Q: How is writing for children different from writing for adults? And why did you choose to write primarily for children?
A : I’ve done both, and for a while, years ago, I did both concurrently. But of course one only has so much time! And I began to be aware that, of the two audiences, adult and young, it was the young people who were being profoundly affected by what they read. Time and again (this still happens) I received letters from kids (these days, it’s e-mail more often) telling me of ways in which they found themselves not just moved, but changed by a book. That made me begin to take my work for young people very seriously, and to turn my attention more and more in that direction.
Q: Do you find that the middle school audience has changed significantly throughout your career?
A: Only superficially. They’re more glib, more sophisticated. But down deep their concerns are still what they have always been — what they were for me at that age, and for my own children.
Q: Two of your most famous books — “The Giver” and “Number the Stars” — focus on rather adult topics. How did you decide those were appropriate topics for children? And did you ever feel limited because of your audience?
A: I don’t feel limited except by my own sense of responsibility and good taste. I don’t write anything for shock value or to create a sensation. At the same time, I don’t think anything is beyond the realm of appropriateness for children — it is just a matter of how it is presented. Literature is how we learn to live our lives. Anything that affects the human condition is something that young people will face eventually, and reading about it is a way of rehearsing, of preparation, of testing our own reactions. But I am always aware of the vulnerability of the young reader. I write carefully, for that reason.
Q: Have you ever written a book that wasn’t published? If so, what were the circumstances?
A: I wrote one book that my editor loathed. I had the same editor for 35 books — at that point, it was probably 30 — so I had to respect his opinion. I put it in a drawer and it still sits there. I may take it out again some day.
Q: Have you ever wanted to rewrite a finished, published book? Or are you done when it’s done?
A: I always want to rewrite after they are published. I always think of ways I could have done it better. Best, I think, to say goodbye and move on rather than try to rekindle an old love affair.
Q: What is it like to have a devoted audience that grows up on your work and then “grows out” of it?
A: It’s interesting and rewarding. I get e-mails and letters from people who read my early books when they were young and now have children who are reading them. There’s a nice sense of continuity there. In addition, I’m finding that people are re-reading “The Giver” and finding that it speaks to them in new ways as adult readers. That wouldn’t be true of every book but it seems to be of that one; it has different levels for different audiences. And even those books that have been outgrown — adults remember them fondly. That’s nice.
Q: What do you make of Harry Potter?
A: I confess that I haven’t read Harry Potter. Wizards and spells make me squirm and cringe and yawn. So I can’t speak about the books per se. But I can say that without question they have excited a whole generation of young readers and made reading a cool thing to do.
Q: You left Brown and got married when you were quite young. How did that affect your work? Growing up, did you expect to have a career outside the home?
A: I had always wanted to write and had majored in writing at Brown. But then I married young (19) and had four children before I was 26. No time for much besides domesticity! And in those days, the ’50s, that was the expected trajectory of a woman’s life. It was later, when in my 30s I went back to college and then to graduate school, that I began to perceive myself as a separate individual with gifts and interests that didn’t have to be subsumed by family.
Q: Who is your favorite author?
A: At the moment, Ian MacEwan.
Q: Your favorite children’s book when you were younger?
A: “The Yearling” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Pretty heavy reading for the nine-year-old that I was when I encountered that book. But I was passionate about it. It was the first book that awakened my awareness of literature as a true art form, though I wouldn’t have been able to put words to that feeling then. I just knew it was better, deeper, truer than Nancy Drew.
Q: Are you currently writing? Any details?
A: I have a book that will be published in spring 2008 called “The Willoughbys,” which was great fun to write (and I also illustrated it). It’s a spoof of classic children’s literature, utilizing all the old stock characters and plot devices.