Author Interview: Shutta Crum on A Family for Old Mill Farm

Shutta Crum is an award-winning writer of books for children and poetry for adults, as well as a storyteller and a youth librarian who was awarded the Michigan Library Association‘s Award of Merit as Michigan’s youth librarian of the year for 2002. She is also an educator who taught writing at the college level, as a high school English teacher, and to third-graders under the auspices of the Michigan Council for the Arts. In addition to writing, she does author talks and leads writing workshops for writers of all ages, for classroom teachers, and for librarians.

She is the author of eight picture books, one novel, many published poems, several magazine articles, as well as three forthcoming books. Her books have graced state lists, or the Bank Street College‘s Children’s Books of the Year lists as well as other prestigious lists. Shutta was also honored by being one of eight authors invited to read at the 2005 White House Easter Egg Roll.

We last spoke in August 2005 about the release of The Bravest of the Brave, illustrated by Tim Bowers (Knopf, 2005). Do you have any updates for us on the book?

Since we last spoke The Bravest of the Brave has won a Children’s Choice award for 2006, and it made the Chicago Public Library‘s Best of the Best list.

Perhaps the thing I am most tickled about is when I run across information that The Bravest of the Brave has been donated to a school or library in honor of one of our soldiers. It seems to be making the rounds of military families and libraries. That’s so cool!

Congratulations on the release of A Family for Old Mill Farm, illustrated by Niki Daly (Clarion, 2007)! Could you tell us a little about this new title?

Ha! I have to laugh when you say, “tell us a little about this new title,” for this book is very autobiographical. Twenty-five years ago we started looking for our place in the country. It took us almost three years to find it. Now, twenty-two years later, a very personal book has come out. So…it’s hard to put all that into a few lines.

But, let me try…the format is two alternating stories. Basically, the plot revolves around a young couple with a son who want to move into a bigger house because they are due to have a second child. The human realtor they work with, based on their responses to each house shown, takes them to a series of remarkable, but inappropriate, houses. In the meantime, in the alternate story, there is a raccoon realtor who finds very comfy homes for his customers at an old run-down farm. Of course, our human couple finally finds that the charms of Old Mill Farm are also “perfect” for their family.

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

Well, let’s not count the “research years,” the 22 years we spent fixing this place up, or the three years we spent finding it! I think I started the manuscript sometime in mid-2002. I signed a contract for the sale in May of 2003. That’s when the real work on it began! It came out in June of 2007, four years after it was sold.

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

Here I have to take a deeeeeeeep breath! OMF (Old Mill Farm) was probably the most difficult book I’ve ever written. It took many months of rewrites, it took cutting up the manuscript and rearranging (by me and my editor), it took a grid outline used by my editor to keep track of where we were. And when I had to explain the format to a group of adults at the book launch, I designed a sort-of Cliff’s Notes for it. (See image.) Of course it can be enjoyed without the Cliff Notes…it’s just that talking about the writing of it was easier with an outline of the plot.

The problem was that I got myself into a great deal of work with the format. It is written in rhyme with a specific meter, and some repeated refrains. It has two inter-connecting plots, and there had to be a logical sequence of houses that were based on the responses of the humans. Further, those responses would need to be reflected in the homes that were found by the raccoon realtor for his customers—otherwise why have the animals at all? Then, at the end, it all had to come together. Whew!

Little did I realize the rewriting problems I’d run into with this! First off, I had started my story with the animal plot line. The publisher, Clarion, wanted it to start with the humans. Rightly so. After all, as readers we identify most with their plight and I needed to start there. Duh! I wish I had realized that early on. Because what happens when you suddenly have to flip-flop all the connections between the two inter-looping stories? And it’s in rhyme! Of course, the whole thing had to be rewritten to get new rhymes for the redirection of the action, and the rotation of the houses in a different order. (This is where my editor’s grid came in handy. And a meter template.)

Did I let all that work stop me? Thank God, no—for I like the story very much. And I adore Niki Daly’s wonderfully energetic illustrations. Did I learn the KISS lesson—keep it simple? No.

Unfortunately, when I daydream new story ideas I can’t seem to keep from asking myself…but wouldn’t it be neat if this also happened. So, I’ve done it again. My agent has a new manuscript I’ve just submitted to her with a dual plot. There must be a streak of masochism in me!

Over the past two years, how have you grown as a writer?

For one thing, I can see a little more clearly how a manuscript has to grow. It doesn’t keep me from challenging myself with more and more difficult things to do—it just makes me less anxious, because I know from the start when a manuscript is going to require a lot more time. I’m in less of a hurry.

Also, I continue to grow in my respect and awe of good editors! It takes a great deal of persistence and elbow grease to bring out a story’s inner glow,…and I’d prefer to always do the really hard work with a good editor at my side. Marcia Leonard, who edited A Family for Old Mill Farm is talented and has the patience of a saint!

Additionally, I have to thank my critique group—a great group of writers—for forcing me to rethink lines, to look carefully at my word choices, and to power revise using the best verbs possible. The downside to this is that, since I’ve become a full-time writer, I’ve begun to feed my addiction for dictionaries and thesauri of all kind. They crowd my writing space and take up room on my favorites list.

Finally, I’m also at that point in my career where I am making more trips across the country to speak to new writers, teachers, and librarians. As a librarian, I’ve always loved sharing the joy of books. Now, I love to share the joy of writing, as well. And I am fortunate to be able to speak from a variety of experiences since I’ve worked with five publishers and many editors on a variety of formats. (I have a novel out with Clarion, Spitting Image (Clarion, 2003). And one of the new manuscripts I’m working on is a chapter book.)

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Don’t rush it! The heart of the story has to be there first, and sometimes it takes a while to discover what that is for each manuscript. It’s a bit like walking in someone else’s moccasins…you have to live with the story for a while to understand what it needs and where it wants to go.

What would you say specifically on the topic of writing picture books?

Ha! To that, I first have say that I’ve been contemplating writing a book about how to write a picture book—mostly because I get asked this so much!

Unfortunately many of the uninitiated assume it’s easy to do, simply because picture book texts are so short. Writing short isn’t easy! Think of Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address, or Robert Frost and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” If writing short were easy, we’d all be alongside haikuists Issa or Basho in the pantheon of beloved poets. Mark Twain said it best: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

So, number 1: get over the idea that it’s a slam-dunk—despite anything Billy Crystal has said. (We don’t all have his name.)

Number 2: Do your homework. (A lot of people do not want to hear this bit of advice.) This means: read a lot of picture books. Study the field. Know the classics, know the best sellers, know the authors that have pushed the envelope. Know where the format has been so you can boldly go where no other picture book has gone. There’s no shortcut for this! (It took me at least 18 years of being a youth librarian and storyteller before I began to consider writing for kids.)

What recent picture books would you suggest for study and why?

(These are not just picture books. You can learn a lot about writing for young children from all sorts of books.) I particularly like books that stand out from the crowd—that, as I said earlier, push the envelope. These include, but are not limited to…

–the books by Mo Willems. (To see how someone from the visual arts approaches the hard dimensionality of a book. To see how illustration and text are indivisible in a picture book.)

The Invention of Hugo Cabaret by Brian Selznick (Simon & Schuster, 2006). (To see how a master has inventively recreated the graphic novel.)

–all the books of M. T. Anderson. (He’s an American treasure—a seminal writer whose writing will effect the direction of children’s literature in the United States for many years. Why? His word choice, his range [Feed (Candlewick, 2002) and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party (Candlewick, 2006)(excerpt)], his humor, his way with a metaphor—awesome.)

–the books of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. (To see where boy-energy and outrageous fun can lead.)

–the books of Peggy Rathman. (To see how a picture book master manipulates plot with text and illustration. She handily puts the reader in control of information that is not available to all the characters in the book.)

–books published in other countries. (Taste a bit of the exotic—we are not the only game around, and the world is getting smaller by the minute.)

I could go on and on…but that would take too long. (Remember, I’m also a librarian.)

However, I do want to especially mention that writers of picture books should also study illustrators—to see how plot, characterization, and mood are manipulated by illustration, and to see what fun, creative things illustrators like Eric Rohmann, David Catrow, Janet Stevens, David McLimans, the Pinckneys, David Wiesner, and many, many others are doing—including many fine graphic-novel illustrators.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

t? Oops! It’s a crazy life whatever century you live it, so don’t obsess about it. Do what you feel like doing, as much as you feel like doing, and when the spirit moves you–dance.

I take on a few conferences and trips in the fall, try to keep my local base of support strong by doing very reasonably priced gigs for local groups, and I do allow myself to go crazy one month: National Reading Month–the month ALL teachers want you to visit. I will schedule more work at that time with the notion that I know I can survive one month of craziness on the road.

My husband is retired, so I do get to see a good deal of him. We travel a lot. (We were in Ireland this summer.) He writes poetry and is very supportive of my writing. We have two grandchildren nearby–I hit them up for doses of Vitamin “G” periodically. In-between, I write and I work on our farm. I also do other creative projects, like mosaics, three-dimensional doodling, or quilting to keep the ideas flowing. (To view some of my fun doodling, see my blog.)

I love color…it keeps me happy during the dreary winter months in Michigan. I’ve painted circles and triangles around the house. I have my own “playhouse” converted from our garage where I use life-giggly colors and fabrics. This is also where I have the hammock, so I can crash. (See photo—a most important piece of writing equipment! Every good book requires a few naps to dream up ideas.) It all keeps me sane…to some degree.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have two more picture books that are forthcoming from Clarion (Houghton Mifflin). Again, I will get to work with Marcia Leonard—YAY! She wasn’t frightened away by the contortions of my manuscript for OMF. I also sold a picture book to Hyperion/Jump at the Sun some time ago…I hope that will soon make its appearance. And I’ve got new work on the desks of some of my editors, and on my agent’s desk. I hope the work, and the joy I feel in it, never stops.

Ciao! Gotta go dance…