I met author Audrey Vernick fourteen years ago when she was working on her first book, BARK AND TIM: A TRUE STORY OF FRIENDSHIP, written with her sister, Ellen Glassman Gidaro, and illustrated with the paintings of Mississippi folk artist Tim Brown. Since that book’s publication her career has exploded: There are now a baker’s dozen of Audrey Vernick books with more on the way. She will be among the faculty this July in Helen, Georgia at a week-long WOW Writing Retreat. http://www.wowretreat.net/
Q. You have two new books in the stores right now – THE KID FROM DIAMOND STREET (Clarion Books, March 29), which is nonfiction, and a fiction picture book with the delightful title, I WON A WHAT? (Knopf, April 12). Would you tell us a little about these two very different books and how they came about?
A. I am a fan of baseball history, but not in a statistics way. I love the stories. THE KID FROM DIAMOND STREET is my third nonfiction book about baseball. The second was titled BROTHERS AT BAT, a true story about a team comprised of the 12 Acerra Brothers of Long Branch, NJ. When I was working on that book, I was in touch with the director of research at the Baseball Hall of Fame who mentioned something about an all-sister softball team. When I asked for more information on that, the file was nowhere to be found! But he suggested I check out the Bobbies, a Philadelphia women’s baseball team (named for the hairstyle all players shared).
Edith was the team’s star player. When she was only ten years old, she was playing shortstop on a professional team! She was a true phenom, grabbing all the headlines from her much older teammates (which was not her intention. That girl just loved to play). It’s possible I became a tiny bit obsessed with Edith when I saw a photograph of her. I remember when I showed it to you, you said she looked like a cross between Scout Finch and Mary Pickford. Thinking about Edith’s fierce determination consistently impresses me and fills me with awe. I could talk about her all day.
I WON A WHAT? is a story about a kid who has always wanted a pet. He talks his parents into letting him keep whatever he wins at the goldfish booth at a carnival. And then he wins a whale. I remember having the idea for this one–written as “Kid tries to win goldfish but wins whale–which may be the best synopsis I have ever written. (It’s not my strong suit.)
The challenge came on, say, page five. He won a whale. Now what?
I needed a little spark of inspiration to help me find the rest of the story. So I started reading about people’s experiences interacting with whales. Many people wrote, in describing whale-watching expeditions, of having the feeling that they were being watched carefully by the whales. Somehow, that little observation was a spark for me—it helped me understand the friendship, based primarily on watching and understanding and thinking, between the boy and his pet. And I got lucky with this book—the ending (which can be such a hard thin) just came out my fingers without me even thinking about it. And I think it’s my favorite ending of all the books I’ve written.
Q. What is it about writing for young readers that appeals to you?
A. I am sure it has to do with the connection I felt to the books I loved as a child. My love for those books—Ursula Nordstrom’s THE SECRET LANGUAGE, Louise Fitzhugh’s HARRIET THE SPY, France Hodgson Burnett’s THE SECRET GARDEN and many others—was akin to the love you feel for a real best friend. I was a serious re-reader in those days. I have always been one to read purely for pleasure, never analytically, but I believe a brain begins to sort things out, to understand structure, when you reread books, particularly when you’re young (and your brain isn’t yet cluttered with lyrics to every Beatles song). Without having to give it thought, you start to understand, intuitively, how a story is told when you reread books. But I digress. I wanted to say that with THE SECRET GARDEN, I must have read the scene in which they first discover that garden hundreds of times, awed by the way words created magic.
Q. I’m aware from writing a picture book myself that there’s more to creating a book for young readers than many people might realize. It takes a special skill set. What are the easiest, as well as the most challenging parts of the process for you?
A. I can hold an entire picture book in my head, something I cannot do with novels (though I’ve met people who can). The easiest thing I think is that it is not impossible to go through the entire writing and revision process pretty quickly. I’ve had that happen maybe three or four times. It’s a great feeling. Of course, I also have some books started that I’ve been unable to finish. Because there is a precision to good picture books—nothing extraneous. No room for fat. Beginning, middle and end, just like with any book.
With my nonfiction picture books, I always talk to kids about the responsibility of taking a whole life–one in which something happened to the subject every day of her life, for many, many decades–and boil that down to a 32- or 40-page book with many big pictures. It can be daunting. You write nonfiction too, so you know the sense of responsibility that comes with writing about real subjects. It’s a formidable task.
Q. If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you would be doing for a living?
A. If my sister Beth hadn’t gone to law school, I think I might have—but I saw how miserable it made her and ruled it out. I did public relations for public schools and libraries as my last full-time job. I didn’t mind the writing but I really didn’t care for the part that felt like sales. There’s a good chance I’d be a teacher—there are many in the family, and on my school visits it’s kind of like being Teacher for a Day.
Q. I’ve never met an author who didn’t have pets. Can you tell us about your two dogs?
A. Rookie, our 15-year-old dog, is officially a miniature labradoodle but he’s not that miniature. He has lived more than a cat’s nine lives, having ingested so many things—especially socks—not intended for dogs. He has had surgery for sock removal, wears a brace on walks now for the CCL he tore last winter, and is notorious for finding my purses and eating whatever he finds contained therein. He’s a bit of a grumpy old man but oh, does he love the people he loves.
Hootie’s four and one of the most affectionate dogs I’ve ever known. She was a rescue near death (parvovirus) when we adopted her as a puppy. She’s three-quarters poodle and one-quarter golden retriever. She’s very funny but lacks short-term memory which can lead to extended barking riffs when people she doesn’t know reenter the room they were just in. She’s my daily walking buddy. When Rookie comes along, it’s more like grazing. They both love to eat grass.
Thanks for inviting me to visit, Amy! It was fun!