There's no such thing as Top Children's Authors Week in the Triangle, but it would be easy to assume such an occasion was at hand. Three highly regarded authors of books for children and adolescents will be passing through the area in the coming days. We recently spoke with all three.
Kate DiCamillo's latest children's book, Bink & Gollie, began with her and co-writer Alison McGhee looking for a way to entertain themselves.
"It was a summer when we were between projects, and it's a terrible thing when you're without a story," says DiCamillo.
Improvised conversations based around two girls, one short and one tall, resulted in the creation of Bink and Gollie, two girls of differing heights whose oddball points of view drive the book's trio of comic tales.
"The characters' voices just showed up, and we had a great time kicking it back and forth," says DiCamillo. The book's illustrator, animator Tony Fucile (The Lion King, The Iron Giant, The Incredibles), based the characters on pictures of McGhee and DiCamillo from grade school.
Since her first novel, Because of Winn-Dixie, was published in 2000, DiCamillo has become a prolific and popular writer for younger readers, winning the coveted Newbery Medal for Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux, both of which were made into feature films.
Her tales involve everything from ordinary lives to adventurous mice to the poignant observations of a lost toy. "It's that wonderful to be able to experiment," DiCamillo says. "I never say 'I'm going to do this,' or 'I'm going to do that.' It's all about finding the voice of the story. But I'm grateful that I'm allowed to go in so many different directions."
So what does she feel are the biggest challenges in writing for children? "I never feel challenged by that. Isn't that tragic?" DiCamillo says. "I never even think about it anyway—it's not, 'I'm writing a book for kids,' it's just how the characters speak to me. Should I be worried about that?" Given her success, probably not.
After the success of his young adult science fiction series Uglies, about a revolt in a dystopian future where plastic surgery is required at age 16, Scott Westerfeld figured he could do whatever he wanted. So he made a list of "things I thought were cool," which included World War I, genetic engineering and airships, "and I threw them all together into a plot and tried to make it make sense, to me anyway."
The result was last year's hit Leviathan, the first in a trilogy that turns the Great War on its side. Profusely illustrated by artist Keith Thompson, Leviathan is set in a bizarre alternate history where the British and their allies are "Darwinists" who employ genetically engineered animals (including a whale zeppelin and a squid sub) as weapons, while the Germans and their allies are "Clankers" who use crude robotic war machines in their battles. Against this backdrop, the son of the assassinated Franz Ferdinand and a girl posing as a boy to join the air force come together as they battle for survival.
In a phone call from his home in New York, he says that the series' look and feel was inspired by the "old, moldering boy's adventure books my parents collected ... They had these great titles—Across Africa in an Airship or A Trip to Mars," Westerfeld says.
Behemoth takes his cast of characters to Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire, which has combined the Darwinst and Clanker philosophies to create machines in the shapes of animals, including giant mechanical elephants and scarab beetles.
Leviathan has earned a large following among adult fans of steampunk, a type of science fiction that places modern technology in the past using materials from those eras. "I embrace it, even though it's really dieselpunk," Westerfeld says.
His main concern is that his books embrace "story with a capital S and a plot where you care about what happens next," which he calls "one of the most powerful communication tools we have." Behemoth's action-packed tale gives him plenty of chances for this: "If something hasn't blown up in about 10 pages, I start to get quite anxious as a writer."
Robin Preiss Glasser started as a ballerina, performing with the Pennsylvania Ballet and teaching classes at the North Carolina Dance Theatre. But by the age of 30, "my body was finished and complaining and I just had to stop."
Glasser then pursued her longtime passion for drawing and soon found herself one of the most in-demand children's book illustrators in the business, collaborating with such unlikely children's authors as Lynne Cheney, Garrison Keillor and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York.
Her greatest success is her illustrations for Jane O'Connor's Fancy Nancy series about a heroine who is billed as a "toddler Martha Stewart," which has sold more than 12 million books since the first installment came out in 2005.
Glasser, who appears in Raleigh this week to promote the latest installment, Fancy Nancy and the Fabulous Fashion Boutique, still keeps in touch with dancer friends who live in the Triangle. One of them, Mary LeGere, artistic director of Raleigh Dance Theatre, created the Fancy Nancy Ballet, which premiered in Raleigh and has since been performed out of state.
Fancy Nancy has inspired dozens of spinoff books and licenses, all of which Glasser oversees. "Nancy's world is such a mishmash of color that it's hard to do that and make it look good," says Glasser. For a recent Nancy video game for the Nintendo DS, she employed her ballet experience to show designers how Nancy would prance about. She includes dozens of details of Nancy's "fancy" clothes and costumes on every page, because "we hear from parents that they have to read these to their kids hundreds of times, so I try to give them something they'll see on each new read."
As for the source of the character's appeal, "Jane O'Conner thinks Nancy is her as a child, and parents are constantly telling me Nancy is their sister, or cousin, or neighbor. There's something relatable about her. But she is completely me. I don't know why everyone thinks it's them."