The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Heidi E.Y. Stemple and Review of Adrift

Heidi didn’t want to be a writer when she grew up. In fact, after she graduated from college, she became a probation officer in Florida. It wasn’t until she was 28 years old that she gave in and joined the family business, publishing her first short story in a book called Famous Writers and Their Kids Write Spooky Stories. The famous writer was her mom, author Jane Yolen.


She lives and writes on a big old farm in Massachusetts that she shares with one very large cat who lives inside, and a dozen deer, a family of bears, three coyotes, two bobcats, a gray fox, tons of birds, and some very fat groundhogs who live outside.


Heidi Stemple has co-authored twenty-nine books (and counting) with her mother, Jane Yolen. She has also written picture books, board books, early readers, and chapter books, including Counting Birds: The Idea That Helped Save Our Feathered Friends (Young Naturalist) (2018), World of Dance: A Barefoot Collection (2019), People Shapes (2021), and Toucan With Two Cans (2021), (and a half dozen or so on their way) on her own.

For additional information about Heidi, see our earlier interviews (here) and (here).


Her newest picture book, Adrift, releases TODAY!

Heidi thank-you so much for stopping by to talk again.


I understand that initially, this book began from your early reaction(s) to the pandemic. Can you tell us how Adrift started?


In the early days of 2020, just as I was about to get on a plane and teach writing in Alabama, the world ground to a halt. All my teaching and book festival work disappeared. I was isolated. My house became my entire small world. I am not ashamed to admit, I spent many days pacing and crying. I was scared and alone. One evening, my friend Nina said to me “we may be in our own boats, but we are all in the same storm.” I know she didn’t make it up, but the metaphor stuck with me. I went to bed thinking about that storm. And, I woke thinking about that storm. After being an author for 26 years, I knew that was my brain telling me to write that book. I opened my computer and typed, “One tiny mouse on one tiny boat…”


Little Mouse began about my feelings of being lonely and afraid, but he grew beyond that. While he does share the fears and loneliness of that early isolation, his story is really about community. Realizing you aren’t alone—that you are never truly alone—is the best way to get through a storm—real or metaphoric.


That's a great realization for Little Mouse, but also for all of us! How different was it to write Adrift, versus I am the Storm? Besides the fact that you didn’t write Adrift with your mother, Jane Yolen. Do you see a similarity running through the two books?

The process was different, as you mentioned, because writing alone and writing together are inherently different. But, the origin was different, as well. I Am the Storm began with a request from amazing editor Cecily Kaiser who wanted a book about extreme weather for her new imprint Rise Books. So, it was collaborative with her as well as my co-author-mother. It is about real storms. Adrift is about a mouse on a boat—so, clearly not real. The storm as it relates to the child reader in Adrift is really a metaphor. But, like any book for children, we hope both books start conversations with child listener and adult reader about feelings and fear, about who to turn to for comfort, and how there are many things in life that make us afraid but that we have the ability to choose how to move through life even through fear.


I love that they both give the child and adult the room to work out these feelings and fears. When you first saw Anastasia Suvorova’s illustrations did anything surprise or amaze you? What is your favorite spread?


Probably the best day for an author is when you first see that very first illustration. What I really love about Anastasia Suvorova’s art is how much expression she creates. Also, I love that the water is a character in the book and how the color palate shifts from deep blue greens, to lighter grays and then violets. That coming out of the dark into the light is exactly what the book is about.

Text © Heidi E.Y. Stemple, 2021. Image © Anastasia Suvorova, 2021.


My favorite spread? How can I pick just one? Probably the one where the ocean seems to have hands grabbing at Little Mouse. It feels like every childhood fear I ever had right there on the page.

It is definitely a powerful image. What was the most difficult aspect of Adrift? How long did it take to go from idea spark to publication?


The funny thing about Adrift is that I had just written it when a publisher I knew wrote on social media about the quote (the one my friend Nina had mentioned to me) and that he was looking for a book about it. Never one to sit on an opportunity like that, I had my agent send it directly to him at Interlink/Crocodile Books. Recently my editor Hannah said this on social media about Adrift:


“Last year I read a manuscript that perfectly captured the fear

and anxiety I felt during the lockdown--not knowing what would

happen or when it would end. Reading this filled me with hope

and reminded me of the power of collective unity and the

importance of community. This book will remind readers that

it’s okay to feel scared, but that no matter how alone you feel,

you never truly are.”


As you can imagine, working with Hannah, who truly got the story, was a dream. The hardest part? One line that I loved but knew was going to be changed: “But not too close to crash.” I loved the way this line sounded when I read it aloud, but everyone agreed that it was a bit confusing. It became “but not close enough to crash.” You have to give up some things sometimes in writing.


Oh, the proverbial "killing of the darlings." Thank you for sharing this. Is there something you want your readers to know about Adrift?


I hope readers think about Adrift as a book to share and begin conversations as we transition back into a normal life post pandemic, but also that this is not the only time community has been the shining star that has gotten us through hard times. It takes a village…


And that is true of book making, as well. You will notice, in the dedication of this book, I’ve mentioned my mother and daughter, but also Nina and Hannah—who are part of this book’s village.


If you had the opportunity to meet someone, either real or imaginary, who would that be?


Honestly, working in children’s books, I think I’ve met all the people who I look up to the most literarily. I had the opportunity to meet Sonia Sotomayor which was a true highlight. I was able to thank her for being such a strong woman leader—for all the girls and young women to look up to. I think, meeting Kamala Harris, Hillary Clinton, or Michelle Obama would be my choice for the same reason—to be able to thank them.


Three women I would love to meet, as well. I hope you get the chance. You’ve experienced all manner of reviews throughout your career, they happen. Do you have a strategy or tips for dealing with the good and the bad ones?


Well, THAT is true!


I have, over the years, had brilliant thoughtful starred reviews and ones that made me consider giving up writing all together. But, I always have friends (and, frankly, strangers) come to me after receiving a bad review and I have said the same thing to each of them—you cannot let other people’s opinions define how you feel about your book. And, when I get a bad review (as I have recently), I know I have to take my own advice. Because, if I don’t, I have no business giving advice!


Also, you know who doesn’t read reviews? Kids. For every bad review I’ve received, I’ve gotten 100 letters from kids who have loved the same book an adult reviewer has insulted. You tell me which voice should be more important to me.


Touché! I totally agree with you and I hope that you get a ton of kid's letters for Adrift. Are there any projects you are working on individually, or jointly with family (since you’ve collaborated with you mom & brothers in the past), that you can share a tidbit with us?

Just out this summer is People Shapes, illustrated by Teresa Bellon, which is a novelty board book with pages that are the shape of the people—rectangle, circle, star… It’s so colorful and light-- I love it. I have another novelty book coming out next year. These are so much fun to work on because you don’t only think about the story, you get to be in on the design of the overall concept of the book.


Two Cans With Two Cans, illustrated by Aaron Spurgeon, is due to hit shelves late August. It is the first in a series of ridiculous bird romps (early readers) that will be followed by Flamingo Bingo and Chicken Karaoke. These books include lots of fun word play and campy mishap.


After that, I have a picture book about a little girl watching a nest of birds fledge, a feminist nonfiction, and, with my mom, a follow up to Eek You Reek called Yuck You Suck. I have a bunch of others, too… but, that’s enough to mention for now. (I’m never sure which ones I can talk about before they are announced!)



There is the preorder campaign for ADRIFT. I’ll add that in an attached file.


Thank you Heidi for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you again.

To find out more about Heidi Stemple, or get in touch with her:

Website: http://www.heidieystemple.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/heidieystemple

Twitter: https://twitter.com/heidieys

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/heidieys/



Review of Adrift


I have loved Heidi Stemple's books, those she authored alone and the ones she co-wrote with her mother (Jane Yolen). I was looking forward to this book and fell in love with Little Mouse, his giant predicament, and the way Heidi and Anastatsia Suvotova gently address his fears and remind us all that even in solitude there can be a community. This is a wonderful book offering hope for times when we feel isolated and afraid.

Adrift


Author: Heidi E.Y. Stemple


Illustrator: Anastasia Suvorova


Publisher: Interlink Publishing Group Inc. (2021)


Ages: 3-12


Fiction


Themes:

Loneliness, community, fears, hope, and the importance of connection.


Synopsis:

A timely and relevant picture book about the power of community


Finding himself alone and scared in the middle of a storm, a small mouse finds comfort and strength when he sees another boat and is joined by others. They ride out the storm together—close enough to see each other, but not close enough to crash.


In a gentle metaphor for the global pandemic, Adrift is a way to start conversations with young readers about fear, hope and being together even from afar. It was written by award-winning children’s author Heidi E. Y. Stemple while she was in lockdown missing her friends and family. Her beautiful words are brought to life by Anastasia Suvorova, who has won high acclaim for illustrating stories about nature, children, dreams, traveling, magic, hope, and kindness.


Opening Lines:

One tiny mouse

on one tiny boat

pitched back and forth

on the churning seas.


What I LIKED about this book:

Alone in a small boat, with perhaps all his belongings (books, teapot, and plant), a mouse is subjected to the battering of an angry ocean. Since the title page shows what appears to be the beginning of the mouse's trip on a relatively calm day, it seems Little Mouse didn't expect the ocean's turmoil and his total inability to control anything. He couldn't "hoist his sail" or "drop his anchor" and he was all alone. A tiny speck in a raging storm.

Text © Heidi E.Y. Stemple, 2021. Image © Anastasia Suvorova, 2021.


As a loosely veiled metaphor of the current pandemic and the turmoil many felt with the "shelter at home" and isolation, this may sound familiar to many adults and kids. Interestingly, when Little Mouse wishes on a lonely star that evening, he merely says "Please." Heidi Stemple & Anastasia Suvorova leave it to the reader to decide what the mouse is wishing for - Land? Rescue? To survive? To know he's not alone? - leaving it wide open to mean what the reader needs most at that moment. Note that he's not wishing on a lone star, but a "lonely star."

A single star surrounded by storm clouds. Even in his dispair and loneliness (as the tear trickles down his cheek), we still see hope in his face and hear it in his voice.

Text © Heidi E.Y. Stemple, 2021. Image © Anastasia Suvorova, 2021.


Fortunately for Little Mouse, when the storm clears a bit, he can see "a smudge on the horizon," bobbing in and out of sight among the waves. Little Mouse follows the other boat's progress as it comes closer. Until it got "close enough to see each other, but not too close to crash." (6 feet apart, anyone?) While he was still afraid, the company made him feel better. Interestingly, at this point, the ocean has changed from the huge, dark ominous waves of the earlier spread to large swirling muted pastel-colored waves with sunbeams peeking through the clouds.

Text © Heidi E.Y. Stemple, 2021. Image © Anastasia Suvorova, 2021.


From this point on, Anastasia gradually calms the sea and slowly sprinkles color into the illustrations, until the beautiful final scene. This is a heartfelt story about weathering the storms in life, the comfort of a community - even if they are all in their own bobbing boats (or on Zoom screens) - and the power of hope and perseverance. It is a wonderful book to help open conversations about the past year and a half, about fears, about the need for and creation of one's own community, and (as a craft note) using picture books as metaphors. This delightful book contains a ton of heart and hope.


Resources:

- make an origami boat (or a maybe couple)(http://www.origami-instructions.com/origami-boat.html). How would one of your small stuffed friends or figures handle Little Mouse's big, lonely storm?

- think of a time you were scared, write a list or draw a picture of things or people who helped you feel better.

- have you ever wished on a star? What would you wish for now?

- draw a picture or make a list of who makes up your community, anyone or anything you can turn to when you're scared.

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Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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