Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Super Star Children's Book Reviews: Focused

Welcome to the monthly children’s book review feature with a focus on diverse books here at Bird Meets Worm! My team of reviewers—Joan Charles, Laurie Young, Sarah Orgill—and I are so excited to be championing books celebrating everything from gender diversity, people of color, the LGBTQ community to ethnic, cultural and religious minorities, people with disabilities and developmental challenges to controversial topics, unique family situations and anything and everything I did not include. It is to say we take a rightfully broad view of diversity! We aim to shine a light on books that bring both familiar experiences to those who do not often see themselves represented in books and new experiences to those looking to expand their worldview. Here at Bird Meets Worm we believe in the power of story to build empathy and thus a better world for you and me and everyone. Look for a new review on the second Wednesday of every month.

Written by Alyson Gerber
Young Adult (ages 12 & up) • 304 pages
Scholastic Press • 2019
ISBN 978-1-33853-167-1

Seventh-grader Clea just can’t seem to get it together. She is failing subjects that she used to be good at, she keeps blurting out inappropriate comments, and her parents are threatening to make her quit the chess team. On top of that, her best friend Red is starting to hang out with Dylan, a boy Clea can’t stand. Life is tough. And now, Clea’s parents want to take her to see a doctor to get her diagnosed for ADHD! Everyone is going to think she is so dumb.

Focused offers a thought-provoking window into the mind of a middle schooler suffering with undiagnosed ADHD. Clea’s world is full of noises and colors and smells—all aptly described by Gerber. These distractions overwhelm Clea and cause her to struggle in school and with her personal relationships. No wonder she gets so distracted and falls behind!

Gerber carefully details how ADHD can create havoc for the one diagnosed and her family alike. The scenes at Dr. Gold’s office are particularly observant, exploring how Clea resents the diagnosis and how Clea’s parents are desperate for answers. After the diagnosis is made and a learning plan is implemented, more details about Clea’s reactions, physically and mentally, to her new medication are also thoughtfully observed. It is clear that while there is no quick fix for ADHD, a combination of approaches can make for great improvements.

Focused would fit well in a middle school classroom, and especially resonate with children who have (or who have friends or siblings with) ADHD. It’s also a powerful read for anyone who is trying to understand the emotions a child encounters when being diagnosed. Gerber creates a realistic seventh grade world, complete with best friends, school bullies, and a sweet little sister—a universal world that will ring true for most middle schoolers, with or without ADHD.

Buy this book:

Barnes & Noble

Independent Bookstores

Reviewed by: Sarah Orgill

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Turkey Trot 5K Fun Run

Ready, set, gooble til you wobble! • © Jane Smith

Super Star Interviews: Constance Lombardo

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 pumpkin pie pieces to be catching up with the hilarious and fun Author/Illustrator, Constance Lombardo, who has a brand new picture book releasing this month! (Congratulations!!) Constance began drawing when she was 10-years old, inspired in part by the Illustrators Annuals her dad brought home from the advertising agency where he worked and in part by her sister, whose drawings were getting a lot of attention! Constance is the author/illustrator of the middle grade series, Mr. Puffball, published by HarperCollins. You can see more of her artwork here! 

Ooo! How super cute!! 

Q: Your brand-new NEW picture book, Everybody Says Meow, releases this month with HarperCollins (Psst! You can buy it here!!). We want to hear everything single fabulous detail! Give us the full scoop!

A: Thanks, Jane! The idea for Everybody Says Meow began when I was feeding Myrtle, our older, very vocal cat, and G.G., our new kitten, would just sit and stare at me with his giant kitten eyes. I began saying to G.G., “C’mon, everybody says meow! Everybody says meow!” After awhile, I heard it as a picture book title. The story sprung into my mind fully-formed, which never happens to me! I made a dummy, my agent loved it, and, lucky me, Jill Davis at HarperCollins said, “Let’s do it!” (paraphrasing.) I worked with Jill on my MG Mr. Puffball series, and I adore her, so that was a happy day indeed. Art Director Chelsea Donaldson got on board, and together we rocked it IMHO.

Bonus points for now having a million drawings of cats, as I tried every traditional media in my studio to develop the main character. She is named Myrtle, in remembrance of our sweet, gentle cat who passed away. (G.G. turned out to be more of a lovable imp.)

Come here, Kitty! I'll pick you up & snuggle!

Q: You are also the Author/Illustrator of the hilarious illustrated middle grade series, Mr. Puffball. Tell us a bit about your process and approach to developing this series—the inspiration, the writing, the planning & development and the artwork.

A: Several years ago, after getting hundreds of rejection letters for dozens of picture books, I decided it was time for something completely different: a novelty book about what cats are really thinking. I did a bunch of cat drawings, those turned into cartoons, and one irrepressible character emerged. I decided to make a graphic novel about Mr. Puffball, and that caught the attention of a wonderful agent, Lori Nowicki of Painted Words.

After many conversations and some revising, we signed (yay!!) She soon connected me with the amazing HarperCollins editor, Jill Davis, who loved Mr. Puffball, but wanted an illustrated MG novel, rather than a graphic novel. Meaning much more text, and less panels/ speech bubbles—think Diary of a Wimpy Kid format. Perfect for me, because I love to write almost as much as I love to draw!

HarperCollins even offered me a three-book deal. Wow.

Each book has about 200 drawings. Fortunately, nothing’s more fun than drawing cartoon cats. And, since Mr. Puffball is a Hollywood cat, I reference things like the Hollywood sign, film reels, old movie posters. I use a generous paw-rtion of puns (The Sound of Music became The Sound of Meowsic,) and just dive into my own goofy humor/ love of Hollywood celebrities; i.e., Benedict Cumbercat.

The second book was more challenging, involving many false starts and total rewrites. Disheartening at times, but I found solace in other writers, who shared their own struggles and encouraged me to keep at it. I fortunately live in a town with many kidlit authors. (I’m looking at you, Asheville, NC!) and I have an amazing writing group, The Secret Gardeners.

By the time I finished the third novel, Mr. Puffball: Escape from Castaway Island, which explores reality TV, and where I add monkeys, alligators, and quick sand to the mix, I was very sad to say goodbye to my old friend, Mr. Puffball. 

Introducing the Amazing Mr. Puffball!

Q: Creating a series that you’ve both written and illustrated is children’s book publishing gold! What advice would you give fellow creatives about: 1) creating memorable characters, 2) developing a successful series and 3) pitching & selling your book projects.

A: Take the time you need to write, revise, consult with your writers group, etc., to create the best, most memorable characters possible. Ask yourself who your character really is, what they want, and what sets them apart from the other cats. I also believe in: GO BIG—so push every trait and situation to its extreme. When I wanted to create an ‘old Hollywood’ elderly cat character, I have him use an ear trumpet, which ridiculously overstates the idea of aging (employing a device first invented in the 13th century.) This especially applies to humor, and I think humor is something that can truly sell your character and your project.

As far as creating a successful series, I’m still trying to figure that one out. I wrote Mr. Puffball as a single book and was grateful to get a 3-book contract, but I really had to work hard, ask questions, work extensively with my generous editor to figure out how to put it together. I’m currently developing other series. One features a stick bug and a stink bug. My agent encourages me to include science-y facts, strong character traits, humor, action, and lots of heart. So maybe that’s some kind of recipe for a successful series!

For inspiration, I look to some of my favorite series, like Mr. Putter and Tabby by Cynthia Rylant, and illustrated by the incredible Arthur Howard, and Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel.

As far as pitching and selling, I always recommend that aspiring kidlit people join SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.) It’s a great way to connect with other writers and meet editors and art directors, who are interested in seeing your work (at the SCBWI conferences.) Find your voice. Write to your strengths. Write the book you want to read. Do your research. There are tons of great websites for aspiring authors. Make sure you’re pitching to agents or editors who want the kind of projects you’re pitching.

Most of all, everyone says persistence is the main thing, and I agree. It took me ten years from when I submitted my first PB to when I got my first contract. Worth the wait! 

Oy! Nothing like deadline drama!

Q: As an Author/Illustrator you create children’s books, like the Mr. Puffball series, that are silly and giggle-inspiring. Dish with us a bit about creating FUNNY books and who/what/where inspires your sense of humor.

A: I love David Sedaris, and he talks about how his humor relates to his childhood and family life. That’s one thing David Sedaris and I have in common! As one of five kids, we were constantly vying for attention and entertaining each other. I was especially inspired by my sister Rita, who always made me laugh. Part of it is also my competitive nature—I want to be as funny as she is! I love watching comedy movies (i.e., Bridesmaids) and stand-up comedy (i.e., Maria Bamford), because laughter is the best alternative to drowning my problems in chocolate. Since I’m way too wimpy to try stand-up, writing funny books will have to do.

I also seek out humorous books for inspiration, like I Yam A Donkey, by Cece Bell, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow, and I’m a Shark by Bob Shea. All hysterical! 

Bright & fun! I wanna have a work playdate here! ;D

Q: Tell us about your typical workday as an Author/Illustrator—routines, rituals & practical practices. Set the scene for us, too—what does your creative workspace look & feel like?

A: Honestly, every day is completely different. But...after breakfast, the crossword puzzle and a walk with Louie the beagle, I answer emails, see what’s happening on Facebook, then get to whatever manuscript is in the works. Lately, I’ve been writing more than drawing. I hope to soon have contracts for books that others illustrate, because I think that would be an interesting experience—there are so many illustrators I admire, and I can’t draw zombies.

Break for lunch, finish that puzzle, then back to writing (or drawing) until dinner. Sometimes I write in bed in the evening or do some sketching. That’s my ideal workday. Interruptions that get in the way include: 1) the cat telling me we’re out of cat treats, 2) my husband asking how to use the computer, 3) the kitchen demanding to be cleaned, 4) my stomach reminding me to have a snack, while I’m in the kitchen, 4) my tooth remindsing me to go to the dentist, 5) the mailman reminding me to pay bills, and so on. Time management is something I’m working on!

Re: workplace: I feel like I’m a neat person living in a sloppy person’s body. I have a desk in the front room with my laptop, photos, glitter, assorted pens, a non-working Himalayan salt lamp, and a mysteriously large pile of papers. Sometimes I write on the porch or meet a friend in a cafĂ© for a writing date (a great way to interact with the other humans.) Though I do love working in my jammies.

My studio is in the back of the house looking out onto our yard. It’s crammed with every kind of pencil, marker and sketchpad known to me. I need a bigger space, but suspect that would fill with stuff, too. It feels like a lot of art could happen there if I can learn to ignore all the interrupters!

Constance & Louie!

Q: Describe your most perfect Sunday.

A: Not having to cook. Walking my old beagle, Louie, who is the best, and thinks I’m the best, too. Watching a movie with my teen (who on my perfect Sunday wants to hang out with me) at the place in town that serves beer and pizza. Drawing for fun and not for profit. Carrot cake. Bonus points if I can get somebody to play Pictionary with me.

Thank you so much, Constance, for chatting it up with us here at Bird Meets Worm! And congratulations again on your silly & cute new picture book!!! Hooray!