Hooray! Okay, but you have to let me know when you're out of time so I don't take advantage of you.
Yes, yes, and YES! I was terrified of signings and public appearances for my first two years (I've only been doing this gig for four now). I felt sure all the kids especially would be devastatingly disappointed on meeting me. I would be boring, I wouldn't have wind speaking OR fire-speaking, and I don't have a cape (yet...).
I'm better now about the public stuff. Things that have worked for me: 1. I never read at "readings." I just chat, tell stories, answer questions. 2. I do my best to have fun (this may include karaoke).
And AMEN to the children's writer thing. I have a hundred stories about this, but here are two.
(This one is second hand so I hope I'm getting it right.) Brian Selznick told me he was at a party when he was writing the brilliant Invention of Hugo Cabret. He was speaking with a smart, accomplished woman (a lawyer, I believe). She asked what he did, and he said he was a children's book writer and illustrator, and told how he was having a really challenging time getting his current novel to work.
She said, "It's a children's book, right? How hard can it be?"
Here's a scenario I had just this week. I went to a local bookstore to see a former creative writing professor read her newest work of literary fiction.
After greeting her and telling her who I was, she (ever gracious--a really kind, lovely woman) turned to the bookseller present.
Professor: Let me introduce you to Shannon Bryner [my maiden name]. She was one of my students.
Bookseller: Actually, we know Shannon. She's kind of famous.
Professor: That's right! I heard you wrote a couple of kids' books?
Me: Yeah, that's right.
I could've mentioned the Newbery Honor but I don't think it would have meant anything to her. I could've mentioned the New York Times best seller list and published in 15 languages and that sort of thing, but that would have been a real neener-neener, wouldn't it? I usually don't offer information about my profession to people I meet. I'm a stay-at home mom and I'm happy for people to assume that's all I do. And the awkwardness of the replies, "Oh! Children's books. Hmm..." is something I like to avoid.
I imagine the only children's writer in the world that doesn't face the ghetto literature reaction is J.K. Rowling.
Do you have any personal stories? How did you stumble into children's lit or was it always your goal? How has the actuality of being a writer been different than what you expected or even hoped when you were younger? Is it better or worse or both?
I suppose that I should be more sympathetic to those who back away slowly. After all, I was once trapped in an airport lounge with the proud parents of a ghost writer for Francine Pascal's Sweet Valley High Books and I couldn't back away fast enough.
That wasn't a ghetto literature reaction, so much as proud parent one. (We, of course, never brag about our own children, right?) But I did sit next to an MFA student at a dinner party once. He explained that his *real* writing was going to have to wait while he made some quick cash - - writing a children's book.
I nearly fell off my seat. I didn't know which was funnier, the idea that he'd whip out a children's book, or that he would make any money doing it. He had this idea that his premiere picture book ought to net him twenty or thirty thousand dollars. ???
I didn't so much stumble into writing as I stumbled upon the entire field of children's books. I went to school at The University of Chicago and was wandering in the library when I found a room tucked into one corner of the building that was entirely filled with children's books. It was heaven. Only a clueless freshman wouldn't have recognized it as The Center for Children's Books, source of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, and one of the largest private collections of children's books in the country. It was a revelation to me that anyone over the age of fourteen paid any attention to kids' books, but here they all were, real, live grown-ups reading and reviewing Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones.
I took several graduate classes with Betsy Hearne, the editor of the Bulletin, and that gave me just enough credentials to get a job running the children's book section of a local bookstore after graduation. I worked on and off in bookstores for the next seven or eight years, but we moved frequently and I had to keep getting new jobs. Finally, I decided to put the energy into writing books instead of shelving them, but I doubt that I would have done that if my interest hadn't been validated, years before, by Betsy and the other people at the Center for Children's Books. I was very disappointed when the entire collection was sold to the University of Illinois.
Oooh, fifteen languages? I haven't kept count, but I think mine are in… six, maybe?
I do get very cool fan mail, though. When I read it, I tend to be very flattered that such neat people like my books. On the other hand, there are the letters from the oppressed; I get mail from a lot of children who are forced to read some book from the Newbery lists. They are usually in the fourth or fifth grade, and their letters often start like this:
My teacher made us pick a book from this list and yours looked like the least bad.
Generally, they go on to say how surprised they were that they actually liked the book, and they want me to write another one. But, every once in a while, I get letters from fourth graders who didn't make it to the end.
They are, to put it nicely, bluffing.
I'm never sure what to say. I don't want to get them in trouble with their teachers by revealing their bluff, but I want to tell them that it's perfectly all right to not like the book. I'd much rather have an honest letter in which they tell me how far they got and why they stopped, but I can't think of a way to tell them that.
You are on that list. Do you get those letters? How do you answer?
(...wait, I'm still laughing about making some quick cash writing a children's book...)
Yes, the school letter. I feel great gobs of guilt about that. I can't answer them anymore. I got behind on my correspondence near the end of my pregnancy and then after I had Maggie, and now I have 650 unanswered emails in my inbox. I do read them, but slowly, and sometimes by the time I get to them they're nine months old. My favorite kinds of school letters are ones like this. (I'm not making this up)
Hi, I have to do a report on you for class. Can you please answer these questions?
1. Describe the author's personal history.
2. What are the author's literary influences?
3. Write a critical review of the author's work.
4. List the books the author has written.
Thanks. I have Princess Academy and it looks really good!
Time right now is a mystery to me. I ache to be writing in earnest again. I get my 15 minutes a day, and then there are usually two opportunities a week to do another two hours, but that's all lately. I'm looking into some part time childcare options. I miss being a writer. I constantly have ideas and yearn to write them. I don't begrudge the time off I've had with my baby, but I'm so ready to dive back in again.
It was simpler with one child--when he napped, I wrote, end of story. Now we get creative. Did you write when your children were little? How do you manage your writing time now?
They don't ask you if you have any pets? My school report writers always want to know if I have pets.
Yes! You're right, always a pet question. One reason I include information about our "pet plastic pig" in my bio. I guess I get two kinds of school letters:
1. Teacher has student send an email to an author. I love these emails! They are so dear, another reason why I feel so much guilt about not answering.
2. Student has assignment to do a report about an author and emails me, trying to get me to do it for them. These emails tend to have awkward requests such as, "My report is due tomorrow so PLEASE RESPOND ASAP!"