Dawn Menge’s lauded Queen Vernita children’s book series now numbers seven impressive adventures and has racked up dozens of awards since the first book, Queen Vernita’s Visitors, was published by Outskirts Press in 2008. The exciting travels of the title character have earned Dawn legions of loyal fans as well, and as you’ll see, there are valuable lessons to be gleaned from each of Queen Vernita’s stops around the globe.
Dawn Menge has a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, and clear credential in Special Education. She has worked with the severely handicapped population for 20 years. She combines imagination with practical skills to make learning fun.
Dawn has called upon her years working with severely handicapped individuals and her personal adventures to create the characters, kingdom and vivid adventures in the Queen Vernita book series.
As Dawn gears up planning for future Queen Vernita quests, we caught up with the celebrated author to learn more about what inspired her seemingly unlikely path into an award-winning writing career:
OP: You’ve published an amazing children’s series with Queen Vernita and her adventures. Can you tell us about the books in the series?
DM: The character Queen Vernita is based on my grandmother, Vernita. This amazing queen lives in the Oceaneer’s kingdom in the land of Quails. Each year she visits a different region of her kingdom. The queen spends each month with 12 different friends. During each month, she discovers new flora or fauna of the area: She has learned about sharks, sea horses, whales, otters, dolphins, eels; she held a baby alligator and many other exciting creatures. She has learned how to whitewater raft, snorkel in glacier waters, went grunion hunting, swam with sharks, dolphins and manta rays. The queen is always very active and enjoys trying new adventures in each new region. During each month she learns seven new facts for each day of the first week.
Queen Vernita and Sir HeathyBean the Astronomer spend the entire year learning about the solar system. Sir HeathyBean the Astronomer is based on my brother, who is an astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. They spent the whole year learning about planets and asteroids. I love to travel, and each of the books is based on a trip that I have taken. Every activity in the book is an actual adventure I have had, as in swimming with the sharks, eels, manta rays and dolphins.
OP: What led to writing the first book, and did you always envision producing a series?
DM: I wrote the first book in the series while I was receiving my special education credential. I have been working with severely handicapped students for almost 20 years. In one of the classes we were required to write a math book and create a board game to go with the math book. I created Queen Vernita’s Visitors. I decided to self-publish the book and wasn’t anticipating writing any other books. Within several months I was nominated by Outskirts press for the EVVY award and Queen Vernita’s Visitors won first place. I then started participating in interviews. I was asked when the next book was coming out, my response was, “What next book?” But the seed was planted in my imagination, and off Queen Vernita went on her next adventure. I have had a wonderful time writing the series and have met so many interesting people.
OP: How long have you been writing and publishing this series for children?
DM: Queen Vernita’s Visitors was published in 2008. There are seven books in the series: Queen Vernita Visits the Blue Ice Mountains, Queen Vernita Meets Sir HeathyBean the Astronomer, Queen Vernita Visits the Islands of Enchantment, Queen Vernita Visits Baja Quails, Queen Vernita Explores the Oceaneer’s Coastline and Queen Vernita Visits Gator Country.
OP: What types of readers would be interested in Queen Vernita?
DM: The Queen Vernita series is based on the format of learning the math concepts of days of the weeks, months of the year, and seasons. Within each format are fascinating facts about each new region. My readers are looking for knowledge on many different subjects, travel, adventure and excitement. My hope is that my books encourage children and adults to delve into new subjects by expanding their informational search beyond the pages of the Queen Vernita’s adventures. I hope they seek out more books, information on the internet and also expand their adventurous side and see new things—and meet many new people.
OP: What do you feel differentiates this series from other children’s series?
DM: This series is different from other adventure series because it is based on my real adventures and real people. Each friend in Queen Vernita’s books is an actual person in my life and each adventure is a true experience I have had. It promotes curiosity in others and a sense of accomplishment. It is not impossible to experience holding a baby alligator or have a manta ray swim up to you, to play with a seal in the ocean or sit on a beach cooking up the grunion from a grunion run, to sleep outside and count the stars as you are camping in the forest. It also teaches about several disabilities and the capabilities of these children. Queen Vernita’s series touches on cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and the deaf and blind. Queen Vernita also meets Harper Lee, who is a therapy dog, and she learns all about the benefits that a therapy dog has on someone who may suffer from an emotional or physical disability.
OP: Tell us about the amazing illustrations and the illustrators you’ve worked with.
DM: My first several books were illustrated by Bobbi Switzer, whom I contracted through Outskirts Press. As the content of my books became higher and there was more text, I decided to create a different look for the older students. I met my current illustrator, Pamela Snyder, at a book event and as she lives very close to me, our collaboration is more personal. Pamela has also painted a beautiful mural on my wall from my travels in Kona, Hawaii. I wake up each morning to turtles swimming in the ocean. Pamela is able to take an actual picture I have taken on one of my adventures and turn it into a beautiful illustration for a Queen Vernita adventure.
OP: Tell us a little about publishing with Outskirts Press. What was that like?
DM: Publishing with Outskirts Press has been an exciting part of my life. I have had so many experiences that have enhanced my life, it is hard to name. They made the process easy for me, and I was able to produce seven beautiful books to share with children across the world. If it were not for Outskirts Press, I would not have been able to read my books to the hundreds of children in libraries from New York to California, Idaho to Colorado.
Each year I attend the Book Festival at the University of Arizona and there I met a woman who was traveling to Ghana, Africa, to build a library. I donated a set of books and she sent me pictures of the children checking them out. I have been the featured author for a local school district for the past five years. I have met so many wonderful young authors, and each May they have a conference and I spend hours listening to the children read their stories to me. I have stayed in contact with some of these young authors and helped to encourage them to write more stories. I am also the Ambassador for California for the United States Board on Books for Young People. This is an international literacy group. I was able to travel to New York City last fall and met exciting authors and librarians from all over the world. The session that had the most impact on me was the “Children and War” authors. I am also a member of the Society of Children’s book writers and illustrators. I have attended several of their conferences and workshops. The have inspired me to keep working on my craft and to increase my skills. The authors and illustrators that I have met have been encouraging and supportive at whatever level you happen to be working on from pre-published to traditionally publish. I encourage all authors to join and become as involved as possible with their local chapter.
I recently attended the National Indie author day at the San Bernardino library. There I met other self-published authors from our local area. It was an exciting day.
OP: Your series has won a number of awards, to put it very modestly. Tell us about that.
DM: The Queen Vernita educational series has won 31 literary awards, which include: EVVYs, Readers Favorites, Reader’s Views, Story Monster Approved, Purple Dragonfly, USA Best Book Awards, Mom’s Choice, the American Children’s Book Society Scooter Award and an A+ rating. I feel very honored that my series has won these awards, and I plan to continue to become more skilled in my writing, so that I can share more of my adventures with a bigger audience.
OP: Do you plan to publish more of Queen Vernita’s adventures?
DM: I have not published a Queen Vernita adventure book in several years, as I was finishing my dissertation to receive my PhD in Curriculum and Instruction. I graduated in 2015. I am now back to my creative writing projects and plan on writing many more Queen Vernita books, including: Queen Vernita conquers the Volcanic Islands, Queen Vernita snorkels through Paradise Reef, Queen Vernita travels on an old fashioned paddle boat and many more. I also plan on expanding my writing and will publish other stories as my imagination and real life adventure allow.
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