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Mary Brigid Barrett is an award-winning children’s book author and illustrator, a professional educator and president and executive director of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. Her latest book is “Shoebox Sam” (Zonderkidz). She is also editor of the NCBLA publication “Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out,” a read-aloud family anthology of prose, poetry, drama, nonfiction and art that promotes reading and historical literacy. All profits for “Our White House” support the work and programs of the NCBLA. Barrett is also the organizer of the Library of Congress’ chapter book called “The Exquisite Corpse Adventure,” available on Read.gov.

Previous National Book Festival Appearances

The Scoop

From the 2009 National Book Festival

You are organizing the new chapter book – The Exquisite Corpse – that makes its debut at the 2009 Festival and on read.gov (launching Sept. 26, 2009). Can you tell us more about this project? Where did the idea come from? Who will be participating?

Wonderful John Cole at the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress wanted to come up with a reading outreach project for the new read.gov LOC website and he asked me to join his talented staff on a brainstorming session. Rather than asking one children’s author to write an episodic story to be published electronically, I thought it might be more interesting to assemble a “motley crew” of authors and illustrators to play a story game online. The game I had in mind is the same story game that many kids and adults play at home, on car trips, at camp, at parties, in the dark when there is a power outage, at any number of social events and happenings! It goes by many names—Cliffhangers, Consequences, The Exquisite Corpse, etc. It is a game where one person begins a story, stops at a cliffhanging moment, and the next person picks it up and continues, and so on, until everyone in the group has the opportunity to contribute. It’s great fun!

Progressive story games, like The Exquisite Corpse Adventure, can be played as an oral storytelling tradition, or in a written form, or even in a visual form as a drawing game. However the game is played out, its trademark elements are spontaneity, humor, bigger-than-life characters, and wild and wily plot threads, some of which inevitably remain unresolved!

Because I am a teacher, as well as a writer and illustrator, I wanted to bring together a wide variety of writers and illustrators to play this story game—the story itself would then be much more vibrant and entertaining. And because the companion educational resources that the NCBLA is co-creating and coordinating with a number of its partners, can then encompass all kinds of reading suggestions and writing activities.

Members of The Exquisite Corpse Adventure “motley crew” are, in reality, some of the most gifted artists and storytellers in our nation, award-winners all— M.T. Anderson, Natalie Babbitt, Calef Brown, Susan Cooper, Kate Di Camillo, Timothy Basil Ering, Nikki Grimes, Shannon Hale, Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket, Steven Kellogg, Gregory Maguire, Megan McDonald, Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, Linda Sue Park, Katherine Paterson, James Ransome, Jon Scieszka, and Chris Van Dusen.

This amazing team of writers and illustrators is making an extraordinary gift, donating their time and talent, and working on extremely tight deadlines. Why are they doing this? Because they know that reading hilarious stories on the internet—and even more, reading great books-- can be just as much fun as playing baseball, going to the movies, watching TV. They know that riveting stories offer a healthy escape where kids can get lost in whole new worlds. They believe what the NCBLA believes—that all young people must have equal access to exciting and interesting books and information sources that invite them to dream and give them the tools to achieve their dreams. And like the NCBLA they love the Library of Congress and the Library of Congress’ web site and want kids to know it and love it, too!

It has been a year now since Our White House was published. What kind of response have you had from the reading community?

We are delighted by the overwhelming compliments and praise that Our White House has received from young people and their families, teachers, children’s book aficionados, history buffs, and school and public librarians!

Before Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out was published, I tried to explain our vision for the book—that it would promote literacy and historical literacy; that it could be read and enjoyed by young people and adults; that it would be equally at home on a family’s living room coffee table, on a school desk, or library shelf; that it would be overflowing with poetry, incredible art, nonfiction, historical fiction, and primary source accounts! There were many people who just could not visualize a book that could do all those things. But it does!

And looking over all the generous reviews and awards that Our White House has received this past year—it seems that people think it does it all very well! Our White House has been named a “Best Book” or “Notable Book” of the year by the American Library Association, The Horn Book Magazine, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, the National Council for Social Studies, the Parents’ Choice Foundation, the International Reading Association, and Amazon.com. The NCBLA is very proud that Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out has been given a 2009-2010 National Endowment for the Humanities We the People “Picturing America” Bookshelf Award!! And The New York Times Book Review Editor Sam Tanenhaus—who is also a well-known historian—featured Our White House as one of the “Ten Best Gift Books” of 2008- 2009 on the Martha Stewart Show. We are also thrilled that the Our White House companion educational web site has recently been named one of the American Library Association’s Great Web Sites for Kids!

So many compliments from so many sources! But I have to say that my favorite memory this year concerns a school we mention in the “Acknowledgements” section at the beginning of Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out. I have been the author and artist-in-residence at East Elementary Alternative Public School in Sharon, Massachusetts for over a decade. When I first came up with the idea for Our White House, I talked to all the kids and teachers at East Elementary to find out what interested them about the White House and American History—what were they most curious about? Their answers influenced my thinking on the book. It was a delight to be able to show them the book as it developed and to see their enthusiastic reactions to the finished book. That memory energizes me still!

Can you tell us about any literary projects that you will be involved with during the coming year?

I am deep into writing my very first novel, a young adult novel, for Candlewick Press. I have a picture book, Shoebox Sam, coming out with Zondervan Publishing, a division of HarperCollins, hopefully next year! I have also recently completed a new picture book manuscript that takes place in Rome, and I have extensive notes, sketches, and pages on a middle grade novella that takes place in Paris in the Post- Impressionist era.

On the NCBLA front, my assistant Geri Eddins and I will be making sure The Exquisite Corpse Adventure stays on track throughout this year and next! And we will continue to expand the NCBLA’s Exquisite Corpse educational resource center web pages which everyone can find on the thencbla.org website!

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From the 2008 National Book Festival

You are editor of the NCBLA publication, Our White House: Looking in and Looking Out. Can you tell us how you got involved in this project?

I got involved in the project because it was my idea. A few years ago, I met historian David McCullough and his wife Rosalee for lunch at the old Ritz Carleton in Boston. David talked about how our founding fathers and mothers – John and Abigail Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson— believed that if a democracy is to survive and thrive it must have literate, educated citizenry. And he also raised my awareness of the connection between literacy, historical literacy, and citizen activism.

Because of my work as a literacy and library advocate, I have had the opportunity to visit the White House. You do begin to wonder about the people who trod its halls, who ate and slept, danced and cried, worried and rejoiced in its rooms. Walking through the White House reminded me of the first time I walked through main reading room and the halls of the Cleveland Public Library when I was a kid, experiencing feelings of awe and amazement that this building was my building; that I had the right to all the knowledge it held within its walls.

I felt the same way walking through the main floor of the White House: that it’s my house, your house—that it is our house. I wanted to bring home to my own three children a book about the White House that not only told the history of the house, but also inspired a sense of excitement and wonder. I could not find that book anywhere.

Those two experiences— lunch with the McCulloughs and visits to the White House—were the inspiration for Our White House. I presented this crazy idea to the talented board of the Nation Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance. They not only embraced the idea, they committed their own extraordinary talents to its creative evolution. After doing initial research, I wrote a proposal for the book, and to the NCBLA’s ongoing delight, Candlewick Press won the bid to be our publisher. Our White House is a remarkable collaboration that combines the talents of 108 renowned contributors and their invaluable gifts of art, poetry and prose with the talents of the incredible editing and design teams of Candlewick Press. It is our hope that we have created a book that ignites young people’s interest in our nation’s past, provoking them to thoughtfully consider our future.

What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?

As the president of a national literacy organization for young people and a writer and artist who frequently works with kids in schools, the biggest personal challenge I have is finding time to write.

The challenges I faced in writing my story for Our White House were both internal and external. My fellow editors suggested I write a piece about the building of the White House, one that mentioned the design competition for the house, the state of the new Federal City, the actual construction, and a goodly mention of the historical personalities involved. Because I knew I had learned more about history reading good historical fiction rather than school textbooks, I wanted to create a viable story with full-bodied characters. The challenge I gave myself was to convey all the essential historical information and create a moving story all within a very pages.

What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing/illustrating?

For young people interested in writing:

Read. Read everything—great stories and books, fiction and nonfiction, comics, newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs, the backs of cereal boxes. And write, try your hand at everything—journals and diaries, poetry, essays, song lyrics, stories.

Use strong words; write with nouns and verbs, the more specific the better. Forget adverbs and use adjectives sparingly because nouns and verbs convey the strongest visuals and also convey a sense of wonder. For example, think about the sentence—She walked into the room. —it doesn’t tell you very much. Now change the verb —

  • She ran into the room.
  • She ambled into the room.
  • She raced into the room.
  • She rolled into the room.
  • She slithered into the room.
  • She glided into the room.
  • She skipped into the room.

Each change of verb not only gives the reader a different visual, it also stimulates a sense of wonder and curiosity—why is she racing into the room? What must she look like if she rolled into the room? Think how the visual changes when the noun in the last sentence is changed—Grandpa skipped into the room! The emotional content of the sentence is heightened with the change of one noun.

For young people who are artists:

Keep a sketchbook and draw every day. Draw your house, your family, your friends, your neighborhood, your town or city. Draw your dreams. Go to art museums and look and look and look, and sketch, and look some more. Find the art section in your neighborhood library and pour through books about artists and their work. Find other kids who are interested in art and form a club and share your work. And don’t just try to draw something realistically; try to draw what you think or feel about the thing you are drawing; draw your experience, from your perspective.

Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?

Write about the day that is different. Anne of Green Gables begins on the day that the wrong orphan arrives. Fern is the first one up in the morning on the day her father is about to kill runt pig; Charlotte’s Web begins on that gruesomely exciting different day. Harry Potter’s story truly begins when he receives a letter delivered by an owl inviting him to Hogwarts; not your normal day. Think about your favorite stories, I bet you they start on the “different” day, the day when something out of the ordinary happens.

What is your list of favorite children or teen books?

Some of my old childhood and young adult favorites:

  • The Story of Ferdinand
  • Caps for Sale
  • Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel
  • Lentil
  • Winnie-the-Pooh
  • Ben and Me
  • Charlotte’s Web
  • Caddie Woodlawn
  • Mary Poppins
  • The Borrowers
  • The Little Princess
  • Little Women
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Mrs. Mike
  • I Capture the Castle
  • Saratoga Trunk
  • The Once and Future King
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  • The Chosen
  • My Name is Asher Lev
  • The Color Purple

What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?

Read and sing and talk to your baby. Read and sing and talk to your toddler. Read and sing and talk to your preschooler, your elementary child, your tween, your teen.

Many parents stop reading aloud to their kids when they perceive that their children have become independent readers—don’t stop! Reading skill levels start to drop around third or fourth grade. I believe one of the reasons that occurs is because parents often stop spending time reading with their kids. Never underestimate the importance of your active presence in your child’s life. You’re dispensable in every role you play except one—the role of parent to your children. And take your kids to the library as often as you can. Your neighborhood library should feel like a second home to your child.

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Shoebox Sam

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The Exquisite Corpse Adventure

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Our White House

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