I used to teach at a school very close to our local military base entrance. Frankly, there need to be more books like today’s picture book if every child is to see themselves in a book.
Gretchen McLellan is the daughter of a soldier and veteran of three wars. She is a former elementary reading specialist who devotes herself to writing for children in a variety of genres. Her books include Mrs. McBee Leaves Room 3, I’m Done!, Button and Bundle, and No Party Poopers! McLellan lives with her family in Washington. When Your Daddy’s a Soldier is dedicated to military brats everywhere. You can learn more about her at her website.
WHEN YOUR DADDY IS A SOLDIER is cleverly told in first AND second person point of view (a point of view that is SO very rarely seen!). Here a little boy talks about his personal experience, but the “you” softens some of the struggles when daddy is deployed. This book is a brilliant look at military life and how it impacts military families in all sorts of ways. I suspect this book will win awards and be highly sought after to talk about this particular experience (especially in military schools!). You won’t want to miss it.
Me: You were a teacher, as well as a reading specialist, and now full-time writer. What draws you to writing picture books?
Gretchen: LOVE! I love this genre. I love the dance of words and images and am deeply grateful that I’ve been able to write stories that have gone on to be illustrated. I also love the challenges of writing this genre that must speak to humans of all ages. I love the spell that reading aloud spins, the quiet when children are immersed in a story, imagining themselves in the world of the book, seeing themselves in their own too or entering another with heart, wonder and astonishment. I love the power of the picture book to create compassion, community and hope, as well as laughter and joy.
Me: You now have several picture books published. What does your writing process look like? How have you been so successful?
Gretchen: I’m pretty much a very messy pantser, whether I’m writing picture books or novels. My picture books usually arrive whole, which is not to say that they don’t need revision. They need a lot! I’m terribly wordy. Sometimes I have been thinking about writing a book about a phrase, like “I’m done!” and when I sit down to write, the story emerges beginning, middle and end. Others I’m thinking about a subject, a teacher leaving a school, xenophobia, stereotyping, and stories appear. Still others I’m mining my memories and creating stories around issues very important to me as a child such as saying good-bye to friends. As an army brat I had to do a lot of that.
Me: This book’s subject is tricky and tough, but you wrote it so well! And the first person point of view is perfect. What gave you the idea to write this story in this way?
Gretchen: Years before I wrote my story, I’d been playing with my own take on WHEN I WAS YOUNG IN THE MOUNTAINS, by Cynthia Rylant, which I called WHEN I WAS YOUNG IN THE ARMY. Rylant’s book about her childhood was securely rooted in place and time. My childhood was the episodic life of a “modern nomad.” I’d moved seven times and attended six schools on two continents by the time I was in 6th grade. I’d been collecting images I hoped were as specific as Rylant’s. “When I was young in the mountains, Grandfather came home in the evening covered with the black dust of a coal mine. Only his lips were clean, and he used them to kiss the top of my head.”
After the US invaded Iraq my heart was torn thinking about all the children who were having to say good-bye to their mothers and fathers. As a daughter of a veteran, I wanted to write an intimate book that expressed the range of often private emotions that one child felt. First person was the only choice for that kind of honesty. The character is an amalgam of so many children I have known. Of course, one child cannot speak for every child whose parent is deployed, but I’ve vetted my story with sensitivity readers to trust that his voice is authentic.
When I sat down on Veterans Day 2003 to write, the title WHEN YOUR DADDY’S A SOLDIER emerged with many of the images I’d been collecting and that story is much like this story that was published almost 20 years later.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Gretchen: How it struck listeners and readers so deeply regardless of their backgrounds or political persuasions that most cried.
Me: I love that. The illustrations by E.G. Keller are perfect. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Gretchen: I try to write intentionally leaving room for the illustrator to co-create the story with me. I’ve learned to trust that gifts will come that I couldn’t have asked for or imagined. For example, in this story I’d written that the little boy has a fort. EG Keller drew it as a tree fort. Keller’s fort was the perfect place for our characters, because it was big enough for both the boy and his father. When the boy is crying, his father climbs up into the tree fort to comfort him. This deeply moving scene is one of my favorite illustrations in the book.
Even though I’d love to talk to my illustrators at times, I am grateful for the process of making picture books that gives illustrators the space to allow this kind of beauty to arise. I always learn from my illustrators about each story I’ve written.
Me: That is one of my favorite scenes too. Any advice for new picture book writers?
Gretchen: Enjoy the process. Play. Experiment. Leave surprises for your illustrators. In MRS. MCBEE LEAVES ROOM 3 I wrote them into the story—I gave the teacher a bag with undisclosed surprises for the class. I had lots of ideas about what might be in there, but this was a gift to the illustrator to create part of the story herself. Grace Zong totally surprised me with what she tucked inside that bag and it made the unexpected inevitable perfect ending.
Join the picture book community through organizations and events like Storystorm in January, 12×12, and SCBWI. And of course, read, read, read.
Me: You moved a LOT with your own military family as a child. What was your favorite city or country you visited when you were growing up?
Gretchen: I have superlaphobia—my own word for my avoidance of answering any question with a superlative in it. I can’t choose a favorite anything! Every place I lived offered something new and exciting to explore. I was lucky to have an adventurous spirit and loved to travel, so I had a childhood full of multicultural riches both in the US and abroad. I loved the many years I lived in Germany.
So many great answers here. Thank you for stopping by my blog Gretchen.
Dear readers, this book is released into the world next Tuesday. Be sure to track down a copy to read. You too will be impressed by the way this tough subject matter is handled in both text and illustrations. This is definitely a book to study!