Special Interview: Author Barbara Bottner

Interview: Barbara Bottner

This week, I’m honored present a short interview with Barbara Bottner, a New York Times bestselling children’s book author. In addition to writing both picture books and early readers, Bottner also has enjoyed an incredibly diverse and intriguing career in the children’s publishing, educational and entertainment industries.

Bottner worked for Disney as a writer on the Winnie the Pooh series, created award-winning short films for Sesame Street and The Electric Company, wrote lyrics for Jim Henson’s “Fair is Fair” album for the Muppets, taught kindergarten, toured the U.S. and Europe as an actor and worked as a staff writer for Nickelodeon.

 On May 12, 2015, Bottner’s new picture book was released. With lovely, poetic prose and easy humor, the book gently guides children through their last waking moments in a day:

 

Feet Go To Sleep cover Feet, Go to Sleep

 By Barbara Bottner, Illustrated by Maggie Smith

 Published by: Knopf Books for Young Readers (May 12, 2015)

 Available in: hardcover, kindle, NOOK

And now, the author’s interview with Chapter Book Chat:

 

CBC: You’ve written for children in many formats and genres. When you begin a project of a longer nature, such as an early reader or chapter book, do you have a particular process? Is this different from genre to genre?

BOTTNER: My process is the same in some ways regardless of genre but the same in other ways. First of all, there is an idea. The idea is pure. The core of something I think would be fun or challenging to explore. I always begin with characters, and characters beget dialogue and some shape for the story. How much story will there be is the question that begins to arise. It’s now in the process that I step back to decide what kind of manuscript this might become. If there is a lot of dialogue it might be a chapter book, although these days chapter books are more difficult in the marketplace. (previously, I did write a bunch) There is the sense that the characters and the ‘arena’ will tell me what the book needs to be. For longer books, I might start out a little more strategically. That is, with a theme I want to explore. I love longer stories but I’m not the best plotter in the world, so I have to be careful that I don’t get lost in a manuscript if I can’t organize the plot.

pish coverCBC: Does your experience as an actor play into your feeling for dialogue, rhythm and/0r the meter of prose?

BOTTNER: Funny you ask it now, because I just wrote a short theatrical piece that is being performed and had the pleasure of watching a rehearsal and admiring what the actors brought to it. I’m not sure there is a direct link, but more that my sense of drama and humor are at the core of who I am, thus what I end up writing. There is the training of an actor, which I think is helpful–to get into the character and even create backstories and other events that inform that character. So, all the training I’ve had, also as an artist, set designer, all play into the work. I also think being musical is a great thing for any writer. I have never played an instrument but I do appreciate music and have pretty good rhythm. Being able to connect to your various aptitudes, abilities, passions, can only help.

CBC: As a former teacher, what would you suggest writers think about when they consider kids and classrooms? Is there something that writers can do that would help teachers teach and kids learn?

BOTTNER: I am still a teacher, but for adults, although I’m hoping to work with teens soon. I will come clean and say I don’t think about the classroom when I write. I am trying to become authentically engaged in the world of the child, her emotions, her obstacles, and my own childhood issues, so I’m sort of inside that box, not outside of it. Having said that, editors will bring that up; and should, it’s part of their job to make the work relevant. When I was starting out, I used to study books about the kinds of personality changes and developmental changes kids went through as they went through elementary school. But my work is about really connecting on as deep a level as I can, to childhood, to the foibles and frustrations of childhood, so I can mirror real children. I believe we have to empower kids and validate who they are so they can feel free in who they are. This gives them a leg up as they go forward in life, this keeps them whole.

marsha coverCBC: You seem to use a lot of alliteration in your book titles (Rosa’s Room, Bootsie Barker Ballerina, Pish and Posh Wish for Fairy Wings). Is this just for fun, or is there a deeper reason?

BOTTNER: I am not truly conscious of alliteration any more than any wordsmith might be. It’s just fun. It rolls off the tongue easily. I think if you don’t love words, you shouldn’t tackle them. Words should be like good chocolate, pure pleasure. Or the pleasure of capturing something, nailing it down, bingo, I got it. I’m more aware of those issues.

 

What do you say teachers, parents and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….

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Wishing You…

…a New Year filled with children, literature and good children’s literature.

A little holiday cheer from my pug, Monkey. She submitted to this humiliation, but that doesn't mean she liked it!

A little holiday cheer from my pug, Monkey. She submitted to this humiliation, but that doesn’t mean she liked it!

I’ll be back in January 2015 with more reviews, opinions and pertinent musings about chapter books. Thanks to everyone who stopped into Chapter Book Chat and contributed to the conversation in 2014.

Differences of Early Readers & Chapter Books

GUEST POST BY AUTHOR CLAUDIA MILLS:

What’s the Difference Between Early Readers and Chapter Books?  annika riz cover A previous post discussed the difference between chapter books and middle grade novels. Here, we go the other direction–that of early readers to chapter books. Graciously sharing her thoughts on the topic is author Claudia Mills. She writes both genres of books, and her work has been honored as ALA Notable Books of the Year. See her full profile following this post.

I treat “early reader” and “easy reader” as interchangeable terms. As I categorize them, these are very short texts for newly independent readers. The texts vary in length, but are seldom much longer than 1,000 words, and a premium is put on readability.

gus grandpa coverThe chief device employed to enhance readability is the breaking of the lines on the page with only a few words (perhaps 4–6 words) on each line, giving the visual appearance of poetry; this way emerging readers only need to try to grasp a few words at a time. Paragraph breaks are marked by a space in the text rather than by indentation. Controlled vocabulary is often employed, as well as repetition of words and phrases. Among my favorite examples here are the Frog and Toad books of Arnold Lobel and the Henry and Mudge books of Cynthia Rylant. My own Gus and Grandpa series falls in this category as well. Easy readers usually have full-color throughout with illustrations on every page.

There is a significant leap from easy/early readers to chapter books. Word count springs from 1,000 or so words to 10,000, 15,000 or more. My own chapter books in the Franklin School Friends series are around 15,000 words each. Now we see black and white illustrations, often one per chapter, or perhaps more frequent spot illustrations, oliver coverbut seldom do we find art on every page. The chief way that readability is ensured is by keeping paragraphs short. If I see a text with paragraphs routinely extending more than 6 or 7 lines, I say to myself, “This is a middle-grade novel and not a chapter book.” My favorite examples here are the Clementine books of Sara Pennypacker and the Lulu books of Hilary McKay, as well as my own 7 x 9 = Trouble! and How Oliver Olson Changed the World. But of course, there are longer easy readers and shorter chapter books, so the boundaries can be blurred.

Chapter books are now my favorite kind of book to write. I see them as having much of the range and complexity of middle-grade novels, but with brisker, peppier pacing, and a certain sweetness that middle-grade fiction often lacks. They often deal with smaller problems resolved in a shorter time frame. They are written on a child’s scale with those sparkling details that are true to a third grader’s perception of the world.   Fractions_Jkt_ver2a(2)

Profile: Claudia Mills is the author of 50 books for young readers, including picture books (Ziggy’s Blue-Ribbon Day), easyKELSEY-GREEN-cover-2 readers (the ten books of the Gus and Grandpa series), chapter books (Kelsey Green, Reading Queen, Fractions = Trouble!), and middle-grade novels (Zero Tolerance, One Square Inch). Her books have been named ALA Notable Books of the Year, Blue Ribbon Books from the Center for Children’s Books, and translated into many languages. Dr. Mills, who Zero-Tolerance-Coverholds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University, is also an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she specializes in ethics and political philosophy, as well as publishing many articles on ethical and philosophical themes in children’s literature.

Year One Re-Post #13: Difference Between Chapter Books and Middle Grade

Chances are you are reading this blog because of this post. Originally posted in October 2013 and then again in the spring of 2014, this continues to be a post that is searched for and read by numerous people every day.  Every day. For a blog, that’s close to astounding. I knew this topic drove me crazy, but I didn’t understand just how many others found it of concern. So for the last time:

 

THE GREAT CHAPTER BOOK & MIDDLE GRADE CONFUSION

When the differences between chapter books and middle grade novels are blurred, kids and chapter books lose.

 

Confused about what to call a chapter book or middle grade? You’re not alone.

Lately, it seems the distinction between chapter books and middle grade is blurred–or even invisible. Google “best” or “greatest” chapter books, and you see lists from organizations as far flung as Goodreads to the esteemed School Library Journal. Commonly found near the top? A Wrinkle in Time, Holes, The Giver and other middle grade classics.

Now picture your average second grader. What seems more appropriate: Captain Underpants or A Wrinkle in Time? Which will encourage his tender, fledgling reading skill? Fan the flames of his reading desire? Give him reading gusto?

I don’t know about you, but I’m going with the dude in the tighty whiteys.

The two excellent books speak to two very different audiences. So why are they lumped together?

“Chapter books and middle grade books are technically two different categories from a publisher’s point of view,” says Emma D. Dryden, founder of drydenbks, a children’s book editorial and publishing consultancy firm. “Even though many books for middle grade readership have chapters, they’re not normally referred to as ”chapter books” by publishers; they are, however, often referred to as “chapter books” by booksellers and librarians, and others, which is why I believe there’s confusion about this.”

Dryden, whose career in the publishing industry has included time as vice president, publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books, explains that from a publisher’s standpoint “…chapter books are those books geared towards readers between the ages of 7—10, and they will be formatted to lots of black-and-white illustrations, the chapters will be short, the type will be large, and there will be a nice amount of white space on the pages; the protagonists in chapter books are customarily about eight- or nine-years-old.”

Thus, chapter books invite the young reader in. They make a point not to intimidate.

Conversely, Dryden says middle grade books “…are geared towards readers between the ages of 8—12, and they may or may not have illustrations, the chapters will be longer, the type will be of a more standard size, there will be less white space on the pages, and the protagonists in middle grade novels are customarily eleven- or twelve-years-old.”

Which makes middle grade books slightly more mature, from format to content.

Literary agent Sara Megibow of kt literary says subject matter speaks to the difference between chapter books and middle grade, but “The key is narrative voice.” For example, a talking animal almost always points to a chapter book, she says.

Lindsay Eland, author of two middle grade novels, agrees that content affects where a book belongs. “I think that too much emphasis is placed on the age of the child reading rather than on their level of comprehension, understanding and maturity.”

Eland explains that her novel Scones and Sensibility (Egmont USA, 2010), “…is seen as middle grade/tween. If someone labeled it as a chapter book, I would be a bit worried. Not for content sake, because there is nothing in the story that could be a red flag for any age, but more for the way it is written, the more complex sentences, plot and length, and I would worry that the reader wouldn’t like it as much—if at all—because they wouldn’t comprehend it.”

That’s the crux of the matter. Each type of book serves a direct purpose—and they’re not the same purpose. And in the end, kids and chapter books lose out when the two types of books are lumped together.

To illustrate, let’s play it forward through the upcoming holiday season.

Consider a well-meaning aunt in Idaho who is told her nephew in New York is reading chapter books. She discovers from lists of “best chapter books” that Holes is a great book. Well of course it is. It’s a gorgeous, exceptional middle grade book. Not knowing there is a difference between that and the chapter books her nephew is capable of reading, the aunt buys Holes as his holiday gift.

We know what happens next. The nephew, comfortable at the My Weird School stage of literacy, feels only disappointment. To him, the gift signals drudgery and pressure to read beyond his ability. He tosses Holes aside as boring and too hard. And maybe, our young friend even tells himself, I don’t like reading.

And that’s just sad, no matter how it’s categorized.

Year One: Unqualified Success

SWEET SUCCESS

 

A year ago, I started Chapter Book Chat because, as a writer of chapter books, I couldn’t find any other blogs dedicated exclusively to chapter books.

More than 5,000 unique views from more than 60 countries have kept watch through the months. I’ve found incredible books and learned unexpected truths about my craft, the book market, blogging and children’s writers around the world. It has been, for me, sweet success.

In August, I will take a short break. In lieu of new reviews, I will re-post select reviews from this first year, particularly from the early months.

To all you readers in Finland, Brazil, Senegal, Qatar, Bangladesh, New Zealand, the U.S. and more, thank you so much for tuning in. I’ll return with fresh reviews in September.

Finding Good Chapter Books

The Challenge of Finding Good Chapter Books

 

On a recent trip to a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Colorado, I searched for the chapter book section. It took awhile. I finally found the one tiny shelf sandwiched between the massive picture book area and the almost-as-big middle grade aisles. Even the infant book section was bigger.

To my dismay, the paltry offering was limited and uninspired. About half the books were in the Magic Tree House series, and all the rest were spin offs from toys and cartoons or polished fluff of dubious quality. You know the books: pink, dazzling with glitter, shoddy writing and stock illustrations. Rubbish.

Sigh….

Then on a recent trip to Paris I happened upon the sweet children’s bookshop Jeux Lis Là in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Curious, I searched out its chapter book section. Comment magnifique! Lovely, smooth, heavy paper enclosed little tomes of festive, active, unique, subtle illustrations set between ample white space, easy text (if I could decipher some, you know it is an easy read) and funny topics. And not one bit of fluff.

chien cover

With my hobbled French and the proprietor’s limited English, we had a spirited conversation. She explained that the author/illustrator Alan Mets is particularly popular. Interestingly, his books were listed on a flyer I picked up as ages 2—10. What this tells me is that the story and illustrations are entertaining enough that parents are introducing their not-yet-readers to the joys of these chapter books.

alan cover

I’m sure I could find an independent bookstore in Colorado, such as the excellent and extensive Tattered Cover and Boulder Bookstores, that had a better, more elegant selection than the Barnes & Noble. And I’m sure I could have stumbled into some other larger store in Paris with less delightful choices.

But it got me wondering… what is available for our kids, all around the world? Because it makes sense that our kids can only enjoy what they can obtain. I’ve been amazed at the number of people who see this blog from around the world—from Pakistan to South Africa to Australia to America. So let’s start the discussion: what is available to your kids? Good quality or fluff? Paper or e-book? What do your chapter book readers really read?

What do you say teachers, parents and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….

(A note: in the well-stocked middle grade section at the aforementioned Barnes & Noble, there were many books that fall into the chapter book category… and thus the confusion of chapter books vs. middle grade continues.)

 

 

Difference between Chapter Books & Middle Grade, Redux

This post originally appeared in October 2013, just days after this blog went live. Although I was a novice blogger with few followers, this post saw hundreds of viewers in its initial days, and at least a handful of new viewers have found it every day since.  I’m running the original post again to give this important topic a second round of attention.

 

THE GREAT CHAPTER BOOK & MIDDLE GRADE CONFUSION

When the differences between chapter books and middle grade novels are blurred, kids and chapter books lose.

 

Confused about what to call a chapter book or middle grade? You’re not alone.

Lately, it seems the distinction between chapter books and middle grade is blurred–or even invisible. Google “best” or “greatest” chapter books, and you see lists from organizations as far flung as Goodreads to the esteemed School Library Journal. Commonly found near the top? A Wrinkle in Time, Holes, The Giver and other middle grade classics.

Now picture your average second grader. What seems more appropriate: Captain Underpants or A Wrinkle in Time? Which will encourage his tender, fledgling reading skill? Fan the flames of his reading desire? Give him reading gusto?

I don’t know about you, but I’m going with the dude in the tighty whiteys.

The two excellent books speak to two very different audiences. So why are they lumped together?

“Chapter books and middle grade books are technically two different categories from a publisher’s point of view,” says Emma D. Dryden, founder of drydenbks, a children’s book editorial and publishing consultancy firm. “Even though many books for middle grade readership have chapters, they’re not normally referred to as ”chapter books” by publishers; they are, however, often referred to as “chapter books” by booksellers and librarians, and others, which is why I believe there’s confusion about this.”

Dryden, whose career in the publishing industry has included time as vice president, publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books, explains that from a publisher’s standpoint “…chapter books are those books geared towards readers between the ages of 7—10, and they will be formatted to lots of black-and-white illustrations, the chapters will be short, the type will be large, and there will be a nice amount of white space on the pages; the protagonists in chapter books are customarily about eight- or nine-years-old.”

Thus, chapter books invite the young reader in. They make a point not to intimidate.

Conversely, Dryden says middle grade books “…are geared towards readers between the ages of 8—12, and they may or may not have illustrations, the chapters will be longer, the type will be of a more standard size, there will be less white space on the pages, and the protagonists in middle grade novels are customarily eleven- or twelve-years-old.”

Which makes middle grade books slightly more mature, from format to content.

Literary agent Sara Megibow of kt literary says subject matter speaks to the difference between chapter books and middle grade, but “The key is narrative voice.” For example, a talking animal almost always points to a chapter book, she says.

Lindsay Eland, author of two middle grade novels, agrees that content affects where a book belongs. “I think that too much emphasis is placed on the age of the child reading rather than on their level of comprehension, understanding and maturity.”

Eland explains that her novel Scones and Sensibility (Egmont USA, 2010), “…is seen as middle grade/tween. If someone labeled it as a chapter book, I would be a bit worried. Not for content sake, because there is nothing in the story that could be a red flag for any age, but more for the way it is written, the more complex sentences, plot and length, and I would worry that the reader wouldn’t like it as much—if at all—because they wouldn’t comprehend it.”

That’s the crux of the matter. Each type of book serves a direct purpose—and they’re not the same purpose. And in the end, kids and chapter books lose out when the two types of books are lumped together.

To illustrate, let’s play it forward through the upcoming holiday season.

Consider a well-meaning aunt in Idaho who is told her nephew in New York is reading chapter books. She discovers from lists of “best chapter books” that Holes is a great book. Well of course it is. It’s a gorgeous, exceptional middle grade book. Not knowing there is a difference between that and the chapter books her nephew is capable of reading, the aunt buys Holes as his holiday gift.

We know what happens next. The nephew, comfortable at the My Weird School stage of literacy, feels only disappointment. To him, the gift signals drudgery and pressure to read beyond his ability. He tosses Holes aside as boring and too hard. And maybe, our young friend even tells himself, I don’t like reading.

And that’s just sad, no matter how it’s categorized.