Margaret Willey continues producing quality writing, sees her efforts rewarded in many ways

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Author Margaret Willey holds up the first Clever Beatrice book which, despite being published originally in 2001, continues to pull in well-deserved honors.
(Photo by Cynthia Price)

This picture of Margaret Willey and husband Richard Joanisse is featured on the back page of their new book together.
(Photo at left courtesy of Margaret Willey and photo at right by Cynthia Price)


By Cynthia Price

Margaret Willey is unapologetic about the fact that her writing encompasses many genres – from Young Adult (YA), for which she is best-known, to short stories, to children’s books, to memoir and autobiography.

She is simply too curious about life to limit herself to one category, and her ambitions lie elsewhere than in achieving the kind of financial success that may (or may not) result from single-mindedly pursuing just one thing.

Another result of her broad approach is that, anytime one asks, Willey is engaged in so many projects that it is hard for her to keep track. “I have so many things going right now. That’s one of the pitfalls of the kind of writer I am,” she says. “I’ve always worked this way.”

Despite her generalist approach, the Grand Haven-based writer has seen many a success in her time.

Most recently, her 2001 book, Clever Beatrice, was chosen as the single book to represent the state of Michigan for 2018 by the Library of Congress Center for the Book’s “Discover Great Places Through Reading” program. (For more see http://www.read.gov/greatreads/)

The subtitle of the children’s aged 4-8, though Willey feels it would appeal to older children as well) is An Upper Peninsula Conte. It is based on an “amalgam” of several similar folk stories about outwitting a giant  (conte is French for tale and the tradition of the conte comes from the French Canadian), to which Willey added a twist: the protagonist of the book is a smart and daring young girl.

Willey says at the time she wrote it, she had noticed a lack of such brave heroines for young readers. “It’s what’s commonly thought to be a boy adventure, but it’s a girl. It kind of had a girl power theme to it. That’s been pretty unusual right up until rather recently,” she said.

When Clever Beatrice first came out, it produced another honor for Willey that she holds dear. She won the Charlotte Zolotow Award out of the University of Wisconsin in 2002. The award, fairly new at the time (it started in 1998), is for “outstanding writing in a picture book.”

“Picture books were always recognized for their illustrations, so this was the first of its kind,” Willey says – though at the same time Clever Beatrice is beautifully illustrated indeed by Heather Solomon.

The two went on to collaborate on two more Beatrice books – Clever Beatrice and the Best Little Pony and A Clever Beatrice Christmas.

It is tempting to think, when one hears that Willey’s granddaughter is named Beatrice, that she was named after the book. No, she says, both the heroine and the granddaughter were named after her husband’s mother.

Willey is married to Richard Joanisse, a well-known and popular professor at Grand Valley State University, who retired only recently. Joanisse’s mother Beatrice was an inspiration to him in difficult times during his childhood.

It is easy to find out more about this from another of Willey’s contributions to the literary world – Kaleidoscope: A Boyhood in Canada, co-written with Joanisse. It is available at The Bookman, through Amazon.com, and at one of the couple’s favorite haunts, Grand Armory Brewing, which is a coffee shop during the day.

The brief book details how feeling displaced and, more than anything else, bored led Joanisse to become a troublemaker when he was a boy. It hints at how he moved on from that period of life to becoming a professor, but is not explicit, saying about his mother, “I became the professor because of her faith in me.”

One of Willey’s current projects is trying to make sense of her own childhood. She was the eldest daughter in a family of 11 children, raised Roman Catholic. Though she remains close to her family, and in particular some of her sisters, she recognizes that their perceptions are probably not her own, so she is writing slowly, as she almost always does, and carefully.

She is also writing a novel about deer – who in this case are acutely sensitive to the fact that many humans hate them – and continuing to write picture books in the folk tale vein, which she hopes to sell through an agent she has recently brought on.

Willey is also very pleased that one of her YA books, A Summer of Silk Moths, is being reissued and, as she terms it, “reclaimed.” A Summer of Silk Moths was the subject of an article in The Examiner when it first came out in 2009; it is a delicate and complex book that is hard to put down, about a young woman discovering relationships and herself. The new versions includes illustrations that Willey had all along and wanted to use, so it makes her happy.

It is just one of a number of books she has created over the years, many of which have also received acclaim. She herself has gotten awards for her overall body of work, including the 2011 Gwen Frostic Award from the Michigan Reading Association.

Willey has been very active in the C3 Community in Grand Haven, “West Michigan’s Inclusive Spiritual Connection,”  which has involved, among other things, working with the Muskegon Heights Library.

All of this adds up to Margaret Willey being in a good place. “I’m excited about the book with Richard and a lot else. Many things have been gratifying lately,” she says.

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