For a poet and Children’s book writer, “Curiosity is a superpower.”
As a child, Casey W. Robinson kept her favorite words tucked away in a secret shoebox under her bed. Now, she puts her favorite words into books for children. Her first picture book, Iver & Ellsworth, was a New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Crystal Kite Finalist. Two of her poems, “Barnacle” and “Low Tide,” are featured in the anthology, Friends and Anemones: Ocean Poems for Children (Writers’ Loft Press), which just published, November 20, 2020.
Casey, who lives near Boston with her three daughters, grew up in Glenburn, Maine. Her mother was a teacher at Glenburn Elementary, and her father worked at GE in Bangor. She has three younger siblings, Liza, Seth, and Riley. Her parents, now retired, still live in Maine. “I have a lot of family there, and I still feel very connected and rooted there,” she said.
A natural born writer
“I have always loved words, stories, and writing, and I loved to read,” Casey said. Childhood favorites included Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables. “I also loved picture books. Anything with interesting illustrations, actually, and I loved reading poetry. I used to write it a lot, too.” This deep background in words, art, narrative, and poetry probably helps explain why, Casey said, writing picture books “felt very natural.”
Casey was drawn to the poetry of Shel Silverstein as a child, and later, to Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. “There’s something about the brevity and the power of the words,” she said. “I love words so much, and words have always felt musical to me, so I liked the way poems felt—distilled.”
The author realized by third grade that her relationship to words was different from that of her classmates. Assigned to write a story using directional language, “I wrote a story about this bug having an epic adventure trying to get from one side of the room to the other,” Robinson recalled. As fellow students read their assignments out loud, “I realized my story was different. I thought, ‘Oh, no! I did this wrong.’ I thought I had missed the mark. But Mrs. Hammond asked if she could keep a copy of it, and she told me that I was a writer, and I have never forgotten that. That was the first time anyone had said that to me.”
While attending high school in Orono, Casey attended the New England Young Writer’s Conference at Bread Loaf. The Green Dean from Amherst visited her high school the following week. When Casey told him how inspired she had felt, surrounded by other high school students so passionate about writing, the dean assured her that she could spend four years in that same inspirational environment at Amherst. She went home and applied to Amherst, early decision, where she majored in English.
Casey also earned an MBA from Simmons School of Management. “I feel like I took sort of a circuitous route to get to this point in my life,” she said, laughing. “That conference in high school was a pivotal event for me. It was the first time I had been with a concentrated group of kids my age who all loved writing—and I held on to that. Then I went to business school, and I loved it! I just kept doing things that interested me, and I think all of that brought me back around to being able, from a confidence standpoint and a practicality standpoint, to prioritize doing this thing that I love. It’s tough to pay the bills in a gig economy. I am self-employed. I am throwing myself into this wholeheartedly, but I will never have not tried—and I think I would have regretted the not trying,” she said.
“I didn’t know how to write picture books [initially]. I just recognized it as a form that fit me and my writing style,” Casey said. “I am not a natural novelist, but I am a poet and always have been. Picture books are 500 words or fewer. You have to do a lot with a little. I love word economy. It was an ‘ah-ha!’ moment. This was a form I hadn’t considered before. It comes back to paying attention to what makes you feel excited. If that’s writing, there are just an endless number of opportunities for figuring out how that writing can play out. You don’t have to be a novelist. You can just create something!”
Writing is both work and play
Casey’s daughters, ages 12, 11, and 8, are inspirations, early readers of her works, “and my greatest critics,” she said. “It’s really fun, actually. Most of what I write is picture books for ages 3 to 8-ish, so I’m just constantly listening to everything that they say and how they look at the world and their conversations with each other. They are an endlessly fascinating source of wonder. I think that’s part of the reason I like writing for kids so much because they naturally find and see the wonder in the world. I feel lucky that I get to do something that allows that of me and asks that of me.”
Casey’s daughters read the draft stories out loud, which helps her get feedback and to hear any areas of the text that don’t flow smoothly. “Picture books have to stand up to being read aloud,” she said. “How it sounds matters. The rhythm of it matters.” Her daughters also “ask smart questions,” which allows the author to tweak the text for better comprehension. “They are very involved in the process, and I love that they get to see how much goes into it,” she said.
“I have this wall upstairs in my bathroom that needs to be repainted and I haven’t gotten around to it, so we started writing words on the wall,” said Casey. “Now, it’s our word wall. Every time my girls come across a word they like the sound of, or the meaning of, or the way it sounds when you say it, they can write it on the wall. So now I’m never going to paint that wall!”
Casey said it’s important that her girls see that she works at her craft and that work goes into the things that we often don’t see out in the world until they’ve been perfected.
“My first book, Iver & Ellsworth, came out in 2018,” she said. “I didn’t send it out to a million places to try to get published. I carefully tried to figure out where it would be the best fit for a publisher. I heard about Ripple Grove Press, and saw a webinar with the founder and editor there. The way he was talking about picture books and the ones he loved and his philosophy for bringing books into the world all felt like my sensibilities, as well. I had a feeling this was a good match. I sent the manuscript off into the ether, and nine weeks later got an email saying that they were interested and wanted to talk to me. So that was a little bit quicker, I guess, than how these things typically happen. But I also spent a long time writing really bad things to figure out how to write a really good story. I didn’t jump that process. I wanted to know how to do it well. I took picture books out of the library. I wrote a lot of stories and asked a lot of people to critique them. I learned what works, what doesn’t, and I started to get a sense of my instincts. This is as much about how to pay attention to your instincts as it is about the technical craft of how to write a good story.”
Hiking is part of her writing process. “I will go and pick trails that I know, if I am really struggling with something—a first line, last line, something about a character. Moving my body helps change and shift my imagination, creativity, and thinking. I am very often in the woods,” she said.
“And I think curiosity is a superpower,” Casey said. “I think when you choose to be and to stay curious, even when you turn that inward, you can’t go wrong with that as a guiding force. I’m curious about everything being published right now. It’s an ever-changing tide. Nothing in publishing is ever stagnant. The industry moves and flows. There’s no point at which you will be done learning, and I love that.”
To learn more about Casey W Robinson and her work, please visit the website https://www.caseywrobinson.com/books
Ms. Robinson plans to participate in the Central Maine Book Festival, which was rescheduled for August 28, 2021, due to COVID-19. She is an active member of the New England chapter of SCBWI and is its conference director through 2021.