nuance and humanity. The central characters are immensely likable, creating a compelling read sure to leave an imprint. Most main characters are white; Kira is Japanese American.”

“An exceptional addition to the coming-of-age canon.”  –Kirkus starred

This PUBLISHERS WEEKLY review also has a shiny STAR–

“Having grown up in foster care, Muiriel—’Muir’—is good at packing. Per writing by her namesake, John Muir, she carries the bare minimum, and following 20 placements, has folding down to a science. After one more year, she’ll be 18 and out of the system. In an effort to have some control over her life’s uncertainties, Muir has also mastered keeping people at arm’s length by being helpful, staying out of trouble, and keeping her grades up. She’s not so good at making friends, trusting people, and talking about her feelings. But her new placement, a ferry ride away from Seattle on Bainbridge Island, stands to play havoc with all of that. Her new foster mother is smart and kind, and Muir makes a real friend, gets a job that she loves, and meets a boy who really likes her. But Muir, used to packing emotionally lightly as well, will have to make changes to be able to let people in. Longo (Up to this Pointe), a foster and adoptive parent, wrote the book for her adopted daughter, who wanted a “hopeful, happy” tale; she provides it—and the book, well-written and heartfelt, is a pleasure.” Ages 12–up. Agent: Melissa Sarver White, Folio Literary Management. (Jan.)

Time for some Q & A with this amazing author,

Jennifer Longo:

Q1 What was one of the most surprising facts or discoveries you made in writing this book?

Jennifer Longo: This is going to sound really naive, but in researching and writing this book, I was shocked at how many adults in this country know virtually nothing true about foster care or how it works, and how they believe and promote lies including the one about how children are in foster care because the child did something wrong, or the child is ‘bad’. I have had to explain to more than a few people my age that children are in care for one of two reasons: Because of the actions of adults in their lives. Or they have lost their parents or caregivers. Either way, they did nothing wrong and they need to be cared for. The end.

“It’s nothing the child did.”

Jennifer Longo: I’m not sure the people I explained this to believed me.

They learned these lies as kids themselves, probably because so many families never talk about other family realities aside from the ones they live in, then those kids grow up and never learn the truth, and they perpetuate the lies. It is really dangerous and part of the greater problem of trying to legislatively improve the foster care system. I was also stunned to learn about the lack of empathy so many adults have for kids living in foster care. The moment I decided to start writing this book (aside from my daughter asking me to write it) was when a close friend said, about a young girl we both knew who was living in foster care and who was (understandably) acting out in anger, that the child’s problem was that, “She didn’t know how to be grateful. She doesn’t know how good she has it.”

“I was about to flip a table I was so furious. But that’s not productive so instead I wrote a book.”

Q2 Do you find yourself drawing on your theater background at any point in your writing process—from creating characters or voice, to book store appearances?    

Jennifer Longo: My favorite question! The short answer is yes, absolutely. In fact, my first two novels were play scripts I wrote in grad school that I turned into prose for the books.

SIX FEET OVER IT (Random House 2014) was a play called AT NEED,

and UP TO THIS POINTE (Random House 2016) was a play called FROZEN.

 

And the “long answer”? 

Jennifer Longo: The structure of plays and novels is so different – a play is nearly all dialogue. There are two things to consider in a narrative, play or novel: What happens in the story, and what’s the story about. A playwright can put in all the stage directions among the dialogue they want but a director is not obligated to follow them. In fact many directors ignore stage direction completely and get pissed about it even being in the script. (Bernard Shaw writes the longest, best stage directions and I love him so much for it! But that’s because I’m a writer and an actor, not a director, and I love all the guidance I can get.) So then I go to write a novel, where dialogue is not the crucial storytelling element but it’s the thing I’m best at, I let it fly – and then my editor is constantly telling me to trim the conversations, and “Stop putting in so many descriptions of weather what is that even about also they’re called chapters not acts what is wrong with you?!”

Plays have a different narrative story structure, too. Novels are all about plot, they love external conflict, action – then I’m over here like “But in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLFE and THE CHERRY ORCHARD no one leaves the living room and it’s great!” Literally, those two plays – if you had to say what actually happens in them? Basically, some people sit around a living room for two hours and discuss issues and scream at each other. Then some trees may get cut down offstage indicated by a sound effect, and also there’s a lot of drinking. The End. That’s what happens. But what are the stories about? Oh, my god, all the conversations and internal conflict, they’re about everything and nothing – the minutia of human interaction and betrayal, and the impossible universe of the reason for human existence. It’s all there in the living room! Which can also be said for the best books – you just have to make it less talk-y. And more action-y. And take it out of the living room.

“(It’s really that simple! Said no one ever. But you get my drift.)”

  Q3 What takeaways do you wish readers will have after reading WHAT I CARRY?

Jennifer Longo: Mostly this: That kids in foster care are not “bad” or “damaged” or inherently, molecularly “wounded.” Kids living in, or those who have aged out of foster care are human beings who have actual lives that are important as anyone else’s, every one unique in circumstance. Kids living with good foster or adoptive families are not “lucky.” They do not owe the world a debt of gratitude for having their basic needs met. Like any human, kids living in foster care did not ask for the trauma they experience.

“I hope readers take away the truth that every person born is entitled to at least one decent person in their lives who loves and cares for them, and is always on their side.”

Jennifer Longo: I think the more we learn about other people’s lives, other realities, our empathy can blossom. Maybe we don’t all know someone living in foster care. But we can learn about the reality of the lives of our fellow humans. Listening to the voices of kids (First, last and always) in and aging out of foster care can help us to learn, and reading books can help. I hope this one does.

Look at the cool swag –and tattoos, to go with the John Muir references in WHAT I CARRY.

 Q4 Do you have a favorite John Muir quote?

Jennifer Longo: I do! I love the last half (and rarely noted) of the most famous of Muir’s quotes, taken from a letter he wrote to his sister. It encompass Muir’s devotion to protecting the most vulnerable of lives (the natural world) the way a good social worker or parent fights to protect their vulnerable children. Which is never easy, takes hard work and, coupled with Muir’s idea of Home being the planet all humans share as one family. This is why I love this man so much and why his words guide Muiriel’s life in the book as well.

The words are:

“…I will work on while I can,

studying incessantly.”

                                                    John Muir

Jennifer Longo: The first half of this sentence is forever taken out of context and printed on bumper stickers and t-shirts and coffee cups on Etsy in dumb fonts that make it seem like Muir was just hearing some ethereal ‘call’ to go take a nice stroll in the woods, and that is not at all what he meant. He meant the opposite – that the mountains were depending on him to save them from destruction, that he felt an urgent, parental obligation to work for them, and he could never rest.

Because of Muir’s tireless efforts, in 1872 President Teddy Roosevelt named Yellowstone (officially) America’s first national park. By 1873 Muir had climbed Mt Whitney, he explored King’s River Canyon, and he was writing exhaustively, articles for the Boston Weekly paper describing the beauty of the Hetch Hetchy Valley trying desperately to save it from being washed away by the construction of a dam (Spoiler Alert: The dam was built, and the valley was washed away forever in 1923, thirteen years after Muir’s death. Thanks a lot, Gifford Pinchot. Jerk.)

All to say, that it was in the midst of this fervor of constant words and work and climbing and exploration and literally begging people to help save these natural wonders, our Home, that Muir wrote his 1873 letter from Yosemite Valley to his sister, Sarah which reads, in part:

“The Scotch are slow but someday I will have the results of my mountain studies in a form in which you all will be able to read & judge of them… but neither these magazine articles nor my first book will form any finished part of the scientific contribution that I hope to make…The mountains are calling & I must go & I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.”

 I love it so much. Muir was like “Hey Girl, crazy busy but wanted to say hi and I love you, okay gotta get back to work saving the planet K byeeee.” Just how the only way kids’ lives in foster care are improved is when adults are not lazy, when they shut up and listen to the kids and get actual legislation passed, when the laws about helping families are made better, when adults work tirelessly for the needs of the kids, for their safety and well-being, and not to keep adults comfortable at the kids’ expense. Laziness will never do. John Muir, and any kid who has survived trauma, can tell you that. I try to live by these words.

To learn more about Jennifer Longo and her work, go to JenLongo.com (Book signing dates and locations in NEWS.) and/or follow her on Facebook, and @jenlialongo on Twitter and Instagram.

OR–join Jennifer and me for our book signing at Face in a Book, Sat. Feb. 29th, 4-6pm

and get a cool tattoo!

Meet #kidlit author Virginia Loh-Hagan and NIAN, THE CHINESE NEW YEAR DRAGON

Virginia Loh-Hagan’s NIAN, THE CHINESE NEW YEAR DRAGON

(Sleeping Bear Press, Illus. Timothy Banks)

is the perfect picture book for celebrating–and learning about–

Chinese New Year.

It’s a girl-power retelling of the Nian legend with an original twist, which includes explanations of the origins of Chinese New Year traditions.

VERDICT: A wonderful version of a classic legend and a

welcome addition to holiday collections.

–School Library Journal

Win-win-win!

Speaking of winners (seriously!), I am thrilled to interview my friend, and author pal,

Dr. Virginia Loh-Hagan: 

Q1. What was the most surprising fact or discovery you’ve made as your book, NIAN, THE CHINESE NEW YEAR DRAGON, went from idea to published book?

Dr. Virginia Loh-Hagan: Researching the Chinese New Year gave me so many story ideas. This is such a goldmine of content. For example, I discovered the Nian folktale while researching POPO’S LUCKY CHINESE NEW YEAR.

(Sleeping Bear Press, Illustrated by Renné Benoit)

And, of course, while researching for Nian, I discovered other story ideas as well. I’m hoping to be able to write more! There’s so much to share about the Chinese New Year.

Portrait of a young author. Isn’t this the cutest?

Q2. You won the award for Best Writer in 6th grade. Did this inspire you to write even more or did you feel increased pressure to always write “winners” from then on?
Dr. Virginia Loh-Hagan: Given how difficult the process is, any book that gets published is a winner! I’m just thrilled that I get to write and get to see my words out there on shelves and in people’s hands. It’s so exciting to know that I created something that others enjoy. I hope to be doing this for a long time. I’d like to explore various genres and topics – there are so many options!

Q3.They say most books are a tiny bit autobiographical. Are you more like Nian or Mei?

Dr. Virginia Loh-Hagan: Mei, for sure. I like to think that I’m a woman warrior! Although in regard to my appetite and eating habits, I’m definitely more like Nian!

Q4. I’ve heard you were born on Flag Day in the Year of the Dragon. Does this strong and independent Chinese zodiac sign reflect your personality?

Dr. Virginia Loh-Hagan: I am most definitely a dragon, specifically a Fire Dragon. Fire Dragons are known to be strong, independent, intelligent, and social. They’re also known to have extreme personalities and need to work on balance. My husband says that I treat life the way I drive – all brakes or all gas. I can be pretty intense so I do need to learn how to slow down. This is why reading is so important to me – Reading is my “down time.” It’s the only time that I’m not multi-tasking. It allows me to escape into other worlds.

Q5. Since one of your greatest passions is piano, how would you compare preparing for a concert to writing a picture book?

Dr. Virginia Loh-Hagan: Okay. So thank you for assuming that I am good enough to play in concerts (I heart you!). In actuality, I’m not even good enough to play for a kid’s birthday party. But, I love piano and am a diligent adult piano student (grade 3-4). I’ve always wanted to learn how to play piano but didn’t have the opportunity when I was younger. I’m a struggling piano player – it’s not something that comes easy to me but I love it and I want to be good. I have the passion but not the skills. But that doesn’t stop me from pursuing it. Personally, I think everyone should do something that makes them struggle. Struggle is good; it’s productive and humbling. Both piano and writing require patience, practice, and perseverance. Also, both require performance in order to get better.

Q6. Congratulations on having authored over 300+ books thus far. Wow! Any advice for beginning, not-yet-published #kidlit writers?

Dr. Virginia Loh-Hagan: Grow thick skin. Learn to listen to feedback from your editors and critique partners. Be willing to make necessary changes. People think that writing the first draft is the hardest part; it’s actually writing the multiple revisions. Writing for publication is actually more about re-writing and revising. I’ve had to cut characters, cut plot lines…all kinds of stuff. The first draft is never the final draft. Also, read!!!

Q7. Do you have any #kidlit heroes?  Have they changed over the years?

Dr. Virginia Loh-Hagan: In regard to characters, I love Anne Shirley, Shirley Temple Wong, Hermione Granger….I lived vicariously through these strong girl characters; they helped me through some tough times. In regard to kidlit authors, I love L.M. Montgomery, Judy Blume, and Beverly Cleary. Over my many years as a reader, I have gained more favorites in terms of characters and authors but I always go back to the stories I read as a child. I have so many fond memories of reading as a young person; children’s books are our first introduction to the big, wide world. I learned so many things and gained so many perspectives from reading. This is one of the reasons why I chose to write for children – Children’s books play such an important role in our personal narratives. 

Many thanks to Virginia for joining me on the blog today. You can learn more about her and her books on her web site: virginialoh.com

or follow her on Facebook &/or Twitter @virginialoh.

Wishing all who will celebrate Chinese New Year next week (January 25th!)–

Gong hei fat choy.

Or, if you prefer, here’s the Mandarin Chinese: gong xi fa cai (恭喜发财).

PS NIAN, THE CHINESE NEW YEAR DRAGON is featured in

“Favorite New Picture Books Of 2019” on pragmaticmom.com. 

Happy Reading! 

Cover reveal: DEAR EARTH…From Your Friends in Room Five

I’m so excited to share this cover reveal of our next picture book,

DEAR EARTH…From Your Friends in Room Five

(Harper Collins, Fall 2020),

with art by Colombian illustrator Luisa Uribe.

Endless thanks to our amazing Executive Editor, Tamar Mays,

and the fabulous team at Harper Collins!

Isn’t it beautiful?

I can’t wait for you to see the whole book, but for now, here’s the scoop:

What begins as a monthly exchange of ideas between Earth and Room 5

grows into a lasting friendship, a school club with a surprising president,

and –hopefully– lifelong Earth-smart habits. 

Can you say #reduce #reuse #renew #recycle ?

More awesome news: Illustrator Luisa Uribe, who received the Dilys Evans Founder’s Award from the Society of Illustrators in 2018, is on deadline right now to finish our top secret POSTER which will also be part of DEAR EARTH.

I can already see this on your classroom walls, dear  #teacher friends. Did I mention you will find it on the reverse of the book jacket? #repurpose

Meanwhile, I asked, Erica De Chavez, our book’s Senior Designer at Harper Kids, to tell us a bit about the cover creation/selection process.

Ever wonder what a Book Designer does?

Q. Which comes first–the cover or the interior art? 

Erica De Chavez, Senior Designer: When we started asking Luisa to give us jacket-cover sketches, her interior artwork was well on the way. We had seen sketches and revised sketches at that point, and we were starting on some final colors. Thus, Executive Editor, Tamar Mays and I had a good sense of what art was going to be in the interior and what kind of image would be appropriate to best showcase that interior art.

Sorry–can’t show you interior sketches YET.

But–WOW.

Q. Were there any hurdles or potential problems the team discussed?

Erica De Chavez, Senior Designer: We knew the concept of Earth writing letters back and forth with a class of kids was going to be hard to convey without being too conceptual. Luisa did a really great job giving us many sketch options to look at.

I couldn’t agree more! Here are just a few of Luisa’s cover sketch options… 

Erica De Chavez, Senior Designer: Ultimately though, we thought the base message of the book was most clearly conveyed in the sketch we chose (the letter above planet Earth seen from outer space). The other sketch options were so cute and beautiful, too, but we just didn’t want the reader to be confused as to what the story was actually about, which can be tough to determine sometimes. And Tamar and I were so pleased that Luisa was able to fit all of the kids from Room 5 into the postage stamp on the envelope. It is a fun, little detail and so great to see our Room 5 kids all on the cover as well as our dear Earth!

Q. I LOVE the color palette of DEAR EARTH. How were the cover’s colors finalized?   

Erica De Chavez, Senior Designer: Once Luisa’s color jacket-cover art was in, we pretty much had all of the final color interior art in as well. It was just a matter of finessing the cover typography to match with the colors of the book as a whole. I knew green had to be an option we explored, since the theme is earth conscious/ awareness habits. But we ended up going with a slightly non-conventional color of orange that really popped off the darker colors on the cover and added in some of that great art/paint textures from Luisa’s final art into the title. And I still was able to fit in a little bit of blue-green onto the cover as well. ; )

Thank you, Erica, for sharing this part of the process with us. Creating a picture book definitely takes a village, and the world that Luisa and the team at @HarperKids created for DEAR EARTH…From Your Friends in Room Five is beyond my wildest dreams.

By the way, DEAR EARTH will be in the next Harper Collins catalog on Feb. 10, 2020 –one month from TODAY.

Stay tuned for Pre-order news and more sneak peaks in future posts.

In the meantime, please join me in trying to be a better friend to our dear Earth.

#NoPlanetB