SWA Presenter Spotlight: Gail Langer Karwoski

As I announced in December, I will be teaching a workshop on journalistic writing at the 35th annual Southeastern Writers Association conference in June 2010.

To gear up for that, I am featuring some interviews and spotlights with this year’s presentersFor more SWA Presenter Spotlights, click the appropriately-named category in the right-hand sidebar.

Next up is award-winning children’s author Gail Langer Karwoski.


Karwoski’s historical novels, short stories, nonfiction and picture books for young readers have been Junior Library Guild Selections, Mom’s Choice award winners and have received attention in Parade magazine as well as an endorsement by SeaWorld.

Her latest novel, Quake!  Disaster in San Francisco, 1906 (Peachtree Publishers, 2004) appeared on eight state award lists, and she has been named Georgia Author of the Year for Juvenile Literature three times—most recently for River Beds: Sleeping in the World’s Rivers (Sylvan Dell Publishing, 2008).

For more information on her books and ideas for how to use them in the classroom, please visit her Web site.


RS:  How did you get into writing?

GK: I love a good story!

I love swapping them with friends and acquaintances. I love reading them. I loved telling stories to my daughters and my students. I loved listening to my dad tell me stories about the imaginary kitties and mice that outwitted each other in the storeroom behind his hardware store.

Writing is a form of storytelling. I’ve always been into it!

RS: What keeps you writing?

GK: My readers!

I also love the process of writing: I like delving into a subject, looking at it from every side, turning it inside and out. I like the poetic parade of words—seeking the memorable turn of phrase, discovering the image that lays bare the essence.

RS: What do you do when you’re not writing?

GK: Cook (and eat)

Go for walks (and talks)

Read (and listen to books on CD)

Chat with our grownup daughters (and shop)

Snuggle my favorite cat (and my husband)

Watch movies (and whatever is my current favorite TV program—lately, I’m stuck on the PBS historical soap, Lark Rise to Candleford—maybe because of the British accents?)

Do crosswords (and Sudokus)

Look for humor in this nutsy world (and try to remember it long enough to get the punchline right when I share it!)

RS: What draws you to children’s literature?

GK: I’m a mom. For many years, I was a teacher. Plus, I view the world in a child-like way. (I’m never gonna grow up!) Writing for kids feels like my natural place.

As I craft a story, I think of my reader. I like thinking of a child skipping into the world that I am creating and having an epiphany: “Maybe I could do that . . . maybe there is another path for me . . . maybe I could be happier if . . . .”

Writing for kids is all about possibility, optimism, innovation.

RS: What are you currently working on?

GK: I have two novels for middle grades kids that I’ve been tweaking toward the finish line. They are quite different than my published work and very different from each other.

I have one historical picture storybook under contract, and I’ve got a few picture book scripts that I’ve been “sculpting.”

RS: What’s one genre or type of writing in which you’d like to dabble but haven’t yet—and why?

GK: I think it might be fun to try a sci-fi book—just for the sheer delight of going off in some wacky direction and ending up who-knows-where.

RS: What book(s) currently adorn your nightstand?

GK: I’m reading Phil Lee Williams’s latest novel, The Campfire Boys.

I recently, I finished The Help—talk about delightful characterization!—by Kathryn Stockett. But it’s not on my nightstand because I borrowed my friend’s Kindle to read it—to see how I liked reading this new way. (I have mixed feelings about the electronic reader, BTW. I liked the screen display much better than I anticipated, and, to my surprise, I did like the ease of holding it with one hand. But it was a real pain to scroll back to find a scene that I wanted to reread. No, I’m not going to buy an e-reader anytime soon. But if I was taking a long trip overseas, I probably would.)

My favorite read in the last year was Suzanne Collins’s YA, The Hunger Games, because it was heart-pounding, mind-bending, and the writing was so powerful, intense and invisible that I forgot that I was reading—I was there!

RS: Name an author that helped shape who you are as a writer and how he or she had that effect on you.

GK: Well, I read Scott O’Dell as a youngster, and he inspired me to try to make history come alive for a reader.

I shared the work of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor—who wrote a perfect fourth grade novel starring a dog (Shiloh)—with my students.

I met Roland Smith at a Florida book festival a few years ago, and he reminded me that this is a job that we got into because it’s fun.

And I’m continuously inspired by my friend, Lola Schaefer, who is optimistic and energetic and sensible, as well as prolific and successful.

RS: Can you give us a quick teaser about the course you’ll be teaching at Southeastern Writers Association?

GK: The Art, Business and Craft (ABC’s) of Writing for Young Readers

We’ll begin with a consideration of the art: Why do grownups write for kids? Are we writing to instruct, inform or entertain? Do we write to relive and share our own childhood experiences? Do children’s books need a “message”?

There are as many genres in juvenile as in adult writing. What are the different types of books for children? How old are the kids who will read or listen to each type? What are the requirements of each genre—word length, content, organization? What kinds of characters and topics are appropriate for kids?

What are your options for establishing a readership? The “gate-keepers” of children’s books are adults: How do you connect with readers through publishers and educators?

Focus on the Picture Book: We’ll take a hands-on look at this special form, where less is more. (Some have described the picture book as War and Peace in a haiku!) Picture books can be grouped into concept books and picture storybooks, and each has specific requirements. Today’s picture books reflect today’s culture, so we’ll examine the current picture book scene. What role do author and illustrator play in developing these books?

Focus on the Novel: We’ll take a hands-on look at fiction for “middle grades” and “young adult” readers (ages 8-16). Today’s reader is faced with a world of hi-tech distractions, so how do you keep ‘em down on the page after they’ve seen TV? What’s the difference between novels for adults and kids? What’s the difference between contemporary novels and the books you savored when you were a kid?


For more information about the Southeastern Writers Association conference in June, please see their registration page as well as my recent post.  Don’t wait to sign up—and you must be registered by April 1 in order to participate in contests and manuscript evaluations, so reserve your spot today!

To learn more about the workshop I’m teaching, click here.


Here’s a link to a short interview another SWA presenter, Amy Munnell, did with Karwoski in 2008 on her blog/zine 3 Questions . . . and Answers.