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Writing multicultural books for young at heart isn’t child’s play

In the business of children’s books, only about one in 1,200 stories are selected for publication, making creativity and originality key.

La Jollan Carolyn Marsden found success in a tough business by writing books for multicultural children. According to Marsden, her children’s childhood struggles and experiences from her own life have contributed to the success of her award-winning books.

“I write children’s books about everything I see,” Marsden said. “I hear other people’s stories, and some are inspired by my children.”

Marsden’s two daughters, both half-Thai and now 12 and 16 years old, inspired two of her books: “The Gold-Threaded Dress” and “Moon Runner.” “The Gold-Threaded Dress” is based on her daughter’s experience of being teased at school for her ethnicity.

All of Marsden’s books, except “Moon Runner,” contain a multicultural message. The author said raising biracial children and growing up in Mexico have made her comfortable with different cultures.

“You need to have part of yourself in (the story),” Marsden said. “The passion needs to be there, or you won’t finish it.”

Marsden’s life included many moves before her family settled in La Jolla. Born in Mexico City, her parents were missionaries before moving to the United States, specifically Santa Barbara, when she was 6 years old. When Marsden was 15, the family moved to San Diego, where she attended The Bishop’s School.

Later, Marsden studied poetry at the University of Arizona for two years, earning a master’s of fine arts degree. She said during this time she focused mainly on writing novels and short stories for adults. It was not until she had children that Marsden considered writing for a younger audience.

"(Children’s writing) wouldn’t have come to me if I didn’t have kids,” Marsden said. “I had young children and I would read to them and tell them stories.”

Marsden said she felt comfortable with children’s writing because it allowed her to use the same playful word choice and rhythm she was already using in her poetry.

In 1998, she began a two-year master’s program in writing for children at Vermont College. Since then she has published five books with Candlewick Press and Viking Children’s Books, including “Mama Had to Work on Christmas,” “Silk Umbrellas” and the sequel to “The Gold-Threaded Dress” called “The Quail Club.”

The story “Silk Umbrellas” was inspired by a trip Marsden took to the northern Thai jungle. She witnessed young teen-agers dying of overwork and AIDS caused by poor working environments and factories dumping mercury into the water supply.

“I wanted to go home and do something about this,” Marsden said.

After 10 years of frequent rewrites and numerous reincarnations, Marsden published a chapter book where she was able to convey to children what she had witnessed in Thailand. When she sees an idea for a children’s book, Marsden said she is usually too busy to write the fleeting idea down but tries her best to outline the concept.

“Sometimes an idea grabs me and pushes other things aside,” Marsden said. “I try to sketch the whole book out, and get the whole thing before I lose it.”

Recently, Marsden visited La Jolla Elementary School, just one of the many schools she tours as part of her classroom book visits. The author’s stories bring her into the classroom where she shares her books with students and talks about her life as a children’s book author.

“I talk to kids about the writing process,” Marsden said. “I tell kids there are thousands of opportunities for writing all around.”

Having experience teaching from preschool through fifth grade, Marsden loves kids and encourages children to write by reminiscing about her own writing experience that began at age 13.

“I read the novel ‘2,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ and then wrote my own fantasy set in outer space,” Marsden said. “Being 13, it was a good escape at that age. I tell kids that (writing) is a good escape.”

She is full-time writer, working on five to six stories at a time and completing one book per year. Readers can expect “When Heaven Fell” and “Bird Springs” to be released in spring and summer of 2007. Marsden said many of her future projects will be collaborative, including a current piece she is working on with a friend.

Most days Marsden can be found writing or editing one of her children’s stories at the Pannikin, the Goldfish Cafe or on the beach, a few of her favorite La Jolla hangouts. When she isn’t immersed in work, Marsden enjoys dancing, traveling and painting watercolors.

“I really love it,” Marsden said of painting. “It’s relaxing.”