Words by Rory Grady
It’s rare to find an author whose work can endure the test of time like Amy Schwartz’s. Two different Freaky Friday movies have left vogue since the publication of her book Bea and Mr. Jones, another life-swapping story that celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. What separates Schwartz’s work is her loyalty to her instincts, even if it means making the counterintuitive choice. Schwartz’s main objective, she says, isn’t to write books with morals or deeper meanings; she just wants to write good stories.
“I’m not that fond of books that set out to teach lessons. Maybe something comes across in some of my books, but I just write with the idea of wanting them to be enjoyed.”
Schwartz grew up in a creative household in San Diego, California. Both of her parents encouraged her artistic pursuits and guided her toward literature. The Little House on the Prarie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the illustrations by Garth Williams were particularly impactful. Of Williams’s illustrations, she said, “I remember really studying those drawings and just wishing I could do that.”
Schwartz’s love of art took her to the California College of Art in Oakland, where she majored in drawing. After graduation, one of Schwartz’s friends commented that her artistic style would fit well in children’s literature. This advice would shape the rest of her career.
Schwartz wrote her first book, Bea and Mr. Jones, in a children’s writing class in New York. The book tells the story of a kindergartener named Bea and her father as they decide to switch lives after becoming bored with their own. The story is notable for its ending, in which Bea and her father decide to stay in their new lives. The story’s ending drew some questions from prospective publishers, but Schwartz was confident in her story and refused to change it. The book continues to be one of Schwartz’s most successful titles, and it recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary with a new reissue.
In her forthcoming book, 13 Stories About Ayana, which will be released this fall, Schwartz revisits a familiar character. Readers may recognize Ayana from her role as the sidekick in Schwartz’s previous book 13 Stories About Harris. 13 Stories About Ayana shares the same format as its predecessor and follows Ayana as she works in a community garden with her father. Fans of Harris’s character will be pleased to know that he too will return in the new book. While the story came naturally to Schwartz, she did not originally envision the books as a series.
“It was somewhere after I completed Harris that I realized I could do a similar book with Ayana as the main character. I felt rather bad about Ayana being number two in the last book, and I thought maybe she could be number one in this one.”
Though Schwartz has been publishing for over forty years, she still finds each project uniquely challenging. When she finds herself struggling, there are a few things she finds invaluable. The first is the advice of friends and editors. The second, she says, is routine.
“Perseverance is the most important thing. I work every day — and obviously, everyone does this differently — with me, I set a time period that I’m going to work. With that, I know that if I sit at my table for this long every day, something good will come of it.”
Keep an eye out for new material from Amy Schwartz. 13 Stories About Ayana is set for release on November 22, and the fortieth-anniversary edition of Bea and Mr. Jones is out now.
Find all of Amy Schwartz’s books here: http://amyschwartzillustration.com/books/
Follow Amy on Instagram @amyschwartzbooks
Listen to Amy’s appearance on the podcast here: https://readingwithyourkids.libsyn.com/bea-mr-jones
Until next time, readers.
Words by Rory Grady
While giving a sermon at Azua Pacific University, Dr. Michael Waters posed a question to the audience. “Where do we go from here?” he asked. The crowd hung in an arrested silence. Answering the question would dominate much of the remainder of the speech. I suppose you could say answering that question has dominated much of Waters’s career. His answers have taken different forms, but all have kept the sentiment of the original. “Where we go from here will be determined by the courage we show in this hour.”
Michael Waters is, by all measures, a renaissance man, laying equal claim to the titles of author, minister, father, and activist. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be an advocate, but he didn’t immediately know what that would look like.
“I always knew I wanted to help people. I knew that very early on because I had a number of examples around me. As I got older, the idea of advocating and fighting injustices started to appeal to my sensibilities.”
Of his role models, none were more important than his grandfather, with whom Waters spent summers in his childhood. The most impactful memories, Waters said, were made in the long drives the two would take together. Almost every morning, the pair would load up a pick-up and drive somewhere around Marlin, Texas, and Waters would spend the rides listening to his grandfather’s stories. Topics of the stories varied greatly, some covering his service in World War II, others recounting his piano-playing in jazz bands. No matter the subject, every story had some message or moral to be taken away. Though some years have passed since those drives, Waters still finds himself thinking of those stories.
His grandfather’s talent and passion for storytelling would inspire Waters as he pursued writing professionally. Writing always came easily to Waters, but it wasn’t until he was invited to write for the Huffington Post that he realized his true potential. Waters has since found success writing both fiction and nonfiction. The biggest influence in his recent writing, he says unequivocally, is his children.
“The children’s books I’ve written so far have been inspired by our kids. That’s just it. Being their dad, they have taught me more than anyone. I’ve learned so much from their observations of the world. Their honest questions have been intriguing, and they’ve been challenging, and I’ve written from that perspective.”
His latest release, Liberty’s Civil Rights Roadtrip, features his daughter as the titular protagonist as she embarks on a journey to see and experience civil rights landmarks and the stories tied to them. The most rewarding part of the publication process, Waters says, is being able to preserve the stories of these places.
“It means the world to me to be able to offer in a book form — or any other form — these stories to make sure they’re not forgotten so young people can grab hold of them. One of my great blessings was a woman, who is a hero of mine, who was on the bridge in Selma in 1965. To be able to personally hand her a copy of my book and see her hold it, and cherish it, and be so grateful that these stories are being told, that means the world.”
His writing has also struck a chord with his younger readers. While visiting a school in the Bronx, Waters was introduced to a student who was inspired to pursue writing after reading For Beautiful Black Boys Who Believe in a Better World. In their conversation, Waters gave this student the same piece of advice that he’s given in classrooms across the country, and that is to manifest hope. He emphasizes that this does not mean ignoring or avoiding the problems in front of you. It’s a decision you make every day to be good and make a difference for the better. It’s a lesson his grandfather taught him in those long drives all those years ago.
Find all of Dr. Waters’s books here: https://michaelwwaters.com/book/
Listen to Dr. Waters on the podcast here: https://readingwithyourkids.libsyn.com/size/5/?search=waters
While you’re at it, manifest hope.
Words by Rory Grady
It takes only a small shift in bond angle to freeze liquid water. This is my favorite fact of trivia that I’ve learned this week. I didn’t learn it from a lecture, or a textbook, or a scholarly essay — though I’m sure you can also get it from those places too if you have the time and means — I got it from a children’s book. This left me with two important takeaways. The first is that sometimes information comes from places you don’t expect. The second is that a small shift can trigger a large change.
Jennifer Swanson has made a career of taking these complex topics and writing about them in a way that’s accessible and exciting for young readers. And she’s good at it — like, really good at it. At the podcast, we call her “the dean of all things STEM and steam,” and that is a title well earned.
Swanson had a strong interest in science from an early age, leading a science club at seven years old. Her love of science was nurtured by oceanographer and documentarian Jacques Cousteau and her seventh-grade science teacher, Mrs. Roth, whom she credits with making science come alive and instilling in her early the belief that women can succeed in STEM.
Swanson’s devotion to STEM continued at the US Naval Academy, where she pursued a degree in chemistry. In one class, a professor noted her gift for putting complex topics in simple terms. His observation stuck with her as she started writing professionally.
Though Swanson has found a place for herself in the literary world as a nonfiction writer, her first effort at writing was in fiction. It was an inauspicious start, as her first piece of professional criticism was, “Do you do anything else?” Shaken nerves notwithstanding, Swanson recognizes the importance of this review. The same critic pushed her to explore writing nonfiction, which Swanson considers a turning point in her career.
“When you hear something like that, you think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is horrible,” she said. “But once I started writing nonfiction, I knew that this is where I was supposed to be.”
Since then, Swanson has published over forty nonfiction titles. And though nonfiction has presented different demands, Jennifer has fallen in love with the entire process, challenges and all. Her book Beastly Bionics includes close to 300 citations in the bibliography, something she told me with particular pride. Swanson admits that the research process can be demanding, but her curiosity and love of the subject matter make it worthwhile.
“Kids always ask me, ‘What’s your favorite book?’ And it’s literally the one I’m working on at the moment because I’m knee-deep in the research. I love learning all the things and picking out the cool pieces. You can’t include everything from your research, but you find that one cool Jeopardy fun fact, and you think, ‘Oh man, I’ve got to get this in this book somehow.’ Books about trees and animals are amazing, but books about animals that can be robots and biomimicry, that takes it up a whole notch for me. So I love the research part of it.”
It’s this same inquisitiveness that Swanson hopes to inspire in her readers.
“I want them to go out and be curious,” she said of her readers. “I want them to ask more questions and see what they can do. For me, science is best when it’s in action. Don’t read about it. Do it.”
For her forthcoming book, Footprints Across the Planet, which will be released in August, Swanson explores the footprints, both physical and digital, left by all species. She hopes that it will provoke kids (of all ages) to examine the footprint they’re leaving because a small shift can trigger a large change.
Be on the lookout for new material from Jennifer Swanson. Footprints Across the Planet is set for release on August 14, and Who Owns the Moon?, a joint project with Cynthia Levinson, is due out in 2024. While you’re at it, be curious. You may learn something.
Listen to Jennifer on Reading With Your Kids here: https://readingwithyourkids.libsyn.com/size/5/?search=jennifer+swanson
Listen to Jennifer’s podcast, Solve it For Kids, here: https://solveitforkids.com/
Find Footprints Across the Planet here: https://www.amazon.com/Footprints-Across-Planet-Jennifer-Swanson/dp/1478876034