Interview with author Ann Martin Bowler
by Aline Pereira*
A former elementary school teacher, Ann Martin Bowler is the author of nine children's books. Her latest title, Adventures of the Treasure Fleet, is a fascinating account of seven amazing Chinese sea voyages that took place over 600 years ago. For more information, visit her website.
Ann, please tell us a little bit about your life before you started writing children’s books: growing up, teaching, traveling… When did it become clear to you that you would be dedicating your life to writing for children and advocating literacy?
It is almost curious to me how it has all turned out. I wasn’t the kind of kid that sat around a lot. I was always out riding my horse or playing a sport, and I wasn’t a very good student. But three experiences affected me in a powerful way, making it clear I was to write and share my love of literature with children.
I would say the main reason I write today is because of my mom. She was someone who encountered huge challenges in her life (almost died from tuberculosis, lost numbers of children, to name just a few) but she wasn’t bitter. In fact, she was one of the happiest people I have ever known. She started writing in the tuberculosis sanitarium and continued to write for the rest of her life – but only got a few things published. She passed away when I was 25. It was my first year of teaching; I was heartbroken. Soon after her death, I discovered her journals, whole suitcases full of them. Reading them helped me to handle the loss. I learned, in a deep way, about the power of the written word: because of her writing, she is still with me.
My mother wasn’t well published mainly because she spent most of her time helping others. Whether it was St. Thomas School needing funds to stay open, a friend who needed to talk, or kids in Mexico who needed shoes, she would drop everything to offer a hand. One of my writing goals is to finish up some of her writing and get it published.
My teachers also influenced me immensely. When I was young, I was bright but I had learning disabilities. Spelling was incredibly hard, and I often felt embarrassed about my challenges. But my good teachers made me feel I had much to offer the world. During my teaching years and, now, when I present to children, I try my best to do the same for other children. I try to help them realize they have great potential, no matter what their challenges.
The last major influence on me becoming a writer was my students. I read good books to my students every day. When I’d read a truly great book, like Charlotte’s Web, for instance, their eyes would get huge and they’d beg me to keep reading. But if they had to read something rather dull, the same kids would have little interest. One day, when I was reading a truly awful reader with my first graders, I thought, “I can do better than this!” I wrote my first book for my own students shortly thereafter. My kids loved it and things just rolled on from there.
I read on your website that your parents introduced you to traveling overseas at a very young age. How have these early experiences abroad influenced you as a person and as a writer?
My family took a long trip across Europe in a VW van when I was five. I loved the trip – being packed together in a van, the beautiful countryside... and especially the food! My parents taught me the ins and outs of traveling, which gave me the confidence and curiosity to travel to distant places ever since. I am very grateful to them for that.
People have always fascinated me. I’ve been lucky to have traveled to a wide variety of places and experienced many different cultures. I love to see how people in different places do things differently, and yet, how in the most basic ways, we are the same. My song, "People," is a reflection of that thought.
Your interest in history and your childhood experience of boring history books prompted you to write Adventures of the Treasure Fleet!, a child-friendly fictionalized account of the Treasure Fleet voyages. Please tell us about the research process and how young readers have received the book.
I think of history as great stories about people who have done very interesting things in days past. But when I was a kid, unfortunately, history seemed to be mostly about dates and a never-ending list of wars. And who would like that?!
My favorite books as a child were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Mrs. Wilder told her childhood stories so well that I was transported back in time every time I read them. My goal while writing Adventures of the Treasure Fleet, was to present an awesome piece of history in a way that would give kids a real sense of what it was like on those Chinese ships 600 years ago. As it turned out, that wasn't hard to do: so many amazing things happened during the voyages!
I used the diaries written 600 years ago on board the ships as my main information source. The diaries gave me a fascinatingly detailed picture of what life was like in the different places the Chinese explorers visited. I also used respected historical summaries, like When China Ruled the Seas by Louise Levathes, to fill in missing details.
Your book Hiking the Appalachian Trail is based on the diary and photos of an eleven-year-old who hiked the trail with her family. How did this book come about?
The Witcher family had just finished hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. My editor, Cindy Kane, knew about the Witcher's family hike; she suggested I use their experience as the book's backbone. The Witchers were delighted to help; they answered all my questions and generously shared their photos with me. Since the book was written at the 3rd grade level, it seemed perfect to use the journals and experiences of Taylor Witcher, who was about that age, as the basis for the book.
What about the biography Jane Goodall: A Good and True Heart? What can you tell us about it?
When I began my writing career, I wrote for Sierra Heritage, a fine regional magazine. I wrote about things I was familiar with: how to take kids backpacking successfully, how to sled safely, good local swimming holes, etc. I developed quite a body of work for them; and it was because of that body of work that Harcourt asked me to write a biography on Jane Goodall.
Jane Goodall has been one of my longtime heroes, so when I was given the opportunity to write a book on her, I jumped at the chance. We seem to have done a pretty fine job of botching up our environment. Our children and future generations need to know about people like Jane Goodall in order to try to solve our environmental woes.
Gecko’s Complaint is a retelling of an Indonesian folktale. What inspired you to write it?
My oldest son, Jocean, spent an extra year of high school in Indonesia as an exchange student. He fell in love with the place, the language, the landscape: he truly felt at home in Indonesia, and eventually married, had kids and settled there.
During my first visit to Indonesia, I was struck by their art and extensive storytelling traditions. I knew, from personal experience, how little we Americans know about that country. So when I came home, I decided to share a small piece of the lovely Indonesian culture with children. In order to select a story that kids would enjoy and relate to, I read lots of folktales, one of which was Gecko’s Complaint, a Balinese tale.
My family and I worked directly with a talented Balinese artist, I Gusti Made Sukanada, on the illustrations for Gecko’s Complaint. It was quite an adventure.
I love to tell kids in the United States about my awesome experience. I am currently working on getting another Indonesian tale, Two Friends, in print; I very much hope Gusti will illustrate that story as well!
Please tell us a little bit about your experiences visiting schools in Indonesia. How did you overcome the language barrier - do you speak Bahasa? Judging by this glowing quote from Carol Engman, principal of Jakarta Montessori School – “Ann interactively reads her stories with such enthusiasm and animism that the children were spellbound. I would recommend Ann to any school anywhere in the world!” – I imagine it was fantastic, was it?
It was a wonderful experience to teach in international schools. Even though some students struggled to understand what I was saying, they listened to my every word. I do not speak Bahasa, so sometimes I had to use translators, but in general the students were so eager and interested that it worked out well. They study English, so listening to me was part of their practice.
People who live in developing nations, in many cases surrounded by poverty, are often very grateful for what what comes their way. It’s not surprising that when I visited those schools, the kids were truly excited and curious. I found it quite moving.
I also loved talking to the parents. It helped me realize that whether parents are rich or poor, well educated or not, they all want the same thing: the best for their children.
You are now serving as ambassador for Room to Read, a non-profit organization building schools and libraries in some of the poorest parts of Asia and Africa. Please tell us how you became involved with Room to Read.
I believe that educating the world’s children is the best way to break the cycle of poverty. Room to Read is striving to do just that, one child at a time, one school at a time.
Unfortunately, in a number of developing nations I’ve visited, some kids have no school to attend; or their schooling is so limited, it has little impact. I’ll give you an example: in Cimalati, the village near my son’s farm in central Java, the children go to school only a couple of hours a day. Why? The school is terribly overcrowded and the village can't afford to add rooms or hire more teachers. Thus, young children spend most of their days working and very little time at school. After seeing little ones working or running the streets because there is no school to attend, I had to do what I could to help Room to Read reach their goals.
Can you tell us more about Room to Read’s “Local Language Publishing” program?
The first thing that attracted me to 'Room to Read' was precisely the fact that they publish local authors and illustrators in Asia and Africa. These 'Room to Read' books are written both in local languages and in English, giving children the opportunity to read/learn two languages while enjoying some of their country’s best stories. It's very important for them to read stories they can relate to and that are culturally relevant.
How about the "Literacy One" flight, scheduled to take off during the 2007 holiday season?
Yes, it’s a pretty creative partnership! This holiday season Cathay Pacific Airways has donated the inaugural flight of its new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft to 'Room to Read.' The flight will take-off from Boeing Airfield in Seattle and deliver a portion of the 400,000 books donated by Scholastic to libraries in Asia. Students representing the 'Literacy One Challenge' will participate in ceremonies in Seattle and Hong Kong upon the flight's take-off and landing.
Right now, students across the U.S. are helping with the 'Literacy One Challenge' by organizing their own fundraising campaigns to benefit the cause. The 'Students Helping Students' program is an excellent way for students and community groups to help those who are less fortunate, while cultivating valuable leadership skills.
You have announced you are donating your school speaking fees this year to Room to Read, with the goal of building a school in Vietnam. Kudos to you! Your efforts are very inspiring. Do you know of other authors/illustrators that contribute in similar ways to benefit this or other causes? (To support Ann and Room to Read's efforts, PaperTigers recently funded Ann's daylong visit to Freeport School, in Sacramento. For highlights of the event, click here.)
Thank you. Having spent time in numerous countries, including Northern Vietnam, I was saddened by the level of poverty I saw. I could easily see effects from the Vietnam War... So I am delighted to fundraise for a school in Vietnam. After that school is built, I hope to fundraise to build schools in China and Indonesia.
I don’t know of other authors/illustrators who have taken on projects like this, but I do know Room to Read would more than likely welcome their support.
I hear your next project will be a book about Korea. What can you tell us about it?
It will be a book about the Korean culture: holidays, games, food, traditions. It will be a user-friendly book, so that families can experience authentic pieces of Korean culture.
My two youngest children, Sarah and Jacob, were adopted from Korea. My husband John and I feel it’s imperative for them, for all of us, to know their birth culture. We are fortunate to have participated in 'Sacramento’s Friends of Korean's culture school' for many years. This group and its wonderful Korean American teachers have given me the background for this book. Writing it will give my kids and me the chance to learn more deeply about their rich culture. We look forward to mastering some tasty Korean recipes!
We would like to end the interview with some words from you about the importance of helping others.
My mom used to say, “Hope is what I hold most in my heart.”
I’ve held on tightly to her words when I’ve struggled with problems at home, and when I worked long and hard to become a published author. Her words also have meaning for me in a broader sense. I think it is easy to get discouraged about the world’s many problems. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to it all and get caught up in our demanding, sometimes self-absorbed lifestyles. I think most people don't realize how easy it is to have a good impact on the world: if we hold out hope for and offer a helping hand (or an education!) to the world’s neediest, we truly can make a difference and the world truly will be a better place.
*Aline Pereira is PaperTigers Managing Editor