Children will have a chance to participate in a howling contest led by two coyote hand puppets and make colorful coyote masks during a book signing event at Scout and Morgan Books in Cambridge.
Children’s author Cheryl Blackford will hold a book signing event from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 8. In addition to the howling contest and making of coyote masks, Blackford will read and autograph copies from her first picture book, “Hungry Coyote.”
“Hungry Coyote” is a fiction picture book for ages 3-7 that takes readers on a yearlong journey through the secret life of an urban coyote. Written in poetic prose and illustrated with lush watercolor paintings, the book offers readers an unexpected glimpse into the life of the coyote as he struggles to feed himself and his famished family. The coyote sneaks, scurries and skulks across the pages in his constant quest to find food, and all the time the people around him are oblivious to his presence.
“Laurie’s watercolor paintings of coyote and his family are extraordinary,” Blackford said. “Laurie is so dedicated that she visited a tame coyote in Wisconsin, Wiley, to sketch him and capture his expressions in her art. All the locations in the paintings are parks in Minneapolis. For example, the cover is a view of the Minneapolis skyline from Theodore Wirth park.”
Blackford grew up in the city of Hull, in Yorkshire, England, but has lived in Minnesota since 1985. Blackford and her husband moved to Minnesota when her husband was offered a job in the state. They currently live in North Oaks, a suburb of St. Paul.
“The Twin Cities is one of the best places for a writer to live in the U.S. — we have such a supportive community and a wealth of talented authors. I’ve taken classes at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis to learn from authors such as Lynne Jonell, Kurtis Scaletta and Pat Schmatz. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and attended local and national conferences to network and learn from established authors,” Blackford said. “I’m a member of two critique groups — writers who get together to read and discuss each others’ work — and I also attend writing workshops. I read children’s books to find out what’s popular and learn from those writers. It’s essential for any author to read as much as possible, and not just in his, her own genre. It’s also essential to write and rewrite and weather the rejections.”
Blackford takes daily walks and gets most of her ideas for books when she’s walking and lives in a wooded area with great trails where she see all sorts of wildlife, including coyotes.
“My walks often take me to a lake and I enjoy watching the lake change with the seasons. That gave me the setting for the book. One January day I watched a coyote trotting across the frozen lake and wondered where he was going, how he lived successfully so close to people, and what he found to eat in the winter? I did some research and discovered that there are active coyote populations in many U.S. cities, including Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. Researchers in Chicago have put radio collars on some of the coyotes there to learn more about their urban life,” Blackford said. “Coyotes are smart, adaptable and often misunderstood creatures. Many people think of them as vermin. And yet coyotes are helpful to us humans — they can eat up to 1,000 small rodents a year. That means fewer mice, rats and rabbits to bother us. I hope my book helps children, their parents and their teachers gain a greater understanding of this interesting animal.”
Blackford was a technical writer prior to becoming a children’s author.
“I was an elementary school teacher in England and for me story time was the best part of the day — discovering new stories and reading them to my class was wonderful. I had the same thrill when I introduced my own children to books, but at the time it never occurred to me that I could actually become a children’s writer,” Blackford said. “In the U.S. my career took a different tack and I became a technical writer. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words in the form of policies and procedures documentation, help files, technical manuals and website content, but eight years ago I realized I really wanted to write children’s books and time was running out. I quit my job at the Target Corporation headquarters in Minneapolis and have not looked back.”
Blackford thinks about a story for a long time before she actually begins to write it.
“Writing a story is a long process, even for picture books. When I have a new idea I draft the story to try and determine the plot and the emotional arc of the main character. Then I revise until I have something I’m not too ashamed for others to hear and I read it to my critique group. I listen to their thoughtful comments and then revise more,” Blackford said. “‘Hungry Coyote’ had something like 24 versions written over two years. I always read my work aloud as it helps me hear the musicality and rhythm of the work, crucial for picture books. ‘Hungry Coyote’ is a concept book and does not have the typical story arc of a character being faced with a problem, overcoming that problem, and experiencing emotional growth in the process.”
Blackford enjoys seeing children’s reactions to her books.
“Seeing my book in the hands of a child or reading it to a rapt audience of children. Those are worth more than any financial reward. Like most children’s writers, what I most want is for children to enjoy my book,” Blackford said. “I enjoy book signing events because they put me in touch with readers and the wonderful people who own and run independent bookstores. They give me an opportunity to talk about my book and read it to people who might not otherwise discover it.”
Prior to “Hungry Coyote,” Blackford published three nonfiction third-grade books. Her latest book, “Lizzie and the Lost Baby,” will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January 2016.
“‘Lizzie and The Lost Baby’ is a novel for ages 8-12. The story is set in England at the start of World War II and told from the dual perspectives of 10-year-old Lizzie, a homesick girl evacuated from bomb-blitzed Hull to the remote Yorkshire valley of Swainedale, and Elijah, a gypsy boy,” Blackford said. “When Lizzie arrives in Swainedale she discovers an abandoned baby and befriends Elijah. Their dangerous friendship is tested when Lizzie discovers the baby’s true identity and must decide between returning the baby to her family or antagonizing her hosts. In a world clouded by prejudice and fear, Lizzie finds that doing the ‘right thing’ isn’t easy.”
Scout and Morgan Books is located at 114 Buchanan St. N., Cambridge, and can be reached at 763-689-2474. For more information on Blackford, visit www.cherylblackford.com.