10.18.2011

Conversation with Pegi Deitz Shea


"Yes, there must be joyous books! I love joyous books! But there need to be books that tell kids in need: You're not alone."
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Ladies and gentlemen, Pegi Deitz Shea, award-winning co-author of the great The Taxing Case of the Cows and many other fine books for children. She's not only concerned with entertainment, however, as I discovered going through her bibliography. She has a specific yen for topics which share and promote issues of social justice, both here and around the world. The Taxing Case of the Cows, as I'm sure you'll instantly recall from my review of it, concerned the women's suffrage movement, but she has also written on refugee children, immigrants and child labor.
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Sometimes people wonder how I can be so interested in something like picture books. Well, actually, no one's wondered that, to the best of my knowledge, but it makes for a convenient strawman when going through Pegi's booklist, such that I can say, "Here, Mr. Know-it-all Strawman! This is why picture books are important!"
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*****
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You’ve been a writer for a long time, but you weren't always a writer of children's picture books. How did you get turned on specifically to writing stories in the picture book medium?
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For the first 28 years of my life, my creative writing was exclusively poetry. I published in small literary magazines and performed readings in New Jersey (my home state) and New York City. I had thrived in critique groups since I'd started at Rutgers, so I looked for one in the greater Hartford area. The one I found had all sorts of writers--historical fiction, drama, memoir/essay, poetry, and children's literature. I hadn't realized there was a market for children's books. I didn't have kids yet, so I wasn't really motivated to write it. I also doubted that children's literature could undertake the sorts of issues I was interested in, e.g. social justice, multiculturalism. Of course, I learned early on that the format can tackle any issue.
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I think you're absolutely correct when you say that the format can tackle any issue, and one of the things I find exciting is that it is still expanding and experimenting with what exactly is possible, not just with issues, but artistically.
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I spent the first year in the writers' group listening to the children's manuscripts and was very impressed with the high quality of writing produced by the authors. Everyone was published, so the quality of all the texts and criticism was professional. I'm proud to say (and very lucky!) that Susan Bivin Aller, Jackie French Koller (both founders of the group in 1980, following an SCBWI conference), Anita Riggio, Edith Tarbescu and Joyce Sidman were all members during that time. 
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The spareness of the picture book texts--and the appeal to all the senses--resembled poetry, and some works were indeed poetry. Successful picture books pack a lot of emotion and meaning in small spaces, too.
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Up until May, 1992, I had been writing just "normal" kinds of stories--a girl's experience with an animal control officer, a piece called "Numbers Neighborhood," a story about a dog who swallowed a fly which bounced around inside him and wreaked havoc until the dog let it out. None of these sold. Then one of our critique group members brought in an article about how teachers and librarians were asking for more stories about cultures and populations not represented in the trade market. This coincided with the rise of picture-book use in the classroom and across the curriculum.
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Since I had traveled widely, most recently to Thailand, I knew I could deliver these kinds of books. So after that meeting, I immediately got out my photo album of the trip my husband and I took in 1989, and I focused on the pictures from the Hmong refugee camp where my friend worked. The camp was full of children, and I knew that no picture book had ever touched the plight of refugees. I thought: American kids need to know about this. After meditating on a Hmong story cloth about the exodus from Laos, the first draft of The Whispering Cloth blew out of me in about 45 minutes.
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The illustrator/author Anita Riggio was in our group, and she said she would love to illustrate the story and took it right to Boyds Mills Press. The book came out in 1995, and is still selling, still being reviewed and included in articles about refugee groups, and still being used by college education professors.
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It's interesting to hear that the sparseness of the texts appealed to you in the writer's group. With a lot of picture books, it seems that the illustrations are so absolutely integral to the feel of the book that its hard to imagine the two of them being separate. Do you write very full texts and then revise them based on the illustrations?
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In the beginning, it was the idea of a "short story" that appealed to me, mostly because I was petrified about writing novels! I soon came to realize that I could approach the work of novel writing a similar way that I could a picture book text. I could set a goal of one chapter per writing session (6 hours), much as I had with writing one picture book text per writing session. (Then and now, because of the non-writing work I need to do to support myself, I can only write one or two days a week.)
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But back to the sparseness of text. My first and third books were poetry, so they were spare to begin with. The Whispering Cloth manuscript was about 1,200 words and was/is considered a "picture story book." But because the topic and setting were so foreign and serious, I believe I was allowed more leeway in word count. (We also supplemented the story with a lot of front matter--A Foreword, map, glossary, and a fairly long Acknowledgment for a picture book. It also came with a formal teacher's guide, as well as informal curriculum activity guides Anita and I made up separately. ) I came to learn, though, through practice, seminars, study and articles that writers should lay off visual description in picture book texts because the illustrators take care of the visuals. But that leaves four other senses that writers can feast on. I'm a big fan of metaphoric and onomatopoetic verbs. (I hate "was" and "helping verbs" that don't help at all.) One of my editors, Dinah Stevenson, at Clarion does say that a true picture book's text and illustration cannot be separated.
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To see this true combination at its best, one need only type out the text of Where the Wild Things Are. The text "let the wild rumpus start" is immediately followed by "Now stop!"
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In a "picture story book," the text can usually stand on its own as a short story. One thing that puts picture book authors at a disadvantage is that illustrators can use text in the public domain--folk tales, nursery rhymes, older texts that are no longer under copyright. And they can deliver a complete package to an editor. Writers are told not to over-write or to use too many "illustration notes," yet we despair when editors don't "get" our texts because we can't show the illustrations we imagine. No names mentioned here, but this comes straight from an editor's mouth: some top-selling illustrators don't let editors edit their original texts as thoroughly as editors would do with an author's text. The illustrators simply say they'll take the book elsewhere. We authors feel real pain when we see mediocre text in print. Mega-sales also allow some chapter book and novel writers to get away with sub-par writing. It happens in adult literature as well. As a poet and a "literary writer," I'm hyper-sensitive to that issue.
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How do you choose the justice issues which you will be tackling? There are many different issues present within the books below - women's suffrage, racism, war... are they all part of the same cloth for you, as a writer?
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Social justice issues touched me deeply as a young child. In second grade, our Catholic school class was already saving pennies to feed children in famine-stricken Africa. At that same time, the Vietnam War was going on and the images haunted me. The Equal Rights Amendment was being debated when I was 12. (I happen to be the only girl with four brothers, so this issue was downright personal!) So, yes, a passion for human rights has always been the dominant motif in the "Pegi cloth."
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Do you start with the issue in mind, then find a story that fits that issue - or the other way around?
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I usually am captivated by the news or an image of a child dealing with some sort of issue. For The Whispering Cloth, it was the bombardment of stimuli in the actual camp I visited. An adult refugee has ways to deal with such debasement, but a child coming into the age of cognition (6-7) cannot understand how his world is so debased and has almost no power in affecting it. In The Carpet Boy's Gift and Abe in Arms, news articles and images inspired me to write about these two horrific forms of child labor.
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With the Edith Wilson book, from the way you describe it, it seems that these issues were an afterthought after you had already agreed to write it. Is that accurate?
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Huh! This project has been a very interesting journey for me, and I'm far from the finish line. (As of today, July 18, I'm about halfway through writing the first draft which will come in around four thousand words. I'm nearly done with research and have written a thorough outline.) I was first intrigued by the impression that she "ran the Presidency" while Woodrow recuperated from a debilitating stroke. A secondary curiosity was "How does a President date?" And their love letters were quite breathy! So she started out as a heroine in my imagination.
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But research showed me other sides of her that truly complicate this heroism. #1 A Southerner whose family lost their plantation and slaves in the Civil War, she still retained racist views; #2 She was anti-woman's suffrage! Here she holds great power in screening the paperwork and people Woodrow sees, and making decisions for him, and she doesn't think women have the aptitude to vote for their own president! So I've changed my subtitle to "A Biography of the Controversial First Lady," and I'm going to ask young readers to think about the complexity of our leaders and role models.
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With Noah Webster, Noah was really a hero, suffering only from ambition and over-confidence, which most leaders do anyway. But he truly accomplished so much in his life and positively affected all Americans. Edith will be a much different book, a more thought-provoking book.
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What kind of feedback have you received for your efforts? Whether it be from the people who are actively engaged with the issues you write about, or from the children who were perhaps unaware of an issue before being exposed to it through your writing?
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The feedback I get from people actively engaged in social issues is usually on the front end of my projects. I research to find content experts, and they are thrilled that 1) someone is tackling the issue in any book, 2) often surprised to see that it's a children's book, even though children are directly involved in the issues (e.g. refugee resettlement, child soldiering), and 3) totally open to sharing their knowledge and passion. I always run my text by the experts to make sure I'm representing the issue accurately. They usually respond immediately, professionally. Then I send them a personally inscribed copy of the book and they're very grateful. That is often the last time we communicate because these people are very busy on the front lines of the issue.
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For Abe in Arms, one of my experts went from Rwanda onto Bosnia. An expert in Uganda went on to get a doctoral degree in her psychiatric field of military post traumatic stress. My friend who helped me on my Hmong books in Thailand is now working for the Red Cross dispatching emergency response units around the country to all these disasters. I feel that we're all travelers on the same road. Our pauses are few and short before we undertake a new trip. They are on to their next mission; I'm on to the next book.
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The feedback I get from children is so tender. Most of the letters are in response to my Hmong books. (Abe in Arms is still pretty new [Summer, 2010]. Because of the violence, I don't think many high school teachers can use it as a class text, but I hope it's making its way into high school libraries. I hope it is being included in the body of child soldier literature that includes A Long Way Gone and Beasts of No Nation.) The spontaneous letters about The Whispering Cloth and Tangled Threads mean the most to me. Usually they're from Hmong children who are first generation American, realizing how important their own culture is. They're going through the typical adolescent resistance towards their parents, but not realizing what their parents did to get them here. So my books have helped them bridge that gap. Older Hmong thank me for telling their stories.
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One woman had her child read The Whispering Cloth to her, and told me, "When I learn to read, I will read this book every day." I get goosebumps just writing that!
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And then there are the letters from kids who haven't been exposed to much hardship at all. My books open their eyes, and I hope they stop to think before they take their privileged lives for granted. When I do a school visit, the teachers ask the kids to write to me about what moved them. I can tell when the responses come from the heart and when they come from over the shoulder of their classmates.
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But there's a special population that my books hit--and those are the kids who are going through similar struggles of absent parents, homelessness, despair, violence, poverty, but the American version of it. One third grader drew a "storycloth" about herself being taken away from her mother, then having to go to jail to visit her. I think there are a lot more kids suffering today than ever. There have to be books that speak to them. Yes, there must be joyous books! I love joyous books! But there need to be books that tell kids in need: "you're not alone," and "there's hope." That's my mission on Earth.

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