Monday, March 30, 2009

Author Interview: Janet Halfmann

Today, I am honored to bring you an interview with author Janet Halfmann. Janet is the author of numerous children's fiction and nonfiction books.

Two of her recent books have won the following awards:
Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story (my review)
Starred Review: Kirkus Reviews
Honor Book: Society of School Librarians International
Editor's Favorites: The Bloomsbury Review
Land of Enchantment Masterlist: New Mexico Library Association

Little Skink's Tail (my review)
Mom's Choice Awards: Best Children's Book for 2009 (1 of 3), plus Gold Medals: Educators' Choice & Animal Kingdom categories
2009 Teachers' Choice Award: Learning Magazine
2008 Best Overall Book and Best Picture Book: Florida Publishers Association

Janet was kind enough to take time out of her amazingly busy schedule to answer some of my questions about her books, her writing, and reading with kids.

In the past, a lot of nonfiction was boring and dry, but now there are tons of nonfiction books like yours that engage and entertain children. Even today, some teachers and parents do not regard nonfiction as "real reading." Why do you think nonfiction is important?

Janet Halfmann (JH): Well, for starters, I think it’s important because there is so much about the world that can only be shared through nonfiction. Nonfiction tells the true stories of the people, animals, events, etc., that make up the world around us. Nonfiction answers the thousands of questions that children have about who, what, when, where, and why. This type of reading helps children understand and appreciate their world. It builds up a store of information that they can draw on in their writing, conversation, and other aspects of their lives.

Nonfiction is also important in helping children develop their interests, from sharks to outer space. Sometimes reluctant readers can be enticed to read by providing nonfiction books about topics they enjoy. Without nonfiction, some children won’t read at all and others will read less.

Nonfiction also helps prepare children for reading in other subjects, from history to math, and for reading outside of school, where most reading is nonfiction—websites, directions for playing games, recipes, magazines.

What is your favorite part of the writing process?
JH: Research is definitely one of my favorite parts of writing. I do a tremendous amount of research for both my fiction and nonfiction. I love learning new things and finding the telling details that make a person or animal come alive for the reader or listener. I especially enjoy finding and reading primary sources. For Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story, I was lucky to find letters, speeches, interviews, and newspaper accounts of the time. When researching an animal, I love reading accounts of scientists in the field observing the creature firsthand.

Another favorite part of writing is doing the fine-tuning once I’ve got the story fleshed out. I love finding just the right rhythm for a sentence or just the right word. In writing Little Skink’s Tail, one of my favorite parts was thinking of the fun things Little Skink would say about each tail, such as too puffy-fluffy or too stickly prickly, and I find that readers and listeners love and repeat those words.

Do you prefer to write fiction or nonfiction?
JH: I think I like both equally well. I like the freedom that comes with writing fiction—being able to conjure things up in my imagination, and not having to check and double-check the facts, or dig and dig to figure out what the facts really are.

But I like the concreteness of nonfiction—to have a story that is already there but just needs to be researched and shaped by me.

Even my fiction tends to have a nonfiction component. For example, in Little Skink’s Tail, the little lizard’s daydreaming about other animal tails is fiction, but the skink’s habitat, the animals’ uses of their tails, the predator-prey relationships, etc., are all scientifically accurate.

On the other hand, some reviewers have said my recent nonfiction picture book, Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story, which adheres carefully to the facts, reads with all the suspense of fiction.

What do you like the most about writing for children?
JH: I like everything about it. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I especially like the feeling of a sense of wonder that I get in writing for children. I love the experience of making a person or animal come to life on the page.

What do you like the least about writing for children?
JH: Sometimes it’s difficult to give up a word that seems just right but is not appropriate for the age of the child for whom I’m writing. I also do not like the business side of writing nearly as much as the writing itself.

Parents often ask how they can turn their reluctant readers into lifelong readers. Do you have any tips?

JH: Here are my 10 tips:

1. Read to your child from the time he/she is very young, and make it an enjoyable time. Make reading a daily routine, such as at bedtime. Reading is a wonderful way to bond with a child and creates memories that last a lifetime. My grown children still treasure their favorite childhood books!

2. Have lots of books, magazines, newspapers, and other reading material available. Have a special place for the child to keep his/her own books.

3. Go to the library often and let your child pick out the books he/she wants. Also help your child find books related to his/her interests or activities, and books of an appropriate reading level.

4. Attend story times at the library and other places.

5. Include your child in your everyday reading—recipes while cooking, road signs, etc.

6. Take books along when you travel and for whenever you have to wait.

7. Read yourself. Kids will do what you do.

8. Have paper, pencils, and crayons on hand to give your child opportunities to write and draw.

9. Talk to your child and listen to what he/she has to say.

10. And above all, always make reading enjoyable. Never use reading as a punishment.

Those are some wonderful tips! What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?
JH: I grew up in a home with very few books, and the only library was a very tiny one in our school. It had mostly books about saints—and I think I read them all. My favorite book of all was a story collection that my parents used in school—my favorite story was Rumpelstiltskin.

What were your children's favorite books when they were growing up?
JH: When my kids were young, we read every day, went to the library at least once a week, and always had lots of books in the house. All of my children are avid readers today. Some of their favorite childhood books are: Where the Wild Things Are, Harry the Dirty Dog, Curious George, Flat Stanley, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Horton Hatches an Egg, The Lorax, The Story of Ferdinand, the Beatrix Potter books, Harriet the Spy, and The Chronicles of Narnia.

Do you read with your grandchildren? If so, what are some of their favorite books?
JH: Of course, my grandchildren love Little Skink’s Tail and other books by Grandma. My five-year-old grandson especially likes books about sharks. He also likes There Is a Bird on Your Head, Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree, and Pinocchio. My two-year-old grandson practically inhales books. We read stacks again and again every time he visits. Some favorites are Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree, The Hungry Caterpillar, Purrrrr, Peekaboo Blueberry and other books with flaps, Five Little Stars and other books with music or sounds.

What can we expect to see from you next?
JH: My eighth and ninth nonfiction picture books will release soon from Soundprints, which publishes nature books in association with the Smithsonian Institution. Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea is about the adventures of a narwhal, an Arctic whale that has a nine-foot-long tooth. Little Black Ant on Park Street features the life of the typical picnic ant. Plush animals and audio also are available with these books, and everything has to be approved by curators at the Smithsonian Institution.
Good Night, Little Sea Otter, a bedtime fiction picture book, will release this fall from Star Bright Books. Star of the Sea, a nonfiction picture book, will come out in 2010 from Henry Holt. I got to see the animals featured in both of these books during a recent visit to Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Was I excited!

I also have two books coming out from Orchard House Press that my daughter is illustrating. She didn’t plan to illustrate books, but decided to submit a sample drawing after Orchard House Press contracted two of my books and was looking for illustrators. The publisher loved her work and now my daughter is hard at work drawing nights and weekends and feeling quite nervous about the whole thing.

The first title she is illustrating is Bewitching the Chickadees, a picture book about a young girl, her grandma, a special bird feeder, and chickadees. The second book, Sunflower Princess, is a chapter book for ages 7-9. Release dates have not yet been set.

Wow! You've been busy, and I think it's great that your daughter is illustrating two of your books. Thank you so much, Janet, for taking the time to answer the questions, and I look forward to reading your books when they come out!

Read more about Janet and her books on her JacketFlap page.


  1. Great interview! I love the tips she gave.

  2. Jill, thank you so much for "chatting" with me about my books and reading.
    Deanna, I'm glad you found my reading tips helpful. Happy Reading to All!