May 22 2013 12:00 AM

Lansing children's author keeps character grounded in real world


If Ruth McNally Barshaw has her way, Ellie McDoodle will never see 13, play a video game or use a cell phone. And the Lansing author and illustrator will have her way, since she is the creator of the five-book young adult series “The Ellie McDoodle Diaries,” about a 12-year-old who journalizes her life, accompanied by doodle drawings.

Barshaw, 53, has kept similar diaries to her protagonist since a teacher gave her a sketchbook when she was 15, and works in autobiographical aspects into her novels. The series has been compared to Jeff Kinney’s “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books; however, the Ellie books haven’t quite reached the popularity of “Wimpy Kid” and are a little less edgy.

Barshaw, who was born in the Detroit suburb of Harper Woods, moved to East Lansing in 1977 to attend Michigan State University. She did illustrations for University Housing and Food Services, as well as a daily cartoon for the State News, called “College Is ... ”.

“I like to do commentary on people,” she said.

After school, Barshaw started a family, which has grown to include four children and four grandchildren, but said she always wanted to write a children’s picture book. In October 2004, she met children’s author Tomie dePaola at a book signing in Rochester, Mich. He recommended Barshaw attend the 2005 meeting of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in New York. 

“I took a leap of faith and went,” she said. “But no one discovered me while I was there.” Dejected she came back home, but decided to put online her journal of sketches she did in New York.

“I had 180 pages of New York City sketches and prose, and it went viral,” she said.  She received “about 1,000 emails,” including one from a powerhouse agent. In 2000, her first book, “Have Pen Will Travel,” was published about Ellie on a camping trip. The essence for the story came from her childhood experiences camping with her family in northern Michigan. 

As with Ellie, comics and journaling have always been a part of Barshaw’s personality. Ellie is somewhat of an outsider and doesn’t consider herself popular. Barshaw recalled that when she was feeling down in college, she would wander through the dormitory and count the number of “College Is …” comics on doors. 

“It always brought me back up,” she said. 

In addition to her author/illustrator duties, Barshaw also makes regular appearances in elementary schools around the state — but she says that she’s “not a natural performer.” 

“I’m shy,” she said. “The first time I did a public appearance, I was almost speechless. I just shook.”

After a few years, however, she was able to do a public appearance suffering from laryngitis without missing a beat. Barshaw says that her goal is to share stories that are inspirational.

“If there is a storm — and there are plenty in Ellie’s life — I always look for a rainbow,” she said. 

Barshaw said her head is filled with story ideas; she said she’s building toward sharing a very powerful, personal loss she suffered as a child.

“My dad died when I was 12,” she said. “And I want to tell the story of his death.” In every book, Ellie takes time to commune with nature, and Barshaw is careful to include aspects of healthy eating and exercise. Diversity is also important to Barshaw; in one book, one of Ellie’s friends is revealed to be a Muslim, and recently, another friend is shown to have two dads. Her best friend Mo’s older brother has Down syndrome.

Barshaw’s newest book, “The Show Must Go On,” follows Ellie and her classmates as they stage a 6th grade production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Ellie is asked to be the stage director and her friend fails to get the role of Dorothy, leading to all kinds of drama, both on-stage and off. Barshaw has more than 400 sketchbook diaries on shelves at home. The author said she has taken some grief from some critics for neglecting technology in her books.

“One reviewer pointed out that not having cell phones was unrealistic,” Barshaw said. “Maybe, but Ellie is not going to get a phone. I want these books to be timeless.”