Thursday, March 23, 2017

Michigan KidLit Advocate: Ed Spicer

SCBWI-MI author Charlie Barshaw is here to present our second Michigan KidLit Advocate interview. (If you missed the first interview in our series, go here.) Introducing southwest Michigan educator, Ed Spicer. Enjoy their funny banter! 

I was tempted to subtitle this “An Improbable Journey”. It’s melodramatic but appropriate. You were a homeless teen, lived secretly in a church, and were on your own by the age of fifteen. What would you care to share about your early years?

ES: Well, I was homeless, lived secretly in a church, and was on my own by age fifteen and still managed to make it to 62! Other than that?

In an interview, you mentioned going to the local Federated Department Store. There you’d lose yourself for hours in the books of Beverly Cleary and the Nancy Drew series. What other books helped to shape the voracious reader and huge reading champion you are today?

I have mentioned A Wrinkle In Time before, but I do not think that I mentioned works by Diane Wakoski. I took a class from Wakoski. It was, perhaps obvious, a poetry writing class, but I learned a deeper appreciation for reading poetry too. This class prompted me to attend poetry readings and I can remember going to listen to Galway Kinnell and many others. It was around this time that I began reading Audre Lorde, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, and many others. I had already fallen in love with Emily Dickenson, Shakespeare, and the romantic poets, going so far as to memorize hundreds of poems, many that I can still recite today more than forty years later.

You own a whole closetful of fish shirts. Can you tell us the significance?

I worked at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in its Aquarium Museum. One of my jobs there was to design clothing. I worked on hundreds of fish shirts, mostly T-shirts and I never gave up collecting them. They make me happy and make me suck my face up into fish faces, which usually gets folks to laugh. I count that as a win.

Tell us about your relationship with Pam Munoz Ryan.

I love Pam! At one time I was even (sort of) her boss. Pam was the director of our Episcopal Church preschool and I was on the Vestry that served as the Board of Directors. Pam did a ton of work to create a preschool that worked closely with the Helen Woodward Senior Center. The State was initially convinced that these small children would infect the seniors with all sorts of diseases and bump them off. When Pam actually documented the health benefit derived from mixing preschoolers and seniors, we were all pleased (but not really surprised). 

One day, however, Pam handed us her resignation because she wanted to go write books. We thought, “Good luck with that.” Pam did not need our luck, it turns out, because she has a ton of talent. It is interesting that it took me sometime to realize that this Pam Munoz Ryan from the Encinitas area is the same Pam Ryan I knew from Church. And when I did confirm the identity, it took me even longer to read Esperanza Rising because I was worried that I might not like my friend’s book (I ADORE IT). Since that title, Pam has written many great books. I was predicting she would win Newbery recognition for at least two books before Echo. Not only is Pam one of the nicest and kindest people I know, she is a great writer!

You left sunny California to reverse-migrate to Michigan. You had an unusual business plan in mind. Care to tell us about it?

This plan very much ties into Pam’s preschool, because I wanted to do something in Allegan very similar to what Pam did in Encinitas. I wanted to open a preschool that mixed seniors and very young children. I knew exactly where I wanted the preschool. Knew who I would have to get to donate the land and more.

You also had a goal: you wanted to be on the Newberry committee. Why, oh why would that be on your bucket list? And what did you do to try to make this goal a reality?

I was sitting on the Seventh floor of the GVSU Library madly trying to finish Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson before children’s lit class began that night. I needed to take this class to get my teachable major so I could enroll in the GVSU teacher education program. And there I was sobbing as I finished that book moments before class. I loved this book and was so happy it was an award winner. Ann, my librarian wife, asked me about class and I told her about Bridge to Terabithia and my new goal to be on the Newbery committee. I have been on the Caldecott Committee, the Printz Committee, the Morris Committee, the Margaret Edwards Committee, the Schneider Family Committee, Best Books for Young Adults, Notable Children’s Books, and others. I have NOT (yet?) been on the Newbery Committee.

Almost by accident you ended up being assigned to the first grade. It’s certainly a role that plays against type. But you excelled at it for how many years?  What did you find so satisfying in teaching the youngest of students?

I have always stated that we make a huge mistake when we argue, say, that early education should have a higher priority than middle school or high school. All are important. All have different needs and different challenges. This argument is like one part of the body feasting on another part—cannibalistic at best. However, it may well be true that we see the most visible academic growth with these young minds, just learning to assume responsibility for themselves. I love that! (See student letter to Ed below in the comments.)

You taught first grade, so you’re obviously familiar with all things picture book. Yet you review YA novels for SLJ, Hornbook, and the Michigan Reading Journal.  How does that jibe?

I have said before that we do not spend all that time working with young children just to see them give up on reading as a teen. A reading life should be a connected life through the grades.

You worked for decades with high school students to produce an annual compilation of writing called “Tiger Tales.” What got you started in that, and what kept you going?

Readers read writing and writers write reading. You cannot extricate the reading from the writing. Writing is thinking. I like first graders who grow up to think. This contest gave cash prizes, published a book with student writing, motivated thousands of students over the years. How could I not be involved?

You have a blog with the unfortunate name of Spicy Reads. Apparently, some visitors expected a different form of entertainment. The latest entries seem to be from 2012. Have you moved on from this format, or might you revive it at some point?

Look for a SpicyReads revision this year! AND the title, I beg your pardon, is JUST FINE! I cannot help what SNL does in response to certain unfortunately named press secretaries.

You are good friends with a huge list of children’s book creators: Gary Schmidt, Candy Fleming and Eric Rhoman, Lynn Rae Perkins, Nikki Grimes… the list goes on.
Each friendship, of course, is unique. But, how did you come to meet all of these kidlit stars?

I love people who care about kindness and care about words and art. My friends care about many of the same things. That, more than anything, explains any friendship. Each one has a uniquely personal story that typically revolves around words, kindness, art, and thinking.

You’ve taught college students at GVSU, presented at TLA about the homeless reader, presented at MRA and the Youth Literature Conference at Kalamazoo. I’m sure there’s a question lurking somewhere in there. 

Yes I have and let me know when you find the question.

Then you appeared at the SCBWI-MI conference at Mackinac Island. You closed the conference with a poignant story about Brycen and Snowman Magic. What was the takeaway for a bunch of children’s writers?

I think the most important take away is to stop working for awards and reviews and continue working for all the Brycens out there. They are more important anyway.

You've worked on the Printz and Caldecott committees, among others. Lots of anonymous donated work for no recognition. What’s the reward?

It is in bringing that magic book, like Snowman Magic, home to all the Brycens and all the Briannas in my area.

You say that your ideal vacation is the annual American Library Association meeting. What’s the attraction?

Smart, kind, funny, talented people and lots of books! What’s not to love!

I interviewed Travis Jonker and didn’t ask this question, and missed the scoop that he had just sold his first picture book. So, what are you working on now?

I am working on this interview!

Finally, tell me about your work on curriculum guides.

I have written curriculum guides for older teens, such as Jay Asher's 13 Reasons Why (soon to be a movie?). I have also written guides for much younger students, such as Il Song Na’s Welcome Home, Bear or the most recent guide I just finished for member, Leslie Helakoski’s Hoot & Honk Just Can’t Fall Asleep. I’ve written guides for The Dark Is Rising and The Grey King by Susan Cooper. I wrote a guide for the American Heritage Illustrated Children’s Dictionary! Most of my guides have been for the phenomenal series by Houghton Mifflin, Scientists In the Field. I have four more coming down the pipe soon. When I submitted Leslie’s that was my 47th or 48th paid guide for me. Soon I will have done more than 50! This both delights and scares me: I love thinking of possibilities for encouraging creativity, but I live in terror of that student with a big stick in hand who finds me late one night in a dark alley and accuses me of ruining his life: “My teacher mades us do every one of your stupid activities and now I hate reading! WHACK!"

Keep up with Ed Spicer's adventures on Facebook and Twitter, and stay tuned for his updated
Spicy Reads website.

Want to learn more? Check out these blog posts/interviews and videos:

Charlie Barshaw has four MG and YA novels-in-progress, three stories published by Amazon Rapids, two dogs and a gifted, supportive and encouraging wife. Ruth and I have traveled to dozens of schools during Reading Month. We are exhausted and fulfilled.

Coming up on the SCBWI-MI blog: Hugs and Hurrahs! We want to trumpet your success. Please send your writing/illustrating/publishing news to Patti Richards by March 28th to be included.


  1. There's a point in the article where it says "Insert student letter HERE."

    So here, without Ed's permission, is a letter from a former student Ed posted recently on his FaceBook wall:

    Today's email:
    "Hey Mr. Spicer,
    I was going through some old papers the other day, and I found a letter you had written to me at the end of first grade in 2005, asking me to write a letter to your incoming students, and memories flooded back of your first grade class.
    I really do want to catch up, and check in to see how you are doing, but I am not entirely sure if this email is still active, as the site seems to have been last updated in 2012. If this does get to you, hello! If not, well, I hope I can find a way to contact you another way.
    Assuming this does get to you - I found a Twitter account with your name and this website link, and the twitter seems to still be active (Happy Retirement, by the way) - I just want to give you a quick refresher as to who I am. You've had hundreds of students, and I'm sure it can be a blur to try and remember a student by their name alone.
    I was in your first grade class from 2004-2005, and I was the youngest student in the class, as I had skipped kindergarten. To be completely honest, I only have three memories that I can somewhat recall from first grade. The first one I remember was you coming over to my house and trying Indian food, and then talking about it in class the next day. I'm sure you were there for more than just dinner, but that's all I remember.
    The second one I remember was during class, I was reading Hachiko, the story of a dog waiting for its owner at the train station, and proceeded to bawl my eyes out in front of the whole class when I realized Hachiko's owner wasn't coming back.
    The third memory is my most fond one. We were doing something in class where we had to write our full names, and I was the only student without a middle name. This left five year-old me distraught, but you provided a simple solution: make one up. Henceforth, I went by Shubham Tiger M--. I went as far as writing that on every toy I had. While I've dropped the moniker now, that concept was a keystone of my childhood. The formerly empty space between my first and last name was occupied for years by various animals, actors, authors, and foods, and my middle name became a throne for whatever I adored most at that given moment.
    If this does get to you, it would mean a lot to hear back from you. As I've said earlier, I know I am just one of hundreds of students you've taught, but the effect you've had on me in that short time has been extremely profound. So profound, in fact that "spicer" is the answer for my favorite teacher, twelve years later. For that, I sincerely thank you, and am grateful to have had you as a teacher,

    And that is the kind of inspiring teacher and hero Ed Spicer is.


  2. LOVED this article on Ed Spicer. And that letter is fabulous!!!! I keep thinking of Shubham Tiger...