Author Studies

This article by Carol Otis Hurst first appeared in Teaching K-8 Magazine.

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First of all, a treasure -- Children's Books and Their Creators: An Invitation to the Feast of Twentieth-Century Children's Literature, edited by Anita Silvey has been published by Houghton Mifflin (ISBN 0395653800. Order Online.). Information about the lives and work of many, many children's authors and illustrators are arranged alphabetically in this tome. Included in the same alphabet are articles about illustration, non-fictional books, biographies, folklore and the like and many offer useful information, but the most wonderful parts of this book are the brief articles by many of the authors and illustrators themselves. These leap off the page with the exuberance, frankness and vulnerability of these talented people. Trina Schart Hyman, for instance, ends the article in which she has described the way she illlustrates her books with these words:

"I know that my illustrations are often criticized for being overblown, over the top, too sensuous, too prettified, too scary, too old-fashioned, too emotional, too obvious, too subjective, and otherwise excessive and immoderate. And I think that's absolutely right."

Sid Fleischman, after eschewing outlining and advance plot and character summaries, says,

"If I knew everything in advance, I'd find it tedious to sit at my desk for hours each day scratching out the story. Instead, I'm at my desk fifteen minutes after I get out of bed in the morning; I can't wait to find out what's going to happen next in the novel. I am audience as well as author."

With these author entries as inspiration, let's look this month at the words of authors and illustrators when they talk about themselves as lead-ins or follow-ups to their work and as inspiration for younger authors and illustrators. The theme can be a lead-in to biography or a source of inspiration and instruction on writing itself.

First of all, choose one or two of the pieces from this book or from other sources in which the artists speak for themselves to the kids. Refresh their memories by displaying and talking about a few of their books first. Let the kids remind each other of some of the plots or characters in their favorites. Then read your selection. Afterwards look together at some of that artist's work. Do you notice things you didn't see before? Do you or the other artists and writers in the room ever work that way? Could you? What suggestions or insights about writing are there? Are there ideas you might try?

Bring out the two volumes entitled Speaking for Ourselves: Autobiographical Sketches by Notable Authors of Books for Young Adults (NCTE, 1990 ISBN 0814146252 Order Online and NCTE 1992 ISBN 0814146236 Order Online) in which the authors do just that. As interesting as the entries themselves is the wide difference between what those authors chose to focus on: some talk about their way of working, others relate various incidents in their lives that shaped or inspired their work.

A good collective biography about authors is Lives of the Writers: Comedies, Tragedies (and What the Neighbors Thought) by Kathleen Krull (her website) (Harcourt, 1994 ISBN 0152480099. Order Online.). There are 20 different authors whose lives and portraits are included here with a light touch.

Another treasure is Sharron L. McElmeel's An Author a Month for Dimes (Libraries Unlimited, 1993 ISBN 0872879526. Order Online.). There are photographs and brief biographies of many authors here as well as some logical, practical activities for libraries and classrooms.

If you and the students are interested, go further. Start a couple of bulletin boards, one labeled HINTS FROM THE GREATS and the other THE OTHER SIDE OF THE BOOKS. On the first, let readers post amusing, touching or insightful quotes or suggestions about writing from the artists. On the other, put photographs of the artists and book covers of their work.

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Go visual and use some videos by SRA/McGraw Hill and other publishers. My favorite is the one on Cynthia Rylant. Back to the print, pull out some of the best of the author autobiographies like The Moon and I by Betsy Byars (Simon and Schuster, 1992 ISBN 0671741667 Order Online.). (She writes title pages first.) Read aloud the chapter where she finds the dead snake by the side of the road. It's one of the funniest scenes in children's literature. Bill Peet: An Autobiography (Houghton, 1989 ISBN 0395509327. Order Online.) is very accessible reading and brings the artist and his work into a new light. Beverly Gherman's portrait E. B. White: Some Writer! (Atheneum, 1992 ISBN 0689316720. Order Online.) is as warm and intimate as his work.

Ted Lewin's I Was a Teenage Professional Wrestler (Orchard, 1993 ISBN 0531054772. Order Online.) is wild and funny and provides a fascinating background for this wonderful illustrator.

Oz lovers may be interested in L. Frank Baum: Royal Historian of Oz by Angelia Carpenter (Lerner, 1992 ISBN 0822549107. Order Online.). There are some funny scenes about the Baum's sometimes precarious life in this one as well as an afterword about the attempts to censor his work.

Even kids who can't read Stephen King's novels like to pretend they do and Anne Saidman's Stephen King: Master of Horror (Lerner, 1992 ISBN 0822505452. Order Online.) summarizes his books, talks about the movies and gives the prerequisite biographical information.

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It's interesting to read both an autobiography and a biography of the same author. Richard Peck's Anonymously Yours (Morrow, 1991 ISBN 0688137024. Order Online.) talks almost as much about teenagers as it does about himself while Donald Gallo's Presenting Richard Peck (Twayne, 1989. ISBN 0805782095. Order Online.) critiques his work as well as providing biographical information and many direct quotes from the author. In which book do they see Mr. Peck most clearly?

The whole Meet the Author series by Richard C. Owen Publishers is wonderful. My favorite is Best Wishes by Cynthia Rylant (ISBN 1878450204. Order Online.) (do you see a pattern here?) but they're all great, easily accessible to immature readers but interesting to a wide range of students and they are chuck-full of color photographs of the authors.

Some of the best author information is available from picture books. James Stevenson has done several autobiographical picture books all through Greenwillow including Don't You Know There's a War On? (ISBN 0688113842. Order Online.) July (ISBN 0688088228. Order Online.) Higher on the Door (ISBN 0 688 06636 4) Fun- No Fun (ISBN 0688116736. Order Online.) and When I Was Nine (ISBN 0688059422. Order Online.). Donald Crews' Bigmama's (Greenwillow, 1991 ISBN 0688099505. Order Online.) is autobiographical and makes a nice contrast to Cynthia Rylant's The Relatives Came (Simon and Schuster, 1993 ISBN 0689717385. Order Online.).

Some authors have written directly to young writers with advice about the craft. Particularly outstanding is Marion Dane Bauer's What's Your Story: A Young Person's Guide to Writing Fiction (Clarion, 1992 ISBN 0395577810. Order Online.) as well as the aforementioned Anonymously Yours by Richard Peck.

All of us like getting mail and authors are no exception, especially if the letters come at the reader's rather than the teacher's direction so encourage any who so desire to write to their favorite authors. You can find some addresses in two of my books Once Upon a Time and Long Ago and Far Away (SRA/McGraw Hill) and other sources or write to them in care of their publishers.

Of course, through all this, your aim is to encourage discussion and reading, not only the books about the authors but the books they have written as well. Bigger questions then present themselves: Are there common themes? characters? plot devices? techniques? Looking at this author's life and work, what do you think he/she is trying to tell us?

Now, shall I start with an outline or a title page?


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