The Mountain Times

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Review: New Beginner Book Squirrels on Skis
This imaginative story is set in a small mountain village resembling many throughout Vermont

Squirrels on Skis, written by J. Hamilton Ray and illustrated by Pascal Lemaitre, is the newest addition to the bestselling Beginner Books series, which originated with The Cat in the Hat in 1957.
Squirrels on Skis is a humorous story geared toward young readers ages 4-8, that tells of an idyllic snow-clad town that is overrun by squirrels on skis. This imaginative infestation, takes place in a small mountain village that resembles many in Vermont with church steeples, a local grocery store,  B&Bs, a town green, village hall, arts gallery, and quirky residents that get vocal at a town assembly.
An intrepid young reporter named Sally Sue Breeze speaks up above the rest and ultimately resolves the town-wide dilemma with imagination and finesse, just before the town pest-controller, Stanley Powers, sucks them up in his vacuum device. Her charming solution makes both her town and the squirrels happy.
With delightfully whimsical illustrations by Pascal Lemaitre, this is the perfect book for beginning readers and its clever rhymes make it a fun book to read out loud, too!
The author J. Hamilton Ray has a distinguished background in animating beloved children's books to video, particularly those of Theodore Seuss Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss.) Among his distinctions, Ray has won two national Emmy Awards for Outstanding Writing for Children. He's written and produced for the hit PBS Kids TV series Between the Lions, and he's created many animated videos of picture books, including those of P. D. Eastman, Stan and Jan Berenstain and, of course, Dr. Seuss.
As a veteran children's television writer and producer, he brings the perfect voice to the Beginner Books series, creating a fun original title. Despite the fact that Squirrels on Skis is Ray's first book, he succeeds in capturing the essence of a classic read-aloud story.
In addition Squirrels on Skis, Pascal Lemaitre, has illustrated numerous books for young people, and his editorial work appears regularly in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Time, and Print.
Founded in 1957, the Beginner Books series aims to change the way children learn how to read, making learning to read a joy and reading for pleasure the best way to learn. The first beginner book was The Cat in the Hat, which was "fun to read aloud, easy to read alone, and impossible to put down," the series states. The Beginner Books series was co-founded by children's book publisher Phyllis Cerf, Dr. Seuss, and his wife Helen Palmer Geisel. According to Judith Morgan and Neil Morgan, who wrote Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography, Cerf compiled a list of 379 words as the basic vocabulary for young readers, along with 20 more slightly harder "emergency" words. No more than 200 words were taken from that list to write The Cat in the Hat and subsequent books in the series have been modeled on that same requirement.
The Beginner Book series was successful from the start. By 1960, just over two years after it began and with only four books published, they were earning a million dollars a year and Random House was the largest publisher of children's books in America.
Squirrels on Skis hit bookstores Sept. 10, 2013 and is also available as a Read & Listen edition, narrated by the author. For more info visit:  www.jhamiltonray.com

Q&A:
Squirrels on Skis author J. Hamilton Ray
By Polly Lynn
The Mountain Times: What sparked your imagination to create a book about skiing squirrels?
Ray: We see many squirrels in the Connecticut woods, and one beautiful snowy day my wife told me she saw a squirrel glide down a slope, as if he were on a pair of skis! That image stayed with me, and the story of Squirrels on Skis took off from there.
Mt. Times: Did you originally write it as part of the Beginner Book series or did that come about after?
Ray: I didn't think about categories, but I knew I wanted this book to be a "classic" that kids would demand to hear again and again. I felt there was an interesting story to tell-part mystery, part comedy-and when the first line came to me, I knew that it would be a rhyming book. When I was done, I read the book aloud to Random House Children's publisher, Kate Klimo, and to Dr. Seuss' own art director, Cathy Goldsmith. They immediately said it would make a wonderful classic Beginner Book, and they bought it on the spot! Kate said she liked Squirrels on Skis because it was written in an original voice in the Seuss vein, yet it was not an imitation of Seuss-which they apparently get all the time. She told me she thought Ted Geisel would have absolutely loved it.
Mt. Times: How did you choose Pascal Lemaitre as the illustrator for this story?
Ray: My publisher, Random House, suggested Pascal, and I thought his characters had a lot of personality, so I agreed. I am a producer/director, so I was very involved in directing the artwork. I gave my publisher a full storyboard, in which I drew sketches of the entire book, and made decisions of page layouts and scenes. Pascal brought a lot of his own talent and humor to the book, so it was a very successful collaboration. 
Mt. Times: Can you tell us about your experience writing your first children's book?
Ray: It was a wonderful experience! Once I got going, my mind kept working out the story and rhymes all the time-in the shower, in the garden, while cooking. I'd get very excited when a new idea or verse came to me, and I'd run to find a pen and paper before I forgot it. And as the book took more shape it became like music to me, like a song I was trying to figure out.
Mt. Times: How does being the author differ from your other roles as producer and animator of children's books, movies and T.V. programming?
Ray: TV is lights, camera, action! Whereas in writing a book, you sit alone in a quiet place and create a world that you live in for a while-so it's just you and your characters-you're the entire engine of this train! Fortunately my wife is also an author (the novelist, C.A. Belmond) so we can communicate and encourage each other whenever we each come up for air!