Gail Carson Levine, one of the most beloved Newbery Honor winning children’s authors, worked for New York State for 27 years, the vast majority of that time in the welfare department. As a child she loved fairy tales and wrote several stories and poems, a few of which were published in anthologies of student writing, but she did not dream of becoming a writer until a children’s story popped into her head one day while meditating. Even then, she approached the idea more from an illustrator’s perspective than a writer’s, and enrolled in a painting class. But Levine soon found out that she loved the writing. “Illustration was much too hard for me,” she says. “When I realized I wanted to write, it was always for children. Novels were my most important reading experience when I was a child. That’s what I write back to.”
Through writing classes, peer critique groups, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), Levine learned all she could about writing for children, collecting nine years’ worth of rejection slips. During one writing class, Levine wondered if she could translate her love of fairy tales into novel form. Cinderella became the likeliest possibility because of its importance in fairy tale literature and Levine’s inability to understand Cinderella’s seemingly blind obedience to her horrid stepmother and stepsisters. On her website, Levine says, “It’s hard to write a book about a character who annoys and puzzles you.” Then Levine conjured up an idea: Ella suffered from a curse of obedience forcing her to obey, a plot device that not only explained Ella’s actions but provided the necessary conflict for Ella Enchanted. After the story was completed, Levine submitted it to an agent and crossed her fingers. When the agent telephoned hysterically requesting the missing page 222, Levine figured she’d hit pay dirt. Ella Enchanted’s Newbery Honor gave Levine enough self-assurance to quit her job with the state and become a full-time writer.
The Tale of Two Castles also has its roots in fairy tales. Levine wanted to write a mystery, but didn’t know how. She searched for a fairy tale mystery and settled on Puss ‘N Bootsbecause the reader only has the cat’s version of the story on how he bested the ogre. Although Levine hung her story on the framework that Puss ‘N Boots supplied, she says, “It changed as soon as I started writing.” The link to the original fairy tale became tenuous and a reader unaware of the link might not see it when reading Levine’s story.
A scene from The Wish popped into Levine’s head like a gift—an image of a shy, unpopular girl on a crowded subway car who offers an old lady her seat. The old lady is a witch who grants the girl one wish. Levine borrowed liberally from her own shyness and the unpopularity that plagued her in tenth grade. “Every day I walked to school alone amidst groups of kids,” she says. “They weren’t shunning me. They didn’t know me.”
Levine admits that her mind turns to fantasy first and foremost, and although Dave At Night began as fantasy, she eventually scrapped early drafts in favor of a highly researched historical fiction approach. Her father was an orphan at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in the 1920’s until he was 16 years old, and would never speak about his experiences, so she assumed his life was hard. After his death, Levine decided to invent a childhood for him. She created Dave and wrote what she now considers the favorite of her books because it reminds her of her father, “a joyous man,” who died too young.
In another departure from fantasy and fairy tales, Levine wrote Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly a nonfiction guide to writing that uses her experiences as a writing teacher to middle school students. Levine’s honest, straight-forward style guides young writers through the process of creating character and plot, and exploring avenues of publication. On the advice of her editor, Levine also entered the social networking world with a blog about writing. “I didn’t like Facebook,” she says, “and Twitter wasn’t for me.” Levine responds to readers’ questions with the same honesty and sensitivity that made Writing Magic a success. “I love seeing [readers’] responses and seeing the writing community form,” she says.
Levine writes from her New York home, but does not adhere to a particular schedule. “I get it done eventually,” she says. However, if she feels a deadline breathing down her neck, she’s more likely to deliver a book early rather than late. A digital folder on her computer called Remember helps her stay organized as she works on a book. “If I describe a character, I put the description in Remember to find it quickly. The geography of a place is [also] in Remember.”
Levine’s petite 90-pound frame belies her strength as a storyteller. Her characters feel like real people who suffer real dilemmas. She says, “With any luck more books will keep coming.”
Count on it.