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A scene from "Little Skink's Tail."

Halfmann weaves a tale of tails

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!

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