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Author Showcase


RT: Welcome to the Tub! When I was doing the research to prepare for our interview, I was surprised when I learned that your degree is in business services. How/when did your interest in writing children’s books begin?

Frances: I too was surprised to receive a degree in economics, law, and statistics, it is such a left brain discipline. My preferred zone is the right brain; a place to which, since my earliest years, I have retreated to play with stories and words. Mine was a wartime childhood; there was very little entertainment for children in bomb shelters and cellars, awaiting disaster, other than the stories adults told us. So to me stories have been a means of escape. I have always loved children’s literature. Re-reading my favorites with my children and grandchildren and weaving stories for them, has been a wonderful, continuing immersion in that world of make believe. A signpost birthday prompted me to try the real world of publishing for myself. My very first submission Turtle on a Summer’s Day was accepted by Greene Bark Press, I was very lucky. Now story making is a part of me.

RT: All of your books have a “natural” element. In Celeste and Regine in the Rain Forest we meet two tree frogs who witness ecological destruction. In Goodnight World Outside we explore all of the animals whose days are just beginning as the sun sets. Had you always planned to write stories with outdoor themes?

Frances: It wasn’t a conscious plan; I was probably heavily influenced by the Winnie the Pooh books as a child. My latest book, Elephant Blue, is one we are just getting ready to publish. It is also about animals and the magical colors they could choose to be. I like the genre because it transcends racial barriers and cultural experience. All children can respond to animals and nature.

RT: To Know the Sea is a favorite book in our house. My daughter (six) can never have enough "princess" stories, so I am always on the lookout for a princess with depth and individuality. Princess Isola fit the bill. What was your inspiration for the story?

Frances: It actually grew out of a fascination with the discovery of a mummified girl in the Peruvian mountains some years ago. I began to wonder what it might be like to be encapsulated literally and figuratively in a mountain kingdom. I also wanted to twist the traditional "princess rescued by handsome prince" theme. I have the same theme in Octavia the Eighth Child, a story about the eighth daughter in a hard working immigrant family, who has to find her own voice. Maybe it’s because I have three daughters, all princesses of depth and individuality, all of whom I have encouraged to find their own voices.

RT: Although you teach middle school, all of your books are for younger children. Do you ever see yourself writing a book for that audience? If so, do you think it will be a difficult transition?

Frances: This is the hardest audience to write for. My students often ask me why I don’t write for them, but finding the voice and vehicle for an audience whose responses can shift from na´ve to sophisticated, concrete to abstract, 20 times a day, is a huge challenge. I applaud authors who can do it well, without descending into trashy realism. I do have some upper-age books sketched out; maybe I’ll get there one day. Interestingly, I enjoy writing for adults, and have just completed and published Where is She Now?, a mystery.

RT: You are immersed in the world of teens, sharing their days as they try to figure out themselves and the world around them. What are the kinds of things (or themes) authors need to consider when building stories to reach this very difficult audience? Is there a book you’ve read that you think would captivate them so much that they would be hooked on reading? If so, what is it?

Frances: Teens are very much like toddlers, they are moving from dependence to independence, they have very concrete understandings of fair and not fair, yet are just beginning to move into exploring bigger issues: morals, values, good and evil, cultural climates. They want questions and some answers, characters they can bond with, but still need the comfort of a story with a beginning, middle and end. I think for captivating an audience, J.K. Rowling has done it. For superb writing, totally engaging characters and a book that works on many levels, as a story, a moral theme, a different world, experience and transformation, Philip Pullman cannot be beaten. I loved The Golden Compass.

RT: Your grandson Hamish is 6 and reading now. Has he read any of your books? Does he have any ideas for you?

Frances: I have six grandchildren, five boys and one girl, all under ten years old. They all read my books, usually as they are being developed, and they give me many ideas. I often write just for them. I wrote The True Story of the Loch Ness Monster for Hamish and his brother David, after a trip with them down the Caledonia Canal in Scotland. It features their cat, M’stoni, truly a cat of distinction, and is illustrated with pictures from the trip. Benjamin and his brother Nathaniel are very absorbed in the books, their mother, my daughter Sarah, is the illustrator for Turtle and Celeste and Regine. They take a great interest in what I do; Benjamin wants a story about a winter bear. For Harriet, I write princess stories, with the princesses having many experiences at medical school. Thomas is still too little to listen to stories, but he likes colors, so I will dedicate Elephant Blue to him.

RT: In your latest book, A World of Numbers, you used photographs instead of drawn illustrations to convey the story. Are there times when pictures have an edge over illustrations in children’s picture books?

Frances: There were some criticisms of the photographs, too formal looking for a children’s book, but I find that children love them, they relate to real people and want to know all about that girl or that boy and line up the poems with what they see. I want to do another math poetry book, this time math processes, and I will keep the same format. I think it works.

RT: You have had the opportunity to participate in a number of writer’s forums that talk about writing and publishing children’s books. In these types of events, what do you find is the most frequently asked question? And what is its answer?

Frances: The most frequent question is "where do you get your ideas?" Stories come to me as little trails of images or words that stick in my mind and won’t go away. I don’t know where they come from, probably some subconscious association triggered by something, but anyway there they sit in my brain, rolling themselves along like little movies and I live with them, until characters emerge and the vision becomes a complete story. All I do at that point is write it down. It is a way of developing stories that works very well for children’s books, since they are so visual and the language has to be so rhythmic. It is much harder to hold all the details of a longer work together, sometimes I get lost and have to run the whole movie over again which is very time consuming, I wish I could just plug the computer into my mind!

RT: Along the same lines … do you think there is a truly important question that is never or rarely asked?

Frances: Most questions are asked by aspiring writers, so they are usually how to questions: how to find ideas, how to get published, how to develop characters. They don’t often ask about the importance of story for developing healthy emotional growth in children.

RT: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Frances: I write my books to be read out loud. As a teacher, parent, and grandparent, I am convinced of the importance of story reading. I say "rhythm binds language, language binds emotion, and emotion binds meaning." That is all developed from reading out loud; the earliest multi-sensory path to learning. The language patterning, the awareness and anticipation of unfolding theme and plot, are critical factors in developing literacy and learning in children. If they cannot grasp the words how can they be brought to question and wonder at the world around them?

Website: http://www.francesgilbert.com


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