Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Writers Wednesday

Michelangelo is a familiar name in the world of renaissance painting and sculpture, but did you know he was also a poet, architect and engineer? Simonetta Carr couples her experience as an elementary school teacher with her background in Italian art to bring this extraordinary man to young readers in her new book, Michelangelo for Kids. Here is a thoughtfully written, readily accessible, and beautifully illustrated immersion in the life of this extraordinary artist whose talents influenced the history of Western art .

How did your background in varied cultures, and Italian art in particular, together you’re your experience as a teacher, influence your choice of Michelangelo and impact the content of your book?

I was having an email exchange with Lisa Reardon, senior editor at Chicago Review Press, when she mentioned they had been looking for someone to write about Michelangelo. It just seemed like a perfect fit.
            I was born and raised in Italy, a country that is often described as “an open-air museum,” and grew up with a natural love for both art and history. I also attended the School of Applied Arts at the Sforza Castle in Milan, where I learned to appreciate different techniques and styles. All this was obviously a tremendous help in writing this book.
            Equally important was my background as primary school teacher, both in public schools and our home-school. Besides, my knowledge of Italian allowed me to read the primary sources for this book in their original language. Last but not least, I had already written several biographies set around the time of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, and had done extensive research on this subject.

How does your career as a writer influence other areas of your life and vice versa?
It’s not really a career – not yet at least. I have always loved writing. My mother was an excellent writer who taught junior-high Italian. She wrote several books and filled me with a passion for literature since a very young age. She spent much time teaching me how to write. She kept encouraging me to write a book but I didn’t think I had enough to say. I wrote articles for newspapers and magazines and, after I married an American and improved my knowledge of the English language, I translated books from English into Italian.
            In the meantime, I had eight children, so writing took a secondary place in my life. It was something I enjoyed, and – in my opinion – cultivating a personal passion is important even for busy mothers. I communicated my passion for reading, writing, and researching to my children, and they taught me how to simplify my language and hold their attention.
            Once I started to write books, my life as a mother has directed my choices of subject, format and style. My first book was actually a family effort. It was born as an attempt to fill a vacuum – producing books I wished I could find on the market – and my children have been my best critics and advisers.
            Now my kids are all grown up, but I still try to spend much time with children and enlist many of them as editors and consultants.

What do you do when you are not writing?
Writing still occupies a small portion of my life. Financially speaking, I haven’t been able to turn it into a career. Even if most of my children live on their own, I still have a large house to clean and meals to cook for my husband and the kids that are still at home. Plus, with two kids still in college, one in high school, and very uncertain retirement prospects, I like to carry a small share of the financial burden by devoting much time to teaching Italian and translating. I am hoping to spend most of my time writing one day soon. I have a wonderful friend who has been able to do just that (Nancy Sanders), and has produced great resources to help other writers to do so.

Briefly, what's your book about 
It’s a biography of Michelangelo Buonarroti, who has been universally recognized as one of the greatest artists of all time. The book includes an overview of the times in which he lived and how they affected his works. 

What would you like readers to take from it?
I hope my readers will gain a greater appreciation for Michelangelo and art in general. I hope they will discover Michelangelo as a man, friend, father, son, and uncle as well as a sculptor, painter, architect, and poet. And I hope they will be as inspired as I was to see his attention to details, his commitment to excellence, and his faithfulness to chip away at blocks of marble, day after day, in spite of obstacles and disappointments. 

What other books have you written and published?
I have started a series of books called Christian Biographies for Young Readers, published by Reformation Heritage Books. As I said, this series was inspired by a need I and other parents had noticed. For children who are born in Christian families, well researched and accurate books on the history of Christian thought are important tools to help them reflect on what they believe and why. Their value, however, is not limited to followers of one religion. Christianity occupies much of our history and these books have been successfully used by teachers as part of their history curriculum.
            Presently, the series includes eight volumes: Augustine, Athanasius, Anselm of Canterbury, John Calvin, Lady Jane Grey, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and Marie Durand. The next title, to be published in October, will be Martin Luther. Three of these books have been finalists for the San Diego Book Awards. Anselm of Canterbury has won first prize as best biography at the 2014 San Diego Book Awards, and first prize at the 2014 Athanatos Christian Writing Contest.
            Besides this series, I have written a short biography of Renée of France, published by Evangelical Press, and a piece of historical fiction for young adults, The Weight of a Flame: The Passion of Olympia Morata, published by P&R.
What are your current/future projects?
For Chicago Review Press, I am writing a book entitled Cleopatra and Ancient Egypt for Kids. For my series of biographies, I am writing on John Newton.

The life and work of Michelangelo is such a large topic. How did you go about making it accessible for young audiences?
I think the most important thing was getting a sense of this great man and capturing all the excitement of his life story. Watching documentaries and lectures given by enthusiastic scholars helped. I had to be passionate about this subject to communicate the same passion to the children. After that, structuring the book became easier because I knew what needed to be emphasized and what could afford a simple mention.

What is your writing process? Do you follow a regular routine?
I like to write in the morning while my mind is fresh. If I am not out teaching, I write some more in the evening when I need to sit down anyhow. Since I love writing, I see it as a reward after finishing my other tasks.
            My process is methodical. I devote different days to different projects so I don’t have to clutter my author’s backburner. For each biography, after researching the subject and structuring the book, I calculate how much I need to write each month to meet my deadline and then start writing one chapter one at a time.

What book(s)/author(s) have influenced your writing and how?
I love reading biographies and stand in awe at the talent and expertise of most contemporary biographers. For my research, I mostly read biographies aimed at an adult audience, but the principles of good writing are the same. It’s hard to name authors because the list would be endless. When I wrote about Michelangelo, I learned (or tried to learn), in different ways, from William Wallace, A. Victor Coonin, John Spike, and Antonio Forcellino. William Wallace is absolutely a giant, both in his knowledge of Michelangelo and in his ability to inspire and engage the reader.
As for children’s biographies, I have learned much from James Cross Giblin (who hasn’t?). For my series for young readers, I was inspired by Mike Venezia and have learned a lot from him on communicating effectively with kids and on condensing information without sacrificing historical context and art or music appreciation. I still read some of his books before my final review of my biographies for young readers. It helps me to see how far I have strayed from a simple and concise language.

What did you find to be the most important elements of good writing when approaching a project such as Michelangelo for Kids?
I already mentioned passion – finding exciting elements of a person’s life I want to run to tell the kids. As I said, my kids are grown up but I still grab them from time to time. If not, I pester my husband, who listens patiently.
            Structure and organization are also very important, especially for some projects. For example, right now I am writing Cleopatra and Ancient Egypt. Ancient Egypt is a 3,000-year old civilization! Also, Cleopatra’s life was inseparably tangled with the history of Rome – particularly the end of the republic and the beginning of the empire. In this case, organization is essential. I have to be very careful to find a balance between Cleopatra’s exciting life story, her historical context, and an overview of the colossal ancient nation she ruled.
            Another very important element of good writing is describing the character’s emotions, preferably letting them speak through their own words. With Michelangelo, that was quite easy because we have a large number of his letters and poems. We don’t have anything from Cleopatra’s pen and very little from her people around her, so that will definitely be more of a challenge.

What's one essential piece of advice about writing or publishing you'd like to pass on to readers and writers
I am not sure if I am the right person to give advice. When I wrote my first book, I saw a need for it, sent a proposal to all the children’s publishers I could find, and then waited. I was not particularly worried about it. If everyone had said no, I wouldn’t have been crushed. Since I really believed in the importance of this type of books, if everyone had said no I might have tried a different approach. Eventually, however, a publisher said yes, and it was definitely the right one because the book (and the series that ensued) turned out much better than I had ever imagined. I don’t know if this approach works for everyone.

Anything else you'd like readers to know about you and/or your book

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Monday, August 29, 2016

Nonfiction Monday

Caterpillar to Butterfly by Camilla de la Bedoyere introduces this subject by answering with the question “What is a butterfly?” followed by a look at basic butterfly anatomy. From there, the text provides an over view of the life cycle and an expanded exploration of Monarch development from egg to caterpillar to pupa then to adult. A general look at Monarch migration is also included.

True to the series concept, the text is readily accessible for children and accented with illustrations featuring crisp, up-close photographs, and clearly labeled diagrams. Notes for parents and teachers provide related activities for further exploration. A glossary and index complete the 24 page paperback book.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Writers Wednesday

Trouble In Bugland” a fun, YA fantasy take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes – with a twist!

William Kotzwinkle offers up an imaginative collection of five mysteries: The Case of the Missing Butterfly, The Case of the Frightened Scholar, The Case of the Caterpillar’s Head, The Case of the Headless Monster, and The Case of the Emperor’s Crown.
Inspector Mantis and his colleague Doctor Hopper are on the job seeking out clues, searching for motives, and making surprising deductions as they pursue villains and stop crime in Bugland.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Nonfiction Monday

Young readers will discover the wonderful world of nature in this new collection from QED Publishing in the U.K. titled Life Cycles.

Seedto Sunflower by Camilla de la Bedoyere provides a step-by-step look at the planting, germination, growth, and eventual maturity of the iconic sunflower. The text is readily accessible for children and accented with illustrations featuring crisp, up-close photographs, and clearly labeled diagrams. Notes for parents and teachers provide related activities for further exploration. A glossary and index complete the 24 page paperback book.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Writers Wednesday

From award-winning writer, Brigitte Goldstein, comes “Dina’s Lost Tribe” – a mystery that weaves together the lives of two women – one from the 14th century and the other from present day.  Historical scholar, Goldstein, draws on her extensive knowledge of Jewish and European history to create characters, plot, and setting that ring true and offer readers an experience filled with depth and heart.

You discuss your dissatisfaction the trends in historical studies that you encountered during your university years and your passion for literature and history. How did the contrast between your dissatisfaction and your passion inform and influence your writing?

Dissatisfaction is not quite the right word for the transformation I was undergoing. After many years of studying and a brief stint of teaching, I came to realize that I am temperamentally not well suited for academic history. I love history, the story of people in time, in various places and circumstances. I discovered in me a desire to put myself in the shoes of those who lived through the trial and tribulations. For me, fiction was a more compelling way of telling the story of the past. However, taking actual historical personages and fictionalize their lives, which is commonly done by historical novelists, likewise didn’t suit me. For me creating my own characters and developing a plot within a particular historical setting (well researched and authentically and plausible reproduced) would be a better and more exciting way of conveying historical events. My emphasis is always on the human condition, the struggle of individuals caught in the web of power beyond their control. Also, on a more personal level, there are always the inter-human relationships of love, deceit, intrigue, envy, stuff like that of which you don’t get much from academic paradigms interested to prove some thesis.

How does your career as a writer influence other areas of your life and vice versa?

My writing certainly has an effect on my daily life. I do most of my work during the night, early morning hours. I try not to answer the telephone while I am engrossed in a different world. Even though it’s not completely possibly, I try to stay away from current events. Not very successfully with the world in turmoil. But when wasn’t it? That’s one thing history can teach us: there’s always been upheavals, wars, conflicts, and very few peaceful periods—which is a gold mine for historical novelists.

What do you do when you are not writing?

At this point in my life, I am retired from working in publishing. I live by myself and have the luxury of disposing of my time as the spirit moves me. (This wasn’t always the case.) I read (mostly novels; I try to reread some of the classics), listen to classical music, ride my bicycle. Of course, I have a circle of friends, mostly associated with the synagogue I belong to. I travel by car to visit my children and grandchildren; I also have grandchildren in Israel whom I visit at least once a year.)

Briefly, what's your book about?

The core story centers on Dina, a Jewish woman, who lived in the fourteenth century at the time of the expulsion of the Jews from France. That was the original idea was to write a Dina story; Dina having been the daughter of Jacob in the Bible who was defiled (raped) by a local prince. My medieval Dina is left behind in a village in the Pyrenees as her family flees to Spain due to the fact that she suffers a similar fate as her biblical ancestress. She gives an account of what happened to her to her children, a document, or codex, that is discovered and deciphered centuries later by an American historian who was born in the mountains as her parents fled from Nazi persecution. So that is the connection: the persecution and expulsion of the Jews and the geographic area.

Dina's Tribe is a departure from your earlier novels: Court of Miracles: A Human Comedy of 17th Century France and Princess of the Blood: A Tapestry of Love and War in Sixteenth-Century France.  What led you to write a book that moved from the modern world to the historic? 

Since the time of my studies of French literature and history at the Sorbonne, medieval and early modern France had a special fascination for me. So my first two novels were set in that time and place. My graduate studies at NYU were more closely focused on modern European history, especially modern Germany. So my Dina book actually combines these two areas as far-flung as they may be. Somehow I pulled them together. Both stories were originally conceived as two separate novels. But once I got started with the medieval Dina’s story, the characters of refugees from Nazi Germany sort of beckoned to come in.

Both you and your main character, Nina Aschauer are historical scholars. I'm not a big believer in coincidence so tell us how that came about.

Not too much of a coincidence though not in any way biographical. It just seemed logical that Nina should become a historian. She was very intrigued about her birth and the history of her people, the Jewish people in modern and more remote times. So was her cousin the narrator who brings the stories of these two women together.

What are your current/future projects?

My most recent novel is an award-winning historical mystery Death of a Diva—From Berlin to Broadway. It starts out with the murder of an international star of screen and stage at a Broadway theater in the summer of 1941. The investigation then traces the victim’s life from her humble origins in a Viennese ghetto to stardom in Weimar Berlin and then the émigré haven in New York. The narrator is a young woman, herself a German-Jewish refugee, who is the main character in the novel I am currently writing in which she returns to Germany in 1946, under an assumed identity, to find her grandmother who may or may not be alive.

Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?

From history, historical research, and most of all from my imagination.

What is your writing process? Do you follow a regular routine?

As I mentioned above, I write mostly at night. I am not hung up on writing a certain number of words a day. Sometimes I just sit and think for a long time and live the scenes in my head before I put fingers to keyboard. I should mention that at the start of a project I use yellow pads and a pen. After about a chapter or two, I ease over to the computer.

Are there certain themes or ideas you prefer?

This may sound trite, but my ultimate concern is to portrait aspects of the human condition. I am not a political or ideological writer, I don’t preach, and, in accordance with Isaac Bashevis Singer, I don’t try to redeem the world through my writing. I just try to be first and foremost a storyteller of exciting stories.

What book(s)/author(s) have influenced your writing and how?

I often describe myself as a nineteenth-century writer. Most of the writers that inspire me most come from that period or the early twentieth century. The great Russians –Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is certainly one of the greatest novels ever written; Germans like Thomas Mann; French like Balzac and Stendhal. Victor Hugo was a great influence on my earlier novels especially Princess of the Blood. Thomas Hardy, Edith Wharton, Herman Melville, Philip Roth, an eclectic bunch, are some of my favorite writers in the English language. Among more recent writers are Nicole Krauss and Julie Orringer.

What are the most important elements of good historical fiction writing?

Compelling characters and plots. What makes these compelling is a usually a hero or heroine with tragic back story, an overriding goal for the character to pursue and obstacles to overcome. Conflict, inner and outer, love and loss, and more conflict. Without conflict there’s no story. There also has to be development. The main character is put through the mill by those forces, human or natural and comes out changed, a different person. Who wants to read about a walk in the clouds or through a flowery meadow and peaceful evening by the hearth with a character who has no doubts and all is well with the world?

Talk about revising and/or suggestions about revising for upcoming writers. 

Revision, revision, revision! No first draft is ever publishable, no matter who the writer is. But you also have to let go at some point and hand it over to a copy editor, preferably two different copy editors, and in the end a proofreader. Many writers think they can wing it and do without a professional editor (don’t rely on a friend you think is good at writing; not even people in a writing group have the requisite skill and eye for detail). Everything has to be edited. I worked in publishing as a production editor and know from experience that this is an essential part of any published work—even great writers get edited.

What's one additional piece of advice about writing or publishing you'd like to pass on to readers and writers? 

If you are a writer, if you feel the calling, not someone who had an idea for a book one day, write, write, write, but keep a job on the side or marry comfortably. Publishing is a tough business. I have not been able to figure out what criteria agents, editors, and publishers apply. Don’t be discouraged by the clichés they dish out. If you are young enough and have the energy keep on storming the bastion.

Anything else you'd like readers to know about you and/or your book? 

Writing is one of the most difficult things to do, but it is also one of the most gratifying endeavors if that’s the muse that gives you wings.
The idea for Dina’s Lost Tribe (it wasn’t called that in the beginning) resided in my head for many years and when the birth finally took place it turned out very differently than originally conceived; the story metamorphosed under my very eyes. I often didn’t know where it was going, what turn it was going to take. That’s what’s so exciting about creating your characters and stories. I certainly never foresaw the ending of Dina. No spoilers please.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

New Picture Book


My new picture book - AVAILABLE NOW on Amazon - Buy Now.

The adventure of a young groundhog who is frightened of his shadow until a fun-filled journey through the woods and farms surrounding his burrow allows him to discover his courage on Groundhog Day.

An author's note provides information about Groundhogs.

Cross curriculum connections for: Folklore, Shadows, Groundhog Day, and Groundhogs.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Nonfiction Monday

New – From Animal Planet’s Animal Bites Series

WILD ANIMALS provides young readers with a nature adventure in a variety of habitats across multiple continents. Japanese Macaques enjoy spa days. African bullfrogs seal themselves in underground burrows to survive year-long droughts. African bull elephants weigh as much as two pickup trucks. Humpback whales hunt using “bubble nets” and only male Zebra finches can sing. These are just a few of the interesting facts that fill the pages.

Like the other books in the series, the animal sections are interspersed with thematic units with specific tabs such as Where They Live, How They Live, Vista (showing animals in their environment), Big Data (facts and figures), Animal Gallery (highlighting similarities and differences) and so on. Stunning action-filled photographs, informative notes, colorful maps and charts make for easy access to information and will delight both youngsters and adults as they explore the amazing diversity of wild life on our amazing planet.

A great addition to home, classroom or school library.

The Gingerbread Cowboy Book Trailer