Friday, October 27, 2017

Spotlight on Debut Authors

My library is fortunate to have lots of visits from kids authors and illustrators, thanks to our partnership with Politics & Prose bookstore.  Most of our visiting authors and illustrators are well-known, mainly because they are the ones that publishers send on tour. Among those we've hosted in the past few weeks, for example, included Newbery Medalist Katherine Applegate talking about her new novel, wishtree, Caldecott Honor Illustrator Peter Brown introducing his latest picture book, Creepy Pair of Underwear, and two graphic novelists -- Liniers from Argentina and Alex Alice from France -- presenting their new comics.

More recently, we offered programs featuring a trio of debut authors: Emma Otheguy, author of the picture book biography Marti's Song For Freedom/Marti y sus versos por la libertad; Nidhi Chanani, author/illustrator of the graphic novel Pashmina; and Julie Segal-Walters, author of This Is Not a Normal Animal Book, a picture book for ages 4-8. While their books vary widely in topic and genre, all three authors presented lively, interactive programs. (Julie also got an assist from Brian Biggs, the illustrator of her book and a well-known figure in the picture book field). As picture book authors, both Emma and Julie also are part of a group called Picture the Books, which consists of debut authors with books published this year.

First up was Emma Otheguy, whose brother and family live in Takoma Park and are patrons of my library. Usually Politics & Prose, working with a publisher, sets up an author event and we host it in our role as an "alternate venue" for the bookstore. In this case, however, I learned about Emma and her debut book on Cuban freedom fighter Jose Marti from Emma's sister-in-law, and I was the one who asked the P&P folks if they'd like to add the event to their calendar, and send a bookseller that night. It was a fortuitous decision, as Emma, a former teacher and current Ph.d candidate, gave a delightful talk, filled with information about Marti, as well as her own connections to him.

Emma told the audience of kids and adults that she decided to write about Jose Marti because her family is Cuban-American and "Jose Marti is very important to Cubans. He's someone who helped Cuba become independent from Spain and he also wrote beautiful poems." In her book, Emma uses lyrical language and free verse -- in both English and Spanish --  to tell Marti's story, beginning with his childhood when "his father took him to the countryside/where he listened to the crickets chirp/ and the roosters crow."

Throughout Marti's Fight For Freedom, Emma highlights Marti's love of nature and his persistent, courageous efforts to rid Cuba of its Spanish rulers. Even prison couldn't dim Marti's ardor for the cause of Cuban freedom, a cause he continued even when forced to move to New York. As Emma writes: "Wherever he went, Jose was inspired/ to find people who also believed in equality and liberty." After 15 years of living in New York, Marti finally was able to return is beloved Cuba, where he died in battle against the Spanish. Emma writes: "He didn't live to see his dreams come true/ but Jose's friends carried his words in their hearts/ and finished the fight."

Emma's stirring text is matched by the illustrations by Beatriz Vidal. Done in gouache, Vidal's artwork has a folk art quality that works well in telling Marti's story. Reviewing the book, Kirkus noted: "In bringing an important life back into the conversation during divided political times, this book spotlights a steadfast hero and brilliant writer still worth admiring today." 

One young audience member asked Emma what was her favorite poem by Marti. She responded that she especially loves this poem:
I come from every place
And I'm on the road to everywhere:
I am art amid the arts,
And in the mountain chain, a link.
Emma concluded her program by giving kids a written prompt that allowed them to try writing a bit of poetry in Marti's style. Everyone enjoyed trying it out -- even the adults!

Nidhi Chanani was the second debut author to visit my library this fall. Born in Calcutta, Nidhi moved to the United States with her parents when she was four months old. As a child, Nidhi loved to read, including comics like Garfield and Calvin & Hobbes. "I also loved drawing," she said. "I kept drawing but as I got older it became a smaller part of my life" -- at least for a time. While Nidhi's family had dreams of her becoming an engineer, she ended up majoring in literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "My family never discouraged my choices but they didn't really understand them," she said.

After college, Nidhi said she "tried out a variety of jobs" -- waitress, grant writer, secretary, grocery story clerk -- over a period of several years. "None of these jobs is bad, but they just weren't right for me.... I thought that maybe it was time for me to go back to what I liked as a kid -- writing and drawing." So Nidhi enrolled in art school, and while she didn't end up graduating, she did find her creative spark. Since then, Nidhi has made a living as a freelance illustrator, cartoonist and writer. She's worked with Disney and ABC, among others, and her Everyday Love Art products -- including magnets and calendars -- are sold in retail shops around the country. In 2012, Nidhi was named a "Champion of Change" by the Obama Administration. "I never find myself short of inspiration," she said.

Then, a few years ago, "I felt ready to do something longer," Nidhi said. Fortunately, Nidhi already had an idea for a graphic novel featuring an Indian-American teen, so she found a literary agent, who helped her sell the concept to FirstSecond, an imprint of Macmillan known for producing first-rate comics. Nidhi said that her graphic novel, Pashmina, "took about a year" to complete. "I was trying out ideas, re-drawing, trying out more ideas." In the book, Nidhi tells the story of a girl named Priyanka, known as Pri, who is desperate to learn why her mother left India and moved to California years ago. But her mother refuses to discuss her flight, stating tersely that it is a "closed subject." Pri keeps pushing, especially after she finds a magic pashmina -- a type of shawl -- that allows her to visit India, in a fantasy way. Pri eventually goes to India for real, but finds that things are quite different than her fantasies.

In its review of the book, School Library Journal stated: "This dazzling blend of realistic fiction and fantasy is perfect for fans of characters who have to overcome obstacles on their way to growing up." Meanwhile, Kirkus noted: "An original graphic novel, the first written and illustrated by an Indian-American creator, this is both a needed contribution and a first-rate adventure tale." And Nidhi said that's exactly why she wrote Pashmina. "I'd never seen a story like this before. I like to think that I'm filling in some of the gaps. We need to have more Indian-American graphic novels."

Our final debut author, Julie Segal-Walters, got lucky when Brian Biggs, the illustrator of her first picture book, This Is Not a Normal Animal Book, was able to join her at our library event. Having the duo present their book together upped the hilarity factor, especially since Julie's presentation was built around showing audiences just how long it takes to get a picture book published. In fact, Julie got the idea for her book in 2013 and now, four years later, she's finally holding a finished copy in her hands. In between, Julie, a lawyer and civic action specialist, spent many hours perfecting the text, and then many months waiting for Brian to create the artwork.

While This Is Not a Normal Animal Book is ostensibly about different kinds of animals, it ends up being a hilarious battle between the author and the illustrator over who's actually in charge of the story. In its review, Publishers Weekly called the book "a knowing and very funny behind-the-scenes look at the art -- and negotiation -- of collaboration." Biggs' art adds color and humor to Julie's spare text; his opening illustration showing all of the animals featured in the book has been juried into the prestigious Society of Illustrators Original Art Exhibit this year.

Biggs noted that he's illustrated, or written and illustrated, 63 books since he began drawing in 1969. He's now working on a book that he's both written and illustrated, and has plenty of other work lined up. Julie, meanwhile, has written three other picture book manuscripts, and is waiting to hear back from publishers. But she's also busy with other projects. In addition to helping create Picture the Books, Julie also recently was part of a group that just launched a new blog, M Is For Movement. Here's how she and the other contributors explain their mission in a note on their website: "We recognize that activism takes many forms, including interpersonal interactions, grassroots organizing, public policy advocacy, political participation, and protest. Through this blog we aim to highlight children’s books that include a wide range of engagement tactics, as well as the history of movements and the stories of remarkable individuals who lead and participate in social justice initiatives."

ENDNOTES: A big thank you, as always, to Politics & Prose Bookstore for the partnership that allows us to host authors and illustrators at my library. Thanks also to Lee & Low, which provided a review copy of Marti's Song For Freedom/Marti y sus versos por la libertad; to FirstSecond for the review copy of Pashmina; and to Simon & Schuster for the review copy of This Is Not a Normal Animal Book. And finally, a big "Merci!" to Maurice Belanger, who took the wonderful photos at the events featuring Emma Otheguy and Nidhi Chanani.