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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Barbara Lowell

Barbara Lowell’s been a reader since she was little. Barbara lives in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma with her husband and two terrific cats.

She’s the author of 13 nonfiction and historical fiction picture books, nonfiction early readers, and nonfiction educational market books for reluctant readers. Her books include Sparky & Spike: Charles Schulz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever (2019), Player Profile series (2019), Amazing Human Body series (2019), Alexander Hamilton: American Hero (2018), Engineering AT&T Stadium (2017), Daring Amelia (2016), and George Ferris What A Wheel (2014),

Barbra's two 2020 nonfiction picture books are, My Mastodon (2/25/2020) and Behind the Bookcase: Miep Gies, Anne Frank, and the Hiding Place (9/1/2020).

For basic information on Barbara, see our earlier interview (here).

Welcome back Barbara, thank-you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest books and writing.

Thank you so much Maria for inviting me.

What was the inspiration for your recent books My Mastodon and Behind the Bookcase: Miep Gies, Anne Frank, and the Hiding Place?

The inspiration for My Mastodon came from research I did on a different manuscript. I learned about Charles Willson Peale and his expedition to undercover two mastodon skeletons in New York State. I imagined his young daughter, Sybilla, going on the adventure and becoming attached to the mastodon skeleton that was later on display in the museum where she and her family lived. I love natural history museums and after I learned that Sybilla and her family lived in one, I decided to write a book about her.

For Behind the Bookcase, the inspiration came from my visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the subsequent reading of Miep Gies’s autobiography: Anne Frank Remembered: The Woman Who Helped Hide the Frank Family. She was the extraordinary woman who tried to save the Frank family from the Nazis and did save Anne’s diary.

What great proof that we should always keep our eyes open and watch for story ideas. What was the hardest part in the researching My Mastodon and Behind the Bookcase? Did any fun information not make it into the text or back matter of these books?

I love the research process and there was a wealth of information on both subjects. Deciding what to leave out from the text is always difficult.

A fun fact for My Mastodon, was that when the mastodon was first assembled its tusks were placed upside down, like those of a saber tooth tiger, because the thought was that it was a meat eater which it wasn’t.

For Behind the Bookcase: the eight people who lived in the Secret Annex above Mr. Frank’s business had to be quiet during the day because there were workers downstairs who didn’t know their secret. That meant they couldn’t flush toilets or run water all day.

Such awesome facts that didn't even make it into the back matter of these books! With so many books, including a number of picture books, on Anne Frank, how did you see Behind the Bookcase fitting on the shelf? Did you or your editor worry when you learned that Anne Frank: The Girl Heard Around the World was also released in September?

Anne Frank: The Girl Heard Around the World focuses on Anne Frank and her story. Behind the Bookcase is the story of Miep Gies, her childhood, and how she helped the Frank family, her relationship with Anne Frank and how she saved Anne’s diary that later became The Diary of a Young Girl Anne Frank. Both books add to a collection that remember the Holocaust.

I totally agree with you. You've broadened my knowledge and understanding of what occurred. Is there something you want your readers to know about My Mastodon and Behind the Bookcase?

I love reading and learning about history. And I love sharing stories from history with children. If we visit a natural history museum that contains mastodon skeletons, we can learn about the American Mastodon. But I wanted to share how the first American Mastodon skeleton was discovered and put on display in a museum where everyday people could see it. There actually was a dinner held under the mastodon’s bones.

I had a different focus for Behind the Bookcase. I wanted to tell Miep Gies’s story and the story of how the publication of Anne Frank’s diary came about. Miep saved Anne’s diary and kept it safe. We would never have known Anne’s words if Miep wasn’t able to keep it out of the hands of the Nazi officer who arrested Anne.

They are both great looks at history. How hard was it to write about the Holocaust and Anne Frank for younger children? What was the toughest portion to get right?

Telling the story in a gentle way for young children made it easier to write. I also wanted to show that Miep brought joy to Anne and those in hiding. Telling the story of Miep’s gift of the red high heels to Anne did that. And focusing on details such as how Anne pasted photos on the walls of her room and what they were pictures of, helped to show that despite the horror of the time, Anne found a way to bring her old life into the annex where she hid.

Your very accessible language and the exploration of Miep's fostering also helps make the story relatable for children. What was the most difficult part of writing about Sybilla Peale?

There was nothing difficult about writing about Sybilla Peale. I had lots of fun imagining myself as Sybilla living in the museum and trying to convince her brother Rembrandt not to take the mastodon to London. My editor, Amy Novesky, is a direct descendant of Charles Willson Peale and she added lots of fun touches to the book.

Wow! That's so cool. Did anything surprise you in the illustrations for either, or both, My Mastodon and Behind the Bookcase: Miep Gies, Anne Frank, and the Hiding Place?

I didn’t have a strong visual sense of how the illustrations for Behind the Bookcase would turn out so, there was no surprise. I love the illustrations and Valentina Toro did an excellent job of matching the style of her illustrations to the tone of the book. One reviewer noted that she showed the idea of violence of the aftermath of the arrest by illustrating Miep looking at the possessions of the hiders scattered on the floor which used a gentle approach to the story.

I imagined exactly how Sybilla would look. She looked like me when I was her age. So, I was surprised that she didn’t have short, brown hair, but lovely wavy, blonde hair. My visual was so strong that I didn’t even notice that she had blonde hair in the painting, Exhuming the American Mastodon that I shared with my editor, but Antonio Marinoni did. The painting appears in the back matter.

Antonio Marinoni did a fantastic job of researching the Peale family. He even painted miniatures of famous Peale paintings. One of my favorite things is how he used the famous painting Rubens Peale With a Geranium painted by Rembrandt Peale in the book. On one spread, the painting hangs on the wall. And on two other spreads, we first see the geranium outside the museum and then inside being watered by an unknown hand. Finally, Rubens carries the geranium to the family celebration under the mastodon’s bones. The most amazing thing about the illustrations in My Mastodon is that they were all done in watercolor and there are so many fine details.

Both Valentina & Antonio are amazing illustrators, who obviously did their research. What is your favorite illustration in My Mastodon and Behind the Bookcase?

Text © Barbra Lowell, 2020. Image © Valentina Toro, 2020.

My favorite illustration in Behind the Bookcase is the one of Margot Frank reading the notice ordering her to report to a German labor camp.

Text © Barbra Lowell, 2020. Image © Antonio Marinoni, 2020.

My favorite illustration in My Mastodon is Sybilla asking the mastodon if he would like to go to London.

How are you staying creative during these times? Have you found anything that helps you “prime the well”?

What has helped me stay creative this year is focusing on craft. I have been participating in lots of webinars and virtual conferences and have learned a great deal.

There have been so many opportunities to fine tune our writing or even learn a new genre. I suppose that might end up being a blessing that came out of 2020. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I have a funny nonfiction picture book that I think will be release in Fall 2021, but it hasn’t been announced. It’s about a mischievous kid who is the son of a famous father. I am working on a revision of a picture book inspired by a true story that’s about an amazing discovery. I’m also researching new ideas and will soon work on revisions of older manuscripts.

Both sound intriguing. We'll have to keep our eyes open for them.

Thank you, Barbara for stopping by.

It was wonderful to chat with you.

Thank you so much Maria for hosting me on your blog. You are a treasure!

Be sure to come back on Friday for the #PPBF post on Behind the Bookcase: Miep Gies, Anne Frank, and the Hiding Place.

To find out more about Barbara Lowell, or get in touch with her:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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