When Newbery Medal-winning author Sharon Creech and her husband moved to coastal Maine six years ago, they knew the change would be good for their family. Several books later, it seems the move has also been a boon to Creech’s writing.
Creech’s adult daughter, her husband and their two children also settled in Maine, and Creech’s 2016 novel, Moo, dramatized her granddaughter’s experience of helping raise a cow with their new hometown’s 4-H Club. After that, Creech’s granddaughter and grandson cared for rescued lambs, which inspired Creech’s new middle grade novel, Saving Winslow―although this time the writing involved some negotiations.
“They’re so cute,” Creech says, speaking by phone from Maine. “The grandchildren would be sitting in chairs, holding a little lamb, trying to get the bottle in their mouth, and the looks on the children’s faces were just like you see with a mother and a newborn. Just witnessing that simple, pure kind of transaction has made it all worth our while to move to Maine, to be close to them and to witness this.”
When Creech mentioned to her daughter and granddaughter that she wanted to write about the lambs, they both said no—they wanted to write that story themselves. “They’re both really good writers, so I think they will do it one day,” she says. Creech decided to draw on their experiences but to write about another animal instead. When family members sent her a video of a miniature donkey swinging in a hammock, she was hooked.
However, Creech was still thinking about her granddaughter’s first rescue lamb named Winslow, so she countered with, “Can I at least use the name?” This time the answer was yes. With all the makings of an instant classic, Saving Winslow is one of those seemingly simple animal stories that is beautifully understated yet emotionally complex, bringing to mind the beloved tales of E.B. White and Kate DiCamillo. Told in exceedingly short, riveting chapters, it’s the story of a young boy named Louie who cares for a struggling baby mini donkey.
“I try to get in this very tranquil place in my mind.”
Louie is also learning to navigate life without his beloved older brother, Gus, who is serving overseas in the army. Louie meets a girl named Nora, who’s dealing with her own family tragedy. “Somehow Louie felt that saving Winslow would also save and protect Gus, like the two were connected somehow,” Creech writes.
“I constantly return to themes of grief or letting go,” Creech says, noting that she wrote her first book the year after her father died. A stroke six years before had robbed her father of his speech. “So it felt like my obligation to use all those words that I could see that he wanted to say but couldn’t. I’m probably always going to be touching on these kinds of themes, all of those things that are crucial elements of life.”
Creech concludes that writing about a donkey instead of a lamb ended up being for the best, making the novel “almost funnier” and “less likely to get treacly.” Creech adeptly avoids sappy pitfalls, describing, for instance, a baby boy who lives next door to Louie as having “a tangled curly blob of black hair that looked like a burnt cauliflower had exploded there.” Small details like these, combined with the novel’s structure as a whole, make Saving Winslow a master class in superb writing.
Over the years, working in both poetry and prose, Creech acknowledges that her writing process has become increasingly succinct, partly to allow her time to pursue family obligations and other interests. She now usually writes for about three hours in the morning, having fine-tuned her routine.
“I try to get in this very tranquil place in my mind,” the author explains. “I think that comes from writing almost every day for 20 years. You have your cup of tea. You have your little chocolates. You tell your husband that you are going to be incommunicado for a couple hours. You put the phone away. And then I just sort of sit there, and I’m relaxed. I look at what I did the day before, and then I just go.”
Creech is currently having what she calls “an interesting relationship” with a new project that’s “driving [her] crazy.” So far, it’s written in prose, and it doesn’t feature animals, although “there’s a character who thinks about animals.”
Should she need a diversion from writing, she has a steady stream of fan letters that arrive frequently. She keeps some favorites nearby, such as a note from a boy who recently informed her, “If I had time, I still would not read, but I might write poems or something. I would hopefully have something better to do than read, but I might read. But if I liked to read, I would probably read your books.”
“There’s something in his voice,” Creech says of the backhanded compliment, chuckling. “I want to write his story.”
Such honest letters are refreshing, she admits, “particularly when you’ve waded through 50 or 100 or so from the more rote ones, where they’re being very correct and polite. It’s a relief―like a real person.”
Meanwhile, life beckons outside of her office door. “We’re very, very glad we made the move here,” she says. “We’re loving Maine so much.”
Coastal Maine has been home to many authors and illustrators, including none other than the late E.B. White, who lived and wrote from his home in Brooklin, Maine. Creech, a longtime fan, says she’s become re-immersed in his writing. “You know,” she says, “now I really understand where all that was coming from, his affiliation with animals and his understanding of them.”
Author photo by Karin Leuthy.