Where were you born and grew up?
I was born in New York City, but my grown up years were in Wenatchee, a small town in Eastern Washington.
Tell us a childhood incident in which you misbehaved.
Me, misbehave? Surely, you are thinking about someone else! Okay, yes we tormented our brother. I say, "we" because generally it was a group effort by the five sisters in the family. But let's see, where to begin on my individual bad stuff...
Perhaps the most humiliating experience was being demoted from room monitor in the third grade. I was the only student to be picked twice for room monitor by the teacher. So I was feeling pretty full of myself. The room monitor got to sit in a special desk and do special things like take the milk count. We were also supposed to keep order, but when the teacher left and some kids started acting up... well, I just laughed along them.
When Miss Ross came back, someone told on me and I was publicly stripped of my Room Monitor status. I had to clear out my pencils, etc, form the special desk and march back to my plain, old regular desk with the whole class watching.
Your mother took you and your siblings to mountains and deserts in search of rare birds. Did you see any?
I don't know how rare they really were, but we were ever in search o f the Lewis and Clark woodpecker. A red-eyed vireo came through once. Another time my mother got incredibly excited and came running for her binoculars. She'd glimpsed what looked to be an amazing bird in our back yard. She raced to the back dining room and I hear her burst out laughing. What she's spied was my brother dangling a red and green model airplane from his bedroom window.
You have a degree in psychology and another in English/Creative writing. Has the degree in psychology helped you write books with grumpy characters such as Bear in the multi-award winner A Visitor for Bear?
Unfortunately, I have to admit grumpy characters come pretty naturally to me. I suppose the connection between the two is a big interest in what makes people tick.
Have your children ended up in your books? If so, how do they feel about it?
Not them specifically, but some of my experiences with them have been behind some of my books. For example, my book “My Brother the Robot” about a boy whose Dad buys a robot to be an example to the boy of a perfect son. That came from one of my daughters almost missing her race at a swim meet because both she and I ended up, well… spacing out. She was thoroughly scolded when she got down to the pool for her race and of course she came in dead last. I felt bad for her and bad that I hadn’t kept better track of the time. That night I was thinking about being a perfect parent with a perfect kid and realized it would be awful! It would be like being robots.
What has the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrator done for you?
An incredible amount. When I first decided to focus my writing on children’s books, I joined SCBWI and met people and learned things that would have taken me years to stumble upon on my own. I’ve met editors and agents and other writers at SCBWI conferences, become connected with area booksellers through them, been featured as a speaker and teacher at meetings and conferences. It’s an organization that seems to be able to offer an opening to the “next step” when I’ve been ready. Joining SCBWI is the first thing I recommend to anyone interested in writing for children.
Do you belong to a critique group? If so, how has it helped you? Do you always trust what the group says? Or do you go home and think about what they are saying?
I belong to two groups. An on-line group that gives feedback whenever needed and a real life group that meets once a month. I trust what my groups say, in that, I know they are all good writers and good critiquers and sincerely want the best book for me. And I’ll almost always at least try what they suggest. But I don’t do it blindly. After all, ultimately I have to decide what works and what doesn’t.
How do you know when an idea won’t work as a picture book?
A picture book has to be both simple and profound. I know an idea won’t work if the storyline is too complex—most picture books can only sustain one single straightforward plot line. But, that can be easy to fix. What’s essential is the underlying point of the story.
I say “point” hesitantly since you don’t want a message to drive your story. But “underneath” the obvious storyline, a good picture book will say something deeper about the world.
For example, Jane Yolen’s “How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night.” The storyline is completely charming just on its surface. Big, cry-baby dinosaurs stomping and whining about going to bed to the dismay of their much smaller human parents.
A lesser story might have had dinosaur parents, if the whole point were simply the slap-stick humor. But the more profound, more universal idea under the story is the fact that these human parents, while mildly dismayed, aren’t the least bit intimidated or angry about this problem. They are calm and in control.
A young child’s feelings of angry and frustration must feel like dinosaurs to them. Big, out-of-control things. How reassuring it is to have parents who can handle the dinosaur emotions that you can’t quite handle yourself, yet. That, to me, is the wonderful, underlying appeal of that book.
Some people ask writers of children books when they are going to write a book for adults. Could you, please, speak about the value of writing books for children?
What could be more important than the stories we tell our children? It’s the main way we transmit our culture, our values and our wisdom about life. Those are the years when ideas are new; when the mind is open; when the questions are deep and basic. Kids are just naturally trying to figure out life. And so you feel an extra responsibility to the art. And it is an art.
I suspect when people ask about writing a book for adults, they think it’s a step up from the simpler and easier (writing for children) to the harder (writing for adults.). But, as simple and easy as kids book may look--and some are simplistic and some are just plain lazy-- the good ones are just as hard, if not harder to write than an adult novel. The demands on craft are high. You have to keep your story tightly focused; your descriptions concise and powerful and you have to come to some sort of conclusion. No, you don’t get to wander off into a treatise on the fishing industry or lavish a couple pages on describing the small town or end your story in vague, non-committal despair. I don’t belittle this. It’s great to sometimes have that bigger stage to walk around on. But the smaller form can be harder. One of my favorite sayings is: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.”
I also like this quote by W. H. Auden: "There are good books which are only for adults, because their comprehension presupposes adult experiences, but there are no good books which are only for children."
Is your middle-grade novel Holbrook: A Lizard’s Tale based on people who have belittled what you do?
Holbrook is about a lizard who wants to be an artist, but he doesn’t feel appreciated in his small town and leaves to find fame, fortune and adventure in the big city.
Since I’ve been a writer, I’ve rarely run into that—being belittled. Most people are really interested and I get a lot of positive attention out of it. But it was a feeling I had as a kid—that a life in the arts was odd. I felt out of step with my hometown in a lot of ways. It was probably just my own defensiveness, but the arts just didn’t seem to be something very valued. And, although I wanted to be a writer for as long as I could remember, I didn’t really see it as a serious possibility until I was in my 20s.
What is easier for you to write, a picture book or a middle-grade novel?
Boy, that’s a hard one. Probably a picture book. Picture books ultimately take a long time to truly condense and polish, but if I have a good idea I’m pretty confident I’ll figure out a way to make it work. With longer books, I’m not as confident. There’s so much more to wrap my mind around and I feel like I stumble about for a long time before I understand what I’m really writing about.
You have done several other jobs related to writing. Speak about them. Don’t they take the same energy as writing?
I teach at the
Whidbey Island MFA Program in Writing. And, until recently, I did private critiques and edits and taught for the ’s Literature. They do take a lot of the same energy. It’s all about figuring out story and what makes it work and why. I do like teaching, though. And writing is so solitary; it’s good to have something that drags me out of the house! Institute of Children
Is it hard to apply lessons you give to your students to your own work?
Yes! It’s really hard to see your own work. And, in the end, there are no hard and fast rules. The only real question is: does it work? Does the story have that energy, that magic? Writing classes give you practice, feedback and methods to try when things aren’t working—but even if you teach all those things it doesn’t mean you won’t have the same problems as any writer.
You have two new books out, A Birthday for Bear and The Magical Ms. Plum. The latter has already received a wonderful review from Kirkus. Please, tell us about both books and where you will be signing.
“A Birthday for Bear” is a follow-on to “A Visitor for Bear.” In it Bear is his usual fastidious, grumpy self on his birthday—even denying that it is his birthday! Mouse disguises himself as the deliveryman, the postman, even as Santa Claus, trying to get Bear to admit it’s his birthday and enjoy the day. By the way, there are four more Mouse and Bear books in the works.
“The Magical Ms. Plum” is a middle grade novel about a third grade school teacher with a magical supply closet. Whenever she asks her students to get her an eraser or a pencil or some paper clips, they come back with a miniature animal and each chapter involves a different child, a different animal and a different adventure. A lot of the reviews have called it a modern-day Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.
At this time, I only have two signings coming up. I’m doing a story hour at
Third Place Books at Ravenna in at 11 a.m. on Oct. 3 and a signing at the Seattle Aurora Ave. Costco at 1:00 p.m. on Oct. 17. I’ll be listing other signings as they come up on my website: bonnybecker.com
A Visitor for Bear has been listed as a New York Times Bestseller and in Oprah Children’s Book Club. It has won The Golden Kite Award, E.B. White read Aloud Award, ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year for Picture Books, Amazon.com’s Best Picture Book of 2008. How does it feel to be famous?
Well, it’s hard to handle all the staring. And I do feel a little guilty when I’m ushered to the front of the line at famous restaurants, but… okay, so nobody outside of SCBWI conferences has a clue, but it does feel wonderful to have a book receive such recognition. But even more than that is the satisfaction of writing a really good book.
I’m always pushing to do better with each book and, I feel, in “A Visitor for Bear” and the other Mouse and Bear books that I’ve come the closest to the kind of writing I want to do. It’s a great feeling.