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Michael O. Tunnell on Writing Children's Books

Winter 2016

Read Time: 7 minutes 

Like many avid readers, since childhood I harbored the wish to create my own stories. I tried my first novel during my middle twenties. (It was rejected by 20 or 30 publishers.) Then, instead of creating stories, I channeled my writing efforts into professional educational books and journal articles.

In the early 1990s I found my way back to writing stories. Because I teach children’s literature courses, people sometimes ask if my teaching helps me to be a better writer—after all, I teach what makes some books “better” than others and I have critiqued books for review journals. I discovered that critiquing someone else’s work is an entirely different process than creating my own stories. Perhaps I was simply too close to my own work. I had a lot to learn about the creative process. Historical themes seem to have worked their way into many of my books. Both history and fantasy reveal the unchanging qualities of being human. Whether in ancient Egypt, 11th-century Britain, or 19th-century America, humans faced the same sorts of personal trials and joys. History has the power to connect us to the entire human family.

I enjoy trying my hand at the various genres and formats of literature. The economy required by the picture book format makes that sort of writing a challenge.

Writing novels requires sustained imaginative output, unlike writing picture or informational books. Creating and developing believable characters who are doing things worth reading about for 100 pages or more is a difficult yet extremely fulfilling business.

So far the result of my creative literary endeavors has been five picture books, three nonfiction pieces, and four novels. Those are the published works for young readers. I still have a number of manuscripts that reside in a desk drawer that may well end their lives there. But who knows? And, of course, there may yet be some new projects that surface.

School Spirits

I do take some things from my teaching to my writing. For example, I teach my students that authors must repress the urge to tell all the historical facts their research has revealed. To weave historical facts deftly into the narrative is a true art form; otherwise the story is overpowered. That knowledge helped me when I wrote School Spirits, a ghost story set in the 1950s of my childhood. Still I found the job difficult—even exasperating.

I spent plenty of time researching the setting—a small American/Canadian town in 1958. I used the town in which I grew up in Alberta, Canada, as the model for Waskasoo City in the book, so I read pictorial histories of the place in order to refresh my memory. At one point I even had to learn some particulars about locks and keys, circa 1900. Eventually I had to find a locksmith, who explained at some length what I needed to know. And I had my characters eating Oreo cookies, but I couldn’t remember eating them in the ’50s. Just to be sure, I contacted Nabisco. Oreos hit the scene in 1912!

Mailing May

I especially like to write about “little people” in history rather than the famous ones: for example, little May Pierstorff in Mailing May. Parcel post was brand-new in 1914, and May’s parents saw this as a way to send their five-year-old daughter to visit her grandmother. For 53 cents they mailed her! To me this is a marvelous story of ordinary people using creative means to solve a difficult problem.

The Children of Topaz

I was privileged to run onto the story of Lillian “Anne” Yamauchi Hori and her third-grade class interned during World War II in the Japanese-American relocation camp in Topaz, Utah. Their class diary, an integral part of The Children of Topaz, helps us see and feel the effects of war hysteria and prejudice on a personal level.

Candy Bomber

Candy Bomber is a nonfiction book about the Berlin Airlift and the role of Colonel Gail Halvorsen, who dropped candy to the children using small parachutes. Interviewing Gail was a supreme honor and pleasure. He opened his photo library to me, allowing me to scan some 400 photos, many of which I used in the book.

Wishing Moon and Moon Without Magic

One of my most fulfilling writing experiences has been creating the fantasy novels Wishing Moon and Moon Without Magic, both set in the days of the 1,001 Arabian knights. I spent time traveling in Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Bahrain, soaking in the sights and sounds of the Middle East. These images made their way into my books. I had to do a great deal of research about the history, geography, and customs of the ninth-century Arab world to write this fantasy story of an orphan girl who gets away with Aladdin’s lamp.

Michael O. Tunnell, a professor of children’s literature in BYU’s David O. McKay School of Education, is the author of 12 books for children. He has served twice on the Newbery Award selection committee. Currently he is chair of the Department of Teacher Education.

Tunnell's Twelve Titles

  1. Candy Bomber
  2. The Children of Topaz
  3. Beauty and the Beastly Children
  4. Brothers in Valor
  5. Chinook!
  6. Halloween Pie
  7. Mailing May
  8. Moon Without Magic
  9. School Spirits
  10. The Joke’s on George
  11. The Prydain Companion
  12. Wishing Moon