by Sandor Slomovits
Shutta Crum knew exactly what kind of books young children liked when she began writing her own in 1997. By then she'd been a youth librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library for eighteen years and had had plenty of opportunity to read classic and modern children's literature to kids and to see firsthand which books excited them.
Two years and 300-plus rejection slips later, she sold her first picture book, and she has since published eight others, including a young adult novel. That first book, Who Took My Hairy Toe?, a retelling of a scary southern folk tale, and still her young audiences' favorite, set the tone for several of her original stories that followed. Crum often mines her own southern small town roots she was born in Paintsville, Kentucky, though raised in Michigan for both the themes and the language of her books. Even when she's not writing about down-south settings, the southern storytelling tradition informs her work. She has also been writing poems all her life. Her books combine these long-honed skills as a wordsmith ("a barn all tumbled with hay"), her fine ear for southern dialect and expressions ("crazier than a june bug on a string"), and her storytelling gifts to create charming, funny, and often wise and comforting stories.
Crum well understands the restrictions of writing for children a more limited vocabulary and many off-limits subjects, among others. But she also makes full use of the compensatory tools available to children's authors a greater reliance on anthropomorphism and a more frequent use of rhyme, repetition, alliteration, and assonance than are usually found in adult writing.
In The Bravest of the Brave, a book she was invited to read at the 2005 Easter Egg Roll at the White House, a brave baby skunk faces and eventually turns tail though doesn't fire on a number of dangers before arriving home safely.
Her most recent book, A Family
for Old Mill Farm, is partly autobiographical, drawing on her own family's three-year search for a home near Ann Arbor. An ever-helpful human realty agent shows a young family many prospective properties before finding the perfect one. Simultaneously, a resourceful raccoon realty agent sells a number of animal families on the same site. It's a story with clear charms for children, and one that adults will also appreciate especially given today's real estate market.
Crum retired from the AADL in 2004, though not before winning, in 2002, the Michigan Library Association Children's Services Division Award of Merit as youth librarian of the year. She's put her extra time to good use, finishing another two novels and three more picture books.
It will be show-and-tell time when she reads A Family for Old Mill Farm at Nicola's Books on Wednesday, June 13. Since Niki Daly's beautiful accompanying watercolor illustrations are so important to Crum's story, she will display and may even project slides of them.
[Review published June 2007]