Getting to Know: Leah Henderson

 

There are many important journeys in literature. But up until Leah Henderson’s new picture book YOUR VOICE, YOUR VOTE (releasing on Dec. 19 from HarperCollins), I’d never read about a child’s journey to a polling place. It’s an uplifting journey, filled with community and purpose; but also obstacles, which mirror the very real obstacles many face in their own journeys to fulfill the most important task of any democracy. I caught up with Leah to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on your inspiring new picture book, YOUR VOICE, YOUR VOTE! And just in time for what’s sure to be another crucial election year. Casting a ballot is not the usual picture book quest. What inspired you to write this story?

Leah: Hi, Jonathan and thank you. You’re right, casting a ballot isn’t the usual picture book quest, but more and more I feel talking about the importance of voting in every election is vital. So why not start with the very young?

As far as inspiration goes, this story actually started with my editor. But soon, Quetta, her mom and grandma were on their way to the polls in my head as well!

 

Me: Since I first met you around your middle grade debut, ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL, you’ve published an impressive array of picture books and novels. How do you choose your projects?

Leah: I’m someone that is all about feelings. If I don’t feel something about the topic or characters, I have a hard time finding my way into the story or experience. Now granted, I “feel something” about LOTS of stories, but it’s the ones that won’t leave me alone—the characters that won’t stop talking, the places I can’t stop seeing, and the experiences I have a million and one questions about—that usually gain my attention and time.

Me: The illustrations by Keisha Morris are very vivid, textural and warm – with nice attention to detail: I had to go back myself to hunt for the (spoiler alert!) lost ID. What was your involvement, if any, in the illustration process?

Leah: I truly love Keisha’s illustrations. I feel like they bring Quetta’s community to life in the best possible ways. With picture books, there is often a lot of trust involved in sharing your words with an illustrator and letting them do their thing (if you aren’t blessed with art skills). I was given a few illustrators to consider and Keisha was my first choice and she definitely came through! Once her early sketches came in there were only a few small request changes on my part.

 

Me: I make sure to vote in absolutely every election, big and small. Luckily the county where I live instituted early voting years ago, and since the pandemic has readily adopted mail-in ballots. But there was also a sense of community and camaraderie in the long lines I remember from certain past elections that your book captures so well (as well as the opportunity to bring future voters to observe). By which method do you vote these days? And do you have any tips on how as citizens we can help eliminate voting barriers that exist in counties and states not our own?

Leah: Because I am often traveling around election day, I usually vote by mail. But when I am able, I will go to my local polling station. There is definitely something to be said for truly seeing the process at work. I just wish there weren’t so many hurdles for some to take part in the process. One of the main things those of voting age can do is vote! Vote for leaders who understand the need for fair elections and equal access to voting. For future votes, getting involved in our communities is often the best way to start. I know that’s not an original answer, but it is the truth. Getting involved in your community, helps your community and those who live within and around it.

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

Leah: I am always working on something. But right now I am fiddling with a couple picture books and another novel, none of which look like either of those things right now. But hopefully one day they will.

Me: Go Quetta and all future voters! Wishing your book much success! See you at Books of Funder…

Leah: Hahaha! Thanks! And thank you again for asking me to stop by and for sharing my work with your readers.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Me: And thank you, Leah! Everyone can learn more at Home – Leah Henderson (leahhendersonbooks.com)

 

Getting to Know: Helen Taylor

 

Although, as you may have noticed, I set a lot of books in space, I have absolutely no desire to travel beyond Earth’s thin, life sustaining atmosphere. No Mr. Right Stuff here (until maybe they invent transporters, c’mon Scotty). That said, I do love to learn about the brave souls who do make such journeys, who get to see our beautiful planet as, well…a planet. I find the details fascinating. So when I learned that author Helen Taylor had a debut picture book coming out called HOW TO EAT IN SPACE (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2023), I knew I had to learn more.

Me: Congratulations on your awesome picture book debut! HOW TO EAT IN SPACE is a fun way to look at the challenges of living in an environment such as the International Space Station. What inspired you to write this book?

Helen: Thank you so much, Jonathan! This book was so fun to research. I had never thought much about astronaut food until I came across an article about some plant-growing experiments happening on the International Space Station. NASA astronauts were growing lettuce in a chamber appropriately named “Veggie” and the details were fascinating! I started outlining a picture book about that, but quickly came to realize just how many other interesting aspects there are to astronaut nutrition. So the scope of the book expanded from how to grow salad in space to how to eat in space.

 

Me: What’s your background? Did you always want to write for children?

Helen: you had asked me ten years ago, I couldn’t have told you that I was heading toward kidlit, and yet I feel like I’ve landed in the right spot. As a kid, I loved to read and write stories, and in high school I developed an interest in science and math. After grad school, I ended up doing communications for a science museum, which was awesome! I got to write about exhibits, events, and all sorts of cool stuff happening behind the scenes. It was only after becoming a parent that I decided to try writing about science specifically for kids.

Me: If offered a chance, would you go to space? What would you include in your ‘bonus box’?

Helen: I think it would be amazing to orbit Earth a few times! But as far as an extended trip to space, I’m not sure I have “the right stuff.” What I do have is enormous respect for all that astronauts sacrifice and endure for their work! If I were to have a bonus box of my own, my top five requests would be sundried tomatoes, crunchy mochi bites, Snickers bars, good balsamic vinegar, and hot sauce.

Me: What vibrant illustrations! What, if any, was your involvement with your illustrator? And what was it like seeing the illustrations come to light?

Helen: Seeing Stevie Lewis’ illustrations come together was amazing—she is incredibly talented! She created a fabulous cast of characters to guide readers through the tips on each spread. (There was really no character-specific material in the manuscript at all, just a few lines of unattributed dialogue.)  I also love how she captured the essence of the space station in a way that is both authentic and inviting, no small feat for such an industrial environment. Stevie and I weren’t in direct contact while she was working on the illustrations, but I did send along some reference material I had gathered while doing my own research. We also communicated through our editor at several points as part of the fact-checking process.

 

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

Helen: Sure! I have a photo-illustrated book coming out in 2024 with Tilbury House called Chasing Guano: The Discovery of a Penguin Supercolony. I’m working on revisions for that book right now. Meanwhile, there’s a science-meets-history story in my head that I want to get down on paper, so I’m hoping to find time for that soon!

Me: Thank you, Helen, for chatting. Wishing your book much success!

To learn more, please visit HELEN TAYLOR – Helen Taylor – Home (helenstaylor.com)

 

Getting to Know: Kurtis Scaletta

 

Me: Congratulations on your awesome picture book debut! When I first met you, your middle grade novel MUDVILLE had just come out. Since then you’ve also written a chapter book series, more mg novels and even some non-fiction. Did you always want to add a picture book to the mix? How was GRANNY REX (Abrams/Cameron Kids) born?

Kurtis: I really wanted to add a picture book to my list of credits! And I developed more appreciation for the form when I was reading books to my son, really getting the interactive/dramatic element of reading to a child.

But it took me a long time of trial and error. I had dozens of tries. I think the big difference for this one is that it has a full story – a hero we can cheer for, conflict, and a narrative arc. Most of my ideas were premises, not plots. I dive into middle grade novels with little more than a premise, but have some time to find my way to a plot. With picture books you don’t have time for that, there needs to be a really strong concept that is character-centered and build around it. I should add that I’ve written several not-very-good picture book manuscripts since this one, and nothing has really gelled.

 

Me: I love chickadees, though I see fewer of them at my feeder these days. Why did you pick this bird?

Kurtis: It’s my wife’s favorite bird, so I thought of a chickadee right away. It really works for the book because it’s one of the smallest birds, and because of their call, which becomes a big part of the book. You touch on a sad and serious issue that songbird populations are in decline, but I’ll save that for another blog.

Me: Granny Rex, among other things, “did have feathers.” Can you talk about how our current thinking about dinosaurs may be a little different than when, say, I was a kid?

Kurtis: I think like a lot of people of our generation I learned that birds were evolved from dinosaurs in June, 1993 when I saw Jurassic Parkin the theater. I think it was a pretty recent discovery at the time. At the beginning of the movie Sam Neil is talking about the velociraptor and this truculent child says they were just big chickens. I am not a paleontologist but I do know that therapods, even T Rex, probably had feathers. Birds evolved from a different therapod but they have a common ancestor with T Rex that definitely had feathers; that’s who mama calls Granny Rex.

Me: What, if any, was your involvement with your illustrator Nik Henderson? And what was it like first seeing the illustrations come to light? (They’re very stunning!)

Kurtis: I had very little involvement; I haven’t met him or talked to him and only traded a few greetings after the book was finished. The editor mentioned him from the get go, she knew his work and thought he was a great match for their house style and the book. I had imagined something like the dinosaur scenes in Calvin’s imagination in the comic strip, but I’m not an artist and didn’t have a lot of references to draw from. Nik’s decisions for the book went in a different direction, big and bold. It pops, as they say in the business.

Me: What are you working on now?

Kurtis: I don’t have any other books underway, really. Like I said, I’ve had a few manuscripts since Granny Rex, but none have worked out. I like building stories around animals and science but with a lot of whimsy. I’ve had several trying to make a story out of the fact that dung beetles use stars to navigate; I love that the world’s humblest creature is one of the few besides men that gazes up at the stars. I also feel there’s a story to be told about tortoises because I’m intrigued by their long lifespan. And recently I’ve been wondering what I can do with opossums. I feel that opossums will be the next narwhal as a mini-fad in children’s books. But like I said, a premise isn’t a plot and I haven’t been able to find a strong character like in Granny Rex. To be honest, I don’t really have any middle grade books cooking either. But I’m not retired yet, just taking a needed break (and playing a lot of video games).

Me: I’d like to read the star gazing dung beetle book right now please! Though I’m sure whatever you settle on will be intriguing as always. Thanks so much for joining me!

Please look for GRANNY REX and all of Kurtis’ books wherever books are sold, and learn more at Kurtis Scaletta’s Site | Info about me and my books.

Getting to Know: Meg Eden Kuyatt

 

When I learned that Meg Eden Kuyatt had written a middle grade novel-in-verse about a girl navigating her neurodivergence in middle school, I knew it was going to be special. And I was right! GOOD DIFFERENT just released from Scholastic and I know it’s going to be beloved by many. I caught up with Meg to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on your awesome middle grade debut! GOOD DIFFERENT is an intimate portrait of a middle school girl’s growing awareness and acceptance of how and why her mind works in the ways it does. What inspired you to write this touching story?

Meg: Thanks so much, Jonathan! Selah’s poems came out in the worst of COVID lockdowns, when my autism and anxiety had no more places to hide. I felt so overwhelmed, attacked and scared, and as I wrote, I dug up an old memory of a classmate braiding my hair without my consent. But then the speaker was no longer me but this other girl, Selah. And Selah took action. She hit her classmate! I was in shock, but then also I knew I needed to write a novel to figure out why she hit her classmate and what would happen from there.

Me: When I first met you, you were debuting your YA novel POST-HIGH SCHOOL REALITY QUEST (pictured below), and you’ve also published poetry. Were there any interesting differences or challenges in writing middle grade?

 

Meg: I thought there would be more challenges, but I’ve been finding writing middle grade so freeing! Selah’s story just burst out from me, if I’m honest. In some other MG projects I’ve been playing with, I’ve been having to be careful to not write past what my character understands, sees or perceives of a situation. Sometimes it’s easy to write how I’m seeing the situation now as an adult, but have to remember: would my twelve year old protagonist be that aware yet? What would she see?

Me: Though your book isn’t illustrated, the element of design to a novel-in-verse is very important. Can you tell me a little about how you decide to design a poem or page?

Meg: This is such a great question! My main focus for design is what will reinforce the content. If I want you to slow down, I might have a lot of white space and space between stanzas. If I want you to feel the frantic panic of my character, I might do one big stanza with long lines and no punctuation. There are so many great tools for verse to allow the page to really make us feel what the character is feeling.

Me: I didn’t notice any references to geography, but can you hint if Selah and her family lives in a certain state that you and I may live in? (Rooting for the home state here!)

Meg: Yes, I imagined this set in Maryland!

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

Meg: I’m drafting a new middle grade novel in verse, and have a couple things in the pipeline I’d love to see on shelves, but we’ll see. So much of this process is completely out of my control. The main thing I can do is write the next thing and be patient. Stay tuned on my website for any updates!

Me: Can’t wait! In the meantime, wishing your book much success!

Meg: Thanks so much, Jonathan!

To learn more about Meg and her books, please go to Meg Eden (megedenbooks.com).

Getting to Know: Olga Herrera

I’m excited to report that fellow Maryland kidlit creator Olga Herrera is about to release her author/illustrator picture book debut, THE UNWELCOME SURPRISE (Feiwel and Friends, April 18, 2023)! Olga runs a fun illustration podcast with Sunny Duran, Illo Chat. Be sure to check it out! I caught up with Olga to learn more about her new book.

Me: Congratulations on your awesome picture book debut! How did you get into creating children’s books?

Olga: Looking back, I realize I should’ve always leaned into creating children’s books, but it was later in life (past the age of 40) that I figured that out. I was first an illustrator, and the love of writing came later. Both are forms of storytelling, and now I am lucky enough to use both.

Me: THE UNWELCOME SURPRISE is certain to resonate with any kids about to experience that big change. What inspired you to write this touching story?

 

Olga: Originally this story was about my dog reacting to something new, our piano. But after having a brainstorming session with the acquiring editor, we changed it to a new baby. The anxiety and conflicting emotions Bongo goes through remain the same. And the ultimate message of love, acceptance, and calming down an overreacting mind applies to any unexpected situation.

Me: What was your illustration process?

Olga: I was strictly digital for this book; even the original concept sketches are on my iPad. Usually, I have a few napkin drawings here and there, at least. But staying digital with this project was very helpful with my family schedule, ease of communication with the publishing team, and ability to make quick changes. I used procreate and photoshop.

 

 

Me: Are we going to see more of Bongo? What are you working on now?

Olga: For now, Bongo is only in this book, but I have a couple more storylines for him. I hope to bring him back to a book.

Since finishing THE UNWELCOME SURPRISE, I have written a few more dummies and manuscripts that will be going on submission.

I am also reworking my portfolio. As time passes, I get bored of the same style and begin exploring new techniques, so I am excited to dive more into revamping my portfolio soon.

 

Me: Can’t wait to see what you come up with. Thanks so much for talking, and wishing your book much success!

To learn more about Olga and her work, please visit her website at: Children’s Books Illustration | Olga Herrera Author Illustrator