after waiting almost five whole years,
I can officially introduce our TeachingAuthors readers to debut children’s book author Amy Alznauer!
She’s a Mentee Success Story if ever there was one.
And, one lucky reader gets to win a copy of Amy’s first published book, THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY: A TALE OF THE GENIUS RAMANUJAN (Candlewick), beautifully illustrated by Daniel Miyares, just by entering our Book Giveaway at the end of Amy’s interview.
I’d briefly mentioned in my recent Silver Linings post how lucky I was in 2015 when my SCBWI-Illinois Chapter gifted me with the opportunity to mentor a “picture book writer ready to cross the publishing threshold” via the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship. Amy’s Artist Statement and draft of her Ramanujan biography proved she more than met the bill. And little surprise. It took but one lunch meet-up for both Amy and Ramanujan to claim my heart. As the South Indian mathematician Ramanujan was destined to share his genius with the world, Amy was destined to tell his story to children.
Amy lives in Chicago with her husband, two children, a dog, a parakeet, sometimes chicks, and a part-time fish, but, as of today, no elephants or peacocks. (She advises we check back.) Her writing has won the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction as well as the Christopher Award for LOVE AND SALT (Loyola Press, 2013). Her essays and poetry have appeared in collections and literary journals including The Bellingham Review, Creative Nonfiction and River Teeth. She has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh. She teaches calculus and number theory classes at Northwestern University. She is the managing editor for SCBWI-Illinois’ online newsletter. And, if that weren’t enough, she serves as the writer-in-residence at St. Gregory the Great, where she has a little office in a big building with a bad internet connection, so she actually gets some work done – in theory, she adds.
But see for yourself! In response to Covid-19’s challenging impact on her debut book’s promotion, Amy has keenly utilized social media to share key elements of her deeply personal connection to Ramanujan’s story, helpful insights into the mentorship process, her thoughts on creative nonfiction, especially the picture book biography, and how the author-illustrator relationship worked. Click on the links. Amy’s spirit is contagious.
Laura Crawford, whom Amy’s mentorship memorializes, shared a similar spirit. In one of Life’s delicious ironies, the very last picture book Laura had been working on had a mathematical theme, too. So many facets of this mentorship gladden my heart.
Thank you, Amy, for so thoughtfully answering a few more questions not already addressed in the above referenced videos and interviews.
I remain infinitely thankful for all our mentorship process continues to bring us.
Both you and Ramanujan – finally and officially – now reside, not just in my heart, but in our Children’s Book World, too.
Thanks to Jama’s Alphabet Soup for hosting today’s Poetry Friday
Be sure to enter our Book Giveaway at the end of Amy’s interview to win an author-and-illustrator-autographed copy of THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY: A TALE OF THE GENIUS RAMANUJAN.
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You’ve waited five whole years since Candlewick’s purchase of your manuscript in the summer of 2015 for the debut of your very first published children’s book, the picture book biography THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY: A TALE OF THE GENIUS RAMANUJAN. And you’ve been waiting since you were five to tell Ramanujan’s story to the world. How goes it? 😊 And how has Covid-19 forced you to tweak your publishing vision?
Remember: Ramanujan considered the big – and – the small.
Yes, this book has been a long time in the making. I have a box full of hundreds of index cards, a collection of interviews on mini-cassette tapes (yes, my research stretches all the way back to the analog age), and travel journals. But even much earlier, ever since my father found Ramanujan’s Lost Notebook when I was only five-years-old, this story has been a constant presence in my life.
I remember one funny incident in particular. It was my father’s birthday, and since my mother loves surprises, she designed a birthday hunt which ended in my sister’s bedroom, my father crawling on the carpet around to the hidden space under the back of her high bed, and finding there an oddly shaped object covered in a child’s printed quilt. He pulled off the unlikely drape to unveil an exquisitely carved bust of Ramanujan, brilliantly scowling in bronze.
So again, yes, this book has been percolating in my imagination for a very long time. And now, as you said, after that long lead-up, suddenly Covid-19. But the shut-down has been so cataclysmic, so total, that it’s hard to take it personally. And on the positive side, I’ve found that there is a simultaneous intimacy and reach in virtual events that in-person events might never have achieved. I love seeing people in their homes. Conversation and presentations are necessarily less formal, with the tech snafus and invariable interruptions by children and pets. There is a pervasive sense of connection through hardship and gratitude for the chance to connect. And as the world reinvents itself, I find that instead of having a planned launch, I am making it up as I go, along with everyone else. There’s been a freedom in that I never could have anticipated.
When we first began working together, I shared E.B. White’s so-true words: “All writers are revisers.” Can you share a few insights you gleaned from working with your award-winning Candlewick editor Hilary Van Dusen to make this the best story it could be told the best way possible? Were there any surprises?
Well, before we get to Hilary, I want to back up and say that the most significant revision happened when I started working with you, when I put away all the old drafts and began with a blank page. This taught me that such a radial thing is in fact possible and can be transformative. In some sense I already had the story, the arc of it, the moments, but I didn’t have the voice or orientation. I was writing at a great distance from the central character and looking back from the vantage of history. I needed to move in close, where a reader could feel the joy and movement of the quest, and I needed the narrative gaze of the story to be forwards not backwards.
But then, Hilary was so attentive to the details and wanted every scene to be accurate and full. So, we combed over every page, filling out various moments. There were two surprises through this process. First, we ended up adding over 500 words, which seems quite counter to the advice given at conferences about keeping picture book word-count low. And we amplified the presence of divinity. Maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me, but I somehow imagined the publishing industry wanting to focus on the facts and the mathematics and to minimize something as subjective as felt religious experience. But Hilary wanted authenticity, and for Ramanujan mathematical inspiration came, he believed, through a goddess, who placed her thoughts on his tongue. To me it gives tangible, illustrated form to the most mysterious aspect of creativity: its source. And beautifully, we see mathematics coming not in a masculine form, as it’s so often depicted, but through the mind of a non-western female figure.
2020 marks the pub date of not one, not two, but three picture book biographies authored by Amy Alznauer! Candlewick released THE BOY WHO KNEW OF INFINITY in April; Enchanted Lions publishes THE STRANGE BIRDS OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR: A LIFE in June; and in September, Candlewick releases FLYING PAINTINGS, THE ZHOU BROTHERS: A STORY OF REVOLUTION AND ART. Readers can link to your most glorious conversation with SLJ editor Betsy Bird about creative nonfiction, especially in children’s literature. What do you now know that you didn’t know in 2015 about this singular format – the picture book biography, and the kind of story it accommodates?
People approach picture book biographies, just like all forms of literature, in vastly different ways. But here is what I’ve come to know about my particular approach to this genre. For me there is a single, imaginative task at the core of a biography – and that is locating the child within the adult. Nobody springs fully formed into their adult, celebrated self. From the very beginning of every person’s life there are some questions that seem more pressing than others, some aspects of the world that shine more brightly and call out to be noticed. There’s a path that beckons, although it might only be clear in retrospect.
My job as a biographer is to imagine the child who will someday be the adult and forge a continuity between these two provinces of being. And even more it is to bring the reader into that younger self first, so they can imagine growing up with the child in the story.
There were two early questions written down in the family record that Ramanujan asked as a little boy. Who was the first man in the world? And, what is the distance between clouds? Why did these questions in particular catch his attention? To me, these questions about small and big have a continuity with the mathematics that will later captivate him. And Flannery as a girl had a passion for birds, especially strange chickens and other fowl. What was it about this fascination that played into and really became her literary imagination?
So, to begin writing I ask myself: how do I connect the boy’s questions with the man’s pursuits? How does the little girl obsessed with birds become the woman sitting a typewriter? Answering these questions will not only suggest plot but also metaphor, which will become the mechanism for forging that connection between child and adult.
One of our earliest conversations, and in my mind, one of our most important, focused on your personal connection to and passion for Ramanujan’s story – and – the important Universal Truths his story offers young readers. In your Everywhere Bookfest presentation with the illustrator Daniel Miyares, you each addressed both those elements. What was it about the adult author Flannery O’Connor’s life story that grabbed your heart and demanded it be shared with children? What was it about the internationally-renown Zhou Brothers that made you fall in love and write their story for young readers? What do you hope is the take-away of each of these picture books?
For Flannery I was first inspired by her essay King of the Birds, in which she details her early search to find the strangest, most beautiful bird. Her quest eventually culminated in her raising peafowl. But then when I visited the archives at Emory University and discovered stacks and stacks of her early drawings and stories about birds and people, I was all in. Her fierce, funny, dark imagination was in full bloom when she was five, ten, fifteen years old. To me her fascination with birds was a perfect metaphor for the types of strange and beautiful stories she would someday write. So, the plot, the metaphor, the woman within the girl were all there.
For the Zhou Brothers it was a single moment in a café that set me off. I was at the Zhou B Art Center for the first time, for one of their open-studio third Fridays, which they run throughout the year. I sat down to give my eyes and mind a break from taking in so much art and started leafing through their gorgeous catalogue. In an opening essay, the younger brother DaHuang talks about the nature of collaboration, and I’ll paraphrase: People think collaboration is about harmony, he said, but that’s wrong. It’s more like this. You make something beautiful and then someone comes along and destroys it, and you have to find a way to go on together. To me this seemed to be about everything all at once – about loving another person, a brother, about loving a nation even when it hurts you, about making art even in the face of oppression. So, I thought that if I could write a book that wove those three strands from childhood all the way through to their first adult achievement, I would have a powerful story about art, revolution, and love.
Finally, in the Artist’s Statement you submitted for the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship, you wrote: “I want to write not only about children, but for children.” You did just that and instantly became a full-blooded, full-hearted member of the Children’s Book World, generously returning so much of your time and expertise to our SCBWI-Illinois Chapter. What do you think distinguishes our Children’s Book World from others?
To me it is a kinder, more creative, more expansive world than any other world of letters I’ve ever experienced. I wonder about this difference all the time. Why shouldn’t the children’s book world be just as competitive, back-biting, and petty as other circles of writers? It might have something to do with our readers being children. We are aware always that we are writing for young people and so also aware that our words and images matter. We are less likely to write to impress our peers when we know such sincere readers await. It might also have to do with the intrinsic collaborative nature of our art. Our words are so often illustrated. Even in longer books, art often plays a significant role, not only on the covers but at chapter headings and throughout. So, we are in that collaborative position that DaHuang Zhou described. We always have to find a way to go on together. That really is the position of all human beings with respect to one other and to the world at large, but often this reality is hidden from us. Maybe as children’s book writers, we feel it more viscerally in the level gaze of our readers and in the work we do with each other.
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