Friday, July 26, 2019

How I Became A Teaching Author

I was a shy kid who grew up in an Air Force family. My shyness made it hard to make new friends. When you move during the middle of the school year, friendships are already established. Breaking in was torture for me. Thank goodness, I have a sister who is one year older than me. We spent hours in libraries. We loved books and still do along with a younger sister and brother.

A year ago, we decided to form a reading club. As quickly as that idea popped up, it fizzled. We have such divergent taste, we couldn’t decide on a book to start our first meeting. Luckily, I have my kid lit friends and critique buddies.

Before I began writing books for young readers, I taught middle school mathematics. I thought I’d always teach math. Two of my mother’s sisters were teachers. It was tradition.

But . . . I happened to see a flyer in my local library about a class for those who wanted to write magazine articles. It sounded intriguing, so I signed up and began a new career. I sold a few articles. Then I saw a newspaper article inviting people to a Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) meeting. I found my true calling and longtime friendships—writing books for young readers.

I’ve published over 20 books. It was a long and winding path, but I’m where I belong. I write both fiction and nonfiction. BLOCK PARTY is a Junior Library Guild Selection.

One of my passions is picture book biographies. I love reading them and writing them. I especially love learning about people with an “I didn’t know that” factor. That definitely was the case with TINY STITCHES – THE LIFE OF MEDICAL PIONEER VIVIEN THOMAS (Lee & Low Books). A friend saw the movie Something the Lord Made (the story of Vivian Thomas) and told me to watch it. She encouraged me to write about him. It took a few years, but I did it. It won a NAACP Award. Accepting my award was one of the proudest moments of my writing career.

This fall, Capstone will publish my second picture book biography, ONA JUDGE OUTWITS THE WASHINGTONS – AN ENSLAVED WOMAN FIGHTS FOR FREEDOM. I don’t have a release date for my third one, PLANTING PEACE – THE STORY OF WANGARI MAATHAI (Wayland-Hachette Children’s Group).

I love visiting schools and sharing my writing life and writing tips with students. Recently, I presented workshops at Oklahoma State University and Rochester University in Rochester, Michigan. On behalf of the Arts Council of Oklahoma City, I teach an ongoing writing class at the YMCA Lincoln Park Senior Center in my hometown of Oklahoma City. The ladies are so prolific with so many life stories to tell that we published a book, TREASURES (Doodle and Peck).

During visits to upper elementary and middle school students, I often share my nonfiction science book MAKERS AND TAKERS—FOOD WEBS IN THE OCEANS (Rourke). I lead them in understanding, my book is not all that different from their essays.

I will continue to read all sorts of books and write as I begin working with the amazing TeachingAuthors and I hope to hear from readers too.

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks

Friday, July 19, 2019

Middles, Ends, and Beginnings

Here in the Midwest, we're muddling through the middle of summer, complete with "Excessive Heat Warnings" for today and tomorrow. I'm so grateful for air conditioning, not only in my home but in our car, too! Many people call these the "Dog Days of Summer." I learned only recently that the phrase isn't because of the heat, but because of a star. From July 3 to Aug. 11 (in the Northern Hemisphere), Sirius, also known as the Dog Star, is in alignment with the sun. Thus, these are called the Dog Days. (You can read more about the term's origin at the Farmers' Almanac site.)

Sirius, Dog Star courtesy of dom1706 on pixabay
And here on TeachingAuthors, we're in the Middle of our giveaway of the wonderful picture book How I Learned to Fall Out of Trees by Vincent X. Kirsch (Abrams Books).  If you haven't read April's marvelous interview with Vincent yet, be sure to do so today! (You can enter the giveaway on that page.)

At TeachingAuthors, this is also a time for an End. As Carla mentioned in her last post, she's leaving our blogging team. Hard to believe she's been with us for over four years! It seemed we were welcoming her only a year or two ago. She was a terrific addition to the team and we will definitely miss her.

But this sad End will be followed by a happy Beginning. Next week, we'll welcome a new TeachingAuthor. I'm going to keep you in suspense and let her introduce herself in her inaugural post a week from today. I'll say only that she's an author of both fiction and nonfiction. I expect all our wonderful TeachingAuthors readers will make her feel right at home here.

I'd actually planned to write a post about poetry today. I recently started reading a poem a day in preparation for a poetry-focused writing project. However, I was distracted by an unexpected opportunity I couldn't pass up that I'll share about later. Meanwhile, I look forward to reading the posts in this week's Poetry Friday roundup, hosted over at Carol's Corner today.

Keep cool and remember to always Write with Joy!

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Mini Post: Book Giveaway & Writing Workout!

Howdy, Campers!

This post will be short and sweet--'cause it's summer!

Last week I posted an interview with illustrator-author-poet-puppeteer-amazingness, Vincent X. Kirsch, who will personally autograph a copy of his newest picture book, HOW I LEARNED TO FALL OUT OF TREES for our Book Giveaway winner! To enter to win this wonderful book, go to the interview and scroll down.

And now, before the sun melts my flip flops, I'd like to present Vincent X. Kirsch's

Take an existing story you've worked on
and reverse the action,
telling it backwards,
starting with the ending first.

Some stories
work better backwards.

image from
See? I told you this was going to be short and sweet! If you try this exercise, let us know how it went. And don't forget to enter to win Vincent's newest book!

posted backwards by April Halprin Wayland, who loves this quote:
"Spend the afternoon. You can't take it with you." -Annie Dillard

image from

Friday, July 12, 2019

Student Success Story and Book Giveaway: Vincent X. Kirsch: Illustrator-Poet-Author-Puppeteer-Amazingness

Howdy, Campers, and Happy Poetry Friday! (an original poem, the link to PF, and instructions on how to enter our drawing for an autographed picture book are below)

Look! Someone's climbed our ladder and is knocking at the door of the TeachingAuthors tree house right now!

Campers, I'm proud to introduce you to a dear friend.

But first, a confession: I feel a bit sheepish posting this interview as part of our continuing series, Student Success Stories, since he tiptoed into my Picture Book class undercover, without revealing he'd written and illustrated many wonderful picture books before landing in my class. But...he was my student...and man, oh, man, is he a success! So...he qualifies, right?

Welcome, Vincent X. Kirsch and Ogbert! (I'm sorry that the utterly adorable Scout Pippins, Vincent's other pup, couldn't join us today)

Author-Illustrator Vincent X. Kirsch and Ogbert
photo courtesy of the author
Have a glass of fresh lemonade and take a load off, Vincent, then please tell us how you found your way into writing and illustrating children's books.

One of my favorite behind the scenes story is how my first book came to be. I had been pursuing work in picture books for over fifteen years without any success. I had given up at a point in my life when a lot of my friends were getting book assignments without any effort at all. Over the same fifteen years, I had been doing a monthly illustration for The New York Times Book Review. I was told in August that the art director was leaving and the new art director wanted to start with his own team of illustrators. It was rather sad because I had been doing it so long and I hated to see that door shut. For my very last illustration, I drew two young Italian brothers on a scooter going in opposite directions. The illustration was published one Sunday in October, 2006 and the following Thursday, an editor at Bloomsbury USA called to say that she loved the illustration in The Times and wondered if I was interested in doing picture books? A new door was suddenly thrown wide open! She was thinking of me as an illustrator but was delighted to discover that I was also a writer. The result was my first book NATALIE &NAUGHTILY. So, all of that work over all those years paid off somehow. 

So, based on your experience, how would you encourage someone banging her head against writer’s block...or someone who's depressed about ever getting anything published?

Things never happen when we think they will happen. The greatest reward for working in any creative area is the work itself. To sit down and create is a treasure that nothing else in life can match. 

I often say: The greatest reward in life is to put a part of yourself down on paper. Enjoy the work. Be in the present moment.  Don’t compare and don’t compete. No one has the same life story or superpower. It’s what makes you who you are. Also, don’t forget to love as much as you can, it is all really take with you when you leave this world.

For Writer’s Block: Take a break. Take a vacation. Stand on your head. Look at the world from a new perspective. Read BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott. Then, go back to work and look at your own work with new eyes.

Vincent's inspiration cork board
photo courtesy of the author
The cork board in your studio is filled with images that encourage you to dream. If you could be anything in the world except an author/illustrator, what would you dream of becoming?

An urban planner. A film director. A playwright. A scenic designer. A puppeteer. Or a job that I actually had and loved, a visual merchandiser for a line of luxury food shoppes.

(Campers...the thing about Vincent is that he will probably actually DO all these things--stay tuned!)

I know the story of how you wrote your newest book ~ could you share it with our readers, please?
I was enrolled in your class at UCLA Extension. One week you asked us to rethink an existing project that we had worked on in the past. One of my favorite books titled FORSYTHIA & ME had recently gone out of print. I loved the book but thought I could do a better job if I gave it a bit more of an emotional tug at the heart.

I went back to a list I had made of remembered things from my childhood that stood out. Two that jumped out at me were: my fear of climbing trees and the memory of how heartbroken I was when my childhood friends would move away. So, I blended the two, addressing both of these feelings that had bedeviled me and somehow comforted myself in dealing with those memories. Since the class was a poetry driven class, I first wrote the book as a poem. I surprised myself at the end, since I really didn’t know how I would end it until inspiration wrote the final sentence for me.

The book came out exactly two years after my first draft in class. It is called
 HOW I LEARNED TO FALL OUT OF TREES by Abrams Books for Young Readers.

I love that story (of course I do!) and also way you so beautifully intertwine two different ideas, both in words and illustrations...and so do critics!  "A primer on both getting up into the leaves and coping with the loss of someone you're attached to. Kirsch elegantly makes the connection with affirmations that work both ways: 'Hang on tight with both hands'; 'take it one branch at a time'; and, inevitably, 'letting go will be the hardest part!' . . . A well-cultivated story that plants a seed about the value of friends and what they leave with us, even when they're gone" ~ Kirkus Reviews

How can teachers and parents use HOW I LEARNED TO FALL OUT OF TREES?
I imagine it will be a very useful book to share with listeners and readers if they have lately experienced a loss of some sort, (such as when a friend/fellow student/relative moves away, dies or in no longer near). This book shows that even though someone might not be there anymore, they have left you with something of value that can be held on to. What might that be?

Yes. I can see myself giving it to an adult friend who's going through loss. You recently spoke to my class right after your beloved mother died...and choked up as you began reading it aloud. A student continued reading the book for you. It was a very touching moment.

Tell us about your mother.

I come from a rather large family of five children. I was second and am very much a second child. I was very close to my Mom. She was my greatest fan. Everything I did amazed and delighted her. I used to love to call her with good or bad news. She was always a voice of confidence. I have a terrific family by birth and another marvelous family of close friends. They now take turns being my Mom’s voice when I need to hear encouraging words.

Dapper, young Vincent X. Kirsch. photo courtesy of the author

Did your family celebrate holidays? What's your favorite?
I adore everything about Christmas. I always have. I was Santa Claus’s greatest fan. At a very early age, my parents discovered that I was very good at wrapping packages. So, one holiday season when I was still very young, they sat me down and explained that Santa was not a real person but a very good idea. There were no elves. I needed to help. Then, they put me to work wrapping presents for my siblings and relatives. I remember crying my eyes out, that first day.

Years later, when I started as the window designer at Bergdorf Goodman, the store did very little for the holidays. No special windows. No fancy interior elements. Just a few cursory holiday touches. I was aghast and offered to take on the assignment and direction of holiday decorations. It meant much more work and planning for an already busy me. But I believed in festive holidays. I started the traditions of holiday windows, ornate interior decorations and wreaths hung on all of the windows outside the store. I did it for Santa Claus, not the person, but the idea.

You are always willing do extra work, and you're endlessly curious and multi-talented, Vincent. So, where will your abundant energy and enthusiasm take you next?

I have just begun artwork on my next picture book as author and illustrator. Hopefully it will be called FROM A. TO Z. It is about two little boys who can’t find the perfect words to express how they feel about each other. It is a very upbeat celebration of love and friendship. It will be out in Fall of 2020 from Abrams.

Then, I have started work on my second early reader/search-and-find book with Holiday House to be titled CAN PUP FIND THE PUPS? It is a sequel of sorts to the first book in the series, a Junior Library Guild selection for very young readers, 
CAN YOU FIND PUP?  about a little artist and his fun-loving, dare-devil pup. 

Wow~ I can't wait to read FROM A. TO Z. It sounds like a life-changing picture book. 

And finally, do you have a poem to share for Poetry Friday? 

Years ago, I wrote a fairy tale about a little girl on an island who is given the gift of a dragon as her teacher. At the start of the story, I wrote this poem. It expresses something that I truly believe.

Each person changes the world.
Some for the better.
Some for the worse.
Someone might build a wall
to keep others out.
Someone else might build a house
for others to come home to.
Someone may step upon a flower.
Someone may plant a garden.
A cruel word might be spoken.
A poem might be written.
Someone might start a war.
Someone else might start to sing
a song that passes
from person
to person
to person.

by Vincent X. Kirsch

poem (c) 1998 Vincent X. Kirsch. All rights reserved.

illustrations and photos (c)2019 Vincent X. Kirsch. All rights reserved.

Vincent, thank you--I needed to be reminded that each person does change the world. And thank you for passing your inspiring song on to all of us. I hope you'll come back when FROM A. TO Z. comes out. (Campers! I urge you to read more about Vincent--or at least feast your eyes on oodles of his illustrations--in this 2016 interview)
And thank you for offering to sign and send a personally autographed copy of HOW I LEARNED TO FALL OUT OF TREES to one of our lucky Readers!
(to enter the drawing, see directions below)

Campers ~ checkout Vincent's short and sweet Wednesday Writers' Workout!

And don't forget Poetry Friday
This week's roundup is hosted by Jone at DeoWriter  Thanks, Jone! 
PS: Campers ~ there's still a seat for you in the one-day class, WRITING A PICTURE BOOK AND GETTING IT PUBLISHED I'm again teaching on Saturday, July 13, 2019 with illustrator and author Barney Saltzberg, from 9:30am-4:30pm, through the UCLA Extension Writers Program
TO ENTER THE DRAWING for a chance to win an autographed copy of  HOW I LEARNED TO FALL OUT OF TREES written and illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsh, use the Rafflecopter widget below. You may enter via 1, 2, or all 3 options.

If you choose option 2, you MUST leave a comment* on TODAY'S blog post below or on our TeachingAuthorsFacebook page. (If you haven't already "liked" our Facebook page, please do so today!)

*In your comment, tell us what you'd do with the book if you win our giveaway--keep it for yourself or give it to a young reader or a teacher (...or?) ?

(If you prefer, you may submit your comment via email to: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com.)

Email subscribers: if you received this post via email, you can click on the Rafflecopter link at the end of this message to access the entry form.

Note: if you submit your comments via email or Facebook, YOU MUST STILL ENTER THE DRAWING VIA THE WIDGET BELOW. The giveaway ends July 26th and is open to U.S. residents only.

P.S. If you've never entered a Rafflecopter giveaway, here's info on how to enter a Rafflecopter giveaway and the difference between signing in with Facebook vs. with an email address

posted with affection by April Halprin Wayland, and Eli (who loves every breathing being he meets.)