Jacqueline Briggs Martin remembers a book called Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez in which the author declares that we need stories as much as food. Martin knew this intuitively before she began writing. When her two children were young, she remembers reading book after book with them. “I decided I would like to try to write books that children and parents—or grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings—would enjoy as much as we enjoyed the books we read.”
Martin excels at creating enjoyable stories. The motivation and inspiration to write comes from the books she loves, like Doctor DeSoto (by William Steig), Miss Rumphius (by Barbara Cooney), Pierre (by Maurice Sendak), and Julius, Baby of the World (by Kevin Henkes). “I love the way William Steig uses language (the fox who thought it might be ‘shabby’ if he ate the mice in Doctor DeSoto). I love Barbara Cooney’s characters and the way she presents them.”
Martin’s story ideas come from a variety of sources. The Green Truck Garden Giveaway: A Neighborhood Story and Almanac (Simon & Schuster, 1997) sprouted from a man she’d read about who gave away gardens as gifts. According to Martin, “he would locate residents who wanted a garden in their back yards, build a frame. . .fill it with dirt, plant seeds. . .and leave instructions for care. . .I decided I wanted to write about such a gift.”
Other story ideas come from Martin’s family, such as The Finest Horse in Town (Purple House Press [reissue], 2003). Two of her aunts lived in Maine at the turn of the century and owned a women’s clothing store. “They sold clothes and socks, cloth and corsets, needles and pins, and all kinds of shoes. . .[I] also found an old newspaper that told us they sold coats and petticoats. An old man who remembered them told. . .me that they also owned ‘the finest horse in town.’ I wrote these stories to help me think about what adventures these sisters might have had with their wonderful horse.” Because Martin’s aunts died before she began research on the story, The Finest Horse in Town underscores the limitations about what we can know of the past.
Snowflake Bentley (Houghton Mifflin, 1998) received the Caldecott Medal for its woodcut illustrations by Mary Azarian. Martin chose to write about Wilson Bentley because he “persisted in doing what he loved with minimal encouragement from friends, neighbors, or the outside world.” Snowflake Bentley required a lot of writing and rewriting. The original story was too long for the picture book format, so Martin was forced to cut it. Several historical details wound up in the wastebasket. To complement the narrative, her editor suggested the use of factual sidebars for older readers who were ready for the historical details that Martin loved.
Martin’s childhood on a Maine farm creeps into many of her stories. “I grew up with Holstein cows and a collie dog,” she quips. In one of her favorite childhood memories, Martin walks down the lane behind her farm to listen to the wind in the pines. “I wondered as I walked about the generations before me (six of them), what the children had done, played, wondered about. It was a great pleasure for me to do the research and writeGrandmother Bryant’s Pocket (Houghton Mifflin, 1996) which is set on a Maine farm in 1787.”
Most of Martin’s books require research. The amount depends on the book. The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat Called Fish (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) is a true story of a Canadian Arctic Expedition that became stuck in the ice. Unlike Snowflake Bentley which required many revisions, most of the work for The Lamp, the Ice, and the Boat Called Fish was geared around research and fact-checking.
Martin describes herself as a slow writer. “But I remind myself that Elizabeth Bishop spent 20 years on her wonderful poem, ‘The Moose.’” While researching, Martin tends to work four to five hours each day from her Iowa home; while writing, she works two to three hours.
Martin senses that her hopes and dreams from childhood appear in her stories, but she’s not sure exactly how. “I don’t think I want to be.” Paraphrasing E. B. White, she says, “It’s not always good to look under the hood.”
She often gives advice to people who want to write for children. “I tell them to read and to write and they will get better. I also remind them that writing is a process. We all want to get better. We never get to a point where we say, ‘That’s it. I’ve reached the goal. I’m as good a writer as I want to be.’”