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  • Duncan Tonatiuh brings Mexican-American past and present to the very colorful page.
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    5 Questions With... Duncan Tonatiuh (Separate is Never Equal)

    by April Hall
     | Oct 10, 2014

    With his use of ancient artistic styles, Duncan Tonatiuh gives young readers a glimpse at classic Mexican style, while telling the stories of people who aren’t often given a voice. From Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant’s Tale to Separate is Never Equal, the author tackles tough subjects Hispanic immigrants face, taking on controversial topics like human trafficking.

    As a design major studying in New York City, Tonatiuh decided as a senior project to tell the story of one boy he met in the city. From that project blossomed an author’s career and a platform to talk about the issues facing Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote: A Migrant's Tale recently won the 2014 Tomás Rivera Mexican American children's book award and in addition to writing, Tonatiuh has given a TED talk about immigration and reaches out to students whenever he can.

    Did you always want to be an author? A children’s book writer?

    I loved to read when I was in elementary school and that made me want to write. In high school I became especially interested in writing fiction. That interest continued while I was in college. I never thought of being a children's book author, though, until the opportunity presented itself.

    In college I studied writing but also illustration. A professor who one day came to critique our class's work really liked my drawings. She introduced me to a children's book editor at Abrams that she was friends with. The editor really liked my illustrations and told me that he wanted to work with me. He would contact me if he received a manuscript that suited my style.

    I told him I liked to write too. He said, “great.” He gave me his e-mail and told me a few basic things about picture books, like the fact that they are usually 32 pages long or that it’s a good idea to have a child or an animal be the protagonist of the story so that young readers can identify with him.

    A few months later while I was still in school I had an idea for a story. I wrote a manuscript. The manuscript changed significantly—my first draft rhymed and I am terrible at rhyming—but it eventually became my first book Dear Primo: A Letter to My Cousin

    I am very happy that I've become a picture book author and illustrator. I get two do to of my favorite things for a living: writing and drawing. And I get to talk about issues that I am passionate about in my books like social justice, art, and history.

    Your illustrations are unique as homage to ancient pre-Columbian art. What draws you to that style?

    I grew up in Mexico and I was familiar with Pre-Columbian art from a young age. I saw images of it on text books or on codex-like crafts at the market. Growing up I did not pay much attention to it though. I was interested in drawing and art -comics and anime in elementary school, political cartoons in middle school, Egon Schiele and Van Gogh in high school- but not so much in Pre-Columbian images. It was not until my last year in college after I had lived in the US, away from Mexico, for almost ten years that I became interested in it.

    I was in school in New York City and I met a guy named Sergio at a worker's center where I sometimes volunteered. Sergio was an indigenous Mixtec from the south of Mexico. I sometimes heard him speak his Mixtec dialect with his relatives and friends. I was amazed that Sergio lived in a city in a foreign country, thousands of miles away from his home village, and yet he spoke his indigenous dialect and preserved many of his culture's traditions. I decided that for my senior thesis I would make a short graphic novel based on Sergio's story. I called it Journey of a Mixteco.

    The first thing I did when I began the project was go to the library. I looked up Mixtec artwork and I found images of ancient Mixtex codex. I had seen images of Pre-Columbian codex before, but I was struck by them that day. I was fascinated with the flatness, the geometry and the repetition of color. I decided to make a modern day codex of Sergio's story.

    I've continued to to draw in that codex-like style since. But I collage textures digitally into my illustrations. I use different types of paper, denim, hair, cloths, etc. Some things I scan, others I photograph or find in the internet. I like to create images that way. Hopefully they honor the past but are also relatable to kids nowadays.

    In Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, you address the serious and controversial subject of human coyotes who traffic migrants across the border through dangerous conditions. Why did you feel this was an important subject to address with a young audience?

    According to a 2011 Pew Hispanic Center report there are an estimated 1.5 million undocumented children in the U.S and an estimated 5.5 million children of undocumented parent's in U.S. Schools. Pancho's story is the story of many of these children and of their families.

    I think it is important for children to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the stories they read because it helps them know that their stories and voices are important. For the children that are not familiar with the experiences of Pancho the book hopefully creates empathy and lets them know about what other kids -some of whom may be in their classroom or school- have experienced.

    The book deals with a difficult subject but I did my best to make a book that is appropriate for young readers. The characters in the story are animals which makes the story a little less shocking and terrifying. I have read the book with kids of different ages. Little kids who are four years old or even younger enjoy the story because it reminds them of a classic fable like Little Red Riding Hood or The Gingerbread Man. Older readers can understand and discuss the second layer of meaning in the story. Hopefully Pancho Rabbit and Coyote can be used as a way to discuss an important topic like immigration in classrooms, libraries and homes. 

    You interact a lot with your audience – you have the “Journeys: A Multivoice Poem” video posted on your website and you sent elementary students a questionnaire on winter to inform a mural you worked on for an Ohio museum – how does that interaction affect you and your writing?

    A Disclaimer: The Our Journeys multi-voice poem was created by the fourth graders of Metz Elementary and their teacher. I was not involved with it. They created that poem about their own immigration experiences after they read Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote. I was extremely moved when they shared the poem with me and I like to share it whenever I am able to because it is very powerful.

    The mural I created for the Akron Art Museum was a wonderful opportunity and I wanted to involve kids from Akron in the process. I tried to use the kids’ words and ideas to create the mural. I really enjoyed that method of working and hopefully I will do more collaborative projects like that one in the future.

    Writing and illustrating can be a very solitary endeavor. I spend a lot of time by myself in front of my desk when I am working on a book. It’s great when I get to visit schools, libraries or book festivals because I get to interact with kids. It’s very energizing and rewarding. I always try to pay attention to the way they dress, the way they speak and the things that interest them to hopefully make appealing books that they can see themselves reflected in.

    We don’t often hear about the historical segregation or discrimination experienced by Hispanics, a story you share in Separate is Never Equal. How can we better include Hispanic history into the mainstream consciousness?

    I think there are things we can all do. I think teachers, parents and librarians need to demand more books about Latino history so we can have them in schools, homes and libraries. Publishers need to be more courageous and publish more books about Latino history (a report by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that only 3 percent of children's books are by or about Latinos). And authors and illustrators like myself need to make more books about this subject.

    There are so many untold stories and there are so many different time periods in American History when Latinos played important roles—World War II or the Civil Rights Movement for example. Yet we barely hear any stories about Latinos during that time.

    I am very grateful for the support Separate Is Never Equal has received. People that encounter the book appreciate it and want to use in their communities and classrooms. Kids are taken in by the story and can see a lot of parallels to their experiences. Although it is not legal to segregate children because of their ethnicity, language or background a great deal of segregation continues to exist today. According to a 2012 study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA 43 percent of Latino students and 38 percent of black students attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white. I think it is important for all of us to take steps in the different ways we can to make sure we have books that deal with Latino history, social justice and diversity.


    April Hall is the editor of Reading Today Online. She can be reached at ahall@/.

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  • The man behind Captain Underpants doesn’t understand why hundreds of people every year question whether Captain Underpants should be available for kids to read, but he won’t stop writing them.

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    5 Questions With... Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants series)

    by April Hall
     | Sep 26, 2014
    The creator of one of our favorite—and most controversial—superheroes is Dav Pilkey. The man behind Captain Underpants himself struggled while in school, but is now able to write the books that would have really engaged him as a student. He doesn’t understand why hundreds of people every year question whether Captain Underpants should even be available for kids to read, but he won’t stop writing them and the spinoffs that came from the series.

    In fact, Pilkey is now in the midst of writing four more books simultaneously, including a new one for the Captain series and two Captain spinoffs. It’s amazing he even had time to answer these questions.

    It’s Banned Books Week. Captain Underpants is consistently on top of the American Library Association’s list of "most challenged books," that is to say people want it banned and deem it inappropriate for children. Were/are you surprised this series is so controversial? 

    I’m very surprised that there is such a controversy, since the books contain no profanity, no sex, no nudity, no alcohol, no drugs, no guns, and no more violence than you’d see on a Saturday morning cartoon.  

    What do you think is at the heart of the desire to ban this series? 

    I’m really not sure. It’s clear from some of the complaints that many people who are against the series have not even read the books. I think some adults look at the covers and make up their minds that the books are nothing but a collection of fart jokes. I’ve met so many grown-ups, however, who admitted to hating the series—until they actually sat down and read it. They quickly discovered that there isn’t nearly as much toilet humor as they’d assumed. The stories mostly focus on the themes of friendship, fantasy, and kid-empowerment.

    You spoke at #IRA14 about struggling with dyslexia and ADHD. How did writing help you deal with your learning challenges or did your learning challenges help you with your writing? 

    My learning challenges have influenced my writing a great deal. I remember struggling with reading as a kid, and finding it very difficult to stay focused on books. I actually had my own "criteria" for books that I would choose to read as a kid: they had to have short chapters, lots of illustrations, loads of humor, tons of action, and had to feature robots, monsters, and/or mad scientists. Nowadays, I write for the kid I used to be, so each of my books contain the same elements that I used to look for as a kid.

    You also said you’re working on four books?! How do you constantly switch gears and keep different plotlines straight? 

    I suppose thinking up stories is kind of a hobby with me. I’d probably still do it even if it wasn’t my job.

    What is your all-time favorite controversial book and why?

    In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak. The text is like a poem written in a dream, and the illustrations (which feature full-frontal nudity) are just as bold and breathtaking now as they were when they first came out in 1970.

    April Hall is the editor of Reading Today Online. She can be reached at ahall@/.

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  • Kazu Kibuishi has had quite a year. It's hard to cover everything with just five questions, considering he battled a life-threatening illness that landed him in the hospital for weeks, illustrated the 15th anniversary edition box set of Harry Potter and produced Amulet 6, the next installment of his wildly popular graphic novel series.
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    5 Questions With… Kazu Kibuishi (Amulet series)

    by April Hall
     | Aug 15, 2014

    Kazu Kibuishi has had quite a year. It's hard to cover everything with just five questions, considering he battled a life-threatening illness that landed him in the hospital for weeks, illustrated the 15th anniversary edition box set of Harry Potter and produced Amulet 6, the next installment of his wildly popular graphic novel series. It may have been a long road for Kibuishi, but we couldn't be happier to see him back and reflecting on how his work affects classrooms everywhere.

    Amulet 6: Escape from Lucien is set to release Aug. 26. Why was this book difficult to produce?

    Between Amulet 5 and 6, so much has happened. Where do I begin? Soon after the completion of Amulet 5, I got so sick that I was in the hospital for weeks. I was put in a coma for treatment for bacterial meningitis and when I woke up, I lost so much of my memory and my basic motor skills, and it took months to recover. Not long after that, I was asked to illustrate the Harry Potter 15th anniversary covers. I wasn't capable of drafting story material during this period, so the Harry Potter project came along at the perfect time, acting as a sort of cognitive therapy. My short term memory was compromised, so I couldn't remember what I read only 15 minutes after reading it, but my long-term memory seemed to be mostly intact, and I was able to channel my old memories of the series while painting. By the time I was done with the Harry Potter covers and box set, I was mostly recovered and was able to get back to working at a high level on Amulet 6. The writing was difficult because the story features so many characters now, and deciding who gets space in the book is probably the most difficult part of crafting this story.

    We're so glad you got your health back! We know many teachers look forward to using the latest installment of the Amulet series in their classrooms. Why do you think it works for them?

    I like to tell parents and teachers that classic literature is simply popular entertainment that was popular long ago. And kids who are reluctant readers are simply readers who haven't found a story that engages them. Everyone loves a good story, but not everyone is willing to admit that they can't understand something they've read. What worked so well for a young reader in the 1970s is not always going to work quite as well for kids today. I try to take all of the things that I love about modern entertainment and fuse it with all the things I love about classic literature. I just try to find the connective tissue between generations so that people of all ages can find a shared love for something they all enjoy reading.

    You had the opportunity to create the cover art for the Harry Potter 15th anniversary box set. What was it like to visually re-imagine something so iconic?

    It was so much fun! I don't think any artist can ever expect to be a part of a project like this, and even while I was submitting samples to Scholastic, it didn't seem possible that I would be working on it. In fact, I honestly thought I was a bad choice for the project! My initial reaction was "I don't think anyone should redo the covers, and I feel bad for the poor sap who has the responsibility to do it." You can credit David Saylor for having the vision to bring this together. It only dawned on me while I was already working on the covers that I might actually be a good fit for this project.

    How has the perception of graphic novels changed over your career?

    I was pretty accustomed to people thinking of comics as a black hole for a young artist's career and saw artists fleeing from the comics industry to work at animation studios. Thankfully this is something I already went through in my early teens, choosing to study film production instead of comics, and I worked in animation right out of college. So when everyone was fleeing comics for film, I was coming back the other way. In my early 20s I decided there was a real need for good all-ages comics and thought I was a good candidate to fill that need. Since that time, a number of developments in graphic novels have really allowed it to flourish and the landscape is completely different. I seem to be looked at as an old veteran now and I'm only 36.

    From the perspective of the readers, they are being introduced to book-length comics at a very early age now that there are options. I would credit Bone by Jeff Smith and Scholastic Graphix for being the trailblazers for this new era of all-ages comics.

    You've said graphic novels take a lot of planning before they are created in print. How will the Amulet series will end?

    I actually do have an ending in mind for Amulet, but so many things have changed in the story as things have progressed, so the ending continues to evolve. In many ways, I'm a spectator just like the readers. The characters guide me, and I just try to set the stage for them. What generally happens is that the ideas I have planned get layered with new ones and the information builds up into a rich cake by the time the book is ready to bake in the oven. If I do my job properly, it will seem like I could not have possibly planned it all—and that is mostly true.

    April Hall is editor of ReadingToday Online. She can be reached at ahall@/.

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  • Connie Schofield-Morrison and Frank Morrison have teamed up for the first time to capture the rhythm of the neighborhood.
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    5 Questions With…Connie Schofield-Morrison and Frank Morrison ('I Got the Rhythm')

     | May 02, 2014

    I Got the Rhythm on Reading Today OnlineConnie Schofield-Morrison and Frank Morrison have teamed up for the first time to capture the rhythm of the neighborhood. Connie has been writing since she was a young girl and is inspired every day by the big sounds and bright colors of the world around her. "I Got the Rhythm" is her first picture book. Frank works as a fine artist and is the award-winning illustrator of many books for children, including "Our Children Can Soar" and "Jazzy Miz Mozetta," for which he won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award. Connie and Frank live in Atlanta, Georgia, with their five children.

    CONNIE: Frank, how much time does the illustrator have to complete a picture book? Would you say working as a husband-and-wife team is atypical?

    FRANK: Connie, it takes about three months to complete a picture book. As for a husband-and-wife team, it is peculiar. The illustrator rarely meets the author. It was a treat to see how you developed your story. It was also a plus to see your reaction when I brought the character to life.

    CONNIE: I love your color schemes in the book, as well as your characters. What medium do you use and how do you develop your characters?

    FRANK: Connie, for this particular book I used oils on canvas. I chose bright, lively colors to capture the reader’s attention. You helped when it came to developing the characters. I drew on how you dressed our daughters Nia and Tiffani. Then I added some of my old dance moves.

    I Got the Rhythm on Reading Today OnlineFRANK: Connie, I love the main character in the story! What is her name? How much of yourself is reflected in her?

    CONNIE: Thank You, Frank! The main character in the story name is "MIRACULOUS"! Yes! She is a reflection of me; however I'm modeling her to be every little girl, mother, aunt, grandmother, sister, friend, etc. that will and can believe in making a dream a reality. I'm a true believer of "dreams do come true."

    FRANK: Are you going to develop this character? What can we expect next from her?

    CONNIE:Yes! Actually, I'm in the process of developing the "Miraculous" character even further in her new story entitled, "I Love To Sing." Miraculous loves to sing--however, she struggles with nervousness due to stuttering. She realizes that st-st- st-stuttering is a condition caused by her being nervous. You will have to read the book to find out what happens.

    IRA: What can we expect from you at IRA 2014?

    FRANK: You can expect to see some of my development sketches to my final art for "I Got the Rhythm." I will follow that with what it was like working with my wife/author for the first time. I will talk about the humorously different ways we develop stories. Finally, I will talk about the importance of dancing to the rhythm of your own drum.

    See it for yourself! Frank Morrison will be speaking at IRA’s 59th Annual Conference in New Orleans. Come to “Creating Teachable Moments that Increase Reading Proficiency and Engagement: Presenting Authors and Illustrators Whose Books Inform, Engage, and Inspire a Lifetime of Reading and Learning” on Sunday, May 11th, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., to hear Frank and fellow authors Kirby Larson, Peter Sis, and Eric Velasquez.

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  • It's my goal to write characters that readers can really identify with and feel for. I think that emotional connection is really important to middle grade; readers of this age are so empathetic.
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    5 Questions With… Anne Ursu ('The Real Boy')

    by Ernest Cox
     | Mar 03, 2014

    Anne Ursu on Reading Today OnlineAnne Ursu is the author of several books for young readers and is the 2013 recipient of the McKnight Fellowship in Children’s Literature. Anne’s latest book, “The Real Boy,” an Indie Next pick and was on the 2013 long list for the National Book Award. Her book “Breadcrumbs” was acclaimed as one of the best books of 2011 by the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly,, and the Chicago Public Library. Anne teaches at Hamline University's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, and lives in Minneapolis with her son and four cats.

    How do “Breadcrumbs” and “The Real Boy” meet the literacy needs and interests of middle grade readers?

    It's my goal to write characters that readers can really identify with and feel for. I think that emotional connection is really important to middle grade; readers of this age are so empathetic. And so I hope in Hazel and Oscar readers find protagonists they care about.

    Breadcrumbs on Reading Today Online

    In both these books, the protagonists are readers. Oscar sneaks into his master's library at night and reads botany books, and books ultimately help him uncover the secrets of his world. Hazel is a huge fantasy reader and makes a lot of references to Harry Potter and “A Wrinkle in Time”and “Golden Compass” and the like, and I hope kids who have read those books feel connected to Hazel, and those who haven't might want to read them.

    Kids don't have a lot of preconceived notions of how books are supposed to work, and that gives us a ton of freedom in terms of the kind of stories we can tell and how we tell them. I love writing fantasy because it reaches kids on many levels—they are at a point where they are trying to figure out the world around them, and so reading about a fantasy world feels very relevant. And it tickles and celebrates their great capacity for imagination and for discovery.

    It's also really important to me that the books give the reader a lot of credit.
    I love Kate DiCamillo because her books use big words and have big ideas, and she proves all the people who think kids need simplicity wrong. I want the books to have ideas readers can sink their teeth into. I try to write books that have lots of layers, that might reach different readers in different ways. A couple reviews of these books have said they are too difficult for kids, and that makes me so frustrated. We need to honor these readers, not talk down to them.

    And, most importantly, I want to give them a really good story that they can lose themselves in. Nobody loves a book like a kid does, and that presents a great challenge to authors—to write stuff worthy of these big-hearted, open-minded, story-craving readers.

    Who are some authors that have pushed your writing and reading in new and unexpected directions?

    “When You Reach Me” destroyed me. I was three chapters into a new book when I first read it, and I just threw away what I'd been writing; I realized if you can’t at least strive to have that kind of ambition, what is the point of writing a book? Every time I read that book I discover another way in which it’s perfect. Kills me.

    “The Golden Compass” showed me that fantasy for young readers can deal with really rich philosophical issues, and I've always held it as a model for how big the themes in a book can be. Right now, I'm really interested in books that incorporate magic into the real world, like Nikki Loftin’s “Nightingale's Nest”I love that book because it trusts kids to understand that some questions cannot be answered. I just read “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” by Grace Lin, and I think it's extraordinary, and it's got me thinking a lot about folktales. I also recently read “The Savage Fortress” by Sarwat Chadda—it’s a really exciting and fun adventure story using Indian mythology, and I realize I need to delve deeper into global myths.

    In addition to being an author you also teach creative writing to graduate students. What is one piece of advice you would give to a future middle grade writer?

    Read. Read everything you can. Whenever anyone asks me this question at a school visit, that’s what I say, and it sounds like I’m saying what the teachers want to hear, but it’s true. The best writing education can be found in books.

    The Real Boy on Reading Today OnlineWhat can educators do to get the most out of an author visit? Do you have advice for an author preparing to give a public reading of their work?

    I love visiting schools so much. I hope that seeing writers makes kids feel like maybe they can be a writer someday. It certainly helps when the kids have been prepared—maybe the teacher can read a little bit from the books and talk about the author, maybe brainstorm some questions. Sometimes when I’ve done readings for “Breadcrumb”teachers read “The Snow Queen” (on which “Breadcrumbs” is based) to their classes, and I love that. It helps me a lot when the kids have a basis for what I’m talking about, and also when they are coming in and obviously excited.

    I also learned at a school in Chicago that it’s best not to the seat the kids too close to where the author is presenting or one of them might get stepped on, and then the author feels really really bad.

    As for public readings, I cut down the section I’m reading—editing long paragraphs and descriptions—so it’s easier to listen to. My reading copies are always marked up like crazy. I try to pick something that’s fairly self-contained and about ten minutes. I have an old trick from being on the speech team in high school—when I’m doing dialogue I pick one side of the room to look at for each character, so the audience has a better sense of who is talking. 

    Have you had an opportunity to listen to the audio versions of your books?  How does reading aloud factor into your writing process?

    It sounds ridiculous, but it’s very hard for me to listen to my own work. I’m way too sensitive to any bumpy phrasing—you can’t edit it now, after all. And I’m hypercritical of the readers. It’s for everyone’s own good that I don’t listen.

    I do try to read every draft out loud. Certainly, it helps catch mistakes, but also you get so much of a better sense of the rhythms of your scenes. And sometimes you get bored reading—and that’s a pretty good sign that what you’re reading is boring. I don’t really believe in “rules” for writing—I think you can do whatever you want, as long as it works—but I think you are generally supposed to avoid boring your readers as much as possible.

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