On Creativity: Karen Cushman

Karen CushmanA few months ago, I cried out for help. I was finding it profoundly difficult to be a writer. My inspiration and enthusiasm were buried so far below an onslaught of awful news headlines and downright hate, trauma, and tragedy that I struggled to reach them. What’s a girl to do? In a world so woeful and broken, how might I dig beneath the heartbreak and create? How could I free myself to write during these confusing and troubling times?

In other words, I asked, as Anita Silvey did, “What difference does a children’s book make in the midst of all of this political calamity?” Feeling distraught and discouraged, I went where I so often go for guidance—to my fellow writers. And I received generous, loving, thoughtful, eloquent responses.

Will Alexander recommended music; Ginny Wolff, laughter; Susan Hill Long, imagination; and David LaRochelle, honesty and kindness. Susan Fletcher found “sideways wisdom” through her writing. Margi Preus reminded me just to put one word after another, and Anita Silvey, like the rest of us, does it for kids. Susan Cooper and Gennifer Choldenko wrote about hope and Marion Dane Bauer, wonder. Jen Bryant, Dorothy Love, Avi, Karen Blumenthal, and Nikki Grimes stressed the need for engagement and writing out of our struggles.

I now add them to my company of inspirations, people whose words keep me afloat, like Mary Oliver:

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Like Gwendolyn Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winning poet, in her “Speech to the Young”:

Say to them,
say to the down-keepers
the sun-slappers,
the self-soilers,
the harmony-hushers,
“Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.

Like Berthold Brecht, poet and playwright whose words found me in this dark time:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

Yes, there will be singing about the dark times. With our voices and our words. In this dark time, whatever we may write will come from that place. And as the 1st/2nd century Mishnah sage, Rabbi Tarfon, whose quote is calligraphed and hanging on my wall, said: You are not required to complete the task. Neither are you free to abstain from it.

You must stay drunk on writing, said Ray Bradbury, who has so often said what I need to hear, so reality cannot destroy you.

The upshot is my despair and anger have not passed. Until we live in a perfect world, I imagine it won’t pass. But thanks to all who offered wisdom, compassion, and inspiration, I can write despite such feelings. Or maybe because of them. And because of you.

Now excuse me, I have a book to finish.

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.


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.”


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.