Monday, March 24, 2014

Writing Folktales Author Interview: Nancy Kelly Allen

by Joan Waites

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing author Nancy Kelly Allen about her latest picture book release, FIRST FIRE, (Sylvan Dell Publishing, February 2014, illustrated by Sherry Rogers). Nancy and I have worked on two picture books together in the past, and have remained in touch over the years.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and path to becoming a children’s book author?
My route to writing children's books is as winding as the mountain roads surrounding my home near Hazard, KY. I began my career as a social worker; then changed paths and taught social studies. From there I ventured into the world of books when I became a librarian. I have a Master's degree in Education from Morehead State University and another Master's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Kentucky. I have written more than 30 picture books and two middle grade books.  Shhhhhh! Here's a secret to my writing. I have two canine writing muses named Jazi and Roxi that dream up stories and pass them along to me.

What made you decide to tackle a folktale for your latest picture book project?
I’m a retired librarian who has spent an entire career in the elementary school library, so naturally I’ve read my share of folktales…and loved them. My great-grandmother was a Cherokee. Simmering in the back of my mind for over a decade, I’ve considered retelling a Cherokee folktale if I found the right story. I’m always busy working on the next book, so I never actually took the time to track down a Cherokee folktale to retell. Then one day about a couple of years ago, I saw a book about the Cherokee Nation. I checked out all the books I could find on Cherokee stories in our local library. I read many, many stories, but none of them resonated with me the way FIRST FIRE did. It was love at first read.

Did you have a particular publisher in mind when approaching the subject matter?
I did not. I wrote the story and then began researching publishers. I sent the manuscript to two publishers and waited to hear back from them. When I heard, I received acceptance notices within the same week from both. I contacted the second publisher and turned down their offer.

What was your inspiration for writing this particular folktale?
This book is my tribute to my great-grandmother and our Cherokee heritage. As I began reading Cherokee and Native American folktales, I found FIRST FIRE and knew immediately that I wanted to retell it as a picture book. The story had all the elements I was looking for: a variety of animals, a conflict, a crisis, and an unlikely hero, all tied up with a happy ending.

What type of research was involved in writing the story? How did you approach the retelling of the story?
The research was not that difficult. I found the story in different books and versions. The difficult part came with keeping the story authentic and true to the culture. The storyteller in me wanted to tell the story with the most creative flair, but the folklorist in me warned: don’t stray too far from the original story. After all, it was not my story, but a retelling of a Cherokee story. I also spent time reading about the Cherokee culture and talking with members of the Cherokee nation in an effort to give credence to the retelling and to get the details correct.

How might teachers use this folktale in the classroom and for what age group(s)?
Creation stories unravel the mysteries of the origins of the world and/or that of animals and people. Many cultures have their own stories that are similar to the stories of other cultures half-way around the world where the tales developed independently of the other. The stories are sacred and reflect how the people and animals of the culture cope with everyday life. This book can be used in social studies class when studying cultures. It can also be used in science class when studying fire and animals, especially spiders. There is a section in the back of the book designed for educational purposes that is appropriate for primary grades and up through grade five.

What types of writing do you prefer, and why?
I enjoy writing fiction for children. I love the freedom fiction allows. I can be in charge of the fictional world and completely control the plot and characters. I’m Top Dog. The characters say what I tell them to say and do what I want them to do. In the real world, I’m not Top Dog, and I don’t control anyone around me.

I also enjoy writing creative nonfiction. I’ve never outgrown the inquisitive child living inside me. I say “creative” nonfiction because presenting facts and only the facts can be dull and boring. I like to wrap the facts in a narrative that uses literary styles and techniques to make the reader want to keep on turning the pages.


2 comments:

  1. Thanks, Joan. I've enjoyed working with you over the years and hope we can work together once again to create a book.

    ReplyDelete