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Publishers Weekly Children's Features

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Judith Rosen -- 2/16/98
From fan mail to letters of complaint, authors receive a wide variety of mail from young readers
Few writers for adults receive letters containing the unbridled enthusiasm of a child fan, such as this one to American Girls author Valerie Tripp: "I love every sentence you write." Tripp regards these letters as "a valuable resource for a writer -- to hear what really worked." One of her favorite letters noted, "I loved that word 'nincompoop' that you used."

This high level of devotion is matched by a huge number of children who take pen to paper in order to communicate with a favorite author. Dealing with the sheer volume of letters from children has, in fact, become a cottage industry in itself. Baby-sitters Club author Ann M. Martin employs an assistant and four letter writers to keep up with the flow. At Little, Brown, an entire office is used to store mail for Marc Brown and his most famous character, Arthur. Jon Scieszka's wife, a graphic designer, came up with an informational postcard that he could use to answer each child personally.

To find out what questions and comments children offer in their letters, and how authors respond, PW asked a number of authors and publishers about their young correspondents.

The Mail

The Goosebumps series may be past its prime, but R.L. Stine is still number one when it comes to popularity, if letters from kids is the yardstick. Scholastic, Stine's publisher, receives 1500 letters a week (or 78,000 letters a year) for him. Dr. Seuss's the Cat in the Hat, who made his first appearance in book form in 1957, continues to attract young letter writers. Nearly 75,000 of them sent birthday cards last year in response to a Random House promotion. Other favorite authors on the children's mail circuit include Gary Paulsen, Eric Carle, Jan Brett, Tomie dePaola and Judy Blume, who, in addition to 200 letters a week, averages 4000 to 5000 e-mails each month. Even long-deceased writers such as Boxcar Children author Gertrude Chandler Warner and L.M. Montgomery, creator of the Anne of Green Gables series, continue to receive hundreds of letters a year.

Although it can seem overwhelming, many authors welcome the opportunity to hear from their readers. Tripp says she enjoys having a chance to find out more about "my girls," as she calls her readers. "You get such a feeling for their personality from the way they write," she remarks. "They're very clever with what they do with their letters. Some are works of art." Unfortunately, Tripp's own handwriting d sn't always pass muster. "A girl wrote back, 'Even my teacher couldn't read your handwriting. Please write back NEATER,' in all caps underlined three times."

Tripp makes a point of answering every single letter. "I feel it's an important thing to do, because it's completing a circle. I send the books and stories out, and they write back to me. When you send a letter, you deserve an answer," she adds. But it's not always easy. "Sometimes the girl will write, 'Please, please, please, please, please, write back,' and then won't leave a return address. Sometimes Pleasant Company will use the postmark to track them down. I've even called the school for an address."

British author Brian Jacques, whose Redwall series is popular on both sides of the Atlantic, gets what he describes as "avalanches" of fan letters. He estimates that he gets roughly 70% of his letters from boys and 30% from girls. And Jacques, too, feels it is important to respond to this deluge, stating that he reads every letter he gets. "I have a standard letter, or several of them, that I send. I write a personal P.S. to each one unless they write just 'I'm your number one fan.'"

Many of Jacques's fans send novels for him to critique, "countless" pictures, wooden or papier-mache swords, and Woodland cookies, which tend to arrive as a packet of crumbs. Among the most elaborate pictures Jacques has received to date is from a boy in Ohio, who created a Redwall Abbey in his basement. "He had his mom and dad and grandpa dress up to create a Redwall feast, and he sent me a picture of it," Jacques says.

Jacques considers writing for children "a big responsibility. I had a mother tell me her child was dyslexic, and he learned to read from my books." He has also had terminally ill children or their parents or doctors contact him about his books. His next book, in fact, will be dedicated to a boy named James Casey, who died of a brain tumor at the age of nine.Like other children's writers, Jacques is careful to nourish the budding writers who send him their work. "I always tell them," he says, "'If you want to be a writer, you must learn to draw pictures with words.'" He also advises them to read -- "read all you can."

Every once in a while, when Jacques gets a "cheeky" letter, he can't resist a goodnatured dig. "There was one from England -- Cambridge no less. It was from a 12-year-old. It was very polite: 'Dear Mr. Jacques, Whilst I admire your books...' He started to spell-check all my books. 'I notice on page 147 "ferous" is only spelt with one "r." If you want to be a great author, you must spell correctly.'" Jacques wrote back, "I know you are 12, but life isn't perfect all the time."

And Scieszka received this note about the Time Warp Trio series: "I thought some of parts were funny and some parts were boring." The few negative letters that Baby-sitters Club author Ann M. Martin receives are from kids who, she said, "are growing out of the series. They're too old for it, so they find fault with it."

Craig Virden, president and publisher of BDD Books for Young Readers, receives mail that, while also small in numbers, tends to be more serious in tone. "I get letters that say, 'I'm never going to buy any of your books again and neither are my friends.' Virden estimates that he used to receive about 20 negative letters a year, but this year negative letters have been up. "Over the past four or five months," he observes, "I've already had that many. I think it's the fear that people have about the Internet that is making them more sensitive about books." As publisher of eight of the ALA's 10 most challenged children's book authors, Virden refers to himself as "a First Amendment junkie," who feels that "we owe it to kids to present the world in all its scary, happy, sad hugeness."

Writing Back

Scieszka tries to respond to his young correspondents every month, although, he acknowledges, "I used to let the mail pile up so that a third grader would be in fourth grade when he got the answer." A former elementary school teacher, he knows just how much effort g s into the letters he gets. "I really appreciate the letters with a great voice or tone." He also enjoys the misspellings: "Are you married? Do you have a girlfiend?" Another of the letters in his keeper pile ends with: "I Loved your Book so far I hope you wood never die and I'm Blod dirinking [blood drinking?] for your Book." In addition to receiving lots of drawings, Scieszka also gets "some good zippy envelopes, too. I have one with a little red hen saying, 'Don't open this unless your name is Jon Scieszka.'"

For Robert Cormier, though the volume of letters is not as crushing, the replies can be extremely time consuming. Just about every weekend he sits down for an hour or two at his 75-year-old typewriter to tap out a response. "Usually the letters I get are complex, because my books are demanding," Cormier explains. "They're thoughtful letters, so I find myself writing two-page, single-spaced letters." Cormier makes it a point to respond to each letter. "I'm always aware of kids feeling like they've been let down by adults, so if a kid g s to the trouble of writing a letter and looking up an address, how can you ignore that?"

One of the more difficult topics that Cormier's teen-aged fans ask him to address is the nature of good and evil. Another young person queried him about facing death, but not going to heaven. Cormier also respects what he terms "the normal letter" -- praise letters or chatty letters about hobbies.

E-mail is one format that most children's authors resist. Gary Paulsen, who often puts in two hours a day answering fan mail, tried e-mail briefly. "The kids all sent me their book reports and wanted me to help them get a good grade."

Paulsen, who is up front with kids about his own troubled childhood (he is the son of alcoholics and a recovered alcoholic himself), gets a lot of mail from kids in trouble. Still, when compared with the 200 letters a day he gets from all over the world, including China, Australia, England and Spain, the percentage is very small.

"The trouble letters are very rare, every other day or every third day," Paulsen says. "If a kid writes that's in trouble, I answer personally. If he says he's being abused, I try to call a counselor at school. If I feel it's a real at-risk situation, I try to find an authority figure to help, a school counselor or a minister. But I don't want to get the kid in trouble." He speculated that children write to him about their problems because "it's safe, if the normal channels are denied them by society and here I am on a boat somewhere and I'm not judgmental."

Ann Martin also gets mail from kids in trouble and, she says, "from kids who have a friend who is terminally ill or who is in some kind of trouble, like they've just lost a parent." Martin's publisher provides backup for communicating with kids at risk. "We forward those letters to a consulting psychologist at Scholastic," Martin notes. "She helps us draft the letters, and we give the kids a way to write back to us at a different address." After so many years of writing to children, Martin says that she now needs to turn to the psychologist only a couple times a year, but she used to use her more frequently.

Many of the children who write to authors are looking for pen pals. While some authors discourage repeat writers, many delight in the personal tone that the letters acquire over time. Martin, who says that "I like meeting kids in person and getting mail. I love kids, because they're so open and honest," has about 15 pen pals from before she started writing the Baby-sitters Club. "Now they're graduating from college. We send Christmas cards and birthday cards. I've met quite a few of them over the years at signings."

As for story ideas, despite the number Martin receives, "I have to say," she admits, "I have never used a story idea. The ones who write detailed outlines tend to disasters -- first there's the flood, then there's the car accident." Marc Brown has also had to pass on story ideas like "Arthur's First Communion" or "Arthur G s to Disneyland." Scieszka turned down a suggested trip back in time to the days of the crucifixion with members of the Time Warp trio on either side of Jesus on the Cross.

Martin, however, has gotten ideas from her young correspondents' own concerns. "One time I got a slew of letters saying 'my brother died' or 'my best friend died' and at the same time I was getting letters about drunk driving." As a result, she wrote a Baby-sitters Club book about a family whose car was hit in a drunk driving accident.

But perhaps Mary Pope Osborne, author of the Magic Tree House series, is the most influenced by kids and teachers for her books. "Every other book," noted Kelly Grunther, director of public relations at Random House Children's Publishing, "is decided by the kids or a teacher." Osborne g s to schools and has the kids vote on which topic they'd like to read next.

Fan Clubs and Newsletters

Most publishers forward the mail to authors or, in the case of deceased authors, their estates, every few weeks. At Little, Brown the mail for Marc Brown and Matt Christopher is handled in-house, because the company runs fan clubs for them. According to Kerri Goddard, senior marketing assistant at Little, Brown, the fan clubs "have been in existence for over 10 years. The Arthur fan club provided a way to follow up on Marc's school visits."

While some companies rely on fan clubs and newsletters to answer children's frequently asked questions and to promote authors directly to the consumer, Simon &Schuster is experimenting with a fan club just for schools. According to Suzanne Murphy, director of marketing at Simon &Schuster children's publishing division, the company is trying to find a way around the fact that kids grow up and move on. So instead of a club for kids at home, "we started this fall with a club for Henry and Mudge, by Cynthia Rylant, one of our bestselling series for grades one to three, with a small group of 300 classrooms as our focus group. We gave them a mailbox and a label to send classroom letters." The program has been so successful that other teachers from these schools have contacted S&S about participating. "We anticipate we'll bump it up to a thousand classrooms next year," Murphy says. And she predicts that e-mail for classroom correspondence won't be far behind.

Simonsays, the Simon &Schuster Web site, has begun reaching out to kids directly. At the Alice Fan Club site, for example, visitors can e-mail questions directly to author Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. They are given the choice of having their question posted online or of making their letter private. Periodically Naylor responds to selected questions on the site.

Other publishers are also experimenting with author e-mail at their web sites. Scholastic features information on its most popular series on its home page. Random House's Kids@Random site, which just went up in December, plans to link with author sites to provide a place for kids to post questions.

Regardless of the delivery method, the questions kids pose remain much the same: Why did you write this book? Why d s the character look like this? How can I become a writer? But no matter how similar the questions may be, many authors treat them individually, with a respect that they feel children deserve. It's hard not to respond to fans like this one who wrote to Berkeley Breathed: "When did you write your first published book? How did you get the name Bloom County? And what is Jon Bon Jovi's shorts size? Please write back." Kids are just reaching out in a different way to continue the connection that a book brings them with a writer and the characters that populate his or her world.
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