Hello everyone and I hope you all had a Happy Halloween! This fall I am taking my first online course, an English Genre Study in the Craft of Writing for Children class called Writing in the Spirit of Things (how fitting in time for this Halloween post). In it, my class has read picture books, poetry, articles, and novels that deal with spirituality in children’s literature. It has been a unique experience, getting to know my classmates and professor online and reading texts that deal with these abstract themes. My professor, Alexandria LaFaye, is a children’s book author and English professor here at Hollins during the summer and at Greenville University in Illinois during the school year. Her work focuses on historical fiction and the essence of family. I speak with her in this interview to get to know her outside of my online class and to hear from her what it’s like to write children’s books.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I started elementary school, it only took a few hours in my kindergarten class to realize I was a complete and total geek. My thirst for knowledge lead me out of the room when the teacher discussed something I knew already (I went to the end of the hall so I could talk to passing 6th grades. They knew a lot), I dressed myself and had a singular fashion sense (think, no one else would wear that but her), and I talked to myself all the time—when I played, when I did art, I was constantly telling stories. So when it became clear that the kids in my class were going to haze me for being a weirdo, I wanted to do something that would inspire them to get to know the real me, figuring they’d realize I was weird, but fun. My thought was that if I could become famous, they’d want to get to know me. Becoming a famous child in a pre-Youtube era was a tall order so I went to the source with the most famous people I could think of for some inspiration—The Guiness Book of World Records. In it, I found a girl, Dorothy Straight who published a book when she was six. I was eight at the time, so I figured I was behind already and I started working to become an author. It took another 20 years before I was published, but wonderfully, in that time, I learned to be happy with my geeky self-regardless of how others responded to me and began to write because of how much I loved it not because I wan’t fame.
What drew you to work in the children's book industry?
Perhaps it’s because of the challenges of childhood, I’m not sure. I didn’t so much as choose to be a children’s writer, so much as the stories that I wanted to writer were for child readers and their families. I love to write books where the adults are as complex and compelling as the children because it’s more realistic to how life actually is and it makes the books more accessible as family reads.
You write children's books and also teach children's literature courses at the college level. Is it difficult for you to balance these positions as well as set aside family time?
Indeed it is. I’ve learned to carve out writing time writing retreat-style breaks every so often, ironically, I’m now on sabbatical and I could write every day and I’m finding that quite difficult because it’s so different from my marathon writing sessions. The demands on my time mean I’m not the most organized professor and I take more time than I should to grade papers, but I do my best to be present and engaged with each of my students and challenge them to continue to grow. The same is true for my family. I guard my family time because they are the most important people in my life and they deserve the best of me.
Is there a particular genre you find yourself revisiting as an author?
I’ve always loved history, so I return to historical fiction a lot. People need to learn the value of history to inspire us, to know where we came from, and to learn from our collective mistakes as a human society. On the other hand, I love to try new genres. I have a written in a quite a few fusion genres as well. Each time I write a new book, I try to set a new writing challenge for myself. It makes me a better writer and a better writing teacher.
Do your book ideas come to you naturally, or do you find yourself researching a subject then choosing to write from that?
My ideas come from what if style questions and learning new things. Creativity is often described as the recombination of known things in unusual order, so the more you know, the more you can create and imagine. I knew about the Orphan Train which brought New York City orphans out to families “out west” from the 1870s to the 1930s and I wondered what would the story be like if it was told from the perspective of a boy who had an orphan “replace” him due to an injury that make it impossible for him to work. That question lead to the novel Worth.
Your book, Pretty Omens, is a historically-set novel-in-verse. What did you find most challenging when writing for this genre?
Creating poetry that stands as poem vs. lyrical short-lined prose and finding ways to create a rich narrative experience that can be created by seeking out the story within the poems, between them, and as they stitch together in a larger narrative. Interestingly, when you write a novel-in-verse this way, a lot of people used to a more narrative style of novel-in-verse aren’t fully comfortable with the extra work my approach takes to construct the story. Even the most accessible poetry requires readers to build more of the story off the page than narrative prose. I actually love that about poetry, but for some readers, that’s too much work.
What do you find is the most rewarding part of being an educator and writer for the children's book industry?
The most rewarding part of being an educator is when you see a student recognize the value of what z/s/he has learned, but it’s even more amazing when you talk to that students when they’re no longer students and realize that they’ve applied what they learned with you in their own work and inspired those they work with—it’s an amazing interconnection among people who may never meet. The power of knowledge to transform is an amazing thing to behold and I’m honored to be part of that process.
So for the children’s book industry—so many of the people in the field are dedicated to building community and support each other, committed to inspiring life-long readers, creating transformative literature, diversity, equity, and social justice. They’re my kind of people and I’m so thrilled to be a part of it.