The Children’s Book Review Interview in partnership with Kimberly J. Muller, author of Goodnight Shadow
Gary Boelhower is Professor Emeritus at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota where he continues to teach courses in health humanities and religious studies. He is an award-winning teacher, writer and poet whose career has focused on wise decision-making and values-based leadership. Boelhower’s recent books for adults include Mountain 10: Climbing the Labyrinth Within, Choose Wisely: Practical Insights from Spiritual Traditions, Naming Rites: Poems and Marrow, Muscle, Flight: Poems which won the Midwest Book Award.
How did you come to use goats and sheep to illustrate your story?
I used goats and sheep in the story because they are very different creatures. Goats are browsers, they are curious and explore their surroundings to find food. Sheep are grazers, they keep their heads down. Goats are quite independent, sheep have a strong flocking instinct. Goats get into more trouble, sheep tend to be sheepish. But with all their differences, they have a common thirst.
After reading your story, readers come away with the lesson that sharing is important, and that the goats and sheep needed each other to survive. How is A Common Thirst different from other books that teach about sharing and working towards the common good?
In A Common Thirst the life of the goats and sheep depends on sharing. It isn’t just a nice thing to do, it really matters. This story helps kids begin to learn that the common good is an essential value. Only when we recognize that we share a common thirst, common stories, common dreams, and a common planet will we be able to really thrive in our global community.
Why did you feel this story needed to be told?
We seem to be losing sight of this critical value of the common good in our society today. There are so many examples of polarization where people take opposite sides of an issue and don’t care to listen to each other. Kids can often sense the strain even if they can’t understand the issues. This story finds hope in the curiosity of the young ones who ask questions and listen to each other’s stories. Ultimately it is the voice of the youngest kid that calls the community to a deeper understanding of each precious life.
The artwork in A Common Thirst provides a visual description that helps the youngest of readers understand your storyline. Can you tell us a bit about how your writer-illustrator partnership was able to mesh the words with the pictures?
I was a fan of Sarah’s work and asked her to illustrate because of her powerful use of color, her relationship with nature, and her attention to the mythic and symbolic. We worked together closely to envision a seamless relationship between the words and illustrations in the book. The storyline is portrayed not only in the characters but in the landscape and the colors.
How has your background as a poet influenced your writing for children?
As a poet, I love the sound of words and the rhythm of phrases and sentences. In writing A Common Thirst, I paid attention to every single word and how it fit in the sentence. I read sentences over and over to test their cadence and flow. I use repeated vowel and consonant sounds to bring a kind of music to the story. Much of the story depends on close description, using words that get at the feeling of the sheep and goats.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of writing for children?
My biggest challenge writing for children is keeping the word count to a good length for a children’s story. Generally, a children’s picture book shouldn’t run over 900 words or it goes beyond the attention span of the 3- 8-year-old listener. So, I have to go over the story many times to cut out every unnecessary word and distill the story down to the essence, at the same time engaging the reader in the emotions of the characters and the plot. I also have to allow the illustrations to tell aspects of the story which I don’t need to repeat in words.
Have your own experiences with children influenced your topic selection when writing?
Yes, my stories come out of my experiences and conversations with my kids and, now, grandkids. I try to write stories that explore the foundational values that are at the heart of family, community, and a positive sense of self.
If you could pick your all-time favorite children’s author, who would it be? How has this author influenced and inspired your writing style?
My all-time favorite children’s author is Leo Lionni, especially his books Frederick and Swimmy. Lionni’s stories are boiled down to the absolute essentials and the illustrations are simple and marvelous.
Are you working on any more books for children that we should know about?
I have several stories already developed that I would love to publish as picture books. One focuses on “Animal School” where one character is chosen each year to give the New Year’s speech. Another tells the story of a young boy and his elderly neighbor as they mourn the loss of the neighbor’s spouse. Another focuses on a family of rabbits in which the oldest son learns a hard lesson from tobogganing down the forbidden hill. It will be difficult to choose among the stories for the next project.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
In my dream world, the next generation of little ones will grow up with a deep sense of our common human family and what connects us to one another, across all the differences of nations, cultures, races, and religions. If this dream rings true for you, I think A Common Thirst is a book you will love to read and reread to the little ones in your life.
For more information, visit garyboelhower.com.
Written by Gary Boelhower
Illustrated by Sarah Brokke
Ages 3-8 | 32 Pages
Publisher: Beaver’s Pond Press | ISBN-13: 978-1643438542
Publisher’s Synopsis: A Common Thirst is a story about the goats, who rule the mountains, and the sheep, who rule the plains. The melting snow in the mountains and the rain on the plains give the goats and the sheep all the water they need. But one year no snow falls and not a single rain cloud fills the skies. The streams become bone dry. The goats and the sheep are challenged to find a new way to live.
A Common Thirst helps children think about the earth-home we all share. When resources are scarce, we are often tempted to withdraw from one another and to horde what we have. Yet when we recognize our common needs and our common stories, we discover ways to share what we have. In the sharing, we find that life is richer than we could have imagined.
Through engaging, vibrant illustrations and lyrical prose, A Common Thirst provides children with a sense of the abundance of life and the challenge of finding new ways to be in the community.
“n addition to expressive writing, A Common Thirst provides vivid illustrations to help highlight the story. The use of soft colors and a sketch-like feel to the captivating illustrations lend lushness to this classic storyline.” —The Children’s Book Review
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This interview—Gary Boelhower Discusses A Most Common Thirst—was conducted between Gary Boelhower and Jen Lemm. For similar books and articles, follow along with our content tagged with Acceptance, Picture Book, and Teamwork.