The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Janet Halfmann and Review of How Can We Be Kind?

Janet Halfmann is an award-winning children's author who strives to make her books come alive for young readers and listeners. Many of her picture books are about animals and nature. She also writes picture book biographies about little-known people of achievement. Before becoming a children's author, Janet was a daily newspaper reporter, children's magazine editor, and a creator of coloring and activity books for Golden Books. She is the mother of four and the grandmother of seven. When Janet isn't writing, she enjoys gardening, exploring nature, visiting living history museums, and spending time with her family. She grew up on a farm in Michigan and now lives in South Milwaukee, WI.


Janet is the author of almost fifty fiction and nonfiction books, including Caterpillar's Surprise illustrated by Emily Krueger (2021), Yay for Big Brothers! illustrated by Shennen Bersani (2021), Who Is Singing? illustrated by Chrissy Chabot (2021), The Clothesline Code: The Story of Civil War Spies Lucy Ann and Dabney Walker illustrated by Trisha Mason (2021), A Bobby-Dazzler of a Pouch! illustrated by Abira Das (2020), The Story of Civil War Hero Robert Smalls (Chapter Book for Grades 3-7) illustrated by Duane Smith (2020), Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School illustrated by London Ladd (2018), Grandma Is a Slowpoke illustrated by Michele Coxon (2016), Good Night, Little Sea Otter illustrated by Wish Williams (2016), Animal Teachers illustrated by Katy Hudson (2014), Home in the Cave illustrated by Shennen Bersani (2012), Fur and Feathers illustrated by Laurie Allen Klein (2010), Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story illustrated by Duane Smith (2008), and Little Skink's Tail illustrated by Laurie Allen Klein (2007).

Janet’s newest picture book How Can We Be Kind? Wisdom from the Animal Kingdom illustrated by Darla Okada released July 5 from Frances Lincoln Children’s Books/Quarto.

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


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 write in my upstairs home office in WI overlooking our backyard and its veggie and flower gardens. I usually go to my office after breakfast and spend most of the day either writing or doing related tasks. I’ve been writing basically all my life and took the leap into becoming a full-time children’s writer (my dream since my early 20s) about twenty-five years ago after losing my job developing color and activity books. The company that I worked for got a new owner, and he moved our division to New York City, letting all WI employees go. Setting out on my own was a big risk, but one of the best and most fulfilling decisions of my life. My favorite books to write are lyrical picture books, and I do that almost exclusively now.


It might have been scary, but it definitely was the right path. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?


When I was in first grade, I was chosen to read for the eighth-grade class. I didn’t know it then, but my future husband was in that class!


Ha! That is so funny. Where did the idea for How Can We Be Kind? Wisdom from the Animal Kingdom come from?

I was inspired to write this book because I wanted to spotlight the need for kindness, especially in today’s world. Since I find so many answers to universal questions in animals and nature, I decided to showcase kind and caring moments in the animal world, an area of study that is getting lots more attention by scientists in recent years. Also, since children are drawn to animals, I thought it would be the perfect way to share simple ways to be kind with kids.

Have you found anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and writing these past couple of years?


My biggest inspirations are my grandkids. Even during the worst days of the pandemic, our family took almost weekly walks and had outdoor picnics, even in the snow. After spending a day with the grandchildren, the world always looks brighter again. All the goings-on in nature also help keep me calm and hopeful.


Nature and kids can certainly brighten a day. How many drafts, or revisions, did How Can We Be Kind? take from idea to publication?

There were two major revisions. In my original manuscript, the material now in the back matter pretty much made up the spreads.


On acquisition, the publisher asked me to simplify the text for very young kids. Each spread was to have simple, lyrical text answering the question How can we be kind, with details about the animals in accompanying fact boxes.


Then, my editor asked me to simplify the copy even more to let the pictures do much of the talking. The factual material then moved to the back of the book.


Some of the animals also changed to make the book even more global than my original version, and we deleted pets. And thanks to these changes, the book turned out perfect!


I do appreciate the back matter and further explanation of how these animals demonstrate the qualities you are highlighting in the book. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?


I grew up on a farm, and we didn’t have many books as children. I mostly remember reading story books my parents had saved from their school days. One of my favorite stories was Rumpelstiltskin. I was intrigued by the magic of spinning straw into gold, and by the story’s seemingly never-ending suspense.


Did anything surprise or amaze you when you first saw Darla Okada’s illustrations? What is your favorite spread?

Text © Janet Halfmann. 2022. Image © Darla Okada, 2022.


WOW!! was my reaction when I saw the final art. Darla gave the animals so much personality and they are so endearing. My favorite spread is the blue manakin birds, with a chorus of males courting the female. These birds are so eye-catching, and Darla captured their exuberant song-and-dance routine so well.


It is beautiful and the back matter makes it even more impressive. What's something you want your readers to know about or gain from How Can We Be Kind?


I hope kids realize that they can be kind in so many simple, everyday ways, and that kindness is all around us if we look closely.


I like the way you showed how easy it is to be kind to others. You’ve written a wide range of books, both fiction and nonfiction. Do you find one genre more challenging? Or perhaps easier?


I write biographies with stories that have been lost to history, and I find them the most challenging. Finding enough primary source information and fleshing out the story with a satisfying story arc can be challenging. In writing nonfiction or fiction about animals, both are equally challenging. My fiction often includes quite a bit of science, so both genres require lots of research.


Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


I have another book in process, titled Grandma’s Window. It is about a boy named Mateo who feels lonely until he spots a “grandma” waving to the school bus from her apartment window. In Mateo’s efforts to get the other kids to wave, he makes friends. Then when “grandma” moves to a nursing home and has trouble making friends he wants to help. He and the other kids create a big banner with all the kids waving from the bus to hang on her door to encourage visitors. I got the idea for this story from a real-life news event, and with the help of my editor developed it into a universal fictional story. It will come out in 2023.


This sounds amazing and I look forward to reading 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?

We are lucky to have several wonderful parks near us, including a Grant park on Lake Michigan in our small city. It has many great walking trails, play areas for the grandkids, and wonderful views of the lake. During the pandemic, a county park midway between us and our three daughters’ families became sort of like our home away from home, where we could walk and hang out while being safe.


Thank you, Janet for sharing your time and thoughts with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.


Thanks so much for the opportunity to share my writing life with you and your readers.


To find out more about Janet Halfmann, or contact her:

Website: https://www.janethalfmannauthor.com/

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

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JanetHalfmann

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



Review of How can We Be Kind?

Wisdom from the Animal Kingdom


This book uses a really fun premise to demonstrate kindess for younger kids and enourage them to think about ways that they can show kindness in their own lives by looking at examples of animals helping each other.

How Can We Be Kind? Wisdom from the Animal Kingdom


Author: Janet Halfmann


Illustrator: Darla Okada


Publisher: Frances Lincoln Children's Books (2022)


Ages: 3-5


Nonfiction


Themes:

Kindness, inclusiveness, cooperation, and friendship.


Synopsis:

This special book asks children a simple question: How Can We Be Kind? The answer is: by learning from the animal kingdom!


Animals demonstrate kindness and empathy towards each other, and care and compassion can be seen all throughout the natural world.


This book shows children the ways they can be kind just like animals are to each other, while at the same time teaching them about the magic and the beauty of the natural world.


They can learn to be welcoming like capybaras, who let other animals sit on top of them while they wallow in mud.


Or perhaps they might want to be like dolphins, who guide other species to their destinations. Or maybe they would like to work together like ants and bees, share what they have like jackdaws or stick up for their friends like zebras.


With beautiful illustrations from Darla Okada, this beautiful picture book will enchant and entertain children time and time again. There are facts at the back about how each animal lives with and looks after its fellow creatures.


This sweet and thoughtful book is both a celebration of the animal world and a manifesto for being kind in everyday life.


Opening Lines:

How can we be kind?


We can look

after each other,

like European

badgers do.


What I LIKED about this book:

Beginning with a wonderfully diverse image of kids and adults, this book asks . . .

Text © Janet Halfmann. 2022. Image © Darla Okada, 2022.


Then using an interesting concept, Janet Halfmann and Darla Okada highlight ways that kids (and adults) can emulate animals in caring about each other. For instance, being inclusive (or welcoming) like the easy going capybara - who lets most any animal hang out with (or on) them.

Text © Janet Halfmann. 2022. Image © Darla Okada, 2022.


Or by working as a team (like bees, ants, and pelicans), sharing (like jackdaws) , and thinking of others . . .

Text © Janet Halfmann. 2022. Image © Darla Okada, 2022.


The succinct, sparse text teams up with captivating illustrations to highlight ways that many animals protect, empathize, and collaborate with each other. By repeating the question, "How can we be kind," and providing numerous concrete examples for kids to identify with and emulate, like sharing meals or sticking "up for our friends," the book encourages the reader to think about they interact with others throughout their own day.


The book ends with a stunning illustration and the question, "How will you be kind?" Although aimed at the younger readers, the back matter does a great job of explaining the playful, caring, and collaborative actions of these animals along with a bit about their habitats, collective group names, and photographs of each featured mammal, bird, and insect. It is a wonderful book, using both familiar (elephants and dolphins) and less commonly featured (badgers and mongoose) animals, to help kids think about ways they can show kindness.


Resources:

- paint kindness rocks or make kindness cards and leave them around a park, playground, path, sidewalk, etc.

- what are ways that you can be kind? Make a list, draw a picture, or pick a month and add one way to be kind on every day. When you do one of the kind acts, put a sticker on that day. (Here are ideas - if you need them).

- try doing a kindness scavenger hunt (examples here and here).

- draw a picture, or write a description, of something kind that someone else did for you.

Decorative scroll design
Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

Decorative scroll design

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