so often, I love to revisit the wonderful world of children's classics.
The top of the list for this month is the exciting J. R. R. Tolkien
The Hobbit and Lord
of the Rings brought to everyone's attention by the release of the
new movie. Of course, it's always still in print, and can be enjoyed
by all ages. Another Fantasy classic set that tweens love to read
and re-read is
The Chronicles of Narnia. The
Complete Anne of Green Gables is a boxed set that has been reprinted
for your enjoyment, and is perfect for girls 9 years and older.
Bev: DIANNE, PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF GROWING UP AND BECOMING A CHILDREN'S WRITER.
Dianne: I was born in 1953 in Warren, Ohio. It's a small town about fifty miles south of Cleveland, whose main industries in the '50s and '60s were steel and auto assembly. That's basically the time frame when I was growing up there. Thanks to the G.I. bill, my father was able to go to college and law school in the postwar years. When he returned home to set up his legal practice, he bought the house right next to his parents' home in a close-knit, blue-collar neighborhood. That's the house I grew up in. I thought I was the luckiest kid, getting to see my grandma and grandpa every day. I was!
Although my mother was a full time homemaker after the birth of her first child--me-- she had some unconventional, "pre-motherhood" jobs for a woman in those days. For example, she worked machinery in a tool and die shop. During World War II, she inspected bomb casings in an ammunitions factory. I loved hearing her tell stories about growing up during the Great Depression, or what life was like on the home front during the war.
The house I grew up in could best be described as "happy chaos." Dad had at least one do-it-yourself home improvement going at one time. Plus, he was an amateur carpenter/woodworker, and artist. He worked on his oil paintings nearly every evening, and I often sat on the cellar steps for hours, watching him and listening to him tell me about art techniques or his favorite Impressionist artists. My mother preferred sewing and gardening to housekeeping chores. She's the one who taught me how to plant a seed and tend a garden; to see nature's wonder, not only in the grand sense--but in the simple beauty of small things. Yes, my parents made sure the bills were paid and did everything else responsible adults must do. But it's safe to say that they valued and encouraged creative pursuits in their lives, and their children's lives.
Best of all, both my parents were avid readers. Dad built bookcases in several rooms, and when they were filled, the books were stacked on every available surface. Mom faithfully read us as many books as we asked for at bedtime. We were taken to the library early and often. I devoured the many history books, encyclopedia volumes, art books, cookbooks, magazines and science books lying around the house, too.
Don't think all I did as a kid was read books, however. I was a bit of a tomboy, too. I roamed the neighborhood on foot and on bicycle. I climbed my grandparents' apple tree, tossed a baseball with the boy next door, tried to build things with my Dad's leftover lumber and my junior tool kit. Dad and Mom let us keep a menagerie of family pets: stray kittens and cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, chicks, ducklings, turtles, mice, hamsters and goldfish. My grandparents' had a wonderful cocker spaniel named Lucky, and I often went next door to play with him, too.
When it was time to go to college, I studied art and English, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Design from Miami University. I worked for many years as a marketing/advertising/public relations writer. But I feel most rewarded by the opportunity to write for children these days. There is no more important readership than young beginning readers. I work hard to write the very best prose or poetry I can for them, because I hope that I just might be able to help them develop a life-long love for reading.
Bev: WHAT WAS YOUR GREATEST MOTIVATION FOR WRITING?
Dianne: I come from a family of "storytellers," so I think I had a natural inclination at birth to someday be a writer. My dad's sisters and brothers and their children gathered each Sunday at my grandparents' house for dinner. After dinner, I loved to sit on the steps and eavesdrop as the grownups told each other jokes, or swapped stories about how the eight of them grew up in a cramped, three-bedroom house in 'hard times'.
I was naturally shy, especially during my teenage years. Writing stories and poems was a way I could say things I couldn't say out loud to a real person. My characters could say and do things I just couldn't in real life. Writing a story is a good way to deal with disappointment or frustration, I guess. I would start my story with a real situation, and make up my own ending: the way I'd like it to turn out, not necessarily the way it did turn out.
My greatest motivation for writing is that it's a miraculous way to
connect with another person, your reader, across the barriers of time
and distance. I love being part of the process. Writing communicates
both ideas from the head and emotions from the heart. Writing for children
lets you take things you've learned in your own life and pass them on
to another generation, in a hopefully entertaining way. Words capture
the 'stuff' of life' and hold it there, for as long as the ink lasts.
And playing with words is so much fun. The English language is particularly
rich--it seems like we have about four different words for every concept
or object imaginable.
Bev: YOUR NEW BOOK, PILLOW PUP, IS SO CUTE. THE ILLUSTRATOR, MIREILLE D'ALLANCE, LIVES IN FRANCE ACCORDING TO THE BOOK JACKET.
DO YOU HAVE A VOICE IN CHOOSING AN ILLUSTRATOR? DO YOU COLLABORATE WITH THAT PERSON WHEN YOU WRITE A CHILDREN'S PICTURE BOOK, OR IS EACH PART OF THE BOOK DONE INDEPENDENTLY?
Dianne: Writers don't usually have a voice in the choice of illustrator for their books. That decision belongs to the editor. Editors are experienced in the fine art of matching up the words of an author with the artistic style of an illustrator, in a way that will make the most successful use of each one's strengths. Although each book of mine has been illustrated in a very different style, I've been thrilled with them all. In each case, the illustrator's work has perfectly captured the tone of the text and worked very well with the words.
My job as a picture book writer--beyond writing a good story for the reader, of course -- is to give the illustrator plenty to work with: that means strong visual images and lively action. Although a writer and an illustrator may work independently, the end result is a collaborative project, which is very carefully guided by the editor.
Dianne: Like most writers, only a percentage of the stories I write will eventually be published. So far, more of my math-oriented manuscripts have found a publishing home than the others. I will always write stories with math elements. It's my hope to somehow help kids who aren't good with numbers (like I was!) to learn math concepts in the context of a story, with words. However, there are other stories to tell that don't lend themselves to inclusion of a math element, stories I still want to write. So I do! My writing ranges from toddler books to middle grade fiction.
I usually have three writing projects going at one time: a story in planning/research; a completed work being edited/revised; and a manuscript being written. I submit work often and get rejection slips in my mailbox on a regular basis. I am pleased to say that I have a math-oriented picture book forthcoming from Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster, SIXTEEN RUNAWAY PUMPKINS, in 2004!
Dianne: My list of favorite children's authors include but aren't limited to: Sharon Creech, Kate DiCamillo, Cynthia Rylant, Christopher Paul Curtis, Madeline L'Engle, Karen Hesse, John Reynolds Gardiner, Frank L. Baum, Lewis Carol, Richard Peck, Bill Martin, Jr., Kimberly Willis Holt, Margaret Wise Brown, and Eric Carle. I read as many of the Newbery and Caldecott winners as I can. I can't say there's one author that has been an influence on my writing-they all have! Every book I've ever read has shown me something new about the craft of writing and the human condition, and afterward caused me to re-think the way I write a story.
As for recreational reading, it's a real mix of nonfiction and adult fiction. For example, I have recently read: The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine; She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb; Shopgirl by Steve Martin; and Kitchen Confidential, Adventures in the Culinary Under Belly by Anthony Bourdain.
Bev: ARE ANY OF YOUR BOOKS IN ELECTRONIC FORM? HOW DO YOU THINK E-BOOKS ARE GOING TO AFFECT THE PUBLISHING OF CHILDREN'S BOOKS?
Dianne: At this time, none of my books are published in electronic form.
It's very hard to say at this early stage of electronic publishing exactly how e-books will affect the industry and the future of printed children's books. From what I understand, textbook publishers are finding a good response to their electronic editions, as are encyclopedia publishers. This makes sense, because these types of books require frequent updates in content to make sure that the text accurately reflects current scientific findings. However, children's books tend to address the universal concerns and joys of childhood. Much of the pleasure of reading a bedtime book is snuggling under the covers, or of being snuggled while a grown-up reads the book to you. A favorite book can be easily taken to the beach or to the park or to Grandma's house. While handheld e-books can do this, currently they are far more expensive than print books that work just as well for these purposes. Speaking only for myself, I think I would miss the scent of the ink and binding, the touch of the slick paper, the feel of the actual object in my hands as I read the words and look at the pictures on the page. Everyone has his or her own reading preferences, and the addition of electronic publishing increases the reading public's options hopefully, creating even more book lovers!
Dianne: The first thing anyone interested in writing for children should do is to join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). This is an international organization of emerging and established professionals in the children's publishing industry: writers, editors, artists, agents and others. Once you are a member, you can get all sorts of helpful information from SCBWI headquarters for little more than the cost of the postage to get it to you: how to prepare and submit a manuscript to magazines and book publishers, what to look for in a literary agent, a glossary of publishing contract terms, etc. SCBWI sponsors two national conferences annually, and provides both electronic and print newsletters to its members. As a national member, you will automatically become a member of your local, state or regional chapter. These chapters often sponsor regional conferences and other workshops, which are great ways to network with other writers in your area.
This leads naturally into another way you can help yourself develop into a better children's writer: join a writer's critique group. A critique group is a small group (4-8 writers) who meet regularly to read, evaluate and discuss each other's manuscripts, with the goal of helping each other improve the 'publish-ability' of their work. You might be fortunate enough to find an established group in your area that has an opening for a new writer. But if not, don't worry. You may be able to form a critique group on your own. Network at conferences, post notices in the library and bookstores, put a notice in your SCBWI newsletter. Schedule a first meeting. It's well worth the effort!
The best and briefest advice: write whatever you can, every day. Please don't wait for the perfect moment to start your story! Even if you only have one-half hour daily to devote to your writing projects, doing this will help you improve your craft, find your own stylistic "voice," and maintain your creative momentum.