Elma Schemenauer was born and grew up in Saskatchewan, and has lived in Montana and Nova Scotia. After spending a number of years in Toronto, she and her husband, Robert, now live in Kamloops, British Columbia. Before beginning her writing and editing career, she was a teacher of English and history at the junior high and high school levels. Elma is the author of 75 books and the editor of hundreds of books.
She'll be teaching the Continuing Class “Truth for Youth: Writing Nonfiction for Kids and Teens”
Elma, what impact did your years as a teacher have on the writing itself?
Teaching was great preparation for writing, especially writing for children and teens. I learned to present concepts in ways suited to young people's interests, abilities, and often wacky sense of humour. I also learned to write exercises, activities, experiments, games, puzzles, quizzes, and other materials for them.
What is your preferred teaching style? Do you lean toward the lecture format or a more interactive one?
There are those who think picture books are losing their relevance. What would you say to them?
Sales of paper picture books are slow because they're pricey and the economy is slow. Also, some adults encourage children to be higher achievers by moving from picture books to text-heavier books, which are seen as more challenging. At the same time, there's been an explosion of digitally published picture books. Children are devouring them on devices such as e-readers, tablet computers, and smart phones.
What topics do you feel are most relevant for children’s authors to cover these days?
Relevant topics arise from authors' own interests and/or what they discover about children's needs and interests. Non-fiction topics for children include numbers, ABCs, colours, shapes, Bible characters, pets, toys, family, friends, community life, values, nature, games, and crafts.
And how about those who want to write for teens? What topics would you suggest they consider?
Again relevant topics arise from authors' own interests and/or what they discover about teens' needs and interests. Nonfiction topics for teens include music, sports, hobbies, careers, technology, puberty, peer pressure, living drug-free, and Bible principles in daily life. Many teens relate especially well to biographies.
You mentioned that even secular publishers share our Christian ideas of kindness, compassion, etc. when it comes to children’s books. Do you find it’s more difficult to work with publishers in the ABA when writing books for teens if an author wants to share aspects of his or her faith?
I think Christian authors should work in secular publishing if they have the inclination and opportunity. It brings the salt to the meat. Secular publishers generally feel materials for children should have "good" values such as forgiveness and truthfulness. I have those Christian values (hope so), and secular publishers welcome them in my writing.
As for specific Christian content, it's often easiest to integrate into historical contexts. For example, there's no denying that Saskatoon was founded as a Methodist colony or that nuns started Canada's first hospital. Whether sharing one's faith in secular publishing is difficult often depends on how it's done. Christian authors need to be tactful and respectful while still standing up for what they believe. Humour helps.
Writing for children is a very competitive business these days. How would you suggest a new writer break in?
New writers can come to a publisher's attention through:
- Writing query letters. This is the most common way of approaching editors and literary agents.
- Pitching their work to editors and agents at a conference like Write!Canada.
- Entering writing contests. There are many on the Internet.
- Watching for opportunities in work situations. For example, teachers may find opportunities to write for educational publishers.
- Being referred by a published writer.
- Participating in social media. For example, an editor may come across a writer's blog and be impressed enough to ask for more from that writer.
- Joining writers' groups like The Word Guild. Such groups share tips on what publishers are seeking. Members often include editors and published writers willing to help new writers.
I'm particularly delighted when authors recognize the need for revision, buckle down to it, and produce writing that even exceeds their expectations.
What do you think of the changes in the publishing industry? Do you foresee a time when even children will be curling up with e-readers rather than paper books?
Many children are comfortable with e-readers, also with kids' book apps (applications) on mobile devices like tablet computers and smart phones. I don't see this trend as a threat to authors. Somebody still needs to create the material, whether it's delivered on paper, electronically, or by a method not yet invented.
How do you feel this trend towards electronic publishing will influence up and coming children’s writers?
It will be rewarding for children's writers who can adapt to the changes. Many books for young readers are now written especially for electronic media. Such books include "bells and whistles" like animation, audio, games, live links, pictures that can be zoomed, and paint-me pictures. I think there will be a continuing need for writers and illustrators who can deliver an interactive reading experience that enhances meaning.
On the other hand, it's important to remember that the new doesn't necessarily kill the old. People thought photography would make painting obsolete. They thought TV would make radio obsolete. We now have photos, paintings, TV, and radio. I think paper books will always have a place alongside digital ones.
Steph Nickel interviewed Elma.