Conversation with Maribeth Boelts, Author of Those Shoes and A Bike Like Sergio’s
Jambo Books (JB): You have been writing for nineteen years. Do you have any favorites of the many books you’ve written?
Maribeth Boelts (Boelts): I think in each book, I have something in particular I like– a bit of description, some dialogue, an illustration or a moment when a character is most fully revealed, but I don’t have one favorite book.
JB: Your path to becoming an author gained traction when you were on sabbatical from teaching preschool. Is it difficult for an aspiring author to get started? Do you have any advice for folks out there who want to enter your profession?
Boelts: Oh, publishing can be vexing and is fraught with competition but two words come to mind– hunger and humility. A writer who hungers to tell the story they really want to tell, and continues to practice and practice its creation, or let it go because a new and better story has welled up, can often break in. I think a position of humility helps writers do the critical work of revision, knowing that there is always room for improvement. Humility keeps us learning– as we study the writing craft of authors, and pay close attention to the way children respond or don’t respond to stories. While children’s book publishing isn’t easy to break into, new authors are always being published, and are most often introduced to publishers via agents. For practical guidance, I recommend joining SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), attending their conferences, and reading all their publications. I also advise getting some writer friends who will join you in both howling at the moon and dancing under it when your story is accepted!
JB: Looking at your pictures, it appears that you are a white woman with a white husband and children. Why was it important to you to write children’s books featuring children of color?
Boelts: Children’s books must have characters that reflect and celebrate the beautifully diverse world we live in, and I am intentional and passionate about creating stories with a wide host of characters and family configurations. Most of my characters are composites of actual children I’ve known through volunteering at a highly diverse elementary school for many years, or who I knew growing up in a working-class neighborhood, or who our kids were friends with when they were in elementary school.
JB: You are also a beekeeper. How did you get started with beekeeping and was it hard to get past the stings?
Boelts: I have never gotten used to the stings! Bees are so mysterious, and they seem to have a code that can never be fully cracked. Our son was interested in the hobby of beekeeping, and we decided to explore it with him. We went to beekeeping conferences, read everything we could on how to manage hives, and we found a wonderful host site for them only a few miles from home.
We were jubilant over our first honey harvest, even though our bees did all the work. But what I also noticed over time was how protective we grew over our bees and all the stressors they face– from farm and lawn chemicals to lack of forage, etc. The world needs bees, and it’s up to us to help them survive.
JB: Will your beekeeping make its way into one of your books?
Boelts: It did! I have a new book coming out, “Kaia and the Bees”! It’s illustrated by Angela Dominguez, who has created such captivating artwork for it. It’s about a girl who has a reputation at school and in the neighborhood for being brave and tough about everything, with one exception– BEES. Her dad becomes a beekeeper, and Kaia has a real quandary. Does she join him in working bees and face her biggest fear? What if she gets stung?
“Kaia and the Bees” will be released in early 2020 from Candlewick Press.
JB: Many parents of young children I talk to agree that their own parents are much easier on their grandchildren than they were on them as children. Did any part of your writing change when you became a grandparent?
Boelts: What a good question! I love the idea of grandparents as assistant coaches to the parents– and that’s how I see myself? As an assistant coach, I have a lot of freedom to pay particular attention to our grandkids, lavish praise and love, and just enjoy their personalities and wirings so very much, without the weight of carrying each and every responsibility. As an assistant coach, I can cheer on the parents, support them in their vision for their family, and remain actively involved. It’s yet another experience in loving, and while I can’t directly trace grandparenting’s influence on actual stories, I know my heart has been changed forever because of it, and that has a way of shaping the way I’m writing.
JB: Jambo Books has featured two of your books, A Bike Like Sergio’s and Those Shoes. A Bike Like Sergio’s captures the conflict a young boy suffers between his conscience and his desire for a beautiful new bicycle. You incorporate ethnic and economic diversity into the book without forcing it or being preachy. Can you talk about whether and why you think it’s important to address hard issues in children’s books?
Boelts: I’ve found that children really relish a good quandary– and there are plenty of quandaries and moral dilemmas from the moment we begin walking and talking until we take our last breath. Giving children a story with a meaty problem sends a message that we value what they think, and that they’re capable of wrestling their way to a solution. A good story will often include a character at a crossroads with multiple ways to turn– and that crossroads is the perfect setting for a reader and a child to have some great conversation. The trick when writing this kind of story is keeping the hand light, and avoiding any and all moralizing. I want children to have questions. I want them to ask themselves “what would I do?” and feel the freedom within the story to answer that honestly.
JB: Those Shoes is such a wonderful, empathetic look into the mind of a little boy who is craving the lastest fad at his school, fancy sneakers. How did you come up with this idea and the resolution to the story?
Boelts: Thank you so much! Those Shoes was written from a series of memory snapshots. The first memory that played into its creation happened when I was in 6th grade. All the kids in my class were getting blue and white striped Adidas sneakers, made popular by the “Starsky and Hutch” TV show. My parents couldn’t afford them, so I got a pair of look-alike “knock-offs” which were much cheaper. I remember hoping that the kids wouldn’t notice that my shoes weren’t “those shoes”, but when I walked into the classroom, they sure did!
The second event happened while I was going to college. I was to observe an elementary classroom for a week. One student had a pair of shoes in rough shape, and at recess, one of the soles came apart. The teacher sent him to the guidance counselor, Mr. Alfrey, to get a different pair, and the boy came back in wearing a pair of black dress shoes. Some of the other kids made fun of him for wearing “Mr. Alfrey Shoes”, and I remember clearly identifying with how he felt.
The third event occurred when I was volunteering in an elementary that had many students in need. One of my tasks was tidying a clothes closet for the students. One morning I was organizing the shelves when a young boy came to me saying he needed a new pair of shoes. I looked at his feet and saw they were stuffed in a ripped-out pair of cheap water shoes that were at least two sizes too small. I found a brand new pair of cool sneakers that fit perfectly, and that boy left went back to his classroom with a big smile on his face, and cool new shoes on his feet.
Taking into account all three of these snapshots, it was then that I knew I needed to write a story about a kid who wants the latest pair of shoes. He doesn’t just want those shoes– he dreams about them, begs his grandma, and gets more and more desperate as the kids in his class come to school sporting the “black shoes with two white stripes”.
But I also knew I wanted this story to go beyond a kid’s desire for the latest fad and into what it’s like to sacrifice something precious for a friend. Jeremy may have given up what he thought he had to have, but he got what he truly needed—a growing friendship with a great kid named Antonio.
JB: Who are some of the authors who have influenced you?
Boelts: In terms of children’s book authors, as a child, I read each and every word of Beverly Cleary, E.B. White, and Judy Blume. Throughout my career, I’ve studied children’s books– for example, checking out ALL (27?) of the Junie B. Jones books from our local library and power reading through the stack of this funny, popular series. I’ve poured over the “Frog and Toad” series, word by word, illustration by illustration, multiple times. Jacqueline Woodson and Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s middle grades have such amazing examples of pure craft too.
Over in the land of young adult, I’ve immersed myself in the so-true characterizations and engrossing plots found in books by Laurie Halse Anderson, Anthony Doerr, Laura Amy Schlitz, and Jason Reynolds.
JB: Can you share with us some of the authors that you follow on Instagram, Twitter and/or Facebook?
Boelts: Laurie Halse Anderson, Kwame Alexander, Lauren Castillo (author/illustrator), Angela Dominguez, Jacqueline Woodson, Jarret Krosocska, Jon Klassen, Linda Sue Park, Marla Frazee, Sharon Draper, and many more!