Sometimes fortune does favor the bold! I was very bold in reaching out to a writer whose work I have long admired with an invitation to be my Friend Friday guest — and Virginia Euwer Wolff agreed! My excitement is understandable: She’s won two Golden Kites (SCBWI), two Oregon Book Awards, a Jane Addams Book Award and Honor, a Printz Honor, the Phoenix Award (Children’s Literature Association), the NSK Neustadt Award, and the National Book Award. Make Lemonade was the first of Virginia’s books I read and it was astonishing, inspirational and paradigm shifting. This is what a novel for young readers could look like? These are topics that could be addressed? I recall those questions and more as I read. In a lovely gesture of generosity to the readers of this blog, Virginia reached out to other creatives to help her explore the question: “What’s the hardest part of making a book for young readers?”
THE HARDEST PART MAY OR MAY NOT COME AS A SURPRISE.
by Virginia Euwer Wolff
Thank you for inviting me, Kirby. During the bleak midwinter of our pandemic, when our political turbulence has churned our stomachs and our attention spans, I’ve been wondering about the hardest parts. Of everything. For instance, of making a book for young readers. Tired of listening to my own complaints about the unruliness of a work-in-questionable-progress, I’ve asked some friends. What’s the hardest part?
Christine Heppermann, discerning novelist, poet, and book reviewer, scrutinizes choice:
“This may sound like a riddle, but, for me, the hardest part of making a book is knowing what book wants to be made. Children born from the same mother aren’t all alike, and neither are books by the same author. They require different kinds of nurturing to flourish.”
David Levithan, champion of kids who hope and doubt, listens closely for it:
“The hardest part of making a book is finding the time to make it. By which I mean: being able to quiet all the other sounds so the only thing left to hear is the story as it speaks to you.”
Prodigious writer and teacher, Canadian Tim Wynne-Jones (OC, Order of Canada) goes inside:
“Something is coursing through your veins, like an illness, you love it and hate it, it won’t go away. A character, with you all the time, when you’re shopping, washing dishes, piling firewood. What’s his name? You have to begin somewhere. Just a chapter at first – a scene you can’t wait to write, with no guarantee or care that it will go further. And so, you proceed: one scene leading to another. You love the story into existence. The first draft is hell—and then, when it’s done, heaven. The rest, the hard work, the problem-solving, the adding, the cutting, is the glorious part of being a writer, no matter how long it takes.”
Author of Wicked and more than thirty other books, Gregory Maguire designs it:
“I think of making stories as a person who has to tesselate the dome of a great theater or basilica might regard it: Wow, that’s a lot of space to cover, and all I have is these little postage stamp sized colored pieces. Which ones should I use to make a coherent picture that makes sense seen from afar? Non-periodic tessellation. Every choice is immediate and determines the next. The hardest part of writing, for me, is that of the mosaicist: seeing close-up and long-distance at the same time.”
Susan Fletcher, whose stories are lessons in how to build a thing of beauty, inspects it:
“I am vulnerable to doubt. I’m years into my current project, but there are still so many threads left hanging, so many incompletely-developed characters, so many questions for which I’ve yet to find answers. My biggest challenge, at this stage of the writing, is to sit down at the page every morning and have faith that it will all come clear, in time.”
Here’s Kathi Appelt, much of whose fiction feels like portraits in song, lifting it against the dark:
“Keeping the story from sagging in the middle, getting bogged down, is where I have to really work. That said, recently I have felt so distracted by the world that just sitting down to work has been difficult for me. I’m so very hopeful that the light will overcome the darkness now and we can all concentrate on something other than the urgency of the world.”
Janet Wong, poetry mover and shaker, anthologist, and former lawyer, chooses and hopes:
“Many writers might think that the hardest part of writing is getting started, but for me it’s knowing when to stop. Those of us who like to revise can easily write a second, third, or even tenth draft—especially when writing something short, like a poem—but then how to choose which one to use? I often worry that I’ve written a ‘best draft’ but chosen the wrong one!”
These answers remind me that there’s no hiding place. There’s human consciousness and a chair. We put them together and do what the very insightful Rita Williams-Garcia said to me years ago: “Show up at the page. Be present.” Yes.
Where to find my interviewees:
Kathi Appelt: www.kathiappelt.com
Susan Fletcher: www.susanfletcher.com
Christine Heppermann: christineheppermann.com. David Levithan: www.davidlevithan.com
Gregory Maguire: gregorymaguire.com
Rita Williams-Garcia: rita-williamsgarcia.squarespace.com Janet Wong: www.janetwong.com
Tim Wynne-Jones: www.timwynne-jones.com
Virginia Euwer Wolff is a mother, grandmother, lapsed schoolteacher, summer swimmer, winter snow shoveler, lifelong amateur second violinist, and author of books for young readers. She has lived in the extremes of rural, unnelectrified Oregon and Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. A Smith College graduate, she’s attended graduate school in four states but has no advanced degree. She now lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley and had been playing some chamber music before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. She believes that her position as the slowest kids’ author in the USA is, at this time, unchallenged. She’s won two Golden Kites (SCBWI), two Oregon Book Awards, a Jane Addams Book Award and Honor, a Printz Honor, the Phoenix Award (Children’s Literature Association), the NSK Neustadt Award, and the National Book Award.