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Transcript from an interview with Candace Fleming

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Candace Fleming. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Candace Fleming

The Adventures of Candy and Spot

Hi. I'm Candace Fleming. I'm from the Chicago area and I've written lots of books — some for small readers, some for older readers. Some of those titles include Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!; Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide!; The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School; and my newest book, The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Mary and Abraham Lincoln.

There were very early signs that I was going to be a writer, or at least a storyteller. When I was a child, before I could write… You remember those days when you had a pencil and the story would be in your head and it'd be much faster than what your pencil could do.

I would be a little frustrated with that and so I would just tell my stories. I told stories to people all the time. Unfortunately, I didn't tell them that I was making stories up, so I can remember clearly going to my kindergarten class and as a kindergartner, and telling my friends in kindergarten all about my three-legged cat, who I told them was named Spot.

I would have a series of stories and adventure stories that I actually had titles for. I called them The Adventures of Candy and Spot. I would entertain them almost daily with stories about our trips to the woods behind my house. I told them one time we met a tiger and my three-legged cat fought him off.

Another time I told them we had a bear in the woods and my three-legged cat fought him off. One time I told them there was a big snake that attacked us and my three-legged cat ate him. I can remember kids clearly, they would come to the house and the problem was, of course, there was no bear or tiger or snake in the woods behind my house. There was no woods behind my house and I didn't have a three-legged cat. I didn't have a cat.

I wasn't a real popular kindergartner because, it was interesting, you got a reputation for being a liar. Really, you were just a storyteller. That continued for years until somewhere around second or third grade, I realized with the help of my teachers, that if you put those stories down you had the pleasure of still sharing a story, but no one believed they were absolutely true.

I had a cleaner reputation after that, but I would always tell a good story. I'm not surprised that this is where I've ended up right now.

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A seriously fun job

I write a lot of different genres. I write picture books. I write early chapter books. I write non-fiction for middle grade and high school students. While a lot of the process is the same, you really do use your imagination, even with non-fiction.

Whenever I say that, people, "You do?" And I think, "You do!" because when you're writing a novel, you can make things up certainly. You're always trying to make up that one perfect detail or that really telling anecdote or a great, funny moment. With non-fiction, you're still wanting a really great anecdote. You're still wanting a really funny story. You're wanting a great piece of dialogue. Of course, you can't make those up so you end up searching for them.

You have to have a really sharp eye to dig a perfect quote from the mass of information. When I worked on The Lincolns, there is a mountain of information about just everything — every aspect of his life. It took me about six years to dig through all that information. There is a big difference in genres, too. It's just non-fiction is work intensive in the fact that you just do a lot of research even before you begin writing the first word.

For me, picture books are, oh, it's like skipping. It's just pure joy, especially the things I tend to write about rabbits and turtles that go over Niagara Fall and little girls that send boxes to Holland. Those are just wonderful, fun, sweet stories. I have, I think, as much fun writing them.

Not that non-fiction isn't fun but it feels like a more serious endeavor. Whereas, if you're writing about a tortoise that goes over Niagara Falls, how serious can it… how do you really be? It's just a wonderful, wonderful fun thing to do. I have a lot of fun at my desk.

Now with picture books, every single word counts. I can write a first draft in three weeks, but then you pick it apart for the next five months. But that first verse with the picture book is just so much fun. What a great job. Can you imagine?

I'm a grown up and I spend my days thinking about tortoises and skunks and rabbits. I mean, it's like the best job ever. When I feel serious and I feel like I really need to use that college degree in history, then I go and write about the Lincolns or Eleanor Roosevelt or Benjamin Franklin — people I admire.

American history is something I'm absolutely passionate about. While they're really related, they feel like two parts of the same person, but completely different parts.

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Battles with bunnies

I have several books for younger readers. My favorite is a book called Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! and I think it's my favorite because it's based on my own gardening experiences. I've been battling rabbits for years and decided that I would write a story.

The nice thing about being a writer is that you can change your world. If you can't beat the bunnies in your own backyard, you can beat them in a book. Interestingly, once I wrote the story, the gardener still didn't win, either. It's a fun story about a crabby, curmudgeonly gardener named Mr. McGreely who has never gardened before in his life. This spring he decides to plant a garden and is so proud of his vegetables.

One day when he goes out to admire his growing carrots and tomatoes, he discovers that rabbits have chewed them. So he puts up a little fence which they hopped over, and then he puts up a bigger fence, which they dig under.

Then he builds what I would have loved to have done in my own yard, he builds a moat — digs a moat — and the bunnies swim through it. Interestingly, when you read that, with kindergartners they always wanna put an alligator in the moat. That would solve the problem.

Of course the bunnies swim through it so he puts up this gigantic fort thing, search lights and pad lights and fences. That doesn't work, either. So eventually he ends up sharing, but grudgingly.

The sequel to the book is called Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide! and the bunnies, of course, wanna come and stay for the winter this time. He's still not good friends with the rabbits and so, of course, he doesn't want them. The whole book is about the struggle between man versus rabbit trying to keep them out of his house. Those, I think, are two of my favorite books for younger readers.

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C-L-A-P-S

I love to write and I want kids to have that joy and passion. I used to go to schools and we'd talk about writing and I realized that kids did not know where to begin. I understand that. It's a difficult process, especially when you're learning about things like capitalization and punctuation and paragraph breaks and the conventions.

That's something that is really emphasized in school, as it should be. What happens is that I've discovered that young writers get tangled up in the conventions and they forget about that pure joy of writing — that imaginative process that it doesn't matter if you make a mistake. Let's go back and fix it. It's messy and it's fun.

I have come up with a workshop that I use successfully. It's always so great. I actually tell the kids that it's my super-secret, splendiferous formula. You try to say that three times fast. It's good.

Nothing like a bunch of fourth graders going "super-secret splendiferous formula." It's pretty funny. It's basically the word "claps." C-L-A-P-S. Every letter in the word claps stands for something. Every story, your story mind, the library, if it's fiction, absolutely has to have…

"C" of course is character, and that's the main character. I always ask myself when I use "claps," and I ask kids when they use "claps," two questions about the main character. One, of course, you need a name, but then the first question I ask is, "What does your character look like?"

Something extraordinary. If your character is a duck, don't tell me that it has webbed feet and a bill. We know that. Tell me something different. Is it pink? Does it wear a boa? Those sorts of things. Tell me something extraordinary, noteworthy about your character — one or two things.

The second question I ask about "claps," about the letter "C" is, "How does your character act most of the time?" Everyone has a predominate characteristic. "How does your character act? Are they shy? Are they silly? Are they funny?" Second graders usually tell me that they're silly, which I love. Makes for a good character.

Now you've got "C." You move on to "L." "L" stands for location. Just another word for setting. Where does our story take place? I also ask my young reader, or my young writers, to keep that place small. It just makes it easier for them.

Instead of telling me that a story takes place in New York City — make it smaller. Find me a place in New York City — the Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty. Think about what that place looks like and think about how that place sounds and what you would smell. Bring in all those senses.

The letter "A" stands for action. I think it's the most difficult letter in that "claps" formula. "A" stands for action and what it means is, "What is your character doing at the beginning of the story?" You and I know that when you open up a book, that first page, that first paragraph, the first chapter you see the character doing something typical, ordinary — from their ordinary, everyday life. It's not exciting yet.

I ask them, "What is our duck doing at the Statue of Liberty?" Something simple. Visiting, vacationing, taking photographs. That's the sort of answer I'm looking for. Then you move to "P" and "P," of course, is the problem. Now something comes along to change the character's day or their life — something that interrupts their photo-taking at the Statue of Liberty.

I also remind kids to give me a problem that my character can solve. They always love this and, "It's a great problem," I will say. They go, "Well, T-Rex comes along and steps on the duck." You go, "Well, that's really great. It's a problem. It's also the end of the story. So I need something that you can solve."

Then we move on to "S." With the "S," I put a one, two and three because writers actually call this "the magic of three." What you want, your character to do is try to solve his problem at least three times.

The first time he doesn't succeed; he has to try harder. The second time he doesn't succeed; he has to try harder. The third time he can succeed or fail. That's entirely up to the writer. I do that not only because the struggle is what's important to the story, but I've discovered that young writers will try one time and that's it.

I also remind them that they gave their character some characteristics at the beginning — how they looked and how they act most of the time — and those are the characteristics that they have to use to solve their problem. If they did not make their duck a magical duck with the magic wand, they cannot pull out a magic wand to solve their problem because it's cheating.

Additionally, they have to solve the problem themselves. Young readers always want Mom to come and solve the problem or a principal. I do, too. I actually want my Mom to come and solve my problems, but I have to remind them that they can't. Sometimes they get a little surprised by that.

"What do you mean you can't call your Mom and have her come and save the day?" I say, "You know, if you've read Harry Potter, you've read all those books, you've read all those thousands of pages, you waited all those years, then it's that big scene. It's Harry versus Voldemort."

"You know, as a reader you just can't wait. It's the epic battle. And then Harry pulls out his cell phone and he calls the British Army to save the day. It's just wrong. It's a cheat." Your character has to solve their own problem. It always works. It's amazing. They always have so much fun.

The best thing about "claps" is it shows young writers, and I think maybe they hadn't — it's so simple and they hadn't quite realized it — is that all those pieces of a story fit together like a puzzle. So every piece leads naturally to the next piece.

I am amazed by the stories that it produces consistently and I'm also amazed at how fun they find just filling out that little "claps" formula is because they don't do sentences. I mean, eventually they're gonna have to write the story, but first they're planning it and it saves them just so much worry and agony and fear and just opens up that imagination. So it's great. It's a great, great way to teach writing, I think.

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Primary sources and the power of three

Research is an important, I mean, the most important part of writing non-fiction and you have to be very careful with what you choose to include. I only work or I try only to work with primary sources. That's those very original documents, the things that were written at the time.

If I'm gonna do a biography of Abraham Lincoln, my favorite sources are those that come from the actual time — some speeches from Lincoln, things that he's written, letters, things that friends have written about Abraham Lincoln, or enemies, which are always more interesting.

Enemies, things people wrote about Lincoln who may not have liked him. There were a lot of people that didn't. Newspaper articles from the time. Those are the things that I look at first. If I find it in a secondary source, that means that some other author wrote and said it was true.

My rule of thumb is that I need to find it three other places before I can assume that what that particular author told me is absolutely true, which is a shame because sometimes we find really great anecdotes — a great story, and you realize that you've only found it once. If you can't verify it, you can't use it.

For me, I love it. Research really is an adventure. It's a discovery process. I'm always digging in. I never known what great little nugget, little gem I'm gonna uncover. It can be sometimes frustrating.

I like to actually go to the library, so when I was working on Eleanor Roosevelt, I went to the FDR library in Hyde Park. When I was working on The Lincolns, I spent a lot of time at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and other small archives.

There's the Library of Congress that has all of the Lincoln papers. They've digitized them now and this is a beautiful source for students and young readers, young writers because you can see the primary source. You can see that primary document right online now.

You no longer have to take another author's word for it or read a book about it. You can actually go right to the source on the Library of Congress and read it in Lincoln's hand. If you're having trouble reading that faded document, you can always read the transcribed version, as well. It's just a fabulous resource.

That said, when you use resources on the internet, you have to be very careful about which ones you're using. It's hard. Even I have a hard time telling the difference between what's accurate and true and what is not.

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Sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom

Lincoln's 200th birthday is in February and I think it's a great time for everyone to look at America's past, to look at America's story. Not just Abraham Lincoln, but history in general. It's a good reflective time. It's interesting. It's a huge anniversary for a lot of other things. Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln share the same birthday, so it's his 200th birthday, too. I also think it's a time to rethink our approach to American history a little bit — to freshen it up so to speak.

I always worry that people think, well, history never changes and it's facts and we know what we know. It's completely not true. The anniversary of Abraham Lincoln is the perfect example of how history changes, how old information is reconsidered, how new information is discovered. You would think we knew everything about Abraham Lincoln and we don't.

I mean, Abraham Lincoln is the person most people write — has been most written about in American history. You would think that with all those books, with all those people doing all that research, you would think that we knew everything about Lincoln. It's completely not true.

It's a wonderful time to go back and reexamine Lincoln, I think. Time to look at him not just as the legendary Lincoln but as a person just like you and I. When I was working on The Lincolns, one of the biggest goals of that biography was to introduce Lincoln the way I know Lincoln. It's not like I'm 200 years old, although my sons might tell you I was.

For me, I wanted to show Lincoln, the human. When I was growing up, I actually grew up in central Illinois. If you've ever been to central Illinois or you grew up in central Illinois, you know that Abraham Lincoln is a presence there. He is alive and living everyday.

He's everywhere you go and you live with him. He's a neighbor. He is somebody that just goes with you everywhere you go everyday. For example, my friends and I would ride our bikes out to the Lincoln log cabin, which was about two miles out of town, and it was the place where Tom and Sara Bush Lincoln built their cabin when they moved to Illinois in 1830.

In the '70s when I was a kid, it was a state park but the state of Illinois wasn't giving it much love. There wasn't a park ranger there. There wasn't a visitor's center. You would go to the log cabin and if the door was unlocked, you could go in and if it wasn't, you didn't go in.

As kids, we would ride out there and the door would be unlocked. We'd go in and we'd play in the loft and we'd play in the root cellar, and a couple times we actually tried to start a fire in the fireplace which was unsuccessful, luckily.

But you think about this. You're actually playing in the Lincoln log cabin and playing house! No one cared. If we got bored with the Lincoln log cabin, we would ride out to Shiloh Cemetery, which was about a half a mile away, and that's the place where Tom and Sara Lincoln are buried.

We'd hang out there. We'd sit against the gravestone and we'd eat peanut butter crackers. He really was everywhere. My best friend Emily, at the time, she had a house that Lincoln had slept in and, actually, her bedroom was the same room that Lincoln had slept in.

I always say from fifth grade to eighth grade every Friday night, I slept in the Lincoln bedroom. As a kid, you kind of didn't notice it. He was just a presence. He was so familiar. In central Illinois, we have the habit of marking everything, which is why it's called the Land of Lincoln.

Every street corner is marked. If Lincoln was there, we marked it. We have a plaque, "Lincoln dug a well here." "Lincoln was a little," you know, "bully here." "Lincoln bought a hut here." "Lincoln got off the train here." "Lincoln spat on the sidewalk here." We mark it.

You live with that day-to-day. When I approached Lincoln, he felt like a neighbor. He wasn't that legendary figure — the now mythological hero. He really was just a neighbor. I thought that's the Lincoln that I wanna introduce young readers to because that's the Lincoln I think is important to remember. That he was a man just like us; a human being just like us. Flawed. Flawed. That's what greatness really is.

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Forming new visions of history

The Lincolns have a nontraditional approach. The book is laid out like a scrapbook. While I'm doing all that research for all those great little nuggets and stories, I'm also gathering photographs. All of those are laid out with an accompanying entry.

I'd been thinking about the way we present history to young readers and about my own sons who loved facts and loved history, but weren't particularly thrilled about reading 200 pages of text to pull out some interesting facts and information.

I'm a kind of a firm believer in Eliza Drezang's theory of radical change which, that her idea behind this theory is that we've created a new generation of readers. That the internet really has produced readers that are capable of taking in a lot of information on one page. They're used to reading information on a computer screen. They're used to getting their information.

Even if you watch CNN, you have a person talking. Behind them is the stock market and then you have information crawling along the bottom. They're used to seeing a lot of information on one page. They're comfortable with this — maybe more comfortable than 200 pages of straight text.

It's not a bad thing; it's just a different thing and so that we should try to provide reading experiences like that, as well. I loved that theory and it fits in with my own thinking about American history or about history in general, is that if you give kids the historical evidence… and this is what The Lincolns does.

When you have photographs and you have entries underneath, the reader can approach the book, they can read it from beginning to end and it does have a narrative arc. It does have a story — history is story, but each individual piece also is a story with a narrative arc beginning and end.

My hope is that readers will open that book. They can open it to page 20 if they want or page 50 and they're alerted by a great picture of, say, the Lincolns' dog Fido — there's a great picture of Fido in there — or a picture of boot measurements that Lincoln actually did of his own feet in 1864 — some unusual photographs — that they'll be lured in by that photo and that they'll read the entry underneath. Having read that entry, they'll have learned one or two interesting things about Abraham or Mary Lincoln or their family, and then they'll be compelled to read something else.

Then they flip to chapter one and they read about Abraham Lincoln's life in Indiana. Then they flip to perhaps chapter eight and they read about Mary Lincoln's very sad death scene on her deathbed, and they flip to chapter four and they read about the Battle of Gettysburg.

Even though they're not reading in order, what they are doing is building their own understanding. They're taking all those individual pieces of history — evidence, if you will — and they're putting them together themselves to form their own vision, their own picture of Abraham and Mary Lincoln.

As everyone knows, if you form your own picture based on what connects with you, then you own it. It's more than just a fact; it becomes personal. It really does become part of you, part of that familiarity that I talked about with The Lincolns before. My hope is that they can work like historians themselves and build their own understanding.

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Tofu bounces

The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School really is a book inspired by all those fourth and fifth graders that I have met all across the country. I adore fourth and fifth graders. They are wacky and wonderful people and they are always sharing ideas for stories.

I read that book and I laugh because I can remember these two boys I met in Tennessee around Valentines Day who actually told me a valentine that they were gonna make for a girl Chelsea, her name was. They told me that they were gonna write a valentine — make a valentine of construction paper, fold it in half, and on the front of this piece of construction paper, they're gonna write, "I see your face when I am dreaming."

I thought, "Wow, that is so sweet!" Then you open it up and on the inside they're gonna write, "That's why I always wake up screaming." I laughed and laughed and laughed, and it's in there. I used it. There's a lot of stuff from kids that I used.

There's a geography test that I asked fourth graders… I think I might have been in Ohio. I asked fourth graders serious questions about geography — what kind of geography test would you get? I thought I would get answers about state capitals and instead they gave me silly questions like, "What's the fastest country in the world? Russia, because people are always Russian!"

I thought, "Oh, my gosh. I love it!" They have a sense of humor like mine — really, really cheesy. I so love that. You always go to school, so you're always searching for stories, and fourth and fifth graders have them. I'm working on a sequel now, The Fabled Fourth GradersThe Fabled Fifth Graders.

Everywhere I go when I tell fourth and fifth graders this, they have a story for me. They have something to show me. Lately it seems to be double-jointed stuff, who can wiggle their ears and amazing things. I'm guessing The Fabled Fifth Graders has a lot of double-jointed, wiggling-eared students in it.

I was in Ohio not too long ago and some fifth grade kids in Ohio invited me to come to their lunchroom because they had something they needed to show me. When fifth graders ask you to the lunchroom, you go cautiously. I mean, I love fifth graders in a lunchroom but, oh my!

I went in and they had to show me this amazing thing. One fifth grade girl took the lead and she said, "You'll never believe it." I said, "What?" She said, "Our chicken bounces." I said, "No." She goes, "Yeah." I said, "No." She goes, "It does. Our chicken bounces!"

So to prove this to me, she reaches across to the tray — to a boy sitting across. This is so fifth grade, this is why you gotta love them! She reaches across to this tray, a boy's tray across the table. She takes a chicken nugget off of his tray and she turns and she drops it on the floor.

It bounced like two feet and she caught it. I was amazed. Then to prove to me that it wasn't a fluke, she did it again. It was astounding. The best part was, for me, and she wasn't even thinking about it, the best part was she took that chicken and she put it back on that boy's tray and he ate it.

I thought, "This is a story. This is absolutely a story." Then this boy swallows that chicken and he says to me, "Are you gonna be here tomorrow?" and I said, "I'm not. I'm leaving today." He goes, "Too bad because tomorrow we're having hot dogs and guess what? They bounce."

I have a chapter in my fifth grade book about we're having a food bouncing competition. It's chicken nugget versus hot dog. Who will win? Here's where research comes back into the writer's life. I wanted a stealth winner — some last minute entry to win the competition.

I thought, "What's the one thing that I really eat that I really wish I didn't? It's healthy but I don't really like it." I thought, "Tofu." So I went to the store and I bought some and guess what? Tofu bounces.

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Excerpt from The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School

Hi. I'm Candace Fleming and I'm gonna read to you the first chapter of my book, The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School. The first chapter is called "The Principal Struggles."

"The soon-to-be fourth graders at Aesop Elementary School had a reputation for being precocious," said their former first grade teacher, Mrs. Bucky. She ground her teeth. "High energy," out of their second grade teacher, Mrs. Chan. The muscle beneath her jaw twitched. "Robust," agreed their third grade teacher, Mr. Frost. He padded his now all-white hair. "Humph," snorted Bertha Buns, the lunch room monitor.

"Those kids are just plain naughty." Because she wasn't a teacher, Mrs. Buns felt free to speak the truth. Mrs. Buns was right. So special were the incoming fourth graders that no teacher dared set foot in what would soon be their classroom. "Not for love or money," shivered Miss Bucky. "Not for all the tea in China," shuttered Mrs. Chan. "Egads, no," yelped Mr. Frost.

It was the last day of summer vacation and Mrs. Struggles, Aesop Elementary's principal, was at her wits end. "School starts tomorrow and I still don't have a fourth grade teacher," she moaned.

"What am I going to do?" "Have you placed a want ad?" suggested Miss Bucky. "Spoken with the superintendent?" suggested Mrs. Chan. "Talked with the school board?" suggested Mr. Frost. "Ha," Mrs. Buns snorted again. "Call a zookeeper?" Mrs. Struggles ignored the remark.

Defeated, she shuffled into her office and flopped into her chair. "If Aesop Elementary were bigger," she thought, "I would have separated the troublemakers long ago." But the school was small. Only one classroom per grade level so the kids had to stay together.

Rubbing her throbbing temples, she sighed, "How I wish a teacher would walk through that door!" At that precise moment, a breeze blew through the principal's office. It rustled the papers on her desk, rattled the window blinds and flung open the door to reveal a tall, dark man wearing a pith helmet and clutching a copy of the morning's want ads.

"I am Mr. Jupiter," he said. "I've come about the teaching job." Mrs. Struggles rubbed her eyes. "Is this a dream?" she wondered. But, no, Mr. Jupiter was still there. "You are looking for a fourth grade teacher, aren't you," he asked. Mrs. Struggles nodded.

Her spirits suddenly soared. Waving Mr. Jupiter into a seat she said, "Tell me a bit about yourself." "Where to begin," he replied. "My first job was as an assistant dog groomer aboard King Bernard's yacht, the S.S. Pooch, anchored off the Dalmatian coach."

"After receiving my degree in nano-thermal economics from Dumber University, I led an expedition in search of the dodo bird. Later I conducted the Timbuktu Philharmonic Orchestra, worked as a translator for Big Foot, became th

"There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on Treasure Island." — Walt Disney