Author Interview: Marilyn Helmer on One Splendid Tree

One Splendid Tree by Marilyn Helmer, illustrated by Dianne Eastman (Kids Can Press, 2005). From the catalog copy: “With Daddy away fighting in the Second World War, Hattie, Junior and Momma have had to move to the city so Momma can take a factory job. Money is tight, and this year a Christmas tree is a luxury the family cannot afford. But Junior finds an abandoned plant in the hallway, and in his eyes, it holds the promise of Christmas magic. If he can only convince Hattie, maybe they can have a tree after all! Marilyn Helmer’s tender story and Dianne Eastman’s richly detailed photocollage art bring this Christmas past to vivid life. Includes instructions on how to make your own snowman decoration!”

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Actually several things inspired me. I like to set writing goals for myself and one of my goals was to have a Christmas book published. The reason – I love Christmas!

Another inspiration came from the many anecdotes my parents told me about life on the home front during World War II. I used some of these in the story, such as the family not being able to afford a Christmas tree and the children having to wear boots and shoes that don’t fit because that was all they had.

Also I’m a firm believer in the inventiveness, creativity and perseverance of children, especially in difficult times. This theme crops up over and over again in my books and short stories.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

That is difficult to say because I tend to work on more than one manuscript at a time. I do this so that, if I run into difficulty with one story, I can switch to another and thus avoid the dreaded writer’s block (well, most of the time anyway). If memory serves me correctly, I began writing “One Splendid Tree” about five years before it appeared in print.

Once my publisher accepted it, I went to work with a wonderful and talented editor, Debbie Rogosin. Together we edited, revised and polished. Then we got down to the nitty gritty of switching a word here and changing a phrase there to create the best story we possibly could. Believe it or not, that is my favorite part of the publication process. My publisher, Kids Can Press, is fastidious about the quality of their books which is one reason why I am delighted to have them as my publisher.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

When Kids Can Press first read the manuscript, they suggested that I add more wartime atmosphere and references. “One Splendid Tree” was already on the lengthy side for a picture book, so the challenge was not only to add these to the story but to do it in an economy of words. I did a lot of research on World War II, especially about life on the home front.

Victory bonds, war savings stamps, Salvage Drives, rationing and the necessity of saving anything that was reusable are all referred to in the story. At a recent reading, when I came to the part about Hattie saving the brown paper from a package, an elderly gentleman in the audience called out, “I remember doing that!”.

I even researched the children’s names to be sure that the ones I had chosen were popular in the 1940s. I have to say though, that if I did a lot of research for the story, just imagine how much more the illustrator, Dianne Eastman, did for her exceptional photo-collage artwork!

Psychologically, and this holds true for any story you write, the author needs to get into the mind and psyche of the characters to decide how they will act and react in various situations. I wanted Junior, the youngest, to be the leader and his sister, Hattie, to create conflict with her initial reservations about the plant decorating. Though the mother and father appear as minor characters, my goal was to show it was their love and caring that made Hattie and Junior believe in the magic of Christmas and spread that belief to those around them.

What, if any, special challenges are part of writing and publishing a holiday book?

Holiday seasons come and go quickly so there is a much shorter time frame than usual in which to publicize the book. In the case of a Christmas book, you basically have from mid-November until Christmas.

I was very fortunate in that my publisher scheduled a number of bookstore reading events for me. As an added attraction I demonstrated a snowman craft (the pattern appears at the back of the book) at one reading and at others I made decorations like the ones Hattie, Junior and their neighbours make and invited the audience to help “turn a plain old plant into one splendid tree.” These ideas were the brainstorm of Kids Can’s publicist, Melissa Nowakowski, and the children were only to happy to help.

One event included me reading with Santa at a large mall. Santa and I taking turns reading alternate pages of the book. The children loved it – they thought I was Mrs. Claus!

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to Kerry Madden, whose novel, Gentle’s Holler (Viking, 2005) , was listed among NYPL’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing, selected by the New York Public Library, 2005. The NYPL also offers a newly revised list of 100 Picture Books Everyone Should Know.

Narnia Chronicled: The Lion, The Witch, and The Horn Book; see also Roger Sutton’s blog.

Who’s Moving Where? from The Purple Crayon. Cricket’s offices are relocating from Peru (IL) to Chicago, and some staff members are leaving. See details.