Friday, April 22, 2016

The Kid from Diamond Street: Author Interview with Audrey Vernick

It's no secret that Audrey Vernick is one of my favorite authors. In fact, of all the authors works I have talked about and reviewed here on my blog, her work shows up the most. So when her new picture book came out, I knew I had to interview her. As someone who isn't a fan of baseball, I'm always amazed at how much I become a fan inside the pages of an Audrey Vernick book. And after reading this interview, she continues to make me eke out some admiration for this sport just a little bit more. 


In looking at your body of work and knowing you personally, baseball is clearly a passion of yours. I have said many times that the only time I care about baseball is when I'm reading your books. So I'm just going to rip the band aid off right off the bat (pun intended). Why baseball? Convince this doubting Thomas.

Photo courtesy of Audrey's author website
Well, no. You can’t convince someone. I only know this because no one could convince me to watch and love any other sport. But I can tell you what I love. The room/space/time in a game (which is probably the very thing other people don’t like). It’s the only team sport not played on a clock. Baseball leaves room for your mind to wander, allows me to think back, remember, look ahead, make connections.

So there’s that.

There’s also something magical about being witness to certain events. Two old Yankee Stadium memories I cherish—the Home Run Derby that Josh Hamilton didn’t win but in which he hit home runs that had every Yankee fan screaming and gasping and high-fiving strangers while screaming “HAM-IL-TON!” We were cheering on a Texas Ranger! And I get chills whenever I remember being in the house for Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit.

There’s also the beauty of a strike-‘em-out/throw-em-out double play.

And grown men jumping like boys, joy radiating off them in nearly visible waves.

I love how you came to write Brothers at Bat because the story was literally right in your own neighborhood. How did you come about Edith Houghton's story?

I received a lot of rich research material from the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Library when I was working on Brothers at Bat. At one point, Tim Wiles, who was then director of research, mentioned that there had also been an all-sister softball team. I thought that would be a perfect follow-up to Brothers at Bat and asked for the file. And they couldn’t find it. While casting about for a new idea, Tim mentioned the Philadelphia Bobbies.

You couldn’t read about the Bobbies without realizing that Edith Houghton, the team’s youngest player and biggest star, needed a book all her own.

As a teacher, so often research is really difficult to sell to students. What kind of research went into writing a biographical book like this, and what advice do you have for teachers to help give students authentic reasons for and ways of researching?

I think I understand why research is difficult to sell. It didn’t interest me either. It just seemed so dry and boring and I did not care. As a student.

And then my natural curiosity led me to want to learn more about some people whose stories felt important—like Effa Manley—but about whom little had been written. I’m not someone who enjoys piecing puzzles together but I imagine the satisfaction is similar. Some examples that were especially delightful:

Trying to track down Larry Doby’s uniform number when he was on Effa Manley’s Newark Eagles, I found Doby’s son on facebook. He didn’t know either! I sent out a hail mary email to a New Jersey librarian help desk address and forgot about it until months later, when some wonderful librarian sent back the answer, which Don Tate was able to include in the illustration.

Writing about Edith Houghton, I had the basic story—was able to use an audio recording of an interview with Edith herself that the Hall of Fame had in its archives. But the interview was done when Edith was in her 80s and was not rich with the kind of details I hoped for in writing her story. Along came Nettie Gans, an orphan, who was also on the Bobbies and who—THANK YOU, NETTIE!—kept a diary of the team’s barnstorming tour across the State and on to Japan. She included the kinds of details you’d expect from a young woman, like the dances they attended, who got hurt at which game, the mischief the team got into on their trip home.

I think it would have to be a hard sell to delve into research for a subject you’re not passionate about. I’m pretty sure that’s the key—caring deeply about your subject.

Are there any more baseball-related books planned for the near future? What other books do you have coming out soon?

How kind of you to ask! I have a book coming out in…probably 2018. A Clown Walked Into a Ballpark: Max Patkin’s Funny Life in Baseball (illustrated by Jen Bower) is about the life of the man known as the “clown prince of baseball.” In a time before mascots, baseball clowns entertained spectators and Max was probably the most famous among them. It was absurdly fun to write—and your students might like knowing that I found some of my best sources on youtube—interviews with Max himself.

Also this year, one more picture book—Unlike Other Monsters—and a novel, Two Naomis, written with my friend, the uber-talented Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. Next year, a follow-up to First Grade Dropout entitled Second Grade Holdout and a picture book written with my gifted pal Liz Garton Scanlon, entitled Bob, Not Bob. In a remarkable turn of events, both of my 2017 releases, with two different publishers (Clarion and Disney, respectively) are illustrated by Matthew Cordell, a truly great illustrator and a truly great guy.

Phew! That's a lot of books! You are one busy writer! :)

When I interview authors and illustrators, I always ask them this same question at the end of my interviews, but I'm going to challenge you to give it a baseball theme. Since my blog is about food, books, and travel, what is your favorite baseball-related food, book, and place you’ve ever traveled?

Game on! The thing is, as I always say at school visits, I have NEVER been able to choose a favorite anything other than baseball team (Yankees). So I’m going to tell you things that I like a lot. On account of not having favorites.

There’s nothing like a hot dog at the ballpark but other memorable baseball foods in my life—local minor league funnel cake, garlic fries in San Francisco. Oh, and there was that burger at Target Field in Minneapolis. That was amazing. The Juicy Lucy. Mmm.

Books—for adults, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach So many picture books! I’m in awe of Matt Tavares’ work as an author/illustrator, even if he is a Red Sox fan. Jonah Winter’s picture books are what first interested me in the form—I remember reading his book on the Negro Leagues with my son—hoo boy, did we love that. And his You Never Heard of books are just great. My kids and I also adored Peter Golenbock’s Teammates.

The old Yankee Stadium would be up there with my favorite stadiums—I haven’t warmed up to the new one yet. My family went on a trip when my son was 13 and my daughter was 10 (my husband and I were adults) to Chicago and San Francisco. Wrigley Field—I don’t even have words. There was magic crackling in the air from the moment we walked in. And AT&T Park, where the San Francisco Giants play, was just fantastic. There are many other parks I want to see—in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, L.A.

Thank you so much for visiting the blog today Audrey! 

And if you're reading this and haven't read any of her books, what are you waiting for? :)  You can start with this one:

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Steven Salerno
Published: March 29, 2016
Publisher: Clarion
Pages: 40
Genre/Format: Picture Book Biography
Audience: Middle Grade
Disclosure: Library Copy (but I'll surely be buying my own copy very soon!)

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