July 27 – Celebrating National Culinary Arts Month with Cathy Ballou Mealey

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Cathy Ballou Mealey has never worked in a pickle factory but she has been a crossing guard, pet sitter and professional gift wrapper, among many other jobs. When she is not writing or reading, she volunteers for schools and organizations that support children with autism spectrum disorders. Her favorite type pickle is the crispy and tangy bread-and-butter kind. She lives with her husband, son and daughter north of Boston, Massachusetts, where she delights in watching silly squirrel antics, and is patiently waiting for a sloth to appear. Cathy is also the author of When a Tree Grows (Sterling Children’s Books, 2019).

You can connect with Cathy Ballou Mealey on Her website | Instagram | Twitter

Hi, Cathy! Thanks for dropping by to celebrate National Culinary Arts Month with me! Since Sloth and Squirrel made it big with their culinary talents after a comical turn as pickle packers, I bet it’s one of their favorite holidays too! Which got me wondering: has a previous job ever influenced your writing and the kinds of books you write?

You have probably watched at least part of this famous scene from I Love Lucy entitled “Job Switching” in which Lucy and her friend Ethel work on the chocolate conveyor belt at Kramer’s Kandy Kitchen.

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In both of my picture books, I’ve tried to pay homage to this classic, slapstick food factory funniness.

Squirrel, starring in When a Tree Grows, gets a job at Nifty Nuts as a quality control inspector. Sounds perfect until he consumes too much product and is fired!

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Image copyright Kasia Nowowiejska, 2019, text copyright Cathy Ballou Mealey, 2019. Courtesy of Sterling Children’s Books.

Sloth and Squirrel work at the pickle packing plant in Sloth & Squirrel in a Pickle to earn money for a bicycle. These friends also discover that a job that seems easy may not be simple in reality.

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Image copyright Kelly Collier, 2021, text copyright Cathy Ballou Mealey, 2021. Courtesy of Kids Can Press.

Was I too fired from food service? Yes, indeed. Working in a narrow service window next to my boss, I was repeatedly scolded for bumping her arm as we scooped entrees onto cafeteria trays. I was demoted to dishwasher where being left-handed didn’t matter, but at least I was free from the hairnet and plastic gloves!

Who knew cafeterias were so fraught with danger?! At least readers reap the very funny benefits of the inspiration this job provided! 

Sloth & Squirrel in a Pickle

Written by Cathy Ballou Mealey | Illustrated by Kelly Collier

 

A speedy squirrel and a sleepy sloth try to get the job done in this funny, heartwarming tale of two lovable, but unlikely, friends. Though Sloth and Squirrel are good friends, they have different ways of doing things—and different speeds of doing them. So, when Squirrel gets them jobs as pickle packers to earn money for a new bike, things don’t go according to plan. It seems that the contrasting skill sets of a fast-as-lightening squirrel and a slow-as-molasses sloth can make for a mess of an outcome and, before long, the friends are shown the pickle factory’s door, along with the 677 and ½  jars of pickles they packed incorrectly! Now the pair are bicycle-less, with only pickles to show for themselves. Or so they think—until the resourceful pair come up with an ingenious plan!

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Image copyright Kelly Collier, 2021, text copyright Cathy Ballou Mealey, 2021. Courtesy of Kids Can Press.

Cathy Ballou Mealey’s tongue-twistingly funny story of odd-couple friends working to buy a bike will keep kids giggling from start to finish. Her creative story based on the literal and figurative definition of “pickle” seamlessly blends unique characters and events while hilariously incorporating the traits of squirrels, sloths, and even pickles to ramp up the suspense and humor. Plenty of clever alliteration as well as Squirrel’s rapid-fire dialogue make this a read aloud kids are going to want to hear again and again. Woven throughout Mealey’s story are messages of friendship, ingenuity, perseverance, creative-thinking, and industriousness.

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Image copyright Kelly Collier, 2021, text copyright Cathy Ballou Mealey, 2021. Courtesy of Kids Can Press.

In her pickle brine-hued illustrations Kelly Collier accentuates the humor of the story with comical visual elements that begin on the first page, where a bear and a bunny, near doppelgangers for Sloth and Squirrel go whizzing by on their bike. Once inside the pickle factory, kids will love pointing out all of the pickle-inspired décor, from the wallpaper to Mr. Peacock’s university degree to his old-style telephone. Collier’s slapstick images will have kids laughing out loud, and her illustrations of Sloth engaging in sloth-like behavior while attaching labels hints at the upcoming and pitch-perfect plot twist without giving it away. Pickle puns and a pack of pleased customers celebrate Sloth and Squirrel’s new venture and a little turtle’s dare leads to a surprising finish.

Ages 3 – 7

Kids Can Press, 2021 | ISBN 978-1525302381

Discover more about Cathy Ballou Mealey and her books on her website.

You can connect with Kelly Collier on her website | Instagram | Twitter.

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For another hilarious picture book by Cathy Ballou Mealey with plenty of nuts, nuttiness, and suspense plus a group of forest friends, you’ll want to check out When a Tree Grows (illustrated by Kasia Nowowiejska and published by Sterling Children’s Books). You can read my review of When a Tree Grows and another interview with Cathy here.

You can find When a Tree Grows at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | BookshopIndieBound

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You can find Sloth and Squirrel in a Pickle at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

July 26 – Celebrating All or Nothing Day with Jane Kurtz

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Jane Kurtz is an award-winning children’s book author, speaker, educator. She is also on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Children’s and YA Literature. She is a co-founder of the nonprofit Ethiopia Reads, an organization that brings books and literacy to the children in Ethiopia, where Jane grew up. She also heads the creative team of Ready Set Go Books, a project of Open Hearts Big Dreams to create fun, colorful, local language books for people in Ethiopia. She is the author of many books for children, including River Friendly River Wild, winner of the SCBWI Golden Kite award for picture book text, and What Do They Do With All That Poo?, a finalist to the AAAS/Subaru SB&F Excellence in Science Books list; it has also been named to several state reading lists, voted on by children.

You can connect with Jane Kurtz on Her website | Instagram | Twitter

Hi Jane! I’m so glad you could join me to celebrate All or Nothing Day, which encourages people to seize the day—whatever comes—and make the best of it, even if that means overcome fears or obstacles to accomplish something they’ve always wanted to do. The stars of  your latest book, Chickens on the Loose, certainly embrace this philosophy and stop at nothing to enjoy a bit of freedom!

I love your and John Joseph’s book not only because it’s funny and action-packed but because my family had our own “chickens on the loose” experience last year when two chickens mysterious ly showed up in our yard—right outside our cat’s favorite window. Needless to say, he was delighted with all the activity. They hung around for a bit and then wandered away. We’re not entirely sure how they got to our yard or where they came from, but they’ve never been back. It definitely made for a fun memory!

Since you’ve published more than forty books for children in a variety of genres – including many award winners – I’m sure readers would like to know how you get the ideas for your books. How do you know when an idea “will stick?”

 When I was a young writer, I only remember hearing that books come from a writer’s imagination. I still think that a writer has to have a way of imagining scenes in vivid detail, but often the ideas that first spark a book (or a scene) come from staying curious and paying attention to life as it happens right around me. With my new picture book, Chickens On The Loose, for example, the idea sparks came from my neighbor’s chickens running around my backyard in Portland, Oregon—and from the many notices I was reading on my “Next Door” neighbor site pleading for help with escaped chickens. My mind drifted to where the chickens would go in my urban neighborhood. It’s hard for me to craft a draft from a mere spark of an idea, though. One thing that makes an idea stick is when it comes paired with a lively voice. “Chickens on the loose. Chickens on the lam, zipping from the yard as quickly as they can.” Where did those words come from?

I suppose they came from my imagination.

Later, when I was working with an editor to refine the story arc, I was having trouble imagining what plot move would allow the chickens to shake off the people who were following and slowly make their own way back home. I was walking in my neighborhood park when I saw a dog walker with too many dogs on too many leashes and a desperate look on her face that said the situation might be out of control any minute. Suddenly, in my mind, I saw the chickens and crowd running around a corner, tangling with all those leashes…humans landing “splat” with chickens flapping onward.

Just like a cook experiments, tries something, adds, tastes, steps back, considers…I sometimes instantly and sometimes slowly know that I’ve come up with a sticky idea for a book or a scene depending on the sensation it leaves in my reader’s mind. The whole thing takes curiosity, patience, and anything that keeps discouragement at bay.

Thanks so much for sharing your creative process with us! I hope you’re having a wonderful—and idea-filled—summer!

Now let’s take a look at:

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Chickens on the Loose

By Jane Kurtz | Illustrated by John Joseph

 

Reviewed by Dorothy Levine

Oh no! The backyard gate is open and there are “chickens breaking loose. / Chickens on the lam. / Zipping from the yard, / as quickly as they can.” It’s a wild chicken chase, with humans trailing behind, trying and failing to stop the loose chickens. The chickens zoom and do not stop; they peek in windows, take items from shops. They do some yoga at a local studio, before grabbing some snacks at an outdoor food court fest. What a crazy, hilarious, chicken-filled mess!

An ever-growing crowd of people race behind, trying to stop them in their tracks. Throughout the story, each new member of the crowd yells, “STOP!” but the chickens pay no heed. When the chickens reach the local pet store, “‘STOP!’ shouts everybody. But the chickens will not stop. / ‘No way!” they say, “We will not stay.” It sounds like BOC BOC BOC.” What will bring these chickens home? Find out in the madcap ending that will have kids wanting the hear the story all over again.

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Image copyright John Joseph, 2021, text copyright Jane Kurtz, 2021. Courtesy of West Margin Press.

Author Jane Kurtz wows again with another read-out-loud tale perfect for youngsters. Her infectious rhymes and zippy rhythm propel the story with wit as quick as those runaway chickens. Kurtz’s vivacious vocabulary adds to the fun, and her repeated phrasing will have kids vocally joining the chase. 

John Joseph’s colorful, comedic drawings feature a diverse cast of city residents of different races, religions, ethnicities, and abilities. The girl whose chickens got loose in the first place leads the crowd down the streets from page to page. Joseph illustrates the neighborhood with colorful storefronts, homes, bustling crowds, and the silliest of chickens. The exaggerated body language and expressiveness of the humans and chickens tell a story in themselves, adding a great deal of humor to the story. 

Ages 4 – 8

West Margin Press, 2021 | ISBN 978-1513267241

For classroom resources, a peek inside the book, and a fun video, check out this page on Jane Kurtz’s website!

For more fantastic reading, check out these picture books and middle grade reads by Jane Kurtz too!

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You can find Chickens on the Loose at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from 

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

July 19 – Celebrating the Perseid Meteor Showers with Sandra Nickel

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Sandra Nickel says that story ideas are everywhere; you just have to reach out and grab them.  She holds an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her first book, Nacho’s Nachos: The Story Behind the World’s Favorite Snack, was a Golden Kite Award finalist. Sandra lives in Chexbres, Switzerland, where she blogs about children’s book writers and illustrators at whatwason.com.

You can connect with Sandra on Her website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

Hi Sandra, thanks so much for stopping by to talk about your latest picture book The Stuff Between the Stars, the beauty of summer nights, and your favorite childhood memory!

My favorite summer memory from my childhood is lying on a blanket at night and watching the shooting stars. Everything about it screams “childhood summer” to me. Warm nights. Fireflies. Grass pricking through the blanket. Late-night snacks. Pillows outside. The whole family together. Getting to stay up until midnight. And the incredible magic and wonder of shooting stars lighting up the sky. Each individual aspect is imbued with summer. But when you put them all together and add to the mix that it only happened once each August, it holds an incredibly vibrant and loved spot in my childhood memory box.

This year’s Perseid meteor shower—because in fact those shooting stars are shooting meteors—will be from July 17th to August 24th, with peak meteors expected to be around August 12th. For childhood memory-building, the must-haves are blankets, insect spray, a light-free yard, and late-night snacks. That said, a little preparation on your part will add richness and new discoveries to the experience.

The meteor shower is a great time to learn constellations. Why not brush up on those mythological pictures in the sky to prepare for the big night? There are many children’s books about constellations. One of my favorites is National Geographic’s classic Zoo in the Sky: A Book of Animal Constellations.

Gazing at the night sky is also a great time to open up your young stargazer’s mind. During school visits while talking about The Stuff Between the Stars and Vera Rubin, I show students this picture and ask what they see. If you’re not in a rush, take a moment and look.

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Credit: skysafariastronomy.com

What do we see?

The Moon

Stars

That bright spot is Venus

We see the stars because they burn. They are making their own light, like a summer campfire does. We see the moon because it reflects light from the biggest star around, the Sun. The same goes for the planets, like Venus. They reflect the Sun’s light.

So, we see the Moon, stars, and planets. And that’s pretty much all we see in the sky, right? But what’s there that we are not even thinking about? What are we looking right past?

Everything that doesn’t shine.

Before Vera Rubin, we thought, if it doesn’t shine, there’s nothing there. It’s empty space. And that’s the idea that Vera proved wrong. All that dark in the night sky makes up most of the universe. It’s filled with stuff. And that stuff is called dark matter. Not because it’s something scary, like turning to the Dark Side in Star Wars. It’s dark matter only because it doesn’t make its own light like stars or reflect light like planets.

Now, we still don’t know what dark matter is made of because we can’t see it or smell it or hear it. However, we know what it does. It has gravity. It has pull. And it holds the stars in galaxies together so that we can enjoy them on summer nights with family and friends.

With the end of July approaching, why not gather blankets, insect spray and your favorite late-night snacks to enjoy the meteor shower? It’s a wonderful way to fill a childhood memory box—and maybe even your adult one too.

What a wonderful, unforgettable way to spend a summer night! Thanks so much for sharing your memories as well as your love for the mysteries of our universe.

About the Perseid Meteor Showers

 

Active between July 17 and August 24 in the northern hemisphere, the Perseid meteor shower lights up the sky, thrilling astronomers and casual observers alike. The Perseids are particles released from comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle when it interacts with our atmosphere. They get their name from the fact that the radiant (its point of origin) is located near the constellation of Perseus. The best time to view the showers is after midnight around 2:00 a.m., but they may be seen as early as 10:00 p.m. The best place to observe them is in an area with low light pollution. This year the Perseids reach their peak on the night of August 11 – 12.

NASA describes the Perseids as “very fast and bright meteors [that] frequently leave long “wakes” of light and color behind them as they streak through Earth’s atmosphere. They’re also known for their fireballs, which are larger explosions of light and color that can persist longer than an average meteor streak. The Perseids are one of the most plentiful showers, with 50-100 meteors seen per hour.

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The Stuff Between the Stars: How Vera Rubin Discovered Most of the Universe

Written by Sandra Nickel | Illustrated by Aimée Sicuro

 

From the time she was a little girl, Vera Rubin had been fascinated with the night sky. As she gazed through her bedroom window, she saw when “the stars were stirring, and something bright stirred in Vera too.” She began studying everything she could about the stars, planets, and how they interacted in the night sky. She even made her own telescope from a cardboard tube and a lens.

At seventeen Vera began attending Vassar College as the only astronomy major in her class. Here, she could use the school’s telescope whenever she wanted. As a young astronomer she presented her idea that “galaxies rotated around a center in the universe like the Big Dipper circled the North Star.” But when she presented her conclusions at a meeting of America’s top astronomers, they told her her ideas were “outlandish” and “ridiculous.” 

As a young mother, Vera worked on another question that interested her. She wondered if galaxies were scattered haphazardly or whether there was “a pattern to where they spun.” After many late nights doing calculations, Vera determined that galaxies were “clumped together like dew drops on a spider’s web.” This was a major discovery; one that earned her a doctorate in astronomy, but America’s top astronomers continued to ignore her.

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Image copyright Aimée Sicuro, text copyright Sandra Nickel. Courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers.

While her children were growing up, Vera began teaching astronomy at colleges in Washington D.C. Other astronomers began hearing about her and wanting to know more about her ideas that had been dismissed in the past. More than anything, Vera wanted to view the sky from the observatory at the Carnegie Institution in the California mountains. She wanted this so much that she went to the Carnegie Institution and asked for a job. After she explained her work and theories to the other scientists, they gave her a job. Here she studied the “slow-moving stars at the edges of the galaxies.”

Vera next studied the Andromeda Galaxy and was astounded to discover that the stars at the edge of the galaxy didn’t move slower for being far away from its center of gravity; they moved at the same speed. She determined from this as well as from studying 200 other galaxies that there was something unseen at work between the stars. Vera believed this was “dark matter” and presented her findings to other astronomers. This time they listened, making her a prominent light in her beloved field.

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Image copyright Aimée Sicuro, text copyright Sandra Nickel. Courtesy of Abrams Books for Young Readers.

Sandra Nickel’s straightforward and comprehensive storytelling gives kids a well-rounded view of Vera Rubin’s life as she doggedly pursued a career in astronomy despite all the naysayers and snubs along the way and made an astounding discovery that still baffles scientists today. Nickel does an excellent job of explaining the complex ideas Rubin studied, theorized on, and wrote about, allowing readers to fully understand her impact on the field of astronomy and our understanding of the universe. 

Through Aimée Sicuro’s mixed-media illustrations, readers follow Vera Rubin as she matures from a curious child who loves watching the night sky to a college student to a mother to an astronomer making discoveries that changed the way scientists understood the universe. Her detailed images give kids visual representations of Rubin’s work and ideas. The final image of a group of children gazing up at the night sky as a shooting star flashes by offers an inspirational quote from Vera Rubin.

Ages 6 – 9

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2021 | ISBN 978-1419736261

Discover more about Sandra Nickel and her books on her website.

To learn more about Aimée Sicuro, her books, and her art, visit her website.

You can find Curriculum Guides and Activity Sheets for kids on Sandra Nickel’s website.

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Kids will love Sandra’s other book, Nacho’s Nachos: The Story Behind the World’s Favorite Snack, illustrated by Oliver Dominguez!

Ages 6 – 11

Lee & Low Books, 2020 | ISBN 978-1620143698

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You can find The Stuff Between the Stars at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

June 29 – International Day of the Tropics

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About the Holiday

The International Day of the Tropics is a United Nations–sponsored holiday that celebrates the extraordinary diversity of the tropics while putting a spotlight on the unique challenges and opportunities the nations of the Tropics face. The Tropics are a region roughly defined as the area between the tropic of Cancer and the tropic of Capricorn and have in common a warm and typically unvaried seasonal temperature fluctuations and the prevalence of rain  determined by a region’s proximity to the equator. While it is projected that by 2050, the Tropics will be home to most of the world’s population and two-thirds of its children, the area faces challenges due to climate change, deforestation, logging, urbanization, and demographic shifts.  Today’s observance provides individuals, organizations, and governments an opportunity to take stock of progress across the tropics, to share stories and expertise, and to acknowledge the diversity and potential of the region. Today’s book tell the true story of one woman who is working to make a difference.

Thanks to Lee & Low Books for sending me a copy of Galápagos Girl/ Galápagueña for review consideration. All opinions about the book are my own. 

Galápagos Girl / Galapagueña

Written by Marsha Diane Arnold | Illustrated by Angela Dominguez | Translated by Adriana Dominguez

 

On the day when baby Valentina joined Mamá, Papá, and eleven brothers and sisters, even the sea lions, blue-footed boobies, and iguanas seemed to welcome her to the “island formed by fire.” Valentina loved growing up on the Galápagos Island of Floreana. She explored the lava rocks, where Sally Lightfoot crabs scuttled back and forth. She swam with dolphins and manta rays, and even played with penguins.

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Image copyright Angela Dominguez, 2018, text copyright Marsha Diane Arnold, 2018. Courtesy of Lee & Low Books.

“Valentina watched pink flamingoes wading near mangroves. Blue butterflies fluttering on the breeze. Red-and-green iguanas sneezing salt like tiny geysers.” The crashing waves, albatross, and finches created a symphony as Valentina stopped to rest on a grassy cliff overlooking the ocean. The lava lizards, blue-footed boobies, and twirling sea lions provided young Valentina with a variety of dance partners.

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Image copyright Angela Dominguez, 2018, text copyright Marsha Diane Arnold, 2018. Courtesy of Lee & Low Books.

At home, Valentina’s family shared their home with two giant tortoises—Carlitos and Isabella. One day Papá told Valentina their story as they fed the tortoises plums that had fallen from their backyard trees. Papá had gotten Carlitos and Isabella from a friend when he first moved to Floreana. Although it was nearly impossible to imagine now that the tortoises were grown, at the time they were so small that they fit into Papá’s pockets.

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Image copyright Angela Dominguez, 2018, text copyright Marsha Diane Arnold, 2018. Courtesy of Lee & Low Books.

There was also a sad note to Papá’s story. He said that while giant tortoises still lived on other Galápagos islands, pirates and whalers had wiped out the population on Floreana. Papá went on to tell Valentina that many Galápagos animals were in danger. They were “threatened by other animals that don’t belong here. Threatened by people who don’t understand how to care for our islands.” Valentina promised that she would always protect them.

When she was older, Valentina left the island to go to school. She didn’t want to leave her beautiful home, but Mamá told her that she was “ready to learn about the world beyond.” And Papá reminded her that “like our islands, you have a heart full of fire.” On school vacations, Valentina always came back to study the wildlife on the Galápagos islands. She had not forgotten her promise to keep them safe.

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Image copyright Angela Dominguez, 2018, text copyright Marsha Diane Arnold, 2018. Courtesy of Lee & Low Books.

After she graduated with a degree in biology, Valentina returned to the islands as a nature guide to teach visitors about the beauty and uniqueness of the Galápagos. Some visitors were even lucky enough to meet Carlitos and Isabella when the plums dropped from the trees and the two old tortoises returned from exploring Floreana to eat them. Because of Valentina’s commitment to the Galápagos, her visitors also made a promise to always remember and protect them.

Extensive backmatter includes an Author’s Note about Valentina Cruz, the tortoises Carlitos and Isabella, and the history of tortoises on Floreana. There is also information on the Galápagos as well as fun facts about all of the animals in the story. A bibliography of sources invites readers to learn more.

Each two-page spread presents the text in English and translated into Spanish by Adriana Dominguez.

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Image copyright Angela Dominguez, 2018, text copyright Marsha Diane Arnold, 2018. Courtesy of Lee & Low Books.

Marsha Diane Arnold’s lyrical and buoyant passages sing with the carefree joy Valentina felt as a girl exploring her beloved Galápagos and which brought her back home as a biologist to protect them. After seeing Valentina playing and swimming with the native animals and feeding Carlitos and Isabella, readers will also feel Valentina’s sadness at the dangers they face and want to make a positive difference to the environment and the world around them. Arnold’s dialogue-rich storytelling highlights the personal nature of the subject and will draw children into Valentina’s world.celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-Galápagos-Girl-blue-footed-booby

Saturated with glorious color, each of Angela Dominguez’s illustrations is a celebration of the splendor of the Galápagos. Playful sea lions, high-stepping blue-footed boobies, scampering crabs, and even a sneezing iguana will captivate young readers and inspire them to learn more about these creatures and the islands. Images of Valentina camping out to study the animals during school breaks will excite environmentally conscious kids, and pictures of Carlitos and Isabella happily munching on plums will generate smiles and “awwws.”

Galápagos Girl / Galapagueña will excite kids to learn more not only about the Galápagos region but about their own local environment, and the call to action will spark an enthusiasm for protecting the earth’s animals. The book would make an inspiring addition to home bookshelves and an excellent way to begin classroom discussions on environmental issues and science lessons. The engaging Spanish translation will delight Spanish-speaking and bilingual families.

Ages 4 – 8

Lee & Low Books, 2018 | ISBN 978-0892394135

Discover more about Marsha Diane Arnold and her books on her website. You can also download activity sheets and teachers’ guides for most of her books here as well.

To learn more about Angela Dominguez, her books, and her art, visit her website.

Welcome Marsha Diane Arnold

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In 2018, I was thrilled to talk with award-winning picture book author Marsha Diane Arnold about the backstory of Galápagos Girl / Galápagueña. Her interview, originally for National Wildlife Day, is just as timely today. Marsha was inspired to write this story after traveling to the Galápagos Islands, where she met Valentina Cruz and had the opportunity to swim with sea lions and dolphins.

Marsha Diane Arnold is an award-winning picture book author whose books have sold over one million copies. Her 21st book, Lights Out, was published in the fall of 2020. Arnold’s other books include Badger’s Perfect Garden, May I Come In? and Mine. Yours. Among Marsha’s honors are the Ridgeway Award for Best First Book, state Children’s Choice awards, IRA Distinguished Book, and Smithsonian Notable Book. Her bilingual book Galápagos Girl was selected as a 2019 Bank Street Best Books of the Year, a Campoy-Ada honor book, and a 2019 Green Prize in Sustainable Literature. The media has referred to her as, “a born storyteller.” Educators have called her a “true literary artist” whose books show “warmth and respect for one’s self.”  She lives with her family in Alva, Florida.

Thank you, Kathryn, for inviting me to celebrate Galápagos Girl / Galápagueña, along with conservation of wild places and animals!

As a child, would you have enjoyed swimming with sea lions? Feeding plums to giant tortoises by hand? Having warblers fly through your house? That was the life of Valentina Cruz. Galápagos Girl is based on her idyllic life on remote Floreana island in the Galápagos Islands, a volcanic archipelago west of Ecuador.

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My photos of actual blue-footed booby and Galápagos marine iguana.

Valentina grew up surrounded by nature, but perhaps more accurately, she grew up in nature. I think when a child grows up seeing wild wonders every day, they grow up respecting and protecting nature and wildlife. Valentina and her siblings certainly did. She grew up to be a biologist and naturalist guide. One brother, Eliecer Cruz, was director of the Galápagos National Park and, later, director of the Galápagos branch of the World Wildlife Fund. Another brother, Felipe, worked on many projects with the Charles Darwin Research Station, including studying the challenges that face the Galápagos petrel. Her sister, Marilyn, is director of Galápagos Biosecurity Agency, which helps control and prevent invasive species in the islands.

In some ways, Valentina’s childhood was similar to mine. She was surrounded by a loving family—her parents and eleven brothers and sisters. I only had one brother, but along with my parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles, we gathered on many Sunday afternoons at my grandmother’s house. Valentina and I both delighted in nature, though hers was a more exotic nature—the distant Galápagos Islands, where Charles Darwin discovered those famous finches and came up with his theory of natural selection. Mine was a small farm on the Kansas plains—I didn’t see the ocean until I was an adult. Valentina had Galápagos tortoises as pets and swam with sea lions. (Of course, keeping tortoises as pets is not allowed today.) I played with my neighbor’s pet raccoon (also, not allowed today) and listened to the meadowlark’s song from the roof of my house.

Valentina loves nature, home, and family, but has the soul of an adventurer. I’m much the same. When I grew up I yearned to see as much of the world as possible. When my long-time traveling buddy, Jean Gallagher, asked me to travel with her to the Galápagos, one of my long-time dreams came true.

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The Galápagos Gang – fellow travelers to a far-off land. Jean is 3rd to right in front. I am 4th.

It was on that 2007 trip that I met Valentina, one of our naturalist guides. With her, we visited Floreana and saw the home where she grew up. I was enamored. I thought how wonderful a book about the islands and their unique wildlife, woven together with Valentina’s childhood, would be. Yet it wasn’t until April 2009 that I emailed Valentina and told her of my dream to write a picture book based on her life. Over months and years, Valentina generously shared her stories with me.

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Valentina showing us the lay of the land.

Valentina got her sense of adventure and love of nature from her father, Eliecer Cruz Cevallos, who first arrived in the Galápagos in 1939. He was one of only 100 people living in the Galápagos at that time!

Eliecer returned to Ecuador and married Valentina’s mother, Emma Bedon. She made him promise they would never live in the Galápagos. Who can blame her? They’d have almost no human neighbors! But in 1944, she changed her mind. Emma sailed to Floreana with Eliecer to build a life together. Valentina told me that even living in the wild, her mother taught her children “to keep all the rules of a city so we do not grow up wild.”

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Valentina and her father on Floreana

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Valentina, her mother, and her sister

Two Galápagos tortoises were a big part of Valentina’s childhood, so I had to include them in Galápagos Girl. Floreana tortoise had long been extinct (or so it was thought).  So when Eliecer moved to Floreana, his friend gave him young tortoises from other islands. Eventually, the family released the tortoises to roam free. One of the most exciting things that happened to Valentina as a child was seeing the tortoises return to their farm that first year after their release. The main reason was the tasty plums dropping from the trees. Every year after that, when the plums ripened, the family waited for the tortoises to return. They always did!

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An illustration of one of the family’s tortoises eating a plum treat by Angela Dominguez

The tortoise story changed several times during the writing of my book due to Valentina’s remembering more over time, checking facts with her family, and a discovery near Wolf Volcano on Isabela, another Galápagos Island. What’s in my book isn’t exactly the way things were, but it’s close to the real story. As Valentina wisely shared: “Each of us remember things in different ways. Our memory is like pictures of what impresses us in that specific moment, so everything can be true and everything can be fiction.”

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One of eleven species of Galápagos tortoise

Regarding the exciting discovery on Wolf Volcano, scientists recently found tortoises there that carry some of the Floreana tortoise genes! There is a project now to bring these tortoises back to Floreana. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have partial Floreana tortoises wandering freely, restoring the ecology of Floreana?

You may ask, “How did Floreana tortoises get on Isabela Island?” That’s one more fascinating question about the Galápagos. If I visit your school, you can ask me and I’ll share more.

Thanks so much, Marsha, for sharing the fascinating story behind Galápagos Girl / Galápagueña!

You can connect with Marsha Diane Arnold on

Her Website | Earth’s Voices | Facebook

International Day of the Tropics Activity

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Animals of the Galápagos Match Up Puzzle

 

There are so many fascinating animals that live in the Galápagos! Can you match the picture of each animal to its description in this printable Animals of the Galápagos Match Up Puzzle? You can find and download the activity sheet from the Lee & Low Books website:

Animals of the Galápagos Match Up Puzzle

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You can find Galápagos Girl / Galapagueña at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

March 3 – World Wildlife Day and Interview with Author Heather Lang

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About the Holiday

A vast number of plant and animal species are facing endangerment or extinction due to human caused climate change. World Wildlife Day was created in 1973 as an effort to protect the many endangered species of the world. It is an international holiday with a new theme each year to celebrate the biodiversity of our earth while also promoting awareness and advocacy. The theme for this year’s observance is “Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet.” There are many wonderful ways to celebrate this holiday; spend some time in nature, pick up litter around your block, find out about activities going on in your hometown, and read books to educate yourself and others on the livelihood of forests, wildlife and the environment.  To learn more about World Wildlife Day, and the virtual events happening today, visit this webpage: https://www.wildlifeday.org/. If you are searching for books to celebrate, The Leaf Detective is a perfect fit!

Thanks to Boyds Mills for providing a digital copy of The Leaf Detective for review consideration. All opinions on the book are my own.

Reviewed by Dorothy Levine

The Leaf Detective: How Margaret Lowman Uncovered the Secrets of the Rainforest

Written by Heather Lang | Illustrated by Jana Christy

 

As a child, Meg was quite shy to make friends. She spent lots of time studying and playing with wildlife: “Meg wrapped herself in nature, like a soft blanket.” As she continued to grow, so did her passion for leaves, trees, and nature. Meg attended Sydney University in Australia. In 1979, she became the first person at her graduate school to study the rainforest. Through her studies Meg learned that people had been all the way to outer space to study, but nobody had ever ventured to the tippity top of a canopy tree. Instead, they studied trees from far away through binoculars. Oftentimes scientists would spray trees with chemicals so that the harmed leaves and animals would drop to the forest floor where people could study them up close. Meg sought to change this.

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Image copyright Jana Christy, 2021, text copyright Heather Lang, 2021. Courtesy of Calkins Creek.

“In the dark, damp forest the trees rose up to distant rustling, squawks and screeches, shadows in the treetops. How could she get up there?” Meg Lowman created her own slingshot and harness and inched up a coachwood tree. When she reached the canopy, she knew she’d found the perfect place to study and explore. Meg is quoted saying, “From then on, I never looked back…or down!”

Meg continued to create new strategies to study the canopy, as a scientist does. And in doing so she made so many discoveries, such as: “We now believe the canopy is home to approximately half the plant and animal species on land.” Many people tried to stop Meg along her journey. They told her she couldn’t take science classes, climb trees, or make inventions because she was a woman. But Meg ignored them. She continued to investigate.

She knew that rainforests were (and are) in danger, and that so many creatures rely on the rainforest ecosystem. People all over the world were cutting down large parts of the rainforests for wood, rubber, paper, and farmland. This worried Meg; she wanted to find a way to protect rainforests before they all disappeared. “She wondered, How can one leaf detective make a difference? How can I save the trees?…Then an idea crawled into Meg’s thoughts—a way to speak for the trees.”

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Image copyright Jana Christy, 2021, text copyright Heather Lang, 2021. Courtesy of Calkins Creek.

Meg traveled around the world. She spoke to people across many different countries; taught them how to climb trees, build canopy walkways—she showed people the many gifts rainforests have to offer. Meg educated communities on how they could share their rainforest with outsiders, showcase its beauty to create revenue rather than chopping them down for resources. By using her voice and creative mind, Meg helped implement systems that have saved many trees and creatures across the world.

Meg Lowman continues to study trees, save rainforests, and teach people how to shift their economies to center around ecotourism and sustainable crops rather than resource extraction. She has used her voice to save rainforests across the world, and yet she still says, “If only I could have achieved as much as the tree!… But I have not. I have whittled away at relatively small goals in comparison to the grander accomplishments of a tree.”

Backmatter includes an author’s note detailing Heather Lang’s visit to meet Margaret Lowman in the Amazon rainforest in Perú. The note includes more information on Dr. Lowman’s advocacy work and is followed by an illustrated educational spread on the layers of canopies, and species featured throughout the story are labeled in the final spread, for readers to learn more about specific animals that make their homes in the rainforest.

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Image copyright Jana Christy, 2021, text copyright Heather Lang, 2021. Courtesy of Calkins Creek.

Heather Lang’s lyrical writing matches the carefulness with which Meg studies leaves, trees, and the rainforest canopy. Her compelling storytelling is rich with facts and sensory imagery that immerse readers in the environment and Meg’s determination to understand and, later, save it. Scattered images of leaves drop fun facts and definitions for readers about the rainforest, canopies, transpiration, herbivores, and more. Quotes from Dr. Lowman are thoughtfully placed throughout the story in a manner that neatly flows. The Leaf Detective urges readers to understand that “a tree is not just a tree” but rather “a shelter for animals and people, / a recycler and provider of water, / a creator of food and oxygen, / an inventor of medicine/ a soldier against climate change.”

Jana Christy’s digital drawings contain stunning detail and show an accurate scale of one small person in comparison to the vastness of the rainforest. Her mesmerizing wildlife creatures and immersive watercolor blues and greens transport readers right into the rainforest with “Canopy Meg.” The lush greens of the rainforests contrast strikingly with the spread on deforestation, in which fallen trees lay scattered on the bare, brown ground. Readers will also be interested to see the innovations that have made the trees more accessible to people. One can read the book over and over and notice new details every time. It is a book to treasure, to study, to read and re-read again. 

Come unearth the secrets of the rainforest with Margaret Lowman in this book that’s budding with knowledge, empathy, and magic, and is a tale of how one person can make a difference. The intriguing facts, poignant quotes from Dr. Lowman herself, and beautiful poetic writing will leave readers of this book inspired with wonder and with a hunger for advocacy. The Leaf Detective: How Margaret Lowman Uncovered the Secrets of the Rainforest is an urgent must-read for all ages.

A portion of Heather Lang’s royalties for this book go to TREE Foundation—an organization that funds field trips for children to get into nature, canopy projects, and science book distribution for children with limited access to STEAM, girls especially. 

Ages 6 – 10

Calkins Creek, 2021 | ISBN 978-1684371778

Discover more about Heather Lang and her books on her website.

To learn more about Jana Christy, her books, and her art, visit her website.

Meet Heather Lang

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Heather Lang loves to write about real women who overcame extraordinary obstacles and never gave up on their dreams. Her research has taken her to the skies, the treetops of the Amazon, and the depths of the ocean. Her award-winning picture book biographies include, QUEEN OF THE TRACK: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion, THE ORIGINAL COWGIRL: The Wild Adventures of Lucille Mulhall, FEARLESS FLYER: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine, SWIMMING WITH SHARKS: The Daring Discoveries of Eugenie Clark, and ANYBODY’S GAME: Kathryn Johnston, The First Girl to Play Little League Baseball. When she is not writing, she enjoys going on adventures with her husband and four children. Visit Heather at www.heatherlangbooks.com.

Today I am thrilled to be interviewing author Heather Lang about her new biographical picture book The Leaf Detective: How Margaret Lowman Uncovered the Secrets of the Rainforest. Heather provides some thoughtful notes for shy readers, riveting stories from the rainforest and insight into the importance of exploring and caring for nature.

Can you tell us a little bit about what made you decide to write The Leaf Detective?  

We’ve caused enormous harm to our planet over the last few centuries, and I’m especially concerned about our rainforests. I knew I wanted to write a biography that was also a science book about the rainforest. When I read about Meg’s pioneering work and deep passion for trees, I was hooked! I couldn’t wait to find out how this quiet, nature-loving child, who didn’t know women could be scientists, became a world-class scientist and conservationist.

In the story you talk about how Meg was shy to make playmates with other kids. Were you also a shy kid growing up? Do you have any advice for readers who may relate to this aspect of Meg’s childhood? 

Like Meg, I was very shy as a child and remember wishing I were more outgoing. But as I grew older, I began to recognize the many advantages to being shy! My shy nature led me to sit back and observe. And that led to deeper thinking and understanding, a strong imagination, and creativity. Shy people often think more before they speak. They make their words count, which coincidentally is an important part of writing picture books. This also makes shy people good listeners and thoughtful friends. 

I’m still shy in many ways, and my recommendation to readers who might identify with this is to embrace your shyness! At the same time, don’t let it stop you from doing things you want to do. Meg Lowman told me she used to get so nervous before presenting in graduate school that she’d get physically sick. But with practice, practice, practice, she’s become a captivating presenter and educator. If you watch a few of her FUN FACTS FROM THE FIELD videos on my website, you’ll see what I mean! 

How would you describe your connection to nature? Would you consider yourself a “detective” in any ways? 

I’m constantly in awe of nature and its countless gifts and surprises. Nothing sparks my curiosity more than our natural world, and my curiosity is probably my most important tool as a writer. Being open-minded and asking questions not only generates ideas, but also leads me to think more deeply about a topic and examine it closely from lots of different angles. And of course that generates more detective work and more learning about my topic and myself. Being a detective is one of my favorite parts of writing books.

Do you have a favorite rainforest tree or creature? If so, tell me about it a bit!

When I arrived in the Amazon rainforest, I couldn’t wait to see a sloth! But during my time there I became fascinated with ants. They are everywhere in the rainforest, even in the canopy. I think it’s amazing how such tiny creatures can be so hardworking and organized. Their teamwork is unbelievable. And they are invaluable to the health of our rainforests. Among other things, they’re in charge of waste management on the rainforest floor, and they disperse seeds and aerate the soil!

What was the most rewarding part of writing The Leaf Detective?

This writing project was filled with rewards every step of the way! I learned so much about our rainforests and trees and gained a true understanding of how interconnected we all are—plants, animals, and humans. Getting to really know Meg Lowman and learning from her firsthand was thrilling and strengthened my writing in many important ways. It was also really rewarding to stretch myself as a writer and find a way to effectively write a book that seemed ambitious at first—a biography and conservation book that wove in quotes and science facts. 

Are there any stories from your trip to meet Meg that you did not get the chance to include in your author’s note that you’d like to share?

While I was on my Amazon adventure with Meg, I had many exciting moments. I loved learning from the Indigenous people how to use a blow gun, make clay, and braid palm leaves to make thatched roofs. The local shaman taught me how he uses different plants in the rainforest to treat and prevent injuries and illnesses—from bronchitis to poisonous snake bites. He also helped me confront my fear of snakes by bringing one over for me to touch. I even let it gently coil around my neck! But my favorite moments were exploring with Meg, especially at night and early in the morning when there’s so much activity in the rainforest.

What are you working on next?

I’m having a blast working on a new informational picture book series about extraordinary animals for Candlewick Press with my co-author/illustrator and close friend Jamie Harper. The first book, Supermoms!, features cool nonfiction facts about 18 amazing animal moms in a graphic format with humorous callouts. 

I’m also working on a collective biography for readers in grades 3 – 7. More to come on that soon!

Thanks so much for chatting with me Heather! I had a lovely time hearing about your inspiration, stories, writing process and tips for shy readers. Looking forward to learning and reading more from you in the months and years to come.

World Wildlife Day Activity

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You can create your own rainforest with this coloring page. Use the blank space around the picture to label the layers as shown on the last page of The Leaf Detective!

Rainforest Coloring Page

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Three different beautiful World Wildlife Day 2021 posters in six languages are available for download here.

You can find The Leaf Detective 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!

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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

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