Glenda Armand - ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOL TRAIN and ICE CREAM MAN
Interview by Gabriele Davis
Hi, Glenda! Congratulations on your TWO new picture books releasing this month: ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOL TRAIN and ICE CREAM MAN! Both books are captivating and eye-catching. Can you give our readers a brief overview of each and the inspiration behind them?
Thank you! I am excited about both books, though their beginnings were quite different. ICE CREAM MAN is about a free-born black man in pre-Civil War America who had the self-confidence, creativity and initiative to overcome overwhelming odds to become a successful inventor and entrepreneur. Augustus Jackson also happened to work as a chef in the White house, serving under three presidents! I had not heard of Augustus Jackson until my editor asked me if I would co-author a book about him with Kim Freeman. Kim gets credit for “discovering” Jackson. Once I learned about him, I knew that he checked all the boxes as to the kind of person I like to write about.
ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOLTRAIN is much more personal. However, I do have to thank Isabel Wilkerson for writing THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS. In her epic narrative about the Great Migration, Wilkerson shares an anecdote about children in 1920s rural Mississippi forming a “walking train” to get to their one-room schoolhouse. That inspired me to ask my mom if she had had a similar experience having grown up during that era in rural Louisiana. Her eyes lit up as she recounted to me the basic elements of what became this story.
I love that ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOL TRAIN was inspired by your mother’s childhood experience and that you got to include some wonderful family photos in the back matter. What was your family’s response to this book? Can you speak to how writers can tap into their own family histories for inspiration?
I certainly hadn’t planned on using my family’s pictures in the book. That was my editor Tracy Mack’s idea! Her vision for my cute little story transformed it into a 48-page work of true historical and cultural meaning. I am honored that it received a starred KIRKUS review.
My family helped me remember certain facts and provided pictures. In that sense, it was a group project! My Mom would be very proud. To aspiring writers, I would say that the first place you look to for stories is home. By “home” I mean your own life and family, where you grew up, what books you read, what fascinates you. Take the inspiration you find there and see where it leads you. It could take you to another world. For instance, Suzanne Collins, who loves Greek mythology, was at home flipping the TV between the Iraq war and reality TV shows when she got the inspiration to write The Hunger Games.
You’ve authored other picture book biographies. Having been both a history teacher and a librarian, it’s no surprise that you love writing books spotlighting the stories and accomplishments of people who deserve a wider audience. What do you hope readers will take away from these books?
You are right. I enjoy introducing my readers to unsung heroes. IRA’S SHAKESPEARE DREAM is about Ira Aldridge, who was a contemporary of Augustus Jackson and who, like Jackson, was born free. Aldridge became a world-famous Shakespearean actor, noted for his portrayal of Othello. In SONG IN A RAINSTORM, I introduce readers to Thomas Wiggins who, born enslaved, blind and autistic, went on to find fame and fortune as a musical prodigy. I would like children to know about the diversity of the African American experience.
Both ALL ABOARD THE SCHOOL TRAIN and ICE CREAM MAN have great kid-appeal. Ice cream and children are a natural combination, and you draw readers through both books with catchy refrains. Can you share your tips for making stories engaging and relatable for young readers?
You know, I had not thought about how they both have refrains. I do like to write in rhyme, so any chance I get, I will do so. Also, when I write picture books, I imagine them being read aloud by a teacher, parent or librarian. Kids like to participate in the story and love repeating a catchy refrain. It keeps them engaged and it helps with their memorization skills. I am a proponent of having kids memorize poems and songs and even times tables (I know that dates me.). It’s exercise for the brain.
I enjoyed the fascinating details you include in the afterword for ICE CREAM MAN. Kids will be surprised to learn that people once ate bizarre ice cream flavors like Parmesan Cheese and Asparagus! What research tips can you offer writers interested in crafting fascinating picture book biographies?
I like to give lots of details in the afterword that I hope the adult reader will find helpful in sharing the books with children. Kids like weird and amazing facts. If the facts also have a yuk factor, all the better. So I would say to new writers, find some fascinating detail about your subject that children will find interesting. I like to begin the bio with an anecdote from the subject’s childhood that immediately draws the child in.
Both Keisha Morris and Keith Mallett do an amazing job of bringing your stories to life with their illustrations. I especially like how Morris captures the joy of the school train winding through town and how Mallett conveys the pride Jackson takes in bringing sweet treats to his community. How involved were you in the visual development of these books? Did you include many illustration notes in your manuscript? Were you able to provide feedback on rough sketches?
Yes, I was involved to some extent with the illustrations, and both artists were a delight to work with. I saw sketches along the way, making suggestions that were well-received. For instance, Thelma in SCHOOLTRAIN, is inspired by my mom. When Keisha, who loves cats, gave Thelma a pet cat, I asked her to change the cat to a dog. Mom was a dog person. For ICE CREAM MAN, Keith had to make sure not to show ice cream being eaten from a cone. Ice cream cones were not invented until 1904!
You have referred to school libraries as “the heart of the school.” What is it that makes school libraries so vital?
In the library, students can come and relax, play board games, maybe work on a puzzle. It’s a place where everyone fits in and you can be yourself. And, of course, it’s a place to read. I love helping a student find a book. I have to get to know the student and make that connection. When a student tells me he or she doesn’t like to read, I just say, “You haven’t found the right book yet.” Whether the right book is Gone With the Wind or Captain Underpants, I just want the student to become a reader.
You have another book releasing in 2023. Would you like to offer readers a preview of this book? Any other titles on the horizon?
Sure! I have a book being released by Crown Books in May, THE NIGHT BEFORE FREEDOM, about Juneteenth. I mentioned that I enjoy writing in rhyme. The story follows the same meter as Clement C. Moore's The Night Before Christmas. And I am very excited that this will be my first rhyming picture book.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Glenda! I look forward to reading much more of your inspiring work in the future!
Thank you so much, Gabriele. I enjoyed it. And congratulations on your upcoming books! I look forward to reading them!
Glenda Armand has had a long career as a teacher and school librarian. She enjoys writing picture book biographies that inspire children to read, learn and dream big. Glenda lives in Los Angeles and has a son and daughter. When not writing or practicing the piano, she tends a garden full of roses and succulents. Drop by her website at glenda-armand.com or connect with her on Twitter: @GlendaArmand.