Last week, children’s book author Tracey Baptiste visited The Voracious Reader bookstore in Larchmont, New York, to talk about her latest book Rise of the Jumbies (Algonquin 2017). Afterwards, Abbie had a chance to sit down with the award-winning author and ask Baptiste a few questions about characters and craft.
First, a little background: Raised in Trinidad on a steady diet of rich fairy tales filled with mythical beasts and monsters, Baptiste eventually decided that the world beyond her island ought to learn about these tales, too. Rise of the Jumbies is the second in the Jumbies series for middle-grade readers. Jumbies are creatures that roam the Carribbean at night, with the sole purpose to devour wayward children. Their queen is Mama Dl’eau, a merciless sea creature who turns people into stone.
In book one, Baptiste’s main character, Corrine, must stop a jumbie from taking over the island. Corrine returns in book two, which gets even darker with an exploration of the slave trade–important, Baptiste says, for all children to learn about, even when it’s difficult to fully comprehend. Rise of the Jumbies illustrates that though there’s much pain associated with Caribbean history, beauty can rise from it as well.
Listen to Abbie’s interview here.
(Yes, that’s a press badge–never leave home without it!)
Photo credit: Barbara Basbanes Richter
The men who brought you the Ordinary People Change the World book series have created a TV show! Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum premiered November 11, 2019. I spoke with author Brad Meltzer and illustrator Chris Eliopoulos about how they paired up, why they like writing and drawing, and what they hope kids will learn from the new series.
Chris and Brad share a love of comic books, and got closer with the power of Twitter. Brad proposed they write a series, and Chris was happy to help. They’ve written dozens of books in the Ordinary People series since 2014.
You might be a bit curious about the name of the new TV series: Xavier Riddle and the Secret Museum isn’t something you hear too often. As a kid, Brad always liked names with the letter X in them. Xavier is one of these rare few. He also loved riddles. Puzzling things out was a favorite activity of his. Hence the name, Xavier Riddle.
Brad was inspired to become a writer thanks to his ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Spicer. She told him he could write. Brad was dubious — he didn’t expect to be a writer. However, when he wrote his first book, he visited his teacher’s classroom, thirty years later, and said to her, “My name is Brad Meltzer, and I wrote this book for you.” The teacher started crying. When he asked her why, she explained that she was planning on retiring that year, because she didn’t think she influenced anyone. Clearly, she was wrong.
Brad picks his subjects with a particular characteristic in mind: “I always chose a hero, not because they’re famous, but because their life provides a lesson that I can give my own kids, and, truthfully, that I need myself.” The hero’s childhood is what strikes Brad as the most interesting for young readers. When talking about his biography of Amelia Earhart, Brad said that, “I loved the idea that there was this little girl, and everyone said to her, ‘You’re never going to be successful. You’re never going to be able to do what you want to do.’ And she just didn’t care. She just kept plowing forward. She wouldn’t let anything stop her. That’s the lesson I want for my sons, it’s a lesson I want with my daughter.”
Now let’s talk about the illustrator. Chris always knew he was talented at art, especially as a kid. “If you’d asked me back then, ‘Would you rather go to Disneyland or would you rather sit and draw pictures?’ I’d rather draw,” he said. He grew up a shy child, and Chris drew pictures to tell other people what he was feeling. “I would give these drawings to my parents, and they would read these stories and go, ‘Oh, okay, now we know what’s going on in Chris’s life.’” As an adult, he decided that he wanted to be a children’s book illustrator.
Brad and Chris work closely when it comes to the book or television creating process, as Chris explained: “Brad writes a script, and then sends it to me, and we talk about it a little bit, and then I go off and I draw the whole book out in pencil, so that everybody can see it. We decide if something works or doesn’t work. He’ll suggest things, or I’ll throw things in. Once everybody’s in agreement, I go back and I fix the things that need fixing, and I ink it up in ink, and then I send it back again. And then they all decide what looks good, what looks bad, what needs to be fixed. And then I go back and fix it, and then I color the whole book and I send it back.”
Sometimes, the people in the books have a say in how the book will look. During the creation of I Am Caring: A Little Book About Jane Goodall, for example, Jane read the book and made Chris go back and re-draw over ten pages because she was holding hands with wild animals in the pictures, and she didn’t find that appropriate for children. Chris told me that it was tiring to go back and redraw so many pages, but, in the end, the book did turn out to be better!
When I told Chris that his work seemed to resemble the Peanuts cartoons, he replied, “They’re my favorite thing in the whole wide world!” he explained why he adored them: “Peanuts was the biggest influence in my life. When I was a little kid, my uncle owned a remaindered book shop — basically where all the leftover books went. I used to take all of the Peanuts books–I still have them here in my studio–and I would just read them, cover to cover, all the time.” As he got older, Chris discovered Calvin and Hobbes, a popular cartoon by Bill Watterson about a boy and his tiger. Look at Chris’s drawings: big heads, tiny bodies, strange squished faces. The Peanuts cartoons look quite similar.
Xavier Riddle aims to teach kids the same message that the books do: that kids, no matter what, can be extraordinary. Brad said that making sure these stories are exciting is important to keep kids interested: “If you remind kids that these aren’t the stories of famous people, this is what we’re all capable of on our very best days, suddenly kids will look and go, ‘tell me more about that.’”
Abigail C. Richter is a fifth grader and lives with her parents and two basset hounds in New York.
Abigail is back, this time with her friend Jack to review two new children’s picture books. Jack tackles Zachariah Ohora’s latest fuzzy caper involving a pair of apartment-dwelling felines, while Abby looks at a canine compare-and-contrast board book by French illustrator Élo. Both are great choices for early readers to enjoy during the dog (and cat) days of summer.
Niblet & Ralph, by Zachariah Ohora, Dial Books for Young Readers; $17.99, 32 pages, ages 2-6.
Niblet and Ralph is about two cats and their kid owners. The four of them live in the same building, but only two of them know it. A tragic mystery happens that brings the humans together–be sure to read the book to find out! The cover shows a cat wearing headphones–how adorable!
Images reproduced with permission from Dial Books.
Contrary Dogs, by Élo, Candlewick Studio; $12.00, 20 pages, ages 0-6.
Contrary Dogs is a funny book about all different types of dogs–opposites, really. For example, one has spots, another doesn’t. Plus, it’s a book where you can lift the tabs–who doesn’t like those? Your child will love exploring the tabs and reading all about these amazing dogs!
CONTRARY DOGS. Copyright © 2016 by Éditions Sarbacane. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.
Need a literary justification to visit the Caribbean this spring? Consider the NGC Bocas Lit Festival, taking place in downtown Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. Billed as the region’s premier literature festival, the Lit Fest is devoted to developing and promoting Caribbean authors by hosting five lively days of author panels, workshops, film screenings, and performances. Held at the National Library and Old Fire Station, the festival will run from April 25-29 and is free to the public.
In addition, NGC organizers will be announcing the 2018 prizes for Caribbean literature on April 28. Launched in 2011, these annual awards recognize the previous year’s most notable additions to the Caribbean canon. Last year’s winners included Jamaican poet Safiya Sinclair’s Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press), Augustown by Kei Miller (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) took home the top prize for fiction, and Virtual Glimpses into the Past/A Walk Back in Time: Snapshots of the History of Trinidad and Tobago by Angelo Bissessarsingh (Queen Bishop Publishing) won for best non-fiction work.
The overall winner receives an award of $10,000, while category winners each receive a cash prize of $3,000. Eligible submissions must have been first published in English in 2017 and written by a single living author who either holds Caribbean citizenship or was born in the Caribbean. (Though Francophone authors hailing from Haiti, Guadeloupe, and Martinique aren’t necessarily eligible unless they write in English, their work can be considered for the Prix littéraire des Caraϊbes et du Tout-Monde and the other prestigious French awards like the Prix Goncourt.)
The NGC Lit Fest goals are to both celebrate the Caribbean’s literary achievements while also maintaining the region’s literacy rates, which hover around 97 to 99 percent of the overall population. Haiti remains the exception, where the literacy rate is near 60 percent, despite a rich two-hundred-year history of producing talented writers like Toussaint Louverture, Jean Price-Mars, Dany Laferriere, Jacques Roumain, and Marie-Celie Agnant.
Need another reason to book a flight? Check out this interview with Trinidad and Tobago native Tracey Baptiste, author of The Jumbies YA series. She spoke with my daughter, Abgail, in late January about Caribbean folklore and how it inspires her books.
(photo: Barbara Basbanes Richter)
This story first appeared on the Fine Books & Collections blog on Friday, March 2, 2018.
In September, National Book Award winner Pete Hautman celebrated the release of his most recent novel, Slider ($16.99, Candlewick Press, 288 pages), with a hamburger eating contest at the Wild Rumpus bookstore in Minneapolis. The festivities were a fitting tribute to Hautman’s middle-grade story about David, a high-school competitive eater with a special-needs younger brother and a genius older brother. Stuck in the middle, David tries to balance family responsibilities with the general ups and downs that come with being a teenager.
Hautman’s crisp and nuanced prose offers great insight on doing what’s right while dealing with life’s slings and arrows. Whether he’s writing for young adults or middle-graders, Hautman has a knack for figuring out what his readers crave. When he’s not writing, he and his wife, the poet Mary Logue, hunt mushrooms with their dogs Gaston and Baudelaire near their home in Wisconsin. Earlier this month Hautman graciously fielded questions from Abigail and I about his research process, confronting uncomfortable truths, the judicious use of humor, and the challenges and pleasures of crafting great literature for readers of all ages.
Photo courtesy of Candlewick Press.
Abigail’s questions for Mr. Hautman:
What was your inspiration for writing Slider?
My family! I grew up in a family with seven kids, and it was crazy. I was the oldest, so in many ways it was easy for me to feel special. My younger siblings had to work harder—especially the middle kids. I wanted to write about the challenges of being a middle child.
Also, I think eating contests are bizarre, grotesque, and utterly fascinating. Eating 141 hardboiled eggs in eight minutes? Gross! But kind of amazing, right?
Before becoming an author, did you ever participate in a food competition? (Do you still complete if you do?)
I did not, although I did put myself to the test by eating ten White Castle sliders as quickly as I could, for “research.” It took me about two minutes, which sounds fast, but the top eaters can down about thirteen sliders in one minute.
What are you working on now?
A book called OTHERWOOD. It’s sort of a ghost story. Or maybe not! Mostly it’s about what happens when friends—and the universe—are torn apart. It will be published next fall.
Barbara’s questions for Mr. Hautman:
What did you read growing up? Did those choices influence your desire to become an author?
The usual suspects for the time: Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Jack London (my favorite!), The Hardy Boys, Jim Kjelgaard…there weren’t as many choices for young readers back then, and I was desperately afraid that I would run out of books to read. When I ran out of Hardy Boys books I moved on to Nancy Drew, and my dad’s “antique” Tom Swift books from the twenties, and then his westerns and detective novels. By age thirteen I was into James Bond and The Lord of the Rings (that sounds like a 1960s “B” movie!) and whatever adult bestsellers I could get my hands on (Peyton Place, Hawaii, Tai-Pan, I, the Jury, etc.) I don’t remember there being much distinction between kid books and grownup books—but then, I had very permissive parents.
Slider, Eden West, and Godless all deal in one way or another with confronting uncomfortable truths. Is there a tendency to avoid difficult topics in literature and in life? Why is it so important to write “uncomfortable” stories?
Yes, no, sometimes, maybe. Contemporary novels that deal directly with religion usually do not sell well, but books about other “uncomfortable” areas such as sex, drugs, abuse, racism, and so forth are gobbled up by young readers. They want to know! They need to know. Life forces us to face uncomfortable truths again and again, and literature can provide a relatively safe space for such encounters.
As adults we often avoid, ignore, gloss over, or blind ourselves to things that make us uncomfortable. Or we can face them head on. Children need tools to help them face the things they will encounter, and to understand things they have already encountered. Books can help.
Do you think David is a sympathetic character?
Yes! I think all my characters are sympathetic, even the bad guys. But David is, I hope, especially appealing to most readers, because in one way or another we are all David. We are all “stuck” in a situation, i.e., the circumstances of our lives. We all make bad decisions, we all live with those decisions, we all get confused, we all try, we all fail, and we all grope our way to small triumphs.
How important is humor when writing a middle-grade novel? How do you know you’ve struck the right balance between funny and over-the-top?
I don’t think humor is essential. Some excellent middle-grade novels are earnest and humorless. I don’t write those kinds of books. I need to laugh sometimes when I write, even if the book is not intended as a “funny book.” Eden West, for example, is a serious and earnest book with big themes and a surfeit of darkness. The funny scenes it contains kept me going, and I hope the same is true for my readers. The same was true of Invisible, a very dark novel with many funny scenes.
Finding an appropriate balance between funny and not-funny is, I think, one of the more intuitive parts of the writing process. It would be a hard thing to teach.
Why did you decide to become an author?
The short answer is that I love books, and I thought writing books would be something I would be proud to do.
The longer answer has to do with my childhood. I grew up in a family where making things was highly respected, whether it be drawing pictures, building a birdhouse, making music, or baking cookies. We were always making. I thought when I was younger that making paintings and drawing comics would be a good thing to do. Eventually I focused on comic books, and I discovered that my favorite part of making comics was not the penciling or inking, it was the layout and the writing. In other words, the storytelling. So got rid of all my art materials and bought a typewriter. Now I make novels.
What goes into making books for a 9-12 year old audience that may or may not be as important for older or younger readers? What’s the secret to making your work chime with your readers?
Wow, good question! Kind of a scary question because I’m catching myself wanting to give self-serving answers such as “honesty,” “integrity,” “respecting the reader,” “being real,” and so forth. Not that those things are untrue, despite being rather trite.
I guess what works for me is doing the memory work—going back in time to when I was swept away by, say, Charlotte’s Web, or A Wrinkle in Time, or Jack London’s White Fang, and remembering what it felt like to step into those stories, to see through the eyes of a character who discovers in his or her self that it is possible to matter, to make a difference, to be a significant part of the world.
You might say that the underlying theme in most, if not all middle-grade literature is simply, “I matter.”
I understand you come from a large family–did your childhood in any way influence some of the themes you explore in your books?
Yes! Every book, in every way, is drenched in my childhood. Godless and Otherwood (fall, 2018) most of all. But all my books, in one way or another, spring from my childhood. Specific events in a book might be invented from scratch, but the emotional arc is utterly authentic.
As a young adult I tried hard to put all that “kid stuff” behind me. I was focused on reinventing myself a an adult. But when I started writing books for young readers I discovered that it never went away. As the author Alison McGhee says (I’m paraphrasing here), “I am ten, I am twelve, I am sixteen, I am every age I have ever been.”
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you?
I love what I do.
Abigail’s back with a look at another picture book starring three sister guinea pigs who learn about acquisition overload and sibling rivalry.
Philomena’s New Glasses, by Brenna Maloney, Viking; $16.99, 32 pages, ages 2-6.
Philomena the guinea pig has fuzzy vision, so she gets new glasses. But her sister Audrey thinks Philomena looks cool, so she gets glasses, too. Soon, their littlest sister, Nora Jane, gets worried–if her sisters are wearing glasses, shouldn’t she? Then, all three sisters want new purses and dresses, and instead of being happy with their things, they’re all very miserable. The author’s photographs of real guinea pigs wearing dresses are very funny, and show that it’s important for everyone–even guinea pigs–to just be themselves. Don’t skip the end pages for “deleted scenes!”
image credit: Brenna Maloney. Used with permission from Viking Books
Welcome to our newest reviewer, Abigail Constance Richter, a New York third grader excited to share great new children’s books with you. This first review was inspired by the brave and selfless hurricane relief efforts in Texas and Florida, reminding us that anyone can lend a helping hand.
Bulldozer Helps Out, by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Eric Rohmann; Atheneum Books for Young Readers, $17.99, 40 pages, ages 3-6.
In Bulldozer Helps Out, Bulldozer wants to help the rest of the construction team, but the other machines say he is not big enough, strong enough, or tough enough. Soon, they feel bad and give Bulldozer an “easy” task. The full-page pictures in the book are big, bold, and colorful, and make the book a good choice for preschoolers and kids in kindergarten who love construction and want to be part of the team.