Fearless Jack and Old Dry Frye
Authors say writing for children means making young readers want to come back for more. And more. And more...
Jerrie Preston Oughton believes that writing children's books is a little like "sending letters to the world."
Tres Seymour says that he doesn't write for children but for himself, and that, by happy circumstance, children like what he writes.
Paul Brett Johnson likes to spend as much time sounding out words and phrases for his children's books as he does coming up with them.
"Children love the spoken word, and they develop language skills first by listening," says Johnson. "Before children learn to read for themselves, picture books are read to them, often over and over. Therefore I try to make my stories fun for the grownups too."
If there is one thing Kentucky children's book authors have in common, it is an understanding of what children like, of what they hope to hear, see, and experience when they open a book. Writers like Johnson, Seymour, and Oughton have a real feel for the flavor of the written word. Not only that, but they know how to communicate the endless possibility of language so that children simply cannot resist pulling their books off the shelf, time and time again.
Johnson, an award-winning author and illustrator who has over 20 children's books under his belt, is a native of Kentucky's Appalachian mountains.
"I grew up in the small Appalachian community of Mousie alongside coal trains, annual hog killings, and Sunday dinners-on-the-ground," says the Lexington artist who spent long childhood summer days with his grandfather, helping him tend to his honeybees and "listening to his doubtful tales."
Those Appalachian roots played a part in the development of Johnson's 1999 book, Old Dry Frye, A Deliciously Funny Tall Tale, a melodic mountain tale about a fried-chicken-loving preacher whose last supper unleashes some interesting reactions among the townfolk.
A natural-born storyteller like his grandfather as well as a gifted artist, Johnson grew up, sketch book in hand, to eventually earn two Kentucky Bluegrass Awards and a California Young Readers' Medal for his books. The author has been selected for inclusion in the last three editions of Who's Who in America.
Things didn't start out quite so encouragingly for the author-illustrator. Johnson admits he nearly gave up on the idea of producing children's books almost as soon as it surfaced while he was in college.
"I took a class in children's literature and found myself enthralled with the notion of becoming an author and illustrator. After that, I occasionally went as far as working up a manuscript and submitting it."
Like so many writers before him, Johnson found the rejection slips so discouraging that he would shelve the idea. "Eventually, however, the desire to make my dream a reality took over. I read every how-to article and book I could find. I wrote to publishing houses for their catalogs. I spent endless hours at the library. Then I sat down to rewrite a story I had first written 10 years earlier. Within six months, The Cow Who Wouldn't Come Down had a publisher."
This book, published in 1993, was followed by a number of picture books including a few of Johnson's personal favorites: Fearless Jack, Jack Outwits the Giants, and Lost.
When a reader closes a Paul Brett Johnson book, the author hopes the reader "comes away with a positive feeling about the reading experience itself, since reading is so fundamental to learning." Readers also get a taste of the lyrical quality Johnson brings to language.
Tres Seymour, a prolific author of books for children and young adult readers, calls this the "musicality of language." As a matter of fact, the author of the 1993 tall tale Hunting the White Cow was once told by an editor that he had a good ear.
"There's a deep-rooted tradition of oral communication that I've inherited as a native of the South, a way of using story, lyric, and analog to create meaning. Add to this my Irish-Scottish heritage and some background in community theater, and you have a writer who ends up treating each story as a production to be shared aurally, orally, and even physically."
Now a resident of Munfordville, Seymour was born in Glasgow and spent his growing-up years in east Tennessee with frequent trips back home to Hart County. The "Kentuckesseean," as he calls himself, is a National Park Service ranger at Mammoth Cave in addition to being an award-winning writer, and he feels this influences his creativity.
"It's deepened the appreciation that I gained from my parents and grandparents for the natural world and for history, the basis for most of my work. But the cave itself hasn't yet given me a published book. I've written about the great cave, of course--two novels and a book of poetry--but I feel like it's still holding something back. The underground has secrets that it keeps to itself."
Seymour describes himself as a bookish child who entered college with a desire to read but no idea how to go about getting someone to pay him to read all day. The avid reader then chose the next closest thing: writing.
"I wanted to do something worthwhile and decided that if I could write a book that would start one young person on a life of reading, then that would be my goal. I didn't realize at the time that since reading is such a personal experience I will likely never know whether my goal has been met."
Oughton, an award-winning Lexington author by way of Georgia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina, recently learned firsthand from one of her readers that her own goal of connecting with readers had been met.
"A novel writer, at least this one, needs a certain amount of personal privacy of spirit, thus I don't rub shoulders with my readers a great deal of the time. One reader just wrote this note to me: 'I just finished reading Music from a Place Called Half Moon. I read a lot of books, maybe about three average chapter books a week, but not many of them touch my heart like your book did. I really liked the way you sort of combine history with a personal point of view.' "
Oughton, the mother of five children, wrote her first picture book, How the Stars Fell into the Sky, after experiencing an "epiphany moment" in 1992 that followed 35 years of writing.
"I suddenly saw the end of parenthood up ahead and decided to get serious about writing. I had seen an article in National Geographic magazine on cave art. One paragraph told of First Woman wanting to write the laws for her people to see. It was a Navajo creation legend. It had not been written because the Navajo library was oral. I wrote it as a poem and sent it to an editor at Houghton Mifflin with whom I'd been corresponding. They bought it and I was off and running."
That book was followed a year later by a second picture book, The Magic Weaver of Rugs, another Navajo legend, this time based on Spider Woman. Then came Oughton's award-winning novel for young adults, Music from a Place Called Half Moon, for which Houghton Mifflin flew the author and her husband to New York to collect the award.
Oughton says she likes to find characters, "throw them in a certain locale and tell them, 'Go to it.' They usually do and I just write as fast as I can, trying to capture their story. Somewhere along the way I look up and say to myself, 'So, that's what this book's about.' "
Kentucky Children's Literature-Related Web Sites
Kentucky Book Award/Kentucky Bluegrass Award
Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, KDLA Links to Other Sites,Children's Literature, and Children's Librarians
Kentucky Library Association
Kentucky Reading Association
Kentucky School Media Association
Kentucky Virtual Library
Books by Featured Kentucky Authors
Paul Brett Johnson
Bearhide and Crow
The Goose Who Went Off in a Huff
Mr. Persnickety and Cat Lady
A Perfect Pork Stew
The Pig Who Ran a Red Light
Jerrie Preston Oughton
The War in Georgia
Music from a Place Called Half Moon
The Gulls of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Hunting the White Cow
I Love My Buzzard
Life in a Desert: A Novel
Our Neighbor is a Strange,Strange Man
The Smash-Up Crash-Up Derby
We Played Marbles
Black Sky River
A Beginning Reader's Bookcase
"Can you lead a horse to water and make him drink?" asks Lexington resident Karen Mendez Smith, a former children's literary agent for over seven years and, most recently, publisher of M/Path Press and co-founder of Satori Organics. "Only if the horse is thirsty and the water is good. By placing the pure water of excellent books within our children's grasp, I think we can ensure that they will continue to gravitate toward reading."
Mendez Smith has a number of favorites that she recommends as "must haves" in any beginning reader's bookcase.
Frog and Toad Together. Story and pictures by Arnold Lobel. "This collection of stories, intended for beginning readers, is delightful for any age because of the truthful way this special friendship is portrayed."
The Wizard of Oz. L. Frank Baum (entire original series). "These books are not intended for beginning readers, but having them there on the bookshelf is an inspiration to any child to find out what happens to Dorothy after she clicks her silver slippers (only in the movie are they ruby-colored) together."
The Story of Ferdinand. Story by Munro Leaf. Drawings by Robert Lawson. "If ever there was a tribute to being in the present moment, this classic picture book would be its anthem. Reading is a nonviolent art. The story of Ferdinand affirms the way of gentleness for all of us. Its black and white art is a novelty in today's color-heightened world."
The Cat in the Hat. Story and illustrations by Dr. Seuss. "Nothing is as fun as a troublemaker who gets away with it."
Cinderella Penguin. Story and illustrations by Janet Perlman. "This twist on the classic fairy tale surprised us by being uproariously funny every time we read it. Instead of a glass slipper, Cinderella has--you guessed it--a glass flipper."
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis (entire series). "The characters in this mythic masterpiece invite children into a world that leads them ever onward into the joyfulness of reading. It is in books like these that they discover their own natural intelligence."
Goodnight Moon. Margaret Wise Brown. "Every child who has ever memorized the simple text of this favorite knows the satisfaction of absorbing the rhythms of language--one of the first tools to being a motivated reader."
Miss Rumphius. Story and pictures by Barbara Cooney. "It's not enough to just experience the world; it is our task to discover what it is we can return. Part of the magic of reading, at any level, is to come to know our finer selves. This book lets little people know that this may be something entirely unexpected."
Others: Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak; Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen; Babar, by Jean De Brunhoff; The Tub People, by Pam Conrad; Bonesy and Isabel, by Michael J. Rosen; and The Mysteries of Harris Burkick, by Chris Van Allsburg.