Author Feature: Marilyn Singer

Marilyn Singer on Marilyn Singer:

“I have written over eighty books in many genres for toddlers to teens, as well as articles, poetry for adults, teaching guides, filmstrips, film notes and catalogs. I like to write lots of different stuff because it’s challenging and it keeps me from getting bored.

“For four years I taught high school English. I have a B. A. from Queens College and an M. A. from NYU. I am the former host of the AOL Children’s Writers Chat and the current co-host of the ALSC Poetry Blast at the ALA annual conference, which will be going into its sixth year in 2009. In addition, I have appeared as both a participant and as a moderator on many panels at ALA and other conferences.

“My current interests include: ballroom/Latin dance; dog training; birdwatching; hiking; going to the theatre and seeing films; and reading. I live in Brooklyn, New York; with my husband Steve Aronson, our standard poodle Oggi, a cat named August, two doves, and a talking starling named Darling.”

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

Some kids have imaginary friends. I invented characters. What I mean by that is that I made up beings that I knew were made up, specifically Lightey the Lightning Bug and his friends. I’d sit in the bathroom, flashing a flashlight on the ceiling, and telling stories about them. Many years later, I wrote those stories down.

Then I wrote more stories and realized that they might appeal to kids. From that batch came my first picture book, The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn’t (Dutton, 1979).

I sold The Lightey Stories later on as a novel (The Lightey Club (Four Winds, 1987). I remember very well being a kid—in my heart I still am—so that’s why I like writing for us…them…us.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any bumps or stumbles along the way?

Well, my path was actually smooth at the beginning. I was fortunate enough to have my first book accepted quickly—as well as my next two books.

But then things got bumpier. A lot bumpier. In fact, you name a bump, and I’ve gone over it: books that were delayed or canceled for a variety of reasons ranging from illustrations that didn’t work out to imprints that folded; books that did get published, but didn’t sell well; long stretches without sales so that I’ve contemplated trying to find another career; editors who left, resulting in books in limbo or those lack of sales, etc.

Actually, I think that editors leaving is a particularly big bump. I believe that the relationship a writer has with an editor is extremely important. Your editor is your mentor and advocate, and to lose her or him can be traumatic. Over the years, many of my editors have moved on (I hope I didn’t push ’em into it), and it never gets easier when they do. Although they’re irreplaceable, there are other editors who become new mentors and advocates.

So, with all the bumps, I keep riding along, changing tires as necessary, consulting a map, trying not to lean too much on my horn.

You’ve published more than 80 books for children and young adults! How did you do it? What is your writing schedule like?

I don’t know how I did it. I’m not joking. I mean, I know that I have a lot of ideas and that I write a lot—pretty much every weekday, but with no fixed hours—and that I’ve met a lot of editors over the years who have been encouraging.

One thing I do know is that I am persistent. If a manuscript is rejected, I send it elsewhere, and I keep working on other things. Jane Yolen (author interview) has been a great role model for me—she believes in sending out lots of manuscripts to better your chances of making a sale. I think she once said you’ve got to have a dozen out there to sell one.

But, to be honest, it’s kind of a mystery to me where many of my ideas came from and how I turned them into manuscripts. Some of those have been published, but I’ve got loads of manuscripts that haven’t been.

Do you work with a critique group? If not, who are your early readers?

When I first started writing, I went to the Bank Street Writers’ Lab, a critique group which was very helpful to me.

I don’t have a group now, but I do have some trusted critics. Number One is my husband, Steve Aronson, who doesn’t mince words. For poetry, I sometimes ask some of my talented poet friends such as Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Kristine O’Connell George, and Joanne Ryder for their honest opinion—and they tell it to me straight.

Looking back, which three of your books are closest to your heart and why?

That’s a tough question to answer, but the three that immediately come to mind are: The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn’t, because it was my first published book; Turtle in July (Simon & Schuster, 1989), my first poetry collection; and The First Few Friends (HarperCollins, 1981), a young adult novel about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, which got really good reviews and probably sold about three copies. It was about the sixties, published in the eighties, and probably before its time in terms of what was acceptable YA literature.

What was most useful to you in developing your craft on various fronts? What, if anything, do you wish you’d done differently?

Well, obviously, reading great writers is always valuable. Good critique groups are, too—so the Bank Street Writers’ Lab was really important to me. I was a member for a number of years at the beginning of my career.

The immensely talented editors I’ve had have been incredibly helpful. For example, Simone Kaplan basically taught me how to write very young picture books. Debby Pool, formerly of Carus Publications, showed me how to write non-fiction articles, which was useful in writing longer non-fiction books. Liz Gordon, my editor at Harper for a long time, never let me get away with being self-conscious or mushy in my novels.

There are so many more fab editors I’ve known—too many to mention. I can’t stress enough how helpful editors can be, and that any writer worth her/his salt will always process their advice and be willing to revise.

Off hand, I can’t think of anything I would’ve done differently, except being born rich, the better to support my writing habit.

Could you please update us on your recent back list, highlighting as you see fit?

Let’s see. City Lullaby, a picture book published by Clarion and illustrated by Carll Cneut, got a great review in the New York Times and made Time Magazine’s list of the top ten children’s books of 2007.

Venom, a non-fiction book about venomous and poisonous animals, published by Darby Creek last year, won an Orbis Pictus Honor Book award.

Another non-fiction book, Eggs (Holiday House, 2008), with gorgeous illustrations by Emma Stevenson, came out this spring and has gotten quite good reviews.

So, I’m pretty happy about my recent back list.

Congratulations on the publication of Shoe Bop!, illustrated by Hiroe Nakata (Dutton, 2008) and First Food Fight This Fall and Other School Poems, illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa (Sterling, 2008)! Let’s start with Shoe Bop! What was your initial inspiration for the story?

Most times I come up with my own ideas for books, but sometimes my editors suggest ideas. Lucia Monfried and Margaret Woollatt of Dutton Books were looking for a manuscript for Hiroe Nakata to illustrate and asked me to write a collection of poems with a connecting storyline in prose about a little girl going shoe shopping, so I did. I had fun visiting children’s shoe stores in my neighborhood for inspiration.

What was the timeline between spark and publication?

Because Hiroe Nakata was already signed up, the book came out quite quickly—under two years, I believe. That is an atypical situation. It can take a long time to find an illustrator and then get on that illustrator’s schedule.

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

Well, I’m not a big shoe shopper, but I do understand how any shopper can be both excited and daunted by a huge variety of something. And I do like the possibilities that shoes suggest.

The challenges involved researching that variety and those possibilities and writing the poems in the voice of a young girl. I’m always conscious of voice and being consistent with it.

Another challenge was connecting the poems with a short prose through-line. I’d never done that before. Lucia and Margaret were particularly helpful in making sure I did a good job with that.

Funnily enough, when I started working on the book, my husband and I began to take ballroom/Latin dance lessons (which we’re still doing!), and I bought my first pair of dance shoes with special suede soles for moving easily on the floor. That helped me understand shoe shopping the most.

What did Hiroe’s art bring to your text?

I love Hiroe’s art. It’s got the right zip and palette, and the characters are terrific. Her shoes make me want to buy shoes!

Now, let’s move onto First Food Fight This Fall and Other School Poems! How did that topic come to you?

This book had quite a different genesis from Shoe Bop!

Many moons ago, I had a wonderful editor named Michele Coppola, who has since left publishing.

We were sitting on a plane together, returning from the ALA conference, and I seem to recall talking about last days of school, first days of summer, or something to that effect.

Michele said, “That would make a great book.”

We discussed it the whole flight home. I turned the conversation into a manuscript. But it didn’t entirely work for Michele, so she never published it.

Much later on, I showed it to another brilliant editor, Meredith Mundy Wasinger at Sterling, and she suggested that I make it the final poem in a collection of poems about school. That was the spark I needed. I created characters, each of whom has an arc—growing, developing during the course of a school year—and I used different poetic forms for their voices.

I had a great time writing this book, though it was certainly challenging. Meredith pushed me in all the right directions.

Again, what was the timeline?

This one took quite a while. From the time I finished the poems to the time my publisher found an illustrator was several years alone.

And again, what were the challenges?

As I said, school is a universal topic, which is both good and bad. It’s easy to fall into clichés, which I did not want to do.

So I focused on the characters instead and let them tell me their stories and lead me to the poems. Creating unique voices for each was tricky, as was writing in so many forms.

And what did you think of Sachiko’s illustrations?

She outdid herself! I love them so much that I’m buying a piece of the art. Sachiko did collages for each. I’m going to buy the school bus piece, which has appliqué flowers and other items on it.

What advice do you have for those writing poetry for children?

Whenever I’m asked this, I always say the obvious—read a lot and write a lot.

Be observant, be idiosyncratic. Every good poet will tell you the same thing: a poem has to make the reader see something in a new way. But to do that, the poet has to have seen it in a new way herself/himself.

On my web site, I’ve posted Ten Tips for Writing Poetry.

What other thoughts would you like to share on the topic of poetry for young readers?

I like to laugh a lot, but I don’t think that all poetry for kids has to be funny. And I don’t think it’s all about wordplay either. I think it’s really necessary to look at the world through your own eyes (and other senses) and to convey that to readers.

I also believe that sometimes kids are more sophisticated than adults give them credit for. Poetry can be indirect, but kids can often understand the metaphorical in their hearts before their minds get it. That doesn’t mean a poet writing for children should be abstruse. It means not dumbing down your writing. It’s a neat trick to be both clear and figurative.

What advice do you have for those authors whose body of work includes many different kinds of books?

I don’t want to wag a finger, but I really do think that if you’re going to write in different genres, you need to take each of them seriously and hone your craft in each. Then you have to encourage your publishers to use the word “versatile” as often as possible and hope the critics use it, too.

If you could go back in time and talk to your beginning-writer self, what would you tell her?

This is an interesting and difficult question to answer. Because things went smoothly at the beginning, I would say that I didn’t realize how rocky the road was going to get.

So, if I could go back in time, I would tell myself that there’d be lots of ruts ahead, but to never forget—and you will forget sometimes—that you really do love the destination (and, often, the journey) and to keep driving.

What can your readers expect from you next?

I have quite a few more poetry books coming out, including: one about holidays for dogs; another featuring a poetry form that I invented; a third about kids’ games and play; a fourth called A Full Moon Is Rising, a world tour with a full moon as the star; and last, but not least, The Boy Who Cried Alien, a science fiction tale told through poems, some of which are in a made up alien language.

Also being published are a board book and several picture books, including Check-Up, about visiting the doctor; I’m Your Bus, with a school bus protagonist; Tallulah’s Tutu, about a girl in ballet class; and What Is Your Dog Doing?, which asks and answers that question.