It was a dark and stormy night. The little car twisted and turned through the howling wind as it raced through the rapidly flooding streets of Wichita, hoping desperately to make it to the hospital in time. It was November 6, 1964. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t dark or stormy, and heck, it could have been three in the afternoon for all I know. I wasn’t even a twinkle in my parents’ eyes yet. My point is: on that day a Newbery Medal–winning author was born.
Who is this Clare Vanderpool? Where did she come from? Where in the world is Wichita, Kansas? Does she have indoor plumbing? Does she personally know Dorothy and Toto?
It all started long before I was born. Clare began reading at a very early age, thanks to our mother, who taught us to read before our teachers had the opportunity. Clare remembers reading a book about the ocean, except that she read the entire book pronouncing it “oh seen.” Our mom is a terrific teacher and eventually taught her the correct pronunciation. Luckily, that was before Clare cracked open Island of the Blue Dolphins.
Clare’s writing ability sprouted soon after she could pick up a pencil. She excelled at creative writing. Her writing assignments were always the ones chosen by her teachers to read to the class as examples. When I was in kindergarten and she was in high school, I wanted to bring my big sister for show-and-tell. While my friends shared their dolls, bugs, and rock collections, I read a glowing poem about my older sister and how great she was. If memory serves, it ended something like this. “Clare is kind and full of generosity. She even wrote this poem for me.”
Clare’s way with words is not limited to paper. As a senior, Clare was asked to be the emcee of her high school talent show. She didn’t choose to be a rock star or teen celebrity. Clare was Carol Burnett. She pushed a broom on stage while sporting her curlers and tugging on her ear before saying goodnight. Clare can capture a classroom of grade schoolers as gracefully as she can charm a room full of senior citizens. Her public speaking engagements are educational and filled with humor, and, boy, does she design a mean PowerPoint!
Creativity, perseverance, and never taking no for an answer are just a few of Clare’s endearing qualities. She began honing her craft more seriously after her first child was born. Clare resigned from her job to stay home and raise a family. During that time, she began wondering, thinking, and putting her ideas down on paper. She read books about writing and perused libraries and bookstores. After her third child finally cooperated and took a bottle, Clare was able to attend her first writers’ conference in Colorado. She joined writers’ groups and traveled three times to the Big Apple for the SCBWI conference. After fourteen years, two manuscripts, several conferences and writing-group discussions, and a stack of “no, thank you” responses (commonly referred to as rejection letters), a brilliant agent, Andrea Cascardi, said “yes.” Then the ball started rolling.
Research, research, and more research! From microfilm to the History Channel, from Google to gravestones, Clare enjoys her research. In the six years it took to write Moon Over Manifest, Clare read dozens of books about trains, the Depression, bootlegging, the Spanish influenza, and World War I. Her trip to Frontenac, Kansas, a.k.a. Manifest, provided many of the interesting touches that we all envisioned while reading the book, such as this actual gravestone: “Here lies John Foster — Exemplary humanitarian, distinguished businessman, civic leader, generous philanthropist and devoted father of ten.” And next to John Foster: “Here lies Mary Foster — Wife of John.”
During these years, Clare had four fantastic children and went through countless home improvement projects, complete with demolition and more sheet-rock dust than you can wave a Swiffer at. She took the kids to the pool, drove to the pumpkin patch, planned Valentine’s Day parties, and of course, taught all of her kids how to read and pronounce really difficult words like ocean.
Isn’t there an expression, “Behind every great author is a husband who is willing and able to pick up the slack”? Well, if not, there should be. Clare’s husband, Mark, has always been wonderful about changing diapers, reading bedtime stories, driving to games and practices, and occasionally making dinner. He was almost as excited as Clare when she finished her book.
Clare has had to work hard at carving out time to write, and she can write just about anywhere. She writes during nap times, stop lights, long checkout lines, and longer homilies at church. Clare could probably write in a closet if the opportunity presented itself, but she generally chooses to frequent bookstores, libraries, and the homes of friends and family when they are on vacation. I’m sure she makes incredible progress during these escapades; however, I prefer when she gets a little distracted. One evening, she called me from a bookstore, completely busting a gut while reading a calendar of presidential gaffes. In turn, I began laughing hysterically even though I couldn’t understand a word she was saying. I wondered what her fellow customers were thinking. I’m sure they were enjoying her.
Phone calls from Clare when she is writing are always a treat. They usually start out with Clare asking me for some advice on how this scene will play out or how a character will handle this predicament, etc. After much initiated conversation from her end and many “uh huh”s, “that sounds good”s, and “oooh, great idea”s from me, she has it all worked out and I feel very helpful.
Phone calls from Clare about her completed book are an even bigger treat. There has been: “Hey, I got an agent and I really like her.” Then there was: “Delacorte wants to publish my book!” A really good one was: “I talked to my editor, Michelle Poploff, today for the first time. She is wonderful!” My all-time favorite: “I (sniff sniff) won the Newbery!” We then sat and “sniffed sniffed” together as we watched the announcement via webcast.
Moon Over Manifest is full of rich, complex, well-developed characters. I think this is due in large part to the fact that a bit of Clare is in so many of them. She has the faith of Sister Redempta and the wisdom of Miss Sadie. She’s the friend to the newcomers, like Ruthanne and Lettie. She’s the teacher in Velma T. and the leader in Eudora Larkin. Ned and Jinx share her love for subterfuge. Her sense of humor is found in Hattie Mae, and Shady has her heart of gold.
Moon Over Manifest was largely influenced by Clare’s own life story. It is a culmination of years of reading, observing, remembering, appreciating, and living. In the early years, it consisted of reading the best of children’s literature and always being the most talented and creative writer in class. Later, she traveled, read even more, and surrounded herself with intriguing, character-inspiring people. Finally, she chose to develop her natural talent as a writer.
When I am at a loss for my next book selection, I simply call Clare and say, “I’m ready for a new book!” She’ll thoughtfully pause and reply, “Oh, this is my favorite time, deciding what book to read next. I have just the one.” Her bookshelves are full of “just the ones.”
Clare has traveled to many fascinating places. She is uniquely attentive to interesting stories, especially when there is a historical element. She then has a knack for retaining these stories with emphasis on the details. At large family reunions, Clare is the one recalling the names, relations, ages, phone numbers, zip codes, and familial history of most of the people in the room.
Clare treasured long over-nighters at our grandmother’s house and still does a fine imitation of Momu’s storytelling. Clare’s own story is wonderful. She is a Kansas girl: grounded and strong. She is her father’s daughter: a perfectionist, driven, and pleasantly stubborn. She is her mother’s daughter: intelligent, educated, and confident. She is her sister’s sister: well-rounded and fun. Clare has been able to draw from her life experiences, relationships, and interests to write a novel as unique as she.
In case you missed it, in the acknowledgments at the end of Moon Over Manifest, Clare states, “I will never be able to write about a spunky young girl without her being two-thirds Annmarie.” (That’s me!) I am flattered and have had a lot of fun claiming to be two-thirds Abilene. The truth is, the world would be a much brighter place with a better sense of humor, and our libraries and bookstores would be overflowing with outstanding books like Moon Over Manifest, if we were all two-thirds Clare Vanderpool.
From the July/August 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.