Joe Hayes: "My life has been like a visit to an enchanted castle."

The new school year has started, and storyteller Joe Hayes is out on his journeys, doing what he loves to do best--telling stories to kids. We know Joe. He gets nervous if he's not telling stories, especially to kids. So to celebrate the new school year, and wish Joe the very best as the school year begins, we thought we'd post this interview for the National Book Festival where he was a featured writer last year. Teachers, librarians, principals--if you want Joe at your school, follow this link.

What sparked your imagination for your book – The Coyote Under the Table?

The book contains my versions of ten Southwestern folktales. Each story had its own unique appeal to me. It might have been humor, or a touch of wonder or some subtle wisdom. Or the images of the story may have delighted me. Whatever the quality that appealed, it made me want to share the story with children, hoping they'd find the same pleasure in it that I do.

What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?

I probably shouldn't admit this—especially to kids—but the biggest challenge is to make myself settle down and write. And the older I get, the harder it becomes. More and more things—mostly petty everyday things—seem to be crying out for my attention. It sometimes helps to keep a pencil and paper beside the computer and write down the chores that pop into my head, rather than jumping up to do them as soon as I think of them. If I write them down I don't have to worry that if I put them off I'll forget them.

The biggest help is to have the story pretty well worked out in my mind before I begin to write. I'm lucky because I'm a storyteller and can often work a story out by telling it before I write it. Another time I plot out stories is when I'm walking my dog. Ideas come more freely into my mind when I'm moving. I can sometimes do the same thing when I'm driving my car. But then the moment comes when I have to sit down and get the words written.

What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?

The most obvious advice is Stop hoping and start writing. And in a similar vein, don’t think about being a writer; think about writing. We make far too big a fuss about becoming a writer. The main thing to remember is that writing is just a way of sharing. If there's something you like, something you're interested in, there are bound to be other people who will also like it, so share it with them in writing.

Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?

One kind of story I like to tell and write is a tall tale—not the broad, literary ones like the stories of Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, but the more traditional style tall tale, the personal yarn. These are what if? Stories. You ask yourself what if? And then think of a wild answer and then start telling it as if it really happened. I asked myself, What if I had a pair of shoes that got really stinky? I answered; a skunk might fall in love with them. And I started making up The Love Sick Skunk. What if you had a pair of smelly shoes, or socks? I asked myself, What if a hen mistook some big hailstones for eggs and sat on them? I answered; She hatched out a bunch of baby penguins. What if she sat on some light bulbs? What if she sat on some marbles? What might she sit on to hatch out a woodpecker? An owl? A roadrunner?

What is your list of favorite children's or teen books?

I pay more attention to folklore than to children's literature, so I don't have a ready answer, but the books that have been a great inspiration and guiding beacon to me are those of my friend Byrd Baylor. I don't know that I would have begun writing Southwestern stories without her pioneering influence.

How do you decide on themes for your books?

That's an easy question to answer. I don't. Only once did I take a thematic approach. That was for Watch Out for Clever Women/Cuidado con las mujeres astutas. I decided to do a collection of Southwestern stories in which a wise or clever woman saves the day. With all my other books I just focused on sharing a story, or a group of stories, that I liked.

How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?

I'm kind of embarrassed to call what I do research. It’s not that formal. I read folktales constantly. I especially read stories that were collected by folklorists and anthropologists, typically 50 to 100 years ago. I'm always looking for something that will excite me, some story idea that I can build on and make into a story to share with children. Most of the collections are in Spanish—not standard Spanish but the rural, informal Spanish of the villagers who told the stories. This also helps me understand the way traditional tellers used language and how they constructed their stories so that do an authentic job of retelling the tales.

What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?

I have nothing new to offer here. Parents who love to read tend to raise children who love to read. We all know that. Parents who frequently read to their children, to each other and to themselves, and who talk about what they're reading, provide a model children naturally emulate.

Can you tell us about any new books that you will be working on during the coming year?

I have a couple of new things on my computer that I'm trying to make headway with. I hear over and over from librarians that another short bilingual chapter book like Ghost Fever/Mal de fantasma would be very welcome, so I'm working on that idea.

If you weren't creating children's books, what would you be doing?

If life hadn't led me into telling stories and sharing them with kids in books, I have no idea where it would have taken me. My life has been like a visit to an enchanted castle. I went inside and from the first room a door opened into another. There were other doors, but I just went through the one that was open. And in the next room I saw another door and, so on. I didn't plan for things to turn out this way. There are many other things I might have ended up doing, and enjoying very much, but I can't think of any other work that would have given me the opportunity me to make the same kind of contribution to the lives of others, especially to the lives of children.

Now let's listen to Joe tell two of his favorite stories--first one of Joe's "boy-favorite" tall tales, The Gum Chewing Rattler; and then A Spoon for Every Bite / Una cuchara para cada bocada, first in English and then in Spanish. Life is good when you're hearing Joe Hayes tell stories.


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