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What first inspired you to write across forms in children’s-YA literature?
Well, I’ve always loved children’s literature at all levels. However, here is the story of how I specifically came to writing one idea three ways.
Like many writers, poetry was my first love–as far as the written word is concerned. I’d had a number of my poems for adults published in literary journals and taught creative writing at the local community college.
So, when Cynthia Rylant‘s When I Was Young in the Mountains, illustrated by Diane Goode (Dutton, 1982) came out in the first part of the 1980s . . . I was incensed! She’d written my story, the one I kept thinking I’d get around to writing one day.
At any rate, she moved me to write a poem about going to Kentucky (from Michigan) to visit my grandparents when I was young, which I did almost every summer. So I wrote a poem about all the things I loved in the Appalachian mountains of southeast Kentucky.
When I took it to my poetry critique group, they said it sounded like there was more to the story. Perhaps it was a kid’s book? Hmmm, I thought.
So I wrote a picture book from this poem. When I showed it to some friends, and submitted to Joan W. Blos‘ editor (Newbery winner Joan is another Ann Arborite and a friend.), the response I got back was that it felt like there was more to my main character’s story.
Hmm . . . I started a novel which became Spitting Image (Clarion, 2003).
In the meantime, I had submitted “Melvin, Me, and Morning Glory” (the original title of My Mountain Song, illustrated by Ted Rand (Clarion, 2004)) to the Writer’s Digest annual contest. It came in 17th place among a field of tens of thousands! That made me more confident with it. So I sent it to Clarion.
At home, I was busily working on the extended version, the novel. One day I got a call, and I crabbily answered the phone. I’d been interrupted a zillion times already that day.
It turned out to be Dinah Stevenson from Clarion with an offer on the picture book. Great!
I quickly apologized for being so gruff on the phone, but explained that I’d been working on a novel all day and had gotten many interruptions.
She said, “no problem” and asked what the novel was about.
So I told her, and she said, “Send it to me when you finish.”
I was flabbergasted! This was my first novel attempt! I didn’t even know if I could finish a first draft yet–I hadn’t gotten that far.
She said not to worry. Just send it when I got it finished.
A year or so later, I sent her Spitting Image, which they bought as well.
In the course of things, the novel came out first, since we did not need an illustrator. It took four years for the picture book to come out as we were waiting for Ted Rand to get to it–a perfect choice. Well worth waiting for.
To sum it up: a poem became a picture book became a novel; however, the novel was published before the picture book. I have never submitted the poem anywhere yet.
In this case, it was poetry that facilitated the longer books. And poetry is what I believe should be at the core of all writing.
What have you learned from writing in a variety of formats?
The formats I mostly write in are poetry, picture book (poetry and prose), the chapter book, and the middle-grade novel. In addition, I do write some articles for professional publications.
If I were to say that one type of writing informed another that I do, I would have to say that poetry has had the greatest impact on all my writing. We write so our readers will enjoy what we have written. And if we can write with a sense of poetry–a feeling for the musicality of the language (rhythm, sound)–whatever we write will be much more elegant, pared down, to the point and enjoyable. This happens even if the reader is not aware of it. I would even say this is important for nonfiction, though I do not write nonfiction except for magazine articles.
There are certain conventions in western literature that we often take for granted. The series of three in kids’ books (except for in certain cultures, such as Native American). If we veer too far from this there can be a sense on the reader’s part that the telling is somehow awkward, though the reader may not be able to pinpoint what that is.
And if the writing includes rhythmic and internal rhyme, there is something pleasing about that to the ear that makes it all seem to flow, often without the reader consciously aware of it.
A little more than half my picture books are in verse. But looking at all my prose books, from the picture book to the novel, I’ve found that those manuscripts needed an amassing of emotion at certain turning points. That emotion is more memorable because I used strong alliteration, onomatopoeia, simile, metaphor or other poetical techniques–even caesura–at those points.
And in a novel, the recurring use of symbols can be an especially useful tool.
Symbols and metaphors are short cuts that allow the writer to keep the text short but get the full impact. And strong similes can pack an emotional punch. One of my favorites is by M.T. Anderson from his novel, The Game of Sunken Places (Scholastic, 2004). “About time you struck out on your own, instead of sticking to your friend like a tapeworm in a dowager’s belly.”
So when I come to a tight spot in a novel, I try to relax and think, how would I write this if it were a poem? Do I need something visual on the page–a break? A chant, a quote, a bit of poetry written as such? In my book Thomas and the Dragon Queen, illustrated by Lee Wildish (Knopf, 2010), there are several places where I invoke the use of the poetical line, such as in the scene where Thomas must swear fealty to his king.
As far as the picture book translating directly to the novel, this only happens for me when I have a main character that I have not had room to develop fully in the picture book. (As in the instance above with My Mountain Song.)
Characters do need to be fully developed in a picture book, but it is of the moment–like a snapshot. A novel is more like a whole photo album, and we see the character(s) in many situations.
As for the novel translating directly to a picture book, I have not had that experience yet. However, I see where it could happen. I can envision several scenes from my novels that could be played out in very specific detail, but in fewer words than in a novel.
Again, that is where poetry comes in handy. One can get very detailed with few words and let one example stand for the many.
What do you think about the pressure on authors to brand themselves by writing a certain kind of book?
Like many authors, I do not think it is a good thing for an author to be “branded,” though I do understand why some publishers do it.
Personally, I get very bored doing the same old thing. I don’t know if I could do a series. I am trying to write a follow-up book to Thomas and the Dragon Queen and am not sure I will be able to finish it.
We writers are like any other artists–we love variety. I do mosaics and quilt art. I have never been able to do a repeat of either. I even have a hard time when I want to use a traditional quilt design. I always end up changing something–making it my own.
We need to follow the whims of our hearts–wherever that takes us. In fact, I sold a “fantasy” picture book about a toddler who creates the world to Disney/Hyperion, a couple of years ago. It is in process now and was based on an old African-American chant. I am looking forward to its eventual publication.
The Writing Across Formats interviews were originally conducted in support of a keynote address by Cynthia Leitich Smith at a fall 2009 SCBWI-Illinois conference.