Friday, September 26, 2008

Conference Notes: "Ouhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifr Greatest Children's Books," part 3

A continuation of the opening speech on Saturday at the SCBWI-C conference by Anita Silvey on the stories behind some of the greatest children stories of America.

Here are some more of the highlights from the speech. Click for parts 1 and 2.

  • My Father's Dragon is a picture book I'd never personally heard of, but a story I envy. The author wrote the story in two weeks during college break, her mother-in-law illustrated it, and her future husband, a book designer, helped the book get published. Literally an overnight success, the book is still in print. What I loved about the story was Silvey's commentary. She said, "there's always one book that's a gift" for an author—there's one book that just flows and is perfect and easy and brilliant to write.
  • Charlotte's Web was written after the author had done an article for Atlantic Monthly on the death of a pig. He wished he could write a story where the pig could live, and knew that it would have to be a children's story. When he walked passed the barn and saw a spider's web, he had his story. The editor said he only changed one thing about the manuscript: the chapter title called "The Death of Charlotte" was retitled to "The Final Days" as the word "death" was considered too harsh for children. Reviewers hated the book—perhaps because of the powerful message about death—and influenced the Newbery Awards to give Charlotte's Web the runner-up slot. Of course, the winner is now in obscurity and Charlotte's Web is one of the best selling paperbacks in America...
  • And to Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street was rejected over 20 times before Dr. Seuss almost gave up. He was on his way to his apartment to burn the manuscript when he ran into an old college friend...who'd just been promoted to children's book editors. He took the book sight unseen. When Seuss asked if he even wanted to read the book, the new editor said "I wouldn't know a children's book if it bit me on the ankle" and he just needed something, anything. Before this time, picture books tended to be message-laden and serious, but this was different—and a success. Seuss helped revolutionize the entire children's book world...and to think it all started with Mulberry Street.
  • Scott O'Dell was in his fifties when he finished Island of the Blue Dolphins, but the story was one that "he always had to tell." He had not intended it to be a kids' book, but his publisher relabeled it as such after submission. Silvey said of O'Dell's writing of the book: "This was a gift to Scott, and he then wrote it and made it a gift to all of us." When O'Dell died in his nineties, a group of friends sailed into the Pacific to scatter his ashes. On the voyage home, 18 blue dolphins escorted the boat back home.
    • An interesting note about O'Dell, by Silvey: He loved librarians. "He married one, and that was the problem: he could only marry one."
  • A Wrinkle in Time was written by L'Engle after she'd published before, but her publisher wouldn't touch this new manuscript: it was too different. L'Engle's mother had a tea party for her, invited the editor Farrar (of Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux fame), and basically forced the manuscript on him. They had a small print run (which could have been bought up by L'Engle's mother and friends if it flopped). Everyone was shocked when they discovered what a huge success the book became. As Silvey said, "Great books eventually find their way; you just have to give them time."

Coming tomorrow (are you sick of the subject yet?): Wild Things! Terrible Days! Raw Turtle Eggs!
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