MCBRIDE SCHOLAR'S BOOK TO HIT STORES MARCH 13
Diane Gibfried '06 tried to keep her expectations out of the stratosphere when her creative-writing professor offered to send her final project for a children's-literature course out to publishers at the end of the fall semester in 2003. She needn't have bothered. By the end of that year's Winter Break, she'd received four letters of interest from publishers, and this month Houghton Mifflin will publish Brother Juniper, Gibfried's warmly comic tale of a Franciscan monk who is generous to a fault.
The story, set in the hills of Assisi, is illustrated with vibrant watercolors by the award-winning illustrator Meilo So, and the book has earned glowing reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. "It has a very simple story arc," Gibfried says. "Because he is generous, Brother Juniper gives away everything the monks own until all that is left is an empty hole. It is a story about building community."
Gibfried is a McBride Scholar, a student beyond traditional college age, who plans to complete an A.B. in psychology at Bryn Mawr this spring; she's currently at work on a thesis project that involves picture-book illustrations. She began her undergraduate education in the late 1970s at the Philadelphia College of Art (now incorporated into the University of the Arts), but after she married and had three children, couldn't find the time to complete her degree.
Once her children had left home for college, Gibfried decided that it was time to join them. When she returned to school as a McBride scholar, she says, it was a real struggle to choose a major.
"I had always been interested in psychology and I love the department," she says, "but I'm also drawn very strongly to arts and humanities. Unfortunately, I can't take every course that's offered."
She felt lucky to be able to fit in the children's-literature course, which was then taught by Donna Jo Napoli, a celebrated children's-book author who is also a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore.
"There was keen student interest in the course taught by Professor Napoli, which has since been taught by Bryn Mawr alumna Elizabeth Mosier as well," says Director of Creative Writing Karl Kirchwey. "I am delighted that Diane Gibfried, who was in Professor Napoli's class, is having her own children's book published by a major trade publisher. This is entirely consistent with the high caliber of work being produced by Bryn Mawr College students."
"The class really taught us how to speak to children in our writing," says Gibfried. "We read wonderful examples of children's literature and wrote something every week; students in that class produced some excellent writing. We also went out and taped conversations with children, so that we could use them to understand how children talk and think.
"I had written a children's book before I took the course," Gibfried says, "and now I realize that it was really boring! The course helped me immensely in finding a voice that children can appreciate and understand. "
When Napoli learned of Gibfried's background as an illustration major at PCA, she asked her to create a book dummy — a mockup of the finished book, with sketches.
"She generously offered to send it off with her recommendation," Gibfried says. "We got four letters of interest, and Donna Jo and I went to New York in February to talk to Simon and Schuster and Houghton Mifflin. By April, I had a solid offer from Houghton Mifflin, which I accepted right away."
The publisher decided to hire an established illustrator for the first-time author. "Although I do hope to produce a book with my own illustrations someday, I was delighted that they chose Meilo," Gibfried says. "I was familiar with her work and I think she's wonderful.
"One of the best things that has come out of this is that now I have an editor who actually reads my work," Gibfried says. "She doesn't choose to publish everything I send her, but she reads it all. I'm working with her now on an idea for a second book."
Gibfried is also working with Associate Professor of Psychology Kim Cassidy on her senior-thesis project. Cassidy, a developmental psychologist who studies the development of cognition in children, has a powerful interest in children's story books, Gibfried says.
"She has been so supportive during the publishing process, and so has the rest of the department — Associate Professor of Psychology Marc Schulz invited me to share the book with members of his junior seminar in psychology. And I can't say enough about how wonderful the McBride community has been," Gibfried says.
Gibfried has applied to Bryn Mawr's Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research and hopes to earn a master's degree in clinical social work. She has long been interested in this sort of work: she has in the past volunteered as an aide to an art therapist on a psychiatric floor and has worked as a teacher. She presently works as an aide to a young man who is mute and has autism.
A recent Praxis experiential-learning course convinced her that she was on the right path. Gibfried's Praxis field placement was at Forteniters, a Norristown club that helps people affected by mental illness adjust to independent living by offering friendship and mutual support.
"I was impressed by their integrity and their resilience. The experience affirmed my desire to work with people who are challenged by mental illness," Gibfried says.
Her career as a McBride scholar has uncovered all sorts of strengths. "I've grown so much here and have had the freedom to do that," she says. "I have never before belonged to such a supportive community. Somehow, I knew from the moment I walked onto the campus that I had come to the right place."
The Bryn Mawr Bookshop will host a book-launch party for Brother Juniper later this month.
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