TKE has been invited, once again, to participate in the annual Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference (WIYRC) to be held at Waterford School in Sandy, June 13-17, 2011. We are thrilled to be a part of this conference that brings together so many people from all over Utah and beyond. Many of the best local authors working today got their start at this conference and many of them come back to teach from year to year.
In the lead up to WIYRC, we thought it would be fun to introduce you to some of the faculty and staff who will make up this year’s gathering. If you haven’t signed up yet, it’s not too late. This is an amazing opportunity to meet authors, agents, editors, and publishers and gain invaluable feedback about your own writing. We hope you’ll join us this summer!
We’ll start with Sharlee Glenn, interviewed by Cherylynne W. Bago.
Cherylynne W. Bago: One of my favorite things about your stories is that they feel so true to life. Do you get much of your inspiration from your life experiences?
Sharlee Glenn: Yes, I do. In fact, I’m not quite sure how else to do it! Even my stories that have fantastical settings or feature characters who are not human are still informed by my own life experiences. In my book, One in a Billion, for example, the main character is a little flower, but the dilemma she faces is one that my then six-year-old son was dealing with, and it was a comment he made to me that served as the impetus for writing the story. Two of my books, Circle Dance and Keeping Up with Roo, are more directly autobiographical. I feel like, in many ways, I’ve lived a sort of unusual life—one that lends itself to storytelling. Maybe someday I’ll run out of personal material and I’ll have to look elsewhere for inspiration, but until then, I’ll just continue to keep my eyes open and my memories flowing.
CWB: Something many writers struggle with when writing about real-life experiences is knowing what and how to edit so that it is both true to the event and a well-written story. How do you decide what to cut?
SG: This is something that I slammed up against very early in my writing career. In my first published book, a middle-grade novel called Circle Dance, I chronicled something that had really happened to my family when I was young. I remember getting a critique back from a well-respected author who criticized that particular part of the book as being “unbelievable.” At first I was a little huffy about it, but then I realized that just because something really happened doesn’t mean it works within the framework of a novel or story. Much as I hated to admit it, the event really wasn’t very believable in the context of the book.
Another thing I had to learn was that, as a fiction writer, it’s okay to manipulate the details and even completely change or ignore the facts as long as it serves the greater purpose of the truth I’m telling in my story. Picasso once said: “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” It’s one thing to write a memoir or a nonfictional historical account; it’s quite another to write fiction—even when that fiction is based on or inspired by actual events or people. Once I really understood the concept of literary license, I felt like a freed woman!
CWB: Your picture book Keeping Up With Roo tackles some complex issues, namely, dealing with someone with special needs, which even adults struggle with. How do you make difficult concepts easy enough for children to understand?
SG: This particular book is very special to me. I see it as a book about very universal human feelings, not one about disabilities. Here’s an excerpt from my acceptance speech when Keeping Up with Roo was given the Dolly Gray Children’s Literature award: “An acquaintance of mine recently asked where she could buy one of my books. “You know,” she said. “The one about handicaps.” It took me a minute to realize she was talking about Keeping Up with Roo. I’ve never thought of Keeping Up with Roo as a book about handicaps. To me, it is simply a story about friendship, about growing up, and, above all, about gratitude. You see, Keeping Up with Roo is my own personal tribute to my beloved aunt Martha—the person who taught me how to read.
Martha and her twin sister, Mildred, were my mother’s sisters, and they lived with us most of my growing up years. Martha and Mildred were born in 1938. When they were less than a year old, they were diagnosed with “severe mental retardation.” The doctor told my grandmother that they would probably never walk, let alone talk. My grandmother refused to accept that and treated Mildred and Martha just as she had her five other children. By age three, they were not only walking and talking, but they were running my grandmother ragged and singing wild made-up songs in loud but perfect harmony.
By the time I came along, Mildred and Martha were robust twenty-two-year-olds. And they were my best friends in the whole world. I didn’t know they were handicapped. All I knew is that they were big and strong and wonderful and that they always had time to play with me. Mildred loved to put me on her shoulders and lope through the windbreak behind my grandparents’ farmhouse. Mildred was the domestic one: she enjoyed playing with dolls, rearranging furniture, and creating beautiful works of art out of twigs and leaves and seeds. Martha was more cerebral: she taught herself how to drive a tractor, play the piano . . . and read. When I was a little girl, Martha could read and write on about a third grade level, and she loved nothing more than playing school with me. She was always the teacher and I, the eager student. Martha taught me my A-B-C’s, how to count and add numbers, and, eventually, how to read easy books. My mother didn’t even know I could read until one day when I was riding into town with her. I was about four years old. We were just driving along when suddenly I began reading aloud all the signs along the road. My mother almost wrecked the car. “Sharlee!” she said. “Where on earth did you learn to read?” “Martha taught me,” I said.
When my aunt Martha passed away several years ago, I was filled with both a tender sadness and a profound sense of gratitude. One single thought kept running through my mind: She taught me how to read. What a tremendous gift.”
So, I think what makes Keeping Up with Roo work is that I wrote it purely from a child’s perspective. The fact that Roo is handicapped is never once mentioned in the book. A young person reading or hearing the story might only understand that Roo is somehow different and that, at one point, Gracie is embarrassed by her. Those are feelings that I think every child can relate to.
CWB: How do you walk that fine line between teaching to your audience and maintaining their interest?
SG: I hope that I don’t ever preach to my audience. That’s not what good literature does. A lot of people have the misconception that children’s books, especially books for very young readers, have to be didactic, but in my view didacticism is death to a story. Of course, there are always values that come through in a good book (whether they be values like friendship, kindness, tolerance or things like the importance of having fun or enjoying the beautiful world around us), but they emerge very naturally from the story. I guess I don’t worry too much about what my readers are “learning” from my books. I just want them to find joy in reading.
CWB: Just What Mama Needs was featured on the popular children’s TV show “Between the Lions.” How did that come about? How has the exposure helped you?It was a total surprise to me—and the way it came about remains largely a mystery. I was contacted by my editor at Harcourt one day with the news that Just What Mama Needs would be featured on “Between the Lions.” Honestly, I have no idea how (or even if!) the exposure has helped me. It premiered last November. I guess I’ll have to wait for my next royalty statement to see if the exposure translated into more sales. I do have to say that watching the segment was an immensely gratifying experience though. I thought they did a fabulous job of animating the illustrations and narrating the story. When Papa Theo first held up his copy of the book and said, “Just What Mama Needs, written by Sharlee Glenn and illustrated by Amiko Hirao,” I could have died right then a thoroughly happy woman.
CWB: Have you seen any recent trends in picture books that new authors should be aware of?
SG: Yes, the trend is definitely toward fewer words and younger readers. Also, most of the successful picture books in today’s market seem to be either really sweet or really funny.
CWB: As far as picture books go, what is your favorite recent read?
SG: I’m becoming more and more a fan of Mo Willems. I especially love his Elephant and Piggie books (which are actually Early Readers). Willems is endlessly creative. His style is simple and humorous, and his books have true child-appeal.
Another recent picture book that I really love is Seasons by Blexbolex. The silk-screen print illustrations are lovely, and the whole concept is very inventive and evocative.
Sharlee Glenn will be teaching Introduction to Writing for Children and Young Adults.