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2015 Preview Interview: Tundra Books

My thinly veiled plot to gain Canadian citizenship via children’s literature preview interviews continues today as I chat with Tundra Books editorial director Tara Walker about the latest from the Toronto-based publisher.

Travis: Greetings from Michigan!

Tara Walker: Hello, hello from balmy Toronto! We get super excited when the temperature reaches 20°F (-6°C) these days.

I want to make a Tundra joke right now, but that would get us off on the wrong foot.

How about we start with a quick look back? Any surprises from 2014? Things you were especially happy about at Tundra?

Our runaway surprise last year was the middle-grade tale Audrey (cow), which is appropriate because it’s a story about a cow on the lam! Written by Dan Bar-el with illustrations by Tatjana Mai-Wyss, Audrey received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Quill & Quire and was featured in the New York Public Library’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing. It was also one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Children’s Books of 2014.

What you might not know is that Audrey is based more or less on a true story about a Charolais cow, Charlene Mooken (no kidding), who escaped a slaughterhouse and avoided capture for eleven days near Cincinnati, Ohio. She was dubbed Cincinnati Freedom, and was even given a key to the city! Charlene Moove aside Wilbur and Babe, Audrey (cow) is simply bovine!

We also can’t forget about Nancy — a picture book about an elephant who actually does forget!

This is a wonderful book.

Nancy Knows by Cybèle Young captured hearts and stars from Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews and Quill & Quire. It was also included in Kirkus Reviews’ Best Children’s Books of 2014, PBS’s list of Best Picture Books of 2014 and received an honorable mention in the Huffington Post’s list of Best Picture Books of 2014.

What I adore about this book, aside from Nancy herself, are Cybèle’s stunning, intricate paper sculptures. These miniature constructions that represent Nancy’s memories aren’t static — the pedals turn, the wheels move and the dials spin!

I agree – those paper sculptures are something to see.

Looking ahead at 2015, what do you have for the picture book crowd?

Snow White and the 77 Dwarfs by Davide Cali and illustrated by Raphaëlle Barbanègre is great for crowds of 7 or 77. In this funny, twisted retelling, Snow White finds refuge from an evil witch with 77 dwarfs. They agree to keep her safe if she helps out with the chores. But after making 77 breakfasts, brushing 77 beards, packing 77 lunches, reading 77 bedtime stories, Snow White starts to think that she’s bitten off more than she can chew. Kids will love the hilarious shenanigans (and names) of the dwarfs, and busy moms and caretakers will definitely relate to this frazzled Snow White.

We’ve also got a perfect bedtime story in which the bed is the story! The Pirate’s Bed by Nicola Winstanley and illustrated by Matt James was inspired by Nicola’s attempt to get her little boy to stay in his own bed at night. This is the tale of a pirate who is sleeping snug in his bed when a great storm comes up at sea. Tossed this way and that, the ship finally crashes, sending the pirate to a tropical island and his bed off to sea. At first, the bed is overjoyed. It’s free from snoring, scratchy wool and smelly feet! But soon the little bed begins to feel like something is missing. This fanciful story of a bed lost at sea is a great read for boisterous boys who don’t want to go to sleep or stay in their own beds. To me, it’s reminiscent of the classic tales of the wonderful Virginia Lee Burton. Nicola’s writing is mesmerizing, and Matt’s art has such an amazing childlike energy — you can practically smell that pirate’s stinky feet!

Yeah, I don’t think I’d seen a book do justice to pirate feet until I saw that cover.

We are also thrilled to be the Canadian publisher of Frank Viva’s amazing new picture book, Outstanding in the Rain (our friends at Little Brown are publishing simultaneously in the U.S.). This is truly an outstanding book of word and picture play from one of Canada’s picture book masters.

I always forget Viva is Canadian!

Every spread in this strikingly illustrated book features a die-cut that transforms words and pictures in delightful ways. We are huge fans of the incomparable Frank Viva here at Tundra/Penguin Random House Canada, and we love saying his name — FRANK VIVA!

That is fun. Viva Viva!

How about 2015 chapter books?

 

Well, we couldn’t be a proud Canadian publisher without having a hockey book on our list! Our beloved Screech Owls are back in a new hockey mystery. This time around, Canada’s most traveled peewee hockey team is invited to compete in a four-day skills competition in Detroit and is taking part in a reality show called Goals & Dreams. Reality Check in Detroit by Roy MacGregor features lots of great hockey action, an intriguing mystery and it’ll also spark discussions about reality television and the financial crisis of a great American city.

This Is Sadie caught my attention – what can you tell me about that book?

Everyone at Tundra/Penguin Random House Canada adores This Is Sadie, the newest collaboration from the talented team of Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad (Julie also illustrated the delectable Julia, Child for us). Sadie is a little girl with a big imagination. She whispers to the dresses in her closet and chit-chats with birds in the treetops. She has wings that take her anywhere she wants to go. She likes to make things — boats out of boxes and castles out of cushions. But more than anything Sadie likes stories, because you can make them from nothing at all.

Sadie is a maker and a reader and imagines herself into some of her favorite stories. Sara’s text is so lyrical and perfect – and Julie’s art is so beautiful and dreamy and quirky that you’ll want nothing more than to inhabit this story by the time you finish reading.

We hope there is a bit of Sadie in everyone. This is a book that you’ll want to share with the makers and storytellers and readers in your lives.

Does Tundra have anything coming out for middle grade readers?

We’ve got a new novel from Newbery Award winner, Avi (Algonquin Books is publishing simultaneously in the U.S.). In Catch You Later, Traitor, a family falls under suspicion during the Red Scare.This is compelling historical fiction, a terrific mystery and a great father/son story. It’s already received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal.

Plus, fun title to say.

I see there are more books in the Disgusting Critters series. Will that series keep on going?

There are! This spring, The Spider and Head Lice creep into bookstores, schools and libraries everywhere.

Elise Gravel’s Disgusting Critters books are easily the most squeal-inducing titles on our list! These books just seem to make everyone laugh … and shudder.

I’ve had a good time sharing this series with kids.

The zany, comic art mixed with nonfiction info is a great way to introduce beginning readers to these disgusting (and actually pretty adorable) critters. In my humble opinion, Head Lice and The Spider are the funniest and most fascinating books in the series.

Bold statement!

How does Elise manage to make a head louse look so friendly and welcoming?? Yes, you will feel itchy when you read this book, but you will also laugh … a lot! We are currently consulting with the President of the Organization for the Defense of Disgusting Critters (Elise) regarding future members and future books.

I, for one, hope that happens.

What’s the most unusual or unexpected book on the horizon?

In Fall 15 we’re publishing Bug in a Vacuum by Mélanie Watt, the creative genius behind Scaredy Squirrel. I can honestly say that this is the most original book that has come across my desk in 20 years of publishing. This is a very funny and yet very moving 96 page picture book that follows the emotional journey of a house fly as it experiences the five stages of grief (denial, bargaining, anger, despair and eventually acceptance) after being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner.

The book unfolds like a Pixar short film. I like to think of it as a sort of domestic take on Castaway, with the bug playing the role of Tom Hanks – and the role of Wilson, the volleyball, played by a dog’s chew toy. And Mélanie’s retro, mid-century influenced illustrations in this book are spectacular. I first started working with Mélanie on Bug in a Vacuum 10 years ago … and, believe me, it has been worth the wait!

Wow, this sounds pretty unique.

Is there a book that you think will work particularly well as a read-aloud?

Yes, a funny and gross read-aloud! Frankenstink: Garbage Gone Bad by Ron Lightburn is a clever look at what can happen if we don’t compost and recycle. Ron’s playful rhyming text is brought to life by his hilarious, comic book-style illustrations and a glow-in-the-dark cover. This is a super-fun book to celebrate Earth Day.

What did we miss? 

Our YA titles! We are really excited to be publishing Susin Nielsen’s We Are All Made of Molecules here in Canada (our friends at Wendy Lamb Books are publishing it simultaneously in the US). I often describe Susin as the literary equivalent of film director John Hughes: she writes funny, accessible, heartfelt stories that perfectly capture the angst, heartache and comic moments of being a teen today, particularly teens who don’t fit in. All Susin’s books celebrate geeks and nerd-power, but her newest book also explores the interior life of a popular kid. It’s told in alternating voices by Stewart Inkster, a thirteen-year-old awkward and lovable genius, and Ashley Anderson, the pretty and popular mean queen of ninth grade. Stewart and Ashley suddenly find themselves in a blended family when Stewart’s dad and Ashley’s mom decide to move in together. But this is nothing like the Brady Brunch, folks. I think this is easily Susin’s funniest novel to date, but it’s deeply moving as well. Be prepared to reach for some tissues: you will be laughing and crying when you read this one.

We’ve also got two terrific novels that will resonate with readers who have ever struggled with cultural identity, a sense of belonging and the real meaning of home. Best Friends through Eternity by Sylvia McNicoll follows fourteen-year-old Paige who was abandoned in China as an infant and adopted by loving Canadian parents. Walking home from school one day, she makes a pivotal decision to take a shortcut along the tracks to avoid some bullies. When she fails to hear an oncoming train over the raging storm, she is hit and transported to a surreal world where she meets Kim, her former best friend whom she thought had moved away seven years before.

Andreo’s Race by Pam Withers takes readers on a death-defying, multi-sport race in rugged Bolivia. Sixteen-year-old Andreo and his friend Raul (another Bolivian adoptee) learn that their adoptive parents may have acquired them illegally. Their epic journey to pursue the truth gets them entangled with a gang of baby traffickers. These are both gripping reads that also fit the need for diverse books!

Looks like a full year. Thank you for taking my questions, Tara.

Thanks, Travis! We hope to chat soon, hopefully in warmer weather! Brrr.

Yes! Those days are coming, I’m sure of it.

More 2015 Preview Interviews:

Flying Eye Books

Groundwood Books

Kids Can Press

Owlkid Books

Eerdmans Books

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About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.