Kids' Writer

Q&A

Baltimore grandmother started when her youngest child left kindergarten. Thirty-one years, 25 books and several awards later, she tells how she does it, and advises others

Q&a -- Colby Rodowsky

May 20, 2007|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

Thirty-one years ago, Colby Rodowsky, a Baltimore mother and housewife, got her chance. An English major at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, she had always wanted to write, and now that the youngest of her six children was out of kindergarten, she'd have a bit of quiet time each afternoon.

She signed up for a tutorial with a writing coach, submitted a book idea, and, with a lot of encouragement from her husband, Lawrence, wrote her first novel for children.

"I had no idea whether anyone would publish it," says Rodowsky, 74, at an interview in her Baltimore home. "It was all so new to me."

Though that book stayed in a drawer, Franklin Watts published her next -

What About Me?, concerning a teen whose brother has Down syndrome - in 1976, and the stories kept coming. With Julie's Daughter (1986), Not My Dog (2001), That Fernhill Summer (2006), and many more, she established herself as an author of children's fiction. And last month, when Farrar, Straus & Giroux published Ben and the Sudden Too-Big Family - about a Baltimore boy whose single dad abruptly remarries - it was a landmark, her 25th book.

Quite a feat for a woman who says that after each work comes out, she still fears she'll never get another idea. But there have been plenty.

In P.S.: Write Soon (1987), a girl with a leg brace finds it doesn't pay to exaggerate to pen pals, because they might come for a visit. The heroine of Not My Dog yearns for a puppy but instead ends up with a great-aunt's old mutt. In Jason Rat-a-Tat (2002), a boy who dislikes sports must find his way among siblings who love them.

A few fall in the fantasy category - The Gathering Room (1983), for example, is about a boy who lives in the gatehouse of a graveyard much like Green Mount Cemetery and looks to the "people" buried there for friends. But in each, it's about people. "I'm fascinated by characters," Rodowsky says. "I like to see how they respond to challenges."

A grandmother of 14, Rodowsky has plenty of family material to draw on. The Sudden Too-Big Family features a huge reunion not unlike the one she and Lawrence planned for their recent 50th anniversary. Other books were sparked by a Sun feature and a clue in a crossword puzzle. "You borrow from everywhere," she says.

A member of the Children's Book Guild of Washington, Rodowsky has garnered some of the field's more coveted honors, including School Library Journal's Best Book for Young Adults (Julie's Daughter) and Best Book of the Year (Sydney, Herself, 1989). Currently, she's excited about the jacket design of her latest. Artist Michael Wertz has etched each of the book's nearly 30 characters in beach-friendly hues.

"His attention to detail is wonderful," Rodowsky says.

So is the author's as she addresses the craft and business of her work. How did you get your start?

I arranged a one-on-one [course] with a friend of mine, an English teacher I'd [had] at Notre Dame. I thought she would just give me writing exercises, that sort of thing. At the first meeting, she told me to bring in an outline for a book - the following week! I came up with a children's book idea.

I finished [the book] and sent it around to a bunch of places; they all kept sending it back. Frankly, it wasn't very good. But finally, one publisher sent ... a long letter saying why they couldn't publish it, but that they were interested in seeing the next thing I wrote. This had all taken so long, I'd finished another one by that time, and they took it. What makes a good children's story?

I think [it's] what makes a good anything story. Characters; plot. Plot is not my strong point. I give my manuscripts to my husband to read. He's not a writer, but he's a good critic. ... He always says, "When's the murder going to happen?" If he were to pick out a book to read, it'd tend to have more plot.

I usually know a lot about my characters before I write. I'll think about them. I know things that won't appear in the book. What does the character think about? What does her room look like? What kind of posters does she have? I'll think about that while walking the dog or doing other things. Sometimes I'll make a list [of character traits]. Before you sit down to write, how much of a book do you have formulated in your mind?

Usually, the beginning and the end. I'm not sure how I'm going to get there, and I have to figure that out as I go. ... There are exceptions. In What About Me? (1976), I had no idea the brother with Down syndrome would die in the end. Sometimes you discover things. Twenty-five books: That's a lot of story ideas.

I have one friend who claims that she has 12 outlines and ideas ready to start at any moment. I don't. it's too depressing to think about that.

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