The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Bea Birdsong and Review of Sam's First Word

Bea Birdsong is the author of I Will Be Fierce, illustrated by Nidhi Chanani (Roaring Brook Press 2019), and the upcoming How to Spot a Best Friend, illustrated by Lucy Fleming (Rodale Kids/RHCB, June 2021), and other forthcoming books.

Bea is also a writer for the education market and a former teacher who believes in the awesome power of books to educate, entertain, and empower. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Bea is represented by Melissa Edwards of Stonesong Literary Agency.


Bea’s newest picture book, Sam’s First Word, releases February 16th.


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

Bea, thanks for coming back to talk about your newest book and writing.


What was the inspiration for Sam’s First Word?

In Sam’s First Word, all the big people in Sam’s family are waiting for her to say her first word. They have always cheered for Sam’s accomplishments, but in the case of her first word, a little bit of selfishness gets in the way. Will her first word be Mama? Papa? Nana? Or maybe Mr. Theotopolous! The big people are so focused on how to get what they want they miss Sam’s first word. It’s a sweet, silly story, but the underlying message is that it’s important for kids to be themselves—even if who they are and what they want to do doesn’t quite match their family’s wishes or expectations.


Be yourself and accept each other as we are - what great messages to tuck into this seemingly simple "first word" book. How different was the experience in writing Sam’s First Word and I Will Be Fierce?

I Will Be Fierce is my debut, but I actually wrote Sam’s First Word first. It’s the first picture book I ever wrote. On a surface level, they are very different books. Sam’s First Word is a character-driven picture book with a traditional narrative arc, while I Will Be Fierce is a concept picture book with a unique format.


However, the two books share the themes of finding your voice and speaking up about the things that are important to you, and the experience of writing them was similar. Both books represent a first for me—first picture book and first concept book—and both are books that I wrote with the intention of empowering kids to take up space in the world and share their authentic selves with others.


I love the thread you've drawn between your two books! Is there something you want your readers to know about Sam’s First Word?


There will be times in your life when it seems like no one is listening to you. Speak up anyway. That’s the core message of Sam’s First Word. Share your thoughts. Share your ideas and your feelings. What you have to say matters. And your community (your family, friends, teachers, classmates—everyone around you) wants to hear what you have to say. They may get distracted or busy for a few minutes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about the things that are important to you. Keep speaking up. Your voice is powerful. Use it!


That's a very powerful and important message. How many revisions did Sam’s First Word take? What was the hardest part of writing this book?


Believe it or not, the most difficult part of writing this book was choosing Sam’s name. Other than the main character’s name and one other change, the story in the book is the same as my first draft. After the book was acquired, my editor, Deirdre Jones at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, suggested we change the main character’s name, and we went through a huge number of names before deciding on Sam. Deirdre also suggested adding in the dog character, which led to me adding a little bit of a surprise ending.


Wow, that's interesting! When you got to see the illustrations for Sam’s First Word, did anything surprise you? What is your favorite spread? Why?


Text © Bea Birdsong, 2021. Image © Holly Hatam, 2021.


I am thrilled with the illustrations by Holly Hatam! She included so many fun details, like the personalized speech bubbles for each character; Nana, Sam, and Farnsworth doing yoga together; and Sam’s pajamas with Farnsworth’s picture on them—just to name a few. There’s a spread toward the end of the book when Sam finally commands the attention of her big people. I laughed out loud when I first saw it. I’d read the book approximately 86,000 times but that illustration in particular surprised me and made me see the story like I was reading it for the first time.


I like image as well, but I won't share it here. How are, or have you been, staying creative during these times? Have you found anything that helps you “prime the well”?


I often begin the day by reading a poem or two. Experiencing the cadence of someone else’s words is a great way to get ready to write words of your own. And poems written for adults often have themes that I’m interested in exploring in a kid-accessible way through a picture book. I’ve also watched a lot of writing webinars since we’ve been in quarantine. I’m still desperately missing in-person writing events, but I’ve found the webinars are a good way to feel connected to the writing community and to glean a bit of insight into others’ writing processes.


Imagine trying to stay connected if Covid had hit in the 1980's. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


I’m working on a variety of things, which I always like to do because I find working on one project often sparks ideas for another one. With my picture books, I’ve been focusing on funny. We all need something to make us laugh right now. I’m also working on a couple of longer projects, but we’ll have to wait and see how those go.


I wish you luck with them all. Thank you, Bea, for stopping by. It was wonderful to chat with you.

To find out more about Bea Birdsong, or get in touch with her:

Website: http://www.beabirdsong.com/about/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/bea.birdsong.37

Twitter: https://twitter.com/beabirdsong



Review of Sam's First Word


One exciting moment for a parent is their child's first word. Sometimes they'll even 'secretly' try to sway the toddler toward saying "Mama" or "Papa." But what happens when four adults take it a bit too far? To the exclusion of all else, including the child, in their focus on influencing that first word. Well, a toddler with a strong personality knows just what to do. Sure to appeal to young kids, it also contains humor for the adults.


Sam's First Word


Author: Bea Birdsong


Illustrator: Holly Hatam


Publisher: Little Brown & Company (2021)


Ages: 4-8


Fiction


Themes:

Baby's first words, independence, humor, and family.


Synopsis:

Everyone in Sam's family wants her to say their name for her first word. To convince her, Mama sings, Papa tells a story, and Nana draws. Even their neighbor Mr. Theotopolous gets in on the action by performing an epic poem.


Sam definitely has something to say, something urgent, but how can she make her family stop thinking about themselves and listen? When all else fails, she may have to take drastic measures . . . .


This sweetly silly story is read-aloud fun for the whole family, from parents who may end up laughing at themselves to kids who will cheer Sam on to her triumphant finale.


Opening Lines:

There once was a newish

baby. Her name was Sam.


Sam could do many things.


What I Liked about the Book:

Bea Birdsong and Holly Hatam have created a funny, deceptively simple picture book about a family's enthusiastic anticipation of a baby's first word.


"Newish" baby Sam's family - Mom, Dad & Nana - have cheered her accomplishments - smiling, clapping, climbing, walking, and yoga. They can't wait for her to say her first word. But each one (and the neighbor Mr. Theotopolous) is so focused on her saying their own name - FIRST . . . that they miss her actual first word.

Text © Bea Birdsong, 2021. Image © Holly Hatam, 2021.


Kids will love Sam's first word - "POOP" - and the following hijinks of Mama, Papa, and Nana (who paints the living room wall with "Nana" - 86 times)! Everyone, including Sam, is focused on what they want. Only Sam's dog, Farnsworth, seems to realize what Sam needs. And when he can't get an adult's attention, he helps Sam achieve her goal. Setting them like this against the white page beautifully magnifies their contortions and adorable faces!

Text © Bea Birdsong, 2021. Image © Holly Hatam, 2021.


The humor continues as the "big people" finally focus on Sam and her biggest ally is rewarded. Tucked within this funny story is the message that it's important to remain true to yourself and speak up. Even if that might not, initially, be what your family expects. It is a sweet and funny story of a very spunky toddler.


Resources:

- make your own Farnsworth (http://make-origami.com/easy-origami-dog/).

- ask someone in your family what your first word was.

- if you'd written this story, what funny word would you choose to have Sam say? Why?

- make a word journal and collect fun words.

Maria Marshall
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