Why did you become a children's book writer?
Because (1) books saved this odd-duck, lonely kid and (2) because when I read Arnold Lobel’s Ming Lo Moves the Mountain to my children, I finally figured out what I wanted to do with my life: write books that hopefully might save other odd-duck lonely kids!
Was the journey difficult? How did you learn to master your craft?
The perky FB version answer to the first part of your question? Oh yes, it was so easy! The true story: it took me 20 years to become an overnight success. I wrote for three years before anything was published and then, after five books under my belt, I experienced seven years without one word getting published. That dark time was a true test of my writer’s heart and soul. To answer the second part of the question: I have yet to master my craft. There’s always something new to learn, which is what draws me to the computer each day. And I learned to write by reading as much as I could and writing as much as I could (and showing my work to kind but honest colleagues); no other way around it.
How have you, personally, benefited from the SCBWI?
There is not enough space to share all the ways in which I’ve benefited from the SCBWI. Early in my career, the courses, workshops, and conferences not only informed and sustained this prospective writer, they kept me from committing many horrible and embarrassing newbie mistakes. I am grateful, too, that through this organization I’ve met treasured mentors and caring friends; I would not/could not still be writing without their wisdom, advice, love, and support.
What are you going to talk about in your Keynote, why is this important to writers and illustrators of children's books?
I have no idea if what I’m going to share is important to fellow book creators— I’d say that’s for the participants to decide for themselves! But because I feel so grateful to be part of a creative community that makes books for kids, I have been working to give back in my talk by gathering ideas and suggestions for how we can nurture and grow our creative lives; how we can not only survive but thrive in times that seem determined to quash our tender artistic spirits, and how we can make the art we were put here to make.There will also be pictures of my grandkids and Winston the Wonder Dog and a few bad jokes.
Can you mention your thoughts on the value of children's literature?
As I said above, books saved me as a child so I know their power firsthand. A book can change a life; an example that comes to mind is the story Trent Reedy tells of being a young soldier in Afghanistan and, instead of getting a promised steak dinner, he and his comrades were given a delivery of books. In that delivery, he found The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. Reading that novel turned that young soldier into a renowned writer of young adult fiction. Honestly, children’s literature is so potent and explosive, that certain folks in power would be shaking in their boots - if they themselves even read. Books are icy glasses of lemonade for the emotionally parched. They are hopscotch tokens, taking us skips and jumps beyond our own small, narrow worlds. They break hearts. Heal hearts. I cannot think of an art form that is more valuable and more essential to the future of humanity.
What words do you have for someone who wishes to create a children's book?
Start! Dive in! Take a chance. Be weird. Make mistakes. Have fun. Put your heart into it. Surround yourself with other creatives. And remember: experts built the Titanic; an amateur built the Ark.
What are your favorite kids' books? How have they influenced you?
Encyclopedia Brown made me want to be a detective; a goal I’ve reached because writing historical fiction requires a good deal of detective work. Pippi Longstocking inspired my not-so-subtle passion for shining the spotlight on girls’ stories. As I mentioned above, Ming Lo Moves the Mountain (Arnold Lobel) opened my eyes and heart to a possible career path. I re-read The Secret Garden nearly every year; that book is a reminder that magic is a critical component of any work of art. Catherine Called Birdie by Karen Cushman gave me permission to break a few rules. And A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban, and How to Steal A Dog, by Barbara O’Connor inspire me to weave white space/room for the reader into my work.
Can you describe a wonderful moment when a reader of your books has reached out to you?
There have been so many wonderful moments but I will share this one. About ten years ago, I received an email from someone who wanted advice on writing books. The email was written in such a way that I had no idea the age etc of the sender. However, the email was essentially illiterate. Snobby Kirby read it, thinking, “How could the person who wrote this email even hope to write a book?” Thankfully, nice Kirby smacked snobby Kirby upside the head and my reply was gentle and positive. It turned out the writer was a twelve-year-old girl I’ll call Anna. Though Anna wrestled with severe learning disabilities, she possessed a huge passion for children’s books, especially picture books (this was information I later learned from Anna’s mother). Anna and I became pen pals and, when I was invited to an author festival in her state, I let her know, even though it was far from where she lived. Undaunted, she and her mother made the trek. Over lunch, Anna shared her art work — her stunning, unbelievable and beautiful artwork. And she gifted me a painting which recreated the cover of Hattie Big Sky, a painting I treasure. Anna continued to work on her art, keeping me posted of her accomplishments, including her admission to art school. She graduated last spring and has already made her first foray into picture book illustration. I feel so fortunate that readers like Anna take a chance on reaching out to me and feel completely blessed when those moments blossom into something beyond my imagination.
Learn more about Kirby at her website.