This is part of a series of interviews with children’s writers in New Mexico to celebrate the 2012 centennial.
Shirley Raye Redmond has written books about bunyips, mermaids, the Jersey Devil, and Richard Branson. (Quiz: Which one of these things does not belong in KidHaven’s Monsters series?) Her most recent book is Norse Mythology (Gale Cengage 2012). Here, Shirley Raye answers a few questions about her prolific output, the business of writing nonfiction for kids, and, as always, the Profesor’s question.
This might sound like the question of someone prejudiced toward
fiction, but have you always wanted to write nonfiction? Your output is astounding–what keeps you going from project to project?
I’ll admit that nonfiction is my first love—I started out in journalism before getting my M.A. in literature. True stories are often inspirational, frequently amazing, sometimes horrific, and even unbelievable. I’ll never live long enough to pursue all the subjects that appeal to me. I’ve written and sold more than 400 magazine and newspaper articles too, for a wide variety of publications such as Highlights for Children, Cosmopolitan, and Shotgun Sports and New Mexico Magazine. But I have to confess that my first two book titles were both fiction—Stone of the Sun, a romantic suspense for grown up readers and then Grampa and the Ghost, a humorous juvenile novel, which later became a Weekly Reader selection.
Most recently, I’ve read Fairies! (Random House) and Oak Island Treasure Pit (KidHaven). How did you approach the research for these titles? Were these topics assigned by the publisher, or are you able to suggest topics of interest to you personally?
Fairies are hot—in fact, Disney’s Tinkerbell tales are the number one reading choice (based on book sales) for girls under the age of 9 in the USA. I wanted to cash in on that trend and decided to approach it from a nonfiction angle. I pitched the idea to my Random House editor, who loved the idea. Oak Island Treasure Pit is part of the Kidhaven Press Mysterious Encounters series. I’d written (and researched) a brief article about the owners of the Pit putting it up for sale and sold the piece to ISLANDS magazine. So when the Kidhaven editor asked if I’d like to write a book on the subject, I jumped at the chance. Pirates, buried treasure, ghosts, and booby traps! Who could resist such a nonfiction topic!
Of course writers never have favorites among their books (wink), but you probably have a favorite topic or area of research that interests you. What sort of book do you most enjoy writing?
Whatever topic I’m working on at the moment!
If readers visit my website at www.shirleyrayeredmond.com
they’ll get an idea of the sort of topics I’m interested in.
What do you find most challenging about working within publishers guidelines for some of these projects, given that a book might have to be at a certain reading level?
Because of my background in journalism, I know how to write tight, using simple diction. (Most newspapers are written for a 6th to 8th grade reading level.) This is a plus when writing for kids. Once an editor has approved my topic, she may provide basic guidelines, such as word count or limitations on three-syllable words, etc. Once I turn in a polished draft, the editor goes over this and may make further suggestions regarding age-appropriate diction or sentence structure. The most challenging aspect is finding NEW material that has not appeared in most kids’ book before. For instance, I was thrilled to discover that Christopher Columbus spent a winter in Iceland learning about the Nordic seafarers routes to the New World before he made his historic voyage in 1492. I included this fascinating tidbit in my recent book, Norse Mythology (Lucent Books, June 2012).
How does a typical school visit go for you?
My school visits have run the gamut from a half-hour reading to a single class of 15 kids to answering questions in a gym filled with students. I particularly like those schools with PTOs that buy copies of my books AHEAD OF TIME for all the students I will be meeting with. When the youngsters have had time to read a title in advance of my visit, their questions are much more to the point and we can have a more animated dialogue. My novel Grampa and the Ghost
was actually inspired by a classroom visit with third graders at a school in Illinois.The teacher had asked me to provide a list of a dozen vocabulary words that writers may use in the course of their careers. I added the term ghostwriter
to the list and certainly enjoyed the kids’ creative definitions.The Professor’s question (in honor of Vaunda Nelson’s great-uncle, who started a bookstore with 5 books): If you had to pick five books to start your bookstore, what would they be? These are not necessarily your desert island favorites, but the 5 books you would most like to share with the world.
The authors you previously interviewed on your blog have provided a list of great choices, such as Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the Bible. I guess I would add the following 5 titles because of the impact they had on me as a young person, prompting me to make the decision at the age of 12 to become a writer:
(1) Little Women (I wanted to be Jo!)
(2) The Magic Garden by Gene Stratton Porter—not to be confused with the better known, The Secret Garden.
(3) I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson (autobiography)
(4) The Little House books (what I call creative nonfiction)
(5) The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (the first book that moved me to tears).
Also, I read Stone Fox when working on my M.A. and found it to be a masterful example of how elementary diction and simple sentence structure can be used to relate a complex and emotional narrative. Anyone wanting to write for kids should read it.
Any advice for writers looking to get into writing nonfiction for
Yes! The good news about nonfiction for kids is that it’s easier to sell than fiction and it stays in print much longer, earning more royalties and subsidiary sales, such as textbook rights and foreign language rights and book club rights. My Simon & Schuster and Random House nonfiction titles have generated tens of thousands of dollars in income for me over the years. Author Jennifer McKerley and I have compiled a workbook that provides all the details of how to break in—Write a Marketable Children’s Book in 7 Weeks
. The key word here is marketable
. We also write a blog on the topic, which your readers can visit at http://www.writechildrensbook.com/blog
Thank you, Shirley Raye!
Shirley Raye has very kindly offered to give away a copy of Fairies! and Oak Island Treasure Pit. To win one of these wonderful books, leave a comment telling me your favorite work of children’s nonfiction. Winners will be drawn randomly from all comments entered before midnight on October 26, 2012. That’s this year, folks, so don’t wait too long.