Discovering Her Mountain Songs: An interview with Shutta Crum

Shutta CrumAmong my fondest memories were the evenings spent on the front porch of my grandparents’ home in Richburg, New York. Sitting on the porch, we would watch the fireflies rise up from the grass to create a galaxy of stars. Crickets and the whispers of a creek punctuated the sentences and filled the pauses between paragraphs as Earl “Babby” Babcock told his stories. “Babby,” as everyone in the family called him, had married my grandmother three years after the death of my grandfather, Nelson Albert Bunt. As far as I was concerned, Babby was my grandfather. In his soft, slow manner, he would tell me about the times he and my grandfather worked in the oil fields. He spoke about the farmers who became ginzels—a ginzel was a new hire with no oilfield experience—because the bank had foreclosed on their land. One of my favorites was a story about a 300 pound sheriff who won foot races. There were other tales and accounts that transported me to a different time in the hills of western New York State.

I have also been fortunate to have lived in Kentucky and Tennessee. In those mountains, I listened to the “old timers” weave their tales of the coal mines and the people who are now ghosts moving through a “hollers” moonscapes on a summer night.

Shutta Crum has deep roots in this Appalachian heritage of storytelling. In this tradition, stories are passed from one generation to the next. Sometimes the stories have you on the edge of your seat with your neck hairs straight up. Other nights, you can laugh so hard your ribs hurt.

Before devoting herself to writing full-time, Shutta taught high school English and creative writing at a community college. She still does workshops around the country. For 24 years she was a librarian. I was fortunate to meet Shutta through my son at the public library. There is one constant in Shutta’s career, like a creek coursing through hill country, and that is being a storyteller. Her books have been nominated and won awards. Her articles about writing and education have appeared in professional journals. Shutta’s poetry has appeared in both print and on-line journals for adults.

Poet, children’s writer, novelist, librarian, and educator, Shutta invites us to sit on the front porch, to listen to the crickets, to watch the fireflies sparkle and dance on a warm summer night, and to listen. . . her stories aren’t just for children—they are for all of us.

Shutta Crum in Her Own Words

Q: Though books were scarce in your parent’s home, storytelling was, as you have said, in your family’s blood. How have those stories shaped you not as a writer, but as a person?

A: Storytelling was a way of cementing family relationships. My father moved my mother and I north in that diaspora of Kentuckians to Michigan after the war to work at Willow Run. I felt my parents’ homesickness and that longing they had for closeness that comes from large families. So we went “down home” every summer. The stories were a way of reconnecting each time. The old stories were a “given” that everyone could take off from toward the new stories we were making with our new lives. Everyone seemed anxious to “tell one.” And all ages were respected. Kids could get the undivided attention of all the adults by telling a good one, just as an adult could. It was a way of saying, “We love you, we value you. And now we’re going to listen to your story.” It was a terribly empowering, and completely loving feeling for a kid.

Q: Curiosity is an essential ingredient to writing. You are people orientated. Also, in 1985 you and your husband purchased a farm. How have people, animals, the land nurtured your curiosity, and inspired you since you first began to write as a child?

A: Hah! You ask this now—as we have just moved from the farm into town. We spent 27 years out in the country, and loved it. But it was hard work. (Time to relax a bit now.) But back to your question about curiosity . . . certainly some of my books have scenes taken from the animal life witnessed at our farm: skunks, mice, dogs, chickens. And then there were the wonderful thunderstorms!! (These inspired “THUNDER-BOOMER!”)

The farm sat in a small bowl of a valley, and we could watch the weather when it came and when it left. I loved being able to see weather across a large distance, as opposed to simply looking straight up in the city.

Dozen of Cousins Book cover illustrated by David CatrowMost of my books are character-centered, and will probably always be. It is people that inspire me first (even when that “person” is in the guise of an animal for a young reader). But the world of nature will continue, I suspect, to color my work. I cherish those years at the farm and I have a whole collection of memories to work into future manuscripts.

Q: Do you remember the first time you went to a library, what you felt, and thought?

A: Great question. I don’t remember the very first time. However, we did not have a public library in the small town in Oakland County, Michigan, where I grew up. But we lived next door to the elementary school, and the school’s small library both fed my hunger for books, and taunted me with the knowledge that there were many more books out there. I remember thinking the library was so big, and I was so proud that I’d read almost all of the books. When I got older, I realized that the library was actually the size of a janitor’s closet . . . but it became a place where I could curl up in one small corner with a book and lose myself in the excitement of a world beyond my own. Of course, I had to become a librarian!

Q: What brought you to writing, particularly storytelling for children?

A: Mostly it was the work of doing storytimes at the library. I’d actually specialized in adult services, and administration, while getting my master’s degree in library science. But doing storytimes every week opened my eyes, and reminded me of the love of storytelling that existed in our family.

I am in awe of children’s books—they are so much more inventive than many of the books written for adults! There’s a great quote from Madeleine L’Engle that addresses that. She said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

Q: Who are some of the authors and poets who have influenced you as a writer?

A: Oh my goodness—this list could go on forever! Partly because children’s books have such a wide range in formats. I write poetry, novels and picture books–so there are many influences. Here are a few that come readily to mind. For poetry, Ted Kooser, Ruth Stone, Jane Yolen, e.e. cummmings and Langston Hughes. For novels and short stories, Shirley Jackson, Jean Craighead George, Kurt Vonnegut, Kate DeCamillo, Flannery O’Connor, M. T. Anderson, Brian Selznick and Jerry Spinelli. For picture books, William Steig, Maurice Sendak, Eric Rohmann, Peggy Rathmann, David Wiesner and Rosemay Wells.

Q: Some of your stories are rooted in Southern folktales. Much of the rich Southern tradition of storytelling comes from England via the early settlers. Another source for folktales is the African-American tradition of storytelling that begins with the slave narratives. There are those who deny that there exists a Southern literary voice today whether in adult or children’s literature. Has that Southern voice been lost in literature and poetry today? And have we crowded out those distinct African-American voices that resounded so clearly during the Harlem Renaissance?

A: Gracious! I think there will always be a distinctive “Southern” voice, and other distinctive voices that are indicative of neighborhoods, cultures and ethnicity—white, black, Latino, Asian. Look, for example, at Junot Diaz’ strong contemporary voice, Rick Bragg’s, or Linda Sue Park’s, Jacqueline Woodson’s, or Nikki Grimes’. All are writing today and winning awards by writing from their particular perspectives with their particular voices. If someone isn’t hearing these myriad diverse voices that are coming to life in new books today, he/she isn’t listening (reading)!

Q: You have stated that while writing “Who Took My Hairy Toe”, you were conscious that children look for justice in a story because of their innocence. In contrast, adults, with their sense of guilt, look for mercy in stories. Are the lines between justice and mercy really so clearly drawn? How do you balance justice and mercy in a story so as to appeal to an adult who will be purchasing a book for a child?

A: No! Things are never quite as simple, or clear, as one can relate in a short statement! It is simply that as adults, readers are more “open” to books without endings, or with unfair endings, or with ambiguous endings. Do Rhett and Scarlet end up “happily ever-after?” We do not know, yet we are willing to be satisfied with that. Children, especially young children, see justice (and resolution) as something concrete. They want a story to turn out the way it should in a right world. The older the child reader, the readier he/she is to accept that sometimes the world is NOT fair, and sometimes we simply have to go on and never know the ending with certainty.

When you’re writing a book that an adult and a child will share you always write to the youngest reader. This is because if the tone, setting, motivations, and language are lively and lovely . . . this is often plenty for the adult. The child is your primary audience, and hopefully any adult also reading your book will find enough to satisfy.

Q: Beginner writers think they can jot anything down on paper, getting by on the first draft. You increasingly find yourself invited to speak at workshops, schools, and conferences. This year you spoke at the University of Virginia at Wise. What do you tell aspiring authors about the role of revision in the creative process?

A: I tell them revision is a pain in the patootie! But it’s also where a lot of the magic happens. It is when I’m trying to push and pull and pry my words that often an idea will suddenly pop up that’s perfect. And then, I think—but, of course! Katherine Paterson, a multiple Newbery winner has said, “It’s just the stupid 1st draft, just get it down. Any end will do for now.” I keep this posted by my computer. The real writing doesn’t start until the second draft.

Q: One of the biggest hurdles authors face is finding an agent and/or a publisher. How long did it take you to find a publisher and agent? What role should marketing play when developing a story and during the process of writing that story?

A: It took two and a half years before I sold my first book. I’d garnered over 300 rejections on approximately 20 different manuscripts. I sold my first seven books myself. And it wasn’t until I had about four books in print that I got an agent. My agent sold my next eight books. (12 books out now, three under contract.)

I find that with children’s books one should submit to editors and agents at the same time. An agent can only handle so many clients, and a lot of them are writing similar material. Sometimes with books for kids, one can snag an editor easier, especially at a mid-sized or smaller publishing house. But eventually, an agent may be wanted/needed just to keep from going crazy with all the business end of the business of writing.

Marketing has everything to do with the life of a book after it is published. But, for me, NOTHING to do with a story before it is written/while it is being written! To be successful I truly believe one needs to write from what’s in one’s heart, and find an audience to market that writing to later. A good book will find a publisher, and readers.

Q: In your story “My Mountain Song”, the grandfather says, “everybody born in the mountains got a song inside of ‘em.” A common complaint among students both in high school and college is that the educational system stifles creativity rather than encourages it. What can educators and parents do to bring out that song students have inside of them?

A.: One could write a dissertation on this question—and have! I say that we need to value each child’s contribution by listening and facilitating. It is incumbent on adults to make safe, non-judgmental, space for children to experiment and to tell their own stories in their own ways. And then we all—adults and kids—celebrate!

For more information about Shutta Crum, she can be contacted at

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© Shutta Crum. All rights reserved.


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