June Author of the Month Deron R. Hicks

Mystery, history, and Vincent Van Gogh—these are at the top of my list of favorite things. You may well imagine, then, how  thrilled I was to run across a book that incorporated all three, Deron R. Hicks’ The Van Gogh Deception. On top of that, he also has a Shakespeare mystery series. I think I’m in love!

Be sure to look for our review of The Van Gogh Deception, which received a highly recommended rating in the May/June issue of School Library Connection. Subscribers can see our complete archive of reviews here.

As our forever-leaping columnist Stacey Rattner has written in the pages of School Library Connection, children’s book authors are the school librarian’s rock stars. And it is definitely one of the perks of my job that I get to have a little one-on-one with these rock stars and get to know them on a somewhat more personal level. Another perk? I get to share their stories with you. So, without further ado, let me introduce you to the author of the highly recommended The Van Gogh Deception, rock star Deron R. Hicks (whose books, by the way, are anything but much ado about nothing!).

What made you decide to try your hand at writing children’s books?

Several years ago I was reading Bill Bryson’s book, Shakespeare: The World as Stage, when I had an idea for an ending for a book involving a lost Shakespearean treasure. Not an entire book — just the ending. But it was an exciting ending. My daughter was twelve at the time, and I thought I would try my hand at writing the rest of the story. I thought it would, at the very least, be a great way to introduce her to Shakespeare. I don’t recall ever consciously thinking that I was writing a children’s book — I was just writing a story that I thought my daughter would enjoy. She was the first person to read that story, which ended up as my first middle-grade novel, The Secret of Shakespeare’s Grave.

I know there’s some question to be asked that pulls in the fact that you’re a lawyer who studied painting and who’s now written a mystery that takes place in an art museum—I have this vision of you sitting in a courtroom, the case is a real who-dun-it, and you’re sketching Starry Night in your notebook. Perhaps I’ll just leave it at “what inspires you to write?”

There are so many cool and interesting things in the world, and writing provides such a great way to share those things with others. For example, I love Washington, D.C. and the National Gallery of Art. Every time I am in D.C., I try to take a few minutes and just walk through the National Gallery. I wrote The Van Gogh Deception, in part, to share some of the awe that I feel when I walk through the galleries of the museum — to stand in front of a Rembrandt, a Monet, or a Van Gogh.

Several years ago I was in Wales in the United Kingdom. My father and I were driving around the countryside, and we stumbled upon the ruins of an old castle (Wales is filled with old castles). It was getting late in the day, and we only had a few minutes to explore the ruins. On one side of the castle were the remains of a turret with the arrow slit still intact. An arrow slit is a thin opening in the exterior of the wall through which the castle’s defenders could fire arrows. I stared through the slit at the landscape outside the castle. There was absolutely no sign of anything modern within my limited field of view. I realized that I was seeing essentially the same thing that a castle defender would have seen five hundred years before me — standing in the exact same place that I was standing. There was a connection to history that was immediate and real. I pick up on some of those same themes in my books. That’s what inspires me to write — to bring those moments to life on the page.

The fact that you studied painting begs the question, do you have plans to illustrate any of your books in the future?

I would love to take a shot at that one day. However, I am also realistic. I often spend months laboring over one painting. Illustrators don’t have that luxury. The really good illustrators — and I have been blessed to work with some really, really good ones such as Gilbert Ford, Mark Edward Geyer, and Antonio Javier Caparo — are exceptionally talented artists and produce incredible work on some really tight deadlines. Still, it would be really cool to one day pair my words with how I see those words in my head.

Interestingly, although my new book has a wonderful cover by Antonio Javier Caparo, there are no interior illustrations. Instead, we have included QR codes which allow the reader to quickly access images of many of the paintings referenced throughout the book. I suppose paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and Claude Monet are an adequate substitute.

What would you like children to take away from your books?

I want them to see a broader world, and I want history to come alive for them. I think that’s the wonder of books. Books open up new worlds — they inspire us to want to see more, to learn more, and to experience more.

What do you enjoy most about school visits?

The questions. Adults tend to ask obvious questions — children do not. There is an honesty to the questions that children ask, which is refreshing and challenging.

Keeping in mind that we are a magazine for K-12 school librarians, is there anything you would like to add that we haven’t touched on?

My father was a high school principal, and I used to spend hours in the school library after school and on weekends just reading and thumbing through books on art, history, and all sorts of other topics. Books were my gateway to other worlds. Books fostered my lifelong passion for travel, art, science, and history. There is a wonderful painting by Norman Rockwell — Land of Enchantment — which shows two children reading as the characters in their books explode to life around them. I believe it hangs in the public library in New Rochelle, New York. That’s how I envision libraries — and that’s the role I want to play as an author. I want my books to open new worlds.

You can visit Hicks’ website at http://deronhicks.com/

Meet Bethany Barton, May 2017 Author of the Month

With a book titled Give Bees a Chance and a personality that absolutely buzzes with excitement, it’s tempting to introduce Bethany Barton with a metaphor about bees, but that risks a stinging rebuke from those allergic to puns so I’ll drone on no longer and invite you to read on.

 

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and this picture can certainly tell you a lot about Bethany Barton, artist and writer extraordinaire. Her books, such as I’m Trying to Love Spiders and This Monster Needs a Haircut, are as fun as she is, filled with her doodles, drawings, and imaginings that tell important stories about bees and spiders and monsters and friendship and patience and more. Her most recent book, Give Bees a Chance—which received a highly recommended rating from our reviewers—is not only absolutely ADORABLE, it’s informative too. And while Bethany was taking a few moments to stop and smell the flowers that owe their existence to bees, she was gracious enough to also take some time to answer a few questions. Continue reading “Meet Bethany Barton, May 2017 Author of the Month”

April Author of the Month David Elliott

Fractured fairy tales? How about fractured mythology? Just in time for National Poetry Month, David Elliott gives us a modern take on Theseus and the Minotaur. Contemporary mythology in verse, you ask? Trust me when I say your high school students will love it, just as you’ll love its cucumber-washing, popsicle stick-making author.

 

This graphic pretty much sums up David Elliott’s latest novel, Bull. Perhaps it’s his love of opera that’s behind his ability to successfully combine verse and drama or maybe that has nothing to do with it and he’s just channeling his inner child’s love of Scrooge McDuck’s “The Golden Fleecing.” Whatever his inspiration, this unique retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur made us want to learn more about the author and we know you do too, so keep reading. Continue reading “April Author of the Month David Elliott”

March Author of the Month Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

It is quite likely that when a student asks you for a book about the impact of war on real people, you will recommend a title by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch. When our reviewers gave highly recommended ratings to two of her new titles, Making Bombs for Hitler and Adrift at Sea, we decided it was time to learn more about Skrypuch herself.

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch’s books have received numerous awards and honors—and for good reason. Skrypuch can take a subject like famine (Enough, a picture book about the Ukranian famine), genocide (Armenian Genocide Trilogy), refugees (Adrift at Sea, Last Airlift, and One Step at a Time, about Vietnamese refugees), or war (World War II Trilogy and others), and turn it into something that is not just suitable for children but, perhaps more importantly, that children can relate to also. With protagonists who are children themselves, her books invite young readers to place themselves in these circumstances and think about how they might have responded to the same situation. But enough of that for now; you’ve read her books, you already know all of this. It’s time for us to get to know a little bit more about Marsha herself.

When did you know you wanted to become a children’s book author?

I wanted to write books ever since I began reading at age nine. I write the stories that burn in my heart – the stories that if I don’t write I won’t be able to sleep at night.

Writing specifically for children wasn’t a conscious decision until much later.

Why do you think it is important to write books for children that deal with such tragic events (refugees, war, genocide)?

We need to be respectful of children’s intelligence. I will never write a book that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Young people deserve nuanced, tough, and interesting stories about real life and real history. Letting kids chew on gritty stories about real history is just as important as giving them good food. Reading about what other young people had to go through in different times and places gives a child the strength and context to deal with their own challenges.

I want to give children a safe way to feel what it’s like to live in the midst of war and what it’s like to have to make impossible choices. But most importantly, when you live inside a character that you’ve grown to love, the whole concept of “us” versus “them” falls away.  Literature set during tragic times is one of the best ways to help a reader develop empathy. Continue reading “March Author of the Month Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch”

February Author of the Month Elly Swartz

Let us introduce you to Elly Swartz—we guarantee you’re going to love her and her debut novel, Finding Perfect. Swartz’s warmth and charm are apparent in her answers to our questions, just as they are apparent in her portrayal of Molly, a typical tween but one whose adolescence is complicated by her obsessive-compulsive disorder. Get ready to be charmed!

Be sure to look for our review of Finding Perfect, which received a highly recommended rating in the January/February issue of School Library Connection. Subscribers can see our complete archive of reviews at reVIEWS+.

SwartzOnce we had read Finding Perfect, we knew we had to talk with the author, Elly Swartz. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions and we were rewarded with a glimpse into the creation of a story from beginning to end and also a glimpse into the heart of Swartz herself. When you’ve finished reading this, you’ll want to invite Swartz into your library and add Finding Perfect to your collection.

When did you know you wanted to become a children’s book author?

I have been creating stories since I was a little girl. Not with the idea of becoming an author, but simply for the love of the story. When I was young, I wrote short stories and a lot of terrible poetry. As a young mom, I channeled my creativity into storytelling. I would create characters and adventures with my sons and weave stories until they fell asleep, the magic passageway was discovered, the princess was found, or the world saved. Then, sixteen years ago, another creative spark was lit. I wanted to write. This time, I wanted to write a children’s book. That summer I started this journey. I wrote my first children’s book. Then I wrote another. And another. And another. And—finally—I wrote Finding Perfect.

That spark now burns even brighter. I love telling stories and writing for kids. I love the way the words weave and the characters unfold. Slowly. Gently. I consider it a true privilege. Continue reading “February Author of the Month Elly Swartz”

January Author of the Month Joel ben Izzy

Photography by Ahri Golden
Photography by Ahri Golden

Joel ben Izzy, one of our favorite award-winning travelling storytellers, has put aside his recordings for the moment and taken up the pen. With his usual warmth and engaging humor, ben Izzy shares his semi-autobiographical story of 12-year-old Joel, master magician and nerd incarnate, who is looking for a Hanukkah miracle.

Be sure to look for our review of his new book, Dreidels on the Brain, which received a highly recommended rating in the January-February issue of School Library Connection. Subscribers can see our complete archive of reviews at reVIEWS+.

If you’re not acquainted with Joel ben Izzy, you—and your students—have been missing out on some of the best storytelling to be found.

In Stories from Far Away, a recipient of the ALA Notable Recording Award, ben Izzy takes you with him as he goes from Turkey to Tel Aviv, China to Tokyo and places in-between, presenting us with folktales embellished with his own personal touches as we travel through these foreign lands. And it’s quite obvious why How I Learned to Love Liver: And other Tales too Tall to Tell received the Parents’ Choice Honors award; the stories are full of that type of gross humor that makes kids squeal “ewwww!!!” as they giggle and quiver with delight, and those same kids can be found quivering with horror and suspense as they listen to the stories in The Green Hand: And other Ghostly Tales from around the World, recipient of the Film Advisory Board Award of Excellence. Continue reading “January Author of the Month Joel ben Izzy”

December Author of the Month Kyo Maclear

Whimsical. That’s a word that should pop into your mind when you hear the name Kyo Maclear. It’s a word that describes so many of her children’s books—The Wish Tree, Virginia Wolf, Mr. Flux, and more. So when you see those children who could use a little whimsy in their lives, do them a favor and introduce them to Kyo Maclear.

Be sure to look for our review of her new book, The Wish Tree, which received a highly recommended rating in the November-December issue of School Library Connection. Subscribers can see our complete archive of reviews at reVIEWS+.

maclearwOnce upon a time there was a Japanese-British-Jewish-Canadian couple who were anxiously awaiting the birth of their first child. Wanting “to celebrate that multiplicity,” novelist (and soon-to-be new mother) Kyo Maclear decided to write her first children’s book, and so was born Spork—the name of the book, not the baby. Fast forward to today and we find that her children are still a source of inspiration for Maclear; she also draws inspiration “from walking in the city and eavesdropping, from art and artists around me, from my own feelings and memories of being small in the world.”

Maclear writes “eccentric and fanciful stories,” she tells us, “to invite big and little readers to see the world less rigidly.” Books like The Wish Tree demonstrate that Maclear is “big on kindness and community.” According to Maclear, “If there is one theme that runs through most of my books, it’s the idea that we should be hospitable to the small, the seemingly strange, the wild (including wild, wolfish humans), and the unexpected.” Continue reading “December Author of the Month Kyo Maclear”

November Author of the Month John Coy

John Coy tells us that he decided to become an author after, on a whim, he typed his name into the library catalog and got zero results. “That,” he explains, “is when I realized that if I wanted something to come up, I needed to write.” Today, his fans are certainly glad for those zero results.

Be sure to look for our review of his new book, Gap Life, which received a highly recommended rating in the November-December issue of School Library Connection. Subscribers can see our complete archive of reviews on reVIEWS+.

coyJohn Coy loves writing, and sharing that process with students is one of the things he loves the most about school visits. “It’s so different compared with what many of them imagine, with lots of false starts, mistakes, and rejection,” he tells us. “It’s an amazing process to start with nothing other than an idea and turn it into a book. I love inspiring students to see reading and writing in new ways.”

He also encourages teachers and librarians to try their hand at writing: “Many teachers and librarians enjoyed writing when they were younger but don’t get many opportunities to write for pleasure now. I’ve been in schools lately where teachers and librarians have set up writing groups where they write together and read their writing to each other. These groups have many benefits including giving instructors a stronger sense of what students are struggling with as well as students being able to see their instructors as writers. With writing, we’re all in it together, all of us trying to become better.” Continue reading “November Author of the Month John Coy”

Meet Margarita Engle, October Author of the Month

Margarita Engle has been writing poetry since she was a child. She also spent her summers in Cuba, her mother’s homeland, which sparked a passion for all things Cuban. Put those together and you end up with passionate stories of Cuba written in free verse that pull you in and keep you moving along with the flow of the verse.

margarita-engle-w
Photography by Sandra Ríos Balderrama ©

Margarita Engle’s books for young adults regularly receive awards, which will come as no surprise to those who have read her stories; her latest work, Lion Island: Cuba’s Warrior of Words, received a highly recommended rating from our reviewers. Lion Island “completes a cycle of loosely linked biographical verse novels about heroes of the struggle for freedom and social justice in 19th-century Cuba,” Engle explains. “That cycle began,” she goes on to tell us, “with The Poet Slave of Cuba, and continued with The Surrender Tree, The Firefly Letters, and The Lightning Dreamer.” Her books, then, also serve to fill a gap in children’s literature about Cuba.

These sometimes brutal and heartbreaking stories deal with an unstable period in Cuba’s history and Engle’s accounts do not sugarcoat this reality. The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano does not gloss over his treatment as a slave; The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom depicts a Cuba torn apart and ravaged by war; and Lion Island speaks to the injustice of slavery, indentured servitude, and racism. But these books also speak to the resilience of the human spirit and how one person can make a difference. In fact, when asked what she would like students to take away from her books, she responded with one simple word: “Hope.” Continue reading “Meet Margarita Engle, October Author of the Month”

August/September Author of the Month Donna Gephart

Those tween/teen years can be so difficult and scary—we can all remember feeling lost and alone and like we didn’t fit in. Donna Gephart remembers, and through her books that amuse, touch, and inspire, she helps to make those years just a little less scary.

When the team at School Library Connection and reVIEWS+ met her latest characters, Lily and Dunkin, we knew Gephart was someone we wanted to get to know.
Subscribers can view our complete archive of reviews at reVIEWS+.

gephartLike so many bibliophiles, Gephart’s love of books began at an early age. When her mother took her to the Northeast Regional Library, she “felt like the whole world had opened up for me. Throughout my childhood,” she tells us, “that library was a mecca to me.”

At age ten, Gephart decided to become a writer and, after “only thirty years of writing practice,” she sold her first children’s book to Random House.

When asked what inspires her to write, Gephart replied, “I write for the lonely girl I was, growing up in Philadelphia with my sister and single-parent mom. We didn’t have much money, and I didn’t have many friends back then. Books provided me companionship, wit and wisdom, and roadmaps for how I might navigate a rich, fulfilling, and creative life.” This inspiration is evident in her books. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly frivolous titles, these books deal with some weighty topics—tempered with humor and compassion. Tween/teen angst, broken families and friendships, death, financial difficulties, mental health, and sexual identity are just some of the subjects encountered within the pages where you will also find geeks, factoids (most toilets flush in the key of E-flat, a person must be at least thirty-five years old to become president of the United States, Mount Everest is on the border of Tibet and Nepal), trivia buffs, and a sweepstakes junkie. And no matter the emotional ups and downs throughout her books, you will always be left with hope when you’re done reading. Continue reading “August/September Author of the Month Donna Gephart”