Six Questions with Emma Bland Smith
Emma Bland Smith is a public librarian and the author of many books for children, including Journey: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West (winner of Bank Street’s Cook Prize), Claude: The True Story of a White Alligator (a Kirkus Best Books of 2020 selection), and, next out, The Gardener of Alcatraz: A True Story (Charlesbridge). Emma lives with her family in San Francisco. Learn more and connect at www.emmabsmith.com.
1. How do you know your idea will make a good book?
Sometimes I hear an anecdote about a person or place and a I can almost hear the “ping” in my brain, telling me there’s something to this story. I remember when I first read about Robert McCloskey bringing ducklings into this studio, with chaos ensuing, in order to illustrate Make Way for Ducklings. And I was floating down the Seine when I heard that the Eiffel Tower had been slated for demolition, and was then saved by its builder’s passion for science. Both times I just knew that the story had the makings of a book. Both had drama, surprise, action, and excitement. (Also—no one else had written about them yet!)
2. What are some of the key ingredients that make a great book for kids?
For me at least, a good book for kids needs conflict, drama, and a bit of that “on the edge of your seat” tension, to keep readers wanting to know more and turning the pages. I hope I don’t overdo it, but I like to really emphasize those dramatic moments, to add a beat at the crucial moment where the main character is determining their fate. I also like a character readers can root for, a surprising ending (if the main character succeeds but not in the way they expected, that’s gold), a good refrain, and a full-circle conclusion (where a line or theme echoes the beginning of the book).
3. Do you ever get stuck creatively? If so, how do you get unstuck?
I definitely get stuck creatively! Sometimes I feel like I’ve written myself into a corner, or I can’t figure out how to complete the narrative. With fiction, this can be difficult because the story is so open-ended. When the story could go any direction, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the choices! With nonfiction, it’s the opposite—sometimes you want the story to go a certain way but it can’t, because the facts aren’t there! That’s frustrating. I get unstuck by going on a long walk, without listening to my usual podcast. Invariably, I come home with ideas. Sometimes I jot them down using the notes feature on my phone.
4. Where did you get the idea for The Gardener of Alcatraz? What was your inspiration?
I was on a field trip to Alcatraz with one of my kids. I learned that Alcatraz had beautiful gardens, and I’d always wanted to write about gardening. But that wasn’t enough to base a narrative nonfiction picture book on. Next I found out that the inmates back in the 1940s had been the ones to do much of the work. And finally I read about this one particular inmate who both transformed the island through its gardens, and was transformed himself by the work. That was my story.
5. If you could tell readers one secret about this book, what would it be?
It’s not exactly a secret, but an amusing background story. I feel that I lucked out in Elliott’s being a counterfeiter. Had he been, say, a convicted murderer, I don’t think I would have been able to write this book—that would have been too dark (at least for the story I wanted to tell). There is something old-fashioned, romantic, and almost cartoonish about counterfeiting, though. I thank the fates for arranging the elements to come together to make a good children’s book!
6. What’s a particularly striking or memorable reaction someone has had to this book?
Toward the end of the process, I connected with author Michael Esslinger, who wrote the authoritative and comprehensive Alcatraz: A History of the Penitentiary Years. Michael proofread the galleys. He actually met Elliott Michener in the 1990s, and he told me that he had found Elliott to be kind, gentle, soft-spoken, and generally a good person. He said that of all the inmates he’d met, Elliott probably deserved this recognition the most. I was so happy to hear that. That validated my feelings about the integrity and authenticity of this story.