Abigail’s Q&A with Children’s Picture-Book Creator Artie Knapp

Abigail speaks with children’s book author Artie Knapp about his latest book featuring a reluctant baby river otter.

Children’s picture-book author Artie Knapp has a knack for writing charming children’s books, and with the publication of  The Wasp and the Canary in 2006, Knapp found his life’s calling and now claims five children’s books and over forty published stories to his credit.
Last month, Ohio University Press published the Green Earth Book Award shortlist finalist’s latest book, Little Otter Learns to Swim ($15.95, 32 pages)a tale that follows a baby river otter as she learns how to navigate her environment. Unlike a baby otter at the Columbus Zoo where a baby otter was plunged into the water by its mother–sink or swim, as the saying goes–Knapp’s creature is guided by a far more understanding mama. Accompanied by sweet and charismatic illustrations by wildlife artist Guy Hobbs, the rhyming picture book is a lovely introduction to water habitats, conservation, and the importance of trying new things.
Abigail spoke recently with Knapp about Little Otter Learns to Swim and asked about his writing process, his favorite books, and how he overcomes the dreaded writer’s block.
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1. What inspired you to write this book? While watching my daughter learn to swim one afternoon, I wondered what animals have to be taught as well. So when we arrived back home, I began doing some research. I would have guessed that river otters know how to swim the moment they’re born, like some other animals do. But I was surprised to learn that river otters are taught to swim by their mothers when they’re one to three months old. That intrigued me and got me started with writing my story.

 
2. Do you always write about nature? I don’t always write about nature specifically, but nature is something that I am passionate about. I did write the picture book Living Green: A Turtle’s Quest for a Cleaner Planet. Animals are usually the main characters in my stories. I care about the well-being of animals, so I suppose that’s why I use them in my writing so frequently.

3. Are all of your books written in rhyme? Little Otter Learns to Swim is my first book written in rhyme. I have however had children’s poems published in publications such as Humpy Dumpty’s Magazine, and in Oxford University Press course-books.

 
4. Do you always work with the same illustrator? If not, do you have a choice in who illustrates your book? I don’t always work with the same illustrator, and it’s ultimately the publisher who decides who will illustrate the book. I have been very fortunate with the illustrators who have illustrated my stories.

 

5. Is your favorite animal an otter? If not, what is? I like river otters a lot, but if I had to pick a favorite animal, it would be my cat, Bella. Her nickname is Bell-Girl. She is often sitting on my desk as I write my stories.

 
6. How do you know when the story is just right? Do you read it out loud? I do read my stories aloud. As I have progressed in my career, I’ve learned to set my work aside when I think it’s done. Then after a couple of weeks, I’ll reread my story to see if I still like it. A fresh set of eyes after some time has passed has helped to make my work better. If it still reads the same to me after coming back to it, then I usually feel that the story is right. Other times I’ll come back to a story after a break and make changes. Then I’ll set it aside again and come back to it until I feel that it’s where I want it to be.

 
7. Do you visit schools or libraries? I have visited both schools and libraries, but mostly schools. It’s a lot of fun doing author visits. I enjoy speaking with students, and they inspire me to keep writing.  

8. When did you know you wanted to be a children’s book author?  I originally started out writing science-fiction stories. Randomly, I wrote a children’s story titled The Wasp and the Canary. That story along with another one I wrote titled The Hummingbird Who Chewed Bubblegum were published simultaneously on a popular site called Candlelightstories.com. Getting published is a great feeling for an author. Those two stories getting published encouraged me to write another children’s story. After writing my third children’s story Sprinting Spencer Still Wants to Run, I felt that I was onto something. From there, I began to write children’s stories frequently and now cannot imagine not writing stories for kids.

9. What kind of books did you read growing up? I didn’t read as much as I should have growing up. I was always outside playing and watched a lot of T.V. I did enjoy comic books and read a lot of classic picture books stories. The Hardy Boys series are the first books that I remember finding hard to put down.

 
10. What are your favorite children’s books? I enjoy stories that don’t necessarily have a defined ending, but make you the reader left to ponder what happened. My favorite picture book creators are Peter Brown, Don Freeman, Kevin Henkes, Robert McCloskey, Chris Van Allsburg, and Maurice Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are by the late Maurice Sendak is my all-time favorite picture book.
 
11. What do you do when you’re having a hard time writing or coming up with an idea? I like to take walks. I enjoy the exercise and the fresh air helps too. I also enjoy listening to music. Music often helps me to get back into the zone of being creative. 

Abby and Jack Review Two New Children’s Books

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!

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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!

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CONTRARY DOGS. Copyright © 2016 by Éditions Sarbacane. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

The 2018 NGC Bocas Lit Festival Coming to the Caribbean in April

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 LouvertureJean Price-Mars, Dany LaferriereJacques 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.

 

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(photo: Barbara Basbanes Richter)
This story first appeared on the Fine Books & Collections blog on Friday, March 2, 2018.

Interview with Abigail, Episode One: Tracey Baptiste

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.

 

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(Yes, that’s a press badge–never leave home without it!)

Photo credit: Barbara Basbanes Richter

Author Tracey Baptiste Talks Jumbies, Folklore, and Titles at Indie Bookstore

Earlier tonight 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). After the presentation, Abbie had a chance to sit down and ask Baptiste a couple questions about characters and craft. Be on the lookout for her profile later this month! 

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Earlier tonight, 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 and ask Baptiste a few questions about characters and craft. Be on the lookout for Abbie’s profile later this month! (Yes, that’s a press badge–never leave home without it!)

Q&A with Slider Author Pete Hautman

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philomena’s New Glasses

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!”

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image credit: Brenna Maloney. Used with permission from Viking Books