Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Christmas Chaos in Jennifer Ziegler's 'Revenge of the Angels'

With the countdown to Christmas on, it's a great time to explore another holiday title. This time we get to know middle-grade author Jennifer Ziegler, whose hilarious Revenge of the Angels (Scholastic Press, August 2015) will put tween readers in just the right spirit. 

Angels tells the story of the Brewster triplets, Dawn, Darby, and Delaney, who want very much to play the Three Wise Men in the annual Christmas pageant but instead are handed wings and told they have to play angels instead. It's the second book in this wonderful series, after Revenge of the Flower Girls (Scholastic Press, 2014) featured the triplets wreaking havoc on their big sister's wedding.

Jennifer has written YA too, with How Not to Be Popular (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2008), Sass & Serendipity (Delacorte, 2011), and Alpha Dog (Delacorte, 2006), as well as contributed to a variety of anthologies. And there's still more: Jennifer also works for The Writers’ League of Texas, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas, where she lives with children's author Chris Barton (see last week's interview) and their four kids. Phew!

Question: The Brewster triplets from Revenge of the Flower Girls are back! What made you decide to set these latest adventures against the peace-love-and-joy season of Christmas?

Jennifer Ziegler: I had several follow-up stories in mind, but this was the one my publisher and I like best. There is something inherently dramatic about setting a tale during the end-of-year holidays. Already the stakes are higher, emotions are heightened, and expectations are raised.

Plus, with the first book the triplets were focused on a family problem. In this one, it’s a community issue. And what better backdrop than during the time of peace and goodwill to all?

Q: Your books are hilariously funny. Can you talk about your creative process? Do you hole up alone and laugh maniacally? Or do you test out your humor on family members or friends?

JZ: Thank you! I suppose I do both. Early on in the process I might test out a section on whichever poor, unsuspecting family member might be passing by. Later, when I’m steeped in the world of my book, my characters tend to take over. There are scenes where I feel more like a court reporter than a writer – just setting down what I see and hear. In that mode, my characters will often crack me up.

Q: There are a lot of hijinks in your stories. Were you as spirited as Dawn, Darby, and Delaney? Is there a bit of you spread out over the triplets? Or in your other titles?

JZ: No, I wasn’t nearly as outspoken or bold as the triplets. I was rather withdrawn and cautious, but I had a vivid inner life. On the other hand, I could get up to shenanigans if I was in a group. Sometimes with my siblings or with a pack of good friends I’d be the one saying, “Hey, you know what would be funny?” And the next thing you know we’re all answering our teacher in a funny accent or doing chalk outlines of ourselves on the pavement.

Q: What is the dinner table conversation like at your house with your husband, Chris, being a fellow children's author? Do you talk a lot of shop?

JZ: We do. Dinner conversation runs the gamut – especially when the kids are there. We had a lively conversation recently on what would be appropriate music for an Elfin garden party and another on what kind of voice our dog would have if he suddenly became human. Every evening Chris and I take Ernie, the dog, for a long walk. It’s our chance to check in with each other and talk out concerns about the kids or the finances or our works-in-progress. He’s especially great at helping me with the logistics of my story. I’m usually confident in characters, emotions, themes, and other big-picture items, but I struggle with intricacies of plot. He is brilliant with that.

Q: Both you and Chris have Christmas books out this season. Are the holidays especially fun at your house this year?

JZ: Well, they are especially busy! But I do think they will be extra fun. The kids were early readers of my triplet stories, and we all helped Chris with his Nutcracker book research by going to see the ballet and then discussing it at length. So I think there’s a shared sense of ownership and pride in our projects. But also, we’re looking forward to celebrating family -- the Brewsters, the Christensens, and the Barton-Ziegler clan. For us, the best thing about the holidays is gathering with all the special people in our lives. And this year there will be a few extra characters in the mix.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Holiday History in Chris Barton's 'Nutcracker Comes to America'

If your house is like ours, it's Nutcracker mania right now. We're eating, sleeping, and dreaming (of Sugar Plum Fairies, of course) about the Christmas spectacular based on the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, as are countless dancers and their families across the country. So it seems the perfect time to spotlight a wonderful new picture book about the Nutcracker's American roots, The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition (Millbrook Press, September 2015), from the multi-talented Chris Barton.

Illustrated by Cathy Gendron, The Nutcracker Comes to America has earned starred reviews from School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publishers Weekly. It tells the story of brothers William, Harold, and Lew Christensen, who staged the Christmastime story during World War II in San Francisco and watched it grow – from a 19th-century Russian ballet into a beloved American ritual.

Readers might be familiar with a few other non-fiction books from Chris, who has an incredible, enviable knack for finding fascinating topics to write about. Also from this year is The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynchwhich published in April with Eerdmans. It is illustrated by the remarkable Don Tate and has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, as well as being named to the 2016-2017 Texas Bluebonnet list.

Chris is also the mind behind the charming New York Times best-seller Shark Vs. Train (Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2010), illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld, and the 2010 Sibert Honor Book The Day-Glo Brothers (Charlesbridge Publishing, 2009), illustrated by Tony Persiani.

And making the holidays even brighter, Chris's wife Jennifer Ziegler has her own Christmas book out too – within one week of his – titled Revenge of the Angels (Scholastic, September 2015). Look for an interview with Jennifer here next week.

Question: How did you decide to write about the three Christensen brothers and the birth of the Nutcracker tradition?

Chris Barton: I’d never even heard of the Christensens or given any thought to how ballet developed in America until I read Willam Christensen’s obituary in 2001. But I’m a big fan of filling in gaps in my own knowledge, and in the case of the Christensen brothers, there was also the gap of the vaudeville circuit, which they’d spent time on. Telling the brothers’ story was what first interested me, and I thought it made sense to end a picture book about them with their mid-career staging of the first American Nutcracker. Editor Carol Hinz at Millbrook Press, however, helped me see that the big story here was The Nutcracker itself, so while the book is still very much a biography of Willam, Harold, and Lew Christensen, it’s all oriented toward showing how that holiday tradition came to be.

Q: The Day-Glo Brothers, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, a forthcoming picture book biography of Barbara Jordan: how do you choose the subjects you write about? Is there a common thread among them? 

CB: I think it’s more of a web than a single thread.

I do see a thread connecting The Day-Glo Brothers and The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, in that both books tell a story of how the world we know today came to be. For Day-Glo, it’s a story about how the world looks, with those superbright orange, yellows, and greens. For John Roy Lynch, it’s a story about why we as a nation are so far behind where we would have been had Reconstruction’s progress in civil rights, voting rights, and social justice not been turned back by the forces of hate and indifference.

And I also see a thread between the story of John Roy Lynch – one of the first black Americans in Congress – and Barbara Jordan, whose 1972 election (alongside Andrew Young of Georgia) made her one of the first African Americans in seven decades to join Congress from a former Confederate state. She benefited from the Voting Rights Act passed 100 years after the beginning of Reconstruction, and in Congress she worked to expand the Voting Rights Act to protect the rights of Spanish-speaking Texans, among others.

By the time my book about Barbara Jordan, What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?, is published in 2018, who knows what new threads will connect it to the books of mine that follow?

Q: You're also the author of Shark Vs. Train and other children's books. Do you have a favorite genre? Have you been bitten by the research bug and see yourself sticking with non-fiction biographies?

CB: This work would not be nearly as fun if I couldn’t satisfy the silly side of my personality as well as my research-loving side. I’m pleased to say that I have four picture books coming out in 2016, and three of those – That’s Not Bunny!, Mighty Truck, and 88 Instruments – are all purely playful fiction.

Q: The Christensen brothers aren't quite triplets like the siblings in your wife, Jennifer Ziegler's books, but they're close. Do you and Jennifer ever consider collaborating on a project?

CB: We’ve talked about it, and there’s at least one project – a music-related YA novel – that I think would be lots of fun to write together. We listen to music constantly, so in that sense, maybe we’ve already started laying the groundwork for that collaboration. Jenny knows tons about novel-writing, and I know my way around a research-heavy project, and maybe those skills would complement each other. If there’s an editor out there who thinks, “These two should definitely write a book together,” I think we’d be game.

Q: Both you and Jennifer have Christmas books out this season. How do the holidays feel for you this year?

CB: Serendipitous! For one spouse’s middle-grade novel from one publisher and the other spouse’s non-fiction picture book from another publisher to coincide with similar themes (siblings+holidays), publication dates (one week apart), and covers (the stage curtains!) is some pretty interesting luck. Not to be mawkishly romantic or overly woo-woo about it all, but like so much of our lives together, this particular aspect of them feels like it was meant to be.