Getting to Know: Laurie Ann Thompson

 

BREAKING NEWS: just as I was about to post this, I learned that an earlier book in this series, YOU ARE A RACCOON! is the winner in the Beginning Non-Fiction category of the Blue Crab Young Reader Award right here in Maryland! Congrats to Laurie! I spoke to her before the announcement to learn more about this engaging series:

Me: Congratulations on the two new books in your “Meet Your World” series, YOU ARE A ROBIN! and YOU ARE A GARTER SNAKE! (both Dial books, 2024, illustrated by Jay Fleck)! I love how these books help kids get to empathize with animals through shared movements. What inspired you to write this series?

Laurie: Thank you so much! I wish I could claim that these books were my idea, but that would be pure fiction. The first book in the series, YOU ARE A HONEY BEE!, was actually inspired by an excellent New York Times article about what it’s like to be a bee. Agent Kirsten Hall had read it and thought the premise would make a great for very young readers. She discussed it with my agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette, who then asked me if I’d be interested in writing it. I jumped at the chance!

 

Me: The illustrations by Jay Fleck are very inviting and warm. How did you two get paired? Is there anything you can share about his process or your collaboration?

Laurie: When Ammi-Joan showed Kirsten the draft I’d come up with, Kirsten thought her client Jay Fleck’s style would be a good match. Jay provided some sample illustrations, and we sent it all out as a package. That submission ended up going to auction, and we were offered a four-book series—a dream come true!

It was a very collaborative process throughout. When I first saw Jay’s brilliant idea to show the kids imitating the actions, I revised the text to highlight verbs that could be illustrated. And we both worked hard, through many rounds of revision, to make sure the illustrations are as factually accurate as they are adorable. I feel so lucky to have been paired with Jay for these books!

 

Me: How much of your research is behind a computer and how much is getting in the dirt with these animals?

Laurie: Great question! I grew up playing outside, have always loved nature, and have taken a lot of training as a volunteer naturalist, so I thought I was already quite familiar with all the animals in the series (the rest of which I chose specifically because of their widespread familiarity). To check my facts and fill in any knowledge gaps, I did a lot of book and online research. I was surprised at how much I learned, and it made me love the animals even more. For each book, I also contacted an expert who works with the animal daily to verify my facts (though any mistakes are still 100% my own!). I also observed them in the wild every chance I got, of course, but most of the research came from books, websites, and experts.

 

Me: You’ve written for a range of ages on many interesting subjects. How did you get into writing for kids?

Laurie: I graduated from college with a degree in Applied Mathematics and became a software engineer. After my kids were born and I started reading to them every day, it reminded me how much I have always loved children’s books. I decided to explore making a career shift, and (after a long time and a lot of hard work) here I am! Surprisingly, I think coding and writing are very similar—both use language to create something new, both have a necessary sequence or order to them, and both present a puzzle to solve. Now if only I could figure out a more straightforward way to test and debug a manuscript!

 

Me: Can you share what you’re working on next?

Laurie: I have a social-emotional learning (SEL) picture book coming out in September, LET THE LIGHT IN, which is about how we can take care of ourselves when we’re experiencing sadness, grief, or depression. I’m currently revising an informational picture book about Newton’s Laws of Motion, starring my cat, who was obviously a physicist in a previous life. And I’m working on a more serious middle-grade nonfiction about the Earth’s past—and present—mass extinction events. I’d love to work on some projects specifically about climate change, but I haven’t quite found my unique angle yet. We’ll see!

Me: Wow, those sound great! Hope your cat is prepared to be a picture book star…

Thank you so much for chatting, and wishing your books much success!

Laurie: It was wonderful to chat with you, Jonathan. Thanks so much for having me!

To learn more, please visit lauriethompson.com

 

Getting to Know: Amanda West Lewis

 

Me: Congratulations on your beautiful new book, A PLANET IS A POEM (Kids Can Press, May 2024)! I’ve read what seems, as Carl Sagan might say, billions and billions of space books, but never one that approaches the objects of our solar system with such a delightful profusion of poetry styles. What inspired you to write this book?

Amanda: It was a combination of things. In 2015, I was doing an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and as part of my work I was studying poetic forms and I had a lot of rhythms in my ears. I’m also a regular listener to the CBC radio program Quirks and Quarks. Right about then, they were reporting on images of Pluto sent back to Earth by the New Horizons Space Probe. At some point, someone on the program said something about “volcanoes of slow-moving nitrogen mud,” and I could hear the iambic beat in there. Then they described a red, heart-shaped plateau that seems to beat because of the movement of red dust. I was hooked. I wrote a poem called “A Pantoum for Pluto,” and although that poem didn’t end up in the book, it got the ball rolling.

I have always had a fierce love of the night sky and of our solar system. Now I could combine that with my passion for poetry! What can be better than feeding two passions at once?

 

Me: How did you decide which kind of poem goes with which planet (and beyond; go Arrokoth!)?

Amanda: I studied each planet as though they were a character in a book. I was drawing on my theatre background, too. When you are in theatre, you find your character’s rhythm. The way they move and talk. I looked at each planet that way. For example, the Sun is the center, and without it nothing else exists. It’s massive, strong and, for us, fixed in one place. I thought it needed a poem to pay it honor. So, I wrote an Ode to the Sun. Mercury on the other hand, is really fast. It rotates around the Sun really quickly, so I knew I wanted fast moving rhymes. I wrote a kind of Dr. Seuss rhythm, rhyming couplets poem. (Anapestic tetrameter if you want to get pedantic about it!)

The more I researched the solar system, the more I realized it was essential to give a sense of it not “finishing” at Pluto. There is so much more! And the New Horizons probe that I mentioned has now given us a glimpse of that with little Arrokoth. I wanted to help people realize that there is still so much more to discover.

 

Me: The expressive, painterly illustrations by Oliver Averill really add a wonderful backdrop to your words. How did you two get paired? Is there anything you can share about his process or your collaboration?

Amanda: I didn’t know Oliver or his work before I wrote the book. My editor, Kathleen Keenan, and the wonderful team at Kids Can Press gave me a short list of illustrators that they were considering. When I saw Oliver’s work, I knew he was the one. I love the passion he brings to the page, and his expansiveness. I didn’t actually have much to do with how he went about illustrating the book – for the most part I tried to stay out of his way! I made sure that everything was factually correct and negotiated a few small details, but honestly, he is brilliant at what he does and he added a whole level to the book that I couldn’t have imagined beforehand.

 

Me: How did you get into writing for kids?

Amanda: My very first book, Writing: A Fact and Fun Book (Kids Can Press 1992), came from a desire to share my love of the physical act of writing. At the time I was a full-time calligrapher, teaching at the University of Waterloo, but I also had young children who were just learning how to write. I am passionate about the development of written forms and how, until the printing press, writing changed over time depending on social, cultural and economic factors. I wanted to share my passion for the lines, shapes and dots that make up written communication.

Me: Can you share what you’re working on next?

Amanda: I have just finished a graphic novel about the Polish pediatrician, writer, and children’s advocate, Janus Korczak. While the form is a departure for me, Korczak’s work is a bit of an obsession for me. I helped create a play about Korczak ten years ago. The manuscript is currently with the illustrator, Abigail Rajunov, and I can’t wait to see what she is doing with it! It is scheduled for Spring 2026 with Kids Can Press.

Me: Wow, can’t wait to see it! Wishing your books much success!

To learn more, please visit Amanda West Lewis

 

Getting to Know: Elise Matich

 

Recently, while visiting the Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center, I was fortunate to meet author-illustrator Elise Matich, who was signing her picture book SEW SISTER: THE UNTOLD STORY OF JEAN WRIGHT AND NASA’S SEAMSTRESSES (Tilbury House Publishers, 2023). As quite the bonus, Jean Wright herself was there too! I loved learning Jean’s story, and also learning how Elise turned it into such a fascinating book:

Me: I’m so glad I discovered your amazing book! As someone who also just wrote and illustrated a picture book about an untold story involving the improbable subject of cloth in space, I feel like we may be on the cusp of a trend (a very small one, but still). What inspired you to write this book?

Elise: Thanks, Jonathan. Congratulations on your book! I’m thrilled that the role of fabric in space exploration is having a well-deserved moment. I decided to write SEW SISTER after meeting NASA seamstress Jean Wright during a visit to the Kennedy Space Center with my family in 2019. Jean was working as a docent at the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit, explaining the ways in which heat shield blankets were used to protect the orbiters. I had no idea that the shuttles were covered in fabric, and was fascinated by Jean’s story, so I contacted her the next day, and asked if she would be interested in collaborating on a children’s book.

 

Me: So many of the details are fascinating: from the use of a 1914 sewing machine to seeing how Jean and her team helped guide a repair of the Atlantis shuttle while it was in flight! Do you have any favorite facts from your research?

Elise: My favorite nuggets from the Sew Sisters’ story are those that reveal just how much the shuttle program depended on old-fashioned skills and tools to execute its cutting-edge missions. The 1914 Singer sewing machine is a great example. In keeping with NASA tradition, it was given a nickname (“Lurch”), and was used to create the dome heat shield blankets that ring the shuttles’ three main engines. Not only was the machine an antique, it had originally been used in making another type of transportation technology—saddles! Although the Sew Sisters used machines, much of their stitching was done by hand. I was particularly delighted to learn that some of the blankets, such as the wheel-well thermal barriers, were sewn, by hand, directly onto the shuttles themselves.

Me: Your illustrations are a lovely combination of realism laced with numerous stitching designs. Is there a significance to the patterns you used? What is your illustration process?

 

Elise: The patterns were all inspired by actual quilting patterns, and reflect a technique known as free-motion quilting (sometimes called doodle quilting or meandering). The technique involves creating repeated patterns or pictures to fill a particular space. Each stitching design in SEW SISTER is meant to compliment the image it embellishes. For example, in the spread showing Jean sewing clothes for her dolls as a way of escaping a difficult family situation, I used a leaf pattern to liken sewing to the peaceful shelter of a tree.

Me: How did you get into writing for kids?

Elise: As a teacher and parent, picture books have been a part of my daily life for many years. I’ve created little booklets for my students and kids, and always hoped to be able to write a book of my own—I just needed the right story. SEW SISTER was it!

 

Me: Can you share what you’re working on next?

Elise: Sure! I’m working on a book about prehistoric life and evolution.

Me: Hey, don’t tell anyone, but one of my works-in-progress involves evolution too! But in funny, graphic novel form.

Thank you so much for chatting, and wishing much success to your book!

To learn more, please visit: Elise Matich

Getting to Know: Leah Moser

 

The good news is, author Leah Moser spoke at my school about her debut picture book, I AM A THUNDERCLOUD (Running Press Kids, April 2024)! The not so good news is that her assemblies were planned during my art classes, so I only got to hear about 10 minutes of her presentation as I dropped students off. The good news is, I caught up with her afterwards to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on your powerful debut! It literally starts with a BOOM! And then takes us through a storm of feelings before helping us find our way out. What inspired you to write this book?

Leah: I wrote the first draft of I AM A THUNDERCLOUD in 2020 when I had A LOT of my own emotions. Of all the strong feelings, anger can be challenging for children to manage and work through. I wanted to write a book connecting children to their own booms, roars, crashes, and crackles while providing strategies to calm the internal storms.

 

Me: How did you get into creating books for kids?

Leah: As a child, I enjoyed writing and creating my own stories. After taking a Children’s Literature course at George Washington University for my Masters in Elementary Education, I began taking this passion seriously. I joined SCBWI, connected with multiple critique partners, started attending conferences, and realized that I wanted to pursue a path in writing picture books.

Me: As I saw in your presentation, you (like all of us kidlit creators) have to face lots of criticism and rejection. How do you deal with the storm clouds that is such a part of our profession?

Leah: You hear NO so often on the road to publication. As you saw in my presentation, I had my color-coded spreadsheet filled with rejections or non-responses.

Sometimes it’s easier said than done, but I try to focus on the positives – a maybe, a no with strong feedback, a not-right-now-but-we-loved-it response. Additionally, I continue to work on new stories or revise older ones so I’m not just sitting around, waiting for an email to come through. I also take short breaks to reset – like cleaning my house, playing tennis, walking with my children and dog, or getting a coffee with writing friends.

Criticism can be hard to hear. I’ve learned to accept all feedback, then go through my notes later and decide what elevates my manuscript and what doesn’t. You are the author of your work. But I’m fortunate to have excellent writing partners and an editorial agent who provides strong, helpful critiques of my work.

 

Me: The stunning illustrations by Marie Hermansson really bring the moods and feelings to life. What did you feel when you saw them? What kind of collaboration did you have with her (if any, knowing authors and illustrators are usually kept apart)?

Leah: Marie Hermansson did such a fabulous job on this story. As a writer, I had no art notes at all on this manuscript. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I was even envisioning when writing the words. Since the whole book is a metaphor, I was hoping for something whimsical and colorful with metaphors throughout. Marie knocked it out of the park!

Children connect with the character, the colors are vibrant and beautiful, and the emotion on each page is powerful. During the process, Marie and I didn’t speak directly but only through our publisher and agents. However, we often correspond now as this has truly turned into “our book.” Soon, we have joint school and bookstore visit in Raleigh, North Carolina. Since I’m located in the DC area, I thought we were just too close to not meet in person at least once!

Me: Can you share what you’re working on next?

Leah: I’m working on many projects at once. A few stories are on submission (fingers crossed!) I’m revising several manuscripts in different stages of readiness – a few SEL stories similar to I am a Thundercloud and a humorous one. I’ve been editing other authors’ manuscripts, both in my critique group and through my paid editing services (https://www.leahmoserwrites.com/editing-services). I’ve been traveling around the DC area reading at bookstores and presenting at schools. And in the Moser household, spring sports and end-of-school wrap up is in full force!

Me: Thank you so much, Leah! Wishing your book much success!

To learn more, please visit Leah Moser Writes | author

 

Getting to Know: Marta Magellan

 

One of the joys of having a garden this time of year, especially with lots of native plants, is seeing the all the bees and butterflies attracted to the flowers. If any Monarchs come through, it will be later in the season. In the meantime, I can prepare by reading Marta Magellan’s beautiful new book UP, UP AND AWAY MONARCH BUTTERFLIES (Eifrig Publishing, April 2024). I caught up with Marta to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on UP, UP AND AWAY MONARCH BUTTERFLIES! It’s a great introduction to our four-winged peripatetic friends, both the joys and the hard realities. What inspired you to write this book?

Marta: To tell the truth, I had a contract to write a series on pollinators and garden helpers, so of course butterflies had to be included. I focused on monarch butterflies because they are arguably the most popular of all insects, and so recognizable in their orange and black colors.

Me: Do you live near migration routes or did you travel to observe the butterflies in person?

Marta: Florida, where I live, is sometimes visited by monarchs on their migration routes, but it is also the home of monarch butterflies that never migrate. They’ve got all the sunshine and milkweed they need right here. Monarchs are all over our gardens and yards here, so just like retirees, they become residents. There are four that look so much like monarchs, they had fooled me into thinking I was seeing monarchs. That’s why I included a section on the residents as well as one on the imposters beginning with, of course, their incredible migration.

 

Me: How did you get into creating books for kids?

Marta: I’ve always liked to write, so I made my career out of writing. I taught Creative Writing, Composition at Miami Dade College. I was inspired by my brother Mauro’s three published books back in the ‘90’s to develop a Survey of Children’s Literature course. It was in that course that the importance of books for children became clear to me, and I wanted to be a part of it.

Me: The illustrations are a great mix between photos and lovely photo-real paintings by your brother Mauro. Can you share about his process?

 

Marta: I’m sure he can do a better job of talking about it than I, but we have done presentations together, so I can give you a general overview.

For Up, up, and away, Monarch Butterfly, as well as for my Bee Catastrophe book, Mauro used realistic illustrations. For Dragonflies, Water Angels, and Python Catchers he used cartoon illustrations. For the realistic ones, he had to reproduce each butterfly or bee using several close-up photographs. He starts with sketching with pencil and paper. He colored the cartoon ones by hand and the realistic ones (bees and butterflies) he added color on the computer. Here are some samples:

 

 

Me: Can you share what you’re working on next?

Marta: I’m hoping to write about hyacinth macaws (the big blue ones). They were almost extinct once due to the legal and illegal pet trade.

Me: Looking forward to it. And wishing your new book much success!

To learn more, please visit Marta Magellan – Children’s Book Writer and Speaker