Weaving Tales for Young Readers

by Amy Chovan

Central Illinois is home to creative artists of all callings—from the visual and performing arts to the literary arts and more. Among those who work with the pen are several who have devoted themselves to engaging young readers with poetry, prose and illustrations. From picture books to middle-grade novels, these local authors have it covered.

If you were to walk into a library or bookstore and inquire about local authors of children’s books, one of the first names that would come up is Deborah Ruddell, a lifelong Peoria-area resident. Ruddell just released her third book, Who Said Coo?, a fun story full of mischievous friends and her first work of prose after two volumes of poetry. It’s also the first book that she worked on with her twin sister, Robin Luebs.

You would learn of another pair of sisters, the Klises—author Kate and illustrator Sarah. While they no longer reside in Peoria, the sisters grew up on Moss Avenue, and their hometown still plays a large role in their work. “We always try to sneak an ice-skating rink into our books because we spent a lot of happy afternoons at the old Logan skating rink on Starr Street,” said Kate. “But it goes even deeper than that. I think—and hope—there’s an old-fashioned quality to our books that reflects the way we grew up in Peoria in the ‘60s and ‘70s.” Their latest series, 43 Old Cemetery Road, is set in a house on High Street that they remembered from childhood—the perfect spot, they thought, for these not-so-scary ghost stories to take place.

You’d find Sue Van Wassenhove’s volume in the picture book section. In 2008, she published her first children’s book, which celebrates the wildlife of the Everglades. The Seldom-Ever-Shady Glades came about after Van Wassenhove showed two intricate art quilts she had made to her writing group. They thought that the quilts perfectly complemented the poems she’d been sharing, and suggested that she had a book in the making. Thinking her writing and quilting were two separate, distinct hobbies, Van Wassenhove was in disbelief, but soon found herself creating a prototype book and submitting a manuscript to publishers.

If you were looking for little books for small hands, you might be directed to the works of Joan Summer. When her children were young, Summer found that she didn’t particularly care for the selection of Christian children’s books that were available. What she could find lacked the eye-catching artwork and creative accounts that captured children’s attention in many secular stories, so she set out to write and illustrate a book of her own. After the success of her first book, I Wonder Why, her publisher asked for a second, and she quickly came up with A Gift for Jesus. The same publisher then asked her to illustrate two more books by different authors, and the four were packaged together in a set called Tiny Tots.

Upon hearing Summer’s children tell their friends how their mother had explained the loss of a loved one to them, a neighbor asked her to consider writing a children’s book about grief. From that request came her most recent volume, Dark on the Outside, Bright on the Inside. A work in progress for many years, the project finally came to fruition last year.

Following Passions, Finding Inspiration
Each of these authors began their love affairs with words at an early age. They enjoyed books and reading, tried their hands at wielding words and drawing pictures, and followed their passions to becoming published authors and illustrators.

Where do the stories come from? The consensus among our local authors is that inspiration comes from one’s surroundings and life experiences: the closeness of family, the loss of a loved one, the beauty of nature, childhood fantasies. Ruddell and Van Wassenhove enjoy spending time in nature, so they write about nature. Summer found inspiration in the questions of her young children. The Klise sisters garner inspiration from “everywhere and anywhere.” “You can write a book about anything,” said Kate. “Our books are proof positive of that. They’re about fountains, sinks, bathroom renovations. The secret, I think, is to create characters that you—and by extension, your readers—want to spend time with.”

The act of writing is itself inspiration for Ruddell. “Every one of my poems starts in its own way, with something I’ve heard or seen, or maybe just with a word or even a misunderstanding,” she said. “The fun of taking the wisp of an idea and making it into something more is what pleases me.” This is the process that transforms words on a page into a poem or narrative. For some, it takes days to work and rework a single poem to one’s liking; for others, just hours. When Van Wassenhove speaks to students or conducts classroom workshops, she emphasizes this idea—that writing is a process.

Great books are fun to share. If these sound interesting, you may want to pick copies up to enjoy with young friends—or just to keep for yourself. Most of these authors’ works can be purchased from online booksellers, but here’s where you can find them locally:

  • Pick up copies of Deborah Ruddell’s volumes at I Know You Like a Book in Peoria Heights.
  • Books by Kate and M. Sarah Klise can be found at national booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Borders.
  • Find Sue Van Wassenhove’s book at the Forest Park Nature Center gift shop and I Know You Like a Book. 
  • Joan Summer’s books are stocked at Hoerr’s Berean Bookstore in Peoria.

Van Wassenhove suggests that good poems contain interesting ideas with an element of surprise. When she gets an idea for a poem, she jots down groupings of words and proceeds to write and rewrite them. As she plays with the words and sees what sounds good together, she starts narrowing down the phrases, shortening the poem until it contains only the essential words—nothing more.

Likewise, Ruddell calls herself a “relentless reviser.” “I can’t possibly say how many drafts I go through on a single poem,” she explained. “A famous writer once described spending the morning removing a comma, and the afternoon putting it back again. Sounds familiar!” 

“It was really the nice art in others’ children’s books that inspired me,” said Summer. With little in the way of a formal writing process, she writes here and there when the mood strikes her. As with Van Wassenhove, the illustrations take up most of her time.

In fact, Van Wassenhove underestimated the amount of time it would take to make the 19 quilts that would become her book’s illustrations by a year and a half. Fortunately, her publisher was flexible. When the last quilt was finished, a special quilt photographer was hired to translate the three-dimensional effects of the actual quilts into the two-dimensional images for the book.

Seeds Planted in Childhood Can Take a Lifetime to Flower
Ruddell’s father loved poetry and often entertained his family at the dinner table by reciting funny poems. “Those memories probably planted some kind of seed in my imagination,” said Ruddell, who followed her father’s lead, reading poetry to her own children when they were young. “Over the years…the idea of writing poetry myself was percolating somewhere in the back of my mind,” she said. “It wasn’t until our younger child finished college that I started writing seriously. Who knows why…I just had the idea that I could do it!”

Ruddell wrote her first poem in about fifth grade, and, she adds, “I wrote some poems in high school that I would prefer to forget!” As a child, Van Wassenhove used to try her hand at writing limericks. The Klise sisters started writing and illustrating books as little kids in their bedroom on Moss Avenue. “I knew I always wanted to work with Sarah in some way,” explained Kate. “Sadly, ‘grown-up books’ don’t have a lot of illustrations in them. I think that’s what led me to write for younger readers—it was a chance to work with my sister.”

Together, Kate and Sarah Klise have written and illustrated six picture books and nine novels. On her own, Kate has written two additional children’s novels and has another coming out later this year. With new projects constantly in the works, the sisters stay busy. A picture book inspired by their grandmother and the third book in their 43 Old Cemetery Road series will both come out in 2011. “Sometimes [having this much work] doesn’t always feel lucky,” said Sarah. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘Can I really get all these paintings done by…the deadline?’ But then we remember that this is really all we’ve ever wanted to do. So you take a deep breath, rinse your paintbrushes, and get back to work.”

Sharing a book with a child is rewarding for both parties, and for the child, it can be the beginning of a lifetime love of reading—and maybe even inspiration for a career in literature. As we’ve learned from these local authors, the seeds are often planted early. “When I write poems for children,” said Ruddell, “I use the very same skills I learned in childhood…As it turns out, daydreaming, doodling and watching the world go by are part of the job.” a&s