Laurel Snyder loves words. Big words. Little words. Old words. New words. Totally-made-up words. As a poet and a children’s book author she combines her love of language and a wry sense of humor to create books that defy traditional genre. Spend some time with Laurel and you’ll quickly see that although she knows how to be a grownup, she would rather enjoy the impulsive, simple joys that come with being a child. It is that true sense of self that helps her understand – and connect – with her audiences.
Laurel is a member of the class of 2K8. Her debut middle-grade novel Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains was recognized as a 2008 Smithsonian Notable Book, and was also nominated for a Cybils (Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Awards) 2008-Middle Grade Fiction category. Laurel’s newest book, Any Which Wall (May 2009), has already been listed as a Junior Library Guild selection!
RT: Welcome to the Reading Tub® and congratulations on what looks like another great year in 2009. Your debut novel for children Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains has received great reviews and was a Smithsonian Notable book. With Any Which Wall about to be released, what are you most excited about in promoting this book?
Laurel: Well, the book is my tribute to Edward Eager. That opens up ways of talking about books and writing that are new and fun for me. Because Eager is so iconic, people come to the book with associations in place. For instance, I’m doing a backwards-blog-tour. I’ve asked people to send me their best memories of reading Eager and I will post them on my blog. I look at it as a community-building-publicity tool for people who share my love for Eager’s work. I had hoped to interview children or grandchildren of Eager (or Bodecker, his illustrator). My agent and I have had no luck tracking them down. Too bad. How cool would THAT have been? Eager family, are you out there???
Additionally, the book is set in Iowa, a place I love dearly. So I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to spend some time there, promoting the book and visiting schools. And it makes me deeply happy to be in a position to write a love letter to the town I miss.
RT: In describing Inside the Slidy Diner, Colleen Mondor said that the story “[defies] genre but dwells on the side of story-telling, where carnivals and puppet shows and calliope music reside.” [source] That’s a very apropos characterization. In pitching the book to your publisher, how did you describe it?
Laurel: I’ve spent the morning searching for the original query, to no avail. I think originally I said that my goal was to imagine Gorey writing Eloise, after working too long as a grill cook. God, that sounds obnoxious now! I should say that I had no idea what I was doing when I began. I just threw everything at the wall to see what might stick. I happened to have worked for years in a wonderful greasy spoon, and Slidy Diner was the result of a poetry cleaning out a grease trap one too many times!
RT: Like Inside the Slidy Diner, Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains also is difficult to characterize. It has fairy tale elements, but it is also something of a fantasy adventure. As an author, do you think about writing “to” or “in” a specific genre? Do you find it frustrating when people try to “box in” your work?
Laurel: Hmmm. As a rule I think genre distinctions are silly, unless you’re in sales. Slidy Diner began its life as a prose poem for adults. Scratchy Mountains began as a bedtime story for my husband. I think the narrative and the language find their own form, if you let them. Then someone in marketing decides how to shelve the book. In my dream world, all books would be hard to categorize. I’m most interested in literature which transcends its form. I don’t mean to suggest I’m doing that yet myself, but that’s the goal. The books I admire more than anything are books that find all sorts of different audiences. The Thirteen Clocks is a favorite, as is The Little Prince.
RT: For each of your children’s books, you’ve created programs that will engage kids not only in writing or thinking imaginatively, but also to explore language and suspend their own ideas/beliefs/feelings. Do you find differences in how kids react to that? For example, is it easier for young kids than middle-elementary or older kids?
Laurel: Middle school is hard. Most of them still want to be kids, so when they get excited they act and think like kids. But they are also concerned with being cool and acting older, so that sort of spoils the game. It is always hard in the beginning of a session. They stare me down. They smirk. But when they get going, it’s magical. When I work with high schools, I don’t really enter the room as a children’s author. I also write poetry for adults, and I find it works better to use adult poetry as my model when I work with anyone over 12. It is the same lesson, really, but for teens, “surrealistic imagery” is much cooler than “magic.” Unicorns don’t work in high school unless they’re ironic.
RT: You have recently taken on the persona of Bizarro-Betsy to compile a list of 100 Horrible Books (the antithesis of Elizabeth Bird’s 100 Top Picture Books List at Fuse #8). In the nominees to date, have you found (m)any books where you’d say “Oh, no. Not that one. I like that book!”? If you could characterize your voters’ reasoning, what are the top three reasons for their nomination?
Laurel: Absolutely. I love the fact that people do enjoy ranting, and it is hilarious to see the things that bother them. The book that has most surprised is Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing which I adored as a kid. It is a funny book, and humor was rare on the list. Most of the books people really hate share a common factor, which is what I call over-love: The Giving Tree, I Love You Forever, and the Runaway Bunny top the list for most people, and it’s all for the same reason. A parent/grownup/tree/whatever without clear boundaries. I’ve been mulling over this, and want to write something about it. It says something about our culture of parenting, I think.
RT: In February, Nextbook published your essay Where the Wild Things Aren’t. In it you explore the tradition of writing Jewish children’s books and the need to create stories and characters kids can connect with not only as readers, but as Jewish readers. There were lots of comments and other bloggers picked up the post. Were you pleased with the reaction? Have your thoughts inspired more conversation?
Laurel: I was overwhelmed – and delighted – by the reaction. I had braced for an onslaught of people defending their sacred (kosher) cows, and in fact, everyone was hugely supportive. It has sparked a wonderful correspondence with the PJ Library, an incredible agency seeking to promote and supply better Jewish books to kids. A friend and I are also (slowly) putting together a proposal for the anthology of our dreams, a book tentatively titled “Mishegoose: A New Jewish Treasury.”
RT: Both of your children’s books are filled with lots of fun, new word combinations (some might say made-up words) and scenes where kids can see themselves (like looking under tables in diners). How much influence – or help – do your sons Mose and Lew provide when you’re thinking of stories?
Laurel: I wish I could say that it came from them, but I’m not sure that’s the case. I fear that I’m just one of those people who has a hard time being a grownup. I can’t ever seem to keep my shoes on or make my bed. I sit on the ground in inappropriate situations and interrupt too much. I dance in public. I’ve been known to build a pillow fort for myself if I’m home sick and want to watch TV. I’m a big goof, and part of that is that I actually make up a lot of language myself anyway. Maybe it goes with being a poet.
RT: What were your own favorite books (if any) as a child? Do you see those same interests in your own children?
Laurel: It’s hard to say, since my boys are so young. Plus, there are so many amazing new books out there. Mose and Lew are currently obsessed with Bob Staake’s The Donut Chef. But my favorite picture book as a kid was probably Eloise. My favorite novels were all the mid-century books I imitate shamelessly: Edward Eager and Betty McDonald and Roald Dahl and Elizabeth Enright. I also loved Noel Streatfield and Joan Aiken and … oh, too many to count.
RT: Each of your children’s books has been reviewed by at least one of the “big” reviewers (e.g., Kirkus, School Library Journal, Powells, Children’s Literature). Your books are also regularly reviewed by bloggers. How would you characterize the relationship between authors and reviewers? Is it changing? Is a “starred review” still a make-or-break goal?
Laurel: Everyone still wants a star, I think; but certainly the world is changing. Newspapers are dying and bloggers are being taken more seriously everyday. They just restructured themselves at Random House this year to make more ARCs (advance reviewer copies) available to bloggers. It’s a sign they are beginning to treat bloggers as “traditional” media. There’s something odd in that for authors, because in the online world it’s a two-way conversation. I can respond to a review on Goodreads or Amazon, in a way I never could have done 10 years ago. I can tweet back to a snarky reader, or a kind one. If criticism is constructive, I can take it, and I can also say thank you. The big question is how etiquette and rules about those boundaries will evolve. Our problem now is just that technology is moving faster than the codification of those rules. We’ll all just have to wait and see.
RT: You are a web-savvy author, with a full-service website, and blog and Twitter followers. Do you think the online community has changed the way authors promote their work? Does the accessibility make is it easier or harder?
Laurel: Both. I love the community aspects of the web-world. But as the author/reader relationship becomes more human, it also becomes harder to find privacy. I tend to be a very cyclical person; I go through periods of extreme social energy and then I withdraw. That doesn’t really work online. If you melt away for three months, you’ll come back to find your site a ghost town. But the blessings are greater than the curses, for sure. One thing to add though. I’m not sure online marketing and social media can achieve what some folks want them to achieve. The web is really about community. You can’t fake that. You have to be in it for real or people see through the interaction, and know it for what it is. You don’t just make a Facebook fan page, or Twitter account, and then watch the dollars roll in. You do it because you like interacting, because it’s fun.
RT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Laurel: Just a humongous thank you! This is such a wonderful resource!