Your character needs a history. If she is born the day she walks onto your page, she isn’t going to be very interesting. Everybody loves a newborn baby, but not many people want to spend a lot of time sitting around watching one. Newborns haven’t developed into interesting people yet. They have no history.”
That's how a good story starts. It doesn't spell everything out for you. A good story gives you something to think about. It raises as many questions as it answers.”
The page wants perfectly finished sentences. It stares back, horribly unwinking. It opens its maw and hungrily demands, Feed me! Sensing it might swallow you if you don’t comply quickly, you start tossing it sentences like a zookeeper tossing raw meat to a lion. Unnerving!.”
~Rafe Martin, Storytelling and Writing.
Be prepared as you write to be surprised by your own writing, surprised by what you find out about yourself and about your world. Be ready for the happy accident. Open yourself to the numinous, to the shapes and shades of language, to that first powerful thrust of story, to the character that develops away from you (sort of like a wayward adolescent), to the surprise of the exact and perfect ending.”
“If a teacher told me to revise, I thought that meant my writing was a broken-down car that needed to go to the repair shop. I felt insulted. I didn't realize the teacher was saying, ‘Make it shine. It's worth it.’ Now I see revision as a beautiful word of hope.”
~Naomi Shihab Nye,
in one of my favorite quotes,
from my interview with Jennifer Bertman
Write like your fingers are on fire!”
When I read Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, I got all shivery. The language is lyrical and the landscape is mythic. The protagonist is profoundly heroic, and the antagonist is downright evil. The book is a symphony. Language and landscape play an important role in all of Kathi’s books. The Underneath became a finalist for the National Book Awards, and a Newbery Honor Book. I also learned an exciting new term: American fantasy.
Kathi is a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children Program. My Alma Mater. It turns out, we have more connections than Vermont College. We were both born in Fayetteville, NC. Both our dads were stationed at Fort Bragg, where both dads were members of the 82nd Airborne. We both stayed in North Carolina for just a tick in time, before both families moved and ultimately settled out west. Her family settled in Houston, TX. The town, as you know, is named after Sam Houston. My dad is a descendent of Sam Houston, and was named after him.
I get all shivery about such things.
BM: How did you discover writing for children? Was there a special book, or a special character?
KA: I’d love to say that I came to writing children’s books completely on my own, or that I had a lifelong dream to write them. But the truth is that I came to them via my two sons. Because I felt like such an inept mother, and not a very crafty one, the one thing I knew that I could do without causing damage was to read to them. And somehow my boys knew that too. So, I spent hours and hours reading to them.
What was fortunate for me was that the early 80s, when the boys came along, saw an explosion in wonderful children’s books, especially picture books. The technologies that were coming along in printing were giving rise to beautiful books, books that would have been impossible to print a decade earlier. That said, the boys and I also found some tried and true books too, some that I had read as a kid, like Ferdinand the Bull and Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel. Wonderful books!
Even so, I’m not sure that I would have made the leap from reading them to writing them unless a former professor of mine had not asked this question: “Have you ever thought about writing a children’s book?” At that moment, I really hadn’t, but once she asked the question, a whole world of possibility opened up for me.
So, I owe both of my sons and Dr. Elizabeth Neeld a huge thank you for bringing children’s books to me.
A special book for me, I would say, is Cynthia Rylant’s When I was Young in the Country spoke to me. I’ve read that book about a million times. I love all of Cynthia Rylant’s books actually.
BM: You’ve written several picturebooks. I’m remembering Bat Jamboree and O My Baby, Little One (with illustrations by the fabulous Jane Dyer) before writing a middle grade novel, debuting with The Underneath. Did you find the leap from one format to the other a difficult task? Did writing picturebooks set the stage for writing middlegrade books?
KA: It’s hard to compare writing picture books with writing a novel. To me, they’re two different beasts. However, while I was writing picture books, I also wrote a collection of short stories for young adults called Kissing Tennessee, and a memoir called My Father’s Summers, which was told in prose poems. Writing these longer narratives gave me the courage to try a novel. I guess you could say that I started with the shorter texts and just kept expanding. I still find novels to be difficult. The longer narrative is hard work for me. It’s why I write it in tiny scenes. The thought of a ten-page chapter, or even a ten-page short story scares me. I think my “natural” impulse is to wrap things up on about page three.
BM: The Underneath, illustrated by David Small, has been described as Southern Gothic. However, I recently heard you speak on a fascinating term, American fantasy. If you had to label your book, how would you define it?
KA: I rather like the term, Southern Gothic, because it calls up those authors whom I have always loved: Kate Chopin, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty. They might not have called themselves gothicists, but heck, I think they’re in that category.
It was fellow author Darcy Pattison who called The Underneath American fantasy. I had actually considered it more “magical realism” than anything else. But ever since she said so, I’ve been fascinated by the notion of fantasy that is specifically grounded in North America, fantasy that is broader than the narrow notions that I’ve always given the term. So, I’ve begun to consider fantasy in a larger sweep — including tall tales, folk tales, superhero stories, magical realism, etc.
BM: What is American fantasy?
KA: For me American fantasy is grounded in three things: ethos or mentality, political structure, and place.
By ethos, I’m talking about Americanism, a mentality that recalls Puritanism and the hard work that goes with it. Then there is also the idealistic optimism that has always been a factor in our American psyche. I think it’s completely American to say something like, “if you work hard enough for something, you can achieve it.” That seems to be a basic belief for us. Of course the truth of that is likely less cut and dry, but it’s there nonetheless. There are a lot of other identifiable Americanisms I think, that could be applied, but these are wide-ranging. The thing about both of those ideas — Puritanism mixed with idealism — however, is that they leave little room for magic.
We Americans honor hard work, and we have a hard time with things that are unearned. Gaining something magically feels unearned and goes against our ethos. So, the challenge for a fantacist then, is to figure out how to use magic without it corrupting the story or without losing its authenticity, yes?
Along with this comes the political structure. In traditional (aka European) fantasy, high fantasy that is, there is often a “chosen one.” King Arthur is a prime example. He’s chosen to become the true king. And how do we know this? He pulls the sword out of the stone. Does he earn the throne? That’s debatable. But in a political system that buys into a divine right of kings, the story feels authentic. Magic, granted by god, is fine for that kind of monarchical system.
In America, we don’t have a divine right of kings. If magic were used to install our leaders, I imagine that none of us would feel that those leaders were authentic. Think former president to see what I mean.
In American fantasy, a chosen one often serves as a “helper.” Consider Superman. You could say that he’s chosen, but he never aspires to the throne or the presidency or even to the mayor’s position. He’s chosen to confront evil, to serve the people that way, not to rule over them.
American fantasy has to work within the political structures that we have in place or that we honor, so the question becomes how do we set up a fantasy within a democratic state? What role will the wizard play? Can there even be a wizard? Maybe…especially if the wizard is a little devilish.
Some of our most successful American fantasy is on the darker side. Why? Again, we don’t hearken so much to white magic—it feels unearned. But, alongside that Puritan heritage comes a real belief in doom if you don’t act above board and work hard. It’s easy to buy the characters of the darkness when you buy so thoroughly the notion of Hell. It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that vampires and werewolves and witches are so readily bought into. Yet give us an angel and we’re less enchanted. In fact, we’re so thoroughly convinced there are witches that we have a history of burning people alive, and more recently of banning any books that have a witch as a character, yes? We don’t take angels so seriously even though their magic is just as strong.
As an example, Cynthia Leitich Smith’s fallen angel in her book, Eternal, is an American angel that we can truly love. He’s far from perfect, he’s hot, and he’s got a little devil in him. It thoroughly works.
Finally, landscape definitely plays a role in American Fantasy. Here in North America, we really don’t have those ancient structures—castles and Stonehenge and what not—with the exception of the Anasazi caves. So, we have to turn more fully to the land itself to find the magic. I suspect that there are some sorts of fairfolk that have yet to be discovered in places like Little Rock, Arkansas. It just takes some scouting out.
BM: The landscape in your middlegrade books is so realized, it goes beyond a backdrop in which characters play out a story. The landscape in both books becomes a character unto itself. What is apparent is your love for this particular landscape. Do you want to expand on this?
KA: I try to find what is “magical” in the place of my stories. For myself, my most sacred moments have occurred when I’m walking in the woods, or along the edge of the water. In nature is where I have the most intense experience of being part of something holy and sweet. So, I try my hardest to tap into that when I’m offering up a landscape. Not every reader is going to go tramping through the piney woods of East Texas — and they shouldn’t without some heavy-duty waders — nor are they going to walk along the Texas coast. So, I feel it’s my responsibility to provide as much of the setting to them through the details of those places, and yes, the magic too, as I can. It’s only fair.
BM: One of my most favorite elements highlighted in your middlegrade books, The Underneath and Keeper, is their distinctive voice. The Underneath reflects a lyrical, mythic voice wrapped in a Texan twang. The book uses repetition like a refrain. The concept seems multi-dimensional, but voice is metaphorical, as we know, because text is one-dimensional, literally voiceless. What is ‘voice’? How do writers create or engage in voice?
KA: This is always such a hard thing to discuss, voice. I think that voice has a lot to do with sensibility. By that, I’m talking about the sensibility of the characters in their place. For myself, I grew up in Houston, and so urban East Texas is in my bones. The idioms, the slant and slur of certain phrases, feel almost systemic. The sounds of the tall pines brushing against the sky — there’s no other sound on the planet. I try to keep my ears cocked so that when my characters speak, they have those nuances in their voices and in their thoughts too. Likewise, I spent a lot of time in Galveston as a girl. My grandmother lived there. As a result, the rolling back and forth of tides offers up its own kind of sound — a lot of alliteration and assonance there. Keeper and her family ebbed back and forth in their story, like the tides, so I worked hard to make it sound that way.
BM: And, speaking of voice, one of the most fascinating perspectives is found in Gar-Face, from The Underneath. He is as mean as they come. While readers learn what happened to turn him so mean, you don’t back away from that hardness. How do you determine what and how to create such a broken character?
KA: Gar Face was actually based on someone I knew as a child, a family member. So far as I know the real person never harmed a dog, but he was still a mean, very hard drinking man. Not someone you really wanted to be around for long periods of time. In addition, he loved to hunt and fish, especially fish. I carried an image of Gar Face in my head. I also had some lingering hard feelings about him. On the other hand, both Gar Face and the real person, didn’t have an easy life to begin with, so I thought it was only fair to offer up that back story. Did he deserve redemption? I don’t think he sought it at all, and there’s a part of me that feels that redemption must be sought. I lost track of the real person behind Gar Face, but I don’t recall him ever seeking anything like kindness, nor did he offer much of it. Of course, my memory of him is that of a little girl, so I’m sure there were things I never knew.
Also, one of my mentors, Dennis Foley, told me that a hero is only as strong as the antagonist. I kept that in mind as I wrote. For Ranger to be the champion, he had to have a worthy adversary. Gar Face worked in that regard.
BM: What is the best wisdom you’ve heard and used that helped in your writing career, or in writing your books?
KA: The very best thing that anyone has ever said to me was by M.T. Anderson when he said, “write what you think you can’t.” When he said that, it was as if he gave me total permission to utterly fail. After all, if I couldn’t do it anyways, then what did I have to lose. It worked for me.
And then there is my motto: write like your fingers are on fire!
For a complete listing of Kathi’s books, information about her school visits, and more treats, visit her at www.kathiappelt.com.
Don't look at what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out,’ except in a most tangential way. Look at what moves you.”
Marion was the first faculty chair of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Vermont College of Arts. The author of more than 70 books, Marion has won the Jane Addams Peace Association Award for her novel Rain of Fire, an American Library Association Newbery Honor Award for On My Honor and the Kerlan Award from the University of Minnesota for the body of her work. Her picture book My Mother is Mine was a New York Times best seller. Her book What's Your Story? A Young Person's Guide to Writing Fiction is required reading in my writing classes.
When I first met Marion, as a new student at VCFA, I was star-struck. I had read her books, certainly. She was, after all, a legend in the field and one of the primary reasons why I came to VCFA. As her student, I was so in awe of her genius into the craft of story, and so grateful for her generosity in sharing her insights. As my mentor, she gave me the most valuable lesson I learned as a student: trust in your voice. Through the years, she gave me a more precious gift: her friendship.
BM: How did you discover writing for children? Was there a special book, or a special character?
MDB: I “discovered” writing for children one day in college when I was supposed to be writing something else for a creative writing class and instead wrote a paragraph about being three years old and standing barefoot on the hot sidewalk in my back yard, then stepping off into the cool grass. That’s all there was to it, but the moment came alive for me, came from my gut instead of from my head the way the rest of my writing was doing, and I never forgot the feel of writing it. I wasn't writing for a child but rather through the child I'd been. By the time I began writing for—I hoped—publication, I had children of my own and had been reading and reading and reading to them. After those two experiences, writing through my three-year-old self and reading to my own children, I don't think I ever thought of writing from anything but that child place. I started out writing young, though, and couldn't get the hang of picture books, so I moved older. It took me many years to be able to return to picture books successfully.
BM: Was there ever a book you could not write?
MDB: Once I had a travel grant to write a novel set in Alaska. I spent five weeks in southeast Alaska, having lots of experiences, but in the end I was never able to write the novel. My stories always have a strong foundation in place, and by the end of the five weeks I had learned enough to know that I did not—could not—know Alaska well enough to write a story set there. Landlocked midwesterner that I am, I'll never know the ocean. And the rain forest was overwhelming, compelling and utterly mysterious. I would have been pretending, and not in a good way, so I set the story aside.
BM: One of the most important lessons I learned from you is that of voice. The concept seems multi-dimensional, but voice is metaphorical, as we know, because text is one-dimensional, literally voiceless. What is ‘voice’? How do writers create or engage in voice?
MDB: Voice is who you are coming through in concept and story and language. If you are writing truly from your own center, once you have the craft down and have developed some fluency, voice simply happens. The other aspect of voice is that everything you write should be read aloud . . . that means you read it aloud as you are writing it and as you are revising and revising and revising. Voice comes from your center, but it's the polish that brings it out.
BM: One of my favorite quotes comes from your book, What’s Your Story, stating that every character needs a history. In essence, history creates dimension. You’ve created some strong histories in your books, such as mental illness and neglect in your early chapter book The Very Little Princess. These histories are connected with profoundly deep emotions, but the result is remarkable and authentic characters. How do you create these histories, and more importantly, how do you navigate these resulting deep emotions in your story, while keeping it honest, given the age of your readers?
MDB: Often I build my characters' histories before I ever begin writing. Sometimes I interview them, let them talk to me and tell me things about the story and about their past. Sometimes I just ask myself "why," "where does that come from?" Sometimes the history evolves with the story. I find things out about my characters as they present themselves.
I never worry about emotions being too deep for a young audience. Kids have strong, deep emotions, probably stronger and deeper than our own because they aren't as well defended as we are. They recognize them in characters, and following a character through a traumatic moment that is satisfyingly resolved enlarges young readers’ understanding of their own lives and their own world. That's what Aristotle’s “purging of pity and fear” is about, and it works for all ages if the literature being presented is honest and plays its topics out dramatically without preaching.
BM: Speaking of remarkable and authentic characters, you’ve given us an array of characters, from a bear called Trouble, a wolf pup called Runt, to a princess called Regina, the doll that comes to life. Do you have a favorite character, or a favorite book, that you’ve created? Where do these characters come from?
MDB: My favorite book, almost always, is the one I'm working on right now—or at the present moment since I haven't start a new project, it's the one I've just completed. That means at this moment it's a poetry novel called Little Dog Lost that is out making the rounds. And my favorite character? I'd have to say the same thing. The one I'm living inside right now.
BM: One of the most admirable qualities I find about your writing is that you don’t back down from the hard stuff. You once described your book Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins as an equal opportunity book, in which there was something to offend everyone. How does one tackle the hard subjects?
MDB: Don't tackle the hard subjects unless they are part of what is given to you to struggle with. Tackle whatever subjects give you energy: romance, death, bunnies, werewolves. Don't look at what's “in” and what's “out,” except in a most tangential way. Look at what moves you. That's the only way you have any hope of moving your readers.
BM: You are a master at writing across genres, from board-book to middle-grade formats, exploring short story, mystery, fantasy, nonfiction and poetry. And you seem to jump those boundaries effortlessly. What do you find appealing about writing across so many genres?
MDB: I like the way different genres stretch me and keep me fresh. If I'd kept doing the same thing, first in pink, then in blue, then in purple, my career would have ended many years ago. An example is the poetry novel. I haven't been a fan of poetry novels, but for an assortment of reasons—mostly for the challenge of it—I decided to tackle one, and I fell in love with the process of writing in verse. It was a real stretch and fun, too. You can't do much better than that—challenge and fun—after forty years at the same task.
When I am writing picture books, I love being able to concentrate—really hard—on every word. When I am writing a middle-grade novel, I love the stretch of it, being able to relax into the page. When I then go to a young chapter book, I love the efficiency, stepping into a chapter and knowing I'll be out again in about five pages. Each kind of writing brings its own challenge, and it's the challenge that keeps me fresh.
BM: Is there one piece of advice that writers at any stage in their career need to remember?
MDB: Read! Read and read and read! Read everything you can lay your hands on. Then write. And write and write and write and then go back to reading. Stories are not an imitation of life, as we pretend. They are really an imitation of other stories. So you have to know what you are imitating.
And at every stage of a career, write what moves you, what you yourself want to read. That's the only thing you can write well enough to make other people want to read it. Know the market, of course. You would be foolish not to be aware of what editors are looking for. But don't even attempt what you don't love. If you are in your own best territory, ideas will come tumbling. If you are trying to please someone else, editor or reader, everything you put on the page will be thin.
To learn more, visit Marion’s website and read Marion’s interview on Bruce Black’s blog, wordswimmer.
I can’t say I found children’s books. Children’s books found me.”
I first met Eric A Kimmel, master story-teller and author of over fifty books, when I was a grad student at Simmons College Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. Because of my love for and background in folklore, I was ecstatic to be in his class, and to study the folklore process in children’s literature. We connected again when I was a grad student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where we continued our discussion on folklore and children’s literature, voice and perspective, and the meaning and process of story. Even now, years later, our conversation continues…
EK: When I started writing professionally, I had no idea of what kind of writer I wanted to be. All I knew was that I wanted to be a working writer, not a literary one. In other words, I wanted to make some money at it. I wanted writing to be my day job. I wrote everything during those first years. I wrote detective stories, true romances, mysteries, science fiction. All dreadful. I was starting to make some headway with the romances. At least the editors were writing to me and giving me feedback. Then, in response to an ad, I wrote a children’s story. Or rather, a middle chapter from a novel that didn’t exist. The editor at Harper asked to see the rest of the manuscript. I missed Woodstock to stay home and work on it. The manuscript ultimately became my first book, The Tartar’s Sword. From then I was hooked since writing children’s books was lots more fun than anything else I had attempted.
BM: Children love your folktales. The many Hebrew tales, as in “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins”, the Russian “Zigazak!”, several Anansi tales, and many more. Why are folktales important? How are these tales different from other stories?
EK: Why folktales? The real answer to that question is Bruno Bettelheim’s classic study, On The Uses of Enchantment. Folktales present the reality of the world that children sense, although they might not have directly experienced it. That reality is that the world can be an evil place, with bad creatures lurking in the shadows waiting to devour you. Check the latest news broadcast if you don’t believe me. Unlike many children’s stories, folktales don’t pretend that real evil doesn’t exist, or that it can be overcome with a gentle smile. You have to be tough, smart, brave, and clever enough to know who your real friends are. And you have to be ruthless, when need be. Hansel and Gretel don’t haul the witch out of the oven. Puss doesn’t pretend to eat the ogre to teach him a lesson. You don’t compromise with evil. You squash it. We may not be comfortable with an attitude like that. However, that’s the way it goes in most of the world. Folktales are a survival guide for difficult times. They’re also a good outlet for aggression. Whacking an imaginary ogre is better than whacking your sister.
Actually, Hershel and Zigazak! and most of the Anansi stories aren’t folktales. They’re based on folktale themes in various ways, but the actual stories are original. I guess I’ve swum in this sea so long that the folktale mode comes naturally to me.
BM: In this day of techno-gadgets, fast food, and quick fixes, are these traditional tales still relevant?
EK: Sure they are! Everything old is new again. Despite all the digital wizardry—and it is amazing—we still hunger for stories. Incredible animation remains empty without characters that we care about and a story that we want to stick with until the end. What are the hottest themes right now? Wizards, dragons, and vampires! They go back to the ancient world. We love these tales as much as our ancestors sitting around the campfire loved them. I don’t think our need for stories has changed; only the packaging.
BM: Of course, you write more than folktales. What other stories do you like to tell?
EK: I love a good story. Over the last three years I’ve written several novels that nobody wants. But I enjoyed letting my imagination fly. My friend Susan Fletcher, who is in my writing group, had the best evaluation. After I finished reading one chapter she said, “This is totally hilarious and totally cynical.” The heart of my writing comes from one aspect of folk literature; that the world is an evil place and that most of the people in it are rogues, scoundrels, or fools. Humor comes from a character in deep, deep trouble. That, to me, is what makes a story interesting. How is he going to get out of this one. I’m with Tolstoy: happy families are all alike. It’s the unhappy ones that make writing interesting.
BM: Some of my favorites of your books include “The Hero Beowulf”, “Don Quixote and the Windmills”, and “Blackbeard’s Last Fight”. The original stories are lengthy, complex, and violent. What is your process for bringing these stories to a picture book, a format highlighted by space and streamlined plotting? How do you deal with the violent scenes?
EK: All three of these were Leonard Everett Fisher’s idea. Len is a great friend of mine. Would you believe he’s over eighty? He’s an absolute master of the picture book form. Len suggested the stories because he wanted to tackle great themes from world literature. And pirates! I was skeptical, especially with Beowulf. I told Len, “It’s a bucket of blood.”
“You write a text,” he said. “Leave the pictures to me. I can do it tastefully.” And he did, insofar as there’s a “tasteful” way of showing Grendel with his arm ripped off.
For my part, I have to get the story down to its essentials. In one sense, I’m creating a storyboard in my head. What happens first…what happens second…on to the end. I have to give the artist something to draw. That means action. To me, a picture book text is all action. In that way it’s like the folktales. There’s little description or character development. The story is plot-driven. It has to be, since scene and character are largely going to be handled by the artist.
The violent scenes are a problem. You hope that your editor understands what you’re trying to do and doesn’t lose her nerve. The book suffers when that happens and I always regret it. We took the shark picture out of Robin Hook and the Pirates. Too scary. Kids always ask, “Where’s the shark?” They know we wimped out. There a similar episode in Blackbeard’s Last Fight. The logical illustration at the end is to show Blackbeard’s head hanging from the bowsprit. Len wouldn’t do it. “I showed a severed head in David and Goliath and the book tanked,” he explained when I asked him. “It doesn’t bother the kids; it bothers the librarians. I’m not going to make that mistake again.”
BM: One of the first lessons you taught me is the importance of a writer’s voice. What is voice?
EK: Voice is the writer’s unique way of expressing himself or herself. We don’t talk alike. Neither do we write alike. There are rhythms, patterns, turns of phrase and sentence structure that make your writing unique. It’s your literary fingerprint. It’s the difference between writing that’s effective, even elegant, and writing that’s grammatical, but deadly dull. I see our language as being musical. Good writing cries to be read aloud. We don’t just tell the story; we try to bring out the music of the language. You can hear that music in the opening paragraphs of Treasure Island or in Where The Wild Things Are. Read those works aloud to yourself and listen. Do the same with your own writing. Can you hear the music? Does it sound good? Or could you just as easily be reading a tax form?
BM: What is the most common mistake beginning writers make? Are there any ‘rules’ writers need to know?
EK: The most common mistake beginning writers make is thinking it’s going to be easy. Writing is an extraordinarily difficult business. You will sweat blood before you see your name in print. Be ready to work very, very hard. The second mistake is thinking that the world owes you something for all your hard work. The world owes you nothing. You get a chance to ride the merry-go-round and reach for the brass ring. That’s it. If you catch it, good for you! If not, buy another ticket and go around again. Write or don’t write. Nobody cares. You need to be tough and dedicated. You need to have a cast iron ego. You need courage. You need to be able to face disappointment, even disaster. Because all of it is likely to happen. You will earn every bit of success that comes your way.
The basic rule a writer needs to know is that there are no rules. You can do anything you like as long as you can get away with it. Mark Twain was vilified for the “low characters and language” of Huckleberry Finn. Moby Dick was a failure. Who wanted to read about the nasty business of whaling? Fitzgerald died thinking he was a washed-up failure. Write what matters to you most. Write it as best you can. The rest will take care of itself.
BM: Is this a good time, or a bad time, for writers and the publishing business?
EK: It’s never been worse. But so what? Are you going to wait ten years, hoping it might improve? You play the cards you’re dealt. If you have something to write, write it now. You don’t have time to wait. If you can wait, then you’d probably never get around to doing it anyway. Writing isn’t a hobby for writers. It’s a compulsion. It’s something we have to do. Our lives, our identities are tied up in it.
My friend Deb Wiles’s father was in the military. Many of her parents’ friends are high-ranking officers. Deb told me once that she met an admiral at a party. When he learned she was a writer, he said he’d like to be a writer after he retired. Deb answered, “When I retire, I’d like to be an admiral.” Writing isn’t a hobby. There’s nothing part-time about it.
Why is it so hard today? There are fewer publishers and fewer editors. It’s harder to get read. You have to go through an agent. Marketing departments and big chains exercise a lot of power over what gets into print. Everybody wants the best seller.
And then the whole concept of ‘book’ has changed. The e-book is here. I have a Kindle and I love it. I send manuscripts to editors as e-mail attachments. Many do their editing digitally and I respond the same way. Ink only touches paper when the book is actually printed. So if the whole process is digital, why do we need that last step? Why do we need that paper and cardboard artifact called a ‘book’? Then who needs a publisher if we can write, sell, download, and read books off the web? The implications for all this are extraordinary. It’s an earthquake equal to Gutenberg’s printing press. And I’m sure the monks at the time said, “I can’t see anyone preferring one of those trashy printed things to a beautiful illuminated manuscript.”
BM: Do you ever get used to rejections?
EK: No. Some hurt more than others. Some efforts you know are long shots from the beginning. Others are throwaways; if it works, fine. If not, I haven’t put too much effort into it. And then others are brutal. You’ve put everything you have into them. There’s nothing you would change. You think it’s your finest work…and nothing. Pack it up and try something else.
The only people who ever get used to rejections are hacks. Why should you care if there’s no personal commit-ment, no passion; if it’s just a job. I don’t ever want to be like that. I’ll take the pain. After forty years, I can handle it.
Plus, you never know what tomorrow’s email will bring.
For more of this conversation—including Eric’s conversation with me!—please visit Eric’s blog .
Author, editor, and publisher, Anita Silvey has devoted 35 years to promoting children’s books, following her philosophy that “only the very best of anything can be good enough for the young.” As noted by Publisher's Weekly, “It would be hard to find a more authoritative voice than Anita Silvey.”
I first heard Anita speak of her passion for children’s literature when I was a graduate student at Simmons College. Her career as a publisher of children’s books for Houghton Mifflin Company, and as editor-in-chief for The Horn Book Magazine, is legend. She has worked with such noted authors and illustrators as H. A. and Margret Rey, Virginia Lee Burton, David Macaulay, Lois Lowry, Allen Say, David Wiesner, Karen Cushman, Linda Sue Park, and Chris Van Allsburg.
Anita’s wonderful book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, investigates how children’s books have inspired, motivated, and taught life lessons to several notable people from many fields, including publishing, arts, and science, and includes their recollections of a favorite children’s book and its impact on their lives. This book embodies everything I believe about children’s book writing and publishing: Children’s books change lives.
BM: Some of these responses were particularly moving (such as Aris Demetrios’ discussion of his mother), and others were utterly surprisingly ([Louis Clark’s – of the Government Accountability Project – discussion of himself as a struggling third grade reader]. Were you surprised by the responses you received? Did a particular lesson or story move you more than you expected?
AS: I was amazed, constantly, by the responses. Some of the choices surprised me—such as Kirk Douglas, who played tough guys in Hollywood but selected The Bobbsey Twins. In the end, I found something that I loved in all the essays. No two readers have mentioned the same selections as their favorites. That pleases me because it means that the book contains a wide variety of responses. People can find the inspiration they need in different places.
BM: You trained as a teacher, but serendipity took you in a different direction. You began working in the children’s book department at Little Brown. How did working in children’s books change your life?
AS: I stumbled into the most incredible career in the world—or I was directed there by a power greater than myself. I remember my first days at Little Brown, wondering why no one had ever suggested that I work with books for children. I’ve been an editor, a publisher, a critic, a writer—but the key to my professional life is my love of children’s books and the people who create them.
BM: Once you offered that there is something ‘humanly’ fundamental about children enjoying a story. What did you mean, by this?
AS: Story is the oldest form of human communication; it ties us to our ancestors who sat around fires at night passing on their vision of life through stories. Stories resonate at the deepest levels of our psyche. I just spent Thanksgiving dinner with a group of people who had not met; we told stories. By the end of the evening, we had gained a whole new set of friends and colleagues.
BM: Technology certainly changes how text is approached. But do you think that this generation’s obsession for technology changes how even ‘story’ is approached?
AS: When I was young, my father helped pioneer the developing television industry; it was supposed to change reading and even make it obsolete. The same claim was made for radio. Now we talk about technology. I am not worried about the power of the book or story—it has transcended every technological development.
BM: What makes a classic?
AS: Classics are books that move to the next generation—about 18 or 20 years. They are enjoyed by both adults and children; they tend to have strong characters and story or plot. They are often quirky and idiosyncratic. We’d all love to write one —including me. They arise from the genius of an adult author who can communicate brilliantly with children. They are still being created; I often give an hour lecture on classics in the making.
BM: Many of the books mentioned in Everything I Need to Know… are based on traditional tales, including Just So Stories (by Rudyard Kipling), The Arabian Nights, Tales from Grimm (trans. and illus. by Wanda Gag), The Boy’s King Arthur (ed. by Sidney Lanier) and others. Are traditional tales an endangered species?
AS: Unfortunately, they have been in ill repute recently, although I sense the pendulum is swinging another way right now. Far too many children in elementary school do not know these basic building blocks of our culture.
BM: What makes a good story? Or is that the perennial question?
AS: For me, it is one that keeps me turning the pages, unable even to sleep until I have finished. Or one that I only want to savor a chapter at a time, because I don’t want the magic to end. Just last night Scott Westerfeld deprived me of rest because I picked up Leviathan—a brilliant combination of alternate history, cyberpunk, and page-turning suspense—as late night reading. I am so happy when this occurs!
Do visit Anita’s website for information on this and other wonderful books by Anita, and learn where Anita is speaking next!
Where have all the folktales gone?
In her review of One Fine Trade, Elizabeth Bird (esteemed children's librarian at the Children's Center at 42nd S, New York Public Library) pondered the demise of the folktale in picturebook format. In a follow-up blog post, Elizabeth asked, “Where have all the folktales gone?”
The question sparks this wonderful conversation among writers, editors, agents, and librarians — a gathering of wisdom from those who share the love of the traditional tale — as they explore the following questions:
- Have we outgrown our need for folktales?
- Are there contemporary complements?
- Where do the retold, re-imagined and refurbished folktales fit in a folktale collection?
- Are they folktales?
- What is the folklore process anyway?
Rafe Martin, Author: Kids still need folklore. Teachers and parents still need to use such tales. We all need to encounter and read them for the sake of our own connection with what is deepest and truest in ourselves. Fads and fashions change. Unfortunately that's where the publishing world is now focused. It has a lot to do with who owns what and how to get the quickest return on investment.
The translation of folklore into fiction (usually YA these days) has a lot of merit. Just think Lord of the Rings to see how good it can be. Or Joyce, Melville, Shakespeare. My own novel Birdwing grows out of the Grimm Brothers, taking off where the tale The Six Swans ends. It got some great reviews. But I don't see how I could do another such book at present. The fiction that chain stores, and so publishers and so editors and agents seek, is very niche-oriented (for this age or that grade, each with its own specific game plan), and almost requires Hollywood-type story arcs. Or a really high concept. Or a celebrity author. (Same for picture books right, now. alas.) And they tend to literalize and psychologize archetypes, creating a plot-driven narrative line in which the mysterious depths of the folktale fade so far into the background as to be essentially non-existent. It's the times we live in, alas.
Thoreau advised, even in his day, for us to "read the Eternities and not the Times." Folktales, traditional tales can still get us there, do that for us.
Eric Kimmel, Author: The publishing industry is in crisis, just like the music and newspaper industries. The old models don't work. The web has changed everything. We can never lose sight of the fact that publishing is a business. It exists to sell books. The critical question now is who buys the books and which books do they buy. Schools and libraries used to be the primary market. No longer. Not only have new book budgets been slashed. An increasing number of elementary schools no longer have a trained librarian or even a library. The librarian has become the media specialist, which means that she is also responsible for teaching technology, which gobbles up an increasing portion of a limited budget.
This means that if publishers can no longer sell to libraries and schools, they have to find another market. This leads to the mass market. However, that is no salvation. The chains wiped out the neighborhood bookstore. Now the big box stores, Wal-Mart and Costco, are wiping out Borders and B&N. Add Amazon to that mix and you find a situation where books are brutally discounted to the point where they actually become loss-leaders. Everyone wants a best seller to bring in the bucks. Then they discount the best seller! Looming over the horizon is the E-book.
Folktales don't have a chance in a situation like this. ~Eric Kimmel
They rarely sold in large numbers. Schools and libraries no longer have the money to buy them. Nor do they feel the need. They stocked up on diversity during the multi-cultural days. The mass-market buyer—parents and grandparents—generally stick to stories they know. That means they’ll buy familiar tales, or variations of familiar tales, or spoofs of familiar tales, or tales connected to movies. Editors have told me flat out: "We're not looking at folktales."
What lies ahead? As Betty Davis said in All About Eve, “Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night.”
Aaron Shepard, Author: Another factor is the preference of parents today for books that take less time to read and rely more on pictures. This is a nice way to combine a belief in the importance of reading with the desire to get done with it as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, folktales depend heavily on artful language, and with the length of manuscripts favored today, it's often impossible to tell a tale properly. I was literally thrown out of one publishing house when I declined to cut one of my folktale manuscripts in half.
It's possible that the pendulum will swing back for a return to folktales, but I'm no longer waiting for it. With my own Skyhook Press imprint, I'm already publishing some of my unsold easy readers and chapter books as print on demand and ebooks. And I'm now exploring reprinting some of my old picture books and maybe even bringing out new ones. In fact, I just bought rights from Simon & Schuster to reprint my picture book with Gennady Spirin, The Sea King's Daughter.
Bobbi Miller, Yours Truly: In any retelling of a traditional tale, a genre defined by its oral nature, language becomes as integral as the story and the illustration. In fact, language becomes as much a character as the protagonist. Think Eric Kimmel, Virginia Hamilton and Ashley Bryan, Verna Aardema, Julius Lester, Jane Yolen and Gail E. Haley, to name a few whose use of language creates story magic.
In my tall tale retellings, I use the informal language of the American landscape, rather than the formal diction found in Grimm’s fairy tales.
The tall-talk of the tall tale is as wild and unabashed as the frontier. ~Bobbi Miller
The language, like the characters that inhabit these tales, is rambunctious and bodacious. The language defies the tidy and restrictive, even uptight structure of formal grammar. It mocks it, in fact, using pseudo-Latinate prefixes and suffixes to expand on the root. The result is a teetotaciously, splendiferous reflection of a frontier too expansive for mere words to capture. By creating such a grand language, the frontier storyteller found a means to make an unknown frontier less scary. More than this, the grander language captured the bigger ideas.
In reading such tales, a young reader develops an appreciation for language itself, for language is more than mere words. The rhythms and patterns, the musicality and the poetry of language. Studies suggest that language acquisition is keyed to youth, and we can infer that language appreciation is similarly keyed. What else is at risk in this age of minimalist language and truncated text talk if the picture book traditional tale fades away? If language reflects what lives inside us, our hopes, our dreams, our history, what does this truncated text talk reveal about us?
Cynthia Leitich Smith, Author: Publishing as an industry tends to move in cycles. With historically underrepresented ethnic/racial groups, we often see folktales or traditional stories leading the way to historical fiction, contemporary fiction, and genre work, in that order. Perhaps because the multicultural “boom” in children's literature has shifted to (still underrepresented) a more integrated approach, there's a feeling that we've already done traditional stories, not only with tales linked to people of color but also those related to U.S. immigrant groups like, say, Irish or Russian Americans. This is arguably failure on our part, we self-absorbed grown-ups. We may have “done” that for, say, picture book readers of the past, but the current crop is growing up without the cultural benefit of being introduced to oral traditions and innovations.
Emma D. Dryden, drydenbks, former VP/Publisher McElderry Books and Atheneum Books for Young Readers: Generally, folktales as a genre and as a form of cultural identifier are having a hard time selling because our culture is in such flux. So many people in charge of our society are not paying attention to those elements that actually ground us in our culture. This includes folktales, poetry, stories, artwork, and music. Folktales were originally formulated to help people make sense of and celebrate their origins, their traditions, their belief systems, and their history. They were also a form of entertainment. Those now in charge of entertainment are looking for the quick fix, the easiest common denominator, the commercial quick-selling item. I fear, then, that folktales—which require time to read, which require thought to process, and which require the reader to reflect and ponder in addition to laugh or cry—are considered too quiet, too slow, too ponderous for today's adults and children who are moving too quickly, whose attention spans are too short, and, really, who have not been educated or brought up to appreciate how what's come before them still matters and informs what comes next. The current trend in big business (of which Publishing in now a part) is moving away from thinking history and mythology matter. History and mythology are the stuff of which great folktales come—and so folktales do not quite fit in with the current societal trends. This is tragically short-sighted, and this way of operating is doing a tremendous disservice to our children and to our future as a culture.
Reka Simonsen, Senior Editor, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers: Sadly this is not a new thing. Folktales have been very hard to publish successfully for at least a decade. From the 70s to the early 90s there was a flood of wonderful folktales from around the world, lushly illustrated and beautifully told. Then we in publishing started to hear from booksellers that they didn't need another folktale from, for example, China because they already had the Chinese version of Cinderella, etc. (And yes, the Disney princess factor seems to have had a lot to do with this.) Thankfully librarians and educators understood the need for folktales long after booksellers felt they were impossible to sell, but with ever-shrinking library and school budgets even those stalwart folks have cut back on their purchases of folktales. I've been lucky enough to edit a few that did find a supportive audience, but at the time we knew it was a gamble to publish them and that if they succeeded, which they did, it would be the exception rather than the rule. It breaks my heart, because I adore folktales and think they're hugely important for kids to read.
We as a culture have not outgrown our need for folktales, but we seem to think we have, which means that there isn’t a market for those kinds of picture books. A few folktales are published each year, and I don’t think we’ll reach a point where there are absolutely none—at least I fervently hope not! But it’s unlikely that we’re going to go back to the kind of folktale-friendly environment that we had in the 90s. It’s not likely we’ll return to the kind of gung-ho picture-book market we had back then, either—picture book sales have been bad for a number of years, though not as dire as the sales situation with folktales. The hard fact is that hopeful writers should not focus on folktales if they want to get published.
However, while picture book folktales and fairytales have fallen out of favor, YA novels based on folk- and fairytales are still going strong and count for a significant portion of the fantasy that is published each year. There are many, many wonderful novels based on fairy- or folktales. My personal favorites (that I didn’t work on) include The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Fire and Hemlock and also Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett, Beauty by Robin McKinley, Goose Girl by Shannon Hale, and Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann, Editor-in-Chief, MultiCultural Review: In the 1990s, when I compiled Our Family, Our Friends, Our World and took over as editor of MultiCultural Review, I was heavily involved in this issue, as a critic of “the folktale flood”—also the title of an article I wrote for SLJ in 1994. In those days, nearly all the multicultural picture books were folktales, or original stories based on folktales. While there were some very good ones, others were poorly referenced or inaccurate, and Betsy Hearne wrote a two-part series in SLJ on that topic.
I think that in the 1990s picture book folktales saturated the market, and publishers moved on, as will probably happen with YA vampire novels in a few years. The publishing industry operates according to the herd mentality rather than rationally apportioning topics and categories so that every need is adequately fulfilled. That's just the nature of the industry, and if I'd taken Economics 101 in college instead of Theater of the Absurd, I'd know the name of the principle.
However, I don't think that folktales are gone for good, because trends go in cycles, and as soon as someone publishes a successful folktale, other publishers will follow. In the meantime, as “the house that La Llorona built,” Cinco Puntos Press keeps turning out some very good ones from Latino and Native American traditions.
Erin Murphy, Literary Agent: Folktales are a beloved part of readers' lives, but in the current market, picture book versions are definitely harder to place with publishers. Smaller houses are generally the best route for this genre, because many smaller houses can produce books that depend on school and library sales more than chain sales--but of course many small houses have been hit even harder by the recession than their larger counterparts, and aren't acquiring as much these days. So writing picture book folktales naturally narrows your possibility of being published. You can increase the odds by finding particularly timely angles and age-appropriate curriculum tie-ins you can use with a folktale, and focusing on making the writing lively and accessible.
I think some folktales on the market tend towards the didactic and/or the long-winded, and that has contributed to their bad rap. I always think the pendulum will swing back on things like this—but it's taking a particularly long time, isn't it? What editors are looking for in picture books is so opposite to what most picture book fairy tales are like that I think it will be several more years, at least, before we see it swing all the way back.
Middle-grade or YA novels based on familiar folktales, on the other hand, seems to be an almost bottomless well of possibility in the current market. My folktale/fairytale-inspired YA authors are Elizabeth C. Bunce and Heather Tomlinson, and Dotti Enderle's Gingerbread Man, Superhero is a picture book that came out from Pelican in 2009.Joanne Ladewig, Library Media Tech: Thoughts from someone “in the trenches” (an elementary school library): School libraries purchase (or weed) their folk and fairy tale collections for a variety of reasons, including: Curriculum or “Standards” change and we need new or updated versions to support it; our school community changes and we want to stock tales that reflect our new students' ethnic background(s); and, we start at a new site and discover a lack of range, variety and currency on the 398 shelves. We often have requests from teachers or students for specific tales.
We are initially educated, and then reminded about the importance of folk lit by participation in workshops and at conferences. We often meet and interact with a folk storyteller and become more interested in the craft and in the stories. And probably most important, we finally have some funding that can be allotted to enhancing our collection rather than merely the most miserly budget spent only on our most critical needs!
Harold Underdown, Author, Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books: I suspect that if the number of picture book versions of folktales being published actually has gone down, it is directly related to a gradual shift in the children's book market over the last thirty years and more. During this time, sales to libraries have become a smaller slice of the pie, and sales to bookstores have become a larger slice. It's really that simple, because picture book folktales are a type of book that sell better to libraries, overall, than they do to bookstores.
For more on this conversation:
The Encyclopedia Mythica contains over 7,000 articles on mythology, folklore, and religion.
Myths, Folktales and Fairy Tales Internet Project, sponsored by Scholastic, offers a rich resource for learning about and writing in these genres.
Aaron Shepard presents a discussion on researching the folktale, while Doug Lipman discusses the fluid nature of traditional tales and their embodiment of timeless cultural wisdom in Changing Traditional Tales; and, in his article, In Search of the Folktale, Doug Lippman explains folktale indexes, and researching folktales.
Kay E. Vandergrift, through the Rutgers Children’s Literature Page, offers a detailed list of traditional literature resources.
Phillis Gershator offers notes on retelling folktales
The International Reading Association provides a lesson plan and resources for writing a fractured fairy tale and Betsy Fraser, and the Children’s Literature Web Guide, provides a list of fractured fairy tales.
Note: Many, many thanks to Elizabeth Bird for inspiring this conversation!