Ten writers for children. All with something to say.


I'm pleased to post this interview with my friend, Ramona Kerby, Ph.D., a professor and Coordinator of the School Library Media Program in the Graduate Studies at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.

1. Mona, I know you and your husband used to own a bookstore in Texas. Can you tell us your pathway to your current position at McDaniel College?

I earned my Ph.D. while I was a school librarian, but liked my job so much, I stayed for a long time. After I had learned as much as I could, I saw an advertisement that McDaniel College (formerly Western Maryland College) was looking for a Coordinator of the Graduate School Library Media Program, so I applied and got the job. Maryland was an adventure for us, and it turned out great.

2. School librarians are now called Media Specialists. How have their positions and duties changed over the years?

Not all states use the term media specialists. In Texas and Pennsylvania, for example, they are school librarians. Another term that is now being used is teacher librarian. That is probably my favorite term. Nowadays, school librarians should be among the best teachers in the building. They need to teach the teachers and all the children. They are in charge of reading guidance and promoting reading for pleasure. They show everyone the latest in technology and how to use it intellectually and creatively. They help students with the learning process--how best to learn.

3. Hundreds of new children's books are published every year. When teaching children's literature, do you concentrate on classics and award-winning books, or do you try to include some recent releases, as well?

In my children's literature class, we don't really read the classics. We read books that appear on ALA book lists, including the Newbery, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpre, and the Notable Books lists. We read current titles that appear on the Maryland and Pennsylvania State Reading Awards lists. We read books--fiction and nonfiction--that are likely to be found on library shelves. We read books by some of my favorite authors.

4. What is the best way for new authors to get their books into the hands of school media specialists and students?

The best way is for that book to receive multiple positive reviews in professional selection sources.

5. How are books chosen for awards and state recommended reading lists, and must these recommendations be made during the year the book is released?

Each award has its own criteria. For state lists, books are typically chosen by a committee of librarians (or in some states by reading teachers). Some states will consider a book that has been published within a three year period; other states will only consider that year of publication.

Thank you, Mona, for your insight into the field of School Library Media Specialists! In addition to her position at McDaniel College, Mona is the author of thirteen books, two of those for school librarians. For children, ranging in age from 4 to 14, she has written biographies, science, history, and fiction. Owney, The Mail-Pouch Pooch, edited by Frances Foster of Farrar, Straus & Giroux is her latest. It's a true story about a mutt that rode the mail trains and became one of the most famous dogs in the world. If wishes come true, Mona wishes "the book stays in print for a long time and is read and loved by children all over the world." You can read more about Ramona (Mona) Kerby at http://www.monakerby.com.




Where were you born and grew up?

I was born in New York City, but my grown up years were in Wenatchee, a small town in Eastern Washington.

Tell us a childhood incident in which you misbehaved.

Me, misbehave? Surely, you are thinking about someone else! Okay, yes we tormented our brother. I say, "we" because generally it was a group effort by the five sisters in the family. But let's see, where to begin on my individual bad stuff...

Perhaps the most humiliating experience was being demoted from room monitor in the third grade. I was the only student to be picked twice for room monitor by the teacher. So I was feeling pretty full of myself. The room monitor got to sit in a special desk and do special things like take the milk count. We were also supposed to keep order, but when the teacher left and some kids started acting up... well, I just laughed along them.

When Miss Ross came back, someone told on me and I was publicly stripped of my Room Monitor status. I had to clear out my pencils, etc, form the special desk and march back to my plain, old regular desk with the whole class watching.

Your mother took you and your siblings to mountains and deserts in search of rare birds. Did you see any?

I don't know how rare they really were, but we were ever in search o f the Lewis and Clark woodpecker. A red-eyed vireo came through once. Another time my mother got incredibly excited and came running for her binoculars. She'd glimpsed what looked to be an amazing bird in our back yard. She raced to the back dining room and I hear her burst out laughing. What she's spied was my brother dangling a red and green model airplane from his bedroom window.
You have a degree in psychology and another in English/Creative writing. Has the degree in psychology helped you write books with grumpy characters such as Bear in the multi-award winner A Visitor for Bear?
Unfortunately, I have to admit grumpy characters come pretty naturally to me. I suppose the connection between the two is a big interest in what makes people tick.
Have your children ended up in your books? If so, how do they feel about it?
Not them specifically, but some of my experiences with them have been behind some of my books. For example, my book “My Brother the Robot” about a boy whose Dad buys a robot to be an example to the boy of a perfect son. That came from one of my daughters almost missing her race at a swim meet because both she and I ended up, well… spacing out. She was thoroughly scolded when she got down to the pool for her race and of course she came in dead last. I felt bad for her and bad that I hadn’t kept better track of the time. That night I was thinking about being a perfect parent with a perfect kid and realized it would be awful! It would be like being robots.
What has the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrator done for you?
An incredible amount. When I first decided to focus my writing on children’s books, I joined SCBWI and met people and learned things that would have taken me years to stumble upon on my own. I’ve met editors and agents and other writers at SCBWI conferences, become connected with area booksellers through them, been featured as a speaker and teacher at meetings and conferences. It’s an organization that seems to be able to offer an opening to the “next step” when I’ve been ready. Joining SCBWI is the first thing I recommend to anyone interested in writing for children.
Do you belong to a critique group? If so, how has it helped you? Do you always trust what the group says? Or do you go home and think about what they are saying?
I belong to two groups. An on-line group that gives feedback whenever needed and a real life group that meets once a month. I trust what my groups say, in that, I know they are all good writers and good critiquers and sincerely want the best book for me. And I’ll almost always at least try what they suggest. But I don’t do it blindly. After all, ultimately I have to decide what works and what doesn’t.
How do you know when an idea won’t work as a picture book?
A picture book has to be both simple and profound. I know an idea won’t work if the storyline is too complex—most picture books can only sustain one single straightforward plot line. But, that can be easy to fix. What’s essential is the underlying point of the story.
I say “point” hesitantly since you don’t want a message to drive your story. But “underneath” the obvious storyline, a good picture book will say something deeper about the world.
For example, Jane Yolen’s “How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night.” The storyline is completely charming just on its surface. Big, cry-baby dinosaurs stomping and whining about going to bed to the dismay of their much smaller human parents.
A lesser story might have had dinosaur parents, if the whole point were simply the slap-stick humor. But the more profound, more universal idea under the story is the fact that these human parents, while mildly dismayed, aren’t the least bit intimidated or angry about this problem. They are calm and in control.

A young child’s feelings of angry and frustration must feel like dinosaurs to them. Big, out-of-control things. How reassuring it is to have parents who can handle the dinosaur emotions that you can’t quite handle yourself, yet. That, to me, is the wonderful, underlying appeal of that book.
Some people ask writers of children books when they are going to write a book for adults. Could you, please, speak about the value of writing books for children?
What could be more important than the stories we tell our children? It’s the main way we transmit our culture, our values and our wisdom about life. Those are the years when ideas are new; when the mind is open; when the questions are deep and basic. Kids are just naturally trying to figure out life. And so you feel an extra responsibility to the art. And it is an art.
I suspect when people ask about writing a book for adults, they think it’s a step up from the simpler and easier (writing for children) to the harder (writing for adults.). But, as simple and easy as kids book may look--and some are simplistic and some are just plain lazy-- the good ones are just as hard, if not harder to write than an adult novel. The demands on craft are high. You have to keep your story tightly focused; your descriptions concise and powerful and you have to come to some sort of conclusion. No, you don’t get to wander off into a treatise on the fishing industry or lavish a couple pages on describing the small town or end your story in vague, non-committal despair. I don’t belittle this. It’s great to sometimes have that bigger stage to walk around on. But the smaller form can be harder. One of my favorite sayings is: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.”
I also like this quote by W. H. Auden: "There are good books which are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children."
Is your middle-grade novel Holbrook: A Lizard’s Tale based on people who have belittled what you do?
Holbrook is about a lizard who wants to be an artist, but he doesn’t feel appreciated in his small town and leaves to find fame, fortune and adventure in the big city.
Since I’ve been a writer, I’ve rarely run into that—being belittled. Most people are really interested and I get a lot of positive attention out of it. But it was a feeling I had as a kid—that a life in the arts was odd. I felt out of step with my hometown in a lot of ways. It was probably just my own defensiveness, but the arts just didn’t seem to be something very valued. And, although I wanted to be a writer for as long as I could remember, I didn’t really see it as a serious possibility until I was in my 20s.
What is easier for you to write, a picture book or a middle-grade novel?
Boy, that’s a hard one. Probably a picture book. Picture books ultimately take a long time to truly condense and polish, but if I have a good idea I’m pretty confident I’ll figure out a way to make it work. With longer books, I’m not as confident. There’s so much more to wrap my mind around and I feel like I stumble about for a long time before I understand what I’m really writing about.
You have done several other jobs related to writing. Speak about them. Don’t they take the same energy as writing?
I teach at the Whidbey Island MFA Program in Writing. And, until recently, I did private critiques and edits and taught for the Institute of Children’s Literature. They do take a lot of the same energy. It’s all about figuring out story and what makes it work and why. I do like teaching, though. And writing is so solitary; it’s good to have something that drags me out of the house!
Is it hard to apply lessons you give to your students to your own work?
Yes! It’s really hard to see your own work. And, in the end, there are no hard and fast rules. The only real question is: does it work? Does the story have that energy, that magic? Writing classes give you practice, feedback and methods to try when things aren’t working—but even if you teach all those things it doesn’t mean you won’t have the same problems as any writer.
You have two new books out, A Birthday for Bear and The Magical Ms. Plum. The latter has already received a wonderful review from Kirkus. Please, tell us about both books and where you will be signing.
“A Birthday for Bear” is a follow-on to “A Visitor for Bear.” In it Bear is his usual fastidious, grumpy self on his birthday—even denying that it is his birthday! Mouse disguises himself as the deliveryman, the postman, even as Santa Claus, trying to get Bear to admit it’s his birthday and enjoy the day. By the way, there are four more Mouse and Bear books in the works.

“The Magical Ms. Plum” is a middle grade novel about a third grade school teacher with a magical supply closet. Whenever she asks her students to get her an eraser or a pencil or some paper clips, they come back with a miniature animal and each chapter involves a different child, a different animal and a different adventure. A lot of the reviews have called it a modern-day Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.
At this time, I only have two signings coming up. I’m doing a story hour at Third Place Books at Ravenna in Seattle at 11 a.m. on Oct. 3 and a signing at the Aurora Ave. Costco at 1:00 p.m. on Oct. 17. I’ll be listing other signings as they come up on my website: bonnybecker.com
A Visitor for Bear has been listed as a New York Times Bestseller and in Oprah Children’s Book Club. It has won The Golden Kite Award, E.B. White read Aloud Award, ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year for Picture Books, Amazon.com’s Best Picture Book of 2008. How does it feel to be famous?
Well, it’s hard to handle all the staring. And I do feel a little guilty when I’m ushered to the front of the line at famous restaurants, but… okay, so nobody outside of SCBWI conferences has a clue, but it does feel wonderful to have a book receive such recognition. But even more than that is the satisfaction of writing a really good book.
I’m always pushing to do better with each book and, I feel, in “A Visitor for Bear” and the other Mouse and Bear books that I’ve come the closest to the kind of writing I want to do. It’s a great feeling.


Being an author is only one of the jobs involved in getting books into the hands of young readers. Professional librarians are crucial in matching the right kid with the right book and instilling a lifelong love of reading. How very sad that so many schools, in an effort to cut costs, are eliminating this important link.

I have the honor of knowing and working with many outstanding librarians, and one of the best is my dear friend Julie Reimer, a media specialist at Turtle Lake Elementary in Shoreview, Minnesota. Knowledgeable, passionate, and thoughtful are three of the words that spring to my mind when I think of Julie. She's a staunch advocate for bringing authors into the school. She is also a master baker, and like the other authors who have worked with her, I've been the fortunate recipient of many of her incredible baked treats.

Here are Julie's answers to a few questions that I asked her earlier this week. I especially appreciated her advice to authors.

What do you like most about being an elementary school librarian?

I love looking out at the children's faces as I am reading aloud or doing a book talk. They watch and listen attentively so that their whole bodies seem engaged. I know I am building upon their literacy foundations and helping to form connections for experiences they will have with information and literature in the future.

What is the biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge is finding time to include time for literacy in the midst of increasing demands to focus on technology. Though I feel we do a great job of spending time on both activities during library and information literacy time, it is the time I spend fixing things (e.g. printers, projectors, computers) that I resent. Those things take away from time with students.

How do you decide which books to buy for your library? Do reviews make much difference to you?

I try to read everything before I purchase anything. The public library is a great source, and I spend time at local bookstores as well. Sometimes the purchases are driven by specific curriculum needs (e.g. monarch books for kindergarten or urban/rural books for third grade social studies), and sometimes the books simply provide independent reading options. Reviews are important; they are the initial source at times for even looking at a title. That said, I may not always agree with a reviewer's point of view, and despite a positive review by a source, I still may not purchase the title.

Do you notice any differences between the way kids are reading now and the way they were reading ten years ago?

I think people would expect a librarian to say there are differences in the way kids read today versus ten years ago. I just can't say that is the case with the students I see each week. Though graphic novels are certainly popular, they are no more popular than Garfield or Calvin & Hobbes. Students are still looking for good books. When they come to me and ask for specific recommendations, they are not looking for the latest in a series or the newest graphic novel. They want a good story. Many times I will choose older titles as my read-aloud selection for the week. Despite its age or lack of flashy color, that book will be on reserve at both our library and the local public library branch for weeks. A good example of that would be Ann Jonas's Round Trip. Kids still ask for that book, and I read it a year ago! The point is that readers get enthusiastic about reading something that has been recommended to them in a positive way. That will never change.

If you could tell authors one thing, what would it be?

Give children credit for realizing the nuances, humor, inferences, and feeling found in stories and information. They discover far more than people realize. They LOVE listening to books. Take the time to read aloud your own work to hear what it might sound like in the ears of young listeners. If you like it, they will most likely share your opinion.

Tell us about something funny that has happened in your library.

When students return books, softcover books go in a basket on top of the desk for safer handling, and hardcover books go in the book drop. This morning, one kindergarten student came in with a para-professional. The man asked the boy whether his book was hard or soft. The child banged the book against his head and replied, "I think this is hard."

I'm not sure it's funny, but there is a certain irony to the fact that most books damaged by dogs (by chewing on them, of course) are usually books about dogs!


an interview with my editor

Louise May, Editor-in-Chief at Lee & Low Books, and my editor for THE EAST-WEST HOUSE: NOGUCHI'S CHILDHOOD IN JAPAN responded to these questions:

When you are considering a project for acquisition, what is a typical time frame for refining a manuscript? How much back and forth do you have with an author before you are ready to move to a contract?
The time frame varies greatly from project to project. Some manuscripts may only need one or two rounds of revising with the author before I feel it is ready to consider for acquisition. Other projects may need many more. Several variables that affect this—the topic, the format of the text, the intended audience. The experience of the author is sometimes a factor, but not always. I have gone several rounds with an experienced writer, and just a few rounds with someone relatively new. Also, depending on the schedule and work commitments of both the author and the editor, this back and forth can take a few weeks or months, or a few years. If a project is continually moving in a positive direction, then it is important to give it whatever time it needs to develop fully. I have published more than one book that the author and I worked on for several years before it was acquired.

Do you think LEE & LOW is different in this process than other publishers?
Lee & Low has a small, specialized list. We focus on bringing into the mainstream of children's literature those racial, ethnic, and cultural groups who have traditionally been underrepresented there, and we publish only twelve to fourteen new titles per year. Because we have so few spots to acquire for each year, we do require that manuscripts be fairly well developed before considering them for acquisition. We need to feel confident that each spot is filled with a special project that uniquely fits our needs. Other publishers, especially larger houses with significantly more books on each list, do acquire manuscripts at an earlier stage in their development. They need to acquire many more projects than we do, and I’m sure they have their own parameters for judging when a project is ready to be considered for acquisition.

After a manuscript is acquired, how much refinement occurs? How many passes of revisions might there be?
This also varies greatly from project to project. Looking back in my files I see projects where the author and I worked on five revisions of the manuscript and others where there were fifteen revisions. Major issues are resolved in the first few revisions. By the end we are only fine tuning, maybe just discussing the best word or phrase to use in a few places in the manuscript. With an illustrated book, there may also be refinements that need to be made once the illustrations come in, to make sure that the text and art complement each other perfectly. To me it is not important how many times a manuscript goes back and forth between the author and me. The crucial thing is that we make sure everything in the story is as good as we can make it.

What helps this process? What makes this process difficult? What are the qualities that make a good editor-author relationship? A bad one?
Professionalism, respect, a willingness to listen, flexibility, and a sense of humor on the part of both the author and editor all contribute to a good working relationship. My job is to help an author make his or her work the best it can be. This is a collaborative process, and I expect my authors and myself to work hard. There may be disagreements and frustrations, but they can be overcome and resolved because we both have the same goal. By the time I acquire a manuscript I usually have already established a relationship with the author, so I am fairly confident that we will work well together. The process may occasionally become difficult if the author and/or editor are not comfortable with each other. But since I believe in the author’s project (or I wouldn’t have acquired it), I find ways for us to work around that and bring the project to fruition. It constantly amazes me how each project finds its own individual path to publication.


Please scroll down two posts for my interview with two teen readers!


Looking backwards and forwards...

Outside the wind is beginning to have that dry-leaf-whooshing sound.
Fall is here and I am still alive!

When I look over the color mechanicals for my next book, "The Princess and Her Panther", I can hardly remember painting the illustrations this past summer.
When I visit my sister and I see her moving easily around her home without a walker, I can hardly remember visiting the Mayo Clinic with her so many times this past summer.

When I drive my son Cooper to his classes at Circus Juventas, I cannot recall the hours spent painting a giant Imperial Palace and other sets.

When I watch my daughter Ruby prepare for college applications, our 12 day road trip to the east to visit colleges and relatives this past summer seems like a dream.

What a summer it was! Truly a test of my emotional and physical endurance on so many levels. I hardly remember the actual season of summer at all, but I did keep a daily journal to which I can return. That is something I do for myself, even when life tugs its hardest on my time. I start the day with writing- sometimes just documenting what happened the day before, or listing what has to be done the rest of the day, and sometimes just a free-flow of thoughts, stories, dreams and imaginings.

With the fall winds come a return:
  • to my studio, clean and ready for new stories and paintings.
  • to an Midwest Booksellers Honor Award for SNOW
  • to pulling teaching materials together for a week of presenting at The American School of Bombay in Mumbai, India
  • to long walks, long books, and my Ten Potatoes!