September 9, 2014

Interview with Jen Cullerton Johnson

jenYesterday I reviewed the enlightening story Seeds of Change. Today I am happy to share my interview with the author Jen Cullerton Johnson. She has published fiction and creative nonfiction in literary journals and leads writing workshops for elementary through highschool students. Her book, Seeds of Change, is about the life and work of Wangari Maathai, Noble Peace Prize Winner and founder of the Greenbelt Movement. Jen has also spoken on Green Literacy, the role of environmental books for children and adults with various organizations such as the EPA and the Green Schools Conference.

1. What inspired you to write Seeds of Change?

Wangari Maathai’s life is incredible. She is an environmentalist, scientist, and women’s right’s activist who inspired her country of Kenya to plant 30 million trees and in doing so helped give women skills to earn a living so they could feed their children. What moves me the most about Wangari’s story is her message of harabee, which means “let’s work together.” We can solve problems if we work together.

2. I noticed in your book you cover more than just the “planting of trees” aspect of Wangari’s life. You cover village life, education for girls, and activism. What did you want your readers to walk away with after reading your book?

I want young people to believe Wangari’s message: “Young people, you are our hope and our future.” Go plant a tree. Know that an idea as small as a seed has the possibility to grow into the tallest of trees. Work together.

3) I understand the book has made a significant impact on the students at Brier Creek Elementary School in North Carolina. Can you briefly tell us about it?

Brier Creek Elementary School wants to give every person in their school community a copy of the book in order for everyone to use it as a springboard to think, talk and act on change. Their music teacher wrote a song. Children designed art.

In the middle of seeking books for their own school, the students decided to donate books to a school in Kenya. Now, we are looking for people to donate copies of Seeds of Change. I’ve listed a link to the Lee & Low blog page for more information.

4. How can people help out?

You can:

  1. Post the [Lee and Low] link on your Facebook [or other social media].
  2. Donate a book
  3. Send us good wishes

5.  Any projects coming up in the future you would like to us to know about?

Yes, I am in the final stages of a new picture book about women in Liberia and then in Fall 2014 I am turning my attention to a totally new area: a memoir about teaching incarcerated youth through gardening called: The Karma Garden.

Wow those are really interesting topics. Can’t wait to hear more about it in the future. Thanks for stopping by.

September 8, 2014

Seeds of Change

seeds-of-changeTitle: Seeds of Change

Author: Jen Cullerton Johnson
Illustrator: Sonia Lynn Sadler
Publisher: Lee and Low Books, 2011
Book Type: Non-Fiction
Ages: 6 and up
Themes: Environment, Activism, Multi-cultural

Opening Lines

“Come,” Wangari’s mother  called. She beckoned her young daughter over to a tall tree with a wide, smooth trunk and a crown of green, oval leaves.

Synopsis (from Lee & Low Books):

As a young girl in Kenya, Wangari was taught to respect nature. She grew up loving the land, plants, and animals that surrounded her—from the giant mugumo trees her people, the Kikuyu, revered to the tiny tadpoles that swam in the river.

Although most Kenyan girls were not educated, Wangari, curious and hardworking, was allowed to go to school. There, her mind sprouted like a seed. She excelled at science and went on to study in the United States. After returning home, Wangari blazed a trail across Kenya, using her knowledge and compassion to promote the rights of her countrywomen and to help save the land, one tree at a time.

Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace brings to life the empowering story of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman, and environmentalist, to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Engaging narrative and vibrant images paint a robust portrait of this inspiring champion of the land and of women’s rights.


Resource Page on the Lee & Low website containing activities, lesson plans, discussion guides for elementary and middle-school students.

Resource sheet from Reading is Fundamental (RIF), contains a scratch art activity, a simple recipe for maize and bean stew, and discussion questions.

Green Belt Movement website – initiative started by Wangari

National Geographic for kids website with facts and pictures of Kenya

Other picture books on Wangari Maathai: Mama MitiPlanting the Trees of Kenya, and Wangari’s Trees of Peace

Why I Like This Book:

A rich, colorful book that engages the audience at multiple levels. The author brings Nobel prize winner,
Wangari Maathai, to life in an accessible way for young readers. The book opens with the importance of the
mugumo tree to Wangari’s people. The reader gains an appreciation of the interconnection between plants,
animals, and humans. During the early years we also see Wangari’s desire to learn at a time
when it was not common for girls to attend schools. It is these two threads which intersect in Wangari’s later
years that lead her to become a champion for Kenya’s environment and women’s education.

I found this book to be empowering because it showed how just a single person with sheer determination
and passion can indeed make a difference in the world. Also that it all started with something so simple,
planting one tree at a time.

Lovers of lyrical language will enjoy the numerous plant metaphors.

Wangari listened as still as a tree, but her mind swirled with curiosity like the currents in the stream.

The rich, saturated colors done in scratchboard art and oil, bring to life the beauty of the African landscape
and native clothing.


This book is best suited for elementary readers and can be used in conjunction with classroom discussions
about Kenya, environmentalism, or activism.

Come back tomorrow to find out how this book inspired one elementary school to become a platform of
change, when I interview the author Jen Cullerton Johnson.

August 20, 2014

Planet Kindergarten and other Books for New Kindergarteners

Can’t believe summer is already over. Where did the time go? Maybe I can find a rift in the space-time continuum, to blast us back to the start of summer. Until I can find that anomaly, I have a new kindergarten book which I think you will love. I have also included my Top Ten Books for New Kindergarteners that I first posted last summer. Enjoy!

Planet Kindergarten

Title: Planet Kindergarten

Author: Sue Ganz-Schmitt
Illustrator: Shane Prigmore
Publisher: Chronicle Books, 2014
Book Type: Fiction
Ages: 4-8
Themes: School, Space

Synopsis (from Amazon):

This clever picture book will prepare young explorers to boldly go where they have never gone before: Planet Kindergarten. Suit up for a daring adventure as our hero navigates the unknown reaches and alien inhabitants of this strange new world. Hilarious and confidence-boosting, this exciting story will have new kindergarteners ready for liftoff!

Why I Like This Book:

I had not planned to fall in love with this book. I mean come on another “first day at kindergarten” book. Just stop by your favorite bookstore or library and the display shelves are filled with classic and modern back to school titles. Boy was I wrong.

This is a clever, fun, adventurous book for anyone of any age that loves outer space. So maybe that is the key for me, I loved outer space as a kid and still do. Kids will love the funny storytelling and the bright, bold pictures. Older readers and adults will love the hilarious wordplay and how the text plays off the art. There are also some subtle jokes in there which I loved.

Take a look at how the author has described a bunch of high-energy kids not being able to sit still with a reference to gravity working differently here. Brilliant!

“I try to get used to the new atmosphere, but it’s not like home. For one thing, gravity works differently here. We have to try hard to stay in our seats. And our hands go up a lot.”


Some of my other favorite lines

“We arrive at the base camp, then orbit while we look for a place to dock.” – What fun way to describe looking for a parking spot.

“We’re aliens from many galaxies on Planet Kindergarten.” — What an excellent way to describe diversity!

Aside from the clever wordplay which I could go on and on about, the book does cover the basic concerns of all new kindergarteners – saying good-bye to your parents, new classroom, experiences on the playground, return home, and of course excitement for the next day.

This is a far-out book, one which any space-loving cadet will have a blast with.


TOP 10 Books for New Kindergarteners

Below are a list of books that address many of the first-day concerns that both kids and adults might have. Some are funny, some are heartfelt, some have a bit of both. Enjoy!

Kindergartener List

Kindergarten Diary by Antoinette Portis
Follow Annabelle’s ups and downs of the first month of Kindergarten. Vibrant artwork and humorous text are sure to get any child excited.

Excerpt – Me and Zoe played at recess today. Zoe likes socks. She always wears something pink. She let me use her extra jump rope. It’s pink.

Kindergarten Diary

Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten by Audrey Vernick and Daniel Jennewein
A funny, engaging, clever take on the do’s and dont’s of kindergarten. Loved the immersion of the buffalo in the story from hoove-painting to no grazing at recess, layered with the messages of sharing, friendship, and respect.

Excerpt – Okay, maybe your buffalo can’t cut – yet! But maybe most kids aren’t the state animal of Oklahoma. Or pictured on old nickels. Everyone’s special in his or her own way. That’s the kind of thing you learn in kindergarten.

Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten

The Day My Mom Came to Kindergarten  by Maureen Fergus and Mike Lowery

A laugh out loud sure to please any child in this role-reversal story where the patient understanding daughter guides her mom through a day of Kindergarten.

Excerpt – She was so excited that she completely forgot her manners and tried to BARGE in at the front of the line. “I’m sorry, Mom, but you need to go to the back of the line,” I said. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair to the rest of us.”

The Day My Mom Came To Kindergarten


Kindergarten Rocks! by Katie Davis
Dexter is ready for kindergarten and not scared at all, thanks to his big sister Jessie. But Dexter’s stuffed dog Rufus has about a bazillion worries. Dexter and Rufus both soon realize that kindergarten rocks.

Excerpt – When Jes went to kindergarten, she wasn’t big like she is now. “I was a shrimp like you. (Jessie)”  She wrote like me. And she drew like me, too. Only not as good.

Kindergarten Rocks

Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten by Hyewon Yum
Witness the topsy-turvey emotions for parents and children about the first day of kindergarten. Changes in the art color and size help convey the emotions being felt by mother and son. A confidence builder for all who read it that everything will be a-okay.

Excerpt – Mom doesn’t look happy. “We don’t know anyone here. I miss your old teachers and your friends.(mom)” “I like to make new friends, Mom, and you’ll make new friends, too, in no time.(son)”


First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg and Judy Love
Kids will relate to Sarah’s nervousness about the first day at a new school, and they will love the surprise ending and in knowing that everyone gets the jitters.

Excerpt – “No, I’m not. I don’t want to start over again. I hate my new school,” Sarah said. She tunneled down to the end of her bed.


The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, Ruth E. harper, and Nancy M. Leak
A classic heartwarming story about separation anxiety and the power of magical kisses.

Excerpt – Mrs. Raccoon took Chester by the hand and nuzzled him on the ear. “Sometimes we all have to do things we don’t want to do,” she told him gently. “Even if they seem strange and scary at first. But you will love school once you start.”

Kissing Hand

First Day of School by Anne Rockwell and Lizzy Rockwell

Follow along as a group of friends recap how they’ve grown and get ready for the first day of school. A fun book for all kids, great way to start a discussion about your family’s back-to-school rituals.

Excerpt – Michiko jumped down when she saw us. “I’ve got new bouncy shoes!” Michiko said. “My shoes were too small. Now I can wiggle my toes.”

First Day of School

The Best Thing About Kindergarten by Jennifer Lloyd and Qin Leng
On kindergarten graduation day, Mrs. Appleby has one last final question “What is the best thing about kindergarten?”  Her students have different answers ranging from calendar time, imagination time, to recess. But readers will keep flipping the pages to find Mrs. Appleby’s secret special answer.

Excerpt – “It’s calendar time!” cried Tabitha. “You are so good at saying the days of the week,” replied Mrs. Appleby, “but calendar time is not the best thing about kindergarten.”

The Best Thing About Kindergarten

Kindergarten, Here I Come
by D.J. Steinberg and Mark Chambers
Through rhyming verses, experience kindergarten milestones such as first day jitters, field trips, friendships, show-n-tell and much more. Kids will enjoy the silly verses and lively illustrations.

Excerpt – Crisscross Applesauce – Crisscross applesauce, that’s the way we sit. Not feet-out sauerkraut. Not cottage cheese on your knees. Not bottoms-up coffee cup. Not blueberry jelly on your belly. But crisscross applesauce, that’s the way we sit.

Kindergarten, Here I Come

July 31, 2014

WOW Retreat was really WOW! (plus some good news)

This past July I flew out to Georgia drove 2+ hours (we got a little lost along the way) to attend a picture book writing retreat that was truly WOW on so many levels. Let me count the ways for you.

1) Awesome car buddies on the ride-up.meandmiranda

I have known Pam Courtney on-line through the Perfect Picture Friday series since 2012. She is a riot and so funny. Kathy Halsey is so sweet and full of stories. And finally being able to meet Miranda Paul who I was in a critique group with back in 2012. Awesome. By the way if she ever tells you she is shy and introverted don’t believe her. ;-) The girl can talk and she is a WEALTH of knowledge on everything kidlit.

2) Enota Mountain Retreat

Beautiful, peaceful surroundings once you get use to the bugs. Thanks to Sarah Davis Maynard there were morning exercises everyday. One morning we did the waterfall hike.


3) Party House Gals

This had to have been one of my favorite highlights of the retreat. Two floors full of dorm sized rooms. Seriously, I felt like I was back in college, which is a great thing. Talking in the hallways at all hours, spontaneous critique exchanges, playing Head’s Up, imbibing wine … just loads of fun! I finally got to meet people I had only known on-line over the past few years. Having Jackie and Karen two of my on-line critique group members there was icing on the cake.


4) Speakers

Our fearless leader, Kristen, had an amazing line-up of speakers. Something for writers at every level. On the craft side, I loved Dianna Aston’s Evocative Language and Jodell Sadler’s sneak peak into her Pacing Picture Books to WOW class. (you too can take this awesome class just click on the link)  I have no idea what a Master class entails but I am guessing  it would be something like this. I also loved the interactive discussions that happened during Ariel Richardson’s talk on diversity in books.

Here are some nuggets of information from the week:

  • Character + Plot – Unnecessary Words + Mishaps x Rule of  Threes = $$
  • Picture Books are about one true thing – making a promise and fulfilling it
  • Study Screenwriting
  • You cannot illustrate the word ‘WAS’
  • When writing pretend there is a little kid on the edge of your desk. The idea here is to keep your audience in mind at all times. (I have Rex from Toy Story sitting on the edge of my desk)
  • Make a pitch sheet. A 1-2 sentence description for each of your stories. If you can’t summarize your story into a pitch, then it might be a sign that you don’t know what your story is really about.
  • Bookstores want the hook to come across in the title & cover. (guess I better re-work my bland titles)


5) Round Table Critiques

I loved my fellow “Seniors”. After 4 days of being with the same group we knew what every one was bringing to the table. I was the one who kept asking about the picture book “promise”. Cathy was the queen of humor while Charlotte was the queen of candy stories. I do love the Dots story. Nisha was a bundle of energy. And Debbie, well I am still impressed with your revision of Franklin.

round table jodell


6) Just getting to know everyone!!

I loved that all the faculty were so open and willing to answer question/chat/share a meal. There was no pressure it was really easy to get to know them. This is something that you just can’t do at a regular conference where you are lucky if you even get two minutes of an agent or editor’s time.

It really felt like we were all just one big family helping each other out.


7) As you can see the WOW retreat was really WOW on so many levels. If you are interested in WOW Retreat 2015 I would recommend reserving your spot now, as there are only a couple of spots left.

On a more personal note, I had been planning to use my 5 professional critiques at WOW to help me gauge whether I should start subbing to agents. Well that is not going to happen. See the sixth unplanned, last minute critique changed my plans. I am very happy to call the amazing, smart, caring, all-around nice gal Jodell Sadler my AGENT!!


Since it takes a community to raise a writer I’d like to thank a whole bunch of people:

  • Kristen, Rusty, Jackie, and anyone else behind the scenes for putting this awesome retreat together
  • My WOW6 and Critters with Goals on-line critique groups members and fellow writers Margaret, Emily, Susan, and Alayne who helped me get my stories in shape for WOW.
  • To all the wonderful teachers and writer’s groups I have participated in Susanna’s MPBM, Mira’s PB Course, 12 x 12, and PiBoIdMo.
  • And most importantly to my husband and kids, without their support none of this would be possible.
July 27, 2014

Behind the Scenes with Chronicle Books plus a Video Book Review

Hi Readers,

So sorry I have been away for the past four months. I have missed all of you. I have been focusing on my own picture book writing and it has been going really well. I am definitely finding my groove so I will start blogging again. I cannot wait to tell you about all the fabulous books coming out this Fall 2014. And I am also taking Katie Davis’s Video Boot Camp course so hopefully you will start to see more video reviews from me as well.




Chronicle Books is an independent publisher based in San Francisco. They produce gorgeous, smart, visually appealing books. This past week children’s editor Melissa Manlove and book designer Ryan Hayes gave a behind the scenes look at children’s publishing. The event was moderated by Irene and Sally from the Marketing department. Below are some of the highlights from the event.

Q: Who partakes in the Acquisition meetings?

A: Editors, Book Designers, Production, Marketing, Publicity … pretty much everyone involved with the book except for Sales.

Q: What makes it a great book for Chronicle? (to Melissa)

A: Magic. (Melissa retold a story of how when they were working on JOSEPHINE, they realized that the text and art were too scrunched up. So Melissa asked her boss if they could have more pages. And the answer was yes. JOSEPHINE is a 3,800 word non-fiction story told in verse. It is 104 pages long!)

josephine collage2


Q: How big is the slush pile?

A: They receive 9-10,000 manuscripts a year. The editorial team gets together once a month to go through the slush pile.

Q: Where do the stories come from that get published?

A: Most stories come from existing authors that they have worked with and from agents. However, they do find stories in the slush pile. They also have a small percentage of stories that are work-for-hire.

Q: What is Chronicle’s position on ebooks and story apps?

A: Chronicle is issuing ebooks for all their frontlist titles. With regards to storybook apps they are not seeing the return on investment at this time, so are taking a wait and see approach.

Q: How many books does Chronicle print on a first-run?

A: This is something that is discussed at the acquisition meeting but the final decision is made later on by the publishing director and sales team. Average first-run in children’s books is 10-15,000. Basically enough to last 3-6months. Their philosophy is to print small and print rapidly.

STEAM TRAIN, DREAM TRAIN did have a first run of 100,00. But keep in mind this follows GOODNIGHT, GOODNIGHT CONSTRUCTION SITE which has been on the New York Bestseller’s list for 146 weeks!

Q: If a writer-only is submitting a novelty book idea can they submit a prototype or extra material.

A: Submit whatever is necessary to get the vision across. (The novelty book WHAT’S IN YOUR PURSE was created by a writer-only author and she did submit additional pdfs explaining/showing the interactive portions of the book.)

Hope you found these few highlights helpful. If you have any other questions fell free to ask in the comments. If I know the answer I’ll try to answer.

For your viewing pleasure below is my first ever video review of the adorable book WHAT’S IN YOUR PURSE by Chronicle Books. Enjoy!


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