[review + author chat] Candice Ransom on Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten

Do you remember your first day of kindergarten?

Though I had the usual first day jitters, it turned out fine in the end. I loved my kind teacher Mrs. Fujimoto, painting on a real wooden easel, listening to funny stories, taking a nap on my new denim sleeping bag, and best of all — snack time with milk and graham crackers. 🙂

Reading Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten (Doubleday, 2017)  kindled such fond memories. Written by the delightful, diverting, kitty-loving Candice Ransom and illustrated by Christine Grove, this must-read picture book is absolutely adorable and officially hits shelves today.

Candice’s cat Faulkner loves the new book, which is her 137th!

It seems Amanda Panda (who loves the color brown, wants to be a school bus driver when she grows up, and can run really fast downhill), isn’t suffering from first day jitters at all. She knows precisely how her day will go: she’ll print her name “in big, important letters on the board,” build “the tallest block tower,” and run “the fastest of anyone.” After all, her big brother Lewis did all of these things, so why wouldn’t she?

All art © 2017 Christine Grove

Well, she hadn’t counted on Bitsy — a diminutive, cutesy, head-to-toe-in-pink pest, who glombs onto Amanda as soon as they board the school bus.

For some reason, Bitsy is bent on being Amanda’s new best friend. But she takes the wind right out of Amanda’s sails, grabbing all the attention as she repeatedly beats her to the punch. Bitsy hogs blackboard space with her big annoying handwriting, builds a Kitty Castle that Ms. Lemon loves, and even contributes to Amanda losing a downhill race. With Bitsy as Head Princess, it’s definitely “the end of the world.” But Amanda has a plan.

She’ll go to second grade instead.

She finds Lewis’s class and slides into the seat next to him. But Amanda’s not so sure she likes second grade. There are hard words on the blackboard and the chairs are too big. Now what?

I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say Bitsy tracks Amanda down, and this time Amanda finally finds a way to shine.

Love this humorous story about kindness, empathy, friendship, and learning how to cope when reality doesn’t meet expectations. Who can resist a warm and welcoming world populated entirely by roly-poly pandas, especially when they’re donned in such cool garb?

It was such fun to meet Amanda and vicariously experience all the ups and downs of her first day. She’s plucky, intuitive, funny and relatable, and you can’t help but root for her.

Christine’s bear characters ooze personality with their spot-on facial expressions and posturings, and kids will love all the snazzy details, from Bitsy’s flower petal skirt and little kitty purse, to Amanda’s school bus lunch box and zippy sneakers, to Ms. Lemon’s school supplies jumper.

A wonderful pairing of engaging text and fetching illustrations, this endearing spin on a classic theme offers lots of smiles and reassurance for little ones just starting school.

Today I’m happy to welcome Candice back to Alphabet Soup to tell us more. Ever the fashion plate, she just swished into our kitchen wearing a vintage ball skirt. You’ll enjoy learning the book’s interesting backstory and a little about Candice’s own first day of school. And she’s brought pictures! Special thanks to Christine Grove for permission to share the initial sketches that inspired this project.

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🐼 AUTHOR CHAT WITH CANDICE RANSOM 🐼

 

I hear this book started off in an unconventional way. Please tell us all about that.

Frances Gilbert, Associate Publishing Director at Random House, and editor of Doubleday Books for Young Readers, emailed me in the spring of 2015. An illustrator had created an adorable character called Amanda Panda, but didn’t write. The illustrator, Christine Grove, and Frances envisioned a personality closer to Russell Hoban’s Frances the Badger than, say, Fancy Nancy. She asked if I would be willing to write a story on speculation.

I said yes, even though this wasn’t the way I’d ever written a picture book. Saying yes when you aren’t entirely comfortable often brings delightful surprises. And so it was with this project. First, Frances sent me two pages of Christine’s sketches, one in color, one in black and white. The boy and girl panda-children were adorable.

Christine’s pencil sketches

Next, I spent two months reading the Frances the Badger books, older picture books, and modern character-driven picture books. I typed out the manuscripts to see them away from the art. I analyzed the typescripts. I made extensive notes. I thought about my story. Then I wrote Frances the Editor a three-page character sketch and thoughts for the story. She liked my vision of Amanda and we discussed story details.

Christine’s color sketches

What were your first thoughts upon seeing Christine’s panda bear character?

Oh, I loved Christina’s characters from the second I clapped eyes on them! Their big faces and little ears sitting on top of their round heads, so appealing! In the black and white sketch sheet, there is a little boy panda crying, with fountains of tears and his mouth wide open. That panda made me laugh! I fell hard for those bears!

How did you finally settle on a story premise? What were some of the unique challenges to writing this particular story?

I’d decided to write about Amanda starting kindergarten, which posed a special challenge. I always draw from my own life experiences, even if only for emotion, and this time I didn’t have any. I didn’t go to public kindergarten. But I remembered being five years old and waiting for my older sister to come home from school. I longed to go to school like my sister and do Big Girl stuff.

Also, I wasn’t sure I knew kindergarteners. I’d spoken to them in large groups in school visits, but what was it like to be a kindergartener? I started watching the kindergarteners in my neighborhood at the bus stop. They were not, as I’d initially imagined, small first graders. They were funnier, cuter, more emotional, and unique.

Compared to other picture books you’ve written, did you collaborate more closely with the illustrator when drafting your story and working through revisions?

Actually, I didn’t work with Christine at all. Even though she had created the character, I needed to write the story to launch Amanda into the world. It wasn’t easy. What was Amanda’s problem? What did she want? What was going to happen? I spent weeks thinking about the story, making notes.

I started to write and suddenly . . . there was Bitsy! Amanda didn’t just have an older brother she wanted to emulate, but this very girly-girl who insisted on being Amanda’s friend burst on the scene. Then the story came together in just a few days. Throughout the process, I worked more closely with my editor.

Candice (6), who admits to being Amanda, with her cousin Jeani (5), who inspired the character of Bitsy.

What kind of five year old were you? Were you more like Amanda or Bitsy? Please share a fond first day of school memory with us.

I didn’t go to kindergarten. Believe it or not, Fairfax County schools didn’t have public kindergarten until—I don’t know, maybe the late 60s? Early 70s? In any case, I only knew one girl who went to kindergarten (the kind you paid for) and I remember staring at her like she was some exotic creature.

Candice and Bill in first grade.

So instead I’ll share a “fond” first day of first grade memory. I wore a yellow dotted Swiss dress with black velvet trim with a crinoline. The boy across the road, who was also starting kindergarten, pulled my dress up so everybody driving down Lee Highway could see my underpants! I was incensed.

My teacher seemed to be a hundred and seven, but she was probably only in her 50s. She pulled out flash cards (this was the era of sight-reading) and called on me first to read the word! I didn’t know how to read. I had only learned to write my name the night before. I was mortified. Then she called on the boy who pulled up my dress. The word was “bill.” His name was Bill. If she’d had a flash card that said, “Candice” I could have read it. It was a most demoralizing day. Oh, I was definitely an Amanda.

I especially like the way Christine Grove dressed her characters. Did you have any input regarding the details?

My editor worked with Christine on the outfits. At one point, they decided Amanda was a little too drab for her personality and Christine jazzed up her wardrobe. Frances Gilbert kept me in the loop over every change. It was a lovely experience.

What do you like best about Christine’s illustrations?

So many things! Her use of white space, especially the cover. I’m redesigning my website and am using white as a background. White allows the colorful characters to stand out and gives them “room” to breathe. My all-time favorite illustration, the one that made me shriek with laughter when I saw it, is the school bus double-spread, with the bus driver absolutely crammed in the driver’s seat.

Christine is a genius with expressions which aren’t easy to do on these puffy-faced characters! She conveys a full range: disappointment, nervousness, annoyance, stubbornness, pride, and delight. My favorite is Amanda’s look of exhaustion when Bitsy somehow beats her to the classroom.

What do you hope kids will take away from Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten?

I know some children will be nervous about starting kindergarten, others will be eager, and many will be a mix of both. Starting school is an exciting, daunting experience. It’s a kid’s first big step out into the world. I hope kids will see themselves in nonconformist Amanda Panda, who gets her footing on that all-important first day by trusting her intuition . . . and learning to open her heart.

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about this book?

It’s my first book with animal characters! Last week I bought a stuffed panda and am now trying to find clothes in the style of Amanda Panda . . . okay, this is just me reverting back to my six-year-old self when I dressed all my stuffed animals.

Candice in second grade, when she had just learned how to read.

What’s next for Amanda, and what other projects are you working on? Any other new books out this year?

Next summer, look for Amanda Panda Doesn’t Do Birthdays. I’ve just seen Christine’s sketches and she has pulled out all the stops!

I have a nonfiction book coming out this fall from National Geographic, Terrier Trouble and Other Misbehaving Animals. I took most of the photos, including the cover. Snow Day, the next in my five-book Step into Reading (Random House) series, may be out next winter, to be followed by Garden Day and Beach Day.

Thanks so much for visiting, Candice. Looking forward to all your new books!

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AMANDA PANDA QUITS KINDERGARTEN
written by Candice Ransom
illustrated by Christine Grove
published by Doubleday Books for Young Readers, June 2017
Picture Book for ages 3-7, 32 pp.
*Kids’ Indie Next List Summer 2017 title

♥ Check out this lovely article from the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. 🙂

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Happy Book Birthday, Candice, Christine, Amanda and Bitsy!

*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2017 Candice Ransom, illustrations © 2017 Christine Grove, published by Doubleday BFYR. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2017 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

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11 thoughts on “[review + author chat] Candice Ransom on Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten

  1. My youngest granddaughter is on her way to kindergarten in the fall at a new school from a school where she’s been for three years. I imagine she will be a bit nervous although she’ll have an older sister with her. This looks wonderful for those young ones. The story and the illustrations are just right! Thanks for sharing the book and the interview with “extra” info, Jama!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This reminds me of my nephew, who came home after the first day of kindergarten, threw his school bag on the floor, and declared he didn’t want to go back.

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    1. Yes — this book had an unusual start. It was interesting hearing from Candice how she came up with a story to go with the character drawings.

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