Author Update: Esmé Raji Codell

Esmé Raji Codell is an award-winning author, a legendary teacher, a premier literacy and literature ambassador, a show-stopping speaker, the queen of Planet Esmé, and quite possibly the greatest force for good in children’s literature. Everything she does is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Read a previous interview with Esmé on Sahara Special (Hyperion, 2003).

We last spoke in conjunction with the release of your debut novel, Sahara Special (Hyperion, 2003). How was the book received? I seem to recall some starred reviews and a major award or two!

This story–about a fifth-grade girl who is mislabeled as a special education student in the Chicago Public Schools–was very well received (phew!).

I was very fortunate and honored to receive the International Reading Association award for Fiction for Sahara Special and starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal. I am most gratified, though, by the letters I receive from kids who suggested that they “see themselves” in the characters.

In this, my first novel for kids, I really wanted to portray the experience of children at risk for slipping through the cracks of an inner-city school in a way that would be both genuine and hopeful. I actually just finished the companion novel, the working title is Vive Paris!, about an African-American girl (Paris, one of Sahara’s classmates) who gets a lot more than she bargains for when she starts taking piano lessons from an elderly woman with a secret in her past. I’m really excited about it.

All of my books seem to contain some aspect of the school experience, and I always try to include some sort of strong teacher or mentor in my stories.

Growing up in the “Judy Blume” era of children’s literature, I remember it really bothered me as a kid to read about situations in which there wasn’t an adult around, noticing at least out of the corner of their eye what was going on. It didn’t seem realistic. So I try to suggest that there are grown-ups out there who can help even when it doesn’t seem like it. Even if it doesn’t feel true to a particular reader who might be having a hard time, I think it’s an important thing to suggest.

You’ve been really busy these past couple of years. Let’s talk about your new books. First, tell us about How To Get Your Child To Love Reading (Algonquin, 2003). I know it’s a wonderful resource, but why don’t you tell readers why? What inspired you to offer such a tremendous resource book? How is it different from other guidebooks?

If I may pull up a soapbox, here, Cyn, I really feel that children’s literature is our best hope for equalizing education in America; after all, a great book in the hands of a rich child is the same book in the hands of a poor child (provided they can read).

So I guess the power of How to Get Your Child to Love Reading is that it can make anyone who reads it a children’s book expert. My goal was that anyone who picks it up should feel confident and positive about their role as a character in a child’s reading life story, and that they can be inventive about that role.

I think (or I hope!) it’s a very empowering book.; I wanted to create something that would serve as a kind of hands-on follow-up to one of my favorites, Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook (Penguin, 2001). I think it’s different from other resources in that it suggests that reading is more than a skill, it’s a lifestyle, and offers up pretty much everything you need to live “la vie en reading.”

I field tested about 14,000 books to find the 3,000 or so recommended in this volume, and besides thematic lists, there are hints for reading aloud, literature-based parties and fundraisers, recipes, instructions on how to build a literature-based Time Machine to travel into the world of non-fiction…this book was seriously a labor of love, Cyn.

I know my memoir, Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year (Algonquin, 2001), has been really popular with first-year teachers, but I hope they find their way to this one as well; I think it’s a lot more pragmatic. I also think it’s a great way for aspiring authors and illustrators to get to know the genre.

Speaking of memoirs. How about Sing A Song of Tuna Fish: Hard to Swallow Stories from Fifth Grade (Hyperion, 2004)? What are the special challenges of writing a memoir? What inspired you to take the plunge?

One day, kids gathered around me for a story, but this time, they didn’t want me to read from a book that someone else had written, they wanted exciting true stories about when I was a kid. “Tell us about when you were bad!” Since it’s been a while, and goodness knows I was NEVER EVER bad (well, not hardly), I was having a hard time coming up with some good narratives, but I promised if I could have a little time, I could come up with something they might like to hear. This book is the result.

I tried to make the chapters fun to read aloud, and I also started every chapter with a simple writing prompt. “Let me tell you about school.” “Let me tell you about the weather.” “Let me tell you about my neighborhood.” (Additional prompts at

I wanted the book to be called Let Me Tell You Something Stories, but my editor thought that sounded too bossy! I think teaching kids to write is a challenge; I know when I taught, I got a lot of descriptions of car chases and haunted houses and space aliens. I hope Sing a Song of Tuna Fish will help children to see that their everyday experiences are worth writing about, too, and maybe inspire them to start a journal or blog.

Memoirs are kind of a pleasure to write because you don’t have to make anything up, you just have to describe what happened, but they are hard in some respects, too.

First of all, you have to have lived it and have paid attention while you were living it, and that always takes some doing…kind of like that thing where you rub your belly and pat your head at the same time.

When you write a memoir, I think you have to appreciate that as real and accurate as it is to you, it’s still one person’s perspective, and you have to allow the reader the option of considering you what I guess in literary circles is known as “the unreliable narrator,” and the people you write about, well, they may call you worse names than that.

And the hardest part of writing memoirs is that real people change, but characters don’t, so when you put someone in a book, you kind of “freeze” them, you can’t show how they change over time or tell their whole life story.

My mother, for instance, is a very different person today than she was twenty-five years ago, when I describe egging a car with her one warm city night, and my sneaky little friend who gave “butt switching lessons” for fifty cents probably went on to other more successful business endeavors.

I myself am a fairly different than the person I write about at 10 (Sing a Song of Tuna Fish) and 26 (Educating Esmé). Things change and people change; memoirs can keep these ephemeral moments alive, and close to the heart.

I really appreciate when readers of memoirs understand that this is the power of memoir, not “I really feel like I know you because you shared something personal.” I know I write memoirs to help people think about who they are or who they could be now, not about how I was then.

I believe Diary of a Fairy Godmother (Hyperion, 2005)(read excerpt; visit tie-in site) is your first fantasy. In terms of the writing process, how was that different than writing realistic fiction? What tips do you have for other writers?

Oooo, that was fun. But my process was not that different than what I use for realistic fiction: I started out with something I wanted to say, and in this case that was, “be the one with the wand.” I used the device of a little witch girl who is in the top of her class at charm school but decides to drop out and pursue her dreams of being a fairy godmother to tell the story of a girl who is a catalyst toward making her own dreams come true. In part, this story is a school story and a friendship story, maybe even a little romance, and all of those are part of realistic fiction, too. Fantasy is tricky because you do have to invent an alternative world, and to do so, you have to make a lot of decisions and stick with them…no small order for a Libra like me.

I guess my advice to writers would be to start with something true and real, even if you are writing fiction or fantasy. Then you can invent around the truth, and it will always have that heartbeat that the reader can recognize, no matter how wild you get.

Hanukkah, Shmanukkah!, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (Hyperion, 2005) is a Jewish retelling of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. What a fascinating idea! How did you reinvent Dickens’ vision?

As funny as it may seem to turn a Christmas story into a Hanukkah story, it seemed like a natural fit. What I liked about Dickens’ work was that his stories were always about people finding a home, a place where they belonged, a stature in a social that was not always welcoming. These same themes reverberated in the lives of Jewish people during the mass migration of immigrants in America at the turn of the twentieth century, and so that is the historical setting of this book..

I used his outline of three visits to create a story that focuses on a different cultural experience, and I used real letters from “The Bintel Brief,” an turn-of-the-century advice column featured in a newspaper called the Jewish Daily Forward, as conflicts that I hoped people of the time would consider true-to-life. I also used a lot of a Yiddish throughout, which is a lively, largely colloquial language widely used by Jewish people of that time and setting, that I happen to be familiar with myself; I hope the glossary in the back can help these unusual words feel comfortable on the tongue.

I think when an author tells a story, he lights a flame, and just like on a Hanukkah menorah, one flame lights another. When Dickens wrote his story, he lit a flame in me.

Rumor has it that PlanetEsme now offers a reading room in Chicago. Tell us all about it. What happens there? Where is it located?

The PlanetEsme Bookroom is “Chicago’s literary living room,” a unique literary salon dedicated to getting great books into the hands of great children.

This little storefront houses a private non-circulating resource collection of 12,000 children’s books, and I host a popular monthly gathering called “Wish List Wednesday” in which I booktalk some of the best new releases and reissues in children’s literature.

We also have family events and storytimes, and have been lucky enough to host presentations and signings by guest authors and illustrators of a remarkable caliber, like Mordicai Gerstein, Brian Selznick and Mem Fox to name a few (you have an open invitation, Cyn!).

I have a lollipop tree growing there, a real candy mosaic, a mermaid to keep you company in the bathroom and a fantastic, really loud band-organ we call the “glonkenshponkel,” which we play at storytimes. We also always have tea and cookies.

It’s open when I’m around to open it; I fly green flags in front, a symbol of children’s freedom, to alert the community to come on down. People also schedule use of the space for book clubs, SCBWI meetings, homeschooling and teacher support groups.

Though I don’t charge for anything or sell anything, I do accept home-baked goods and greasy take-out, and I do partner with independent booksellers when talents come to town.

My thinking was, with the increased pressure to put technology at the forefront in libraries, there needs to be a place where books always comes first.

With the amount of books being published so far greater than the demand and precious few buyers in charge of so much of what the public encounters, consumers need guidance in finding the golden “needles” in the bookstore shelf “haystack,” and make informed choices.

There is a lot competing for children’s attention and time these days, so the hours they do spend with books should be quality time, vicariously spent with creative artists that have something to share. So even though the Bookroom looks very cheerful and kids love to flop there, my real goal was to make sure grown-ups have the inspiration and information they need to make children’s literature a daily and delicious part of classroom and family experiences; kind of a real-world extension of my place in cyberspace,

It’s a funny little experiment, I guess, but it has garnered the support of the James Patterson Pageturner foundation ( and enough enthusiasm that I am currently working on a guide so that others can replicate the salon, wherever they live. I think the good thing about it is, you really can create one using whatever you have. That’s sort of my philosophy (and I guess James Brown’s, too), “you got to use what you got to get what you want.” What I want is for people to know and love children’s books.

I have a lot of exciting visions for expansion, if I can secure the space to do it. Oh, well, I guess even Wonka had to start small.

Like me, you’re well known as a big mouth (in a good way) spreading the word about great books. What are some of your favorites in 2005?

My very favorite this year was The Giants and the Joneses by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Greg Swearingen (Holt, 2005), a chapter book about three siblings who are “collected” by a zealous but irresponsible giant girl. When I read it, I wanted to grab kids off the street and read it aloud to them. There is a whole invented language throughout, and by the end, readers will be bilingual in “Groilish.” It was cliffhanging, fresh, inventive, provocative…have I mentioned that I like this book?

Other favorites of the year have been: Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, with those incredible pictures by Hudson Talbott (Putnam, 2005); The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty G. Birney, illustrated by Matt Phelan (Atheneum, 2005)(read excerpt)(author interview), which has that Kate DiCamillo kind of bittersweetness and all sorts of potential for great classroom extensions; and to tell you the truth, I really adored a book called Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Neal Layton (Candlewick, 2004), which is an outstanding example of a great non-fiction read-aloud…I’ve read it to myself three times, it’s so darn interesting and tastefully done.

I thought And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole (Simon and Schuster, 2005)(image gallery)(teacher guide), was really brave and also a great read, and…and…well, I have quite a few favorites this year, and they can all be viewed at

Cynsational Notes

Esmé Raji Codell Expounds on Potato Pedagogy and the Power of Books from Bookselling This Week. September 2003.

Planet Esmé features include: contest Details for Diary of a Fairy Godmother fashion contest (everyone who enters wins something!); video commercials for Esme’s own books and other recommendations; a downloadable Reader’s Theater script Hanukkah, Shmanukkah!; additional writing prompts from Sing a Song of Tuna Fish: and a teacher’s guide to Sahara Special.

Reinventing the World: One Reader at a Time by Deborah Wiles from BookPage. June 2003.

Teachers.Net Author Chat with Esmé Raji Codell, author of Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher’s First Year.

Cynsational News & Links

Interview with writer Rachna Gilmore by Marjorie Coughlan from “Award-winning writer Rachna Gilmore talks about moving continents, the difference between writing for children and adults, and the storypods that make up her new book, The Sower of Tales (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2005).”

Author-illustrator Annette Simon will be signing Mocking Birdies (Simply Read Books, 2005) at 2 p.m. Jan. 21 at BookPeople in Austin, Texas.