The Rochester region has a thriving literary scene for children and teens, with authors writing engaging books at each level, from picture books to middle grade and young adult novels. The genre is celebrated each year at the Rochester Children's Book Festival, which took place earlier this month.
Here, CITY spotlights four local authors who have published work for younger readers in the past year, including works of steampunk fantasy, explorations of balance and self-care, and explanations of science and the natural world. If you've got kids who read (or who you'd like to encourage to read) on your holiday shopping lists, the following books are great potential gifts.
Have a favorite locally-written children's book? Leave a comment below telling us about it.
Rochester-based writer Jeff Minerd's coming-of-age adventure story "The Sailweaver's Son" follows 15-year-old Tak, an accomplished young sky rider (a sailor of aircrafts that are more ship than plane) whose fascination with big airships sparks an unexpected and dangerous journey.
Tak's world, Etherium, is a kingdom perched on high mountains that rise like islands above dense clouds, where the people traverse the sky in sail-driven airships. When he again disobeys an order to steer clear of the kingdom's royal battleships, Tak witnesses a strange phenomenon that destroys one of the vessels. After rescuing the sole survivor, he's hauled before the king, but some authorities doubt his version of events and even accuse him of sabotage.
Rumors about the attack scapegoat the Gublins, the "loathsome" race that lives in the coal-rich terrain below the clouds. The King's advisors call for a war that will also conveniently benefit Etherium's diminished energy reserves. Accompanied by Brieze, a wizard's adopted daughter from a neighboring kingdom, Tak sets off to learn the truth about the Gublins and to clear his own name.
The slightly steampunk-style fantasy story joins other works in the young adult fantasy genre that present young readers with the idea that acting courageously sometimes means challenging powerful but misguided adults.
"I think it's healthy, if somewhat unsettling, for kids to realize adults are flawed, usually don't have all of the answers, and are just muddling through as best they can," Minerd says. In their own time, kids "learn to hold adults accountable to our own professed ideas and values, and point out when we've lost our way."
Unlike the central characters in other YA adventure books, Minerd's hero actually has loving parents who play a central role in his story. "The typical young fantasy or sci-fi hero is an orphan," Minerd says, citing Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter. He says that tactic "makes the character more sympathetic and simplifies the story; making it easier for writers to get their young heroes into adventures."
While Minerd set out to create a fantastical world and a compelling adventure that readers could escape into, he says "the real world has a way of creeping in and informing fantasy stories."
Although he didn't intend the central conflict — a brewing war over fast-disappearing energy resources — to be allegorical, Minerd acknowledges, in a similar way as J.R.R. Tolkien did regarding his own work, that the story has "applicability" to the real world. "The world of Etherium was an ideal place to explore environmental themes, because the people there have limited space in which to live and limited natural resources to draw upon," he says.
Minerd says he didn't want to advocate a particular course of action, but to explore how people solve problems. "There is a solution to the problem staring people in the face, but the adults in the story can't see it, because they can't get past their fears and prejudices," he says. "I think if young readers can recognize the foolishness and counter-productive behavior of the adults in the story, they can bring that insight back with them to our world."
A challenging factor in writing for kids, Minerd says, is the portrayal of violence, particularly in one scene. "Sword fights and epic battles are a staple of fantasy fiction," he says. "Heroes often kill without compunction. I didn't want to romanticize the violence in my story, but I didn't want to sanitize it either." Kids as young as age 10, he adds, have read the book and didn't seem to be fazed, and among the parents and grandparents who have read it, none objected to the scene.
"The Sailweaver's Son" is Minerd's debut novel, and the first bit of creative writing he's published in about two decades. Before switching gears to science and medical writing — which has been published through The National Institutes of Health, MedPage Today, The Futurist, and Scientist magazines — Minerd published short fiction in literary journals, including The North American Review, and won the F. Scott Fitzgerald short story contest.
Minerd dedicated "The Sailweaver's Son" to his son, Noah, who is also a writer and an avid fan of the fantasy genre. "It never would have occurred to me to try writing a fantasy book for young readers if he and I hadn't read so many together over the years," he says.
"The Sailweaver's Son" is the first book in Minerd's "Sky Riders of Etherium" set. Minerd is currently writing the second book, "The Wizard's Daughter," which will focus more on Brieze, Tak's unflappable companion from the first book.
For more on Minerd and his writing, visit jeffminerd.com.
"Nana, the Yoga Teaching Gnome" is Jennifer Lang Boehl's short, sweet picture book written with a snappy, nursery rhyme cadence. The story follows sisters Emily and Josephine on a journey to their Nana's house for a yoga class. Along the way, they ask for directions from various animals, who join them on their trek. And on each page, Boehl alludes to ways that yoga is beneficial, promoting health, balance, kindness, and gratitude.
An Irondequoit native, Boehl dedicated the book to her mother, the real life "Nana" to Boehl's twin daughters, Jaylin and Jenna. "My mother has always exercised, and yoga has become her favorite practice," she says. "My girls have definitely been inspired by her and love to practice with her during visits. She has shown them the importance of staying healthy, and they now exercise on their own daily."
In addition to writing, Boehl works part-time for the East Irondequoit Central School District as a community education director. She believes that children would benefit from practicing yoga, and would like to see it incorporated into the physical education programs in the schools.
In writing for children, Boehl taps into her own fond memories of exercising her imagination and exploring natural surroundings. "I was privileged to grow up without computers, cellphones, or other devices that keep children inside these days," she says. "The kids in my neighborhood were the best; we were outside from morning until night."
Though the illustrator for "Nana, the Yoga Teaching Gnome," Lemuel Paul Roperos, was assigned to Boehl by the book's producer, Tate Publishing, she's pleased with his dreamy pictures. Two more gnome books will be published in the next four months, and Boehl has requested for Lemuel to do the illustrations.
Boehl's first children's book, "That's Mine, Sissy," was released in 2013, but she wrote it in 2003, when her daughters were young. She self-published a book in 2014 dedicated to her nephew, who has autism, called, "Why Does Davey Do That?" And her novella, "Holly Bristol: Spirit Hunter," is the first in a series she's been writing for young adults.
Learn more at jenniferlangboehl.com.
Kevin Kurtz has written several science- and nature-oriented books for kids, and since 2010 has participated in science expeditions around the world as an education officer with the International Ocean Discovery Program. He comes back from each trip with material that informs his writing and his classroom visits.
"Sharks and Dolphins" is the latest educational book for early readers by the Rochester-based writer. Using simple language and engaging photographs, the book discusses the similarities and differences between the two large ocean-dwelling creatures, and helps teach concepts about classification, predators, animal adaptations, and the relationships of animals to their habitats.
Kurtz, in 2010, was one of a few educators chosen from across the US to participate in "School of Rock," an intensive educator workshop that took place on the research vessel "JOIDES Resolution" for 10 days at sea. While scientists drilled into a chain of extinct underwater volcanoes in the Pacific Ocean near New Zealand, Kurtz communicated to the general public — through blogs, social media posts, and live Skype tours of the ship for school groups — what the scientists were seeing and doing.
Last May, Kurtz joined the Chicxulub Impact Crater expedition in the Gulf of Mexico — where scientists drilled into the crater from the asteroid impact that wiped out most of the dinosaurs — as an educator-at-sea. He regrouped with scientists a few months later in Germany as they began studying the Chicxulub cores.
One take-away Kurtz had from the expedition was "just the time and effort required for scientists to reach their conclusions," he says. "Also, I got to see hundreds of meters of the crater cores, and even as someone who is not a trained geologist, it was easy for me to see the energy and destruction that was released by the asteroid impact."
Kurtz says he started seriously thinking about becoming a writer when he was in 4th or 5th grade. "I also loved science as a kid, particularly astronomy, geology, and anything related to animals," he says.
Daunted by the challenge of getting published and making a living as a writer after college, Kurtz took a job as an educator at a marine biology lab in Charleston, South Carolina, giving tours and hosting programs for schools groups in the labs and in some of the aquatic habitats.
"I found I really loved communicating science to the public, particularly to school kids," he says. While working as an educator at the South Carolina Aquarium in 2005, Kurtz couldn't find many in-print children's books about salt marshes — an ecosystem he adored. "I thought to myself, I should write that book."
"A Day in the Salt Marsh" was published in 2007, and since then, Kurtz has been writing nonfiction books about science and nature specifically for kids.
"More and more, I find myself drawn to writing about current scientific research, rather than scientific facts we have known for decades," he says. And he's finding that kids are connecting with these topics; they're excited to know there is still a lot to learn and discover about our world.
Kurtz has two more nonfiction picture books coming out with Arbordale Publishing in the next year and a half. "A Day in a Forested Wetland" will be the fourth book in his "A Day in a Habitat" series. The other is a book that compares and contrasts living and nonliving things — "which is actually a lot more complicated topic than it may initially sound," he says. He's also gearing up to write at least two books about the Chicxulub Impact Crater expedition.
Learn more about Kurtz and his work at kevkurtz.com.
Susan Williams Beckhorn's new middle grade novel, "The Wolf's Boy," is about an outcast boy and a young wolf struggling together against an Ice Age winter. The book came out in September, and has received starred reviews with Kirkus, Book List, and School Library Journal, and will be the Junior Library Guild Book Club's choice for December.
Beckhorn is known for her award-winning 2006 middle grade book, "The Wind Rider," set in prehistoric Western Asia, about a wild-hearted young girl who longs for — and seizes — the same freedom her twin brother enjoys.
"The Wolf's Boy," Beckhorn's first book starring a male protagonist, is set in Paleolithic times and tells the story of Kai, a boy born with a clubfoot who was abandoned as an infant and raised by a pack of yellow wolves. Now part of a human community but mostly shunned, he discovers a motherless cub in the wolf pack and brings her back to live with him. As winter sets in, so does the nervousness of the people who see the wolf as a threat. Kai and the wolf set out to survive together in the wild North.
The story was born of Beckhorn's interest in how formerly wild animals, in particular dogs, cats, and horses, have developed such deep relationships with humans over time.
"When I was searching for a setting for my 'first dog' story," Beckhorn says, "I asked Mark Derr, author of 'How the Dog Became the Dog,' where such a story might take place."
Derr said that dogs could have been domesticated many places at different times in history, and mentioned China and the Middle East. But something special clicked, Beckhorn says, when he mentioned Chauvet Cave in southeastern France, where in 1994 fossilized footprints were found of a boy and a canine, apparently walking side-by-side.
"Chills ran up my spine and I knew this would become the heart of my story," Beckhorn says.
Now a resident of the rural Western New York town of Rexville (south of Rochester, near the Pennsylvania border), Beckhorn grew up in Winchester, Massachusetts, in a family of environmentalists, educators, and writers. From her early years, she developed a lifelong fondness for animals, nature, and reading.
"Some of my favorite memories are crowding around on a bed with Mum or Dad, listening to a story; taking turns riding our pony, Maple Sugar, on a trail in the woods with our dog, Spike, trotting along at our sides; or rowing around the swamp in a big old rowboat at our lake in New Hampshire, catching fish, turtles, and frogs," she says.
Beckhorn's books have a strong theme of nature in them, and more than one centers on youths struggling to find a place within their society while forming strong bonds with animals. Both "The Wolf's Boy" and "Wind Rider" contain a theme of people grappling with wilderness, and have central characters with strong connections to nature.
"Until very recently in the broad spectrum of time, humans were born, grew up, and proved themselves in nature," she says. "It's only in the past couple of centuries that we've drawn away into manmade environments. I feel very fortunate to have been raised with a strong connection to nature and I want, in my writing, to share that with kids."
Beckhorn says her next book is a story that again takes place in prehistory, this time in the Caribbean, involving a girl and a boy from conflicting cultures, "and a very special dog."
Learn more about Beckhorn and her books at suebeckhorn.com.