Tell Me a Story

For Wellesley women, writing for young readers can be serious business

Tell Me a Story


Once upon a time, there was a girl named Molly who wanted to create books for children. She had wanted to for as long as she could remember. But she was growing up at a time, she recalls, when “it was not a socially acceptable thing to do. It wasn’t a real job. It was something that was dumb, somehow.”

Luckily for Molly Bang ’65, fate intervened, as it often does in children’s stories. After teaching English in Japan for a time, she studied Far Eastern languages and literatures, first at the University of Arizona and then at Harvard, earning master’s degrees in both fields. Scholarly research didn’t feel like a good fit, so she went to work as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun.

“I learned how unsuited I was as a reporter by getting fired,” she recalls, laughing. As she pondered what to do next, close friends convinced her to follow her dream to illustrate children’s books.

After working for a year to develop a portfolio, Bang took her pictures around to several publishers in New York. “They told me that the illustrations ‘didn’t fit’ any writer’s writing, and that I should find my own stories,” she writes on her website, mollybang.com. “This led to my first books: collections of folk tales that I translated or collected, and then illustrated. I have been writing and illustrating, mostly for children, ever since.”

In 1996, Bang wrote Goose, about a gosling adopted by a family of woodchucks, who stumbles off a cliff and learns that she can fly. It’s also a book about the difficulties faced by an adopted child—or by any child who feels she or he doesn’t quite fit into the family. This year, Goose received the Phoenix Picture Book Award for “high literary merit” from the Children’s Literature Association.

Molly Bang ‘65/Photo by Jim Green

‘Children’s books are really burgeoning now. We’re in the golden age of children’s books.’

“When I published Goose, my first royalty check was for $35,000,” says Bang. Later royalty reports were not so impressive, however. “The book just shot up to the heights and then crashed and burned, and nobody bought it after that. So to get this prize 20 years later was amazing,” she says.

Bang was also surprised to discover the nature of the Children’s Literature Association. “It’s a bunch of academics,” she says. “It has 900 members, and they’re academics specializing in children’s books. Children’s book? Academics? Really? You just never know what’s going to happen.”

The perception of children’s literature has changed radically during the years that Bang has been making her living as an illustrator and writer, she says. At first, people were dismissive. “I don’t go to cocktail parties, but when I was in a situation where you meet a lot of people and say you do children’s books, it was sort of like, ‘Oh, my great-aunt used to, my great-aunt always wanted to do that.’ And now it’s, ‘Oh, I want to make one, or my child wants to, or my daughter or my son is so interested in that.’”

Bang is grateful that she has been able to spend her life doing what she loves. In 1999, she published When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry, which is about just what the title says. “Sophie paid for [my daughter’s] college education. Sophie alone paid for that. The reason that it was so popular, and got a bunch of prizes, was that it was the first book about girls getting angry. Before that, girls did not get angry.”

Bang is also the author of the just-reissued Picture This, her only book for adults, which explains step-by-step the structural principles that artists use to make their pictures emotionally powerful, and is used in art schools around the country. She also has more than three dozen children’s titles to her credit, ranging from folk tales to explorations of science to the Sophie books, and many of them are still in print.

So much for creating children’s books not being a real job.

 


Illustration copyright © 2015 by Eric Velasquez, from New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer.
All rights reserved. Used by permission of Holiday House.

 

Harder Than It Looks

 

In her course English 205: Writing for Children, author and Wellesley English professor Susan Lynn Meyer teaches students that writing for children is not as easy as it may appear.

“We look at some very simple picture books at the beginning of the class, and talk about what makes something feel like a story,” she says. “You need a story, not just a pretty vignette. You need a character and you need a desire, and you need something that gets in the way of that desire.”

When Meyer first offered English 205, she wasn’t sure anyone would sign up. Now the class regularly runs out of seats as soon as registration opens. And aspiring to a career in children’s literature is no longer socially unacceptable or dumb. It’s a viable career that students explore eagerly in Meyer’s seminar.

Meyer herself is a lover of children’s literature—and says one of the first things she noticed about Wellesley was how much the lampposts looked like the magical one in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books.

A serious literary critic who focuses on Victorian and American literature and is the author of Imperialism at Home: Race and Victorian Women’s Fiction, she also writes fiction for children. Her first novel, Black Radishes, about a Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied France, won the Sydney Taylor Honor Award and was named a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year, among other honors. Her second children’s novel, Skating with the Statue of Liberty, about a French Jewish refugee boy in the United States in 1942, a companion to Black Radishes, was published this spring.

She’s also the author of two picture books: Matthew and Tall Rabbit Go Camping, and New Shoes. New Shoes is about two African-American girls who find an inventive way to foil Jim Crow laws. It has won multiple awards, including the Jane Addams Peace Association Children’s Book Award.

Allyson Larcom ’17 and Susan Meyer, professor of English/Photo by Richard Howard

‘You need a story, not just a pretty vignette. You need a character and you need a desire, and you need something that gets in the way of that desire.’

And, Meyer says, “I’m just, just starting to work on a novel, actually set in Wellesley in 191314, about a maid at Wellesley College who’s a recent Russian Jewish immigrant.”

As an author, Meyer shares both the struggles (New Shoes was revised 23 times before publication) and rewards of her work with her students—including inviting her editor to visit from New York and speak to the class about breaking into the publishing business.

Meyer, who joined the Wellesley faculty in 1988, first offered her seminar in 2010. “I had been interested in writing for children, and was doing it on my own, but I didn’t feel I had the credibility to teach a class until I had a book coming out,” she says. “Before that, I did have several students who knew I was interested in it, who did independent work with me, honors theses or independent studies. But then when my first book was coming out, I thought, ‘OK, now I have the credentials to offer this course.’”

The course is designed as a writing workshop, but Meyer also introduces her students to the ins and outs of the business of children’s literature. “I think college students have a great love for children’s books,” she says. “They remember them fondly. A lot of them are planning to go into working with children in one way or another, so there are a lot of future teachers who take the class, or people who might want to be pediatricians, or work with children’s theater, or be librarians. Many of them will soon be looking for jobs—but many of them aren’t going to be writers. But they love the field, and they want to know what other kind of work you can do with it. There’s publishing, editing, working as a literary agent….”

And then there are students who do want to go on to be writers—and are encouraged to learn that children’s literature has become a vibrant niche in the publishing business. Consider these numbers: Revenue from children’s books sales rose from $1.5 billion in 2011 to $1.7 billion in 2015, according to the Association of American Publishers. In the period from January 2014 to September 2015, 11 of the 20 bestselling books in the United States were children’s books, and during that same time, children’s sales were up 12.6 percent, according to Nielsen.

 


 

Mysteries for the Younger Set

 

Katherine Hall Page ’69 began her career as a writer at age 40, after earning a degree that was meant to lead to high school administration. “I initially got published through a quirk,”she says. “I had written a young adult novel as part of my thesis at Harvard for my Ed.D. Immediately upon graduation, my husband took a sabbatical, and we were living in France for the year. I wrote The Body in the Belfry, a mystery novel. And when I came back, the person who had been housesitting for us had piled up all the mail, and I saw a little box [in a children’s publishing newsletter] that said that an agent was looking for manuscripts of all kinds. So I sent in the YA, thinking I could pay off my college loans. And she loved it, and wrote back and said, ‘Would you like me to represent you?’ Yes, yes, yes. And I said, ‘You know, I also have written this mystery novel.’ And she said, ‘Oh, send that. Let me see it.’ And she sold the mystery novel right away.”

So instead of her YA novel, in 1990 Page published the first of her Agatha Award-winning Faith Fairchild mysteries. The newest, The Body in the Wardrobe, the 23rd in the series, came out in April. But she came back to YA in 1996 with the publication of her first Christie & Company mystery.

Katherine Hall Page ‘69

‘I wanted [my characters] to be the kind of girls I knew—truth tellers, you know, strong and funny.’

Page says she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t a reader. Her family lived in rural New Jersey. “We moved there when I was in first grade,” she says. “The local library was in a farmhouse and the children’s room was the old kitchen. It still had the big iron cook stove.”

In that library and at home, she grew up on “all kinds of 19th-century books for girls: A Garland for Girls and then every Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett. And then there was Anne of Green Gables. I actually read that by accident before it became famous.…And so then I began this hunt for every other Lucy Maud Montgomery book.”

Page didn’t read Nancy Drew mysteries, in spite of the Wellesley connection (Harriet Stratemeyer Adams 1914 led her father’s legendary Stratemeyer Syndicate, overseeing many of the later books in the Nancy Drew mystery series). “They weren’t in my house,” she says. “My older brother was a huge Conan Doyle fan, so I read his Sherlock Holmes.” But she has contributed her own series to the mysteries-for-girls genre with her Christie & Company series. (Each title opens with a delicious hand-drawn map.)

“I loved doing them, because they brought me back into classrooms,” she says. “I tried not to make them didactic. I wanted them to be the kind of girls I knew—truth tellers, you know, strong and funny. Very funny.”

 


 

The Draw of Publishing

 

Strong and funny aptly describes Allyson Larcom ’17, a student in Meyer’s seminar last spring, who has her eye on a career in children’s publishing—though she’s not sure yet what form it will take.

Not unlike Page, Larcom taught herself to read. “We had an alphabet poster in the classroom, and instead of playing with the other kids I would go look at this alphabet poster and just go like A is ah and B is buh, and just go through the alphabet over and over. And I started writing pretty much immediately. The first novel, quote-unquote, that I ever wrote, I finished in about the seventh grade. I wrote it with a friend, and it was like bad Warrior Cats fan fiction.”

Larcom says that first book weighed in at 350 pages, single-spaced. She’s learned to be more succinct in Susan Meyer’s class—though the discipline of writing a 600-word picture book was difficult.

“I think a lot of people know that they enjoy writing from a really young age, and start very early,” says Larcom. “I knew I wanted to be writing in some capacity. I did not know I wanted to be a YA writer until more recently, about high school. But I went through phases. When I was 10, I wanted to be a playwright, and that was what I wanted to do. Then I wanted to be a songwriter when Taylor Swift was up and coming. I was like, she writes all her own songs. I want to write songs. That’s what I want to do. After The Avengers came out, I wanted to write movies. I always wanted to be writing something, but I was always kind of changing until I realized that I really like writing YA.”

Larcom says she had to fight to get into Meyer’s class—and she’s glad she did.

“I loved the class. I thought it was wonderful. It was so much fun. The most beneficial thing for me was not even necessarily the workshopping, but the career advice. What I’m most interested in in the field is probably agenting,” she says.

Last summer, Larcom worked remotely from her home in Utah for literary agent Sara Crowe, something she’s continuing to do during the academic year. She’s a double major in English/creative writing and classical civilization and has chosen Meyer as her thesis advisor for a collection of YA short stories, retelling The Odyssey.

“But my ultimate career fantasy is actually being a writer and owning a bookshop,” Larcom says, laughing. “You know how they have those cat cafés? Book people love cats. I would love to work with local animal shelters and foster cats so they would all be up for adoption, too. It would be like, ‘Come to the café or the bookshop, and if you like a cat, you can buy a book and a cat.’

And what about Molly Bang, whose career fantasy seemed so remote when she was an undergraduate? As is often the case in children’s books, she lived happily ever after. Now in her 70s, she continues to write and illustrate books for young readers—the latest Sophie book is in the works right now.

Does she plan to retire? “Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no, no—because children’s books are really burgeoning now. We’re in the golden age of children’s books.”

Just ask the students in English 205.

Bringing Diversity to Children’s Lit

 

Malinda Lo ‘96/Photo by Patty Nason

Malinda Lo ’96 is the author of the young adult fantasy novels, Huntress and Ash, and the sci-fi duo Adaptation and Inheritance. This fall, she’s at work on a thriller. These are YA novels with a difference—among Lo’s protagonists are Asian, lesbian, and bisexual characters.

Lo is co-founder, with fellow author Cindy Pon, of Diversity in YA (diversityinya.tumblr.com), which highlights books with characters of color, LGBTQ characters, and disabled characters. She says the dialogue around diversity has gotten much bigger and more vocal since 2011, when Diversity in YA launched.

“We both had Asian-inspired YA fantasies published within one month,” Lo says. So the two writers went on a Diversity in YA book tour that they organized themselves. “There was so much enthusiasm—we had hundreds of people come to those events. I don’t think anyone had really done anything like that before, so we didn’t know whether there would be interest in it—so it was exciting that there was.”

She adds, “It’s great that there’s an increased awareness of the lack of diversity within YA, and I definitely think that more books have been published in the last few years that address a more diverse audience. And that is all wonderful. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Another alumna, Maya Marlette ’16, is out there doing that work. An internship at Scholastic, funded by a grant from We Need Diverse Books (weneeddiversebooks.org), another nonprofit that supports diversity in children’s literature, led to a job offer at the children’s publisher. Marlette says it’s important for young readers to see books that reflect their own experience. “When publishing is mainly white, it’s mainly white kids who get to see themselves in those roles,” she says. “But when you diversify, everyone benefits.”

 

Wellesley Writes

Interested in more books by Wellesley children’s writers for your kids (or yourself!)? Below is a list of the living writers we know about, with one title for each—though many have published multiple books. If we have missed any authors, please email magazine@wellesley.edu, and we will update the list.

Jane Gillson Langton ’44The Hall Family Chronicles (HarperCollins)
Frances Abbott Miller ’59The Truth Trap (Open Road)
Jacqueline Briggs Martin ’66Snowflake Bentley (Houghton Mifflin)
Cynthia Yenkin Levinson ’67Hillary Rodham Clinton: Do All the Good You Can (Balzer+Bray)
Rhoda Morss Truboff ’67Punkinhead’s Veggie Adventure (Tenley Circle Press)
Marcy Barack ’71Season Song (HarperCollins)
Mary Carpenter ’72Lost and Found in the Mississippi Sound (Tenley Circle Press)
Claudia Mills ’76Cody Harmon King of Pets (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Holly Goldberg Sloan ’80I’ll Be There (Little Brown Books for Young Readers)
Jessie Haas ’81Chase (HarperCollins)
Kate Banks ’82Max’s Dragon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Jennifer Jenkins Stewart ’82The Twelve Days of Christmas in Arizona (Sterling Publishing)
Heather Stevenson Tomlinson ’86Toads and Diamonds (Henry Holt Books for Young Readers)
Debbie Glasser Fromer ’87 with Emily Schenck—New Kid, New Scene: A Guide to Moving and Switching Schools (Magination Press)
Mary Jane Close Beaufrand ’88Dark River (Little-Brown)
Jame Richards ’90Three Rivers Rising: The Story of the Johnstown Flood (Knopf)
Andrea Chan Wang ’92The Nian Monster (Albert Whitman)
Miriam Schiffer ’01Stella Brings the Family (Chronicle Books)
Talia Aikens-Nuñez ’01OMG, I Did It Again … ?! (Central Avenue Publishing)
Kyra Lit Khanna ’99 and Malini Sekhar ’01Maya and Leela Present: Dances of India (2Lokas)

Catherine O’Neill Grace, a senior associate editor of Wellesley magazine, is the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books for middle-school readers, including 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving.

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