An Interview conducted by Eva Mitnick (Los Angeles Public Library) for the Children's Literature Council of Southern California newsletter, "The Sampler."
Eva: Your speech at the Caldecott/Newbery Award Banquet was so entertaining and so perfectly delivered that we the audience felt ourselves in the hands of a master storyteller. I know that you told stories to your younger sister when you were children; did you do any storytelling as a Children's Librarian?
Susan: I loved using folklore on school visits, ending each session with a half-read, half-told story. Some of my favorites (illustrated versions of these were published in the 1970's, when I was a Children's Librarian) were "Rooster Brother," "Sir Gawain and the Loathly Damsel," and "The Crane Maiden." But I've never thought of myself as a true stand-up storyteller—for instance, I always flub the punch line of jokes, one of the trickiest forms of storytelling. I need the printed page! It's not coincidental that my first book, Burgoo Stew, was a retelling of the Stone Soup folktale, and came out of my immersion in folk literature on the job
Eva: The only books that appear in The Higher Power of Lucky are Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman and The Tree of Life by Peter Sis. I can only assume that her connected trailers
are too tiny to hold many, if any, books! However, Lucky is surrounded by stories, all told orally. She sucks them up from her neighbors, from Brigitte, from eavesdropping at 12-step meetings, and of course she tells a few stories herself. When you began the book, did you realize that
storytelling would be such an important thread running through it?
Susan: Like Lucky, I didn't have many books at home as a child—until I discovered the public library in 4th grade. But my mom could take the most mundane events of the day and transform them into a funny, interesting story to tell my dad before dinner. As an adult, I realized that this is one of the hugely satisfying functions of fiction: re-arranging the inexplicable, tedious, moving, terrifying, thrilling and completely random bits, the anarchy and chaos of life, into something meaningful. Parts of the ex-smokers' stories in Lucky were lifted from my own experience in a 12 step program when I was trying to quit. After unsuccessful attempts with therapy, acupuncture, and nicotine gum, I was stunned to discover that people got together and simply told their stories, which gave both the teller and the listeners a powerful kind of courage. I was already convinced that stories are vital to us—and especially to children—as a way of finding order, and answers, in the world. Here was a healing, redemptive, even life-saving use of storytelling, and I thought: I've got to figure out a way of putting this into a children's book! To do so was risky, because (as I've learned) there are adults who want to shelter children from exposure to 12 step programs—as if the model of adults taking responsibility for their lives could be anything but positive!
Eva: You've gone on a book tour to promote Lucky. What are some of the experiences you've had while on the road?
Susan: Spellbinder's Books in Bishop, CA, liaisoned with local schools in the Eastern Sierras and hosted me for a couple of presentations. At one of these, kids from the Death Valley Unified School District were brought to the town of Lone Pine on a bus—a three-hour one-way trip. Their teacher had read The Higher Power of Lucky to his 4th, 5th, and 6th graders, who were the most intense, involved, attentive group I'd encountered after three weeks of touring. They'd never seen themselves, their habitat, and to some extent their story in a children's book before. Some of them thought Hard Pan was really their own tiny town. They told me this after the presentation and the Q and A, when I spoke with each child individually and signed little crumpled pieces of paper for them—they couldn't afford to buy personal copies of the book. (Afterwards, when I recounted this to the publisher, they arranged to send each child a signed copy. Another good example of the power of story.)
Eva: Rumor has it that your next book, a companion to Lucky, is nearing completion. Would you care to share anything about it?
Susan: The writing of this book has taken me further into the realm of knot tying, which has much in common with storytelling and folklore. All cultures have used knots, which go back to an ancient, deep part of our human history. Children's string games transcend language. And knot tyers are as passionate, devoted to, and obsessed by knotting as, well, as we are about storytelling. (But I am only a novice knot tyer myself, so don't ask for a demo!)
Eva: If you could pack any two books into your survival kit, what would they be?
Susan: A thesaurus and an encyclopedic, photographically-illustrated book on knot tying. (The manuscript is due NOW.)
Eva: Is there some aspect of storytelling, important to you, that we haven't touched on? Susan: I'm passionate about audio books. Good audio book narrators fit somewhere between the professional storyteller and the adult who reads aloud to the child: I think of all of these as ways of telling stories orally. Librarians know that audio books can provide a key to converting nonreaders and poor readers into avid readers, and they also feed the great hunger of those who are voracious.
Listen to Jack Gantos narrate his own Joey Pigza trilogy, to Jim Dale reading Harry Potter, to Lynn Redgrave's seductive unfolding of Funke's Inkheart or to Cassandra Campbell reading The Higher Power of Lucky. These are transporting experiences.
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