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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Randi Sonenshine +Review of The Den That Octopus Built

Randi Sonenshine grew up exploring the magical world of forests, streams, and ponds in a pair of trusty tennis shoes and a red canoe. Through her books, she hopes to nurture in young readers, writers, and thinkers an appreciation and wonder of the natural world.

Author photo of Randi Soneonshine.

In addition to writing for children, Randi is a literacy specialist and instructional coach in northwest Georgia, where she lives with her husband, two sons, and a sock-eating poodle. She does her best writing accompanied by birdsong and a good pot of Earl Grey tea.

Collage of the book covers of Randi's 2 picture books.

Randi's the author of The Lodge That Beaver Built (2022) and The Nest That Wren Built (2020).


Her newest picture book, The Den That Octopus Built, was released on May 21st.


Welcome Randi, thanks for stopping by to talk about your newest book and writing.

 

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

 

I write a lot at my kitchen table, outside on my deck, (usually with a dog beside me), or in my office. I truly write best when I can see outside. My office has two big windows overlooking the backyard, so I can see lots of green. I also love writing in a mountain setting, which is usually Blue Ridge, GA for me. Words seem to come more easily when I’m breathing mountain air and have sweeping views.

 

I’ve been writing most of my life. My earliest publication was a story I wrote in third grade called “The Stapler Who Ran Away.” In the story, the classroom stapler was tired of people hitting him on the head and losing teeth each time it happened. My teacher chose it to represent our homeroom on the hallway bulletin board, and I have been hooked ever since. However, I started writing in earnest, with the intent to publish around 2005.

 

My favorite type to write is lyrical nonfiction and historical fiction, but I also like to write humorous poetry.

 

Thank you for sharing about that first story. It sounds adorable. What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written or illustrated a manuscript?


The most memorable place was at the Highlights Foundation in one of the cabins.

 

I totally agree with you - that place is magical. What was your spark of curiosity or inspiration for The Den That Octopus Built?

Book cover- octopus half inside her den pulling a rock toard the opening  - like closing a door.

My agent, Kendra Marcus of BookStop Literary, called me one day after having watched My Octopus Teacher. She said, “You need to watch this. It’s your next book.” She was right. I was completely sucked in and plunged headfirst into the research that same day.

 

That's cool. How did the writing and journey to publication of The Den That Octopus Built compare to your other picture books - The Lodge That Beaver Built and The Nest That Wren Built?

 

With the other two, I had the manuscripts already written when we pitched them, but with octopus, we pitched the idea and shared a few verses I had drafted. I did a lot more research with the octopus book, because there is just so much compelling information and new things coming to light all the time.

 

We are just scratching the surface of the intellect and amazing abilities of octopus. How long did it take from the first draft to publication for The Den That Octopus Built?


I finished the first draft in May of 2021, so three years almost to the day!


Lots of research to sift through. When you first saw Anne Hunter’s illustrations, did anything surprise or amaze you? What is your favorite spread?

Internal spread - mother octopus final breath blows her newly hatched young out to sea.

Text © Randi Sonenshine, 2024. Image © Anne Hunter, 2024.


Anne did a lot of research of her own, and I am always amazed at how she is able to bring my words to such vibrant life, conveying so much emotion and depth. One of the final spreads, in which the mother blows the hatchlings out to sea with the last of her energy is full of emotion, but in a way that is not overwhelming for young readers. The color pallet she used in this one is also much more vibrant than the other two, with aqua, pink, and orange the dominant colors. Also, all the details she captured on the octopus, such as on her suckers and eyes, as well as the surrounding underwater landscape create absolutely stunning spreads.


It is a powerfully touching image. But like you, I really love all the illustrations. What was the hardest part of writing The Den That Octopus Built? What was the most fun?

 

Researching this book was so much fun! I read…a lot! Websites, blogs, research papers, database entries, news articles…you name it! I also read (and adored) Sy Montgomery’s Soul of an Octopus, which I highly recommend, watched YouTube videos, and followed experts on social media. Two of my favorite Instagram accounts were (and still are!) @theoctogirl, which is the account for Chelsea Bennice, a marine ecologist based in Florida, and @octonation, a nonprofit organization. I also interviewed and consulted with experts. Dr. Danny Gleason, Professor of Biology at Georgia Southern University and Director of the Institute for Coastal Plain Science was tremendously helpful and so gracious with his time and expertise. Without a doubt, though, the most memorable research was getting to interact with and feed Rita, the Georgia Aquarium’s resident Giant Pacific Octopus! 

  

The hardest part was deciding what to include from my research and what to leave out. I tried to integrate as much of my research as I can within the main text, but given that the text is poetic and spare, that's a challenge, which is why I include back matter. With this book, though, there was so much I wanted to include, I couldn’t fit it all in the back matter. I kept bargaining with my editor for more words!

 

You could always put some of the information you had to leave out in a guide/activities PDF or create a list of a bunch of fun facts and links and put them up on your website. Have you seen "Secrets of the Octopus," the nature documentary on Disney +? What's something you want your readers to know about The Den That Octopus Built?


Like Nest and Beaver, Octopus has the same structure, lyrical voice, and backmatter elements. Also, the den, like the nest and the lodge, is at the center of the story and not only anchors the narratives but propels it. However, this one has more tension and is more poignant, as it focuses on the single octopus mother, her constant need to outwit and outswim predators, and her final loving act caring for her eggs until the babies hatch. Anne Hunter’s amazing art beautifully captures all the intricacies of the setting and conveys all the feels in a way that gives me chills when I read it.

 

She really did outdo herself with this book! Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


I’m currently working on another lyrical nonfiction picture book (not for this series), but it has a long way to go!

 

Well, we'll certainly keep our eyes open for news about it. Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

Photo of coral at Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary.  © National Ocean Service | NOAA | Department of Commerce

© National Ocean Service | NOAA | Department of Commerce


I’d love to visit Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, an ocean park, which provided inspiration for the setting of this book. It’s a hard-bottom reef off the coast of Georgia.

 

Thank you, Randi, for stopping by to share about yourself and your newest picture book. It was wonderful to chat with you.


To find out more about Randi Sonenshine, or contact her:


Review of The Den That Octopus Built


Utilizing the fun format and rhyming pattern she created for The Nest That Wren Built, Randi Sonenshine has teamed up again with the talented Anne Hunter to create a stunning and touching picture book on the octopus.

Book cover- octopus half inside her den pulling a rock toard the opening  - like closing a door.

The Den That Octopus Built

Author: Randi Sonenshine

Illustrator: Anne Hunter

Publisher: Candlewick Press 2024

Ages: 4-8

Nonfiction


Themes:

Octopus life cycle, rhyming, ingenuity, and ocean life.


Synopsis:

Follow one of the ocean’s most mysterious animals in this warm but candid look at its dramatic life cycle, from the creators of The Nest That Wren Built.


The solitary and ingenious octopus is a master of disguise and invention, creating her den out of the objects of the ocean, from shells and rocks to tiny glass shards. Using creative methods of hunting and construction, the octopus prepares for the biggest task of her life: motherhood. With one last, poignant gesture of love, the mother octopus sends her hatchlings on their way, starting a new cycle of life for the tiny offspring who face peril of their own. Offering deeply informative back matter, including an author’s note, a glossary, and fascinating “octo-knowledge” (did you know that octopuses have nine brains, including one in each of their independently operating arms?), this third in a series from author Randi Sonenshine and illustrator Anne Hunter continues the work of gently introducing children to the reality of the animal world.


Opening Lines:

This is the ledge of sandstone and lime,

layered by shells cemented by time,

that shelters the den that Octopus built.


What I LOVED about this book:

Once again, Randi Sonenshine masterfully uses her modified format and rhyme scheme of The House That Jack Built to introduce kids to a fun animal - this time, the ingenious octopus. Isn't this an amazing opening image? It is so life-like. Anne Hunter not only captured the sneaky stealth of the octopus, but the very subtle sense of movement of the water and fish.

Internal spread - on the left a small image of coral and a sea snail. On right, Octopus peers out from her den, under a number of coral, as a seahorse floats nearby and a big fish swims past.

Text © Randi Sonenshine, 2024. Image © Anne Hunter, 2024.


The triplet verse, with a repeating refrain that subtly changes the first few words, and gentle alliteration makes this book great fun to read aloud and prevents it from becoming monotonous or sing-songy. I love that the text uses a rich tapestry of vocabulary - such as "cemented," "siphons and funnels." and "cephalopod" and some spectacular, less usual, rhymes, like "limbs/swims," "disguise/eyes," and "technique/beak."

Internal spread of an octopus chomping down on a crab.

Text © Randi Sonenshine, 2024. Image © Anne Hunter, 2024.


This is her capture-the-crab technique:

she pounces, then stabs with her parrot-like beak,

then feasts in the den that Octopus built.


Anne Hunter's ink, watercolor, and colored pencil illustrations, gorgeously capture this intelligent and creative animal and her environment, as they complement and enhance this lyrical look at her lifecycle. I adore these two images of her using shells and algae to hide from a Tiger Shark. After she evades a seal behind a cloud of ink, the octopus conceals herself in her den, lays her eggs (100,000 to 500,000), and cares for them. Although there is a melancholy moment, when the octopus uses her last breath to propel the new hatchlings into the ocean, look above at the image in the interview, the illustration is so gentle and hopeful. And the circular ending creates a wonderful completion of the octopus life cycle.

Internal spread - on the left, octopus surrounded and covered with shells. On the right, octopus coiled around a clump of algae.

Text © Randi Sonenshine, 2024. Image © Anne Hunter, 2024.


Octopus are so amazing, and we keep learning more about and from them. Wonderful "Octo-knowledge" facts, an author's note, and glossary extend the book for older readers and adults. This is a spectacular, honest, and gorgeous not-to-be missed book about octopuses.


Resources:

Photo of a collage of 10 octopus crafts.

  • create an octopus den diorama. How would your octopus hide from predators?


  • for fun reading or research, pair this with Behold the Octopus! by Suzanne Slade, iIlustrated by Thomas Gonzalez, The Octopus Scientists (Scientists in the Field) by Sy Montgomery, illustrated by Keith Ellenbogen, and Octopus! Smartest in the Sea? by Ginjer L. Clarke.

Comments


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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