Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Anita Silvey. The transcript is divided into the following clips:
- The future of the book
- Kitchen poetry
- Secret Garden
- Writing for children
- Hooking young readers with narrative nonfiction
- The story behind Curious George
- Setting a smorgasbord
- Challenging books
- National Walk On Stilts Day
- Time machines
- Everything I need to know, I learned from a children's book
The future of the book
I have tremendous faith in the book and I know people often say well it's going to be replaced by e-books and e-readers and whatever the future, whatever the future manifestation is. And I can see that the technology will allow for a certain kind of reading, pleasure reading, things that we don't you know, we don't need to digest in a terribly sophisticated manner.
But I still believe there's a place for the book itself in the process of working with children. When I conducted my interviews for "Everything I Need to Know, Learned from a Children's Book," what amazed me the most was that people I talked would often forget the author of the book, they would say it was such and such a book, and you probably remember who the author is.
But they would always remember the person who shared it with them, their name, whether they were a school librarian, public librarian, a teacher. They would remember what was going in their lives, one of them said, I remember what the light was like in the room the day the teacher read us "Charlotte's Web". That the memories are whole memories.
The memories are whole memories, it's only half what the material is, it's only half what the book is. The people and how they played in that memory are the full part of the memory. So Steve Forbes will remember what his mother read, but what he talks about and what it was like to sit in his mother's lap and have her hold up this book for him and read to him.
And he creates the whole memory of that. I think that's what gets lost if you think all your reading's going to be on kindle or it's going to be on an electronic device because that does not allow that close personal interaction. And that is what the book is ideal for and I believe our longing for that close personal interaction literally goes back to the cave when people sat around and told stories.
You know, and they passed on things together. And I don't think technology will replace that. I'm not afraid of it, I think it can do many interesting things. I love the picture book format, I think it's one of the most perfect formats ever invented, but it has constraints on it because it has to be 32 or 48 pages, one of the printing technology constraints.
In the future you could use however many pages you needed to tell a story because it might not have anything to do with printing, it must just have to do with what you can put on that screen and the kind of words you need to use. So I think there are things that technology can free up for us, but in the end I just think the power of the book is extraordinary.
Ever since Gutenberg invented movable type, people have been predicting the end of the book. My father pioneered television and everybody at that time said, children won't have to read anymore, they can see everything on television. Now we now think this is ludicrous of course because of what's on television. Radio was supposed to replace reading.
We always go through this, it's like the lure of the technology. And we think, oh it's going to get rid of this thing, but I think there's much more primal and much more important in a book.
Well, the story I love to tell is my mother would cajole into washing dishes and so we'd clean up every night and then she'd sit and read poetry and I would was dishes, it was long before dishwashers. And every night dishes took longer and longer and longer, you know I would just linger over the sink.
And the poetry she read, some of it was perfectly appropriate, some it was like Alfred Lord Tennyson, things like the "Highwaymen." you know, I mean they weren't even appropriate for third and fourth graders at all, but it didn't matter, it was the sound of the language. It was being there, it was that memory of doing something together and of having that language. And you know I can pickup certain poems today and I hear my mother's voice in, in my mind.
My grandmother was the great reader, she just, she had books all over her house. Every summer we went to the Marietta, Ohio public library, the first thing I did when I checked into town and we would get piles and piles and piles of books. And I went to that library oh maybe ten years ago, and I walked up the stairs and I felt like my grandmother was holding my hand I knew exactly where to turn, where the children's room was.
I knew the layout of, hadn't changed by the way in many, many a year. I knew the layout of the library and I hadn't been in there for three decades. So there was a tremendous physical, visual memory as well with those books. So yeah, I think that when I think of the books of my childhood, there's a teacher associated with them, there's a librarian associated with them who put that book in my hand, or there's a family member.
And those memories are whole, you know, they're people and books and that's a wonderful way to remember your childhood.
I asked myself as I was working on "Everything I Need to Know, I Learned from a Children's Book," would there be a book that I would say had had the most profound effect and I honestly have to say, it depends on what age of my life we're talking about. There was a book at five, and at six, and at seven. But next to my desk as a writer, I keep a first edition of "The Secret Garden" and it was purchased by my mother's great aunt, and she was born in 1985, so right at the end of the Civil War.
She read it as an adult, she passed it on to my mother, who my mother was born a few years after that. It's inscribed to my mother and then my mother gave it to me and she read it to me. And when I literally, physically touch that book, I'm connected to everybody in my family back to the time of the Civil War.
And I read that book every five years and I'm sure the words change on the page because I see something different in them every time I read that book. It's one of those books that holds up for multiple readings and wherever you stand in life. So I would have say if I had to take one book from my childhood to that desert island, you know, I mean just a single book, it would be "The Secret Garden."
When I was at the, the book festival in Austin, Texas, the Texas Book Festival, there was a mixed audience of adults and children. And at one point a little boy raised his hand and he said, "that's very interesting what all you adults are saying about your favorite book, but I want to share with you what the most important book in my life was." And he said— and everybody laughed, you know.
And he said, "I'm six years old, and when I was five and a half, I read "Where the Wild Things Are". And that has had the most profound effect on my life." And after he spoke, this little girl came up and, and she looked at me and she said, "I'm ten, and like you my favorite book is "The Secret Garden." And she said, "you know what I love about it is what I learned is that no matter how you're broken, or how your family's broken, you can be made whole again, you can be made well again."
And that is such a profound reading of that book and that is the power of that book, that these children have gone through terrible things and yet, you know, nature, air, the garden, their interaction with each other, they make them whole human beings again. So I, I'm amazed at you know even in childhood, I think children have that ability to go underneath a book and really find what's there.
Writing for children
I've been in the book industry for 40 years, a third of that time was as a publisher and I was publisher of children's books at Houghton. And a third of that time as a reviewer and I was editor-in-chief of the "Horn Book Magazine" and now a third of that time has been spent as an author. And I think this is the best part, but that's I guess because I'm doing it on a daily basis.
And I always said that I did not have the talent to write for young readers. I mean that children's book writing takes enormous talent and it takes, by the way, much more talent then writing for adults. I write for adults all the time, but writing for children really takes a kind of sophistication that I didn't think that I had.
And Dinah Stevenson who has been in the industry also for many years, and once worked for me in fact, the minute I left to be a writer she started to bug me. I mean she would just consistently bugging me and we'd have coffee together. And she would say three things: she would say, you love history, you love telling stories, and you love children. And she said, you have everything it takes to be a narrative, non-fiction writer. And what don't you write a work of narrative nonfiction for me?
And I would say to her, Dinah you don't understand, I don't have the talent to writefor children, I can only write for adults. And I would see her again and she would say, have you given more thought to what subject matter you would like to write about for children? And I would say, Dinah, you don't get it.
And the day she won both the Newbery and the Caldecott which she did one year, I sent her a thank-you note and what she sent back to me was, have you given any more thought to what book you want? And I was about to send back a really snarky reply to say, don't you get it, I can't write for children? And then I thought, wait a minute, she just won the Newbery and Caldecott, maybe she sees something in me that I don't see. What if maybe I did have the talent to write for children? What would I want to write about?
I've always been fascinated by Civil War history, I'm a bit of an armchair Civil War buff. I got tromp around battlefields in Virginia when I come to Washington, DC if I have an opportunity to do that. And I have traced ancestors over various battlefields. And suddenly I picked up about 10 years ago, I picked up a book, one of the first academic studies of the close to 1000 women who fought in the Civil War, in disguise. And I thought, I've never read this story and I never encountered this story as a young woman and I would love to have known about this. I really, you know, would love to have known that as many as 1000 women just disguised themselves as men and went off to the battlefield. So I said to Dinah, okay, if I were going to write a book, that's what I would write about.
And she said, here's a contract basically. I mean she just handed me the contract and I spent the next five years kind of chasing down women and going to small historical societies and going down South to, you know, see battlefields and down to Gettysburg to see what I could find there. It was really like a puzzle of putting together the clues of really how these women's lives played out overtime.
We know maybe a sentence or two sentences about each of them. They might just have appeared in a newspaper article and then they vanish. So I tried to put together a composite experience; what was it like, why did they do it, how did they have to, what did they have to do to pull off this disguise? You know, how did they train, what was fighting like, what was life like after they went back and had had all this freedom and suddenly they're thrown back into being you know, in a very constrained society?
So I really tried to tell sort of that whole cycle of their lives. And I, it was published in a book called, "I'll Pass for Your Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War". And I hope it gives young readers, boys and girls, a little different vision of who made up the troops when we look at the Civil War.
Hooking young readers with narrative nonfiction
I think that like introducing all books in the classroom, the best thing you can do is read from it. Five minutes, a chapter, something that will hook, hook kids in. Hopefully the author will have done that for you in the introduction, that's really, it's either that way, you don't have to think. But if they haven't, to find that segment of the book that you can read, get them excited, and then put it down and see who you can get to pick up the book.
I think getting kids excited about any book has to do with introducing, doing good book talking, and then allowing their natural curiosity to take them into subject matters. There are so many children who prefer to read what is true, they really want to know, is this based on fact? I always say I came from a family where they never let truth get in the way of a good story.
Okay, they were just, they were outrageous liars actually, if truth be old. And even from childhood on, I really said, I was always sort of, is that true, do we, is there any evidence that fact's true? It was never true with my family, I mean they were always just you know, stringing me along in some fabulous storytelling mode.
And I think that, you know, I really grew to love narrative, I love narrative non-fiction now. I read it as an adult because I really want to know what went on in our world and I think that's a natural, just a natural part of childhood, you want to know what's happened. So somebody just needs to kind of pull you in a little bit and not over-sell it and not make it an assignment, you know, not make it tedious and dull and boring. Because we have some of the best writing right now in narrative non-fiction that I think we have ever seen. It's certainly in my time in 40 years, we've just got some fabulous writers who are doing great, great work.
The story behind Curious George
Every children's book tells a story, but every children's book has a story behind it. There are real people who wrote it, they went through certain circumstances to do that. And all of those, and their really publishing stories or back stories, if you will, endlessly fascinate me. I mean you give me any book title and I'm always intrigued to find out, okay, how did we get it? How did it come about? What happened in the process?
Certainly one of the most chilling stories to me, was one that I, I actually sort of worked, people I worked with firsthand. And Hans and Margaret Rey who I knew both of them and, and loved them both and worked with them for, I was fortunate to work with them for many years, were German Jews living in Paris at the time that Hitler's army invaded France.
They had gone to Paris for a honeymoon and they had stayed a little long, they'd stayed for two years as Margaret said. They just fell in love with Paris, they, they never wanted to leave and suddenly they are in harm's way. And if you know of course anything of that period, the German expatriates were rounded up, put in concentration camps and they were among the first people killed in, in France.
And so they knew they were in danger and they had train tickets and the train stopped running. And so Hans went around bicycle stores, all the bicycles had been sold, but he found spare parts and he put together a bicycle that they got on and put their manuscripts in and they started to peddle out of Paris, ahead of the Nazis, by 48 hours.
So they slept in fields and at one point they came up against a border guard and he was stopping them and he said, what do you do? And Hans said, well I, I write books for children. And he said, well let me see one of those books for children. And Hans pulled out a manuscript and the man read it and he laughed and he said, my kids would like this, you can go on.
And we talk about sometimes great books are, are lost by seconds and inches, but literally had he not had that manuscript, it is possible that they would never have, have gotten ahead of the Nazis.
Margaret Rey had modeled for the character in that manuscript and it was about a very curious monkey called Fifi, who had a lot of adventures. And so they got that manuscript out of the country, they came through Brazil, they had Brazilian passports, and they came to the United States of America and they were met by their British editor who knew— by the way, they have no money, they have nothing at all. And she gave them a four book contract but she said, I just don't see Fifi working in the United States as a name for a monkey and they changed of course the monkey to Curious George. And that book was to go on and make their fame and fortune.
And when Margaret was 90, she would sit in her room at her house in Cambridge and it was a shrine to George. There were stuffed George toys and there were George puzzles and you know, there just everything George in her living room. And she would look around the room and she would say, Anita, I can't believe that all of this came from that manuscript that we had on our bicycle in Paris so many years ago.
So to me that is one of the most dramatic of all the book stories because here we have this perfectly American, we think of Curious George as the most American of all characters. And yet he was created by German Jews in Paris, escaped the Nazis, came through Brazil and eventually comes to the United States, so he's a true immigrant.
I think that historical fiction is one of the most perfect forms because when it's well executed, it gives us a sense of history, it gives us a sense of story, and it gives us a sense of place. And all of those things combine together to be both educative, they can bring a period of history to life and help young people understand it. But it can also keep them engaged and reading and excited about the story.
And because historical fiction writers, after all, can invent characters that never existed, they can invent events that never existed, they have a natural way to tell a story that might be stopped if only, if all they could deal with is what we know exactly to be true. Great historical fiction recreates periods, sometimes better then even a narrative non-fiction writer can recreate that period.
So it is at its best, a beautiful form that completely allows a reader— it's like a time machine, it allows you to go back in a period of time and be there. I still remember reading Esther Forbes "Johnny Tremaine" when I must have been in about seventh or eighth grade. And I felt like I was fighting in the American Revolution. And I think that's exactly what historical fiction allows for you.
To be good, it has to be based on a lot of research, but that research cannot overwhelm the story. In the end, great historical fiction writers are telling the story about characters at another point in time. And I think it is a natural for classrooms because we're always trying to talk, teach about history, geography, the world. You know, it opens up all of that.
So again I think it's for teachers to take and sample a bit of it, to show a bit of it, to have you know, have students put themselves back in a period of time or create a character from another period of time and see what it would be like. You know, a lot of the game playing that kids have been doing as, as kids, are really based on historical fiction concepts.
You know if you're a Japanese samurai, you've wandered back into a period of time, of feudal Japan. So I think it is not, these concepts are not as foreign to, to young readers at this point in time as they might have been in other points of time. So I think it's just you know, I, when I find a great historical novel, it's, I love to savor it, it does so much. And I think that this is where a teacher's passion for books can really translate to getting a child excited about a book.
In historical fiction, you don't want things that are inaccurate, okay? You don't want things to mislead a reader, but story is always the thing that's going to carry, you know? "His-story," you know, it is the story of events always has to carry it. And that means that the writer will invent things that in fact we have no historical documentation for whatsoever. The thing that we have to be careful is historical anacronisms, you know a character from Korea in the 1600s acting and talking like a modern young woman.
Those are the sorts of things that you need to kind of parse out if you're evaluating historical fiction. But there will be characters there, there will be real people portrayed who say things that we have no record of them saying. All of that is at the heart of historical fiction, which after all, was invented by Sir Walter Scott in the early 1800s. And he comes, yeah, this is the first work of historical fiction. And he really comes up with this idea that it is fictional characters you know, real characters, history, period of time, that you bring to life. So always the story has to work because if it doesn't, you lose the reader.
Setting a smorgasbord
We can predict what's going to work for class of fourth, fifth, sixth graders, after that, I think it's very, very difficult to predict what's going to work for a wide group of people. But we can predict what will work for individuals.
As personalities develop and form, what they want in books form too. And you know parents will say to me, my son's in eighth grade and he only wants to read non-fiction, he just and I say to them, let him read non-fiction, that's terrific there are a lot of great non-fiction books to do that. And yes, they begin to define themselves not only in who they are and they're the geek in the school or they're whatever, but they begin to define themselves in reading case as well, this is what I like.
For a teacher in those older age ranges, I think that some of the implications is providing a much wider range of material then teachers often think they need to provide. There are now readers in middle school and high school that define themselves as readers of graphic novels; that's what they read, that is what they look at. And there are some very fine graphic novels, you know, but you have to provide a whole sense. It's sort of like, you have to set you know a smorgasbord is what I would say, in the teen years, where in elementary school years, maybe you can have a little more limited cafeteria wise, you know you can all get turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans that day. Whereas when teen years, you have to provide a lot more possibilities.
And so I think for teachers choosing materials and certainly choosing summer reading lists, they need to focus on a wider range of materials than even they themselves normally know how to focus on. To write "500 Great Books for Teens", I had to get five of my best graduate students to sit me down and show me how graphic novels worked, you know, because I had to be able to evaluate them, and I had ignored them up until to that point of time. And I think we cannot in any body of literature, ignore what's going on, what's being published, what teens are reading. If it's keeping them engaged, we have to learn to understand it.
I suppose as someone with a background in publishing, I don't view challenges to literature in quite the same way that a librarian would in a collection or a teacher would. Remember, in publishing, when you find that an attempt has been made to sensor your books, you breakout the champagne because one thing that always happens is when anyone tries to sensor a book, it sells copies.
Actually, if censors really wanted to be effective, they would just ignore things because that would be a way for them to go away. But the mere bringing of attention to a book in a community or in anyway, will mean that people will buy it. We don't want to be told what our children can read or what our teens can read, unless we are ourselves make the decision.
I think that at the truth of censorship is that we know that books are powerful. They're not powerful in the way sometimes that censors understand them to be. Censors read a book and they often think, my teenager's going to read this exactly the way I read it and there's no evidence of that at all, you know. But we do know that books have tremendous power and particularly in a society where everything else seems a bit more throw-away and you know shoddily done. And you know, you are only going to look at it once and not even think about it. That sense say no, that book there, can have some power in a child or teen's life, I think is that, is the undercurrent of why censorship happens. It's just often very misguided you know and all of us know who've watched kids or teens read something. If something disturbs them, if something is outside of their comfort zone, they either don't read it at all, it's like it's not on the page, or they close the book.
That's the beauty of a book, if you're not comfortable with it, you don't ever have to finish it. But I think we do know that there is in that cover, things that change kids lives in a positive way or sometimes censors feel, a negative way. I always say, you know, you talk to criminals you know or, who are behind bars. They never say oh it was that book I picked up and you know it really sent me here.
I mean we talk to people whose lives have gone wrong, they never say, oh it was reading that I did and that's what happened to me. The sheer act of reading seems to give children and teens a way to evaluate and a way to evaluate whether something is for them or not. But books have power and we all know that at some level.
National Walk On Stilts Day
The new project I'm working on, yet unnamed, but the idea behind it is that for every calendar day of the year, I am going to recommend a children's book tied to that calendar day. So if it's National Walk On Stilts Day, and there is one by the way, I will write about MT Anderson's "Whales on Stilts", alright, so I'll tie it to a book. If it's August and the time that Anne Frank was found in, in the Netherlands, obviously I'm going to talk about "The Diary of Anne Frank".
So it will be tied both historically and to holidays and even July 31st will, for those in the know, that's course Harry Potter's birthday. So sometimes it's a character's, you know, it's something in the book or it's something that it relates to. Now what we're going to do to sort of tie in the new media with this concept, is that as I write the book and coming in June, it's going to go up live.
So people will actually see it a day at a time as I write it. So everydaym you'll be able to go on line to the entry for that day, read the book that I recommend, read a section from the book, read other recommendations, read a list of things that happened on that day, print it out, use it in school, use it in libraries, use it in bookstores, however people want to use it.
And that's really the idea of wedding the new technology with the old technology because we have a year, we'll print it for the Almanac or Children's Book A Day of 2012. So by the end of the year, there will be a book there. So it's very exciting, it's terrifying because it means you know I can't have a, writer's block, I mean it just has, I just have to keep writing it, hopefully keep up the quality of it.
But it's been wonderful to play with because I have several thousand books obviously in, in my brain and to be able to choose the best of them and to advocate for the best of them, on a daily basis, is kind of a dream actually, come true. So each day I'll be giving you a new book.
It will be the best of classics, it'll be the best of the last 10 years. It will be some other's books that got some attention when they came out but then people haven't talked about them enough recently, so I'll be able to talk about that. And of course then I'll be able to give those stories behind the book that I love to tell about. So it will be, I think June 12th, I am writing about Margaret and Hans Rey leaving Paris because that's the day that they actually peddled out on their bicycle of Paris.
So I'll be able to tell some of those stories that I love to tell.
Everything I need to know, I learned from a children's book
There are so many good essays in "Everything I Need to Know, I Learned from a Children's Book." And I was sometimes during the process asked by editor which one did I like the best? And I'd have to say to him that, Simon, I love them all. They all do different things and they all reveal different aspects of books. But there was one that I kept going back to again and again because it gave me a chill every time that I read this essay.
William DeVries was the cardiothoracic surgeon who inserted the artificial heart, the first Jarvik-7 heart. And he's now at Walter Reed Hospital and he in this very short piece, talks about the power of a single book in his life and I'd just like to read that essay.
"One of the first books my mother introduced me to was "The Wizard of Oz", I read all of the books in the series and was very impressed by them. I particularly liked the Tin Woodsman. In the book, the Wizard of Oz talks to the Tin Woodsman about whether or not he really wants a heart. The Wizard believes that having a heart is not such a good thing, it makes most people unhappy. But the Tin Woodsman says, 'for my part, I will bear all the unhappiness without a murmur if you will give me a heart.' In my work I have thought about those lines many, many times."
So here we have an example of a single line in a children's book, staying with a heart surgeon for his entire career and that to me is just an amazing story.