Friday, May 15, 2015

Interview with Author Jen White

In today's post, debut author Jen White discusses her exciting new novel, Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave--a superbly-paced middle-grade adventure with memorable supporting characters and two unbelievably brave (and yet completely believable) sisters.

After her mom dies, Liberty's father shows up in a camper to take Liberty and her younger sister, Billie, for the summer.  At first, Liberty thinks things with her "gone-forever-but-now-he's-back-dad" might work out fine, but when he abandons the sisters at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, she realizes that they are on their own.  As the sisters try to get to safety, some of Liberty's twelve-year-old decisions are ill-advised, but her loyalty to Billie never wavers. 
Q:  Liberty and Billie have a wonderfully strong bond. Did you draw on personal experience to portray their relationship?

A:  I’m sure I did, although it wasn't a conscious decision.  I come from a large family and we are all close in age.  I have two sisters and two brothers.  I am the oldest, so the bossy, controlling part of Liberty I came by naturally.  I also have my own children.  Although, I do feel like Liberty and Billie are their own creations.  When I wrote them I wasn't thinking of a particular person or persons.  They came alive as I wrote and after I finished my first draft I felt like I had a really good handle on who they were and how they behaved.

Q:  Liberty and Billie cross paths with several interesting characters—do you have a favorite?

A:  In some ways they are all my favorites.  There’s a true emotional connection behind each character.  I would say I really loved Star Wars Kid (Roger) and didn't want his story to end.  I hope I can create some form of Roger again in my future writing.  I also loved Lavender Lady and Orson. They made me laugh and were a great duo to write.  And finally, I’d say, I loved Tattoo Guy.  I love him because upon first observation he seems intimidating and scary, but as the book progresses we get the whole picture of who he is (compassionate, funny, and smart).  In the beginning he is not who he seems.  In general, I think this is true of most people.  There is so much more to a person than what we see on the surface.  Deep down everyone has a story that we can relate to.

Q:  Your story presents mental illness with delicacy and candor. Was it difficult to achieve that balance?

A:  Thank you, I’m so happy to hear you say that.  I worked very hard on those scenes and wanted them to feel right.  I would say the moments with Liberty and Billie’s dad were my most difficult to write and I spent most of my time on those scenes trying to make them feel real.  People deal with mental illness daily— trying to cure it or contain it, as well as trying to accomplish everyday tasks such as how to: work, sleep, eat, take care of children, get an education, find someone to love, etc..  In many ways mental illness can feel like business-as-usual for the people who live with it or for people whose loved ones struggle, so I wanted, at times, what was going on with dad to feel both comfortable and uncomfortable to Liberty and Billie.  Obviously, in the book, their dad needs help.  The girls need to get over the dream of who they want him to be and come to terms with who he really is.  They also need to get to a place in the book where they recognize he is not behaving normally.  Sometimes mental illness isn't entirely obvious until, when suddenly, it is.

Q:  What is the hardest part of writing for you? What is the most rewarding?

A:  Right now I can pinpoint two hard parts.  First, forcing myself to create time to write can be difficult for me.  My family is still all at home, so there are many needs at my house.  I am one of the primary people who take care of those needs, so time is my enemy. There is a constant struggle between things that need my immediate attention and also my writing (which also needs my attention, but it doesn't always feel quite as urgent).  When I am not getting my writing time I turn very cranky.  At my house we have this game, Table Talk, that we play at dinnertime and one of the questions is: If you could be a super hero what quality would you have and why?  I always choose the ability to stop and start time.  My kids think that is the WORST super hero power ever.  But wouldn't that be awesome?  I dream of having all the time in the world.  Second, I think the hardest part in a manuscript is generally the middle…I would say around page 130 is where I start to slow down and feel stuck.  That’s because I don’t use an outline as I write.  I’m a seat-of-my-pants kind of writer, so the middle always gets difficult because I have to make important decisions that affect the ending.  I hate middles. The most rewarding part of writing is reading a scene you just wrote and think, wow!  I kind of like that.  In fact, I like it a lot.  That feeling is addictive.

Q:  This is your first published book. Were there any surprises along the journey from idea to publication?

A:  Yes, there were surprises.  I remember going to a marketing meeting at FSG/Macmillan after the book was first bought and someone asked, “Do you have any questions?”  And I sat there trying to think of an intelligent question when I finally said, “I’m sorry.  I don’t know what I don’t know.”  Now, two years into the publishing process, I think I would have better questions.  Another surprise is once your manuscript is bought by a publishing house is takes a REALLY LONG time to hold that book in your hands.  It just does.  There’s no real way around it.  Also, I didn't realize how much I was going to need and rely on my agent who has turned out to be a really amazing person, so I lucked out there.  When I was making my agent choice, I didn't realize how important that relationship would be, and I have been pleasantly surprised.  The same is true for my editor.  I have learned so much from her.  It’s great to work with people who love my book almost more than I do.  The publishing world is really quite small and I think it’s important to surround yourself with great people, and in turn, be good to the people around you.

Thanks Jen, for taking the time to tell us a little about yourself and your book.  I'm looking forward to reading your next book, especially if you tell us more about Star Wars Kid's story.

You can read more about Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave and read the first chapter at Jen White Books.  Pick up a copy of your own when it comes out on June 9.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

April Storytime Briefly 2015

In my neck of the woods, April was filled with the craziness of bunnies, blossoms, and snow.  This month's storytimes reflect that.

We started the month with books about rabbits.  We read
  • The Black Rabbit by Philippa Leathers;
  • Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! by Candace Fleming, illustrated by G. Brian Karas; and
  • Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zacharia OHora.
Wolfie the Bunny was huge hit.  One boy, in particular, laughed at almost every page turn.  That's a keeper!

We read Native American folktales:
  • Rabbit's Snow Dance by James and Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Jeff Newman and
  • Coyote: A Trickster Tale from the American Southwest by Gerald McDermott.
We had a spring snowstorm which seemed like the perfect time to share Rabbit's Snow Dance, and the Native American folktales dovetailed nicely with what the students were learning in class.
We talks about ocean animals by reading
  • "About the Teeth of Sharks" by John Ciardi;
  • Humphrey the Lost Whale by Wendy Tokuda, illustrated by Richard Hall; and
  • Trapped! A Whale's Rescue by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor.
I'm not sure the shark poem entirely fit with the whale theme, but I love sharing this poem during National Poetry Month.  The two books about whale rescue provided an interesting contrast, not just because the rescue methods were different, but because Humphrey trapped himself by swimming up the river, and the whale from Robert Burleigh's book was trapped by human-made nets.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March Storytime Briefly 2015

My parents' children--all eight of us--were born in different months, so when I was growing up, we each claimed our birthday month as our own.  And because I still feel a little like March is my month, I decided to share my favorite things.  I introduced the month by sharing
  • My Favorite Things by Oscar Hammerstein, music by Richard Rodgers, illustrated by James Warhola.
Then each week we talked about some of my favorite authors and illustrators, past and present.

My favorite poems to memorize when I was a kid were Shel Silverstein's.  Memorizing fourteen lines of light verse was a whole lot easier than memorizing William Shakespeare.  For storytime, we read/recited the following:

  • "Kidnapped!" by Shel Silverstein, from A Light in the Attic;
  • "Skin Stealer" by Shel Silverstein, from A Light in the Attic;
  • "Crocodile's Toothache" by Shel Silverstein from Where the Sidewalk Ends; and
  • "Sick" by Shel Silverstein, from Where the Sidewalk Ends.
Just as I was wrapping things up and heading out the door, I got a request to read "Boa Constrictor." Unfortunately, we were out of time--I'll have to find a way to incorporate that into an upcoming storytime.

When I was a second grader, my favorite book to take on road trips was an Encyclopedia Brown book.  Any Encyclopedia Brown book.  The episodic chapters make the books easy to set down and pick up again when your family makes frequent stops as mine did.  I introduced the students to Encyclopedia Brown, talked about what encyclopedias are, and read
  • "The Case of the Silver Fruit Bowl" from Encyclopedia Brown Keeps the Peace by Donald J. Sobol.
Before reading the solution at the back of the book, I asked the students if they thought they could solve the case.  They are pretty observant third graders and had some great ideas.

We looked at Erin Stead's beautiful illustrations and discussed woodcuts, linocuts, and the process for making prints.  We read
  • A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead;
  • And Then It's Spring by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead; and
  • If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Erin E. Stead

Jon Agee's new book, It's Only Stanley, came out just in time to be included in my month of favorite things.  We talked about humor and read
  • It's Only Stanley by Jon Agee;
  • Little Santa by Jon Agee; and
  • Milo's Hat Trick by Jon Agee.
And I'll ask again what I always ask when I talk about Milo's Hat Trick: Why is this fantastic book out of print?  Bring it back.  Please.

Monday, March 2, 2015

tara recommends The Bear Ate Your Sandwich by Julia Sarcone-Roach

"By now I think you know what happened to your sandwich.  But you may not know how it happened."  Does this grab your attention?  If these opening lines haven't hooked you, the rest of The Bear Ate Your Sandwich certainly will.

"It all started with the bear."  Elaborate details take you on a bear's journey out of the forest, via a berry truck, into the city, and ultimately to an abandoned, delicious sandwich on a park bench.  During the exciting adventure, funny details delight as the bear explores the city and this new "forest" becomes his playground.  Readers should find particular amusement in the "trees," "bark," and especially the squishy "mud" that is actually wet cement.

Soft, gently blurred illustrations created with acrylic paint and pencil lend an abstract feel while showcasing a distinct personality to a very real, curious bear.  The playful artwork happily displays the bear frolicking in the park, bathing in a fountain, and splashing in puddles, right next to curious, yet oddly unconcerned, children.

The story is funny and charming with bright, happy pictures, but the unexpected Klassen-like twist at the end is what makes this book special.  If you haven't read this one already, be sure to pick up a copy and enjoy.

The Bear Ate Your Sandwich
by Julia Sarcone-Roach
published by Knopf Books for Young Readers
January 2015

Saturday, February 28, 2015

February Storytime Briefly 2015

American Library Association Awards, Chinese New Year, and storytelling -- there was much to talk about in February and great stories to read.

We talked about the Geisel Award and the Caldecott Award.  We read

  • You Are (Not) Small by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant;
  • The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Mary GrandPre; and
  • The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat.
I pulled out other award-winning books from 2014, and a cheer erupted when I announced that Sam & Dave Dig a Hole (by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen) had been given a Caldecott Honor.  Yep, they liked that book.

Our school holds a storytelling event in the month of February where students tell stories in their classrooms.  Each teacher then selects a student to represent her classroom at a school-wide assembly.  While the kids were preparing their stories, I decided to tell one of my own, so we celebrated Chinese New Year with following stories:

After hearing "The Fox Borrow's the Tiger's Fierceness," one boy commented on the story's similarity to The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson.  Similar it is.

We continued our celebration of Chinese New Year with Japanese stories:
  • The Paper Crane by Molly Bang and
  • "Little One Inch."
I used Steve Light's storybox to tell "Little One Inch."  (When you look at the storybox, be sure to watch the video of Steve Light telling the story.  Brilliant.)  When I finished, a girl said, "Oh that was great!  If you were doing the storytelling festival, you would win."  All credit for that goes to Mr. Light.  Thank you, sir.  As an added bonus, I overheard my five year old telling the story this week with her brother's dinosaurs and bear.  "Lemme out! Lemme out! Lemme out!"

We talked about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  We read
  • Henry and the Cannons: An Extraordinary True Story of the American Revolution by Don Brown and
  • Gingerbread for Liberty!: How a German Baker Helped Win the Revolution by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch.
I loved pairing these books because while the art and storytelling styles are different, the themes are similar.  And the students loved the stylized art in Gingerbread for Liberty!  It was a great way to end the month.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Resolution (and a Story) for the Lunar New Year

Things have been awfully quiet around here lately, but I'm still here and resolving to get back to more regular posting.  Today is Chinese New Year and the perfect day to share a Chinese story, so share this story (adapted from the Record of the Warring States) or a favorite of your own.

恭喜发财! (Gongxi facai!)

The Fox Borrows the Tiger’s Fierceness

Tiger was hunting in the forest when he spotted a fox just walking around minding his own business.  Mmm, thought Tiger, that fox looks like he would make a tasty snack.  And springing with his powerful legs, Tiger pounced and caught the fox under his large paw.  Fox knew he was in grave danger, but not wanting to be someone’s dinner and being very clever, he thought quickly.

“How dare you attack me!” he cried.

This caught Tiger by surprise, so instead of sinking his teeth into Fox, he asked, “Why shouldn't I enjoy a little snack?  I caught you fair and square.” 

Fox made his voice a little louder and a little bolder and said, “You have no right to kill me!  I am king of the forest.” 

Tiger laughed, “You? King of the forest?  You are nothing more than a scrawny creature--how can you be king of anything?”

Fox was ready with his answer.  “I will prove it to you.  Walk with me in my forest, and you will see how frightened all the animals are of me.  Then you will know that I am king of the forest.”

Now Tiger didn't really believe that Fox was king of the forest, but the little fellow spoke so loudly and so boldly that Tiger wanted to see how the experiment would go, so he released Fox.  Then, Fox, holding his head high, proudly walked deeper into the forest with Tiger right behind him.

After they had gone a short way, Fox called, “Hello!” to a rabbit that was munching on grass.  The rabbit caught sight of Fox (which was frightening enough), and then he saw Tiger following closely behind.  The rabbit’s eyes grew wide, and his ears began to tremble, and he hopped quickly away into the long grass.

Of course that little rabbit would run from Fox, Tiger thought.  Fox would eat him if he got the chance.

So with Tiger still suspicious, the pair walked even deeper into the forest.

“Hello,” Fox called to a monkey that was chattering in the tree tops.  The monkey swung down to chatter at Fox, but when he saw Tiger, his eyes grew wide and his tail began to tremble, and grabbing a kudzu vine, he swung away through the trees.

Tiger thought, Perhaps Fox is fiercer than I supposed.  Still, he can’t possibly frighten all the animals and be king of the forest.

The two continued walking and hadn't gone much farther when Fox called, “Hello!” to a boar that was wallowing in the mud.  “Ugh,” grunted the boar, and looking up, he saw Fox with Tiger walking after him.  The boar’s eyes grew wide, and his tusks began to tremble, and he crashed off into the underbrush leaving a trail of mud behind him.

That is surprising! thought Tiger.  Boar is afraid of Fox.

But before he had time to wonder at the strangeness of it, Fox was greeting a crocodile sunning himself by the river.

“Hello,” called Fox.  And the crocodile turned to snap at the little fox for bothering him while he was enjoying the afternoon sun, but seeing Tiger made the crocodile’s eyes grow wide (just a little), and his thick leathery skin began to tremble (just a little).  And the crocodile slunk slowly into the river and swam away.

Tiger was so shocked, he couldn't say a word, but Fox could.  Fox stood straight and tall, looked up at Tiger and in his boldest voice declared, “You see?  All the animals flee from me.  I am truly king of the forest.”

Tiger had to agree it was true, and bowing his head, he turned and left Fox to rule over his forest.

And that is how Fox borrowed the Tiger’s fierceness.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

January Storytime Briefly 2015

Snow, snow, and more snow--that's what we should be seeing in my neck of the woods around this time of year.  Even though I didn't even pull my snow shovel off its hook in January, that didn't stop me from pulling some snow books off my shelves.

We talked about hats and earmuffs and read
  • Brimsby's Hats by Andrew Prahin and
  • Earmuffs for Everyone: How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs by Meghan McCarthy.
Earmuffs for Everyone reminded one student of a book we had read a few months ago--Pop!: The Invention of Bubble Gum.  He was pretty pleased with himself when I pointed out that both were were written and illustrated by Ms. McCarthy.

We talked about snow and read
  • Outside by Deirdre Gill and
  • Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian.
I think those selections left us lamenting our lack of snow, so the next week I changed plans.

We talked about unreliable narrators and read
  • The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith and
  • The Bear Ate Your Sandwich by Julia Sarcone-Roach.
We considered the stories' narrators, and compared them to the narrator in a book we had read previously--Jon Klassen's This Is Not My Hat.  If you haven't seen The Bear Ate Your Sandwich, go find a copy now.  You can thank me later.

We read books about science:
  • Gravity by Jason Chin and
  • Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Universe by Stephanie Roth Sisson
We looked at the illustrations and talked about the upcoming ALA Youth Media Awards.  I can hardly wait for next week to share some of the winners!