Blackaby to sign copies of her latest Sterling book at Annie Bloom's

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Children's book author Susan Blackaby shows off copies of two of her books, her latest, 'Brownie Groundhog and the Wintry Surprise,' and 'Cleopatra' from 2009, in the workshop at her Raleigh Hills home. Blackaby will sign copies of her latest book on Saturday at Annie Bloom's Books in Multnomah Village.When Susan Blackaby finished “Brownie Groundhog and the February Fox” in 2011, the writer had no idea she’d be waking up Brownie from her long winter’s nap for a sequel.

But such are the compromises a successful children’s author makes, particularly when the holiday book market beckons.

“My editor asked me to do a sequel to the ‘February Fox’ book, for a holiday book,” says Blacakby, a longtime Raleigh Hills resident. “I pointed out that in ‘February Fox,’ Brownie is just waking up from hibernating. We can’t have her up and doing something in the middle of winter.”

So Blackaby adapted. She added Bunny, “this great little character that just popped out of nowhere,” so the Fox would have someone to talk to while Brownie adjusts to waking from her mid-winter slumber.

And with that, Blackaby’s fourth book, “Brownie Groundhog and the Wintry Surprise,” vibrantly illustrated by Carmen Segovia and published by Sterling in early October, came into being.

“Brownie, she’s annoyed at the universe,” Blackaby explains. “(The Fox) is trying to eat her. She’s annoyed because it’s not spring yet, and she’s awake. She sees her shadow on the first page and is just ticked.”

To celebrate the somewhat unlikely second installment in the “Brownie Groundhog” saga, Blackaby will host a book-signing event at Annie Bloom’s Books, 7834 S.W. Capitol Highway in Multnomah Village, on Saturday at 1 p.m.

Blackaby’s latest picture book is her fifth published title. In addition to the two “Brownie” installments, her catalog is rounded out by “Rembrandt’s Hat,” published in 2002, “Cleopatra: Egypt’s Last and Greatest Queen,” a biography from 2009, and “Nest, Nook & Cranny,” a collection of 21 short poems arranged by habitat, as in grassland, desert, shoreline and woodland. The work won the 2011 “Lion and The Unicorn Award” for Outstanding North American Poetry for Children.

Blackaby drew inspiration for the collection from Anne Gagnon, the third-grade teacher she knew as Mrs. Nichols in 1961, when Blackaby was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“I wrote the poems in the third grade,” Blackaby says. “When the collection came out, I went and tracked her down in Ashland (Ore.). I hadn’t seen her in 40 years.”

To her surprise, the teacher had actually saved the very poems for which Blackaby was receiving kudos.

“This was the mind-blowing part,” Blackaby told Myles Murphy of the Ashland Daily Tidings in 2010. “Not only did she remember me, but she had a folder with about 15 poems I wrote when I was in her class. She had moved all over the world, and she kept these things. Almost 50 years had gone by. It was really stunning.”

Blackaby, who explored ancient Greek studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, meandered her way into writing and editing, originally as a copy assistant at Addison Wesley in Menlo Park, Calif. Impressing the staff by identifying a mislabeled lesson on Latin root words — they were actually Greek — she ended up on the publishing house’s editorial team.

One way or another, she’s made a living as a freelance writer, editor and teacher ever since.

“I’ve always had lots of words around,” she says. “My mother was a really excellent writer. She always had books and poems and things like that. It’s a language-rich family.”

Linda Zuckerman, former director of the Pacific Northwest Children’s Book Conference, praises Blackaby for her natural connection to the younger set.

“I think Susan has the ability to speak directly to children in a voice that is funny and affectionate,” she says.

Blackaby has lived for decades in Raleigh Hills with Jeff Shaffer, her husband of more than 30 years. Their daughter, Ruby, is working on her master’s degree in international affairs at The New School in New York City.

Noting how inspiring it is to live in a neighborhood rich with published children’s authors, Blackaby says she isn’t sure what fate has in store for Brownie Groundhog among the various projects on her plate these days.

“I don’t know if it can go on and on and on,” she says. “There will be one more, at least, but tha’t not up to me. I’ll scribble something down and see what happens.”by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Children's book author Susan Blackaby turns some pages in the workshop of her Raleigh Hills home.

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