Happy Sunday once again and welcome to our Linda Boyden interview!
Linda is an author, illustrator, poet, teacher and performer. She fell in love with storytelling at a young age and considers learning to read the most important discovery of her life. Her books include THE BLUE ROSES, POWWOW’S COMING, and GIVEAWAYS: AN ABC BOOK OF LOANWORDS FROM THE AMERICAS. Read more about her on her website.
1. If you had walk-on music (a song that plays when you enter a room), what would it be? Why?
Hands down, this was the hardest question, like name your favorite book or movie––impossible to choose only one. I surveyed friends & family who suggested “Pomp & Circumstances,” “Here She Comes, Miss America,” to Pink’s “Get This Party Started,” all of which sorely tempted me. However, I must go with “Imagine” by John Lennon because of the line, “You may say I’m a dreamer…” To be an artist is to dream.
2. Do you have certain rituals to help you write? Such as writing at a specific time in the day, a certain amount of time a week, or particular places?
I’m up at 4 or 4:30 every day. By my second cup of coffee, I’m writing. For 2012, I start with a poem as a warm-up exercise. My goal is to write a poem a day for the year. I’m more or less on target, having filled up notebook #1. After that, I attack the WIP of the day.
3. Your books feature Native Americans. What draws you to this subject above all others?
I am of mixed-blood Cherokee/Irish/French Canadian ancestry, although not enrolled in the Cherokee Nation. I am a long time member of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers (www.wordcraftcircle.org) and SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (www.scbwi.org). What comes out in my writing, all of it begins in the heart of me; the person who I am. I define that as a writer/illustrator/teacher; only now I’m a “recovering” teacher, and that means just because I’m not in a classroom full-time doesn’t mean I won’t try to teach you something. Life is all about cause & effect: because I taught, I know there are books still on school or public library shelves that portray Natives in the tired stereotypical way of “noble savages,” or the “I is for Indian” nonsense; because I’m immersed in children’s literature, I also know many contemporary publishers are diligent about publishing better books about American Indians. In all my work, I am committed to teaching others that Native Americans are a living force, making a stand for their individual cultures.
4. You said that the plot of THE BLUE ROSES came from your own life. Why did you feel that experience was what you wanted to write about?
In 1978, my maternal grandfather passed on and I couldn’t attend his funeral. I lived a couple of thousand miles away and was about to have my third baby. This set of grandparents was an integral part of my childhood, and so I grieved until Grandpa came to me in a dream. He stood in a garden of the most beautiful flowers, and his face was smooth, not wrinkled! Imagine that…kids only know their grandparents as old and wrinkled. He looked radiant and told me to stop crying because he was happy. I woke and still have that radiant feeling harbored in my heart. I knew using a garden would be a gentle metaphor to talk to kids about the difficult topic of death. Years later, I finally had the time to write it down and then was lucky that Lee & Low Books shared my commitment.
5. Did you always know that it would be a picture book or did you try a few different forms?
Absolutely. THE BLUE ROSES couldn’t be anything else. Even though it had been a dream, it was such a visual experience it had to be a picture book. Lee & Low then paired me with Amy Cordova as the illustrator. Her art perfectly matched my words.
6. For POWWOW’S COMING you did your own illustrations. What was that experience like?
Being a trifle OCD, when I sent my POWWOW’S COMING submission to the University of New Mexico Press, I included a couple of samples of what I thought the art should look like… to “help” the illustrator get my point? For example, the text called for a primary color palette because it’s a book about an important Native tradition, so the colors had to stay true to the tradition. When my editor said they wanted me to do the art, my initial reaction was, “Nooooooooo! I’ve never been to art school.” But he insisted and I am grateful he did. I spent a lot of time terrified, but studying; terrified, but asking advice from illustrator friends; terrified, but going ahead anyway. I learned to let go of the fear and trust my instincts. A few years later, I pitched the same editor a new book concept: an ABC book about loanwords from Native languages into English. I had read a delicious book, “O Brave New Words” by Charles S. Cutler and was astounded at how many English words have their origins in Native languages. Kids need to know the great contribution Native languages have made to our language, too. This time, doing the art was just a lark; a pure joy. I had 26 words from many languages of North, South and Central American indigenous nations, reflecting many topics from animals to food to sports. I’m a cut-paper collage artist so anything goes: extraordinary kinds of paper, real feathers, tiny beads, embroidery work, bark and other natural substances. So in 2010, my third book was released, GIVEAWAYS, AN ABC BOOK OF LOANWORDS FROM THE AMERICAS (University of New Mexico Press). Since then it has been the recipient of three Finalist Awards from the International Book Awards, Finalist in two categories in the 2012 New Mexico Book of the Year Award, and was included in the California Reading’s Association’s 2012 California Collections list of recommended Middle Grade titles. POWWOW’S COMING made Reading Is Fundamental’s 2011 Multicultural Books list so my head is still spinning.
7. Both your children’s books and your adult poetry have won awards. How do balance both?
I have been in love with words since first grade when I discovered this little squiggle stands for that sound…magic! Words to be read and words to be written are like two forks of a river, separate, but together at the heart of the matter. When I do school visits, I tell students a Gary Paulsen quote: “Read like a wolf eats.” Writers have to read and readers should also write so the circle can be complete. I cycle through the genres and levels at whim, unless I’m on a contract deadline. Once a month I attend a local Spoken Word/Open Mic night so I try to produce something “grown-up” for that. I had been neglecting my poetry, which is 99% for adults, so that’s why I’m doing one a day.
8. How important is performing your own work? What do you learn when performing?
I am a ham, no denying that, but with a memory faulty enough that pursuing acting would have been a dismal career move. Teaching is a performance art, at least on the level I chose, the primary grades (ages 5-8). Once I left teaching, I had to fill that niche, so began storytelling at my local library. I still perform monthly at the Redding (CA.) Barnes & Noble store and the Redding Library, as well as whenever I do a school author visit. The value of these, besides the personal joy, is they keep me current. I research the newest books to share; pick up each age group’s current jargon, what’s cool and more important, what isn’t…vital information if you write for kids.
9. Do you have a current work-in-progress?
One? Only one? What? I have many WIPs: I want to break into the middle grade genre so I’m working on a two book, fantasy adventure set with protagonists who are modern kids who also happen to be Cherokee. I have any number of picture book manuscripts; an adult level collection of poetry and prose; a YA historical biography in free verse, and that’s just the top of the heap.
10. Who do you read for inspiration?
For kidlit inspiration: Margaret Wise Brown on the primary level and Joseph Bruchac for middle grades plus all the other authors I’ve read. For adult writing? Ditto, every author I’ve ever read.
11. Do you have any events coming up?
I am blessed with being busy. On the horizon are school visits on the writing process and my Beat Test Stress program designed with second graders in mind to help them not fret over their first experience with standardized testing. One thing I stress is they have been preparing for this test all year, and I do this via my puppet-type props, Fretta (the worry- wart) , Zoom (doesn’t worry at all), and Picky Otter (a great role model and cute, too). I’ll be presenting at our Barnes & Noble’s Teacher Appreciation night in April as well as planning my regular preschool storytelling monthly events, and doing two local Summer Reading programs at libraries. Life is good.