Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dreams do come true for children's author Eugene Gagliano

Featured in the Fall 2006 issue of the Wyoming Library Roundup
If there is one thing author Eugene Gagliano likes to see, it’s that glint in children’s eyes when they begin to believe in themselves.
Gagliano (pronounces Gall-iano) is best known for his picture books, C is for Cowboy and Four Wheels West, although he also has three young adult and middle grade fiction books in print. Now retired, he earned the nickname “the teacher who dances on his desk” in his 34 years in elementary school classrooms.
He really did physically dance on desks. “Always!” he said. “I had no problem with jumping on the desk in the middle of the winter, especially when things were dull – just jump on a desk and start dancing or singing.”
Gagliano still works in classrooms, but now it’s as a guest author who can teach and entertain without having to give tests. He has presented at more than 50 schools around the state in the last three years.
“I go in there and hopefully entertain them in an informative way, talking about writing,” he said,
“Give them some tips. And inspire them.”
The inspiration part is especially important to him. “I talk about believing in yourself, working hard at it, and making those dreams come true, whether it’s becoming a writer or whatever,” he said.
“And I tell them, don’t let people tell you you can’t. You can. Most of the time you can. You have to believe that you can, and you just have to work at it. Because so many kids today give up. They’re told, oh, you can’t do this, you can’t do that.”
What he wants to see is that look in their eyes that says they can. One of the props he brings to the classroom to show the power of persistence is a giant tub of all his rejection letters from 20 years of writing.
“I usually ask them, ‘What do you think’s in this container?’” he said.
“And the kids will usually say, ‘Fan mail!!’ And I go ahhhh…..no. Some kids will say, ‘Bills!’ And I’ll say ahhhhh…could be.
“Then someone usually picks up that they’re letters from publishers and then we get into the rejection thing. I tell kids, it’s kind of like looking at rejection letters as the ladders to success. The more you get, the higher you get, you’re getting closer to where you’re going, which is kind of true.”
Gagliano was born in Niagara Falls, New York. Always good with plants, he started out in horticulture. While working on his associate applied science degree in ornamental horticulture, he started dating a girl who was studying to be a preschool teacher. Through her, he came into closer contact with young children, and he felt a powerful pull.
“I just liked being around kids,” he said. “It was fun. Kids were full of life.”
His college counselor encouraged him to finish his horticulture degree, and then to find a job at a summer camp to see if teaching was truly for him.
“I went to camp,” he said. “Loved it. Decided that was where I belonged. No regrets, except for the pay scale.
The rewards have been wonderful.”
Summer camps persuaded him to earn his B.S. in Elementary Education. They also persuaded him to move to Wyoming. He fell in love with the West while working with a traveling camp. He took his wife, Carol, out West the next summer for a six-week trip, and they both decided they wanted to live there.
“I wanted to get away from the pollution, the population,” he said. He felt “stuck” in New York.
“My family was like, OK, get a job at Hooker Chemical,” he said. “I didn’t want to do that. I just didn’t want to live there. After seeing what was out here, there was just no way I could.”
It took him three years, but he landed a job in a one-room country schoolhouse in Johnson County and moved to Wyoming with Carol and their thirteen-month-old daughter, Gina, in
1973. In 1977, he began teaching in town, first fourth grade, and then later, second grade.
“I liked them both, but especially the second grade because they’re so open to learning and so excited and everything’s new and wonderful,” he said. “That’s another reason I like to be around children, because life is new and beautiful for the most part.”
Gagliano loved to write, primarily poetry, from about sixth grade on. He had the good fortune to have teachers who encouraged his writing and encouraged him to submit his poetry, some of which was published. After he married, had children and started teaching, his time was limited. He still wrote and submitted poetry, but intermittently.
At the same time, he saw children’s literature taking a real turn. “It was really becoming something substantial. I enjoyed reading the young adult, the middle grade fiction and the picture books. They were wonderful.”
He had an inkling he wanted to write for children. Then, Wilson Rawls, author of Where the Red Fern Grows, visited his school and the inkling grew into determination.
He thought, “I want to do this. Somewhere down the road, I want to write books that will move children and that they’ll get excited about.”
Money was tight. Carol had taught for one year when they were first married, but then “in those days you had to quit when you were pregnant back in New York,” he said. Their daughter was followed by three boys – all supported on one teacher’s salary.
Nevertheless, Carol insisted that he take a course from the Institute of Children’s Literature, even though they really couldn’t afford it. “My wife was very supportive of me,” he said “and she said we’ll do it on a payment plan, and we’ll just do it. This is what you really want.”
Their house was small: three boys in one little room, their daughter in “sort of a closet we put her in.”
In their slightly-less-small main bedroom, Gagliano set up his manual typewriter on a treasured desk that his wife bought him for an anniversary present and began writing his stories.
“With kids, it was hard,” he said. “Because I’d only get a chance to write once in a while – the weekends, if I could. I’d try to get an hour in in the evenings, and I just started writing.
Gagliano worked in a flower shop on weekends and holidays to bring in extra income, and at one point he and Carol cleaned the phone company offices three nights a week.
One of his sons, Darin, would help him collect aluminum cans to cash in: he used the money from them to buy postage for his manuscripts.
“It may sound funny, but this is true,” Gagliano said.
“Whenever Darin had extra change, he’d give it to me. He’d say, ‘Here, Dad – go mail something.’”
As he became more serious, he joined Wyoming Writers, a statewide writers’ group.
“I looked forward every year to going to those conferences and being with people, because I was isolated, especially as a children’s writer, back then.”
He moved up to an electric typewriter and a bigger house where he told two of the boys to share a bedroom so he could have his own writing office. He joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). With the encouragement of fellow SCBWI member and well-known children’s author Bruce Coville, Gagliano got his first story published in an anthology and enough cash from the sale to buy a kitchen table.
“With that, my wife was thrilled of course,” he said. “It was like, it’s maybe starting to pay off.”
Writing for publication is a waiting game: you send and wait, send and wait and hope. Finally, The Secret of the Black Widow, was accepted and published in 2001 after 24 rejections.
The book is historical fiction, set in Wyoming in 1890, just as it was becoming a state.
“There came a point where I really kind of didn’t believe it myself,” he said. “That year before this book came out, I just thought, I’m going to give it one more shot. If I can do it, great. If I don’t, it’s not meant to be.
And I wasn’t going to put any more time, money or energy into it.”
Through his SCBWI membership, he learned that Sleeping Bear Press was looking for an author to write a Wyoming alphabet book. He applied and got the contract for C is for Cowboy. He was told Susan Guy, also from Wyoming, would be his illustrator. Talking with his fellow teachers he discovered that she was also from Buffalo, and she sat seven seats away from him in a community choir they both sang in.
The Gagliano and Guy families have become friends through C is for Cowboy and the subsequent collaboration on Four Wheels West: A Wyoming Number Book. Guy even included two of Gagliano’s grandchildren in Four Wheels West.
Gagliano doesn’t see the illustrations until the book is completed. “I don’t want to influence her,” he said. “I want to see her interpretation.”
In part, it’s professional distance and courtesy. He wouldn’t want someone watching over him as he drafted the text: “It’s bad enough the editors say, eh… oh gee, we’re thinking maybe for this number we should do this.
Like in the beginning with C is for Cowboy: ‘We decided not to use methane for M because it’s a little hard to illustrate.’”
Gagliano often tackles tough subjects in his middle grade fiction. Inside the Clown, published in 2003, dealt with a teenager’s depression and suicide attempt. Falling Stars explored the difficulties of Alzheimer’s disease.
He wrote both to give young readers hope and to help them understand other people’s struggles.
When C is for Cowboy came out, Gagliano retired from teaching, freeing him to write more and to speak to schools where he dresses up in 1890s garb, brings hats and other props and makes children laugh while teaching them about characterization, stories and how to write – and how to believe in themselves.
Gagliano exudes a sense of wideeyed wonder that his dream of writing books for children came true.
That he could be invited to speak at conferences and “talk shop” with authors he admires. That he could show up at a school and see kids with their faces pressed to the fence, saying excitedly, “That’s the arthor! That’s the arthor!”
He’s met so many authors that he admires not just for their writing, but for how kind they are, how down to earth and how respectful of children. He tries to emulate that in his own life. At the Equality State Book Festival in Casper in October, a little boy approached Gagliano,
“And I could tell he just wanted to talk. I said, ‘You wanted to say something?’ He goes, ‘Well…’ He looked around. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘what do you do when kids make fun of your writing?’
“‘You have to remember, son,’ I said, ‘Not everybody’s going to like your work, but if you like it, that’s all that really matters. You keep writing.’”
It’s a good bet that Gagliano will keep writing as long as his fingers can move on the keyboard. “I’m happy doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I dreamed about it for a long time.”
Visit Gene Gagliano’s web site at www.gargene.com.

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