Thursday, November 16, 2006

Interview: Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley always wanted to be a writer. But she also planned to become a research chemist. What she didn’t know was that one college class would make the difference between becoming a writer and pursuing another career.

“During my sophomore year, my roommate encouraged me to take an Introduction to Children’s Literature class, “said Mrs. Bradley. “The teacher of the class happened to be Patricia MacLachlan, who had just won the Newbery Award for Sarah, Plain and Tall. She not only encouraged me to write, but also helped me to get involved in the local chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Jane Yolen (who has authored many children’s books) ran the group that year and was a tremendous encouragement to me.”

She started writing for equestrian magazines and as a freelance writer through college. After graduation she worked as a research chemist (and still holds several patents for her work) but continued to write in her spare time. Finally, she got enough work writing that she quit her job as a chemist. But her first novel Ruthie’s Gift was originally supposed to be a picture book.

“When I started writing the book, I started writing as a picture book but I couldn’t quite get it in the picture book form. I tried twelve different variations. The book has to be under a certain number of pages long or there is not room for the pictures. You can’t put too much text on the page. All of the picture books are thirty-two pages long – all multiples of eight. It has to do with how they print it as one big enormous book. You really can’t just add two more pages. They don’t want to add eight because that adds a lot more cost to the book because you have all of illustrations, too. The standard length of text has to be a standard length, and I really could not get the story told in a shorter form. I could get close, and I am quite good at keeping things pared down, but, you know, I had two editors that were interested in it, and they were sort of thinking about it. While they were thinking about it, I wrote another picture book about how my grandmother felt the day the seventh child was born and turned it was another boy. That was even longer, and I could not get it pared down. I took it to my husband, and he said this is the best book you have written, but it is not a picture book. I know, and he said, ‘what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I will send it to the editors and let them hash it out. I sent it off to Random Press, and they wrote back ‘Aha, now I see what you are doing’. This is not a picture book, this is a novel. Put these together and keep going.”

Since the publication of Ruthie’s Gift in 1998, she has managed to publish about one book a year, most of them novels geared towards middle-school aged students. But her latest book, Ballerino Nate, about a boy who wants to learn ballet, shows she has a flair for writing picture books as well. Most surprising, perhaps, is that the inspiration for the book was literally right next door.

“We live on a farm, and actually on the land where we built our house the land that it is on belonged to an old house in the 1840’s. The family that lives in that house is our closest friends. It is the one house that our kids can walk to. We have been friends with them since the younger children were infants, before my daughter could walk, so we have kind of grown up alongside of them. The two boys are in my children’s grades at school, and we have always been around together so when the older boys, Matthew and Ben, were in kindergarten, Diane, the other mom and I, were driving on a field trip to see The Nutcracker. We took our younger kids, both were just about three. Nate had turned three and Katie was not quite three yet. These little kids sat on our laps and watched a local production of The Nutcracker, and they were absolutely mesmerized, much better than the kindergarteners. We are all sitting there and Katie said, ‘Wow, I want to see that again’. Nate said, ‘Not me, I want to dance it.’ He was just completely enthralled with the idea of dancing from that moment on. He ended up taking ballet lessons and really loving it.”

Arguably her best book (and the one that she is proudest of) is one that she originally didn’t intend to write: For Freedom: The Story of a French Spy. The book chronicles the true story of a 16 year-old French girl, who after witnessing a gruesome bombing attack decides to join the French Resistance as a courier.

“Not only did I not intend to write it, but I had absolutely nothing to do with the plot, but I think it is my best written book. There is not a whole lot of inventiveness because it really is a true story.”

My husband came home one day and told me I needed to write a book about Tina’s mother (Tina works in his office). There are lots of people who tell me what I ought to write about. I tend to get really cranky about it. So I resisted the idea for a long time. But my husband kept pestering me until I finally called her.”

“I love talking to school kids about this book. I’ll ask them, ‘How many want to read a book about an opera singer?’ They just stare at me. Of course they don’t, being 13 or so. I say, ‘well come on a 16 year old opera singer is pretty interesting’. They all kind of shake their heads at me. Then I tell them she was captured by the Nazis. You don’t really get the feeling that they were rounding up the opera singers. They say ‘why did they capture her when she was an opera singer?’ It’s because she was a spy. One word changes the whole story. Any time I say that to a group of students, they all get very excited about reading a book about an opera singer that was a spy.”

“What I find so amazing about Suzanne is that at age 16 when she agreed to be a spy, she knew fully what it was she was agreeing to. She really understood how very slim the odds of her coming through the war were, and accepted that. I think that is an amazing thing to do at any age, but especially at that age.“

“I think probably the reason I am so proud of that book, is that I am really pleased we got that story done while we still could. Tina’s own family didn’t know the story because Suzanne (Tina’s mother) wouldn’t talk about what had happened to her. I’m glad I had the chance to share her story.”

Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's latest picture book, Ballerino Nate, is published by Dial. To find out more about Ms. Bradley's books, visit her website.

This article was originally published at Blogcritics.

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