Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Interview with Picture Book Author Sandra Horning and Book Give-away!

Sandra Horning the award-winning author of books for young children including The Giant Hug and Chicks.  She also works as a copyeditor. Today she’s here to talk about her latest title, The Biggest Pumpkin.

Sandra generously donated a signed copy of her book, The Biggest Pumpkin, which will go to some lucky visitor. To be entered to win, please leave a comment at the end of this blog post.

Welcome, Sandra!

Thanks, Linda! It's a pleasure to speak with you!

The Giant Hug features a pig who sends his grandmother a hug through the mail. Chicks is about raising chickens, and The Biggest Pumpkin is about growing a giant pumpkin for the town fair. There seems to be an agricultural thread running through all your books. Did you grow up on a farm or in a rural area? Do you raise animals or grow vegetables now?

I didn't grow up on a farm, but I lived near a farming region, and my grandfather lived in the country. In fact, I grew up in a rowhome in a suburb of Reading, Pa.  Even though we had a very tiny yard, my parents always kept a small vegetable garden. Back then the suburb still had a lot of undeveloped space around it. Across the street there was an open field with a stream and small wooded area bordering it. A block behind my house there was a mountain. I spent many of my early years playing in those spaces, which have since been developed. There is definitely an agricultural thread running through my published work, although I should say that I do write stories without that theme, but they tend not to be the ones that publishers accept. I'm sure it's not a coincidence, and the agricultural themes/hooks are what helped my books find a home.

I live in the woods of CT now. We have so much shade that I really can't grow vegetables. Despite the shade, I usually plant a few anyway. This year I have some lettuce and a handful of tiny green cherry tomatoes. The plants I put in were a decent size to start. That helps a great deal. I had a pumpkin plant last year, but the pumpkin never got bigger than a fist. My family joins a local CSA to get fresh vegetables each week. I love visiting the farm for pick-up. I have better luck with raising animals. I raise chickens and ducks for eggs. Right now I have 6 chickens and 3 ducks. They are pets, too, and all have names.

What sparked the idea for The Biggest Pumpkin?

The initial idea came to me during a school visit for my first picture book. The school had a greenhouse and it sparked the idea of writing a garden story. I picked a pumpkin plant because when my 2 boys were younger, we regularly drove by a nearby garden with a pumpkin plant in it. By the end of summer and into fall, the pumpkin was easily visible from the road. I'd slow the car down and we would see how big the pumpkin was that day. The rest of the inspiration for the story came from all the agricultural fairs in our region. My family and I have always loved seeing the largest vegetables at the local fairs.

Writing a picture book seems deceptively simple, yet I know what a struggle it can be. What was your biggest challenge in writing The Biggest Pumpkin?  Do you have any advice for someone interested in writing a picture book?

The biggest challenge was writing an entertaining story that follows the actual growth of a pumpkin without it being too didactic. It's hard to keep the text succinct, yet still get in the factual information. In real life, growing a prize-winning pumpkin would have a few more steps. For example, once the pumpkin gets very large, it needs to be kept off the ground so that the bottom doesn't rot. I didn't include that part because I had to take the growth process and pare it back to the most basic steps. I did my best to follow the real growth process while keeping it easy to understand for young readers. It took many revisions to get just right! My advice is to keep revising. Picture books seems quite simple, but the best ones have been through many, many revisions!

How do you approach your research for a book like The Biggest Pumpkin?  Did you have any interesting experiences during your writing or research for this book?

I usually start with research at the library or on the internet. There are quite a few websites devoted to growing big pumpkins.  I've also attended many harvest festivals since I've lived in CT, and many of them have a pumpkin contest. Growers are always happy to discuss the process.  Last year, farmers at the BIG E (the biggest agricultural fair in New England) were selling seeds from the previous year's winner. I bought a packet and my parents (who now have a very big garden in a new house) planted the seeds in their garden this spring. We'll see how big their pumpkin gets! While I was writing the story, writers in my critique group frequently cut out newspaper photos and articles about prize-winning pumpkins. One of my friends even took a photo of a huge pumpkin being transported on the highway.

You’ve written both picture books and easy readers. Do you approach these projects in a similar way? What do you see as their differences?

Yes, I approach them in a similar way in that when I have an idea, I usually start writing first. Since I choose topics I already have an interest in, I'll write the first draft with the knowledge I have. Then I stop and do research, and correct and add details in my revisions. Sometimes I write a picture book and realize it might work better as an early reader or vice versa. The main difference between picture books and early readers is that there is much less freedom of word choice with an easy reader. A certain number of words in the text need to repeat. For level one readers, contractions can't be used and most of the words should be one syllable. In addition, concepts need to be simple enough that a young reader can easily follow the story. The text of beginning readers needs to closely match the art in order for children to see the visual cues to the words they are learning to read. Picture books can sometimes skip words and let the art tell some of the story. The author and illustrator both have more room to play in a picture book.
What have you learned from editing other people’s work that is useful in your own writing?

Most of the work I edit is for academic statistical journals. Academic writing is quite different than writing for children, but it is similar in that it is written for a particular audience. Remembering your audience, whether it is beginning readers or academics, is the key to keeping your reader engaged!

You recently won a James Marshall Fellowship. Congratulations! Can you tell us about why you applied and how you plan to use your research?

I was awarded the Marshall Fellowship for 2014 and did most of my research in the spring of that year. As I had recently been working on beginning readers, I applied in order to study James Marshall's beginning readers, particularly his Fox stories, but I ended up looking at everything he wrote. James Marshall was an incredibly talented man. Studying his work helped me to review my own creative process, especially when revising. Marshall was a perfectionist and had many drafts of his stories. I learned a lot from following his process, and seeing how his initial ideas developed into the wonderful characters of Fox and his friends, George and Martha, the Stupids, and more.  I've since worked on several different early readers and often ask myself, “What would James Marshall think? Is this the best it can be?” The fellowship required me to blog about my research. If you are interested, the posts are available here.

Are you working on any other new projects?

I'm working on two early readers and a picture book right now. One of the early readers is a nonfiction project about bizarre birds and the other is a fiction project with a girl detective. The detective bit has been thoroughly enjoyable!

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

I've written a contemporary middle grade novel. Your questions made me realize that even though it is a departure from my picture books and early readers, it still has a nature theme running through it. I guess nature finds its way into most of my work.  Answering interview questions always helps me to learn something about myself!  Thank you!

Thank you so much for being my guest today! You can find out more about Sandra Horning and her books at her website 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

M.P. Barker talks about MENDING HORSES

Michele Barker had one of my dream jobs, working as a costumed interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village. There she found her inspiration for her historical novels while mucking out stalls and milking cows.

Her first novel, A Difficult Boy, was set in nineteenth century New England and won awards from PEN New England and the International Reading Association.

Today she’s here to talk about her second book, Mending Horses, which Kirkus praises for its nuanced characters, fluid writing, and true sense of history. Mending Horses was a 2014 Kirkus Prize nominee and was listed by Booklist as one of the 10 Best Historical Novels for Youth for 2015.
Thank you so much for being my guest today, Michele!

Thanks, Linda! I’m delighted to be here!

Mending Horses is the second book in a series, though each title could easily stand alone. The first book, A Difficult Boy, starred Ethan, a young apprentice who is roughly used by his master. Mending Horses focuses on Daniel, Ethan’s fellow apprentice and an Irish immigrant. Michele, what made you want to explore Daniel’s story?

At the end of A Difficult Boy, Daniel is out on his own for the first time in his life, after having spent half a dozen years as an indentured servant. He’s always been told what to do and has never had a chance to make his own decisions. So I felt he’d be at kind of a loss about where to go with his life and would have a lot of learning and growing up to do. I was curious about how he’d manage in the world, so I decided to follow him and see what would happen. Besides, I really missed Daniel after I finished A Difficult Boy!

Your first book maintained a single point of view, but Mending Horses takes multiple viewpoints, opening with a look at Daniel through the eyes of one of the book’s villains. Why did you choose to tell your story this way?

Part of the reason for the multiple voices was necessity. The book has three plot lines that eventually intersect—or, rather, collide. To deal with the separate plot lines, I needed to use different points of view. Mending Horses is also a more complicated story, with multiple relationships that needed to be developed, so it felt natural to look at those relationships from a variety of viewpoints. It was fun to experiment with different voices and try to make each one distinctive and recognizable.

Daniel is only one of your book’s main characters. The other is Billy, another Irish immigrant who is running from an abusive father. Why did you bring Billy into Daniel’s story (or is it Daniel into Billy’s story?) What is the dynamic between the two characters?

Billy is a natural troublemaker, so introducing this character seemed like a good way to add some conflict and tension to the story. I also thought Billy would be a good foil to make Daniel take a look at his own shortcomings and biases. In dealing with Billy, I wanted Daniel to confront his own prejudices and question his strongly held beliefs about people’s roles in society. By overcoming his differences with Billy, Daniel learns a lot about himself and makes some major changes in his outlook on the world.

Your description of Daniel’s wild dance with his horse Ivy was breath-taking. Have you ever seen someone interact with a horse this way? What is Ivy’s role in Daniel’s story?

Thank you! I based Daniel’s manner of playing with Ivy on a girl I’d observed at a riding stable where I took lessons many years ago. She had a very special relationship with one of the horses, and she would take him out in the paddock and “dance” with him (not quite as wildly as Daniel and Ivy, though). Their joy and playfulness was delightful to watch. As I was researching the book, I also watched a lot of online videos of horse trainers, including Klaus Hempfling (, who works with difficult horses and has an incredible ability to bond with them. He, too, “dances” with the horses he trains. His videos were another source of inspiration for the scenes with Daniel and Ivy.

When Daniel was an indentured servant, most of the humans in the household either mistreated or ignored him. For many years Ivy, the horse he was assigned to take care of, was the only creature who seemed to care about him, and the only creature he loved. Ivy was also the only creature with whom he could be playful. When he managed to sneak away to play with her or ride her, he could briefly escape the drudgery and abuse of his daily life. She was the one bright spot in a dark and dismal life. For Daniel, she represents freedom, love, and friendship. She’s also his teacher. The things he learns about equine behavior from watching and working with Ivy help him become a horse whisperer.

Daniel and Billy come under the protection of the peddler, Mr. Stocking, and the three of them join a circus. Circuses are so fascinating! Was this element always a part of the story as you envisioned it? How is Daniel and Billy’s circus different from a modern circus?

I knew Daniel would get involved in some job involving horses because they are so important to him. At first I thought he might join the military, but that didn’t seem right for his personality. The more I thought about it, the more a circus seemed the perfect fit; it would give him an opportunity to work with horses and also to develop his own talents. And a circus gave me lots of opportunities for unusual characters and humor. Besides, the research was so much fun!

In the 1830s, the modern circus was just starting to evolve, so circuses included a lot of things we don’t normally associate with them today, like opera singers and theatrical performances. At first, American circuses were primarily focused on equestrian acts. In the 1820s, they began to include acrobats, menageries, and other performers that we now associate with circuses, but they were still a long way from the circus we know today. They were often considered disreputable forms of entertainment, and in New England were often outlawed or discouraged through expensive licensing fees. But they managed to get around the laws and perform anyway.

Many people romanticize the agrarian culture of the 1830’s, but Mending Horses doesn’t paint a pretty picture of this era. What are your thoughts on this period in history? Why did you choose to write a story set in this time and place?

Like any time period, the 1830s had positive and negative elements. But people tend to forget the negative—that there was a lot of bigotry, that women’s roles were confining and stifling, that work was often physically hard and dangerous, and that for some—particularly immigrants and African-Americans--living conditions could be brutal. It was also a very exciting time—railroads were just beginning to crisscross the country, Americans were exploring the West, New England was becoming an industrial powerhouse.

I chose the time period and setting because of my background at Old Sturbridge Village, which depicts New England in the 1830s, so it was a familiar locale and era for me. Choosing a time period I already knew well definitely made the research easier!

You obviously have an intimate understanding of the 1830’s. Can you tell us about your background as a historian and how your research process informs your story?

I was a history and English major in college and did a master’s degree in Historic Preservation. Besides working at Old Sturbridge Village, I also worked as an archivist dealing with a local history collection in Springfield, Mass. My background definitely came in handy when doing the research for the story. Working at OSV, I learned a lot about the physical environment of the time period and about people’s daily lives, their attitudes and concerns.

There’s a lot of back-and-forth between the research process and the storytelling. Sometimes, the story idea comes first, and I’m doing research to answer a specific question, like what sorts of stunts performers might do in a 19th-century circus. But sometimes it’ll go the other way, and I’ll stumble across something in my research that will give me an idea for a scene or character. For example, I learned that there was a huge celebration for the opening of the railroad in Springfield, Mass., right in the middle of the time period I’d chosen for my story. That event was too wonderful not to use! So I created a scene around that event in which one of my characters decides to go to work on the railroad.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

If they’d like to find out more about the stories, they can check out my website

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a story about a sea captain’s wife and daughter and how they survive after he’s lost at sea. It’s set in Salem, Massachusetts during the 1840s and 1850s. The research for this one is very challenging, involving 19th-century horticulture, botanical illustration, seafaring, the China trade, and more. It seems each story I write is more difficult than the previous one! You’d think they would get easier as I go along, but the opposite is true.

It sounds delicious! I can’t wait to read it.  Thank you so much for joining us today. To find out more about M.P. Barker, you can also follow her on facebook or on Twitter.