eaders always gain more than mere entertainment with award-winning author, Sharon Creech. Sharon has a masterful way with the journey motif in her books. As readers become immersed in Sharon’s literary works, they live vicariously through characters’ journeys and, whether they realize it or not, they soak up lessons about life. Young readers (and even their parents) witness characters’ lessons about themselves, their families, and/or their immediate worlds. Sharon’s books might aim toward children through teens, but they influence readers of all ages.
Sharon Creech is the Newbery Medal-winning author of Walk Two Moons, the Newbery Honor winner for The Wanderer, and the first American winner of Great Britain’s Carnegie Medal, for Ruby Holler. She has written nine other novels and three picture books. Born in Ohio, Sharon later spent 19 years in England and Switzerland teaching and writing. Although she has been back in the States now for eight years, she will be living in Switzerland this year.
WOW: Welcome to WOW! Sharon, we’re thrilled you’ve decided to chat with us about the craft of writing for children. As a highly respected and talented children’s writer, it’s hard to imagine you ever receiving a rejection letter, but if you have, could you please describe that moment, the manuscript or story, and your reaction at that time?
Sharon: When I first began submitting poems and stories for publication (for adults) in the late 1980’s, most of them were rejected, but I’d heard that was part of the learning process. It became an interesting game: tossing things into the air and seeing which ones found homes and which ones came flying back. To be honest, I was more surprised when things were accepted than when they were rejected.
WOW: Thanks for sharing your experience; it serves as a solid reminder that rejection is a natural part of the bigger picture, especially for emerging writers. What would you recommend as a starting point? In other words, a place, website, or books that could help novice writers begin to work on their craft?
Sharon: There are so many learning places. I took a few writing courses and a writing workshop in graduate school; I subscribed to literary magazines and studied Writer's Market; I read every book on writing that was available; and I read great fiction. These are still good starting (and continuing!) points. There are also probably great websites, but I’m not current on which ones to suggest.
“If you are focused on a 12-year-old, appropriate content and style will naturally follow.”
WOW: Those are great tips. As with all areas of writing, time is a big factor. Another thing that novice writers need to know is the difference between writing for children and writing for adults. What are the key differences that a writer should consider?
Sharon: I think it is more important first to hone one’s writing: to know how to use words well, to think creatively, to understand plot, character, theme, tone, to know how to tell a story. You should then be able to write for both children and adults. For me the primary difference in writing for children and for adults is the age of the protagonist. If you are focused on a 12-year-old, appropriate content and style will naturally follow. If you choose a 40-year-old narrator, his or her interests and vocabulary will be different. That’s common sense, mm?
WOW: (smiles) Yes, it is a matter of common sense. Yet the reminders from published pros always help! As writers, we know that getting your first novel published is extremely exciting. We’d love to take a walk with you down the path of your first novel—how long it took from start to finish, and your road to publishing. Also, could you please share with us to whom you addressed that first query letter and what response you received?
Sharon: It took me about a year to complete my first novel (for adults), and when I finished it, I queried an agent in London, where I was living at the time. I found her name in a book of literary agents. (This is not the best way to find an agent, but unpublished writers often have little choice.) She took me on after reading my manuscript, and she sold that novel about six months later. (This agent is now retired.)
WOW: (laughs) It’s good to hear that “thinking outside the standard publishing box” works. Of course, you’re far beyond your first book. Have you found that it takes you less time to produce a new novel, once the idea bursts into your mind?
Sharon: For the most part, it takes less time now to produce a novel than it used to, and I think that is because I’m able to avoid some of the pitfalls of early attempts. I’ve learned something! Having said that, though, I can still run into quagmires. I took several wrong turns with both Ruby Holler and with Replay, and those books seemed to take eons to complete.
“I write all day long and into the night and wander around like a zombie, living in the world of the book.”
WOW: I’d like to think that our wrong turns are in some strange way a necessity; perhaps we learn something along those turns, even if it seems unlikely. But wrong turns can be a big deterrent for many writers, like writer’s block or procrastination. Have you ever found yourself distracted by other people in your life? Seasons?
Sharon: “Life” is always going to be calling, and much of the year I have to be flexible about that, balancing writing with other interests and obligations. Winter is usually a good time to hunker down and get a first draft of a novel written. I rarely write in summer: that is the season I completely indulge in all those other ‘distractions.’
WOW: Not too many people can grasp that seemingly elusive balance between life and writing. Good for you. Speaking of balance, do you have a set writing schedule, or do you write when inspiration strikes?
Sharon: I usually write in the mornings and evenings for two or three hours at a time, but when I’m exploring a first draft, I write all day long and into the night and wander around like a zombie, living in the world of the book.
“I was humbled, ecstatic, terrified, blessed and liberated. It is a huge gift and yes, a huge dose of confidence.”
(Photo: Sharon Creech & her daughter Karin)
WOW: Wandering like a zombie has certainly paid off for you! Sharon, you received the Newbery Medal for Walk Two Moons, which any children’s writer knows is an extreme honor! One of our previous interviewees, Cynthia Kadohata, described her thrill at hearing her novel was chosen for the Newbery Award by a phone call at 4 a.m. no less.
Could you describe how you were notified when you received the Newbery Medal? I’d imagine receiving an honor like this would instill more than a simple ego boost. What do you think of this distinction and how did it feel to be honored in this way?
Sharon: I wonder if I am one of a few writers who received ‘the Newbery call’ in a state of pure innocence. I knew nothing about the medal, only that it was a prestigious gold seal on a book. I had no idea how or when the medal was awarded nor that I would be eligible for it. Walk Two Moons was my first book to be published in the States, and I fully expected it to disappear into the ether. I received the Newbery call when I was home alone in England one gray, rainy February afternoon. I was a blithering fool (“The what?” and “Are you kidding?”). When my publisher phoned shortly afterwards, I asked her how many of these gold medals were given out each year: 500? 100? She said, “Um, Sharon, ONE. One medal.” I thought I was going to have a heart attack.
I was humbled, ecstatic, terrified, blessed and liberated. It is a huge gift and yes, a huge dose of confidence.
WOW: What an inspiring story! It’s obvious that you’ve always been diligent. You grew up in Ohio, but later in life when you were teaching High School English and writing, you worked in England and Switzerland. How did you make the transition from teaching in foreign countries to become a successful children’s book author?
Sharon: For fifteen years I taught American and British literature, as well as creative writing, to high school juniors and seniors in Europe. I not only learned a lot about great literature but also about people from all over the world and about writing. There came a point when I’d soaked up so much that it all came spilling back out in poems and short stories and novels. The transition from teacher to writer was gradual (over the course of seven or eight years) and felt like a natural progression.
“I’ve never submitted a query.”
WOW: That sounds gracefully logical. Does this natural progression work its way into your writing methods? That is, once you decide upon a new story, do you send in a query to this day? At your level of authorship does the path to publishing change?
Sharon: I’ve never submitted a query. With the first two books, I submitted the completed novel before signing a contract, and for the most part that is still what feels most comfortable to me. Sometimes, though, I opt for two-book contracts, based on one completed novel and one ‘something-to-come.’ Naturally the ‘path to publishing’ is easier for me now, but I feel that I have worked hard to ‘earn’ the path.
WOW: Yes, you’ve definitely earned that and more. I’ve noticed your works being used often in literature circles in elementary and middle schools and wondered if you were involved in this process. Who makes the decision to place an author’s works in the educational circles? Do you take part in the lessons in any way, especially for the “Teach Creech” guides?
Sharon: Although I can’t take any credit for the ‘Teach Creech’ idea, I think it’s beautiful! I’m not involved in the process of placing my books in schools, although usually I see the lessons/guides before they are printed. As I understand it, the process begins with the publishers’ school/library/marketing divisions (choosing titles, preparing guides) and that educators learn about these guides at conferences, through various publications, and through trusted word-of-mouth.
WOW: It’s great to know that your writing has a positive impact on children in their literary circles. I think children “take away” lessons and emotions inherent in your works, without even realizing it. With what you know now, what do you consider the most powerful advice that aspiring children’s writers could “take away” and apply to their own works?
Sharon: Don’t be in too much of a rush to be published. There is enormous value in listening and reading and writing—and then putting your words away for weeks or months–and then returning to your work to polish it some more. Read the very best writing and understand why it is considered the best. Maybe you will do better, which is great, but try not to do worse. Ha ha.
“...you can listen to all the advice, but you need to tailor it to your own imagination jungle.”
WOW: (laughs) Yes, hopefully writers won’t digress. So let’s keep on the upward path! Who are the authors that inspire you the most?
Sharon: Oh, loads and loads! Chaucer and Fitzgerald and Flannery O’Connor and Dickens and Calvino and White and James and Peck and Lowry and Paterson and Hesse and DiCamillo and Spinelli, on and on!
WOW: That covers a lot. No one can ever go wrong with classics and modern successes. And as far as the craft of writing, which books do you consider most helpful to aspiring children’s book authors?
Sharon: Read them all: choose the ones that speak to your needs right now; ignore the ones that feel deadly. Ultimately you don’t want to sound like everyone else; you can listen to all the advice, but you need to tailor it to your own imagination jungle.
WOW: I love that phrase, “imagination jungle”; that brings up a strong visual image! Let’s move into your latest jungle. I’ve asked you numerous craft questions, but let’s talk about your latest work, The Castle Corona. What sparked the idea for this book?
Sharon: I’ve long had that word ‘castle’ rolling around in my mind, along with images of scores of castles we saw during our time in Europe. Many of these castles were in ruins, and I’d wonder who had lived there and what had happened. For the last few years, glimpses of castles kept insinuating themselves in my mind until I realized it was time to write the story of a castle.
WOW: Yes! Even in pictures, castles just seem to whisper stories. And back to your story--how long did it take you to complete The Castle Corona, from first word to the last before you sent it to your editor?
Sharon: From start to finish, approximately two years.
WOW: Diligence pays off, again! I understand that David Diaz, a Caldecott award-winning artist, provided The Castle Corona’s illuminations (reminiscent of the lavishly decorated medieval manuscripts). Do you take part in the process of choosing an artist, or is it decided by the publisher?
Sharon: My editor and publisher, Joanna Cotler, begins thinking about artwork as soon as she reads a story, and we will have several conversations about the art–sharing ideas, suggesting artists. We’ve worked with David Diaz before, and we felt he could translate our visions of a medieval illuminated manuscript with a contemporary edge.
WOW: We can’t wait to see your story and words as they are translated through his illuminations. Would you like to leave our writers and readers with any last words?
Sharon: I am writing this in the Ticino in southern Switzerland, and Italian is in my head, so I will simply say, “Ciao!”
Note: My website is www.sharoncreech.com.
WOW: Well, after so many wonderful words with you, Sharon, you wrap it up well! Thanks for taking the time to share sage advice as well as details of your new book. My daughter can’t wait to read it (and neither can I)!
For readers interested in learning more about Sharon’s latest work, The Castle Corona, here is an editorial preview to whet readers’ appetites:
“When young Pia and Enzio happen upon a pouch in the dense woods that surround the Castle Corona, their lives become intricately entwined with King Guido, Queen Gabriella, and their vainglorious progeny: Prince Gianni, Princess Fabrizia and Prince Vito. How the contents of said pouch: ‘two small pieces of red coral; a pair of golden medallions; a lock of black hair tied with a purple ribbon; and a small, rolled piece of parchment on which was written, in curling black script, words which they could not read’ transform everyone’s lives makes this novel an unexpected ride.
“Lavishly illustrated with four-color art throughout by Caldecott award-winning artist David Diaz, The Castle Corona is Sharon Creech at her finest. Readers will be enraptured by her seamless tale of two worlds, rich and poor, that have more in common than meets the eye.”
Thank you, Sharon, for authoring such fine literary works!