Friday, October 4, 2013

Q&A with children's author Michael Sterns

Michael Sterns is a children's author and storyteller. His books are Kokopelli and the Butterfly, Kokopelli and the Island of Change, and Kokopelli and the Two Tribes. A speaker at many elementary schools around the country, he is based in Tampa.

Q: How did you first become interested in fairy tales?

A: When I was a kid, my Grandma Fortin had a collection of fairy tale picture books from as early as the 1920s. She had a wall full of them, and she made reading so special. I remember the original Cinderella, Peter Pan, The Velveteen Rabbit. The artwork was not babyish; it was beautiful.

She showed me every word with her finger. She did all the character voices. I would fall asleep with the story, and would know the next day that there was more reading [to come]. She would ask what I thought would happen next; it was a great way to get a child’s imagination going….When she passed away, I was so distraught that I forgot about the books, and they were sold.

Q: In addition to your writing, you perform at schools. How do those two art forms work together?

A: The first time I had a book reading was at Barnes & Noble. There were four parents and six kids. I was reading the book. My book is a little longer; it’s perfect for bedtime. In a public setting, I realized it wasn’t the “kapow” type experience that I was looking for, so I intuitively started acting out the story. I watched [the kids] snap to.

I was invited by a teacher who had found my first book and she couldn’t wait to read it to the class. I asked if I could come and perform it. They asked, “Would it be OK to invite more classrooms in?” and the word spread. Now I’ve been to 95 percent of the elementary schools in Tampa [and other schools beyond that].

It’s a multimedia show—I act, play native flutes, there’s an interactive [element] so children are involved with the sound effects; they answer open-ended questions.

Q: What about fairy tales makes them so compelling?

A: They’re timeless stories that are never outgrown. They’re bringing families together together through reading. [Families] can gather around a book that’s not over anyone’s head but is not beneath anyone either. Also, the artwork is something to behold. And the beauty of the illustrations is so powerful; they echo the words.

Q: How did you choose the subject matter for your own books?

A: They chose me, especially with the first book, Kokopelli and the Butterfly. I had one of those experiences where the pen was almost moving itself. I felt like I almost went into a trance….I have no idea where the story came from; it just fell out of me one day. The second and third are related to the first; there was a lot more thought around it. I had things I still wanted to accomplish.

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: No. I have three books out, and an audiobook of the first book. I’m working on the second book’s audiobook. I’ve painted myself into a corner—I’ve tied everything up in a bow. …

When a story starts to come, I’ll start to think about it, storytell it, punch holes in it, and then sit down and list the outline of the illustrations. I see the story as a movie in my mind; I describe the illustrations as if they were snapshots. I know it will be 64 pages and 40 illustrations. I’ll outline the illustrations, and then sit down in a three or four hour session and knock out the story in one sitting. 

When you’re self-publishing, the business side of things becomes almost as much of an art as the creative side. I don’t just sit in a rocking chair and read at the kids.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I would like people to know that children are way smarter than we give them credit for. [People should] try to seek out older classic fairy tale stories more.

And it doesn’t just have to be at bedtime. Parents now, everyone is so busy; part of the reason books are so short is that parents want to be done.

I challenge people to expose their children to the classic fairy tale style at a much earlier age than they thought possible. My friends who read books to their children, all the children are advanced readers to this day. The parents treated reading like a magical experience, rather than another in an endless set of chores.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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