For this month’s Tell Me Your Story, I am beyond pleased to welcome the wonderful and prolific author Irene Bennett Brown, whose tales of women of the American West have been compared to novels like LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE and LONESOME DOVE.
Irene was born in Topeka, Kansas but the Oregon’s Willamette Valley has been her home since the age of nine. As a child in one-room schools, where she was often the only student in her class, she read, reread, and lived vicariously books like HEIDI, CADDIE WOODLAWN, MAMA’S BANK ACCOUNT, and LITTLE WOMEN. Jo in LITTLE WOMEN and Katrin in MAMA’S BANK ACCOUNT, writing away in their dusky attics, fueled her own dream to be a writer. Her many awards and honors include a Spur Award from Western Writers Of America and nomination for the Mark Twain Award for BEFORE THE LARK, the Evelyn Sibley Lampman Award for significant contribution to children’s literature, and inclusion on several best books’ lists. Irene is the embodiment of a woman who truly followed her lifelong dream.
I’m a Writer Who Can’t Not Write
Irene Bennett Brown
When graduating high school, a boy I’d dated suggested that if I wasn’t going to college, I should get a job in a bank. I shuddered, I disliked anything that had to do with numbers. I wanted to be a writer.
A few years earlier, reading books like Heidi, Caddie Woodlawn, and Little Women, I would have given anything to be one of THEM. I decided a way to do that would be to write, live the stories as I wrote them. Eureka, I was on my way.
After a stint of writing children’s short stories, and selling them, I wrote my first book. TO RAINBOW VALLEY, patterned after my own family’s move from dustbowl Kansas to Oregon when I was nine years old. The book, published in 1969, is still in print and is accompanied by a wonderful 48 page workbook on ‘reading skills’ from Perfection Learning Corporation.
SKITTERBRAIN was next, about a young Kansas girl who is responsible for staking out the family milk cow that has gotten loose and caught up in a drive of wild cattle driven past their homestead — from Texas to Wichita, Kansas. She’s frantic, going on her mule after the cow because her frail mother is due to give birth and the infant will need cow’s milk to survive.
Thomas Nelson Publishing bought the book and sent the galleys to Walt Disney. The editor had a long report from them which ended, “This is an awfully cute story, with a couple of strong central characters and seems worth considering for a possible TV vehicle.” My family was so disappointed when that didn’t happen. We’d been excited about what we’d wear and do when the film premiered.
Scholastic Books chose SKITTERBRAIN to sell in their Arrow Book Club, held in schools across the country. 150,000 copies sold. What fun to picture that many school children reading my book.
More children’s books followed: RUN FROM A SCARECROW, WILLOW WHIP, BEFORE THE LARK (which won the Western Writers of America Spur Award). Young Adult novels: MORNING GLORY AFTERNOON, I LOVED YOU LOGAN MCGEE, JUST ANOTHER GORGEOUS GUY, and ANSWER ME, ANSWER ME.
I was at the library one day and noted two girls in line ahead of me having a disagreement. One was teary because a boy had just broken up with her. The other girl, fighting a grin consoled, “What is he anyway, but just another gorgeous guy.”
You never know where a perfect title for your book will spring from.
My children’s books were published in both hardcover and soft; most were Junior Literary Guild or Young Adult Literary Guild Selections and other assorted honors. They are also on audio.
I was doing fine, enjoyed writing for kids of all ages, but I itched to leave eighth grade emotions behind and write an adult novel. In a nonfiction book, THE WOMEN’S WEST, I discovered that in 1887, Hamilton County, Kansas elected its first female County School Superintendent. From 1872 women were permitted to hold the position but could not vote. What nonsense! I titled the novel THE PLAINSWOMAN, the story about a woman homesteader running for county school superintendent. About women’s independence or lack of and struggle for the right to vote.
The book sold to Ballantine and came out with a beautiful cover. It was one of three finalists for Western Writers of America’s Spur Award for the Best Original Paperback.
THE PLAINSWOMAN wasn’t my last. I decided on a four-book series about a group of destitute women who homestead together. The story takes them from 1873 when they build their first sod house, through town building, county seat wars, woman’s suffrage, and finally—to their part in the birth of aviation in Kansas in 1914. The WOMEN OF PARAGON SPRINGS series was quite successful and more recently the four books have been reprinted together in one beautiful Omnibus by Wolfpack Publishing.
A recent second series I’ve written is about the continuing life of Jocelyn Belle Royal, the main character in my children’s book, BEFORE THE LARK. The four books in the Nickel Hill Series, MISS ROYAL’S MULES, TANGLED TIMES, SOMEBODY’S BUSINESS, and ONE TRUE DEED tell the life of Jocelyn and her new husband, Pete Pladson as they build a successful ranch they’ve inherited, against one adversity after another. Five Star published the hardcovers. Wolfpack Publishing will be bringing the books out one a month in digital and possibly in paperback.
I owe endless thanks to the many writer’s conferences I attended over the years, and my 46 years membership in Western Writers of America. To my astonishment WWA has honored me with their most prestigious award, the OWEN WISTER, and induction into the Western Writers of America Hall of Fame.
Work in a bank? Heavens no.
Irene’s website is http://www.irenebennettbrown.net