Fiona – Cincinnati’s favorite baby


My encounter with Fiona.

It was love at first sight. Sure, I knew Fiona was cute, but when I saw her floating serenely during a snooze, I was hooked.

My kiddos? Not so much.

“Look at the cute fish in there with her!” they shrieked, rushing past the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s 570 pound baby.

I thought they were crazy but maybe they were on to something. In WCPO community reporter Lucy May and WCPO cartoonist Kevin Necessary‘s new book, “My Best Friend Fiona” Trixie the Tilapia is the narrator. The book will be published by WCPO and a portion of the proceeds go to the Zoo.

book mockup for website copy

I’ve had the privilege of working with WCPO community reporter Lucy for many years. She’s an excellent writer and fair reporter. I jumped on the chance to talk to her about the book about Cincinnati’s favorite baby.

Here’s our converstion. (Kevin said Lucy covered my questions and gave this a thumbs up!)

How did the book come about?
WCPO’s General Manager, Jeff Brogan, came up with the idea. He sent an email to one of our bosses that basically said: Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do a children’s book on Fiona and have it ready in time for the holidays? Lucy could write it, and Kevin could illustrate it. And the idea took off from there.
Do you have a favorite Fiona story? Any personal interactions with her?
I have been a Fiona fanatic since the day the zoo announced her birth. I was lucky to go to the media preview that the zoo hosted one evening when Fiona was first starting to swim in Hippo Cove. I was trying to get a selfie with Hippo Cove in the background, and when I turned around, I was face-to-face with my favorite hippo!

She was staring right at me, and I literally squealed and fell to my knees, losing any appearance of journalistic objectivity.

I know she’s too big for it now, but I would still love to get in the pool and swim with her. 
Have you and Kevin worked together before?
Yes! Kevin and I first collaborated in 2016 on a comics journalism style story called Childhood Saved. That turned into a series of three stories, and we completed the third one earlier this year – just weeks before we started on the book.

Kevin and Lucy bring a stuffed Fiona to the office.

Did you get to work with Cincinnati Zoo as part of your research process? 
Our editor, Tasha Stewart, coordinated with the zoo from the start to make sure the folks there were on board with our telling Fiona’s story in a children’s book. People at the zoo got to read the story and see the illustrations before anyone else outside of WCPO. Fortunately, they decided to carry the book in the zoo’s gift shops after it is published. But honestly we didn’t need to do too much additional research because the zoo has been sharing so much information about Fiona, and I have been following her story closely.
Fiona book

Fiona was only 29 pounds at birth.

What’s your favorite thing about Fiona?
My favorite thing about Fiona is that she has been able to give people hope – hope about how preemies can beat the odds and how communities can come together for a common cause.

She has been a daily dose of happiness and hope at a time with a lot of division and nastiness in the world.

What do your children  think about your book?
My daughters are 21 and 16. They both love Fiona and are excited about the book. Trixie the Tilapia, who is the narrator of the story, is actually named after my younger daughter. My younger daughter’s middle name is Beatrice, and my husband calls her Trixie. My older daughter seems to be taking that pretty well.

Kevin shares that his cats, Huckleberry and Grayson aren’t big readers, no matter how much he tries to get them interested.

Please share one of your favorite children’s books.
I have soooo many favorites. One of my favorites for sure is “The Paper Bag Princess,” written by Robert Munsch and illustrated by Michael Martchenko. It’s a great girl-power story that turns the tables on fairy tale conventions. And the illustrations are terrific, too.


Thanks, Lucy and Kevin. Congratulations!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the zoo’s recent loss. Henry, Fiona’s dad, passed away a couple of weeks ago. Thanks, Henry for all the smiles!

Saying Goodbye and Talking to Todd Parr

Kids can be blunt.

As Max and I started to read Todd Parr’s The Goodbye Book, he asked me a question.

“Are you going to cry again?”

He wasn’t being mean, his mama had been crying a lot this summer. My parents’ bestie Tim was in hospice and the kids knew I was visiting  daily.

I had been honest with Max and Calvin about where I was going and why. And of course, they had a lot of questions and comments.

They wanted to know what Tim looked like when he was sick and if he could eat cookie dough everyday when he went to heaven. Max said he thought heaven was “orange with lots of angels.” Calvin suggested he visit an amusement park on the last day of his life.

I checked out Todd’s book from the library, probably more for myself than Max and Calvin.

Its message really did help me, so I can imagine it would soothe a child experiencing loss.


Using a goldfish who has lost his friend, Todd writes, “It’s hard say goodbye. You might be very sad. You might not feel like talking to anyone. Eventually you’ll start to feel better. You’ll remember how you laughed.”

I felt better when my sweet Max said during the reading, ”Mama, you don’t have to worry about Tim anymore. He’s in heaven.”

We love Todd Parr at our house and I missed his visit to the kids’ school last year. Todd was kind enough to answer my questions about The Goodbye Book.

Todd, you wrote that this was the hardest book to write. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Is some of it based on your experience with your dog Bully?

For years people have been asking if I had thought about doing a book about grief and loss. I knew this would be a great topic for me to write about but only if I could figure out a way that would be honest but not too sad or scary. The Goodbye Book came about one weekend when I was looking through some old images of The Family Book. There is a page in that book that says “All families are sad when they lose someone they love.” It was the fish! That’s how I knew I was on the right track for The Goodbye Book.

My kids are very curious about death and hard topics. Do you find this as well when you talk to kids?

Yes, kids are very matter of fact. But you don’t want to scare them.

I cried the first time I read The Goodbye Book to my kids. I think it’s ok that they know I’m sad. Do a lot of adults tell you the emotions they have from your books? 


Yes, I have received many emails from adults telling me how The Goodbye Book helped them deal with their loss. One email from was a 75-year-old woman who had just lost her husband of 50 years. She said my comforting words had helped her sleep for the first time in a week. It made me feel good after I shed a few tears.

Were you always funny – my kids never tire of the silly underwear in your books! Does this come from your own childhood?

My dad was funny. I’m not so sure about me. I do know that underwear makes kids laugh. I write about a lot of things that are hard for kids to understand like peace, the earth, being different. So using my simple images and humor helps me deliver my messages.

Thank you for showing kids (and adults) that families and communities are made up of all kinds of people! What’s up for 2018?

My pleasure. There is a new book slotted for next Fall. I’m not sure what the title will be yet. The Brother Book and The Sister Book will be in 2018.

Do you ever draw on the walls?

Yes, all the time. Only I don’t get in trouble anymore.

Thanks, Todd!

Dedicated to Timothy Neel a dear friend and “uncle.” You are missed. 


Tim was a social butterfly!



I got to interview Jennifer K. Mann!

Mrs. Benson is a lot cooler than my fourth grade math teacher.

Mrs. Benson is a lot cooler than my fourth grade math teacher.

My third grade math teacher was scary. And mean. And she wore brown. Every day. Most of us have a memory of a scary teacher.

Author Jennifer K. Mann captures these memories and the feelings that come with them in her new book, I Will Never Get A Star On Mrs. Benson’s Blackboard. The gracious writer and illustrator agreed to be interviewed for my blog!

I’ve written about her book, Two Speckled Eggs, and love her work. In her newest book, Rose struggles in class because she’s messy and never gets any stars from her teacher. Unlike my former teacher, Mrs. Benson sees talent. She sees that is an artist, albeit a messy one. (Spoiler alert – she gets a star at the end.)

Here’s my interview with Jennifer:

Can you tell me about your inspiration for Mrs. Benson’s Blackboard? I read it was from your own childhood.
I had a tough second grade year, with a teacher who was really hard to please —I kept a messy desk, and maybe didn’t get the math problems right the first time, and she scared me a little. My memories of that year, and the nervous feelings it inspired, have stayed with me ever since. The story of that difficult year was the first thing that I jotted down when I began in earnest to pursue a future in children’s books! I don’t think there are too many kids in the world who haven’t wrestled with the anxiety of pleasing a difficult-to-please teacher!

What’s the message (in the book) that you want to resonate with kids?
I want kids to know that it is okay to march to the beat of our own drums! So we’re a little messy. So we daydream more than others. So what? We all have gifts and talents that are worthy and unique. We just have to let them become obvious by being true to ourselves.

Mrs. Benson points out Rose's talent.

Mrs. Benson points out Rose’s talent.

I love that you attended Blueberry Hill Elementary. Will you use that name in a book someday?
Oh, I would love to! I also spent much of my childhood living part-time (divorced parents) in a magical house on a hill covered in wild blueberries. The house was also called, coincidentally, Blueberry Hill! I think there is no doubt that it will appear in one of my stories sometime.

You write that it is a really long process to get a book from start to finish. How did you feel when you first saw a completed copy of your book?
Oh my goodness. The feeling is almost indescribable. I used to be an architect, and it was such a neat thing to see a design go from paper to building. But so many people and processes were involved that it was also easy to feel a little detached. But to see a story, which has been squeezed from my memory and my emotions and my blood, sweat, and tears, in the form of a book, illustrated by me too…!! Wow!!! Of course I cried. I think I will cry every time, because it is an amazingly emotional life event.

How do your own kids respond to your books? Any words of wisdom from them?
My kids are both amazing artists and writers. So they always weigh in throughout the process. I have to say, some of my best critiques come from them. They are both quick to see where the story is a little flat, or doesn’t quite ring true, or could use a little something to raise the stakes. I am so grateful to have their support. And to see the pride on their faces at my first ever book launch—that alone was worth the entire long journey to get there.

Rose daydreaming. I did this during Math.

Rose daydreaming. I did this during Math.

Do you think Rose would be friends with Ginger and Lyla in Two Speckled Eggs?
Oh for sure. Actually Rose and Ginger share some DNA, so either they would love one another dearly and be inseparable, or be prone pointing out one another’s faults, despite being pals. Lyla and Rose, however, would be fast friends. They are not alike in many ways, but they would have a mutual, unspoken appreciation for the other’s free spirit.

Thank you, Jennifer.

Where to find the book and other info.

Max and Calvin like the book!

You can buy the book at your local bookstore or find it online.

Find out more about Jennifer, her books, her art, and read her blog on her website.

She has another book Sam And Jump slated to come out in 2016 by Candlewick Press.

My friend published a book! (It has butt in the title)

The title of this book would make my boys laugh. Little boys love the word butt.

Smart ButtOn a serious note,  Smart Butt: Scenes from a Bold-Faced Life (starring Earlene) is a novel especially geared toward middle grade readers (grades 4-6). I’ve read it twice, I so enjoyed it. My friend Erin Fitzgerald wrote this marvelous book. Erin is a renaissance woman. Service coordinator, mom to teenagers, she’s also a creative force as a writer, musician, and radio personality in Louisville, Kentucky.

Earlene is just turning twelve-years-old and she grabs my heart. She’s figuring out the life of a preteen, a mean girl at school, a mom that’s recovering, and a dad on sabbatical (jail). She has a loving family, has made friends with a homeless dog and can make anything out of duct tape.

Erin, who I met on a writing retreat, answers questions about her book:

Erin Fitzgerald. Photo by Becky LeCron.

Erin Fitzgerald. Photo by Becky LeCron.

Erin, how did the character Earlene come to you? Or what inspired you to write about her?

Earlene came to me – in a way – during the 2011 Writers’ Workshop at Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, KY. She was not yet named Earlene, but that is where the idea came for the first story written in that voice, which later was adapted and became a chapter in the book (“The Broken Give-a-Darner”). I think I was mostly inspired by some of the writing prompts we were doing in the Writing for Children classes, led by George Ella Lyon. She has a wonderful way of making you go back into your child self, and remember what the world was like through that filter. That whole week, it seemed I could not help from viewing everything around me from a child’s eyes. It was exhausting, but inspiring. The following year, Earlene grew into a full-blown character and took over, eventually demanding inclusion in more than just a few stories. She had more to say, so she kept hanging around, riding shotgun everywhere I went. (Or maybe I was the one riding shotgun . . .)

Is there any of yourself in Earlene? Why a novel for children?

Earlene is not me, by any stretch, but I do see some of myself in her for sure. I think it is hard to write from where you are and to write what you know, as they say, without putting elements of yourself – and people you have encountered some way or another – into your stories. But she is definitely a fictional character, and has a personality all her own. Some of that personality I think I determined early on, and then much of it presented itself to me over time.

Erin is a singer-songwriter. Photo by Kim Torres.

Erin is a singer-songwriter. Photo by Kim Torres.

As for the format, I did not have any plan to write a novel. (This could be considered a short novel, because of its intended audience, but is more the length of a novella – about 80 pages.) My intention was always just to write a series of short stories, or “snapshots” about Earlene. I was not sure at the time how interconnected they might be – I was just enjoying the short format. As Earlene’s stories continued to unfold, it became evident that her plan was different from mine, and hers eventually won out.

My compromise, once I realized this was going to be a novel of sorts, was twofold: to make each chapter have some standalone element to it, and to keep both the chapters and book short, so that it might be accessible to different types of readers. I also wanted to be sure and include subject matter that reflects some of the types of situations I see kids navigating in real life all the time. Kids of all ages experience challenging situations regarding family, friends, neighborhood dynamics, school, etc. – and while the more intense content is frequent in books for young adults, I do not see it as often in fiction for middle grade readers. I worry that some people feel that difficult subject matter is “too much” for kids in that age range, but I find it is relevant to a lot of kids’ real-life experiences. So many kids are already dealing with these things at younger ages, so I think it is only fair to see them included in the books they read.

Tell me about the duct tape. Do you make things out of duct tape?

Good question, and the short answer is: I do now! I am honestly not sure where the duct tape thing came from. When I was in grade school, there were various things we did that were similar, such as glue bracelets, friendship bracelets, friendship pins, things like that. I knew I wanted Earlene to have a quirky creative outlet of some sort, and it ended up being duct tape. Since then, I have really enjoyed dabbling in duct tape myself.

Have your kids read the book? Any reaction?

Yes, they read it and said they liked it, but it is hard to gauge reactions from them. (Part of that is likely due to them being my kids, and part due to their age at the time. They were almost 15 when they read it, which is just a little bit older than the intended audience.) The most positive feedback I have gotten has been from kids ages 9-12, and from adults.

You mentioned you were using the book in school settings or at work. Can you tell me about that?

I am currently using bits and pieces of the book, along with related games and activities, in a community-based program with families in transition. I am also working with a couple of local actors to develop a small-scale stage adaptation to present to school and community groups. 

Can you tell me a favorite children’s book that you read with your kids and why?

When they were very little, we read together all the time. They loved books with rhyme and rhythm most of all. Some of our favorites at the earlier ages were: Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb (written by Al Perkins, illustrated by Eric Gurney); Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (written by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault, illustrated by Lois Ehlert); and anything by Dr. Seuss. As they got older and began to read independently, they devoured all chapter books, though often chose to read on their own. And though I was glad they were so interested in books, and so independent in reading, I quickly grew to miss the days of reading picture books with two kids on my lap. During their middle grade years, our reading time diminished significantly, though we did still read passages to each other and discussed the books we were reading, even when we did not always share in the reading time itself. Now that they are teenagers, we sometimes pass books back and forth, and that is a nice feeling. I miss it when we go too long without some sort of shared reading experience.

Can you tell me more about the play adaption you are working on?

Earlene makes art out of duct tape.

Earlene makes art out of duct tape.

The play adaptation is a very simple version of the Smart Butt stories. I am working with two local actors, and the three of us are taking turns in each scene playing the part of Earlene, as the other two do some scene acting and creative movement in the background. As I said, it is a small-scale project, and kind of a pilot project at this point. Our plan is to do one performance in a traditional school setting, one performance in a non-traditional educational setting for kids, and one community performance, open to the public. The timeline is still being negotiated, but should all take place during this school year, so by the end of May at the latest. I am grateful we have had enough supporters to do this pilot project, and we are having fun with it so far.

Thanks, Erin!

Where to buy the book and other info

You can buy Erin’s book published by Motes Books from her website. Two of my favorite Kentucky bookstores also sell it, The Morris Book Shop in Lexington and Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville. Visit Erin’s website to find out more about her music, writing, and teaching.

Erin mentioned attending a George Ella Lyon workshop. Max and Calvin were gifted two of her books that they love. (Thanks, Kate!) We recommend Planes Fly! and Trucks Roll!  Planes Fly! has beautiful art and was a great read before the boys’ first flight. Trucks Roll! uses fun rhymes and visuals. Of course, Calvin gives it a thumbs up because it includes transportation and signs. If you are a teacher, Trucks Roll! has a lesson plan available with it.