Lois Lowry – 2009 National Book Festival

Lois Lowry – 2009 National Book Festival


from the Library of Congress in
Washington DC hello my name is Rachel Shay I’m the
editor of The Washington Post book world The Washington Post is proud to be a
sponsor of the National Book Festival and I am very pleased to be introducing
the next author Lois Lowry didn’t publish her first novel until she was
nearly 40 but in the many years since she has more than master the art of
children’s literature she’s won two Newberry medals in 1994 number number of
the stars in 1994 for the giver and published more than 30 novels and she
hasn’t been afraid to try new things whether its historical fiction science
fiction or a series of books about a mischievous girl but she’s never written
a picture book until now crow call illustrated by artist bagram
epitone tells the story of a long ago day she spent with her dad ms Lowry will
be signing books at 3 o’clock please join me in welcoming Lois Lowry thank you it’s it’s kind of interesting
to talk for the first time about a new book and to try to answer some of the
questions that kids always have I’m going to start by telling you about a
day in my life when I was eight years old this is an answer to the question of
how I knew I wanted to be a writer and when and it was certainly a very long
time ago so picture me eight years old and I had a little brother who was – I
also had a bedroom that had a desk in it and desks have always been my favorite
piece of furniture this is still true today the stuff I like best is the
things that are in a desk drawer I think of that as desk stuff and when in the
days when I was eight that would have consisted of pencils paper crayons
scissors paste paper clips desk stuff on a particular day when I was 8 I
wandered into my bedroom and discovered that my little brother aged 2 had gone
into my room when nobody was looking and had opened the drawers of my desk and
messed up my stuff it was all over the floor of my bedroom all of that stuff
that was so dear to me and I was furious there was my little brother and his
overalls playing with my desk stuff and in my anger I picked up a tube of glue
the kind of tube of glue I don’t know if this still exists that has a metal screw
on the end that you undo and the glue is it’s the kind of stuff we must never
sniff okay and I grabbed that from my brother and opened it up and I smeared
the back of my brother’s hand with glue and it dried almost immediately into a
shiny crust on the back of his hand and I stopped being angry at him because it
was so interesting to look at that he and I both looked at that little chubby
hand with now all the shiny stuff on it and then I tried to take it off and it
wouldn’t come off there was my brother with his hand forever encased in shiny
glue okay now jump ahead a couple of hours and my mother says to me would you
take Johnny for a walk in the stroller okay that was something I did often we
lived in a small town in Pennsylvania it was very safe in those days probably
still is and so my mother buckled my brother into his stroller and off we
went Johnny and I down the street
I was the kind of kid and all writers are this kind of person who as I was
doing something would also be telling the story of it to myself so that flying
down here yesterday I was probably in the Boston Airport saying the author was
going to fly to Washington for the Book Festival she was waiting at the gate for
her plane that’s just the kind of thing I do i narrate my life and I have always
done this so when I was eight years old pushing the stroller down Moreland
Avenue in Carlisle Pennsylvania I was saying to myself the little girl was
taking her baby brother for a walk she was a good child helpful to her mother I
was usually the heroine in my own narrated stories sometimes my mother was
in a villain her mother her lazy mother made her take the baby for a walk but
not always sometimes she was helpful to her mother who was tired that afternoon
anyway this story was going on in my mind as we walked down Moreland Avenue
coming toward me I saw to what I thought of as old ladies they may have been 40
but I was only eight maybe they were 85 I don’t know they seemed like old ladies
and they were walking together toward me and I’d never seen them before I didn’t
know who they were but I could see their faces light up as they saw me coming
because it was kind of cute to see a little girl taking her baby brother for
a walk and as they approached they stopped and I stopped and they admired
my little brother sitting there in his blue corduroy jacket and then suddenly
one of these ladies reached down and picked up my brother’s little hand and
looked at it and said to her a friend this child has been badly burned and I knew exactly what I should say I
should say no I put glue on his hand but what happened was in telling the story
to myself the little girl was taking the baby for a walk
I realized instantly that it was a better story if it was the little girl
was taking the badly burned baby for a walk and so I I changed my smile that I
had prepared into a sad look and I nodded and agreed yes badly burned now
there’s no ending to this story if I were writing it it would have to that
would be the middle part and it would have to have some interesting twist at
the ending but it doesn’t because it’s just a real-life incident it’s an
anecdote and when I got home the glue eventually wore off my brother’s hand
the old ladies didn’t call a child abuse hotline and report me I there was
there’s no ending except that it made me aware as I’ve always been aware since
and maybe had been aware before then how a story becomes interesting how the
little bits and pieces you add to it the badly burned baby becomes an interesting
story and how how essential the words are that you put in to make it do that
okay now I’m gonna jump ahead many many years from the time I was 8 I wanted to
be a writer 10 12 14 16 I went to college with a special scholarship to
study writing because I had won some awards in high school but I dropped out
of college very young 19 and got married and my creative life took a different
form as I had a baby when I was 21 a baby when I was 22 a baby when I was 24
and a baby when I was 25 and so goal of being a writer was sort of put
on hold for a number of years but then I went back to college when my kids start
at school and I started writing again I was writing however for adults I saw
myself as somebody who would write novels for grown-ups I was a grown-up
after all but it wasn’t happening I was writing things and sending them off to
publishers and I was getting rejection letters and I was also at the same time
raising my children okay now it’s 1975 and you have to do some math I can’t do
it quickly I was born in 1937 so it’s now 1975 that makes me how old late 30s
saying and one morning my husband had gone off to work the kids had gone off
to catch the school bus and I was alone in the house and the dog was out in the
backyard it was November and I went outside to scrape some leftover
scrambled eggs into the dog’s dish and I stopped when I got outside because there
was something about the smell of the air that triggered a memory that’s that
happens to us a smell a sound it will sometimes bring back something that you
had forgotten that had happened many years before so there I stood on the
back porch of a house in Maine in early November what could I have been smelling
I was smelling the children’s Halloween pumpkins rotting still on the porch
I was smelling dead leaves on the ground wood smoke I think coming from neighbors
chimneys apples still hanging in the apple trees though now they were turning
brown a kind of sweet smell of rotting apples all of it combined and I remember
today in nineteen probably 46 maybe 45 I would have been eight or
years old and I went back into the house and I went to my typewriter this is long
before computers 1975 and I sat down and I began to write about that day and the
sentence I wrote was it was morning early barely light cold for November I
was nine and the war was over in the car i sat next to the stranger who was my
father now I’m going to stop for a minute there to describe something in
almost every book or story that I’ve ever written I have begun by introducing
a character who will be the main character the one you want the reader to
care about a little about where that character is the setting and then there
will be a sentence a word or a phrase that will let the reader know that
something is not quite right something is askew and I’m just gonna veer off to
describe a couple of my own books that you may be familiar with number the
Stars is one begins the main character is running down a street blond hair
flying and then few paragraphs on there’s a soldier with a gun and he says
halt of course you know something’s wrong what’s wrong okay another book the
first sentence is it was almost December and Jonas was beginning to be frightened
okay you know this book is going to be about a boy he has a boys name his name
is Jonas very soon you’ll know his age and where he is but in the first
sentence you know something’s wrong he was beginning to be frightened in this
story that I was then just typing out in my own typewriter the the little thing
that’s asked you is in that second sentence that I quoted in the car I sat
next to the stranger who was my father it’s it’s something’s wrong if the
father is a stranger okay this goes back to my childhood in
in the 1940s my father a career army officer had spent the war in the Pacific
and now he had come home as it turned out he was home only briefly because he
had to go back to Tokyo and eventually we would join him there but now he’s
home for the first time in a very long time and I was a kid and I had missed my
father and I loved my father but when he came home I didn’t know my father he was
a stranger to me and I was frightened would be too strong
a word but I was self-conscious and nervous around him he was a stranger to
me looking back now I can realize as a parent myself that he would have felt
the same way I was a stranger to him and so we were we were two people who were
in the position of having to get to know one another again so I wrote the story
of that day it’s a story that takes place over the course of simply a few
hours and like all stories it has a beginning a middle and an end it has
people who go out on a journey not all journeys are Geographic ones but in this
story the child and her father start out in a car they’re going out and they will
return I finished the writing of that and I
sent it off to a magazine a grown-up magazine I wasn’t writing for kids then
I was writing for grownups and the magazine bought it and published it in
their December 1975 edition when that was published a children’s book editor
read this story wrote to me and said you sound like somebody who could be writing
for kids would you consider writing a novel for young people and with that
invitation I did write my first book for kids but that had never been what what I
had intended it surprises me now I had four kids I read to my kids we had kids
books in the house but I’d never thought of myself
children’s book writer but it was that adult story that propelled me into my
first book and from then to I think now 35 books okay a couple of years ago or
maybe a year ago I forgotten how long a children’s book editor heard me talk
about that story and contacted me and said could I read it so I provided her
with the entire story incidentally when I went to get a copy of that story at
the Boston Public Library I mean years had passed I didn’t have a copy of it
anymore I went to the Boston library to find an
old copy event magazine which they did have and there was the story and I went
to Xerox it they said sorry you can’t do that that’s copyrighted but I wrote it
that’s my name and eventually they let me but I think it was illegal anyway so
I gave Andre Pinkney the copy of the story and she asked permission to turn
it into a picture book for kids although it’s not really a story just for kids
it’s a story for all ages then her job was to turn it into the picture book
that is here today and incidentally it’s not even officially published yet I
believe you can buy it at the booksellers tent but you’ll be the first
because it’s not really out as they say one of the things she needed to do after
she and I talked about a a few minor very small changes she wanted the child
in the book to have a name and it’s told in the first person and so when I’d
first written it I didn’t give that child a name she was me after all but in
in the book I’ve named myself Lizzie and I think there were a few other very
minor changes but not very many but then the really important thing this being a
picture book is she had to find the right illustrator
and magically she did that now the author and the illustrator very rarely
meet each other and I have never met the man who illustrated this book but he and
I corresponded a little bit by email and one of the things he wanted from me was
a description of the shirt that I was wearing in the book and I’ll read you a
passage which will will tell you what he was looking for he also had a photograph
of me at that age and so the child in the book in the pictures is me she looks
like me at that age I wish I had thought to give him a photograph of my father
because the father in the book doesn’t look like a my dad but that’s okay all
right it’s morning early barely light cold for
November that’s the first sentence the first sentence of the original story was
I just sent it to you a minute ago and now my mind has gone blank it was
morning early barely light cold for November I was 9 and the war was over
the sentence is shorter and it doesn’t say that I was 9 it never says in the
book how old the child is but you can tell from looking her at her that she’s
about that that age at home in the bed next to mine Jessica my older sister
still sleeps but my bed is empty it’s been changed to be present tense instead
of the past tense okay getting to the shirt in a minute I said
shyly in the front seat of the car next to the stranger who is my father my legs
pulled up under the two large wool shirt I am wearing mmm I practiced his name to
myself whispering it under my breath daddy daddy saying it feels new the war
has lasted so long he has been gone so long I realized and in talking to people
after this was going to be published that although this was World War two
the war of my childhood it could have been any war it could have been the
Korean war the war of my adolescence when my father again was gone it could
have been the Vietnam War and it could have been today today’s children will
have this many of them have the same experience of having a parent father or
mother gone for so long daddy I say and now you can see close-up
the child wearing of the shirt he had written to me the illustrator to ask me
about the colors in the shirt it’s very hard to describe a plaid I told him
there were red and blue and when they crossed that became a muted purple and
then there were black lines like window panes across that and he’s done it
exactly bring us seeing that the paintings reminds me exactly I don’t
know what became of the shirt I wore it for years it was so large Danny I say I
never I’ve never gone hunting before what if I don’t know what to do
my father had taken me out for a day just an outing but with the two of us
and perhaps he did the same thing with my sister I don’t know when my sister
died young so I never have had a chance to ask her he made probably a poor
choice my father was a hunter this was Pennsylvania it was fall
hunting season and so he took me hunting and that in addition to my being scared
of him I was now scared of what we were about to do well Lizzie says I’ve been
thinking about that and I’ve decided to put you in charge of the crow call have
you ever operated a crow call I shake my head no it’s an art he says no doubt
about that but I’m pretty sure you can handle it some people will blow and blow
on a crow call and not a sing crow will even wake up or bother to
listen much less answer but I’m I really think you can do it of course he said
chuckling having that shirt will help and then there’s a wonderful picture of
my father and me at a men’s clothing store I think when my father came home
at that time to Pennsylvania he was wearing civilian a uniform excuse me and
so he went in town and took me with him to a men’s clothing store to buy himself
some civilian clothes in town it says to buy groceries I think we were really
there to buy him some clothes he had noticed my hesitating in front of
kronenberg’s window the plan hunting shirts had been in the store window for
a month the popular red and black and green and
black ones toward the front clothing mannequins holding duck decoys
but my shirt the rainbow plaid hung separately on a wooden hanger toward the
back of the display I had lingered in front of the window every chance I had
since the hunting shirts had appeared my sister rolled her eyes in disdain daddy
she pointed out to him as we entered the store that’s a man’s shirt the salesman
had smiled and said dubiously I don’t quite think you know Lizzy my father had
said to me as the salesman wrapped the shirt buying this shirt is probably a
very practical thing to do you will never ever outgrow this shirt and indeed
you can see on the cover the child is wearing this enormous shirt as I did
that day with my father but then there we are out in that countryside early
morning by ourselves in the fall me wearing the big shirt me holding the
crow call which he’s taught me to blow into to make the sound of a crow to
attract crows and he carrying the gun with which he is going to shoot them
it’s a terrifying period of time for me though as the story moves along you’ll
see that it ends happily and we’re moving along in time
here too and I promised I would leave time for you to ask questions and so
maybe now is the time that some of you could be making your way up toward these
microphones on either side so that we can hear the questions anybody got one Jonas is alive by the way you don’t need
to ask that question okay you know what even with your microphone I couldn’t
hear it hold the microphone a little closer up how many books have you
written how many books have I written you know if you go to my website you’ll
find a list of them and you can count and I’ll try to count to next time I
look at it I think that I’ve written 35 okay
my fifth grade teacher mrs. Anson we’re reading gossamer Oh his teacher says in
his class they’re reading gossamer I’m going to tell you a brief story about
that quite quite recently I have a grandson who’s in sixth grade this year
but he told me this summer that in fifth grade last year his teacher read my book
gossamer to the classroom when my grandson told me that he was standing in
my kitchen and there is a section in that book where a little boy who has
been abused and taken away from his parents is finally describing what has
happened to him and it has happened in a kitchen
my grandson said to me you know when mrs. whatever her name was was reading
that he said this is the kitchen I saw in my mind he said I know nothing like
that ever happened in this kitchen but that’s the kitchen I saw and it made me
aware that my grandson and every reader who is a passionate reader does this I
do it myself as you read or as you are read to you
create the pictures in your mind and that was the picture he created of his
grandmother’s it made me know that he’s a very
passionate reader I was thrilled to hear him say that okay who’s next for the
question yep what is your favorite book do you mean my favorite book of the ones
that I’ve written hold the microphone your favorite book
of all every book in the whole world oh as a friend she was going to say that
actually one of my favorite books is one that I remember my mother reading to me
as a child and although I loved it and and really I loved it still and I’ve
gone back and reread it it was a book written for adults but my mother knew
how much I would love it because she knew me and that book was called the
yearling by Marjorie Kenton Rawlings and I suppose there’s some of you out here
who know that book at the end of that book the very last paragraph and it’s a
long book written and published for grownups very last paragraph the boy in
the book the one with whom I identified as my mother read it to me is now older
many things have happened to him and he has changed as characters in books do
and he’s asleep in the end of the book and he wakes in the night because he
hears something thinks he hears something and it wakes him and there’s
nothing there and then it says that he realized it was his own childhood voice
that he had heard and I love that passage which I’ve misquoted I’m sure
because I think it’s what I listen to when I’m writing books my own childhood
voice is speaking to me all the time okay we have someone else with a
question where did you get the idea for The Giver
and do you ever wish you lived in the giver instead of this world tell me the
second half of that question again like just where did I get the idea for the
giver and you ever wish you lived in the world of the giver instead okay do I
ever wish I lived in the world of the giver you know the the idea for the
giver is the origin of the giver is very complicated and I’m
we don’t have time to describe the many places it came from I’ll just describe
very briefly that before I wrote the giver was a time when my father was very
old and in a nursing home in losing his memory and when I went to visit him I
became aware suddenly that he had forgotten my sister
he always recognized me until he died at 92 but he had forgotten my sister my
sister had died young his first child and when I showed him a picture of her
he said what happened to her and I said she died dad and he was so saddened
because he had forgotten that and it was as if it was new to him
and so I changed the subject but within a few minutes he had said again whatever
happened to your sister and again I had to had to say she died dad and so when I
went home that day I remember specifically I began thinking what if
there was some kind of drug we could give people and they would forget every
bad thing that had ever happened and then when a writer begins to think what
if a story begins to take shape and I began to think about writing about a
group of people it became a community of people who had found a way to manipulate
human memory but my answer to would that be a good thing was of course no and
that’s my answer to the second part of his question what I like to live in a
world that had become so comfortable that we had no no memories of the past
or of things that had happened to us and and of course Jonases world which I
tried very hard to make seem appealing at the fruit at the beginning of the
book has a has a dark underbelly to it and now nobody would want to live in a
world like that and certainly I would not okay somebody over here why is you
in the giver like that why did I end the giver like I always thought it was an optimistic
ending and it was after that I began to realize that some people thought the boy
was dead that I later went on to write two more books and the boy Jonas appears
seven years later as a man in the book messenger so it is a happy ending and
you’ll see him later on and the baby Gabriel is also alive and well okay okay
sorry but I have a police woman down here is holding up the sign that says
I’ve gone over my time and so I’m not going to be able to answer any more
questions but thank you all for your patience this has been a presentation of
the Library of Congress visit us at loc.gov

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