Anna Grossnickle Hines, Dreaming Up Stories for Little Ones
Anna Grossnickle Hines is the author of over sixty-five, much-cherished books for children. She has an infectious joy for creating stories, like Daddy Makes the Best Spaghetti and Peaceful Pieces, children will learn from and return to again and again. Her most recent “book” is actually an app for the iPad, adapted from her book Not Without Bear. So come along for a while and escape with Anna and I in her studio perched above the Pacific Ocean- the perfect place for dreaming up stories for little ones.
Nicki Richesin: I love the sentiment of your philosophy on writing for children on your website. You seek to capture that feeling of being in the moment as children are prone to naturally do all the time. How do you accomplish this in your busy day-to-day life? Are there certain things you do that renew you or keep you connected to this way of staying present?
Anna Grossnickle Hines: Regular doses of being with children helps—not just in the vicinity of, or taking care of, which adds considerably to the busy-ness, but “being with” as in “tuned-in” to a young child or children, really noticing what they are noticing and doing.
I limit the amount of news I watch or listen to—just enough to be informed—read more spiritual books than novels—who needs more angst?—and live close to nature. I would not be a happy city dweller! I also participate in a daily phone call with a group of 6-10 friends in which we read a pre-selected poem and share our responses, which often take the form of new poems. Poetry is often very much in the moment and we focus on joy and gratitude, good places to be.
NR: Your first book Taste the Raindrops was published by Greenwillow Books on Valentine’s Day 1983. You’ve written over sixty-five books since then. How has children’s book publishing changed and what are your hopes for the future of the industry?
AGH: The changes in the industry have been amazing. My first books, including Daddy Makes the Best Spaghetti, were done with very limited color, pre-separated. Only about 1000 new books were published each year, there were not nearly as many houses or lists, and bookstores were a very small part of the market. A good book with solid reviews would have decent sales to the school and library market, and the author/illustrator’s reputation would grow with each book. Advances in printing technology have greatly expanded the possibilities for the art and attracted wonderful artists who would not have considered doing children’s books before. This has resulted in some really wonderful books. On the other hand it has led to the publication of a great many books that are more product than literature. Now digital publishing is coming into play big-time with ebooks and apps, which open up possibilities for self-publishing.
For myself, after many years of using traditional media, I started illustrating books with quilts in the 1990s, using the computer more and more as a design tool. That led to the illustration of two books entirely on the computer, which has led to the idea to start a company, along with my family, to create picture book apps. It is a bit over-whelming, but I am excited to be learning new things at “retirement age”.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that children still need and respond to stories that reflect and expand their world.
NR: Daddy Makes the Best Spaghetti is an all-time favorite in our house. Could you tell TCBR readers how this book first came about?
AGH: The idea to write a book about a nurturing dad initially came from a friend who worked in a day care center and was bemoaning the lack of such books. Since my husband was a nurturing dad it seemed like a natural for me.
The title came first. At our house Daddy—who is now better known as Popa—does make the best spaghetti. It’s one of his favorite things to cook, second only to popcorn. While he does like to tease, and can be playful with the kids, he isn’t quite as silly as the Daddy in the book though. Those ideas came from various sources. One of my brothers was known to put underwear on his head—clean underwear—and the joke about the antlers came from an exchange after Sarah heard her Grandma call Grandpa “dear”. Little Sarah thought it was a great joke and laughed. “You just called him deer!” “Yes, he’s my dear,” Grandma Shirley answered. Sarah was amazed. “You mean he’s your animal?”
Lassen was five years old when I was doing the book and posed for the drawings of Corey, and thirteen year old Sarah played the part of mom and the cashier. My husband was Daddy, of course. I took photos of them as references. To see some of these, including my husband as Bathman, and read a bit more about how I did the illustrations you can use this link to my webpage.
I am so pleased that this book, one of the first about a nurturing dad, is still available to a whole new generation in which Daddies are doing more nurturing than ever. My son-in-laws’ total involvement with their infants from day one amaze me!
NR: You have compiled an extraordinary list of resources and books for aspiring writers, parents and teachers on your website. You wrote a wonderful piece entitled, “Just a Spark or Steady Fire?” about your struggle to identify yourself as a writer and how to keep going when you’re feeling discouraged. Now looking back at your career and the family you’ve created, what words of wisdom would you offer that harried single mother longing to be a writer?
AGH: With access to the Internet and the growth of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, which sponsors meetings and conferences all over this country and in several others, and more classes on writing and illustrating being offered, there is so much more information available than when I started. My advice would be to gather as much of that information as you can about the field, the skills, processes and so on. Acquaint yourself with the books, both the classics and the new ones coming out. Read as many of them as you can in the genre you’d like to write. And start writing (or illustrating). Make it a priority, even if you can only manage a few minutes every day. Do it everyday! If you can find or form a group with whom you can share critiques, experiences, information and support that can be very helpful, too, but actually writing is the first and most important step.
NR: In many of your books, children learn a necessary skill or life lesson such as in My Own Big Bed or My Grandma is Coming to Town. Did becoming a teacher and working with children every day make you a better writer?
AGH: I think becoming a teacher and becoming a writer of children’s books both come from the same place in me, which is a very strong connection with and understanding of children. I find them and their discoveries and triumphs fascinating – much more intriguing to me than following space exploration… or anything else I can think of. As my daughter says, I “speak baby”.
NR: You created a truly inspired collection of poems and quilts entitled Peaceful Pieces. You describe the process of creating this book on your website. It must have been such a challenging undertaking putting it all together. I’m curious what you found most difficult about creating the book (the poetry or the artwork) and what sort of reaction you’ve received from readers?
AGH: Thank you. The most challenging part of creating the book was to come up with strong visual images for some of the more abstract ideas and then make all of them fit together into a visually cohesive book.
The overall response has been a bit disappointing because it is such an important subject and one very close to my heart. I guess by overall response I mostly mean sales since it did get great reviews, including two stars and I have heard from people who were very touched by the book. Last week I heard a recitation of “Where I Live” by two third grade girls, and “Weightless” by another two. Their teacher told me that after a difficult day on the playground she had read several poems from Peaceful Pieces to open up some dialogue among the kids. A perfect response! Hopefully, the book will be used many, many times in such ways as these.
AGH: Wonderful! From childhood Sarah had an eye and ear that I often found helpful in my work, so when her college instructor told her she “knew the heart of childhood and should consider writing for children” I was delighted, though not surprised. Her husband was an illustration major at Rhode Island School of Design and offered his insights as we passed the text and art back and forth. We are now, along with my other two daughters and husband, all working together to create picture book apps for our new company, appropo. When we get together the ideas really start to fly!
NR: You collaborated with your grand-daughter Violet to create a trailer for your new book I am a Tyrannosaurus. With the myriad of ways to promote books through social networking, etc. what do you find the most satisfying about the promotional process of selling a book?
AGH: The promotional part is still my least favorite…except for creating those small works of art or video. It’s fun to come up with an idea, make it work, then make it work better. But when it comes to saying, “Hey! Look at this!” it still feels uncomfortable to me, like being pushy…even with all the social media outlets. It is time consuming, too, detracting from the time to create new projects. I do like to follow what others are doing, though, so I suppose I should just “get over it.” It is always nice to get a personal response from a parent or child from an outreach effort who appreciates the opportunity to tell me they enjoy a particular book.
NR: As a parent, I especially appreciated your articles on how to nurture and encourage children to create and work hard to follow their own interests. You’ve certainly produced a family of artists and writers in your daughters. Did they grow up wanting to be writers like you or did they simply follow your example?
AGH: Creating things is just something that happens in our house…books, music, sewing, art projects. It happened (and still happens) with the girls, and now with the grandkids. The young ones love my studio!
When the girls were young I often shared what I was working on and asked their opinions, which they were more than willing to give! Bethany has always been a great idea person—she can barely breathe without coming up with another creative idea—which gets expressed in a myriad of ways. Sarah first thought she wanted to be an editor, but in college changed to writer for adults, so as to not be too much like mom, before coming around to children’s books. Lassen expressed an early interest in illustration and studied it at Rhode Island School of Design, though a great deal of her creative work has been 3D. I can’t wait to see her contributions to our picture book apps, now that her new baby is almost sleeping through the nights.
NR: Which of your books are your grandchildren’s favorites to read out loud with you or by themselves?
AGH: Oh, we choose different ones every time and at different ages. Since the two best listeners are now 10 and 7 some of the more recent things I’ve read have been the Little House in the Big Woods and …on the Prairie. Last summer before they went on a big trip to the Grand Canyon, we read Brighty of the Grand Canyon by Marguerite Henry, which I remember my third grade teacher reading to me. Soon I’ll be starting over with the picture books for baby Linnea. Let’s see, Good Night Moon, of course, Vera Williams’ More, More, More Said the Baby, Trish Cooke and Helen Oxenbury’s So Much, anything by Sandra Boynton, the Bean books, all the collections of Mother Goose… oh, lots!
Nicki Richesin is the editor of four anthologies,What I Would Tell Her: 28 Devoted Dads on Bringing Up, Holding On To, and Letting Go of Their Daughters; Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond; Crush: 26 Real-Life Tales of First Love; and The May Queen: Women on Life, Work, and Pulling it all Together in your Thirties. Her anthologies have been excerpted and praised in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, Redbook, Parenting, Cosmopolitan, Bust, Salon, Daily Candy, and Babble.