Author Interview: Susan Marie Swanson on To Be Like the Sun

Susan Marie Swanson on Susan Marie Swanson: “I learned to read and write and ride a bicycle in a small Illinois town on the edge of the Chicago area. It was a lucky place to grow up. I went into the city with my family and on school trips, but we lived on the edge of a cornfield where we could see the sun set from the kitchen window. The stars were bright in the sky.

“My town had a wonderful public library and a cozy bookstore, and I loved to visit those places by myself when I was young. My family moved to Minnesota when I was a teenager, and now I’ve lived most of my life in St. Paul. I write poetry and picture books, and I’ve been writing poetry with children for many years through my work in arts education programs. I’m fascinated by the place where poetry and children’s voices and books for children meet.”

Would you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer? How did you develop your skills?

I wrote as a child–poems, letters, scrapbook entries, a diary, stories–and during my college years I began to develop the strong sense of vocation that is with me still. I spent several years completing an MFA in poetry at University of Massachusetts Amherst in the late 1970s and early 80s, taking literature courses that had me reading writers from A.R. Ammons and Gwendolyn Brooks to Tarjei Vesaas and Virginia Woolf.

I spent many hours in workshops with a lively group of mentors and young writers. I remember going with friends to hear readings by Tomas Tranströmer, Maya Angelou, and Louise Glück. It was a rich, challenging time.

I read children’s literature during those years and did some writing for children, but I didn’t have any context for that work. That changed when I moved back to Minnesota. I began teaching with COMPAS Writers and Artists in the Schools in 1983, the same year that my first child was born. I was reading and writing with children in elementary schools, and I was reading and writing in the midst of family life. That set me on the path to writing for children.

How was your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Oh, paths to publication are all about sprinting and stumbling, aren’t they? My poetry for adults appeared in many publications in the 1970s and ’80s, including some of my favorite literary magazines, like Ironwood and American Poetry Review; and I was fortunate to be awarded several fellowships for my work as a poet.

My first publications in the field of children’s literature were reviews and critical essays. I wrote for Hungry Mind Review and then for Five Owls, Riverbank Review, and New York Times Book Review. Most recently, a piece I wrote about Astrid Lindgren appeared in The Horn Book Magazine (Nov/Dec 2007).

Dick Jackson published my first book, Getting Used to the Dark: 26 Night Poems, with lovely black and white illustrations by Peter Catalanotto (Richard Jackson/DK Publishing, 1997). “Trouble, Fly,” a poem from that collection, appears in Georgia Heard’s anthology This Place I Know: Poems of Comfort (Candlewick, 2002). Peter Catalanotto also illustrated my second book, a picture book called Letter to the Lake (Richard Jackson/DK Publishing, 1998).

The First Thing My Mama Told Me, a picture book illustrated by Christine Davenier, was a New York Times Best Illustrated Book and Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book (Harcourt, 2002). The Zolotow Honor has meant a lot to me. It is an award that honors picture book authors, from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Congratulations on the release of To Be Like the Sun, illustrated by Margaret Chodos-Irvine (Harcourt, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

I am so happy that To Be Like the Sun is in the world. The text of this book is addressed to a sunflower, beginning with the seed that a child is about to place in the ground: “Hello, little seed, / striped gray seed. / Do you really know everything / about sunflowers?”

Both my text and Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s artwork are concerned with patterns—the stripes on the seed, for example, and the rays of the sun, and the great cycle of the four seasons.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Two inspirations. First, real gardens with real sunflowers in them! We had a plot in the community gardens down by the railroad tracks near our city home, and of course we planted sunflowers. I remember taking a snapshot of my son standing by a flower that reached up over our heads.

The other inspiration was poetry. Our language is full of poems spoken to objects and individuals. Curious readers could thumb through Kenneth Koch‘s classic anthology of poems for young people, Talking to the Sun, and find many examples, including poems by Blake, Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and Frank O’Hara. Robert Herrick‘s poem of address in that volume begins, “Fair daffodils we weep to see / You haste away so soon.” I found my own way to speak to a flower.

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

My projects take shape slowly, and I’ve altogether given up trying to keep timelines for them! But in May 2005, when I was preparing to teach a university course in writing children’s literature, I went to observe a class taught by a friend, poet Deborah Keenan. She encouraged her students to stay connected with their older work.

Within a few days, I had sent the sunflower poem from my first book to Harcourt editor Jeannette Larson, with a letter asking if she thought it would work in a picture book. Before long, she wrote back to say yes. Later, Jeannette sent the revised and expanded piece to Margaret Chodos-Irvine. The two of them have worked together on a series of wonderful projects.

Now there’s starred review for To Be Like the Sun in Kirkus Reviews, and a picture from the book will be on the May cover of Book Links. We’re delighted.

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

Working with a series of drafts, writing and rewriting, I ask myself a lot of questions. How can I deepen and simplify my thinking and writing? What in my understandings about poetry can I bring to this text? Are the rhythms working when I read the work aloud? What knowledge of children’s lives and voices can I engage in this piece?

What did Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s illustrations bring to your text?

I am especially excited about the way that Margaret’s bold mixed-media prints reach out to everyone in the room when the book is read aloud. At the same time, patterns and details in the art reward a close look. In my text, a child’s perspective on experience is important, and in the art we see how that child stoops and stretches! And this is an artist who works beautifully with shapes, texture, and color.

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

I would tell myself, “Some of this work is going to be very difficult, even painful, but you can handle it.”

What do you do when you’re not in the book world?

I sing in a choir, and I enjoy going to concerts and the opera. Some of my favorite places in Minneapolis-St. Paul are the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota, where my family cheers on the women’s basketball team; and walkways along the Mississippi River.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m happy to tell you that To Be Like the Sun is one of two picture books written by me coming out this spring. The other is The House in the Night with inspired artwork by Beth Krommes (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)). It is a book about the night and the comforts of home–and the early reviews have had stars on them.