This week Dawn Publications editor Glenn Hovemann interviews author Marianne Berkes about her writing, her motivation, and her involvement with kids. Marianne has spent much of her life with children as a teacher, children’s theater director and children’s librarian. She knows how much children enjoy brilliantly illustrated, interactive picture books with predictable text about real animals. She retired to write full time and visit schools, libraries and literary conferences. Marianne is the author of eight (and counting!) published picture books for children including the newly released Going Home: A Mystery of Animal Migration.
Glenn: Marianne, your life has revolved around kids, it seems, as a teacher, children’s librarian and children’s theater director. Oh, and parent, too!
Marianne: And now a grandparent! I have always loved being around kids, seeing the world through their eyes. They spark my creativity as I keep writing, learning and growing, no matter how old I get! When I was a teacher in New York, I had a poster on the wall of two children holding hands walking down a path in the woods that said “To love someone, is to always allow them to grow,” and I truly believe that!
Glenn: Having a flair for the dramatic is incredibly helpful with kids.
Marianne: There is an anonymous saying that I often use at school visits and conferences: “Tell me and I forget; show me and I remember; involve me and I understand!” When I present at schools I draw the reader in through music, movement, and reader’s theater, for example. Kids learn by doing and I love it when a kid really gets “inside” a book. Of course the wonderful illustrations in my Dawn books really grab them, I think. There is so much to be seen as well as heard in these picture books. When there is this perfect balance of art and with a lively text, I am always so pleased.
Glenn: You use few words, but you use them well.
Marianne: Thank you! A picture book is often more difficult to write than a chapter book because your text needs to be tight, but rich in language. One of my mentors, Barbara Lucas, an editor who conducted some wonderful writer’s workshops at Vassar College, used to tell us to “barebone” our books and I try to do that.
Glenn: And you like to use rhyme and rhythm.
Marianne: I think kids are naturally “wired” for sound and rhythm. So writing in rhyme really works for me. Repetition and rhyme are a great way for kids to share in a story, especially if they are just beginning to read. Rhyme also gives the book a forward motion that you don’t always get with prose. I like to think I’m making music with my words! Also, in some of my books, I use predictable text, so the reader is tempted to turn the page to see what is next. I often “think in pictures” when I start out with my idea, which is kind of odd since I’m no artist. But, it works for me, even though when the book is published, the illustrator may have done something completely different.
Glenn: You write in the style of fiction but use factual content. So you are imparting the feel of a story, but keeping it educational and true to nature.
Marianne: Writing “creative non-fiction” is a fun way to introduce a topic to young learners. I try to keep my text lyrical with simple facts sprinkled throughout the pages. Once a kid’s interest is aroused, you hope he or she will want to read more about the topic I’m writing about. So at the end of each of my books there is a glossary so the reader can learn more. And of course everything has to be accurate.
Glenn: And to keep it accurate, you have to research your topic. Thank goodness you used to be a librarian!
Marianne: It’s fun to learn so much when doing the research. As you know, I like to write about animals and nature, so when you asked me to write a book about the planets, it was a real challenge. There were lots of revisions, but with each one there came a clearer understanding of where I was going with this book. I was thrilled when Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium, endorsed it.
Glenn: Your first book with us, Seashells at the Seashore, must have been a lot easier! I know you live near the ocean.
Marianne: It sure was! My Dad was a boat builder and I also lived near the sea growing up as a child in New York. And now in Florida I can’t walk the beach without picking up at least a few seashells—even now, ten years after I wrote that book.
Glenn: What led you to write that book?
Marianne: On a visit to Sanibel Island I became fascinated with the variety of shells I found there. That day I came back with bulging pockets, and immediately started writing a book for kids so that when they went to the beach, they too could discover the amazing creatures who create these incredible works of art. At that time, as a children’s librarian, I knew not many children’s books had been written about seashells. And because Dawn connects kids to nature, you were my first choice when I submitted this manuscript.
Marianne: I love working with all of you at Dawn since I believe discovering nature should be a life-long adventure. I agree with your mission statement, “We aspire to awaken children to the discovery that they are part of something magnificent. Each of our products is a unique window into the web of life, that grounded in nature, weaves us all together.” I think it’s important for children to be grounded in nature, today more than ever!