Meet Natalie Ziarnik of Barrington, Illinois – a former Newberry Library Writing Workshop student I later had the privilege of coaching – and – drum roll, please: the debut author of Boyds Mills Press’ May-released picture book Madeleine’s Light.
She’s a true Success Story if ever there was one.
Natalie grew up in LaSalle, Illinois and majored in English at Grinnell College in Iowa. She received her master’s degree in comparative literature and a master’s in library and information science from the University of Illinois. She currently heads the children’s department of the Ela Area Public Library District in Lake Zurich, IL.
Natalie first learned of her picture book’s famous character, French sculptress Camille Claudel, when she visited a Paris exhibit. She was so moved by Claudel’s work, she wanted to learn more about the artist. Research introduced her to Madeleine Boyer, the girl who served as the model for a number of Claudel’s sculptures, including La Petite Chatelaine. Their resulting friendship captured Natalie’s heart and soon she was off and running.
Or rather, imagining and writing, about a little girl named Madeleine who eagerly awaits a special summer guest, Mademoiselle Claudel, at her Grand-mere’s chateau. Despite the visiting artist’s gruffness, Madeleine is fascinated. Their meeting leads to an unforgettable experience for the two of them as Madeleine overcomes her fears and tries her hand at sculpting too.
Natalie has graciously offered to gift one TeachingAuthors reader with a signed copy of Madeleine’s Light, beautifully illustrated, by the way, by Robert Dunn. Be sure to enter by 11 pm Wednesday, June 6. Instructions appear beneath our last question-and-answer.
Here’s hoping Natalie’s answers to the questions below further illuminate both Natalie’s and Madeleine’s stories, sharing insights on their art and craft.
What inspired you to sign up for my 2006 Summer Workshop, The Write Place, at the Newberry Library?
At this point, I had written a nonfiction book for adults, School and Public Libraries: Developing the Natural Alliance, and several articles for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature edited by Jack Zipes. I wanted to take my writing in a new, more creative direction. Children’s books have always been my first love, so that seemed to be a natural path. When I saw the class on writing for children advertised at the Newberry Library, I decided to give it a try, and I’m so glad I did.
Do you recall any specific ways the class helped you?
Reading children’s books is one thing, but writing them is quite another. During the class, I began to look at how stories were constructed, and that was hard to do because if a book is well-written, you become immediately caught up in the action, characters, and language; the structure seems almost invisible. Esther showed us how stories in a variety of genres (and for different age groups) tended to work. Even though it was much easier to analyze someone else’s story than to apply the principles to my own, it was an excellent start. I began looking at books not only as a reader and librarian but also as a writer.
The other important topic covered in class was considering the “personality” of publishing houses. Again, this was information that was right in front of me, but I had never consciously thought about what types of books the different companies were publishing.
You eventually went on to publish the manuscript you began and worked on in class. How did the manuscript change by the time it was published?
This manuscript underwent many transformations. I began by writing the text for a picture book biography of the French sculptor, Camille Claudel. However, when it came to writing about the difficult times in her life (of which there were many), I found myself writing those sections in verse. I think this happened because verse seemed like a more appropriate form for times of mental anguish and breakdown. These poems eventually became a YA verse novel which was so depressing that I stuck it in a drawer for a year or so because I didn’t want to think about it. But then during a workshop, I showed some of the poems to a critique group, and one of the members, Laura Crawford, really liked a poem about Madeleine and said, “…that could be a picture book!” In re-working the story, my focus switched from Claudel to the girl who had inspired her, Madeleine Boyer. Very little is known about Madeleine, so I imagined what might have happened during the summers she spent with Camille Claudel—and this leap became the final story, which had also changed from nonfiction to fiction and from having a sad and anxiety-ridden tone to a joyful one. Although Claudel’s overall life contained much tragedy, she still had moments of happiness, connection with others, and success in her work; this episode helps us remember that.
Looking at the story now, I can’t help but think the inspiration came from my own childhood, when we had many (sometimes unusual) visitors arriving for dinner or an extended stay. As a child, these visitors appeared mysterious, even magical, and I liked to peek around corners to watch what they were up to.
How does being a librarian influence or inspire your writing?
At the recent SCBWI-Illinois Spring Thaw, SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver talked about how writers create their own “canons”—or sets of books that are essential to their development as writers. While putting together my canon, I feel lucky, as a librarian, to be familiar with both the well-known and lesser-known titles. And, whenever I see that a favorite author or illustrator has a new book out, I can order it immediately and dive right in to spend time with it.
In addition, working with young readers at the library has shown me that books are related to each other in unusual ways. A child may like two totally different books because they are both, for example, set in swamps or have some other characteristic. The challenge is then to find other books with a swamp setting, or which contain shy alligators, or in which a hat is eaten, etc. So the special aspects of books one might not ordinarily think about come to the forefront.
How do you balance your full-time library job with your writing and marketing?
I have a strong mission as a children’s librarian, and I can’t help but write, so I sense that both occupations will be important throughout my life. I tend to write in the “cracks of time”—early in the morning, on the weekends, while waiting in the school parking lot to pick up my son, or while a casserole bakes in the oven. I always carry a story or poems with me so I can work at a moment’s notice. I also think about my writing projects throughout the day and while going for walks, so forgive me if I appear distracted! Unfortunately, I do not get as much writing in as I would like, but I’m guessing that’s the case with all writers or anyone working on a creative project.
As for marketing, the public relations manager at the library where I work has been a tremendous help in challenging me to take small steps to promote my work. She suggested putting an article in our library’s newsletter and having a launch party at the library.
How have you continued your writing education since the Newberry Library first connected us?
I have participated in workshops through the Highlights Foundation—the Chautauqua Children’s Writing Institute and a couple of Founder’s Workshops, which now take the place of the Chautauqua program. I highly recommend these as well as SCBWI-Illinois events, which I attend as often as I can. I’m currently taking a poetry correspondence course with Heidi Bee Roemer. The course has helped me become a more precise writer and has increased my awareness of poetic elements.
Finally, can you describe your elation and sense of satisfaction when you first opened the Boyds Mills Press carton that held your Author’s copies of MADELEINE’S LIGHT?
My editor had e-mailed to say that an advance copy was on its way, so I had been watching the mailbox obsessively. I came home from work one day and saw a white puffy envelope and knew that this had to be it. So I put my work bags on the front steps, sat down, ripped open the envelope, and read the book right there, outside. I still couldn’t believe that this unusual topic I had pursued for quite some time had led to a beautiful book for others to read and enjoy.
And, now, as promised above, the opportunity to win a signed copy of Madeleine’s Light!
Be sure to read our Book Giveaway Guidelines. Then answer the following question: What Famous Person – French sculptress or otherwise, would you have loved to have met when you were a child?
You may either post your answer as a comment below or email your answer to teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com with "Book Giveaway" in the subject line. If you enter via a comment, you MUST include a valid email address (formatted like: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com or a link to an email address where we can reach you. Your entry must be posted or received by 11 p.m. Wednesday, June 6, 2012 (Central Standard Time). The winner will be chosen in a random drawing and announced on June 9, 2012.
Bonne chance, everyone!