As we go through life’s journey, there’s no shortage of lessons to be learned. Further, we never know who the messenger will be that’s going to deliver the advice and guidance we need to become our better selves. Sometimes it’s a parent or teacher. Sometimes it’s a total stranger. And who knows? Sometimes new wisdom comes to us in a completely unexpected form. A skink, for instance. Mary Langer Thompson, author of How the Blue-Tongued Skink Got His Blue Tongue, introduces us to her intrepid reptilian protagonist, Dinky, and shares insights on how her own journey as an educator and a writer first began.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Many an educator I’ve met chose to follow this particular career path because of a longstanding family lineage in academia or the influence of a favorite teacher when s/he was growing up. Who or what made you decide that becoming a teacher was what you wanted to do?
A: My mother was an elementary teacher, but it wasn’t until my 12th grade high school English teacher, Carroll Irwin of Hoover High School in Glendale, California, made me fall in love with English literature so that I became an English major in college and wanted to be a high school teacher like her. I corresponded with Miss Irwin before she passed away last year.
Q: As an adolescent and then a teen, was writing always your best subject?
A: No, some of my former English teachers used to read my papers aloud about what not to do, so it wasn’t until I mastered the five-paragraph essay and learned to give support for everything I said that I was any good at writing. Miss Irwin made us rewrite every single paper, and taught me that writing is rewriting.
Q: What books/authors might we have found on the nightstand of your younger self?
A: Nancy Drew books until I started sneaking into my older brother’s room when he wasn’t there to check out his bookshelf. I was in fifth grade when I discovered Lawrence Ferlinghetti (this was poetry? Wow!), Allen Ginsberg, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and authors like James Baldwin.
Q: Do you have a favorite children’s book?
A: When I was about 5 or 6, I got Scarlet Fever, which was serious in the early 1950’s. My mother and I were quarantined. She read her childhood favorite to me, Alice and The Teenie Weenies by William Donahey, now out of print, about characters three inches tall. She found and gave me that book not so long ago.
Q: Is there a famous author (living or dead) you’d most like to have dinner with?
A: I was asked this question before I was selected for jury duty once, and my answer is the same: Helen Keller. Although deaf and blind, her achievements in writing and speaking were incredible, and I’d love to ask her about her memories of her teacher and later friend, Annie Sullivan.
Q: In what ways did teaching (high school English) influence your writing and vice versa?
A: I was privileged to return to teach for a time at my alma mater in the 70’s, the days of the electives and so broadened my reading. I taught Science Fiction, Mystery and Detective, Mass Media, Short Story, and because the curriculum was new, I wrote articles for English Journal, Media and Methods, California English and other educational journals. That’s when I started writing for publication.
Q: You moved from being in the classroom to becoming a public school principal. Although the latter still gave you access to and interaction with students, what were some of the transitional challenges of overseeing the activities and ethics of teachers versus the daily responsibility of assigning and reviewing homework?
A: I had been an assistant principal and thought I was well prepared, having worked closely with principals, being their right-hand person. By the time I became a principal I think the challenges with teachers were mainly generational. The teachers dressed more casually, some had nose piercings, purple hair, tongue rings, and many of the parents, even the ones their age, objected. Plus, we were opening a brand new school! I had to have a lot of kindly talks and many times felt I was more a mother than a principal. One union rep told me I had “crossed over” (from being a teacher) and the teacher didn’t have to listen to me. However, I was in a new-to-me, poverty area, so I sympathized with the teachers because their job was hard in many ways and I didn’t want to lose them. I believed I was there to help them grow and develop but some of my bosses didn’t agree! The district was low-scoring and they didn’t feel we had time for growth and development. There was a lot of pressure. I believe it’s one of the reasons why California has a teacher shortage now.
Q: Your impressive list of publishing credits is primarily in the arena of poetry and essays. What made you decide to write your first children’s book?
A: When I retired, I joined the California Writers Club, High Desert Branch, and no one claimed to write poetry, so in order to stay in my critique group, I brushed off a children’s story I had been toying with. The club was going to have a reading at our local Barnes and Noble and approached me. I said, “Sure, I can read some poems,” and the answer was, “We don’t want your poems, we want you to read that children’s story you wrote!”
Q: Dogs, cats, horses and rabbits have long been popular stars of children’s literature. Centerstage in your book is a skink. Though it sounds like a made-up word, it’s a real animal native to Australia. When did the story of Dinky the Skink first take shape for you?
A: Quite a long time ago, in the 90’s, a friend having financial trouble called and said they had sold a pet skink to make that month’s house payment. I had never heard of a blue-tongued skink, Googled it, and up popped one in a picture with its blue tongue aimed right at me. I remember I had visited Australia on one of my husband’s business trips in 1980 and shopped all the book stores in Sydney for Australian children’s books to bring home to my then 5-year old son. I used to read to him every night. There weren’t that many Australian children’s books. One I brought back about a dingo dog scared him silly. An animal having a blue tongue is exotic, and so I tried to imagine for a long time how a skink might have gotten a tongue that color.
Q: Tell us about the story’s setting and why it works effectively as Dinky’s adventure unfolds.
A: Skinks are reptiles which led me to think of snakes. Snakes may not be liked by everyone, but they are fascinating. I remembered how I was teaching John Steinbeck’s “The Pearl” to a tenth grade Honor’s class once and the author refers to “The Garden” in the first paragraph. My Honor’s students didn’t get the allusion which I couldn’t believe because they knew all about other mythological stories. How were they going to understand American Lit in eleventh grade? So I decided to set my story in The Garden with a “Know What’s What Tree.”
Q: What do you want your readers to take away from your book?
A: Dinky the skink is bullied in all the ways kids and even adults are bullied—shunning, physical violence, name-calling, and more, yet he stands up to the bully, becoming a hero, and in the process obtaining a blue tongue. Dinky warns the bully that choices can go two ways, so I want to leave kids with the message that they can stand up to bullies and our choices in life are all-important.
Q: The title was recently made available in Spanish. Any particular reason? And are there any plans for future translations of a story with such a universal—and timeless—theme?
A: In the second year of my principalship, I opened a Spanish dual-immersion school, a school within a school, that is now going into its 12th year and is the only elementary dual immersion school in the high desert. I translated the book mainly for Spanish-speaking children learning English. Because I taught in Glendale and was an English as a Second Language specialist there for a time, I am looking for someone to translate the book into Armenian as well.
Q: On your website you have a short list of favorite quotes. Among them is one by Carl Gustav Jung which states, “The reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories.” How and why does this quote personally resonate with you?
A: I think it is frustrating to the point of agonizing to have moments of grief or joy or even entertaining things happen to a person and for them not to have someone to share their story with. It can even lead to anger. My essay for Christina Hamlett’s anthology, Finding Mr. Right, was the result of someone contacting me after 40 years to tell the story of our time together years before. He had led an adventurous life and was looking for people with the skills to help him write it. Within my writer’s club, I am the director of the Dorothy C. Blakely Memoir Project, which is going into its third year this fall. We help high school students tell the stories of the lives of people over 50, and then publish the stories. We have a book launch party at the end of the year and the “Memoir Stars” are so happy their life stories are so valued.
Q: Retiring from a day job and becoming a full-time writer obviously has an impact on one’s self-esteem, outlook, time management, creativity, etc. Family members, though, certainly aren’t immune to the ripple effect of a loved one suddenly spending copious hours at a keyboard and engaging in conversations with the characters in her head. How has your own family responded to your full-time career as an author?
A: Striving for balance can be difficult. However, with the publication of my children’s book, my husband became a publishing partner and began Another Think Coming Press, and my grown son, Matthew, suggested kids eat blue raspberry Tootsie Pops while they read so their own tongues turn blue. Some kids have sent me pictures of their blue tongues. He also bought me a skink cookie cutter. So now the whole family’s involved with suggestions for future Dinky stories and we’re all feeling a part of Dinky’s success.
Q: When you’re not at the keyboard, what do you like to do for fun?
A: If I’m not writing, I’m reading or traveling with my husband, Dave. We’re planning a trip to Yellowstone this year. We traveled to Arizona to the Tucson Book Festival earlier this year to sell books and to see friends and family on the way.
Q: Tell us about your participation in the California Writers Club and how it supports and nurtures the wordsmithing of its members.
A: When I joined the high desert branch in 2009, we were about to lose our charter at 15 members, the minimum. Since then we have built it up to over 100 members. I have been on the board, led critique groups and salons, and taught writing workshops in schools, colleges and the federal prison, in addition to directing the Dorothy C. Blakely Memoir Project. We meet once a month and have wonderful outside speakers like Christina Hamlett come and give us tips for writing and publishing. We support each other, and always have someone to call when we need advice.
Q: Any savvy advice for new writers whose journey on the road to publication is just starting?
A: Find a supportive critique group, don’t give up your day job, and get connected on social media.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I have another children’s book, another poetry book, a young adult novel and a memoir in the works. I’ll continue to write book reviews for Middleweb, an educational website for middle school educators and San Diego Book Review and Amazon.com.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: If you want to help authors of books you love, there’s no better way than to write a review on Amazon.com. Of course I appreciate this interview, as well. Thank you!
Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?
A: You can find me on Facebook and learn more about my poetry on home.earthlink.net/~ml_thompson/.