Interview with author Julie Bowe

Today on the blog, we have our first ever interview with author Julie Bowe. Julie has written books for kids of all ages and currently lives in Wisconsin. Her latest book Big and Little Questions (according to Wren Jo Byrd) received a starred review from Publishers Weekly.

headshot of children's author Julie Bowe for interview post

When your kids were young, did you read aloud to them?

Yes! From the time they were babies into their early teens. It was a great way to spend time together, plus it gave us a chance to talk about the stories we were reading and relate them to our own lives.

How did you incorporate reading with them into your daily routines?

I read books to them every evening, even after they were old enough to read on their own. We also loved audio books. My son, especially, loved listening to stories while he played, or when we were driving in the car. We visited the library often! We regularly attended story time and checked out stacks of books to bring home and read together.

What were some of your favorite books you and your kids read together?

We read tons of picture books as well as chapter books and novels. We all enjoyed getting into series books like The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. My daughter and I read many of the American Girl series books together and my son couldn’t get enough of Artemis Fowl, The Ranger’s Apprentice, and the Warriors series. I loved reading childhood “classics” to them too, like Charlotte’s Web, Harriet the Spy, and all the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We also totally enjoyed non-fiction books about animals, planets, and historical events.

Why did you decide to write children’s books?

A big part of my desire to write for kids came from reading to my own kids. I had also worked with children at camps and churches for a number of years before staying at home with my daughter and son. I have always been passionate about helping kids figure out who they are and how they want to make a difference in the world. I began freelance writing curriculum for children when my daughter was a toddler and that grew into an interest in writing books for children too. I love writing stories about kids who are in a transitional place in their lives (moving away, making new friends, etc.) and discovering how they make the transition in their own way.

What does the creative process look like for you? Where do you get inspiration for new books and characters?

I especially like to write in the morning when my brain is fresh and the coffee is hot! But when I’m working on a story, it’s always on my mind. Often ideas for a scene, or a snatch of dialogue will pop into my mind while I’m doing something else during the day. So I’m always jotting down ideas or portions of scenes on scraps of paper. Then I’ll take the scraps of ideas to my computer and type them into the story. I do most of my writing at my home computer, but I also like to write in public places so I can observe people and hear the rhythm of language. I think it helps me create characters who seem like real people when I do some of my writing with people, especially kids, around. The kids I see are often inspiring. I once met a young girl at a school visit who inspired the idea for my book, Big & Little Questions (According to Wren Jo Byrd). Another time I saw a girl at a mall who inspired the character named Randi, in my Friends for Keeps series. The main character in that series, Ida May, was very much inspired by my own daughter, who was in elementary school at the time I was writing the first book in the series, My Last Best Friend.

What do you hope children (and maybe their parents) take away from your books?

I hope they will see a little bit of themselves in my stories and learn something new about who they are and how they want to thrive in the world. All of my stories deal with the ups and downs of friendship, so I hope they inspire young readers to strive to be kind and supportive friends to one another.

What was it like to find out your book, Big & Little Questions, was named to Barnes and Noble’s Best Books of the Year 2017 list?

I was very happy to hear the news! It’s always affirming when my books are well received by major reviewers, but my favorite reviews come from young readers themselves when they write to tell me they love my books. Such reviews make the hard job of writing good stories really worthwhile.

What is one piece of advice you would give to children or young adults, who want to become authors or illustrators when they get older?

The best way to become a good writer is to be an avid reader! Read lots and lots of books. Write lots and lots of stories. Don’t worry about whether or not your stories are “good enough” to be published. Write because you love to write.

Any additional thoughts/comments on early literacy, the importance of books, or family engagement and reading?

I truly believe the greatest gift you, as a parent or caregiver, can give to a child is to read to them. Make reading a part of your child’s daily routine. Even just fifteen minutes a day will make a positive impact on a child’s life. And chances are it will make a positive impact on your life too.

For more information about Julie and her books please visit her website

How to read aloud to kids younger than age 5

One of the best ways to support your child’s growth and development is to read aloud with them. It is especially important to start early, as research shows 85 percent of the brain is developed by age 3. The benefits of reading aloud are well documented and programs like Reach Out and Read (ROR) are supported by a large evidence-base. However, it can be intimidating to read with a squirmy 2 year old or to read aloud to kids who cannot yet talk themselves. Below are some tips to keep in mind when reading with young children.

Newborn to 6 months

Mom reading to newborn

  • Babies want to hear your voice. They will enjoy when you talk, sing or read with them
  • Make eye contact with your baby when possible
  • Point to different pictures and name what you see. Talk about the color, sizes, quantity and shapes of things you see
  • Babies will enjoy looking at books with other baby’s faces in them
  • Babies will not focus on a story the way an older child can. Do not get discouraged if they squirm or are not looking directly at the book. They are still listening
  • Babies enjoy high contrast books (black and white)
  • Incorporate books into daily routines like nap time, bed time and play time

Ages 6 to 12 months

Child's doctors appointment with book

  • Babies may chew on board books, this is how they explore and it is okay
  • Continue to name objects and pictures for your baby
  • Babies may point or pat pictures on page to show interest
  • Babies may say a few words like “ma”, “ba” and “da”
  • Books with few words are best

Ages 12 to 24 months

Parents reading a book to toddler

  • Children can turn board book pages on their own, let them help
  • Continue to name objects and pictures
  • Don’t be afraid to use silly voices or make sounds related to the story you are reading. Kids love this

Ages 2 to 3

  • Toddlers love to hear the same story again and again
  • Toddlers are learning two to four new words per day
  • As you read, ask questions about the story and talk about the pictures you see
  • Toddlers can turn paper pages, often two or three at a time

Ages 3 to 4

  • Children will sit still for longer stories
  • Continue to ask questions about the story. If reading a familiar story ask “what happens next”
  • Point out numbers and letters
  • Ask child what book they want to read or take them to the library to pick out books

Ages 4 to 5 

Young girl reading with doctor

  • Children recognizes letters and numbers
  • Help build your child’s social emotional skills by relating the story to their own experiences
  • Point out numbers and things to count in the story
  • Ask the child to tell you the story
  • Kids may want to explore books on their own, which is great. You can continue to ask questions about the stories and offer to read with them, when they want.

One final piece of advice, even if you only share a few minutes per day looking at books or reading aloud, it is okay. It is still time you are spending together and you are helping them make connections and learn.

Book’em now or book’em later

I really don’t know what possessed me to become an Appleton police officer after graduating from UW-Madison with a degree in sociology. Little did I know when I retrieved the police officer job posting from the garbage can and applied for the position, my life would forever change. Thus began my 11 year odyssey in law enforcement. My first seven years were spent as a patrol officer. I then decided to specialize in juvenile law and sensitive crimes. The last three years of my career were spent in a local Division 1 high school where even a seasoned officer got an eye-full of serious teen problems. There were the regular thefts, fights and car accidents in the school parking lot; but, who would have guessed the amount of truancy, illegal drugs, teen pregnancy, suicide attempts and more that I frequently encountered.  

The power of reading first-hand

Mom reading to her two sons, librarian
Me reading to my boys, Nicholas and Steven

By the time I had one little boy and another on the way, I made the decision to leave law enforcement to stay home with my boys. My boys are in college now and I miss having their fat cheeks to kiss.

My favorite thing to do with my boys was to read to them. We all loved it. I would bring armfuls of picture books home from the library. One of my boys would sit for long periods of time focused on our books. The other was busy with toys as he listened, but he did listen. After everything I had seen as a police officer, I knew my boys were lucky. Some of you might be thinking, “Well, that’s what mom’s do. What’s the big deal?” 

Older brother reading to his younger brother, librarian
Nicholas, reading to his younger brother, Steven

To be perfectly honest, I thought I was just doing what comes naturally. I was wrong. Adults don’t just naturally “know” their relationships with their children, and shared activities like  talking, singing, reading, writing (scribbling qualifies) and playing are so critical to everything in life that comes after. Parents learn how to do this, by observation and learning at some point in their own life. But not all parents have had this behavior modeled for them. It would be great if every child in the world grew up in this type of environment. It would be ideal if parents themselves had these secure, healthy experiences during childhood so they were confident in their abilities to read aloud and felt empowered as their child’s first teacher.

When I look back, everything in my life led me to become a children’s librarian. Many people chuckle, scratch their head and ask, “Why would you do that?” or “That’s kind of a radical career change, isn’t it?” I smile and occasionally tell people that it makes perfect sense to me. I am now in the business of crime prevention. I became a librarian for many reasons, but that is one of the outcomes of my work now.

I have always loved young people and wanted to make a difference in their lives. I want to help them stay on the path to happy, healthy and productive lives. Of course, the factors that lead people down different life paths are varied and complicated. I was never under the illusion that I would save the world after I earned my master’s degree in Library and Information Science, but I hope I can contribute and make a difference.

The evidence is clear. Reading to children helps them develop print awareness, vocabulary and letter identification as well as letter sound recognitions. It also helps children learn to tell stories from beginning to end. These skills are all necessary before reading can begin. Unfortunately, the achievement gap starts early. Love of reading must be learned at an early age and failure to instill a love of reading can impair long-term interest in learning. Over half of all parents don’t read to their children every night. The percentage gets higher for families living in poverty.

Reading difficulty contributes to school failure, truancy, school dropout, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse and teenage pregnancy. Here are some staggering figures:  

  • Seventy percent of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a 4th grade level
  • Eighty-five percent of children in the juvenile court system are functioning at a low literacy level
  • The cost of incarceration in the United States is estimated to be between 80 billion and one trillion dollars each year

However, every $1.00 we invest in quality early childhood programs, society gets back $4 – $9. Even if you look at the situation from a purely economic standpoint, investment in quality early learning programs makes sense. Through programs like Reach Out and Read (ROR) we can provide children in our communities with an evidence-based and scalable program that helps start children off on the right track in life.

The wonderful thing about ROR is that it reaches so many families with small children. Who do you think is best equipped to influence parents’ child rearing practices….a librarian, a teacher or a physician? I think we all know the answer to that. When doctors talk, we listen. Here in the Fox Cities, the United Way, public libraries and area health systems are all pulling together to expand ROR throughout the region. Our goal is to have all potential well-child visit sites in the Fox Cities implementing ROR by the end of 2018. It’s spreading fast. I think we’ll reach our goal.

Please give all children a fair chance in life and support quality early childhood education programs like Reach Out and Read.

My Reach Out and Read program

Dr. Richard Strauss began the first Reach Out and Read program in Wisconsin in 1997.
Dr. Richard H. Strauss

In July 1997 the first Reach Out and Read (ROR) Wisconsin program and the 50th in the nation, was started at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center (now Gundersen Health System) in La Crosse. Nine months prior I had attended a workshop at the American Academy of Pediatrics meeting in Boston and learned how to establish a ROR program. Dr. Perri Klass, the national medical director of ROR, showed us how to encourage literacy during well-child visits. She encouraged providers that a new, developmentally-appropriate book could be given to children along with anticipatory guidance to their parents at well child visits from 6 months through 5 years. I remember sitting in the workshop thinking, “what a terrific idea, program, mission, dream, reason to raise money, way to spend money and way to teach families the importance of books, reading and literacy.”

Fast forward 20 years and there are nearly 20 ROR sites in the La Crosse region, 200 in the state and 6,000 in the country. There are 100,000 additional books in the homes of thousands of children in the Coulee Region.

What do I like most about ROR? There are too many things to list but here are a few of my favorites: ROR has three main components, all of which take place in medical offices where children have well-child visits:

1. A literacy-rich waiting area without a TV; promotion of the public library and applications for library cards in the waiting area; and a supply of slightly used books which can be taken home

2. Developmental advice and counseling by doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants during the well-child visit

3. The gift of a new, developmentally-appropriate book to the child at well-child visits from 6 months to 5 years of age. ROR providers give up to 10 books to add or build a child’s home library. It is sad knowing those 10 books may be the only books in some households but at the same time, it can be wonderful, because 10 books are better than none, or one, or nine.

I love when a child arrives at the clinic remembering having received a customized book at their last visit (with their name and signed by their doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant) and eager for a new book.

The prescription to read 20 minutes a day has no ill effects. How many other prescriptions come without potentially bad side effects?

Early childhood brain research shows nearly 80 percent of a child’s brain infrastructure is formed during the first 36 months of life. ROR-trained doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants discuss with parents the importance of talking, singing and reading aloud with young children. The first five years of a child’s life offer a critical window for brain development, and ROR seizes that opportunity in order to promote kindergarten readiness and future academic success.

Clinics with ROR programs now touch the lives of one in five Wisconsin children younger than 6 years of age in 54 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Parents involved with ROR are 2.5 times more likely to read to their children. Children’s language development is improved by three to six months in ROR families compared to their peers who have not been involved in ROR programs, and language ability increases with exposure to ROR. What is more rewarding than that?

In summary, ROR Wisconsin gives young children and their parents a foundation for success by incorporating books into pediatric care and encouraging families to read aloud together.