On Creativity: Anita Silvey

My question to several writers I admire: “I find it profoundly difficult these days to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm have been buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggle to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how can I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? Do you have the same thoughts? If so, how do you free yourself to write during these confusing and troubling times?”

I have received thoughtful and inspirational answers. I’m happy to share them with you here over the summer. I’m posting them in a random order, as I received their responses. If you have your own thoughts about these questions, I hope you’ll comment.

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Anita Silvey

Anita Silvey writes:

Dear Karen:

When I read your letter a couple of months ago, I felt I had no answers to your dilemma. I had not abandoned hope completely but found it difficult to write daily. “What difference,” I was asking myself, “does a children’s book make in the midst of all of this political calamity?”

As usual, time and the young (in this case the students at the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College), provided the answers. Having agreed about a year ago to speak to them, I attempted to garner some optimism for the occasion. But only on the day I delivered the lecture did I actually understand how to do that.

Let Your Voice Be HeardWalking to the podium I realized that the events of the last year have — and will continue to — change every decision I make about writing books for the young. As a small example, in August of 2016, I finally published Let Your Voice Be Heard: The Life and Times of Pete Seeger. The book had taken me eight years to write; when I went to document all my research, it came to eleven pages of footnotes and sources (in a 96-page book). Seeing the published book, I thought that sourcing excessive. Some paragraphs in the book had been referenced by five print sources and an interview with Pete. Who did I think I was? The New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal? An adult academician?

But in August of 2017 I am thrilled that those eleven pages exist. And I believe that those of us who struggle to craft narrative nonfiction for young readers have an important role to play in the time ahead. We can show where facts and opinions come from; we can demonstrate using primary and secondary sources. We can stand shoulder to shoulder with all the devoted journalists of our time and the academicians who are fighting for an understanding of what constitutes real facts.

As long as I can breathe, I have hope. Now, more than ever, those of us who have the privilege of writing for the young need to reinterpret what we do in our books. What do we care about? What do we stand for? I want to help children engage in critical analysis of information. When the history of this time is published, I want to be able to say, “I stood with the kids.”

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The author of 100 Best Books for Children500 Great Books for Teens, and Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, Anita Silvey has devoted 40 years to promoting books that will turn the young—and families—into readers. She has appeared frequently on NPR, The Today Show60 Minutes, and various radio programs to talk about our best books for young people. In a unique career in the children’s book field, Ms. Silvey has divided her time equally between publishing, evaluating children’s books, and writing. Her lifelong conviction that “only the very best of anything can be good enough for the young” forms the cornerstone of her work. Formerly publisher of children’s books for Houghton Mifflin Company and editor-in-chief of The Horn Book Magazine, she currently teaches modern book publishing, children’s book publishing, and children’s book author studies at several colleges.

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