Monday, December 16, 2013

Grandson Inspires Esther Hershenhorn's 'Txtng Mama'

Esther Hershenhorn is known widely among Illinois children's authors as the heart and soul of SCBWI in this part of the country. Not only did she serve on the board of advisors for 10 years, she was the Illinois director 17 years, which means she's crossed paths with plenty of Midwestern authors, as well as more far-flung writers. 

As a teacher at the University of Chicago's Writer's Studio and Chicago's Newberry Library, and a writer herself – of the middle-grade novel The Confe$$ion$ and $ecret$ of Howard J. Fingerhut (Holiday House, 2002), poetry The Poetry Friday Anthology (Pomelo Books, 2012), and non-fiction S Is for Story: A Writer's Alphabet (Sleeping Bear Press, 2009) to name just a few – Esther brings her vast knowledge of children's literature to her role as a writing coach. She is a tireless champion of aspiring children's writers, both in her hometown of Chicago and beyond.

She returns to writing for the youngest readers with her latest book, Txtng Mama Txtng Baby (Sleeping Bear Press, 2013), a sort of ode to her out-of-state grandbaby.

Question: You're the author of poetry, picture books, a middle-grade novel. What made you want to write for the very youngest audience with Txtng Mama Txtng Baby?

Esther Hershenhorn: Most folks don’t know that Txtng Mama Txtng Baby marks my return to writing for the very youngest audience. I first began working to realize my Children’s Book Author Dream when Jimmy Carter was President, creating a personalized alphabet book to mark my son’s first birthday. Knowing that my son’s son inspired my newest book still has me smiling.

My raised Baby Antennae had traveled far and wide while my grandson was in utero, bringing me images of mamas thumbing their hand-held devices and babies finger-swiping the same.

Texting mamas, I repeated to myself. Texting babies. . . What’s up with that?

 It took out-of-the-box thinking, time, and some doing to figure out the story and consider the telling’s possibilities. I eventually settled on tunefully arranged familiar text expressions (think: I C U, xoxox, LOL) that created a through-the-day conversation between a mama and her baby. I’d always envisioned the board book as a cell phone look-alike, so I was especially pleased when Sleeping Bear Press created just that vertical (finger-swiping) format and chose colorful, baby-loving, easily identifiable emoticons as the illustrations.

My first book, The A to Z of Me, came close to being published by both Western Publishing and a toy manufacturer.  However, the technology did not exist to produce the book in a cost-effect manner. Ironically, today’s technology – i.e. laptops, cellular phones, iPads, reading devices – is the story that Txtng Mama Txtng Baby tells, and thinking about that fact widens my smile. Of course, the message remains the same in both baby board books: Mama loves Baby.

Q: You've cleverly merged our busy, electronic world with what you call "the ultimate hand-held device." What was your goal with Txtng Mama Txtng Baby? What did you set out to accomplish?

EH: I knew from the get-go I wanted to bring today’s Techy-Teachy World to the pages of a board book. Babies live and breathe this wired world. 

Giving babies a way to see themselves and this world in a book seemed smart to me. Which is not to say I didn’t consider apps and/or ebooks and story-telling with all sorts of bells and whistles as the perfect vehicle. However, my love for The Book trumped all other story-telling possibilities. I wanted babies to be able to hold this phone look-alike, to open it, close it, turn it, even eat it. I wanted these newest of readers to be exposed to letters, and to be eyeing those letters from left to write. I wanted them looking at cheery images that told a familiar story. I wanted these newest of listeners hearing the pleasing rhythm of the chosen text expressions. I wanted them to have fun!

And I wanted them sharing this experience with Someone Who Mattered – a parent, a grandparent, a sitter, a sibling.

I knew there would be folks who wouldn’t get the idea; I knew there would be those who wondered if I’d “lost it.” I could hear their responses: “I thought you loved literacy, Esther?! But I knew in my heart there would be many more Mamas and Babies, and their older siblings too, who would grab the book and hold it tight for countless fun re-readings.

Technology is a given.

Text is a language, now taught in some schools, believe it or not, so students can text their parents at the end of the day. Research has proven that when babies and toddlers interact with technology, engaging, interacting humans must be present too.

Q: Some readers and writers still shy away from digital books, even though this format is here to stay. But I believe storytelling is storytelling, no matter whether the delivery form is a paper book or a tablet. Where are you on ebooks, paper books, and early literacy?

EH: Well, back in the day, when I was teaching young children and parenting, I was happy as long as the child – mine or another’s – was reading, period. Comic books? Cereal boxes? Baseball cards? Game boards?

It didn’t matter. I simply wanted the child to be reading.

I still want that. So many folks now distinguish the vessels that deliver the content (ebook, iPad, book) from the delivered stories. Visiting classrooms, I see so many Kindles and Nooks stacked at the back of the room with students’ books for Free Reading Time. Text books are digital. Kids blog daily.

A Luddite at heart, I first balked at and bashed many of those technological “vessels.” I’ve come to see that, again, I want the child reading, no matter the vessel – good stories, told well, so well they resound in the reader’s heart.

Q: You've been an author and a teacher for years, but you're also a professional writing coach. Where does your heart lie? Are you happy wearing all three hats? Do you feel that each role has informed the other?

EH: In a true Quest story, the Hero returns with something so much better than that which he first sought. Such was my Writer’s Journey: I not only uncovered and recovered my voice, so I could go on to author my children’s books; I became a Writing Teacher and Writing Coach, working with adults who want to tell their stories to children.

Lucky me! as it says on my website.

I am indeed happy wearing all three hats. I began my career teaching fifth grade. Once a teacher, always a teacher. And in 87 Lifetimes, I could never meet the singular people with whom I’ve had the privilege of working; I could never know such amazing stories.

As I wrote in a recent TeachingAuthors post – because that’s what I am, a TeachingAuthor, I learn more than my students do. I invest in the writer, I invest in his story, researching content, exploring comparable tellings, coming to know his Writer’s story, drawing from the reader the story that needs telling.

In many ways, each class I create, each narrative I offer a writer, is a mini-story all its own.
I learn what the writer wants and needs, I spend time learning the why, and then I figure out the how. I do the same for my characters.

Sometimes, of course, like now (!), when I’ve needed to put my own writing aside to help another, my character begins expressing her anger, jabbing at my bones from the inside-out. The Good News is: when I do return to my novel, I’ll be so much smarter, thanks to the writers I coach and the students I teach.

All three roles allow me to live and work within the Children’s Book World. Again, Lucky me!

Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? What do you hope readers take away from your books?

EH: I’ve heard it said that a writer writes the same story, just in different ways, each time he writes. There’s an underpinning – or what I think of as a heart, a belief a writer holds that he wants the world to know. That insight certainly applies to me and the books I’ve written and published.

No matter the format in which I’ve chosen to tell my story, I want my reader knowing: he or she is important. Not in the sense of famous or glorified. Simply in the sense of bearing weight, of deserving to be heard.

The Latin root of the word is importare – “to be of consequence, weigh.”

I want my reader thinking, when he closes one of my books: I matter too, just like Lowell Piggott or Rudie Dinkins or Pippin Biddle or Howie Fingerhut, or even the esteemed children’s book writers I referenced in S Is for Story.

Mama hearting Baby is but one more way of sharing that sentiment.


  1. As a grandma myself, I truly love the concept of Txtng Mama!

  2. Great interview, Kate and Esther! I could so hear both of your voices while reading this, and I especially loved this, from Esther: "A Luddite at heart, I first balked at and bashed many of those technological “vessels.” I’ve come to see that, again, I want the child reading, no matter the vessel – good stories, told well, so well they resound in the reader’s heart."

  3. Great idea, Great writer, Great Lady!
    Go Esther!!

  4. Thank you, Kate, for this lovely, lovely interview - and - for getting out The Word about TXTNG MAMA TXTNG BABY.
    Thanks, Bev and Ellen, for your Support - always!
    And, maybe you'll treat your grandkiddos to my book, Julianna. :)

  5. We are lucky to have such a strong and supportive group of writers and illustrators here in Illinois! It's great when we can promote each other and let others know about our work. Thanks all for stopping by the blog!