Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Monkey Business -interview with debut picture book author KT Johnston

KT with her childhood pet.

What happens when you love animals, writing, and are curious your whole life? You write stories from the heart and share them one true story at a time. That is just what KT Johnston did. 

Her debut picture book, Railway Jack is the true story of the remarkable partnership between a railwayman and a baboon in 1880s South Africa. When Jim Wide lost his legs in an accident, he had to find clever ways to get around and perform his work. He obtained a very unusual, and very smart, helper: a baboon named Jack. But what about a monkey’s monkey business?? Jim pleaded with the authorities at the rail yard to give Jack a chance and they agreed to a test. 

Coming February 2020 Links to preorder can be found at

Welcome to the Grog today, KT.  No more monkeying around. Let's get to the interview.

1. Who is your agent? 

          I have not yet landed an agent. I sent my first query letter about 4 1/2 years ago...and quickly discovered U.S. publishers aren’t terribly interested in literary novella-length historical fiction from debut authors—and therefore, neither are agents. So I just kept going: learning, writing and querying. RAILWAY JACK is the 3rd manuscript I’ve queried (to agents and publishers willing to take submissions directly from authors), and the first to be published.

2. How did you get the idea for your story?

    I follow history-related feeds and one day an article about Jack came across my desk, so to speak. His story sucked me in and spoke to my heart. I started researching it and it’s amazing how clearly a project can form in your head when you’ve found just the right one.

3. What is your favorite part of the story?

    Anthropomorphism can be harmful to properly understanding our natural world and I try to avoid leaving that impression, but I am touched by the deeply reciprocal relationship Jack and Jim appear to have had. That sentiment came through in contemporary articles I found about them—which I hope I have been able to convey to my readers.

4. How long did it take to write? Get to a publisher?

    Like many writers, I juggled writing around a paying job. It took 4 months to research, draft, edit and put a bow on RAILWAY JACK. I sent out 7 queries (3 rejects, 4 “the sound of crickets”) before Capstone and I found each other.

KT's work space.

5. What is your writing routine?

    I don’t have a terribly specific writing routine other than, well, coffee first—and that I like to get started in the coziness of pre-dawn and shut it down for a glass of wine around suppertime. I should say, though, that I rarely have a whole day spanning between the two that I can devote to writing. I don’t limber up with timed sprints or writing prompts, and I don’t set word count targets; I don’t find those sorts of things effective for priming my pump or measuring my progress. I try to clear my mind of distractions by taking care of communications and social media before getting started (and could get better at resisting the urge to check during the day), and I almost always do a little reading after lunch. Are those part of my writing routine? Yes, I suppose I consider them to be. I guess I have more of a routine than I thought!

6. What inspires you to write?

    I am definitely energized when I run across true stories from the past about animals who made a remarkable impact on an everyday human’s life. Not typical animal hero stories, but stories that can be felt as a ripple in society today.

7. What are you working on now?

    I have 4 manuscripts that are currently in motion at different stages, as well as a whiteboard on my wall with many more ideas queued up.

    8. Words of advice for writers:
    Sometimes you should ignore the thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots and just write what desperately wants to come out.

   Thank you, KT for sharing your heartwarming story celebrating service animals. Best wishes with your debut.

KT lives in Minneapolis, where the four-legged members of her family have always been special. She earned a degree in biology and conducted wildlife behavior studies for the U.S. Forest Service in Montana and the research department at the Minnesota Zoo. She also researched and developed materials for the zoo's education department. KT enjoys traveling, whether she's touring a historical site, experiencing a foreign land, or being transported by a good book.

KT's website is     
Twitter: @KTDidz

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

NF Fest by Leslie Colin Tribble

Hooray, today's the day! The day you can sign up for NF Fest coming in February. What's that? You don't know what NF Fest is and why you should be interested? Well, read on then and learn all about it.

Nonfiction Fest

A few years ago, a group of kidlit writers formed a group they named the Nonfiction Chicks. They've been writing and posting on their blog but decided they wanted something more, something big to help other nonfiction writers. Enter NF Fest, a month-long celebration of all things nonfiction, and it starts February 1.

I reached out to a few writers involved with this event and asked them for a couple sentences on why GROG readers should participate in NF Fest. Here's what some of them said:

Nancy Churnin (organizer)
The Nonfiction Chicks, a group of seven children’s book writers, have been working hard to put together a free writing challenge that will introduce you to what you need to know to get started writing non-fiction for kids and to improve your non-fiction writing for kids. You’ll get posts from some of the best in the business, from Jen Bryant to Candace Fleming to Don Tate and Traci Sorrell, addressing everything from different types of non-fiction, to research, sources, illustration, where to get ideas and more. There’ll be activities and prizes for participants that sign up in the Jan. 15-31 registration period. And, did I mention it is free? FREE! FREE! FREE! Plus, you’ll be part of the NFFest Facebook group where you can ask questions, talk and support each other. The NFFest will give you an amazing and unique opportunity to learn and to meet and become part of the greater community of children’s nonfiction book writers.

Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank

I had the privilege of being roommates with Nancy at a retreat, and all I can say is, if she's in, I'm in.

Lisa Amstutz (organizer)
Nonfiction writers won't want to miss NF Fest this February! This free event will feature daily blog posts from publishing professionals along with giveaways and activities for you to try at home. Join the NF Fest Facebook group for more information, networking, and discussion and check out the website at

Amazing Amphibians: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring Frogs, Toads, Salamanders, and More (Young Naturalists)

I've also had the privilege of meeting Lisa at retreats, as well as having done a mentorship with her and again, if she's in, I'm in.

Beth Anderson (presenter)
You know your topic. That’s not enough.
You've good writing skills. That’s not enough.
You have a critique group. Still not enough.
What you really need is the village!
There’s no part of a published book that doesn’t benefit from the shared experiences of the generous kid lit community—considering an idea, researching, getting at the heart, finding the right structure, drafting, revising, submitting, publishing, promoting, sharing with classrooms, creating presentations….The names of all the people who contributed in some way to the creation of a book could fill the endpapers front and back. To have a month of learning focused on the challenges of writing NF for kids is a truly special gift and an opportunity not to be missed! You’ll collect resources, pick up new methods, and gather all sorts of nuggets as you connect with like minded writers and find encouragers. (And some of the authors I’ve been stalking a-hem, following over the last few years are IN THIS GROUP!) I can’t wait!

Beth is the author of, An Inconvenient Alphabet, and the just released, Lizzie Demands a Seat. I met her at a SCBWI event and she's amazing.

Vivian Kirkfield (presenter)
Why should Grog Blog readers sign up for NF Fest? When I decided to write children’s picture books, one of the first things I did (after joining SCBWI) was to sign up for writing challenges. StoryStorm, 12x12, Susanna Hill’s contests…those were the building blocks of my writing journey. And now, even though I have three books that debuted in 2019, another that launches this month, and more coming in 2021 and 2022, I know I still have a lot to learn. Then, along came NF Fest and before you could say - do you want to write nonfiction - I was already registered! Every day for a month, an industry pro will offer expertise on one topic or another that relates to writing nonfiction. I’m honored to be one of the bloggers and will be sharing my thoughts on Creating a True Story When Information is Scarce. But more than the knowledge, participants will enjoy the camaraderie, support, and encouragement that is so very important in this business that is filled with rejection and waiting…and more rejection and waiting. Don’t wait another minute…sign up for NF Fest. And guess what? It’s FREE and there will be PRIZES!

Have you been following Vivian and seen the number of books she's had published in the past year and those coming out in the future? She will have some treasure you can take to heart in your own writing.
Jill Esbaum (presenter)
Any writer who's hooked on nonfiction -- writing it OR reading it -- can't miss Nonfiction Fest. I've seen the list of authors who'll be posting, as well as glimpses of what they'll be sharing. It's an amazing cross-section of talent and a winning combination of education and inspiration! See you there!

We Love Babies!

Jill is a wonderful and prolific writer of picture books in all genres, and just released her latest, We Love Babies! She's a lovely person and incredible author, and you're going to want to hear what she has to say during NF Fest.

Let's face it. February for most of us is a waiting month - the holidays are over, the excitement of a new year has lost its luster, and the weather is awful. Last year in Wyoming the bottom dropped out of the thermometer and we stayed at -20 below zero for weeks. People need something to do indoors at that point, something that will improve the craft of their writing, provide inspiration and give them something to live for until the weather gets better. I think NF Fest fits the bill.

But maybe you don't write nonfiction. Is this still for you? I would say, "ABSOLUTELY!" Craft is craft, whether it be intended for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, humor, whatever. If something gives you inspiration and makes you a better writer, then by all means, be a part of that. And who knows? You might catch the nonfiction bug!

Sign up for NF Fest starts today, January 15 and goes through January 31. See you there!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Book Turns Create Interactive Stories

by Sue Heavenrich

A Book turn is exactly what you think it is: the use of images that require a reader to turn the book as they engage with the story.  If you’ve read Stretch to the Sun: From a Tiny Sprout to the Tallest Tree on Earth (by Carrie A. Pearson; illustrated by Susan Swan) you’ve noticed that as the tree grows it gets taller. To emphasize that, the illustration of the redwood tree requires that you turn the book 90-degrees. What makes this book fun is how readers need to unfold one of the illustrations to capture the height of “the tallest of the tall” in the redwood forest.

Flying Deep (by Michelle Cusolito; illustrated by Nicole Wong) also uses book turns to great advantage. The book takes readers on an adventure down, down, down into the ocean to investigate a site where underwater volcanoes erupted. To give more depth to this journey, the illustration uses the longest spread – again, a 90-degree turn to capture the extent of this journey into the deep and dark unknown. Then, after checking out the ghost crabs and six-foot tall tube worms, and toggling the controls of the well-named Slurp Gun, it’s time to turn the book and return up, up, up to the surface.

But the book that made me pay attention to the whole idea of turning the book is  Hey-Ho, to Mars We'll Go! A Space-Age Version of "The Farmer in the Dell" (by Susan Lendroth; illustrated by Bob Kolar). The artwork on the title page shows a van driving to a rocket on the launch pad. But flip the page and … you’ve got to turn the book. Because rockets are SO tall that we need a vertical view of the gantry. A couple pages later we’re in space and diving through a hatch. Without gravity, the text slides to a corner and you’ve got to turn the book 45-degrees to read it. 
  ... And keep turning the book as we flip to the next page, and the next until the book is completely upside down for a couple spreads.

 Then a 90 degree clockwise turn and …
                  whew! … back to “normal”. Like the space voyage it portrays, this book design defies gravity!

It just so happens that all three books were published by Charlesbridge in 2018, so I was thrilled when Diane Earley, art director at Charlesbridge, agreed to a phone chat about book design. She’s responsible for the design department and has four designers working with her. And she designed Flying Deep and Stretch to the Sun.

The designers work closely with editors. “We discuss how we want the art to look,” says Diane. “Should it be serious or stylized? Whimsical or realistic? A lot depends on whether it is fiction or nonfiction.”

Once an illustrator is chosen, Diane gives them the manuscript pages and lets them have at it. “I let them use their creative brains to sketch out what they want on the page.” For Charlesbridge, publishing children’s books is a collaboration. The illustrator should have a say about what’s on the page.

“We’re a team,” says Diane. In some cases she’ll suggest to the illustrator that they do a vertical spread. Other times the author or editor may suggest that. And the design team is always open to art notes and comments from the illustrator, as those generate conversation.

Creating a vertical spread sounds simple: turn the spread 90-degrees. But which way? In Flying Deep the top of that vertical spread is the left hand edge because you can see that you are diving deep into the ocean. But for Stretch to the Sun, she wanted to use the gate-fold to reveal the tree, so that unfolds on the right side.

As for that trip to Mars … illustrator Bob Kolar remembers working with the creative director, Susan Sherman. “We were talking about space, when Susan mentioned that there was no gravity, and suggested we play with that concept.” As he began to lay out the illustration, the idea of turning the book took hold.

“The lack of gravity is a hard concept for kids to grasp,” Bob said. “Turning the book helps reinforce the idea of no gravity in space.” Bob also loves playing around with end pages. “They are one of my favorite parts of doing a book, so I think about how they could help frame the story.” He does that well with Hey-Ho: the front endpaper shows a view of Mars from Earth; the back shows a view of Earth from Mars. And sandwiched in between is the adventure.

A huge Thank You to Diane Earley and Bob Kolar for answering my questions! You can find out more about Charlesbridge books here and Bob Kolar's books here

Full disclosure: While I do have a book forthcoming from Charlesbridge, that did not play a role in my decision to blog about these books. The truth is, I fell in love with the interactive nature of Hey-Ho and wanted to share my delight. Review copies provided by the publisher.