Saturday, January 18, 2020

Learning from Literary Mentors . . . at Their Archives

Most authors grow in our craft by studying the works of our most admired literary predecessors. We read their published books with writers' eyes, trying to understand their creative choices. Oh, wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to peer over their shoulders as they wrote? To trace their creative journey step by step?

Well, actually, we can, by making a pilgrimage to the archives where their manuscripts, correspondence, speeches, and other treasures are housed.

Recently I've twice given myself the treat of spending a week poring over the papers of a beloved author.

My first adventure was at the Archives & Special Collections of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut. There I did research on Eleanor Estes, who was festooned with Newbery accolades at the middle of the last century, with Newbery Honors three years in a row (for The Middle Moffat, Rufus M. and The Hundred Dresses), culminating in the Newbery Medal for Ginger Pye.

My second adventure was at the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, which contains the papers of more than 1700 children's book authors and illustrators (including my own). There I did research on my favorite children's author in the whole world, Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy series, published in the 1940s and 1950s.

Both times I funded my travel with grants. Indeed, the Kerlan Collection even gives a grant (The Ezra Jack Keats/Kerlan Memorial Fellowship) each year to "a talented writer and/or illustrator of children's books who wishes to use the Kerlan Collection for the furtherance of his or her artistic development."

So what did I learn as I pored over Maud Hart Lovelace's papers?

A lot.

Even though her books are heavily autobiographical, I saw the meticulous attention she gave to getting every historical detail right: pages of notes from past issues of Ladies Home Journal on current slang, changing fashions, celebrity mentions, and "New Books Worth Reading"; letters to childhood friends peppered with questions (e.g., "What were your religious beliefs about the time you were a sophomore in college? Did college work any great change in them?"), lists of birds of Minnesota (by month), histories of local churches, "verses and wise sayings", and more. I was humbled to see how hard she worked on the stories that read as if they were effortlessly recalled from memory.

I learned about the values that shaped what and how she wrote. In one letter, to a friend who was going to appear in fictional form in one of her books, she promised, "I can assure you that . . as in the previous Betsy-Tacy books . . . all the characters with any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, will be handled with loving kindness." With a jolt, I realized that's what I aspire to in my books as well: to portray ALL my characters with loving kindness.

Above all, I felt inspired just to be in her company, honored to be part of a tradition of authors writing for young readers, trying with all our hearts to give them the best books we possibly can.

I left wanting to be a better writer.

I left wanting to be a better person.

So: if you have a beloved mentor author, seek out their papers. It's a wonderful way to join with them in timeless fellowship.


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