Long ago, farther back than anyone can count, all the volcanoes in the world decided to erupt at the same time on the fifth of July to celebrate their volcano-ness. But a baby volcano named Sleeper was drowsing and woke up a day ahead of time. Sleeper sneezed, setting all the other volcanoes off early. And thats why we celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks today.
Stephanie Tolan wrote that story, her first, in a fourth-grade class in Canton, Ohio. She had no idea it would lead to a career in childrens literature, including the Newbery Honor book Surviving the Applewhites a decade ago and its sequel, Applewhites at Wits End, this spring.
Nor did she have any idea it would become her story, all her life long. But it did.
The author, who has lived in Charlotte since 1999, isnt afraid to blow off steam, especially on behalf of gifted children who havent been encouraged to live up to their potentials. She has kept to her own timetable as an author, beginning in her mid-30s and producing prolifically since then. And this questing woman has been willing to conform to expectations about as much as Masai warriors are willing to rhumba.
Reading was my favorite thing to do at the time, she says, thinking of that class. Now it occurred to me I could write something another person might want to read.
By sixth grade, I knew this was what I was going to do. We had a sun porch on the second floor of our house in Wisconsin, overlooking Lake Michigan. I took everything out, scrubbed it down, put in two cots and my parents Underwood typewriter, and wrote all summer. I didnt mind the Saturday Evening Post turning down my Titanic poem, but I was incensed that Jack and Jill didnt think my story was good enough!
Thus began the writers life: rejection, followed by a dogged effort in another direction. She wasnt put off when the head of the English department at Purdue University wouldnt let her write a volume of poetry for her masters thesis, asking, How would we know if it was any good?
She wasnt deterred when academics asked what defect in her character prevented her from liking James Joyce and T.S. Eliot. (Im a romantic. Always have been.) She wasnt knocked down by the years when her writing skill and the theatrical efforts of Bob, her husband, scarcely paid the bills though I kept asking him, Do you think I should get a steady job? (She did have one from 1986 through 1991, critiquing students work by mail for the Institute of Childrens Literature.)
Persistence pays off
In 1978, Scribner took Grandpa and Me, about a girl dealing with a grandfathers Alzheimers. We put my $500 advance toward a hutboat I wouldnt say houseboat on the river in Cincinnati, she says. I knew we couldnt live only on what I made from writing: A magazine article at the time said 3 percent of the people writing for children could make a living at it.
But oh, has she been prolific: young adult novels, intermediate novels, books for children, half a dozen dramas and musicals.
I majored in creative writing because it was play, it was fun, she says. But I had an ingrained belief from my father: Grown-ups dont play. They work, and they work hard. So I made writing hard, to make it seem more like a job. Id write six hours each day.
Id have to submit an outline or a chapter or two (to get an advance). My left brain writes outlines, but my right brain writes books, and I have spent my whole life with my left brain beating up on my right brain The day after Applewhites won the Newbery Honor, my agent told me I had a two-book contract and could write the next book any way I liked. And I have never written an outline since! I write nonstop when ideas are coming. And when the ideas dont come, I let the well fill up again.
Working smoothly with others
Rosemary Brosnan, her editor at HarperCollins, admires her versatility: She can write humorous books, serious books, suspenseful books, books that explore issues such as religion, bullying, loss, the relationship between people and animals and so much more. Her books about the Applewhite(s) are not only full of humor but contain a huge cast Stephanie juggles expertly.
Stephanie is extremely easy to work with. I wouldnt say she is laissez-faire, because she has a good idea of why she writes everything she writes, but she is very open to criticism and suggestion . In fact, she appreciates being edited, and has said so.
At the same time, Tolan has fought for independence. When she wrote the ghost story Whos There, she was immediately asked to write another but responded with Welcome to the Ark, the first volume of a trilogy about gifted children. She says she was initially told the problem with Applewhites was that it was funny but had serious stuff, and kids dont like that.
Listen has just two characters: a lonely 12-year-old girl and the wild dog she names Coyote, with which she forms a mystical bond. (One of Tolans two dogs, the feral one she tamed, is named Coyote.) People kept turning me down on that one, she says of the much-admired 2006 novel. They kept asking, Cant the girl be a cheerleader?
Katherine Paterson, National Book Award-winning writer of Bridge to Terabithia, has been Tolans collaborator and friend for three decades. Theyve done three musicals for kids with composer Steve Liebman, including an adaptation of Terabithia, and Paterson describes the collaboration as fruitful and happy. What we are trying to do is more important than any of our egos.
We break (work) down into scenes, go off into separate rooms to write the scenes weve been assigned and then edit each other. Shes a fast thinker and a leaps-and-bounds kind of writer. Ill be plodding away at a chapter a week on the book Im writing, and shell do a chapter in a day.
Paterson praises Tolans unusual feel for animals, something I dont think I have in my own writing. When you work with highly gifted children, they have almost an extrasensory perception most of us are not privy to. Shes very attuned to that, and I think that makes her attuned to animals. Her books that are specifically about highly gifted kids (Ark and Flight of the Raven) have that sort of connectedness. Her ability to write about that is pretty astounding.
A deep, deep passion
Tolan believes that every writer of childrens literature I know was a gifted kid. She wonders if shell be best-remembered for co-writing the nonfiction Guiding the Gifted Child and a persuasive essay she wrote in 1996, Is It a Cheetah? (Youll find it at her website, www.stephanietolan.com.)
There she argues that cheetahs, which are built to run all their lives, can never fulfil their destinies in zoos indeed, they virtually stop being cheetahs, just as children placed in educational cages will never fully realize their human potential.
I care passionately about the brightest kids because the world is so hard on them, she says. It gives me joy to talk to parents and kids about ways they can succeed.
For years, Tolan has spent summers as a senior fellow at Yunasa, a summer camp for the gifted in Michigan. (The word means balance to the Lakota people.)
If youre going to be a well-balanced person, you need to be aware of five things: mind, body, spirit, emotions, and your social self, she says. We dont want kids pushed into their heads all the time.
She articulates this idea adeptly in the Applewhite books, where cerebral pleasures and earthy joys mingle. In the first, patriarch Zedediah defines education as an adventurous quest for the meaning of life, involving an ability to think things through. In the second, he simply reminds us to pursue all the things that bring us joy.
Put those ideas together, says Tolan, and they represent what I believe.