Writing can be a lonely pursuit. Authors spend hours alone with legal pad or computer, waiting for inspiration and eloquence to flow. Which is why four of Bergen County's most successful children's book authors treasure the camaraderie they share as local members of a larger regional group of authors called the KidLit Author's Club.
Through KidLit, children's authors from all over New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland team up for book promotions and school visits. Ann Malaspina of Ridgewood, who specializes in non-fiction and reality-based fiction for elementary kids, claims to be naturally shy but has found strength in KidLit's numbers. "It's really great to have a group," she says. "We do things together, so it's not just me standing in front of people at Barnes and Noble."
The homegrown KidLit members – which besides Malaspina includes Saddle River's Alison Formento, Margie Gelbwasser of Fair Lawn and Patricia Intriago from Tenafly – have grown close. They log hours together in the car schlepping from independent bookstores to massive chain stores, and they sometimes get together on their own for a cup of coffee or a bite to eat.
"We all do different types of children's literature for different age groups, and some are much more experienced than me," Intriago, one of the group's newest authors, says. "But I feel very fortunate to have found this group of people, because I'm able to learn so much more about the industry through their experiences."
All four Bergen County children's authors have had new books published in the past year, so they've been able to share their successes as well as the hard work.
"Bergen County is a great place to be a children's book author," Malaspina says. "The schools and teachers really appreciate children's books. The parents really buy books. And the Bergen County Cooperative Library System has always been really supportive of local authors."
Alison Ashley Formento
There was something about the ancient twisted elm tree standing all alone in a field at the Celery Farm nature preserve in Allendale that tugged at Formento's heart. The children's book author from Saddle River first noticed it while hiking one day a few years ago. In fact, the sight was so arresting that she had to stop and immediately write a poem about it.
"It was as if this tree were talking," the Arkansas native says. "I personified the tree." Then Formento expanded it into a little story that she sent off to an editor who had – very nicely – rejected two previous projects, but told her that she was looking for environmental books for children.
The little story turned into This Tree Counts, in which a group of school kids plants a grove of trees to keep a single ancient tree company. In the process, the tree tells them why trees are important to our planet. The book has proved very popular and was recast as a board book, This Tree 1, 2, 3. Since then, Formento has been hard at work writing environmentally themed sequels featuring the same group of children. Her second book in the series, These Bees Count, was published in March, and a third one about saving the ocean will come out next year.
Formento got the idea for These Bees Count while ordering honey-flavored ice cream at a Florida shop, which had signs posted everywhere telling about the plight of the disappearing honeybees. That led to her research talking to local beekeepers and scientists. She laughs about all her newly acquired knowledge and tells students she's a "bee-ologist" now. "I visited a lot of beehives and spoke to a lot of helpful apiarists," she says, "and I was never stung."
A trained actress with a healthy imagination, Formento is actually keen to start a hive at home this summer, although she hasn't mentioned it to her family yet. "But I think they'd be into it," she says. "My husband would think I'm crazy, but he would go along with it because he's that kind of guy."
She also believes her two teens, ages 13 and 15, would be into keeping bees. "They'd be supportive," she says with a little laugh. "Although my daughter, especially, thinks I'm embarrassing because I do a lot of silly things when I go to visit schools. I create a human tree with the kids or put on bee wings and antenna and do the waggle dance."v
Perfect timing defines Malaspina's latest book, Touch the Sky, Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper. This true story was published in March, in time for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Coincidentally, London is the exact site of Coachman's original triumph: In the 1948 Olympic Games, she became the first black woman to win a medal.
Malaspina says she came up with the book idea back in 1996, when watching the Olympics in Atlanta. While there, she saw a local news interview with Coachman, who hails from Georgia. Even so, it took more than 15 years to get the picture book out, in part because not many book publishers were familiar with Coachman's unique story. Happily, the Grand Dame of the High Jump is still alive and kicking at about age 90, and she even made a recent media appearance in Georgia when 400 copies of Touch the Sky were donated to Alice Coachman Elementary School, in her hometown of Albany, Ga.
The Coachman book is only the most recent in a long line of children's books by Malaspina, who estimates she's written 17 books. Some have been non-fiction educational books for teens, but her most recent few, including Touch the Sky, are picture books for elementary school students. In these, she's becoming bolder about marrying her long-standing love of non-fiction with a newer interest in poetry. That is, the stories are based on true events, and the text wanders into the territory of free verse.
Malaspina trained as a journalist, writing for newspapers and magazines, until her two sons, now 18 and 21, were born. In order to spend more time with them, she started writing books for kids at home. She says her boys are probably her biggest fans and have developed into fine writers in their own right – but growing up, they were disappointed their mom wasn't more like J.K. Rowling.
Next up for Malaspina? Another picture book will be out this summer called Heart on Fire: Susan B. Anthony Votes for President.
Undoubtedly, the most controversial offeringfrom the group is Pieces of Us, by Fair Lawn's Margie Gelbwasser, which debuted in early March.
This young adult novel by Gelbwasser is narrated, in turns, by four teens – two sets of siblings – who come together each summer to escape their daily lives and spend time with their Russian Jewish grandparents in a holiday community in the Catskills. There are violent, sexual and generally unsettling scenes in the book, which explores dating abuse, cyber-bullying and mental illness.
"People love it or they hate it, but it's getting attention," Gelbwasser says of her sophomore effort. "They all say that the writing is good, but some people don't like the content and feel that it's too graphic for younger teens." Indeed, Gelbwasser says it's probably not appropriate for a 13-year-old. Her own son is only 3 1Ú2, but she says "he'll be welcome to read it when he's about 15."
Although the book is not strictly autobiographical, Gelbwasser, who moved from Russia to Brooklyn as a 3-year-old and then settled with her family in Fair Lawn at age 8, says she too spent her childhood summers with her grandparents in the Catskills. And she definitely mined some real high school experiences for inspiration. "I went to high school in the early 90s," she says. "There were boys that spread rumors about me... and I had never even kissed anybody at that point. But for whatever reason, they thought it was amusing."
Gelbwasser says that given her experiences, it didn't take much to imagine how much worse things could have been had the Internet, cell phones and Facebook been around to magnify every rumor.
"It's such a scary world today," she says. "I feel for today's teens. And that's why I thought it would be something [important] to write about."
And while the complaints by some readers about the controversial material can get her down at times, other reactions have proven gratifying. For example, one young woman wrote to tell her how she'd been in a similar relationship to that of the character Katie, who experiences dating abuse. "She told me that had she read a book like this then, she might have left him a lot sooner than she did," she says. "That put a lot of things in perspective for me."
Perhaps the most unlikely – as well as the newest – author of the bunch, Intriago is a professional graphic designer by training, slogging away for years as a designer for a large financial services firm. But when this mother of two boys, now 13 and 11, came home at night, she found inspiration for a clever and award-winning little book called Dot.
She recalls trying to read with her sons every night before bedtime. "But on some nights my boys were too rambunctious," she says, "and they couldn't focus on reading." Instead, they would draw and play drawing games together, including a guessing game where they'd make something from a random shape and try to guess what it was. Intriago kept some of the drawings and, when looking back over them a few years later, saw the potential for a children's book.
Published last August, Dot is deceptively simple. Each page starts off as a large dot, but simple alterations transform it into something else. So, for example, one page has only the bottom half of a dot with the words "This dot is happy." And indeed, the darkened semicircle comes into focus as a stylized grin. The facing page shows a dot with an elongated and slightly curled point on top. Clearly, that "sad" dot is a teardrop!
The book is aimed at the 2- to 7-year-old crowd, starting simply and gaining nuance. "It builds on knowledge, until the middle of the book and you've got one that's really funny, that requires a little bit of thought and understanding," Intriago says. Some of the jokes at the end might need to be explained by a grownup reading the book to the child.
Intriago says the book reflects her "less is more" design sensibility. "I believe that good design has to have that wit," she says. "It has to make people stop and think. And I think that children are born with that ability to get pictures and understand simple but clever ideas."
Naturally, Intriago's boys were her harshest critics: "If they didn't get the joke, I figured it wasn't going to fly."
Dot has been so successful that Intriago, who has recently started her own graphic design firm (intriagodesign.com), is also working on six or seven additional children's books.