Honoring her passion

Local Newbery Honor-winning author Marion Dane Bauer has written 104 children’s books—and she’s still going strong.

Marion Dane Bauer
St. Paul author Marion Dane Bauer has been penning books professionally for 40 years. Her latest, The Stuff of Stars, features illustrations by Ekua Holmes. Photos by Tracy Walsh

When Marion Dane Bauer’s youngest child started first grade, her then-husband suggested she might want to consider getting a job.

She had another idea.

“I had been writing in cracks of time — usually when I should have been cleaning the house,” she said. “I had a vision of myself on my deathbed, saying, ‘No one gave me time to write!’”

Bauer asked him to support her for five years while she tried to launch a career as an author.

“I told him, ‘I’ll treat it like a job, and if I’m not published by the deadline, I’ll go to work.’”

Three and half years later, Bauer’s first book, Shelter from the Wind, was published. She published two more books, followed by her Newbery Honor-winning book, On My Honor.

Then she kept going for more than 40 years.

Today she’s 80, and she’s written 104 children’s books, released by many major publishers.

Her latest title, the highly praised picture book, The Stuff of Stars, is available now in bookstores and online.

And she’s not planning to stop anytime soon. The day we spoke, she’d been working on a new novel about a 10-year-old boy and his imaginary dog.

“The shifting relationship with the dog is giving me fits,” she said. “I’m revising it now. I’ve basically turned it inside out and started over again, but I’m convinced that I still want to hold onto that imaginary dog.”

You can learn a lot about Bauer from that statement.

She’s a prolific writer who doesn’t let one successful publication keep her from getting right to work on the next book. She holds herself to the high creative standards. And, perhaps most important of all, she’s willing to do the work — the mind-bending, sometime spirit-crushing daily battle with the blank screen — that is the trademark of so many writers referred to as “prolific.”

For Bauer, it’s about being willing to find joy in the process, not just the finished product.

“A lot of people want to have written,” she said. “They have a vision of a published book, and they think that’s what it’s all about. For me, it’s the daily process that really feeds me. It’s something I need.”

A selection of Marion Dane Bauer’s published works. Photo by Tracy Walsh

‘Compassionate honesty’

Alison McGhee, the New York Times-bestselling author of What I Leave Behind, first met Bauer as a fellow teacher at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

“What I most respect and honor about her is that she has been through what I think of as ‘the fire,’” McGhee said. “She’s experienced tremendous loss and grief, and she’s undergone transformative change as an individual. She realized in midlife who she really was and what path she needed to follow. And she’s done it all with a calm grace and compassionate honesty.”

As McGhee noted, Bauer has experienced personal tragedy. Her son, Peter Dane Bauer, died at age 42 of Lewy body dementia, a disease that usually affects older adults.

Her marriage ended in divorce. But she seems to have emerged with a sunny outlook.

Of her ex-husband, she said, “He gave me a 15-year foundation to develop my career, and I appreciate that. We talk on the phone and play Words with Friends. I’m friends with his wife, too.”

She remains close with her son’s widow and children, Connor, Brannon and Cullen, who live near Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Her daughter, Beth-Alison Berggren, lives in Annandale and has three children, Barrett, Bailey and Chester. And she’s found a fulfilling relationship living with her partner, Barbara, in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul.

Bauer feels fortunate to be working in the Twin Cities.

“Minnesota is a wonderful place for writers and readers, and one of the few areas that has such a strong community of support surrounding children’s literature,” she said.

She points to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, considered to be one of the world’s great children’s literature archives.

“I have a sense the people who work with that collection created an atmosphere in which children’s literature was respected and appreciated,” she said.

Marion Dane Bauer. Photo by Tracy Walsh

Permission to start

As much as she clearly loves writing, Bauer hasn’t lost sight of the art-commerce balance that’s sustained her over the years.

“The process of writing serves my soul and it supports me,” she said. “Selling books is important for buying groceries.”

So why did she choose the extremely competitive genre of children’s literature?

“I think I’m like an awful lot of children’s writers, who were outsiders and isolated in their own childhoods,” Bauer said. “I think there’s a need to ‘fix it’ in a story and make things come out differently than they did in life.”

She remembers a college fiction-writing class in which she penned a description of being 3 years old, standing on a hot, sunny sidewalk and stepping onto the “cool tickle” of the grass.

“There was something about that description,” she said. “I knew it had touched someplace important in me. The experience of that one brief moment in a child’s life, not even an important one, guided me to understand what I would do when I finally gave myself permission to start.”

Critical acclaim

Bauer is especially excited about the publication of her 104th book, The Stuff of Stars, a 40-page picture book — 431 words long — about the Big Bang and the creation of the universe, including Earth.

“It’s also about the creation of the child to whom the story is being read,” Bauer said.

Released in September, the book has received positive reviews.

Publisher’s Weekly said, “Bauer suggests that, just possibly, the power of creation and the power of love are not so different.”

Bauer’s motivation for writing the story came from her sense that things don’t seem to be going all that well on planet Earth.

“I feel so strongly that we are living in a collapsing world,” she said. “As a children’s writer, it’s hard to know what to do with that feeling. The best approach, it seems to me, is one of awe, reverence and love toward the world around us. It’s the only solution I can think of.”

Bauer’s agent, Rubin Pfeffer, talked about the journey of the book from manuscript to publication: “It left me breathless upon the first read and took me just five minutes — and six muffins — to sell on the spot to a publisher that very week. This isn’t just any picture book — it’s daring, controversial and unlike any picture book ever before published.”

Pfeffer said he’s convinced that Bauer — yes, at age 80 — is as relevant as she’s ever been.

“Is relevance measured by still pushing the borders? If so, she’s relevant and creative right now and going forward. If relevance is measured by new work being published and embraced by editors, reviewers, readers, teachers and parents, she’s relevant. And if relevance is measured by creativity, her latest rounds of books assure that.”

Pfeffer said Bauer’s books will be her legacy.

“She has written about timeless and universal experiences that are read and re-read,” Rubin said.

Even more lasting than the words she’s written will be the relationships she’s built, he said, referencing “the vast number of writers she’s influenced either by her books, her teaching and mentoring or by the genuine friendships she’s been blessed to have with writers of three generations — and counting.”

Marion Dane Bauer’s latest work, The Stuff of Stars — a picture book geared toward ages 4 to 8 — was published in September amid critical acclaim.

More than words

Bauer said her readers may be surprised to learn she doesn’t have much sway over the illustrations in her picture books.

“The editor chooses the illustrator, not the author,” she said, adding that editors these days usually consult with authors when bringing an artist on board.

With The Stuff of Stars, Bauer’s editor proposed three different illustrators, but settled on 63-year-old Boston native Ekua Holmes, a Caldecott award winner who specializes in mixed media.

“I checked them all out online and was instantly captivated by Holmes’ use of strong color and by her intriguing collages,” Bauer said. “She was my first choice.”

The Stuff of Stars is a “very unusual” project for an artist, Bauer said.

“When I write the text for a picture book, I’m always aware of opening doors for the illustrator, though I never try to imagine what the pictures will be. My imagination isn’t a visual one, so it’s not difficult for me to stay out of that territory. The challenge I handed Ekua, however, was immense. I didn’t just open doors. I presented her with a near vacuum. All that nothingness to illustrate!”

Bauer saw the early sketches and heard the editor’s input on them. Throughout the process, though, Bauer mostly looked and listened.

“I trusted both the artist and the editor to support the vision created by my words,” Bauer said. “And they couldn’t have done that better.”

Over the years, Bauer’s worked with many illustrators — usually a different one with every book.

“Mostly I love what evolves,” she said. “The first time I see a picture book whole always feels like Christmas!”

Only once did Bauer face dealing with illustrations she “truly hated.”

Fortunately, she was able to buy the text back from the publisher and then sold it to another publisher who found a different illustrator.

Advice from a master

What insight can Bauer offer all those people who want to have written?

“Honor your own passion and honor what feels important to you,” Bauer said. “Don’t ask what practical use it is and don’t ask what anyone else thinks about it. Just reach for what feeds your own soul. People are desperate to publish, but if that’s why you’re writing, you won’t write anything worth reading. Step back and write something that feeds you.”

In reflecting back on 80 years, Bauer feels fortunate.

Of all her books, Bauer’s most prized work might not be her most well-known: Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence is a 1994 collection of stories she contributed to and edited, featuring noted authors for young adults, all writing candidly about growing up gay or lesbian, or with gay or lesbian parents or friends.

“It is the book of mine I’m most proud of and that has probably done the most good in the world,” she said. “It wasn’t the first gay-and-lesbian themed young-adult book to be published, but it was one of the first to find a significant place on library shelves.”

Bauer is deeply grateful to enjoy a paying career as an author to this day.

“I’ve been able to make my living doing what I most wanted to do, and a lot of people don’t get an opportunity to do that,” she said, adding one final bit of advice: “If you haven’t had a chance to find what really feeds you yet, it’s not too late. Find it now.”

Read more! 

In addition to her latest release, The Stuff of Stars, Marion Dane Bauer recommends these other books from her repertoire of 104 titles:

  • On My Honor (Newbery Honor Winner, 1986)
  • What’s Your Story? A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction (1992)
  • Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence (1994)
  • Little Dog Lost (2012)
  • Little Cat’s Luck (2016)
  • Winter Dance (2017)
  • Jump, Little Wood Ducks (2017)

Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.