I came across Larry Brimner’s children’s books when he reblogged one of my interviews with another author. I love discovering authors I had not yet heard of. I also love to support other authors and I was impressed with Larry’s published works. So join me in learning about this talented author.
CAROL GORDON EKSTER: You’ve had many, many books published, a combination of nonfiction and fiction. Do you prefer working on one type of genre more than others?
LARRY DANE BRIMNER: Picture books are my first love. The brevity and poetry of language and the tightness of structure has always been appealing to me. To my way of thinking, the picture book, if well written, is the epitome of fine storytelling, of fine writing. It is a lot like word play, and I like word play.
I like the notion that a writer can pack so much into 32-pages, and sometimes even fewer pages than that. That said, I also am drawn to real stories and enjoy the challenge of trying to apply the techniques of fiction writing to real events and the lives of real characters. The picture book (or novel) involves creating a world from scratch, while nonfiction gives a factual world to the writer that he/she must then craft (or structure) in such a way as to be appealing and pleasing to readers.
Because much of my nonfiction is so research intensive (sometimes taking two to two and one-half years to research and write), I like to take a break from it after every second book or so to “play” with a picture book.
CGE: How did you journey into becoming an author? Can you share some of the highs and lows of your career?
LDB: Sometimes when I speak to writers, I like to mention the two and one-half Xerox boxes full of rejections I collected while trying to break into the children’s book market. Mind you, my poetry was first published while I was in college in poetry journals and I quickly followed this with nonfiction articles in magazines and newspapers. During this time, I wrote about everything from doing the laundry (a poem) to driving in Baja California (a magazine piece) to how to keep your home safe while on vacation (a syndicated newspaper piece). These successes in the adult world of poetry, magazines, and newspapers, although not in my chosen genre, gave me the stamina to keep trying to break in to children’s books. That break came when the late Frank Sloan, an editor at Franklin Watts whom I knew through SCBW (no “I” in those days), encouraged me to submit some nonfiction to him. I actually blew him off for a couple of years because I really wanted to create picture books. Then in the days following one of those SCBW August conferences and once again having shared a lunch with Frank, I returned home to see some tweens performing bicycle stunts in my driveway. It was as if a light bulb went off (finally) and I thought, This is a nonfiction children’s book idea. I sent Frank a one-page query to ask if he’d be interested in looking at the manuscript once I’d written it. He phoned a short while later—a short while in those days was about three weeks—and offered me a contract on the as-yet unwritten book, which about nine months later was published as BMX Freestyle, a best-selling title for Franklin Watts. In those days I think editors had the luxury of being far more loyal to their writers than they do today. Frank acquired my second book, also a sports title, and then suggested a third sports title to me.
When Watts opened Orchard Books as a picture book house, he suggested I send some of my manuscripts to the editorial director at this new imprint. This I did, picking up two more rejections to put into those Xerox boxes, but with the third picture book manuscript, the editor phoned to say, “I’d like to discuss Country Bear’s Good Neighbor with you.” I was on my way, and have been gainfully unemployed (i.e., a freelancer) ever since.
The lowest of the lows came from Harper & Row in the days before it was HarperCollins. I had submitted a picture book manuscript to an editor there who responded with a note asking if she might keep it a while longer. The note began “Dear Larry.” Several months later, the editor phoned to indicate they were seriously considering it for publication, but needed a bit more time. After many, many months I received a form rejection that began “Dear Writer.” I was so devastated that the form rejection came without a scribbled note or even a coffee stain that I went to bed for four days and was tempted to kill myself, or at the very least quit writing. The only problem with either strategy, though, is that 1) I’m not a quitter and 2) I very much am possessed of an I’ll-show-you attitude. I know editors and reviewers like to say they’re rejecting the work and not the author but this is a bunch of hooey because, unless he/she is a total hack, the writer has poured an awful lot of blood, sweat, and tears into each and every manuscript. OF COUSE IT IS A REJECTION OF THE WRITER. There is no way for it to be otherwise. But my advice is to be resilient, even when it hurts so bad you’re thrown into bed for four-straight-days. And the moral of this story, boys and girls, is that perseverance is a writer’s most treasured tool in the box.
The biggest high came with Black & White when it was a Robert F. Sibert Honor book and also won the Carter G. Woodson Award. I cannot tell you how much it means to have one’s work critically accepted. It is great when books sell well, and many of mine have, but it is extra special delicious when reviewers and award committees single out a title for recognition. This is the cream-cheese frosting on the cake.
LDB: I think I always wanted to be a teacher, pretending to teach my stuffed animals when I was young and even creating ditto masters (This dates me!) by reverse-stapling a sheet of carbon paper (So does mention of this!) to typing paper and preparing my “lessons” for my attentive students. Years later, when a college professor saw some promise in my writing and suggested I should be published (even submitting my work for me when I was too shy to do it myself), it meant the world to me. Throughout my teaching career, I taught writing. Two high points from my teaching career stand out. One, I overheard a former student telling another who would be entering my class the next term, “That’s Mr. B. He’s tough as nails, but you’ll learn a lot from him and he’s fair.” I thought that was pretty high praise from a teenager. And at a board meeting, a colleague reported to me that a parent stood up to say, “Mr. Brimner really taught my son to write and I think every student in the school should take his class.” I think young people truly are remarkable and that in most cases will perform to the expectations of their teacher. I expected no less than the best from my students and I think they generally gave it.
The two careers—teaching and writing—intertwine because I believe in giving young readers my best effort. I also do not believe in dumbing down text because so-called “educational experts” and/or reviewers think kids can’t handle something or will become frustrated if the language isn’t from an approved word list. I’ve gone to the mat with editors over this. When kids choose the books they read, they can read well above grade level if the interest is there. When reading other books, they can stretch if the teacher teaches words his/her students may be unfamiliar with and/or if the writer provides context clues. So I write with a knowledge of young people and also an understanding of what it’s like to be on the teaching side of the desk.
Of course, the other way teaching and writing intertwine is that I am often a visiting author brought in to speak to students about writing and reading and story structure. Being an author-in-residence for a day at a school is the best excuse I can think of to leave my office. Author visits are the highlight of my year.
CGE: How does your love of poetry come into play when you are writing stories for children?
LDB: I touched on this with a previous answer, but essentially I self-edit a book by reading each one aloud at the beginning of every writing session before adding to the day’s word count. I do this until the book is finished, making little tweaks as I go. I do it again when I sit down to edit and revise the whole manuscript. This is my “process.” Of course, what I am doing is listening to the language much as I do when writing a poem. I want each line, each sentence to be pleasing to my ear before sharing it with an editor. This is vital in picture books, but it’s also important in novels and nonfiction. (And if truth be told, I do it when writing anything at all.)
CGE: What are you working on now?
LDB: My current project is a nonfiction book to be traditionally illustrated (rather than photo-illustrated). With it, I am returning to a topic near and dear to my heart, social justice and civil rights. But the other day, a picture book idea came to me, so once I’m far enough along to know where I’m going with the nonfiction manuscript I’ll begin to tinker with the picture book idea and see where that leads.
CGE: What does the future hold for Larry Brimner?
LDB: I’m almost afraid to answer this. I know writers supposedly never retire, but the other day I read an interview with Judy Blume and she mentioned the R-word—as in she’s going to do it. While I can’t foresee a time when I don’t write, I would like to cut back to do some of the things I’ve never given myself time to do. Because I am a fulltime writer, I’ve never taken time off to truly enjoy a holiday. I have a sense that if I’m not at my desk writing or speaking somewhere about writing, I’m not earning a living.
I usually write right through Christmas. I haven’t taken a vacation since I left teaching. My “vacations” are usually tied to speaking engagements or research, and while I may be in another city or state, or in Europe, South America, or Asia, they are working vacations (emphasis on “working”). I think it might be nice to visit a place and not haul along all the stuff I carry to a school or conference presentation. Gosh, I lamented not long ago that I’ve never gotten to see or enjoy the spring flowers I plant because I’m either working to meet a deadline or speaking in schools away from where I live. By the time I get outside to see the fruits of my labor, the flowers usually are withered or dead. I think it might be nice simply to go to dinner with friends and not think that I should be at home working on this or that project. Mind you, I’m the one with a strict work ethic and much of my schedule is self-imposed but I hope the future may include a little play ethic as well. So I think this might be what the future holds, but then again there are characters—real or imagined—banging around in my head, so who knows!?! And there are several books yet under contract and waiting on the runway, so again, who knows!?!
You can connect with Larry here: