New Voice: Brenda Maier on Making Picture Books Do Double Duty & The Little Red Fort

By Traci Sorell

I’m overjoyed to feature The Little Red Fort by author Brenda Maier and illustrator Sonia Sánchez (Scholastic, 2018) here on Cynsations.

This new picture book is a contemporary retelling of The Little Red Hen, featuring spunky Ruby and her three brothers who are not interested in helping her build a fort.

I love how Ruby takes matters into her own hands and figures out what needs to be done with a little help from her mother and grandmother.

School Library Journal selected the book for its February 2018 Popular Picks. Scholastic distributed it through its Book Fairs prior to the official March 27 publication date.

I agree with reviewers that it is a great read aloud and the contemporary and lively mixed media illustrations pulled me right into the action. The examples of forts kids can build in the back matter transported me right back to my own childhood.

Let’s hear from Brenda now!

What sparked the idea to write this book?

I have five children (now ages 10-18), and the inspiration for The Little Red Fort came from them. My youngest child was in a Little Red Hen phase, so every day we read that classic folktale before his nap. The Little Red Hen was just lingering in my brain.

One day during this period, I tucked him in and went to check on the other kids in the back yard. They had requisitioned some boards and lattice and worked together to construct a structure they called their ‘fort.’

Those two ideas—the classic tale and my kids’ fort endeavor—converged to become an idea: What if the hen was a girl who wanted to build a fort? The story started there.

Brenda and Traci at 2017 SCBWI L.A. Summer Conference

As an author-teacher/librarian/agent/publicist/editor, how do your various roles inform one another? 

I’m a debut author, but I’m also a teacher and a mother of five. Not surprisingly, both parenting and teaching are essential to my writing. Specifically, I hear and see things that could trigger a story idea.

As a parent, I have always looked for books that have the ability to reinforce the things I value as a parent. Would this one be good for a snuggly bedtime story? Would this one help reinforce the idea that we should be kind and generous? Does this book show that all people are important?

Some of these parent must-haves overlap with my day job, but there are differences.

Tracy Mack from Scholastic summarizes The Little Red Fort

Teachers have to be very efficient with their time, so if I can hit upon something they need to teach or address anyway, that’s a huge bonus.

What connections does this story have to the curriculum? Can I use it to kill two birds with one stone? The Little Red Fort is perfect for comparing and contrasting to the classic folktale, The Little Red Hen.

As a teacher, I know this can be done with a Venn Diagram, a paragraph, or even an essay. There is also a literacy link to multiple STEM options, including inviting the kids to collaborate, design, and build their own scale model forts.

This means this story has value for me as a teacher, because I can use it to launch a writing assignment or an interdisciplinary fort-building challenge. I try to ensure that all of my stories have something that will be important to the parent side of me and the teacher side of me.

Oklahoma SCBWI authors Kim Ventrella, Brenda Maier and Tammi Sauer

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers? 

The single best piece of advice I can give aspiring authors is to read.

  • Read widely in the genre you write. 
  • Join in the writing community. Write manuscripts and join critique groups with the goal of improving your manuscripts. 
  • Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and attend craft workshops and conferences. 
  • Always be on the lookout for story ideas, and write them down immediately. These efforts are not optional. 
  • Be not only willing, but eager to put in the work and time that will be required.
Brenda at Kansas-Missouri SCBWI Conference with Sue Gallion, Jess Townes and Tara Luebbe

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

Children’s publishing is such an emotional roller coaster. There are plenty of ‘downs.’ For me, the worst moments are when a manuscript I see a real need for gets rejected.

It’s been good for me to learn how to focus that energy on the next project instead of dwelling too much on things I may not be able to control. With each new submission, the anticipation builds again, and I’m on another one of the ‘up’ moments.

The best moments have been whenever readers expresses how important this book is to them. That’s mind blowing. I have also noticed that as I’m in the maelstrom of interviews and book events with readers—things I’ve dreamt of doing—it can be very easy to forget to stop and savor the moment.

I saw a posted photo of a firefighter in Connecticut reading The Little Red Fort aloud to a group of kids and I thought, “Wow. Somewhere far away there is a real life hero talking about how much the kids liked a book that I wrote.”

The ability to make a connection with people you’ve never met is definitely an ‘up’ moment.

Cynsational Notes

Publishers Weekly said, “Maier keeps her prose spare and preserves the rhythms and taglines of the original…. Ruby’s satisfaction is palpable, and readers won’t fail to grasp the message of self-sufficiency.”

As a young child, Brenda Maier had a grand total of six books; consequently, she spent her summers walking to the local library to get more.

Now she spends her summers driving her own children to the local library, where you may find her in a corner with a stack of picture books. If she’s not there, she’s probably at a bookstore, adding to her much-larger-than-six-books collection.

Brenda lives in Oklahoma with her husband and their five children, who provide endless inspiration for more stories.

She also works with gifted children at a large, local school district.

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

Her first nonfiction picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac, will be published by Charlesbridge on Sept. 4, 2018. The story features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.