Hi Math is Everywhere Readers,
Today we have the pleasure of chatting with a wonderful nonfiction writer, Emma Bland Smith whose most recent picture book, The Pig War: How a Porcine Tragedy Taught England and America to Share, illustrated by Alison Jay, just came out last fall!
Kaitlyn: Hi Emma, thanks so much for saying yes when I asked you to join me on the blog; it’s a pleasure to have you here!
Emma: Thank you, Kaitlyn! I’m delighted to be here!
Kaitlyn: First of all, what prompted you to write this book?
Emma: I learned about this crazy event called the Pig War while doing research for my picture book To Live on an Island. (That book follows a child throughout a day of living on the San Juan Islands, in Washington State.) In 1859, on San Juan Island, an American shot the pig of a British man because it was rooting in his potato patch. That act of rashness triggered a series of events that nearly led to all-out war between the two countries.
Kaitlyn: That is definitely a book-worthy story, and you shared it so well! What do you hope for this book?
Emma: The message I hope to get across involves putting aside ego and self-importance, not letting wounded feelings push you to make bad decisions, and using peaceful conflict resolution to solve problems. There were a bunch of guys who let their hotheadedness get the better of them. But just as importantly, there were several men who made sure that calm and rational thought prevailed. We’ve all said things we’ve regretted (hello, social media!) and acted rashly. But it’s important to know you can apologize, step back, and change the course of your actions before things go too far.
Kaitlyn: That is such a great lesson! And such a difficult one to learn. Thank you for sharing it with our children! Speaking of nonfiction, how did you start writing nonfiction picture books?
Emma: I started off wanting to write fiction. But after the publication of my first book, Journey: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West, I discovered the power of true stories to reach children. I also learned how fun and challenging it can be to write nonfiction! It’s very difficult to start with a set of static facts and to have to work with nothing but those to create an engaging narrative. Making it work feels like magic!
Kaitlyn: You are definitely a magician in the way you tell stories! I adore so many of your books, but one that really stands out to me is Claude, can you share a little bit about that book and why it’s so special?
Emma: Claude, no doubt in great part due to the wonderful illustrations by Jennifer Potter, has proven to really appeal to readers, and that makes me so happy. Claude, a rare albino alligator, had a long, lonely, and traumatic path to where he is today, and I think people are touched by that. Claude was mistreated because of his differentness and that makes us feel great empathy for him. We feel sympathy, too, because in the book, the parallel with humans is very intentional. Just as in the animal world, humans can be cruel to others who are different from them. Claude’s success story is a model for us, as well!
Kaitlyn: Yes, Jennifer Potter’s art with your wonderful storytelling does give us such a beautiful picture of this amazing alligator! Now, I believe Claude and The Pig War were scheduled to come out around the same time, can you share what that was like?
Emma: Well, it was a tough year to release books, as we all know! I had three books come out in 2020 (the first one was Odin: Dog Hero of the Fires), and all the in-person readings and conferences I’d planned were cancelled. I had been hoping to promote The Pig War at NCTE, and I did participate in an online panel, but of course it’s not the same. I’m hoping that teachers will still discover this book, because I think it could be a very powerful one to use in the classroom, possibly for American history units.
With Claude, I’ve been doing a lot of Zoom readings for classrooms. In fact, the San Francisco Unified School District has chosen Claude to use in a program with kindergarten classes across the city. Claude has been very well received in general, in fact, and I’m thrilled that so many people all over the world are learning about this special guy. So I’m managing, pandemic and all!
Kaitlyn: I’m so sorry in person events were cancelled, but I’m absolutely thrilled to hear about your books being used in school programs and you getting to do Zoom readings and online conferences! What did it feel like when Journey received the 2017 Cook Prize for best picture book teaching STEM principles to third and fourth graders and became a finalist for the Washington State Book Award?
Emma: It felt fantastic and surreal–a warm, wonderful welcome into the world of kidit! That was my first book, and to have it win such honors was first a shock and then amazing. Getting to go to the events in New York and Seattle was just the best. It was also chosen for the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, and for that, I flew to far northern Wisconsin in November to give a keynote address. It was ten degrees and my hosts brought me on a wolf howl that first night. I was severely underdressed, coming from California, and we joked that my next book should be about flamingos in Florida. It was so fun–an experience I’ll never forget.
Kaitlyn: Oh my goodness! “Fantastic and surreal” is just the best! And congratulations on the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award as well. Also, a real wolf howl? That sounds amazing! Beyond the picture books we’ve chatted about, you also have a few book series with ABDO, can you talk a bit about them, maybe compare writing series versus single books and how you come up with ideas similarly or differently?
Emma: My two books series with ABDO are chapter books, and fiction, so they’re as different from my nonfiction picture books as can be. I absolutely loved working with ABDO. For both series, I started by coming up with a really strong hook. In one case, I actually began with the first book title first: Pet Camp. I just loved the sound of it and thought it would draw kids in! That series, called Maddie McGuire, CEO, was about a girl and her friends who come up with creative businesses. The second series, Gavin McNally’s Year Off, features a boy whose family decides to rent an RV and drive around the country for an entire year. For me, it really helps to have that strong hook to create a fun, unique setting and series.
As much as I adore writing nonfiction picture books, I also love writing long fiction and want to do more of it. When you’re used to working with a set of static facts, it can be freeing to delve into your imagination and make things up! Chapter books are one of my favorite genres–I loved reading them to my kids. The challenge is to make them familiar enough (I won’t say formulaic because it sounds negative, but I believe there is somewhat of a formula) to be appealing to kids who are just learning to read independently, but with enough originality and surprise to be compelling and fresh. I hope to write more of them!
Kaitlyn: Wow! Thanks for sharing that wonderful information; it sounds like there will definitely be more chapter books in your future. Can you share who your agent is, how you connected with this agent, and why you love working with this agent?
Emma: My agent is the kind, smart, hard-working Essie White of Storm Literary Agency. I was fortunate enough to see a #MSWL post by Essie on Twitter about six years ago, when she was just launching her agency. She took me on, and since then she has sold nine picture books and two chapter book series for me. One thing that I think makes Essie a great, successful agent is her communication style. She is open and honest and never keeps her clients wondering what’s up. She also does her research to find out what book could be a good fit for a certain editor, and from what I’ve heard, she’s as friendly and professional with editors as she is with her clients. I am so grateful to have found her!
Kaitlyn: You just can’t get any better than that! Can you share who your editor is for your most recent book THE PIG WAR and what it was like working with this editor? And if you want, please feel free to share about your other editor experiences. I know the Math is Everyone readers would just adore that!
Emma: The editor for THE PIG WAR was Carolyn Yoder, at Calkins Creek, which is the American history imprint of Boyds Mills & Kane. Carolyn has a bit of a legendary reputation and I was nervous to work with her, but I needn’t have been. She is super nice and supportive! She is a stickler for primary sources and original research, and this was very educational for me. I have two more books coming out with Carolyn, and I’ve learned to make sure every fact is strongly backed up by reliable sources. It’s been a great training!
One thing I’ve learned is that, not surprisingly, every editor has their own style. Some like to talk issues out on the phone, some give you detailed notes in the manuscript. Some offer suggestions, others prefer to make you come up with the alternatives. I also have done three books with Christy Cox of Little Bigfoot (the children’s imprint of Sasquatch Books), and I’m working on one with Alyssa Mito Pusey of Charlesbridge. They each have their own unique, and effective, styles of editing. I think working with different editors has made me a stronger writer.
Kaitlyn: Wow, you have worked with some amazing editors, and I love that you share they each have their own styles and that you’ve learned so much from all of them. Take note, readers, each editor is different, but they’re all just wonderful people working to help you get beautiful books into the world! Can you share some advice for up-and-coming writers?
Emma: Here’s a very specific piece of advice that I hope might be helpful. Try going for walks without listening to music or a podcast. When I do this, I almost always find myself grappling with and solving issues in my current WIP. I sometimes dictate things into my notes app on my phone, or email myself ideas. And when I’m home, I feel fired up to get back to work!
Kaitlyn: Oh, I LOVE that! I’ve just recently discovered meditation, and I’m becoming much more comfortable with (and thankful for) true silence. Can you share a bit about your next book and/or what you’re working on now?
Emma: My next book is The Gardener of Alcatraz, a nonfiction picture book coming out next spring from Charlesbridge. Set in the 1940s, it’s the story of an inmate of the famous island prison who was emotionally transformed by working in the prison gardens. It’s a pretty wonderful, inspiring story, and I hope I’ve done it justice. The illustrator, Jenn Ely, has experience in animation, and based on the sketches I’ve seen, she’s really bringing it a fantastic sense of story and drama. I can’t wait for this one to come out!
As far as my newest project, I’m working on a picture book biography (from Calkins Creek) of Fannie Farmer, the famous cookbook writer and cooking teacher. Gardening and cooking are two of my biggest hobbies and passions, and it’s really a dream come true that I’m going to have books about both of them. (I even get to include two recipes in the Fannie Farmer book!)
Kaitlyn: Oh my goodness! These both sound AMAZING! I can’t wait to read The Gardener of Alcatraz and Fannie Farmer! Finally, if you could spend a day with your favorite author or illustrator, would you sit by a fireside and chat or go out on an adventure together?
Emma: I am obsessed with coziness, as my friends know, so a fireside chat appeals. However, I think sitting next to my kidlit crush and having to make eye contact with them would make me nervous, so I’d opt for an adventure instead! I’d bring them on one of the amazing hikes we have here in the Bay Area. All the mountain and ocean views would give us something to talk about if I got tongue-tied.
Kaitlyn: Hahaha, I love when people know themselves so well when making these big decisions! And please let me come; it’s been way too long since I’ve been to the bay. And actually, as I’m typing this, I’m wearing my SF sweater that my godparents got me on a trip to San Francisco (because maybe I didn’t realize it would be so much colder than the valley! LOL But it’s ended up being one of my favorite souvenirs ever!) Thanks so much again for joining us and sharing such wonderful insight today, Emma!
Emma: This was so much fun! Kaitlyn, you really asked some great questions that made me think. I loved it! (And I’m so excited about your own upcoming adventure as an agent with Red Fox Literary. Congratulations!)
Kaitlyn: Aww, yay! I’m so glad to hear you had as much fun as I did, and thanks so much! I can’t even explain how wonderful it is working with the amazing team at Red Fox! They are just phenomenal!
Book Description and Links to Buy
The Pig War: How a Porcine Tragedy Taught England and America to Share, by Emma Bland Smith with illustrations by Alison Jay.
Description: In 1859, the British and Americans coexist on the small island of San Juan, located off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. They are on fairly good terms–until one fateful morning when an innocent hog owned by a British man has the misfortune to eat some potatoes on an American farmer’s land. In a moment of rash anger, Lyman Cutlar shoots Charles Griffin’s pig, inadvertently almost bringing the two nations to war. Tensions flare, armies gather, cannons are rolled out . . . all because of a pig! Emma Bland Smith’s humorous text and Alison Jay’s folksy illustrations combine in this whimsical nonfiction picture book that models the principles of peaceful conflict resolution.
Emma Bland Smith is the award-winning author of thirteen books for children. Her first book, Journey: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West, won Bank Street College’s Cook Prize and Northland College’s SONWA award. Emma is a librarian and lives in San Francisco with her husband, two kids, dog, and cat. Her latest book is The Pig War: How a Porcine Tragedy Taught England and America to Share (Calkins Creek), illustrated by Alison Jay. Visit her online at emmabsmith.com and on Twitter at @emmablandsmith.
Kaitlyn’s Review of The Pig War: How a Porcine Tragedy Taught England and America to Share
Filled with wonderful humor and phenomenal art, The Pig War: How a Porince Tragedy Taught England and America to Share is a fun and true story about an outrageous situation. Kids and adults will enjoy learning about this story while starting discussions about how to deal with tough situations.
Do you want to win a signed book (US and Canada only)?
Here are all the ways to get into the giveaway (each one is an extra entry):
- Comment on this post
- Share in the comments below that you added one or more of Emma Bland Smith’s books to your Goodreads “Want to Read” list and/or your Amazon Wishlist
- Share in the comments that you ordered a copy of one or more of Emma Bland Smith’s books
- Share in the comments that you did a purchase request for one or more of Emma Bland Smith’s books at your library
- Quote retweet my tweet about this blog post on Twitter and tag three friends.
Thank you all so much for supporting such wonderful creators, like Emma and for all of your generous celebrating with Team Sanchez and I about our move to Red Fox Literary!
Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez