Friendship First: An Interview with Matthew Stein

friendship first interviewYes, we have an interview with *that* Matthew Stein. Author of the best-selling books When Tech Fails and When Disaster Strikes, and columnist for the Huffington Post.

Bet you didn’t know that he is also a children’s book author? Yep. Mat finished out 2013 celebrating his first children’s book Geronimo the Frog.

Here we’ll talk about the origins of Geronimo the Frog and some of Mat’s favorite children’s books. Readers interested in learning more about the book’s back story, as well as Mat’s publishing journey can read more of our interview on The Reading Tub® website.

Friendship First

RT: I am sure everyone is wondering why I chose “friendship first” for our interview title, so let me start there. When I read Geronimo the Frog, I saw two main themes: conservation and friendship. If you had to pick one primary theme what would it be? and why?

Mat: friendship - geronimo the frogI would say that devotion to friends in the face of danger or adversity. No matter which profession or path one might choose, we cannot do it alone. Perseverance, bravery, and teamwork are what guide us to success in life.

Due to the current record-breaking acceleration of the loss of critical habitats and biodiversity, there is no doubt that caring for Mother Earth is critical to the survival of the planet as we know it.

However, all that caring for the planet will have little effect without a solid foundation to empower each other. That sense of “we’re in this together” is essential for transforming the motivation of caring into the reality of effective actions.

RT: How does a guy who lives in the High Sierra Mountains know enough about the Great Cypress Swamp to make it the setting for a bedtime story for his daughter?

geronimo the frogMat: The main story line just sort of popped into my head one day when my daughter was 3 or 4 years old. Right from day one, the story took place in a swamp in Florida.It’s not like I am an expert on Florida ecosystems.

I just knew that a Florida swampland was where I wanted my story to take place. I contacted a Seminole elder for advice about the animal characters, and she suggested the Great Cypress Swamp.

RT: The Great Cypress Swamp is in Florida, home of the Seminole Nation. Did that element ever factor into your thinking when you were naming Geronimo and his animal friends?

Mat: I had always known that I would give my animal characters authentic Native American names, even if (at the time) I wasn’t sure which tribe was endemic to Florida! What I didn’t know was how fate would intervene.

Like many of us do, I was going over recent events in my head as I was boarding the plane. I kept thinking about being pulled out of a sound sleep the night before, and that “calling” to get Geronimo on paper. In the seat next to me was a striking older lady who was wearing a large quantity of exquisite Indian jewelry. When I noticed that she was carrying a book on Indian sign language, I struck up a conversation. She related that she was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, a college professor, and author of the book she was holding in her hands.

I told her about the strange events of the night before, waking up with the a voice in my head screaming “Stop procrastinating and write Geronimo down NOW!” I told her Geronimo’s story and asked if she had any suggestions for how I might find the Native American names for the characters.

She told me that she had just visited the Seminole Indian reservation in Florida.. She also said that it was obvious to her that our meeting was more than coincidental,and that my story and our meeting must have been due to a higher inspiration and purpose. Long story short, I contacted her Seminole friends, who graciously provided me with names for the animals in my story.

RT: Geronimo’s back story is just fascinating. When I read the Cherokee elder’s comments that your meeting wasn’t a coincidence, it gave me goose bumps. I wasn’t there and it happened years ago. When you were there in the moment, did you have that sense? and how did that feel? 

Mat: At that moment, on the plane together, I truly sensed that some higher power had arranged our meeting. To me it was obvious that the same power that had yanked me out of a sound sleep and instructed me to “Stop procrastinating and write Geronimo down, NOW!” had also somehow prearranged serendipitous events that led to an elderly Cherokee woman writing a personal letter of introduction to the Seminole tribal elders who ultimately provided me with authentic Seminole names for the animal characters in my book.

The odds are probably many millions to one against this occurrence happening by pure chance. It also conflicts with my scientific background (BSME, MIT, 1978) and upbringing (I was raised Jewish, but without any real spirituality). When it happened, though, I had already witnessed several powerful spiritual experiences that radically altered my core beliefs. So despite my scientific, MIT-trained mind it was not hard for me to accept this type of serendipitous event as being inspired by some kind of unseen higher power.

RT: At the time you decided to make Geronimo a picture book hero, did you research any children’s books to see what was out there and what was popular? If yes, can you share what you learned?

Mat: We read lots of books to both our son (now 38) and daughter (approaching 30) when they were little. Most of our/their favorite books were longer children’s books that had detailed plots and quirky characters.

everyone knows what a dragon looks like

  • The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein;
  • Herbert the Timid DragonBeauty and the Beast, and Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like by Mercer Mayer and various partners;
  • Higgelty Pigglety Pop, In the Night Kitchen, and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak;
  • The Rainbow Goblins by Ul de Rico;

Rainbow Goblins

  • Is Your Mama a Llama by Deborah Guarino and Stephen Kellog;
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballsby Judi and Ronald Barrett; and
  • Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola.

And, of course, the timeless Dr Seuss Books (too numerous to list individual titles here).

By the time I decided to turn Geronimo into a book, its story line was mostly set, though I did develop a number of details during the process of committing Geronimo to paper. Deciding on the artwork took several weeks.

I spent a great deal of time searching through a wide variety of children’s books. I discovered that I did not like the simplified “babyish” artwork of some of the picture books. I was drawn to the more intricate, classically beautiful or humorous artwork in the books that we had loved sharing with our children. I also collected and passed around samples of artwork from various artists to friends and family for their comments and opinions.

RT: That is an awesome list of books. Lots of variety and yet similar, too. What was your daughter’s reaction when she saw the book that first time?

Mat: Our daughter was a big reader as a child. Reading those books were as fun for us, as they were for her. During grade school she became more interested in ballet than reading. Sigh!

Elisha was quite excited to see the book! When I mentioned last winter that I was considering working with CreateSpace and commissioning an artist for illustrations, my daughter was the most enthusiastic. She encouraged me to pursue the project.

We don’t yet have grandchildren, but Elisha’s childhood friend Marissa (who heard many of the stories) is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her copy of Geronimo so she can read it to her 3-year-old daughter.

RT: It is so neat to hear about childhood friendships that last into adulthood. I often hear from authors that they were readers as kids, but then they “moved away” from pleasure reading when they got to high school and beyond. What about you? Do you enjoy reading? what kinds of things to you like? 

Mat: In high school I had the good fortune to take several honors literature classes from a top-notch teacher (Millie Aiken). We read really terrific books that were both inspiring and interesting. To some extent I continued this trend in college, studying the literature of Herman Hesse for a semester at MIT’s Experimental Study Group (ESG). Between my studies, athletics, and making pottery at the Student Art Association, I had little time for fun reading except during breaks from school.

After college, I read a fair amount of fiction for a short while. After a series of powerful spiritual experiences, starting with one in my freshman year at MIT, I began reading spiritual books to help make some sense out of those experiences. Even today, I am more interested in reading nonfiction than fiction.

RT: Our last question. Thinking about friendship, if you could introduce Geronimo to one of your favorite book characters, who would it be and why?

Mat: I would introduce Geronimo to the feisty princess in Herbert the Timid Dragon. Herbert is probably my all-time favorite children’s books! It is such a pity that it is now out of print. They are both tough characters with an attitude, who won’t take any guff from anyone, and I think they would get along splendidly and enjoy a very good friendship!

RT: Mat, we are so glad you stopped by. Thank you for sharing your own reading story and best of luck with Geronimo the Frog.

Mat: Thanks, Terry. I enjoyed being here.

- Interior Images of Geronimo the Frog Copyright Matthew Stein. Used with permission of the author.
- This post contains affiliate links.

Fun with Words – Reading with Kids

reading with kids fun with wordsIn our first collection of Reading with Kids ideas, we shared our suggestions for books with sounds we love. From animal voices to transportation sounds, we have a little bit of everything.

Today it is all about having fun with words. Silly words. Made-up words Words that sound like you have marbles in your mouth. Words that are tongue twisters all by themselves.

The best part? When you’re having fun with words, there is no right or wrong pronunciation. The sillier the better. Who knows, you and your kids may even coin your own new word!

Rhyming words are another way to have fun with words. We love books in rhyme, and this collection has a few of those, too. Just not with the usual vocabulary.

Fun with Words – Just 4 U

wumbers amy kraus rosenthalWumbers
by Amy Kraus Rosenthal; illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
Chronicle Books, 2012

Letter + Number words are not just for custom license plates .. or texting! They are gr8 fun in picture books, too.

Pick Wumbers (or CDB! by William Steig) for your word-loving curious reader. The word + number combinations let the young readers use big, multi-syllable words that they wouldn’t know how to decipher otherwise. Bonus: Even more developed readers (the ones who think they’re “too old” for picture books) will spend some time laughing when they see the guy with the tat2s.

more word +  number ideas @ The Reading Tub


Hiccupotamus by Aaron Zenz

The Hiccupotamus
written and illustrated by Aaron Zenz
Two Lions, 2009

What do you do when you hiccups get in the way of spending time with your friends? And what do your friends do to help get rid of your hiccups? And what happens when there is a hiccup in your plans?

Action-filled illustrations beg you to read the story out loud, and silly rhymes make you glad you did. There are plenty of made-up words, and as one mom told us “I thought the made-up words would trip up my third grader. She quickly parsed them and then rebuilt them. This turned out to be a great exercise in making language work.”

more mixed-up word fun @ The Reading Tub


fun with words poetryMy Dog May Be a Genius
written by Jack Prelutsky; illustrated by James Stevenson
Greenwillow Books, 2008

Poetry comes in all shapes and sizes. There are funny words, made up words, picture words, and silly stories that focus on anything and everything kids love to talk and think about.

Anthologies (collections of stories and/or poems) are a great choice when you want a book with choices. There is rarely a specified order, so kids can pick and read (or have you read) whatever tickles their funny bone.

more wordplay fun @ The Reading Tub

Your Turn

What books are in your fun with words collection? Got a favorite silly or made-up word … we’d love to hear it!

Happy New Year – Ringing in 2014 with the Cybils

Happy  New Year!

cybils happy new year post

Midnight shmidnight …

The best way to ring in a happy new year is to celebrate all of the children’s and young adult books on the CYBILS shortlist!

We are introducing the finalists in the Easy Reader and Early Chapter Book Category here, and we hope you’ll join the celebration.

  • Pop over to the CYBILS blog to see the shortlists for your favorites in the other 10 categories!
  • Share your #Cybils love on Twitter.

Without further ado … oh, wait! Before I go on I want to thank my most awesomest panel -

O.K. So NOW without futher ado … Happy New Year! Here are the finalists for the 2013 CYBILS in the Easy Reader and Early Chapter Books categories.

Easy Reader Blurbs

mo willems easy readerA Big Guy Took My Ball (Elephant and Piggie)
written and illustrated by Mo Willems (Hyperion)

nominated by Danielle Smith, There’s a Book
blurb by Jennifer @ Jean Little Library

Elephant and Piggie are back, bigger, and better than ever! When Piggie’s beloved new ball get stolen by a mysterious “big guy” it’s Elephant to the rescue! Until he sees just…how…BIG that big guy is! It’s all about perspective in this latest in Mo Willems’ easy reader series, since only the master of the simple form could convey to young readers the idea that it’s all in how you look at it. Has Piggie’s ball been stolen, or is she the thief? Is the big guy a bully, or just a lonely guy looking for a friend?

As always, Willems conveys humor and heart with simple lines and clever layout. The pitch-perfect timing of the storyline will have parents and children alike giggling together and maybe taking a little lesson on friendship away as well. Elephant and Piggie is the perfect choice for beginning readers, with the limited text and minimal illustrations and A Big Guy Took My Ball is another winner in a long line of delightful entries in this popular series.

joe and sparky booksJoe and Sparky Go to School
by Jamie Michalek, illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz (Candlewick Press)

Nominated by Bigfoot Reads
blurb by Jennifer @ Jean Little Library

In the classic easy reader odd-couple style, Joe is a giraffe who’s always curious and eager for new situations. Sparky is a turtle who just wants to sit in the sun and relax. But no matter what crazy trouble Joe gets them into, they are still friends and they make it through together.

Joe and Sparky’s silly adventures will delight kids who get the insider jokes about school. The illustrations are bright and really pop with Joe’s bright yellows and splashes of green and blue, while the text is just right for an emerging reader ready for something a little more difficult than Elephant and Piggie or Fly Guy, but not quite ready for early chapters yet. Joe and Sparky’s adventures combine the best of classic easy readers with a contemporary humorous flair and attractive art that will keep kids reading and giggling.

Love is in the air easy readerLove Is in the Air (Penguin Young Readers, Level 2)
written and illustrated by Jonathan Fenske (Penguin)

Nominated by Katie Fitzgerald, Secrets and Sharing Soda
blurb by Laura Purdie Salas @

Love Is in the Air navigates the ups and inevitable downs of friendship in a completely fresh way. Balloon is depressed after a birthday party, but a gust of wind brings along a new friend, Kite. Their whirlwind friendship is challenged by their inherent differences, but they overcome the obstacles. Kite is there to cushion Balloon’s hard times, and friendship wins out.

In just more than 200 very accessible words, this book celebrates friendship while offering new readers great drama. Word and phrase repetition supports beginning readers, and there are many opportunities for prediction. Touches of rhyme and the terrific word choices make this book rise above much of the standard beginning reader fare. Love Is in the Air will leave you floating on Cloud 9.

penny and her marblePenny and Her Marble (I Can Read, Level 1)
written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow Books)

Nominated by Linda Baie, Teacher Dance
Deb Nance @ ReaderBuzz 

While out for a stroll with her doll, Penny spots a marble in her neighbor’s yard. It is a shiny blue marble, and Penny instantly falls in love with it. Impulsively, Penny nabs the marble. And almost immediately, she is filled with regret and remorse and anguish. Should she have taken the marble? she asks herself. Has she done the wrong thing? Should she return it?

Kevin Henkes has done it again. He has dropped us right inside the mind and heart of a small child. He has bestowed on us a main character so genuine, so palpable, and so human that she might be playing right now in the house next door to us. In Penny we see a child who is all at once both self-seeking and generous, both gently naughty and deeply contrite, a child who, yes, might take something that isn’t hers and yet who also has the courage to return something taken to its rightful owner. A charming little story with big ideas for small people. All told in a mere forty-eight pages.

meanest birthday girlThe Meanest Birthday Girl
written and illustrated by Josh Schneider (Clarion Books)

Nominated by LoriA
blurb by Danyelle Leach, Bookshelves in the Cul-de-Sac

Since it is Dana’s birthday, she can do whatever she likes. Besides wearing her favorite dress and eating her favorite breakfast, what she likes to do is call Anthony an “ickaborse,” pinch him, and eat his dessert. But Dana’s attitude changes after Anthony surprises her with a birthday gift–an elephant with toenails painted her favorite color.

This story for independent beginning readers delivers its anti-meanness message with a huge helping of humor. The contrast between expressive line work and an understated, matter-of-fact text is genuinely funny. Details like toy ponies, Dana’s bandaged leg, and the book she reads to her elephant (You’ll Be Sorry) infuse the cartoon illustrations with bits of realism and add interest without overpowering the main story line. The story comes full circle with a final, hilarious twist that will leave readers laughing at this unconventional way of dealing with bullies.

big bad wolfUrgency Emergency! The Big Bad Wolf
written and illustrated by Dosh Archer (Albert Whitman & Company)

Nominated by Terry Doherty, Family Bookshelf
blurb by Jodie Rodriguez, Growing Book by Book 

City Hospital just received a choking wolf patient. A lost little girl in a red coat has just been found. She says she was looking for her missing grandma. Hmmm….what could that wolf patient have devoured that is causing him to choke? Will Nurse Percy be able to overcome his fear of wolves and help Doctor Glenda save the day?

This fast-paced easy reader will draw beginning readers in with the bright color illustrations on each page. Readers can draw on their background knowledge and text connection with the story of Little Red Riding Hood to help identify some of the characters in this twisted story. This humorous tale will have readers laughing from start to finish.

Early Chapter Book Blurbs

dragonbreath toxic mutantsDragonbreath #9: The Case of the Toxic Mutants
written and illustrated by Ursula Vernon (Dial)

Nominated by Sarah the Librarian
blurb by Jennifer @ Jean Little Library

Ursula Vernon is as wackily hilarious as ever in this ninth installment in the Dragonbreath series, featuring Danny Dragonbreath (the only mythical creature in a school of reptiles, who’s still working on his fire-breathing skills), his friend Wendell (complete geek, afflicted with a health food-addicted mother and a best friend who likes, ugh, adventures), and his frenemy Christiana (super logical, doesn’t believe in dragons. Or fairies, even after the whole kidnapping episode). Their investigation of the theft of Grandfather Turlingsward’s dentures is sprinkled with snarky asides on everything from pre-regulation hospital toxic waste to respecting (or not, as the case may be) the elderly.

Vernon’s unique humor and characters will attract young readers looking for fantasy, adventure, and humor. The inclusion of illustrations, comic panels, and speech bubbles will encourage readers who might not feel ready for a longer chapter book. Start your Dragonbreath experience with this latest installment or go back to the beginning and enjoy the whole series from sea monsters to mutants!

home sweet horrorHome Sweet Horror (Scary Tales)
by James Preller, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno (Feiwel and Friends)

Nominated by Jennifer, Jean Little Library
blurb by Laura Purdie Salas,

Where can a young reader find a good scare these days? There’s a shortage of keep-all-the-lights-on early chapter books, which makes Home Sweet Horror extra sweet. If you can call a book sweet that features a ramshackle house, eerie scratchboard art, and slumber party crasher Bloody Mary. Eight-year-old Liam is fighting grief, big family changes, creepy noises in the basement, and a dangerous, ghostly villain.

This plot-centered story has an emotional core, too, and it’s a satisfying and creepy read for all your thrill-seekers. There’s some leeway for a logical explanation of events, but, really, it’s just a darn good ghost story! Sit down, buckle up your courage, and enjoy the read!

Kelsey Green Reading QueenKelsey Green, Reading Queen (Franklin School Friends)
by Claudia Mills, illustrated by Rob Shepperson (Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers)

Nominated by Linda Baie, Teacher Dance
blurb by Jodie Rodriguez, Growing Book by Book 

Author Claudia Mills introduces us to her first young readers’ book in the Franklin School Friends series. This funny story of the joy of reading begins with the reader being introduced to Kelsey Green. Kelsey considers herself the best reader in the third grade. In fact, she is obsessed with reading!

When Principal Boone announces a school-wide reading contest, Kelsey is determined to lead her class to victory. But, how will her class win a pizza party and special certificates if some classmates don’t want to read or work on winning the contest? And then there is Simon, who might be lying about the number of books he read just to try and beat Kelsey’s reading record. Kelsey learns a lot about her classmates in her quest to win. Which class will win the party? Will Kelsey be the top reader in her class? Does principal Boone shave his beard? Young readers will be chuckling throughout the story to see how it ends!

Young readers will identify with Kelsey, her excitement, and the pressure of school contests in this realistic story. A black-and-white illustration in each chapter helps the reader to visualize story details. Young readers learn about all the different kinds of readers each class holds. Readers even walk away with a reading list of books they can read just like Kelsey!

The Life of Ty: Penguin Problems Life of Ty penguin problems
by Lauren Myracle, illustrated by Jed Henry (Dutton Juvenile)

Nominated by Melissa Fox, Book Nut
blurb by Diana Pettis, Find a Book Guided Reading 

Many children will relate to Ty’s sense of adventure especially when seeing him on a class trip at the aquarium. Ty is likable and readers will be able to connect with how this seven year old views the world due to the changes that are occurring in his family. A new baby sister changes the time that Ty’s mom can spend with him. This causes anxiety and frustration for Ty when his mother is tired with the demands of having a new baby in the family. His school routine changes because his older sister, Sandra has to drive him. His best friend is currently in the hospital with cancer (Ty visits him once and gets his help.) Although a change occurs when Ty finds the penguin exhibit on his class trip and a new plan emerges in his mind.

As you read this story about Ty and his family you’ll see how Ty’s family comes together when he needs their help the most. This is a great beginning chapter book at only 128 pages with illustrations that highlight Ty’s adventures and will have the reader asking for more.

Lulu and the Dog from the Sea Lulu and the Dog from the Sea
by By Hilary McKay (Albert Whitman & Company)

Nominated by lwad, Provo Library Children’s Book Reviews
blurb by Janssen Bradshaw, Everyday Reading

Lulu loves animals of all shapes and sizes. So it’s no surprise that, while on a family beach vacation, she is determined to make friends with the dog everyone has warned her is trouble. Lulu and the Dog from the Sea is perfectly-paced, sprinkled with gentle humor, and home to realistic and lovable characters, both human and canine. Filled with charming illustrations, this early chapter book will appeal to animal lovers of all ages. Even those of us who don’t wish to bring home a stray dog will be rooting for Lulu and her unlikely new friend.

Violet Mackerel’s Natural Habitat (Violet Mackerel)violet mackerel books
by Anna Branford; illustrated by Elanna Allen (Atheneum Books for Young Readers)

Nominated by Mary McKenna Siddals
blurb by Danyelle Leach, Bookshelves in the Cul-de-Sac

In this third book from the Violet Mackerel series, Violet wants to help small things. Unfortunately, her attempt to help a ladybug by giving it a new home (complete with tinsel, a wishing stone, and cheese-on-toast) ends in disaster. Talking about her mistake with her big sister, Nicola, makes Violet realize that an animal should be left in its natural habitat and sparks an idea that is truly helpful.

Violet’s personality permeates every one of the 100 pages in this short book. Glimpses of her inner world, along with plentiful black-and-white illustrations, radiate seven-year-old charm.The relationship between Violet and her sister is authentic and refreshingly supportive as Nicola helps Violet face realistic consequences. Large font size, generous margins, frequent illustrations, and an engaging story make this perfect for readers who are just ready to make the jump to chapter books.

 Happy New Year!

It is a happy new year indeed! Not just for the authors, illustrators, and publishers of children’s and young adult books, but for readers, too! Here’s to a happy new year of great reading!