Are you making use of the Avi Reads! pages on my website? Your classroom, library group, and family can hear readings from all three Crispin books and the six Poppy books. The selections are from 1 to 14 minutes in length. Enjoy!
John, from Riverhead, NY, writes, “I love all the detail in your books. How do you find it, and then decide what to do about it?”
Well, John, the information comes from lots of places; things I have noticed, remembered, read about, or researched. But knowing the details is one thing, what do with it is quite another. There are countless styles of writing. Some writing is very sparse, with almost no physical details. If you look at book of mine such as Who Was That Masked Man Anyway? there is no descriptive detail whatsoever. It’s all dialogue. Then, consider a book like Traitor’s Gate, where there is so much description that one reviewer commented that the City of London (where the story takes place) is depicted in such detail it was virtually a character in the story.
In other words, it is the nature of the book that determines how much and what kind of detail you wish to write. That is to say, detail, or the lack of it, defines the kind of story you are telling. Moreover, the kind of detail you put in makes a big difference. The detail in Crispin helps reveal the medieval world. The detail in Sophia’s War help reveal the cruelty of British Prisons. The details in the Poppy books reveal the characters.
Moreover, what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. I think the best way to decide about detail, is that it should give life to the experience being narrated. Too much detail and you have a textbook. Too little and it’s hard to see the characters.
No wonder folks say, “The Devil is in the details.”
Jonathan from Naperville, Illinois, writes, “Please write another book like True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.” One of my editors urges me to “write another book like Poppy.” My niece Rosa sends me a note, “I loved City of Orphans. Write me another one just like that.”
It is perfectly understandable why readers, having enjoyed a particular book, ask for another one just like it. There are writers who can and do replicate their work—we are living in the age of the series. I have done so only rarely.
For exactly what was going in my head, my world, my hands, when I wrote … Whatever … I cannot pin down. Even when I think I can, I cannot, could not replicate such a moment, such a book. Even if, sometimes, I might wish otherwise.
My books are more often than not the result of—I truly do not know. Yes, I begin intellectually, if you will—“This has the potential of a good story.” However, once I am engaged, it is my capacity to enter into the lives of my characters, to have them come alive as separate entities—separate from me anyway—that creates the potential to make them good stories, good books. The truth is it does not always happen.
I suspect it is the capacity to step inside characters—so as to make this turn, that turn, while stepping outside them, so as observe objectively what they might do, can do, will do, that brings life to the page.
I am a pro. Why can’t it always happen?
The fine balance between simultaneously being inside and outside your story, your characters, controlling while not controlling, seeing objectively while feeling subjectively, is what we mean when we speak of the practice of writing. It’s hard.
I find it hard to believe but it is just about twenty years ago, that Poppy was published. That book and the five other Poppy titles constitute my only true complete series. It was not meant to be a series, and indeed, I did not write them in sequence. Poppy came first, followed (belatedly) by Poppy and Rye. Then I realized I needed to relate Ragweed’s story, so I wrote his tale, and it functions as the first of the series. Ereth’s Birthday, Poppy’s Return, and finally Poppy and Ereth followed in proper order.
The process of writing them was very much more like visiting a family of whom I was fond, than sitting down and inventing a story. Perhaps that happened because there are many elements in the stories that truly did come from my family.
Then in addition, Brian Floca’s illustrations—while in many ways were necessarily consistent– seemed to reveal more and more of the characters, and that greatly enhanced the series.
Why six books, and no more? I recalled reading The Little House series to my older boys, and knew how Wilder’s six books filled out a good year of family reading. That was good enough for me. Therefore six books.
Some years ago, HarperCollins (who publishes the books) asked me to speak about them. You can see that interview.
The last line of that interview sums up what I felt about concluding the series.
It is true that my books have had many publishers. There are a number of reasons for that.
Sometimes a particular book changes publishers. Poppy was first published by Orchard Books. The paperback was issued by Avon and then HarperCollins. Orchard Books was sold to Scholastic, and Scholastic issued a hard cover Poppy under their imprint. Then Scholastic sold Poppy to HarperCollins, and they issued the book in all its forms.
S.O.R. Losers was published by Bradbury Press. The Man Who was Poe was published by Orchard Books. The Christmas Rat was published by Atheneum. But the editor was the same person. When a writer works very well with a particular editor, and that editor changes the place where he/she works, it’s common for the writer to follow that editor to their new publisher.
I have worked with a number of publishers who no longer exist, such as Lippincott. The Fighting Ground was first published by Lippincott, which was then absorbed by HarperCollins, who still has it in print.
A book like The History of Helpless Harry was first issued by Pantheon. The book went out of print, but was later republished by Morrow.
What Do Fish Have to Do with Anything? is published by Candlewick. Scholastic Book Club editions will soon offer the book on their list.
It is confusing, but then the business of publishing is often confusing. Nevertheless, for just one example, though Poppy has had a number of publishers, it has always been the same book. In other words, sometimes it’s the publisher that is changing, not the author.
Zoe, of Wausau, Wisconsin asks, “Why (in Poppy) did Ragweed have to die?”
To answer this question, Zoe, you need to know how I wrote the Poppy series. I wrote Poppy first, followed by Poppy and Rye, then Ragweed. Then came the rest of the series, Ereth’s Birthday, Poppy’s Return, and Poppy and Ereth. The point is, when I began to write Poppy I did not intend to write a series. Poppy began as a stand-alone. That book deals, in the main, with the struggle between two characters, Poppy and Mr. Ocax. As I saw it, readers needed to know that Mr. Ocax was a very dangerous creature, that Poppy had much to fear from the owl. Therefore, I briefly introduced a minor character, Ragweed, whose death by Mr. Ocax provides the book with lots of tension.
However, as I began to extend the story—as the series unfolded—the character Ragweed seemed to creep into all other books, until I felt I had to write a book about him, who he was, where he came from, and how he got that earring. It is that earring which sparks, so to speak, the last book, Poppy and Ereth. In short, though Poppy and Ereth are the main characters in the series, you might say Ragweed is just as important.
The truth is, Zoe, writers do not always know what they are doing. Sometimes—if the writer is lucky—the characters are in charge.
Here are some of my answers:
Sophia’s War: Reading Dickens’ Great Expectations and learning about prison ships.
City of Orphans: Browsing through a 19th century newspaper and coming across a sensational headline.
Crispin: Listening to a lecture about the middle ages.
Seer of Shadows: Having once been an amateur photographer with my own darkroom.
The Book with No Words: When reading a book about alchemy, I learned about a “Book with No Words.”
Never Mind: Having a chat with my fellow writer, Rachel Vail.
Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name: Listening to one of my son’s friends talk about his spring break.
Nothing but the Truth: Hearing a news report on radio.
The Fighting Ground: Noticing a historical road marker.
Wolf Rider: Getting an odd phone call.
Poppy: Reading a book about owls.
Where do you get your ideas? The answer: Everywhere.
There’s a lot of chatter about “voice” in fiction, which I take to mean the presentation of the narrative, its mixture of tone, character, syntax, and vocabulary. Complex and important, writers can and do spend years perfecting voice though some come to it quickly and naturally. It can be very distinctive, as per Hemingway and Dickens. Perhaps the most influential voice in the English language was the sixteenth century King James translation of the Bible. And we sometimes forget that Shakespeare was a great inventor of words, such as gloomy, critic, bump—and many more. I wonder how Elizabethan audiences responded to such an inventive vocabulary.
I’ve never developed a specific voice for my work. I want the voice of my fiction to be part of the story. The voice of Crispin: The Cross of Lead is utterly different than the voice of City of Orphans or Poppy. In Sophia’s War I worked hard to create an eighteenth century voice, using lots of words used then, but no longer.
When I tell a story, I want the reader to hear, each time, a different voice. And not mine.
I’ve always loved the illustrated novel. While the heyday of the illustrated novel was the nineteenth century, it exists today, if it exists at all, almost exclusively in novels for young people. I think it adds enormously to the reader’s pleasure. Consider the original Tenniel illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, Denslow’s Wizard of Oz, Shepard’s Wind in the Willows, or Wyeth’s Treasure Island. I read these books as a kid and cannot think of the texts without thinking of those illustrations. Good text and good art, together, make great books.
I often ask that my novels be illustrated, but only rarely get my wish. The great exceptions are the Poppy novels, so splendidly illustrated by Brian Floca. I may have written those books, but when I imagine the characters I think of his art. Floca has become a major illustrator in his own right (and write) but I’m proud that his first work was in our graphic novel City of Light City of Dark.
Paul O. Zelinsky’s first illustrated novel was my Emily Upham’s Revenge.
Traitors’ Gate was illustrated like a Victorian novel, with more than sixty illustrations by Karina Raude.
The most beautiful edition of Crispin is a South Korean edition.
Publishers will tell you the illustrated novel is expensive to create and difficult to produce. No doubt. They also say young readers don’t want them, a claim I do doubt very much. I so wish the illustrated novel would come back into favor—and into the hands of young readers. What’s your favorite illustrated novel?
Well, Thomas, I was living in Oregon, in the town of Corvallis. Wandering into a bookstore, something I like to do, I went to the bargain section, something I like to do even more.There I found a book—shame on me for not remembering title or author—which was written by a naturalist. It seems that in a forest he found a lost baby owl in poor health. He took the owl home, nursed it back to health, and taught it to live on its own in the wilderness. The owl did well in the forest, but every now and again he (I think it was a he) came back to say hello to the man who saved him. I loved that book. The book also taught me a great deal about owls. The more I read, the more convinced I was that I should write a book about owls. Enter Mr. Ocax! But—as I wrote about the owl, I needed to detail what owls ate. They ate—among other things—mice. Enter Poppy! The book therefore begins with Mr. Ocax, but as always with me, the more I wrote, the more the story changed. I had become interested in the mouse—Poppy—the creature the owl wished to eat. It became Poppy’s story. In short, I invented as I went along. As I have said before, quoting the poet Robert Frost, “If there are no surprises for the writer, there are no surprises for the reader.”
As for the rest of the Poppy books, that’s another story.