I’m a sucker for a good pun. And when that pun serves a holiday that I celebrate, well, I have to celebrate the pun, too! So author Laura Gehl is here today with her new book, HAPPY LLAMAKKAH!

Laura, what sparked your idea for HAPPY LLAMAKKAH?

This was one of those books where the title came first. What’s not to love about a llama/Hanukkah combination? Usually when a great title pops into my head, I discover a book with that title already exists. I was amazed to find that wasn’t the case with this one. My Internet search found plenty of ugly Happy Llamakkah sweaters (my entire family is getting matching ones for Hanukkah this year…shhhh!), but no books. Still, figuring out the right story to go with the title was harder.

So many to choose from! Who knew?

I started off in a completely different direction from where I ended up. My first draft involved a human family encountering a llama family while backpacking over Hanukkah. That draft included, among other Hanukkah/llama connections, using llama poop to start a fire to light the Hanukkah candles (based on my research, this is completely possible, and I recommend everyone try it). A few of my critique partners gently pointed out that the jaunty tone of the title didn’t quite match with the text, which actually had a fairly serious storyline despite poop playing a key role. They suggested perhaps a rhyming story aimed at younger readers, with Happy Llamakkah as a refrain, would work better. After that, the book came together quickly, with no humans and no poop—only llamas and latkes.

What a hilarious story! Now I gotta think of a follow-up question to that!

Do Llamas celebrate Hanukkah any differently than humans?   

Short answer—no! Longer answer: the Llama family in the book enjoys all the same Hanukkah activities as my own family…including lighting candles, playing dreidel, eating gelt and sufganiyot, and exchanging gifts. The only key differences are that the llamas in the book make a snow llama instead of a snowman (one of my very favorite illustrations by Lydia Nichols!) and that the Llama family gets to have friends come over to celebrate with them, since COVID is not a part of their world. Speaking of which, when you are finished looking up “ugly Happy Llamakah sweater,” you should look up “llama antibodies COVID-19.” A truly fascinating rabbit-hole into which to descend. You’re welcome.

Now we all know coal, carrots and a scarf make good snowman decorations. Do you have any tips for building snow llamas?

Why yes, Tara, indeed I do!

  1. Invite a real llama over to be your model.
  2. Build a llama body and head out of snow.
  3. Add ears and fur with hay and grasses. Take a photo quickly before Step #4.
  4. Watch the real llama eat all the hay and grasses off of the snow llama.
  5. Snuggle with the real llama while enjoying a cup of hot chocolate and wearing your Happy Llamakah sweater.

But don’t forget the llatkes! (Did you see that clever spelling?)

Umm, sure.

And llighting the Menorah!

OK, Tara.

And spinning…wait for it…the driedellama!

Great.

Are we done here?

Yes! Thank you for stopping by and for offering a signed copy to one of our blog readers! (US only)

Please leave one comment below to enter.

A winner will be selected on December 1! Good luck!

And…if you order a copy of Happy Llamakkah by December 7 from any independent bookstore, send your receipt to Laura at AuthorLauraGehl@gmail.com to receive a personalized Hanukkah card, bookplate, and llama stickers.


Laura Gehl is the author of more than twenty picture books, board books, and early readers. Her 2020 releases included Baby Paleontologist, Judge Juliette, May Saves the Day, Cat Has a Plan, and The Ninja Club Sleepover. Laura loves to snuggle up with a llama while reading a good book. Or at least she would love to give it a try! Visit her online at lauragehl.com.

by Kira Bigwood

Thank you so much, Tara, for having me on your blog today. I’m thrilled to share my story—a Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature success story…that almost wasn’t.

It was 2018, and the third year in a row I was applying to the annual RUCCL One-on-One Plus Conference. If I’m being honest, I was feeling a bit deflated. The previous two years, I submitted what I thought were my absolute-slam-dunk manuscripts…andddddd got rejected. That year, I didn’t feel I had anything that resembled even a layup. I waited until the very last day to submit, and then decided to try something different.

Remember that Seinfeld episode where George does everything opposite?

Jerry tells him, “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

I decided to test this theory. Going against all my instincts, I submitted what I thought was my weakest story (writing is subjective, after all). And wouldn’t you know, I got accepted!

Now I had been given the thrilling opportunity to travel to New Jersey. Where I knew no one. To attend a conference. Where I knew no one. And go over my work, face to face, with a real live editor (who, to recap, I did not know).

Kira was terrified.

But I wasn’t Kira. I was Opposite Kira!

For one whole weekend, I forced myself to go against every introvert instinct I had (a truly, truly difficult thing to do). Every time I felt like retreating into my bagel and cream cheese, I wondered, “What would Costanza do?”

That is how I found myself walking solo into a hotel bar to meet up with other attendees. That is how I found myself striking up a conversation with the conference co-chair (the charming Tara herself, who gave me a shout-out during her closing remarks). That is how I found myself showing my mentor one last manuscript—“It’s a lullaby for little spies, but it might not be anything yet”—which is how I found myself chatting up a different editor at lunch, who just happened to love spy stories.

And that, my friends, is how I found myself with a debut picture book.

SECRET, SECRET AGENT GUY (a 007-twist on the classic Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star) illustrated by the talented Celia Krampien, releases this May from Atheneum/Simon & Schuster. And all because I went against every instinct I had.

If you’re in a rut, why not try being your opposite self? Why not try doing everything “wrong?” It just might be the rightest thing you do.

Blog readers, Kira is giving away a PB critique!

Leave a comment below to enter.

A random winner will be selected soon!

Good luck!


Kira Bigwood is an advertising copywriter and kidlit author who lives in Chicago with her husband and three “spirited” children. Her debut picture book, SECRET, SECRET AGENT GUY, is now available for pre-order.. Say “Hi!” on Instagram @kirabigwood and Twitter @KBigwood.

by Charles Ghigna, aka Father Goose

We are excited to have Tara Lazar host our cover reveal today. Thank you!

A POEM IS A FIREFLY was truly a joy to create! I wanted to introduce the magic and wonder of poetry to young readers in a new and exciting way. My mission was to show children that poetry lives all around them, especially in nature. All they have to do is stop and look around. What better way to introduce children to the marvels of poetry than to have a friendly bunch of woodland animals gather in a forest clearing to answer the question, “What is a poem?” Of course, I wanted each character to show their answer in a metaphor, along with a catchy rhyme. What an exciting challenge that was! I only hope children and their parents have nearly as much fun reading A POEM IS A FIREFLY as I did in writing it.

It was also a pleasure for me to see our story and characters come to life in Michelle Hazelwood Hyde’s lovable illustrations. She captures such joy and whimsy in every scene, in the personality of each character. Children will have fun discovering their favorites, from the the cuddly bear on the cover to the big friendly moose who playfully wanders in and out of each scene from the early morning sunrise to the early evening when the firefly comes out to play.

And now, let’s hear from the talented illustrator, Michelle Hazelwood Hyde!

My absolute favorite moment of summer is when the fireflies begin to come out. I remember as a little girl catching them with my brother, sister, and cousins. It was so pure and magical. It still is to me. So when I was invited to illustrate the manuscript A POEM IS A FIREFLY, it was a dream come true. I am so grateful to get the opportunity to recreate those innocent moments of my childhood through the eyes of a series of playful animals. I hope the cover takes you to a peaceful summer evening, with all the wonderful shades of blues and greens, and that magic moment you spot your first firefly. At that moment if feels like anything is possible. It truly is.

Thank you for sharing your beautiful cover and story behind the story, Charles and Michelle!

A POEM IS A FIREFLY releases on May 28, 2021 from Schiffer Kids and is available for pre-order now.

As a thank you for visiting the cover reveal today, Charles is giving away a paperback copy of his book ILLUSIONS: Poetry and Art for the Young at Heart.

Leave one comment to enter.

A winner will be randomly selected soon.

Good luck!

I have always loved novelty books—they are proof that big things come in small packages! With their brief yet powerful words, adorable pictures, and clever format, they are the book equivalent of a “fun size” candy bar. I’ve even tried to write a couple, but who knows if they’ll ever be published? I’m no Salina Yoon!

Today, author Terry Pierce tells us about her newest novelty book, illustrated by Suzy Ultman, and how it came to be.

Terry, I’ve often heard it’s extremely difficult to get a novelty book deal if you’re an author-only (and not an author-illustrator). Please tell us now that’s bunkum!

Oh, Tara, I wish I could tell you that’s bunkum, but I honestly have to say that LOVE CAN COME IN MANY WAYS (as a novelty book) was an extremely happy accident. It began as a picture book, strangely, born out of politics. After the 2016 national election, I was so saddened at the civil discourse in our country. People just weren’t being nice, in my opinion, so I found myself wanting to write about something up-lifting. Perhaps to lift my own spirits, but I wanted to create a book that would make children feel better about the world.

I decided to write a picture book about love, but wanted to make it super kid-friendly, so I used animals as the focus. For weeks, I poured over images of animals showing affection, which certainly filled my heart (and time—oh boy, what a rabbit hole it is to seek adorable animal photos online!). When I saw a photo of a mother and baby giraffe looking at each other, I had my opening line:

Nose to nose or gaze to gaze,
Love can come in many ways.

I worked on the manuscript (writing-revising-incorporating feedback from my critique group) for about three months. During that time, I realized it leaned more toward being a board book due to the sparse text and simple concept. When it was ready, I sent it to my agent, hoping she would love it as much as I did.

She held it for a few weeks before submitting it to a round of editors. Lucky for us, Chronicle Books expressed interest five days later. And it was my brilliant editor Ariel Richardson who envisioned it as a novelty book! Of course, I was thrilled! I’d always wanted to publish a novelty book, but as you wisely noted, it’s not easy for an author-only to sell one (I came close once, but ultimately it was a pass).

So was it your editor’s idea to do the felt flaps, uncovering the sweet surprises? How did that concept come together?

The initial idea was to publish it as a novelty book with various moving parts (flaps, tabs, etc.) but soon into the process, Ariel let me know they wanted to use felt flaps exclusively. She was excited about some gorgeous felt samples they’d found that were both beautifully colored and durable (to withstand the tugs and manipulations of small hands). When she emailed me the sample color palettes, I absolutely agreed!

Once we knew it would be a lift-a-flap book, it was then time for the amazing Suzy Ultman to start the rough sketches, which included possible flap placement. Suzy is such a talent for drawing “all things tiny” as I like to say, and she did a great job of incorporating the text into those sweet surprises under the flaps.

Did this concept change any of your text? Were animals brought in or moved out to make optimal use of the flaps?

We did make some slight changes to the text but not to adapt to the flap concept. Suzy was so creative in how she implemented the flap idea—some flaps were body parts (an elephant’s ear, a swan’s wing), others were part of their design (a heart-spotted giraffe has a felt heart that lifts, for example) that I didn’t need to change the text and one even became a leaf.

Where we did make some minor changes were to the types of animals. I wrote the line, “Enclosed in tender, toothy jaws” based on a photo of an alligator carrying her baby in her mouth. It was SO cool! But no matter how Suzy drew it, it looked like the mom was eating her baby! Yikes! We discussed other animals and decided pandas would work better since they have kid-appeal and do in fact, carry their babies in their mouths.

Another line I changed was, “Through soothing songs that mama sings” (originally featuring belugas) to “Through lively songs that mama sings” because Ariel thought it would work better visually to feature a full-spread pond scene with the raccoon and swan on the left, and frogs on the right.

One of my favorite flap ideas was with the final page. Originally, we were going to have speech bubble flaps, but it didn’t quite work out spatially because we really wanted to show a diverse cast of humans on the final spread. We opted for one speech bubble flap instead. Ariel had asked me to think of possible phrases and the first one that came to mind was how I always sign my first board book (Mama Loves You So), “You are loved!” The team agreed it was a great message to end the reading/snuggling/bonding experience, and with the neon pink flap over it, well, it’s perfect!

Terry, this book is sweet and adorable. Congratulations and thanks for talking about its creation!

Blog readers, you can win a copy of LOVE CAN COME IN MANY WAYS!

Just leave one (not many) comment below.

A random winner will be chosen soon!

Good luck!


With twenty-five published books, Terry Pierce has experienced the joys of being a writer in many ways. She has a B.A. degree in Early Childhood Development and an international A.M.I. teaching diploma. Terry was a pre-primary Montessori teacher for twenty-two years before deciding to follow my dream of writing for children (what she calls, “the best mid-life crisis ever!”). She’s been writing since 1999, with her work appearing in magazines and the children’s book market. She has an MFA in Writing for Children &Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, including the Picture Book Concentration certification. She also teaches online children’s writing courses for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Visit her at terrypiercebooks.com.

by PJ Gardner

Calling all storytellers! Early middle grade needs you!

If you’re like me when I first started writing HORACE & BUNWINKLE, my debut novel, the term “early middle grade” is relatively unfamiliar. We’re much more aware of upper middle grade and the way it helps readers transition into the young adult sphere. But early middle grade is a real thing with a similar goal, only in its case the transition is from Chapter Books.

So What Is Early Middle Grade and How Is It Different From Chapter Books?

Let’s do a break down of the basics.

Chapter Books

  • Age of reader: 5-10
  • Word count: 5,000 – 10,000
  • Subject matter: concentrate on the external events of the story, fewer characters, less character development, more straightforward story

Early Middle Grade Books

  • Age of reader: 7-11 (8-9 year olds being the ideal age)
  • Word count: 15,000-30,000
  • Subject matter: Bigger cast, more complex characters, who have emotional arcs. Complex stories.

The Sky’s the Limit

Early Middle Grade is where we start to lose young readers, and I think that’s directly tied to the limited number of books aimed at them. And that’s where you come in.

Writing for this age group is full of possibilities. Series like JUDY MOODY, DOG MAN and GERONIMO STILTON prove that kids love a book with a healthy mix of the written word and images. Graphic novels are another format that kids are excited about, which is great news for author-illustrators.

Humor and adventure stories are always popular. However, books like A BOY CALLED BAT show that there is interest in deeper, real life topics as well. Also, there is growing need and desire for diverse characters.

Keys to Writing Early Middle Grade

There are two major keys to writing for this age group—create believable characters and craft dynamic plots.

Believable Characters

As writers for young readers we know children are people, too. They experience heartbreak and joy and everything in between as much as any adult. The difference is they don’t always have the language to identify or process those emotions. Books are an excellent way of giving them that vocabulary. I truly believe the early middle grade years are the most critical time to do that.

The best characters are born from a respect for the emotional life of the reader. So, whatever your character is experiencing—whether it’s funny or sad—keep it real. Dialogue and inner thoughts are especially important in creating that believability.

Dynamic Plots

By seven years of age a child has already consumed countless hours of TV and video games, where they have encountered a wide variety of stories. This means they won’t be satisfied by or invested in a book that isn’t interesting and compelling. The plot should have twists and turns, highs and lows, and real stakes. It may not be life or death, but it should feel that serious to the characters.

But Seriously You Should Consider Early Middle Grade

It may seem like a huge jump to go from picture books to early middle grade, but it’s actually a natural step. It calls for the same kind of creativity and skill set, as well as the enthusiasm for storytelling.

Early middle grade is the perfect place to branch out. First, it’s an under-tapped market, and it’s a fantastic market. Seven to eleven year olds are hungry for good books and they are absolutely devoted to their favorite authors. At present there simply aren’t enough books geared to the 7-9 year-old crowd.

Unfortunately, picture books are in lower demand right now. If you’re an illustrator as well, it can be time-consuming, which drastically limits the number of projects you can do at any given time. And, let’s be honest, they have smaller advances, too. These are the reasons why I recommend diversifying.

While no one can predict what will happen in publishing I’m convinced middle grade in general, and early middle grade specifically, is about to hit a boom.

Personally, I love writing for this age group. And I love getting pictures of kids reading my book independently. That’s a huge deal and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

I hope you consider being a part of early middle grade as well, because there will never be a better time to share your stories with older readers.


When PJ Gardner was a little girl growing up in Colorado she dreamt of being an actress or a dental hygienist or even Mrs. John Travolta. It didn’t occur to her that she could be a writer until she was a grown up. Her debut middle grade novel, Horace & Bunwinkle, has been published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins, and she’s thrilled. PJ lives in the scorching heat of the Arizona desert with her husband, sons, and Boston Terriers, Rosie and Rocky. She doesn’t own a pig because her husband says she’s not allowed to. Visit her online at pjgardnerswitzer.com.

If you’ve been paying attention to the picture book scene the last few years, you’re sure to recognize this fella…

No, not that fella! He’s new!

I mean this fella…

…drawn by this fella…

…Mike Boldt!

So you’ve no doubt heard of him…he’s got several hit books under his pencil and now I can introduce that OTHER fella, because he’s the star of Mike’s brand-new book!

Say hello to Fergus!

Mike, how did Fergus first find his way into your head?

My ideas come from all sorts of places. The idea of Find Fergus literally came out of a conversation that I was having with my friend, Dan Santat. In jest, I said I was going to do a knock off of Where’s Waldo?, but where Waldo was terrible at hiding. We laughed, and then Dan told me that was a really good idea, and I should make it. I thought about it, and decided he was right! So I did!

Was Fergus always a bear? 

Yes! It was very quickly decided that Fergus was going to be a bear, since actually doing Waldo in my own story wasn’t really an option. I thought a large bear would be funny, and then I tried to give him a Waldo flair with the glasses to pay tribute to the “original”.

Let’s talk about the color scheme. Why bright yellow?

I found the bright yellow background for Fergus right away. Originally, when I was working on the pitch, I did up a couple samples of a finished cover and a finished spread, and I used yellow in the background as a placeholder. But I instantly liked it so much it just stuck. There was one option where we tried a different color background, but it definitely was not right for this book.

Why do you think Fergus likes to hide so much? What’s going on beneath that big ball of fur?

Well, I believe Fergus is a character who has a rather childlike care-free approach to things in life. So whether he knows how to hide or not, he’s a bear who is going to have fun doing it. I really wanted to not only make sure that the theme wasn’t “Practice makes perfect” but rather “Practice makes progress”. I think with that approach we can have a lot more fun, like Fergus, even if we aren’t very good at something and enjoy the process. Besides, who doesn’t love a good game of hide and seek?!

No one doesn’t love hide and seek! 

Mike, can you give us any hints about your upcoming projects?

Funny you should ask, Tara! I actually have two books coming out next year. A wonderful and silly book called GOOD NIGHT, ALLIGATOR by Rebecca Van Slyke, and another hilarious picture book called BLOOP (by YOU!) about a hilarious space invader. That’s about it for now.

Well, it’s a good thing we have a Mike Boldt book now to tide us over!

And blog readers, you can win a copy!

I’ll count while you go hide! 10, 9, 8…

Kidding! Just leave a comment below to enter and a random winner will be selected soon.

Good luck!

And follow Fergus’ Indie bookstore tour:

by Amanda Davis

Hi Tara! Thank you so much for hosting me on your blog. I’m super excited to be here and can’t wait to share my Storystorm Success Story with everyone.

In case you’re not familiar with me or my work, I’m an author, artist, and high school art educator who uses my art and writing to light up the world with kindness. After losing my father at the age of twelve, I turned to art and writing as an outlet. It became my voice. A way to cope. A way to escape. And a way to tell my story. Because of this, I was inspired to teach art and pursue my passion for writing and illustrating children’s books. Through my work, I hope to empower younger generations to tell their own stories and offer children and adults an entryway into a world of discovery. A world that can help them make sense of themselves, others, and the community around them. A world where they can navigate, imagine, and feel inspired—over and over again.

As you can see, art and writing have been a part of my life ever since I was little, but let’s fast forward to September 2011. The new school year was upon me, and I was searching for a lesson I could do with my high school art classes to teach them about the tenth remembrance of September 11, 2001. Each year, I touch upon 9/11 in my curriculum. We learn about the events and do an art project in remembrance. This year, while browsing through some magazines, I came across a little blurb about an American flag that flew over Ground Zero in the days after 9/11. The flag became torn and tattered and was taken down and stored away. Seven years later, the flag emerged from storage and was brought down to a small town in Kansas, to be retired. But instead, the flag was patched back together and later traveled to all all fifty states to be fully restored; returning to New York on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 as a symbol of hope and unity.

“Wow! This was it!” I thought. I’d found my lesson. So, that year, students learned about the National 9/11 flag, and we created our own patchwork flag that was inspired by the story of the National 9/11/ Flag. It was a beautiful project and a beautiful story that stuck with me long after the lesson was complete.

Fast forward again to January 2018. It was a new year, and I was reflecting on my writing and illustrating goals. Was I doing enough? How can I improve? What new resources are out there? Etc., etc.,. This is when I came across Tara’s Storystorm challenge—30 ideas in 30 days. This was the perfect way to commit to my creativity at the start of the new year. I was in!

Each day I collected my ideas in my special A.A. Milner Winnie the Pooh journal. On Day 5, there was a post from Corey Rosen Schwartz titled Begs, Borrows, & Steals. The post was all about borrowing ideas from YOURSELF. She talked about re-examining past ideas, pondering over them, and picking them apart. She suggested going back into your files, notebooks, and sketchbooks to see what was lingering. AHA! How brilliant! This led me back to the flag.  The story always lingered in the back of my mind, but Corey’s suggestions brought it to the forefront again. I got to thinking, “Why not make this a kid’s book?” So, I noted this in my trusty journal, scribbled an idea for a pitch, and continued with my Storystorm journey.

Lo and behold, I ended up being a Storystorm Grand Prize Winner and now had the chance to pitch five of my Storystorm ideas to agent Jennifer March Soloway. I was blown away and super stoked! I polished up my pitches (the story of the flag being one of them… then called ONE STITCH AT A TIME) and sent them off to Jennifer. In her response, she encouraged me to focus on the flag story, calling it “a marvelous idea with great potential.” Hooray! With Jennifer’s insights in mind, I now had the confidence to forge ahead with my story idea, begin my research, and later query agents and editors with the story.

Now, ten years since I first conducted my high school art lesson on the National 9/11 Flag, two years after Storystorm’s inspiration, and many, many, many drafts later, 30,000 STITCHES is the story that landed me my first agent and is set to be published with WorthyKids/Hachette Book Group on May 4, 2021.

It will enter the world twenty years after the tragic events of 9/11. The beautiful spread that is pictured here, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport, shows the flag coming to its last stop in Joplin, Missouri before returning to New York. The image showcases the people and places the flag touched throughout its 120,000 mile journey across the United States—criss-crossing borders and cross stitching lives. With today being Election Day, I think this image perfectly captures the power of the people when we come out and come together.  At the core of this story, are seeds of hope, seeds of unity, and seeds of strength. It’s about the power of working together to overcome hard things. It’s about kindness, compassion, and service to others. I hope that anyone who reads 30,000 STITCHES will be reminded that we are connected through our shared stories. Our stories are stitched together. Our stories are the fabric of America.

Thanks so much to Storystorm and to you, Tara, for giving writer’s opportunities to get inspired and share their work. Storystorm comes around again in January 2021!

Don’t forget to enter the giveaway for a chance to win one of ten signed copies of 30,000 STITCHES! Sign up here!

Oh yes, one more thing, GO VOTE!

You can check out some of the 9/11 remembrance projects I’ve done with students here: 9/11 Remembrance Projects and stay tuned on my website for classroom activity guides for 30,000 STITCHES.


Amanda Davis is a teacher, artist, writer, and innovator who uses her words and pictures to light up the world with kindness. After losing her father at the age of twelve, Amanda turned to art and writing as an outlet. It became her voice. A way to cope. A way to escape. And a way to tell her story. She was thus inspired to teach art and pursue her passion for writing and illustrating children’s books. Through her work, Amanda empowers younger generations to tell their own stories and offers children and adults an entryway into a world of discovery. A world that can help them make sense of themselves, others, and the community around them. A world where they can navigate, imagine, and feel inspired—over and over again. When she’s not busy creating, you can find her sipping tea, petting dogs, and exploring the natural wonders of The Bay State with her partner and rescue pup, Cora. Visit her online at amandadavisart.com, on Twitter @amandadavisart, Instagram @amandadavis_art and Facebook.

Not every damsel needs saving! Introducing…LILLYBELLE!

This new picture book by Joana Pastro turns the troubled damsel theme on its head. It’s exactly what editors want, to take a common subject and twist it around so it becomes fresh and new. I invited Joana on the blog today to ask her about her debut book and how she got the idea for it…

Thanks for having me, Tara! I got the idea from a call for submissions from Cricket Magazine. The prompt was “Knights and Castles.” So, I began researching and expanding on that prompt, until I came upon the phrase “damsel in distress,” I immediately added the word “not” and BOOM! I had my idea and a title! Once I had that, the story of a girl who saves herself poured out of me pretty easily.

Beyond being a great message for young girls, what else do you hope kids will take away from the story?

I hope it’ll reinforce in boys that girls are equals. That stories with girl main characters can be just as interesting, compelling and important as the ones with boy characters.That girls’ stories matter too! I hope children learn to stand up for themselves, and see that problems can be solved by using their smarts and by being friendly. That life is much easier without crying, yelling and violence. And last, but not least, that they learn to accept and celebrate the differences between people, and that these differences make life more colorful and interesting.

LILLYYBELLE is your debut picture book–congratulations! What have you learned about the process that you want to pass along to other aspiring authors?

Thank you, Tara! First of all, be patient. There’s a lot of waiting in publishing! If you’re serious about being an author, invest your time in learning the craft and reading as many books as possible in the genre you want to write. Also, join SCBWI—it’s chockfull of resources—and a critique group. Listen to feedback, be humble and keep writing. It’ll be worth it!

What’s the most surprising thing that happened to this book along the way to publication?

Since I’m a debut author, everything along the way to publication was a bit of a surprise. The biggest surprise happened when I saw Jhon’s character studies and LillyBelle looked just like my daughter, with dark, curly hair and expressive eyes. I was thrilled! That was a happy surprise.

A not-so-happy surprise was learning about the book’s publication being changed less than a month before the original date, due to Covid-19 printing delays. It was a big bummer, but now I see it as a blessing in disguise. I was able to focus on my kids’s back to school experience and it also gave me a chance to recharge—I had been working non-stop—and really enjoy my book’s release.

Thanks for stopping by, Joana, and congrats again!

Blog readers, LILLYBELLE is out now!

And you could also win a copy here.

Just leave one comment below.

A random winner will be chosen in a few weeks.

Good luck!


Much like LillyBelle, Joana loves a good tea party…or any party, really! When not writing, you can find Joana baking (and eating) delicious desserts, singing as loud as she can, or twirling around the house. Also, like LillyBelle, Joana thinks good manners are of the utmost importance – just ask her kids! LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS is her first book. Her second book, BISA’S CARNAVAL comes out in Fall/2021. Born and raised in Brazil, Joana now lives in Florida with her husband, her three kids and one rambunctious Morkie. Visit her at joanapastro.com, on Twitter @jopastro and on Instagram @joanapastro.

The littlest readers will fall for THE LITTLE KITTEN this Halloween.

Don’t you just want to forget about Trick-or-Treating and cuddle up with this book instead? Nicola’s artwork has a gentle feel, just like leaves slowly drifting down in autumn.

Nicola, we talk a lot of story ideas on this blog—so how did you get the idea for THE LITTLE KITTEN?

THE LITTLE KITTEN is the third book about an imaginative little girl called Ollie, following on from THE LITTLE REINDEER and THE LITTEL RABBIT. When I was asked to to do an autumnal book for the series, I was very excited as I’d already painted Ollie in a cat costume and carrying a pumpkin for Halloween the year before and I knew the direction I wanted it to go in!

Ollie has a pet cat in the other books, and having been out drawing at the start of autumn, my sketchbook was full of falling leaves so they had to be included in the story too. The idea seemed to develop naturally from these starting points!

I very much wanted Ollie and her pet cat Pumpkin to keep the kitten because the three friends seemed like they belonged together. But Ollie knows she has to do the right thing. It’s an important message for young readers, yet it’s so subtle and delightfully told.

How did you decide on the color scheme? It’s not just orange and black—it’s gray and red and rust. There’s a lot of dimension to it.

The character of Ollie first came about when I was experimenting with painting solely in black ink. I then added small touches of color to the artwork. Using orange as the additional color for this autumn story felt like the obvious choice. I tried using just one shade, but felt that the two combined worked better and added more depth to all the leaves! The designers and production team at Simon & Schuster picked just the right shade of copper foil to add the finishing touch!

The foil really makes the whole book pop! 

What is your favorite part about Halloween?

My favorite part of Halloween is definitely the costumes. Deciding what costume to wear and then making it can be so much fun, but I also love seeing what everyone else has dressed up as!

It’s really the perfect holiday for Ollie who loves dressing up any time of year!

Blog readers, Simon & Schuster is giving away a copy of THE LITTLE KITTEN!

Leave a blog comment below. What’s your favorite part of Halloween?

A winner will be randomly selected in two weeks.

Good luck!


Nicola Killen is a children’s book author and illustrator based in Cambridge, UK.  I graduated from the MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art in 2009, and since then I have been working on picture books, board books and a couple of pop-up books too! Visit her at nicolakillen.com and follow her on Instagram @nicolakillendraws.

In all the blog posts I’ve published in the last 13 years, I’ve never delved into one subject because I thought it was near impossible to successfully broach it in a picture book. But author Jackie Azùa Kramer has, and the result is miraculous.

The subtle coloring on the cover by illustrator Cindy Derby should give you a clue as to what awaits inside.

Jackie, death is the toughest subject to discuss with children. Why did you want to venture into that territory?

Sadly, the story was inspired by true events as a result of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 which left two little sisters fatherless. But if it’s all the same with you, Tara, I’d like to reframe your question.

Why not write stories that reflect a diversity of experiences that children are facing today? We are living through challenging and difficult times on so many levels. I have the utmost respect for young readers, and I strive not to talk down to them. I feel we need to meet children where they are with hope and love.

As a creator, I’m inspired and emotionally moved by what’s happening in the world today. Children around the world are living unique and diverse experiences. I’m encouraged to see more of these books published recently. Books which allow children to see themselves…their lives reflected in books. We all have a need to be understood, accepted and loved.

In the story, the gorilla represents the boy’s deep grief and sadness at the passing of his mother. Why a gorilla? Was this your first choice for the metaphor?

Yes. The Gorilla character came to mind as a I learned about how some children are affected by loss. In the story the loss of the boy’s mother left him confused about the complex feelings he was experiencing along with the questions he had about death and dying. However, his unspoken feelings become the metaphorical idiom of the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room. It was a fascinating visual to imagine this huge and imposing gorilla who’s also kind, honest and supportive.

What does it mean to you to have three starred reviews (so far)?

Tara, I’d be a pompous ass if I didn’t admit that it feels good. And you know, as much as me, if not more, about receiving great reviews! However, the reasons it feels good to me goes beyond the good reviews and stars.

It’s also about all one’s hard work being acknowledged, as well as, the village that made the book possible. Agent, illustrator, editor, art director, sales and marketing…each played an important role.

And in the end, all that matters is that books gets into the hands of readers. That books are read over and over, pages get worn and dog-eared and tucked under pillows. That books make readers feel something. Feelings of joy or sadness, happy, silly or even mad. Perhaps thoughtful or dreamy and wondrous. That each page turn is like a theatrical experience. That stories welcome readers and say, “Come on in, all are welcome, understood and accepted.”

Then we as creators have done our jobs well.

What I’ve learned from reading THE BOY AND THE GORILLA is that we writers shouldn’t shy away from subjects just because they are difficult. Children experience the width and breadth of the world, just like we do, and they deserve answers. They need to be heard and understood. This book fills a void by bringing comfort to children who are struggling to cope with loss. 

Blog readers, you can win a copy of THE BOY AND THE GORILLA by Jackie Azùa Kramer and Cindy Derby.

Leave one comment below.

A random winner will be selected soon.

Good luck!

 


Jackie is an award-winning and internationally translated children’s author. She earned her MA in Counseling in Education, Queens College. She has worked as an actor, singer, and school counselor. She is a member of the Bank Street Writers Lab. Her picture books include, The Green Umbrella, “2017 Bank Street College Best Children’s Books of the Year”. If You Want to Fall Asleep and That’s for Babies. Jackie’s upcoming books- I Wish You Knew (Roaring Brook, 2021); Dorothy and Herbert- The Story of the Postal Clerk and the Librarian and their Extraordinary Collection of Art (Cameron Kids, 2021); We Are One (Two Lions/Amazon,TBD); Manolo and the Unicorn (Cameron Kids, TBD) and Miles Won’t Smile (Clavis, TBD). She lives with her family in Long Island, NY. When not writing, you’ll find her reading, watching old movies and traveling to her family’s roots in Ecuador, Puerto Rico and Spain. Visit her at jackieazuakramer.com.

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My Picture Books

COMING SOON:

BLOOP
illus by Mike Boldt
HarperCollins
July 2021

ABSURD WORDS
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks eXplore
November 2021

"PRIVATE I" SERIES #3
illus by Ross MacDonald
Little, Brown
2022

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