Author Interview: Sharron L. McElmeel on Authors in the Pantry: Recipes, Stories, and More

Sharron L. McElmeel is the author of many books delving into the world of books for young readers. Authors in the Pantry: Recipes, Stories, and More (Libraries Unlimited, 2007) was just released as a companion to her earlier title Authors in the Kitchen: Recipes, Stories, and More (Libraries Unlimited, 2005). Her many reference works are mainstays in public and school libraries, including Children’s Authors and Illustrators Too Good to Miss: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies (Libraries Unlimited, 2004) and a literature-based book on Character Education (Character Education: A Book Guide for Teachers, Librarians, and Parents (Libraries Unlimited, 2002)). Many Young Adult Literature courses use the frequently updated, Young Adult Literature and Multimedia: A Quick Guide (Hi Willow, 2006), a text she co-authored with David Loertscher and Mary Ann Harlan, and The Best Teen Reads (Hi Willow, 2007). She also edits the Author and You series published by Libraries Unlimited. A complete list of her publications is available on her website .

Sharron L. McElmeel on Sharron L. McElmeel:

“There is not a lot to tell. My life has been rather simple and uneventful to this point. I grew up in the heartland of the United States and found myself reading over and over again the stories of the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson—those were the only two books I ever remember reading in any of the large farm homes where I lived. The nearby towns did not have libraries and our elementary school had but one book shelf–far from filled and with all the books able to be facing out.

“But like Fern in E.B. White‘s Charlotte’s Web I do remember bringing in runt pigs to warm by the oil heater, feeding them with an eyedropper and later a bottle. On warm spring days, my sister and I galloped our horses to the far corner of our farm, spread a blanket and put out the sandwiches and lemonade from our ‘saddlebags,’ and then we would settle in to read the afternoon away in the corner of an old stone pioneer’s cabin–remnants of the early settlers in the area. On hot summer days, my two brothers, sister, and I would disappear down the cowpath to the creek on the back forty (forty acres of land at the back of the farm) and dogpaddle our way across the stream–back and forth, and splash one another until time to call the cows for milking. In the winter, we all trudged two miles to school in the nearby small town. My childhood was rather idyllic but not so long ago as it might seem, just very rural.

“I was born, raised and still live in my home state of Iowa. Iowa has become the popular starting off location for several books in the past few years:

• the Takeshima family left Iowa to go to Georgia (Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata)(author interview);

• Hattie Brooks left Iowa to homestead in Montana (Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson);

• Maude and Sallie Marche disguise themselves as boys and escape (from Cedar Rapids, Iowa) to Missouri (The Misadventures of Maude Marche by Audrey Couloumbis);

• And Delicious, her parents, and seven siblings leave Iowa to settle in Oregon — taking their fruit trees (including the red delicious apple tree which originated in Iowa) with them (Apples to Oregon by Deborah Hopkinson).

“I share a birthday (September 13) with the late Roald Dahl, Mildred D. Taylor, Else Minarik and James Howe. Robert Kimmel Smith and I are all chocoholics.

“My family now includes children (six spirited individuals) much like the Herdmans from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. And my grandchildren would be very much at home in Serafina Sow’s Waffery (The Three Little Pigs by Steven Kellogg) as they love waffles (and pancakes) as much as her large family.

“Iowa is a wonderful place to raise a family, it’s high on education, and low on pollution and other ills of society. I live on an acreage clinging to the edge of a very small town–a little larger than the population 100 town of my youth, but in the shadows of the second largest city in the state–Cedar Rapids. “

Congratulations on the publication of Authors in the Pantry: Recipes, Stories, and More (Libraries Unlimited, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for this book?

I remember the first spark for this book, I was in graduate school at the University of Iowa and I discovered a newly released book by Ellin Greene, Clever Cooks; A Concoction of Stories, Charms, Recipes and Riddles (William Morrow, o.p.). The book shared many of my favorite folktales and paired each with a recipe or food item.

I spent days baking bread and making “nail soup.” I discovered variant fairytales (beyond the oft cited Cinderella) in “The Old Woman and the Tramp” collected in this book, Nail Soup by Margo and Harve Zemach, and Stone Soup, a tale popularized by Marcia Brown. Later Greene’s book went out of print and I found others such as Carol MacGregor’s The Fairy Tale Cookbook (Macmillan, 1982; o.p.), but the books that followed did not seem to have the narrative about story or storyteller that I wanted.

I have learned to love the back story of any tale–the connections between story and writer. And since food and story are such close companions (how many family reunions have you been at where the stories and food were overflowing?), I loved those connections as well.

My daughter, Deborah, had become an adult and a master of the culinary arts (cooking, baking, developing recipes). And she had a love and interest in the books of children’s and young adult literature that lined our home library’s walls. It was easy to discuss books with her as she had a very good knowledge of all of my favorites.

So when Barbara Ittner, an editor at Libraries Unlimited, suggested that I combine food and story in a future book, it did not take me long to agree. That conversation resulted in Authors in the Kitchen: Recipes, Stories, and More (Libraries Unlimited, 2005) and eventually this companion volume, Authors in the Pantry: Recipes, Stories, and More (Libraries Unlimited, 2007).

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

Well, the spark to publication was years in the making but from Barbara and my conversation the book came together in a matter of eighteen months or so.

I can’t really remember when I actually began by putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) as so much of my writing goes on in my head as I drive to town, wait for grandchildren to emerge from a sports practice, or travel on a plane. I think about format and layout as I must picture the book and its structure before I ever begin. Then I selected those authors/illustrators that I wanted to include for one reason or another.

This was a chance to include book people that I wanted. I thought about connections to their books–and sometimes when I could not readily ascertain one I asked the author.

For example, I love Ashley Bryan‘s work and I consider him my friend. So I knew that I had to include him (Authors in the Kitchen) so I contacted him and he promptly pointed me to a reference to sweet potato pie and bread pudding in Turtle Knows Your Name (Atheneum, 1989). But he said, “I’m no hand at cooking.” And so he directed me to his sister Elaine Martindale who “would answer any questions you might wish to know.”

Now it was not imperative that we had the family recipes for any of the dishes as Deborah could create and develop recipes that we needed, but given an opportunity to have a recipe from the author’s family was an opportunity not to be missed. Elaine Martindale did send along some recipes handed down from their own “Mama,” a woman who knew how to cook and who had emigrated from the West Indies. And Martindale commented about her brother, “Ashley had no time or interest in cooking. He was too busy drawing and writing.”

My favorite recipe in the entire Author in the Kitchen book is probably the recipe (developed by Deborah) for “Jenny’s Hot Marshmallow Cheesecake with Raspberry Fudge Sauce” (The Island of the Skog by Steven Kellogg (Dial, 1973)). Full of calories? Yes! But the book is not meant as a diet book. You’ll find lots of recipes for cookies, pastas, soups, and an variety of other foods all carefully indexed (but not categorized).

Readers (librarians, teachers, and students) wrote telling me of the spaghetti and book celebrations they held, the literary luncheons that became part of teacher baby showers, book club gatherings, and other celebrations of food and story. The book was such fun to write and I had an entire page filled with names and stories of others that I wanted to write about–so I did. A short eighteen months later (in the middle of 2006) I was able to finish the manuscript for Authors in the Pantry.

Sue Alexander shared her family’s recipe for fudge–a recipe that we tied to Goblin’s (and her son Marc’s) love of fudge (Witch Goblin and Ghost are Back (Knopf, 1985)).

And there is Pickle Chiffon Pie as an accompaniment to Roger Bradfield‘s book, Pickle Chiffon Pie (Purple House Press, 2004). This is not Bradfield’s recipe as he did not have one. The idea of pickle chiffon pie was simply a literary device, but it was a device that I have used many times to entice children and adults into trying something different and into reading a wonderful literary tale that they will return to time after time. Originally published in the 1960s, I was delighted that the book was reissued by Purple House Press (2004) and thus became “eligible” for the book. Even toddlers will try Pickle Chiffon Pie–except my four-year-old granddaughter who informed me that she wasn’t sure about the sprinkling of pickle relish on the top of the pie. Kylie said, “Grandma, the kind of pickles I like are round or straight up.” She did manage to put aside the sprinkling and eat the rest of the pie.

Joseph Bruchac sent along his favorite blueberry pancake recipe from his wife Carole’s recipe box, and Betsy Byar‘s told about her family’s love for a chocolate mayonnaise cake – a recipe her daughter brought home from a teenage slumber party. The cake shows up in Byar’s The Pinballs (HarperCollins, 1987) and the recipe is in Authors in the Pantry as does the recipe for Deborah Hopkinson‘s father’s baking powder biscuit recipe–a recipe she also made use of in book three of the Prairie Skies triology, Our Kansas Home (Alladin, 2003).

But the best part of compiling and writing this book was the excuse to talk to some of my favorite authors, find story and food connections, and then the cooking. Every recipe had to be tested (and tasted) and tested again. While Deborah did much of the cerebral work, I was excellent on the tasting side of things.

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

Really, there were no glitches. The most challenging part was keeping all the comments, recipes, ideas together in one file for each author/illustrator–and deciding which recipes, authors, stories, and anecdotes stayed and which ones had to go. And just the immense amount of time to verify and test each recipe.

We did not set out to create a book of healthful foods–our primary goal was to make connections. We were not even concerned about balancing the recipes between breakfast items, snack foods, dinner entrées and so forth. We felt readers would find their own place to use the foods and anecdotes.

The book is also not a child’s cookbook–it’s a book for all those who love literature for young readers–a book to help make connections between story and food. For example in Carol Gorman‘s chapter we feature a recipe for spaghetti on a shoestring as Luther in Stumptown Kid (Peachtree, 2005) is homeless and often has to eat on the cheap. This connection can be utilized when one actually cooks spaghetti for a meal of some sort OR the chapter can be read aloud on the day the school cafeteria is serving spaghetti as the entrée for the day.

Your byline is listed along with Deborah L. McElmeel. What part did she play? How did you two connect?

(LOL) We connected the day she was born while my husband and I watched Wilma Rudolph (Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull and David Diaz (Harcourt, 1996)) run in the Olympics.

Much like Wilma Rudolph she is a strong determined woman who has many talents. She is a dedicated science teacher, a superb cook and baker, a talented artist (she also created the drawings in the book). She is the culinary expert that made it feasible to create the book. I researched and wrote the book but she had the last word on the recipes.

Her expertise was absolutely necessary in some portions of the book – for example, Cynthia, I just had to connect a tofu dish with Greg Leitich Smith‘s Tofu and T. Rex (Little Brown, 2005) but I DO NOT eat tofu. Luckily, Deborah does and the recipe for baked tofu bites and a second recipe for tofu and rice stuffed red peppers seemed just the right recipes for the Cynthia Leitich Smith and Greg Leitich Smith pages (pages 159-165). Of course we also nodded to your love of chocolate with a recipe for Dark-Chocolate-Covered Strawberries. I did taste test those. (LOL)

Briefly, could you highlight some of your other recent books and give us a sense of the focus of each?

In the past few years I have had published several reference books that seem to be mainstays in many public and school libraries. Children’s Authors and Illustrators Too Good to Miss: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies (Libraries Unlimited, 2004) was an opportunity to include many authors who were either new to the world of children’s literature or who for whatever reason were suddenly on the radar of librarians and teachers after years of work in the field–those “overnight successes” that took years in the making.

Many of the well-known standards had already been included in my two earlier reference titles, 100 Most Popular Children’s Authors: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies (Libraries Unlimited, 1999) and 100 Most Popular Picture Book Authors and Illustrators (Libraries Unlimited, 2000). In each of these books, I attempted to include material that would help young readers understand the genesis of a writer or illustrator’s work.

Teachers at a seminar in Oklahoma City suggested I write a book providing titles for teachers (and parents) to use in their character education curriculum. I found many wonderful books to share and ended up writing a 220 page book, Character Education: A Book Guide for Teachers, Librarians and Teachers (Libraries Unlimited, 2002). It is filled with hundreds of book citations and summaries. But because I did not want educators or parents to use the book in a didactic manner I felt some of the book had to be devoted to general strategies for using the books within the character education focus.

I was gratified when School Library Journal said, “This book stands out from others of its type because of its excellent introduction that talks about character education in general, specifics related to the home and classroom, as well as a consideration of various formats and genres; its brevity that makes it a useful planning resource without being overwhelming; and its thorough index of titles, authors, and concepts. A boon for librarians as well as for parents who are home schooling or organizing group projects.” I just recently wrote an article for Library Sparks that is an outgrowth of this book. The character education article will be published in the August/September 2007 issue of Library Sparks.

I write a regular monthly column–featuring one book and myriad of curriculum connections, for Library Sparks, “In the Spotlight,” and a every other month column “Between the Pages” for School Library Media Activities Monthly as well as teach in the distance education graduate program at the University of Wisconsin–Stout. I teach a course in children’s literature and another one in Young Adult literature.

It was the latter course that spurred me to co-author a frequently up-dated text with David Loertscher and Mary Ann Harlan, Young Adult Literature and Multimedia: A Quick Guide (Hi Willow, 2006). The book is just what I wanted as a core for my class as I really want the participants to actually read literature not just read about the books. The Best Teen Reads (Hi Willow, 2007) is a companion to the text and is an outgrowth of my many seminars updating teachers and librarians about the recent titles. The book contains brief summaries, author tidbits, and updated information on the major awards.

I also edit a series of books being published by Libraries Unlimited. The series, Author and You, have thus far featured: Gerald McDermott, Alma Flor Ada, Toni Buzzeo, Jim Aylesworth, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, Mary Casanova, Bob Barner, Jane Kurtz, and soon will include Deborah Hopkinson.

Each of those books feature the author/illustrator’s own reflections on his/her life and writing, but each on is unique. Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s for example is really a writing workshop in a book. She has so many great ideas for involving young writers in actual writing. Jane Kurtz provides a compelling account of her years growing up in Ethiopia, as the daughter of missionaries. If anyone ever characterizes my childhood as rural that person must read about hers. Her life is just as colorful as is her writing. Bob Barner’s art is clearly the motivator for reading his book but it will help connect readers of all ages to his wonderful non-fiction picture books.

You also have designed and developed a number of author sites. Could you tell us more about your efforts in this area?

The websites are an outgrowth of the work I do as director of McBookwords, a literacy organization. It’s the diversion from meeting someone else’s deadlines for writing. We are very selective about the websites we agree to develop and maintain. Those we do create and maintain are the sites of some of my very favorite people in the world of children’s books: Jim Aylesworth, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, Carol Gorman, Laurie Lawlor, Barbara Santucci, Jane Kurtz, and Craig Brown.

But with that said we have tried to solicit and develop two-to-three sites each year so we are always looking for authors or illustrators who want a practical organized site. We avoid frames and glitz that bog down computers in schools and other public access points. We want all of our sites to load quickly. Any glitz must have a real purpose. But I think we have managed to create several interesting and attractive sites.

Some sites we develop and then pass on to others to maintain. We try to tailor each site to the author/artist’s personality and books and to add some added value to the site for educators and parents. Each site is beyond the “buy this book” type of site but rather offers collaborative booklists, background information about author or illustrator and the story or people in the stories.

McBookwords also works with a select group of authors/illustrators to schedule author appearances in various community/educational venues. Our main goal here is to work as a liaison with the appearance hosts (schools, libraries, conference directors) to make sure the appearance is not THE event but rather the frosting on the cake of a well-thought out focus on great books for young readers. Of course more about both the website development and the author bookings can be found on the website.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Ummm! Besides traveling to consult in schools/communities to promote literacy and all things reading–I dabble in piecing quilts for family and friends. And…

The mother of one of my granddaughters and I operate an Internet gift shop, Blue Button Gifts. We spend time (read that to say “shopping”–a favorite activity as long as it’s not for clothes) creating unique packages of themed gifts, much like we would put together for our personal friends. We make an Iowa connection to each gift–that’s fun research.

For example, Iowa has the most golf courses, per capita, of any state in the nation, so of course we have to have some golf themed packages. Our state flower is the wild rose and prairie violets are abundant in the fields and yards during the spring and summer so we have commissioned soaps, and lotions with those unique floral scents. Towels and wash cloths with a rose or violet theme round out each package. We have Iowa-shaped cutting boards, Iowa cookie cutters, and apple motif items (since the Red Delicious apple did originate here). And since the ladybug has been proposed (but not approved) as the state’s official insect we have several ladybug themed gifts–even a ladybug umbrella. With each package we offer to include a book (picked by our readers’ advisors, especially for the recipient)–sometimes autographed, and send it along in a gift package. Anything to promote reading and books.

Aren’t you sorry you asked? Of course I love time with family and books. I never seem to have enough time for everything I want to do.

What can your readers look forward to next?

Right this minute, I am working on a forthcoming book that will focus on recent picture books that can be effectively used with older readers, middle grades and older. The working title is Picture That! Picture This!–but if readers have an idea for a jazzier title it’d be fun to hear them.
Is there anything you would like to add?

Just that if we are truly serious about building a nation of readers we must be sincere about surrounding children (and adults) with literacy–and moving beyond the inane testing mentality. Reading makes better readers (not tests). It is not enough that we write books and put them in schools and libraries, we must get them into the hands of readers. We must promote the importance of actual reading.

We must walk the talk (or read the book)–for example:

• Include a book with every baby gift given.

• Make sure your house is a “book house”–that visitors see books on the hearth, the coffee table and books that are actually read in your book shelves. (Are the bookshelves more prominent than the television?)

• Inquire of friends and family, “What book are you reading now?”

• Include books for every gift giving occasion–Love Is… by Wendy Halperin for weddings and bridal showers–sure give them the towel set but add the book; bake a cookie tin full of gingerbread men and send along as a family gift, with a copy of Jim Aylesworth‘s The Gingerbread Man. Be creative share your favorite books.

• Teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles must read aloud to and with younger readers or other family members. Read a newspaper article, a poem, a short story, a book.

Of course, there are many other opportunities for putting books in the hands of readers–we just must all move out of our classrooms and living rooms and begin to spread the joy of reading wherever we can. Bits and pieces about what I am doing are sporadically posted on my blog–news in the world of children’s books and more.

Just for fun I thought I might share one of my favorite recipes from Authors in the Pantry: Recipes, Stories or More. Robin Pulver grew up in Phelps, New York–“the sauerkraut capital of the world” and has many memories of the hazy blue-green cabbage fields rippling in the horizon. And she loves dark chocolate so we thought it was a good match to include our version of a moist chocolate cake that has sauerkraut as a major ingredient. Here’s an unusual use of sauerkraut—in a delicious chocolate cake.

“Sauerkraut Chocolate Cake Supreme”

In a large mixing bowl, cream together:
• 2/3 cup butter
• 1 1/2 cups sugar
• 3 large or 4 medium eggs, beaten
• 1 teaspoon vanilla

In a second bowl combine dry ingredients:
• 1/2 cup cocoa
• 2 1/4 cups flour
• 1 teaspoon baking powder
• 1/4 teaspoon salt

Slowly combing the dry ingredients with the butter-sugar mixture, alternately adding a portion of the dry ingredients with 1 cup water.

When butter mixture and dry ingredients are thoroughly combined, gently fold in:
• 2/3 cup chopped sauerkraut, drained

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour two 8- or 9- inch cake pans. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Frost the cake with a cream cheese or buttercream frosting.

From Authors in the Pantry: Recipes, Stories, and More by Sharron L. McElmeel (Libraries Unlimited, 2007), page 189. For a bibliography of “sauerkraut books” see page 190 of the book.