Laura Gehl is the author of the new children's picture book Happy Llamakkah!. Her many other books for kids include One Big Pair of Underwear and Koala Challah. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of llamas celebrating Hanukkah?
A: Like many of my books, including One Big Pair of Underwear and Koala Challah, this book started with the title. At first, I tried writing a Hanukkah story for older kids featuring a human family encountering a llama family while backpacking. That story didn't quite work. But when my critique partners suggested I take the story younger and use the title as a refrain, everything clicked.
Q: What do you think Lydia Nichols's illustrations add to the book?
A: I love the color palette that Lydia used. She took the traditional Hanukkah dark blue and gold, and then she added pastels. It's a great combination of traditional and modern. One of my favorite illustrations is for the verse "Snow cold and white/Window is bright." The little llamas are building a snow llama outside, and the fully-lit menorah is glowing in the window.
Q: How much do you think kids need to know about Hanukkah to appreciate the book?
A: Kids don't need to know anything about Hanukkah to enjoy the story. There is an author's note at the end to explain the history and traditions of the holiday.
Q: You have some other books out this year--can you say something about them?
A: Yes! The fourth book in the Baby Scientist series came out in February: Baby Paleontologist, illustrated by Daniel Wiseman. The book is a first look at paleontology, and we were thrilled that it received a starred review from Kirkus.
In June, my very first early reader came out: Cat Has a Plan, illustrated by Fred Blunt. Learning to read was not easy for my daughter. As a result, I checked out huge numbers of early readers from the library, and bought many more.
I could see how much those books, written in such a thoughtful way to support emerging readers, helped my daughter, and I became determined to try writing in that genre myself. Now Fred and I are working on three more early readers together.
I also had three picture books release over the summer:
The Ninja Club Sleepover, illustrated by Mackenzie Haley, is about a girl named Willa whose best friends don't know she's a werewolf. It is a story about how we all have secrets, or things we're embarrassed about...about how true friends will love us anyway...and about being brave.
Judge Juliette, illustrated by Mari Lobo, is about a girl named Juliette who runs a courtroom in her backyard. The book introduces legal vocabulary in a humorous way.
May Saves the Day, illustrated by Serena Lombardo, is about a girl named May who runs her own business saving people from danger by changing scary words into harmless ones. It is packed with wordplay, which made the story extra fun to write.
(Apparently strong girls was my picture book theme for this summer! Probably not a coincidence that I wrote all those books as my daughter was transforming from the baby of the family into an amazing, confident "big kid" with strong convictions.)
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Like many authors, I'm finding it harder to be creative during the pandemic. Losing my dad this year has also affected me greatly. My stories are usually funny or joyful, and I haven't felt very funny or joyful recently.
But one thing that DOES bring me joy is seeing sketches for some of my books that will be coming out next year. Patricia Metola's sketches for Apple & Magnolia, coming from Walker Books, literally made me cry--but in a good way. And Gareth Lucas' work on Weird Animals, coming from Abrams, is the perfect balance between portraying animals accurately yet in a wholly original way.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I miss connecting with readers in person, but I'm having fun connecting with readers all over the country virtually. I even talked to kids at a school in India last week! If preschool or elementary school teachers would like me to read Happy Llamakkah to their classes, they should feel free to get in touch: email@example.com.
Also--the cover of Happy Llamakkah has shiny blue foil, so it would make a great Hanukkah gift for any little llamas! If you order a copy from an independent bookstore by Nov. 23, I will send your child(ren) a personalized Hanukkah card with llama and Hanukkah stickers and a personalized bookplate. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to give me the address and name(s) for the card.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Laura Gehl.