Hi Math is Everywhere Readers,
I’m so excited to share that today we’re talking with James Solheim about his beautiful picture book Grandmas Are Greater Than Great, illustrated by Derek Desierto, that subtly teaches children the concept of exponential reasoning! That’s right, James and Derek made a fun and beautiful book AND it has math. This is going to be extra fun!
Grandmas Are Greater Than Great tells the story of one family through its grandmas, covering a period of more than two centuries. This rich multigenerational book explores the idea that we are all the product of those who came before us, and it will be enjoyed by readers of all ages. It includes basic information on exponential growth and a family tree. A gift of a book for kids of all ages to read with their grandmas.
Kaitlyn: Hi, James, thanks for joining us today!
James: Thanks so much for inviting me! I appreciate the chance to meet with you and learn from your wonderful energy and ability to accomplish so much!
Kaitlyn: You are much too kind, but I bet you’ll be doing most of the teaching, so let’s dive in! First of all, can you share what inspired this story?
James: I’m interested in family history, and how it takes just a few generations for family narratives to become huge and intricate. So I wondered: Could I convey some of that sense in the limits of a picture book? With my own family I do genealogy by writing down the remaining fragments of my ancestors’ stories, so the people can be more than names on brackets. That gives me a sense of awe for how one person’s life develops into a huge world of many, many people’s stories over time.
Kaitlyn: That’s beautiful, James! Did you intend for this book to have the mathematical component of exponential reasoning or was it a happy accident?
James: It always had the exponential element. In fact, the book’s endnote about exponents was originally much longer but there wasn’t room in a picture book that was already past the usual 32 pages. In Grandmas Are Greater Than Great, I decided to cover the time from just after 1776 till now, but I’ve written another book (unpublished) that covers more than two thousand years and crosses every continent through many cultures, starting in China with a shared common ancestor of the whole world. I haven’t gotten this larger book to fit into picture book form yet, but I’m confident that I can. Grandmas Are Greater Than Great started with the idea that each “great” that you add to the word “grandma” gives your family an incredible new depth.
Kaitlyn: Wow, what a great concept and I love the extra layer of touching on parts of our America history as well! Beyond the many layers, one of my favorite aspects of this book is the interconnectivity, how did you come up with all the connections?
James: I thought about my own family’s history, and tried to use the same woven continuity that I saw in my own genealogy. The book is 100% fiction, but many of the scenes are inspired by stories from my own family history. By “inspired” I don’t mean that the details or people are the same. For example, my great-grandpa was one of the first people in North Dakota to have electricity and electric lights, because he got an advanced wind-powered battery. But when my grandpa inherited the house he went back to good ol’ oil lamps to avoid dealing with all that modern stuff. When you read the book, you can see how that relates to the book’s telephone and electricity threads even though the real-life story and the fictional one are completely different.
Photos of rugs that James’ grandmother designed and made that combined her mathematical and artistic skills
Kaitlyn: Drawing from real life can really make the book stand out. Now another thing I was curious about when reading was why did you choose to focus on grandmas as opposed to grandparents?
James: On a super-practical level, I had to limit a story that was likely to get wildly out of control if I took on too much content for 32-48 pages. Also, grandmas come with a special set of feelings and images that I wanted both to convey and contradict to create three-dimensional characters. Grandmas can give us warm feelings but they aren’t limited to our stereotypes of them.
Kaitlyn: Grandmas definitely give us the warm fuzzies; I never got to meet my birth grandmas (though I hear they were AMAZING!) but a wonderful older neighbor next door quickly became our grandma Lori and to this day, I still think of her and hope I can be as wonderful as she was. Speaking of lifetimes, can you share the lifetime (publication journey) of this story?
James: For me, every book starts with experimentation, and with the possibility that my new approach won’t work. I enjoy approaching things from directions they’ve never been viewed before. With this book I thought, “How many years of a family can I cover in a character-based picture book?” I wondered if I really could maintain the continuity and interest level while moving to a new character on every page.
I made a detailed outline of what life was like in different generations so that the story would match technological and historical developments. Using lots of math, I set up the timeline so that the mother’s age in the end of the book can be anywhere within an approximate 17-year span that potentially might match the mother of the reader in the real world. But for this unstated timeline to work, readers can’t jump to conclusions about specific scenes. For example, the concert scene is not Woodstock. It is any outdoor concert within a period from the last years of Vietnam to Iraq. This allows flexibility in the timeline so that the mother giving birth toward the end can be any age within the span. If you jump to stereotypical conclusions about scenes, you’ll limit the book’s timeline so the math doesn’t work.
After I wrote a version that I considered finished, my agent found lots to improve, so I went through many more drafts. She sent it to my editor, who loved it and found a fantastic illustrator. I revised it more. After the illustrations were done, I was still testing potential titles and ruling out the ones that didn’t seem right. I sent three titles to my editor and asked her for her preference, and she preferred the same title that I liked best. So the decision about the title came last in the process. In my presentations at schools and events, viewers can see the first page of the accepted manuscript alongside the first page of the published book. And how different they are.
The book kept improving even after acceptance as the creative people including my editor worked together to make the book shine.
Kaitlyn: I think you really hit the nail on the head there; when we, as writers, think a story’s ready, there’s often more that others can find. That’s why it’s so important to have great critique groups, an agent who loves your work, and an editor who has fallen in love with the story! I like that you touched on how your editor found the wonderful illustrator, Derek Desierto, to illustrate this story. Derek did such a great job blending contemporary art with the times from each section, can you share how Derek was selected as the illustrator for Grandmas are Greater than Great?
James: When I wrote the book, I imagined that the art would be old-fashioned. But picture books benefit from extra dimensions. Sometimes a book can thrive on art that matches the style of the words, but my editor and I both believe that there’s a great possibility of surprise and insight when the art adds something that contrasts with the words. She’s got a better understanding than mine of how different the art can be from the text to make it unique, but I agree with her on the principle. If this book had been old-fashioned visually, my unique story would have ended up more like hundreds of other old-fashioned grandma books. By pairing a spunky story about life in the olden days with Derek’s contemporary, bright art, my editor chose an artist who could preserve the uniqueness of the book, and create a book like none other.
Kaitlyn: LOVE that so much! Your editor is absolutely wonderful. What do you hope children will get out of this book?
James: Fun—and a deeper understanding of their grandparents! But something hidden too: Exponents are a huge part of almost everything in life, from how the whole world’s population comes from two people in just a few centuries to how pandemics grow quickly. If people would just develop an intuition for exponents that overrides their false intuitions about how life works, they would keep the world safer. For starters, they would think more about their fellow humans and support them more. A couple with a child will have millions of descendants just a few centuries from now, descendants they share with all the people they’re in conflict with today. How about helping your future descendants by working together with those people instead of promoting conflict? I explain more about that in my website, jamessolheim.com, in the Grandma Power section.
Kaitlyn: It’s so awesome to see books inspire kids to look more into the beauty of math while also caring for others. Can you share some advice you like to give to aspiring authors?
James: Sometimes people come up to me and say “I have a great idea for a book,” and they think that’s the qualification for being an author. But everybody’s first book is written by a beginner, and the mere idea behind a book isn’t enough to make it even adequate, much less great. Always assume that your first years will be years of learning, probably even embarrassments, as you strive to improve. I’m so glad that my first books weren’t published, because they were “practice” books.
Kaitlyn: Well said; we all have a lot of learning and growing to do before we get published (and even after). Can you share with us what you’re working on now, or what’s coming next for you?
James: My next book is nonfiction—a new book about the history of amazing foods. It’s called Eat Your Woolly Mammoths! It’s better than my first food book (It’s Disgusting—and We Ate It) because I’m more experienced as a writer. And this time I’m illustrating it myself. I vowed never to illustrate my own books because art on a high level is so difficult, and because there are so many wonderful illustrators devoting their lives to it. But I had such a clear visual idea for this book that I sent a proposal for a cover and some interior art to my editor. I thought the likelihood of her hiring me as illustrator was not much above zero, but she said yes. I’m surprised at how well my illustrations have turned out, but not surprised at how difficult it was to reach that level.
Kaitlyn: Wow, that’s so exciting that you get to be the author and illustrator this time! Finally, if you could meet your favorite author, illustrator, historical figure, or mathematician would you chat by a fireside or go on an adventure?
James: I would definitely do something active, not sit by the fireside. But the adventure would be learning, not one of danger. It would be something like conquering forgotten nuances to folk dances or something like that. The historical people I would most like to meet are my great-grandparents and my descendants further back. I’d like to meet them before they immigrated to the U.S.
They were folk fiddlers and folk dancers and interesting people, not the stereotypes we often get stuck in when we imagine ourselves into the past. I’d like to learn their folk traditions and find out how they were like me, not the stodgy personalities we often think we see in black-and-white pictures. I have three autograph books that belonged to one of my great-grandmas, full of her classmates’ thoughts and well-wishes and signatures, and I find it interesting to see how kids’ thinking in the 1880s was silly and wise and innocent in the same way that kids think today.
In terms of meeting famous people, it’s hard to know who would provide the most unforgettable experience, but I guess I’d choose Emily Dickinson, or I’d time travel to the Middle Ages with the Norwegian author Sigrid Undset. Or just tour England with Mary Norton, author of The Borrowers series.
I guess I actually could have met Mary Norton, since she was still alive and published her last Borrowers book when I was in graduate school. But that was a pre-internet world when children’s authors were mysterious distant figures whose only existence seemed to be in their books, not constantly available online. So I never thought in terms of hanging out with an author that I’d read in my childhood. I imagined her sitting in a Victorian house and going out to the grove to write in longhand about her private world each morning, rarely meeting other writers or even her own editor, much less me.
Kaitlyn! Thank you so much for sharing and for joining us today.
James: It was fun visiting with you! Let’s do it again soon!
Kaitlyn: Definitely! Especially when your next book comes out!
Author Bio and Links:
James Solheim’s books circle the globe and travel through centuries. They explore the wackiest foods on earth, explain Santa’s sleigh technology, and tell the stories of history through our grandmas.
Born in North Dakota, he grew up mostly in Missouri. As a child he wrote and illustrated his own books and looked for lost civilizations and dinosaur bones in his backyard.
He met his eventual wife when he was assigned to sit by her at a spelling bee in eighth grade, with the result that he misspelled “paisley.” She is now a scientist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Their two children are imaginative, talented grownups—grown up compared to their dad, that is.
Invite James to your school or organization to give one of his “Think Big!” presentations. These programs help kids set big goals and see the importance of books in reaching them.
He’ll even do a Zoom visit with your school or book group!
Book info and links: (please insert what you’d like me to share here)
First published by Simon & Schuster, It’s Disgusting—and We Ate It has been a hit for Scholastic Book Clubs, Scholastic Book Fairs, Junior Library Guild, and beyond—right up to the current Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Reading Program used in schools to inspire love of learning.
The Wall Street Journal and PBS included It’s Disgusting—and We Ate It in their lists of best books for getting boys to read. The Washington Post included it on its list of best books for summer reading. It was an American Bookseller Pick of the Lists and a Blue Ribbon Book of The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.
His new book, Grandmas Are Greater Than Great—illustrated by New York Times bestselling artist Derek Desierto—explores history through twelve generations of grandmotherly love. James is currently illustrating two of his own books for Greenwillow with the same approach and appeal as It’s Disgusting—and We Ate It!
You can buy Grandmas Are Greater Than Great autographed by author AND illustrator at booksofwonder.com.
International buyers can purchase Grandmas or It’s Disgusting at bookdepository.com with free shipping almost anywhere in the world.
Contact James at firstname.lastname@example.org, and watch for Eat Your Woolly Mammoths!—to be published in early 2022!
Kaitlyn’s Review of Grandmas are Greater
Grandmas are Greater is a wonderful book showing kids how interconnected we all are while taking the readers on a journey through different parts of our American history. Filled with lovely sparse text and mixed with gorgeous, textured art, there’s something for everyone in this book.
Do you want to win one of James’ books?
James has offered THREE prizes: a signed Grandmas Are Greater Than Great book, a signed It’s Disgusting book, (US only), and an unsigned copy of Grandmas for international readers!
That’s THREE possible winners!
You can enter in the following ways (each earns you another entry into the random drawing)
- Comment on this post
- Share in the comments below that you added Grandmas Are Greater to your Goodreads “Want to Read” list and/or your Amazon Wishlist
- Share in the comments that you ordered a copy of Grandmas Are Greater
- Share in the comments that you did a purchase request for Grandmas Are Greater at your library
- Quote retweet Kaitlyn’s tweet about this blog post on Twitter and tag three friends in the comments of the tweet.
Thank you all for supporting another wonderful author!
Kaitlyn Leann Sanchez
PS. If you haven’t entered the Kidlit Zombie Week Surprise Mer-Zombie Naming and Characterization Contest, make sure to get in on the fun by 6/11 at midnight PST where you can win a great prize from the talented Kristin Wauson!
PPS. If you haven’t heard of Kidlit Zombie Week, check it out here! We hope you shuffle on over and join us for some yummy brains–I mean, knowledge.