At nearly 80 years old, very little slows down Patricia MacLachlan. The author, best known for her Newbery Medal-winning novel Sarah, Plain and Tall, is busy gathering memories to tell her fans even more stories – in the form of both picture books and novels for child readers.
In her newest picture book, Someone Like Me, MacLachlan looks back to her childhood, filled with books, stories, and the “smell and feel of prairie earth,” and sees now with clarity how it is that she grew up to become a writer. Illustrated in soft, velvety tones by Chris Sheban, it’s what the Kirkus review calls an “inspiring choice for fertile young minds trying to find their voices by seeing the world around them.”
I talked to Patricia via email about her memory-making career in children’s books and the stories she is currently capturing on paper.
Jules: Someone Like Me is semiautobiographical, yes?
Patricia: I jokingly refer to Someone Like Me as my life’s memoir of how I became a writer.
I see my past there -- my mother, leading me home from the library as I read, and my father, who told fascinating stories with humor and reverence about people he knew. I see my cousins and my early prairie landscape. I had a charmed childhood, filled with books. And, yes, I did run away with a boy who promised me a white horse.
I think that my slow process of becoming blind is a great reason for this book. When I now look in the mirror, I look like an impressionist painting -- interesting perhaps, but not clear. What I do see is my childhood, sharp and clear. Someone Like Me grew out of my memories, a wonderful world that now serves me. Chris Sheban’s art shows this mixture of past and present. There is a certain dream-like quality to it.
I find I write a great deal about memories -- some mine, and some belonging to my characters. And at least one book is a mixture. A new novel is about a girl and her brother and their memories of their father through his remembered words. That remembered father is, in real life, my late husband.
Jules:Are you talking about a new novel you're working on now? When is that one scheduled to be released?
Patricia:Yes. The novel My Father’s Words doesn’t have a publication date yet. But it is about my late husband, a clinical psychologist, mixed up with the children in the novel. Finn and Fiona have lost their father, and an old kind patient of his begins to tell Fiona about the things her father said in therapy -- with the mother’s permission, of course. This book is a good deal about memory. The memory of her father’s words often brings back memories that help her and her brother.
My novel Just Dance, coming out in mid-September, is about memory as well. It started when I saw a man in the post office in my small town, who looked so much like my cowboy cousins on the prairie—long pony tail and cowboy hat. I began a novel about a cowboy, who marries a famous opera singer.
They meet in a small cafe in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where I was born.
Jules:You've had a long and distinguished career in children's books. What changes that make you happy have you seen in the field over the years?
Patricia: I like this question, Jules. You’re asking an optimist, who has always been happy doing what I do.
I’m fortunate that I’ve had a constant career of inspiring and supportive editors, all of them encouraging me to write the books I want to write. I’ve had the opportunity to work with marvelous artists from the beginning as well, among them William Pène du Bois, Barry Moser, Tomie dePaola, Chris Sheban, Steven Kellogg, Hadley Hooper, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, Matt Phelan, and Elizabeth Zunon.
I’ve always had a true and abiding respect for the intelligence and honesty of children. I have seen their creative teachers using books in the classroom in incredibly inventive ways. Children have “reading buddies” from the older grades to read books with them, for instance. Children read to dogs. They write books of their own. There are compelling books of diversity, reflecting the lives of all children. The presence of books in classrooms is powerful. I’m not sure if this comes from the outreach of progressive publishers and librarians, or the dedication of the teachers I know – maybe all of these! I am heartened by this. Children become wise and eager readers and writers.
And what makes me happy is that I see many new talents who are thrilling children with beautiful and challenging stories.
Jules: You mentioned Hadley Hooper. The Iridescence of Birds is one of my favorite picture books. What was it like to write that? I think it's brilliantly structured, so I guess I'm wondering: How many drafts did you go through to get it to the two perfectly-crafted sentences that comprise the text?
And look at that! Now we're back to the theme of memories, given that it's a book about how, as you put it, Matisse "painted his feelings and he painted his childhood."
Patricia: I loved writing The Iridescence of Birds! First, I loved the word “iridescence” and thought young readers might like the sound of it. I was touched by how Matisse’s mother brought light and color into her son’s world. I dedicated the book to her.
As an exercise late one night, I amused myself by trying to write the entire picture book in one sentence. I’ve always wanted to do that. And, truthfully, I spend most of my writing days deleting words, slimming stories down to their essence -- a little like writing poetry. Remember I was born on the prairie, and that bare landscape is my writing landscape.
I was reading some of my newest beginnings of stories to a group at an SCBWI meeting. I read The Iridescence of Birds, telling them it was one sentence. Then I stopped suddenly and said, “Rats! I need a semicolon here!” They laughed.
That’s my story about structure. It is constant shaping, not revisions I can actually count.
But I have realized that the two picture books I’ve written for Neal Porter begin “If you were ….” Someone Like Me begins that way as well. I’d like to write every picture book beginning with “If you were ….” I’m working on it.
I want to add that Hadley Hooper’s art is an amazing statement of the colors and patterns of Henri Matisse’s mother. I want to do another book with Hadley. I’m working on that, too.
And yes, we’re back to memories that seem to beckon me as a writer. And often memories come back to us in surprising ways. I grew up with books from the moment I was born. One of my grandchildren was read to all the time. One evening we looked in on her in her crib, and at the age of six months she was turning imaginary book pages in her sleep. I love that.
Jules: I could talk forever, but I guess I should wrap this up. One final question: Working on any new stories now (that you're allowed to talk about)?
Patricia: It has been interesting to answer your questions, Jules. In a way, I feel that I see myself better. I’m also amused, because I’ve been at this for so long that I pretty much talk about what I’m writing, no matter what.
[Coming in 2018 is] a picture book, called Chicken Talk, about chickens who learn how to write messages in the dirt. Their first message is about what they’re fed: “No more arugula!” Jarrett J. Krosoczka has sketched some wonderfully hilarious chickens.
Little Robot Alone [to be published in 2018] was written with my daughter, Emily [MacLachlan Charest]. Her husband is an engineer, who builds robots. Little Robot is lonely, so he builds himself a best friend—a dog. It has charming illustrations by Matt Phelan.
Barkus was just published, written in memory of the lovely dog who lived next to me at Cape Cod. He’d come and play with my dogs, then steal their toys and take them home. A sequel will follow—with colorful, romping illustrations by artist Marc Boutavant, who must love dogs!
This brings me to something very new for me – a novel called A Dream Within a Dream from a quote by Edgar Allan Poe. It is a story of a grandfather, losing his eyesight, and a wise grandmother. They live on a small island. Should I say I’d love to live on a small island?
The almost-13-year-old girl in the novel meets a boy the same age. They become immediate friends, and the novel becomes their very young love story.
I loved writing this book. It brought back my romantic youth and my romantic adulthood. Both.
Now all I need is a small island.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
Above Spread: SOMEONE LIKE ME. Copyright © 2017 by Patricia MacLachlan. Illustrations© 2017 by Chris Sheban. Published by Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press. Illustration reproduced by permission of Chris Sheban.