Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ask the author: Anna McQuinn

Anna McQuinn's series about that spunky book lover Lola is a favorite amongst children, teachers, and librarians. With the third book in the series coming out in February (Lola Reads to Leo), Charlesbridge took a moment to ask the UK author and librarian some questions about the series.

Charlesbridge: Whe
re did the character of Lola come from?

Anna McQuinn: Lola started out as a little girl
having some first experiences--I planned to have her go to the library, to a cafe, a swimming pool . . . I started with the library story--probably influenced by the fact that I had just started working part-time running mom and toddler groups in a library. Some of my experiences influenced the story: in my outreach work I realized that many parents were still reluctant to bring little kids into libraries in case they disturbed other readers and I found myself explaining that we had an area for children and they wouldn't be disturbing anyone; I also found myself explaining that little children could enjoy books long before they could read--an argument I'd thought was long won.

However, as I wrote the story, Lola turned into a little book lover--and by the time I'd finished the story, she had a fully-developed character in my head: a book enthusiast who loved going to the library. Happily, Rosalind Beardshaw, the illustrator, totally captured this enthusiasm, so as the drawings came in, Lola's personality developed in my head.

I think this personality comes out more in the second story, Lola Loves Stories, but it really wasn't until I read the jacket copy on the newest book, Lola Reads to Leo, that I realized how much of myself there was in Lola. When I was little, I loved stories--my grandfather was a great storyteller and my dad told us stories every night in bed. As soon as I learned to read, I read constantly--at night by the streetlight outside my window (when I was supposed to be sleeping) and at every other available opportunity (the back of the shampoo bottle when I went to the bathroom, the back of the cereal packet while eating breakfast . . .). All of these stories opened up a huge world of possibilities for me.

CB: The books in this series are first published in the UK, where you live, and then re-published in the U.S. (and other countries!) with some alterations. For example, "Lola" is actually "Lulu" in the UK versions. How does this influence the way you write Lola's adventures, if at all?

AM: Lola started out as Lola--the name came at exactly the same time as her character, as a package. Then, just before Lola at the Library was published, the Charlie and Lola books were televised here in the UK and much to my disappointment, I realized that people would be confused. Happily it wasn't an issue for the U.S., but for the UK edition I searched desperately for a new name, but nothing worked. Then one day, my mom and toddler group was at the park and I heard a Somali mum call her child Lulu. It was perfect--as close as I could get to Lola.

Funnily enough, it doesn't influence how I feel about her. Most of the time I write the story calling her Lola--partly because the first person I show the draft story to is Yolanda Scott, the Editorial Director at Charlesbridge. Then I just change it for the UK. The names are so close it's almost like a friend whose family has a nickname for her (my family call me Anzi, so maybe that's why I barely think about it).

In the Netherlands, she's called Bibi (to alliterate with "bieb," which means "library") and weirdly that also seems to suit her so well that it doesn't cause me a second thought (though the file names for the documents on my computer are all over the place!). I'd love to know what she's called in Korea where Lola Loves Stories was recently published, but I can't read the script.

CB: Like Lola, you love to read as well. What types of books are you drawn to the most?

AM: I've been going through a crime novel phase for about ten years now. It started when I was in a very difficult job and reading stories where the bad guys always got their comeuppance satisfied some big need in my soul! I did my M.A. in the Gothic Novel and used to think that was the link but I've recently read that crime novels are like fairytales for adults--that's my story and I'm sticking to it. My favorites are Walter Mosley, Harlan Coben, Sara Paretsky, Laura Lippman, and Michael Connelly.

In between crime novels, I read a huge variety of things. I'm really drawn to stories which feature children or a child's view of things. One of my favorite books is The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe--I think anyone working with children should be made to read it--and another is Orange Mint and Honey by Carleen Brice. This year I really enjoyed Room by Emma Donoghue; America Is Me by E.R. Frank; The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy; The Story by Faiza Guene; and We Are All Made of Glue by Marina Lewycka (which has nothing to do with children). I'm addicted to Goodreads and I log on every few days to share recommendations and see what my friends are reading.

CB: What do you hope readers will take away from the books in the Lola series?

AM: I hope that little kids will be inspired by Lola to check out the wonderful world that books and stories and reading can open up for them. I see from my work that many children need the tiniest prompt (which Lola provides) to be the characters from their stories: fairies and tigers and pilots . . . so I hope Lola will help them to take that first step from the story on the page to the story in their minds--I hope that little girls in particular will see that they can be anything, not just princesses!

I would love parents to see that finding books which children enjoy reading is the most important thing for these little ones. I'm saddened when I see parents pushing their choices--especially books which are for older children or to what parents feel is right for boys/girls. For many little boys as well as little girls in my group, Lola is their favorite book. And while black children love her, she is also much loved by Chinese, Polish, Spanish, and Lebanese alike--mostly they are responding to seeing their familiar world represented in a simple story.

CB: What's next for Lola? Any new adventures we can look forward to?

AM: I've already started work on the next story--Lola's mommy gives her a section of their community garden and, of course, before she can decide what to grow, she has to go to the library to research . . . Leo is also developing a little personality in my head, so look out for him appearing in his own story.

Do you have some questions for Anna McQuinn?
Email us at to sign up for the Lola Blog Tour. Don't have a blog? You can still ask Anna your questions--we'll post your interview here on Unabridged!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What's Santa up to?

Have you ever wished you could have been there when Saint Nick was caught in the act on the Night Before Christmas?

There's an app for that. Check it out!

From Touchoo.

Join the great folk group Peter, Paul and Mary as they bring that magical night to life in this interactive celebration of The Night Before Christmas. Based on the bestselling book from Imagine Publishing- an imprint of Charlesbridge - Eric Puybaret's brilliant art lights up and takes readers on the journey of a lifetime--into the secret world of Santa Clause!

978-1-936140-06-0 $19.95 Hardcover w/CD

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Let's Talk Math

Ann: Hey, Leeza, I’ve been meaning to ask you a few questions.

Leeza: Hey, me, too! You go first.

A: Okay, sure. Well, my first question is: When did you decide you wanted to illustrate children’s books?

L: When I was about ten years old. There was a series published by Ladybird Books in the UK called The Garden Gang. As soon as I found out that the author Jayne Fisher was about the same age as me and was the youngest person to be published by Ladybird, I set about creating my own characters and stories. But by the time I reached twelve years old, I'd forgotten all about that and moved on to something else. I rediscovered children's book illustration in 2004 and I suddenly remembered those Garden Gang books. I decided that this was what I wanted to do now as my real job.

A: Very cool! What is your favorite children’s book?

L: Gosh, there are so many. But if you really need me to narrow it down, I’d say any books by Roald Dahl, especially Fantastic Mr. Fox and Danny, Champion of the World. How about you, Ann?

A: I know what you mean about too many to choose from. I love children’s books so much that I rarely ever read adult books these days. One book that made an impression in my childhood was The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. I recently re-read it thirty-odd years later and it was like déjà vu. The style was so different from how books are written these days.

L: I know, right! Well, how about Eat Your Math Homework: Recipes for Hungry Minds? What inspired you to write the book?

A: Great question! I got this idea when I was teaching math in elementary school and I noticed that so many people were math phobic (parents, too). I wanted to combine something super fun with math and I thought about cooking. My first experiment with this was making Mathematical Gingerbread Houses in class one day.

L: Oooh, yummy! Were you good at math when you went to school in, where was that again, British Columbia, Canada?

A: Surprisingly, not really. I fell in love with math later in life, actually when I was teaching in my first school. My favorite subject in school was probably English. I read like crazy as a kid. I also enjoyed writing (duh!). What about you, Leeza? What was your math experience like?

L: I don’t remember much about math in elementary school, except learning to count in binary numbers. Honestly, I was more interested in the water/sand table in the other corner of the room. Although, perhaps that’s where I learned about mass and volume. High school was different, though. I loved math in high school! Our class had a brilliant math teacher: Ms. Mountford.

A: I love the illustrations in Eat Your Math Homework. Did you try other characters before settling on the rabbits in the book?

L: No! Yes! I was inspired to illustrate rabbits as soon as I first read the manuscript. But then I thought who’s going to want to look at a book full of rabbits so I tried human characters. It was a disaster! Nothing worked and I lost countless hours trying to draw kids making pizza. I decided to go back to the bunnies and am happy that I did. Goes to show you can trust your instincts, because they are always right. I think my instincts were those naughty bunnies trying to get out!

A: Ha, ha! I’m glad the bunnies got out! How long did it take you to complete the illustrations for the book?

L: This book has been in the making since 2008 for me. Once the sketches were approved I spent the summer of 2010 creating the final color art. Ann, did you get to see the book while it was being made?

A: Yes, I did get to see bits and pieces. The editor, Emily Mitchell at Charlesbridge, sent me pieces to edit and I also got to see some of your earlier sketches. I was so excited and I couldn’t wait to hold the actual book in my hands!

L: I know--me, too! So, what’s your favorite recipe in the book?

A: I love all kinds of food, but I think the Tessellating Two-Color Brownies taste terrific. (How’s that for some absolutely amazing alliteration?) I think the secret ingredient in the brownies makes them extra special. And, no, I’m not going to remind you what that secret ingredient is—you’ll have to go and look it up in the book!

L: Personally, I’m partial to fractions, so the Fraction Chips are my favorite recipe in the book. Outside of the book, I like to cook, but I don’t think I’m very good at it. The oh-no-food-has-exploded-all-over-the-kitchen look says it all! (Which is why I love to go out for Indian food—yummy!)

A: Okay, one last question for you, Leezy-Peezy (Couldn’t help that one!). What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done?

L: Hmm, not sure if I’ve ever really done anything that crazy. I did jump off the side of a boat once into the Mediterranean Sea on a summer vacation. It was a medium sized boat with at least two decks. It didn’t occur to me until I was midair that I could be plunging into shark-infested water, then splosh, too late! Thankfully the dark shadow that came up underneath me was just a school of pretty fish. Phew! By the way, there were lots of people having fun and jumping off the boat, so I wasn’t doing something that wasn’t allowed.

A: That is very brave (and crazy)!

L: And you? What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done?

A: Most of the crazy things I’ve done turned out to be very good ideas. For example, once I packed up my car and drove for five solid days to move to Maryland from British Columbia, Canada. Another time, my family and I packed up to go and live in the United Arab Emirates for four years. I did go bungee-jumping from a hot-air balloon once—maybe not such a good idea. Um, then there was the time I decided to cook up this math recipe…

L: Well, the math recipe idea certainly turned out well.

A: I’ll have to agree with that. Hey, I’m feeling a little hungry. Do you want to share some Chocolate Pretzel Counting Rods?

L: I’d love to. That’s a bonus recipe, though, and not in the book. Where should I get the recipe?

A: Let’s put it on our website and then everyone can try it. People can check it out at

L: Mumble, mumble, munch, crunch…

A: What?

L: Wait, let me just finish eating this handful of Probability Trail Mix… I said, “Eat, Math, Burp Fractions!”

A: Good one! I’ll have to remember that saying. Well, it’s been nice chatting with you, Leeza.

L: You too, Ann. Bye for now and EAT MORE MATH!

Posted by Ann McCallum and Leeza Hernandez, author and illustrator of Eat Your Math Homework.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Listening to music is liberating. For me, it’s like reading a book: sometimes I like to do it alone; sometimes I like to share the experience with friends. That’s why I wrote Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite. For years, I’ve enjoyed listening to the music of Ellington and his friend and collaborator Billy Strayhorn (aka Strays). It’s like they’re my old friends. In good times and bad, I find myself turning to their music. This tune, “Giggling Rapids” is one of my favorites.

You can’t help but feel good as the saxophones and brass bounce along. Duke wrote the tune as part of a ballet called The River for Alvin Ailey and the American Ballet Theater. In 1970, they performed The River at Lincoln Center.
Another favorite, completely different in mood, is Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom.” He used to love hearing Duke play it. Me too.

Shortly after Strayhorn’s death in 1967, Duke and a few of the band members recorded this beautiful tune for a tribute album titled And His Mother Called Him Bill.

At Georgetown University, I teach classes about classical music and classes about jazz. But like Duke and Strays, I wish those two styles of music weren’t always divided into separate categories. I guess that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by musicians who try to bridge the two styles: composers like George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and now Wynton Marsalis.

My love of music is what inspires me to look for the story behind the notes. That’s the driving force behind all of my children’s books: from Bach and Beethoven to Gershwin and Ellington. For me, the best thing about writing the books is sharing the stories with others: adults, my college students, and most of all with eager young listeners. Nothing is as wonderful as listening to a great piece of music with a child. That’s why there’s a CD in the back of each of my books. Listen to the music together; then talk about what you hear. How does the music make you feel? Does it tell a story with notes? Listening to the "Nutcracker Suite" can be especially fun with kids. While doing the research for Duke Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite, I got to know an array of fabulous musicians: the “cats” in Ellington’s band. As Strays used to say: “They’re beyond category!”
You can see the band in action here, playing an excerpt from their "Nutcracker Suite":

Ballet music has never been so hip!
And teachers: If you’re interested in bringing jazz into the classroom, check out this fabulous website, Let Freedom Swing, with videos and study guides:
And don’t forget, when you learn a tune, you’ve got a friend for life. It will always be there for you, in good times and bad!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Charlesbridge and the Struggle for Survival

This is not your mother's Charlotte's Web.

This is real and it's creeping me out and fascinating me at the same time. There is a rather giant--and probably radioactive--spider right outside my window. I'm finding it hard to concentrate on publicizing and promoting as I struggle with the urge to run for my life.

All the same, as this really big spider builds a web outside my window, I fantasize about messages like "Awesome Pig," "Nice Shoes," and "You Need a Haircut" when I come to work every day.

So as to keep my blogging in the world of children's literature, I need to share one of Charlesbridge's best books--Up, Up, and Away by Ginger Wadsworth and illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne.

Up, Up, and Away was published in 2009 and is the story of how one spider finds herself snug as a bug inside her egg sac until spring. Then, she and her hundreds of siblings hatch and very soon go off to find their way in the world. They grow up so fast. This spider is a garden spider, I don't know what kind of spider is dangling two feet from my face right now, but I hope the glass holds. In Up, Up, and Away, Ginger says garden spiders live for about a year. I'm sure I'll miss her when she's gone. I hope I get to see hundreds of babies born and fly away.

Up, Up, and Away is a CBC/NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book and a CCBC Choices book.

Can't get enough of spiders? Watch this fun video:

Friday, September 30, 2011

Happy 60th Birthday, Sparky the Fire Dog®!

As a children's author, my goal is to write books that will help kids learn and grow, and I've always been a big believer in using animals to help kids relate to important and sometimes difficult situations.

So when I was approached by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to write a book in celebration of the 60th birthday of Sparky the Fire Dog®, I could not have been more honored and excited. As the NFPA's official mascot and spokesdog, Sparky has long played an important role in communicating fire safety to kids and families.

Since Sparky's creation in 1951, the number of fire and fires injuries in the United States has declined, which is due in part to enhanced public education efforts. But despite this positive impact, fires in the home still take a great toll on life and property. Approximately 3,000 people die each year because of fires.

Working on the Sparky the Fire Dog® picture book was a particularly special experience for me because I've had first-hand experience with fire. When I was 5, my house caught on fire and while my parents escaped, they weren't able to get to my room to guide me to safety. I was lucky to be rescued by a firefighter.

This is no doubt a scary memory for me, but it's also a reminder of the importance of instilling fire safety messages in children. Sparky is crucial because children under the age of five face the highest risk of home fire death. While fire can be frightening to children, the kind and gentle image of this dalmatian emphasizes positive fire safety messages in a way that is appealing to children.

In Sparky the Fire Dog®, Sparky takes a group of young animals through the neighborhood, pointing out hazards, giving basic fire prevention and safety tips, and showing them how to be prepared in case of an emergency. From having a working smoke alarm to being careful with candles and knowing where your exits are, Sparky's advice may be the most important thing children--and their parents--ever learn.

I very much hope that adults will benefit from the book as much as children. We all remember learning fire safety lessons from firefighters or Sparky when we were in school, but many of us may not have carried all of the crucial fire safety practices we once learned in our day-to-day lives as adults.

The release of Sparky the Fire Dog® coincides with Fire Prevention Week (October 9-15)--an annual public awareness campaign sponsored by the NFPA that focuses on the small actions that can make a big difference in protecting your family from fire. These actions include creating a home escape plan, installing and checking home smoke alarms, and installing home fire sprinkers.

Sparky has done such amazing work over the las 60 years, and I hope that the book will help the NFPA continue to spread the important messages of fire safety far and wide.

Anyone interested in learning or teaching about fire safety can learn more at the Fire Prevention Week website which contains more safety tips and statistical information.

This post by Don Hoffman, author of Sparky the Fire Dog®.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dog Blog Tour!

This week officially kicked off the Dog Blog Tour. Sparky the Fire Dog®, that is. In anticipation of the upcoming release of Sparky the Fire Dog, several bloggers signed on to post reviews of this new book by prolific children's book author Don Hoffman. Some blogs will be hosting giveaways to a few lucky readers, so be sure to check them out! Here's the line-up so far--stay tuned for more information!

Donna Bowman Bratton
's blog, review posted 9/17; read it here!
Biblio Reads
, review posted 9/20; read it here!
Anastasia Suen
's blog, check out the Sparky post on October 12th!
Barefoot Mommies
Chasing Supermom
In the Pages
NC Teacher Stuff
Reading With My Eyes Shut

Sparky is the official mascot for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the book's release date is October 1st--coinciding with National Fire Prevention Week (October 9-15) and Sparky's 60th birthday year. Check out Sparky's website,, for cool games and activities. You can also download a Sparky Birthday Party Kit to celebrate Sparky's big day!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Flight of Serendipity

When I told my parents that I was getting a degree in anthropology I might as well have told them I planned to either remain a student for another ten years or be unemployable. About the only thing you can do with a bachelor's degree in anthropology is to get a master's and doctorate in anthropology. Thankfully for me it proved to be an excellent foundation for becoming a librarian. I always tell people that thanks to that anthropology degree, I know a little bit about everything and not much about anything!

So the anthropology degree got me to being a librarian but how did a career as a librarian get me to writing a book about hummingbirds? And how do hummingbirds connect to anthropology? A lot of serendipity is involved.

A number of years ago I met Adrienne Yorinks. She was touring for the book, Stand for Children by Marian Wright Edelman and came to Austin. After a delightful shopping spree for fabric, we became friends. Over the years we talked about doing a book together but never really came up with a good idea. I did help Adrienne with Quilt of States, a book about how America pieced itself together as a nation but that was her book. We wanted to find a topic that would truly be ours. We both love animals and we talked about fish (after a visit to the National Aquarium in Baltimore) and primates, but neither really hit home for us.

Then one September weekend my husband and I took a short vacation to Rockport, Texas. This charming coastal community happens to be directly in the path of the spectacular fall migration of the ruby-throated hummingbird. As the birds get ready to leave North America and head to their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America, a lot of them pass through the Gulf Coast area. Once they leave Texas and Louisiana, many hummers fly 500 miles non-stop across the gulf, although some take the inland route, finding food along the way. Because Rockport is directly in the migratory route, tens of thousands of hummingbirds can be seen in the area. When I walked out of the hotel that weekend I felt like I was experiencing a hummingbird flash mob! They were literally flying around me like flies. [Click here to see a video]

Inspired by their beauty, I recalled that many of the cultures I had studied about in my anthropology classes have stories about hummingbirds. I remembered seeing hummingbird images on Navajo pottery and the hummingbird katchina of the Hopi. I also remembered that one of the Nazca lines carved into the plains of Peru was of a hummingbird and that I had seen hummingbird petroglyphs incised into rocks in New Mexico and Arizona. Clearly these birds were inspiring to many people! So I started to do some research and thought about combining facts with cultural tales. As I soon discovered, hummingbirds are only found in the Americas (although there is some fossil evidence that they existed in Europe 30 million years ago). Loving a challenge, I sought out folk tales and stories from a variety of cultures. I wanted to be able to include stories from cultures from the same range as the hummingbirds--from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Being a librarian I did a lot of research and found that many of the same stories, or similar stories, appear in many cultures. So I read and listened to as many versions as I could and then retold them in my own way. I love the way the book turned out. Adrienne's beautiful fabric art so perfectly reflects the amazing features of the hummingbird but I especially love how she illustrated the folktales.

So the serendipity in this journey? If I hadn't studied anthropology I probably wouldn't have become a librarian and I would not have met Adrienne and we wouldn't have decided to work together on a book that developed out of a chance meeting and a spur-of-the-moment vacation. I'm delighted that it all worked out! And another bit of serendipity--this blog posting is going up just in time for National Hummingbird Day (the first Saturday in September).

Posted by Jeanette Larson, author of Hummingbirds: Facts and Folklore from the Americas. Jeanette will be appearing at the Princeton Children's Book Festival on September 10th, and Hummingbirds has been selected to represent Texas at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC on September 24th.