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Writing to the beat of her own heart

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 that’s 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 children’s literature, including the Newbery Honor book “Surviving the Applewhites” a decade ago and its sequel, “Applewhites at Wit’s 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, isn’t afraid to blow off steam, especially on behalf of gifted children who haven’t 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 didn’t mind the Saturday Evening Post turning down my ‘Titanic’ poem, but I was incensed that Jack and Jill didn’t think my story was good enough!”

Thus began the writer’s life: rejection, followed by a dogged effort in another direction. She wasn’t put off when the head of the English department at Purdue University wouldn’t let her write a volume of poetry for her master’s thesis, asking, “How would we know if it was any good?”

She wasn’t deterred when academics asked what defect in her character prevented her from liking James Joyce and T.S. Eliot. (“I’m a romantic. Always have been.”) She wasn’t 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 Children’s Literature.)

Persistence pays off

In 1978, Scribner took “Grandpa and Me,” about a girl dealing with a grandfather’s Alzheimer’s. “We put my $500 advance toward a hutboat – I wouldn’t say ‘houseboat’ – on the river in Cincinnati,” she says. “I knew we couldn’t 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 don’t play. They work, and they work hard.’ So I made writing ‘hard,’ to make it seem more like a job. I’d write six hours each day.

“I’d 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 don’t 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 wouldn’t 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 “Who’s 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 don’t 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 Tolan’s 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, ‘Can’t the girl be a cheerleader?’ ”

Katherine Paterson, National Book Award-winning writer of “Bridge to Terabithia,” has been Tolan’s collaborator and friend for three decades. They’ve 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 we’ve been assigned and then edit each other. She’s a fast thinker and a leaps-and-bounds kind of writer. I’ll be plodding away at a chapter a week on the book I’m writing, and she’ll do a chapter in a day.”

Paterson praises Tolan’s “unusual feel for animals, something I don’t 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. She’s 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 children’s literature I know was a gifted kid.” She wonders if she’ll be best-remembered for co-writing the nonfiction “Guiding the Gifted Child” and a persuasive essay she wrote in 1996, “Is It a Cheetah?” (You’ll 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 you’re 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 don’t 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.”

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