Meet Staci Schwartz: Medical Doctor (former specialist in Geriatric Medicine and Geriatric Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation), now a mother, children’s book author and illustrator.
Impressed? So are we! Staci is one of our friends at BullyingEpidemic.com, because in addition to all her other skills she’s also a passionate bullying prevention advocate.
BullyingEpidemic.com (BE) checked in with Staci to learn more about her creative process.
BE: When did you decide to become a writer?
Staci Schwartz: I’ve always loved children’s books, and began writing alternate endings to well-known fairy tales when I was in junior high. In high school, I wrote and illustrated my first original story for an art project. Throughout college and medical school, I shared these wacky fairy tales and original stories with family and friends, and kept a small notebook where I could jot down ideas for future stories.
After my daughter was born, the creative floodgates opened, and that list in my little notebook grew exponentially as I thought of all of the things I wanted to teach her in a fun, non-preachy manner. I wrote about washing her ticklish feet, about what our house could look like if we didn’t clean up our messes after eating and playing, and about silly misunderstandings of words that occurred as she was learning to speak.
Staci Schwartz: I’ve always been a person who appreciates kindness, and when I became a parent, kindness, acceptance, and respect are traits I wanted to ingrain in my child’s character. I don’t believe these traits are innate. They need to be taught, formally or through modeling.
Also, I think teachers used to spend more time on social graces in the classroom. Today’s academic requirements and the overall pace of curricula leave little time for this. I truly believe this is one cause for the increased incidence of bullying and intolerance we’re seeing now.
Character education should be part of every primary grade curriculum if we want to raise kind, respectful, inclusive, and tolerant children. These lessons can be introduced both at home and at school through stories that are part of the regular reading curriculum, like The New Bear on the Block and Billy the Baaadly Behaving Bully Goat.
BE: Do you test your books out by reading them to kids?
Staci Schwartz: Yes! I field-test every one of my books in classrooms. I perform interactive readings complete with props, puppets, and sound effects. I invite children to participate by acting out certain parts, telling me how they feel about something a character did or said, or repeating important phrases. I like to see what makes them laugh, and make sure they understand words that are new for them (eg., apologize, courtesy, respect).
I also value feedback from teachers, parents, and caregivers on my books and the accompanying Teacher & Student Activity Guides. It makes my day when an adult says their child has chosen one of my books for bedtime reading (repeatedly), or taken my book to class for story time.
BE: What age groups do you reach with your stories?
Staci Schwartz: My stories are designed as “picture book readers” for children aged 4 to 9.
The rhyming verse appeals to preschool and kindergarten children, and allows them to experience rhythm and cadence and anticipate upcoming sounds. Children in first through third grade can usually read my stories independently. Again, the rhyme helps early readers recognize words with similar sounds and the illustrations provide clues to what’s happening on the page.
I’ve used these books with children in fourth and fifth grades to talk about bullying prevention strategies, identify upstander and bystander behaviors, differentiate teasing from bullying, and illuminate the concepts of tolerance, inclusion, and empathy. They are not challenged by the text, so they can focus on the deeper meanings of the stories.
My books can be used with great success in “Book Buddy” programs where older children are paired with younger children. They’re easy for the older child to read, entertaining for the younger one, and provide wonderful discussion topics for mentor relationships.
Also, I’ve been told my stories reach parents and teachers because they’re fun to read aloud, and I include subtle humor in my illustrations for adult readers to enjoy. For example, a rough approximation of “Starry Night” appears in Mr. And Mrs. Goat’s living room in Billy the Baaadly Behaving Bully Goat; the artist’s name is Vincent Van Goat.
BE: How do you create your illustrations?
Staci Schwartz: When I write my stories, I actually “see” the characters and action in my head. For me, the most challenging part of illustrating is imagining what the character looks like in three dimensions and from all angles. Some illustrators use computer software, but I really enjoy building the images by hand. I draw each picture five times: once in pencil, then in watercolor pencil, then I use a wet paintbrush to get the desired watercolor effect, then I add colored markers, and finally, I outline the drawings in black marker. I usually create the images on a bigger scale and shrink them down when I copy them to improve the color saturation.
BE: Tell us about a couple of your favorite illustrations.
Staci Schwartz: My favorite illustration in The New Bear on the Block is one in which Mr. Grizzly Bear has smashed his glasses, and as he blindly stumbles on to the porch, he puts his left foot directly into the cake the duck had baked as a welcome gift. I love this illustration because it always makes the children laugh when I read this story in a classroom.
My favorite illustration in Billy the Baaadly Behaving Billy Goat is of Billy as a baby, and it shows that even at the tender age of 1, he already acted like a bully towards other children. I love this illustration because it was really fun to picture Billy, a character I created, as a baby. Also, I think it makes an important point in the story – that is, that Billy behaved baaadly for a very long time. That’s what he was used to. That’s why, even with the use of magic dust, it took a while for him to realize that he could behave differently … and then a bit longer for him to choose to behave differently.
BE: Can you give any hints about the next themes you’ll be tackling?
Staci Schwartz: Currently, I’m illustrating my third book, Webster the Spider, a tale of a spider forced to reveal his amicable feelings toward flies, rather than considering them as a mere source of nourishment. His fellow spiders do not take the news well and refuse to accept this “flaw.” Meanwhile, the gentle flies are hurt when they learn Webster is ashamed to be their friend. Will Webster succumb to the menacing tactics of peer pressure? Or will he preserve his right to have a difference of opinion, celebrate true friendship, and stand up for his beliefs.
I have also written four other stories, Piggy Pizz-Zye, Please Clean Up Your Sty!, How Do you Wash Ticklish Feet?, Tee Pees, and I Miss My Little Pipsqueak! I hope to share these with you and your readers very soon.
BE: Great hearing from you, Staci! And thanks for giving us a peek behind the scenes of creating wonderful books for children that help teach the message of caring, empathy and standing up for others. We’ll be looking forward to seeing your new books!
Staci Schwartz’s books are available on Amazon.com