We’re delighted to have with us today, Linda Thieman, author of the chapter book series Katie & Kimble. Linda is a former English teacher who has turned her attention and abilities to helping young people learn to read.
Welcome, Linda. It’s a pleasure to have you with us.
Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Let’s get started by learning a bit more about you. How long did you teach, where, and what grades?
I taught in Iowa for about 3 years—a lot of English as a Second Language classes and also a year teaching French as a grad assistant at the University of Northern Iowa while I was getting my MA. In between my BA and MA, I tutored in France for a year. Then later, I taught English at Kuwait University for 3 years, and then at an American university branch campus in Japan for 5 years.
What made you turn your attention to writing? Did you have a target market in mind when you started?
I’ve always been a writer. In high school, I wrote and published my own Star Trek fanzine. Had a healthy subscriber list, too! Then, out of grad school, I published in professional journals and newsletters, wrote and edited the faculty newsletter while in Kuwait, wrote much of and edited the faculty handbook while in Japan. Then I got into freelancing—did radio ad copy for six months, wrote advertorials, and loads of articles on business start ups and, when I could, articles on alternative health. I also ran a blog for over two years before I passed it off to someone else.
While I was still teaching in Japan, my love of fiction writing started blooming and I wrote an unpublished novel and a short story (or perhaps it’s really a picture book without pictures yet). I had also done a lot of materials development as a teacher, writing for low-level adult learners. So the turn to children’s fiction seemed a natural outgrowth of that.
Tell us about Katie Russell. What will readers like about her? How will they relate to her?
Katie, as a character, does seem to be very popular with the readers. She turns nine near the beginning of the book, so she seems to be growing in independence daily. Katie has a good sense of humor, she’s always interested in something, she’s friendly, she likes people and likes to help them, and she’s got a good, kind and loving heart, but she’s also a pretty tough cookie. She’s quite practical and unafraid, and she waits to panic until there are no other options!
I think there are any number of ways that readers relate to Katie. A lot of kids can relate to moving to a new town and not having any friends. Katie has a loyal dog, named Twinkle, and it’s her job to feed the dog. She also got to choose Twinkle’s name, which, it is my understanding from comments I’ve read, is a big deal in a child’s life. She comes from a pretty average family. She’s excited about seeing her new school, which I always was when we moved. Also, at that age, a child’s first instinct is still to run and share everything with her mom, and Katie does that, but she also holds back a little and keeps some things to herself to think over on her own. It’s part of that growing independence. Lastly, I’d say kids can relate to the fact that Katie does try to mind her parents, and she actually minds pretty well, but in spite of that, she sometimes gets into trouble anyway! It’s one of those typical “hazards” of childhood.
In Katie & Kimble: A Ghost Story (book one), Katie discovers Kimble for the first time and they set out on a quest to find out what happened to Kimble’s mother. How did you approach the topic of ghosts and the mystery of what happened to Kimble’s mother without making it frightening to young readers?
What happened to Kimble’s mother is the central mystery that guides and motivates everything that Kimble, the ghost of a 10-year-old girl, does. So, it was a topic that needed to be addressed.
It was really important to me to deal with grief in a realistic way. In so many children’s books, the author sort of glosses over death and grief as if it’s not really that big of a deal, all in the interest of moving the plot along. But it is a big deal. If a spirit can be earthbound because of unhealed grief, then that grief must be dealt with or the author is just cheating the reader.
In Katie & Kimble: A Ghost Story, Kimble needs to know what happened to her mother, and she needs Katie to help her. So Katie goes to visit a neighbor lady who has old newspapers dating back a century or more, and Kimble tags along so she can listen in.
Katie and Kimble learn about the death of Kimble’s mother by reading one of these old newspapers. There is no description of the death, just that Kimble’s mother died from the Great Influenza of 1918 two days before Kimble did, so Kimble never knew. She was simply too ill to be told.
When I was seven, my best friend lost his mother. He was so sad and he looked so lonely and I felt so sorry for him, but I did not suddenly acquire the fear that I might lose my mother, too. It never occurred to me. Also, later that year, a girl my age who lived down the street died. I knew she’d been sick because she only rarely could come out and play. When she died, I was sad and I felt so sorry for her parents, but I was not suddenly afraid that I was going to die, too. So I think that the fact that in order for any ghostly character to appear in any story there must first be a death is more of a given and children understand that.
Some parents might be concerned that the topic of death could scare a child. But I don’t really think that living with the fear of death is the natural state for children at this age. I think that is a fear that is acquired as one ages and becomes more aware of his or her own mortality. But I strongly believe that children at this age understand death and feel it keenly when it affects them.
I lived through two major deaths at a young age—one at age five and one at age six. I understood these people were out of my life forever, my heart ached at the loss, and I cried my eyes out. My mom told me that these people were now in heaven living with God. That was enough to satisfy me at the time and it was a great comfort. Life goes on, it changes form, but it is never truly gone.
Near the end of the story, Katie also helps Kimble track down the final resting place of her mother so that Kimble can say goodbye. For Kimble, this provides a sense of closure and healing. She is now less of a victim, and on her way to having a better understanding of why she is an earthbound spirit.
Tell us about the reading skills worksheets and classroom materials that teachers and homeschoolers can download from the Katie & Kimble Blog. Do you have other learning materials available?
It is my belief, and I think this is a fairly standard belief that has emerged in the elementary education community, that reading a chapter book series with continuing characters can be a great way to enhance the reading experience for young learners. For one thing, by the time you get to the second book, the characters are familiar, like old friends. And because not everything is new every time in every book, it helps with reading comprehension.
As an English language teacher, I spent a lot of time writing and developing materials. So it felt very natural to me to want to create materials to go with the Katie & Kimble books that teachers and homeschoolers could download free of charge. One of the problems when chapter books were introduced into the Iowa school systems as a kind of “more natural” way of reading was that now teachers were stuck having to write their own materials. This is very time consuming for teachers and it was my desire to help out.
So, in the summer of 2008, I took two or three months to study the national standards for third grade, research cognitive development and learning styles for that level, and figure out how reading classes were run. I then set about to create a set of six activity packets for each of the first two Katie & Kimble books, with seven activity pages in each packet. Readers fill out the different types of exercises as they read the book, which also helps reinforce reading comprehension because even every language skill, like compound words or synonyms, is done in the context of some part of the story that they’ve already read.
I also created an awards system. As each activity packet is completed and the pages are checked off, the reader is awarded a ribbon that can be printed out and colored in. There is also a bigger ribbon for when they finish each book. I’ve also included various classroom activities, and writing prompts to go with the Katie & Kimble stories and also to go with funny stories I’ve posted on the Katie & Kimble blog about my own childhood when I was the same age as the Katie & Kimble readers.
How many Katie & Kimble books have you written?
Right now, there are two Katie & Kimble books in print—Katie & Kimble: A Ghost Story, and Katie & Kimble: The Magic Wish. I am in the middle of writing the third book, Katie & Kimble: The Golden Door. Loving every minute of it! I hope to bring it out in 2009.
What does the future look like for Katie & Kimble? Where do you see them going?
In the third book, I am introducing a new continuing character—a ten-year-old boy named Danny Garcia. I love this kid! He’s friendly and enthusiastic and open-minded, and he even ends up being a bit protective of Katie. At the same time, Kimble is being more fully integrated into Katie’s family, almost like a daughter in ghostly form. And it’s a bit disruptive, so boundaries begin to be established. But it is largely Kimble’s longing for a mother that drives her behavior—first for her own long-gone mother and then later, when her heart latches on to Katie’s mom, who is so kind and reasonable and loving.
Each book finds Katie awakening more and more to her ability to help people, and Kimble becomes less and less a victim and much more empowered to make her choices consciously.
I’ve got books 4 through 6 planned out, too, and there the themes of love, healing and empowerment continue while at the same time, we learn quite a bit more about Kimble’s family. These books aren’t just Katie and Kimble go to the beach! There are some big surprises coming up! Each book is true to the human feelings of all characters and because of that, they pack a real emotional wallop.
Where can readers purchase books 1 and 2 of the Katie & Kimble chapter book series?
Both of the first two books are available at Amazon.com.
Is there anything you would like to add?
The one thing that so many of the kids have commented on is how funny the books are. They are light, friendly, comforting books with a real sense of optimism. And both Katie and Kimble have good senses of humor and can see the irony in situations and make comments about it to tease each other. There’s a real sense of camaraderie and friendship, which is one of the main social skills teachers try to focus on at this level.
Thanks for joining us today, Linda. We wish you and Katie & Kimble a fun and exciting future!
Interviewer’s note: This interview originally appeared at The Book Connection on January 21, 2009.