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Transcript from an interview with Mary Brigid Barrett

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Mary Brigid Barrett. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Mary Brigid Barrett

An ear for dialect and an eye for setting

I'm a very character driven writer so that quite literally I have… it sounds kind of, sort of sounds somewhat psychotic, but I have voices that come into my brain. In my book Sing to the Stars, I actually woke up in the middle of the night hearing the voices from who told me his story and his voice — his actual voice.

And… I was a playground supervisor for years in Cleveland growing up and the rhythms of my neighborhood kids in Cleveland — the kids that I worked with every year — just kind of flowed through me. I do somehow have an ear for dialect that I was not trained for — have no idea how it happened. It's one of those gifts that you don't question because it could be dangerous if you start to question it.

I think that what we traditionally called trade books, as opposed to textbooks, work well on the classroom for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons they work well is you're talking about magical language. And the books that I write… how a word sounds on a page is very important to me.

And I actually read my text out loud as I write, continually, and I look for a rhythm in the words. I look for a sense of structure that sometimes are short sentences, sometimes that's crisp sentences.

When I began Sing to the Stars, I wanted to build in the music of the city, so I have a lot of rhythm in the language that goes boom, boom, boom or picks up the rhythm. And because it was a book about music, I wanted to incorporate that music in there. So I have an interdisciplinary approach to the way I write.

I am an illustrator and a writer and all of those things come into the book. And if I were taking Sing to the Stars into the classroom or other books in the classroom, I would look at what, as a teacher, what resonates with me in that literature — what I am reacting to.

When a teacher looks at a book and they see what resonates with them in the book, then think about what you're trying to cover in a class. For example, in the book that I wrote, Sing to the Stars, there is an emotional content to the book where a child is actually challenging an adult to fulfill their dream instead of living vicariously through their experience. So that could be an open-ended discussion about feelings, about intergenerational relationships.

And if you look at Sing to the Stars, it's set in a city. And I know that many teachers have… that live out in farm areas in the West, or even in rural Ohio where I grew up, they use it to teach kids about what it's like to grow up in a city. That when you live in an apartment building, you're constantly aware of the noises that are around you. In another sense, you could do the book to use it about music appreciation because I bring in illusions to jazz musicians in New York City and both main characters are musicians.

A young musician with a gift and an older musician who has had a tragedy in his life where he's abandoned his gift and the story is really about this young boy challenging his friend who is older then he is, to sort of resurrect that gift. And I think it's, you know, to talk to kids about any book… There are so many ways that you can relate it in the classroom. I think the obvious ones I kind of don't want to get into, you know. If it's a history book you're going to use it in a history classroom.

I have an experience of working with the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp in Connecticut for many, many years. It's a camp for kids with cancer and sickle cell anemia. And I went in thinking oh, I'll bring in books about sickle cell anemia and cancer and that was a losing proposition. But when I brought books in like Gilly Hopkins that Katherine Patterson wrote… when I brought in books, even sports challenge books where there's a hero or a heroine that overcomes challenges, kids could vicariously live through that experience.

And they wanted to escape their reality, but they also wanted to be inspired. And I think that… beyond the obvious uses of books in a classroom, there's so much that could be used with literature to talk about leadership, to talk about what it is to be a hero or… you know, a hero or a heroine.

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Guiding young writers

As an artist, when I look at an individual, I actually see if their eyes are close-set or wide-set immediately. I can see if, you know… what kind… whether they have a close-set eyes, whether their eyes are deep-set, how large their ears are. And when I'm outside, I immediately… not just… you can notice if it's a cloudy day or… or a sunny day.

But what are the trees like? What are the shapes of the trees? What actual green colors are on the grass — is it a yellow-green color of grass? Is it a deep blue-green color of glass… grass, I'm sorry. And when I come to writing, one of the things that I can do that I find… I don't find this ability in children anymore, when I work in classrooms with them on their writing, is that visual atmosphere that you can build in prose.

It used to be when I first went into work with kids 15 years ago, I had a hard time teaching them how to write dialect and dialogue. And now when I go into a classroom, I have a very hard time getting kids to be able to describe just a setting. They have no sense of place and no sense of time or era. And because kids watch so much television these days, they automatically can write dialogue without any teaching, without any coaching.

But if I want to… if they wrote a story about a baseball stadium, say the Red Sox stadium, they don't give any atmospheric details. They… you actually have to sort of handhold them and get them to go through the process of okay. I'm… here I am sitting at the stadium and this is how I sit. This is what people act like at the stadium. And they all sit there and look at you and go… that's not how people act at the stadium.

So I say, "What do people act like at the stadium? Show me." So they start, you know, jumping and they shout and they scream. And I'll say, "Okay, what are you shouting at the stadium? What are you actually doing at the stadium? Do you stand up? Do you sit down? What smells do you actually smell at the stadium?" And of course those odors of popcorn popping and hot dogs. I actually have to make them think about them and remember them — it's not an automatic response from kids.

"What do people wear when they go to the stadium? What does the stadium look like? What is the light look like as it comes in through the stadium?" All the things that I automatically see as an artist, kids today don't see that because the visuals are given to them constantly and it's not just television. We live in a totally visual society and to get them to articulate in words those visuals that they take for granted, is much more difficult then say it even was ten years ago.

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Teaching with Charlotte's Web

I love Charlotte's Web. When I go into any fourth or fifth grade classroom, it is the one book that I know that almost every student will have read, every teacher is familiar with. And I've learned to use Charlotte's Web — especially that very first chapter, as a real tool to teaching kids how to write better. So… and also the illustrations which are wonderful, too.

So when we start the first page and the first line is, "Oh my God. Where is poppa going with that axe?" How can you not read that line and have everyone in the room start to wonder, which is the key thing that you want to teach kids.

I know everyone says the hook, but the hook is the cliché term. What you're really trying to get kids to do and… and as a… when they're writing and what I'm trying to do as an author is, I am trying to create from that very first sentence and that very first paragraph, a sense of wonder.

That's why those initial first sentences are really important. So… "Where's poppa going with that axe" is a real way to grab everybody's attention, no matter if they're six or 76. Now, one of the things I like to do after just talking about that introductory sentence is to show everyone the picture of Fern — one of the very first illustrations in the book.

And you will see that Garth Williams, this incredible illustrator, has drawn Fern and she's sitting there with her legs crossed and she's cradling this little newborn pig in her arms, Little Wilbur. And I show this picture to everyone in the room and I will say, "Tell me about Fern." And everybody knows what to say about Fern. She's loving. She's kind. She's compassionate. She cares. Look at Fern with that pig. They just get Fern from that illustration right off the bat.

Then I show them the picture of Avery. And Avery, if you remember, Garth Williams drew him with a popgun in his hand. And he is, to use the term, all boy in every sense of that word. And then I will ask the kids, "Tell me about Avery" and they all talk about how, "Oh gosh. You know, Avery always gets into trouble and he's… he's the one that is all baseball and everything and he's a real tough guy." And I even had one kid tell me that he was the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the neighborhood.

And then I go back because I would like to talk to the kids about character and how in much of literature, character drives the story. And when kids are writing stories, I find after 15 years of working with them that if the plot isn't coming along, it's not because they don't have imaginations, it's because they haven't taken the time to really know who their characters are.

So we use Avery and we use Fern to teach them about how character is so important and how it drives story. And we go back to the very beginning of the book because if you remember, Fern is up right away in the morning and she gets to respond to where is poppa going with that axe.

She asks the question, she runs out and she tries to save Wilbur. Avery doesn't wake up right away. Avery comes to breakfast late that morning. So here is the question I ask the kids — what would have happened if Fern slept in and Avery was the one to get up in the morning, the morning his father was going out to kill the runt pig, Wilbur? What do you think would have happened?

And the kids sit there and they said and you can just hear, the cliché you can hear a pin drop in the room, and then all of a sudden it starts to dawn on them exactly what would have happened. And usually the entire classroom breaks out in this explosion. And there's always the one kid of the backroom that can't even contain himself in a seat anymore and he's jumped out and he's like flagging me down and almost they just can't stand it and they burst out, "He would have killed the pig! Avery would have killed the pig!" And then I just say, "Well, what would have happened to the story?"

Well… oh, my gosh. The story would never have occurred because the story of Charlotte's Web is the survival of Wilbur, you know. It's about life and death. And if Wilbur dies within the first three pages, there is no story.

And that is why Charlotte's Web is such a fabulous vehicle for teaching kids about writing, for teaching kids about characterization. And if you read the chapter about the barn, you know… E.B. White goes on and he describes the barn. And if you grew up in the middle of Manhattan, after reading E.B. White's long paragraph at a later chapter in the book about the barn and what it smells like and the ropes in the barn and the hay in the barn.

And all the animals in the barn, you know. It is a wonderful example using literature as a model to teach kids how to write and to teach kids how to see. And… you know, I just can't say enough about Charlotte's Web. It's just one of my favorites for so many reasons.

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The lyricism in board books

I think board books are the most delightful entry that kids can have into reading. I wrote my board books… number one, I love rhythm and so I put in rhyme text. It's not poetry; it is rhyme text — there is a difference. And I wish I was a poet, but I'm not. But I'm very good at rhymes and I also wanted the books to be enjoyable for the parent as much as the child.

I had experiences of reading something 52 times to one child or three children in one evening. And when you're reading it for the 52nd time, there should be something there that the adult is enjoying, too. And Rosemary Wells I think has incredible board books and she was the person that I learned that from, just reading them as a parent.

When I read Max and Ruby or when my husband read Max and Ruby out loud to our kids when they were little, we found ourselves laughing even though we had read it, you know, a dozen times by that time. And also Max and Ruby were very much, they were real characters, they were very much like the three children that we were having to juggle on our laps while we were reading those board books.

I wrote my books in rhyme text because there is a magical lyricism to the language. It's almost like singing to a baby, like when you have a lullaby. Even with my horrible voice, my children used to say, "sing," you know, "sing me song, sing me a song." And I tried to get that musicality in the board books, as many board book authors do.

And I also wanted the board books to work with… the adult that's reading the book — whether the adult is grandma or grandpa or mom or dad — because if you have to read a book thirty times, it's much more fun to have a book that you find interesting and amusing. So for example, in Beach Baby, I wrote, "Beach baby, beach baby, hold mommy's hand, wade in the water, diapers expand."

Because when I was on the beach with our kids at Cape Cod, they would have those Pampers on and when they hit the water and it was — fun. So while the child is enjoying the experience of you're reading them. You're holding them on your lap. You have this bundle and when they're laughing about the book, I want the parent to be laughing with the child or grandma and grandpa.

And also in my board books, I think that multi-generational reading is to be admired and promoted. And so I have some of the few baby board books actually have grandma and grandpa as characters in the text to bring that intergenerational reading because when I was growing up, it was my grandfather that taught me how to read.

And I think that board books are wonderful because they have rounded edges. They're very practical. The people that designed them were very, very bright and really knew kids and they're drool proof. They have a coating on them. And what's even more wonderful is if your kids start to crayola all over them and they have crayon marks, you just get a little Windex and you wipe it all off and they're as good as new.

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Conversations with babies and toddlers

So from a multitude of perspectives, board books are terrific. And what I also like is that in the best board books, it's a way that you can use the book as a springboard for just talking with your child. My husband and I used to go through and we'd read the text, but maybe the next time we'd go through them. We'd talk about, we'd actually tell our own story about the book.

"Oh, look at that dad and he's pulling the little toddler in a little red wagon. Can you find something else red on the page that looks like the same color?" So that when you get to the point where you're really bored reading this book, you can actually use your own creativity and incorporate it and then ask your child questions or point out different things about the book or talk about the illustrations in the book.

And what's really, really important is that you're exposing a child to language on so many different levels. And also in board books — mine and other people's — they're not written in kind of like a goo-goo, dada, baby talk language. They're real pros, they're real words.

And once in awhile you want to put a little 75 cent word in there, too, because you're elevating a child's language. And the more words that a toddler and a baby hears before they get into kindergarten, the better. Then more words they'll be able to recognize when they go into a reading experience.

And I think any literacy and literature expert would tell you that the more language your child hears and the broader and wider that child's vocabulary is, the more successful their educational experience will be.

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A childhood filled with books

I am the president, the executive director and the founder of the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance. The reason I began the NCBLA was as a new author and illustrator, I was going out into schools and I was seeing the opportunities that I had as a young person growing up in Cleveland, that a lot of kids in this country didn't have those opportunities.

And those opportunities were number one. I was taught to read very early and very well. And I was taught through a multitude of ways of being taught how to read, not just phonics, but word identification — just about anything. And I was not just taught by my teachers in a classroom; I was taught by my family at home.

My family had been immigrants. All four of my grandparents had come over here from Ireland and Scotland and didn't even have eighth grade educations and yet they came here and I was the first grandchild on both sides of the family. And one of the things that they taught me right away when I was four years old was to read because education was such an important thing to them.

So I had that reinforcement at home and not just with my parents, but with grandparents who were also raising me. The other thing was I grew up in a city that had a terrific library system. And the other thing that I was given by my home and by my school was you had to have a library card.

And I went to the West Park Branch of the Cleveland Public Library where Miss Massargic was there, one of my heroes and she taught me to value books. We had to actually wrap our books up in newspapers before we left. And I had a library card and could go to the library anytime.

And then I had a library in my school and I also had parents who did not always have money all the time, but for birthdays instead of being given, you know, our 17th Barbie Doll. Actually we had one Barbie Doll. We were given books so that… and in fact we were given books that I now call "now and later books."

And we have… carried on that tradition with our own kids so that at our house at a birthday and at Christmas, our kids were given a book that they could read now that was age appropriate for them at the time, and then a book that they could grow into. So that not only did they have a book, — a library for right now in their lives — there were books constantly that their library was expanding and growing into all kinds of books.

And I found these books at book sales. We didn't have a huge budget, so I would go to book sales. I would do book trades with other parents in the neighborhood. I would get paperback books. I joined a book club that had cheaper versions — more inexpensive I should say, more inexpensive editions of books.

And I found with my own kids that they were practically, you know, they're not any bright geniuses; they're just normal kids. But because they were read to from the day they were born, I actually brought, I bought baby board books to the hospital — what a surprise — and read Mother Goose out loud and everything so they were raised in a language rich environment. And so all these things were going on for me as a child and my seven younger brothers and sisters. And also for my own family.

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An advocate for libraries, books, and reading

When I started going out into schools, I found that there were tons of kids that did not have those opportunities. They did not have access to public schools… I mean to public libraries.

There are places in the country like Worchester, Massachusetts where the branch libraries are closing and their school libraries are closed. And so, if they don't have an adult to take them all the way down to the downtown branch of the Worchester Library… these are kids that do not have access to public libraries, which to me is an astounding thing because I think most Americans take that for granted, that they had a public library as a kid and there will be a public library for their kids and it's not true anymore.

And so when I went into schools I also found that writing wasn't being taught in a way that I thought was productive for children and even for teachers because teachers are expected to do so much. And teachers, mostly themselves are not writers and because I was an illustrator, I kind of had to teach myself had to write. So I think when you teach yourself and then you teach other people… and I have a different perspective coming on it then a teacher would have.

And the first thing I did was when I found out all of this information, I called up the three people who had been mentors in my life — David McCullough, Katherine Patterson and Natalie Babbitt. And I started to explain to them what was happening in classrooms across the country — these classrooms that I was visiting. And they, although they are wonderful authors and illustrators, it had been a couple of years since they had been in schools. They didn't do school visits that often anymore and they were quite frankly astonished. And it was in the course of those conversations that we decided that we wanted to do something about it.

We started this organization as an advocacy organization and as an education organization. And what that means is, we've built up a whole website where we try to go beyond bullet points, where we give people in-depth information and ideas with how they can use books and reading in the daily life of children.

And the website is aimed at teachers and parents, it's not a child-ready website. And we're doing the same thing with our publication in our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. We're right now, with a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities, building a website for teachers, parents, grandparents — any adult that lives with or works for children so that we can help them give them the tools to use our White House, both in the family at home and in the classroom.

And the other work that we do is advocacy work. I come to Washington. I work with Senator Reed and Senator Cochran. We've worked… helped… get… school library legislation enacted where you have professional development dollars going to school librarians and teachers and also for the first time probably since the Johnson Administration, monies going directly to public and school libraries just for book purchases.

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Lunch with David McCullough

This a creation of the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance and also 108 rather talented authors and illustrators have contributed work to this. The book came about for maybe three general reasons. First of all, I was lucky enough to have lunch with historian David McCullough and his wife, Rosalie, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Boston.

And it was a lunch that was supposed to be an hour and it ended up being four hours because, not only do I talk a lot, but so does David McCullough and so does his wife, Rosalie. And we found out we were kindred spirits. We both… Unbelievably, David McCullough was just like me.

He got into being… falling in love with history through loving historical fiction and most especially Robert Lawson's incredible books about Benjamin Franklin and his mouse, Ben and Me, and some of the other Robert Lawson books. And a lot of people don't know this, but David McCullough is an artist. He was actually, he actually took art classes at Yale when he was a student there and he's a very good artist. And so we were talking about how visuals, the illustrations in the book, were what made us pick a book off a shelf and then read it. And that the visuals and the literature, you know, pulled us into history and this love of history.

And while we were talking, he also talked about how in the Founding Fathers and Mothers, literacy was hugely important. First of all because people wanted to read The Bible. And in fact in New England, there was almost 100 percent literacy during the Colonial era and the early days of the United States, which is rather astounding, but true.

And he started talking about the huge link between literacy, historical literacy and civic engagement. And that number one, you can read. You have access to information sources. You find out about your heritage, whether you arrived here yesterday or were already… your family was already here thousands of years ago… that that history is our heritage and that that once you understand the heritage and once you understand the idea behind America, then you are much more likely to vote.

As a child even, to becoming an adult, you are much more likely involved. You are much more likely to volunteer. You are much more likely to get involved in your community and actually, the National Endowment for the Arts recently did a reading survey and actually has the statistical information that backs that now.

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Ghost stories

I ended up, for a number of reasons, being at the White House. I was a tourist at the White House with our fifth grade daughter's class and then later, I was there as an author at the National Book Festival and as an advocate for literacy and libraries. I went there a couple of times and with Mrs. Bush, trying to suggest to her staff that she become more visible as an advocate for school libraries.

And while I was there, especially the time around September 11th when the White House was closed off to people, I got special tours of the White House. And in fact one afternoon, I was there around Christmas time and nobody had seen any of the gingerbread houses because the regular visitors weren't coming through.

And illustrator Jerry Pinckney had done some illustrations for the Christmas cards and everything and he is an African-American illustrator and very, very gifted and talented. And co-incidentally, there was a school group there from one of the Washington, D.C. schools who had just sung.

And one of the volunteers was showing them the Jerry Pinckney illustrations and the lovely young aide that was next to me said, "Oh, Mary Brigid's an illustrator. She might know something about Mr. Pinckney's work." And of course I did. And so I did an impromptu teaching session with these wonderful kids.

And we talked. I showed them the pencil lines under Jerry's drawings and we talked about how he was actually, you know, ahead of the pact and he was a role model because he was one of the few African-American artists that really made it. He worked for National Geographic and we were able to do all kinds of things.

Well, as my special reward for doing this impromptu teaching session, I, you know, I didn't know this was going to happen, I got an even more specialized tour of the White House first floor and you know heard more history. And it was very exciting and you can actually, you know, it sounds sort of crazy and everybody says it, but you do wonder about the footsteps… Who walked here? Who sat here? Whose voice was that going down the halls? Was Harry Truman right — were there ghosts? You know, does the ghost of Lincoln walk, you know, through the corridors and things like that?

And I went at… tried to find a book — my kids, our kids were in middle school and high school at the time — to find a book that conveyed that excitement that I felt, that you know, the idea of story, you know, the excitement of stories and I couldn't find one any place. And I was sort of bummed. And that's when the idea started to gel. Oh, my gosh. How could we tell, not a story about the White House as such, but a story about American history using the White House loosely as the vehicle to tell that story?

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The whole, true story

When I grew up, it was basically Western white civilization kind of history interpretation. So I didn't know a lot about minority history with this country and I did not know that it was slaves that built the foundation for the White House and the Capitol and this was an astonishing thing to me.

And the irony of that — the tragic irony of it was just astounding. And then, you know, the more I, you know, investigated, the more I found out I didn't know. I thought that when you walked through the White House, everything there was 200 years old. I had no idea that there were a number of times that the walls were all that was left standing.

After the War of 1812, nothing was left. In fact, they hid the utter destruction, which was easy to do because a lot of people didn't want to come to Washington. It was basically kind of in a wasteland in some ways in the time around 1812. And there was an actual movement by certain people in Congress to move the capitol to Cincinnati, Ohio.

Could you imagine if Cincinnati, Ohio was… ended up being the capitol of

"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library." — Jorge Luis Borges