Shirley Parenteau

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Age Range - 8 - 12
Genre - Historical Fiction

Shirley was raised on the far northwestern coast of Oregon, the fourth of five children. Her father was a logger fond of saying, “It’s a poor storyteller who can’t make a good story better.” (This was usually after someone accused him of exaggerating the truth). Her mother wrote feature articles for Oregon newspapers and always told the truth.
For years, Shirley wrote for magazines. When her children were young, she published eight children’s books. When her children grew up, she wrote five novels for women. Now with six granddaughters, she’s rediscovering the joy of writing for children. Her picture book Bears on Chairs, has been purchased for translation by publishers in Japan, Finland and Germany. Big Brown Bear and his four small friends have now appeared in four picture books, with two more on the way. They are also featured on many items sold online at A banner on Shirley’s website,, takes viewers directly to the Bears on Chairs store.
Of Ship of Dolls, Shirley says, “When I began writing, I didn’t know what Lexie would do with her own well-loved stuffed doll. But there she was on the ship to San Francisco, faced with the awful need to take the Friendship Doll back from a sad little girl. And there was her soft doll, Annie, ready to play an important role. Often, a story problem has an unrecognized-until-then solution somewhere in the earlier pages. Those surprises make writing fun for the writer as well as for the reader.”


Today LitPick welcomes Shirley Parenteau for an Extra Credit interview! Shirley is the author of children’s picture books and novels for middle-grade readers. Her middle-grade books include Ship of Dolls and Dolls of Hope, which was released in September. Shirley has a series of Bears picture books that are very popular. The books include Bears on Chairs, Bears in Beds, and the recently released Bears in a Band. Read past the end of the interview for some interesting information from Shirley on her books.

Do you have a solid outline before writing, or do you usually get ideas as you go along?

I know roughly what the ending will be and the type of problems my characters will face, but I've found that complete outlines don't work for me. In the past, after writing a full outline, I've felt the story was finished. The drive to write it vanished. Also, stories change as I get to know my characters. When I was writing Ship of Dolls, Lexie’s decision with her soft doll, Annie, surprised me, but it was the right decision for Lexie’s character and for the story as it had developed. Lexie surprised me again with her decision at the end of the book. A famous writer once said, “I write to find out how the story will end.” For me, that’s what makes writing fun.

Has someone you knew ever appeared as a character in a book (consciously or subconsciously)?

I don’t consciously model characters after real people, but mannerisms I’ve noticed may help form a character. When I wrote of Lexie’s stern grandmother in Ship of Dolls, I developed her as the story needed her to be. Later, I realized I may have been remembering my husband’s grandmother who was the wife of a small town sheriff in Minnesota. When he was eleven, he was sent to live with them. His grandmother, who rented rooms to boarders, was a no-nonsense woman like the grandmother in Lexie’s story.

What do you do when you get writer's block?

I’ve learned that if I can’t move forward with a story, it’s usually because the story has gone off the track. Every scene must drive the main story forward. It’s a mistake to let characters enjoy some historic event, for instance, if attending the event will not help solve a story problem or raise a new problem to keep the main character from his or her goal. 

If I feel blocked, I’ll go back through the story to a point where it’s flowing smoothly, as if the characters were directing the writing. I’ll usually see where I turned off on a side trail or where I forced the characters’ actions by trying to finish too quickly. I might have been sticking too closely to a plot that seemed right in the beginning but was no longer right for the characters as they developed. The story is about the main character overcoming problems that are keeping him or her from reaching something they want or need. Anything that doesn’t do that should be cut, even when I think it’s a funny or exciting scene. I always put cut scenes in a file in case I decide to use one later, but I’ve never put one of those scenes back in. 

In Dolls of Hope, published in September 2015, telling the story of the dolls from the viewpoint of a girl in Japan, I had to cut several scenes because the book became too long. It was hard to take anything out, but afterward, I felt the story was stronger without the extra scenes. 

If you could live in a book's world, which would you choose?

So many books have fascinating settings, but characters in the past had to deal with medical services that were primitive compared to those we have today, and most people lived very short lives. A future world might be exciting. But remember, we’re writing about people with problems who face bigger and bigger problems as they try to reach their goals. Their story worlds are fun to read about, but as for actually living there…I think I’ll stay right where I am.

What is your favorite book-to-movie adaptation?

The Hunger Games. I loved the books, and when I saw the movies, especially the first one, I thought all the characters were good and that Jennifer Lawrence was especially perfect as Katniss. 

If you could have lunch with one other author (dead or alive!), who would it be?

I once heard Ray Bradbury give a talk at a local college. He was very poetic in his phrasing and imaginative with his science-fiction. I think I’ll choose him as my imaginary (and unfortunately deceased) lunch date.

Wild Card Question:

Your father worked as a logger, so your family moved a lot when you were growing up. Approximately how many places would you say you’ve lived, and do you have a favorite?

When Dad was logging, we always lived along or near the Oregon Coast. When I was eight, we moved a short distance inland for two years to a town called Siletz, on the edge of a Native American reservation. Mother became friends with the women, who wove her name (Olive) into one of their baskets. That was an interesting time, but I preferred being near the ocean, as in our other three moves. My favorite would be Rockaway, about twenty miles north of Tillamook. The beach went on for miles. My younger sister and I spent most of our spare time on the sand or wading in the cold waves. Sometimes, we walked along the beach to the next small town of Twin Rocks and visited our grandparents before walking home again.

Shirley, thank you for visiting LitPick and giving us a chance to get to know you better! We think your idea to keep a file of the scenes you delete is really smart! It’s interesting that you have never put any of those scenes back into a book.


We talked to Shirley a little more about her books and thought you’d enjoy it as much as we did.

I have been having so much fun with these bears while being astonished by their success. They are hugely popular in Japan where merchandising rights have also sold. They're on everything from art teachers’ smocks to note paper and much more. The day before Christmas, I received framed illustrations, a rectangular one in aluminum and a square one in bamboo that are now on sale in Japan. The bears are also in four Scandinavian countries, Germany and most recently Thailand in a bi-lingual Thai-English version of “Bears on Chairs.” Most exciting for me is the boxed gift set available in this country beginning in February. There's also a Bears on Chairs store at with the bears on many items.

But the dolls' story holds my heart. As much as I love these bears and writing in rhyme, it's gratifying to develop a fully rounded character and discover how she (usually) will solve her problems and reach her goal.

David Walker's pictures are always adorable and, I think, a big part of the bear's amazing success in Japan. My Japanese daughter-in-law gave me a clipping from a newspaper her mother sent from Japan. It's a bookstore ad claiming the bears’ series has sold more than 460,000 copies there. That may be a bit of ad writer's enthusiasm, but I know they've been amazingly popular.



Today, author Shirley Parenteau joins LitPick for Six Minutes with an Author! Shirley is the happily married mother of three children and six granddaughters. Shirley is the author of Ship of Dolls, Bears on Chairs, Bears in Beds, Bears in the Bath, Bears and a Birthday, and One Frog Sang.

How did you get started writing?

I grew up on the Northern Oregon Coast where it is very rainy, and I learned to love reading. My mother wrote features for Oregon newspapers, so writing seemed natural to me. After marriage, I wrote travel and outdoor magazine articles about our family’s camping experiences. When we moved to a 100 year old farm, for ten years I wrote a humorous column for the local newspaper on our adventures in restoring the old house and trying to raise various animals. When I discovered the joy of writing book length fiction, I found my true love.

Who influenced you?

Besides my mother, my first strong influence was children’s author Eve Bunting. I was lucky enough to take classes from Eve at a writing camp. She advised me to add a final brief scene showing my character had learned from the story and would live differently in the future. I added one more page and sold my first children’s book to a publisher in Chicago.

Do you have a favorite book/subject/character/setting?

I love fantasy; anything with wizards, witches, dragons or fairy folk. On the other hand, I sobbed at the end of The Book Thief even though I knew what was coming. It was the first book in years to affect me so strongly. Characters who touch our emotions are the ones we remember, whether the book’s plot makes us laugh, wonder or cry.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an author?

See life with a writer’s eye. Stories can be sparked by ordinary events. Frogs singing one spring from a stream by our pond made me think, “Counting book.” I researched frog sounds and eventually sold One Frog Sang to Candlewick Press. Later, I watched my then very young granddaughter play with stuffed animals and child-sized chairs in a bookstore play area and thought, “What if she had more bears than chairs?” That question led to a series of six picture books about Big Brown Bear and his four little friends beginning with –what else?—Bears on Chairs. My younger son’s picture of his little daughter in a kimono while visiting her maternal grandparents in Japan led me to research the girl’s day festival of Hinamatsuri. That research led to the Friendship Doll project of 1926, a story new to me and one I enjoyed sharing through Ship of Dolls.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I love my desktop computer where I can spread material around for quick reference, but I keep a pen and notebook with me wherever I go and another set on the nightstand beside my bed. Somehow the best scenes and bits of dialogue pop into my mind when I’m relaxed and trying to sleep.

What else would you like to tell us?

Ship of Dolls will be followed next August by Dolls of Hope, telling the story from the viewpoint of a girl in Japan. I haven’t had the opportunity to visit Japan and hesitated to write about a culture not my own, but my daughter-in-law Miwa offered her help, and Bill Gordon’s Friendship Doll site ( contains an amazing and wonderful amount of information and photographs. My name is familiar to Japanese readers because a publisher there bought translation rights to my picture books and the bears have been very popular with Japanese readers. Ship of Dolls and Dolls of Hope will also be translated into Japanese by Iwasaki Publishing.

Thank you for inviting me to join you for Six Minutes with an Author. I’m thrilled that Lexie’s story is a LitPick Top Pick and believe readers will enjoy Chiyo’s adventures, as well. 




Shirley Parenteau