Word-Power Lunch : Authors of Children’s Books Mix Weekly Meals With Literary Criticism


When their children were growing up, entering school or about to leave for college around 1970, a half-dozen housewives from San Marino and Pasadena decided they wanted to become writers.

So they signed up for writing classes at Pasadena City College and, brown-bag lunches in hand, began meeting every Tuesday before class to discuss how to write and get published.

As members of the self-styled “Lunch Bunch” began submitting their books and articles for publication, the women read aloud each others’ work--and lots of rejection notices. And they had grand celebrations when anyone got something published.


Now, hundreds of books later, they have had such success in the children’s, juvenile and young adult book fields that the celebrations have become commonplace.

But the writers, ranging in age from 50 to 84, have continued brown-bagging it for more than two decades. Tuesday after Tuesday, they have read and critiqued drafts, and talked about publishers and editors, ideas and stories, rejections and acceptances.

“We left housewifery and became writers,” said Martha Tolles, 70, whose seven children and young adult books have sold 2 million copies.

The group has a number of other nationally known authors, including Tony Johnston, who has close to 50 books to her credit; Nancy Robison, 55 books; Lael Littke, 24 books; Mary Sullivan, 14, and Eve Bunting, 150.

Johnston, 50, who is noted for the lyrical quality of her writing, has worked on books with widely known illustrators Maurice Sendak, Tomie de Paola and Leo Politi.

Perhaps more than most in the group, Bunting, 63, has received widespread acclaim. In 1984, to honor her accomplishments and to celebrate publication of her 100th book, “Face at the Edge of the World,” which ABC made into an after-school television special, fellow Lunch Bunchers threw a party for 100 writers, editors, publishers and book reviewers at Tolles’ San Marino home.


Their affection for each other and the group’s importance in their lives run deep. “Many of us are in a position where our husbands have retired and we could move anywhere,” Bunting said. “But I could never leave my group.”

If Lunch Bunch--members forgo using an article before their name--is unique, “it’s because it has been around a long time and it has a name,” said Canoga Park author Sue Alexander, who is not a member of Lunch Bunch but who chairs the board of directors of an international organization, the Society of Children’s Book Writers.

Alexander said the group is just one example of the nurturing atmosphere that exists for children’s book writers and illustrators in Southern California. This region, she said, has a large number of such groups because writers far from the heart of the New York publishing industry feel they need to band together.

Lunch Bunch has had no more than 18 members. Gail Francis still visits four times a year from her home in Michigan. Sullivan, 84, who lived for many years in Pasadena, now commutes each Tuesday from Laguna Beach.

But the membership-by-invitation-only group is not for everyone. “If you can’t take criticism, you don’t belong,” said Margaret M. Jensen, 78, of Eagle Rock.

Still, Bunting said: “I don’t think there is any cattiness. We trust one another’s judgment because everyone here is wise about storytelling.”


Lunch Bunch meetings, now held at the San Marino Public Library, often start with discussions of family: births, children and grandchildren, deaths, divorces, tragedies and successes. “After you’ve been together as long as we have,” Jensen said, “a lot of things have happened.”

But the focus quickly turns to writing within the close-knit group, inspired by Helen H. Jones, who was the writing mentor for many of them at Pasadena City College. She died last year at 88.

Mention of Jones’ name evokes heartfelt praise. “Magnificent,” said Littke. “Important,” said Tolles.

They called out key Jones concepts: “What’s the story question? What’s the chapter question? Say what you have to say and stop.”

She was, Tolles said, “our literary Mama.”

Even Johnston, who was educated at Stanford University and UC Berkeley and was not a Jones student, called out the Jones slogan: “Viewpoint! Viewpoint!”

Inspired as a young woman by attending seminars with Robert Penn Warren and Robert Frost, Jones in 1951 started a writers’ forum at Pasadena City College. This year it will be held March 14.


Jones wrote mainly nonfiction, publishing 17 books. Her students are credited with 800 books.

As they ate their lunches at a recent meeting, Bettyann Kevles asked for help with a problem an agent posed after reading her mystery manuscript.

“She asked me to add a sex scene,” said Kevles, 52, of Pasadena.

Eight faces, one by one, registered looks ranging from astonishment to delight. Quickly they warmed to the problem faced by Kevles, whose 1986 nonfiction book “Females of the Species: Sex and Survival in the Animal Kingdom,” was critically acclaimed.

Tolles, author of the best-selling children’s book “Too Many Boys,” was delighted. “None of the rest of us,” she said, “is ever asked write a sex scene.”

Lightning-fast, the women brainstormed until several simultaneous conversations arose, including one about the “best” sex scene ever--in “Gone With the Wind,” and about graphic sex in today’s books and movies.

Then Lunch Bunch moved to other topics and eventually came to the heart of their group experience: reading their work aloud in the style inspired by Jones.

That morning, Bunting said with some sadness, an editor had rejected a picture book proposal.


Bunting handed her rejected manuscript to Littke, who began to read aloud. “When the snows of winter disappear,” Littke read, “my grandfather cuts a moon-counting stick that he keeps in our tipi. . . .”