Many of you know my penchant passion obsession with books featuring food, bears, and the alphabet. Just so happens that our special guest today, children’s author/illustrator, Anna Alter, has all these bases covered.
Yes, I drooled right through her first picture book, Estelle and Lucy (raspberry biscuits), loved her adorable Three Little Kittens (mitten and pie endpapers!), eyed up the bowl of porridge in Priscilla and the Hollyhocks, and fell in love with her recycling activity book that just came out in March, What Can You Do with an Old Red Shoe (charming bears, cats and bunnies).
Well, now she’s topped herself again: another brand new picture book just released in April that features the alphabet, Abigail Spells (Knopf, 2009)! I’m so happy she’s stopping here on her whirlwind Blog Tour this week to tell us more about champion speller, Abigail, and her best friend George, who just happens to be a bear.
As the story goes, Abigail loves to do many things — dance the cha-cha, strike a pose, make up great stories to tell George. But the one thing she loves above all is spelling, and she’s very good at it. She gets very excited about the school spelling bee, and George helps her prepare for it, but when the big day comes, things don’t turn out quite like she had hoped. It’s a good thing she has a friend like George, who knows just how to convince Abigail that winning isn’t everything.
Abigail Spells is a Junior Library Guild Selection, and has already received glowing reviews from Booklist and Kirkus, who said,
Alter’s simply told text deftly conveys the genuine affection between the friends and treats Abigail’s disappointment with the gravity it deserves. The enduring message of the inevitability of setbacks and the necessity of gracefully coping — with a little help from friends — will appeal to readers struggling with their own challenges.
I love how Abigail spells out everything she does throughout the day. Lovely letters float on the pages, forming cool words like, C-A-R-R-O-T and C-O-O-K-I-E! You can see why I’m smitten with this book (polka dot galoshes)! But now, let’s find out more from A-N-N-A:
What inspired you to write this story? Were you a good speller in school?
I was not nearly the speller that Abigail is! But I do relate to her in another way. As a kid I was always terrified of standing in front of a crowd; I had major stage fright. I wanted to write a story about how it feels to experience that kind of fear, and the disappointment that can come from things not turning out the way you wanted them to. Far more kids lose contests like Spelling Bees than win them. But this can be a valuable experience to have if it is put in context. In this story, Abigail learns that friendship is more important than winning.
What was the best part of making this book? The most challenging?
I had a lot of fun painting the art in this book. I used a brighter, richer color palette than I have before and experimented with using patterns and unique color combinations (I borrowed a lot from vintage fabrics and color combinations found in nature). I also really enjoyed painting the skies in several of the paintings. I spent a lot of time mixing colors so that the sky above each scene reflected just the right feeling.
The most challenging aspect was probably determining the reading level of the vocabulary. Reading levels vary a lot kid to kid, but my editor and I worked hard to make sure that we picked spelling words for the book that kids in early grade school could decipher, but that would be challenging too.
Why did you make Abigail a bird and George a bear? Was this decided before you wrote the story, or when you started on the illustrations?
My stories always start with a character before I write a word. I’ve always loved drawing birds, and especially like the idea of a big round bird with a flair for fashion. Thus Abigail was born. I didn’t make her any one kind of bird, but just knew I wanted her to be big and round. I also enjoy drawing bears; to me they represent warmth and kindness. I thought a sweet, loyal bear would be the perfect complement to Abigail’s big personality.
How did you go about choosing Abigail and George’s clothes (especially Abigail’s snazzy boots)?
I wanted Abigail’s looks to get her personality across; I thought a bird with that much passion and enthusiasm for life would have very particular tastes, and galoshes would be a great canvas for her moods!
I love how Abigail spells out everything she does, morning, noon, and night. What are some of your favorite words? Are you particularly enamored of any letter(s)?
I like short, to-the-point kind of words like “box,” “pop,” and “sky.” I also like words that are fun to pronounce, like “succinct,” “thrush,” and “buoyant.”
I’ve always been partial to the letter “A.”
What do you hope children will take away from Abigail Spells?
I hope the book will be a comfort to kids when they experience disappointment, and make it clear that winning isn’t everything. I also hope it will encourage reluctant spellers to get interested in learning about words.
What kinds of things do your friends do to cheer you up?
The nicest thing my friends do for me when I’m feeling blue is to give me a listening ear.
Please tell us all about the special Abigail Spells website, and share a few ideas about how teachers can use this book in the classroom.
I put together www.abigailspells.com to give readers a peek into the creation of the book and give educators some tools to explore the themes in the book with kids. The site has spelling games kids can play, coloring sheets to download, and a curriculum guide that suggests different ways to talk about the book.
The most obvious theme that teachers and parents can use the book to explore is Abigail’s enthusiasm for spelling. Abigail spells everything she sees throughout the day. Using her as a role model, teachers might ask their students to make a spelling journal, a picture dictionary, or create their own spelling matching game like the one that is on the web site.
Teachers (and parents) could also use the book to explore the subject of friendship. Using Abigail and George as an example, they could begin a discussion about what kids like to do with their friends, how they can cheer each other up when they feel sad, and how friends have helped them through difficult situations.
What are you working on now?
I am working on the sketches for a book called Disappearing Desmond, which will be out next fall. It’s a story about a cat named Desmond, who is very shy, and is always hiding and disappearing into the background. In this story, Desmond meets an outgoing rabbit named Gloria who helps him learn about the joys of being noticed.
Now, I can’t let you go without asking a couple of all-important food questions. What food inspires your best work, and what’s your favorite food scene from a children’s book?
My very favorite meal is fresh pesto with garden tomatoes. But I don’t often eat it while working . . . so I would have to say an ample supply of chocolate cookies helps fuel me during the workday!
I was always fascinated with the scene in James and the Giant Peach when James scoops up handfuls of the peach to eat. There was something so appealing about scooping up your food with both hands, and eating it in big, juicy, sweet mouthfuls.
Your favorite soup?
I would have to say my favorite is carrot ginger.
Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Anna. Since this is the last stop on your Blog Tour, I think we should celebrate with a special bowl of soup created just for you by the alphabet soup teddies. They’ve been crushing on you ever since you said bears were friendly and kind. Good Luck with Abigail Spells!
BLOG TOUR SCHEDULE:
Monday, May 25: MotherReader
Tuesday, May 26: A Patchwork of Books
Wednesday, May 27: Katie’s Literature Lounge
Thursday, May 28: Brimful Curiosities
Friday, May 29: jama rattigan’s alphabet soup
For a fascinating glimpse into some of the artwork process for Abigail Spells, including handkerchief selection, cover design sketches, and choosing color schemes and patterns, click here.
As always, you can also find Anna blogging at the Blue Rose Girls.
For a 2007 in-depth interview with Anna, click through to 7-Imp.
Ursula, Boris, Snowball and Albert are thrilled that George is in the book.
For a chance to win one of THREE brand new shiny copies of Abigail Spells, leave a comment here, spelling your favorite word correctly, no later than midnight (EST) Friday, June 5, 2009. U.S. residents only, please. You can also email me to enter: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot com).
*Spreads posted by permission, copyright © 2009 Anna Alter, published by Knopf Books. All rights reserved.