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Poetry's Magic Sparked St. Louis Author's Return To Writing

Courtesy Susan Grigsby

Local children’s authors, who explore topics ranging from Thomas Jefferson to tattletales, will be on hand to discuss and sign their books at two sessions this month at the St. Louis Central Library.

Writer and teacher SusanGrigsby of Webster Groves said she’s looking forward to taking part in the first session from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday Jan. 15. Scheduled to join her that evening are the award-winning Patricia McKissack, who has written more than 100 books, storyteller Bobby Norfolkand Jeanie Franz Ransom, a former elementary school counselor.

Two of Grigsby’s works were named “Best Children's Books of the Year” by the Center for Children’s Literature at New York’s Bank Street College: In The Garden with Dr. Carver, a historical fiction picture book about George Washington Carver (2010; Albert Witman and Co.) for grades 2 to 4, and First Peas to the Table, about Thomas Jefferson’s garden at Monticello (2012; Albert Witman and Co.) for grades 1-4.

Grigsby, who grew up in St. Louis, said the well-rounded roster for the children’s literature showcase is not surprising, considering the city’s long history of producing authors -- a tradition encouraged by writing programs at local universities. Grigsby, who studied writing at Bard College in New York, Washington University and Webster University, also teaches creative writing at area schools, museums and nature centers. She integrates her writing lessons with science, social studies and art curriculums.

The 54-year-old author worked for many years as a director of radiation oncology at Barnes-Jewish Hospital before earning a master’s degree in teaching from Webster University.

“In college, I studied writing and theater and art and design,’’ she said. “My background was in the arts, but I had gotten practical at one point in my life and said ‘I need to earn more money to support my children.’ ’’

Grigsby participated in a roundtable discussion for the recent “Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry’’published by The Poetry Foundation and McSweeney’s Books. She is working on her fourth children’s book,  a novel for preteens about growing up during the Vietnam War era in the 1960s.

photo of Susan Grigsby
Credit Courtesy Susan Grigsby
Susan Grigsby

Here are more excerpts from the interview:

Question: What motivated you to leave your job and return to writing?

Grigsby: I was already writing poetry when I was in high school, and I went off to college to do that. But then it got set aside. I got busy with careers and children. I probably didn’t write for 15 years or so. And then I started writing poetry again and was lucky enough to win prizes and get published. I thought, "This means I need to go back to writing. This is what I was meant to do."

I started doing that seriously. Most big cities have poet-in-the-school type programs. I was asked by the St. Louis Poetry Center and other groups to do some visits to schools and when I did that I saw this magic that happens with children and poetry. It really brings out aspects in children who had otherwise been reluctant learners. Their teachers would be amazed. They’d say, "I didn’t know that child had that gift."

I had an MBA and had gone off in a different path, but once I saw what it did I decided to go back and get a master’s in education at Webster to start teaching writing and poetry and literature in the schools.

Why did you write about George Washington Carver?

Grigsby: While I was doing graduate work I had an internship at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and it had just put the Carver garden in. 

I didn’t learn in school about Dr. Carver except about peanuts in Alabama. I did a study at the garden and found that none of the visitors associated him with Missouri. He was born in Missouri and the peanut thing was late in his life, but he had so many more accomplishments. So I decided to write a book for children.

I still write poetry, but that’s how I got on the children’s book path. School gardens were beginning to become popular at the time, and I had always used garden settings to teach nature writing and poetry and science. The Carver book ended up winning an American Horticultural Society “Growing Good Kids Award.”

Was it difficult to find a publisher? Did you have an agent?

Grigsby: I don’t have an agent. When I got my contract [for the Carver book] I realized that because I didn’t have an agent I needed more information. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. They offer a lot of help with contracts. I strategized and submitted to different publishers. I decided I would only submit to really good ones.

You can only make simultaneous submissions to certain publishers and I usually have a rule that I’ll submit to five. If they all say no, I start over. I was lucky; but also back then -- in 2009 -- there were a few more publishers that would take submissions without an agent. It keeps getting narrower and narrower.

It’s time for me to get an agent. But I think anyone can start out without one, especially for a children’s book.

Do you know Patricia McKissack, who is scheduled to appear with you at the showcase?

Grigsby: She’s one of my idols. When I was going to Webster, they had a children’s literature literacy symposium, and she was one of the presenters. I learned so much. Her books are wonderful.

Her main point in the class she gave at the symposium was that you have to work so hard to be sure that everything is accurate. So often there will be these little inaccuracies and children take them as the truth. With my books I put in hundreds of hours. It’s like she’s looking over my shoulder, and I’m remembering her words. She’s right. You have to be sure it’s accurate.

cover of book First Peas to the Table
Credit With permission of Susan Grigsby

When I did First Peas to the Table, I researched whether at the time of Thomas Jefferson they would have had wigs or different hairstyles. What kind of coffeepot did they use?

I keep a paper trail in case someone asks. The visuals are also important. Children remember an image as much as they do the words. With the Carver book, the reviews were great but I remember seeing someone’s comment about how the book was very good, but the people were all dressed up, which was ridiculous because they were living in poverty. But, actually, we based the picture of them dressed up on a Sunday on an actual photograph of him visiting a church.

Which schools do you visit and what do you teach?

Grigsby: I teach writing, creative writing, the arts integrated with curriculum. I go to St. Louis Public Schools, schools in University City, Ferguson-Florissant, Ladue … I have gone to lots of districts around the area. I’ve worked with preschool through seniors in high school, but primarily work with grades 2-6. About 30 percent of my work now is with English as a Second Language students. I’ve found that writing poetry is a great way to help them with language skills. 

I think poetry is less rigid. Some kids who are struggling have problems with the density of text. With poetry, there’s more white space on the page. It’s compressed. They’re doing worksheets and drills for tests so much now, just the freedom of getting to write a little more openly is a great joy.

Meet Local Children’s Authors 

When: 6-8 p.m., Jan. 15, Susan Grigsby, Patricia McKissack, Bobby Norfolk, Jeanie Franz Ransom; 6-8 p.m., Jan. 21, Heather Brewer, Margo L. Dill, Jody Feldman, Cole Gibsen, Jan Greenberg, John Hendrix, and Inda Schaenen.

Where: Juvenile Fiction Room, Central Branch of the St. Louis Public Library, 1301 Olive St.

Admission: The event is free and open to the public.

Information: Books for signing are available from Left Bank Books in advance or at the event. For more information, call 314-367-6731 or check the Left Bank Books website.

Credit Covers courtesy of Left Bank Books

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.