Many Lives of Kathleen Krull

By Lesesne, Teri | Teacher Librarian, September-October 1998 | Go to article overview

Many Lives of Kathleen Krull


Lesesne, Teri, Teacher Librarian


TL: What do you, as an author, gain from hitting the road, so to speak, and meeting the kids who read your work?

KK: School visits are always valuable to me.... If a brain is like a compost heap, there is no telling what aspects of a visit will flower there eventually. I've worked out my conversational writing style through talking to kids, trying whatever works to get their attention. (My awe of good teachers grows with each visit, as I hear myself mutating into a stand-up comedian and realizing what a challenge teachers face every day.) Direct feedback can be instructive, seeing what appeals to kids and why, and also talking to teachers.... It is a treat to unchain oneself from the desk and switch to a less sedentary, more in-the-present-moment mode.

TL: Which authors have influenced your writing?

KK: I will always be grateful to the librarians of Wilmette, Illinois, my hometown, for making the library into such a well-stocked, welcoming retreat. I was one of those book-addicted kids I hope librarians still see, checking out six or more books a week. Favorites included historical fiction (Laura Ingalls Wilder; Elizabeth Speare's Calico captive or The witch of Blackbird Pond), biography (the Landmark book series; anything on queens), mysteries (the Famous five series by Enid Blyton was thrilling), fantasy (Edward Eager's magical books), intelligent romance (Mary Stolz, Betty Cavanna), adventure (Scott O'Dell's Island of the blue dolphins), fun books like Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the spy and Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking, and all the fairy tales, myths, legends and folk tales I could get my hands on.

TL: What were some of the topics you tackled as a young writer?

KK: My first real book (complete with fictitious blurbs from the New York Times) was written at age 10 -- Hairdos and people I know.

TL: Your biographical collections, Lives of the artists, Lives of the musicians, and Lives of the writers, present a great deal of interesting information in a small amount of space. A tremendous amount of editing must have been done. How do you narrow the field?

KK: I start by making lists of eligible people, showing favoritism to the dead (makes it easier to talk about their whole lives), the ones whose work I'm passionate about, the ones I like as people, the ones kids will have some familiarity with, the ones most likely to add up to a balanced, eclectic assembly of 20 people per book. I refine the list by consulting with Kathryn Hewitt, the artist, and with my editor; and with others, as needed.

Because I'm most passionate about music, the first book in the series was Lives of the musicians. I began by researching Beethoven, who was so charismatic that every single person who ever met him wrote a book about him. One day I read that his favorite food was macaroni and cheese, and this homely tidbit gave me my focus: concrete details that kids could relate to, anecdotes that would humanize these iconic figures, what you would have noticed about these eccentrics if you'd been their neighbor.

I research tons of material, gleaning a mountain of stuff I think is most interesting, and then revise, tinker, revise, edit, whittle, and then do some more revising to get what I hope is the very tiptop of the mountain.

TL: How much do you and the illustrator work collaboratively?

KK: In most cases the illustrator and I have no contact. But the Lives of series is a rare case of author-artist collaboration. Kathy Hewitt and I are friends, and I have long admired her high-spirited way with caricatures. In fact it was her funny humans with the big heads that inspired the whole series.

TL: Do you feel that sometimes your work is given short shrift because it is non-fiction?

KK: Yes. Non-fiction does tend to get the second-class treatment. I'm not lodging a formal complaint -- reviewers are often very kind to my books -- but I'm acutely aware of which awards seldom consider nonfiction, or what publications condescend to or ignore it. …

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