Career Builder: Phyllis Root

Phyllis with her daughter’s retired sled dog Cirrus

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Phyllis Root on Phyllis Root:

I was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and now live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I’ve been for the last thirty-seven years. I’ve been writing for children for thirty-two years and have published over forty books, including picture books, middle grade novels, and non-fiction.

Big Momma Makes the World, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Candlewick, 2002) won the Boston Globe Horn Book Award, and Aunt Nancy and Old Man Trouble, illustrated by David Parkins won a Minnesota book award.

Big Belching Bog, illustrated by Betsy Bowen (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) and Scrawny Cat, illustrated by Allison Friend (Candlewick, 2011) are my most recent books.

I have taught in the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults and now teach in the Hamline University MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. I have two grown daughters and two cats, and when I’m not writing or sailing or canoeing or hiking I love to work in my garden or look for wildflowers.

How do you define success?

Spike and Catalina help Phyllis write.

A successful day is one in which I write.

When I first started writing and sending manuscripts out, I thought if I sold a story I would feel like a successful writer. Then I thought if I sold a book I would feel like a writer. Then I thought, perhaps, if a book won a prize I would feel successful.

All those things have happened over
the years, and all have been wonderful, but the real success for me is putting butt in chair and writing the words I want to write, no matter how awful they may be. And if, in writing, I stumble onto a story that just might work well, whether or not it ever sees the publishing light of day, I am ecstatic.

Have you ever made an affirmative decision to alter my creative focus? What inspired this decision? What were the challenges?

One decision I made was to try writing a middle grade novel after many years of writing picture books. I wanted to try something different, which is, I think, a very good idea for writers; otherwise, I think it might be easy to end up plagiarizing myself.

Boyds Mills, 2010

Luckily, I had a story that really wanted to be written, about a young girl who worries about everything, her scientist parents, a very earnest great-uncle she is
sent to live with, and a flamboyant pirate lady who moves in next door.

The biggest challenge was to discover the arc of the story and what my main character, Lilly, really wanted as her heart’s desire. I would work on the story, put it away for long stretches of time, and then take it out and work on it again.

I made a visual map by cutting out paper and pasting it on a large poster board, which is how I discovered how deceptive the Shipwreck Islands could be. I wrote endless scenes to discover who my characters really were, which is how I learned that Great-uncle Earnest, town librarian of Mundelaine, really wanted to be a pirate. In other words, I followed my usual messy route from idea to story.

Through it all, the characters themselves kept me going—I loved them so much that I wanted to get their story down on paper.

Did you ever consider giving up?

I still do consider giving up now and again, but I do so less and less, even as the market seems to get tougher and tougher. I’m keenly aware of the practical drawbacks of writing as an occupation—no pension, no insurance, no sick pay, sometimes no pay at all.

But I have a very understanding boss (me), I know terrific fellow writers,
and I get to spend time mucking around with words and stories. I feel very very lucky (to misquote Paul Simon) to be still writing after all these years.

What advice do I have for the debut authors of 2012?

First of all, congratulations! You’ve created a book and sent it out into the world. There’s no telling who will read it or how it might change someone’s life, including you own.

You are courageous and persistent and you are, I hope, doing what you love. So my advice is to remember that you are writing because you love writing. Don’t be
distracted by the siren call of markets and “what’s hot” and how you could make a lot of money writing something you really might not want to write.

Write the stories only you can tell, the ones that won’t let you be. Write for the love of writing. And when you sell the next book, and the next, and the next, the advice is the same.

are a writer. Write.

The Writer vs. The World
By Phillis Root

My mechanic tells me cars don’t really go
clinkety clankety bing bang pop,
that chocolate marshmallow fudge delight
will not fix everything.
(My dentist concurs.)

My naturalist friend says
ducks who get stuck in the muck
get eaten, or die, no matter how many
other helpful animals gather round.
Somewhere among them would be a fox,
a feral cat, a snapping turtle
looking for an opportunistic meal.

My doctor warms me of all the diseases
a cow’s kiss might contain,
and my more cautious friends say that
if I hear a knock, knock on the door,
it’s best not to answer,
even if I ask, “Who’s there?”
You can’t trust anyone these days
to be who they say they are.

My mechanic and contractor both agree
that car parts don’t make good building material,
and my veterinarian claims she’s never heard
a dog say meow, and knows she never will.

I am glad for them all. Without them,
my car would not run,
my teeth fall out.
Turtles might starve.
My cats and I might perish
from some common ailment,
my house collapse around me
at the first knock, knock at the door.

Lucky for me I can always build a new one
out of crazy hope and air.

Cynsational Notes

The Career Builders series
offers insights from children’s-YA authors who written and published
books for a decade or more. The focus includes their approach to both
the craft of writing and navigating the ever-changing business landscape
of trade publishing.

Check out the book trailer for Scrawny Cat, by Phyllis Root, illustrated by Allison Friend (Candlewick, 2011):

5 thoughts on “Career Builder: Phyllis Root

  1. Rattle Trap Car is still one of my favorite picture books of all time and helped me find the rhythm and pacing for my picture book that is currently out on submission! And your advice on writing each book leave this writer misty-eyed. Thank you, ladies!

  2. Love hearing from Phyllis! Thanks for the reminder that it's always about the words–but I knew that the moment I read "Big Momma Makes the World"!

    –Jen Gennari

  3. Phyllis, I ADORE your books. Rattletrap Car is a favorite I give friends building their children's libraries. You've taught me so much about writing picture books.

    Thank you!

  4. We need more people like Phyllis in the world–generous and fun, full of spirit and life. It is a real pleasure to work with her. I got to visit with her on the day she got her advanced writer's copy of Scrawny Cat. Forty books later and she still gets excited!
    Thank you, Phyllis, for being who you are.

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