Author Interviews

ELEANOR, ALICE, & THE ROOSEVELT GHOSTS ~ An Interview With Author Dianne Salerni

One of my favorite things to do is talk about spooky middle grade books! So welcome to my interview with author Dianne Salerni and her latest book release ELEANOR, ALICE, & THE ROOSEVELT GHOSTS.

The Book📚

Eleanor, Alice, & the Roosevelt GhostsELEANOR, ALICE, & THE ROOSEVELT GHOSTS

by Dianne Salerni

It’s 1898 in New York City and ghosts exist among humans.

When an unusual spirit takes up residence at their aunt’s house, thirteen-year-old Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Alice are suspicious. The girls don’t get along, but they know something is not right. This ghost is more than a pesky nuisance. The authorities claim he’s safe to be around, even as his mischievous behavior grows stranger and more menacing. Could their aunt and her unborn child be in danger?

Meanwhile, Eleanor and Alice discover a vengeful ghost in the house where Alice was born and her mother died. Is someone else haunting the family? Introverted Eleanor and unruly Alice develop an unlikely friendship as they explore the family’s dark, complicated history.

A JUNIOR LIBRARY GUILD GOLD STANDARD SELECTION

 

The Interview🎙️

It’s wonderful to chat with you again, Dianne! Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files. How about we begin by you telling our readers a bit about your two main characters, Eleanor and Alice.

Eleanor and Alice Roosevelt were both touched by tragedy when very young. Eleanor was orphaned by the age of eight and thereafter lived with an oppressive grandmother. Alice’s mother died shortly after her birth, and Alice thereafter viewed herself as an extra appendage in a large family consisting of an acerbic step-mother, five half-siblings, and a distant father.

Both girls felt abandoned, unloved, and unworthy. However, this manifested differently in the two girls. While Eleanor was introverted, awkward, and tried to blend into the wallpaper, Alice acted out in so many outlandish ways that relations described her as a guttersnipe, a hellion, and a wild animal put into good clothes.

I will say that I loved how you portrayed the girls so differently. Yet, as the story moves forward, their similarities also come to a ghostly light.👻

What five words best describes Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghost?

Feisty females versus deceitful ghosts.

Ooh . . . perfect!

Like most of your books, Eleanor’s story is grounded in historical elements. How do you see the value in history and its importance to stories like Eleanor’s?

Every time we remember that historical people were no different from people today – in temperament, in complexity, in motivation – we learn more about ourselves and our future. In fact, the appeal of the musical Hamilton is in how it humanizes people who have otherwise been reduced to icons by the weight of U.S. history. So, when we look at an inspirational American figure like Eleanor Roosevelt and remember that she was once a neglected, insecure adolescent, I pray that it gives hope to the neglected and insecure adolescents of today.

You share this really cool ghost or entity lamp in the book. Please tell the readers about it.

The Edison Lamp is a made-up invention in my alternate history. It detects the “eruption” of a ghost in a house, which seems like the sort of practical device Thomas Edison would invent in this alternate reality. The timely detection of a new haunting is essential for survival, because some ghosts are deadly.  Consider the Edison Lamp the equivalent to a smoke alarm or CO2 detector.

This was one of my favorite elements of the book! It’s super cool.

Did you discover any other eerie gadgets from the past?

In approximately 1901, Nikola Tesla invented a very basic radio receiver that was open to a wide range of frequencies. (For real, not just in my alternate history.) Apparently, the noises he picked up on this receiver disturbed him. He wrote, “My first observations positively terrified me as there was present in them something mysterious, not to say supernatural, and I was alone in my laboratory at night.”

Tesla historians later dubbed this device a “spirit radio.” I borrowed this invention for Eleanor, Alice, and the Roosevelt Ghosts, although I had to move the invention to 1898 and couldn’t call it a “spirit radio,” since radios hadn’t been invented yet.

“What is that?” Alice wants to know.

“A spirit telegraph,” Miss Bly says jokingly.

“It’s a means of hearing what the house has to say,” Tesla corrects her.

I remember reading something years ago about a “spirit radio”. Like I mentioned – super cool. You inserted a fun and effective ‘ghost world’ into your real-world building. Would you share how you made it all fit together?

I started with the children’s primer, Types of Ghosts and How They Fade, which was the very first thing I wrote when I started brainstorming this book. It describes the types of ghosts: Friendly, Unaware, and Vengeful. Since my premise is that ghosts are part of ordinary life, I set about weaving ghosts into the fabric of this world. Ex: a nursery rhyme to teach the children the types of ghosts, technology to detect ghosts, ghosts inserted into well-known literature (I tweaked Great Expectations), government agencies to deal with hauntings, ghosts inserted into historical events (Was the U.S.S. Maine destroyed by a Vengeful?), and even a branch of law enforcement called SWAT teams – Supernatural Weapons and Tactics.

What was the hardest part about writing this book?

In question #6, I described what was necessary to weave ghosts into this world. This book contains interstitial material – text between the chapters – consisting of newspaper articles and ads, letters, and census tables. Earlier versions went a little overboard. I included extra world-building interstitial material like textbook excerpts, slightly altered contemporary literature, etc. But it was too much.

The hardest part was letting go of all the world-building content that didn’t enhance or advance the story – no matter how clever (sob!) it was.

Ooh, I hope you saved that WB content for another story!

For Our Teachers and Authors🍎🏫🎒

As a former schoolteacher, what do you see as the greatest challenge for students, today?

This year, it’s the same as it is for the rest of us – grief for the loss of our lives before the pandemic. Extroverts are feeling it the worst, I believe. But even introverts—like me and Eleanor—are feeling the loss of everything we hoped to do and can’t. Whatever we can do to encourage and maintain personal connections with even the shyest of us students is more essential than ever.

With the current educational challenges facing teachers and parents, how can they encourage middle schoolers to engage in more independent reading and writing?

Authors have been available to readers online since the advent of social media, and many readers (on their own or encouraged by teachers) have used this opportunity to connect. But others have not, simply through lack of time. Now that so much of the educational experience is, by necessity, online, why not make use of that opportunity? If authors are offering virtual visits and online workshops, schedule them! If there are writing opportunities – contests, NaNoWriMo, seminars – help students connect with them.

Inquiring Minds Want To Know🦋

From your personal experience, what middle grade book is a must read?

With a publication date of 2000, it’s getting dated, but during my last ten years of teaching, I read No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman aloud to both my reading classes at the beginning of every year. Written in 4 different POVs (including an adult – gasp! – isn’t that forbidden in MG books?!), it’s not only an opportunity for POV discussion but also a remarkably funny mystery and scathing review on classic literature. In the words of protagonist Wallace Wallace:“The dog always dies. Go to the library and pick out a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover. Trust me, that dog is going down.”

*Note to self – No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman

Have to ask: do YOU believe in ghosts?

I didn’t. I was a big skeptic, until I took a ghost hunting class from my local community college, went on a field trip to a supposedly haunted house, and came back with an unexplained voice on my audio recording. Nobody else who was present recorded this voice. The other recordings registered silence while mine – and only mine – includes a ghostly but humorous message.

You can hear the whole story AND the ghost voice on my YouTube video: https://tinyurl.com/yxnhjgja

Whoa . . . Everyone, you can head over to watch right after our last question. I know I’m going to check it out.

Lastly, what can readers expect to see from you next?🔮

My next book, Jadie in Five Dimensions, will be published in the fall of 2021 from Holiday House. It’s a twisty, multi-dimensional sci-fi adventure based on the premise that our 3-dimensional universe exists inside a larger 4-dimensional universe, the way Russian dolls nest together.

Jadie Martin, an abandoned infant, was rescued from certain death by benevolent beings from the fourth dimension and placed into a loving adoptive family. Now age 13, Jadie serves as an Agent for the four-dimensional Overseers, performing missions calculated to guide her world toward a brighter future.

Except — when Jadie switches assignments with another Agent, she discovers her origin story is a lie. Her birth family has suffered multiple tragedies engineered from 4-space, including the loss of their baby girl. Now doubting her benefactors, Jadie anonymously observes her long-lost family. Why are they important? What are the true intentions of the Overseers? And what will huge, all-powerful four-dimensional beings do to a small rebellious human girl when they realize she’s interfering with their plans?

This sounds so exciting! Can’t wait to read. Thank you so much for joining us and for sharing Eleanor and Alice’s story with us. 

If you’d like to read about another #spookymg book, you can go HERE.

About The Author✒️

DIANNE K. SALERNI is the author of middle grade and YA novels, including Eleanor, Alice, & the Roosevelt Ghosts, The Eighth DayAuthor Dianne Salerni Series, The Caged Graves, and We Hear the Dead. Her seventh book, Jadie in Five Dimensions, will release in the fall of 2021. Dianne was a public school teacher for 25 years before leaving the profession to spend more time hanging around creepy cemeteries and climbing 2000 year-old pyramids in the name of book research. WEBSITE | FACEBOOK | TWITTER

🛍️Giveaway🛍️

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Author Spotlight: Christine Kendall… plus a GIVEAWAY!

Let’s give a warm Mixed-Up welcome to Christine Kendall, the NAACP Image Award–nominated author of the MG debut, Riding Chance (Scholastic, 2016). Christine’s sophomore novel, also published by Scholastic, The True Definition of Neva Beane, came out in September and was lauded by Lesa Cline-Ransome as “an inter-generational story written with humor, heart, hope—and the power of self-discovery.

Here is a summary of Neva Beane:

Being twelve isn’t easy, especially when you’re Neva Beane. She knows she’s beautiful and smart, but there are so many confusing signals in everyday life about, well… everything, including the changes taking place in her preadolescent body; her relationship with her best friend, Jamila; and her admiration for the social activist on the block, Michelle.

Mom and Dad are on tour in Europe and Neva and her brother, Clay, are left at home with their traditional grandparents. The household descends into inter-generational turmoil and Neva is left with what comforts her most—words and their meanings. While the pages of her beloved dictionary reveal truths about what’s happening around her, Neva discovers the best way to define herself.

And here’s a summary of Riding Chance:

Troy is a kid with a passion. And dreams. And wanting to do the right thing. But after taking a wrong turn, he’s forced to endure something that’s worse than any juvenile detention: He’s “sentenced” to the local city stables, where he’s required to take care of horses. The greatest punishment has been trying to make sense of things since his mom died, but through his work with the horses he discovers a sport totally unknown to him—polo. Troy’s has to figure out which friends have his back, which kids to cut loose, and whether he and Alisha have a true connection.

Q&A with Christine Kendall

MR: So glad to have you with us, Christine. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files!

CK: Thanks so much for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

MR: I can’t tell you which of your novels I enjoyed more, Riding Chance or The True Definition of Neva Beane. They are both wonderful in such different ways. I know you wrote Riding Chance because you were inspired by a story on NPR (more on that later), but what prompted you to tell Neva’s story? Were you like Neva growing up? 

CK: It warms my heart to hear you enjoyed both books as I consider them companion novels. They’re both coming of age stories that take place in current-day Philadelphia. The True Definition of Neva Beane isn’t memoir but, like Neva, I paid a lot of attention to words as I was growing up, and I came to understand their power pretty early on.

One of the things that prompted me to write the book is my fascination with how young girls are seen, and how those notions about who they are may or may not align with how they define themselves. This is important because the period in a girl’s life when she moves from early childhood into adolescence is magical, but it can also be very confusing. People read girls differently as their bodies develop and often make judgments about them based purely on their physical selves. I wanted to explore those issues. Once I had the Neva Beane character I thought about other issues she may be confronted with in today’s world. That led me to think about her political awakening and various ways a person can make a positive contribution to their community.

Body Positivity in MG Fiction

MR: Speaking of Neva, it’s clear from page one that she has a strong sense of self, particularly when it comes to her changing body. She feels beautiful in her first bra, a “glorious white cotton status symbol,” and admires herself in front of the mirror until she’s “dizzy.” I love this scene because it’s such a gorgeous display of girl power and body positivity. Was that your intention when you wrote the scene—to encourage tween girls to take pride in their changing bodies? If so, what role does body positivity play, or should play, in MG fiction?

CK: I’ll confess that I wrote Neva Beane’s “mirror scene” based on memory. I was eleven years old and, unbeknownst to me, I was seen admiring myself in front of a mirror by one of my brothers. Well, of course, my brother almost died laughing and I was humiliated. I spent hours trying to figure out why I felt that way before I realized there’s no shame in acknowledging your own beauty. I just hadn’t expected to be seen in that moment by anyone else. I think many young teens have experienced moments like that and I wanted them to know that I see them and their beauty. Body positivity is an issue for boys as well as girls and MG fiction is a good place to explore it.

What’s the Good Word?

MR: As above, Neva Beane is obsessed with words and finds great comfort in them. In fact, her most beloved possession is a Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. What is it about words that fascinates and comforts Neva—and maybe you, too?

CK: Words have power. Neva Beane is fascinated by them because she sees how they can be used to elevate or to wound. I share that fascination and wanted to show how Neva’s ability to analyze words brings her comfort especially when she is in the midst of confusing situations. I also wanted to provide a concrete example of how a person can use words to elevate. Neva chooses that path at the end of the book.

Work to Ride Program

MR: Turning our attention to Riding Chance, I know you wrote the book because you were inspired by a story on NPR about a program called Work to Ride, where inner-city kids work with horses and learn how to play polo in exchange for stable chores. Can you tell MUF readers a bit about the program and how it inspired you? Also, what kind of research did you do in order to make the polo-playing scenes realistic? I’m guessing you weren’t a horseperson prior to writing the novel…?

 CK: You’re right about my not being a horseperson before I wrote Riding Chance. I hadn’t planned on writing a novel. I was simply inspired when I heard the wonderful story about how kids in a mentoring program in Philly won a polo national championship in 2011. It was such an incredible story about what can happen when young people are given opportunities to explore and develop themselves in new ways.

I had to do a lot of research including taking horseback riding lessons, studying the game of polo, going to polo matches, and learning about the powerful bonds between humans and animals. I was fortunate in that there were a couple of horsepeople in the critique group I was a member of who were more than happy to offer constructive criticism. I learned quite a bit and really enjoyed the process.

Themes in Christine’s Books

MR: I noticed that loss and abandonment is a theme in both of your novels. In Riding Chance, Troy is grieving the death of his beloved mom; in Neva Beane, Neva feels as if she’s been cast aside by her best friend, Jamila. Neva also misses her musician parents while they’re on tour in Europe. What is the message you’re trying to convey? Resiliency? Grit? Something else?

CK: You hit the nail right on the head with resilience. I think it is such an important skill for young people to develop. Life can be difficult at times and we need to believe we can work our way through tough situations. One of the ways people develop resilience is by not being afraid to take reasonable risks. We will not always succeed at everything we try but even our failures provide opportunities to learn and to become more confident.

Ch Ch Changes…

MR: Before writing Riding Chance, you were in the legal profession. What prompted you to make the switch from the law to writing? Can you tell Mixed-Up Files readers about your path to publication? Was it a steady canter or a wild Headless Horseman-style gallop? (I know… 🙂)

CK: I like the visual of a Headless Horseman-style gallop especially since my path to publication was somewhat unusual. As you mentioned, I had a career before I became a writer. I worked with large law firms in the areas of  attorney recruitment, associate relations, and diversity and inclusion. I enjoyed my legal career but I got to the point where I wanted to do something more creative. I had always loved books and reading so I took a big step, talk about taking a risk, and left my job to focus on writing.

After about a year of sitting at home by myself struggling with picture book manuscripts I took a writing workshop with an editor from Scholastic, the amazing Andrea Davis Pinkney. She saw my fascination with Philly kids playing polo and encouraged me to use that as inspiration for a novel. It took me three years to research and write and revise but, in the end, she wanted the book.

This Writer’s Life

MR: What your writing process like, Christine? Do you have a specific routine? Writing rituals?

CK: I don’t have a specific writing routine, but I often need something like music to move me from real life into the fictive world. I love jazz so I may listen to that while I’m working. I also read my work aloud as I go along and I write with my whole body. What I mean is I get up and sometimes act out what my characters are doing so I can describe their actions accurately. Needless to say, I write at home. I don’t think people would put up with me in other places.

MR: Finally, what’s next on your writing agenda, Christine? Care to share a bit about your latest project?

CK: I’m working on another MG novel. I wrote a short story a few years ago that doesn’t feel like it’s finished even though it’s been published. I’m expanding that story into a longer work.

MR: Oh! Last thing…

No MUF interview is complete without a LIGHTNING ROUND!

Preferred writing snack? Popcorn.

Coffee or tea? Tea.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary or Oxford English Dictionary? Merriam-Webster.

Favorite word? Milieu, although I don’t think I used that word in Neva Beane.

Mister Ed or Mister Rogers? Mister Rogers.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay.

Superpower? Ability to find humor in most any situation.

Favorite place on earth? Mashomack Nature Preserve on Shelter Island, New York.

You’re stranded on a desert island, with only three items in your possession. What are they? A book, my eyeglasses, and a flashlight.

MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Christine—and congratulations on the publication of The True Definition of Neva Beane. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too.

And now…

A GIVEAWAY!!!

For a copy of The True Definition of Neva Beane, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files’ Twitter account–for a chance to win! 

CHRISTINE KENDALL grew up in a family of artists, the fourth of six children, where everyone studied the piano along with one other instrument. She still feels sorry for the neighbors. They woke up one morning and found themselves living next door to a flute, two clarinets, a French horn, a cello, a set of drums, and always, always somebody on the piano. Christine wasn’t any good on the piano or the clarinet, but she loved writing. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals and her debut novel, Riding Chance, was nominated for a NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work for Youth/Teens. The True Definition of Neva Beane is her second novel. Christine lives in Philadelphia where she co-curates and hosts the award-winning reading series, Creative at the Cannery. Learn more about Christine on her website and follow her on Twitter.

Interview with Fred Bowen and James Ransome about their new book, Gridiron: Stories From 100 Years of the National Football League.

Hello Mixed-Up Filers!

Today, I am super excited to welcome to our site, veteran sportswriter, Fred Bowen and award-winning illustrator, James Ransome, to discuss their recent middle grade release, GRIDIRON: Stories from 100 Years of the National Football League, which was released on July 28th from Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Welcome to both of you and welcome to Mixed-Up Files!

JR: To start with, I really enjoyed this book. Fascinating and the illustrations were gorgeous. I’m a huge football fan and still learned things, and even things I knew, it was fun to revisit. How did the idea for this book come about, and how did the collaboration between the two of you develop?

James: I was watching a football game about six years ago when one of the announcers stated that the 100th anniversary of the NFL was coming up. The anniversary seemed like a perfect idea for a book for young readers. I began researching the history with the idea that I would write and illustrate the book.  After juggling deadlines for other book projects, traveling and teaching, I realized years had passed and I still hadn’t found the time to write one sentence, let alone a book. That’s when I realized I’d needed a writer. Fast forward to one year later when Fred and I met at a conference in Maryland. Right away I knew, that as a sportswriter, he’d be the perfect person to write the manuscript. I discussed my idea with him and we agreed to collaborate.

Fred: Thanks for the kind words about Gridiron. I am very proud of the book. As James said, the book was his idea. He approached me at a conference about 5-6 years ago after we appeared on a panel of children’s writers and illustrators who were talking about their work. I described my Fred Bowen Sports Story books for kids 7-12 that combine sports fiction, sports history and always have a chapter of sports history in the back. I also talked about my weekly kids sports column for the Washington Post.

After the panel, James told me about his idea of a history of the NFL in time for the league’s 100th anniversary (2020) and said he thought I was the person who could write it. I was very interested. I thought it was a great idea and I was thrilled to work with James. I have known about and admired his work for years.

JR: I think the collaboration definitely paid off. How much did you work with each other on aspects of the book?

Fred: Quite a bit. For example, we discussed the various players and events that should be included in the book. James reviewed several of the early chapters and gave me some great advice. He said, “Tell more stories.” Later in the process, when I was getting a little lost in my concerns of what my editor might like to be in the book, James said, “Fred, write the book you want to write.” That advice was very clarifying for me.

James: Well, my wife is a writer, so I have learned that it’s best to give them the space they need to create. I shared only my overall vision for the project with Fred. He later sent me a first draft of a sample chapter. I did emphasize that I wanted to be sure the text reflected the pace and dramatic moments of the game. Aside from this initial discussion, Fred then organized the chapters and came up with all the wonderful stories. So, it was a thrill to read the manuscript, enjoy his narrative that weaves the history into the present.

Have to ask, which team do you each root for and what one moment from those teams is your favorite?

James: I am a Miami Dolphins fan, from 1972 the year that the team went undefeated through the entire season and went on to win the Super bowl. And I should mention that they are still the only football team in the NFL to hold this distinction. A highlight for me was probably the Monday night Football game when the Dolphins played the Chicago Bears in week 13. The Bears came into the game undefeated and Miami with quarterback, Dan Marino, was the only thing standing in the way of the Bears from going undefeated. As the experts predicted, the Bears did go to the Super bowl and won, but the Dolphins defeated them on that Monday night 38 to 24. It was the only loss of the season for the Bears team.

JR: That game pains me in more ways than one. Hated the Dolphins, and hated it even more because of how angry I was that the Jets didn’t draft Marino. 

Fred: When I was growing up in Massachusetts, the members of my very large family (7 kids) were all New York Giant fans. I remember watching the weekly Giants game at one o’clock on Sunday with my father and older brothers and then going out to our yard to play touch football. I spent much of my early years dreaming of being a wide receiver such as Del Shofner or a defensive back such as Jimmy Patton.

Later in the 1970s, I rooted for the New England Patriots with quarterback Jim Plunkett and running back Sam “the Bam” Cunningham. Now, I follow the Washington Football Team for my Washington Post column, but I don’t really root for them. I am proud, however, that I wrote a column that the team should change their name “Redskins” way back in 2005.

JR: Which is the one lost opportunity football moment from your teams that you wish they could get back?

Fred: One of my earliest sports memories is watching the 1958 NFL championship game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts. I remember my older brother Rich was heartbroken that the Giants lost the game and so was I. I suppose I would like to change the outcome of that famous game, but telling the story of Johnny Unitas and the Colts’ stirring comeback and 23-17 overtime win made a great chapter 7 in Gridiron. So maybe it turned out all right in the end.

James: Well, that’s an easy one. It has to be Super Bowl XVII when Washington beat the Dolphins 27 Miami 17. And Dan Marino did not get his Super Bowl win.

 

JR: Weird, I was okay with that one. 🙂 I loved the format of the book and the breaking the sport into four quarters. As I mentioned, I’m a huge football fan, and still was surprised to learn some facts from the book. What were the most surprising things that each of you learned while working on it?

James: For me it was learning more about coach Paul Brown. As I was working on that chapter, I continued to discover information that was beyond amazing on how he transformed the game into what it is today. It was so astonishing to me that I asked Fred to incorporate additional information to the text, which he did. I just wanted readers to know as much as we could squeeze in on about the contributions Paul Brown made to football and why he is the only person a team (The Cleveland Browns) is named in honor of.

Fred: Separating the book into quarters was James’s idea and it really helped with the organization of the book.

Two things surprised me the most during my researching and writing Gridiron. First, how small-time and disorganized the NFL was during its early years. No one kept statistics. Reports of the games rarely appeared in the newspapers. Teams made their own schedules and often played a different number of games. I describe some of this in the chapters of Gridiron. The first NFL championship game in 1932 (Chapter 3) was played in a Chicago ice rink. Only 31 of the 81 players selected in the first NFL draft in 1936 (Chapter 18) ever played in the league. The first pick – Jay Berwanger – chose to become a sportswriter and later a businessman.

The other thing that surprised me was how difficult it was to decide what to include in the fourth quarter of the book. It is much easier to see what events and characters of eighty or sixty or even forty years ago were important and “historical.” It is much more difficult with recent events.

 

JR: That’s incredible that the first pick chose not to play football. Fred, you started your career as a lawyer. How difficult was it to make the transition from that to writing for children, and is there anything from your previous career that you’ve found useful in your new field?

Fred: Surprisingly, being a lawyer is very helpful for becoming a writer. First, lawyers have to read and write a lot. Second, and probably most important for a project such as Gridiron, is that lawyers are used to taking a lot of complex materials and making them shorter and more understandable. So for Gridiron I read more than forty books and numerous articles and turned all that material into twenty chapters that are each about 650 words long that kids and the adults in their lives will enjoy.

JR: James, I read that you studied filmmaking before changing paths. What components of the former have helped with your illustrations?

James: Filmmaking has helped me with storytelling and pagination. When I read a manuscript, I think of it as a film. I zoom in and out, I see pages as scenes, I think of the angles and or viewpoint that best express the feel of the text.

JR: Can you both describe your process in your projects?

Fred: Specifically, for Gridiron I first had to decide what topics to write about in the four quarters and twenty chapters of the book. That is what I call the arc of the story.

Then I had to research each chapter and decide what story to tell within each chapter. For example, in Chapter 10 about the first Super Bowl I decided I wanted to tell the story of Max McGee, probably the most unlikely Super Bowl hero ever, and not just the play-by-play of the game.

Next, I outlined each chapter and decided what stories and details to include and what to leave out.  Then came the writing and deciding exactly how to tell the stories.  After that, I read what I had written out loud.  If the chapter was not easy to read I would change it until it was easy to read.  It was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of fun.

James: I start off with reading the story a few times while making small doodle sketches. Then I make a dummy book and tape down all the text down on the pages. Then I create sketches that are drawn in next to the text. Once I feel I have a good version of the story, I send the dummy to the publisher. After 2 to 3 rounds of making sketch changes, I move on to drawing out the images on tracing paper working the same size of the final layout. These are then transferred to the paper that I am going to paint the images on. The painting process takes approximately three months to complete.

JR: What advice can you each give to someone looking to break into your respective fields?

James: I think there are two important skills you need; one is picture making. What I mean by that is how well you put figures in a room or space. But how you compose the picture with figures is just as important. And in children’s books, both facial expressions and body language are equally important.

Fred: Read widely. One of the fun things about being a writer is that you meet lots of other writers.  Every writer I have ever met is also a big reader.

It is also important to put yourself in a position where you have to write. So if there is a newspaper or a literary magazine at your school, join it. Don’t wait to be “inspired” to write. In addition, use every time you write anything, from a paper for school to an email or even a text, as an opportunity to practice your writing.

Finally, don’t try to figure out what might be popular. Write what appeals to you and what interests you.  Your enthusiasm for the subject will show through in your writing.

JR: Great advice from both of you. Now, if you could each tell me, what’s your favorite book from childhood?

Fred: Growing up my favorite books were the Chip Hilton sports books by Clair Bee, a Hall of Fame college basketball coach. The 23 fiction books followed Chip through his junior year at Valley Falls High School through his senior year at State (his college). Chip was the star quarterback in football, high-scoring forward in basketball and the top pitcher and hitter in baseball.

I loved those books so much my fourth grade teacher, Sister William (I attended Catholic school), let me read them under my desk during class. I think Sister William also knew that reading the books would keep me quiet!

The books sometimes mentioned the history of the games. In one book, Bee mentioned how in the early days of basketball there would be a jump ball after every basket. This fascinated me and probably led to my interest in sports history and history in general.

By the way, I own all 23 Chip Hilton books. They are in a bookcase behind my desk in my home office.

James: A Fly Went By by Mike McClintock, illustrated by Fritz Siebel

 

JR: Best football movie?

James: Brian’s Song 

JR: Good movie. 

Fred: I was a movie reviewer for local newspapers for 2-3 years early in my writing career. It was great fun and taught me to write for a general audience. I don’t remember any really good football films. But I enjoyed All the Right Moves, Heaven Can Wait, Remember the Titans and Friday Night Lights, although the book version of Friday Night Lights was much better.

JR: No love for The Longest Yard? Something people would be surprised to learn about each of you?

Fred: Although I write about sports I have a lot of interests other than sports. For example, I am a huge jazz fan. I have hundreds of CDs as well as Spotify playlists of such jazz favorites as Miles Davis, Tommy Flanagan, Bill Charlap, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Ray Brown and Scott Hamilton to name a few. I often write my books and columns with jazz playing in the background. And I will sneak the name of a favorite bass player or saxophonist into a lineup or roster in my books.

James: I think people would be surprised to learn how large a role music plays in my art making. Jazz is on 80% of the time while I’m working. But I also enjoy rap, blues and soul/ R&B. My all-time favorite band is Parliament /Funkadelic and my favorite rap group is Public Enemy. Favorite solo rapper goes to the one and only Biggie Smalls. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers is my top jazz band and Muddy Waters is my favorite blues singer. Nat King Cole, my favorite jazz singer. I’d love to illustrate a book about any of those subjects.

 

JR: What are you each working on next?

James: I am illustrating a book about jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Before that I just completed the companion to Gridiron, Hardcourt: A 75 years History of the NBA. It has the same formatting, and page count and another book that was so much fun to make pictures for. Now I’m hoping that Fred will write a book about the hockey league.

Fred: My next book is scheduled to come out in the fall of 2021. It is a soccer mystery and will be the 24th book in the Fred Bowen Sports Story series for Peachtree Publishers. We are still working on the title of the book.

James and I will be teaming up again for another sports history book. Hardcourt: Stories From 75 Years of the National Basketball Association is scheduled to be published in 2022. I’m very excited about that book.

JR: Looking forward to that, though I want to see a baseball one! How can people follow you on social media?

Fred: My Twitter handle is @FredBowenBooks. Anyone who is interested in my books and Washington Post columns can visit my website: www.fredbowen.com. I always enjoy hearing from people who like my books and columns.

James: My Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/james.e.ransome

And Instagram@ jransomillustr

Website: www.jamesransome.com

JR: Okay, let’s end with a couple of football questions. This is a weird year in sports. Based on what you’ve already seen, who’s your early pick to win the Super Bowl, and please don’t say the Patriots.

James: Well, you don’t have to worry that I am going to say the Patriots, being that I am a Dolphins fan. I think the Chiefs will return and they will be playing the Seahawks. It does not matter as long as Brady does not get in with the Buccaneers.

JR: Amen to that.

Fred: This year is going to be unpredictable because of the coronavirus. But I think you have to look at the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks as Super Bowl contenders so long as their quarterbacks stay healthy. One other team that might make a run is the Los Angeles Rams. Aaron Donald is a major force in the middle of their defensive line.

JR: Lastly, a serious question. as a frustrated fan for around forty years. Will the Jets EVER get better?

Fred: Absolutely! As I write this answer the Jets have a record of 0-6. They have to get better. There is no place to go but up for the Jets.

JR: I wish that were true. 

James: This is not a good question for a Dolphin’s fan. For all your readers who don’t understand, the Dolphins, Patriots, Bills and the Jets are all in the same division. Only one team can win the division and the other teams can only hope for a wild card to enter the playoffs. But only the team with the top record will advance to the playoffs and if they are lucky, the Super bowl. But your record has to be the top of all the remaining teams in all the divisions in your conference. The Jets and Dolphins have a long rivalry history, so I don’t root for them.

JR: Well, I AM rooting for the Dolphins this week, so the Jets can continue their tanking.

I thank you both again for joining us, and everyone please make sure to go out and get a copy of GRIDIRON!

 

In the meantime, on behalf of everyone here at Mixed-Up Files, I want to wish all of our readers a very Happy Thanksgiving! We are grateful for all of you.

 

Jonathan