Author Tracey Hecht was kind enough to spend some time on the phone with me recently, answering questions and filling me in more on her book series for children, The Nocturnals. It was a really interesting conversation and I’d love to speak with her more, or meet up with her in person one day–it’s quite obvious that she’s a ton of fun and really loves what she does. And people who love what they do are the absolute best people to talk with. Here’s what she had to say:
Name: Tracey Hecht (above)
Occupation: Writer/Fabled Films Creative Director
Hometown: Oakland, California
Current town: New York City
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. I like your Nocturnals Grow and Read books and I understand that you’ve developed these for younger kids, and that you also have books with the same characters for older readers. Can you tell us a little bit about The Nocturnals? What’s your “elevator pitch”?
So, it’s funny. I don’t know if I had a grand scheme, but when I wrote the first middle reader book about these three best friends, I wrote it with a cinematic vernacular: dialogue and adventure. I have kids, and having worked in television and film, I wrote a book that felt to me like my kids were watching it. I had a great time writing about the characters, so I continued to write the middle grade books about three best friends with crazy adventures. It’s fun to write about nocturnal animals and nocturnal phenomena. This is not an elevator pitch–I’m going on and on!
Do go on!
And after I’d written them, teachers and librarians and families said that younger brothers and sisters were listening to the stories when read aloud, so they asked me to do the characters in a younger reading series. I have a three/two/one writing style: three words for Bismark (the sugar glider), two words for Tobin (the pangolin), one word for Dawn (the fox)…those are their personalities, and the series has a rollicky, lively delivery style because of the way they’re talking. (Or at least that’s what I try to do!) For the early readers there’s more alliteration, and the stories are way more simplified. Word selection is based on what kids are capable of at that stage. That’s fun too. So I use the same characters, but different writing and story delivery.
It sounds really fun to create these stories!
I took my first book to a lot of publishers who didn’t like having three voiced protagonists–that was the feedback. For them, to take a new bet on a writer like me was a lot. At the end, I met Stacy Ashton and we started a publishing company, Fabled Films, to support new kinds of children’s literature with strong support of backlist titles. Fabled incorporates a lot of STEM, and common core curriculum, and anti-bullying messages. The books have become a lot more than just fun stories, and I love that part of them, too.
Are you happy with the books and how they have turned out?
You know, I love writing them and for me it is really satisfying. Working in schools and libraries with anti-bullying, and read aloud, and school programming is a great secondary part of the books, and I love it.
How about the illustrations? How did you find the illustrator?
The middle grade illustrations are much more artistic and a little more sophisticated. I had something very clear in mind and it took me a while to find Kate Liebman. I love the way she interpreted the characters.
For the early reader books, I met (through the publishing company) the illustrator Josie Yee. We are real partners in the early readers. We have such a great time doing it, and for the young readers, the illustration is a really important part of the reading and the decoding that they are doing. The kids rely on the illustrations to help them get through the text. I end up modifying text based on her conversation, and she ends up changing illustrations when we discuss– we collaborate.
They are both amazing illustrators.
What has been the reception for your books so far? What are you hearing from teachers, parents, reviewers, and children?
It’s really the best part. Kids really do tell you everything! (Sometimes the characters even make them mad and they tell me that!) I feel so grateful and happy for the way my characters and books have been taken into libraries and schools and homes. Read aloud is a great way to connect and enjoy with your kid, and these books have been promoted for that, and really well used for that. Some schools have done all-school reads with them, where the whole school, kindergarten through fifth grade read the same book together. Animal protagonists, anti-bullying, teamwork, and friendship wrapped up in story adventure–I’ve been happy with how they found their way into community.
I love when a whole school reads a book together. At our local elementary school, when my older daughter was there, the PTA and the school did that a few times–we all read one about Humphrey the Hamster (The World According to Humphrey), and the first book in the Charlie Bumpers series by Bill Harley, and then The Cricket in Times Square, and it was so much fun. They would do a countdown of when the book was announced with clues, they’d have an event for the final chapter with ice cream and a guest reader, and the kids just had such a great time.
So, what is different or special about your books? How do they speak to children?
I will tell you that for me as a reader and a writer, every book has something about it that’s really special. It’s personal and self-defined, what you love about a book. What I hope for is that they’re great shared stories. Great to talk about with your friends, and read with your friends. Fun and silly. I work hard to make them fun to read. They deal with real and big issues. And you can do that without being heavy handed, if you have humor. And there is something important at stake in them. It’s a fun way to engage in complicated social dynamics.
Where do you get your inspiration? Where did the idea for The Nocturnals come from?
You’ll relate to this as a parent. Every kid complains about going to bed! One of my favorite things at school visits is when I ask the kids for the excuses they give about why they can’t go to sleep: I’m not tired, I’m hungry, I need a drink of water, I have to use the bathroom. It’s so fun to write about a whole world that starts when you’re going to bed. And nocturnal animals–there’s so much good stuff there!
Some children’s books I really like take place with animals at night, like Owl Babies, and The Kissing Hand.
Owl Babies is great! The Kissing Hand, is that the one about the raccoon being afraid to go to school?
Yes, that’s the one and it’s night school, because raccoons are nocturnal!
Nighttime is kind of scary and kind of forbidden. I have a funny story about a friend of mine and his wife: they put their kids to bed, got themselves pints of Ben & Jerry’s and were watching The Simpsons on TV in their bedroom. Their kid woke up and came in–and was outraged–when I go to bed, you eat ice cream and watch cartoons? The things I want most to do? There’s so much mystery!
I can imagine that feeling of betrayal! I remember as a kid it was always so exciting to be out late…taking a trip, going to see my grandparents or something, but arriving somewhere at night was really unusual and special.
Yes! And for these nocturnal animals, they get tired and kind of ridiculous during the day!
What kinds of things are you working on now? More Nocturnals books? Or do you have another project in the works?
For Nocturnals--we have another middle grade book for 2020 and then I am constantly writing the early readers because at that age they are so consumptive in their reading. They go through them so quickly and having a nice collection is fun! At the publishing house we’re working on a new collection of books based on the Victorian classics. We’re taking classic works: Dickens, Shelley, and so on, and pairing them with diverse writers and reimagining the texts in a middle grade setting. We’re doing a book about Pippa Park (instead of Pip!), a Korean-American, for Great Expectations. It’s really fun and creative–coming out February 4th!
I love retakes of classic books. It doesn’t always work but when it does, it’s great! I recently read a novel inspired by Pride and Prejudice, set in an immigrant community in Canada and it was really well done: Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin.
That sounds really good, I like the idea of that story in an immigrant setting. The other thing I should tell you, one of the reasons we are doing this project is reading the data about school and outcome predictability, and comprehension and reading students–they’ve done all of this interesting work, and exposure to the classics early on means that the basic comprehension of material improves dramatically.
There was a study about a fourth grade class, with the reading levels of all the kids. When they gave the top readers a book about something they knew nothing about, and also gave the same book to a student who was a low-level reader but who knew about the topic–the high level readers’ scores were much lower than the low-level reader who had previous exposure to the material. General understanding makes you a strong student. But it’s great to expose kids to text and ideas that they’ll be exposed to in high school, and then they will have a more comfortable engagement in the storytelling.
And it makes you understand why kids from higher economic levels often times do better at school–they’re exposed to more. Exposure to knowledge is so important.
I remember reading about the studies that show that kids who grow up with books in their homes do better at school. There was an attempt to drill down the data and figure out what exactly was going on there, but ultimately the answer with the books in the homes was that who the parents are is more important than any one specific thing that the parents do. (Which is both perfectly understandable and somewhat depressing when you think about it.)
I do some work with a group called CASA in NYC. I work with foster kids who are pregnant, they’re going to be moms. What do you do with this experience? What are ways you can give foster kids strong models for being a parent? I do a big reading program about reading and word exposure and talking to your child about everything. Talking about everything and more exposure to language and books, and broadening your conversations: that will broaden experiences and understanding of the world.
That sounds like an amazing program…I hope it is helping these young women (and their kids) out.
I only have a small part of it. The organization does these ten-week sessions in the fall and the spring, and you get the parents coming back after they’ve had their kids, and it’s been really amazing. They do wellness, health care, diet, everything. It’s a really great program.
It sounds like it. On another topic, what is your favorite children’s book (besides yours, of course)?
I just can’t not say Charlotte’s Web. For me, though, that is like asking who your favorite child is…one day it’s this child and another day it’s that child, but it’s never really any child! I do love Charlotte’s Web.
Oh, that one makes me cry every time!
For a picture book, the one that comes to mind is Corduroy. I love that one! And–Corduroy was a night story! (I just realized that!) That bear gets to wander around the department store at night!
If you could give everyone a book assignment, what would it be? What book should everyone read?
That’s a great question. Books are so personal. I think about the books I’ve read which are not the right answer. I’d pick a Kate DeCamillo book–maybe The Tale of Despereaux. I gave that one to my 80-year-old aunt.
I briefly met Kate DeCamillo a while back. She was doing a talk and book signing locally and she was such a warm and lovely person. I figured that since we were going to see her (I was with my older daughter, who was a fan) I should read one of her books, and my daughter told me to read The Tale of Despereaux. Such a good book! And she was so great and patient with the kids, she posed for photos, she autographed books, talked to them all about their favorite books. The people running the program were telling everyone they had to move the line along and couldn’t do pictures and couldn’t chitchat, but she ignored all of their instructions. It took forever, but she gave all of those kids who came to see her attention and it was great–the kind of thing that makes it worth being up late on a school night.
I’ve seen her speak at so many industry events and yes she is so warm and it’s just great to see her.
Do you have a favorite movie?
Hmmm …I feel like I do! I feel like I’m not going to answer about bad comedies, though! Instead I’ll just say that I love, love, and am so grateful to Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings movies. I was worried they wouldn’t be great, but I really think they are.
They really were good, although I have to confess I didn’t watch The Hobbit movies. The reviews weren’t so good.
The Hobbit–I didn’t watch those. He did a great job with the other Tolkien books, and The Hobbit movies were too dark. Not in the spirit of the book The Hobbit.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would it be?
Oh man! For fun?
For fun, or for profit, or for trying a new life! Whatever!
There is no time for my life to do this, but I spent a year traveling in India, and I would go back and do that again!
What brought you there? Just exploring?
I went in my early 20s and I think I always had wanted to go, and being there for a long time with no agenda…I had literally no money, but it was an amazing wonderful year and adventure. It would never work now! It was pre-cellphone, and I was really detached.
That sounds like an amazing experience. I’ve only been to India briefly, for a wedding in Bangalore some years back. We had a great time, although we weren’t there for too long. We got to wear saris!
I hope I get invited to an Indian wedding!
Make some young single friends! What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
The best advice was by my parents, who told me to do what I love.
It sounds like you have followed that.
When I have followed it, life has gone better, and when I have not, life has been more challenging.
So your parents are pretty smart.
Yes, they are.
Before we get off the phone, is there anything else you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Yes! I would love to! Go to our website because our publisher has great things–there’s a whole Nocturnals world. There are great things about it! They do such a great job.
Do kids start with the books or the online world?
Both! Almost all of our marketing is done through libraries and schools. The books are tools for STEM and social/emotional learning activities, and read aloud. And the online stuff has all kinds of activities for them, too.
Thank you so much! Great talking with you!
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com
- Portrait of Tracey Hecht by Photographer Bailey Carr; and
- Book Covers Courtesy of Tracey Hecht, Illustrator Kate Liebman and Fabled Films Press.
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