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The names on the picture books: Children's authors in the Valley

Nov 19, 2014 04:47PM ● Published by Cen Cali Life Magazine

Gallery: The names on the picture books: Children's authors in the Valley [10 Images] Click any image to expand.

The names on the picture books: children's authors in the Valley

by Andrew Veihmeyer

Photos courtesy of Roberta Minkler, Craig Kohlruss, Shen’s Books, Sky Pony Press, Giggling Goose Publishing

Most of us fondly remember our favorite picture books: the rich, colorful illustrations, the exuberant characters and the stories that live in our imaginations. But what about the authors? When we were young, we probably never considered that several published children’s writers make their home in the San Joaquin Valley.

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“I twirl left. I twirl right. I jump high. I kick low. I want to wear these sneakers everywhere I go!”

That's Juliette talking in Kathy Goosev Howell's “The Perfectly Purple Sneakers” (Giggling Goose Publishing).  In this colorful story, Juliette learns to look on the positive side of life during a sad day at school when her favorite sneakers get dirty. Paint drips on them during art class, then jelly from a sandwich at lunch, among other things. But those are just marks of experience say her friends, family and teachers. Paint makes those purple sneakers artistic, and jelly makes them extra sweet.

Howell was born to Russian immigrants who came to California when her father had the chance to work in agriculture in the Central Valley. The family saved their money until they could purchase a farm in Kerman.

“We sewed our own clothes, grew and canned our own food, everything,” Howell said.

As a child, she enjoyed playing with languages, combining English and Russian to make her own words. She thrived on reading quirky and creepy stories, but, along with those simple pleasures, hard work was always part of her life. That ethic has followed her throughout her career.

“Dream big, work hard. That's my motto,” she said.

Howell, who has over 25 years of teaching experience, is currently a substitute teacher in Clovis as well as a curriculum writer. She also visits classrooms to teach children about the creative writing process and its challenges.

The inspiration for the book's character of Juliette came quite naturally.

“Of course! It's me with red hair,” Howell said.

And just why did Juliette love her sneakers so much? Probably because Howell loves them, too.

"I enjoy wearing sneakers and looking at all the colors and styles that are available for people to wear, especially the unusual ones,” she said. “That's how the book got started."

The “Perfectly Purple Sneakers” was released earlier this year. The author is pleased with early responses. 

“If somebody opens your book and someone laughs or someone cries, you know you've done a good job,” Howell said. 

She is already working on a sequel.

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"All her favorite Filipino foods danced in her head. Lines of lumpia pranced in rows. Adobo chicken legs be-bopped in time. She saw a large bowl of pancit. The thick noodles and vegetables curled and swirled in a dance party. Mmmmm."

Cora has a passion for the kitchen and finally has an opportunity to try her hand at some grown-up tasks with her Mama. As the assistant chef, Cora learns the joy of cooking as they make pancit, a Filipino noodle dish that happens to be her favorite. In the process, she learns some valuable things about her family history.

Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore wrote “Cora Cooks Pancit” (Shen’s Books) out of her interest in crafting stories that emphasize a multi-ethnic heritage featuring people living in and outside of the United States.

“I am passionate about telling these stories so children from all cultures can learn and find themselves in the pages of books,” Gilmore said.

This focus is sometimes met with criticism, she said. “Publishers often see these stories as too niche for the mainstream.”

Gilmore was raised in Chicago, Illinois, the second of three children. Her parents were both teachers. She has fond memories of her mother reading poetry and children's novels to her before bed. Her desire to be an author developed in fifth grade. After pursuing a writing career in journalism, working for newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and The Fresno Bee, she returned to her elementary school dream. In 2003, she took a "Writing Children's Books" class as part of the CSU Summer Arts program at Fresno State. She received an MFA in children's literature from Hollins University.

The character of Cora is partly modeled on Gilmore's real-life Grandma Cora, who made sure to pass on her Filipino recipes and life stories. The character is also a reference to Gilmore's daughter, Meilani Cora. Meilani and her two sisters are always gaining more knowledge in the kitchen, Gilmore said. “It's usually the place where the best stories unfold.”

Gilmore has released three books for children and one book of poetry. “Cora Cooks Pancit” won the 2010 Asian American Librarian's Association's Picture Book of the Year and was recently named the One Book, One San Diego pick for 2014.

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"What's this? A bag of tricks? A Santa sack. How about that!"

What would you be thinking if you found a bag under the Christmas tree with the name “Give” stamped on it in big, red letters? Well, in “A Bag Named GIVE,” by Bethany Morton-Gannaway, a young boy decides to use the bag to gather some of his favorite toys and put it under the Christmas tree. He then waits for Santa to take it to other children who will enjoy them just as much as he has.

Gannaway was born and raised in Kerman, where her father worked as a crop duster. She always loved reading and recalls exactly the types of books that spoke to her.

“I became a stronger reader when I read Dr. Seuss,” she said, recalling how she admired the clever rhymes and bright colors waiting for her on each page.

Gannaway received her bachelor’s degree in English at Fresno State. That is also where she discovered her passion for writing.

One afternoon, with a cup of coffee in hand, she talked with her mother about all the creative aspirations they shared.

“God, what do you want us to do?” they both prayed.

With their strong faith to guide them, they established Magical Mailbox in 2010, a publishing house in Fresno.

“Seeing this now come to fruition, with product to ship, it's a huge blessing,” Gannaway said.

In 2013, they formed Play.Create.Grow., a division of Magical Mailbox that links Gannaway's books with interactive activities.

“A Bag Named GIVE” is meant to inspire children to be active in their communities and donate to other children in need, Gannaway said. The book is bundled with large canvas bags, reproducing what the boy receives in the story. Children and parents are given suggestions about how they can engage with the book they've just read and the bags they now own.

Gannaway said the company has shipped books and bags nationwide. They have also partnered with local schools and charitable organizations, such as Toys for Tots.

“You're not marketing just to kids, but also to parents,” she said. “And that's important.”

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“Mice,” Papa argued, “were not made to run. We scamper, we scurry, and sometimes we even scuttle. But we certainly do not run.”

Preston is a mouse. He lives with his family under the Queensboro Bridge in New York. And every year, his family dreads the New York City Marathon. Huge crowds throw their clothing and bottles everywhere and cause a major ruckus. But Preston loves to run and decides that he will join the race with the rest of the humans. Keeping in mind his favorite comic book superhero, Charlie Cheddarworth, he gains the inspiration he needs to train for the race and prove to his family that mice really can run – and finish with style.

“I was looking for some kind of picture book on running,” said Amy Dixon, author of “Marathon Mouse” (Sky Pony Press). 

But after searching high and low, Dixon came up empty. Her husband started training for marathons at the time, and it was quickly becoming part of their family culture, she said. With no book to reflect those experiences, Dixon decided to write her own.

Dixon was born in Southern California, raised in Sacramento and is one of seven children. Her father works in the telecommunications industry and her mother worked as a stay-at-home mom. They are an avid sports family, always going to sporting events.

“Volleyball was the sport I loved,” Dixon said. “I used to always wish I was 6 feet tall.”

Now, as a mom herself, she remains immersed in athletics as she raises four children with her husband. Along with being a children's author, she works as a classroom aide in Clovis.

Dixon conducted thorough research on the NYC Marathon and its route on the Queensboro Bridge to make the events of her story accurate. Her family watched the event on the television as 40,000 people filled the screen in front of them.

“I was struck by that image,” she said.

That's what got the mouse running.

Dixon's new book, a whimsical tale with a bit of magic, releases next year. Unlike “Marathon Mouse,” which was aimed at sports families and marathon enthusiasts, this new tale will have wider appeal – something she said is both exciting and terrifying from a marketing standpoint.

Dixon said that several elements need to come together at just the right time to be a successful children’s author. In many ways, “the road to publication is a marathon,” she said.

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Andrew Veihmeyer was news editor of the campus newspaper while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in communication at Fresno State. Most recently, he has worked as a marketing intern for several companies and nonprofits in the Central Valley. 

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