A Chat with illustrator Nina Štajner

16789696_606912749504134_6815805265560993792_n.jpgNina Štajner is a freelance illustrator with 194,000 followers on Instagram.  She is also an online shop owner, and a nature admirer. She lives in the beautiful Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital. She has been collaborating with brands and companies worldwide. She loves to work on different kinds of products, such as, creating patterns, prints, greeting cards, postcards, stationery, and enamel pins. She is known for her illustrations of tender, whimsical and furry cute animals in soft and delicate manners. Although she loves to paint different kinds of things, little furry animals are her favorite. She loves using soft, limited pallets and exploring different mediums. Because Ljubljana is surrounded by green spaces and forest, she got her art inspiration by hiking and observing the nature and amazing animal world.

When she is not busy making art, she enjoys traveling, wandering and exploring nature, daydreaming, baking, riding her bike, doing yoga, making dreamcatchers, and appreciating beauty in simple things.

ljubljana-slovenia.jpg    Ljubljana Slovenia.png

J.J. Gow:  Nina, I absolutely love your artwork.  They are so beautiful. What is your current work in progress?

Nina Štajner:  I am currently working on many things. Wallpapers and stickers for kids rooms, doing a new collection of illustrations for Lake coloring (an amazing new adult coloring book app with featured Instagram artists), working on my own Coloring Book, illustrating a greeting card for a company I am very excited to work with. I am planning to start doing a premium paper craft collection. Besides that I am developing things for my Etsy shop, new pins, new notebooks, washi tapes with my designs. How exciting. And yes, I work a lot these days.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

J.J. Gow:  What is your favorite medium for your art work (such as, watercolor, oil painting, etc.)? Why?

Nina Štajner:  I love watercolors, gouache and colored pencils. I usually mix – it depends on what I want, or which shade I want. I have everything on my desk and than I just pick something that feels good at the moment. But I prefer water based colors to pastels or acrylics. I have them on little ceramic plates – and when the color dries I just add a bit of water on it and continue painting. I think gouache and watercolors allow a lot of different effects – more/less opaque, light, strong, the line can be loose or detailed. It can be anything you want. I love the freedom of these two mediums. And colored pencils are good for doodling, textures, enhancing details.

raposa_WIP_flowers.jpg sketching2.jpg





J.J. Gow:  What is/ are your favorite colors?

Nina Štajner:  The watercolors – Winsor and Newton. If you are referring to the shades I like… currently : mint, peachy, brown, ochre, red-brown.

J.J. Gow:  How long (in average) does it take you to finish an art piece?

Nina Štajner:  It depends on complexity. If there is only 1 character a few hours. If the composition is more complex than it takes more time. I do it step by step, layer by layer. But I prefer to work on simple drawings so I can finish in one take. It also depends if it is a subject matter I am familiar with, like a fox (I have painted a few foxes)…if there is a new animal I need more preparation, more sketches, studies,..

J.J. Gow:  Do you do digital illustration? If so, which is your favorite app or program to use?

Nina Štajner:  Not really often. I have to do it when I create pins, washi tapes, patterns.. I work a lot with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. I also design my products with InDesign.  I work with computer more than anyone would think of but not to create artwork. I make my artwork traditionally in most cases. Everything else is done on computer.

J.J. Gow:  For the aspired illustrators or illustrators who just starting out, what are you three top advices for them?

Nina Štajner:  It is a bit hard giving advice to people because I don’t consider myself very successful and well known yet. I am still learning a lot. I am trying to find my voice and develop my style all the time – even if people think I have found it it. As I am growing and changing my style is never “found” – at least that is what I think. I don’t want to have the same “style” over the years. I want to change, grow, experiment. But for people that want to get into illustration business I would advise to draw a lot, improve as much as you can and never give up. Even when you had a rough day and you didn’t create anything just keep on going. Patience and practice are the key. My advice would also be – work A LOT, be honest, modest and nice to your clients. And last but not least have fun with it and learn how to handle the occasional stress (I do yoga, take a shower, hike, pick flowers, drink chamomile and talk with people that support me).

J.J. Gow:  How do you network with follow artists?

Nina Štajner:  We sometimes chat on Instagram. I love how artist that I admire are very open and nice and willing to exchange a few words. With the local artists I meet sometimes, have a sketch session, participate in a local illustration fair and so on.

J.J. Gow:  How do you advertise your work? Do you work with an agent?

Petit-print-bunnyNina Štajner:  I try to work on projects that inspire me, follow my instincts, post them regulary on many platforms (Behance, Instagram, Website, Facebook) and everything else just follows. I don’t want to be only a “children book illustrator” or a “surface pattern designer” – so I just draw what I like and share that with the world. It is very simple and it works (for me). People contact me for many different projects, and when I feel we make a good team, I agree on working together. So I mostly advertise on social media. But I don’t pay for any ads – the reach is purely organic. For now I am on my own and am not signed with anyone. It is hard to say, because I never had an agent. I have never been represented so I have no actual experience.

J.J. Gow:  Do you go to conferences or festival for illustrators/ artists? If so, which one is your favorite one?

Nina Štajner:  Not as much as I would like. I have been to OFFF in Barcelona a few times. I have to go to these things more often for sure. Thank you for giving me something to think about.

J.J. Gow:  How do you keep yourself challenge?

JežkaNina Štajner: Working on different things would be the answer : working on notebooks, washi tape designs, enamel pins, patterns for cotton blankets, T-shirts,.. You can do a lot of different and interesting things using your illustration. I keep it interesting with new challenges. I just feel I have so much to share and I am motivated 90% of the time. I really feel blessed to be doing this. I am grateful every single day. When I am working on something I always have 10 other ideas that need to be executed. So that really keeps me going. The more I draw the more ideas I get.

J.J. Gow:  What is your favorite snack/ drink?

Nina Štajner:  I love popcorn! Haha. And I like to drink cocoa. But in general I eat a lot of fruits and veggies, drink a lot of tea, water and of course coffee. But in general I am trying to stay healthy.

J.J. Gow:  If you have a chance to work on a painting with your favorite artist (dead or alive), who would that be? What qualities of this artist you admire the most? 

Nina Štajner:  Huh, that is such a hard question. I don’t have 1 role model or one artist I Pencil_sketching.JPGwould prefer over the others. So I would have to list a few of them. I am inspired by Beatrix Potter and a lot of other artists: Teagan White, Rebecca Green, Liekeland, Kelli Murray, Dinara Mirtalipova, Brigitte May, Julia Sarda, Carson Ellis, Isabelle Arsenault,..and many more. I don’t try to draw or paint like them, but I really like their work. I still think you have to find your own visual voice and not copy anyone.

Maybe be inspired by one’s characters, others palette,… But if I had to choose one I would say Beatrix Potter – her attention to detail, her animal illustrations are remarkable. I think until the end of the day I will not be able to paint them as well as she did. I love how the animals almost appear real and have their own little personality. I feel like Peter the Rabbit and Squirrel Nutkin exist somewhere. I am sure they do!

J.J. Gow:  Thank you, Nina for chatting with me and share your beautiful artwork!

To find out more of Nina Štajner and her work, you can visit her on her website, her etsy store, or follow her on BehanceInstagram, and Facebook.  




A Chat with Tony Abbott

HeadShotSayers.jpegMr. Tony Abbott has been writing books for 20 years and have written more than 105 books. His publishers include HarperCollins, Hyperion, Scholastic, Random House, Little Brown, Egmont, and Farrar Straus Giroux.

Over 12 million of Mr. Tony Abbott’s books have been sold worldwide, and his series and novels have been translated into Italian, Spanish, Korean, French, Japanese, Polish, Turkish, Chinese, and Russian. Several of his books were named Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club selections and Junior Library Guild selections and have appeared on state reading lists, including the Texas Bluebonnet list, and the Great Lakes Great Award Master List, and Choose to Read Ohio. The Postcard was honored with the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for best mystery in the juvenile category in 2009. Firegirl won the Golden Kite Award for Fiction from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Mr. Tony Abbott’s journey as a children’s author began when he was reading bedtime stories to his children. His first published book, Danger Guys, was written while taking a writing class with renowned children’s author, Patricia Reilly Giff.LunchBox.jpeg

He is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Yale Center for British Art, and other esteemed arts organizations. With his wife, two daughters, and two dogs, he lives and works happily in Connecticut, USA.

To learn more about his books, please visit Mr. Tony Abbott’s website or follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

I am very excited to have a chat with Mr. Tony Abbott about his new books, writing and asked him a couple fun questions.

Owen Todd Cover.jpeg J.J. Gow:  Let’s talk about your new book “The Summer of Owen Todd”.  I can’t wait to read it. First of all, when is the book available in bookstores?

Tony Abbott:  The publication date is October 17, 2017. I do wish it were out now, but there are publishing seasons and schedules that are planned months and even years in advance.

J.J. Gow:  How did you come up with the book idea and what inspired you to write in this topic?

Tony Abbott:  It’s a difficult topic, certainly. Sexual abuse involving an older male and a boy is not often discussed in middle-grade literature, if at all. Certainly, if there are books that treat this issue as part of the plot, the fact that they are rare means there should be more. I heard from a friend of my wife a bit about the story of that woman’s son, a story that ended unhappily. This mother wanted her son’s story to be known in a way that might help. I began to think about how it might be rendered, or parts of it, or threads of it, in a novel. Naturally, as any writer will tell you, when you take a real story or incident and begin to work that story into a fictional treatment, what emerges is something quite different, bigger, perhaps, maybe smaller, but certainly the “rules” that govern fiction are not those that work in real life. From that germ, the story of a pair of boys developed, as well as a fully described setting, a host of other characters, families, etc. The novelist feels the responsibility to create a fully three-dimensional story that must live on its own: the reader requires that. This has happened before to me, and probably to every writer—you begin with a morsel and you work that into a satisfying experience that works on levels that are different from that original idea.

J.J. Gow:  What are the message that you want your readers to grasp from your writings?

Tony Abbott:  This is a question that seems easy to answer, but it’s not. A story, to be successful, I think, should be absent of messages. Messages or morals or arguments come from a different part of the brain from creative art. Certainly, art is political. Everything is political in some way. Art that doesn’t anchor itself in real life in some way is probably impossible to create. But to go into a creative project to say that “I want children to learn empathy” or “I want children to learn the value of nature” is to stifle it, bind it in handcuffs. It will fail. No, what I think must happen for me is that the characters become real people. They simply are, with all the complexities we have. If the reader accepts that, say, Owen is a real person, that reader will draw something from the way that Owen acts and thinks and feels. Readers find messages, perhaps. Maybe we all do all the time, because that’s the way we learn to move through the world. But to “install” messages in fiction is to crush it. Put another way: all I want readers to find in my books is real people.

J.J. Gow:  How did do your research for books such as “Firegirl” and “Summer of Owen Todd”?FG cover0001.jpeg

Tony Abbott:  Oh, yes. There’s always research, even in books that come from memory I wrote a book some years back called Lunch-Box Dream. It was, essentially, a fictionalized memoir of a driving trip my family took in the summer of 1959, from Ohio to Florida. It was, of course, deep in the Jim Crow era, in both North and South. I read a lot of literature about race relations in both halves of the country. I read interviews with Jim Crow survivors and lots of fiction written by African American writers of the period—to get a sense of tone and mood, naturally, but also because I needed a voice for some of the black characters in the book. I decided, after all, to make the words of the black people in the story appear to be the responses to interview questions. In those sections of the book, the greatest research was in those oral histories of the era. Also, my mother saved and gave me the maps we used for that 1959 journey, and when I was writing the book, my wife and drove those roads (all superseded now by interstate highways), where I made notes of what we passed, the geography, and so on. That was delightful. What happens in research, as writers will likely tell you, is that you discover wonderful things doing research that you hadn’t known about but which find a perfectly resonant home in your book. This happened several times. I also went to Florida to research large portions of The Postcard, which takes place on the Gulf coast.

J.J. Gow:  What are some of your other work in progress?

Tony Abbott:  I’m writing a novel now—revision due a month from now—about twin brothers, one of whom has passed on, but who is drawn back into this life by his surviving twin to solve the death. It’s a murder mystery, essentially, but a family drama most of all. With some significant humor. There’s a bit of noir going on as well, which is a genre I love. If it sounds rather high concept, I suppose it is, but what is resulting is something quite different for me, and complex in terms of family dynamics.

J.J. Gow:  Do you hide any secrets in your books, such as, Secrets of Droon, The Copernicus Legacy, etc. that only a few people will find?

Tony Abbott:  Good question. There are all sorts of allusions, I suppose, and words taken from my favorite books and films that I can’t expect anyone to know, not even my editors. That’s all the fun of writing. You pour yourself into a book—after all, it can consume years of your life!—and whether anyone gets it doesn’t matter as much as you knowing it’s there. Copernicus is filled with such things, mainly because I was able to dive into historical sources to develop some of the characters.

J.J. Gow:  What was your hardest scene and the most fun scene to write?

Tony Abbott:  About The Summer of Owen Todd, let me say that it was hard to write for very long at a sitting. The story is intense in a way that marks a new level for me. I would have to take breaks almost every hour or so, walk away from my desk, do something else, read, walk, nap, before returning. I’ve never experienced that sort of difficulty in progress. I’m thankful the book is rather short, so I was able to finish it. Speaking of particular hard scenes, I suppose the final chapters, when Owen finally moves and does what he’s been rolling over in his mind for so long, were the hardest to get right. It had to move both slowly and quickly at the same time. Fun? The go-kart scenes were fun to write.

Copernicus3.jpeg    SOD_SE7-cvr.jpg

J.J. Gow:  What other authors and editors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer? Did you have a mentor when you started your writing career?

Tony Abbott:  My mentor was and is Patricia Reilly Giff. The writing classes she gave, which I attended at the beginning of my career, were instrumental in my getting my first books published. She’s a wonderful author and teacher, and friend. I know some authors, meeting mostly at conferences and book festivals, but I suppose I’m essentially a recluse. I learned a great word for this the other day, one that apparently comes from Herman Melville: “isolato.” I am an isolato. I like to be alone with my books—not my books, but my library of books by others. I am happiest when I’m reading in solitude.

J.J. Gow:  If you could tell your younger writing-self anything, what would it be?

Tony Abbott:  This is something I don’t think about. Everything that’s happened to me in my writing life has brought me here. I don’t mind being “here” at all. Clearly, I’m not the person to ask to write a letter to my younger self. In many ways, I feel I’m still my younger self.

J.J. Gow:  What are some important/helpful books or magazines you would recommend for writers?

Tony Abbott:  I read book reviews and essays in the newspapers and journals. I like these above all. There are a couple of good books for writers, I think. Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and Wallace Stegner’s On Teaching and Writing Fiction are two that I go back to. Also David Lodge’s book where he takes bits of literature and dissects them. When I was teaching writing, I advised my students (forced them?) to write in different genres: they had to write nonfiction, no matter how much of a fantasy novelist they wished to be. That still seems a sane way to teach one how to write: know all styles.

J.J. Gow:  For young and aspiring writers out there, what are your top 3 advices for them?

Tony Abbott:  Read everything. That’s one, two, and three. For writers who want to write for children or young adults, read some of that literature, sure, but read adult literature at least three quarters of the time. You’ll learn to write from the great writers, not from the people doing what you want to do. It’s rather like the idea that you’ll be a better tennis player by playing against someone better than you. My favorite authors are John Updike, John Cheever, James M. Cain, James Agee, Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Strout, Faulkner, Capote, Seamus Heaney, Zadie Smith.

J.J. Gow:  Which was your favorite book when you were a child?  What memory do you have associating with it?

Tony Abbott:  By far The Wind in the Willows. It contains worlds in it, and the language is Mozartian in its beauty. I will always remember reading a picture book version of this that my mother gave me (my first edition of this great story), struggling over the Britishisms, the multi-syllabic words, but loving the adventure and humor and the excitement of the tremendous battle at the end. Particularly, I remember mispronouncing the word “startled,” thinking it was “start—led” and being corrected—gently, always gently—by my mom.

J.J. Gow:  What do you like to do when you are not writing?

Tony Abbott:  Read, almost always read. I play guitar a little bit. I play violin a little bit less. I know one song on the piano.

CharlesDickens.jpgJ.J. Gow:  If you can have dinner with a famous person (dead or alive), who would that be and what question would you like to ask him/her?

Tony Abbott:  I might have said Faulkner, but he is known not to speak to people, so it might not work so well. I’ll fall back on Charles Dickens, to get a feel for how he managed his tremendous prolificity, and speed. How he would write chapters that were published serially and then was able to gather them together into a coherent—and very long—whole novel. Astounding. Also, how he worked his public self, including his charitable projects, into his writing life. He remains for me a sort of ideal of great writer-slash-humanitarian.

J.J. Gow:  What is your favorite snack and beverage?

Tony Abbott:  Single malt scotch and Frito’s Scoops. Well, you asked. Otherwise, I like coffee. And Frito’s Scoops. Suddenly, I’m hungry.

J.J. Gow:  Thank you for giving me the privilege to interview you!

To learn more about Mr. Tony Abbott and his books, please visit his website or follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Leave a comment here to let us know what are your favorite books from Mr. Tony Abbott.

A Chat with Merrie Destefano


Merrie Destefano small FINAL copy.jpgMs. Merrie Destefano is multi-talented author with over 20 years of publishing experience.  She is a novelist and magazine editor for Victorian Homes (previous editor on Vintage Gardens, American Farmhouse Style, and Zombies).

Her latest books include the YA psychological thriller, Lost Girls (Entangled Teen); the Southern Gothic, SciFi thriller, Afterlife (HarperVoyager); the urban fantasy, Feast (HarperVoyager). She also self-published quite a few YA including YA urban fantasy, Fathom; the YA post-apocalyptic short story, The Plague Carrier; the dark short story collection, Waiting for Midnight; and Cursed, the novella prequel to Feast.

Afterlife.jpgIMG_1129.JPG   New Plague Carrier.jpg  Cursed New Cover.jpg





Ms. Merrie Destefano was born in the Midwest and currently lives in Southern California with her husband, two German shepherds, a Siamese cat and the occasional wandering possum. I am so exciting to have a chance to interview her and learn more about her latest book, Lost Girls.

IMG_9019.PNGJ.J. Gow: Tell us about your newest book Lost Girls.  What is the most memorable or unexpected experience in publishing this book?

Merrie Destefano:  I think my most memorable experience is one that I see happen rather often in publishing. I finished writing this book in 2013. My agent sold it to Entangled Teen in 2015. But it wasn’t published until 2017. Publishing moves incredibly slow. This is one reason why I try not to include current slang or situations in my stories. They won’t be current by the time the book comes out. Right now, I’m editing a book I wrote in either 2012 or 2013, and I can’t believe how many changes have taken place in our world/culture since then. It’s a science fiction book and one thing I wrote—to make the story sound futuristic—was that the MC’s parents held parties to sell MJ (marijuana) because it was legal. That doesn’t even sound like science fiction anymore! (LOL)

J.J. Gow:  How did you embark your journey as an author? Did you have an agent?

Met my agent Natalie Lakosil.JPG

Merrie Destefano:  I sold my very first book, which ended up being a series, by myself to Thomas Nelson Publishing. I broke every rule they tell you not to break, except I did tons of research on the market and knew which publisher would be best suited for this project. I had created a small gift book that would fit in the price point between a greeting card and a gift, so it would accomplish both purposes. Thomas Nelson loved it and asked for a series of four books. I signed the contract, they paid me, I delivered all four books…and then silence. I found out that my publisher had merged with another large company (Word) and they decided to drop all their mid-list authors—of which, I was one. As a result, those books were never published. But I got to keep the money, which was one of the largest publishing checks I’ve ever gotten, had an agent ask to sign me, and ended up staying home to write full-time for two years. I didn’t make another sale until 2009, when Afterlife and Feast were sold to HarperVoyager. My career has had long spans of time between contracts.

J.J. Gow:  Tell us what other books that you have published. Do you have a favorite?

Merrie Destefano:  My traditionally published books are: Afterlife, Feast and Lost Girls. My self-published full-length novel is Fathom. I also have a self-published short story, The Plague Carrier, and a self-published, short story collection, Waiting for Midnight. I love all my books, but I think my favorite is Lost Girls. I really like the voice and the slow unfolding of the mystery in that book. I also really enjoy writing YA, and that was the third YA manuscript that I’ve written, and I can tell that my young adult voice is improving.

Lost Girls Launch party Mysterious Galaxy-Rachel Marks-Sara Wolf + Me.JPG

J.J. Gow: Do you attend writers conferences?  Which ones are your favorite and why?

Merrie Destefano:  I have not attended any as a participant recently, but I do have two favorites. For the general market and because it’s close to where I live, I love the San Diego State University’s Writer’s Conference (SDSU Writer’s Conference.) For the Christian market, I adore Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference. I won Writer of Year in 2010 at that conference and it meant a lot to me. I had recently gotten a contract in the general market (for Afterlife) and it was very encouraging to see that achievement appreciated by CBA professionals. I love the fact that we can value, encourage and appreciate writers, even when they work in different markets than we do.

J.J. Gow: Some fun facts to share with your readers/ fans.  What is your usual choice of beverage when you write?

Merrie Destefano:  Iced chocolate latte

J.J. Gow:  Your favorite city that you visited?

Merrie Destefano:  San Francisco — it’s where my husband and I went on our honeymoon. I adore that city!

J.J. Gow:  What is your favorite breakfast dish?  Zoe and Me.jpg

Merrie Destefano:  Scrambled eggs, potatoes and toast, all made by someone else because I’m too tired to cook in the morning. (LOL)

J.J. Gow:   If you could choose to do anything for a day, what would it be?

Merrie Destefano:  Either go to the beach or the mountains with my husband, my son and my dogs.

J.J. Gow:  Thank you for chatting with me!  It’s a pleasure to learn more about your new book, Lost Girls and your journey as an author. 

If you are interested to find out more about Merrie Destefano and her books, you can visit her website and sign up newsletter at Ms. Destefano’s website.  You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

A Chat with Avi

Avi headshot.jpg

Avi is an award winning author (2003 Newbery award for Crispin: the Cross of Lead (Hyperion) two Newbery Honors, two Horn Book awards, and an O’Dell award, as well as many children’s choice awards). He has written more than 75 books since his first book was Things That Sometimes Happen, published in 1970 (recently reissued). I had the pleasure to meet him twice at my son’s school in California and sat in his young writer’s workshop (for the students).

If someone asks me which my favorite books from Avi are, I will tell him/her that I really don’t know.  In my house, we have five bookcases filled with books and two shelves are dedicated for Avi’s books.  They are great books because Avi is a great story teller!  For more information about Avi and his books, please visit Avi’s website or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

J.J. Gow: Would you please tell us about your new books, School of the Dead (coming out in June) and The Most Important Thing:  Stories about Sons, Fathers, and Grandfathers? What inspired you to write these stories? What are the message that you want your readers to grasp from your writings?

Avi 2.jpg

Avi:  School of the Dead is a ghost story about a haunted school.  It is set in San Francisco.  I had the idea when visiting a school.  The Most Important thing, is a collection of short stories about father/son relationships, which can often be complex, even as they are powerful. They were written over a number of years without thinking of a collection.

J.J. Gow: Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

Avi:  I don’t hide secrets in my books.

J.J. Gow: Every time we read your books, we are deeply immersed in the stories and characters you created.  When we read Old Wolf, we felt we were part of the wolf pack.  When we read Sophia’s War, we were transformed to the period of revolutionary war and in the mind of a young girl.  When we read the books of the Crispin series, you bring your readers to era of middle age.  How did do your research for your books and create the characters (from historical novel, a boy, a girl, and story with animal as the main character)? 

Avi:  I do my research from reading many books. I used to be a librarian, so I know how to do the research effectively.

Avi School Visit 2015.jpg

J.J. Gow: What was your hardest scene and the most fun scene to write?

Avi:  I find all my books hard to write.

J.J. Gow: Do you have someone, a friend or a family member, to read your final draft before sending it to your editor?         

Avi:  The first person to know my books is my wife.  I read them to her.  She’s a fine critic.

J.J. Gow:  Which was your favorite book when you were a child?  What memory do you have associating with it?

Avi:  Over the years—as I grew older—different books were my favorites.  That is an ever-changing list. Avi School Visit 2014.jpg

J.J. Gow: We remembered you told us during your school visit that your book, “Old Wolf” was inspired by your old dog.  Did you have a new dog after your old dog passed? What other pets do you have?

Avi:  Alas, we do not have a dog now.  

J.J. Gow: What is your favorite snack and beverage?

Avi:  My favorite snack and beverage?  Cookies and milk.

J.J. Gow: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to interview you and share with us the news of your upcoming book – School of Dead!


A Chat with Dr. Diane Rogers

Diane Rogers Author Photo 2015Dr. Diane Rogers is a social psychologist, author, educator, and researcher. Her focuses are to advance children’s social and emotional education and promote mental health awareness using her expertise in psychology and human development.  She developed Storycatching®, a method to help K-5 children build the psychological resources they need to overcome challenges and build positive relationships.

Her first children’s book, Stand Tall: Growing the Courage to be Uniquely You was selected as an official resource for compassionate education at the Seeds of Compassion conference featuring HH the 14th Dalai Lama in Seattle, Washington. If you would like to find out more about Dr. Diane Rogers and her books, please visit her at her website – Storycatching.

I am very excited to interview Dr. Diane Rogers to learn about her journey as children’s books author and how her books help children around the world.


J.J. Gow:  How did you embark your journey as Children’s book author?  

Dr. Diane Rogers:  The journey began in a strange and unexpected way. I’ve written stories and poetry all my life, but one day Stand Tall whooshed through me.

My son was being badly bullied at school in Sydney, Australia. As a parent, I was at my wit’s end.  I had already talked to every level of teacher and administrator and had done everything in my power to get to the bottom of the issue. My son is a great communicator and emotionally intelligent. He understood the situation even better than I did. He finally told me to stop trying to “fix it.” Despite the circumstances, my son refused to be a victim. He also refused to strike back at those who continuously taunted him.

One day, I sat him down and suggested that maybe it might be okay if he stood up to them. Although I’m not one to condone violence, I thought maybe we should talk about him fighting back. When I started the conversation, he jumped up off the couch and stood faced me with fire in his eyes. “I could be like them, mom,” he said. “But why should I? It’s not who I am.

That’s when I knew he would be okay. It was clear to me that my son knew who he was and what he stood for.

But I wasn’t okay.

My son didn’t want me to interfere or get involved anymore, yet doing nothing made me feel helpless. I’m not the kind of person who is used to standing back. One day when I was driving by myself, I sent out this kind of a plea or prayer to the universe. “How can I help?” I begged. “What can I do? What can I say?” The words to Stand Tall came to me to me with a force, as though they were being embedded in my brain. Then I heard a “voice” tell me to pull the car over.  I grabbed a pen and a scraggly piece of paper from my purse and wrote the words I’d been given exactly as I’d heard them.

Stand Tall
 is a picture book affirming the power of courage, self-belief, and compassion—qualities I witnessed in my son through an ordeal that lasted several years. No child should be made to feel inferior or unwanted, but instead of perpetuating the cycle of violence, my son chose courage. He stayed true to himself and his values. Years later, he was voted high school president. His ability to Stand Tall served as a model for others and became instrumental in creating a culture of kindness at his school. Today he holds a leadership position in a global organization.

J.J. Gow:  Tell us about your other books:  When We All Stand Tall, Emerge: A Story of Confidence.  What is the most rewarding experience in publishing these two books?

Dr. Diane Rogers:  Emerge is the story of Little Seed who feels scared and alone when Emerge Front Cover.jpeg
darkness comes. The garden creatures whisper encouraging messages to help the adorable main character “dig deep for courage” and remember that good things are happening even when we can’t see them. The words of encouragement help Little Seed make a heroic journey from doubt to self-confidence. The captivating store teaches children that patience, courage, and self-belief can transform fear.

When We All Stand Tall
 is a heartwarming sequel to Stand Tall. It When We All Stand Tall Cover.pngis the story of what happens after the main character takes the high road when others are putting him down and calling him names. It teaches children that courage and compassion are contagious. The book is a celebration of unity in diversity and demonstrates the virtues of kindness, respect, and acceptance

The most rewarding experience of publishing these two books has been watching children’s faces when they get the message. You can literally see the “light bulb” moment when children get the “ah ha” moment. The books give a them language for discussing uncomfortable emotions, such as fear, uncertainty, hurt, anger, disappointment. They also help children understand the value of dignity, kindness, and perseverance.

J.J. Gow:  Tell us more about StorycatchingR and three advices for parents/ teachers to help kids through StorycatchingR?  

Dr. Diane Rogers:  Just as a dreamcatcher wards off negative dreams, Storycatching® method empowers K-6 children “catch” negative patterns before they turn into poor social and emotional habits. Children learn to understand and moderate their emotions, use pro-social behaviors, make healthy behavior choices, and manage peer relationships in positive ways. They learn how to master stress and take steps to improve their personal happiness and well-being.

My three pieces of advice for parents/teachers and kids is – Stop. Breathe. Connect.

J.J. Gow: What are the valuable lessons you learn during the process of publishing?

Dr. Diane Rogers:  I’ve learned to be patient and that books have a life of their own.

J.J. Gow:  What are some of your other work in progress? Do you write daily?  

Dr. Diane Rogers:  My next book is called “Bloom.” It’s about self-esteem and the title pretty much gives the message away. It is currently in the illustration process and due out in 2017.

My writing process is as chaotic as my life. I wish I could say that I had the discipline to write daily, but I don’t. I do, however, think daily. By that I mean, I carry what I’m working on in my head and let it talk to me when I have the space in my day.

When I feel passionate and inspired, I’m a much better writer. When I can catch what flows to me, I’m more productive and feel happier.

DR group photo 1.JPG

J.J. Gow:  One thing you would like your readers know about you, what will that be?

Dr. Diane Rogers:  Just one? (smile)

J.J. Gow:  Do you attend writers’ conferences?  Which is your favorite and why?

Dr. Diane Rogers:  I haven’t yet, but would like to.

J.J. Gow:  Which was your favorite book when you were a child?  What memory do you have associating with it?

Dr. Diane Rogers:  The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. The book is about the one least expected to do great things. I loved the illustrations and the feeling of journeying with the main character to unexpected heights. I also remember how the book emphasizes the value of team work – the Country Bunny could only reach her goal because others were willing to work together so that she could take up a heroic task.

J.J. Gow:  If you can co-write a book with your favorite author, who will that be?

Dr. Diane Rogers:  Brene Brown and Anthony Bourdain. As a psychologist and avid foodie, I’m pretty sure the three of us would give birth to a spicy, soulful travel guide.

J.J. Gow:  Here are some fun facts questions to share with your readers/ fans.  What is your usual choice of beverage when you write? 

Dr. Diane Rogers:  Green tea. I love coffee, but I think green tea is much more soothing. 

J.J. Gow:  What is your favorite city that you visited?

Dr. Diane Rogers:  Twenty years ago, I went to Sydney for 3 months and ended up living there, so it’s probably my favorite English speaking city. After that, Istanbul runs a close second.


J.J. Gow:  What is your favorite breakfast dish? 

Dr. Diane Rogers:  When I’m in California, I don’t typically eat breakfast. But when I’m in my other home in Sydney, Australia, my favorite thing to do is walk to through the labyrinth of narrow streets and park myself for hours in a sidewalk cafe overlooking the sparkling harbor. I order what my Aussie husband calls, “a proper coffee” along with my favorite Aussie breakfast of soft poached eggs on a bed of spinach with avocado, grilled Roma tomatoes, and sautéed mushrooms. Yum!

J.J. Gow:  If you could choose to do anything for a day, what would it be?

Dr. Diane Rogers:  If you’d have asked me a year ago, I would have said this: My perfect day would be to fly to Paris for hot croissants and coffee followed by lunch in Venice with a Gondola ride and an Aperol Spritz in St. Marks Square culminating in dinner and a Broadway show in New York.  But since losing our beloved English Cocker Spaniel last October, my perfect day would include a long walk with her on the beach followed by coffee in Laguna Village with her at my feet. The day would end with a furry cuddle and seeing her beautiful curled up body at the foot of the bed before I turn out the lights.

I’d trade another amazing day of travel for one more ordinary day with Hailey any day of the week.

J.J. Gow:  What’s the craziest thing you’ve done in the name of writing/publishing?

Dr. Diane Rogers:  The craziest thing is to run a community workshop that culminates in a parade of parents and children marching through the center of town holding paper flowers on sticks shouting “Stand Tall”.

J.J. Gow:  Thank you, Diane for giving me the pleasure to interview you!

A Chat with Sylvia Liu

On February 11, 2017, Saturday, Chinese around the world will be celebrating The Lantern Festival.  Families will be appreciating the bright full moon and family reunion, also wrapping up the 15-day-celebration of Lunar Chinese New Year. I thought to myself, what would be better than sharing my interview with Ms. Sylvia Liu, some of her beautiful illustrations, and her lovely children’s book – A MORNING WITH GRANDPA, which won 2013 NEW VOICES Award from Lee and Low, to celebrate the Lantern Festival with all of you.  “A MORNING WITH GRANDPA is a lovely story about special bond between grandparent and grandchild and the joy of learning new things together.”

Image result for sylvia liuMs. Sylvia Liu is an amazing and inspirational author and illustrator! She is also the co-founder of KidLit411 (a resource website for kid lit authors and illustrators) and is named by Writers Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers. Before she became a children’s book author/illustrator, she was a lawyer working at the U.S. Department of Justice and the non-profit group Oceana to protecting the oceans.

J.J. Gow:  Congratulations on winning the 2013 NEW VOICES Award from Lee and Low for A MORNING WITH GRANDPA, and it is your debut picture book. What does this award mean to you?  What is the most valuable lesson you learn during the process of publishing your book? How did you come up with the book idea?


Sylvia Liu:  It’s been a thrill from the time I learned I won (December 2013) until publication (May 2016) and up until now. I was inspired by my dad teaching my daughters qi gong (another Chinese mind-body practice). I’ve learned how collaborative the creation of a book truly is – from the comments I received from my critique group to my editor’s insightful suggestions to Christina Forshay’s delightful illustrations to the publisher’s hard-working marketing team.

J.J. Gow:  How did you make the career switch from a lawyer to a Children’s book author and illustrator? Do you still practice law?  If not, do you miss being a lawyer? 

Sylvia Liu:  It was a gradual process. I had always written and made art growing up and in college. While working as a public interest environmental lawyer, I took evening art classes. When my girls were 3 and 1, I decided to stay at home and focus on illustrating. Switching from an established career to a creative field at age 35 turned out to be less of a shock than parenting toddlers full-time. It wasn’t until they went to school about 7 years ago that I seriously pursued both writing and illustrating.

I don’t miss the law itself, but I sometimes miss the excitement and sense of purpose of working with really amazing colleagues on important environmental issues.

J.J. Gow:  How do you find balance in pursuing writing/illustrating, running Kidlit411, and being a mom?

Sylvia Liu:  I’ve learned not to expect to do it all. I let housework slide, I don’t make dinner most nights (you can go a long way with takeout, leftovers, frozen Trader Joe’s food, and breakfast for dinner), and my career has taken longer to get off the ground than if I had no other commitments. I don’t miss my daughters’ games if I can help it, but I will be the mom reading a book or sketching on the sidelines. I spend several hours a week on Kidlit411, so it’s not a huge time commitment. (it helps to have a wonderful Kidlit411 partner, Elaine Kiely Kearns).


J.J. Gow:  Your kid lit resource website Kidlit411 is full of valuable information and knowledge and it was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers in 2016 and 2015. Congratulations! How did you co-found KidLit411 and what are your goals for KidLit411 in 2017?

Sylvia Liu:  My critique buddy Elaine Kiely Kearns came up with the idea of pulling together resource links in an easily accessible format. I joined her to make the site visually oriented, and together we added elements such as the weekly updates, the author and illustrator interviews, and a Facebook group that has turned into a vibrant community. We also run two other Facebook groups for writers and illustrators to find critique partners (Kidlit411 Manuscript Swap and Kidlit411 Portfolio Critique Swap).

Our goal for 2017 is to continue to bring great content and resources to the kid lit community.

J.J. Gow:  Do you attend writers’ or illustrators’ conferences?  Which is your favorite and why?penguin-flyer

Sylvia Liu:  Yes. It took me awhile to realize how valuable conferences are, for both craft and networking. I’ve been an SCBWI member since 2004, but only started going to the New York and Mid-Atlantic conferences and other workshops in the last five or six years.

If I had to pick my favorites, for writing it would be the Better Books Marin Conference, a three-day craft workshop (limited to 25 MG or YA writers) with a stellar faculty. Small groups were paired with an agent or editor and we shared 25 pages of our manuscripts in advance. We critiqued each other’s works and had a full day and a half with our faculty member (in my case, agent Susan Hawk). The other day and a half was craft-based presentations from all of the faculty.

polar-bears-in-city-2016My favorite illustration experience was a six-month mentorship with David Diaz through the Nevada SCBWI Mentor Program, open to all SCBWI members. It pairs a mentor with a few writers or illustrators. It begins and ends with in person conferences in Nevada, with an online mentorship in between. A close second was the Mid-South SCBWI Best Dummy workshop where we worked on a picture book dummy for six months prior to the workshop, got feedback from Scholastic editor Orli Zuravicky, and spent a weekend of critiques and art exercises with Grosset + Dunlap Art Director Giuseppe Castellano.

J.J. Gow:  Which was your favorite book when you were a child?  What memory do you have associating with it?

Sylvia Liu:  My favorite series was Lloyd Alexander’s Book of Three series that I read over and over again. It sparked my lifelong love of fantasy and it reminds me of lazy summer days sitting on our apartment’s balcony porch reading.

J.J. Gow:  Thank you very much Sylvia to give me the honor to interview you! 

For more information about Ms. Sylvia Liu’s book and illustrations, please visit her websites at: http://www.enjoyingplanetearth.com/


Part VI:  The Mabinogion – Tales from Middle Ages

map-of-walesThe Mabinogion is one of the masterworks of world literature, and a must-read for anyone who wants to have an understanding of Celtic traditions. Lady Charlotte Guest translated eleven of these medieval Welsh folk tales under the title The Mabinogion in 19th century. ‘Mabinogi’, derived from the word ‘mab’, meant ‘boyhood’ originally. It then gradually came to mean ‘tale of a hero’s boyhood’ or simply, ‘a tale’. The title was created by Lady Charlotte Guest. The word ‘mabinogion’, which she assumed was the plural form of ‘mabinogi’. The term only appears once in the manuscripts she translated and it was dismissed as a transcription error.

The stories in Mabinogion were based on historical characters and incidents from the dark ages in Wales and its vicinity, embroidered with elements of supernatural and folklore. The tales have the themes of fall and redemption, loyalty, love, and  fidelity, etc.  The Mabinogion is divided into three categories: 1) Four Branches of the Mabinogi (“Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi”), 2) Independent Tales from Welsh tradition and legend, and 3) Welsh Romances.

The Four Branches of the Mabinogi consists of four heroic tales of Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan, and Math. A single character, Pryderi links all four ‘tales’. In the first tale, Pryderi was born and fostered, inherited a kingdom and married. In the second tale, he was hardly mentioned.  In the third tale, Pyderi was imprisoned by enchantment and then set free. In the fourth tale, Pryderi fell in battle.

Some portions of the stories were written as early as the second half of the 11th century, and some stories are much older. These older stories were the oral tradition of storytelling of many fantastic and supernatural tales came from. The White Book of Rhydderch (1300-1325) and the Red Book of Hergest (1375-1425), a manuscript which is in the library of Oxford University, preserved all these stories. red-book-of-hergest

The everlasting  figures of Arthur and Merlin influenced by the Mabinogion. Moreover, it also provides the basis of abundant European and world literature, the fantasy fiction genre.


  1. The Mabinogion by Lady Charlotte Guest (1877) first translation text
  2. The Mabinogion, Translated by Sioned Davies, Oxford World’s Classics
  3. BBC Society and Culture – The Mabinogion


Part V:  The Naked True Story of Lady Godiva


     Lady Godiva (also known as Countess Godiva) was wife to Leofric (Earl of Mercer and Lord of Coventry). Leofric was a man of great power and importance. They were parents to the famous English hero, Hereward the Wake.

There were various versions of the story of Lady Godiva’s ride, naked, through the streets of Coventry and the story has grown over the 900 years.

According to history, in 1043 Leofric and Lady Godiva founded a Benedictine house for an abbot and 24 monks on the site of St. Osburg’s Nunnery.  It was previously by the Danes in 1016. The monastery was dedicated to God, the Virgin Mary, St. Peter, St. Osburg and All Saints by Edsi, Archbishop of Canterbury. Leofric died in 1057 and was buried with great ceremony in one of the porches of the Abbey church. Lady Godiva survived another ten years and is also said to be buried in the church.

Lady Godiva donated the monastery with many gifts in honor of the Virgin Mary. Legend has it that she melted down all her gold and silver to make them into crosses, images of saints and other decorations to grace her favored house of God.

So what is the naked truth behind the story of Lady Godiva’s ride naked through Coventry? Why would a lady of great standing do such a thing?

The legend has been handed down hundreds of years so the facts were smudged with fiction as people were romanticized by their love for Lady Godiva.

The earliest surviving source for the legend is the Chronica of Roger of Wendover for the year of 1057. Lady Godiva pleaded with her husband to relieve the heavy taxes he imposed on the people of Coventry. Tired of her persistence, Leofric said he would grant her request if she would ride naked through the town. Although the rest of the story was not documented, but it is said that so great was her compassion for the people of Coventry that Godiva overcame her fear of doing this. She ordered the people to remain indoors with their windows and doors barred. She loosened her long hair to cover her as a cloak, she mounted her waiting horse and she rode through the silent streets unseen by the people, who had obeyed her command because of their respect for her. Only one man, called Tom, was unable to resist the temptation to peep at beautiful Lady Godiva (hence the term ‘Peeping Tom’). He unbarred his window, but before he could gaze upon the lovely Lady Godiva, he was struck blind.

With completion of her ordeal, Godiva returned to her husband and the Earl fulfilled his promise to abolish the heavy taxes.


Part IV:  A Forgotten English Hero, Hereward the Wake (circa 1035 – c.1072)

hrwd1Hereward the Wake was known as Fenland’s most famous hero, a leader who led a revolt against Duke William the Bastard of Normandy or also known as William the Conqueror, who had seized the English throne after defeating the English army at the Battle of Hastings, and killing the last king of the English, Harold Godwinson, and the flower of the English nobility in the process. The real Hereward held lands in Warwickshire andWilliam the Conqueror Lincolnshire at the time of Edward the Confessor, left England sometime after 1062, and later reappeared to plunder the Abbey of Peterborough around 1070.

So where is Feland?  Feland locates in Cambridgeshire, England; however, the origin of the name Hereward was Danish. The word ‘Wake’ means Wary or Watchful. Hereward the Wake was born in Bourne, Lincolnshire to an Anglo-Saxon lord named Earl Leofric of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva. And yes, his mother was the famous Lady Godiva who rode through Conventry naked and you can read about her legendary story in my other post.

Hereward the Wake Map

According to history, Hereward the Wake was wild in his youth and eventually, his father persuaded King Edward to make him an outlaw. He came back to England because of the news of the Normans had seized his father’s estates. Upon his return, he found not only the land was taken by the new Norman owners, his brother was murdered by them. With rage, he avenged for his brother and killed all fourteen Normans and later became a leader of a mixed band of English and Danish warriors.  Many joined him at his new base at the great Abbey of Ely.  William the Conqueror led his army to Ely, then an island in the Fens, and was stopped three times by Hereward in the attempt to build a causeway across the marshes. But the monks of Ely grew tired of the siege and let the Normans in by a secret path. Hereward rode his horse, a noble beast called Swallow, escaped with a handful of men and was soon leading a new resistance. Legend has it whilst mounting an attack on Stamford, Hereward the Wake and his followers got lost in the Rockingham Forest. St. Peter sent a wolf (a St. Peter animal) to show them the way out.  In addition, as darkness fell, lighted candles appeared on every tree and on every man’s shield as darkness fell.  The candles burned steadily without disturbed regardless how the wind blew. This was a token of the apostle’s gratitude for Hereward the Wake in sparing the abbot and returning part of the treasure to the saint’s own abbey of Peterborough.

Eventually William and Hereward made peace.  However, various versions of how Hereward the Wake story ended.  One version from Doomsday Book stated that Hereward the Wake lived as outlaws in the forests of the Fens for some time and held out against the Normans until King William was persuaded to make peace with him. Hereward the Wake was given his lands back.   Another version of the story was less happy that stated Hereward was betrayed by a chaplain, whom he had asked to keep watch while he slept. He let sixteen Normans broke into the house. Though Hereward killed fifteen of his attackers with his lance, a famous sword Brainbiter, and sixteenth with his shield, he was stabbed in the back by spears of four more knights entered his house.

No matter what was Hereward the Wake’s true fate in history.  He was greatly admired because he was a symbol of resistance to oppression and an English hero. Songs were sung and stories were told about him in taverns even a hundred years after his death.  Many people still visited his ruined wooden castle in the fens, known as the Hereward’s Castle during the 13th century.  However, he was ousted by another outlaw hero, Robin Hood, an English hero also resisted the oppression.



Part III:  Ulferht Swords

Vikings were fierce warriors, highly skilled navigators and traders.  The Viking warriors’ ultimate goal is to go a special place called Valhalla. In Valhalla, they would feasted and fighting in a warrior paradise.  The only way to go to Valhalla is to become a warrior and die in a battle with your sword in your hand.

Ulfberht_croppedA select few elite Viking warriors carried the ultimate weapon, a sword nearly a thousand years ahead of its time. The sword was inscribed with a mysterious word “Ulferht”.  Hence it was known as the Ulfberht Sword.  Strength, flexibility, weight, and shape determine how well a blade meets the combat challenges and its superiority.  Ulfberht Sword was consider the prize weapon in medieval time.   The sword was constructed by crucible steel which required melting iron in high temperature.  The swords were unusually flexible and not brittle as their counterpart, the medieval swords.  However, the technology was not available in Europe that time not until 18th century. The history of its creation has been lost. So how did the Vikings have the raw material for these superior swords?

First of all, how does a black smith harden the iron?  He would use charcoal on the raw iron and hardened the iron into steel. In addition, the black smith would add extra carbon by burning bones.  Historians assume the Vikings used burnt bones came from their ancestors or the bears. They believe that the Vikings’ belief by using these bones, they hammered in the power of the animals or their ancestors into the weapon, together with charcoal, they made a perfect steep blade.  Thus, some of these swords had names connected to a bear or a wolf because they were incorporated the strength of these animals into the swords.

The trade with the East, traders might travel through the Volga trade route from Lake Malaren in Sweden to northern Iran.  The route was open from early 800s to mid-1000s and historian found that the blades were dated around the same period.

During that period of time, warriors in central Asia had been fighting with swords made of crucible steel, known as Damascus steel blades, another class of Ulfberht.  They had the same composition but the crucible steel was cooled very slowly and iron formed large crystal.

When the Volga trade route closed in 11 century, the manufacture of the Ulfberht stopped.  So it is very possible the Ulfberht swords originated from Iran or they used the raw materials imported from central Asia.