Posts Tagged “writing for children”

Author Spotlight: Andrea Davis Pinkney… plus a GIVEAWAY!

Today, I’m beyond thrilled to welcome acclaimed children’s author Andrea Davis Pinkney to the Mixed-Up Files!

Andrea is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of nearly 60 books for young readers, among them The Red Pencil and A Poem for Peter, as well as several collaborations with her husband Brian Pinkney, including Sit-In and Hand in Hand, which received the Coretta Scott King Book Award.

Her latest book, Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It, is a series of dramatic monologues narrated by three members of the Little family, Loretta, Roly, and Aggie. B. The novel has received four starred reviews to date – from Kirkus, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and BooklistEntertainment Weekly called the book “prescient” and a must for your anti-racist reading list. The book is illustrated by Brian Pinkney and available from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

A glimpse into Loretta Little Looks Back:

“Right here, I’m sharing the honest-to-goodness.” — Loretta

“I’m gon’ reach back, and tell how it all went. I’m gon’ speak on it. My way.”— Roly

“I got more nerve than a bad tooth. But there’s nothing bad about being bold.” — Aggie B.

Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B., members of the Little family, each present the vivid story of their young lives, spanning three generations. Their separate stories–beginning in a cotton field in 1927 and ending at the presidential election of 1968–come together to create one unforgettable journey.

Through an evocative mix of fictional first-person narratives, spoken-word poems, folk myths, gospel rhythms and blues influences, Loretta Little Looks Back weaves an immersive tapestry that illuminates the dignity of sharecroppers in the rural South.

Inspired by storytelling’s oral tradition, stirring vignettes are presented in a series of theatrical monologues that paint a gripping, multidimensional portrait of America’s struggle for civil rights as seen through the eyes of the children who lived it.

Q&A with Andrea Davis Pinkney

MR: A hearty welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Andrea! First and foremost, I must tell you how much I adored Loretta Little. Not only was the format highly original, each of the three narrators—Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B.—has a remarkably distinctive voice. As a writer, this is no mean feat. What’s your secret for getting inside a character’s head?

So happy to be here, Mixed-Up Files! Thank you for inviting me to your party. I’m glad you enjoyed Loretta Little Looks Back. Actually, I don’t get inside characters’ heads – they inhabit my thoughts. And they bury themselves in my heart, too. I feel like Loretta Little Looks Back wrote itself. These kids just started talking to me, each in their own brassy ways. One by one, they walked up, stared me down, and spoke. And they wouldn’t stop! That’s when the writing began. Roly, Loretta, and Aggie B. compelled me to share their stories with other kids like them who are passionate about what they believe is right.

Balancing fact and fiction

MR:  Speaking of Loretta, Roly, and Aggie B., I read in your author’s note that the characters are based on members of your family. Aggie B., for instance, is a composite of your aunt Katherine and your mother, Gwen.  Real-life historical figures are featured in your novel, too, including civil-rights activists James Forman, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Charles McLaurin. The rural setting—Ruleville, Mississippi—is also real. What is the biggest challenge of blending—and balancing—fact and fiction?

Yes, this book’s branches come from the roots of my family tree. They spring from the lives and times of the kinfolk who raised me. I come from a long line of grass-roots civil rights organizers. When I was growing up, I heard my family’s stories on porches and at the supper table. Many of these ended up on the pages of this book. My late father marched with Dr. King, and my mom was one of the first Black members of the League of Women Voters, so blending fact and fiction came naturally.

Historical ground

MR: In this novel, you cover life-changing historical ground—particularly, the struggle for Black Americans to secure the right to vote. To point out one example, young social activist Aggie B. becomes one of the youngest members of SNCC (the student wing of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organized by Ella Baker and SCLC’s founder, Martin Luther King, Jr.), and she later sustains a brutal beating as a result of her activism. What parallels do you see between the events you describe in Loretta Little Looks Back and the current call for racial equity via the Black Lives Matter movement?

One of my favorite scenes in Loretta Little Looks Back happens in 1964, when young Aggie B. accompanies her Aunt ‘Retta to a local SNCC meeting that is seeking volunteers to register to vote. It’s the Jim Crow south, so folks are reluctant. When they ask for a show of hands, nobody is brave enough – except Aggie. She says:  My hand had a mind of its own. It raised itself so far, I thought my palm and fingers would fly off the top of my wrist! I knew that being only twelve years old, I was too young to register to vote. But my hand didn’t care about the age a person needed to be to help make things better. 

This scene is punctuated by a painting of Aggie B. with an exaggerated hand that reaches its way off the page to bring visual power, affirming that the future is the hands of our kids. This is exactly what kids are doing today. They’re raising their hands to becoming change-agents. It’s young people who are out there right now on the sidewalks and streets, letting the world know their voices are important. These are the voters of tomorrow. It’s up to us adults to pull up a chair, and let them talk to us – and to listen!

Trust, hope, and stars

MR: Loss is an important theme in Loretta Little. The loss of a parent, of a spouse, of land, of basic human dignity, of hope…  As Aggie B. says, “You can only see stars when the sky is the darkest.” What is the message you are trying to convey?  

The Little family endures so much injustice.  They transcend and triumph, too. One of the narrative elements that appears throughout their stories is the concept of “can’t see,” which refers to the dark hours right before the sun rises, when there are still stars in the sky, reminding us of hope. Daybreak always comes. Trusting in that is what hope and stars are all about.

Brian Pinkney and “the three C’s”

MR: As most kidlit afficionados know, you and your husband, illustrator Brian Pinkney, have published nearly 60 books between the two of you — Brian is you collaborator in art, and in life. [The Pinkneys have been together for 30 years and have been dubbed a “Picture Book Perfect Author-Illustrator Couple” by NPR.] How do you maintain a work/life balance? Also, how do you and Brian decide which projects to tackle? I’m guessing arm-wrestling is not involved. 🙂

Working with the one you love can be a beautiful experience — or a fast track to disaster! Brian and I have come up with some great strategies for making books while staying happily married. We have a weekly “meeting” each Saturday at our dining room table to review our projects, and to sit down together to talk about them.

Before and after the meeting, we don’t discuss work at all. Our weekly meetings are when we brainstorm project ideas. We have a running list. The ones that keep bubbling to the top are those we work on first. Others can linger for as long as a decade, and then, suddenly, something happens and we move ahead with one or two of those. At every stage of the creative process, we abide by “the three C’s”  – Courtesy, Communication, Commitment. These simple words have been the key to keeping our love at the center of our creative lives together. We steer clear of arm-wrestling!

Andrea’s many hats

MR: In addition to writing children’s books, you are the Vice President and Executive Editor at Scholastic. This is a tricky balancing act as well. How do you separate “Andrea the Editor” from “Andrea the Writer”?

I like accessories, which is why I enjoy wearing a few different hats — author, editor, and publisher. These “hats” are all completely different. I’m seldom wearing more than one at the same time. As an early riser, I start writing when it’s dark outside around four in the morning, until around six, when the sun starts to rise. By full daylight, the “writer hat” comes off, and I slip into publisher/editor mode.

Writing is a solitary discipline that’s very introspective. As an editor and publisher, my primary purpose is to serve other writers. I’m the one who holds the flashlight while they do the digging. As a graduate school professor who teaches writing, I’ve become very accustomed to working with students, helping them tell their stories. The same rules apply with authors. I’m like the midwife. They’re the ones doing the hard work.

MR: And finally, I’m curious: There are three narrators in Loretta Little Looks Back. Why did you choose to single out Loretta in the title?

Loretta is the family griot, the storytelling presence that ignites the story, and keeps the narrative threads moving forward – she’s a powerful root of the Little family tree. Since the book is written as a series of theatrical monologues, Loretta is the first to present herself to the audience of readers. And she was the first to introduce herself to me on a cold early morning when she stepped up to my consciousness and said, “This is me, talking to you.”

MR: Oh! Last thing, Andrea. No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? A Red Delicious apple.

Coffee or tea? Scalding water with lemon.

Favorite song? This Little Light of Mine.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Big NAY!

Favorite word. Love!

 

Favorite place on earth? London, England.

You’re stranded on a desert island, with only three items in your possession. What are they? My husband and our two kids (who are neither “items” on “in my possession” but we have so much fun together, especially in island settings).

MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Andrea—and congratulations on the publication of Loretta Little Looks Back. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!

Thank YOU, and happy reading!

And now… a fabulous

GIVEAWAY!!!

For a copy of Loretta Little Looks Back, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account–for a chance to win! 

Andrea’s bio

ANDREA DAVIS PINKNEY is the New York Times bestselling an award-winning author of numerous books for children and young adults. Her work has received multiple Coretta Scott King Book Award citations. She is a four-time nominee for the NAACP Image Award, and has been inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. Andrea is the recipient of both the Regina Medal and the Arbuthnot Honor Award for her distinguished and singular contribution to the field of children’s literature. She has been named among the “25 Most Influential People in our Children’s Lives” by Children’s Health magazine, and is listed among the “25 Most Influential Black Women in Business” by The Network Journal.

Andrea is the librettist for the Houston Grand Opera’s The Snowy Day, an opera based on the beloved bestselling children’s picture book classic The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. She has served on the creative teams for several theatrical and audio productions based on works for young people, including those drawn from her acclaimed books, Martin Rising: Requiem for a King, The Red Pencil, and Rhythm Ride: A Trip through the Motown Sound. Andrea lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and frequent collaborator, illustrator Brian Pinkney, and their two children. You can find Andrea on Twitter and Facebook.

STEM Tuesday — Planets and Stars — Interview with Author Rosemary Mosco

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the last Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing Rosemary Mosco, author of Science Comics: Solar System: Our Place In Space. This hilarious STEM-filled graphic novel starts in the imagination of its two character, Sara and Jill who design the spaceship “Unbored.” It is crewed by their intrepid pets, Riley, Fortinbras, Pepper and Mr. Slithers. The science is both approachable and decodable for even the most reluctant reader. It’s a must-have for classrooms looking to expand their libraries.

“…Like having a Time Life Science Library in comic books. Which is awesome!” —Popular Science

 

Christine Taylor-Butler: Rosemary, you grew up in Ottawa, Canada surrounded by nature. I love that you say you can walk into the woods and find 20-30 hilarious things to use as comic prompts. But how does that work if the subjects are far away in the solar system?
 
Rosemary Mosco: That’s a good question. I’m trained as a naturalist and science writer, but not as an astronomer. At first, I was nervous about tackling this subject matter. But then I realized that my background made me a good choice for this book – I’m already so enthusiastic about science, and I’m trained to explain complicated concepts in simple terms. So, every fact and discovery I shared was something I took pains to fully understand, and something that I’d found honestly exciting as a layperson! The key is enthusiasm, I think, and the rest just follows.

CTB: The graphic novel is filled with fun but factual information about each planet as well as the sun. It might surprise readers to know there is as much science in this book as more traditional nonfiction for kids. How long did it take to do the research? Any fun fact left on the cutting room floor?
 
Rosemary: I can’t remember how long the research took me, but it was many months! I think I would have loved to dive deeper into the possibilities for life on other worlds. My background is in biology, so that’s what gets me really excited – where we might find life, and what it would look like! The recent discovery of possible life in the Venusian clouds just fired off my imagination in all sorts of ways.

illustrator: Jon Chad

CTB: You are known for your humorous field guides but for this book you collaborated with illustrator, Jon Chad. Was it hard to come to a meeting of the minds on the finished product?
 
Rosemary: Jon Chad is both a consummate professional and just an overall funny, nice person. We were friends right away. His attention to detail is incredible! I really felt like we built this book together, passing ideas back and forth. I think that’s the best way to make a comic book.
 
CTB: The two girls are named for two real life women scientists, Sara Seager an astrophysicist and Dr. Jill Tarter an astronomer. What lead you to those women as inspiration?
 

Dr. Sara Seager

Dr. Jill Tarter

Rosemary: There are so many amazing women scientists in the world, but most people can only name one or two scientists, and they tend to be men. I wanted to highlight these two remarkable people. Sara Seager spends her time discovering planets outside of the solar system. That’s her JOB. How amazing is that? Jill Tarter has spent her life tirelessly questing for intelligent life from other planets. Why don’t we give TV shows to these women?
 

CTB: One of the characters is a person of color. Was it a conscious decision to make the book more inclusive?
 
Rosemary: That’s a good question. Unless I’m specifically trying to convey a particular message, I leave elements like character design up to my artists. I like to give them as much freedom and creative space as possible, and I scan their art to try and figure out what they want to draw, so I can make the script just as much theirs as mine. Jon drew the character that way and I thought it was a great choice. Anyone can be a scientist. We need to break down the barriers that prevent everyone who wants to be a scientist from achieving that dream.
 

NASA

CTB: You’ve said that if you could go anywhere in space, you would travel to Jupiter’s Moon, Europa. Why that location?
 
Rosemary: That’s such a good question. The moons of our solar system are, in my opinion, so much more amazing than our planets! Europa is fantastic, with a front seat view of beautiful Jupiter. It’s the smoothest object in the whole solar system. It’s covered in a beautiful cracked crust of frozen water. Under that ice is, very probably, an ocean. I love to imagine what creatures swim beneath the ice.

Caño Cristales Photo by Moterocolombia

CTB: I think I’m in love with another of your books, Atlas Obscura, which was on the NYT’s bestseller list. It’s filled with wonderfully quirky facts about the world. Which of the locations surprised you most when researching?
 
Rosemary: It’s so hard to choose. I’d probably say Colombia’s Caño Cristales, this sun-soaked, rainbow river that’s colored red and green by plants found nowhere else. It’s beyond beautiful. I’ve never been to Colombia and I really, really want to visit this river someday.

CTB: In preparing for this interview I found myself distracted by the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Science Theory videos (BAHFest). They were hilarious. You were a judge in 2019. Was there a specific bad science theory that stood out?  What bad hypothesis would you love to present if you were a contestant. (Side note – I really REALLY want that trophy!)
 
Rosemary: There were so many good presentations at that event! I remember Jerry Wang’s proposal for a naval warship transported by chickens. It had so many sly jokes. This event is wonderfully ridiculous. If I could be a presenter, I’d probably want to present something about urban nature. Maybe I’d argue that pigeons distract city-dwellers from the overwhelming ennui of existence?

CTB: Your humor and art gives people so much joy. Any advice for budding artists in the classroom who might see your work and be inspired to create their own?
 
Rosemary: Do it! Find something funny, sketch out a comic, and make one! You have your own unique perspective, humor, and talent, and the world would love to see what you make. You can change the world without being serious all the time. There’s space for humor in activism and change.

CTB: Is there anything new coming out that we should keep our eyes out for?
 
Rosemary: I’ve got a picture book about butterflies coming out in April, 2021 through Tundra. It’s called Butterflies Are Pretty… Gross! and it’s a book about how butterflies are more than just pretty – they’re also ecologically fascinating and disgusting! I have a few other books on the horizon, too. Stay tuned!
 
 

Win a FREE copy of Science Comics: Solar System.

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!

 
 
Rosemary Mosco makes books and cartoons that connect people with the natural world. Her Bird and Moon nature comics were the subject of an award-winning museum exhibit and are collected in a book that’s a 2019 ALA Great Graphic Novel for Teens. She speaks at birding festivals and writes for Audubon , Mental Floss and the PBS kids’ show Elinor Wonders Why. You can find her at www.RosemaryMosco.com  For fun facts and hilarious nature comics, follow @RosemaryMosco on Twitter.
 
Fun facts:
Rosemary once drew a poster showing every snake in North America. It took six months and the help of six herpetologists.

She credits her pet birds for helping her write by taking the keys off her keyboard and pooping on the floor.
 
I learned early on, if you attach a joke and you make it funny enough to pretty much any fact in the universe, people will share it just because of the joke, and then the facts will tag along and people will learn things….” Rosemary Mosco

 

Christine Taylor-ButlerYour host is Christine Taylor-Butler, MIT nerd and author of Bathroom Science, Sacred Mountain: Everest, Genetics, and many other nonfiction books for kids. She is also the author of the STEM inspired middle grade sci-fi series The Lost Tribes. Follow @ChristineTB on Twitter and/or @ChristineTaylorButler on Instagram

Interview with Tod Olson, Author of Into the Clouds + Book Giveaway

Sean McCollum: This is my first blog post for Mixed Up Files, and I couldn’t be happier to be here, as well as an appropriate amount of nervous. What a cool, helpful crew working together to keep creating this website. I’m a long-time writer for youth and educational publishers, and being part of MUF helps keep me current with young readers and the MG universe, even as I live the life of a digital nomad. (House-sitting in Edinburgh, Czech Republic, New York, Phoenix, and Ecuador in the last year—Have Internet, Will Travel.)

I’m also MOST pleased to introduce Tod Olson to MUF-world. Tod and I go back nearly 40 years, to a small liberal arts college—Lawrence University—in the belly of Wisconsin, before working together at Scholastic. So as I considered what my first post might be, an interview with my best bud (having been his Best Man) immediately came to mind. He also happens to be one of the foremost authors of narrative nonfiction working in children’s publishing—so bonus! Hey T, welcome to MUF.

Tod Olson: Thanks, Sean! Wish we were doing this in person, but I’ll settle.

SMc: I loved Into the Clouds and its nuts and pitons description of the first attempts to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world. How did you first learn about this chapter in mountain-climbing history and what attracted you to it?

TO: So, I really wanted to tell a climbing story, partly because the ethical questions are so primal: What’s your obligation to other humans when you barely have the resources to keep yourself alive? The 1953 expedition to K2 is legendary in climbing circles for the selfless—some would say suicidal—attempt to get a sick comrade home alive. But the story hadn’t yet found a wider audience. Plus, the contrast with the previous expedition to K2, which ended in disaster, raised interesting questions, not just about climbing but about life: What’s important about any endeavor—the summit or how you climb? The product or the process? Your achievement or the bonds you form along the way?

SMc: You and I have both done some expeditioning and climbed non-technical mountains. So why do people undertake such misery-causing forms of recreation?

TO: A lot of climbers talk about the mountains as a world apart from their workaday lives in New York or Peoria. It’s a place where the complications of civilized life are stripped away and your relationship with nature, with other people, with yourself, is somehow more basic, more pure. I think there’s also a mindfulness to climbing. The danger focuses the mind in the moment—the feel of the rock under the fingers; this foothold, then the next one. Besides, the burgers taste that much better when you get home.

SMc: Oh yeah, and the warm bed. Your writing is rich with sensory detail. How much of that is personal suffering and how much is imagination and empathy for your subjects? In other words, do you go out and risk your life as a way of doing primary research?

TO: Ha! Writing is the most exquisite form of suffering ever invented. Why would anyone feel the need to add to the misery? Actually, it does feel like an act of hubris to presume you can capture an experience you haven’t lived. But even if we tried to climb K2, our experience of the mountain wouldn’t match anyone else’s. We still need to find a way into the minds of the people we write about. I think of research as listening, whether I’m actually interviewing people or engaging with written sources.

In large part, I think I look for portals—observations, phrases, or anecdotes that suddenly admit me into the world of the other. For K2, for instance, one of the 1938 climbers talked about his reluctance to read mail from home on the rare occasions when it arrived at Base Camp. For some reason that made it real for me: Conditions on the mountain were so uncomfortable that in order to bear it, he had to block out the fact that some people in the world lived differently, even if it meant cutting himself off from the people he loved most.

SMc: How did you get interested in survival stories, like the four books of the Lost collection?

TO: When I was 11, I read Alive, the story of the Uruguayan rugby team that was stranded in the Andes by a plane crash and had to eat the bodies of friends and family to survive. I barely left my chair for two days, and I think I’ve been trying to recreate that immersive reading experience as a writer. I tell the Alive story on school visits, and it’s amazing how quickly the thought of eating your cousin can focus the attention of a couple hundred 6thgraders.

SMc: Why do you think young readers are so interested in such stories, whether fictional or not?

TO: Survival stories have an interesting history. Eighteenth-century Europeans were entranced by stories of people marooned with cannibals on remote islands. Robinson Crusoe was arguably the first novel in English, and it was a survival story. At that point, European settlers were spreading out around the globe, leaving everything familiar behind, colonizing places that felt alien to them. The stories were a way of working out their fears.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that survival stories do something similar for a kid anticipating her own entry into a complicated adult world. Besides, what is middle school but a three-year survival epic with really bad food?

SMc: I can still taste the liverwurst. In your mind, what distinguishes narrative nonfiction from fiction? And narrative nonfiction from history? What niche in our need for stories does narrative nonfiction fill?

TO: I love thinking about the first part of that question, but we could talk about it for hours and still fall short of an answer. When you really look closely, I think it’s hard to draw a clear line. So much mediates our knowledge of the past—the limitations of memory, cultural gaps, lack of documentation. Narrative nonfiction authors make decisions on every page about the relationship between their sources and the words on the page.

That said, I think we absolutely need to draw a line, and for me it’s that everything needs to be documented. As for the importance of narrative, I don’t write books primarily to teach, but I do think we learn best through story. We understand people at a deeper level, we empathize, and we retain what we read. If you need evidence, try Say Nothing, which I just finished. It’s an amazing feat of storytelling that made me understand the Troubles in Northern Ireland for the first time.

SMc: Could you describe your research process for Into the Clouds? How much time did you spend researching versus writing?

TO: Hard to say because the research continued after I started writing, but maybe a year of researching and six months of writing. I reached out to the family members of all the climbers I wrote about, and that can take a while because you’re following leads that lead to other leads, etc.

It’s really all about primary sources, and the turning point for me was when I found Dee Molenaar’s diary. He was one of the climbers on the 1953 expedition, and he wrote with disarming honesty about his struggles with pride and fear and insecurity on the mountain. That kind of candor was unusual for the era, and it gave me that portal I needed to get inside their experience on K2.

SMc: Tell us about your writing journey up to this point. What literary mountains are you still wanting to climb as a writer?

TO: I’m done with survival stories for a while. As much as I love them, there’s a sameness to the story arc, and after a while you run out of synonyms for cold, hungry, and miserable. I’m trying to write a novel, which is a lot harder than writing nonfiction. At any given moment, there are hundreds of viable choices instead of dozens.

SMc: What is something people would be surprised to learn about you, besides you and your dad once being national tennis champs in father-son doubles?

TO: I hate being cold. (How are things in Ecuador?)

SMc: Living and writing at 8,000 feet … please … send … oxygen. Advice for writers wanting to try their hand at narrative nonfiction?

TO: Be faithful to your sources, but make the story your own. You’re not building a day-by-day, minute-by-minute chronicle of lived experience. You’re telling a story. As you research, pay attention to the pieces that quicken your pulse, raise a lump in your throat, make you think. Those are the peaks in your mountain range; write up to them, down from them, and around them.

SMc: What are you working on now?

TO: That novel, but we don’t need to talk about that. During quarantine I made a really cool (I think) on-line scavenger hunt for Into the Clouds: https://todolson.com/scavenger-hunt/into-the-clouds/. It’s on my website, and anyone who completes it gets a chance to win a book. If the novel doesn’t work, I’m going to be a scavenger hunt writer. Is that a thing?

It is now! Thanks, T, for taking the time to share your adventures—writing and otherwise—with us. The best way to follow Tod is through his website: https://todolson.com/.

And here’s another chance to win Tod’s Into the Clouds—via MUF, thank you Tod. (Sorry, only available for MUF readers in the United States and Canada.)

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