Picture books that beg to be reread dozens of times are a unique and challenging art form. Molly Beth Griffin ’05 has published two picture books so far, Loon Baby and Rhoda’s Rock Hunt, which was recently released. She has a dozen manuscripts in various stages of preparation and another dozen or two that no one will ever see.
We chatted with Molly Beth about her writing and Rhoda’s Rock Hunt.
How did your Grinnell experience influence your writing?
I was in the education program at Grinnell. Those classes ignited a passion for nurturing literacy in children, which has guided my entire career. As an English major, I learned to read critically and write articulately. I use both of those skills every day, even though I didn't get to do any writing specifically for kids or teens in my Grinnell English classes.
I think that my undergrad experience paved the way for my MFA in writing for children and young adults. [It] prepared me especially well for the critical component of my master’s.
How did you find your way to writing picture books?
I started writing picture books while I was live-in-nannying in Juneau, Alaska, one summer during college. The kids were in bed but the light would linger ’til midnight.
I think I came to picture book writing through poetry, specifically spoken word poetry. I did a little bit of poetry slam as a teenager and I think it influenced me deeply. Since picture books are meant to be read aloud, they blend written and oral traditions, and they have a lot in common with performance poetry. Rhythm matters and breath matters and the sounds of words matter as we try to create a meaningful reading/listening experience.
After Grinnell, I started taking classes in writing for kids at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and submitting picture book manuscripts to publishers. When one of my stories won the Loft’s Shabo Award, I decided to take picture book writing seriously and enroll in Hamline University's MFA program.
How did the story of Rhoda's Rock Hunt come about?
I have always been a compulsive rock picker-upper, and I've been trying to write a rock-hunting book for years. The first version underwent several revisions and got rejected a bunch of times. The second version went into a drawer and never came out. This third version was inspired by a camping trip my partner and I took with our son when he was two and a half and obsessed with throwing rocks into Lake Superior. My kids are always picking up more rocks/sticks/pinecones than they can carry! That common dilemma became the central conflict of the story.
What do you say to people who ask when you're going to write a "real" book, i.e., for adults?
I see my books as real books. I see kids as real readers. I see children's literature as an art form that is just as valid as any other art form — though possibly more able to transform, enlighten, enchant. So in my head, I reframe their question into “Why do you choose to write for kids?”
I think that there is an energy inherent in stories for children, an energy that is tied to the way that kids and teens are always changing. Adults tend to stay the same, or transform very gradually in small ways over the course of years. Young people, though, are constantly outgrowing their old selves and trying on new ones, and that fascinates me.
I love exploring the ways in which young people interact with their environments — how they let a place change them, and how they in turn transform their world.
Griffin has also published a young adult novel, Silhouette of a Sparrow. She teaches writing at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.