Getting to Know: Terry Catasús Jennings, part 2

 

When I saw that author friend Terry Catasús Jennings had a new book releasing, I knew it was time to rekindle the Getting to Know the author interviews. While I’ve featured Terry before, The Little House of Hope is a special new picture book (releasing June 14 from Neal Porter Books) and I wanted to learn more.

Me: Congratulations on your beautiful, touching new book! How much of the Little House of Hope mirrors your own experiences?

Terry: Hi, Jon, thank you so much for hosting me on your blog. I’m glad you’re back in business. The answer to how much The Little House of Hope mirrors my own experience is: most of it.  When we came to the United States my uncle, my father’s brother, had been in the United States for more than year.  They had rented a house (a little house) and they opened that house to us when we came with nothing but fifty dollars for the whole family and a suitcase each.  They also opened up that house to my aunt’s brother, his wife and baby—they lived in the garage. I slept with my two girl cousins. We shared two twin beds and a cot—took turns on the cot—which was really a generous thing to do, because they could have made me take the cot all the time. And no one complained. I think my parents slept on the pull-out couch. We only took in family, so that’s a difference, but really just about everything else is true, down to making collages to decorate the walls.

 

Me: Though the story has obviously been with you for a long time, when did you realize it would make a good picture book? Did anything stand out about the writing process for this work?

Terry: Well, it wasn’t with me that long. I got mad at a realtor who said that “Mexicans” lived four families to a home and trashed a house, and then I remembered that for about a year after we came to the United States, the first part of that statement applied to us. We lived three families to a house.  Fourteen people on weekends when my aunt’s other nephews came to stay with us. I think, at first, it was more of having to get the story out, than realizing it would make a good picture book. As the story took shape, though, I thought it could be special. I wanted to turn it  into a good message for young readers, and maybe even the adults who read to them, that immigrants don’t come to the United States on a whim, it’s a gut wrenching decision and it is a very tough life. What stood out in the process was how quickly it came together and how few revisions it went through.  And oh, I just heard it is a Junior Library Guild selection. I’m really stoked about that.

Me: Raúl Colón is an amazing illustrator and his illustrations for your book are stunning! How did you end up working with him?

Terry: He is amazing, Jon. Neal Porter, the editor of the book picked Raúl and I couldn’t be happier.  He knows Cubans (he’s married to one). His style is so unique. I think anyone who picks up the book is bound to open it to see the rest of his illustrations. You can’t ask more than that.

 

Me: There have been a couple more books in the Definitely Dominguita series come up since the last time I interviewed you. Can you briefly tell us about those, and your Pauli Murray biography?

Terry: Well Dominguita went on two new adventures since we last spoke. In All for One, she and the crew pretend to be musketeers and save a quinceañera party—a debutante party Latinx style—from the dastardly Bublassi clan.  They arm themselves with toilet plungers, instead of musketeer swords that could poke their eyes out, but I have to say the toilet plungers are award-winning toilet plungers. It’s a big part of the plot. I bet you can tell what Dominguita and her crew are in Sherlock Dom, they work on the mystery of the Lost Goat of Tapperville, which could be vaguely, vaguely reminiscent of the Hound of the Baskervilles.  Pauli Murray, The Life of a Pioneering Feminist and Civil Rights Activist is a biography in verse about the person who figured out the strategy that would win Brown v. Board of Education and desegregate schools. She didn’t get the credit, though, because she was a woman. She was also responsible for including gender as a protected category in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and getting equal pay for equal work for women. But she was so much more. She wrote, to anybody that could help the cause of human rights, including Franklin Roosevelt, and the First Lady. She and Eleanor became great friends. She also wrote beautiful poetry and a history of African Americans in the United States which was focused on her family but chronicled the journey of Black Americans until that time. She was so much, and she was so humble. She never stopped fighting. I collaborated with her niece, Rosita Stevens Holsey in writing it.

 

Me: What are you working on now?

Terry: I have two books out on submission right now, one is a picture book biography of Pauli Murray and the other is a book about a young boy and his grandfather, on a day when grandpa doesn’t feel so well and the roles are reversed. It’s a sweet story. I hope both of those become books. And I have two other mg novels in the final editing stages. I hope they’ll go on submission this summer.

Jon, thank you so much, again for hosting me. I can’t wait to see your new books. You know you’re my grandkids’ favorite author.

Me: Aw, second favorite, I’m sure. Wishing The Little House of Hope much success!

To learn more about Terry and her books, go to TerryCJennings.com and on Facebook: Terry Catasús Jennings, Twitter: @TerryCJennings, Instagram:  Terry.C.Jennings 

Getting to Know: Joyce Hesselberth

 

I really love books. I really love trees. And I don’t have to go too far out on a branch to admit I love finding beautiful and meaningful books about trees, and our relationship to them. So I’m happy to report I’m adding a new one to my collection, Beatrice Was a Tree (Greenwillow Books, 2021) by Joyce Hesselberth, which I’ll certainly use in my art room and highly recommend to other teachers. I caught up to Joyce to learn more.

Me: How did you get into creating children’s books?

Joyce: I kind of took the long path to get here. I remember thinking how great it would be to work on children’s books when I was in college, but I realized I didn’t have the skill set. I was studying graphic design, which turned out to be a great skill to have, but wasn’t what I ultimately needed to make book content. After I graduated, I slowly migrated over to illustration. I started doing a lot of work for newspapers and magazines. In my thirties, I still had that itch to make a children’s book, so I decided to dedicate some time to it each day. When I made my first dummy, I sent it to anyone who would accept un-agented submissions. That book never got published, but I kept making dummies. Many rejections later, and after I managed to get my wonderful agent, Erica Rand Silverman, I sold my first book, Shape Shift.

What inspired Beatrice Was a Tree?

Well, first, trees are amazing. Who doesn’t love trees? I like drawing plants and nature, so that was part of the inspiration. But ultimately, this book was based on a little tiny sketch in my sketchbook. I was flipping through it, looking for ideas, because I didn’t have any at the moment and needed something to pitch to my editor. The sketch was a picture of a kid wearing a tree costume, like they were in a school play. It was something I drew for an editorial job about summer camps, but it got me thinking about what it would be like to be a tree. That’s one of the things I love about keeping a sketchbook. They are records of ideas you have and once you draw them, you can go back to them later and they can inspire other projects.

 

Beatrice has a great intuitive connection with nature and if every kid could relate to just one tree on that level, I wouldn’t have too many worries about the future. Was this you as a kid? How do we help more kids see the world this way?

I definitely spent my fair share of time playing in the woods as a kid. I still do actually. There’s a trail near our house where I love to go running. I don’t think I would be a runner if it weren’t for that trail. Just being in nature is so healing.

I think having unstructured play outside is so important for kids, but really for everyone. Also, another thing that definitely connected me to plants as a kid was my family’s garden. They planted acres and acres of vegetables (I’m kidding, but their gardens did tend to be large). I think having that experience of planting something and watching it grow is really special.

 

Your art is stunning. Can you share a little about your process?

Thank you! I started the art for this book by creating a lot of messy paint swatches. Although I love creating art digitally, there are some things that are better with traditional media. Plus, it’s really fun to just paint and experiment! When I had a little library of textures that I liked, I started cutting into them digitally.

Color is really important to me, and this book was a little tricky because it has a broader palette than some of my others. I needed the palette to really change from season to season, so having that library of textures helped me unify the book too.

 

What are you working on now?

I’m just finishing up the artwork for my next picture book, When Molly Ate the Stars, (Chronicle Books, expected Fall 2022). This is the first story I’ve written that is completely fiction and I’ve been having so much fun working on it.

I’ve also been writing my first chapter book. It’s not far enough along to share yet, but I’ve been obsessing over this story for about a year now and I’m really excited to bring it out into the world.

Any advice for young artists, naturalists and storytellers?

Sure, I like that grouping! I think keeping a sketchbook or journal is a really great habit to start. And give yourself room to be messy/silly in it. It doesn’t need to be precious. The important part is to keep drawing, and observing, and writing!

Perfect advice. Thank you so much, Joyce!

Learn more about Joyce and her books at joycehesselberth.com and on Instagram and Twitter: @hesselberth

 

Getting to Know: Suzanne Slade

I still remember, as a young boy, staring in stunned wonder at the photos taken of tiny rocks on Mars by the Viking I lander in July of 1976. I couldn’t believe those detailed rocks were on another world. Another world! I’ve been fascinated with the exploration of Mars ever since, including up to today, when I woke early to watch the NASA feed of the historic first test flight of Ingenuity, a tiny but hugely important helicopter drone. Luckily, there are many books showcasing the beauty of our red neighbor, including the stunning  new MARS IS: STARK SLOPES, SILVERY SNOW, AND STARTLING SURPRISES (Peachtree, 2021), which showcases images captured by the HiRISE camera, accompanied by poetic text. I caught up with the author, Suzanne Slade, to learn more:

Me: MARS IS is a beautiful, engaging look at a huge (literally planet-sized) subject. How did you organize and write it?

Suzanne: I brainstormed various ideas while considering the best way to share the incredible HiRISE Mars photos in this book. This process involved random scribbling on papers: title ideas, Mars features I wanted to include, a list of descriptive words, book organization outline, etc. Eventually I decided on the title “Mars Is”, and also used that repeater sentence in the text to drive the story.

Me: Do you follow the Mars rovers? (My next series is about two fictional rovers, I’m a little obsessed myself!)

Suzanne: I’ve followed Spirit and Opportunity through the years, and am now a huge fan of Perseverance.

Me: How did you get into writing for kids?

Suzanne: It started with my love of books as a child. Then as a mom, I read LOTS of picture books to my children. About 20 years ago I decided to give writing a try and took a class at a local college, joined critique groups, and attended SCBWI conferences. Eight years and over 80 rejection letters later, I finally had my first book contract.

Me: I love space stuff, but definitely have the wrong stuff for space travel (like claustrophobia and an aversion to speed). If given a chance, would you sit on a ride into orbit or beyond?

Suzanne: I’m with you! Space travel isn’t my bag, but I adore researching various missions and am utterly fascinated by all things space.

Me: How cool that Alan Bean (of Apollo 12) wrote the afterword for your book DARING DOZEN (about the 12 humans who have walked on the moon). My favorite astronaut! How did you set that up?

Suzanne: I sent Alan a blind email explaining the project, and he kindly responded the next day. At first he answered questions via email. Then he asked if we could talk on the phone a couple of times, which was fantastic. One fun sidenote he shared was that he wished he’d smuggled a football aboard Apollo so he could have thrown the longest pass in the universe!

Me: Any dream topics you hope to tackle in the future? Can you share what you’re working on now?

Suzanne: Next up is more space (surprise) — THE UNIVERSE AND YOU (illustrated by Stephanie Fizer Coleman). It’s a gorgeous bedtime book which shares a bit about our solar system, galaxy, and universe. It releases August 15. Then a few picture book bios. after that, two of which are about STEM women who made great contributions to our understanding of space.

I can’t wait to read them. Thank you so much, Suzanne!

To learn more about MARS IS check out this cool trailer and to learn more about Suzanne and her books, go to suzanneslade.com. And please support your local indies if you can, like Politics and Prose, where I first heard Suzanne (and whose books can be ordered at P&P here).

Suzanne as she would actually look on Mars! Cool, huh?

Getting to Know: Terry Catasus Jennings

 

I’ve always had a soft spot for kids who love to read. Maybe because I was one of them! But do kids who love to read books make good characters in books? They certainly do if their name is Dominguita Melendez, plucky protagonist of the awesome new chapter books series, DEFINITELY DOMINGUITA (Aladdin, 2021). I caught up with author Terry Catasus Jennings to learn more:

Me: How did you get into writing children’s books?

Terry: Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m delighted to be here with you. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, since I was a kid. Especially after I read Little Women. And stories are always rolling around in my head. I’m always reporting on what’s going on. Often making things come out better than they did in real life. But for many reasons, most of them having to do with being an immigrant and needing a secure job, I didn’t pursue a career in writing. That’s someone who is really talented pursues. Hemingway, and Louisa Alcott. It’s like in my head they were hit by lighting and turned into authors. I never even thought of looking at it as a career. You know, back then, maybe we didn’t look at having a career as much as having a job. I knew I would go to college so I could get a job where I could support myself. And I ended up majoring in math and took a lot of science and I actually did land a job in the engineering department of the telephone company. Then when I had children, I decided to stay home with them while having my own tiny bookkeeping company for small businesses.

But stories never stopped rolling around my head. And when my youngest went to middle school and I really didn’t need to volunteer anymore, I decided to try my hand at writing and to see if I had what it took. So I started with essays, and some of them were published in The Washington Post. And I wrote a family humor column for my local newspaper. Then I tried to get some sort of a steady gig, and I ended up writing educational content for the Smithsonian. Science stuff. But my name was always buried in the next to the last page. So then I tried my hand at science books for kids—creative non-fiction—books that would have my name on the cover. And then some regular non-fiction. I did a lot of work for hire. And each time something was published I wanted a bigger step. Say, going from a small science publisher to a real publisher. And that happened with Dominguita and Simon and Schuster. But it took forever. I’d say about 20 years.

What was your inspiration and process for Definitely Dominguita?

Remember those stories that are rolling around in my head? I was weeding and thinking to myself that what I was doing was as impossible as Don Quijote trying to become a knight. But wait. The idea of a kid trying to become a knight might work. And this little boy showed up in my head dressed in a cape and a make-do helmet. Fortunately for all of us, my daughter reminded me that I am a feminist and it would be a lot better if my protagonist were a girl. Before I finished my weeding, my character had a name and I’d written the beginning of the book in my head.

The process for writing these books was different from writing a regular novel. First I had to read the actual classics. And re-read them. I took notes on the characters speech and mannerisms. I looked at scenes that were iconic to the book, like Don Quijote tilting at a windmill. Or scenes that could translate well into a Dominguita story, like the rescue of the queen’s diamonds in The Three Musketeers. Once I was sure what parts of the classic book I wanted to echo, then I began to write. The three protagonists don’t always take the place of a character in the classic. For instance, in Captain Dom’s Treasure, there is no Jim Hawkins, but there is a Captain, a doctor, a mate and definitely a Long John Silver. There is also the maroon they find when they get to the island. But the three characters have specific roles in the series. Dom is the big thinker. Pancho is the realist who reels her in. Steph is the peace-maker. I didn’t set out to make them that way, but by the time the third book rolled around I realized that they had settled into those roles and that those roles made the books work.

 

I love that Dominguita is inspired by the books on her grandmother’s shelf. What books inspired you as a kid?

I was in Cuba when I was a kid, so I was a lot like Dominguita’s grandmother. I read the classics. All of them. Particularly, Jules Verne. I loved adventure. My father gave me an allowance. He was a banker and he wanted me to learn to manage money. I don’t exactly remember how much it was, but I could spend it however I wanted to, so long as I accounted for it on this green ledger paper he gave me. I solved that problem very easily. Whatever he gave me was enough to buy a book. How lucky could I get?  One entry. I got what I wanted and my bookkeeping was minimized. Now that I think back on that, I wish I had talked to him about that. I did not learn what he wanted me to learn from that experience. But I bought and read all the classics, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain and all the Louisa May Alcott book, and there were some Spanish books which today we would call graphic novels. I devoured those. They were cheaper. I could get a couple of those for the price of one of the other books. But whatever I read was always adventure.

I draw my own characters, so I’m always curious about that moment when your first see your characters drawn by someone else?

I always cry. Really. It’s just very emotional for me when someone takes my words and translates them to art. With Dominguita, I was very lucky. I had pictured her as a plucky kid. Someone who wasn’t afraid of anything. Someone who would stand up for what was right. And Fátima Anaya portrayed just that. I couldn’t have been happier. If you look at that first inside sketch when Dominguita is reading and recess is happening all around her, she is alone, but not lonely. She has her book, and she doesn’t need anything else. Fátima GOT Dominguita. She sees her the same way that I did. I actually think that Fátima understood Pancho Sanchez, Dom’s sidekick, even better than I did. I love the way she drew him. How he grew from book one to book two. And Steph is perfect. She is the peacemaker. And she looks it. Fátima is a superstar. So far in all my books I’ve been lucky in that the illustrators have made the book even better than what I envisioned. Their art has brought my text to a higher level.  I love Beep and Bob, by the way. I would have been happy with them.

Can you tell us about Dominguita’s next adventures?

In Captain Dom’s Treasure, Dominguita finds a treasure map in an old copy of Treasure Island. The kids are sure it’s a real map. But how to prove it? They use logic to solve their problem. Then, once they know there is an actual treasure, they need to follow the map to find it. But the map was dated 1967. It’s not easy. And what makes it worse is that a meanie, conveniently called Juan Largo (Long John), insinuates himself into the group trying to find the treasure. Dominguita and her crew have to outwit the intruder and get to the treasure first.

All for One has echoes of The Three Musketeers. The three friends have to save a quinceañera party (a fifteenth birthday party) from the dastardly Bublassi gang. It features chocolate covered toilet plungers as Dom’s musketeers weapon of choice. Of course, you can figure out what Sherlock Dom is all about. The crew tries to find the Lost Goat of Tapperville echoing The Hound of the Baskervilles—hound and all. There can be many more Dom stories based on even more classics. I hope I get to write them.

 

Any advice for young knights and storytellers?

Dominguita never gave up, and storytellers should never give up. It’s a long road, but I wouldn’t trade it. The good thing about Dominguita is that, in the end, she made friends. And she goes on to live her books with them. I hope that readers see in Dominguita a Cuban-American girl who’s just like them and that it opens the door, just a little bit more, to understanding.

Thank you so much, Terry!

Find out more about Terry and her books at TerryCJennings.com and at Facebook: Terry Catasús Jennings, Twitter: @TerryCJennings, Instagram:  Terry.C.Jennings and Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54304114-knight-of-the-cape

 

 

Getting to Know: Zara Gonzalez Hoang

 

A New Kind of Wild (Hardcover)

 

I was born in the city. Then moved to the suburbs. Then moved to a city in another country. Then to a city back in this country. Then to an island. Then to a farm. Then to an old town. Then to…you get the idea. Change can be scary, and there’s always something I miss when I go. But I’ve also learned how to look at the world in open and creative ways, and always enjoy making new discoveries.

Children, especially when they’re moved without any say in the matter, sometimes need help in finding the good in the new. A beautiful new book that sums up this journey is A New Kind of Wild (Dial Books for Young Readers), written and illustrated by Zara Gonzalez Hoang. I caught up with Zara to learn more about how Ren, with the help of Ava, adjusted to his new world.

Me: How did you get into creating children’s books?

Zara: I’ve always loved children’s books but I never thought I would make them myself. I was afraid of the idea of drawing a character and keeping them consistent for an entire story, I didn’t think I could do it. I even remember telling a friend that I would NEVER illustrate children’s books! I think about that and laugh now – that was my fear talking for sure. When I finally gave myself permission to try to make a children’s book, I realized this is where I should have been all along! I’m thankful to my oldest son, because I think reading books to him every day and exploring all the different stories and artwork in picture books made me realize there is such a wonderful range in what artists can do and it gave me the courage to try to make them myself.

A New Kind of Wild is a beautiful look at looking at the world. What was your inspiration and process for this book?

Thank you! This book is really special for me because it started with inspiration from a very personal place. My Dad was born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York when he was a kid and that was a really hard experience for him – leaving everything he knew and moving someplace completely different. He went from a place where he knew everyone to a place he knew no one and barely spoke the language. He had to learn how to navigate this new space.

With A New Kind of Wild, I wanted to explore that feeling. Of being displaced. Of being so comfortable in your home and then moving somewhere else. At first, you might not be able see anything good about the place, whatever magic your old home had is certainly not in this new place – but if you can give the new place, the new experience a chance, then maybe, you can find that there is magic there, even if it isn’t exactly the same.

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For the illustrating of the book, the process was very much learning while doing. I originally was planning to do the book digitally – at the time I sold the book I was working pretty much exclusively digitally. I had been experimenting with traditional media and I had this urge to do the book traditionally, but I was afraid to suggest it because I wasn’t sure I could do it. I was lucky though, because the Editor who bought A New Kind of Wild had seen some of the experiments with traditional media I had been posting on Instagram and asked if I would consider doing the book traditionally. I jumped at the opportunity but also had to figure out HOW to illustrate a book like that. So there was a lot of trial and error. I’m so happy with how it turned out and this book really was a turning point for me because these days I work almost exclusively with watercolor, gouache and colored pencil (with some digital magic to put everything together). Working on A New Kind of Wild really changed the way I create my work and helped me figure out how I wanted to create books going forward.

What was it like releasing a book and being an artist during this new kind of time?

It was a bit of a blur…A New Kind of Wild released in April of 2020 – and it was already going to be a crazy time for me because I had a baby at the end of January so I thought I was going to be out doing school visits and bookstore readings sleep-deprived, with a baby in tow…Instead, everything had just shut down and all of the stops on my tour got cancelled one by one. At the time, we thought, maybe by summer we’d be able to travel again but, well, obviously, that did not happen! I tried to do some virtual visits and readings and such but figuring out how to do all that while also juggling a new baby and my older son home from school all day proved to be too much. So it was not the book launch I thought it would be! It was fine though, towards the end of the year the baby was bigger, my other son had fallen into a rhythm with online school and I was able to figure out virtual events a bit more. So, my “tour” was a bit later than expected, but I have managed to figure out ways to engage with kids and their adults virtually and that has been incredibly fun. It was definitely a different launch than I’d anticipated though! Generally, this has been a really tough time to be a parent and it’s tough to also be an artist. I have books I should be working on and art I’d love to make but it all has to come in fits and starts because I need to deal with virtual school for my older son and just general life for the baby! My husband and I try to juggle things as best we can but, some weeks I definitely get more done than others.

I feel like I am complaining about how hard it is to get creative work done right now, and it is, but it is an extraordinary privilege to be able to work from home, to still have work to do, and to be able to spend this much time with my boys and my husband, so when things are extra tough, I try to think about that for awhile and it usually makes me feel a bit better.

 

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Can you share what you’re working on now?

            I’m working on a really fun book written by Anika Aldamuy Denise and published by HarperCollins called Gato Guapo – it’s a counting book featuring some mischievous kitties and it has been such a joy to work on during this very stressful time. It doesn’t come out until 2023, which seems like light years from now, but also I am hopeful it will come out when visiting schools and bookstores are a thing we can do again! I also have a book coming out this October with Candlewick called Mi Casa is My Home written by Laurenne Sala. It was the sweetest text to illustrate about home and family – and it was super special to me since I was illustrating it while pregnant with my youngest son. I have a number of writing projects as well but it has been really difficult for me to write during this time. My normal process involves complete silence, uninterrupted time, an empty house and a lot of me talking out loud to myself….that process doesn’t work with the house full of everyone and only an hour to myself – if I’m lucky – to work at a time. So I’ve been trying to cultivate a process that works within the chaos and I’ve been trying to be kind to myself and tell myself that if the writing doesn’t happen until I get my quiet back, that’s ok. I’ve been jotting down story thoughts in a notebook, so at least I will have my scraps of ideas when I am finally in the mind space to sit down and write!

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I love how your book celebrates the creative spirit! Any advice for young artists and storytellers?

Thank you! I think the best advice I can give, is to keep a notebook. It doesn’t have to be anything special, but I do think it should be a notebook and not just pieces of loose paper. And then, draw in it. Write in it. Paste pictures into it. Play with it however you are inspired. I think it’s so important to have a place to put your ideas and drawings – a place dedicated to your creativity. And the best part about them is once you fill a few up, on days you are feeling discouraged or out of ideas, you can open one up and flip through them. I find, with my own notebooks that when I am having a rough creative day, a flip through my old notebooks will fill me with so much inspiration!

 

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Thanks, Zara!!

You can find out more about Zara and her work at zaralikestodraw.com. And at @zarprey on Twitter and Instagram.