Author interview with Janet Nolan Plus a review of her book, Seven and a Half Tons of Steel

As promised, today’s Perfect Picture Book Friday review comes with an added bonus… an interview with Janet Nolan, author of Seven and a Half Tons of Steel.

Last year on one of my many visits to the library, one of the librarians asked if I would be interested in joining her at The Anderson’s Children’s Literature Breakfast in February of 2017. The annual event features special guest authors and illustrators, a full breakfast, book talks, over 50 Illinois authors and illustrators, and book sales and signing! To sweeten the already amazing event, throughout the program, authors rotate from table to table, giving the attendees a chance to meet and ask questions.

I didn’t check my calendar, I didn’t take a moment to consider. I said, “Yes!”

The first author seated at our table was Janet Nolan. She set out a stack of her pictures books. Immediately, I recognized the titles of some favorites, which I have linked to Amazon below.

Seven and a Half Tons of Steel

PB&J Hooray!: You Sandwich’s Amazing Journey from Farm to Table

The Firehouse Light

A Father’s Day Thank You

The St. Patrick’s Day Shillelagh

And now for my Perfect Picture Book Friday review.

None of us will ever forget where we were when the tragic news of September 11th, 2001 was broadcast. Two airplanes struck the World Trade Center buildings in New York. Following that heartbreaking event, a seven and a half ton steel beam from the towers was given to the United States Navy to become the bow of the navy ship, the USS New York. The Story Janet Nolan wrote, follows the journey of that steel beam.

Title – Seven and a Half Tons of Steel

Written by  – Janet Nolan

Illustrated by – Thomas Gonzalez

Published by – Peachtree Publishers – 2016

Suitable for ages – 5-12

Opening – There is a ship, a navy ship. It is called the USS New York. it is big like other navy ships, and it sails like other navy ships, but there is something different, something special about the USS New York.

Amazon Review –  View it HERE. There is a ship, a navy ship. It is called the USS New York. It is big like other navy ships, and it sails like other navy ships, but there is something special about the USS New York. Following the events of September 11, 2001, the governor of New York gave the Navy a steel beam that was once inside one of the World Trade Towers. The beam was driven from New York to a foundry in Louisiana. Metal workers heated the beam to a high, high temperature. Chippers and grinders, painters and polishers worked on the beam for months. And then, seven and a half tons of steel, which had once been a beam in the World Trade Center, became a navy ship’s bow. This powerful story reveals how something remarkable can emerge from a devastating event.

Why do I like this book? Like many people, I was glued to my television after the devastating event on September 11th. For days and weeks, I followed every piece of news. But somehow, I missed something. I missed hearing about one steel beam from the twin towers that was transported, melted, poured into a mold, and given a new life as the bow of a navy ship.

Janet Nolan’s  powerful retelling of the repurposing of an enormous beam from the World Trade Center and of the many people who tirelessly worked on this project, some of which lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina, will stay with you long after you close the book. Illustrator, Thomas Gonzalez, adds his amazing talent to this book. His illustrations reflect the dark and sad feeling of September 11th and bring the reader into the heart of the fiery heat when the beam is melted into molten metal and on to the day with the USS New York sailed, proudly displaying its crest with the words “Never Forget.”

Learn more about Janet Nolan HERE.

Learn more about Thomas Gonzalez HERE.

And now for the interview with Janet Nolan.

Displaying R2215A_DZ3A2835_Janet Nolan_LoRes.jpg

Describe the path that led you to write picture books?

Well, it wasn’t a straight line. One day, out of nowhere, I decided to write a story. It was terrible, but I had so much fun writing it I decided to write another. That story was equally terrible, so I decided why not write another. I considered the stories I wrote the artistic equivalent of singing in the shower. Harmless, but fun. Seeing no reason to quit, I kept writing. I joined SCBWI. I joined a critique group. I attended conferences, started submitting, and just as quickly started getting rejected. Undaunted, I kept writing, but more importantly I started revising. Eventually, and I have to admit it took a while, I sold my first book. 

If you could go back and change anything along that path, what would it be?  

Without a doubt, it’s doubt. I’d like to say I no longer carry the weight of doubt (will I finish the next book; will I sell the next book) but I’d be lying. Doubt, it seems, likes to hover around.

Who were your favorite authors as a child?

Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans

The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton

The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The Box Car Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell

What inspired you to write the picture book, Seven and a Half Tons of Steel

I was driving my car, listening to the radio, when I heard a brief story about the USS New York. I remember sitting in traffic being quietly amazed, surprised to learn steel from the World Trade Center towers had been used in the building of a navy ship. What struck me at the time, and has stayed with me ever since was the feeling that something positive and powerful had emerged from a tragic event.

I knew I’d discovered a story I had to write. And from the beginning, I believed this was a story about transformation and hope.

What surprised you most in your research for this book?

Finding interesting topics to write about isn’t difficult. The hard part is determining if the topic will make an interesting book. Facts are great, but what matters is the heart of the story within those facts. If I can’t find that, then I don’t have a story. But when I do, it’s amazing!

What first drew me to this story was the idea of transformation. How tragedy could be recast as strength and hope. In choosing what to include and what to exclude, I stayed close to the beam and followed it on its transformative journey. The book begins with the events of September 11 and the outpouring of emotion at Ground Zero, but when the beam leaves New York, the story follows the beam. 

What was the time frame for writing this book? 

I think it took me about a year and a half to write Seven and a Half Tons of Steel. I knew almost nothing about forging steel or shipbuilding when I began researching this book. Fortunately, other people did. I conducted phone interviews, read every news article I could get my hands on, watched countless news clips and videos, and was a frequent visitor to the ship’s website. I was touched by the generosity of librarians and retired military who were willing to guide me in the right direction and answer my many questions, big and small.

What is your favorite time and place to write?

I get my best writing done in the morning. I work out of my house and my computer is in my living room. I’m not sure it’s my favorite place, but it’s where I find myself. I don’t have an office, though a girl can dream.

What memorable experience would you have missed if you hadn’t become a writer? 

The gift of writing is paying attention. If I wasn’t a writer, who knows what I might have missed. Stories and ideas are everywhere. Conversations, radio, TV, articles. It’s just a matter of tuning my ears to the interesting channel. I’m always on the lookout for that special idea that sparks my imagination. 

If I hadn’t become a writer, I would have missed out on the incredible friendships I’ve made. Children’s authors are the kindest, most generous people one could ever hope to meet.

Which three authors would you like to meet for coffee? 

Betty Smith – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Lois Lowry – The Giver

Katherine Applegate – The One and Only Ivan

What is the most challenging aspect of writing for children? 

Getting it right. Each word. Each sentence. The story. It has to be perfect.  

Can you share something interesting most people don’t know about you?    

I do my best thinking on walks. If you lived in my neighborhood, you’d probably wonder why that lady and her dog were circling the block again.

Many thanks, Janet. I greatly appreciate the time you gave to answer my questions.

12 thoughts on “Author interview with Janet Nolan Plus a review of her book, Seven and a Half Tons of Steel

  1. Awesome interview. Thank-you! I read this book for the CYBILS judging, and tough it didn’t win, I was glad for the love and exposure those bloggers gave Seven and a Half Tons. Janet truly accomplished her mission to inform, enlighten, and transform us through her book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a powerful true story that helps children with the idea of transformation. A piece of a tragic event was so carefully reimagined into something else by people who really care. As I read your review, it made me think of those who donate their organs so others can live. This book has many discussion points. Excellent interview with Janet Nolan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Patricia, I hadn’t thought about to comparison the transformation of the steel beam to organ donors. I’m sure this topic would start a lively discussion in classrooms as the children make lists of the many ways to repurpose, transform, reinvent, and recycle their world.

      Like

  3. I had never heard this powerful story about the enormous beam from the Towers given to the Navy. Wow! Thanks for sharing this review, Leslie, and your fabulous interview with Janet. I especially love what she said about being drawn to the story through the idea of transformation. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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