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Reading & Language

Writers’ Roundtable

Each year PBS KIDS is lucky enough to be able to tap a panel of children’s authors and PBS KIDS series writers and creators to judge our finalists in the annual PBS KIDS Writers’ Contest. When we wanted to know a little bit more about creative writing, the creative process and how parents can help encourage their kids to be creative, we reached out to this group of writers and creators with a few questions.

Here’s what Jeff Kinney, author of the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book series; Bob Staake, author of “The Donut Chef,” “Hello Robots” and over 50 other children’s books; Vince Vawter, Newbery Honor-winning author of “Paperboy”; and Jennifer Oxley and Billy Aronson, creators of PBS KIDS’ own “Peg + Cat,” had to say.

PBS KIDS: Thanks so much for agreeing to share your thoughts with us. The first thing we wanted to know is when and how did you start writing? Did you start when you were young?

Billy Aronson: I started when I was about six. I used to make up plays for my little brother and sister and me to act out for our parents. When I was nine I started writing songs; I used to write entire albums, filling notebooks with lyrics.

Bob Staake: I always wrote and drew as a child. This is how I coped with the craziness of life, and the weirder life got, the more I wrote and drew. Today as an adult, that really hasn’t changed.

Vince Vawter: I started when I was young too. I have written ever since I figured out how a typewriter worked when I was six or seven years old. The juvenile poem that appears in “Paperboy” comes from a poem I wrote when I was 11.

Jennifer Oxley: As a kid I wanted to be just like artist Charles Schultz. I cut the Snoopy comics out of the newspaper every week and pasted them into my notebook. Soon I started to create simple comics of my own. This is how I got my start writing, through comics.

Jeff Kinney: I didn’t start writing in earnest until I was an adult, age 28. Before that, I was a newspaper cartoonist…or at least someone who aspired to become one. I started cartooning when I was in the second grade. Then I took about ten years off and picked it back up in college. I’ve always considered myself as more of a failed newspaper cartoonist than a successful writer.

PBS KIDS: Sometimes its hard to get started on a project. That blank page or canvas can be really intimidating. Where do you get your inspiration? 

Jen: I get my inspiration from everywhere. On walks, listening to music, playing with my two-year-old son. When I get an idea, I sketch it out right away. Otherwise the “spark” might disappear.

Billy: Yes. Things that happen to me, things I imagine happening to me, things I read, songs I hear, dreams. Anything that affects me, makes me feel things.

Bob: I try to connect to being a child. I’m inspired by a naive, childlike curiosity that I work hard to keep alive within my soul. With every book I write, I try to imagine a story would appeal to six-year-old Bobby Staake. If I get that right, I usually get the story right.

PBS KIDS: Thinking back to the younger you, what was the best thing your parents did to help you become the writer you are today?

Vince: I was an only child and spent a lot of time by myself due to my speech impediment. I think this helped spur my imagination. My parents also made sure I had plenty of books to read.

Jen: My mom was a part of my start. When I was seven years old I told my mother I wanted to be an animator, somebody who tells stories with pictures. My mom believed me, and went out of her way to find classes for me in animation. I made my first animated film when I was seven.

Bob: My parents fed my interest too. They bought me lots of drawing paper, gave me a cheap typewriter, and let me be alone with my crazy ideas and thoughts in my bedroom. I was so insanely self-motivated that they really didn’t have to “parent” much, and I think they probably appreciated that.

Jeff: My parents modeled hard work for me. My father was very consistent and hardworking. My mother took on a lot, and earned her doctorate while raising a family. Together, they taught me that anything worth having is worth working for.

PBS KIDS: Setting a great example and creating the right environment seem to be so important. Thinking about what you see and hear from young writers, and maybe reflecting on your own process, do you have any advice you share with parents of young writers?

Billy: My advice to parents of young writers is, just expose your kids to things that you love: books, songs, movies, whatever. But beyond that, there’s not a lot you can do. If they’re going to be writers, they’re on a path they’ll have to figure out for themselves.

Vince: It’s also important to build in some “down time,” away from friends and electronic devices. A child can’t explore his or her own feelings if being constantly bombarded by external stimuli.

Jeff: Once their kids are writing, I’d recommend that parents encourage their kids to find people who are willing to evaluate their child’s writing objectively. As a parent, I know how easy it is to overpraise. It’s important to have someone to give honest criticism so that your child can learn and grow.

Jen: Then you can focus on encouraging your kids to shoot for their dreams, and help them make it happen.

PBS KIDS: Even for professional writers, writing, and coming up with new and compelling stories, can be a challenge. What is the most challenging part of the writing process for you? What’s the most fun aspect?

Jeff: For me, the most challenging aspect of writing is to stay fresh. I’m working on my ninth “Wimpy Kid” book now, and sometimes it feels as if I’m paddling in the same waters. So the challenge is to see the world through new eyes and to keep a sense of wonder.

Vince: I find the most fun aspect is getting the first draft into something about which you are excited. I love rewriting because at that point the story takes over and you are almost along for the ride.

Bob: For me, it’s coming up to a dead end in a story, not knowing where to go, then suddenly discovering a path. This is both the most maddening part of writing, and the most rewarding.

Billy: I work on projects that will be performed by someone else, so the hardest thing about writing for me is collaboration. After writing a script or the lyrics for a song, I have to turn over what I’ve written. I have to stay involved in the process, but I also have to allow my collaborators to express themselves in ways I might not have expected. There’s a lot of give and take that I find very challenging.

As far as the most fun part: I enjoy all of it, really. I love writing. I love seeing the results when it all works out. That can be an incredible thrill. In “Jurassic Park” there’s a moment when the scientists see real live dinosaurs for the first time, and are dumbstruck. That’s what it’s like to see your script produced. While writing the script, you believe in the work you’re doing, you might even feel certain that you’ve created something cool. But then to actually SEE IT ALIVE…WOW!

PBS KIDS: Right, the things that are the most challenging can sometimes lead to the most thrilling results. Being able to break through from challenge to fun can often be the result of having a good toolkit of skills. What skills do you think help you most as a writer?

Vince: Because I have always been a reluctant conversationalist, I think I honed my skills as a listener. I can hear distinct voices from 50 years ago like it was yesterday.

Jeff: I think the ability to remember what it was really like to be a kid is what’s helped me the most. I really value the ability to recall specific moments and emotions from my childhood.

Billy: I think a writer’s most important skill has to do with what we call “vision.” You see and feel things in a personal, often unusual way. As a writer, you have to express yourself in a way that’s true to your unique vision. It can be scary, because nobody wants to appear ridiculous or different. But it’s what writing is all about.

Jen: Yes, what’s helped me the most is learning to be true to myself; creating things that I’m passionate about, things that I love.

Bob: And, the ability to find words that rhyme with “orange.” That’s been valuable to me too.

PBS KIDS: What does rhyme with orange? Phalange?

Well, those are all our questions for today. It was so great to get a peek into your creative start and process. Now we just need to spend some time with our kids, noticing the world around us and exercising our creative muscles!

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