Denise Turney, author of powerful women's books and a writer passionately promoting literacy for all children, interviews children author and SCBWI member Jonathan Pearce. Text of the interview is printed here with the author's permission.
What is it about children's books that appeals to you so much?
Children's and YA books most often directly address basic human issues, and the best of those books are relatively uncluttered by cant and best-seller fashion. [Top of Page]
Have you ever written an adult work of fiction? If so, what's different about writing a children's book versus writing an adult book of fiction?
Several of my Balona Books are more interesting to adults (example, Thing with Feathers). Experiences that (most) young people cannot have had--and wouldn't want to have, more complex sentences, a vocabulary youngsters find challenging, and ideas and environments that are unfamiliar and therefore "boring" to young people may be more interesting to older folks. I view the process and the story arc to be much the same. I believe that a story finds its readers. [Top of Page]
The market is so competitive. What can writers of children's books do to make their book stand out in the crowd?
I've been told, "get an agent." In fact, if you have published a book you believe in, compose a marketing plan and get some competent help with marketing. Your publisher is not likely to invest huge amounts in touting your product, unless you are Stephen King, et al. Competent editing is important. Book design is very important (including covers) if the book is to be marketed in bookstores. Most big newspapers and review journals won't review a self-published "vanity" book (Discussion Question: What publishing venture is not the product of somebody's vanity?). Therefore, getting yourself a traditional publisher is important (and not likely to happen nowadays without an effective agent). Network, network, network. "Connections" and "writers' groups" can provide valuable advice, perhaps can help you find an agent, a publisher. A Web site is now considered an important part of a marketing plan. If you have some design sense and are willing to learn HTML, creating your own Web site is not unthinkable. Of course, writing a great book will help! [Top of Page]
Tell us briefly about two of the favorite books you authored?
John Browne's Body & Sole was my first venture into fiction and holds fond memories for me. I was told by respectworthy authority that the book would "be improved with professional editing." I agreed, and [a revised, second edition is now on the market in a BalonaBook edition.] I am still impressed with the virtues of the story. It's about a 13-year-old of "mixed-race" who has school adventures, takes up aikido, has discussions about ethics and religion, loses his mother to cancer; so it has both chuckles and sniffles. It may even provide bibliotherapeutic effects.The Far Side of the Moon is now also on the market revised, in an excellent BalonaBooks edition. It is a story about a young nanny who came to California in 1870 with a group of Japanese refugees. The immigrants wanted to start a tea and silk farm, but had bad luck. The story is fiction based on fact. It's funny (one of the two narrators is a hare-brained American neighbor boy) and sad. The book has been critically acclaimed and is on the California Library Association's 2002 "Eureka!" Addendum of best books about California for children. (It's junior high level, but high school students and adults are finding it readable.) [Top of Page]
America has a large number of adults who are functionally illiterate. What do you think each book lover and each writer can do to encourage literacy and to encourage a love of good story?
The first is a tough problem and is intimately related to the problem of poverty, which is an even worse problem likely to be with us forever--or until we concentrate on solving it by (among other actions) making universal literacy an actual national priority (instead of a rhetorical flag to wave). Each person can agitate for the goal and prod our political representatives at every level to do something. (There are plenty of "somethings" that will help.) A companion problem with illiteracy is aliteracy--people who have learned to read, but do not read and instead play video games or watch TV. It seems obvious that reading requires active involvement with text. Activity is more strenuous than passivity. Possibly we need to find more tangible rewards for readers! As for the second--encourage a love of good story--just create good stories and tell them well, "and they will come." [Top of Page]
Have you ever experienced writer's block, and if so, what did you do to move beyond the block?
I have rarely had the problem as a major inhibitor. I sometimes have difficulty sorting out which idea should go with which project (story)--of which I always have several going. I simply write at whatever project I feel like addressing, editing myself later. [Top of Page]
Have you ever thought about performing your work live before an audience to gain exposure and to further connect with children who read and enjoy your books? Why or why not?
When asked, I read passages of my work for audiences of young people (captive in classrooms) and adults (captive at luncheons). Some are more responsive than others. I reward the more responsive members with proof-books (not-quite-perfect copies, like galleys and ARCs); the rest get bumper stickers. (You could get a Balona bumper sticker via my Website.) Being a long-time teacher, I am an experienced presenter, usually unstoppable for 48 minutes. I do the voices of my characters--or a passable imitation of them--but I don't tapdance, sing well, or play the flute. In future I may read aloud some of my stories for distribution via CD, if an entrepreneur should show interest. [Top of Page]
What advice would you give to a writer who was thinking about writing children's books? I've heard professionals in the book business say that a mistake some writers make when creating children's books is that they "write down" to the child. Children are very intelligent. Children are very sharp. What can writers do to insure their stories will be accepted and enjoyed by children?
Well, I think you've said most of it, Denise! Those children who read books are those more likely among their age-mates to be the intelligent, sharp ones. A good many (in my experience as a teacher) are also choosy, arrogant, prejudiced (already at five, not to speak of 15), and intolerant. They are also loving, kind, generous, sympathetic, cheerful, brave, friendly, and tolerant. In other words, young people (whom we have helped make in our adult image) are much like adults. They have not had the time to develop as many warts as adults, and they seem to be able to spot the phony more quickly than their jaded elders. My advice is pick a subject and write a story that you want to tell. Don't write it for kids (or other kids). If it turns out to be for kids, it will appeal to them. [Top of Page]
What do you think of the Harry Potter books? Also, why do you think more children's books don't appeal equally to children and adults the way the Harry Potter books do?
For the most part and up to a point, Harry Potter is fun reading. Rowling's books seem to empower kids, as they feature young heroes and heroines able to perform wonders despite powerful adult enemies, but kids who are also regular fellows and girls. Also, Harry Potter has had enormous flacking in the media. It is stylish and trendy to read Harry and see him on film and video (video already?). You are passe and blonk and unmeg, especially as an adult, if you aren't familiar with the latest Harry. Of course, the Harry Phenomenon is partly like the popularity of Gap and Adidas, Victoria's Secret and Disney World. Unfortunately, therefore, Harry's popularity must inevitably begin a major sag. After that, he will have become a classic, a status he deserves. [Top of Page]
What was your favorite book when you were a child and what was it that appealed to you so much about this book?
I spent much of my young life on my grandparents' ranch where there were not only animals and trees and vines and chores, but lots of books, including an ancient 20-volume set of the Book of Knowledge. I found Aesop, Grimm, and Andersen, Ruskin tales and Browning poems, all kinds of stimulating, if ancient, literary stuff. The adventure invited more reading, and it appealed and informed. I found humorous stuff especially appealing. At 9, I read Big Little Books and fantasized about becoming a World War One fighter pilot ace flying a Spad and engaging the Red Baron. (Of course, World War One was long over at the time, and it took me a while to figure that out, but I did much later become a soldier in another of our now-numerous wars.) At 12, I read a really old novel for young people titled Guthrie of the Times, by Joseph A. Altsheler. The story was about a young journalist who had daring adventures. Guthrie's character stuck in my memory for a very long time. His story suggested that if a kid worked hard and got the right training, the kid could become, not a flying wizard, but a famous reporter for a big city newspaper. Wow. I was impressed with Lawrence of Arabia, Richard Halliburton, and other adventurers. Later, I was much taken with the radio comedy of Paul Rhymer, especially "Vic and Sade" and their daily 15-minute conversations featuring under-stated humor. [Top of Page]
If you are working on any new material, please give us a sneak peek at what your next writing creation will be about.
My 16th Balona Book [it's now on the market] is titled Buds. It's a story about friendship. Christopher Paul Curtis, one of my favorite authors, observes (in his wonderful book Bud, not Buddy) "a bud is a little fist of love waiting to unfold." It's also a word Balonans still use to refer to a good friend. Yes, "bud" is hackneyed and sometimes a dope word, and also in using the word as a title I'll likely be criticized for "pandering to the youth market" and using "out of date" slang, but the word presents what I want it to say. It's also a metaphor, and anyway, Balonans are sort of unsophisticated and perennially "out of date"! Buds is a funny and touching story about some things that are important not only to a couple of young Balona women, but to all of us: Finding someone to love and be loved by; being conceived, living, and dying; being betrayed, losing and gaining self-esteem, finding a new friend. It's not a children's book, probably too spiky to serve as an adult "comfort book," but will do the job as a YA for competent readers. (Since Buds appeared, both Community Spirits and Nobody's Fault are either now on the market or soon will be.) [Top of Page]
What last words of encouragement or advice would you like to leave with our subscribers?
A few don'ts for writers must precede the encouragement.
||Don't fall into the trap of continuous self-criticism. I suggest (if you write at a computer where instant self-editing is a constant temptation) that you write as many pages as you can without changing a word. Wait at least a day or two. THEN read what you wrote and tweak it if you must. If you try to edit as you go, you are likely to "lose flow," waste time, and step on your own toes. |
||The magazines and manuals and conference speakers and professional advisors all hector us writers: "Show, don't tell," "get rid of adjectives and adverbs," "hook the reader in the first paragraph," "stand on your head," etc. All those pieces of advice are fine and good, and it does help if the writer has a firm grasp on English grammar and spelling, and understands "levels of usage." But first get your story on paper. THEN tweak if it's appropriate.|
I have found that much of the advice we receive is from people advising us about the commercial market and assuming that we are all hot to achieve at once our 15 minutes of deserved fame . If your primary aim is that your story be optioned for TV or Hollywood, then you'd better pay close attention to the advice. If not, you can be free to allow your own style to emerge. It will probably have been influenced by the great scope and dimension of your reading over a period of years. Writers are inevitably readers. When I am not teaching, writing, playing the cello, obeying my wife, or doing martial arts, I am reading.
||I believe music is a productive handmaiden to literary production. But I suggest that you not listen to music with lyrics while you are writing. If you listen to music while writing, keep it strictly instrumental. I believe that words from the songs (left brain-right brain thing) can mix up one's intentions. It does that to me. When writing, I listen to instrument-only Bach, Mozart, et al. |
||Do try to avoid salting your dialog with obscenities to render it "contemporary." It's trendy to include obscenities, and featuring them may give your dialog a fashionable halitosis of reality. Some critics evidently find it savory, and librarians have become more liberated from the conventional. I myself am somewhat salty of speech in my private life, but I recognize obscene speech as a reality too much with us in public life. It is hardly constructive for authors to reinforce obscenity in speech models for young people (which media in fact do provide, for better or worse). |
||If you are able to, but haven't already done so, maintain a physical exercise regimen. Yoga and t'ai chi are excellent, as is any activity that requires heavy breathing. I'm sure I don't need to explain why. |
||Finally. I write every day and, although my writing hasn't stimulated a financial bonanza, I have found it to be a great enormous bundle of fun. You will find it to be fun, too. If you are able to make the time to do it, go for it! [Top of Page] |
You may get in touch with author Jonathan Pearce via E-Mail and visit his website at: http://www.balona.com
Click here to view Jonathan Price's books at amazon.com.
Denise Turney, is the author of powerful women's books and a writer passionately promoting literacy for all children.