Saturday, December 3, 2016

Q&A with Leslie Martini

Leslie Martini is the author of the new children's picture book Matilda: The Algonquin Cat. It is based on a cat who lives in the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Martini is a journalist, a marketing copywriter, a literacy tutor, and a college essay consultant.
Q: How did you learn about Matilda, the Algonquin cat, and why did you decide to write a book about her?

A: When we were kids, my mother used to take my sisters and me to New York City. Going to the Algonquin to see Matilda was always the highlight.

I remember thinking I was entering Oz— the white gloved doormen, the gilded chandeliers, and this gorgeous cat sitting on a red velvet luggage cat. It was pure opulence and it seemed like royalty to me. 

She made such an impression on me, and on my own children. When I began thinking about the fact that Matilda is the only living member of the Algonquin Round Table, and that the Algonquin is a historical landmark— it made me want to tell the story.

Q: Did you need to do a lot of research for the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I had visited several times over the years, and I learned more with each visit. It was interesting to learn that there was another cat named Billy who lived in the hotel for nearly 15 years before the first official Algonquin Cat. Poor Billy never earned the title!

I also was surprised to learn that the owner of the Algonquin, Frank Case, was a writer and had published his own book, titled, Do Not Disturb.

Q: What did you see as the right mix of fact and fiction as you were writing the book?

A: Having Matilda as the narrator allowed me to take many more liberties; however, I tried to stay true to the history and only stretch the truth as far as a child’s imagination would go. The back matter is purely historical information.

Q: At what point did you see the illustrations, and what do you think they contribute to the book?

A: I had a very unique set of circumstances with this project because I worked with an indie publisher. I worked very closely with Massi [Massimo Mongiardo], the illustrator, which was an amazing process.

Massi made the decisions, along with the publisher, but having the ability to watch him bring Matilda to life on the page was a phenomenal experience.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A few unrelated non-fiction projects, and exploring what Matilda might want to do next!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Algonquin Hotel is fabulous at Christmas time. The hotel currently has on display 20-plus illustrations throughout the lobby. Matilda loves the holidays so it’s a great time to stop in and say hello. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Roselee Blooston

Roselee Blooston is the author of the new book Dying in Dubai: A Memoir of Marriage, Mourning, and the Middle East. Her work has appeared in AARP The Magazine and Moxie, among other publications. She is an actor and playwright, and was founding director of Tunnel Vision Writers' Project. She is based in New York's Hudson Valley.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?

A: It wasn’t a decision so much as a process. A few months after my husband died in 2008, I started writing, mostly for my sanity. Two years later, I had a whole collection.

Then I thought, I haven’t written about Dubai [where he died suddenly while working there]. I could use this opportunity to write about [this period, at a writing workshop]. That was the way I could handle reliving it.

I thought, It’s a memoir, not an essay collection. The vignettes of widowhood [are in the book too].

Q: So what was the impact of the workshop?

A: It was very helpful. I trusted [the participants] for a response.

Q: In the book, you write about a very hard time in your life. Was writing about it helpful and also difficult?

A: I don’t think I could have done Part 1, Dubai, without having people to hand the rough stuff to. When something this traumatic happens, you’re imprinted with it. A friend who’s a therapist said, You’ll never forget any of this.

I thought it was better to get it down on paper. It wasn’t easy. Every draft was difficult in some ways. At some point it shifted from being personal to being about the craft.

Q: You are very honest about your relationship with your husband, and also your relationships with other family members. What do those other family members think of the book?

A: My brothers-in-law come off as heroes. They are very moved by it. They are well aware of the issues with other family members. My son was 21 when Jerry died. He’s 30 now. I ran a lot by him to make sure he thought it was OK.

I don’t know what everybody thinks, but I have heard from my sister-in-law. She loves it, and [my brother-in-law] Ross is coming for Thanksgiving with his wife, who’s in the book. I’ve heard it seems to be OK.

I must have gone over [certain] sections a million times. I wanted the behavior to reveal what was going on.

Q: How did you come up with the final structure for the book’s organization?

A: There was a period after the first workshop where in a rough way I decided to put the scenes of widowhood in order. I realized that the 15 days in Dubai, Part 1, and the 13 months after were in an emotional way, equal in weight.

Dubai became the metaphor for going through a foreign land, an external journey [that goes with] the internal journey, the grief. Once I understood the time frame and the way it was equal, I understood what was happening.

In 2012 I brought in a developmental editor, and she talked about character, the same things you’d talk about with fiction. I worked with more than one editor, and kept refining it until I thought it was ready.

Q: How did you pick the book’s title?

A: That was the first thing that came to me. I’m a title person. I’m an actress and playwright, and the title came first. When I was at a launch party in Montclair, one of the members of the first workshop said, I love it that you knew it was Dying in Dubai all along. I like alliteration!

It was always there, and it made it real for me. I kept thinking, I have to fulfill this.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have three projects in various stages of readiness. I wasn’t working on this full-time. I have a novel and two memoir-like [projects] that are lighter. I have a sequel, a happier sequel. I have a title—Hudson Valley Happiness. I’m in a different phase of life, about aging and reinventing.

There’s a memoir piece about my life in the theater. I’m not sure which comes next.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think the most important thing to realize is that although it’s a difficult, emotional, painful journey, it ends with real peace and joy. After loss, there is renewal. Grief will not kill you, you’ll be able to survive and thrive if you let all the emotion come through you.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Dec. 3

Dec. 3, 1895: Anna Freud born.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Q&A with Kari-Lynn Winters

Kari-Lynn Winters, photo by Nataliya Dmitrieva
Kari-Lynn Winters is the author of the new children's picture book French Toast. Her many other books include Gift Days, When Chickens Fly and Bad Pirate. She teaches at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, and she lives in St. Catharines.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for French Toast?

A: Two things. When I worked in North Carolina, I worked with a little kid, Grade 1. Racism was very prevalent there. He’d say, Hey, white teacher! I said, I’m not white, not in the way snow is white. I’m like stirred peach yogurt! From then on, he’d call me Peach.

I’d talk to them about different colors of skin so they’d realize there was a spectrum of different colors.

The other thing was I worked with an adult student who was legally blind. I was working with him on how to teach comprehension to little kids.

We were talking about a text to do with the color of crayons. He said he didn’t understand the text because he didn’t understand the color of crayons.

He said, This is how I can explain it. Describe an apple. I said, Red and round. He said, cut the apple in half and describe it. I said, Juicy, with pits. He said, Is it still red?  I said, No, it’s white! He said, Now make applesauce. Is it red? I tried to describe it—Red? No. White? No.

He said, You see how color is so prevalent and taken for granted? That inspired me to write this book. I told him I would try to write a book that could be read to visually impaired children as well.

Q: Have you had feedback from visually impaired kids about the book?

A: I haven’t yet, it’s so new. It’s in my head to send it to that man. I would like to hear [how] a child who is visually impaired perceives this book.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between food and skin color in the book?

A: I don’t necessarily see that relationship. I thought that for visually impaired people you can draw upon other senses and understand the world. For me, it’s more about taking the focus off the eyes and putting more on the body.

Food is just a means by which I communicate that idea. And smell—she talks about…a yummy smell. I also tried to involve feelings of the senses—when she throws the Frisbee back and feels she’s part of something.

Q: What age group would you say is the perfect audience for French Toast?

A: I thought the age was somewhere more like a sophisticated picture book. It could be 5 to about 11 or something like that. My daughter likes it, and she’s 11. She felt it would be something I could read to her class. It’s something teachers have asked me to read to a class in Grade 6. I think also adults would like it.

I was talking to a Critical Race professor at my university. We often say “biracial,” but she likes to say “remixed.” She’s biracial, and her children are mixed yet again. She says “biracial” is almost an older term. She said this kind of book is well needed in the field…

I think about gendered roles a lot. I wrote Gift Days, about a girl not being able to go to school, and When Chickens Fly, about having to lay eggs—it does look at gender.

I like the idea of portraying very strong females and supportive loving male roles as well. I wanted it to be the father who bakes with her, and her grandmother who guides her.

Q: And what would you like readers to take away from the book?

A: I just would love them to have an experience where they felt the experience. I am doing research in body image and embodiment in school settings, and there’s a lot about the body not just representing something, but felt and lived within.

It goes back to the idea of the senses. I would like [readers] to feel hungry, that they can almost taste it and feel it. I wanted to leave them with the resonance of that kind of feeling, and also a feeling of being supported.

Sometimes there’s a difference between teasing and bullying. I always hated being called [a particular nickname] in school until I realized it was [somewhat true] and then I could claim it myself. I was finding my own empowerment.

In the book, Phoebe, by claiming [the nickname], she learns and feels that she can claim it. I don’t think she is going to be bothered by it so much in the future. She describes herself as tea when you’ve added the milk—she’s close to the skin color of French toast.

Q: At what point in the process did you see the illustrations, and what do you see as their contribution to the collaboration?

A: Typically, I didn’t get to see it until the book was done, but I did get to review it [at a late] stage so I could look at the colors. At that time there was only one remark I made, at the time—cinnamon honey was a way different color…You never know what it’s going to look like until it comes out, and color is so important in this book.

The illustrations are amazing—it could be a stagnant story if the illustrations were just plain and realistic. What Francois [Thisdale] does is surrealistic—it almost has a dreamlike feel. It feels like the subconscious.

The cat adds a lot. It shows the emotions. In case a kid is having trouble inferring the feelings, the cat brings that out in its postures…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Right now I’m working on the Bad/Good Pirate series. I finished Better Pirate and I’m working on Best Pirate.

I’m also thinking about a Christmas Clothesline book—people put things on a clothesline and other people take from it. In Canada, they’ll put winter clothes on the community clothesline and families can come and suit up their kids. It’s anonymous. I’m thinking about a book that has to do with that topic.

And there’s my hockey book—I’m trying to convince them to do a baseball book.

I’m also doing academic research on body image in schools. We just think of bodies as vehicles to transport our brains, when a lot of learning is embodied.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The other thing is the language. I tried to touch on language diversity too. Canada is a bilingual nation. I understand French; I have lived in Quebec…I think a lot of Francophone speakers feel marginalized.

I’m trying to look at different kinds of diversity. This book touches on three or four different kinds of diversity—race, the idea of diversity of gender, diversity of ability, and diversity of language. It takes a peek at them, and suggests to people that there are different kinds of diversity.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with David Skuy

David Skuy is the author of Memoirs of a Sidekick, a new novel for kids. His other books for younger readers include Undergrounders and Striker. He is also a lawyer, and he lives in Toronto.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Memoirs of a Sidekick?

A: I guess it started as a Don Quixote idea, but rather than telling it from Don Quixote’s perspective, tell it from Sancho Panza’s perspective. The book really changed and morphed. I probably rewrote it seven times. It took a long time to get a feel for the character.

At first, Boris was more like a caricature. It was “Boris Snodbuckle Saves the World.” The things he did weren’t really connected to school, it was like a bumbling series of events that led to him stopping a war.

He did different things in a different context, and slowly, Boris needed to become a real person. The Adrian character was pretty consistent. He stayed there. There was [always] the sidekick aspect.

Q: So can you say more about the idea of the sidekick?

A: With Don Quixote, Sancho Panza was actually the wise, more insightful one, but doesn’t want the limelight. It doesn’t make him lesser, but it gives you self-evident license to make comments. That’s why I thought that style would work. In Don Quixote it was more snide.

With Adrian, [he first expresses] wide-eyed devotion, and he becomes more self-aware and less of a hero-worshipper. It’s more healthy.

Q: You’ve said you made many changes with this book. Do you usually work that way, or do you know how your books will end before you start writing them?

A: This one was unusual. Usually I’ll write it and revise it a couple of times, and it’s done, and then the editor will do their thing. This was first submitted to a publisher who rejected it, but was helpful…

With Boris, the original idea is that he’s tired of being picked on and wants to show he’s awesome—the Don Quixote idea. I didn’t want Boris to be a joke like Don Quixote.

What if he had a noble cause? Some of the things he had to do for it to be noble—instead of changing the world, he could change the school. It’s that slight change of focus that meant I had to rewrite 90 percent of it!

Q: It isn’t the case with this book, but many of your books deal with sports. How did you end up focusing on sports, and what do you see as the relationship between sports books and reading?

A: I wrote a couple of adult-oriented books that didn’t go anywhere. I went back to the cliché, Write what you know. I grew up reading sports series from the ‘40s and ‘50s, though I’m not that old—American series. I grew up playing hockey, and I knew the genre. Why not modernize it so it’s not so clichéd?

I didn’t even think of them as sports books, but books where the characters play sports. The first series I wrote was a hockey series. Then I wrote a soccer series because I grew up playing soccer.

Undergrounders is about a kid who plays hockey but I don’t think of it as about hockey. I just came up with the idea, and it wasn’t anything to do with sports…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a book coming out in the spring—I’m supposed to get the edits today. It’s a book for middle-grade, slightly older, about a boy at school who’s dealt with life by withdrawing from it so no one picks on him, and how he transforms his own life and the people around him through running.

He’s overweight and self-conscious, and starts to run almost out of desperation. The book is tentatively called Run, but I want to change the title.

The other I worked on is The Band of Merry Kids. Robin Hood and Maid Marian—imagine if they had kids? I wrote it and submitted it, but [was told] kids of famous people are not so interesting, Percy Jackson notwithstanding. They don’t have problems people can relate to, other than you don’t live up to your parents.

I rewrote it so Robin Hood is there [but] the kids are not related to Robin Hood but motivated by the same spirit.

Now I’m working on another book.

Q: Anything else we should know about Memoirs of a Sidekick?

A: I guess for me it’s a book that kids can have fun with….My other books have humor in them but the action is serious. This one is more playful…[Readers] could have fun with it, but could relate to the journey these two characters have in their own lives.

There’s this idea of great stories needing to be retold. Don Quixote is timeless, and so is the idea of two people going out on an adventure, relying on each other, bumbling along—but their spirit comes through.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Q&A with Jonathan W. Stokes

Jonathan W. Stokes is the author of Addison Cooke and the Treasure of the Incas, a new novel for kids. A screenwriter and former teacher, he lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your main character, Addison Cooke?

A: Addison Cooke is basically who I wish I was as a 12 year old! Addison is much more clever than I ever was, and probably ever will be. He is also far braver than I am, and better at coming up with a witty quip under pressure.

I suppose there is a sort of wish-fulfillment in writing dialog for him. I may not be able to sweet talk my way into the first class cabin of an international flight, but I can have Addison do it.
Q: The book focuses on an adventure involving Incan treasure. What kind of research did you need to do and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: The book was pretty thoroughly researched, particularly in the copyedit where everything was fact-checked. I think I most enjoyed learning about the actual history of the lost treasure of the Incas.

The true story is pretty incredible. Francisco Pizarro could have become one of the richest people in the world, but instead he ended up getting himself assassinated. Live by the sword, die by the sword, I suppose.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: Screenwriting is my trade, and we screenwriters are obsessive outliners. As with any mystery story involving an elaborate puzzle, the plot needed to be hammered out in advance. So I'm not sure the novel deviated at all from the book proposal.

I love outlining because you're never faced with a blank page. Once your outline grows to 100 pages, you have a pretty solid road map for writing the novel. 

Q: Can you say more about how your experience as a screenwriter and teacher contribute to your novel writing?

A: Screenwriters have to write page-turners. The second an executive gets bored reading a script, it can end up in the trash, and then you're out of a gig.

This is why screenwriters obsessively study structure, reading every book on dramaturgy and watching movies with a stopwatch. If a script drops momentum, it's always because of a structure issue. So I think screenwriters who turn to writing books have a particular fixation with moving a plot forward.

As for teaching, I think my experience around middle grade kids helped constantly remind me how smart kids really are, and how they understand far more than we adults often assume.

Q: Are you working on a sequel to this book?

A: Yes! The second book in the series, Addison Cooke and the Tomb of the Khan, is written and currently being edited. In it, Addison will tackle a new adventure and readers will learn more about his family's mysterious past and the dark forces that are pursuing the Cookes. This novel is due out in fall of 2017 from Penguin Random House.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thank you for your time, Deborah! I enjoy your blog!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jonah Winter

Jonah Winter is the author of the new children's picture book My Name is James Madison Hemings. Winter's many other books for children include Hillary, Lillian's Right to Vote, and You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?. 

Q: Why did you decide to focus on James Madison Hemings in your latest picture book?

A: Here in America, we tend to whitewash our history, sweeping the more unpleasant parts under the rug – just as we whitewash the atrocities we are still committing. We brainwash our children with the concept of  “American Exceptionalism.”

We teach our children about how great George Washington was – without focusing on the crimes against humanity he committed by enslaving 300 human beings. We teach them about how Thomas Jefferson came up with the radical concept of “All men are created equal,” without focusing on his essential hypocrisy as a man who owned 200 other human beings, ones who certainly weren’t equal.  

We tend not to teach our children about the 400-year-old war on African-Americans that our country continues to wage – through its culture and so-called justice system. We do not teach them about the essential racism that has always been at the core of white America. And yet, for most children of color in this country, that essential racism is just a fact of life.

Empathy is what we need to be teaching our children in America – not “American Exceptionalism.” And in order to experience empathy, you must not avert your gaze from the suffering of others.  

We need to teach American school children the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about our country. By hiding or whitewashing or lying about the more difficult parts of our history and culture in the history books that we present to children, we are stunting their spiritual and intellectual growth. We are creating another generation who will simply perpetuate our problems rather than solve them.  

My goal, as an author, is to cover that material that the American school curriculums, textbooks, and publishers would rather keep hidden – in the hopes that our current generation of children might have at least a couple useful tools (such as knowledge and empathy) for building a more just society. 

The life story of James Madison Hemings, as the son of America’s most celebrated hypocrite, seems to me to be a great starting point for teaching children to see America history for what it truly is, and not just what many white Americans would like it to be. Encouraging children to see Thomas Jefferson through the eyes of his enslaved son seems like a great starting point for teaching empathy.  

Q: Hemings's story includes many complex subjects, including slavery and racism. What age group would you say is the ideal audience for the book, and how did you approach these topics for kids?

A: As the great civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson famously said, “We have to stop telling the lies we tell about who we are.”  

The most important group to whom we must stop lying is children. Children of color don’t have the luxury of being “protected” from the knowledge of American racism. If even one child has to live through something like this, I don’t think it’s asking too much for other children to simply be aware of it.  

As a children’s book author, I believe in broaching, not avoiding, difficult topics that many people believe to be “too difficult” for children – such as racism and white supremacy. And in presenting the topic of slavery to children, I believe it is my duty as an author never to sugarcoat or whitewash this terrible legacy.  

As an author, it is my duty to tell the truth – even when, or perhaps especially when, that truth offends the sensibilities of certain gatekeepers (both inside and outside the publishing industry).  

My interests as an author trying to get heretofore suppressed history into the hands of children… are not always the same as the corporate interests of my publishers. As an author, I am passionate about freedom of speech, about social justice – this is sometimes at odds with the priorities of the publishers, for whom controversy is often viewed as a negative.  

And so it should come as no surprise that it is a struggle for me to get these “difficult” stories published. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told that one of my topics is “too adult,” well…,I’d have a lot of nickels!   

That being said, I could not be more impressed than I am by the courage of my editor, Anne Schwartz, for publishing my book on Madison Hemings. In this era of self-censoring publishers, that takes guts.

There are many picture book biographies on Thomas Jefferson, most of which celebrate him as an inspiring, visionary, brilliant man – a Founding Father, who laid the bedrock upon which our democratic principles are founded.  

If any of these books mention his tragic flaws, they mention them only in passing, as a sort of footnote. You know, “Oh by the way, he wasn’t perfect.” Well, I believe that not only was he not perfect, but that the bedrock he laid down was not one of democracy – but one of hypocrisy.  

America needs to grapple with the fact that one of our most revered Founding Fathers was himself the embodiment of our essential hypocrisy as a country which believes itself to be the greatest country on earth, while in actuality being one of the most unjust countries ever, one that treats its own citizens terribly and bullies the rest of the world.

If a child is old enough to learn about Thomas Jefferson, then that child is old enough to be told the truth about Jefferson – the shameful, inconvenient, and difficult truth. 

And given the fact that the publishing industry has regularly published picture books about this man, and the picture book age group is 5-to-8 years old, then that is the age at which I believe children should be made aware of the more shameful aspects of American history, the ones I cover in this book. Otherwise, they’re just being brainwashed with a pack of propagandistic lies.  
Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you?

A: I read a bunch of books about Monticello and Thomas Jefferson, and I of course read Annette Gordon-Reed’s groundbreaking works about the Hemings family, which was truly eye-opening and horrifying. I had no idea, until I read her books, about the depths of Thomas Jefferson’s psychological and moral problems – or “complexity,” as people more sympathetic to him might put it.  

But the truly eye-opening bit of research I did was at Monticello itself – and the “Slavery Tour” in particular. The tour guide, who inexplicably carried a metal rod in his hand, announced as we were going into the space that had been used for making furniture by Madison and his brother and uncle, “Now we’re going to put the boys to work.”  

He also announced, in answer to a question about Sally Hemings’ and Thomas Jefferson’s relationship, that no questions about the Hemingses were to be asked in the “big house” where Jefferson lived. You could only ask such questions on the special “Slavery Tour” that he was giving of the cabins on Mulberry Row.  

It’s that kind of schizoid and nearly dissociative impulse to keep Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from ever being integrated, that unwillingness to even allow certain questions to be raised “in the big house,”… that perpetuates Jefferson’s own schizoid split down the middle as a hypocrite.  

And this is as American as apple pie. It’s what we do! And it is pathological. This tendency to honor and validate and romanticize the men who not only allowed slavery to become part of the official fabric of America during its founding, but who owned hundreds of enslaved people themselves while constantly talking about the evils of slavery, is our greatest moral failing.  

It is the bedrock upon which all our other moral failings have been built.   (But please, sir, we’re going to have to ask you to leave if you persist in mentioning that here in the big house.)

I was also rather shocked to find that Sally Hemings’ former room in the dungeon-like “dependencies” (built into the ground underneath the “big house” – and out of sight of Jefferson or his esteemed guests) is now being used as a public restroom.

And, the woefully neglected cemetery for enslaved inhabitants of Monticello is located in the middle of the parking lot – without much signage or fanfare. Eye-opening.

Q: You've written many picture book biographies for kids. Are there some figures you've written about who particularly stand out for you?

A: There are things I love with all my heart about America – jazz, for instance. That was created right here in this country – by a man named Jelly Roll Morton. I wrote a book about him, too – because I ALSO like to celebrate the things that are absolutely heart-breakingly beautiful about America.  

And I’ve written books about other jazz heroes of mine – Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, and Josephine Baker. Each one of their stories is so inspirational. They all reveal people who overcame humble and in some instances horrific circumstances to create new kinds of music which still moves and delights countless people worldwide. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am not at liberty to discuss the book I am currently writing! Given the competitive nature of the picture book nonfiction world, we authors have to play with our cards close to the vest – I hope you understand. Suffice it to say, my current project deals with racism more thoroughly than any book I’ve ever written.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I will mention, however, a book of mine coming out in February 2017, called The Secret Project. It is about the invention of the atom bomb – America’s single worst contribution to the world, and the single most evil invention in the history of the world. And yes, this is a picture book with very few words – for very young readers.   

I am tremendously excited that this book, and my Madison Hemings book, have been allowed to exist – and tremendously proud of the editors who demonstrated courage in publishing books on such topics never before dealt with in the picture-book format.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb