Friday, March 20, 2009

Interview with Robert Shlasko, author of Molly and the Sword


The children’s book, Molly and the Sword, tells of a young girl who, with the help of a mysterious horseman, overcomes obstacles on the road to success as a violinist. It has garnered rave reviews from music and education magazines. Here to talk about the book is author Robert Shlasko.

Thanks for this interview, Robert. I understand this is your first book.

Yes, but I’ve been a writer all my working life -- science, international trade, business, speeches … pretty much any sort of writing where I could make a living.

Anything for children?

Some -- when my own children were young. Fiction and non-fiction. For example, my articles on chess appeared in a leading children’s magazine.

So where did the idea for Molly and the Sword come from?

It started as an incident that had happened to my mother in the first World War. I moved the story back about a century. Then, to advance the plot, I added the violin since that was the instrument my son played. Curiously, after the book came out, I met a woman who told of a similar incident that happened to her grandmother.

Art imitating life and life imitating art.

That’s what I tell the students when I read in the schools.

Do you visit schools often?

Every chance I get. I’ve read in private and public schools, at a Montessori school, at a United Nations school. In two weeks I’m returning for my third visit to an elementary school in a multi-ethnic section of Queens, New York.

What ages are the students?

I’ve read in everything from the first to the fifth grade. As you can imagine, the discussions get a lot more sophisticated in the upper grades. But each level brings its own questions and its own pleasures for me. I say the book’s for ages 7-12 – although I know that’s a big range.

Yes, I read one reviewer who even stretched that age range a bit.

Both up and down. In fact, I get letters from adults who respond to the story. A 25-year-old violinist in the Iraqi National Symphony wrote that she uses the book as a defense against stage fright. And I’ve received notes from adult men who’ve admitted to shedding tears at the emotions raised in the story. Yet there’s nothing depressing or frightening in the plot. I find it surprising that, if anything, fathers seem to react more emotionally than anyone to the story.

Yet the book is dedicated to “brave girls.”

Yes, but boys really respond to it too. One fourth-grade boy who’d come from India wrote that he would “tell my sisters to be brave like Molly.” And at another school reading, a third-grade boy handed me a piece of garnet he’d collected with his father and ran off before I could give it back. As you can imagine, the dedication to girls raises lots of discussions during my school visits.

What other subjects do the children raise in the schools?

I’m usually with a group of students for about an hour. After I’ve read, I let the children move the discussion in any direction that want. It varies widely. The major themes in the book are having confidence in yourself, how courage shows itself in many ways not just in fighting, and the idea that enemies can become friends. About that last point: I try to tie it to how they relate to schoolmates they may not get along with. And in almost every session something unexpected comes up.

Such as?

Well, at the very beginning of the book I mention that Molly’s mother was pregnant. At a Montessori school in South Carolina a young girl wanted to know what happened to the baby. I reassured her that mother and child were doing well. Whatever the questions, we manage to touch on their own writing and its importance to their futures.

So you do discuss writing per se?

Absolutely. It often comes up in the context of having confidence in yourself. I tell of writers they’ve read who had the courage to go on even after receiving one rejection after another. Of course, that applies to musicians too.

I notice you have many of the letters, from all over the world, on your website.

Yes, plus items on education, violins and music in general. In fact, this interview may push me into updating the site with fresh items sitting on my desk. Not every letter gets on the site. For example I haven’t yet posted a wonderful letter from a 10-year-old girl in Canada who ask why Molly’s violin didn’t have a chin rest like hers did.

That sounds like a good question.

Indeed. I explained that before my artist started working on the book, I checked with an expert on violins at the music department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York. He sent me an article on the invention of the chin rest in the early 1800s. So we felt comfortable leaving it out of the illustrations. This research led to more information on music history, and into women in that history, which finds its way on to the website and into my class readings.

Do you play an instrument?

Alas no -- thus far! But two of my grandchildren play the violin and one plays the cello. And all play the piano.

Whether you play or not, your book is in many performing arts centers.

Fortunately yes. I dropped it off at a concert hall gift store in New York and it just spread out from there. It’s at the gift shops of Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center in Washington, the Boston Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony and so on all across the country.

How about retail outlets?

Music stores carry it and it’s available on order from the bookstores and the usual suspects – Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other websites. But as a first-time author/publisher, I made many early mistakes that hurt distribution – especially with the general bookstores.

As opposed to music bookstores?

Exactly. But as you pointed out in your terrific review, the book is not just for violinists or other musicians, it’s for all children. That’s what I aimed for when I started writing the book. And the reaction in the classrooms confirm this.

Yet limited distribution must have hurt your income.

Indeed. In fact, last year a girl asked if I arrived at her school in my limousine. I guess they all know of J.K. Rowlings. But I had to tell the class that I arrived by subway and, in fact, don’t own a car. Still, putting out the book has been a great experience – especially the interactions with schools, the music world, publishing and parents all over the world.

Do you have other writing projects in the works?

A painful question. Actually, I have a number of manuscripts: another children’s book, an adult mystery, a play and a teenage adventure story -- all waiting for final editing. Again, your interview may push me into action.

Thanks for the interview and good luck with your book!

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1 comment:

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