Friday, November 2, 2018

A Joyful New Holiday Picture Book--The First Reindeer by Susan Barker

It's getting to be that time of year again! Lights, jingling bells, gifts wrapped in enticing paper, grins, smiles, snow (real and imagined,) light hearts--and reindeer!

Enter Susan Barker, author of The First Reindeer. A scientist by profession, Susan has stepped out of her normal guise of environmental issues and all things scientific for young people and has created one of the most delightful holiday books around. Reindeer was published by Guardian Angel Publishing earlier this year. Whimsically illustrated by KC Snider, this book is a jewel to light up your holidays. 

And as a precursor, it is always good to become acquainted with the author. Please meet Susan Barker!

NS How did you arrive at such an inventive idea for this book?

SB During my first SCBWI workshop, an editor from Scholastic said they were always in need of Christmas books. Knowing that kids love animals, I focused on that angle. Eventually, I came up with the idea of telling the ‘true’ story of how Santa got his reindeer.

NS Which character was the most fun to write? Tell us why.

Creating Santa was a lot of fun. I wanted readers to know Santa doesn’t act alone. It takes Mrs. Claus, elves, a faithful sled dog, and others to make Christmas happen. After rescuing a baby reindeer with a bad bump on his leg, Santa and Mrs. Claus for nurse Prancer (named for how he hops around favoring the sore leg) back to health. In appreciation, Prancer’s family saves Christmas by pulling Santa’s big new sleigh. I was pretty proud of dreaming up the Prancer name and leg connection and actually giggled about it. Not bad for a retired science teacher!

NS Do you plan on writing a sequel or perhaps a series around the book?

SB I’ve made notes for another Christmas story for older children. It focuses on the doing the right thing, even when a personal sacrifice is involved. Of course, things work out very well at the end.

NS  You are a naturalist and an educator as well. What drew you to write such a whimsical children’s book?     

SB I love seeing how excited kids get during the Christmas season. It takes me takes me back to the holiday magic of my own childhood. I looked forward to waking up Christmas morning, but also to a huge dinner with many aunts, uncles and cousins. Some of my most cherished memories are of those family gatherings. Also, and I can laugh about it now, I thought writing a children’s book would be easy. How wrong I was, as you and other authors know!

NS know you have just completed a middle grade novel based on your family’s extended journey to resettle in the early days of this country. Tell us a bit about it. 

SB I joined SCBWI ten years ago with the goal of writing nonfiction. When my critique group said publishers didn’t want nonfiction, I was shocked. From my years as an in-service trainer, I knew elementary teachers were begging for science books kids could read during free time. My group suggested that I write historical fiction and ‘throw’ in some science.Long story short, I selected 1816’s little-known ‘Year without Summer’ as a topic. It was also known as the ‘Starvation or Famine Year’ because killing frosts destroyed crops across New England. Ice floated in Pennsylvania ponds in July. July! These events helped trigger America’s first western migration and my family was part of it.

Their experience of travelling by wagon from Vermont to Ohio, where they built a keel-boat and continued to the Illinois Territory, served as the framework for Journey West. As for science? The unusually cold weather is linked to the explosion of Mt. Tambora, the most massive volcanic eruption in recorded history. Also, my main character is a bit of an innovator and an eyewitness to the industrial revolution. That allowed me add a realistic STEM thread to the story. By the time I finished, I had fallen in love with showing how history and science are so closely interwoven. 

NS What is next on the drawing board for you?

A friend from my Southern Illinois Book Ends group, Louann Brown, and I just finished Hidden in Plain Sight: Illinois Petroglyphs and Pictographs for Kids. I am also planning a major re-write of my Earth Secrets manuscript. It features seven ideas, based on science laws, that enable the average YA reader to understand and prevent environment problems and avoid expensive clean-ups. The principles also undermine misinformation from the anti-climate change campaign.

Seeing The First Reindeer published is a true joy. Credit for it goes to many others, including you, Nancy, for critiquing it and for helping me grow as a writer. Thank you for the opportunity to share my experiences with your readers.

The First Reindeer may be purchased at Guardian Angel Publishing, Barnes & Nobel, and at PayLoadz.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Beulah Land-A Young Adult Novel by Nancy Stewart

Violette Sinclair was always in my heart. She emerged almost fully-formed after the untimely death of my cousin Jill, who faced many obstacles as a lesbian teen. In weaving the narratives of these two powerful women’s lives together, I found they had a comparable tale to tell; one of torment, betrayal, and redemption.

I am speaking of my debut Young Adult novel, Beulah Land, published by Interlude Press, November 17, 2017. As the first year of publication nears, I'd like to revisit not only the book but the reasons why I wrote it. 

Violette (Vi,) Sinclair, a seventeen-year-old young woman, calls the Missouri Ozarks home. It is where her family has lived for two-hundred years. But Vi wonders how long she will stay alive in her own hometown. 

With help from her only friend, Junior, Vi unravels a mystery that puts her in conflict with a vicious tormentor, a dog fight syndicate, and her own mother. Vi's experience galvanizes her strength as she struggles to survive in a place where a person can wake up dead simply because of who she is.

It is my hope that readers find this book not only entertaining but uplifting, and hopeful. Violette is not a victim. She is victorious. But the journey from potential victim to victorious woman is harrowing and rife with many dangers. 

The manuscript won First Place at the State of Florida Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators in 2015. The book, in pre-publishing, won two Five Star Awards (Foreword Reviews and NetGalley.) 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Diversity: The Magic Word in Young Adult Novels

“When I was growing up, I never saw a book cover or read a book about someone who looked like me.” 

Renee Watson
This heartrending quote came from a good friend and colleague of mine several years ago. She is an African-American woman, an educator and published author. My friend now writes Young Adult novels that include healthy doses of diverse characters, and she feels fulfilled by doing so.

The tragedy, of course, is that it took so long coming. And the question is, why? One of the more obvious answers lies in the publishing houses. Publishers, in large part, have traditionally been white themselves. There was a widespread belief that diverse books would not be marketable, thus the profits would suffer. Finally, though, as with the impact of television in the 1950’s, the Internet came into its own. At about the same time, a third-wave feminist movement occurred, and a growing appreciation for the need of diverse young adult literature took root. Happily, today, with organizations such as We Need Diverse Books and Diversity in YA, the concept and use of diverse characters is much more fully etched in the writing landscape.
Nancy Stewart

Diverse novels such as The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake and The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, legitimize diversity. These books give the characters flesh and blood, and heart, and humanity, not to mention a voice from which the reader can learn and grow. And if the reader is diverse him/herself, that person can be much the richer for having read the book.

If ever there were a time for Young Adult books featuring diverse characters, it is now. The rising culture of nationalism, brought on in large part by shifting populations worldwide, is allowing and validating groups of hatemongers in the United States and across the globe. Literature in general, and Young Adult literature in particular, has the power to combat such dangerous philosophies.

The future appears brighter in the world of Young Adult Literature. Publishing houses are much more open to giving diverse authors and their books the chance to be read. Librarians are buying the books needed by and for diverse populations. And teachers are recommending and reading these books to their classes. Diversity is truly the magic word in Young Adult novels.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Better Literacy? An Age-Old Question

As parents and educators, we ask ourselves the question throughout our adult lives. And if we had literacy problems as kids, we were highly aware of the problem but probably couldn’t put a name to it.

When I was a new teacher of young children, my emphasis was on the how-to part of the reading process.  It was more prescriptive driven than holistic. By that I mean, my aim was to make sure my students could technically read, and I taught them the way I was schooled to do it. And mercifully, most of them achieved.

But as I grew older and became a parent, a paradigm shift occurred within me. Teaching reading is not only a technical thing. What I was neglecting was the heart of the matter. Literacy is about love. Love of the printed word. Wonder at what happens when one opens a book. Anticipation at what lies ahead. How can we achieve that magic today?

Modeling the love of reading to our young ones is the most powerful emotional literacy tool we have. It’s good to have a group of age appropriate books readily available.  Try to locate them in a place of importance, by a sofa in the family room, in the bedroom or the kitchen. That pivotal placement will rub off on the kids!

When I taught pre-service teachers in university, I emphasized the practice of reading the room. Do the same for your young ones. Label their belongings, not just in their rooms but all over the house.  Alphabet magnets are wonderful, particularly at their reaching level. Make your home one of written words. The safety children (should) find there, coupled with the richness of words wherever they look will do wonders for making reading a skill, a skill that exudes warmth and coziness. No room for failure in such an environment.

Let’s not forget the tools for writing and drawing. Manipulating crayons, pencils and waterproof markers is crucial in learning to hold the tool properly. Those squiggles soon turn into primitive letters which lead to the magic of words. Their imaginations and creativity will take over, leading the way to literacy.

Nancy Stewart reading to class during Author Time
Be a teller of stories. Nothing fascinates a child more than hearing their adult loved one talk about a time when s/he was not there. Or a world the story teller is spinning. Or an animal that talks. Or…whatever. Listening is part of literacy, and listening to a person they love and respect is the cherry on top! 

These are but a few suggestions for turning your child’s fertile mind into a blooming garden. It’s so easy, so nurturing, so crucial. If we can put more importance on the love of all things literacy as we do on video games, and television, our children will be the winners. And we will have been the ones to take them to such achievements. That, of course, is the best gift we as caregivers and teachers can give to any youngster. It will change their lives forever.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Belleville Native’s Debut YA Novel was Sparked by Cousin’s Death

My Young adult novel, Beulah Land was published by Interlude Press November 2017. I am publishing the review from my hometown newspaper, the Belleville News Democrat (Belleville, IL.) I am grateful to Caitlin Lally, for the lovely review:

A new, young adult fiction book set in the Missouri Ozarks just hit store shelves, and award-winning author Nancy Rosenthal Stewart, a Belleville native, said she drew inspiration from her environment and her own life situations.
“All of us as human beings are just an amalgam of experiences — that’s all we are. Experiences really define who we are, I think, and who we become,” Stewart said.
For Stewart, growing up alongside her cousin and visiting Lake Taneycomo every summer were the experiences that sparked her first novel “Beulah Land,” which was released in November. The book revolves around the life of 17-year-old girl Violette Sinclair, whose family has lived in the Ozarks for 200 years.
“Most summers, my family and I would spend a week or so in the Ozarks, and I just grew to love it. It’s just a wonderful — a bit rugged — place, but beautiful to visit,” Stewart said. “It really made a bigger impression on me than I thought it did at the time.”
Stewart said Violette’s character was influenced by the life of her late cousin, Jill. “My cousin was gay, and she had a very hard time growing up because ... part of the family simply did not accept her.”
Stewart said she began writing the story after her cousin died three years ago. “At her celebration of life party, the novel ‘Beulah Land’ came to me basically fully formed, it was like a Rubik’s Cube — ch, ch, ch, ch, ch — and there it was.”
According to Stewart, the main character needed to be placed in a difficult environment, and for Violette, that would be the rural Ozarks. “Authors always put their protagonist — hero or heroine — in the hardest place possible (to) give them so many things to overcome. So the Ozarks for a girl who is gay, that’s where she had to go.”
However, both the author and editor said Violette’s sexuality is not the main focus of the story.
“Though Violette Sinclair is definitely facing adversity due to her orientation … that’s not the point of what she’s trying to solve in this book,” Annie Harper, executive editor of Interlude Press, said. “What she’s trying to do is solve a mystery to save her family.”
“Vi, at the end of the day, is a wonderful, courageous human being, who just happens to be gay — it’s just one little facet of her life. The rest of her life is so much more,” Stewart said.
A publisher of LGBTQ fiction, Interlude Press has a young adult offshoot called Duet Books, through which “Beulah Land” was produced. Harper said it was important to publish the novel because of what the main character represents.

“She doesn’t just survive — she triumphs,” Harper said. “We don’t have enough stories about girls and women driving the story, driving the action, solving the problem, you know, without necessarily relying on someone else to do it for them.”
Stewart said she caught the attention of publishers after “Beulah Land” won an award in 2015 for being the top book in the state of Florida, where she currently resides. “Believe me, no one was more surprised than I was,” Stewart said.
While some may avoid the young adult section of the bookstore for one reason or another, Stewart said this narrative is not just for teen readers.
“The most important people to read it, I think, would be young people who are just learning about themselves; young people who are conflicted, perhaps, about their sexuality, but having said that, I would really like for their parents to read it, too,” Stewart said. “I really think it is a book for all people because it doesn’t just only deal with a gay girl — it deals with truth, and it deals with honesty, and it deals with valor.”

About the author

Just as Violette’s family roots run deep, so do Stewart’s. She said her family has lived in the Belleville area for nearly 100 years.
“I’m so fortunate to have grown up in the Midwest, with Midwestern values. I think that Belleville was a great place to grow up,” Stewart said. “I know that smaller communities sometimes get a bad rap, but I don’t feel that way. Belleville will always have a very warm spot in my heart.”
An alumna of Washington University in St. Louis, Stewart went into education and found herself at McKendree Universityteaching children’s and young adult literature when she began to consider writing as a career.
“During those years, I began to toy with the idea of writing, and over about a four- or five-year period it just became clear to me that I wanted to write.”
Stewart has published five children’s books in addition to “Beulah Land.”
Retail price for “Beulah Land” is $15.99. This and other books by Stewart can be purchased on Amazon, at or at Barnes & Noble.