SARAH GIVES THANKS By Mike Allegra

The month of November is a great one for showing gratitude.  I love the trend I’m seeing on social media sites where people share one thing each day they are grateful for.  And of course there is good old Thanksgiving, a whole holiday based on the idea of saying, “Hey, Thanks, I’ve got a lot of great stuff in my life.”

We all know the story of Thanksgiving as it relates to the Pilgrims and the Indians, but that was just one meal.  Would you like to know where the idea for making Thanksgiving a national holiday came from?  You would?  GOOD!  Because today I’m happy to introduce you to  friendly author Mike Allegra, and his wonderful picture book that answers that question.

Sarah Gives Thanks Cover

SARAH GIVES THANKS is the story of Sarah Josephine Hale, a trailblazing writer and magazine editor, who felt that every American should celebrate Thanksgiving.  Starting with President Zachary Taylor in 1849, she wrote to the president (whomever it was) every year asking for Thanksgiving to be made a national holiday.  Finally, it was President Abraham Lincoln who granted her request.  It took her thirty-six years to get the response she was looking for, but she never gave up.  That’s some serious perseverance.  However, from the very first pages of the book, where illustrator David Gardner beautifully shows Sarah giving thanks even though she has just buried her husband, you know that this woman is not the type to give up easily.

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I had never heard of Sarah Josephine Hale or of her role in Thanksgiving before reading SARAH GIVES THANKS.  She was a groundbreaking feminist in so many ways, and I’m happy to have had this opportunity to learn about her and her life’s work.  This is the best kind of non-fiction picture book, one that reads as a narrative, is gorgeously illustrated,  and can speak to both adults and children.

Author Mike Allegra was kind enough to take the time to answer some of my questions about his writing career and how this particular picture book came to be:

Me and my office

Nancy: How long was the time from your first inkling of the idea for SARAH GIVES THANKS until you were holding the actual book?

Mike: A long, long time, actually. I began writing Sarah’s story in September 2009. I was asked for a rewrite in February 2010, which I completed that April, I think. The book was accepted in late summer with plans for a fall 2011 pub date. But then my editor left Albert Whitman and Company and the illustrator backed out. So the project was delayed a year – which turned out to be a huge blessing because my next editor, Kristen Ostby, was all kinds of patient and wonderful. Also SARAH GIVES THANKS’ new illustrator, David Gardner, is as nice as he is talented – which is to say, very.

Nancy: I once heard Henry Winkler say that when he his work in print for the first time, he “rubbed the book all over himself.” Did you have a similar, or any other, over-the-top reaction?

Mike: Tsk tsk. That was very un-Fonz-like of him.

I used up almost all of my over-the-top joy and giddiness when I first heard that my book was accepted. By the time SARAH GIVES THANKS was printed – about two years later – my primary emotion was relief. I just remember hearing the words, “I did it,” over and over in my head. There was no exclamation point at the end of that statement, either. My “I did it,” was an exhausted, non-demonstrative declarative sentence.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I was happy, very happy, but my happiness was so low key, my family didn’t know what to think of me. I think my reaction disappointed them a little.

(Nancy:  I wonder if that’s how Sarah felt when Lincoln finally said ‘yes’, after 36 years…).

Nancy: How much research did you need to do on Sarah Hale? Did you get any good trips out of it?

Mike: Hm. Would you call a trip to Philadelphia “good?” I spent most of my time in The City of Brotherly Love in an archive huddled over 160-year-old magazines taking notes until my fingers cramped up into a monkey’s paw. When I wasn’t taking notes, I was getting yelled at by officious old ladies who caught me taking notes with a pen – which, I’m told, is a very bad thing to do. I suppose archivists live in constant fear of vandals doodling on historic manuscripts in ink. So I was issued a sharpened pencil and told to behave myself.

I did a lot of research, partly for the book and partly because I found Sarah Josepha Hale’s life story to be so fascinating. Not only did Sarah lead the effort to turn Thanksgiving into a national holiday, but she also was a celebrated author and editor. In fact, the magazine she helmed, Lady’s Book, was the most widely read periodical in America. She wrote the very first anti-slavery novel (about 25-years before Uncle Tom’s Cabin). She was a huge proponent of education for women. She led charities, raised funds for historic landmarks, and increased public awareness on a whole host of social issues. And she did it all while raising five children by herself (her husband had died of pneumonia years before).

In short, Sarah Josepha Hale is amazing. It was hard for me not to get a little geeked out.

(Nancy:  Yes, she had me at ‘raising five children by herself.’)

Nancy: The illustrations in SARAH GIVES THANKS are wonderful. How much interaction did you have with illustrator David Gardner during the process?

Mike: They are wonderful, aren’t they?

David and I weren’t in direct contact during the process. In fact, there were three degrees of separation. My only contact was with my editor, who relayed any comments I had about the illustrations to the art director, who then relayed them to David. This process makes sense when you think about it; the people at Albert Whitman were taking all the financial risks with SARAH so they need to be in control of the communication process.

After the book was done, however, David and I quickly got in touch. Even though we live on opposite ends of the country, he and I chat regularly. I’m proud to call him a friend.

Nancy: What are the top five things you are thankful for in your life?

  1. Family, of course
  2. My ability to make a living as a writer
  3. Good health
  4. Books
  5. Waffles

Nancy: And most importantly…What is your favorite kind of pie?

Mike:  Believe it or not, it’s pumpkin.

Nancy:  I think Sarah would approve.  Thanks, Mike, for sharing your insights on the process of creating a picture book, and for sharing this important story and amazing woman with all of us.

I think SARAH GIVES THANKS  would make an excellent addition to any elementary school classroom or library.  To order, click here!

Look for more Mike Allegra on his blog:  http://mikeallegra.com/ and Facebook page!  Mike makes my November gratitude list under the heading “people who make me laugh,”  and for that I’m very grateful.

Writing's hard work

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?
Process character Character design
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. 

Gee Ma, I Wanna Go!

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Every summer, millions of kids pack up trunks, suitcases, bug nets and swim suits and head off into the unknown.  Going to “sleep away” camp for the first time is a huge step in a child’s life.  And, I’ve discovered, an even bigger step in a Mom’s!

The freedom from sibling squabbling and extra demands is luxurious, but it comes at a price.  For me, it was lost sleep.  The first night my son was away, I obsessively stared at my weather app, set to the town he was in,  picturing him asleep but with his blankets fallen to the ground.

As day one, two, and then three passed with no phone call home, I realized this week was probably a “go” and that I should relax into it. It took some doing, but going out to lunch or breakfast nearly every day with the remaining kid has helped.  Also added a few pounds I do believe.

The theme “summer camp” is a storytellers dream.  Today is pick up day, and I intend to have a pen and notebook nearby as my son gives me the blow-by-blow, because I just know some idea is going to lodge itself in my fingertips and demand to be written.

There are already legions of great books based on the time honored tradition of sleeping outside and communing with mosquitos.  I found that reading a few together before my son left was a great way to prepare us both.  Here are some book suggestions for you and your little camper!

For a couple of funny picture books about summer camp, here’s a great post by Mia Wenjen on the subject:

http://www.pragmaticmom.com/2013/08/funny-picture-books-about-summer-camp/

…And here are some you could tuck in the suitcase of a kid going to “Gramma Camp”:

http://www.grandparents.com/grandkids/toys-books-and-entertainment/best-childrens-books-summer-camp

Do you have your own favorite “summer camp” story?  I’d love to hear it in the comments below.

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Blink

I’m at the park, waving a tissue like a flag, running after a drippy-nosed toddler.  I’m sweaty, fuzzy with exhaustion, and have a vague headache.  My other toddler has left my field of vision, causing my heart to fling into spasms, even though the kid is probably just behind the next slide.  I’ve  had about two sips of the now lukewarm coffee in my travel mug.  I’m longing for the moment I can return us all to our beds, and it is not even 9:00 a.m. yet.

Enter older, well-meaning, I’ve-been-there type person:  “Ohhh, what a precious time!  Enjoy every minute! It goes so fast!”

Social convention and my inner dialogue compete to see whether my response will be “I know, I am so blessed and grateful, thank you”  OR “are you bleeping kidding me?”  (I don’t swear a lot but the bleep in this case would so be a real one).

It took me awhile, but I finally reconciled with all the people who made that comment to me over the early-childhood years. (There were A LOT.  So many, that I had to finally admit there was probably some truth to this ‘it goes so fast’ business).  I honed my response, sans profanity, to be, “Yes, the years go fast, but each day can be so painfully long.”

Now I’m the slightly older one, and my kids wipe their own noses (for the most part).  I’ve promised myself never to tell a haggard young mom to enjoy every minute, but I do see now, poignantly, what those sages were trying to warn me about.

For me, nothing shows the passing of time more succinctly than the book choices on my kids’ nightstands.

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While I was finishing dinner dishes, Ferdinand  somehow fluidly became The Magic Treehouse.  Suddenly,  Alexander’s bad day is seems really lame compared to Harry Potter’s time under the cupboard.

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And now – blink- my daughter’s middle grade novels are slowly becoming covered in a fine layer of YA reads.  In the time it took her to change from a one-piece bathing suit into a new sassy tankini, Anne of Green Gables has been one-upped by Bella from Twilight.

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Lucky for me, I write for children.  So instead of donating old books, I just move them to the shelves in my writing nook.  Then stealthily, gleefully, when the kids have had a long day, I casually ask, “Do you guys want to snuggle in and hear me read Blueberries for Sal?”

For now, the answer is still yes.

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.

Deliberate Kindness

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The holidays were different this year; more poignant, less frenzied.  As a mother of elementary school-aged kids living in Connecticut, it was impossible not to feel the wave of sadness emanating from Newtown.  The holiday-cheer-status-quo was elusive,  knowing that just miles away, so many families would never have a “status quo” again.

To help peel myself out of the darkness that seemed to be consuming me, I dug deep into family, and wrapped hugs around me like blankets. I also began to look around for “good news.”  It’s a little game I play with myself in order to keep from taking to my bed and staying there.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the movement news anchor Ann Curry sparked, encouraging people to do 26 acts of kindness to honor those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. (#26 Acts).  It’s been a joy watching so many people reach out to others, and to see the clever ways people have thought of to be kind to one another.

But performing “random acts of kindness” is not a new concept.  I’ve seen and and lived examples of this principle for years, and have been grateful each time a moment of kindness entered my life, or that I had a chance to be an agent of kindness myself.

So I got to thinking about people who were on this kindness band wagon, in big ways, before the words Sandy Hook Elementary became so heartbreakingly known to us all.

Kelley Faust is the President and “Chief Hope Officer” of Sunshine Hope, an organization that “creates ways for people to find support and friendship, seek refuge from stress, and feel better about their lives and the world around them.” How cool is that?  Here is their mission statement:

Sunshine Hope empowers individuals to live each day to the fullest by helping them build clear minds, healthy bodies and strong spirits. Through our online community, educational and thought-provoking content and inspirational products, we seek to spread hope and add joy to the world, one life at a time.

Kelley has written and published a book called THE SUPERPOWER OF ME. The description on her website says: “This happy, positive little book of possibility reminds children of all ages to believe in the power within themselves, to realize they are strong and resilient, to live, love, and laugh each day.”

Now who wouldn’t want their kid to have a book like that in their library??  Which is why donating a couple of copies of this book to BOOK TRAIN was a no-brainer for me.

Book Train is an organization started by author Lynda Mullaly Hunt, which seeks to “(Help) foster children discover great books, and keep them.”  In a very simple process, you send new books to a social worker, who gets them into the hands of a foster child.  I absolutely love the idea of giving a foster child something lasting that they can keep.

Lynda’s own novel, ONE FOR THE MURPHYS, tells the story of a foster child  who learns how to love and be loved in the home of the Murphy family.  One of the themes of the book is the idea that ordinary people can be heros.

So how about you? I hope to take a cue from Kelley and Lynda this year and look for deliberate and lasting ways to help people.  What will you do to be someone’s hero in 2013?

Worth a Visit: The Eric Carle Museum

I have the pleasure of living a short drive from a mecca for picture book fans:  The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.  Located in Amherst, MA, the museum is designed to “inspire a love of art and reading through picture books.”

It was founded in November 2002 by Eric Carle (well-known author/illustrator of over 70 books, including the iconic classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar), and his wife Barbara Carle.

The museum is a wonderful place to explore with children, but you will get much more out of your visit if you do a little planning ahead of time.  The museum is not a children’s museum, per se.  Actually, one of the things I like about taking my kids there is that it affords a small, safe environment for them to learn proper museum etiquette.  You won’t find Eric Carle’s caterpillar or butterfly or brown bear all over the walls (although they do cleverly haunt the bathroom tiles).  What you will find are several dimly lit galleries (which highlight the work of picture book authors and illustrators on a rotating basis), a welcoming reading library, and an interactive art studio.  There is also a rock-star gift shop, but I limit my time there so as not to spend my children’s college savings accounts prematurely.

To make the galleries more enjoyable for children, be sure to ask for the scavenger hunt style activities at the front desk or from one of the docents.  Or, if you know what artist is currently on display, you can set up some activities ahead of time.

We recently visited the exhibit, “The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats” (on display through October 14th).  Fortuitously, the other parent joining me on the outing is a “Librarian Mom” and just happened to have at least 7 of Ezra Jack Keat’s books in her home library.  On the drive up to the museum, we had our kids each choose one of the books to read.  Then we told them to find one picture from their chosen book that they would be “on the lookout” for in the gallery.  (My favorite part was the 90 seconds of silence that accompanied their book reading).

Here are said children with their Keats books, ready to hunt.

They were so excited to match the pictures from the books in their hands to the ones framed on the walls.  The staff in the room circulated without hovering, helping the kids to experience the art work while maintaining some decorum.  Not easy!

My favorite part of the exhibit was the display of letters that fans of Keats’ had written him over the years.  Keats was one of the first picture book artists to portray African-American children in his work, and many of the letters thanked him for that and defended him against critics.

After enjoying the galleries, we wandered into the kid-friendly art studio.  In a room with floor-to-ceiling windows, several tables were set up with inviting art supplies.  Suggested art projects rotate frequently.  A friendly staff member explained the ‘project du jour’:  Imagining your perfect day.  Adults and kids alike got in on the act, using the large variety of paper provided to make cut-outs, and then finishing with watercolor paints.

Here’s my modest attempt, depicting me and Librarian Mom talking about nature, books, and ranting about whatever’s on our minds:

What would you imagine as your perfect day? Would you turn into a butterfly?

Or go to the beach….

…and enjoy the sunset?

Or maybe you’d just hang out with your family:

Whatever your pleasure, be sure to make time for a trip to this special museum.  It’s inspiring!