Author Martha Freeman recently visited the Free Library of Philadelphia and entertained nearly 400 students with stories about her career and her writing process. While visiting the library, Martha sat down with us in the Children's Literature Research Collection and spoke about the field of children's literature.
What’s the best part of being a children’s book writer?
There are lots of good parts! It's hard to pick a best.
My commute is down the stairs to my sofa or, if I'm ambitious, around the corner to my favorite coffee place, Shot Tower.
It's gratifying to write a good sentence, a good chapter, a good book. It's gratifying to see a reader enjoying the book and to get fan mail. It's fun (but hard!) to use imagination and (often) research to plot a book. It's fun to invent characters and see what messes they will get themselves into.
Meeting young readers and librarians—that's another excellent part.
Thank you for mentioning librarians! We love meeting authors and illustrators as well. But you didn't start out as an author; before you began writing professionally for children, you were a reporter. What made you change careers?
I had young children and reporting was just plain inconvenient. It seemed that the district attorney or other important person always called me back just as the baby started to cry. Also with kids of my own, I had kids on the brain, so writing for them kind of seemed natural.
I still love reporting, though! It's a license to be nosy. More importantly, without reporters you couldn't have a democracy. Someone has to hold authorities up to scrutiny and tell the truth about what they do. That's the job of reporters.
I wish I had a license to be nosy. Perhaps I can ask our graphics department to make me one. But back to writing—you have a very impressive catalog of books. Of all your titles, do you have a favorite?
I'm supposed to say I love them all equally like my children, right? And, of course, you put so much work into them that you do love them. Otherwise you would've tossed them into the trash before they were done.
That said, I am partial to a book called The Trouble with Twins, which is long since out of print. It has a scene with a cricket that I think is brilliant. Generally, it has a goofy quality I like.
My most celebrated book is Effie Starr Zook Has One More Question, and the toughest to write and most ambitious was The Orphan and the Mouse. In that one, I love the character of Bayard Boudreau. I was channeling Elmore Leonard when I wrote him, but I suppose that's obvious.
I'm not sure if it would be obvious to children, but I bet caregivers reading it aloud would appreciate the nod. What was your favorite book as a child?
I loved the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle stories by Betty McDonald. She was writing magic realism before it was fashionable. And any reader of The Orphan and the Mouse knows I also loved Stuart Little. I didn't appreciate it so much when I was a middle-grader, but now I also love The Phantom Tollbooth.
I also came late to The Phantom Tollbooth. It's a fantastic story, but one that takes a certain level of sophistication on the part of the reader to fully appreciate the humor. As an author, what is a piece of advice you would give to all new writers?
Develop a thick skin. Your stories will be rejected, and if you're lucky enough to be published, your stories will be criticized. You probably won't be able to ignore the rejection or the criticism, but if you're tough, you can get past it and keep writing. Also, without curling up in a little ball and weeping, consider the possibility that the criticism is right. If it is, use it to get better.
That's great advice! Thank you Martha for the thoughtful conversation!
The students at Martha's talk also received a copy of her book, The Orphan and the Mouse, courtesy of the Margaret S. Halloran Family Programming Series. Thank you Martha for the stimulating conversation and good advice! Many thanks to the Halloran Family Programming Series for providing us with these fantastic literacy opportunities!