Ann Cameron says she writes books to “capture the positive energy of life,” a statement fully supported by The Most Beautiful Place in the World. She is the bestselling author of many popular books for children, including The Stories Julian Tells, More Stories Julian Tells, The Stories Huey Tells, and More Stories Huey Tells.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I was born and grew up in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, a small town of about 7,000 people. My favorite person was my grandfather, Oscar Lofgren, who taught me Swedish and told me stories. He was a blacksmith, and on our land he had a shop where he made things for us out of iron. I loved watching him hammer the hot iron on the anvil and seeing the sparks fly. He died when I was six. He was a warm and friendly person and helped me become one, too.
My dad was a small-town lawyer who handled all kinds of cases—sometimes for clients who didn’t have any money: one family paid him in eggs, which they delivered to his office every Saturday morning. My mother had been a high school English teacher before she married and admired writers tremendously. She used to say she thought writing was “the most difficult job in the world.” When I was in third grade, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I don’t think the idea that it was “the most difficult job in the world” was a help to me!
From the time I was seven till I was ten, my inseparable playmates were a boy named Bradley, whom I greatly admired, and his little sister, Carolyn. My memories of that period of my life inform my stories about Julian. So does my relationship with my father, who was a showman like Julian’s dad.
In the summers, my family lived at our lakeside cottage. My dad taught me how to swim, fish, water-ski, hunt, and operate a motorboat. He bought me a horse—a wonderful pinto pony named Paint—and taught me how to ride. One of the things I liked to do best on a hot summer day was to ride Paint bareback into the lake. He’d get in deep enough so he had to swim, and I’d float off his back.
By the time I was in high school, I was very interested in lots of things—skiing, acting, politics, science. I wanted to be good at everything in school because my sister, Jennifer, had been. Lucky for me I had an older sister who was good to imitate!
I got my B.A. with honors from Radcliffe College in Massachusetts in 1965. There I studied poetry writing with Robert Lowell and R. S. Fitzgerald, two well-known poets. Both of them assured me that I could indeed be a writer.
At Lowell’s recommendation, I moved to New York after college to work in publishing. I became an assistant editor in the adult trade department at Harcourt, Brace. I read lots of manuscripts. I also read the letters of advice and suggestions for revisions that the editors sent to the authors when they returned their manuscripts. I hoped and believed that by reading all these letters I’d learn to avoid the mistakes the authors had made. No such luck! Occasionally I’ve written books in which the first draft was the final one and hardly a word was changed—The Stories Julian Tells, More Stories Julian Tells, and The Most Beautiful Place in the World were like that—but most often a book goes through three or more drafts.
In 1968, 1 started an adult novel. The chapters I wrote and the good recommendations of my editors got me invitations to artists’ colonies for the summer and a full fellowship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, where I got a master’s degree in Fine Arts in 1974. 1 taught a literature course at Iowa and also was the first reader of all the manuscripts submitted to the workshop by student applicants. I started two more adult novels and abandoned them when I couldn’t see how to organize them. Then I started writing for children. My third submission, The Seed, the story of a little seed that is afraid to grow, was published in 1974. Like most writers, I get lots of ideas but don’t feel a story irresistibly bubbling up inside me. I have to push and pull at my mind to make my initial idea fill out with details and meaning. The most important rule for writing is: “Apply seat of pants to bottom of chair.” Starting a new book is terribly hard. But by the end, I’ve forgotten how hard the beginning was, I’m proud of myself, and I’m ready to tackle the next book right away. Then I get involved in other things and much time passes . . .
To get myself to write, I do something I like much better than sitting at home: I go to restaurants. Every single one of my books has been written in a restaurant. One of them, in fact, was inspired right in the Patio restaurant in Panajachel, Guatemala. As I sat working there one day, a friend, Sergio Garcia, came up. Sergio sat down with me and started to tell me about how he’d always been scared of snakes when he was a kid—and so, to overcome his fear, he’d had snakes as pets when he was an adult. Tom, the owner of the restaurant, had been listening and said, “You could never write a book about snakes, Ann! Kids wouldn’t like it.” “Oh, yes, they would,” I answered, “and it’s going to be my next book!” Right then, I started writing Julian, Dream Doctor, about how Julian wants to get his father a special birthday present—which turns out to be snakes. For a couple of years I’d wanted to write a book about a special birthday present Julian gives his father, but until Sergio started talking about snakes, I couldn’t think of any present that would make a thrilling and funny birthday.
My first book about Julian was inspired by stories a friend from South Africa, Julian DeWette, told me in 1975 about his childhood. Julian is a poet and novelist himself—a very fine one—and was then writing an adult novel about his childhood. He was most interested in writing about the painful parts of the story—about living with apartheid, the system of segregation by race that forcibly kept people apart in South Africa until it was abolished. When I used Julian’s stories, I moved the characters out of South Africa. I set the stories in an imaginary country without racism—a country that represents the world we could have, someday.
After Iowa, I lived in Berkeley, California, for a year and then returned to New York. In 1983, 1 traveled to Guatemala. I went to visit Pablo Zavala, a Guatemalan friend I’d known in New York. I thought that if I liked Guatemala I would stay, partly because it might make it possible for me to earn a living from my books and get more writing done, and partly because I had always wanted to immerse myself in another culture.
In 1989, 1 met Bill Cherry, who was then working for the United States Congress in Washington, D.C., helping develop laws on agriculture. In 1990, we got married. (In one short ceremony I got a husband, two grown daughters, Angela and Cristi, and a granddaughter, Jessica). Bill retired, and now we both live in Guatemala. We have a small house with a view of three volcanoes and a waterfall, and flowers growing over the roof. There’s a lemon tree in the backyard, and almost every day we have fresh lemonade from the tree. (My book The Most Beautiful Place in the World is set in Guatemala and based on stories a boy named Jose, a neighbor of mine, told me.)
In 1993, the mayor and city council of Panajachel named me the unpaid supervisor of the municipal library. The library had been closed for ten years and was very dirty, disordered, and neglected. It had fewer than twenty books for children. The town budget was too limited to make any improvements. Bill and I set out to raise money to make the library a beautiful place where children could learn. U.S. schools, libraries, and civic organizations have helped us add 3,000 new children’s books in Spanish—as well as computers and books on tape. We hope to continue improving the library so the poor children of Panajachel will have a chance to learn and create a better future for themselves and their country. One of the reasons I want to write more is to have more money for the library. Seat of pants, get on your way to that restaurant and sit down!
A Conversation with Ann Cameron about Colibrí
Q. What inspired you to write this story? Did something specific spark the idea of this topic and these characters?
A. One day on the street in my Guatemalan town, I saw a poor boy, about ten, with a very bad eye—so bad he couldn’t see out of it. You couldn’t tell the white from the pupil of that eye—it looked hopeless, more like a mud puddle than an eye. But I almost always hope, so I talked to the boy and said I would pay for him to see an eye doctor if his parents approved. He came to my house with his father; then together they went to the eye doctor in a distant town, and I paid the costs. Afterward they came to see me again. The boy told me it had been a miracle—he had looked through an instrument the doctor had, and he could see! Now, his father added, the boy needed an operation—would I pay for that? It would mean a stay of several days in the distant town—the cost of a hotel and meals, besides the operation. I said I would—but I sensed a grasping attitude in the father, and after they left, I wondered—was what they said the truth?
I called the eye doctor. He told me yes, he’d seen the boy, but the boy had not seen anything out of his bad eye and never would—there was no operation scheduled and no return appointment; the boy’s eye was incurable. The boy’s very convincing show of joy at having seen from that eye had been nothing more than a piece of great acting. For his father, the boy had lied to get money from me. Later, I found out that the boy and father had played this trick on other foreigners around town as well. I was horrified at the father. I couldn’t imagine my parents ever using me that way when I was a child, to get money. Making me pretend I could see, if I couldn’t. Making me deny the permanent tragedy of what had happened to me.
A Mayan friend, Rosa Queché, pointed out to me that the boy wasn’t suffering any longer from what his father made him do—he’d adjusted to being morally handicapped, she said, just as he’d adjusted to missing his sight in one eye. I knew she was right, but I felt so sad. The boy would never get away from the evil influence of his father. Partly to make myself feel better, I decided to write about a child under an evil influence who somehow would manage to get away. In the end the child became Colibrí and the evil influence, Uncle.
Q. What sort of research did you need to do to write the story? Have you been to all the places Colibrí visits?
A. I visited all the places Colibrí visits. For instance, I crawled around in some caves, in one of which ancient Mayan pottery had been found. I discovered fantastically good French fries (potato sticks) in the rainy Nebaj market. I interviewed a midwife. I consulted four different Mayan diviners, two of whom did a reading of the little seeds for me—the last one read the seeds about the novel itself and told me, when I thought the book was done, that I still had a lot of research left to do! And sure enough, she was right; it was nearly another year before the book was finished.
What helped me most to write the story was my friendship with two orphaned Mayan girls I’d known for nine years at the time I wrote the book. I had helped them go to school, and they’d shared their lives, dreams, and beliefs with me all that time. Knowing them gave me an authentic voice for Colibrí.
Q. Marcos gives Colibrí some detailed tips on travel. Have you traveled in pickups around Guatemala as Colibrí does?
A. I’ve traveled on pickups around Lake Atitlán, where I live. I love doing that. Love the bumps of it, the curves of it, the whole new view of the sky and the mountains; and I feel very close emotionally to all sharing the adventure with me. It’s also dangerous, though. The father of some children who are my friends was killed when a pickup met a big truck and to avoid a collision went off the road into a ravine. Maybe the danger is part of the pleasure for me. It’s also the reason I don’t do it often or for long distances.
Q. Is Two Rivers an actual place? Why did you choose that location for the final scene with Uncle?
A. I did go to the actual Two Rivers—which has another name, Semuc Champey. It really was just as impressive as I hope it is in the book. It scared me!
I chose that location once I realized I wanted Uncle to die, in as dramatic and scary a way as possible. Two Rivers was the best place I could think of. I made up the names river of joy and river of fearbecause I think those two describe life itself very well—life is our journey of both joy and fear—and sometimes both can be hidden under the surface. As I mentioned, I become absolutely joyous riding in the pickups, though I know it’s dangerous. In some strange way, joy and fear are connected inside us, like the two ends of a seesaw. I’m not sure a truly fearless person could ever experience joy. Or maybe, momentary fearlessness is joy.
Q. The story has a political backdrop, with references to the wars and La Hortensia. Is this based on actual history? Why did you choose to include these historical references in the book?
A. Yes, there was a long civil war in Guatemala through the late 1970s and finally ending only in the early 1990s. The massacre at a farm called La Hortensia occurred near Nebaj and was reported in the Guatemalan government’s later investigation of the crimes of the war. The violence and lawlessness of the war period had a lot to do with forming criminals like Uncle and Raimundo. We’re all partly formed by the world events of our time, so including the war was important to creating complete characters.
Q. Why are there so few books set in South or Central America for teenage readers in America? When you write a story, is part of your purpose to expose the reader to a place and lifestyle and history they may be unfamiliar with?
A. I don’t know why there are so few books set in South or Central America for teenagers. I think there should be lots more, especially since so many U.S. teenagers now have South and Central American roots. Some of today’s teenagers from these countries will be tomorrow’s U.S. writers for teenagers—and I hope they’ll write great cross-cultural novels to share and make sense of their experience.
I don’t write to “teach” or to “educate” the reader. I’m really writing to learn, partly, and partly for the pleasure and challenge of making great stories. I write about things that have touched me deeply—in this case, it was both the boy with the bad eye, and life as I’d seen it, felt it, and cared about it during twenty years in Guatemala. I want readers to experience the people and the places of a story as if they were living it themselves. If a story is emotionally true, whether it’s about a character who might live next door or a character who lives half a world away, there will be new discoveries for the reader.
Q. When you write, do you have the whole story already in your mind, or do you invent it as you go along? How long did it take you to write the book?
A. I don’t have the whole story in mind. Usually I’m groping and stumbling toward it. In the case of ColibríI always knew I wanted her to find a treasure in a cave. But a lot of the rest—the darker and more powerful part—came later. I think it’s essential as a writer to have someidea of where you think you’re going with a story or else you just wander around in circles like a hunter lost in the woods. By trying one thing and another with the story, you see that some possible events are truer and more right and say more deep things about life than others do. You keep trying to take the story deeper and make it more involving, more exciting. The biographer David McCullough once said that when he’s writing he doesn’t feel like he’s working ona book, he feels like he’s working ina book. It’s true. The landscapes and scenes become real to you and you feel as if you’re wandering around inside them—as if in a dream stage set, where you move pieces of the set around in a wondering, experimental way, a kind of concentrated daze.
It took me a year and a half to write the book.
Q. Colibrí’s psychological experience is complicated. She needs her uncle and cares about him, but at the same time is scared of him and knows he is dishonest. She misses her parents, but thinks they must not have wanted her. How did you get inside her head to understand this experience? Was it difficult to write?
A. For some reason, this wasn’t hard to write. I think all of us have complicated feelings about our childhoods and our parents or parent substitutes, and inventing an imaginary situation may bring those feelings out in a way we never could writing about ourselves.
I also found it extremely easy to write about Uncle. Maybe someone like him exists inside all of us, and it’s our duty to keep him from doing any damage.
Q. Doña Celestina often consults her seeds. Are fortunetelling and clairsentience respected in Guatemala? Do you believe it’s possible to see the future?
A. Among most Guatemalans, yes, clairvoyance is respected. In fact, when I checked with my Mayan friends about Doña Celestina’s knowing about the “little paper” but not knowing exactly where or what it was, they said that Doña Celestina, as a diviner, should know a lot more than that! But I didn’t want her to know more, because that would have taken all the suspense and twists and turns from the story.
I’ve never seen the future myself, but I know people who have had premonitory dreams; and I’ve had a few extraordinary experiences myself. Once in Guatemala City I desperately wanted to see a friend and had no way to reach him. I was sitting in a restaurant. A minute or two later, he came up to my table and sat down with me. I asked why he had come into the restaurant. He said he didn’t know, he’d been on his way to a movie.
At very important moments in our lives, extraordinary powers may waken in us. I think we can change the world with our thoughts and probably do—probably most of all, with the thought that we can’t change it. As far as predicting the future on a daily basis, it’s a talent most of us don’t have. Creating the future, which is far more important, is something we all do. Creating a better future depends not so much on extrasensory experiences as on faith, hope, and the will to imagine and create.
Q. Did you always know the book would end the way it does? Did you consider other endings?
A. I knew I wanted a treasure in the cave. I knew I wanted Colibrí to get back to her parents. For a long time I couldn’t figure out how she could ever get back. When I thought of Uncle carrying that little note in his wallet all those years, and that note providing the way home—that was the biggest breakthrough of the book. I was so proud of myself for coming up with that! And I thought it was realistic, too—that Uncle being Uncle would hang on to that note for nine long years, purely from his pleasure in the feeling of power he got from having it.
I wanted Uncle dead so that Colibrí absolutely would never have to worry about his coming to find her and reabduct her, but I had several alternative ideas for his demise. One was Uncle’s becoming remorseful and suicidal because of Raimundo’s death in the jailbreak, and leaping into the river. Another was a struggle in which he’d accidentally fall into the river. But I felt it was right that the collie Colibrí saved should save Colibrí; and that Colibrí, knowing Uncle might die in the river, should have the strength to keep silent and let it happen.
Q. After you finish a book, do you think about your characters’ lives continuing? What do you think Colibrí would do in the future?
A. When I’ve finished a book, I’ve taken the main character through a particular situation to the psychological state I wanted her or him to get to. Just as some parents (though not the good ones) don’t want their children to grow up, I am happy with my character at that end point where I feel she or he has reached momentary perfection.
When I think about the next stage of Colibrí’s life, I see possibilities for unhappiness. She’s been through extraordinary transforming experiences, especially her experience in the cave. She’s become an autonomous person—the goal if not the achievement of most of us in the teen years. Her parents are likely to see her as younger than she is and want to surround her completely, giving her the protection they were unable to give her for so many years. If they’re wise, they’ll let her exercise some independence, not make her feel she has to cut off what she’s learned of life to fit in with them. (As Dr. Gove Hambidge, a Minnesota psychiatrist who advised me on the book, keeps telling me—every single experience in life, no matter how ugly or sad, has value.) If Colibrí’s parents can’t show respect and understanding for her experience, she’ll long to be back with Doña Celestina. I don’t like writing sequels, but if there were one, I could imagine her parents realizing that she belongs more to Doña Celestina than to them, and letting her return to Nebaj, where she’d have some entirely new and different adventure.
THE STORIES JULIAN TELLS
—An ALA Notable Children’s Book
“Six genial, affectionate evocations of family interaction and childhood mischief. There’s a glow here that’s hard to resist.”—Booklist
THE STORIES HUEY TELLS
“Warm-hearted and winning.”—The Horn Book Magazine
“Gentler than Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series but with much of the same authenticity and insight, Huey’s stories give younger readers a protagonist they’ll enjoy knowing.”—The Bulletin
“A book for sharing in the classroom and at home.”—Booklist
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL PLACE IN THE WORLD
—A Jane Addams Children’s Book Award Honor Book
“[Cameron] tells this bittersweet story, which reads smoothly and powerfully on several levels, with warmth and dignity.”—Booklist
MORE STORIES JULIAN TELLS
—An ALA Notable Children’s Books
—A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
—A Parents’ Choice Award
—A Library of Congress Children’s Book of the Year
“Reflecting incidents true to children (making a bet with a friend, sending a message in a bottle, attempting to be brave), these stories are the sort that will make children ask for more.”—Starred, School Library Journa
JULIAN, DREAM DOCTOR
Cameron’s style is elegantly smooth and the characters come alive through easy dialogue and involving action.”—The Bulletin
THE KIDNAPPED PRINCE
The Life of Olaudah Equiano
“A gripping story. . . . Kids will read this young man’s story on their own; it will also enrich curriculum units on history and on writing.”—Boxed Review, Booklist
“The inspired simplicity of Cameron’s adaptation quickly allows Equiano’s gifted voice to establish a compelling relationship between himself and young readers. Well-sculpted with detail . . . his story is a must for multicultural or history collections.”—School Library Journal
“Readers . . . will be fascinated by the details in this account.”—The Bulletin