Children's & Fantasy/Sci-Fi Books


Ten Picture Books You Should Read in 2016

I’m participating with a lovely group of authors and bloggers in a picture book review schmooze (PCJ Kidlit Faves Blog Party). We are discussing our favorite children’s books of 2016! Each of us has written about one book; my review is below, followed by a list of links to the others’ reviews. You can learn more about the participants at the bottom of this page.

Without further ado…

My favorite picture book of 2016 so far is RETURN. RETURN is the third and final installment of the JOURNEY trilogy of wordless picture books (written and) illustrated by Caldecott honoree Aaron Becker. As with all wordless picture books, the burden is completely on the artwork to tell the tale. And it should come as no surprise that Becker’s wondrous illustrations are more than up to the task.


We follow once again an adventurous girl and her magical red crayon. This time, her father follows her through the magic portal she draws. And this time, their foes brandish a device that negates the magic crayons’ ability to create. Dad and daughter can only flee. Is the solution to their dilemma contained within mysterious petroglyphs they discover?


Audiences can enjoy RETURN without having read its predecessor books. The magnificent artwork is extremely effective at building an alternate world, immersing readers into that world, and conveying a story without using a single word (perhaps the trilogy is itself an homage to petroglyphs). Unconstrained by vocabulary level, RETURN is a marvelous read for kids of any age, while the artwork makes it coffee table-worthy for adults as well.


About the authors/bloggers

Cate Berry is an author, performer, songwriter, and teacher. She’s the author of two original shows, one of which (Dish) was produced at the Long Center for Performing Arts in 2014. Cate’s debut picture book, Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime will be available in Spring 2018 (Balzar + Bray).

Charnaie Gordon, a computer programmer by trade and a Distinguished Toastmaster, is the blogger behind the popular Here Wee Read blog, where you’ll find tips and suggestions for finding the best children’s books, and be inspired to make the most of your read aloud time, however much that is.

Danna Smith is the author of many books for children, including her most recent fiction titles, Swallow the Leader and Arctic White, as well as numerous non-fiction titles, such as Balloon Trees and the forthcoming The Hawk of the Castle: A Story of Medieval Falconry (Candlewick, 2017).

Eileen Manes is a writer, an artist and the blogger behind Pickle Corn Jam, a blog about books and writing for children of all ages. She was recently nominated as a finalist for the SCBWI-Austin Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award, and her current projects include picture books, a middle grade novel and a novel for adults, all in various stages of completion.

Henry L. Herz is the author of numerous books for children, including Mabel and the Queen of DreamsLittle Red Cuttlefish and the forthcoming Dinosaur Pirates (Sterling, 2017). He’s a regular panelist at conventions, including San Diego Comic-Con and WonderCon, and has been a guest blogger on several blogs, including Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) and Angie Karcher’s Rhyming Picture Book Month (RhyPiBoMo).

Karen Santhanam is a writer, an artist, a blogger and host of the popular Storybook Spotlight podcast. Storybook Spotlight is about reading with kids, children’s books and family fun, including interviews with children’s books authors, illustrators, librarians, teachers, preschool folks and friends. She was also recently nominated as a finalist for the SCBWI-Austin Cynthia Leitich Smith Writing Mentor Award.

Kell Andrews writes novels and picture books for children and nonfiction for adults. A little bit of magic helps with both. Her first novel, Deadwood, was published in 2014 and her debut picture book, Mira Forecasts the Future, came out this year (2016, Sterling).

Keyosha Atwater is an avid reader, Instagramer and blogger. When she isn’t reading to her own kiddos or reviewing books on Instagram @weebooklovers, you’ll find her working on her brand new blog, Wee Book Lovers, where she’ll be reviewing even more books and suggesting the best of the best kid-tested, mom-approved books to try with your own family.

Liz Garton Scanlon is the author of numerous beloved books for young people, including the highly-acclaimed, Caldecott-honored picture book, All the World, and her debut novel for middle grade readers, The Great Good Summer. She’s also a poet, a teacher and a frequent, popular presenter at schools, libraries and conferences.

Vanessa Roeder (Nessa Dee) is an illustrator, painter and self-proclaimed crafty mess-maker. She’s worked as a muralist and made art for magazines, children’s books and homes around the world. She’s taught art, writes stories, has been featured in Highlights Magazine and on Apartment Therapy and was the grand prize winner in the Austin SCBWI 2016 portfolio contest.

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Interview with picture book author/illustrator Fred Koehler

Fred Koehler claims he was raised by dolphins in the warm waters off the Florida coast in the Gulf of Mexico. Which would explain why he spends all of his free time fishing, diving, and searching for secluded beaches. He splits his time between a day job in advertising and a nearly full time job as a children’s writer and illustrator.


For what age audience do you write?

I write the stories that come to me, and I let the publishers decide who they’re for. My books range from picture books for 3-5 year-olds all the way up to novels for middle grade readers.

Tell us about your latest book.

SUPER JUMBO continues the story of HOW TO CHEER UP DAD. It’s a tale of a well-intentioned little elephant who, despite his best efforts, can’t seem to save anyone’s day.

Henry: Been there…

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

I hope readers see the value of trying. And trying again. And again. And even if we never get it quite right, that something we did could have a positive impact on someone else.

Henry: Plus, experience is what we get, when we don’t get what we wanted.

What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?

I think ideas are the hardest. A good one is like a gold doubloon in a treasure chest filled with plastic coins. You have to pick up each and every one to examine it and determine which one’s worthy and which ones are only shiny objects.

Henry: Yarrrr, I love a good pirate metaphor, me bucko.

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

We stand in the gap for our readers, kids who have not yet learned to tell their own stories. We are their voices and there can be life and death stakes if we don’t communicate truthfully on their behalf.

Henry: Wow. That gives new meaning to the British expression, mind the gap!

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

I’m leaving next week to backpack across the United Kingdom with just a pack and a camera. I’ll be shooting reference photography for a book I’ll illustrate in the Fall. It’s the type of thing I’d never have given myself permission to do if I weren’t telling someone else’s story.

Henry: Fun! And, tax deduction!

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Stop talking during your critiques. Listen. Listen. Listen. Then go out and be a different writer based on what you learned.

Henry: Good advice, with the implicit bonus advice: join critique groups. We don’t know our own blind spots.

Do you have any favorite quotes?

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” ~ Walt Disney

Henry: Boy: Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead only try to realize the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Boy: There is no spoon.
Neo: There is no spoon?
Boy: Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.

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

I tend to wake up with no alarm at 4:30 in the morning on days that I write. My body just knows that’s when there will be the fewest interruptions.

Henry: Yes, few interruptions, but what about SLEEP!?

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

I wish I could heal the mentally ill and free others from addiction. Because.

Henry: I was expecting something related to children’s books, but that is a lovely thought.

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

Sarah McGuire (because she’s cute), CS Lewis (because he was a prankster), and Hemingway (because we’d go fishing after dinner).

Henry: Friends don’t let friends go fishing drunk. Sarah McGuire is the author of VALIANT (and Fred’s girlfriend – smart man!), C.S. Lewis wrote (among other things) the Narnia series, and if I have to tell you who Ernest Hemingway is well, then, words fail me.

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

Honest politicians. Oh wait, that’s not the kind of answer I was supposed to give, is it? Um… Okay. Dragons.

Henry: The judges rule that “honest politicians” is a valid response. Tell him what he’s won, Bob.

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

I crank up the country music in my pickup truck and drive till the map turns blue.

Henry: You drive into the ocean?

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

“We wish you more stories than stars.” From Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s DAPHNE, WE WISH YOU MORE

Where can readers find your work?

My website – FreddieK.com
Facebook – @superfredd
Twitter – @superfredd
Instagram – Fred_Koehler_

Henry: Thanks for spending time with us, Fred.


Interview with picture book author Julie Falatko

Julie Falatko is the author of Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book), illustrated by Tim Miller (Viking Children’s Books, February 2016); The Society for Underrepresented Animals, illustrated by Charles Santoso (Viking Children’s Books, 2017); and Help Wanted: One Rooster (Viking Children’s Books, 2018). She lives with her family in Maine, where she always checks too many books out of the library.


For what age audience do you write?
I write children’s books, though I’m not sure how to say what age that’s for. I like reading picture books, and I’m not a child anymore…

Henry: Me too!

Tell us about Snappsy.
Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) is about an alligator who is having an ordinary day until the narrator of the book starts making up lies. Hilarity ensues.

Henry: I love books where the story/illustrations contradict the narration. See also Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat.

What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
Well, mostly I hope they laugh. If they laugh, I’m happy. I hope the fact that I just said this doesn’t lead to a string of awkward appearances where the kids are forcing laughter just to keep me happy.

Henry: Right, because elementary school kids are all reading my blog. 🙂

What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
I still have trouble remembering that the great idea in my head might turn into an awful idea when I write it down. And that that’s normal. I really love writing, but sometimes I want to yell at the words: “WHY AREN’T YOU AS AWESOME AS I KNOW YOU CAN BE??!!”

Henry: Darn those uncooperative ideas! Of course, if it was easy, anyone could do it. I’ve found if no inspiration follows a great title or idea, I set it aside for a while and come back to it later.

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
Writing is so magical. It’s amazing to me that an idea I had while making dinner is an actual book that strangers can read. It’s humbling, and a little scary. But when you’re writing you have to forget about that far-away end goal. You just have to get the idea down. As you can tell from my answer to the previous question, I still sometimes struggle with this, but writing is like anything else that requires practice. You work at it, you get better. And sometimes initial ideas and attempts at story are truly terrible, and you need to work at it to make it better.

I guess that’s a long way of saying that writing has taught me the beauty and power of creative tenacity.

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
My local library has been unbelievably supportive of me and my writing. They let me put up a poster, blanket every desk with bookmarks, and plan my launch party for their space. The children’s librarian told me about this adorable 6-year-old girl who was so excited for Snappsy. She’ll hold up one of the bookmarks and say, “I can’t wait for this book!” or point at the poster and talk about how much she’s looking forward to the party. Apparently she always talks about Snappsy during her weekly visits to the library.

The library had a “Noon Year’s Eve” party on New Year’s Eve, and we decided I should read Snappsy. The librarian called the family of the cutest little superfan to let them know.

I read the book to a huge crowd of tiny rowdy revelers, but didn’t see the girl. And then I saw her later. After I’d read.
She’d missed it. She’d missed me reading this book that she was so excited for.

So I pulled her aside and sat in a corner and read it to her and her sister. They sat on either side of me and we had to put our heads close, because the room was so noisy. They laughed at all the right parts. They pointed out things they liked in the illustrations.

It was amazing.

How is it possible a stranger, a child, falls in love with a bookmark, and then I get to read to that real kid? I still don’t understand it. I’m just a normal person. I can’t dance. I am a fair-to-middling cook. I eat too much buttered toast. But I’m so lucky. What a privilege to be able to read something I wrote to a kid who wants to hear it. What a crazy thing. I’m still boggled by it. I am so grateful for this tiny kid. She’s what it’s all about. That one kid loves my book, and that’s all that matters.

Henry: All the feelz!

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Write often, even if what you write seems terrible (especially then). Read a lot, and figure out what makes you like a book. Take your time. Be patient. Work hard.

Henry: Yes. Write and get helpful critiques!

Do you have any favorite quotes?
“To change one’s life: 1. Start immediately, 2. Do it flamboyantly, 3. No exceptions.” –William James

“Be so good they can’t ignore you.” –Steve Martin

“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us, and then stands back to see if we can find them.” –Elizabeth Gilbert

Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write?
My rituals aren’t strange, but they are consistent. I get up early. I drink coffee. I write in silence. I exercise and take the dog for a walk, which is when the words I started working on in the early morning like to get some exercise too. The words get stronger and whisper into my ear, and so I write them down (which confuses the dog, who can’t figure out why we’re stopping). And then I go back home and type those ideas in. But by then it’s 9:30 and my creative window is closing. I really work best in the very early morning hours.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I would like to be able to read books completely just by holding them. If I wanted to. I’m sure I’d want to read books slowly too sometimes. But there are so many books to get to, and I can never read them all fast enough.

Henry: The Vulcan Mind Meld with books!

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
I would have Carter Higgins and Elizabeth Stevens Omlor. They are my support group and critique partners, and if you haven’t heard their names yet, you’ll know them very soon. We all have books coming out in 2017. I talk to them every day but never have them over for dinner. I would also invite Margaret Wise Brown, because you know she’d be a good time.

Henry: Wikipedia helpfully offers: “Margaret Wise Brown (1910 – 1952) was a prolific American writer of children’s books, including the picture books Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny.”
Graphix editor Steve Massesa wearing a Goodnight Moon-inspired t-shirt at San Diego ComicCon.

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
Well. Unicorns are nice. Dragons are pretty great. Everyone loves a good fairy. But we’ve been playing a lot of Dungeons and Dragons in my house lately, and there is this one D&D creature called the Rug of Smothering. It’s a rug. It smothers. And now I am in awe of rugs. I never really thought about rugs before. But apparently some of them are sentient beings who are trying to kill me.

These are my favorite kinds of characters in literature – the ones who aren’t at all what you’d expect.

Henry: Best. Response. Ever.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I like camping and hiking. I like going for runs, and taking my dog for walks. I have four kids and they do all those things with me sometimes. We’re pretty outdoorsy. Though we can be indoorsy too. We play board games and eat Crunch ‘n Munch while lying on the rug. I’m pretty sure our rug is not evil. Pretty sure.

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
Just one more chapter.

Where can readers find your work?
In libraries and bookstores. Smothered by rugs, probably. You can also find her at juliefalatko.com and on Twitter @JulieFalatko.

Henry: Thanks for spending time with us, Julie!

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Interview with picture book author/illustrator Mary Ann Fraser

Mary Ann Fraser is the author/illustrator of over sixty books, fiction and non-fiction, for children of all ages, including TEN MILE DAY (Henry Holt), HEEBIE-JEEBIE JAMBOREE (Boyds Mills Press), and WHERE ARE THE NIGHT ANIMALS (HarperCollins). Her newest picture book just out with Peter Pauper Press is NO YETI YET. A Junior Library Guild Selection, SLJ Best Book of the Year, Book Links Book of the Year, IRA Young Readers Choice Award, and American Booksellers “Pick of the List” count among her honors. When she is not “Cooking Up” stories, she is visiting schools, volunteering for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, or painting a mural somewhere in or around Simi Valley.

I had the pleasure of sitting next to Mary Ann at a children’s book art exhibit book signing in Escondido, CA.


For what age audience do you write?

Tell us about your latest book. NO YETI YET is the story of two brothers who venture out into the snow in search of a yeti, unaware that one is following them.

Henry: It’s a great book. And I’m not biased, even though I too have written a picture book about yetis. They seem to be a thing now, like zombies.

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

Readers will enjoy being in on the joke, as roles reverse and a friendship is formed.

Henry: I enjoyed how the art shows the characters aren’t aware of everything going on. Reminded me of Klassen’s terrific THIS IS NOT MY HAT.

What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?

Perhaps the biggest challenge is that no two projects are the same. Each requires its own form of nurturing.

Henry: Not only is that the biggest challenge, it’s one of the best things about writing picture books!

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

You shouldn’t hold onto first ideas too tightly. They need freedom to grow and evolve, and to do that requires play.

Henry: Murder your darlings. I had trolls and vampires in my yeti story that I had to put a stake through.

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

When researching, I often have the opportunity to go behind the scene, and see places and documents not generally available to the public. I also get to speak to people who are authorities in their areas of interest. For example, personnel at the Golden Spike Historic site took me for a ride along the remnants of the Central Pacific Railroad’s grade and shared documents seldom seen by the public.

Henry: Plus, writing NO YETI YET means your vacation, excuse me “research”, trip to the Himalayas is a tax deduction…

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Decide early on whether this is going to be a hobby or a career. If a career, then take the time to develop your craft. Writing (and illustrating) a picture book is like assembling a complicated puzzle where every piece must fit exactly right to form a satisfying story vision. It is not as easy as it appears. Take writing courses, join a critique group, be open to criticism, and accept that rejection is a vital part of the process.

Henry: All very good advice. Either way, don’t quit your day job. If you like to eat, that is.

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

The yeti. I love the idea that there might be a creature out there that has somehow avoided capture. It begs the idea, what if? And isn’t that what writing is all about?

Henry: Gosh, I did NOT see that coming.

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

I do a lot of painting–on walls, on canvas, on crafts. Gardening is my therapy. There’s nothing like playing in the dirt to get myself regrounded in what’s important. Also, I used to play the hammered dulcimer. Recently I have picked it up again. I love that it requires muscle memory and forces me to get out of my head and just let the music happen. Strangely, I have found that when I have confidence and trust in my hands, the notes come. Hmmm, I think there’s a lesson there.

Henry: I trust these are YOUR walls that you paint on… The hammered dulcimer is a VERY cool instrument. Check out this video.

Where can readers learn more about you and your books?

My website

Henry: Thanks for spending time with us, Mary Ann. This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.

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Interview with picture book author/illustrator Vincent X. Kirsch

Vincent X. Kirsch had always wanted to work in picture books. For three decades, he tried as hard as he could to get a foot in the door. Publishers told him he either needed a published book to get considered at all or that his work was too sophisticated or unusual for picture books.

Mr. Kirsch gave up and enjoyed the successes of his friends who were doing well in picture books. But he never forgot his dream. Then one day, out of the blue, an editor had seen an illustration of his in The New York Times Book Review and asked if he were interested in illustrating picture books.

It only took twenty-four years to get his chance.


For what age audience do you write?

My past books that I have written and illustrated are fiction for first through third grades. I illustrate mostly non-fiction for that same age group.

Tell us about your latest book.

My latest book that I wrote and illustrated is the second in a series with Disney/Hyperion about a friendship between a dinosaur named Freddie and a dragon named Gingersnap. The first book was conceived as a dance piece, a tribute to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The second book was about music and the importance of having music in your life so that you can find your song to sing.

Henry: Having seen both Freddie & Gingersnap books, I can attest to the terrific artwork.


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

Since the song from within the story is published on the inside back cover, I had hoped that the reader would pick up the book and their favorite instrument and play it or just sing it aloud. Not that I want the reader to sing a song that is not their own, but perhaps it might lead them to take the chance to make some music and find their own song.

Henry: I’m not sure you’d want ME singing your song…

What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?

Keeping it simple. I think that I am born to write epic adventures. I have a zillion characters, story lines and messages to convey. I am working very hard to keep it simple and stay focused. It is very difficult. I love to invent characters and adventures. They often take me for a ride rather than letting me quiet them down and take charge.

Henry: I look forward to reading your 300-page epic fantasy picture book.

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

That there are rules and tools. An editor put it very well, she told me that as an artist, I have a whole studio full of art supplies to make whatever I can imagine. Likewise, she pointed out, writers have supplies to bring their stories to life. I must develop my writing tool box. I can draw anything. Writing is a very new adventure for me. I need to learn how to write anything with similar ease.

Henry: I’ve noticed that most author/illustrators start as illustrators, and then add the writing skill. I have this theory (as a writer only) that anyone can become a writer, but not everyone has the eye/hand for artwork.

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

I would not have had the chance to be among the first visitors to be invited to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut after the terrible tragic shooting there. The students had offers from all sorts of celebrities (musicians, sports heroes, superheros, movie stars, etc) to visit them and they got to vote. It was unanimous, they wanted book authors and illustrators. I was lucky enough to be one of those invited.

Henry: Authors: 1, Movie Stars: 0

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Be true. Be new. Be you.
I found that posted on the door of an editor office at Disney/Hyperion and copied it down. It says it all!

Henry: What if one’s a terrible writer? Should one be someone else in that scenario?

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

I like to write on my 11” apple laptop. I like the portable aspect of it.
I usually write at a desk.
I am a “night owl”.
I love to fill three ring folders for each project.
I punch holes with a three-hole perforator into plain sheets of paper to fill the folders.
I listen to music mixes from the “focus” and “mood” categories on Spotify or… I just have Murray Perahia’s album of the complete Mozart Piano Concertos playing all day!
I doodle characters constantly in little Moleskine notebooks.
I could not get along without quite a collection of Pilot Hi-Tec C pens from Japan. (Black 0.4)

Henry: There is this new invention that may interest you. Pre-punched paper. You’re welcome.

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

Write a book series as wonderful as the Moomintroll books. I go looking for it in bookstores wherever I go, and no one has written it yet. Those books of mine might just save some imaginations.

Henry: Moomintroll is the main character in the MOOMIN books by Tove Jansson. Moomintroll lives in the Moominhouse, together with his father Moominpappa and his mother Moominmamma.


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

Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens & Tove Jansson. I would bet they are excellent talkers and I have a lot of questions for each of them.

Henry: Wikipedia helpfully adds, “Tove Marika Jansson (9 August 1914 – 27 June 2001) was a Swedish-speaking Finnish novelist, painter, illustrator and comic strip author. For her contribution as a children’s writer she received the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1966.

Jansson is best known as the author of the Moomin books for children. The first such book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, appeared in 1945, though it was the next two books, Comet in Moominland and Finn Family Moomintroll, published in 1946 and 1948 respectively, that brought her fame.”

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

Wizards. I love magic and I love the idea that such wise, conjuring and knowing persons exist.

Henry: Be careful what you wish for. You might get a Voldemort instead of a Gandalf. “Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien

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

Not listed in in any particular order:
Swim, travel around the world, wander bookstores and libraries, teach my little dog new tricks, cook, read, sketch, build toy theaters, go the theater, work in the theater, create animated tv, games and films, play some music on either a guitar or ukulele.

Henry: Vincent’s dog is named Ogbert.

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?


Henry: Nice. Thanks for spending time with us, Vincent. This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.


Fun at WonderCon 2016

My sons and I made our annual pilgrimage to WonderCon to enjoy great art, revel in geekiness, and meet lots of interesting people. Here’s a samplingWC2016-05

Josh & Harrison outside the LA Convention Center


The BACONNATION food truck. It’s porktastic!


Not to be outdone is the Godzilla-themed MeSoHungry food truck.


Why, yes, I WAS wondering what a Star Trek-cat mashup would look like. Scotty is a Scottish Fold! Chekhov should’ve been a Siberian.


Captain Mexico and Mexican Punisher and a Trump pinata saying “Por ser un pendejo”. Well played, guys.


Harrison as a dwarf barrel-rider from The Hobbit at The OneRing.net booth. He’s got the long hair – just needs a beard and some scale mail.


My sons in front of our books at the Mysterious Galaxy booth.


Josh with a Type-2 Energy Weapon, more commonly known as the Gravity Hammer – a powerful, two-handed melee weapon used by the Jiralhanae in the Covenant Empire. Or so I’m told.


A quick photo prior to our panel. From right to left, authors: Barney Saltzberg, Josh Herz, Harrison Herz, Dan Santat, Bruce Hale, and Lisa Yee. Lisa was not part of our panel, but she is legally required to be present when Dan is in public. 🙂


I secretly brought a furry trapper hat to make a THIS IS NOT MY HAT joke. Little did I suspect that all other four male panelists would be sporting hats. From right to left: Jon Klassen (including priceless expression), Antoinette Portis, Bruce Hale, Dan Santat, Barney Saltzberg, and Henry Herz.


Me looking all moderatory while Bruce Hale answers a question from the audience.


Me looking like the cat that ate the canary because I’m signing books with Jon Klassen, Antoinette Portis, Barney Saltzberg, Dan Santat, and Bruce Hale.


This is Jon Klassen, but THIS IS NOT MY HAT. I’m wearing Bruce Hale’s famous fedora!

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One Word Was Too Big, and One Word Was Too Small

Writing GOOD rhyme is hard. We still have to create an engaging story with endearing characters… in under 500 words! Rhyme also constrains syllable counts and meter. And as with all picture books, word choice must be suitable for young readers. This can lead some authors to end their rhyming picture book (RPB) lines with single-syllable words.

If you view rhyming big words as a chore,
Your new book could end up a big bore.
Instead, if you use big words that add spice,
Most readers will find your book is quite nice.

Now, my meter is off, but I had two goals for that rhyme. The first was to reiterate my thesis. The other was to illustrate my thesis with a counterexample. The lines do rhyme, but the word choice is a bit boring. Multi-syllable words are definitely more challenging to rhyme. But their use adds spice and demonstrates a higher mastery of the craft. Below is a contrasting excerpt from an early draft of my (as yet unpublished) RPB, Never Feed a Yeti Spaghetti, in which monsters misbehave at a party.

vampireThe big night’s arrived, and the vampires knock first;
Unquenchable drinkers, who’re known for their thirst.
These two guests are gracious, and always say ‘please’.
Undying politeness is their expertise.

The multi-syllable “their expertise” adds sophistication and fun. I made sure that the meter matched that of the previous line’s “always say please”. I also worked in puns with “undying” (vampires are undead) and “thirst” (for blood). But perhaps expertise, undying, and unquenchable are a bit of a lexile stretch. And, thirst for blood is probably too dark for a PB. Further, using expertise to describe politeness feels forced. The requirements of rhyme don’t excuse us from the responsibility of remaining aware of whether words serve the story and are suitable for young readers. We must still be willing to murder our darlings, if necessary. Those lines did not make the final cut.

Here is a stanza I kept, which (I hope) demonstrates the desired characteristics of more complex words that add spice to the rhyme.

yetiIt’s dangerous serving a yeti spaghetti.
They toss it around like it’s crimson confetti.
There’s pasta afoot and red sauce on the wall;
A dining fiasco they failed to forestall.


Now, get out there and keep rhyming!

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Meet the Monsters – Ogres


Meet the Monsters is a web series providing background on the mythological creatures featured in MONSTER GOOSE NURSERY RHYMES.



Ogres are featured in mythology and folklore throughout the world. They are large, strong, dimwitted and dangerous humanoids who eat humans. Giants, trolls, and ogres are sometimes represented as the other in fiction. For example, Tolkien refers to the ogre-like creatures in THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS as trolls.

The term ogre has several possible origins. In the Bible, Og is the giant Amorite king of Bashan. The Etruscans worshiped a cannibalistic god Orcus. Greek mythology includes the river god Oiagros, father of Orpheus. A female ogre is called an ogress. Or perhaps real-world Neanderthals, which coexisted with Cro-Magnons, were the original inspiration for ogres.

ogre01 Per the New World Encyclopedia, “Another explanation for the ogre myth is that the ogres represent the remains of the forefather-cult which was ubiquitous in Scandinavia until the introduction of Christianity in the tenth and eleventh centuries. In this cult, the forefathers were worshiped in sacred groves, by altars, or by grave mounds. They believed that after death a person’s spirit continued to live on, or near, the family farm. This particularly applied to the founding-father of the estate, over whose body a large burial mound was constructed.”

Ogres appear in the movies Shrek, in the tabletop games Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and Warhammer, and in the books PUSS IN BOOTS, HOP O’ MY THUMB and, SLEEPING BEAUTY (original version) by Charles Perrault, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA by C.S. Lewis, XANTH by Piers Anthony, THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES by Holly Black & Tony DiTerlizzi, and MONSTER GOOSE NURSERY RHYMES by Henry Herz.

ogre2Puss in Boots before the ogre. Note that one of the platters on the table serves human babies (Illustrated by Gustave Doré).

ogre3Hop-o’-My-Thumb steals the ogre’s seven-league boots. (Illustrated by Gustave Doré.)

ogre4Kwakiutl house pole representing the cannibal ogress Dzonoqwa

ogre5Oni (Japanese ogre)

ogre6The ogre from “Hop-o’-My-Thumb” at Efteling

ogre7The ogress Sanda Muhki represented at Mandalay Hill



Interview with children’s book author Ellen Jackson

Ellen is a former child and current member of the fellowship of flawed persons. She has worked as an elementary school teacher and curriculum specialist in L.A. public schools. She’s a freelance writer and author of more than 60 award-winning books for children.


For what age audience do you write?

I write picture books, both fiction and nonfiction, and sometimes books for older children. I’ve written about astronomy, the solstices, animals, tools, earthquakes, law-related education, the U.S. presidents, and described how children lived 1000 years ago. Six of my books are retold folk tales and five are rhyming picture books.

Henry: Impressive! I love rhyming picture books, but they are HARD to write well. I first learned of Ellen via her book BEASTLY BABIES.

Tell us about your latest book.

My latest book, BEASTLY BABIES, was tremendously fun to write. It’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the zany chaos created by babies–animal babies, that is.

Henry: It’s hard to think of a more cute and kid-friendly topic than baby animals.

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

I mostly hope they laugh and have a good time–and that they enjoy the illustrations. If there’s a message, it’s probably this: When parents are dealing with a nest or pond or den full of babies, hilarity ensues.

Henry: This is particularly true if the parent is a bear and the babies are goslings (MOTHER BRUCE). Or if the parents are birds and the baby is an alligator (FLAP YOUR WINGS).

What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?

It’s different for every book. In nonfiction, it’s taking a difficult concept or complex event and explaining it in simple words. For fiction, it’s devising the right ending. I’m pretty good at beginnings and middles, but endings are hard. You have to tie up all the loose ends in a satisfying, but original, way.

Henry: I find the beginning, middle, and end difficult to write. Other than that, it’s smooth sailing for me.

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

I’ve learned to pay attention to my intuition and try to be as authentic a person as I can be. There’s an inner resonance I’m looking for in my writing. I try to write the book that only I can write.

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

1. I had an opportunity to visit the top of the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico and see the sun come up—a truly awe-inspiring sight.  I was there to research my book LOOKING FOR LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE (about SETI).

2. I got to see a professional musical production of CINDER EDNA, one of my picture books, and watched the cast receive a standing ovation.

3. Most importantly, I’ve received many, many letters and emails from children telling me how much they enjoyed one of my books. That touches my heart more than anything.

Henry: Fun! Of course, we can find extraterrestrials in many picture books.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

This is a very discouraging business. You have to persist through good times and bad (and there will be plenty of those).

Here’s some advice for people who want to write specifically for children:

Try to remember what it was like to be a child. Some of my best ideas come from my memories of how children think.  For example, I recently sold a manuscript based on my childhood take of geographical names.  As a child, I thought that Death Valley was full of skeletons and that Orange County was inhabited by lots of orange people.  I took the core of this idea and expanded it into a picture book.

Henry: Fun. Here’s a sequel idea: Skeletons vs. Orange People. You’re welcome.

Do you have any favorite quotes?

Yes, quite a few. Most are posted on my website:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” –Philo of Alexandria

“First you jump off the cliff, then you sprout wings.” –Libba Bray

“You don’t have to acquiesce to the commodification of art.” –Lucy Grealy

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

You mean like balancing a banana on my nose and reciting the Gettysburg Address backward? No.

Maybe one. I sometimes use my dog as a footrest while I’m writing. She doesn’t seem to mind.

Henry: I am definitely on Team Dog.

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

I’d like to be a time traveler because I’m really curious about what’s going to happen to this torn, deluded, and confused world.

Henry: Fascinating choice. So, you’re a tear open the edge of the gift wrapping on the night before Christmas kind of person? I’m not sure I’d look ahead, but I’d definitely look behind. Just don’t change anything if you travel back in time!

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

Julia Child to do the cooking. Then I’d sit and talk to Will Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf. I’d want to know how they got through the bad times. And how they were able to write such beautiful and insightful works. And I’d want to ask Shakespeare: “Who are you? Really?!”

Henry: No one has ever thought to invite a good cook before. Bravo! They often forget to invite a translator for non-English speaking authors. It would be quite scandalous if Shakespeare said, “You have the wrong man. You should have invited Francis Bacon.”

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

Omigosh, too many to choose from.  But the image that stuck in my head tonight was that of a genie. What does a genie do in that bottle, year after year? Borrring!  And what kind of wishes work out for people, and which ones don’t.

Henry: If you’re a genie, then even a bottle can be the ultimate man-cave, since it can contain anything you want. It’s a fun game to ask yourself, if you could have three wishes, what would you choose (knowing that a genie will try to thwart you if your wording isn’t perfect)?

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

I read, play music, and listen to the silence that frames the notes. Tidepool, look for sharks’ egg cases and little octopusses. Sit quietly on the banks of a stream, reading about plants and animals, stars and galaxies. Hike in the redwoods and canoodle with my schnoodle. Oh, and I still climb trees—when nobody’s looking.

Henry: OK, that’s a picture book idea right there: Canoodle With Your Schnoodle. Hug Your Pug? Jolly Collie on a Somali Trolley? See! Rhyming IS fun.

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

Don’t look for me here. I’ve been cremated!

Henry: Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. I’m not here. So, don’t be nonplussed.

Where can readers find your work?

In bookstores and libraries, I would hope. My web page is at http://www.ellenjackson.net

This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.

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KidLit Creature Week 2016 now open for submissions

KIDLIT CREATURE WEEK is an annual collaboration of children’s book artists. Illustrators may now submit an illustration to our online gallery of monsters, creatures & other imaginary beasts suitable for children’s literature. We’ll be posting the submissions starting in mid-January. It’s fun and it’s free. Be inspired by others’ art. Promote your work by sharing it.

Submit before 1/1/16 an image of any creature you’ve illustrated. It need not have been traditionally published. “Creature” is defined in this context as any sentient being not found in nature, e.g. dragon, ninja rabbit, muppet, talking crayon, elf, and so on. Full details are on the KCW website.

Here is artwork from some of this year’s Guests of Honor:

bowers2 Krispin Blaze by Tim Bowers

florianMostly Monstrous Monsters by Douglas Florian

kirschDragonfleez by Vincent X. Kirsch

klassenTattletale Crab by Jon Klassen
ladenCroctopus by Nina Laden
rexGiant Spider by Adam Rex
reynoldspEr-ick by Peter H. Reynolds