Well, I try not to judge myself. I try to be “my own best friend.” [laughter] Which is a lie. But I try not to get too wrapped up in the difficulty of the moment because I’ll just wallow in that for as long as I like, feeling bad for myself. So what I do is, I read. I play music. I have conversations with my friends about poetry or writing or whatever they’re working on. I walk my friend’s dog. I travel a lot. Whatever fills up that time. And I’m always thinking about my story, whatever I’m doing, as I’m doing it. And I think that’s incredibly helpful. I just allow myself to never lose sight of my art-piece and to live life.
Do you ever worry about burning out?
I think yesterday at one point it went through my head that “you’re not going to write this story, so why don’t you just quit it now?” [laughter] And I thought “But oh no! I have all these other things I have to do!” Because I have so many different story ideas that I can’t wait to pick up again and write. So I’m not at a loss for ideas. I’m just sometimes at a loss for how to put it together.
Right now I’m teaching myself how to write a novel. I’ve never written a novel before. The Sloppy Copy Slipup was humorous. And it’s pretty easy for me to be humorous and write short, clippy, fun things. But this is for fifth grade as opposed to third grade and they want a little bit more.
I had no doubt that I wanted to do what I wanted to, and this was the way I was going to do it. Which meant going to publishers, and calling back agents, and getting in editor’s faces, and not ever thinking that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted. Because of course I was. Just, somebody give me the contract!
How do you stay in synch with an audience of younger readers?
Being a mother is really inspiring. And since I write for third, fourth and fifth graders (and I do have a few friends that age), visiting schools and meeting students always helps me with my research. It’s important to speak the same language, don’t you think?
When I visit schools, I meet my readers — enthusiastic elementary school students who ask questions and want answers. They reaffirm the stories I’ve written and encourage me to move ahead with the stories I want to write.
On one of my local school visits, the head of the reading department suggested that I not only present to schools about my art, but also my writing. I put together a “writing workshop” and based it on something that all students seem to struggle with and teachers constantly chant: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
DyAnne DiSalvo has written seven children’s books and illustrated over forty, and has worked with numerous authors including Beverly Clearly, Mary Pope Osborne, Jean Fritz, Jane O’Connor, Patricia Reilly Giff, Jean Marzollo, and Amy Hest.
Her trademark theme of helping neighborhoods has been featured on “Reading Rainbow” (Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen) and in theater productions (City Green). She received a Congressional Commendation from the State of New Jersey for her bookGrandpa’s Corner Store. Awards for her illustrated work include the Society of Illustrators’ “best of children’s books” for 1986, 1987, 1991, and 2000. She’s currently working on The Tree Wars, a novel based on the heroic preservation of a historic site of trees in Haddon Township, New Jersey.
In 1995, DiSalvo was chosen as one of thirty international artists to study in Barga, Italy, at the “Mostra di Incisioni.” She also plays rhythm guitar for the power-pop rock band, Smash Palace, which tours internationally and has had songs featured in movies includingWho’s Kyle, starring Gary Oldman, and the independent film The Meeting.
Is there anything else in particular that you emphasize in your writing workshops?
I encourage them to work with the ordinary things in life. After a workshop, students can get excited writing about a bowl of breakfast cereal and feel good! I am not a teacher. I’m an artist. Most of my time is spent in my studio living in my head. It’s not always easy to “teach” a student how to write. What I can offer, though, is how to translate the idea in their head and get it down on paper.
How has that idea — finding inspiration in everyday experiences and the ordinary things in life — shaped your own writing?
Well, for instance, Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen was written from my experience as a volunteer working at a soup kitchen in Park Slope, Brooklyn. And I didn’t go in suspecting that I was going to write a book, but that’s what happens when you put artists in different places.
On my way to the soup kitchen, I passed an empty city lot where a building used to be. The neighbors on that block had turned it into a city garden. Not realizing it at the time, I was witnessing the start of a cultural turnaround in neighborhoods all across America, in which people were renting abandoned plots of city land and turning them into gardens. I was curious about that. And I asked around, and that became City Green, a book that’s used in textbook literature for elementary school kids to teach them about civic responsibilities, helping improve neighborhoods, and becoming real-life heroes.
Neighborhoods are central to my stories. In fact, all the picture books I’ve created have become a neighborhood of people in themselves. In my illustrations, as another story’s going on — like in A Castle on Viola Street, when they’re building a house for Habitat for Humanity — in the background illustrations you can see people from Uncle Willie or people from City Green, just as you’d see neighbors in everyday life. You see the lady across the street, you don’t really know what’s going on, but if you were inside her house, you’d have a whole story about what it looks like from her house out her window. I like that.
Does research play a big role in your work?
I want to be able to see things in ordinary life. For instance, I want to be able to go into the grocery store that I’m going to write about and find one that looks a lot like the one I’m talking about and seeing in my head. So, in Grandpa’s Corner Store, I found the grocery store in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, which is not far from where I live. And there he was — Mr. John Johnson, with his red jacket, sitting in the cookie aisle. I took lots of photos of him. I took sketches of the store and the people and just kind of hung around and drank coffee. That’s the way I do my research.
Are there any lessons you’ve learned that you wish you could go back and share with yourself, when you were just starting out?
Well, I surprise myself if I look back and I see how everything started because I was really quite persistent. I had no doubt that I wanted to do what I wanted to, and this was the way I was going to do it. Which meant going to publishers, and calling back agents, and getting in editor’s faces, and not ever thinking that I wasn’t going to get what I wanted. Because of course I was. Just, somebody give me the contract! [laughter]
I don’t really know how that happened — nobody taught that to me. But I would pass along that same kind of information: to set your goal…you have to. Because nobody else is going to make the way for you. You have to make it yourself. You have to be brave enough to get up there and show your work.
Being a writer, you’re just home alone all the time. And you have to like that. You have to be disciplined. And you have to be able to just get what’s in your head out onto the page. The other thing is, playing my music, working with the band, it’s like my husband says: if you’re going to play with the big boys, you got to practice.
Good luck with winter cold and ice. I miss that part of East Coast living. Being in a warm house on a cold day….
There’s just something to be said for that. You have permission to think. And to dream and read and feel all holed up. This is my weather.
This is your weather? You’re in it right now?
Oh, I’m in it. I’m in it.