James Marshall the Educator: Audio Cassette Lectures at UCONN, 1976-1990

The following guest post is by K-Fai Steele, recipient of the 2019 James Marshall Fellowship. K-Fai (www.k-faisteele.com) is an author and illustrator who grew up in a house built in the 1700s with a printing press her father bought from a magician. She wrote and illustrated A Normal Pig. She illustrated Noodlephant by Jacob Kramer (a Kirkus Best of 2019 picture book) and Old MacDonald Had a Baby by Emily Snape. She also illustrated the forthcoming Probably a Unicorn by Jory John and Okapi Tale, the sequel to Noodlephant. She was a Brown Handler Writer in Residence at the San Francisco Public Library, and the 2018 Ezra Jack Keats/Kerlan Memorial Fellow at the University of Minnesota. K-Fai lives in San Francisco. 

K-Fai Steele, 2019 James Marshall Fellow

The job of a professional children’s book author and illustrator is challenging. There’s no one formula for, or definition of success. The job walks the line between commercial and creative disciplines and requires a bizarre combination of skills: not only writing and illustrating books but being able to perform in front of large varied audiences (toddlers one day, fifth graders the next), deftness at publicity and social media, teaching, and generally being able to project an aura of success and expertise. It can often feel competitive and lonely. And one is paid as a freelancer, so (at least in the United States) there is no economic safety net and it’s hard to plan for a long term career.  

Another aspect of the job requires constant learning, growth, and improvisation which can either be stressful or exciting and luxurious (if you have the time and space to fully devote to it). Whenever I feel stuck I end up in a library and I’ve learned that some of the best libraries and collections contain public collections of children’s literature preliminary materials. The University of Connecticut is one of these places, and through the James Marshall Fellowship I was given the time, space, and funding to spend time learning and luxuriating in their collection. 

If you spend enough time with someone’s work you get a sense of their process; in a way it’s the closest thing you can get to a mentorship. In his essays Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures, Maurice Sendak quotes Alphonse Mucha (a mentor to one of Sendak’s heroes Winsor McKay, the creator of the Little Nemo comic): “I think it would be wise for every art student to set up a certain popular artist whom he likes best and adapt his ‘handling’ or style… when you are puzzled with any part of your work, see how it has been handled by your favorite and fix it up in a similar manner.” It’s a very clever way to get a very good (and free) education. 

Audio recordings of lectures by James Marshall presented to students of Francelia Butler

When you read a picture book you only see the finished product. When you visit archives, you see evidence of an often messy process, from sketches and sketchbooks to drafts, manuscripts, and original art. Occasionally you find very special pieces of media, like collections of audio cassette lectures. Francelia Butler was a professor of Children’s Literature at UCONN from the 1960s to 1990s and she invited dozens of authors, performers, and otherwise impressive thinkers to speak in her Children’s Literature 200 class, or as students referred to it, “kiddie lit 101.” She had the foresight to record most of these lectures which are now housed in the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection. James Marshall lived a couple of miles from the UCONN Storrs campus and would give a yearly lecture to her class of primarily undergraduates from 1976-1990 when he was 34 to 48 years old (he died when he was 50). These lectures are mostly off the cuff; he reads a book aloud (often George and Martha or The Stupids), discusses how he came up with ideas for books like Miss Nelson, then takes questions from the audience. 

Marshall is the perfect guest lecturer. He is funny, insightful, knows how to work a crowd, and best of all he’s a generous lecturer. He knows how to communicate ideas and make them accessible. At his core he was an educator; he worked professionally as one for a while, having taken over Maurice Sendak’s picture book making class at Parsons. Much of the insights he shares in these recorded lectures are still deeply relevant today, particularly in terms of the creative process and the job of a children’s book creator. Marshall agonized about writer’s block and felt the pressure to make money. He also spoke from the perspective of an outsider who worked extremely hard and never took the joy of making books for granted. 

When I arrived at UCONN to start my fellowship I didn’t anticipate that most of my time would be spent using my ears rather than my eyes. I had spent three weeks in 2018 at the Kerlan Collection looking through dozens of his sketchbooks in their collection and since then have tried to read all of his books. I realized I was engaging in a bit of detective work, trying to put the pieces together of a fascinating, talented, funny creator through the crumbs he left behind. Hearing him talk about his work (getting a firsthand narrative) made me feel incandescent. I popped in one cassette after another and was grateful for my fast typing (as of the time of this blog post’s publishing only two of the cassettes have been digitized; according to the archivist it’s an expensive and laborious process). In this post I’m going to share some quotations from these audiocassettes, what surfaced for me as a picture book creator, and what I think other people in the field might find interesting, from his process to how he thought about creative work. 

Character development from the sketchbooks of James Marshall

“I start off drawing. I develop a character, make it as crazy as I can, and put that character in a situation. I start with a visual. I couldn’t sit at a typewriter and start a story with words… Drawings first, and then I type it up” (1977, cassette 504). Marshall was known for his strong characters; consider George and Martha, Fox, or The Stupids; the story revolves around them and how they interact with other characters. It’s not so much about plot; Marshall at one point describes George and Martha as a comedy of manners. “I teach my kids at Parsons that to start out you must have a very solid rounded character that lives. I have lots of sketchbooks and I just develop characters as they go along” (1982, cassette 515). Marshall trusted that a good story would organically come out of a good character, particularly if put in an interesting situation where they have to react. There’s a sort of faith required in starting with a character; you don’t know who’s going to show up on the page. You get to know a character by the way they look, their gesture, and how they react to other characters. 

Marshall didn’t discuss a specific method that he used to generate stories because he didn’t seem to have one. He described working intuitively, relying on his brain and hand to put together funny ideas. “People ask me often where the ideas come from. If I knew that I could probably spell it out to you… I don’t know where the good stuff happens. It happens when I work a lot, and late at night. Usually If I’ve been working 8-10 hours doing just mechanical stuff I’m so tired all my defenses are down. I’m not worried whether it’s going to be a success or not, and some nutty idea comes in, it’s like someone else told me that… You know it came from inside your head but you don’t know why or how” (1979, cassette 506). “What I do is try to sit down, and if I fall down and start laughing that’s a good sign” (1980, cassette 508). It seemed that he didn’t examine his story-making because he was worried that if he figured it out he would lose the muse. “What I do is intuitive and I don’t know why I’m sitting here talking to you because I don’t really know why I do what I do, and to talk about it is a little scary to analyze it. I’m afraid if I look at it too much and try to figure out what I do it’ll go away” (1985, cassette 525). Since he relied so heavily on intuition his fear of losing the muse makes sense. He mentioned this fear in several lectures, and it seems to really be the thing he feared the most: the bucket going down the well and coming up dry. 

Perhaps this fear came from a sense of what we would now describe as imposter syndrome. “Often I have so much trouble coming up with endings. It’s just like hell. Because you think here I am, this is what I do for a living, but maybe I’m not so good anymore, maybe I never had any talent in the first place” (1987, cassette 527). Marshall continues in a 1990 lecture, “I’ve thrown up in my studio from the fear of thinking I’m all finished, I’m washed up, I have no talent, I can’t even write one of these dumb books, I can’t think of another joke” (cassette 531). 

Perhaps it came because making good books for children is deceptively challenging. There isn’t a roadmap, particularly when you’re making something that pushes boundaries of humor, style, etc. “When I’m drawing it’s like heaven, even when it’s not going so well I’m really, really happy. I feel connected, I feel like I belong. Why it’s such hell to get started, I don’t know. I guess it’s because I’m scared. Chekhov had the same feeling, he thought he was no good, couldn’t cut it. If a guy that great can have those feelings maybe it’s not so abnormal, maybe you should have those feelings of insecurity. Because if you’re absolutely sure that what you’re doing is brilliant what you’re doing is copying yourself or copying someone else” (1988, cassette 529). 

Or perhaps the pressure was more external; he needed to make more books in order to keep his career (and income stream) flowing. This is when his practice of writing intuitively probably chafed against a demanding publishing schedule. “I have an artistic problem: when a book is successful, editors like to see success perpetuated, so they hire you to do a sequel. I’ve done so many sequels but I haven’t gotten any quite right. It’s the hardest thing in the world to capture the spirit of another book when you don’t have an idea. I’m doing three picture books, all three are sequels, and I’m stalled on all three. It’s a sickening feeling to think that you’re going to have to turn that money back and that you’ve run out of ideas” (1985, cassette 525). Marshall’s output was prodigious; he made around eighty picture books during his 50-year life. What is the result of working faster than your machine wants to run? The quality may suffer, at least in the creator’s eyes. In one lecture Marshall says, “I’ve made 60 books and only about 20 am I really proud of” (1983, cassette 517). 

Marshall’s writing and drawings have a sense of lightness and ease to them, particularly in the way he draws characters and communicates their emotions through their eyes (often simple dots). In 1997 several years after Marshall’s death, Sendak wrote in the New York Times, “Much has been written concerning the sheer deliciousness of Marshall’s simple, elegant style. The simplicity is deceiving; there is richness of design and mastery of composition on every page. Not surprising, since James was a notorious perfectionist and endlessly redrew those ”simple” pictures.”  

Marshall drew with joy, and this is most evident in UCONN’s collection of his sketchbooks. In his lectures he talks about the phenomenon I hear a lot of other author-illustrators experiencing when they move from sketches to final art; some freshness is lost. “It’s when you have to prepare something that’s going to get published, at least not only me but everyone I know in the business, you get tense and frightened because this is going to be out there, there are going to be 20,000 copies of this, and it gets tighter and tighter. The best stuff I’ve done of any quality is in my sketchbooks and I pick that stuff out and I’m like why can’t I do that here?” (1984, cassette 520). Perhaps it’s different when you’re making final art because you know that you have an audience, that you’re relying on the art to make money. It’s less about amusing yourself; it goes from a private activity to a very public one. “The sketches are so much more interesting, that’s the fun part. It’s when you do a line that you know is going to be published you start to clutch and tighten up. I’m just now learning to do books and get a line that’s going to be published that’s as good as the one in the sketches. I’d love to take my old sketches out and publish them. I feel so much more comfortable with them. I don’t know if it’s a fear of success or fear of failure, it’s a really terrifying process to go through” (1981, cassette 511). 

Preliminary sketches by James Marshall

Marshall also shared insights into how he thought he was perceived by gatekeepers of the industry, specifically librarians who had a more traditional sense of illustration and who also reviewed books and selected for awards (in particular the Caldecott Award). “I work in basically creative periods of about 3 weeks that’s all I can stand… This is dangerous because when I tell librarians (“conventional people”) if I tell them how short it takes me to do a book I can see in their eyes my stock going down. You have to tell them you worked 5 years on this book and you’ve drawn with the blood of your slaughtered children and then it’s a masterpiece” (1985, cassette 519) Marshall drew somewhat injured and bitter conclusions about why he had been overlooked, “People who are in children’s books are ashamed of being in children’s books. People on committees want to pick a book that shows they’re an important, art-minded profession” (1985, cassette 519). 

Sendak wrote that Marshall “paid the price of being maddeningly underestimated — of being dubbed ”zany” (an adjective that drove him to murderous rage)… he was dismissed as the artist who could — or should or might — do worthier work if he would only dig deeper and harder. The comic note, the delicate riff were deemed, finally, insufficient. James knew better, of course, and he was right, of course, but he suffered nevertheless. There was nothing he could do to impress the establishment; that was his triumph and his curse. Marshall did fulfill his genius, and its rarity and subtlety confounded the so-called critical world. The award-givers were foolish enough to consider him a charming lightweight, and when Caldecott Medal time came around, they ignored him again and again.” Marshall also spoke about competition in the children’s literature world, which undoubtedly was connected to him not feeling appreciated, validated, or celebrated by the people who held power. “The world of children’s books I used to say is a nice world. It is not, it’s a nest of vipers, we all hate each other… we’re very competitive” (1982, cassette 513).  

It was interesting to hear Marshall talk about the other authors and illustrators he was in community with. In nearly every lecture he named some of the people who he thought were doing the best work in children’s literature: Arnold Lobel, Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, Tomi Ungerer, Rosemary Wells, William Steig, Edward Ardizzone, and Quentin Blake were all mentioned. “If you want to see some magnificent small jewels, look at the Frog and Toad books. I thought, oh I can do that. First I saw Sendak: oh, I can do that. Lobel: oh I can write stories about two friends too. They sort of gave me confidence. I didn’t know how hard it is. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s impossible to try and write two-page stories with a beginning, middle, and end” (1990, cassette 532). He clearly adored Maurice Sendak, who he referred to as “the granddaddy of us all” (1980, cassette 508) in terms of contemporary illustration. The Maurice Sendak Collection of James Marshall at UCONN contains several of Marshall’s books that he inscribed for Sendak, including a rare copy of his first illustrated book, Plink, Plink, Plink (1971) by Byrd Baylor which Marshall said “sunk, sunk, sunk” due to the “awful poems and awful pictures” (1977, cassette 504). 

Copy of Plink, Plink, Plink inscribed to Maurice Sendak

This collection of recordings is a very rare and special item; you just don’t find a lot of authors speaking in their own words, at length, about their work. I think that this speaks to Marshall’s experience as an educator; someone who has good communication skills, a sense for what might be interesting content, respect for their audience, a willingness to be generous with the knowledge they possess, and their love for the work. 

One of my favorite things that Marshall said had to do with the joy of getting to do the thing you love most in the world as a job. “To be able to support myself by doing what I really like to do best and by being creative, I never dreamed that that could be. I was raised with protestant puritant [sic] ethics. In Texas you had to bring home the bacon by doing stuff that you hated; my daddy hated his job, my mama hated being a housewife, everyone in my family hated everything. I thought when I became an adult I had to just swallow it. It’s not true. It’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling” (1983, cassette 517). This is something that you can easily lose sight of a children’s book maker as you get involved in the day-to-day of trying to meet deadlines, negotiate with art directors, redo cover art, schedule school visits, make money and budget wisely, etc. I’m writing this blog post in late spring 2020 in the midst of a global pandemic which has made clear that nothing is guaranteed, in particular human life, especially those most vulnerable in our society. For a while I wasn’t sure if books or art even mattered. But of course they do, and the act of engaging in joyful creative work is a much-needed lifeline, as Marshall attested to during his short life, ended by the HIV/AIDS pandemic in 1992. “One of the most wonderful things in the world is to do creative work, it is the greatest high, it makes your life come together” (1987, cassette 527). 

Audio recording of James Marshall lecture from the Francelia Butler Papers

Harry Allard Is Missing! Collaborations of James Marshall and Harry Allard in the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection

The following guest post is by Jerrold Connors, an award-winning application developer, writer and children’s book author and illustrator from California. He was recently awarded the James Marshall Fellowship to pursue a picture book project based on Harry Allard’s Miss Nelson stories. The James Marshall Fellowship encourages the use of unique materials in the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection and provides financial support to authors and illustrators for travel to University of Connecticut’s Archives and Special Collections to conduct their research.

James Marshall, considered by Maurice Sendak to be one of the wittiest and most genuine children’s book author-illustrators, created the popular George and Martha stories, the charming Fox readers and the everlasting Miss Nelson picture books. He wrote and illustrated most of his stories himself, collaborated on several others with his friend and co-author Harry Allard, and illustrated the works of a few others. Marshall published upwards of 80 books from 1967 until 1992 when he died, aged 50, from AIDS. Though awarded few professional honors, Marshall is considered by many as one of the picture book greats—his works are held alongside those of Maurice Sendak and Arnold Lobel (with whom Marshall shared close friendships) as classics.

Miss Nelson Gets a Telephone Call (2014)

Despite growing up an avid reader in the early 1980s, I have no memories of reading any James Marshall books. It was only later, as a teenager reading to my nephew and niece, that I would discover the Miss Nelson books. And it was much later as a young adult reading picture books for my own enjoyment that I would discover George and Martha. I became a confirmed James Marshall fan and sought to find as many of his works as I could. I can think of very few creators whose entire body of work—unmistakable for its sense of fun, economy of language, subtle play between words and illustration and great respect for his young audience—I hold in higher regard.

Relatively little has been written about Marshall’s life and works but I have tracked down what I could and have come to consider myself something of a Marshall expert, so it was with great surprise and interest that I discovered a fourth Miss Nelson book, Miss Nelson Gets a Telephone Call, written, illustrated and self-published by Harry Allard in 2014, twenty two years after James Marshall’s death.

Miss Nelson Gets a Telephone Call is a peculiar work. It features all the Miss Nelson standards: a kind teacher, a befuddled principal, an elementary school setting, and a mystery surrounding a secret identity (the hallmark of the Miss Nelson series). But it also has an enormous cast of characters, a generous amount of exposition, a bizarre wordiness (gothic adjectives such as graustarkian, eldritch and stygian abound) and a distinctly creepy tone. And it is missing, notably, any children.

All these facts made me wonder how similar Miss Nelson Gets a Telephone Call is (if at all) to the original Miss Nelson trilogy. It’s a known fact that James Marshall heavily edited the authors’ texts that passed his drawing table (an unusual practice for an illustrator) but I wanted to know just how far Marshall went in shaping Allard’s manuscripts into the illustrated stories we have come to know. The books credited to Marshall and Allard are nearly identical in voice, pacing and humor to those credited solely to Marshall. So much so that it has even been suggested that Harry Allard might have been an invention, like Marshall’s “cousin” Edward Marshall, to serve as a pseudonym. While this would be wholly appropriate given the Miss Nelson tradition of dual-identity and disguise, it is not true. Harry Allard was a real person.

The two became acquainted at Trinity College in San Antonio, Texas where Allard taught French and Marshall was an undergraduate. An academic, Allard held a Masters degree and PhD in French from Northwestern and Yale. He was an admirer of French illustrators and drew and sketched as a hobby and in this sense found a kindred spirit in the artistically minded Marshall. They collaborated on a few picture books with Allard credited as author and James Marshall as illustrator before developing the character of Miss Nelson. As the story goes, Allard called Marshall at three in the morning and said “Miss Nelson is missing!” This bizarre non sequitur became the seed that would grow into three books about the teacher and her class.

The Northeast Children’s Literature Collection holds a rich and rewarding amount of materials related to the working relationship between James Marshall and Harry Allard. Of those materials related to the Miss Nelson book, the most complete were those for the second Miss Nelson book Marshall and Allard worked on together, Miss Nelson Is Back.

Miss Nelson Is Back: In the collection in Archives and Special Collections at the University of Connecticut is a series of dummies for Miss Nelson Is Back. The earliest of these dummies hints at what must have been Harry Allard’s original manuscript for this story. The story opens with Miss Nelson having to leave her class for a tonsillectomy. Filling in for her is a new character, Mr. Otis Delancey, a well-intentioned if inexperienced substitute teacher. The kids of Room 207 are more than ready to take advantage of him. Rounding out the cast is Miss Gomez, the school’s secretary, Detective McSmogg (a private investigator from the first Miss Nelson book, this time acting as a truant officer), and Mother Judkins, “special investigator” for the Board of Education.

Dummy for Miss Nelson Is Back

With all these characters, the strictest substitute teacher in the world, Viola Swamp (the true star of the Miss Nelson books), gets very little screen time; in fact, her appearance is gratuitous. There is none of the guessing and second-guessing of double identities that made the first Miss Nelson book so much fun.

Looking through the collection of dummies and storyboards, I saw that within two drafts Marshall had put Harry Allard’s story through its paces, trimming the number of characters to a splendid few, namely, Principal Blandsworth, Miss Nelson, Viola Swamp and, of course, the kids of Room 207. The greatest fun in the story—the kids impersonating Miss Nelson in a terribly obvious and obviously terrible disguise—had been fully fleshed out and the text had been trimmed to nearly what would appear in the final printed version.

Book dummy for Miss Nelson Is Back

The edits on these dummies are all executed in Marshall’s distinct handwriting. Entire sections have been cut, others invented on the fly, hastily scribbled in between and alongside blocks of discarded text. Editing happens not just of Allard’s work but also of Marshall’s own. Marshall writes several versions of the line “So this is your little game?”, trying “What is this?” and settling on “So thats your little game!” (In method it is very similar to a book done entirely by Marshall alone, The Cut Ups Carry On, which also exists in the archives and is splendidly detailed by Sandra Horning in her blog entry here.

Tracking changes through these drafts, it is very clear that what would appear as the final version of Miss Nelson Is Back was very much a Marshall story. For his part, Allard must have been okay with Marshall’s reworking of his script. Miss Nelson Is Back was their ninth book together, their second Miss Nelson book and they would go on to do another. I noticed also that Marshall sought to preserve some of Allard’s inventions through his drafts. Otis Delancey survived the transition from first draft to a storyboard before he was cut.

Last appearance of Mr. Otis Delancey, Storyboard, Miss Nelson Is Back

Miss Nelson Has a Field Day: The first pages of the dummy for Miss Nelson Has a Field Day* (Marshall and Allard’s third Miss Nelson book) is a combination of pencil illustrations with pasted down clippings from a typewritten manuscript. Whether or not the manuscript came directly, unedited, from Allard is unknown, but some clues indicate that it did. For one, the school in this story is named “Alice J. Gomez Elementary.”  According to Marshall’s partner William Gray, Allard could become fixated on certain details such as odd words or funny names—that he would bring Miss Gomez back to the Miss Nelson universe seems in keeping with this habit. And, as in Miss Nelson Is Back, Allard has attempted to enlarge the faculty, this time with Miss Witherspoon, the cheer squad coach.

Dummy and final print comparison, Miss Nelson Has a Field Day

Dummy and final print comparison, Miss Nelson Has a Field Day

Eight pages into this dummy Marshall begins composing the pages by typing directly onto his drawing paper. A few pages beyond that and Marshall begins writing in his distinct hand, using shorthand to get his ideas quickly onto the paper as they occur to him. As with Miss Nelson Is Back, Marshall appears to be inventing on the fly, using this stage of his process to both trim and flesh out the story and ultimately make it his own.

*footnote: Holding the original cover concept for Miss Nelson Has a Field Day up to the light revealed that the working titles to this story were at one point Miss Nelson Tackles Trouble and Miss Nelsons Secret Play.

Cover concept sketch, Miss Nelson Has a Field Day

Cover concept sketch closeup, flipped, Miss Nelson Has a Field Day

Miss Nelson Takes a Back Seat: The collection also held a three page typewritten manuscript by Allard for an unpublished story titled Miss Nelson Takes a Back Seat. Dated 1989, this story expands Horace B. Smedley Elementary’s world to include a school bus service, an appropriate enough story device, but there is little else in the way of character or plot. The entire story is mainly a vehicle for some gags about members of a circus sideshow.

“Better watch your ‘P’s’ and ‘Q’s’’ , kids,” the midget threatened, brandishing his bull whip.”
Typewritten draft by Harry Allard, Miss Nelson Takes a Back Seat

There are no marks by Marshall on this document, and no evidence I could find in the abundant collection of sketchbooks (used often for brainstorming and testing story ideas) that he ran with the idea. Whether this was because Marshall at this point in his career was focusing on retelling fairytales or because he felt the Miss Nelson adventures had been played out is unknown. Although not a trilogy in a strict storytelling sense, the three Miss Nelson books form a tidy whole. Miss Nelson Takes a Back Seat doesn’t add anything to the Miss Nelson world.

Miss Nelson Is Missing!: From the previous examples, it is obvious that the majority of  work that shaped the Miss Nelson books into what the public has come to know was executed by Marshall. This isn’t to say that Marshall didn’t value Allard’s contribution. Allard was a brainstorming partner, a writer who could turn out pages of script allowing Marshall to indulge in editing, evidenced many times in the collection as one of Marshall’s great strengths.

Cover concept sketch, Miss Nelson Is Missing!

Late in my research I discovered a single page near the back of one of James Marshall’s sketchbooks. This book, sitting nondescriptly in the middle of Box 20, held a cover concept sketch for Miss Nelson Is Missing! Dated July 27, 1976, the sketch would have been made about one year before the first Miss Nelson book was to be published. At the top of the page Marshall had written “Written by James Marshall and Harry Allard”.

He then drew a double headed arrow to transpose his and Allard’s name to give Allard top billing. Eventually the cover page would remove the “written by” and “illustrated by” lines and feature the two names as collaborators with Allard’s name featured generously at the top of the page.

But despite the vast source of materials related to the Marshall/Allard collaborations, it was a very small thing that most informed my understanding of their relationship. In the seventeen minute James Marshall In His Studio video (one in a series produced by Weston Woods/Scholastic to introduce authors to their audience) Marshall speaks directly to the camera, explaining his process in creating picture books. In talking about where his ideas come from, Marshall describes the infamous 3am phone call from Allard. I’ve alway read the line “Miss Nelson is missing!” as an exuberant, even manic, exclamation on Allard’s part. But as Marshall tells the story (at the nine and half minute mark if you should ever be so lucky to find a copy of this recording) it is far more nuanced. Marshall does an impression of Allard’s voice. It is theatrical, a little affected, mysterious. It’s done with a smile and, clearly, affection for his friend.

Marshall appreciated in Allard all those things I found peculiar. His eccentricities delighted Marshall. What’s more, Allard’s inspirations—whether they ultimately served to chart the inappropriate, or uncover the promising—informed Marshall’s talents. Given the amount of work Marshall put into their collaboration, that he would give his friend top billing is testimony to Marshall’s generosity. But it would be shortsighted to consider it charity. Marshall truly valued his partnership with Allard. Like Miss Nelson and Viola Swamp, in this story one could not have existed without the other. If Harry Allard were missing, so too would be missing these three books.

Still image from video, James Marshall In His Studio

Sandra Horning’s Blog Post #3

Blog entry #3 – Meet William Gray

Looking through more than twenty boxes of the James Marshall Collection has made me feel close to this man I will never have the good fortune to meet. Marshall published about eighty books, many with both his illustrations and text. It is hard to imagine how much he would have produced if he had not died at the early age of 50. In fact, many days I have left the Dodd Center feeling a great sense of loss at his death. Through a friend, I was able to meet Marshall’s longtime partner, William Gray. I met William at the home he and James shared for much of Marshall’s career. For my final blog entry, I’ve included a few of William’s answers to the questions he generously and kindly provided. My thanks go out to William Gray for sharing his time and memories of James Marshall.

 

James Marshall giving a presentation (James Marshall Papers Collection File photograph, n.d.)

James Marshall giving a presentation (James Marshall Papers Collection File photograph, n.d.).  All rights reserved.  No reproduction of any kind allowed.

 

As I mentioned in my first blog, James Marshall wrote many of his books under the pseudonym Edward Marshall. William explained that Marshall wanted to work with more than one publisher. In order to not compete with his own picture books, the pseudonym was used and he wrote in a different genre, beginning readers. “They really suited his talent. I wouldn’t say they were easy to do just because they were easy to read.  It was something that just came more naturally to him, the smaller format.”

To clarify that the comments in the margins of the dummies and manuscripts are Marshall’s, I asked about the handwriting and if William knew if anyone else wrote comments on Marshall’s work. William replied that, “He [Marshall] used a Schaefer fountain pen with those plastic capsules to draw with and to write with. He had pretty distinctive handwriting, but no one came near his work.”

I went on to ask specifically about the Harry Allard and Jeffery Allen manuscripts I discussed in my second blog post. William told me that Allard and Allen were both friends of Marshall before each collaborated on books with him. “They would mail a manuscript to him [Marshall]. He would tear it apart limb from limb and then put it back together according to what he thought was best.”

I noted that almost all of Marshall’s changes went to print and William agreed,“Oh, they made every change he suggested. He ran the show….Jim appreciated their inventiveness. I mean Harry came up with The Stupids and with Miss Nelson. But as for shaping a story, that was always Jim’s work.

William and I talked about Marshall’s ability to critique his own work. “Jim was extremely critical of his own work and any work,” William told me. “Nothing was perfect. Even if it was a masterpiece he would find something to criticize, always. He would very seldom say, ‘I guess this is pretty good.’ He had critical faculties that kicked in and that is what kept him going.”

 This comment came back to me when I went through Maurice Sendak’s bequest of additional James Marshall material. Sendak and Marshall were good friends, and Sendak owned several of Marshall’s book dummies and original artwork, most of which are now with the Marshall Collection. Among these Sendak materials is a book that Marshall created for Sendak’s birthday. The book is extraordinary, with wonderful characters wishing Maurice a happy birthday. Marshall also includes a short story from his future publication Rats on the Roof.  At the end of the story, Marshall is once again critical of his endings, drawing two rats with speech bubbles. The first rat says, “Rather Chekhovian, don’t you feel?” The second rat replies, “He never could come up with decent endings.

  

A page from the Birthday Book for Maurice Sendak from James Marshall (Maurice Sendak Collection of James Marshall Box 2012.0152.2). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.

A page from the Birthday Book for Maurice Sendak from James Marshall (Maurice Sendak Collection of James Marshall Box 2012.0152.2). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.


I asked William if there was a work that Marshall was most proud of or that achieved what Marshall wanted? William replied,  “I can tell you I really, really appreciate the Fox books. I think his talent went into that in a way that really expressed himself and certainly delights me.”  William went on to say that Marshall “was kind of stuck in the George and Martha books pretty much in the framework of a relation between two people, but with the Fox books there would be all kinds of plots and subplots. None of those characters is two dimensional.  In just a few sentence you know exactly who they are. I even have people say, ‘Oh, well obviously he used me for Carmen.’”

This led me to ask if Marshall was most like Fox.  William said, “I think so… There is a lot of Jim in Fox.” William and I continued on to discuss the brilliant endings and humor in the Fox stories, and the way the humor was not spelled out. William said that was intentional. In fact, it was“his [Marshall’s] number one rule. Never condescend to children. Don’t do it ever.”

Most of Marshall’s sketchbooks and drafts are marked with a place and date. It became clear that he worked constantly, even while traveling. There are often to-do lists in the midst of his sketches. In one list from a trip to Cape Cod on March 10, Marshall is “working on a dummy for Yummers II, driving to Boston, going to lunch, meeting with someone from Houghton Mifflin, doing something at Nickelodeon, driving back to the Cape, picking up lamb shanks, and working in bed on Roberta Molesworthy (an iffy book).”

A page from Marshall's sketches. (James Marshall Papers. Box 8:Folder 170). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.

A page from Marshall’s sketches. (James Marshall Papers. Box 8:Folder 170). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.

 

The year isn’t dated,  but Yummers Too was published in 1986. If Marshall was working on a dummy for this book, I can guess the date would be around 1984. Williams said that Marshall always worked. “Everything was integrated into his work.” He didn’t like to fly and preferred to work on trains. “He’d take a train to Texas or California. He loved to work on the train.”

 

 

 

 

In addition to sketchbooks, William said Marshall also kept extensive diaries. William has kept these diaries, but I did find one trip diary in the collection. The year isn’t dated, however, I can guess from what he was working on that it is probably from around 1990. The diary is all text and details his trip to New Orleans, including what he read each day: “finished a book on Janet Flanner…masterful novel by Nina Berberova, The Accompanist… Editon Wharton.”

A page from Marshall's trip diary to New Orleans. (James Marshall Papers. Box 21:Folder 299). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.

A page from Marshall’s trip diary to New Orleans. (James Marshall Papers. Box 21:Folder 299). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marshall was also a voracious reader. William showed me the special shelves Marshall had built around his room to hold some of his books.

A list of books from the Marshall Collection. (James Marshall Papers. Box 21:folder 303). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.

A list of books from the Marshall Collection. (James Marshall Papers. Box 21:folder 303). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.

William said he liked “Moliere and Chekhov…and a lot of the British women novelists like Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Rhys.” I found a piece of paper with a list of books in the collection. I am assuming these were books Marshall had read or books he purchased to read.

The page was numbered 67.

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve learned much in going through the Marshall papers and in talking with William Gray. James Marshall was incredibly talented in his ability to do both quality text and illustrations. He worked very hard to achieve the high quality. Going forward, it will be impossible for me to view my own work without giving it a more critical look: What would James Marshall say? He would most likely say “it could be better” and he would probably be right. Achieving the highest quality takes not only talent, but the sweat, tears, and labor of hard work. On that note, with all that I have gleaned from seeing Marshall’s process, it is time that I get back to the hard work of improving my own manuscripts. Thank you James Marshall, and thank you to the Dodd Research Center and the providers of the James Marshall Fellowship.

Sandra Horning’s Blog Post #2

 

Blog entry 2 – Every Word Counts!

All writers are familiar with the concept of “every word counts.” For writers of children’s picture books and beginning readers, every word literally counts. Most picture books published today have about 300 words. Many editors won’t even read a picture book manuscript much longer than that. Level 1 beginning readers are even shorter, with about 100 words. Keep in mind that, despite the low word count, a good story needs an arc, a plot, humor, and character development. It might seem like these stories are written quickly, and perhaps the first idea is written in a short period of time, but getting the text ready for publication can take many days, weeks, months, or longer to get right. Each word and every sentence is reviewed and revised many times. Here are some of the questions an author (and an editor) considers with each word and sentence:

 

Is the word necessary?

Is it the right word to convey the meaning you intend? (Does the word have more than one meaning?)

Do the challenging words have contextual clues to allow the reader to infer the definition?

Is the word count within the guidelines?

 

In an early beginning reader, an author needs to follow additional guidelines:

The words need to be simple enough for an emerging reader to pronounce and understand.

Contractions should be spelled out.

The words should be no more than two syllables.

Complex sentences should not be used.

The majority of the words in the text should be repeated, as you can’t introduce too many new or challenging words to an emerging reader.

 

I’ve been heartened to see that even someone as talented, prolific, and well known as James Marshall didn’t get every word right on his first few drafts. In looking through the dummies and drafts of his stories, I’ve enjoyed seeing his notes and eraser marks as he struggled to search for the best word.

For example, a George and Martha story usually has between 100 -150 words, but there is still much humor and character development packed into each simple story.  In one of my favorites, “The Trick” in George and Martha Back in Town, George can’t resist playing tricks on Martha, so Martha plans a trick of her own. Even at the final galley stage of the book, Marshall was still requesting changes to the text. For example, the sentence

“And when she discovered that the house slippers had been nailed to the floor, she was not amused.”

 was changed at the galley stage to:

age from galley, "The Trick" in George and Martha Back in Town (James Marshall Papers Box 8:Folder 161). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.

Page from galley, “The Trick” in George and Martha Back in Town (James Marshall Papers Box 8:Folder 161). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.

“And when she found her house slippers nailed to the floor, she was not amused.”

The final sentence is much more succinct and flows better, while still maintaining the humor. Every galley page I’ve viewed has author edits similar to this page.

 

 

 

In the picture book The Cut-Ups Carry On, the cut-ups Spud Jenkins and Joe Turner take dance lessons and end up entering a contest with one of them dressed as a girl. In a dummy for the book Marshall describes the scene as Spud and Joe arrive at the studio for the contest:

At the T.V. Studio, Mary Frances and Charles Andrew Frothingham were just finishing up a superb tango.

“Superb” is crossed out and “flashy” is written above it. Then “flashy” is crossed out and “dazzling” is written, which is the final version in print.

At the T.V. Studio, Mary Frances and Charles Andrew Frothingham were just finishing up a dazzling tango.

“Dazzling” is a great choice that combines the essence of both “superb” and “flashy.”

 

Pgs. 28-29, dummy for The Cut-ups Carry On (James Marshall Papers Box 14:Folder 238) All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.

Pgs. 28-29, dummy for The Cut-ups Carry On (James Marshall Papers Box 14:Folder 238) All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.

                               

In a dummy for The Cut-Ups Crack Up, Marshall describes Spud and Joe as they speed around town in a “borrowed” car.

At the corner of Maple and Elm, they passed by an astonished Mary Frances and Charles Andrews.

In the final version, “passed” was changed to a much better action verb: “sailed.”

At the corner of Maple and Elm, they sailed by an astonished Mary Frances and Charles Andrew.

Again, this is a very simple word change that greatly improves the sentence.

In the dummy for the beginning reader Three Up A Tree, the story begins with the characters looking at a tree house:

Some big kids down the block had made a treehouse.

The final version reads:

Some big kids down the street had built a swell treehouse.

 Three word changes, “block” to “street”,  “made” to “built”, and the addition of “swell” give this sentence a boost. Now the reader can imagine the kids building a treehouse, and adding “swell” shows how much they admire it.

Marshall paid so much attention to words that he even made suggestions on other author’s manuscripts that he was illustrating. His notes and papers make it clear that he shared suggested changes to words and sentences with the authors Harry Allard (of the Miss Nelson and the Stupid series) and Jeffrey Allen (Nosey Mrs. Rat, Bonzini, and the Mary Alice stories).

In Nosey Mrs. Rat the story begins with Mrs. Rat spying on her neighbor in the bath. Allen’s original manuscript read:

“I see that you are using lilac bubble bath,” Shirley Foster said.

“I personally prefer rose.”

Mrs. Davis stepped out of the bath and locked the window.

Marshall’s suggestion for changing the last line was as follows:

Mrs. Davis pulled down the shade.

This sentence was used in the final text. With fewer words Marshall made a funnier sentence and one that also worked better for the humor in the illustration. It is easier and funnier to show a shade being pulled down than to show a window being locked.

 

Pgs. 1-2, manuscript , Nosey Mrs. Rat (James Marshall Papers Box 8:Folder 170). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.

Pgs. 1-2, manuscript , Nosey Mrs. Rat (James Marshall Papers Box 8:Folder 170). All rights reserved. No reproduction of any kind allowed.

 

 

As you can see from the image, Marshall made many suggestions to Nosey Mrs. Rat. Many of them were used, including changing the title and main character from Nosey Shirley Foster to Nosey Mrs. Rat. It is rare for an illustrator to suggest text changes to the author. Most of the authors I know have never had an illustrator suggest changes. It is obvious that Marshall paid just as much attention to words, both his and others’, as he did to his illustrations. Although revising a manuscript over and over again can be tedious, Marshall’s papers and ultimately the success of his books remind me that every revision is worthwhile because every word does count, especially for the youngest readers. That said, I probably could have made this blog post a bit shorter! I will certainly be revising my work again before I send it out.

 

 

 

 

Meet Sandra Horning, James Marshall Fellow for 2014

Sandra Horning, of Chaplin, Connecticut, is the author of three children’s books:  The Biggest Pumpkin, a picture book illustrated by Holly Stone-Barker and due out later this year; Chicks!, a beginning reader illustrated by Jon Goodell and published by Random House in 2013; and The Giant Hug, a picture book illustrated by Valeri Gorbachev and published by Knopf in 2005.  The Giant Hug won several awards and has been translated into Dutch, Italian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

Ms. Horning is studying the Papers of James Marshall to support the completion of a new beginning reader with the working title Crab and Snail.  She is researching word choice and length, Marshall’s revision process and his creative process from the first idea to publication.  This is Ms. Horning’s first of three blog posts in fulfillment of the Marshall Fellowship.  Welcome, Sandra!

 

Blog Post 1: Kids are Really Smart These Days

 

Most people think of James Marshall as an illustrator and vividly remember his characters, George and Martha, Miss Nelson, and Fox, among others, but I, as a children’s author myself, think of his words and how well crafted his stories are.  Since he wrote many of his stories under the name Edward Marshall, there may be people who don’t realize the large number of stories he wrote and illustrated. I’m thrilled to now have an opportunity to research how James Marshall may have created such memorable stories and characters.

As I dig into the collection, which is quite vast, I’ve been looking at story plots and character development, but Marshall’s endings are what keep jumping out. One of the reasons his books can be read over and over again is that his endings are always satisfying and funny. Since I am currently in the midst of writing a beginning reader, for the last few weeks I’ve been closely looking through drafts and dummies of Marshall’s beginning reader stories of Fox. I’ve noted several times how Marshall made a small comment in the margin near the ending: “Funnier ending” and “Make better.” When I compare the dummy to the final version in print, indeed, Marshall has always made a change to a better and funnier ending, just as he noted.

For example, in the story “Monday Morning” in the book Fox All Week, Fox jumps out of bed eager for the school field trip. When he looks out the window it is pouring down rain. He says, “This isn’t funny.” Fox is sure the field trip will be canceled and it will be school as usual. He then pretends to be sick so he can skip school.  Reading comics and having his mom wait on him, Fox is having a great time in bed when he hears voices outside his window. The last page of the story reads,

It was Miss Moon and the class.

“We are off on our field trip!” called out Carmen.

“A little rain can’t stop us!” said Miss Moon.

 

Marshall had many different lines ending the story:

“That’s just dandy!” said Fox.

And Fox felt just awful.

Fox couldn’t believe his ears.

“I could just die,” said Fox.

 

James Marshall dummy pg. 10.  All rights reserved.

James Marshall dummy pg. 10. All rights reserved.

A page from the dummy for the story “Monday Morning’ in  James Marshall’s book Fox All Week. Note “funnier ending?”  in the margin above the number 10. (James Marshall Papers:Box 7:Folder 131).  All rights reserved.  No reproduction of any kind allowed.

 

 

 

 

The ending in the final version is “This isn’t funny,” said Fox.  It is simple and subtle, and it ties into the beginning of the story, repeating Fox’s line when he thought the rain canceled the trip. It lets the reader know how Fox felt without saying it. It assumes the reader has the ability to get the understatement and humor.

 

In another story, “The Friday Dinner,” from the same book, Fox’s mother burns the dinner. Fox steps in and announces that he will make dinner. Then he clears everyone out of the kitchen. The reader hears Fox banging pots and pans. The last page of the dummy reads,

When dinner was served it was simply delicious. 

 

The last page as it was printed reads:

 Finally dinner was ready.

 “Fox,” said Mom, “These peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are simply delicious.”

 

The dummy ending was funny, but it is much funnier to have Mom refer to the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Plus, the illustration  might not be able to make it clear that it is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Again, as in the first example, the child reading it has to understand the humor: you don’t need pots and pans to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

In my final and favorite example, “Tuesday’s Lunch,” again from the same book, Fox and his friends are sick of the tuna sandwiches their mothers give them for lunch. They decide to teach their moms a lesson and throw the sandwiches over the schoolyard wall. Of course, later they are hungry and unhappy. As they leave school, the dummy with “Make Better” in the margins ends with the following:

On the way home Fox and his friends met a poor old cat.

“You look hungry,” said the cat.

“Would you like a tuna sandwich?”

“Oh yes!” They cried.

And they ate every bite.

 

James Marshall dummy pg. 16.  All rights reserved.

James Marshall dummy pg. 16. All rights reserved.

A page from the dummy for the story “Tuesday’s Lunch” in  James Marshall’s book Fox All Week. Note the “Make better” at the end of the text. (James Marshall Papers:Box 7:Folder 131).  All rights reserved.  No reproduction of any kind allowed. 

 

 

 

Below is the ending in print:

 On the other side of the wall they met a poor cat.

“I’m so happy,” said the cat.

“A nice lunch fell from the sky.”

“Three tuna sandwiches?” said Fox.

“Gosh,” said the old cat. “Kids are really smart these days.”

 

Once again, Marshall successfully made a better and funnier ending, one with additional meaning. Fox and his friends were not too bright when they decided to throw out their tuna sandwiches. The line “Kids are really smart these days.” adds an ironic note to the humor.

 So what is the secret behind his perfect endings? I think the secret is that Marshall trusts that the child reader is intelligent enough to understand the humor without spelling it out in a didactic way.  Children love to be in on a joke. Books with great endings are the books children remember and read again. This has led me to review some of my unpublished manuscript endings. Reading through them, I am taking a lesson from James Marshall and writing “Make better” and “Make funnier” next to my endings that need it! And, of course, I will keep in mind what Marshall himself stated: “Kids are really smart these days.”

David Polochanin’s new poetry

The recent James Marshall Fellowship awardee David Polochanin has published some new poems.  Check them out at  http://www.gadflyonline.com/home/index.php/how-to-write-a-poem/.

This curator’s favorite is “Dogs riding in cars, a brief analysis” with second favorite, “Moving in with Martha Stewart.”  Congratulations, David!

Insight on a Fellowship

For the 2012-2013 academic year, Glastonbury teacher and writer David Polochanin was awarded the James Marshall Fellowship while on sabbatical to research the archives at the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection and create young adult poetry and fiction of his own. This is the last in a series of blog installments on his insights, observations, and discoveries.

Blog post 4:  On Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, and Some Final Thoughts On My Fellowship

 “Tuck Everlasting is a fearsome and beautifully written book that can’t be put down or forgotten… I esteem it as a work or art, but it makes me as nervous as a cat. If I were twelve, on the other hand, I would love it.”

–          Jean Stafford, The New Yorker, 1975

“It’s almost impossible to pick one book that speaks to all the needs, dreams, desires of children in these years of the Search for Self. But if we were to choose one book for a ten to twelve- year-old stranded on that proverbial desert island, it would probably be Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt.”

 –          From Choosing Books for Kids: Choosing the Right Book For the Right Child At The Right Time (Ballantine Books, 1986)

Unless you’re a researcher, author, or interested in the inner workings of the writing craft, it is likely that, when reading a new book, with its glossy cover and crisp new pages, you will never know the labor involved in writing it. That’s not what draws people toward reading literature, usually. You might read a review on amazon.com or in a newspaper. You may get a recommendation from a friend, or read a blurb on a back cover in a bookstore.

It’s also likely that few readers probably care about that process – the multiple drafts, the dead-ends, the outlines, the correspondence with agents and editors – in general, the ‘messiness’ that goes along with writing a book. After all, there are a select few who have the ambition to write a book, even fewer who pull it off, and fewer still who get their books published. Most readers, I submit, read for entertainment, not to study the writing process.

Good thing for me that I like to do that.

When examining drafts of Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, the 1975 masterwork of children’s literature often listed on all-time best-books-for-children lists, it became immediately clear that her process was not easy or quick. It wasn’t a masterpiece the first time around. There are three drafts included in the collection, and the first two are thoroughly edited, with numerous cross-outs, inserts, writing all over the top, side, and bottom margins, places where new paragraphs need to be inserted, arrows drawn from here to there. Whether it’s a change from “said” to “whispered”, changing a reference from a character’s name to a pronoun reference, the elimination of how a chapter would begin, the manuscript is marked up – in a good way. When I flipped through the manuscript’s first draft, not one page was left alone.

Click here for an example of Natalie Babbitt’s revision process. 

One powerful example of this is at the end of Chapter 22, where Babbitt adds this dramatic, skillful ending in handwritten script in the bottom and side margins. The cross-outs are Ms. Babbitt’s.

Mae had killed the man in the yellow suit. And she had meant to kill him…

             Winnie had killed a wasp once, in fear and anger, just as it in time to spare           herself a stinging. She had slammed at the wasp with a heavy book, and killed it.  And then, at once, seeing its body broken, the thin wings stilled, she had at once  wished it were alive again. She had wept for that wasp. Was Mae weeping now for the man in the yellow suit? In spite of her wish to spare the world, did she wish he were alive again? There was no way of knowing. But Mae had done what she thought she had to do. Winnie closed her eyes to shut out the silent pulse of the lightning.

I don’t know about you, but when I see examples of revision like that – which eventually became a permanent part of the story – I get chills. To know that paragraph was not in Ms. Babbitt’s mind when initially composing the first draft speaks volumes about the importance of revising, and why writers must revise if they are to push themselves to write their best work.

Here is another deft example of Babbitt’s revision, her first draft of the opening paragraph to chapter 25, which came to be the first paragraph of Chapter 23. Again, the cross-throughs are Babbitt’s.

It was the longest day: mindlessly hot, unspeakably hot, a cruel punishment to a   guiltless world for unknown too hot to move, or even think. The countryside, the village of Treegap, the wood, motionless all lay whipped and helpless gasping. The sun was a ponderous circle without edges, a roar without a sound, a blazingglare blaze so thorough consuming that even  Queen Anne’s lace cast perfect,  motionless shadows and remorseless that even in the Foster’s parlor, with curtains drawn, it seemed an actual tangible presence. You could not shut it out.

In her second draft, this paragraph evolved to:

It was the longest day: mindlessly hot, unspeakably hot, too hot to move or even   think. The countryside, the village of Treegap, the wood – all lay defeated whipped and beaten. Nothing stirred. The sun was a ponderous circle without edges, a roar without a sound, a blazing glare so thorough and remorseless that    even in the Fosters’ parlor, with curtains drawn, it seemed an actual presence.You could not shut it out.

Notice how her language tightens. The text does not become spare – Babbitt’s prose is too descriptive and rich to be spare – but words and phrases are eliminated, and the writing is better for it.

What I wonder about, as a teacher, as a writer, is this: Do student writers know this about writing? Do they know that this is a normal part of a writer’s process? That even the drafts of some of the greatest masterworks of children’s literature were not polished or complete in the first draft, or even the second draft?

Would it help for them to see this? I believe so. As a freelance writer, poet, and former journalist myself, I derived an education – and also inspiration – from reading through Babbitt’s drafts and witnessing her process.

A few other interesting things caught my attention as I read through the three drafts. First, the lead character, Winnie, was originally not named Winnie. She was Daisy. Only after chapter 10 of her second draft did Babbitt change her name. Also, the title of the book, etched in the minds of children and adults alike, was not a certain thing. During the process, Babbitt brainstormed various titles, including: The Ripe Old Age Of Always, Ancient, An Ancient Tender Age, Daisy and Forever, and Tuck Everlasting.

I wondered why these changes were made – with these and several other questions. There are sometimes limitations when reading through archival materials, so I thought the only way to get the answers was to ask Natalie Babbitt herself.

Five days after sending her a list of my questions, Ms. Babbitt graciously and generously responded. Her responses provide insights about Tuck, her personal writing process, and she even revealed what, to her, is the finest piece of children’s literature.

Here is the entire, unedited transcript of my questions and her answers. I chose not to shorten it because her responses are simply too good to edit.

1. I noticed [in your notes] that there appeared to be a list of potential titles for this book, including:

 The Ripe Old Age Of Always                                     Daisy And Forever

Ancient                                                                       Tuck Everlasting

An Ancient Tender Age

How did you ultimately arrive at Tuck Everlasting? Was it your decision or an editor’s? Do you recall what you were thinking while going through this process? And, do you think the title is especially important for this book, or if the book would have succeeded had you named it something else?

I want to start by saying there are no rules for writing stories, once you get past grammar and punctuation. Everyone has systems of their own. I think choosing a title is one of the most difficult extras. But finally, for me, anyway, a title comes to the head of the list because, whether the writer knows it or not, it should say best what needs saying: it tells something about the story it represents, but not too much – and it needs to have an almost musical rhythm to it. My editor, without whom I’d never have written a word, has never demanded one title or another – he leaves it up to me – but if he dislikes the sound of a title, or its seeming meaning, he’ll say so. But I doubt if a given title would make a success of a story, good, bad, or indifferent. Leaning on any part of a story – except the story itself – to create success spells disaster.

2. I noticed in the first draft and through Chapter 10 of the second draft that the lead character was named Daisy.  Can you tell me why you made the change to Winnie? Also, it looked like she was possibly named Anna in one of the drafts. Can you comment on why you changed her name and if you had changed characters’ names in other books you have written while in the process of writing?

 The name of my main character in Tuck was changed a number of times because, first, I wanted a name that was popular at the time the story takes place, and second, I wanted to find a name that, for me sounded serious – not cute; a name representative (for me) of the character’s personality. “Daisy” began to annoy me. Since then, mostly, I choose names very carefully while I’m planning a story. “Winnie”, as you know now, is a nickname for “Winifred”, and both can be used here to good effect. I think.

 3. About the process… did you realize you were writing something extraordinary/special as you were composing Tuck? If so, when, and how did this impact your writing?

Did I realize I was writing something extraordinary when I was writing Tuck? Not in the least. In fact, I was pretty sure the theme had already been used many times. It still surprises me that it was fairly unique. But I can tell you that many adults, when I told them what the basic theme of the story was going to be, were horrified. “Write about death for children? That’s a terrible idea! They won’t understand that! It will only scare them!” Wrong! Completely wrong! I have had wonderful, articulate letters from thoughtful, philosophizing (if that’s a word) children steadily throughout the years since it appeared. It is mainly to the credit of reading teachers that it has been used in schools, bless them. But the children understand it by themselves, and have a lot to say about it. I wish this society would stop thinking that everyone under the age of seventeen is useless and dumb.

 4. I noticed that your first draft was in longhand. Is that how you typically start to write? If so, why do you feel that method works for you?

 My first draft was in longhand because, in the 70s, computers were not commonplace. I wrote in longhand, and then typed it all on my typewriter, chapter by chapter, as I went along. It’s what everyone did, so far as I know.

5. Can you comment on the writing process of this book? Did the writing happen more quickly or slowly than usual? Do you recall how long it took to write the 1st draft, to finish the second draft, and complete the third?

I don’t know if I ever had a writing process exactly. I never began a story (on paper) until I knew what it was that I wanted to say, and how the story would end. I have never begun a story without knowing what the ending will be. And, as far as I’m concerned, every story should have a purpose. But you have to be really careful not to preach. Some stories come easily because their purpose is clear from the beginning. But my latest story, The Moon Over High Street, took ten years to become a real book. In the beginning, it was terrible, and I kept throwing most of it away. But I think it works all right now that it’s complete.

6. Why do you think, in this age of fickle, and sometimes odd, tastes in children’s literature, that Tuck has endured all these years? Any theories?

 I think Tuck has lasted because, no matter how many years go by, the question of death, and how to live with it, never goes away. What you call ‘odd’ and ‘fickle’ about tastes in children’s literature are aspects that do not come from the young readers themselves. They come mostly from writers – and illustrators – who are trying to become established. Nothing wrong with that. But I think the best themes come from the people who remember what it was really like to be a child. My childhood is very clear and distinct to me. In fact, I think my whole philosophy was created before I was ten years old, and it has never changed. This doesn’t mean that I think my books are special in any way – after all, I started out wanting to be an illustrator – but at least they’re honest, and, I hope, direct.

7. I noticed that you had a good deal of notes and outlining, including a chronology, as part of your manuscript. Is this typical for you? If so, why do you feel that’s an important part of your process? Does it make the writing any easier?

Click here for Natalie Babbitt’s handwritten chronology for Tuck Everlasting.

Yes, I take a lot of notes and do a lot of research, and think and plan endlessly. I can’t start writing until the story has a shape and a purpose (for me) and a good ending. Not happy, necessarily, but rational and reasonable.

8. Your first two drafts include many revisions, cross-outs, arrows all over the margins, etc. As a teacher and a writer, it was excellent to see the, for lack of a better word, ‘messiness’, of this process. What is your revision process like? Do you read your work aloud? Do you have other readers you count on for feedback? It seemed that some of these revisions were revelatory and substantial. Do you expect to make significant changes when revising, or are you surprised by them?

 My drafts now are a lot tidier than they used to be. Computers are a great help. But there have been lots and lots of cross-outs and arrows in my head. And that’s where the revisions try themselves out. I think about a new story endlessly, and completely stop reading anything else until there’s room in my head once again. No, I don’t read my work aloud except when I have a few beginning pages. Then, sometimes, I send a few paragraphs to my editor (his name is Michael di Capua, and we’ve been together for more than 45 years). He is very candid in his reactions, and I treasure them. But I don’t think I’ve ever read anything aloud to my husband. He’s got a PhD in American Studies, with a specialization in American literature, and that aspects usually scares me. Mostly, he reads my books when they’re published.

9. What are a few of what you believe to be the finest examples of children’s literature, all-time? A Natalie Babbitt Top 5 or Top 10?

The finest example of children’s literature is, to me, Alice in Wonderland. I read it first when I was in fourth grade and it has formed a lot of different pieces of my taste and philosophy. The language is wonderful, and Alice herself is the only character in the book that has a particle of sense. It tells the truth, and it tells it with objectivity and humor and shows again and again what adults are really about.

Click here for two versions of the dust jacket design for Tuck Everlasting, one illustrated by Natalie Babbitt.     

                                                .           .           .

On a closing note, back in December when I began this fellowship, when I discovered that Tuck Everlasting was in the NCLC collection, I decided that I wanted to write my final blog post about this book. That, along with Natalie Babbitt’s thoughtful and revealing responses, makes me feel as though I made the right decision. For me, anyway. There could have been any number of paths that this fellowship took; there are hundreds of boxes of material that I did not explore. But I do want to recognize and thank the NCLC curator Terri Goldich for allowing me tremendous latitude in what I did, and for her support along the way. Thanks, also, to the other curators and Dodd Center staff, including Betsy Pittman, for accommodating my requests and answering my questions. I’m going to miss this place.

This fellowship was an unexpected, yet significant part of a sabbatical in which I have mainly written young adult poetry – I have a collection of poems that I am currently pitching to agents and editors – and a collection of short stories that I am planning to polish and revise in the next few weeks. I am grateful to the Glastonbury School District, its Board of Education, Superintendent of Schools Alan Bookman, my principal at Gideon Welles School, Jay Gregorski, and the Director of Reading and Language Arts, Joanne St. Peter, for supporting this sabbatical. What an unparalleled professional development opportunity. I learned a lot about myself as a writer and a teacher and look forward to returning to the classroom in the fall.

I think it’s appropriate to finish this post with Natalie Babbitt’s last words to me in her letter, when she puts her writing process simply, perhaps deceptively so.

What it comes down to, for me, is: you have to have something to say, and you have to like words. And that’s about it.

Insight on a Fellowship

For the 2012-2013 academic year, Glastonbury teacher and writer David Polochanin was awarded the James Marshall Fellowship while on sabbatical to research the archives at the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection and create young adult poetry and fiction of his own. This is the last in a series of blog installments on his insights, observations, and discoveries.

Blog post 4:  On Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, and Some Final Thoughts On My Fellowship

 “Tuck Everlasting is a fearsome and beautifully written book that can’t be put down or forgotten… I esteem it as a work or art, but it makes me as nervous as a cat. If I were twelve, on the other hand, I would love it.”

          Jean Stafford, The New Yorker, 1975

“It’s almost impossible to pick one book that speaks to all the needs, dreams, desires of children in these years of the Search for Self. But if we were to choose one book for a ten to twelve- year-old stranded on that proverbial desert island, it would probably be Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt.”

           From Choosing Books for Kids: Choosing the Right Book For the Right Child At The Right Time (Ballantine Books, 1986)

Unless you’re a researcher, author, or interested in the inner workings of the writing craft, it is likely that, when reading a new book, with its glossy cover and crisp new pages, you will never know the labor involved in writing it. That’s not what draws people toward reading literature, usually. You might read a review on amazon.com or in a newspaper. You may get a recommendation from a friend, or read a blurb on a back cover in a bookstore.

It’s also likely that few readers probably care about that process – the multiple drafts, the dead-ends, the outlines, the correspondence with agents and editors – in general, the ‘messiness’ that goes along with writing a book. After all, there are a select few who have the ambition to write a book, even fewer who pull it off, and fewer still who get their books published. Most readers, I submit, read for entertainment, not to study the writing process.

Good thing for me that I like to do that.

When examining drafts of Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, the 1975 masterwork of children’s literature often listed on all-time best-books-for-children lists, it became immediately clear that her process was not easy or quick. It wasn’t a masterpiece the first time around. There are three drafts included in the collection, and the first two are thoroughly edited, with numerous cross-outs, inserts, writing all over the top, side, and bottom margins, places where new paragraphs need to be inserted, arrows drawn from here to there. Whether it’s a change from “said” to “whispered”, changing a reference from a character’s name to a pronoun reference, the elimination of how a chapter would begin, the manuscript is marked up – in a good way. When I flipped through the manuscript’s first draft, not one page was left alone.

Click here for an example of Natalie Babbitt’s revision process. 

One powerful example of this is at the end of Chapter 22, where Babbitt adds this dramatic, skillful ending in handwritten script in the bottom and side margins. The cross-outs are Ms. Babbitt’s.

            Mae had killed the man in the yellow suit. And she had meant to kill him…

             Winnie had killed a wasp once, in fear and anger, just as it in time to spare           herself a stinging. She had slammed at the wasp with a heavy book, and killed it.  And then, at once, seeing its body broken, the thin wings stilled, she had at once  wished it were alive again. She had wept for that wasp. Was Mae weeping now for the man in the yellow suit? In spite of her wish to spare the world, did she wish he were alive again? There was no way of knowing. But Mae had done what she thought she had to do. Winnie closed her eyes to shut out the silent pulse of the lightning.

I don’t know about you, but when I see examples of revision like that – which eventually became a permanent part of the story – I get chills. To know that paragraph was not in Ms. Babbitt’s mind when initially composing the first draft speaks volumes about the importance of revising, and why writers must revise if they are to push themselves to write their best work.

Here is another deft example of Babbitt’s revision, her first draft of the opening paragraph to chapter 25, which came to be the first paragraph of Chapter 23. Again, the cross-throughs are Babbitt’s.

            It was the longest day: mindlessly hot, unspeakably hot, a cruel punishment to a   guiltless world for unknown too hot to move, or even think. The countryside, the village of Treegap, the wood, motionless all lay whipped and helpless gasping. The sun was a ponderous circle without edges, a roar without a sound, a blazingglare blaze so thorough consuming that even  Queen Anne’s lace cast perfect,  motionless shadows and remorseless that even in the Foster’s parlor, with curtains drawn, it seemed an actual tangible presence. You could not shut it out.

In her second draft, this paragraph evolved to:

            It was the longest day: mindlessly hot, unspeakably hot, too hot to move or even   think. The countryside, the village of Treegap, the wood – all lay defeated whipped and beaten. Nothing stirred. The sun was a ponderous circle without edges, a roar without a sound, a blazing glare so thorough and remorseless that    even in the Fosters’ parlor, with curtains drawn, it seemed an actual presence.You could not shut it out.

Notice how her language tightens. The text does not become spare – Babbitt’s prose is too descriptive and rich to be spare – but words and phrases are eliminated, and the writing is better for it.

What I wonder about, as a teacher, as a writer, is this: Do student writers know this about writing? Do they know that this is a normal part of a writer’s process? That even the drafts of some of the greatest masterworks of children’s literature were not polished or complete in the first draft, or even the second draft?

Would it help for them to see this? I believe so. As a freelance writer, poet, and former journalist myself, I derived an education – and also inspiration – from reading through Babbitt’s drafts and witnessing her process.

A few other interesting things caught my attention as I read through the three drafts. First, the lead character, Winnie, was originally not named Winnie. She was Daisy. Only after chapter 10 of her second draft did Babbitt change her name. Also, the title of the book, etched in the minds of children and adults alike, was not a certain thing. During the process, Babbitt brainstormed various titles, including: The Ripe Old Age Of Always, Ancient, An Ancient Tender Age, Daisy and Forever, and Tuck Everlasting.

I wondered why these changes were made – with these and several other questions. There are sometimes limitations when reading through archival materials, so I thought the only way to get the answers was to ask Natalie Babbitt herself.

Five days after sending her a list of my questions, Ms. Babbitt graciously and generously responded. Her responses provide insights about Tuck, her personal writing process, and she even revealed what, to her, is the finest piece of children’s literature.

Here is the entire, unedited transcript of my questions and her answers. I chose not to shorten it because her responses are simply too good to edit.

1. I noticed [in your notes] that there appeared to be a list of potential titles for this book, including:

 The Ripe Old Age Of Always                                     Daisy And Forever

Ancient                                                                       Tuck Everlasting

An Ancient Tender Age

How did you ultimately arrive at Tuck Everlasting? Was it your decision or an editor’s? Do you recall what you were thinking while going through this process? And, do you think the title is especially important for this book, or if the book would have succeeded had you named it something else?

I want to start by saying there are no rules for writing stories, once you get past grammar and punctuation. Everyone has systems of their own. I think choosing a title is one of the most difficult extras. But finally, for me, anyway, a title comes to the head of the list because, whether the writer knows it or not, it should say best what needs saying: it tells something about the story it represents, but not too much – and it needs to have an almost musical rhythm to it. My editor, without whom I’d never have written a word, has never demanded one title or another – he leaves it up to me – but if he dislikes the sound of a title, or its seeming meaning, he’ll say so. But I doubt if a given title would make a success of a story, good, bad, or indifferent. Leaning on any part of a story – except the story itself – to create success spells disaster.

2. I noticed in the first draft and through Chapter 10 of the second draft that the lead character was named Daisy.  Can you tell me why you made the change to Winnie? Also, it looked like she was possibly named Anna in one of the drafts. Can you comment on why you changed her name and if you had changed characters’ names in other books you have written while in the process of writing?

 The name of my main character in Tuck was changed a number of times because, first, I wanted a name that was popular at the time the story takes place, and second, I wanted to find a name that, for me sounded serious – not cute; a name representative (for me) of the character’s personality. “Daisy” began to annoy me. Since then, mostly, I choose names very carefully while I’m planning a story. “Winnie”, as you know now, is a nickname for “Winifred”, and both can be used here to good effect. I think.

 3. About the process… did you realize you were writing something extraordinary/special as you were composing Tuck? If so, when, and how did this impact your writing?

Did I realize I was writing something extraordinary when I was writing Tuck? Not in the least. In fact, I was pretty sure the theme had already been used many times. It still surprises me that it was fairly unique. But I can tell you that many adults, when I told them what the basic theme of the story was going to be, were horrified. “Write about death for children? That’s a terrible idea! They won’t understand that! It will only scare them!” Wrong! Completely wrong! I have had wonderful, articulate letters from thoughtful, philosophizing (if that’s a word) children steadily throughout the years since it appeared. It is mainly to the credit of reading teachers that it has been used in schools, bless them. But the children understand it by themselves, and have a lot to say about it. I wish this society would stop thinking that everyone under the age of seventeen is useless and dumb.

 4. I noticed that your first draft was in longhand. Is that how you typically start to write? If so, why do you feel that method works for you?

 My first draft was in longhand because, in the 70s, computers were not commonplace. I wrote in longhand, and then typed it all on my typewriter, chapter by chapter, as I went along. It’s what everyone did, so far as I know.

5. Can you comment on the writing process of this book? Did the writing happen more quickly or slowly than usual? Do you recall how long it took to write the 1st draft, to finish the second draft, and complete the third?

I don’t know if I ever had a writing process exactly. I never began a story (on paper) until I knew what it was that I wanted to say, and how the story would end. I have never begun a story without knowing what the ending will be. And, as far as I’m concerned, every story should have a purpose. But you have to be really careful not to preach. Some stories come easily because their purpose is clear from the beginning. But my latest story, The Moon Over High Street, took ten years to become a real book. In the beginning, it was terrible, and I kept throwing most of it away. But I think it works all right now that it’s complete.

6. Why do you think, in this age of fickle, and sometimes odd, tastes in children’s literature, that Tuck has endured all these years? Any theories?

 I think Tuck has lasted because, no matter how many years go by, the question of death, and how to live with it, never goes away. What you call ‘odd’ and ‘fickle’ about tastes in children’s literature are aspects that do not come from the young readers themselves. They come mostly from writers – and illustrators – who are trying to become established. Nothing wrong with that. But I think the best themes come from the people who remember what it was really like to be a child. My childhood is very clear and distinct to me. In fact, I think my whole philosophy was created before I was ten years old, and it has never changed. This doesn’t mean that I think my books are special in any way – after all, I started out wanting to be an illustrator – but at least they’re honest, and, I hope, direct.

7. I noticed that you had a good deal of notes and outlining, including a chronology, as part of your manuscript. Is this typical for you? If so, why do you feel that’s an important part of your process? Does it make the writing any easier?

Click here for Natalie Babbitt’s handwritten chronology for Tuck Everlasting.

Yes, I take a lot of notes and do a lot of research, and think and plan endlessly. I can’t start writing until the story has a shape and a purpose (for me) and a good ending. Not happy, necessarily, but rational and reasonable.

8. Your first two drafts include many revisions, cross-outs, arrows all over the margins, etc. As a teacher and a writer, it was excellent to see the, for lack of a better word, ‘messiness’, of this process. What is your revision process like? Do you read your work aloud? Do you have other readers you count on for feedback? It seemed that some of these revisions were revelatory and substantial. Do you expect to make significant changes when revising, or are you surprised by them?

 My drafts now are a lot tidier than they used to be. Computers are a great help. But there have been lots and lots of cross-outs and arrows in my head. And that’s where the revisions try themselves out. I think about a new story endlessly, and completely stop reading anything else until there’s room in my head once again. No, I don’t read my work aloud except when I have a few beginning pages. Then, sometimes, I send a few paragraphs to my editor (his name is Michael di Capua, and we’ve been together for more than 45 years). He is very candid in his reactions, and I treasure them. But I don’t think I’ve ever read anything aloud to my husband. He’s got a PhD in American Studies, with a specialization in American literature, and that aspects usually scares me. Mostly, he reads my books when they’re published.

9. What are a few of what you believe to be the finest examples of children’s literature, all-time? A Natalie Babbitt Top 5 or Top 10?

The finest example of children’s literature is, to me, Alice in Wonderland. I read it first when I was in fourth grade and it has formed a lot of different pieces of my taste and philosophy. The language is wonderful, and Alice herself is the only character in the book that has a particle of sense. It tells the truth, and it tells it with objectivity and humor and shows again and again what adults are really about.

Click here for two versions of the dust jacket design for Tuck Everlasting, one illustrated by Natalie Babbitt.     

                                                .           .           .

On a closing note, back in December when I began this fellowship, when I discovered that Tuck Everlasting was in the NCLC collection, I decided that I wanted to write my final blog post about this book. That, along with Natalie Babbitt’s thoughtful and revealing responses, makes me feel as though I made the right decision. For me, anyway. There could have been any number of paths that this fellowship took; there are hundreds of boxes of material that I did not explore. But I do want to recognize and thank the NCLC curator Terri Goldich for allowing me tremendous latitude in what I did, and for her support along the way. Thanks, also, to the other curators and Dodd Center staff, including Betsy Pittman, for accommodating my requests and answering my questions. I’m going to miss this place.

This fellowship was an unexpected, yet significant part of a sabbatical in which I have mainly written young adult poetry – I have a collection of poems that I am currently pitching to agents and editors – and a collection of short stories that I am planning to polish and revise in the next few weeks. I am grateful to the Glastonbury School District, its Board of Education, Superintendent of Schools Alan Bookman, my principal at Gideon Welles School, Jay Gregorski, and the Director of Reading and Language Arts, Joanne St. Peter, for supporting this sabbatical. What an unparalleled professional development opportunity. I learned a lot about myself as a writer and a teacher and look forward to returning to the classroom in the fall.

I think it’s appropriate to finish this post with Natalie Babbitt’s last words to me in her letter, when she puts her writing process simply, perhaps deceptively so.

What it comes down to, for me, is: you have to have something to say, and you have to like words. And that’s about it.

Insight on a Fellowship

In his third blog installment, Glastonbury teacher and writer David Polochanin, recipient of the James Marshall Fellowship, shares two of his original poems after reading poetry in the Dodd Collection, from the Joel Oppenheimer and Robert Creeley papers.

Blog post 3: On Poetry

Transcript of Cartography 1957 Celebrating the peace typescript

“Cartography” and “Celebrating the Peace” by Joel Oppenheimer (Joel Oppenheimer Papers, Box 11, Archives & Special Collections, University of Connecticut Libraries). All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction allowed by any means for any reason.

3.20.13

Who would have

thought that

these papers,

with their typewriter

ink fading,

would see the

light of day

again, let alone

on this windy

Wednesday morning

in March?

When the poet

fashioned these words

40 years ago

they were

nothing special,

drafts scattered

in the author’s mind,

printed in a cluttered office,

gathering on the shelf

and the desk top,

in piles on the floor

against the wall,

and others in a stack

on the sill

beside a cactus.

The plant

(and the author)

have long since died

but today

I open a manila

folder and the poetry

comes alive, quite

a miracle, actually.

His words of reflection

and longing, poems

commemorating seasons,

and scenes

in New York City

that the poet likely

saw each day, planes

rising above the

Financial District,

papers blowing

on the sidewalk,

a bird that spent half

its morning jumping

from branch to branch

in a single tree

as a stream of taxis

formed one line

from here

to Central Park,

all of them turning at once,

then disappearing on

behind a monument

when I close this folder

and open the next.

 

 uconn_asc_Creeley-Papers_2-48_2

“The Epic Expands” by Robert Creeley (Robert Creeley Papers, Box 2:Folder 48, Archives & Special Collections, University of Connecticut Libraries).  All rights reserved.  No unauthorized reproduction allowed by any means for any reason.

Sipping A Coke

Back when I was a kid

we used to sit on a porch

and sip Coke.

 

The parents sat in

rocking chairs,

holding their drink

 

in a bottle;

the young ones sat

on the concrete steps

 

flicking with their non-

drinking hand

the tiniest of pebbles

 

and the sun sat

motionless

in the sky.

 

We sipped it together.

We sipped it because

it was good. People

 

didn’t die because

of soft drinks, then.

No one developed

 

an addiction to caffeine

and diabetes

wasn’t a problem.

 

Having this drink allowed

us to chat about life,

about the dog’s laziness,

 

how the garden

was coming along,

and there was

 

a baseball game

on the radio

Saturday night.

 

Yes, those afternoons

had some kind

of timeless element.

 

I can still taste

the sweet soda

in my mouth

 

and I wonder

to this day

as I read this poem

 

what that

is all

about.

 

 

Insight on a Fellowship

Glastonbury, Conn., English teacher David Polochanin was recently awarded the James Marshall Fellowship, as he pursues to write young adult literature as part of a yearlong sabbatical. During his research, he will write an occasional series of blog posts, based on his observations and insights relating to the contents of the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Connecticut.   This is the second in the series.

Blog post 2: On The Psychology Of Writing

“You may think that this is the first Newbery acceptance speech I have ever made. But it isn’t. Long ago, before I ever wrote a book, when I was a children’s librarian and first aware of the Newbery Medal, I used to often put myself to sleep at night making speeches accepting this coveted award. These speeches were all exceptionally good and I wish I could remember them now. After I started writing, I stopped this pleasant habit, for my mind busied itself with wayward excursions creating chapters for… books.”

           Excerpt from Eleanor Estes’ 1952 Newbery Medal speech for her book Ginger Pye
 Eleanor Estes Newbery speech pg. 3

 Eleanor Estes Newbery Speech pg. 4

Within the publishing industry, there is a genre subset that exists mainly because of the uncertainty, mystery, and pressure that all writers face – the self-help writing guide. New books are sold every year, offering expert advice on such writerly, often impossible, things as how to summon the muses, where characters come from, the best ways to begin and end a story, if outlining is necessary for everyone, as if these were insider secrets only known to a few. Still, we learn that some authors write early in morning; others late at night. Some claim the best ideas come while taking long walks; others write what they dream and form stories around that.

To prove the marketability of such books, there is still a shelf at your local Barnes and Noble and the UConn Co-op reserved for such titles as John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Ray Bradbury’s Zen In The Art Of Writing, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing The Writer Within, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, among others.

As a writer, especially at the beginning, during those fledgling phases when you’ve got 40 pages of something and it isn’t going so well, it’s hard not to look at these books. They are indeed tempting to read. Teachers at the college level routinely assign them as class texts, and the content is often useful, if not entertaining. I’ve bought a bunch of them myself, and every now and then, I return to them for inspiration or direction.

So, what makes me bring up the self-help industry for writers? A progressive-minded document from 1952.

Browsing through the Eleanor Estes papers recently I came upon several drafts of her Newbery Medal speech, given in 1952 for her book Ginger Pye, which stopped me in my tracks. As I read the draft, complete with cross-outs and edits, I stopped at the excerpt at the top of this post and had to reread it. I copied it verbatim on my yellow legal pad. Estes, a former librarian in New York City, said this was not her first speech. She had given many of them, in her head, putting herself to sleep at night imagining that she had won the award. What she was saying could have easily been included in a how-to-write guide; it still could.

With so much written about the psychology of writing – directly or indirectly – the truth remains elusive. What works for some will not work for all. I know for a fact that I do not have the motivation to write at 4:30 a.m., as some writers do. My most productive work time is sometime between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. It used to be from 9 p.m. to midnight, before my kids entered the picture. I have had numerous ideas come to me while on bike rides and while driving my car, though I would hesitate to say there is a direct correlation between generating writing ideas and movement. Perhaps through doing these activities, my mind has an opportunity to clear out some space for creative thought. But who really knows.

Reading from superior examples in the genre you’re writing seems to help warm up the brain. Perhaps it’s nothing more than mere imitation. But is this scientifically based? I doubt it, or know if it can be. Still, Ted Kooser, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet who has been the U.S. Poet Laureate, in interviews says he has done this, as have many other writers. When I was a journalist at the Providence Journal, before a major assignment an editor once sent me a handful of front-page feature stories from the Wall Street Journal before I started to write one of my own. I did “channel” something from those stories, but I think I was too young to figure out how the articles she sent could help me.

Nevertheless, I guess the Estes comment surprised me because of the time period in which she wrote it, and also because it still makes so much sense today. How could it not help to imagine doing the very thing you want to do? Isn’t visualization/imagery the most primitive version of positive psychology? Estes was priming her brain to write great works, and her nightly fantasizing ritual ultimately gave her a tight focus and, quite likely, a motivation.

It worked for her. Could it work for others?

Sifting through boxes of manuscripts in the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection, I suppose, can have a similar effect: to gain a psychological edge in the writing process. It’s easy to forget sometimes that writing is truly an art form, and that artists need inspiration and particular conditions in order to do it well. Whether it’s writing near the window at Starbucks, which seems to be a favorite for many, or in a secluded study room at a library, I’m not sure if there are any big secrets that will work for everyone. The trick, I think, is discovering what will work for you.

Insights on a Fellowship

Glastonbury, Conn., English teacher David Polochanin was recently awarded the James Marshall Fellowship, as he pursues to write young adult literature as part of a yearlong sabbatical. During his research, he will write an occasional series of blog posts, based on his observations and insights relating to the contents of the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Connecticut.   This is the second in the series.

Blog post 2: On The Psychology Of Writing

“You may think that this is the first Newbery acceptance speech I have ever made. But it isn’t. Long ago, before I ever wrote a book, when I was a children’s librarian and first aware of the Newbery Medal, I used to often put myself to sleep at night making speeches accepting this coveted award. These speeches were all exceptionally good and I wish I could remember them now. After I started writing, I stopped this pleasant habit, for my mind busied itself with wayward excursions creating chapters for… books.”

           Excerpt from Eleanor Estes’ 1952 Newbery Medal speech for her book Ginger Pye
 Eleanor Estes Newbery speech pg. 3

 Eleanor Estes Newbery Speech pg. 4

Within the publishing industry, there is a genre subset that exists mainly because of the uncertainty, mystery, and pressure that all writers face – the self-help writing guide. New books are sold every year, offering expert advice on such writerly, often impossible, things as how to summon the muses, where characters come from, the best ways to begin and end a story, if outlining is necessary for everyone, as if these were insider secrets only known to a few. Still, we learn that some authors write early in morning; others late at night. Some claim the best ideas come while taking long walks; others write what they dream and form stories around that.

To prove the marketability of such books, there is still a shelf at your local Barnes and Noble and the UConn Co-op reserved for such titles as John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Ray Bradbury’s Zen In The Art Of Writing, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing The Writer Within, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, among others.

As a writer, especially at the beginning, during those fledgling phases when you’ve got 40 pages of something and it isn’t going so well, it’s hard not to look at these books. They are indeed tempting to read. Teachers at the college level routinely assign them as class texts, and the content is often useful, if not entertaining. I’ve bought a bunch of them myself, and every now and then, I return to them for inspiration or direction.

So, what makes me bring up the self-help industry for writers? A progressive-minded document from 1952.

Browsing through the Eleanor Estes papers recently I came upon several drafts of her Newbery Medal speech, given in 1952 for her book Ginger Pye, which stopped me in my tracks. As I read the draft, complete with cross-outs and edits, I stopped at the excerpt at the top of this post and had to reread it. I copied it verbatim on my yellow legal pad. Estes, a former librarian in New York City, said this was not her first speech. She had given many of them, in her head, putting herself to sleep at night imagining that she had won the award. What she was saying could have easily been included in a how-to-write guide; it still could.

With so much written about the psychology of writing – directly or indirectly – the truth remains elusive. What works for some will not work for all. I know for a fact that I do not have the motivation to write at 4:30 a.m., as some writers do. My most productive work time is sometime between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. It used to be from 9 p.m. to midnight, before my kids entered the picture. I have had numerous ideas come to me while on bike rides and while driving my car, though I would hesitate to say there is a direct correlation between generating writing ideas and movement. Perhaps through doing these activities, my mind has an opportunity to clear out some space for creative thought. But who really knows.

Reading from superior examples in the genre you’re writing seems to help warm up the brain. Perhaps it’s nothing more than mere imitation. But is this scientifically based? I doubt it, or know if it can be. Still, Ted Kooser, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet who has been the U.S. Poet Laureate, in interviews says he has done this, as have many other writers. When I was a journalist at the Providence Journal, before a major assignment an editor once sent me a handful of front-page feature stories from the Wall Street Journal before I started to write one of my own. I did “channel” something from those stories, but I think I was too young to figure out how the articles she sent could help me.

Nevertheless, I guess the Estes comment surprised me because of the time period in which she wrote it, and also because it still makes so much sense today. How could it not help to imagine doing the very thing you want to do? Isn’t visualization/imagery the most primitive version of positive psychology? Estes was priming her brain to write great works, and her nightly fantasizing ritual ultimately gave her a tight focus and, quite likely, a motivation.

It worked for her. Could it work for others?

Sifting through boxes of manuscripts in the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection, I suppose, can have a similar effect: to gain a psychological edge in the writing process. It’s easy to forget sometimes that writing is truly an art form, and that artists need inspiration and particular conditions in order to do it well. Whether it’s writing near the window at Starbucks, which seems to be a favorite for many, or in a secluded study room at a library, I’m not sure if there are any big secrets that will work for everyone. The trick, I think, is discovering what will work for you.

Insight on a Fellowship

Glastonbury, Conn., English teacher David Polochanin was recently awarded the James Marshall Fellowship, as he pursues to write young adult literature as part of a yearlong sabbatical. During his research, he will write an occasional series of blog posts, based on his observations and insights relating to the contents of the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Connecticut. Polochanin’s work has been widely published in major newspapers in New England, including The Boston Globe, Providence Journal, and Hartford Courant. His education writing has appeared in Education Week and Middle Ground, and his poetry has been included in an anthology by Native West Press, and will be published in the prose poetry journal Sentence.

Archives & Special Collections stacks
Photo in Archives & Special Collections stacks @ David Polochanin 2013

 Blog Post 1: On Production

Combing through the archives of this collection has been fascinating, and an extraordinary opportunity. Since my days as a reporting intern for the Boston Globe nearly 20 years ago, I’ve been interested in authors’ behind-the-scenes writing process – perhaps because the art of creation is typically so mysterious. After all, when authors are interviewed by admirers, one of the first questions they are asked is, “How did you write this?” or “Where did the idea come from?”

I am not so much interested in where ideas come from, but I am intrigued with the process of writing itself.

In a way, I am learning that it is not so complicated.

While I have examined only a fraction of what the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection holds, I am struck by the sheer production of some of these authors, the volume of work they have created, and that, it would seem, an author’s ability and determination to produce such large amounts of work are major factors leading to publication, success, accolades, fame. This drive ultimately distinguishes a recreational writer, I think, from writers who earn a living by writing, particularly as a creative writer, for adults and children alike.

Their success is not reliant upon talent, alone.

It takes tenacity to produce. I am reminded of an interview I read recently with Newbery Medal winning author Kate DiCamillo, posted on the website ReadingRockets.org. She said, “I’ve been in so many writing workshops, writing classes, and to the right of me and to the left of me, there’s always somebody much more talented than I am. And what I figured out is they’re not willing to go through the rejection, which is enormous, and then the compromise that comes with editing your work. I decided a long time ago that I didn’t have to be talented. I just had to be persistent, and that that was something that I could control — the persistence. I’ve always been kind of persistent.”

Again and again in author interviews, this is a common refrain. In order to publish your work, one must work hard. Sounds simple. But the determination involved when there are dozens of things vying for our time, is remarkable. It means casting these distractions – the Internet, TV, the laundry, the long shower – aside to sit somewhere and write for extended periods of time. In today’s society, a place where patience is underrated, this kind of discipline is increasingly difficult.

So when I look through boxes of drafts, notes, and manuscripts by such celebrated children’s authors as Eleanor Estes and Ruth Krauss, whose works are well represented in the Northeast Children’s Literature Collection, seeing the sheer amount of their work stacked in box after box on the shelves in the back room, you begin to get a sense of why these are noteworthy writers and why their work is housed in a university archive.

Writing is a way of life. And you can tell that many of the writers here have dedicated their lives to the craft, to creating stories, poetry, or nonfiction. They have been prolific producers. It’s not unlike any other line of work that requires intense focus and discipline in order to rise to the top of a profession. The best physicians are often board-certified, keep up with current research, and teach young doctors in training; the best NBA players spend hours beyond their usual practice and game time to practice three-pointers and free throws and watch video of their games.

‘Consuming’ is the right word to describe this sort of dedication.

In his book The Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at a craft, including reaching the highest levels of achievement in business, technology, sports, and music. I’d argue the same goes for writing. Over 10 years, that’s 1,000 hours a year, or 83 hours a month, 19 hours a week, or about three hours a day. Of course, this is provided that you write every day.

Poring through this collection’s files and folders and the sheer volume of production included here makes it clear, at least in my mind: the more a writer produces, the more likely they are to get published, and the more likely one is to eventually publish work of enduring value. Kate DiCamillo has it right: First comes a stubborn persistence, then comes talent.