As a child, Erica Silverman turned to books to help her make sense of the world. “The feelings of childhood are very intense and unmitigated by the adult perspective,” she says. “I remember feeling the powerlessness of being subject to the intensity of those feelings without the ability to express them or make sense of them. Books were the places I went to find that characters had similar feelings to me.” As a children’s writer, Silverman tries to stay in touch with the intensity of childhood emotions and the way stories can connect children to the ability to express themselves.
Growing up, Silverman always knew she loved to write but did not know how one became a writer. Some of the books she loved were written by people who were dead, and others seemed so far removed from her experience that she couldn’t imagine a writer’s life. In hindsight, the closest experience she had to being a real writer was an elementary school assignment in which she had to pretend she lost one of her five senses. She imagined what a normal day would be like without her sense of hearing—waking up and not hearing her mother come into the room, and walking to school and not hearing the sounds of the traffic or the children talking to her. “I imagined myself going through the whole day and I wrote what I imagined. It’s the first time I went through a kind of writing process that has become very familiar to me.”
Spending time with her grandmother, Mima, is one of Silverman’s favorite childhood memories. Mima emigrated to the U.S. from Galicia, part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and shared with Silverman a rich cultural history of the old country through the work of Sholom Aleichem, a famous Yiddish author. “I fantasized about being in that world,” Silverman says, and at an early age the seeds were planted for Sholom’s Treasure. The time Silverman spent with Mima going to the library, hanging wet laundry and picnicking on the roof of Mima’s building developed into a book Silverman titled On Grandma’s Roof.
Generally, the idea process is not as straightforward as it was for Sholom’s Treasure andOn Grandma’s Roof. Silverman uses the term “cross-fertilization” to characterize how various snippets of ideas come together to develop a story. Don’t Fidget a Feather borrows from an Indian folktale in which a stubborn couple are locked in a near-death struggle over who will eat the last fish. At the same time, the old Mother Goose nursery rhyme “Goosey Goosey Gander where shall I wander…” flitted through Silverman’s head, along with her ultra-competitive neighbors, a brother/sister duo who dreamt up endless contests and became the models for Silverman’s characters, The result was Duck and Gander, relentless competitors in a freeze-in-place contest who learn to restructure their priorities when a fox tries to make a meal of them.
The Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa series began with Silverman’s childhood desire to become a cowgirl and, according to Silverman, was “cross-fertilized” with the “challenge of telling a good story for children whose reading skills are just developing.” But the desire to write about Cowgirl Kate wasn’t enough; Silverman needed to learn how to be a cowgirl. “I grew up in New York City,” she says with a laugh. She interviewed friends who grew up on ranches and accumulated four or five shelves of books on ranching, horses and the West to give Cowgirl Kate an authentic feel. The Theodore Seuss Geisel Honor for Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa is a measure of her success.
Silverman says, “Research is so much fun to do. You never know what gems will come up and where they’ll go.” The discovery process usually leads to ideas she never would have thought of on her own. Mrs. Peachtree’s Bicycle (Simon & Schuster, 1996) sprang from research Silverman was conducting on the early 1900s. She discovered that the idea of women riding bicycles was offensive. “People actually threw tomatoes at them and picketed them. And I thought that Mrs. Peachtree is definitely going to ride a bicycle.”
Research is a comfortable place for Silverman. “It’s so much more pleasurable than actually beginning the book. That part where you’re grappling for the story—I always feel like I’m in darkness and chaos—there’s this panicky sense that I’ll never find a story here. Knowing that that’s coming up, I’d much rather stay in the research.”
Looking back over her childhood and her life as a writer, Silverman says, “Nothing can take the place of books…The imagination is a precious gift…and I think reading…is the best way to nurture the imagination.”