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.