Essea White is a talented puppeteer, storyteller, writer and caretaker of more than 20 animal puppets. I enjoyed getting to know her and I think you will too.
How did your interest in writing for children develop?
Like many writers my love for reading opened the door to writing. Yes! I was the kid with the flashlight under the bed covers way past bedtime lost in mysteries and biographies. Before that I poured over picture books and a book of poetry my grandmother gave me. What could be more exciting than going places I'd never been with all kinds of people I'd never met?!
Fifty years later I entered the world of puppetry. I began with stuffed animals as they can be found in most households then moved on to hand puppets. I hoped the children would create their own plays with their stuffed animals at home. The children responded to the animal puppets so I stuck with them. My puppet collection has grown to 25 and I still use a number of stuffed animals for puppet sketches as well.
What I didn't expect was that these adorable creatures would take on personalities of their own and carry me off on their adventures at the Pond, the Farm, and the Forest. The more time I spent with them the more I wrote; stories, simple poetry and songs spilled out.
How does your career as a writer influence other areas of your life and vice versa?
I look for opportunities to connect with children. I hosted a Friendship Tea for a small group of preschoolers and their moms. At the end of the tea we had a puppet show about two friends and a short discussion about what it means to be a friend. Comments from children sometimes spark stories or dialogue with a story. For example, at my Friendship Tea I asked the children what it means to be a friend. Without missing a beat one little four year old said with great conviction, "Friends aren't mean." That will find a way into a puppet's mouth or a story.
About five years ago I began volunteering as a story teller in a children's program at my church. At the end of most of the stories were "wondering" questions. I enjoyed both the storytelling and hearing the children's responses. Also, writing for children has changed my charitable giving. I now give to organizations that help children -- schools, hospitals, and shelters.
What do you do when you're not writing?
I'm a caregiver for my 89 year old mother. When I'm not caring for mom or writing, I love to get out and do some photography, bird watch, hike with Jack, garden or design cards to send to family and friends. I also love to bake, sew, and travel.
Tell us about your book.
I Wonder celebrates a child's imagination. It captures 16 animals doing various activities most of which are highly unlikely to occur. There is one, though, that is a strong possibility! The book opens a child's mind to imagining all kinds of things and it provides rich opportunity for the person reading it to intimately participate in the child's world.
What was your inspiration?
The inspiration for this book came from the state fair. I took my camera with the intention of capturing images of the animals I would see. In looking through my pictures I found eight animals and wrote out two verses -- a line for each animal. Later I added eight more animals to complete the book. The format for the book came from my experience storytelling and the wondering questions which followed the story. The verses came in a flash more than a year apart in time. I sat on my couch and giggled, laughed, and grinned my way through the book.
Tell about your current and future projects.
My next book is bubbling inside so to speak. I'm in the observation stage and plan to have it completed in July. It will again be for ages 2-6 years. I may do one more after that for the young ages. Throughout this process I'll be writing more puppet scripts and producing a DVD featuring several of my puppet sketches. When I sit down with my puppets, I feel like I'm visiting old friends. My stories flow from these puppets, and I will be writing a few stories in picture book format soon. Somewhere along the way I'm planning to do a historical fiction series for young readers ages 8-11. I've already begun the research and the characters are beginning to fill out. Once that happens the story takes shape and I write.
What is your writing process?
For most of my life I would write when thoughts and inspiration flowed. Gradually I began to write when I didn't feel inspired; even when I had no words and maybe no direction. While that was not as satisfying, it did begin a process of discipline in my writing career. Then I learned to write to a deadline. I found it quietly terrifying at first. But as I began to meet deadlines, my confidence grew. That helped me to move forward in my career. Now that I'm retired, I write three or four days a week from two to four hours a day and the other one or two days I spend connecting with children and doing research for my book.
The process itself begins with an idea that resonates within. If it doesn't resonate, I've learned not to pursue it. The next step for me is either research or observation. After gathering the facts or observing, I take time to develop the characters or the book from within before writing. I then write and rewrite while consuming generous amounts of coffee and chocolate.
With this book, "I Wonder," the characters presented themselves. The two middle verses burst forth one sunny morning shouting "Pick me! Pick me!" so to speak. Within that group were several puppets that I own: a crow, peacock, frog, hedgehog, skunk, and a beaver. I imagine they've grown on me, don't you? Once I'm to this place I write and rewrite. The final step to creating the book I imagined "I Wonder" could be -- the key -- would be the illustrator. Lois Dahl created a visually beautiful book staying true to the book's concept through her illustrations.
What books and/or authors have influenced your writing?
John Steinbeck's disciplined writing routine remains with me. That's the model I eventually wish to emulate. He wrote for four hours each morning and stopped. Whether he wrote a paragraph or a chapter that was his work for the day. I also enjoyed and appreciated his strong characterization with his novels. In addition to Steinbeck my list of authors includes Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Agatha Christy, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss, Stan and Jan Berenstain, and A.A. Milne. All of these authors offered me something; suffering, honesty in writing, adventure, humor, rich characterization, symbolism, a beautifully woven story, surprise, fanciful characters, lessons learned.
What's the most challenging aspect of writing and how do you overcome writing obstacles?
In my younger years my biggest challenge was summed up in one word: fear. I would write but not show anyone for fear they might not "like" it, etc. What I didn't know was action derails fear. That particular fear is set aside in a good critique group. If you're writing and you're not in a critique group look for a group of writers who are professional and kind. You want to hear the truth but not be brutalized by it. There are many such fears that come up along the way, and, of course, there is the fear of rejection. Thanks to my colleagues I've learned to think of rejections as redirections, learn from them and move on.
Anything else you'd like readers to know?
Often people will ask about the ideas for a book. I pay attention to ideas best while I'm enjoying silence; no music, radio or distracting chatter. I'm generally actively doing something like weeding, folding laundry, creating a card for a friend or driving. Sometimes an idea will arrive while I'm sitting quietly in the early morning hours.