Saving Winslow: An Excerpt and Interview with Sharon Creech
I’ve always taken a great interest in observing how publishers promote children’s books by longstanding, award-winning authors. Consider the case of Sharon Creech. Sure, she won the Newbery Medal for Walk Two Moons, the Newbery Honor for The Wanderer, and the Carnegie Medal for Ruby Holler, but as any writer will tell you, true children’s book authors don’t rest on their laurels. This puts her publisher, Harper Collins, in an interesting position. They could offer a blogger, like myself, the chance to do a cover reveal, and that could be enough. They could even offer an interview with Sharon. That would be nice. But what if, WHAT IF, they also gave the blogger an excerpt from the book itself? Would that be sufficiently different? Attention getting? Interesting?
Sure would. And, well, I don’t usually do this but I took the time to actually read this book and it’s good. Real good. Called SAVING WINSLOW, the book involves a boy with a terrible track record when it comes to tending to animals, and a baby donkey that falls into his care. Louie is determined to be an optimist about the donkey he names Winslow. Meanwhile the new girl down the street, Nora, cultivates her own prickly outer shell of pessimism to avoid pain and disappointment. What wins out?
Today I ask Ms. Creech a question or six, and then you get a bit of an excerpt from the beginning of the book. What could be better? Enjoy:
Betsy Bird: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about SAVING WINSLOW. Now in your story a boy nurses a baby donkey to strength. The choice of making it a donkey is very interesting to me. Normally they’re associated with being loud and obstinate. What drew you to choose that particular animal?
Sharon Creech: Donkeys amuse me—not only can they be loud and obstinate, but they’re also funny, quirky, affectionate, and watchful. I’m drawn to that same array of qualities in children, too.
BB: With its design, size, and animal on the cover (not by William Steig, but an animal that Steig would have loved to draw) there’s definitely a physical resemblance to LOVE THAT DOG going on here. Do you think the book will appeal to the LOVE THAT DOG lovers of the world?
SC: I hadn’t thought of that while writing the story, but when it was finished, my editor felt that it was ‘of a piece’ with LOVE THAT DOG, HATE THAT CAT, and MOO, and thus, the similarities in the covers. I hope that the book will appeal not only to lovers of those books, but also to any readers.
BB: Where do you, personally and as a writer, draw the line when it comes to sad elements in children’s books? There are those out there who believe children should never be exposed to sadness in books, and those who believe that only sad books for kids can be meaningful. Your books, however, trace a line between what is typically considered sad and poignant joy. When writing, where do you draw that line in your mind? Do you actively consider it when you write?
SC: I don’t consciously draw that line when I am writing. Usually the story, as it unfolds, will combine something that intrigues me because it contains elements of both joy and–not sadness, necessarily, but seriousness. For example, witnessing my grandchildren rescue orphaned lambs was a strong impetus for this story. (see photo below) I was keenly aware of the vulnerability of such fragile creatures, but also of the dedication of their child caretakers, and the joy and humor and strong bonds that form between human and animal. To me, that was powerful stuff.
I have a photo (see below) of my granddaughter holding a tiny lamb in the vet’s office, knowing that it had to be put down because it was seriously ill. So tender, that photo, and so poignant and sad. . . a glimpse of something ‘real.’
The ‘fine line’ that I trace probably emerges from how I see the world and what I hope to offer children: we are all vulnerable, but there is also strength and joy and hope and molto loverino.
BB: In this story Gus, Louie’s brother, is serving in the army. It sometimes can be easy to forget that we even have soldiers fighting overseas. For other families, it’s an inescapable fact. Is this the first time you’ve written about a military family? Why did you want to do so now?
SC: Yes, it is the first time I’ve written about a military family. It has long bothered me that –as you say above—‘…it sometimes can be easy to forget that we even have soldiers fighting overseas. . . [while for] other families, it’s an inescapable fact.’ I did not start out to write about a military family, and although that is not a central focus of the story, their daily challenges and added vulnerability seemed to parallel the challenges and vulnerabilities of Louie and Winslow and Nora.
BB: Have you loved, lost, saved, or sheltered any animals of your own?
SC: When I was young, my father did not believe in animals in the house, so we did not have pets except when I or my siblings snuck stray cats and dogs into the basement (they all escaped) or when we captured short-lived fireflies or rapidly declining goldfish. When my children were young, two dogs escaped their clutches, and a third one, Hairless Joe—the dog who beat cancer (long story)–we had to give away when we moved to England. Now these grown children each have rescue dogs, and my grandchildren raise cows and sheep. They are managing to keep most of them alive.
My brother-in-law’s primary passion in life is to rescue animals and formed TYR—To Your Rescue (www.ToYourRescue.org) to assist rescue organizations nationwide. He is the go-to person in his area for any stray cat, dog, possum, turtle, bird, etc.
BB: The question folks love the least: What are you working on now?
SC: Oh, mercy! I am working on a thing—it is a story about people—it is a stubborn thing and I do not know what it is truly about yet. I wrote 150 pages, then deleted 100, and am beginning again. So it goes.
Thanks, Sharon! And now, of course, the beginning of the book itself:
SAVING WINSLOW EXCERPT
What is it?
In the laundry basket on the kitchen floor was a lump.
“Another dead thing?” Louie asked.
“Not yet,” his father said.
It was the midst of winter, when night, like an unwelcome guest, came too early and stayed too long, and when each day seemed smaller than the one before.
Louie’s mother stared down at the basket that her husband had brought into the house. “Another one of Uncle Pete’s, I presume?”
Uncle Pete had a small farm on the outskirts of town. Anything to do with Uncle Pete usually involved Louie’s father wasting time or money, or doing something dangerous like chopping down trees or racing tractors through mud fields, or disposing of dead animals. Louie’s father had already brought home and buried two piglets that had not survived their birth.
Louie knelt beside the basket. A small gray head with black eyes and feathery eyelashes and sticking-up ears emerged. Attached to the head was a trembling thin body and four long spindly legs, all of it covered in splotchy gray fur scattered with brown freckles.
It was not a dog or a cat. It was a pitiful-looking thing and it was gazing at Louie. He felt a sudden rush, as if the roof had peeled off the house and the sun had dived into every corner of the kitchen.
“A goat?” he asked, kneeling beside the basket.
“No, a donkey,” his father said. “A mini donkey, born last night.”
“A mini donkey?” Louie’s hand cupped the donkey’s head, patting it gently. The donkey seemed too weak to move. “Something wrong with it?”
“The mother is sick, can’t take care of it.”
“Poor mama,” Louie said. “Poor baby. What will happen to it?”
“Probably go downhill fast. Might last a day or two.”
“So,” his mother said, “why do you have the donkey? Why did you bring it home if it might just die in a day or two?”
“I don’t know,” his father said. “I felt sorry for it. I thought maybe we could at least watch it until it—you know—until it dies.” He whispered that last word.
The donkey made a small noise that sounded like please.
Louie lifted the donkey from the basket and held it close. It smelled of wet hay. It put its face against Louie’s neck and made that noise again. Please.
“Okay,” Louie said. “I accept the mission.”
“To save this pitiful motherless donkey.”
Something different approaching
Louie’s house was old and cold and drafty and leaky, rising up out of its stone cellar with good intention but weakening as it reached the bowed roof topping the musty attic. The house was like many others on the narrow roads this side of town. Beyond the town stretched farmland and empty fields.
In summers past, the house had felt light and airy, with cooling breezes puffing the curtains in and out of the windows and always his older brother, Gus, there, so full of energy and purpose. “C’mon, Louie, let’s paint the porch,” and “C’mon, Louie, let’s clean out that vegetable patch,” and “C’mon, Louie, let’s go to the creek,” always with something new to do. But now Gus was in the army, gone already a year.
And now it was winter.
And each day short and dark and cold . . .
Until this snowy Saturday morning in January, with the wind plastering the windows with wet flakes, when Louie had awakened feeling floaty, suspended in the air, with something different approaching.
Don’t let it hear you.
Louie had not had the best luck nurturing small creatures.
Those worms he brought into the house when he was three years old? Those cute wriggling things dried up and died two days later.
The lightning bugs so carefully caught and tipped into the glass jar with holes punched in the lid? Dead on the bottom of the jar three days later.
The lively goldfish won at the carnival? Belly-up at the end of the week.
Blue parakeet also won at the carnival? Carefully fed and watered and talked to? Three months—then gasped its last breath at the bottom of its cage.
The kitten found at the side of the road? Ran away the second day.
The bird limping across the porch and gently brought indoors? Flew out an open window two days later.
Hamster? Snake? Turtle? Lizard? Louie tried, but all of them, each and every one, either shriveled and died or escaped.
More recently, he had been longing for a dog.
His parents thought it would be a better idea if he borrowed a dog from time to time. One that didn’t live with them. One that didn’t need walking in the rain and snow, and one that didn’t pee on the carpet or chew on the furniture.
So Louie was more than a little surprised when his father came home that Saturday morning with the pitiful donkey wrapped in a blue blanket.
“I don’t want to watch it die,” his mother said.
“No!” Louie said. “No dying. I told you, I accept the mission.”
The pitiful creature tentatively touched its nose to Louie’s. “Awww.”
“Don’t get attached,” his mother warned. “You’re going to be heartbroken when it—”
“Shh,” Louie said. “Don’t let it hear you.” He asked his father if it was a boy or a girl.
“Boy,” he said. “Poor thing.”
His parents stepped out onto the front porch to “discuss the situation.” Louie could see his mother waving her arms here and there, and his father nodding helplessly, shrugging his shoulders, as if he realized he had not thought this through. And then Louie saw him waving his arms and smiling and making a cute donkey face.
The pitiful donkey was trembling in Louie’s arms, his wee head nuzzling Louie’s neck, his long, spindly legs folded up awkwardly. By the time his parents came inside, Louie had a plan.
“He’ll stay in the cellar. I can sleep there with him on the cot. Maybe we could have the heater on at night. We need to go to the feedstore and get some hay for him to sleep on and a bottle and some milk formula.”
His mother’s mouth opened and shut. No sounds came out.
“Mom? Will you watch him while Dad and I get supplies?” Louie handed the donkey to her, pushing him gently into her reluctant arms.
Louie’s mother bent her head to the donkey, studying his sweet face. “Go on,” she said. “But I’m warning you both. He may not last the night. And if he does, he may not last another day or two. You’re going to be so, so sad.”
“No!” Louie said. “I will save Winslow.”
“‘Winslow?’” Mom said.
“That’s his name: Winslow. It just came to me, out of the air.”
Text copyright 2018 by Sharon Creech
Used with permission of HarperCollins Children’s/Joanna Cotler Books
Many thanks to Sharon and the folks at HarperCollins for the Q&A and excerpt on this, its release day.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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