Thursday, May 9, 2019

Writer Spotlight: Camilla Roper

Charlie Barshaw coordinates our quarterly Writer Spotlight feature and interviews writers of SCBWI-MI. This quarter's writer is Camilla Roper.

Writer Spotlight: Camilla Roper and the Tale of Two Languages

What was your early life like? How did it shape your desire to write and teach?

I wrote and illustrated stories from a young age. I recall in junior high, a friend and I were enamored with the original Avengers series on TV.  We’d watch the show, and then I would write as fast as I could additional episodes for her to read.  I recall both of us being frustrated that I couldn’t write faster…

What were some of your favorite books, and who were some of your favorite authors, growing up?

Rudyard Kipling’s and Helen Bannerman’s stories inflamed an early desire to travel and experience diverse cultures.  Beatrix Potter’s dry wit and hapless yet lovable characters were like family.  P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins stories fascinated me, and I loved the weird genius of Maurice Sendak.  Being a very serious child, I took to heart every moral in Aesop’s Fables.  The Bible related stories of family drama, bloody battles, natural and supernatural phenomena, gore, and violence. Helen Oxenbury’s The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig is brilliant, and one of the few books I actually own.  I didn’t read Beverly Cleary as a child, but love the way she paces her books.  Polly Horvath knows how to turn a phrase.  Jerry and Ellen Spinelli, and Ellen’s illustrations - these are all gifted writers I still read today.

How did you end up attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln? And how did you come to pursue the dual majors of Spanish and Education?

I grew up in Lincoln.  I think I chose UNL because I could ride my bike to classes.  In winter, I showered and hopped on my bike and arrived on campus 5½ miles later, with ice crystals in my long blonde braids.  I’d absolutely loved Spanish since finding my dad’s Spanish textbook when I was about four, deciding then and there to study the language.  The decision to become a teacher came suddenly when, as a second-semester junior, I realized I would be graduating soon and needed a job.  

You evidently found teaching compelling early on. Name some of your most influential teachers, and how they affected you.

Camilla working on a watercolor project.
We had half-day kindergarten and first grade.  One group studied in the morning, and a second group came in the afternoon. Mrs. Kane epitomized all my great teachers:  She consolidated the first-grade curriculum into half the time, and a disproportionate number of my classmates not only thrived, but became physicians, scientists, and other accomplished scholars. I studied ridiculously hard all through school and received an exceptional education. At UNL, tuition was cheap, so I took classes every summer, and as many courses as I could each term.  I studied law for one year, but found I was not suited to it.  I did encounter some amazing characters in my professors, in case I ever decided to write horror stories, though.

At Boston U. you pursued a Masters in Bilingual, Multilingual, Multicultural Education. That’s quite a mouthful to say, and a challenge to complete. What does that educational curriculum entail?

It’s a funny story. We only had one car, so I started riding in with my husband to BU, and got a job on campus. BU employees got 100% tuition remission for eight credit hours each term. So we pursued graduate degrees. My curriculum included current issues in bilingual ed, cultural awareness, curriculum development, teaching reading in Spanish, metrics, and narrative and literature. I taught and observed in an elementary and a middle school during my studies.

 At this point in your life you were obviously proficient enough in Spanish and English to pursue bilingual education. What are some of the benefits to be able to speak, write and read in multiple languages?

You gain flexibility in thinking, and become aware of more options in life in general.  It gives you confidence and keeps you on your toes. Traveling is more compelling and fun.  Learning one language facilitates learning others.  Before recent trips to South America, Finland, Iceland, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, and France, I studied the languages, and it definitely had a positive impact.

It’s been proven that younger students have more ability to learn additional languages. Would you like to see a greater emphasis on early language education?

Yes! Communicating in other languages changes your perspective, opens up your heart, your mind, and your world.  I think it makes you more cognitively flexible.  Your lexicon at least doubles, and you learn to think, write, and express yourself in different ways.  It teaches you to really listen, and to use language carefully, especially upon entering and exiting foreign countries.  It can also magnify opportunities for employment and earning power later on.  

What led you to Michigan?
My husband’s job brought us to Michigan.  We had a choice between somewhere in Tennessee and a third state, and we chose to live near the Great Lakes.

Are you still a substitute teacher in the Ann Arbor area?
Yes, a couple times weekly, and I sometimes do a long-term stint in Spanish.  I absolutely love being in the classroom.  

 What do you like to read now? Who are your favorite authors today?

Richard Peck passed in May 2018, and I’ve made it my mission to read everything he wrote!  Without a doubt, he was immensely gifted.  He didn’t start writing until he was 37, but continued until his 80’s.  All his books amaze me. In sci-fi, I reread Lois McMaster Bujold.  Alex Kourvo and Harry R. Campion’s four “Detroit Next” novels keep me on the edge. In children’s lit, Aree Chung’s Mixed: A Colorful Story takes on racial/ethnic diversity for the wee lot, and excels.  Eve Bunting’s Smoky Night deals with touchy subjects delicately. I scan the just-published children’s and YA section at the library and end up reading about three new books a week.

When did you start to write? How has your writing changed over the years?

I began to write as a child. Early on, I wrote fiction, adventure, mystery, none of which I submitted for publication. Lately I write nonfiction, and magazine articles about science and technology and historical subjects.  I especially feel an affinity for the mindset of average people during World War II and their sense of mission and being part of something bigger than themselves.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a WWII piece dealing with how real people dealt with the concept of rationing (conceptualized as a picture book).  I am also working on a fantasy piece about an underground society ( a mid-grade novel) sparked by a trip last fall to a subterranean salt mine near Krakow, Poland and unique sewer covers dotting the streets of Copenhagen.  From time to time, I write pieces on subjects like eclipses, self-driving vehicles, and augmented reality (for children's magazines like Highlights).  I also enjoy drawing and painting.

How has being proficient in two languages (and conversant in others) changed your life? 

It’s made me more open to different arguments and perspectives.  I minored in Czech at college, and spent six weeks on a scholarship trip to Prague.  My paternal grandparents emigrated from Bohemia, so I’m a third-generation American.  Now I travel a great deal, and worry about immigration issues often.  

Is there a question you’d wished I asked?

Two, actually:

1) How do you write authentic dialogue?  

       I think it comes with listening more and speaking less.  Great dialogue goes on around us all the time. I take notes - on the bus, in class, at the grocer’s, at religious services, at movies, in restaurants, on campus, and in coffee shops.  You cannot make up stuff this good.  

2) Why is it so hard for some of us to actually submit our writing for publication?  

        For me, at least, I guess it is so personal, I wonder who in the world would want to read it.   But I think it helps to read voraciously and see other writers’ thoughts, and try to make a contribution.

       Camilla Roper has a B.A. in Spanish and Education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and an EdM in Bilingual, Multilingual, Multicultural Education from Boston University, and education certifications from the College of Charleston, Eastern Michigan University and the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She currently lives in Ann Arbor and works as a substitute teacher.

       Charlie Barshaw (pictured with his good-looking and good-natured son Joe) is a member of the Advisory Committee of SCBWI-MI and part of the editorial staff of The Mitten. He's revising his WIP YA at a glacial pace.


  1. Nice to learn more about you Camilla! Thanks for the interview, Charlie!

  2. Really enjoyed reading this interview. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Great read and so nice meeting out fellow SCBWI MI members. Thank you both!

  4. Great to learning more about Camilla. It would be such an asset to be fluent in other languages. Good luck with your writing.