Carole Estby Dagg might be children’s literature’s best-prepared overnight sensation of 2011. Her historical fiction novel The Year We Were Famous is a momentous debut. The author even chose relatives as her heroines. This well-read, library-dwelling, ever-researching writer succeeded, and will keep succeeding. Historical fiction authors may base a character on her someday!
Carole, what’s good right now about children’s literature?
Since the early 1950’s when I started volunteering in my school library and the 60’s when I started work as a children’s librarian, I’ve seen a lot of changes in children’s books—most of it good.
Fifty years ago, many children’s non-fiction books were illustrated with simple line drawings because color photographs were too expensive. Now almost every non-fiction book is lavishly illustrated with crisp color photographs of realia that bring history, geography, zoology, and the arts to life. The improvements in color work have also made picture books a worthy showcase for an inspiring range of artists.
Books for children and young adults have developed a much broader range of viewpoints and subject matter over the last fifty years. More cultures are represented. Formerly taboo subjects—but subjects many real-life children have to deal with—have become mainstream. The quality of nonfiction, particularly in biographies, has also improved. Anyone old enough to remember the “biographies” based on apocryphal tales and fictional dialogue should be delighted with the more recent biographies (think of those by Russell Freedman) which replace fanciful dialogue with solid research and a storyteller’s flair.
What can be done to make that “good” better?
All the gains from the dazzling color print technology, diversity of cultures and subject matter, and the improvement in non-fiction writing will be lost if the selection of materials readily available to children shrinks due to bookstores stocking only blockbusters and reading fads. Fortunately, this narrowing can be prevented—or at least retarded—by readers and their parents. Libraries and independent bookstores connect children hands-on with the widest range of the fine books being written now. They bring authors and their readers together. My advice: patronize your local independent bookstore. Support your public and school libraries.
Carole Estby Dagg writes in Everett, Washington and her writer’s shack on San Juan Island. Her young adult historical fiction, The Year We Were Famous, was published by Clarion, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in 2011. She is at work on a sequel and has boxes of research notes for other historical fiction based on audacious young women who lived from the 8th to the 20th centuries. Find out more about The Year We Were Famous on Carole’s website and book trailer.
From cover to cover, she gives all. She may never hold a “most books ever” record for illustrators.
However, it would be a challenge finding someone who has more fun matching pictures to words.
Katherine, what’s good right now about children’s literature?
The book. The delicious physical thinginess of the book. The book with its variety of sizes and shapes, a place where story unfolds with the dramatic turn of a page. I love the smell and feel of books, the ink and paper, the surprises you sometimes find on the endpapers or under the dust jacket. I love reading books, looking at books, and celebrating the beauty of this art form.
In your perspective, what can make that “good” better?
Healthy libraries and flourishing independent bookstores. Both are challenged right now. They need our continued support.
I live in a house on a hill in San Francisco. My studio is in a cozy corner of our home, a space filled with brushes and bottles, scraps of paper and paints. Our two dogs, Chi and Samantha keep me company while I work.
I remember the first time I painted a picture and the paint went where I wanted it to go. I was in third grade, working with watercolors and was very excited by the experience. Now, I render in oil paint and cut paper.
Picture books fill many of the bookcases in our home and have always held a special place in my heart. I love this form of storytelling that pairs carefully chosen words with imaginative illustrations and binds them together in a package for hands to hold.
Currently, I am working on my seventh picture book and the work continues to give me the same pleasure and excitement I felt so long ago in grade school when I brushed paint on paper and watched it form a tree.
Visit Katherine Tillotson’s website.
Catherine Urdahl writes like a veteran author. Scanning her website, it seems that her first work was a self-published picture book at age eight. the daughter of a grade school teacher, Catherine learned the value of stories early. She’s passing on that uplifting wisdom to new generations.
Catherine, what’s the good news about children’s literature right now?
In the real world—barring a Freaky Friday switch—we live in our own skin and see events through our own eyes. But today’s children’s books draw readers into the lives, thoughts, and emotions of a diversity of characters tackling an array of tough challenges. A child doesn’t have to be homeless to feel Georgina’s pain and humiliation when her best friend finds out she lives in a car (How to Steal a Dog by Barbara O’ Connor). A child born in America can feel the struggles of new immigrant Yoon, who doesn’t like the way her name looks in English and just wants to go back to Korea (My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits). And a typically functioning child can glimpse the world of an autistic boy through the eyes of Ted, whose “brain runs on a different operating system from other people’s” (The London Eye Mystery by Siobhan Dowd). Books—unlike television and movies—pull children into the inner lives of characters. The character becomes part of the child, helping her see events through a different point of view. Certainly that ability has the potential to make our world a better, more peaceful place.
From your perspective, what can be done to make that “good” even better?
Those of us with a passion for children’s literature must commit ourselves to getting books into the hands and hearts of ALL children. This happens in hundreds of ways—by talking to parents at all socioeconomic levels about the importance of family reading time; by reading to children in homeless shelters, crisis centers, and preschools; by collecting books for schools and libraries in at-risk communities…. The list is as long as the creativity and commitment of all of us.
Catherine Urdahl is the author of two children’s picture books—Polka-dot Fixes Kindergarten and Emma’s Question. Catherine conducts school visits and teaches classes in children’s writing at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. She is a 2008 graduate of the Loft Master Track program in children’s literature and a 1984 graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. A member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Children’s Literature Network, Catherine attends workshops at both the local and national level. She is married and has two daughters and a pet rabbit. Visit Catherine’s website.
Would you rather laugh or cry?
An author’s attitude leaps off the page early in any book. April Halprin Wayland’s writing proves that she enjoys both the journey of creation and the destination of another memorable story. Best of all, she’s taking us along for the ride.
April, what’s good right now about children’s literature?
What’s good is that children’s literature, like cable TV, seems to be actively looking for niche audiences. So, although it feels a bit confused out there, as publishers stand in their doorways and cross their arms, refusing to buy our manuscripts until they figure out the new platforms and percentages, as the song in West Side Story says, “There’s a place for us.”
…or perhaps that’s just my personal experience. I’ve written picture books and a novel in poems, but the book that’s gotten the most attention is New Year at the Pier, about a little-known celebration within the Jewish New Year. Who knew? And one of my fellow bloggers, Esther Herschenhorn has a new board book out about the great state of Illinois.
Also, as much as we seem to be losing ground with school and community libraries and independent bookstores, I see a light at the end of the tunnel where these are again appreciated and honored as portals to pleasure and knowledge.
In your perspective, what can make that “good” better?
Go to your library and bow down to the children’s librarian.
Resist the urge to buy through Amazon…buy from your local independent bookstore instead.
Hone your craft so that publishers aren’t flooded with “good enough” manuscripts…when they read the first page of yours, make them feel they’re in the hands of a solid writer.
Cock your head and look at your story sideways—what is the niche audience that’s dying for this story?
In working on a picture book with an editor recently, I had to let go—I had to give up setting my book in Hawaii, which is what triggered the idea of this story in the first place. It was hard to open my hands and let her tug Hawaii out of the story. But as my friend Janet Wong advised me when I was wrestling with the editorial suggestions from another book, “Just try it her way.” It was SOOOO hard…but I tried it…and she was so right!
April Halprin Wayland is a farmer turned folk musician turned author. Her work has been called “dazzling,” “honest,” “heartfelt,” and “utterly fresh and winning.” Her critically acclaimed novel in poems, Girl Coming in for a Landing, her picture books, and her poetry have garnered numerous awards including the Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor Award for Children’s Poetry and the Myra Cohn Livingston Award for Poetry; April’s New Year at the Pier, a Rosh Hashanah Story won the Sydney Taylor Gold Medal for the best Jewish Children’s Picture Book of the Year, awarded by the Association of Jewish Libraries. She has taught in the UCLA Extension’s Writers Program for over a decade and blogs at TeachingAuthors.com. Visit aprilwayland.com.