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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Maria Gianferrari (+ a surprise) and a Giveaway

I love talking with kids of all ages!

~ Maria Gianferrari

Maria Gianferrari is a picture book reading/writing, tea-drinking, dog-loving, birdwatching resident of Virginia who writes both fiction and nonfiction books.

A dog lover, she’s the author of five fiction picture books, including the Penny & Jelly books (2015/16), Officer Katz and Houndini (2016), Hello Goodbye Dog (2017), and Operation Rescue Dog (2018), and five nonfiction picture books, including Coyote Moon (2016), Terrific Tongues (2018), and Hawk Rising (2018). In April, Play Like an Animal, arrives in stores.

Her newest picture book, Whoo-Ku Haiku: A Great Horned Owl Story, releases tomorrow.

Welcome Maria, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about Whoo-Ku Haiku and writing.

Thanks for having me, from one Maria to another. *Smile*

ME: *Big grin* Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)

I grew up in a small New Hampshire town, and nature was basically my playground. I had always wanted to write, but finally made the commitment after my daughter was born, and fell in love with children’s books all over again during our read alouds. That was long ago—she just turned 18!

I’m an animal lover, so it should come as no surprise that all of my current picture books, both fiction and nonfiction star animals as main characters, with dogs taking center stage in the fiction ones. Most of my fiction books are about the human canine bond, and loosely based on our late dog, Becca and our daughter’s bond. She has no siblings, so Becca was like her dog sister growing up.

I also love to write about nature and fascinating creatures in the natural world that inspire curiosity and wonder. I’m especially passionate about urban ecology and those creatures who live among us as our wild neighbors.

Your love of dogs and nature definitely comes through your books. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

1. Like Penny, the main character from my Penny & Jelly books, I am an avid list maker.

2. I speak German and lived in Berlin for a year.

3. That I love pet rats—they make wonderful pets!

Rats, huh. I think I'll stick with cats. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

One of my favorite picture books was called Miss Twiggley’s Tree, about a shy woman who lived in a treehouse with her dog, Puss, and some bears—my introvert dream come true!

My love of nonfiction was also evident back then. I had a well-worn copy of a book called Shark Attack that was scary and fascinating and when I was very young, I used to pore over a state dictionary that listed state birds, flowers, flags, capitals, mottos, nicknames, etc. I loved re-reading it.

I also read and re-read all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books, and I loved Island of the Blue Dolphins. I wanted to live alone on an island with dogs. Are you sensing a theme here? At the time, I wasn’t aware of their problematic and stereotypical portraits of native characters. I wish the young me could have known and read Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark book series back then. I know the younger me would have loved it too.

Yes, I do sense a theme which continued into your own writing. I fell in love with the cover when I first saw your announcement. What was the inspiration for Whoo-Ku Haiku? Why haiku?

So did I! Jonathan’s art is so gorgeous!

Whoo-Ku Haiku was inspired by my daughter who came up with the clever title. We used to “write” haikus to pass the time on car trips to her Nonna’s house. In third grade, she wrote and illustrated her own version as a present for me. Years later I decided to write one of my own, starring Great horned owls.

What a great way to pass the time and a beautiful memory. How does your experience writing, and/or publishing, Whoo-Ku Haiku differ from your other books? What was the toughest aspect of writing this book?

I wanted this book to be a bit different from my predator books, Coyote Moon and Hawk Rising, so I instead chose to focus on the owlets rather than their raptor parents. The challenge was trying to keep it suspenseful since it’s more episodic in nature, and a series of narrative vignettes rather than a circular day/night structure. I wanted to also add in scientific details about Great horned owls including where they nest, their prey, and how they’re preyed upon, etc., so it’s always a challenge to weave these things in a way that feels natural to the setting.

AND you did all that in Haiku. WOW! Having worked with numerous illustrators, did the amount of contact or input differ with this book? Did you include illustrator notes in your submitted manuscripts?

Not really. I usually try to leave a lot of room for illustrators to add their own visual voice to the story, and work their magic. I tend to add notes only when it’s necessary to the logistics of the story or for scientific purposes and give input on sketches related to scientific accuracy.

What, or who, is your greatest source of inspiration?

My daughter, and our late dog continue to inspire me, as well as curiosity about the natural world. There is so much to learn and to celebrate!

Do you have a favorite book? (We promise NOT to tell the others) Perhaps one that was the most gratifying to write? Or one that means the most you or your family?

As of late, I have been cherishing Operation Rescue Dog, since it’s loosely based on our late dog Becca’s rescue story. It’s also a celebration of the rescuers who are so kind and dedicated. It’s helping me grieve knowing my girl lives on in all of my dog books.

I'm so sorry. I know the animal shaped hole such a friend leaves in our hearts. Was it serendipity or planning to release two or three books a year - especially two books back to back this year - Whoo-Ku Haiku (March) and Play Like An Animal (April)? Do you find that they compete against each other for attention (in releases or school visits)?

As a picture book author, I have been very fortunate to have been able to work with a variety of editors and publishers, but it’s all dependent on their release schedule, not mine.

It can be difficult trying to balance it all - when books release back-to-back like this. I’ve just come to accept that I can only do so much, and just have to go with the flow in terms of promotion to maintain my sanity. The kidlit community is such a supportive one—I couldn’t do it without my critique partners and friends, so I am very grateful to them for their help and support.

Having realistic expectations for yourself and your books is probably key to remaining sane. What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished authors?

The year right before I got an offer of representation from Joan, was a challenging one. I was getting more and more personal rejections, and feeling close, but still not there yet. But in retrospect this was an important time—it gave me the drive to persevere and to hone and improve my craft. I had my critique partners to cheer and support me and that was/is invaluable! My advice would be to “keep swimming,” to have faith, and don’t give up. Surround yourself with supportive people, especially a good critique group to help you with your craft, to cheer you on when you’re down, and celebrate those victories, no matter how small. The writing journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Having the stamina to go beyond those rejections, to just keep going, can make all the difference.

We hear that a lot, but at that exact moment, it is so hard to "keep swimming." Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I’m mostly working on promotion at the moment, and am between projects, working on and waiting for edits from manuscripts that were acquired last year. I’m musing about a current WIP on, you guessed it—dogs—and what structural approach I might take, and thinking about how I’ll dive into research for my next project.

You're being modest. There are at least three upcoming titles listed on your website. What is your favorite animal? Why? [let me guess, warthog. Right? 😊] What if you had to choose one other than a dog?

It’s really hard to say—I love nature and animals and the ones I get to know more intimately while working on a project tend to be the ones I love most at the time. If I have to name one right now, I would say river otters, who are very playful and dog-like, but I also love pet rats. They’re sweet and very affectionate. I also have a rat manuscript that I’d love to see published—any rat/rodent-loving editors out there?

Hope they are listening! Thank you, Maria for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.

Thanks so much for having me here, Maria!


Before you dash off,

I have an EXTRA, special surprise for you!

Whoo-ku Haiku's illustrator, JONATHAN VOSS, has also joined us to answer a couple of questions! For background on Jonathan, see our earlier interviews (here) and (here).

What appealed to you about the manuscript of Whoo-Ku Haiku?

JONATHAN: Maria wrote such a beautiful book. It would have been hard to turn it down. As I read through the manuscript I was able to see the images in my mind. I knew exactly what I would do with each spread. Also, my background is in more traditional realism. While my birds aren’t hyper-realistic or photorealistic, the way I rendered them is probably more in my wheelhouse than the Hoot & Olive illustrations. It was nice to go back to my roots for just a little bit.

It was fun to see a different illustration style from you. What was the hardest part of illustrating this book?

I would say the part of this project that was most difficult was achieving the required accuracy. They were sending everything over to an owl expert for checking. I knew I had to get things right. I actually contacted another owl expert for reference material. And I did a LOT of research. In the end, there were really only a couple minor tweaks. I was pleased. All the hard work paid off.

Congrats. I can imagine that being a bit unnerving. Was it tougher to illustrate a series of haikus versus a traditional narrative?

As for haiku, again, Maria did such a wonderful job with the manuscript, I found the transition from traditional narrative to poem pretty seamless. I had no problem following the story. And I thoroughly enjoyed illustrating these beautiful birds.

I love the vignettes on the full-page spreads that give us a closer look at what the owls are doing, How many drafts did it take to design this layout?

Text © Maria Gianferrari, 2020. Image © Jonathan Voss, 2020

Actually, the panels were part of the very first version of the book I sent back to the editor. I was pretty tickled when they gave me the green light. I even recall questioning them after getting the go-ahead. I wanted to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood and to confirm they really did like the panels. They did, and there they are. I’m super happy with the way they turned out.

I think they're genius. Do you have a favorite spread in Whoo-Ku Haiku? If so, which one?

Text © Maria Gianferrari, 2020. Image © Jonathan Voss, 2020

Oh gosh… You ask a hard question. If I have to pick one, I’ll go with the illustration of the mama fighting back the fox as the owlet scrambles away. I actually did that illustration twice. It was one of the first images I created. Then later, after completing some of the others, I went back and did the whole thing all over again. In all, I think there were three or four illustrations that got multiple passes. The illustration of the owlets bouncing on the limbs received, I think, four separate attempts before landing on the final. Sometimes, it makes you want to stick pencils in your eyeballs.

I also love the spread with the owlets bouncing. It feels as though I stumbled into a secret spot in the forest and get to watch these two practice flying. (Spoilers - you'll have to get the book to see this one!) Did you leave treasures tucked throughout the illustrations? Could you share one or more with us?

Sadly, I didn’t do anything with this one. I think I was so preoccupied with accuracy, I failed to do anything extra. BUT… I promise to throw some elements into the next one just for you.

Aw garsh. You did such an awesome, magical job with the illustrations! Thank you, Jonathan for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you, again.

Thank you for having me back. It’s always a pleasure. I hope we get to do it again soon!

Be sure to stop by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Whoo-ku Haiku: A Great Horned Owl Story.

To find out more about Maria Gianferrari, or get in touch with her:

Penny & Jelly Website:

To find out more about Jonathan D. Voss, or get in touch with him:

One lucky reader will win a copy of Whoo-Ku Haiku!

- simply comment below or on Friday's #PPBF post (or both), to be entered in the random drawing. - Sorry, US Residents only.

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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