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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Knock Knock

Art and Words, Words and Art

“Jungle Tales,” by J.J. Shannon, 1895

Thirty years ago, I bought a poster of “Jungle Tales” by J.J. Shannon (1895) at the Met in New York City. I took it to my favorite framer, but when it was ready, I was horrified to see they’d cut off Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Children’s Bookshop at the bottom, framing just the image.  No one thought the words were important.  The framer ordered a new poster and framed it intact. “Jungle Tales” has been hanging over our den sofa ever since. I love the painting, but I also love the place names. In my mind, the two can’t be separated—art and words, words and art.

Like most kids, I wrote stories and drew pictures. I enjoyed words with illustrations—magazines with photographs and cartoons, comic books, middle grade fiction with inside line drawings. The experience was never hurried—I pored over the images and made connections between the art and the words. This was a world I never wanted to leave.

Sancho, the Homing Steer, by Candice Sylvia Farris

I planned to be both a writer and an artist, but after high school I realized I’d need formal art training. College of any kind was out of the question. I could teach myself to write and that was the path I chose.

Still, art remained a large part of my life. I watch children’s book illustrators work, envying those who can draw and paint and see results at the end of the day. In a writing session, I may produce one decent sentence, if that. To improve my craft—a daily struggle even after all these years—I start journals, but falter in the practice. New projects seem wrenched from me. Words, words, where are the words?

Two years ago, I was asked to write a picture book based on a character created by an illustrator. I agreed to try, though I was uncertain and nervous. I hadn’t written a picture book in more than ten years. And I’d never written a picture book based on a character. The editor sent me the illustrator’s sample sketches. I studied them, just as I’d once pored over the art in comics or mystery books. I photocopied the samples and carried them around with me.

preliminary sketches for Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten

Instead of having to visualize a character in my head, the way I usually wrote picture books (or anything), I could see the panda girl and her range of emotions, and appreciate Christine Grove’s sense of humor. I knew the kind of story this character needed. And I wrote it, Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten (2017). When I was asked to write a sequel, the illustrations from the first book inspired me. Amanda Panda and the Bigger, Better Birthday will be out next summer.

Amanda Panda Quits KindergartenA few weeks ago, Christine Grove sent me a new character. “What do you think?” she wrote. I printed out the character and carried it around with me. A month later, I had a new story. Art came to my rescue. It gave me the words I hadn’t been able to pull out of my head. 

I don’t know if this new story will become a published picture book, but I’ve learned my lesson. Don’t stray from art again. I’ll collect magazine photos, doodle, photocopy books (Pinterest doesn’t cut it for me), and paste the images into those fallow journals. Visuals will help me find the words. Art and words, words and art.

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Tiny House, Cozy Cabin

A few months ago, my husband and I sold our home of 30 years and decided to live full-time in our cozy cabin in the woods. We left behind greater square footage, a quaint and sometimes bustling village on the waterfront, and a home with lots of family memories.

But it was time for a change.

Time for more simplicity.

Ever since our kids left home, we’d been juggling life between our house and cabin, leaving us feeling fragmented and burdened. Something had to go. The decision wasn’t easy. A comfortable, well-appointed and spacious home? Or a tiny house / cozy cabin with a spacious outdoors? We opted for less house, more nature.

Mary Casanova cabin

On these 60 acres, the aspen and maple have nearly shed all their leaves. Winter is coming, and we heat our cabin with hand-split fire wood in our woodstove. Mornings start with coffee by the crackling fire, then we head out to feed three horses, clean stalls and paddock, gather eggs, and hike with our dogs to the river.

After breakfast, I like to tidy up my home before getting to my writing desk, which is in the loft. In a tiny space, cleaning takes minutes. Of course, moving into this smaller home first meant downsizing our possessions. We went on a crusade to rid our lives of clutter. We donated, trashed, recycled, and gifted away everything we could.

With less to manage and maintain, we lower our stress and free up more space for things that matter to us.

The cabin’s cooling a bit as I write this.

Time to stoke the fire and grab a good book.

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On Growing Older … Old

Growing OlderWhy is “older” an acceptable word and “old” almost forbidden?

To answer my own question, I suppose it’s because we’re all growing older, even the four-year-old next door. But old … ah, old smacks of incompetence, of irrelevance. Even worse, old smacks of that truly obscene-to-our-society word … death.

I am approaching my birthday month. It won’t be a “big” dividable-by-five birthday, but still one that feels significant for the number it stands close to. I will be 79 next month.

Can you name the number?

Forty didn’t trouble me a bit. I had a friend, several years older than I, who, when I turned forty, said, “Forty is such a fine age. It’s the first number you reach that has any authority, but you still feel so young.” And she was right! I sailed into 40 feeling mature, confident … and still young.

Sixty-five slipped past without much fanfare. As a working writer I wasn’t facing retirement, after all. Moreover, I could sign up for Social Security and Medicare, and for the self-employed that is no small thing. I’d been paying in, both the employee and the employer side, for a long time, and at last it was going to come back to me. Given the difficulty and expense of buying health insurance that isn’t handed down through an employer, being able to get Medicare was an even bigger deal. (I will never understand the flap in this country about “socialized medicine.” That’s what Medicare is, and it works! It works better than any other pay-for-care system this backward system offers.)

When I turned seventy my daughter threw me a big party … at my request, I should add. It was a lovely party, and it exhausted me. Mostly it reminded me that I’ve never liked parties.

“I won’t ask you to do that again,” I said.

She, who has always been a loving and willing daughter, said, “Good!”

But this is 79! And yes, I might as well name the number. Eighty is a very short hop, skip and hobble down the road!

It’s the first time I find myself facing changes in my body that I know I don’t have the power to fix. Not that I’ve given up trying. I walk vigorously two of three times a day. I do Pilates three times a week. I stretch and I meditate and I eat healthfully and I practice excellent sleep hygiene. Actually, my sleep hygiene is better and more reliable than my sleep. But my body continues on its ever-so-predictable downward trajectory.

From time to time, bits fall off.

And my mind? That’s harder to define and even harder to talk about. I can still produce a workable manuscript. I can still offer a useful critique of someone else’s manuscript, too. But I find myself too often going back to the refrigerator to locate the eggs I’ve just set out on the counter or struggling in the evening to remember some detail of what I’ve done that morning.

My omelets still please the palate, though, and I’ve shown up wherever I was expected to be in the morning and done whatever I said I would do.

Arriving at a place called old in this culture is a matter for some amazement. Who is ever prepared? After all, old has never been something to aspire to … despite the alternative. A friend said recently, “I went from wolf whistles to invisibility in a heartbeat.” And I went from “cutting-edge” to “veteran author” in the same incomprehensibly short time.

I find I want more than anything else to use these years I’ve been gifted, however many or few they may be. I want to use them to deepen my acceptance of my own life, blunders and accomplishments all. I want to use them to enrich the peace my presence brings to a room.

I want to use these years to live. Not just to move through my days stacking accomplishments, one on top of another. I have enough of those. We all have enough of those.

I want to use these years to breathe, deeply and mindfully. And now, being old, I want use these final years to be grateful for every, every breath.

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Knowing My Own Mind

There are times when I don’t know my own mind. Worse, there are times when I think I know my mind perfectly well and then find an entirely different mind on a later visit to my opinions.

Which feels almost as though I have no mind at all.

Some time ago one of my favorite writers came out with a new novel. I had been waiting for her next book for years, so, of course, I signed up to have it pop into my electronic reader at the first opportunity. It did, and I read it eagerly.

I was disappointed. Profoundly.

It wasn’t that the novel was badly written. This author isn’t capable of bad writing. It was just that I didn’t care about the people she explored so deeply. And even knowing their complexities, one layer exposed after another, didn’t make me want to spend time with them.

I didn’t have to wait nearly so long for her next book. This time, though, I read it with caution, with my newly acquired discontent. (Once burned.) This novel was . . . okay. But I wasn’t in love. I had been in love with her early novels. Besotted, really.

Now another book is out. In a series of interwoven short stories my once-favorite author explored many of the characters from the previous novel, the one I didn’t dislike but that had never quite captured me.

And before I had quite decided to do so, I had finished the latest offering and gone back to reread the previous novel. The okay one. And I found myself rereading the book I had been so tepid about with new respect, even full-blown appreciation. Obviously, the book hadn’t changed on the page.

Next I intend to return to the first book that disappointed me. Will the change in me, whatever caused it, now make room for that one, too?

As someone who has for many years mentored my fellow writers, I find myself wondering. Is my opinion any more reliable, any less emotionally based when I am evaluating a manuscript than it is when I approach a published novel?

When I critique a manuscript I always try, if I possibly can, to read it twice. Sometimes a strongly held opinion from my first reading dissolves on the second. When that happens, I usually trust the second reading. And, especially if it’s a long manuscript, I rarely risk a third.

Is nothing in my mind solid, certain? Are my opinions based on anything except emotion? Is all the logic in the world simply something I pile around me to justify my mood?

When I’m responding to published work and the opinions I hold are only my own, the question is merely a matter of curiosity. Something to take out and wonder at in wondering moments. How solid is this thing I think of as self with all its supporting framework of opinion?

When I’m responding to a manuscript-in-process, the question is one of profound responsibility. My opinion will impact another person’s work. And what if my response is, indeed, a product of my mood? What harm might I do to a piece of writing in the name of helping?

The question is even more disconcerting when I face my own work. Some days I am utterly confident of this new novel I’m pecking away at. Others I’m equally convinced that my entire premise is bogus.

I have long known that nothing impacts my writing output more than my confidence. If I’m certain that this piece I’m working on is truly good and I’m loving writing it, the words flow. (The true value of what I produce is a matter for later discernment, my own and others.) When I doubt myself, each word arrives after a slog through mud.

How I wish there were a reliable way to keep my writing flowing, to keep my soul brimming with confidence.

Emotions are slippery, often hard to recognize and name, certainly impossible to keep marching in a straight line, and yet I’m convinced this supposedly logic-driven world is more accurately an emotion-driven one.

It’s a scary thought!

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Babies and Puppies

Mary Casanova's granddaughterWhat, really, can be more life-affirming than a beautiful baby or cuddly puppies? On June 26th, both arrived in our lives. One baby—our first grandchild, Olivia—born to our son and Korean daughter-in-law. We received the news via FaceTime from Seoul, South Korea. Though they had Broadway related jobs in NYC, they opted to move to Korea for awhile where they would have more time to work at becoming a family.

Hours after we received the news about our rosebud grandbaby, two 8 month old puppies arrived on our doorstep. Literally. The owners drove them to us, just to see if they might interest us and possibly work out. But how can you say “no” to pleading puppy eyes? Though their owners loved these pups, their two sons with autism were not treating them well. They urgently needed to be re-homed. Could we refuse? We couldn’t. And didn’t.

Not long ago, we had three dogs, but lost two of them to old age at 14 and 16. We were down to one dog, Mattie, who is 10½. I had been keeping my eyes open for one puppy. I wasn’t planning on two.

Mary Casanova's new puppies

So here we are, our lives enriched with photos, updates, and knowledge of our precious grandbaby. At some point we will board a plane, go visit, and hold her in our arms. In the meantime, two new puppies keep asking for attention—and I’m more than willing to cuddle and snuggle. After all, what’s life about, if not babies and puppies?

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Behind the Poem, “What She Asked”

one of Virginia’s many popular books for upper middle grade and teen readers

Listen to Virginia’s poem, “What She Asked,” on Poetry Mosaic, the April 7th entry, and then read her description of the real-life event behind the poem.

In a rural Oregon high school where I taught English more than 20 years ago, we had big teaching areas separated by screen-wall things, but they came nowhere near reaching the high ceiling, because a few years earlier the design of the school had been to have a giant Resource Center and Library, and teachers and groups of students would ideally meet in sections of the massive room, and that would be school. Didn’t turn out that way (of course): Acoustics were the main problem, but also the continuous human traffic through, coming and going in the Library section. So the dividers arrived, and we had somewhat discrete class areas, but not really. If the neighboring class area was noisy, focus and concentration were difficult. In one or two periods of the day, my area’s nearest neighbor was Human Health and Sexuality, and we who were studying fiction heard “and the condoms don’t always work,” etc.

“What She Asked,” is including in this poetry anthology, published by Pomelo Books, 2016

There were the occasional paper airplanes. One or two per week, maybe. 

One afternoon, in the sleepy after-lunch period, I whisperingly asked my class (high school juniors, maybe some sophomores) to make paper airplanes and we would send them, on signal, over the wall to Human Health and Sexuality.

“Can we make more than one?” “Sure! As many as you can fly all at once,” said I. I insisted that they understand that only at my signal would the fleet of airplanes have the desired effect of simultaneity. I, too, made one paper airplane.

On my own personal count of 3, it worked. I think we must have sent over 40+ airplanes into the next class. Great fun. The teacher had a fine sense of humor (her fields were Biology and Ski Coaching) and she liked the dramatic moment of it. Of course Human Health and Sexuality sent the planes back, but I suppose we won because we had done it first. And simultaneously.

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In Draft

Henry James“He was always chasing the next draft of himself.”

 American critic Dwight Garner, in the New York Times Book Review on February 16 of this year, was describing the childhood of Henry James.

An expandable list comes to mind, some of our memorable figures moving toward the next draft of themselves: Anne Shirley, Holden Caulfield, Jo March, Jody Baxter, Arnold Spirit, Jr., Gilly Hopkins, M.C. Higgins, Jane Yolen’s Hannah/Chaya, Will Grayson and Will Grayson, Billie Jo Kelby, Ramona Quimby, the Gaither sisters, Hugo Cabret, Stanley Yelnats, the Logan family of Mississippi, Winnie Foster, Walter Dean Myers’ Steve Harmon, Terry Pratchett’s Mau and Daphne and their Nation.  Harry, Hermione, Ron.

One of our truisms is that the characters who transport us in their stories are actually showing us—seldom without pain—about revising and becoming. We’ve all felt it happen.

After the last page, our selves have enlarged, leading us often subtly, silently, into our own next draft.

Generation after generation, many of our young, in fiction and in the house just down the road, must revise themselves by fleeing chaos, violence, or neglect wrought by callous or confused adults. Others seek change and release from what seems an abyss of boredom. And some of us lucky ones try on differences just because we can.

draftRight now, December 2016, in our own USA, many of our neighbors and students fear deportation, a cruel next draft in a world they never made. As the new administration struts toward Washington, we’re wary of the convulsive upending, we’re apprehensive about the precipitous swerves and the jaw-dropping, impetuous tweets, and some of us place bets. Here is Henry James’ declaration from about a hundred years ago: “I hate American simplicity. I glory in the piling up of complications of every sort.” Come on back, Henry. We have drafts galore for you, we’ll help you catch up on your reading, and we’ve got real life complications that will blow your spats off.

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My Work-Study Internship

World Telegram photo by Al Aumuller, Library of Congress, Creative Commons

World Telegram photo by Al Aumuller, Library of Congress, Creative Commons

The first college I attended was Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It had a work-study curriculum in which half your year was spent working off-campus on some job relating to your professional aspirations. At that time, being interested in the theatre, I was offered and took a job at a Cleveland television station. A few days before the job began it was canceled. I was offered a job at a bookstore, but decided to find a job on my own.

A family friend was Lee Hays, the baritone singer for the popular folk group, The Weavers. Lee also was a mentor to me and my would-be writing career. I don’t recall the circumstances but having learned that I was looking for a job, he sent me to Harold Leventhal, who managed The Weavers. Leventhal offered me a job.

It appeared that Mr. Leventhal was involved in some way with the estate of the late Woody Guthrie. What was the job? Guthrie was not just a famous performer, and a song writer, he was a writer. In 1943, he had published a “partially fictionalized” autobiography. Indeed, he left boxes of manuscripts. What job was I offered? Read through all those boxes and let Mr. Leventhal know if anything was worth publishing. I was next interviewed by Pete Seeger who was also involved in the Guthrie estate.

I got what I thought was a glamorous job. If this seems an odd job to be given to a nineteen-year-old—I would, in retrospect, agree The many boxes arrived.

I held myself to working an eight-hour day.

The problem was that Guthrie had Huntington’s disease, which is “a fatal genetic disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. It deteriorates a person’s physical and mental abilities during their prime working years and has no cure.”

Thus the Guthrie writing I had to read—from his late years—was at best erratic, and often disturbing. Whatever hero worship I might have had about this vital, hugely creative and important man, rapidly disintegrated. But being the age I was, I doggedly read on, eight hours a day for three months.

When, after the three months were up and I came in to report to Mr. Leventhal, he asked, “Is there anything worth publishing?” To which I replied, “Nothing.”

Why these folks trusted my judgment—or even if they did trust my judgment—I never learned. But I am perhaps one of the few people who—ever since—cannot bear to listen to the distinctive voice of Woody Guthrie. I had gotten too much into his ill mind.

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Below the Surface

Our park ranger, Earl, which is pronounced in three syllables in south-central Kentucky, asks one last time to reconsider this journey if anyone suffers from a bad heart, high blood pressure, or claustrophobia. He waits at the steel door at the base of a sinkhole. On this “Domes and Dripstones” tour at Mammoth Cave National Park, no one objects. We are silent in anticipation.

As the park ranger unlocks and opens the door, the cave emits a blast of icy cold air. With a moment of hesitation, I leave the forest of leafy green behind and begin the descent into darkness. My eyes begin to adjust. Periodic battery-powered lights illuminate the cave. Ahead, the guide’s flashlight beams. I grip the metal tubular railing, moist with humidity. Here and there, the cave plummets into foreboding chasms. I take each steel step with care.  A hundred years back, tourists followed this same path, but the steps were made then of wood, prone to slipperiness.

Photo: Navin75 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/navin75/162066494/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

photo by Navin75

In spots, the cave presses in around me, and I squeeze through passages. Where its ceiling drops low, I duck to avoid bashing in my forehead. There is the perpetual plink, plink, plink of water. It percolates down the sinkhole, carving into sandstone, it drips from the cave walls into puddles, rivulets, and streams that flow down, away, deeper and deeper into darkness. Our group is silent. We are in a sanctuary, a place of awe and deep mystery where eyeless fish and translucent shrimp navigate the cave streams, where bats have birthed their young for eons, where humans stepped foot 2,000 years ago.

Around us, stalagmites create towering fairyland castles. Above us, stalactites appear as icicles in various hues. Earl reminds us that the last inch formed on each stalactite took 100-300 years, drop of water by drop of water—cavernous rooms with a labyrinth of dazzling formations resembling cream-colored silken drapes, walls of candied popcorn, frozen golden waterfalls, a swish of a many-layered skirt, a cavernous dragon’s mouth.

Earl checks his watch. We find our way out of the cave and into the world of trees and sky. The tour concludes. But I keep thinking of the caves and the slow constancy of change. With the passing of time, new caves form dazzling worlds while old caves eventually fill in and “die.” Each drop of water, each grain of sand leaves its mark. Visiting a cave means bearing witness to the artistry found in the accumulation of time.

This gives me comfort. I like to think that each footstep we take leaves its mark, too, in an ongoing colossal work of creation.

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“Borrowed Magic”

Thirteen years.  The project I began in 2003 has had that many birthdays.  It occupies two large crates in my office.  It has dominated my life, involving travel, research, reading.  It has spawned four versions, each dragging multiple drafts.  Rejections span ten years.

Nobody, it seems, wants this book.  “Kids won’t be interested.”  The subject, Margaret Wise Brown, would find this funny.  I am not amused, especially since it was Margaret herself who demanded (she’s not the asking type) that I tell her story.

Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the MoonThe journey began in 1992 when I read Leonard Marcus’ biography, Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon.  I re-read that book every night for eight years.  Clearly something was awakening in me: a fascination with Margaret’s story and the desire to write for the very young.  In 2003, I gave in to Margaret’s insistence and started researching.

Tangled up in Margaret’s story is my own, both writers for children, though our backgrounds are vastly different.  No matter what genre I work in—picture books, middle grade, nonfiction—I always draw upon my own life.  But because my youngest years were traumatic, I never could reach my three-year-old self.  Writing for the very young eluded me.  Margaret made it look so easy.  She wrote Goodnight Moon in bed one morning and literally phoned it in to her editor.

little island 1 webEarlier this year, I was asked to speak and give a workshop on Vinalhaven Island, Maine, where Margaret had owned a summer house, in August.  I accepted, but decided my Margaret book would stay in the crates.  I would not resurrect a failed project.

Days before my flight, Margaret beckoned once more.  A whole week on Vinalhaven!  A rare chance to see Only House!  How could I pass up that opportunity?  I dug out the crates and pored over my notes and drafts, letting Margaret fill my soul again.

On the ferry to the Island, I prayed for a new way into my story.  Would I be able to borrow some of Margaret’s magic from her special place?

I visited Only House.  I sat on Margaret’s dock.  I gazed at the little pine-topped island she made famous in The Little Island and waited for lightning to strike.

mwb house 1 webAt Only House, Margaret lived a “cat life,” just being.  I only had a week, not enough time to “be.”  But I fell in love with Vinalhaven, just as she had.  Waking to the country’s first sunrises.  Ospreys gliding over the rental house I stayed in.  Butterflies working tansy and thistle.  Lobster boats dotting the bay.  Once, the call of a late-night loon.

During Margaret’s first summer there, she wrote to a friend, “Life goes on in Transition.  This summer it is better than it has been in a long time, and still [things hang] in the balance.”

One night, I watched a full moon climb over the cove.  I turned off the bedroom lamp and noticed glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling.  My effort to tell Margaret’s story one more time was faltering.  She had been inspired by the real moon.  I only had pasted-on stars that shined from borrowed light as my guide.

mwb gravestoneThe next day, I stood at Margaret’s grave site up the hill from Only House.  She had died suddenly at the age of 42 and her fiancé had scattered her ashes at the place she loved best. The granite marker is inscribed with a quote from The Little Island.

Life is always in transition. Any moment balance can be tipped. Margaret may have found magic here, but she still did the work in the short time allotted to her.

And so will I.


 
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The Birthday Surprise

I had pretty much given up on finding an appropriate gift for my dad’s 82nd birthday; the last thing he needed was more stuff. So I headed off to the family lake cabin for the 4th of July holiday (also his birthday weekend) with the thought that I’d figure out a clever celebratory idea at the last minute. Maybe some kind of game that everyone would enjoy?

The problem with that was the “everyone” involved. My brother’s four kids each brought a friend along, so 13 to 20-year-olds made up the clear majority. All of them travel at a speed that far outdistances their grandpa, and their lives revolve around completely different cultural touchstones. Not to mention that two of them seemed to have self-identified as space aliens sent to catalog the peculiar behavior of earthlings, sitting apart and observing the rest of us with a dissecting air. What kind of game could I possibly come up with that would work for this multi-generational (not to mention multi-planetary) crew?

Out of desperation, I decided to just go for it, and I scratched out a series of 10 questions about Grandpa. What major world event radically changed his life when he was a kid? What dangerous animal did he capture when he was a teenager? How many colleges kicked him out? How did he meet his wife (the Grandma we were all still mourning)? In other words, questions that translated Grandpa’s life into the concerns of a 13 to 20-year-old. Then I told the kids that they were going to work as pairs (grandchild plus friend) to answer the questions, and whoever got the most correct would win a small prize. Partway through the game, each team would have a chance to privately ask Grandpa to share stories to provide two of the answers they didn’t know.

ph_lb_dad_erinThey’re good kids. I figured they would hide their eye-rolls and play along for courtesy’s sake. Meanwhile, Grandpa would be the center of attention for a few minutes, getting to share a few of the details from his first 81 years, and it would make him feel like we’d at least taken notice of his birthday.

In all my worry about finding an appropriate way to celebrate my dad’s life, I had inexplicably forgotten the power of his stories. I’d momentarily overlooked stories’ facility for bridge-building—their capacity to create a connection between someone whose childhood was altered by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the grandson whose childhood was shaped by 9/11. My little quiz turned into a fierce battle for story supremacy; even the space aliens couldn’t get enough. Everyone was a winner.

And this children’s book writer went home from the weekend with a reminder about the importance of the work I do on an everyday basis. Just wait, world: have I got a story for you!

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Saying “Yes!”

Trying new things makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like to take risks; I like the familiar. That’s why when I was asked to give several author presentations at international schools in Beijing, my gut reaction was to shout, “Not on your life!” Sure, I knew other authors who had traveled overseas and had wonderful experiences visiting schools in India and Saudi Arabia, but I’m not as brave or as competent as these friends.

Still, something inside me whispered that I would regret saying no to this opportunity. The whisper continued to nag until finally I told the inquiring school a hesitant “yes.”

It didn’t take me long to imagine all the things that could go wrong. I could miss my flight. The Eastern food could disagree with my Midwestern stomach. My driver in Beijing might not show up.

My brave friends assured me that all of these worries were unfounded.

And you know what?

They were wrong.

All of these worries came true.

My departing flight was delayed multiple times until I was sent home and told to come back tomorrow and try again. When I eventually made it to Beijing a day late, two bites of an innocent looking “pancake” from the hotel’s breakfast buffet left me with instantaneous “digestive issues” (aka explosive diarrhea). And midway into my trip as I waited (and waited and waited) one morning for my driver to arrive, it became clear that he was never going to show, leaving me (without a cell phone) to frantically find a way to contact the school.

David LaRochelle AbroadWith all these setbacks, the trip should have been a disaster for a worrywart like me. But it was nothing of the sort. I brought back incredible memories that I wouldn’t trade for anything: standing on the Great Wall, visiting with preschoolers who had baked a giant cake shaped like one of the characters from my picture books, learning how to make Chinese dumplings from one of the teachers. None of these things would have happened if I had stayed at home.

Version 2

And all those mini-disasters? They turned out to be blessings in disguise. When my worst worries materialized and I found a way to work around them, I discovered that I was braver and more competent than I thought.

Though I’m reluctant to admit it, some of the most rewarding moments of my career have come when I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone and attempted things I didn’t think I could do: write for teenagers, illustrate a book with tricky paper engineering, tackle nonfiction. I’ll never be an enthusiastic risk-taker like some of my friends, but I’ve learned that being a little uncomfortable is worth the benefits I reap when I stretch myself.

Recently I was asked to visit schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg. As I remembered my time in Beijing, I visualized all the things that could go wrong on a trip to Russia. Then I swallowed my fears, took a deep breath, and said, “Sure, I’d love to go!”

David LaRochelle in Moscow

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Our Collapsing World

We live in a collapsing world.

icon_collasping-world-mdb_16-07-26_200Perhaps the world has always been collapsing in one way or another and it is only the surfeit of information that makes the collapse seem so imminent now. I know only that, even as I wake each morning into gratitude for this life I have been gifted, I also wake into a gut-deep knowledge of disaster:

A political system imploding, our tender globe’s climate wildly disordered; a renewed nuclear arms race (so it’s now small arms, it’s still nuclear!); racial injustice so old a story that we should have wept ourselves dry by now; big money controlling everything, everything, everything.

I wake into this collapsing world, then sit down at my desk and attempt to write another story for children. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting that’s a trivial task. I can think of few that are more important. Because the function of story—all story—is to make meaning. And meaning that we make for children lasts.

But what meaning fits today’s disasters?

In 1972 when the Watergate scandal occupied the news, my own two children were eight and ten, just coming into an awareness of the larger world. And to discover that their country’s leaders were behaving like the worst schoolyard bullies disillusioned them beyond words. What I said to them, again and again, as we listened to the latest reports, was “Look! Our system works. The President had to step down.”

I wish I could say the same to my grandchildren. “Look! Our system works.”

But if I can’t say that, what can I say?

To begin with I will not offer what I’ve heard presented too often to young people: “Okay. We failed. It’s your world now. Fix it.” I can think of few more discouraging messages to begin a life on.

And I will not tell them that we are all beyond hope, even if sometimes hope is difficult to name. Because, for all our failures, hope has changed this world in astonishing ways in my lifetime, and I will not lose hold of it now.

I will be honest, but in my honesty I will also be gentle, caring. Because truth without gentleness, without caring can be a bludgeon. And I will write primarily about what matters most, all the ways we try and fail and try again to love one another.

If I make that struggle the core of all I say, I will never run out of stories, because the struggle to love is the struggle to be human.

And if the struggle to be human lies at the center of every story I send into this collapsing world, I may yet save a few souls . . . my own included

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Old

Virginia Euwer Wolff“That’s your Great-Grandfather Who Lost His Arm in the Battle of the Wilderness.” That was his name. In a big gold gilt-framed photo: a distinguished-looking, white-haired, mustached gentleman high above the upright piano in my grandmother’s music room. This Civil War veteran was her father-in-law, and he and his wife in her matching frame watched over the music room for as long as I can remember. His wife looks severe: perhaps it was her high lace collar, the hard life of a 19th Century woman, and the long wait for the photographic plate’s exposure.

My horticulturist great-grandfather with the long name had convinced his son, my portrait photographer grandpa, to move the entire family 2000 miles west from Jamestown, New York to the foothills of Mt. Hood in Oregon in 1911, there to begin growing apples and pears on land whose price matched its fertile but irrigation-challenged soil. My grandma’s opinion: “But only if we can live close to the school and close to the church.” The Civil War hero, his wife, and my grandparents and their three young children traveled by train, with boxcars full of furniture, to a community of rutted roads and tenacious, weather-toughened farmers and loggers. My grandparents’ big house got built beside the church.

Irrigation was the most pitiless of the orchard’s many obstacles. The farm didn’t last long. The Great Depression happened. My grandpa re-educated himself as an electrician, and drove a Model T Ford to his jobs well into the 1950s.

Now, summertime 2016, I’m sitting on a chair from that music room, as I have done for decades. Not the piano stool. (“Virginia, do NOT spin on the piano stool. You KNOW that.”) This is a straight-back maple chair, probably from the turn of the 20th century, with curvy lines, turned legs, and a heart carved out of its back. Who made it and where? Why didn’t I ask when I was a kid and Grandma or Grandpa could have told me?

It has silently held up its end of my daily working bargain without complaint.

My grandparents’ fortunes fell, the great-grandparents died, the three children grew up. Grandma opened a boarding house for schoolteachers, and the boarding music teachers gave lessons on her piano. Rambunctious schoolyard kids walked tamely through my grandparents’ door, carrying their red John Thompson music and their yellow and green Schirmer’s.

My mother had married her true love, a lapsed Pennsylvania lawyer turned Oregon farmer who had built a large log house three miles from town. My brother and I made a family of four, happy and complete.

Grandma’s and Grandpa’s dining room, with a great big table (for all of us relatives and all those boarding teachers), opened into the music room, and someone (anyone) could play “Happy Birthday” on the piano for whoever was celebrating: age 6, 46, or 76.

We children decorated the music room Christmas tree with raggedy and chipped ornaments from history (why didn’t I ask for their stories?), and my visiting cousin and I giddily overreacted each year, as our gifts progressed from identical dolls to identical bottles of Evening in Paris perfume.

I think that during the 60-plus years this utilitarian chair spent in the music room it was never witness to insolence or profanity.

I knew my grandparents were prominent in the church, in positions of power. A few times each year Grandma prepared the cubes of Communion bread, and as I grew I was allowed to help her pour her homemade grape juice into teensy glasses in the holy, shiny tray-rack thing. Grandpa’s role was even more essential: He started the church furnace early on Sunday mornings, and on choir practice evenings, and made sure everything was working right in every room of the building. He made church possible.

Years later, my big brother whispered to me that Grandpa was the church janitor, and that he and Grandma were probably doing those jobs to fulfill their annual tithe. We were in church, and our mother, as usual, was on the organ bench, bringing Bach and Schubert and all those beautiful loved ones to the rural families in the pews.

I don’t think I ever heard my grandparents discuss religion. It was just there, an unequivocal force, like a mountain or an ocean or God.

The family sidestepped disputatiousness, didn’t stoop to quarreling. When people got peeved about wartime rationing or went mute about Hiroshima they did it without making a fuss. I never knew which marriages were unendurable yet iron-tight, I never knew which grownups had “er – uh – a problem…” Things and people didn’t break apart. Except that people died. When they did, our grief was wild and silent.

“Your father was a wonderful man, Virginia.”

“I know.”

“You look like your father, Virginia, you have his eyes.”

“Do I?”

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Grandma washed on Mondays (tubs, bluing, the cranked wringer, hundreds of clothespins, yards of clothesline), ironed on Tuesdays (all those boarders’ sheets went through a marvelous machine called a mangle), sewed and mended on Wednesdays, teaching me to use a Singer machine for perfect seams by using only my foot on the pedal.

Elvis Presley began to sing. Our family went on as if he had had the good manners not to. But he had stirred something in my visiting cousin and me, and it lay stealthy and uncomprehended inside us.

We spread out, we learned to vote. Now, years too late, questions persist, casting everything in the shadowy half-light of incompletion.

Had the Civil War sergeant (Pennsylvania 105th Infantry Regiment) kept a war diary? How did Grandpa really feel about leaving studio photography and trying to be an orchardist? What might Grandma have said about spending her entire life taking care of people? Why did the church break into factions? Why did our families trust to school to teach us what Hitler had actually done? How many sudden grownup silences did my visiting cousin and I snicker through, instead of probing?

And that’s a thing I’d like to change, if I could. We know children can’t decipher the secret messages that adults send in plain sight by means of eyebrows and coded gestures. But I wish the young were quicker to develop antennae for the waves of history, its tragedies, its hilarities, its noble struggles.

I’m duly ashamed that I don’t even know where this beloved chair came from.

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Laughing All the Way

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill BrysonI finished reading The Road to Little Dribbling over a week ago, and I’m still laughing.

I’m a sucker for a funny story, and Bill Bryson has provided me with a steady stream of them since I first discovered him in Granta magazine back in the ’80s. I couldn’t get enough of his wisecracking tales about growing up in Des Moines, especially the epic family road trips he endured.

His latest book, in which he more or less recreates the meanderings around and musings about Britain’s quirky corners that he mined so successfully in Notes from a Small Island four decades ago, delivered just the dose of laughs I needed to offset a particularly intense stretch at work. Humor is a first-rate antidote to any number of things, I’ve found, including stress. This is why I also own a well-worn copy of the DVD Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Mr. Mysterious & CompanyI discovered humor between the covers of a book early, when I first read Sid Fleischman’s Mr. Mysterious & Company as a child. Mr. Fleischman’s story not only had me laughing in delight, but also managed to worm its way deep into my psyche, popping out decades later when I had children of my own and inaugurated a unique Frederick twist on Fleischman’s Abracadabra Day. Read Mr. Mysterious & Company and you’ll get the idea.

A few years after discovering Fleischman, I stumbled across a P. G. Wodehouse anthology on my grandfather’s bookshelf. I was 12 or so, and enormously pleased with myself for appreciating Wodehouse’s special brand of British humor. (Of course it helped that I had just returned to the U.S. from a stretch living in England.)  His nimble style! His flawless comic timing! And oh, his characters! What budding writer could possibly resist Bertie Wooster’s substantial Aunt Dahlia, who fitted into his biggest armchair “as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season”? Or how about his formidable Aunt Agatha, whom the feckless Bertie described as wearing “barbed wire next to the skin”? And then there was that pig named the Empress of Blandings…. I was a goner.

Years later, I read somewhere that when Wodehouse’s family heard him chuckling in his study as he wrote, they knew the work was going well. I seem to recall reading the same thing about Sid Fleischman. I don’t know whether Mr. Bryson’s family hears him laughing, too, but I hope my family hears me. Not all my books are humorous, but nearly all of them have humorous moments, and when something I write strikes me as funny and I make myself laugh, I think of writers like P. G. Wodehouse and Sid Fleischman and others who have traveled this path before me, and I know I’m in good company.

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Look at how we’re teaching nonfiction!

Melissa Stewart working with a studentAs another school year winds to a close, I’m feeling encouraged about the state of nonfiction reading and writing in elementary classrooms across the country.

In 2010, when the Common Core State Standards were introduced, educators began asking me for ideas and strategies for implementing the Reading Informational Text standards. And they were hungry for tips and tools that they could use to teach informational writing.

Melissa Stewart's websiteSo I began to think deeply about the craft of nonfiction writing. I described my evolving insights and observations on my blog and provided resources on my website and pinterest pages.

Teachers, school librarians, reading specialists, and literacy coordinators appreciated what I was doing. They used my resources. They emailed me with questions. They asked me to participate in Twitter chats. And they invited me to their schools. We shared ideas, and together, our understanding of nonfiction, especially expository nonfiction, grew.

Melissa Stewart in the classroom

This year I saw tangible evidence that educators’ efforts are paying off. When I visited schools, teachers no longer nervously asked me, “How can we teach nonfiction?” Instead, they proudly exclaimed, “Look at how we’re teaching nonfiction!” Then they showed me the amazing projects their students had completed.

Here are some the great ideas educators have shared with me.

Nonfiction Smackdown!
Mrs. Paradis, teacher-librarian
Plympton Elementary School, Waltham, MA

Students in grades 3-5 read two nonfiction books on the same topic. Then they evaluate and compare the two titles, recording their thinking on a worksheet like this one. When students are done, they can share their responses with classmates. Or the worksheets can be posted, so that other students can use the information to help them make book choices.

March Madness

March Madness Nonfiction
Mrs. Moody, instructional coach
Williams Elementary School, Oakland, ME

During the month of March, students in every grade level participated in classroom read-alouds of sixteen nonfiction picture books. Then the children voted on their favorites. Here’s more info about this fun, whole-school activity.

Text Feature Posters
Mrs. Teany, kindergarten teacher
Memorial Elementary School, Medfield, MA

After reading a variety of age-appropriate books written by me, K-2 students created fabulous text feature posters, using the ones in my books as mentor texts. Take a look at these terrific examples.

A caption and labels highlighting a butterfly’s body parts.

A caption and labels highlighting a butterfly’s body parts.

Hurricane Watch

Labels on a gripping drawing of a hurricane.

Dragonfly Zoom bubble

A “zoom bubble” showing a close-up view of a dragonfly’s head next to a complete body image with very colorful wings.

Poisonous

Comparing a frog and toad, highlighting that frogs have teeth but toads don’t. (top) Fact boxes with information about two frogs, one is poisonous and one isn’t. (bottom)

You can see more samples in this fun video created by Mrs. Groden, the teacher-librarian at Memorial Elementary School.

Text Structure Swap
Fourth grade teaching team
Kennedy Elementary School, Billerica, MA

After reading No Monkeys, No Chocolate, the students made book maps to get a stronger sense of the architecture of the main text, which has what I call a cumulative sequence structure (my mentor texts were traditional cumulative tales, such as The House that Jack Built and I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.)

Then each child chose one example from the text and rewrote it with a cause and effect text structure.  What a great idea!

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Experimenting with Text Structures
Second grade teaching team
Wealthy Elementary School, East Grand Rapid, MI

Image-L_260pxWhile growing bean plants, students read a wide variety of age-appropriate nonfiction books about plants and plant growth. Then each child wrote about the beans using the text structure of his or her choice. The range of samples included using:

  • sequence structure to describe their plant’s growth sequence.
  • compare and contrast structure to explain the differences they observed between their seed and seeds placed in low-light conditions or deprived of water. 
  • cause and effect structure to describe how low light or lack of water affected seeds.
  • how-to structure to explain how students cared for their seed.
  • description structure to document the appearance of their plant with meticulous attention to detail.

Wow! I was blown away.

Radical Revision!
Kennedy Elementary School
Billerica, MA

As teachers listened to me describe the 10-year process of revising No Monkeys, No Chocolate, they hatched a plan for a project I love. They’re asked first graders to write a piece of nonfiction. Next year, when the students are in second grade, teachers will share the No Monkeys, No Chocolate Revision Timeline on my website and ask the children to revise the piece they wrote in first grade. Good idea, right? But it gets even better. Both drafts will be placed in a folder, and the students will revise the piece again in third, fourth, and fifth grade.

Imagine how different the final piece will be from the original! It will allow children to see tangible evidence of their growth as writers and give them a true sense of how long it can take to write a book.

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Authentic Illustration
K-2 teachers, Middle Gate Elementary School
Newtown, CT

As teachers listened me describe the process of making When Rain Falls, they came up with a great idea. After students have written nonfiction about a topic of their choice, children in another class at the same grade level will illustrate the text. Then the original writers will critique the artists’ work. Did they make any factual errors in their drawings? This activity mimics the process nonfiction authors go through when they review sketches created by an illustrator.

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Science and Stories Laboratory
Ms. Beecher, Literacy Coordinator
Pasadena (CA) Unified School District

Using Perfect Pairs: Using Fiction & Nonfiction Picture Books to Teach Life Science as a guide, Ms. Beecher worked with the staff at Jackson STEM Dual Language Magnet Elementary School to design an innovative Science and Stories Laboratory that immersed students in a fabulous multi-week adventure of reading, writing, and exploring. Take a look at this fun video to see some of the highlights.

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Like teachers all across America, I’m more than ready for summer break. But I’m also looking forward to seeing even more terrific ideas for teaching informational reading and writing next year. It’s a great time for nonfiction!

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Wolf Sighting

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Our house in the Rocky Mountains. This is a photo, even though it looks like a painting. And that’s our dog McKinley, not a wolf. He’s no longer with us but he was the inspiration for The Good Dog.

It is not often that I get a call such as I just did. The call came Larry McCoy, who holds a doctorate in theology, and teaches philosophy at the Steamboat, Colorado Community College. He also builds log houses and has a dog named “Helen.” That’s the way folks are here in Routt County.  He is one of our near neighbors, living about a mile and a half away.

Now my wife and I live on a high ridge (9500 feet up) right on the edge of Rout National Forest. We own forty-five acres, which may seem like a lot if you do not live in Colorado. In fact, while the deed says we own this land, we do nothing with it, save live on it (in a log house) and wander about on snowshoes, or look at the wildflowers. Season depending.

Now the fact that we live on the edge of the national forest might explain what happened and why Larry called me.

“Avi,” said Larry, “I just thought you’d want to know that there have been three sightings—including by me—of a wolf on your land. I saw him, or her, down by your pond.”

In the fifteen or so years that we have lived here, no such sightings in all of Colorado has been reported. And this wolf was a few yards from our home.

Rocky Mountains view

the view from our front window

Something to be frightened about? No. There is NO recorded account of a wolf ever attacking people. Cattle is a whole different question. 

Where did he/she come from? There are wolves to the far north of us, in Wyoming, at Yellowstone National Park. There is plenty of forest between us and that spot. Maybe he came from thataway.

But why?

Is he/she part of a pack? Wolves are intensely social creatures, with fascinating family existences.

A lone wolf?

An old wolf? A youngster seeking new territory?

Not likely we’ll ever know. Or maybe never even see the creature.

But as my wife said, “Oh, Avi!  Our own wolf!  I’ve always wanted that!” 

She really said that, which was news to me.

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La Escuela Primaria: A Visit to Cuba

school gardenThis past February, my husband and I traveled to Cuba on an eleven-day tour. Near the end of the trip, we drove from the central city of Camagüey to visit a ranch. After a two-hour drive, our bus bounced down a long dirt road and passed under a wooden sign that resembled a gate in an old western, telling us we had reached “The King Ranch.” Sheep, goats, and cattle grazed on dry, scrubby brush, in fields that lined both sides of the road.

We drew up near the ranch’s main building. The ranch manager who welcomed us was fluent in English. He told us that Mr. King—the same wealthy Texan who once developed a million-acre ranch in the U.S—had bought 40,000 hectares of land in Cuba before the Revolution. At its height, the ranch boasted 20,000 head. When Castro came to power, the ranch passed into government hands, as did all land and private businesses on the island. Now the ranch supports 3,000 animals and a village of about 130 people.

Our visit to the ranch included a small rodeo, where a few vaqueros, riding small cow ponies, competed in calf and bull roping as well as bull riding. One stocky cowboy managed to stay aboard a bucking bull for fifteen seconds before being tossed to the ground. He scrambled to his feet and dusted himself off, unhurt.

After the show ended, we climbed into horse-drawn wagons that carried us to the village. As we approached a circle of small, thatch-roofed cottages, a few kids ran along next to our carriages, calling out to us. Why weren’t they in school?

Before we could ask, our horses drew up in front of a tiny, two-room school building. We gathered in a garden outside, decorated with colorful, handmade sculptures of animals and insects. Our guide explained that the teaching principal had just been selected as Teacher of the Year for all of Cuba. This honor meant that the school would host a local district meeting the next day. School had been cancelled to allow a team of teachers and parents to spruce up the building, set up displays, and sweep out the two small rooms where children in grades K-4 were educated. In a narrow hall, a parent was dusting and arranging a few dozen books on a narrow shelf that made up the school’s entire biblioteca.

Mom with Books

Biblioteca (school library): photo by John Fischer

 An outside observer might think these children were deprived. After all, their homes were small simple structures, with dirt floors and thatched roofs. Except for the main ranch building, none of these homes were built to survive a hurricane. I also wondered how the school managed with so few books and materials. Yet the teaching principal (speaking through a translator) was proud of his school’s success. He spoke of the benefits children gain when different ages learn and work together. He also explained that parents are very involved in their children’s education.

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Farm worker’s home: photo by Martin Crossland

Cuba prizes its children. The country boasts one of the world’s highest literacy rates. Children’s health and education are a top priority. Throughout our travels, we saw children who appeared healthy, well-fed, and happy. On school days, children wear uniforms according to grade level: red and white for primary school; yellow and white for middle school; brown and white for high school; and dark and light blue for higher education. Their uniforms are clean, bright, and serviceable.

Health care is free for all, new mothers can take a year’s maternity leave, and the state provides free daycare from six months to age five or six. Education is free, from kindergarten through university or technical school, and graduate school.

La Escuela Primaria

Escuela Primaria: photo by Suzanne Raley

Although this village is twenty-one kilometers from the nearest town, nurses and doctors visit regularly, and ranch children receive the same education and follow the same curriculum as their peers in city classrooms. Twice a week, teachers make the long trip to give lessons in art, music, and computer science. The principal showed us a first grade notebook where a child had written long paragraphs in perfect cursive.

Cursive Writing

Dictado (dictation): photo by Suzanne Raley

Displays on the wall demonstrated science projects and geography. Children leave the ranch in fifth grade to board with families in a larger town, four nights a week. There, their learning continues, through high school and beyond if that is what they choose.

After our tour, I walked back to the main house with our guide and the vaquero who had demonstrated bull riding. I learned that he and his daughter, now 17, were both born in the village and educated at the village school. His daughter was now finishing high school and would enter medical school in the fall. He was proud of her accomplishment, but he spoke as if it wasn’t unusual.

Of course, Cuba has enormous economic problems. Though citizens are well-educated, they work for paltry salaries and may not find jobs that allow them to use their expertise and training. Their lives are constricted in ways that we would find oppressive. But as our bus drove away from the ranch, I thought of the stunning and inspiring art exhibits, concerts, and dance performances we had seen in every city on our tour, which demonstrated the value Cuba places on the arts. This was in sharp contrast to our schools, where the arts often disappear when budgets are tight. I thought of city schools in America with overcrowded classrooms that lack basic materials, and teachers who are poorly paid and disrespected. What if our country valued its children, their health, nutrition, and education, as highly as Cubans do?

The Cubans we met were warm, welcoming, and informed. They asked knowledgeable questions about our upcoming elections. Cubans hope—as we do—that the rapprochement begun by President Obama will continue to grow and heal the rift between our two countries. Many Americans like to boast that our nation is the wealthiest in the world. Still, we have much to learn from this fascinating, crocodile-shaped island.

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Making a Deep Map

I like to think of landscape not as a fixed place but as a path that is unwinding before my eyes, under my feet. ~ Gretel Ehrlich

Book projects get set aside, even those with fast beating hearts that you can’t bear to be away from for a second. Sickness, holidays, other stuff pushes it away. The book’s heartbeat slows and goes quiet. You pray it’s merely hibernating.

Come spring, longing for that project rises like sap. You’ve missed it so much! You open files, re-read scenes that were so hope-filled last fall. Remember how you chatted up the project to editors? “Best thing I’ve ever done,” you crowed.

Maybe not.

At the computer, you rearrange sentences, pretend you’re revising. When you reach the point where you quit, that cliff of white space, no words fall into place. You can’t fool the book into stepping over that chasm, continuing down the path as if nothing happened.

You must start the journey over, but not by calling back characters who have gone shy. Return to the very beginning. Before the beginning, even.

Gather photos, magazines, field guides. Collect supplies like scissors, glue, crayons, colored pencils, nothing intimidating. Clear off the dining room table. You need different surfaces, different light, an unfamiliar chair.

You’ll map the landscape of your novel in all its particulars. As William Least Heat-Moon did in PrairyErth, his deep map of Chase County, Kansas, you will drill below the dirt, pop up again in a field, lay back to gaze at stars only your characters can spy. You could buy a new spiral-bound blank book for this project, but you find a vintage ledger. The cover’s linen-like texture reminds you that you’ll be using your hands, not the keyboard. No glass will come between you and this map of your novel.

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Where do your characters live, really live? Begin with the most basic element, the ground. Study the dirt and rocks. Find out why they are important. Move on to the landscape, the hills, the creek, the neighbor’s cows. Don’t leave out a thing. It may matter. It may not. Don’t decide now.

What’s in the sky? What are the seasons? What animals and birds live there? Bugs? Remember, you are never alone and neither are your characters. Does your character love one season over another? Does she trip because she’s watching a hawk scribe lazy circles? Put them all in, the animals and birds and bugs. Cut out pictures. If you can’t find a picture, draw. Take notes. If not your character’s, then your voice.

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Draw a diagram of the place. Sketch its legends and scandals, its history and folklore. Even the new Starbucks has a history. What used to be in that building? What happened on that spot fifty years ago? A hundred? If you don’t know, look it up or make it up. Keep moving.

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What about the house? Draw the floor plan. Did your character sign her name on the inside of her father’s desk drawer? What does she like to eat? Chef Boy-Ar-Dee pizza? Anything curry?

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Don’t worry about making pretty pages—they won’t be hanging in the Louvre. If you run out of room, create lift-up flaps and journal underneath. While your hands stay busy snipping and pasting, your mind will clear space for the novel to ease back.

How will you know when to stop mapping and take up the story again? Your character will claim the landscape and demand to be turned loose in it. Close your deep map and hold it against your chest. Feel that second heartbeat? Now all you have to do is follow your character through her world.

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Unexpected Visitors

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The Casanova horses (l to r): Midnight, Sable, and Ginger

As writers, we learn to expect the unexpected and be ready to capture experiences in words. One such moment stands out from this past winter for me.

My husband and I were sleeping in our cabin loft, on 60 acres where we keep our horses. I woke at 3 am to crunching snow below our window. I sat upright, wondering what sort of late night intruder it could be. An escaped convict heading north to Canada? Our three horses? Had they escaped from their pasture? No. We had tucked them in the barn in warm stalls due to 30 below temps outside that night. That left a moose. Or two. The crunching of snow continued. I crept to my window and gazed down at the entry steps.

Three dark rumps of … horses! But they couldn’t be ours. I woke my husband. We threw on boots, jackets, hats and gloves. The moment we stepped outside, we caught the sight of not three, but seven horses as they trotted off through the woods under a star-sprinkled sky. The air, deep cold, turned the sound of hoofbeats into drumbeats as the herd trotted off down the county road.

Now what? We couldn’t let horses disappear into the night without trying to rescue them. We’d woken more than once to the blood-chilling howls of a wolf pack. Other times the shrieking cries of coyotes. Riskier still was for the horses to continue down the county road, which joined up eventually with a busier highway. The horses, we started piecing together, must have escaped from our friends’ ranch in the other direction.

From our barn we hastily gathered halters, lead ropes, and a bucket of sweet-feed: a mixture of oats, corn, and molasses. In our Ram pickup, we set off. A mile and a half later, our headlights caught the startled eyes of horses to either side of the road. Charlie slowed to a stop.

I hopped out, sat on the metal tailgate, and shook the bucket of oats. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. The horses ears pivoted toward the sound and they nickered. Though skittish in the truck’s white beam, the horses zeroed in on the bucket. “Go!” I called, knowing that one bucket and seven horses could turn dangerous.

Charlie turned the truck back toward our barn and paddock, all seven horses trotting along, jostling to get closer to the bucket. A tailgate in 30 below zero is dangerously cold without long underwear or snow pants. I’d dressed in a hurry. Now I worried my skin would freeze through my jeans to the metal. Orion and the Milky Way looked down as we turned into our driveway toward our barn.

I hopped off the tailgate, hurrying with the bucket toward the red metal gate and unlocked it. Gate wide, I scattered oats on the snow-covered ground and dashed out of the way. The horses squealed and whinnied, circled and kicked in competition for the grain. When the last horse entered, I shut the gate, then I threw them extra hay bales from the hay shed.

Horses with heavy winter coats do survive cold, as long as they have plenty of feed. Without a wind, the horses would be safe until morning. We left a message on the answering machine of our neighbors, who would wake up to an empty pasture and come retrieve their horses. Satisfied with our good deed, we returned to the warmth of our bed, feeling like true wranglers.

That night’s rescue still feels like an unexpected dream. Fortunately, when we awoke to runaway horses we were prepared with oats, equipment, and a place to contain them. To our relief, in this harsh northern landscape, it all ended well.

As writers, we need to be equally prepared to capture unexpected ideas. We need to lasso them with pen and notebook paper, napkin, or grocery bag—whatever’s on hand. Lure them in with a quick note on an iPhone. Sit down at a laptop or computer and start typing. We need to take swift action and capture unexpected ideas when they pass our way. Or risk losing them forever..

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Molting Advice

Debra FrasierI just survived the Great Blizzard of 2016 from a cabin atop a mountain in western North Carolina. When the snow and wind stopped we emerged into a soft, untouched world. Tall snow-heavy pines. Layers of Blue Ridge mountains now white. Silent.

We shoveled.

Two days later I could finally drive down the mountain to a friend’s home and there, on the twisting creekside road, two red cardinals suddenly crossed in front of my car. Piercing red. An event lasting no longer than two seconds.

I should mention that I am currently artistically lost. Me, who once gave lectures on what to do when lost. I am more than lost. Psychically molting, I am the lobster who has outgrown a shell and shivers naked behind the coral arch, waiting for something dreadful to happen, or, in more hopeful moments, the caterpillar turned to mush with absolutely no brain to even invent a conception of the future. Every assured being amazes me—tree, bird, human—how can anything have such strength, bones, shell, wings, purpose?

Debra Frasier letter forms

Those two seconds of red birds flashing magic in front of my car’s first post-blizzard trip pierce this mush. But, I argue, what will it possibly matter if I try to put words to this tiny, tiny, startling moment?

Cardinals’ wings cross,
quick red threads stitch tree to tree
on snowbed’s white quilt.

Later, THIS quote crosses my Facebook (oh, inadequacy!) feed:

“The world is full of magic things
patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”  
W.B. Yeats

In the dark the mush tremors slightly.

So I try again:

Startled red wings cross—
two sudden cardinal threads
stitching winter’s quilt.

Yes. Yeats speaks to ME on Facebook, of all godforsaken places.
Artist wakes artist.

I suddenly realize:
This is what we do to form the long bucket brigade to save each other.

Red flashes, flick, flick,
Two cardinal threads cross-stitch
The slow falling snow.

Debra Frasier Calligraphy

This is the advice I heard deep inside the molting mush: forget everything, every longing for meaning or contribution, for riches, for applause. Simply do this:

Grow your senses sharper.

Yeats told me. On Facebook.

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Writing Books for the Newest Readers

I once believed nothing was harder than writing a picture book. Writing picture books is a cakewalk compared to beginning readers. Kids don’t have to read picture books, just enjoy them. Beginning, or leveled readers, are designed for newly-independent readers who have graduated from phonics texts. Levels vary according to publishers, but usually include an early level for pre-readers and/or kindergarteners.  

I Like Shoes by Candice RansomWhen I wrote I Like Shoes (2005) for Scholastic’s Rookie Reader series, I wasn’t even sure the 44-word rhyming text was a book. It didn’t have much of a story.

The preschool to kindergarten readers have very short texts and are splashed with cheerful illustrations. They look easy to write.  Fun, even! I’ve written three Level 1 (Ready-to-Read) books for the Step into Reading imprint of Random House. I’d love to brag I dash these fripperies off in a day or so, but my orange notebook would be quick to report the fib.

My battered orange spiral notebook is used exclusively for writing level 1 readers. It’s battered because I drag it everywhere. Sometimes I throw it across the room in a fit of frustration. The orange notebook knows I will pick it up with a sigh and go back to the difficult lines I was struggling with.

Sleepy Dog by Harriet ZiefertAt the front of this notebook is a typed version of, at least in my opinion, the Moby Dick of leveled readers. Harriet Ziefert’s Sleepy Dog was first published in 1984 and is still a strong seller. The short charming text about a dog-child going to bed is deceptively simple.  

My first Level 1 ideas were rejected for being too sophisticated, such as the canine etiquette guide written by fleas. Gradually I understood this audience needs stories about their world.

Pumpkin Day by Candice Ransom and illustrated by Erika MezaI finally got it right with Pumpkin Day (2015). The story, about a pumpkin-picking family, employs rhyme and rhythm. Unlike I Like Shoes, Pumpkin Day has a narrative arc. The 113 words were carefully chosen and discarded, revised and reworked, page after scribbled page, as evidenced in the orange notebook.   

Level 1 books teem with action. Illustrations match the narrative. If the reader has trouble decoding the text, the art provides necessary cues. Apple Picking Day (2016) will follow Pumpkin Day.  Same family on a different fall adventure. This story was even harder because there was no story. After you’ve picked pumpkins, what surprises await picking apples? Plus I had to use the same rhyme and rhythm scheme as in Pumpkin Day.

No metaphors, my editor warned. And no contractions. While I wasn’t given a word list, I had to  rely on common sense.  The stanza “Over mountains/cross a bridge/apple orchard/on the ridge” contained “mountains,” “bridge,” and “ridge.” I loved the image of the family’s little yellow car motoring through the countryside, but the stanza had to be changed. The published version (after many scratch-outs in the orange notebook) reads, “Over hill tops,/big and small./I see apples./Hello, fall!”  

Simple wins every time.

For Tooth Fairy Night (2017), I applied a guide of sight words for kindergartners. Draft pages in the orange notebook are littered with tiny marginal lists of one-syllable end rhymes, like stay, away, day, play. Words that seem ridiculously easy to us give the youngest readers pleasure and satisfaction.

I actually love writing these little stories. The orange notebook often sits on the kitchen counter while I fix dinner or wash dishes. I’ll mutter lines or try out rhymes while soaping the same plate over and over. If I’m riding in the car, my trusty notebook rests on my lap like a puppy.  

Sometimes I long to be asked to write a Level 2. Bigger word list! More syllables! Yet I picture a brand-new reader picking up one of my Level 1 books and happily sounding out those hundred or so words to the very end.  The orange notebook and I toast (ink for the notebook, iced tea for me) another reader’s success.

Copyright Evan Sharboneau (via dollarphotoclub.com)

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Lisa Bullard: My Not-So-Overnight Success

ShoesEarly on, when people would ask my kid self what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d answer “Shoe Salesperson.” But then I discovered that feet sometimes smell, and I moved on to a different dream: Book Writer.

I could invent a great story and tell you that I crafted a long-term plan to realize my dream. But instead, this is a tale of false starts and misdirected wanderings. Perhaps you’ll find it inspiring if you’ve made missteps on the way to capturing your own dream!

I wrote all the time as a kid—songs, stories, poems, comic strips. But I didn’t believe that anyone would pay me to do something I loved so much. And my first several jobs didn’t serve as models for fulfilling work: babysitter, fast food employee, cardboard box maker, school janitor.

That meant my expectations for the world of work, even after graduating from college, weren’t all that high. With no clear ambition other than “it would be great to get a job that didn’t involve scraping gum off desks”—a key feature of the school janitor job—I moved to Minneapolis, rented a drafty apartment with my cousin, and took on a series of uninspiring temp jobs. I wrote in my spare time, but my efforts went no further than my file cabinet.

Insurance FormsThen one day I arrived home from my position as Forms Clerk (temporary) at an insurance company to find the first heat bill had arrived. It totaled over $800. And the insurance company had just offered me a job. That is the “carefully plotted” career trajectory that resulted in my position as Chief Forms Clerk (permanent)! But despite this meteoric rise, and my willingness to work very hard, I found I didn’t enjoy sorting forms. I started visiting the human resources department for guidance, and a very kind woman took me under her wing. She gave me a barrage of career assessment tests, then looked me in the eyes and said, “Lisa, I don’t think there IS a job in insurance that will make you happy.”

That HR person did me two great services. First, her notion that happiness might be a valid factor in job selection was a revelation to me. And second, she knew of the Denver Publishing Institute—an intensive summer course focusing on book publishing—and she recommended that I consider attending. A few months later I moved on from the world of insurance and attended the Denver program.

CockroachPerhaps the most important thing I learned there is that publishing houses are money-making enterprises. Publishing is a creative industry full of people dedicated to books and the written word, but it’s also a tough business. Very few people get rich off of books. Day after day at the Institute, publishing professionals came in to share the realities of working in the industry, and they’d all conclude by saying, “If you want to work really hard, make almost no money, and live in a roach-infested apartment in New York, this is the field for you!”

I was willing to take on everything other than the roaches. Fortunately I discovered there was a booming publishing industry in Minnesota, so I flew back home and began my sixteen-year career as a publishing employee. I worked with a lot of amazing people, both co-workers and writers, building relationships I still value highly. I reveled in being able to do work I was passionate about, despite the fact that the warning about low pay proved all too true.

Not Enough Beds!Towards the end of those sixteen years, I celebrated a life-changing event: my first book was published. I believe it finally happened partly because I had continued to refine my writing skills, partly because I had learned what makes a book concept salable, and partly because I had built important connections in the industry. I am the opposite of an overnight success: it took me fourteen years working in publishing to get published myself!

Later, with another book in the wings, I decided to shift my focus from publishing employee to writer, and I started officially calling myself a Children’s Book Writer—a job I am proud to have now celebrated through many years and ninety books. I still don’t make very much money. I still work really hard. Sometimes I even get bored. But I love that I’m actually living my dream, and nobody expects me to scrape gum off desks.

I’m thinking that’s not too shabby for a little girl who once dreamed of selling shoes.

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Lynne Jonell: Accessing Childhood Emotion

Lynne Jonell Childhood Memories

Lynne Jonell’s neighborhood friends

They say that, if you’re a doctor, it’s not something you want to admit to at an event where you’re going to have to make small talk with a lot of strangers. Because invariably people will want your opinion on their rash, or the funny flutter in their chest, or the odd bump on their knee. I wouldn’t know, not being a doctor, but I understand feeling cautious about admitting what I do for a living. Because there are apparently a lot of people who have always wanted to be a children’s author, and most of them have a great idea for a book. Or so they tell me.

The general feeling seems to be that anyone can write a children’s book. They’re so short! And everyone’s been a kid, right? So everyone can write from experience!

It’s all quite true. But while anyone can write a children’s book, more to the point, will anyone want to read it? Learning to write something that children actually want to read (and publishers want to publish) is slightly more tricky than just putting down childhood memories.

For one thing, childhood memories won’t cut it. You can’t just remember. You have to become the child you were; you have to open the door to that inner room where that child still resides, and allow the emotion to hit you in the face. It is a task that requires some bravery. After that, of course, you must call into play all your adult skill to craft a plot and develop your characters—but first, and above all, you have to access the emotion.

If you are one of those people who has always wanted to write for children, you may be wondering how this is done. There are a lot of ways, but I am going to tell you one exercise that is very good. Be careful, though—you may just open the floodgates.

Here is the exercise:

  1. Think back to the house you lived in as a child. If you lived in more than one, pick one. If you are not sure which to pick, choose the one you remember best.
  2. Pick one floor of that house.
  3. Draw a floor plan of that floor, in that house, that you lived in as a child.
  4. Pick a spot somewhere on the floor plan, and mark it with an X.
  5. A memory will come to you of something that happened in that space.
  6. Allow yourself to smell the smells, see the colors, feel the textures of this memory that happened in this room. Allow yourself to feel what you felt then.
  7. Write about this feeling.

Of course you can use this method with your school, your neighborhood, the grocery store from your childhood—but once I became adept at slipping into my child mind, I found that I could use this in wholly made-up worlds as well. If I became stuck at a certain point in a story, for example, I would visualize the spot my character was in, put myself in the place of my character, and experience the sensory details around me just as if it were my own childhood I was re-experiencing. And then I would wait to see what happened next. I would go through a door, or I would open a book, or I would bend down to look at something on the floor. Always, some detail or the other would make itself known to me, and I would pay attention to it. Once I paid attention to the detail, the emotion would follow—and the story would move forward.

I wish I could give credit to the proper person for this exercise, but I honestly can’t remember where I heard it. If any of you do this exercise, I would be interested to hear what happened, though. Did it work for you?

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At the Dying of the Year

by Virginia Euwer Wolff

Now winter downs the dying of the year,

And night is all a settlement of snow… 

—Richard Wilbur, “Year’s End” 

 We all have our circles of particularly mourned lost ones. As our hemisphere darkens down in this elegiac season of the winter equinox, and death has been so relentlessly in the air during 2015, I wave my own little flags of gratitude to some of my mentors and accidental teachers.

bk_Wolff_Robinson160John Rowe Townsend (1922-2014): More than a decade ago, hearing him lecture on the canon, I suddenly admitted to myself that I didn’t actually know Robinson Crusoe. I immediately read it: a surprising 250-year-old story, a survival manual, a panorama of ways of discovering the daily world and of pondering existence.  And just this week, listening to Treasure Island in my car, and being more concerned with hawsers and cutlasses and scoundrel mutineers than with speed limits or miles per gallon of Regular, I thank John again for reminding his audience to go to sea with Jim Hawkins.   

Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007): A lifelong music lover, his instrument was the violin; he told me that he’d played for years in “a wretched quartet” and tactfully agreed with me about a knotty fifth-to-fourth-position shift.  Every hard-working musician should have such piercing lessons as a wretched quartet can teach.  

bk_Wollff_MoreMore160Vera B. Williams (1927-2015): Using her unique microscope, she showed us how tiny injustices are huge injustices and how we might rise to meet them. Among the essential jollities she celebrated: More, More, More, Said the Baby. Reading it with a very young child can’t not make each of us feel better. And her radiant Scooter let new light and air into my world.

Walter Dean Myers (1937-2014): Brenda Bowen put a copy of a new book called Fallen Angels in my hands in 1989. That story sharply shifted the way I looked at 1968, a year I thought I had known. His books can teach us about every war ever, between two people or among millions. In our recent  epidemic of urban violence and despair, I’ve heard myself sermonizing at the evening news: “They haven’t had enough Walter Dean Myers to read!”

bk_WolffNation160Sir Terry Pratchett (1948-2015): The giant turtle swims slowly through space, and on its shell four elephants walk in a circle, and on their backs they balance Discworld, whose inhabitants carry on with a ludicrousness we can recognize. But it’s his novel Nation that holds pride of place in my bookshelves, where Mau and Daphne go about their baffling, complicating work, encouraging me by their example as I go about trying to do mine. 

Tom Feelings (1933-2003): In his hands the shattering story of The Middle Passage is a collection of 64 black and white images, a tragic ballet of almost incomprehensible cruelty. And every time the media bring me news of a new document or movie or play or poem, promising newly penetrating articulation of the appalling crime of enslavement, Tom Feelings’ indelible portraits speak up again, making the unfathomable fathomable, shaping the severest ugliness into profoundly affecting art.

bk_Middle-Passage600

Ruth Heller (1923-2004): Tireless, vibrant artist, cheerleader for grammar. Ruth and I cruised down the Yangtze River together. She bought a pair of woven boat trackers’ sandals on the sunshiny bank of the narrow Shennong Stream. “What are you going to do with those?” I asked her. “I’m going to hang them in my studio.” “Oh! Then me, too!” (Ever since entering elementary school, I’ve been copying people who know more than I do.) My pair of rope sandals hangs in my studio to this day. Visitors ask about them, giving me opportunities to tell about Ruth and the river.  

George Gibian (1924-1999): When I was in college, one professor encouraged me as a writer. By the time I grasped that I should thank Mr. Gibian (a man of modest, dignified mien and daring intellect) in the acknowledgments of a book, I found that he had died two years earlier.  

Mark Harris (1922-2007): The next teacher to encourage me, 25 years later.  It was he, during a summer walk on the Oregon coast, who directed me to sit in my chair and stay there and keep writing.  The dizzying reverberations of our lunchtime ramble settled down after a while and I did what he said.

bk_WolffKooserLet’s listen to Poet Laureate Emeritus Ted Kooser in Local Wonders:

Life is a long walk forward through the crowded cars of a passenger train, the bright world racing past beyond the windows, people on either side of the aisle, strangers whose stories we never learn, dear friends whose names we long remember and passing acquaintances whose names and faces we take in like a breath and soon breathe away.  

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Mary Casanova: Cultivating Quiet

by Mary Casanova

bk_WeltyEudora Welty wrote in One-Writer’s Beginnings: “Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories.”

The more I write, the more I find that writing is about listening to stories that need to be told. Listening at a deeply intuitive level, however, demands shutting out a frenetic world in favor of a quieter life—one that supports and nurtures creativity—and writing.

Several decades ago, my husband and I left St. Paul for life on the Northern Minnesota border. We were both drawn—then and now—to a quiet, contemplative life. These days, we spend plenty of time at our cabin reading by the woodstove or hiking through the woods. Living “Up North” has meant less time in traffic, less city noise, and more time to gaze up at stars and listen . . . sometimes to a chorus of spring peepers, other times to a distant pack of howling wolves.

It would seem my environment is perfect for writing. It mostly is—when I’m home.

bk_FrozenThe reality of being a full time author means leading a dual life: one is an intuitive, introverted life of writing and the other is a performance-based, extroverted world of speaking and meeting the public. Speaking, touring, and social media are all important means of staying connected with readers, but none of those activities translate into writing time.

Some authors write on the road. Some don’t. I’m one of the latter. After presenting all day at a school or conference, I’m spent. I can return to my hotel room and tinker with revisions. I can jot down bits and pieces of ideas. But I do my real writing when I return home and sink into four-hour blocks of uninterrupted quiet.

That’s one kind of quiet necessary to the actual work of writing. The other kind of quiet comes by listening to the subconscious. When I’m not at my computer, for instance, I’m carrying stories in my head as I bake in the kitchen, gather eggs from our chickens, or clean out horse stalls.

bk_graceThere’s also something magical about that quiet time in the early hours of morning, just between first stirring and becoming fully awake. I’ve learned to cultivate an extra 10 minutes in bed to “listen” to where my story needs to go next. I often get the answers to questions I have about a current work-in-progress.

Of course, whether in the city or the country, life doesn’t always offer easy stretches of quiet. You often have to seek it. When our two children were little, quiet was hard to come by. I carved out time. I wrote during their naps and started going on writing retreats. When our kids  became teenagers and our home was filled with their garage-band friends and electric guitars, I found a small studio to escape to. I learned early on that if I didn’t value my writing needs, no one else would either. And the past few years, I’ve needed to forgo days of writing time to help care for my 86-year old mother who has Alzheimer’s. What matters is not waiting “for the kids to go to college,” as I’ve heard more than once, or “when I retire” but to claim uninterrupted blocks of writing time wherever life finds you.

More than ever, in a hyper-paced world, writers need to cultivate quiet to hear the whispers of story within.

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The Power of Fiction to Help Kids Grow

by Elizabeth Fixmer

bk_SaintTrainingThe years I spent in private practice as a psychotherapist specializing in work with children propelled me to become a children’s writer. My use of books as a therapy adjunct evolved over time, as did my respect and eventual awe for the power of fiction as a change agent. My young clients introduced me to middle-grade and young-adult novels. But it was a few years into my practice before I started to appreciate what stories had to offer these kids.

It started when a nine-year-old excitedly brought me a middle-grade novel and begged me to read it because, “It says exactly how I feel.” She, like most kids, had been struggling to find words to express her feelings. She was relieved to find the words right there on the page, and to recognize that her feelings were shared by other children. When kids have words to express themselves they can better communicate their own. And when stories show a way for them to appropriately express those feelings, they begin to develop tools for their own expression. But this was only the beginning of what stories could offer.

bk_down_mountain_160At first I tried using self-help books that matched the child’s main issue—divorcing parents, bullies, and behavioral problems, to name a few. The child’s eyes would glaze over and her attention would drift. Similarly, when I tried to discuss the issue directly, my young clients would say, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

But when I tried using stories, made up, or through published fiction, kids started to make progress. Kids were riveted and they started to make progress. They laughed and cried with the characters. They offered advice to the characters or asked what I would do to help in this, all without revealing how and why they related to the protagonist.

Stories also offer distance between the character’s and child’s struggles. The child lives vicariously through the protagonists’ adventures and struggles, feeling what the character is feeling and, if the story is compelling enough, changing right along with the protagonist. This made perfect sense because, as a therapist I knew that change would not occur through intellect alone. Emotional growth requires engaging the emotions. And I saw that what the fictional child concludes about his or her problem—and how he or she moves forward, can become a road map for the real child.

bk_GillyA great example of this is Katherine Patterson’s novel, The Great Gilly Hopkins. Gilly starts out as an oppositional child who refuses to believe that her mother doesn’t want her and bucks the foster care system with incorrigible behavior. Through the firm hand and loving kindness of her new foster mother, Gilly’s behavior changes and when she finally has a chance to spend time with her birth mother, she comes to understand and accept her mother’s limitations. I would ask my client to do role plays in which we’d act out possible conversations between Gilly and her foster mom, Mrs. Trotter so that my client could express her anger about moving from foster home to foster home giving my young client the opportunity to express her feelings about having so many foster placements. Then we’d role play Gilly conversing with her biological mother. My client would play both roles and when I played the mother I’d make sure “Gilly” was granted permission to go on with life and be happy.

Another story that I found particularly helpful with adoption issues was The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis. Adopted children who have lived with their biological parents and/or have had multiple placements will often reject their new parents even though the parents’ have an abundance of love to offer. The Last Battle offered me the opportunity to help kids see that no one could make them, or help them, take in what was offered.

bk_LastBattleI would share the scene in which Lucy had died and found herself back in Narnia—a perfect Narnia. Everyone was happy except for a little group of gnomes who seemed to be suffering terribly. Lucy begs Aslan (a representation of Christ) to forgive their offenses and let them enjoy this heaven. Aslan takes Lucy to them. He offers them beautiful trays of fruits and nuts and various meats. They reject it, seeing it as dog dung and they continue to starve. They complain of the cold so he offers them furs, but they perceive the furs as porcupine needles. The offers and rejections continue until Aslan turns sadly to Lucy and reminds her that we all have free will and no one can make us take the good we are offered. Time and again, my young clients would, themselves link this to how they were rejecting their adoptive parents. They would sob. They knew that deep inside they longed for the love and discipline their adoptive parents offered. These sessions with Lewis’s book proved to be a turning point for several kids.

I no longer practice psychotherapy. Instead I write. My clinical experience convinced me that what I wanted to do was create of stories with the power to change lives. My two published books include Saint Training and Down from the Mountain. These two, and a third in progress, are about issues of social justice, and the young lives affected by these issues. They help to develop a social conscience.

Because of my professional background, I’ve also been given the opportunity to create and write social/emotional guides for teachers, parents and counselors to use with specific books – picture books through YA—that will foster discussion, identify and label feelings, and will promote pro-social values and cross-cultural appreciation. This is exciting for me because it’s another avenue to help kids grow through fiction.

I’m forever grateful to the young clients who introduced me to the novels they loved and in doing so, placed in my hands powerful and personal agents of change.

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Marion Dane Bauer: Animals in Stories, Animals in the World

11_24_puppyby Marion Dane Bauer

Who doesn’t love a puppy? Well, admittedly there are some folks who don’t, especially considering how difficult both ends of such creatures are to keep under control. So let’s rephrase the question: Who doesn’t love a puppy in a children’s story? Or even a frog or a toad, for that matter?

Something happens to a story when it is populated by animals, something easy to feel but difficult to define. Perhaps it’s what a sales rep for one of my publishers once referred to as “the aw factor,” not awe but aw-w-w-w! He predicted my upcoming picture book would be successful because it had “the aw factor.”

Animal characters are so completely themselves, so utterly without layers or complications. The big, bad wolf will always be big and bad. Lassie will always faithful and true, making her way home. And we respond to each with our whole hearts, hating or loving.

I once had a student, a mature woman, who refused to read any story that threatened injury or death to an animal, no matter how well written, no matter how well earned the story’s traumatic action might be. But that same reader was not in the least offended by On My Honor, my novel in which a child dies. I suspect she is not alone in her response.

11_24RuntTo take her side, at least for a moment, I’ll admit it is entirely too easy to elicit tears through an animal’s death, especially when the animal is somewhat peripheral to the story. I used such a plot device myself in a long-ago novel, Rain of Fire. Perhaps, were I to rewrite that story, I would still decide to kill the fictional cat, though I’m aware these days of my own increasing caution about such dramatic/traumatic plot turns. In part that may be because I have learned to employ more subtle devices. Maybe the shift has come, too, from growing older and wanting the world around me to be a bit . . . well, gentler, I guess.

In Runt, my novel in which the characters are members of a wolf pack, animals die, too, and the deaths are affecting. The difference, however, is that I entered the story knowing some death must occur if I intended to represent accurately the reality of the wolves’ lives. And as with any other strong action, to be effective—to be drama rather than melodrama—the plot moment must rise out of the necessity of the characters, not be imposed from on high.

11_24MamaOwenBut what about the picture-book lamb that goes out into the world and gets lost from his mother, the story I demanded be read to me again and again and again when I was a preschooler? Or the baby hippo who is separated from his pod during a tsunami and ends up bonding with a giant male tortoise, his real-life story presented in my picture book, A Mama for Owen? Or what about another of my picture books, If You Were Born a Kitten, in which I lead up to a presentation of a child’s birth through first depicting the births of various animals? How does the animal nature of the characters impact us as readers?

11_24Little-CatAnimals, the living ones as well as those that rise off the page, seem to call forth a purity of response from us. They capture our whole hearts: Jane Goodall’s chimps, the dog who lies at my feet as I write this, the little cat mother in my upcoming verse novel, Little Cat’s Luck. They all touch into the most tender, the most human part of ourselves.

And because they are so fully themselves, we become more fully who we are capable of being, caring, generous, grateful.

Blessed to share our planet—and our stories—with other species.

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Jen Bryant: The Writing Apprenticeship

by Jen Bryant

TRW book cover w sealsSeveral months ago, I was asked to be on a panel for a new-writers workshop. During the question and answer period, one woman commented: “I keep hearing that writing is a craft that requires time and practice to master. I get that . . . but as someone who’s eager to be an apprentice but has neither the time nor money to enroll in an MFA program, how—exactly—do I go about finding someone who’s qualified, willing, and available to mentor me?”

It was a great question—one which we took turns answering, based on our unique personal experiences. That panel made me recall the details of my own (very long, circuitous road) to becoming a published children’s author, and how I found my own “Master writers” from whom I learned a great deal about the art and craft of writing. This is what I told her . . . . .

After spending the first seven years after college as a French teacher and H.S. X-C coach, I began my writing life almost by accident: We relocated in the middle of the school year and I suddenly had no full-time job. I continued to teach part-time, but I also began some freelance writing. I wrote magazine articles and book reviews and compiled quotes for a gift-book company.

At first, I got by using the “trial and error” method (accent on the error!) and working on my own when my baby daughter napped. In college, I’d majored in foreign languages, not English or Creative Writing, so while I had no formal training, I also had very low expectations. In retrospect, this was an advantage: I had no preconceived notions about what was “acceptable” and so moved freely between genres and formats—experimenting, failing, and trying again. That got me through the first couple of years . . . but I got to a point where I wanted to write better.

georgias-bonesI’d published several essays and reviews in literary magazines and I was reading a lot of poetry (and trying to write my own), when I stumbled upon my first professional mentor. While attending a reading at a Philadelphia bookstore, I saw a flyer for a workshop run by a local poet-professor. Disappointed that I couldn’t make the scheduled classes, I asked her if, instead, she’d be willing to meet me for twice-a-month tutoring sessions. She agreed, and thus began my first true writing apprenticeship, held in a bakery on South Street (I can still smell those cranberry scones!)

It would take me pages to explain what I learned from her, but suffice to say that despite my being a “published author” I knew in my heart that I was just starting to learn how to write. She assigned monthly readings, critiqued my poetry drafts, shared her own drafts and finished poems, and answered hundreds of questions.

When she moved away for her job, I continued my writing apprenticeship with another Philadelphia poet. His style was very different, but that stretched me in new directions and made me experiment even more. I learned so much from him, that when he, too, moved on to a new job in Colorado, we continued to exchange work by mail. [** I should note that neither of these poets wrote for children, and that nearly ALL of what I read and wrote while working under their guidance was aimed at adults, not kids. Nonetheless, everything they taught me has influenced and improved my writing for young people.]

11_10Bryant_Jen, Eileen, Jerry

l-r: Jen, Eileen Spinelli, Jerry Spinelli

About this time, I got to know Jerry and Eileen Spinelli, who lived nearby and whose books I’d admired for years. As our friendship grew, they became mentors of a different sort, answering questions about picture books (Eileen convinced me to turn one of my “art poems” into my first picture book, Georgia’s Bones), editors (Jerry connected me with his editor, Joan Slattery at Knopf, who became my editor for the next decade), and bolstering my spirits through the inevitable ups and downs of book publishing. Where my previous mentors had been about skill development, the “nuts & bolts” of craft, the Spinellis were more like gear-greasers, facilitating my foray into children’s literature and cheering each small success.

I was lucky to find these people, I know—but I believe I also made my own luck: I created a workshop tutorial where there was none; I persevered in my apprenticeship through changes in logistics, geographical distance, and personal/ family demands—and I made my writing life a priority.

I truly believe that, with a little persistence, anyone can find a writing mentor, someone (or a series of someones) who can be both Teacher and Guide on their otherwise solitary journey.

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Liza Ketchum: Serendipity

ph_Ketchum_2015

Liza Ketchum

Serendipity is one of my favorite words. I love its dancelike sound and the way it trips off the tongue. According to my dictionary, serendipity means “the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.”

I find the etymology of words fascinating. Even as a child, I liked to study the maps that show the relationship and origins of Indo-European languages. (Here’s an animated version.) So where does the word serendipity come from?

My American Heritage dictionary traces the word’s origins to the English writer Horace Walpole, who supposedly coined the word in a 1754 letter to a friend. Walpole described a Persian fairy tale he had read, concerning three princes from Serendip. The brothers—highly accomplished, smart, and artistic—were banished from their kingdom by their father, the king. Wandering in a foreign land, they encountered a merchant who had lost his camel. The brothers used powers of deduction—which we now associate with detective fiction—to find the camel. Walpole said, “They were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” 

Things they were not in quest of. This phrase made me think of other famous discoveries that happen by accident—such as the penicillin mold that grew when Alexander Fleming left a Petri dish on his windowsill by mistake, or the burrs that attached themselves to George de Mestral’s clothes on a mountain hike, giving him the idea for Velcro. Serendipity also makes me think about moments in our writing lives when incidents, events, and ideas merge to trigger a Eureka! moment.

bk_When-Women-Were-BirdsThree years ago, at a Hamline University summer residency, I opened a new notebook late one night, and scrawled these words: “The Last Garden.” The title had come to me after I read the first two entries in Terry Tempest Williams’ brilliant book, When Women Were Birds, a gift from Phyllis Root. Williams wrote the memoir after her mother died and she uncovered a shocking truth about her life. I had recently lost both parents, so Williams’s topic pulled me in. I was also drawn to the book by its format: a series of short vignettes, forking off a single idea like branches on a tree. Vignettes seemed like a manageable, less daunting way to deal with personal subject matter. But wait—since when was I planning to write about gardens?

That same morning, as we discussed our workshops, Phyllis told me that she planned to ask her students that great question: “What would you write if you knew you could not fail?” It made me think of Mary Oliver, who demands, in her poem “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?” 

For years I had tried to write a memoir about my relationship with my grandmother, and the Vermont house where I spent my childhood summers, but I couldn’t find a unifying thread. When I wrote those words—“The Last Garden”—I realized that gardens—and gardeners—could provide that unity. My husband and I had just purchased a sweet house, down the road a mile from my grandmother’s old place. The property came with overgrown lilacs and tangled, overgrown gardens that concealed peonies, foxgloves, and an asparagus bed. Though I have gardened all my life, I realized this would be the last garden I would create from scratch.

Since that moment at Hamline, the focus of my writing has changed dramatically. In addition to the memoir, I’ve been writing essays and articles about nature and the environment. I’m working on two non-fiction projects, focused on environmental subjects, with my dear friends Phyllis Root and Jackie Briggs Martin. All thanks to serendipity.

Perhaps the best thing about serendipity is that we can’t explain how it happens. Who could predict that the loss of my parents, the gift of a wise book written in an appealing form, and the right question at the right time—would coincide with ideas I was “not in quest of”?

ph_camelMeanwhile, as I wrestle with the memoir’s final vignettes, I can’t help thinking of that missing camel that—as the Serendip brothers predicted—was lame, blind in one eye, and lumbered under the weight of a leaking sack of honey, a bag of butter, and a pregnant woman.

Uh oh. Doesn’t that sound like a picture book, waiting to happen?

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Avi: Bags of Cement

ph_CementBagsFor reasons both boring and complex, I currently find myself under obligation to deliver four novels before the next twelve months are out. Two are written, but undergoing revisions. A third has started. The fourth has nothing on paper; only in my mind. Is it an accident that my shoulders have been aching, as if I had been carrying bags of cement up a ladder? 

When friends hear of this they ask, “How you going to do that?” The answer is, by sitting in front of my computer and working from about seven AM until seven PM. I’ll take Thanksgiving and Christmas off. Joke.

There is something to be said for deadline writing, especially when you make your living that way. Yet, I suspect the term “deadline” came about because when you reach the finishing line, you are dead. Then again, one of my sons is a journalist, and he has daily, sometimes hourly deadlines. I admire that, from a distance. He considers my pace “leisurely.”

That said, working obsessively has its own rewards. You do not put up with your own nonsense. Prolixity means more work. Repetition is to be dreaded, and cut. Lean, sharp writing flows. Bad writing is a like a wash-board road. You become so immersed in your story you think about it all the time, which can be very productive. (Wait! What if she does this? Shouldn’t he say that?)

ph_WashboardRoad_smYou can, if you write a lot, move quickly on to the next project because you have no choice. You can’t fall in love with your work because you are not engaged in a life-long relationship. Honestly, when I read about the writers who spend ten years (or more) on a novel, my heart goes out to them. Groundhog Day was a funny, clever movie, but I for one would not like to live my writing life that way.

Moreover, if you are always writing, it is hard to feel riveted to the outcome of your just-published work. Sure, it’s fun to read the reviews (the good ones that is), but by the time that book is being published, I am so involved in the next book, it is not so very important. I feel sorry for the writer who cannot move on until the full cycle (writing-revision-publishing-response) is complete.

And yet . . . and yet, I have the responsibility (to my readers, my publishers, and myself) to make each book good, as good as I can. This is difficult because no book is ever truly done. I can always find ways to make it better. Not so long ago I picked up a just-published book (I had worked on it for more than a year) and read the first paragraph. Instantly I realized I should have added an element to the plot that would have made it a much better book. Too late.

Would I rather work on one book at a time, work on it from start to finish, before moving on to the next? Sure. 

But no matter how you do it, writing is rather like carrying bags of cement up a ladder. The real problem is—I love doing it.

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Melissa Stewart: A Different View

9_30BubblesRecently, I spent several weeks struggling with a work in progress. Day after day, the words just wouldn’t flow.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there’s no way to force a stubborn manuscript. I just have to focus on something else until my mind somehow sorts things out. Sometimes I begin work on a different book, but in this case, I decided to tackle a long-neglected task—organizing my digital photos.

As I sorted images, I stumbled upon this fun photo of my nieces when they were 6 and 8 years old. What are they doing? They’re discussing the rainbow patterns in the soap bubbles they just blew—a pursuit I approve of whole heartedly.

9_15Bubbles

Seeing this photo reminded me of another experience I had with my nieces the same summer. We were out in the backyard doing somersaults and cartwheels (Well, they were doing the gymnastics. I was the delighted audience.) when my younger niece suddenly stopped mid-tumble—butt in the air, head between her legs.

“Wow,” she said. “I never looked at the sky like this before. It’s beautiful. Try it, Aunt Mis.”

Sure, I wanted to uphold my status as her favorite aunt, but I was also curious. So I walked out onto the grass and mimicked her position. And do you know what? She was right. The sky really was extraordinarily beautiful.

My other niece joined us, and all three of us stayed in that position, just gazing at the stunning  blue sky for quite a while—until the blood rushed to our heads.

Thinking about that day reminded me that looking at something from another point of view—turning it upside down or inside out—can help us appreciate it in a whole new way. Inspired by that memory, I decided to read portions of my troublesome manuscript while lying on my back with my head dangling upside down off the edge of the bed.

Sounds crazy, right?

But guess what. A few hours later I was suddenly struck by an idea, an insight. Something had shifted in my mind, and I was able to see my writing in a whole new way. Eureka!

For the last few days, I’ve been revising like mad. I’m still not sure if this new approach will work, but I’m feeling optimistic.

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Debra Frasier: A Series of Mistakes

Fifteen years ago my ten year old daughter came home with a story.

“Mom, “ she said, “today I figured out that “miscellaneous” is NOT a person.”

9_15CreamettesI burst out laughing. “So who did you think it was?” I asked.

“I thought she was that woman on the green spaghetti box…”

I saved her gift-of-a-mistake in my little journal and ended up unwrapping it in a lonely hotel room in southern Wisconsin after a particularly miserable book signing of three people. I was also licking my wounds from a failed grant attempt of huge proportions, so the book signing had only added insult to injury. I stayed in my little hotel room that night and to escape my own life I opened my journal and started to play with miscellaneous = Miss Alaineus.

9_15miss-alaineus_250I did make my daughter’s gift into a story and only fierce determination by my editor at Harcourt at the time, (Allyn Johnston, now with her own imprint, Beach Lane Books, at S&S), did it get published despite being deemed: “too long, too smart, to weirdly illustrated.” Fifteen years and over 150,000 copies later it remains in print and has inspired what may be my proudest contribution to elementary schools:

The Vocabulary Parade!

In the story our vocabulary-smart heroine mistakes the word miscellaneous, for Miss Alaineus, and great embarrassment ensues. But! Like a lot of mistakes and wayward paths, it sparks a creative leap and she enters the annual Vocabulary Parade as Miss Alaineus, winning the gold award—and proving her mother right:

There is gold in every mistake.

To my astonishment the Vocabulary Parade is now replicated in schools all over the world. I nudged this along with support materials in the back matter of the book and at my website. Take a look at the slew of ingenious costumes for words like PARALLEL, or PHASES, or VOLUMINOUS. When I enter a school as the classrooms are preparing for a Vocabulary Parade I still get goose bumps and teary-eyed. Creativity literally bursts around me like fireworks and the energy in the school lifts the roof ever so slightly off its rafters. Parents come and line the halls to watch the parade of costumed words, (or like Cedar Lake School, sit in lawn chairs surrounding the school’s outdoor walkway, 400+ parents strong after six consecutive annual events). Kids talk about their costumes and words for weeks before. Photos keep the words alive in the air for weeks after. It is a miraculous vocabulary enrichment event disguised as an art project: the BEST kind of learning!

Remember: all this grew out of a series of mistakes! This is my living proof that it is not “the event” but how we handle the event that matters. My daughter could have buried her mistake instead of laughing with me, I could have drowned my sorrows that night in Wisconsin instead of writing my sighs away, my editor could have joined the doubters…on and on. 

Fall brings costumed events around the United States. Celebrate a Vocabulary Parade in your community and see exactly what I mean: the contagious creativity in students and families will delight and inspire you. Send me a picture of any costumes that makes you smile—that’s the gold I collect, year after year.

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Candice Ransom: Being Ten

Ivy Honeysuckle coverEvery summer I wish I was ten again, the perfect age for the perfect season. At that age I was at the height of my childhood powers. And as a reader, books couldn’t be thrust into my hands fast enough.

Every morning I’d eat a bowl of Rice Krispies, with my book at the table (my mother wouldn’t let me do this at supper, though I often kept my library book open on the seat of the next chair). Then I’d go out to my tree house to watch birds and read the day into being. Whatever I was reading—fiction or nonfiction—shaped my daily experiences. I longed to live in books.

At ten, I had mastered writing and drawing to the degree that I was comfortable moving back and forth between words and images. With pencil, paper, and crayons, I could slip into the world beyond the printed page. I “continued” the story in the book, or drew pictures, sometimes copying the illustrations. I loved the reckless, sketchy lines of Beth and Joe Krush’s drawings in The Borrowers. And I drew precise, tiny black cats, like the ones Superstitious coverErik Blegvad often included in books he illustrated, like The Diamond in the Window, and Superstitious? Here’s Why?

Books led my ten-year-old self to places beyond my small Virginia landscape. In The Talking Tree, a novel about Pacific Northwest Native Americans, I was desperate to make my own totem pole. I glued three empty thread spools together and tried to etch a stylized raven, wolf, and beaver with the pointed end of a nail file that kept skidding off the smooth wooden surface.

My cousins got roped into acting out a Nancy Drew story. After reading The Mystery of the Leaning Chimney, I buried my mother’s Japanese sake cup, brought back by my uncle during WWII, in our back yard. When my cousins rolled up, I ran to meet their station wagon.

“Mama’s valuable foreign vase has been stolen!” I exclaimed, showing the boys the sinister-sounding note I’d written.

“Aw, you wrote that,” Eugene said, recognizing my handwriting.

Pumpkin Day cover“No, really, it’s from the vase stealer!” I was shocked at his unwillingness to suspend disbelief, but undeterred. I dragged them all over the yard, digging holes until I “stumbled” on the buried cup.

What made that summer special was the freedom to read. I read during the school year, of course, and even in class when I was supposed to be working on fractions, but pleasure reading time was squished to weekend afternoons and bedtime. Summer, however, was one Great Big Reading Fest.

Best of all, I wasn’t hobbled by a summer reading list. I grew up in an era in which teachers turned kids loose in June, glad not to clap eyes on them again until after Labor Day. Now many elementary schools ask students to read to prevent “Summer Slide.” The random lists I checked offer a wide variety of books in a range of reading levels. But the reading list noose tightens in middle and high schools. Students are often required to read from a more specific list and write a paper.

In her recent Washington Post piece, educator Michelle Rhee admits her own childhood dislike of summer reading lists that included such titles as Anne of Green Gables and other books she trudged through with little interest. As a teacher, and later as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, she recognized the value of summer reading programs. But she also believes students should choose their own books.

A few weeks ago, I wandered the nonfiction children’s section in our public library. A boy around ten sat cross-legged on the floor, a book on helicopters open in his lap. I guessed he had pulled the book from the shelf and plunked right down to read it.

“Mom!” he said. “You have to see this! It’s the most amazing thing in the world!”

Yes, I agreed silently. It is the most amazing thing in the world to watch a child just the right age fall into a book of his choice. I hoped he would keep that glorious part of his self always. Let books continue to guide him, pull him in, shape his day.

 

 

 

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Lisa Bullard: My Superpower

When I do school visits, the students treat me like a superhero. The time with them is exhilarating, and it would take a much more hardened heart than mine to resist the curiosity and imagination these young people exhibit. But my classroom days also leave me bone-deep exhausted. One afternoon, midway through a weeklong residency, I lay down in my front yard when I arrived back home, too tired to tackle the Mount Everest that had replaced my front steps.

orange starThat’s one of the reasons I stand in awe of classroom teachers. The degree of patience and endurance that they require to show up day after day for an entire school year astounds me. I also have a secret theory that education majors are trained in super-human bladder control. For my part, I need to stay fully hydrated to survive school visit days—which means I develop an early awareness of the restroom layout for any school I visit. That’s how I got to be particularly friendly with one young writer who I’ll call Jake. In his particular school, there was a handy faculty restroom just off of the nurse’s office. Between classes I’d duck in, and more often than not find Jake sitting on the nurse’s bed.

“Hey, Mrs. Writer Lady,” he’d invariably greet me, and we’d exchange pleasantries and chat about the activities I had planned for his classroom that day.

After several more restroom visits, I became worried about Jake. The little guy seemed to spend a good part of his school day in the nurse’s office, and I imagined an array of chronic diseases that might be the culprit. I finally caught a rare moment where the nurse was present but Jake was not, and understanding that she couldn’t reveal confidential medical information, I told her of my concern for Jake’s health. She laughed, waving a hand.

gr_Zap“Jake’s not sick,” she said. “They just stash the sent-to-the-principal students in here when the principal is away.” In other words, Jake was That Kid: the one who spends a good part of his educational experience getting into trouble, disrupting other students, and being sent to the principal’s office. Yet this side of his nature was completely foreign to me—when I worked with his class, he was enthusiastic and engaged, cheerfully creating a highly imaginative piece about a polar bear who McGuyver-ed bubblegum to solve his story’s conflict.

Jake was my first hands-on evidence of something I’ve observed time and again during my classroom visits: stories can have the power to reach That Kid in a way that few other things can. I’ve now had many teachers seek me out after class to tell me about That Kid in their classroom: how, to the teacher’s great surprise, That Kid was able to focus, to behave, to show enthusiasm, for my story-writing activity in a way That Kid seldom can for other classroom activities. Stories certainly aren’t the magic fix for every struggling kid, but I now believe strongly that they can sometimes work wonders for That Kid.

blue starMost superheroes need a superpower: mine is stories. I work really hard to make my school visits fun (hence the need for all that hydration!). But the truth is, I’m not an entertainer by nature—I’m a writer who spends most of my work days alone with imaginary characters and a cat. So the credit for the ability to reach some of those hardest-to-reach kids should rightfully go to the power of story rather than to me. That means that any classroom that allows time for pleasure reading and creative writing can tap into that power, too.

You just need to stock up on good books, sharp pencils, and not-empty-for-long notebooks, and Kapow! Zap! Boom! It will be superhero time in your classroom (or living room) before you know it.

 

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Lynne Jonell: Justice in Another World

by Lynne Jonell

Jonell_Lock200I just met a woman who lived through horrifying emotional abuse as a child.

I had been told about her history some years before; but when I met the woman, we didn’t mention it. We talked instead about books, a subject of common interest, and teaching, her passion.

I made an effort to forget what I knew about her past; it was awful enough for her to have lived through it without my thinking about it while we talked, like a bystander at a crime scene who keeps casting surreptitious glances at the pooling blood beneath a blanket-covered mound.

But I couldn’t keep my thoughts entirely disciplined. Mostly, I was in awe—that she had survived, that she had become a kind person, a contributing member of society with a generous heart. And now, days later, I am still thinking about—let’s call her “Jean.”

I know there are evil things done in this world, but for the most part they are things that one reads about in papers, or hears on the news. To sit across from someone who lived through what Jean had was something more real, and in the days following our lunch date I went back to it over and over again, trying each time to make sense of her story somehow.

Jonell_CatAfloat200I suppose it will end up being worked out in a book. It’s happened before. There are people in my life I have tried to comprehend, and events and themes that have concerned me deeply. I have worried them all like a dog might a bone until they took shape as characters and plot points, and then I wrote them down.

In my book Emmy & the Incredible Shrinking Rat, where did Miss Barmy, the world’s most evil nanny, come from? I know, but I’m not telling. Why does the man in her life keep going back to her in spite of everything? That is something that mystifies me as well and I try to make sense of it on the page.Jonell_Villain200

In my newest book, The Sign of the Cat, the Earl of Merrick is the hero of the nation, universally admired and honored—but this front hides a dangerous criminal (and he’s mean to kittens, too.) Where did this villain come from? I didn’t know while I was writing the story, but I am beginning to understand now.

Why is it so important to write about villains? Why not just write about good people, and good choices?

Jonell_Shadow-at-Door200Because evil does exist in this world, and children know it. They may not know it in all its horror, but they get the concept; and they’re afraid of the dark. And they passionately want justice.

I want justice, too. And I want to tell the truth. So I write fantasy.

Fantasy is a time-honored method of speaking truth when truth is too difficult to face straight on. I can write about child abandonment, abduction, and murder, and if I include talking cats, it’s considered perfectly suitable for children. Fantasy softens the sharp edges, Jonell_Cat200distances the reality, so that it becomes possible to look at deep truths and deep fears without being overwhelmed.

Fantasy has another purpose, too. It can carry readers far, far away from the circumstances of their lives. It can take a lonely and abused child, like Jean, to another world entirely; a world where such a child has a chance, and a voice; a world where evil is unequivocal and called by its name.

Jonell_Hand200Being told from birth that you are less than everyone else takes its toll. Being told you are worthless can make you feel as if you are drowning in a sea of rejection and pain.  But for a few hours in time, as long as it takes to read a book, such a child can forget; such a child can identify with a character, can put on courage, can hope for a happy ending.

Jean loved books as a child. I like to think that the books she read helped her make it through. And there are many children like Jean, right now, today, caught in situations they feel powerless to change. I want to give them what I can: a world where justice comes at last, be the battle ever so unequal.

***

Illustrations by Lynne Jonell, from The Sign of the Cat

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Virginia Euwer Wolff: Considering Flaubert

by Virginia Euwer Wolff

Flaubert photo

Gustave Flaubert

For years I’ve taken primitive comfort in Gustave Flaubert‘s mid-nineteenth century remark in a letter to a friend: “Last week I spent five days writing one page.”

And Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac reminded us (Dec. 12, 2014) that Flaubert often put in a comma one day and took it out the next. Yes, sure, fine, yeah, we all do that, and we can tell the keyboard, or the cat, whoever keeps us company, that in these insertions and deletions we’re honoring Flaubert and the noble tradition. But these hours of wifty indecisiveness may instead illustrate my own inability to perceive accurately, rather than Flaubert’s lofty aesthetic.

In this same Writer’s Almanac we hear that Flaubert said this (translated from the French):

It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire     universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I  was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red  sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.

We’ve all been told: Write what you know. Some of us have rolled our eyes when we hear it. A couple of decades ago, Winnie Morris  was the first author I heard say this to that: “Instead of writing what I know, I work at writing what I want to find out about.”

Ah, yes. Did Jean Craighead George know how she herself would live with wolves when she sat down to begin Julie of the Wolves? Did Tolstoy know how Kutuzov brooded? Had Jerry Pinkney ever been a majestic Serengeti lion in violent distress? We can bet that J.K. Rowling didn’t even know the Quidditch rules when she began.

My hunch: Gustave Flaubert, that man of scandalously racy mind, knew not a whit or a jot about actually being a horse or a leaf. I’m willing to guess that instead he paid scrupulous attention to things, cultivating a visceral sense of life in motion, an immersion in the drift of passionate giving and taking, using and being used, of hope, sorrow, envy, greed, kindliness, faith and faithlessness, of the plucky pulse of planet earth breathing. How else could he know about “love-drowned eyes”? And those things he had to learn about included horse and leaf. And he helped himself to them.

I think that must have been how he was able to force me to the front of my chair and cause me to plead, “Oh, no, Emma! Not him! Please, no!” Just as I want to leap from my seat and shout at Romeo in the tomb: “No! Don’t!” And to cheer Winnie Foster on as she makes her choice not to drink the water at Treegap. And every time I write “for deposit only” on a check, Dicey Tillerman comes to mind, and I thank Cynthia Voigt for letting me into that big story.

We set out to make a narrative nobody else has written. Of course it’s scary in there, that room or that cave we enter, alone, not knowing if those sounds are the voices of our story or of the forces that don’t want us to write it. As an article of faith, we pay attention. We examine the dripping walls of that cave, we find it’s the cave of our unconscious, and everything lives there: love and hate and envy and devotion and betrayal and exuberance and grief and uproarious laughter at what marvelously various fools we mortals be.

woodpecker photoJust now a female downy woodpecker is scooting up a pine tree outside my window. She doesn’t find an insect in every hole. She keeps hunting, hopping about, doing her work, going where she may never have been. I don’t expect ever to be her, but I certainly learn lessons from her tenacity, her routine of scooting, scampering, soaring.

As I’m considering Flaubert and wrestling with a recalcitrant manuscript, I’m reminded that Maurice Ravel took a year to compose the three and a half minute “Bacchanale,” the lush commotion that concludes his Daphnis et Chloé ballet. A year to move from the periphery, where it may have seemed easy, into the inviting and defiant heart of the matter.

Some faint melody, some shadowy story is waiting, just over there. Of course it’s been made before, and by wiser minds than mine. But maybe I can do it with a difference. Maybe. Make it an eighth-note just there. No, no, wait a minute: Make it two sixteenths. Yes, that’s it, exactly. No, I was wrong. Back to the eighth-note. Yes. I think.

 

 

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Mary Casanova: Three Questions

bk_GraceA year of school visits has just concluded, but I can’t unpack quite yet. I’ll soon head out on a book tour to support the release of my latest titles. The questions I get when I meet readers depend on the book—whether it’s a new release I’m promoting or an older book a class has read and discussed.

Because I will be on tour supporting the release of my Grace books for American Girl, I can safely predict the three most commonly asked questions:

How did you get started writing for American Girl?
I’d never planned on writing for American Girl. They first approached me years ago via a phone call. They were looking for someone to write a book for a series called “Girls of Many Lands” and needed someone to write a story set in the l700s in France. (I’d written a gritty novel set in 1500s Provence called Curse of a Winter Moon.) I wrote Cecile: Gates of Gold, followed by eight more books and four “Girl of the Year” characters: Jess, Chrissa, McKenna and now Grace.

Does American Girl tell you what to write?
I’ve never been interested in writing from someone else’s outline. As the author, I want to discover a story! But the initial concepts come from within American Girl. When that phone call comes, I’m given a few, small bits of information for my writing journey. For example, for Grace’s three books, they might include: a girl who loves baking / a trip to Paris / a return home with the desire to start a French baking business.

Paris photo

Research destination

That’s it. From there, I start finding ways to make the developing story my own. Research is my first step. In this case, I went to Paris for a week with my adult daughter, Kate, and we made it our work to explore Paris by bike, sample its delicious pastries and treats, and take a baking class at the home of a French chef. While there, I imagined experiencing Paris through the eyes of a 9 year old girl whose aunt is having a baby, whose uncle owns a patisserie, who comes across a stray dog at the Luxembourg Garden.

Which comes first, the story or the doll?
The story comes first. As I research and write, my character begins to live and breathe. Her story—her family, her dreams, her struggles—become mine. I must live and breathe this character. I must care deeply about her if I hope readers to care.

I don’t choose the doll’s hair or eye or skin color. Though I have input on her name, I don’t have the final say. That’s fine with me. I’m most concerned with who she is on the inside and how she navigates in the world.

As my character’s stories develop, I recognize that products will be created hand-in-hand with the story. When I wrote the black and white stray dog into Grace, the first book, I knew product development would have fun turning it into a small plush toy dog. When, on the other hand, product development asked if I might weave a charm bracelet into the story, I found their request easy. Grace’s mom gives her a charm bracelet eon their plane flight to Paris, and Grace fills the bracelet up while she visits the Eiffel Tower, and receives goodbye gifts, etc. If the request is one that feel natural to the story, I’m happy to work it into the books. But as an author the story always comes first.

[Casanova-Mary]

 

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Elizabeth Verdick: A Look at “Autism Fiction”

by Elizabeth Verdick

I spent the month of April reading children’s fiction featuring characters with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). April was Autism Awareness Month, but that wasn’t my only motivation. I love children’s literature, I have written nonfiction about ASD, and I’m raising a son who’s on the autism spectrum. I wondered, Which middle-grade stories could I hand him, saying, “I think you’ll really like this”?

bk_AutismSurvivalI read the books with zeal—and growing discomfort. Why did many portrayals of characters with ASD lack the authenticity one yearns for in fiction? Why did the plots include so many tropes? Why did the narrative voice often rely on devices: interjections of random facts, unusual uses of capitalization and/or italics, or an artificially distant tone in moments of emotion? Such representations, though well intentioned, may leave readers with an overly simplified impression of the autistic experience.

Again, I thought of my son, who’s not a collection of quirks or a social misfit lacking empathy or emotion. He’s not a budding detective, a genius in one subject, or someone who refuses to be touched (common portrayals). I didn’t want to give him books that suggest his autism is a source of deep conflict, that he’s a burden to his family. Or ones that depict sensory-overload behaviors as barriers to social interaction. I sought stories with three-dimensional characters he might relate to—perhaps look up to—and remember for years to come.

Two books shone brightly.

bk_AnythingButSixth-grader Jason Blake in Anything But Typical by Nora Raleigh Baskin is a protagonist with heart, a boy who struggles with the issues many middle-grade and preteen readers do: identity, family relationships, a crush. Yes, Jason has ASD but his story isn’t about “overcoming” his disability or becoming more, as we say in the autism community, neurotypical. Jason is kind, forthright, curious, creative. He stays true to himself as the plot unfolds, showing readers the ways in which the neurotypical world can be difficult to navigate, especially when others aren’t kind or open in return.

The story is written in first-person, which gives readers insight into how Jason thinks and feels as he goes about his everyday, yet exceptional, life. He’s an aspiring writer, spending much of his time on the Storyboard website, where he posts his own stories and can comment on the work of others. Here Jason finds a community, but he’s put to the test when his parents offer to take him to the Storyboard conference in another state. Attending the conference means Jason can’t hide behind written words or a screen—he will be out in the open where everyone, including a girl he’s traded stories with online, will see him for who he truly is. Jason’s growth as a character doesn’t arrive in one big moment in which he “discovers” an ability to feel emotion or make a social connection. The author’s focus on realism and authenticity allows readers to experience her character’s incremental growth, which is more satisfying in the end.

bk_RealBoyAnne Ursu’s The Real Boy takes a different approach but arrives at a similar destination: deep respect for her ASD character and an authentic emotional portrayal. In this middle-grade fantasy, an eleven-year-old orphan named Oscar is a magician’s helper who lives in the cellar among the cats, where he studies herbs and the magic they bring forth. Readers looking for enchantment and mystery will find both here, but what captured my heart was Oscar himself. He’s smart, earnest, quiet, thoughtful, self-doubting, and brave. He wants to do what is right (if he could only figure out how) in a world that’s becoming increasingly strange and dangerous.

The story uses third-person, told from Oscar’s viewpoint, with a subtle emphasis on his differences: his comfort in routines, his special interests, his confusion about social expectations. The word autism never comes up because the story takes place in another world, one of the imagined past. Yet, readers sense Oscar’s ASD through and through. That’s a credit to the author, who weaves Oscar’s differences into his character and the storyline, rather than highlighting ways in which he doesn’t fit the norm. When left to tend shop during his powerful master’s absence, Oscar gains greater independence and confidence, despite how the townspeople treat him. He forms a friendship with a healer’s apprentice named Callie, and together they set out to discover what is making the town’s children ill and what answers can be found deep among the trees of the wizard woods.

Oscar is an unsung hero. Jason is an “untypical” boy in a world where ASD is largely misunderstood. Their stories open doors for kids on the autism spectrum—and those who want to learn more about what life there is like.

 

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Marion Dane Bauer: The Power of Novels

by Marion Dane Bauer

[I]f you are interested in the neurological impact of reading, the journal Brain Connectivity published a paper “Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain.” Basically, reading novels increases connectivity, stimulates the front temporal cortex and increases activity in areas of the brain associated with empathy and muscle memory. [Read the whole article.] 
                                           —Jennifer Michalicek on ChildLit

dummy brainIt’s something we all know—all of us who are writers, readers, teachers know it, anyway—that reading fiction, engaging in the process of inhabiting another human being, feeling our way into another’s thoughts, feelings, desires, enlarges our hearts. It teaches us to understand those who are different from us. Equally important, if not more so, it lets us know that in the deepest possible ways we human beings are the same.

We don’t need a study to tell us this is so, and yet I am grateful for such a study, and I would guess that you are, too. Long ago I knew teachers who had to close their classroom doors least the principal pass in the hall and discover them “wasting time” reading a story. And in these days of renewed emphasis on nonfiction, I would guess that attitude surfaces again more than occasionally.

Not to dismiss the importance of nonfiction. What better way to gather information, to increase our understanding of the world than through the fascinating, expressive nonfiction available today? But there is a larger understanding we owe our children—and ourselves, for that matter—than that which can be gained by comprehending facts. It is an understanding of ourselves as human beings.

How is it that story reveals so deeply? After all, the folks talking and acting, thinking and feeling on the page are fabrications created in some stranger’s mind. Our Puritan foreparents used to forbid the reading of novels, damning them as lies! And from a totally literal perspective, it is so.

But if a writer is creating truly, she is creating out of her own substance. She is creating out of the truth of who she is, what she knows about herself and about the people around her. (Forgive me for making all writers female. The he or she dance is burdensome.) If she is writing honestly, she is revealing on the page what she has allowed few others to know. In fact, she is probably exposing far more of herself than she herself realizes, because it is part of the magic of the writing of story that we are seduced into exposing even more than we may comprehend ourselves.

And that is the secret of the revelation of fiction. Those who create stories bring their hidden humanity to the writing. Those who read stories discover their own humanity in the reading
. . . and learn to extend that humanity beyond the confines of their own skins.

What deeper learning can there be from the written word?

A mechanical study of the brain isn’t needed to understand any of this. But it’s a marvel of our times that such a study is possible, that what most of us know in our hearts can now be proven.

I hope this new understanding makes it possible for every classroom door to stand wide open while such learning takes place.

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Jen Bryant: It’s Not Pretty!

by Jen Bryant

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with the word “inspiration.” On the one hand, I acknowledge the illusive, inexplicable aspect of the writing process that I can’t control, when the lines, paragraphs, pages seem to flow from somewhere outside of myself, knitting together almost seamlessly. On the other hand (and this is the much, much heavier hand) I believe that good writing—like all good art—comes from conscious effort, commitment, and lots of trial and error. In this way, writing a poem or a novel is much like anything else we do: making a home-cooked meal, building a go-cart, or shaping a backyard garden. You begin with a vision, but then you must roll up your sleeves, kneel down and set to work.

“But how do you know where to start?!” I hear this question at nearly every writing workshop I conduct, regardless of the age or experience of the students. My standard answer is always the same: “Well, I don’t KNOW where to start . . . but I start anyway. I start at the place where my heart is thumping the loudest, the part that is almost pure emotion.” Usually, it’s not pretty. I might scribble down some phrases, a question, or even a few lines of rough poetry that focus on one or two images. It never looks like much. I set that aside and go do something else (work on my garden or my grocery list.)

ph_river_of_words_medalLater, I come back to that first scribble and read it over a few times. If it’s the beginning of a biography for which I’ve done considerable research, I shuffle through my notes and choose a few facts about the subject that I find particularly interesting or unusual. For example, when I began writing A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, I honed in on young Willie’s love of wandering through the fields around his hometown, his sense of physical connection to his surroundings, and his easy relationship to solitude. Later, as an adult, these would be instrumental in his success as a poet. As I worked through the many drafts of the narrative, the image of the river became the thread that connected his childhood to his adulthood, his child’s play to his man’s work.

Ladder and nursery window, Lindbergh home in Hopewell, New Jersey.

Ladder and nursery window, Lindbergh home in Hopewell, New Jersey. Photo courtesy NJ State Archives.

If it’s a novel with some real/historical underpinnings, I focus on an image that I can flesh out into a rough poem. In The Trial, for example, I began with the image of the ladder—the object that became the most important piece of evidence against immigrant carpenter Bruno Richard Hauptmann, the man accused of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. So how, you ask, did that ladder make MY heart thump, when I wasn’t even alive in 1935, the year the trial took place? Well . . . I grew up just a few blocks from the famous Flemington courthouse, and our house was next to that of my paternal grandmother, who remembered that trial from her own childhood. She used to tell me stories about that time, and those stories sometimes haunted me at night, when I would imagine a stranger placing a wooden ladder against OUR house, climbing up to my bedroom window, and snatching me from my room. (See?– thump, thump, thump!)

The part of “inspiration” that you CAN control is your commitment to try. Sit down, pick a phrase or an image that has some emotional resonance for you, and start with that. If the first one doesn’t lead you forward—try another one. And another. And another, if necessary. Do this often enough, and you will have the first bricks laid on a path that will lead you through the rest of your book.

 

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Partners in the Dance: From Fiction to Nonfiction and Back Again

by Liza Ketchum

Liza's nonfiction bookshelf (Click to enlarge)

Liza’s nonfiction bookshelf (Click to enlarge.)

This week, while I prepared for a talk at AWP (Association of Writing Programs) on writing non-fiction biographies for kids, I thought about how I enjoy researching both nonfiction and fiction titles. Yet a gulf often separates the two genres. In my local library, you turn right at the top of the stairs for the nonfiction stacks and left to peruse the novels. The same division holds true in the children’s room downstairs. In my own writing studio, nonfiction books fill one shelf, while novels threaten to topple another. Yet elements of one often bleed into the other.

I have always been fascinated by the role of women in American pioneer history. My first YA novel, West Against the Wind, drew heavily on 19th century diaries, letters, and newspapers. The facts of the time shaped and inspired the story. A few years later, I was asked to write a nonfiction book on the California Gold Rush. For that book, I drew both on primary sources I’d used in my novel, as well as on new material I uncovered in such wonderful resources as The Huntington Library in San Merino, CA. 

An editor at Little, Brown was interested in the story of the child performer Lotta Crabtree, whom I profiled in The Gold Rush. Could I write about eight adventurous pioneer women like Lotta, who “broke the rules” and made history during that time? I agreed and ended up with my nonfiction book Into a New Country.

note basket

Gold Rush notes (Click to enlarge.)

By now, I had a huge box of notes and images on the pioneer period. I thought I was finished with that era, but the dance continued. In the process of writing The Gold Rush, I uncovered information about children who also caught “gold fever.” They panned for gold alongside their parents, helped them run stores or restaurants, and performed in saloons—where some girls ran hairpins along cracks in the floorboards to collect gold dust.

Two small items from my research went straight into my Idea File. One was that gangs of boys in San Francisco could make more money—selling six-month-old East Coast newspapers on the street—than their parents, who struggled to survive in that hurly-burly town. Another was a newspaper item about a boy who survived an accidental balloon ascent. He became the first person to see the bay area from the air.

Those stories—and some nagging questions—stayed with me. What if a girl wanted to be a newsboy? What if the boys wouldn’t let her in? And what if her family arrived in San Francisco penniless: could she help them survive? And what if she tried to get a news scoop on a balloon ascent?        

bk_newsgirl_120.jpgI wrote Newsgirl to answer those questions.

Whether I write nonfiction or fiction, each informs the other. I use fictional techniques in nonfiction. I want to grab the young reader, pull him or her into the story with action, dialogue, strong character, and significant detail. I want to appeal to the son of a writer friend who asked his mom, “When are you going to write one of those books where, you know, something happens on every page?”

At the same time, I use techniques and information from nonfiction to anchor my novels in time and place. My most recent YA novel, Out of Left Field, is not historical fiction per se (though 2004 may feel like ancient times to some young readers). The Vietnam War casts shadows over the novel. Though I lived through that era, I didn’t know enough about men who fled the country for Canada, as my protagonist’s father did. I tracked down memoirs of draftees and enlisted men who fled the country and read accounts of life on the run. My friend, the Canadian writer Tim Wynne-Jones, suggested books about American resisters who lived in Toronto during those times. I watched a video of the draft lottery that took place in 1969, an event that determined the lives—and deaths—of thousands of young men. And I read and reread Tim O’Brien’s book, The Things They Carried, itself a stunning fusion of fiction and memoir.

While Brandon, my narrator, is invented, I had the actual Red Sox schedule at hand as I wrote. Brandon follows the 2004 season with as much devotion as I did that year. When Brandon sees David Ortiz slam his game-wining hit in the 14th inning of the Sox-Yankee game, the pandemonium in the stands is real, as are the smells, the sounds, the energy of a ball park when fans realize the team could win it all—for the first time in eighty-six years.

My friend and colleague, Phyllis Root, asks: “Is the line growing more malleable between speculation and fact?” Certainly young readers need to know the difference between what is real and what is invented. But perhaps the separation between non-fiction and fiction is arbitrary. Maybe I’ll mix the two genres on my own shelves. Who knows what sparks might fly if these books end up dancing together?

 

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Avi: We Need to Honor That

Catch You Later, TraitorEvery parent, teacher, and librarian wants children to read. The reasons they wish for this are endlessly varied, ranging from educational skills, entertainment, to learning a lesson. Sometimes, however, we need ask, what is it about reading that children like?

I’ve come to believe the answer lies in the different way kids and adults read books. When adults read a book, they encounter a situation, a character, a detail, which enables them to say, “That’s something I have experienced.” Or, “How interesting. I have seen that happen.” “Oh, I’ve done that.” And so forth. That’s to say, they see the fiction as a confirmation of their own lives, something they recognize as true.

When young people read fiction, they absorb the depicted experience as if it were about them. Just the other day I asked a seventh grader why she liked fantasy so much. “Because I’m always in the clouds, dreaming,” she said. “Those books are what I want to do.”

In other words, young people engage with reading best when they can put themselves into a book. The experience related in a story becomes their experience. Yes, literary quality can enhance that experience, but it’s mostly what happens in a story that engages kids.

When one writes for young people, you have to find a way to allow your reader to connect to your story in this very personal way. The young reader must recognize himself/herself in the tale. The story must—ultimately—be about them, their world, even if they cannot articulate that fact. Indeed, sometimes what engages the young reader is that they want the experience depicted in the story.

WouldbegoodsYears ago, for bedtime, I was reading E. Nesbit’s, The Would-Be-Goods (1899), a charming British Edwardian novel, to my six-year-old boy. As far as I could tell, there was absolutely nothing in the book which was similar to his life. All the same, he was enjoying it immensely.

One night—having learned that kids wrote to authors, he said, “Can I write to the author (Nesbit) and tell her how much I love this book?”

Me: “That would be nice, but I’m afraid she died many years ago.”

My boy sat bolt upright in bed. “That’s impossible!” he cried.

“Why?”

“Because she knows so much about me!”

It was a great book—for him—because it was, in some way, about him.

I did not know that. I doubt if he could have explained it to me. I rather suspect he identified with the characters in the book because they constantly got into some kind of mischief. It’s the kind of life he would have liked to have lived.

That’s why it’s so important to allow kids to choose the books they wish to read. Something about the title, the image on the book, the opening paragraph, something, has caught the attention of the young reader. They wish to connect to that. We need to honor that.

 

 

 

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Melissa Stewart: A Fresh Look at Expository Nonfiction

No Monkeys No Chocolate

No Monkeys, No Chocolate Allen Young, co-author illustrated by Nicole Wang Charlesbridge, 2013

by Melissa Stewart

Narrative nonfiction. The words have a nice ring to them, don’t they?

Expository nonfiction? Not so much.

Rhymes with gory, purgatory, derogatory, lavatory. Gesh, it’s no wonder expository nonfiction gets a bad rap. And yet, plenty of great nonfiction for kids is expository. Its main purpose is to explain, describe, or inform.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a golden moment for expository nonfiction because, in recent years, it’s gone through an exciting transformation. Once upon a time, it was boring and stodgy and matter-of-fact, but today’s nonfiction books MUST delight as well as inform young readers, and authors are working hard to do just that. The expository books we’re creating feature engaging text, often with a strong voice, as well as dynamic art and design.

Here are ten of my recent favorites:

  • A Black Hole Is Not a Hole by Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano
  • Bone by Bone: Comparing Animal Skeletons by Sarah Levine
  • Born in the Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents by Lita Judge
  • Bugged: How Insects Changed the World by Sarah Albee
  • Creature Features by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
  • Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart
  • Frogs by Nic Bishop
  • Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate
  • Neo Leo by Gene Barretta
  • Tiny Creatures: The Invisible World of Microbes by Nicola Davies
Feathers

Feathers
Sarah S. Brannen, illustrator
Charlesbridge, 2014

There is also a second kind of expository nonfiction books. Some people call them data books. I prefer to call them fast-fact books to distinguish them from the facts-plus books listed above.

Facts-plus books focus on facts as well as overarching ideas. In other words, they present facts and explain them. Fast-fact books focus on sharing cool facts. Period. They inform, and that’s all. Examples include The Guinness Book of World Records and The Time for Kids Big Book of Why. These are the concise, fact-filled books that groups of boys love to read together and discuss.

Some people don’t have a very high opinion of fast-fact books, and to be sure, they don’t build reading stamina or critical thinking skills. BUT they do entice many reluctant readers to pick up a book, and IMHO that alone makes them worthwhile.

Why do students need to be exposed to a diverse array of expository texts? Because it’s the style of nonfiction they’ll be asked to write most frequently throughout their school years and in their future jobs. Whether they’re working on a report, a thesis, a business proposal, or even a company newsletter, they’ll need to know how to summarize information and synthesize ideas in a way that is clear, logical, and interesting to their readers. Today’s expository children’s books make ideal mentor texts for modeling these skills.

 

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Heather Vogel Frederick: Borrowed Fire

In Absolutely Truly, my new middle grade mystery set in a bookshop in the fictional town of Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, a first edition of Charlotte’s Web goes missing. There’s a reason this particular book features so prominently in the story—it’s a nod to my literary hero, E. B. White.

E.B. White

E.B. White and friend

E.B. White and I go way back. He’s one of the reasons I became a writer, thanks to Charlotte’s Web, which was one of my all-time favorites as a young reader (it still is). It tops a short list of what I consider perfect novels—a list that includes Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, among a handful of others.

The year I turned 12 and declared my intention of becoming an author, my dad slipped a copy of Elements of Style into my Christmas stocking. It was an inspired present, as the book on writing and grammar that Mr. White co-wrote with William Strunk, Jr., made me feel both validated and grown-up. I displayed it prominently on my desk, and if I read it with more enthusiasm than comprehension, at least I felt very sophisticated as I did so. Later, in college, I would discover White’s collected letters and essays, which helped inspire my early career as a journalist.

Of all the gifts that E. B. White has given me, though, the one I treasure most are his characters. I can’t even imagine a world without Charlotte and Wilbur, or without Fern Arable, and Lurvy, and Templeton the rat. Memorable characters such as these are what make for memorable stories. Sure, setting is important, research is important, and a story without a plot is a hot mess (anybody sat through Waiting for Godot recently?), but for me, memorable characters are the main course, the engine that drives the train, the beating heart of a book.

Charlotte's Web coverCharacters like Charlotte and Wilbur don’t just spring full-blown onto the page like Athena from the head of Zeus, however. Writing is a deliberate act. It is artifice; it is craft; it is intentional. While the concept for a character may come to a writer in a flash, the construction of that character is the result of much effort and care.

So how does a writer go about creating characters that walk off the page and straight into a reader’s heart?

It comes down to something I call “borrowed fire.”

There are other tools writers employ in creating characters, of course—tools such as description, dialogue, and voice. But all of these ingredients would be nothing without borrowed fire. Without this elemental flame, characters remain as lifeless and cold as the paper on which they’re printed.

I live in the Pacific Northwest, just a few miles from the end of the Oregon Trail. While reading about the early settlers at one point, I learned just how crucial fire was to survival. The pioneers depended on it for warmth, for cooking, for light, and for cheer. If a campfire or cook stove went out in a log cabin or along the wagon train, someone would be rapidly dispatched to a neighbor’s with a lidded pan to “borrow fire”—a few embers or coals with which to rekindle their own.

In writing, we, too, need fire. We need the blaze of emotion to light up our stories and stir our readers, igniting in them a sympathetic response. 

But from whom do we borrow this fire? 

Fiery HeartFrom ourselves. From our own lives, our own experiences. Robert Frost once said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Writers have to be willing to dig deep. I’m not talking about spilling dark secrets onto the page. I’m talking about tapping into your own unique well of emotional experience and sharing it with your reader. We all know what it’s like to be anxious about something, to be envious or fearful or alight with happiness or crazy in love. Investing our characters with these emotional truths creates the point of connection. That’s the moment at which a character walks off the page and into a reader’s heart.

E.B. White was never an eight-year-old girl named Fern. He was never a worried piglet or a literate spider or a scheming rat with a soft underbelly of kindness. But he knew about friendship, and love, and loss, and he borrowed those embers from his own life to kindle his characters, and the light and warmth they radiate have touched the hearts of readers down the years.

Borrowed fire is where the magic happens in a story. It’s by the light of this fire that memorable characters are made.

 

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