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Interview with children’s author Marsha Diane Arnold

Called a “born storyteller” by the media, Marsha Diane Arnold’s picture books have sold over one million copies and been called, “whimsical,” “inspiring,” and “uplifting.” Her books have garnered such honors as Best First Book by a New Author, Smithsonian Notable, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and state Children’s Choice awards. Recent books include GALÁPAGOS GIRL, MAY I COME IN? and LOST. FOUND, a Junior Library Guild selection illustrated by Caldecott medalist Matthew Cordell, which received three starred reviews. Marsha was born and raised in Kansas, lived most of her life in Sonoma County, California, and now lives with her husband in Alva, Florida, near her family.

For what age audience do you write?

The best stories, those that hold enduring truths, are really for all ages, so  

I like to say I write for all ages. (My publishers usually note my books are for ages 4 to 8.) Before moving to picture books, I wrote an award-winning, syndicated column entitled homegrown treasures. My column was read by grandparents, parents, teens, and toddlers, all sitting together, enjoying “story.”

Mostly, I write picture books. I also write board books, like BABY ANIMALS TAKE A NAP and BABY ANIMALS TAKE A BATH, and am working (from time to time) on a chapter book and middle-grade novel.

Henry: I’m in the same boat. I’ve published only picture books, but am trying my hand at middle-grade.

Tell us about your latest book.

GALÁPAGOS GIRL began as a tiny seed in 2007, when I visited the Galápagos Islands. My naturalist guide was Valentina Cruz, whose family were some of the first inhabitants of the remote island of Floreana in the Galápagos.

Through email and video chats, Valentina shared her adventures growing up on Floreana with her parents and eleven brothers and sisters – stories of living with wild nature, of swimming with sea lions, of finches flying into their house to sample her mother’s homemade jam. Her idyllic life led her to become a biologist and naturalist guide so she could share with the world her knowledge and love of the islands and their unique flora and fauna. She’s the inspiration for my fictional character Valentina in the book.

I’m thankful to have Lee & Low as my publisher and Angela Dominguez as my talented illustrator. GALÁPAGOS GIRL is bilingual with an author note and back matter that includes information on each of the animals mentioned in the book.

What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?

In general, my wish for my readers is that my books give them some whimsy and fun, a lot of enjoyment and entertainment, heaps of inspiration, and something to ponder.

I hope when my readers read GALÁPAGOS GIRL, they will feel the joy of being in nature. From a unique perspective, they will glimpse a way of life different from their own. I hope they’ll close the book with a desire to help keep all wildlife safe.

What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?

Those rejections! They always make me question my value as a writer, but eventually, “I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.”

Henry: Yes, the two most valuable author attributes (after writing ability) are being thick-skinned and indefatigable.

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?

I can do it. Being an introvert and filled with self-doubt most of my life, that’s a powerful lesson. Each of us can do it!

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?

Author visits! What wonderful times I’ve had visiting schools from California to Puerto Rico, from Germany to Kenya. In Alabama, I had to run three miles at a school where they’ve been celebrating THE PUMPKIN RUNNER with a day of races and games for six years! At one Kansas school, they built a tornado on the school’s roof to celebrate THE BRAVEST OF US ALL. One librarian called my visit a “Big Vivid” for the school community, an inspiring memory that will stay with them forever. In truth, my visits to schools have always been “Big Vivids” for me.

Henry: Run three miles!? Now, that’s a commitment to a school visit!

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Think of rewriting as polishing a stone until it’s smooth and bright and beautiful.

Do you have any favorite quotes?

I have two that come back to me again and again over the years.

You must concentrate upon and consecrate yourself wholly to each day, as though a fire were raging in your hair.” Taisu Deshimaru

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” Henry Beston

Henry: Lovely

Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you work?

No strange rituals here. Maybe a walk in nature, which, sadly, for many today, may seem like a strange ritual.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

The power to let everyone see that all humans, all creatures, and all plants are part of a precious web of wonder. Then maybe we’d respect and care for one another as we should.

Henry: I’m reminded of the Tree of Souls in the Avatar movie.

That’s my serious answer. My not-so-serious answer is to be a Teleporter! Is that a word? What fun to be able to transport instantly to any place on this magnificent planet. As inhabitants of Earth, I think it’s our responsibility to experience as much of it as possible. My air miles aren’t stretching far enough, so to be able to instantly move from place to place would come in handy.

Henry: Plus, it would be easier to conduct school visits!

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

I must choose naturalist and writer Henry Beston. Afterall, he’s responsible for one of my favorite quotes.

Charles Dickens – because he’s the master of creating fascinating characters and he still influences the way we celebrate Christmas, what with “A Christmas Carol” and all.

J.R.R. Tolkien – for his brilliance.

Wait! That’s not right. I need some women at our salon.

Henry: You had me at Tolkien

Let’s include Emily Dickinson. She won’t take up much space. “I’m Nobody!” she wrote, “how dreary to be Somebody.” I have always loved her poetry.

To round things out, let’s invite two more. Eudora Welty, Pulitzer Prize winner and lovely Southern lady. Her ON WRITING is so readable, so excellent.

Sheila Turnage, another writer who is a master at creating characters, like her Miss Moses LoBeau, would be my living author. I want to learn from Sheila how to write great middle-grade novels.

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

Dragons, for certain. The Galápagos marine iguanas on the Galápagos reminded me a bit of dragons.

Henry: “My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, THE HOBBIT

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Travel! When I’m traveling, I love to hike, scuba dive, snorkel, and see new sites and sights. I also love being home, surrounded by my family, exploring the rural roads in our golf cart, swimming, and investigating the natural world.

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

A Kansas farm girl, protector of nature, lover of family, whose writing was enjoyed by all ages.

Where can readers find your work?

Readers can find my books in libraries, bookstores, and online.

They can find me at www.marshadianearnold.com and www.earthsvoices.wordpress.com and at my course at Children’s Book Academy (http://www.childrensbookacademy.com/writing-character-driven-stories.html )

Thank you, Henry, for inviting me to your website! I had fun answering your questions.

Henry: You’re welcome. Thanks for spending time with us.

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Interview with ‘Weeds Find a Way’ children’s book author Cindy Jenson-Elliott

Cindy Jenson-Elliot is a children’s book author and environmental educator. Her latest book, due out in Feb 2014, is ‘Weeds Find a Way,’ a lyrical nonfiction picture book about weeds and their adaptations. It is illustrated by Carolyn Fisher and is published by Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.

JensonElliot

For what age audience do you write?

I currently write nonfiction for children of all ages, as well as articles for adults. My focus is often nature, but I write about anything I am assigned to write about, as well as projects close to my own heart.

Henry: I write fiction for kids, but I’m always sprinkling nutritional nonfiction nuggets in the recipe.

What do you hope readers will get from reading your latest book?

What I hope people get from reading this book — and all of my books — is a new way of looking at something that they see every day. I hope they notice something that they never noticed before — something plain and ordinary, and see how extraordinary it really is. I hope they have a new appreciation that nature is all around us, even poking out of urban pavement. I did a column for my little community newspaper for many years that was just called “Nature Journal” about what I was noticing in my neighborhood. I wrote about birds and worms and trees and mammals and weeds. I got so many comments about that locally  — people really want to get to know their natural neighbors and love seeing the wonder in their own backyards.

Henry: I’ve got a scifi early chapter book that is very much aligned with your idea of getting readers to look at things in new ways, and see the extraordinary in the common.

What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?

The most challenging part of writing for me is the long process of discovering how to frame a nonfiction piece. I usually start with what I know, then write down what I don’t know and want to learn about a topic. Then I research. Once I have collected a mass of research, I consider different ways of approaching the topic, often writing as many as 40 drafts of a book — many with completely different approaches to the topic. There are a thousand ways you can write about any subject  — so what is the right way to write about a particular topic? What is the best way to explore and topic and share it so that kids understand the topic? Once I have decided on that, everything becomes easier. I pondered the subject of weeds for about a year and a half before I wrote ‘Weeds Find a Way’. I needed a book about weeds because I was teaching gardening and there were no books for children on that topic. But it took awhile to decide what I wanted to say about them.

Henry: 40 drafts!?

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

My advice for aspiring authors is just to write, write, write. Find as many venues for your work, in any genre, for any audience that you can. Every type of writing strengthens every other type. Get assignments and turn them in on time. Embrace editors — they are your friends, even when you don’t like what they say. They are our clients and teachers, and we can learn so much from them. Give yourself time to learn. Writing is a lifelong process.

Henry: I embrace editors too, but some of them have gotten restraining orders…

Do you have any favorite quotes?

A favorite quote is one by musician Dana Lyons, from his song Willy Says: “Here’s a story that you may not comprehend: the parking lot will crack and bloom again. There’s a world beneath the pavement that will never end. The seeds are lying dormant — it will never end.”

I like this quote because it speaks to the permanence of nature and nature’s ability to recover, even in the face of our bumbling and mistakes. It speaks to the hope that is always waiting for us beneath our worries. I think it’s important to give children a love of nature first, and a wonder of what they encounter. Problems and environmental challenges can be introduced later, when they already have developed a strong bond with nature and an understanding of its cycles and healing nature, and when they are mature enough to know they have the power to change the world. Introducing problems before love, and without empowering children to change the world leads to despair. I want them to see the wonder of nature through my books.

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

That’s tough for me. I read constantly, but am terrible about remembering what I read. I remember mostly just the visceral sense of beauty of a piece of work. I am always blown away by writers in the New Yorker magazine — the way they come up with interesting topics and really get into it. I enjoy narrative nonfiction. I just read ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’, and would love to meet the author Katherine Boo. Last summer I read the autobiography of Zora Neale Hurston, ‘Dust on a Road’ was the title, I think, and I would have really enjoyed meeting her. And I adore the book ‘Wandering Ghost’, a biography of Lafcadio Hearn. I wish I could have met him.

But in person I am pretty shy, so I would probably be tongue-tied around any of these people, so dinner would be a quiet, dull affair, I’m afraid. I wouldn’t mind dinner with Sonia Sones. I love her lyrical novels, and I actually met her at an SCBWI event and told her how much her work means to me, but felt too shy to talk much. I also love the work of illustrator Kadir Nelson — especially his interpretation of the poem Ellington Was Not a Street. But, again, what would I say? I’d just like to listen to these folks talk and see what I could learn.

Henry: I’ve met you, and you’re not dull! But you cheat, because you listed five invitees! 🙂

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

When I am not writing, I spend time with my family, camp in the High Sierra and Big Sur, garden in schools and at home, do long-distance swimming in the ocean, bike and teach.

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

Tombstone? No tombstone. Perhaps just a rock somewhere that says, “Thank you”. In the end, I think that’s all we are left with — our gratitude for being able to share this lovely world.

Where can readers learn more about you?

Readers can find my work on my website at http://www.cindyjensonelliott.com.

This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.