Author Interviews: Kate Hannigan & Janet Fox on Facts in Historical Fiction

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

My current work in progress is a middle grade historical fantasy set in 1903. 


Delving into the past has made me think about how history is presented in novels and the balance between real and imaginary. 


For more insight on that topic, I turned to the authors of two of my favorite recently published books, focusing on process.



Kate Hannigan’s The Detective’s Assistant (Little, Brown, 2015) is based on the extraordinary true story of Kate Warne, America’s first female detective. It won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award in 2016.

Was there a particular item, fact or event that sparked the idea for The Detective’s Assistant?

KH: I was researching a story about camels in the American West in the 1850s when I came across a single nugget about Kate Warne. I read how she walked into Allan Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency in downtown Chicago, and he had assumed she was there for a secretary position. But she talked her way into a detective’s job, convincing Pinkerton she could “worm out” secrets from the wives and girlfriends of the city’s crooks and criminals.

Stumbling on this little gem, I was hooked! I dropped that camel story and ran with Kate Warne!



At what point did you start researching that? Did you start drafting a story first, or did you do research up front?

Kate’s model for her main character

KH: I’m kind of a nutter about gathering facts. My background is newspaper journalism, so maybe that’s to blame. But I wanted to know all I could about Kate Warne, Allan Pinkerton, and Abraham Lincoln during this part of American history.

The biggest research was around understanding the Baltimore Plot, which is the pivotal part of the story — the plot to assassinate Lincoln before he could be sworn in for his first term.

So the whole process was immersive. I dove in deep before writing a single word. Once I felt like I had the facts, then I began my story.

Did you continue doing research as you were writing?

KH: I’m still doing research! And the book published over a year ago! But I love this story so much, I can’t not learn more about it. I do school visits all the time, and I talk to students about it. So it’s very much in the front of my mind.

As I was writing, I would come across a question — my characters are walking down the street in 1860 Chicago, so what were they walking on? How comfortable would a train ride be in 1860? Would we ride on upholstered seats or hard wood? — and drop down another rabbit hole.

Research is never ending with historical writing!

Were you surprised by what you learned doing research? Did any unexpected finds end up becoming significant parts of the story?

KH: If you’re writing historical fiction, you’re probably a pretty huge history nerd. So digging up a juicy nugget can be a thrill! And I dug up so many!

I enjoyed researching and writing this story to a ridiculous degree!

My characters live in a boardinghouse, so getting that setting right was foremost in my mind. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) and Sister Carrie by Theodore Drieser (1900) (which was set a bit later but still illuminating nonetheless), just to get a sense of language of the times.

But I also plunged into nonfiction about the era, and I found a particular book about boardinghouses that was helpful. It described how incredibly cheap the managers — usually women — had to be to keep these places afloat. They were notorious for serving terrible food, which I thought could be played for a lot of humor in my book.

And this is what led to the chapter about Nell and the other residents eating a questionable meat for dinner, and Mrs. Wigginbottom getting shifty when there is talk about the orange tabby cat going missing.

Your book mixes well-known historical figures (Abraham Lincoln) with lesser-known, yet real individuals (Kate Warne) as well as completely fictional characters.



Tell us more about balancing the fact and the fiction – did you lean heavily on things the historical figures actually said? Were there some details you changed for the sake of the story? Were there some fixed points you felt couldn’t be altered?

KH: Fact and fiction! This balance kept me up at night! I agonized over being true to the players and what was on record as having happened. I visited Kate Warne’s grave site here in Chicago more than a few times, and I deeply desired to do right by this woman.

But I also worried about the reader, and I wanted to make sure that the story I was telling would hold the interest of a 21st-century American kid. So it was agony!

Pinkerton had written about the cases that involved Kate Warne, so of course I wanted to nod to those. But I took artistic license and shuffled their order, so that the culminating case is the saving of Lincoln’s life. I needed to put them in a different order to serve my story, and I had to come to terms with that decision. It took me a bit though.



Do you feel authors writing for middle grade readers have a greater obligation to present an accurate picture of a historical time period, than those writing YA or adult fiction?

KH: I very much believe authors for young readers have a greater responsibility to get historical fiction right. Because history is all new to this audience — this might be their first introduction to the Civil War, to Abraham Lincoln, to the Underground Railroad.

And if we make history engaging for them, we’re opening the doors to more exploration of our past, to creating more history lovers.

It’s a responsibility I take pretty seriously. Which is why I tend to research my books to death!

Have you gotten any feedback from history or social studies teachers? Or any school visits or other presentations aimed specifically at the history aspect?

KH: Yes! And it’s been so great! I’ve gotten tremendous feedback from teachers and librarians.

The Civil War hits with fifth-grade curriculum in many schools, so The Detective’s Assistant has been on reading lists around the country. I’ve done Skype visits as well as in-person school visits, and the response from young readers has been mind-blowing!

The New York Historical Society included it in their family book club, the Global Reading Challenge in Chicago listed it among their 2016 books, an entire fifth-grade in Dallas read the book as part of their Civil War history unit. It’s been wonderful to share the story with so many kids!

Was there anything you found while doing research for The Detective’s Assistant that will find it’s way into your next book?

KH: Answer: I’ve been bitten by the research bug, and specifically, research into amazing women and people of color forgotten by history. So my next book is focused on World War II women beyond Rosie the Riveter. I can’t say there’s any overlap with the Civil War era, but the passion I feel for dusting off these remarkable players from the past and sharing them with a whole new audience, that definitely has carried over. It’s kind of become my mission!

The Detective’s Assistant is realistic historical fiction, do things change when the story includes more fantasy elements? For that aspect, I asked Janet Fox, author of The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle similar questions.

Was there a particular item, fact or event that sparked the idea for The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle? (what was it?)

JF: Yes! I was mucking around on the internet when a friend posted a picture of an object the like of which I’d never noticed before. It was an 18th century German chatelaine. I thought it was peculiar, and I had to find out more about it, so I googled and discovered that this chatelaine was an offshoot of the more practical set of keys – to the chateau – worn at the waist.

I learned that chatelaines had evolved from keys to practical items, like scissors and coin purses, to charms. This chatelaine was all charms, and they were so odd that a story began forming in my mind almost right away.

At what point did you start researching that? (i.e. – did you start drafting a story first, or did you do research up front?) 

JF: Once I’d learned what a chatelaine was I began writing almost at once. Within a week of seeing the image, which is the same as the image that’s in the novel, I’d completed the first 40 pages of what would become the novel. That’s generally the way I work. I have to discover who my main character is and what her problem is before I can begin to flesh out the story, and research is part of that fleshing out.

Did you continue doing research as you were writing?

JF: Yes – once I have a handle on my protagonist and what the story is generally about I tend to blend research with writing. For example, as soon as I decided to set the novel in Scotland, I took a pause and did a bunch of research on Scotland. That’s almost always how I work – I write first to discover what I need to know more about. But it all starts with the character and her problem.

Were you surprised by what you learned doing research? Did any unexpected finds end up becoming significant parts of the story?

JF: Not really – at least, not in this story. But read on – there’s a relevant answer to this in your last question.

Your book mixes actual events and places completely fictional – and fantastical – events and characters. Tell us more about balancing the fact and the fiction? Were there any fixed points you felt couldn’t be altered? (why?)

JF: I felt it was very important to be true to any factual details. For example, I had to learn what I could about enigma machines, about the inner workings of clocks, about movements and activities in the North Sea during that part of World War II, and so on.

That’s where I really pay attention to accuracy – when I’m weaving facts into fantasy I want those facts to be right. In that way the reader more readily suspends disbelief for the fantasy elements.

Do the fantastical elements have a historical influence?

JF: In a way. My grandparents were Irish and English, and I heard many stories growing up about the fantastical beliefs they carried with them from home, things like the stories my grandfather told me about “the little people.” And Celtic and pagan practices have a basis in history and yet are mystical or fantastic in nature. To me, there’s always a kernel of truth in a fairy tale.

Do you feel authors writing for middle grade readers have a greater obligation to present an accurate picture of a historical time period, than those writing YA or adult fiction?

JF: I think any writer writing for any audience has an obligation to be accurate when it comes to historical detail. But I do think that the vulnerability of the younger reader requires a special adherence to accuracy. These are readers who will feel cheated if I give them information they later find to be false. They are also readers more likely to believe whatever you tell them, and I would hate to plant falsehoods in their minds.

Have you gotten any feedback from history or social studies teachers? (or any school visits or other presentations aimed specifically at the history aspect?) 

Dunrobin Castle, Janet’s inspiration, located in Scotland

JF: Not yet, although I would love to present something about the specific history aspects of the story.

I’m fascinated by World War II (and as we can see by the large number of middle grade novels out the past couple of years set during the war, so are others.)

The Blitz alone was a big deal, and I’ve given talks at bookstores at which adults have come forward after to tell me that they or their aunt or their father was sent out of London – and that’s why they’re in America today.

Was there anything you found while doing research for The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle that will find it’s way into your next book?

JF: Since Kat is clever with clocks, I did a bit of clock research and uncovered a rare old timepiece called a “Death’s Head” watch. After further research I discovered that one of owners of one of the most bizarre of these was the doomed Mary, Queen of Scots. Well, that didn’t feel accidental. As you can imagine, that watch is the centerpiece of my sequel.

chatelaine

Cynsational Notes

Janet Fox on Blending History with Fantasy from Cynsations. Peek: “Whether writing historical fiction or fantasy, the objective of suspension of disbelief can only be accomplished if the world-building is sound. In historical fiction, that means lots of research to get interesting tidbits right. In fantasy, it means crafting an environment in which those interesting tidbits feel right.”

Gayleen Rabakukk holds a master of fine arts in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She co-moderates the middle grade book club for Austin SCBWI and loves making discoveries – both on and off the page.

Always eager to track down a story, she has worked as a newspaper
reporter, editor and freelance writer. Gayleen is married and has two
caring and outspoken daughters. Their Austin, Texas home is filled with
books and rescue dogs. You can find her online at  or on Twitter @gayleenrabakukk

Congratulations to Gayleen on recently signing with Andrea Cascardi at Transatlantic Agency!

Cynsations Intern: Gayleen Rabakukk on Unique & Creative State Book Awards Programs

KS William Allen White Award winner Chris Grabenstein with 6-8 graders

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In updating the Awards for Children’s and YA Literature By State for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s author website, I discovered several programs and librarians taking unique or creative approaches to build interest in the books.

Here’s a closer look at a few of those programs:

Emporia State University hosts a Read-In and Sleepover for students to meet the winners of the William Allen White Award (named in honor of the Kansas newspaper editor whose autobiography won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947.)

About 80 students meet the winning authors, play board games and go swimming in the campus pool. Sleeping bags are spread out on the floor of the rec center where there’s a lights-out-at-10-p.m. policy, but with so many avid readers in attendance, there’s sure to be lots of flashlights under the covers.

On Saturday morning, about 500 students attend the Celebration that includes art activities provided by the Emporia Arts Council, skits from ESU theater students, and a school spirit competition. A ceremonial presentation of the William Allen White Book Award by student representatives follows.

KS William Allen White Award winner Sharon Creech with 3-5 graders

State budget cuts in recent years have made it impossible for some schools to attend the ceremony. Kappa Delta Pi (ESU’s student honor society) is putting together a travel grant program to make it possible for more schools to attend.

Georgia Children’s Book Awards hosts a two-day conference aimed at showing teachers and librarians ways the books can be used in the curriculum, along with presentations by authors and illustrators. For those who can’t make the conference, an outline of curriculum ideas.

The conference also includes the final round of the Helen Ruffin Reading Bowl. In 1986, library media specialist Helen Ruffin developed a competitive game format to question students about content of the nominees. She envisioned teams of students from different schools competing to test their knowledge. The competition grew and renamed in her honor following her retirement.

In 2004, a committee composed of Georgia Association of Educators and Georgia Library Media Association members set out to take the program statewide. Today, more than 600 schools across the state compete in regional, then division competitions before the finals are held at the conference.

Competition is also a reading incentive in Hawaii’s Children’s Choice Book Award, the Nene (in honor of Hawaii’s state bird.) Students compete in Kahoot! games or Nene Jeopardy. (Kahoot is a free game-based learning platform for creating a collection of questions on a specific topic. Learn more about it here.)

Pearl Harbor Elementary Librarian Denise Sumida started using “Jeopardy” games with her library classes in 2005 to build excitement about the nominees. She is also a Nene committee member.

She said, “Starting in 2008, I began video conferences with other schools as a way to promote the books, connect with other libraries/students, and to advocate for the Nene Award program.”

Games played in October, November and December are based on the winning book, while January, February and March games focus on the nominees.

Nene Awards, honoring students for Kahoots, digital & poster contests

Video conferencing allows schools to compete against one another without leaving the classroom, easing scheduling issues and eliminating travel costs.

“In general, students love to see themselves on camera and Google Hangouts allows us to view the broadcasts on YouTube,” Sumida added. “The Nene nominees are usually really popular at my school and the extra incentive of participating in a video conference encourages the students to read from the list.”

She’s seen an increase in reading participation since introducing the video conferencing with other schools. Last year, they began using Kahoot to focus on individual student knowledge of the Nene winner and the top three scorers were recognized at the Nene Ceremony.

Sumida advises other librarians thinking about introducing games to start small. She said:

  • “I did video conferences with other Nene Committee librarians’ schools first. Only two schools connecting at a time.
  • “If time permits, test out ‘Jeopardy’/Kahoot questions on your students to make sure they are clear and developmentally appropriate.
  • “Test video conference connections ahead of time. This seems simple, but if the video conference time is 30 minutes and it takes 15 minutes to connect, that’s only 15 minutes of playing time. With updates to computers, software, and cameras, it’s best to test it out without the students there waiting and getting frustrated.”

In addition to the games, the Nene award also features an art contests for an animated film or a comic strip related to the winning book.

Rolla, Kansas students celebrating the White Awards at Emporia State University

What does your school or library do to get students excited about the book awards in your state?

We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Cynsational Notes

Gayleen Rabakukk holds a master of fine arts in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She co-moderates the middle grade book club for Austin SCBWI and loves making discoveries – both on and off the page.

Always eager to track down a story, she has worked as a newspaper reporter, editor and freelance writer. Gayleen is married and has two caring and outspoken daughters. Their Austin, Texas home is filled with books and rescue dogs. You can find her online at  or on Twitter @gayleenrabakukk

Congratulations to Gayleen on recently signing with Andrea Cascardi at Transatlantic Agency!

Cynsations Intern: Gayleen Rabakukk on Writing Communities

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

I’m honored to announce that Gayleen Rabakukk has been chosen as the summer-fall 2016 Cynsations intern. Thanks to all who applied!

Here’s more from Gayleen:

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

“You mean you both just sit there and write? On different things? And don’t talk?”

“Yes,” I tell my non-writing friends.

I realize how odd that may sound. There was a time when I would have thought it was strange, too. For many years, I’d done all my writing alone. I’d published lots of newspaper and magazine articles, exploring topics ranging from exotic pets to forensic science.

Eventually, I felt the pull to make something that would last longer than the weeks a magazine article is around, so I tried my hand at adult mysteries, (one of my favorite genres) and eventually young adult novels.

Looking for help with the transition from journalist to novelist, I became active with the Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc. (OWFI), volunteering at their annual conference and serving on the board as a grant writer. After a few rejections, I decided instead of guessing what “narrative voice” and “connecting with the character” meant, I would go back to school and really learn how to write for children and young adults.

Sharon

I applied to Vermont College of Fine Arts, doubting that this Oklahoma journalist would be accepted.

When I got a call from Sharon Darrow one afternoon welcoming me to the program, I couldn’t believe it!

My initial residency was filled with firsts: first time in New England, first time my nostrils froze, and the first time I really had deep, serious conversations about writing.

Rita & Gayleen

I ended up in a small workshop led by Tim Wynne-Jones where I learned about objective correlatives and adding layers of meaning to your writing. I learned so much I thought my head would explode.

That feeling continued, to varying degrees, throughout my four semesters. The more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know.

Each semester I had a new advisor. Jane Kurtz, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Rita Williams-Garcia and Franny Billingsley taught me how to write, how to read, and how to apply what I learned to my own work.

I squeezed writing and reading children’s literature into every spare moment I could find: audio books during my daily commute, writing on lunch breaks and in the evenings, reading on the treadmill. Fortunately, my youngest learned how to cook, otherwise my family might have starved while I was a grad student.

After graduation, I tried to stay on track, but the writing demands of my day job had increased and I didn’t have as much time for children’s books. The Supreme Court of Oklahoma wanted me to write a book about the art collection at the Oklahoma Judicial Center. It would definitely be published, and in a format that would be around for a long time. This was what I had set out to do so many years ago: create work that would last longer than a magazine article.

Almost immediately after that project ended, another one came along: the Oklahoma County Medical Society was looking for a writer to document their history. Once again, it was a book that would definitely be published, with guaranteed monetary compensation.

It wasn’t children’s literature, but it would prove that I could generate steady income as a writer (at least during that year-long project.)

I learned so much writing those books: from research techniques to the dynamics of working with a collaborator, yet something was missing. I wanted to recapture that sense of camaraderie I’d felt in Vermont.

Most of my writing efforts up to that time had been solitary. Sure, I had writer friends and occasionally exchanged manuscripts with several of them.

I paid my membership fees to OWFI and SCBWI, but I had never really embraced the idea of being part of the “writing community.”

After all, I told myself, writing is a solitary pursuit – I’m the one putting words on the page, no one can really help me with that. Vermont was a magical Brigadoon: like-minded writers all gathered on a hilltop for a fortnight. That sort of thing just didn’t happen in the real world.

Meredith & Gayleen

Then a geographical shift led me to a paradigm shift. Last July, my family and I moved to Austin, Texas and I quit my day job. This put me in close proximity to Meredith Davis, a fellow VCFA classmate and other alums. The first time she suggested we get together to write, I was a little skeptical, but I gave it a shot. I said “yes” and apparently, that’s all it took for me to realize the benefits of writing in a community.

Now these group writing times take precedent on my weekly calendar. Sometimes it’s just Meredith and me meeting at a coffee shop, other times it’s an organized potluck retreat with half a dozen writers.
At the end of the day, it’s still just me putting those words on the page, but I’m learning that spending time with other children’s writers provides a creative energy that recharges my batteries and keeps me coming back to the page, day after day – long after I’ve left the coffee shop.

It’s enormously increased my productivity: in the last year, I’ve worked through two complete revisions of a middle grade steampunk manuscript, drafted a new middle grade mystery, started a new historical manuscript and finished a nonfiction picture book.

In an effort to draw others into this awesome community, I recently began co-moderating the middle grade book club for our SCBWI chapter. Our goal is “reading for writing,” so we analyze and discuss character motivations, plot and point of view in depth. It all takes place on Facebook, which means I get to work it into my schedule wherever it fits, instead of trying to make it to a meeting at a certain time.

There are several book club members I’ve never met in person, but we’re connected through our book discussions, and I continue to grow in both my knowledge and passion for children’s literature.

Some days I’m still trying to figure out how to connect with readers, but I’ve learned a lot about the importance of connecting with a community. Writing discussions aren’t just reserved for snowy hilltops, they can happen in coffee shops, libraries and even on Facebook.

You just have to say “yes.”

Guest Interview: Author Eric Pinder on Writing Picture Books & How to Share With a Bear

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Eric Pinder is the author of four picture books and four adult nonfiction books. His most recent release is How to Share With a Bear, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2015). From the promotional copy:

The perfect thing to do on a chilly day is to make a cave. But comfy caves never stay empty for long….


What can you do when a bear takes over your cave? Try to distract him with a trail of blueberries? Some honey? A nice, long back scratch? 

How to Share With a Bear is a story about how although it’s not always easy, sharing with a sibling can be the most fun!

Congratulations on How to Share With a Bear! Tell me about the inspiration for this story.

Being a kid should automatically count as credit toward getting a degree in architecture, because we’ve all made blanket forts and blanket caves as kids. What’s more fun? I think every uncle, aunt, parent, and babysitter has had to master the architecture of a blanket cave at some point, too. Often it’s a collaborative effort, in the same way that reading a picture book is a shared experience.

For How to Share with a Bear, I had the blanket cave setting in mind from the start. The word “cave” got me thinking about real caves, and what you might find in one. That led naturally to a bear.

How or when did you make that leap in your imagination from bears being scary creatures that could eat you to being a cuddly companion?

William Faulkner’s “The Bear” was an early influence, even before I started writing for children. And no one gets through high school without seeing Shakespeare’s bear chase characters right off the stage. So we have this perception of bears as big and scary, but in childhood we’re also familiar with Fozzy Bear, Yogi Bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, and our own teddy bears.

Hear the word “bear” and you don’t know at first which you’re going to get: the terrifying grizzly or the funny, cuddly kind of bear. The very word “bear” creates uncertainty, all on its own.

Uncertainty creates tension and suspense. And suspense makes readers keep turning the pages. We have these two dueling, conflicting perceptions of bears lodged in our minds from an early age, and I think the subtle tension that evokes is what makes bears so great for storytelling.

Cat in the Clouds, If All the Animals Came Inside, Share with a Bear… I’m sensing a theme with animals and nature.

One of my earliest favorite memories is camping with my dad in Baxter State Park on a rainy afternoon when suddenly a moose stuck its head right into our leanto to say hi. I didn’t have that day in mind when writing If All the Animals Came Inside, but now that I think about it, that memory must have been an influence all along.

I know you spend a lot of time outdoors and have even written some books for grownups on that subject. Can you tell me what prompted you to write for children and what has been the biggest challenge in crafting stories for young readers?

One day a strange thing happened: Everyone in my circle of friends started having kids. Their houses were suddenly full of books by Seuss and Boynton and Silverstein. I’ve always liked poetry, and writing picture books is similar; they’re both read aloud—performed—so the sound and rhythm of each word and syllable matters. It’s almost like writing a song. Reading those old favorite books on friends’ shelves and hearing them performed out loud reminded me of how much fun they are. I had to start writing some of my own.

Writing for any age group is challenging. The biggest challenge with picture books is appealing to two different audiences at the same time: the grownup reading the book, and the child listening to them read. Re-watching Sesame Street recently made me appreciate how well they often write on two levels like that. One Sesame Street skit features a bear who is a writer. The bear’s name is Flo. It took me a second to connect the dots: Flo Bear, i.e. Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary. Clever joke! That second level of understanding flew completely over my head when I saw skits like that as a toddler, but it didn’t confuse or distract me, either. Watching it as a grownup, it made me chuckle.

What’s your process like? Do your stories simmer in your head for a long time before you sit down at the computer?

I leave a plate of cookies next to my laptop overnight and hope that elves will write the story for me. Then I get up the next morning, eat one of the stale cookies, mutter about elves, and start typing away on my own. To force myself to make time to write, I’ll put background music on the CD player and make a rule: no checking email or playing Scrabble or anything else but writing until the music stops. Usually the first half-hour is agonizing, but then I’ll get momentum.

Sometimes a single sentence or an opening scene will simmers for months before the rest of the story appears. At other times, like a gift from the Muses, a whole first draft will appear on the page in one sudden creative burst. But that’s rare. I should probably bake more cookies for the Muses.


You also teach creative writing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Does that also feed your creativity?

The best way to describe teaching is “exhausting but rewarding.” Lesson prep and commenting on student stories is time-consuming, but it’s worth it. Sometimes a student’s story or poem will be so good that it makes me grin the whole time I’m reading it. Just being part of a community where everyone loves books, talks about books, and asks smart questions about books on a weekly basis sparks creativity.

Of course, there are times when I wish I’d assigned less homework. (Right now, my students are probably saying, “Yeah, us too.”) It takes energy and time to critically read and edit dozens of pages of stories by others between classes, and that does leave less time and energy for your own creative work. It makes sticking to a regular writing schedule, even if it’s only an hour a day, extra important.

For most teachers the summer—blissful, leisurely summer—is the most productive season for our own writing. But the books we read and the classroom conversations we have during the rest of the year definitely fuel new writing projects.


I frequently see Facebook posts of you selling books at Farmers Markets. Tell me more about this unique venue choice.

A middle-schooler at an author event said, “Hey, my mom runs the farmers’ market. You should sell your books there.”

That’s not a venue that would ever have occurred to me, but, being a starving writer in need of money, I filed the idea away and gave it a try.

The first day I sold $200 worth of books. People like getting signed copies. Even on rainy days when I sell nothing, it’s still fun to meet and talk to people. You can tell who the teachers and school librarians are.

The best part is seeing kids who really love books. A beginning reader at one market slowly read If All the Animals Came Inside aloud to his grandma, pausing every now and then to say, “Did you write this page and this page?” and “What the heck’s a yak!?” It was like listening to a funny DVD commentary for my own book. Halfway through, he told me, “You’re actually doing a really good job writing this. So far.” Kids are the bluntest and best of literary critics.

At some markets I’m the only writer there, sandwiched between vegetable stands, maple syrup, and corn on the cob. Other towns combine farmers’ markets with craft fairs, so there are painters, wood-carvers, and photographers there, too.

One tip for doing book-signings at venues like this is that it helps to have at least three or four different books on your table. People like to see a selection and be able to browse. I’ve seen authors with only a single title at their table, and they’ve struggled. The more covers you have on display, the more eye-catching your table will be.

What’s coming up next?

Another picture book with Stephanie Graegin, How to Build a Snow Bear, is coming in 2016, and The Perfect Pillow, illustrated by Chris Sheban, in 2017. The latter has animals but surprisingly no bears, which may be a first for me.

I also just finished a big revision of a creative nonfiction manuscript about adventures in teaching. That one does have bears, and wolves, and even a camel. So I guess I’m not done writing about animals just yet.


I read about the bats being cut from How to Share With a Bear – any plans for bat inclusion in future books? Or do you have something against bats?

I love bats! They eat mosquitoes and have sonar as a superpower. Sometimes a scene, like the one with the bats, is good on its own, but the story as a whole is stronger without it.

I save deleted scenes and pruned sentences in a folder called “Scraps.” Sometimes they’ll get used or adapted later in a different story.

Cynsational Notes

Both Eric and Gayleen are alums of the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults program and graduated in the Winter 2011 class known as the Bat Poets.