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Meet the Authors:
Peek Inside The World of Children's Book Writers

Where do authors get their ideas? Is writing hard work? 'Meet the Authors' -- and find out!

Eve Bunting. Cynthia Rylant. Jane Yolen. Lee Bennett Hopkins. Patricia Polacco. Lawrence Pringle. Patricia McKissack. Lois Ehlert. Frank Asch.

Children can read the stories of those authors and many more -- written in the authors' own words -- in the Meet the Author collection from Richard C. Owen Publishers.

Firetalking Book Cover As students of all ages read the Meet the Author collection, they'll come to know these men and women as writers, as writing role models, and as friends. New understandings of their favorite children's books will develop as children read about behind-the-scenes events that inspired the authors to write. But, perhaps most importantly, readers will gain a deeper appreciation for the writing process -- a process that can differ dramatically from author to author.

And another cool thing about these books: While many autobiographies are written for upper-elementary-age children, the Meet the Author collection is written at the second- to third-grade level!

Where do ideas come from? Is writing hard work? When did you know that you wanted to write books? As the authors tell their stories, they answer many of those questions. The answers are sometimes surprising, always enlightening, and frequently inspiring.


Where do your ideas come from? is probably the question most commonly asked of authors. The answers vary widely.

Author Frank Asch got some of his ideas for his books about Moon Bear and Little Bird as his son Devin was growing up. "Like Devin when he was small, Moon Bear is always learning about things for the first time," Asch writes in his Meet the Author autobiography One Man Show.

"But I also get ideas from feelings I had when I was a child," Asch adds. His book Here Comes the Cat! comes from his early feelings of fear, which were often unfounded. In the book, the cat doesn't turn out to be nearly as fearful as the mice in one town felt it might be.

Jane Yolen gets some of her ideas and solves many of her writing problems during long walks near her home along the Connecticut River. Other ideas come from pictures, books, songs and from quietly listening to conversations.

"Commander Toad came from a newspaper story about a jumping frog contest..." Yolen writes in her Meet the Author autobiography, A Letter from Phoenix Farm. "Sky Dogs started when I was reading a wonderful collection of Native American folk tales. And Owl Moon is really the story of my husband taking our daughter Heidi out owling."

Ideas can brew for long periods of time, says author Patricia McKissack in her Meet the Author book, Can You Imagine? "Some ideas are in my head for months before they ever get written. One of my writer friends calls it 'noodling' a story, which is sort of like mental doodling or doodling with your mind," she writes.


Seldom is it for any author that a book just pours out from the mind to the computer keyboard. Most books are the result of painstaking thought about each story, each page, each paragraph, each sentence.

"Writing for me is hard work," writes author Laurence Pringle in his autobiography Nature! Wild and Wonderful. "Sometimes I try too hard to make a sentence perfect the first time, instead of writing a 'not so perfect' sentence and making it better later."

Pringle tells of his first manuscript, which became the book Dinosaurs and Their World: "My manuscript about dinosaurs was rejected by eight publishers. Still, I had confidence in my writing, so I kept trying. Finally, after almost two years of rejection, my book... was published."

"All of my books... begin with a single piece of paper," Pringle explains. "On it I jot down ideas. As I do more research I discover more ideas and events that I want to include."

"Even though I've written more than eighty books, I am still learning how to be a better writer," Pringle adds.

"It's fun to write and illustrate books," writes Frank Asch. "But it can be hard work. Sometimes you have to work word by word, line by line, dot by dot, thinking about every change you make. Some of my stories take years to complete."

"When I'm stuck for an idea, I think hard," says Asch. "Then I go outdoors, I chop wood, play with kids, or fly a kite. If that doesn't work I take a nap and look for solutions in dreams."

In the Meet the Author stories, a frequent photograph of an author's self-edited manuscript is worth a thousand words!


Writing comes from many places.

For Patricia McKissack, her love of writing comes from her vivid imagination and from growing up in a family where storytelling was a favorite pastime. It comes from her love of reading too.

"I had a loving family, good neighbors, and encouraging teachers," McKissack writes. "But the South of my childhood was often cruel and unfair. It was segregated. That meant black and white people could not live, work or go to school together."

"But," recalls McKissack, "the Nashville Library was not segregated. It was one of the few public places where I felt welcome. Maybe that's why I love reading."

McKissack enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction. Among her nonfiction books is Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues, which was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book for 1995.

Many of McKissack's fiction stories begin as oral stories. Telling stories out loud helps her to write stories better, she says. Then she tape records a story over and over, as she did with Nettie Jo's Friends and Flossie and the Fox, to make sure she has the language just right -- just as her grandparents might have told it.

Storytelling was an important part of Patricia Polacco's upbringing too. The title of her autobiography -- Firetalking -- comes from many childhood evenings spent in front of a fireplace listening to her babushka (her Ukrainian grandmother) telling stories. Her grandmother called this time firetalking. Polacco's grandparents on both sides are the inspiration behind many of her books, including The Keeping Quilt, Rechenka's Eggs, and Babushka Baga Yaga.

As a youngster, Laurence Pringle spent lots of time roaming the woods and fields and reading books. When roaming the woods as a child, he would draw what he saw and write about it. He took photographs and dreamed of being a wildlife photographer. Later, Pringle went to college to study wildlife biology. Then he became an editor of a children's magazine, Nature and Science. Pringle's lifelong loves of reading and of nature continue to inspire him.

"My curiosity about nature has led me to write books about minnows, vampire bats, coyotes, coral reefs, forest fires, and killer bees," he writes. "I also write about pollution and other problems that worry people."

Pringle loves his work. He's traveled to all kinds of interesting places. He traveled to Africa to write Elephant Woman: Cynthia Moss Explores the World of Elephants. He traveled to Mexico to work on An Extraordinary Life: The Story of a Monarch Butterfly.

"My work has taken me to deserts and mountains and other wild places," Pringle writes. "It has also taken me to dirty, smelly places. For my book Throwing Things Away, about garbage and other solid waste, I visited dumps and landfills."

Indeed, the Meet the Author collection takes its young readers to many places. Including inside the heads of some of the best-loved authors of all time!

Jane Yolen wrote a special poem to close out her autobiography, a poem that describes some of the places books can take readers of all ages. In the last stanza of her poem, she summarizes her feelings about books:

A book can take you anywhere,
And you don't have to buy it.
Just borrow it from the library
And snuggle down -- and try it!

It would be a shame if your school or town library didn't have among its collection this wonderful Meet the Author series.

Meet the Author books are hard cover, and have 32 pages. The collection includes the following titles:

  • A Bookworm Who Hatched by Verna Aardema
  • One Man Show by Frank Asch
  • Once Upon a Time by Eve Bunting
  • Under My Nose by Lois Ehlert
  • Surprising Myself by Jean Fritz
  • Hau Kola Hello Friend by Paul Goble
  • Fine Lines by Ruth Heller
  • The Writing Bug by Lee Bennett Hopkins
  • Playing With Words by James Howe
  • Thoughts, Pictures, and Words by Karla Kuskin
  • A Wordful Child by George Ella Lyon
  • My Mysterious World by Margaret Mahy
  • A Storyteller's Story by Rafe Martin
  • Can You Imagine! by Patricia McKissack
  • Firetalking by Patricia Polacco
  • Nature, Wild and Wonderful by Laurence Pringle
  • Best Wishes by Cynthia Rylant
  • A Letter from Phoenix Farm by Jane Yolen

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Originally published 11/17/1997
Links last updated 08/10/2006