Author Guest Post: “Cats vs. Dogs” by Paul Meisel, Author of Boom!

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“Cats versus Dogs in BOOM!”

Sometimes the simplest explanations are the best ones. In the case of my book Boom! the idea came to me because, in my experience as a dog and cat owner, this is how dogs and cats act in thunderstorms. Dogs that I’ve owned have always been terrified, while our cat was amused by the light show and the noise. When a thunderstorm came she would sit in a window and watch quietly, twitching her tail as the sky grew bright and the noise got louder. Our dogs, on the other hand, would find a bathtub or closet to hide in, and shake uncontrollably. Usually my wife or I would have to hold them until the storm passed.

BOOM! isn’t a book about fear per se. It’s more about how amusing cats and dogs can be. Cats have that air of supreme confidence, while dogs, especially in a thunderstorm, are anything but confident. The wide eyed expression of “make it stop” are what appealed to me when I drew the dog in BOOM! I often draw dogs with that crazed look that dogs make when they’re happy, sad, or scared. Dogs are so emotive. You can always tell how a dog is feeling by the expression on its face. Cats play it much closer to the vest. They’re good poker players.

BOOM! is the first I Like to Read Comics that I’ve created. I played with some of the conventions of comics with the use of the textured, lined walls. The oversized hand-drawn type is also reminiscent of traditional comic book style.

The dog in BOOM! became the superhero and made the storm go away because dogs tend to be eternal optimists. The dogs we’ve had always believed they could catch that squirrel, even after failing a thousand times. They always thought if they sat, they’d get another treat…and they were always right. They always thought if they pushed their nose into your hand they’d get that ear scratch, and they were always right. And they always thought if they barked, whined, and fussed long enough, they’d get to go outside, and they were always right. And so I believe, although petrified, dogs probably do think they can will a storm away!

Our cat didn’t really care about too much. Eating? Whatever. Playing? Maybe, if she felt like it. Purring in your lap? Actually, that was a no brainer! The cat in BOOM! is similar to our cat— she did things on her schedule, no matter what was happening, even a thunderstorm. You have to admire cats for being so “chill”.

I think children will enjoy talking about how the dog and the cat approach the storm differently. Along with a teacher or adult, children might enjoy comparing and contrasting the dog and the cat’s behavior. And I hope children also enjoy the resolution  and recognize their own superhero dog, if they have one.

As I get older, I am much more like the dog.

Published June 6th, 2023 by Holiday House

About the Book: BOOM! A funny story about a panicky dog, a nonchalant cat, and a loud thunderstorm.

This early graphic novel from two-time Theodor Seuss Geisel Honoree Paul Meisel is perfect for first graders learning to read on their own.

Dog and Cat are sleeping peacefully when–BOOM! A thunderstorm comes. While Cat is happy to spend the noisy night playing with toys, Dog frantically tries find the just the right hiding spot.

Easy-to-read text and energetic, cartoon-style artwork make for an accessible story filled with personality and visual humor. The recipient of two Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Books, Paul Mesiel brings young readers on a silly, nighttime adventure.

Comics-lovers can now share the fun with their kids, students, siblings, and younger friends who are learning to read!

I Like to Read® Comics are perfect for kids who are challenged by or unengaged in reading, kids who love art, and the growing number of young comics fans. Filled with eye-catching art, humor, and terrific stories these comics provide unique reading experiences for growing minds.

I Like to Read® Comics, like their award-winning I Like to Read® counterpart, are created by celebrated artists and support reading comprehension to transform children into lifelong readers.

We hope that all new readers will say, “I like to read comics!”

About the Author: I SEE A CAT, a Holiday House I Like To Read book, was named a 2018 Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Award winner by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association.  SEE ME RUN was a 2012 ALSC Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor winner. SEE ME DIG and SEE ME GO are two other books in the series. I SEE A BAT, another book in the I Like to Read series for new readers, is available now.

I’m the author/illustrator of a dozen books with more on the way. Here’s a link to a review in the New York Times Book Review of MY AWESOME SUMMER BY P. MANTIS (Holiday House).  AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prizes named MY AWESOME SUMMER BY P. MANTIS a 2018 finalist for best books of the year in the Children’s Science Picture Books category. MY HAPPY YEAR BY E. BLUEBIRD, MY STINKY SUMMER BY S. BUG, and MY TINY LIFE BY RUBY T. HUMMINGBIRD are three other titles in the Nature Diary series. YOU POOP HERE is a humorous and simple potty training book which I authored and illustrated, available also as a board book. BOOM! is a new Holiday House I Like to Read Comics book for emerging readers about a dog who’s scared of thunder and his cat friend who’s not.

I wrote and illustrated GOOD NIGHT, BAT! GOOD MORNING, SQUIRREL! and ANNA AND SAMIA: THE TRUE STORY OF SAVING A BLACK RHINO. I also illustrated DOGS LOVE CARS, written by Leda Schubert.

To date I have illustrated more than 90 books, including early readers, picture books, eight books in the HarperCollins Let’s-Read-And-Find-Out Science series (LIGHT IS ALL AROUND US, ENERGY MAKES THINGS HAPPEN, FORCES MAKE THINGS MOVE, and others), and a number of mass market books. Two chapter books written by my son, Peter, and illustrated by me, are STINKY SPIKE THE PIRATE DOG and STINKY SPIKE AND THE ROYAL RESCUE.

I graduated with a BA in Fine Art from Wesleyan University, where I also played on the squash team. I studied in Rome at the Tyler School of Art my Junior year. I received an MFA in Graphic Design from Yale University and worked briefly as a graphic designer before becoming a full time illustrator and author.

In addition to children’s trade books I also work in editorial, educational and advertising illustration. I illustrate traditionally and digitally, and use a combination of both.

When not illustrating and writing or spending time with the family I like to play tennis, pickleball and garden. Coco, our labradoodle seen in the picture above, is no longer with us but she was an avid runner and digger and the inspiration for a number of my books.

Instagram: @pdmeisel

Facebook: Paul Meisel

Thank you, Paul, for this introduction to the animals of your book and the conversations that they can start!

Author Guest Post: “There’s a World of Inspiration Out There” by Karah Sutton, Author of The Song of the Swan

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“There’s a World of Inspiration Out There”

In his book of essays, The Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green addresses the problem of sunsets: “How might we celebrate a sunset without being mawkish or saccharine?… what can we say of the cliched beauty of sunsets?” Green initially assesses writing about sunsets as being cliche, but ultimately decides that the opposite is true: that writing about sunsets cannot be cliche when marveling at sunsets is such a universal human behavior.

As he writes, Green gives examples of sunset descriptions which are “menacing,” “sentimental,” “innocent,” and full of “mysticism.” What’s so extraordinary to me about this essay is how these exemplify writing as an art form. Sunsets differ by place and time; each person observing the sunset is unique and altered from one day to the next. No sunset viewing is the same, and no description of a sunset is either. When we write, we may explore common themes, tropes, and situations, but our individuality will transform our output.

There are multiple sunsets in my book The Song of the Swan. When a story contains a curse that turns humans to swans at sunrise and returns them to humans at sunset, its writer needs a strategy to describe them.

I regularly go for walks around sunset as it’s the time when I can best hear my favorite birdcalls, and I did this often while writing The Song of the Swan. As I walked, I’d ponder and problem-solve, discover new story ideas while discarding old ones. If there was a pleasing sunset, I’d stop to watch it. Because I knew I needed new ways to describe skies which glow with orange and pink, I would do an exercise in my mind that has since become a frequent activity in my writing process, which I invite you to try for yourself.

Step 1:

Go outside and find somewhere to sit. Use your senses, focusing on one sense at a time. How is the breeze brushing against your ears? Is there laughter nearby? Can you smell the food truck on the corner? Including these details make writing feel more vivid, especially if you can tie your descriptions to real moments where you’ve observed similar sensations.

Step 2:

Thinking of what you noticed, try describing those observations by making connections to unexpected things. This sense of surprise is what gives prose delightful originality. Those flowers might be arranged like a wedding bouquet, but they might also infest the meadow with forced cheer. The multi-colored cars in the parking lot are like jewels in a treasure chest. The sky at sunset is the color of a bruise.

Step 3:

Now, consider the comparisons you’ve chosen, and think about the tone conveyed by each one. A description might be silly, but it could also be creepy, or joyful, or melancholy, or mysterious. What is it that makes the description feel that way? Is it because of the image it conjures? Or is there something about the specific words chosen that have an emotional quality?

And for extra credit:

Go back through your list of observations, and try rewriting to use descriptions that all evoke a consistent emotion. If a lot of your descriptions depict a similar emotion already, try changing them to something different. If you’ve described flowers in a humorous way, how might you describe them in a way which feels sad, or angry, or unnerving?

This exercise can be done anywhere, but I like to do it outside, because I’ve always found extra value in the outdoors and physical exercise while doing creative exercises. The benefits of going outside is a common theme in writing advice: Dickens, Thoreau, Woolf, and many others extol walks as fuel for creativity.

Whether in nature or the bustle of a city, I find that when my body is exploring the outdoors, my mind is more receptive to unexpected ideas. I discover new connections between seemingly separate things, which is what the creative process really is—in order to make something new, artists collect and connect things, like bees patrolling their flowers. Or telephone wires snaking between buildings. Or blackberries destined for a pie.

You get the idea. There’s a world of inspiration out there.

The Song of the Swan
Author: Karah Sutton
Illustrator: Pauliina Hannueniemi
Published October 24th, 2023 by Knopf Books for Young Readers

About the Book: A magical retelling of Swan Lake, featuring a clever orphan, a castle filled with enchanted swans, and a quest to unearth the secrets of the past.

Olga is an orphan and a thief, relying on trickery and sleight of hand to make her way in the world. But it’s magic, not thievery, that could get her into trouble.

When Olga and her partner-in-crime Pavel learn of a valuable jewel kept in a secluded castle, Olga sees an opportunity to change their lives: a prize so big, they’d never have to steal again. But the castle is not as it seems, ruled by an enchanter who hosts grand balls every night, only for the guests to disappear each morning, replaced by swans. Guided by cryptic clues from the palace spiders, Olga soon realizes she’s in over her head—torn between a bargain with the enchanter, loyalty to Pavel, and determination to understand how the enchanted swans are linked to her own fate.

One thing is certain: there is dark magic behind the castle’s mysteries, and Olga will stop at nothing to unmask it.

About the Author: Karah Sutton is an American/New Zealand children’s author and former bookseller. Her debut middle grade fantasy adventure A Wolf for a Spell was an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce selection, an Indie Next List Top 10 selection, a Junior Library Guild selection, and was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award. Inspired by her many years as a ballet dancer, The Song of the Swan is her second novel.

Visit her online at KarahSutton.com or on Instagram at @KarahdactylAuthor.

Thank you, Karah, for reminding of us the beauty around us!

Author Guest Post: “Big Problems and Small Fascinations” by Olivia A. Cole, Author of Where the Lockwood Grows

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Big Problems and Small Fascinations

School requires a lot from young people. Focus, sitting still, hands to yourself, social skills. (This doesn’t end with elementary school. Middle school? For sure. High school? Yep!) This is all hard enough – particularly if you won the neurodivergent lottery – and then you have to throw the whole “actual learning” thing on top too: the math and the science and the history. Oh, and homework! Don’t forget homework. (I’m admittedly sad that the “no homework” movement seems to have lost steam in the last year.)

Where is the space for special interests?

This isn’t a write-up about kids being swamped by “activities” starting in kindergarten. It’s not about how college prep seems to start earlier and earlier in a country where college isn’t free. It’s not even about overwork and burnout.

It’s about small fascinations.

In Where the Lockwood Grows, Erie Neaux isn’t tied up with swimming practice. Rather, she and the other young people in the town of Prine are struggling under the yoke of child labor, although of course no one is calling it that. It’s called survival. (Which at least is more noble than the current justifications.) Erie (and the other children who have no choice but to do the dangerous work in the trees that keeps their town running) wakes up before dawn to finish their work, after which they go to school for a few hours, where most of them are too tired or stressed to pay much attention to what they’re expected to learn.

Erie spends most of the time either daydreaming or flipping through an old encyclopedia of entomology, studying the many strange bugs and their attributes contained in the pages. She applies her knowledge as best as she can in the tiny, insulated town of Prine, admiring the dustnose beetles and other local insects.

But when she and her sister discover the truth about what keeps the people of Prine in the dark, their adventure takes them to the city of Petrichor, where Erie’s world finally opens up. Along the way, she’s taken to the Bug Yard, a place where other bug-lovers have developed their fascinations with insects and turned them toward solutions to climate and waste problems. (Awesomely enough, these imaginings aren’t science fiction!) In the end, Erie’s fascination with bugs that she nurtured in her sparse spare time plays a big part of saving the day.

Capitalism has a way of wringing every drop out of a day. Adults feel it when we don’t even have time for a hobby. (Or worse, when we try to turn hobbies into streams of income.) Children feel it when between school and homework there’s none of their day left empty for daydreaming.

In Where the Lockwood Grows, the lockwood blocks the stars that Erie’s mother says her children need to dream. What about us? What do we need to dream? Our Earth has big problems that need big solutions, born from creativity and innovation, from small fascinations that grow into resolutions. How will they be born if we don’t have time to dream?

Published August 15th, 2023 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

About the Book: Twelve-year-old Erie has never lived life fully in the sunlight. After destructive wildfires wreaked havoc on the world around her, the government came up with a plan—engineer a plant that cannot burn. Thus, the fire-resistant lockwood was born. The lockwood protects Erie and her hometown of Prine, but it grows incredibly fast and must be cut back every morning. Only the town’s youngest and smallest citizens can fit between the branches and tame the plant. Citizens just like Erie.

But one evening, Erie uncovers a shocking secret that leads her to question the rules of Prine. Alongside her older sister, Hurona, she’ll journey from the only home she’s known and realize that the world is much more complicated than she’d ever imagined.

About the Author: Olivia A. Cole is a writer from Louisville, Kentucky. Her essays, which often focus on race and womanhood, have been published in Bitch Media, Real Simple, The LA Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Gay Mag, and more. She teaches creative writing at the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts, where she guides her students through poetry and fiction, but also considerations of the world and who they are within it. She is the author of several books for children and adults. Learn more about Olivia and her work at oliviaacole.com and follow her on Twitter @RantingOwl.

Thank you, Olivia, for this food for thought and reminder that it is okay to allow kids to focus on their loves and passions!

Author Guest Post: “No Easy Answers: Using A Twist of Magic to Make a Tough Topic Accessible” by Jessica Vitalis, Author of Coyote Queen

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No Easy Answers: Using A Twist of Magic to Make a Tough Topic Accessible

In the nearly twenty years that I’ve specialized in middle grade literature, I’ve learned that if there’s one defining characteristic of the category, it’s that these stories end in hope. Not that the characters always get their happily ever after, but they do always learn something new about themselves––or the world––that leaves the reader feeling like the characters they’ve developed an emotional connection with are going to be okay––maybe not today or tomorrow, but in the long run.

This unspoken promise that everything will turn out in the end is part of what makes middle grade books such a delight to read––in a world where it’s sometimes hard to feel optimistic, these stories offer us glimmers of light. As an author, I believe in this promise with all my heart, and I also believe that kids need to see themselves in books, whether it’s characters that reflect their skin color or culture or sexual orientation or any number of other differences from the white, cishet, able-bodied, neurotypical narratives that have traditionally been published.

Despite fitting into the latter categories, I didn’t see myself reflected in the stories of my youth—I don’t recall reading any books where the main characters were hungry or cold or didn’t feel safe (physically or emotionally). I felt alone and isolated––desperate to be seen but at the same time desperate to hide my situation from anyone and everyone. Desperate to be accepted as “normal.”

I set out to write my upcoming novel, Coyote Queen, with a mission to give voice to the countless children who share my lived experiences, but I found myself grappling with how to write an authentic story infused with hope––I know all too well that for many children there aren’t any easy answers to the problems they face. I know because I suffered in silence until the age of sixteen when I left home. While everything turned out for me in the long run, staying silent until you are old enough to run away is decidedly not the message I want to share with young readers. Nor did I want to write a book so bleak as to render it unreadable.

In the end, I turned to magic to help balance out the darker realities of childhood with the need to write a story that is readable and optimistic. The result? A story in which a twelve-year-old girl enters a Wyoming beauty pageant desperate to win the prize money she and her mother need to escape her mother’s abusive boyfriend. But an eerie connection to a local pack of coyotes starts causing strange changes to her body––her sense of smell sharpens, she goes color-blind, and eventually, she has to figure out how to win the pageant with a tail.

This twist of magic doesn’t provide any easy answers for Fud; instead, it serves as a metaphor for her inner journey, and it helps to show her who she is––and who she can save. The magic swirling inside Fud is the same magic we all carry inside ourselves––it won’t turn us into coyotes, but it is always waiting to be called upon when we need it the most. If that’s not a cause for hope, then I don’t know what is.

For Class Discussion

Read the following passage from the opening of Coyote Queen:

“Before the coyote stuff happened, I would have told you that magic didn’t exist…Now, I know better. I might look like a normal girl on the outside, but on the inside . . . well, let me put it this way: if you consider yourself the practical sort, then this is one story that you’re going to find really hard to believe.”

Answer the following questions:

  1. What do you know about this character? How do you know these things?
  2. What do you think is going to happen in this story? Why?

Read the following passage from Coyote Queen:

“As the yelling from the front of the trailer continued, I concentrated on blocking out their harsh words, on the darkness behind my eyelids, on existing somewhere outside of this small trailer. I was only vaguely aware of my arms growing long, of a thick layer of protective fur sprouting to cover my body. Of leaving the trailer on all fours, slinking through the shadowed kitchen so Mom and Larry didn’t notice my exit.”

Answer the following questions:

  1. What happens to the main character in this passage? Why does this happen?
  2. Do you think the main character actually turns into a coyote? What else might be happening? Why?

Read the following passage from Coyote Queen:

“Off in the distance, a bluff jutted up from the ground, making it feel like we were in a bit of a valley. A flat, nothing-filled valley. The whole state used to be under glaciers. When those melted, it was an ocean. I tried to imagine being underwater with sharks swimming around, but it was hard. There was pretty much nothing but dirt, sagebrush, and sun-crisped prairie grass as far as the eye could see—unless you counted the piles of junk scattered around Larry’s property, which I didn’t.”

Answer the following questions:

  1. Where do you think this story takes place? Why?
  2. Why do you think the author set the story in Wyoming? How does the setting support the themes in the story? How would the story change if it were set in a jungle? Near the ocean? On the moon?

 

One of the defining features of middle grade books is that they always include hopeful endings. This doesn’t always mean things turn out like the characters want them to, but it does usually mean that there is the promise that things will get better.

  1. Why do you think this is important?
  2. In Coyote Queen, Fud joins a beauty pageant hoping to earn the prize money she and her mother need to escape her mother’s abusive boyfriend, and Fud eventually has to try to figure out how to win the beauty pageant after she grows a tail. How could this story have a have a hopeful ending? What would you do if you were in a situation where you needed help?

Published October 10th, 2023 by Greenwillow Books

About the Book: Inspired by the author’s childhood, Coyote Queen is about a twelve-year-old girl, Fud, who lives in a trailer with her mother’s abusive boyfriend. When he comes home with a rusted-out boat he plans to turn into their new home, Fud vows to save her mother from the floating prison by entering a local beauty pageant to win the prize money they need to escape. But then Fud develops an eerie connection to a local pack of coyotes and starts noticing strange changes to her body––she goes colorblind, develops an acute sense of smell, and before long, she has to figure out how to win the pageant with a tail. The Benefits of Being an Octopus meets The Nest in this contemporary middle grade novel with a magical twist about family, class, and resilience.

About the Author: JESSICA VITALIS, a Columbia MBA-wielding author for Greenwillow / HarperCollins, wrote The Wolf’s Curse and a standalone companion novel, The Rabbit’s Gift (which received starred reviews from the School Library Journal and the Canadian Centre for Children’s Books Best Books for Kids and Teens 2023). Her next book, Coyote Queen, arrives on 10/10/23 and an unnamed novel in verse comes out in 2024. Her work has been translated into three languages, and she was named a 2021 Canada Council of the Arts Grant Recipient and featured on CBCs Here and Now and CTVs Your Morning. Jessica now lives in Ontario with her husband and two daughters but speaks at conferences, festivals, and schools all over North America.

Thank you, Jessica, for this insight into your book and the wonderful classroom discussion questions!

Author Guest Post: “Introducing Young Readers to Historical Fiction” by Deborah Hopkinson, Author of The Adventures of Trim

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“Introducing Young Readers to Historical Fiction”

I love history and inventing new ways to make it exciting to young readers, whether I’m writing nonfiction or fiction. But as I tell students at school and library author visits, lots of my experiments don’t work out. And that was nearly the case with my new intermediate series, the Adventures of Trim. 

These are short, 48-page early chapter books, enhanced by the delightful art of Kristy Caldwell. Trim Sets Sail and Trim Helps Out publish from Peachtree in October 2023. Two more titles are slated for 2024. 

The Trim books are my first venture into this short format. Trim and his non-human friends are at the center of the story, and that’s new for me too. (I’ve written only one picture book with a talking animal before.)  But although they have talking animals, the books draw on history. They also include back matter:  author’s notes to introduce the genre and point out aspects of the story inspired by real events. I’m excited about this format, but it took a long time to get here!

The Real Trim

I first came across the story of the real Trim more than five years ago. His owner was British explorer Matthew Flinders (1774-1814). Flinders, who decided to become an explorer after reading Robinson Crusoe as a boy, led the first western expedition to circumnavigate Australia at the turn of the nineteenth century. The HMS Investigator crew members included a naturalist, a botanical artist, and a landscape painter. 

There was also a ship’s cat named Trim, a feisty feline who appears to have charmed everyone on board. And like cat lovers today who share tales of their feline companions on social media, Flinders had many amusing stories about Trim’s adventures and antics. Trim learned to swim when he fell overboard as a kitten; he survived a shipwreck; he even traveled on a London stagecoach when the two visited England between expeditions. 

Trim was likely killed during the time Flinders was imprisoned by the French on the island of Mauritius, but Flinders didn’t forget his beloved cat. Lost for many years, his short tribute to Trim was discovered among his papers in the 1970s. It’s a warm-hearted, humorous, and remarkably modern-sounding account. 

And as soon as I read it, I knew I had to write about this intrepid pair, who are memorialized in statues in both Australia and England. 

But how? 

Finding a Way into the Story

After trying (and failing) with Trim as a picture book, I put it aside for a couple of years. But I didn’t entirely forget about it. I’m lucky to have an enthusiastic young reader in my life: my grandson, Oliver, now seven. Reading is our favorite activity together. As Oliver and I devoured ready-to-reads and short chapter books, I noticed that while fiction and nonfiction abounds, we found few historical fiction titles. And rarely did books for this age group include back matter. 


Oliver’s Drawing of Trim

Oliver and I are fans of Peachtree’s King and Kayla series, written by Dori Hillestad Butler and illustrated by Nancy Meyers. And when my Peachtree editor Kathy Landwehr happened to mention she was a cat lover, I wondered: Might Trim work in this format for newly independent readers?  Fortunately for me, Kathy and Peachtree were willing to take a chance. And I was thrilled to be paired with the multi-talented Kristy Caldwell, who also illustrated my picture book Thanks to Frances Perkins: Fighter for Workers Rights.

Exploring the World to Learn New Things

I think I can speak for Kristy also to say we are both excited to introduce a young audience to the genre of historical fiction through the Trim books. While the non-human characters (Trim, ship’s dog Penny, a grouchy parrot named Jack, and a rat called Princess Bea) have their own adventures, Kristy and I both have made use of online library and museum resources in England and Australia to research the expedition, the ship, and maritime customs of the early nineteenth century. 

And while Trim’s adventures are very much in the realm of fiction, I’ve been able to use  details from Flinders’s tribute, incorporating an episode where Trim falls overboard, Trim’s devotion to patrolling the hold, and his habit of stealing food off forks at the captain’s table. 

Each book contains an author’s note as well as a photo of one of the statues of Flinders and Trim. I begin by introducing the genre: “Trim Sets Sail is a made-up story about a real cat who lived in the past. We call this kind of story historical fiction.” The author’s note for each book includes information about Flinders and Trim, and sometimes short quotes from Flinders’s tribute. 

As Penny tells Trim, the goal of their expedition is to explore the world to learn new things. And I hope the Trim books encourage kids to do just that.

Also, as someone who writes about history, I am passionate about the importance of doing oral histories, preserving family stories, and writing about our lives.  After all, if Matthew Flinders had not taken the time to pen a remembrance of his cat, we wouldn’t know about Trim today. 

So I close each author’s note with some words of encouragement: “What adventures will you have and write about?”

Because you just never know. Maybe a century or two from now, someone will decide to write about you and your pet!

Trim Sets Sail (10/3/2023)
Trim Helps Out (10/24/23)
Author: Deborah Hopkinson
Illustrator: Kristy Caldwell
Published by Peachtree

About Trim Sets Sail: One small kitten learns about the great big world as he sets sail with his fellow shipmates, animal and human, in this historical fiction intermediate reader.

When Trim trips over a napping dog, little does he know that soon he’ll set sail and begin learning how to be a ship’s cat. Among his first lessons: the parts of the ship (the front is called the bow, like “bow wow”), the dynamics among his new colleagues (Jack the ship’s parrot is not so easy to befriend), and basic skills like climbing (up is easier than down) and swimming. With the assistance of Captain Flinders, Penny the ship’s dog, and Will the ship’s artist, Trim learns new skills, tests his limits and abilities, and finds a way to contribute to life onboard.

This delightful early reader series by acclaimed author Deborah Hopkinson is inspired by the true story of Trim, often called the most famous ship’s cat in history. Owned by British explorer Matthew Flinders, Trim traveled on the HMS Investigator on the first expedition to circumnavigate Australia (1801–1803).

About Trim Helps OutTrim is eager to do a good job on his first day as ship’s cat—but what is his job? All around him, members of the crew are busy with their responsibilities—too busy to notice a small kitten looking for an opportunity to contribute. Jack the parrot directs Trim to the hold, to patrol for rats. But Jack neglects to tell Trim exactly what a rat is. Surely Princess Bea, the new friend he meets below deck, isn’t a rat. She doesn’t resemble the creepy, scary-looking creature that Jack warned Trim about and she’s happy to have an assistant to fetch her biscuits from the galley.

About the Author: .Deborah Hopkinson is the author of more than seventy books for children and teens, including Carter Reads the Newspaper, illustrated by Don Tate, and Thanks to Frances Perkins, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell. Deborah lives in Oregon with her family, some noisy canaries, two dogs, and Beatrix the cat. Visit her online at DeborahHopkinson.com.

https://www.facebook.com/deborah.hopkinson.33
https://twitter.com/Deborahopkinson
https://www.instagram.com/deborah_hopkinson/

And don’t miss out on the KidLitTV Feature Airing Soon! View the promo HERE!

Thank you, Deborah, for bringing historical fiction to our newest readers!

Author Guest Post: “Delicious Details” by Caroline Hickey, Author of Ginny Off the Map

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“Delicious Details”

How do you create a character that feels three-dimensional? One that readers can immediately picture and connect with? While there are many ways to approach this, I find that the simplest way to quickly nail a character is with details.

One of my favorite books about writing, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, offers this wonderful bit of advice: “Often, a well-chosen detail can tell us more about a character—his social and economic status, his hopes and dreams, his vision of himself—than a long explanatory passage.”

The right detail can be an adjective, an action or even a gesture, but it has to be purposeful and specific.

In the opening scene of my middle-grade novel Ginny Off the Map, readers meet eleven-year-old Ginny Pierce, who, on the last day of school, does something pretty unusual.

My foot jiggles nervously under my desk. This morning we were told to collect all of our textbooks from our lockers and desks and place them in the designated piles at the front of the room. And I did—I returned all of them. Except one.

The Inspiring World of Earth Science is still in my backpack, which is tucked under my desk with my jiggling foot. My copy is old and battered, with rounded corners. The cover is sticky. Inside, it contains chapters on oceanography, hydrology, and atmospheric science. There are project guides detailing how to build a model volcano, how to re-create the formation of Hawaii, and how to make your own power station using the heat that fuels volcanic eruptions.

I love volcanoes. They are the earth literally turning itself inside out.

I don’t want to hand in this textbook. I was hoping the last day of school would be so busy that Mr. Sonito would forget all about it and I could keep it.

“I can’t find it,” I say. “I must have left it at home.”

Ginny lies to her teacher’s face and hides her science textbook because she wants to keep it so badly. This is the detail I chose to introduce her with, because I felt it said so much more than just an explanation of how smart she is, how much she loves science, and how different she is from most of the kids in her class, who were more than happy to hand in their books and head out the door for summer.

Coming up with unique character details can be a lot of fun. Try the following exercises to get the ideas flowing.

Exercise # 1 – Brainstorm Details

How do you get better at brainstorming details? Notice what’s around you! Have students spend a few minutes writing down a detailed description of the room they’re sitting in. Have them describe the person sitting next to them. Have them describe their breakfast, or something interesting they saw on the way to class. Good writing begins with paying attention!

Exercise # 2 – Name That Character

Ask students to think about a favorite character from a book or movie and try to recall a specific, revealing detail or action about that character. Ask them to describe the detail to their classmates, without naming the character or book/movie, and see if anyone can guess who the character is.

Exercise # 3 – Mix and Match

Write two lists on the board. One list should include potential characters, such as a grandmother, toddler, neighbor, friend, and coworker. The second list should include adjectives, such as optimistic, ornery, nervous, silly, flexible, and irrational. Draw lines at random between the characters and the adjectives to match them up, then give each student a matched set, such as an irrational neighbor or a silly grandmother, and have them come up with a specific detail describing their person. Share them with the class and discuss.

As Francine Prose said, “Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth.” Make sure to pay attention to all the interesting, ordinary things around you, and your writing will be better for it!

Published June 20th, 2023 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

About the Book: There are two things Ginny Pierce loves most in the world: geography facts and her father. But when her dad is deployed overseas and Ginny’s family must move to yet another town, not even her facts can keep her afloat. The geography camp she’s been anxiously awaiting gets canceled, and her new neighbors prefer her basketball-star sister. Worst of all, her dad is in a war zone and impossible to get ahold of. Ginny decides that running her own camp for the kids on her street will solve all her problems. But can she convince them (and herself) that there’s more to her than just facts?

With a fierce heart and steadfast determination, Ginny tackles the challenges and rewards of staying true to herself during a season of growth. This thoughtful novel explores the strength that develops through adversity; Ginny must learn to trust her inner compass as she navigates the world around her.

About the Author: Caroline Hickeylearned her world capitals by playing Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego in the 80s. She has since lived in more places than Ginny, her favorite being London, England. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in New York City and is the author of Cassie Was Here, Isabelle’s Boyfriend, and many popular series books. She currently lives just outside Washington, DC with her husband, two daughters, and a labradoodle. Visit her at carolinehickey.com.

Thank you, Caroline, for these activities to add some more description into our students’ writing!

Author Guest Post: “Create Your Own Dragons: Fantastical Creatures Shaped by the Natural World” by Kacy Ritter, Author of The Great Texas Dragon Race

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“Create Your Own Dragons: Fantastical Creatures Shaped by the Natural World”

One of my favorite parts about writing fantasy is drawing inspiration from anywhere—including geography, ecology, and biodiversity. While creating the alternate modern world for The Great Texas Dragon Race, I aimed to introduce kids to diverse dragon species, each intricately shaped by their habitats in Texas and beyond.

In this article, I’ll outline how I used real-world creatures and climates to develop a few of the dragons in The Great Texas Dragon Race. From arid deserts to vast mountain ranges, each dragon possesses unique traits inspired by its specific habitat. I hope these mythical beings will fire young readers’ imaginations while also serving as a reminder of the boundless wonders of our own natural world. You can even try a similar exercise with students who are hesitant to “get excited” about ecosystems!

Species: Cyan Mountain Dragon
Habitat: The Rocky Mountains
Inspirations: Bald Eagle; Side-blotched Lizard

How I Created It:

The fierce Cyan Mountain Dragon was designed as a creature born to soar above the lofty peaks of the Rocky Mountains. I wanted this mighty dragon to easily navigate the rugged mountain terrain by allowing it to blend in with the sky. Stealing from the majestic traits of a bald eagle, I gifted this dragon with exceptional eyesight, allowing it to spot prey high above the peaks.

Species: Mexican Free-tailed Dragonette
Habitat: North, Central, and South America
Inspiration: Mexican Free-tailed Bat

How I Created It:

My Mexican Free-tailed Dragonette borrowed heavily (and I mean, really heavily) from its inspiration, the Mexican free-tailed bat, which lives all across the Lone Star State. (I even had these bats living outside my home in a bat house we installed. . . Yes. We put it there. On purpose.) Resembling a bat in size and appearance, I imagined these fuzzy brown dragonettes with scales peaking through their fur as a nod to their reptilian heritage. Equipped with a pig-like snout and expert echolocation, I wanted these tiny dragons to have unique features which would allow them to thrive in my alternate world just like bats.

Species: Texas Coral Viper
Habitat: Southern United States (and, umm, Texas)
Inspiration: Texas Coral Snake

How I Created It:

The Texas Coral Viper in The Great Texas Dragon Race is stolen from its real-life venomous prototype, the Texas Coral Snake. Its markings of red, black, and yellow (which are also the colors of the “bad guys” in the race… hmmm…) serve as a warning to potential threats. I added to the features of a typical Texas coral snake, both nocturnal and solitary, to make it more “dragon-like.” These additions included ivory fangs the size of golf-clubs and an underdeveloped set of wings. But just like the Texas coral snake, its fangs also release deadly venom.

Species: Purple Lightrage
Habitat: Domesticated
Inspiration: My dog and cats… No, really!

How I Created It:

My dog and cats inspired this adorable dragon, by I added cobalt blue horns and tiny wings. Its slender frame and wriggly nature make it fun and endearing—a far cry from what most kids think of when they think of dragons. (Because, come on… who doesn’t want a cute little bacon-loving dragon to curl up at the end of their bed at night?)

A Final Note

My hope is that young readers and writers will realize they don’t have to create something out of thin air if they don’t want to. Sometimes, the basic subjects we learn in school can give us fantastic ideas for developing fantasy creatures. This is an exercise I will begin using in school visits this Fall. If you want to try this exercise with your students, ask them to start with a location and build their own dragon based on what it would need to thrive in that location. Maybe they’ll pick a snowy peak, a massive forest, or a backyard. Either way, the world is their oyster dragon.

Published August 1st, 2023 by Clarion Books

About the Book: Thirteen-year-old Cassidy Drake wants nothing more than to race with her best dragon, Ranga, in the annual Great Texas Dragon Race. Her mother was a racing legacy, and growing up on her family’s dragon sanctuary ranch, Cassidy lives and breathes dragons. She knows she could win against the exploitative FireCorp team that cares more about corporate greed than caring for the dragons.

Cassidy is so determined to race that she sneaks out of her house against her father’s wishes and enters the competition. Soon, Cassidy takes to the skies with Ranga across her glorious Lone Star State. But with five grueling tasks ahead of her, dangerous dragon challenges waiting at each one, and more enemies than allies on the course, Cassidy will need to know more than just dragons to survive.

About the Author: Kacy Ritter is a fantasy geek who has lived all across the Lone Star State. She holds degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of North Texas, and currently resides in Houston with her partner and their daughter. She daylights as a healthcare professional, and loves writing at the intersection of fantasy and Texas Americana.

Thank you, Kacy, for this fun look into your inspiration!