Here’s my Perfect Picture Book Friday choice (plus keep reading for a Q & A with the author):
A Mom for Umande
Written by Maria Faulconer
Illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung
Dial Books for Young Readers, April 2, 2014
Suitable for: Ages 4-8
Themes/Topics: Orphans, Zoos, Caregivers, Surrogate Moms
Opening Lines: On a cold winter’s night, the zoo is quiet. The visitors have gone home. In the darkness of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, a baby gorilla is born. His name is Umande, which means “swirling mists” in Swahili. Umande is wet and trembling. He crest, as if to say “Will you hold me?”
Synopsis: From inside book jacket: When Umande was born, his mother didn’t know how to take care of him. So, he was hand-reared by keepers at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs. For eight months, the keepers crawled on the ground with him to show him how to walk; coughed in his face to teach him discipline; and gave him happy gorilla grumbles to encourage him. But for Umande, something was still missing. Luckily, a thousand miles away at the Columbus Zoo, a mom was waiting just for him. This touching story about finding a home is a true testament to the powerful bonds we form and the families we make.
Link to Resources: Umande is mentioned on the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo website. The zoo’s website has fun activities for children including a Zoo Keeper Training game. Umande lives in Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. Maria Faulconer lists several zoos in her author’s note where one can learn more about gorillas, hand-rearing or conservation programs. The Lincoln Park Zoo has several educator resources on its website. The book is a great conversation starter about parenting — the need for a parent/role model — and adoption issues too.
Why I Like this Book: The book is about a gorilla born at the local zoo we visit. How could I not pick this one up for my son? The story and beautiful illustrations share Umande’s survival with the help of zoo keepers, who act like his mother, and to his finding a gorilla, who would be his mother and take care of him. in the author’s note, she mentions a total of 18 keepers and caregivers spent thousands of hours taking care of him. The book received a Starred-Review on Kirkus Reviews.
Q & A with Maria Faulconer:
Maria and I live in the same town and have met through local SCBWI, Pikes Peak Writers, and community writing events. She offered to answer a few writerly questions after I read the book:
Q: How long have you been writing picture books?
Maria: I began my writing career after attending the very first Pikes Peak Writers Conference in 1993. I remember being so intimidated by all the “real” writers there that when a friend of mine introduced me to Toni Knapp, a writing teacher, the first words out of my mouth were, “You don’t have room in your class, do you?” She did. And that’s how it all began.
Q: When did you learn about Umande’s story and begin writing it?
Maria: I first learned about Umande’s story when a dear friend showed me a newspaper photo of a baby gorilla snuggling in the arms of his surrogate mom. An adoptive mom myself, I was so captivated by the joy on their faces that I knew I had to write a story about him.
Q: Have you ever seen Umande in person? If not, do you plan to visit him at the Lincoln Park Zoo one day?
Maria: I’ve never met Umande in person. He had already been transferred to the Columbus Zoo to meet his surrogate mom when I learned about him. So I wrote the entire story from interviews and photos the amazing keepers at the zoo shared with me. Yes, I hope to visit the Lincoln Park Zoo and meet Umande in person!
Q: How long did it take you to write the manuscript and get it submission ready?
Maria: It took two years, and many revisions, to write the manuscript and get it ready to submit. I was struggling with the voice, when Toni Knapp, who is now a member of my critique group, said, “Write it in first person.” That’s when the story came to life. I could just hear Umande saying, “Won’t anyone hold me?”
Q: Do you have an agent or did you submit directly to a publisher?
Maria: I submitted my manuscript directly to Stephanie Owens Lurie, who was then the President and Publisher of Dutton Children’s Books. Once I had an offer, I found an agent who negotiated the contract for me.
Q: How much time did you put into researching Umande’s story?
Maria: I spent months in Primate World at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, interviewing the extraordinary keepers and caregivers who hand-reared Umande. I can’t thank them enough for the many hours they spent patiently teaching me about gorillas and hand-rearing.
Q: For a non-fiction work, how were you able to condense Umande’s story in picture book format?
Maria: I’ve been writing non-fiction for more than twenty years and currently write for Colorado Springs Style Magazine, so I’m used to condensing stories to fit specific word counts. What was most difficult in writing A MOM FOR UMANDE was finding the “heart” of the story with so many wonderful details to choose from.
Q: What’s your word count? Did it change at all during the pre-publication process? I wasn’t sure if you had a number of revisions. We writer types always like those numbers.
Maria: My published word count is 944. And yes, it’s down from 1469 words when I first wrote it! As a non-fiction writer, I love facts and details. But I learned that it is so much more powerful to focus on the important kernels. (Stacy here, the word count doesn’t include the back matter and author’s note.)
Q: How long did it take from the sale of the manuscript to publication?
Maria: I sold my manuscript in six days—which was so exciting. And then it took seven years for A MOM FOR UMANDE to be published. During that time, my imprint changed from Dutton Children’s Books to Dial Books for Young Readers. And I worked with several editors before Nancy Conescu—a wonderfully talented and supportive editor—took Umande—and me—from the final editing process through to publication. Although seven years is a long time, I’ve learned that my experience is not uncommon. There are always unforeseen delays.
Q: What advice do you have for picture book writers?
Maria: My advice for picture book writers is first and foremost, to take workshops and classes to learn your craft. Denise Vega, SCBWI’s co-regional advisor, is an amazing teacher and writer, and I would say “run don’t walk” if she is giving a workshop. Second, find a supportive and caring critique group. Visit first to make sure it’s a good fit for you. And finally, get involved in your local writers’ organization. I was active in SCBWI for years. That’s how I first met the wonderful Stephanie Owens Lurie, who spoke at one of our conferences. Throughout the years, I kept in touch and sent her manuscripts. And then finally, I sent her A MOM FOR UMANDE, and she loved it!
Q: Anything else you want to add (or wish I had asked, just let me know).
Maria: Perseverance is key, so don’t give up! I published my first picture book, ARIANNA AND THE STRAWBERRY TEA, in 1998, and it’s still in print. It was promoted on the Regis Show, which was a thrill. During the ensuing years, I sold stories and poems to magazines, but I also received enough rejections on other projects to paper a small bathroom. But I kept going. Now, sixteen years later, A MOM FOR UMANDE was born. It was worth the wait.
I really appreciate Maria sharing her story and Umande’s with us! I hope you can find A Mom for Umande in a bookstore or at your library. Find more Perfect Picture Books at Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog.
Susanna Leonard Hill says
This book looks absolutely wonderful! I’m dying to read it immediately – it has everything I love in a picture book! Thanks for a terrific interview as a bonus, Stacy and Maria. Maria – wow! you sold the ms in 6 days???!!! That’s amazing! The 7 years part must have been a little harder to take 🙂 I had a book that took 4 years and I thought that was long! 🙂
I hope you can find it Susanna. It’s a great book.
Oh, Stacy I would love to read this story. Adorable illustrations and such a heartfelt theme. Had to smile at the first words Maria mentioned to Tony Knapp. Know that’s something I would say… 🙂
A Mom for Umande is a heart tugging book. Very sweet and such a nice ending for Umande. I’m glad Maria found room in the class and I hope you do too Diane.
Kell Andrews (@kellandrewsPA) says
Wow, what a long journey. Sounds like a very special book — congrats.
As a reader, the book is so worth the wait. As a writer, it does make you feel squeamish that it can take that long.
Julie Rowan-Zoch says
Looks terrific – and local! Ha, local enough! Thanks for the great interview with Maria.
Yes Julie. Local to Colorado! So hopefully your library will get it.
Juliana Lee says
Can’t wait to read this book!
I hope you can find it. It’s a good read.
Joanne Roberts says
What an inspired choice. I can’t wait to get my hands on this. Thanks to you and Maria for the interview and all the juicy writerly details!
It’s great that Umande has a happy ending and found a mom.
Cathy Ballou Mealey says
“We writer types always like those numbers” Stacy you are always thinking!!
Love the story behind the story – great interview and insights from Maria. Another endorsement for really learning our craft and persevering!
You know we do Cathy! Yes, Maria has an interesting new book and an interesting “writer” story too.
This is such an insightful and helpful interview, Stacy and Maria! As I am journeying down the non-fiction PB path, these tips will encourage me along the way. Thanks!
I’m so glad Jarm. Maria was sooooo kind to share these details!
Sue Heavenrich says
This sounds like such a sweet book! and a true story, too! I am definitely going to look for it. Thanks for the wonderful interview with Maria, too – better than eating chocolate.
Thanks Sue. I hope you find it and enjoy it. Maria was very kind to share her story with us.
This looks like a wonderful, heart-warming story. I will definitely be checking it out. Thanks for the review and interview. Very informative.
It is heart-warming. The keepers at the zoo worked full-time to help Umande.
Thank you for the wonderful review and interview! I hadn’t heard of this book but will definitely be reading it.
It was just released Darshana! Hope you enjoy it.
Miranda Paul says
This looks like a fabulous book! I can’t wait to read it. Thanks for sharing your process—a real testament to the research and first-hand accounts that inform nonfiction picture books. Stacy, great pick for an interview!
Thanks Miranda. Maria was generous with her time to share this process with us.
Patricia Tilton says
I vaguely remember hearing about Umande and his meeting his new mama at the Columbus Zoo. I love stories like this and can’t wait to look for it. Your review was great, but I also appreciated reading the interview with Maria. I gained so much more insight. Great choice Stacy! Kids will love this story.
Enzo really liked this story. It’s fun to “see” how the zoo keepers work too.
What a motivating interview and a perfect book for Mother’s Day, too. Thanks, Susanna and also Maria for sharing your story.
Yes. A great Mother’s Day gift!
Andrea Skyberg says
Great post and fascinating book! We’ll be looking for it on our next trip to the bookstore 🙂
It’s a touching book with a great illustrations!
Thanks so much for the introduction of this great book and the wonderful author! I just loved the interview! I learned so much. What a long wait. It must have been so hard. I am bookmarking this and pinning it to my pinterest site. 🙂
Glad you liked the interview Maria was generous with her time!
Teresa Robeson says
I’m not normally a fan of zoos but this story sounds absolutely wonderful and I’m going to look it up right away! And Maria’s story makes me really want to get my butt to Pikes Peak soon. 🙂
I hope you enjoy it Teresa. The efforts of the zoo keepers to help Umande are very sweet. AND yes, you must get to Pikes Peak (Writers Conference) one day! Casa de Jensen is open!
Sylvia Liu says
Thanks for the insights. Congrats on what looks like a wonderful book!
Thanks for stopping by Sylvia!
Romelle Broas says
What a fascinating journey. What a fun topic to do research on. I would have loved to be there with you when you interviewed your sources, Maria. When your heart is in it, it shows in your writing. I can’t wait to read A mom for Umande. Great interview questions, Stacy!
The story is great Romelle! Thanks.
What a great story! I’ll have to look for this one. Thanks!
I hope you enjoy it Rhythm.
Kirsten Larson says
What a beautiful book. I have some adoptive friends who struggle with finding just the right books on the subject for their children. This looks like a good one to recommend. And the interview was a bonus. Thank you!
Kirsten, The zoo keepers and the different facilities really worked hard to help Umande. The Lincoln Park Zoo tweeted me yesterday and said he is doing well with the bachelor troop.
I would love to meet Umande in person, too. Loved this story and it encourages me to persist with my adoption story.
Yes. Write it Joanna.
Wendy Greenley says
This looks like a great book for kids. We were at the Columbus Zoo last year, but I guess he Umande was in Chicago by then.
He’s in Chicago now. 🙂 It’s a fun book.
Denise Vega (@DeniseVegaBooks) says
Wonderful review and interview. I’ve known Maria for over twenty years and am thrilled to hear of her success. She deserves every hard-earned moment of it. She is such a warm, supportive person with so much talent–I’m so happy she kept going! And I’m honored to have been mentioned in the interview. It’s people like Maria that make giving back such a joy. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. I love you two!!!
It’s a wonderful book Denise! And, I always have good intentions to get to Denver for one of your classes. I’m glad our paths have crossed through your great work with SCBWI-RMC and your books!
Maria Faulconer says
Love you, too, Denise! If you’re in Colorado Springs on May 10 at 10:30 a.m., I’m having a storytime and booksigning at Barnes & Noble, 1565 Briargate Blvd, across from Chapel Hills Mall, to launch A MOM FOR UMANDE. We’ll have coloring and snacks for the kids…and flowers and chocolate for the adults! Would love to see you!
The book signing sounds fun. Hope we can make it.