Get to Know… Hena Khan!

My name is… Hena, which is pronounced “hen-na,” like the tattoo (never “hee-na” please, which is a pet peeve). My last name, Khan, is pronounced from the throat but most people, including me sometimes, say “con.” I’m named after the plant that is dried into the dark green strong smelling paste used for making deep orange henna tattoos. My mom said she named me after a girl in her grade school in Pakistan who she admired, and even though I didn’t love my name growing up, I’m happy with it now. And I kept my last name after marriage because I couldn’t imagine being called anything else!

I am a… scaredy cat. I hate thrills of all kinds. I’ve never ice skated, clung to the walls the few times I stood on roller skates, avoid theme parks, and despise roller coasters. I’m a big fan of naps, drinking good coffee and baking delicious things, and going for walks, which I know makes me sound pretty boring. But I will feed you something tasty, tell you interesting stories, and listen to yours, if you want to hang out with me on solid ground!

As a kid, I was… self-conscious, awkward and a bit of an old soul, and I still feel the same way on the inside as an adult. I’ve gotten a little better at hiding it, most of the time. I like to think that I was kind and a good friend, too.

Writing is… something I’ve done since I was a little kid, in one form or another. I never expected an audience, even when I wrote a family newspaper. And I didn’t dare to dream I would write a book, or books, or imagine that it was something possible. I’m still amazed that I get to do what I do when I stop to think about it.

Reading is… a gift. I still remember my mother teaching me how to read, and being super proud of me when I started sounding out words that I didn’t understand. She used to make me perform in front of her friends. And as bored as they probably were, I never forgot her pride and the feeling that what I was doing was something special and important.

Books are… some of my most prized possessions, along with photos and old letters and cards that I can’t part with. I just recycled some of my old outdated college textbooks, and it was hard to say goodbye to them. I feel guilty when I turn a book upside down to save my place, but I do it sometimes. I NEVER turn down the corners of pages though and feel sad when I see bent pages of a library book.

Did you know… that I have lived within the same five-mile area for my entire life? But I’ve also been lucky to have studied in Spain for a semester when in college, and to have traveled to 35 different countries, on four continents. I haven’t visited nearly as many American states as countries, but being an author and visiting schools has taken me to a bunch of new ones. And I hope to explore a lot more of both the US and the rest of the world in the future.

You can find me… at home, cooking, baking, writing or procrastinating, when I’m not traveling. And you can connect with me online through my website, www.henakhan.com, on instagram and twitter @henakhanbooks, and on Facebook @hena.khan.books, which I hardly use anymore.

Get to Know… Aron Nels Steinke!

My name is… Aron, spelled with one “A” because my great-grandfather’s name was spelled that way. Nels, because of my Finnish grandfather’s nickname. It’s still unclear to me if it was his nickname or the name that appeared on his birth certificate. And Steinke, which is German for “stone cutter” because the Steinkes in my family were 1800s German immigrants.

For years I was embarrassed by my name and I used to get teased because of my last name as a kid. I wish I had known how to deal with it better.

I am a… cartoonist. That means I draw and write comics. I am both illustrator and writer. I am also a teacher. I like being both but I struggle with that dual identity. Am I taken less seriously as a teacher because I devote so much of myself toward making books? Am I taken less seriously as an author because I spend a majority of my energy toward teaching?

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As a kid, I was… lucky because I had access to roam around hundreds of acres of forests. I grew up on eleven acres in rural SW Washington State. My brother and/or my friend and I would just wander through neighboring forests and fields. Ducking electric fences and scaling barbed wire. I got to know crawdads and frogs pretty well. Snakes, newts, and garden spiders too. If I was bored in the house I’d just go outside on my bicycle and ride down “the trail,” which was a path that connected the road in front of our house to the road way in the back of our house. I became a connoisseur of huckleberry and thimbleberries. I ate wild hazelnuts from the filbert bushes and made arrows from the same plant and used red alder for bows and swords sharpened from hours of whittling with my pocket knife.

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Writing is… something that I didn’t love or feel I understood at all until I started making comics. I love writing now but that only happened because I forced myself to get better at it. I still find it very difficult, but I now have a strategy to get better at it. Writing is re-reading. Writing is continually editing and putting down things that don’t work and chipping away at it until it does.

Writing plot is so very hard. I never want to write something that is contrived. I don’t want my work to be obviously derivative of other popular works or predictable for any age of reader. I want my writing to feel like it’s a real conversation happening in front of you. I want it to feel authentic and natural.

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Drawing is… something that always came natural for me. There are so many styles and ways to make art—how can we settle on a form or a material? For me I settled on a cartoony style but it took me until I was twenty-five to find that style. My early illustrative work and animation was derivative of the people I was influenced by. You could tell when I was really into Miyazaki or Sendak. Now I feel like my style is just a natural amalgamation of the hundreds and possibly thousands of visual influences I’ve had in my life.

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Reading is… something we should all have more time for. I love getting lost in a book and learning from books. I get distracted easily and because of that I’m a slow reader.

It took me a while to connect with reading as a kid. I loved reading the comic strips in my newspaper and I read collections of Garfield and The Far Side. I would often check out books from my library that I couldn’t actually access because of either my lack of reading stamina, my lack of a strong vocabulary, or both. I remember checking out a novel with a wizard and a wolf on the cover in third or fourth grade. I’d carry this book around with me and pretend I could read it because I thought of the book’s cover and what must be inside as an extension of my identity.

When I first discovered the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series by Alvin Schwartz I had that feeling of a book that finally connected with me. It was the short story format, allowing me to skip around the book, and the content that appealed to my abilities and interests. I read those books over and over. The illustrations by Stephen Gammell haunted me.

When I was in seventh-grade my friends and I started reading the Anne Rice vampire books and we had a teacher who gave us a long silent sustained reading period. That was very important for me. I didn’t really give myself chunks of time to read for pleasure at home so here I was forced to just sit and read. My peers were reading and I wanted to perform as well as them and to keep up with the conversations afterward. Reading those books felt like I was getting away with something. Those books were scandalous for a middle schooler. I remember thinking, “What if my teacher actually knew what I was reading?!”

In some ways reading prose is more private. Comics, on the other hand, telegraph exactly what you’re reading to the outside observer because it’s immediately clear to others what you’re reading. They can glance over and accidentally read your book.

That’s really the only limitation I see comics having, if it is a limitation. Maybe it’s not a limitation but it does make it hard for those who feel a stigma in our society about reading comics. I’m speaking about adults or kids who want to read outside of their perceived demographic. They may censor their public reading choices because their reading choice is out in the open. I make comics and I love reading them but I still feel a little daring when I’m reading a graphic novel out in the open at a coffee shop, on the bus, or on a flight.

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Books are… always going to exist in print. As a teacher it is very clear. The novelty of reading on a screen has some merit for some kids but nothing can replace the physical act of turning a page.

I do think reading is one of the coolest things you can do. When I first met my wife she was very relieved that I read books for pleasure and for personal fulfillment. She reads very quickly and is always getting something new from the library.

To help raise readers we need to model to kids that we are readers ourselves, not just of articles on our phone, but of real, physical books. So if you’re a parent or teacher and kids don’t see you read for yourself maybe think about how you can better model your love for reading to them.

I also think it’s important to model that you read across demographics. I’m thinking specifically about how much adults would benefit from reading children’s nonfiction picture books. I’m lucky because I get to do it as part of my teaching job. That’s not to dismiss kids’ fiction books. I write children’s fiction but I just know that with children’s nonfiction I’m always learning something new very quickly. They’re designed to communicate ideas efficiently.

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Did you know… my third middle-grade graphic novel in the Mr. Wolf’s Class series, Lucky Stars, is coming out on September 3rd?! And, I’m busy working on a fourth Mr. Wolf’s Class book due out next year!

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You can find me… at www.mrwolfsclass.com, on twitter as @mrwolfcomics and instagram as @aronnelssteinke.

T-shirts, T-shirts, T-shirts!

As far as I’m concerned, teachers and librarians are the closet thing we’ve got to ACTUAL superheroes in this world. And it looks like I’m not the only one — check out this art made by students of Kristin Rambo, second grade teacher in Pottstown, PA!

To reflect this belief, and to help teachers and librarians everywhere proclaim there awesomeness, I designed some new T-shirts!

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I shared this last night on Twitter, and right away someone asked, “What if you’re a teacher librarian?” Well, that’s a lot to fit on a T-shirt. But I might just have to whip up a new design to give all the teacher librarians out there some love. (Someone also suggested I make an “editor” version of the shirt!)

If you’re interested in getting a shirt, either for yourself or for an awesome teacher or librarian in your life, you can check out the teacher version here and the librarian version here.

Proceeds from these T-shirt sales will be used to help get high-quality, high-interest books into kids’ hands, through donations to organizations (such as First Book and We Need Diverse Books) and direct purchases and distribution.

And in case you missed it, you’ve still got a couple weeks to get a #KidsNeedBooks of All Kinds T-shirt (click here). Just the other day, this second round of fundraising broke the $4,000 mark!

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Together with the first round of fundraising, nearly $18,000 has been raised! And if you’ve already got your shirt, don’t forget to post a #ShowMeYourShirt pic to enter to win some books and art!

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You can see some of First Book’s favorite pics and read more about it all in this post they put up last week. And more pics can be found by searching the #ShowMeYourShirt hashtag on Twitter or Instagram. One of my favorites so far wasn’t actually a picture, but this drawing that Shannon, a 4th grader from Hawaii, did of her teacher wearing one of the shirts!

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Thank you all once again for your incredible support and generosity!

~ Jarrett

Get to Know… Jody Jensen Shaffer!

My name is… Jody, which I’ve always liked. It’s nice to like your name. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

I am a… grown up small-town girl with big dreams. Also, I prefer land to water, prairie to beach. Home, home on the range…

As a kid, I was… funny, active, creative, an animal-lover, a good reader, fiercely loyal to family, and afraid of tornadoes.

Writing is… sooo much fun!

Reading is… an escape.

Books are… amazing glimpses into the minds of their creators.

Did you know… I love musicals and plays? I’m a big baseball fan? I played trumpet through high school? I play piano? I walk a lot? I love dogs? I don’t give up? I’m not a fan of jazz? My wardrobe is mostly t-shirts from my kids’ activities? My faith and family are the most important things in my life?

You can find me… on Twitter @jodywrites4kids or on my website at jodyjensenshaffer.com. There’s my name again! I still like it.

. . .

Don’t miss Jody’s newest book! It’s a Field Trip, Busy Bus! — the follow-up to her and illustrator Claire Messer’s It’s Your First Day of School, Busy Bus! — hits shelves on September 3rd!

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EngiNerds 3!!!

In case you missed it over on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, I’ve got book news! The EngiNerds series has been extended!

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Since the very beginning, even before I sold the manuscript that would become EngiNerds (it originally had a much wordier — and much worse — title), I envisioned this story arc in three installments, so I’m very excited to get a chance to complete that vision and share it with all of you. And if you or your young readers were left upset or desperate by the ending of Revenge of the EngiNerds, you can rest assured that you won’t be left hanging. Well, you will be, actually, for a little while longer — until the book comes out.

I’ll be sharing more information about Book 3 in the coming weeks and months. But for now, I just want to say THANK YOU to every person who has read and/or shared these books of mine. If not for the support of all of YOU, this contract wouldn’t have landed on my desk yesterday afternoon.

So thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

~ Jarrett

Get to Know… Christina Soontornvat!

My name is… Christina Soontornvat. My last name rhymes with MOON-BORN-SPOT!

I am a… Thai-American author who writes books for kids of all ages. My newest books are the DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS chapter books, which are about a princess with winter powers who is a descendent of the North Wind (talk about a legacy to live up to!). She just wants to be a normal kid and go to a regular school (on the ground, of course).

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The first two books in the DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS series (there will be 6 total!).

As a kid, I was… reading to get out of doing work. My parents owned a Thai/Chinese restaurant when I was growing up, and that’s where I spent most of my out-of-school time. I quickly learned that if I didn’t want to fold napkins or sort silverware, I needed to put my nose in a book!

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Me, with my grandparents, in front of our restaurant.

Writing is… a lot like engineering. In addition to being an author, I’m also an engineer. One of the first things you learn in engineering is how to solve problems. Figuring out the best way to tell a story is also problem solving, and sometimes you have to keep trying it this way, then that way, until you get it right.

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Ice princess Lina and her best friend forever, Claudia.

Reading is… my favorite place to get lost. There is no better feeling than reading a book that is so good that I forget where I am or what time it is.

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My daughter, on the day when finished copies arrived – so exciting!

Books are… all around me. I literally have piles and piles of books in every room of my house, threatening to topple over and bury me in paper (okay maybe not quite that tall).

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Lina and her Granddad, the North Wind. They don’t always see eye to eye.

Did you know… that I love movies almost as much as I love books? When I get stuck in my writing I usually watch movies. Musicals are especially helpful because so much emotion comes through in the songs. Yes, I watched a lot of FROZEN while I was writing the DIARY OF AN ICE PRINCESS books!

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Me and some of my very favorite authors and friends, Booki Vivat, Angela Dominguez, and Karina Yan Glaser.

You can find me… at the pool. I live in Austin, Texas and it is a billion degrees here 5 months of the year so I am usually swimming. Oh, if you can’t make it to the pool you can just go to my website: www.soontornvat.com or find me on Twitter as @soontornvat.

#KidsNeedMentors: Year 2!

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Once again, Kristen Picone, Kristin Crouch, and I spent a chunk of our summer poring over spreadsheets and playing matchmaker for hundreds of educators, librarians, authors, and illustrators for the second installment of the #KidsNeedMentors program. It was A LOT of work, and we’re not even quite done yet. But I think it’s safe to say I speak for Kristen and Kristin when I say that this is some of the most rewarding work we do. Getting to see the outcome of these partnerships — all the amazing, creative work they do together to benefit the kids — is tremendously satisfying, uplifting, and inspiring. If you want to see some of that stuff for yourself, I suggest you head over to Twitter or Instagram and search the #KidsNeedMentors hashtag. If you scroll back in time, you can see some of the awesomeness that occurred during last school year.

I’ll be sharing more about the program and the wonderful participants throughout the year, but now, at the outset, I’d like to highlight a couple of cool things:

— Last year, our creator list was mostly filled with authors from the United States. This year, we’ve got a whole bunch of illustrators, author-illustrators, comic book-markers, and graphic novelists. We also have lots of creators from Canada, and others who are in Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, South Korea, Austria, the Philippines, and the UK. We’ve also got educators and librarians in Zambia and Cambodia!

— My pairing for this year is Ms. Tilden’s 4th grade class at Brown School in Natick, Massachusetts. Now, the town of Natick is right next to Wayland — and that’s where I grew up. It’s where I made my very first comic books and wrote my very first short stories. It’s where I fell in love with books and reading. Meaning that, when I go to visit Ms. Tilden’s students, we’ll all be just a handful of miles from where, when I was their age, I was first beginning to dream of doing what I’m doing now. Pretty cool.

If you want to learn more about the #KidsNeedMentors program, click here for a blog post I did about it at the start of last year, and click here for an interview I did about it over on the From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors blog. Also, once again, you can always search the hashtag!

~ Jarrett