- Julie Bookman For the AJC
Laurel Snyder, East Atlanta poet and children’s author, has quietly been tapping away, making a name for herself.
Compared to Judy Blume for writing characters who feel like you, or your close friend, she’s received praise for books including the novels “Penny Dreadful” (2010), “Bigger Than a Breadbox” (2011) and “Seven Stories Up” (2014), and the breathtaking picture book “Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova,” illustrated by Julie Morstad (2015).
Snyder calls herself “a big goof.” She writes for kids “because I’ve never really felt like a grown-up.”
A tallish, friendly gal, she looks a decade younger than 43. She chooses little or no makeup, long dangly earrings that dance and sparkle as she talks, messy hair and comfortable, casual clothes that breathe in this heat. She lounges in all sorts of ever-shifting positions.
She laughs easily, even when she can’t quite pinpoint how many kids’ books she’s already published. Until recently, it was 12: five novels, seven picture books. Remarkably, she has five more titles this year alone: three just out, two this fall. (See box.)
“I suppose this is the biggest year I’ll ever have,” she says, sitting at her dining room table with one knee up.
The five new titles couldn’t be more different: two picture books, including “The Forever Garden,” about warm friendship between a girl and her elderly neighbor; two “Charlie & Mouse” early chapter books inspired by Snyder’s two sons and sprung from their close-knit Ormewood Park neighborhood; and “Orphan Island,” an imaginative 269-page novel for middle schoolers set in a lush utopia. This reporter, who has kept a close eye on the children’s book scene for 25 years, would like to say that the allegorical “Orphan Island” is fast-paced, lyrical, captivating and has all of the ingredients of a classic.
“Orphan Island” follows one year in the lives of nine young children who are entirely self-sufficient on an idyllic, slightly magical island without adults. Once a year, a small green boat pulls into the cove to deliver a very young child and take the eldest away — so there are always nine, which matters. They sleep in small cabins, catch fish, read books, play a ton, cook crab soup and nutcakes, pluck fruit from trees, even sun-dry it into candy.
Snyder had been itching “to write something just for myself and not think about market or sales. Not show it to anyone.” She felt a pull to get away from such things as emails from agents. “I wanted to be in love with writing again, to feel like I did when I was a kid, or when I wrote poems in high school.”
She also has a fat red notebook that holds printouts of 50 more stories she’s written — some polished, some not. Her agent hasn’t sold these. Yet.
The Baltimore-bred author doesn’t use a backyard shed meant to be her writing place. Instead, “oh, lordy, my writing space is basically wherever I happen to plop down, often in bed.”
She’ll work when her two boys — Mose, 11, and Lewis, 10 — are at school, but is also a night owl, sometimes rising at 3 or 4 in the morning to work for a few hours.
Despite being a mediocre high school student, Snyder got a full ride to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. From there, she won a place in the University of Iowa’s esteemed Iowa Writers’ Workshop master’s program.
“Iowa made me take myself seriously and feel like I had to deliver. The program made people take me seriously — which no one had ever done before.”
She stuck around Iowa City for five extra years: waiting tables, always writing, meeting Chris Poma, a musician (and AT&T market research guy by day), whom she married at the Viva Las Vegas Chapel in 2004: “a $148 package and we used frequent flyer miles.”
The couple landed in Atlanta because Snyder missed Chattanooga — but this is where they got jobs.
Snyder now puts readers smack in Ormewood Park with “Charlie & Mouse” (out now) and “Charlie & Mouse & Grumpy” (due in October). With saucy, real-life humor, this smells like the launch of a dandy series for beginning readers.
Each book contains four bright, brief stories: In “Lumps,” Charlie wakes up Mouse, the “lump” beside him, then both wake up their parents: “two lumps” under covers.
The title characters are “based entirely” on Mose (he’s “Charlie”) and Lew (“Mouse”). All other names are actual names of neighbors (used with permission) who live on and around Woodland Avenue, though illustrator Emily Hughes draws them from her imagination. There’s even “Mr. Erik and Mr. Michael’s house.”
As Snyder puts it: “None of these stories are exactly true, but none of them are exactly untrue, either.”
Snyder’s constant mission is to capture the real minds and feelings of kids, and their authentic voices: the way they think, react, view their world, the specific way they say stuff.
“I’m very interested in communication, in honesty, in kindness, friendship, sensitivity and generosity of spirit. I am not interested in etiquette or niceness. I don’t think etiquette is a message children need to get as much as they do.
“My books embrace eccentricity and odd behavior and outliers and quirks. Finding your authentic self — I think that’s at the core of all my books.”
She adores living in “a neighborhood lousy with children,” so she always carries a notebook to jot down things she hears and observes. “It feels like we’re an old-fashioned village. I get to see fights happen and friendships made.”
Jenny Minkewicz lives on Woodland Avenue and has known Snyder for some 10 years. She’s mom of Tess and Lottie, two among the Woodland gang of kids in “Charlie & Mouse.” The gang also includes Jack, Max, Helen, Lilly, Sam, Spenser, Marley, Nora Ann and baby Sylvia.
Neighbors often gravitate to the Minkewicz front yard. “We are raising our kids together along with the rest of the families on and around Woodland Avenue,” Minkewicz says. “We open our doors for meals and fellowship, help each other raise our children the best we know how and circle the wagons when someone has a problem.”
She might be the envy of anyone who ever yearned to carve children’s writing into a real career, but Snyder will tell you that being mom to Mose and Lew is her No. 1 achievement and role.
As for the boys, we asked them each the same question: What is the best thing about Mom being a children’s author? They had time to think.
Mose: “The best is that I don’t have to go to after-school,” meaning his school’s child care program that follows each regular school day.
Lew: “OK, I’ve been thinking. The best thing is because the kids I know whose parents don’t write books always seem to not like books so much.”
Mom probably scribbled that down. Exactly as he said it.