Author-Teacher Interview: Esther Hershenhorn

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Esther, welcome back to Cynsations! What’s new in your writing-teacher life?

I’m happy to report: the teaching part of my teaching-author life is taking off in all sorts of new directions this year, literally and figuratively. I continue to teach writing for children workshops at both the University of Chicago’s Graham School’s Writer’s Studio and Chicago’s Newberry Library, where I’ve taught since 2001 in alternating seasons.

However, this April and May I’ll be facilitating a Writers Group at the Writer’s Studio for middle grade and young adult novelists. This June I’m introducing a new hands-on workshop in which writers use common marketing tools to create a GPS to guide their final submission-worthy revisions.

Both institutions bring me stellar students from all walks of life, so committed to telling their stories to children they wring me out like a sponge.

I love it and remain “Jewish-Mama proud” as they fully immerse themselves in learning and honing their craft.

Come July, I’ll be flying northeast to Landgrove, Vermont, where I’m honored to continue Barbara Seuling’s venerable Manuscript Workshop from July 10 to July 15 at the Landgrove Inn.

I’m back in Chicago July 23 through Aug. 3, again honored, this time to facilitate a writing for children workshop, along with Joan Bauer and Sara Holbrook, in Judson University’s Doctoral program.

We’ll spend time on campus grounding the soon-to-graduate Doctorate in Literacy candidates in the Children’s Book World’s story-telling opportunities and possibilities; we’ll then retreat to a northern Michigan resort where we’ll work one-one-one with our writers to help each ready his or her manuscript.

How exciting that you’ll be leading the Manuscript Workshop at the Landgrove Inn in Landgrove, Vermont! Would you please tell us about the history of the program?

The one-and-only Barbara Seuling – children’s book author of more than 60 titles, illustrator, former children’s book editor and esteemed children’s book writing teacher, founded The Manuscript Workshop in New York City in 1982, moving it to Vermont in 1992 and then to the Landgrove Inn these last few years.

That’s Barbara Seuling, the expert author, as in How To Write A Children’s Book and Get It Published (Wiley, 2004), Barbara Seuling, whose dedication to craft and children’s literature as well as to her students and fellow children’s book creators is known to all in the children’s book world.

I’m mindful I’m stepping into some mighty huge shoes.

An early brochure’s cover quote underscored Barbara’s heart and the workshop’s intent: “Spread your writer’s wings…and discover how high you can soar.”

Countless working writers who attended the workshop and retreat have indeed flown high, connecting with fellow writers, learning new skills and polishing their work.

The good news is: my heart lies with Barbara’s; the workshop’s intent remains the same.

The small (up to eight writers) week-long workshop continues its tradition of offering insightful, informative and inspiring one-to-one student-teacher connections.

Morning sessions include hands-on writing exercises and instruction on craft – story and its structure, format and genre considerations, the young reader’s needs.

Afternoons are set aside for individual writing and/or re-visioning of manuscripts, optional special interest sessions or free time.

Evening sessions focus on readings of the day’s work and guided critiques.

Throughout the week, focused food-for-thought conversations at meals highlight the writing process, paths to publications, writer’s tips and sustaining the creative spirit.

Appropriately enough, manuscript workshop founder Barbara Seuling ices the week’s cake with a guest speaker visit.

How about your personal philosophy of teaching? What should your students expect from you?

As corny as it sounds, like Barbara I do things “the old-fashioned way” – up close and personal, eyeball to eyeball, heart to heart.

In my humble opinion: each of us has a story and the right to tell that story. It’s my job, as well as a privilege, to help the writer do just that if children are his or her audience. I do indeed invest in that story – in its construct, its telling, its place within the body of children’s literature.

But as important, I also invest in the writer. Knowing what our characters want/need/wish for and why isn’t enough; we need to know our own what’s and why’s. As Marion Dane Bauer taught me, the writer needs to be somewhere in his story if it’s to re-sound in the reader’s heart.

This was a truth that came late to me in my own path to publication, a career that – proudly – earned me the title “The Susan Lucci of Children’s Books.”

Again, it might sound corny, but I do my best to give my students and the writers I coach what I needed while out and about on my own writer’s plotline: I needed someone seeding me, feeding me, cheering me on, believing in my story, believing in me.

Like the earlier-mentioned Jewish Mama, I’m tough – because children deserve the very best, I nurture and I take enormous pride in the strides my students and coached writers – my “storied treasures” – continue to make.

One of the great lures of any workshop is the location. How would you describe it?

I cannot tell a lie: I’ve yet to visit the Green Mountains in person!

However, I’m counting the days ‘til I arrive.

Paging through Vermont travel guides and scrolling down the pages of online Vermont websites, I know what awaits me: majestic mountain peaks, rolling hills, picturesque valleys and verdant forests, scenic roads, hiking trails and quaint charming towns. “Idyllic” is the word most travel writers choose to describe the Green Mountain State.

Tom and Maureen Checchia, proprietors of the historic Landgrove Inn, known, incidentally, for its award-winning meals, describe their country inn and town as “authentically Vermont.”

The truth is: a whole lot of magic can happen when we leave our known and familiar writing rooms, when we take ourselves and our stories to new places and spaces and surround ourselves with like-minded, like-hearted folks who share our passion.

Tell us more what you’re doing in your writing life.

Ah! The author part of teaching-author.

Alas, when I do claim writing time between my teaching and coaching, my work, like my teaching, has taken off in new directions, literally and figuratively. Now, when I do write, I’m usually writing nonfiction.

I found this funny at first, since I was somewhat reluctant to join my fellow TeachingAuthors bloggers, certain the writing would not fulfill me as my fiction did. (How wrong I was!)

I also found my reluctance ironic. I minored in journalism at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication and cut my writer’s teeth working for a local newspaper, then educational text book publishers.

Researching and writing S is for Story, illustrated by Zachary Pullen (Sleeping Bear, 2009) turned me around 360°. The writing itself, straightforward and concrete, came so naturally, lost as I was in that creative flow Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi advocates.

Recently I began blogging for the American Writer’s Museum, scheduled to open in Chicago in late 2016/early 2017.

Given my love of Chicago and All Things Children’s Book, my posts have featured Shel Silverstein (“A Chicago Gift Named Shel”), L. Frank Baum (“Somewhere, Over Lake Michigan!”) and The Center for the Book’s Letters About Literature project (“Dear Author”). Future posts will feature Gene Luen Yang (the new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature), the Walter Dean Meyers Award and a favorite author’s upcoming 100th Birthday.

Currently, I’m working with a graphic designer to create a new alphabet book concept.

And that one middle grade fictional character whose story grabbed my heart a life-time ago?

Fortunately, she’s making herself known on a daily basis.

How would you say your journey has evolved over time?

Leo the Late Bloomer and I have much in common.

For starters, like most beginning children’s book writers, I had no idea I was embarking on a journey, and a Hero’s Journey, to boot.

I was simply writing a picture book to be published in time for my son’s third birthday. It would be easy. It would be fun. And how nice that while doing so I could realize my childhood dream of seeing my name on the cover of a children’s book. I mean, I did teach fifth grade, right? I did write for newspapers, yes? I did write text books.

Fast forward lots of years dotted with lots of rejections and “oh, no!” Moments, past lots of twists and turns, not to mention lots of mentors and allies. To my amazement, as story helps the reader discover/uncover/recover his story, writing – and revising – my never-published picture books and middle grade fiction helped me discover/uncover/recover my story. I’d finally found my voice. I could speak from the heart. Published picture books soon indeed followed.

But wait! Just as the hero surprisingly returns with something so much better than what he first sought, I did too.

Once published, I went on to become a teacher and coach of children’s book writers.

In Elizabeth Strout’s new novel My Name is Lucy Barton (Random House, 2016), the title character and narrator shares remembered advice from a famous author whose writing workshop she’d attended. “You will have only one story,” Sarah Payne told the class. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

I agree.

I’ve come to see that all of my books, whether fiction or nonfiction, picture book or novel, and all of my characters from Lowell Piggott to the referenced and cited children’s book creators in S is for Story, tell the reader: you matter!

Which is just what I tell my students and writers.

In so many inevitable yet surprising ways, I now understand my story may well be helping other writers tell their stories.

I look forward to doing just that July 10 to July 15 at the Landgrove Inn in Landgrove, Vermont.

Through February, The Inn offers a discount for accommodations. You can email Tom Chechhia at vtinn@sover.net.

Interested writers can also email me their questions at esthersh@aol.com.

2015 SCBWI Europolitan Con: Author-Writing Coach Esther Hershenhorn

By Elisabeth Norton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations 

Esther Hershenhorn is an award-winning Chicago children’s book author.

She coaches children’s book writers and teaches Children’s Book Writing at the Writer’s Studio of the University of Chicago’s Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies and the Newberry Library.

Her recent titles include Txting Mama, Txting Baby (2013) and S Is For Story: A Writer’s Alphabet, illustrated by Zachary Pullen (2009)(both Sleeping Bear Press).

Regional Advisor Emeritus of SCBWI’s Illinois chapter, Esther also served two terms on SCBWI’s Board of Advisors. Esther blogs at Teaching Authors. She was interviewed by Elisabeth Norton for the SCBWI Europolitan Conference.

Your intensive at SCBWI Europolitan is titled Rx for Children’s Books Creators: Getting Your Stories Right. Can you tell us more about the idea of the Creator’s Story?

I’d been out and about for quite some time, learning and honing my craft, receiving more than my fair share of “admirable declines,” when I was fortunate to attend – three years in a row – the sadly-no-longer-available Vassar Children’s Book Publishing Program.

Each day, each session, each year, I chose the same seat: last row, right corner, next to the glass case that held a first edition of William Steig’s Brave Irene.

That last year, still unpublished, I was thinking about how much Irene and I had in common when the venerable instructor, publisher Barbara Lucas, spoke of The Universal Plotline – the Hero-dash-Heroine, moving forward in scenes of escalating disaster to fulfill a wish/realize a dream/solve a problem until, grown and changed, he or she returns home with something even better than what he or she first sought.

I literally smacked my forehead.

I was traveling the Universal Plotline! That was it!

The inevitable yet surprising satisfactory resolution would someday be mine.

There’s a good reason Christopher Vogler titled his book on mythic structure for storytellers and screenwriters The Writer’s Journey.

As creatives we are often focused on honing our writing or illustration skills. It sounds like your workshop at Europolitan is going to take that to the next level. How do you think a Creator’s Story intersects with the stories they are creating?

As we creators toil to tell our good stories well, it’s good to remember just how in synch we are with our questing characters.

All of us are moving forward on plotlines both physical and emotional, driven by wants/needs/wishes; each of us is acting and re-acting, with accompanying emotions, to overcome the obstacles placed before us.

Award-winning author and superb teacher Marian Dane Bauer believes a writer needs to put his story into the story he’s telling if it’s ever to resound in his reader’s heart – and I agree, wholeheartedly.

Not the actual story, but the emotional import of the story. We strengthen our story’s underpinnings – and heart – when we’re in synch with our characters emotionally.

You are an active teacher, speaker and career coach. What are some of the common issues you find in the manuscripts submitted to you for feedback?

The first time I read a manuscript, I read on behalf of the intended reader – no matter the age. More times than not, the writing in the manuscript sings, and I want to go along, really and truly, but the chinks in the story’s logic push me away, forcing me to exit what John Gardner labeled the requisite continuous dream.

Simply put, the story has holes and I’m not buying it.

The Good News is: returning to a story’s characters to dig even deeper usually solves the problem.

Returning to a story’s characters also solves a second common story problem: the absence of an emotional plotline. There needs to be a reason why we care what happens next, why we want to live inside this story and travel along.

This is true for picture books, early readers, middle grade and YA fiction as well as nonfiction.

If you could only give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would that be?

My advice about craft: read like a writer and write like a reader.

My advice about the journey, because writing is just that: story gifts both the reader and the writer.

Cynsational Notes

Learn more!

Elisabeth Norton was first published at age 16 when she had no idea what an “unsolicited submission” was. Seeing her byline on the subsequently published magazine article ignited her desire for a career as an author.

Once she realized she wanted to write for children, she joined SCBWI and now serves as Regional Advisor for the Swiss region.

Originally from Alaska, she now lives in Switzerland between the Alps and the Jura and writes for middle graders.