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Children's & Fantasy/Sci-Fi Books


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Join the 2019 Picture Book Critique Fest!

Want to participate in Picture Book Critique Fest 2019? Do you write or illustrate picture books? This MASSIVE one-time picture book critique giveaway celebration is for you! They have 35 picture book critiques to giveaway!

The vision for this event is to celebrate the critique and revision process and to help build the KidLit community. It is hoped that actual, living, breathing books will be birthed out of this process.

The festival is happening October 3rd-25th. The deadline to enter the raffle will be October 25th 9AM CST. 35 winners will be randomly selected and then “paired with their person” based on information provided on the registration form. Winners will be announced the evening of October 25th on Twitter, Facebook, and on a Picture Book Spotlight blog post.

Want more info on how it all came together and why it’s happening? Go to PBSpotlight.com!

Here are the industry professionals who’ll be providing the critiques:

 


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Interview with author/illustrator/graphic novelist Matt Phelan

Matt Phelan is the illustrator of many books for young readers, including XANDER’S PANDA PARTY by Linda Sue Park, MARILYN’S MONSTER by Michelle Knudsen, and FLORA’S VERY WINDY DAY by Jeanne Birdsall. He is the author/illustrator of the picture books DRUTHERS and PIGNIC, as well as the graphic novels THE STORM IN THE BARN (winner of the Scott O’Dell Award), AROUND THE WORLD, BLUFFTON, the New York Times Bestseller SNOW WHITE, and most recently, IF WENDELL HAD A WALRUS by Lori Mortensen. Matt lives in Pennsylvania.

For what age audience do you write​/illustrate?

I both write and illustrate picture books and middle grade novels (both graphic novels and prose).

Tell us about your latest book.

IF WENDELL HAD A WALRUS by Lori Mortensen is about wishing for a special friend and getting one (but not the one you wished for).

Henry: Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.

What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?

I hope they laugh a lot and also care about the boys in the story. Finding good friends is an important part of life.

What aspect of writing​ or illustrating​ do you find most challenging?

Illustrating a book written by another author is a wonderful challenge. I feel a responsibility to “get” what the author was intending as well as to add something of my own to the mix.

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer​/illustrator​?

No matter how many books you have made, it always feels like the first time.

Henry: That makes sense. You’re creating art, not baking apple pie from a recipe.

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer​/illustrator​?

I really enjoy visiting schools and talking to kids directly about the process of making books. It’s always a pleasure and a privilege. And maybe I’ve inspired a future author or illustrator.

Henry: With great power comes great responsibility.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors​ or illustrators​?

Draw and write as much as possible. There are many factors to breaking into publishing that you cannot control. However, the one thing you have 100% control over is your work. And that is the key to breaking into publishing.

Henry: Hone. Your. Craft.

Do you have any favorite quotes?

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: A plan, and not quite enough time.” — Leonard Bernstein. I have that above the door in my studio.

Henry: That should be the illustrator’s credo. “You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.” — Woodrow Wilson

Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write​/illustrate​?

Is drinking coffee strange? How about a lot of coffee? I tend to stay away from rituals. But I take frequent breaks to play some kind of musical instrument in the studio.

Henry: Coffee is not a strange ritual unless you imbibe it intravenously. 

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

Flying, because it has to be the most fun of the superpowers.

Henry: True, but also fraught will perils. See my interview with Edna Mode on this subject.

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

Jeanne Birdsall (because she’s brilliant and funny), P.G. Wodehouse (same), and Isak Dinesen (because she could tell us all a fantastic story after dinner).

Henry: Wikipedia helpfully offers: Jeanne Birdsall is an American writer of children’s books. She is known mainly for the “Penderwick sisters”, whose third chronicle was published in 2011. The first, which was her debut novel, won the 2005 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse KBE (1881 – 1975) was an English author and one of the most widely read humourists of the 20th century.

Baroness Karen Christenze von Blixen-Finecke (1885 – 1962) was a Danish author. She is best known under her pen names Isak Dinesen, used in English-speaking countries, and Tania Blixen, used in German-speaking countries. 

Blixen is best known for Out of Africa, an account of her life while living in Kenya, and for one of her stories, Babette’s Feast, both of which have been adapted into Academy Award-winning motion pictures.

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

Medusa is a good one. I’ve always like the Minotaur, too. The Greeks were great at mixing a bit of tragedy with their horrors.

Henry: I’ve always been struck by how flawed their gods were.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing​/illustrating​?

Hanging out with my kids.

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

He’s Not Here.

Where can readers find your work?

http://www.mattphelan.com

Henry: Thanks for spending time with us, Matt.


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Interview with author/illustrator Lisa Desimini

Lisa Desimini grew up reading and drawing every chance she got. Her friends and fellow students told her that she should be an artist when she grew up, and Lisa agreed. She graduated from The School of Visual Arts in NYC. Now, she has written and/or illustrated over 35 books for children. She has also illustrated many book jackets for YA and adults novels.

For what age audience do you write​/illustrate​, and in what genre(s)?

My children’s books are for children ages 3-7. Some of my books are for all ages. My favorite genre is fantasy, but I’ve published non-fiction, too. I adore illustrating poetry collections.

Henry: I met Lisa at a book event at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore, where she was signing her new picture book. I was especially surprised and pleased to learn she also illustrated the covers for the Sookie Stackhouse (True Blood) paranormal fantasy novels!

Tell us about your latest book.

My latest book is THE FLEATASTICS. It’s about an acrobatic troupe of fleas that travel from sleeping dog to sleeping dog to put on a show. Sarafleana’s family wants her to be part of their parasite pyramid, but she dreams of having her own act. When someone in the audience says the forbidden “T” word…Sarafleana gets a chance to prove what she can do.

Henry: My agent is right now shopping a narrative nonfiction picture book told by and about fleas. Fascinating little dudes.

What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?

There are two messages in this book. First, it’s important to do what it takes to follow ones dreams. The second message is that no matter what knocks us down, we have to get back up, brush ourselves off and get back on the horse… But I usually don’t set out with a mission for my books to have a message. It just happens sometimes.

Henry: If you’re a flea, you brush yourself off and get back on the cat.

What aspect of writing​ or illustrating​ do you find most challenging?

For me, writing is more challenging. I write something and, at first, I love it. Then I kind of like it, then I’m not sure about it at all, so I put it away for a few days. When I look again, I say, “OK, this has potential!” Then I show a friend and they make me see something I could do to make it better, so I do it and I like it better. Rinse and repeat and then maybe I send it to my editor and maybe it gets published. I don’t have as much back and forth when it comes to illustration because I’ve been making pictures since I was a little kid.

Henry: I certainly agree that critique groups (the external opinion) is absolutely vital to good writing.

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer​/illustrator​?

The powerful lesson I’ve learned is the more research the better! Nowadays, the internet makes it easier to find books, gather information, and see images from different regions. When I was younger I illustrated a book about the Navaho and I thought I did a good job in recreating their hogans, but I got a very sweet letter from the tribe saying they weren’t accurate. I felt terrible. More recently, when I illustrated, SHE SANG PROMISE about a Seminole woman named Betty Mae Jumper, I was thrilled that National Geographic sent my images to the Seminole museum to be approved.

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer​/illustrator​?

The memorable experiences for me are when I do a drawing at the end of all my school visits. They’re not preplanned. I use the students’ ideas, and they never cease to amaze me. When their creativity is lit up, there is an exuberant energy in the room. They might call out instead of raising their hands, bounce around, and get a bit loud, but it’s all worth it to me because when creativity is unleashed, it’s wild. It’s not always about being perfectly behaved.

Henry: I also call out instead of raising my hand.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors​ or illustrators​?

I would tell aspiring authors and illustrators to read as much as you can. Go to the library or bookstore every week–read classics and the latest books. Take a class and join the SCBWI. If kid’s books are truly your passion, you will have the energy and desire to follow the ideas that come to you. Some of my ideas have flowed quickly, but most of my books have taken years to come together and sell.

Henry: The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators has been helpful to many a career. Their website is http://www.scbwi.org.

Do you have any favorite quotes?

My favorite quote: “You must do the things you think you cannot do.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

Henry: I also like “Whether you think you can, or you think you cannot, you are right.”

Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write​/illustrate​?

I like to clean up and organize before I start working on a new project. Then I read a bunch of favorite books. Even if they’re not related to my new project, they get me excited and revved up about stories and the infinite worlds they create.

Henry: Is that preparation or procrastination? 🙂

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

My superpower would be the ability to teleport myself–anytime and anywhere.

Henry: I love it. No time wasted commuting or in traffic. No greenhouse gas emissions.

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

Is it OK if I answer a slightly different question–a dinner with my favorite characters from books instead of authors? I love authors, but Owen Meany, Harry Potter and Pippi Longstocking popped into my mind!! Owen because he is so dearly earnest, Harry because of his bravery, and Pippi because of her adventurous spirit!

Henry: No, it is not OK. This interview is cancelled! Per Wikipedia:

A Prayer for Owen Meany is the seventh novel by American writer John Irving. Published in 1989, it tells the story of John Wheelwright and his best friend Owen Meany growing up together in a small New Hampshire town during the 1950s and 1960s. According to John’s narration, Owen is a remarkable boy in many ways; he believes himself to be God’s instrument and sets out to fulfill the fate he has prophesied for himself.

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

My favorite creature is a centaur. I like that they have the intellect of a human and an animal’s wild nature.

Henry: I like them too. One is featured on the cover of my first book.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing​/illustrating​?

When I’m not writing, I like to be with my husband and our kitty Crash, cook, read, watch movies, be in the garden and do yoga.

Henry: But not all at the same time…Yoga cooking!

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

I plan on being cremated and turned into a tree, so my treestone would say, “She always tried to be better and do better.”

Henry: I’m going to go out on a limb and say the root of that choice is that one must be thick-skinned to be an author.

Where can readers find your work?

You can find my work in bookstores, libraries and on my website: http://www.lisadesimini.com

Henry: Thank you for spending time with us, Lisa!


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At the 2018 Charlotte Huck Children’s Literature Festival

I had a wonderful time at the 2018 Charlotte Huck Children’s Literature Festival. I presented “Using Fiction to Interest Young Readers in Nonfiction”, and got to meet some amazing authors.

With literary agency sister Erin Dealey, author of K IS FOR KINDERGARTEN.

With Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of BOYS OF STEEL.

With Janay Brown, author of IMANI’S MOON.

With Karen Jameson, author of the upcoming MOON BABIES, and Dianne White, author of BLUE ON BLUE.

With Newbery Honoree Kathi Appelt, author of MAYBE A FOX.

With Coretta Scott King Medalist illustrator James Ransome and his equally talented wife author Lesa Cline-Ransome.

Closing session speaker Georgia Heard presented “Seeing the World with a Poet’s Eye.” I loved the following slide that said poets…

  • Observe the small moments around us
  • Find poetry in the ordinary
  • See beauty in the ugly
  • Are curious and filled with wonder
  • Look at the world in a new way
  • Pay attention to and write from all our feelings
  • Love the meaning the sounds of words
  • Give voice to the unspeakable
  • Are empathetic


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California School Librarian Association Conference – Feb 2018

I had a fantastic time at the California School Librarian Association Conference, held in Yosemite, CA.

I was on a picture book panel with fellow authors (l. to r.) Marcia Berneger, Linda Joy Singleton, and Erin Dealey.

Erin moderated, so I introduced her.

As the panel progressed, audience member (and author-illustrator) Ashley Wolff sketched us!

Life imitates art.

My literary agency, East-West Literary was well-represented by fellow authors (l. to r.) Patricia Newman, Erin Dealey, and Gayle Pitman.

Our dinner centerpieces honored SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen.

Got to say hi to Mac.

The next morning, my wife and I went for a walk in the woods. Here’s a pair of trees hugging.

Here is one determined little sapling.

And here I am, bold outdoorsman with a dorky hat.


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Interview with author/illustrator Vanessa Brantley Newton

Vanessa Brantley Newton was born during the Civil Rights movement, and attended school in Newark, NJ. Being part of a diverse, tight-knit community during such turbulent times, Vanessa learned the importance of acceptance and empowerment in shaping a young person’s life. When she read SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats, it was the first time she saw herself in a children’s book. It was a defining moment in her life, and has made her into the artist she is today. As an illustrator, she includes children of all ethnic backgrounds in her stories and artwork. She wants all children to see their unique experiences reflected in the books they read, so they can feel the same sense of empowerment and recognition she experienced as a young reader.

For what age audience do you write?

I create for ages 3-8 for picture books and then 8-12 for middle grade.

Tell us about your latest book.

My latest book is happily called, GRANDMA’S PURSE, written and illustrated by me. It’s been a while. The book is with Random House Publishing and due out in Jan 2018. All about a little girl who finds goodies in her grandmothers purse.

Henry: Grandmas are also known for hiding tissues in their sleeves.

What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?

Simply the love and relationship of grandchild and grandparent, and that we can find out a lot about a person from what they carry with them.

Henry: So true!

What aspect of illustrating and writing do you find most challenging?

It’s always been the sketching for me. Layout out a book is so very frustrating to me. Each time feels like the first, and I approach each book like it’s the first one. Yeah I know I’ve done it a couple of times, LOL!! I really don’t know why, but it’s a little difficult to wrap my head around it. I think that I over-think it too much, and the need to please OTHERS can really rattle me a bit.

As far as writing is concerned, I am dyslexic and it makes it really difficult to come to an empty page and fill it with words. I don’t spell very well and my vocab is very simple, if you will. Not a really deep one, LOL! I have my own way of expressing myself, and as a dyslexic person I have to do it in a way that makes sense to me first. I love to write poems and sing. Music helps me to tell my stories. I also learn through rhyme. Once I get something, it sticks and I am able to use it however I need. This is how most children with dyslexia learn. I really don’t consider myself a writer, but more of a storyteller.

Henry: And a hugger!

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?

That we have to power to tell children stories that can uplift, scare, inspire, provoke empathy, cause them to see their beautiful selves, and to be creative — and that is a pretty power, but even more powerful, NEVER EVER LET ANYONE SPEAK FOR YOU!

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?

Just recently, a book that was pulled by Scholastic called, A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR GEORGE WASHINGTON. Honestly, one of the most painful experiences of my career in children’s books. No one ever wants to be censored or have their book pulled, but this is what happened, and while it was painful, there was so much that I learned from the experience. I found my own voice and my own stories. We often like to give our characters adversity, but we will have none of it in our own very real lives. The fact is, we love adversity and hard times and frustrations put on to our characters. It’s the stuff that good books are made of. But in order to give your character that kind of magic that makes your readers care and feel about the character, you have to sometimes experience your own trials and tribulations as well. How did you come through the very hard stuff? The whole debacle made me turn in and go really deep. While very painful, much like baring a child. Nobody likes the labor pains, but holding the child makes it worth the while, and that is what this book did for me. I doubt that people would have even heard of Vanessa Brantley-Newton if this didn’t take place. Truly what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger for the journey ahead. It’s time to get busy telling children of color and children period, a different type of story. Stories that give them life.

Henry: You persisted!

What advice would you offer aspiring authors and illustrators?

Hone your talent. Really be willing to stretch yourself and put yourself in a real teachable environment. Learn all that you can from watching other illustrators and reading other authors works – people that have made it. What do you love about their creative flow? Compile that information in a notebook or sketch book. Try adding it to your work. I never had the chance to meet Erza Jack Keats, but I was student of his wonderful work. I put it in front of me and tried to copy as much as I could without copying LOL! I studied his line and how he laid out his books. Still studying him today along with Mary Blair and Fiep Westendorp and a host of others. DO YOU! You bring something special to the creative table that nobody else brings! Stop comparing your beautiful self to other people! They can’t do what you do, and you can’t do what they do. We are looking to see what you are going to share with the world.

Do you have any favorite quotes?

“Thoughts become things, so get busy thinking right thoughts and watch what happens.”

Henry: Nice. I like the related: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you work?

I don’t know if this is a really strange ritual, but seriously music and comedy in my office and lots of dancing heightens the frequency and creative flow. Every single day. Live, Love, Laugh!

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

Oh this is one of my favorite questions ever!!!!! Okay I would like the power of Manifestation. The ability to make it so! To think about something and see it manifest before my eyes.

Henry: I’m gonna’ manifest myself some pizza and beer right now.

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

Langston Hughes because he makes me feel. Maya Angelo because she allows me to see me. Ezra Jack Keats because he’d cause me to do both.

Henry: But, I come in a close fourth, right? 🙂

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

Venus because she was love and beauty.

Henry: Congratulations. You are the first author to answer that question with a goddess.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Sing Jazz and cook and laugh, laugh, laugh!

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

Here lies a woman who loved God and loved people and they all felt it.

Henry: Anyone who meets you feels it! 🙂

Where can readers find out more about you and your work?

Vanessabrantleynewton.com

Henry: Thanks for spending time with us. I had the pleasure of meeting Vanessa. She’s a hugger!


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Interview with Picture Book Author/Illustrator Karen Lechelt

Karen Lechelt is a writer, illustrator and artist. She was born in South Korea, raised in New Jersey and currently lives in San Francisco. Most of her stories have animals  wearing pants. Making books is something she finds impossible and impossibly wonderful. I had the opportunity to meet her at this year’s LA Times Festival of Books.

For what age audience do you write? 

Early readers (1-5), picture books

Tell us about your book. 

It’s about a young girl who while playing with her toys imagines asking them one simple question, WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOU? Their responses are sweet, silly and unique.

What DO YOU LOVE ABOUT that book? 

I hope readers and non-readers will begin to think about what it is they love about themselves…obvious I know, but that’s what I’m really hoping for.

Henry: Very nice.

What aspect of writing or illustrating do you find most challenging? 

Finishing a story or an idea is difficult for me. Ideas can come to me rather quickly. But completing the idea and the ending is almost always a struggle for me. I’m not a tidy person, and find it impossible to come up with tidy endings.

Henry: I’m a very tidy person, and it’s still a challenge to come up with tidy endings.

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer/illustrator? 

To never give up on myself. After a hundred rejections and many moments of self doubt, ultimately it was MY voice (both verbal and graphic) that shined through the massive slush piles and landed me a wonderful publisher, agent and editor. I have to believe in myself otherwise no one else will.

Henry: Solid advice. That, and grow a thick skin!

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer? 

I’ve never been a fan of public speaking…actually I used to loathe it.  But since becoming a published author and presenting my book to over 500 students, children and adults, I’ve learned to enjoy the experience. And reading on the children’s stage at the LA Times Festival of Books is something I never expected to do and will NEVER forget. Also getting my picture taken with Jon Klassen AND Mac Barnett at LATFB was a huge treat for this fan.

Henry: I saw you there. Great job!

What advice would you give to aspiring authors or illustrators? 

I’m too much of an imposter to give advice.  But if forced, maybe I’d say no matter what, just enjoy the artful journey of storytelling.

Henry: Good advice. The artistic road is hilly, so enjoy the high points.

Do you have any favorite quotes? 

Not really a quote, but a cartoon by Jack Ziegler. A man walks into a party and thinks to himself “Yipes! Grownups!”. That happens to me almost every day…not the party, just the feeling.

Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you work? 

I don’t, but my dog does. He follows me to my desk, waits for me to turn around in my chair and say “I see you” and then jumps onto the small sofa. If I don’t acknowledge him, he stares through me until I’ve relented. Oh, and I do eat a lot of chocolate, but there’s nothing strange about that.

Henry: “Acknowledge me, hooman! One does not simply work without acknowledging me. It is folly.”

If you could have one superpower, what would it be? 

Having a 10 year old daughter, I have discussed this quite a bit. I would absolutely fly. I love traveling and eating.  So if I could fly I would wake up in the morning and eat bagels in NY, then fly to Paris for a ham baguette and croissant, then I’d go and eat Udon in Japan and end my day in Florence with waffles and gelato.  I’d be a very selfish superhero and happily very plump. If I couldn’t fly I’d maybe like to control the weather. I think I could do a lot of good if I could control the weather.

Henry: If you get too plump, it would affect your aerodynamics. Flying is a lot trickier than it first appears. I wrote a mock interview of Edna Mode, discussing the challenges of flying and other superpowers. 

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

I would love to have Haruki Murakami over for dinner because he is my favorite all-time author. I would want to ask him about the inklings and cats and shadows in his books. I would also love to eat with Mary Blair, although technically she’s not an author, but illustrator.  She illustrated one of my all time favorite picture books, I CAN FLY.  Her color, style and creativity are unrivaled. And lastly I would have Charles Bukowski at the table, because I love his writing, but more importantly, I think he would be horribly fun. Either I’d love him or end up kicking him out.

Henry: Wikipedia helpfully offers:
“Haruki Murakami is a Japanese writer. His books and stories have been bestsellers in Japan as well as internationally, with his work being translated into 50 languages and selling millions of copies outside his native country. The critical acclaim for his fiction and non-fiction has led to numerous awards, in Japan and internationally, including the World Fantasy Award (2006) and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award (2006). His oeuvre received, for example, the Franz Kafka Prize (2006) and the Jerusalem Prize (2009). Murakami’s most notable works include A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), Norwegian Wood (1987), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994–95), Kafka on the Shore (2002), and 1Q84 (2009–10).

Mary Blair, born Mary Robinson, was an American artist who was prominent in producing art and animation for The Walt Disney Company, drawing concept art for such films as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Song of the South and Cinderella. Blair also created character designs for enduring attractions such as Disneyland’s It’s a Small World, the fiesta scene in El Rio del Tiempo in the Mexico pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase, and an enormous mosaic inside Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Several of her illustrated children’s books from the 1950s remain in print, such as I Can Fly by Ruth Krauss. Blair was inducted into the prestigious group of Disney Legends in 1991.

Henry Charles Bukowski was a German-born American poet, novelist, and short story writer. His writing was influenced by the social, cultural, and economic ambience of his home city of Los Angeles. His work addresses the ordinary lives of poor Americans, the act of writing, alcohol, relationships with women, and the drudgery of work. Bukowski wrote thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories and six novels, eventually publishing over 60 books. The FBI kept a file on him as a result of his column, Notes of a Dirty Old Man, in the LA underground newspaper Open City. In 1986 Time called Bukowski a “laureate of American lowlife”.”

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

I like the cats in Murakami’s books because they are delegates from another world. When I read a Murakami story I may be entering a world that I actually feel like I belong to. I believe my dog, Mr. Jones, often tries to lead me down a rabbit hole.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Right now I’m really into painting…and chocolate.

Henry: Chocolate is becoming a theme here…

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

Lived a long happy life.

Where can readers find your work?

Tell them to check their local library! And if they want to buy it they can go to their local book store, Barnes and Noble, Amazon and the like.

Henry: Thanks for spending time with us, Karen.


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Interview with picture book author/illustrator Benson Shum

Benson Shum enjoys creating and telling stories through animation and illustration. He has worked in the animation industry for seventeen years with various studios including, Sony Pictures Imageworks, DHX Media, Rainmaker, Atomic Cartoons, Bardel Entertainment and Sesame Workshop. Benson is also an Animator at the Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios, where he was a part of such films as Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia and Moana. His inspiration comes from his love of children’s book illustrations, and observation of the little things in life. I met Benson at the 2017 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

For what age audience do you write?
I like to write picture books for young readers.  No specific genres. If I find something inspiring, I’ll try to write something about that!

Tell us about your latest book.
My latest book is HOLLY’S DAY AT THE POOL with Disney-Hyperion.  It’s about a little Hippo called Holly, and how she overcomes her fear of the water.

What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
I hope the readers take away that we all can be brave even when we are scared.  We can find the courage within.

Henry: Ah, my LITTLE RED CUTTLEFISH has the same theme.

What aspect of writing or illustrating do you find most challenging?
What I find most challenging when writing or illustrating is when I can’t quite find the story-telling pose for the character, or find the right words to describe a situation. But when you do find it, it’s really satisfying.

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer/illustrator?
That’s a hard one. The most powerful lesson I’ve learned from this book is actually after the book was done and seeing how the kids reacted.  Whether through your illustrations or words, to see how a child reacts or attaches themselves to the characters you create is pretty amazing.

Henry: Yup, that’s the money shot.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors or illustrators?
I would say try to create a story with one drawing. If you can, then you are half way there.  A drawing can say a thousand words.

Henry: I’m only an author. Thanks for nothing, Benson! 🙂

Do you have any favorite quotes?
I heard this quote from my teacher a long time again.  He said KISS – Keep it simple stupid.  I try to apply to my work whether when I’m animating at Disney or writing and illustrating.  I think it’s a great idea! Haha. Simplicity is key.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
If I could have one superpower, it would be to fly!  so I can travel the world! Haha

Henry: Free airfare, and very green!

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
I would love to sit down with JK Rowling, Quentin Blake and Mary Blair.  I probably wouldn’t say anything, as I’ll be super nervous, haha, but would love to hear their story and process.

Henry: Wow, some unusual choices. Wikipedia helpfully offers:

“Sir Quentin Saxby Blake, CBE, FCSD, FRSL, RDI is an English cartoonist, illustrator and children’s writer. He may be known best for illustrating books written by Roald Dahl. For his lasting contribution as a children’s illustrator he won the biennial, international Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2002, the highest recognition available to creators of children’s books. From 1999 to 2001 he was the inaugural British Children’s Laureate. He is a patron of the Association of Illustrators.

Mary Blair, born Mary Robinson, was an American artist who was prominent in producing art and animation for The Walt Disney Company, drawing concept art for such films as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Song of the South and Cinderella. Blair also created character designs for enduring attractions such as Disneyland’s It’s a Small World, the fiesta scene in El Rio del Tiempo in the Mexico pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase, and an enormous mosaic inside Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Several of her illustrated children’s books from the 1950s remain in print, such as I Can Fly by Ruth Krauss. Blair was inducted into the prestigious group of Disney Legends in 1991.”

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
Mermaids would be one my favorite creatures.  The idea of a person and a fish, is pretty incredible.  There is a whole other world in the ocean that we don’t know about and I find that fascinating!

Henry: Mermaids aren’t real!? Thanks for nothing, Benson! 🙂

What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I like to paint, sketch, hang out with friends and watch mindless TV!

Where can readers find your work?
At my website, http://www.bensonshum.com, or on Instagram/Twitter: @bshum79

Henry: Thanks for spending time with us, Benson.


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Fun Times at LA Times Festival of Books 2017

I attended the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Here are photos from that event.

Always a good way to start an event…

I got to meet Karen Lechelt, debut picture book author/illustrator of WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOU? Bonus fact: she has a French Bulldog, so you know she’s cool.

John Rocco introduced me to graphic novelist and picture book illustrator Matt Phelan.

Then John hopped up on stage and worked his magic.

I wandered around the booths, and found the dynamic duo of Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett signing books.

In the audience of the Children’s Stage, I bumped into friend Salina Yoon, author/illustrator of PENGUIN AND PINECONE, and met Jean Reagan, author of HOW TO BABYSIT A GRANDPA.

On stage, we were regaled by a duck hat-wearing David Shannon, author/illustrator of NO, DAVID!

Lee Wind moderated a graphic novel panel with Faith Erin Hicks, Matt Phelan, and Cecil Castellucci.

I wandered some more, and found James Burks, author/illustrator of BIRD & SQUIRREL, Amy Sarig King, author of ME AND MARVIN GARDENS, and Jarrett Krosoczka, author/illustrator of LUNCH LADY at the Once Upon a Storytime booth.

Author/illustrator Jon Klassen and author Mac Barnett read their picture books EXTRA YARN and TRIANGLE to us. Best part: a kid in the audience said “I have THE DAY THE CRAYONS QUIT”, leading Mac to talk about how Drew Daywalt planted the kid in the audience to promote book sales.

Here is the exuberant Megan McDonald, author of the JUDY MOODY series.

This is a life-sized Olivia.

Lastly, we were entertained by the lively Adam Rubin, author of DRAGONS LOVE TACOS, ably assisted by a dragon.


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Interview with children’s book author/illustrator Daniel Kirk

Daniel Kirk has been writing and illustrating children’s books for over twenty-five years. In that time he’s published nearly fifty titles for Abrams Books, Hyperion, Scholastic, Putnam, and Simon and Schuster. His books include the best-selling LIBRARY MOUSE series. He lives in New Jersey, a short train ride from New York City.

For what age audience do you write?

For the most part I make picture books for young readers, and have made a few stabs into the realm of chapter books and young adult fantasy novels. But mostly I’m known for my picture books! My characters tend to be talking animals, though some of my more popular titles are about vehicles. Apparently people like the way I draw shiny metal things with wheels, but I prefer painting four-legged creatures.

Henry: As a picture book author myself, I’m amazed at people who can write picture books AND young adult novels. They are such different art forms.

Tell us about your latest book.

My new picture book is called RHINO IN THE HOUSE, and it is my first non-fiction title I’ve both written and illustrated. It tells the story of Anna Merz, an Englishwoman who moved to Kenya in 1976 to found a rhino sanctuary. She’d intended to retire there, but when she got to Kenya and saw how so many animals were threatened by hunting and poaching, she decided to do something about it. Anna had a fence built around thousands of acres of land, and arranged for rhinos in danger to be brought to her sanctuary. It wasn’t long before she discovered a baby rhino calf that had been abandoned by its mother. Anna named the calf Samia. My book is about the relationship between the woman and the rhino as she raised the calf to adulthood, and some of the challenges the two of them encountered along the way.

It’s a sweet story about Anna’s devotion to Samia, as well as a tribute to a woman who learned many things about rhinos that nobody had ever bothered to learn before.

What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?

These days there are many endangered animals on the brink of extinction, and I hope that by sharing the story of Anna and Samia, I can encourage kids to understand that when they grow up, they have the power make a difference too. I want to reinforce the fact that endangered animals matter, and that there’s still hope for making our world a better place. As part of my research for this book I went to Lewa Downs in Kenya to see where Anna and Samia had lived. I’d like children to understand how important travel is to understanding the world we live in. At the back of the book I’ve devoted some space to sharing pictures and sketches of other animals I got to see on the range in Africa.

What aspect of writing or illustrating do you find most challenging?

I love coming up with ideas and developing them into stories. The challenges are in keeping it all as simple as possible, and keeping it fresh for myself as well as the reader. It can take months, or even years, to come up with appropriate endings for stories, find the right voice for characters, and figuring out what you DON’T have to say to still get across your ideas. People are always surprised to hear that picture books are not written in about the time it takes to read them. They look so simple! But of course, making things appear simple, even when they’re complicated, is very important.

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being an author/illustrator?

Patience! I’m continually reminded that my first ideas aren’t always my best, and that nothing gets accomplished without a lot of effort and attention to detail. My brain and my hands never seem to work fast enough, and everything takes longer than I’d like. Sometimes it feels like there isn’t enough time to accomplish all the things I want to do. But slow, baby steps are the only way to really get things done!

Henry: Exactly. Patience and persistence.

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?

Part of my mind is always tuned into finding inspiration in what happens around me. I hear and see things in the most common and ordinary situations that I wouldn’t have noticed if I weren’t making books. I guess you could call that “writer’s radar”. Certainly I’ve had lots of opportunity to travel and meet people as a writer that I wouldn’t have had if I had some other occupation, but in answer to your question, the biggest thing is the awareness that comes in every waking moment when you don’t just see the events of the day, but you see the way people and things are connected, and ordinary events teach us things about life. This is often how stories get their start!

What advice would you give to aspiring authors/illustrators?

Whatever you do with your writing, always do it foremost for the love of creating and sharing. Creativity has its own rewards, and those rewards are limitless.

Don’t box yourself in with too many self-imposed limits. Try writing in different styles and genres until you find your own voice and the things that you’re passionate about. Try not to look too much at other people’s work or you’ll be distracted from the quiet voices inside your own head. Don’t compare yourself and your successes or failures with other people. These are things that will throw you off balance and just make you feel insecure.

And remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Creativity is a journey—sort of like life in general!

Henry: And don’t quit your day job. Writing picture books is not a path to fame and fortune.

Do you have any favorite quotes?

I like a lot of zen snippets like “Chop wood, carry water”, and “first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is”. They combine the mundane with eternal verities in an appealing way. Here’s another–“The one who is good at shooting does not hit the center of the target”. I try to remember these when I find myself struggling too hard for perfection in my work!

Henry: “Perfect is the enemy of good enough.”

Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you work?

When I was a little kid I did most of my arts and crafts stuff either in front of the TV or sitting at the kitchen table. I’d say about half of my creative time today is spent working at the kitchen table. There’s a lot of sunlight, and constant access to snacks. And my laptop functions as an entertainment unit, where I get music to work by, or a series on Netflix to listen to while I draw. I don’t know if that constitutes a ritual, or anything strange, but I’m not the kind of guy who likes putting on a suit and tie and sitting at a desk to get my work done. To me, that would be strange!

Henry: You had me at snacks.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

I’d be the guy who could slow down time. To everybody else I’d look like a hummingbird, but I’d really be getting things done. I guess there’s already a superhero like that, The Flash, so I’d be like him. Except without the red costume.

Henry: But, then you’d have to be even MORE patient!

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

I’m kind of shy, so I don’t know about having them over for dinner. But I can imagine randomly bumping into some of my favorite deceased authors. The writer and artist James Flora was a big inspiration to me—even though our work is nothing alike. We both grew up in Ohio. So in my fantasy scenario I’m sitting next to him on a flight to Columbus, and I work up my courage to introduce myself as a fan. Then we discuss media and changing styles, among other things. Tove Jansson is one of my favorite author/illustrators, she created the Moomin books. I can imagine I bump into her on the ferry from Sweden to Finland and we might chat about the mischievous Little My. I love the Frog and Toad books, and actually, anything created by Arnold Lobel. I imagine I’m waiting for the subway train in Brooklyn, when I spot him on the platform. I’d have to ask him what he thinks Owl Tear tea would taste like!

Henry: I imagine Owl Tear tea tastes like disappointment.

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

Mythological creatures tend to be dangerous, and danger isn’t really my thing…but I can’t help being curious about Sirens, as I’ve always tried to imagine the song they sing to lure sailors to their demise. Is it the melody? The lyrics? The singing voice? I’d love to hear a short, non-fatal sample to help me figure that one out.

Henry: It’s the sirens’ dance moves…

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I love to write and illustrate books but my great passion is music. I’m in a couple of bands, singing and playing guitar, and I love harmonies and rhythm and playing with other like-minded people. Making books is good creative fun but tends to be solitary. When I write songs that’s solitary, too, but making music together is one of life’s greatest pleasures for me.

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

When my time is up on this planet, I plan to have my ashes tossed into the wind over some lovely vista. No tombstone. The memories of my friends and loved ones will keep me going for a while, and if anybody finds my books in used book stores and likes what they see and read, that’s enough eternity for me.

Henry: Indeed, books are authors’ tombstones.

Where can readers find your work?

Well I certainly hope in new and used book stores, on Amazon and Ebay, and of course, in libraries. My website is danielkirk.com, and you can get a decent glimpse of what I do by checking me out online. I’ve also got a bunch of short videos that I just put up on Youtube for my new book, “Rhino in the House”!

Henry: Thanks for visiting with us, Daniel.