Author Interview: Peter Carver
Peter Carver is the author of, "So You Want to Write a Children's Book" (Red Deer Press). He is a veteran children's book editor and recipient of the International Board on Books for Young people (IBBY) Claude Aubry Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Children's Literature. Through his renowned workshops and retreats he has mentored hundreds of new and veteran authors, including dozens of national and international award winners whose books have been published in dozens of languages.
First Line (FL): What is your favourite children’s book?
Peter Carver (PC): Winnie the Pooh. It’s witty, subtle, beautifully written – and a wonderful read-aloud book to a range of ages. In an unaffected way, the stories create prototypes that children and adults can easily recognize in their own world – and then there’s the fun of the nonsensical poetic musings of Pooh.
FL: You are a long-time editor and creative writing teacher. What do you look for in a manuscript?
PC: I look for that element of surprise, that moment of realizing that I’m in the hands of a confident storyteller who is going to let me in on a world that is fascinating, three-dimensional, emotionally illuminating. I long to find a voice that is compelling and distinctive.
FL: What are some common mistakes people who are trying to write for children make?
PC: I think sometimes aspiring writers think they have to be teachers – convey a lesson or a moral to their audiences – rather than understanding that they must first of all be caught up in the web of a strong and convincing story. Children can spot a lesson a mile away, and they do not go to books to be taught lessons, but to immerse themselves in stories (and that goes for non-fiction as well).
Writers of picture books do not have to tell their stories in rhyming verse – strong, vivid prose is the best route. Also they do not have to supply illustrations with their text – better not to attempt this at all, and concentrate on making the words sing.
There are a lot of talking animal stories for young readers already available, some of them – like Winnie the Pooh – magnificent in their impact. We don’t need a lot of second and third-rate talking animal stories. Better to write about human children and do it well.
Above all, my message to aspiring writers is to write the story that means most to you, not one that you think would suit the market. The market is constantly shifting and changing, but the honesty and conviction you bring to the story that has been sitting in your heart all your life will always trump any attempt to produce the next Harry Potter or Franklin the Turtle.
FL: What inspires you?
PC: Inspires me in what direction? Not sure what you mean here, but right now I have been inspired by a holiday I’ve spent with my own family as well as extended family at our 100-year-plus-old summer cottage in northern Ontario. To be with your children and their children, as well as a fleet of cousins, on a beautiful island in the middle of a lake, is a stimulating and healing experience. Not quite sure if that’s inspiration, but it was certainly invigorating. I think a lot of what inspires me is my awareness of the legacy of family in its broadest sense – including that of my maternal grandfather who first built the cottage, and who, not incidentally, was Canada’s best-selling author at the turn of the 19th-20th century. His name was Ralph Connor, and few Canadians have heard of him now; but around 1900, he had sold five million copies of his first three novels. There’s inspiration for you.
FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?
PC: A tough one – impossible to answer. I’d love to have dinner with Chimamanda Adichie, a young Nigerian author whose work I’ve learned about in the past couple of years – a brightening star in the firmament. And if somehow she could be returned to this world, I’d love to sit down with the late Margaret Laurence, one of Canada’s great novelists, bar none. Maybe my grandfather would join us.
FL: What book do you think every writer should read?
PC: Preposterous – there’s no one book. I think every writer should read widely. Certainly in the genre they’re aspiring to, but also far beyond that. The more one understands, through one’s reading, what can be done with words and sentences and paragraphs, the better. Sometimes, writers are so awed by what others have done that they give up on their own work. But more often, I think one can be galvanized by hearing the voices of fine writers spinning their magic – which can lead to one’s coming to hear one’s own voice as it struggles to break out.
FL: Your book, "So You Want to Write a Children’s Book" is a fabulous resource for people wanting to break into the children’s book market. Do you have any final advice for someone attempting to write a children’s book?
PC: Writing for children is not easier than writing for adults. For one thing, to do it effectively, you need to re-discover the child’s sensibility, the child’s way of looking at the world we all once possessed. It is said that writing for children is a way of resolving those issues from childhood that have been unresolved. I think it’s important to respect the child’s eye view of the world, not to trivialize it, as some writers do. The most powerful experiences one has in life are the ones that occur in one’s childhood – drawing from that well of experience and making some kind of sense of it is the job of the children’s writer.