Sharon Dennis Wyeth

More on Good Times in Seattle, Washington

It’s February and I’m still basking in the glow of the A.L.A. Midwinter Conference at the end of last month in Seattle, Washington. One of the high points of my time in Seattle (a great place to visit!) was my presentation at Tyee Park Elementary School an hour outside of the city. I met the principal, faculty and four hundred students (!) at Tyee Park. While I was there I read “The Granddaughter Necklace,” talked about writing and responded to questions from students. One student asked what “came first” in ‘The Granddaughter Necklace’ “the words or the pictures?” I told her that the books started with my text which the illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline read before he began the paintings that appear in the book. I added that Bagram’s paintings were another whole way of capturing the story I had written; his very own creative response and his own way of telling the story in pictures. The editor of the book and the art director also had a great deal of input. It was my editor Arthur Levine’s idea that I think of an object to tie together the individual stories in my book. I came up with the idea of a necklace immediately. I think it’s because for a long time I’d wanted to write a story inspired by a set of old beads that were discovered at the site of the African Burial Ground in New York City. When I saw those ancient beads, I’d wondered where they came from originally and who had worn them. My other inspiration for the choice of a necklace was a set of crystals I own that were worn by my grandmother Mildred and mother Evon. Every time I take them out of my jewelry box and hold them up to the light, I think of these two women and what they contributed to my life. However, if my editor Arthur had not suggested that I think of an object to tie together my stories, the necklace in “The Granddaughter Necklace” might never have existed, which means it would have been a different book altogether and obviously one with another title!

“The Granddaughter Necklace” now available to readers was a collaboration between myself, illustrator Bagram Ibatoulline and the people at our publishing house who contributed their guidance, support and encouragement. This team includes the people whose job is to let people know about the book and to make sure it’s available to readers at stores and libraries and online. Working together as a team to make something wonderful is what I find most exciting about being a picture book author.

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A.L.A. Midwinter—“Perfect!”

During A.L.A., I had the opportunity to meet librarians at “Picture Perfect” a breakfast event sponsored by my publishers Scholastic. My editor Arthur A. Levine was there too! I got to meet other authors and illustrators which is always fun. And to top it off, several of Bagram Ibatoulline’s original illustrations for “The Granddaughter Necklace” were on display. It was my first time seeing the art for my book in its original form. I was bowled over by its beauty. As the guests at the event looked at the artwork displayed, I stood near by proudly, introducing myself to guests as the person who’d written the words that inspired those stunning pictures.

After the guests had looked at the art and had their delicious buffet breakfast, I had a chance to make a brief presentation as one of the five authors and illustrators featured at this event. I was the first author up to speak but I wasn’t all that nervous because I had worked very hard on my speech. Starting with notes in my writing journal and ending up with several pages written on the computer, I composed a presentation explaining how “The Granddaughter Necklace” had come to be. But when I rehearsed what I’d written out loud, it was far too long! I had only eight minutes to speak, during which time several of the book’s illustrations would also be projected. It took me many more hours to whittle my speech down until it was short enough. This didn’t involve simply deleting words but discovering for myself the points in my speech that were most essential to the origin and meaning of the book. I had to think a lot about that! After paring it down to just the right length, I rehearsed my speech over and over, so I wouldn’t miss anything important or be tempted to add a line or two or, worse yet, blank out or get tongue tied. The preparation was worth it. The audience at Picture Perfect was…well, perfect! Who could possibly understand more my motives and inspiration for writing than a group of librarians? People dedicated to the positive power of books. I had a great time making new friends after the speeches were over.

“….love can be planted in the heart of a child in the form of a story.”

That’s a line from my own speech, a thought that had never occurred to me in quite that way until I began to prepare for A.L.A. Midwinter. Having once been a child myself who was saved by reading in the Public Library and nurtured by family members who let me get to know and love them through their stories, this is a sentiment I believe and now embrace as a children’s author. It’s a sentiment I hope you agree with.

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Writing Childhood
My obsession with childhood stories began at the age of two…

I’m two-years-old, sitting unashamed in a tin tub set in a shady spot on a lawn in Culpeper, Virginia. My grandmother Georgie Dennis is soaping my back with a rag and a bar of homemade soap. It’s late in the day because I can see the mountains in the distance without squinting. The feel of the warm rag gliding across my shoulder blades is pleasurable. I squirm against the tickle of dripping water. I hear Grandma’s voice, a deep cooing sound reserved for me. “That’s gamma’s girl…” she murmurs, rinsing my back.

A man appears across the field, my grandparents’ neighbor Mr. Green. I stare as he strides toward us. Even from a distance, I spot his eyes. I’ve seen them up close so I know they’re green like his name. The only eyes green eyes I’ve ever seen. From far away, I see them sparkling. With his bright eyes and coppery skin, black, curly hair, like a sheep’s and overalls I also admire, my grandparents’ neighbor is utterly fascinating.

“Mr. Green must have been a beautiful baby,” I pronounce, twisting my neck towards Grandma.

She drops the washrag. “What did you say?”

“Mr. Green must have been a beautiful baby,” I repeat in my babyish voice.

Grandma throws her arms around me. “You have to hear this, Mr. Green,” she calls out. She lifts me out of the tub and dries me off.
When Mr. Green is upon us, I’m in Grandma’s arms wrapped in a towel.

“What’s is it, Georgie?” he asks.

Grandma gives him the report. “Sharon (she pronounces it “Shurn”) said ‘Mr. Green must have been a beautiful baby!” She laughs again. “Isn’t that funny?”

Since Mr. Green is shy his laugh isn’t loud, it’s a chuckle. “Why, you’re just a baby yourself,” he tells me, leaning closer.

When I think about it now, Mr. Green was my first crush. As he strode the field in his overalls, I was imagining his childhood, what he looked like when he was two-years-old and just my size. “A beautiful baby,” I decided, like the song my daddy sang to me sometimes.

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Sharon has a new book, The River and Me. Learn more at American Girl about Evette and her passion for nature!