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Playing around with words in the world of George Shannon
Growing up in the late-1950s, early-60s, in a town of 1,300, far away from anyone who actually wrote books for a living, George Shannon was always a kid who lived in his head.
There was no television in his house — no movies, no computers, no music to speak of — just books and the radio and the play toys of imagination, stories and words.
Five decades later — and far away from that Kansas prairie town now living on an island in the Puget Sound — Shannon is still playing with those words and pictures, only now for his career as a full-time children’s author. He’s written nearly 40 total, he said, and one of his latest — “Rabbit’s Gift” — was honored as a Washington State Book Award Winner in 2008.
Sitting down under the December sun for coffee and tea, I ask him how he feels his play time with words has changed over the 30 years he’s been writing full-time and, even further back, from when he really started putting stories on paper back in the seventh grade.
He ponders the question for a minute, then says, “I hope that it’s more frequently better,” with a feigned, earnest concern, making me laugh at his choice of words — “more frequently.”
Then he follows up with the actual, earnest answer: His stories used to be concerned simply with the underdog and the underdog’s triumph, usually by outsmarting his opponent. But that individual triumph, he says, is not enough for him anymore. Rather than creating stories in which the world or the world view is changed for just one of his characters, now Shannon wrenches the plot, and the individual triumph, to a place where the story alters the world or world view for all of its characters.
Like “Rabbit’s Gift.” In a retelling of a centuries-old fable, Shannon’s main character, Rabbit, finds an extra bit of food while collecting his winter harvest and decides to share it with his neighbor. Unknowingly, Rabbit’s kindness triggers a wave of giving throughout the forest which eventually finds its way back to his doorstep. And at the end of the story, all the characters have changed, including Rabbit.
“The thing about animals is, you don’t have to give them back stories, you just kind of dive in like a fable,” Shannon said.
With a deft knowledge of story structure and such literary savvy, it’s surprising that Shannon hasn’t ventured much into the seemingly more lucrative genre of the novel or short story.
I asked him why he hasn’t yet written a novel for kids or young adults.
“I don’t think I have the attention span,” he says.
He actually has written one young adult novel, it was 20 years ago, he doesn’t like to talk about it much. But even it was pretty short, he said. Shannon likes them short, to fit his attention span. Plus, “picture books are just more fun,” he adds. “They feel more like sculpture, putting the sounds of the words together.”
I ask him where the themes of his books come in, and where he finds story ideas.
He looks around the patio table we’re sitting at and shifts his gaze toward downtown Winslow.
“Pretty much everywhere,” he says, bringing his attention back to the table. “I think it’s more of developing a habit of noticing them.”
You can tell that Shannon has always been a little bit different than everyone else.
Being that kid who lived in his head and having moved from a town of 1,300 in Kansas to a town of more than 4,000 in Kentucky in seventh grade, he found refuge in his writing while other kids were playing sports or being class clown or class bully.
One of his seventh grade teachers brought out the professional writer in him when she “politely insisted” that he read aloud a story he’d written for a class project. When he finally agreed, other kids actually took notice and showed appreciation for his story — something Shannon said he hadn’t felt at school before that — and he was hooked.
“I sent my first story off to New York when I was 16,” he said. “And they wisely rejected it.”
After school, Shannon became a school librarian, and then a public librarian, before taking the leap, waiting out the inevitable rejection letters and finally becoming a full-time, published author in his late 20s.
Back then, the 1970s, it was a “boom time for picture books” he said. Big school budgets and library budgets begged for an abundance of books for young readers. As those budgets spiraled downward, schools and librarians could no longer afford to purchase much excess, but Parent Teacher Associations and Friends of the Library groups picked up the slack in buying new books. Now those groups are scrounging to help pay for the essentials, making for bad news all around.
“If I knew what I know now, I probably would’ve been too scared to start,” Shannon said, which begs the question of job security. After 30 years in the business, Shannon says “I used to have that security, but not so much anymore.
“Most of the editors I started out working for are either retired or dead,” he adds with a hearty laugh.
But on a more serious note, in lieu of the reliable book contracts you’d expect a 30-year-veteran to have, Shannon still sends stories to New York and waits through the inevitable rejection letters. For the past couple years he’s worked part time at the local bookstore and just this year, for the first time in his career, he actively sought out and hired a literary agent to represent his work.
“So many doors have closed,” Shannon said. “A lot of editors won’t even read unsolicited stuff anymore.”
Which, you might think, would have a devastating effect on the whimsy of a creative-type making a living as a children’s author. But Shannon is just as zany and upbeat and fountain-of-youth-y now as he’s ever been. Probably even more so, he says.
“When I was in my 20s and 30s, I was very old in many ways, very earnest,” he recalls. “It just got to be such a pain in the ass. ... Why not have fun?”
Shannon’s still not a huge fan of the responsibilities in life, like owning and maintaining a house, paying the bills, meeting deadlines and whatnot, but perhaps that’s part of the reason why he’s stuck with children’s books for so long.
Despite the decades, Shannon still harbors a childlike curiosity matched with the old man wisdom inside his near-57-year-old cranium.
“Since I work a lot with kids, sometimes I joke that they’re my peer group,” he said. “And there’s a lot of truth to that, I think.”
Upcoming, Shannon will lead a discussion on a childishly-dirty-worded (but G-rated) topic, “Does Size Matter? Age of reader — length of book,” at the next Field’s End Writers Workshop, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 16 at the Bainbridge library, 1270 Madison Ave. N on Bainbridge. Free, open to writers of all levels and styles. Info: www.fieldsend.org, www.krl.org.
Find Shannon’s work in the kids section of Eagle Harbor Bookstore, 151 Winslow Way on Bainbridge, and also online at www.georgeshannon.org.
Bainbridge-based children’s writer, author of this year’s Washington State Award-winning book ‘Rabbit’s Gift,’ is really just a big kid.