Writer Sam Swope
Sam Swope, award-winning author of I am a Pencil, A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories, recently spoke with us, in his amiable, yet thoughtful manner, regarding his earliest experiments in writing and the road to success.
Swope “loves sheer language and storytelling,” his affinity for writing dating back to childhood. As a student in Gettysburg, PA, during the sixties, creative writing was not emphasized in the school system; however, he excelled at all his writing tasks and was praised continuously for his work by teachers. He further exercised his talent through involvement in the Gettysburg theatre during elementary school, writing plays. At home, Swope reflected, he was consistently held responsible for his family’s tradition of writing birthday poems.
After graduating Middlebury College, and completing a fellowship at Oxford University, Swope decided not to pursue a career as a professor “and spend all [his] time writing papers on Shakespeare.” Instead he came to New York to fulfill his dream of becoming a writer and launched his new career writing children’s movies at an educational company. quickly rising in the ranks. Unfulfilled in his dream, he left after five years.
Swope sadly recalled trading in his beautiful apartment in Greenwich Village for a garret in Times Square to “make himself into a writer,” supporting himself through various jobs including teaching positions at colleges such as Wagner College in Staten Island.
The early fruit of Swope’s labor was the acclaimed children’s book The Araboolies of Liberty Street, a story (about the wild and colorful Araboolie family who come into conflict with the villains, the fascist General and Mrs. Pinch) which resulted in being able to work with a wonderful illustrator, Barry Roots, giving him a taste of early and sweet success.
His second book, The Krazees, (where Swope’s admiration of Seussian rhyme is evident) was delayed due to difficulty finding an illustrator, but was eventually published, followed by Gotta Go! Gotta Go!, a tale of migrating Monarch butterflies. Swope believes his talent for writing children’s novels stems from having a “relatively happy childhood, having maintained a sense of play and silliness;” his writing, however, includes book reviews for The New York Times and articles for Newsweek. Beyond the printed page, Swope’s The Araboolies of Liberty Street has been adapted as an opera by Ronald Perera for performance in schools, while Nickelodeon is working on a movie script based on The Krazees, to star Robin Williams.
His writing as well as teaching talents are evident in I am a Pencil, A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories, Swope’s memoir of experiences teaching poetry and writing to a group of mostly immigrant third graders in a public school in Queens. Starting out as a ten-day workshop, it evolved into a three-year journey of fostering the children’s writing skills. Swope is a proponent of allowing “kids to write what they know;” using an intuitive fashion, rather than a formulaic approach, he guided students towards expressing and writing their personal stories. The journey with the children also afforded them the discovery of the emotional landscape of their lives. He described the children as “terrific kids, who wrote wonderful stories,” some of whom he still keeps in touch with today.
Swope knows the lasting impression good teachers leave on students, fondly recalling several of his elementary and high school teachers: Ms. Wolf, Mr. Krick, and Mr. Witt. He credits Maurice Sendak as a mentor, whose Connecticut home he visited many times. Sendak took the time to look at his writing, and have discussions as they walked with Sendak’s dogs in the fields near his home.
His advice to aspiring writers is to read “everything: fiction, non-fiction…Ideas are everywhere.” And to get published, “be persistent,” he admonishes; “it just takes one editor to say yes.” He urges teachers to “take the time to pass your passions on to students,” clearly the most effective approach. Following his own passion and doing what he loves best, writing and teaching, has propelled Swope to success.#