Janet Halfmann has been a popular author here at Wrapped In Foil. She has a new picture book out, Home in the Cave, illustrated by Shennen Bersani, published by Sylvan Dell. It fills the niche for young readers who prefer reading fiction, yet benefit from facts and details of nonfiction. The best part is the book comes with a free teaching activity guide (51 pages!), available for download at Sylvan Dell.
The story follows main character Baby Bat, who isn’t sure he wants to learn how to fly because it will mean leaving the safety of his cave. Through an accident, he meets Pluribus Packrat. Pluribus shows him all the amazing cave creatures that depend on bats for their existence. Will Baby Bat find the courage to fly out to find food outside the cave and keep the food web going?
Included in the back of the book is a section called “For Creative Minds.” It gives a lot more information about caves and the animals that live in them. There are quizzes, such as distinguishing living things from non-living. On the following two-page spread is a hands-on activity about bat echolocation, a compare and contrast activity looking at bats, birds and humans, and an open-ended discussion of whether bats are good or bad.
For staunch fans of fiction, Home in the Cave is a way to stretch their wings into stories with an informational slant. Backed by tons of educational materials, it has benefits for fans of nonfiction as well.
Janet has graciously stopped by to tell us about her wonderful new picture book from Sylvan Dell, Fur and Feathers, illustrated by Laurie Allen Klein. (You might remember Janet as the author of Little Black Ant on Park Street, which I reviewed back in February. )
Fur and Feathers is a sweet tale of a young girl, Sophia, who dreams the animals have all lost their coverings in a big storm. She wants to help, but how?
Janet, would you mind giving us a brief history of how this imaginative book came about?
Sylvan Dell Publishing was looking for a book on animal wraps, and right away that topic intrigued me. So I started brainstorming fun story possibilities around that theme. It didn’t take long before I came up with the idea of a storm blowing the coats off all the animals. I thought how fun it would be to have the animals dress in kid clothes, and I did that in the story. But the story needed something more. That’s when I remembered the huge sewing box I always kept handy for fixing or creating whatever when my four children were growing up. I decided to have Sophia create new coats for the animals based on what they told her they needed. Then, seemingly all on her own, Sophia began adding special touches, such as a red heart behind the polar bear’s ear and yellow bows on the snake. Adding those special touches and figuring out what items from the sewing box would work for each coat were my favorite parts of writing the story. I included animals from each group to make the book as educational as possible.
It’s fascinating that you were able to take something from the publisher’s wish list and run with it. Aspiring authors should take note.
Let’s get back, however, to your last point about making the book educational. Here at Wrapped In Foil, I love books with hands-on activities and I noticed Sylvan Dell has provided an extensive Teaching Activity Guide (in column on upper right at website) for use with Fur and Feathers. How important is it to you that your books be educational?
Whenever I can add educational elements that naturally fit the story, I try to do that. When I’m writing a story about an animal, I research that animal thoroughly. I especially like to read scientists’ first-hand observations of the animal’s life and behavior, so I can include specific telling details about the animal: how it learns to fly, what noises it makes, how it interacts with its parents and siblings. I think those specific details make the story come alive for the child. I couldn’t do as much of that in Fur and Feathers because there are so many animals, and each one is only on stage briefly. But in Little Skink’s Tail, even though the book is fiction, I was careful to make the habitat correct and Little Skink’s behavior accurate; for example, having her warm up in the sun before she begins her day and eat ants for breakfast.
Yes, I see why you couldn’t pack in a lot of detail in when you had numerous animals to “cover.” But you do have the “For Creative Minds” section at the end of the book with useful scientific information about animal classification. It fits so well because sorting is such an important skill for your target age group.
You are a successful author of over 30 children’s books. Let’s talk a minute about being a writer.
Children’s authors need to promote their own books these days, and you are in the midst of a promotional blitz. Do you have any pointers?
Promoting Fur and Feathers is somewhat easier than my previous books because I have built many relationships in the last few years. Little Skink’s Tail (2007) was my first big marketing effort because my previous books were work-for-hire projects, which authors can’t really afford to spend too much time promoting. I’m definitely not an expert on marketing, but I think it’s really important to show how much I appreciate every effort that a blogger, a bookstore, a librarian puts forth for me. For example, both my hometown library and the library in the town where I grew up were happy to host my double book launch party for Fur and Feathers and Good Night, Little Sea Otter because of our previous relationships.
How did you learn about marketing?
I’ve learned what I know about marketing primarily by noticing what other children’s writers are doing: by reading their posts on blogs, listservs, Facebook, and their articles in writers’ magazines. I’ve also read several books on marketing, and Sylvan Dell also offers marketing tips to its authors.
How do you balance writing and marketing?
I don’t know if I balance writing and marketing well. For a month or two after a new book comes out (and this fall with two new books out it’s especially hectic), most of my time is consumed by marketing: researching bloggers and asking them to review my book; contacting bookstores, nature centers etc.; creating the props needed for my interactive story times; publicizing my events, etc. At some point I just have to tell myself it’s time to stop promoting and write and hold myself to it.
Those are some great pointers. It does not sound easy, and I’m sure writers will appreciate your willingness to share your insights. For those who are interested, Sylvan Dell’s marketing information is on top right of the submissions page.
I had another question about writing. Given the recent controversies about challenged and banned books, did you have any worries that some parents might object to the animals in Fur and Feathers being “naked?”
I must admit, the thought of someone objecting to animals without their coverings never crossed my mind until I read your question. I guess I never really thought of the animals as being naked. However, Illustrator Laurie Allen Klein did, but not because of any moral issue. Her dilemma—”How To Make Naked Animals Cute.” You can read her blog post about it here. Many animals look lots different without their coverings. In fact, some look like a completely different animal. That’s the problem Laurie faced with the polar bear because under its white (actually transparent) fur, its skin is black. Laurie worried that kids would think the coatless polar bear was a black bear. Her solution: she put the polar bear in a hooded sweatsuit while it awaited its new coat. As it turned out, the scene in the story where Sophia dresses the animals in her clothes was a lifesaver for Laurie. The animals could “look cute” wearing kid clothes while they waited for Sophia to do her magic!
That’s a clever solution, thank you for sharing. Who would have thought polar bears would have had dark skin under what appears to be white fur?
Let’s “wrap” up with a lighter question.
I see your favorite animal is a cat. Do you have any cats and do they help you write?
Growing up on a farm, we always had lots of cats, and I loved them as much as they loved me. Whenever I tried to pick vegetables in the garden, it was next to impossible because the cats wanted to be right in the middle of it all. They figured playing with them was more important than any chores! Since then, our family has usually included a cat. Our cat Jackie was a member of our family for nineteen years. When she died a few years ago, I decided my five grandcats and one granddog were enough to keep me happy. I’m sure there is a cat story somewhere in my future!
Thanks so much for talking with me. It’s been great fun!
I can’t wait to see the cat story. I appreciate that you took time out of your busy fall schedule to do this interview. You willingness to share your experiences and understanding of writing children’s books is inspiring.
And now let’s take a look at Fur and Feathers:
Doesn’t that just make you want to cuddle up and read?
Edit: Exciting news: Janet has just let us know that Fur and Feathers has won a 2010 Gold Moonbeam for preschool picture books.
Fur and Feathers is for children ages 4-8.
Paperback: 32 pages
Publisher: SylvanDellPublishing (released August 10, 2010)