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Behind the Pages with Seven Leading Children's Book Authors

By Judy Molland

Mercer Mayer, author of the beloved Little Critter children’s books, fared terribly in the subject of English when he was a schoolboy. So did Avi, the prolific author of Thea True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Nothing But the Truth and more. Bill Martin, who penned the oft-recited Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, didn’t even learn to read until he got to college.

Just in time for the summer reading season, we’ve collected personal reflections and tidbits from seven popular children’s book authors, from Mayer and Martin for the youngest set to Avi and Lois Lowry for middle-schoolers. If your kids aren’t so enamored with the prospect of reading this summer – which educators say is important for their continued academic success – these fun author facts just might prompt them tao open a book.

Seven noted children’s book authors share their childhood memories and influences:

Bill Martin Jr.
Mercer Mayer
Sharon Creech
Nikki Grimes
Avi
Kate DiCamillo
Lois Lowry

Bill Martin Jr.

Born in Kansas in 1916, Martin now lives in Texas. Of the numerous children’s books he has written, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, illustrated by Eric Carle, sold millions of copies and remains his all-time best seller.

Best subject at school: “Listening. Yes, listening! I learned so much by listening to the great books my teachers read to me. And, as a poor reader, listening to my teacher teach is what allowed me to learn about the subjects of the day.”

Worst subject: “Reading. You see, I never learned to read until I got to college. That is why I now write the types of books that are easy for kids to read. I want every child to be a reader.”

Favorite childhood book: “I loved Peter Rabbit.”

Best birthday present: “In 1994, I moved from New York to Texas. I was having a house built in the woods of east Texas, and on my birthday (March 20) I saw my new house framed out. It was a wonderful sight!”

Favorite movie: “I love many cartoons. Shrek is my favorite movie at the moment.”

Favorite food: “Swordfish. Followed by chocolate ice cream!”

Earliest writing memory: “I don’t remember my earliest. But my favorite has to be the morning I wrote Brown Bear. I was riding a train from Long Island to Manhattan and heard the wheels of the train crying ‘Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? Then I seemed to hear the answer ‘I see a red bird looking at me.’ By the time I got to Grand Central Station, the book was finished.”

Where his writing ideas come from: “I get my ideas from things that happen to me (Caddie the Golf Dog), from memories of childhood (The Ghost Eye Tree) and from current events (I Pledge Allegiance).”

Achievement he is most proud of: “The Bill Martin Pathways to Literacy workshops. For almost 40 years, these summer workshops have brought teachers and authors together to celebrate teaching, learning and books.”

Bill Martin Jr. book he recommends: “Not fair! That is like asking a parent which child they like best! I love all the books I have written, but always the one I am working on at the moment. My next book is Chicka, Chicka 1, 2, 3. It comes out this fall.”



Mercer Mayer

Mayer lives in New York City, but he was born in Arkansas in 1943 and he spent his teenage years in Hawaii. He has written and/or illustrated more than 80 picture books, but is best known for the Little Monster and Little Critter series, which he writes with his wife, Gina.

Best subject at school: “Art.”

Worst subject: “English, especially spelling.”

Favorite childhood book: The Tales of Uncle Wiggly.”

Favorite movie: “As a second-grader, The Broken Arrow, with Jeff Chandler. Now, The Matrix.”

Favorite food: “Lichee nuts.” (Sweet fruits with a knobby, reddish-brown shell, grown in the southern part of China.

Earliest writing memory: “Writing a comic strip with my friend in the sixth grade.”

Where his writing ideas come from: “Life! Most of my books are about things that happened to me when I was a little kid.”

Achievement he is most proud of: “My children.”

Mercer Mayer book he recommends: “Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp.”



Sharon Creech

The author of a wide range of books, from picture books to gripping novels for middle-school students, Creech was born in Ohio in 1945 and now lives in New Jersey. Among her novels for older children are Love That Dog and Chasing Redbird, but for many fans, Creech’s Walk Two Moons, which won the Newbery Medal in 1995, remains the favorite.

Best subject at school: “Reading and English.”

Worst subject: “Math.”

Favorite childhood book: “The Timbertoes, by Edna Aldredge and Jessie McKee, which I read when I was 7 or 8.”

Best birthday present: “A pair of leather moccasins, when I was 12. We were on a family trip to Idaho and had stopped in Wisconsin. I thought everyone had forgotten that it was my birthday, but when we went into a shop, my parents let me pick out something for my gift, and I chose the moccasins. It was the year that I’d learned that one of our ancestors was American Indian, and I was into that in a big way!”

Favorite movie: “The Christmas Story, the one about the BB gun.”

Favorite food: “This week it’s tangerines. Other times it is chocolate.”

Earliest writing memory: “Writing a funny poem for my brother, for his birthday. He would have rather had a ‘real’ present, I think.”

Where her writing ideas come from: “All over the place. The initial spark for a book might be generated by someone else’s poem (as in Love That Dog), or by a fortune cookie message (as in Walk Two Moons), or by an image of a place (as in Ruby Holler).

Achievement she is most proud of: “In my personal life, raising two children. In my professional life, each book brings an equal measure of fulfillment.”

Sharon Creech book she recommends: “Very hard to choose! Each reader prefers different books, but if they’d like to know which book to begin with, I’d say A Fine, Fine School for very young readers, and Walk Two Moons for older readers.”



Nikki Grimes

A native of New York City, Grimes began composing verse at age 6 and has been writing ever since. She’s a bit shy about giving her age, declaring “I’m older than you, but younger than a dinosaur!” Now a California resident, Grimes has written many award-winning collections of poems for children, including Bronx Masquerade, winner of the 2003 Coretta Scott King Author Award, Meet Danitra Brownand Aneesa Lee and the Weaver’s Gift.

Best subject at school: “English, hands down.”

Worst subject: “Math. I chose my college based on which schools required calculus, and which ones didn’t!”

Favorite childhood book: “I didn’t have one. I read everything I could get my hands on and rarely got to read a book more than once.”

Best birthday present: “Ice skates. I thought ice-skating was the most graceful sport imaginable, and I so wanted to glide effortlessly across the ice! I made my dreams known, and my father surprised me with the loveliest pair of white skates.”

Favorite movie: “Ladyhawke. I love the intimate, natural, often funny, ongoing dialogue that the Matthew Broderick character has with God. I, too, enjoy a personal relationship with God and I totally related to that!”

Favorite food: “Anything Thai.”

Earliest writing memory: “This isn’t the earliest memory, but the strongest: I was in Central Park and suddenly got an idea for a poem, but didn’t have any pad or pen with me. I ran up to strangers begging for writing paper, scoured park benches, and even dug through trash desperate for a piece of paper to write on! I found one, eventually, and the words poured out. After that, I never went anywhere without a poetry notebook and a pen or pencil.”

Where her writing ideas come from: “Everywhere – other books, newspapers, magazines, memories from childhood, television and film. Everybody gets ideas. The difference between a writer and a person who isn’t is that writers capture their ideas as they come. Other people let the ideas float away.”

Achievement she is most proud of: “Being invited to the National Book Festival, and to the White House. Little girl from Harlem makes good!”

Nikki Grimes book she recommends: “For primary readers, My Man Blue. For middle-graders, Talkin' About Bessie.



Avi

Avi was also born in New York City, and he still lives in his hometown. Born in Brooklyn in 1937, he is best known for two very different books, both Newbery Honor winners: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and Nothing But The Truth.

Best subject in school: “I was not, in fact, a very good student from the point of view of grades. The subject I enjoyed most was history.”

Worst subject: “Probably math or English. My 10th-grade English teacher said I was the worst student he ever had.”

Favorite childhood book: “That depends on the age. Picture book favorites were Pokey Little Puppy, Simpson and Sampson, Otto the Giant Dog, Katie the Steam Shovel and many more. Later on, it was the animal stories of Thornton W. Burgess, and the Freddy the Pig stories.”

Best birthday present: “When I was 16, my father took me to a used-book store and said, ‘You can buy anything you want up to $35.’ A lot of money for me, and a lot of books!”

Favorite movie: “Chaplin’s City Lights.”

Where his writing ideas come from: “Everybody has ideas. It’s a question of how you shape them. My rock-musician sons shape their ideas into music. My sister takes her ideas and fashions them into poems. I take my ideas and turn them into stories. Now, what do you think you’ll do with your ideas?”

Achievement he is most proud of: “Being a writer. I’ve published at least one book a year since 1975.”

Avi book he recommends: “My books differ a great deal, both in terms of style and subject matter, and age focus. One book does not fit all! But if pushed, I’ll always recommend my latest book, which in this case is Never Mind! written with fellow writer Rachel Vail.”



Kate DiCamillo

Born in Pennsylvania in 1964, DiCamillo currently lives in Minnesota. She’s the author of three books for children, all of them award winners: Because of Winn-Dixie, a Newbery Honor book, The Tiger Rising, a National Book Award finalist, and The Tale of Despereaux, which won this year’s Newbery Medal.

Best subject at school: “English.”

Worst subject: “Math. I stunk at math.”

Favorite childhood book: “I read everything I could get my hands on when I was a kid. And I loved it all. Some favorites were The Twenty-One Balloons, The Secret Garden, The Yearling and a strange little book called Somebody Else’s Shoes.”

Best birthday present: “A clock radio that my mother got for me when I turned 13. I remember convulsing with joy because it was so cool. My mom knew I wanted one, but I didn’t know if I was going to get it.”

Favorite movie: “Favorite funny one: Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”

Favorite food: “Pizza!”

Earliest writing memory: “I remember writing bad poetry when I was 7 years old!”

Where her writing ideas come from: “Everywhere. The world is full of ideas if you take the time to look carefully and listen closely.”

Achievement she is most proud of: “Making a commitment to writing and sticking to that commitment.”

Kate DiCamillo book she recommends: “Gosh, I’d love it if people read all three.”



Lois Lowry

She lives and writes in Massachusetts, in a house dominated by a shaggy Tibetan terrier named Bandit. Born in Hawaii in 1937, Lowry has written numerous novels for young people. Her books are often assigned reading for middle-schoolers. And her fans point to Number the Stars and The Giver, both Newbery Medal winners, as their favorites.

Best subject at school: “English. I liked writing and literature best, not surprisingly, but I enjoyed everything in my English classes, even grammar. I loved diagramming sentences.”

Worst subject:“This is a little embarrassing, but I was a very good student and did well in everything. The things I liked least were math and science courses.”

Favorite childhood book:The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.”

Best birthday present: “My father gave me a portable Smith-Corona typewriter for my 13th birthday – an astonishing gift! In those days, 1950, kids simply didn’t have their own typewriters.”

Favorite movie:Fargo, hands down.”

Favorite food: “Anything Mexican.

Earliest writing memory: “Now this is embarrassing. When I was about 11, I worked very hard to write a long, I mean LONG, narrative poem, very Gothic-romance-y, which begins with a scene of a woman’s dead body at the foot of a cliff, with the ocean pounding nearby. Lengthy flashback about the doomed romance, etc. Conclusion: ‘Had she but lived, I would have loved her even more; but no! she now lies dead upon the rocky shore.’”

Where her writing ideas come from: “From my memories, combined with my imagination.”

Achievement she is most proud of: “My four children.”

Lois Lowry book she recommends: “My most recent, Messenger, published in April 2004.”




More on children’s literature, authors and the art of storytelling:

Start Your Own Parent-Child Book Club - Book clubs are great forum for sharing ideas and nurturing a lifelong love of reading

What Makes a Great Children’s Book? – A look at why great children’s books strike a chord and stay with us through adulthood.

The Very Creative Children’s Book Author A Conversation with the inimitable Eric Carle.

Why Reading to Your Kids Works Celebrated storyteller Jim Weiss discusses how sharing books and stories fosters deeper parent-child bonds.

Reading Begins at Home Partnership for Readinghelps parents help their children during the critical years of learning to read.

Reading to Two How and what to read to siblings.

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