Tuesday, June 22, 2010

An Interview with Lois Lowry

Photo credit Rhys Lowry

Today’s guest is Lois Lowry, who has long been one of my favorite authors of children’s books. The following are only some of her numerous literary awards: the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award (1977), for A Summer to Die; the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (1987), for Rabble Starkey; the Newbery Medal (1990), for Number the Stars; the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award (1991) for Number the Stars; the Mark Twain Award, (1991), for All About Sam; a second Newbery Medal (1994), for The Giver; and the Margaret A. Edwards Award (2007), for The Giver – this last is an award given for outstanding lifetime contribution to writing for teens.

Q. When you were a small child you memorized the poem "Thanatopsis", essentially a meditation on death, by William Cullen Bryant. Do you think that poem resonated with you later and impacted some of your own thematic interests?
A. No, the poem had very little meaning for me thematically when I was a young child. But I connected it to my grandfather—to the pleasure of his reading to me, the sound of his voice, the feel of his vest against my cheek as I sat on his lap and listened. There were some phrases in the poem that I related to; I remember “the speechless babe and the gray-haired man” (I may be mis-quoting that, after almost 70 years!) but for the most part I enjoyed simply the cadence and sound, without any comprehension of the meaning.

Q. As a child you wrote stories and poems. You won writing awards in high school. After you married and dropped out of college, during those “interrupted education” years, did you continue to write at home?
A. Not for a while. I had four children in five years, and so had little time for the solitary pursuit that serious writing always is. Then, when my youngest began kindergarten, I went back to college, then to graduate school, and began doing serious academic writing. And eventually: fiction. But by that time my kids were teenagers.

Q. In your more serious books, the writing becomes quite lyrical. Do you still read or write poetry?
A. I read poetry often. Right now I am at my summer home, so I don’t have access to the collection of poetry books that I keep in my office in my “regular” house. But when I am there, I am likely to pick up a book of poetry at the beginning of each day. (Here, in summer, I subscribe to “The Writer’s Almanac” which delivers a poem each morning to my computer). I rarely write poetry myself---just occasional verse for some reason or another. But reading it reminds me very powerfully of the rhythm and lyricism of language, and of the subtlety of it when it is distilled, as poetry forces the writer to do. I think it is a good way, for me at least, to get my head and my ear into the world of voice and sound and words.

Q. All your writing is visual, with a strong sense of color. In the Anastasia books, Anastasia’s mother is a painter. In addition to your photography, what part do visual arts play in your own life?
A. I am a collector of art rather than a producer of it! I have many friends who are painters—or illustrators—and both my houses are filled with their work. I have one guest room in my Massachusetts house which is filled with work by children’s illustrators who are friends: Allen Say, Rosemary Wells, Diane DeGroat, others. And in another room in that house I have one of the paintings from my own book Crow Call, which is illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. My office—I call it the studio, actually—in Maine is a room I created off of the barn. And on its walls are photographs by me.

Q. What books most appealed to you when you were growing up? Did they have a common theme, or were they quite varied?
A. Varied, I think. But it is clear, from my memories, that I preferred realistic fiction. Two favorites were The Yearling and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I think I most liked reading about young people, protagonists to whom I could relate, who experienced enormous hardship, sometimes tragedy, and who made their way through it with determination and grace.

Q. You’ve mentioned you wrote your first book when you were about nine or ten. What was it about, and what was the title?
A. Well, I have a copy of a letter from me which was published in a children’s magazine the summer of 1947, when I was ten. It says, “I am writing a book called A Dog Named Lucky. I am on Chapter 13.” Of course the chapters I wrote at age 10 were considerably shorter than those I write now.

Q. In an interview you mentioned you often feel pulled along by ideas whirling in your head and that you have to scramble to keep up with them. How do you know when one of those ideas is going to “gel” into a new book? How do you know a story is finished?
A. When something keeps gnawing at me—a character, most often, but sometimes little more than a phrase—and doesn’t subside, then I know it is ready to be explored. Sometimes I start the exploration and it goes nowhere. Then I let it go. But usually once I begin, my interest and enthusiasm for it builds, and then it expands and becomes more complicated and is, eventually a book. As for when it is finished? When things come together. When earlier details reappear, changed (a red sled). When questions are answered. But—this is important, to me at least—when interesting questions remain, for the reader. Then it is done.

Q. You write in a range of “genres” – comical (Anastasia and Sam books; Gooney books), historical (Number the Stars), dystopian worlds (The Giver trilogy), and fantasy (Gossamer), and so many of them have won awards. You’ve also written a picture book (Crow Call). Any more picture books in the future?
A. Probably. I enjoyed the process, even though Crow Call was a story I had written (and published) many years earlier. (I did some minor re-writing to turn it into a picture book) And two current books (The Birthday Ball, published this spring, and Bless This Mouse, to be published next spring) are illustrated, though they are not picture books.

Q. It was one of your adult stories that made an editor suggest you should write a book for children, which lead to A Summer to Die. Do you think you’ll ever write fiction for adults again?
A. I could, I suppose. But I love what I do so much. And a writer for young people gets such wonderful feedback from readers. That is less true when you write for adults.

I’m 73, so I don’t have unlimited time, and there is so much I’d still like to do. I’ve written one play; working with theater directors has made me want to write another.

Q. Along life’s way, what was the best writing advice you ever received?
A. I had a professor of writing at Brown—Charles Philbrick—who told me to experience things. I didn’t know just what he meant, at the time; and now he is dead and I can’t ask him. But I’m guessing that he was saying that a writer needed to be keenly aware of feelings, perhaps even to study feelings and reactions in order to reproduce them in fiction. It might be akin to what Henry James said, that a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.

Lois Lowry’s latest book is The Birthday Ball, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. For those who wish to learn more about her or her books, visit: http://www.loislowry.com/index.html .

Friday, June 18, 2010

Summer Art Workshops

The summer art workshops have begun, and the class looks terrific: The kids are enthusiastic and focused. We did dot painting to get ready for a visit next week by Rachel Dillon, who wrote THROUGH ENDANGERED EYES, a picture book of poetry, wonderfully illustrated with her own pointillistic paintings, and with a glossary full of important facts about each animal. I took the book in to show the class, and the paintings were inspired by her pictures. The kids are really looking forward to her visit.

Meanwhile, a field trip to an art studio/gallery is in the works for next month. When that event arrives, I'll blog more about it then. For now, it's back to Granny's Jig.

Friday, June 11, 2010

An Interview with Jeri Chase Ferris

I was fortunate to interview Jeri Chase Ferris, the award-winning author of 12 biographies for children. She has won numerous awards in this field, including the 2000 Susan B. Anthony Award for "exceptional literary contributions to women’s history”, the 1995 Author-Illustrator Human and Civil Rights Award presented by the National Education Association, and she is a three-time winner of the Carter G. Woodson Award for the most distinguished books for young readers depicting ethnic diversity in the United States.

Q. You’ve had eleven biographies published, and a new one about Noah Webster is coming out in 2011. How did you get interested in writing biographies for young people?
A. I taught grades 2-4 in the inner city in LA for almost 30 years. About ten years into my teaching I saw (late, I know) a huge need. I wanted books with wonderful life role models for my students. Back in the 80s there weren’t many biographies of minority men and women who had made a difference in our world. So I decided to write one myself. After all, I thought, how hard can it be? As it turns out, pretty hard. After making some dismal attempts I enrolled in a NF for Children class at UCLA taught by Caroline Arnold. With her instructions in mind I wrote GO FREE OR DIE, the story of Harriet Tubman. Carolrhoda Books bought the manuscript, an editor flew to LA, we “did lunch,” and she asked me to write three more biographies: Sojourner Truth, Benjamin Banneker, and Noah Webster. In the following years I also wrote biographies of Abigail Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Biddy Mason, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Susan LaFlesche Picotte, Matthew Henson, and Marian Anderson. Most of my biographies are about minority figures, and they all stem from my wonderful years in the inner-city classroom.

Q. What was the most difficult biography you’ve written? What made it difficult?
A. As a historian, it’s pure joy to research the lives of my subjects and the times in which they lived. My most difficult biography was that of the first Native American woman doctor, because of the richness and the differentness (to me) of the Native American culture, and because of the unspeakable destruction of that culture by my own race. I must become the person I’m writing about to the fullest extent possible. Also, it is critical to render cultures accurately, honestly, knowingly. I lived in fear that I would be found out as an outsider. With the help of the tribal historian, who also wrote the introduction, Susan LaFlesche Picotte lives authentically in this book.

Q. Your biography of Noah Webster is a non-fiction picture book. Have you ever considered other picture books?
A. My NF picture book biography of Noah Webster will be out in spring 2012 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Noah was a great character to write about, full of quirkiness and opinions, and with so much more to his story than “merely” the first American dictionary. It was such a joy to capture his voice (I hope) for younger children that I would love to do another picture book biography. Even very young readers can be swept away in the life of another person. Let’s hear lots of five-year-olds saying, “I too can make a difference!”

Q. Your most recent book is historical fiction about the siege of Leningrad. What made you decide to switch from biography to fiction?
A. Because I needed to tell this story. Russia is my passion. The history is accurate; the characters are a combination of several Russian friends who survived the siege. I think historical fiction is absolutely the best of both my writing loves: historical research and accuracy, and the fun of creating fictional characters to live out a real time in real history.

Q. You and your late husband made over 30 trips to Russia and collected memorabilia and artifacts and documents that you donated to the Slavic Department at the University of Southern California. Do you still travel to Russia?
A. My husband Tom taught Russian Studies at Beverly Hills High School. We began traveling to the Soviet Union in 1970. Its history, culture, art, literature, language, music, people, and tragedy were like a magnetic force drawing us into the heart of Russia. (I am still working on the language.) Our Ferris Russian Collection, described as “unmatched in the western world,” is now housed in the Shrine Auditorium, adjacent to USC. You can have a look via a link on my website. As for traveling to Russia, alas, I have not been there since 2000 due to family issues including the death of my husband and a move to northern California. However, maybe – next year in Russia.

Q. As a reader, when you were a child, did you gravitate to fiction or nonfiction?
A. When I was young, in Lincoln, Nebraska, I rode my horse to the Carnegie Library on the outskirts of town and loaded my saddle bags with books – fiction like The Black Stallion and Misty of Chincoteague and Lassie and non-fiction like Horseman’s Encyclopedia (the first book I ever bought, by the way, and here on my shelf as we speak). Embarrassing for a NF historian to say, but back then I was most definitely drawn to fiction. Also back then it simply never occurred to me that an actual person wrote the books I was soaking up like a sponge. I thought they just appeared on the shelves for me to read. In my defense, this was in the days before authors made school visits. I had never seen or met an author, and the only person I connected with books was my beloved librarian. The black stallion was real to me, Walter Farley the author was not.

Q. What books have made a difference in your life?
A. This is tough! I had a long list of adult books, but decided to stick with the important ones – children’s books. When I was little, anything about horses, the Black Stallion series, of course, Pam’s Paradise Ranch, Narnia, Mary Poppins. Books that made a difference in my writing include Charlotte’s Web, Tuck Everlasting, Hatchet, The Single Shard, Johnny Tremain. I remember reading Sarah, Plain and Tall, and almost weeping because I knew I could never write such a small and perfect book. Anything by Katherine Paterson or Richard Peck or Linda Sue Park or Deborah Wiles or James Marshall or William Steig or Jean Fritz or …. There are simply too many superb authors and books to list. Every award winner is a wonder and a lesson in how to do it right.

Q. What advice would you give a writer who wants to write biographies for children?
A. Read biographies for children. Read all the Newbery books. Read all local and national award-winning books. Be in a good, solid critique group. Join SCBWI and attend local and national conferences. Become familiar with the age group for which you’re writing. Decide whether you’re going to write a full life biography, or a slice of life in which your character achieved his/her most important accomplishments. Love research! Make your librarian your new best friend. Travel to sites your character inhabited. Haunt libraries, museums, and historical societies. Correspond with the experts in the field. Use the internet very carefully. Trace down primary sources such as letters, diaries, photos, newspapers of the time. Present your character as a real person by showing his/her flaws, doubts, and fears (in a balanced way). As much as is humanly possible, be your character as you tell his/her story. Develop your own unique style and voice. Constantly study award-winning biographies for children to learn how to create a fully alive character, in a real environment, living and interacting with historical events, and, very likely, influencing those events. Have your facts vetted by specialists. These specialists may even write introductions and blurbs for you, too.

Above all, enjoy with a passion what and who you are writing about. Your passion will make your character come alive on the page!

Jeri Chase Ferris can be contacted through her website, http://jerichaseferris.com/ , where you can learn more about her books, her awards, school visits, and the Ferris Russian Collection (under "links").

Meanwhile, for those reading this post, what books have made a difference to you in your life, and what biographies for children would you like to find on bookshelves?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Just a quick post today: Rachna Chhabria interviewed me about my book, The Fourth Wish, on her blog, Rachna's Scriptorium . You can read it at,

Rachna's Scriptorium is a great site for writers, by the way. In addition to interviewing writers, she writes thought-provoking essays about the whole enterprise of writing.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for two interesting interviews coming up soon: Writing for Hire, and Writing Biographies for Children.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Art Club and Art Shows

So much has been happening, I haven't had much time to blog. Friends visited from Spain and we were having a great time with them, doing a lot of sightseeing. Around that, I had Art Club lessons and author interviews. But before the Art Shows get too "old and cold", so to speak, I do want to mention them.

First, a word about the South Natomas Community Center Children's Art Club; Alex Vargas is the Center's director, a great supporter of art, and he is responsible for my being there. (He was familiar with an after school art club I did for years at my old school.) I teach the "club" one afternoon a week from 3:00 to 4:30. The students are ages 8-to-12, and all of them love art. It isn't an amorphous situation where kids have a variety of activities to choose from; they have come specifically for art. The parents are wonderfully supportive. Two or three of them help out in class regularly. The class caps at 20. This year we've averaged 16 on a regular basis, but the summer session has already filled up.

We cover a range of art techniques, concepts, and various artists: Still Life, Portraits, Landscapes, Abstract Art; soft and oil pastels, acrylic paint, watercolors, colored pencils, charcoal, etc. Students become familiar with bamboo brush painting at Asian New Year, works by Diego Rivera and Tamayo at Cinco de Mayo, Harlem Renaissance painters during Black History Month, Mary Cassat and Georgia O'Keefe during Women's History month, etc. Students keep portfolios and then take their work home at the end of the year. And in spring we usually have an art show at Art Ellis Art Supplies, and students sell their work.

So..., the shows:
This year, we actually had two: Art Ellis Art Supplies gave us the April Show, displaying student work in the window all through the month -- a really lovely way to make sure it gets wide viewing, and they've offered us the space for many years.

Then in May, we were fortunate to have a second show with Green Sacramento, a shop that specializes in environmental building and design products. We also had a reception on May 8th, serving punch and cookies early in the afternoon before the incredible Second Saturday Art Walk crowds arrived.

In both shows, student work was matted and was for sale -- $5.00 a painting, with $3.00 going to the artist, and the remaining $2.00 a "consignment fee". (In both cases, though, the stores refused the fee and put it back into our art supplies fund--a real kindness much appreciated.)

What has pleased me is how much these young artists are truly artists. By that, I mean they have what Robert Henri called the art spirit. Originally I planned for classes to be an hour a week, but the children asked for it to be longer so that they could paint or draw for a longer period of time! Some of them will be coming back this summer and again in the fall. With that kind of dedication, you know they are going to keep developing.

And this forces me to keep developing too!