Interview: Children’s Author Esther Hershenhorn

Esther Hershenhorn is the author of several books, including THERE GOES LOWELL’S PARTY (Holiday House, 1998), ILLINOIS: FUN FACTS AND GAMES (GHB Publisher’s, 2000), and THE CONFE$$IONS AND $ECRET$ OF HOWARD J. FINGERHUT (Holiday House, 2002). Her upcoming title is CHICKEN SOUP BY HEART (Simon & Schuster, October 2002). This interview was conducted via email in May-June 2002.

What books were among your childhood favorites and why?

Esther HershenhornMy first reading memories are of my treasured Golden Books. They were my contribution to my mother’s shopping cart during our weekly visits to our local Philadelphia A & P. I adored the Happy Endings of fairy tales — HANSEL AND GRETEL, CINDERELLA and LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD — and Eloise Wilkin’s illustrations. I couldn’t wait to “read” these books to my dolls and friends, once my mother read them to me. I purchased many of these titles when I began writing for children, simply to reacquaint myself with my Inner Child. I love to share them with kids today when I visit schools and libraries.

I also share with kids those wonderful “orange biographies” — the Bobbs-Merrill childhood biographies of Famous Americans — that commemorated each of my birthdays. Most times, the biographies were of famous women—an empowering statement if ever there was one. Or so I thought. I realized years later that my mother spoke with forked tongue: most of the women were the wives of famous men!

I was happy to learn that Random House is now re-issuing the Golden Books titles and Simon & Schuster has taken on the Childhood of Famous Americans series. Happy Endings and child empowerment will always be in vogue.

What are your favorite titles today and why?

Everyday it seems I fall in love with another title — a new book or a re-discovered Oldie But Goodie. Right now I’m marveling at Jan and Joan Steen’s CAR WASH, illustrated by G. Brian Karas. The originality of the book, the outstanding word choices and rhythmic pacing make me think, “Why couldn’t I have imagined such a book?” The perfect union of words and art in Marc Simont’s THE STRAY DOG is awe-inspiring. William Steig’s PETE’S A PIZZA is delicious. Mary Ann Hoberman’s YOU READ TO ME AND I’LL READ TO YOU is now my standard present to beginning readers. I love the flawless meter, the relationship it fosters, the sense of success it instantly hands a young read, how all of the stories come together as a whole.

I’m currently reading Paula Danziger’s THE WAR BETWEEN THE TATES, admiring her courage to create a new format and illustrate the text herself.

I reread William Steig’s BRAVE IRENE on a monthly basis and each time I discover something new about my favorite heroine. Anything by James Marshall is guaranteed to make me laugh. My all-time favorite is his THERE’S A PARTY AT MONA’S TONIGHT. Harry Allard did the illustrations. I couldn’t get enough of their books when I first began writing at the end of the 70’s. Paging through them today still brings a smile.

Olivia’s reported daring feats in OLIVIA SAVES THE CIRCUS — to the best of her recollection — were similar to those I imagined while devouring my Golden Books and Orange Biographies.

What were the earliest inklings that you would someday become a writer?

Inklings, eh? Hmmmmmm.

In truth, only I knew I wanted to be a writer — and a children’s book writer, too. At age six I can remember thinking, while I played library or school with my friends, “Someday my name will be on a book like this.” I kept that dream a secret and shared it with no one.

I was a disabled learner of sorts. Unfortunately the Philadelphia Public School System in 1950 didn’t have such educational labels. Fortunately, my brain figured out a way to compensate, to help me use all of my senses to comprehend materials. As a result, I was inordinately shy in the classroom, the original Back Row Personality. I would never even entertain the thought of sharing one of my imagined stories with a teacher or a class… So I kept them to myself for most of my early school years. They were movies in my head that only I could view. In high school I began doing a few “writerly” things — editing the school newspaper, editing the yearbook. I eventually minored in journalism in college.

What encouragement helped you along your way?

Encouragement, eh? Hmmmmmm.

I can honestly report: I was my own best cheerleader, especially since I shared my writing passion with no one. Like most writers, I read all the time, taking heart from characters, from their stories, from their resolutions. Now I realize I was unknowingly and effortlessly learning story structure while I read, taking in beginnings and middles and ends, absorbing the pacing of a plot line, the balance of narrative and dialogue on a page.

Did you face any early challenges to finding success on this path?

I often introduce myself to children’s book writers as The Susan Lucci of Children’s Books. (For those unfamiliar with the American daytime TV soap opera actress, Ms. Lucci was nominated nineteen consecutive years for an Emmy before she actually won the coveted award!)

My writer’s plot line was every bit as long as Ms. Lucci’s, with enough twists and turns, enough pot holes and detours to serve the plot lines of two children’s book writers. (Indeed, four American presidencies came and went; two were re-elections.) My plot line, however, was very much in keeping with the Universal Plot Line of any character who needs/wants/wishes to realize a dream. Calamitous near-misses continued to escalate until I was willing to emotionally connect with my characters’ plot lines. Marion Dane Bauer said it all: I needed to put My story into the story I was telling. Only then could I come to my pages with authority. Only then could My story re-sound in a reader’s heart.

THERE GOES LOWELL’S PARTY integrates weather lore into the story of a young boy waiting to see if–despite everything–his kin will make it to his party. What was the emotional inspiration for this story?

I teach my writing students that a story isn’t about a topic or a theme or a subject – for instance, about Ozark rain superstitions, about weather folklore.

A story is always about a person Who…… It’s up to the character — and the writer — to fill in the blanks. In the case of LOWELL, the subject of weather folklore did indeed inspire me to explore story possibilities for children. There were volumes of facts on which I could build story elements. What I needed, however, were the facts I couldn’t find in books, facts I knew like the back of my hand: my own memories of childhood December birthdays ruined due to snow; my own childhood longings for splendiferous celebrations; my heartfelt longings for family to surround me; times of faith when, like Lowell, I believed things would work out.

How did you come to be interested in weather lore?

I always share with kids the now-yellowed Chicago Tribune magazine article that inspired LOWELL. The headline reads, “More Fact Than Fiction in Weather Proverbs.” The idea of using animals to predict a harsh winter or a dry summer or a wet spring jump-started my brain with all sorts of book ideas: non-fiction easy-to-reads, an Ozark folktale told in picture book form, a collection of superstitions illustrated and explained. I’d studied American Folklore in college, including Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph’s collections. I knew somewhere in my attic, amidst boxes of college textbooks, lay the foundation of a story.

What research was required for this book?

Those boxes of college textbooks were just the beginning. I spent days, weeks, months at my local Wilmette, Illinois library researching American folklore, Ozark folklore, weather, weather equipment, the Ozarks, the Ozark people, the Ozark culture, Ozark children’s books. I pored over volumes of photographs, travel brochures and videos. I listened to Ozark music. I cooked Ozark foods. I danced Ozark dances. My challenging learning style — which utilizes all of my senses — enabled me to spin out Lowell’s tale. I also eventually visited the Ozarks but truly, I didn’t need to: books can take you anywhere.

THE CONFE$$IONS AND $ECRET$ OF HOWARD J. FINGERHUT is written as a parody of sorts of how-to manuals. How did you arrive at this approach?

The Confe$$sions and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut by Esther HershenhornHowie’s name poem describes him to a T: Hopeful, Original, Willing, Intelligent, Enthusiastic.

Once Howie decided to chronicle his lawn care business’ success from September to June, with Confe$$ion$ and $ecret$, a how-to book was the only way to go. Of course he’d win the H. Marion Muckley Junior Businessperson of the Year Contest! Of course a publisher would buy his journal/diary and publish it as a how-to book for junior entrepreneurs!

What were its advantages and challenges?

As a writer, I crave and thrive on structure and format. I’ve come to see that I often choose structures to prevent me from telling the real story I’m afraid to tell at first. And that might have been true in the first drafts of HOWIE. However, I did like the built-in chronology, the built in subtitles, the possibility for ordering Howie’s plot line. I think the how-to format also allowed Howie to speak in a way that revealed his heart, his earnestness and his insecurities.

The first person point of view was more problematic than the how-to structure. First person allowed the reader to hear Howie, loudly and clearly. However, there’s always the risk one voice can become monotonous. First person also allowed the reader to know Howie’s deepest and darkest thoughts. However, the reader will always need to hear and know the voices and thoughts of other characters.

Every editor who read HOWIE asked that I rewrite the book in third person. My Holiday House editor Mary Cash was the first editor who believed HOWIE could work in first person. Creating scenes of escalating disasters with revealing dialogue was the way to make it work.

Humor is incredibly popular with children and perhaps just as hard to write. Yet, humor is sprinkled throughout LOWELL and HOWARD. Do you consider yourself a funny person?

Funny, eh? Hmmm……

Well, I certainly enjoy laughing. In fact, I’m the perfect audience for any joke teller. I do believe humor allows us to make our way through sadness, disappointment, disaster, darkness. A funny perception, detail, oddity or incongruity can suddenly offer light and break the darkness. In non-humorous situations — which do abound in Life — I suspect folks count on me to share such observations.

Do you have any advice for writers trying to use humor?

Read funny books and authors who write funny books: THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER, THERE’S A PARTY AT MONA’S TONIGHT, Barbara Park, Louis Sachar, Daniel Pinkwater.

Your next book is CHICKEN SOUP BY THE HEART. Can you tell us a little bit about it? Where did this story come from? What’s in store for readers?

Chicken Soup by Heart by Esther HershenhornSimon and Schuster will publish CHICKEN SOUP BY HEART, illustrated by Rosanne Litzinger, in October 2002. This manuscript saw many revisions for various editors, with considerable help from Arthur Levine in a manuscript consultation at the 1996 SCBWI California conference and Stephanie Lurie, who eventually purchased the manuscript. In this story, Rudie Dinkins decides to make his flu-ridden after-school babysitter Mrs. Gittel good as new by cooking her chicken soup the way she does for him. Fortunately he knows her Chicken Soup Secret by heart: she stirs in very nice stories about her soon-to-be-soup eaters.

I loved cooking up this story, though I’m the first to admit my own chicken soup is not a threat to Mrs. Gittel’s — the recipe for which is included on the back page.

Rosanne Litzinger’s beautiful illustrations give the story a “modern folkloric” feel — make it seem more the traditional story a Mrs. Gittel might tell. Friendships have played an important, supportive and pivotal role in my personal and professional lives. CHICKEN SOUP BY HEART speaks to the reciprocity of friendship. Writing the story felt like being home.

Your work is, in some cases, illustrated. What have illustrators brought to your stories?

Jacqueline Roger’s beautiful watercolors brought Lowell and his Crumm Creek kin to life in THERE GOES LOWELL’S PARTY! Her illustrations beg the reader to return to discover all sorts of details sure to bring laughs – a girlfriend for Lowell’s dog Lucky, surprised looks on falling portraits, mustaches and beards and a bounty of twins and triplets and farm animals. It was Jackie’s idea to hide nineteen of the book’s twenty-nine closing rain proverbs in the illustrations throughout. Rosanne Litzinger’s palette and soft lines underscored the love between Rudie and Mrs. Gittel.

In Fall 2003, Holiday House will publish FANCY THAT, illustrated by Megan Lloyd — a Christmas story, of all things, from a nice Jewish girl from West Philadelphia! In 1996 at a Crafts Show in Evanston, Illinois, I met Stephen J. Shelton, a 25-year old artist attempting to live the life of an early-19th century American limner and fancy painter — a traveling artist who traveled America’s roads painting people’s portraits, as well as walls and signs and harpsichord covers. Stephen’s disastrous fate proved to be that of his 19th-century models: dissatisfied with their images, customers refused to pay him! Right then and there I “saw” my story.

Again, thanks to Mary Cash, I added a few orphaned sisters who needed my character Pippin Biddle to succeed or else, a failed return at Christmas, not Thanksgiving as originally planned, and Pippin’s dog Biscuit who proved a key part of the resolution. I recently learned the book’s illustrator Megan Lloyd is mixing her paints with egg yolks and original tints, just as Pippin would have done. The illustrations — painted in American naif style — will be framed, as well.

You are a former elementary school teacher. How does that experience inform, inspire, and affect your writing?

I suspect I come to a story and ask myself, “How could a teacher use this in the classroom?”

For instance, at the end of THERE GOES LOWELL’S PARTY!, I listed twenty-nine Ozark rain proverbs. Former fifth-grade teacher that I am, I selected those that were meteorologically true, those that were based on sensory observations, those that included the animal and plant world and made sure the chronology spanned one day.

In HOWIE, I had great fun inserting the core of a junior businessperson curriculum within Howie’s confe$$ion$ and $ecret$. Indeed, his name poem’s adjectives — Hopeful, Original, Willing, Intelligent and Enthusiastic — not only describe Howie, so readers will know his “Howie-ness.” They are also the requirements of any entrepreneur. I’m always bringing along hand-outs for teachers to use with my books, to extend my books’ reading experiences.

Once a teacher, always a teacher.

How have you seen your writing evolve over the years? What new directions are interesting to you?

Revising HOWIE for my Holiday House editor Mary Cash was quite the learning — and growing — experience. To my amazement, Mary thinks I’m a natural-born novelist and she’s encouraged me to move in this direction.

I love the immediacy of working on a picture book, the compactness of focus, the measured steps I can assign myself each day. When I’m working on a picture book, I can ride the CTA or walk about and think only of the verb I need, or the character name I’m seeking, or the internal rhyme I’m working to create.

When I’m working on a novel, I need to let go of all of my real world and Alice-in-Wonderland-like, go deep down into a hole that offers an alternative existence.

Picture books are demanding but in a controlled way. Novels require daily doses of Advil. Right now I’m growing a sequel to HOWIE, taking Mary’s advice to just let the book come to be.

You are serving as the SCBWI Illinois regional advisor (RA) and as a teacher to many additional children’s writers. You have also been an SCBWI Member of the Year. How many years have you coordinated and taught? What does an RA do?

I first joined The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in 1979! At that time there were perhaps a few hundred members. There certainly wasn’t an active chapter in Illinois.

Today the organization numbers close to 18,000 members around the world! It truly is the only professional organization for children’s book writers and illustrators, offering programs, resources, conferences, workshops, educational materials, networking opportunities, grants and awards.

I’ve been Regional Advisor of the Illinois Chapter since 1994. With the help of countless volunteers across the state, I facilitate educational programming and networking opportunities for a state-wide membership of 800 writers and illustrators, edit the chapter newsletter, coordinate national and global efforts with my organizational counterparts and work with fellow children’s book community residents (writers, editors, illustrators, editors, publishers, agents, librarians, teachers, parents, booksellers, reviewers, children’s literature experts) to advocate children’s books and children’s book writing and illustrating.

What inspired you to become a leader in the children’s writing community? What were the rewards and drawbacks of your commitment to others?

In answering the questions for this interview, I realized how my Life has come full circle, how the parts have come together to make a most satisfactory whole — personally and professionally.

Living and working in the children’s book writing community gave me Happy Endings, empowerment opportunities, life-changing friendships, a chance to realize my secret dream. The friends, allies and mentors of any Hero’s plot line peopled my plot line, too. The very people I need to get my books into the hands readers are the very same people who taught me my craft, informed me about my industry and gifted me with a love of children’s literature: teachers, librarians, booksellers, reviewers and fellow writers and illustrators. I simply return to community members what was given to me and suggest, as an RA, that others do the same.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

I tell kids, my clients, and writing students: everyone has a story worth telling. Period. And no two stories are the same. The writer’s job is to figure out the best way to tell it so it resonates with readers.

I continually preach, in my workshops, in my classes, in my school visits, in my SCBWI work: write, read, connect! Write in varying formats, for varying audiences, in various genres. And save your writing: nothing is ever wasted. Read across all formats, all audience-levels, all genres. Find those books that sound or look like yours. Study their structure, their pacing, their sentences, determine their successes, evaluate their failures.

When I first began, I read everything Marjorie Weiman Sharmat wrote. I cut apart the books, then re-pasted the pages. I typed out her words, her narrative, her dialogue. Publishers give us 5,000 books each year to study and learn from — to draw hope from, too, as we work on our stories. And connect with your world, your writing community and yourself. What better way to meet the friends, allies and mentors who will sustain you?

We write and illustrate in private spaces, small rooms often physically removed from the world. Yet our stories are meant to be told to people. A professional organization, such as SCBWI, and a hard-working supportive Writing Group can help writers and illustrators bridge that necessary gap. Even when I wasn’t the Regional Advisor of SCBWI-Illinois, I believed in the Truth of Six Degrees of Separation. “Introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you!” I always admonish members when we gather for programs. “You’re six people away from the person you need to know!”

Where do you turn for instruction and inspiration?

Children’s books illuminate my path. Richard Peck commented, “We write in the light of every book ever written.” I mentioned my Heroine — Brave Irene. “How much longer can a small person keep this struggle up?” she wonders. LaVaughn, in Virginia Euwer Wolff’s TRUE BELIEVER, comments, “I shall rise to the occasion that is Life.” Dr. Seuss’s “OH, THE PLACES YOU WILL GO!” inspires me to go forward, despite the existence of perils and nay-sayers.

I also draw courage from my colleague’s struggles and triumphs, whether they lead to publication or not. The members of the children’s book community are generous in spirit: they share resources, insights and advice and offer helping hands. Working with writers, I learn people’s stories, I hear their hearts beat and my Spirit can only rise. This past year I’ve worked with teachers, chefs, lawyers and doctors. I’ve worked with grief-stricken parents, cancer-ridden adults, sexual abuse victims and Viet Nam refugees. Everyone has a story worth telling.

Are you interested in speaking to groups? If so, how can interested parties contact you?

My Former Shy Self is long-gone. Some days I find myself talking with three hundred Kindergardeners and first-and-second graders in a packed gymnasium — sharing my personal story, my characters’ stories and my writer’s story — revealing to the world the passion I once kept secret. I also share my knowledge of the children’s book publishing industry with parents and educators and recently have presented several family literacy programs for kids and adults. Interested parties can e-mail me at: Writers can also e-mail me at the same address.

Any final words?

Children’s books help readers—and writers—make sense of their worlds. Given today’s Brave New World, children’s books are that much more important. When people ask me what I do, I smile and answer, “I’m in the Hope Business.”