As a child, Carol Otis Hurst believed it was her duty to visit the children’s section of the public library each day. “I really thought the librarian’s day wouldn’t be complete unless I stopped by.” She read copiously as a child, and continues to do so as an adult. For 16 years, Hurst shared her love of books with elementary students, first as their teacher and then as their school librarian. In 1981, she launched a new career as a storyteller and children’s literature consultant for teachers and parents.
Hurst tells children stories that have a direct connection to reading. Her goal is to plant the idea that library books are loaded with other good stories just waiting to be discovered. On her website and in her books for educators, she categorizes children’s books and discusses how to use them to deepen a child’s understanding of the school curriculum. She speaks to parents about the strong connection between oral language and reading ability. In 20 years, Hurst has become an expert on children’s literature, yet she never tried to write anything for children. According to Hurst, “It just didn’t seem possible.”
She forgot to consider the family picnics she’d attended where her relatives swam, ate, told stories, and sang songs. “There were so many storytellers in my family. I thought that’s what normal people did.” The dam broke when Hurst compiled a genealogy for her two daughters, which included family stories passed down for several generations. Suddenly writing for children was possible.
Through the Lock (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) was Hurst’s first children’s novel. The story idea began with Hurst’s grandmother Etta. “She was a heroic woman, the strength of our family. I tried to think of a way to tell her story that would be interesting to children.” She began to ask herself “what if?” When Hurst was through, Etta was thrown together with a grandfather from the other side of Hurst’s family and transported back 40 years to the nineteenth century Farmington Canal in western Massachusetts.
Rocks in His Head (Greenwillow, 2001) is a picture book biography of Hurst’s father—an avid rock collector. “I remember being in the attic with my dad when I was in first grade.” Hurst’s father had a cigar box full of rocks and minerals. She could only add a sample to the box if she knew what it was and where it came from.
Hurst’s genealogical research appears in an upcoming novel, A Killing in Plymouth(Houghton Mifflin, 2003). “It seemed to me that most people probably have the wrong impression of what the Pilgrims were like. I wanted to write a novel in which the Pilgrims were shown as real people instead of overly good people.” Hurst pits Governor William Bradford, an ancestor on one side of her family, against John Billington, an ancestor on the other side. According to Hurst’s research, Billington committed the first murder in the colonies. Hurst’s novel follows the conflict between Bradford and his 12 year old son over Billington’s sentence.
Although many of Hurst’s books for children are steeped in history, she remembers receiving a D in her American History class in high school. “I was too caught up in memorizing dates. I had no feeling for the characters.” Genealogical research brought her back to history. Now, Hurst has co-authored a book with her daughter, Rebecca, titled In Times Past: Teaching U.S. History Through Children’s Books so today’s children won’t fall victim to her experience.
Hurst quips that the amount of time she writes depends on whether the work is going well. Sometimes she writes until 2 or 3 in the morning. Sometimes she fritters away an hour or so online playing canasta with Lois Lowry, the author of several children’s books includingThe Giver, Gathering Blue, and Autumn Street. As Hurst writes she gets caught up in her characters. They tell her where the plot is going, even though it’s frequently easier to take the story in a different direction. Hurst claims whatever book she’s crafting is her favorite because she nurtures it so. During the creative phase she says, “You have to be crazy about it!”