Judith Viorst is the author of several works of fiction and nonfiction for children as well as adults. "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," her most famous children's book, was first published in 1972 and has since sold more than 2 million copies. Viorst received a B.A. in history from Rutgers University, and she is also a graduate of the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute, where she is a research affiliate. She began her career as a poet and has since completed six collections of poems for adults. Her first novel for adults, "Murdering Mr. Monti," was published in 1994, and her nonfiction book "Imperfect Control," was published in January 1998. Viorst's children's books include "The Tenth Good Thing About Barney," "The Alphabet From Z to A" and the "Alexander" stories, including "Alexander, Who Used to Be Rich Last Sunday." Her recent work is "Lulu and the Brontosaurus" (Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing). She lives in Washington, D.C.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2010 National Book Festival
Welcome back Judith! Can you tell us how you got your idea for new children’s book – Lulu and the Brontosaurus?
It was a cold and rainy day in Maine two summers ago, and I had run out of ways to entertain my two grandsons, Nathaniel and Benjamin. "Make up stories and tell them to us," they demanded, and so I did, tossing off one dopey tale after another. But when I started telling them about a spoiled-rotten girl named Lulu who is determined to have a brontosaurus as a pet for her birthday present and goes out looking for one--having many adventures along the way, I started getting very excited about the idea. And when I had Lulu marching through the forest chanting: "I'm gonna, I'm gonna, I'm gonna gonna get/A bronto bronto bronto brontosaurus for a pet" and my two grandsons started marching though that house in Maine chanting the same chant, it struck me that if I actually sat down and worked hard on this idea, it might turn into a book that I would be pleased with. So I did, and it did, and what has made it especially pleasing are Lane Smith's amazing illustrations.
What is coming up for you after the 2010 National Book Festival? New books, projects???
I'm thinking I might like to write more stories about Lulu, a character who really interests me even though she may not be the nicest girl in the world.
Do you have a website where children can learn more about you and your work?
From the 2008 National Book Festival
You've written poetry, non-fiction books and children's books. What sparked your imagination for your newest picture book - Nobody Here But Me?
I think it is a common childhood experience to feel overlooked, ignored, un-paid-attention-to (there is no such word but you get what I mean). How does a little person catch the attention of the bigger people in his or her world? My book, which explores these matters, is an elaboration/imaginative exaggeration of an event, long long ago, when one of my sons—wanting our attention and failing to get it--hid in a very good hiding place in our house, sending me and my husband scurrying around frantically looking for him.
You have worked with a variety of illustrators. How do go about collaborating with an illustrator?
I sit down with my editor and the head of the art department and they show me the work of illustrators that they think might be right for this particular book. We usually find it fairly easy to agree on someone, after which they send my mms to that person to see if he or she is interested and available, after which we almost always ask for a sample illustration. Once the illustrator is selected, and the sample art is found to be just fine and a general idea for the book’s layout is settled upon, I tend to back off and let the artist do his/her work. I, along with the editor and art department, will certainly go over the illustrations many times for accuracy (is the shirt he wears on page two and page three the same shirt?), clarity (are we sure we know what he’s doing?) and variety (what he’s doing on page two is too much like what he’s doing on page four; could we illustrate another aspect of the story instead?). But I think hovering too much over an illustrator, offering too many suggestions, can stifle creativity and delicious surprises, so I try not to.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
I’m a very disciplined writer and always have been. Trying to be a writer while raising three kids definitely requires the ability to write under any and all conditions, and I did, and still do. The challenge for me is to come up with a story idea that really excites me and then to figure out the best way to tell that story, and to keep writing and re-writing and re-re-writing until it feels okay to say, “Done.”
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
Write. Write every day. Don’t wait to be in the mood—write! Give yourself writing projects and finish them. And read, read, read—both for the pleasure and for insights into all the different ways writers can express themselves.
Can you suggest a fun writing or poetry topic to get them started?
I once wrote a poem called “If I were in charge of the world,” and many teachers have found this a good first sentence to get kids started on imagining—in verse—what THEY would do if they were in charge of the world.
How do you decide on themes for your books?
My own childhood memories sometimes give me themes. My children’s concerns and experiences (fear of monsters, a terrible day, sibling rivalry, feeling ignored) gave, and still gives, me many themes. And now my grandchildren are providing them—in fact, a new book for children that I’m working on now—came directly from a conversation last summer with my then-six-year-old granddaughter Olivia.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
I love too many to list, but from my own childhood there is The Secret Garden, and from my children’s childhoods the works of Maurice Sendak and, a little further on, of E.L. Konigsburg.
If you were not writing books, what do you think you would be doing?
Since I write (for kids and adults, in poetry and prose, both serious and funny) about what goes on inside people and in their relationships with each other, and since I trained for six years at a psychoanalytic institute, I guess my other career would have been psychotherapist.
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
Read to them. Read to them. Read to them. And read the books they are reading and discuss them with your kids.