My Writing and Reading Life Interview with Heather Alexander
The Children’s Book Review
Heather Alexander is the author of over 50 books for children, both fiction and non-fiction. Recent titles include A Child’s Introduction to the Nutcracker (Hachette), Eat Bugs: Project Startup (PRH), and VIP: Dr. Mae Jemison (HarperCollins).
I write because …
It’s what I’ve always done. As a kid, I’d scribble down story after story about detectives, imaginary lands, and surviving in the wilderness (my characters would inexplicably travel with a box of Oreos in hand, which I guess was my 10-year-old idea of emergency supplies!). I’ve also always been super curious about everything, hunting down answers to the way the world works, why we say certain phrases, and the history behind quirky behaviors. I love how writing narrative nonfiction allows me to explain something to kids the way I wish someone would explain it to me.
I read because . . .
It’s my ultimate entertainment and escape. There’s nothing more relaxing than getting lost in a story (especially while in a bubble bath!). But stories don’t need to be long or fictional. Every day, I read the obituaries in the newspaper. My kids think it’s odd, pointing out that I don’t know these people and they’re not even famous. But a well-written obituary is the best kind of mini-biography! After just two or three paragraphs, I get to glimpse into someone else’s life and truly appreciate the amazing and outlandish things average folks do and contribute to our world. And the quirkier the obit, the higher chance I’ll read it aloud to you!
I wrote this book because . . .
Who doesn’t love weird facts? Every state in the U.S. is filled with peculiar monuments, strange laws, and wacky festivals that are total head-scratchers.
I mean, can we discuss the Banana Museum, Old Naked Joe Mountain, ski joring contests, and mashed potato wrestling? And don’t get me started on all the giggle-inducing town names! My hope is this book gives kids a chuckle and. more so, that their marvel and wonder leads them to dig deeper and learn more about the different people, cultures, and histories that make up this wonderful nation.
Best moment . . .
For each state, I have a Fast Facts section that explores the iconic foods, inventions, and slang, and I also chose to highlight two middle grade books. The books I picked are not about the state per se but use the state as a setting. There wasn’t room to include so many of my favorites (why are so many stellar titles set in California, New York, and South Carolina???), but compiling this reading list was a labor of love and one of the best parts of writing the book. For a book nerd like me, it was kind of like the children’s publishing version of fantasy football!
My special place to write is . . .
You’ll find me at local coffee shops. Having energy and a buzz swirling around focuses me better than silence. My favorite place to write right now is Kiff Kafe in West Los Angeles—their outdoor back patio has the coziest, I’m-pretending-I’m-really-in-France vibe.
Necessary writing and creative tool . . .
Plenty of coffee and cookies. The cookies were a learned response. When I worked as an editor in NYC, we’d gather for afternoon brainstorming sessions (we published a lot of series fiction so there was constant need for new plots) and the company that supplied the printer paper always dropped off these round tins of chocolate chip cookies that were placed in the conference room. After years of munching as story details and structure were debated, my brain now associates creativity with cookies!
The person who has been my greatest writing teacher or inspiration . . .
The “two Janes.” I started on the editorial side of publishing and was incredibly fortunate to learn first from Jane O’Connor (author of Fancy Nancy and creator of the Who Was series) and then from Jane Stine (guiding force behind Goosebumps and Fear Street series). Watching these two dynamic women line-edit and rewrite (back in the days of red pencils and editing by hand) taught me so much about word choice, pacing, and how to write a kid-friendly narrative.
Currently reading (or have recently finished). . .
A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat, Barakah Beats by Maleeha Siddiqui , Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles, Katie the Catsitter by Colleen AF Venable and Stephanie Yue, Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith.
Favorite Bookshop …
Hands down, Children’s Book World in Los Angeles. I moved to LA about four years ago, and this amazing store welcomed me and immediately became my “happy place.” To watch these booksellers hand-sell books is like watching gold-medal athletes in action. They’ve read everything and, in mere minutes, can match a kid to that perfect book sure to capture their imagination.
All-time favorite children’s book I didn’t write . . .
Impossible to pick just one! I’m going to go (pretty much) old-school with my list: From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler by E.L. Konisburg, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, the Mercy Watson series by Kate DiCamillo, and anything by Paula Danziger (because she was the first author to write back to me when I was a kid!).
Favorite Illustrator . . .
Again, there’s no way I can’t list a bunch! A few are Kadir Nelson, Eric Carle, Christian Robinson, Arnold Lobel, and Minh Lê.
A literary character I’d like to vacation with . . .
Does an enchanted tree house count? If so, I’d take Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House with me, because 1) I’ve always wanted a treehouse of my own, and 2) I could whoosh away at whim to exotic places around the globe and time travel throughout history. What a delight it would be for everything I read and research could truly come to life! Well, maybe not the dinosaurs, but everything else.
When I’m not reading or writing I’m . . .
Watching movies and TV and listening to podcasts (have I told you how much I love stories?!) or walking our new beagle puppy, Luna May—or doing both at the same time (hello, audio books!).
To learn more, visit https://heatheralexanderbooks.com/.
Written by Heather Alexander
Illustrated by Alan Berry Rhys
Ages 5+ | 112 Pages
Publisher: Wide Eyed Editions | ISBN-13: 978-0711262843
Publisher’s Synopsis: A state-by-state compendium of weird laws, quirks, one-offs, and unusual records only to be found in the wonderfully wacky US of A.
Only in America! explores the strangest claims to fame and the most unusual place names every state has to offer. Visit the city of Dinosaur, drop by the Pizza Museum, find out where it is illegal to feed a pig without a permit, and check out the world’s only “carhenge” (that’s right, Stonehenge reconstructed using cars). Among many other marvels, discover:
- The longest gum wrapper chain (over 20 miles!)
- Which state has the highest ratio of cows to humans in the country
- The origin of shoo-fly pie, a molasses cake baked in a pie crust
- The world’s largest (fake) bug, a 58-foot blue termite
- Where “dinner” means lunch and “supper” means dinner
Illustrated by the brilliant Alan Berry-Rhys in a bold graphic art style that evokes vintage Americana, the book is arranged state by state, giving key facts about each and presenting an alternative and hilarious look at quirky phenomena that are truly only in America.
The 50 States series of books for young explorers celebrates the USA and the wider world with key facts and fun activities about the people, history, and natural environments that make each location within them uniquely wonderful. Beautiful illustrations, maps, and infographics bring the places to colorful life.
Buy the Book
Also available from the series: The 50 States, The 50 States: Activity Book, The 50 States: Fun Facts, 50 Cities of the U.S.A., 50 Trailblazers of the 50 States, 50 Maps of the World, 50 Adventures in the 50 States, 50 Maps of the World Activity Book, and We Are the 50 States.
Discover more books like Only in America: Weird and Wonderful Facts About the 50 States, written by Heather Alexander, by checking out our reviews and articles tagged with American History, Heather Alexander, and Non-Fiction. Be sure to follow along with our Writing and Reading Life series.
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November 10, 2021 at 12:32PM Guest Posts