Snowflakes Fall

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Last weekend was a difficult one for all of us.  The one year anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary brought up emotions and memories that painfully juxtaposed against the normally joyful holiday bustle.   Images of angelic faces and devastated families swirled around me all day.  But I didn’t need a reminder to be thinking of the Sandy Hook community, because I haven’t stopped thinking about them.  I don’t think any of us have.  It’s like the whole world has reached out our arms to give one big giant hug to the grieving.  I hope they feel it.

My community, also a “small Connecticut town,” organized an event that encouraged the lighting of luminaries on December 14th.  We participated and I found the experience very soothing.  With my oldest, who is aware of some of the details of the tragedy, I slowly scooped sand into 26 bags.  As we carefully placed in tea lights, I brought up specific names as their faces flashed before me.  Snow was falling as we placed the luminaries outside, and I lifted up my face to feel the tiny pings, the gentle reminder of the cycle of the seasons, and life.  Snowflakes have become a symbol of hope and healing in Newtown, CT, and I like to think that maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that it was snowing in CT that day.

To show support and encourage healing, Newbery medalist Patricia MacLachlan and illustrator Steven Kellogg used the symbol of the snowflake to craft their beautiful picture book:

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SNOWFLAKES FALL was written in response to last year’s tragedy.  It is a gorgeous book with a healing message.  From the publisher’s website (Random House):

“In Snowflakes Fall, Newbery Medalist Patricia MacLachlan and award-winning artist Steven Kellogg portray life’s natural cycle: its beauty, its joy, and its sorrow. Together, the words and pictures offer the promise of renewal that can be found in our lives—snowflakes fall, and return again as raindrops so that flowers can grow.

MacLachlan and Kellogg, who are longtime friends, were moved to collaborate on a message of hope for children and their families following the tragic events in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012. Kellogg lived in Sandy Hook for thirty-five years—he raised his family there and was an active member of the community. With Snowflakes Fall, they have created a truly inspiring picture book that is both a celebration of life and a tribute to the qualities that make each individual unique.

In honor of the community of Sandy Hook and Newtown, Random House, the publisher of Snowflakes Fall, has made a donation to the Sandy Hook School Support Fund. Random House is also donating 25,000 new books to the national literacy organization First Book in the community’s honor and in support of children everywhere.”

“A snowflake.  A child.  No two the same – all beautiful.”

Meet Author/Illustrator Hazel Mitchell: A KidLit Pearl!

A hearty welcome today to Hazel Mitchell, an award-winning author/illustrator with several new books to celebrate, including:

ONE WORD PEARL (Mackinac Island/Charlesbridge Publishing Fall 2013, Written by Nicole Groeneweg).

Hazel has graciously taken time from her busy schedule to answer some of my questions about the world of KidLit.  But first, some more about PEARL:

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From the publisher:

*Pearl loves words. All kinds of words. Words make up songs, stories, poems . . . and what does a lover of words do? She collects them, of course!

But one day, most of Pearl’s words are blown away, leaving her only a few which she keeps safely in her treasure chest. After that day, she uses each word carefully—one at a time, until she has no words left. When her teacher asks her questions at school, she doesn’t answer. When her friend wants to know what she has for lunch, she can’t respond. What will Pearl do without her precious words? Will she ever find them?

One Word Pearl explores the power of words to transform, inspire, and cultivate imagination. This whimsical story is the winner of the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) Children’s Book Competition in the Picture Book category.*

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Click here to watch the darling trailer for ONE WORD PEARL.  See below for details on winning your own copy!

Here’s a little background on Hazel, from her website:

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*Hazel Mitchell is an award winning illustrator. From an early age she drew on every thing she could get her hands on and still can’t be left safely alone with a pencil. Her most recent books include One Word Pearl1,2,3 by the SeaHow to Talk to an Autistic Kid (Foreword Reviews Gold Medal winner and Finalist in ‘Books for a Better Life’), Hidden New Jersey and the All-Star Cheerleaders series by Anastasia Suen. Originally from Yorkshire, England, she now lives and works from her studio in Central Maine, USA. She still misses fish and chips and mushy peas, but is learning to love lobster. She has a dog, a cat, two horses and several snow shovels. You can see more of her work at www.hazelmitchell.com or find her on Facebook and all those online places!*

Here’s what Hazel had to say about her work and her career as an author/illustrator:

Nancy:  A lot of people think that authors need to find their own illustrators in order to publish a picture book, which of course is not the case.  However, I’m curious – have you ever known an author personally before you were asked to illustrate their work?
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Hazel: All the trade books I’ve published have been with authors I didn’t know. The editor/art director chose the illustrator. People entering, or beginning to write, don’t usually get this disconnect, but I think it’s how it should be. The illustrator is hired to do a job and bring their vision to a project. It’s hard if you get too much input from the author, or very specific directions, because your own ideas take a back seat. I can understand how hard it is for an author sometimes, they’ve lived with their characters for so long! I’ve done self publishing projects in the past where I’ve worked closely with an author on their vision. To me that’s a different kind of illustrating, more of an ‘artist for hire project’ in which you expect to follow tighter guidelines. But in general, working with an author on a project isn’t easy. That’s why we have art directors! 
Nancy: Your drawings of children are delightful.  Do you have kids in your own life you model them after? Where is your favorite place for people watching?
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Hazel: Thank you! When I began my career in illustration I always thought I’d be illustrating animals, with minimal children. It’s been quite the reverse! I have learned to embrace drawing children, although it’s been a steep learning curve. The looser the drawing the better, is how it works for me. I do not have children, and my step children are grown. I usually do research on the specific type of child for a project. Youtube is a great source of reference for studying children! And if you pause them, it’s even easier!! Mostly I draw from imagination. My favorite place for people watching .. sitting in a Parisian Cafe with an excellent cup of coffee, a croissant and a sketch pad!!
 
Nancy: You moved from the UK to Maine.  Both are beautiful places, but do you ever long for hot, crispy summer days?
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Hazel: Believe me, Maine has plenty of hot summer days! And humid ones too. I lived in South Carolina when I moved from the UK, it was hellishly hot and I was glad to move North. (I’m a celt at heart.)
 
Nancy:  What kinds of things do you like to write? Are illustrations swirling in your head whenever you write?
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Hazel: Writing and visuals are mixed up together for me. I have several projects on the go from picture books to a middle grade novel. I do find, that even when working on a picture book, the words are very important. I’ll write descriptions of what I see before I draw them, but at the same time the images are jumping in my head. If I’m writing straight prose, there’s a movie playing in my mind.
 
Nancy: About how long is the creative process – from the time you take on a project (like ONE WORD PEARL) until you are holding the finished book in your hands?
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Hazel: One Word Pearl was a fast turnaround, about 3 months from receiving the manuscript. There isn’t much time for pondering. The book was in stores 7 months later. Of course it was in editing before I received it. I would love a nice, leisurely project!!
 
Nancy: If you could go back in time, is there any particular children’s book you would have loved to have illustrated?
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Hazel: That’s hard. When you think of the classics you love, they’re so set in stone, why would you change them? I think I am very attracted to chapter books, and I would have loved to illustrate something like Peter Pan.  (Nancy’s note: I can see Peter Pan wanting to peek in the window in the above picture).
Nancy: Here’s one that my writer friends and I wonder about: Which came first, the blog or the author page? Do you think  it’s smart to get a blog rolling when you are pre-published, and then just link to an author page when there is something to promote?  I’d love to know your thoughts since you have both (and both are so perfectly aligned visually!).
Hazel:  I started my blog first. I stayed off social networks for a while, but now I use everything in tandem. Which reminds me … I need to update my blog! 
You can find Hazel online at:
twitter:  @thewackybrit
 
BOOK GIVEAWAY! Hazel has generously offered a copy of ONE WORD PEARL to one lucky reader.  Just enter your favorite word in the comments below, and I’ll put your name in the hat!  If you’re not the gambling type, ONE WORD PEARL is available at your local indie bookstore.  Just click here!
Happy Reading.
Update 9/30/13:  Congratulations to the winner of a copy of ONE WORD PEARL, Michele Manning!  Thanks for playing.  By the way, my favorite word is fresh.  I especially like it in the context of fresh sheets, fresh piece of paper, and my all time favorite, fresh pot of coffee. 

Feelin’ and Spreadin’ the Love

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Happy Valentine’s Day!  Did you know it’s also International Book Giving Day?  IBGD is a “volunteer initiative aimed at increasing children’s access to and enthusiasm for books.”  What’s better than sharing book love?

The initiative suggests spreadin’ the love in one of these three ways:

1. Give a Book to a Friend or Relative.
2. Leave a Book in a Waiting Room or Lobby.
3. Donate a Book.  
There are so many good programs working to get books into the hands of kids who would otherwise not have access to them, including:
As for me, I’ll be leaving a fresh copy of BOY + BOT by Ame Dyckman (illustrated by Dan Yaccarino) in a local pediatrician’s office.
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My favorite part of this book is when Bot finds Boy sleeping, and he thinks Boy is sick.  He takes the boy home where he gives him oil, reads him an instruction manual, and tries to change his battery.  I think kids headed into a check-up at the doctor’s will get a kick out of this.
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The International Book Giving Day’s website has a lot of other great ideas for giving.   They also have fun bookplates, some designed by big names in the biz, which you can download for free.  I chose one by Debbie Ridpath Ohi, (illustrator of the new picture book, I’M BORED!):
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I’m all for flowers and chocolate, but if my husband gave me a bouquet of a dozen books, that would be an amazing valentine!  Hope you all get to share and feel some love today.

What helps?

Many of you probably spent the weekend as I did.  Not shopping and singing and baking, but crying and hugging and listening to the news in an “I-don’t-want-to-but-I-can’t-help-it” kind of way.  I tried to shield my children from my own sadness and from any details of the horrible tragedy that occurred on Friday in Newtown, CT.

I didn’t want to talk to them about lockdown drills and gunmen and unthinkable sadness.  The time may come for that.  Today they’ll return to the real world and their own school classrooms, where whispers and rumors will fly surely as they do among adults.  I won’t be able to keep them in the bubble for long.

But for the past two days, I pulled them close and bubbled up.  Fighting my own heavy heart and deepest fears, I reached for books, those stalwart companions in times of anxiety.

EACH KINDNESS by Jacqueline Woodson is a beautiful, lyrical picture book that tells the simple story of the ripple effect of kindness, and what happens when kindnesses are left undone.  Although they are “too old” for picture books, I “forced” my kids to let me read this one aloud.  We can’t change events of the past, but focusing on what good we might do in the future was at least, for a moment, something that made me feel less useless.

I also read for my own sanity, to escape.  And when I got halfway through SEE YOU AT HARRY’S by Jo Knowles I realized I had chosen the exact wrong escape hatch. (If you have read this book you probably just said, “Oh no! You read that to escape reality?”).

SEE YOU AT HARRY’S is a moving, incredibly well-written middle grade novel, told from the point of view of 12-year-old Fern.  Saying anything else here would spoil its power for you as a reader. But I will tell you that as I read on, and on, and on, unable to put the book down, I realized that while it didn’t provide the lift that a “light romantic comedy” might have, it actually was quite possibly the most helpful book I could have chosen to read this weekend.

On the book jacket, you’ll find comments such as “soul-sustaining,” and “a big booming beacon of [hope],” and “rich in…the gentle hope that grows from the heartbreak of tragedy.”  When you are ready, I encourage you to read it and be strengthened.

As we face the days ahead, I’ll be looking for and clinging to signs of gentle hope.  May we all find the strength to push down fear and lift up kindness.

A Stormy Read

How bad could the storm possibly have been, I wondered, as I read the first pages of Donn Fendler’s fantastically exciting memoir, Lost Trail.  (Down East Books, 2011)  Then five days ago, Sandy blew in with her hurricane force tropical tempest, and I realized how anxious bad weather can make us.  Even though I was safe in my home, miles and miles from the storm’s true path, my heart was racing and my ability to prioritize real vs. imagined danger was compromised.

So, in that moment, it was easier for me to imagine how a 12-year-old Donn Fendler from New York felt when a storm blew in as he summited Mt. Katahdin 73 years ago ago.

When Donn went on a fishing trip with his father and a group of friends in the northern Maine woods in the summer of 1939, the only care on his mind was finding the best fishing spot.  He never imagined he’d soon be in a race for his life.

Lost Trail is the true story of Donn’s 9-day adventure and struggle for survival alone on Mt. Katahdin, with nothing but the clothes on his back.  It is an exciting, page turning, uplifting story, which has been retold in a fantastic graphic novel format with Lynn Plourde.  The amazingly talented illustrator, Ben Bishop, has rendered the story with pen strokes that seem to grab the urgency of the situation and pull you into the story.

The story alone had me reading at a frantic pace, but the kicker is the actual newspaper articles and clippings from the Bangor Daily News, which chronicle the swell of people who surged in to help, and their trickling departure when it seemed all hope was lost.  I couldn’t imagine what Donn’s parents were thinking and feeling the day that the News reported: “Boy’s Body Likely Found.”

Of course, since he tells the story himself, you know the ending is a happy one:

Mr. Fendler now splits his time between Tennessee and Maine.  Through the years he has told his survival tale countless times, including in the 1939 book Lost on a Mountain in Maine by Joseph B. Egan (HarperCollins), which I’ll likely check out now for my son and I to read.

If you’re like me, you struggle with whether graphic novels are “really” books that your kids can “really” put on their reading log for school.  Since he was tiny, my son has always gravitated toward anything resembling a comic.  I remember snuggling my then two-year-old, wanting to read The Very Lonely Firefly, but instead reading something like:  and then with his last mortal breath, Dr. Mentor slashed the antidote from the wretched hands of the evil bomb maker…ROARRRRR screamed Hulk, his sinewy muscles snapping…. 

I’ll tell you what, those ‘graphic novels’ often have some pretty juicy vocabulary. Lost Trail is no exception.   The story is uber-compelling, and this re-telling is a guaranteed slam-dunk in any 8-10 year-old’s arsenal,  reluctant reader or not!