Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Nancy Shaw, author of the new book ELENA’S STORY (Sleeping Bear Press, 2012. Illustrated by Kristina Rodanas) and several sheep books in the SHEEP IN A JEEP series (HMH books), as well as RACCOON TUNE (Henry Holt, 2003)—a number of questions about her new book, and what hurdles she had to overcome to write it. I think as a writer, a teacher, or a fan of Nancy’s you’ll find her answers enlightening.
1. Where did you get the idea for ELENA’S STORY? My husband and I visited our daughter Allison in the Peace Corps, in a small town in western Guatemala. We met her friends and people she worked with. They were wonderfully welcoming. Along with her forestry job, Allison worked on scholarships for girls from the countryside. We visited a school on report-card day, and learned how much of a challenge it can be to learn Spanish when you enter school–when your parents speak the Mayan language Mam at home, and may not have had the chance to learn to read and write. For kids who were still struggling with a second language, I thought that reading picture books to little brothers and sisters would be great practice, with simple language and enjoyable stories. The urge to write a story about it came a bit later, after Allison told me that some families couldn’t afford candles for homework.
2. There is a lot of specific detail in your story. How did you go about doing the research for it? Activities we saw in person played in my head. We saw corn and beans being planted. We visited groups of women who raise vegetables and flowers to sell. We were invited to lunch, and had tamalitos (plain tamales), coffee, and rice, while
chickens pecked in the yard. When we went to school, parents gathered for a meeting. These things merged into the day I imagined for Elena—and then I had to find out whether things could really happen that way. Allison gave me her opinions, and when she didn’t know, she asked her friends.
She translated an early version, and read it aloud at a forestry meeting. She got such a positive response that I felt the story could really work. I wanted to know some specific things that I hadn’t seen–such as how houses are set up farther out in the countryside; or how many houses have stoves versus open fires. She reported back. I read as much as I could in books, but most were not specific to the highland setting, or the Mam people.
When the book was accepted, and the story seemed pretty well set, Allison gave it to two educator friends from the area to check over. We sent photos and Internet links to the art director and the illustrator, who also did research. Internet sources have become increasingly available for regions that didn’t used to get documented–there was a YouTube made in the area about building stoves. The shapes of the hoes, the water jugs, the way a baby is tied to the mother’s back–all needed to have the right look.
When sketches were ready, the educators vetted the book again. There were some adjustments to make in text and pictures. Suggestions were passed on to the art director and illustrator. The finished art was also sent for review. I couldn’t have written a story like this without the educators’ help, or without Allison’s constant support.
3. Some books have a life beyond the simple reading of them. Has ELENA’S STORY made any ripples out in the real world? It’s more that the real world is merging with the story. I’m excited that some small towns in Guatemala have new community libraries, and that they are bringing families in to enjoy books and use resources. I especially like a project to collect stories from older people in their local languages, and publish them alongside a Spanish translation. I like to picture Elena reading that sort of story to her mother, in Mam.
4. When you start a story, do you already know where the plot is going? I might or might not. If it rhymes, the words may lead me places I didn’t know about. In prose, I usually have a pretty good idea of the plot arc.
5. You write a lot of rhyming or rhythmic books. ELENA’S STORY is in prose. Why the change? What were some of the challenges of writing in this format for you? The rhyming stories are usually triggered by sounds–a bit of language, possibly a couplet, that gets into my head and suggests a story. The challenge is to find the story and make the words work with it. Rhyme can lead a writer to new combinations of ideas, or to awkward or irrelevant phrasings. You have to be the boss of it–and sometimes you may settle for an approximation of what you’re trying to say. But the sound is nearly an equal partner to the sense.
ELENA’S STORY, in contrast, needed to be grounded in real-world language. There’s some figurative language in it, and the theme of light, but the language has to be believable coming from an elementary-school student. The challenges were to focus the conflict and to distill the elements, expressing what was going on without over-explaining it. I had to decide which details belonged–and I had to do my best to make it real.