January 26 – It’s Celebration of Life Month

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About the Holiday

Today’s holiday was established by Food for Health International to encourage people to take a holistic approach to taking care of themselves, benefitting not only their bodies but their emotional health as well. Celebrating all that life has to offer and taking time out from work to enjoy time with family and friends goes a long way towards greater happiness and health. The events of this past year have prompted all of us to find new ways to spend time together, help each other, find comfort, and celebrate successes and good times. Today I’m celebrating the Book Birthday of a moving reminder that there are always better days ahead. 

There Is a Rainbow

Written by Theresa Trinder | Illustrated by Grant Snider

 

As two children add the finishing touches to their rainbow chalk drawing—clouds at both ends—Theresa Trinder’s tender story opens with “There are two sides to a story.” And just like the ends of a rainbow, every story has “something in between.” The girl and boy say goodbye, and the boy heads down the block to his house.

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Image copyright Grant Snider, 2021, text copyright Theresa Trinder, 2021. Courtesy of Chronicle Books.

The girl sits on her front stoop and watches the rain fall and the colors of their rainbow flow into each other on the wet sidewalk. She goes inside and picks up her computer, where “on the other side of [her] screen” are her classmates. She waves at them and smiles while she does her work. At home, the boy begins painting stripes on the windows—stripes that form another rainbow for all the neighbors to share.

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Image copyright Grant Snider, 2021, text copyright Theresa Trinder, 2021. Courtesy of Chronicle Books.

Later the boy crosses the street to put a letter into the mailbox—a letter that connects him to his grandma across town. Night falls, and the girl cuddles a stuffed rabbit as she looks at a photo of the friends she misses. But “on the other side of sadness,” the girl knows as she seeks out her mom, “there are hugs.” A rainy day brings the boy and girl together again as they race down the sidewalk toward each other and stop to see that in a puddle “there is a rainbow.”

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Image copyright Grant Snider, 2021, text copyright Theresa Trinder, 2021. Courtesy of Chronicle Books.

Theresa Trinder’s lovely book, written at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that altered the way we interact with others, is a reassuring reminder for children, and adults as well, that they are not alone and that better days do lie ahead. Through her spare text, Trinder allows even very young children to make the clear connection between a barrier and a bond or a challenge and a solution. Trinder’s inspirational storytelling includes concrete concepts that will resonate with kids, such as using a computer or looking out of a window to embrace their world of neighbors, friends, and the familiar, as well as more abstract ideas that will broaden their understanding of the promise that exists. She includes both a river and a mountain, two objects that can seem mysterious or insurmountable, and reveals that even these lead to hopeful possibilities. A poignant and meaningful book to share during these times, Trinder’s story also promises uplifting assurance any time it is needed.

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Image copyright Grant Snider, 2021, text copyright Theresa Trinder, 2021. Courtesy of Chronicle Books.

Grant Snider’s scribbled childlike illustrations are moving reflections of the lead kids took in responding to the pandemic lockdowns as well as their seemingly infinite capacity for optimism and resilience. Readers will respond to Snider’s vivid rainbow hues and images that are as current as distance learning and rainbows in windows and as comforting as playing with friends, talking with loved ones, and helping neighbors. Kids will like pointing out all of the actual rainbows and messages of hope in the illustrations as well as discovering how the promise of rainbows can be found in the colors all around them.

A superb and timely book to read and discuss with children, There is a Rainbow offers comfort, understanding, and hope when it’s needed most. The book is highly recommended for home, classroom, and public library collections.

Ages 4 – 7

Chronicle Books, 2021 | ISBN 978-1797211664

Discover more about Theresa Trinder and her books on her website.

To learn more about Grant Snider, his books, and his art visit his website.

Meet Theresa Trinder

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Theresa Trinder spent a decade at Hallmark Cards, where she wrote and edited children’s books. She has also developed literacy curricula and has an MFA in Poetry. She was inspired to write this book by the rainbows made by her family during the COVID-19 Shelter in Place in Greenlawn, New York.

Hi Theresa! Congratulation on your Book Birthday today! I’m excited to get a chance to talk with you today about your beautiful book. 

There Is a Rainbow is an especially comforting story for all that kids are going through right now as well as being reassuring for any time. Can you talk a little about how this story came to be?

In short—the rainbows. When I started writing, New York was in a bad place. Everyone was either suffering or afraid. Or both. We’d just said goodbye to my mom and dad, not sure when we were going to see them again, and my kids didn’t get it. They were so incredibly sad. And there were (and still are) so many families going through so much worse. But then, these beautiful rainbows started popping up everywhere. A neighbor friend drew a message for my son on our driveway. And kids everywhere were making signs for health care and essential workers, thanking them and cheering them on. With all our kids were going through themselves, they just kept lifting everyone else up. To me, kids are the heroes of this moment, and, to me, that’s what the book is really about.

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Theresa’ children painting rainbows

As someone who writes in various genres and who has achieved the goal of becoming a published author, can you briefly describe your journey? Did you write as a child and always want to have a career in writing, or did your interest in writing come later?

I’ve always loved books, and I’ve always loved writing. I’ve always had to earn a living, though, too—so my path to publication was a little winding. But I’ve somehow managed to always have books in my life. I started as an intern in the Scholastic book clubs, then moved on to educational publishing, then into the Books division at Hallmark Cards. Over the years I’ve gotten to make all kinds of books for all kinds of readers. But I stopped working full time when my second child was born, and I realized: if I want to make books now, I’m going to have to write them myself. Which was sort of freeing—and sort of terrifying. But here we are!

What does it mean for you as an author to give families a way to share their love and encouragement not only in There Is a Rainbow but also in the books you wrote for Hallmark Books—All the Ways I Love You, I’m Thankful for You, and interactive board books Hello, Baby!, Look, Baby! and Peekaboo, Baby!

I don’t know about There Is a Rainbow yet. When it’s out there in the world, I hope it does give families a way to connect—and a way to feel hopeful about what’s to come. And it’s my first trade publication, so it’s very exciting. And the board books are fun. It’s so amazing to see tiny baby fingers try to figure things out. But All the Ways I Love You was a one-of-a-kind experience. Hallmark developed a technology that allowed someone to record their own voice reading, then play it back as a child turned the pages. And we got so many letters from so many people, telling us things like “My husband is deployed overseas but now he ‘reads’ to our daughter every night” and “My mom recently lost her battle with cancer but left her grandson this book, and it’s helping to keep her memory alive.” You can’t really get much closer to people than that. To me, that’s everything.

It’s so true that those cozy moments with a book are unforgettable bonding experiences. Can you talk a little about how important it is for children to be read to often?

What does the data say? Kids need to hear something like 20,000 words per day? And they can’t all be “No,” “Shh,” “Get off the table,” “Please don’t eat that,” etc? So, yes, books are an excellent way to fill the gap, especially on days when you just…can’t. Which I think all parents are feeling right now.

Grant Snider’s illustrations for There Is a Rainbow are so wonderfully distinctive. Can you share a little about Grant was chosen to illustrate the book? What were your first thoughts when you began to see his illustrations? Did they undergo many changes? How was the cover chosen?

I’m not privy to the whole process but Grant literally brought all the color to this book. The text is purposely pretty spare, and he created the visual story arc. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say it was really neat to see his thought process—how he created these characters and brought them full circle at the end.

The books you’ve written give families an opportunity to share fun and thoughtful moments together. How has your own family supported you in your writing career?

I had—and still do have—the kind of parents who always said you can be whatever you want to be. Though I do remember my mom telling me to “Stop reading and go outside” every now and then, which was annoying at the time but is actually pretty good advice. My husband and kids are the same way. We’re just…really busy at home these days. It’s hard to carve out the time, but I think everyone reading this right now can probably say the same. (Though I’m super grateful they’re spending their precious little time reading this interview!)

In your bio, you say two of your favorite things is hearing a funny joke and making weird faces. It sounds as if you have an ear and eye for humor. Does your sense of humor influence your writing? Would you like to share a favorite joke?

Ha! I’m quite deadpan, actually. But my kids have been practicing telling jokes, so we have been laughing a lot—but mostly because they tend to botch them a bit. For example, “How do you make a tissue dance?” (Long pause) “You put a little burger in it!” Hahaha, see what I mean?

HaHa! That’s so great! I miss those days in my own house!

What’s the best thing about being a children’s writer?

For me, it’s being able to do the thing I love. So few people actually do, so I know how rare and amazing it actually is. I feel grateful every day.

What’s up next for you?

Piles of laundry, probably. But after that I hope to get back to a picture book I’m working on. I recently scrapped the latest and started from scratch—which I needed to do, but then I needed to walk away from it for a few weeks. I think it’s safe to go back now.

Thanks, Theresa for talking with me today—it’s been a joy! I wish you all the best with There Is a Rainbow and all of your books. 

You can connect with Theresa Trinder on

Her website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

There is a Rainbow Giveaway

I’m thrilled to be teaming up with Chronicle Books in a giveaway of

  • One (1) copy of There is a Rainbow, written by Theresa Trinder| illustrated by Grant Snider

To Enter:

  • Follow Celebrate Picture Books
  • Retweet a giveaway tweet
  • Reply with something you celebrated this week for extra entry

This giveaway is open from January 26 through February 1 and ends at 8:00 p.m. EST.

A winner will be chosen on February 2. 

Giveaway open to U.S. addresses only. | Prizing provided by Chronicle Books

Celebration of Life Month Activity

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Mini Rainbow Magnet

 

If you’d like to see a rainbow every day, you can make this mini rainbow to hang on your fridge or in your room.

Supplies

  • 7 mini popsicle sticks
  • Paint in red, orange, yellow, green, blue, Indigo, violet (ROYGBIV)
  • Adhesive magnet
  • OR: ribbon, string, or fishing line
  • A little bit of polyfill. Cotton balls can also be used
  • Paint brush
  • Glue or hot glue gun

Directions

  1. Paint one popsicle stick in each color, let dry
  2. Glue the popsicle sticks together side by side in the ROYGBIV order, let dry
  3. Fluff a bit of polyfill into a cloud shape and glue to the top of the row of popsicle sticks
  4. Attach the magnet to the back of the rainbow
  5. OR: attach ribbon, string, or fishing line to make a rainbow hanging

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You can find There is a Rainbow at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

January 19 – National Popcorn Day Cover Reveal of Let’s Pop, Pop, Popcorn!

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Let’s Pop, Pop, Popcorn!

Written by Cynthia Schumerth | Illustrated by Mary Reaves Uhles

 

Have you ever wondered what happens to your popcorn before it lands in the bowl? Kernel-by-kernel, step-by-step, this story takes readers through the process of growing, harvesting, and finally popping delicious popcorn! However you take it – salted, buttered, or caramelized, every variation of America’s favorite snack begins in the same place. 

Backmatter includes STEM-related discussions about corn kernels and why these kinds of kernels pop when heated, a science activity, and an art project.

With Cynthia Schumerth’s exuberant and educational rhymes that bounce like bursting popcorn and Mary Reaves Uhles’s vibrant, action-packed illustrations of a group of kids planting, harvesting, shucking, cooking (KABOOM!), and eating this favorite snack, Let’s Pop, Pop, Popcorn! makes the perfect reading treat for any movie night or story time! 

I’m excited to be talking with Cynthia Schumerth and Mary Reaves Uhles to discover how they turned America’s favorite snack into a book so deliciously fun!

Meet Cynthia Schumerth

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Cindy grew up in a small town in Wisconsin where kids played outside from sun-up to sun-down. Much of her writing reflects her love of nature, animals, and family. Cindy believes the power of words is magical and if even one child can find something they can relate to in a story, then that story just might change their world. Cindy lives with her husband and their rescue dog Chance in the same small town she grew up in. Together they raised two amazing children. You can connect with Cynthia on Twitter.

I’m really looking forward to learning more about popcorn when your book’s released! What inspired you to write Let’s Pop, Pop, Popcorn!?
 

My love of popcorn! Growing up, popcorn was a special treat. It was something that got our entire family sitting together, sharing stories, and having a lot of laughs. This is something I’ve shared with my own children as they grew up. The truth is that I’d been having a bit of writer’s block before I came up with the idea for Let’s Pop, Pop, Popcorn! I knew I needed something new, something fresh, but I was drawing a blank.

Then I got to thinking… at writing conferences and workshops there is one comment that you hear over and over—write what you love. Well, I love popcorn, so I thought why not write about that? Thoughts about popcorn floated around my head for a few days (maybe weeks).  I considered different ideas about how to use popcorn in a book before I came up with the idea of a farm-to-table story. I grew up in a gardening family and it seemed like a great idea to share the entire process—from seed to the end product of a fluffy, tasty treat—with young readers in a fun way.  

From planting to popping, so much goes into creating the popcorn we love to munch. Can you talk a little about how you decided on the structure of your book—which combines nonfiction with lyrical storytelling?

Initially, I wrote it as a basic farm-to-table story. I wanted it to be fun while still having an interesting takeaway for kids. During a critique, it was suggested that I bring more of the specific popcorn terms into the story instead of having them only in the backmatter. I really liked that idea, but I had worked very hard to get the rhyme and rhythm just right. I had a tough decision to make—keep the story written in rhyme and somehow figure out how to incorporate words like: germ, endosperm, and pericarp into it, or rewrite the story an entirely different way.

I don’t usually write in rhyme. Rhyme is hard because it has to be perfect, but I decided to stick with it because I really liked the flow of the story. I knew I had to make sure the rhyme worked perfectly while still keeping the story factually accurate, and that was a bit of a hurdle. However, I think it’s true that if you write what you love, things work out. When the final manuscript was accepted, my editor surprised me by saying, “Don’t change a thing. I think it’s perfect just the way it is!  In the end, we did change three words, but having to change only three words in the entire manuscript is something I am very proud of!

Did you learn anything surprising about popcorn while writing this book?
 

I was surprised by how simple the process of going from popcorn seed to popped popcorn actually is. It’s both fascinating and something that kids (and adults) can easily understand. How cool is it that after reading Let’s Pop, Pop, Popcorn!, the reader will be able to impress their friends with scientific knowledge about popcorn and how it pops?! It’s surprising how many people don’t know how the hard, little popcorn seeds turn into puffs of white yumminess.

Another thing that I found surprising is that some folks will pour milk over a bowl of popcorn with a little sugar and have popcorn as a breakfast cereal. I haven’t tried that myself, and to be honest, I’m not sure I will.

Mary’s cover is so enticing. What were your first thoughts when you saw the art for the cover and the interior illustrations.

When our editor told me Mary had been chosen as the illustrator, of course I searched out her work. I was so excited because I think she does great work and she was already an accomplished picture book illustrator! I had to wait over two years before I got to see the cover art, and then longer to see the inside pages, but it was well worth the wait. I think her drawings and her choice of color palette for Let’s Pop, Pop, Popcorn! are vibrant and inviting. And those kids in the story—I want to be friends with all of them!

I feel very lucky to share this book with Mary. I think this cover will stand out on the shelvesI know it would catch my own eye and I’d pick it up. I think kids will really like it, too.

Have you ever tried to grow popcorn?
 

Actually, one summer my kids and I did try growing popcorn!  Not all the plants made it and the ones that did, didn’t produce as much as we had hoped. After we harvested, dried, and shucked the ears, we were able to get enough kernels to make one pot of popcorn. You know what? It was the best popcorn we ever had! Growing something with your own hands is so satisfying. I hope after reading Let’s Pop, Pop, Popcorn!, kids will want to give growing their own popcorn a try.

Of course, I can’t let you go without asking—what is your favorite type or flavor of popcorn?
 

I like caramel corn, kettle corn, and I’ve sprinkled parmesan cheese on my popcorn, but if I have to choose a favorite, I’m a salt-only popcorn girl. There are yellow and white types of popping corn, and I prefer white. I think it has more crunch to it. I like my popcorn cooked the good old-fashioned way, in a pot on top of the stove. I have my grandmothers popcorn pan from when I was growing up—it’s over 75 years old! That pan has probably popped thousands of bowls of popcorn. Recently, I’ve started using coconut oil when I pop my corn, and I really like the flavor you get. If you’re worried about the taste, don’t be! It doesn’t taste like coconut; it’s just healthier than using other oils.

Meet Mary Reaves Uhles

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Mary Reaves Uhles has illustrated several children’s books, including The Little Kids’ Table, by Mary Ann McCabe Riehle; The Twelve Days of Christmas in Tennessee, by Alice Faye Duncan; and the poetry collection Kooky Crumbs, by Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis. Before illustrating books for children, Mary worked as an animator on projects for Warner Brothers and Fisher-Price Interactive. A graduate of Ringling College of Art and Design, Mary lives with her family in Nashville, Tennessee. Find her online at maryuhles.com.

What were your first thoughts when you received the manuscript for Let’s Pop Pop Popcorn!?

My first thoughts werewell this is great, I LOVE popcorn! I truly don’t think I could have done as good a job with the book if I didn’t love EATING popcorn and even tried growing it myself when I was about 9 or 10. I was excited about the concept of the cutaway pages where we see the seeds in the dirt, I always loved that kind of thing in illustrations when I was a kid.

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Image copyright Mary Reaves Uhles, 2021, text copyright Cynthia Schumerth, 2021. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

And finally, I wanted to have a page or two to draw an environment that looked like where I grew uphuge fields dotted with trailers or houses. Kids and animals of all kinds would spill across the fields as if we owned them! While I didn’t have that many interiors to show in the book, the details of the inside of the blue trailer, such as the green fern curtains, are taken directly from memories of my friends’ houses.

Your cover illustration is so much fun! Did you go through many iterations and revisions before deciding on this final image? Could you take readers through the cover’s journey?

Thank you! I’m really happy with how it turned out. I knew I wanted the cover to have a lot of energy, with popcorn popping everywhere but how to get there? I went through several different thumbnails, some with characters on the cover, some with just popcorn.

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Image copyright Mary Uhles, 2021

Finally I decided on having just one of the child characters. I picked the little girl with glasses because, well, I liked her glasses! Then it was a matter of getting her close to the pot but not so close it might feel a bit dangerous to have all that popcorn (and the lid) flying at her face.

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Image copyright Mary Uhles, 2021

I did popcorn kernels on lots of different Photoshop layers so that, in the final design, the art director could move them to work around the final type. Since there was a lot of action with the popcorn I wanted the background behind the character to be a fairly flat color. I liked the idea of using the blue from the kitchen juxtaposed with the copper pot.

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Image copyright Mary Reaves Uhles, 2021, courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

Now, I’m sure readers would love a little sneak peek into the interior. I’ve been lucky enough to see that they can certainly look forward to lots of action and different perspectives! Can you talk a little about how you translated Cynthia’s story into such dynamic illustrations?

Well I used to be an animator so when I begin laying out a book I do it like a film storyboard, with each page turn being a new camera angle. I really think so much of our emotional journey in a book (or movie or TV show) happens with how the camera makes us feel in proximity to the subject. As the plants start to grow I wanted to bring readers close to the tiny stalks and then move them farther and farther back as the plants get bigger and bigger.

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Image copyright Mary Reaves Uhles, 2021, text copyright Cynthia Schumerth, 2021. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

 I did the same thing with the kernels in the pot.. I wanted to actually bring the camera down inside the pot so the readers were right next to the POP when it happened.

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Image copyright Mary Reaves Uhles, 2021, text copyright Cynthia Schumerth, 2021. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

In some of the illustrationslike the image of the kernels being pluckedI wanted the reader to feel like they were doing it… so the perspective is from over the bowl. Art director Felicia Macheske and I discussed having lots of different kids doing different tasks throughout the book but waiting until the very end to show all the kids together on a spread. I really liked that idea as it feels very celebratory but it was also a lot to keep track ofwhich kids were appearing on which pages so it stayed balanced. I actually had a visual spreadsheet at one point so I could keep track. I had to laugh that this is now my third book to have a big crowd at the end! In The Little Kids’ Table a huge family gathers around the table and in A Tuba Christmas we see the whole tuba orchestra.

Did you learn anything new about popcorn while working on this book?

Well I actually did not know there were only two kinds of popcorn! Also I looked at lots of different pictures of popcorn to get the details correct and I found it interesting how much smaller popcorn kernels are than ‘corn on the cob’ kernels. A friend of mine gave me a couple of popcorn cobs with the kernels still on when I started sketches and I kept them in my studio the whole time for reference.

In your dedication, I noticed that you give a shout out to Jackson (Team Popcorn) and Grace (Team Chex Mix). Is there a competition for favorite snack in your family?

Ha ha! I don’t know that there is a competition, but I knew from the beginning that this book’s dedication would have to say something about my son’s love of popcorn. Any time there’s family movie night he’s so excited because I’ll make popcorn. For the record I make it the stovetop way, just like in the book. But my daughter is not a fan of popcorn! So I always have to come up with alternate snacks. Her favorite is Chex Mix.

Now that we know Cynthia’s favorite popcorn, I know readers would love to hear what your type or flavor of popcorn is.

I do love just good, old-fashioned stovetop popcorn with a dash of butter and a few more dashes of salt. But I also love kettle corn! It’s my favorite ‘fair food’ as in, getting it at the state fair in giant greasy bags.

Thanks so much! You two have made me hungry! While readers check out where they can preorder Let’s Pop, Pop, Popcorn!, I’m going to go cook up some nice buttery, salty popcorn for myself! But first, I’d like to invite everyone to enter my giveaway of the book! You’ll find the details right here!

Let’s Pop, Pop, Popcorn! Giveaway

I’m excited to partner with Sleeping Bear Press in Twitter giveaway of:

  • One (1) copy of Let’s Pop, Pop, Popcorn!, written by Cynthia Schumerth| illustrated by Mary Reaves Uhles 

Here’s how to enter:

  • Follow Celebrate Picture Books 
  • Retweet a giveaway tweet
  • Bonus: Reply with your favorite kind of popcorn for an extra entry (each reply gives you one more entry).

This giveaway is open from January 19 through January 25 and ends at 8:00 p.m. EST.

A winner will be chosen on January 26

Giveaway open to U.S. addresses only. | Prizing provided by Sleeping Bear Press.

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You can preorder Let’s Pop, Pop, Popcorn! at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

January 15 – Celebrating the Book Birthday of Stompin’ at the Savoy

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About the Holiday

I was thrilled to host the cover reveal of Stompin’ at the Savoy and am now excited to be celebrating the book birthday of this extraordinary biography of one of the greats of Jazz with a review, an interview with Moira and Laura, and a giveaway of the book. Enjoy!

Thanks goes to Sleeping Bear Press for sending me a copy of Stompin’ at the Savoy for review consideration. all opinions of the book are my own. I’m happy to be teaming with them in a giveaway of the book. See details and two ways to enter below.

Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums

Written by Moira Rose Donohue | Illustrated by Laura Freeman

 

As a child William Henry “Chick” Webb turned everything into a drum. “He tapped rhythms on iron railings. Tinkety-tink! He slapped rhythms on marble steps. Thwapety-thwap!” Years later he would be competing in the “biggest band battle of the century” at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. But before that he had to overcome many obstacles. Throughout his life, William suffered with a spinal illness that stunted his growth. After an operation after a fall, the doctor recommended getting him a drum set to strengthen his arms. But drums—even drumsticks—were too expensive, so William used wooden spoons and pots and pans to make music.

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Image copyright Laura Freeman, 2021, text copyright Moira Rose Donohue, 2021. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

William’s illness left him with a hunchback and the “kids called him ‘Chicken’—shortened to “Chick”— because of the way he walked. To make money, Chick began selling newspapers when he was nine or ten. Soon he had bought real drumsticks and finally a drum set. Even though Chick only grew to be four feet, one inch that “didn’t stop him from making a giant sound. He just needed a taller chair and a higher bass pedal to do it.”

As a teenager, Chick was hired to play in local bands. He met Duke Ellington. He thought Chick was ready to lead his own band, but Chick waited. In the late 1920s a new kind of music—swing, with its dance-driving beat—came on the scene. “This new music was just right for Chick” and after choosing the best musicians he could find, he began touring the country. On one of these trips he hired Ella Fitzgerald to be the band’s lead singer. By 1937, Chick and his band was playing at the famous Savoy Ballroom. Some even called him the “‘Savoy King.’”

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The Savoy Ballroom was different from most clubs. Here, both Black and White people were welcome to dance. “Working-class people and movie stars danced alongside one another. People jumped and jived to new dances all night long.” At the time, bands competed in live “battles,” which Chick usually won. But then in February 1937, his band lost to Duke Ellington.

Chick didn’t let that get him down. Instead he challenged Benny Goodman—who led the number one big band in the country—to a battle of the bands. Benny laid down some rules: his and Chick’s band would play the same songs, his band would play first, and he would play on the biggest stage at the Savoy. Chick agreed. “That night, four thousand people crowded together on the dance floor” and another five thousand gathered outside in the street. In the crowd were also reporters from music magazines. Before his band went on, Chick laid down just one rule as he talked to his bandmates: “‘I don’t want nobody to miss.’”

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Benny Goodman and his band started off with his smooth, sweet clarinet that set the crowd swaying. But when Chick’s band took the stage, they gave the song a “hotter and faster… Swingier” beat, and the audience bounced along. The music swelled as “back and forth the bands played.” But it may have been “Jam Session” that decided it. As Chick “pounded louder and faster than a speeding train… Benny’s band just shook their heads in disbelief.” Everyone agreed that Chick had won. From that night on, Chick had a new nickname—“the ‘King of Drums.’”

An Authors note telling more about the life of Chick Webb follows the text.

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Thrilling for music-lovers, readers, and dreamers alike, Moira Rose Donohue’s biography of Chick Webb will inspire children to look not at the obstacles they may face but at ways to rise above them to achieve their goals. Donohue’s early focus on Chick’s determination to make music—whether he was using wooden spoons and pots or, much later, real drumsticks and drums—will impress on kids that practice, confidence, and an unfailing vision for the future can move mountains.

An important underlying lesson in Chick’s story is his self-awareness and willingness to wait until he felt ready to find his own niche and create his own band. This example, highlighted in Donohue’s compelling storytelling, will reassure readers who are meticulous, careful, and chafe under a “hurry, hurry” atmosphere. Through Donohue’s lyricism, pacing, and riveting vocabulary, readers can almost hear Chick at his drums as his drumsticks sizzle, whether at home, at venues across the country, or at the Savoy.

Laura Freeman’s rich colors and realistic depictions of Chick Webb—nearly always with drumsticks in his hands—will captivate readers as they watch a little boy with a big talent become the King of Drums. From his childhood kitchen to the school hallway to his natural entertaining spirit while selling newspapers, Freeman shows Chick’s singular focus and the times in which he grew up. Swirled musical bars, floating notes, and shadowed drumsticks give her illustrations movement. The look of rapture on Chick’s face as he plays and images of couples dancing to swing depict how the music transported people from the normal rhythms of life. The final spreads of Chick and Benny Goodman’s battle of the bands are raucous and enthralling and will have kids wanting to hear Chick’s music for themselves.

An absorbing biography of Chick Webb and the era of the big bands as well as a shining example of how one’s belief in oneself can conquer hurdles, Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums is highly recommended for home bookshelves and a must for school and library collections.

Stompin’ at the Savoy Book Birthday Activity

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Stompin’ at the Savoy Activity Kit

 

You can enjoy coloring a picture of Chick Webb at his drums and challenging yourself with the word search puzzle found in this printable Activity Guide found on the Sleeping Bear Website.

Stompin’ at the Savoy Activity Kit

Meet Moira Rose Donohue

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Moira Rose Donohue has written over 35 books for children, most of them nonfiction, including National Geographic’s Little Kids First Big Book of the Rain Forest and two Junior Library Guild selections: Great White Sharks (Scholastic/Children’s Press) and The Invasion of Normandy (North Star Editions). She loves tap dancing, opera, hockey, and animals. Moira lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, with her dog, Petunia.

Among the many titles you’ve published are books on nature, history, and many, many biographies of figures from explorers to sports stars to civil rights leaders. What is your favorite thing about writing biographies? What was the initial spark that prompted you to choose Chick Webb as the subject of your newest book?

The thing I like most about writing biographies is that through the extensive research you have to do, you eventually discover the “essence” of the person—that unique quality that guided him/her/them to act in a way that made a difference in the world.

My initial interest in Chick was sparked when I was watching a re-airing of the Ken Burns documentary on jazz music. When the movie reached the evolution of swing and big bands, Chick Webb was mentioned. I have always loved Big Band music, even though it was not the music of my era. I was familiar with all the big band musicians discussed except Chick Webb. So, of course I had to research him. When I saw his life-loving grin and learned that he had to face the challenges of an affliction that left him no taller than an average eight-year-old boy, I was hooked.

Can you talk a little about the story readers will discover in Stompin’ at the Savoy and take readers on the book’s journey from idea to published book?

This book is not a chronicle of Chick’s life. It focuses on his resilient and competitive spirit because that’s what struck a chord with me. I love contests, and so, apparently, did Chick. To showcase his competitiveness, the climax of the book is his legendary band battle with 6-foot tall Benny Goodman, the King of Swing—a contest so exciting that almost 10,000 people showed up, inside the Savoy and outside on Lenox Avenue. You’ll have to read the book to find out who won!

What was one of the most surprising things you learned about Chick Webb during your research?

As a drummer and a band leader, Chick was precise and demanding. He told his musicians to practice and to be perfect. This didn’t surprise me because my daughter is a percussionist and I know that to be successful, practice and discipline are essential. What did surprise me is that, on occasion, Chick was known to give in to his wilder side and ride around town on the back of a motorcycle, standing up.

Researching Chick Webb was tricky because not much has been written about him. I had to call upon librarians, my superheroes, to watch a documentary at the Library of Congress and to find out what his childhood home looked like (thanks to the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore).

For an author it must be thrilling to see your story come to life visually. When did you see the cover and illustrations for your story? What was your first reaction?

I have been a big fan of Laura’s work for some time, so I knew when I got the sketches in May, 2020 that they would be wonderful. But the best part was that she completely understood the Big Band era and captured the ethos of the Savoy perfectly. It turns out that she had a connection to it—her father danced at the Savoy Ballroom.

As for the cover, which I didn’t see until early October, 2020, well…it brought tears to my eyes. The purple background is such a perfect choice for the King of Drums. And Laura even managed to put his signature green chicks on his drum set!

What would you like young readers to take away from the story of Chick Webb?

Although I cannot fully understand the magnitude and complexities of Chick’s struggle, as someone who is only 4 feet 11 inches tall and always trying to figure out how to reach things in high places, I relate to the challenges of being a short person. I completely understood his need to make his bass drum pedal higher so he could reach it! And I admired his perseverance. I hope the young readers will see Chick’s story as an inspiration—a story of someone who believed in himself and his music. Chick was a person with short stature who created a giant sound.  

When will readers be able to find Stompin’ at the Savoy on bookstore shelves? Do you have any special events to planned that readers can look forward to?

Stompin’ at the Savoy will be available for purchase on January 15, 2021. We are holding a virtual book release celebration this Monday, January 18 at 3:30 EST with Tombolo Books bookstore. You can register for the event as well as buy signed copies of the book there. You’ll find more information and the link to register on my website, moirarosedonohue.net. And I am hoping to have an in-person event in Baltimore, Chick’s (and my son’s) home, when it’s safe to do so. 

You can connect with Moira Rose Donohue on

Her website | Twitter

Meet Laura Freeman

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Laura Freeman has illustrated many fine children’s books over the years, including Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe, written by Deborah Blumenthal, and the Coretta Scott King Honor book Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly and Winifred Conkling. Laura now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and their two children. 

I think readers are fascinated by an artist’s process in translating a manuscript to images that explain, highlight, and enhance the text. Can you talk a little about how you approached the manuscript for Stompin’ at the Savoy and then developed your illustrations.

I always spend a lot of time looking at photos and researching the character and time period before starting. For Stompin’ I wanted to get in the mood, and so I searched for his music online and was surprised to find that I recognized the title song (which was written in 1933!). Maybe I watch too many old movies, but it really is great! I found great old photos of him at his drum kit and photos of the Savoy nightclub as well as people dancing and swinging to the orchestra. Since it was the ’30’s, all the photos I found were in black and white so I dug into the internet to find out what color his drum kit was… and I found conflicting information. One article stated that the kit was pearlized cream decorated with sparkly green chicks but the accompanying photo showed the chicks as being red. I ended up trusting the words since the photo was obviously hand tinted. I hope I got it right but guess it’s not the end of the world if I’m wrong! 

What were your thoughts as you began to design the interior images for Stompin’ at the Savoy?

I wanted to give the illustrations a sense of movement to mimic the way Chick’s music makes me feel. There are a lot of colorful musical notes dancing throughout almost all of the pages. There is one spread in particular where if you look closely you can find them in a pattern in the ironwork of the staircase that Chick falls down as a child. Even though he’s not playing music on this page I wanted the notes to foreshadow his future.

What aspects of Chick Webb’s story did you most want to express in your illustrations? Is there a spread in the book that you particularly enjoyed creating?

Even though he had a tragic accident when he was a child that affected him for the rest of his life, his music is so full of joy – I wanted the book to feel joyful! I wanted it to be bright and colorful. There’s one spread in the book that depicts a battle of the bands. The one where Chick’s band goes up against Benny Goodman’s band. It was one of the last images I tackled because I have to admit, I had no idea how I was going to pull it off. There was just so much going on. I wanted to show the excitement and electricity of the moment – both bands playing their instruments, Chick’s band in white tuxedos, Benny Goodman’s band in black, Chick at his drum kit, Gene Krupka breaking his drum head. All this, but I didn’t want it to look busy and confusing. It ended up being one of my favorite images in the book!

I’ve been fortunate to review several of your picture books. In each one the illustrations are uniquely suited for the subject and yet instantly recognizable as your work. What would you say is your signature style? How did you develop it?

Thank you for saying so! I guess I’d say my illustrations are somewhat realistic in that I do try to capture a likeness. But still not so much so that I can’t deviate from reality to make a point. I guess you could say my work has a collage feel to it since I love to play around with patterns and textures too. I think that the amount of research I do shows up in the illustrations. I try to immerse myself in the time period of the book. I love finding the right clothing and hairstyles. What did the streets look like? The cars? What kind of technology was available? What about the furniture? I collect 100’s of photos of all these things. Very few end up in the books, but the essence of what I’ve seen does… I hope!

What do you hope children will take away from your illustrations for Stompin’ at the Savoy?

I hope that they can see themselves in his story. I love that he didn’t let his physical limitations stop him from doing what he wanted to do. He had to sit on a high stool to reach the drums. He couldn’t reach the bass drum pedal on the stool, so he had a special one made. He even embraced what surely started out as a derogatory nickname and called himself Chick.

Like Moira, many of your books for children are biographies. What draws you to those projects? What are the challenges and the rewards of working on biographies?

I especially like learning about people I may never have heard of and learning new things about people I have heard of. If I don’t know the information, chances are that most kids don’t either. With a biography there’s the challenge of capturing a likeness. Sometimes there are lots of photos and videos of the person I’m depicting to reference. Other times, not so much. I may need to distill the person’s facial features and try to figure out what they might look like from a different angle or as a child when there really aren’t any reference photos to go by. I want to do them justice because I feel honored to be involved in uncovering their stories.

You can connect with Laura Freeman on

Her website | Instagram | Twitter

Thanks so much Moira and Laura for these insightful answers! I’m sure readers are as excited to read Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums as I am! While we have to wait a little longer to find the book in bookstores, everyone’s invited to enter my giveaway for a chance to win a copy!

Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums Giveaway

 

I’m excited to partner with Sleeping Bear Press in Twitter giveaway of:

  • One (1) copy of Stompin’ at the Savoy, written by Moira Rose Donohue| illustrated by Laura Freeman 

Here’s how to enter:

  • Follow Celebrate Picture Books 
  • Retweet a giveaway tweet OR leave a comment below
  • Bonus: Reply with your favorite kind of music for an extra entry (each reply gives you one more entry).

This giveaway is open from January 15 through January 21 and ends at 8:00 p.m. EST.

A winner will be chosen on January 22. 

Giveaway open to U.S. addresses only. | Prizing provided by Sleeping Bear Press.

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You can preorder Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

December 9 – Read a New Book Month

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About the Holiday

The month of December is a gift-giver’s delight and looking at the long winter ahead there’s no better gift for everyone on your list than a book (or two or…). With so many new books hitting bookstore shelves, there really is a perfect book to fit everyone’s taste. Young children, especially, benefit from reading a wide range of picture books from laugh-out-loud or touching stories to nonfiction that introduces them to influential people, science, history, and—in a case like today’s book—to all three! Today’s reviewed book also has the distinction of being timely and inspirational. If you’re still looking for gifts to give, it’s not too late to head to your local bookstore or their online shop to find books that will make kids’ eyes light up.

Thank you to Knopf Books for Young Readers for sending me a copy of The Polio Pioneer for review consideration. All opinions about the book are my own. I’m happy to be teaming with Knopf in a giveaway of the book. See details below.

The Polio Pioneer: Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine

Written by Linda Elovitz Marshall | Illustrated by Lisa Anchin

 

Even at the tender age of four, “Jonas Salk was a kid who saw things differently.” As he watched the soldiers marching in the victory parade in New York City following World War I, instead of cheering, he was saddened by all of the injured and wounded men he saw. In his free time, instead of playing ball or games with his friends, he read book after book, and yet he was the one the other kids came to when they needed a fair and knowledgeable referee. Jonas’s family had moved to America, fleeing religious persecution of Jews in Russia and Lithuania. Money was short, yet Jonas’s parents “taught their children the importance of education, of kindness, and of doing good works. Jonas prayed that he might, someday, help make the world a better place.”

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Image copyright Lisa Anchin, 2020, text copyright Linda Elovitz Marshall, 2020. Courtesy of Knopf Books for Young Readers.

In college Jonas became enthralled with the study of chemistry and its use in making medicines. He went on “to medical school to become a doctor and researcher.” After graduation, he joined Dr. Thomas Francis in developing a flu vaccine. They had an idea for a new kind of vaccine that could help a “person’s body ‘practice’ fighting the flu” with the hope that the person’s body would “learn to fight the flu virus… and WIN.” After much research and work, they succeeded.

But there was a disease worse than the flu that was paralyzing or killing thousands every year—“including many babies and small children.” Even future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was affected and required a wheelchair to get around. Not fully knowing how the polio virus spread, public swimming pools and beaches were closed. “Parents kept children away from movie theaters, sleepovers, and crowds.”

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Image copyright Lisa Anchin, 2020, text copyright Linda Elovitz Marshall, 2020. Courtesy of Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Dr. Salk believed a polio vaccine could prevent the disease. He and his team of scientists worked tirelessly to develop one. When a viable vaccine was made, they tested it on children in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Dr. Salk gave “many of the shots himself.” The vaccine did seem to help defend the body from polio, but could it prevent it? To learn the answer to that question, a larger trial was needed. “Throughout America, almost two million children—POLIO PIONEERS!—participated.” Then on April 12, 1955 the world learned that Dr. Salk’s vaccine could indeed conquer polio.

“Within a few years, cases of polio plummeted,” and soon it was nearly eradicated from America and most areas of the world. But polio was not the only disease that Dr. Salk wanted to eliminate. He continued to work and test and dream. Then in California, Jonas Salk established the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where “researchers question and discover, seeking cures for cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and many other diseases.” All of this good stemmed from a little boy “who saw things differently.” Perhaps you know a child like that too.

An Author’s Note from Linda Elovitz Marshall follows the text and describes her own experiences as a young child growing up with the fear of polio as well as what inspired her biography of Jonas Salk. Images of letters children sent to Dr. Salk thanking him for his life-changing vaccine are also included.

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Image copyright Lisa Anchin, 2020, text copyright Linda Elovitz Marshall, 2020. Courtesy of Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Linda Elovitz Marshall’s compelling biography of Jonas Salk, begun many years before the COVID-19 pandemic, reminds young readers—many of whom may also be dreamers like Dr. Salk—that their impressions, feelings, and unique view of the world can make valuable, even indispensable, contributions to the world. Marshall’s introduction of Jonas Salk as a serious, curious, intelligent, and caring child—even very young child—will impress readers with his life-long commitment to helping others and inspire their own good works. Her straightforward storytelling reveals to children a time with fears and hopes similar to their own recent experiences—an eye-opening history that offers context and hope and demonstrates the value of science not only for today but as a glimpse into the past and a light for the future. Through excellent pacing and well-chosen details, Marshall gives readers a sense of the urgency researchers, parents, and the public felt as polio raged and intensifies the suspense as Dr. Salk and his team race to find a vaccine for this dreaded disease. 

The parallels of today’s COVID-19 pandemic to the ravages of polio make The Polio Pioneer a unique teaching tool for parents, teachers, librarians and other caregivers for discussing viruses, how epidemics and pandemics occur, the role of doctors and researchers around the world in developing vaccines to combat them, and the importance of getting vaccinated.

Children curious about their peers from the past as well as how science and new ideas in history have transformed today’s medicine will find much to marvel at in Lisa Anchin’s realistic illustrations. Readers, familiar with modern scientific technology and laboratories, may be astonished at illustrations of a lab in the 1950s, where simple bottles, plastic tubing, and stacks of test tubes were the latest tools of the trade. They’ll enjoy comparing these earlier illustrations to a later spread showing scientists currently at work at the Salk Institute. Readers will empathize with images of children restricted to their homes, and a later illustration of a diverse group of children lined up to receive an experimental vaccine as part of the country-wide trial will impress them with the knowledge that kids just like them were instrumental in conquering polio for themselves and future generations.

The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine is a superb and timely book for teachers and parents to introduce children to one of the world’s great scientific thinkers and lifesaving doctors. The story also gives adults a way to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and how vaccines are developed and work that will resonate with kids. A superb addition to STEM curriculum that will inspire future researchers and doctors, the book is a highly recommended for home libraries and a must for school and public libraries.

Ages 4 – 9

Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2020 | ISBN 978-0525646518

Discover more about Linda Elovitz Marshall and her books on her website.

To learn more about Lisa Anchin, her books, and her art, visit her website.

Meet Linda Elovitz Marshall

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Linda Elovitz Marshall grew up near Boston, graduated from Barnard College, and raised four children and a flock of sheep on a farm in the Hudson River Valley. The author of several picture books, Linda still lives on the farm with her husband, Bob. To learn more, visit LindaMarshall.com.

 

I’m thrilled to be talking with Linda Elovitz Marshall today about this year’s cornucopia of books, her personal connection with The Polio Pioneer and how the book came to be, and her love of research.

2020 has been an amazing year for you with five books published—Saving the Countryside: Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit, Shalom Bayit, Have You Ever Zeen a Ziz?, Anne Frank: The Girl Heard Round the World, and The Polio Pioneer! Can you talk a little about each of your books? Did you conceive of them around the same time or have some been percolating longer than others?

Thank you very much for interviewing me, Kathy. What a year this has been! Hopefully, we’ll have a vaccine widely available soon and can return to being with people we love and doing things we love to do.

Still, in this midst of it all, having all these books come out has definitely kept me busy and kept my spirits up. I’m very thankful for that. I’m thankful, too, to be part of the wonderful community of children’s writers.

About the books…

The idea for THE POLIO PIONEER: DR JONAS SALK AND THE POLIO VACCINE came because Jonas Salk, who lead the team that discovered the polio vaccine, was a hero to me and many in my generation. That, coupled with the realization that people would soon forget about the once-dreaded disease polio – inspired me to write the book.

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The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California

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My research began back in 2016 when I’d told a friend of mine—a scientist who had just moved east from California—that we were planning a trip to La Jolla. I asked him what to do there. When he mentioned the Salk Institute, I told him that Salk was one of my heroes. That conversation led to my getting a tour of the Institute. The people at the Salk Institute were so very helpful… and helped me get my research off to a wonderful beginning.

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-shalom-bayit-coverSHALOM BAYIT: A PEACEFUL HOME (KarBen/Lerner 2020) was inspired by a project I did decades ago about how people live. I’ve come to believe that each home, whether small or grand, has the potential to be sacred space in its own way. A few years ago, a project that my synagogue did called the Jewish Home Project gave me the impetus to write the story. The book may have a specifically Hebrew title—the words mean “Peace in the Home”—but the concept in universal. We all need a sacred space, a place to feel safe, warm, and well-fed.

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HAVE YOU EVER ZEEN A ZIZ? – This story about a mythological Jewish bird just seemed to fly into my mind. I really don’t remember how it began. I heard the word ZIZ and chuckled…and made up a poem that later became this book. In a way, it really was magical!

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ANNE FRANK: THE GIRL HEARD AROUND THE WORLD was suggested to me by my friend and editor (who was formerly) at Scholastic, Orli Zuravicky. She asked if I’d take on the challenge of writing about Anne Frank and how she became a writer. I was honored, but also frightened. Could I do it? Dare I try? That was back in 2017. I re-read Anne’s diary…and cried. I thought and thought about Anne and when, at last, I could feel Anne, I began writing.

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SAVING THE COUNTRYSIDE: THE STORY OF BEATRIX POTTER AND PETER RABBIT was inspired by a trip I took to England in 2018 with 11 other children’s writers and illustrators. As preparation, we each chose a writer or illustrator that we would become an “expert” on. As we visited the different writers’ homes, we shared our expertise. I chose Lewis Carroll but, in the end, it was Beatrix Potter whom I found so fascinating that I had to write about her. Beatrix was restrained by the many constraints of her day, and yet she broke loose and did what she wanted to do! She became a writer, an artist, a scientist, a sheep farmer, land conservationist, a helper to many in the countryside. She was AMAZING! I couldn’t stop myself from writing about her!

Three of your new books are biographies. What drew you to these particular people? What do you like best about writing biographies?

I love, love, love research. Also, I like to learn about a person so that I can feel what makes them tick. I want to identify—in some way—with that person about whom I’m writing.

Shortly after leaving my (not-completed) Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology program, I began to interview people, tape-record the interviews, and write their as-told-to autobiographies. Following the interviews, I would personally transcribe each recording. It took hours! However, playing the tapes over and over would help me feel their voice and get a better sense of the interviewee. And when, at last, I had a good sense of them, I’d begin to write.

As for my choice of subjects… Anne came via a friend. Jonas Salk was a hero to me. Beatrix plopped herself in my lap.

What kind of research did you do for each of your biographies? What is one surprising thing you learned about each of your subjects while writing the books?

I’m a leave-no-stone-unturned researcher. I immerse myself in all things related to that person: books (non-fiction and fiction), movies, articles, everything. I try to get to know the time period, the sensibilities, issues, the problems of the time…I try to learn as much as I can so that I can feel that person and, for a while, carry that person inside me.

I learned that Beatrix Potter was a bit of a rebel but that she (somehow) did her rebelling quite graciously. If she had a pet that died, she boiled the animal, removed its skin, reassemble its bones, and studied its anatomy. She was a brilliant scientist and an amazing entrepreneur, too!

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Linda Elovitz Marshall researching Jonas Salk at the Salk Institute.

I learned that, as a child, Jonas Salk thought about becoming a rabbi. Later, he decided to go into government. It was in college that he discovered chemistry…and fell in love with it! And when he and his wife were first married, he cut his own wood for the woodstove/fireplace that heated their cabin.

I also learned that Anne Frank was a lively, boisterous kid with a twinkle in her eye who loved making jokes and liked making a bit of mischief, too.

I’d like for you to talk a little more in depth about today’s reviewed book. Can you take readers on its journey from idea to publication? Why do you think it’s important for children to know about Jonas Salk?

Thank you for asking. As I mentioned earlier, Dr. Salk was a hero to me and to many of my generation. There was even a stamp issued in his honor! It was part of the Distinguished Americans series of postage stamps. When I decided to write picture book biographies in addition to my other writing, Dr. Salk—my hero—was one of the first people I chose to write about. He was someone who saw a problem, wanted to fix it, and did. He was such a hero to me and my husband that when our first son (who grew up to become a doctor) was born, my husband (also a doctor) and I named him Jonah.

When I started researching this book, years before COVID-19 came on the scene, Americans had all-but-forgotten how deadly and devastating a communicable disease could be. Sure, there was fear with recent outbreaks of diseases like Ebola, Zika, and H1N1. But with good fortune and quick action, those diseases were (temporarily, at least) brought under control and, consequently, swept off the radar. It seemed the United States had become a fairly safe place regarding communicable diseases. Then came COVID-19.

The first vaccine that Dr. Salk worked on was the flu vaccine. Worldwide, the Spanish flu had killed millions of people. More people were killed from flu than died during all of World War I. The flu vaccine that Dr. Salk and his mentor, Dr. Francis, developed is the basis of the vaccine we still use. It has saved millions of lives!

Then Dr. Salk saw another problem: polio. He wanted to solve that problem… and he did! But he didn’t stop there. After that, he opened the Salk Institute—a place to identify, study, and solve problems. As we are seeing first-hand with COVID-19, the first step is to recognize a problem. The second is to have the desire to solve them. The third is to get to work. I hope this book inspires people to do all three!

Your experiences with polio outbreaks when you were a child and today’s restrictions in response to the pandemic have direct correlations. What do you remember about those times? What would you tell children today?

I was quite young, but I remember not being allowed to go to lakes or swimming pools or even to the movies. There were many restrictions, much as there are now. Polio, however, was thought to be a disease that struck mostly young children and babies. I don’t remember not being allowed to see or hug my grandparents. On the other hand, we lived quite far from them and didn’t see them often.

What would I tell children today? Wear a mask. Wear a mask. Wear a mask. A mask helps keeps the wearer safe. It helps keep people around the wearer safe. It’s a little thing and it doesn’t hurt.

I would also like to start a public service announcement campaign about masks. Inspired by the words of former U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” this public announcement campaign would be:

MASK:

What YOU can do for your country!

Anyone want to come up with a graphic? Anyone want to help get the word out?

If we all wear masks and all work together—for our country—we can help stop this pandemic. We can each do our part. MASK: what YOU can do for your country.

And when the vaccine is ready for us to take, we need to be ready to take it…for ourselves, for our communities, for our country.

The announcement of a successful vaccine for COVID-19 has generated excitement and hope. Your descriptions of the research Jonas Salk and his team did on a flu vaccine and on the polio vaccine can inform children’s understanding of the world’s current search to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. How can adults use your biography of Jonas Salk to discuss this topic with their kids or students?

At last, we are seeing rays of sunshine, glimmers of hope. It looks like there will soon be a COVID-19 vaccine readily available. Maybe soon, COVID-19, like polio (and diphtheria, measles, pertussis, etc.), will be a preventable disease. But for that to happen, people need to take the vaccine.

This book is a wonderful teaching tool—especially with its soothing 1950’s retro look—for teaching about how a vaccine solved a problem in a previous epidemic. I’m hoping that teachers, parents, librarians, and caregivers will see the parallel and use it during COVID-19 (and, ugh, in the event that there’s yet another pandemic down the road…).

Adults can read The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine with their kids or students and talk about it. Read and talk about children around the country who took the shots. Those children, those “polio pioneers,” were heroes! By taking the vaccine, they helped save themselves—and many other people—from a devastating, communicable disease. Dr. Salk was so positive that his vaccine was safe and effective that he gave the shots to his own children!

Speaking of his children, I contacted them while I was researching this book. They’re grown up with children and grandchildren of their own. They were wonderfully helpful! If any of Dr. Salk’s children are reading this, thank you, again!

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Thank you letters to Dr. Salk from children who received the polio vaccine.

While you were raising your children, you lived on a farm. I’d love to hear a little more about your farm. Did the experience influence any of your books?

I raised my children on a small sheep farm in New York State’s Hudson River Valley. We had sheep, chickens, rabbits, and an occasional goat. We had dogs in the house and cats in the barn. My book, The Passover Lamb, was inspired by something that took place on our farm. The middle grade novel I’m working on is set on the farm. I also have several stories I’m working on, none of which are yet sold, that are also set on – or inspired by – the farm.

In doing a little research for this interview, I saw that you wrote a book about your father, Jerry Ellis (Gerald Elovitz), who founded Building #19—described as “New England’s laziest, messiest department store.” One joke that your dad incorporated into the store caught my eye. It was a sign at the door that read: “Wipe your feet before leaving this store.” Several of your books are based in humor. Did you inherit your sense of humor from your dad? How would you describe the humor in your books for kids?

I wish I could attribute my sense of humor to my father—he was a genius at humor and at making lemonade out of lemons. When he was completely bankrupt with three small children, a new house, and a new mortgage, he started a business that eventually became quite successful. Before that, he’d tried another business venture (selling TV’s and appliances) that failed miserably and depleted his (and the family’s) resources. When he started the new business—selling overstocked, imperfect goods, and damaged items from insurance losses—he wrote his own ads, saying he couldn’t afford to pay anyone else to write them. He even filmed his own TV commercials—using puppets because actors were too expensive! His humor helped make “America’s laziest and messiest department stores” a great success. The business eventually grew to 12 stores…and lasted almost 50 years!

Like my father, I try to add gentle humor to some of my writing. Have You Ever Zeen a Ziz? and The Mitzvah Magician are good examples of that type of humor. Sometimes, I’m serious, too. Mostly, though, I like to play with words. I also need to keep myself amused. That’s important! When I read what I wrote the day (or week or month) before and laugh out loud (assuming it was supposed to be funny), I know it’s good.

Are you working on any new projects now? Would you like to give readers a hint for what’s to come?

I’ve just put (what I hope are) the finishing touches on a picture book biography that will come out in 2022. I have another picture book bio coming out in 2023. I’ve also got another picture book coming out in 2022 or 2023. Covid-19 has changed some of the dates and the illustrators haven’t yet been selected, so I won’t say more about them yet.

I’m also working on several projects, including a middle grade novel. I’ve just completed a wonderful poetry course (taken online, of course) through Highlights. Now I have several poems brewing. I have a long list of projects as well as a list of things that are just twinkles-of-ideas, ranging from board books to adult novels. There’s no way I’ll ever finish even half of what I’m interested in doing. And the list grows longer every day!

Thanks, Linda, for this wonderful talk! Your enthusiasm for your subjects is inspiring! I wish you all the best with The Polio Pioneer and all of your books!

You can connect with Linda Elovitz Marshall on

Her website | Facebook | Twitter

The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine has been named to these “Best Books” lists!

The National Science Teaching Association Best STEM books for 2021

 The Jewish Journal Best Non-Holiday books 2020

And Kirkus calls it “An exciting, informative introduction to medical research, the work of Jonas Salk, and the man himself.”

The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine Giveaway

I’m happy to be teaming up with Knopf Books for Young Readers in a giveaway of

  • One (1) copy of The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine, written by Linda Elovitz Marshall | illustrated by Lisa Anchin

To enter:

  • Follow Celebrate Picture Books
  • Retweet a giveaway tweet
  • Reply with your hero or person you admire for an extra entry. Each reply earns one extra entry.

This giveaway is open from December 9 to December 15 and ends at 8:00 p.m. EST.

A winner will be chosen on December 16. 

Giveaway open to U.S. addresses only. | Prizing provided by Knopf Books for Young Readers

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You can find The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

 

December 3 – Cover Reveal of Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums

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Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums

Written by Moira Rose Donohue | Illustrated by Laura Freeman

 

Although a disability stunted his growth and left him with a hunched back, William Henry “Chick” Webb didn’t let that get in the way of pursuing his dreams of being a musician. Even as a young child, Chick saw the world as one big drum. He pounded out rhythms on everything from stair railings to pots and pans with a wooden spoon until he earned enough money selling newspapers to buy himself a real set.

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Image copyright Laura Freeman, 2021, text copyright Moira Rose Donohue, 2021. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

He saved more money and was at last able to buy a drum set where he could “bang on the bass drum, crash the cymbals, and rattle the snare.” When he was still a teenager, he played drums in several bands. His talent and love for music eventually brought him to the big time as an influential big band leader. But Chick wanted to be at the top. Would he get his chance? This picture-book biography bops with the sounds and dance moves of the Swing era and one of the most famous clubs in America as it relates the life of Black American jazz drummer Chick Webb, who in the 1930s earned the nickname the “King of the Savoy.”

With Moira Rose Donohue’s scintillating storytelling about a time in musical history that still resonates today and Laura Freeman’s vibrant illustrations that ring with bright horns, soar on a sublime voice, and pulsate with the beat of a master drummer, Stompin’ at the Savoy – which Kirkus calls “an effervescent celebration”is a book that will inspire children.

I’m thrilled to be talking today with Moira Rose Donohue and Laura Freeman to learn more about how they brought the extraordinary story of Chick Webb to life for young readers. 

Meet Moira Rose Donohue

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Moira Rose Donohue has written over 35 books for children, most of them nonfiction, including National Geographic’s Little Kids First Big Book of the Rain Forest and two Junior Library Guild selections: Great White Sharks (Scholastic/Children’s Press) and The Invasion of Normandy (North Star Editions). She loves tap dancing, opera, hockey, and animals. Moira lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, with her dog, Petunia.

Among the many titles you’ve published are books on nature, history, and many, many biographies of figures from explorers to sports stars to civil rights leaders. What is your favorite thing about writing biographies? What was the initial spark that prompted you to choose Chick Webb as the subject of your newest book?

The thing I like most about writing biographies is that through the extensive research you have to do, you eventually discover the “essence” of the person—that unique quality that guided him/her/them to act in a way that made a difference in the world.

My initial interest in Chick was sparked when I was watching a re-airing of the Ken Burns documentary on jazz music. When the movie reached the evolution of swing and big bands, Chick Webb was mentioned. I have always loved Big Band music, even though it was not the music of my era. I was familiar with all the big band musicians discussed except Chick Webb. So, of course I had to research him. When I saw his life-loving grin and learned that he had to face the challenges of an affliction that left him no taller than an average eight-year-old boy, I was hooked.

Can you talk a little about the story readers will discover in Stompin’ at the Savoy and take readers on the book’s journey from idea to published book?

This book is not a chronicle of Chick’s life. It focuses on his resilient and competitive spirit because that’s what struck a chord with me. I love contests, and so, apparently, did Chick. To showcase his competitiveness, the climax of the book is his legendary band battle with 6-foot tall Benny Goodman, the King of Swing—a contest so exciting that almost 10,000 people showed up, inside the Savoy and outside on Lenox Avenue. You’ll have to read the book to find out who won!

What was one of the most surprising things you learned about Chick Webb during your research?

As a drummer and a band leader, Chick was precise and demanding. He told his musicians to practice and to be perfect. This didn’t surprise me because my daughter is a percussionist and I know that to be successful, practice and discipline are essential. What did surprise me is that, on occasion, Chick was known to give in to his wilder side and ride around town on the back of a motorcycle, standing up.

Researching Chick Webb was tricky because not much has been written about him. I had to call upon librarians, my superheroes, to watch a documentary at the Library of Congress and to find out what his childhood home looked like (thanks to the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore).

For an author it must be thrilling to see your story come to life visually. When did you see the cover and illustrations for your story? What was your first reaction?

I have been a big fan of Laura’s work for some time, so I knew when I got the sketches in May, 2020 that they would be wonderful. But the best part was that she completely understood the Big Band era and captured the ethos of the Savoy perfectly. It turns out that she had a connection to it—her father danced at the Savoy Ballroom.

As for the cover, which I didn’t see until early October, 2020, well…it brought tears to my eyes. The purple background is such a perfect choice for the King of Drums. And Laura even managed to put his signature green chicks on his drum set!

What would you like young readers to take away from the story of Chick Webb?

Although I cannot fully understand the magnitude and complexities of Chick’s struggle, as someone who is only 4 feet 11 inches tall and always trying to figure out how to reach things in high places, I relate to the challenges of being a short person. I completely understood his need to make his bass drum pedal higher so he could reach it! And I admired his perseverance. I hope the young readers will see Chick’s story as an inspiration—a story of someone who believed in himself and his music. Chick was a person with short stature who created a giant sound.  

When will readers be able to find Stompin’ at the Savoy on bookstore shelves? Do you have any special events planned that readers can look forward to?

Stompin’ at the Savoy will be available for purchase on January 15, 2021. We are planning on setting up a virtual book release celebration with Tombolo Books. For more information and updates, please check my website, moirarosedonohue.net. And I am hoping to have an in-person event in Baltimore, Chick’s (and my son’s) home, when it’s safe to do so. 

You can connect with Moira Rose Donohue on

Her website | Twitter

Meet Laura Freeman

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Laura Freeman has illustrated many fine children’s books over the years, including Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe, written by Deborah Blumenthal, and the Coretta Scott King Honor book Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly and Winifred Conkling. Laura now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and their two children. 

I think readers are fascinated by an artist’s process in translating a manuscript to images that explain, highlight, and enhance the text. Can you talk a little about how you approached the manuscript for Stompin’ at the Savoy and then developed your illustrations – especially this stunning cover.

I always spend a lot of time looking at photos and researching the character and time period before starting. For Stompin’ I wanted to get in the mood, and so I searched for his music online and was surprised to find that I recognized the title song (which was written in 1933!). Maybe I watch too many old movies, but it really is great! I found great old photos of him at his drum kit and photos of the Savoy nightclub as well as people dancing and swinging to the orchestra. Since it was the ’30’s, all the photos I found were in black and white so I dug into the internet to find out what color his drum kit was… and I found conflicting information. One article stated that the kit was pearlized cream decorated with sparkly green chicks but the accompanying photo showed the chicks as being red. I ended up trusting the words since the photo was obviously hand tinted. I hope I got it right but guess it’s not the end of the world if I’m wrong! 

The cover is just a peek at what readers have to look forward to in the book. Can you give them a little taste of what’s in store inside?

I tried to give the illustrations a sense of movement to mimic the way Chick’s music makes me feel. There are a lot of colorful musical notes dancing throughout almost all of the pages. There is one spread in particular where if you look closely you can find them in a pattern in the ironwork of the staircase that Chick falls down as a child. Even though he’s not playing music on this page I wanted the notes to foreshadow his future.

What aspects of Chick Webb’s story did you most want to express in your illustrations? Is there a spread in the book that you particularly enjoyed creating?

Even though he had a tragic accident when he was a child that affected him for the rest of his life, his music is so full of joy – I wanted the book to feel joyful! I wanted it to be bright and colorful. There’s one spread in the book that depicts a battle of the bands. The one where Chick’s band goes up against Benny Goodman’s band. It was one of the last images I tackled because I have to admit, I had no idea how I was going to pull it off. There was just so much going on. I wanted to show the excitement and electricity of the moment – both bands playing their instruments, Chick’s band in white tuxedos, Benny Goodman’s band in black, Chick at his drum kit, Gene Krupka breaking his drum head. All this, but I didn’t want it to look busy and confusing. It ended up being one of my favorite images in the book!

I’ve been fortunate to review several of your picture books. In each one the illustrations are uniquely suited for the subject and yet instantly recognizable as your work. What would you say is your signature style? How did you develop it?

Thank you for saying so! I guess I’d say my illustrations are somewhat realistic in that I do try to capture a likeness. But still not so much so that I can’t deviate from reality to make a point. I guess you could say my work has a collage feel to it since I love to play around with patterns and textures too. I think that the amount of research I do shows up in the illustrations. I try to immerse myself in the time period of the book. I love finding the right clothing and hairstyles. What did the streets look like? The cars? What kind of technology was available? What about the furniture? I collect 100’s of photos of all these things. Very few end up in the books, but the essence of what I’ve seen does… I hope!

What do you hope children will take away from your illustrations for Stompin’ at the Savoy?

I hope that they can see themselves in his story. I love that he didn’t let his physical limitations stop him from doing what he wanted to do. He had to sit on a high stool to reach the drums. He couldn’t reach the bass drum pedal on the stool, so he had a special one made. He even embraced what surely started out as a derogatory nickname and called himself Chick.

Like Moira, many of your books for children are biographies. What draws you to those projects? What are the challenges and the rewards of working on biographies?

I especially like learning about people I may never have heard of and learning new things about people I have heard of. If I don’t know the information, chances are that most kids don’t either. With a biography there’s the challenge of capturing a likeness. Sometimes there are lots of photos and videos of the person I’m depicting to reference. Other times, not so much. I may need to distill the person’s facial features and try to figure out what they might look like from a different angle or as a child when there really aren’t any reference photos to go by. I want to do them justice because I feel honored to be involved in uncovering their stories.

You can connect with Laura Freeman on

Her website | Instagram | Twitter

Thanks so much Moira and Laura for these insightful answers! I’m sure readers are as excited to read Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums as I am! While we have to wait a little longer to find the book in bookstores, everyone’s invited to enter my giveaway for a chance to win a copy!

Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums Giveaway

 

I’m excited to partner with Sleeping Bear Press in Twitter giveaway of:

  • One (1) copy of Stompin’ at the Savoy, written by Moira Rose Donohue| illustrated by Laura Freeman 

Here’s how to enter:

  • Follow Sleeping Bear Press 
  • Retweet a giveaway tweet
  • Bonus: Reply with your favorite kind of music for an extra entry (each reply gives you one more entry).

This giveaway is open from December 3 through December 9 and ends at 8:00 p.m. EST.

A winner will be chosen on December 10. The prize book will be sent from Sleeping Bear Press in January.

Giveaway open to U.S. addresses only. | Prizing provided by Sleeping Bear Press.

To learn more about Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums and other marvelous books from Sleeping Bear Press, visit their website.

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You can preorder Stompin’ at the Savoy: How Chick Webb Became the King of Drums at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

 

November 18 – It’s Picture Book Month and Interview with Karen Rostoker-Gruber

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About the Holiday

There’s still time to celebrate one of the best months of the year—Picture Book Month! If you’re in shopping mode, be sure to put plenty of picture books on your list for the kids in your life. And don’t forget the littlest readers in your life. Sharing board books, with their sturdy pages and just-right size, is the perfect way to get babies and preschoolers excited about books, reading, and the special times in their life – as you’ll see with today’s book.

Happy Birthday, Trees!

Written by Karen Rostoker-Gruber | Illustrated by Holly Sterling

 

Three children are excited to be celebrating Tu B’Shevat together. One boy shows the others the little sapling they can plant then the three dig in with their shovels to create the perfect hole to nurture it. When the hole is just the right size, they carefully place the tree in it and tell readers, “then, we’ll fill the hole with dirt. / (An extra shovel doesn’t hurt.) / We’ll fill the hole with lots of dirt!”

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Image copyright Holly Sterling, 2020, text copyright Karen Rostoker-Gruber, 2020. Courtesy of Kar-Ben Publishing.

When the tree is all snug in its new home, it’s time to feed it (and have some giggly fun). “Then, we’ll spray the garden hose, / and wet the tree (and soak our clothes). / On Tu B’Shevat we’ll spray the hose! Throughout the year, the kids watch as their tree grows taller and sturdier. When the weather turns warm, they play around the tree, singing “for all the trees” with delight as they await the day when Tu B’Shevat comes around again and the tree’s blossoms “fill the air with sweet perfume.”

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Image copyright Holly Sterling, 2020, text copyright Karen Rostoker-Gruber, 2020. Courtesy of Kar-Ben Publishing.

Karen Rostoker-Gruber’s celebration of Tu B’Shevat takes little ones step-by-step through the thrill of planting a tree and watching it grow. Her breezy, exuberant verses incorporate simple rhymes and repeated phrases that will allow even the youngest children to join in after a first reading. In her sweet board book Rostoker-Gruber captures the excitement kids feel for special holidays and the pride they feel when participating in their family’s or friends traditions. The cyclical nature of her story will also inspire children to want to plant and tend to their own tree for Tu B’Shevat (celebrated beginning at sundown on January 27, 2021 through nightfall on January 28) or when weather conditions permit.

Bright and filled with the high spirits of childhood, Holly Sterling’s illustrations of three adorable kids working together to plant a tree will captivate little readers. Decked out in their gardening clothes and each with a shovel, the three crouch and lie on the ground next to the hole to make sure the tree goes in straight and safely. Sterling has an eye for the kinds of realistic details that define children’s behavior: to make sure the hole is filled to the brim, one little boy pours on dirt from two shovels—one in each hand; and under the arched spray of the hose, the girl raises her arms to welcome the cool spray while a boy sticks out his tongue for a sip. Sterling’s lovely color palette and graceful lines create a cheerful, fresh story that adults will want to share with their children again and again.

A joyful and lively way to celebrate and/or introduce Tu B’Shevat to little ones as well as a charming story for young nature lovers any time of the year, Happy Birthday, Trees! would be an enchanting addition to home, school, and public library collections.

Ages 1 – 4

Kar-Ben Publishing, 2020 | ISBN 978-1541545649

You can download a teacher’s guide to Happy Birthday, Trees! from the Kar-Ben Publishing website here.

Discover more about Karen Rostoker-Gruber and her books on her website.

To learn more about Holly Sterling, her books, and her art, visit her website.

Meet Karen Rostoker-Gruber

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You have a very interesting and varied career! Before you wrote books for children, you published several humorous books for adults. Your children’s books also incorporate humor. Can you talk a little about your style of humor and how you’ve expressed it throughout your life?

I’ve been writing since I was 8 years old. I wanted to write for children, but the adult humor market was easier, at the time, to break into.  

I started writing humor when I began college. Things were so strange at Trenton State that I had to start writing things down. The first humor book I wrote was called The Unofficial College Survival Guide.  

I had worked in the kitchen as a waitress for the college serving alumni dinners—sometimes to 200 – 300 people. I needed the money and it was the only way to secure edible food. 

 
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One night, while piling my tray with plates of food for the next alumni dinner, I noticed a sign on a barrel that said, “grade D,” but edible. I opened the barrel and there were thousands of hot dogs. I had no idea what “grade D, but edible” meant, but I no longer wanted to find out. After that day, I started eating cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I also kept finding humor on campus—mostly in the cafeteria; it wasn’t hard. There was literally humor everywhere I looked.  

When I got married, my humor book, Remote Controls Are Better Than Woman Because. . . became a HUGE hit.  I was on the Ricki Lake Show back then and over 60 live radio shows.  Then came my book, Telephones Are Better Than Men Because. . . I wrote both of those books on sticky notes in my car because I had a stop-and-go, 45-minute drive to work every day. I’d write new quotes down on a sticky note and fling them around in my car.  

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My book, If Men Had Babies, (lullabies would be burped… Prenatal vitamins would taste like honey-roasted beer nuts…, Golf carts would come equipped with car seats…”) was hysterical to me as a first-time mom. I wrote in between my daughter’s nap time, doing the laundry, the dishwasher, cleaning the house, and making breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  

image.pngAs far as incorporating humor into my children’s books, sometimes I use puns, which is why my characters are mostly animals. Animal puns are fun. I would sit on my driveway for hours, while my daughter drove her Barbie car, looking at the dictionary to find good cow, sheep, goat, chicken, and cat puns.

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I also use a bit of adult humor in my books. There should be humor for the adult reading the book, too. In my book, Farmer Kobi’s Hanukkah Match my favorite line is when the sheep say, “Her name was Polly Ester, she was a faaake,” baaed the sheep.

(Get it?  Polyester is fake vs. wool from the sheep!)  

Here’s also a favorite page from my book:

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You’ve had a long and steady career as a children’s author. What first inspired you to write for children? What’s one thing that has changed for writers since you began? What’s one thing that has stayed the same?

I’ve been writing for children since I was 8 years old. The only thing that really changed was that I actually started sending out my work in 1988-ish instead of just keeping manuscripts in my drawer. But from 1988 until 2000, I mostly received rejection letters—nice ones (that are now in my oxymoronic rejection letter binder), but rejection letters nevertheless.

My path to publication changed once I went to a conference and met with editors.  After attending the conference, each mentee was able to submit directly to their mentor and other editors that you met there. And, you were able to write “requested material” on the outside of the envelope. This was important back then because all “Requested Material” manuscripts passed the slush pile and went directly to the editor it was addressed to. (Back in 2000 you submitted via snail-mail and there really were slush piles.)  I saw them! For real!

The conference that I went to was the Rutgers One-on-One Conference. At that conference my mentor (Karen Riskin from Dial Books for Young Readers) took two of my manuscripts back with her to Penguin Putnam (it’s called Penguin Random House now). Both manuscripts wound up getting published: Food Fright was published by Price Stern Sloan in 2003 and Rooster Can’t Cock-a-Doodle-Doo was published with Dial Books for Young Readers in 2004.  

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After the success of Rooster Can’t Cock-a-Doodle-Doo, (selling 250,000 copies) I met another editor (Margery Cuyer) at an informal conference.  She went on to acquire five of my books for Marshall Cavendish: Bandit, Bandit’s Surprise, Ferret Fun, Ferret Fun in the Sun, and Tea Time.

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The difference from then to now is that these days you need to meet editors one-on-one or you need to have an agent. I can’t get into the big publishing houses that I used to submit to before because their policies have changed.  I had 14 traditionally-published books out there with great houses before I got an agent. I’m NOT an overnight success story—far from it. 

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The setting for Happy Birthday, Trees! is Tu B’Shevat or the Jewish Arbor Day. Can you talk a bit about this holiday, it’s meaning, and how it is traditionally celebrated?

Tu B’Shevat is basically Earth Day. I think the PJ Library says it best on my teacher’s guide:

“The Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat, also known as the Birthday of the Trees, celebrates the critical role that trees play in life.” Jewish concepts: “Trees and the environment have particular importance in Jewish thought. From the very beginning of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) we are taught to respect all things that grow, as Adam is placed in the Garden of Eden to “keep it and watch over it” (Genesis 2:15). The value of bal tashchit, which translates from the Hebrew as “do not destroy,” has become the Jewish ecology mantra. Put into action, this concept means we are all partners in preserving the beauty and sustainability of our world.” “Traditionally, Jews eat the fruit of a tree only after it is three years old. The 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, called Tu B’Shevat, became the trees’ birthday to help people determine when to first harvest their fruit. This holiday is gaining significance today as the Jewish Earth Day.”   

I love the structure of Happy Birthday, Trees!, especially the rhythmic repetition that’s so enticing for little ones to join in on. There’s also a playful humor that kids will love. What was your writing journey for this book?

I love bits of rhyme, repeated refrains, humor, and animal puns, so I always try to incorporate a few of these things in my books. I also know that kids love predictability. The journey for the book, “Happy Birthday, Trees”:  

I was invited to a luncheon in NY for the PJ Library.  About 20 other authors were there. At that time I had three published Jewish-themed  books, Farmer Kobi’s Hanukkah Match, Maddie the Mitzvah Clown, and The Family and Frog Haggadah, which is a real haggadah that was featured in the NY Times!  

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CPB - the family and frog haggadah
 
 

They told us that they were actively looking for board books and chapter books at the time. I had a lot of board books in my drawer already, so I sent them the one that I liked the best. At that time it was called, “Happy Birthday to the Trees.” 

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-happy-birthday-trees-coverMonths later (I forgot all about sending that story into the PJ Library) I got a call from the PJ Library that I won the author incentive award—2,000 dollars. Then my agent (I now had an agent) Karen Grencik found a publisher for it.

Holly Sterling’s illustrations are adorable and really capture the delight of the children. What was your first impression when you saw Holly’s pages?

I was super-excited about Holly’s illustration sample that Joni Sussman from KarBen showed me, so I couldn’t wait to see what she would do with this very simple board book. I LOVE the illustrations. The children look like they are having a blast on the front cover.

A Crowded Farmhouse Folktale definitely combines humor with a heartfelt message. The story is a retelling of a traditional Yiddish tale. What about this tale really resonated with you for today’s kids? How did you make it your own?

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I was reworking a folktale for one editor, but by the time I found a folktale that I liked and reworked that editor had already taken on a story too similar to it. I remembered this story as a child, but I wanted to make it a folktale for everyone, so I took out the Rabbi and added a wise woman instead.  Every story that I read had a wise man—times have changed.  

I also added a bit of rhyme and a repeated refrain.  The story is basically about being grateful for what you have, which is perfect for COVID times as everyone is feeling like Farmer Earl with family members working and learning in the house; it’s too crowded.

If you had to live with three groups of animals like the family in your book—small, medium, and large—what would they be?

I love hamsters (They’re sooo cute and fuzzy).

Goats crack me up; they always look like they’re up to something. 

As far as large animals go, there are too many that I’d like to have: elephants (I could teach them to paint), dolphins and gorillas (I could teach them to speak—I’m fascinated by Koko the gorilla), and pandas—just because they look so cuddly.

Oh, and unicorns (because they’re magical).

I love Kritina Swarner’s whimsical-yet-realistic illustrations, especially as the house becomes more and more crowded and chaotic. Do you have a favorite spread?

I love her work. There’s so much detail: in the wise woman’s dress, the fabric on her chair. Also, if you look closely, the plants are growing in her window from scene to scene, there’s a mouse under a bed, and my favorite spread is the toilet paper scene. However, I also like the expressions on the cat’s faces throughout the book. They are NOT amused at the amount of animals in the house.

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You’re also an accomplished ventriloquist and have an adorable puppet named Maria who accompanies you on visits to schools and libraries. How did you get involved in ventriloquism and can you describe your program briefly? How do the kids respond to Maria?

I am a self-taught ventriloquist. I used to talk for my sister’s blanket, her food, and her dolls. She was 5 years younger than I was so she was the perfect audience.  

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I take Maria to every school visit–even my virtual ones (I just did one with 600 children). In my program I talk to children about every step I take from sticky notes at 3 am, to revisions, to submitting a polished manuscript to an agent or an editor.  

Maria is my side-kick, because you had better be funny if you are in front of 350 – 600 children. Plus, kids LOVE Maria! Some don’t know how she talks; it’s magical to them and I don’t want to ruin that magic.  

If Maria and I are doing “high tea” at a tea house or a public show at a library, I have to bring Maria’s car seat, eye mask, and blanket. Children follow me out to my car to watch me buckle her in with a seat belt. 

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One time, after a show, a boy came up to me and wanted to know how his parents could “buy” him a puppet like Maria. I told him that I got the last talking puppet on the internet. Enough said. 

Here’s Maria as Alice in Wonderland for another show that we did.  She likes to dress up. (It took me three hours to sew felt Mary Janes onto her white socks. Ugh!)

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One day I had to take Maria shopping to Walmart to get her PJs because we had a bedtime, bears, and books show. I didn’t know her size. I held Maria up in the seat of the cart with my right hand while pushing the cart with my left hand. We had quite the following that day up and down the aisles.  Kids just wanted to follow her around. 

What do you like best about being an author for children?

My favorite part is when I get to see the illustrations; to see if the illustrator took my words to a new level. And, I LOVE seeing children enjoying my books and laughing at the puns.  

What’s up next for you?

I’m always working on something, but it’s always a waiting game.  Anything can happen on any day. An editor can email me from a year ago to tell me that something that I sent them is now a go.  I’m not going to lie— 

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every day is full of surprises and disappointments.  Being an author is very emotional. You have to have thick skin.

Thanks so much, Karen, for this awesome discussion about your books and sharing so much about your life as an author! I wish you all the best with Happy Birthday, Trees!, A Crowded Farmhouse Folktale, and all of your books!

Picture Book Month Activity

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Plant a Tree! Activity Pages

 

Whether you need to wait awhile before you can plant a tree or are in a warm-weather locale that allows for planting now, you can enjoy these two tree activity pages!

Plant a Tree Coloring Page | Stately Tree Dot-to-Dot

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You can find Happy Birthday, Trees! at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

 

October 1 – International Music Day and Interview with Author Gary Golio

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About the Holiday

International Music Day was established in 1975 by Lord Yehudi Menuhin, an American-born violinist and conductor  – widely considered to be one of the great violinists of the 20th century – to promote the art of music across all segments of society and to apply the UNESCO ideals of peace and friendship among all people, with an exchange of experiences and mutual appreciation of all cultures and their aesthetic values. To celebrate today’s holiday, listen to your favorite music and take some time to discover a new style – it might just become a favorite too!

Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars

Written by Gary Golio | Illustrated by E.B. Lewis

 

As readers open the cover to Dark Was the Night, they discover a date: 1977. In this year Voyager I was shot into space carrying “a precious Golden Record, a message to the Universe from Planet Earth.” The record contained pictures of the people and things that make up our life, sounds we hear every day, music from Navajo chants and West African drumming to Beethoven and Chuck Berry. There was also one “ghostly song, about loneliness and the night….a tune of light and hope” from a blind man named Willie Johnson.

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Image copyright E.B. Lewis, 2020, text copyright Gary Golio, 2020. Courtesy of Nancy Paulsen Books.

Who was Willie Johnson? In 1897, he was a newborn baby in a small Texas town wrapped in his mother’s love. narrator picks up the thread of Willie’s story when he’s become a small boy who “loved to sing” and play the cigar box guitar his father made him. But that joy was interrupted when “your mama died, and some light went out of your life.” Then at seven or eight, Willie became blind, “and that’s when things got darker still.” But Willie rose above these hurdles. His blindness didn’t keep him “from singing in church, or on street corners.” Using his voice to uplift people brought him “back in the light.”

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Image copyright E.B. Lewis, 2020, text copyright Gary Golio, 2020. Courtesy of Nancy Paulsen Books.

He sang blues and learned how to play a slide by running the edge of a pocketknife along the steel strings of his guitar. “This made a sound like someone laughing or crying, as if the guitar had a voice of its own.” He traveled from town to town in Texas, wherever farmers came to socialize and shop, setting up on street corners and collecting the coins people tossed into his tin cup. Little by little, people grew to know his name. “Then a man from a music company heard you sing. You were given the chance to make a record….”

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Image copyright E.B. Lewis, 2020, text copyright Gary Golio, 2020. Courtesy of Nancy Paulsen Books.

On that record listeners heard “the sound of one human being reaching out to all the others, telling them not to be afraid of the dark.” That first record was a hit, lauded for its unique sound. One song in particular, “Dark Was the Night,” “touched people deep in their souls” and made Willie “a shining star.” The light Willie brought to people has never dimmed; in fact it continues to shine through the darkness on Earth and through Space.

Back matter includes a discussion on what is known about Blind Willie Johnson and what still remains a mystery as well more information about Voyager I and why Johnson’s song Dark Was the Night was chosen for inclusion on the Golden Record. A link to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory website, where readers can access Voyager I—The Golden Record is also included.

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Image copyright E.B. Lewis, 2020, text copyright Gary Golio, 2020. Courtesy of Nancy Paulsen Books.

Gary Golio’s ethereal tale of the life of Blind Willie Johnson and his song, which has touched and continues to move so many people, is a stirring tribute to a unique artist and the power of music to change lives. Golio’s use of the second person creates a poignant personal bond between the story and reader, which allows children to put themselves in Willie’s shoes and believe that they, too, can inspire others with their talent and life. Golio’s lyrical storytelling flows with the cadence of the blues, and his evocative vocabulary brings Willie Johnson’s voice and times fully to life for young readers.

E.B. Lewis transports readers to early 1900s Texas in his stunning watercolor paintings rendered in soft washes of grays, blues, and greens punctuated with yellows that reflect the hope and light that spurred Willie on and flowed from his music. As his mother holds him in her arms as a baby, the landscape outside the window blazes with gold that reflects on Willie’s and his mother’s face. As children learn about Willie’s blindness, the page turns dark, except for a swatch of light across Willie’s eyes, representational, perhaps, of his inner sight that sustained him.

Among the realistic depictions of his farm home, the outskirts of a Texas town seen from a train, and a bustling city, where Johnson plays on a street corner to an appreciative audience, his tin cup hanging from a tuner on his guitar, are transcendent images of Willie performing, his face always lifted to the light. As people gather around a radio listening to Blind Willie Johnson, light once again streams into the shop, and as Golio describes how “Dark Was the Night” becomes a hit, Willie is bathed in a golden glow, his face euphoric with the joy of singing.

At once sensitive, rousing, and inspirational, Dark Was the Night is a beautiful book about one man’s talent and dream that will resonate with all readers. The book is highly recommended for home libraries and is a must for school and public library collections.

Ages 5 – 8

Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020 | ISBN 978-1524738884

Discover more about Gary Golio and his books on his website.

To learn more about E.B. Lewis, his books, and his art, visit his website.

Listen to Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night.”

Meet Gary Golio

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Gary Golio is the author of the New York Times bestseller JIMI: Sounds Like a Rainbow – A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrixwinner of a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award; Bird & Diz and Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song, both ALA Notables; and other books about legendary artists. A writer and musician, Golio has been featured on NPR’s “Weekend Edition”, CBS-TV’s “Sunday Morning News,” and on radio stations nationwide. He lives in the Hudson Valley with his wife, children’s book author Susanna Reich.

Today, I’m thrilled to talk with the multi-talented Gary Golio about Dark Was the Night, his love for writing and art, his father’s influence in his life, and the power of music.

Welcome, Gary! To start off, can you tell readers about your journey with this Dark Was the Night from idea to publication?

A few years back I was listening to some early blues songs, and came upon Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night.” The song stunned me—and gave me the chills. I knew of Willie’s connection with the Voyager I space probe, but had no idea that blues aficionados and amateur music sleuths were devotedly digging for details of his life through the decades. So much mystery surrounded this man—revered by Jimmy Paige, Eric Clapton, and Lucinda Williams—but what intrigued me the most was that, after dying in poverty and being forgotten, Willie and his work enjoyed a revival of interest during the 1960s Folk Movement. Then, in 1978, “Dark Was the Night” ended up on Voyager‘s Golden Record, hurtling through space. And what that said to me is, you never know how a life, and its effect on others, will play out. It’s a hopeful message that inspired me to write the book.

Your father was an artist and you have worked as a fine-artist since you were a teenager. Can you talk about what inspired you to begin writing picture books? Did you always like to write?

My father is an ongoing inspiration in my life. He was a talented amateur artist who provided me with a real-life example of the Art Spirit by how he thought and created. Most importantly, he was a skilled improviser, and didn’t allow himself to be limited by what he didn’t have, something that’s always meant a lot to me. As for writing picture books, I mostly read comics as a boy, and I think it was that combination of pictures and text that really struck a chord. For me, the picture book is a modern descendant of cave painting, Egyptian wall art (images + hieoroglyphs), and Etruscan/Pompeian murals: using words and pictures to tell a story.

In your Author’s Note you talk about the dearth of knowledge about Willie Johnson’s life. Can you share one thing you learned about Willie that didn’t make it into the book?

Willie has a unique voice that somehow manages to balance the rough and the tender. There’s raw power there, but also delicacy, which is very rare. So Willie was in New Orleans at one point—during a recording session there in 1928—and the story goes that he began singing “If I Had My Way I’d Tear this Building Down” in front of the Customs House. A crowd had gathered, listening to him, and a police officer reportedly became so worried—thinking Willie was instigating a riot—that he considered arresting the man. That’s the power of music—to rouse, protest, and stir up human souls—and it’s easy to see why it threatens authority and institutions.

Dark Was the Night is your eighth biography of a musician or entertainer for children. Could you discuss what drew you to write about these musicians?

While there are no actual musicians in my family-of-origin, my parents, grandmother, and maternal aunt all had strong musical interests. Each exposed me to very specific genres and musical tastes—from Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole (whom I adore), Willie Nelson, and Elvis Presley. Many of these people were Black, and many were strongly influenced by blues and jazz, and I have vivid memories of watching them on TV with my beloved grandmother, even at five and six years old. That openness to all kinds of music really shaped me, and growing up I looked for clues, in the lives of artists, that would help me find my own path and direction. So my books often focus on the early years of an artist’s/musician’s life, highlighting the roots of their artistry—what inspired and shaped them—to provide young readers with roadmaps, of sorts, to a life in the arts.

In addition to being an artist and writer, you also admit to being “a pretty good musician” – something you share with kids on school visits that sound awesome. Which instruments do you play and how do you incorporate music into your book events?

I play acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, banjo, and very simple piano, but love above all to improvise. Since my first book on Jimi Hendrix came out, I’ve used the guitar (both electric and acoustic) to demonstrate a wide range of effects and possibilities (Hendrix and Santana), but also to accompany singalongs I did for my Bob Dylan/Woody Guthrie book. At one school visit, the entire fifth grade and I sang “This Land is Your Land” in Spanish, which was both meaningful and fun.

Each of your books has such distinctive illustrations from incredible illustrators. Can you talk a little about E.B. Lewis’s gorgeous illustrations in Dark Was the Night and how he captured your story and Willie’s personality?

E.B. is truly a master of illustration, and specifically of the watercolor medium. His real superpower, however, lies in his ability to convey human feeling, to mysteriously imbue a person or setting with mood and life. That’s remarkable—reminiscent of watching my father draw an American Indian on horseback, straight out of his head—and it’s what lends E.B.’s work both its power and subtlety. Not surprisingly, he has a real love for human beings, a quality fed by his passion for traveling and teaching all over the world. Though we only met at a bookstore panel five years ago, Earl and I have become close friends, and spend a lot of time on the phone collaborating about the joining of text and image. He’s a pleasure to work with, and his art for Dark Was the Night is truly sublime. This book also gave him the chance to bring his use of color (in his own words) to another level, something that will be obvious to anyone who knows his artwork and sees the new images.

From your bio on your website, you sound as if you were a pretty inventive kid – creating all sorts of cool electronic devices. And I love your story about being “shocked” to find books with Van Gogh’s paintings in them as a child and how formative that was. Could you discuss the importance of nonfiction, and biographies in particular, to children?

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My father could fix most anything, and it was that spirit of improvisation and inventiveness that led me to create little electronic gadgets a la James Bond and The Man from Uncle. For a time, I wanted to be an inventor or electrical engineer, but Art won out. As for van Gogh, watching Lust for Life with my dad had a HUGE impact on me, and seeing a book in the middle school library with all those paintings reproduced made it clear to me—even at 10 years old—that there was gold in reading about the lives of artists.

While I love fantasy, myth, and good stories, the thing about nonfiction is that you’re reading about real people—with all their talents and troubles—and so it’s easier to believe that if someone else muddled through to achieve something, you can also. That’s why I don’t shy away from talking about a person’s “faults” and failures (particularly in my books about John Coltrane and Billie Holiday), because I want kids to see that great people and artists are just as human as everyone else.

What’s up next for you?

Author-wise, I’ve a book coming out next year on the revered jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins (based on many phone conversations we’ve shared), to be illustrated by the great James Ransome. I’ve also sold, just this year, two new picture book texts: one on Roy DeCarava—a gifted artist who photographed the people of Harlem in all their humanity—and another on Walt Whitman, focused on his remarkable and moving nursing experience during the Civil War. After that, who knows where Destiny will lead me?

International Music Day Activity

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I Love Music! Word Search Puzzle

 

International Music Day celebrates all types of music and instruments. Can you find the eighteen different instruments in this printable word search puzzle?

I Love Music! Word Search Puzzle | I Love Music! Word Search Solution!

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You can find Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars at these booksellers

The Village Bookstore, Pleasantville, NY | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review