Ask Winston

Winston B. Larson, at your service

There is a lot of barking and yapping these days about the future of the book. I know the Two-Legged Writer has been spotted tearing her hair out trying to figure out what ebooks and iPads and social networking all mean. I thought she needed a nice chewy toy so I shared one with her. It was only a little soggy. That didn’t seem to lift her out of her funk, so I contacted three of her mentors to ask them to share their thoughts about having been part of the children’s writing world for three or four dog years. And here’s what they had to say. (Ladies first!)

Kathryn O. Galbraith, author of over a dozen books for children including the recent Halloween picture book, Boo, Bunny! and this spring’s Arbor Day Square, a Parents’ Choice Award winner. She also teaches writing workshops on writing for children.

Writing and Publishing in the Old Days

Somewhere in my brother’s home is my father’s old Remington typewriter. It is in a thick black case with claps that took two hands (mine) to open and close. I suppose by now it is a collectors’ item, but then it was importantly heavy and smelled liked a real machine. I wasn’t strong enough to punch the keys, but there it sat, a promise and a mystery.

Jump to NYC in the mid 1970s when I realized again (acknowledged again) that what I really wanted to do with my life was write. Enter in a tinny electric typewriter, replacing my old manual from college. Then later I hit the jackpot when I was able to afford a used IBM Selectric. That was the Cadillac of typewriters. Instead of a zooming return and individual keys, it had an IMB ball that twisted from letter to letter and returned smoothly with only a discreet ping. I dearly loved that machine and kept it for years “just in case.

Of course, I also lived through – but not neatly – using White Out and later White Out tape to correct my many typing mistakes.

Luckily after I sold my first book, I bought my first computer at the urging of my more computer-savvy husband, and as the saying goes, it changed my life. However, I still don’t take my computer completely for granted. Recently I reread Anna Karenina and thought of Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia Andreevna, who hand copied the manuscript three different times. If only she’d had a computer, she could have copied the manuscript with all its changes three times AND still have had time to write a bold novel of her own.

Peg Kehret with her writing buddy, Lucy

Peg Kehret’s middle-grade books have won dozens of state young reader awards, as well as the PEN Center West Award in Children’s Literature, the Golden Kite Award from SCBWI, and the ASPCA’s Henry Bergh Award. Abduction was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America. Ghost Dog Secrets will be published in September.

I remember the phone call in vivid detail. “We have an offer,” said my agent, “for Deadly Stranger.

With goosebumps on my arms, and my heart racing, I jotted notes as she talked. Then I hung up and burst into tears. That morning remains one of the high points of my life.

I’d previously sold plays, short stories, and two adult nonfiction books, but Deadly Stranger was my first book for children, the book where I finally discovered my voice, and my life’s work. It impacted my entire way of life.

When a teacher asked me to speak at her school, I was astonished. It had never occurred to me that people might want me to be a speaker. I’ve since talked at schools, libraries, and conferences all across the country. These trips provided fresh ideas, and fed my creativity. What a fantastic adventure!

But the real adventure – the biggest impact from the sale of that first novel – was internal. It was the shining knowledge that I had aimed for what seemed unattainable, and I had achieved it.

That glow remains. It allows me to take chances, to write what interests me regardless of what’s currently popular. It keeps me slogging through sagging first drafts because I know the end result will be worth the drudgery. It is the sure, constant awareness that being a writer of books for kids is not just what I do as a career, it is who I am.

No matter how many times it happens, it is still a thrill when a book is published, and every book reinforces the commitment, and the joy, created by that first one.

George Shannon feels as though he has always been wrapped in stories and books. He submitted his first “formal” children’s manuscript to a publisher at sixteen. Eleven more years of school, work, reading, writing, and luck finally brought about Lizard’s Song, his first children’s book, accepted in 1979.

Looking back, it seems especially appropriate that Lizard’s Song was my first book. Even though I had been writing for years, I always felt everyone else’s life held better ideas for stories than mine did. But I finally learned what Lizard teaches Bear. My best stories come when I tell or sing about what makes my home. What I love. What I fear. Things that have happened to me, and things I hope will happen. Things I’m starting to understand. Things that still confuse me. And, always, the books and art and friends that make me feel at home. So even though I am not a lizard, squirrel, or fleet-footed chick, my books about such characters are filled with what my heart calls home.

My years as a children’s librarian and, later, a professional storyteller continue to influence my writing, whether it is a collection of folktales like Stories to Solve or original stories like Tippy-Toe Chick, Go! and Wise Acres. I want my stories to sound as if they are being told out loud with the rhythm of the words providing as much emotion as the words themselves.

In many ways my writing life as not changed very much. My writing is still based in the sound of language and keeping young children engaged in the events and fun of a story. But I’ve learned if I stay playful, open and receptive new stories come to me. I no longer feel the need to chase about new ideas. Other ways my writing life has changed center around patience and better self-editing. I used to hurry to send a new story to an editor. Now, I take more time and do more revisions. I also submit fewer of my stories even once they are finished. Not everything I write is gold, but it’s all valuable practice.

One of my favorite proverbs is “less is more”, and I believe books for young people are a wonderful example. The challenge of sharing a story in as few words as possible and with a vital theme inside a “light-hearted” plot is one I will always enjoy.

A big wag of the tail to Kathryn, Peg and George for sharing these thoughts today. . .it was a big help. I can already see a bounce again in the Two-Legged Writer’s step!

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