Kate Banks is an award-winning children’s book author, a career she dreamed about and made happen. Speaking to her was a delight not just because she emanates wisdom but also because she loves what she does! We must admit, we have a special attachment to her books – her book Baboon tells the story of a baby baboon’s exploration of the world around him and was featured prominently in my bedtime story rotation. But the title “writer” doesn’t fully encompass Kate Banks. Is your interest piqued? Then wait no longer! Dive into the interview to learn from this week’s virtuoso.
Could you tell me the story of your career so far?
This is something I always wanted to do, I didn’t trip into it. I collected children’s books when I was little. I had a real passion for it. And I loved to write, and I knew as much as I wanted to do something that had to do with writing. I even had an inkling that I can’t express as well today, but when I was younger I just kind of knew that. So I say to young people, “Be aware of what you do know, and stay true to it. Don’t always think that someone knows better than you.” And I’m not saying that people don’t, I made plenty of mistakes too, but I think in all of us there’s a deep knowing about a lot of things in life that gets kind of, sometimes, stomped out early on when it should be rising.
I’m almost sixty and I’ve had three people I would say were really pivotal in terms of my personal and professional development. One of these pivotal figures in my life was a friend of mine [in college]. She said to me, “There’s an internship at the Atlantic Monthly Press on Newbury Street, you should apply for it.” So I did apply for it, and I got it. So, for all of my junior year and senior year, once a week I went into Boston and interned in the children’s book department of the Atlantic Monthly Press. And it was a really great experience. There was a wonderful editor at the time that really let me do a lot, so I could really learn about how books were made. That was so instrumental for me, grounding my dream in reality.
[After college] what I didn’t do was just say, “Ok, I’m going to move to New York and just try to be a writer.” Why didn’t I do that? Because I didn’t feel ready, I didn’t feel that was the right move. I still wanted to see more, I wanted to work in a publishing house.. I sent out a lot of letters asking for jobs. One of the women called from a publishing house I’d sent a letter to saying “My assistant is pregnant, could you come for an interview?”
I went down for the interview and, of course, I got the job because it was really right for me. That was in 1984, and the woman I worked with at the time, she edited for me for 25 years. Her name is Frances Foster. She died a few years ago. She was one of the big people in the field of children’s books at the time. The reason I stayed with her is that she was just as amazing mentor on every level—not just about books and children’s books, but as a person. She was another pivotal person in my life because, clearly, the doors opened. And I always say, looking back, the doors opened because even though it seemed unlikely that this might happen, I believed that it could on some level. So I worked with her for five years as her assistant, and then I was writing on the side. I wrote a book and I showed it to her, and the rest was history.
Do you think there’s certain traits you’ve had since childhood that indicated you were a good fit for this kind of career?
Yeah, I did. I think you do have to understand that this is a life that requires, in order to actually create, a lot of discipline and motivation. While it seems, “Wow, that’s great, you’re on your own schedule,” which is true because I organize my own day, I’m very disciplined about it and I get up in the morning to write as if I’m going to an office. I write every morning and have every day of my life, probably. I mean, yes, there will the day in which something comes up or my kids are sick. But in general, that is a non-negotiable. If you expect to use it as a profession, as I did, then unfortunately you need to really take the oath of the professional and say “I’m going to do this everyday whether I like it or not.”
Because I don’t like it everyday, I try to give myself more than one project in the works. It depends who you are. Some people can only work on one project at a time, but I would never advise that in the creative process. It’s the same thing when you’ve tried to write an essay for school and you can’t get the first line right. You need to forget the first line, it is absolutely irrelevant in the creative process. You need to just go for it! Go around, go where you need to go with it. Be disciplined, but don’t set up these false rules like “I need to get these first six words right.” That’s a common trap among, at least, writers.
I was someone who knew the 9-5 routine was not going to really suit me that much. But I was someone who was quite the perfectionist when I was young, so I knew I was going to be disciplined. I could always get homework done and then go do something fun instead of putting it off. I couldn’t have fun until I got my work done. And then, in school, I clearly stood out to my professors and teachers as somebody who was very skilled and a gifted writer in some ways. I was lucky enough to really be encouraged by older people, by my parents, and to be encouraged by my teachers, because I know that doesn’t always happen. So, I had a good support team around me, and I think you do need a good support team.
The other thing I say, “Don’t just hang out with creative types.” That’s a big piece of advice, and there’s a big reason for it. You can get yourself in a bubble. Actually, I think one of the most useful exercises for me in my creative path has been to meet a lot of scientific people, for example, a lot of really structured people. It’s been a way to help me ground my art through people and through [my] relationships with them.
Ok. Let’s see. What’s something you didn’t expect you’d have to do as a children’s author but actually find yourself doing?
Oh, yes, something terrible! I find myself thinking, because I have to—being politically correct. Because believe me, politically correct goes to a whole new level, and very early on. You have censorship. So--and I’m not saying I’m not a politically correct person--but when you really think about it, political correctness is a huge curb on freedom of expression and speech, in a lot of ways. And I’m not giving license to being any other way, but so often when you fall prey to overzealous copy-editors, as all your work does, and librarians, it’s a dangerous mix.
That’s interesting! Do you have any concrete advice on finding an illustrator and generally partnering up successfully?
Well, yes. My first piece of advice is that as a writer, you don’t find an illustrator, actually. The way it works in my field, you are responsible for your text and your story. Because I don’t do the art myself, my publishing house buys my story and they’ve got their full of illustrators and they make the match. Once that happens, the normal process is that the illustrator doesn’t have any, any contact with the writer, which I think is wrong. I always felt, if you knew the illustrator, if you could connect on some level, you could make a better book. I think that’s true.
I lived in Rome for ten years. I met, one day, a still-life painter who was trying to make a living. He would come under my house and he’d come up to lunch, we’d talk about the book, and he would make pictures, and we’d make our own dummies of our books and submit then to the publisher that way, which is very unusual. But great fun! And that was great, because I could really see the difference in doing something with the artist, really being involved. He would tell me if some of the text didn’t feel right, and I would say, “I’m not sure if that should be visually that way,” there was a lot of good dialogue and exchange, which made for a better book. That’s probably why our books were so well received. But that was quite unusual.
What do you think is good training to be a children’s author?
First, you cultivate relationships with children. I always loved children. I loved my own childhood. It seems that children’s writers either loved their childhood or hated it it. There’s no middle ground there! If you aren’t able to connect with children in your everyday life, it’s probably going to be quite difficult to connect with them through a book. I think that’s common sense. Become aware of what they’re like, observe them. That doesn’t mean you have to hang out with children, but just be observant with them., I do know that one of the most famous writers ever hated children, and that was Roald Dahl. Apparently, he despised children. But I think, in general--at least for the books I write--it’s a good idea to cultivate a relationship with the audience. Part of my audience is parents and librarians, but the main audience, the people you’re really reaching, are the child in all of the adults, too.
Most and least favorite parts of your job?
The best part of my job…that’s a very hard question. I think I love everything about my job. But I think one of the best parts of my job is actually—I have the autonomy to make up what I want. At this point in my time. Maybe at the beginning I was a little more restricted. But it’s one of the things that I value most about my job. That I am fully responsible for it. It’s the best and the worst, it works both ways. But if you’re talking in terms of the actual drudgery part… probably the part that is most challenging to me is writing the second draft. Most of my books go through four or five drafts. The second draft is the worst, because it’s when I’m really getting all my puzzle pieces together. The first one I can give a really rough outline. But in the second one I have to fill in the shading and stuff. The second and third drafts are quite demanding and challenging and trying. And then the fourth and fifth, I’m really good again because I’m seeing the end.
And actually, speaking about the process, is there something that you think aspiring children’s authors should know about the reality of this job?
It’s not—there’s not a lot of big money in my job at all. I’m probably one of the more successful and I could basically support myself on my own, but certainly not a family. So, it is not a high paying job. And I think one of the things I don’t do—ok, now I can tell you what I really dislike--is now I do have to click into a lot of social media. I was already established, so I was let off the hook a little bit. [But] I think this is a big dilemma because in fact, publishing houses are not doing what they used to do for you, which is publicity. You must be ready and able to sell yourself. My colleagues who have been in the business a long time, who live in the States, they go on book tours because all those things will sell more books.
Why do you think you do relate so well to children?
I don’t know. I think there’s probably a lot that goes into that. I find children very interesting, just per se. When I was in graduate school, I did a lot of early child education courses. In support of my message with children, the things that really interest me are those—you know, the ability to actually dream, the power of the imagination, the freedom that we have as children. As adults, we don’t have those things as we do in childhood. So for me it’s very important that those things are reinforced at that early age so that children grow up with them, still using them. And also because I have a big interest in education and engagement in the world, and for me the best way to educate—education starts with children. And also because I know children don’t always get what they need or what’s best for them, and books are just a great place to be able to give children something they may not be actually getting in their context or their current world or their current life or their particular circumstances.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?
I really thought I would be doing this my whole life. I had my dream life, my dream job, and then when I was forty years old I had a near death experience, and that was life-changing for me because my career path—although I kept writing and do write—took a dramatic change because I was left with some physical limitations. I had two young children. At that point in time, one of the things that helped me most was alternative medicine and types of hands-on-healing and a lot of different types of hypnosis. Any type of therapy that brought one probably closer to one’s inner capacity to heal or the subconscious. I became a very serious student of those. So, I went to school to become a hypnotists and a regression therapist and studied about every type of hands-on-healing.
I realized at that point that every time I tried to go back to my old life and just write, I got pushed in this other direction. So I had to really follow that path. It’s not always just up to you. I think that’s very hard to, if I look back at my career where the doors opened so quickly, I thought I was where I belonged. But if I look back at my career for the last ten years, I’ve been a therapist, I have a highly successful career, and that’s where I make a lot of my money. It’s not why I do it: I do it because it’s a calling. You need to recognize the opportunities life gives you. And then, of course, what did that mean? It meant for me to actually accept that there’s a part of my path and my journey that isn’t really up to me, and I needed to let go a little bit of my writing.
Why do you think your books did have so much success?
I think in the end I was able to convey something that struck a chord with both children and adults. And I think that’s it. I was able to actually bring to my books for children a universal experience. And just filter it through child eyes. But it’s an experience that we can all probably relate to. So, I think [that’s] why people were responsive to my books.
Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're talking to your ten-year-old self.
Thank you so much, Kate! It’s hard to not be impressed by someone whose job is to infuse our childhoods with magic, imagination, and more! Readers, after you’ve finished re-reading your favorite childhood books, trot back next week to learn from Kate how to preserve your voice in a world like today’s that’s inundated with others!