We’re so excited to be able to share this interview with George Shannon, the author of Tippy Toe Chick Go, Busy in the Garden, and other wonderful books.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I didn’t really thank about being a writer until the 7th grade. But I did always want to be a pretender with an audience–a singer, dancer, puppeteer etc. One can look at writing as a combination of all of those.
When did you start writing?
I enjoy showing elementary students how I have several true answers for this question. I had my first story accepted for publication when I was 27 (1979). But, of course, I had been writing and submitting stories for many years. I made my first formal submission to a publisher when I was 16. My favorite definition of a writer is “someone who writes when he doesn’t have to.” The first time I began writing stories and poems on paper that were not homework I was 12 in the 7th grade. I then tell students I was making up stories when I was 3 years old. They scoff! But you were, too, I explain. As toddlers we naturally make us stories as we play. We just don’t worry about writing them down on paper.
If you weren’t a writer, what would your job be?
If I wasn’t a writer and could have any job I would want to be a GOOD stage actor. On a more realistic or practical note, I would most enjoy a job that let me work with younger children.
How long did it take from finishing your first book to when it was actually published?
The answer to this question can vary a great deal. In the early 1980s when I was doing my first books the time span between contract and publication was usually 16 months. These days it can be several years between contract and the publisher selecting an illustrator. Even then it take be a few more years before that illustrator has time to do the illustrations. These days five or six years between contract and publication is not uncommon.
Did you get many rejections?
I regularly get rejections. One reason might be quality of the manuscript. It certainly was in my early days. Now rejections are more a matter of taste and timing. Each editor has his/her likes and dislikes. Each publisher has subjects or genres they choose as their focus. An editor can even love a manuscript, but if that company already has a recent book with the same subject they won’t want to do another one so soon. I have had stories rejected by one editor and later published by a different editor at a different company.
Do you find it hard to stop revising? Or do you have a definite ending point?
My reality is more likely to be stopping too soon! I often have a sense of “this is it” like the ping of good china. But I’ve learned to pause many days before I send off a new story. Some times I look at the story again and still hear that ping. Some times I look at the story again and realize, “It’s not as done as I thought it was.”
For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?
I do not like writing the first draft because it can get so scary. In my imagination each new story idea is wonderful! I love it, and feel sure it will take the world by storm. But as soon as I begin to write it down my worries start to nag. What if I can’t make it has great as I think it can be? What if nobody else likes it? What if I’ve forgotten how to write? Or I get stuck? Etc. Etc. Etc. But once I’ve gotten the first draft done things get to be fun. Now all I have to do is relax, play around, and make it slightly better with each revision. Getting better and better at doing something or making something is always engaging and exciting.
What made you decide to write for children, rather than adults or teens?
I have always focused on writing picture books. Like most teenagers who dream of writing, I wrote sad poems and short stories about how cruel the world could be. But the first story I submitted when I was 16 was a picture book. I love the brevity and compact storytelling. And even though I’m not an illustrator, I love all the different styles and approaches used in different picture books.
What advice would you give young writers?
Read and write and write and write some more. Writer some more and read and read. Don’t worry about making the perfect book. Have fun as you write the story. Then have fun writing another story. I cannot control who will like my story or even if it will get published so why waste my time worrying about it. But I can control how I approach working on a story, and I want to spend that time enjoying myself. Most people write because they love words and stories AND love making stories or poems. Looking at my books that have been published is pleasant. But it’s like looking at photographs from an old vacation. Been there, done that. Working on a new book is like being on a great new vacation. It is happening! It’s where the adventure is. It is now!
We use Tippy-Toe Chick, Go and Rabbit’s Gift at storytime regularly because they work so well. When you’re writing your picture books, do you consciously think of read-alouds or oral storytelling? Or are you just concentrating on telling the story, no matter how it comes out?
Yes! I am always thinking about how my picture book stories will sound when they are read aloud. My primary audience–young children–cannot read. I know that they will most likely experience my story through an adult’s voice so I want to give that adult all the guidance I can. That desire comes from my years of telling folktales in the oral tradition and reading picture books to groups of children for nearly 40 years. I just plain love the sound and rhythms of words and sentences. Some of the first essay/posts I put on my blog about picture books were about how significant sound is to the picture book, and how it can add so much information and pleasure to a story. http://georgeshannon.wordpress.com
White is for Blueberry is such a unique book—it’s not the sort of idea that would occur to everyone. Where do you get your ideas?
I spent a great deal of my childhood always trying to find THE right answer and please everyone. When I grew up and discovered that most questions have many possible correct answers I began to celebrate. I’m still celebrating, and WHITE IS FOR BLUEBERRY is part of that celebration. In one way or another, many if not most of my books share the celebration. TIPPY-TOE CHICK GO celebrates a fresh approach to answering the problem of the dog. TRUE LIES celebrates the value of looking at words from more than more angle or context. CLIMBING KANSAS MOUNTAINS celebrates seeing something fresh in one’s daily world.
Your poetry books are doubly wonderful not just because of the imagery, but because of the cleverness and wordplay. Have you always written poetry? What inspires you to write a poem as opposed to a book?
As a teenager I wrote some rather dark, sad poems because I thought poems had to be sad to be important. Some people still thank that’s true. Ha! I prefer the perspective that poems come in all shapes, sizes and moods. I love wordplay and humor so those elements dominate my poems. I suspect I’ve also been influenced by my years of sharing rhymes and finger-plays with preschool children. I love sharing them with an echo pattern. I say a line. Then the children say it back to me. Sound and rhythm!
Do you have any subjects that you’re dying to write about, but haven’t yet? Any new books that will be coming out soon?
I have some themes that I’d like to explore as stories, but they still feel too far away to discuss. I am in the lucky position of having four new picture books in production: WHO PUT THE COOKIES IN THE COOKIE JAR which will be illustrated by Julie Paschkis, HANDS SAY LOVE, TURKEY TOT, and THE WITCHES’ DOUBLE SPELLING BEE. I don’t yet know when they will actually be published. Meanwhile, I’m having fun working on new projects.
What is your favorite word?
If you had asked about my favorite sound I would have had an immediate answer. Laughter! Joyful laughter. Identifying a favorite word is much harder. Perhaps the word “joy.” Or, perhaps the word “again” as when a child so loves a story or verse they say, “Again!”
Who is your favorite author or book (children’s or adult)?
This answer continues to evolve, but there are some authors that always bring me pleasure: Arthur Marshall (adult humorist). M.B. Goffstein (picture books), and Arnold Lobel (Early Readers). My three favorite picture books as a child were (still are): RABBIT AND HIS FRIENDS by Richard Scarry (1953), THE BUNNY BOOK by Patsy Scarry. Illus. by Richard Scary (1955) and THE UNHAPPY HIPPOPOTAMUS by Nancy Moore. Illus. by Edward Leight (1957).
Do you have a favorite illustrator? (Not necessarily for your own books, just in general).
I would have loved to have been illustrated or still be illustrated by Jean Charlot, Marc Simont, Crocket Johnson, and Helen Oxebbury. Oh, and Feodor Rojankovsky has been one of my very favorites since childhood.
What authors influenced you when you were first starting out?
I suppose my biggest influences were the picture book authors most satisfying to read to groups of children when I was a librarian in the 1970s.
What are your hobbies when you’re not writing?
I used to be a big gardener, but that is fading a bit. The last few years I’ve been taking acting and improv classes and love it! I also go through spells of drawing and sketching a lot.
Thanks again to George Shannon! If you’d like more information about him, his books, and his other work, please check out his website or his blog.