Hooked on Books with Forest of Reading 2023 Blue Spruce Award Winner Monica Arnaldo

By Joanne Sallay

Posted in English Tutoring, Featured, Hooked On Books, Local, Parent Education Resources, Tips & Advice

Hooked on Books with Forest of Reading 2023 Blue Spruce Award Winner Monica Arnaldo

Humour is a great way to get young readers excited about books. After all, who doesn’t love to laugh? Funny books are wonderful for students at various reading levels, and can be especially helpful to encourage reluctant readers to pick up a book. As a tutoring service that understands the benefits of routine reading, Teachers on Call strives to inspire a lifelong friendship with books. This is why Hooked on Books was originally started. Through our series, we introduce the latest books for children (and the adults who love them) by Canadian authors and illustrators. It comes as no surprise that our in-person and online tutors (who are also certified teachers) love the Forest of Reading program, which is Canada’s largest recreational reading initiative. In celebration of the 100 titles spotlighted in 2023, Teachers on Call’s president, Joanne Sallay, is sharing interviews with Forest of Reading creators. This blog features Monica Arnaldo, who personally understands the importance of laugh-out-loud humour in children’s literature. Read on to learn more about Monica, and her winning title, Are You a Cheeseburger?

What is the Forest of Reading program?

Run by the Ontario Library Association (OLA), this initiative is Canada’s largest recreational reading program where the readers select the winning titles. The books chosen are all Canadian, so it is a true celebration to spotlight books, publishers, authors and illustrators throughout the country. There are 10 reading award programs in total, including nine categories for students of all ages and one specifically for adults. While the voting for this year has already taken place with the winners announced this May 2023 at the annual Forest of Reading Festival, the festivities do not need to end!

How is Teachers on Call celebrating the Forest of Reading this year?

Whether through schools, local libraries or at home, more than 250,000 readers participate in the Forest of Reading program. This includes elementary, middle and high-school teachers and students from the Teachers on Call community. In celebration of the 100 nominated titles in 2023, Teachers on Call’s president, Joanne Sallay, is featuring interviews with Forest of Reading creators across Canada. Fun fact, her children participate annually in this literacy program, and her son just attended the Festival of Trees at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre for the very first time!

Did you catch our last Hooked on Books with Blue Spruce Award nominee, Bahram Rahman, from Toronto, Ontario? Not to worry if you missed it, click here. For our most recent feature, read on for our interview with Montreal’s Monica Arnaldo and her winning title, Are You a Cheeseburger?

Hooked on Books with Monica Arnaldo

Book: Are You a Cheeseburger?

Written and Illustrated by: Monica Arnaldo

Published by: Katherine Tegen Books

Category: Blue Spruce Award – picture books

For ages: JK – Grade 2

An Interview with Monica Arnaldo

Check out Monica’s answers to our questions below!

Tell us about Are You a Cheeseburger? and how you came up with this original title.

The original idea for the book came about after a conversation with my dad, where he complained about raccoons digging up his front lawn. I distinctly remember having the thought wouldn’t it be funny if they thought they were gardening, and from there—through a series of extremely logical and fact-based tangents— the only food I could imagine a raccoon trying to grow was cheeseburgers. As for the title itself, all the credit goes to my brilliant editor Mabel Hsu who, among many other talents, has an absolute knack for catchy titles.

Living in Montreal, Quebec, do you have a favourite reading and writing nook?

I would love to be one of those people who can write in charming cafes, but for whatever reason I get too distracted by all the conversations happening around me (the reason is that I am extremely nosy and want to eavesdrop). So I do most of my writing in my home studio. The setup actually works perfectly for me because the big, street-level window keeps me accountable to every delivery person or pedestrian that randomly passes by, startling me out of my mind and back into my writing. It’s an ideal system.

Most of the reading I’m doing lately is at my local library, though Montreal has some incredible independent bookstores that I could happily spend hours in. Some favourites with incredible picture book sections are La Petite Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, Librairie Le Port de tête, and Livres Babar Books (in the West Island of Montreal).

What inspired you to create this story about a most unlikely friendship.

It seems wild in hindsight, but the friendship piece of the story actually took a while to emerge. Early drafts mostly focused on this lonely raccoon, Grub, and his single-minded efforts to grow a cheeseburger. The seed was just a seed— it wasn’t until I started to wonder how it would feel about being planted (and about Grub, for that matter) that the duo were born and the story really found its footing. Seed’s voice developed almost on its own from there, and the relationship between the two was just a pure joy to write and explore.

Congratulations on your Blue Spruce Award nomination. What does the Forest of Reading program mean to you personally?

Thank you so much! When I heard I was nominated I was of course overjoyed, especially considering the book had been out for a good two years or so at that point, but one of the funny things about the lifecycle of a book (and this job in general) is that it’s not at all linear, and wonderful things like this can happen seemingly out of the blue.

The past few months have been some of the busiest in my career— I’ve never received so many emails from teachers and librarians (most of which made me cry), been invited to as many virtual readings, or been tagged in as many photos of inspiring classroom activities— all thanks to the Forest of Reading program putting my book in front of a whole slew of Canadians who might not otherwise have found it. It can be rare as an author/illustrator to get to connect to readers in such a tangible way, so I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

What message do you hope students take away from your picture book?

I very much believe that meaning is there for the reader to create, so as much as I may feel like the themes of friendship and acceptance are central to the book, if kids are coming away from the story thinking “I sure do love cheeseburgers” or “that seed has a butt!” that’s absolutely fine by me. There’s so much value in silliness and absurdity, and not just in childhood but for adults as well.

That said, if there are readers going through their own growing pains (either personally or in their relationships with a friend or a parent) who can identify with Seed’s journey and ultimately find comfort in the knowledge that it’s okay to be different than what people might expect and that you should be celebrated just as you are, that would make me wildly happy.

You have written 8 books for young readers; do you have a favourite?

I like to think of my books as my children, and as such I absolutely have a favourite.

Kidding! I do have a special place in my heart for Time for Bed’s Story, which was my first real attempt at writing pure humour and taught me a lot about voice and trusting myself.

And of course, Are You A Cheeseburger? led to me meeting my amazing agent and my wonderful editor, both of whom have truly changed my life for the better.

(But then again, in Time for Bed’s Story a talking bed tells a bedtime-hating kid to their face “YOU are not so great either.” So: a classic toss up.)

As both an author and illustrator, what is the process for writing and illustrating the same book?

It’s absolutely much easier than doing either separately! I love being able to shape a story through both the art and the text— and having the flexibility to go back and make changes to either element as you discover what the story needs is incredibly useful.

I’m lucky to have a few author/illustrator friends, and they each do it differently, but for me what works is figuring out the writing first (including extensive illustration notes) and bringing the art in afterwards. I find I’m much less precious about making big changes to a story when it’s just text, whereas if I introduce art too early I can get a bit too attached to a certain element or character, and that can be unhelpful when it comes time to make edits. Not to mention it’s much faster to rewrite something a hundred times than it is to redraw it, which allows me to explore multiple directions for a story in order to see what fits best.

What’s next for you?

I actually have a new picture book out super soon (June 13th!) called Mr. S. It’s a really chaotic and silly first-day-of-school story about a group of Kindergartners who, upon finding their classroom empty, have to figure out whether or not the impressive-looking sandwich on the desk is, in fact, their teacher (Mr. Sandwich, as it were). There are parallel storylines happening in the artwork, and even some Grub and Seed cameos, so it’s full of twists that I think will really surprise (and possibly outrage) readers.

I’ve also got an even more unlikely book that was just announced and will be out in Summer 2024, called The Museum of Very Bad Smells. It gives me a ridiculous amount of pleasure to say that it’s an immersive, SCRATCH-‘N-SNIFF (!), mystery experience for only the most daring and iron-stomached of readers. I hope that kids will love it and that parents will forgive me.

We hope you enjoy our interview with 2023 Blue Spruce Award Winner Monica Arnaldo. For more Hooked on Books spotlights with Forest of Reading authors and illustrators, check out the Teachers on Call blog!

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