Tag Archive for James Preller Interview

5 QUESTIONS with Elizabeth Zunon, illustrator of “Don’t Call Me Grandma”

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I believe in Elizabeth Zunon. In fact, if we were at a roulette table right now, I’d gather all my chips and push them forward onto the square labeled “EZ” and let that big wheel spin. Elizabeth is a sensitive, perceptive artist who is just beginning to scratch the surface of her potential. Come, let’s get to know her better.

 

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Did you immediately know that this story by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson was right for you?

Yes! I could immediately picture what Great-Grandmother Nell would look like, and what kind of person she might be, both based on her memories and the fancy, frilly things she had in her bedroom. There are many strong women in my family who have been present all my life, and I’ve amassed some of their jewelry and baubles that I knew would be great reference for creating Great-Grandmother Nell’s world.

This book is about a young girl’s relationship with her great-grandmother Nell, who is a little scary. She’s not outwardly affectionate. And I see that you dedicated it to “all the strong and powerful ladies” in your life. Were you able to draw upon personal experiences while telling this story through pictures?

Maybe not actual personal experiences of being afraid of my own great-grandmother (nor my grandmother and great-aunts, who were all pretty affectionate), but I drew on my experience of having these strong, powerful, independent ladies as role models in my life. I was always enthralled at their stories of “the old days” and I used to love (and still do love) looking at old pictures of them, especially since they are no longer here to share their wisdom.

Your art rewards close scrutiny. The deeper I look, the more I see. You seem to enjoy textures, fabrics, working in layers, and yet your illustrations convey simplicity and immediacy. I wonder if you could select one piece and try to explain your process. I’m sorry, I guess I’m trying to ask the question: “How the heck do you do it?”

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Sure, let’s see how well I can verbalize my process . . .

I use my full-size sketches as the basis for my final illustrations. I placed the sketch for this spread onto my light table, and placed a piece of brown Canson paper on top (this paper is the skin color of Great-Grandmother Nell and the little girl). Next, I traced the sketch in pencil onto the brown paper, removed it from the light box, and used a brown brush pen to draw over all of my pencil lines. I used black pen to draw over the eyelashes, eyebrows and nostrils. I added highlights on the faces with pastel colored pencil, and painted the little girl’s hair with acrylic paint. I then traced the rest of the shapes in the image onto tracing paper (the clothing, pillows, bed, lamp, etc.) and rifled through my collection of colored and patterned paper to find the best fit for each item: lacy white paper for the pillowcase, solid magenta for the girl’s shirt, etc. I cut out each of those items in their chosen paper and glued them onto the illustration . . . . It’s a lot of tracing and cutting and gluing!

The book gives us a child’s glimpse into the mysteries of the adult world. Could you relate to Nell’s fascination with her grandmother’s “special dresser called a vanity”? That scene where she learns how to apply lipstick seems like a rite-of-passage for every young girl.

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I had a fascination with my grandmother’s dresser, which was not a vanity, but where she kept her jewelry box. She had pretty earrings and many elegant brooches she would wear on her coats and scarves. I don’t recall ever being taught to put on lipstick as a rite-of-passage . . . my equivalent would probably be getting my ears pierced, which I didn’t get done until I was thirteen. I’ve been collecting and making funky earrings ever since!

Maybe I’m thinking of my own life, where my sisters taught their little brother how to do it. The way you’d have to pucker the lips inward. There was always something cool about that. But of course you are right, that first ear-piercing is a big moment. Did you go to Crossgates Mall?

Yup, at Claire’s!

When the book shifted to the great-grandmother’s memories, you changed your style of illustration and went with a very wet watercolor. Tell us about that decision.

That was a suggestion from the Art Director Andrew Karre and Editor Carol Hinz. We needed to show that these memories were not as crisp and real in Nell’s mind as her current day life. I love playing around with watercolor (usually outside when I’m near a body of water) and it was great fun to try to create an actual illustration with watercolor.

I imagine that your workspace is just a mess. You are holding scissors –- snip, snap –- surrounded by decorative papers and fabrics. Am I correct? Do you have a photo you can share?

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Ehhhh, well it’s not a total mess. I try to keep it organized. Big messes stress me out a bit.

Thanks for those terrific photos. I see now that are precise, neat, everything is in its place — but sometimes it takes a mess to get you where you need to go.

I keep my big pieces of paper in a flat file, and scraps in plastic scrapbooking bins. When I’m collaging (is that a word?), my desk is definitely a mess of scraps of colorful paper and scissors of various sizes. If I happen to be working on collage in the living room, forget about keeping it neat. The tiny scraps of paper take over . . . the couch . . . the carpet . . . and I get these little ridges on my right middle finger and thumb from gripping the little nail scissors I use for intricate shapes . . . but that’s all part of the package! Vacuuming those tiny scraps out of the living room carpet once I’ve finished a project is an essential part of keeping my sanity.

You were born in Albany, NY (where you now reside), but spent much of your childhood in the Ivory Coast in West Africa. How do you think that influenced your aesthetic? Your sense of beauty?

Growing up in the Ivory Coast shaped my color palette and my love of pattern and geometric shapes. I miss living in the tropics! The warm winds, the beautiful mangoes, bananas, flowers, the bright, handmade clothing and everything else displayed at the market that I would pass on my walk to school every day all made a mark in the colors and shapes I use . . . and the palm trees! God, I miss palm trees . . . big fan palms, planted all in a row, lining the roads! Using warm colors and geometric shapes are just a part of me I guess! That nostalgia for my childhood home is a heavy feature in my work.

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But now in upstate New York you get all those shades of gray. Bet they didn’t have that on the Ivory Coast!

Not that I remember. There were gray days of course, but never cold and gray. Warm and gray is easier to take.

How did you come to children’s books? Can you identify any favorite books or illustrators?

Two of my favorite books as a kid were The Snowy Day written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats, and Cherries and Cherry Pits written and illustrated by Vera B. Williams. I took many art classes at Guilderland High School, and at the encouraging of my art teacher Ms. Brown, I applied to the Rhode Island School of Design (and other schools). I got into RISD and just went for it!

The Talking Heads went there. That’s what I think of when RISD comes up.

Yes, they did, haha! Ahhh, art school . . .

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I decided at the end of my Freshman year there that Illustration was what I wanted to study. I discovered many more illustrators there, including the work of Kadir Nelson which I really admire. I took many children’s book illustration and writing classes, and upon graduating in 2006, moved to Jersey City, NJ, found a day job working in a flower shop in Manhattan, and submitted my art portfolio to book publishers and sent out postcards, hoping to get illustration work. I attended monthly SCBWI meetings and events, and went to an SCBWI conference (I think at the Society of Illustrators?). There, I had a few person-to-person portfolio reviews with editors and agents. Lori Nowicki, agent of Painted Words, saw my portfolio, asked if I’d had any illustration jobs (I hadn’t landed anything yet), and said she knew which publishers my work would fit with. I signed with her and she’s been my agent ever since! A few months later, I lost my job at the flower shop, decided to move back to Albany, and within two weeks, Lori had gotten me my first book contract! That was My Hands Sing the Blues: Romare Bearden’s Childhood Journey written by Jeanne Walker Harvey, published by Marshall Cavendish (now Two Lions Press).

I always want illustrators to write their own stories. I know it can be intimidating for some, out of their comfort zone. Do you have any plans to write?

Oh yes! I’m working on my first authored and illustrated book right now! It’s called Grandpa Cacao, due to be published by Bloomsbury Books in Spring 2019. I love language and the written word, but the images come to me first. Grandpa Cacao is a picture book about a little girl and her dad baking a chocolate cake while learning about the girl’s grandfather, a cacao farmer in the Ivory Coast who harvests and prepares the cacao before it becomes chocolate. It’s based on my father’s childhood memories of being on my grandfather’s cacao plantation.

I’m so glad to hear that. In addition, you have a new book that just came out, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, The Legendary Miss Lena Horne. If you don’t mind, please tell us a little bit about it.

liz-1It’s the story of African American singer, actress and civil rights leader Lena Horne. She’s probably most known for her movie (and song) “Stormy Weather”, but she had many other successes, including being the first black actress to sign a contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer film studios. She refused to play stereotypical black roles like maids and mammies in films, and was one of the youngest member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (at age two!). I loved illustrating Lena Horne’s story, especially since I listen to music when I work, and this is the first project where the person I was drawing and painting was the one actually singing to me!

Thanks for stopping by Elizabeth, I’m so happy for your much-deserved success.

 

In addition to her career in children’s books, ELIZABETH ZUNON also works part-time for the Albany Bureau of Tourism. No, not really. (Maybe she’s just not a winter person.) Elizabeth keeps a great website and Google’ll get you there.

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed in my “5 Questions” series include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, London Ladd, John Coy, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, and Susan Verde. Coming soon: Robin Pulver and Susan Wood. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

 

5 QUESTIONS with NANCY CASTALDO, author of “THE STORY OF SEEDS”

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Nancy Castaldo, international jet-setter, thank you for stopping by. You know, I’ll be honest. I already read Ruth Kraus’s The Carrot Seed. I figure it’s one of the most perfect books ever created. When it comes to seeds, she pretty much said it all: dirt, water, sun, and hope. Then you come along and blow my mind. In all seriousness, I didn’t realize there was a much, much bigger story to tell –- and yet, you found it. How’d that happen?

Ah, The Carrot Seed! That’s a great one. My favorite as a child was What Shall I Put In the Hole that I Dig? I think the subject of seeds has been with me ever since. But, like you say, The Story of Seeds goes a little deeper. I was bombarded by a bunch of news back around 2008 about heirloom vegetables, seed banks, and GMOs. I started to become aware of a global concern – crops were going extinct. I had no idea that could even happen! Then I learned about seed scientists who have risked their lives to protect these valuable treasures. I knew I had to spread the word.

 

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Why is biodiversity important?

Let’s chat about potatoes. The Great Famine in Ireland occurred mainly because there was a lack of diversity. Once the potato crop died, there wasn’t any more food. Biodiversity gives us options. In the Andes Mountains in South America there are countless varieties of potatoes. If one suffers from a blight, another might still flourish. Biodiversity insures a healthier planet.

Your book has a decidedly global outlook. We hop around from Russia to Norway, India to Iraq, to places all over the United States. You must have put a ton of work into this – and it shows in all 136 pages. Tell us about your research. And don’t worry, we have all day here at James Preller Dot Com. Most of my readers are unemployed. I mean, both my readers.

pom-1-of-1Well, you might have all day, but I have to keep writing! LOL. But actually, I could talk all day about the research. I am a research junkie. It’s the best part — part scavenger hunt, part Indiana Jones. I wish I could have traveled to all of the places in my book, but some were off the table — like Iraq. Those places I had to visit by the magic of technology. I did, however, travel to Russia and many wonderful farms and seed banks. Russia was by far a place I never thought I would visit. Due to the seed scientists’ schedules and our calendar, and my deadline, I ended up visiting in the dead of winter when it is the coldest and darkest. I felt like I really experienced Russia! I was able to use that experience to understand more of what went on during the Leningrad Siege I was writing about.

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You put a spotlight on what you call “Seed Warriors.” Did you create that term? How did that narrative strategy come about?

I stole it from myself! I highlighted people who are champions of the environment in my book In Keeping Our Earth Green, by calling them scan-2Earth Heroes. I wanted something similar for this book and since this feels like a battle I used the word warrior to describe these scientists.

Here’s comes a two-parter, so I hope you’re sitting down. Who do you think reads a book like The Story of Seeds? And also, were you once that kid?

That’s a good question.

Finally!

I would hope that teens are my first readers. They can do great things when empowered. I have faith in them. I also have lots of adults who are readers.

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I loved reading books about the environment when I was a kid, like that picture book I mentioned earlier. When I was older I loved reading the essays and books by John Burroughs, Rachel Carson, John Muir and others who wrote about our world. I still draw inspiration from them. (Of course, I also read books about investigator, mystery-solver Nancy Drew!)

I loved that the book concluded with a five-page “Call to Action,” where you offer practical ideas for motivated readers who want to make a difference. I identified with that, because I recently wrote a fictional, middle-grade book set in that near future that touches on some of the negative effects of climate change. It can bring us, writer and readers both, to some dark places. Did you feel it was important to leave your readers with a sense of hopefulness? Or at least, purpose?

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Like I said — my readers can make a difference. I just want to give them some tools to help them do that!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your work with SCBWI. I know you are busy with that organization. First, how do I pronounce that word? Is it a kind of fish? Like scrod? I’m confused.

SCBWI stands for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and you are right, it’s a mouthful! I am the regional advisor for the Eastern NY region. So, that means that when I’m not writing, I’m planning events and meet-ups for other writers and illustrators. I love it! It’s a great organization for both published and aspiring children’s book creators. Just take a look at the website scbwi.org — it’s chock full of info on creating kids books!

I know that SCBWI has been a great source of perspiration — wait, strike that, inspiration! — for many aspiring authors and illustrators. As always, Nancy, I’m somewhat awed by all the good work you do. The Story of Seeds stands as an important, meaningful book. It’s what our world needs, now maybe more than ever.

Hey, thanks Jimmy Preller, for this great chat. It’s been fun. I can’t wait to read your latest eco-fiction title! Climate change is a big topic. It’s really frightening, but there’s hope!

Hope is not my strong suit, Nancy, but I’m working on it! If your comment makes any readers curious about that book, Better Off Undead, they can click here.

9780544088931NANCY CASTALDO is the author of several nonfiction books, including Sniffer Dogs, Keeping Our Earth Green, The Race Around the World, and many more. She lives in the Hudson Valley but she cares about the whole dang planet.

 

 

ABOUT THE “5 Questions” INTERVIEW SERIES: It’s a little project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. I almost called it “Author to Author” but I didn’t want to push myself to the front of it, though that is part of what makes these interviews unique. We’re in the same leaky boat.

Coming next Monday, Aaron Becker (Journey). After that, my great pal Matthew Cordell (Wish) You can hit the “SUBSCRIBE” icon and, hopefully, it will work. Scheduled for future dates, in no particular order: London Ladd, Lizzy Rockwell, Matthew Phelan, Bruce Coville, Jeff Mack, Jeff Newman, and more. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES, and scroll till your heart’s content. Or use the handy SEARCH option. 

Guests so far:

1) Hudson Talbott, “From Wolf to Woof”

2) Hazel Mitchell, “Toby”

3) Ann Hood, “Ada’s Violin

4) Matthew McElligott, “Mad Scientist Academy: The Weather Disaster”

5) Jessica Olien, “The Blobfish Book”

 

 


5 QUESTIONS with JESSICA OLIEN, author/illustrator of “THE BLOBFISH BOOK”

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Are we all good? Everybody set for another installment of our weekly “5 Questions” interview series? Because here’s Jessica Olien. Maybe she’ll stop signing books long enough for a friendly chat. Her blobfish book just might surprise you.

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Jessica, hey. There’s a great scene in “The Sunshine Boys,” starring Walter Matthau and George Burns, where Uncle Willy explains that “Words with k in it are funny.” He lists: pickle, chicken, Alka-seltzer. Uncle Willy adds, “’L’s are not funny. M’s are not funny. Cupcake is funny, tomatoes is not funny, lettuce is not funny, cucumber is funny . . . Cockroach is funny — not if you get ‘em, only if you say ‘em.” The idea is that certain words are inherently funny. Which leads me to Blobfish. How do you not smile when you hear that word?

Indeed. Poor lettuce, what a terrible dinner party guest. Blobfish is most definitely funny, but as with most comedians is also seriously misunderstood!

There’s a deeper layer to your book, slowly revealed, that leads the reader to an unexpected place. First, on the surface, there’s straight-forward science. From what I understand, there’s been significant advances deep ocean research, where we’re now getting glimpses of these incredibly weird fish. My favorite is Vampyroteuthis infernalis (loosely translated as “Vampire Squid from Hell”). It all gets pretty bizarre down in the Hadalpelagic Zone. All of that information in your book is conveyed in a fairly conventional photographic manner. Then we meet your illustrated Blobfish character. Which came first?

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Definitely Blobfish came first. I had this idea kind of whole — an attention-seeking fish looking to recognize himself in the pages of a dry textbook. To get the photos (which are mostly of the deep deep sea) I had to contact different scientists around the world, which was fun but challenging when they were off searching for Japanese Spider Crabs or whatever and couldn’t get back to me for permissions.

What I love about your book -– and there’s so much to love –- is that moment when it pivots about halfway through. We are yucking it up with an interrupting blobfish, thinking we’ve got this book figured out, when we learn, “The blobfish was once voted the world’s ugliest animal.”

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At that moment, you start tugging, ever so gently, on emotions. The book quietly sends signals from the deep about kindness and how we treat each other. Even blobfish have feelings! And words can hurt. I imagine you coming across that factoid and thinking, “Hmmmm.” Is that when you knew you had a book? Because that’s a real thing, isn’t it? We all have folders of half-baked ideas, snippets and notions and unfinished manuscripts, but not many books. Then there’s a moment when, yes, this is a book. Or as my friend Matthew McElligott puts it, “You know you can land the plane.”

Well thank you! I think I actually read that the Blobfish was voted the ugliest animal on BBC or something and that’s where the idea for this book came from. That and a bunch of really weird sketches of Blobfish — you should see one of the early ones, he looks kind of like Danny DeVito.

DeVito should play him in the movie. I can totally see that. He has the range. But continue.

I loved thinking about a lumpy fish with this child-like enthusiasm about his own worth. Blobfish craves validation and belonging and while he looks for it he finds out that some people have not very nice views of him. I think this is a defining moment for many kids too. When they realize people aren’t all on their side. It feels so unfair (it is unfair). Different versions of this happen our entire lives and it is up to the kindness of others and our own ability to recognize and embrace that kindness (as well as to forgive our own flaws) that keeps us going.

I see that you live in Brooklyn, as required by law for children’s authors and illustrators (I think it’s a five-year minimum, then you are free to move to Connecticut). Yet you are a native Midwesterner. Where’s that?

I was born in Michigan and raised in Wisconsin. I never felt like I fit in anywhere. All I wanted to do was explore the world and be a writer, an artist, an actor. Being from the Midwest you are taught to keep your expectations low and your ambition in check. I couldn’t wait to leave. I moved to Chicago to study photography, then dropped out of school and moved to Thailand where I worked as a journalist. I finished my degree remotely while studying Arabic in Egypt.

Right. Given that progression, writing and illustrating a children’s book about a blobfish makes perfect sense. Because: inevitable. Your voice strikes me as something new. How did you arrive at children’s books? It’s like you climbed in a window or something.

It does sometimes feel that way — “This is not my beautiful house.” I always say I didn’t do this until a few years ago, but recently I looked back at some of my sketchbooks that I kept while traveling and mixed in with these serious sketches of urban decay and poverty were these funny cartoon animals and people. I am so glad I didn’t pursue picture books right out of school though. Something about not caring as much what people think when I did start out made it easier to have an authentic voice. Also, I was lucky to have Alessandra Balzer buy my first book (and four after). If she hadn’t taken it I might not even know there was a window for me to climb into.

Thanks for visiting, Jessica. Keep up the great work.

wceggdunlca8rphoz66abhhs4ri12vqgoobrgbrkx2plcphekar3aiznsrpughkiodzcs4glrs3lnnbucm2t9tndb06zszzgaib6wpypvq5idkycbwtzawmsmq7pk-1JESSICA OLIEN is also the author/illustrator of Shark Detective! and Adrift. She has several books in pre-publication, but the one I’m most excited about it titled Right Now (2018). I guess we’ll have to wait for it. Hum-dee-dum, dee-dum-dum. Jessica keeps a fancy website that you can visit. Google’ll get you there.

 

Coming soon: London Ladd, Matthew Cordell, Lizzy Rockwell, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker,  Matthew Phelan, and more. You can look up previous interviews in this series by clicking on the “5 Questions” icon under the “categories” on the right sidebar.

Talking: Writing Process, Roald Dahl, Works In Progress, Lewis & Clark, and the Danger of the “Info Dump.”

Illustration by the amazing Quentin Blake, from DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD -- a book that helped inspire THE COURAGE TEST.

Illustration by the amazing Quentin Blake, from DANNY CHAMPION OF THE WORLD — a book that helped inspire THE COURAGE TEST.

Deborah Kalb runs a cool website where she interviews a staggering number of authors and illustrators . . . and she finally worked her way down to me.

Please check it out by stomping on this link here.

Here’s a quick sample:

Q: You wrote that you were inspired by Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World to focus on a father-son dynamic in The Courage Test. How would you describe the relationship between your character Will and his father?

A: Yes, I came late to the Dahl classic and was struck that here was a loving book about a boy’s relationship with his father — not the kind of thing I’ve seen in many middle-grade children’s books. I found it liberating, as if Dahl had given me a written note of permission.

In The Courage Test, William Meriwether Miller is a 12-year-old with recently divorced parents. His father has moved out and moved on. So there’s tension there, and awkwardness; William feels abandoned, and he also feels love, of course, because it’s natural for us to love our fathers.

I wrote about this at more length, here, back a couple of years ago. In the unlikely event you are really fascinated by my connection to the Dahl book . . .

In Which I Answer the Question: “What Are You Working on now?”

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I recently completed a series of interview questions at Deborah Kalb’s “Book Q&As” blog (not posted yet, or I’d share), and thought I’d pass along a brief sample. One of the unexpected challenges to writing a book comes after the book is finished — when you’ve got to figure out how to talk about it.

How do you explain it? How do you make it sound good in two sentences? How do you summarize 42,000 words to someone who is barely listening?

Obviously, I’m still trying to figure that out.  Read below and you can flounder along with me!

 

What are you working on now?

I am finishing up the revisions for a middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead, that I began seven years ago. That’s not a normal time-frame for me. It started as a misfit story, in this case a boy who survives his own death only to be told that, well, he might as well go back to middle school. I figured that “zombie” made him the ultimate outsider. But I didn’t feel satisfied writing just a zombie book, so the work stalled. As time passed, I became increasingly invested in a host of environmental issues, “climate change” in particular, even attending a huge march down in NYC. I kept looking at young people, including my own children, and felt the caretakers of the planet had failed them. We had failed them. At the same time, I felt that many of today’s young people had not fully grasped the severity of the situation. The book (Macmillan, 2017) casts a wide net, sprawls and morphs into a mystery/thriller hybrid, and touches upon dying bees, bats, droughts, wildfires, makeover shows, corporate greed, consumerism, politics, bullying, and, yes, the struggles of one lone zombie. If there’s a theme, it’s this: Everything connects. It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever written. I’m glad that I can still surprise myself — and consider it a good sign.

Here’s some more images from the spectacular “People’s Climate March” in NYC referenced above, attended by more than 400,000 citizens of the globe.

I traveled down alone -- but not alone -- by bus. So this is me on that great day, seeking attention to a cause that matters. In many ways, this march affected and inspired the book I wrote.

I traveled down alone — but not alone — from Delmar, NY, by bus. So this photo is me, taken by a stranger on that great day, seeking attention for a cause that matters. In many ways, this experience affected and inspired the book I wrote.

People's Climate March, 092114Some of hundreds of thousands take part in the People's Climate March through Midtown, New Yorkscreenshot-2014-09-10-131902_550x322climate-march-9_3000019b10_medium140921_climate_change_rally_nyc_ice_cream_earth_msm_605_60520140921-dsc_0050imagesA protester carries a sign during the "People's Climate March" in the Manhattan borough of New Yorkslide_389314_4706504_freeslide_370038_4261286_free140921_pol_peoplesclimate_11-jpg-crop-original-originalimagemarch-for-climate-changeimrspeoples-march-newam-crew-537x366