Elephants in "fluffy pink tutus and jeweled headbands" dance around a circus ring, trumpeting to "odd harmonies" and accompanied by 50 ballerinas. It sounds a bit like a drug-assisted hallucination, but it's actually the premise of Ballet of the Elephants, the latest picture book authored by Leda Schubert of Plainfield. Amazingly enough, the book is nonfiction. The Circus Polka, choreographed by George Balanchine to music by Igor Stravinsky, had its premiere in 1942 at John Ringling North's Greatest Show on Earth.
Schubert, who is 60, has been a published writer for less than a decade, but she's spent most of her life around books and children. Born in Washington, D.C., she went to Brandeis, earned an M.A. from Harvard's School of Education, and moved to Vermont, the site of a summer camp she'd loved as a child. Here Schubert taught, ran a daycare center, and worked as a librarian. In 1986, she became school library consultant for the Vermont Department of Education, a post she held for the next 17 years.
Kids are the focus of the Burlington Book Festival on Sunday, with presentations and hands-on activities for young readers, and "adult" workshops that address writing for children and motivating them to read. Schubert has experienced all these challenges first-hand.
When Schubert quit her ed job, in 2003, to write, she had already created two easy-readers, Winnie All Day Long and Winnie Plays Ball, for Candlewick Press. A quintessentially Vermont book, Here Comes Darrell, came next, with woodcut illustrations by Mary Azarian. The title character is a "local hero," in Schubert's words, who's always there for his rural neighbors, plowing their driveways, delivering firewood or digging their ponds.
Ballet of the Elephants was researched and written before Here Comes Darrell, shortly after Schubert graduated from Vermont College's MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Published last April, the book has received glowing reviews. In the New York Times Book Review, Jed Perl called Ballet a "playful revelation" and wrote that "Leda Schubert's deft, incisive way of telling the incredible story will set young minds spinning."
Young minds, spinning or not, can find plenty to marvel at in the book, which is evocatively illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. Schubert says the question she answers most often when she reads at schools is "How did they get the tutus on the elephants?"
Schubert has more picture books in the works: Donna and the Robbers, to be published by the Vermont Folklife Center next year, and Feeding the Sheep, due in two years from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She talked to Seven Days on a Saturday in Montpelier, between shopping for veggies at the farmers' market and a Katherine Paterson reading at Bear Pond Books.
SEVEN DAYS: You're scheduled to appear at the Burlington Book Festival this year. What will you be doing?
LEDA SCHUBERT: It may involve tutus and music, I don't know. I'll definitely read from Ballet of the Elephants and Here Comes Darrell. If it's not hot, I'll bring my dog, Winnie, who was the star of my early readers. Everyone is encouraged to come in a tutu!
SD: Why and how did you start writing for kids? Was it linked to your job?
LS: I wanted to write for kids my whole life. It's funny, I just had an old, old friend visiting whom I knew from high school, and we had an afternoon of sitting around and reading my old journals. Even when I was a senior in high school, I was saying, "What I want to do is write for children."
But I wasn't independently wealthy, so I went to work. I was lucky that all of my jobs involved reading to children. I started writing a little bit, but I had no idea what I was doing. I never gave up this dream. And my Winnie books - I was very involved with the Department of Education in early childhood literacy, and what I thought we needed were more trade books for kids that they could buy at the bookstore that would encourage reading, but that were funny and not didactic. And I had this insane dog, so I literally just started watching what she was doing all the time. They got accepted in 1998. I just got more and more convinced that this was what I had to do. I left my job and went back to school.
SD: You went to the Vermont College MFA program. What did that teach you that helped you become a writer?
LS: The single most important thing I learned there is that if you want to write, you actually have to write. Unless you sit down and put, as they say, your butt in the chair, you're not going to achieve anything.
SD: Could you tell the story of how you got the idea for Ballet of the Elephants?
LS: I owe this to my periodontist, whom I familiarly call the Evil Periodontist. I don't watch TV, but I hate flossing. So I was flossing my teeth and watching TV, and they were re-broadcasting this documentary [about George Balanchine] on "American Masters." I only watched it for two minutes, and in one of those minutes they said, "He also choreographed a ballet for elephants." I made a little note next to my bed, where I always keep paper and a pencil, and in the morning I went to work. I just was obsessed. I did all this research basically from home, and we have a dial-up connection, so it took forever.
SD: How did you pare all the information down into a story for kids?
LS: Thirty drafts. When I first heard this story, I got a sentence in my head, and that sentence was something like: "George Balanchine loved to dance, and he loved to tell other people how to dance, even elephants." So it came out in this very short style - I call it lineated prose.
SD: How did you come up with the idea for Here Comes Darrell?
LS: Darrell Farnham was a real person. For many, many years he plowed my driveway, delivered firewood. He got very sick, stomach cancer, and we went to visit him. He said this amazing thing to me - and I can finally say this without crying - he said when he got up and there was a snowstorm, he knew he had to plow me out first, 'cause I had to get to work early. And I had this sense of this person, who, in the middle of the night, while I was cozy under my quilts and sleeping away, was out there plowing driveways for people, so they could get to work early. Not so he could make money, but because he cared. Unfortunately, he died before he could see the book. I've heard from readers that there are other places in the country that have Darrells, which is a good thing to know.
SD: You mention in another interview that your agent advised you to move out of the picture book market. Why? Do you have plans to write for a different age group?
LS: With deference to my agent, I will write what I need to write. His point, which is a valid one, is that the picture book market is flat right now. Young adult books are hot. It's all a matter of demographics. For a long time, there were too many picture books published, and the market was saturated. I've finished a middle-grade novel, which is circulating [among publishers].
SD: Have you seen a trend toward nonfiction picture books? If so, what do you think is behind it?
LS: Nonfiction is apparently pretty successful right now. There're a lot of picture biographies, science books. The standards are so high. They're trying to appeal to both boys and girls, and there's some research that shows boys prefer nonfiction. I also think people like to write it, because research is a really great way of avoiding writing!
SD: Do you remember how you learned to read? How has teaching changed since then?
LS: I don't remember not reading ever. I went to elementary school in the '50s, and I think there was an assumption that most people would learn to read and that they would learn using Dick and Jane. Now, there's so much more individual attention to each child, to how that child would learn best. There is a resistant 20 percent of students that have trouble learning to read. I believe that if you put the other 80 percent in a room with a lot of books, eventually they will learn to read no matter what you do. It's reaching that 20 percent that's the challenge.
I have not been in the public school system since leaving the department three years ago, which doesn't seem very long. But since that time, No Child Left Behind has been fully implemented, and I'm not sure that we're going in the right direction. There's so much scripted teaching of reading, which terrifies me. Teachers have to teach a certain structured program using a series of textbooks. It does achieve higher scores in the short run. Whether it makes readers or not . . . you'd have to show me the evidence. For me, the big concern is not "Can they decipher a word?" but "Can they make meaning? Do they like to read?" And you're not going to get that without the story. Story is going to make that happen.
SD: I was reading a story in a recent New Yorker about how they were trying to make a school cafeteria healthier, but the kids didn't want to eat their vegetables. It seems almost like reading is similar for some kids. Do you agree?
LS: Absolutely. One of the things she said in that article, which was so interesting, is that a child's food tastes are set by age 4 or 5, and it's a struggle afterward to change that. I think if you look at early childhood reading that way, if they don't have a sense of story, if they haven't been read to, if they haven't engaged in language play, if they haven't sung songs and done Mother Goose rhymes and all of those things, there's a certain point at which it's going to be increasingly difficult for them to do it.
SD: You've worked with college students at UVM and St. Michael's. Many professors say their incoming students are more poorly read than ever before. Do you have this impression?
LS: I'm not an optimist. Katherine Paterson says that if you write for children, you have hope. There's something to that. But . . . we're not a country that values intelligence. We elected a president who is not what I would call an intellect. We don't support the intellect, we don't support books, we don't support conversation. On the other hand, the SAT scores are up!
Children's Writing & Reading at the Book Fest
All events Sunday, September 17, at ECHO.
LEDA SCHUBERT 11 a.m. - noon, Patio.
HARRY BLISS 11 a.m. - noon, Community Room.
WRITING FOR YOUNG READERS 11 a.m. - noon, Café.
ELIZABETH WINTHROP 12:30-1:30 p.m., Community Room.
WRITING FOR TEENS 12:30-1:30 p.m., Café.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE 12:30-1:30 p.m., Patio.
'A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR A GIRL' 2-3 p.m., Community Room.
TIMOTHY ERING 2-3 p.m., Café.
CINDY POST SENNING 2-3 p.m., Patio.
BUILDING BLOCKS OF LITERACY 3:30-5 p.m., Community Room.