Children’s Book Feature: How to Say Hello to Local Author-Illustrator Kari Percival
By Cyrisse Jaffee
Kari Percival’s greatest thrill? Reading How to Say Hello to a Worm aloud to kids whose faces “light up” as she turns the pages.
On April 13, 2023, local author-illustrator Kari Percival will be traveling to accept the Ezra Jack Keats Award at the de Grummand Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi for her book How to Say Hello to a Worm (Penguin Random House 2022). The prestigious award, established in 1986, “celebrates new authors and illustrators of picture books that reflect the universal qualities of childhood and the multicultural nature of our world. The EJK Award encourages new talent and inspires them to continue to create outstanding picture books for a diverse audience.” (Doug Salari, author-illustrator of Hot Dog, and winner of the 2023 Caldecott Medal, is also a recipient of the prize.)
It’s quite an honor for first-time author Percival, who grew up in a leafy suburb of Boston and in rural Maine, two areas not particularly known for diversity. But now, living in Malden, Massachusetts, Percival is really excited to be able to reflect the many different cultures of the children she has worked with and known as friends and neighbors. Malden, as she explains, is “a gateway city and has been for 150 years. There are 60 languages spoken in the public schools.” So drawing a range of children “wasn’t a stretch.” Malden also offers the dual pleasures of being close to the subway and to the Fells, with over 2500 acres of trails and natural beauty.
Percival’s book has enjoyed an enthusiastic response from critics. Subtitled A First Guide to Outside, it was named one of the American Library Service for Children (ALSC) Notable Children Books for 2023 and won the 2023 Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy (CLEL) Bell Picture Book Award. A starred review in Publishers Weekly noted, “Percival conveys the joy children can feel in working together, being outdoors, and eating food they’ve grown themselves — all with a fizzy immediacy.” (See the Arts Fuse review of the book here.)
Percival, who went to UMass Amherst and then to the Chicago Art Institute, has always loved the outdoors. One of her early dream jobs was as a camp counselor at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, where she “got to read with kids and take them on hikes in the woods.” It inspired her dual interest in art and environmental education. Later, she earned a master’s in Environmental Science and Science Teaching at Antioch.
As a young mom in Malden, Percival founded the Early Birds Garden Club so that families would feel comfortable bringing their toddlers and preschoolers to the newly established Community Garden nearby. By her own admission, she was not an expert gardener, nor was she trained as an early childhood educator. But the same tools she used as a middle-school science teacher — inquiry-based and student-led learning — applied to little ones, too.
Say Hello to a Worm resonates with Percival’s real-world experiences. For instance, kids love digging and mud, so there’s a dig zone in the garden to let kids explore and get messy. She knows that kids (and grown-ups) get impatient for things to grow, so she researched what seeds would grow in cooler temperatures and sprout early. Being outside is not only important in having kids learn about where food comes from, the weather, and the seasons, it’s also preventative. “If you start young enough,” Percival says, “kids are curious, not frightened, by bugs.” Although she had to leave out some kid-favorite insects — roly poly pill bugs were not, unfortunately, “visually charismatic” — readers learn how to greet worms, bees, and ladybugs, or what she calls “etiquette of meeting other species.” Her sister, a preschool teacher, also helped test the book with her class.
Working in woodcuts, Percival cites illustrators of the ’50s and ’60s, such as Evaline Ness and Ed Emberley, as influences. “There’s a lot suggested [by their art]” she explains, “in very spare, kind of raw imagery.” Making books, she notes, is a lot more solitary than teaching, where kids give you immediate feedback. Creating lesson plans is a “fun puzzle,” but waiting for publishers to make decisions requires patience. Percival is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and credits the organization for helping her network with others in the children’s book field, including a critique group. A mentoring program led her to connect with acclaimed author-illustrator Ashley Wolff and, eventually, to Kari’s literary agent.
In addition to teaching and doing art workshops (she has also taught drama and art), Percival and her husband, Greg Cook — an artist and a journalist — run a business called Wonderland Spectacle Co. Together, they create banners, posters, and masks for festivals, parades, protests, and other gatherings. Although temporarily halted due to Covid, they have helped organize events as well, from Cambridge’s Mermaid Promenade to Malden’s Santas Against Global Warming to Arlington’s Fox Festival Parade, and more.
Percival is in the midst of preparing her next book, Safe Crossing, due in 2025 from Chronicle Books. It’s a story about volunteers who protect amphibians on roadways during spring migration. Of course she is gratified by the glowing reviews and prizes she’s won for her first book. But the greatest thrill? Reading the book aloud to kids whose faces “light up” as she turns the pages. “I couldn’t be more pleased,” she says. And when parents tell her that their kids say, “Read it again”? The book, she says, “has done its magic.”
For more about Kari Percival, visit her website at https://karipercival.com/
Cyrisse Jaffee is a former children’s and YA librarian, a children’s book editor and book reviewer, and a creator of educational materials for WGBH. She holds a master’s degree in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.