Susan Campbell Bartoletti: We Make Meaning Through the Telling of Our Stories

Sep 6, 2017 | Community Good News, The Highlights Foundation Experience

Susan Campbell BartolettiSusan Campbell Bartoletti’s work has received dozens of awards and honors, including a Newbery Honor, the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children, the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction, the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal, and many more.

Beyond the awards, Susan pushes to tell the truth about our history while writing for children. She says, “By nature, human beings search for ways to make sense and meaning out of their lives and their world. One way that we make meaning is through the telling of our stories. Stories connect us, teach us, and warn us never to forget.” Ms. Campbell Bartoletti’s work layers rich storytelling with impeccable research and humanity into each page of text, even in the darkest of historical topics.

In addition to her words, we are grateful for all of the mentoring that Susan has given our writers at the Highlights Foundation. A gifted teacher, Susan helps writers as they work to create (and revise) for children and young adults. Today, Susan chats with us about her upcoming revision workshop and her forthcoming anthology.

Alison: Hello, Susan. Thank you for joining us on the blog today. We are grateful for all of the mentoring that you’ve given our writers at the Barn over the years. Do you personally have any mentors that helped you get established, or keep at it?

Susan: I have a special place in my heart for Highlights and the work that the Foundation does.

The year was 1988 or ‘89. Highlights Magazine bought my very first story, something I’d written for their annual contest. I earned $225 for that story, and with the money, I bought myself a gold bracelet. I called it “Linder gold” because that was the last name of the acquiring editor.

I am not a jewelry person, but the reason I mention the bracelet is this: Up until that story sale, I had invested what little extra money I had in my writing self. I bought craft books; I bought the latest award-winning books. I bought the Chicago Manual of Style.

But with that first story sale, I splurged on that bracelet. And then, with the help of a Highlights scholarship, I carved out money from the family budget to attend the Highlights conference at Chautauqua.

Hitler YouthFast forward to January 2006 and several short story sales and 12 books later. It was a snowy, early January morning, and I got a phone call that my nonfiction book, Hitler Youth, was named a Newbery Honor. That June, I wore my Linder gold bracelet to the Newbery dinner.

Today, I consider the Highlights Foundation to be among my most important mentors and influencers. The Highlights folks had faith in me as a writer long before I did. They have faith in me still, even on those hard days when I don’t.

Alison: We do have faith in you, Susan! We are always eager to hear about your upcoming projects. Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

Susan: The upcoming book is a nonfiction anthology that I co-edited with Marc Aronson called 1968. It’s a revolution in book [form], with contributions from 14 writers. It will be published by Candlewick in 2018.

1968 was a pivotal year around the world, a year that grew more intense each passing day. It was a time when generations clashed and the world seemed to wobble on the edge of vast change, fueled by rebellion of young people.

Here in the U.S., the year saw the escalation of the Vietnam War and young people who organized protests against the war; young people – “yippies” and “hippies” – who challenged mainstream politicians, the establishment, and their parents; Olympic athletes who raised fists in protest during the Olympic games; activists who clashed with repressive leaders in Mexico; and young people who took over the streets in Paris. The year brought Chinese Red Guards turning on their elders and Soviet tanks rolling into Prague. And it saw fate-filled assassins who committed murder.

Change was everywhere in 1968, and Marc and I are excited to capture that tumultuous year in this nonfiction anthology. We consider this book to be a new kind of anthology, one that offers a global and thematic look at a subject and that showcases the many forms that nonfiction can take: memoir, personal essay, narrative history, travel writing, and even poetry.

We’re delighted that the book includes contributions by many award-winning writers, including Paul Fleischman, Jim Murphy, Laban Carrick Hill, Elizabeth Partridge, Loree Griffin Burns, and David Lubar, just to name a few.

Alison: Wow, co-editing and contributing to the anthology! We are marking our calendars for its release. Speaking of marking our calendars, your DIY Repair Kit workshop is on our schedule again. We look forward to hosting you and co-facilitator Mitali Perkins for the event. Can you tell our readers what to expect during the program?

Susan: This workshop will be DIY in the true DIY sense. Mitali and I will offer tools, insights, exercises, examples, and instructions for those who have written a rough draft of a manuscript and want some practical revision guidance.

Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Kathryn Erskine and Mitali Perkins.

Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Kathryn Erskine and Mitali Perkins at Summer Camp. Photo by Carol Baldwin.

Participants can expect large-group how-to lectures, smaller informal talks on craft, and writing exercises. They can expect time to work alone and apply the home repair tips so that at the end of our time together, they will have a blueprint for a stronger foundation. Because this is DIY, Mitali and I aren’t reading manuscripts in advance. But we will offer informal feedback, time to talk, and first-aid tips for mangled characters and plots.

While it’s ideal to have a complete manuscript for the workshop, we understand that participants know themselves as writers better than we do. If they feel they are at a stage in their manuscript where they would benefit from this workshop, we trust their judgment and will do our best to accommodate.

What to bring: a printed-out manuscript, a yellow legal pad, four large binder clips, a favorite pen or pencil, four different-colored highlighters, and, of course, your muse.

Alison: Thank you, Susan! We will have binder clips, legal pads, and highlighters on hand. This looks like a revision workshop not to be missed. Can’t wait to see you then.

— Interview by Alison Green Myers

Thank you to our faculty for this Guest Post!

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