Author Feature: Leda Schubert

Leda Schubert on Leda Schubert: “I was born in Washington, DC, and lived in Southeast Washington until I was nine, when my parents took me along with them to suburbia. Thoughtful of them. They also, however, sent me to summer camp (they both worked more than full-time, all year round; my mother owned a store and my father was the head of the chemistry department at American University), which changed my life forever. The camp had an ‘outpost’ about ten miles from where I live now, and I spent most of the years from 15 to 24 trying to figure out how to get back to camp. I moved to Vermont more than thirty years ago as a result.

“I have taught school, been a school and public children’s librarian, and run a small parent-cooperative day care center, but for the seventeen years until 2003 I was the school library consultant for the Vermont Department of Education. A huge chunk of the job involved working with children’s books in one way or another.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to serve on the Caldecott Committee, the Arbuthnot Committee, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Committee, as well as on both of Vermont’s state book awards committees (though I have now left both after many years).

“I began to hang out a little bit at the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program, which is right in Montpelier (only two towns away from my humble abode), and soon I applied for a post-graduate semester (I didn’t really need another degree). I was on campus for about five minutes when I realized I should do the whole program. After the first year of juggling work and school, I left work and became a student again, and I graduated in January ’04, having thoroughly enjoyed studying with four outstanding teachers (Phyllis Root, Marion Dane Bauer, Tim Wynne-Jones (author interview), and Liza Ketchum (author interview)) and my outstanding fellow students.

“Throughout my life I’ve been involved in traditional music and dance, and I met my husband at Pinewoods Camp, a Brigadoon for dance lovers. He lived on Long Island, so I made him move here. I was the oldest bride in history. He has grown-up children; together we have infantile dogs.”

What was your initial inspiration for creating Ballet of the Elephants (Roaring Brook, 2006)?

The evil periodontists (Hello, Dr. S) told me if I didn’t floss I’d have gum surgery, so I began flossing full-time. I turn on the TV while doing so to offset boredom, and one night caught two minutes of a re-broadcast documentary on George Balanchine. I heard the phrase, “He also choreographed a ballet for elephants,” and immediately became obsessed. I didn’t even know if there was any kind of story to be found; I’d never heard of the event. But I barely slept and began research the next morning. This is true.

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

I really don’t remember precise details (about anything, for that matter), but I began the book right after graduation, in February 04, and finished it by May, putting in very long days. My agent had suggested that I stop writing picture books since the market seemed rather unforgiving, but I pleaded with him (slight exaggeration) to read just one more. The first publisher rejected it very quickly, saying they had a book about elephants coming out, and the second publisher, Roaring Brook, took it even more quickly. I don’t remember much else about that period, though of course I continued to feed my email addiction while I was writing.

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

Logistical: I live in a small town; there is no large research library within many, many miles. I started by reading books on Balanchine, which soon led to books on Stravinsky, which then led to John Ringling North and Vera Zorina. I read about elephants. I found books online, in used bookstores, and in our local library, and each one took me somewhere else. I studied a little bit about the history of St. Petersburg, became lost in Balanchine’s childhood, circus memorabilia, etc., and I spent hours online with Stravinsky, Balanchine, and the circus; I found old LIFE magazines on ebay with photos, and I kept having the thrill of discovery.

But I couldn’t figure out how to tell the story for a long time (see next question).

Research: The book was accepted as a picture book, but then my superb editor at Roaring Brook thought it should include actual photos of the event and the principal characters. Doing photo research was a huge challenge; I’d never done it before and I started from scratch. Now I’m a mini-expert. It took more months to ask the right questions (and I’m often shy) and find the right photos and I made lots of new best friends at various places (The Circus World Museum, Getty Images, etc.).

Psychological: I hate traveling, and I was resistant about leaving Vermont. I could have simplified my efforts if I had only gone down to NY to the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library, but I didn’t really know about the huge resource there (even though I am a librarian, shame on me) until long after I’d finished the book. They have an entire dossier on the ballet. The contradiction is that if I’d known about it first, I never would have had so much fun doing all the research, and if I hadn’t discovered everything by myself, I probably couldn’t have written the book. So my antediluvian research habits paid off.

Literary challenge: next question.

The story opens with the incoming circus, tells what’s to come, and then offers backstory (“This is how it happened.”) before taking readers to the ballet itself. Most picture books don’t include flashbacks, but this one feels seamless and builds anticipation for the show. How did you arrive at this structure?

All of you writers have probably had that “aha” moment, when everything you’ve been struggling with falls into place. I had many drafts beginning in different places, but I couldn’t figure out how to assemble the material in a way that felt exactly right. Then I came across one sentence in a biography of John Ringling North about his wild childhood; he had taken a pony into the attic of one of the five uncles’ houses. Somehow it all came together at that moment: I knew I should begin with an overview of these three towering figures and then move back to North. It became clear that I wanted to begin with the circus train and the elephant parade through Manhattan. Even now, in our jaded time, when the circus hits New York, the New York Times sometimes publishes photos of the elephants coming through the tunnel from NJ into NY. The authorities actually close the tunnel, divert traffic, and let the elephants march through. What a sight that must be!

I also knew that I wanted to tell it in lineated prose. I don’t know why. That’s how it first came to me–the sentence I began with, which is of course no longer there (you writers will understand), was, “George Balanchine loved to dance/and he loved to tell others how to dance/even elephants.”

What do you think Robert Andrew Parker‘s art adds to the story?

When I dreamed about the book and fantasized about my favorite illustrators for this project, Robert Andrew Parker was right at the top. I believe my editor called him first, and when he said yes, she called me to accept the manuscript. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I love the looseness and energy of his line, I love his use of color, I love his interpretation of the story. I wanted the book to have that sense of flight and magic. He’s brilliant, isn’t he?

Obviously, an elephant ballet is a big event! One of the pages even folds out to offer a greater scale. Was this in your original plan? If not, who arrived at it and what did you think?

I believe this was Robert Andrew Parker’s idea; he asked for a gatefold for the entire ballet. The publisher did the figures and said yes. I know librarians don’t always love gatefolds, which can fall apart, but I think this one adds a sense of wonder and space. Imagine! 50 elephants!

You’re also the author of two early readers, Winnie Plays Ball (Candlewick, 2000) and Winnie All Day Long (Candlewick, 2000), illustrated by William Benedict. What are the particular challenges of such books? It seems to me that they’re underpublished for the existing market. Am I right about this? Other than your own, which do you particularly recommend?

I wrote the Winnie books for two reasons. First, at the time I was completely dedicated to improving early literacy in Vermont (which I preferred to call “reading,” but I was part of a bureaucracy), and I was a member of the Department of Education’s early literacy team. I knew what books were out there from the testing/reading establishment, which were levelled readers that didn’t really tell memorable stories. Second: I wanted to write about my dog, Winnie, who is enormous, enormously spoiled, and could practically dictate her stories to me. I hoped that kids would find lots of humor in a book about a spoiled dog, and indeed they do. They love “Yucky Ball,” “In and Out,” and “Winnie’s Birthday.”

Fortunately, Candlewick was thinking along similar lines. Candlewick’s designer put lots of time and effort into coming up with a look that would work for new readers—format, type on a separate color, simple lines moving from left to right, illustrations that can be read along with the text, etc. Amy Ehrlich, David Martin, and I kicked off the series in the spring of 2000, and I think it’s been fairly successful. They’ve repackaged some of the stories into kits, which also seem to be doing well.

I think there are lots of good early readers. I love all of Cynthia Rylant‘s books about Mr. Putter, Henry and Mudge (obviously), and Poppleton. I love Amanda Pig. I love Gus and Grandpa, James Marshall‘s Fox books, etc. There are lots of older books to love as well. I’m very happy with the new ALA/ALSC Theordore Seuss Geisel Award for early readers–I think it will help the field as a whole to have a major award for these books, which are very difficult to write and are so important. To have a story with so few words that’s memorable, that delivers real characters, that’s even funny—I salute them all.

Your recent picture book Here Comes Darrell, illustrated by Mary Azarian (Houghton Mifflin, 2005), features a snowplow driver. What inspired you to tell Darrell’s story?

Darrell was a real person, who did plow our driveway, dig our basement, and dig our pond, and he did so selflessly for many other people in this community for a long time. When he got cancer, we went to visit him, and I realized I needed to write about him. Just needed to. I asked his family if it was all right. I wrote many, many drafts, and I had a difficult time creating tension. It’s more of a quiet book than a jump-in-your-face book, but I’ve actually seen people cry when I read it, which then makes me cry, and then we’re all crying, and that’s good. Of course Mary’s illustrations make it work. I think her work is so full of truth and heart.

You’re having great success as a picture book writer in a tough publishing market. What advice and/or words of encouragement do you have for your fellow writers in the field?

Thank you, but can we define terms? I don’t think I feel successful–I’m always just a step away from therapy. Writing is so hard! And I’ve got enough rejections to ride to the moon and back (we can no longer wallpaper the bathrooms with cyberspace rejections, so I am creating an alternative), but I do admit that I’ve been very lucky in this slightly static picture book market. I have two more books coming after Ballet of the Elephants, and needless to say I hope to have more.

Words of encouragement? Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Probably you’ve all heard this before. Don’t wait for inspiration; make yourself write every day even if you’d rather eat chocolate or check your email. Do the work. Talk to other writers, because they understand. Read like a writer–try to figure out how books work. Ask yourself questions as you read. Go as deeply as you can every day. I have convinced myself that if the writing is wonderful, the book will get published. Ah, how naive.

Your strong background in education and library science certainly seems related to your creating wonderful books for young readers. Did one lead to another? What does your breadth of background in literature offer you as a writer?

I’ve read so much that I’m not sure it’s always helpful. I’ve read as many bad books as good books, and sometimes both get in the way of my own writing. Conversation in head: “There are so many books published, does the world really need to see a book by me, why am I subjecting myself to all this self-loathing every morning in front of the computer, etc., etc.” On the other hand, I have a truly defective memory, so I’ve already forgotten much of what I’ve read in the last six months (sorry). But I digress. So perhaps the breadth of experience means that I have high expectations for myself–that maybe I can actually write something I haven’t read a thousand times–and simultaneously it makes me bemoan the possibilities of ever writing anything fresh, and I will just write the thousandth and oneth book. There are so many amazing writers working now in children’s books!

On the other hand, I have always read voraciously, and I could no more stop reading than I could stop breathing. I read grownup books, too. They often have more words. I believe it’s crucial to read widely and analytically. I find books that do things I want to do and I put them in a pile to examine more thoroughly. Now I must find the pile.

How do writers do what they do? I keep looking for the key. The rope trick.

What may your fans look forward to next?

Hi fans! I blow countless kisses your way.

FSG will bring out Feeding the Sheep, illustrated by Andrea U’Ren, of Pugdog and Mary Smith fame, and I can’t wait to see what she does with my unusually sweet story. The Vermont Folklife Center, under the editorial guidance of Anita Silvey, will eventually publish Donna and the Robbers, based on a very brief transcript in the Folklife Center archive. It’s about a horse in Maine who foils a robbery in 1902, and I love the story.

I’m working on a young adult novel about a girl growing up in a leftist family under McCarthyism, which I started approximately thirty years ago but hope to actually finish soon (I was the runner-up for an SCBWI work-in-progress grant for this, so the pressure is on) and my middle grades novel, Ice Out, is out with an editor.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Thanks, Cyn, for giving me this opportunity to ramble on. You have more energy than any other twenty people put together. You’ve asked probing questions, too.

Cynsational Notes

Leda Schubert from Authors Among Us: Children’s Writers Who Are or Have Been Librarians.