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Author Interview With Corinne Demas

The Massachusetts children's author talks about getting kids excited about literacy.

by Elizabeth S. Leaver


Author Corinne Demas of South Hadley, Mass., has written more than 30 books. Her children’s books include Saying Goodbye to Lulu, about the death of a family dog, and The Littlest Matryoshka, inspired by a set of the dolls she gave her daughter. Her picture books, including the humorous tale Pirates Go to School, are popular with young readers. Her latest young adult novel, Returning to Shore, is based in Cape Cod. Demas teaches literature and creative writing at Mount Holyoke College and frequently speaks to children about reading, writing, and being an author.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I wanted to be a writer as soon as I was old enough to read.

Do you remember writing any books when you were a child?

My first book, written when I was 6, was a tale about a prince, a king (spelled “kenk”), and an “evil lady” who lived under the ground. In the end the king rescues the prince from a nasty fate, and then they all go to sleep....I wrote my “novel” in pencil in an old-fashioned black composition book, and illustrated it in crayon. It had lots of short chapters (some only a sentence long) since I thought that made it seem like a real book.

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With its familiar school setting, Pirates Go to School is a book students can relate to. Where did you get the idea for the book?

I knew that kids love pirates, and I was talking with my daughter about writing a book that would put pirates in an unlikely and humorous situation. Sending them to school was her idea, and it proved great fun to write. She and I have coauthored a new book about pirates, which will be coming out from Scholastic in the spring. It’s a manners book, called Are Pirates Polite? (The answer is yes, they are!)

Do most of your book ideas come from real life or from your imagination?

All my books start with real life, but imagination quickly takes over. Saying Goodbye to Lulu was based on my own family’s experience of our old dog dying, but the story itself is fiction. I’m embarrassed to admit I still get teary when I read this book aloud.

Always in Trouble was inspired by a different dog’s real antics. He did all the naughty things that Toby does in the story, but he never did the laundry!

What were your favorite books as a child? Why were they your favorites?

I loved Margaret Wise Brown’s The Golden Egg Book when I was little, and I still do. The illustrations by Leonard Weisgard complement the text beautifully—they’re both lush and gentle—and the story has an ending that is sweet without being saccharine. The plot has a perfect literary echo that enables children to anticipate what will happen but doesn’t ruin the suspense.

Was there a special teacher or another adult who encouraged your writing?

I was fortunate to have parents who loved to read to me and tell me stories. I especially liked hearing the stories they spun about themselves when they were children. They always encouraged me to write my own stories, and they applauded all my efforts. I was also fortunate to go to an elementary school where creativity was appreciated, and so I felt nurtured as a writer from an early age.

What advice do you give young people who are interested in writing?

The standard advice is read, read, read! I absolutely agree, but I’d take that one step further. If you want to be a writer, think critically about what you read. What works? And why?

What tips would you give parents for encouraging their children to read?

Read books aloud with them, and have them read the parts (or words) they’re able to. Bring drama into the reading. Use different voices for the dialogue, and make the characters come alive.

You must have an interesting perspective, interacting with very young students as well as college students. How important is it for kids to develop a love for reading at a young age?

It’s tremendously important kids get hooked on reading when they’re young, especially now that there are so many high-tech distractions. Kids need to see books as companions, as a refuge for the tough parts of life, and as enduring entertainment. Many of the students in my literature and creative writing classes at Mount Holyoke College have told me that the habit—and joy—of reading was instilled in them when they were young.

What’s the best part about writing books for elementary-age kids? How about middle school students?

Elementary school kids are wonderfully honest. When a story bores them they wriggle, or doodle, or worse. And when they find it engaging, they are totally engrossed. Middle school students are in that exciting transitional place—no longer really kids, but not quite teens. They have moments of wisdom and moments of silliness, and they surprise themselves sometimes by liking books they didn’t think they were going to like. I enjoy creating characters they can identify with—characters who mature and come into their own.

What advice would you give PTOs and PTAs that want to encourage kids to read and write?

You might consider projects that engage parental involvement in the writing process itself. I worked with one local elementary school group where the parents participated in a writing workshop and created a memoir project to work on with their kids.

How has technology changed the way that children engage with books?

Technology has made children more impatient with books—they’re used to immediate stimulation. But once a child gets immersed in a book, the staying power is as great as it has ever been. The trick is to get children to turn off the computer and curl up with a book.

Do you have any suggestions or tips for PTOs and PTAs that want to book an author visit?

I always appreciate it when the children have read (or had read to them) some of my books in advance of my visit. And students are more excited about meeting an author if it’s someone whose books are already familiar to them. It’s also great if kids’ questions are written down in advance, since some students are shy about asking them out loud. I’ve liked having questions written on index cards (one per child) which I can read ahead so I can be sure to cover all of the topics in the time allotted.

It’s nice for authors if you can connect their visit with a fundraising book event, one that raises money for a worthy cause—like purchasing books for the school library. Schools can send out flyers in advance so parents can order signed books. (It’s best to keep the book-buying part separate from the author appearance so children who don’t get books don’t feel left out.)

I’ve done some evening book events which were for both parents and kids. It was a good way to bring families into the school and make the author visit a community event.

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