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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview w/Polly Carlson-Voiles and Review of Star Party

Polly Carlson-Voiles is an author/illustrator, a nature lover, a wilderness lover, a wife and mother, a book lover, a retired teacher… “at least those are some of the things I have done; who can say what a person ‘is.” 😊

Photo of Polly Carlson-Voiles, smiling

Her dream is to have her books in libraries where children, parents, grandparents, and teachers will use them to pursue and deepen a love for the remaining wilderness and the natural world.


For the last 15 years, she lived with her husband Steve and dogs near Ely, Minnesota, high on a ridge across the lake from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, where on lucky nights they listened to the music of the wolves. In a new house now, still near Ely, they see more bears than wolves, and continue to enjoy and learn from forests and wild creatures.

Composite of the book cover images.

She is the author of the middle-grade novel, Summer of the Wolves (2012), and the picture book Big Yellow: Firefighting Superstar (2021). She wrote and illustrated Someone Walks By: The Wonders of Winter Wildlife (2008) and its related board book, Eat, Sleep, Howl (2019).

Her newest picture book, Star Party, illustrated by Consie Powell, was released on May 16th.

Welcome Polly, thank you so much for stopping by to talk about your newest book and your 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?)

Cover image of Summer of the Wolves.

Writing seems to have always come in snippets and waves for me from the time I was very young. For twenty-five years, I wrote drafts of my middle-grade novel Summer of the Wolves, eked out during summers off from teaching and trips to coffee shops. One morning, after retiring from teaching, I awoke from a dream seeing exactly how the book should be re-written and I started with a blank page. All of the snippets finally came together.


I had a fabulous creative writing teacher in high school who encouraged my first attempts at shared writing. Through college and post college I continued to be a private poet for many years. After I began teaching, and after starting a family, I took a class in writing for children from Emilie Buchwald. Some of us from that class started a writer’s group that continued for many years. Which led to another writer’s group with Marion Dane Bauer. I was hooked on writing for children.


I enjoy writing just about anything that sprouts from curiosity and awe and my favorite subjects: the wisdom of nature, animals, children finding themselves. The individual projects, (non-fiction, novels, picture books) kind of take up residence in my mind, as ideas/drafts. I revisit them as time and inspiration dictates. They become sort of friends that I ask questions of and about. They appear in dreams. They lie dormant for years sometimes. Then they wake up and poke me and coach me to reshape and change them. It is a back and forth between me and the material that finally becomes what I submit and hope to publish.


I have been so very lucky to be married to my husband Steve, who supports my writing, shares his writing with me, who travels with me to events, and who puts up with me when I doubt or struggle.

Sounds like you are enjoying yourself, even with the struggles. What is the most fun or unusual place where you’ve written or illustrated a manuscript?

I love to write out in the landscape. Just listening to the insect sounds, wind, birds, opens my thoughts. Since I usually write with my computer, I have found little pockets in the forest where I can drive in and park for a few hours with the windows down, as long as my battery lasts, sitting in stillness and hoping to be surprised by wildlife. For the first hatching of an idea, I often go to paper and pencil, a scribble scatter-gun style of collecting of ideas. For paper and pencil a glacial slab of rock overlooking water is good. I also like writing in our infrared sauna where the heat helps free my mind.


One summer when the kids were very young, I trekked to a Northwoods neighbor’s tiny guest cabin that was buried deep in the trees. It hadn’t been used in years, furnished only with a chair, a narrow bed, and a table. A red-eyed vireo built a nest and raised her young 2 feet from the window. I watched the whole process while writing a first draft of my novel on a typewriter. The kids were grown and many generations of vireos had scattered before this book was finally published.

That cabin sounds delightful. What was your inspiration or spark of curiosity for Star Party?

Cover image of Star Party - girl and grandparents on a dock by the lake watching the night sky.

Our family was lucky to have access to a cabin built by my uncle on Lake Vermilion. Star parties on the deck or dock were common. Later when living close to the edge of the boundary waters, our hilltop house was an incredible observatory of the milky way, patterns of sunrise, sunset, moon, northern lights, meteors, all of it. It was there that I finally wrote the first draft.

Wow. What a gift to live far enough away from the city lights; and especially to see the northern lights. How long did it take from the first draft to publication for Star Party?


It was about 7 years between first draft and acceptance by a publisher. I first read a draft aloud while at a retreat on Rainy lake with my fellow children’s writers. They encouraged me (some poked and prodded me) to complete and submit the book.

There's nothing like good writing friends to know when to add that bit of pressure motivation. Is there something you want your readers to know or hope they discover about Star Party?


For me, there is a world to know about the stars and astronomy, and I love that, but it is the sense of awe, the unknowable, the immensity of endless stars that brings me to my knees. I want readers to feel this, to find places where dark skies allow the full experience, and I want them to realize that all of us in every country of the world share this same opportunity and experience. Stars are really a universal, beyond language and borders and age. And dark skies have to be sought after in our world of light pollution.

I like the universal applicability. I hope it gets translated into other languages. What has been the most rewarding part of the publishing process for Star Party?


I have been delighted by working with the Minnesota Historical Society Press, a small but mighty publisher, and with Shannon Pennefeather, Managing Editor, whose communication, insight, and follow-through were a dream. I felt the same way about working with the illustrator, Consie Powell, chosen not knowing she was a friend. But because she was a friend, I was able to watch her awesome process as she used paint, sketches and computer to bring the story to life. (Night is hard to portray as welcoming, awe-inspiring, and fun, but she nailed it!)

That was a very special gift to get to watch the illustration process. Did anything surprise or delight you when you first saw Consie Powell’s illustrations for the first time? Which is your favorite spread?

Internal spread of beavers, dam. and dock far off in the distance.

Text © Polly Carlson-Voiles, 2023. Image © Consie Powell, 2023.


All of them delighted me, but I especially love how she tucked in appropriate animals, some mentioned in the text, some not, to fill in the experience of dark sky nights in the north country. She was exacting in every detail, stars on some spreads being actual constellations, three kinds of frogs, the sense of vastness. I love one spread where the beaver family is featured and you must look carefully to see the dock where Nora is, way in the background. The last spread is also a favorite where Nora sits alone on the curve of the earth taking in the mystery of the “oceans and oceans of stars.” It is this feeling that Nora will take with her always, and one I wish for readers to experience.

I'll leave the final spread for the readers to experience themselves. What was the hardest, or most challenging part of writing Star Party? You’ve written a MG novel and picture books, which do you find hardest?


Novels take time. I believe in being patient and allowing the novel to tell me when it is truly done. With a novel, finding the right emotional thread that holds the story together is the challenge. With picture books, finding the smallest number of words to tell a meaningful story is the challenge. In both cases, it is writing so the thing behind the words comes through, sometimes the ineffable. That’s the hardest part, getting that to happen…

I think you 'hit the nail on the head.' Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?


Right now I have a beaver story that won’t leave me alone. Kind of a mix of whimsy, appreciation for an environmental rodent, and research about a real project that took place back in the 1950’s. I am actively working on a project about a lost-and-found sled dog who achieves world-wide fame. And I am working on revising a novel with some characters from Summer of the Wolves, that takes place in a northern winter, featuring a girl whose anger and trauma from loss propels her to care about preservation of wild lands.

These all sound intriguing. We'll have to keep our eyes open for them. What is the best advice you’ve ever gotten - whether it’s regarding writing or not ?


Follow what you love and learn more about it. Write about what you know. Listen to thoughts that come in the night. Learn to start over from scratch, to cut the excess. Find the core and trust your inner voice. Learn from others and listen. Be grateful.

WOW - lots of nuggets to put over my computer. Thanks! Last question, what is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

National Parks Service photo of a lone Bristlecone pine tree

My husband and I took a “tree trip” one year to visit the Bristlecone pines, the Sequoias, and the Redwoods in the west, taking in the coast of California, elephant seals, and Zion National Park. It was fantastic. Gazing at the largest trees and the oldest trees on the planet was much like watching stars…a 5,000 year old tree? Awesome. I long to visit Yellowstone in early spring or late fall, to see the wolves I’ve read so much about. Another awe-inspiring story, the return of wolves to Yellowstone. What a wealth we have in our parks, in every single one a story lurks …

Thank you so much Polly for stopping by and sharing with us. It was wonderful to chat with you.


To find out more about Polly Carlson-Voiles, or contact her:

Website: (currently not up and running, but will be this summer).


Review of Star Party


Spending a few nights on the shores of a lake in the Olympic National Forest and seeing the Milk Way for the first time was inspiring, daunting, humbling, and exciting. I was sad to return to the meager scattering of stars visible in the suburbs. This book captures both that awe and the humbling vastness of the night sky, as well as a special time with grandparents.

Star Party book cover image.

Star Party


Author: Polly Carlson-Voiles


Illustrator: Consie Powell


Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press (2023)


Ages: 3-7


Fiction


Themes:

Star gazing, grandparents, summer, and nocturnal animals.


Synopsis:

When children and nature come together at the right moment, something magical happens. Join Nora and her grandparents as they gaze skyward and wonder: Who else is having a star party, just like us?


From a little cabin on the edge of the wilderness, Grandma and Grandpa invite Nora to her first Star Party. This mysterious celebration happens after dark. Nora wonders: Can I wear pajamas? Will there be snacks?


As Grandma leads the way on the forest trail, Nora discovers the wonders of the north woods at night. There are flying squirrels, calling loons, and hooting owls. But when Nora and Grandpa step onto the dock, she finds that the most dazzling sight of all is the night sky. Billions of stars glow above and are reflected in the lake below. Gazing up, up, up, Nora ponders the mysteries of starlight and stardust. And she thinks about how the night sky unites stargazers all over the world.


In Star Party, Polly Carlson-Voiles relates the simple joys of summer star-watching in a tale informed by years of camping and cabin adventures. Detailed illustrations by artist Consie Powell feature many night-loving animals of sky, forest, and lake, inviting readers to appreciate the vibrancy of the woods after dark. An author’s note highlights nocturnal creatures, constellations, and tips for observing the night sky, encouraging readers to learn more about nearby stargazing opportunities—in dark sky sanctuaries where the deepest nights are filled with the brightest stars.


Opening Lines:

Grandma looked out the cabin windows.

"A perfect night for a party!" she exclaimed, smiling at Grandpa.

Grandpa caught Grandma's look, raised his eyebrows,

and started collecting pillows and blankets.


"What?" Nora asked.

After dark? At the cabin? In the woods? she thought.

"What kind of party?"

"Pajamas are required," said Grandpa.

"Can I stay up late?"

"You absolutely have to!" Grandpa boomed.


What I LOVED about this book:

When her Grandparents suggest an outside "party" which entails staying up late, Nora excitedly grabs a flashlight and follows them into the dark woods.

Internal spread of Nora and grandparents walking through woods with flashlights.

Text © Polly Carlson-Voiles, 2023. Image © Consie Powell, 2023.


Consie Powell did a great job capturing both the mystery and magic of the woods at night. The loose outline of the canopy, shrubs, and pine trees soften the darkness with little touches of color and their patterned pajamas, and the green of the close tree, and bushes stand out against the darkness. I love the way the flying squirrel is spot lighted in the flashlight beam.


Numerous nocturnal animals - moth, mouse, frogs, spiders, fireflies, beetle, owl, bats, and many more - appear throughout the woods and at the lake. Some more obvious than others. I love how, though not named until the back matter, the Barred owl's distinctive call, "Who cooks for you," is given for kids to easily recognize and remember. Followed by the wail of the loon, the "paDUM" of shoes on the dock, and a truly humbling sight.

Internal spread looking past tops of trees to vast night sky and Milky Way.

Text © Polly Carlson-Voiles, 2023. Image © Consie Powell, 2023.


If she didn't hold tight to Grandma's

and Grandpa's hands,

could she fall UP, into stars that were

farther than far?


What a wonderful way to express Nora's dealing with the enormity and vastness she encounters. Settling on the dock, Nora and her Grandparents watch meteorites, marvel at the star's reflection in the lake, listen to the nocturnal animals, and wonder how people around the world have star parties, too.

Internal spread of Nora and grandparents lying on the dock looking up at the night sky.

Text © Polly Carlson-Voiles, 2023. Image © Consie Powell, 2023.


In addition to encouraging readers to get outside and look at the stars and listen to nature, it's a tender intergenerational story of special time spent with grandparents. The "Night Sky Notes" in the back offer names and information on the nocturnal animals in the book, provide ways to find dark skies (and the 13 Dark Sky Sanctuaries), and define light pollution and constellations. I love the diverse, multinational star party Consie Powell included with these notes. This is a beautiful, tender story of a special time with grandparents enjoying the marvels of nature and the universe.


Resources:

scissors, constellation templates, and toilet paper roll for do-it-yourself projector.

- make your own easy constellation projector (especially if your skies are cloudy or you can't get to a dark sky)


- print NASA's Printable Star Maps Activity and look at Timeanddate.com's Interactive Night Sky Map (for where the planets will be in your night sky).


- create a star journal and track what you've seen from the same location over multiple nights or months.


- what nocturnal animals have you seen or heard around your house?

תגובות


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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