Simply 7 with Art Coulson–“Look, Grandma! Ni, Elisi!”

Math picture books are a niche market in and of themselves.  Sometimes they can be hard concepts to find a good story for, but that is NOT the case with today’s book.  It ties Cherokee traditions, high end math concepts, and story together in one amazing package!

Photo Credit: Ivy Vainio

Art Coulson is a writer of Cherokee, English and Dutch descent and comes from a family of storytellers. Some of his earliest memories are of listening to stories and reading books on his grandmother’s lap. He has been a writer his whole life. A Navy brat, Art traveled the world as a child, attending 14 schools on three continents before graduating high school. Art served as the first executive director of the Wilma Mankiller Foundation in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma after an award-winning 25-year career in journalism. Today, Art lives in Minneapolis, but still visits friends and relatives in the Cherokee Nation several times a year.  You can learn more about him at his website.

“Look, Grandma! Ni, Elisi!” is a picture book that doesn’t settle for the typical math inclusion of subtraction or addition for young learners.  Instead, it focuses on volume, area, and capacity! AND it has the child solve the problem on his own.  Plus it also ties in Cherokee traditions in multiple ways.

Bo is a young Cherokee boy who has finished decorating some stone marbles.  He is excited to be able to sell them with his family at a craft booth at the Cherokee National Holiday festival.  BUT first, he must find the perfect container to fit them all, as well as fit the booth space.  What a brilliant way to teach volume! This is a book I definitely want in my own classroom to share with students!

Welcome Art!

Me: You have written a variety of books in a variety of genres, including Middle Grade.  What is it then that draws you to writing picture books?

Art: I have written many MG chapter books and a novel that will be coming out next spring. I wanted to try different forms, so this past 18 months while I was holed up in my pandemic lair, I wrote a picture book, two graphic novels and a play. I also began to work on my next major project, a YA horror novel. It’s really exciting to stretch myself creatively and find the right form for the stories in my head. Because “Ni, Elisi!” is part of a picture book series, the format was a given when I started. But I had fun working with the editor and math consultant to tell just the right story in the space I had.

Me: This book is part of a series of picture books on Storytelling Math from Charlesbridge.  Can you tell us a little bit about your book journey?  How did this book come about?  Were you approached in a work-for-hire situation to write this book, or was this one of your own manuscripts that just happened to find the perfect market?

Art: A fellow writer passed along a Charlesbridge solicitation for math stories suitable for preschoolers. I attended a virtual session with editor Alyssa Mito Pusey and math consultant Marlene Kliman and sent in some pitches. They picked one and I ran with it. It was a very collaborative process as the story developed. When I look back at them, I’m amazed at how little resemblance the final book bears to the first draft.

Me: Most of the picture books I’ve seen with a math concept worked into the plot tend to be about basic concepts like counting or adding and subtracting.  Your book chose to take on the concept of volume, capacity, AND area in a really clever way.  Was this always part of your story or did it come up in revision?  Where did the idea come from?

Art: Alyssa and Marlene provided a list of math concepts they wanted to include in the series, volume being one of them. I immediately thought of a few volume-related story ideas. In revisions, the items for which the main character needs to find a container changed. But we knew from the start that we wanted to show young readers how shape and size affected how much a container could hold. It was also important that the main character, Bo, should be able to try different approaches and solve the everyday math problem himself.

Me:  The illustrations by Madelyn Goodnight are wonderful.  Were there any illustration surprises for you?  What was your favorite illustration from the book?

Art: Mady just nailed it with her illustrations. I loved her color palette and the way that she included so many cultural touches in each page. I think my favorite illustration comes about midway through the book – the view of Bo from above as he flops down on his bed in frustration when he has difficulty figuring out his math problem. Anyone who has children recognizes that part of the young person’s “problem-solving process.” A close second favorite illustration is the scene in the family’s booth at the Cherokee National Holiday. It’s perfect in every way – almost like being there.

Me: Haha!  I loved that overhead picture too.  What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?

Art: I’ve written novels and chapter books, short stories, plays and graphic novels. None of them comes close to the level of work it took me to write this picture book. I came into the project thinking, “It’s only 500 words – I’ll just dash it off.” How wrong I was… From planning art page-by-page to ensuring the words on each page give us good page turns, this was just a lot of work. But it was a labor of love, and Alyssa and Marlene were there with me every step of the way. I enjoyed the collaborative process with Mady and the design team at Charlesbridge as well. I’m really proud of how the book turned out and proud to be part of Storytelling Math.

Me: Any advice for new picture book writers?

Art: Approach the book as a group effort with the editors, artists, designers and other members of the publishing team. The words are an important part of the story, but they are not the only part. I’m married to an amazing artist who has helped me to think more visually in my writing over the years. Approaching the writing of a story with a visual mindset ensures that the artwork becomes interwoven with the words. The artwork is itself integral to the story, not something created afterward to brighten a dull page. 

Me: I love that!  Can you tell us about any future book projects you might have coming out?

Art: I actually have two other books coming out the same week as Ni, Elisi! The other two books are middle grade chapter books in a new series from Capstone called Wilderness Ridge. The series is aimed at young readers who like to hunt and fish and spend time in the outdoors. My first two books in the series are Lure of the Lake and Trophy Buck. My friend Monica Roe wrote two other books in the series coming out this week, Duck Hunting Dreams and Turkey Hunt Tradition. Monica and I have four more books in the series to be published next spring (my two are about ice fishing and pheasant hunting). Also coming next spring from Reycraft Books is my first middle grade novel, Chasing Bigfoot. Yes, it’s been a busy couple of years for me.

Wow Art!  It sounds like the pandemic really was fruitful for your writing.  Congratulations on so many books coming out.  And thank you again for stopping by my blog.

Dear readers, this is a fantastic picture book.  It really takes such a complicated subject (volume, capacity AND area!) and breaks it down so simply for kids.  Trust me when I say this is a book you won’t want to miss, especially if you are a classroom teacher or have a young reader struggling with higher math concepts.

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