“Welcome to Polar Bear Island. NO OTHERS ALLOWED!” Parker is the mayor of this peaceful, predictable island, and he wants to keep it just the way it is. But Kirby, a penguin, thinks the place is paradise, and she wants to stay. Parker says no, but the other polar bears love Kirby —and soon they’re begging Parker to let Kirby (and her family) move in. Will Parker agree . . . and make the island fun for EVERYONE? With its gentle message of inclusivity, this playful and lighthearted story will delight children.
"The text is accessible and good fun to read aloud. A good bedtime read."--Kirkus Reviews
You were an avid reader AND writer as a kid. What sorts of things did you like to read and write about?
I think my first love was reading about animals. I got the Ranger Rick magazines as a kid and was fascinated by them. Growing up, I had two dogs, Bernie and Wickett, who were the main characters in many of my early stories. I also created many different animal kingdoms based on some of the animal facts I learned. I still have the notebook with all of those writings and drawings.
Where did you get the initial idea for POLAR BEAR ISLAND?
I think it was building for awhile, but there was one day in particular that my husband, Estith, a Colombian immigrant, came home from work very frustrated. A supervisor on a job he was managing had avoided speaking with him because of his accent. He felt both disrespected and hurt.
A few years prior to that some other Colombian friends were walking through a store parking lot when a random person yelled at them, “Go back to Mexico! We don't want you here.” Of course that was an ignorant comment on more than a couple of levels, but the fact that someone would just shout at two wonderful people who were going about their business, not bothering anybody, was upsetting to me on so many levels.
I think I really started to pay attention to the negative attitudes toward immigrants right out of college. That's when I'd taught English as a Second Language classes to a group of seasonal laborers from Mexico. At the completion of the class, they told me and the co-teacher that some of their best times in the US were in our class because we treated them like people.
So I think it was a slow build with tons of other incidents along the way that kept pushing me to tell this story. But the pivotal moment was that day with my husband. That's when I finally said, “I want to tell a story that paints a different picture of immigration, one that children can connect to.” I honestly don't remember how it came to feature polar bears and penguins, but I think maybe the grumpy polar bear was the first thing that came to mind.
The art style for POLAR BEAR ISLAND is so much fun! What were your first thoughts when you saw it?
I loved it! I'd gotten to see some examples of Cinta's work before she began working on POLAR BEAR ISLAND, and I knew whatever she did was going to be amazing. But when I saw her sketches for the first time I was ecstatic. I felt like she really nailed the characters, especially Parker – and I loved the way she gave each of the penguins such unique personalities with her special touches.
What has been your favorite part of the publishing process so far?
Lately I've been posting on Twitter about how picture books aren't created in a vacuum. There's a whole team of people involved in putting a book together, and I'd say it's this collaborative aspect of publishing that I love the most.
I adore the whole editorial process. Working with someone else who is just as passionate about your story as you are is a gift. I love going back over my manuscript and pinpointing the additions, changes, and improvements that came about thanks to my editor, agent, and critique partners.
That is followed closely by seeing the illustrations for the first time. That is quite a thrill too!
What draws you to write picture books? What do you think is the most difficult part of writing for this age range?
Probably the fact that I still feel like a kid. No matter how old I get, I feel like I haven't grown up. Sure, I have adult responsibilities, etc, but the things I loved as a child -- to create, imagine, act things out – it's all the same. I love that anything is possible in picture books – talking animals, kids who can do/be anything. That's the kind of world I want to live in – one full of possibility – so it's fun helping to create that.
As a parent, I also see the impact that reading books together has on children. It's not just about the book, it's about the relationship that is created when you read together. To be part of creating an experience that strengthens relationships between parents and children, teachers and students, etc – it's just an amazing thing.
I think the most difficult part of writing for kids is making sure that I'm giving my young readers enough credit. It's tempting to try to wrap up every story with a nice, neat moral, but that's not necessary or desirable. Kids are astute. They can understand and appreciate nuance, sometimes with greater clarity than adults, if we let them. My four year old has blown me away with some of his observations in the books we've read – so I want to be sure that my writing leaves room for children to draw their own conclusions about a story.
Tell us about your work with National Storytelling Network!
The National Storytelling Network is an amazing organization advancing all forms of storytelling in our communities. I don't work for them directly, but I am a member, and as a professional storyteller, I owe a lot to them in their commitment to keep the art of storytelling going strong. Through their conferences, I have met and learned from some amazing storytellers. The storytelling community is very similar to the kidlit community – tight-knit, giving and very warm and encouraging.
I do an interactive style of storytelling that incorporates my background in theatre and creative drama and that gets the audience to participate both vocally and kinesthetically. I focus on telling multicultural folktales because I love introducing people of all ages to other cultures through folklore. I also love the way that folktales, which have been passed down for generations, still resonate so deeply with listeners of all ages today.
How has being an actor shaped your writing?
Probably one of the biggest ways is that when I'm writing I tend to think in dialogue. When you're reading a play, all you have is the dialogue, with only a few other sparse details to help you create the world of the characters. I tend to visualize my stories playing out in my mind, as if my characters were in a stage play. I can see and hear their voices quite clearly. In college and beyond, I wrote a lot of dramatic sketches. I also wrote two screenplays which were turned into films under the direction of a friend who is an indie filmmaker friend. These experience so writing dialogue is probably one of the easiest/most enjoyable parts of writing for me.
Are there any certain plays you’ve been in that inspired certain books?
I don't know that any plays I've been in have inspired particular books directly. I actually haven't done any stage acting for about ten years now. I moved over to the world of storytelling not long after I got married. As much as I love the stage, storytelling gives me more flexibility so that I can be home most nights and weekends with my family.
Being immersed in folklore and fairy tales has definitely inspired some of my stories. I think that all great art inspires my creative process. Sometimes I'll see a play, hear a song or read a book and think to myself, I want to create something that makes readers feel the same way I'm feeling now, or that strikes that same chord or theme from a different angle. That happens quite a lot actually.
You’ve traveled quite a bit! What have your travels taught you, and how have they helped your writing?
Yes, I LOVE to travel. I could probably write a book about all that I've learned, but one of the biggest lessons I've learned is that there are many different ways of doing things. We all grow up in a particular culture that influences the way we do things and how we see the world. Culture is such a powerful shaping force in our lives, but we don't realize it. We think that our way of doing something is THE way of doing it. Then we travel or become friends with people from other places and realize that's not the case.
For example, when I moved to Spain, I was shocked that people didn't eat dinner until 10pm. My first inclination was to think, “What!? Dinnertime should be between 5 and 7pm. 10Pm is just WRONG!” I had the same reaction to the siesta. How could all of the businesses in the city of Madrid shut down for 3 hours right in the middle of the day at precisely the time I needed to do my shopping? Again, everything in me said, “This is wrong!”
But in time I came to appreciate that these things weren't wrong – just DIFFERENT. In fact, I've come to love some of the aspects of other cultures that I've experienced and wish we could incorporate some of them into our way of doing things here.
I think all of my travel experiences have given my writing a more global perspective. In fact, I'm sure I'd never have written POLAR BEAR ISLAND if not for my time living in Spain. (That's actually where I met my husband!) Additionally, I think my travels have taught me to be more open-minded and humble, and I try to bring both of those postures into my writing process.
Lindsay Bonilla performs interactive folktales for her company, World of Difference Ltd., and teaches children about foreign countries and cultures. She lives in North Canton, OH, with her husband, sons, and rescue dog.
You can pick up a copy at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Target and your local bookstore! A discussion guide and activity kit are available here!