Button Down World
Monterey author Anne Ylvisaker crafts a writer’s life – and a book series – from the imagined world of the Button Family.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
It’s a promising Saturday afternoon in December, and children’s book author Anne Ylvisaker looks like she is right where she wants to be: standing in front of an audience of a dozen people, in the sunlit River House Books in Carmel, flanked by shelves stocked with a rainbow assemblage of children’s books.
She’s talking about how the enthusiasm of two boys she met at a restaurant helped tip the scales in her decision to do her next book. She holds up a muted color print of a painting by Iowa artist Grant Wood, which served as inspiration for two of her four children’s fiction books. She reads a passage from the most recently published one, Button Down, about a boy catching football fever in 1929 Iowa: “It’s not the getting lost you got to worry about. It’s the not getting started.”
After the reading and Q&A, she signs books and talks with members of her audience, including a few kids. Watching her interact with them, and the radiant smile she gives them, makes for a charming moment. But how she got to where she is – an award-winning author with a well-known publisher – wasn’t all sunshine or charm.
Ylvisaker (pronounced “Ill-vih-soccer”) was an elementary school teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota. At the age of 35, she made a big leap to stop teaching and dedicate herself to writing – at first, slim, picture-filled non-fiction books for kids to use to research topics like oceans, the Great Lakes, rescue vehicles and natural disasters. She enrolled in a small writing group lead by one of her mentors, Judy Delton, a St. Paul native and author of more than 78 children’s books.
Ylvisaker read the group a draft of a story she was working on. And Delton fell asleep.
“It was really disheartening,” Ylvisaker says. “If I hadn’t had another session I had already paid for, I probably wouldn’t have gone back. I really respected her. It wasn’t that I thought she was wrong; it was a hard thing to swallow that I couldn’t recognize for myself… I knew it wasn’t singing. I couldn’t figure out how to make it sing. So I let it go.”
For the next workshop session, the last one, Ylvisaker brought in some letters she had been writing from the point of view of a girl, loosely based on her aunt, whose father died a year before.
“Before I finished reading the first letter, [Delton] started pounding the table and said ‘Drop everything and write that book!’ She knew I had a story.”
Ylvisaker’s circuitous route, from children’s teacher to children’s author, became more solidified with a chance encounter at a conference. Deb Noyes-Wayshak, an editor-at-large for Candlewick Press, an award-winning house that has published 3,000 books and counting – including bestsellers like Lucy Cousins’ Maisy books and Martin Handford’s Where’s Waldo? – describes it as one editor’s loss becoming her gain.
“Another editor was at the conference and saw Anne’s work,” Noyes-Wayshak says. “She couldn’t take on another author but said [Anne] was very promising. I asked to see her manuscript for Dear Papa, and we signed it up.”
Dear Papa, Ylvisaker’s first fiction book, is aimed at kids in the “middle grades” between ages 8 and 12. Its story is comprised of letters written by Isabelle, age 9, to her deceased father and other members of her family, about herself, her family, her community and country during World War II. It begins in 1943 in the midst of America’s entry in the war and ends in 1957 on Christmas Day. Delton died before its publication in 2002, but Ylvisaker dedicated it to her.
The next book, Little Klein, was published in 2007, when Ylvisaker moved from Minnesota to Iowa. The story, about a little boy lost in the hubbub of his bigger brothers until he is befriended by a dog, garnered a jacket blurb from Richard Peck, a prolific young-adult author and recipient of the Newbery Medal and National Humanities Medal: “A lyrical reminder that there was never an easy era for being a Little among the Bigs or for a dog trying to herd his humans.”
When Ylvisaker moved to Monterey with her family in 2010, she was just finishing up her third book, The Luck of the Buttons.
At River House Books, at her book signing and reading, Ylvisaker, now 47, her hair cropped short and wearing green reading glasses, holds up a print of a photograph of her family, including her grandmother and aunt, in 1927.
“I wanted to tell the story of the person not in the photograph,” she tells her audience. “The one taking the picture through a Brownie camera.”
That imagined person would be the heroine of The Luck of the Buttons, 12-year-old Tugs Button, a plucky girl seemingly mired in a family of unlucky underachievers in the small fictional town of Goodhue, Iowa, in the summer of 1929. Tugs is a precocious character, like Scout in the novel To Kill A Mockingbird or Addie in the film Paper Moon, but not so embroiled in grown-up issues like racism or corruption.
Ylvisaker weaves a tantalizing plot thread throughout about a slick and suspicious newcomer to the town who piques Tugs’ inquisitive nature. But it is a book for children, after all, so there are the nervous politics of the birthday party at the well-to-do house, the longing for a Brownie camera to call her own, the neighborhood bullies to be avoided, the intimidating trio of the popular Mary girls and the navigation of her quirky family – and her own place within it.
The story is written using the euphemisms of the time, in a tone that’s gentle and generous and plain. Reviewers from Booklist tout its “charm” while the Buffalo News calls it “entertaining” and “beautifully written.”
“Her depictions of family and friendship speak to children and adults on a genuine level,” Noyes-Wayshak says. “She creates, in some instances, a nostalgic past that rings true [and is] community oriented. I think kids in this middle range level see the world in that way. Before that it’s very ‘I’ centered. She’s very funny, [with] this wonderful light humor that feels effortless. And very poignant, too.”
It’s the day after Ylvisaker’s appearance at River House Books and she’s at her home, in the treescaped reaches of Upper Monterey, that she shares with her husband Dan Baldwin. She’s taking a pair of visitors on a tour of the writing sanctuary that she calls the Little House. It’s the size of a big shed, a dozen steps below the Big House’s wood deck (so long that one could play touch football on it), built on the slope of a pine and oak forested hill. Big windows peer out into the trees, like the captain’s deck on a ship. Her desk faces out one of the windows. There are books neatly stacked in the corners – Theodore Roethke, Nikki Giovanni, C.S. Lewis, Delton’s Pee Wee Scouts books, dictionaries, writing books, poetry, essays by E.B. White, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. There’s a closet with stashes of research and drafts, a corkboard pinned with notes and pictures, speakers connected to an iPod. Outside the windows are two bird feeders. There are four skylights in the ceiling and unobtrusive track lighting. It’s carpeted.
It’s also, in a word, awesome.
“I write here in the morning and afternoon, before any business, emails or internet,” she says. “I can get to that creative space better before communicating with the outside world.”
If she gets stuck, she draws. “Using color to free up my brain, turning off the words part” is how she puts it, though she’s shy about showing any of her free-form drawings. She listens to music if it helps. She listened to the blues – Muddy Waters, Otis Taylor, Taj Mahal’s “Catfish Blues” – while writing Button Down, the sequel to The Luck of the Buttons.
Ylvisaker takes in an omnivorous assortment of pop culture and research for her period stories: books, newspapers, pictures, music, cartoons, postcards and art. The big plains and hilly landscapes of artist Marvin Cone, the kid’s perspective of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts strip, her own 6th grade class portrait. The rural Midwest farms and folks of Iowa Regionalist painter Grant Wood (“American Gothic”) serve as inspiration. His “Plaid Sweater,” a painting of a healthy boy effortlessly clutching a football and leather helmet, backdropped by an autumn horizon of trees he seems to preside over, served as the mold for the main character in Button Down, Ned. With some modifications.
“I imagined that this is how Ned saw himself,” Ylvisaker had told the River House Books audience. In the book, which revolves around football but stays in Ylvisaker’s universe of the family, Ned is a realistic jumble of gumption and insecurity, conjuring Charlie Brown’s perpetual attempts to kick Lucy’s football.
Ylvisaker even borrows from her own childhood recurring nightmare about losing her way home for an episode in Button Down in which Ned gets lost in a city he does not know. But for all the ingredients that go into her books, Ylvisaker’s prose is sparse, tracking the action and plots that are lined with period details. (See excerpt, p. 30.)
“My tendency is to write as spare as I can,” she told the River House crowd. “I can’t stand having excess writing to slow it down.”
Her editor of 12 years, who says their working relationship is “intuitive” and also now counts her as a friend, seconds that.
“I wouldn’t say she’s a perfectionist, but every word counts,” Noyes-Wayshak says. “She cares a lot about her characters, the plot, what happens in the storyline.”
Ylvisaker says she appreciates the entire process of creating her books, but especially relishes the beginning phase, “when things click.” The least favorite?
“Once that honeymoon stage is over,” she says, “that first flurry of ideas and possibilities, maybe that first draft, when I have to go back and put together the pieces of the plot. Like a really hard jigsaw puzzle. Once you have the edges, the fun part, all done, filling in the big middle part.”
She’s already turned in to her editor the draft of the third book in the Button series, The Curse of the Buttons. The last book went through 13 drafts.
Before the fiction books started flowing, Ylvisaker got a steady diet of non-fiction writing assignments – kids’ picture books of the Great Lakes, weather patterns, fire trucks, 19 of them, some as few as 50 words or less per chapter – that helped train her for the economical style of her fiction books. They also acclimated her to the habit of writing, the rhythm of deadlines, the confidence of publishing. And in each city she’s lived in she’s made sure to find a community of writers to conspire with. The one she’s found (or that found her) in California is impressive company.
They are all published authors – primarily of children’s books – and meet about once every four months. Their group doesn’t have a name, but each their names may sound familiar: Paul Fleischman is an American Library Assocation Award and Newbery winner (so is his father, Sid). Elin Kelsey, a Pacific Grove resident and author of You Are Stardust, which made Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2012 list. Jill Wolfson writes youth fiction about contemporary issues like [organ donation]. Carol Diggory Shields is a picture-book writer. Kate Avarhan is a poet who wrote a multicultural book about coming-of-age ceremonies in Korea.
“I just liked her immediately,” Kelsey says. “We listen to each other’s work, act as a sounding board, cheerleading. All of us have been writing a long time and have a lot of experience but we still need creative support, to take risks, to deal with a shifting publishing industry.”
As a rule, Ylvisavker says, the community of children’s book writers and illustrators is a welcoming one. “There’s a spirit of ‘There’s room for everybody.’ People who do this love what they do,” she adds. “They are excited to meet other people who are involved. I’ve found this incredible network.”
Another community that Ylvisaker has embraced are those that exist around local libraries and school kids. She was the featured author of the Monterey Public Library’s recent Giant Used Book Sale. And she’s visited, often, with a class of 4th grade kids at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Salinas; her daughter, now 19, went to York School with the daughter of the class’ teacher, Rebecca Bishop.
On her first visit, she talked about Dear Papa and gave the class a school set – one copy of the book for each kid.
“Her second visit she taught them journal writing, which is not part of their culture,” Bishop says. “This year, for Button Down, the first day of its release we had a cake with the cover on it. She asked [the kids] what they think books want on their birthdays and one girl said ‘a reader.’ She gave them each a signed hardback copy. They really treasure those.”
Bishop says that boys and girls respond equally to Ylvisaker’s books, regardless of the gender of the heroine: Girls “love” Button Down’s ever-striving Ned and his relationship to his beloved mentor Granddaddy Ike; boys “love” The Luck of the Buttons and Dear Papa, both starring girls. And Bishop appreciates that the books deal with real issues like religious antagonism, the confined roles women were allowed in earlier eras, or the place of fathers in families and communities.
“A lot of my kids are missing fathers, either through death or divorce,” she says. “In Dear Papa, Anne deals with the mother remarrying. And so many of [my] kids’ own sisters and brothers and parents have kids out of wedlock.
“My ultimate goal is to move these kids out of the East Side [environment] of the gangs, to give them options. Reading is the best door I can give them to a better life.”
The reading at River House Books ends and Ylvisaker commiserates with the adults and kids who showed up to hear about the stories that have seeped into their imaginations. Malone Hodges of Carmel has brought his two sons, Bryce, 13, and Colin, 10. They are the boys at the restaurant who provided the catalyst for Ylvisaker to launch into her 3rd book in the Button family series, a prequel of sorts that’s slated for fall 2013 release. It tells the boyhood story of Granddaddy Ike and takes place in 1861, the Civil War era.
“The chance to meet the author, the personality behind the book, is really a magical moment,” Hodges says. “The author created this world in their minds. This is just a person’s imagination. With that and dedication, you can create things. You need pencil, paper and imagination.”
ANNE YLVISAKER’s books are available at River House Books, The Works, Candlewick.com and Amazon.com. Ylvisaker’s website is AnneYlvisaker.com