Author Interview with Janet Halfmann and Book Giveaway!

janet_halffman_for_realHolly 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
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
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.

sevenmilestofreedomSeven 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

littleskinkstailLittle 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 ***********

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49 thoughts on “Author Interview with Janet Halfmann and Book Giveaway!

  1. A suggestion for encouraging kids to read nonfiction books: granted our son is only 16 months old, but I like to get books with animals before and after we go to the zoo, with birds before and after we visit the aviary, with fish before and after the aquarium, etc. He loves making the connection between what we saw in “real life” and in the book. I think that would work for older readers as well.

  2. My favorite family co-authors: I recently discovered that “Carrot Seed” was written and illustrated by a husband/wife team, we got it from the library (at the same time we got “Birds”), and have really enjoyed it.

  3. On Dolphin’s Rescue: This sounds like a beautiful book. I would go to the aquarium often with my family growing up, and would have loved a book like this. Hopefully my son will one day too.

  4. On Narwhal: We own a big “busy zoo” wooden cube toy, with alphabet letters the kids spin, and the animal for “N” is Narwhal. When we first got it, I said aloud, “Narwhal? What the heck is that?” My brainy husband knew. And now if my son asks, I know just the book to get him. 🙂

  5. 1- My favorite animal books are Mo Willems’ Pigeon books. Totally not nonfiction, but fun! My kids really love Nic Bishop’s Frogs.

    2- What Janet said about reading lots, especially lots of the kind of thing you want to write, is totally true. With the letter game writing I do, I get so much inspiration from reading things that are similiar (I can’t spell. That looks so wrong.) just because it puts your mind in that tone and such.

    3- Posted about your very cool giveaway.

    4- I think getting a child to read nonfiction totally requires finding a subject they’re into. My brother’s not a big reader, but you give him a book of basketball stats and player info and he’ll devour it. Really excellent pictures also help.

    5- My favorite family writing team is Susan Wittig Albert and her husband. They have written a whole series of Victorian mysteries under the name Robin Paige. Awesome books. The first is Death At Bishop’s Keep.

    6- I’m already following Bookscoops on my blogger feed thingamabob.

    7- I’ve commented on both of those posts. I love dolphins and Narwhals. I used to want to be a Marine Biologist or Marine Mammal Trainer. (Well, until I realized that the whole not being able to swim thing might get in the way…)

    How’s that for like the longest comment ever?

  6. Holly and Cari, thanks so much for talking with me about reading and my writing life. It’s such fun to read all the comments posted in order to win my books. Good Luck and Happy Reading!

  7. Infant Bibliophile- Thanks for all the great ideas. I too love it when kids make the connection between life experience and books.

    Britt- Just this morning my toddler wanted to read the newspaper because the sports section had a picture of basketball. We tend to think that reading has to be sophisticated ‘literature’ when really we just want everyone to expand their brain cells even if that means reading game stats.

    Janet- You are welcome! I have to admit Cari did most of the work, since I’ve been moving, but she did a great job. I sure wish I was eligible to win your wonderful books. . . Oh well, it’s fun to do the giveaway even if I don’t qualify.

  8. What a delightful interview! I really have to read more non-fiction to my girls. They are very curious and they gobble up animal facts. I will find Janet’s books to read together. Thanks!

  9. My favorite animal book is “Guess how much I love you”. I even decorated my daughter’s nursery with prints from that book.

    thanks for the giveaway.

  10. Infantbibliophile – Thanks for all your comments. I like your idea of connecting the books you read to real life as in reading fish books before seeing the aquarium. The Carrot Seed sounds like an interesting book, I will have to check it out.

    Britt – Definitely, interest plays a huge role in motivator readers. I’m with you and Janet, people who want to be writers should read a lot, especially the types of books you want to write. Makes sense. Oh and Mo Willems is a popular one here, too.

    Janet – It’s been fun to learn about the mind behind all these wonderful books and I am enjoying the conversation so far, about people’s favorite animals, family authors, etc.

    Nancy – Nonfiction can be so fun, especially when it involves animals.

    Holly – I know you are busy and stressed right now with the move and such. I’m sure there will be times when I am too.

    Beth Shepard – I’ll have to check out How much I Love you.

    MM – It has never occured to me to decorate my child’s room after a book, I can’t believe it. What a wonderful idea!

  11. – My favorite story with a realistically portrayed animal is “Kidogo” by Anik McGrory. Beautiful book.

    – I love Janet’s Soundprints story. Good encouragement to always do everything with excellence… who knows what opportunities will spring even from endeavors that at first seem ‘unsuccessful.’

    – I think simple sincere enthusiasm is contagious and is probably the best way to encourage reading. And my example is a backwards one: I personally am not a huge fan of non-fiction, but my kids LOVE it – especially biographies. Biographies? Go figure! Their enthusiasm serves to stir my own interest now. What do they see that I don’t? Hmmm…

    – Got to go with Don and Audrey Wood for the husband and wife team…

    – We’ll have to look for the dolphin and narwhal books… My kids have been studying ocean life for science this year and they’re full of animal facts. We were just talking about dolphin sonar the other day. And wow – how cool would a stuffed narwhal be!

    Great interview! Thanks for pulling it together!

  12. 1) Favorite animal book: Both of my boys, 9yrs and 3 yrs, love the Rainbow Fish book; for the story and the beautiful illustrations!
    2) Interview Comment: I am so excited that Janet’s daughter Laura will be illustrating two of her upcoming books! Laura and I went to high school together and played in some musical groups together. She is very talented!
    4) Getting kids to read non-fiction: I think that it’s all about hooking them with a topic that they’re already interested in, like bugs, and providing them with books on that subject. Then as they get interested in other things through those books, they will be more willing to try other non-fiction topics.

  13. Z-Dad – I too love Janet’s Soundprints story. Definitely a story for striving for excellence no matter what. I can’t wait to see what the Z-kids end up doing, with all their fun art and really cool parents. I have to say your wife has to be one special lady. Interesting that your kids get your reading nonfiction, I think my sister’s kids are the same. She reads a lot of it because they like it.

    Michelle – Thanks for stopping by how fun that you and Laura went to school together. I am excited to see the illustrations that she does for the upcoming books. And I agree I think finding nonfiction books on subjects your kids are interested in a key to getting kids to read non-fiction and read anything for that matter.

  14. Z-Dad – I bet she is, I figure with all the creative juices going on over at your house, she has to play a major role in it too.

    Jessica – Thanks for posting about the giveaway and for stopping by!

  15. Janet, thank you for sharing your story. It’s inspiring to read about your beginnings as an author. Even though I’ve never thought of myself as the “writing type” this post makes me want to start!

    My favorite family co-author/illustrator team is Stan and Jan Berenstain. We are huge fans of the Berenstain Bears at our house. I love that this wonderful series that highlights family life in a meaningful way is written and illustrated by an entire family.

    And I just posted about your wonderful site and giveaway. Love you Cari and Holly! Can’t wait to be closer (geographically) to you both!

  16. My dog and I were at the park and there was a little bird who couldn’t fly because he was too small. I couldn’t find the nest, so I took him to our local bird rescue place and they made sure he was taken care of until he was released. It made me feel good to save a life so small.

  17. Janet got the idea to do a story about a young skink while researching a nonfiction book I wrote about all kinds of lizards. I love lizards and we take pictures of those we see at our house and then we look them up.

  18. To get our kids to read non-fiction books we got to our local history museum and find something interesting. Then we get a book about it at our library. We have also gone to historical sites and we read about it before we go.

  19. I did not know that baby skunks could lose their tails and then grow back. When I was about nine years old, we bought a baby skunk from our dentist who had run over the mother.
    We paid a vet to de-scent the skunk. I named him TV because we had a black and white TV for a long time when I was growing up.
    Sometimes in my class at school I have my students guess the name of my pet skunk. They come up with all kinds of fantastic names. I usually have to give them a hint about the name and they are not very familiar with black and white TV’s.
    When I was doing a unit on tall tales with my fourth graders, we read Alligator Sue by Sharon Arms Doucet. It was a lot of fun.
    My kindergartners made alligators in art and we read Egad Alligator! by Harriet Ziefert. Both books are great read alouds.

  20. “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.”

    Interesting the path that the author Janet took to become a freelance writer. In an economy where more and more journalists are losing jobs, we may be lucky to have many, many more budding freelance writers.

  21. My sister Beki’s post brought back memories of our pet skunk – TV. She remembers many more details than I do, but one detail is that the skunk ran away after being a pet for a short time.

  22. A suggestion for encouraging children to read non fiction.

    Show them the non fiction section at the library (children’s section) and show them how the numbering system works (by topic number and author). And then encourage them to think of a topic they are interested in and help them look that topic up in the library catalog and find where books with that topic are located.

  23. I don’t know of many co family authors or family co author/illustrators. I did look on my shelf and found a book called
    “Make Your House Do the Housework by Don Aslett and his daughter Laura Aslett Simons.

  24. I teach kindergarten…when we read non-fiction, we write about it in our journals..I bring in as many tie-ins as possible…frogs, tadpoles…chrysalis from my parsley etc!

  25. Interview comment: Lots of Wisconsin connections: managing editor of Country Kids magazine based in Wisconsin, and many years as a creator of coloring and activity books for Golden Books, also in Wisconsin
    (yay, America’s Dairyland!)

  26. Children are more interested in non-fiction books if they’ve had personal experiences involving the subject matter. My daughter currently loves “Eggs” by Marilyn Singer because for one thing, eggs are everywhere during Easter and she has seen a chick hatch out of one.

  27. My kids have many favorite animal books including a lot of fiction and non-fiction books about dinosaurs and horses. One of their favorite series featuring a dog is the McDuff books!

  28. I think that’s really neat that she spent “many years as a creator of coloring and activity books (Mickey Mouse, Lion King, Little Mermaid, Batman, etc.) for Golden Books” — I would love doing that myself 🙂

  29. As far as non-fiction books, if it is something the child has an interest in it is much easier to encourage them to read books about it — my daughter is fascinated by dinosaurs, horses and animals in general. She reads a lot of non-fiction books about animals as a result. My son likes bugs so we look for non-fiction books about bugs for him. Not my favorite thing to read about but it gets him hooked into reading so we go with it!

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