Author Interview: Burleigh Mutén

miss-emily-220x300Burleigh Mutén is the author of a middle grade verse novel, Miss Emily, which is about Emily Dickinson and the children she loved. The mischievous, playful Miss Emily invites her young friends to greet the circus train as it arrives in town, and a fresh image of Dickinson as an approachable, fun companion is offered to the reader.

Mutén has authored four other books for children, two about goddesses throughout the world and two collections of retold folktales.  She has twice been included on the Children’s Book Council Notable Social Studies Book for Young Children. She teaches creative writing to young authors and enjoys being a visiting author at elementary schools and teaching about Emily Dickinson as well as mythology.

This year at the MSLA conference in Amherst I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing author Burleigh Mutén.

According to Ms. Mutén, contrary to what many think, Emily Dickinson never retreated from the children in her life. When asked how she came up with the idea of writing a children’s book about Emily Dickinson, Ms. Mutén told me it all began as she investigated curriculum for her kindergarten class and discovered MacGregor Jenkins’ book, Emily Dickinson: Friend and Neighbor at the Jones Library in Amherst.  Jenkins grew up across the street from the Dickinsons and was a close friend with her niece and nephew.

“Most people don’t know that Emily was a devoted friend to the children in her neighborhood. She always made time for them and made them feel important.  When Emily saw children playing outside, she often joined their fantasies by providing sweet treats for the “pirates” and “gypsies” she found in her yard.  Miss Emily had a lot in common with the young children,” said Mutén,  “such as the fun of word play and a love for nature.”  As educators, we discussed how empowering it is for a child to have an adult really care and want to know who they are.

Ms. Mutén found the more she read about Dickinson, the more she wanted to know.  She said she’d been a private poet since high school, but felt emboldened to use her poet voice to tell this story. Through the book, Miss Emily, Mutén hopes the playful spirit of Emily Dickinson will interest and inspire young readers and writers.

Mutén said that “writing is a great way to process and organize your thoughts” and is a great activity to boost a child’s self-esteem. Children like Emily Dickinson’s writing because they relate to her interest in nature, and when they know it, her love of children. DIckinson’s use of seemingly random punctuation for example can give some children freedom to say what they want to say without worrying about rules.

When asked what is next for her, Mutén told me that she will be retiring from classroom teaching at the end of this year.  While she will miss her students and teaching, she is looking forward to staying connected to children and the writing of children by teaching more creative writing workshops and author visits at elementary schools. She’s also excited about learning more about Emily and sharing her knowledge as a guide at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst.

Kelly McManus is the Media Specialist at Groton Dunstable Regional High School


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