Author Feature: Marion Dane Bauer

Marion Dane Bauer is the acclaimed author of numerous books for young readers from newborns to young adults, and she received a Newbery Honor for On My Honor (Clarion, 1987). Runt (Clarion, 2002) has recently won children’s choice awards in Georgia and Minnesota. Marion is on the faculty of the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She originally hails from Oglesby, Illinois; and makes her home in Minnesota; learn more about her.

What were you like as a child? As a teenager?

I was a dreamy child. I used to come home with report cards that said, under the category then called deportment, “Marion dreams.” It was not a compliment. As a teenager I was very focused, ultra responsible. I was editor of the yearbook, the director and script writer for the talent shows, etc. I’m more fun now, less serious, than I was then.

What inspired you to begin writing for young readers?

I was born with my head full of stories, so it didn’t take me long to figure out that I wanted to write stories someday. I realized I wanted to write for kids when, for a college writing class, I wrote a brief description of standing in bare feet on a sunny sidewalk and then stepping into the cool grass of my back yard when I was about four. That description came alive for me in a way that nothing else I had ever written had done, and I knew then that childhood was my topic.

Could you you describe your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way? Is there anything about your apprenticeship that you would do differently, knowing what you do now?

No, there is nothing I would do differently. I sat down and wrote something that was in my heart, writing it the best way I knew, and–I was very fortunate–it found a publisher. That book was Foster Child (Clarion, 1977), and it wasn’t published until after I’d written my second book, Shelter From the Wind (Clarion, 1976), which led the way. But it is the only way I know to publication–even today, after more than thirty years of writing professionally–to write what is important to me the best way I know how to write it.

Your website opens with a few observations on the research aspect of your writing. Could you share with us any stories of your research coups and challenges?

I often do research for my novels, because factual accuracy is, I think, crucial to every kind of writing, including and especially fiction. I can’t induce that willing suspension of disbelief unless I create a solid world, one that could have happened the way I’m saying whether I’m making up the people and the action or not. I’ve held a bear cub in the wild, stayed overnight in a sod hut, traveled the prairie in a covered wagon for a week, all in the name of finding a solid base for my stories. Occasionally I have done research and then never found the story I was researching, but no new experience is ever lost. It’s all part of the richness I have to write out of.

Let’s talk about a few of your most recent titles. How about A Bear Named Trouble (Clarion, 2005)(ages 9-up). What was the initial inspiration for this book? What were the challenges in bringing it to life?

The initial inspiration was a very brief AP article in a newspaper about a young brown bear that earned the name Trouble by repeatedly breaking into the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage. The article said that he had been captured and flown to Minnesota and now lived in the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth. I was fascinated, delighted by the irony of a bear who tries to get into a zoo and pleased that he now lived in my state. And so I set out to discover more.

I visited the Duluth Zoo, talked to the Zoo Director and to Trouble’s keepers and met Trouble himself. Then I flew to Anchorage, explored the zoo there, and talked to zoo personnel involved in his capture. What I discovered in Alaska was that the true details of the bear’s capture had been more dramatic than I probably would have felt free to create…while the zoo personnel were trying to dart him, the game and wildlife people were waiting at the gate to kill him as a nuisance bear if he got back outside. And all this was happening in the morning, just as the public were about to start coming into the zoo.

Trouble’s story was easy and pretty much handed to me. The challenge was to create a parallel story of a boy, a completely fictional one, to give another dimension to Trouble’s story. But the boy who imagined himself inside animals wasn’t hard to come by.

Your 2005 releases also include The Blue Ghost (Random House Stepping Stone, 2005)(ages 7-up). What were your considerations in crafting the fantasy element in this book?

There were two different dimensions to creating The Blue Ghost. One was dealing with the third-grade reading level. This was my first time to write a novel to a specified reading level, and at first I found the task difficult and awkward. I have no problem writing to a first or second-grade level, because doing that is more like writing poetry. But this had to be prose. The language had to be simple. The sentences had to be short. Thank goodness, when I got to the point that I couldn’t do it any more, the editor took over and, very skillfully, brought my text to the right level. I’m doing more Stepping Stones novels now, written to the same level, and I’m still struggling with the challenge of creating language that is utterly simple but still flows.

As to the fantasy element, I was mindful of my young audience, wanting a story that would feel mysterious but not too scary. When I was very young I had a repeated dream about being transported to a playground in my wall during the night. It was an utterly rapturous experience. So passing into or through a wall still feels not only possible to me but like a fine thing to be doing. It’s an idea I keep coming back to in my stories. My next Stepping Stones novel, The Secret of the Painted House, has another wall that draws a girl in in an entirely different way. Who knows, I may yet find some more penetrable walls in my stories.

You’re also the author of Ghost Eye, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman (Scholastic, 1992)(ages 9-up). What is it about ghosts that calls to you? Are you a believer?

I once heard Avi say, “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in ghost stories.” And I would second that. I grew up with a chemist father who was skeptical of the reality of anything that couldn’t be weighed or measured. While I’m more open to a world of spirit than my father was, I am, I’ll admit, also thoroughly infected by his skepticism.

I like ghost stories, though, because they always deal with ultimate questions. After all, someone in the story is already dead but still wanting something. What desire can survive even death? Whatever it is must be important.

If Frogs Made Weather, illustrated by Dorothy Donohue (Holiday House, 2005)(ages 4-up) asks what would happen if animals made weather. Runt (Clarion, 2002)(ages 9-up) is about a wolf pup. The Very Best Daddy of All, illustrated by Leslie Wu (Simon & Schuster, 2004)(ages 0-4) celebrates fathers (animal, bird, and human). So many of your works show a connection to the animal world. Could you talk about your feelings toward animals? When the story calls for it, how do you get under the skin (or fur) of an animal character? How do you research to reveal animal actions in a way that’s true?

I live in a world of pets–two dogs, two cats–and love having a connection with animals. They bring us back, I think, to what is basic…security, food, comfort, love. In stories such as Runt and A Bear Named Trouble I wanted to write about a wild animal and, in the case of Runt, to inhabit that animal’s psyche. So I prepared to write by seeking out books written by biologists who studied wolves or bears in their natural habitat. I read, in fact, for months before I ever began to write. I read the way I usually research, until I no longer had to refer to notes but felt as though I had lived my subject.

Is there a particular animal that especially fascinates you? I spy a number of bears in your work. Cats, dogs, and frogs, too!

I don’t know that there is one animal that appeals to me more than all others. When I first decided to write a story in which I would inhabit a wild animal, I chose wolves. I made that choice for two reasons. One was because I live in Minnesota, and Minnesota still has a population of wolves. The other was because I knew that wolves live in a family structure similar to our own, so I could write about a wolf pup and deal with the kinds of issues that matter to us humans, too.

In addition to your acclaimed body of fiction, you’re also the author of non-fiction books for young, newly independent readers. Your titles include a series of Ready-to-Read Books on weather (Clouds, 2000; Snow, 2003; Wind, 2003; Rain, 2004) and a couple of more such books from a Wonders of America Series (Grand Canyon, 2006; Niagra Falls, 2006) published by Aladdin, all illustrated by John Wallace. What should writers of early readers keep in mind? How about non-fiction writers?

I enjoy doing these small books. I have a reductionist mind. Whatever I’m dealing with, I tend to take to its simplest, most succinct form. In some situations that isn’t necessarily good. But if you need to take a body of complex information and present it to the very young, it is an essential skill.

If I have any advice for writers interested in writing nonfiction for young readers it is, don’t write down. Start by choosing a topic you yourself are fascinated by.

I love weather, every kind of weather, and have lived much of my life in the Midwest which specializes in changes of weather. So that’s where I started when I proposed a series to Simon & Schuster, with a topic I wanted to learn about myself. The same is true for the Wonders of America series that followed, and I am now completing the sixth book in a series on Natural Disasters. All of these topics have many books for young readers on the market, but few, if any of these books are aimed for the very young readers I am writing for.

And that brings us to a final piece of advice on the topic. Find a niche that isn’t already filled or one that you can fill in a way that will be different.

I am a fan of your A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction (Clarion, 1992). It struck me as I was reading that it’s as strong of a choice for adult writers as it is for kids and teens. What sort of response have you received to this book? What prompted you to write it?

I wrote that book initially for my adult students because I taught locally in the Minneapolis area for many years and got tired of delivering the same lectures again and again every time I started a new ten-week class.

When I tried to sell the manuscript, though, the response I got was something like, “This is very good. In fact, I learned from reading it. But your name won’t sell it.” So I decided to rewrite it to make it work for young writers because that was the market where my name would sell such a book.

At first, I’ll admit I resented having to rethink everything to make it work for young writers, but I discovered in the process that the book became stronger and clearer and that it didn’t lose any of the information it had always contained. So I’m always pleased when adult writers–especially writers for children–tell me they find my book valuable. They were my first audience. But I’m glad I’ve been able to help young writers, too.

In 1994, you edited an anthology, Coming Out from the Silence (HarperCollins). The book was published at a time when I had left children’s/YA books before coming home to them again in 1997. What was the landscape for GLBT fiction like at that time?

The landscape for GLBT YA fiction was pretty bleak at the time. There were some books out there, but as one librarian said to me, quite seriously, “You can write about a gay character as long as he dies in the end.” What I started with was the idea for a collection of stories by writers who were so good and whose names were so strong that librarians couldn’t refuse to have the book on their shelves. What I had to find was a courageous editor. I found one in David Gale.

By the time the book came out, Bill Clinton had been elected president, and one of his campaign promises had been to open the military to gays. His promise was never fulfilled in a meaningful way, but the simple fact of his just talking about gays got us on the front page of just about every paper in the country, week after week after week.

By the time Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence came out, no one could deny that we exist…and the book elicited a strongly positive response. There have been many excellent books out since then, but Am I Blue? still continues to find a place. I have been grateful to be associated with it.

You’re not only a writer but also a teacher of writers. Could you tell us about your that part of your life? What does teaching offer you in terms of your own growth?

To teach you have to be able to define what makes a manuscript work and what prevents it from working. It is through more than thirty years of teaching that I have come to understand my own process and the demands of the work I do. I am grateful for all I learn from my students, both through their insights and through their struggles.

What would you tell those considering applying to an M.F.A. program in writing for children and young adults?

If you are serious about writing for children and young adults, apply to a program that focuses entirely on that field. Our field is a wide and varied one. You will want to learn as much about the possibilities that lie within it as possible during your time of study.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Write. Write and write and write. And of course, read. Read and read and read. And then return to your writing. Don’t think of revising as fixing something you didn’t manage to get right the first time. Think of it as taking something you already love and making it better.

How about those building a body of work?

Stretch yourself. Don’t write the same thing again and again, sometimes in pink, sometimes in blue. Try different genres, different audiences. Some editors or agents may discourage you from moving outside a field where you have been successful. Don’t listen. You can’t keep a career alive unless you can keep it fresh, and the best way to keep it fresh is to take on new challenges.

How has your own writing changed over the years?

It has grown more varied. I hope it has also grown deeper.

What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?

I love to cook. I walk. I kayak and bicycle. I do other exercise daily–pilates and water aerobics. I love being out of doors. I watch very little television, but I usually see a couple of movies a week. I love live theater, but I’ll have to admit that some of the most exciting work happening today is in film.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Next spring I have a collection of semi-autobiographical YA short stories coming out with Clarion Books called Sin and Other Stories from Life. I also have a picture book coming out with Simon & Schuster called A Mama for Owen. It’s based on the true story that many people have heard of a baby hippo separated from his mother by the big tsunami who adopted a giant tortoise as his mother. Those are the two books I’m most excited about.

Cynsational Notes

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