Making a Big Splash with Craig Hatkoff

This article originally appeared in SLJ's Extra Helping.
By Shanti Menon -- School Library Journal, 2/3/2010 2:10:00 PM

Craig Hatkoff’s Winter’s Tail (Scholastic, 2009), the story of a young dolphin with a prosthetic tail, has sparked a Nintendo game, a documentary, and a movie deal with Warner Bros. SLJ caught up with Hatkoff to talk about what it’s like to collaborate with daughters Isabella, 15, and Juliana, 11, and why they create books about animals that overcome tremendous difficulties.
You’re a businessman and a cofounder of the Tribeca Film Festival, as well as a best-selling author. How’d you start writing for kids?

I never intended a career as a children’s book writer, but I’ve always been fascinated by children’s books. I wasn’t a terrific reader; I read slowly. I had a librarian in the fifth grade who really opened my world to books.
My writing career started as a project with my older daughter Juliana when she was getting her tonsils out. We started keeping a notebook to help her through the process, and that became Goodbye, Tonsils (Viking, 2001). And then Isabella, when she was about five, asked me, “Daddy, when are we going to do our book?”
What’s it like working with your daughters?

They’re in charge. They have day jobs, as do I. We have an informal process. Some days they’re wildly interested, other days they have homework, or they want to go out. This is a thing that we do, no more, no less. It’s a family thing. It’s daddy and the girls.
How do you choose your topics?

It has to pass the goosebump test. There has to be a passion about it that they embrace. If they don’t like the story, or the character, then on to the next. There also has to be a job to get done.
What kind of a job?

We started thinking of the series like a toolkit. It provides a way to deal with a difficult subject using a compelling character. They deal with major issues and major traumas, but using animals makes it more accessible to kids. They’re full of teachable moments. The resilience of animals is very inspiring to kids. They can relate to it. And we try not to force a particular point of view, so you can own the story and use it to whatever purpose.
Hatkoff with daughters Isabella (left), 15, and Juliana, 11.

I hear that Winter, who lives at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, has inspired a lot of people.

Oh, it’s unbelievable. People of all ages and facing all kinds of different challenges. There was a girl who just happened to be at the aquarium. She had hearing aids and was so self-conscious she didn’t want to wear them. But after she saw Winter she said, “If Winter can wear her tail, then I can wear my hearing aids.” So now she’s just blossomed, she wears these bright turquoise hearing aids, they’re almost like jewelry!
There’s even a webcam of Winter.

Not everyone can get to the aquarium, so we’ve got a webcam and we share a lot of these stories on our Web site. We have video clips of people meeting Winter for the first time. This is fundamental to how we think of these books now. These are things you don’t read just once, but over and over and interact with them and get involved. We really try to extend the experience.
How are your books used in the classroom?

We have classroom guides for all our books. There are so many ways to engage. The kids at one school who read Looking for Miza (Scholastic, 2008) held a bake sale and raised $118 to help the mountain gorillas. That’s a lot of cookies. And they decided that they wanted the money to go to the mountain rangers.They were very specific about how it should be used. So another thing that’s come out of these books is kids’ philanthropy, and we’re really trying to encourage that. It’s not just about giving money, but doing good. They can make a drawing, write a poem, turn off the lights when they leave a room.
Tell me about how the Nintendo DS version came about.

We’re interested to see if this can become an educational platform, not just gaming. This is something that’s personally very important to me. Not all kids have an easy time reading. Isabella, my youngest, has trouble decoding. She’s so articulate in every way, you spend five minutes with her and you can’t believe she has any kind of learning disability. She has an amazing memory, she’s incredibly creative. Her right brain dominates, but sequential, linear things are a challenge. But she read part of the audio version for the DS and she just banged it out. And she likes the Winter game.
So the game provides another way for kids to experience the book?

It’ll never replace the book, but we want to encourage kids to experience these characters, these emotions, these stories, in as many ways as we can. It’s an interactive story book with activities and microgames, but it’s really visual and less linear. You listen to the story, you can paint with Winter, assemble her tail. I mean, if a kid is struggling, give them every opportunity to learn in a different way. I did a presentation to a school about Winter and for a brief moment we put up the slide of the DS and the whole gym just started to vibrate. That’s why I get excited about the educational tools that come out of this. I have a child that’s challenged, and I’m personally invested in trying to help in whatever way we can.

What’s the next Hatkoff family project?

We’re coming out with a readers’ series for second graders in 2010, and also our latest big book that will bring us to a new continent—our fourth. I’ll tell you this much—it will be about international cooperation, with a very compelling character and story. We just finished the first draft, and I think it’s going to be great.

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