Kristi Yamaguchi is Dedicated to Reading–And Writing

GUEST POST by  SARAH S. BRANNEN

Like many children’s book writers and illustrators, I have a second job: I cover figure skating for icenetwork.com and Skating Magazine. Mostly, I interview famous skaters like Olympic champions Dorothy Hamill, Brian Boitano and Peggy Fleming. When I talked to Kristi Yamaguchi recently about her children’s books, I was quite surprised to discover that we have the same editor.

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Sarah Brannen’s latest book

My new picture book, Madame Martine, was published September 1 by Albert Whitman & Company. Editor Kelly Barrales-Saylor was a delight to work with, putting her editorial finger right on the spots that needed work. The finished book, about a little old lady in Paris who finds a lost dog and discovers a new outlook on life, is very much the better for her help.

Barrales-Saylor told me that she worked on both of Yamaguchi’s books when she was at Sourcebooks. She hired Tim Bowers, the illustrator for the first book, Dream Big, Little Pig, and also collaborated with Yamaguchi and acquiring editor Rebecca Frazer on the text. On the second book, It’s a Big World, Little Pig, she worked closely with both Yamaguchi and Bowers.

Kristi Yamaguchi's latest book

Kristi Yamaguchi’s latest book

“Kristi had some great input on the artwork and gave us visual references for skating poses and even for some of the outfits the characters were wearing,” Barrales-Saylor told me. “I had so much fun working on both books. Kristi is a dream to work with.”

Yamaguchi told me she first felt the impulse to write a children’s book when reading to her children at bedtime. Yamaguchi and her husband, NHL hockey player Bret Hedican, have two daughters, Keara and Emma.

“I had always been interested in writing a children’s book someday,” Yamaguchi said. “The ultimate factor was becoming a mom. We tried to make reading part of the bedtime routine, and I guess like any mom, reading the same books over and over, I thought, ‘Okay, I’d like to do one for you.’”

Writing about a figure skater seemed like an obvious choice; less obvious was that the skater would be a pig named Poppy. Yamaguchi, born in the Year of the Pig, had collected lucky pigs as a skater, and her favorite book as a child was Charlotte’s Web.

Like any beginner, Yamaguchi quickly learned about the realities of writing picture books.

“I learned they’re not as simple as you think they are!” she said. “The time, and what goes into not just writing, but editing, working with the designer at the publisher, and the layout… I was lucky I guess, I got to approve the illustrations and have a little input. Especially on the second book, they let me have a little leeway, that made it a lot of fun.”

Kristi Yamaguchi shares her book with some fans.

Kristi Yamaguchi shares her book with some fans.

As a member of a minority community, Yamaguchi is interested in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign. She hinted that her third book, still in progress, will be about a character who is differently-abled.

“I think diversity is important,” she said. “I’ve been a little more exposed to it, being Japanese-American. We have several books that are Japanese stories, or folk stories that my kids are familiar with. I think diversity is something that kids can’t be too young to be exposed to. In the third book, I’m introducing diversity in people’s abilities.”

In addition to writing, Yamaguchi is deeply involved with her Always Dream Foundation. When Dream Big, Little Pig was published, she decided to focus the foundation’s mission on early childhood literacy. The Always Reading program partners with a national literacy organization called Raising A Reader.

“Students receive a book bag every week and take it home,” Yamaguchi said. “The parents are encouraged to sit down with the kids and read. We incorporated tablets preloaded with 15 to 20 e-books. The kids will be not only exposed to the technology, but hopefully also get inspired or encouraged to look at books even more.”

The Always Reading program is currently in twelve schools throughout the Bay Area in northern California. Yamaguchi says that they will launch in Arizona and Hawaii in the coming year, and she wants to expand into more schools in more states.

“We want to get into more areas where it’s needed,” she said. “We focus on underserved areas. I think our ultimate goal is to get kids off on the right foot. Just knowing the statistics of literacy in our country, there’s plenty to work on right here.”

Yamaguchi says her favorite part of the whole process is reading her books to children and seeing their reactions. I agree with her, and I’m trying to generate some more school visits for myself. I love meeting kids and reading and drawing with them. It’s fun to share behind-the-scenes stories about book-making, and I always tell them secret things about my books that no one else knows.

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As for Madame Martine, I’m working with the publisher on a surprise. Before long, readers will have the chance to learn something new about Madame Martine’s trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Follow me on Twitter @SarahBrannen, and watch for the hashtag #MadameMartinesNewThings.

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What’s new for Madame Martine?

Sarah_Brannen_photo_2aSarah S. Brannen has illustrated over fifteen books for children. She is the author and illustrator of Madame Martine (Whitman) and Uncle Bobby’s Wedding (G. P. Putnam’s Sons). Uncle Bobby’s Wedding received extensive publicity upon publication; it was the eighth most-challenged book in the US in 2008. Sarah received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University and her Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She has been writing and illustrating children’s books since 2001. Forthcoming books include The Fox and the Grapes (Sterling, 2014).