Sometimes I chat with folks outside the kid lit world who think because picture books are so short that they are easy to write. I personally think they are the most difficult of all genres because each precious word must earn its way into the story. Though I would love to write more picture books, I don’t know if I have the discipline. Not like Shannon Hitchcock! She could rest on the laurels of her fine middle grade novels (including her newest, Flying Over Water, written with N.H. Senzai) but she stretched her writer’s wings with a first-ever picture book, Saving Grandaddy’s Stories (Reycraft). Read on to find out how she did it.
I am the author of four middle grade novels but picture book success eluded me until Saving Granddaddy’s Stories (Reycraft Books).
Saving Granddaddy’s Stories is a picture book biography about oral storyteller, Ray Hicks. It starts when Ray is a little boy listening to his grandfather tell stories and follows his journey to becoming a champion storyteller who was known as “The Voice of Appalachia.” The stories Ray told most often were Jack Tales. Though Jack and the Beanstalk is the most famous example, there are many stories about the boy, Jack and his adventures.
I had two inspirations for writing this book. The first was:
When I was a little girl, my favorite read aloud was a Childcraft book of fairytales. My mother read Jack and the Beanstalk over and over to me, and so writing the dedication for this book was easy: “For my mother, Carolyn Williams, who must have read Jack and the Beanstalk at least a thousand times to me.”
My second inspiration happened when I was a senior at Appalachian State University, which is located about thirty miles from Ray’s home. Ray was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. It was a big deal at my college for somebody local to receive such an honor.
Fast forward many years and I became a mom. While hanging out in the Basking Ridge Public Library with my son, I discovered picture book biographies. I fell in love with them and wanted to write Ray’s story for young readers.
I read everything I could find about him—newspaper and magazine articles, adult biographies. I listened to Ray tell stories on YouTube. I was chock full of information and wanted to share every bit of it with my readers.
The problem is that doesn’t work for a picture book biography. You have to focus and find the heart of your story. It took me a long time to find the heart.
At its core, Saving Granddaddy’s Stories is about the relationship between a grandfather and his grandson—that’s what makes it universal.
It’s also a story about poverty. Ray’s family was poor. He often didn’t have enough to eat. His house was heated by a woodstove. Ray was born in 1922, but even later in life he didn’t own a television. His entertainment was listening to his grandfather tell stories that had been passed down through his family for generations, and then learning to tell those stories himself.
But Ray’s limited background was what made him special. He spoke in a dialect that scholars say was close to the language spoken by the English and Scotch-Irish immigrants to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I knew after listening to Ray tell stories that a biography about him should use colorful language. My book is full of similes, hyperbole, symbolism, and lyrical language. It would make a wonderful read aloud at story times.
Saving Granddaddy’s Stories is illustrated by Sophie Page and designed by Faride Mereb. Sophie is a mixed-media artist and crafted the illustration for Saving Granddaddy’s stories out of clay, paper, fabric, wire, and a handful of Jack’s magic beans. Her illustrations just beg readers to get crafty. They have a folk art feel to them that reminds me of visiting The Folk Art Museum in Colonial Williamsburg.
For teachers, Saving Granddaddy’s Stories can be used as a tool for teaching figurative language and for analyzing how Jack and the Beanstalk has been retold by different cultures. It could be paired with book like Waynetta and the Cornstalk by Helen Ketteman and Paco and the Giant Chile Plant by Keith Polette. Saving Granddaddy’s Stories can also serve as a gateway for exploring the Appalachian Region and its traditions.
Sometimes one good thing leads to another and that’s the case with my debut picture book. It’s slated to be the first book in an Appalachian trilogy. Be on the lookout for She Sang for the Mountains—Jean Ritchie, Singer, Songwriter, Activist.
Shannon Hitchcock was born in North Carolina and grew up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She is the co-author of Flying Over Water and the author of One True Way, Ruby Lee & Me, and The Ballad of Jessie Pearl. Her books have been featured on many state awards lists and have received acclaimed reviews. Saving Granddaddy’s Stories is Shannon’s debut picture book. She recently moved to Asheville where she can see the mountains every day. For more information visit her website at shannonhitchcock.com