Rebecca G. Aguilar | Writer

SCBWI

Author Q & A | Mary Dodson Wade

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on February 6, 2015

No Year of the Cat By Mary Dodson Wade; Illustrated By Nicole Wong

No Year of the Cat
By Mary Dodson Wade; Illustrated By Nicole Wong
ISBN-13: 9781585367856
Publisher: Sleeping Bear Press
Publication date: 12/1/2012
Pages: 32

Mary Dodson Wade, a former elementary school librarian, has written more than 60 books of biography and history, with one folk tale thrown in. She served for ten years as Regional Advisor of the Houston chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and maintains membership in the Texas Library Association, the Texas State Historical Association and the Texas Council for the Social Studies as well as several historical societies.

Mary graciously agreed to respond to a few questions about being an author, librarian and publisher of books for younger readers.

How does your former career as a school librarian inform your writing?

When you work in a library, you learn things. For example, you see what interests most kids at a certain age level and observe how authors put information on the page for each. Plus you realize what subjects could use more books. In all the years I worked in the library I never ceased to marvel at what I learned as some child wanted the answer to a question. I’m addicted to information, with the result that most of my books are nonfiction.

Of course, in fiction books, humor is always a favorite, but I’m not good at that. To tell the truth, I can’t make up as good a story as I have found in my research—truth really is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to be believable; truth has no such restriction.

Working in the library was absolutely the best education I could have had as a writer.

Those of us lucky enough to have had access to libraries recognize their importance in a good education. Are you hopeful or pessimistic about the future of libraries? Why?

One of the gloom-and-doom predictions is the demise of libraries. I don’t believe it will happen, but there is no question that libraries are making accommodation for the electronic age. But listening to publishers at conferences, I get the sense… and completely agree… that there is no substitute with sitting with a young child and reading a picture book together.

On another note, as a researcher who pours over primary sources such as personal letters in archives and historical society publications, I am puzzled about the future in that area of research. With emails and texting, where is the permanent record for future researchers to find information about someone’s views on a subject or situation?

Cabeza de Vaca By Mary Dodson Wade

Cabeza de Vaca
By Mary Dodson Wade
ISBN-13: 9781882539147
Publisher: Colophon House
Publication date: 6/1/1994
Pages: 96

You have written about such biographical subjects as patriot-turned-traitor Benedict Arnold and Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca. Do you start researching your biographies with a question or a particular focus?

In writing biographies, I always start with someone who I feel has done something significant. I want to know why they did what they did. In the process, I get to know their personalities, disappointments and successes. Benedict Arnold, for example, was absolutely fearless. If Washington needed something done, he said, “Go get Arnold.” Arnold unfailingly took care of his men, paying out of his own pocket to provide for them. He never saw himself as a traitor—at least he claimed to be trying to stop the war. But even in England, he kept a frantic pace. The person I came to admire was Peggy Arnold. He left her deeply in debt, with only a small pension from the British government for her son. She sold her furniture to her maid to pay debts, but her frugality and business sense allowed her to clear those debts in ten years’ time.

As for Cabeza de Vaca, he like other conquistadors was blinded by a search for quick riches. To me, it is simply incredible that someone could survive what he did. When he finally got back to Spain, he tried again in South America with even more disastrous results—he was sent home in chains by unscrupulous men who didn’t want to follow his policy of fair treatment for the native inhabitants because they were profiting from their way of running things. Further, I have always marveled that people think he brought news of finding gold in the American southwest. Just read his diary of those eight years trying to get to Mexico City. In his introduction, he apologizes to the Spanish king for NOT finding riches.

As for the Texas heroes I’ve written about, Sam Houston was a force to be reckoned with—you either loved him or hated him and everybody wrote about him. Stephen Austin, on the other hand, was quiet, cultured, educated, loved fine things but spent fifteen years in the wilderness trying to provide for his colonists. He died young, without children, causing most people to forget that without both these men, the Texas we know would never have happened. As for Crockett, please don’t call him “Davy.” He never signed his name that way. His efforts in getting a homestead law passed by Congress stemmed from the fact that he was a poor man. He kept moving west to start over again. He came to Texas only to die at the Alamo in the cause of Texas independence.

By act of the Texas legislature he is a “Texas Treasure” although he was in the state only three months. And I don’t think he wore a coonskin cap. The only portrait of him made during his lifetime, equipped as a hunter, shows him with an old floppy felt hat. Legends came after his death and legends die hard.

Word count is a major factor when penning nonfiction picture books for younger readers. How do you make choices about what to leave in and what to leave out?

That’s a tough call. The first consideration is for your text to make sense and you make it as simple as you can. I find it helps to tell the story out loud. You’re less likely to go into too much detail as you hurry the story along.

An interesting exchange took place with the editor of No Year of the Cat. She hoped to cut the text and asked about taking out the advisors and their repetition of the Emperor’s words. I felt strongly that this not only added flavor to the story but showed his absolute authority. She agreed to let them stay and one of the reviewers commented on the “echoing” advisors.

Your first published book was Easter Fires about the German families who founded Fredericksburg, Texas. Please explain your writing interest in the wide history of Texas.

I am not a native Texan, but I’m married to one… plus I’m a Baylor graduate and hold a teaching certificate which requires a course in Texas history. Soon after we came back from living in the northeast, I ran across information about the German settlers and their treaty with the Comanche Indians. I was hooked and never looked back. There is a wealth of stories about this state I could never exhaust. As I read about one thing, some other tidbit turns up that sets me off in that direction.

Other states have interesting histories too, but I once had someone say to me about California—“It’s not as nationalistic as Texas.” Why isn’t it or any other state?

And in that vein, I’m on a mission to dispel the urban legend that Texas is the only state that can fly its flag at the same height as the American flag. Any state can—we’re just the guys who do it! The statement is simply not true and the person who makes it has never read the stipulations in the resolution [Note: it was not a treaty] under which Texas entered the Union. In a Texas series, some editor added the statement to my text. Fortunately I saw the text before publication and told the publisher that my name was not to appear on the book if it stayed in. They took it out.

By the way, some of the stipulations in that resolution have profoundly affected Texas. In exchange for the United States not assuming Texas’ debt, the state got to keep its public land. Mirabeau Lamar, second president of Texas, set aside sale of some of that land for public education. As of ten years ago, more than 10 billion (with a B) dollars had flowed into the School Fund accounts, much of it because Texas gets royalties from its offshore land. Long story about that…

What prompted your retelling of a Chinese fable in the picture book No Year of the Cat?

For years I accompanied my husband as he traveled many places to teach engineering short courses. I contacted International Schools in those cities and offered to speak. During a break between sessions at the American School in Taipei, I found a volume of ancient Chinese folktales that contained this story about the naming of the animals in the Chinese zodiac. The tale, quite familiar to those of Chinese descent, was new to me. It took ten years before editor Amy Lennex at Sleeping Bear Press bought it and two more to publish it with Nicole Wong’s wonderful illustrations.

Editors generally connect illustrators and writers for picture book projects. Can you discuss the collaboration that came about between you and No Year of the Cat illustrator Nicole Wong?

As is true with most authors, I have never met Nicole and had no direct communication with her about the book. However, the editor sent me sketches and I was thrilled. Not only had Nicole captured the place and the mood of the story, she had added that something extra that illustrators bring. For each animal, she encircled the text giving their experience during the race across the swirling river, placing vignettes of what happened in the water. Genius! I hit the jackpot.

With other publishers, I don’t always have that opportunity. Fortunately, Bright Sky Press allowed me to see Bill Farnsworth’s art for Henrietta King: Loving the Land, but it was beyond pencil stage. Changing art at that point is quite a task. Bill is a wonderful artist with many fine art credits and had created a magnificent illustration of her astride a horse. I emailed editor Lucy Chambers pointing out that women of that day rode sidesaddle. Bill felt HK looked more regal that way, but he agreed to correct it.

With educational publishers, where your writing is work-for-hire, you really have little control or knowledge of how the final version is going to look or what it might say. I rarely read my books once they are published and that lead to a surprise stemming from a short book about Indonesia, a place we visited many times. One of the interesting things about that country is that many Indonesians have only one name. I proudly showed my book to an Indonesian friend. He read it and said, “Why did you give our first president a last name?” I protested that I had not! He pointed to the name in the book. I raced to my files and showed him my manuscript—no last name. But some editor, ignorant or otherwise, apparently didn’t read my text where I had made the statement about names. Whoever that person was put a last name for President Sukarno. C’est la vie… the writer’s life!

Several successful titles for children about Texas have been published through your company Colophon House. What were things you learned about publishing that helped you as an author?

One of the things you learn is that a second pair of eyes is indispensable. I had to send camera-ready pages for the printer to set the type. No matter how many times I read the manuscript, someone would find an error. It had been my good fortune to have had grammar instruction early on, so it was not that kind of problem so much as a typo which I, knowing already what the text said, simply did not see.

I cannot stress enough that being familiar with children’s literature—seeing how words are put together, observing how other publishers made their text attractive—aided me both as a writer and a publisher. That is why, even if librarianship is not in your portfolio, anyone aspiring to write or illustrate should take advantage of libraries. [Note: Kindles don’t cut it for me—you need to see the whole, not one page at a time, especially for picture books.] Reading is a requisite. You cannot skip that step... and you might try volunteering at your local school or library to get the opportunity for exposure to myriads of books, especially the newer ones.

Sleeping Bear Press publishes high-quality, beautifully illustrated picture books for young readers, parents, teachers and booksellers.

Mary Dodson Wade established Colophon House to publish books for children about Texas. The first set featured Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin in 1992, the year of their bicentennials. In 2009, these two titles were expanded and published by Bright Sky Press.

Category: Biography, History, Folklore

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