Talking with Barbara Kerley

an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    BARBARA KERLEY KELLEY (Nepal 1981–83) lives one of those perfect lives many of us dream about. She is a wife, mother, and writer, and all in Northern California. Barbara and her family live 80 miles from the Oregon border, in a little coastal community called McKinleyville. Her house is two miles from the beach and long empty stretches of sand and rocky cliffs with huge redwood trees in the distance. Barbara met her husband, Scott Kelley, in Nepal. While they trained together, they didn’t become an “item” until the last months of service. Today, Scott owns a small engineering firm in McKinleyville and they have a daughter, Anna, now 13, who was born in Guam.
         Most recently Barbara has been working in the Special Education department of the local high school and when not writing, she does everything that a writer does: grocery shopping, the laundry, making dinner, and reviewing vocabulary words with Anna.
         Besides all that, there is hiking, biking, canoeing, and community work. Barbara is the president of the local Friends of the Library and Scott is helping to build a skate park. Barbara’s personal desire for self-improvement has gotten her recently to teach herself how to play the banjo and so far she had mastered “Good Night, Ladies,” and “Boil ’Em Cabbage Down.” Between “sets” we caught up with Barbara and asked about her life in the Peace Corps and the books she has written for children.

    Where did you serve as a PCV?

      In Nepal. I was there from 1981 to 1983 teaching math and science and also English in a rural secondary school.

    Why did you join the Peace Corps?

      Well, I didn’t expect to change the world, but I did hope to make a positive contribution. And I had a role model in my sister, who served in Kenya in the ’70s. It felt like she and her future husband, another Kenya Volunteer, were doing a good thing. Also, their experience also sounded interesting, exotic, life-changing.
           After college I was interested in teaching but didn’t want to head straight into a credential program. I also wasn’t really excited about entering the traditional, white-collar work force. It looked like all my friends were just getting entry-level office jobs. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it felt to me like more of the same office work I’d been doing part-time while I was a student.
           I also knew that I’d had a privileged childhood. My dad was a lawyer. I grew up in a very comfortable suburb of Washington, D.C. I knew that most of the rest of the world didn’t live like that, but had no real idea what that meant in concrete, day-to-day terms. This sounds kinda corny, but I wanted to get a better global understanding of people. I remember telling a friend’s mom that I wanted to find out what was “American” and what was “human” — in other words, I wanted to gain some perspective on the lifestyle and attitudes I took for granted.

    When did you start writing “seriously”?

      I’d say in the mid-’80s. I wrote a series of short stories about my time in Nepal, three of which were published, including one in a collection called From the Center of the Earth: Stories Out of the Peace Corps, which was edited by an RPCV named Geraldine Kennedy (Liberia 1962–64).
           At that time, I was writing for adults. But after I had my daughter in 1989, I began, for the first time in many years, to read children’s books again. By the time Anna was 2 or 3, I’d made the switch to kidlit. I haven’t looked back.

    What was your first published book?

      My first book is called Songs of Papa’s Island (Houghton Mifflin). It’s about the two years my husband (another RPCV from Nepal) and I spent on Guam.
           Then came The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins (Scholastic Press), which is the true story of the Victorian artist who made the world’s first life-size dinosaur models. Very few people at that time — 1853 — knew what a dinosaur was, so in a sense Waterhouse introduced dinosaurs to the world.
           My most recent book is A Cool Drink of Water (National Geographic), a book I never would have written if it hadn’t been for my Peace Corps days.

    How did you go about getting it published?

      Persistence! I sold Songs on the third try, which I now realize was really unusual. Waterhouse, on the other hand, took 17 tries before it found a home. Water was somewhere in between.

    Tell us a little about how you select a topic to write about?

      I try to pay attention — that’s the best way I can describe it — to what excites, intrigues, energizes, charms me.
           For Songs, it was Guam’s natural environment. Imagine living in a little house where geckoes walk upside down across your ceiling. Imagine riding your bike after a rainstorm and seeing dozens of fat frogs hopping across the road. The jungle was full of hermit crabs and you could hear their shells clacking against the rocks as they walked. The ocean was full of these beautiful fish. I lived there two years and never stopped being awed by all that.
           For Waterhouse, it was the idea that this little-known but extraordinarily dedicated man could do something no one had ever done before. And with such style! To celebrate his achievement, he held a New Year’s Eve dinner party inside one of his Iguanodons. Is that cool or what? The whole story seems too fantastical to be true, but it is. I was also charmed by his name, Waterhouse Hawkins.
           A Cool Drink of Water was percolating for years before I wrote it. I’d wanted to find a way for American kids to get a glimpse into how people in other cultures live. But that’s as far as I’d gotten with the idea. Then one day I was looking through an issue of National Geographic magazine and saw this beautiful picture of two women walking across a field in India with brass water pots balanced on their heads.
           That picture was the catalyst for the book. Water is such a perfect metaphor — life giving, precious, and vulnerable. It’s something every kid knows and needs — and yet, look how differently water is handled around the world. It seemed like a simple but powerful way to illustrate the theme that we’re all different and yet have so much in common, at the core. The book also addresses other issues I feel strongly about: conservation and the responsibility we all have of sharing and safeguarding limited resources.

    Do you write everyday?

      I write every weekday, or at least do some kind of writing-related activity, such as work on my school visit presentations, or do research, or promotion. I think it’s really important to have a routine. Mine is to walk my daughter to school, come home, and head upstairs to my office. I try not to do household stuff (like laundry) until after I’ve picked her up in the afternoon. Otherwise, half the morning is frittered away with nothing but clean socks to show for it.

Did you have to worry about having illustrators for your books or does the publisher find someone for you?

    No, it’s not a writer’s job to find an illustrator. That’s part of the editor’s job, and with good reason. They have files of portfolios and years of experience working with many different artists. I think one of the things editors like best is being able to bring their vision of the story to life, working with the illustrator of their choosing. And there are other factors that can play into this, too. For instance, Tracy Mack, my editor at Scholastic, sent The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins to Brian Selznick partly because she knew he’d do a wonderful job (and, in fact, he did such a wonderful job that he was awarded a Caldecott Honor for the book), but also because he’s well known and well respected. Often an editor will pair an unknown — like me — with someone better known — like Brian — to help a book gain some momentum.

Do you have an agent?

    No, and it’s something I go back and forth on. In general, I think agents aren’t as necessary in the children’s field as they are in the adult field (though this is changing). I may get one at some point, however, because I really don’t like the business side of writing and am not very good at it. (When I was a kid, the only thing I didn’t like about Girl Scouts was selling those darn cookies . . .) Alternatively, I know writers who don’t have agents but do hire a lawyer with experience in book contracts to do their negotiating for them. So that’s another option.

How did you get your newest book published, then, without an agent?

    I wrote the text for A Cool Drink of Water first, then started looking for a publisher. National Geographic did an excellent job of finding photos that captured the spirit of the text.
         I did have to modify the text a bit. For example, the line “Sipped from a thin tin cup” originally read “Sipped from a chipped tin cup.” When I wrote it, I envisioned one of those enamel-covered tin cups (the kind folks take camping in America, the kind I saw all over the place when I was in the Peace Corps in Nepal — and which always seemed to have some of the enamel chipped off). National Geographic found a wonderful picture of an old man sipping from a tin cup, but it wasn’t chipped. So that line needed to be changed.
         I also ended up doing quite a bit of work when it was time to write the captions for the photos. (At the end of the book, there is a map showing where the photos were taken and a caption for each photo.) Jennifer Emmett, my National Geographic editor, sent me boxes of back issues of the magazine — I had little stacks all over my office floor — which I read through looking for the best tidbit for each caption. So all that was written after the book sold.
         When you’re first starting out in the children’s field, it’s very common to write a book and then look for a publisher. Now that I have more experience, however, this has changed a bit. For instance, my upcoming book with Scholastic Press (about Walt Whitman in the Civil War) was sold after I submitted a two-page proposal. I had already researched enough to know the broad outline of the story, but had a lot of work left to do before I even started writing. However, my editor there liked the idea so much that she offered me a contract. So I wrote the book knowing it already had a home. And my next book with National Geographic (about parents and children around the world) was actually their idea. They approached me with it and then I wrote the text.
         It’s taken me years to get to this point, however. Now I doubt I’d begin a new project in the future without at least some enthusiastic interest from an editor — even if I didn’t have a contract.

Do you have any more practical advice for RPCVs who want to write books for children?

    Well, as with any kind of writing, I think it’s important to be realistic. Some folks think children’s writing is “easier” than adult writing because the books are shorter. Personally, I don’t think it’s easier, any more than writing a really good poem is easier than writing a short story, just because there are less words in it. So anyone wanting to be a children’s writer should bring the same professionalism to it that they would to writing for adults.
         To me, this means working hard, trying to keep improving your craft, and educating yourself about the field.
         Hard work requires regular, sustained, and disciplined effort, and it takes time. Improving your craft includes revising (and then revising again), getting feedback (from a critique group, a writing class, or if you’re lucky, an editor) and then acting on that feedback. Educating yourself is twofold: getting to know the latest kids’ books (spend time in libraries and bookstores); and getting to know the field by paying attention to who is publishing what and, perhaps, joining a children’s writing organization like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org). It’s probably the most established group for children’s authors, and you don’t have to be published to join.

What are you working on now?

    I have several things going.
         One is another nonfiction picture book with Scholastic, coming out in 2004, about the poet Walt Whitman and his years as a volunteer in the Civil War hospitals in Washington, D.C. It’s a very moving story. Walt wasn’t trained formally as a nurse, but he had great compassion and he was very dedicated. He came to the hospitals almost daily, bringing gifts such as fruit, newspapers, paper and envelopes. He wrote letters home for men too ill to do so. He fed men too weak to eat. Mostly, however, he just sat and kept them company. Many of the patients ended up spending months and months in the hospital, often without family nearby. Considering the state of medicine in general and the strained circumstances brought on by the war, it was a true act of selflessness on Walt’s part. Though he never fought as a soldier, he risked his life through constant exposure to diseases such as typhoid fever. Years later, however, when Walt looked back, he called his Civil War years “the greatest privilege and satisfaction” of his life.
         I’m also working with National Geographic on a follow-up to A Cool Drink of Water called Here We Are, Together. It’s a similar format to Water in that the text is actually a poem and the illustrations will be photographs from all over. The subject of the book is parents and children around the world. I think it’s going to be a really beautiful book. It looks like it’ll be out in 2005.
         Finally, I’ve just started work on a children’s novel that deals with two of the biggest events during my childhood years — man’s exploration of space, and the Vietnam War. I’m at the very beginning of this and expect to spend at least the next year on it. But it’s very interesting as an adult to research events I experienced as a kid. And, well, besides that, there’s my banjo playing!