Author Interview: Shirley Smith Duke on No Bows!

No Bows! by Shirley Smith Duke, illustrated by Jenny Mattheson (Peachtree, 2006). “No bows. BRAIDS!” A lively exploration of contrast–pitting expectations for little girls against an individual girl with her own ideas about her preferences. Ages 4-up. See excerpt.

Shirley Smith Duke on Shirley Smith Duke: “Books were always exciting and important to me. It turns out I was a sort of No Bows! girl myself, although I didn’t realize it when I was young. I read constantly. I read in trees, stayed up late reading, and read between classes at school. I liked to take a volume from the encyclopedia and look through it, reading each interesting article. My sons, now at UT Austin, have had great sport with that piece of information from my childhood. That, and being in the Latin Club.

“My mother, Katie Smith, was a school librarian in Dallas, and we went to the public library regularly. The bookmobile and the downtown library were regular haunts until a branch library opened near us. As a child, I heard about her library courses with Siddie Joe Johnson and waited eagerly for news of the latest books. My goal as a child was to read every Newberry and Caldecott Award winner. At Christmas, we received books along with our toys so we’d have something to do that afternoon. Even now, every time I leave a library with a teetering stack of books, I feel rich.

“I’m a Dallas native and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School. I’d probably have been in some kind of sports, but athletics for girls didn’t exist then. I played saxophone in the band and became a majorette. I worked on the yearbook and wrote for the school newspaper. Swimming as a sport for girls started my junior year and I swam for my high school. I went to Austin College and received a degree in biology, then completed my master’s in education. I taught twenty-five years in reading, science, and ESL at the elementary and secondary levels. Working with the high school ESL students was my favorite part of teaching. “

What were you like as a young child (picture book reader age)?

Apparently I was a natural leader (read: bossy!), according to my family. My sister and two brothers usually followed my directions and we often played school. As the oldest, I always got to be the teacher. I was particular about getting messy and made mud pies with one hand. I’ve outgrown that to a certain extent. I liked to play alone a lot of the time, too. That part works well for a writer.

What inspired you to write for children?

I reviewed new books for my district and while most of them were good, there were a few that made me say, “I can do better than that!” Little did I know how much work went into writing children’s books. Teaching had an impact on my interest in children’s books, along with reading aloud to my students. I had the opportunity to read aloud regularly while teaching and still count Charlotte’s Web [by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams] and Old Yeller [by Fred Gipson] among my favorite read-alouds.

While teaching fourth grade early in my career, my family dog died. When I got to the part about shooting Old Yeller, tears rolled down my face and I had to stop reading. A student reached over, took the book from me, and quietly finished the chapter. Seeing the impact books had on my students made me realize their value in a different light from my own. I ended up teaching the young man again in seventh grade, and he wasn’t nearly so sweet!

Congratulations on the release of your debut (picture) book, No Bows! illustrated by Jenny Mattheson (Peachtree, 2006)(excerpt). Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way? Looking back on your apprenticeship, is there anything you’re particularly glad you did or would do differently?

I’m really glad I submitted it to Peachtree! The first call from Peachtree expressed interest in the manuscript but wanted me to provide some more exotic choices. “Yes, I can do exotic!” I sent more choices to them and a week later the call came. I couldn’t believe it.

The path to publication took a long time. The search for the perfect illustrator took almost two years with a couple of possible choices suggested, but the match with Jenny was exactly right. She told our editor she was raised as a No Bows! girl herself. I could tell she understood the story from the start. When I saw the thumbnails, I knew she was the best choice to illustrate the book. It was worth the wait. After I told my class the good news and the publication date, one of my high school ESL students said, “You’ll be dead by then, Miss!” Fortunately, I’m still among the living.

I’m glad I took Anastasia Suen’s picture book class, too! I wrote the book during her SMU picture book class and started sending it out right away. She told me it would get published. It took a while, but Peachtree was the right publisher for it.

Looking back, I don’t think I’d do anything differently. Timing, a little luck, and persistence all play a part in getting published, not to mention a good idea.

What was your initial inspiration for No Bows!?

My niece, Monica Dyer, sparked the idea. As the first grandchild and girl, she always liked beige, brown, and braids, even at a very young age. Monica played cymbals and became a vegetarian in a family of meat eaters. Right now she’s in Haiti, working with mothers with AIDS and water supply searches. My son’s dislike for collars and a nephew’s pet lizard that he called “Wizard” stirred the mix into a story.

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

From signed contract to publication was four years. Two years prior to that, I took the course, wrote the story, and started sending it out. The actual writing time was about three weeks, which is short. But it’s a short book. The major challenge was wondering if I had made my additional choices exotic enough. Pistachio was changed to tutti frutti and the tyrannosaurus rex appeared in the illustrations rather than the text.

Another challenge was answering everybody’s questions about if my book was out yet. After four years, I sometimes got the idea that they thought I was making it up.

What did Jenny Mattheson’s illustrations bring to your text?

It’s the classic example of a picture book, I think. She took my words and added depth, layers, and another dimension to the character and story. I chose the word “lizard” for the original manuscript, but she painted the lizard frolicking as a true pet throughout the book, joining in the antics of the little girl. She even put a lizard on the girl’s tee shirt. She helped define the character. My favorite spread is the park. Even at 20, my son occasionally gives me the “sitting on the duck” look!

Your publisher is Peachtree, based in Atlanta. Could you tell us about the house and its list? How about your experience so far as a house author?

I’ve found Peachtree a wonderful publishing house, especially as a first-time author. They’ve been quite patient about my questions and lack of knowledge about the process, and helpful and generous with their time. They’ve sent me to several conferences and worked with me on other appearances. Their books are beautiful and they seem to stay in print longer than in some houses. I’ve written teacher guides for some of their nonfiction books that have been out for a while.

What is it like being a first-time author in 2006?

Magnificent—a little like the birth of a child. I feel a surge of joy when I’m out somewhere and run across my book. It’s like I’ve been invited to join an exclusive club of some sort. But then I read a new fantastic book and wonder why I try to write at all when there are so many fabulous children’s writers out there. I’m honored to have a picture book out now. The most fun these days is seeing the children’s faces when I read the book. It’s been one sustained level of excitement for a long time. That’s pretty much how I live most of the time, anyway.

What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?

Learning about children’s books and children’s writing is almost like learning a new language. You have to immerse yourself and be involved with it before it starts to make sense. Being around children are important, too. When people say do your homework, it means: learn about children’s writing. I understand why so many writers address this question on their websites. It’s a frequent question with an answer too long to sum up in a couple of sentences. Many knowledgeable authors have detailed information about getting started posted on their sites. I recommend beginners start with those writers and branch out from there. I put a few favorites of mine under my links section. Check the sites of your favorite authors. Start reading what those experts say and work on your writing. Read and then write. Doing it makes you better.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Most often I’m reading. I also love to cook, and garden when I have time. I’ll read just about any topic, but I’ve found as I’ve grown older I’m choosier about reading only good writing. The best surprise is when I pick up a book I don’t know anything about and it’s so good I can’t put it down. My family likes to eat, so the cooking part is their favorite. Homemade pies are my specialty. I’m quite a talker, much to the chagrin of my family at times.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Writing for children has allowed me to see aspects of myself I didn’t know were there. I’ve done many things since I started writing that I didn’t know I would or could do. Writing for children has opened up a new world for me. And I do think there’s a little of the No Bows! girl in all of us.

Cynsational Notes

Shirley took classes from Anastasia at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, but if that’s out of your neighborhood, Anastasia also offers Online Intensive Writing Workshops. See a recent Cynsations interview with Anastasia.

See more author/illustrator interviews and learn about Texas children’s book creators.