Three Random Questions Interview with Author-Firefighter Danual Berkley

Danual Berkley is a full-time fire fighter, husband, father of two little boys, Army vet, and a guy with a dream. His dream is to one day become a well-known children’s author providing positive representation for black men, while tackling the lack of diversity in children’s literature for people of color.

 Bonnie Ferrante: Welcome, Danual. I’m so glad you agreed to an interview. You’ve gone from being in the army to being a fire fighter, both requiring huge acts of courage and selflessness. Why do you choose these kinds of careers?

Danual Berkley: Hello Bonnie. Thank you so much for having me! I chose these two careers for two separate reasons actually. While in high school, I always kept pretty good grades. I had no idea how to use those grades to get scholarships to pay for college, nor was I really interested in doing another 4 years of school after being in school my entire life. I knew that going to the military would put money in my pocket, and later on they would pay for me to attend college as well. I wanted to go infantry at first, but my older brother David talked me out of it because he was worried about my safety.  Instead, I decided to drive trucks. The funny thing is, once I found out that I was deploying to Iraq, the military changed my job and I became a gunner in the 66th Transportation Gun Truck Company. My job was to provide security for convoys that we escorted throughout Iraq.  This turned out to be a job that was just as much, if not more, dangerous than being an infantryman.

It was also my brother that led me to the fire department. I wanted to be a S.W.A.T officer on a police department. I was seeking a job with action. My brother called me up one day and told me the fire department was hiring, and that they paid very well. By this time, I was in my 3rd year of college, and had my first son on the way.  I thought it would be a great opportunity to provide for my son, if I was lucky enough to get the job. After a year of testing and waiting, I was offered the job. I went to the fire academy and learned that firefighting was actually the best job there was and offered tons of action. I’ve been hooked and loving it ever since! I’ve been on six and a half years now.

Ferrante: You have recently entered into the field of writing children’s picture books. What  made you choose such a divergent enterprise?

Berkley: I didn’t discover I had a talent in writing until I was in the 11th grade. My English teacher made it mandatory that the class entered the Young Author’s Competition. The choice she gave us was to write either a poem or a short story. I wasn’t really trying to do a lot of work, so I wrote a short poem that it took me all the way to the State Competition where I took 3rd place overall in poetry. After that, I wouldn’t write again for years until I found myself fighting in the Iraq War. In order to escape my reality, I started writing again and making up different kinds of characters in faraway places. As I became more serious about my writing and became published, I met Amariah. Amariah was my first encounter with someone who was actually very successful creating children’s stories. She was the one that introduced me to writing picture books, because up until then, all I had been writing were books set to be a collection of poetry. With that said, I encourage all people to continue trying new things because you never know how much you’ll love something or how good you are at something, until you try it!

Ferrante: Your book, Davy’s Pirate Ship Adventure, features an African-American family. The little boy is the hero who saves the family from the sea monster and turns the sinking ship into a submarine. Picture books should always make children feel empowered. Looking at the dedication in the front of your book to your sons, “Don’t ever let someone’s misunderstanding change who you are.” I can see that that is deeply important to you. Do you feel there are enough books out there for your children to feel culturally included and valued?

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 Berkley: Based on my personal experience (as well as research), no. There are not enough books out that represent children of color. Whether or not that child feels culturally included or valued, varies with each individual child. I do know as a kid growing up, I didn’t really have the opportunity to read or see books with African-American families, but as an adult, when I see a book with African American families I get excited to see characters in the stories both my family and I can relate to. It feels good seeing a reflection of yourself in a story.

Ferrante: Previously you mentioned negative stereotypes about black men, one being that they don’t raise their children. In a cosmic moment of serendipity, I heard a comedian, Mark James Heath, speaking on the expressions of surprise when Caucasian people see him engaged with his children. In this regard, it seems as though literature has not caught up with television. I see a number of shows with involved black fathers but picture books seem rather rare. This is unfortunate since they are often the earliest stories of families children experience.  I have two questions. How does your book address this topic? How can Caucasian writers help in this area?

Berkley: To answer your first question, In Davy’s Pirate Ship Adventure I address the topic indirectly. I don’t come out and say straight forward that I’m a black man raising my kids. I simply show myself being an involved father throughout the story. I have other books I’ve written that have yet to be published, that shows the love and compassion I have for my sons a lot more. The actions in the story speak louder than any words could express.

In regards to your second question, Caucasian writers who do have large followings could help by also writing books that show positive black male fathers.

Ferrante: What other attitudes toward black men do you hope to influence in your writing?

Berkley: Other negative stereotypes say black men don’t settle down with one woman and get married, as well as being violent individuals. All of my stories are geared to show how untruthful these stereotypes are. Black men do settle down and get married, and black men are not people you have to fear. We are here to love and enjoy life just as any other person would want to.

Ferrante: Do you intend to write more books featuring Davy and his family or are you considering other characters?

Berkley: I have several other unpublished books where all of the characters in Davy’s Pirate Ship Adventure play lead characters. In the back of Davy’s Pirate Ship Adventure, you can find the backstories of all of the characters. I did this because each character will be seen again in other stories, and it ties them all together. Readers will be able to develop relationships with each character and experience stories from that character’s point of view.

Ferrante: Have you ever considered writing a firefighter picture book featuring a black man or a black woman for that matter? By the way, I live in northern Canada where most black immigrants take a look at the winter weather and head south so I’ve never seen firefighter of African descent. Is it common in your firehouse?

Berkley: I do have a firefighting story already written with Davy as the main character. As of now, there are other stories we plan to release before that one is to be published. The next book will most likely star my younger son as the main character.

In regards to how many black firefighters there are on a department, it varies by population. I live in a predominantly white area, so most firefighters in our department are white. I’m sure there are other places where the majority of firefighters are people of color.

Ferrante: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you would like to share with my readers?

Berkley: Please check out my website and social media pages to learn more about my work at the following links:

https://www.instagram.com/poetryfixdb/

https://www.facebook.com/poemsbydanual/

https://www.danualberkley.com/

Ferrante: Now for the unusual part. My interviews always feature three random questions so here we go.

1. If you could play a sport at Olympic level, which one would you choose?

Berkley: It would definitely have to be snowboarding! Although I have never been snowboarding in my life, it just looks really fun to do, and it allows you to be as creative as you want. I love sledding here during the winter, so I can only imagine how awesome it would be to snowboard down the side of a mountain.

Ferrante: 2. You really do love action.

 If you could give a gift to every new parent, what would you give them?

Berkley: It would have to be a dishwasher. It’s impossible to keep up with the amount of bottles, plates, baby accessories, and breast feeding equipment on top of the dishes you use yourself. The only way you can survive is by having a dishwasher, so in words of Oprah, “You get a dishwasher, you get a dishwasher, everyone gets a dishwasher!”

Ferrante: 3.  LOL. That brings back memories.

 If you could be an animal for a day, what would you be?

Berkley: If I got to be an animal for one day it would have to be a rodent! I watch a lot of Animal Planet, and being a rodent seems really adventurous and exciting. I’m sure I’d probably regret that decision instantly if I ever really had the opportunity to be a mouse. But in all of the movies I’ve seen, being a mouse seems like a good time!

Ferrante: I did NOT expect that answer. 🙂

 Thank you for participating in my interview and answering both my serious and silly questions. Best of luck with your wonderful book Davy’s Pirate Ship Adventure and all your future enterprises.

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Davy’s Pirate Ship Adventure by Danual Berkley. Illustrated by Amariah Rauscher. Book Review.

I knew I’d like this author the moment I read the dedication. Simple words with a powerful, important message.

Davy’s Pirate Ship Adventure is a fun family picture book.  It is a gentle adventure of a family of four, mother, father, 7 year old Davy, baby Kai,  and two animated toys, one an alien and  one a teddy bear. It features a family of African descent which I don’t get to see very often. However,  families of all backgrounds will easily relate. What child doesn’t want their family to go for an adventure on a pirate ship?

During their search for gold, the family encounters  a giant fish monster which Davy handles with confidence. When a huge storm comes up and flips the boat over it transforms into a submarine. Of course they find the gold and everyone cheers. On the last page we find that this is a beautifully imaginative story created during bath time.

Rauscher’s illustration style perfectly suits the story. The pictures, which seem to be pencil and watercolor, are gentle and endearing. Every character shines with personality.

Children who love imaginative play and pirate stories will want to hear this book over and over. It is reassuring  with just a touch of suspense. I look forward to more work from this new author. Watch for an upcoming interview with Danual Berkley on this blog.

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Upside Down Babies by Jeanne Willis and Adrian Reynolds. Book Review.

 
The Illustrations in this book are engaging and adorable. The animal’s expressions are priceless.
It begins, “Once when the world jturned upside down”. We see animal babies and human babies spinning through the air wearing concerned expressions. On the next page, piglet lands in a parrot’s nest. On the following, the baby tortoise lands in an otter’s home, the lion cub lands beside a cow, and it continues. The expressions on the faces of the mothers and babies are priceless.
The foster mothers try their best but there are insurmountable odds. The cow cannot provide meat for the lion. The baby elephant can’t jump like the monther kangaroo. This sloth baby cannot keep up with the cheetah.
But then the world goes upside down again and everything returns to as it was. The families are happy to be reunited except for two. My granddaughter and I were disconcerted that the gorilla keeps the human baby and the mother keeps the gorilla baby. There seems to be no reason for this and most children will probably find it funny but there is a undertone of discomfort with the idea. However, children who don’t think too deeply on the subject will just just think it’s silly.
The follow-up to this could be a discussion of new pairings of mothers and babies. Which ones could work and what ones could never be compatible?

Silly Scientists Take a Peeky at the Solar System by Lindsey Craig. Illustrated by Marianella Aguirre and Ying Hui Tan. Book Review.

This is the second in the silly scientists series wherein Lindsey Craig uses humor to teach children about nature and science. This time the aliens travels through our planetary system. The illustrations are a mixture of wacky drawings and photography from NASA.
The text is written in rhyme such as “Uranus is an ice giant that has a wonky ride. Its seasons last forever since it orbits on its side.” The beat is quite musical.
There is humor in the text as well as the illustrations. For example Jupiter’s red spot is compared to a zit.
The last two pages contain information for parents and older students on our solar system. The best part about this book is that you can also go online and listen to a catchy song with highly professional animation that reinforces learning the planets. It enriches and supplements the text.
Kids who like space and aliens will enjoy this picture book.

Blackflies by Robert Munsch. Illustrated by Jay Odjick. Book Review.

This book follows the typical style for Robert Munsch of silliness and repetitive phrases. The thing I loved about it was that it takes place in the  Canadian North, in a community similar to many around Thunder Bay. It starts off in such a familiar way that it made me laugh out loud.

Helen gets up one morning and is thrilled to find the snow is gone and it is finally spring. But when she opens the door the black flies and mosquitoes drive her back inside. While it usually doesn’t all happen on the same day, this is a sadly repetitive scenario for those of us who live in the North. Children who live in this area, and similar locations across Canada, will completely identify with the protagonist. Although the family is of Aboriginal descent, the insect attacks will connect with everyone  who has had similar experiences.

I was happy to see that the family in this book was First Nations and the artist was from the Kitigin Zibi Anishinabeg Algonquin community. While Aboriginal children are used to seeing native artists, it is inspiring to see someone using their talent to create picture books for the very young.

It would make a great gift for anyone who’s been driven indoors by mosquitoes and blackflies. Northern blackflies are not what you might be thinking. They are tiny insects that can get through needle size holes. In spite of their tininess, they take a good chunk out of your skin when they bite.

It is also terrific that Helen is the hero who saves her family from being overcome by the blood-sucking bugs of the North. I’m gratified to see more books with female heroes.

It is very difficult to find funny, picture books that feature First Nations families but connect with everyone. This is sure to become a classroom or camp favorite.

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Sunny Days by Jesse Byrd. Illustrated by Anastasia Ku. Book Teview.

This large 8 by 10 inch picture book is printed on sturdy glossy paper. The large format would make it ideal to share with children. The illustrations are double-page spreads featuring an expressive and lovable little girl named Martine.

Martine is a shouter. She is so happy that she inadvertently startles her neighbors with herenthusiasm. In spite of this, she is well-liked. She loves her neighborhood and the people in it. One day disaster strikes when a terrible rain storm damages much of the neighborhood. It loses its beauty and sense of community. People become depressed and isolated.

Martine refuses to succumb to despair. She walks around naming the sunny days the way the meteorologists named the storm. When she tells the barber this, he talks to others and people’s  attitude slowly changes. They begin to prepare their community. Martine helps whenever possible. Then they throw a neighborhood party to celebrate.

Although this is a story of great loss and recovery, the tone is upbeat and funny. There are so many things to discuss especially with regard to attitude, support, and rebuilding. In an era where climate change is bringing wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, ice storms, and more, this is a timely book to share with children and to remind adults that we are only as strong as we think we are.

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Backyard Fairies by Phoebe Wahl. Book review.

This is a delightful picture book for the imaginative child. There are only a few words on each page; the detailed and intriguing gardens filled with secretive hidden fairies dominate.

If I remember my grammar lessons correctly, the book is written in present perfect tense thereby pulling the reader into the story and engaging them in imaginative response. It is also written in a gentle pattern of rhyming couplets. It begins, ” Have you ever found, while out on your own…/A tiny, magical somebody’s home?”  The illustration shows a little girl examining a tree stump with an opening perfect for habitation.

As the story continues, the little girl searches everywhere for fairies who unknown to her, are within Arm’s Reach. There are also other magical creatures like a rock gnome. The child leaves a gift for the fairies. It vanishes overnight and they give something to her. My granddaughter and I were so delighted to read this part. We have made fairy doors in her garden and done exactly that.

The reader  empathizes with the little girl who, despite her thoroughness and determination, is unable to spot a fairy. She goes to bed wondering if they really exist. During her sleep, fairies fly in with flowers and create a wreath for her head. She wakes up in the morning wearing it.

Phoebe Wahl not only writes her own text but does her own illustrations. They are incredibly detailed and intriguing. This is a special book that your child will ask to hear over and over and never tire of finding all the fairies.

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Don’t Ask a Dinosaur by Matt Forrest Esenwine and Deborah Bruss. Illustrated by Louie Chin. Book Review.

This humorous picture book imagines what would happen if you asked for help with birthday party preparations and participation from dinosaurs. Although this scenario is obviously totally imaginary, the names and illustrations of the dinosaurs are up-to-date and informative. The children’s favorites, like tyrannosaurus rex, iguanadon, and stegosaurus are there, but some may be new to the reader such as deinocheirus, argentinosaurus, and aliopleurodon.

I like the fact that a brother and sister are having a birthday together. They look as though they could be twins. Hopefully this will entice boys to read the book as much as girls. When the children solicit the dinosaurs’ help, they discover that the rezinosaurus cannot blow up balloons without popping them with his long claws and a tanystropheus will become entangled in the decorations due to his long neck. Each page is filled with humorous situations featuring dinosaurs trying to do the impossible.

I was pleased to find a small glossary at the back with an interesting fact or two about each of the dinosaurs. For example, the argentinosaurus was probably the heaviest of all weighing as much as 1500 people.

What makes this a cut above similar books is the tight and inventive rhyming. The reader cannot help but be impressed at Esenwine’s mastery of rhyme and rhythm using long and complex dinosaur names. “Don’t ask an ankylosaurus to come in through the gate or a tanystropheus to help you decorate.”

The illustrations effectively portray the children’s frustration and  laughter at the unfolding disaster. The text is seamlessly superimposed over the full page spreads.

Kids who like Robert Munsch, dinosaurs, or books about party disasters will love Don’t Ask a Dinosaur.

The authors will be interviewed April 25, 2018.

My First Best Friend by Derek Washington. Book review.

This picture book is a sweet story of a father’s unwavering love for his child. He expresses his admiration for his son’s determination and his enjoyment of his boy’s growth. Throughout the book he builds the child’s confidence and sense of adventure. They do everything together and their lives are filled with joy and affection.

Then his son takes a major step toward independence. The father confesses that sending his child to school is difficult because his son is missed. When his son says he has a new best friend named Miles, the father reminds him that he will always love him and be his first best friend. I think it is important that when a child has to negotiate the scary and unpredictable world away from home, especially the social quagmire of school, that he knows his father is always there to back him up and support him. However, I would have liked the dad to show more interest in Miles and encourage his son to make friends outside the family.

The book is written in rhyme which holds together fairly well but it isn’t really necessary, especially considering the story’s focus. The illustrations are full color, full-page, cartoon style. There is a color page and a maze the back of the book.

This would make a lovely gift for a new father or father to be.

Don’t Ask a Dinosaur Blog Tour

April 6:       Michelle H. Barnes (Interview w/month-long writing prompt)

April 8:       Kate Narita (Trailer & activity sheet spotlight)

April 11:     Deborah Kalb (Interview w/Matt & Deb)

April 13:     Yours Truly (Interview w/Louie)

April 16:     KidLit Exchange (Blog post re: process of illustration)

April 17:     Momma’s Bacon (and I’ll be promoting the book’s release on my blog, as well)

April 18:     Bonnie Ferrante (DAAD review)

April 19:     Brenda Harsham (micro review)

April 25:     Bonnie Ferrante (DAAD interview)

May 2:        Unleashing Readers