Diversity is Every Day



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Here comes another month of celebrating cultures! Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Filipino American History Month, Native American Heritage Month. While I applaud celebrating diversity, shouldn’t every day be a Diversity Day?

It is almost thirty years this month that I started teaching urban kids in Harlem. And from that time, in the mid 1980’s until today, so much has changed. We only had the books of the father of African American kid lit, Walter Dean Myers, to offer up to to middle school and high school kids who wanted to see themselves depicted realistically in books.  Forget about finding any diversity in picture books then.  Today we have wonderfully diverse picture and chapter books by the likes of Walter’s son, Christopher Myers, Don Tate, Kwame Alexander, Zetta Elliott, Jacqueline Woodson, just to name a few authors of color. Monica Brown, Margarita L’Engle and Meg Medina are Latina authors representing their Hispanic culture in picture and middle grade books.  Not to mention this year’s multi award winner, Matt de la Pena, whose “Last Stop on Market Street,” has universal themes for kids of all colors.  Joseph Bruhac continues to be the master spinner of tales with Native American settings and characters.

Publishers like Lee and Low, Tu Books, Kar-Ben and Apples and Honey Press strive to show kids of different races and religions in their publishing choices. Theses publishers were not around in the 1980’s when I first had to recommend books to kids of color.  I have seen a multitude of changes in children’s lit as both a teacher and currently librarian. But I say to you, shouldn’t every day be a diversity day, to learn about a new culture? I now teach to a predominantly Haitian- American population and while we do spend a large amount of time learning and reading about African American history, which is great,  I also love for my students to read about other cultures. I have had some interesting conversations with African American fourth and fifth graders about the Holocaust and how my grandfather lost many of his siblings during Hitler’s regime.  If we only learn about our own culture, we are not getting the full picture of humanity.  And despite what many are saying, I have seen big and great changes in the world of children’s literature over the past few decades.





“And may the odds be ever in your favor.”


I am not a mathematical person. I hated taking Statistics in college. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that for unpublished writers the odds are not in our favor.  Here’s hoping that 2016, is a great year for debut, unpublished writers of kid and YA lit. There has been a renaissance of lovely picture book illustrators in 2015 and YA writers of dystopian chronicles about fictional characters in fictional lands seems to be the norm. But what about a good, old-fashioned story?  I am primarily a non-fiction writer and we depend on great research and facts, woven with lyrical writing. Sometimes that makes our stories even harder to sell and market, especially for the children’s market which is highly fiction driven.

But it is a New Year. And there have been statistics, aha, that say print book sales for kids are up  and e-books sales for kids are dwindling. Kids are reading again, be it graphic novels or even non-fiction picture books. It is still a delight to this kid’s librarian to see a young child holding a physical book rather than an IPad. So, to my writer friends out there, don’t give up hope. 2016 is just around the corner and kids are still reading the old-fashioned way. And since eighteen, chai, is a lucky number in Judaism, 2016 added together, 18  doubled or 36, this just might be your lucky year!

Author Interview: Celebrating Hanukkah with Karen Rostoker-Gruber

Hanukkah’s starting one week from today and it’s a perfect time to grab a copy of author Karen Rostoker-Gruber’s newest gem, Farmer Kobi’s Hanukkah Match.

I had the pleasure of catching up with her and chatting about not only Farmer Kobi, but some of her earlier works. Karen is an award-winning New Jersey author who loves to feature animals as her main characters. What better way to get kids interested in reading!  Library Inspirations had the following questions to ask:

LI:  What inspired your idea for Farmer Kobi’s Hannukah Match? You often have animals as characters, but this time with a Jewish theme.

Karen: Ever since I wrote “Rooster Can’t Cock-a-Doodle-Doo,” in 2004 for Dial Books for Young Readers, which sold A LOT of copies, was nominated for awards: The Missouri Show Me Award, The International Reading Association, Children’s Choices Award, was put on the Bureau of Education and Research’s Best of the Year list for 2005, and selected to be a Dolly Parton Imagination Library selection two years in a row (selling like 75,000 copies both years) I couldn’t get farm animals out of my head.  They wanted to be in another book.  Since the Rooster book was doing very well, my editor at Dial had asked me to write a sequel.  I did.  It was called “Farmer Ted’s Dinner Date.” But, like most good things in life, that editor left Dial.  So, I kept that book sitting in my drawer until 2013.

In 2013 I met with Rabbi Ron Isaacs.  He was my Rabbi at Temple Sholom in Bridgewater, NJ.  I wanted to tap a different market–the Jewish market–and I wondered if there were any stories that I currently had that would be of any use, if I just revised them.  One of the manuscripts that I gave him to read was “Farmer Ted’s Dinner Date.”  He told me that there were a lot of Jewish values in that book, and that I should send that manuscript to some Jewish publications once I “baked” in more Jewish customs, or food, or something.  That night I went home and did a lot of thinking.  It dawned on me that I had the perfect fix.  A lot of my family members live in Israel and some live on the most famous moshav there–The Nahalal Moshav.  I went to the library, and found out that there are currently NO (nada, ziltch) children’s books about life on a moshav.  So I contacted my cousins in Israel, had them send me photographs of life on a moshav-pictures of the tractors that they drive, the houses that they live in, the clothes that they wear, animals that they have, and things that they keep in their pantry.  I rewrote the book, changed the animals (and the puns), changed the food that the farmer served (he was always a vegetarian, but now he was eating more Israeli food), the farmer’s name, the setting, and the title to “Farmer Yehuda’s Dinner Date,”  and submitted it to Behrman House.  At that time Behrman House, which is a publishing house that is really big in the Jewish Educational world, was launching a new press for the trade market called, “Apples and Honey Press.” It was perfect timing.  🙂

LI:  Was it fun to collaborate with your co-author, Rabbi Ron Isaacs? What are the Jewish values in your book?

Karen: Rabbi Ron and I are having a blast working together.  Not only did we write together (me: the story, Ron: the “A Note for Families”), but we are also putting on Hanukkah shows.  I didn’t realize that Ron not only sings and plays guitar, but is a magician as well.  I am an author and a ventriloquist, so it is quite the match.  We are having so much fun; I can’t believe we are getting paid for it.  🙂

LI: I love your Ferret character series, any plans for more books in that series?

Karen: Thank you for loving my ferret friends (Fudge and Einstein).  They are quite the ferret duo.  When the first ferret book, “Ferret Fun,” came out I was working with Margery Cuyler at Marshall Cavendish.  Marshall Cavendish was sold to Amazon when “Ferret Fun in the Sun,” was released,  and Margery Cuyler left, so I don’t think more ferret books will be coming out.  😦

I write about animals because they don’t have limitations or restrictions.  What I mean by that is that no one (parents, editors) gets upset if a cat goes outside alone, without holding someone’s hand to cross the street, or if a ferret explores a bit in the book and meets up with a snake, without its owner, etc.  There is a bit too much to consider when writing about an actual child.  Also, I get to use puns when I have the animals talk and that is always so much fun.  🙂

 Karen’s website is: http://www.karenrostoker-gruber.com/

And get your latkes frying, dreidels spinning and please read this newest Hannukah classic with your family!

Farmer Kobi’s Hanukkah Match
by Karen Rostoker-Gruber & Rabbi Ron Issacs; illus. by CB Decker
32 pages; ages 4-7
Apples & Honey Press, 2015



Writing Narrative Non-Fiction for Kids : Weaving Together Facts and Fiction

inventors-secret-cvr_large                                                                                                         The job of the non-fiction writer is tough; besides getting the facts straight, we need to weave together a narrative that presents the facts in an interesting way for readers.  Doing the research can sometimes be the easier of the two parts of the narrative non-fiction writer’s job. Finding the right voice and editing your story can take longer than finding the facts.

Where to start?  Find an interesting subject for kids who has not been written about endlessly. If you are going to write about Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, what is the spin on your story that is different from the dozens of books already out there?  There have been great new children’s bios in the past few years about  Albert Einstein, Gordon Parks, even one about  the friendship between Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. All of these books relied on strong writing and beautiful illustration to drive forward story.

As a researcher I find my subjects by reading, reading, reading. Newspaper and magazine articles  provide a great starting path to finding good subjects for non-fiction. I spend a lot of time in the American History and Biography sections of my library looking for new subjects to research. When I find a person who I think will be interesting to kids or who is an undiscovered hero, I am ready to begin my writing. It usually takes me a few weeks to get the facts, but a few months to write the main story and connect the dots on how to make a scientist’s or historian’s life relatable to kids today. I try to find facts about the person when they were a child and who or what inspired them when they were younger. Is there an important life event of your subject that can be the main plot line of your narrative children’s biography?

Last, but not least, after you have the narrative done, take a few weeks to let your manuscript rest. Read it over with fresh eyes and edit out all the extraneous words; the ands, the “thes” and too many hes, and shes . It’s amazing what a second, third or tenth look at your writing will find. Have some other readers’  opinions.  A strong, respectful  or poetic voice about your subject  throughout your manuscript is key. If you love who or what you are writing about it will show.



A World Without Octobers- STEM and roots of growing lifelong readers

Writers’ block has haunted me for a few weeks after the death of my dad. Finally, my creative juices are flowing again and I have to thank my kindergarteners I teach library skills to for that.  It’s true- everything you need to know about life you learn in kindergarten. Because of my love of nature I feel inspired to teach my PreK and K all about its beauty, especially since they live in a very urban environment, an inner city. Every year we read favorite picture books, like “The Leaf Man,” ” How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin?” and “The Runaway Pumpkin.”   Every year I bring in mini pumpkins in October and teach them about the parts of a plant and the life cycle of a plant from seed to sprout.  At the end of October, I always give the pumpkins to the kids to keep, after they have graced the library desks. There are actual arguments about who gets to take the pumpkins home. I have to raffle them off and still some kids are upset. I cannot possibly buy 200 or 300 pumpkins for all the Prek to 2 graders I teach, but I do know that I have instilled in them a love for reading and learning about nature. We count pumpkins, look at the fall leaves and read so many books about them, fiction and non-fiction. The fall is probably my favorite season. October’s glorious colors and the crisper weather inspire me.  I discover migratory birds returning back south or west in my garden during October and November.  My lovely garden plants start to hibernate for winter, turning brown and dry. And I wait for the spring when I will again teach my students about the life cycle of nature, but this time of the miraculous monarch butterfly.

Back to School with Picture Book Author Audrey Vernick

It’s that time of year again! Parents and teachers are getting ready, kids are getting nervous that summer is ending. To ease the transition back, why not introduce some humorous and fun new books into your school year? As a librarian I love to find new picture books perfect for my kindergarten and first graders. I interviewed Audrey Vernick, who is not only a great picture book author, but a fellow writer friend who I grew up with back in Queens, NYC.  Our  shared love of reading and baseball (Yankees and Mets) probably harkens back to those simpler days in the 1970’s before cyberspace and cell phones.  Audrey is a prolific writer who has four new books to be released in 2016, both fiction and non-fiction.  Her newest is the hilarious “First Grade Dropout.” We had a lovely chat about books, writing and baseball.

Lisa:  What were some of your favorite books/authors to read when you were in elementary school?

Audrey: I very much remember loving Ursula Nordstrom’s The Secret Language, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. I read that magical garden-discovery scene over and over. Syd Hoff’s novel, Irving and Me, is something I read repeatedly too, though I don’t know why. I think it was fascinating to be in a boy brain in that way for me when I was in fifth grade.

Lisa: How did Mrs. Falon, our PS 184 librarian, influence you?

Audrey: For me, Mrs. Falon is most memorable for coupling arts and crafts with alliteration and ambitious lyric attempts. Every year, as I remember it, we had to make a “Barney Bookworm” out of a squiggly piece of styrofoam. We may have pierced Barney in the general eye area to string a bit of yarn through his head so we could wear him around our necks. And Mrs. Falon wrote her own lyrics to “O Tannenbaum” to include Chanukah in a December holiday song, memorably rhyming remember and December. But most palpably of all, I remember that Mrs. Falon wore a very generous amount of tea rose perfume.

Lisa: Who are some of your fav picture book authors for kids today?

Audrey: SO MANY! Liz Garton Scanlon, Deborah Underwood. Bob Shea hits my funny bone. Newcomer Beth Ferry is sort of astounding with her perfect debut book, Stick and Stone hitting the NY Times Bestsellers List! I’ll always be madly in love with James Marshall’s George and Martha books. And I could spend years looking at Kadir Nelson’s illustrations and not grow bored.

Lisa: Do you prefer to write fiction or non-fiction, since you are a prolific author in both

Audrey: I honestly enjoy both–that’s why I write both. I wouldn’t love writing about something I don’t care about–like explorers or clouds or something. That would feel like dreaded homework. But I get to choose what I write about, one of my favorite things about what I do.

Lisa: Some of your books are so funny. (ie. Is YourBuffalo Ready for Kindergarden?,
First Grade Dropout, Edgar) Do you have an author who influenced your
humorous style?

 Audrey: Thank you! I had to think about the answer to this one. And I’m pretty sure this is it. Mo Willems broke it all open. Or at least he’s the writer on my radar who leapt over what passed for funny in picture books to a genuinely funny place. I wouldn’t say he influenced my style, but I think he’s the one who gave me permission to be a more genuine kind of funny in my books. People who know me well say my books read just like me talking. For that influence, I guess I’d look toward my family on 23rd Avenue in Whitestone

LIsa: Finally I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about your love of baseball. You have a new book coming out next year, The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton, about a female ball player and have 2 prior titles about baseball players. How did you get so interested in the sport?

Audrey: I become a stuttery mess when I’m asked this at author visits. I’ve concluded that explaining why you like something is really hard. My preference for purple over white grape juice–it tastes better–is not easy to articulate in a way that really explains it. There are a few reasons. I love baseball’s rich history. I like that it’s played without a clock. It’s a game with an enormous amount of time in it (too much for those who are not fans), and it allows a brain to sometimes get hazy and drift and find the stories within the game or reflect back on another game or just savor the moment. As someone who is not a natural high-fiver, I have hilarious memories of high fiving strangers at Yankee Stadium after some incredible moments–amazing plays in the postseason, Jeter’s 3000th hit, Josh Hamilton’s insane moonshots at the Home Run Derby come to mind).

There’s also the improbability of the game that delights me. In crafting stories, we’re supposed to write an ending that’s surprising but that ultimately seems almost inevitable. On the nights that baseball does that–wow.

To read more about Audrey’s books, take a look at her lovely new website at http://www.audreyvernick.com/