Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Q&A with children's author Carolyn Feigenbaum

Carolyn Feigenbaum
Carolyn Feigenbaum's book for children, A Bench in London, looks at her uncle's experiences as an American soldier in London during World War II.

Q: Did your uncle often tell stories about his experiences during World War II?

A: I wish I had heard more tales from my uncle about his World War II experiences. However, after he returned home from Germany, his final post, to Chicago, he became busy starting a career, getting married, and moving to New York. During those years, my high school classes and activities, music lessons, and friends occupied my time and interests.

Q: How did you get the idea to turn your uncle's story into a children's picture book?

A: After 9/11 I knew Americans were searching for heroes.  Then in November 2001 I read my aunt's article in the New York Times about a bench in London she bought to honor the memory of her husband, my uncle, who served in the U.S. Army and was stationed for a while in London.   I thought that might make a story for children.    I liked reading and learning about her memories and action to preserve some of them and thought her story could help teach young people about some events of World War II.  
Also, during the years 2002-2007 I read many picture books to my grandchildren and realized how almost every experience could become subject material for a children's picture book.   So why not the story about a special bench??

Q: Did your experience as a longtime teacher help you as you were writing the book?

A: Throughout my teaching career in elementary and secondary schools, I was eager to introduce my students to wonderful stories and books from many cultures.
In addition to reading to them, guiding them to discover books to meet their interests, helping them to write their reactions to their reading, and finally leading them to write well, both narrative and creative writing--all influenced my own writing.

Q: How did you find your illustrator, Jordan Cutler, and what was the collaboration process like?

A: After searching for a while and sending inquiries to recommended artists, most of whom lived far from Maryland, I found my illustrator close to home!  Jordan Cutler is the son of good friends and neighbors of mine, Susan and Warren Cutler.  Warren, Jordan's father, is a former illustrator for the Washington National Zoo.  He had recently illustrated a children's picture book, "The Seal Pup."  At a party to celebrate this book, I chatted with Jordan and told him about my story and my need of an illustrator for the book.  He was interested and after reading the story agreed to the project.   He also designed the book and prepared it for the printer.

From the beginning of his work, he was sensitive to the story, the characters, the setting, and what I wanted to convey to the readers.   He would prepare sketches, share them with me, and then return home to make adjustments to some of the drawings and continue illustrating the next sections of the book.  (Jordan has a full time position as a graphic artist and he did the illustrations for my book after his regular work.)   He is familiar with places mentioned in the book-- Chicago, New York and London--and he used some family photos to get ideas for the characters in the book.

As you can probably conclude, it was a comfortable and satisfying collaboration between Jordan Cutler and myself.

Q: Are you thinking of writing another book?

A: I think I would enjoy another book-writing experience.  Last summer I visited the Montreal Botanical Garden.  Near the reception center is the Rose Garden, where among the paths is a memorial bench.  The inscription on the bench reads in French: "Pour Toi Grand-Maman, La Plus Rose des Roses."  Who was this special "Rose?"   If I can find out, I could write a book about her, and if not, I could create her story for a book!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Writers of any age should consider their own family memories when looking for appropriate topics for required or free writing.   Events in our lives offer rich story-building materials.   If you keep or kept a journal, that could be a source to support your memories.   Keep talking to your relatives, especially your favorite ones, to learn about their lives and the times they knew.

Berkeley Square is a lovely small park not far from Buckingham Palace.  If you go to London, I hope you will take a few extra moments to visit it.  It is so interesting to walk on the paths and read the inscriptions on many of the benches.   In addition to the one in memory of my uncle I recall seeing one in memory of a man from Bethesda, Maryland, which is quite near my home.

And for a special treat, find a copy of the Glenn Miller recording of the wonderful ballad by Eric Maschwitz, "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square."  The famous singer Vera Lynn often sang it too.  It was so popular during World War II.

Please visit my website.

Interview with Deborah Kalb. (Full disclosure: I helped with the editing of this book, and have a special fondness for it!)

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