Another Column at MyShelf.Com

Babe To Teens, Past
A YOuth Column
By Beverly Rowe

This month:

  • Watt Key talks about Alabama Moon
  • Dianne Ochiltree gives us some tips on writing
    for children.

I'm really impressed by the imagination shown by modern children's writers, and the new crop of books this fall seems to be the best yet. I thought that Watt Key's Alabama Moon was an especially compelling story with an extraordinary 10- year old protagonist that just won my heart.

Moon Blake is a ten-year old modern Huck Finn; wise beyond his years but with much to learn about the world. He's been raised in the Alabama backwoods by his father -- a recluse that has withdrawn from society. Moon is such an exciting new character...I asked his creator, Watt Key, about his new book, Alabama Moon.

Bev: Mr. Key, I would like to thank you for taking the time to answer questions for your new fans at

Watt: Thank you for being interested in me and Alabama Moon.

Bev: I see from your web site that you grew up in rural Alabama. Tell us about your childhood.

Watt: I am the oldest of seven and we grew up on a swampy strip of coastline in south Alabama. We spent time fishing Mobile Bay out front or playing in the swamp behind our house. I always preferred the swamp. I liked to build tree forts and hunt and trap animals. We didn’t have many neighbors so we learned to entertain ourselves early. Books and stories were also a big part of our entertainment. Dad read to us a lot and we read a good deal on our own.

Bev: What were your favorite stories as a boy?

Watt: I loved all of the Tarzan books – which probably had some influence on the creation of Alabama Moon – although I’m the only one that seems to draw that parallel. I also read all the Jim Kjelgaard books, Roald Dahl, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Wilson Rawls, Hardy Boys, William Golding, Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Defoe, Louis L’amour…

My grandfather was also a great storyteller and it was great to listen to him.

Bev: What or who was the greatest influence on your writing?

Watt: My father reading to me as a child and my high school English teacher.

Bev: How long have you been writing? Tell us about your road to publication.

Watt: I wrote stories as a child and was recognized by my high school English teacher as being talented. But I didn’t start pursuing novels until I was in college. I wrote two before I graduated and tried to get them published without success. I wrote about a novel every year and a half until I was thirty-three years old. Alabama Moon was my ninth novel of ten by the time I got published. Once I sold Alabama Moon, the publisher was quick to purchase my eight and my tenth novels.

Novels one thru six will probably not ever be published. They are just not good enough. It took me a long time to hone my English grammar skills and learn the importance of structure. I didn’t take but one required English course in college and should have been a better student. I think that’s why I had to write so much before I got published – to learn on my own things I could have learned had I been a better student. I was mostly writing in the dark all of those years, never knowing if I was good enough, just doing it because I liked it.

A New York agent got some of my writing in the mail and asked me if she could try and sell a book for me. I said yes and then we had a book deal about a month later.

Bev: I just fell in love with Moon. Tell me about the development of this great new character. What gave you the original idea for him as a story character and how did he evolve?

Watt: I was looking for an excuse to write about a boy in the wild. The Ruby Ridge situation in the press a few years ago gave me the perfect set-up. For those that don’t know about Ruby Ridge, a family in Idaho didn’t want to cooperate with the government and there was shootout at their backwoods hideout during which some of the adults were killed. I wondered what would become of the children of parents like this if they were put back with other children living typical lives. Then I started writing the story of the boy burying his father deep in the woods where they have lived isolated from society. Out of that grew ALABAMA MOON. As a character, Moon just came alive for me. I have a strong sense of him visually and know exactly what he would say and do in different situations. As a writer, you always hope to come up with characters that live in your head and heart like Moon does. And you never know when you’ll come across them. But once you find one, they almost write the book for you.

Bev: Moon and his Pap live in a frontier life-style. Did you have to do extensive research to augment your childhood lessons on living in a remote area?

Watt: I did a lot of research for Alabama Moon. Most of it was done spending time with the game warden in the Talladega National Forest. I rode around in his truck with him and made notes about the landscape and wild things you could eat in the area. I also read a lot of survival books. But some of the things I already knew myself from my own wilderness experiences.

Bev: Of course it's illegal to squat on someone else's land and live, and to keep your children out of school, (though approved home schooling is legal). I know we do have some people in Alaska that live a lot like Moon and his father did. How about Alabama? Are there still people that might live that way and what is your opinion on raising a child like that?

Watt: I don’t know of any people in Alabama that live like the Blake’s. But it wouldn’t surprise me if there were. Alabama is a state with lots of wilderness and places where people could hide out. And there are some wackos in our state that might try it. I mean, they still have KKK meetings only a few miles up the road from where I live.

I certainly don’t have the issues with the government that Moon’s father had and don’t raise my children like Moon. But things aren’t always black and white to me. Obviously, Moon’s father had some unhealthy mental issues that placed Moon in dangerous situations, but who’s to say that a person shouldn’t have the right to live free and clear of society?

Bev: Would it even be possible for a young boy to live alone in the wilderness? You tried that, according to your web page...tell us about it.

Watt: I think it would be possible, but very difficult. You would have to be trained from the time you were a small child as Moon was. And yes, I did try it. I lived for 14 days in the swamp with not much more than the clothes I wore in and a bow and arrows. It was January – dead of winter – and not much can be found foraging that time of year. I didn’t eat most of the time and probably would have starved eventually. My only meals were snakes and armadillos and baby wild hogs. I also had toasted acorns, palmetto roots and pine needle tea. Once I went over three days eating absolutely nothing. I lost 15 pounds during my stay and couldn’t keep solid food down for almost a month afterwards because my stomach had shrunken so much. But I did it. Which is cool.

Bev: Moon has some real issues with authority as do most modern kids. He felt like the rest of the world just wanted to catch him and bend him to their standards. He tackles all this head on but he does seem to have a strong sense of right and wrong. How did his ideas about the outside world change?

Watt: I am a strong believer that people are, for the most part, naturally good. And given free thought, they choose right and wrong naturally. Moon comes out of the forest with a lot of preconceived notions about the outside world that his father had drilled into him his whole life. But when the shadow of his father is no longer looming over him, Moon’s conscience is allowed the freedom to act naturally. He comes to see that the way his father taught him to live may not be right for him.

Bev: If you were the adult, confronted with a kid like Moon, how would you begin to civilize such a feral child?

Watt: Unfortunately, I would have probably treated Moon the same way that Mr. Wellington did in the book. I would have tried to turn him over to the authorities. I imagine it would be very shocking and complicated to have someone like Moon pop out of your back yard and ask you if he could continue to live out there. The book touches on the fact that our “systems” are not always designed to accommodate everyone and their special needs.

Bev: I can think of a couple of great character actors who would make a superb Constable Sanders. (He's a mean dude, but kinda funny, too.) I really can see this as a movie...any possibility at this time?

Watt: There has been talk about a movie and there are some people interested in making it. But we have not yet signed any contracts to that effect. I would love to see it happen and will do what I can to make sure the right people are involved in the project.

Bev: Do you plan a sequel? Moon is just too grand a character to NOT have a sequel.

Watt: I started a sequel, but put it on the back burner. I could do a lot with Moon in a second book and the first book sets up perfectly for a sequel. But right now my publisher is advising against it. They think it will dilute the effect of the original story. Maybe some day.

Bev: What is your current writing project?

Watt: I am editing the novel that will follow Alabama Moon. It is called The Bone Swamp Gang and will be published in Fall of 2008. I am also working on a new novel called Swamp Camp.

Bev: Do you have other thoughts you would like to share with us?

Watt: I hope that Alabama Moon encourages more people to enjoy the outdoors. Although you don’t need to immerse yourself in it like Moon, it’s healthy and good for the soul to spend time with nature.

Alabama Moon
By Watt Key

Farrar, Straus and Giroux -- September 5, 2006
ISBN: 0374301840 -Hardcover
Fiction - Ages 9-12

Buy a Copy

Review by Beverly J. Rowe,

Moon Blake has lived in the wilderness with his father for as long as he can remember. They live on what they can trap and raise and stay to themselves with just an occasional trip to the little country general store. When Moon's father dies, Moon manages to load him into the wheelbarrow and move him to the spot where he wanted to be buried. Moon's father had instructed him to go to Alaska and find others that live their way of life, but Moon is only ten years old, and though very resourceful, he doesn't understand the ways of the modern world. He has no idea where Alaska is or how to get there. The attorney that recently purchased the land where Moon and his father lived believes that he is doing the best thing for Moon by turning him over to a boys’ home.

Moon doesn't want to be in this strange and confining place, so he and two other boys manage to outsmart the system and run away. Moon's survival skills keep them one step ahead of the constable and out of jail. Moon has a chance to learn first hand about what friendship means and to interact with boys his own age for the first time. The boys are very sympathetic characters...even the bloodhound sent to track them down decides to join them.

When one friend becomes terribly ill, Moon realizes that he must get him to medical help. Moon begins to question the lessons his father taught him about how bad the government is and to question his father's lifestyle.

Watt Key has certainly found his niche in his first novel. Moon is a character that I'll never forget. This action-packed story is filled with chases, captures and escapes, with a bit of revenge against an abusive constable who is fully committed to capturing the boys. If you want to encourage reluctant readers, this can't-put-down story should do the trick. I highly recommend this book.

Dianne Ochiltree

Writing books for children would be a great accomplishment. It's something I would love to try my hand at, but I'm sure it would take a lot more talent and imagination than I have, and is no doubt, a lot harder than it looks. I talked to Dianne Ochiltree about what it takes to write a book for children. Her children's picture books are written in rhymed verse that is such fun to read aloud. She has some ideas to share with anyone who would like to break into writing for children.

Bev: Tell me about the process of writing a picture book for very young children. How does a book evolve from ideas to finished product: Lull-a-Bye, Little One, for instance?

Dianne: The first challenge in writing for a child of any age is to structure your story from the reader’s (or in this case, the listener’s) point of view. While my initial motivation to write Lull-a-Bye, Little One, came from fond memories of all the warm, fuzzy and fun things shared at bedtime with our now-grown sons when they were ‘little ones’, I knew this adult-oriented viewpoint wouldn’t be the right one for a bedtime book. Therefore, I got into the toddler mindset! I asked myself, “What would a busy toddler like about bedtime routines?” and let the brainstorming begin. Toddlers live in the present moment, so I focused on sensory details---the fuzzy blanket, the foamy bath bubbles, the squeaky toy, etc. ---and tried to infuse it all with a sense of love and caring from the grownups in this little one’s life. My ultimate goal was to create a book that parents, grandparents and other caregivers would want to share with the special children in their lives, to create bedtime memories of their own.

Bev: I love your wonderful rhyming stories---they are so much fun to read aloud. Is your process of creating these stories different from writing a book without rhyme?

Dianne: The creative process, for me, is very much like that used to write non-rhyming fiction or nonfiction….it just takes longer to finish a rhyming manuscript! First, the research and brainstorming. Then, the plot development and characterization and scene-setting.

All this is done in prose at first. As I work on the story, a natural rhythm usually arises. Which is wonderful, because the rhythm is just as important as the rhyme in any read-aloud book. The rhyme takes months of thought and time at the keyboard, trying out different combinations of words. It’s somewhat like piecing together a quilt, trying to balance all the elements into a pleasing pattern for the ear.

Bev: I know that you don’t do your own illustrations. How does that work? Do you work together with the artist, or do you do the text and then the publisher farms it out for illustration?

Dianne: Although the words and pictures in a book for young children must work closely together, the writer and artist do not! Typically, the writer’s work is 99% done before the artist does the beginning sketches. My job as a writer is to create lots of action and unique characters---not only to tell the story, but to serve as a springboard for the illustrator’s visual creativity. Once an editor has acquired my manuscript for publication, he or she works with the art director to find just the right artist to bring the words to life. A writer’s primary communication with the chosen illustrator is via the words on the manuscript pages.

Bev: If an unpublished writer has a manuscript that they think is worthy of publication, what is the best way to get it into the right hands?

Dianne: The best way is to spend time figuring out which, of all the myriad publishing houses, might be the ‘right hands’ for the story you’d like to sell. I always recommend the purchase of The Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, published yearly by Writer’s Digest Books and ably edited by Alice Pope, because this provides a comprehensive database of up-to-date contact information for all the major children’s publishers as well as notes on ‘who’ is interested in buying ‘what’. A targeted submission has a far greater chance of being acquired, and this one book can help a writer figure out which publishers are the good bets for a particular manuscript. Most libraries have the current edition of Literary Marketplace on their reference section shelves, and that’s a good resource, too---because it contains literary agent information along with the publishing houses. Of course, if you’re writing for children, you should join the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators right away! (Check it out at SCBWI offers their members a yearly report on the marketplace, a directory of children’s publishers and their imprints, plus all sorts of useful information about how to network and promote your work. Through the years, I’ve asked editors what the beginning writer’s most common mistake is and the answer is always, “submitting a manuscript to a publisher that doesn’t publish that genre or age level.” So, using the guidebooks cited above along with ‘writers guidelines’ that every house offers for the cost of the postage---or better yet, can be accessed easily on the publisher website---will help target submissions to a house that is eager to acquire just what you’d like to sell.

Bev: Are writers conferences valuable to the novice wanna-be writer?

Dianne: Absolutely! They are key to writing success in several ways. First, they offer the chance to attend workshops by published writers and illustrators, where you can learn how to improve your craft. (Because the truth is, even a well-targeted submission will not succeed if the writing quality isn’t up to a high standard.) These mini-classes in writing or editing techniques are vital to making your prose or poetry the best it can be. The second benefit is the opportunity to meet editors who are also giving workshops (usually on market trends) because this gives you the kind of detailed, in-depth information impossible to find in any guidebook or publisher website. It’s a good time to ask questions about submission needs, and many times being in an editor’s workshop may enable you to submit to an otherwise-closed house. The third reason is to network with fellow writers who are just beginning the same journey as you are. Writers need support systems, and this sort of networking helps you begin building your own safety net for the ups-and-downs of the writing life. Again, your SCBWI membership will come in handy for finding all sorts of helpful conferences in your region!

Bev: Where could a budding writer find a critique group, and how much help do you think they are?

Dianne: Again, SCBWI comes to the new writer’s rescue by offering a ‘critique-seekers’ service, usually at a regional level, in which a coordinator tries to match people who want to join a critique group with writers groups which have openings. On the national level, SCBWI tries to match up people who would like to exchange manuscripts for critique with other beginning writers via mail. But this isn’t the only way to find or form a critique group. Many writers have found success by posting notices in local libraries and bookstores, which often are gracious enough to offer the resulting group free meeting space. Many colleges and adult education programs conduct ‘writing for children’ courses. This is a great way to meet local folks who want to give, and get creative input.

Do I think critique groups are helpful? Yes, yes, and yes! It’s not just the critiques exchanged that make a group like this so important----it’s also the professional and personal support possible in a group of writers working together. My current writers workshop just celebrated 30 years together, and a good number of the group are original members. This tells me that after all those years, and hundreds of published books, they certainly believe there’s a lot of value in meeting together to help one another write!

Bev: Do you have any other thoughts you would like to share with us?

Dianne: Only that writing for children is the best career choice I ever made! It’s so rewarding to write for budding readers. I take this responsibility seriously, too. These ‘little ones’ deserve stories that will inspire in them a lifelong love of reading…and maybe even give them the bug to write a few stories of their own!

Check out these links to some exciting writing tips from Dianne:

Chipping Away at Writer's Block
Quick Tips for Building "Character"
The 3 R's: Rejection, Revision and Re-Submission
The Writer's Bookshelf
5 New Ways to Connect with Fellow Writers
The 3 R's for Writers: Read, Read, Read

Dianne has a contest -- You could win one of her signed books!
New contest winners will be drawn in December

American Education Week is November 12-18. National Education Association’s Annual Celebration Spotlights Importance of Great Public Schools for All Children For more information about American Education Week, visit

2006 Past Columns

Watt Key & Dianne Ochiltree

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