For the next few weeks we’re going to be reposting interviews Cheryl is doing with author faculty that are coming to this year’s Writing and Illustrating For Young Readers conference.
Our first one is with Sharlee Glenn, author of several pictures books including Keeping up with Roo and Just What Mama Needs. Sharlee is an excellent writer and an excellent teacher. She’s taught at the conference in the past, and did a wonderful job. She’s published both picture books and middle grade novels. A long time ago, Sharlee went to a speech my mom gave. Sharlee was the only one in the audience who laughed. She has five children and lives in Northern Utah County. I’d post a picture but we’re having some problems with wordpress and it’s not letting me. So, enjoy!
Here’s what Sharlee says she’ll be teaching in her WIFYR class:
“Don’t know a query from a cover letter? Not sure if you enclose a SASE or a SCBWI? Think that Horn Book is a publication for tuba players? Then this class is for you! If you’ve always wanted to write for children, but don’t know how to start, this class will give you the know-how and the confidence you need.
In this class, we will focus on the writing process and talk about the fundamentals of good writing. We will also learn the nuts-and-bolts of children’s book publishing (how to submit a manuscript, the publication process, copyright issues, negotiating contracts, etc.). Throughout the course of the week, we will touch on all the major categories of children’s books (picture books, easy readers, early chapter books, middle-grade novels, and YA novels) and will enjoy guest lectures from published authors in the above genres. Because this is a hands-on workshop, participants are asked to bring a work-in-progress (a picture book manuscript or several chapters of a novel) to class to be shared, critiqued, worked on, and polished.”
Yes, I do. In fact, I’m not quite sure how else to do it! Even my stories that have fantastical settings or feature characters who are not human are still informed by my own life experiences. In my book, One in a Billion, for example, the main character is a little flower, but the dilemma she faces is one that my then six-year-old son was dealing with, and it was a comment he made to me that served as the impetus for writing the story. Two of my books, Circle Dance and Keeping Up with Roo, are more directly autobiographical. I feel like, in many ways, I’ve lived a sort of unusual life—one that lends itself to storytelling. Maybe someday I’ll run out of personal material and I’ll have to look elsewhere for inspiration, but until then, I’ll just continue to keep my eyes open and my memories flowing.
2. Your picture book Keeping Up with Roo tackles some complex issues, namely, dealing with someone with special needs, which even adults struggle with. How do you make difficult concepts easy enough for children to understand?
This particular book is very special to me. I see it as a book about very universal human feelings, not one about disabilities. Here’s an excerpt from my acceptance speech when Keeping Up with Roo was given the Dolly Gray Children’s Literature award:
“An acquaintance of mine recently asked where she could buy one of my books. “You know,” she said. “The one about handicaps.” It took me a minute to realize she was talking about Keeping Up with Roo. I’ve never thought of Keeping Up with Roo as a book about handicaps. To me, it is simply a story about friendship, about growing up, and, above all, about gratitude. You see, Keeping Up with Roo is my own personal tribute to my beloved aunt Martha—the person who taught me how to read.
Martha and her twin sister, Mildred, were my mother’s sisters, and they lived with us most of my growing up years. Martha and Mildred were born in 1938. When they were less than a year old, they were diagnosed with “severe mental retardation.” The doctor told my grandmother that they would probably never walk, let alone talk. My grandmother refused to accept that and treated Mildred and Martha just as she had her five other children. By age three, they were not only walking and talking, but they were running my grandmother ragged and singing wild made-up songs in loud but perfect harmony.
By the time I came along, Mildred and Martha were robust twenty-two-year-olds. And they were my best friends in the whole world. I didn’t know they were handicapped. All I knew is that they were big and strong and wonderful and that they always had time to play with me. Mildred loved to put me on her shoulders and lope through the windbreak behind my grandparents’ farmhouse. Mildred was the domestic one: she enjoyed playing with dolls, rearranging furniture, and creating beautiful works of art out of twigs and leaves and seeds. Martha was more cerebral: she taught herself how to drive a tractor, play the piano . . . and read. When I was a little girl, Martha could read and write on about a third grade level, and she loved nothing more than playing school with me. She was always the teacher and I, the eager student. Martha taught me my A-B-C’s, how to count and add numbers, and, eventually, how to read easy books. My mother didn’t even know I could read until one day when I was riding into town with her. I was about four years old. We were just driving along when suddenly I began reading aloud all the signs along the road. My mother almost wrecked the car. “Sharlee!” she said. “Where on earth did you learn to read?” “Martha taught me,” I said.
When my aunt Martha passed away several years ago, I was filled with both a tender sadness and a profound sense of gratitude. One single thought kept running through my mind: She taught me how to read. What a tremendous gift.”
So, I think what makes Keeping Up with Roo work is that I wrote it purely from a child’s perspective. The fact that Roo is handicapped is never once mentioned in the book. A young person reading or hearing the story might only understand that Roo is somehow different and that, at one point, Gracie is embarrassed by her. Those are feelings that I think every child can relate to.
3. How do you walk that fine line between teaching to your audience and maintaining their interest?
I hope that I don’t ever preach to my audience. That’s not what good literature does. A lot of people have the misconception that children’s books, especially books for very young readers, have to be didactic, but in my view didacticism is death to a story. Of course, there are always values that come through in a good book (whether they be values like friendship, kindness, tolerance or things like the importance of having fun or enjoying the beautiful world around us), but they emerge very naturally from the story. I guess I don’t worry too much about what my readers are “learning” from my books. I just want them to find joy in reading.
4. Just What Mama Needs was featured on the popular children’s TV show Between the Lions. How did that come about? How has the exposure helped you?
It was a total surprise to me—and the way it came about remains largely a mystery. I was contacted by my editor at Harcourt one day with the news that Just What Mama Needs would be featured on Between the Lions. Honestly, I have no idea how (or even if!) the exposure has helped me. It premiered last November. I guess I’ll have to wait for my next royalty statement to see if the exposure translated into more sales. I do have to say that watching the segment was an immensely gratifying experience though. I thought they did a fabulous job of animating the illustrations and narrating the story. When Papa Theo first held up his copy of the book and said, “Just What Mama Needs, written by Sharlee Glenn and illustrated by Amiko Hirao,” I could have died right then a thoroughly happy woman.
5. Have you seen any recent trends in picture books that new authors should be aware of?
Yes, the trend is definitely toward fewer words and younger readers. Also, most of the successful picture books in today’s market seem to be either really sweet or really funny.
6. As far as picture books go, what is your favorite recent read?
I’m becoming more and more a fan of Mo Willems. I especially love his Elephant and Piggy books (which are actually Early Readers). Willems is endlessly creative. His style is simple and humorous, and his books have true child-appeal.
Another recent picture book that I really love is Seasons by Blexbolex. The silk-screen print illustrations are lovely, and the whole concept is very inventive and evocative.