by Steve Metzger
When Steve Metzger signed on to write the verses for Janan Cain's new book, he got a lot more than he expected.
Metzger has written more than 60 children's picture books, and never before has he had as much involvement in the total project.
"I don't meet many of the illustrators I work with," says the New Yorker, who explains that most writers and illustrators work completely separately. "Sometimes I get to see the illustrators' sketches and make comments, but that's the most I've ever been offered before."
With The Way I Act, however, preliminary images and text went back and forth for months between Metzger, Cain in the Chicago area and Parenting Press publisher Carolyn Threadgill in Seattle. Something else that was new to the author: the careful field testing that the Press does with manuscripts. In this case, both parents of young children and early childhood education professionals were asked to review the rough drafts of verses.
What he likes about this new book are the scenarios that encourage children to identify with their own lives.
"Kids can look at these situations and be able to imagine how they'd respond. Would they bravely jump into a pool? Would they persevere to finish a difficult puzzle?"
Like Cain, whose first job was as a magician's assistant, Metzger started his career with many assignments that had nothing to do with children's books or publishing. After graduation from Baruch College, he drove cabs, washed dishes, worked as a hotel clerk and handled a variety of other positions. He eventually found his way to the Bank Street College of Education, where he earned a master's degree in education in 1981. That led to a decade of work as a preschool teacher, and then, in 1992, to publishing giant Scholastic, which issues and retails books, CDs and DVDs for preschool-grade 12 students and their teachers.
Metzger started at Scholastic as the editor of My First Magazine and then moved to Firefly, one of the "clubs" that kids often buy books through at school. Since 2004, he has been vice president and editorial director of all Scholastic book clubs, managing a program which today reaches 10 million students in 500,000 schools.
He became a writer solely by luck. During a Scholastic staff meeting, he suggested that the company do more books about children at preschool. Jean Feiwel, then publisher, asked whether the characters should be changed from children to dinosaurs, and the name "Dinofours" popped into his mind, Metzger recalls.
"Jean asked me if I wanted to write a sample story, and a voice inside my brain screamed, 'Say yes,' " he goes on, explaining how the Dinofours series got started.
Although Scholastic editorial commitments keep him in the headquarters offices most weekdays, Metzger continues to make some school visits, mostly in Manhattan. "I love the energy I get from children during classroom story times," he says, "and I try to watch and listen to children whenever I'm around them."
They're an important inspiration, and he always, always carries a pen and pad to take notes on what kids say and do, adds the author.
When children can relate to stories, they completely identify with the characters, he continues. If he has any question about his characters and the plots, Metzger says he waits for silence.
"That signals rapt concentration and I know I'm on the right track."
Unlike many writers, Metzger admits he wasn't much of a reader as a child. He spent almost all of his childhood in Kew Gardens Hills in Queens NY, where he was far more interested in active play. "I didn't like to sit still for very long," says the writer—something that may have helped him with the verses for the kids who bounce, splash and high-five through The Way I Act.
Today Metzger lives near Central Park in a household focused on writing. Wife Nancy Novick writes on health and medicine, and daughter Julia has been the inspiration for some of Metzger's stories, most of which have been published as 32-page Scholastic paperbacks. Sister Lois Metzger is also an author, specializing in young adult fiction.
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