Carmen Oliver is a published children’s book author located in Austin. She currently has six, soon to be seven, children’s books in stores. She is also the founder of the Booking Biz which brings award-winning children’s book authors, like herself, to schools, libraries, and conferences. We recently talked to her about the inspirations for her books.
Did you grow up around books?
I had a lot of storytellers in my life. My grandmother was probably my biggest, and my mom, but my grandmother – we had a really special bond. She would read to me again and again all the time. She never got tired of reading to me. She was a former teacher, and I didn’t even really realize it when I was little. When you’re growing up, she’s just Grandma, right? She’s Gram. She would read to me this old book, Sandman’s Stories of Twinkle-Eyes, and the pages are literally falling out (of the book). It was just such a cherished time for her. It was just her and I. She made time for me. She taught me how to read. I guess you could say she was probably one of my earliest reading buddies. It really inspired me to want to be a writer myself, having grown up with books all around me. I was a very fortunate child. I had kind of my own little library. My mom was also a big proponent of reading and she signed me and my brother up for book clubs. We would get books delivered to the house once a month and it was such a treat, like it was like Christmas day once a month.
What was your favorite book growing up?
I would say I have three. I think The Little Engine That Could probably was one of the first picture books. I think why it stuck with me so much is after we would read it, my parents would say to me, “Carmen, you can do anything you set your mind to.” They really reinforced that and we would read it and they’d say, “Just like the little engine, you’re The Little Engine That Could.” They were telling me that you can do anything you want to in life. That really stayed with me my entire life.
And then of course, this one’s so special because my grandmother read it to me, Sandman’s Stories of Twinkle Eyes by Abbie Phillips Walker. It’s just about this adorable little mouse that’s living in an innkeeper’s pantry. He meets his wife and falls in love but there’s this big cat that’s always trying to eat them and they end up having this little family and this little mouse is trying to keep everybody safe. My grandma taught me how to read from this book because we would read it and read it and read it. And as soon as we finished reading it, we’d read it again.
That kind of led me to Charlotte’s Web because I was then able to read on my own. After the one that she taught me, I gravitated to Charlotte’s Web and E.B. White. Just like I felt when I became a part of this mouse world, I felt like I became a part of Wilbur and Charlotte’s world. That’s the magic of storytelling. That seed kind of just crept into my heart and it just like rooted itself there.
When did you decide to become a writer?
When I had my children and I moved to Texas, I finally had time to myself. I wasn’t allowed to work. We were here on a visa in Texas, so we came in 2003 and I was a stay at home mom, and I finally had this time to myself taking care of my kids and I was reading all the time. I love to write. I wanted to write a picture book and I had been telling my oldest, who was eight at the time, that I always wanted to write a picture book. She literally called me on it one day, and she said, “Mommy, when are you gonna write that picture book you’ve always been talking about?” And it was kind of my call to action. I was kind of like, yeah, I’m in my 30’s and I’ve been talking about this for what… 10 years? When am I going to do this?
So I used that time to really apprentice and take classes online and study through online classes. I got involved in every kind of literary program, like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and just really spent all of my time immersing myself in the world of children’s literature.
I always tell kids who are asking, “If I want to be a writer, what’s the best advice that you can give me?” it’s to read. It’s to read everything you can get your hands on. Especially if you want to write nonfiction picture books, read a lot of nonfiction picture books. Figure out how the other authors have done it, look at the language, look how they set up the opening of the story. How do they make you want to turn the pages of the book? What’s the ending like? Do you like it? Do you feel like it satisfies you based on the promise that the author set up at the beginning of the story?
Why did you move to Texas?
My husband’s job brought us here. He’d actually been working for the company up in Canada. But they finally said, we don’t want you just as a contractor, we want you to come on board full time. We had an eight year old and an eight month old at the time. We just up and moved everything and got excited at the new adventure and what was going to happen. It was here in Texas I had my third child. He was born premature, very premature, 10 and a half weeks early. He spent the first six weeks of his life in the NICU at St. David’s in Austin. I had started to pursue writing for children at that point. It was all good because I needed to be home to take care of him when he was super little and the courses that I was enrolled in were work at your own pace. So it was great. I didn’t feel that pressure. I was able to put my family first. But I also didn’t have to give up on my passion of wanting to learn how to write for children.
What’s your favorite book you wrote?
Oh, my gosh. That’s such a hard question because, well, there’s so many stories. Each book has a favorite place in your heart. I think as a writer, one of the things I’m really proud of is A Voice for the Spirit Bears. It’s a true story about a young boy named Simon Jackson, who had to overcome a stuttering problem to try and use his voice to save these rare white spirit bears from extinction. He was bullied a lot because he stuttered and was a little bit different. But here was this kid who was bigger than life, he didn’t care about the bullies. He didn’t let anybody knock him down and stay down. He worked at it for over 10 years. When he started it, he was 12 years old and he created this youth run organization with 6 million members in 60 to 70 different countries. And I thought, here’s a story for kids to really get behind. When I was 12 years old, I needed this story. I wanted to make a difference in the world. And I still do. I think that’s one of the reasons I write for children, is because I want kids to know that they have a voice and that their voice really matters. They have important things to say and it doesn’t matter what age you’re at, they should use their voice loud and proud.
Bears Make the Best Reading Buddies, that also is reinforced in those books to use your voice loud and proud. A Voice for the Spirit Bears is a good example, a true story, of where one boy is using his voice. One voice can make a difference.
Even in Building an Orchestra of Hope because here’s an ordinary individual who is using his voice and his talents to inspire kids to have a life beyond the landfill site. Learn how to make music, to read notes. The world sends them garbage and they send back music.
I think all of my books, including The Twilight Library, are all about kids using their voices, spinning their own stories, using their imagination, letting them know that, empowering them to do anything they want to do, that there’s nothing they can’t do.
I gravitate to stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and empowering young people to use their voice in the world. They are just as special as ever and they all have a unique voice. They all have something important to say. I think that we all need to like work to make this world a better place. And it starts with all of us taking a role in that. We can’t pass the buck. We can’t give it to somebody else to do. We all have to step up and try and do it.
What’s one message that you’re looking to get across in your stories?
I think the most important message that kids need to know is they need to believe in themselves. They need to know that their voices matter, that they matter and that they can do anything that they set their mind to. And for them to dream big. Nothing is unattainable if you’re willing to work hard.
Cover Photo Sam Bond Photography
Maddie Rhodes is a graduate student at Syracuse University. She aspires to work for a travel magazine when she graduates.