This St. Patrick’s Day we have a special treat for our Bookboard readers! ?We wanted to share our enlightening conversation with acclaimed children’s book writer and storyteller?Cynthia DeFelice about one of her wonderful picture books, One Potato, Two Potato, which is set in Ireland.
The tale, beautifully illustrated by Andrea U’Ren, is the story of The O’Grady’s, an elderly Irish couple who although happy with each other and accepting of their modest life, long for enough food to eat, candles to light the dark and the company of friends. ?One day the husband digs up a magic pot in his potato patch, and they find that whatever they put into the pot comes out doubled–including themselves! ?Faced with such a gift, it is what the O’Grady’s ultimately do with it that shows the things that are truly important in life.
We love reading your book One Potato, Two Potato. ?Where did you get the idea for the story? ?Is it based on an actual Irish folktale?
One Potato, Two Potato actually began when I was 7 years old and my parents gave me for my birthday a book called Castles and Dragons, Read-to-yourself Fairy Tales for Boys and Girls (compiled by the Child Study Assoc. of America). ?I still have it; it is torn and worn and water-stained, and its appearance shows how much I loved it. ?One of the stories in the book told of an old Asian couple who discover a magic pot that duplicates anything they put inside. ?The emphasis in this story is very much on the money they make with the pot, and what it could buy.
While the original tale was funny and entertaining, it wasn’t truly satisfying to me. ?So, when I began writing full-time, I decided to revisit the story. ?I imagined the couple in the story as poor, but accepting of that fate. ?Their central problem was not their poverty, but their loneliness. ?I imagined that they missed their children who had grown and left for a better life, and that despite their deep love for each other, they each had a secret desire for a friend: she to talk over things such as potato recipes and babies, and he to talk with about things such as the weather and root rot. ?With their discovery of the pot, the question for me became: When does one recognize that one has ENOUGH? ? At the end of the story the wife wraps her arms around the pot and says thank you, then buries it for someone else to find. ?This concept of ENOUGH is what saved the book.
I have been gratified by children’s letters and comments to me about?One Potato, Two Potato. ?A few tell me they wouldn’t have buried that pot again as the O’Grady’s did, no way! — they’d have kept on making as much money as they possibly could. ?But the vast majority of them really get it. ?Interestingly, they often tell me they expected the O’Grady’s to get greedy, and were surprised and pleased when they didn’t. ?Especially endearing were kids who said that what they would have thrown into the pot was their mom or dad, or an especially wonderful teacher because, after all, it would be nice to have a spare.
Many of your books evoke very specific settings, such as Ireland, the American Southwest (Old Granny and the Bean Thief), the bayous of Lousiana (Willy’s Silly Grandma), and the wilds of Scotland (Cold Feet). ?Are you inspired by storytelling indigenous to different cultures and geographical areas? ?
Yes, you’re right; many of my picture books, including Three Perfect Peaches, The Dancing Skeleton, Cold Feet and Old Granny and the Bean Thief, are retellings of old folk tales, and I do try to capture a sense of their country or area of origin. ?I also strive to do two things when retelling a folk tale: One, I try to plumb the depths of its meaning and to make it, in some way, my own. ?This may mean making it more accessible to modern readers. ?At the same time, I try to be true to the original essence of the tale. ?Since I have an Irish heritage, I thought it would be fun to set One Potato, Two Potato in Ireland, instead of the unnamed Asian country in the original tale.
The illustrations in One Potato, Two Potato are evocative of rural Ireland, and manage to be warm and playful in spite of the meagerness of the main characters’ life as poor potato farmers. ??Did you collaborate with the illustrator in bringing the whimsical yet touching story to life?
Andrea U’Ren’s incredible artwork brought the O’Grady’s to perfect life. ?When I first saw her depiction of the O’Grady’s, I was stunned, partly, because she captured so wonderfully their sweetness and humor, but also because they were the spitting images of an elderly couple I knew and loved, Ellison and Caroline Woodworth. ?The Woodworths lived in a small cobblestone cottage in the country, with Caroline raising their food in her garden and cooking everything (including the best pies you’ve ever tasted) in a wood-burning stove, and Ellison playing his fiddle in his white shirt and denim overalls, telling stories about how they lived on their small farm, stories that struck me as full of backbreaking and unending toil, but which he always ended by beaming at his wife and saying, “Gol, we had fun.” ?It is one of life’s uncanny, unexplainable, and lovely coincidences that the O’Grady’s and the Woodworths shared not only the same appearance but the same generous and lively spirit.
As in?One Potato, Two Potato, some of your books address themes that could be upsetting for children, but you do it in a way that turns the dilemmas into positives. ?Do you believe that books are a good way to introduce universal but difficult themes like hardship or loneliness in the nonthreatening setting of a book, where the issues can be positively resolved?
Yes, you are exactly right. ?Rather than shield children from certain harsh realities of life, we can help them to learn ways to approach and cope with these challenges – and what safer way to do it than through a shared book?
A woman come up to me at the grocery store one day and said, “I wish you’d never written that book, Dancing Skeleton! Ryan wants to read it every night, and then he wants to talk about death.” ?I said, “That’s wonderful!” She was puzzled at first, but as we spoke, she came to see that Ryan needed, for some reason at this point in his life, to learn about what death means. ?And now, because they had shared this book, he had a way to broach his curiosity with his mom. And she, as a result, had a golden opportunity to discuss the subject and present her thoughts on the subject. ?What could be better? ?There are plenty of kids who read “The Dancing Skeleton” and think it’s perfectly hilarious and don’t have the same questions Ryan did. ?But that is the magic of story. ?Children are free to meet it on their own terms.
In a delightful and non-didactic way, stories allow children to try on different roles and think, “Who do I want to be like?” ?Stories have always helped people find meaning in a world that often seems confusing, difficult and arbitrary.
Tell us about your newest picture book, Nellie May Has Her Say.
Nelly May Has Her Say?(recently reviewed in the WSJ) is my retelling of an English folk tale called Master of All Masters. In my version, a poor girl leaves her parents and twelve little brothers and sisters, insisting that since she is the eldest, she should go out and earn her own board and keep. Her new employer, Lord Ignatius Pinkwinkle, insists on calling her his “little fuzzy-dust-and-fooder.” She is to call him “Most Excellent of All Masters,” the dog is the “fur-faced fluffenbarker,” a bucket is a “wet scooperooty,” along with many other pretentious and nonsensical expressions.
Nelly May does her best to learn his silly words for ordinary objects, which is a good thing, because the night arrives when she must alert Lord Pinkwinkle to a domestic emergency – and, of course, she must use all his “special words.” When she strings all these silly expressions together, the result is a linguistic tour de force that is great fun to read aloud! ?Nelly May has her say, finally, and earns Lord Pinkwinkle’s admiration – and an apology, and she agrees to return to work for “Pinky.” ?I had great fun writing this, and Henry Cole’s bright, humorous paintings add a perfect touch!
Do you have any words of encouragement for our young readers and writers?
The single best thing an aspiring writer can do is READ. ?Feast on books!
I never took a writing class. My education was reading thousands and thousands of wonderful books. When you read good literature, you absorb it and take it into yourself. You learn – almost by osmosis – about plot structure, interesting characters, rich vocabulary, and beautiful language. ?The more you read, the better writer you will be, I PROMISE.
Secondly, if you want to be a writer, you must write. If you write, you ARE a writer. ?Every day, try to write about SOMETHING, no matter how small.
Also, ?you need to think like a writer. This means you must pay attention. You must always be looking and listening and noticing, because you never know when something might happen that will give you an idea you can use in a story.
Not only that, but you have to go out and live your life: DO things, so that you can write from experience.