Van Laan, Nancy 1939-
Van LAAN, Nancy 1939-
PERSONAL: Born November 18, 1939, in Baton Rouge, LA; daughter of Philip Johannes (a colonel, U.S. Air Force) and Sarah (Hawkins) Greven; twice divorced; children: Jennifer, David, Anna. Education: Sullins College, Bristol, VA, A.A., 1959; University of Alabama, B.A., 1961; Rutgers University, M.F.A., 1979. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Protestant. Hobbies and other interests: Biking, kayaking.
CAREER: Writer, 1987—. Children's Quiet Time (weekly educational TV show), Birmingham, AL, producer, 1957; J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency, New York, NY, assistant, 1961-62; ABC-TV, New York, NY, network censor, 1962-66; Solebury School, New Hope, PA, English teacher, 1984-89; Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, creative writing instructor, 1986-89.
MEMBER: Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators; National Storytelling Association.
AWARDS, HONORS: New Jersey State "Best Play of the Year" Award, for Park Place and The Disintegration of Daphne; Notable Book, American Library Association (ALA), 1990, Parents' Choice Picture Book Award, 1990, Honor Book, Florida Reading Association, 1991, all for Possum Come A-Knockin'; Reading Rainbow selection, Keystone State Reading Book Award, and Alabama Library Association Author's Award, all 1991, all for Rainbow Crow: A Lenape Tale; Notable Book, ALA, and ABC Choice Award, both 1996, both for In a Circle Long Ago: A Treasury of Native Lore from North America; Notable Book, ALA, 1997, and Carolyn Field Honor Award, Pennsylvania Library Association, 1998, both for Shingebiss: An Ojibwe Legend; Editors' Choice, Booklist, 1998, and Notable Book, ALA, 1999, both for With a Whoop and a Holler: A Bushel of Lore from Way down South; Blue Ribbon designation, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Best Books, School Library Journal, and Pick of the Lists, American Booksellers Association, all 1998, all for So Say the Little Monkeys; Charlotte Zolowtow Award, Highly Commended Book, 2001, for When Winter Comes.
The Big Fat Worm, illustrated by Marisabina Russo, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
(Reteller) Rainbow Crow: A Lenape Tale, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
Possum Come A-Knockin', illustrated by George Booth, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.
A Mouse in My House, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.
(Adaptor) The Legend of El Dorado: A Latin American Tale, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.
People, People Everywhere, illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
This Is the Hat: A Story in Rhyme, illustrated by Holly Meade, Joy Street Books, 1992.
The Tiny, Tiny Boy and the Big, Big Cow, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
(Reteller) Buffalo Dance: A Blackfoot Legend, foreword by Bill Moyers, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1993.
Round and Round Again, illustrated by Natalie Bernard Westcott, Hyperion (New York, NY), 1994.
Sleep, Sleep, Sleep: A Lullaby for Little Ones around the World, illustrated by Holly Meade, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1995.
Mama Rocks, Papa Sings, illustrated by Roberta Smith, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.
In a Circle Long Ago: A Treasury of Native Lore from North America, illustrated by Lisa Desimini, Apple Soup Books, 1995.
La Boda: A Mexican Wedding Celebration, illustrated by Andrea Arroyo, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1996.
(Reteller) Shingebiss: An Ojibwe Legend, illustrated by Betsy Bowen, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
Little Baby Bobby, illustrated by Laura Cornell, Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.
With a Whoop and a Holler: A Bushel of Lore from Way down South, illustrated by Scott Cook, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1998.
Little Fish, Lost, illustrated by Jane Conteh-Morgan, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1998.
(Reteller) The Magic Bean Tree: A Legend from Argentina, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1998.
So Say the Little Monkeys, illustrated by Yumi Heo, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1998.
Moose Tales, illustrated by Amy Rusch, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999.
A Tree for Me, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.
When Winter Comes: A Lullaby, illustrated by Susan Gaber, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2000.
The Laughing Man, illustrated by Lisa Desimini, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2001.
Tickle Tum, illustrated by Bernadette Pons Fudym, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2001.
Teeny Tiny Tingly Tales, illustrated by Victoria Chess, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2001.
Busy, Busy Moose, illustrated by Amy Rusch, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2001.
Scrubba Dub, illustrated by Bernadette Pons, Atheneum (New York, NY), 2003.
Also author of the plays Park Place and The Disintegration of Daphne.
SIDELIGHTS: Nancy Van Laan is the author of numerous picture books for young readers, including the popular and award-winning Possum Come A-Knockin' and Rainbow Crow. Many of her read-aloud books feature animal protagonists and utilize rhythm and rhyme to introduce young listeners and readers to the world of words. Additionally, Van Laan often uses folktales and legends from around the world as the story line for her books.
"As soon as I was able to hold a pencil, I scribbled poetry and drew," Van Laan once recalled. "I still have poems and plays that I wrote when I was in elementary school. It was my favorite thing to do besides read. I loved books, especially those with lots of illustrations." Yet Van Laan would ultimately come to professional writing in a roundabout way—through dance, television, theater, and teaching—publishing her first book at age forty-eight.
The daughter of an Air Force colonel, Van Laan traveled a great deal when she was a child; in the eighth grade she attended schools in Canada, England, and the United States. Her avid reading continued throughout these years, her favorite books coming from the "My Book House" series originally published in the 1930s. "To this day I can quote most of the poetry found in those wonderful books which, unfortunately, are long out of print," Van Laan once commented. But when she was a teenager, dance took priority over books, and by age seventeen she had her own dance company and later choreographed The Wizard of Oz ballet for the Alabama Public Television network. Her dance career came to an abrupt end, however, when she sledded down a snowy hill on a cafeteria tray and broke the base of her spine. Subsequently Van Laan studied television and radio production at the University of Alabama, and after graduation worked for a time in New York as a censor for ABC-TV.
In 1965 and 1966 she had the first two of her three children, and domestic affairs occupied her time for several years thereafter. She also began painting, eventually doing murals for schools and private homes. Returning to college in 1976, she studied theater and playwriting; two of her plays were produced in regional productions in New Jersey and won Best Play of the Year awards. Her third child was born in 1980, and throughout much of the 1980s Van Laan headed the English department at a private boarding school in Pennsylvania. Then came the publication of her first children's book in 1987, The Big Fat Worm, and two years later she was able to give up teaching to write full time.
With her initial title, much of Van Laan's style and content were already in place. A circular tale, featuring repetitive and easy-to-read text, The Big Fat Worm features the first of her familiar animals as the protagonist. A School Library Journal reviewer noted that the simplicity of text and pictures "makes it extremely versatile, for it may be read as part of a program on animals, farms, or funny stories," or even for inventive dramatics. An earlier review by Lee Bock from that same journal declared that Van Laan's first book "provides an almost textbook example of what a good book for the very young can look like." Bock also drew attention to the rhythm and repetition of the tale and the bold colors employed for illustrations.
"Most of my picture books are full of rhythm and sometimes rhyme," Van Laan related. "This is because each story is like music to me. Sometimes I hear a certain beat before I actually put words to it." Additionally, Van Laan's years of teaching came in handy when she turned to writing children's books. "I taught for many years, so I usually try to incorporate hidden lesson plans in many of my books for young children. . . . Books for young children should teach as well as entertain, I think."
More animal protagonists were featured in Van Laan's next three books, Rainbow Crow, Possum Come A-Knockin', and A Mouse in My House. These three books also set the tone for her future output: books of legend, folktales, and simple rhythm and rhyme. Her Rainbow Crow retells a Lenape Indian legend and was the result of a lifelong interest in Native American folklore. She consulted with a Lenape elder for the book and gathered tales from many tribes. The result was "a fine read-aloud because of the smooth text and songs with repetitive chants," according to Kathleen Riley in School Library Journal. Rainbow Crow brings fire to the woodland creatures; his voice turns to a "caw" because of the smoke. Other woodland animals are also featured in this book that a contributor to Kirkus Reviews called "a good story for all ages."
Rhyming and animals are at the center of both Possum Come A-Knockin' and A Mouse in My House, as well. Possum, dressed in a top hat and vest, comes knocking at Granny's house, setting the house in a tizzy. "Practically begging to be read aloud, Van Laan's cumulative rhyme is a real toe-tapper," commented a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, while Horn Book contributor Elizabeth S. Watson dubbed the book a "raucous romp." With A Mouse in My House, Van Laan created the more traditional, cuddly-animal style of picture book, featuring a cookie-nibbling mouse and a rather greedy pig, among other animals. In this story, a little boy compares his own behavior to several such animals. The "text's rollicking rhythm, rhyme, and repetition will encourage young listeners to join in," remarked Danita Nichols writing in School Library Journal. Leone McDermott concluded in Booklist, "Bouncy rhymes are quick and fun to read aloud, and children will enjoy knowing that others share their difficulty with self-restraint."
With the success of these first titles, Van Laan was able to give up full-time teaching for full-time writing, but she had to allow for her own "undisciplined" work habits. "I do not sit down each day and write," she related. "In fact, I might stew for months about an idea before actually writing it down in a notebook. I always create my stories in longhand first, then, much later, transfer the final draft to computer. If I get what I think is a really good idea, then I work and work until it is finished. I write very quickly, so sometimes a story is finished in a few days. Not always, though. I once spent several months trying to think of how to write the last line of one tale, so it really depends on my muse, I suppose." One of her books, In a Circle Long Ago, took her three years to complete; another was written on the tablecloth in a restaurant where she was dining.
Van Laan's writing has followed the three directions set out in her earliest books: retellings of legends from Native American and other cultures, folktales, and contemporary stories that employ rhyme and rhythm to entice young listeners and readers. Van Laan recreated the Mayan legend of the Gold Man in The Legend of El Dorado, a book that a contributor to Booklist found to be "moving." Blackfoot legend was mined for Buffalo Dance, the story of the capture of a buffalo for winter food. "The universal themes of courage, love, self-sacrifice, and loyalty are movingly conveyed," commented Carolyn Polese in School Library Journal. Maeve Visser Knoth, writing in Horn Book, called Buffalo Dance "a graceful and attractive retelling of a Native American myth." An Ojibwe legend was retold in Shingebiss, in which the eponymous duck defies Winter Maker and will not be cold during the bleak months. Janice M. Del Negro noted in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that Van Laan "communicates the irreverent joy of Shingebiss as he happily overcomes winter's cold." With In a Circle Long Ago, Van Laan collected native lore from across North America in twenty-five legends and poems. In another Horn Book review, Knoth dubbed the collection "a true smorgasbord" and noted that "readers will get a taste of the richness of Native American folklore and will be tempted to search other books for a closer look at individual peoples." Wedding rituals of Mexico take center stage in Van Laan's La Boda, and the author has ranged as far afield as South America to gather other legends in her The Magic Bean Tree, from Argentina, and So Say the Little Monkeys, a Brazilian folktale that pokes fun at procrastinators.
Van Laan also employs folktales from closer to home to create focus for her rhythmic tales. Adapting a Scottish folktale for The Tiny, Tiny Boy and the Big, Big Cow, Van Laan told about the difficulties a little boy has trying to milk a large cow. Patricia Pearl Dole, writing in School Library Journal, called the book a "pleasing, culturally neutral romp," while Horn Book reviewer Knoth concluded that the "story begs to be shared aloud and will have children chanting" along with the text. Van Laan rummaged through the cultural history of her native South for various trickster tales, African folktales, and Appalachian tall tales for her compilation, With a Whoop and a Holler, a book that was, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "presented . . . in the kind of slide-off-the-tongue colloquialisms guaranteed to make a sure-fire storyteller of the most shrinking violets." A critic for Kirkus Reviews concurred, noting that the book "crackles with vernacular humor."
More cumulative rhyming and rhythmic fun is presented in Van Laan's books about everyday objects, faces, sleep time, and even ecology. For the latter, Van Laan created a recycling mother in Round and Round Again who is such an ardent recycler that she has built a house from other people's discarded objects. Lullabies come in Sleep, Sleep, Sleep and When Winter Comes. The world of a Haitian family is presented in Mama Rocks, Papa Sings, a story told partly in Creole. The adventures of a hat, blown away on a rainy day, are recounted in more cumulative rhyme in This Is the Hat, which Booklist's Jim Jaske called "clever" and a "fine book to use with preschoolers." A Kirkus Reviews contributor noted that This Is the Hat "tells another story with a rambunctious lilt."
In Teeny Tiny Tingly Tales Van Laan uses rhyme to tell three fun, creepy stories. In the story "Old Doctor Whango Tango," a mean doctor takes his malnourished animals to the top of a craggy hill where they all blow away in a sudden gust of wind. "It" tells of a strange creature who comes downstairs a piece at a time, assembling himself into a demented old man. And in "The Hairy Toe," an old woman finds a hairy toe in her garden, buries it, and is then haunted by a "Something" who wants his toe given back. A reviewer for Horn Book believed that the stories were "attuned to the silly sense of humor that allows kids to delight in the 'something's gonna get you' sequence that begins with an approaching imaginary monster and ends with a tickle." John Peters in Booklist admitted that the stories will "illicit giggles rather than gasps," while the Kirkus Reviews critic found that "children will enjoy Van Laan's storytelling cadence and the sheer fun of the language."
Lilting rhymes and shoe-tapping rhythms are Van Laan's stock in trade, one that she was a long time in coming to, but one in which she is very much at home now. "Today, writing is as much a part of me as going to sleep, waking up, singing, laughing, dancing, talking, baking pies, listening to music, and taking long walks down country roads," Van Laan explained. "I could not imagine not writing. It would make me sad and grumpy if I was told never to do it again. . . . The nicest part of writing is that I can take it with me wherever I go. I can also continue to do it for as long as I would like. And, my goal is to do it for a long, long time!" Speaking of how she gets her story ideas, Van Laan explained in an article posted on the Teachers at Random House Web site: "Ideas are sly critters. By listening quietly, sometimes I can catch them. Some come from deep inside myself, from a special place I have no control over. Other times, ideas are hiding in the shadows, somewhere outside myself. But by using all my senses, I can coax them out. If I don't pounce on them right away, they tend to disappear."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, October 1, 1990, p. 342; October 15, 1991, p. 378; November 15, 1992, p. 611; October 1, 1994, p. 225; January 15, 1995, p. 940; November 15, 1995, p. 558; December 15, 1995, p. 718; October 1, 1997, p. 339; April, 1998, p. 1328; October 15, 2001, John Peters, review of Teeny Tiny Tingly Tales, p. 402; July, 2003, review of Busy Busy Moose, p. 1370; February 15, 2003, Diane Foote, review of Scrubba Dub, p. 1078.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1995, p. 217; September, 1997, p. 29; January, 1998, p. 103.
Horn Book, July-August, 1990, pp. 448-449; November-December, 1990, p. 734; May-June, 1993, pp. 325-326; September-October, 1993, pp. 612-613; November-December, 1995, p. 739; January-February, 1996, p. 84; November-December, 1997, pp. 691-692; September, 2001, review of Teeny Tiny Tingly Tales, p. 578.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1989, p. 555; October, 1992, p. 1261; March 15, 1993, p. 381; August 15, 1995, p. 1195; April 15, 1996, p. 608; January 15, 1998, pp. 119-120; September 15, 2001, review of Teeny Tiny Tingly Tales, p. 1370; February 15, 2003, review of Scrubba Dub, p. 317.
Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1990, p. 61; November 6, 1995, p. 93; January 5, 1998, p. 66; January 26, 1998, p. 92; August 17, 1998, p. 70; October 23, 2000, review of When Winter Comes, p. 74; August 13, 2001, review of Teeny Tiny Tingly Tales, p. 311; November 25, 2002, Lisa Smith, review of Scrubba Dub, p. 66.
School Library Journal, December, 1987, p. 78; July, 1989, p. 81; July, 1990, pp. 64-65; December, 1990, p. 89; February, 1992, p. 41; October, 1992, p. 98; September, 1993, pp. 221, 227; December, 1994, p. 103; May, 1996, p. 101; April, 1998, p. 111; June, 1998, p. 136; September, 1998, pp. 198-199; September, 2003, Lisa Smith, review of Busy Busy Moose, p. 193; April, 2003, Bina Williams, review of Scrubba Dub, p. 140.
Nancy Van Laan Home Page,http://www.nancyvanlaan.com/ (November 14, 2002).
Teachers at Random House,http://www.randomhouse.com/teachers/ (November 14, 2002), Nancy Van Laan, "How I Write."*