Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Author Interview: the Very Groovy Eric Litwin!

Last week I had the privilege of speaking with Eric Litwin, author of the first four Pete the Cat books, the Nut Family series, and now the new Groovy Joe books. I spoke with Eric once before, last fall.

In that blog post we spoke about his experience as a teacher, and how that shapes his writing. He told me he discovered early on that approximately a third of his students were not on grade level, or simply didn't like reading. Something needed to change. Rather than rely on phonics and sight words alone, Litwin started adding music and movement to reading lessons, and saw things begin to click with his students.

Twelve months after that interview, Litwin is still passionate about using a variety of tools to teach kids to read, saying, "I see my books as launch pads." His books include limited vocabulary, call and response, rhythm and rhyme, repetition - things that enable all children to decode, "offering many roads to success".

These elements also make them great read-alouds, which of course is a huge draw to teachers and librarians alike! Litwin told me his books are written as performance pieces. "The performance aspect generated because I realized these things were good for the emergent reader." Each book is a year or two in the making, with Litwin telling it a hundred times or more in front of live audiences, getting everything just right.

For Groovy Joe, illustrator Tom Lichtenheld attended one of the later performances, noting where Litwin paused and where students chimed in. This in turn affected the page breaks - giving listeners a chance to jump ahead of the reader and shout out, "a spoon!" We know predicting is an important reading skill, and any time kids feel like they figured something out before the grown-up, they are going to be engaged and excited!

The next Groovy Joe title, Disco Party Bow-Wow, is slated for release in Fall of 2017, and Litwin played a bit of the song for me. He describes it as "ABBA-esque", which I know will make my 6yo dancing queen very happy. As in every Groovy Joe book, Joe will face an obstacle, he will stay positive about it, and of course he will sing about it! In this title there will even be some simple math to stretch the listeners' brains and - again - give them a chance to 'beat' the reader to the next line.

Joe is also available in Spanish. I was curious about how the translating was done, as when I lived in Ukraine I saw some truly horrible (and often hilarious) word-for-word translations. Litwin called it a very interesting process, pointing out that the Spanish language can differ from country to country, and even region to region, making a word like "groovy" less than universal. After much thought and research, we have:

José el Chévere: Helado y dinosaurios (José el Chévere #1)

The Nut Family will also be back with a Spring 2017 release, The Nuts: Keep Rolling.

The Nuts: Keep Rolling!
$17.99, April 2017

I'll just tell you there is mud involved, which will again make said dancing queen happy. When I interviewed Litwin last year, he told me The Nuts: Sing and Dance in Your Polka Dot Pants was "probably the best book I have ever written." I asked him where that put Groovy Joe. He paused for a moment (he does not pause often, btw, so if you ever interview him, have a tape recorder ready), and told me "I try not compare my books to each other in a better or worse way. So I don't really have a favorite. But I do feel genuine excitement when a new book is written and goes out into the world."

The Nut Family books are a little more complex, with more words. Feedback from teachers and reviewers was mixed. The stories were fun, but not as instantly catchy as Pete. While the basic message was positive, with a positive outcome, some weren't crazy about the response of "not a chance". As a sometimes too-busy Mom, I noted the guilt feeling too. Litwin took that into account, and readers will be much happier with the repeated phrase "keep rolling". 

We had loads of fun with the Polka Dot Pants Dance Contest, so we were happy to hear Groovy Joe will be holding his own contest in February. In the meantime, Scholastic has a drawing contest (deadline November 1) for kids to enter, as well as a contest for grown-ups who are running book fairs. (2,000 Scholastic dollars? Yes, please!)

As Pete says, It's all good!

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