Sandy Asher and David Harrison

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Topic 9: Letters, We Get Letters—and Lots of Email, Too

 Response 1: Sandy

Mail, David. Think about what an important role it plays in the life of a writer. 

You and I remember the days when we sent manuscripts off by First Class Mail (it was not yet called snail mail, or even Priority Mail) and waited impatiently each day for the sound of the mailman approaching our door (they were mailmen, not letter carriers). Our hearts sang when we found a white #10 business envelope holding an acceptance letter (and maybe even a check), or they plummeted at the sight of a large manila envelope bringing a rejected piece home to roost. After many (many, many) of those manila disappointments, the prized #10s showed up with more frequency. And a while after that, our work appeared in print, and a happy day’s mail included complimentary copies. 

And after that, a new kind of mail began to arrive—letters from readers. 

As a playwright, I sometimes get to attend performances of my plays and observe audiences responding to them—laughing at the funny parts, falling silent at serious moments, and applauding at the end. That’s encouraging! It makes me want to rush home and write another play. But authors of books never get to watch their readers enjoying their stories. Well, that’s not entirely true. I once saw a little girl sitting cross-legged in a supermarket cart, completely absorbed in Teddy Teabury's Fabulous Fact while being pushed up and down the aisles by her mom. But that was once. (And, no, I did not disturb her by introducing myself.) Normally, unless we’re in a classroom reading to children ourselves, we don’t hear the laughter or the attentive silence, and it’s not likely that even observed readers like the little girl in the cart would burst into applause upon finishing a book. 

I don’t know about you, David, but sometimes I wonder: Is anybody really out there? If no one takes the time to drop me a note, I have no idea how my stories are being received. So when someone does write, it’s absolutely thrilling.

And sometimes funny. Or touching. Or . . . puzzling. 

Whenever I speak to groups of children, I ask them how many have written to the author of a favorite book. It’s a great day when more than three raise their hands. We laugh about the fact that when I was their age, I thought all authors were dead. I’d never met a live one. Like dinosaur bones in museums, authors left books behind on library shelves that proved they’d once walked the face of the earth, but I no more expected to meet a live author than a live dinosaur. So why would I write one a letter?

Then I tell them that’s why you and I developed the America Writes for Kids website, David—to show that real, live authors do still exist, and to provide access to information about them, including email addresses—so much easier than the old letter-to-the-publisher, and almost guaranteed to get a response. After each of these heartfelt pleas for improved correspondence, sometimes to hundreds of children in a day, I generally get one email the very next morning. Maybe two. I tell myself other children in that group are writing to other authors linked to America Writes for Kids. Good for them! I tell myself that TV executives once concluded that every letter they received represented 20,000 people who felt the same way, 19,999 of whom never bothered to write. Small comfort, since authors deal in considerably smaller numbers, but comfort all the same.

Whatever I tell myself, the fact remains: That one child’s email means a lot to me, and I promptly reply. I know each letter and email means a lot to you, too, David, so I thought it might be fun for us to share some especially memorable examples of mail we’ve received over the years, electronic or snail. I hope other authors will chime in with favorites of their own. And I hope readers of any age will be inspired to drop a line to their favorite authors and prove that readers really are out there, enjoying their books. 

I’ll lead off with a few examples of Most Unusual Correspondence this time, and move on to Most Touching Correspondence next time. In the Most Unusual category, I must begin with an email received very recently from a woman who has so enjoyed sharing my book Too Many Frogs! with her fiancé and her 7-year-old daughter that she’s decided to make it the theme of her upcoming wedding. Can you imagine my surprise and delight when I turned on my computer that morning and opened that message? Froggie and Rabbit have been in books, onstage, and on tape and CD, even on tabletops during my presentations, but this will be the first time they’ve attended a wedding.

Somewhere at the other end of the spectrum lies a postcard received from someone who was planning to review another picture book, Stella's Dancing Days, but decided not to and wanted me to know why. “This book depicts irresponsible pet ownership,” she declared, “because Stella is allowed to roam free, meet another cat, and give birth to kittens.” All true, except the irresponsible part. My real pets are always neutered and never roam free. This book was my opportunity to pretend to raise a houseful of kittens. Stella’s babies will not add to the world’s cat overpopulation. 

Sometimes, letters come in packets sent by teachers, usually after an elementary school visit. The Most Unusual, so far, had a bit of an edge to them. “Thank you for coming to our school,” announced the first. “I enjoy visits from authors, and you are one.” I passed muster just by writing a book and showing up! The other thank-you gave only qualified approval: “I enjoyed your visit, but I doubt anyone else did.” Both letters arrived in the same packet, so I had reason to believe this writer’s doubts were unjustified. 

Bring them on, dear readers, emailed or scribbled in pencil, with or without hearts and flowers and characters from my books and portraits of yourself and your pets. I love them all! And I’ll bet you do, too, David. Let’s hear it for readers who write!

Response 2: David

Thanks, Sandy! I love to hear from readers too. Who doesn’t? They tend to come in three categories. One is the packet of notes required by the teacher after a school visit. “Get out your paper and pencils and think about what we learned today when Mr. Harrison visited our class. What did you remember about what he said? Which poem did you like best?” A second group is from individuals who find something in a book that makes them want to write a fan letter to the author. The third category, which usually comes via the Internet, is from those who not only like our work but seek our help in getting published. That category is probably worthy of another day.

But back to the teacher-generated notes from students. “Dear Mr. Harrison, thank you for coming to our class. I remember when you dug up your dead pet parakeet and whacked off its wings. Your poem I liked best was ‘Life’s Not Fair’ because it was about running out of toilet paper and it was short. Your friend, Joe.” I read every note. I bet that every author fortunate enough to hear from a child takes the time to read the note and try to respond in an appropriate way.

I dig my way down through the stack, mining for the gold of originality. Every now and then a real voice speaks out and tickles me. When I least expect it, some kid makes me snort out loud and interrupt my wife to read the note. A few years ago I did a book with two voices called Farmer's Garden. It did well so I collaborated with the same artist, Arden Johnson-Petrov, on a follow-up title called Farmer's Dog Goes to the Forest. In both books, Dog stops to examine and interview the things he sees, which results in two-way chats in rhyme. A teacher read the second book to her class and asked her students to write about their thoughts. Here’s what one honest kid had to tell me.

“Dear Mr. Harrison,
Your book is weird. First, the dog is talking to inanimate objects. For example, the dog was talking to a tree, some grass, and the brook. Clearly you can see the book is kind of out there.”

Sandy, what can you say when someone that young pins you to the wall with such a valid point! In another case, I wrote a poem about a dead wasp I found on a windowsill in our house. “Death of a Wasp” is sad. I visualized the tiny creature’s futile efforts to escape, bumping against the window over and over until it eventually died on the sill. My editor told me she cried when she read the poem. When I read it to groups of adults, all eyes turn solemn. That’s true of most kids, too, except this one. I love his note.

“Dear Mr. Harrison,
On the wasp poem, I saw my teacher about to cry. I didn’t see why everybody about cried.”

What can I say? If dead insects don’t jerk your tear ducts, they just don’t! Which reminded me, as these notes so often do, that everyone reads with his or her own ideas about what’s good, what makes sense, what’s right, what’s funny, and even what is worthy of tears!

Sandy, do you save your notes from young readers? I do, not all of them, but the ones that really grab me. Sometimes they come in handy, for example, right now.

  • Being new: “I’m new so I relate to the part (in a school bus poem) that says some kids are new but you wave at them too. That’s exactly what happened to me.”
  • Being rejected: “I know how it feels to be rejected. I entered in the poetry contest in my school in third, fourth, and fifth grade but I never won. I plan to enter this year. It's my last chance.”
  • Cursive writing: “You were just like me when I was learning how to write in cursive. I had trouble with the letter X.” 
  • Being embarrassed: “My favorite poem was the one with you falling off the risers. When you fell off the risers I bet you were embarrassed. I have embarrassing moments too.”

Years ago I was waiting to see an editor at Random House. On the floor by my chair were stacks of boxes of letters from kids addressed to Berenstain Bears. When I asked about them, I learned that letters arrived in such volume that responding sometimes became a problem. Sandy, may I live long enough to receive so many letters that responding becomes a problem! For now, I remain grateful every time a child writes, even when he thinks my book is weird and kind of out there.

Back to you!


Response 3—Sandy

Here are two more correspondence categories to add to your list, David:

The Homework Assignment Request
In the (good?) old days, I’d receive these inquiries forwarded from my publisher, all too often long after the poor student needed the information to meet a deadline. I felt awful about that! But what can you do other than apologize and hope the young person understands the delay didn’t happen at my end of the slow process, since then aptly named “snail mail.” 

Nowadays, these requests come by email. The speed, alas, has resulted in a new kind of problem: “Dear Sandy Asher, I have to write a report about you. Tell me all about your life. My report is due tomorrow morning.” Or, “Dear Author, I have to write a book report. What’s your book about?”

Sigh. Not much we can do about those either, except explain, politely, that specific questions are welcome. Deflected homework assignments are not. 

Then we have . . .

The Deeply Moving, Never-To-Be-Forgotten Personal Letters
These are the ones I’d like to talk more about this time around because they’re so important to those who write them—and to me, reading them. Also because I think they point to a very special relationship, not so much between reader and author as between reader and character.

Three poignant examples:

My second YA novel, Daughters of the Law, about the child of Holocaust survivors, brought a long, thoughtful response from a middle-school student in Canada. I was quite impressed by her insights and told her so in my return letter. Thus began years of correspondence—often more than 20 handwritten, two-sided pages from her end—filled with the loneliness of being the shy, sensitive child of foreign-born parents in a not very tolerant environment, plus some charming short stories of her own. 

Our pen-pal friendship lasted all the way through her high-school years and on into the first few months of college, when the thick envelopes from Canada with their familiar handwriting abruptly stopped arriving in my mailbox. I didn’t feel it was my place to inquire further. I believe that for this young woman, as for so many other bright, creative students who don’t fit into their hometowns or their high-school environments, college finally offered a safe haven rich with new opportunities. My support was no longer necessary.

During the span of the long Canadian correspondence, another YA novel, Just Like Jenny, was republished in Great Britain. The story is about two best friends, Jenny and Stephanie, who find themselves competing against each other in their chosen field of dance. How do you maintain a best friendship with your worst rival? Across the big puddle came a heartfelt, handwritten letter from a young teenager who told me about a similar situation in her own life, claiming that she felt she couldn’t talk to anyone else about it. She was “scared, really scared” of losing her dearest friend, and begged for help. I responded as best I could, suggesting that, instead of retreating, she share her concerns with her friend, who might be feeling similar stress. A second letter revealed that this was indeed the case. “It’s not always perfect, but I feel a lot better now. Thank you. It was much easier when I felt someone was backing me.” 

More recently, I received a letter and a packet of poems from a young woman, mother of four small children, who had read another of my YA novels, Summer Begins, some time earlier. The writer had little in common with Summer, the daughter of an Olympic swimming champ and a university professor, but explained that she’d carried the book around with her for years and had taken heart from the way Summer learned to stand up for herself. The poems included with this letter were a heart-wrenching account of the abuse this reader had endured in her home and in foster care before also standing up for herself. As you know, David, in this case, the reader and I have become lifelong friends, and I’ve been privileged to witness with awe her continuing courage and healing.

While it’s true that those letters were addressed to me, and I answered them, I’ve always suspected they were not really written to me at all. I think they were written to Stephanie and Ruthie and Summer, the characters in my books. It was Jo March who told me I could be more than the wife and mother my parents expected of me. She may have come from Louisa May Alcott’s pen, but she was far more real to me than her creator. Characters in books understand. They tell us we’re not alone, not in our fears, not in our hopes, not in our nightmares, and not in our dreams. A character who assures a young reader of that can be the best friend that child has, and the one he or she turns to, time and again.

There are days in my writing, when it’s going really well, that I feel as if I’m taking dictation from my characters. They become that real to me, too. They need me to get their stories written down. And, sometimes, they need me to answer their mail. I do both with pleasure and deep gratitude for their trust.

Response 4: David

Sandy, as we conclude June’s four-part chat about the correspondence authors receive, I confess that this topic has brought back more memories than any of our others. And I know why, at least in my case. We’ve both said many times that the first thing an adult reader must do when presented with something written by a child is to celebrate the gift. One of my favorite quotes is by Susan Ferraro who writes, “To a great extent, we are what we say and write. Laugh or sneer at how we express ourselves, and we take personal offense: Our words are all about us.”

It’s easy to forget to appreciate the gift of a beginning writer, whose work is disjointed and filled with errors, when our first impulse is to suggest how to make it better. Teachers know this and remind themselves all the time to look past the mistakes to the vulnerable child who is holding his or her breath, hoping for a kind word of congratulations before the red ink comes out. Professional writers, when confronted with less than professional efforts by emerging writers, have to resist the same temptation to make judgments before seeing that adults have the same vulnerability that children do. We may think we’re tougher, but Ferraro got it right: “Laugh or sneer at how we express ourselves, and we take personal offense.”

So, Sandy, back to me, and why I think those letters from fans of all ages mean so much to an author. It’s because they represent unsolicited affirmation that our words are good. We got them right, at least this time, and so maybe we’ll get them right again on something we do in the future. They are, often, among the few positive remarks an author receives. Most editors are good about complimenting what they like, but during the course of editing a book, getting it ready on time to ship off to the copy editor or artist, exchanges between writer and editor become mostly about the business at hand. Adults who buy books for children rarely take time to send fan letters of their own and most children are not likely to think about writing a letter to anyone these days, or an email to someone they don’t know.

That’s why those letters, notes, and emails that manage to make it to my mailbox or computer screen are meaningful. They got here to my house against some pretty serious odds and are all the more appreciated because of it. Recently a little girl wrote to say, “I like your poems. They are fun. I enjoy reading your poems a lot. Your friend, Camrin.” Camrin took the time to tell me specifically which of my poems she liked best. That made me smile. I got those poems right! She printed her letter on a piece of lined paper, addressed it herself, and (I can imagine) placed it in her mailbox so the postman could pick it up and send it on its way to me.

Sandy, I mentioned last time that people who write asking for information about getting published are another category of an author’s correspondence. Sometimes such letters come from kids but more often they are written by young adults or adults who love the idea of becoming a published author and wonder how to go about it. Such letters can be time consuming to answer, and sometimes the temptation is to rush through them and keep them short. Why can’t these people figure it out on their own? But then I remember how confused I was in the first few years of struggling to get the words right, and how much I appreciated any encouragement and help I could get. And I realize that to be asked how to do it is a form of flattery. The person asking must have decided that I do indeed, at least on occasion, get it right. And so I do my best to see the vulnerable person behind the question who wants very much to become published, and I take a little longer to give a response that might help.

So, Sandy, it’s a wrap for June’s topic about letters and emails. I’ve had a good time and know that you have too. We’ve also been blessed with a number of warm comments from readers, which are appreciated!

Folks, Sandy and I are taking off the months of July and August before considering what to do this fall. We are both swamped with work and have travel plans as well.


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