Author and illustrator Patricia Polacco visited our school recently. She is amazing! She has written and illustrated more than 115 books for children and didn't become an author until age 41.
When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
When you come from a family who loves to tell stories, you’re doomed. You are going to be a storyteller. The writing was a surprise and came when I was 41.
What book was your favorite to write?
That’s like asking me which one of my children I love the most. Each time I’m writing a book it’s an adventure that comes from the heart. You have to be on fire about it or you won’t do it. But whether I prefer one over another, not really. I know these days I like looking at books where I’ve done drawings of people from my family who are no longer living. And I look at those drawings and my heart sinks because there they are.
How long does it take to write a book?
That varies. If a book is a long book, my part of the book takes about four or five months. It takes some time because of my learning disabilities. I have failure sensory integration, so when I’m thinking, I’m usually rocking. And I have to move or my mind won’t work. I have rocking chairs in every room in my house. And I have little pieces of paper next to it, and I’m jotting as I’m rocking. Thinking of things. I take all of those little papers and eventually they will end up in a pile, and I type on a typewriter because I can’t see the cursor, which is apparently essential if you are going to use a computer.
That will take me about a month. Then I take that and send it to my editor, who is the same as your teacher. She will send it back to me covered in red marks. Those are called corrections ... where I should change the story, where I have misspelled, used incorrect grammar. My advice is to not think about any of that. Just get it down on the paper. We send the writing back and forth until the red marks disappear. That can be another month.
Then I have to do what’s called a rough dummy, which is a black and white version of the book as you see it. And the drawings are in pencil and I take the typewritten text and glue them onto the pages. I then send that to my art director who is also my teacher. She will send that back to me and I have to do it over again and we send it back and forth until those corrections disappear, and that can take another month or two months.
Then finally, I use a light box to make the color finishes. They don’t take me as long, maybe two weeks to do. And then all of that gets wrapped up and sent to New York and they then wrap it up and send it to China. All color books are printed in China. Once the books are printed, they bind them and put them on a ship and ship them back her to New York. They go via the Panama Canal. They don’t fly them here, they send them on a ship. That will take another few months. From the time I am thinking of a book, until you can see it completed, almost two years have gone by. It’s quite a process.
When you are writing do you need to be in a private space or can you write anywhere?
Well, when I’m writing, my typewriter is in a little office that is across from my bedroom. I always have the television going, because I like the din and the noise. If I’ve got people over, if I’m drawing, I can have a room full of people. When I’m writing, not so much.
Does a big ego help you as a writer?
Well, you do have to be egotistical in that your writing, you’ve got be sure of it. Most writers, including myself, belong to a society of children’s book writers and illustrators. Here’s where you need an ego. If too many people give you too many ideas, you are going to get confused. So an ego has to be place so you can say, “No, this is how I meant the story to be and I’m not going to change it.”
Do you use your imagination to write some of your stories?
My imagination is going all of the time. On my train ride here, and it was coming down the Hudson River and it was just magical. I’m thinking of things and sometimes I will have a pen and paper and jot down things. I didn’t have pencil. I didn’t have a piece of paper and I could hear it in my mind. So I picked up paper bags that were on the floor. I asked a fellow traveler, “Can I borrow a pencil?” and I just started writing. Because when you’re hearing it, you’ve got to get it down or it’s lost. My mind is going all the time and I’m inspired by exactly the same things you are.
Bonnie Downs and Allison Whittle’s writers club, Tuckahoe School, Southampton