Mixed-Up Files interview with Katherine Battersby: Author of Cranky Chicken!

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Happy Chanukah and Happy holiday season! Hope you’re enjoying it so far!

Today, we are fortunate to have with us Katherine Battersby, author of the graphic novel, Cranky Chicken, which is out NOW!

Katherine, thanks so much for joining us today!

JR: I was fortunate enough to read an Advanced Copy of Cranky Chicken. So adorable and some really funny moments. For those who don’t know, can you tell us a little bit about the book, and where the idea for this come from?

KB: Thank you! That means a lot. CRANKY CHICKEN is a humorous graphic novel about a very cranky chicken who accidentally saves the life of a super excitable worm. Worm decides they are going to be BFFs – Best Feathered Friends. The book follows their quirky and unlikely friendship across three mini stories.

As for where the idea came from, well … I’m actually scared of chickens. Because I know something others don’t – ALL chickens are cranky chickens (I was chased by a lot of chickens in my youth). Then, during one of my author school visits, I met this tiny girl who just adored chickens. She told me, “They’re not scary – they’re hilarious!” I couldn’t stop thinking about her, so I decided to spend some more time drawing chickens. CRANKY CHICKEN is what emerged. It turns out we were both right – chickens are cranky and hilarious.

The story itself is inspired by the ridiculous antics my best friend and I used to get up to as kids. She was an extrovert who was an only child, so she was always turning up on my doorstep just like Worm – full of excitement and ready to play. I, on the other hand, was an introvert who was part of a big blended family. I never had any time to myself, so I could be a bit of a cranky chicken. Even now, we often laugh at how different and yet similar we are. Chicken and Worm are a lot like that, too.


JR: As you just mentioned, there’s a lot of humor in the book, but also some touching moments. How difficult is it to find the right balance?

KB: I’m actually writing the third book in the series as we speak and was just talking to my partner about this very thing! For me, as a reader, the most important thing about any genre of story is that it has genuine emotion at its heart. So as a writer, even when I’m writing light and playful stories like Cranky Chicken, I think a lot about what my characters are feeling and what drives them and aim to capture this in all their interactions. Maybe this is partly because I was a children’s counselor before I became an author / illustrator, so emotions are something I already think about a lot. Luckily, mostly this balancing act is pretty instinctive – I just have to focus on staying true to the characters and Chicken and Worm are naturally both quirky and heartfelt.


That’s a good line to balance on. You’ve mostly done books for younger readers. What were some of the things that drew you to working on Graphic Novels?

KB: As a reader I’ve always loved graphic novels and comic books. I grew up surrounded by ones my parents collected on their travels – Asterix and Obelix, Tin Tin (many in their original French), Footrot Flats (a New Zealand comic) and The Far Side. I never grew out of them and continue to read comic books across genres and age groups. It’s interesting to think about what draws me to the format. I suppose I’ve always particularly loved stories with a focus on visual storytelling and those with richly illustrated worlds. I love the filmic way that these stories can unroll, with the panels leading you through a scene as a camera would. As a storyteller, I also love getting more room (than in picture books) to explore character and to play with the way I humour (such as exploring a joke over several page turns). As a reader, I’ve always had a lot of fun reading comics and I can tell you that now, as the author and illustrator, I am having just as much fun!


JR: You’re talking to the right person. I love comic books! Who were some of your influences?

KB: There are so many, I feel like I might always be unravelling the answer to this question. But one clear one is Sandra Boynton. I adored her books as a tiny thing and would draw her characters over and over. She is the queen of cute, chubby little animals and a sparse use of lines, which are both features of my own work. Standing back, I can also see the influence of Asterisk and Obelix on CRANKY CHICKEN – from the mismatched friendship to the humour and tone. The Far Side also clearly influenced my style, as I have a similar droll, understated sense of humour. But now, writing this, I can’t help but wonder if all these things already existed in me and this is why I was drawn to these creators and stories? It’s the classic ‘chicken or the egg?’ conundrum (something Chicken and Worm would happily debate for hours).


JR: You grew up in Australia. Has anything about living there influenced your writing?

KB: I think so. Definitely my sense of humour – Aussies can be quite wry and sardonic (it’s sometimes mistaken for sarcasm). Also my sense of place – I grew up by the beach on the tropical east coast of Australia, so you’ll see this influence in the second CRANKY CHICKEN book (which is out June 2022). Funnily enough, one of the biggest influences is that strange sense of cultural cringe that people often get in regards to where they grow up, so you’ll notice I never feature any overtly Australian animals in my stories! I was always much more fascinated by animals that were unfamiliar to me – bunnies and squirrels and foxes and bears. My dad was British so we regularly spent time with his family around the UK – my memories of the those trips and the animals that populated those landscapes had a big influence on my stories. Ironically, CRANKY CHICKEN is my most ‘Australian’ book yet as I did at least grow up around chickens (many of my friends lived on farms!).


JR: I need to visit Australia one day! What was your favorite childhood book?

KB: I’ve always been an avid reader, so choosing just one is all but impossible! I could look back on any given day and give a different answer, so today I’ll say … The Bunjee Venture by Stan McMurtry. It’s the first novel I can remember choosing for myself (from the Scholastic catalogue) and I read it so many times it completely fell apart. It’s a quirky little read about a kid who accidentally travels back in time to prehistoric times and discovers this odd mammoth like creature that speaks in a somewhat understandable manner. I loved the creative use of language (and trying to decode the creature’s dialogue) and the strange, often frightening landscape (man-eating flowers! sentient jelly-fish!). It was a lot of fun.

JR: What are you working on next?

KB: I have just finished proofing all the final illustrations for CRANKY CHICKEN book 2 and just this morning handed in the final manuscript for book 3 (phew!). Now I have a little time to work on a couple of picture book manuscripts I have knocking around my mind. One needs to be storyboarded out and the other one I’m still writing. I also have a newer idea for a middle grade graphic novel series which I’m currently collecting ideas for and world building. I always have many stories on the go, all in various stages of development.


JR: How can people follow you on social media?

KB: I love chatting to those passionate about children’s literature, so please feel free to find me here:

Twitter: @KathBatt

Instagram: @katherinebattersby

Facebook: Katherine Battersby Author


JR: Thank you so much for joining us today!

KB: Thanks for having me! It’s been a delight.


JR: Well, that’s it for now, Mixed-Up Filers. Make sure to run out and get a copy of Cranky Chicken, and I truly hope you enjoy the remainder of the holiday season!

Until next time . . . 


Book Spotlight: Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher

It’s the time of the year to be grateful. Grateful for what we have in life. Grateful for communities like From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle-Grade Authors. Grateful even though life sometimes throws us curveballs. 

Life does throw us curveballs. Sometimes we hit the ball, most of the time we miss. Life also has been known to lob a ball right down the fat part of the plate allowing us to take one heck of a swing. Sometimes we drive those for base hits; other times we knock the ball out of the park. Life provides unexpected opportunities.

Recently, while listening to the fantastic three-part episode on The Little Mermaid from Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent podcast, Revisionist History, life lobbed a pitch that floated across the strike zone as big as a beach ball. 

In Episode 2 of the Revisionist History podcast, Malcolm Gladwell talks to Angus Fletcher, a literature professor at the Ohio State University’s Project Narrative. Dr. Fletcher talks about fairy tales and what makes the oldest of the fairy tale twist stories work for kids while the poetic justice fairy tale stories and their modern “Disney-fied tales really don’t resonate with them.

After listening to Dr. Fletcher’s interview, two things jump out.

  1. Angus Fletcher is a neuroscientist turned English professor.
  2. He has just released a book called, Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature.

Cover for Wonderworks

Wait! A literature professor with a background in brain science wrote a book about 25 ground-breaking literary inventions?

Count me in!

So I bought the book. I started reading the book. I knew immediately I needed to share this book with my MUF friends and family.

The format of Wonderworks is well designed. Each literary invention is a chapter. It starts with a literary history and a background as existed at the time of the invention. The literary invention is introduced by an author or philosopher in their creative work with an explanation of why the invention worked. Examples are often provided highlighting the use of the invention by different authors.

The kicker, the hook, the thing about this book that reels me in is the section of each chapter where Dr. Fletcher delves into the brain science, the neurology and neurochemistry behind how and why the literary invention works for the reader. Shots of dopamine. Left brain/Right brain interactions, the HPA Axis (Hypothalamus, Pituitary gland, and Adrenal gland), the balance between the amygdala vs the prefrontal cortex. So much awesome, I’m in reader/writer/scientist heaven!

As a scientist/STEM-enthusiast and writer, this connection is what earns Wonderworks a place on the top shelf of my writing resource books. Absolutely fascinating to read a book about the effect literature has on the brain.

Confession time. I fully expected to be completely through Wonderworks by the time this post was due. 

I’m not. But there’s a great reason why.

Each chapter is so intriguing and packed with information, I find myself needing to work slowly through each of the literary inventions. I find myself seeking out the works mentioned as examples. Some of these books I have on my own shelves. Some I find online, while others I’ve found in my local library. I’ve landed on the Project Narrative website at Ohio State seeking more story knowledge and have downloaded academic papers from the participating faculty. Talk about going down the rabbit hole! Each invention listed in Wonderworks has sprouted many paths to investigate, directions to discover, and mysteries to seek out.

Have a wonderful holiday season, everyone! Enjoy the process. Create like the world needs your work because the world needs your work. Be grateful and celebrate the power of words. If you get time, I recommend Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature.

The story of story, it turns out, is a fascinating story.


Digging Up the Past: An Interview with Kerrie Hollihan

Kerrie Hollihan writes the kind of books kids fight over. I should know, I have one of them in my middle school classroom, and on more than one occasion there has been spirited deliberation over who would get to read it during our break time between classes. Her blend of historical research and captivating narrative draw in even the most reluctant readers. And that’s to say nothing of the subject matter — first mummies, then ghosts, and now bones. Kerrie’s latest title, Bones Unearthed!, is the third in her “Creepy and True” series, and it may just be the most the most appealing yet (and perhaps also the most gruesome). I’m super excited to share this interview with Kerrie — stick around and leave a comment for a chance to win this book when it’s released this week!

CL: Thanks for being here, Kerrie! In the introduction of Bones Unearthed, you compare doing book research to a sort of “virtual dig” — can you explain what you mean by that?

KH: As archaeologists and anthropologists embark on an excavation, they aren’t precisely sure what they will uncover. There might be a general idea, but the actual site can reveal all kinds of artifacts. My project was to write about cases of murder or mayhem across history that left skeletal remains. Hence Bones Unearthed! For instance, in my book proposal I’d written a sample chapter about the cannibalized Jane Doe in the Jamestown Fort. but her discovery was rather random—three bones among 47,000 artifacts found in a kitchen waste pit. What a surprise to those who uncovered her! 

Then  I needed another example of cannibalism to extend that chapter, so my digging continued for other examples. I had to evaluate the details of those to see how they’d fit with the general scheme of my project, and I ended up choosing the rugby team that was downed in an Andean air crash.

CL: Yeah, I read that cannibalism chapter on my lunch break at work — fascinating! Another thing you mention in the book is how learning about the lives of those in the past can tell us about our own lives. Did you have any experiences like that while researching or writing the book? 

KH: Yes. In writing about the Alepotrypa Cave in Greece where generations of people lived and died, I was drawn to thinking about my own family…and my own mortality. In nineteen months’ time, I became a grandmother of two and lost my own dad at age ninety-nine and three-fourths, who was born, lived, and died between two pandemics!

CL: Wow, that is pretty incredible. I also  think it’s so fascinating that the work of excavation correlates to so many other fields of study — like how the discovery of Pompei in Italy connects to plate tectonics. You include many of these as “factlets” in your book — did any of these overlaps stand out to you as particularly interesting?

KH: I was amazed how Edvard Munch’s The Scream came into play during the Year without a Summer—thanks to that Krakatoa volcano eruption in Indonesia.

CL: Okay, so it’s no secret this book has some pretty gruesome chapters…and don’t get me wrong — that’s what I love about it — but it’s certainly not a text for the squeamish! Was there anything you found difficult to read or write about?

KH: When I got my author copies, I thumbed through and, frankly, was taken aback by some of the stories and images. This is horrific stuff! Reading about the young men of that Andean air crash who could only survive by cannibalizing their friends was not pleasant and challenging to present in a careful tone to my readers. It was hard for me to think about the Viking sacrifice of children, as it was about the Inca sacrifice of other little ones I wrote about in Mummies Exposed! The pumice rafts loaded with human bones afloat at sea left a heavy imprint in my mind, and so did the grave robbing of so many disregarded people for cadaver study.

CL: But there are some really heartfelt sections, too. Later in the book is a chapter called “Bones and Benevolence,” in which you detail how some discoveries give us insights into the way people lived and loved long ago. Especially interesting in this chapter is the way modern technology expands our ability to understand and catalogue human remains. Do you have a favorite story from this part of your research?

KH: After writing about so much sadness, I researched examples of gravesites with burials that reflected human caring and respect. I’d known for a while about ongoing DNA study of the remains of sailors’ bony remains from the USS Oklahoma,  but I hadn’t learned the whole story about its sinking and  recovery at Pearl Harbor. These events were real to my own parents, and I grew up honoring December 7 as “the Day that will live in infamy.” Soon enough, we will have lost all those who remember that day. 

I seriously got a lump in my throat as I worked through the research. To learn how that navy veteran, Ray Emory, had a bold idea, which was then enhanced by the development of DNA technology, set my mind aglow. I marvel at how human emotion and determination can join with technological innovation to produce such an appropriate and amazing gift of human remains to the families of the Oklahoma’s dead sailors.

CL: Well, that brings me to something all of your books seem to have in common –  research! Like, lots and lots of research! In the afterword of Bones Unearthed, you make a great comparison between your text and an iceberg. Can you expand on that?

KH: I think nearly all nonfiction authors will say that the fun is in the research. For all the books in the Creepy & True series, there was so much to learn to fill nine or more chapters, some with three topics in each. Let’s take the Franklin Expedition in Chapter 3 of Bones Unearthed! When I chose to write about it, I  had a 20-year-old memory of a PBS program about the expedition and how the men’s brains were addled by lead poisoning. Ha…twenty years on, that presumption turned out to be factually questionable. As I like to point out to students, there’s always something new to learn about something old.

But the bigger story was how the search for Franklin was told by two sets of people: records from the British and American expeditions versus the oral histories of the Inuit people over those same years. How did they connect? 

I had a ton of research evidence in scholarly journals, primary sources recorded in old books, library

Kerrie’s husband generously shared this doodle of an iceberg for illustration purposes.

books filled with secondary sources, modern newspapers and periodicals, government websites, maps of one kind or another… seemed endless. What you read about the Franklin Expedition in Bones Unearthed! is only the tip of the information iceberg. Ninety percent of a nonfiction book lies beneath the surface.

In the end, I had to cut five pages from that chapter, which is a perfect example of revision. Students should hear that we authors can’t hang on to every word we put on the page for a first draft.

Thanks so much to Kerrie for an awesome conversation — BONES UNEARTHED! comes out this week and is available everywhere. You can learn more about Kerrie and her other books on her website, and don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a free copy!