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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Christina Dendy and Review of Hide and Shh!

Christina Dendy is an American author with a wide range of experience in the K-12 educational market, particularly in the social sciences.

She loves just about anything that involves exploration, on or off the printed page, and regularly tumbles down rabbit holes of one sort or another. Christina meanders about Dayton, Ohio, with her tallish hobbit husband, three impish children and a few finicky furry friends.


She’s the author of The Wall And The Wild (2021).


Her newest picture book, Hide and Shh!: A Not-So-Sneaky Sister Story About Inclusion, released on April 1st.


Christina, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and writing.


Thank you so much for having me! It’s great to be able to share about Dinah and Chloe.


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 work professionally as an educational author, developing K-12 materials, mostly in social studies. That means I write every day, usually on my laptop either in my home office or in a local coffee shop. The bulk of my workday takes place while the kids are at school, but because I’m a contract writer, it can stretch into the evening, start early mornings before school, or demand time on the weekend, too. I think of my “work” writing separately from my more creative writing. I have to fit picture books and other things around all the other demands on my time. I wish I could say I had a regular schedule for that, but I don’t. I’ve tried to make one in the past, but I have a hard time keeping to it. Most of my creative writing happens on lighter “work” days … or when something pops in my head that I just have to get down right away in some form, even if I don’t get back to it for a while. Most of my poems and picture book manuscripts happen that way, or at least start that way.


As for how long, I’ve been writing most of my life in one form or another, but I started focusing specifically on picture books about, oh, six years ago now. At the time, my third child had just been born and I was trying desperately to find the time to revise a middle grade novel I had written, but the time I could find came in such short bursts, that I kept having to reinvent the wheel. I had written some shorter children’s stories by that time, but I had not done much with them. I decided then to try focusing on those stories more and to learn the picture book craft and market. Some I turned them into picture books and other ideas soon occurred to me, too. I found I was able to chunk my time to work on the shorter form more easily. Picture books aren’t less work. Any picture book author can tell you that shorter doesn’t mean easier. However, timewise, it was easier for me to focus on picture book manuscripts in shorter bursts, and I found that I really enjoyed taking all these ideas I had and transforming them in that fashion. I felt an affinity, or a calling, to this new form that I hadn’t felt before.


Ack! Favorites! I have never been good at identifying favorites in anything, but I do love writing for young people, whether picture books, chapter books, or middle grade novels. I lovelovelove fiction writing and lyrical writing, but I also (given my profession) thoroughly enjoy nonfiction writing as well. It’s not a favorites thing so much as a mood, opportunity, and content thing. It just depends! I also really love poetic writing and would love to devote some time to a novel in verse. I have a running file of what I call “daily anecdotal poems” that I started when Covid hit and just kept adding to.


That sounds like a very intriguing file. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or your favorite book as a child?

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! There’s that favorite word again. I bet most bibliophiles panic just a bit when someone asks for a favorite book, author, or illustrator. My reading interests are so wide that this is tough. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was a foundational read for me. I’ve been chasing rabbit holes ever since. I read both Alice books over and over as well as Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz, which I preferred to Wizard. Once upon a slithy tove, I could recite the Jabberwocky poem, and I’ve had an enduring love for pumpkin-heads because of Jack. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Wind in the Willows. The Phantom Tollbooth. The Neverending Story. The original Nancy Drew books. Those were all dog-eared with love.

We have so many more choices in picture books today, but I read Maurice Sendak and Arnold Lobel quite a bit and theirs were among the first books I got my children. Nate the Great, which I have also passed onto my kids. The Secret Garden! - that was another big one. Like rabbit holes, I’ve been searching out secret gardens all my life, I think. One of my favorite stories was the “Musicians of Bremen” in various iterations. Also, Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems for children and A Visit to William Blake’s Inn. I had a few books written and illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa, too, that I adored, and I can’t say enough good about the picture book biography that came out about her, It Began with a Page, by Kyo Maclear and Julie Morstad.


Such a great list of books and memories! Thank you. What was your inspiration for Hide and Shh!: A Not-So-Sneaky Sister Story About Inclusion?

Multiple things. The spark was something I said years and years ago to a friend of mine when we were trying to hide, “Shh! Be a mushroom.” It still makes us chuckle. That became a refrain I used with my kids when I wanted them to be still and quiet. My own children, who love hide and seek but don’t always play in great accord with one another, also inspired the story as did friends and other kids I’ve observed trying to find ways to play and work together.


Dinah, who has Down syndrome, was inspired by young people in our family, circle of friends, and wider community who have Ds or other developmental differences as well as by adults with developmental differences with whom I worked years ago. I try to diversify the books and other media I share with my kids, and several years back, I was looking for neurodivergent picture books and not finding many. In particular, there weren’t many with main or prominent characters with Ds, and those that did exist were about having Ds or about being a sibling or friend to someone who has Ds. None of them really featured children with Ds just being kids, enjoying the same things and confronting the same challenges as other kids. So, when those other ideas got stirred up in my head, my desire to expand representation did, too.


I am so glad that you wrote this book. I have many friends who are excited to read it to their own divergent kids! What is one of the most fun or unusual places where you’ve written a manuscript?

I love writing in bookshops because I’m immersed in inspiration there. I used to love writing in old-fashioned all-night diners, too. Before I shifted my focus to picture books, I went to visit a friend on Vinalhaven off the coast of Maine. She and her husband had a little cottage there with an enclosed side room that was all windows and looked out on the rocky shore and choppy water. THAT was an amazing spot to write. If I could blink myself back there to write once a week … or one week a month … or I don’t know, anytime … I would be thrilled. I aspire to recreate a space like that one day.


Right now, I like writing, when I can, in the very early morning hours before anyone else is awake, at my kitchen table, which is also enclosed by windows. Windows, light, green space, those are good environments for me along with coffee shops and bookshelves.


Teleportation or a transporter would be so wonderful! I know a few places I'd go. How long did it take from the first draft to publication for Hide and Shh!?


Oooh, good question. Let’s see, the earliest drafts I still have of HIDE are from early 2020, but I feel like I wrote the very first draft before that, so I’m guessing 2019. That means it’s been at least three years and possibly four. The basic premise and structure of the story, its themes and narrative arc, did not change a lot, but I did a lot of work balancing out the characters, developing them individually, and especially, finding a way for Dinah to solve her own problem in a way that acknowledged her need for inclusion while also allowing for the idea that Chloe had valid frustration, too. Making sure Dinah had agency was huge, and that took a lot of fiddling within the context of a story that’s only about 500 words. Also, the start to this story was hard. I probably rewrote the start of the story more than any other part.


I think that would have been a big challenge. What's something you want your readers to know about Hide and Shh!?


That’s an even better question because it’s not one I’ve thought about, at least not directly. This may be more of a “keep in mind” idea, but even though Dinah and Chloe are sisters, the story itself is more than a sibling story. Their dynamic is one that can play out between any two or more kids trying to play or do something together. As grownups, we often tell children to “play nicely,” but what does that really look like? What does that mean? I know a lot of grownups who have a hard time with the concept, so it’s a tall order to put on young people without more context. Most children first learn social-emotional skills through imitation and through play. Their earliest relationships and interactions are so important, and children’s books can supplement their real life experiences. I’m hopeful that Dinah and Chloe provide some insights for kids young and old about not only how to self-advocate, which is important, but also how to think about others and think about ways they can be flexible for mutual, or shared, benefit.


I hope Dinah & Chloe succeed in this goal! Did anything surprise or amaze you when you first got to see Nathalia Takeyama’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?


I just loved the characterization of Dinah and Chloe. No illustrated character is going to be exactly as you envision them before the illustration, but you know the illustration is spot-on when you can no longer remember how you envisioned them before. I loved some of the little things she did, like giving Dinah the star glasses and red boots and Chloe’s spy suit and sneakers.

Text © Christina Dendy, 2023. Image © Nathalia Takeyama , 2023.


It’s not the most important illustration of the story, in terms of storytelling, but I adore the illustration of Dinah stretching for her gymnastics class and the one of Chloe playing the trumpet. I think they’re so wonderful in establishing the girls as complete people, individuals, before jumping into the thrust of the story. I also like Dinah’s “Gotcha!” spot with Chloe, and the one where Chloe touches Dinah’s shoulder as they look at her cards. It’s the connections.


It's an important illustration because it means something to you! What was the hardest, or most challenging, part of writing Hide and Shh! ?


I think I mentioned this a little bit above … developing the characters, balancing their perspectives, having Dinah solve her problem in a satisfying way that felt true to her and the story. And the beginning! Seriously, I can’t emphasize enough how much I agonized over the start of the story. In the end, it was figuring out that I needed to step back and preface it, lead into it, that made the difference. We’re on such a tight budget of words and pages with picture books that I’m often tempted to leap right in. Stepping back and making the space to set the scene, to really introduce Dinah and Chloe, was a huge “aha!” for me. Another important challenge was being authentic with Dinah as a child who has Ds. I, and later the publisher, each enlisted sensitivity readers to help make sure we brought Dinah to life in a real but respectful way.


It is so tempting to jump right into the action. And although you have family experience with Ds, enlisting other's opinions harkens back to the flexibility in thinking about others you mentioned earlier. Are there any new projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


My agent has some other things out on submission, and I have a digital stack of things I can bombard him with. In the meantime, after giving several years to picture books, I wanted to circle back to those other projects. I’m wrapping up writing a chapter book that blends some STEM and magic and literary allusions. Then I want to buckle down and finish revising that middle grade novel that I set aside. That said, there are lots of other picture book ideas nipping at my heals to be written, too.


I like the image of being bombarded by a digital stack of MSs! And I am intrigued by the blending of STEM and magic! What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

I have a soft spot for Appalachia, but I really loved exploring the Redwoods. I want to go back and explore more of the redwoods as well as the sequoias. We didn’t get to see nearly enough of them. Likewise with the Black Hills, and in a different way, the Badlands, which are just otherworldly. As far as Appalachia goes, I would like to go farther north in the chain and spend some time in the Catskills and the Green Mountains. I’d also like to go back to the Smokies around Asheville and linger for an evening to see the blue fireflies. Oh! And Malheur National Forest in Oregon!


We didn’t get to go on our cross-country trip last year, and I really want to go back and meet armillaria ostoyae, the world’s largest fungus that lives largely beneath the forest. Glacier National Park, too. I haven’t been there yet. I can prattle on about parks I want to visit for a while …


Blue fireflies? Really? That sounds so cool. Last question, what is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing/ illustrating or not ?


The best advice another writer—Dev Petty—gave me was to remember the audience. It’s easy to get carried away with our own cleverness or interests or purpose or joy of words. You have to pause and look at your work through a different lens, that of the readers, most of whom are much younger. What will hold their attention? What will make them smile or laugh? What will they connect with? What will make them curious? It’s easy to lose sight of them when we get caught up creatively, so when we go back and revise, we really need to do so with the audience in mind.


Building on that advice, I learned to ask myself “What if?” What if I change this or do this differently? We’re lucky because we have computers with lots of memory. We can make changes relatively painlessly while saving our earlier versions so nothing is ever truly lost.


True enough! Thank you Christina for stopping by to share with us your newest picture book.


To find out more about Christina Dendy, or to contact her:


Review of Hide and Shh!:

A Not-So-Sneaky Story About Inclusion


I remember hours spent playing hide and seek with siblings and neighbors. I love the play on words in the title and the idea of adding the element of being a spy to the game. This is a wonderful story with an honest treatment of sibling dynamics, empathy, and compromise.

Hide and Shh!: A Not-So-Sneaky Story About Inclusion


Author: Christina Dendy


Illustrator: Nathalia Takeyama


Publisher: Cardinal Rule Press (2023)


Ages: 4-10


Fiction


Themes:

Siblings, inclusion, neurodiversity, sign language, and compromise.


Synopsis:

Dinah, a young girl with Down Syndrome, loves to play games with her older sister, Chloe, but she’ s not very good at the still and quiet kind. When her not-so-sneaky efforts to get into the big kids’ game backfire, Dinah realizes she might need to adapt a few of her own behaviors. In the process, she shows Chloe and her friends that there’ s more than one way to play.


Opening Lines:

Dinah has waited ALL week

to play with her sister, Chloe.


Through Chloe’s

trumpet practice

and robotics

league.

Through her own speech

class and gymnastics.


Through school,

homework and all the

busy-making stuff

they do.


What I LOVED about this book:

This opening is a wonderful capture of Dinah's impatient waiting all week to spend time with her big sister, Chloe. As well as a fun insight into each of the sisters busy schedules and personalities. I gotta say, I love the dancing robot! (If you missed it, go back to the spread above in Christina's interview.) But when Chloe heads outside to play spy tag with friends, the colorful, expressive illustrations beautifully capture Dinah's reaction.

Text © Christina Dendy, 2023. Image © Nathalia Takeyama , 2023.


Determined to join her sister and the fun, Dinah dons a cape and star glasses. "Clomp-clomp-clomp[ing]" to Chloe, she signs play. I love the way Nathalia Takeyama not only shows Dinah signing, but includes a fun card for kids and adults unfamiliar with sign language. The limited palette of colors in the illustrations focuses the reader on the interactions of the kids with each other.

Text © Christina Dendy, 2023. Image © Nathalia Takeyama , 2023.


Although Chloe's friends seem excited that Dinah's joined the game, Chloe becomes increasingly frustrated as Dinah's love of movement and animal noises interfere with the game. It's hard for Chloe to succeed as a spy when she keeps getting whacked, bumped, and exposed by Dinah each round. But Dinah doesn't understand her sister's frustration, as being a wiggly snake or a flapping butterfly is much more fun than pretending to be a stick or a rock.

Text © Christina Dendy, 2023. Image © Nathalia Takeyama , 2023.


When both sister's frustrations peak, Dinah "stomps to the stoop" to pout and think. As she ponders, she comes across an animal card in her deck which gives her a way to play Chloe's game. In fact, she does so well, she's temporarily "lost." As an older sibling, I remember how quickly feelings of frustration and indignation at being followed 'again,' can turn into worry. Christina Dendy does a wonderful job of creating a story which incorporates Dinah's Downs Syndrome as part of her, but not a limiting definition. A story where compromise develops through listening, understanding, and flexibility by both sisters. She doesn't sugar coat their relationship, but leans into the best of each to bring fun to the group.


Information and links about Down Syndrome and American Sign Language, as well as some guided reading questions, round out the book. This is a wonderful book for opening discussions on differing abilities, sign language, communication, and compromise. A wonderful example of inclusive play and relationships that everyone can benefit from.


Resources:

- learn 50 American sign language signs for animals (2 part YouTube video) and make your own animal sign cards.

- experiment with other ways to play tag - flashlight tag or blob tag, freeze tag or turtle tag,

- check out the coloring pages and Elizabeth Mundt's wonderful reader's guide for Hide and Shh!

Comments


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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