Conversation with Susan Stevens Crummel
by Robyn Ross
Updated: Monday, June 28, 2010
The results of the 2010 Texas Bluebonnet Award competition were clear: Help Me, Mr. Mutt! by Susan Stevens Crummel ’71 and her sister Janet Stevens won by more than a nose. Of the more than 191,000 votes cast by Texas schoolchildren, Help Me, Mr. Mutt! secured almost 32,000—a 12,000-vote lead over the second-place winner. The sisters accepted their award at the Texas Library Association conference in mid-April.
It was the second Bluebonnet Award for Crummel and illustrator Stevens, who won in 2001 with Cook-a-Doodle-Doo!, the story of a culinary-minded rooster. Crummel has written 14 children’s picture books, often collaborating with her sister, and she now speaks to almost 100,000 children each year as a visiting author.
Crummel lives in Fort Worth and her sister lives in Boulder, so they typically develop story ideas via phone, fax and email. Often the subjects for their books are determined by what Stevens wants to draw. This is true in their new book, The Little Red Pen, due out in spring 2011.
“It’s about the little red pen who has to grade all the papers, but no one will help,” Crummel explains. “We have staplers, highlighters and erasers that are all characters. But Janet wants to draw animals, so we have a hamster who becomes a key part of it.”
Before she started writing, Crummel taught math in public and private schools for 31 years—an experience that prepared her for the unpredictability of reading to elementary students. Fire drills, fights, a child getting sick in the classroom: “None of that makes me nervous,” she says.
She uses humor — and puppets — to engage the younger children. With the older ones she talks a bit more about how she and her sister get their ideas and how they collaborate. Crummel addresses children's literature classes at TCU and other universities about how to incorporate reading into the curriculum, and she speaks to parents about reading with their own children.
“At every stage, from babies to toddlers to preschoolers to school age, there’s a technique parents can use to instill the love of reading,” she says. “And if teachers could put away the TAKS test and read for a bit — kids will listen to you more if you read them a book, and then do the testing.”
What inspired Help Me, Mr. Mutt!?
My sister volunteers at the Humane Society and deals a lot with dogs and people. We thought we needed to do a guidebook for dogs about how to handle their people. Then I said, “How about an advice book, like a ‘Dear Abby’ for dogs?”
How do you and your sister collaborate?
She lives in Boulder and I live in Fort Worth, but we work together every step of the way. She’ll say, “I have this idea,” and I put it down on paper and send it to her. She prints it out and writes all over it and faxes it back. I incorporate her ideas, and then at some point she starts drawing. We have different kinds of brains but the same sense of humor.
Why are animals the protagonists in your books and in so many children’s books?
Janet loves to draw animals, so that’s the driving force behind it for us. And animals are universal — they don’t have a race, color or creed.
It seems like most children’s books impart some sort of lesson.
I think many good authors want to produce a book that can be fun and entertaining but also teach something. My sister and I try to teach kids lessons they can relate to, about sharing, teamwork, friendship, honesty and trust. In our book The Great Fuzz Frenzy, a dog drops a tennis ball down a prairie dog hole, and the prairie dogs have the idea to pull off the green fuzz and make outfits.
There’s a bully who’s jealous and steals all the fuzz, and he gets picked up by an eagle but they all save him. There are lots of lessons there — one of them that if you want to be camouflaged, don’t wear neon on the prairie. But everyone rescues him, so the kids learn it’s important to have good friends who will catch you when you fall.
More at www.susanstevenscrummel.com.
Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.