Tag Archive for Scholastic

Hiccups for Elephant: The Play

On a recent school visit to Middleburgh Elementary, I was handed the day’s schedule by librarian Jeni Friedland. Besides time for lunch, book signings, and the usual author presentations for grades PreK-5, the schedule read:

2:00: Surprise!

I imagined all sorts of things, but real life often far exceeds our imaginings. A first grade class, under the direction of Mrs. Pat Carvin, was all set to put on a play based on my slim picture book, Hiccups for Elephant (Scholastic). It was expanded to include parts for every student, plus all sorts of bonus features — nonfiction elements! dance! song! — thrown in. The cuteness came free with the meal and was overflowing.

I wish I had photos, because it really was a sight to behold. The whole performance was so well done. The acting! The drama! With the permission of Mrs. Carvin, I’ve included the adapted text here. If you’ve got the energy, feel free to use it with your young students.

Just one more comment: Plays offers wonderful ways for students to learn expressive reading. And yet it feels like the classroom play is slowly disappearing. Too many standardized tests? Too much required curriculum for teachers to cover in the classroom? Overworked? Underpaid? I don’t know. But I do know that a good play provides so many positive, creative opportunities for young children. They speak publicly, memorize lines and movements or narrate off to the side, sing and dance, create costumes and scenery, or simply be a part of something fun and wonderful.

I’ve commented before that books are a beginning, not an end. In the hands of a good teacher or parent, a book can lead to remarkable conversations and educational activities. This was exactly such a case, when a fairly simple text served as a springboard for so much active learning. I was honored, touched, and impressed.

So with special thanks to Pat Carvin, and to all the kids in her fabulous 1st grade class, let’s shut off our cell phones, turn down the house lights, and enjoy the show.

* Play adapted from the book, Hiccups for Elephant, by James Preller.
*  Poem in play, and monkey speeches, based on the poem, “Hiccup,” by Jack Prelutsky, from the book, It’s Raining Pigs and Noodles (Greenwillow).
* There are 20 parts, one for each student.


NARRATOR 1:  Welcome to our play.  It is called “Hiccups for Elephant” by James Preller.  Before we start, I would like to tell you a little about hiccups.  Do you know why we get hiccups and what causes them?

NARRATOR 2:  Here’s what we know.  A hiccup is an unintentional movement (a spasm) of the diaphragm, the muscle at the base of the lungs.  The spasm is followed by quick closure of the vocal cord, which produces a distinctive sound.  Lots of things can cause hiccups.  A very full stomach can cause bouts of hiccups.  Eating too much food too quickly;  swallowing too much air; a sudden change in stomach temperature such as drinking a hot beverage; or emotional stress or excitement.  If you are able to stop the hiccup right away, great! But if you hiccup more than seven times you’d better settle in for the long haul.  Once a hiccup starts you typically hiccup 63 times or more.  The hiccup record, last time we checked, was 57 years.

NARRATOR 1:  Hope you will enjoy our play.  We had to change Mr. Preller’s story a little by adding a few extra characters and some common folk remedies people use to cure the hiccups.

NARRATOR 2: It was naptime.  All the animals were fast asleep except for Elephant.  He had the hiccups.


NARRATOR 2:  Chimp woke up.

CHIMP:  I can cure those hiccups.  Stand on your head and eat a banana.

NARRATOR 2:  Elephant gave it a try.  KA-BOOM!  It only made him dizzy.


NARRATOR 2:  Lion woke up.

LION:  I can cure those hiccups.  Drink lots of water very, very fast.

NARRATOR 2:  Elephant gave it a try.  He drank and drank and drank and drank.


NARRATOR 2:  Zebra woke up.

ZEBRA: I can cure those hiccups.  Hold your breath and count to 10 . . . BACKWARDS.

NARRATOR 2:  Elephant gave it a try.

ELEPHANT:  10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, …………HICCUP!

NARRATOR 2:  Parrot woke up.

PARROT:  I can cure those hiccups.  Put this sugar cube in your mouth and eat it!

NARRATOR 2:  Elephant gave it a try.


NARRATOR 2:  Hippo woke up.

HIPPO:  I can cure those hiccups.  Eat 1 teaspoon of peanut butter.  Yum Yum!

NARRATOR 2:  Elephant gave it a try.


NARRATOR 2:  Deer woke up.

DEER:  I can cure those hiccups.  Breathe in and out of this small paper bag.

NARRATOR 2:  Elephant gave it a try.


NARRATOR 2:  Frog woke up.

FROG:  I can cure those hiccups.  Suck this nice SOUR slice of lemon.

NARRATOR 2:  Elephant gave it a try.


NARRATOR 2: Rabbit woke up.

RABBIT:  I can cure those hiccups.  Take a few quick swallows of this pineapple juice.

NARRATOR 2: Elephant gave it a try.


NARRATOR 2:  Snake woke up.

SNAKESsssssss. I can cure those hiccups.  Let me SQUEEZE you around your stomach and diaphragm a couple of times.

NARRATOR 2:  Elephant (RELUCTANTLY) gave it a try.


NARRATOR 2:  Cheetah woke up.

CHEETAH:  I can cure your hiccups.  Try eating one teaspoon of delicious honey.

NARRATOR 2:  Elephant gave it a try.


I have hiccups,
I’ve had them all day.
They’re persistent (hiccup),
And won’t go away.
I’ve tried water, stood on my head,
Held my breath until (hiccup),
My face turned red.

MONKEY 1:  He’s tried every hiccup cure he could, but it hasn’t done any good.

MONKEY 2:  In fact, I think his hiccups are worse, and he may need a doctor or a nurse.

MONKEY 3:  He can feel those hiccups way down in his shoes.  I think he has the hiccup blues.

MONKEY 4:  I’m afraid his insides are going to pop.  Someone has got to get those hiccups to stop.

NARRATOR 2:  Mouse woke up.

MOUSE:  What’s all the noise?  I’m trying to sleep.

MONKEY 4:  Poor Elephant has the hiccups.

NARRATOR 2:  Mouse looked Elephant in the eye . . .


NARRATOR 2:  Everyone waited and waited…………. Silence.  There were no more hiccups.


MUSICAL INTERLUDE: The students sing the song “The Elephant,” words and music by Hap Palmer.

NARRATOR 2:  All the animals fell back to sleep.  Except for Elephant.

ELEPHANT:  La, La, La, La, La, AH_CHOO!  Oh No!!!!!!

NARRATOR 2:  The End!

Wild cheers, applause, but alas, no screams of “Author! Author!” All that remained was to congratulate the cast.

James Preller Interviews . . . Author Karen Roosa

A while back, I stopped by Julie Fortenberry’s most excellent blog and noticed the cover of her new book, Pippa at the Parade. The author’s name was Karen Roosa.

And I thought, I wonder if that’s my Karen Roosa? My Karen was an old stall buddy from Scholastic, back in the mid-to-late 1980s. We were copywriters together, working on book clubs and catalogs. Neighbors, we shared a cubicle wall, but had lost touch twenty years ago. So I contacted Julie, who kindly passed along Karen’s email, and here we are: She’s a big-shot famous author and I knew her when!

– – – – –

Karen, it’s so nice to catch up with you. You must be excited about your new picture book, Pippa at the Parade. It takes a long time, doesn’t it?

It is great catching up with you too, Jimmy.   It really does take a long time to see a picture book published. I had sent a different manuscript to Boyds Mills Press in late 2006, and got a call from the editor saying that story wasn’t quite right for them, but to send others.  They were looking for stories that would appeal to very young children.

Actually, I’ve heard that picture books are trending younger these days; publishers seem to be looking for titles that will appeal to the preschool crowd. We’re seeing less of the text-heavy, William Steig-type picture book.

Yes, I think that’s true — picture books for the very young child. So I sent a collection of summer poems and the Pippa manuscript, and he replied about a month later in early 2007 that they’d like to publish Pippa at the Parade. My part was essentially done right then, but an illustrator needed to be chosen, the artwork completed, and the book printed. Two years, or even longer, is fairly common.

Tell us a little bit about the inspiration for the book.

I was trying to write a “musical” story, something rhythmical and fun to read aloud, but nothing seemed to work. Once I started thinking about feeling the rhythm through the sound of the instruments, the idea of a little girl at a parade came to me.

I get the sense that your first love is poetry.

I do love poetry, reading and writing it. Trying to pare language down to its essence.

Did you have any input into the illustrations? How did that relationship with artist Julie Fortenberry work? And be careful, Julie might be reading this.

I didn’t have any input, which is not unusual. My editor fortunately chose Julie Fortenberry, a fine artist and illustrator.  I saw her work online and really liked her style.  Then I just had to wait to see the finished illustrations.

What was it like when you finally saw the illustrations? It’s an exciting but also a frightening moment.

It was very exciting. The art director at Boyds Mills sent me a PDF last summer to check the text one last time.  It was then that I could see the illustrations for the first time and I really loved them, very whimsical and playful.  They fit the story perfectly. It was a thrill to receive the finished book in the mail.

I see you already got a great review from Kirkus Reviews. And I quote in part:

“The marching band booms by and the onomatopoeic text enlivens the rhythm, “Clapping hands! / Clappity-clap. / Band is coming! / Tippity-tap.” As each section of the parade passes by Pippa is enchanted by the many instruments, which include trumpets, trombones and drums. First the gymnasts flip past, then the ten-foot-tall man on stilts . . . Fortenberry’s rippling illustrations, at once serenely indistinct and lovingly detailed, combine misty, milky hues with thick, robust pastels, presenting a celebration of excitement and indulgence that can only be fully appreciated in childhood.”

Pretty nice, Karen — you too, Julia, and thanks for the use of your illustrations. Personally, I’m frightened by reviews.

It is a little scary. But I have to look. And by the way, congratulations on Six Innings being named an ALA Notable Book — very exciting.

Thanks. I’m sorry that I missed your first book when it came out, Beach Day, illustrated by Maggie Smith. You must have been thrilled when it was named a Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Book of the Year. Now it looks like you are on a roll. What’s next?

I have a couple of picture book manuscripts that I’m sending out, and I’ve always liked the idea of trying a longer story for older children.  Plus maybe poetry, short stories . . .

Well, obviously, the big bucks are in poetry.

Yes, of course!

We shared a cubicle wall for at least a few years back in the way back, the late 80’s, when we both worked as copywriters for Scholastic Book Clubs. Was I good neighbor? I tried to keep the music down when I had large parties. You never called the cops.

Those were good days at Scholastic. The 80s!

Let’s pause here for a salute to the decade . . . and yes, I wore a black Members Only jacket. Their tagline: “When you put it on, something happens.”

A  touching tribute, Jimmy. That job at Scholastic was one of the best ever.  It was great being cubicle neighbors with you. I actually do remember a lot of parties on our floor.

As one of the few heterosexual males in the department, I used to joke with Craig Walker that I felt personally responsible for all the sexual tension in the building. It was pretty much up to me, Greg Holch, and the mail room guys. The pressure on us was enormous. I’d come home from work exhausted.

That’s funny, Jimmy, but you might be exaggerating a little.

Never! Eva Moore was the editor of Lucky Book Club back in those days. Each month, we had to read and describe more than 30 books for both teachers and young readers. It was quite an education, wasn’t it?

You’d get your box of books from Craig Walker for Seesaw Book Club, I’d get mine for Lucky Book Club, and I remember quite a few conversations about Curious George and Clifford the Big Red Dog.

I remember getting advice from Ed Monagle, the Chief Financial Officer for Scholastic at the time. Ed was a money guy, not necessarily a book guy. So one day he tells me, in his avuncular way, “Jimmy, you should really make up one of these popular characters. Look at Clifford the Big Red Dog. He’s a dog. He’s big. And he’s red. How hard can that be?”

I remember Ed and can hear him saying that. If only it were that easy!

Yeah, I told him I’d get right on it.

It was great working with Eva, and reading all of those books really was a terrific education in children’s literature.

Not to mention posters of cute kittens.

I recall many cute kitten posters in my box . . . and also glow-in-the-dark Halloween stickers.

Do you have any favorite memories from those days? I remember writing the first hardcover catalog, when Jean Feiwel launched the line back in 1986 or so. It had four books, total. Harry Mazur, Norma Fox Mazur, Julian Thompson, and I forget the other book, I think it was some kind of “stay away from strangers” type book. Anyway, we came up with an awful catalog cover that Jean absolutely (and correctly) hated. A simpler time.

I remember meeting Joanna Cole because the Magic School Bus was really big at that time, Ann M. Martin when she came in for the Babysitters Club, and a lunch with Norman Bridwell.  I still have the big red plush Clifford from our table that day.  It was a lot of fun just being immersed in children’s books all day with others who had the same interests.  And the camaraderie was great.

There’s a long gap from after you left children’s publishing to when you published Beach Day. It’s like the missing seventeen-and-a-half minutes of the Watergate Tapes – except it’s like seventeen years. What have you been up to –- and why or how did you decide to get back into it?

I left the city in the early 90’s and moved to Pennsylvania.  My children were very young and I wanted to try freelance writing. I’d send out manuscripts, but had no luck for a long time.

Many others have been defeated when faced with the same situation. What kept you going? Any advice?

I think it’s important to not give up. You never know when your story might match an editor’s tastes and needs for their list at that particular moment. I still have a huge stack of rejection letters. Occasionally a publisher would jot, “Send us more,” so I kept at it. One day I received a letter from an editor asking if I’d be willing to make a few changes in a manuscript that I’d sent; after tweaking the text a bit back and forth, Beach Day was published.

Did you celebrate?

I jumped up and down on the kitchen floor.

Okay, Lightning Round. Favorite children’s books?

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and the books of Kevin Henkes, Kate DiCamillo, and Mo Willems.

Kevin Henkes is just spectacular. I really admire his work. Such a talent, almost in an Old School tradition. Mo Willems is great, too. I met Kate a couple of times, I liked her a lot, very down-to-earth. She has a wonderful essay on her website, titled “On Writing.” You have to read it. Go on, I’ll wait.

Okay, I just finished. That is fantastic. It is all about really seeing, then doing the work of writing. Sitting down to write. Rewriting. And then somehow mysteriously having those ordinary moments undergo a magical transformation on the page.

What about favorite adult books?

Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, the poetry of Mary Oliver, Basho, and William Carlos Williams.

I’m a huge fan all three poets, though moreso Basho and Williams. My favorite Basho line is, “The journey itself is home.”

Last question: Favorite movies?

The Crying Game, Pan’s Labyrinth, Once, The Graduate, The Ice Storm.

Thanks, Karen. I’m really glad to reconnect with you after all these years. I wish you all the success in the world, you deserve it. And as a parting gift, I was going to give you a plush version of Clifford the Big Red Dog, but you already have it. So I guess I just saved eight bucks. Sweet!

As a consolation prize, please enjoy this video of Mr. T’s fashion tips — “Hey, everybody got to wear clothes!” — and be glad we survived the 80’s with (most of) our dignity intact. (The link works, but it might take a double click.)

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Jigsaw Jones Cover: Part 3, An Interview with R.W. Alley

This entry is the third in a series of posts following the creation of a single book cover. Here’s Part One and Part Two. Right now, let’s check in with artist R.W. Alley.

First things first: R.W. or Bob?

Bob is fine.

Do you ever receive a cover concept from the publisher and think, “Oh man, this won’t work,” or, “Gee, this is a really boring idea?”

The Jigsaw covers are very different from my other projects. Because of deadlines and the magic ways of publishing, I’m not given a chance to read the books before doing the covers. Now, there could be two reasons for this. One, is the above mentioned deadlines; the promo material for each title usually includes the cover art and this material is usually due while the book is still being written. Two, is that none of that is true and the editors simply don’t trust me to pick out the proper highlight to paint. I prefer answer one.

Of course this doesn’t answer your questions. Those answers would be “yes and yes.” My favorite editor silliness is when the spec reads in part, “Jigsaw in his tree house office, hears a noise, puts down his book, looks out the window, sees a shadowy figure which may or may not be a yeti making off with a glowing globe of uranium, and he, Jigsaw, runs after him, the yeti.” The problem is neither yeti nor uranium. Rather it’s the impossibility of showing our hero doing five things in one drawing.

Okay, I think I’ve got it. You have an irrational hatred of yetis.

Luckily, I think we’re OK for this cover.

How do you begin? Just coffee up and grab a sketchpad?

I put on my slippers, make some coffee, stare at the words on the paper, read the words on the paper, turn on the radio, become annoyed at the radio, put on a CD or even a record, tape some copy paper to my drawing table, notice there’s nothing on the paper, look at the old covers, try to think how to make this one different, pick up a pencil and start drawing. After a while, I notice a foul smell coming from the kitchen and realize I never poured the coffee I’d started two hours ago.

Specifically with this new cover — we’ll call it, “the skeleton in the closet gambit” — how did the concept strike you? I thought the flashlight angle was okay, in that it would give you something to work with, the whole light and dark thing. But I am concerned about the expression on Jigsaw’s face. I don’t want to see him terrified, you know; he’s Jigsaw, he’s got pluck! At this point, does that level of concern even enter the picture (literally) for you?

The first thing will be to get the general composition right. There’s a lot going on for a small image. School, closet, skeleton in general, skeleton hand with clue in particular. The flashlight will help to give a spotlight effect that will add interest and focus. As for Jigsaw’s expression, I completely agree with the pluck concept. However, this will be pinned down a little later.

You’ve done about 40 covers for the series. It must be difficult to keep things fresh — for “it” and for you. I mean, you can’t draw another picture of him writing in his journal, with yet another puzzled expression on his face. Can you?

The thing is that each drawing is a puzzle to be solved. Not too crazy different. Not too much like others. For this one, there are a couple of looking through door setups on other covers (not exactly the same, but there are doors), so I need to make sure this is somehow different.

What else are you working on these days? Are you excited about anything in particular?

The newest book is There’s a Wolf At the Door by the lovely Zoë B. Alley (October, 2008, Roaring Press). It’s a big picture book (11×14, 40 pages) in a comic panel format that retells five wolf-centric tales in a connected way. I am very, very happy to be working in this format.

Lightning round: Favorite illustrators?

Illustrator favorites, in no particular order, but always the same people: Garth Williams, Edward Ardizzone, Raymond Briggs, Tomi Ungerer, Ernest Shepard, J.J. Sempe and Tibor Gergely.

Those are some great choices. All-time favorite children’s book?

Two favorite children’s books at different ages: The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Garth Williams. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame and illustrated by Ernest Shepard.

Thanks so much, Bob. I’ll have to seek out The Sailor Dog. In over ten years, we’ve talked exactly once. It’s been interesting to learn about your creative process. Hopefully we won’t wait another decade until the next time.

PLEASE NOTE: In Part 4 of this series, coming this Friday, Bob has generously shared some of his sketches for the upcoming Jigsaw Jones book cover. You won’t believe how cool these are; even as the author, I’ve rarely felt this INSIDE the process. What a treat.

ALSO NOTE: Fan Mail Wednesday has been moved to Thursday. And, um, Thursday is now on Mondays, Tuesdays will appear on alternate weekends, casual Fridays now require dinner jackets, and Latin Nights have been moved to Bolivia. Just to clarify.


LASTLY: Here’s some links to the all the posts in this seven-part series: One, Two, Three, FourFive, and Six, and Seven. Read them all and experience the awe and wonder of the creative, collaborative process!

Jigsaw Jones: What’s In a Book Cover?

One of the central themes of this blog is that whatever touches my life as a writer is valid content. Or as my pal Matthew Cordell might say, “blog fodder.” So, thus: I recently got this note from my editor at Scholastic, Matt Ringler:

TITLE: Jigsaw Jones Electronic Mystery: The Case of the Secret Skeleton
AUTHOR: James Preller

Jigsaw Jones is sneaking into the janitor’s storage closet. We see him standing in the doorway. It’s dark but Jigsaw has a flashlight. In a back corner, lit up by the beam of light is a plaster human skeleton, hanging from a stand by its head. The skeleton should be the size of a normal person, like the ones used in science class to study anatomy. Jigsaw looks frightened. We can also see the normal paraphernalia that would be in the storage closet (i.e. mops, brooms, buckets, etc.). Visibly crumpled in the skeleton’s hand is a piece of paper (a clue).

And that’s it, one of the early steps toward designing a book cover. The manuscript, you should know, is not yet finished. In paperback publishing, it often isn’t. The book won’t be out for a year — but covers need to be placed in catalogs and brochures; the marketing guys need ’em in well advance. And you don’t want to mess with the marketing guys.

Matt and I discussed the “cover concept” over the phone. Then he had to present it at a meeting to get approval before taking the next step. Which is, I’m pretty sure, speaking with the art director who will contact the cover artist, R.W. Alley.

NOTE: At this point, I decided to do a quick Q & A with Matt Ringler.

Hey, Matt, thanks for helping me out. So what’s involved with getting this particular cover concept approved? Is it anything like, for example, meeting with the Spanish Inquisition?

I’d say it’s more like the “History of the World” version of the Spanish Inquisition, you know, with Mel Brooks singing and fully choreographed synchronized swimmers.

See, that’s where we part ways, my friend. I prefer the Monty Python version, with soft cushions and comfy chairs. [See clip below.]

The trickiest part is making sure everybody is happy. In this case everybody means: the author, the editor (me), the editorial director, the art designer, the manager of the Book Club this title is going on, and a creative director. After all those people sign off on it, the illustrator gets to add another important opinion. I don’t know how many times you’ve ever been around seven people who fully agree on anything. Personally, I have never seen it happen.

The Seven Dwarfs seemed pretty high on Snow White. [That’s the Disney spelling, btw.]

Well, you know what Randy Newman would say about that.

The Dwarfs would have hated the song “Short People” — with unanimous agreement, I’d bet. Too bad they didn’t design book covers.

It’s rare to get full agreement on anything, and that’s a positive thing. Different perspectives often work to improve a book cover. From most conversations I’ve had, many people are under the impression that an editor only corrects spelling and grammar mistakes. While that helps with the job description, I think the most important quality needed in an editor at this stage in the process is diplomacy. I’m happy when all of those people are satisfied and the cover concept arrives on my desk with all of the necessary signatures.

Once the concept is approved, what next?

The next step is to discuss it with the art designer. The designer will then discuss the cover ideas with the artist. A time line will be set. A rough sketch will then come in to the designer, who will place that art into the template of the book cover. At that stage, everybody will look at it again to make sure it works.

I have to say, I love this process stuff — how crayons are made, or Hershey’s Kisses, or whatever — I find it so interesting how many small steps are taken to make a book happen. When do you think the rough sketch will come in?

Most people aren’t aware of the hundreds of minor decisions that are made before each book is published. The time it takes to get a sketch depends on several factors: how fast the artist works, how busy they may be at that time, the book’s schedule, when the final art is due, etc. The standard time is about three weeks to a month. It is important to leave enough time for the illustrator to make any changes that may be needed.

Thanks, Matt. I intend to keep my loyal blog readers — who, clearly, and I don’t think this is saying too much, are willing to lay down their lives for me — posted on this whole process. We’ll be talking soon (and not just about the New York Mets, and our shared pain, but about actual work, too!).

Thank you, Jimmy. I always look forward to our conversations, and I know we will one day have one about a championship Mets team — even if we are old and retired by then!

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NOTE: Here’s some links to the follow-up posts in this seven-part series: One, Two, Three, FourFive, and Six, and Seven. Read them all and experience the awe and wonder of the creative, collaborative process!

New Website: Ellen Miles

Everybody, move over. My friend, Ellen Miles, the author of “The Puppy Place” series and “Taylor-Made Tales,” has just joined the blogosphere. Her new site is brilliant — fresh, alive, and very kid-friendly (just like Ellen!). Please take a moment to check it out. Ellen is especially interested in hearing from her readers. Her site even has games!

My second-grade daughter, Maggie, has read and enjoyed many of Ellen’s books. As she should, because Ellen does a remarkable job. If you know a dog-lover, be sure to check out Ellen’s “Puppy Place” books.

I met Ellen long ago, in 1985 I think, when we both worked at Scholastic. I was a junior copywriter working on the SeeSaw Book Club, living in Brooklyn and making $12,500 a year, while Ellen was an editorial assistant working under Jean Feiwel. We’ve been friends ever since, quietly and not-so-quietly rooting for each other from the sidelines. Ellen is a great woman, awesomely cool, and a talented writer who has dedicated her adult life to children’s books. She’s already accomplished great things, and I’m certain that the best is yet to come.