A Peek into the Life of Kirby Larson

Writers are often told that perseverance is the key to publishing. Sure, your story has got to be great. Of course your characters need to be memorable. Yes, it does help if you’re a hardworking, pleasant, flexible, patient, independently wealthy, witty person who can also juggle while riding a unicycle.

But it’s resolve that will get that book onto the shelves.

I flipped through my dictionary to read the definition of “perseverance.”

It said: “Kirby Larson.”

So today, the Mixed-Up Files is pleased to peek into the life of award-winning author, Kirby Larson. Welcome, Kirby.

Thank you for inviting me! There’s nothing I love better than a good middle grade read, so thanks for focusing your blog on this genre.

We’re pretty nosy here at the Mixed-up Files so I’ll start with a few personal questions. What was your family like? Did you have a favorite teacher?

I’m the oldest of 4 kids in a family that moved around. A lot. Nearly every year, I was the new kid in school, which wasn’t that yippy-skippy at the time, but helped move me toward becoming a writer (Lawrence Yep said being an outsider is good training for writers). My parents weren’t able to give us extras but they always made time for us, and that attitude made my entire childhood wonderful. I was lucky to have many caring teachers but it was my 6th grade teacher who really made me feel I could do just about anything. I’m still in contact with him.

What events in your young life do you feel shaped you to become a writer?

I remember vividly the first moment I realized the power of story. In second grade, the thing at recess – at least for the girls – was to play Wizard of Oz. And of course, every girl wanted to be Dorothy. I managed to milk an entire week of playing that coveted role by letting it slip on the playground that my mother was in the hospital. Boy, did that get me the sympathy vote! When the other girls discovered that the reason Mom was in the hospital was to deliver my baby brother, I quickly got demoted from Dorothy. But that incident stuck with me. And the fact that stories had a huge pull on me in my formative years contributed to my becoming a writer. Also, I am terrified of heights which put the kibosh on my dream to be an astronaut.

You decided to write your first picture book one day while in the library with your children. Tell us about that day. How long did it take from first draft to the first contract? How did being a mom influence your writing?

I took my kids to the library every week, bringing home stacks of books. I wanted to pass on my love of reading (it worked!). One day, we brought home a book written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel called Ming Lo Moves the Mountain. I will never forget that moment: our son, Tyler, sat on one side of me on our old lumpy green couch and our daughter, Quinn, was snuggled up on the other side. When I finished that story, it was as if a light switch was turned on inside me. I knew at that moment I had found what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and that was to write stories that would touch other families the way this book had touched mine. Of course, that message didn’t get out to the universe for another 5 or 6 years! During that time I wrote story after story on yellow legal pads, typing them up after the kids went to bed and mailing them off — with great hope in my heart — to publishers who were troublesomely resistant to my efforts. Being a mom was a great way to help me remember what it was like to be 4 or 8 or 16. Being a mom is great. Period.

You are one of those rare people who write successfully for various age groups, including, in your early writing years, essays and short stories for adults. I’ve heard you say that writing picture books is the most difficult. Is there an age group you are drawn to most often? Does the story idea determine the genre? What’s difficult for you? What delights you?

I’m incredibly flattered by your compliment; thank you! And, yes, I do think picture books are painfully difficult! Each word must earn its way into the story and that weighing process can be excruciating. I don’t know how many more picture books I have in me, honestly. (Picture book writers out there: run and buy Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books; she knows what she’s doing!).

*Interviewer nods*

Kirby continues…

My favorite genre is the chapter book, which I call the soap operas of children’s literature. The passion! The drama! You can be best friends with someone at first recess and by second recess they’ve thrown you over. The primary grades are rife with conflict and tension.

As you’ve suggested, for me, the story does decide the genre. I’ve just completed an historical chapter book, for example, in which one of the plot lines involved a young girl being separated from her dog. That’s an issue that seems to me to be better suited to an 8- or 9-year-old main character than a 16-year-old character.

You ask what’s difficult for me – I despair of ever completing that first draft. What delights me? Research, and typing “The End.”

Was there ever a time when you thought you’d give up writing?

(Kirby is trying to control a bout of hysterical laughter here) Every day.  Honest. But the feeling generally passes quickly.

I did seriously consider packing it in. Twice. Once, after the first book contract I signed got cancelled, I stopped writing for six months. Then my son, who was in first grade, said, “Mom, you’re so grumpy all the time. I think you need to start writing again.” So I did. I also considered giving up during a slump between the sale of a picture book called The Magic Kerchief (1997) and the acceptance of Hattie Big Sky (2004).  During that seven year period, EVERYTHING I submitted was rejected.

Perseverance, indeed. You’re known as a great friend to new writers and graciously give tips at conferences and workshops where you teach. You post helpful hints on your blog at www.kirbyslane.blogspot.com. What’s the most important tip for writers on craft? For writers trying to break into publishing? 

I truly believe everyone can write and that each person has a story only she can tell. (Though I have to say, I do love Flannery O’Connor’s saucy reply when a reporter asked her if she thought the universities discouraged too many writers. “They don’t discourage enough of them,” said Ms. O’Connor.)

I think the most important thing is for a writer to finish. Something. Anything. And accept the fact that much of what’s written won’t be perfect. And in fact some days, it won’t even be bad, it will be wretched. Fear not! Bad writing can be fixed! That’s what revisions are for. But without a rough draft, you’ll have nothing to fix and you’ll be like those people who have been workshopping the same first chapter at conferences for ten years. So the magic word is “finish.” As for trying to break into publishing I would say be professional, join SCBWI, do your homework, go to conferences and read this blog, as well as others, to learn as much as you can about your chosen profession/passion.

One of my favorite books, of course, is your Newbery Honor Book, Hattie Big Sky. Mixed-Up Files readers would love to hear how you decided to tell the story of your great-grandmother, Hattie Inez Brooks.

As I mentioned above, I was ready to quit writing after a lo-o-o-ng slump. During that same time, I was losing my beloved grandmother to Alzheimers. One day I was with her, and she said, “You know, the only time Mom was afraid was during the winter when the wild horses stampeded.” I could only say, “What do you mean, Grandma?” but she was at a stage where she didn’t remember things she’d said only moments before. Mind you, our family is mostly city folks. I couldn’t imagine where “Mom” (Hattie) could have encountered wild horses. I thought my grandmother was confused, but I was intrigued. And I now fully believe that my grandmother – even in her confused state – bet I would be intrigued. She knew me better than anyone and understood that what I needed to get on track again was a story to tell.

Curiosity led me to discover that Hattie Inez Brooks Wright – all 4 foot 11 inches of her – had homesteaded by herself as a young, single woman in eastern Montana. Though I found her homesteading documents, I never found anything Hattie herself had written about her experience. So I began to read about other female homesteaders and what I found was utterly compelling. But I had suffered such a loss of confidence when it came to writing. Again, Grandma to the rescue. After I told her about finding out about Hattie’s homestead, nearly every time I visited, she would ask me how Hattie’s book was coming. This, when she often didn’t even remember her own name. How could I let my grandma down? I couldn’t. That’s how Hattie Big Sky came to be.

*Interviewer in tears* I know you’ve been asked this a thousand times but describe the morning of the Newbery phone call.

Surreal! I hadn’t slept well the night before – I felt like I was coming down with a bug. I’d finally fallen asleep around 4 a.m. and at 6:30 the phone rang. A woman asked, “Is this Kirby Larson? The Kirby Larson who wrote Hattie Big Sky?” I was thinking it was way too early to be calling to discuss a school visit but I said yes. Then she said, “This is the Newbery Committee calling to say Hattie Big Sky has won a Newbery Honor.” At that moment, I inhaled and then couldn’t exhale or inhale again or anything. My husband had no idea what was wrong with me and was ready to dial 911. Finally, I caught my breath. I have NO IDEA what I said but my husband assures me I thanked the committee. After hanging up the phone, I immediately burst into tears. That euphoria lasted about 30 seconds until I decided someone must be playing a practical joke on me.

I’m so grateful that it wasn’t a practical joke. But I surely wish my grandmother had lived long enough to share in that moment.

She would’ve been proud, Kirby. You sometimes collaborate with your good friend, Mary Nethery, and that partnership resulted in two award-winning nonfiction picture books: Two Bobbies: A True Story of Hurricane Katrina, Friendship and Survival (illustrated by Jean Cassels) and Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine and a Miracle. Both are poignant stories and anyone who has ever loved a pet should read them. What’s next for you and Mary?

I feel so blessed to have been able to write stories about good friends – Bobbie and Bob Cat, and Nubs and Brian – with my good friend. Mary and I have our eyes and hearts open for another book to do together. We know it’s out there but we haven’t found the right subject yet.

In your blog, you often write about Winston the Wonder Dog, your faithful companion in the studio. When did Winston join your family and how has he changed your daily routine? Has Winston sparked any story ideas?

Writing two books about dogs made me want to be owned by one, so, in May of 2009, Winston joined our family. He insists on two walks each day and he herds me to my office each morning so he can do the important work of napping by my feet. He and I are in training to be a Reading with Rover team www.readingwithrover.org, so we can go to bookstores, libraries and schools where kids can read to him. He’s really looking forward to that! Winston has definitely sparked story ideas but he insists on writing his own book.

Our readers will love The Fences Between Us, The Diary of Piper Davis, released in September 2010 as a re-launch title for the Dear America series. It takes place in Seattle in 1941 and I can imagine how much research was involved. It’s an emotional story with so much rich, American history told through the voice of one savvy character. What was it like writing in diary format?

I was honored to be approached by Scholastic about writing the kick-off title for their relaunch of the series. When I learned they were interested in a WWII story, I knew just the story I wanted to tell. I grew up in Washington but didn’t learn about the Seattle Japanese incarceration camps until I was in college. It boggled my mind that such a powerful chapter of American history could’ve been overlooked in my education. I’d been researching the topic with an eye for including the material in The Friendship Doll, but it ultimately didn’t fit. So I pitched a story to Scholastic, inspired by the real-life actions of a pastor named Emery Andrews, about a young girl’s experiences with the camps and the people sent to them. They said yes, and we were on our way. Initially, I took the diary format too literally. My editor nudged me to expand entries until she finally got it through my thick head that the book was to suggest a diary, not literally be a diary. I think a diary is a powerful format for the young teen reader; they often keep diaries and it‘s important to them to feel a genuine connection to a character, which a diary readily encourages. I got a kick out of a recent email from a young girl who so believed The Fences really was a diary that she wanted Piper’s address so she could write her a letter!

Your next book, The Friendship Doll, releases in May 2011 from Delacorte/Random House. Would you give us a sneak preview?

Writing this book just about did me in – its final form is nothing like the story I worked on for oh, 97 drafts. But my editor helped me find the story I truly wanted to tell even if it took me several years longer than it should have. The Friendship Doll, focuses on how a doll –sent to the US in 1927 as an ambassador of friendship by the children of Japan – impacts the lives of four different girls during the Great Depression. It’s told from four viewpoint characters.

*Interviewer squeals at cover*

Your first book, Second Grade Pig Pals, was published in 1994. Here we are seventeen years and five books later, and you’re preparing for yet another release. How have you grown and changed as a writer? What are you working on next?

Something I’ve learned is that one book doesn’t teach you how to write the next. While that can be frustrating (and intimidating!) at times, it’s what keeps the work fresh. I’ve also learned that it’s healthy to stretch and try something that seems scary or crazy or both (like writing a book with multiple viewpoint characters, and one of them a doll!).

As for what’s next, it’s a sequel to Hattie Big Sky (due to my editor in August – yikes!!), and another historical novel is beginning to bubble on the back burner of my feeble little brain.

One last question: Can we buy you a latté?

Yes! Tall, nonfat and extra hot!  

Per-se-vere v. continue steadfastly or determinedly; persist, Kirby Larson. Possibly the only writer we know who can drink a latté while simultaneously juggling and riding a unicycle.

Kirby lives in Kenmore, Washington with her husband, Neil. When she’s not reading, writing, or walking Winston the Wonder Dog, Kirby enjoys gardening, bird watching, traveling, or drinking lattés with friends. Visit her website at www.kirbylarson.com.

Mixed-Up Files member, Diana Greenwood, lives in Napa Valley, CA. Her debut novel is INSIGHT, Zondervan (Harper Collins), on shelves May 2011. Visit her website at www.dianagreenwood.com

Diana Greenwood
  1. Very interesting post. Motivates me to read more of her books. She’s such a great writer. Re: the girl who sent her a letter asking her for the address of the girl in Fences… I’ve read that before about other Dear America/My Name is America books. I can see how it could be confusing for kids at times, but it’s so powerful to tell the story in diary format!

    Thanks for the post, as usual.

    Betsy Parkes

  2. Thanks for this excellent interview, Diana.
    Kirby, your honesty about the joys and frustration inherent in this field give us all hope. Thank you for sharing your story so eloquently!

  3. Thanks to everyone who commented (keep ’em coming!) and a huge thank you to Kirby for spending time with the Mixed-Up Files! It was a delight to work with Kirby and her words of wisdom are much appreciated. Cannot wait for the sequel to Hattie!

  4. Wow, this was inspiring – especially the 7 year lull and the few years it took to find the story of The Friendship Doll. It’s so funny (and frustrating!) – the story is IN there, somewhere, and it seems it should be so easy to just pull it out! I guess the only thing we can do is to keep writing and, like trying a ring of keys in a lock, have faith that one day, one key will work, the door will open and our story will be there.
    Also, having written a book in a scrapbook style, I find your editor’s words about the ‘suggestion” of a diary very interesting!
    Thank you, Kirby Larson!

  5. Great interview! Kirby, thanks for your generosity. I really appreciate your observation that the book you started is not the one that we will read. Isn’t this always the case? We start with a seed, a concept, an idea…and then it grows in inspiring ways. Congrats!!! Can’t wait to read!

  6. Thanks for the great interview. Kirby, you are inspiring! I especially liked your comment about the diary form for <The Fences Between Us: that the book was to suggest a diary, not literally be a diary.

  7. This interview brings so much hope to writers – especially those of us hoping to cross genres some day. Thanks Mixed up Files and Kirby!

  8. Dear Kirby–I wonder if you remember that a decade ago at a Willamette Writers conference we ate lunch together and you gave me some wonderfully sensible advice about the role of a characters parents in fiction. You were so kind and generous to this novice writer, and here we are all these years later still working away at exactly the same things that were a struggle all those years ago. 🙂

    And yet seeing the struggle through to the finish is the most satisfying part! Thanks! I hope when I’m seven books into my writing career I’ll still be as open-hearted as you have always been.

  9. Yay for Kirby!! Thanks for such a great interview.

    I can’t wait to read THE FRIENDSHIP DOLL!

  10. What a lovely interview. The lesson on perseverance is inspiring!

  11. Thanks for this, Kirby. I’ve been been following your journey since attending a Darcy Pattison revision retreat. Here’s to every future success!

  12. Thanks to Kirby and Diana for this wonderful interview! As for touching families, Kirby has certainly touched mine with her stories. (Word of warning: don’t sit down with Nubs or Two Bobbies without a giant box of tissues!) So happy to hear that Hattie’s story will continue.

  13. This is a fantastic interview! I especially like how Kirby never gave up even when it became tough. She kept on going and writing and look how she’s been rewarded. Very admirable. Hattie Big Sky has been on my to-read list, but I think I better bump it up to the top now! I love the story of how the novel came to be. What a wonderful grandma!

  14. That Reading with Rover program sounds cool! And The Friendship doll sounds like something I’ll enjoy reading with my daughter. Thanks for a great interview!