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Stories from Real Life

An Interview with Mary Ann Rodman

by Andrea Schmitz

Mary Ann Rodman won the 2006 Charlotte Zolotow Award for her picture book My Best Friend (Viking, 2005).

Ms. Rodman shared the following thoughts on writing, publishing, and book awards through an email interview during June 2006.

Mary Ann Rodman lives in Georgia with her family.

 

AS: Congratulations, Mary Ann, on winning the Charlotte Zolotow Award for your picture book My Best Friend! How does it feel?

MAR: Still feeling pretty stunned...and it's been months since I first heard the news. It is in an incredible honor.

AS: What was your initial reaction to the news that you’d won? How did you find out?

MAR: Since I am the only person I know with only one phone line...which is tied up with my Internet connection 90% of the time...I get a lot of news by email...which is how I learned I had won the Zolotow. My editor emailed me. My reaction? I was scrolling through messages, and when I saw that one, it was as if someone had reached out of the computer screen and conked me on the head! Stunned...completely. Then I called my husband at work.

AS: This must be such an exciting time for you as you’ve also won the Ezra Jack Keats Book Award for My Best Friend. Congratulations again on another spectacular win! What’s your reaction to this added prize?

MAR: As is typical in my house, my Viking editor, Anne Gunton, called with the news, just as I was trying to get my daughter out the door to figure skating practice. I only had half an ear on the phone when this very excited voice kind of shrieked, "Mary Ann? This is Anne." I have a sister in law named Anne, and she is NOT the excitable type, so while I was processing this information, my daughter is simultaneously screaming, "Where are my TIGHTS?" So I completely missed what Anne said on the phone. By this time, I had figured out this was not my sister in law, so I am afraid my next words were "Um...who are you?" After she identified herself as my editor, she calmed down enough to tell me I had won the Zolotow. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, my daughter is yelling "My skate pants. Are they in the wash?" I thanked Anne for calling, told her I had absolutely positively had to go and would talk to her later. I had driven all the way to the rink before I realized what I had won! For some reason, I though Anne was calling to tell me about the Zolotow Award, and it took five miles of Atlanta traffic before it sunk in that she was talking about the KEATS AWARD!

AS: You actually were already familiar with the CCBC pre-Zolotow award. Could you talk about that?

MAR: I worked in the EMC at Polk Library at UW-Oshkosh under Mary Keefer from 1993 to 1997 (when we moved to Bangkok). It was the best four years of my professional life, not the least of which was discovering CCBC. Mary was so generous in introducing me to the CCBC-Net, and all the programs that CCBC offered. I was lucky enough to attend several big conferences during my time there. The day that Choices came out was always a high point for us...sort of like Academy Awards day for children's literature. I have always appreciated the scope of Choices. I learned that while some books get lost in the publishing shuffle, shoved aside by those with big name authors and big time promotional budgets, CCBC reads, I am convinced, EVERYTHING that is published! Through them, I gained an appreciation for Canadian authors such as Brian Doyle, translations (The Final Journey by Gudrun Pausewang), and any number of other authors that I might never have come across otherwise.

AS: I know My Best Friend was born out of watching your own daughter navigate her way through friendship-making. Can you share the-story-behind-the-story with us?

MAR: This is a really long story, but for the Reader's Digest version: my daughter was in a playgroup in Bangkok that met every week, and she had her best friend all picked out, just like the Lily in the story. Unfortunately, this little girl, who went to Lily's pre-school and rode her bus, and was a year older, wanted nothing to do with her...unless her own friends happened to be away. After one too many Wednesdays of watching this girl and her friends actively ignore Lily (playing close to her...and then moving as soon as Lily tried to join the group) I just lost it. What I really wanted to do was strangle that little girl...but that's never a good idea. So I did what I usually do when I am furious...I wrote. I wrote a story with a happy ending about Lily finding a friend. And when the smoke cleared the next day, I realized I had written my first picture book.

AS: At what point did you share My Best Friend with your daughter? What was her reaction to it? And now . . . has its accolades changed or deepened her perceptions?

MAR: I read it to her when I first finished it, since she was the only available test audience I had. She caught on immediately that even though the main character had her name, it was fiction...a what-could-have-been story. I don't think she really grasps the thing about the accolades. After all, this book has been in her life for seven years (I waited five years for the illustrator), so this is kind of a fact of life for her. Mom writes, people think it's a good book. [She was] very matter of fact.

AS: In general, is your writing inspired from your personal real-life experiences?

MAR: Pretty much. In fact, at one of my school visits, a kid asked me "So do you ever write about anything besides your own family?" and the answer, so far, has been "No." My next book picture book, First Grade Stinks (Peachtree, 2006), is another Lily-inspired story about her struggles adapting to first grade. My middle grade novels, Yankee Girl (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004) and the one that I have just sold to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Jimmy’s Stars, had their roots in family history, as are the next several projects I have lined up on my desk. These are not family stories per se, but again, stories that began with a real person or situation, and moved on to "what-if?"

AS: What was it like to work with an illustrator for the first time? Any pitfalls? Pleasures?

MAR: Well, you aren't really working WITH an illustrator. They have your manuscript and they go off and work on it, and then you see what they've done when your editor sends you the f & g's (a kind of galley for picture books...f and g's stands for "folded and gathered pages.” This is what the publisher sends you...They are the book pages, folded into the order they will appear in the book but not bound).

There is kind of an understanding that they do their thing and you do yours...and you don't interfere in each other's work. I couldn't imagine that an illustrator would tell me how to write my book, so I wouldn't dream of telling an illustrator what I think the pictures should look like. I think some authors might get preliminary sketches or something, but I haven't had that experience.

In the case of E.B. Lewis, he was my dream illustrator. I secretly had harbored the wish that he might be my illustrator. I was thrilled when my editor said he had agreed to the project. He was well worth a very long wait. He brought Lily and Tameka and Keesha to life in such spectacular fashion...it was beyond my wildest dreams. The day my f & g's came I took them down to the school bus stop and passed them around to the other moms...as if I had done the pictures myself! I was SO proud.

I have had people ask "Don't you worry that an illustrator will do something with your book and you will hate it?" Are you kidding? That is the beauty of picture books...when you are not an illustrator yourself, you have the pleasure of allowing another person, the artist, to express what THEY see in YOUR words. I have never talked to either of my illustrators; yet, they some how saw something in my words that I could not begin to see myself. When I write, I don't think in terms of art...I am not an artist. In my mind, I am imagining real kids as I write. It's up to the illustrator to find the art.

AS: You’ve also written a children’s novel, Yankee Girl, which has also garnered fine reviews. Do you prefer writing novels or picture books?

MAR: I like writing both, because the dynamics of working on each are completely different. I tell people that writing a picture book is like dating...you don't spend a huge amount of time with these characters (comparatively speaking)...nor do I do much research. I will write for a couple of hours over a few weeks, and then put the book away to "marinate." Then, after a reasonable amount of time (depending on what kind of shape the book was in when I last worked on it) I will get it out and work on it again. For instance, although I worked on First Grade Stinks over a period of three years, the actual writing time at a computer was only about six hours.

Novels are like marriage. You better be really sure you like these characters and this situation you are writing about, because you are going to be with them a long, long, time. I write historical fiction, so I do tons of research (that's the former librarian in me...I could research forever and never write at all!) and spend a lot of time "talking" to my characters before I start writing. (This is the stage when I have conversations with my characters while I am driving...which Lily has learned to accept as "normal.")

Yankee Girl took me four years to write (I never DREAMED it would take that long when I started) and by the time I was in the final revisions, all I wanted to do was put all the characters in a car, and drive it off a cliff, Thelma-and-Louise style, just so the book would be DONE! ("And then they all died...the end!") Jimmy’s Stars didn't take nearly as long...about eighteen months, but then those characters had been floating in my head for a good twenty years.

AS: What is your reaction to Yankee Girl's nominations (The Mark Twain Award/Missouri Association of School Librarians and The Rhode Island Children's Book Award)? Is there a different satisfaction knowing kids themselves honor your work?

MAR: Hey! Don't forget the other states...Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and
Georgia and My Best Friend has just been nominated for the Kentucky
Bluegrass award since we last wrote.

Having been a school librarian, I know that for the most part, these nomination lists are compiled by teachers, librarians, and reading specialists...and then the kids read from those lists. And so far...the kids haven’t' picked one of my books to honor! The real honor and thrill comes from knowing that those teachers and librarians think my book is one of the 10 to 20 they want the kids in their state to be sure and read.... and knowing that more kids will know about (and hopefully read) Yankee Girl, because it IS on that list.

AS: So how has being a writer changed since winning the Charlotte Zolotow and the Ezra Jack Keats awards both professionally and personally?

MAR: Winning awards certainly makes editors a little more receptive to working with you! That's a pleasure after years and years of rejection letters (although I still get them!)

Personally? Winning these two awards has given me more confidence as a picture book writer. I had always secretly thought that My Best Friend was just a fluke...something I wrote because I was angry and wanted to comfort my daughter...and that I really didn't know anything about picture book writing. I had always thought of myself as a "middle grade writer who also wrote a picture book." I am so in awe of people who write ONLY picture books...it is such an exacting art; every word has to count and be exactly the right one. I had never tried to write one before My Best Friend...I was so intimidated by the form. I am STILL intimidated, but I have more confidence now.

AS: What are you working on now?

MAR: I am finishing up a first revision of Jimmy’s Stars for Farrar, Straus & Giroux right this very minute (it is supposed to come out in late 2007). When that is shipped off, I will get back to my current projects...another middle grade historical fiction that takes place in 1925 called The Storm, and a rhyming picture book (something ELSE I've never tried). Yes, The Storm comes from stories from my dad's family, but the picture book does not. Hey, I'm branching out!

AS: It’s been an honor “conversing” with you, Mary Ann. I’m appreciative of your openness, passion and entertaining tone! Thank you!


Learn More About Mary Ann Rodman

OfficialWebsite

Corben, Rima. “2006 Ezra Jack Keats Book Award Winners Announced: Author Mary Ann Rodman and Illustrator Yunmee Kyong.”{Accessed May 25, 2006}.


Books by Mary Ann Rodman:

First Grade Stinks. Illustrated by Beth Spiegel. Peachtree, 2006

My Best Friend. Illustrated by E. B. Lewis. Viking, 2005

Yankee Girl. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004


Reprinted from Friends of the CCBC Newsletter 2006, Number 2 with permission of Andrea Schmitz and the Friends of the CCBC, Inc. ©2006 Friends of the CCBC, Inc.

 


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