Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Behind the Scenes of Luis and Tabitha with Author Stephanie Campisi and Editor Brooke Jordan

I love Stephanie Campisi's debut picture book, THE UGLY DUMPLING. And LUIS and TABITHA, illustrated by Hollie Mengert was equalling enthralling.  It's an engaging story about star crossed lovers--an ally cat and a sophisticated at home cat.  The bold and whimsical illustrations enhance the text to create a funny, yet heartwarming story.  I'm thrilled to welcome Stephanie to ReFoReMo as well as her editor, Brooke Jordan.  

Kirsti Call: What inspired your story? Your book reminds me of Romeo and Juliette and Lady and the Tramp--two of my favorite stories of all time!  Were they part of your inspiration?  

Stephanie Campisi: I can definitely see how those two stories may come to mind! Romeo and Juliet was certainly an influence, and Hollie's gorgeous illustrations definitely evoke certain iconic scenes - the spread with Tabitha on her balcony, for example. I didn't even think of the Lady and the Tramp aspect until we were deep into edits, but it's become a handy elevator pitch since then! 

The book itself was actually inspired by watching my own cat stare mournfully and at length out the window of the apartment I lived in at the time. I couldn't help but wonder what (or who) might be waiting for him on the other side of that glass! He was originally a stray I adopted as a kitten, so the possibilities of his past informed that part of Luis' character. 

KC: Did you use mentor texts, and if so, what were they?

SC: I didn't - not intentionally at least, although everything I read filters through in some way or another! 

KC: What was your most memorable take away from this project collaboration?

SC: I'm always reminded just how much of a collaboration a picture book is! There's a lot of trust involved as an author - that the vision, mood and more concrete details like characters and settings will be communicated in a way that matches your original intent. It's really tempting to lean heavily on the text or simply explain what's going on in the pictures. 

That said, it's also easy to veer too far the other way and make your readers do some narrative detective work that they might not yet be ready for (or that detracts from the story). My editor (Brooke Jorden) was great about helping find that balance by adjusting text that became redundant after the illustrations came in or by pointing out areas where the inferences were challenging - say where you turn the page and there's a change of scene that's not telegraphed in the text. 

It's also been incredible working with an artist as talented as Hollie. She has a knack for imbuing her characters with so much personality, and I love how she so perfectly captures cat expressions - Luis' eyebrows can tell the story all by themselves! There are also little visual motifs and mini plots that appear throughout her illustrations, like the "backstory" photo frames and Luis' mouse friend. They're a great reminder of the richness and complementarity an illustrator brings to the table. Basically, Luis and Tabitha wouldn't be the book it is without Brooke and Hollie!

KC: Thanks Stephanie!  Now I have some questions for your editor, Brooke.  As an editor, what drew you to this project?

Brooke Jordan: From an editorial standpoint, Stephanie’s writing style is so unique. Her phrasing is succinct and interesting and engaging; there’s almost a cadence to it. From a personal standpoint, I love cats, so I was instantly intrigued by the characters she created.

KC: What was your most memorable take away from this project collaboration?

BJ: My biggest takeaway from the project was the focus on small details. We wanted to convey a lot (emotions, backstory, conflict, etc.) with very few words. Stephanie is very good at that. I remember going back and forth with her over one word in one stanza, both of us pitching ideas until we found the perfect one. The process was always so positive and collaborative; she was fantastic to work with.

KC:  Thank you Stephanie and Brooke!  On NBC's Clear the Shelters Day 40% of proceeds of all L&T presales made through the Familius website will be donated to the Oregon Humane Society. So grab your copies now! 

Stephanie Campisi is an Australian-born, Washington-based picture book writer. She is the author of The Ugly Dumpling (Mighty Media Press 2016) and the forthcoming Luis and Tabitha (Familius 2018). Her folktale The Five Sisters will be published by Familius in 2019; her picture book Very Lulu (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky) will follow. You can visit her online at @stephcampisi or www.stephaniecampisi.com

Brooke Jorden earned a BA in English and editing from Brigham Young University. The author of If It Fits, I Sits: The Ultimate Cat Quotebook and the Lit for Little Hands series, Brooke is also the managing editor at Familius. The oldest of seven children and a believer in the importance of family, Brooke is proud to be a part of the Familius family and a proponent of its mission. Brooke, her husband, their three children, and their cat live in Pleasant Grove, Utah.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Mentor Text Author Study: Nikki Grimes

Nikki Grimes is an internationally acclaimed, Coretta Scott King award-winning, New York Times bestselling author and poet. Grimes was presented with the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, now called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award, given to those whose body of work has made “over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children's literature through books that demonstrate integrity and respect for all children's lives and experiences.”

She started writing at the age of six. At seventeen, legendary playwright, novelist, and activist James Baldwin became her mentor. Listen to her friend, author, and poet Lee Bennett Hopkins, tell that story.

Books by Nikki Grimes included diverse characters, voices, and experiences long before children’s publishing embraced such writing as a movement.

This study looks at some of her picture books. Grimes also writes for middle-grade and adult audiences. Her body of work is extensive. However, even from the small selection presented here, it is clear why Grimes is indeed a master of her craft.


 “The poet uses a few choice words, placed just so, to paint a picture, evoke an emotion or capture a moment in time...” Nikki Grimes
Each book in the Danitra series is a collection of story poems. And like a story, every poem has characters, and a beginning, middle, and end.

MEET DANITRA BROWN, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, is the first in the series about two good friends. It is written in rhyming free verse and narrated by Danitra’s best friend Zuri.  The language Grimes uses to describe Danitra draws the reader’s interest in her character early on.
Filled with rhythm, rhyme, and figurative language such as “Coke-bottle Brown” and “toothpick legs”, her poems address “moments in time” Danika, Zuri, and all children experience. Such moments include navigating relationships, bullying, and keeping secrets.
You oughta Meet Danitra Brown
the most splendiferous girl in town.
I oughta know, ‘cause she’s my friend.
DANITRA BROWN, CLASS CLOWN, illustrated by E. B. Lewis, is written in simple rhyme with sound devices that make these poems fun to read out loud. There is no confusion about how Zuri feels about returning to school in the first poem!
School is in and I remember
How much I detest September
And what child has not witnessed or experienced a moment in school when the teacher asks her students to stop chatting? In this poem, the audience knows exactly how Zuri feels.
[ … ]
Obeying will be easier
beginning with today.
Miss Volchek made Danitra sit
three stinking rows away.

“Children are emotionally complex human beings. Don't limit their poetry exposure to humor.”  Nikki Grimes
The two books below include a collection of poems where Grimes addresses difficult real-life experiences children face.
A child named Damon narrates in MY MAN BLUE, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue. Blue, an old friend of Damon's mother, lost a son to the streets. When Damon moves to the neighborhood, Blue is determined to protect him. 

“Why you want my friendship, Blue?
I blurt out there and then.
“I had a son named Zeke, “Blue says.”
“These streets became his friend.”

OH BROTHER!, illustrated by Mike Benny is the perfect title for this book written from the point of view of a boy whose mother remarries a man with a son of his own. In the beginning, the reader easily identifies with the narrator’s feelings of being disregarded and jealous. But by end of the book, the character’s growth is evident. This book includes varied rhyme schemes and poetic forms that use powerful imagery.

Everyone in this house
is a step, now.
In my mind,
I turn them into steps
I can climb.
If our bedtime is 8:15,
His eyes are closed by 8:00.
so when I crawl in bed on time,
it seems as if I’m late.

Chris says his mother
is like a ghost. He only
sees her in his dreams.


“I think poetry does have a magical element to it, in terms of slipping pass the intellect…it touches your heart before you knew it was coming.” Nikki Grimes
Wordplay is a literary technique Grimes uses in her witty, humorous poetry. She includes words with double meanings, turns of phrases, puns, or some other humorous uses of language.
With playful language, Grimes created a fun poetry collection called SHOE MAGIC, illustrated by Terry Widener. The book is about imagining what kids are able to do when wearing a specific type of shoe. The theme is a positive spin on the idiom, “if the shoe fits.” Notice how Grimes uses the word “step” in the first poem in the book. Her poems in this collection are filled with action, energy, and inspiration.                                                            
[… ]
What you do,
Where you go,
Who you grow
Up to be
Depends on
The steps you take.

WHEN GORILLA GOES WALKING, illustrated by Shane Evans, follows a tailless cat through poems using fun puns, metaphors, and similes.


A fierce meow,
A tiger’s claws-
Gorilla ain’t
No Santa Paws.

“I was forever challenging myself to paint a picture or tell a story using as few words as possible…” Nikki Grimes
There are dozens upon dozens of different forms of poetry. Some types are long, some are short.

A POCKETFUL OF POEMS, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe, is a collection of free verse poems paired with others written in haiku and overflowing with imagery. A child uses words from her pocket to describe things associated with each season and in nature. Beautiful illustrations in collage accompany each spread.


Look! Here’s a fresh
green growing word.
SPRING. I plant it
like a seed.

In POEMS IN THE ATTIC, a girl discovers poems written by her mother in the attic. The mother’s poems are written in Tanka about the different experiences and places she lived as the child of a military officer.  The child, writing in free verse, responds with a poem of her own.

At dinner I ask Grandma
For the chopsticks Mama
Taught me to use. Once, I asked Mama
where she learned and she just smiled.

Cherry Blossoms
Spring! Kimono time.
I joined the parade of girls
Strolling avenues
Dusted with cherry blossoms,
I caught a few, like snowflakes.

“When all you see is your immediate surroundings, your immediate environment, your sense of what's possible is severely limited." Nikki Grimes
Nikki Grimes has traveled the world to share her poetry. Her poems and stories have touched not only those familiar with the topics and settings in her books but have opened doors. She invites people into the worlds with which they may not be familiar and welcomes her audience to imagine the lives of the people featured in her books. And she has done so using unique and compelling story structure.                                   
In TALKIN’ ABOUT BESSIE: THE STORY OF AVIATOR ELIZABETH COLEMAN, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, Grimes writes about Bessie from the point of view of those who knew her. This structure is a work of fiction, but the information about Bessie Coleman is factual.
BARACK OBAMA: SON OF PROMISE, CHILD OF HOPE, illustrated by Bryan Collier, tells the story of a boy and how his family and experiences in the U.S., Kenya, Hawaii, and Indonesia shaped him into the inspirational person who became the 44th President of the United States.
CHASING FREEDOM: THE LIFE JOURNEYS OF HARRIET TUBMAN AND SUSAN B. ANTHONY INSPIRED BY HISTORICAL FACTS, illustrated by Michele Wood, imagines a conversation between these two extraordinary women during their fight for equal rights for African Americans and women. Readers not only learn about Harriet and Susan but Grimes introduces other activists who helped each in their individual causes. Back matter includes brief biographies of every activist and ally featured in the book.
“As a believer, Christianity is the grid through which I view and comment on the world. That being the case, in all of my books the presence of God is assumed, faith is frequently a factor…” Nikki Grimes
Grimes is a person of strong faith which is apparent in many of her books. THE WATCHER, illustrated by Bryan Collier is a collection of golden shovel poems told in two voices. One is a girl, a school bully with a stutter. The other is a classmate who is afraid of her. In this poetic method, Grimes skillfully crafts an original narrative poem where every line ends with the next word from the Bible’s Psalm 121. This lyrical and visually stunning book is a testament to faith, friendship and the power of God’s love.
Below is an excerpt from the second poem in the book:


Wish I was some other Who, living where
stutterers aren’t treated like spit. Does
that place even exist? No. So I switch off my
hearing when Grandma says to ask you for help.
If you care, maybe you can tell me how come
Kids tease into meanness I can’t run from.

Psalms 121:1: I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, from where does my help come from?

The next time you write or revise a work in progress, think about the literary techniques poets use. Read books by Nikki Grimes and listen to the sounds and rhythm of her words. Study how they work in harmony because everyone wants to make their stories sing too.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Rewinding to Record: A Journey to Agenthood with Kirsti Call

A writing journey is like the tape recorder I used in my youth: Sometimes you fast forward, rewind, pause, and play. Other times you are eaten by the recorder, and when you eject, your tape is splayed all over the place: some stuck, some stretched, and maybe even broken.

It’s been a privilege and a pleasure to call Kirsti Call not only my writing partner since 2013, but by the title of ReFoReMo Co-Mama. Even though we are separated by hundreds of miles, we’ve been able to record large portions of each other’s journeys. Kirsti recently signed with agent Emma Sector at Prospect Literary Agency, and I KNOW we can learn a lot from her!

Hi Kirsti! Let’s put the tape recorder simile to the test.
Rewind back to the beginning of your journey. How did you begin building your foundation?

Seven years ago, I moved to the Boston area with five kids eight years old and under. I suddenly realized that I needed to pick up my pen and write again.  I joined my local critique group, Writer’s Rumpus.  Picture books were the perfect length because I was telling my kids stories that I could write down. The Raindrop Who Couldn’t Fall was a story I told my kids at Home Depot!  It was my second picture book manuscript and 3 months after I wrote it, Character Publishing accepted it for publication.  Wow!  What a surprise!  And what a happy miracle!

How did you know it was time to press play? 

Getting my first contract motivated me to really delve into working on my craft and learning everything I could about writing picture books.  I met Carrie on the 12x12 forum in 2013 and we started critiquing and revising each other’s work almost every day.  We helped each other with pitches, queries, and stories.  I took online classes:  Lyrical Language Lab with Renee LaTulippe, Children’s Book Academy classes, Making Picture Book Magic with Susanna Hill.  After The Raindrop Who Couldn’t Fall came out in December of 2013, I started school visits and eventually went to Jane Yolen’s Picture Book Boot Camp.  I became a Cybil’s award judge and read hundreds of YA books and picture books. 

Were you ever tempted to press eject? If so, how did you get back on track?

Over the past seven years I've felt encouraged, then discouraged, and ready to press eject, then encouraged again.  The publication of Raindrop was encouraging, but when it went out of print after 5 years, I felt disheartened.  Despite the disappointment, I submitted to publishers and within 9 months it was out in the world again with Mazo Publishing.  Huzzah!  Encouraged again!

And the cycle continued. I’d get a really good critique, or a really great champagne rejection, and feel some hope for getting my work out there.  And then I’d get a frustrating critique or a very negative rejection and feel frustrated again.  I paused several times for short spurts to re-evaluate my stories, polish them and make them shine.  

Did you find the need to rewind again?

It always helps to look back at your successes, especially when they feel few and far between.  I try to rewind and remind myself of positive steps in my writing journey; becoming an author with Raindrop, a school visit where a kid told me “you’re my favorite author,” glowing critique group feedback, connection and conversations with Jane Yolen.  These successes and others helped me continue and persevere in my writing path, and move forward with faith for the future.

Thinking back to the beginning, fast forward through your submission attempts and rejections. Would you mind summarizing your submission history record for us? What stands out to you as low and high points?

I basically submitted at least 5 times a month (and usually more) for the last 7 years.  So I submitted at least 420 times.  I had two editors interested in stories that they ultimately didn’t take.  I had several agents interested in one of my stories, but not in my other manuscripts.  The low point was when I thought I had a sale and even talked to the editor extensively about one of my picture books and then I never heard anything again.  So frustrating to hold out hope for nothing in the end!  But the high point was definitely that first contract, and holding The Raindrop Who Couldn’t Fall in my hands for the first time! 

And of course another VERY high point, was signing with Emma Sector!  I submitted to Rachel Orr at Prospect through the 12x12, and Rachel sent my story to her colleague, Emma.  Emma loved my rhyming 3 little pigs fractured fairy tale, and asked for more work.  After she read 4 more of my stories, she asked to read a couple chapters of my YA.  Eeeeeek!  I felt very unsure about my YA, but I forced myself to press the send button.  Emma offered representation over email, without even talking to me.  Later that week, we had a conversation and I loved her warm, positive attitude.  All of my past rejections led me to where I am now in my writing journey. 

You were able to record part of your history when you published your first book. Looking at your current collection, what do you hope to record in the future?

I hope to catalogue and record many more books in my future.  Silly, rhyming picture books, and lyrical ones.  My historical fiction YA, and my magical realism MG.  I hope that my words make a difference for at least one kid…or adult. 

As our community pauses to read this, what steps do you feel will make all the difference for them?

  1. Write and revise, and write and revise again.
  2. Always get critiques.
  3. Never stop submitting, unless you’re taking a break to hone your craft. 
  4. And most importantly: Read mentor texts, and lots of them.  Reading and studying great picture books and understanding why I liked them has made all the difference for me. 

Go ReFoReMo!!!

We sincerely wish you all the best with your personal writing goals, and we look forward to learning more from you through ReFoReMo. The best is yet to come! 

Thank you Carrie! Your support has made my writing journey magical!

Kirsti Call loves words and putting them together in ways that make people smile. She writes picture books, middle grade and young adult novels. She gets inspiration from her five kids, husband, and backyard chickens. If you visit her house, you’ll likely find her writing, reading with her kids, or singing with her family. And if you visit her blogsite you'll find her reviewing great books!