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Holly and I thrilled to present our first author interview with Janet Halfmann. She is wonderful to work with and is passionate about nature and animals, which shows in her writing. Her specialty is nonfiction and her first fiction book is Little Skink’s Tail, which has been winning several awards and is very popular in our house. Janet was also generous enough to give us an autographed copy of her two most recently published books – Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story and Little Skink’s Tail for a book giveaway. I have to tell you it’s real tempting to keep them and they will be parted with reluctantly.

Tell us a little about yourself so that people can get to know you better.

I’ve loved to write since I was a child, but didn’t really think about writing as a career until after I got my first college degree (in English and Spanish Education). When our children were young, I sold a few articles to magazines such as Ranger Rick and Jack and Jill. But I wanted to make a living writing, so I returned to college and got a second degree in journalism. That led to careers as a daily newspaper reporter in Wichita, Kansas, managing editor of Country Kids magazine based in Wisconsin, and many years as a creator of coloring and activity books (Mickey Mouse, Lion King, Little Mermaid, Batman, etc.) for Golden Books, also in Wisconsin. When a new owner moved all of Golden Books’ operations to New York City in 1997 and my coworkers and I in Wisconsin lost our jobs, I struck out on my own as a freelance children’s writer.

Where did you get the idea for Little Skink’s Tail?

I got the idea to do a story about a young skink while researching a nonfiction book I wrote about all kinds of lizards. I was amazed by how many kinds of lizards can snap off their tails as a defense-and the tails keep right on wiggling to distract the enemy. I was especially fascinated by young skinks, which often have bright blue tails.

So I knew the beginning and end of the story-that Little Skink would lose her tail and that eventually it would grow back-but I didn’t know what would happen in the middle. As I sat at my computer, I thought about how my four children and now my four grandchildren love to play dress-up and pretend. So I decided to have Little Skink do the same thing-trying on the tails of all the other animals in the forest. As I wrote the story, I pictured my granddaughter dancing about, showing off each tail.

A favorite part of writing the book was figuring out the fun thing Little Skink would say about each tail, such as too puffy-fluffy or too stickly-prickly. I’ve always loved language and I enjoy finding just the right word.

I wrote the book mostly for fun, but am proud that the story evolved on its own to encourage children to be comfortable with themselves as they are, which has made Little Skink’s Tail very popular for teaching character education.

Reading Little Skink's Tail at Barnes & Noble, the girl in bunny tail is Janet's Great Niece
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Reading Little Skink's Tail at Barnes & Noble, the girl in bunny tail is Janet's Great Niece

You have written several nonfiction books and Little Skink’s Tail was your first fiction book. What are some of the differences between writing nonfiction and fiction books?

When writing fiction, I can make up things, so I can use more of my imagination. In some ways, writing fiction is more fun because I don’t have to be tied to the facts.

Little Skink’s Tail is fiction, but in many ways it is a combination of fiction and nonfiction. Everything in the story except the tail daydreaming is grounded in fact-the habitat, the prey-predator relationships, the animals’ uses of their tails, etc., are all scientifically accurate.

My latest nonfiction book, Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story, is nonfiction and completely adheres to the facts, but several reviewers have said it reads like fiction.

Tell us about your first published book.

My first published books were four titles in a Bugs series for The Creative Company in Mankato, Minnesota. Writing these books was a big break for me because it allowed me to get my foot in the publishing door and also gave me the confidence that I could indeed be an author. I visited the company for an informational interview before I decided to strike out on my own. The company didn’t have a job opening, but liked my writing. So when I decided to become a full-time freelance writer, the company gave me the opportunity to write four bug books, and a children’s author was born!.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Read lots of children’s books, especially the kind you want to write. Then write, write, write, and revise, revise, revise until every word shines. When the manuscript is the best that it can be, study publishers to see who does that kind of book and send it out. Then, forget about it and move on to a new project (Most writers have a huge file of rejection letters).

I also strongly advise joining writers groups, such as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and its regional chapters, and attending their conferences and workshops. Our SCBWI group in Wisconsin has a listserv where writers of all experience levels ask questions and share information. There is so much to be learned from the experiences of other writers.

Sometimes writing opportunities come about in strange ways. For example, about nine years ago I found the nature books published by Soundprints at my local library and fell in love with them. So I spent months writing the very best manuscript I could about an animal not yet in their line. The company didn’t buy that manuscript, but months later when a writer dropped the ball on an assignment and the company needed a new manuscript fast on the brown pelican, the editor called me to write it. Now, I’ve written nine books for Soundprints-seven already published and two to release soon.

Tell us about some of your books that will be published soon and is it true that your daughter is doing the illustrations for one of your new books?

As I mentioned earlier, I have two nonfiction picture books coming out soon from Soundprints, which publishes nature books in association with the Smithsonian Institution. Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea is about the adventures of a narwhal, an Arctic whale that has a nine-foot-long tooth jutting out from its jaw. Little Black Ant on Park Street features the life of the typical picnic ant. Plush animals and audio also are available with these books, and everything has to be approved by curators at the Smithsonian Institution.

Good Night, Little Sea Otter, a bedtime fiction story, will release this fall from Star Bright Books. Star of the Sea: A Day in the Life of a Starfish will come out in 2010 from Henry Holt. On a recent visit to Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, I got to see the animals featured in both of these books, which was a tremendous thrill for me!

Janet and daughter Laura
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Janet and daughter Laura

And yes, my daughter, Laura, is illustrating two of my future books. Both are with Orchard House Press. Usually, the publisher chooses the illustrator. But in this case, the publisher needed more illustrators, so Laura submitted a sample drawing. The publisher loved it and wanted her to illustrate both of the books that I had under contract. Laura is an artist, but this is her first illustrating job, so she is more than a bit nervous. But I know both books will be terrific! And it will be so much fun doing book events together!

The first book is a picture book titled Bewitching the Chickadees. It is about a young girl, her grandma, a special bird feeder, and chickadees. Laura  used a friend’s daughter and her grandma as the models and the sketches I’ve seen so far are fabulous! The second, Sunflower Princess, is a chapter book for ages 7-9. My granddaughter is the model for these illustrations, so she’s extra excited about this book. Release dates have not yet been set.

Why do you have animals/nature as the focus of so much of your writing?

I have loved animals and nature since I was a child. I grew up on a farm in Michigan and spent most of my time outdoors. I loved playing with the barn cats, exploring our small woods, and listening to the crickets on the back porch at night. My dad was what I call a farmer’s farmer. He loved animals and the land and that love rubbed off on me. I spent hours with my mother working in our big garden. Today, I am an avid gardener and love exploring nature. The wonders of the lives of animals and plants never cease to amaze me! On our recent visit to California, we found hundreds of hermit crabs in little pools among the rocks on the ocean shore. I could have watched them forever! They were fighting with one another and everything, just like in my hermit crab book for Soundprints. Thank goodness, my son captured them on video!

Holly’s children really like nonfiction books, but not all children like nonfiction. Reading nonfiction is part of a balanced reading diet. Do you have any recommendations for parents and teachers for encouraging children to read nonfiction?

I think you can encourage children to read nonfiction by finding books  that match their interests. For example, our five-year-old grandson is fascinated with sharks, but isn’t one to sit still often to listen to a book. But when my daughter dug out her beloved nonfiction book on sharks from her childhood, our grandson couldn’t get enough.

You also can select nonfiction books that read like a story. The animal books that I write for Soundprints are nonfiction, but read like a story. They feature a specific animal that has a problem and solves it. And as I mentioned earlier, some reviewers have said Seven Miles to Freedom reads like a story, even though it is nonfiction.

Book giveaway details!

Thank you Janet for your time and sharing your story with us. We enjoyed learning about your writing career and especially liked learning about your daughter Laura Halfmann. What a neat opportunity to work together on something you both love and I bet your granddaughter is thrilled to be a model for some of the illustrations. What wonderful memories you are creating.

As previously mention we will be holding a book give away. We have one autographed copy of Seven Miles to Freedom and one autographed copy of Little Skink’s Tail to go to two lucky winners. Sorry you can’t win both. The giveaway is open to continental U.S. residents only. Each book has received several awards listed below, click on the book’s title to read my review of each one.

Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story (Lee & Low Books, 2008, illustrated by Duane Smith)

  • Starred Review: Kirkus Reviews
  • Honor Book: Society of School Librarians International
  • Editor’s Favorites: The Bloomsbury Review
  • Land of Enchantment Masterlist: New Mexico Library Association

Little Skink’s Tail (Sylvan Dell Publishing, 2007, illustrated by Laurie Allen Klein)

  • Mom’s Choice Awards: Best Children’s Book for 2009 (1 of 3), plus Gold Medals: Educators’ Choice & Animal Kingdom
  • 2009 Teachers’ Choice Award: Learning Magazine
  • 2008 Best Overall Book and Best Picture Book: Florida Publishers Association)

I have also reviewed two of her books that are part of the Smithsonian Oceanic Collection published by Soundprints. Each book comes with a plush toy and has audio available as well. Excellent books for teaching about nature and appreciating nature. Again click on the titles to see my reviews Dolphin’s Rescue and Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea.

*****The Giveaway has officially ended, all comments/entries made after Monday April 6th midnight MST are not eligible to win. Comments are still open and welcome  (because well we like to hear from our readers)***********

Seven ways to enter the Giveaway – Yes that’s seven ways!

  1. Share your favorite animal book or personal story with an animal in a comment – 1 entry
  2. Write a comment about something Janet said in her interview – 1 entry
  3. Write a post about this interview and giveaway and link back to our blog, then come tell us in a comment – 3 entries
  4. Write a suggestion for encouraging children to read nonfiction books – 1 entry
  5. Comment on your favorite family co-authors or author/illustrator teams in honor of Janet and Laura Halfmann – 2 entries
  6. Subscribe to Bookscoops  in a feed reader and then come tell us in a comment – 2 entries
  7. See the reviews of Dolphin’s Rescue and Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea and for each comment related to the book you receive – 1 entry.

The giveaway ends on Monday, April 6th at midnight, Mountain Standard time. The first person to win will get their choice of Seven Miles to Freedom or Little Skink’s Tail and the second winner will get the other book.

*****The Giveaway has officially ended, all comments/entries made after Monday April 6th midnight MST are not eligible to win. Comments are still open and welcome (because well we like to hear from our readers ***********