Garn Press Interview: Nancy Rankie Shelton, 5-13: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Survival
Nancy Rankie Shelton’s 5-13, A Memoir of Love, Loss and Survival is a breathtaking read. At Garn we consider 5-13 to be not only a work of great courage but also a literary triumph. Nancy has an extraordinary capacity to share with the reader this brave work of an enduring human spirit who is not frightened to love, face death, and then reimagine her life. In the post on the growing body of literature on living and dying well, 5-13 takes its place alongside the new classics in the field.
5-13: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Survival
Authors and their Books
Garn Press: Do you have a favorite author?
Nancy Rankie Shelton: I always have a favorite author, but that person changes over time. Typically once I have read one or two books by an author, if the book moves me, I read everything I can get my hands on until I am saturated in his/her work. Some of the authors who have changed my life are Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Hesse, Uris, Dickens, J.D. MacDonald, (I still dream of living on a houseboat) and so many more.
GP: Is there one author who has influenced your writing more than any others?
NRS: No, no single author. I like to think I draw from all the authors I have read.
GP: Do you think the relationships between authors and readers are changing?
NRS: Yes. I believe that the globalization of our world in terms of digital texts has opened the relationship up so that all we need is a common language and we are able to access and share worlds that are quite distant and different. As a writer, I know that this change has made me more conscious of my physical location and its cultural implications, and how that can be explained to readers who may never have experienced anything similar to my life.
Writing as Part of Daily Life
GP: When do you write? Do you have a routine?
NRS: It depends on the stage of writing I happen to be in at the time. When I first start a project, I read until my mind shifts and ideas start making “noise” in my brain and I can then set my reading aside to write. This happens at any time throughout the day that I am not engaged in my work as a professor. Once I am entrenched in a project, I typically write in the mornings until about lunchtime and then again after dinner.
GP: How do you begin a writing project?
NRS: I write in my brain for a long time before I write anything down on paper (or as it is now, type anything into a Word document on the computer). I have to have a visual image of a possible completed project before I feel I have really begun a “project”. I start by writing “short takes” or vignettes. Sometimes these are just sentences, other times they are a stream of conscious documents, or they may be experiences or conversations I want to record. Eventually these short ramblings become longer and longer, and after a good deal of time, they take shape within a larger project.
GP: Do you keep notebooks? Use special paper?
NRS: I use a daybook in the way Don Murray always advocated. I also write reflections on my computer and keep files of emails and other communications I have written.
GP: What about pens and pencils? Are they important?
NRS: I use multiple pens, alternating colors when I write in my daybook. And yes, that part of my process is very important to me.
GP: Do you listen to music when you write?
NRS: Only classical. I cannot listen to anything with lyrics or the music distracts me. Usually I prefer to hear sounds from nature and play music only when human noise intervenes with my peaceful environment.
GP: Do you share your writing while you are still writing or wait until you have a draft?
NRS: I share while writing. I find feedback from others helps me a great deal.
GP: How does your “day job” (academic, journalist etc.) influence your writing?
NRS: It’s very hard for me to write during the semester. The workload from teaching occupies my mind and leaves little space for writing or thinking about writing.
GP: What book or chapter of a book are you most proud of writing?
NRS: My memoir is my first publication that is not written for an academic audience. It is also the most important and most meaningful writing I have completed to date.
Early Reading Experiences
GP: What are your earliest memories of words?
NRS: I don’t remember any experience with words. I remember experiences with books.
GP: Do you remember your first books?
NRS: The first book I know I loved is the Golden Book, Little Black Sambo. My eldest sister, Jeanne, read the book to me over and over again. I still have it, a treasure that I don’t handle often because it’s quite tattered. I realize now that this book offended many readers and was later banned, but as a child I didn’t understand the larger issues of stereotyping and racism that can be perpetuated in a book. I connected with Sambo because I played in the woods (he played in the forest) and I absolutely loved, and still do, pancakes. Sambo was my friend who just happened to live in the pages of a book.
GP: What about your earliest memories of someone reading to you?
NRS: Other than Jeanne reading my little yellow Golden Book with those fierce but friendly-looking tigers chasing Sambo around the palm tree, my father used to read to my sisters and me when he put us to bed. I remember him reading Alcott’s Little Women, and not understanding much of it, but I was the youngest sister and the book was a good choice considering our family and our lives.
GP: Was there a moment when you first knew you could read?
NRS: I’m sure there was one but I don’t remember it. I do remember excruciatingly painful memories of round robin reading, especially in the second and third grades. Every single teacher in this nation should read the research on round robin reading and immediately remove it from his/her practice.
GP: What did you like about reading?
NRS: The peace that I get from curling up with a good book, a hot cup of tea, and an excitement to find out what the next series of words will unfold in my mind. I also enjoy discussing life through books with others who I know and love and who are reading or have read the same book as I.
GP: What did you dislike about reading?
NRS: I dislike it when an author disappoints me. I’ve read books that were engaging right up until the last chapter, and then in an attempt to shock the reader, the author creates a twist that is unbelievable. I am also disappointed when I wait for a book to develop into something meaningful in my life but it never does.
GP: Did you have a favorite author when you were a young child?
NRS: Not that I remember. But as an adolescent I did. Weldon Hill. My father and I would go to the library and check out his books and first my father would read it, and then he’d pass it to me. I never will forget reading Onionhead (Hill, 1957), knowing that my father had read it and handed it to me. It was the first time I read anything sexual in a novel. The whole experience was shockingly respectful on my father’s part and on Weldon Hill’s.
GP: Did you read book series as a child?
NRS: Yes, my sister and I read every single Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys Mysteries available in our village library.
GP: Do you remember your first reading lessons when you went to school?
NRS: I’m sure there were experiences before round robin, but they didn’t stay in my mind.
GP: Can you remember doing research for a project in school?
GP: Did you study for exams – if so how?
NRS: Not that I remember.
Early Writing/Drawing Experiences
GP: What are your earliest memories of writing at home?
NRS: I have very few memories of writing, at home or in school. I know that at one point I took one of the mystery books I had enjoyed and copied it word for word except to change all the names from the characters in the book to names of my family members. I don’t know what happened to that horribly plagiarized work, but I hope it ended up in our fireplace.
GP: Did you like to draw?
NRS: No. And I still do not.
GP: Did you paint as a child?
NRS: At one point I remember being addicted to paint by numbers but it was a short-lived passion.
GP: Do you still have any of your early writing, drawings, or paintings?
NRS: I have a die-cut self-portrait that I created in middle school art class that my eldest sister Jeanne somehow saved over the years and presented to me when I earned my PhD. It hangs on my home office wall.
GP: Can you remember being taught to write at school?
NRS: No. I remember diagramming sentences, which I loved, but I do not remember any composition.
GP: Do you have memories of learning to write an essay, a story, or a poem?
NRS: In fourth or fifth grade, I believe, I was forced to use an outline to write a research paper. I had no idea what a research paper was. I hated using an outline (and I still do not use one). I know my grade was low, but I can’t remember exactly what I scored. I don’t even remember the topic. The most vivid of my memories from this experience is connected to another student’s work. One look at it and I knew she absolutely did not do the project herself. Her project was on Monkeys. It was clearly created by an older sibling or her parents. I was disgusted with both the teacher who bragged about its excellence and the student who performed so horribly in class but was not ashamed to present someone else’s work as her own.
GP: What about taking tests – can you remember taking them?
NRS: I took the ITBS as a child, never worried about the results, and I excelled at testing in high school, scoring very high in all the New York Regents Exams. I studied for the Regents Exams, and if my memory serves me correctly, I used the study books my brother John also used and passed down to me.
GP: Did you have to fill in bubbles on multiple-choice tests?
NRS: Yes, and I never took an essay test that I can remember until I was in graduate school at the University of Florida and had to prove I could write at a high school level. That was the first I’d heard of the “5-paragraph” format, and I wish it was the last, but unfortunately, with standardized writing tests heaped on my elementary students, I have had a great deal of experience with that very contrived format.
GP: What advice would you give teachers if they asked you how they could create opportunities for their students to become enthusiastic readers and writers?
NRS: This is my life. I have too much to say to put in this interview! If forced to reduce to one message, I would say that to teach reading and writing one must be a reader and writer. Children easily detect their teachers’ attitudes and those attitudes are one of the strongest forces in a classroom.
About Nancy Rankie Shelton
Nancy Rankie Shelton is a Professor of Education at UMBC in Baltimore, Maryland. She grew up in a remote area in New York State, the youngest of five children, and moved to Pass-A-Grille Beach, FL in 1976 after graduating from SUNY Albany with a BA in interdisciplinary social sciences at the age of 19. She married her husband, Jack, in 1978 and they lived in Gainesville, Florida until 2003, when Nancy earned her PhD from the University of Florida. In June 2012, Jack died of metastatic lung cancer. Nancy has one son, Conrad Shelton, who still resides in Gainesville.
Nancy has worked with children since she was young. She held many positions, from babysitter and playgroup organizer, to teacher, and finally professor of education. She has always advocated for the children most in need. In her work as an educator, Nancy has 23 publications that appear in premier academic journals or with leading publishing companies that specialize in literacy research and/or education policy.
Reading and writing have been essential activities throughout Nancy’s life. One summer, she and her sister Carol read every Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mystery available in the Speculator, New York library. That summer, Nancy wrote her own mystery but she knew she could never publish it because she had stolen too many ideas from Franklin Dixon and she didn’t want to get caught. Now, more than forty years later, she finally has her own completely original story to share.