May 24, 2016

THE SEVEN PRINCESSES: Sibling Struggles and Solutions

An adage in the world of publishing for kids says that there's always room for one more dog book, cow book, princess book, bear book or other familiar iconic characters if... and only if... something about the story makes it stand out from the pack.

A search of book titles including the word "princess" resulted in more than a hundred PAGES of links. What possible hook could an author imagine to make a story stand out in such a crowded field? 
How about one with SEVEN princesses? 

That's certainly a start, but it would need something else pretty special to hold an audience. Author/illustrator Smiljana Coh wasn't intimidated by that challenge. This new release isn't her first princess book. PRINCESSES ON THE RUN had a warm reception from Publishers' Weekly. It's no surprise that she had the confidence to have-a-go at another!

Running Press Kids. May, 2016
The spring release of THE SEVEN PRINCESSES, written and illustrated by Smiljana Coh, brings us a  princess book that is memorable on several counts and for several audiences.
The energetic and independent princesses will appeal to girls and boys, too. From the harlequin-patterned endpapers to the classic village and castle to the updated clothing and conventions, stereotypes are flipped for a contemporary treatment. These seven independent and self-sufficient sisters are recognizable and familiar despite their obviously privileged life. 
The palette shifts from comforting pastels to somber sepia-grays as the "kind-hearted, quick-witted, highly skilled" sisters slip into sibling spats. Anyone who has ever used tape to divide a shared bedroom or labeled special items "hands off" will identify with their squabbles and revel in their eventual solutions.
The visually diverse family is equally diverse in interests, including plenty of science, nature, arts, and athletics. The illustrations enhance the reality of a loving and complex family navigating the ups and downs of daily life. 
The story these sisters tell would be similar if they lived in one of the village homes at the base of the castle. But being "princess" sisters  provides initial appeal, allows elaborate execution of their decisions, and elevates their struggles and problem-solving with colorful detail and humor. 
This is a princess book that will be pulled from the shelves again and again: by educators, parents, and families seeking books dealing with conflict resolution, diversity, and family dynamics. More importantly, young readers will return to it once they recognize themselves in any one of the princess sisters, their varied interests, and the ambivalence of sibling relationships. 
If you want to read what others have had to say about THE SEVEN PRINCESSES, check other posts on the blog tour:
5/21 Mom Read It  





May 2, 2016

THE SEAGOING COWBOY: A Review, an Interview, an Inspiration

Warning, readers. This is a longer post than usual, but I hope you’ll find it’s worth every word.

You're probably familiar with the adage:  Think globally, act locally.
This advice, like much advice, is simple on the surface but more complicated when it comes to real life. I support organizations that have proven to be successful in accomplishing things globally by providing services and support locally.

Sustainable, life-changing support.

Some examples are:
Click on any of the above to learn more about their approaches, although I suspect most of you are already familiar with these organizations. I invite you to suggest others in the comments.

Atheneum Books for Young readers, 2001
My awareness of Heifer International began when I read a picture book, featuring one real girl and her family. BEATRICE’S GOAT, written by Page McBrier and illustrated by Lori Lohstoeter, released in 2001. It’s a winning story of how Heiffer International programs change lives and provide the catalyst for communities to change themselves. Here’s a link to learn more about how Beatrice seized her opportunities and used them to the maximum.
I’ve supported this organization ever since, always knowing their person-to-person programs make the most of the limited dollars I could contribute.

Recently I learned about the origin story that was totally unknown to me. And again, it reached me through a picture book. In this case, it’s THE SEAGOING COWBOY, written by Peggy Reiff Miller and illustrated by Claire Ewart (Brethern Press, 2016).
Brethren Press, 2016

 The story is told through the voice of a young man who looks for adventure and finds a connection to people a half-a-world away. During the late 1940s the Church of the Brethern of Indiana were seeking a way to help desperate families in central Europe rebuild their lives following years of destruction during the Second World War.
An inspired midwest community decided to provide donated breeding stock to farmers whose land and lives had been left in ruins. But their valuable horses and heifers needed to arrive in good condition. Knowledgeable “cowboys” volunteered to tend the pregnant cows and horses on their voyage from the United States to Poland and other countries most in need.
These men dealt with seasickness, storms, and the delivery of a calf named HOPE during their passage. Upon arrival they were met with a landscape of devastation and faces of hopefulness. The illustrations capture the mood, setting, and challenges described in Miller’s simple rhythmic text. The author included back matter (text and archival photos) that reveal further details of life aboard ship and accounts of other voyages by some surviving volunteer cowboys. Her author’s note provides context for the needs addressed and the impact of those initial efforts, as well as her resources for assuring authenticity in her story. She continues to post interviews with various “Seagoing Cowboys” on her blog, here.

I’m very pleased that Peggy was willing to answer some questions for me about the origins of her origin story in this debut picture book.
  
Welcome, Peggy, and congratulations on the March, 2016 release of THE SEAGOING COWBOY.

PRM: Thank you!

Your website header says you’re a writer and historian. You also indicate you’ve been writing for many years, producing manuscripts for a variety of audiences and outlets. Why did you choose picture book format rather than a longer form to share this particular history?

PRM: I actually chose a longer format first. I had started out writing a YA novel about a 16-year-old seagoing cowboy to Poland, which did get written, revised, and rewritten a few times after major workshops, such as a Highlights Foundation workshop and the Big Sur Children's Writing Workshop. But the market for straight historical fiction for young adults without a fantasy or romance element went south. So it's resting. While I was working on the novel, I went to an SCBWI conference and had the opportunity to submit a nonfiction manuscript to one of the editors there. So I drafted a nonfiction picture book manuscript about the seagoing cowboys, which was rejected. A couple of revisions and a couple of years later, it was picked up by Brethren Press and through the editing process turned into the historical fiction story of The Seagoing Cowboy.

Few people have heard of the post-WWII origins of the Heifer Project on which your fictionalized book is based. How did you learn about the seagoing cowboys?

PRM: I grew up in the Church of the Brethren, which started the Heifer Project in 1942. Most all involved members knew about the project and participated in some way or other--raising heifers, donating money, or transporting animals. So I had heard about seagoing cowboys as a kid, but I didn’t know that my Grandpa Abe had been one of them. After Grandpa died, my father gave me an envelope of pictures from his trip to Poland in 1946. Those pictures beckoned to me for a long time and became the impetus for my novel and the resulting research.

With so much research and so many personal stories collected, what shaped your decisions about the narrator and the cowboy in your book?

PRM: As I said, I had started out writing from the viewpoints of three grandpas telling their stories. But that was just too cumbersome, and my editor and I realized I needed to write the story from the perspective of one cowboy in the historical setting and not as a grandpa looking back in time. I decided to use an unnamed narrator who would represent “every cowboy” and add a friend so there could be a consistent companion. I’ve always been captured by John Nunemaker’s experience of finding his own family’s horse on his ship, so when I needed something to help create a storyline, I borrowed his story and named the friend John.

What goals will you use to judge your response when someone asks, “How is your book doing?”

PRM: I’ll base my response on comments I get back from readers and not on sales numbers. Brethren Press is a small press that can’t get into the large distribution networks, so I’m not anticipating mega-sales.
The book has had a wonderful reception so far by seagoing cowboys and their families, as well as members of the Church of the Brethren who share this history. Heifer International staff are excited to have this part of their history told.
One of my main goals in getting the book published was to offer a way for families of seagoing cowboys to be able to honor the service of their loved ones and share the story with succeeding generations. From the responses I’m getting, I’ve hit the mark on that one! It’s very humbling and rewarding at the same time to receive their notes of appreciation.

The mission of Heifer International includes training and the expectation of a pay-it-forward commitment from recipients. How are the principles of the current organization rooted in the original Heifer Project?

PRM: The intention of the original Heifer Project Committee and the Brethren Service Committee under which it served until incorporation in 1953, was to provide help to the neediest of farmers without regard to race, religion, or nationality. Heifer International continues to operate in that vein. And they operate on the basis of their “Twelve Cornerstones,” where each community that receives Heifer’s assistance receives training in values such as accountabiliy, sharing and caring, gender and family focus, improved animal management, sustainability and self-reliance, etc. But the main cornerstone that makes Heifer so special and in tune with the original program is “Passing on the Gift.” To participate in the program, recipients pledge to pass on the first female offspring of their animal to another family. This gives the original receiver the dignity of becoming a giver and expands exponentially the outreach of the program. The “Pass On" ceremonies pictured on Heifer’s website are very moving.

Please tell readers about your current projects?

PRM: Always too many to get them all done! I have a Seagoing Cowboys website that I’ve recently revamped and write a regular twice-montly blog on it about seagoing cowboy history. I’m currently working with Heifer International as a historical consultant, researching a book project on the shipments they made to Germany throughout the decade of the 1950s, helping Germany in their recovery from World War II. A writer in Germany is working on that end to find the recipients with the information I’m feeding him, document their stories, and write the book.
Outside of my work with Heifer, I’m independently working on a book about the first decade of the Heifer Project, which I’d love to have ready by Heifer’s 75th anniversary in 2019, but I have my doubts I’ll make that deadline. I’m also working on a book for adults about the seagoing cowboy history, and would like to do a middle grade nonfiction book on this topic, as well. I have another historical fiction picture book manuscript drafted related to the shipments to Germany in the 1950s, which I’m ready to start submitting. And my novel will beckon to me at some point to try again. Not to mention several other picture book manuscripts waiting for attention.

You indicated a lifelong “itch” to write, and that you’ve now found your way to embrace your writing self and find outlets to share it with readers. Do you have any advice for others who have felt (or are just now feeling) that itch to write?

PRM: If the itch is for writing for children, I’d say join SCBWI, the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. That was one of the best things I ever did. It’s where I found my wonderful critique group, and where I’ve been able to participate in conferences to learn from other authors, editors, agents, and publishing professionals. Without the conferences and my wonderful writers group, The TaleBlazers, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Thank you, Peggy. It’s been delightful to virtually meet you here and learn more about your own voyage to sharing these amazing stories.

I urge readers to request THE SEAGOING COWBOY at your library or independent bookstore. Share the story on social media and help others learn about it. When the problems of the world loom so overwhelming that hopelessness rears its head, books like this one remind us that problems are solved one person at a time.
For more about the early days of this organization, check out another picture book from Brethern Press, FAITH, THE COW, written by Susan Bame Hoover and illustrated by Maggie Sykora.

Don't hesitate to chime in on comments with suggestions of other inspiring true stories and organizations.





Apr 28, 2016

Saving the Planet: One Kid at a Time

So, EARTH DAY has come and gone. Did you participate in some way? Don't think of this message as "too late" or overdue.  If for any reason you feel you missed out, take a minute to consider this from their website, earthday.org:


"The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, activated 20 million Americans 
from all walks of life and is widely credited with launching 
the modern environmental movement."
Crickhollow Books, 2015

The point is, designating a particular day to serve in some way or just to think about the importance of protecting and preserving every aspect of this remarkable planet that we all call home misses the mission. The actual point of EARTH DAY is to raise awareness, activate change, and encourage every resident of our planet to "wake up and save the roses", so to speak.
Every day.
Day after day.
Year after year. 



I wrote about the first in a series of nonfiction photojournalism picture books by Cathleen Burnham in a previous post. 
DOYLI TO THE RESCUE: SAVING BABY MONKEYS IN THE AMAZON, is the first in the series and documents the preteen island girl who helps rescue, rehabilitate and restore baby monkeys. The efforts of Doyli and her family at home and in the marketplace save baby primates from being sold as food or pets or finding other unknown and illegal fates. 


Crickhollow Books, 2016
In the second book of the series an entire island village of young people comprise the self-named TORTUGA SQUAD: Kids Saving Sea Turtles in Costa Rica. Their tiny island on the Caribbean coast is the instinctive nesting site for endangered sea turtles, leatherbacks. 

During nesting season the massive mother turtles swim ashore, crawl up onto the sand beaches, dig a hole and desposit 80-100 soft-shelled eggs, using their flipper legs to bury the eggs before returning to sea. From that point forward their survival has no protection from nature.
Dogs could dig up and eat the eggs, sea birds and other animals could snatch and eat them on their way to the sea after hatching. Once in the water they need to make it through rough waves and over the shallow reef to reach the deeper waters where they can hide among sea plants before continuing to the open ocean.

Despite the odds nature has stacked against them, the species has survived for millennia. Then the most fearful predators of all created even greater dangers, threatening them with extinction. Humans flip the enormous mothers onto their backs, leaving them helpless and able to be eaten or sold for food in the marketplace. Poachers  gather the eggs to eat or sell. Laws against this are generally ignored, and the species is facing extinction.

Until... kids on the island learned about what was happening and stepped up to help. Photojournalist Burnham's  story and images reveal the details of how these island kids have organized themselves into a rescue and protection squad, offering the tortuga (turtles) their best chance at survival.

Burnham considers her books "seed stories", planting ideas and confidence in young readers that they have the power to make significant and planet-changing differences in their own neighborhoods. Her organization, WAKA!, is the World Association of Kids and Animals. Her website blog posts about her recent and current world travels, study guides for the books, and contact information for those with questions and stories to share. 

This recent series and these engaged, enthusiastic young people are the epitome of the mission of EARTH DAY Organization. Yes, the recent international PARIS CLIMATE ACCORDS and the many laws passed by individual nations are necessary and important changes, too, and we celebrate these accomplishments. The Tortuga Squad's awareness of the protective laws give them standing in the community for their efforts within the community. But without their on-the-ground vigilance makes the difference in the survival of a species. 

With compelling text, remarkable photography, picture captions and scientific diagrams, this nonfiction picture book offers readers an ideal opportunity. Yes, they can read in the content areas of science and social studies and engage with information text. But in this case  the contents reflect lives in many ways similar to their own, but from half a world away.

How cool is that? 
Share this book with a young reader and find out for yourselves.
And pick one habit you can change, starting today. 
That might just be finding and sharing books like these with young readers.


Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.