Category Archives: Inspiring People

Why is Children’s Author Dan Gutman Playing Baseball with a Dinosaur?

Helping your child learn how to read definitely requires some patience…

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However, once they reach second grade, AR quizzes begin and they are expected to say goodbye to Dr. Seuss and hello to easy chapter books. Back when my older daughter was little…

She heard the words “chapter books” and came home with these!

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Just a few weeks before, my child couldn’t even read the word “forget.” There is no possible way she could read or understand the complex words in those books.  I needed to help her find a book that was just right.  A book that she was actually reading and not pretending to read.

We tried SO MANY easy chapter series books…

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None of them were good enough.  She still hated to read. How was I going to get her to read 25 books in a school year for those AR quizzes???  So I asked her, “What kind of book do you WANT to read?” She wanted to read a “weird” book!

So, truth be told, I googled “easy read weird chapter series” and I came up with The Weird School Series by Dan Gutman!

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They were perfectly weird!!! 

She loved them and read every singe book in that series.  To this day, she has developed a love for reading from these books and I am forever grateful to Dan Gutman for writing them.

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I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dan last week to talk about his imagination!  Dan Gutman is a freelance children’s book author, who has published over 120 books.  He LOVES to write fact based fiction!

I thought to myself…Since Dan writes fact based fiction, was he inspired by his own “weird” childhood school when he wrote the My Weird School series?

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“I got the idea for the My Weird School series when my daughter Emma was in second grade. She was really enjoying the Junie B. Jones books, and I wanted to try a series for that age group. I thought it would be cool if there was something like Junie B. Jones told by a boy. Most of the books in Weird School, you may have noticed are dedicated to Emma. The first title Miss Daisy is Crazy came from the old song Tutti Fruiti….had a gal named Daisy, she almost drove me crazy.”

Dan has written SO MANY books, but what is his FAVORITE book?

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Dan Gutman loves his book Johnny Hangtime! “It is the story about a boy who is a Hollywood stunt man. He’s always jumping out of windows and having himself set of fire…I like to take an ordinary kid and put that kid into extraordinary situations.”

Dan loves his job!  “I have the freedom to work at home, to write what I want, and to go on vacation when I want…”  Dan loves getting emails from parents, teachers and librarians, telling him about the kids who develop a love for reading from his books!

What is Dan’s greatest moment of his career so far?

(Caution for viewers…explicit words in video)

“It happened just a few weeks ago.  On his HBO show, John Oliver spent five minutes talking about my book The Kid Who Ran for President. The book is nearly 20 years old and had pretty much stopped selling…within 24 hours, it was one of the best selling books in America! Very exciting!”  I remember reading your post and jumping up and down for you, Dan!  SO awesome!

So, how did Dan get started in this career of writing books for children?

When Dan was little, he loved to learn by reading non-fiction.  All that reading gave him to tools to create his children’s books! Dan went to college and studied Psychology, but it just didn’t feel like the right choice. He started writing when he was 25 years old.

“I always enjoyed writing letters to my friends, so I just decided to start writing.”

Dan tried several different styles of writing, such as newspaper articles, magazine articles, screenplays and non-fiction for adults.  Nothing felt right…

“Then, my son Sam was born in 1990 and I started reading children’s books for the first time since I was a kid. I decided to try writing for kids. And as soon as I did, I felt, THIS is what I am good at! THIS is what I should have been doing all along! So, I switched to writing for kids.”

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Dan Gutman has two children…Sam is now 26 and Emma is 21. “Sometimes we would sit on the front porch of the house and I would challenge them to guess the color of the next car to drive down the street. It got very competitive!”

It got me thinking, what would Dan play when he was little?

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Sometimes he liked to pretend he was a dog sitting under the table, but mostly Dan loved playing Little League baseball!  Now I completely understand why baseball loving kids everywhere love his Baseball Card Adventure Series.  He poured his own love for baseball into those books!  While we don’t have baseball fans in our house (we are a hockey family…go Sabres), I have heard amazing things about this baseball series.  Be sure you check it out, if you have a Little League player of your very own!

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Which leads me to this question…

Why on earth did I create a silly portrait of Dan Gutman playing baseball with a dinosaur?

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As you probably already know, I am a wish granting digital artist and soon-to-be children’s book author, who captures the imagination of little dreamers worldwide by giving them the dream pet they have always wanted.

I asked Dan, “When you were a child, if you could have any animal in the world, what would your dream pet be?”

Dan wasn’t really into animals.  His childhood dreams were “to be a rock and roll star or a professional baseball player.” If he were to pick a dream pet today, it would have to be Rappy the Raptor, which is a picture book he wrote about a rapping dinosaur! Dan’s newest Rappy book Rappy Goes To School just came out in June! He would definitely want to play baseball with Rappy!

Enjoy your afternoon of baseball, Dan!  Thank you so much for speaking with me!  I love your imagination!!!

So, if you are interested in some seriously awesome books by Dan Gutman, stop by and check them out! He has written over 120 books!!

Here are the books I have mentioned…

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What is your favorite Dan Gutman book?

Let us know what makes you smile!

Blog Images:  Baseball picture from Julie McGann Fine Art Portraits, Dan‘s Book Covers from Amazon, Dan’s pictures from Amazon and his Personal Collection, Stock Images from Camelfobia and various personal stock

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Why is Children’s Author Tara Lazar Having a Tea Party with a Bunch of Frogs?

I have always considered myself a Toys-R-Us Kid.

I wear a pony tail almost every day, because I love when it swishes from side to side as I walk. Full House is still one of my all time favorite shows (Yeah, I almost named my daughter Michelle…lol). Oh and between you and me, I may or may not have just had my hair cut like Kimmy Gibbler on the new Fuller House.

My friends often look at me like I have two heads when I come up with my crazy imaginary ideas for portraits! After a while, I felt like my pictures were wasting away on social media. I decided to create children’s books, so they could be in the hands of young children all over the world, who would truly appreciate their whimsical wonder.

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When I began my research for literary agents, I came across Tara Lazar, an amazingly silly author!  She had filled her blog Writing for Kids While Raising Them with an enormous amount of resources for new authors. I discovered her one day when I was looking for information about fractured fairy tales.  Her video was HYSTERICAL! I had finally discovered that there are other people in the world as weird as me! Last week, I had the great pleasure of interviewing Tara to find out more about her wild imagination!

Weird is a side-effect of awesome!

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I was instantly attracted to Tara Lazar‘s newest book Normal Norman, which is an incredibly cute story about a purple orangutan named Norman who thinks he is not-so-normal!  It’s a book that celebrates our weirdness and I love that!

Tara explained, “I have never felt normal. When the name Normal Norman popped into my head one day, all I really knew about him was that he could, in no way, BE NORMAL. He would have to revolt against everything I threw at him, doing unexpectedly zany things instead–proving that normal is impossible to define.”

“It’s the crazy stuff that makes us interesting, the quirks that make us human (or purple orangutan, take your pick)”

nnTara has written several books and loves them as if they were her own children!  She enjoys sharing her stories with children across the country, teaching them about the joys of writing.  Back at home, Tara has two daughters of her own, who also love to use their imagination to write stories. “We love the website Storybird.com where we can pick illustrations and imagine the story behind them. It’s like solving a puzzle with words.”  That truly is a magical site Tara!

Tara believes it is important to give “kids and their parents the chance to laugh together over a book, to share special moments while reading. Those are some of life’s first and best memories.”

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Back when Tara was little, she was extremely attached to her stuffed animals, which she thought were “real animals.” “I remember sitting on my bed, looking up at all of them arranged atop my bookshelves and bawling, pleading with them to talk to me. I thought whatever I ate got magically transferred to their tiny tummies and that they came alive while I was sleeping. “Please say something! I won’t tell anyone your secrets!” I sobbed. Crazy? Maybe. But also good preparation for being a children’s book author.”

So why did I create a silly portrait of Tara having a tea party with a bunch of frogs?

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As you probably already know, I am a wish granting digital artist, capturing the imagination of little dreamers worldwide, by giving them the dream pet they have always wanted.

I asked Tara “When you were a child, if you could have any animal in the world, what would your dream pet be?”

Tara loved building blanket forts as a child. “Oh, how I loved building blanket forts and pretending they were my own home! I made truly EPIC forts because we owned unbelievably huge blankets that could stretch across the entire playroom. My forts had rooms inside. Entire wings, even!”

But why frogs?

Tara’s childhood dream was to have her very own sea of frogs!

“I had my dream pet for one fateful evening. My grandmother and I had gone for a walk and happened upon a COLONY of frogs. I immediately ran toward them and they began hopping away. I was screaming, “Catch one, Grandma, CATCH ONE!” And there’s my plump Italian Nonna bounding after a sea of froggies who were changing directions like starlings. We caught one, placed it in a beach bucket, covered it with foil. I punched small holes in the foil so it could breathe and left it on the back porch. That night we had a terrible, whip-crack thunderstorm and in the morning I discovered a gaping hole in the tinfoil. My very first pet had been spooked and leaped to freedom. I was devastated.”

Oh Tara!  How unbelievably sad! How can I deny her of her dream?!  Enjoy your “sea of frogs,” Tara!  I hope they bring you a “sea” of happiness!!  Thank you so much for speaking with me! I just love your imagination!

So if you are interested in some seriously silly books by Tara Lazar, stop by and check them out!

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It you are an author-in-the-works, like me, be sure to read her wonderful blog Writing for Kids While Raising Them!

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What is your favorite Tara Lazar book?

Let us know what makes you smile!

Blog Images:  Frog picture from Julie McGann Fine Art PortraitsTara’s Book Covers from Amazon, Tara’s Logo from Tara’s Website, Tara’s pictures from Tara’s Facebook Page, Stock Images from Meta Stock, Cassy Blue, Dragoroth Stock, SteppelandStock, and various personal stock

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Why is Rachel Coleman from Signing Time Riding on a Dolphin?

I wasn’t always an artist…

Before I had children, I was a special education music teacher for children with Emotional Behavior Disabilities at Hillside Children’s Center in Rochester, NY.  I used music to soothe anxieties and stimulate non-verbal communication and self expression.  In return, the children showed improved self esteem. I enjoyed bringing smiles to their faces in the midst of their emotional turmoil.

When I became a mother, I decided to leave my job to devote my entire life to making my children’s lives happy and full of love.  I thought about how I could make a difference in the world, while still remaining a stay-at-home Mom. It became my life goal to make the impossible possible for children through art!  However, my love for music will always be strong and it definitely played a large roll in my children’s childhood.

Years ago, the Nickjr channel was called Noggin and it opened up my world to new children’s music!

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That is where I discovered Rachel Coleman!

Many people don’t know this about me, but I have struggled with hearing my entire life. While I am not deaf, I do have hearing loss and wear a hearing aid in one ear. I have spent countless times in my life smiling and nodding in situations where I have no idea what is being said to me.

When I discovered Rachel, at first I was captivated by her happy orange shirt and colorful fingers. However, I was immediately drawn to her message in the song “What are you feeling!”  Not only did it bring music to children who could not hear or communicate verbally, but it also introduced sign language to children who could hear and speak!

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I had an incredible opportunity to speak with Rachel on the phone last week! Her stories tugged at my heart strings!  So much so that I found myself trying really hard to hold back the tears on the other end of the line…only able to muster out the words for my next question. She is an amazing woman and has done so much for children!  I feel so honored to have spoken with her!

For those of you who don’t know her, Rachel Coleman and her sister Emilie own Two Little Hands Productions, which creates educational programming to teach children sign language. Rachel has received many awards for her Signing Time television series, including an Emmy nomination!  She even created a Signing Time Foundation to help make sign language “fun and accessible to all children” throughout the world!

So how did all this begin? Let’s start at the very beginning…

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Rachel grew up in a family of nine children and was always very shy.  Her father was a composer of Mormon music, so the love of music filled their lives on a daily basis.

When Rachel was little, she shared a room with her sister Rebecca who was two years younger than her. They loved to play house together! She remembers a time when they saved up money to buy a plastic clubhouse for their room.

They would often walk down to the local store to buy chocolates.  When the sales woman asked if it was for a gift, they would always say yes, so that each chocolate would be wrapped in the most beautiful wrapping paper. Rachel and her sister would then take them home to their clubhouse and invite all their teddy bears, their pet snail and her sister’s imaginary friend Glandy to join them. Everyone would get a pretty chocolate package to unwrap and enjoy.  It was a memorable imaginary game that Rachel and her sister enjoyed playing often throughout their childhood.

When Rachel was in college, she discovered her music ability as a singer/song writer and played guitar with her folk rock band.  She continued to perform until Rachel discovered her daughter Leah was deaf at 14 months old. She gave up music to devote her life to learning sign language, so that she could communicate with her daughter.

Unlike ordinary imagination games we play with hearing children, Rachel loved to play the Hand Shape Game with her daughter Leah.  It was sort of a like a word association game with signs. Rachel would begin the game by giving a sign and then Leah would have to come up with a sign that has the same hand shape.  It would continue on, until they had run out of ideas. Leah loved this game!brand

Rachel and her sister Emilie decided to start Two Little Hands Productions to help other children and parents learn sign language together through educational videos called Signing Time. It is a family run business. “Rachel and Emilie’s father, Lex de Azevedo, is now the CEO, their youngest brother, Aaron, is involved in production and marketing, and Rachel’s husband, Aaron, is involved in filming.”

“You must believe in your children!”

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Emilie had asked Rachel to create a theme song using her musical talent.  In addition to creating a theme song, she also wrote a song called Show Me A Sign, which they ended up using as the closing credits of each video. This song was dedicated to her other daughter Lucy, who was born with Spinal Bifida and Cerebral Palsy and did not communicate with anyone.  To her surprise, one day, while watching Signing Time, Lucy actually signed “more!” Rachel could not have been more happy!  She had found her life’s purpose!

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Since then, Rachel has written over 200 songs for Signing Time, Potty TimeBaby Signing Time, and her newest series Rachel and the Treeschoolers.  When composing her songs, she sees “music like a puzzle.” Instead of teaching the children random words, she likes to create songs with words teaching them how to be responsible and have manners, such as the sign for clean your room or make your bed. Her songs are filled with love!

“There’s always heart there…my experiences as a Mom and my family.”

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As I spoke to Rachel about family, she told me a tear filled story of another daughter named Laura, who she had when she was 17.  She had given her up for adoption in hopes that she would live a great life that she was not ready to give.  She missed her terribly and wrote a song about her sad feelings called Nobody Would Know.  Even though she had no idea if she would ever meet her again, she still celebrated Laura’s birthday every year.

Back when Rachel realized Leah was deaf, she decided it was important to send a letter to the adoption agency, informing the family.  Then, when Lucy was diagnosed with Spinal Bifida and Cerebral Palsy, she sent another letter.  Rachel never really knew whether or not Laura’s family received these letters, but thought it was important to try and tell her family anyway.

As it turns out, Laura’s family did read those letters!  When Laura was in high school, she decided to learn sign language, so that one day when she met her deaf sister, she would to be able to communicate with her! During her sign language class, someone presented an article on Signing Time’s Rachel Coleman, who just happens to have a little girl who was deaf and a little girl with Spinal Bifida. Could it be?!  The room began to spin as she realized that she was quite possibly looking right at her birth mother’s face!  Tears filled her eyes as she ran from the classroom…

Completely unaware of what had unfolded, Rachel was still hoping that Laura might decide to come and find her on her 18th birthday.  However, when her birthday came and went, Rachel was filled with sadness once again.  Maybe she wouldn’t ever come.  But to her disbelief, on Mother’s Day, Rachel received the email she had been waiting 18 years for.  “Happy Mother’s Day. You are always in my prayers and in my heart.” Laura had written to her!  Rachel’s heart filled with enormous joy that day!  “My heart was healed!” The big day had finally arrived! Laura is now very much a part of Rachel and her family’s lives and they couldn’t be happier!

“My wildest dream had just come true!”

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Rachel has done a lot of amazing things for children, but what was the best moment in her career so far?

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Of course she could say, “Well my Emmy Nomination of course…” However, Rachel‘s greatest moments in her career are not about her at all!  It is about the children and family’s lives that she touches. “It’s the moments I share with the families. I am just so lucky to be a part of it.”

Not once, but FOUR TIMES, children from the Make-A-Wish Foundation wished for a visit from Rachel!

“Out of everything that a child could wish for in their last days, they wished for me!”  

Rachel wanted to make it even more special than just a visit. She told me of one visit, where she flew across the country to give a private concert for one little girl, her family and her closest friends.  She invited her onto the stage for the concert and gave her one of her orange jackets.  It was so incredibly special, because it turns out that what she wanted most in life was to wear one of her orange jackets!

A few months ago, Rachel called to check in on the little girl and she had taken a turn for the worst.  Rachel wanted to surprise her with another visit, but unfortunately, she passed on before she arrived.  Rachel was kind enough to sing at her funeral, because she meant the world to that little girl.

“It’s such a gift to have the love and trust of children.”

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Now you are probably wondering…why on earth did I make a silly picture of Rachel Coleman riding on a dolphin?

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As you probably already know, I am a wish granting digital artist, capturing the imagination of little dreamers worldwide, by giving them the dream pet they have always wanted.

I asked Rachel “When you were a child, if you could have any animal in the world, what would your dream pet be?”

It turns out, when she was little, she was in LOVE with dolphins. She can remember begging her Grandma to allow her have a pet dolphin to keep in her Grandma’s pool.  She wanted to do all kinds of tricks with her dolphin friend, but mostly, she just wanted to ride on the dolphin’s nose.

Rachel has made so many dreams come true for other children, that I was happy to make her childhood dream come true as well!  Enjoy your new pet dolphin Rachel and thank you so much for speaking with me!  I love what you do!!

If you are interested in learning sign language, please visit Rachel Coleman’s website and see what she has to offer!  She has a little something for every age!

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What do you love about Rachel Coleman?

Let us know what makes you smile!

Blog Images:  Dolphin portrait from Julie McGann Fine Art Portraits, logos/series pictures from Two Little Hands Productions, Rachel’s family pictures from Rachel’s Website, Rachel’s business portrait from Rachel’s Facebook Page, dolphin stock from Love Photoshop, and pool stock from Jean52 

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New Monthly Blog Series – Inspiring People

As you know, last week I had the great opportunity to interview Mindy Thomas from The Absolutely Mindy Show on Sirius Xm’s Kids Place Live!  If you missed it, be sure to check out the post!  I was overwhelmed with joy at how much everyone enjoyed my blog post about her…including my absolutely silly portrait of her roller skating with a purple polka dotted elephant!

I had SO much fun speaking with Mindy and writing about her, that I have decided to create a new blog series called Inspiring People.  Every month, I will post a blog about someone who inspires me!  It will not be your ordinary interview…I will try to reach way down and capture the spirit of their inner child!  And once I do that…I will surely make a silly picture of them living out their childhood dreams!

So, if you want to know more about people who inspire me and how I get them to reveal their youngest childhood dreams, stay tuned!  You are not going to want to miss this!

Julie McGann Mindy Web

COMING UP IN THE NEXT FEW MONTHS, WE GET TO LEARN ABOUT…

Kristen Chase, CEO at Cool Mom Picks 

 The creator of an awesome site for weeding out the junk on Pinterest!  I know I spend way too much time surfing Pinterest!

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Tara Lazar, Children’s Author  

Tara’s newest book is Normal Norman! It is an incredibly cute story about a purple orangutan named Norman who thinks he is not-so-normal!  It a book that celebrates our weirdness…and we all know I am full of that!  

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Sign up for my newsletter to be sure you don’t miss these!  

I can’t wait to discover their inner child and create a silly portrait with that spirit shining through!

SUGGEST SOMEONE you admire with mad imagination skills for Julie to interview!

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