Putnam and Gail Gauthier are running A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers contest. The first person to e-mail Gail Gauthier with their mailing address, saying that they saw this message on Big A little a, will receive a free, autographed copy of A Girl, A Boy, and Three Robbers!
If you know a child aged four to nine, you won't want to miss this one.
Okay, now on to the interview:
Hi Gail! Thank you for participating in the recent Edge of the Forest interview and for stopping by today--your big publication day! On occasion of the publication of A Boy, a Girl, and Three Robbers I want to ask you a few questions about writing for newly emergent readers--from a writer’s point of view and from an educator’s point of view. Here goes...
Kelly: Writing for younger readers is very difficult. Did you have to work with word lists or reading levels when composing A Boy, a Girl, and Three Robbers?
Gail: No. I worked with two editors at Putnam, submitting first to my long-time editor who moved on to another company before the first book was accepted and then my present editor, with whom I’ve worked on both Hannah and Brandon books. Neither one of them suggested word lists. I, myself, tried to keep in mind that I was expecting inexperienced readers to read these books. I remember using the word “sofa” instead of “couch” in the first book because I thought it would be easier to sound out. I was worried about the word Chihuahua and was going to avoid using it in the first book. But Susan, my editor, who used to teach elementary school, felt it was fine to provide an occasional challenge for child readers. I think she’s respectful of what kids can do. The biggest concern we had was the length of the stories I wrote for the first book. We were more concerned about attention span than reading levels.
Kelly: How do you get yourself in the right frame of mind to write for the five- to nine-year-old audience?
Gail: I’m embarrassed to say I don’t recall it being much of a problem. My first book, My Life Among the Aliens, was a middle grade book, but the narrator/main character, was, I believe, in kindergarten or first grade in the first story and grew a little older over the course of the book. So I’d written young characters before. When my kids were that age, I did a lot of volunteer work in their schools and with their Sunday school programs. I really do think kids that age are funny. My big concern in writing for them is not being familiar with their culture now that I don’t spend a lot of time with them.
Kelly: Which is more difficult to write--and why--a 200-page novel for teens or a 100-page novel like A Boy, a Girl, and Three Robbers (and its predecessor A Boy, a Girl, and a Monster Cat)?
Gail: I found the one true YA novel I wrote more difficult. I was trying to do something much more complex and multi-leveled than I was in the Hannah and Brandon Stories. I also wrote that book in the third person, which was different for me and took some effort. The Hannah and Brandon Stories deal specifically with children. The adults are minor characters, so it is relatively easy to keep the stories child centered. In the YA book, I had some very strong adult characters, and it was hard to keep them from overwhelming the story and making the teenage main character seem bland in comparison.
Kelly: What I really love (among many things) about The Hannah and Brandon series is the role imagination plays in Hannah and Brandon’s play. Now, Brandon is a big fan of the television, while Hannah finds inspiration from books. Do you think television can inspire children in the same way written stories can?
Gail: I hate to be negative about television because I think in many ways it can enhance peoples’ lives. But if you’re asking if it can inspire imagination or creativity in children (or maybe anyone) the same way written stories can, I’m going to have to say no. I think television programs--programs that are the visual equivalent of a story, anyway--can provide models that will help a viewer learn story structure, just as reading can. You can get a feel for dialogue from TV just as you can from reading. But I think it’s true that watching TV is a little more passive. When you’re reading a book, no matter how good the description is, you still have to visualize the characters and settings yourself. You have to imagine and create that yourself. I think the fact that so much of what’s on television is the same probably discourages imagination/creativity, too. You get a lot of variations of the same setup, the same kinds of kid shows, the same kinds of sitcoms, the same kinds of cop shows. I think kids viewing so much that’s similar are going to accept that as normal--just as adults do, for that matter. They aren’t going to realize that a story should be a unique experience.
A few years ago, the local challenge and enrichment teacher asked me to come in and spend some time with a child she said was incredibly creative and gifted and such a good writer. I think the girl was only in second grade. She was very vocal and sophisticated, but the story she showed me, while very nice for such a small child, was clearly something she’d seen on TV. Either she actually told me so or I recognized it. We sat there and talked about her television viewing. I don’t think the little girl realized that the story wasn’t something she’d made up herself. (Evidently the teacher didn’t, either.) I don’t think there’s anything wrong with young children modeling their work on a TV show and learning how to structure a story in that way. You could call it a kind of training. But I think we adults should recognize that what they’re doing isn’t necessarily creative or gifted.
I think the publishing world’s big interest in series, many of which are similar to other series, and serials duplicates in print the same kind of repetition we see on television. So that may come to discourage imagination, too.
Kelly: You have two heroes in The Hannah and Brandon stories—Hannah and Brandon, of course! As a writer, did you choose a boy and a girl as your heroes on purpose? (I only ask this question because I think the need to appeal to both sexes with one book at this age group is most crucial.)
Gail: I always planned a girl main character, first, because my original idea for the first book (which has nothing to do with the book as it was published) was inspired by my niece’s birthday party, and, second, because I’d only written one book with a girl main character. In early versions, the girl main character has a much older brother. Brandon first appeared as a secondary character. He didn’t become a co-hero until he became the narrator.
Kelly: Actually, I lied about two heroes. There are actually three main heroes of the Hannah and Brandon stories if you count the cat, who plays a big role in both stories. The cat, although he goes about living his life with no regard to Hannah and Brandon, is always central to their stories. I found this kid-cat dynamic to ring very, very true. Are you a cat person?
Gail: Well, I like them, and we did have a beloved cat for many years. After he went on to his reward, we didn’t get another because we learned that both our children are allergic to them. (As is my husband, who is the big cat fan at our house.) Because we couldn’t have cats, at one point my boys had a hamster and a Siberian spiny mouse. They were the inspiration for a chapter in my third book, Club Earth.
Kelly: What’s next for the Hannah and Brandon stories? What can we do as readers, writers, and educators to get these books to the young readers who will love them?
Gail: I don’t know at this point if there will be any more Hannah and Brandon Stories, though many people have been asking this week, which I definitely appreciate. As far as getting these books (or any particular book) to young readers is concerned, I’m sure your readers are well aware of all the problems that exist in publicizing children’s books these days--limited review space, reviews appearing in professional journals that the general public will never see, and more books being published than bookstores and libraries can handle. The only suggestion I can make is that readers, writers, and educators read and talk about children’s books. That seems so obvious to readers of kidlit blogs, but I wonder how often it happens outside our circle. I think it’s important that children see adults reading children’s books so that children will know adults value them. In his Read-Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease talked about the importance of boys seeing their fathers read because boys model their behavior on men. All kids model their behavior on grown-ups. Kids of either sex need to see adults reading books like A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers or hear them talking about them.
I also think we could be doing more to create a reading culture. In spite of all the books published each year, I don’t think we are a serious reading culture at this point. I don’t know if we ever were, because, remember, universal education is a relatively recent thing, as is leisure time to read, as is electric lighting so that people can comfortably read after dark. It’s not as if we can truthfully say, “Oh, in the nineteenth century everyone read, and now they don’t,” because I’m not at all sure that’s the case. Again, I think readers, writers, and educators finding ways to talk about books, and specifically children’s books, would be a step toward creating a reading culture. In May I was in a junior/senior high school in Vermont that purchased multiple copies of some YA books (and not just books you’d expect to see read in class) for its media center to encourage groups of kids to read so they could then talk about their reading. The librarian would hang out at a table in the cafeteria sometimes to booktalk. That school media center also ran one of those community reading programs, but it was for parents and kids together. I hadn’t seen any of that kind of thing being done before.
Those people who have read Jasper Fforde’s Tuesday Next books in which an alternate England is very book-oriented, may remember the kids who collected trading cards designed around characters in books instead of sports figures. Authors and publishers are already producing book marks and post cards. We’re probably mass producing them. I heard a few years ago that I shouldn’t bother sending any of those kinds of things to booksellers because they’re overwhelmed with free promotional material. Well, why not encourage those as collectors’ items? Teachers could collect bookmarks and ask their students to look for them in bookstores and book fairs. They could encourage kids to collect them. Sure, it’s a small thing, but it would be a first step toward getting name recognition for authors and books, and a step toward creating a reading culture. Nobody thinks encouraging the collecting of sports cards is too small a thing to do.
Okay, now for the speed round:
Tell us a little bit about Gail Gauthier. Where do you live? How do you spend your days?
I live in central Connecticut now and spent many years as a suburban/small town mom doing school and community volunteer work. In fact, I just quit my last volunteer job last year. I’ve lived a very traditional late twentieth, early twenty-first century adult life. As a child, though, I grew up on small farms in Vermont. My father’s parents were French Canadian immigrants, and his extended family was quite French. He and many of his siblings couldn’t speak English when they started school, and some of them never finished grade school. I attended one-room schools from third through seventh grade. So I’ve had a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde existence that’s reflected in my writing--I have my suburban mom books and my Vermont books.
I am an exercise hobbyist, so I start the day working out then usually waste some time on the Internet before getting started working. I’m not very good at staying on task or juggling balls, so lots of times if I’m writing, I’m only writing. If I’m working on a new school presentation, I’m only doing that. If I’m doing some studying, that’s all I can manage. Needless to say, I’m not very organized about what I call life maintenance, either--getting the clean laundry folded, painting that bathroom that’s had color swatches on the wall for a couple of years. I like to think I’d last a month at a traditional job, but with work habits like mine, I can’t be sure.
Who is your favorite writer? I wouldn’t say I have a favorite, but I have liked a lot of M.T. Anderson’s work. I like David Sedaris’s essays, but if I had a chance to read more of Sarah Vowell’s, I might like her even more.
Beach, city, or forest? Forest
What draws you to children’s literature in particular? What I mean is, why children’s fiction and not, say, mystery, chick lit, or “literary fiction”?
Children are my material. Before I started writing for children, I wrote a lot of what I thought of at the time as women’s fiction. It was angst-ridden meaning of life stuff. I have an adult mystery novel and an unfinished sci fi book from that period in my office. Both the main characters are angst-ridden women. I “found my material” as a result of being a mother. Much of my published work, particularly the early stuff, deals very much with my children’s lives or my life as their mother. I wouldn’t have a career without my kids, and many of my books are dedicated to them.
Movie, Theater, or a Concert? Movie
If you had an entire week and unlimited resources to do whatever you’d like, what would you do and why?
I would like to go on a weeklong fitness/reading retreat. A taekwondo class would be offered on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9 A.M. and yoga and stretching classes at any other time of the day I felt like taking one. The week would be sprinkled with book discussion group meetings and maybe some author presentations in the evening after dinner. Some of those presentations would be outdoors around bonfires. The site would be in the mountains, but, miraculously, there would be a village filled with good restaurants reachable on hiking trails. The surrounding meadows would be dotted with Adirondack chairs for people who wanted to read outside. There would be a library with a fireplace. Hey, and maybe there be fireworks every night!
June 29 Books Together
June 30 Sam Riddleburger
July 1 Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
July 2 Jen Robinson's Book Page
July 4 The Miss Rumphius Effect
July 5 A Fuse #8 Production
And don't miss Gail's own discussions about chapter books this week at Original Content!