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Children's literature: Writers, illustrators talk about creative process at BYU symposium

Published: Sunday, July 31 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

David Wiesner speaks at a young reader's book symposium at BYU.       (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) David Wiesner speaks at a young reader's book symposium at BYU. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

PROVO — When David Wiesner was a boy, he heard a poem by Ogden Nash with the lines: "Does anybody want any flotsam?/I've gotsam. Does anybody want any jetsam?/I can getsam." He tucked it away in the back of his mind, "but I've loved the word 'flotsam' ever since."

When Wiesner was a boy, he saw a Droopy Dog episode where the character ran right out of the cartoon frame and into the blank space next door. He tucked it away in the back of his mind, but "that whole idea of an alternate reality, the fact that there was something else behind the pictures was very intriguing."

As a boy, Wiesner "sat up for years and years watching old science fiction movies." One of his favorite shapes was that of the old flying saucers he saw. That, too, got filed away somewhere in his mind.

What didn't get filed away was the fact that he loved to draw. That has been a constant all his life.

Mary Downing Hahn answers questions after speaking at a young reader's book symposium.     (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Mary Downing Hahn answers questions after speaking at a young reader's book symposium. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

"By the third grade, my life path was set," he said. "My teacher sent home a note that said, 'David would rather be drawing that doing his schoolwork,' like that was a bad thing. I thought it was the highest compliment."

His parents, too, didn't seem to mind so much. At least, they kept him supplied with "all the tools and materials" he would ever need.

At the time Wiesner became known as "the kid who could draw." He has grown up into a man who creates children's picture books and has won three Caldecott Medals for his work. One of those winners is "Flotsam," which tells the story of a camera that washes up on the beach. Another is "The Three Little Pigs," in which the pigs are blown by the wolf out of the traditional story into an alternate reality. The third is "Tuesday," which tells the story of frogs sailing through the sky like flying saucers on lily pads.

David Wiesner speaks at a young reader's book symposium at BYU in Provo on Friday, July 15, 2011.   (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) David Wiesner speaks at a young reader's book symposium at BYU in Provo on Friday, July 15, 2011. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

His stories are often told without many words.

"I look at a picture book like it's a Chinese Tangram, with pieces that can create a variety of other shapes but all have to fit together in a whole," he said. "When there are no words, every picture has to tell the story, has to make you want to turn the page."

Wiesner was one of several national authors who participated in the 24th Symposium on Books for Young Readers recently held at BYU. The symposium drew librarians, teachers, parents and others who enjoy and work with children's literature.

"We are trying to raise awareness of the amazing world of children's literature," said Rachel Lynn Wadham, education and juvenile librarian at BYU and a member of the planning committee for the symposium.

Mary Downing Hahn speaks at a young reader's book symposium at BYU in Provo on Friday, July 15, 2011.   (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Mary Downing Hahn speaks at a young reader's book symposium at BYU in Provo on Friday, July 15, 2011. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

"We want to let those who are engaging young children, as teachers, librarians, parents, know what wonderful things are going on in children's literature and how important it can be for children."

Books open new worlds, she says. "They energize the imagination. They help children see ideas and perspectives they are not familiar with. Reading is one of the most important things a child can do. Being able to read, to engage with text, is one of the most critical skills we can provide children."

Studies do show that children are reading less these days, Wadham says. "There are a lot more options, a lot more distractions."

But, she adds, they are reading. "There are passionate readers out there. And the ones who develop a passion for reading are the ones who have adults in their lives that are also passionate readers."

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In addition to Wiesner, authors and illustrators participating in the symposium were Gennady Spirin, illustrator of such books as "A Apple Pie," "The Story of Noah and the Ark," "The Tempest" and "The Sea King's Daughter"; Robert Burleigh, author of "Home Run: The Story of Babe Ruth," "A Painter's Journey" and "Abraham Lincoln Comes Home"; Susan Meddaugh, author of "Martha Speaks" and other animal tales; Rebecca Stead, author of "When You Reach Me" and "First Light"; and Mary Downing Hahn, author of "The Doll in the Garden," "A Time for Andrew" and "Closed For The Season."

They shared their perspectives on children's literature and participated in informal question-and-answer sessions. They talked about their own works and the processes and inspirations behind them.

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The bubbly, humorous Hahn might be the last person one would suspect of writing ghost stories. Although she also writes historical fiction, she is best known for the supernatural twists.

 (Deseret News, Kristin Murphy, Deseret News, Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) (Deseret News, Kristin Murphy, Deseret News, Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Does she write the stories she would have liked to read as a child? No way, she said. "I'd have been terrified of my books when I was 10."

But it is fun to write about ghosts now.

"Mine aren't gory, gruesome ghost stories," she said. "I try to do them in the tradition of old English stories. I make them as scary as I can stand. They're scary, but they won't gross you out."

But there's something about reading ghost stories, she says, that controls fear, makes it safe. "The things that scare you most can be overcome by reading stories of fear and death." Less than half the books she writes are ghost stories, she says, "but those are the ones kids read the most."

Does she believe in ghosts? People always ask that, Hahn said. "I don't know. They occupy some twilight place, where they can be if you want them to be — or not. I like writing about ghosts because they speed things up, make things happen. It's a neat thing to put in a ghost and then see what happens."

Hahn thinks her "The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall" has the best ghost, but "Time for Andrew" has the best ending, she says. Georgie in the "Old Willis Place" is her favorite character. But her own personal favorite book is "Stepping On the Cracks," which is set against a World War II backdrop and has mysteries but no ghosts.

"You have to write what you want to write," she said. "Lots of bits and pieces from life come together for a book. Ideas come from everywhere and nowhere."

Wiesner agrees.

"I sit down and draw and draw and draw until some connection happens, some spark comes along that unlocks the story." Over the years, he said, "I've learned to have faith in my process. It's worked before; it will work again."

Wiesner strives to tell stories "in the clearest, most efficient way I can." The great thing about doing wordless books, he says, "is that it's not my voice that's telling the story. It's the voice of whoever is reading that tells the story."

It has been fun to see how readers have reacted to those kinds of stories. A librarian told him about one little boy who tore up pieces of paper and wrote a story on them, then tucked each piece between the pages of "Flotsam" before putting the book back on the shelf. Wiesner's favorite line was when the boy wrote, "Jon was looking at unnormal pictures."

It's something he wishes for everyone. Life should be filled with unnormal pictures, he said, with sparks of imagination, with all the amazing things that come from books.

Email: carma@desnews.com

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