Wednesday, September 14, 2011
John Warren Stewig began writing professional books for teachers, librarians, and parents. He has presented lectures and workshops in over 30 states and two such professional organizations as the National Council of Teachers of English, The International Reading Association, and the American Library Association. He served on, and subsequently was chair of the Caldecott Committee.
His writing for children includes eleven picture books. Most recently published was The Animals Watched (Holiday House) an alphabet book which retells the tale of Noah. Forthcoming in 2012 is Nobody Asked the Pea, a retelling in several different first person voices.
TXS&S: Can you tell us about the Center for Children's Literature and your role as the director?
JS: The Center bases its public programing for teachers, parents, and librarians on a collection of about 25,000 recently published books. We maintain a website http://www.carthage.edu/childrens-literature/ which includes reviews of recently published books as well as additional information about the center. A major effort is bringing authors, illustrators, and others involved in children's books to campus to speak about the nature of their work. A workshop "The Business of Children's Publishing" offered every other year, explores the nature of editing and art directing.
TXS&S: What drew you to the field of children's literature? What is your hope for the future of children's literature?
JS: My mother drew me in a wagon to children's books. We went to the Carnegie Library in the small town where I grew up every single week and hauled home a wagon load full of books. My love of books began even before I could read myself.
My hope for children's literature is twofold. 1) I hope we can convince more and more adults about the importance of reading to every child every day. There is no more effective way to enhance general literacy then immersion in books. 2) My hope for publishing is that imaginative and courageous editors can continue to produce books with wide child appeal, which do not necessarily follow the most popular trends. Enough of vampires already!
TXS&S: As a multi-published author, do you have any writing or marketing advice you can share with aspiring writers?
JS: Regarding writing, I'd suggest that every piece of writing can be improved by skillful editing, either the editing the writer does or editing by some other person. I have been lucky enough to publish children's books, books for adults, a language arts series, journal articles, and newspaper opinion pieces. Each is a very different format with different constraints. My experience has been that my work has always been improved by the editors with whom I have worked.
For marketing advice, you really must seek other sources. I was quite surprised when I talked with a published author at a recent ALA convention and she told me as a matter of course that to even get a manuscript considered, a writer must have their own website, blog, facebook, and other electronic avenues to promote their work. Clearly this is the wave of the future in marketing.
TXS&S: Also, as someone who has taught methods courses in the schools, plus conducted many workshops and author programs, any public speaking tips you could enlighten us with?
JS: Know your audience. I've worked with 3 year olds and done presentations in retirement homes as well as scores of public schools and libraries. Frequently I am bemused to discover when something doesn't go over well with an audience, that it's because I didn't learn enough about my listeners before I began. Still vivid in my memory is an experience I had in a small Midwestern town when I was to be the only presenter for an entire day. I opened with Karen Cushman's The Midwife's Apprentice and thought perhaps I was going to be run out of town by 11:00am, so intense was the negative reaction. Clearly it was a case of not knowing enough about who I was talking to. (If you want to hear the rest of the story, ask me when I see you at a convention.)
TXS&S: Lastly, would your friends and colleagues consider you a Sweetheart or Scoundrel, and why?
JS: To answer this, you need to talk to the many student workers who have helped me keep the Center running for many years. They undoubtedly have a much clearer answer to that question. But I'm not going to give you their names.
JS: Thank you Jessica for offering me this opportunity, a first of its kind experience for me.
TXS&S: Thank you for being here, John!
Thursday, September 1, 2011
I wrote the book while I was teaching E/LA beginning my second year in the classroom. I asked students to write personal narratives, tired as they were and I was of the overly-taught and therefore ineffective five-paragraph essay then the form of choice for the TAAS. I wasn’t literally writing these cuentitos down, but telling them instead. I gave them as examples to my students: I’d share a piece on a certain subject and then ask them to write something similar, putting to use all the stuff I introduced them to about writing: character, character development, action, description, dialogue, etc. After several years of doing this I finally put them to paper and started reading them at different cafes. To some success. I constantly revise based on student and audience reactions. I met Austin/South Texas writer and film maker, David Rice, around this time and he saw me read a few times. We became fast friends because both our visions for Valley youth are perfectly aligned: they need to read and write our Valley stories, they need to excel, they need to DO to attain that success. But it all begins with reading. Well, he’s the one who introduced me to Lauri Hornik, who was then a senior editor at Random House/Delacorte. He said I should submit to her what I had, he’d email her to let her know it was en route. About two or three months later, I had a message on my machine asking if I wanted to sell Random House my book, and if so to give her a callback, and the rest is history, so to speak.
TS&S: How much of your writing is based on yourself and your life?
TS&S: Can you share a bit about your teaching career? How does what you teach and your interactions with students impact your writing?
RS: You know, aside from what I’ve already shared above, today not at all. I teach in a college of education, mostly children’s and YA literatures. In that sense, that I’m always reading the newer stuff out there, I do get some influence from them. Matt de la Pena, for example, shows me so much about writing when I read him. I’m reading his I Will Save You right now, and he’s a writer’s writer, especially in this book. Much in the same way that Ben Saenz is in Last Night I Sang to the Monster. These guys are making very intentional decisions about language (not just choosing the best word or the most lyrical, but something else completely different). The shifting in Matt’s novel from the past to the present to another time in Kidd’s head and memory all remind me of what Faulkner would do with shifting perspectives. So in that way, sure, my classes inspire me to do likewise in my own ways.
TS&S: Although you started out as pretty avid reader, I understand you became a non-reader (or at least a reluctant reader) as a teen. What changed you back into a reader? How does an aliterate person become a professor of language and literacy?
RS: You know, there are a couple of different answers to this question. In an upcoming article in The ALAN Review (fall 2011) I document for the first time the author who kept me reading on the sly, that is to say, reading material other than class-sanctioned stories. The author was Piri Thomas, though back then and for the longest time I had no clue of his name (the title of the book is Stories from El Barrio). I just remembered two of his stories, not by title but by character or subject matter. But that I found him in my junior high school library on my own kept me coming back. That my librarians back then and throughout high school knew enough not to bother me but to let me peruse the shelves on my own also helped me keep reading. So I was an aliterate reader in the classroom, did just enough of it to keep passing, but not ever to say, "Hey, I’m a reader,” because by classroom standards I wasn’t. Now I know that I was very much a reader, but back then, if it wasn’t part of school, then it didn’t exist, right? Anyway, in 11th grade, my teacher, Ida Garcia, assigned Salinger’s Catcher.
TS&S: What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher? As a writer?
RS: As a teacher, I love to be able to talk to my students at the college level today about my sons’ reading and writing habits. What we’re teaching our students about literacy I put to practice in the home, and it works. These government joes have no clue about what all is really taking place in our classrooms and in the public school classrooms across the nation. Kids get it, we (in the general sense) don’t. That is to say, kids are learning, in spite of what the government is requiring of them. My oldest son, Lukas, this past summer, read aloud to a group of ten students from his first favorite book: Broch’s Butterflies In My Stomach. How does that happen? Sure, his parents are reading to him and his brothers on a daily basis, but teachers are doing the same thing.
As for a rewarding experience as a writer: a few months back, I was down in the Valley again with Reading Rock Stars. I was reading with James Luna. He had just finished performing to the younger set of students and he’d begun handing out his autographed copies of his picture book Runaway Piggy. This one boy who used a walker to get from one place to another was in line, and I wondered how this transaction was going to take place. James later told me he’d wondered the same. You see, the boy needed both hands on his walker to move around. But when the time came, James stretched out his hand and the boy let go hold of his walker, he used his left hand to reach for James’ book, he managed to slip it under his arm, thanked James, and pushed off. An adult, I imagine she was a teacher, came up to the boy and asked if he needed help carrying the book. The boy stopped his walker, looked up at the teacher, and said, almost defiantly (or so I imagine it in retrospect; I so wanted him to have an attitude about it all that I’ve imposed my desire onto the actual action; or was the defiance really there? I don’t know, but that’s how I’ll tell it): “No, no, I’ve got it.” Man! That moment showed me what we write for, for readers who own what they read. I don’t mean literally that boy owned a copy of James’ book, though now he did. But that he’d heard James perform the story, he internalized it, made it his own, and I guarantee that kid along with the 300 plus other kids could do the same: they could go home and retell the story to their parents, grandparents, or younger siblings. The book was the boy’s now. That is so satisfying! I was overjoyed to share in James’ treasure that day!
TS&S: The second book in your mystery series comes out in October. What will be next for Mickey Rangel? Will you be writing other mysteries?
RS: Yes, the second in the series, The Lemon Tree Caper/La intriga del limonero will soon enough be out, and I am working on the third, which is under contract with Arte Público Press/Piñata Books. This one will be taking place out in West Texas, where I’ve been teaching for the last five years. It will be set in Post, where my two oldest sons and I go to watch, and soon to ourselves race our remote control cars. Well, my oldest, actually will be the one racing after he gets his 8th birthday present in early September. Mickey will be visiting a cousin, who himself has his own version of Bucho, the bully. I’ve also been contracted by McGraw to write a three-act play. Interestingly, they wanted a Latino mystery for sixth graders, so I had already created Mickey, and they fell in love with him, so it worked out perfectly. But I hope the series sells well so that I can keep writing them for APP/PB. The first one has been recorded in both English and Spanish, my first ever audiobook. And Scholastic has chosen it for their READ 180 program, so I just might have to keep putting these out.
TS&S: What one question do you wish I had asked you? And, of course, what is the answer?
RS: Maybe something like: what kind of writing are you attracted to that could also be attractive to teen readers?
You know, I love reading stories that involve violence. Sure, it can’t be gratuitous. There’s got to be a solid reason for including it, but the more on the stage the better. I hate it when a writer shies away from writing ugly violence and instead opts for the off-stage violence: you know the kind: “And then they fought horribly.” And they leave it at that. Folks who do this really well are Markus Zusak in his early work, de la Peña, Saenz, A.S. King in Vera Dietz (although in this book and also in some of Dana Reinhardt, a lot of this violence indeed happens offstage, but not strictly). Ralph Fletcher argues that boys should be allowed to read stories of violence and be given the power to write the same stories. That they need models to do it right. But why make it a guy thing strictly? I think young women readers could also enjoy these kinds of stories. They already do.
TS&S: Are you a sweetheart or a scoundrel and why?
RS: I want to be a scoundrel. I’m a guy from Texas. What else would I be?
Learn more about René and his writing at his blog, On Writing, On Reading.