Whitney Stewart grew up in New England and graduated from Brown University. She published her first award-winning, young adult biography after interviewing the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, the subject of two of her books. She trekked with Sir Edmund Hillary in the Everest region of Nepal; interviewed Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon, Burma; and traveled extensively in Asia to research the lives of Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong, and Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. She is the author of three middle-grade novels and multiple middle-grade nonfiction books, including an unknown tale of Abraham Lincoln and artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter. Her newest picture books include A Catfish Tale, a bayou retelling of the Grimm brothers’ Fisherman and his Wife, and Meditation is an Open Sky: Mindfulness for Kids.
Welcome to Mayra's Secret Bookcase, Whitney! Tell us, do you consider yourself to be a born writer?
I was born with deep intuition, curiosity about people, and a love of story and language. Those are my innate qualities. So, in that sense, yes, I am a born writer. But writing takes talent, discipline, study of the craft, imagination, and patience. I have developed those over the years.
Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes. I started to love writing stories in 4th grade, and submitting to publishers in 10th grade.
Tell us about your recent release. What was your inspiration for it?
I have been meditating since high school. I traveled to Tibet and India when I was in my twenties and learned meditation from Tibetan Buddhist monks. I came home and wanted to teach kids the basics of meditation without religious affilitation.
My new picture book, Meditation is an Open Sky: Mindfulness for Kids, is nondenominational book of simple meditations easy enough for preschoolers and sophisticated enough for adults.
Tell us about your children's books.
I began by publishing young adult biographies of Nobel laureates and adventurers (the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, Sir Edmund Hillary and more). Then I branched out into writing middle grade nonfiction on such subjects as shipwrecks and Abraham Lincoln. Now I am publishing picture books (fiction and nonfiction) for the youngest readers. Last year I published A Catfish Tale, a silly retelling of Grimms’ The Fisherman and His Wife, set in the Louisiana bayou. I am now working on a middle grade novel set in New Orleans and a middle grade nonfiction book about the hunt for a missing German WWII soldier.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? If yes, how did you ‘cure’ it?
Yes, I suffered from a creative block after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans where I live. I was evacuated by helicopter from a rooftop after waiting five days in a flooded building. I had to move away from home for 4 ½ months and spent most of my time filing FEMA papers and insurance claims. After I returned to New Orleans, I could not settle easily into my writing routine. I took a private drawing class for a few months to experiment with another creative outlet. I am not a natural artist, but I loved this class nonetheless. I did charcoal portraits of faces. Then I imagined them in stories, which helped me start writing again. After the class ended, I then wrote and published a children’s novel and two shipwreck books.
Some writers go on long walks, others keep a journal, write at a café, or listen to music. What do you do for inspiration and unleashing your creativity?
I take long walks or a bike ride almost every day. And I travel and research the history of the places where I go. I write nonfiction, so I turn my travels into writing projects. I used to journal when I traveled, but I don’t often do that now. I’m not sure why. However, during my three most recent research journeys, I published an online, eight-part travel series of my adventure.
Describe your working environment.
I work at home in my office library. I am surrounded by windows. I love my office except it has be very noisy when my neighbors on both sides renovated their houses, or when my neighbor’s landscape crew comes through every Monday with leaf-blowers and loud machinery.
Are you a disciplined writer? What is your working style?
Yes, very disciplined. I work every weekday from about 9am or 10am (after exercising) until 5pm or 6pm. I don’t usually write on weekends unless my family is out of town and I have a deadline. I don’t write at night either. I am a morning person.
Do you like to outline and plot ahead, or are you more of a stream-of-consciousness writer?
I wish I did outlines or worked on plot first. I am not good at that. I just plunge right into my story and craft the fiction plot or nonfiction chapter sequence later. I often attempt to plot in advance but give up.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your works?
What are you working on now?
I spent three years on an international hunt for a German WWII soldier (my husband’s uncle) who disappeared from the Russian front after he wrote his last two letters home on January 12, 1945. I was always curious about this man and could not accept that he faded from life without a trace. After Hurricane Katrina, I discovered a box of his war letters in an attic of a flooded house. I went to Germany and Poland three times to follow his last known days. I even worked with a Polish metal detector expert to dig up shrapnel and bones in a former WWII battlefield where my soldier fought. I have learned from the soldier’s letters that he never wanted to fight for the Nazi government and wanted both sides to put down their guns and let the world leaders negotiate peace.
I am now writing a middle grade book that weaves together the soldier’s story with my story to find him. It will be illustrated with drawings, old photographs, and war documents. When I have a solid draft, I will pitch it to publishers.
Where are your books available?
At online and indie bookstores. I did publish a few museum press books that are only available now from these museum stores.
What was your experience in looking for a publisher?
This is always a challenge. It take time, energy, research, and patience. I used to do all of my own submitting. Now I have a literary agent who submits my work to publishers. I recommend having a agent in today’s publishing climate.
What was your experience in working with an illustrator?
Normally, children’s book writers do not get to choose their illustrator. The publisher does that. In those situations, I am often consulted on early drafts of illustrations. I have contributed comments when I see an inaccurancy in a drawing or when something does not match my text. One time an illustrator drew a left-handed guitar player, but my character was right-handed. I caught the mistake that I knew kids would also discover.
I have also sent photos of a setting if the illustrator does not have access to such.
I have been lucky to work with a few friends on illustrations. I did not tell them how or what to draw. But, if they asked for my feedback, I exchanged ideas with them. Illustrators rock! I have deep admiration for them.
What type of book promotion works for you? Any special strategies you’d like to share?
Marketing is not my strong suit. I am shy about promoting my books unless I am invited to give a talk. That’s when I have fun because I love to connect with my readers of any age. I am comfortable talking in public and prepare well for each talk.
I also promote my books on social media, but I prefer to give talks and let my connection with people help sell my books.
What advice would you offer aspiring writers?
Have a thick skin and don’t take things personally. Keep moving forward. Every rejection is only a challenge to revise your story and find another publisher. Also, develop a writing habit and discipline, even if you can only write for an hour a day.
And finally, READ.
Who are your favorite authors?
That’s a tought question, which I answer differently depending on what I have been reading lately. Some of my favorite children’s book writers (not complete list) are: Suzanne Fisher Staples, Sally Rippin, Laurie Halse Anderson, Shaun Tan, Peter Sis, Allen Say, James Cross Giblin, Marcus Zusak, and Susan Campbell Bartoletti.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
What’s your favorite children’s book of all time?
Impossible question. Sorry. That said, The Book Thief and Owl Moon are definitely at the top of my list.
What is the best advice on writing you've ever received?
Revise. Revise. Revise.
We hear again and again that picture books are incredibly difficult to write. Why is that?
I love writing them. But every single word counts, especially now when word counts are way down for picture books. Finding the right pacing, element of humor or poignancy, and plot line is very tricky in 14 double-page spread.
How do you see the future of children’s picture books?
I just read an article, reported by the great Harold Underdown (http://www.underdown.org/) who has his finger on the pulse of children’s book publishing, that sales for children’s books are on the rise and outdid that of adult books in the last quarter. I think the field will survive the digital age. However, nonfiction books seem to be more and more limited. That’s a challenge for me because I love writing nonfiction. I need to rethink the way I write nonfiction so that I can continue to connect with young readers.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
I love communicating with you. Send me questions and book ideas on my website. Invite me to your schools and libraries so we can meet. Find me at @whitneystewart2 or at http://whitneystewart.com/. Or read my travel series about the hunt for a missing German soldier at http://www.travelgumbo.com/blog/finding-reiner-disaster-to-discovery.
And thanks for loving books.