Local Author Spotlight
How has living in Amherst affected your writing?
My third-floor home library faces out over a beautiful wooded area, where, when looking up from my computer, I might find autumn's splash of colored leaves, or winter's huge swirling snowdrops, or the green swaying branches of a coming spring. Meanwhile my screen silently awaits the right words to smooth out a sentence or clarify a meaning; in time, they do emerge and my work continues.
Do you have a special library memory?
I have collected books for years — titles of all kinds and for all ages. When I began to be interested in children's illustrated books, I widened my interest to include the art of illustration and what goes into ensuring that art and the story combine artistically on the page while satisfying the child reader. I began collecting — and studying — books on this subject, which now form the Barbara Elleman Research Library at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.
What is your favorite book set in New England?
Why did you write your new book?
When Penguin let the 1999 edition of Tomie dePaola: His Art and His Stories go out of print, I had a chance meeting with Doug Whitman, Tomie's literary agent. He suggested that I secure the rights, find a new publisher, and write about Tomie's work since that last edition. Then he said — "leave it up to me." Soon that was accomplished and I had not only an editor but especially a new (and excellent) art director.
What was the last book you enjoyed reading?
Amor Towles's A Gentleman in Moscow.
Barbara's Favorite Books
The Adventures of the Teenie Weenies by William Donahey [not currently available in CW MARS]
The Story of Delicia by Gertrude Newman [not currently available in CW MARS]
Why did you write your new book?
Education and childhood are changing as competition grows and seeps into even elementary school. Immigrant communities experience it and so do many others. I wanted to explain the reasons behind these trends, how teachers respond, and how children feel as they navigate this new reality. Families are spending more and more money on after-school education, which is rising since COVID, and parents want to know if it makes sense for them to do the same.
Is there a member of this community who has been instrumental to your writing? A local event that has been meaningful to you as a writer?
I have been inspired by the protests that I have attended in town, including for Black Lives Matter and StopAsianHate. Youth, college students, educators, parents, seniors of all backgrounds arrive there to claim space and dignity. These events help bring the town together and affirm our decision to move here with our family.
Do you have a special library memory or story?
For two months one summer, about twenty years ago, I was in Anniston, Alabama. The library provided not only air conditioning, but a thoughtfulness that I needed as I wrote my first book. I became bonded with the librarians in my daily ritual of sitting at the same sun-lit table and chair, and them in their multiple and often hushed tasks. My regret is that I ended up leaving without saying a proper good-bye to them.
Do you have a website for your books which you would like to share?
Pawan's Favorite Books (with his comments)
Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. As someone who works in diversity, equity and inclusion matters, I appreciated how the book raises fundamental questions about what is behind the inequalities that we try to deal with.
Chaat: The Best Recipes From the Kitchens, Markets, and Railways of India by Maneet Chauhan and Jody Eddy. This is a cookbook, which I include here not only because the recipes are wonderful but the author’s descriptions of train stations in India, where much of the food is tasted, makes me want to trace her journey.
Chronicles, Volume One by Bob Dylan. I’ve been a fan of Bob Dylan for many years, and his memoir gave me insights not only into his inspirations and regrets but also into New York City from his perspective.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. The sweeping nature of the book and the struggles of the characters in this saga were captivating. Hearing Min Jin Lee speak at Amherst brought it all home.
The Paradox of Choice: Why Less is More by Barry Schwartz. As someone who makes a habit out of second-guessing myself, this book gave me good company.
Why did you write your new book?
For almost twenty years, I taught a Mount Holyoke College seminar on Dickinson in the Emily Dickinson Museum. My students loved learning about the poet in the very rooms where she wrote. When I wrapped the day’s lesson around a pivotal moment in Dickinson’s life, I noticed my students became especially engaged. That reaction gave me the idea of writing a biography of Emily Dickinson that focused on ten transformative days in her life. And because I’ve lived in Amherst for over forty years, I also wanted to give readers a sense of the texture and influence of this remarkable place. I often think of These Fevered Days as my love letter to Amherst.
What was your favorite book growing up?
Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink. A fifth-grade teacher changed my life. Mrs. Nolte gave us a creative writing assignment — the first one I ever had — and I loved it. I felt something click in my brain when I wrote from imagination. Next she asked us to do a research project about our hometown: Florissant, Missouri. I dove in, studying old maps in the local library and reading reminiscences of early settlers in the town historical society. I felt like a detective. And Mrs. Nolte read to us every day after recess. We would come in tired and sweaty, and I remember closing my eyes, putting my head on my hands, and listening to her read Caddie Woodlawn. As she read, I conjured up images in my head of prairie pioneers and endless land. It was magic. The creative writing assignment, plus the research project, and the soothing sound of Mrs. Nolte’s voice pointed me in the direction my life would take. I wish I could have thanked her.
Martha's Favorite Books (with her comments)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. You don’t grow up on the banks of the Mississippi River without Mark Twain seeping into your consciousness. Huck’s “All right then, I’ll go to hell,” is as good a motto as I’ve ever had.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. It was the first book I read that combined the techniques of storytelling with the reportage of nonfiction. I know there are problems with the book — but it knocked my socks off for showing me what narrative nonfiction could do.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Vast, sprawling, and thoroughly engaging. There’s never been a better opening to a novel. Sentence fragments and all.
The writings of Audre Lorde. I have ditched most of the brain cells for everything I taught over the years in gender studies classes, but not Audre Lorde. Sister Outsider and Zami will always stay with me.
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. I’m a big fan of graphic novels, and Fun Home hits it out of the park. Searing, hilarious, and uncompromising.
Do you have a favorite book that is set in or about the Pioneer Valley or New England?
Though it ranges farther afield, John McPhee’s The Founding Fish has some great scenes of shad fishing at the Holyoke dam, where I too go to lose tackle and envy the luck of others during the annual spring run. I would read anything by McPhee, the longtime New Yorker writer who first hooked me decades ago with an entire book on oranges.
Why did you write your new book?
I wish I could tell you that I predicted the entire 2020 pandemic and decided to write Cardboard Box Engineering because I knew families would be stuck inside with bored children and piles of shipping boxes. But when I began, all I had was the suspicion that today’s digital generation might like the chance to build cool stuff with their own hands. I figured projects that involved using knives, saws, pointed skewers, and hot glue guns might be enough to lure them from their screens. But I also saw the book as having a social payoff. The more kids tinkering with cardboard today, I reasoned, the more inventors and engineers we’ll have tomorrow, helping create a more sustainable world.
I still recall reading My Side of the Mountain by Jean George, and for years afterward wishing I could live in a hollow tree with a pet falcon. Combined with my Ranger Rick magazines, that book was my gateway drug to environmental awareness, which in turn led me to an appreciation for the sciences. Those passions have only intensified: I am now a staunch defender of the natural world (except for the freeloading creatures eating my garden — you know who you are!), and I’ll rant at length about why reason-based humanism represents our best hope for a livable future. Blame it all on Jean George.
Jonathan's Favorite Books(with his comments)
The New Victory Garden by Bob Thomson. I acquired this how-to guide back in 1987, when I was planting my first vegetable gardens, and it’s been a trusted resource ever since. It approaches gardening as a yearlong campaign, with each chapter presenting a month’s tasks. My only quibble is it doesn’t offer psychological counseling to help with gardening’s inevitable, soul-crushing disappointments.
You Can Teach Hitting by Dusty Baker (and others). A quirky pick, I realize, but one that baseball coaches and players will appreciate. I bought my now dog-eared copy 20 years ago when I was enlisted to coach my son’s Little League team. The design, photography, and clear language throughout all help ease the pain of what every kid (and creaky old-timer) soon discovers: hitting a baseball consistently is very difficult. Baker’s MLB success makes him a voice of authority, but what comes across even more strongly is his compassion for those of us whose love for the game far exceeds our ability to play it.
Other books that have left an impression:
Straight Man by Richard Russo – has hilarious resonance for anyone living in a college town.
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – let me hang out with characters who are even more neurotic and obsessed with music than I am.
Growing Up by Russell Baker – showed me how a gifted journalist can sift significance from life’s everyday moments.