Gary Schmidt is a two-time Newbery award-winning author and professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He received both a Newbery Honor and a Printz Honor for Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and a Newbery Honor for The Wednesday Wars. He lives with his family on a 150-year-old farm in Alto, Michigan, where he splits wood, plants gardens, writes, and feeds the wild cats that drop by. He’s trading the Michigan cold for warm L.A. as faculty for this year’s SCBWI-L.A. Writers Day. Today, he’s sharing his experience and advice on writing emotionally heavy subject matter for kids, balancing multiple projects, and the historical fiction we all should be reading.
SARAH PARKER-LEE: You’ve shared that you weren’t a big reader as a kid until one particular teacher not only taught you to read, but taught you that you were capable of reading and understanding, that you weren’t “stupid.” How do you try to impart this same encouragement to your young readers?
GARY SCHMIDT: A good question. I think I come to the writing with the assumption that I’m going to ask the reader to do some work — and trust that they will be willing to do that. In Okay for Now, I have a character so emotionally hurt that he won’t articulate what he would like to say — and so many of his sentences end before he gets to the point — and often, he tells the reader that his story is none of their business. Or in What Came from the Stars, the reader is confronted with an alien language and has to figure out meanings — just like the characters. In Orbiting Jupiter the narrator is a naïve twelve-year-old kiddo, but the story he wants to tell is that of a very much older fourteen-year-old kiddo. In all those cases, the reader has a lot of work to do to figure out what is going on, and so has to become invested in doing part of the work of the novel. Succeeding at that involves a kind of competence that is, it seems to me, an article of trust between the reader and the writer that involves encouragement.
SPL: Many of your books aren’t as lighthearted or full of the typical middle-grade humor we often come to expect for that age group. Any tips on writing about heavier subjects for a middle-grade audience?
GS: Here again, I think we need to trust our readers. I actually love middle grade humor, and I love that so much of it involves wordplay, and maybe something like word sparring. And I’ve written a good deal of that myself. But as we all know, it’s not always the case that the world is a funny place, and middle school kids are intensely aware of that as well. I think my tip would be this: write with honesty. There is nothing so false as a conventionally happy ending after a time of real hardship. It seems to me stronger to admit honestly that hardship is going to affect a character and change that person forever. Middle school kids don’t just get over pain; they carry it. We all do.
SPL: Once you acquired the reading bug as a kid, adventure and mythology tales grabbed your attention. Today you’ve got a PhD in medieval literature. Can you recommend a few mythological or other historical adventures that might appeal to some otherwise reluctant young readers and tell us why?
GS: When I was in middle school, I devoured the Horatio Hornblower series by C. S. Forester — though probably those would feel pretty dated today. Still, I can still remember long episodes from those books sharply. I tried The Swiss Family Robinson as well, and thought it absurd, with more plot holes than could sink a ship. I loved Treasure Island, and still find it a powerful and multi-dimensional novel. Today, I’d definitely start with Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers and Saints, one of the best graphic novels I know. I’d combine that with Ben Hatke’s new “Jack” stories — or his “Zita” trilogy. (It seems that those two series are about to be linked!) I’m fascinated by what Rick Riordin has done for mythology, and amazed that he can write so much so quickly. I still think my favorite writer in the historical arena is Avi, who year after year creates some of the most inventive stories out there. I’d begin with his The Fighting Ground, which presents moral decisions that resonate with today’s culture, but really any of his books in this area are fascinating; watch his creation of vivid characters.
SPL: As an English Lit professor, I’m sure you’d suggest we writers get familiar with historical works of fiction as well. How does knowing where fiction has been influence where fiction is going and those who are writing it?
GS: I actually think this is huge: if we are serious about our field, we need to read not only works that are currently coming out, but also the works that influenced the field. How, for example, can you really see what Neil Gaiman is doing in The Graveyard Book if you haven’t read The Jungle Books? How can you understand the notion of the coming of age book for a young reader without following Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island? I think this is particularly important in the world of children’s literature and the inclusion of issues of diversity. There’s this cliché out there that children’s books before 1965 depicted an all-white world, that no writers of color were active at mid-century. In fact, that’s not true at all. Our field has a history of calling for racial justice and inclusion that has been forgotten. (Just try reading Jerrold and Lorraine Beim’s Two is a Team, one of the most highly recommended books of the 1940s and 1950s.) If we know that history, we know that in America, children’s books have been important catalysts for societal claims. Maybe that should affect the way we come to our writing today.
And aside from that, even contemporary writers can learn from the skills and writerly practices of the past. It seems to me that writers can learn more about tone from reading Tom’s Midnight Garden than from any class about craft. They can learn about textual rhythm from Goodnight, Moon; they can learn about setting’s thematic purposes from anything by Joan Aiken; they can learn about the perfect opening from The Dark is Rising and the perfect ending from The Little World of Don Camillo; they can learn about how to depict pain and loneliness in a young character by reading Harriet the Spy. To read only the current is like pretending that the only important part of the Statue of Liberty is the torch; there’s a whole lot that has to exist to support that flame.
SPL: Teaching keeps a lot of work on your plate, and yet you still try to work on three different writing projects at one time! What? How? Please teach us your efficient and super-productive ways!
GS: I am teaching a lot: I teach a full load at Calvin College, and several graduate students from Hamline University’s MFA for Writing for Children, and a class in reading and writing at a high security prison on Tuesday nights. I also have a two-hundred-year-old house that needs tender handling. I really don’t have any advice on productivity other than to say this: Don’t waste time. That doesn’t mean that you have to spend the entire day at your desk — but you should spend some of it there. Focus on a specific, given set of tasks that are very well defined, and get those done. Tomorrow I know I have to write a scene about a young kid who is very competent around a lobster boat. It will probably be about two or three pages. It will probably end with him off-loading the catch, and seeing someone who cares deeply for him, but who has hurt him. I’ll end with their eyes catching — and I won’t write any more on that book. Knowing that gives me a measurable goal that I am pretty sure I can succeed in reaching. The next day I’ll write the scene where they confront each other — but I don’t know what that will be yet. I’ll figure it out while I run the border collies. Between those writing sessions, I have some notes to take on Jeremy Belknap’s History of New Hampshire and some ideas to fuss with for a novel composed of four short stories. In each case, I know the limits of what I want to achieve. You don’t want to sit at your desk completely open-ended.
SPL: In researching you, I noticed you don’t have a big online presence and social media doesn’t seem like your thing. Pre- and newly-published authors are often told this is a no-no. What’s your take?
GS: I really am not interested in a huge on-line presence, and I tend to think its importance is rather overblown. The time spent on social media is time not spent on writing. I’d rather we not encourage a focus on a writer’s personal life, which is mere voyeurism; it is better to encourage a focus on the writer’s work. Maybe I just have too much New England blood in me, but I cannot see why someone might be inquisitive about my life so much. And I do resist the pressure to be self-revelatory. I mean, is it really important to anyone that I spend time splitting wood and throwing horseshoes? It’s important to me, but just boring to anyone else — or it should be.
SPL: Finally, besides Writers Day, do you have any upcoming appearances or projects you’d like to plug? Maybe an online class we could all take… (hint, hint)?
GS: I am teaching a writing class with Patti Lee Gauch in Concord, Massachusetts, for a week this June. And I’ll be teaching at the Hamline University summer MFA residency in July, surrounded by some of the most amazing faculty members you’ll find anywhere. And if you’re in high school, you should check out the writing program at Calvin College, where I teach upper-level writing courses both fall and spring semester — again, with wonderful faculty colleagues whose skills are astounding. Meanwhile, the next novel will be out in a year: Pay Attention, Carter Jones. I’m also working on picture books these days, for the pleasure of learning the art and to write about some people who have fascinated me for years. The first to be out will be So Tall Within (Roaring Brook) about Sojourner Truth, who lived for a long time in my home state of Michigan — I hope the writing is good, but the illustrations by Daniel Minter are spectacular! — and later there will be a book on the poet and gardener Celia Thaxter with Candlewick, this done with my good friend Phyllis Root.
Thanks for the great interview Gary! To learn more about Gary and his work, check out his faculty page at Calvin and this profile piece as well as his books and author pages at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, MacMillan, Penguin Random House, Scholastic, and Amazon.
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Sarah Parker-Lee is a Los Angeles Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators board member & the Managing Editor of Kite Tales, a book reviewer for Dwarf+Giant, a content creator for non-profits fighting injustice all over the interwebs, & is available to edit your writerly endeavors. She writes YA alt. history, sci-fi, & is the creator of Dogs & Zombies: Dog’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel, @DogsAndZombies
Images provided by Gary Schmidt, Scholastic, First Second, Universe, Clarion Books, Roaring Book Press
This interview was edited slightly for format and clarity.