Kirsten Down’s students at the Town of Webb School read the NYSRA Charlotte Award nominated Mirror, Mirror by Marilyn Singer and illustrated by Josee Massee and asked Ms. Singer the following questions. Ms. Singer graciously replied.
How did you decide to use fairy tales as the source for your reverso poems?
My first bunch of reversos were about a variety of things. Among them were quite a few based on fairy tales. When I showed the poems to an editor, she suggested that ALL of the poems be based on (or inspired by, as in the case of the first and last poems) fairy tales. I’ve always loved fairy tales. My parents used to read them to me a lot. And because they are strong narratives with several points-of-view, I thought that there were plenty of them to choose from and write poems about them. So I thought the editor’s idea was excellent. As it turned out, she didn’t publish the book–another editor did. So I’m thankful to both of them!
Another thing that inspired the book–and the reverso form–was a doll that I owned when I was a kid. She was called a Rags to Riches doll. She wore a patched skirt, a shawl, and a kerchief and she was barefoot. But when you took off the shawl and pulled down the skirt, presto, she had on a ball gown! Under the kerchief was a tiara. And to complete the costume, you slipped on her high-heeled shoes. She was a reversible doll and I’m sure that, unconsciously, she inspired the reversos, especially the first fairy tale one I wrote: “Cinderella’s Double Life.”
What process did you use to write the reverso poems? Was it very time consuming?
I usually write with a pen on a yellow legal pad, but I have to write the reversos on a computer so that I can easily move around words and lines. I start with the story I want to write about and make sure that I can create several points-of-view–whether from one character or from two. The reverso HAS to say something different when you flip the words, or else it’s what one person called a “same-o.” Then I come up with sentences, phrases that can be flipped, make sense, and change meaning. I look for things that can become questions or statements and I use a lot of participles. But, to be honest, I can’t quite believe that I’ve written a whole book of these. In fact, I’ve written TWO books–there’s a second volume of fairy tale reversos coming out in 2013 (it doesn’t have a title yet). Yes, they are time consuming, but also fun–creating a puzzle and also solving one!
What is the favorite book you have written?
This is always a hard question for me to answer. My favorite book is often the one I’m currently working on (although, at the same time, that can be my LEAST favorite book because it’s a ton of work and sometimes I get stuck). I do like MIRROR MIRROR because it was challenging and people have responded well to it. I’m also fond of my first published book of poetry, TURTLE IN JULY, poems from the point-of-view of animals throughout a year. It was illustrated by the amazing Jerry Pinkney.
A word about illustrations: I can’t draw or paint, and I admire those who can. I LOVE Josee Masse’s art for MIRROR MIRROR. She perfectly captured the reversible aspect of the poems. In fact, I bought one of the original pieces–Cinderella, of course!
What inspired you to become an author?
From the time I was a kid, I’ve always liked to make up stories and write poems. I taught high school English for a while. One day, after I quit, I started to write down stories based on insect characters I’d made up when I was eight. I used to go into my parents’ bathroom and shine a flashlight on the ceiling. That was Lightey the Lightning Bug. My parents thought I had an imaginary playmate. I knew it was actually a flashlight beam and that I was making up stories. When I wrote down those stories so many years later, it was fun and exciting and it made me want to write more stories. Among them was THE DOG WHO INSISTED HE WASN’T, my first published book. When that got accepted by an editor, I thought, Wow! I guess I’m an author! And that’s been my career ever since. It’s had ups and downs–some years I’ve sold a lot of manuscripts to publishers, other years none–but I wouldn’t trade it for another.
Did children or love of fairy tales inspire you to use fairy tales as the basis for your book?
As I mentioned above, I have always loved fairy tales, so they inspired the book. My favorite fairy tale is Rapunzel. What’s yours?
How did you come up with all the poems for each story? Were there some you gave up on?
I’ve read a lot of fairy tales over the years and I refreshed my memory about many of them in order to write the poems. For the second book, I thought I might write a poem based on “The Fisherman and His Wife,” but I couldn’t come up with one. I did make lists of tales and I chose the ones that worked best. For MIRROR MIRROR, I didn’t always stick to the actual story. For the second book, I have followed the original stories more closely–but from several points-of-view, of course. 😉
I want to thank all of you for your excellent questions and for giving me the chance to tell you more about MIRROR MIRROR and my other books. Just so you know, there’s an audiobook from Live Oak Media featuring me and the wonderful actor Joe Morton reading the poems. I hope you get to hear it.
In the meantime, keep reading!
Marilyn Singer, November 3, 2011