But before I answer the tour questions, you should know that Melissa’s book, The Prairie Thief, would make a wonderful summer read for anyone who likes my books. (Melissa and I share a lot of the same literary loves). SLJ called it : “A charming, inventive tale that reads like a delightful mash-up of Little House on the Prairie and The Spiderwick Chronicles…Mystery and suspense keep the pages turning. [A] top-notch story.” Also, look how cute it is!
Okay, so, here are the questions, and my answers…
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?
I always have a slew of open files on my laptop. So much so that it’s a little embarrassing. I also work on certain picture book manuscripts in hard copy, longhand– things I need to see laid out across the page. Currently I’m fiddling with a Choose-your-own-adventure book called Oh, Snap! as well as a followup book for Charlie and Mouse (2016, Chronicle), a little chapter book attempt called Tula Bloom Runs Away, (about a snarky fairy and an elderly unicorn named Bob), a collection of songs for neglected holidays, and some poems.
That said, I generally have one main project I’m focused on. This year it’s been a novel called The Orphan Island, which I just finished up a draft of. It’s a weird one. A story about 9 kids who live alone on a well-stocked (and slightly magical) island. Every year a boat arrives at the island, and carries away the oldest child, leaving a new toddler in his/her place…
HOW DOES YOUR WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS IN ITS GENRE?
Oh, wow. I don’t know. My books are all in dialogue with classics, I think. My books are all stand-alones. My books are all just a little bit magical. My books rarely have villains in them. I don’t believe in villains, I don’t think.
WHY DO YOU WRITE WHAT YOU DO?
I don’t know how to answer that question.
I write what interests me. I write until I make myself cry, or laugh, or until I get stuck and confused.
Maybe I try write the books my child-self would have wanted to read? I write books that help me learn things about human nature, that teach me something about the world, that let me think about and wrestle with questions I find worthwhile.
I write a lot of books that can never be published. I also write a lot of adult poems nobody will ever see.
In a lot of ways, I’m very selfish. I don’t want to please the largest number of kids possible. I don’t think about reluctant readers. I don’t think about sales or the market, really. At least not when I’m drafting. I think about language and ideas. Writing is a puzzle for me. When the result is a book, that’s great! When it isn’t, that’s also pretty great.
HOW DOES YOUR WRITING PROCESS WORK?
I scribble. I write down ideas in a little notebook I carry with me, or a box of post-its I keep beside my bed. I often open up a blank document, type one sentence in it, and then forget I did that.
Eventually, if that scribble sticks in my brain enough that I remember it exists, I go back to it. I stare at it. I try to figure out if it might be worth keeping. Sometimes the scribble gets fit into a WIP, and sometimes the scribble becomes a first line or a title. Often with picture books, I sit down with the scribble, and the words tumble out, and in an hour I have a book. Usually, that book isn’t worth showing to anyone or revising. I have hundreds of “failed” projects like that.
With novels, I usually begin with a question. For Bread Box the question was, “What if a kid could wish for anything they wanted, but then they discovered they were stealing?” For Seven Stories Up, the question was, “Can one person ever really change another person?”
The hardest part with the novels, for me, is sitting down to start. Believing that the question I’m asking is worth spending a year on. I think about the question, develop the characters, sketch out an outline. And eventually there’s a day when I take a deep breath, and start typing. That’s the hardest part for me. The first paragraph can take weeks. And then, ALWAYS, I end up slicing the first page off the manuscript. After all that, it never sticks.
But I write. And I write. And eventually, I have a draft. I use an outline, but it always shifts and changes, as the book grows. As I write, I get to know the characters better, and I come to realize my outline was wrong. The characters are NOT people who can make the choices I wanted them to. The end is almost always entirely different from the end I had planned.
And then I rewrite the book 2 or 5 or 7 times. And then, maybe, if I’m lucky, it’s a book.
With my current manuscript, THE ORPHAN ISLAND, I actually did something new. I painted the island, and the characters. I found I was having trouble seeing the people and the place, and an artist friend suggested I try accessing the story in a visual way. It was amazing.
For this one I also began in longhand, on legal pads. I gave up after about 50 pages, because it hurt my hands (I have arthritis). But that was really important for me, I think. I felt like I was a kid again, scribbling, generating ideas, having fun thoughts. I needed to get away from the seriousness of writing as a job. I needed not to think about publishing.
I think that may be the most important part of my process. Remembering what it feels like to play. To be a kid alone with new ideas. To be excited by invention, engaged fully with my own imagination. To let the book be MINE.
Like I said, I’m selfish…
I feel totally uncomfortable tagging people for something like this. So I tag YOU! If you want to share your process, let me know, and I’ll post a bit about you and your books in the space below. How’s that?
It’s that time of year, when an author’s thoughts turn to…
ANd while I’ve tried to keep my travel down the last few years, this fall I don’t have a new book out, that I have to do promotional events for, which frees me up to visit more schools.
If you’ve never seen an author visit in action, I’m here to say that (whether or not the author is me) it’s something kids never forget.
My author visits fall into three basic types:
1. TRADITIONAL AUTHOR TALK(which to be honest, remains my favorite): DUring which I tell kids about how I started writing when I was 8 years old. I focus on how THOSE books were my true first books, even if they were made of wallpaper scraps. I show them artifacts from my writing life, and explain how I made my own childhood dreams come true. I stress things like THE IMPORTANCE OF BOREDOM AND FAILURE. I give them explicit instructions on HOW TO GET BORED. Seriously! And I promise, they love it!
2. WRITING WORKSHOP: usually for older kids, and smaller groups, I offer a workshop in how character and plot are interwoven. We create our own character, set them loose in a story, and see what paths they choose. We talk about precision of language, narrative structure, “going deep,” and all sorts of other awesome things. This is a ton of fun, and I always suggest that the class pick up where we leave off, and turn the story into a longer illustrated class project.
3. HISTORY ISN’T BORING: my most recent book, Seven Stories Up, is set in 1937 Baltimore, and it’s a lot of fun to walk the kids through the process of learning how to do historical research. I show them slides of images (from gross old fashioned candy to vintage underpants), and snippets of songs and films. I explain how we need to submerge ourselves not just in the facts, but in the feelings. We discuss the things THEY might like to research (ninjas, princesses, video games) if they were writing a book.
I’m also always willing to put together special events to meet the needs of any given school, and have developed programs about everything from Jewish picture books to poetry, both in-class and via skype. Let me know what you need!
SCHOOL VISITS ARE GREAT! But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are a few of the teachers I’ve worked with!
“Ask your kids about Laurel Snyder!! This children’s book author visited SSA this week to speak to our grades 2-6 students about growing up with an imagination and a strong love for writing. Her unexpected tales and exceptional story telling skills captivated her audience and captured their hearts. The grade 6 students even broke out into a spontaneous standing ovation!” (Solomon Schechter Academy, Montreal)
“Today was an incredible day, and the energy that the kids had about Laurel’s books and writing was electric. They had so many ideas stirring in their minds. I can’t wait to see the stories that students create after this inspiring day. Thank you, Laurel!” (David C Barrow Elementary, Athens, GA)
If you’re interested in booking a school visit, drop me a line, and we can discuss the arrangements!
Almost exactly a year ago, after finishing four books I’d sold on proposal, I decided I needed to go back to writing alone. I needed to work at my own pace, however slow that was. I needed to write weird, if that was what came. I needed to get back to feeling like I felt as a kid, and a poet– just a girl playing with words. Flying blind.
I promised myself I wouldn’t even show my agent.
And then I spent 6 months outlining, and staring at the ceiling. I watercolored characters and setting. I wrote the first few chapters with a mechanical pencil, on a yellow legal pad. I played. And eventually, I hit my stride.
Well… last week I typed the words THE END, and took a week away. Then, today I read my rough draft of The Orphan Island, and I LIKE IT. A LOT!
Weird it is! It’s too short, and it straddles the MG/YA line in a funny way. It’s got a kind of slight magic that people may be bored by. It’s full of fish guts and fig-drying and bee hives and sand. It ends with a kind of cliffhanger, to an equally weird sequel, a book that may or may not be called The Wordless World.
But I’m proud of the work I’ve done. And I’m proud that I did it without a net. It’s good to know I can still write just for me, alone.
So there’s that.
PS: I feel the need to add that I’ve loved every bit of the collaborative experiences I’ve had with my last books, and wouldn’t change a thing! I just… needed to work all by myself for a little while. Figure out what I’d write if I were alone on a (figurative) desert island.
The punchline? I wrote about a desert island.
When I was a kid, I lived at the library. Both our school library at Roland Park Public Elementary/Middle School and also the Enoch Pratt Library– Govans, Hampden, and especially Roland Park branches.
I really can’t imagine who I’d be without those places– calm and happy and full of ideas and readers, when my life was not always so calm.
My own kids have an amazing school library, for which I’m beyond grateful. But I see budget cuts happening in the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library Systemand my heart sinks.
What can you say about a culture that doesn’t value its libraries? Some things MUST be valued in non-monetary terms. There HAVE to be entities that survive beyond the ruthless nature of the “free market.”
Libraries are islands of culture and intellect, in a world that often moves too fast to ponder, investigate, or dream. I wish some billionaire would step up and endow the libraries.
They may not generate their own revenue in the short-term, but I truly believe our country will suffer greatly for the loss of them.
In 2010 I published a middle grade novel called Penny Dreadful. It was a fun book. Some people liked it. It went on to become an EB White Readaloud HONOR book. Huzzah!
But I get a lot of emails about it. Because in the book there is a very minor character, a boy named Twent, who happens to have two mommies.
Last night I received one such email, and because I was having a very hard week, I ignored the email. Typically I respond to these emails. I try to explain. Because maybe (just maybe) the author of the letter is not only writing me a mean letter. MAYBE they are open to a response. I don’t want to miss that chance, if it’s real. But last night I didn’t.
S0 I thought I could respond here, today. ANd then, in the future, when I get these emails, I can direct readers here…
Anastasia writes of Twent (among other things):
“How do you explain that? OUR FAMILY IS VERY AGAINST THAT.”
And I will answer her:
Ahhh, Anastasia, good question! How do I explain it? It’s really very simple.
The world is very full of people. No two people are alike. They live many different kinds of lives. Some of them are nuns. Some of them are corporate lawyers. Some of them are the owners of magical chocolate factories. But we cannot all be nuns, or magical chocolatiers. For this reason, we have many different kinds of books. To reflect the many kinds of lives people live. In some cases, we expect people to SEE THEMSELVES in the pages of books. In other cases, we expect books to expand the way people see the world. Maybe YOU have never met a magical chocolatier, but thanks to Roald Dahl, you can!
When someone writes a book, they cannot ask, “Who will I offend with this particular book?” Because every book will offend someone. A writer can only tell a story, and if they are fortunate enough to find a publisher, hope some people want to read it.
It makes me sad to hear you were offended by my book. I didn’t mean to do that. I wasn’t writing it for YOU. But I’m not sorry for Twent’s moms either. I won’t apologize for them.
I wrote Penny Dreadful to reflect the world I live in. A world populated by many kinds of people, not just nuns and corporate lawyers and magical chocolatiers. My neighborhood has many gay families in it, in addition to people who aren’t white, and Jews like me. There are also some folks who have hearing loss, or are blind. My neighborhood has musicians in it, and artists, and world travelers, and gardeners, and women with very long hair, and people who like to make their own jam. All of these people climbed into my book when I wrote it, because I wanted the book to reflect the world I inhabit.
Honestly the book has received criticism for being “unbelievably diverse.” People find this difficult to accept, especially since the book is set in the south. I would argue that the people who make these complaints are not comparing my book to the actual world of humans, but to the very whitewashed landscape of traditional nuclear families in which most children’s books have been set. I would further argue that the people who argue that THE SOUTH is not diverse in this way should try visiting the actual south. That is just another stereotype.
In any case, this is how I “EXPLAIN” Twent’s two moms. Twent has two moms because many kids I know have two moms. Twent is a minor character, a friend Penny meets along the way. The same way that I, a girl with a mom and a dad, have friends with two moms or two dads. Should I not have written the world I love and inhabit?
I’m guessing what upset you most about the book was that you got no WARNING. There is no backmatter to inform readers that they might encounter diversity in this book. You may feel that your daughter should have had a chance to choose for herself that she was about to encounter a few lines of text in which there were gay people. I don’t know how this would work. Should I have also included a warning label: WARNING: THIS BOOK HAS SOME JEWS IN IT?
Books are the best way I know for kids to encounter the world beyond their own experience. Books build empathy and understanding. They get kids ready for what they’re going to stumble into when they take their first job, or open a copy of the New York Times (yeah, I know that’s unlikely, but I still get the paper myself, so play along).
I don’t expect your kid to turn gay. I don’t actually want your kid to turn gay, or Jewish, or into a magical chocolatier. I’d just like to think that when she encounters magical chocolatiers in books, you won’t scare her away from them. I’d like to think that you, as her mother, will engage with her question. That you’ll explain that you understand her surprise, since she’s never met a chocolatier before. You can explain that YOUR family doesn’t make chocolate, personally. But yes, the world has chocolate in it, made by magical chocolatiers, and isn’t it nice that the world is such an amazing place, full of surprises and mysteries…
Okay, I’ll admit, so when I signed up for World Read Aloud Day again this year, it was with a sense of “doing something nice for the kids” and “giving back a little.” I was patting myself on the back. Taking time from my busy week to read to children (besides Mose and Lew).
But here’s the thing… WRAD isn’t just for them. It’s for us too.
I remember, a few years back at AWP, my amazing sister was on a panel with Richard Ford, about writers in the schools, and how wonderful it is to work with kids. And my sister made a point I’d never heard someone make. She said. ”People see it as service. But they should be begging to volunteer their time in a school. If they knew how wonderful it was, they would.” (or something like that. I didn’t write down exactly what she said.)
Her point was that writers work alone, and they use up a lot of their energy writing. They get drained. They tap out. They forget why they began writing in the first place. They focus on the work of it. They lose their joy.
But kids? Kids are FULL of joy and eagerness and energy. They fill you back up! They might tire you in other ways, but you can’t spend an hour with a bunch of excited kids, full of awesome questions, and awe and admiration for the fact that you MAKE BOOKS, and not come away reinvigorated. You can’t work with kids and writing, and not remember why you started writing.
So today I skyped with eleven schools. Eleven! Oh, the wonders of technology. Schools from all over the country. I read the kids picture books (my next book, Charlie & Mouse, as well as my old favorite, Rain Makes Applesauce, by Julian Scheer) and novels (both Seven Stories Up and my WIP, The Orphan Island). I answered questions, and I told them about my day. I introduced them to Lucy (my assistant, who works for carrot-bits and chew toys).
And now? I feel so ready to write. I feel so IN LOVE with The Orphan Island. I feel so… connected. Re-dedicated.
So now, while I have that boost, I need to take a little time away, to crank out a draft. (I’m shooting for April). I’m putting a moratorium on new skypes for the spring. But I’ll be back in the fall. I promise.
And I will always always always do WRAD.
You should too.
When we assume that boys won’t read books with girls on the cover, and then institutionalize that assumption by leaving the “girlie” books out of award nominations (as well as school wide reads, story times, etc.), we insult them. By suggesting that on the whole our boys have a limited capacity for empathy, an inability to imagine a world beyond their own most obvious understanding, and an unwillingness to stretch.
In the same stroke, we neglect our girls. Not because they can’t read “boy books” (they do and will). But because when they see those awards, they also learn something —to accept a world in which they are rarely the central players. They learn, at a formative age, that the “best” books are the ones about boys. (Or dogs, as previously mentioned. Dogs are good.)
It’s a problem. And when we play into it, when we accept it as THE TRUTH, we’re reaching for the simplest solution, not the best one. Because the best solution would require us to push against the gender bias in the world, and in ourselves. It’s easier to say, “Boys naturally gravitate to these things, and we want them to read, don’t we?”
After three years of researching and writing and revising and tweaking and starting over, and beginning again, and tearing my hair out…
SEVEN STORIES UP IS A BOOK!
If you want to know more about how I wrote the book, and what inspired it, you can read here. (warning, it’s a bit sad)
If you’d like to read the first chapter of the book, and see a picture of my grandmother, you can do that here.
If you want to listen to a podcast in which I talk about how this book taught me (finally!) how to enjoy research, you can tune in here!
And if you want to see some old pictures that I used to keep my in the world of 1937, you can take a peek at my Pinterest page for the book!
I’d love to think that you might also go and purchase a copy of the book, or maybe request it from your local library! You can add it to your Goodreads list or tell your kid’s teacher about it too!
People have said very very nice things about Seven Stories Up already, which makes this day much nicer. It was selected as #4 on the Indienext List for winter! And look:
“Time travel is the least of the magic in the sublime Seven Stories Up, which gently and lovingly demonstrates how the right friend at the right time can heal a heart and even change a life. Like Judy Blume before her, Laurel Snyder writes characters that feel like your best friend. I wish I’d had this book when I was a kid; I would have read it a hundred times and slept with it under my pillow.” –Anne Ursu, author of The Real Boy
“Friendship, connection, and understanding are at the heart of this warm, introspective story about the events that shape a person.” –Publishers Weekly
“The perfectly paced time-travel conundrum is well balanced within the larger plot, and the entire book is imbued with the same sort of forward-driving adventure as Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me (2009) or Laurel Snyder’s Bigger Than a Bread Box (2011, both Random). A wide variety of readers will find this book wonderfully satisfying and hard to put down.” –SLJ
“Snyder infuses her novel with a touch of magical realism (and, of course, time travel), and many readers will wonder what the grown-ups in their lives were like as kids. Filled with historical facts that weave seamlessly with the narrative, this is a heartwarming story about knowing, and truly understanding, your family.” –Booklist