As the new school year kicks off, kids will be assigned plenty of math, science, history and grammar lessons. But children’s literature — including these books written and illustrated by local authors — provide different, but equally important, kinds of lessons.
These books provide opportunities for big conversations, offer big ideas and tackle big questions such as the importance of friendship, and how to deal with grief. Others explore more fun questions, like where pirates get their parrots.
We emailed with the authors and illustrators of some of these titles and talked about what makes their books great additions to any young reader’s list.
‘Parrot Island: The Pirate Adventures’
Palmyra-based writer Marty Baker and Lancaster-based illustrator Bot Roda have been friends for 20 years. Baker, who began his writing career as a freelance writer for Disney’s educational media division, initially envisioned “Parrot Island: The Pirate Adventures” as an epic Pixar movie, but while discussing the project with Roda, the two became excited about creating a book together. The result is a treasure trove of delightful characters, excitement and slapstick adventure.
What’s “Parrot Island: The Pirate Adventures” about?
Baker: “Parrot Island: The Pirate Adventures” is a children’s book that answers the question: Where do pirates get their parrots? Our story is about a secret island known only to pirates where the best parrots are trained (think West Point or the Naval Academy). What sets this book apart is that the focus is on the parrots and their adventures and not just the pirates.
I think the core of the book is really about friendship and loyalty. No one parrot is the hero — it’s how they come together. We purposefully stayed away from finding treasure, but we think the treasure has always been there. It’s friendship.
Can you talk about some of the characters?
Baker: The idea was to create characters that weren’t a cliche. Gabe, the hero, doesn’t really want to be a pirate. We also have two strong female characters — a pirate captain and her parrot. There’s also a character called Barney who is a barnacle who teaches kids the meaning of pirate terms. I had promised Bot that I would limit the number of parrot characters but needed a “lookout” for the island and created Little Bart. He’s tiny with an outsized personality. I wasn’t sure how we could use him, but he plays a heroic part near the end of the story.
Bot, what drew you to the story?
Roda: Marty’s story appealed to me since it made the parrots the focus of the story and not the pirates. In fact, the parrots are the true brains; whispering ideas and thoughts into their pirate’s ears. There are several “slapstick” type incidents that really played to me visually, having grown up on Warner Bros. cartoons and Mad Magazine, that I had tremendous fun illustrating.
The artwork marks a great departure from the types of styles I’ve done for clients throughout my freelance career. I personally feel that I’ve taken the illustrations to a different level; I don’t know if “cinematic” is the proper term but I was more focused and concentrating on composition, perspective, color, light and shadow giving the art a more 3D look. I strove to create a real world with environments for the characters to exist within.
What was the collaborative experience like?
Baker: The entire experience was incredible. Bot has a unique way of building on ideas and giving them his special vision.
I had the idea for “Parrot Island” many years ago and envisioned it as a Pixar-type movie. But the chances of getting an animated film made are nearly impossible. I told the story to Bot and he said, “Why don’t we make it into a book?” So, I worked out the outline of the story and the characters and Bot worked his wonderful magic and brought them to life.
The book has been a labor of love. I would send Bot a chapter and a few days later I would see these fantastic illustrations. Bot would add unique elements and so it was a true collaboration. For example, I thought of a place where all the parrots would gather on the island. I called it the Great Hall. Bot envisioned it as a large sailing ship turned upside down. It was wonderful. The most fun was just seeing characters come to life on the page.
Roda: He sent me several pages every month or so, and I would read them, visualize the action or scenes then develop the ideas for the illustrations as rough pencil and color wash drawings, sketching them out on my iPad Pro using Procreate, a great drawing and painting app. I would then transfer them to my MacPro and work up the final color illustrations in Photoshop on my Wacom Cintiq pen display.
I agree with Marty. The more I worked on the book the more it became a labor of love.
What has the reader response been like so far?
Roda: We’ve received very positive feedback from people on the story and the artwork, for which we’re extremely appreciative.
‘Cardinal Connection: A Cardinal is Near’
Children’s author Mike Resh, of Manheim, has worked as an elementary school counselor with the Hempfield School District for the past 11 years. Resh is the author of three children’s books: “Dneirf” (friend spelled backwards) which helps children with bullying and dealing with conflict in school, “Daddy Drinks Coffee” which is a tribute to new dads, and his latest: “Cardinal Connection: A Cardinal is Near.”
Can you tell me a little bit about “Cardinal Connection: A Cardinal is Near”?
“Cardinal Connection” is a grief support story and workbook all in one. I wanted to create something that was unique in terms of, not only the meaning and learning aspects of the story, but also combine it with a place for kids to explore their feelings, emotions, and even capture happy and memorable events about their loved one who has died. Many of the grief support books that I have used in the past were outdated, and I wanted to offer counselors, teachers, parents and most importantly children with something fresh and updated to current events and lifestyles and offer an all in one tool to support them during a difficult time in their life.
How do you talk to children about things like death or the pandemic?
Explaining death to children can be such an overwhelming and daunting task for parents, especially if this is the first time their family has experienced such a life event. The reason I wrote “Cardinal Connection” was to help families find the words in the process and offer them a foundation to build the discussion upon. In the back of the book I share bulleted ideas for families to use to guide their discussions, many having to do more with that how we say things more so than what we are actually saying.
For discussions about the pandemic I try to keep the topics light, positive, and forward-moving while still capturing the value and importance of the meaning behind safety for all. I talk a great deal about strategies used in the past to help work through a current issue or stressor. Connection is key, and helping young kids feel confident in themselves through having some sort of plan for their feelings and emotions can be very powerful.
Can you talk about the writing process?
Writing stories (especially children’s books) can be very exciting and fun, yet frustrating and confusing. The writing aspect is the absolute best part for me as I get to take real-life experiences both personally and professionally and build them into a story. I have all kinds of notebooks and virtual notes saved with probably hundreds of stories that I jot down through my daily interaction and experiences. Once the story is finished, I then reach out to my good friend Steven Kernen to bring the story to life visually through his talented illustrations. That aspect of creation in my mind is the easy part. Getting a book published and marketed among the oversaturated field that is children’s books is extremely difficult. You have to be OK with rejection over and over again as a writer. This makes you a better writer in my mind.
How important are illustrations to children’s books?
Illustrations in children’s books are so important, as they bring your story to life. I sadly was not blessed with the artistic skills to do this all on my own. I am so very thankful that through my career as a school counselor I was able to meet my very good friend Steven Kernen, who had two children go through my school, and we have since partner together to create three books together. Steven used to work as a caricature artist for Sea World and is so talented with taking my ideas and words and building a visual world around them. After the story is written, we sit down and discuss what the pages around the words might look like and then he runs with it. We want our books to be more than words and pictures, we want them to be an experience where there is almost an I-spy kind of mystery hidden within so that way the book never gets boring.
What was your favorite part of writing this book?
My favorite memory of this book is the purpose and reason I wrote it in the first place. Back in March of 2019, Benjamin Reinhold died from absolutely awful cancer called DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma) while he was a second grader at my school. Benjamin was one of the most uplifting, courageous kids I have ever had the honor of meeting and working with. Our school took such a hard emotional hit with his death, yet we also become stronger as a team and rallied to support each other and his family. After this event, I reached out to his family knowing that I had already had this book idea in mind for a while and asked if I could dedicate to Benjamin. This was before I even had it written or had been accepted with a publishing deal. I guess, in a way, I wanted this challenge to keep me focused and get the job done no matter what as a way to honor my student. A memory I will always remember and cherish was when I was able to present the very first printed copy to Benjamin’s twin sister Olivia and the look on her face as she paged through the story in her hands.
‘Shaking Up Shakespeare’
Looking for even more local children’s literature?As an adjunct professor of English at Lancaster’s HACC campus, author Brian Eltz knows as well as anyone the challenges of teaching Shakespeare. In his latest book, “Shaking up Shakespeare,” the Millersville-based author brings the Bard to children. Eltz’s story follows the young siblings Helena and Robin as they watch Shakespeare and his actors rehearse the master’s latest play. Trouble ensues when Robin decides disrupt the rehearsals and get in on the act.
— Published by Christian Faith Publishing
— 30 pages ($14.95)