Top Ten Things Sara Pennypacker Has Learned From Being A Children’s Author
1. Writing books is like changing majors in an eternal college.
A ferret will only develop taste buds for foods it encounters during the first six months of its life. I learned this, and hundreds of other arcane bits of knowledge I use to amaze/annoy/bore my friends and family, by doing research for a book. My current story involves ferrets and carved marionettes, but the next one will require a deep knowledge of baseball, physics, and performance art. Writing books is like changing majors in an eternal college, and then getting to make up narratives to carry the information…a perfect job!
2. Swimming is great for writing.
Something about the rhythmic stroking is suited to stringing words together, and when you’re underwater, the sensory deprivation makes it much easier to drift off to your fictional world. I wear swim-gloves and dark goggles to heighten this effect.
I look ridiculous, but so what – when I get out of the pool, I’ve got a scene worked out. Go find what works for you…
3. It’s our job as writers to tell stories that reflect the full range of people’s experiences.
Carl Jung was once asked why there is evil in the world. “Because people can’t tell their stories,” was his answer. I believe he’s right: humans need to tell their stories, but the problem is that not many have the skills or the platform or the audience to do it. That’s where books, including those for children, must step up: it’s our job as writers to tell stories that reflect the full range of people’s experiences – all people, no matter how broken or how ordinary.
4. The writing suggestion usually given is “write what you know” but I’ve found it better to write what I’m obsessed with.
The writing suggestion usually given is “write what you know” but I’ve found it better to write what I’m obsessed with, what I’m crazy to learn more about. That’s the advice I give struggling young writers during school visits, and to help them get the idea, I show them this guy, who lives on my patio:
When I was young, I remember being fascinated by both mannequins and moss – so if I’d gotten my own advice when I was a fourth grader, I might have written about a mossed mannequin. I made him a couple of years ago as a writing prompt, but I have to admit he’s also reliable entertainment at my dinner parties…
5. The reader brings his/her own experience to a book.
Recently I reread HEIDI, a book I adored so much when I was young that I actually convinced my parents to let me have a goat as a pet. (Note: a baby goat is an excellent pet; a full-grown goat, not so much.) Anyway, I settled in ready to relive all the things I loved about the book and was I disappointed! It wasn’t a story about a girl who had goats and ate grilled cheese sandwiches on the mountaintops all day! What I take from this is that the reader brings his/her own experience to a book, and it’s a critical factor. Which leads me to…
6. Let the reader be part of the story-telling.
The importance of this can’t be overstated. When I teach, I ask students to read the first page of CLEMENTINE, then tell me three funny things that happened. They list: Clementine cut off Margaret’s hair; Margaret’s mother came to the school, upset about it; while in the principal’s office, Clementine answered her phone. “Yep, all these funny things happened,” I respond, “But I didn’t write a single one of them. You, the reader, did.” For instance, I wrote: “… I got sent to the principal’s office to explain that Margaret’s hair was not my fault, and besides, she looks okay without it.” The reader filled in the blanks – thereby becoming an engaged player in the story-telling.
7. Assign your character a cookie to get to know him/her.
Clementine favors a big, crumbly cookie bursting with three kinds of chocolate, two kinds of nuts, a little oatmeal and why not some M&Ms too. A fastidious character in my new novel, SUMMER OF THE GYPSY MOTHS, loves a tidy sugar cookie layered with raspberry jam. When I’m writing, I frequently have to get myself an appropriate cookie, to ”help me get inside my character.” Of course this doesn’t fool anybody, including myself, but any excuse to have a cookie…
8. The ordinary is plenty extraordinary.
I used to think a book had to deal with explosive issues and be full of quirky characters to be compelling. But in writing the Clementine series, where Clementine is surrounded by very functional, ordinary people in her family and school life, I have come to see the exquisite grace of regular folks doing regular things.
9. “I’m a writer” excuses pretty much all bad behavior.
From showing up at a piano recital in tattered pajamas, to stabbing a fork into a friend’s éclair at a fancy dinner, to asking rudely personal questions at inappropriate times, to “forgetting” to buy milk six days in a row – all you have to do is shrug and say, “Well, I’m a writer,” to be excused. We writers have very strange reputations, so we might as well use them to our advantage.
10. The more writing I did, the more difficult it got. I now understand that writing is supposed to be that way.
Years ago, I worried I wasn’t meant to be a writer, because the more writing I did, the more difficult it got. I now understand that writing is supposed to be that way – everything worth doing is.
11. Talking about your books is harder than writing them.
(I know – it’s supposed to be ten things. Following rules is not my strongest point.) Witness: I’m on a blog tour for CLEMENTINE AND THE SPRING TRIP, and so far I haven’t said a word about the book. Here goes: As with all the Clementine books, I would tell you this one is funny (Clementine herself just cracks me up, and all the people in her world react to the problems she creates with such good humor) yet explores a serious issue kids around her age (8) often face. In this book, Clementine’s sense of fairness is challenged by her first encounter with a real live chicken – People eat animals!!! – and she’s got to figure an ethical response.
Whew. I need a cookie.
About the Author
Sara Pennypacker (www.sarapennypacker.com) was a painter before becoming a writer, and has two absolutely fabulous children who are now grown. She has written several books, including the Clementine series, all illustrated by Marla Frazee, The Amazing World of Stuart, Sparrow Girl, and Summer of the Gypsy Moths. She grew up in Massachusetts and splits her time between Cape Cod and Florida.
Be sure to check out Sara’s other tour stops:Mon, June 17: GreenBeanTeenQueen
Tues, June 18: Once Upon a Story
Wed, June 19: Mother Daughter Book Club
Thurs, June 20: Media Darlings
Fri, June 21: SharpreadTues, June 25: Kid Lit Frenzy
Wed, June 26: There’s a BookThurs, June 27: As They Grow Up
Fri, June 28: Bookingmama