Sunday, November 25, 2018

Michigan KidLit Advocate Interview: Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker

CB: Let’s start way back. In a previous interview (with James Preller), you mentioned you grew up near the Mackinac Bridge. Are you a Yooper? Did those long, cold winters prove instrumental in developing your love for books?

TJ: I grew up in Cheboygan and Petoskey (so not quite a Yooper). I don’t credit long winters for my love of books – I credit Roald Dahl. He was the first author I loved and I spent a good chunk of my childhood trying to track down and read all of his books. I wrote about it here.

In that same interview, you mentioned being a big fan of comic books when you were in high school. Which were your favorites?

Batman. The Batman universe made sense to me. I could never figure out what was happening in the Marvel stuff. Do you have a favorite?

Wasn’t much of a superhero fan. My favorite was Donald Duck. Thanks for asking.
You also mentioned that you played saxophone (high school band?) and were a DJ in college. How has your appreciation of music shaped your life?

Yeah, I love music. Right now I’m listening to the new Jens Lekman album. Music was a creative outlet in college when I made music as a hobby (although I never let anyone listen to it). Music has the ability to change your mood almost instantly. It’s the best.

On a YouTube video, you mentioned as a young teacher being in the Americorps Program. What was that like?

That was where I learned I wanted to be a school librarian. I was assigned to a school with a great librarian (Beth Miller). Watching her I realized that it was the job for me. I went back to school to get my library endorsement after that.

So, you started as a school librarian in 2005. In your experience, how have elementary school children, and their taste for books, changed over those 12 years?

Kids’ tastes haven’t changed so much as the publishing world has changed to meet them. Kids have been into graphic novels and illustration in all sorts of books ever since I became a librarian, and now you’re seeing a lot more of those kinds of books, which has been great to see.

You started your blog in 2007. Happy 10 year anniversary! What was the blogosphere like at that time?

Thank you! It’s pretty nuts to think it’s been almost 10 years. When I started my blog I think a lot of people had the same idea. So there weren’t many other blogs when I started, but a bunch popped up soon thereafter.

Have to admit here that I thought Scope Notes were Cliffs Notes. Good thing I didn’t make that mistake in print. They’re like polar opposites. I mean, you want to encourage students to get absorbed in books, not skip reading and copy someone’s superficial synopsis. There’s a question here somewhere.

Here. Scope Notes is a library term. This is a note under the subject heading that explains and clarifies what is meant and what is not meant in the definition of the term and in its use as a subject heading. And you chose the number 100 so the blog would be easier to look up, maybe even appear first. Pretty savvy for a new blogger in 2007. What has changed in the 10 years you’ve blogged 100 Scope Notes?

Hmm. I think book reviews on blogs have changed a bit. You don’t see quite as many of them. I know I don’t review as many books as I used to. The review journals do a good job. I’ll jump in with a book review only if I feel like I have something to say or can present a review in an interesting way.

You’ve worked with lots of kid’s book bloggers: Colby Sharp, Mr. Schu, Betsy Bird, Ed Spicer. Did I miss anyone? Quite a tight community. Is blogging the best way to disseminate information to teachers and librarians?

Blogging can be a good way to communicate. Blogs can come and go, so finding the ones that are consistent can be tricky. But the people you mentioned are all people I rely on for staying current.

Ruth says she really likes your artwork, and if you look on your FB page, there’s a lot of your colored pencil versions of book covers. Are you an artist wanna-be?

Thanks, Ruth! I like your artwork. I like to draw. I realized a while back I could add drawings to my blog posts and I’ve had a good time with that. Drawing with a purpose is fun for me. I’m not so good at doodling.

Tell us about your experience on the Caldecott Committee. Tell us about the Cybils.

The Cybils is a great award. It’s where I first got experience working on a book committee. The Caldecott committee was a classic dream come true. Working with 14 other people who were into picture books as I am was incredibly fun.

Lots of Michigan kidlit creators will read your interview here on The Mitten. From your vantage point on the front lines of young readers, what kinds of books do kids crave?

Illustration is big. Humor is always a good thing.

Last question. Is there a question you had wished I had asked?

“What is your favorite middle grade book, Travis?” That would be HOLES by Louis Sachar.

Thanks Travis.

Check out Travis Jonker’s 100 Scope Notes blog, his reviews and articles for the School Library Journal (SLJ). He’s on YouTube, and he and Colby Sharp have done dozens of episodes of The Yarn, a podcast featuring children’s books and the people who create them.

And we've saved the best news for last. Congrats to Travis on his forthcoming picture book. The Very Last Castle will be illustrated by Mark Pett and published by Abrams next year.

Actually, months have passed since this interview concluded, and in that time, the picture book has been published to popular and critical acclaim. Travis had this to add:

The Very Last Castle, a picture book I wrote and Mark Pett illustrated, published on October 9th. It's been a whole new experience for me. I've had a chance to share the book with my students, at bookstores, and at conferences and I have been feeling a lot of gratitude lately.

Charlie Barshaw has four MG and YA novels-in-progress, three stories printed by Amazon Rapids, two dogs and a gifted, supportive and encouraging wife. 


  1. Hi, Travis! Louis Sachar's HOLES is my favorite MG novel too! Big congrats on your new book. Cool interview.

  2. Great interview! Glad to get to know you a bit, Travis. Congrats on all of your success with The Very Last Castle!

  3. Thanks all for this interview. And keep in mind that Travis will also be on our faculty at Wild Wild Midwest in May. Looking forward to that, Travis.

  4. Fantastic and entertaining interview! Thank you Charlie and Travis! Getting your book from the library soon!