Once Upon a Time With Liz Garton Scanlon
Liz Garton Scanlon didn’t set out to be a children’s book writer. She started her career in the corporate world, but life led her down a different path, which now includes several published books, including the Caldecott Honor recipient All the World, which teaches children about being grateful for what the world offers—including each other.
I grew up knowing that I wanted to write, mostly because I was much better at it than I was at other things, like shooting hoops or solving algebraic equations. I got a journalism degree, wrote poetry, and taught English composition. There was even a multiyear stint writing corporate communications that I transitioned out of after one too many conference calls gave me a two-day migraine.
But it wasn’t until I had my own babies that writing children’s books occurred to me. I was read to a lot as a child, and I knew that it was the luckiest way to be doted upon. I loved books like Make Way for Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal, and Eloise. I also loved a funny little book called The Big Tidy-Up, which was reissued not too long ago; and another called Patrick Will Grow, which, sadly, wasn’t. I read to both of my girls, and I started writing for them. That became my career, and I haven’t looked back.
I love working from home. I take a run with the dog after my girls leave for school, and then I settle in. I try to pound out a bunch of e-mails first to clear my head, and then I’ve usually promised my writing partner that I’ll start real writing by 9:00 a.m. I need a lot of alone time, both as a writer and a person, and I also seem to need a lot of robe-and-slipper time. Being home satisfies both of those needs. But there certainly are distractions. In fact, there are so many distractions, such as the kitchen and the laundry, that sometimes I pack up my laptop and head to a coffeehouse. This is why my house isn’t cleaner than it is.
Although I’ve lived (and worked) in Austin, Texas, for a long time now, I had moved a lot, and I travel as much as possible within the time-space continuum. I really appreciate how moving opens you up to new people and new tastes, to new ideas and new landscapes, and to new jokes and new languages. It’s another way to stay childlike, which is, fortunately, what is required for this work.
So it’s no surprise that much of my work is imagistic in nature. But it’s also an expression of what matters to me and what I think is important—curiosity and connection—in our relationship with the natural world and within the bonds we make. The delight and poignancy we can find in each other, and in the world, and in any one moment.
School kids always ask me, “What is your favorite book that you’ve written?” I always give the same answer: “The one I’m working on.” And that’s not just an easy answer—it’s true. Whatever I’m working on at the time has my time, my attention, and my heart. I strive to find the message I want to convey in each book; it always seems to reveal itself along the way. (Or not, in which case I ditch it!) But, really, I am not someone who writes with a grand goal or even an outline. I go from my gut, and I’m always curious to see what unfolds.
That’s what happened with All the World, perhaps my best-known book. It actually began as a list poem: a list of things I love and a list of things that are beloved in the world. But the connection between those things? That just kind of happened. That’s what I love most about this line of work— that unplanned magic. One of the themes of All the World is appreciation for what our world offers.
Granted, like everyone, I’ve had days when I’ve been profoundly ungrateful, but I’ve mostly felt a deep sense of gratitude in everyday life. That’s what I wanted to convey. I recently found a Maya Angelou quote that I think says it all: “This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this one before.”
It’s a hope-filled message as well. I think hope falls into the category of essential language, along with possibility, opportunity, and curiosity. And children (but all of us, really) need those things more than ever, but we’re in danger of shutting them down because we’re afraid of so much these days. I’d hate for fear to beat out the very best in human nature. So I hope that this message of optimism resonates every time a parent or child reads All the World.
The initial drafting of that book was effortless, but obsessive. For days, my kids arrived home to find me still in pajamas with a wild look in my eyes. It wasn’t painstaking, but I couldn’t stop. It was a rush. But after that, the process was painstaking. I worked on my own and then with my editor Allyn Johnston to attend to every last word. We even carefully discussed the one exclamation point in the book! It was like that. It was such hard work, but it was so exhilarating. Granted, not every revision experience has been like that one, but I absolutely do care that much each time I write.
That’s why it was both gratifying, and also sort of overwhelming, to receive the Caldecott Honor for All the World. I was very, very happy to have illustrator Marla Frazee as cocreator and sharer-of attention. But, in retrospect, I mostly just feel immensely lucky to have had an idea come out the way that it did on the page and to have partnered with such wildly talented people (Marla and Allyn), who took it and turned it into something else entirely.
In the case of All the World, Marla and I actually did some direct collaboration, but that’s unusual. In most cases, the author and the illustrator really only work together through the editor, who serves as a magical intermediary. I’ve been fortunate to make books with some of the world’s most talented illustrators, but I haven’t even met all of them in person. I write and revise my texts, and then they are handed over to the artists. My job at that point is to (mostly) keep my mouth shut.
Speaking of Marla, I’m her biggest fan. I’m wild about everything she does. I also enjoy many other children’s authors’ work. My good pal Audrey Vernick writes the funniest books around. Don Tate and Chris Barton are doing really powerful nonfiction. Kari Anne Holt is writing such fine verse novels. Rita Williams-Garcia, Kathi Appelt, and Rebecca Stead are writers I aspire toward. I could go on and on. I love what is happening in this field right now. There are a lot of lucky little readers out there.
I feel just as lucky, and I am so grateful to be involved in children’s books. Knowing that my books are out there in the real world, being read by real families and real kids, maybe again and again . . . wow. As a devoted reader myself, that makes me weak in the knees. Writing has allowed me to not only love what I do, but also to connect with people.
That said, I have to admit that, although connecting is important, it can also be daunting. I love people deeply, but I’m an introvert, and I’ve got mixed feelings about the push-pull of social media. I made a rule for myself a long time ago that I’d only do what I feel comfortable with in promoting myself and my work. That doesn’t mean I won’t be brave when I accept speaking engagements or otherwise put myself out there in the world, but it does mean that I won’t do something that doesn’t have integrity or feel true to me. This helps to make everything feel not just manageable, but good.
In that same vein of feeling true to myself, in recent years, I felt that it was time to venture out from children’s books. I was ready for a new challenge, and because my own kids were growing up, I decided to grow up with them. That led me to write my first novel, The Great Good Summer. It was scary and challenging. Every day I thought, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” But my younger daughter was one of the book’s first readers—she was the perfect age at the time—and she actually read it aloud to me so I could take in her immediate reactions. It was revelatory and really fun! I also loved how immersive it was. I was in this madeup world with Ivy and Paul for such a long time; I was so invested in who they were and what happened to them. That was a transformative experience for me.
As for the future, I’m continuing down this same path, and I love it. I’ve got several picture books coming out over the next couple of years, including Bob, Not Bob, which I cowrote with Audrey Vernick (and it’s hilariously illustrated by Matt Cordell). Also, I am doing picture book collaborations with Hadley Hooper, Lee White, and Ashley Wolff. (Again, I’m ridiculously lucky with illustrators.) In the meantime, I’m finishing up another middle-grade novel with my fingers crossed. Thanks for looking forward with me!
For more info, visit lizgartonscanlon.com.