PEN World Voices 2010: Children’s Authors on Culture and Identity
Identity and influence were the main topics of conversation for a group of children’s book authors at a panel entitled “A Gathering of Voices,” held last Thursday during the sixth annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York City. Moderated by Elizabeth Bird, NYPL senior children’s librarian and Fuse #8 blogger, the panel featured authors David Almond, Francisco X. Stork, Janne Teller, and author/illustrator Ed Young, all of whom also appeared on other panels during the festival. Given the panelists’ diverse international backgrounds, Bird first asked them how they became writers and how the countries in which they were born or raised had an impact on their writing. “Cultural influence is a complicated question for me,” said Teller, who is of Danish and Austrian descent and was born in Denmark, but who has also lived in other European and African nations. She described the conflict between Danish culture, in which irony weighs heavily, and what she called her “Sturm und Drang” Austrian side. “You can’t write ‘I love you’ in Danish and think that everyone won’t laugh,” she said.
Young, who was born and raised in China and moved to the U.S. to attend college, recalled his father’s strength as a storyteller (“he could make up a story at the drop of a dime”), but said he never expected to become a writer himself—and still considers himself “basically an artist.” He described showing up to a meeting with Harper editor Ursula Nordstrom (“I didn’t know who she was”) with “a stack of drawings on napkins,” and getting his first book contract, which launched his 40-year career as a children’s book illustrator. Later, an editor suggested he try writing because of his skill with storytelling; when he balked, she gave him a tape recorder for him to use. “She typed it up, it wasLon Po Po, and it won a Caldecott [in 1989],” he said. “So I thought, well, I’m an author.” (Young continues to use editor-transcribed tape recordings for the books he writes.)
Almond, the recent recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award, said that the part of northeastern England in which he grew up was “kind of seen on the fringes of mainstream English culture,” and related a Billy Elliot-like story of dreaming to become a “writah” only to be told, “You’re just an ordinary kid from an ordinary town.” Almond said it wasn’t until he was 40 years old that he “looked back to the place I’d come from. I had to turn the language I’d come from into a language that could speak beyond,” he said. “In the local is the universal.”
Janne Teller and Ed Young. Photo: PEN American Center/Beowulf SheehanLike Young, Stork, most recently the author of The Last Summer of the Death Warriors (Scholastic/Levine, Mar.), recalled the importance of storytelling early in his youth: “I remember being rewarded by my grandfather for being able to tell a yarn.” He also said that “I’m, in a way, more American in some respects,” having moved to the U.S. from Mexico with his mother when he was nine years old, growing up in housing projects in El Paso. “The influences of Mexico and its culture on me are so… deep in the gut, it’s hard to bring them out and articulate them.”
As for how he got into writing, Stork said he kept a journal until he was around 45, at which point he changed “I” to “he” in an entry and created his first character. “My first young adult book [Marcelo in the Real World] was based on my desire to convey to my teenage kids what that experience of growing up in El Paso [was like],” Stork said. “What I write in my young adult books… is based on that feeling of loss and what I saw there” and “my desire to portray the compromise of living in two different worlds.”
Bird also asked the panelists about the difference between writing for adults versus children (all but Young have written for both audiences). “In essence, storytelling is the same,” said Almond, but added that when writing books for younger audiences—like his most recent, The Boy Who Climbed into the Moon (Candlewick, Apr.)—“I do think that it’s almost like stripping away some of the excesses of narrative. It feels a bit like writing poetry.” Young compared the writing/illustrating process to directing his own movie, giving him the ability to cast the characters, design the scenery, and create something that matches the vision in his head.
In Teller’s first book for young adults, Nothing (Atheneum, Feb.), a group of schoolchildren attempt to prove that life has meaning, with increasingly dark results. “Here I have this boy questioning the meaning of life—a bigger question I don’t know—and I don’t think I could have gotten closer to [the subject] if I was writing for adults,” said Teller, who noted that writing for children gave her “the freedom to use plot in the extreme.”
Both Stork and Teller commented on becoming completely immersed in their characters, regardless of who they were writing for. “Once you become the character of a young person, it’s like taking on the role of an actor,” said Stork. “You kind of forget if the category is adult or young adult.” He also said, however, “You can’t forget about the reader. You have to keep the story going, use interesting language. But the most important thing is to become the character.”
Asked about other influences, Teller cited “tales in general, and [Hans Christian] Andersen in particular,” adding that she thinks of Nothing as a fairy tale, with children who “set out on a quest to prove the meaning of life, attempt to prove something beyond the realm of reality.” Stork expressed admiration for Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Octavio Paz. “These writers were writing about universal themes. One thing I want to do is be regional in a sense,” he said, “but at the same time to be universal,” echoing Almond’s earlier comment. “This emphasis on what I call ‘ultimate concerns’ is very much something I like to deal with with young people, even in my own humble way.”
The panelists also discussed reactions to their writing. Nothing is banned from use in Norwegian schools, said Teller (“the way it questions things provoke[es] certain people”), who noticed that adults seem to find her book more provocative than do young readers. Stork, though, said he was surprised by how similarly adults and children react to his YA novels. “It’s almost as if you’ve touched [adults’] sense of attunement with the kid in themselves,” he said. “They don’t ask questions you’d think adults would ask.”