Lawrenceville resident Margery Cuyler, who has just released her 50th children’s book, “Bonaparte Falls Apart,” grew up in what is thought to be the oldest house in Princeton, built in 1685, The Barracks at 32 Edgehill St.
As the youngest among four siblings plus four first cousins who joined their family when her aunt died of cancer at age 36, Cuyler says, “I feel like I was really lucky; they all read to me, and my parents did too.”
Not only did her family love books and stories; they were also very playful. Noting that she was born in 1948, “a little before childhood was so structured,” and in a Princeton that was safer, she says, “We were always using our imagination, writing stories, putting on plays, putting on circuses, building forts.
“I think playing is very stimulating for the imagination,” she continues, citing another benefit of all that play: “As an adult, I have easy access to my childhood self. All that marinated and came out as all these stories.”
Her father, a very colorful storyteller, added to the family’s creative mix, and she remembers that he used to tell them, “Storytelling is an act of love.”
In school, as a child, Cuyler remembers behaving poorly. “Especially when I hit junior high I was acting out a lot,” she says, and her parents’ solution was to move her from John Witherspoon to Miss Fine’s School, a girls school. “They thought if I was in a school where the classes were smaller I would shape up, and I did,” she says. Miss Fine’s eventually combined with Princeton Country Day School, a boys school, to become the coeducational Princeton Day School (PDS), where Cuyler was in the first graduating class.
The move to PDS yielded another plus for her future as a writer. George Packard, the writing teacher at PDS, she says, was phenomenal, teaching her all the skills she would need to write professionally—pacing, structure, and character development; and the importance of a good beginning that leads to a climax and resolution. She also recalls his helpful aphorisms like “if it doesn’t add, it subtracts” and “when in doubt, leave it out.”
In high school Cuyler began to write short stories. “I wrote a lot of fantasy and a lot of animal stories—children’s stories in a way, but I didn’t know it at the time,” she says.
She continued her study of writing at Sarah Lawrence College, and, summarizing the take-home from all her writing courses, she says: “You have to use your imagination to create a story; the tools have to do with style and finding your own voice. You often start imitating other writers and then your own voice begins to emerge.”
‘Now children’s books are really hot and a very important part of any publishing program.’
Cuyler discovered children’s literature in college after reading books to children at a nursery school as part of a children’s literature class. Always considering English to be her strength, this experienced prompted an Aha moment as she envisioned the possibility of working for a children’s book publisher when she graduated.
In her senior year she interviewed at various publishing houses and got an editorial job with Atlantic Monthly Press in Boston, which acquired children’s books that were manufactured and marketed through Little, Brown.
After two years learning the children’s book business, a real-life experience sent her abroad for half a year. Living in Somerville, Massachusetts, in a third story walkup, she found herself an eyewitness to an attempted murder. She lived right above a woman with two little boys, who was estranged from her husband and also had a lover. One day the husband came to see the children, and when he found the lover there he pulled out a gun and shot, but luckily missed. Cuyler called the police after the lover came upstairs and knocked her door down as he ran away from the husband.
Cuyler and the detective who had arrived in the meantime were the only witnesses, and she had to testify in the county and superior courts and at the trial. That’s when she decided it was time to leave Boston.
She went to Greece and lived on the island of Kos for six months. While there she got interested in the “very holistic” theology of Eastern Orthodoxy and eventually converted, as did her husband, John Perkins, a Jungian analyst.
When she tired of Greece, she got a publishing job with a small firm, Walker and Company. “I was given quite a lot of responsibility even though I wasn’t up to it,” she says, but clearly she learned a lot because her next job was as vice president and editor-in-chief at Holiday House, where she stayed for 21 years.
As to why Holiday House hired someone with so little experience as editor-in-chief, she jokes, “The guy who hired me was crazy.” But, she quickly adds, “we hit it off. He knew I was very passionate about children’s books; but I don’t know why he took the risk on me.” She loved the firm and the people, and says, “They gave me a lot of freedom to really develop a list.”
Meanwhile, in 1978, she published her first book, “Jewish Holidays,” with Henry Holt. Although Cuyler grew up an Episcopalian, at Trinity Church in Princeton, she was dating a rabbi. Invited to his house for Passover, she figured she should do a little research, so she went to the New York Public Library to find a children’s book on the Jewish holidays. She couldn’t find one, so she decided to write one, figuring she could get help from her boyfriend and do some research at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Miriam Chaikin read the manuscript and helped her correct some inaccuracies and, she says, “The relationship broke up but the book got published.”
After starting with nonfiction, Cuyler moved into fiction.
Asked where she gets ideas for her books, she says they often start with a title.
Initially she had an idea for a skeleton with loose bones, she says, but its title, “Bonaparte Falls Apart,” “dictated the story” by raising the question: “What would it be like if you’re a skeleton and your bones fall apart?
But often ideas just pop into her head, “usually in the middle of the night and when I’m walking.” She tries to walk every day so that “the right side of the brain, the part that is creative, has a chance to tap you on your shoulder and give you ideas.” Lying in bed, taking a bath, or riding on the bus work for her too because they are quiet activities. “There is so much stimulation in the world that you need quiet for ideas to come,” she says.
Another book, “Skeleton Hiccups,” won a Japanese award for best picture book of the year. “Kids hiccup the same way all over the world so it’s easier to translate,” she says, noting that the book is structured as a classic “problem-solution”: the skeleton gets the hiccups, tries everything imaginable to get rid of them, but fails, until the climax, which brings a very clever solution.
Interestingly, she was unable to sell this book under her initial title, “Monster Hiccups,” and decided to change the title because “the skeleton is funnier and visually more exciting,” with greater “kid appeal.”
Cuyler says it usually takes her about six months to write a children’s book. Her writer’s group provides constructive criticism and often provokes a rewrite as do her editors.
“It’s like writing a poem, each word counts,” she says, adding that you have to write visually so an artist will be excited. “You have to develop character, develop a plot, and develop a voice—and all of that between 3 and 500 words. It’s really hard; only 1 out of 5,000 children’s books gets accepted.”
The writing of a children’s book also requires an understanding of the book’s context. For “Little Fire Truck,” she interviewed fire fighters to ensure that the art was accurate, down to the details of how they hold a fire hose or what a fire chief looks like. She also wanted the characters in the book to be ethnically diverse.
Cuyler also writes children’s chapter books like “The Battlefield Ghost,” which is based on a legend about the house where she grew up; leveled readers for the Step into Reading program; and poetry, under the pseudonym Daisy Wallace.
Today she is also a consultant for PJ Library, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation that provides free Jewish books to Jewish children ages 6 months to 8 years. “I’m their book doctor,” Cuyler says. “If they get a manuscript that they think has a lot of potential, but has problems structurally, I work with the author to try to bring it to a level that is publishable.”
Among current children’s books, Cuyler cites a couple of favorites. One is “Wonder,” by R. J. Palacio, which is about “a handicapped child who is an amazing person, and how he has to navigate his experience at school, in the neighborhood, and with friends, because he has a physical disability, and how he meets that challenge.” A second is “7 Ate 9” by Tara Lazar, a New Jersey author, and Ross MacDonald, which Cuyler calls “a detective story for 4 year olds—why has the number 9 disappeared?”
Not only did Cuyler grow up in Princeton, but so did her father, Lewis B. Cuyler, who graduated from Princeton University and was then head of personnel at First National City Bank, which later became Citibank. He was also head of the Princeton Historical Society—“That’s why we ended up in that old house on Edgehill Street,” Cuyler says—and he “worked really hard on Princeton and New Jersey history” and on “restoring the canals.”
Her mother, also Margery Cuyler, stayed home and raised nine children, several of them creative like Cuyler: one a journalist, another an actor, and her sister, Princetonian Juliana McIntyre Fenn, who was cofounder and headmistress of Princeton Junior School, is a sculptor and painter and illustrated Cuyler’s “The Battlefield Ghost.”
Her oldest son, Thomas Perkins, lives in Boston, where he is a 9th and 10th grade learning specialist at the Academy of the Pacific Rim in Boston, and is simultaneously getting a master’s degree in clinical social work and psychotherapy at Boston College. She collaborated with him on a young adult novel, a great “Mom-Tom project,” she says, and they are looking for a publisher. Her younger son, Timothy Perkins, studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati. He worked in Italy for architect Renzo Piano and is now working as a designer for Rollmann Architecture in Brooklyn. Her stepdaughter, Sarah Thomas, paints portraits of pets for a living and lives with her husband, a fourth-grade teacher, in Natick, Massachusetts.
The publishing industry has changed over the course of Cuyler’s life. She says, “I grew up with books but I can’t say the children’s books industry was thriving. Now children’s books are really hot and a very important part of any publishing program.”