Transcript from an interview with Mary Quattlebaum

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

Growing up with a love of language

Hello I'm Mary Quattlebaum I'm a children's book author and I've written over 19 children's books including picture books, novels for kids, and poetry. I also love to teach writing and I teach writing workshop in the schools, love to do author visits in the schools, and talk to kids about their writing. And I very much enjoy teaching adults how to write for kids and I teach Vermont College MFA program for writing for children and young adults, and also at The Writer's Center in Maryland.

Well I grew up in the country in the Tidewater, Virginia area, the oldest of seven children. My dad loved the natural world and also was very musical. One of my earliest memories is of my dad reciting nursery rhymes to me and my brothers and sisters, right before bedtime, and he did it in a very interactive way. He didn't just stand there and like recite nursery rhymes to us. But he did in a call and response kind of a way. So we were very involved and actually loved that as I said it's my earliest memory.

And you can probably imagine, being the oldest of seven kids, that I was the one that read aloud a lot. And in fact my mother would say, "would you rather watch the dishes or read to the kids?" Well, that was a no-brainer! So you know we all loved the Curious George books and the Amelia Bedelia books and you know those playful kinds of books.

So, I grew up with parents that were real supportive of reading. We'd go to the library every two weeks with a big laundry basket of books to return and we'd get more out. And you know we didn't have a lot of money but books were very much a part of my growing up years.

I do remember loving sounds, the sound that bobwhite call in the fields and we had many animals, horses for example and the different noises that horses would make. And you know, as I mentioned my dad was very musical and we grew up with music. I love reading books that had lots of playful sounds in them too and I loved poetry.

So I guess it was just sort of a hodge podge of things that fed in my love of language and is hopefully also reflected back in my books.

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The writing process

You know it's the wonderful thing about writing for children is really do have a license to do many different types or forms of writing. I've never felt with any of my publishing companies that I had to write a certain kind of book. So I've loved the freedom to explore different forms.

You've asked about the writing process, I try to do a little creative writing sometimes more, sometimes less every day. And I usually write longhand and then make changes and type it into the computer. But I find that writing long hand seems to slow me down and also put me… keep me better connected with the natural rhythms of the human body, natural rhythms of speech. And I know every writer has a different process but I just found that that seems to work best for me.

And let's see, with different types of writing, you know it's so interesting, with a poem or a picture book I feel like I can keep it in mind and as I go about my errands during the day I think about it and in my head I'm kind of revising it. For me, a novel is a much more laborious process in that I need vast amounts of time to sit at a desk. I find it much more difficult to revise in my head.

So when I'm working on a novel I really try to make sure that I have enough space to give it the attention that it really does need.

I think I just get hit with an idea, people say you know you sort of fall in love with a character, you're very curious about a character. Or with a poem, you fall in love with a certain rhythm or a certain phrase and you want to explore it a little more.

So all of my ideas sort of hit in a way that it's just a glimmer and I'm curious and I want to follow where it leads. And sometimes it actually leads into something that moves on into a book. And sometimes it turns out just to be an exercise. So I never know but I try to be open to that process of discovery and just awake to that, that feeling of curiosity.

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Different threads

You know, ideas are fascinating because there are different threads and pieces that come together and with Grover G. Graham and Me there were different threads. And just looking back, several of them were living in the city in Washington D.C. but being from Tidewater, Virginia where that particular book is set and feeling a certain longing for that terrain of my childhood or that landscape of my childhood.

So wanting to work actively with it and describe it. Another thing I know that was big was that I was the oldest of seven kids but my sister that I'm very, very close to one of my sisters is ten years younger than me. So I was taking care of her much the way that Ben takes care of Grover. And I was also pregnant at the time I was writing that book so lots of memories from childhood were coming back and you know curiosity about little ones and those three threads I think came together to create those characters.

And a sense of that relationship between Ben and Grover where you have an older child who loves a young child, wants to take care of that child, but can't in a way that an adult does and makes mistakes. But tries very hard.

There was a lot going on in the outside world as I was writing that book, too. Including the story in the newspaper of a little girl who was only two years old. Her name was Brianna, and I actually acknowledge her in the book. Who had been bumped around in different foster care situations and had been put back in a situation that turned out to be abusive and led to her death.

And you just think about all of the mistakes that are made along the line and how the kids must feel having to deal with that. So I thought about that little girl a lot as I thought about the character of Grover.

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Jackson Jones

Jackson was a character that just popped into my head. I had so much liking for him. And how he came about my husband and I were living in an apartment in Washington D.C. growing up in the country and with gardens, I missed that. So we got a plot in the community garden, and you know around me I saw families tending their gardens and kids coming in and out.

And it gave me the idea to set a novel, early novel sort of chapter book, in a community garden and sort of follow that through as the setting for three books. And Jackson is a kid, a lot like one of my brothers — I have to say a little bit like me — who liked the idea of a garden but didn't like the weeding part of it. He'd much rather be doing something else like playing basketball.

So whenever I go into the schools and talk about that book with the kids I always ask them the question would you rather have a garden as a birthday present or would you rather have a new basketball? Because he's given the first but not the second and it's usually equal and it's not necessarily boys wanting the basketball. But half the class usually wants the garden, the other class wants the basketball.

So it's Jackson's problem to sort of figure out now that he's got this garden how he's going raise money for the basketball, state of the art basketball, that he really does want. And it's interesting too with Jackson and that community garden setting, there's a lot of concern these days about the No Child Left Inside movement and the need to better connect our children with the natural world at the same time we're losing a lot of our green spaces to development.

And we especially see that in the city. So in all three of the books these are urban kids very involved with the natural world and concerned about the environment in a kid like way. And in the second book Jackson Jones and Mission Greentop the community garden is in danger because there is a development project the developers want to buy the garden, they want to raise it and they want to put up yet another city building. And this is happening all across the country.

And interestingly enough kids are at the vanguard of protest. And so in that second book in the Jackson Jones series, Jackson and his friends are the ones that galvanize the community and try to save the garden.

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Jo MacDonald Saw a Pond

This is a new book, Jo MacDonald Saw a Pond, and you can probably guess that it's a riff on the Old MacDonald Had a Farm. Jo is actually Old MacDonald's granddaughter. And she's introducing little ones to the animals and plants and insects that might be part of a pond ecosystem. So with that book I hope to in a playful, way just share with kids information about the natural world. Again with Old MacDonald Had a Farm they learn about farm animals in a very playful way.

With the Jo MacDonald Saw a Pond book, they get to learn about wild animals but also about the pond as an ecosystem that all of these animals are supported by this area, by this body of water, and they help to support one and other. And I had a great time doing the back matter in the book. It's factual information about the different animals, activities that parents and children can do together or teachers and children can do.

And with the back matter I hope to make it interesting for parents but also for older kids — that I wanted to make it a book that the kids could grow with. That they could first do the song and listen to the book. And then they could read it on their own, and then they could start reading the back matter and learn more about the animals and other things that are part of the ecosystem.

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Jo MacDonald Had a Garden

I have another Jo MacDonald book that's going to come out next year, it's called Jo MacDonald Had a Garden and I'm very excited about this book. When I was a kid, my dad was concerned about environmental issues and replanted gardens that would sustain wildlife as well as having gardens that would produce food for humans. So with this particular book, it's showing kids or Jo is actually creating a garden that's going to produce food for people — tomatoes and squash and things like that — but also create it in a way that's going to sustain wildlife.

So she adds a big flat rock for butterflies to rest on, she adds some coneflowers because those are native plants and attractive to the bumblebees and the butterflies. And she plants a sunflower because there's a cardinal who winters there and he eats the seeds from the sunflower. So just small additions to our gardens and to our backyards can do a lot towards sustaining the wildlife that's a part of our environment.

It's funny these days, we talked a little bit earlier about the No Child Left Inside movement and how it's so important these days to connect children with the natural world and how kids are very curious naturally about the outdoor world around them. So that they are just as intrigued by the butterfly in the backyard and the chickadee and the cardinal that they see every day as they are about the nature that they see on the nature shows.

Or the lion that they might see on an African safari. So in other words, I think helping kids to connect and appreciate the natural world that's part of their environment makes them want to protect that or become good stewards of the natural world that's around them.

My dad was the model for the Old McDonald that in the two books Jo MacDonald Saw a Pond and Jo MacDonald Had a Garden, he is kind of in the background but he's showing her how to do things. And my dad as I said I grew up in the country, we had a pond like Jo MacDonald's, we had a garden like Jo MacDonald's, and I've seen my child and my dad's grandchildren, my nieces and nephews, just become more aware of the natural world through my dad in a very loving, playful way.

You know there seems to be… sometimes I think there's in a way a lack of older adults in contemporary children's books. I don't know where they are to tell you the truth, they seem to tucked away in retirement communities but they don't seem to be entering contemporary children's literature. They're not part of the neighborhoods or they're not part of the, I don't know, I don't see them as much as maybe I used to.

And so I liked working with the idea of an older man, Old McDonald as part of the Jo MacDonald story.

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Ghost stories

With the Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans as a kid I had loved ghost stories and one of the Jackson Jones books the 3rd one is actually a ghost story. But I liked ghost stories that were set in unusual environments. So with Jackson Jones and the Curse of the Outlaw Rose, the ghost is actually in the sunny community garden. With the Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans, the ghost is living in an old house and I never really thought about it but I grew up in old houses and continue to live in an old house.

And you know like Fred the ghost that's in this old house, he loves the dust, and the squeaks, and the leaks, and the sense of history that's a part of this house. And then he gets displaced because, and again this is something that happens a lot, his house is bought, and it's turned into a restaurant and it becomes very spic-and-span and he's very upset about this and he's about to leave.

So it was a fun book to do because I got to write a ghost story but a ghost story with a twist, and also a ghost story with a sense of compromise in a way because at the end the restaurant stays but there's an old room that's created for Fred so they can coexist together, this idea that the modern and the historical can have a place together.

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Tools of the trade, for writers

How do reading and writing relate to one another? It really does feel you can't be a writer unless you're reader, in a way what would be the impetus to write unless you love to read? I teach writing classes and I always suggest to people that if you want to write, read widely and read as much as possible. Because you can learn so much almost from osmosis from what fine writers ahead of have done.

And looking at it in a slightly different way, kids that like to write often like to read. And if they're strong readers they ask questions about the writing process. For example I can always tell how much kids are reading and how focused they are by the questions they ask. And kids will ask questions about ellipses like why are those three dots there? But the fact that they even notice them shows me how attune they are to writing.

And they want to take that information, you know the answers that you give as a visiting author in the schools, they want to take that knowledge back to their own writing. In other words, "Mary Quattlebaum used ellipses to give a pause there. I want to give a pause in my writing so I'm going to use ellipses too."

So I love to go into the schools and I love to hear the questions that kids ask because I think that they want, they're hungry to know how you do it so they can go back to their own writing and they can write with a greater awareness.

You can't create the art unless you know the nuts and bolts, it's almost like a carpenter saying well I have this great idea for a house and it's going to be beautiful I see it in my mind and then not knowing how to use a hammer and nails, and not knowing how to saw boards. The house can only stay in his head as a vision and not become something real if he doesn't know how to use the tools of his trade.

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Expressing feelings through writing

It's very delightful to me to see kids open up to their writing and using it as a form of expression. And how I even got involved in writing for children. I was working a medical writer for a children's hospital and it's where I met my husband. And Chris had been a magician as a child and he and I developed this volunteer project in the hospital where once a week we would visit kids who were chronically ill.

So we got to know these kids well over time because they were so often in the hospital. And we would make it very playful but we would, Chris would involve the kids through magic. And we'd talk to them about their experiences in the hospital and their families and things like that. Help them to write a poem or a story. And for many of those kids, that was their one form of expression.

They were in the hospital constantly, they couldn't scream, they couldn't run around, they couldn't get angry and hit things because they might hurt themselves. So they had at their disposal very limited forms of expressing strong feelings, anger and fear and bewilderment and joy. But writing was one way that they could and it was actually working with those kids and just admiring their courage and liking their playfulness and their sassiness that I decided I might like to try writing for children.

So, that was sort of my involvement in even thinking about myself as a writer for children was through becoming connected with kids in their writing. So in a way I was sort of teaching writing for children before I was a writer for children.

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Playful learning

Edutainment, I know it sounds like something you'd see on TV. We all know as adults that reading is good for us, it's good for our children, sort of like broccoli is good for us. And any kid is going to react against that. And when I was growing up, there was this sense that reading was a little suspect. You're supposed to be out playing with your friends. You weren't supposed to have your nose in a book, so that made me want to read even more.

The whole idea of edutainment is actually thinking about presenting reading in a way that's playful for kids, that's really going to involve them, that's going to have them interacting with the book or the text and just having a good time. And probably the best way to ensure the kids were having a good time was if the adults who is doing the reading is also having a good time. And there's lots of ways you can do that, you can as you're reading aloud to kids take on different voices.

You know gesture broadly, involve the kids in interacting so that for example with Jo MacDonald Saw a Pond they come in with the E-I-E-I-O refrain, they act out the parts of the animals. With some of the books with older kids it's even doing something like, like building a craft around a theme or an aspect of the book.

And for the Jackson Jones series, I'll often go in and do a gardening craft with the kids, we grow a little sweet potato in the tub. Doing that little gardening craft helps make the work more engaging to the kids, they read about Jackson working in his garden but when they have a chance to work in a school garden for example or even grow a little sweet potato in a tub like the craft activity I share with them, they see what it means to wait for the leaves to appear and the roots to appear. And they do get excited.

And it seems to make them want to learn more about things related to that book. So not just the book itself but books about gardening for example or books about other characters interested in the natural world

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Encouraging young readers and writers

Kids see that the parents or the adults in their lives like to read and like to write, not just on the computer but with pen and paper, and they start wanting to do that themselves. And sometimes even sharing with young children bits of things that you're reading, you know showing them the cover of your book for example and saying "oh you know look at this that's on mommy's book cover, I like this book so much, what do you see?"

And if it's a horse you can say, "do you have a book that has a horse on the cover?" Or something like that so the kids see that there's a connection there and, and interest on the part of the adult in reading but the adult is also reading interested in what books the child is exploring. Also just having books lying around, lots of places, kids pick them up, they read them, they flip through the pages. My daughter who was going into the 8th grade still has some of her childhood board book favorites on her bookshelf. Because those are books that she had read to her constantly that she loved as a little one and they're treasured companions. So she keeps them close-by even though at this age she's reading novels.

As your kids get older just talking to them about books like you know, what do you think of those hot vampires in Twilight anyway? And they love to share you know they love to share their observations about books. And it's a nice window into the way that they're thinking to have them discuss books with you.

Let's as far as the writing is going, or encouraging writing, just having tools available seems to be a big thing but also it doesn't have to be writing with characters. Like sometimes kids just like to write non-fictional things. I see this especially with boys, they want to write a whole book about sharks. Like 100 pages about sharks and that's great, you know. So I guess it's all about encouraging the type of writing that they want to do, too.

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An excerpt from Jo MacDonald Saw a Pond

I'm reading today from a new book it's called Jo MacDonald Saw a Pond with illustrations by Laura Bryant. And as you may have guessed this is a takeoff on Old MacDonald Had a Farm, and Jo is Old MacDonald's granddaughter, and she's introducing children to the wildlife that is part of a pond ecosystem. And I like to bring the book's mascot into schools with me. This is a frog, and the kids have to look for the frog when he appears and make his noise which is croak, croak.

So here go. Jo MacDonald Saw a Pond, oh and there's the frog. And this first illustration actually Jo and her grandfather going down to the pond. What's fun with this book is to have the kids themselves sing the refrain E-I-E-I-O.

Jo MacDonald saw a pond E-I-E-I-O. And in that she saw some wreathes, E-I-E-I-O. With a swish, swish here and a swish, swish there here a swish, there a swish everywhere a swish, swish. Jo MacDonald saw a pond. E-I-E-I-O.

So the first part of an ecosystem of course are the plants. And then in that pond she saw some fish, E-I-E-I-O with a blurp, blurp here and a blurp, blurp there, here a blurp, there a blurp everywhere a blurp, blurp. Jo MacDonald saw some fish. E-I-E-I-O.

And Laura Bryant the illustrator did such a wonderful job with the pictures of the book. I'll just point out a few things that she's done. She introduces the new animal, you see it clearly, this case it's the fish but she also has the old thing in the background, the wreathes and there's a hint of the things come, so we had talked a little earlier about interacting, having kids interact with the book so with this particular kids can make the sound of the animals, they can make the E-I-E-I-O refrain.

And in the pictures they can look for the animal that might be next to come. And it's the frog. And in that pond she saw a frog E-I-E-I-O. With a croak, croak here and a croak, croak there, here a croak, there a croak everywhere a croak, croak. Jo MacDonald saw a frog E-I-E-I-O. And then you see the frogs prominently at this point.

And look there's the next animal coming and it's a duck hiding in the plants. And I'm going to skip forward and just…

This is towards the end of the book, all the time that Jo has been at the pond, she's been there with a pen or pencil and some paper but the young reader doesn't know what she's been doing and it's not until the end that her grandfather comes on the scene that she shows him she's been drawing pictures of what she's seen at the pond. So the fish, the frog, the wreathes, all are in Jo's little picture.

And what Laura the illustrator did with this illustration I think is just delightful. She shows, or she draws in a way that's very childlike to show how Jo might have drawn the pictures and also the young reader or the little listener has to find each of the things and match them up with the sound that they make. So again it's another way of adding another layer of interactive experience to the book.

I had such a good time writing the back matter for the book. The publisher for this book is Dawn and they're a small publisher that's very dedicated to creating books that connect children with the natural world. And a big part of their mission is to provide information that is child friendly that teaches kids a little bit more about the natural world.

And this is helpful for kids but also for parents and teachers that might want to share additional information with kids. So for this particular book, there are short descriptions of each of the animals and things that are part of the pond ecosystem. There's also a list of books and websites that are very child friendly that can share a little bit more information about ponds.

And activities that parents and teachers and kids can do together. How to be a naturalist like Jo. So there's some classroom activities and home activities as well as things that you can do outdoors. So I had a great time writing this book.

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An excerpt from The Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans

This is a new book, The Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans. It's set in the fair city of New Orleans and features some of the delicious cuisine of that city as well as some of the jazz traditions.

Fred lived alone at 28 Rue Orleans. Once the house had been a jazzy, snazzy, sweet and spicy spot but now the floor squeaked, the roof leaked, and dust coated the chairs. But Fred liked his rickety house, all night he moaned and clicked his fingers and tended his tiny cactus. If he got hungry he gobbled some air, the perfect life for a ghost.

One day Pierre and his daughter Marie barged through Fred's broken door, our new restaurant! They shouted. My house! Fred cried. But no one heard. Pierre banged nails, washed stairs, Marie swept away cobwebs, they polished windows, and painted walls. No! Fred wailed. But no one heard.

In came tables, chairs, and a giant stove. No more, Fred stomped his wispy foot, but no one heard. Trucks arrived with celery, peppers, and paprika spice, crawfish, onions, red beans and rice. Then such a noise, chop, whisk, sssss, whisk, chop.

And I'm going to end the reading right there and ask you all how do you think that story might end? Will Fred be forced to leave his home, will he decide to haunt the restaurant or will they be able to live together? Who knows.

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An excerpt from Pirate Versus Pirate

Ahoy maties right now I be reading from me pirate book, Pirate versus Pirate with beautiful illustrations by Alexandra Boyger. I dedicated this book to me husband who loves a pirate story. So I'm going to read the dedication, "To Christopher, a true treasure of a guy, here be the pirate tale ye craved." And I'll just tell you it's a story about Bad Bart a guy pirate and girl pirate named Mean Mo. And they both want to be the biggest, baddest pirate in the world.

So are you ready maties? Bad Bart was the biggest, burliest pirate this side of the Atlantic but he wanted to be the biggest, burliest pirate in the world and the richest. So one day he roared hoist anchor me hearties, raise high the flag we sail until I be the best.

Meanwhile another pirate tapped her gold tooth and squinted out to sea, Mean Mo was the maddest mightiest pirate this side of the Pacific, 'But am I the maddest, mightiest pirate in the world?' she wondered, 'And the richest?' So she set sail to find out.

The earth being round, the two met in the middle, ahoy alabast roared Bad Bart, swing aside and let me pass. Swing yourself ya scurvy dog, Mean Mo roared right back. Bad Bart blinked. He wasn't used to backtalk, he tried again I be the biggest, burliest and I be the maddest, mightiest Mean Mo interrupted I'll not move for a rouge like ye. And then they called one and other all sorts of bad pirate names.

They one and other rouge and deck swabber and grog swiller and land lubber and bilge rat, and sea skunk but the worst of all Mean Mo turned to Bad Bart and called him a gentlemen. And Bad Bart and turned to her and called her a lady.

Such insults! Bad Bart stamped off to his quarters, Mean Mo to hers, they sulked and stewed for two whole days before they came out again.

And then they decided they were going to have a great big fight, one ship against the other and this is where I'd like to ask all me young maties out there, why is a big fight not a good idea? And that's when the kids will tell me oh Captain Q, because they like to call me Captain Q when I'm dressed like this, they'll say oh Captain Q it's not a good idea to have a fight because you hurt somebody, you hurt yoursel

"When I say to a parent, "read to a child", I don't want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate. " — Mem Fox