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Interview with Carolyn Brodie

What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
Coming from a relatively poor blue-collar family, my brothers and I weren't surrounded by the luxury of a large library. My folks really stretched to get the Childcraft series, which was milk and honey to us in our early years. Happily, we had blue ribbon parents who read to us endlessly, and that made all the difference. I am also blessed in having a twin brother as my alter ego, my first editor and my best male friend. We have been sharing our lives and our passion--books--ever since we can remember. Of course, my younger brother is a peach as well. We're all very close.

How did you begin writing for children?
For most of my adult life I was a college professor (economics, of all things!). In 1978, on a family visit to Cumberland Falls, Kentucky, we saw a unique natural phenomenon--a white rainbow--called a moonbow. It inspired my first children's story, which, after a long and tortured birthing process, became my fifth book.

What events in your life led to your creation of children's literature?
Much too late in life, just on cusp of forty, I met Sister Poetry for the first time, and fell in love with words all over again. Oh, I had been writing in the deathly prose of Economics for many years because the people most important to me professionally when I was younger had all been in the social sciences--hence, my doctorate in Economics. If I had met a charismatic English professor, I might have turned to children's books twenty years earlier. My juvenilia were written just as I was entering middle age. And juvenilia they were! Awful, dreadful, regrettable verse. Why? Because I didn't know the first thing about poetry, except that I loved it. So, as I've told often, I stopped writing and read nothing but books of and about poetry for three years, especially the classics. When I thought I had learned something about craft, I began writing again.

In the early eighties I remember an editor telling me that there were a half dozen children's poets in America--Seuss, Silverstein, Myra Cohn Livingston, Prelutsky, a couple of others--and that was all America really needed. They had, she alleged, saturated the market. What a marvelous challenge that was--to prove her wrong. It took several years alternating struggle with despair, but I finally got my first book of poems--A HIPPOPOTAMUSN'T--published in 1990.

What changes have you seen in your work since the publication of your first book?
Time and hard work improve most notably one's ear. Being able to hear weaknesses in what you write--flabby adjectives, wobbly diction--is critical. That's why poets should always read their works out loud, over and over. I realize now more than ever that good writing means choosing strong verbs. As the poet John Berryman once said, "I verbed for forty years." I'll spend hours, sometimes days searching for just the write verb, and when it comes, it's very nearly heaven.

A criticism I have received more than once from editors is that I place too much attention (and faith) on the richness of language and not enough on the story or plot line. To that, I plead guilty--and shall evermore. I try never to minimize vocabulary to accommodate an age group, unless, of course, I am commanded to do so by an editor!

Could you briefly describe how you create a book.... from the idea stage to the completed book? How does it happen??
Stories come unbidden, serendipitously. My wife and I were driving down Savage Road in Chagrin Falls where I now live. She pointed out a silver maple with shoes hanging all over it. We explored its origins only to discover that the shoe tree grew that way when some high school prom-goers decided to hang their booties on it. A boring story. But I concocted a tale out of whole cloth about a tree-tall cobbler woman a century ago who visited brilliantly-named towns in Northeast Ohio every six months--Bath, Novelty, Reminderville, Orange. She took orders for shoes, then returned six months later to deliver the goods. The story, full of those glorious town names and not a few of my own family and friends, will be coming out in the fall of 2001 from Creative Editions--THE SHOE TREE OF CHAGRIN. But what truly transports me is poetry, and so I spend most of my working hours thinking of themes to develop into manuscripts. Shaped poems, riddles, insect poems, haiku, et al. Not long ago, I read about the first parachute wedding, a wonderful image of the bridal couple, four musicians, best man, maid of honor and preacher, all descending over the New York World's Fair in 1940. That got me to thinking about other firsts, and, well, that led to A BURST OF FIRSTS (Dial, 2001).

Once I have finished the manuscript, sent it off, and it's been accepted for publication, I put it out of my mind because it will be two to three years before the book will come to me full-blown. I am rarely in touch with an illustrator, and have virtually no say whatever in which illustrator will be chosen to do my books. Collaboration is more often the exception than the rule in picture books.

How many poems does it take to make a book?
Most children's picture books are 32-pages long. Ignoring title and dedication pages, that leaves about 28 pages. If text and art share a double-page spread, that leaves 14 text pages or poems (at a minimum) to a book. Not much, as my good friend and brilliant critic Peter Neumeyer says. You ought to get more for your money (unless it's Shakespeare, of course). I usually submit 35 to 50 poems in a manuscript, depending upon the theme. Knowing that an editor won't like everything I do, I hope 20 to 30 poems survive, and that should be sufficient.

Who (poets?) has influenced your work for children?
Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, along with a few other lesser known 19th century children's poets, lead my pantheon of geniuses. There are some wonderful contemporary children's poets, of course, but I'd rather not mention any of them for fear of slighting someone by inattention. Personally, my own career was helped enormously by the intercession of my late beloved friend Myra Cohn Livingston. A fine poet and anthologist herself, she held to the highest standards. She did not suffer doggerel gladly. Myra accepted some Christmas poems of mine in the early 80's, and she kept the door open to my work for twenty more anthologies. All children's poets owe Myra and Lee Bennett Hopkins, those indefatigable anthologists, a tremendous debt for their endless support of newcomers. A swashbuckler of a bow to them both.

Doodle Dandies was a poetry book that depended on the art for the message in the poetry. Did you work closely with Lisa Desimini, the illustrator? Do you have a chance for input regarding the artwork created for your books?
Lisa Desimini and I met for the first time two months or so after DOODLE DANDIES was published. Simon & Schuster sent us on a ten-day tour of the Midwest to hype the book. As you might guess, Lisa and I became fast friends. In fact, we decided then that we should do another book together. So GOOD MOUSE-KEEPING: ANIMAL HOME POEMS will be out in 2001. As delighted as I was with Lisa's art for the shaped poems in DOODLE DANDIES--and the fascinating fact for kids is that the entire book was done with Lisa's computer and scanner--I must tell you that the ideas for all of the shapes were mine. These are shape poems after all. Of course, when I sent the ms. in, it wasn't nearly as beautiful as her illustrations turned out to be. I had to cut and paste each letter on 8 x 11" paper, and some illustrations as well, e.g., the string of basketballs in the "Lashondra Scores" poem. In other words, by the very nature of shaped poems, I had more say in what the art would look like for this book than in any other book I've done.

Generally speaking, artists don't want to be intruded upon in their half of the creative process. They have their own vision. Writers, I think, must respect that. Many people seem to think it's unfair that the author has so little say in how his or her book will actually appear, but you have to trust editors and art directors to do the right thing, choose the right illustrator, design the best book, etc. Alas, sometimes they goof. And that can mean a sad day. Authors may weep bitter tears occasionally at what has been done with their work--and I've come close only twice--but because publishers pay all the freight for bringing the book to birth, authors, in my opinion, have little to grouse about. And let me add, I have been exceptionally fortunate and delighted in almost all the artists who have evoked my words.

Now that you've published 25 books for children, will you continue to write primarily poetry and folklore?
I wrote about this at some length in my "Sailing the Craft of Children's Poetry" in the January 2000 issue of THE WRITER. But I'm happy to say again that I want to be a poet for children when I grow up! Of course, folkloric tales are also a source of poignancy for me, and anytime I come across an idea for one, you can be sure that I will try my hand at it. Thus far, ten more of my titles are forth-coming over the next couple of years, and I have several more mss. now looking for homes.

What do you tell children about your work?
Well, I could kick myself for not joining the school visit trail sooner, as so many wonderful teachers had encouraged me to do. It's a magical mystery ride, and I am continually astonished at the hard work and dedication of school librarians and elementary teachers. The kids, of course, are the first audience, but the show doesn't go on nearly as well if the staff hasn't prepared those kids so well for an author visit. What an unspeakable joy and privilege it is for me, for us, for all of us authors and illustrators, to be asked to appeal to a child's love of books. So, to your question: What do I tell kids? Two things:

The first is what nobody told me when I was a kid (authors' visits are relatively new): You can be a writer! Oh my, if only someone had told me that when I was young. Maybe I just wasn't bright enough to figure it out on my own, so I became a college professor instead.

But if you want to be a writer, you must agree to two conditions: First, be a lifelong reader. If you don't like reading, you probably won't like writing. And then, too, you must be a re-writer. Very few people have ever written anything once and discovered it was "finished." I tell students that the biggest thing in my office is my wastebasket, and I keep it filled. Rewriting mss. ten or twenty times is not that unusual.

Also, to students: Never fear to fail. Everybody does it. Failure is the fastest road to success. Rejection is what every author knows intimately, but rarely takes personally. Maybe this is a gloss on the other point I made. What you write in the beginning is probably worth at least two or three more go-arounds before you hand it in to your teacher.

Which book of yours is your favorite? Why?
My books are like my children: I love them all but for different reasons. I do like the artwork in some of the books better than others. I think BOSHBLOBBERBOSH by Gary Kelley is inspired and Gennady Spirin's work for THE FROG PRINCESS deservedly won the Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators. And some of the books about to come out promise to be beautiful as well.

As far as favorites among books by others? I must cry foul. There are too, too many to name. Of the making of fantastic books there is no end.

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