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5 Questions With... Toni Buzzeo (LIGHTHOUSE CHRISTMAS)

by Toni Buzzeo
 | Nov 25, 2011
Toni Buzzeo, well-known for her lively spirit and sense of humor, is the award-winning author of fourteen picture books with five more forthcoming, including ONE COOL FRIEND. For sixteen years, she worked as a school librarian honing her knowledge of children's literature. Combining this knowledge with her love of children, Toni writes about characters of all stripes (including dinosaurs, loons, ducklings, penguins, children, teachers, and librarians) who explore their worlds, their relationships, and themselves in a variety of settings.

LIGHTHOUSE CHRISTMAS tells the story of a very isolated, but ultimately very happy, Christmas. How much of the story is drawn from your own childhood Christmas holidays?

To begin, I must admit to being a self-avowed Christmas geek, even now as an adult. I love everything about the holiday—cutting down the tree in our own Maine woods, rolling out sugar cookies to cut with my extensive collection of cookie cutters,decorating with my even more enormous supply of cookie decorations, and, most of all, making and selecting gifts for everyone in my life. I begin in July most years. I’m even the “Book Elf” in my hometown Buxton Toy Box program for disadvantaged youth, so I get the extra thrill of choosing books for every child in the program each year. What delicious luck!

So, in some ways, I am Peter in LIGHTHOUSE CHRISTMAS, dreaming of everything that has always made the holiday special and planning in advance. I made stacks of little yarn creations as gifts and Christmas cookies at home and at Grandma’s house.

But looking back to my own childhood, from the time I was ten, I was much more like the character of Frances. I was the older sister to three much-younger siblings, and, like Frances, very much a mother to them. It wasn’t difficult for me to imagine how Frances felt when she realized that Peter was sure to be disappointed in the meager holiday they would celebrate on the island with no food or supplies. I must admit, though, that I didn’t know how much I’d channeled my own self in the character of Frances until I saw Nancy Carpenter’s gorgeous, muted illustrations. As I shared those illustrations with my writing group, tears sprang to my eyes. There I was on the page, a surrogate mother who wants to give to her sibling what she loves best herself—a joyous Christmas! My heart knew what my mind had not fully realized as I wrote this story.

Did you write LIGHTHOUSE CHRISTMAS in the writing cottage in your backyard? If so, how did the experience of being in a hexagonal structure help you envision being inside a lighthouse?

Actually, I sold LIGHTHOUSE CHRISTMAS to my editor Lauri Hornik at Dial in 2004, long before I had my lovely hexagonal writing cottage, but you’re right that it would be a perfect place to write a story set in such a confined place. Recently, though, I completed revisions in that cottage of a story set in another isolated little place—a cabin deep in a hollow in Eastern Kentucky. I spent months researching there amid the green trees where the only sound was the bird song just outside, and it was easy enough to imagine that I was 1000 miles southwest of my Maine writing cottage reading by the dying rays of the sun, as my character does.

This question makes me think about how attracted I am to stories in which the main character lives in an isolated place--or in an isolated manner. Even though Elliot and his father, in my forthcoming picture book ONE COOL FRIEND (Dial, January 11, 2012), live in a city big enough to have a large aquarium and a first-class library with the savvy children’s librarian Ms. Stanbridge minding the reference desk, the story is about a boy, his dad, and his purloined penguin, Magellan, enclosed in a lovely old Victorian house. With the addition of his father’s giant tortoise, Captain Cook, I felt little need to expand the cast of characters or the stage the story is played upon. Considering that I was an only child until the age of ten—and quite shy—this may not surprise you at all.

In fact, even when I tackle the wide, wide world as I do in STAY CLOSE TO MAMA (Hyperion, February 23, 2012), set upon the African savannah, I pull the lens in close to show just that one pair or characters, Mama and her baby, Twiga. The stories that attract me most in my trade books are always family stories of one sort or another with a small cast of characters.

The children in LIGHTHOUSE CHRISTMAS get a very special delivery. How did you hear about, or what is your experience with, the Flying Santa program?

There’s a deep joy for me as I research one book (after all, I am a professional librarian!) in finding a single sweet fact that leads me on to another book. As I was researching Maine lighthouses for my first book, THE SEA CHEST (Dial, 2002), I learned about the Flying Santa Service and tucked the idea away. When I shared what I’d read with my editor, Lauri Hornik, she encouraged me to think of a way to tell the story from a child’s point of view as a picture book.

So I dug deeper and learned more about Captain William H. Wincapaw, the flight pilot who, in 1929, determined to honor the work and dedication of the lighthouse families of Penobscot Bay in Maine by dropping bundles of gifts to them from his plane on Christmas day. I imagined how magical it must have seemed to the children at those isolated Maine lighthouses to be visited by Santa himself—in a plane!

Then, it was only left to me to discover who my fictional children would be in LIGHTHOUSE CHRISTMAS and what were their circumstances leading up to the holiday surprise. Taking the mother out of the story and leaving Frances to fill that role makes the story both poignant and personal for me.

Back in July you wrote an excellent teaching tip for our blog. Do you have any tips for teachers trying to incorporate holiday themes into their writing lessons in a dynamic way?

This activity comes from my Lighthouse Christmas Curriculum Guide available for download at my website. It honors the diversity of holiday celebration in our school communities while encouraging creative thinking.


After they decide to remain on the island with Papa for Christmas, Frances and Peter set about creating Christmas without the traditions they are used to (sugar cookies, carols around the piano, and Santa).

Invite students to choose a holiday they celebrate in their families. Individually, or as a group, ask students to create a list of the ways that they currently celebrate the holiday, including special foods, songs, decorations, religious services, and social gatherings. Next, invite them to imagine that they are confined on a distant island, as Frances and Peter are, and to imagine substitutions for their traditional activities.

__________TraditionalCelebrations______________________           Substitutions_____________|||||||

You recently added a guide to your website that ties the Six Traits of Writing to each of your trade books. Can you give us a teaching tip related to your upcoming January release, ONE COOL FRIEND?

ONE COOL FRIEND absolutely begs for a Six Trait “Ideas” activity! By the end of the story, readers know that when Elliot’s father refers to Captain Cook, he’s not talking about his third grade research topic! Instead, he’s talking about the giant tortoise he appropriated from the Galapagos Islands much as Elliot has appropriated his penguin, Magellan, from the aquarium.

Invite your students to create the story in which Elliot’s father, as a third grader, finds and adopts Captain Cook, the giant tortoise. Encourage them to make their stories as lively and funny as ONE COOL FRIEND by gathering as many appropriate details as they can to embed. This will, of course, involve research about the Galapagos Islands and giant tortoises, just as I had to research the southern tip of Argentina and Megelanic penguins. [Note: If you are working with primary grade children, you might engage in this activity by conducting group research and creating a group story.]

© 2011 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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