Talking with . . .

Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen

An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    STEPHANIE STUVE-BODEEN (Tanzania 1989–90) met a young girl who proved to be the inspiration for her first picture book Elizabeti’s Doll, which has received many national honors. Stephanie lives with her husband, Tim Bodeen (Tanzania 1989–90), and their two daughters in Indiana, where she is beginning work on an MFA, as well as awaiting the release of her third Elizabeti book, Elizabeti’s School, in the fall of 2002. We interviewed Stephanie by email to see how she became an author of children’s books.

    Where were you a Volunteer, when, and what was your assignment area?

      I was a PCV in Tanzania in 1989 and 1990. The ministry didn’t want our group there, so our work permits were repeatedly shelved until our visas ran out and 35 of us were illegal aliens for 5 months! We planned to have t-shirts made: Peace Corps — the toughest job you’ll never have. I was married, so my husband had aquaculture training and I was supposed to look for a job on my own. We lived on the grounds of a secondary school, and every day I asked the headmaster about a teaching job. Every day he would say he was waiting for the paperwork from the capital city. After six months, my Peace Corps boss found out no paperwork was ever sent! Meanwhile, I organized a library and helped with teacher training at a junior college.

    Describe how you decided you wanted to be a writer. Have you only written children’s books?

      I always wanted to be a writer. The issue of trying to get published entered my mind during my fifth year of being a stay-at-home mom, when I realized I could probably write better stories than some of those we were bringing home from the library. I have written an adult novel, but so far only my children’s books have been published.

    How did you get the idea for this series?

      I got the idea for Elizabeti’s Doll from the week I stayed with a village family. I was in a mud hut with rats under my bed at night — the real village experience. I spent my days with the family’s six kids and their entourage, who were extremely imaginative when it came to creating toys. Years later, we were at dinner with RPCVs and one mentioned a girl in her village with a rock for a doll. I remembered the same, and wrote the story at 3a.m. the next day.

    Tell the steps you took, from the writing Elizabeti’s Doll, to sending it to an agent, to getting it to a publisher, etc.

      When I wrote Elizabeti’s Doll, I sent it to one HUGE publisher. Within a few weeks, I received a personal letter from the editor-in-chief, saying she was intrigued by the idea, but would like to see the story developed more. I revised the story and sent it back. I waited an entire year (still have never heard back!) before sending it to another publisher, who acquired the story two months later.

    What suggestions would you give to someone who wants to write children’s books?

      If someone wants to write children’s books, I would recommend reading all the children’s books you can. Then, find your own voice and write about things that are meaningful to you. Children are not dumb, and can be more discerning readers (and listeners) than adults. Picture books are not easy to write, because in a 500-word story, every word must the perfect word.
           Develop a thick skin. Criticism is essential, whether it be from a friend, colleague, or even a rejection letter. My special needs book, We’ll Paint the Octopus Red, was actually acquired by the same editor who initially rejected it, simply because I revised based on her advice and resubmitted it. Above all, don’t give up! It can be an extremely frustrating business, but if the story is good enough, someone will like it.

    Do you have an agent?

      No, although that is primarily where I plan to send my middle grade novel, rather than to publishers.

    Who arranges for the illustrator? Do you have any say in the design of the book itself?

      The publisher finds the illustrator. Usually, there is little or no contact between the author and illustrator. I have been very fortunate with my Elizabeti books — the illustrator, Christy Hale (a fabulous person!!) has used my Tanzanian photos for reference, and has called to ask about different things. For the new book, she is using a video that fellow PCV’s shot when I was in Tanzania. I feel as though I have had a lot of input in keeping the books authentic, although I have absolutely no say in the design of the books.

    Is it possible to make living writing books for children?

      In theory, I suppose, but I’m not at that point. It is possible to make as much as you would on a part-time job, but without having to leave home. One can make a good living off school visits and other appearances, but I’m just getting started there as well.

    Have you written and published anything for adults?

      Not yet.

    What are your current writing projects?

      I have just finished a middle grade novel, am at work on another, and I always have a picture book or two (or ten!) in the works.