Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Wolves, and Cats, and Elephants--Oh My! An Interview with Sarah Kurpiel--Giveaway

by Janie Reinart

Welcome the creative and charming author/illustrator, Sarah Kurpiel to the GROG.  

Hello, Sarah. 

Congratulations on your new book baby! Our readers will love finding out how Elephant over comes stage fright and gains confidence. Sarah is generously raffling a copy of her new book, ELEPHANT’S BIG SOLO to one lucky reader! (U.S. only)

1. Who is your agent? 

My co-agents are Allie Levick and Rebecca Sherman at Writers House. They’re both so knowledgeable and enthusiastic. I feel lucky to have two such amazing people in my corner.


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

It all started with a single line: “Elephant had a way of standing out, even when she’d rather not.” I can’t explain why, but I got really emotional about that line. I read it aloud to myself over and over. Then, the story poured out of me–a very rough draft, at least! ELEPHANT’S BIG SOLO is about an anxious, music-loving elephant pressured to perform a solo on stage. Over time, with editorial guidance from my agents and the book’s editor, the story changed quite a bit. But that first line has always remained the same. What I hope kids take from the story is that there’s more than one way to shine.

3. What is your favorite part of the story?

My favorite page of ELEPHANT’S BIG SOLO is a close-up of Elephant playing her French horn with her eyes closed. It’s just her and her music, alone. It’s a little bit sad but really peaceful too. That’s the thing about some forms of anxiety: it can feel so peaceful to not be seen, but it also means you’re alone. It’s a curious mix of feelings. It can be tough to be nervous, especially when you’re a kid trying lots of things for the first time. I think that’s why that page has always resonated with me. I hope it will resonate with kids too.


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

I wrote a very rough first draft of ELEPHANT’S BIG SOLO one evening in July 2020 and thumbnailed the story shortly after. I revised for about a month with the help of my agents, who then sent the manuscript and thumbnails over to Martha Mihalick, the wonderful editor of my first two books (LONE WOLF and ORIGINAL CAT, COPY CAT). Fortunately, Martha accepted the story, so I got straight to work sketching out the full dummy. Although the story came together quickly, the ideas and main character had been fermenting in the back of my mind for more than a year. I knew for a long time, for example, that I wanted to make a story about an elephant one day. I love drawing elephants. They’re my favorite animal and always have been. I once drew a picture of an elephant playing a French horn (I liked the way the French horn curled like an elephant’s trunk) and wrote an unfinished story about an indecisive elephant trying to pick one instrument to learn. Those later served as inspiration for ELEPHANT’S BIG SOLO. Looking back, the story had been dancing around in my mind long before I wrote the first draft.


5. What is your writing routine?

I don’t write regularly, but I do draw regularly, which I consider an important part of my routine. When I’m itching to start a new story, I usually begin by mining my past doodles for ideas. I love to draw without a plan and without any expectations. It feels like meditation to me. Then, especially in January during Tara Lazar’s awesome Storystorm, I’ll look back at my doodles and ask myself questions like, What do I naturally draw again and again? Could I draw this character a hundred times and never get tired of it? Does this picture have a story? Once I have a loose concept or a very rough draft, I jump straight into thumbnailing because I don’t like to get bogged down by exact words at this stage. Other than designing characters, thumbnailing is my favorite part of the process. It’s so fun to explore layouts and page turns. It also helps me decide if I’m really ready to commit to a story or not. Without fail, new ideas emerge while thumbnailing, which is another reason why I usually leave the exact words until later. Then, I write the manuscript, which is a slow process for me. If I can write outside on a warm summer day, that’s my ideal writing environment. But we can’t control the weather (unfortunately).

6. What is your favorite writing craft book?

That’s a great question! It’s not exactly a “writing craft” book per se, but I recently read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. I’m a big fan of graphic narratives, and this book helps me think deeper about how words and pictures can work together to make a story sing.


7. What inspires you to write?

Doodling, nature, animals, my funny pets, outer space, the ocean, kids being regular kids, summer, the arctic, StoryStorm, big wide-open spaces, creative books by talented authors and illustrators, webinars (12x12 webinars always put me in a creative mood), and so much more.

8. What are you working on now?

I’m working on a lyrical picture book that’s different from anything I’ve made before. It’s based around a special event that took place in my hometown when I was growing up. I’m excited to share this story with kids one day. I’m also playing around with a funny picture book about a grumpy bird. I’m not yet sure if this story will pan out in the end; not every story does. But it sure is fun exploring this silly character’s antics!

9. Words of advice for writers. 

Read lots of picture books. Read your favorites again and again. Then, write the story only you can write. (I keep that quote on my desk.) And join a critique group if you can. Sharing my WIPs with a small group of trusted authors/illustrators each month has given me the extra push I need to keep drafting and revising.


Sarah, thank you for the delightful interview and sharing your thoughts and creative process with us. Readers don't forget to sign up for the chance to win a copy of ELEPHANT'S BIG SOLO.

Sarah Kurpiel is a librarian by day and self-taught picture book author/illustrator by night and weekend. Her stories are inspired by animals, nature, and everyday life. Sarah hopes her work brings a bit of happiness into the worldand a bit of disability representation too. She uses a power wheelchair and considers her disability an important part of her identity.




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Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Battle of the Books Review and Craft Chat with Melanie Ellsworth by Kathy Halsey

Book Review: Battle of the Books

As a former school librarian, my idea of a “Battle of the Books” was a book-based quiz  competition with student teams. (think spelling bee only cooler.) Imagine my surprise to learn BATTLE OF THE BOOKS is also a delightful picture book with anthropomorphized books who aspire to be the coveted bedtime story. 

This clever tale by Melanie Ellsworth, illustrated by James Rey Sanchez, introduces the idea of book genres: poetry, joke, pirate, humor, pop-up, dinosaur in a magical way. Illustrator Sanchez gives them distinct personalities and author Ellsworth adds extra punch with definitive dialogue for each book character/type. As the books fight to be read, the pushy pirate book is forced to walk the plank. But, below lurks a shark under the bed. The books rally to help Pirate in their own unique ways, only to find that no one can beat Grammie with her beloved childhood favorite. Who will win the day? A satisfying ending makes every book the winner.

BATTLE OF THE BOOKS (little bee books) launched yesterday for children ages 4-8, but parents, librarians, and teachers will enjoy sharing this book that celebrates teamwork and the love of reading. 

Craft Chat with Melanie

Kathy: The book characters are such fun. How did you come up with the personalities and make them distinctive? Did any characters you brainstormed in earlier drafts get cut? Why?


Melanie: Thank you, Kathy! I had lots of fun thinking about popular picture book genres and character types that kids see so often - dinosaurs, pirates, poetry, fantasy/fairy tale, humor, and space - and then imagining those books coming alive and embodying those characteristics. Dinosaur Book has great bravado, but its feelings are easily hurt by the overly confident Pirate Book (who secretly has a sensitive side); Space Book is over-the-top enthusiastic; Pop-up Book is a bit snooty about its design awards; and Poem Book wants to help everyone understand their feelings and come together as a community. Much of the book is dialogue, so I was able to use fun pirate expressions and space terminology to distinguish those characters, and Poem book only speaks in rhyme (a suggestion from editor Courtney Fahy). The editorial and art teams chose to use different fonts that match the characters’ personalities, which also helps set them apart.


Some characters evolved into others in the writing process; Dragon Book became Dinosaur Book, and Castle Book turned into Pirate Book, which made the dialogue funnier and the character more appealing to illustrate. (I love how James gave Pirate Book an eyepatch!) Comic Book became Joke Book after the illustration process started, in part because James chose to illustrate it with a microphone, like a stand-up comic.


Other characters, like Old Book and New Book, were completely cut from the book early in my drafting process. Originally, BATTLE OF THE BOOKS had more of a Velveteen Rabbit feel, with an older, tattered book pushed to the back of the shelf and ignored by the other books as they battled over who would be chosen for story time. And while I liked the ending of the child needing comfort and turning to Old Book, the character of Old Book didn’t have a lot of agency, New Book wasn’t super likeable, and the story wanted to be sillier rather than somber, so out they (and that ending) went! (Don’t tell anyone, but I miss them a tiny bit.) My very first draft also had Number Book and Snowy Owl Book that didn’t make the final cut. I had completely forgotten about them until you asked this question – and now you’ve given me an idea for another book…

Kathy: Love that explanation of how the characters “auditioned” to be kept in the story! You have so many hooks in this clever story: bedtime, intergenerational, book genres, love of reading. In creating BATTLE OF THE BOOKS did you specifically think about hooks or did that happen organically or with the help of your critique group or agent?


Melanie: The concept of BATTLE OF THE BOOKS came from watching my young daughter pick books at bedtime; she had her favorites, but sometimes she surprised me with her choices, or I’d try to sneak in a genre she wouldn’t normally read (such a mom move). Then I wondered how that whole process would feel from the books’ perspective – all wanting to be the ones chosen by the child. So I think many of the hooks were there from the beginning – bedtime, story time, love of reading, choosing books, book genres, and the feeling kids can relate to of wanting to be picked first for something. Themes of friendship, forgiveness, and cooperation evolved as I wrote the story. The intergenerational hook came a little later in the writing process when I switched out the mom for the grandmother. I wanted the grandmother to bring her own favorite childhood bedtime story to share with her grandson because that amped up the tension/conflict for the books on the shelf who are all hoping to be picked! Grammie’s book took the role that New Book had played in my earlier drafts. I’m grateful to my critique groups and agent because they are always helpful in identifying more hooks and amplifying existing ones.

Kathy: This is your third picture book. How has your writing process changed over time with each book?


Melanie: In connection with your previous question, now that I’ve written and published a few books, I tend to get more excited about ideas that have multiple hooks. If I can’t see how an idea might have several layers, I’m not as likely to write a first draft anymore. I have a lot of ideas and not enough time to write them all, so I like to focus on those ideas which get my heart racing a little, and those ideas usually have multiple layers. I also gravitate towards ideas with word play potential.


Kathy: I noticed from your website that you won a 2017 Writing with The Stars mentorship with author Beth Ferry. How can writers take advantage of these mentorships? In what ways did working with Beth affect your work?


Melanie: That mentorship was a turning point for me in my writing career, so I absolutely encourage writers to seek mentorships like “Writing with the Stars” and enter competitions. There are many good opportunities, and I’ve known writer friends who’ve entered Susanna Leonard Hill’s “Valentiny” and “Halloweensie” writing contests and Vivian Kirkfield’s #50 Precious Words contest. Kate Messner also has a free “Teachers Write” on-line summer writing camp for teachers and librarians – not a contest, but an excellent learning opportunity. Look for the opportunities that excite you and join in! One of the biggest benefits of these contests is the connections you make with others in the writing community, so you can support each other on your journeys. I’m still connected with other winners from that 2017 Writing with the Stars contest, and it’s fun to see each of their new book announcements.


My mentorship with Beth Ferry was especially helpful because it gave me confidence that I was on the right track with my work. It often feels like you’re writing and submitting into a big void, so helpful feedback and support at the right time is a huge boost for a creator. My mentorship with Beth was for three months, so we had time to discuss and revise several of my manuscripts. BATTLE OF THE BOOKS was one of the books we worked on revising together, and I’m thrilled it’s finally coming out. I wrote my other two published picture books CLARINET AND TRUMPET and HIP, HIP…BERET! shortly after the mentorship ended. Beth Ferry is such a master of writing funny, punny, heartwarming friendship stories, and working with her inspired me to write the friendship story that became CLARINET AND TRUMPET.  


Some of Beth’s most helpful advice was to make sure your story isn’t just funny but also has heart. She asks herself, “Why do I care?” as she’s writing each story. Beth also helped in very specific ways with BATTLE OF THE BOOKS. I had originally written the whole book in rhyme, and it had more of a gentle bedtime feel, but Beth encouraged me to try it in prose because in places the rhyme felt forced. The prose version gave me the freedom to play more with the characters and their voices, and the final result was funnier but still has heart (I hope!). Thank goodness for the kindness of the children’s lit community – Beth and many others have given so many hours of their time to emerging writers, and it’s just the kind of encouragement we all need to keep going!


Kathy: What do you enjoy most about being a children’s writer?


Melanie: I think it’s the permission the job gives me to think more like a child. I can be silly, think outside the box, see the potential for ideas everywhere, and be curious about everything. There’s a certain freedom in the ability to create within that mindset.


Kathy: Great answer! I like to keep in touch with my inner kid! What are you working on now?

Melanie: I have a few picture books I’m revising, several on submission with my agent, and a few new ones I’m working on now. Promotion, especially with a new book coming out, is always part of the writing process, too. (Many thanks to you and all the bloggers who help authors and illustrators promote our books!) Marketing is a different kind of writing, but worthwhile, and sometimes it feels good to exercise different writing muscles. I recently wrote an early graphic reader, and it was fun to try something new.

More About Melanie

Melanie Ellsworth writes in an old barn in Maine, surrounded by books. Her picture book titles include Hip, Hip…Beret!, Clarinet and Trumpet, and Battle of the Books. As a former ESOL teacher and literacy specialist with a Masters in Language and Literacy, Melanie loves creating books that make kids laugh while they learn! Visit Melanie at, on Twitter @melanieells, or on Instagram @melaniebellsworth.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Yes, I Can! ~ by Christy Mihaly

You've probably been told that it's good to say "yes." (Not the kind of "yes" when someone tries to bully you into doing something that is not good for you. Rather the "yes, I can" that Shonda Rhimes pursued during her
Year of Yes -- accepting invitations to do things that scare you.) 

Why should a writer say "yes"? The first reason is because that's how we grow. When I started writing, my fantasy of the writerly life involved sitting in glorious solitude and letting the deathless prose pour forth spontaneously, with no need to interact with actual people. 
This notion was, shall we say, incomplete. If you're writing for kids, interacting with young people helps bring your writing to life. And being a "real writer" requires interacting with adults. It means working with editors. It may mean agreeing to write something that you didn't expect to write, or providing critiques to colleagues, or promoting yourself to sell your darn book, or giving presentations to kids and adults. (It may even mean, ahem, writing a last-minute blog post despite worrying that you have nothing original or worthwhile to share.) 

Many of these things are scary. But I've learned that saying "yes" to scary things--things that weren't in my initial vision of "writing"--has made me feel more like a "real writer."

In addition, recently, I've experienced one of the best reasons to say "yes:" it's that a single "yes" can catapult you into whole new oceans of possibilities. "Yes" makes good things happen -- and offers more chances for more "yeses." Here's the story of my chain of yeses.

A Chain of YESes: The power of a "yes"

In early 2020 I received an email asking if I would like to write a book about water. Well, that was not on my to-do list. (A book about water??) But I soon realized it was an interesting idea, and that I had some relevant background. The more I considered it, the more I realized my answer should be "yes."

My "yes" led to a happy, year-long collaboration with Barefoot Books editor Emma Parkin and an amazing team of editorial and book design staff, along with super-talented illustrator Mariona Cabassa. Despite various setbacks, supply chain issues, and a ship blocking the Suez Canal, Barefoot Books WATER: A Deep Dive of Discovery came out in the fall of 2021.

Serendipitously, around the same time as publication, the national 2022 library summer reading program theme was  announced by CLSP: "Oceans of Possibilities." So in early 2022, because of Barefoot Books Water, the Vermont Department of Libraries contacted me with an invitation: Would I deliver the keynote to kick off their "Oceans of Possibilities" summer reading training program for state librarians? Yikes. That was definitely outside my comfort zone, and my introvert brain screamed "no!" But it would be a virtual presentation, and I knew I should say "yes." So, my mouth said "yes," and my introvert brain went into panic mode to write (and practice!) the keynote.

Creating the slideshow for the Department of Libraries was a ton of work. And it was worth it. It made me delve deeply into Water and revisit what I'd learned in writing it. It helped me think anew about how librarians and educators could use the book to engage kids in discussing Earth's water, the almost magical properties of this element, how we use it, and how we can protect it. 

When it came time to deliver the talk, I was pleasantly surprised. It was fun! I love librarians, they appreciated hearing about the book, and I enjoyed sharing ideas for activities with them. We had some lively Q and A and I think we all came away feeling inspired.

But wait, there's more! Several librarians who saw the keynote contacted me afterward. Some invited me to do author visits at their schools. Others asked me to participate in their summer library programs. I don't consider myself a natural performer and I have no background in education. My brain said "no!" But these folks thought I could present an entertaining program, and I knew I had just developed a bunch of good program ideas. So I said "yes!" 

From the talk that I'd written for the Department of Libraries, I created a series of school visits. Then I adjusted it for library visits. I experimented with different activities from the book. Each new group of kids reacted differently, and I figured out more about how to get them engaged. I was learning and having fun. 

That wasn't the end of it. Last month at one of my summer library visits, a representative of the school district attended (because the local district had funded the program). A couple days later, the woman directing the district's after-school program asked if I'd do after-school workshops during the school year. Clearly outside my comfort zone, right? Brain says "no," right? She and I brainstormed some possibilities, and I said "yes." I'll be visiting each of the seven schools in the district to present poetry workshops. I'm excited! It's a chance to talk with kids about poetry, guide them in writing their own, learn more about what kinds of poems they love, and do some deep thinking about how to write better poems myself. 

(And ... it's about something other than water!) 

So ...

Lessons learned: 

👉 Say "yes" to get out of your comfort zone and learn. It can be a lot of work and make you nervous. But it's also energizing and fun.

👉 Say "yes" to expand your writing life and engage in different ways with kids, readers, educators, and librarians. It's inspiring! 


👉 Say "yes" to create new opportunities for yourself and your writing. And when one "yes" leads to another, say "yes" again! 

As we head into a new school year, where can "yes" take you?

I'd love to see your comments: Do you have a good story about saying "yes"?

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Summer Beauty

  We're enjoying one more week of summer break, with this gorgeous meadow of flowers photographed by Leslie Colin Tribble. We'll return next week to our regularly scheduled programming with author Chris Mihaly and her post on "getting out there and sharing the books." 




Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Ahhhh, summer!

 We're taking a couple weeks of summer break. So instead of lots of words, you get a scenic view. Where will your summer take you?