Survivors: Lois Lowry on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about Lois Lowry.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field.



Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success? 

I was forty when my first book was published in 1977. Pretty old!

And it was a tough time in my life. I was leaving a 21-year marriage and leaving it—by choice—with nothing: no alimony, no house; just my car and my typewriter.

And I’d never had a real job, had no profession to fall back on: just the freelance magazine work I’d been doing as a photojournalist, and the one book which just by chance had been requested by an editor at Houghton Mifflin who had read something I’d published in a magazine. “You sound like someone who might be able to write for young people,” she told me, though what she’d read had been a story for adults.

No promise to publish what I wrote, but at least I had someone who was interested in seeing it—and who, in fact, did give me a contract. It meant that I could pay my rent.

I had not planned to be a writer for kids. Since college, where I’d majored in writing, I had planned, of course, on the great American novel. With four kids born in five years, though, I never got around to writing it.

Then by the time that first book, A Summer to Die, was published (it had no title when I sent it to the publisher. And I sent it by snail mail. Typed pages—I had a carbon copy at home. Remember carbon paper?) I was living in a rented apartment over a garage, trying to jump-start a new life.

The publisher kept sending me copies of reviews with excited notes: Another star! What did that even mean? I hadn’t a clue.

Phone calls came with news…this was 1977, long before email, of course…the paperback rights had been sold! The book had won the IRA Award! The California Young Readers Medal!

It was as if they were speaking a foreign language. But I was hearing something, an undertone of sorts, that was whispering: This. This is how you can make a living.

So I rolled a clean sheet of typing paper into the typewriter, set the margins, and began writing a second book for young people.

And there you have it: a pretty ignominious beginning. I wish I could say, as so many new writers do today, that I had a passion for children’s books, that I studied them carefully, that I took courses, went to seminars, formed a writers’ group, joined the SCBWI…etc..etc.

But few of those things were available then. And in retrospect, I think it served me well to feel my way into the field very tentatively and in total ignorance, without an agent, without expectations.

Bumps? What was Bette Davis said in “All About Eve” (“Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy night…”)?

I’m not sure, in those early days, that I could have predicted “bumps”…or that such a prediction would have steered me away from this profession.

Of course there were some: mostly things I couldn’t have predicted. The famous writer who accused me of plagiarism (I hadn’t even read his book). The website that called me “The Antichrist.”  The things I labored over…and the editor didn’t like them.

The book that was published with mis-ordered chapters! Yikes; that one hurt.

The book I published under a pseudonym, and with a manufactured author bio…and then it won a big award, and the publishing representative had to accept on behalf of the author “who unfortunately can’t get here from her home in the Midwest….”

But on the whole I could have left my seatbelt unsecured. It has not been terribly bumpy for me. I’ve been lucky.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

Well, I would have sent in my first manuscript with a title on it, for sure! But aside from that jokey comment, I’m not sure I would have done anything differently, given the circumstances.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

My first book, simply by chance and not design, was based on the death of my older sister when we were both young. It was a story I’d been telling myself for some years, the way we always go through tough personal things in our heads, trying to explain them to ourselves. The suggestion from an editor that I write a book meant that I found a place to set those thoughts down on paper.

But the timing was interesting. There had not yet been, to my knowledge, children’s books dealing realistically with the death of a young person (Beth, in Little Women (by Louisa May Alcott (1869))? Come on. Give me a break.)

And yet, my book was published in the same year as Katherine Paterson’s wonderful Bridge to Terabithia, which won the 1978 Newbery Medal (a medal, incidentally, that I was practically unaware of). Something must have been in the atmosphere which made the timing right for A Summer to Die.

And then I watched realistic novels become a little trendy, as things do. Eventually the trend led to some awful books, so called “problem novels.”

Pendulums, I guess, always swing too far. But their momentum dies; eventually realistic fiction about kids with problems settled in reliably for the long haul. Oddly, though I don’t think that I “caused” it in any way, I watched some others of my own books become trendsetters.

Number the Stars (1989) was an early one of countless Holocaust books (though it had been long preceded by Anne Frank’s diary (1947), deservedly a classic, and Esther Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe (1968), among others).

Later, The Giver (1993) seemed to spawn an entire generation of so-called dystopian fiction; several editors confided jokingly to me that they dreaded seeing yet another futuristic manuscript.

And how on earth did it happen that in 2011, Richard Peck, Cynthia Voigt, and I all wrote books in which the characters were exclusively mice? But those are thematic and stylistic trends.

 The big changes I have observed over the years are more in terms of marketing. The book tours! (And then, as the internet took over, the fewer “real” book tours). The speaking engagements!

Goodness, if someone had told my introverted self back in 1977: If you become a writer of YA fiction, you will have to go and make speeches….I might have closed up my typewriter and looked for a real job.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

In The Barn

Ignore trends.

Learn how to “track changes”!

Practice saying no to people.

Save receipts for the tax guy.

Most importantly, take yourself seriously.

Carve out a sacrosanct space in which to work. I wrote my first book sitting at a little table in the corner of my husband’s study, with his big important desk looming behind me. I shouldn’t have settled for that.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

I wish that all of their wonderful books be translated into a zillion languages so that kids around the world will all be reading the same stories, laughing at the same jokes, weeping with shared sadnesses; and that somehow this will bring us all together in this world, and connect us in the ways that matter.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I just hope that in this last chapter of my life, my brain and imagination remain intact! That I can still maintain a relationship with young readers, and that I never lose the sense of joy that comes to me from putting words together on a page.

With actor Jeff Bridges; see the trailer for the film adaptation of “The Giver”

Cynsational Notes 

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

Intern Insights: Highlights of SCBWI LA 2018

Lin Oliver interviews Lois Lowry at SCBWI L.A. Conference

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In August, I attended my very first SCBWI international summer conference. It was truly an amazing experience, but also a bit overwhelming with nearly 1,200 people in attendance.

Thankfully, we all share a love of children’s books, making it much easier to talk with people than typical social situations.

I came home with both inspirational and practical advice, and have a few highlights to share.

By far the most magical aspect of the conference was SCBWI Co-founder and Executive Director Lin Oliver’s lunchtime chat with Lois Lowry. She thoughtfully reflected on her 40-year career with humor and humility as she addressed questions many of us who create for children continually ask ourselves.

When The Giver (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) was published, some people thought the subject was too dark for a children’s book. One website even called her “the Antichrist.”

None of it changed Lowry’s philosophy about what topics should be covered in children’s literature: dark subjects exist in life and need to be dealt with and written about with sensitivity.

“I don’t think there’s anything that shouldn’t be written about,” she said. 

Lowry also talked about the book’s genesis. Her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease made her think deeply about memories and ask the question, “what if there were a way to manipulate human memory to forget pain?”

Like so many writers, Lowry admitted she wonders if she’ll have another good idea and also mentioned writing “a book that was unpublishable (but we won’t dwell on that.).” Even her casual asides are full of sage wisdom!

Her next book, On the Horizon, is due out in 2020. It addresses the familiar theme of human connections in a global way, exploring our relationships to each other around the world.

She gave an example of global connections, explaining how she discovered at a 1994 awards ceremony that she and author/illustrator Allen Say lived in the same Japanese town following World War II. They had seen one another, but never had a conversation or discovered the connection, until winning the Newbery and Caldecott awards in the same year.

An interesting thread I found in several of keynotes were references to music.

Daniel José Older used The Killers’ 2003 song Mr. Brightside to illustrate a number of writing insights:

  • the importance of a good beginning 
  • “good books are made of bad decisions” 
  • trust the reader 
  • earn your metaphors 
  • end the story when the story is over
  • “words are supposed to sound good when you put them together”
  • He urged everyone to read their work out loud before submitting it.

My volunteer duty at the conference was to assist authors Deborah Heiligman and Deborah Halverson during the autograph party. So much fun chatting with the Deborahs and those getting books signed!

Lynda Mullaly Hunt talked about vulnerability being a double-edged sword and how The Last Song, written by Bernie Taupin, performed by Elton John was the catalyst for her to open up to a fellow teacher who ended up becoming a mentor in several aspects of life and writing.

Brian Pinkney played the drums on stage and talked about how drumming and dreaming helped him discover the text for Max Found Two Sticks (Simon & Schuster, 1994). Napping as part of the creative process sounds too good to pass up!

Andrea Davis Pinkney starts each day by walking up and spending 30 minutes with her eyes closed thinking about things that make her happy. Then, because writers write every single day, she writes from 4:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. before exercising and heading off to her other job as editor at Scholastic.

Other creative advice came from Mike Curato: “Make things that make you smile” and eat cake, and ice cream. He went on to say, making a book is about discovering who we are.

During the agent panel, Jenny Bent offered a bit of advice in wake of recent events: request publishing contracts with split payments, so the publisher sends royalties to both creators and agents, rather than all funds going to the literary agency first.

In addition to the keynotes, I also met some fabulous people during the breakouts and social events.

Illustrators Manelle Oliphant and Gladys Jose, both new members of their SCBWI Regional Teams. Manelle is the illustrator coordinator in Utah/Southern Idaho, while Gladys is assistant regional advisor in Florida.

SCBWI co-founder and Executive Director Lin Oliver and SCBWI board member Arthur A. Levine of Scholastic.
I was very excited to meet Cynsations Reporters Angela Cerrito, (Europe) and Christopher Cheng
 (Asia, Australia & New Zeland). 

Don Tate & Phoebe Wahl Win Ezra Jack Keats Book Award

By The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation
from Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, in partnership with the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at The University of Southern Mississippi, announced the winners of the 30th annual Ezra Jack Keats Book Award.

Each year, a new writer and new illustrator are celebrated. The 2016 award ceremony will be held April 7 during the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival at The University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. The winners receive a gold medallion as well as an honorarium of $1,000.

“We are proud to present the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award to the best new talents in children’s illustrated literature each year. These are writers and illustrators whose books reflect the spirit of Keats, and at the same time, are refreshingly original,” said Deborah Pope, Executive Director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation. “This year is Ezra’s 100th birthday! So we are especially delighted to celebrate him by honoring those whose books, like his, are wonderful to read and look at and reflect our multicultural world.”

“The Keats Archives at the de Grummond Children’s Collection is a happy reminder of the joy that Ezra’s books have brought to readers and the impact they have had on children’s book makers.

“Once again, we see that influence in the work of this year’s EJK Book Award winners. We are confident that they’ll join the long list of illustrious past winners whose books continue to delight and make a difference,” said Ellen Ruffin, Curator of the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection.

Lois Lowry, two-time winner of the Newbery Award for Number the Stars (1990) and The Giver (1994), will present this year’s Ezra Jack Keats Book Awards. Michael Cart, columnist/reviewer for Booklist and a leading expert on young adult literature, will deliver the Keats Lecture.

The 2016 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award winner for new writer is:

Don Tate for Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton (Peachtree)

In the South before the Civil War, it was illegal to teach slaves to read, but George Moses Horton loved words too much to be stopped. He taught himself to read as a child and grew up to be a published poet, while still a slave.

Writing about slavery for young readers is challenging but important, and Don Tate succeeds brilliantly, in an engaging, age-appropriate and true narrative.

Tate said, “Three years ago, I won an Ezra Jack Keats honor award, one of the proudest moments of my career. I never imagined being considered again… this time [for] the top award. There has always been a special place in my heart for Ezra Jack Keats. When he chose to picture brown children in his books, he chose to acknowledge me. I wasn’t invisible to him.

“As a creator of color in a field that sorely lacks diversity, it can be easy to sometimes feel unseen. This award serves as a reminder to me that I am not invisible and that my work matters.”

The 2016 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award winner for new illustrator is:

Phoebe Wahl for Sonya’s Chickens (Tundra)

Sonya’s dad presents her with three baby chicks to care for, and she does her job well, providing food, shelter and lots of love as they grow into hens. Then one night, Sonya discovers that one of her hens is missing! But as her father explains, the fox stole the hen because he loved his kits and needed to feed them.

The circle of life is gently and exquisitely depicted in Wahl’s rich and colorful watercolor and collage illustrations of a multicultural family’s life on a farm.

Wahl said, “Keats’ work stands out as some of the most impactful of my childhood. I can directly trace the roots of my obsession with pattern, color and my use of collage to my affinity with the lacy baby blanket in Peter’s Chair. Keats inspired me to create stories that are quiet and gentle, yet honor the rich inner lives of children and all of the complexity that allows.

“I am humbled to be associated with Keats’ legacy in being presented with this award, and I am so grateful to the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation and the children’s literature community for this show of support and encouragement.”

The 2016 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award honor winners are:

2016 New Writer Honors

Julia Sarcone-Roach for The Bear Ate Your Sandwich, also illustrated by Sarcone-Roach (Knopf)

Megan Dowd Lambert for A Crow of His Own, illustrated by David Hyde Costello (Charlesbridge)

2016 New Illustrator Honors

Ryan T. Higgins for Mother Bruce, also written by Higgins (Hyperion)

Rowboat Watkins for Rude Cakes, also written by Watkins (Chronicle)

The Ezra Jack Keats Book Award Criteria

To be eligible for the 2016 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award, the author and/or illustrator will have no more than three children’s picture books published prior to the year under consideration.