Thursday, April 14, 2016

Publication Interview - There was an Old Lady Who Gobbled a Skink

Author and MFAC alum Tamera Wissinger* talks about her new book, There was an Old Lady Who Gobbled a Skink. Learn about her writing process for this fun and original take on a classic rhyme.
Tell us about your new book?
It’s my take on the folktale There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly. In this new version the old lady is a fisherwoman down by the dock who gobbles a skink, a worm, a bobber…all kinds of fishing tackle and supplies.

Do you have a favorite part of the book or a favorite character?
Hmm. I like how all the parts works together to create suspense and fun for young readers. Those elements lead to a surprise at the end, which I hope keeps with the tradition of the original.

Did you workshop this story at Hamline or work with a faculty member?
I worked with Marsha Chall and Phyllis Root on this story. Both of them gave me great insights and helped me fine-tune the story. As a result, it became part of my creative thesis and one of the picture books I read for my graduate reading.

When did you first begin work on it? When did you finish?
I began this story nearly a decade ago - in the spring of 2006. I was toying with a few different story and poetry ideas when a cluster of interesting water and dockside rhyming words and phrases emerged. Once I recognized that a might be able to write an homage to the old lady original, the story really took off. That summer I went to the University of Iowa summer writing festival and worked on it with children’s author and teacher Jill Esbaum.

In 2007 I put it aside for my first two semesters at Hamline and pulled it back out in 2008 when I was paired with Marsha and then Phyllis. I finished a draft that was ready for submission in the fall of 2008. That was my final semester at Hamline. It took me a few years to find the right publisher. Once it was accepted at Sky Pony, the editor and I tweaked it slightly, so the text was officially completed in 2015.

As the work progressed from inception to copy-edited version, what were the major changes? How did those changes come about?
The biggest change came early in the life of this story. Initially I wrote the old lady eating the largest items first. Jill suggested that I consider going from small to large. I thought that was a good idea so I tried it. That wasn’t as simple as just reversing the order, though – it meant basically rewriting the entire story. In the end it’s a stronger story that way, so worth the effort.

What research did you do before and while writing the book?

Most of this story grew out of my own experiences of fishing with my family when I was young and my imagination. Once I had decided to write this in the spirit of the original, I read that version and many other versions to see how those authors handled the sequencing. I spent time thinking about the order of the items and logic of that order. Also, I went fishing with my husband and family and quietly paid attention to what happened during the day.

Where did you do most of your writing for this book?
At the time I wrote this book I was living in the Chicago area, so I wrote much of this book in my office looking out at a cluster of pretty maple trees.  

Any final thoughts on the book you'd like to share?
I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity I had to work with Phyllis and Marsha on this manuscript while I was at Hamline. They both gave me thoughtful feedback and were advocates from early in the life of this book.

Tamera Will Wissinger writes poetry and stories for children. She grew up as a reader in an Iowa fishing family and earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University. She is the author of THERE WAS AN OLD LADY WHO GOBBLED A SKINK and THIS OLD BAND from Sky Pony Press as well as GONE FISHING: A Novel in Verse and the forthcoming GONE CAMPING: A Novel In Verse from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers. She has gobbled many things, but never a skink, or worm, or bobber, or any of the fishing gear gobbled by the old lady in her book. You can connect with Tamera online at her website, on Twitter, Goodreads, or on Facebook.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Diversity Shines in Two Alaskan Novels

Today's Inkpot post is from Claire Rudolf Murphy*, an amazing author and MFAC professor at Hamline University.  Diversity is a big topic, and one Claire explores through the examination of two Alaskan novels, My Name is Not Easy and The Smell of Other People's Houses.

Hello, Inkpot Readers. My awareness of the need for more diversity in children’s books has been deepened by our work in the Hamline MFAC program. As we read more widely and I reflect on my own work and respond to student work, my understanding has grown, but also a realization about how complex it is to get it right. Diversity comes in many forms - along with race and culture, it includes religion, social and economic levels and setting. Regardless, we must do our best to avoid stereotypes. A nonfiction writer can only write what actually happened, so the diversity comes by doing far-reaching research on one’s subject in all its complexities.

A novelist has many choices when developing a cast of characters. I learned a great deal about culture during my 24 years in Alaska, but in my first novel I failed the stereotype test. To the Summit features white climbers on an expedition up Denali (Mount McKinley.) I wanted to include a Native Alaskan character, so I developed a Yup’ik guide named Gabe based on my experiences teaching in a Yup’ik Eskimo village for three years. I got help and worked hard to get the cultural details right, but looking back I realize how unlikely and inauthentic it was to write about a Yup’ik person from the coastal part of Alaska who climbed mountains for adventure rather than necessity.

But two current Alaskan writers succeed admirably, their stories featuring characters of many cultures. Debby Dahl Edwardson was raised in a Norwegian Minnesotan family, but for 30 years has lived in Barrow, Alaska with her husband and his extended family. Fro her web site: “My husband is Inupiaq (Eskimo) and most of the stories I write are set within this cultural context. It is not the culture I was born into but it is the one I belong to, the one that has become home to me as a human being and as an artist.” (See
Debby’s novel My Name is not Easy, a National Book Award finalist, is based on her husband’s experiences attending boarding school with Alaskan Natives of many cultures. I taught at a boarding school similar to the setting of Debby’s story and can speak to the authenticity of her teen characters and how the white adults running the school have good intentions, but make many cultural missteps. Not surprisingly Debby has been asked many times about writing about other cultures. People want to know what constitutes authentic writing from a cultural perspective. They want to know how to tell whether the books they are reading or writing are authentic to the cultures they represent. A good part of this comes from recognizing your own cultural bias.” Listen to her interview at:

On a guest blog post about writing across cultures, she wrote: “People sometimes say that I write outside of my own culture or that I write through a borrowed culture. I can't imagine consciously doing any such thing. If you understand the worldview of your characters and write from within that worldview you are not writing outside of anything and you are not borrowing—you are immersing yourself within. Does your own individual perspective on life bleed through? Sure. But you are aware of this and you control it—not as a bad thing, but as a conscious thing.” See:

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, one of our Hamline alums, recently published a novel set in Alaska called The Smell of Other People’s Houses. An earlier version of this story was her creative thesis. Based on her childhood memories, experiences of family members, friends and her own children, and her work as a reporter with Alaska Public Radio, the story features characters from Alaska’s many cultures. Tough things happen to all the characters, no matter their culture. From my years living in Alaska, it felt authentic. Bonnie-Sue uses cultural details and it is clear which cultural group a character is from. But she also spoke to the fluidity of Alaskan culture. In an email to me she wrote, ““One thing I do know is that you can't tell if someone is native or nonnative based on their skin color and what I love about Alaska is that we're all kind of in it together. But as kids, we didn't care about what race you were. We cared whether you were fast enough to be on our swim team relay, or if your mom made better after school snacks.” 

But Bonnie-Sue also spoke to me about the responsibility writing about this setting and these characters. “Did I do this right? Did I do it justice? She laughingly told me she is working on a story right now in which “place isn’t such a huge character.” Alaskans have embraced the novel. And readers unfamiliar with Alaska will come to experience it through these well-rounded and riveting characters. Bonnie-Sue worked hard to make sure the cultural details remained in her story. And she won another fight, too. “Normally audiobooks are read by professional actors. But I knew that the voice of Dora had to reflect her character--a young Inupiaq girl. I sent the New York producer some news stories featuring teenage voices that I had produced in Alaska and she agreed with me that Dora's character absolutely needed authentic representation." An Alaskan actor was hired.

Learn more about Bonnie-Sue at her web site www. Listen to her interview: also posted a more detailed review of Bonnie-Sue’s book this week at:

Thank you, Debby and Bonnie-Sue for showing us the way by writing such powerful stories with diverse characters.

*Claire Rudolf Murphy is the author of over a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction and a professor in Hamline University's Master in Writing for Children and Young Adults program.  To learn more about Claire and her writing, please visit her website or faculty page.