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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008

Unsung Heroes

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Last year South Milwaukee resident Janet Halfmannpublished Little Skink’s Tail, an engaging story about a young lizard who loses her tail and tries a host of other animal tails on for size. The book won her Learning Magazine’s 2009 Teachers’ Choice Award as well as the Best Children’s Book and the Best Overall Book categories at the 2008 Florida Publishers Association Conference. This year she followed up her success with a starred review in Kirkus Reviews for her new book, Seven Miles to Freedom: The Robert Smalls Story. It’s a gripping true story that tells of an African-American slave who made a daring and ingenious escape to the North with his family during the Civil War. The book’s afterword describes Smalls’ contribution to the Union’s cause and his eventual appointment to the U.S. Congress.Halfmann recently talked to the Shepherd about her last two books.

Were you surprised when you won the Learning Magazine and Florida Publishers Association awards?

I wasn’t actually surprised because in my story times I have seen how much kids enjoy Little Skink’s Tail. They really relate to Little Skink and are very concerned about what will happen to her when she loses her tail. And they find it very humorous when she tries on other animal tails. But on the other hand, I was extremely excited about winning the awards.

Which of your books is your favorite?

Well, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’d have to say Little Skink because it is my first published fiction book and that’s always been my dream… I have the poster on my living-room wall!

Was writing a fiction picture book very different from your previous experiences?

I’ve actually been writing fiction ever since I started… Whenever I had free time between [nonfiction projects] I’d write fiction books. This is the first one that happened to sell.

What prompted you to follow it up with Seven Miles to Freedom?

With my journalism background, I’ve always been interested in research and I actually set out to write a story about a minority hero because I feel there are so many great achievements that minorities—not only African Americans but Hispanics and [American Indians]—have made, but they haven’t been written about and which kids don’t learn about in school. I started researching and found three lines about Robert Smalls and I thought, “This is a great story.”

It’s not often you read about African-American individuals who made contributions to the civil rights movement so early on…

Yes, and there are so many stories like that—that’s what makes it so exciting. During the Civil War, so many African Americans helped the Union side in all kinds of ways, and people just don’t know about it… You always hear about the white people who came down and helped out, but there were so many African Americans who were helping themselves out, but you don’t hear about them. I think there are a lot more stories to be told—I just don’t think I’ll live long enough to tell them!

Janet Halfmann will be appearing at The Children’s Play Gallery in Delafield for a Little Skink’s Tail reading and book signing at 10 a.m. on Nov. 13. You can also catch her at Martha Merrell’s Books in downtown Waukesha between noon and 4 p.m. on Nov. 23.