Ann Whitford Paul thought she was going crazy when her third child was born. Overwhelmed, sleep-deprived and pulled between an infant, a daughter in morning kindergarten, and a son in afternoon pre-school, Paul vowed not to have any more children. After her fourth child arrived, the noise and activity reached a fever pitch. Paul cherished the pre-nap and pre-bedtime quiet achieved through reading stories together. “I wanted to replicate that,” she says, “by writing books that adults and children could share together like we shared our books.”
Paul started with what she knew. “I loved to cook with my children,” she says. “So I thought I would write a cookbook that parents and children could use together.” The book never sold (and according to Paul, probably shouldn’t have), but “that’s when I really knew I wanted to write.” Paul enrolled in a UCLA extension class on writing for children. When one of her instructors remarked on her poetic voice, Paul followed up with a poetry class. Her work has been nominated for several state reading awards, plus she was the recipient of the Carl Sandburg Award for Children’s Literature for A Season Sewn and honored by the George C. Stone Center for Children’s Literature for Eight Hands Round and A Season Sewn.
Paul usually turns to her family for inspiration rather than her own memories. “Because I write mostly for younger kids, I don’t have those memories of me being a preschooler,” she says. “I love that age where everything is so new and exciting.” Paul tries to capture the wonder of the world in every book she writes.
Little Monkey Says Good Night was inspired by her son’s nighttime ritual of saying good night to a litany of objects in his room. Paul and her husband knew he was done when he said, “Good night, Me.” But the manuscript lacked action and visual variation. When Paul realized she could turn her son into monkey and set the book in the circus, the book fell into place.
If Animals Kissed popped into Paul’s head after a trip to the zoo. “We live near the Los Angeles Zoo and I used to take the kids there all the time,” she says. After they arrived home for their naps, they used to pretend to kiss like the animals they’d visited.
As the author of several award-winning books and a contributor to several poetry anthologies, Paul insists that “it’s not enough to get the story right. You have to get the language right.” Although Paul solved all of the plot problems in her current project about her bulldog, she realized there was “no music”—a component that usually comes near the end of the revision process. Paul strives to imbue her writing with rhythm and sometimes rhyme, but as a poet she goes further. “The rhythm and the sound of the words can’t clash,” she says. “The music has to match the meaning.”
Now that her children are grown, Paul writes seven days a week from her Los Angeles home. “I must get something down every day,” she says. “I feel better.” When an idea strikes, Paul rushes to commit the first draft to paper. “I love revising,” she says. “It’s my favorite part. I feel I have material I can work with if I get something down.”
In spite of the young target age for Paul’s books, research is required. The rich focused poems in All By Herself required extensive research about 14 real-life heroines, such as Amelia Earhart, Sacajawea and Rachel Carson.
On a trip to from Zimbabwe to Kenya, Paul sat next to a nine-year old boy from Afghanistan who spoke perfect English. He asked her, “How many languages do you speak?” Paul, embarrassed by her lack of proficiency with languages, enrolled in Spanish classes and wrote four picture books (Tortuga in Trouble; Count on Culebra; Fiesta Fiasco; and Mañana Iguana) incorporating Spanish words into the text of the story. “I wanted to introduce kids to parts of a language in hopes that they will want to learn more,” she says. Paul relies on her Spanish teacher and two family members who are native speakers for research questions that crop up during the writing process. Because the books take place in the desert, Paul also gathers information about desert animals and their habits.
Throughout her career, Paul learned that she is persistent. “If I really take the time, I can make a story work,” she says. “It’s just a matter of time and thoughtfulness.”