Annie Barrows is the author of the Ivy and Bean children’s series, which has sold over 2 million copies, as well as of THE MAGIC HALF. She is also the co-author, with her aunt, Mary Ann Shaffer, of THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY. You’ve described the creation of your precocious protagonists Ivy and Bean as like making a cake. Can you explain what you mean by that?
I always find that making a character is like making a cake. Even if I think that Character X is going to be the spitting image of Real Person Q, there is never a one-to-one correlation because reality is awfully inconvenient and because real people are so very odd that Character X would be dismissed by readers as unbelievable. So I end up adding extra traits and habits, like ingredients, until Character X no longer resembles Real Person Q at all but does resemble a person who might be real.
When I began to write about Ivy, for example, I thought she would be a lot like one of my daughters. And she is like my daughter in her interests and the way she dresses. But then I ran across a kid whose manner of enacting her ideas I found totally hilarious, so I used that kid to make Ivy, too. And Ivy’s trepidation about hurting herself is an altogether separate ingredient.
However, once the ingredients are mixed into the cake batter, they are no longer removable; they become a whole, a cake, that exists as itself. In the same way, Ivy is now—in my mind, at least—a person who has impulses and ideas and wishes of her own that none of her sources would ever have. She’s her own cake. You’ve said that your earliest attempts at writing consisted of mimicking your favorite books; how did you discover your own voice, and at what age did this happen?
No one could ever accuse me of being a quick learner. It takes me an appalling amount of time to figure anything out. I finally learned how to write essays while I was writing the very last
paper of my undergraduate career. I was an editor for fifteen years
before I realized that I could write myself.
I started writing in my early thirties, and the voice I developed at that point, which I sort of shamefacedly acknowledge as persisting in my current work, was probably created in opposition to the very sensitive and serious writers I encountered while getting my MFA. They were mostly young and poetic, and I was mostly middle-aged and impatient, and I think that’s why I write the way I do. On your website, you write, “I was terrible at spelling. Grownups were always talking about it, acting surprised that I was such a terrible speller. ‘She’s such a good reader! How can she not spell?’” What was the disconnect for you between reading and spelling?
I’m still a terrible speller. I’m better than I used to be, but I’m still terrible.
To me, there’s no relationship between reading and spelling, for two reasons. First reason: I read really fast. The more I like a book, the faster I read it. So I read most words the way people read the names in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: the hero is Ras[blur]. I never actually see the whole word.
Second reason: I don’t care. When I’m reading something good, all I care about is getting more more more
. While we’re on the topic of spelling, I’d like to report that I’ve recently come to the conclusion that it’s not my fault that I’m a bad speller. The truth is that English is completely ridiculous. Watch this: Won. One. Have you ever seen anything so confusing in your life? Your Ivy + Bean chapter books are aimed at an age group that you’ve described as being at the “pinnacle of life” and imagination (7 year olds, specifically). Why do you feel so strongly about writing stories for young people at this stage of life?
I really like seven-year-olds a lot. They are young enough to have full access to their imaginations and old enough not to hurt themselves enacting their ideas. They generally are interested in the project of reading and in stories. They aren’t yet jaded or beguiled by defiance.
Also, they’re funny. Given all these wonderful aspects of the seven-year-old character, it’s odd that there are so few books for them. I don’t get it, but I want to fix it. The short explanations of your books that you provide on your site reveal that you infuse many of your own fascinations into your writing. How do you communicate your sense of awe while keeping the language at a level that is accessible to a seven year old?
Easy—I don’t understand any of the things I write about. Notice that the subjects that crop up in Ivy and Bean books are things like marine biology, paleontology, climate change, world records, economics, bugs, and ballet. I have expertise in none of those subjects, so the tone of awe is genuine, and as for the language, I write for my own level of comprehension (low).
I think I’d have a lot more problems if I wrote about subjects in which I had some expertise. Luckily, there are only about four of them, and nobody wants to hear anything about of them.
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