Cynsations Intern: Stephani Eaton on The Joy of Writing

Stephani Eaton, photo by Tanya Odom

By Stephani Eaton
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

When I was in second grade, I wrote a poem about an impending storm that pleased my dad so much that he hung it in his office. It stayed there for years.

I recently asked if he remembered what it said and he rattled off: “This dark and rainy noon will soon pass the sunset of time.”

I had to laugh at the melodrama of my seven-year-old self. Laughed and said, “What on earth does that mean?”

He defended my first “serious” writing attempt as the start of my writing journey.

Second grade was a pivotal year, one in which words came alive for me. I remember bringing a story to Mrs. Giannone’s desk and in the middle of reading it she put her head on her desk and fell asleep!

Well, she didn’t really fall asleep, but I had used the word “nice” and she was showing me how boring that was for a reader. Her reaction amused me to no end. It lit up my brain and made me want to write, write, write.

Young Stephani at the keyboard

Yet, I learned later that too much pizazz in the writing just gets in the way of meaning. My dad would harp on me to “say what I mean” and not to embellish too much. In a book report on Ivanhoe, I had cooked up some flowery sentences. He asked what they meant and I couldn’t tell him because I didn’t know. Finally, after much back and forth and lots of frustration, I told him that I was just trying to say that the book made me think.

“Say that!” he said.
He taught me not only the importance of clarity but precision. That’s what you get when your dad has a PhD in biochemistry but loves to read literature and history. The copy he gave me of Ernest Hemingway’s On Writing (Grafton Books, 1986) is still on my shelf.

In sixth grade, Mrs. Siltman told me I was good at reading and writing only after she told me I needed to stay in for recess because I talked too much. This is probably the year that I discovered Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabitha (Crowell, 1977) and Gilly Hopkins (Crowell, 1978). And it was one year before I met Anne of Green Gables (by L.M. Montgomery, L.C. Page & Co., 1908).

I wore those books out.
All the while I was writing, writing, writing at home. We had gotten a new Apple IIc computer and it had Print Shop software on it. I obsessively made newspapers filled with stories of our family life to send to my out-of-state-grandparents. Grandparents are the best audience. 

In high school, the boy who sat in front of me in AP English frustrated me to no end. He aced all the timed writings and our teacher frequently used his work as the model to which to aspire. I was a good student, but no standout.

The same was true of my undergrad experience. I earned a BA in English and secondary education with a journalism add-on, but not with stellar grades. After graduation, I taught middle school and loved it. I had a whole crop of kids to introduce to books and writing. An added bonus, I got to teach my beloved Gilly Hopkins.

I needed to get a Master’s to continue teaching, so I decided I would pursue my first love and what I felt I never had time for in undergrad: creative writing. I worked and worked on a manuscript. I had no idea what I was doing.

I was promptly rejected.
Several years and two babies later, I sat back down to write. It felt familiar. It felt right. But it was hard. I realized quickly that I needed and wanted to learn more. I wanted to take all those creative writing courses that I never took in undergrad, that I wanted to take in graduate school. So, I applied to four MFA writing programs.

I was promptly rejected.

It would have been wise for me to remember what I knew as a second grader, that: “this dark and rainy noon will soon pass the sunset of time.”

I boxed up my seventeen drafts that weren’t getting me into school.

And I started over.

I did what I could. I joined a critique group, went to some conferences, and listened to webinars. I read craft books such as A Sense of Wonder by Paterson (Plume Books, 1995) which fueled my purpose to write. I read blogs like this one (but few as good).

About eighteen months later, I had something that looked more like a story. A friend invited me to go with her to an SCBWI conference in New York.

By chance, we met some Vermont College of Fine Arts alumni, who were gracious when I confessed I had been rejected from their program. Later, one of them came to find me and introduced me to VCFA’s recruiter. They both sincerely encouraged me to apply again.

I texted my husband in a flurry of eagerness.

Seconds later he texted, “Do it!”

I did.

Even though I didn’t get in on the first try, when I did get to VCFA it provided me with everything my seven-year-old self could have dreamed of: encouraging mentors, a community of writers, a place to grow and experiment.

Katherine Patterson and Stephani in Oxford

I added to the champions in my corner a hundredfold. I even traveled for a week with, Katherine Paterson (the author of those books I wore out), during a VCFA writing residency in Bath.

But most importantly, VCFA gave me an excuse and a reason to don my favorite hoodie and sit down at the keyboard and write.

Stephani and family on a research trip
to the Bodie Island Lighthouse in North Carolina

Writing has become a family activity. My husband loves to write. My kids write. We share our writing with each other. We go on research trips together.

It has become part of the fabric of our family life.

The writing life is full of refusals, rejections, and revisions. No writer’s life is free of those storms, those “dark and rainy noons.” But those pass.

And even amidst those storms there is joy.

Joy in creation, joy in community, joy in those moments alone with the blank page and the promise of what’s possible.

Oh, and that boy who frustrated me to no end in AP English?

Reader, I married him.

In Memory: Ann Durell

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Ann Durell (McCrory) “was a distinguished editor and publisher of children’s books and a Vice President of E.P. Dutton until her retirement in 1987.”

She died in her Manhattan home on May 6 at age 87.

From The New York Times, “Ann worked with many noted authors including Maurice Sendak, Ellen Raskin, Lloyd Alexander, Judy Blume, Norma Klein, Steven Kellogg, Daniel Pinkwater and Bill Sleator.”

She began her career in children’s literature by reviewing books for the Junior Literary Guild (now the Junior Library Guild) while still a student at Mount Holyoke College.

After graduation, she joined a Doubleday training program and worked as a bookseller before being hired as a secretary for Margaret Lesser, Doubleday’s children’s editor.

Durell took a class in writing for children from Phyllis Whitney at New York University and wrote a novel, Holly River Secret (Doubleday, 1956).

A few years later, she became editor of the Junior Library Guild. She told Publishers Weekly the job provided “a bird’s-eye view of the whole range of children’s publishing.”

In 1961, Durell joined the editing team at Holt before moving to Dutton in 1969. Her authors there received numerous awards, including Newbery and Caldecott medals.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) offers an audio recording of Ellen Raskin’s talk about writing and how Durell’s suggestion prompted her to become a novelist. (It also began with lunch.) Peek:

“I had done about 12 picture books when Ann Durell…took me to lunch and said she would like me to do a book for Dutton. Now I had done some books for Ann before, illustrated books for other authors.”

Raskin was writing picture books for Anthenum at the time and told Durell she wanted to continue doing that.

“Ann said, ‘Oh no, I want you to write a long book. 

“And I of course said, ‘I’m an illustrator’ and she said, figuring that everyone has one book in her, ‘Well, why don’t you write about your childhood in Milwaukee during the Depression….'”

She sat down to do that and wrote and wrote out came The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) (Dutton, 1971).

CCBC also features Raskin’s original manuscript pages of The Westing Game (Dutton, 1978) with Durell’s editorial notes.

In Judy Blume by Elisa Ludwig and Dennis Abrams (Chelsea House, 2013), they quote Blume recalling how Durell’s guidance led to Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing (Dutton, 1972):

“…my first agent submitted the story to Ann Durell…Ann invited me to lunch. I was so nervous I could hardly eat but she was so warm and friendly…Ann liked my story but she suggested, instead of a picture book, I consider writing a longer book about the Hatcher family…”

Judy Blume told Publishers Weekly about working with Ann Durell. Peek:

“We did five books together and disagreed just once. She thought spiders in an outhouse were scarier/funnier than green, gurgling gas. I fought for green, gurgling gas. She let me have my way.”

In her 1978 Newbery acceptance speech for Bridge to Terabithia (Crowell, 1977), Katherine Paterson said she was seated with Durell at a Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C. luncheon. Those at the table started talking about their children and she shared that her young son’s best friend had died after being struck by lightening and her family was still grieving. Peek:

“No one interrupted me, but when I finally shut up, Ann Durell said very gently, ‘I know this sounds just like an editor, but you should write that story. Of course,’ she said, ‘the child can’t die by lightning. No editor would ever believe that.’”

Durell also edited The Chronicles of Prydain Series (Dutton, 1964) by Lloyd Alexander. In this trailer for a documentary on the author, Durell talks about her first impression of the manuscript.

Guest Post: M.T. Anderson on the Premier of “The Great Gilly Hopkins” Film

By M.T. Anderson
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The Vermont children’s book community had an incredible treat on Oct. 7 at the Stowe Cinema 3Plex in Stowe, Vermont:

We all descended on a movie theater in Stowe where Katherine Paterson had opted to hold the premiere of the film adaptation of her National Book Award-winning middle-grade masterpiece, “The Great Gilly Hopkins” from Lionsgate. It was a formal champagne and popcorn kind of event.

(Begging a question: What Would Gilly Do? Somehow I see Mountain Dew hitting the screen during the touching scenes.)

Several generations of Patersons were there, including Katherine’s sons David (who wrote the screenplay) and John (who produced).

It’s a wonderful movie, with a cast that includes Glenn Close, Octavia Spencer, Kathy Bates, and, in a delicious little cameo, Katherine herself. Fans of the book will be delighted to see how much of the original dialogue has been lovingly retained – one of the benefits of having the author’s son as screenwriter.

Pic of MT by Leda Schubert

Afterwards, Katherine admitted that Kathy Bates will now play Maime Trotter permanently in her head, and I think many of us would agree. The way she inhabited that iconic character was flawless and deeply moving.

The screening was followed by a panel with Katherine, David, and John talking about the genesis of both the book and the movie. They reminisced about the two children whose stay with the Paterson family in the late seventies led more or less to Katherine’s conception of the novel – and to her vision of Gilly’s rage at her situation. And they talked about how they’d maneuvered the project through Hollywood, trying to keep the story intact.

At the same time, they spoke frankly about why certain details differed from the book to the movie … the swapping of the case-worker’s gender, for example. (It would be a fun class discussion to have!)

It was a real delight to see the movie and then, immediately, hear these three talk about it.
The evening was organized by Vermont College of the Fine Arts as a benefit for Tatum’s Totes, a charity which provides emergency bags filled with clothes, blankets, and toys for foster kids in transit.

By the way,, the movie is apparently available for streaming online at all the usual venues (iTunes, Amazon), if it’s not showing at your local theater. Though that service doesn’t come with as many Patersons.

Cynsational News, Links, and Return

Congratulations to the winners of the 2006 Cybils! I’d like to send out a special cheer to previously featured winners: author Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long for An Egg Is Quiet (Chronicle)(author and illustrator interview); author-illustrator Melanie Watt for Scaredy Squirrel (Kids Can); and David Levithan (along with his co-author Rachel Cohn) for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (Knopf)(author interview). I’d also like to say thanks to all the amazing volunteers behind this wonderful new award program. This is an amazing effort. Please do know that it is appreciated!

Don’t miss this super cool video interview with author David Lubar as he talks to Expanded Books about his forthcoming True Talents (StarScape, March 2007)(excerpt). Visit here, and read a related recommendation by Greg.

Interview with Kimberly Duncan-Mooney by Jenna Glatzer from Absolute Write. Kimberly is the US editor of Barefoot Books, a small publisher established in 1993 with offices in Cambridge, Mass.; and England.

“An Unsafe Bridge” by Peter T. Chattaway from Christianity Today. Author Katherine Paterson chimes in on the film version of “Bridge to Terabithia.”

Submit to the 11th Carnival of Children’s Literature, sponsored by Big A, little a.

Picture Books: Plan, Polish, and Publish by Dori Chaconas. Read interviews with Dori on On A Wintry Morning (Viking, 2000) and One Little Mouse (Viking, 2002) from my web site.

Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast #6: Kelly Herold at Big A little a: an interview with one of my favorite bloggers.

Thanks to Greg at Greg LSBlog for inviting me to be a guest blogger this past week. The featured authors and illustrators from those posts will be highlighted once more here so that no one misses hearing about their wonderful books. This will result in some short-term repetition; however, I’ll be sure to also include new news as we’re catching up.

Huge thanks to all who’ve supported my guest blogging (during tech woes) and the launch of my new YA novel, Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007), including: Book Moot; Laura Bowers; Julia Durango; Alex Flinn; Carrie Jones; Cynthia Lord; Liz Garton Scanlon; Laurie Stolarz; Three Silly Chicks; Lara Zeises; April Lurie, Jo Whittemore; Shaken & Stirred; Colleen Cook; Mitali Perkins; Varian Johnson; Chris Barton; Kellye Carter Crocker; Jody Feldman; Debbi Michiko Florence; Varian Johnson; Jo Knowles; Uma Krishnaswami; Carolyn Lehman; David Lubar; Kerry Madden; Mary E. Pearson; Laura Ruby; Tanya Lee Stone; Anastasia Suen; Don Tate; Kim Winters; Sara Zarr.

Where Do Media Tie-ins Come From? with Laurie Calkhoven from the Institute of Children’s Literature.