Ten writers for children. All with something to say.


Today is November 5th, 2008 and with yesterday's election results I am finding it very hard to concentrate on anything but the celebration of hope for my children, the environment, education, and our relationship to the world. Last night's speech from Grant Park was brilliant! I have not felt this hopeful about America for many, many years. And thinking back many, many years to when I was young and in the schools, there was no such thing as "Visiting Authors". The school librarian I remember was more concerned with clean and careful hands touching her books than in revealing the human being behind the story to our young and impressionable minds. She was so strict, I became afraid of books. Afraid of leaving a mark that might incur her wrath! Thus...
  1.  I was all grown up when I met my first author, Debra Frasier. She had just sold her first manuscript. It would soon become a children's picture book called On the Day You Were Born. Since I was all grown up and a painter from New York, I thought it very quaint to make a children's book. But when I read Debra's manuscript, I was moved to tears by its powerful poetry and meaning.
  2. Debra Frasier took me to my first children's bookstore, The Red Balloon Bookshop. Since I was all grown up and read only adult books, I thought it was very quaint to have a bookstore only for children's books. But when I saw books like The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg and Swamp Angel, illustrated by Paul O'Zelinsky an entirely new world of artistic possibilities opened up.
  3. Working as an Artist in the Schools I was often asked to present at Young Writer's Conferences. At these events I met many authors of all kinds: poets, novelists, children's book writers. I met the author, David LaRochelle many years ago at a Young Writer's Conference and he recommended that I read a book called Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. I was all grown up and thought reading a book for young teens quaint. But then I read it and I have been reading almost exclusively YA literature since. 
  4. Several years ago, I was invited to go on a studio tour of four different children's book illustrators: Jill McElmurry, Derek Anderson, Mike Wohnoutka, and Rick Chrustowski. Visiting each of their studios gave me insight into their process that I will cherish forever. I was illustrating children's books of my own by then, but had not completely let go of my grown-up notions about art and children's books and these visits were pivotal in stepping deeper into my life as a picture book illustrator.
  5. As an illustrator I get to meet the authors of my books. I do not speak to them while I am illustrating their story, but afterwards we have much to share and talk about. What a gift!
  6. When I met the author, Anne Ylvisaker at an SCBWI conference in LA, we decided to start a writer's group when we returned to Minneapolis. 
  7. After the first meeting I went home and wrote Winter is the Warmest Season in five days. I loved the story so much that I sent it to my editor at Harcourt and she loved it so much that I had sold my first manuscript before the second meeting of my writer's group! 
  8. Because of children's books I have finally fully grown up and rediscovered my childhood. I lead a life that offers meetings with authors and illustrators in person on a regular basis. It is a far cry from the clean and careful hands that school librarian required.


Betsy loves Larry.

#1. I was introduced to my first author the day I was born. His name was Larry Callen and he wrote me a letter about the family I had just joined.

#2. Larry is my uncle, my mother's oldest brother. On childhood birthdays hence, he wrote me a letter. I loved his letters because they were typed and they arrived by post. That seemed special and noteworthy, I was drawn to them. And I liked how he addressed them to me.

#3. When I was seven my Uncle Larry sent me a big box for Christmas. He lived in Maryland then and it arrived on Christmas Eve by post. Inside the box was my own set of Children's Encyclopedia. I was awestruck.

#4. Larry always carried a small notebook and pen in the top pocket of his shirt. If his shirt didn't have a top pocket, he would wear a cardigan that had two pockets, one would hold his words, the other his pen.

#5. In between time's ticking, he raised four little ones, built a career in publishing, and brought words to life for children. I include myself here, because he brought words to life inside me. He published his first book, Pinch, in 1975. Many others followed including Sorrow's Song, If the World Ends, Who Kidnapped the Sheriff, Dashiel and the Night, Contrary Imaginations, The Muskrat War, Xavier's Fantastic Discovery, The Just Right Family. Larry did all sorts of writerly things like being a founding member of the Children's Book Guild, hosted annual conferences, and a plethora of SCBWI activities. He was in a writer's group with Phyllis Naylor and collection of distinguished children's writers. He would introduce me into his circle as his niece, the writer. I always smiled when he said that.

#6. After reading a draft of an evolving first novel, he sent me this comment on the title page "I wish I could have written this."

#7. Several drafts later, I received a small rectangular box in the mail. Inside the box was white tissue paper and inside the wrapping was a bookmark with the names of all the Newbery Award Winners and the dates of their honor printed upon it. At the end of the list, Larry had typed my name.

#8. This generosity nurtured me as a writer and a human being, and I feel grateful. He introduced and mentored me into the writing heart and, thus, the art of kind living.

#9. In his book, Sorrow's Song, there is a character named Sorrow who can't talk. She was his favorite character. The narrator is a character called Pinch Grimball. Pinch and Sorrow are best friends. There is also a character called Zoo Man. Zoo Man buys animals. I'll let Larry share the rest:

You can tell about grown-ups if you study them. Some of them yell pretty good, but if you wait out their yelling, they will sooner or later start saying please do this or please do that. Then you can decide if you want to or not. Other kinds don't say a word. They just look at you, and you know if you don't do what they are thinking, there's going to be a problem. My dad's pretty much like that. But the Zoo Man was somewhere in between. You could tell he wasn't really a mean man. Mean men are the worst kind. My dad says they are like a wagon with a cracked wheel. If they don't get fixed, they are going to do somebody harm sooner or later . . .

"What you kids doing out of school?"
"We are on our way," I told him.
He looked at Sorrow . . .
"Is he telling the truth, pretty girl?" he asked.
Sorrow Nix is as good a friend as I ever hope to have. She is so smart, I don't even like to think about it. She knows words I never heard of. But Sorrow can't use words the way most people can. Sorrow can't talk. I don't know why she can't talk. That's just the way it's always been.
She looked at him. It was always hardest when she tried to talk to someone for the first time. She smiled. She nodded her head. Bu he kept looking at her, waiting for her to say something to him. Finally she got tired of being stared at and pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket. She searched around for a pencil and started writing.
"We are on our way," she wrote.
"What's the matter with you?" he asked. "Cat got your tongue?" He was smiling. Sorrow looked up at him and smiled back. Didn't bother her any that he didn't know she couldn't talk.
"Gimme your hand," he said. She did, not knowing what was on his mind. He started squeezing it hard in his big hand. Sorrow looked up at him. If she could have cried out, she would have. Instead she only moaned and tried to pull her hand back. There were tears welling in her eyes.
The Zoo Man dropped her hand. His big arms plopped to his sides. He looked at her and pulled his fingers to his face like he was praying. I could hear him breathe into his hands.
"Can't you really talk?" He looked at her. "Lord child, I'm truly sorry. I never would've squeezed your soft little hand so hard 'less I thought you were trying to make fun of me. He looked at Sorrow. Now it was his turn to have watery eyes.
He opened up his arms and moved closer to her. He wanted to give her a hug. But she backed off. She wasn't too keen on being hugged by strangers who went around squeezing girls' hands. When he saw that she wasn't going to let him hug her, he stopped.
"What's your name?" he asked.
At first she didn't do a thing. Then she slowly pulled out her crumpled brown piece of paper and her pencil and wrote her name.
"Sorrow's no name for a little girl," Zoo Man said. He looked at her for the longest time. Then his eyes dropped to the ground like he was thinking of something. Something sad. All of the sudden his head popped up and he stared her straight in the eyes.
"I never knew a person who couldn't talk in my whole life. You seen a doctor about it?"
It was kind of funny. Not to him, but to us. Sorrow knew she couldn't talk. Maybe she would like to, but it didn't bother us too much. She never told me it did.

#10. Larry published weekly newsletters. The day he died he published his last newsletter, it was his 959th. He died this past January 12. He was 80 years old. I received it three days after his death. The newsletter was dated January 14. Larry left me with his words.

#11. One of the articles in his newsletter is titled, "Polite Rejection." He had recently finished a manuscript titled "Grandfather, Grandmother" and sent it to his long-time publisher, Little Brown. He wrote,"It bounced back with a polite letter of rejection. I'm going to send it out again soon."

A Lifetime of Inspiration

*When I was in third grade Wilson Rawls, author of Where the Red Ferns Grow, visited my school and talked about the process that had produced what was, at the time, my favorite book.

*In fifth grade, each student in my class had to write a letter to an author. I chose Donald Sobel, author of the Encyclopedia Brown series. He wrote back, answering my questions, and included a sticker that read: Encyclopedia Brown, America’s Sherlock Holmes in Sneakers.

*Several years later, after my family had moved to Fairbanks, I got an after school job at a small local newspaper, the All-Alaska Weekly. During my four years there I met numerous regional writers and also earned my first publication credits, writing Police Blotter blurbs.

*In college, I took my first writing class. As Hans Ostrom, my professor, read the attendance list on the first day of class, he said, “Mark Roughsedge: what a great writer’s name.” It sounded good to me!

*By the mid-Eighties I was back in the Seattle area and the Elliott Bay Book Company began advertising author readings. A friend and I went to see Roberta Smoodin – and we were the only two people to show up! The three of us sat at a table and talked writing for an hour.

*As this “author readings” idea became more popular, the events soon became standing room only. I was there in the crowds, dozens of times, being inspired by the likes of Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, David Foster Wallace, Jim Welch, and many others.

*Back in Alaska for the Nineties, I made do with reading author biographies and interviews in the CLC and DLB collection at the Fairbanks library, where overstuffed chairs and a fireplace provided comfort and warmth throughout the brutal winters.

*After writing my own version of the Great Alaskan Novel (A Garden Path) my list of story ideas seemed more suited to MG or YA, so I began honing my craft in that direction. Workshops and residencies ensued. Over the last few years I have studied with authors ranging from David Greenberg and Stephanie Bodeen to Kirby Larson, Patricia Hermes, and Mel Boring.

*I joined SCBWI several years ago and now belong to a critique group that includes Stephanie Bodeen and Joni Sensel.

*Looking back, I can see how each of these experiences inspired me at different points in my life. With any luck (and more hard work) a young third grader might some day list my name as someone who encouraged his or her own aspirations of becoming an author!


The First Author I Ever Met

The first author I ever met was Charlotte Huck. She was about 75 by the time our paths crossed, but I credit her with encouraging me to write again after 20 years of silence. Here are ten things I remember about her:

1. She wrote Princess Furball and Creepy Countdown, among other things.
2. She was a beloved Professor at Ohio State.
3. Mem Fox and Anita Lobel were close friends of hers.
4. Annie was the name of her Sheltie.
5. She had a children's book library that rivalled any library I'd ever visited.
6. She hosted a dynamic children's book conference in Redlands.
7. African Violets sat on the windowsill of her dining room.
8. She had a wicked sense of humor and said "Oh Spit," when she messed up.
9. She loved children's literature and its writers.
10. She was generous with her time and talents.

I think of her often and thank her for pushing me forward.