Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Anna McQuinn Writes and Gardens and She Takes Lola with Her

Writing is a funny thing. You think you're writing about one thing, but it turns out you're writing about something else altogether, you just don't realise it!

When I started writing Lola Plants a Garden, I thought I was just writing a simple story about Lola and gardening. I thought, 'if she wanted to garden, Lola's a bit like me, so first thing she would do is read up on the subject.' 
She loves books anyways, so that was appropriate and that's what I made her do. 

I actually have a small town garden and I don't really regard myself as a gardener. But I do have a wonderful collection of gardening books with fantastic photographs of beautiful gardens and inspiring schemes… Our garden is at it's best in spring, (when I do a little weeding and planting) but once the big cherry tree comes into leaf it's too shady for many flowers, so I spend most of the time sitting in the shade reading gardening books (and occasionally cook books, craft books…) I've always been a little bit more into reading about doing things and looking at nice pictures of things than actually making or doing!

I actually did more gardening when I was very little. My dad is a very keen gardener, growing vegetables and fruit in our back garden, as well as flowers and a large lawn out front. His carrots, turnips, potatoes, onions, lettuces, strawberries, and rhubarb kept us happy and well fed (except for the year when, aged three, I picked the strawberry flowers and presented them in a bunch to my mother!).

I helped with weeding and planting, and he also gave me a little patch to grow my own stuff – some onions, lettuce, a few flowers… My most adventurous year was the one when I decided to grow various items mentioned in the Enid Blyton stories I was reading. Like Lola wanting to re-create Mary Mary's contrary garden, I wanted to be like the Famous Five and the adventurous four who seemed to exist on a diet of radishes, watercress sandwiches and ginger beer.( I thought ginger beer was alcoholic and off limits  – in fact I was a bit shocked the children were allowed to drink it) but I was determined to find out what watercress and especially radishes tasted like (having never eaten them before). 

I have to tell you, both were disappointing. I couldn't really understand the attraction of watercress (though combined with hardboiled egg and mayonnaise  - a recipe from one of the cooking books I also happened to have borrowed from the library - it was just about OK). But the radishes were a total bust! I think that in combination with the descriptions of Dick and George wolfing them down, the very word 'radish' sounded delicious to me. So the bland, pale, hard white radishes I grew were a horrible disappointment. Worst of all was I'd been very successful and had an enormous crop which I couldn't give away fast enough!

Whenever I took a break from all that planting and weeding (not!) I was off to do the other thing I liked to do in the garden – pretending to be a spy! I would get down on my tummy and crawl between the vegetable ridges, pretending I was sneaking up on some bad guys or escaping from some bad guys… and you know, I think this is really what Lola Plants a Garden is about. It's about the fact that little kids are like little sponges – soaking up experiences and trying stuff out and working out how the world works and who they are and how they fit. And it's about the fact that we must not limit their options or their imaginations. Too often we see a little girl who loves reading and we put her in the 'cerebral'  box. We buy her more books (good thing) and read to her (good thing) but perhaps forget that on other days she may enjoy running in the garden just as much… We see a little girl who loves to run about and we put her in the 'sporty box'. We sign her up for after school sports clubs (good thing) and cheer her from the sidelines (good thing) but perhaps forget that once in a while she might like to sit and listen to a story… We see a little girl who loves dressing up and we put her in the 'artistic' box and we sign her up for art class (good thing) and dance class (good thing) but forget that once in a while she might like to run about in the mud or plant some flowers…

I was that mix of things – a crazy reader, soaking up information and stories but then acting them out, running about, pretending… getting muddy. I was fortunate that my parents accepted that mixed up bundle of stuff and it wasn't really until my teens when I started to run middle-distance competitively that these two sides of my personality seem a problem to other people. My running club peers were curious about my 'bookishness', seeing it as at odds with my my passion for running and some of my 'cerebral' friends thought  my love of physical exertion was just weird. (And did I mention that I was also into art and played two musical instruments). Happily, none of my friends were anything other than puzzled by my 'other' interests and I continued with them all. 

But more and more I see a modern trend to channel people into a particular stream earlier and earlier (I think so they can be sold things more efficiently). The tailored advertising of the 'if you liked that author/musician/dress – you'll like this author/musician/dress' is ubiquitous. It may seem innocuous, but is a symptom of a world where we are encouraged to identify with a particular (and often narrow) set of values/ambitions and stick with them. When applied to young children, this tendency to label and contain seems to me to be kicking in earlier and earlier. I have parents of 2-year olds tell me 'he's not really into books' as if this is a fixed character trait like having brown eyes (and as if ANY trait is fixed in a 2-year old) and I see parents dress their little girls as princesses and wonder why they don't want to run and play outside.

So Lola Plants a Garden is about ALL of that… It's about a little girl who is like a little sponge, soaking up information about the world around her; acting out things from books; trying out different roles and figuring out what makes her happy and where she fits in the world…

Lola loves to sit on her mom's lap and read books together. 

 Anna McQuinn is the author of Lola at the Library and other books about book-loving Lola, as well as Leo Loves Baby Time. Her newest book--Lola Plants a Garden--will be available August 5, 2014. Visit Anna online at www.annamcquinn.comIllustrations by Rosalind Beardshaw.

Friday, May 16, 2014

FEATHERS: A Book That Has Really Taken Flight

A Junior Library Guild Selection

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart and illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen was released on February 25, 2014 and it has really taken off! Critics, teachers, librarians, readers of all ages, but especially love this book. Who knew feathers had so many uses?

Feathers received rave reviews, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly, and the first printing quickly sold out. The perfect summer reading for curious kids, the scrapbook-style format begs for a young readers to take this book outside and used as a guide for observing birds.

"A focused and thorough examination that highlights the striking beauty of these often-unnoticed natural objects." 
                              -Publishers Weekly, starred review

"The combination of thoughtful approach and careful crafting makes this an excellent resource for early nature study."
                             -Kirkus Reviews
"Beautiful and concise, this is an excellent resource for units on animal adaptation, and a treat for the youngest bird lovers."
                          -The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"Part science journal, part read-along nonfiction, Feathers succeeds in what such science books for young readers should strive to do: help young minds spot the extraordinary in the seemingly mundane."

 More about Feathers: Not Just for Flying from author Melissa Stewart

While I was doing research for another book, I stumbled across a fascinating article in Birder's World (now BirdWatching magazine). It described some of the amazing ways birds use their feathers. I knew this would be a great topic for a children's book, so I photocopied the article adn pinned it to the idea board in my office. 

A few months later I dug into the research. As I do for all my books, I turned to three main sources for information: the library (for books, magazines, and newspapers), the Internet (for journal articles and locating experts in the field), and my own nature journals. Some examples in this book are based on my personal observations in the natural world. Others come from interviews with scientists as well as reports in scholarly books and scientific journals. 

For me, research is the easy part of a project. The hard part is figuring out the most interesting way to frame the material. I'm always asking myself, "Is there a way I can make this even more engaging?" For this book, I spent three years tinkering with the text. I wrote countless drafts and did four complete overhauls before I finally latched on to the idea of comparing feathers to common objects in our lives. That's when the writing came to life, and I knew the manuscript was ready for my editor. 

From the author's note in Feathers: Not Just for Flying

A note about collecting in nature: Gathering and keeping feathers from native wild birds is prohibited. In some cases you may collect feathers after obtaining a specific permit or license. Please be mindful of the laws that protect birds and their environment.

Visit author Melissa Stewart online.
Visit illustrator Sarah S. Brannen online.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Very Tiny Baby: A Story I Needed to Write


1989: My first baby, Flora, was born very premature and died shortly after birth. Very sad story. 

1992: My second baby, Sam, was born very premature, stayed 3 months at the hospital, came home, and is now a junior in college. Happy story.

Sam, November 1992
Sam, July 2013

Ideas are easy to come by! Developing them into interesting story lines, with engaging characters and a satisfying ending, that’s hard work.

From the day Sam came home as a very tiny baby, I wanted to write a story using the experience of her prematurity.

What would the story line be? Who would be the main character? What would be the problem to solve? I had no idea.

What followed was years of mothering whirlwind. Illustrating projects were done between diaper changes, school lunches, and play-dates. Very little thinking time was spent on the Idea. Still, the mind has its own way of working things out.

Both mothering AND illustrating allowed for endless enjoyment of children’s books. And two main points were emerging very strongly: 

1) I was enjoying stories told in the first person very much.
2) I was becoming enamored of children’s drawings and trying to incorporate that into my work. 

DING! The story of the premature baby? I would write it--in first person--through the eyes of an older sibling. Jacob!

DING! I would draw it in a child-like manner as if Jacob was recording his experience. 

DING! I would do it in a journal/scrap-book format.


2008: Sam was 10 and I could enjoy longer stretches of working time.

In keeping with the scrap-book notion, I surrounded myself with scraps of paper and filled them with all the thoughts that could come up in Jacob’s mind.

The thoughts then got organized and reorganized till they formed a coherent story-line fit for a 32 page book. Some had only a few words on them, some had doodles. Some seemed more important, some disposable.
Sample spread from the first draft
Something unusual happened to me while I worked. I felt very emotional. The work was pouring out of me. I would hardly take any breaks. It was as if I had pierced a hole in an emotion balloon inside my head.

And suddenly it all made sense:

1) I was not drawing on my experience as the mother of a premature child. I was drawing on my experience as the older sibling of a very premature baby brother.
2) I was writing for myself.

I have no actual memory of when I was that young, but the family story goes like this:

When I was 2 ½ my brother, Albert, was born very premature. He spent some time at the hospital where he failed to thrive. Then he was sent home “to die.” Because of the terror of germs, my mother closeted herself with my brother in an empty white room and nursed him to life. The story usually concentrates on what my mother went through--her fears, her exhaustion, her responsibility.

What about "little me"? That was not part of the story. I’m sure I was kept clean, fed, and safe. But what was I told? Was I told anything, even? How did my world change? How much was I asked to do by myself now that I was a “big girl"?

In those days, children were asked to be “nice." I was very, very “nice.” I still am. Was I trying to please in order to win back my parents’ love?
Me and my little brother, Albert.
What I now understand: through Jacob, I was talking to "little me." I cried and allowed myself to be “not nice," to have “mean thoughts.” It felt good. Cathartic.


2010: After many rejections, the book dummy found a publisher: Charlesbridge. Both my editor, Emily Mitchell, and my art director, Susan Sherman, understood what I was after and supported my vision, even when marketing expressed misgivings. They helped me reshuffle, simplify, refine, and rewrite what was then The Baby Who Came Too Soon and is now TheVery Tiny Baby.
Another stage of the same spread...

...and another!
And the final version!  
The book came out in 2014, 21 years after Sam's birth! Some seeds lay dormant for a long time.


Because of theme of prematurity, The Very Tiny Baby will be considered a “niche” book and will be shelved accordingly. I understand.

In my mind, however, the main subject of the book is Emotional Upheaval. And that is a universal subject--whether the expected baby is premature or not, whether there is an expected baby or not.

My wish for this book is for it to be read to or by many children and to help some of them deal with their personal emotions, to recognize them, to realize other children feel them too, and to accept them.


Although I described the style of The Very Tiny Baby as similar to that of a scrap-book or journal, it is a story told in sequential panels and is very much a graphic novel (0r comic). The world of comics is exploding in exciting ways. It includes an enormous variety of stories and styles. I am passionate about it and am so pleased to have my own contribution in the form of The Very Tiny Baby. 


I am now putting the finishing touches on Zig and the Magic Umbrella, a story for Dial Books for Young Readers, done in panel format and in collage paintings. (A little blue monster, a little yellow bird, adventure, trials, friendship.)

Detail from a page of Suzette Totvitz.
Combining my love of comics and my experience with difficult pregnancies, I am now posting a web comics--for adults. It is a work in progress. My goal is to create 3 to 5 new “pages” a week. You can follow Suzette Totovitz on my comics blog,, or on my tumblr

You can also follow me on facebook or check my children's book blog for news and book updates.

Posted by Sylvie Kantorovitz, author and illustrator of The Very Tiny Baby.