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.