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Today we're doing double duty! We'll start off chatting with Kathi Appelt on picture book biographies. Then Louise Hawes will join the discussion and share a bit about writing an original magic tale.  


Kathi Appelt is another amazing author who has written everything from lullabies to board books to picture books, fiction and non-fiction, short stories, poetry, and an absolutely stunning debut novel, The Underneath, with drawings by David Small. (Atheneum, May 2008.)

She is wonderful presenter, and a gifted teacher. In addition to her hops around the country doing school visits, Kathi teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts where, this semester, she's launched the Picture Book Certificate Program.


Thanks for joining us, Kathi!



Some biographies focus on a single event in the life of a famous person. Others begin with a life-changing event in childhood and follow that child to his adult years, when he makes a difference in the world. Still others cover birth to death – in thirty-two illustrated pages – by focusing on how that person came to be famous.

                                                                           Anastasia Suen: Picture Writing



1. Your book, Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein, (HarperCollins) appears to fall somewhere in between Suen's "categories," as you chose to begin your story with Lady Bird's birth in 1912, and follow her life through childhood, her marriage to Lyndon Johnson, and up to the establishment of the National Wildflower Research Center. 

Deciding how to frame your story was not an easy process, I'm sure. And I assume that even that decision couldn't be made until you'd completed a significant amount of research. 

Which was harder for you? Doing the research – digging for the details you'd need – or  deciding how to frame the story – choosing which of those *specific* details you'd string together into the narrative?


I knew from the start that I wanted to focus on Lady Bird’s environmentalism. A lot of people don’t realize that Mrs. Johnson was second only to Eleanor Roosevelt in the legislation that she worked on behind the scenes, legislation that ranged from Head Start programs to poverty issues to an array of other issues.   She was a very active first lady. 

However, I felt that regardless of the issue, she was always motivated by her love of the outdoors and nature. So, it made sense to try to show how that love began in her childhood and continued to serve as her “guide” throughout her life. 

Anastasia’s framing is useful I think. But my feelings about p.b. biographies also have to do more with “representation.” In the confines of a 32 page picture book, the author and illustrator are clearly limited. So, for me at least, the primary goal always of a p.b. biography goes beyond the frame. What I think a good p.b. bio should do is to introduce the child reader to the subject in such a way that they want to know more about that person. The p.b. bio “represents” the subject, but rather than being inclusive, it can only provide a small representation.

The intent of a p.b. bio, regardless of whether you choose to do a birth-to-life story or a moment-in-the-life story, is to serve as an introduction. At least that’s the way I see it. I want my young readers to know about Lady Bird’s environmentalism, but hopefully I’ve given them enough to want to know more about this remarkable woman. 

I think the hardest part of writing any picture book bio, knowing the limitations is figuring out what to exclude. A person like Lady Bird who died in her 90’s led a long and illustrious life. Lots of it was really interesting. I wanted to include as much as I could. But at the end of the day, I had to focus on those essential parts of her life that had to do with her environmentalism. I could write a dozen more books that illuminated the other sides of Lady Bird Johnson. For example, Reading Is Fundamental is a Johnson initiative, and there is a lot to know about how much Lady Bird loved to read. A whole book could be done about that side of her, and maybe should be done.   She loved stories. Her mother and aunt were wonderful storytellers, and even late in life Mrs. Johnson spoke about reading with her mother, and about the tales that she told. Surely, these early experiences with reading helped lead to the creation for R.I.F. Lynda Robb, Lady Bird’s daughter, is still the chairwoman of the organization.

2. Both you and Joy have talked before (Cynsationsabout the process of writing Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers.

In that interview, you say that "the task of a picture book biography--to offer a glimpse of a life well-lived in such a way that the reader is encouraged to look further..." is, "… both a constraint and a wonder…" 

You've discussed this process with the students at Vermont College and it seems that at least one of the "tools" you made use of in choosing which parts of Lady Bird's life you would include was the idea of a "controlling belief." Can you define what you mean by "controlling belief" and  elaborate on this?

The controlling belief is simply the belief or attitude that is so tightly ingrained in the character or person that it shades every action and every response that the character comes face to face with. 

And for the purposes of a story, it’s helpful to try to pin down ONE overriding controlling belief for that character. 

The best characters have an inner belief "and" a yearning/need, but the two are not necessarily the same.  For example, a character may believe that he can't do anything right, no matter how hard he tries.  But what if this same character gets lost in the jungle?  He still has to find his way.  But his belief will create all kinds of problems for him. This will be a character at war with his environment, but mostly at war with himself.  At some point in the story, he may be forced to reckon with his tightly held belief.


            Now, let's take a character who believes that he can do anything he puts his mind to.  Put that same character in the jungle, and you'll have a different story.  His approach will be different.  That doesn't mean it will be easier.  In fact, his belief might actually blind him to some very real dangers and make him reckless.  He also may have to come face to face with his controlling belief.  Maybe he can't do everything he thinks he can?


In both instances, the inner belief will help you, the author, understand your character more deeply.  


3. In a January 2008 lecture at Vermont College, you said:

When writing about people – ourselves, others, or fictional characters – we need to know four essential things:

                        1. Their "occupation."

                        2. How well they perform that occupation, or how well they think they perform that occupation.

                        3. Their controlling belief or attitude.

                        4. Their goal.


Presumably, everyone has more than one job, and more than one controlling belief. How did you determine which of Lady Bird Johnson's controlling beliefs you would focus on? Was settling on just *one* controlling belief difficult? In what ways did deciding Lady Bird's controlling belief help you clarify the through line of your story?


On the surface, it seems like it would be a relatively easy thing to settle on one controlling belief. Why not just state it? With Lady Bird, I knew from the start that I would write about her environmentalism. But it took me a while to figure out what her controlling belief was. Yes, I knew she loved nature. I knew all about that. But that wasn’t enough. It wasn’t focused enough. I also knew that she was very keen on helping others. Her motto is something like “from those who have been given much, much is expected.” She had a pillow with that saying cross-stitched on it, and it was on her bed for years and years.   And she rather lived that in a million different ways. She did believe that her role was to help others. So in the early drafts, I held onto that motto, but it kept getting in the way of the story I wanted to tell. Finally, after lots of drafting, I realized that her true belief, for the purposes of this story, had to do with how she saw the role of nature as healing.


            Early in my research I found her wonderful quote in her diary: “wildflowers are the stuff of my heart.” But it took awhile for me to figure out that in that line was the core of what Mrs. Johnson believed. She believed that flowers, the outdoors, nature, were restorative, that they all combined to make us better people. Once I settled on that, the story became much clearer to me. Of course, she had multiple other beliefs, but they were secondary to the one belief about nature, at least for my story. 


4. Each project, no doubt, teaches the writer something new about the writing process that s/he can then bring to the next manuscript. 

Any lessons or insights that you discovered in the process of writing Miss Lady Bird's Wildflowers that perhaps "contributed" in an unexpected way to your process when you sat down to write The Underneath ? And can you give our readers a quick peek at the new novel?


Hah! I think the major lesson of Miss Lady Bird was to learn to be willing to rewrite over and over and over. Joy and I stopped counting drafts when we hit 50. While The Underneath  didn’t require quite that many drafts, it did take several. That’s not to say that I had never done multiple drafts before those books, but not quite at that level.    And I would say that writing both of them taught me to really keep digging, to find the heart of all of my characters. It took time I think in both cases, to find that true heart.


A quick peek? Well, a couple of days ago I was scrolling around on Amazon and discovered that there’s a section of the novel under “editorial reviews” that you can read for yourself.  Who knew? 

At any rate, I loved working on the picture book biography, and I want to do another one, but more on that some other day. 


Thanks, Kathi! 

Now on to.... magic tales with Louise Hawes !   


Welcome, Louise

Thanks for joining us!


1.  In the afterward to Muti's Necklace , you mention that the inspiration for the book came from a collection of the oldest written stories in the world. What struck you about this *particular* story? 



I encountered the three "Tales of Wonder," from the famous Papyrus Westcar, when I was in grad school. Aside from a longer Egyptian narrative about a shipwrecked sailor, these are among the world's earliest prose pieces, and certainly the first written short stories. Thousands of years before the creation of paper, and before the earliest recorded Chinese literature, these stories were set in clay (then copied on papyrus much later) by the folks who invented writing, the Egyptians.


What compels any modern reader of these short tales, which describe the magic "wonders" performed by a magician for King Snefru, a pharoah of the Middle Kingdom, is the use of such contemporary literary techniques as flash backs, point of view, and symbolism. We contemporary writers sometimes feel we've got an exclusive on experimentation. One look at these ancient tales, and that arrogance is dispelled!


What drew me to the first of the tales in particular, though, was the secondary character who triggers everything, an unnamed serving girl who loses a turquoise pendant while rowing Snefru's pleasure boat. She refuses to resume rowing or to accept a replacement for the pendant, thereby forcing the magician to part the waters of the lake so she can retrieve her ornament. Although the original version is centered on the magician, and the girl disappears from the narrative once she's served her purpose as a plot point, I was drawn to this stout-hearted young woman who recognizes that what makes something precious is love, not market value.


In my version of the story, then, as in the wonderful tale of Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf, the protagonist doesn't change, but her very fixity is a triumph. I've always loved that atypical, rule-breaking structure, --a pole star character, around whom everyone else races frantically to no avail. Indeed, by my book's end, Pharoah recognizes the truth behind such steadfast refusal to compromise, and decides his serving girl is worth a royal marriage proposal! (You'll have to read the book to see whether it's accepted :-)



2. In picture book writing, less is almost always more. And yet, in the case of a tale, such as Muti's Necklace, the form begs a longer text so that the reader is able to savor the rich language of the storyteller. Any tricks you might share with our readers about learning to balance the longer style inherent in this type of tale within the short form of a picture book?


I'm not sure there are any "rules" as to length anymore. At least, my editor never once suggested I shorten this piece. For me, each story finds its own form. In other words, I didn't sit down and say to myself, "I'm going to write a picture story book ,as opposed to a picture book. What I did do, was find the voice of my character, the refrain that she needed to repeat often enough so it becomes almost internalized, like a song. And indeed, "I prefer my own to any other, no matter how fine" has a music that set the tone for the whole book. The counterpoint is supplied by the elegant, ridiculously long titles with which everyone greets the Pharoah. (Some samples: "Oh, Wonder of the Nile and Beloved of the Gods;" " Our King, May Your Boundless Wisdom Guide Us Forever;") These constantly changing, power-oriented salutations were fun to write and had a nifty music of their own, which contrasted nicely with my heroine's consistent refrain. Again, this pattern needed to be established through enough repetitions so that readers would "buy" both Pharoah's proposal at the end of the book and my girl Muti's answer. 



3. We've been talking throughout the week about the sounds and music of language and how word choice and rhythm play such an important role in the aural/listening and oral/read-aloud aspects of the picture book. Surely, the storytellers of old knew to pay attention to such things, too. Any thoughts on how writers of prose can teach themselves to use a poet's tools?



The best way to learn to pay attention to the SOUND of your writing is, of course, to read it out loud. I've never published a single word I haven't read to an imaginary audience. What do I listen for? Music. Allegro, andante, classical, rap, rock and roll--I'm open to it all, but none of it should include unjustified inconsistencies, clunkers, or false notes. Mind you, I'm music-challenged, in that I can't carry a tune or play any musical instrument. Oddly, I think this impairment has made me so hungry for music that it comes out in my writing! I have a good ear for word music.


I don't think you can care about the music of language without loving poetry. I read it and write it;it's part of my sinews, my life. The more you know about poetry and poetic forms, the more you can "play" with them and apply them to situations and genres where you wouldn't expect to find them. Mary Oliver in her A Poetry Handbook  (a must-have for poets and poet wannabes), says, "Acquaintance with the main body of English poetry is absolutely essential -- it is clearly the whole cake, while what has been written in the last hundred years or so, without meter, is no more than an icing."


There are no prescriptions, no route maps for where your individual writing needs to go. It's your journey and yours alone; all I can do is share mine. Happy traveling!



Thanks, Louise! Be sure to check out Louise's book, Black Pearls: A Faerie Strand  due out any day now!


Interested in more blogs about non-fiction?  Here are two that I enjoy: