This month, I’m thrilled to share my conversation with another incredible debut author, Heather Gale. I invite you to read along as Heather and I talk about her incredible and timely non-fiction picture book HO’ONANI HULA WARRIOR. Everything about this book is as wonderful and inspiring as the foodspiration you’ll find at the end of the interview! Yep, I just dropped a teaser there! Read on to learn about this book’s unexpected path to publication (and a STARRED REVIEW!)
Welcome, Heather! Before we get started, can I get you something to drink? Oh, thanks so much, Jennifer. I’d love my favorite if you have it – fresh mint leaves in hot water! And if you have a fresh slice of ginger that’s a great combination too.
Of course, coming right up! That sounds wonderfully refreshing, in a warm and cozy kind of way. I’ll have one too! Since we have some creative wiggle-room here, I’ll get fresh mint leaves from my imaginary herb garden. (Also since we’re imagining things, I’m pretending its not 90 degrees outside; such is fall in the south.)
Reading your bio, it mentions you fell in love with your family telling stories on long car trips. What kind of stories did you all love the most? Was there ever a recurring theme or character? Yes, we had both. When we were younger most of our characters were farm animals and my brother usually added a stinky smell to his. And, except for the storyteller, all of us had to hold our breath until he declared the smell gone. On hindsight, we must have all cheated. Once we moved to a haunted house, we were a little older and our stories expanded. As you can imagine, with four brothers we used to try and out-scare each other.
I carried on the story telling tradition with my sons, with some changes, mostly because we no longer lived in a small town or a scary house. We took turns so no one else knew where or when each chapter would end. And some stories had an ever-lasting feel with many of them returning for a new series and extra characters.
I love everything about this! I never considered myself a ‘story teller’ but everything changed when I had kids of my own. Amazing things happen when you give them a blank to fill in with their own imagination. I could go on, but back to the book! You had a very unusual journey to publication with the idea stemming from a documentary. How did you channel all of the information and inspiration into a picture book manuscript? You’re so right, this isn’t a traditional debut journey, but I loved every moment of it. I respected Joe Wilson and Dean Hammer’s authenticity in A Place in the Middle and wanted that same feeling woven through the story for kids to also sense. I also wanted multiple layers of culture, society, families, and respect.
Then, I needed three escalating obstacles. Once those were in place, it was time to dig deeper for the emotions. I watched the documentary over and over again, picking up character traits and facial expressions. That’s when I put pen to paper and started my draft.
I can see why Ho’onani’s story spoke to you, it’s so timely and important. I have a daughter and two sons and we speak often about authenticity and acceptance. (We also talk frequently about the importance of supporting each other as siblings, which is another great lesson from the story.)
I have a favorite question to ask non-fiction writers… What’s your favorite nugget of information that didn’t make it into the book? One of my biggest nuggets was Kumu Hina’s all-important role in the story. As a Mahu herself, Kumu Hina understood Ho’onani’s predicament more than anyone at school. In the documentary A Place in the Middle she reminded the troupe of their strengths, encouraging them through honesty and respect. So, you can imagine how ecstatic I was to find Mika Song’s illustrations exemplified Kumu Hina’s integrity.
I would like to include a link to Kumu Hina’s Ted Talk for your readers. Here Kumu Hina discusses the inner turmoil of her journey. You will gain an understanding and appreciation for what it was like for Kumu Hina to be Mahu, a person in the middle, neither male or, female but both. Watch the video here!
What a wonderful treasure to share! And yes, Mika Song’s art is equal parts powerful and peaceful. Can we talk a little about your experience collaborating with her? I know you had a mental image of what the characters should look like, but what was it like when you saw them on paper? I was fortunate to be part of Mika’s process from the beginning so there are three parts to this. When I saw Mika’s early sketches, I knew in that instant, her heart was in the story as much as mine. Then, when I saw the watercolors and had the chance to study each person’s face I knew Mika had enjoyed illustrating this story as much as I had writing it. And as I opened my first copy of the book I wept. The illustrations were more than I had ever dreamed they could have been. My kids filmed the grand opening and I couldn’t see the pages – the illustrations were swimming before me!
What I adore most in the illustrations are the details. How Ho’onani’s parents hold hands on the first page to her determination as she faced the crowd, her biggest obstacle, to the last page showing the person Ho’onani knew she always was.
In the spirit of honesty, I cry every time I read this book. (All good tears!) The refrain, “Strong, sure and steady,” shows up a few times and is one of my favorite parts of the story. Was it always written that way in your manuscript or did it evolve during the revision process? Strong, sure and steady were in the manuscript from the beginning and they represent the three qualities I admired in Ho’onani as a person. She is a strong character who stands by her beliefs. She is sure about her place as a Mahu and steady, never wavering from her decisions or commitments.
Do you have an agent or did you negotiate this contract yourself?
I negotiated this contract myself but it probably helped that I knew what I wanted and needed. For example, from the beginning I promised the producers of A Place in the Middle that, should I ever sell this story, they would remain part of the process.
Penguin Random House’s contract was straight forward and whenever I had a question, my editor, Samantha Swenson, found the answer.
Do you have marketing plans now that your book is finally out in the wild? I do! My publicist, Samantha Devotta, at Tundra Books and I have brainstormed many ideas. She’s been wonderful, always there for any marketing ideas I send along. So far, I’m booking interviews, library Story Time for kids and school visits.
And I have to ask, you live in Canada (SO FAR from the islands), but you grew up in New Zealand. I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed anyone who lived on such opposite ends of the world! Where is your favorite place on the planet? I have so many favorite places it’s hard to choose one, however, I love Portugal as the lifestyle reminds me of NZ, taking the dogs day down the bush ravines in Toronto reminds me of NZ, and while at the cottage on the lake . . . yup you guessed it, I’m reminded of NZ.
Do you have anything else coming down the pipe? Where can my readers find/follow you on social media? I’m working on several manuscripts right now, one which is submitted to a conference for this October. It’s another non-fiction picture book based on a true story about an autistic boy who learns through string how to overcome exclusion because he is different.
Also, For readers who are interested in exploring more behind Ho’onani: Hula Warrior, I’d like to add a link to the documentary A Place in the Middle.
There is so much goodness right there, I don’t even know where to start! Maybe check out her gorgeous food photos, find inspiration for a snack, then settle in with the documentary! Thanks so much for being here, Heather! I can’t wait to watch the rest of the world love Ho’onani!
There are few things I love as much as celebrating picture books and the success of my kidlit friends! I hope you love this book as much as I do.
Thanks for reading, come back anytime!