Last spring at Bryn Mawr College, 70 of the school’s best and brightest entered into a lottery for 15 spots in the experimental course “Writing for Children” taught by six visiting professors. The group teaching concept was the brainchild of author Catherine Murdock, a 1988 Bryn Mawr graduate. Given its popularity, it will be offered again next spring, though with just one author at the helm.
Among the adjuncts who participated, Glenmoore’s Jen Bryant has 25-plus books to her credit. The list includes The Trial, which chronicles the Lindbergh kidnapping case, and Ringside, 1925: Views from the Scopes Trial, which made Oprah Winfrey’s Kids’ Reading List.
Another adjunct, Wyndmoor’s David Wiesner is a three-time winner of the acclaimed Caldecott Medal for illustration for his picture books Tuesday, The Three Pigs and Flotsam. He sums up the area’s untold riches when it comes to homegrown literature for children and young adults: “This is a hub of some pretty incredible people.”
Here’s more about Wiesner, Bryant, Murdock and other local authors with national clout.
Though her fictional landscape is usually her native Arizona, Elizabeth Mosier’s novel-in-progress, The Fortune Teller, ventures into the Main Line for material. Geared toward young adults, the book is set in Wayne and narrated by Jack Schulz, a Radnor High School freshman who conspires with his older sister to convince their parents, the school principal and local police of her psychic powers. Jack’s snarky, stereotypical take on the town—soccer mania, blond hair pulled into sideways ponytails, grosgrain ribbon belts, and cabins in the Poconos nicer than many full-time homes—isn’t Mosier’s view, but that of a transplanted Westerner. “I love living here,” she says. “But, like Jack, I’m the neighborhood bohemian.”
Mosier studied psychology at Bryn Mawr before discovering that her interest in human behavior was more literary than clinical. Before she published her first novel, 1999’s My Life As a Girl, she wrote short stories. When an editor at Random House asked her if she had a book-length manuscript, she lied. “I had just five good chapters of a book I thought was a failure,” she says. “I quickly revised those pages, wrote an outline for a new version and sold the novel before it was finished. I always tell students, ‘I wouldn’t have been able to write a good book if I hadn’t written a lousy draft first.’”
Devon’s Beth Kephart has long been on the local writers radar. A National Book Award-nominated memoirist, nonfiction writer and sometime contributor to Main Line Today, she’s now gearing her work toward young adults.
Her first such novel, 2007’s Undercover, touches on her Radnor High School career as a fledgling poet. Coming a year later, House of Dance is loosely based on her own experiences at DanceSport Academy in Ardmore. This year’s Nothing But Ghosts uses Chanticleer Garden in Wayne as its backdrop. Set for publication next March, The Heart Is Not a Size will center on a group of Main Line kids on a missionary trip to Juárez, Mexico.
The young adult genre is flourishing, says Kephart, even as advocates and critics struggle to define it. “On the Main Line, we have an abundance of talent—a truly remarkable microcosm of styles and stories,” she says.
Kephart has taught aspiring writers for eight years (the subject of her memoir, Seeing Past Z) and conducted full-day workshops at Agnes Irwin, Radnor and other schools. She’s currently teaching at the University of Pennsylvania and posts a regular blog at beth-kephart.blogspot.com.
This prolific Wayne couple has almost 100 books between them. Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee won the Newbery Medal, and last year, his Stargirl made Oprah’s Kids’ Reading List. Eileen is a rare two-time Christopher Award winner. They each had a title on the New York Times Best Seller list at the same time, and both have books under option for film.
“We’ve been so abundantly blessed,” says Jerry. “Our approach has always been to write for ourselves, not the market. Ideally, we don’t follow it—it follows us.”
The Spinellis teamed up for the first time to write Today I Will: A Year of Quotes, Notes and Promises to Myself, just published by Random House. Much of it was drawn from the work of Main Line authors, including Jen Bryant, Judy Schachner and Kathye Fetsko Petrie. Each page begins with a quote from a children’s book, followed by a brief commentary on the quote, and a resolution to apply the lesson. “It was Eileen’s idea,” says Jerry. “It’s the kind of book you read one day at a time.”
For David Wiesner, picture books are a great thing. “You can read them any way you want when there are no words,” he says. “What I do is remove my voice so the reader can supply his own. The biggest part is building up that anticipation. The pictures lead you up to that page-turning moment.”
The title of Wiesner’s 2006 Caldecott Medal winner, Flotsam, refers to the oceanography word for driftwood, fishing lures, shells or any other objects yielded by the sea. In the book’s panels and full-page illustrations, the author’s persona finds a “Melville Underwater Camera” with a roll of film in it. “He’s a curious kid, so he runs off to Bob’s One-Hour Photo,” Wiesner says.
Each page tells a story of its own—a hot-air puffer fish in a balloon, sea turtles with seashells on their backs, aliens on vacation exiting their spaceship. Then, suddenly, there’s photo after photo of kids holding photos of kids holding shots of other kids. One is Wiesner as a teenager; another is his daughter. As Wiesner’s persona is about to take a picture of himself holding a photo of a kid holding a shot of another kid, the waves kick up and whisk the camera back into the ocean, where it floats to a curious child in another country.
One librarian sent Wiesner a copy of Flotsam. A young reader had handwritten—spelling errors included—his own storyline beneath each photo, and then returned the book to the shelf. One caption reads: “Jon was looking at unormal pictures.”
“That’s what I try to do,” says Wiesner of his work. “Make un-normal pictures.”
The author of Dairy Queen, a novel about a 15-year-old girl trying out for her high school football team, Wayne’s Catherine Murdock is the sister of Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote the bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Out now, Front and Center continues where Dairy Queen left off, as D.J. Schwenk struggles with the pressures of college sports recruiting. “Your degree gives you permission to look at everything and think,” says Murdock of her time at Bryn Mawr College, and then as a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania.
Murdock spent 10 years writing screenplays before turning to the young-adult genre—and she never had a creative writing class like the one she started at Bryn Mawr. “It was probably a good thing,” she says. “I was too neurotic. I would’ve beaten myself up.”
Jen Bryant has said she wants to be Wiesner in her next life. Actually, she’s done quite well for herself. Her biographical picture book, A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, received a 2009 Caldecott Honor. Her acclaimed 2005 debut, the picture book Georgia’s Bones, celebrates the creative vision of artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
The daughter of a funeral director, Bryant often overheard obituaries dictated by her father and grandfather. The experience planted a seed that sprouted into a full-blown obsession with real people and real stories. A French major and German minor at Gettysburg College, she began writing biographies 20 years ago as a stay-at-home mom. “I was reading them, so literally I said, ‘Why don’t I write them?’”
Early on, she focused on French-oriented subject matter and environmental pioneers, working for low, flat fees. When her daughter would only nap in the car, she took rides to Marsh Creek State Park near Downingtown, where she still writes best. Many of Bryant’s books begin as a poem—the equivalent of Wiesner’s sketchbook starts. “I’m really a chicken,” she admits. “I’m scared to death, so I go at it sideways. Once I get emotionally braver, then the poem morphs into a novel or a picture book.”
Current Bryant titles include Music for the End of Time and the ’60s-era novel for teens Kaleidoscope Eyes.
Quakertown’s Paul Acampora fills notebooks with the “dumbest things”—mostly serendipitous lines others have said. A recent murmuring: “A cow is just a cow, but a skinny cow is a message from God.” Another: “I am the king of crazy town.”
“I have no idea what that means,” he says of that last one. “But you’ll eventually see that line in something of mine.”
Acampora claims he can’t remember anything. “And that’s why I write fiction,” he says. “You don’t need to make anything up—the world is full of ideas. My problem is organizing them. No one believes the true stories; they’re too insane. Fiction is reality, only lighter.”
Defining Dulcie, Acampora’s acclaimed 2006 novel for young adults, follows the adventures of a girl who moves from Connecticut to California with her mom following the accidental death of her father. Acampora is a dad himself—and dog-obsessed to boot. He was researching the use of canines among early Native American populations when his daughter grabbed their golden retriever by the face and said, “You’re not useful. But don’t worry, we’re not going to eat you.”
“What really makes that story is that we’re vegetarians,” he says.
Downingtown resident Sara Shepard’s “Pretty Little Liars” series has made both the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists. Her latest installment, Killer, is the sixth of eight. Set in the fictitious Main Line town of Rosewood, the books are loaded with references to SEPTA, Amish Country, covered bridges, abandoned barns, old stone relics from pre-Revolutionary times, and “typical suburban antics.”
“It’s all about the Main Line—a bucolic, wealthy suburb that hides deep, dark secrets,” says Shepard, who moved here from New York. “So obviously, I think this area is great for inspiration.”
She’s a narrative painter, specializing in children’s portraits. He’s a sculptor whose work routinely appears in exhibitions and museums. And they’ve long critiqued each other’s work. When circumstances converged, Swarthmore’s Perky Edgerton and Brian Meunier collaborated on two children’s books, Pipiolo and the Roof Dogs (2004) and Bravo, Tavo! (2007).
Both projects were inspired by their sabbaticals as professors of art—Edgerton at the University of Pennsylvania and Meunier at
Swarthmore College. They spent the time living with their daughters, Marina and Lela, in a village just outside of Oaxaca, Mexico. Pipiolo and the Roof Dogs emerged from a simple question asked by Marina: “What are those doggies doing on the rooftops?”
Edgerton was having trouble simplifying and condensing the book’s text. Meanwhile, Meunier was sidelined from sculpture by a series of physical setbacks, including two hip replacements. So he began writing the story. “I tend to work with assembling 10 to 15 parts per sculpture, and the very form is iconic,” he says. “Iconic—similar to writing a picture book, where the pictures carry the majority of the narrative, and the writing simply supports or suggests it further. Sculpture, too, tells a minimal story, the tip of an iceberg as it relates to its original inspiration.”
Just blocks from Edgerton and Meunier, there’s plenty of additional inspiration in Swarthmore. Others in the field include Donna Jo Napoli, Judy Schachner and occasional Main Line Today contributor Kathye Fetsko Petrie. “We all know each other,” says Petrie. “We’ve often done events together, and we’re interconnected in many ways.”
Back in the early 1980s, when they were all just starting out, Schachner asked Petrie to write a story for her to illustrate as part of a portfolio for editors in New York. That eventually led to Petrie’s 2003 picture book, Flying Jack, inspired by her aviation-influenced childhood in Broomall and Media. “My dad landed helicopters in a neighborhood baseball field and rebuilt airplanes in our garage,” Petrie recalls.
Schachner, meanwhile, has enjoyed much success in her own right. Skippyjon Jones: Lost in Spice, the latest installment of her wildly creative series about a feline adrenaline junky, recently found its way to No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller List.
As it turns out, Schachner was so bowled over by Edgerton’s paintings that she encouraged what became Pipiolo and the Roof Dogs. And Napoli once asked Schachner to sketch sample illustrations for one of her stories. The “Prince of the Pond” series was the result. “There’s one important effect Swarthmore has on my writing, and it’s something I’m eternally grateful for,” says Napoli. “The town and college librarians are an invaluable help when I’m stumped during fact-finding.”
Petrie now chronicles herself and her colleagues as editor, publisher and founder of Local LIT (locallit.com), an online calendar of events and a key resource. She’s also “Philadelphia Literary Scene Examiner” for Examiner.com, and is reviewing books for the online US Review of Books.
Petrie fell in love with the children’s genre after years of reading to her sons. “Main Line parents know how important books and reading are for their kids and themselves,” she says. “And that helps the field of children’s books to flourish here.”
Elizabeth Mosier—a success in the young adult market—cites a 2008 study that shows youth-publishing up 25 percent. “The layoffs are not in the children’s division or at the children’s houses,” she says.
In fact, publishers are desperate to publish. “They have to find 20 manuscripts a year—and so they have to find them,” says Murdock.
Even rejection is gentler. “It’s always been a different world to me,” Mosier says. “People are nice, kind, interested.”
Not every local success story is so optimistic. “I’m not so sure. Maybe they’ll just redo Detroit, and it’ll become the publishing capital of the world,” says Jen Bryant, before offering a more positive spin. “We still have a human need—and drive—for this kind of thing, no matter what technology delivers it.”
A quiet force behind the success of local children’s authors, Hannah Schwartz’s Children’s Book World celebrated its 20th anniversary in October. Typically held in November, its annual Author/Illustrators Night is a magnet for the best in children’s literature. Schwartz knows everyone in the field, including Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who once visited the store. 17 Haverford Station Road, Haverford; (610) 642-6274, childrensbookworld.net.
Young Writers’ Day workshops bring writers, illustrators, songwriters and reporters to local elementary schools for classroom presentations and activities. “The idea is for students to actually meet and ask questions of working artists, so they can see that a life in the arts is real and possible, and learn about the craft,” says founder Mary Beth Lauer, public relations director for the Haverford Township school district and a former editor at the News of Delaware County. For a schedule, visit youngwritersday.net.
Kathy Stewart, a library media specialist at Exton’s Collegium Charter School, hosts a read-aloud for kids on Dr. Seuss’ birthday in March, inviting local writers to participate. “I’ve had visiting authors who bring notebooks and take notes for future books,” she says. “Children are all too willing to tell about what activates their interest. [For the writers], we provide a great test market.” For more information, call (610) 903-1300 or visit collegium-charter.org.
The Society of Children’s Writers & Illustrators’ Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter unites those who share an interest in children’s literature. To learn more, visit scbwiepa.org.