Esther Hershenhorn on Writing, Teaching, and Coaching
Esther Hershenhorn, a former fifth grade teacher, is an award-winning author of many books for young children including picture books, middle grade novels, historical fiction, and nonfiction. When not working on her own projects, Esther teaches Writing for Children classes, conducts writing workshops geared to adults as well as to students, and is available as a private Writing Coach. As if those many roles aren’t enough, she currently serves on the Board of Advisors for The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Her seventeen year service as the SCBWI Illinois Chapter’s Regional Advisor earned her Regional Advisor Emeritus status.
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, please tell us about your Teaching Authors blog and what readers can expect from its content focus.
Our TeachingAuthors blog is 1 and ½ years new! The six of us, in alphabetical order, include novelist and Days of Our Lives screenwriter Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford of Baltimore, poet and picture book author JoAnn Early Macken of Milwaukee, novelist Carmela Martino of Naperville, IL, novelist and picture book writer Mary Ann Rodman of Alpharetta, GA, and poet, picture book writer and novelist April Halprin Wayland of Manhattan Beach, CA. We teach writing to both adults and children, across all formats and genres, in a variety of learning institutions. In three posts per week, we share our writing and teaching expertise to help writers of all ages – as well as their teachers – learn and grow. We offer Writing Workouts, book reviews and Guest TeachingAuthor interviews. We also now present Ask-the-Teaching-Author Workshops at conferences and schools across the country. We get writing and the writing life – as both writers and teachers of writers.
Your latest book, S IS FOR STORY: A WRITER’S ALPHABET (Sleeping Bear Press, 2009) is a colorful and lively introduction to the world of writers. Teachers have embraced the book in the classroom. What was your inspiration for the book, and its path to publication?
I can’t believe I grew up to write the very book I wish I’d owned when I was six and longed to someday write children’s books! I proposed the idea for a “writer’s alphabet” to Sleeping Bear Press in January of 2007, thanks to the enthusiastic suggestion of fellow writer Steven Layne. My editor Amy Lennex responded with an offer in October that year. The text was due May 1, 2008. Illustrator Zak Pullen then began his gorgeous caricature-based illustrations. I completed revisions in December, 2008. By June 2009, the illustrated book was on its way to China to be printed. The book released on October 9, 2009. I dedicated the book to the young writers (and readers too, of course) of Chicago’s Louisa May Alcott School, with whom I brainstormed my letter choices and revised my text.
Each page features a letter topic in rhyming verse that appeals to younger children. But, banking the illustration is a more in depth description of that topic, including a bit of history. Did you intentionally plan the book for multiple age ranges?
I wish I could take credit for the book’s multiple-age accessibility but truly, the credit goes to Sleeping Bear Press’ iconic alphabet book design. Each of their alphabet books intentionally offers rhymed text for younger readers and side-barred prose for older readers.
You didn’t stray too far from your love of teaching. Tell us what you do today in terms of teaching and speaking about the writing process.
Once a teacher, always a teacher! I began teaching Writing for Children at Ragdale, an artist residency program in Lake Forest, IL, in 1997, before the publication of my first picture book, There Goes Lowell’s Party! I fell in love with teaching adults. They wring me out like a sponge and can’t get enough. I currently teach Writing the Novel for Older Readers at the University of Chicago’s Writer’s Studio. At Chicago’s Newberry Library, I teach a Picture Book Workshop in the Fall and in the summer, a facilitated Children’s Book Writers Group. I also facilitate Young Writer workshops, work with teachers who teach writing to children and connect with children’s book writers via programs, workshops and one-on-one meet-ups. I love welcoming writers to and grounding writers in the World of Children’s Books. I gladly offer up my brain’s Hard Drive, willing to share whatever is retrievable.
What inspired you to begin coaching writers privately? When might a writer seek private coaching?
Like the Hero of a quest tale who finally arrives home with a prize far greater than that which he first sought, my oh, so long journey to children’s book publication led me to become a Children’s Book Writing Coach. I utilize and maximize everything I learned and experienced while out-and-about on my Writer’s Plotline, offering fellow children’s book writers what I myself had needed: constructive criticism, an open ear and heart, affirmation, education, encouragement, support. I work with writers no matter their years on task, helping them discover and tell their good stories well – a published author unsure how to proceed with an editorial letter, a beginning writer, a struggling novelist stymied by rejection, someone eager to e-or-self-publish. I firmly believe: each of has a story worth telling – and – the right to tell it.
Is coaching geared to the writer or the specific manuscript?
Good question! I do begin by first responding to the manuscript – the story, the way the writer chose to tell the story, the chosen format, the genre, the audience. One-on-one consults, though, in person at my local Chicago Starbucks “office” or on the phone, allow me to next respond to the writer – to learn the story spark, the writer’s heart, the writer’s story and thus read between the lines, so to speak. I work with all of the writer, including his or her story. Folks tell me I’m a one-stop Writer’s Group rolled into one. I often hang up the phone or walk home pinching myself, amazed at my good fortune to know and work with such singular folks and their singular stories.
Are there any genres you do not coach? Would you like to share recent success stories?
My students and clients know: they and their stories remain on my brain’s Hard Drive and in my Heart Drive. And like a Jewish mother, I’m proud of each of them and kvell on their behalf. Most are so open to revision, willing to return again and again to get both the story and the telling right for the intended audience. This past May Sleeping Bear Press published Claudia Friddell’s Goliath, a picture book biography of the horse who saved the city of Baltimore. I began working with Claudia after an SCBWI Arizona Retreat I facilitated. Next February, Knopf publishes Holly Thompson’s gorgeous and important upper middle grade novel in verse, Orchards. I mentored Holly as part of SCBWI Nevada’s Mentorship Program. Meggan Hill first published her non-fiction picture book on kindness, Nico and Lola,a year ago Spring. I’d work with Meggan to help her shape the story. HarperCollins bought the rights and published it this May. Several of my clients currently await news of sales or agent representationand several are readying their books themselves. Your readers can visit my website – www.estherhershenhorn.com/coach to learn even more about my writers.
When reviewing picture book manuscripts, do you think there are different story considerations in a nonfiction as opposed to fiction story?
Writing my first non-fiction S is for Story illuminated a surprise Truth: a good story is a good story. Everything a fictional book does, a non-fictional book must do too. Engage the reader and keep him reading. Offer a narrative arc and story tension that keeps the reader caring, worrying, turning the page. Consider the reader’s needs cognitively, emotionally, chronologically. Comply with the format that best serves the story. There also needs to be room for the writer’s story, a connection with the story so the reader can connect too. Of course, informational books demand excellence in research, clarity in writing, accuracy in facts.
Your own books reflect subtle learning opportunities and I know you are a proponent of curriculum tie-ins. Do you have suggestions for how authors might approach incorporating curriculum in their works?
The teacher in me can never sit still when writing for children – either fiction or non-fiction. I’m always aware of how a story could be used to compliment curriculum. My very first book actually came to be when I realized folklore pertaining to weather could easily be used in any and all weather units! My middle grade novel, The Confe$$ion$ And $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut,contains within the story a junior businessperson/entrepreneurship curriculum. Fancy That introduces a time in America, 1841, that seldom appears in children’s books, especially for the young. I honestly believe each of those curriculum tie-ins increased my chances of selling the manuscripts. Writers might pay attention to the copyright page inside each book, noting the classifications the Library of Congress assigns the story.
Do you have new writing projects of your own in the works? What can we expect from you next?
Come Spring, Sleeping Bear Press publishes Little Illinois, a riddle book for the very young about my prized state. I’m hoping soon after to claim a month’s worth of writing time, to continue revising the middle grade novel in verse I’ve been writing for a lifetime (or so it seems) and finally get right the picture book biography of a little known American the world needs to know who captured my heart when I serendipitously learned about him.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Your readers now likely know more about me than my family!
Any advice for writers?
I write because I can’t not write. That kind of passion keeps me keepin’ on.
Which is not to say I don’t get stuck or mired in muck from time to time.
But when I do, I return to children’s books – as models, as teachers, as inspiration.
Every 3 or 4 months I re-read William Steig’s Brave Irene. Irene’s burden – that box that held the dress her mother had sewn for the Duchess, proves to be Irene’s ticket out. And her adversary, the wind? It becomes her friend.
I recommend staying true, to who a writer is, to the heart of one’s story.
Everything else will fall in place.
Your website is a wonderful resource. How might a writer, interested in your coaching services, contact you?