Everybody seems to think writing books for children is easy, at least until they try it. But South Milwaukee author Janet Halfmann actually makes it look easy. In four decades writing, she's created 28 books and there are at least two more on the way.
Her latest book is "Little Skink's Tale," a picture book that weaves an imaginative tale about a young lizard that ditches its tail to escape a predatory crow and then imagines how she'd look donning tails from other forest creatures. The book will certainly engage young minds and very clearly trumpets the value of diversity and self-respect.
We asked Halfmann about the book and about her long career as an author of books for young readers.
OMC: Can you tell us a bit about your career as an author of children's books? How did you get started?
JH: I began writing for children almost 40 years ago when our children were young. I had some success and sold a few articles to children's magazines, such as Ranger Rick. Eventually, I went back to college and got a second degree in journalism. My first degrees were in English and Spanish with plans to become a teacher. I reported for a daily newspaper in Kansas for three years, then got a big break by being hired as the managing editor of a new magazine called Country Kids being started by Reiman Publications in Greendale. This gave me the chance to do a lot of writing for children.
The magazine lasted only about a year because circulation didn't rise quickly enough, but from there I went to Golden Books in Racine. I worked for Golden Books 12 years managing, editing and writing coloring and activity books. When the company moved to New York, I began my career as a full-time freelance children's writer. So as strange as it may seem, losing my job with Golden Books turned into an opportunity to have the most fulfilling career of my life!
OMC: So, clearly you've written a few books by now.
JH: "Little Skink's Tail," illustrated by Laurie Allen Klein and published by Sylvan Dell Publishing, is my 28th book, but my first fiction picture book, so it is extra special; a dream many years in the making.
Most of my books are on animals and nature. I grew up on a small crop and dairy farm in mid-Michigan, and I got my love of nature from my parents, especially my father who was what I call a "farmer's farmer." He loved animals and the land and that love rubbed off on me.
OMC: How did the idea germinate for this book? Did you have a lesson you wanted to convey and concocted the story to fit that or was the story there first?
JH: No, I didn't have a lesson in mind. I wrote the book mostly for fun and to introduce kids to the world of the skink and its amazing blue tail. I got the idea while I was researching a factual book I wrote about lizards.
I was fascinated by the number of lizards that snap off their tails to escape an enemy. I was especially fascinated by the young of lizards called skinks, which often have flashy, bright blue tails that twitch while hunting. Enemies notice the flash of color first and attack the tail rather than the little skink's body or head. The youngster escapes tailless, but alive. And the tail grows back! Right away, I knew that this little skink with the twitching blue tail had a story to tell.
When I started the story, I knew that Little Skink would lose her tail and that it would grow back by the end of the story. But what would happen in between? As I pondered the missing tail along with Little Skink, I remembered how our four children and now our grandchildren love to play dress-up and pretend. Like them, Little Skink soon began pretending, trying on the tails of all the animals in the forest. As I wrote, I pictured our granddaughter Monae dancing about, showing off each tail. Earlier research on animal tails for another project also came into play.
My favorite part of writing the story was figuring out what Little Skink would say about each tail. I've always loved language and playing with words, so coming up with "puffy-fluffy" and "stickly-prickly" to describe the tails was pure joy!
JH: The story encourages children to be comfortable with themselves as they are. But this message came about completely on its own as the story unfolded. I didn't plan it or have this message in mind at all. But I'm very happy and proud that this message of diversity became part of the story.
I think kids reading or hearing "Little Skink's Tail" will most of all have fun. Kids find it very humorous seeing Little Skink in a squirrel's or an owl's tail. They also are very concerned about Little Skink and how things will turn out for her after she loses her tail. At the same time, kids will learn a bit of science. They¹ll learn about where and how skinks live, who lives with them, and what skinks do to defend themselves.
OMC: What do you think makes a good book for kids? How do writers find something that will resonate with young readers?
JH: I think a children's book has to be first of all a good story. Kids have to want to read or hear a picture book over and over again. I think in many ways I'm still a kid at heart. So I hope that what I find captivating and exciting, kids will find captivating and exciting, too. We have four grown children and four grandchildren, so I have a well of "kid" inspiration to draw from, including my own childhood on a farm in mid-Michigan. And now, I have the added inspiration of all the kids coming to hear me read "Little Skink's Tail"!
OMC: Do you have an all-time favorite children's book?
JH: Many of my favorite children's books are the ones that I read over and over again with my children. I suspect they are favorites not only for the stories but for the wonderful memories associated with them. A few of them are: "Harry the Dirty Dog," "Horton Hatches the Egg," "The Monster at the End of This Book," "Elihu the Musical Gnu" and the Beatrix Potter stories. Some recent favorites are "Kitten's First Full Moon," "Cardinal and Sunflower" and "Freedom Riders."
OMC: Do you think people are reading to children like they ought to?
JH: It is so important for adults to read to children. It¹s important for the kids because reading opens so many worlds to them and helps them to become good readers. Children who can read well have a great advantage in school and throughout their lives. But reading is also important for the caregivers. A child and a caregiver enjoying a story together is one of the best bonding experiences ever. I don't know if caregivers are reading less today, but I think if caregivers enjoy reading to children, they'll have plenty of eager children crowding around to listen.
OMC: Can you tell us what you're working on next?
JH: I have a picture book biography, "Seven Miles to Freedom, the Robert Smalls Story." for ages 7 to 12 coming out this spring from Lee & Low Books. It's the story of a slave who was the pilot of a Confederate gunboat in Charleston Harbor during the Civil War. As the pilot, he learned the secret signals for passing the forts in the harbor. Then early one morning he and the crew picked up their families and sneaked the boat out to the Union fleet that had set up a blockade outside the harbor. For the rest of the Civil War, Robert Smalls worked as a civilian pilot for the Union and later served five terms in Congress.
I also have another picture book, "Bewitching the Chickadees," published by Windstorm Creative, coming out in 2008, which my daughter Laura Halfmann is illustrating. It's her first time illustrating a book, and we're both extremely excited.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.