Author Interview: Sarah Albee

Did you know that a certain sea snail which “secretes a snot-like substance that turns different colors when exposed to sunlight” was used to dye the Phoenicians’ fabric? That corsets in the late 1800’s could exert 88 pounds of force on the internal organs?

Have you heard of a crossing sweeper? Not a crossing guard, a crossing sweeper. A crossing sweeper who swept muck and the thirty pounds of daily horse manure out of the way when a fine lady or gentleman crossed the street in the early nineteenth century.

Have you heard of Venus Cloacina? Not the goddess of love but the Roman goddess of sewers.

Can you explain how the mosquito contributed to the Louisiana Purchase? Or why the first early European settlers of Florida slept buried in sand?

If you’ve read any of Sarah Albee’s browsable non-fiction you could probably answer yes.

But to read Why’d They Wear That?, Bugged, and Poop Happened is more than snacking on fascinating friend-stumping trivia. It is to feast on fabulously original takes on history.

Why’d They Wear That?: Fashion as the Mirror of History gives the readers a glimpse into the moral, social and political climates of the time.  Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up examines the public health consequences of sanitation choices as societies navigate waste disposal. Bugged: How Insects Changed History combines history, microbiology, epidemiology and conservation to explain the impact of living with ten quintillion insects.

Sarah Albee’s high appeal books with comprehensive content are no accident. Albee says she thinks like a twelve year old. All her books are structured chronologically because it is important to her to help kids make connections.

So the next time you don your fleece made from recycled plastic bottles, or you drink your milk that has been produced by a cow not stressed by too many flies, or you use toilet paper invented by the Chinese for emperor use only, you can remember Sarah Albee’s sideways takes on the world.

Samantha Kane is the Library Teacher at The Chestnut Hill School


Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple Save the Day: A Bedtime Story

Once upon a time, the school librarians of Massachusetts gathered in a great hall, all waiting to meet the legendary Book Whisperer. Unfortunately, it came to pass that the Book Whisperer was trapped in the far-off land of the Philadelphia International Airport (“At least there’s a bookstore and a Legal Seafood,” came word from Twitter). With that, the wise MSLA Executive Board sprang into action and worked their magic to conjure mother-and-daughter giants of children’s literature, Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple. (This was not even the day’s first miracle, Heidi having already pulled off the trick of being in two places at one time with a surprise appearance at the at the lower grades author showcase while on the panel for the upper grades.) Despite having been with the librarians since early afternoon, our story’s heroines were undaunted, staying on through dinner, the annual meeting, and awards presentation, to save the day with an inspired and entirely extemporaneous keynote address.

That’s how it happened that, while we missed Donalyn Miller, those who attended the MSLA 2015 Conference dinner had the best consolation prize a roomful of school librarians could wish for. For those of you who couldn’t be there, snuggle up now and enjoy a few of the stories Jane and Heidi shared with us.

The Family Business

And so. Once upon a time, there was a mother and daughter, and they wrote many beautiful books for children and young adults and grownups to enjoy together. But this story really begins even earlier, as Jane and Heidi explained how each came to join what is truly a family business.

Jane’s grandfather was a natural storyteller, sitting by the fire in his inn in the old country and regaling audiences in Yiddish with the most amazing stories, cribbed from Shakespeare and the Bible (of course, the Bard was himself a consummate thief, and as we were reminded, the best storytellers are terrific liars). Her father was a journalist, publishing executive, and the self-proclaimed kite-flying champion of the Western Hemisphere, whose adventures included being a police reporter and spinning misinformation for the secret radio in London during World War II. Her mother was the author of published crossword puzzles and unpublished short stories. Jane’s older son writes books of music; the younger is a photographer.

Parent-child collaboration is itself part of the family tradition. Her father, Will Yolen, “loved to sign contracts and checks and books … but didn’t like to write.” So it came to pass that the first book of the hundreds Jane has published was The Young Sportsman’s Guide to Kite Flying, ghost-written for her dad for $250 and no royalties.

Still, her firstborn daughter had to be “hauled kicking and screaming into the family business.”

The Kid in Owl Moon

“I am completely the opposite of my mom in the way I came into this,” explained Heidi. Though written into her mother’s books as the daugher in Owl Moon and other characters, Heidi took a more circuitous route to becoming an author. Though an avid reader and writer (with great models at home, of course!), she was too shy as a child to get up and speak in front of an audience. Her early career as a professional writer began in college when (in a story she promised she does not tell in school visits), she set up a cottage industry writing papers for other students. “I was good enough I could charge by the letter grade,” she explained with all due modesty. Still, Heidi was a parole officer, a private investigator, and a bartender, apparently exhausting all options before joining her mother to write a story for the collection Great Writers & Kids Write Spooky Stories. Since then they have collaborated on on more than 20 books together, with more on the way.

For those who are wondering, “the kid in Owl Moon,” as she put it, still goes owling annually, and even uses some of her late father David Stemple’s recordings. One year she called 66 owls.

What a Writer Needs

Our next story is a kind of list: the things a writer needs.

Jane began: “First, an idea. It helps.” But, she clarified, you don’t have to be an expert. It can be something you’re interested in, something “so familiar to you you’ve never explored it before, [or] something so important to you you’ve never dared crack it open before.”

You’ll also need patience. Ideas have to “roast, bubble, cook … to get to the point they are palatable.”

Then there’s the all-important BIC. That’s “bottom in chair,” of course.

Next, a question: you have to ask, “What if?” It’s the question “all storytellers ask,” Jane explained. “What if a father and a daughter go out owling on a moonlit night? What if a girl goes back in time to … the Holocaust?”

A writer also needs a sense of self (“that no one else is going to tell the story the way you will”) and a love of story (“or what are you doing writing it?”). And finally, writers need readers, to make their stories live. The reader may even find a different story than the one the writer thought she put down.

What’s missing from the list? Talent. Talent is cheap, Jane explained. Everyone has some. It’s the rest of it that takes the hard work.

Heidi added three things: passion, perseverance, and patience. To which her mother responded, “I said patience!” Clearly, however, it was worth repeating, as the next and last story they told was 12 years in the making.

Good Night, Nestlings!

Then it was time to read the librarians their final bedtime story, the just-released You Nest Here With Me, an ornithological lullaby about pigeons, catbirds, wrens, and grackles. This book, Jane and Heidi explained, went through editors, publishers, and rewrites to the point of being unrecognizable to its authors and back again, then waited three more years for the perfect illustrator in Melissa Sweet.

Jane and Heidi read, as the sleepy, grateful librarians listened on:

Swallows nest above barn doors,

Plovers nest on sandy shores,

Eagles nest upon high tors,

But you nest here with me

In a metaphor that seemed apt not just for a child’s bedtime routine but (since, as we know, the reader will find her own meaning) maybe even the role of literature and libraries in the lives of young people:

Like baby bird, your nest can be

Anywhere there’s you and me

And in parting, mother and daughter concluded, “Good night, nestlings!”

Stacy Kitsis is the librarian at Arlington High School

Author Interview: M.T. Anderson

Author M.T. Anderson shows off the MSLA chocolates given to him at the 2015 MSLA conference at UMASS Amherst

“I wish I hadn’t been,” author M.T. Anderson admits to the crowd of librarians, “So prescient, I mean.” Anderson grinned as he responded to a member of the audience who complimented his 2002 novel, Feed, a science fiction title for young adults that imagines a not-so-distant future in which most people have Internet-like feeds implanted directly into their brains. M.T. Anderson (“Also known as ‘Tobin!’” moderator Sandy Kelly informed session-attendees) a last-minute addition to the conference, enthusiastically sat in as a panel member on the Upper Grades Author Showcase Sunday afternoon. Afterward, he spoke with librarians at the Author Meet & Greet.

Feed, like all of Anderson’s novels, challenges readers to look at the world differently, or to think critically about humans’ interactions with and within society. The text satirically addresses consumerism, reliance on technology, factory farming, and other ills of the modern age. “I loved The Martian Chronicles when I was growing up,” Anderson explained, referring to the Ray Bradbury work. “I think [Bradbury’s] influence is evident in my writing. Yes, it’s science fiction, but it’s symbolically about America.” When I explained that I usually pitch Feed to teachers as “Kurt Vonnegut for iPhone-addicted teenagers,” he smirked. “Absolutely! Bradbury. Vonnegut, too. You can say a lot with satire.”

Anderson grew up in Stow, Massachusetts, and admits that being raised in bucolic New England greatly influences his writing style. “You see that in Octavian Nothing,” he explained. “I don’t know if I would have found that piece of history if I hadn’t grown up here.” His National Book Award-winning The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation tells the story of Octavian, the son of a slave, growing up as an experiment of rational philosophers in Revolutionary War-period Massachusetts. “I saw battle reenactments at the 225th anniversary of the Battle of Old North Bridge, and thought, if I were alive when this happened, it would be my dad fighting. My family. We wouldn’t know who would be victorious. What would that be like? To grow up in that time of uncertainty?”

From science fiction, to historical fiction, Anderson is known for jumping genres. Feed is dystopian sci-fi; The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation duo is historical fiction; and his first novel, Thirsty, is a coming-of-age vampiric horror story. For his next title, Anderson is jumping again—to non-fiction. “This one took years to research. I’m really excited about it,” Anderson explained.

This new book, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad, tells the story of what life was like in Leningrad once it was cut-off from the rest of the world during one of the longest and most brutal military sieges in Western history. “There were roving bands of cannibals. No, really. It was horrific,” Anderson said. The book details how the composer Dmitri Shostakovich endured the siege while composing his Leningrad Symphony, a musical work which became prominent in the eventual Allied victory. He continued, saying “Shostakovich was evacuated. They smuggled his symphony out. It conveyed the horror of Leningrad to detached New Yorkers.”

So why jump to non-fiction rather than write a novel? “This is a case of the true story already being so strange and interesting,” Anderson explained. “It’s full of despair and hope. Why would I fictionalize it?” Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad will be published by Random House September 22nd, 2015.

Alana Stern is a Teacher Librarian at Wachusett Regional High School

Author Interview: Burleigh Mutén

miss-emily-220x300Burleigh Mutén is the author of a middle grade verse novel, Miss Emily, which is about Emily Dickinson and the children she loved. The mischievous, playful Miss Emily invites her young friends to greet the circus train as it arrives in town, and a fresh image of Dickinson as an approachable, fun companion is offered to the reader.

Mutén has authored four other books for children, two about goddesses throughout the world and two collections of retold folktales.  She has twice been included on the Children’s Book Council Notable Social Studies Book for Young Children. She teaches creative writing to young authors and enjoys being a visiting author at elementary schools and teaching about Emily Dickinson as well as mythology.

This year at the MSLA conference in Amherst I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing author Burleigh Mutén.

According to Ms. Mutén, contrary to what many think, Emily Dickinson never retreated from the children in her life. When asked how she came up with the idea of writing a children’s book about Emily Dickinson, Ms. Mutén told me it all began as she investigated curriculum for her kindergarten class and discovered MacGregor Jenkins’ book, Emily Dickinson: Friend and Neighbor at the Jones Library in Amherst.  Jenkins grew up across the street from the Dickinsons and was a close friend with her niece and nephew.

“Most people don’t know that Emily was a devoted friend to the children in her neighborhood. She always made time for them and made them feel important.  When Emily saw children playing outside, she often joined their fantasies by providing sweet treats for the “pirates” and “gypsies” she found in her yard.  Miss Emily had a lot in common with the young children,” said Mutén,  “such as the fun of word play and a love for nature.”  As educators, we discussed how empowering it is for a child to have an adult really care and want to know who they are.

Ms. Mutén found the more she read about Dickinson, the more she wanted to know.  She said she’d been a private poet since high school, but felt emboldened to use her poet voice to tell this story. Through the book, Miss Emily, Mutén hopes the playful spirit of Emily Dickinson will interest and inspire young readers and writers.

Mutén said that “writing is a great way to process and organize your thoughts” and is a great activity to boost a child’s self-esteem. Children like Emily Dickinson’s writing because they relate to her interest in nature, and when they know it, her love of children. DIckinson’s use of seemingly random punctuation for example can give some children freedom to say what they want to say without worrying about rules.

When asked what is next for her, Mutén told me that she will be retiring from classroom teaching at the end of this year.  While she will miss her students and teaching, she is looking forward to staying connected to children and the writing of children by teaching more creative writing workshops and author visits at elementary schools. She’s also excited about learning more about Emily and sharing her knowledge as a guide at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst.

Kelly McManus is the Media Specialist at Groton Dunstable Regional High School

Author Interview: Laura Harrington

Author Laura Harrington (right) and Interviewer Laura Gardner

Meeting Laura Harrington was such a treat! Laura is a playwright who took a risk and published her first novel, Alice Bliss, to great acclaim. It was chosen as one of the Best Books of the Year by School Library Journal in 2011. Alice is the story of a small town girl who is forced to grow up fast when her father joins the armed forces and is deployed to Iraq. Laura calls Alice Bliss a “classic coming of age story” with deeper layers about the sacrifices people make around war time. The fact that such a small percentage of our population truly endures these wars has “haunted [her] writing”

Laura did extensive research on teens whose parents are in the military for the book and found that “they feel they are invisible.” She shared that the theme that drives most of her work are “parts of culture that are hidden.” The biggest inspiration for her book was Our Town by Thornton Wilder because she was interested in how a community comes together, but she was also inspired by the recent passing of her father and says “love and grief for my dad are all over this book.” She was pleased to write a father/daughter story because she thinks they are too rare.

Interestingly, although the novel is told in third person, the book is also written in present tense so “you’re in every point of view in the book.” Laura shared that “as a playwright who has been writing monologues and dialogues that was comfortable” for her. She also shared that she thinks this “gives a point of entry for readers to understand experiences of others.” For example, she went on, “a fifteen year old might see what her mother is going through.”  When I asked about my favorite character in the book, Alice’s best friend (and possible romantic interest) Henry, Laura said that “Henry showed up unexpectedly” and her daughter had a friend like Henry.

Laura experienced quick success with Alice. Laura related, “the book took a year to write, sold quickly and did well.” She is working to create a musical on the book and has the first major workshop coming up this month in April.

When I asked Laura what it was like to try writing something new after a long career as a playwright, she said it was “scary and exciting,” but that having family and friends cheering her on was helpful and the response was “amazing.” Her work habits as an author have remained the same as her playwriting days – “word counts don’t help” and she had actually never heard of that method until talking to other authors. If she’s working on a project then she goes to the gym first thing and then works from 9 am until she makes dinner at the end of the day. She takes breaks, but says “you have to stick around and fight distractions.”

Laura is hard at work on her next book, A Catalogue of Birds, which Laura describes as a book about a brother and sister who experience “the damage that comes from war and PTSD and how we try to save the ones we love.”

Laura has been volunteering at a middle and high school for a few years and is interested in school visits related to her book. She believes Alice “cries out to be paired with other books” and suggests The Kite Runner to explore the impact of war on teens and families and Catcher in the Rye to compare coming of age stories.  I highly recommend Alice Bliss and think Laura would be an excellent author to invite to high schools to talk about her work.

Laura Gardner is the Teacher Librarian at Dartmouth Middle School

Author Interview: Mordicai Gerstein

Mordicai Gerstein is the author/illustrator of dozens of books, and he has also written or illustrated more than a dozen others.

  • What are you working on now?

I just began final illustrations on The Sleeping Gypsy about  the painting with the same name by French painter Henri Rousseau. I’ve known the painting since I was a kid. My mother made a scrapbook for me, and one of the images she cut out and put in the book was The Sleeping Gypsy. I was fascinated with what was going on in the picture, such as What’s the lion eating? The book is about what I imagine is going on in that picture.


I am also working on a story about a whale and a graphic novel on the Greek God, Pan. Pan was big during the Victorian era. I remember reading about Pan in a work by Rudyard Kipling.

  • What influenced you when you were a child to lead to what you do today? (books, tv shows, movies, other media?)

Everything. I was an avid reader.  I loved Alice in Wonderland and Mary Poppins and reading natural history: about animals, whales, deep sea divers, African explorers.  I think books generate books. I like to recycle old stories. I loved the Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling,  and my first book was about a wild child (Arnold of the Ducks), who was raised by ducks.

  • Do you do school visits? If so, what is your favorite part of visiting a school?

Yes. I love the presentations and the connections with the kids. It’s amazing that I can do it because I was never a public speaker. I draw, and kids are always spellbound. I talk a lot these days about the power of imagination and getting in touch with what your stories are. Imagination is invisible until you write it down. When you hold a book in your hand you are holding the author’s imagination.

  • How did you start writing children’s books? Can you speak about how as an artist you came to both illustrate and write the stories?

I had no intention of becoming a writer but always drew and painted. In art school I took a cartooning class then landed a job at UPA, an animation studio specializing in flat, two-dimensional animation – not Disney like. They sent me to New York to work on commercials.  In New York all of the abstract expressionists were there, and Elizabeth Levy, a mystery writer,  asked me to illustrate her books. She showed publishers my sketches, and they asked me to illustrate her series (Something Queer is Going On; Something Queer in the Library etc.). I wanted to write my own book, but I had no confidence in my writing. It took me ten years until I wrote Arnold of the Ducks. After that the floodgates were open. Writing helped me find out what was lurking in my mind. I wrote another duck book, called Follow Me,  set in China about lost ducks finding their way home. Then I did a book called The Room then Prince Sparrow, and they just kept coming.

  • Your art is different from book to book. Different styles. Can you talk about that?

Each story is its own and I have to find the style that is best for the story. For Mountains of Tibet I wanted to do it in a style of mandalas (circular design). The colors and the shape all help tell the story.

I did a non-fiction picture book about a wild child raised by wolves found in France in the 1800’s. I approached this work and others first with pen and ink then I might use oil, mixed media, or acrylics.

  • What advice do you have for aspiring writers and artists?

Write, write, write.  Get your work out! Find other writers, a work group to share your writing, and get critiques. Get feedback and expose your work to as many people as you can. My advice is the same for illustrators. It important to be persistent.

  • What are your strategies for when you struggle with your writing or illustrating?

Keep going at it. Try it from different angles until you find a solution. With writing sometimes a book can take years, some weeks, some months. Once at a conference  I read a chapter of a new book, and after reading it MT Anderson came to me and asked me “What happens next?!” I said “I do not know because I haven’t finished it.” Some books take years. Sometimes you have to get out of the way of your mind. Let the story reveal itself.

Deeth Ellis is the Head Librarian at Boston Latin School

Author Interview: Jeff Mack

Author Jeff Mack and Interviewer Rebekah Tierney

I will do my best to make the rest of this article professional, but I have to digress to fangirl mode for a moment. I’ve totally developed a literary crush on Jeff Mack. Now that’s out of the way, we can move on…

I work as a high school librarian, so prior to choosing Jeff Mack as an interview subject, I wasn’t very familiar with his work. I had seen some of his books before, mostly in passing, but I had never had the chance to really read any of his work or use his material with a class. I brushed up on my subject a bit; did some googling, Internet stalking, all the usual stuff and found out that this Jeff Mack guy seemed pretty interesting. Despite some nerves, I was definitely looking forward to interviewing him. After creeping about a bit (are you sensing a pattern here?), and waiting for a break in his signing, I approached Jeff. He was very affable and immediately put me at ease. I had a few questions prepared, but they didn’t sound as clever out loud as they had in my head. Luckily, I was able to have a decent, unscripted conversation with Jeff and still manage to take some notes.

Apparently it all started with a snake and a hot dog bun. Yup, you heard that right. That was the first book illustration idea pitched to Jeff. Thankfully, it never came to fruition and Jeff has come a long way since that particular request. The first book Jeff illustrated was The Icky, Sticky Chameleon written by Dawn Bentley. Going back even farther than that, Jeff hails from Upstate New York and has been into robots and monsters for as long as he can remember. Of course, I pulled the Library card, forcing Jeff to plumb the depths of his memory for some early library recollections or stories. He came up with a great tale about his weekly trips to the library with his Grandmother, and the memory of a particular book. That book was On Beyond Zebra by Dr. Seuss. He recalls how Dr. Seuss created his own alphabet and bizarre creatures. Being very into monsters, young Jeff definitely identified with this book.

Another early influence was Mr. Cole, a middle school Art teacher. To this day, Jeff finds drawing a little easier than writing. Although drawing is a super-simplified term for the art that Jeff creates. One of his earliest books, Hush Little Polar Bear was done with acrylics, creating a lush texture and a dreamlike quality. Look! is an amazing book in which a gorilla and a boy battle old tech (books) with new tech (TV) and was illustrated using pencil and watercolors. The images were then scanned in along with book covers and interior pages to create a collage-style effect. In his newest book, Who Wants a Hug? the illustrations were created using digital artwork to create a silly, slapstick quality. Never one to be defined by a single art form, Jeff also writes and illustrates the Clueless McGee series for middle-grade readers. If you had not had the chance to examine the various art styles and forms employed by Jeff, I encourage you to take a visual tour through his works. You can’t help but to be impressed.

Jeff currently lives in Western Massachusetts and in between his art and writing, he takes the time to conduct school visits. His favorite age groups to visit are 2nd and 3rd grades. They are a great sounding board, and give unvarnished critiques of his work and ideas. If the kids don’t laugh at a story or idea, he knows not to use it. Sometimes, he even gets some ideas from the students. These visits are a great way to keep Jeff connected to his target audience, and get invaluable feedback. I love the idea that some of these students sitting there listening to Jeff could be inspired and grow up to illustrate and write books of their own. This may seem like a shameless plug, but if I were an elementary school librarian, I would love to have Jeff come and visit my students. I’m hoping he branches out soon into Young Adult and then I can justify a school visit of my own!

Any inconsistencies or errors in reporting are 100% my own fault. I interviewed Jeff casually in between signings, resulting in slightly haphazard notes. Speaking of notes, back to those clever interview questions I had prepared. I asked Jeff Mack what his favorite or most-used app was. Part of me was hoping that he would say Trivia Crack and we would immediately become opponents (and best friends). But alas, it was not to be. Jeff uses the Notes app the most; coincidence that I was using the Notes app as we spoke? There may be a chance for us to be best friends after all!

Rebekah Tierney is the librarian at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Dorchester, Massachusetts.          

Heidi Stemple: Creating Magic

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Author Heidi Stemple (photo courtesy of A. DiTerlizzi)

If author Heidi Stemple ever wants to forge a new career outside of the “family business,” she would make a great school librarian, as she proved at the recent MSLA conference when she and her mom Jane Yolen stepped in for speaker Donalyn Miller. Like a skilled librarian, Heidi is a connector who loves and promotes children’s literature, and who willingly and enthusiastically shares her knowledge and resources with others. Fortunately for Massachusetts school librarians in attendance, emails from Heidi helped to secure the dazzling line-up of authors who attended the conference. Also fun for attendees was the surprise treat of hearing the mother-daughter banter between Yolen and Stemple during their impromptu but excellent awards dinner speech. This unexpected opportunity to learn about the creative juggernaut that is the Yolen-Stemple clan was one of the highlights of the conference.

Heidi grew up in Western MA, in a home and school environment that valued and nurtured artistic expression through all sorts of creative pursuits.  She and her brothers were encouraged to keep journals of their outdoor adventures, they wrote collections of poetry, and they composed “fantastical” field guides filled with imaginary animals. Heidi made pottery, sewed, and made use of the art room in her home.

Given her creative childhood, it is no surprise that today Heidi is an author and frequent collaborator with her mom, Jane Yolen, but she did not always want to be an author. She had a successful career in criminal justice before deciding to return to the writing fold in Massachusetts, where she now lives and works.

Perhaps her years doing a “regular” job prepared her for the more prosaic aspects of a writing career such as deadlines, bottom lines, branding, and print runs. As she noted in her MSLA keynote, having success as an author depends on three important qualities: passion, perseverance, and patience. She says, “In fact, most of us would prefer that lovely cottage in the woods with no one to bother us but our characters,” but the reality of the writing life is that it takes a lot of hard work to make the “magic” happen.  As she readily admits, “The magic is hard work.”

Heidi’s collaborative writing process with her mom, Jane Yolen, involves a back-and-forth exchange of ideas and lots of discussion. As they explained during their conference speech, they are both good editors, and they are both good at taking criticism and direction. They have written 20 books together, including a new book, Animal Stories, for National Geographic, that was also written with Heidi’s two brothers. Describing the collaborative process, Heidi says, “Our voice together is a third voice that is similar to our separate voices in some aspects but [is] also new.”

Heidi has written for all ages, including adult readers, although she says her favorite genre to write is picture books. She calls herself “an equal opportunity writer” who lets the story dictate the form, so she follows wherever the story takes her. She is currently working on a solo manuscript, with a couple more projects in the works. Heidi says that she does not “make much distinction between working alone or with a collaborator.” It’s “all writing,” and she loves the process, either working alone, or working with others.

Heidi notes that in this current school climate of teaching to the test, and with parents worrying about “their offspring having ‘real’ jobs,” she is careful to convey during her school visits that “a creative job is a job,” and should be recognized as such. She also believes that whether a student becomes “a dentist, or a lawyer, or a construction worker,” people should “keep being creative” in whatever career they choose. Her sound advice is, “Find what you love and do it always.”

Heidi shares her knowledge and passion for writing and books through school visits that can be arranged through her website, She says, “My wish is, of course, for creativity to be fostered in all children. In school, but also at home.” Heidi speaks to students firsthand about the creative process and the sometimes circuitous path that an idea takes to become a book, and that a person sometimes takes to find their real passion in life—in her case, making the journey from corrections officer to private investigator to author.

Just as a private investigator follows clues and notices details, an author draws inspiration from a variety of sources. As Heidi notes, authors get their ideas from “everywhere—real life, research,” as well as from hints dropped by editors looking for certain types of books. Heidi’s latest book, You Nest Here With Me, a collaboration with Jane Yolen, reflects the connection of the Stemple family to birds and birding. Heidi Stemple, the little girl from Owl Moon, has grown up, has joined the family storytelling business, and is now building a creative legacy of her own.

Karen Sekiguchi is the K-5 librarian for the Danvers Public Schools.

Author Interview: Jane Dyer

TheHOuseWhen I met up with Jane Dyer in the MSLA author/illustrator meet and greet, she was celebrating the February 10th release of her book with Sally Lloyd-Jones The House that’s Your Home.  She brought the thumbnails of her initial sketches for the book. It was great fun to see her original concept in black and white next to the finished work, even including the X marks over many of the images indicating that the final artwork had been completed. Who doesn’t like the feeling of accomplishment that crossing items off a list brings!  It was also wonderful to see the hand lettering in those sketches which was then sent to a fontographer to create the font used in the book.

Jane confided that her intended model for the main character in the book was actually her older sister, but granddaughter Violet kept getting ‘in the way’ and so she became the model instead. Sally Lloyd-Jones was thrilled to see the red shoes on the little girl in the story since she had worn red shoes herself at that age.  As a child Jane poured over illustrations by Maginel Wright Enright (younger sister to Frank Lloyd Wright and mother of Elizabeth Enright who wrote Gone-Away Lake and The Saturdays). The Maginel Wright endpapers that Jane so admired in her childhood inspired the endpapers  in The House that’s Your Home, and are a work of art in and of themselves.

Despite or perhaps because of a childhood filled with inspiring artwork, Jane began her career as a Kindergarten teacher. It was during those three years that parents of her students saw her artwork and encouraged her to become an illustrator for children. She spent the next eight years illustrating reading stories for textbook publishers before she moved to western Massachusetts and met Jane Yolen who told her she “had to go to New York.” The rest as they say is history.

Jane’s artwork is warm and intimate and invites readers of all ages, but especially very young children into the scene over and over again. Jane Dyer’s art has illustrated books by Jane Yolen: Child of Faerie, Child of Earth, and the Piggins books; she has collaborated with her neighbor and friend Jeanne Birdsall in Lucky and Squash (Jane and Jeanne’s two dogs have a kinship much like the kinship of the dogs in the book). She has worked with authors from Kathi Appelt and Mary Ann Hoberman to Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Her book with Rose Lewis, I Love You Like Crazy Cakes, tells a beautiful story of adoption. When Jane was mailing the finished artwork for Time for Bed written by Mem Fox, she witnessed a rainbow over the FedEx building in Hatfield, perhaps a sign that this would become one of her best-selling books.

Just like her artwork, JaneDyerJane Dyer is a quiet lovely warm soul with a sparkle in her eye and a smile at the ready. It was a pleasure to meet up with her at the MSLA conference.

A year ago Jane and her family adopted a lamb named Blossom. You can meet Blossom at

More of Jane’s artwork can be viewed at

Jordana Shaw is the Library Director at the Groton School