Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Super Star Children's Book Review: The Creature of Habit

Welcome to the monthly children’s book review feature here at Bird Meets Worm! My team of reviewers—Joan Charles, Laurie L. Young—and I are thrilled to pieces to be celebrating an exciting variety of gorgeous children’s books across all genres that delight, challenge and intrigue! Here at Bird Meets Worm we believe the world is a better, happier, more empathetic place for you and me and everyone when we connect through the magic of storytelling. Look for a new review on the second Wednesday of every month.

Written by Jennifer E. Smith • Illustrated by Leo Espinosa
Picture Book • 40 pages
Random House Children's Books • 2021
ISBN: 978-0-5931-7305-3

The creature of Habit is a big, cute puffball of a creature, who lives on the island of Habit, and is indeed an actually, 100% "creature of habit." He has a beloved daily routine—3 pineapples + 2 bananas for breakfast, say hello to the fish and collect the best seashells by the seashore—and he happily sticks to it...

...Until an unexpected visitor arrives on the island. The newcomer eagerly joins in on the creature's daily routine at first, but then easily and naturally deviates off on tangents of his own, disconcerting the creature of Habit.

But eventually, the creature's curiosity is piqued, he joins in and discovers that the twin pleasures of new discovery and beloved routine can live side-by-side in harmony.

Beautifully illustrated, funny and full of heart, this is the perfect story with which to mix up your own daily reading routine!

Buy this book:

Reviewed by: Jane Smith

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Super Star Interviews: Melissa Iwai

Welcome to my monthly interview feature! I’m so excited to be interviewing all the fabulous artists, illustrators and designers I’ve meet over the years (both personally and virtually!) and sharing their artwork and experiences here on Bird Meets Worm. Look for a new interview on the first Tuesday of every month.

This month I'm tickled strawberry lemonade pink to be chatting up with the wonderful children's book author-illustrator, Melissa Iwai! I'm a long-time fan of her thoughtful characters and gorgeous landscapes! Melissa has illustrated over 30 books for children for clients such as Little Brown/Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt, Clarion Books and many more. She always knew she wanted to be a children's book author-illustrator. As a child, she began by making tiny books with paper and staples for her dolls. Today she uses a mix of traditional media and digital software. You can enjoy more of her fabulous books and artwork here!

How sweet are these two?!

Q: Your adorable NEW early reader, Gigi and Ojiji, releases today with HarperCollins! Congratulations!! Give us the full scoop on your new book—from first inspiration thru final product!

A: Thank you so much! And thank you for having me and featuring Gigi and Ojiji on your blog! The story is inspired by a childhood memory I have, when my Japanese grandfather came to stay with us for a while. We called him Ojiji, which is a nickname form of “Ojiiisan” and means “grandpa” in Japanese. My Ojiji immigrated to Hawaii at the turn of the century like so many Japanese people at the time. Both of my parents were born and raised in Honolulu. Ojiji didn’t speak much English at all even though he lived in Hawaii for years. But my parents grew up speaking mostly English. They only used a rudimentary form of Japanese at home, because they grew up during WWII and weren’t allowed to speak Japanese in public or learn how to read or write it. Because of this, my brother and I weren’t raised hearing or speaking Japanese. When Ojiji lived with us, it was a challenge to communicate, but we somehow managed using a mix of English, Japanese, and some Hawaii words thrown in the mix. I was about five, and it was the first time I had interacted with a non-native English speaker. Also, Ojiji seemed so different from the grandparents I read about in books or saw on TV.

This experience served as the “seed” for the story, but everything else that happens is pure fiction! While Gigi is based on my childhood self, she is completely different. Gigi is biracial—her mom is Japanese and her father is White. She has big emotions and is much more expressive than I was at that age. She doesn’t hold back on saying what she’s thinking and feeling. My parents are 2nd generation Japanese-Americans, and I was much more shy and reserved as a child.

I first had the idea for Gigi and Ojiji many years ago and I tried to write it many, many times. I even tried it as a chapter book and a middle grade novel with an older Gigi, but I never was never able to finish it.

Family portrait: Melissa, Ojiji & her momma!

During the pandemic, my agent, Christy Ewers, told me that Tamar Mays at Harper Collins was looking for new I Can Read Series depicting a child of color. Christy asked me if I’d be interested in submitting something. I decided I would love to try with Gigi and Ojiji. I rewrote the story within the I Can Read format. This means there is a limited number of lines per page and spread, the lines can only be 45 characters long, including spaces and punctuation, and the vocabulary must fit within the reading level. Much to my surprise, I found these parameters to be quite freeing, as it limited the amount of other creative decisions I had to make! It was much like illustrating with a limited color palette, which I also love doing. I also love that within the I Can Read structure, there is potential for many different stories about Gigi and Ojiji in many books. They aren’t limited to one book! Looking back, I’m so grateful I was offered the opportunity to revisit this old idea of mine two years ago.

(Psst! You can get your very own copy of Gigi and Ojiji here:)
Independent Bookstores

Q: In your career (30+ children’s books! Wowza!), you’ve both illustrated your own writing as well as that of other authors. Dish with us a bit about how your creative process—inspiration to sketches to color artwork—differs depending on whether or not you are also the writer.

A: I love this question and I recently did a whole presentation on it at a school in Manhattan last week using my last book, Dumplings for Lili, as an example! I’ve illustrated many more books than I have written, and that is because I started my career as an illustrator. When I illustrate stories other people write (and I still enjoy doing this, by the way!), I receive a manuscript from the publisher. If the manuscript doesn’t resonate with me, then I don’t take the job. The story has already been edited and is set. Only rarely has a manuscript changed after I start the illustration process—but it has happened. Even then, It was usually just one word or two.

Once I accept a manuscript, I do a lot of research and lot of sketching and character development in the early stages. Then I do thumbnail sketches and figure out the pacing of the page turns and where the text will go in relation to the illustrations. At this stage I figure out whether a spread will be made up of single page, spot, or double page illustrations. Then I make a book dummy of larger sketches and get this approved by the editor. I make revisions and do final sketches based on editorial notes. I get these approved, and then it’s time to do the final color illustrations. Sometimes I am asked to do the full color cover first. This is because they might need it for the marketing meeting which can take place very early in the process. But basically, that is the time frame for a book when I am just the illustrator.

Gigi's got the basics down pat!

When I am the author, however, there is much more fluidity between each stage. And often when I am writing the story, I am already thinking of images and page turns in my head. Sometimes, as was the case with Dumplings for Lili, I drew out the story before I wrote much of the words. And the text changed very late in the process—sometimes while I was working on the final illustrations! With Gigi and Ojiji, it was more straightforward. This was because of the need to get the character count and line count correct. I needed to have the story typed out on paper first. But in my mind’s eye, I had an idea of how the text would fit on the page, and when there would be a single page and a double page spread.

After the initial writing of the story, the process worked similarly to when I illustrate other people’s books. We have a set schedule because there are four books in the series and they come right after another. So I am working on several books at different stages of the process. I just turned in the manuscript for the third book, I am doing the final illustrations for the second book, and I will later do the final sketches for the third book and write the fourth manuscript!

Q: Who, what, where inspires you the most? And what role do your hobbies—such as food and baking—play in maintaining your overall creativity?

A: I take my inspiration from so many places: I live in Brooklyn in a vibrant and culturally and ethnically diverse neighborhood. I am near all the fantastic museums in the NYC area. I have so many creative friends and colleagues who do interesting work. My husband, Denis Markell, is a middle grade author, and we are constantly bouncing ideas off each other. I’m always inspired by our son, Jamie, who is a creative person as well. He produces music and makes films and he’s always introducing new artists and filmmakers to us. Then there’s the internet, which can be a black hole of despair, but also which can be a source of so much inspiration.

I’ve always found cooking and baking to be another creative outlet for me. I love discovering new recipes and developing my own. Back in the day I used to enter recipe competitions, but now I just do it for fun. I live with picky eaters, so I’m always adapting recipes to fit their tastes. The very first book that I wrote and illustrated was Soup Day which was inspired by cooking for and with Jamie when he was little. He never liked to eat his veggies, so I created a vegetable soup which he loved. I got him to help me make it too, which made him even more keen to eat it. Pizza Day followed. Even Dumplings for Lili has a food and cooking theme! I think Gigi and Ojiji is the only book I’ve written that has nothing to do with food. But just wait, the third book does….!

Melissa is ALL set up! Gotta do what works for you! ;D

Q: Tell us about your typical workday as a freelance author-illustrator—routines, rituals & practical practices. Set the scene for us, too—what does your creative workspace look & feel like?

A: My daily routine looks very different from that of the first 18 years of my career! After an arm injury that took a year for me to fully recover from, I decided to change my daily life. So now it looks like this:

5:30-6:00 Wake up, do a bunch of stretches for my back while listening to the Calm app (my form of meditation!)

6:30 Change into my workout clothes, brush my teeth and hair, moisturize, and do some affirmations and set my intentions for the day.

7:00 Make some lemon water and sit on the couch with our dog, Nikki, and journal and go over my plan for the day. I review what the top priorities are, what I’m thankful for, what was great about the day before, what I like about myself, what the meal plan of the day is.

7:30 Do stretches for my shoulders and arms and work out in the living room, usually strength training. Then I make the bed, set up the Roomba (Nikki sheds constantly) and let it loose!

8:30 Go for a walk that usually ends with me buying some groceries in the neighborhood. I come home, meet my husband who’s usually back from walking Nikki, and we make our breakfasts and say our “good-byes”. He works downstairs, and I work upstairs generally.

The workday depends on what I’ve decided to accomplish, and this depends on what I’ve planned for the week and month. I’m very big on planning and I live by my Bullet Journal.

Basically, if I’m writing or concepting/sketching, I do that in the morning. We eat lunch together at around 1. Then I go downstairs to my studio and paint. I try to check in with myself mid-day and get a 10-minute meditation in. Then I go upstairs and do all my computer-based work for several hours. I make dinner and clean up and then either walk Nikki with my husband or work some more until it’s time for a shower and winding down. These days I try to get to bed by 10-10:30. I need my sleep!

How sweet is Gigi?! I bet Ojiji is a little nervous, too!

Q: The key to long-term success in children’s book publishing is endurance + resilience. In what ways, do you practice resilience as a creative professional? How do you handle both success and rejection over time?

A: What a fantastic question! Looking back on my twenty-four years of working in this industry, I think that what has allowed me to keep going is my openness to try new things and to keep on learning and evolving artistically. I love learning and I am constantly taking courses even to this day. I love being a student.

There were two periods that stick out in my mind of when I was at a crossroads with my career. One was after I had been illustrating books for ten years. I was getting jobs, but I wasn’t satisfied with my work. I had lost connection with it, because I was creating in the same style I had started with when I had started. I needed a change.

I took time to explore other ways of creating, and I made time to make art just for myself. This led to me playing with collage, and that is how Soup Day and Truck Stop are illustrated.

Another time when I was questioning my career was during an economic downturn around 2009. Many people in the industry were being laid off, companies were merging and reducing staff and keeping some illustration jobs in-house. I used to do some educational work back then to fill in the gaps and all of that dried up. I wondered if I was all “washed up” too! I wasn’t getting any book offers.

Again, I went back and started experimenting and playing again. I started taking online courses to learn new skills, like hand lettering. I discovered digital brushes and started creating more work digitally. My style changed again. I was also learning about other industries, such as licensing. All of this had an impact and I started getting more work that I was passionate about. I started writing again, and I incorporated all that I was learning into new work and new submissions.

I still feel like there is still so many things to learn. I truly believe that’s what keeps me going. It’s also so important to take time to create work for oneself. I still struggle with this because sometimes I am so entrenched in multiple deadlines, and I feel like I don’t have time. I find when I don’t make it a priority, though, my work suffers. It’s a constant juggling act to fit everything in. But that’s what makes life interesting.

Q: Describe your most perfect Sunday.

A: A perfect Sunday would start with getting enough sleep (that means I didn’t stay up too late the night before!). I tend to wake up before 7 regardless of the day. I’d do my same morning routine but in a more leisurely fashion. My husband and I would have a late breakfast and hang out and chat and do all of our puzzles! We are puzzle fiends. We do the Spelling Bee and the crossword puzzle in the NY Times Magazine together. Then I do all the Ken Kens and the Acrostic if there is one. If there is a Puns and Anagrams or a Split Decisions we do that together. Basically we spend all morning doing puzzles, listening to jazz and hanging out.

Then we would part to work for a bit. Our teenaged son gets up really late. A perfect Sunday would be to spend the late afternoon with him, going to see a film in the neighborhood and then eating dinner together and talking about art, film, music, life. These days, we don’t get to see him much! Our Sundays usually do go like this, except for the part about going to see a film and dinner with our son. But recently we did do exactly this and it was the best day ever! He’s off to college in the Fall, so that makes these days together that much more precious.

Jane, thank you SO much for having me on your blog! It’s been fun hanging out!

Thank YOU, Melissa, for chatting it up with us here at Bird Meets Worm!! Congratulations on Gigi and Ojiji! Yay!

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Super Jane Story Time During Children's Book Week

Children’s Book Week is coming! Mark your calendars, because I’m excited to share that I’ll be doing a 15-minute MISS MEOW story time read aloud on Instagram Live everyday that week (Monday 5/2 thru Friday 5/6) at 10am EST!!! Join me for a MEOW-zing good time!

BONUS: don’t forget to get your FREE How-to-Draw Miss Meow activity worksheet from the Children’s Book Council! Click here to print!

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Super Star Children's Book Review: Outside In

Welcome to the monthly children’s book review feature here at Bird Meets Worm! My team of reviewers—Joan Charles, Laurie L. Young—and I are thrilled to pieces to be celebrating an exciting variety of gorgeous children’s books across all genres that delight, challenge and intrigue! Here at Bird Meets Worm we believe the world is a better, happier, more empathetic place for you and me and everyone when we connect through the magic of storytelling. Look for a new review on the second Wednesday of every month.

Written by Deborah Underwood • Illustrated by Cindy Derby
Picture Book • 40 pages
HarperCollins • 2020
ISBN: 978-1-3288-6682-0

The irresistible call of Outside In rings clear and sweet as a bell in this thoughtfully written and illustrated picture book. Ever so gently, the text tugs at our consciousness, subtly reminding us that nature is always with us. The dreamy illustrations offer glimpses of sun and shadow, day and night, calm days and stormy days, splashes of color and hidden wildlife, all rendered in dreamy, impressionistic watercolors.

This is a truly beautiful book, perfect to read aloud at bed time. The illustrations complement the text perfectly, and are full of subtle surprises that will delight and enchant any child.

Told simply but with powerful emotion, Outside In reminds us of the importance of nature and the joy that is there for anyone who is willing to step outside to enjoy the treasures that await.

Buy this book:

Barnes & Noble

Bird Meets Worm Bookshop

Independent Bookstores

Reviewed by: Joan Charles

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Super Star Interviews:Jarrett Lerner

Welcome to my monthly interview feature! I’m so excited to be interviewing all the fabulous artists, illustrators and designers I’ve meet over the years (both personally and virtually!) and sharing their artwork and experiences here on Bird Meets Worm. Look for a new interview on the first Tuesday of every month.

This month I'm thrilled to pieces to be catching up with the wildly talented middle grade children's book author-illustrator, Jarrett Lerner! Jarrett is the creator of the middle grade book series EngiNerds, Geeger the Robot and The Hunger Heroes as well as the activity books Give This Book a Title and Give This Book a Cover. In addition to writing, drawing and visiting schools & libraries, Jarrett co-founded and co-organizes the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects. You can enjoy more of his books and artwork here!

Art is for Everyone? YES!!!

Q: You are a rock star of middle grade children’s books, having written and illustrated three successful series! Wowza! What unique considerations do you think are necessary when developing middle grade, especially when creating a series?

A: If you're hoping to write a series, I think it's really important to develop a strong cast of characters. And characters who you believe you can grow over the course of the series. I think that's what makes series so exciting for readers, and what keeps them coming back book after book. They want some of the same—a familiar world, a familiar energy, a familiar voice—but also to get something new, different, perhaps unexpected. For me, characters are the best and most successful thing to use to give them that.

So much fun to add to your BTR* pile! (*books to read)

Q: Your most recent release, Geeger the Robot Party Pal, hit shelves earlier this year! Congratulations! Give us the scoop on how this title came to be—initial ideas to sketches & story to final artwork.

A: I've been lucky enough to work with the same editor on nearly all my books. Sixteen of them, so far. We get along great, and have such complementary sensibilities. We always go back and forth a bit to get our titles just right. Usually I attach one to my drafts, and throw out a couple other variations or possibilities, then we go back and forth until something finally feels like it "snaps" into place.

Until almost the very end, this fourth book in the Geeger the Robot series was called Party Pooper—but then both my editor and I decided this was too much of a downer note to have in the title, and really, so much of the series is about Geeger learning how to be a good friend. So, it became Party Pal. And once we'd gotten to that point in the thought process, it seemed obvious—it felt like the perfect fit.

(Psst! You can get your own copy of Geeger the Robot Party Pal here:)

And all the robot fun begins...

Q: Beyond your books, you’ve created a whole world of resources—free activity sheets, book discussion questions, virtual & in-person author visits, free stories like Knights of the Kids Table, and MG Book Village—to connect with your readers and fans from kids & families to teachers & librarians. Dish with us a bit about this side of being a children’s book creator and how you balance these offerings with your book work.

A: One of my favorite things about the world we live in—this interconnected, internet-saturated existence—is that we can share so plentifully and so easily, and get reactions to what we share instantaneously. I've always been addicted to creating, and as I've grown and become more confident in myself and my creations and my creative process, I've become addicted to sharing what I create, and also devoted to trying to get others to explore and maybe share their creative selves as well. I see the creation of books as one branch of my work, but it often moves too slowly or is too narrowly focused for all of what I create. All the resources and content I share, it's just another avenue for sharing, along with my books. And in terms of encouraging others, helping others in their creative lives—that can be done so efficiently and productively using social media.

Ooo! Is your imagination taking off yet?!

Q: Virtual and in-person author visits to schools, libraries and book festivals are an amazing way to connect with readers! But for many author-illustrators this feels outside of their primary skill set of being a creative professional. What advice would you give fellow kid lit creators about: A) booking these kinds of events, B) what kind of content to present, and C) how to team up with booksellers?

A: I think my best advice for all of these things is to put yourself out there. On social media. In person, at events you attend as an attendee. At stores you visit. It can be uncomfortable, even scary, and I don't think this side of things comes naturally to many creators. But the more you do it, and the more you can detach your ego from it, the easier and more enjoyable it becomes.

Sometimes I'll go into a bookstore and offer to sign stock—and sometimes they don't carry any of my books. But almost always, the bookseller will then get some in. And that's a win. Putting a message out on social media about being available for school visits—maybe, at first, you won't get many bites. But the more you do it, the more you talk about it and put it out there, the more opportunities there'll be for people to see it, for things to happen. I really think that's the name of the game. Putting yourself out there—and doing it persistently, because you want to grow. Careers—especially in this business, I think—are built incrementally, in very small steps over a long period of time. And every day, you've got an opportunity to take a handful of those small steps, by putting yourself and your work out there in a variety of ways.

What a bright, happy studio space!

Q: What is a typical workday like for you? Set the scene (workspace, materials, accessories) and describe your responsibilities (art making, promotion, business stuff) and creative juju (rituals, inspiration, process).

A: I'm not sure I have any "typical" workdays—my life is pretty chaotic! I wake up early—sometimes VERY early—and so almost always have some time to work before my wife and kids get up. But then things are up in the air. My days are usually structured around my wife's and kids' schedules and my school visits. I've gotten very good at creating on demand, at sinking right down into a productive zone whether I've got five minutes to work or five hours. I think I thrive off of the fact that every day is different. Comfort and routines often kill my creativity.

A couple other things that help me, I think: I've gotten more in tune with my creativity over the years, and am always working on multiple projects at once. So I can usually tell, first thing in the morning, whether it's going to be a day I'll be productive drafting something new, or whether I'll be more productive inking line art, or whether I'd better just answer some emails, or whether I should quit my desk and go for a bike ride or do some reading.

Yes! I'm always ready for a snack! (Preferably, pretzels!)

Q: Describe your most perfect Sunday.

A: Wake up early after a good night's sleep. Do some drawing with a big cup of hot coffee, listening to a great episode of a podcast. Cook some breakfast with my wife and kids, eat, and then spend the day in the city—exploring, playing, eating some more. Maybe come home in time to take a little mid-afternoon power nap. Cook dinner and eat outside, then maybe end of the day with some ice cream and a movie. I feel really fortunate to say that I actually have a lot of days like that.

Thanks so much, Jarrett, for chatting it up with us here at Bird Meets Worm! You rock!

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Super Star Children's Book Review: Jenny Mei Is Sad

Welcome to the monthly children’s book review feature here at Bird Meets Worm! My team of reviewers—Joan Charles, Laurie L. Young—and I are thrilled to pieces to be celebrating an exciting variety of gorgeous children’s books across all genres that delight, challenge and intrigue! Here at Bird Meets Worm we believe the world is a better, happier, more empathetic place for you and me and everyone when we connect through the magic of storytelling. Look for a new review on the second Wednesday of every month.

Written & Illustrated by Tracy Subisak
Picture Book (ages 4-8) • 40 pages
Published by Little, Brown and Company • 2021
ISBN 978-0-316-53771-1

Jenny Mei is bright and full of smiles. She’s a good friend and a beloved class clown.

But she’s also sad. Sad in a big way that can’t be easily solved, and it stays with her thru fun times, not-so-fun times and all the rest in-between. In the expressive, primary color-toned artwork, Subisak deftly reveals the source of Jenny’s sadness: a family member’s illness.

And just as Jenny’s sadness stays with her, so does her best friend—thru laughter, anger and tears. Jenny Mei Is Sad celebrates how being present in a friendship can have the power to support and comfort. And like all the best celebrations, this one end with a shared treat: popsicles!

Perfect for exploring the complexities of the emotion sadness, while also learning how to be a good friend, Jenny Mei Is Sad is actually a joy.

Buy this book:

Barnes & Noble

Bird Meets Worm Bookshop

Independent Bookstores

Reviewed by: Jane Smith

Thursday, March 3, 2022