SOUP’S ON: Gail Piernas-Davenport in the Kitchen!!


I can’t think of a better way to celebrate 2008 than with a special visit from Gail Piernas-Davenport , author of the delightful, Shanté Keys and the New Year’s Peas! I’m thrilled to have Gail as the very first guest in my new alphabet soup interview series, SOUP’S ON: WRITER IN THE KITCHEN, featuring children’s book authors and illustrators, and of course, their favorite recipes.

Shante Keys is Gail’s first picture book, and it has already received good reviews from Book Buds, Booklist and Chicken Spaghetti. It’s also been nominated for a Cybils Award for picture book fiction, and has been selected for inclusion in the Anti-Defamation League’s Multicultural Bibliography.

This satisfying story traces Shante’s attempts to borrow some black-eyed peas from her neighbors, after learning that Grandma Louise forgot to make them for their New Year’s dinner. Miss Lee, Mr. MacGhee, Chef Ortiz, and Hari don’t have any black-eyed peas, but they do have their own special foods and traditions for New Year’s. (These are further described in the end notes, along with information about several other New Year’s customs from around the world.)

Today Gail is serving up an extra big helping of black-eyed peas, sure to bring heaps of good luck to all of us for the coming year. I think I smell something tantalizing coming from her kitchen in Illinois, right now:

Jama: Congratulations on having your first book published! What has been the most surprising part of the experience so far?

Gail:  Thank you! The most surprising thing was how quickly the book was published.  I sold the book in October of 2006 and it was published in November 2007!  The wonderful illustrator, Marion Eldridge, had the artwork finished in five months. She must have had atomic fueled paint brushes! Her illustrations were beyond my expectations. She created a loving family and caring neighbors without subjecting people to stereotypes.

Jama:  Tell us how Shante came into being.

Gail:  For a few years, I had an idea to write a book about New Year’s traditions, but my first draft was a terrible attempt in prose. Once I focused on the African American and Southern tradition of eating black-eyed peas for luck and zeroed in on words that rhymed with “peas,” I was off to a better start. I saw words in the list that would help me achieve my goal of introducing other cultures into the story, such as Chinese, Ortiz, MacGhee’s. Most of the stories I write involve the intersection of cultures because it’s important that we learn from each other. Living in isolation is not conducive to a planet at peace.

My critique group helped me get the meter right since I am not a poet. Then I read the manuscript wherever I could — SCBWI retreats, open mic at McDonald’s poetry night, etc., to make sure it sounded right. Then I started submitting it to editors and contests, without any success. I was a finalist for the SCBWI Kimberly Cohen grant in 2005, and one of the judges contacted me to say they really liked the story, but maybe I should lose the rhyme. I started a version in prose, but it was really bad. I had been working on the story in rhyme for over two years and it just felt so right. Then a couple of weeks later, Albert Whitman contacted me for the first time to ask if the manuscript was still available. Needless to say, I abandoned the prose version pronto!

Jama:  Are any of the characters in the story based on real people?

Gail:  Actually, none of the characters is based on real people, but I think Grandma Louise is kind of a combination of grandmothers. They always want to make sure there’s lots of food.

Jama:  Describe how your family celebrated the New Year when you were growing up. Did you help with the cooking? Was the menu the same every year?

Gail:  Our New Year’s menu was pretty much the same each year with black-eyed peas, but I don’t remember New Year’s being a huge meal because my dad always had a million football games to watch on that day. My mother wasn’t an adventurous cook and I never really cooked until I was married. My husband’s mother, however, is a really good cook and we usually eat at her house on New Year’s. In addition to black-eyed peas and rice, she has chitlins, corn bread, ham, cole slaw, and sometimes a standing rib roast. It’s a real feast!

The recipe for Grandma Louise's Black-eyed Peas is included in the book!


Jama:  When you were researching how other cultures celebrate the New Year, were you able to try any of the foods?

Gail:  I haven’t yet, but one of my goals is to visit the countries and experience their New Year’s celebrations first-hand. I would love to go to Scotland for Hogmanay or to India for Diwali.

Jama:  Your blog is called “The Lemonade Stand.” Can you tell us why you chose this name, and how you’ve made lemonade from the lemons life has given you?

Gail:  I named my blog “The Lemonade Stand” because life is always going to throw some sour-tasting lemons in your way. I believe we all have a choice — we can stand around and say, “Woe is me,” or we can take those lemons and turn them into sweet-tasting lemonade. Everyone has obstacles — we just have to figure out how to use them in a positive manner.

Jama:  You have been very open about having lupus, and how challenging it is to promote a new book with health limitations. Tell us about what kinds of things you’ve been doing to promote Shante Keys.

Gail:  I’ve really tried to focus on the things I can do that have the most impact. First, I launched my website in June, right before I spoke at the Printers Row Book Fair. Then I sent the Christmas newsletter I write every year in July. Yes, July. I wanted to let my friends and family all over the country know the book was coming out and Amazon was already taking pre-orders then. They’ve been great in getting the word out. I also joined the Illinois Reading Council and advertised in the state newsletter. I’ve been asked to be one of the guest authors at the state convention in the spring. I also have tried to get the book to folks who wouldn’t normally see a children’s book, but who might be interested in this one — people in nutrition organizations and in the bean growing industry. I’ve become an advocate for black-eyed peas as a nutritious vegetable!

Jama:  I read on your blog that you’ve created some special puppets to use for school visits. How did you go about making them?

Gail:  First, I explored buying the puppets. I searched every online catalog and retail store in sight. Either the puppets were the wrong size, had the wrong hair, were mouth puppets (much harder to do than hand puppets), or were not in enough different skin tones, plus none of them had the right clothes on! I realized even if I purchased the puppets, I would be making clothes for them to resemble the attire in the book.

Next I embarked on a journey to find a good puppet pattern and searched the Internet. I found several, but none of them had the size or detail I wanted for my characters. I tried making my own with miserable results. My husband said the first one looked like a voodoo doll. Boo hoo. (He was right, actually.)

The quest became immensely easier when I discovered Kwik Sew pattern 3322 (available online or at Hancock Fabrics). I spent six weeks transforming the characters from my picture book to hand puppets. I still have to make a puppet theatre but that should be a piece of cake compared to making ten puppets! This was an incredible experience. My appreciation of Marion’s detail and personality bestowed upon the characters has grown. Now I can only hope (and practice like crazy) to be a worthy puppeteer. Shante and the gang deserve only the best!

Jama:  Your school visits are going to be so much fun with a puppet show!  Do you have any other books in the works?

Gail:  Marion really fell in love with Shante and she would like to do another book. So I’m researching a possible book, something about another holiday or occasion and how people celebrate it differently. I also have a middle grade novel in progress that I would love to get back in the groove of writing.

Jama:  Now for some questions to titillate our taste buds. What is your fondest food-related memory from childhood?

Gail:  The one thing my mother did make better than anyone when I was a child was cakes. She made awesome cakes — always from scratch, and moist and yummy. She would make a yellow layer cake with chocolate icing, topped with pecan halves. Mmmm, good! She is 90 years old and has still never made a box cake.

Jama: You’re right — there’s nothing like a made-from-scratch cake!  What’s your fantasy meal?

Gail:  A medium rare steak topped with mushrooms with a double baked potato and a great salad.


DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN FIVE WORDS: Family gal, NPR addict, dreamer.

FAVORITE AUTHORS/BOOKS: I love Christopher Paul Curtis — the story of how he started writing while working on the assembly line in Detroit is so inspiring and I love his writing. I also love Kate DiCamillo and all of my Illinois author friends, like Heidi Roemer and Alice McGinty. My favorite all-time book is Louis Sachar’s Holes. “There is no lake at Camp Green Lake.” What an opening!

PET PEEVES:  I’m a network rep for SCBWI and I like helping people because SCBWI has helped me so much. But I get a little peeved at people who come to one meeting or who call me on the phone and want the “secret” to getting published in five minutes. Or the person who calls for advice on marketing her book after she’s already self-published it and had 5,000 copies printed is just puzzling to me.

OTHER PASSIONS BESIDES READING AND WRITING:  I love collecting old things — vintage handbags, linens, and handkerchiefs. When I have time and money, I love going to estate sales and resale shops.

FOOD THAT INSPIRES YOUR BEST WORK:  I am a coffee lover so when I sit in a cafe with a special coffee drink and a pad of paper I can really get in the zone.

Jama:  What recipe are you sharing with us today (drool)?

Gail:  I’ve been trying different recipes with black-eyed peas, and here’s a really easy one my family likes:

(serves 8)

1 12-oz pkg Pearson Blackeye Peas — in the refrigerated produce section (or any black-eyed peas)
2 cups shredded red cabbage
1/2 cup celery, diced
1/4 cup green pepper, diced
1 tsp onion, minced
1 cups carrots, shredded
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/2 cup French dressing

Cook peas as directed. Combine the cooked peas with all of the ingredients, mix gently but thoroughly, and chill.

**Thanks for stopping by, Gail!

written by Gail Piernas-Davenport
illustrated by Marion Eldridge
published by Albert Whitman, 2007
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 32 pp.

♥ For info on school visits and more, visit Gail’s official website and blog.

♥ For more about the artist who created the pictures for Shante Keys, visit Marion Eldridge’s website.

**PEA-LICIOUS GIVEAWAY!!  Gail has generously donated a signed copy of Shanté Keys and the New Year’s Peas for one lucky person who leaves a comment here by Sunday, January 6, 2008! Now you can have your peas and eat them, too! 



13 thoughts on “SOUP’S ON: Gail Piernas-Davenport in the Kitchen!!

  1. font size
    Just wanted to let you know I love reading your blog despite the tiny font. It’s really hard to see for someone with slightly compromised vision.
    Thanks for your thoughts on books, food, life.
    Barbara B.


  2. Re: font size
    Thank you so much for reading my blog despite your difficulty. I do write some of the shorter posts in larger font, and always do the recipes in larger font. Have you tried to increase the text size in your browser? This might help.


  3. Jama, thanks for the wonderful interview! I was not yet familiar with Gail and her work, so a special thank you for introducing your blog readers (like me) to such an interesting, talented, inspiring individual. It is always fun to “meet” a new writer – and (perhaps best of all) peek into what’s cooking on top of her stove!


  4. Thanks for reading, Pam. In my new interview series, I hope to feature as many first-time author/illustrators as possible — they’re the ones who need the most exposure. Also, I’ve noted that most blog interviews feature novelists, so I’m hoping to give more PB writers a chance to be heard, too!


  5. Peas!
    I’m so glad you highlighted this book. I’m going to get one for my socials studies collection for and teaching about customs and traditions.
    Tricia (Miss Rumphius)


  6. Ha Ha… my mom and I were just running around the grocery store looking for black eyed peas on New Year’s Eve last week. They were out. We had to settle for a frozen imposter mixed with snap beans! I hope we don’t have bad luck all year. 🙂


  7. I loved the interview! It is great to have a chance to learn a bit about the writing process. Thanks!


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