Saturday, December 22, 2012

Happy Holidays!

What could be more delightful to children than a story about a tugboat? I found out when I introduced my students to The Christmas Tugboat. A story about a giant Christmas tree riding down the Hudson River on the back of a full-size trailer truck, sitting on an enormous barge, pulled by a diminutive (by comparison) tugboat – now that is a winning combination in the eyes of my students.

The Christmas Tugboat: How the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Came to New York City

The authors, George Matteson and Adele Ursone, brought personal experience to this picture book. George was a tugboat captain who, late one November, got the assignment to bring the towering Rockefeller Center Christmas tree to New York City. His wife, Adele, and their daughter went along for the two-day adventure and the idea for this book was born. I was intrigued to learn that the Rockefeller Center tree has been a tradition since 1931 – it’s about time we have a book to commemorate the event!

James Ransome’s illustrations richly depict the changing light from the early morning hours of the book’s beginning through sunset and the beginning of a new day, when the tug continues its trip down the river to New Your City. His illustration of the quote below is as beautiful as the words.

“As the first sunlight brushes across the land, Mom points back to the tree. It sparkles all over as if covered with tiny diamonds. ‘The night and the cold have decorated it just for us,’ she says.”

My students wished they could have helped decorate the tree when it finally stood in front of the Rockefeller Center. Since that wasn’t possible, we made a large tree of our own - out of paper. It isn’t as elegant as the Rockefeller tree, but it was adorned with enthusiasm.

Our winter break has begun and I will be taking a mini vacation from blogging to spend time with family, friends and with other writing projects. I will miss the next two Saturdays but I’ll be back on January 12.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or the coming of winter; I hope you are enjoying this festive time of year. And if you happen to pass by the Rockefeller Center, please send us a picture of the tree – I know my students would love to see it!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Author Interview - Dashka Slater

Last week’s interview was so popular with the students, I decided it would only be fair to give another class an opportunity to participate in the process. Lucky for us, Dashka Slater’s book, Dangerously Ever After, beautifully illustrated by Valeria Docampo, arrived on my doorstep Monday while I was at work.

Tuesday, I brought the book to school and read it to Ms. Wardlaw’s first grade class. You may recognize a few names of interviewers - some of my speech kids are in this class. The story was a hit!

Welcome Dashka. The students were spellbound from the moment I read the title of the book. We’d all like to know, what inspired you to write this story?

I love hearing that! I was inspired by an idea that came from my son when he was the same age as your students. He came home from first grade one day telling me he had a great idea for a story about a queen who wanted to plant rose seeds but ended up planting nose seeds. I loved the idea and couldn’t wait to read the story. When he didn’t end up writing it, I asked permission to write it myself.

I’m glad he gave you permission; but perhaps we’ll be reading his version of the story one of these days. How long did it take to complete the book?

It depends on what you mean by “complete.” I started the story in March 2006. Looking at that very first attempt, I see that the princess was named Anne and she wasn’t all that different from your average princess. But by May of that year her name was Amanita and she loved dangerous things and the story was pretty similar to the one you read – just longer. But the book still went through a lot more revisions before it was accepted for publication in 2008 and a few more revisions afterwards. And then we had to find an illustrator!

What perseverance! It’s nice for the students to hear they aren’t alone in needing to revise their work. When did you first become interested in writing for children?

In some ways, I’ve never been interested in anything else. I started writing when I was 4 (or dictating, as I couldn’t really write on my own) and I never stopped. When I was a kid I wrote for children, because I was writing for myself. But I didn’t start trying to write for children professionally until after my son was born, by which time I was already making my living as a writer for adults.

What were some of your favorite books from childhood?

I loved all of E. Nesbit’s books -- Dangerously Ever After is in many ways an homage to her. Other books that I loved enough to read many, many times include Winnie the Pooh, Harriet the Spy, The Phantom Tollbooth, Swallows and Amazons, Charlotte’s Web, The Chronicles of Prydain, The Egypt Game, Half Magic, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Alice in Wonderland and many other books too numerous to mention. I was a big re-reader and still am.

Reading is one of my favorite hobbies. I’m hoping to pass along that love to my students. Do you have any new projects in the works?

I’m working on several new picture books and my first middle grade novel, called The Roving Trees Railroad, as well as a new book for adults. Too many new projects, actually!


Esmeralda liked the beginning, the middle and the end. She seems to understand good story structure. Would you like to comment?

I find endings are the hardest. Beginnings are the easiest. I love to write beginnings! But then sometimes I don’t know what to write next. Does that ever happen to your students?

All the time, but they usually push through and try to fill a page. Joden wanted to let you know, he likes dangerous stuff too. He likes to go up into his attic where even his Mom won’t go. (He always carries a lantern.) He wondered if you like dangerous stuff too.

Joden, you sound very brave. If I hear a bump in the night, will you come with your lantern? As for me, I like some dangerous stuff. I have a dangerous cat, for instance, and I like him. He’s sitting on my lap right now and he bites if I spend too much time typing and forget to pet him. Ouch.

Chloe asked, “Was there a wedding at the end?”

What do you think, Chloe? I think the noses want to marry the roses, but I’m not sure the roses want to marry the noses.

I will be sure to ask her on Monday. Sebastian wanted to know if the noses are going to grow fingers. He thinks then, they could pick their noses. (Perhaps he is hoping for a sequel).

This is the best idea ever. I think you should write this story, Sebastian, but if you don’t want to then maybe I will.

I think I saw Sebastian working on the story when I left his room but I can’t be sure. I’ll check in with him and get back to you soon. Felicia wondered why the flowers snored.

I think Amanita wondered that too. I wonder why my cat snores.

Allison loved the princess and the little cat. She would like to write a book some day. She asked, “Do you like thorny things?”

I like thorny things but I don’t like being pricked by thorny things.

Natalie wondered, “How did you think of all those funny flowers?”

Some of those funny flowers are based on real ones. The stink lilies were inspired by some real lilies that grow in my backyard. They are a beautiful velvet purple and smell like rotting meat. I didn’t know that at first though. I picked them and put them in a vase on my dining room table. And then I began wondering, “What’s that terrible smell?”

I love bringing lilies indoors. I’ll have to watch out for the smelly variety. Felicia asked, “Why did the princess get sent nose seeds? Was it because she wrote so messy?

That’s something I have in common with Amanita -- I have kind of messy handwriting too. Sometimes I can’t read my own notes! That’s why I’m typing this. Otherwise my answers would look like this: ncv kpinie vim5t bbriohj.

That looks just like my handwriting! Malachi loves the story and he asked, “How did you write this book?”

With a six inch cactus spine as a pen.

I’m going to have to get one of those. Zayd asked, “Do you know somebody that loves so many dangerous things?”

My cat loves dangerous things. He comes home with stickles and prickles all stuck in his fur.

Skylar wanted me to tell you, she planted roses in the grass and they are orange and puffy and they smell nice and she has nose flowers too. She also wanted you to know she made up a story about spinach. First she made Mr. Spinach with Play-dough and put spikey spikes on him like in your story. I told Skylar I like to write stories too and she suggested I get a can of Play-dough. I think I’ll try that! She’d probably love to hear about your writing rituals.

I would like to see Mr. Spinach. I don’t have Play-dough but I have a lot of toys on my desk that help me act out the ideas in my head, including a plastic palm tree, a stuffed cat, and a shoebox that I pretend is a house. Also a llama and an elephant.

I loved the drawings you sent me, and so does Princess Amanita. She says that the pictures make her look very dangerous, which is just how she wants to look. She would like to know if the flowers in Madison’s picture are poisonous and if she can have the seeds for the big thorny plants in Eli’s picture.

Thank you, Dashka Slater, for taking the time to answer our questions. We loved the story and look forward to reading more of your work in the future.

If anyone would like a personalized bookplate to put inside your own copy of Dangerously Ever After or OH NO! Little Dragon by Jim Averbeck, you’ll find the information here.

Artwork from the interview team:


I saw the horrific news of the Connecticut tragedy yesterday while sitting at my desk. Outside my window our students played at recess; their happy, carefree expressions amplified the loss experienced at Sandy Hook Elementary School. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who lost loved ones, the survivors, and all the people of Connecticut. Our nation mourns.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

SpeakWell, ReadWell Interview with Jim Averbeck

It was another rainy week at Redwood Elementary, at least it began that way, and by Wednesday the students were feeling a bit squirrely – too much time indoors – so when I asked a kindergarten teacher if I could share a book with her class during my lunch break, she jumped at the opportunity. A roomful of five year-olds who have been cooped up all morning can be a challenge to engage but when I pulled out, OH NO, Little Dragon! I had them captive. My motives weren’t entirely selfless; I enlisted the students to help me interview the author and illustrator, Jim Averbeck.

Welcome Jim. My students and I think Little Dragon is adorable. We’d all like to know, what inspired you to write his story?

I began writing the story while I was traveling in China to see a solar eclipse of the sun. Our Chinese guide told us his name was Frankie. But I knew he only said that to give me a name easy for me to pronounce.  I asked him what his real Chinese name was and he told me it was Xiao Long, which he said meant “Little Dragon.” I thought that would be a good name for a book.  He also told me that in imperial China it would have been illegal for him to have that name, punishable by death. Only the emperor could bear the name “Dragon.”

No wonder there aren’t many dragons left in China! How long did it take to create the book -from initial inspiration to publication?

The eclipse happened in July of 2009. The book was published in August of 2012. So it was three years from first inspiration to published book.

That may sound like a long time to my students but it sounds like a speedy turn-around to me. Will Little Dragon make an appearance in future books?

Right now I am writing a story about Little Dragon’s relationship with Papa Dragon. Little Dragon likes to sleep in Papa’s bed, but when he “phooshes” during a bad dream and burns up the book Papa is reading, it’s time for him to get a big boy bed!

What a clever idea! When did you first become interested in writing and illustrating children’s books?

I lived in Cameroon in Western Africa from 1990 – 1994. During that time I had a sort of dream that inspired the first story I ever wrote. It was a visual story, so I knew it needed to be illustrated.

Wow - you’ve seen a lot of the world! What were some of your favorite books from childhood?

I was just thinking about that the other day. I remember loving “Bread and Jam for Frances.”  It was the book I had to have read over and over, until it fell apart from use.


Bryson asked, “How hard was this story to make?”

Harder than making your bed but easier than making up for lost time.

Peter didn’t have any questions but he wanted you to know he loves the story.

That makes me very happy Peter. Every author wants someone to love his story.

Leo wondered, “How did you make the dragon?”

Little Dragon is made up of basic shapes. His head is an oval. His body is a circle. His tail is a big triangle and he has thirteen small triangles that run from the top of his head to the tip of his tail. After I draw those shapes, I trace over them and add arms, feet and a face.  Then Little Dragon is ready to face the day.

Skylar had no questions although she wanted me to tell you she has a pet dragon and a little baby fish.

Oh my! What does she feed her dragon?  Mostly they eat princesses and warriors, but some are vegetarian and others like hamburgers. I hope her pet dragon doesn’t eat princesses.

Skylar said he eats chips and dip. April liked all of the illustrations and she asked, “How did you draw the bathtub?”

I looked at a lot of pictures of bathtubs.  I liked the old ones with feet best.  I decided a dragon would have a bathtub with feet made out of bones.

The kids spotted the bones right away and a few wished they had similar tubs. I shared the book with a first grade speech group and Jared asked, “Why do dragons really have hats with horns on their bathtubs?”

Dragons often fight with Viking warriors.  When they win, there is nothing left of the Viking except for a hat with horns and possibly a badly dented or melted sword. Dragons get to keep these things. They are called the “spoils of war” and dragons use them to decorate their homes.

Joden informed me that dragons are half-bird and half-fireplace because they fly and have flames. He wanted me to tell you that he writes stories for his little brother and they are about dragons too.

I think Joden must be right about that. I think they have a little bit of dinosaur in them too. If Joden could be half-boy half-something-else, what would the something-else be?

Joden was happy to answer your question. If he could, he’d be half-boy and half-fireplace so he’d be the only fire-breathing boy.

Malachi wants you to know he ate peppers and his eyes didn’t water but flames blew out of his mouth for two years. He wants to know if you ever ate hot peppers and did a lot of fire come out of your mouth?

When I lived in Africa, they had peppers so hot if you breathed out you would catch the trees on fire. That’s how the Sahara Desert was created.

I'm glad I wasn't there at the time! Jared asked, “Did you use crayons to make the hot red flames?”

Actually I used a computer program called Photoshop. The flames have many different layers- one for the yellow, one for the white, and so on.  There were over 15 different layers. How many can Jared count?

Jared counted only four – he was surprised by all the layers. Hailey wanted me to mention she writes every day and she wondered why you don’t. I assured her, there is every possibility that you do too, but we don’t get to see everything you write. I think she was implying, she wants to see more Little Dragon stories. Would you like to comment?

I try to write every day too.  Sometimes I can’t though, because I have to walk the dog or visit a school to speak to a class. But I try to write every day. 

My students wanted to share some of their artwork. Esmeralda, who did the blue dragons kissing, wanted your opinion on her art.

All the art is beautiful. The dragons kissing makes fine use of a monochromatic palette, which means it used only- or mostly- one color. In this case blue. Please tell Esmeralda that the most famous artist in the world, Pablo Picasso, also went through a time when he used mostly one color. It is called his “blue period” and his art is worth a million dollars.

Here is an example:

Ariel, who created the yellow dragon wanted me to tell you she is an artist too.

The yellow dragon I also like a lot, because he is yellow like fire.

And I like the dragon in the bathtub. This is an example of a contour line drawing. Tell Zayd, that Picasso, that famous artist I mentioned, also had a time when he did line art like this.

Here is a Picasso camel:

And here is a Picasso wiener dog:

I like the brown dragon too, but he scared me a little because he is so fierce!

Do you have any last words of advice for future writers and illustrators?

The best way to learn to write and illustrate is to read a lot of books. Read every day. Read, read, read, read, read, read, read!

What good advice, and you’ve given children a great place to start with OH NO, Little Dragon!

Thank you, Jim Averbeck!

I received more artwork from Mrs. Douglas’ kindergarten class after the interview so please take a look below.