Friday, February 27, 2015

Chat with Orangutan Houdini Author LAUREL NEME: Writing to Inspire Action -- by Christy Mihaly

Laurel Neme writes about wildlife and endangered species out of passion for animals, and to educate and inspire her readers to action. She recently published her first children’s book.

Laurel travels the world, researching and writing. She contributes to National Geographic online, hosts "The WildLife" podcast, and is author of the 2009 book Animal Investigators about the world's first wildlife forensics lab dedicated to investigating poaching, smuggling and other wildlife crimes. Laurel holds a graduate degree in public policy from the University of Michigan, and a PhD in public and international affairs from Princeton.

In 2014, Bunker Hill published Laurel’s picture book, Orangutan Houdini, about a real-life zoo orangutan, Fu Manchu. This animal loved to escape from his enclosure—and free his orangutan buddies. Once out, the apes frolicked in the trees. It wasn’t about running away; Fu Manchu enjoyed outwitting his keepers. The book tells how he did it – and his reward for his cleverness. 

I caught up with Laurel in Vermont. We talked about writing, wildlife conservation, and making global connections with kids. Excerpts of our conversation follow.

Laurel, thanks for talking with me. I’m excited to share your thoughts with GROG readers. How did you come to write Orangutan Houdini?
In researching my first book, Animal Investigators, about solving crimes against endangered species, I was disheartened by the prevalence of apes in the illegal pet trade. I wrote several articles about orangutans, addressing orangutan biology, how orphans learn to be wild, and threats to the species.

I’ve been fortunate to meet some very special, and devious, orangutan individuals, and the more I get to know them, the more I’m enchanted. I love their intelligence and similarity to humans. They’re problem solvers, like us, and they thrive on challenging themselves. They also have a sense of humor. I heard many stories that showcased their ingenuity, with Fu Manchu just one of many examples.  

Hearing that Fu was awarded honorary membership in the American Association of Locksmiths tickled my funny bone, and I knew kids would enjoy the story too. I contacted Jerry Stones (the zookeeper) and others who knew Fu, and quickly came to realize what a special ape Fu was. What makes the story so powerful is that it’s true.

Yes – truth and humor are a potent combination! How did you first get interested in wildlife and wildlife protection?
For as long as I can remember, I adored animals. Like many young girls, I was obsessed with horses, and spent time after school and on weekends at a local stable. I wanted to be a veterinarian for large animals, like James Herriot, and read his All Creatures Great and Small books voraciously. I also loved Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Doolittle series, and imagined “talking to the animals” like Jane Goodall.

My mom was a science teacher (and later a writer), and we’d watch Jacques Cousteau television specials. I started to dream of traveling to Africa when my parents went to Kenya and Tanzania in the 1970’s. They sent back daily postcards to my sister and me, and I was mesmerized by their photos of lions basking in the sunset under Kilimanjaro.

Now, things have come full circle and my childhood passion has endured.

You were trained in public policy; when did you decide to become a writer?
I became passionate about writing when I saw how vividly words influence actions. South African writer AndrĂ© Brink, a leading voice of dissent against apartheid, was a great inspiration. (Brink died just last week, at the age of 79.)  Brink published essays about writing in a state of siege, describing the writer’s role “as a conscience in the world.” 
Author Andre Brink. Photo by Seamus Kearney, 2007

"The revolution I am involved in as a writer, is a revolution in the conscience of my people. . . .  Indeed, it is a slow process. One can reach one person here, another there; after a long time we may still be only a handful.  But suddenly they [will be] a crowd.”--AndrĂ© Brink

What do you want your writing legacy to be?
I’ve been fortunate to see how my stories affect people and reverberate down the line. About a year after my first book, Animal Investigators, came out, I received an unsolicited email from an investigator with the Brazilian Federal Police. He said, "I've never had the opportunity to really thank you for the book, so I would like you to know it was very inspiring and, in some aspects, helped me in the finalization of ‘JURUPARI,’ our recent operation against illegal logging in the Amazon."  

I contacted him then, and learned that in Operation Jurupari, the Brazilian Federal Police uncovered a massive illegal logging scheme that caused an estimated $500 million in damage to the Amazon rainforest across almost 200 square miles. That’s the size of California or Spain. The list of the more than 90 people arrested read like a "who's who" of the forestry industry and included high-level government officials, business owners and private landowners.

I’ve since become friends with that investigator, and he’s now a leader in wildlife law enforcement. You never know how your words will affect somebody.

After writing regular online National Geographic contributions, and Animal Investigators for adults, what made you want to write for children?
When my son was little, I often told him stories. Sometimes he’d give me characters as a launching point, and other times I’d relate a true story about an animal I knew, like Fu Manchu. I started writing the stories down and sharing them, and found that they are more than fun tales—these stories provide insights into the animal species, and inspire readers to care about what happens to them. And when people care, they’re inspired to protect the animals.

Plus, in writing my articles I often come across interesting or funny nuggets that I can’t help but think would make great books for kids.

What are your hopes for Orangutan Houdini?
I hope children come away with both a smile and a love of orangutans. Orangutans are endangered, and there is a lot we can do to help them. But the first step is to care, and I hope meeting Fu will lead readers to want to help.

A couple months ago, after I did several school visits for Orangutan Houdini, a mom wrote me saying, “thank you for stirring up the hearts and minds of my young children.” A teacher also emailed, telling me that after my visit her students wore orange to raise awareness about the plight of orangutans. I still can’t stop smiling!

How else might kids get involved in wildlife conservation?
There are many things kids and their parents can do to help protect orangutans and other endangered species. Most important is to create awareness. The orange-wearing kids are a great example: simple, yet effective.

Kids can write letters to their local newspapers, or share articles on social media. They also get creative. One girl, Allie Boyer from California, raised awareness when she was just nine years old by creating “Borneo Bob,” a flat cutout of an orangutan that “traveled” from child to child with a letter explaining the plight of orangutans, similar to Flat Stanley.

Kids can also share information through school projects. That’s how it started for Madison Vorva and Rhiannon Tomtishen, two Girl Scouts who garnered national media attention for trying to get the bakers of Girl Scout cookies to change the source of their palm oil, because palm oil plantations are damaging orangutan habitat.

Another key way people can help orangutans is to write to companies that produce the products they use, and ask if the palm oil in them is from deforestation-free sources. That simple act tells companies that their customers care, and it makes a difference

You can also support organizations that help animals. There are many good ones, like Orangutan Outreach and Orangutan Land Trust (for orangutans), David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (for elephants), Animals Asia (for bears) and many, many more. It doesn’t have to be orangutans. Kids can have an impact on whatever might be their passion.

My website has detailed suggestions for actions to help animals. I developed a Teacher’s Guide in collaboration with educators and orangutan scientists. It’s a free download on my author page. In addition to activities for language arts, mathematics, science and social studies, it includes ideas to inspire students to take action to help orangutans or other species.

For readers inspired to pick up Orangutan Houdini, where is it available?
It’s available from the usual booksellers as well as from the publisher, Bunker Hill Publishing. If you want a signed copy, it can be ordered and shipped from my local bookseller, Flying PigBookstore in Shelburne, Vermont.  

Laurel Neme’s Coordinates:
Twitter: @LaurelNeme

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Marx Brothers' Sisters

Marx Brothers’ Sisters by Jan Godown Annino

One of my coffee table book stalwarts is WHY A DUCK?
It’s a jolly look at verbal and visual gems from Grouch, Chico, Harpo & Zeppo. The legendary Marx Brothers.

      Funny gals Hillary Homzie & Kami Kinnard are soul sisters to the Brothers M – in a queue of writers who are gutsy grin spinners. These two visiting with us today weave the silly into stories for children & families. Their fun chapter books & novels are also well regarded. And they are each, educators of children’s authors.

Hillary Homzie


Kami Kinard

Comments pluuzeee…

     As a coda to today’s Q/As with these bizzy & buzzy folks, they would be honored to read a word or a bunch of ‘em about your gleanings from this visit in the comments box below. For example, how might this influence your reading/writing for children? Suggesting chapter book titles/authors who get their giggle on is warmly welcomed & are your other thots.

The Interviews
    With a honk of the bulb horn, A-hoo-ha! off we go. And remember to check out Homzie & Kinard chapter books/novels from your local li-berry or buy them from your friendly nay-bor book source.  Hillary is up first.


     Television surgeon, astronaut, juggler. There is almost nothing that accomplished author Hillary Homzie can’t do – in print, to her characters. The juggling she’s done, but the other stuff? Little fictions of this column. 
Hillary is a tested stage comic, sketch comedy creator/performer (with Sarah Silverman!) & general all around laugh unleasher. Fortunate children’s literature students (moi) hunker with her at the enchanted Hollins University summer program for a variety of class topics (not just humor.) Our lucky Aussie pals can tune into cartoon shows created from her madcap series, ALIEN CLONES IN OUTER SPACE (Children's Book-of-the-Month Best Books for Children & also, Suppertime Entertainment developed the books to become an animated television series. ) She teaches online at Mira Reisburg's Children's Book Academy.
A few LOL book titles for young readers (any genre) by other authors who give you the humor hiccups are….
Hillary Homzie -
The Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker
The Lunch Lady series by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
George and Martha: The Complete Stories by James Marshall
The Minnie and Moo series by Denys Cazet
Humor hummus snacks will be served to a few comics. Who do you invite, living, or gone on to that great stand-up station beyond, & why?
Hillary Homzie -
Robin Williams—Saw him perform before he died, and I was awed at how he captured the excitement of improv into a polished, rehearsed performance. Crazy amazing.
Tina Fey—Yes, I realize she’s not stand-up but sketch, but she’s a funny, insightful writer and nobody does Sarah Palin better.
Anthony Clark—I saw him doing stand-up at the Boston Comedy Club in New York when he was starting out and I laughed so hard I seriously had to run to the bathroom. Love this guy. Plus, he’s from Lynchburg, Virginia, just down the road from Roanoke, where I teach (Hollins University’s children’sliterature and writing summer MFA program.)

Q. It’s raining/pouring, snowing/storming & beginning humor writers have time to read up on craft. Any titles to point us to?
Hillary Homzie
I like Stand up Comedy: The Book and The Comedy Bible each by Judy Carter! During my sketch comedy days in NYC, my troupe, Rubber Feet, used a lot of Carter exercises to generate new material. I highly recommend that anyone who wants to write funny check these books out.

J.G., thanks so much for hosting me here today. (You're most welcome! - jga)
I better get back to revising my (funny) new middle grade, QUEEN OF LIKES, since it’s due to my editor March 1. It will come out January 2016 and I’m super excited about it. But meanwhile, edits are a serious business, even for a comedy person. 
Happy writing and reading everyone!

Group Blog sez: Thank you Hillary (name from the Latin, hilarious = cheerful, merry. No wonder!) It's too soon to share a cover of QUEEN OF LIKES, but it's a great title & we look for it in 2016!!!

Hillary Homzie is the author of the forthcoming middle grade, Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster/M!X). Her  comedic tween novel, The Hot List (Simon & Schuster/M!X)  “captures the angst of young teen friendships and fragile identities,” according to Booklist. It followed her debut novel, Things Are Gonna Get Ugly (Simon & Schuster/M!X).
BONUS link! 
Hillary is a riveting rotating writer (along with Group Blog’s own Laurie J. Edwards) at From The Mixed-Up Files of… Middle-Grade Authors



        U.S. Senator, Carolina low-country cook show host & class guru, Kami Kinard has, like Hillary Homzie, done it all - not! Okeedoke - herding students into educated carbon-based successes is one of her many proven comedic skills. As a super-organized co-creator of wildly popular Kid Lit Summer School, Kinard’s name is revered by reams of attendees (moi) in this free annual online marshmallow roast of a camp.
      Kami creates endearing middle grade characters who trip in band room, crashing into the funny bone, as attested to by Booklist commentary including:

 " ...a rollicking ride through middle-school affairs of the heart. The Boy Project (Scholastic Press)

"...this giddy, giggly book reads like a diary...The Boy Problem (Scholastic Press)

 We interrupt this important intro to bring you a time-sensitive CONTEST:
Enter by Feb. 28 at Kami’s co-founded site, Nerdy Chicks Rule, to WIN!!!
DETAILS -Win What? Kami celebrates her new Curriculum Guides for The Boy Project and The Boy Problem with this giveaway that includes fun book bling and a free Skype visit! 

Enter by February 28!  Here:
       Now, back to our regularly scheduled silly.  

WD columnist Chuck Sambuchino turned to Kami for tips on writing funny in this article. And you can also glimpse Kami’s boffo process at  
Nerdy Chicks Rule (blog shared with Sudipta Bardham Quallen, funny picture book author who Group Blog enjoyed listing here.)

 A few LOL books for young readers (any genre) that give you
the humor hiccups are….

Kami Kinard-
 I think my sense of humor is right there along with the masses when it comes to funny kids’ books.
Some of my favorites are: The Diary of a Wimpy Kid books by Jeff Kinney (I laughed so hard reading one of them that my husband accused me of having the sense of humor of a middle school boy. He wasn’t wrong.)
The Origami Yoda books by Tom Angleberger
The Dork Diary books by Rachel Renee Russell
And, of course, Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey. (I’m not ashamed to say that I think it’s funny almost every time he busts through a billboard.)
It’s tough to find a great humor novel in YA, but Robin Mellon’s Ditched is a fantastic example of one. 

Humor hummus snacks will be served for a few comics. Who do you invite, living

Kami Kinard -
 Definitely Carl Hiaasen. His humor novels for adults are so creatively wacky.
Lorne Michaels. Who’s done a better job of organizing humor over the past few decades?
Jimmy Fallon. I’ve admired him ever since he was a regular cast member on SNL. His growth in the industry has not disappointed! Patricia Routledge (Hyacinth Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances). No one gets into comic character better.
 Erma Bombeck, for teaching me the art of overstatement and satire at an early age.
Amy Poehler and Tina Fey who are both extremely funny writers and actors of comedy. And, of course, the authors of the books mentioned in my answer to the first question!


 It’s raining/pouring, snowing/storming & aspiring humor writers have time to read up on craft. Any titles to point us to?


 Kami Kinard

 I think it is important to read humorous books in the genre you aspire to be published in to get a feel for the rhythm of writing humor. Humor is usually about two things: surprising ideas and timing. If you want to write humor you need to train yourself to think outside of the

box. You also need to train yourself to build beats into your writing the way a stand-up comedian builds in pauses, so studying successful books that accomplish this is crucial. But if you want to read a book that explains the techniques these authors employ, check out Comedy Writing Secrets by Mel Helitzer.


 Kami Kinard is the author of The Boy Problem & The Boy Project, both from Scholastic Press.

BONUS link! Kami’s quotes from that late, great comedy maven, Gilda Radner.

Thank you to today's humor authors & our aspiring humor writers & all Group Blog readers.