Friday, August 26, 2016

A Torch Against The Night by Sabaa Tahir

The last we saw of Laia and Elias in An Ember in the Ashes, they were fleeing Blackcliff and the city of Serra through a network of tunnels. To say this was a cliffhanger would be an understatement. Tahir creates an equally as impressive follow-up novel to her debut, delving deep into the world of the Empire.

Elias and Laia might have escaped the walls of the city, but that does not mean they are not free from peril. Elias’ mother, the Commandant, has poisoned Elias, making the journey difficult as the poison slowly takes Elias prisoner. Emperor Marcus is out for their blood, and he has decided to use his most lethal weapon against Laia and Elias: Helene.

Laia is determined to break into Kauf, a maximum security prison, where the Warden of Kauf sadistically tortures his prisoners. There, she hopes to find her brother, Darin, the Scholars’ only hope. Tahir continues the first person narrative that alternates between Laia and Elias, but also includes Helene. The reader gets a glimpse into Helene’s fascinating story as Blood Shrike, one that shows her own struggle to complete the mission Marcus has assigned her, but knowing that whether she succeeds or doesn’t succeed, the lives of her family and dearest friend are at risk.

Tahir’s writing is elegant, spellbinding, and her second novel is a beautiful companion to An Ember in the Ashes. New characters, dark and magical forces at work, internal struggles, and a rescue mission, there is the reminder throughout the entire book that, “So long as you fight the darkness, you stand in the light.”

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Interview Session: Augusta Scattergood, author of "Making Friends with Billy Wong"

Where are you from? Where do you live now? Do you do anything else in addition to writing great books?

When anybody asks where I’m from, Mississippi is always the answer. I was born in Cleveland and lived there until I graduated from college. My family lives in Jackson, Batesville, and Oxford now, and I visit whenever they’ll let me. I’ve lived a lot of places, but about ten years ago, my husband and I moved to St. Petersburg, FL, where I write books, review a few, and read a lot.

When did you get your start as a writer? How long have you been writing?

For my entire career, I was a school librarian. I left that job, which I loved, because I wanted to see if I could write. That was in 2001. My first book [Glory Be] was published by Scholastic Press in 2012.

What were some of your favorite books as a child? Authors, illustrators, you name them.

Alice in Wonderland, Little Women, anything that could be considered a series (Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, you name it!), and the fairy tales my mother and grandmother read to me.

Top 3 favorite authors and illustrators that inspire you today?

Barbara O’Connor for her southern humor, Kirby Larson for her fabulously detailed historical fiction, and way too many others to name. I love reading middle-grade novels most of all.

In your own words, describe what Making Friends with Billy Wong is about.

Azalea Morgan prefers having one best friend and staying close to her Texas home, but when her grandmother needs her help, off she goes to Arkansas. Things are different there, the rules, the people. It’s the early 1950s, the dawn of the Civil Rights era. Her grandmother’s favorite grocery store is owned by a Chinese American family whose nephew, the outgoing, friendly Billy Wong, has recently come to work and to go to school in Paris Junction, Arkansas. Billy and Azalea learn a lot from each other—and from the community. It’s a friendship story told around actual history of the times.

Please describe your creative writing process.

I’m not much of an outliner but I do spend an inordinate amount of pre-writing time scribbling in notebooks, trying to figure out my characters. Because I write historical fiction, I do a lot of research which usually influences how the story plays out. Once I have my characters and the time and place, I work very hard to come up with a plot! Early drafting is not my favorite part of writing. I much prefer the fine-tuning, the editing, the deepening of stories.

You’ve written two other books for Middle Grade readers, and they are all set in distinct time periods and places. Describe the time and place you choose to use in Making Friends with Billy Wong.

I chose Arkansas after attending an interesting “homecoming” event sponsored by Delta State University’s Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum.

The weekend was filled with stories of Chinese immigrants and their families who’d grown up in the Delta, including Arkansas. I wanted the town to be small, much like the ones I remembered from my own childhood. Everybody knows you and watches out for you!

The time just before Brown v. Board of Education seemed perfect for a boy like Billy Wong who wasn’t allowed to attend a segregated white school in his community but was able to thrive in a new school, in a new place.

I love the line “Maybe I shouldn’t climb trees to daydream in the clouds./ But high on a tree branch, stories pop wide open.” What does this line mean to you?

Billy’s voice turned out to be so much fun to write! Azalea was originally the only narrator of the story. But there was so much she couldn’t know. I tried writing Billy’s chapters as straight prose. They weren’t very interesting. In fact, my agent may have used the words “info dump” to describe them. One day I closed my computer and sat with a notebook and began scribbling. I made lists, wrote letters, listened closely, and Billy’s voice emerged. This was the first thing he said to me. He’s a dreamer, a storyteller, a connector, but he’s also a very responsible great-nephew who wants to help his family.

Who was the inspiration for Billy Wong? And why did you choose to write his thoughts in verse (a writing choice that I loved!)

Billy was inspired by a friend I went to Cleveland High School with. He was into everything! When we reconnected years later, he still was. Although he’s really not completely like my character, Bobby Joe Moon did answer my nonstop questions about his family’s stores and what it was like growing up in Mississippi.

I’m not sure I “chose” this form for his thoughts. They popped out, much like Billy’s stories, though of course, I did tweak them. But the variety, the brevity, the poetic feel to his words just seemed right.

In your author’s note you note that there were many Chinese Immigrants in the Mississippi Delta, where you grew up. What were things you noticed as a child that made it into the book?

I spent a lot of time with my grandmother and my mother shopping at various Chinese grocery stores in Cleveland. I remembered how it felt to hear their language spoken behind the meat counters and the cash registers. I especially remembered noticing the writing, the labels on boxes of things I didn’t recognize. But shopping at these stores was a completely normal, everyday part of my childhood. Later, when I told friends about this, they were very surprised. That’s when I thought I might have a story.

My own grandmother had a small garden behind her house. We picked beans in the hot summertime, a job I did not like a bit. But the sense of playing outside till dark, of having the freedom to ride our bikes all over town—those were the memories I brought to this novel.

What was your favorite scene to write in Making Friends with Billy Wong?

I always love writing the scenes that seem visual, the ones that play out in your head. I think this is what a good scene is, but it doesn’t always come easily. Perhaps my favorite scenes were the ones that Willis DeLoach took over. When Billy and Azalea sneak out to his trailer in the pecan grove, when he barges into the historical room at the library—Willis is a complicated fellow and I think he makes the scenes more interesting, don’t you?

What do you love about writing books for children?

I love the editing, the tweaking, the adding little details. I also really love talking to students and teachers about writing and books.

What is next? Any future projects for us to look forward to?

I always hope there’s a future project! As soon as I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

Get Making Friends with Billy Wong at your local bookstore on August 30th! 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Interview Session with Brendan Wenzel: They All Saw A Cat

Thanks for stopping by Twenty by Jenny, Brendan! I have loved your illustration work so far, and I’m excited to talk about They All Saw A Cat, a book you both wrote and illustrated. Congrats on this accomplishment!

Where are you from? Where do you live now? Do you do anything else in addition to writing great books?

Hello Clara!  Thanks for the congrats and for the opportunity to chat about the book. I grew up in Connecticut, but now I jump back and forth between upstate New York and Brooklyn.

Though the majority of my time these days is devoted to the book making process, I do my best to make a bit of time for collaborations with groups working in wildlife conservation, which is an interest of mine. I also sometimes watch birds.

When did you get your start as a writer and/or illustrator? How long have you been writing and illustrating?

Both of my parents are artists, so I started drawing when I was very young—probably while still crawling. I graduated from Pratt Institute in 2003, but for the first ten years of my career I jumped around doing lots of creative odd jobs: storyboarding, animating, even puppet making. The whole time I was developing book ideas and submitting dummies. My break in the picture book world came in 2013, some years later, when Angela DiTerlizzi reached out to me about collaborating with her on Some Bugs. It was definitely a lucky day, and we actually just finished a second collaboration on the follow up, Some Pets.

What were some of your favorite books as a child? Authors, illustrators, you name them.

It's such a tough question. I'm sure I'm not the first one to say this, but the list goes on and on. A few that I feel really left a mark on me, Sendak's In the Night Kitchen (still one of my absolute favorites), Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm by Alice and Martin Provensen and pretty much everything illustrated by the incredible Quentin Blake.

Top 3 favorite authors and illustrators that inspire you today?

1.Carson Ellis is hands-down my favorite illustrator working today. Everything she makes is outrageously beautiful. Pretty sure I'm not the only one who feels that way.

2.Leo Lionni is probably the illustrator who I look at the most. Everything about his work blows me away. Beyond brilliant.

3.My father is the illustrator David T. Wenzel (his most recent picture book was The King of Little Things written by Bill Lepp). He has taught me a ton over the years and although our styles of image-making are quite different, he has been a huge influence in every way.

In your own words, describe what They All Saw A Cat is about.

They All Saw A Cat is the story of a brown cat with a red collar and little gold bell who goes for a walk. The hook is not the story of any major occurrence in the cat's life, but rather an exploration of how the various creatures that cross paths with the feline, see and experience it in their own unique way.

One of the things I enjoyed about the idea was it afforded me the opportunity to play in that space between what we can know and what we can only imagine.

Please describe your illustration style.

I like to alter my approach a hit from project to project, depending on the tone and feel of the text. In They All Saw A Cat, however, the images actually changed from page to page. I wanted to capture the huge shifts in perspective from one animal to the next, and using unique materials and approaches seemed to be a great way of emphasizing the variety of experiences. Throughout the book I experimented with pencil, crayon, oil pastel, colored pencil, marker, acrylic, as well as my standard: watercolor and cut paper.

All the images eventually end up on screen for various degrees of compositing and tweaking, although I am happy to report a huge part of the image making process for They All Saw A Cat took place right on the drawing board.

This is your first picture book that you have written AND illustrated. I love how your illustrations are so appealing to children—bright colors and big eyes that are both humorous and draw the reader in at the same time—your characters actually appear to be looking at the reader! How did you take that child-centric illustrating approach and apply it to your words/story?

I have many times tried to nail down what I think makes successful work for kids, and always felt like my response misses the mark to some degree.

Here's what I can say for They All Saw a Cat: it was important to me, especially given the arguably heavy subject matter, that every image in the hook felt playful, but playful in its own unique way. I think (hope) that makes sense.

What was the inspiration for the cat to be the animal that all the other characters “see.” Why not a dog?

Originally a few other animals were in the running. I considered both an owl and a fox, However, I landed on a cat for a few reasons. First, cats are familiar. A cat was also perfectly situated on the hierarchy of familiar backyard creatures, and thus could represent a very different thing to every animal it encountered.

A dog certainly crossed my mind and could have been an interesting wat to go. I do feel like it would have been a very different book. Maybe a bit sillier. It would have been a lot of fun to work on.

"and the dog saw A CAT"

I love how each animal (or child) has a different point of view, and how each way of “seeing” is so incredibly different. The way a bumblebee sees a cat is very different than the way a mouse sees a cat. Which “way” of seeing the cat was your favorite to illustrate?

Tough question! Each image is enjoyable in its own way. The markings on some images, like the flea, ended up being repetitive and a bit meditative. Those spreads were great because I could just focus on interacting with the materials.

Others, like the bird, gave me the chance to really dive into to Cat's world, and render things a little more meticulously. Probably the Snake was the most fun, because I got to be very loose with the crayon, and I was also really specific with how I wanted the cat to look, that kind of made me laugh as I worked on it.

"and the bird saw A CAT"

Do you own any cats/pets?  What are their names?

My wife and I had a cat when we lived in Vietnam. We had not intended to get a pet, but one day we looked out our window and this tiny fella was mewing and struggling to stay afloat in the' little marsh next to our house. We took him to the vet to get fixed up and cleaned up, but afterwards he still looked very much like a cat who had just emerged from a swamp. We named him Showcat. Thought it might raise his confidence a bit and we’re pretty sure it worked.

"and the fish saw A CAT"
What do you love about creating picture books for children (and adults)?

Talking with people about books from their childhood is always a lot of fun. No matter who I'm having the chat with, they always seem to get an excited and dreamy look in their eyes when remembering their favorite book. It's great. Recently, I was home and stumbled across this strange book I loved as a kid and immediately a bit of the wonder and potential I must have experienced reading it thirty years back wafted right over me. It's pretty incredible that a book can store all that so perfectly. My hard drives from college crashed years ago. The opportunity to create a book that might provide similar gateway for a child or an adult, and the privilege to spend my days trying to access those feelings, is one of the many reasons I feel so lucky to do this.

What is next? Any future projects for us to look forward to?

I just finished final art for Cynthia Rylant's Life, a beautiful manuscript I was very humbled to work on. That will be out next year. I am also happily working on my second book as an author and illustrator with Chronicle. I am unfortunately not ready to say too much about that one just yet but will share that many of my favorite creatures from around the world make appearances. Probably no big surprise there.

Thanks again Brendan! Look forward to They All Saw A Cat, available in stores August 30.