Interview with Nelda LaTeef:
Could you talk about your childhood and where you grew up?
That's a difficult question! As the daughter of a U.S. Foreign Service family, I spent my first eighteen years traveling and living abroad in Italy, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Niger, Nigeria, Lebanon and Senegal. This itinerant lifestyle transformed books into steadfast companions. I especially remember the four years in Afghanistan, where I along with my two brothers and sister attended our American Community School, which was a converted house. The school library, with its row upon tight row of floor to ceiling bookshelves packed with books, was a magical sanctuary. It was there that I became a bookworm, my imagination was sparked, and it transformed me into a writer.
There were never more than 32 students enrolled at the school when we were stationed there and my mother was the French teacher. During the last two years, our principal, Sterling Garwood, a West Point graduate, was my teacher. He taught 5th through 8th grade in a single classroom but before you think, how was that possible, there were only nine of us: two 5th graders (myself and Jeff Long); no sixth graders, four 7th graders, which included my brother, Noel; and three 8th graders. Mr. Garwood, in spite of his West Point background, was a free spirit. He inspired our love for so many things including: reading, writing, tennis, chess, constructing model airplanes from balsa wood, designing and flying kites, going on archaeological digs in the ruins left behind by Genghis Khan, and communicating with the world through his ham radio set--today’s iPhone! Through crackling airwaves, Mr. Garwood’s call sign, “Sugar George,” would be repeated over and over to Mr. Onion, an executive in London, as he was chauffeured to work. I believe we were as much a novelty to Mr. Onion as he was to us.
At the end of most days Mr. Garwood would read to the class from his favorite books, which soon became our own. Some of the books included: Great Expectations, Moby Dick, and The Catcher in the Rye. Half an hour before lunch, he would play a classical music tape and post a picture on the blackboard. We would have ten minutes to write a story about that picture. Papers were then exchanged and the writing would continue until the next ten minutes were up, and so on until lunchtime. When we returned, each student read to the class the story he or she began.
Today, as a children’s author and illustrator, I get to pursue my passion creating children's picture books and I think of Mr. Garwood, who wrote a children’s book,Copper Coins and Kuchies, about an American family living in Afghanistan, which was based on my family. When we were stationed in Nigeria, he sent our family a copy of the manuscript from Quito, Ecuador, where some very lucky students had Mr. and Mrs. Garwood as their teachers.
Were you in Afghanistan during any of the wars that have been going on there?
No, we were stationed there in the early 70's when Afghanistan was ruled by Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last King of Afghanistan. He had a relatively calm and peaceful forty year reign which sadly for the Afghan people ended after he was overthrown in a coup. He was very much loved by his people. I remember when my parents met the King and my mother had a picture in the newspaper shaking his hand, many of her Afghan women friends insisted on kissing the hand that had touched their King.
Did you always know you were going to be a children’s author and illustrator?
It took time to discover my passion. After college I worked for the law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering as a legal assistant to Lloyd Cutler. I thought I would pursue a legal career but concluded the law wasn’t for me. So instead of law school I applied to business school, and founded a textile business where I was the head designer. I also work for a not-for-profit. I’ve always been curious how people--if they have that luxury--go about choosing a profession. In fact, I was so intrigued with that question that I interviewed women from a wide range of professions in search of the answer. My interviews became a popular career book, Working Women for the 21st Century: 50 Women Reveal their Pathways to Success. The book was selected by the New York Public Library as the best career book for young adults. Later, when I became an aunt, I loved taking my niece and nephews to bookstores and libraries and reading books together. One summer, as a surprise, I wrote and illustrated a picture book. The creative process was all consuming and I had such encouraging feedback that I was emboldened to send it to a publishing house. When the publisher contacted me and expressed interest, I was hooked.
Where did you get the idea for The Hunter and the Ebony Tree and for Animal Village?
As an undergraduate at Harvard, I received a grant to do field research in Senegal for my senior honors thesis. On the way back to the States, I traveled to Niger to visit friends. We would drive into the bush to watch giraffes grazing in the wild; returning we would stop at a Zarma village where the grandfather of one of my friends lived. An elderly woman would often be seated on a straw mat under the shade of a large acacia tree, she appeared to be very wise and she was often surrounded by children and a few adults. She turned out to be the village griot (storyteller/historian). Often, she would invite us to join her on the straw mat and she would tell us stories. My friend, who spoke Zarma, would translate and I'd jot down notes. Many years later, quite by accident, I found that notebook and from there was born The Hunter and the Ebony Tree, Animal Village and The Talking Baobab Tree.
What was your Harvard experience like?
Having traveled so much while growing up, my four years at Harvard was one of the longest period I spent at any one school. Fortunately, I had wonderful roommates: two are medical doctors and two teach. At the beginning of every semester I would pour over the thick course syllabus trying to narrow down courses I wanted to take. There were so many exciting courses competing with so much going on around campus.There were always interesting speakers at Memorial Hall, the Kennedy School of Government, the law school or the business school. My freshman year, I comped for the Harvard Crimson and joined the photo board, which had me on the go covering events that I normally would not have had the time to attend. I would be in the darkroom developing film and making prints late into the night. It was always a thrill the next morning to hear the light thump of the Crimson dropped behind the door and to see photographs and articles I had worked on the night before in the newspaper. I was also a member of the Harvard women's tennis team. We had great team spirit as we competed against other schools on and off campus. It was fun traveling and representing Harvard. We had a terrific coach, Peter Felske, who would invite the team to his house and make the best moussaka. Attending classes was sometimes humbling. I took an expository writing course and the professor wrote on my paper, “Nelda, more women are ruined by Roget’s Thesaurus than by drink.” Growing up, my father would introduce a new word for the day and I always loved learning new words and taking command of them and building my vocabulary, but after that I was very conscious of word choice. To this day, I try and opt for the simplest word with the fewest syllables—which works well for a children’s author. But I also like to introduce fun words like "galumphing" and "scrumptious" and indigenous words and expressions to capture a child's imagination.
What were your favorite books growing up?
Besides the Nancy Drew series I loved series such as the Boxcar Children, Bobbsy Twins, The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and Pippi Longstocking. I also enjoyed Lorna Doone, The Forgotten Daughter, and any adventure set in a far off land— I could identify with those adventures and settings.
What are some of your favorite children’s picture books?
I like picture books that are humorous and tell a good story such as William Steig’s books: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Dr. De Sotto, Arlene Mosel’s Tikki, Tikki Tembo and The Funny Little Woman; Kurt Wiese’s The Five Chinese Brothers; Verna Aardema’s Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears; and Thomas McKean’s Hooray for Grandma Jo! to name a few. I think multi-cultural books for children open hearts and minds to other cultures and foster understanding and empathy for different points of view. They make our world a safer place by helping to bridge the gap between "them and us."
What do you enjoy most when you are writing and illustrating a children’s story?
My favorite time is reviewing and editing the story again and again, fine-tuning the words and illustrations. At that point, I have some understanding of the satisfaction a diamond cutter must feel transforming a rough diamond into a sparkling gem. When I am done I like to think that both my story and my art sparkle. I think it is a good sign that I never tire of reading and re-reading my stories. It is so important to read a story out loud to make sure the words flow. I am in total agreement with a quote credited to Nathaniel Hawthorne that "Easy reading is darn hard writing."
When you are not writing and illustrating what do you enjoy?
When working, I especially love rainy days because then I don't feel that I'm missing the outdoors. I enjoy tennis, throwing a frisbee, biking and hiking in the woods along the Potomac River—actually any sport. I love good competition. I also like to visit museums and art galleries for inspiration, to travel to new and old destinations, reading, photography, and spending time with my family.
by Susan Davidson