Tell someone you’re working on a children’s book, and you can anticipate a few common responses – expressions of delight, followed by a short list of favorite titles and hope-filled questions such as “Will there be pictures?” People generally assume that books intended for children will be simple affairs, often with some type of moral instruction on the importance of kindness, taking responsibility when things go wrong, or learning about such hard-to-face topics as pimples and poop. Odds are, you won’t get a lot of questions about research.
But when author and editor Kara Gebhart Uhl sent me a PDF of her forthcoming book as a personal preview, the most compelling questions I wanted to ask concerned the research that underlay the work. How had she come up with the topic, a tale centered around an ancient tree in Wales, a place that Kara herself has not (yet) even visited? How had she found an illustrator whose work may well make this book a contender for a Caldecott Medal? And is it OK to have scary stuff in a book meant for kids?
Perfect for this spooky time of year
Let’s start with the last question, which struck me as I was reading the part of the book about witch trials that took place beneath the tree:
“Witch hunters strapped suspected witches to an oak armchair and dunked it into the water,” reads the story a few pages in. “If the woman survived, she was deemed a witch and executed.”
“And if she was innocent?” asks Cadi, the story’s young protagonist.
It’s one thing to terrorize kids with images of cackling, bony-fingered witches in pointy hats (even though most of us beyond the age of, say, 5, recognize those depictions as cartoon stereotypes). Far more disturbing is the historical reality of witch trials, in which women suspected of practicing sorcery were “tried” by what we today would call torture. If they were innocent, they died, thereby proving that they lacked a witch’s superpowers; if guilty, they lived, only to be put to death. I can think of few things more disturbing than the absolute injustice of being damned whether you’re innocent or guilty. And at 62, I’m far from a child.
Knowing Kara as I do, I felt confident that she’d done the necessary research.
“As I think back to the stories I connected to as a child, there was some deepness to them,” she began in response. “I think of ‘Charlotte’s Web.’ I remember when Sophie [Kara’s 13-year-old daughter] was reading it…she was getting to the end and she started crying. And yet she loved the book, and I loved the book. But it is sad. But also not, in many ways!” Sounds like life to me – endlessly faceted, with meanings that shift according to your perspective. How is this not a valuable lesson for children?
It’s also helpful to note that Kara plans to pitch this book to “older children” – say, age 8 and above, though Kara hesitates even to state an age range, aware that the tolerance for sad or scary content varies from one child to another. She sent a list of articles and essays she’d consulted on the advisability of telling kids sad and scary stories:
“Go deeper: Fear in children’s books” by Kimberley Reynolds, Michael Rosen (British Library)
“The Importance of Scaring Children” by Shirley Li (The Atlantic).
She’d done the research. As Cadi’s grandmother says, echoing one of DiCamillo’s points, “There will always be sad stories. Scary stories. Heavy stories you wish had never happened. Sometimes the only way to lighten the load is to share them.”
Kara also sent more than a page of information about other aspects of the book, with illustrative references. Some of this material makes for an intriguing read in its own right. Take this excerpt, for example, which is full of references to idiosyncratic features of Welsh culture:
“Detailed images and descriptions of the plasterwork scene (and the restaurant) can be found in this Standing Building Report commissioned by the Snowdonia National Park Authority here and also in an article here. Legend states that frieze depicts the Nannau oak and even features actual branches, but this is almost certainly not true. It is likely the armorial was constructed as late as the 19th century, perhaps when it was used by the Dolgellau Cricket and Reading Club, and the tree was constructed as part of the 1758 restoration of the hall, as the subject’s clothing matches that time period. Y Sospan is still an operating restaurant located in Dolgellau – pictures can be found on their Facebook page here. Breaded chicken goujons [are] on the children’s menu.
“A gaol is a jail. According to the Standing Building Report this building was first built in 1606 as Shire Hall with House of Corrections (gaol) below. Images of a ducking (sometimes called cucking) stool.”
Why the Nannau Oak?
For years, Kara had wanted to write a children’s book. Like many of us, she started writing long before she got a contract, coming up with ideas, and then developing them as she could make time around the edges of her regular work. Most readers will know her as a managing editor at Lost Art Press, but she freelance writes and edits for other clients, including magazines, universities, ad agencies and companies. A wife and mother of three kids – her twin sons, Owen and James, are 11 – she shares the diverse demands of family with her husband, Andy, and has little time for personal creative endeavors. As she points out, “It’s hard to find the time for something you’re not getting paid for unless it ends up happening.” You have to go out on a limb, balancing your passion and determination to see a project through against the energy required to honor the responsibilities and opportunities of everyday life. Even with a contract, there’s no guarantee that your project will become anything more than a bunch of words in an electronic file, perhaps to be printed out and read to your own family someday. (In fact, many – perhaps most – publishing contracts state that the contract does not guarantee the piece of writing will be published, though most of the time that is what happens.)
But Kara kept writing. At one point she had a literary agent. These days you pretty much have to have an agent to break into the world of big-time publishing, and just finding an experienced agent willing to represent you can be its own challenge. Kara’s agent got the manuscript for one of her books all the way to the acquisitions department with HarperCollins, but the finance department said no.
“You get rejections,” she acknowledges. And how. “Agents and others are so overworked. Rejections come at all times.” She recalls one particular occasion, when Sophie was having a piano lesson. In came the email. Kara ran to the bathroom, where she stuck her face in a towel and cried. Then she went downstairs and “carried on mothering.”
The idea for “The Curse of the Nannau Oak” grew out of Kara’s work on “Honest Labour,” a collection of essays by Charles Hayward published in The Woodworker magazine, which Hayward edited from 1936 to 1966. She looked through every page of every issue, collecting the “enticing tidbits” that Hayward scattered around the pages – fun information related to woodworking, such as “The Diary” that took her into deep, fanciful rabbit holes. “In one of them he talked about the Nannau Oak, the story of it being haunted,” she said. “I immediately thought, that could make a really cool children’s book.” She made a note and started doing research whenever she could make the time. After six months she mustered the nerve to pitch the idea to Christopher Schwarz by email. She was relieved when he responded, “Hell yes this is cool.”
They set up a meeting, several weeks later. By the end of the discussion they agreed that the germ of the tale would require elaboration. She dug back in with research and writing for another five months.
Once she had a rough draft, she got a contract.
She says she “broke about every single rule” when it comes to writing a picture book for children. As the former managing editor for Writer’s Digest magazine (and currently a contributing editor), she’s familiar with publishers’ expectations. The book publishing industry generally prefers picture books for children to be no longer than 1,000 words, with around 500 words being preferred, which translates roughly to one full page of single-spaced text on a standard sheet of 8-1/2” x 11” paper. (By comparison, a manuscript for a nonfiction work aimed at adults is typically a minimum of 60,000 words.) At the end of her rough draft, she was at 2,000 words. Another publisher would likely have turned it down, or told her to take a buzz saw to it. Not Chris Schwarz. Instead, he told her, “Don’t be afraid to flesh this out,” based on readers’ responses to “Grandpa’s Workshop.” “He doesn’t care what the traditional publishing world thinks,” Kara says. Instead, he told her, “We should make this what it needs to be.” By the time Kara’s manuscript was finished, it came in at around 4,000 words.
The unusual subject brought with it other challenges. Children’s books are usually written to be read aloud, typically by a parent to a child. But so many of the words in “The Curse of the Nannau Oak” are Welsh, which Kara doesn’t speak. There would have to be a glossary. (Those working on the book are hoping to add a guide to pronunciation.)
As she got deeper into the writing and received feedback from others – she specifically cites the value of constructive criticism from researcher Suzanne Ellison – the story became more complex and layered. Storytelling itself, which is integral to Welsh culture, became part of the story. Her original draft hadn’t even mentioned “The Mabinogion,” a classic of Welsh literature that popularized mythical tales such as those about King Arthur and Merlin. “I think it was while in the process of fleshing the story out, I decided to dive deeper into one of the central themes of the book which is the concept of ‘story,’ given that storytelling is so important to Welsh culture. And over and again I kept going back to ‘The Mabinogion’ in my research, or it would pop up on its own. While complex in nature, I felt like it was an important piece to include.”
It’s common knowledge that children’s books are among the most gorgeously illustrated literary genres, and this book is no exception. The illustrations by Elin Manon Cooper are fluid and lush, with layered detail. Nothing here is dumbed down for kids. Rather, the illustrations pull you in, inviting you to explore. Not only is this dimension of the book appropriate for adult readers whose children are long gone from home (or who never had them in the first place); it also expresses a respect for children’s potential to sense vastly more complexity and nuance than adults sometimes give them credit for, in addition to elevating the standard of what we think of as “child-appropriate artwork.”
Finding an illustrator proved more difficult than Kara anticipated. “It was important to me that my partner in this be Welsh,” she says. Even though Wales is a small country, she spent a lot of time searching online for an artist who would be a good fit. Instagram proved helpful; she searched hashtags such as #welshart, #welshillustrator and #welshfolkart. Adding to the challenge, she found that hashtag searches in Welsh turned up many more hits, so she tried a few of those as well. She contacted a few artists, among them Elin Manon Cooper. “Elin seemed so perfect for the book, with her fondness for trees and folktales,” Kara explains. “She even worked at St Fagans,” Wales’s National Museum of History. And she speaks Welsh. Things looked promising until Google published Elin’s Google Doodle commemorating St. David’s Day on March 1, 2021, prompting Kara to worry that Elin would be beyond the reach of a publisher such as Lost Art Press. Google Doodles don’t just happen; the internet search engine giant commissions them well in advance, and they’re seen by millions across the globe who use Google to search for anything on a given day, from paper clips to insulin syringes, translation tools from English to Latvian or what to do if you find a deer in your car. (For real.) “Oh my goodness, she’s going to be too popular!” Kara thought. “She’ll never say yes!” They talked about schedules, which initially posed a challenge. So Kara was extra-thrilled when Elin signed a contract in May to illustrate the book. “She’s worked so quickly,” Kara adds. “She thought she could finish the illustrations by the end of October and she’s well on her way.”
In the meantime, Elin has sent her illustrations-in-progress to Chris, who is designing the book. He takes each set and flows the text onto the pages, hugging the illustrations’ contours, then sends Elin and Kara an updated PDF.
The sophistication of Elin’s work is all the more striking considering that she’s just 23. (Then again, she is Welsh, and the Welsh are known to have special powers.)
Although this is Kara’s first book, it’s worth mentioning that “A Lesson I Hold Dear,” “This I Believe,” was published in the book by the same name. Kara graduated with a B.S. in magazine journalism from the Ohio University. After starting out in environmental pre-law and taking a variety of courses, she found she loved to write. She eventually switched majors to magazine journalism. She wrote a personal essay column for the college paper and has been writing ever since.
The shelves in Kara’s home office hold lots of illustrated books, along with books published by Lost Art Press. To this day, she says, she’ll come into the room after being away for a while “and there will be picture books scattered around. I don’t yell at [the kids] for not putting them away, because I’m intrigued by the ones they chose. It gives me insight into what’s going on in their world.”
It’s easy to imagine young readers returning time and again to “The Curse of the Nannau Oak” for reassurance that trees, which provide us and our fellow creatures with so much – from oxygen and shade to edible nuts and fruits, not to mention the primary material for woodworking – can live a very long time. During its long life, a tree may witness tragic events and terrible acts; sometimes the tree itself may even be used in those acts’ commission. But the same world that visits pain and injustice on so many holds hope for something kinder, better and more lovely, a truth that young Cadi shares through her own story, which forms the book’s conclusion.