Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Author Interview with Chris Mihaly By Suzy Leopold

A Tale of Bales and the Machines and
the Machines That Make Them
by Christy Mihaly; Illustrated by Joe Cepeda
Book birthday: August 14th; Holiday House

Chris' cute smile. 😊
Hip, hip, hayray for fellow GROGger, Chris Mihaly and her new book HEY, HEY, HAY! A TALE OF BALES AND THE MACHINES THAT MAKE THEM. Written by Christy and illustrated by Joe Cepeda this book makes its debut on August 14th. 

Read all about this rhyming picture book ⎯⎯⎯ a tale of a Mom and daughter duo and the process of making hay on their farm. 

Children ages 4-8 are sure to have a better understanding about farm life and how things work. Back matter is included.

Living on the Illinois prairie, there are farm fields surrounding us for miles. Six years ago, our little farmhouse was built on what was once a corn field. Together my husband and I enjoy gardening on the Midwest soil. My roots come from a long line of farmers who farmed on the plains of North Dakota and Minnesota.

My cousins continue to farm the land my great grandparents once farmed. My heart is connected to the earth and all its beauty. So with an appreciation for the land, I am captivated by Chris' book about bales of hay.

Please join me as we have a conversation to learn more about Chris and her latest picture book.

Q1: Chris, tell us about HEY, HEY, HAY! What was the inspiration behind this story? The Vermont Farm Bureau promotes your title on their web site. Tell us more. 

A1: Suzy, I’m so impressed that your sleuthing about my book led you to the Vermont Farm Bureau! I interviewed with a reporter from the Farm Bureau this month. She’s writing an article for their monthly magazine about Vermont writers of children’s books about farming. I had a great time chatting with her about the book.

In HEY, HEY, HAY! I wanted to share with kids the real-life excitement of bringing in a crop from the fields. I figured young kids would be interested in what hay is and how it's made, and also in the big machines that help bring in the hay. It turned out there wasn't a kids' book about hay— who'd have thought it? So, I could fill that gap! (As the director of a state agriculture-in-the-classroom program told me, "Give me accurate farm books—I don't need books about talking cows.").

The initial inspiration for the book came from my own hayfield. The rhythm of the haying machines (mower, rake, tedder, baler) got into my head during haying. I realized that storing all that grass over the winter was, in essence, storing summer, and these words began to run around my mind: "Listen and I'll tell the tale how we store summer in a bale." The book grew from there.

Inside spread: When it's high enough, we mow!

Q2: Share your author history. When did you begin writing for children and how did you know it was something you wanted to do?

A2: I always loved to write but for some reason I didn’t think of writing as a viable career. I went to law school and became an environmental lawyer in San Francisco. I loved the work there (and it involved a great deal of writing!) 

I began thinking about writing for children after I had kids and spent time reading to them in the 1990s. About twenty years ago, I took the Institute of Children’s Literature distance learning course in writing for children. I enjoyed the course and loved the idea of writing for kids—because it was clear to me that raising a generation of readers is our best hope for the future—but my personal writing aspirations didn’t go beyond that for many years. 

Q3: How long did you write until you became published? Can you tell us about the process of finding and signing with and agent/editor?

A3I had been writing for years, but not seriously working toward publication. That changed in 2011 when our family went to live in Spain for a year. My husband had a sabbatical leave and he was invited to teach for a school year at the University of Seville. So we went! My daughter attended a local Spanish school, my husband was teaching, and I took the opportunity to try out writing full-time. I focused on writing for children’s magazines. I returned to some assignments I’d completed for the ICL course all those years earlier, and worked on polishing them. I didn’t have an English language library nearby, but I could research magazine markets and make submissions online (Back then, Highlights was still requiring submissions by mail, so I didn’t send to them).

The cool thing was that living in such unfamiliar surroundings shook loose a lot of fresh writing ideas for me. That year, I published my first piece, a story about a girl who moved to Spain. It was published in an online magazine, an unpaid market. But, a credit! My next piece was an article for one of the Cricket magazines. It was about the Spanish sailors who sailed with Columbus – a topic all the kids in Spain knew about, though I hadn’t.

When we came back to the US in 2012, I resolved to keep this incipient writing career going. I published an essay in a local parenting newspaper, and I continued submitting queries for articles. I also started attending conferences and workshops, and became more active in SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I joined a critique group, which has been the most important step for me in learning how to write and revise. Our online group has been together five years now, and during that time all of us have been published, and some have signed with agents, and we’ve all improved in our writing. I learned to write picture books and also started publishing nonfiction in the school and library market, which I still enjoy. 

In the summer of 2014, I wrote Hey, Hey, Hay!  I sold it in the summer of 2015. About a year after that, I submitted my work to agent Erzsi Deak of Hen & Ink Literary Studio, and she now represents me. 
My hayfield

Q4: Share your love for the beauty of nature. 

A4: I’m not happy if I can’t get out in nature. When we lived in town, I often set off up the hill to take long walks in a large, leafy park. What I loved most about my work in the law was knowing I was making a difference in preserving valuable habitat for wildlife, clean water in the lakes and rivers, and beautiful open space for farms and ranches.

Now that we live out in a rural area (by the hayfield!) I especially love watching the land as the seasons change. In winter, I look for little critter footprints on the blanket of white snow covering the fields and forests. When the sun melts the accumulated snow in the springtime, I love watching the green leaves pop out so suddenly, and listening for the first cheeping of spring peepers (tiny frogs). In summer, I love the songs of the birds, the frogs, and the crickets, the cries of the hawks returning to their nest each year, and the dances of the fireflies in the night. The autumn is spectacular as the leaves turn brilliant red and orange, and the air crisps up and the cycle of the seasons turns again. And there’s nothing like a walk outdoors to get the creative juices flowing, or to get a writer out of a stuck place in a work in progress. It’s always inspiring.


Q5: Do you write every day? Do you experience days when you become stuck and don't know what to write next? Have you ever given up on a book and filed it away? 

A5: I write something every day. I can’t always get to a work in progress, and sometimes what I write is just bad. When I can write a poem in the morning – that always starts the day off right. These days, though, my writing is more likely to be related to promoting my picture book than to be on any new creative project. But I write because writing is what I do.

Often I have a deadline for a work for hire, or for an article that I’ve pitched. I find that deadlines are the best inspiration there is! And I’ve always got more than one writing project on my list. 

How to get through a stuck spot? I actually wrote a GROG post about blasting through writer’s block last year.

Some ideas: get up and move (the old walking cure); read; try a writing prompt unrelated to your stuck project; or some creative (writing-related) procrastination.

And yes, I have many story drafts that are filed away, waiting for me to come back to them (or not).

Q6: Where do you find inspiration and ideas for your manuscripts?

A6: It is cliché, but I find inspiration everywhere – in the news, in things my neighbors say, in things children say, in books I read, in dreams, in songs—inspiration is, like my hayfield, under my nose.

Q7: Do you have ideas in your head at the moment? What is your next project?

A7: I’m writing a cool STEM book under contract for an educational publisher. So I should be concentrating on that right now…

But, yes, there are always new ideas bubbling up, uninvited. I have a couple of picture books on submission (which may mean more revisions in the future); I am revising several more before my agent starts submitting to publishers. I’ve also got a good start on drafting a middle grade nonfiction book about a musical topic. I’m writing some poetry. And I’ve got a list of ideas for new projects that somehow keeps getting longer.

Mom drives the tractor in 
Hey, Hey, Hay!

Q8: Do you have any thoughts on including Back Matter for a fiction book?

A8: I’m a big fan of back matter in all books. I think that relevant factual information, well presented, enhances the reader’s experience of any book, be it a picture book biography, middle grade science fiction, or adult historical fiction. 

Hey, Hey, Hay! is fiction because I invented a narrator to tell the story of how we make hay. But it’s also accurate and informational, and I wanted the book to include factual information about hay. I love that we have a glossary of haymaking terms (like “tedder,” and “baler,” two of the machines used, and “switchel,” the traditional haymakers’ drink). And my editor suggested adding a recipe for switchel, which makes it even more fun. 
Reading to the first grade: An advance copy!

Q9: What are your thoughts about critique partners and critique groups? Do you have any advice for finding writers and sustaining a long-term relationship that encourages learning and growing?

A9: As mentioned above, my online critique group has been a pivotal influence in my writing life. I’ve learned a great deal through reading and critiquing their work, and of course the members of the group have taught me so much through their comments on my work. After five years of working together online through monthly manuscript and critique exchanges, we are more than writing partners, we have become real friends. I’ve met up with several of them at workshops and conferences and on personal travel, and in fact one member, Sue Heavenrich, and I collaborated on a book (more on that later). 

Our group, which we call the First Friday Scribblers, has organized an “unworkshop” at Highlights Foundation, and will be meeting in person for several days of intense writing this summer. We’re planning discussions and presentations and other writerly activities – as well as hanging out and enjoying one another’s in-person company.

Recently I also joined a local critique group of children’s writers. I like meeting face to face, and I enjoy getting to know members of the local writing community as well. In finding a group, my experience is that it’s best not to rush into it – first get to know the people in the group, and their writing, before you commit to joining. But I have also found that pretty much all children’s writers are welcoming, supportive, and sharing.

As to tips for success, I’d say, communication is the key. Be clear about what the rules for your group are. And, be kind. Because the goal of a crit group is to help all the members improve their writing. 

an excellent advocate of Nana's book.
"Such a cutie patootie!" ~Suzy

Q10: Tell us about your previous publications, stories, poems, magazine articles, and educational market?

A10: As I mentioned, I started with magazine work, which was a great way to hone my writing, learn how to work with editors, and write to a publisher’s specifications. I still write for magazines, because I really enjoy it (and they publish what I write—usually within a few months, and they pay). 

The first book I published (in 2016) did not have my name on it. It’s the National Geographic Kids’ Junior Ranger Activity Book. I wrote the words for the games and activities and quizzes, and worked with a team to review photographs, illustrations, and other graphic elements. Since the book tracked a format and used features that NGK had previously developed, the publisher didn’t offer me an author credit. It didn’t bother me, though, since I had such a great experience working with that team, and the book was so much fun to create.

Since then I’ve published a half dozen educational books on topics ranging from “Moose” to “All About Apps” to “Using Math in Fashion.” Each one has been fun to write, and for each one, I’ve learned a ton.

I’m particularly excited about Diet for a Changing Planet: Food for Thought, which I co-wrote with Sue Heavenrich (a fellow GROG member and also a member of my online critique group). This book is aimed at kids in grades 8 to 12; it explains how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions—and also perhaps help relieve world hunger—by changing what we eat. We invite young readers to consume more weeds, invasive species, and insects (which are plentiful and nutritious and don’t require large investments of fossil fuels). Recipes are included. It will be published by Twenty-First Century Books (Lerner) with an official release date of October 1.

I’ve also been writing more poetry recently. I published a nonfiction poem in Highlights magazine (inspired by my time in Spain, again) last year, and this year, two of my poems were included in a poetry anthology, IMPERFECT: Poems about Mistakes: an anthology for middle schoolers. 

Q11: Share something about yourself that very few people know about.

A11: For several years while living in California I owned a Kawasaki motorcycle. I lived in a houseboat in Sausalito, in San Francisco Bay, and on nice days I commuted across the Golden Gate Bridge on my motorcycle. I loved it.
Chris in a canoe.

Chris reading to first graders.

Q12: Where can readers find out more about you?

A12: I’d love to connect with readers out there in the social media universe. Feel free to comment on this post, and …

Please like my Facebook Author Page.
Check out my author website.
You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram, too.

It’s been such a pleasure “talking” with you, Suzy. Hey, Chris! I, too enjoyed our conversation. It's been my pleasure. 

I look forward to reading your picture book, HEY, HEY, HAY! and learning about the summer chore of baling hay shared by mother and daughter. The warm paintings of oil-over-acrylic illustrations by Joe Cepeda, of the mother/daughter team look warm and inviting. 

I can't wait to read the recipe for a mug of switchel.

Natural Living Ideas

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

School Visits with Author/Illustrator Darren Farrell by Tina Cho

Welcome author/illustrator, Darren Farrell to the Grog Blog!

He's the author of Thank You, Octopus; Doug Dennis and the Flyaway Fib; Stop Following Me, Moon!; and his latest, Letter Town.

He recently visited my school in South Korea; he also lives here. So I thought I'd pick his brain on school visits and writing.

Congratulations on his newest picture book, 
Letter Town, which debuted in June, published by Scholastic.

How did you get into writing and illustrating for kids?

When I moved to New York City out of college to work in advertising, I wanted to write one of everything - books, tv shows, children’s books, movies. I was a creative director at a large ad agency and it was my job to brainstorm ideas all day, pitch ideas, hire directors, work with editors and make these little mini-movies - aka tv ads. For me, the leap from making these little concept driven ads to making little concept driven books didn’t seem crazy. I love picture books - nyc is the home of publishing - so I just thought I’d make one. How hard could that be? In actuality, it took me years to make my first book. I had to learn how to write for the young child audience - it helps that my sense of humor is already at that level. I also ended up becoming an artist - which is not something I intended to do. It has been a lovely process of growth and exploration.

Talking about and reading his picture book, Thank you, Octopus.

How has living in Korea influenced your books?

I definitely sprinkle the occasional reference to Korea into my books. But overall, the ideas come from a conceptual space that is anchored in my head. I’m sure our six years and counting in Seoul will always influence my work in subtle ways especially as I attempt middle grade books. Actually I do have a book in the works that I am making the art on Korean paper with Korean ink and brush techniques. And I am working on a book with a Korean author - so I guess Korea is more and more influential.

What is the back story for your new book Letter Town?

I had this idea for a town full of letters and originally pitched as a set of books and a tv show. My book agent wanted to make a “world of” book first and that book became letter town. After finishing the book, I went back into pitching the tv show and next week I’m off to London to meet with some studios. So far lots of people are liking the show concept and I have big hopes and prayers that it will be a special property one day.

Reading Letter Town in my classroom

Regarding school visits, how are international school visits different from U.S. school visits?

School visits are always awesome and pretty much always the same. I LOVE visiting schools. Sharing my books with students is pure joy and I honestly enjoy every minute of my time with students of all ages. The only difference is in the US, my humor comes across a little more clearly. But net-net, reactions are very similar no matter where I am.

Since you work full time at an international school yourself, when do you find time to write and draw?

I either have to wake up early. Or stay up late. Or both. Sometimes I stay at work late. I try to use all or part of my Saturday. I do get to use the whole summer too! When I am in the heat of making the art for a book, I turn into a hermit for a few months and never get to do anything fun or see anyone. I just hunker down and make art :) - it’s VERY time consuming for me.

Drawing for my students, and he added our chicks.
Can you share anything about your next books?

I’ve always got a TON of books going. Ideas that are incubating, some that are done and just need a tweak... a computer full of books in various stages of gestation.

How do you market yourself for school visits in Korea? post cards? cold calls? word of mouth?

When I first came, Penguin Korea promoted me. Now it is all word of mouth. I barely have any time to visit schools because of my job at Dwight School, which relegates author visits to holidays that Dwight has off - and if nobody requests a visit - I just enjoy a day off or work on a new book.

Working on a mural for Letter Town
What programs do you offer in your school visits?

When I visit schools I do anything from art projects to writing projects to talks about brainstorming - and I give plenty of performances of my books.
My students are making their own illustrated letter people to hang on the mural after he read his new book to them.

Thank you, Darren, for allowing me to interview and for visiting my school in Pyeongtaek, South Korea!

You can find Darren at:

**One last thing for Grog readers: 
A prize from the July 4th drawing:

Patricia Nozell wins a copy of Lindsey McDivitt's new book, NATURE'S FRIEND.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Writing Like a Gardener: Staggered Planting for a Continual Manuscript Harvest

by Sue Heavenrich

When I'm planning my garden, I think about how much room there is, what I want to grow, and how much time I have to devote to tending the plants. This involves drawing a rough garden map and a time table noting which vegetables go where, and when to plant the seeds.

I do the same thing with my writing. During January I collect ideas I might want to plant by participating in StoryStorm or other idea-gathering activities. Then it's time to get organized.

As with garden planning, I map out my writing season. How many story ideas can I realistically work on over the next year? Then I create both a digital folder and a paper file folder for each idea I want to explore. That file is where I toss in notes from preliminary research. For example, I check World Catalog to see whether there are books already published on my topic, and how many there are.

Before planting a crop, gardeners check their first frost date. In writing lingo, that's a "hard deadline", a definite harvest-by date. Writers have magazine deadlines, call-for-submission deadlines, or plans for extended leave from the desk. Once you know the deadline for a project, you can count backwards and determine that idea's "planting date".

Gardeners don't plant an entire season's-worth of salad greens all at once. We plant seeds for lettuce and beet greens and spinach every two or three weeks, so some seeds are germinating while others are growing and the oldest are being harvested.

Why not use this same strategy with our manuscripts? Begin with one idea, outline or map the story, and dive into research. Then write. As one gets to the point where it's ready to share with critique partners, plant the seeds for the next writing project. At any one time my writing garden (disguised as a semi-organized desk) has manuscripts at different growth stages: fleshing out the idea; actively researching; writing (flowering); feedback and comments; revising (ripening); and submitting.

Another thing I have learned from gardening: at the end of the season it's time to let the soil recover. That means covering beds with compost and a layer of leaves and letting it rest and restore. How can we do this with our writing? We could head out for regular "artist dates" to refill our creative cups (here are some ideas). Or maybe take a writing vacation - which works for a few days until my fingers itch to start scribbling in my notebook again.

If you're taking a mid-summer "get organized" break, check out this post from earlier this year. Here's another post from a couple years ago that presents more ideas on organizing writing goals.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Lindsey McDivitt, Ageism in Picture Books, and a GIVEAWAY ~ by Patricia Toht

Author Lindsey McDivitt's welcome page on her website sums up the ABCs of a cause that is near and dear to her heart:

As Lindsey says, "I'm passionate about tackling the issue of ageism -- particularly in picture books. Unfortunately (and often unknowingly) we are teaching negative attitudes about older adults to very young children. Kids need realistic and positive images of old. We all do."

According to GeoBase, the estimated life expectancy of a child born in the United States in 2018 is 79.3 years. That's a lot of life! But the American culture is one that places a high value on youth. 

"Negative stereotypes about aging are baked into our culture, and they're harmful to our health and happiness," Lindsey says. "Many books for kids lead them to believe that old = bad or sad. But that is adults socializing them to believe it."

In her own writing, as well as in her blog, "A Is for Aging," Lindsey seeks to promote positive images of growing older. I asked her about her new book, NATURE'S FRIEND: THE GWEN FROSTIC STORY, and her quest to tackle ageism.

PT: Hello, Lindsey, and welcome to the GROG! You are passionate about healthy and positive images of older people in picture books. Do you think the characterizations of aging are improving these days?

LM: I do think it's improved somewhat, particularly with the popularity of picture book biographies perhaps. They often show kids long, satisfying lives and many accomplishments in late life. I love that!

Lindsey's new release, NATURE'S FRIEND, illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen, is the story of renowned nature artist Gwen Frostic.
Gwen suffered a debilitating illness as a child, but turned to nature and art for strength. Her persistence and independent spirit led her to study mechanical drawing and work in a bomber manufacturing plant during World War II. After the war, she started her own stationery company in Michigan and built the business by creating and selling her own linoleum block prints.

PT: Gwen Frostic worked until a few years before her death, one day shy of her 95th birthday. What do you think might have been her secret for a long, fulfilling career?

LM: Since childhood, Gwen refused to take in society's stereotypes telling her how she should live her life. She stayed focused on her goals and pursued them with dedication. So age simply wasn't a reason to stop.

PT: Her specialty was lovely linoleum block prints of nature. Have you ever tried your hand at linocuts or other art media?

LM: I recall trying linocuts way back in junior high school and enjoying them. They require slow, careful work! My main artistic endeavor is creating mobiles from driftwood I collect on the beaches of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.

PT: You've mentioned that you're drawn to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. What do you think attracts you to them?

LM: I believe it's their vastness. There's something about standing on the edge of an enormous body of fresh water. It's awe inspiring, much like the ocean, and gives me a sense of where I am on our beautiful planet. 
Lindsey's photo of Lake Superior

PT: In addition to NATURE'S FRIEND, what books can you recommend that show healthy and realistic examples of aging?

LM: A recent book that I love is HENRI'S SCISSORS by author/illustrator Jeanette Winter. It zeroes in on famous artist Henri Matisse near the very end of his life, when he discovers his art anew and creates some of his most well known works.

Another absolute favorite is HARRY AND WALTER by author Kathy Stinson and illustrator QinLeng. The two main characters are the best of buddies separated by almost eight decades, and this picture book avoids every possible cliche!

Here's a link to five more picture book biographies that highlight older role models -

PT: Thank you, Lindsey! Many happy writing years to you!

As Lindsey says: "Role models matter!" Books that portray vibrant older people who continue to live full lives and pursue their passions are important for young readers. KidLit authors and illustrators can help by being thoughtful in our depictions of aging. 

Find Lindsey's website here and her blog here. On Twitter, her handle is @AisforAging. On Instagram, mcdivittlindsey. Connect on her Facebook page at lindsey.mcdivitt.3.

And now...

** Readers, what's YOUR favorite book with older characters? Comment below for a chance to win a copy of NATURE'S FRIEND! **