Interview sponsored by Dr. Theodore J. Cohen
The Children’s Book Review | May 22, 2017
Pepe Builds a Nest is a story about making the right choices and standing up to bullies. Bullying is a prominent topic across most schools, so can you tell us why you wanted to write about this theme?
You don’t have to have a child who was bullied in school—as we did—to know how devastating it can be, both to the child and parent alike. Just one look at the statistics on the subject will make you shudder. Citing the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, the American Society for the Positive Care of Children states that one in three US students say they’ve been bullied at school. Throw in cyber-bullying, and the number of children affected is even higher. When I decided to start writing children’s books in late 2016, then, this seemed like a timely and important subject to address.
But penguins? How did you get from penguins to bullying?
For several years now, I’ve been going into a local grade school in Newtown, Pennsylvania, every January and giving a presentation on Antarctica to the 2nd grade class. It’s basically an illustrated talk on my work down there, with plenty of videos and slides featuring penguins, killer whales, seals, sleddogs, and what-have-you. Penguins, of course, are the children’s favorite. The kids never tire hearing about their antics. In particular, the fact that penguins build their nests using rocks and moreover, are not above stealing “nesting materials” from their nearest neighbors, never fails to make the children laugh. But as funny as it is to them, I always ask how they would feel if someone took something that belonged to them and then, refused to give it back. This naturally leads into a discussion of bullying and lets the children talk about the times they have been bullied, sometimes even by an older sibling. “How did it make you feel?” I ask. The discussions that follow have been, in a word, telling. The idea of using penguins as characters in a book about bullying just seemed logical when I decided to write my first illustrated children’s storybook for K-3 in December, 2016.
Pepe and the bully ultimately come together as friends. How did you decide on the way in which they would resolve their problem?
Children in grades K-3, and even higher, have limited capabilities to resolve problems such as bullying. They do, however, understand friendship and peer pressure, even though they probably have no idea what the terms mean. To me, using a support group—in this case, Pepe’s friends—to help resolve a bad situation seemed the way to go. Most children have a group of friends, and it’s important for them to share a set of norms when it comes to their behavior and what they should expect from others. The intent of the book was to show how friends might help to defuse a bullying situation. In the best of all worlds, the bully might even become a friend, as happens in this book. After reading Pepe Builds a Next to one class, a precocious 2nd grader pointed out that the book also was about forgiveness. Out of the mouths of babes!
As you enjoy mixing fiction with reality, the story also educates readers on the life of penguins in Antarctica. How did you find the balance of storytelling, while including the bullying theme and the educational aspects?
I think the “balance,” as you call it, came about naturally by keeping the story moving and not dwelling on the bullying theme or preaching on the subject. I simply showed how Otto, the bully, was taking advantage of Pepe, a young bird who was struggling to build his first nest. But I also showed that Pepe was no pushover, and how his friends ran to help him when he confronted Otto. Nothing like having the cavalry arrive in the nick of time!
During the course of your 45-year career, you have worked as an engineer, scientist, CBS Radio Station News Service (RSNS) commentator, private investigator, and Antarctic explorer. Would you say that your time as an Antarctic explorer was the biggest influence on your writing of this particular story?
No question about it. The story is based on my experiences during an expedition I joined to Antarctica in late 1961. Dr. Martin Halpern, who was a University of Wisconsin-Madison grad student at the time, had requested my assistance with his field work. Our efforts focused on the geology of the islands near Base Bernardo O’Higgins, a Chilean Army Base located just above the Antarctic Circle on the North Antarctic Peninsula. Marty and I used to sit for hours at times—especially if the weather had closed in on us—and watch the penguins in the rookeries near our field sites. To say the birds were amusing is an understatement. By the way, even after more than 55 years, Marty and I still communicate daily using e-mail, though today, he lives in the sierra, to the east of Lima, Peru.
Does Pepe star in any other books you’ve written?
No, I’m afraid not. Pepe Builds a Nest is Book 1 in my Stories for the Early Years . . . that is, K-3. Book 2 is titled Rufus Finds a Home. It deals with empathy and what it means to sometimes have to give up something you love. The third book, Fuzzy Wuzzy, is about a bear cub who learns the hard way what can happen when you don’t listen to Mama!
Can you tell us a little bit about the artwork in your children’s books?
Your readers may find it interesting to learn the “illustrations” really are royalty-free color photographs I purchased and digitally altered to look like color pencil drawings. The effect is interesting because the illustrations retain significant realism yet still display an appealing abstract quality. Young readers, in particular, can’t keep their hands off the pictures of Rufus, a golden retriever.
You also write Young Adult novels under the pen name “Alyssa Devine.”
Yes, that’s correct, but at this point, I’ve only written one book under that pen name: The Hypnotist. It’s a mystery/thriller with elements of the paranormal, tarot card readings, reincarnation, and magical realism. As is the case with all of my books, large parts are drawn from my life; in this case, some story elements come from the time I attended high school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Who was it—the late crime novelist P.D. James?—who said: “All fiction is largely autobiographical, and much autobiography is, of course, fiction.” That’s certainly the case in The Hypnotist. The story revolves around two high school students in Lafayette, Louisiana, who, while fooling around with hypnotism, stumble upon murders committed more than 25 years earlier. The novel carries a Lexile® measure of 930L—which is to say, the language and syntax are appropriate for the 10th grade, on average. It’s in the Core Genre—Mystery—Reading Program at Neshaminy High School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where several teachers use it instead of Witness for the Prosecution in their classes. I also guest lecture on mystery writing at that school. As an aside, I recently saw an article in the national news about a murder that had been solved after more than two decades in which a Colorado man hid his wife’s body from the authorities using the same technique the murderers used in The Hypnotist. Uncanny!
What would you say are the main differences between writing for young children versus teens?
Well, when it comes to teens, you’re usually writing a novel or novella, and the sky’s the limit when it comes to genre: romance, dystopia, magical realism, paranormal, murder mystery, mystery/thriller, science fiction . . . just about anything and everything you can imagine. The language and syntax, of course, are significantly more mature, often approaching if not equaling that found in adult literature. All in all, teen books represent a quantum leap in virtually all areas from the literature intended for young children. And that’s to be expected.
How did you decide on the name Alyssa Devine?
Well, I wanted to separate my YA offerings from my adult books, so I knew I would be using a pseudonym. But what name? To be candid, I simply googled girl’s names, and starting with the As, went down the list until I found something I liked. Alyssa. Beautiful! Then, I wanted something descriptive for the second name. I know a book reviewer who goes by the name Paige Lovitt. Isn’t that a terrific name? So, I needed a last name that would describe my books. I wanted them to be “divine.” Alas, Alyssa Divine was being used, but Alyssa Devine was not! And so, Alyssa Devine was “born.”
Is there anything else that you would like to share with us about any of your other books?
Just that earlier this year I released my second short-story anthology, The Road Less Taken: A Collection of Unusual Short Stories (Book 2). This continues my penchant for writing stories that mix truth with fiction in ways even my friends and family find difficult to untangle. All of the stories, in one way or another, involve people I knew—though the stories are fictionalized, of course—or involve situations in which I found myself at some point in my life. You’ll find a story about a man who survived the death camp at Treblinka to become the owner of a violin shop in Queens, New York; a friend who was confronted by President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and General de Gaulle on a ship off the coast of Newfoundland shortly after the start of World War II; and a man with a passion for beautiful women and fast cars who dared to live on the edge. There’s something there for everyone. One of the stories in Book 1, by the way—“Unforgiven”—won Honorable Mention in a Glimmer Train literary magazine competition in 2015. The story can be found in its entirety on my Website.
Finally, how have the other careers you’ve had made an impact on your writing style and the topics you choose to write about?
That’s a very good question. My first novel, Full Circle: A Dream Denied, A Vision Fulfilled, is a fictionalized autobiography. It focused on my life as a violinist, and certainly fits the bill when it comes to what P.D. James said about fiction and biographies. I never played the violin as well as I did in that book! As for my work in Antarctica, that yielded the Antarctic Murders Trilogy, Cold Blood. It’s comprises Frozen in Time, Unfinished Business, and End Game. Pretty easy to see where they came from. The Detective Louis Martelli, NYPD, series of mystery/thrillers got their start with Death by Wall Street: Rampage of the Bulls. This story is based on corruption I uncovered within the Food and Drug Administration—the FDA—in 2007 during the agency’s review of a revolutionary treatment for prostate cancer. I took the data and information I uncovered in my investigations on behalf of another writer, and with his permission, cast the story as a novel. In my book, however, breast cancer is the disease cited. The five novels that followed in the series—and they may be enjoyed in any order, by the way—all are based on real events or stories ripped from the headlines.
Wow! That’s quite a cross-section of contributions to the literature, Ted. We can’t wait to see what you produce next! Thanks so much for being with us today.
Thank YOU, Bianca! The pleasure was all mine.
Pepe Builds a Nest
Written by Dr. Theodore J. Cohen
Publisher’s Synopsis: A wonderful story about making the right choices and dealing with bullies! Pepe, the penguin, needs to build a nest for Miss Amber and him. But Otto, the bully, keeps stealing his stones.See how Pepe and others solve the problem, finally bringing Pepe and Otto together as friends.
Ages 6-7 | Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform | 2017 | ISBN-13: 978-1541194564
About Dr. Theodore J. Cohen
Theodore Jerome Cohen is an award-winning author who has published more than ten novels—all but one of them mystery/thrillers—and two books of short stories. He also writes Young Adult (YA) novels under the pen name “Alyssa Devine” as well as illustrated children’s storybooks in his Stories for the Early Years series. During the course of his 45-year career he worked as an engineer, scientist, CBS Radio Station News Service (RSNS) commentator, private investigator, and Antarctic explorer. What he’s been able to do with his background is mix fiction with reality in ways that even his family and friends have been unable to unravel!
All of his novels and many of his short stories are based on real events, some from his own life, some ripped from the headlines. Of his writing in Death by Wall Street, for example, Gary Sorkin of Pacific Book Review said: “[S]imilar to the writing style of Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy, Ted Cohen adheres to short chapters laying out a mental storyboard in the reader’s mind. He possesses a writing style ideal for screenplay adaptation with visuals that can make for a good movie. Why wait for Hollywood – Death by Wall Street: Rampage of the Bulls is currently playing in a theater near you, the theater of your mind.”
From December 1961 through early March 1962, he participated in the 16th Chilean Expedition to the Antarctic. The U.S. Board of Geographic Names in October, 1964, named the geographical feature Cohen Islands, located at 63° 18′ S. latitude, 57° 53′ W. longitude, in the Cape Legoupil area, Antarctica, in his honor.
You can read more about Ted at www.theodore-cohen-novels.com. His Young Adult (YA) novels can be found at www.alyssadevinenovels.com.
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