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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Candice Ransom

The Book Box

For a fiction workshop, I asked participants to bring in childhood books that influenced them to become a writer. Naturally, I did the assignment myself. Choosing the books was easy, but they felt insubstantial in my hands, vintage hardbacks that lacked the heft of, say, the last Harry Potter. When it came my turn to talk, I figured I’d stammer excuses for their shabby, old-fashioned, stamped jackets. (“Well, this is the way library books looked in the fifties.”)

I wanted to tuck my beloved books in a box to keep them safe, like baby robins fallen out of a nest. Really, what is a book, but ideas, adventures, people, and places protected by cardboard, shaped like a box? I carried this notion with me on a trip to Michael’s, where I found a sturdy box with a jigsaw of little boxes stacked under the front flap. I knew just what I’d do with this prize: showcase my favorite books in an assemblage. 

The Book Box

At FedEx Office, I color photocopied the book covers, reduced them several sizes, then dashed through A.C. Moore’s miniature section to collect tiny endowed objects. Next, I happily sorted through my scrapbook and ephemera stash for just-right window dressing. I glued on paper, adding the objects. Pictures and trinkets were pretty, but not enough. The box needed words to set the stories—and their meaning—free.

Home for a BunnyI typed quotes and notes into strips folded accordion-style. Margaret Wise Brown’s Home for a Bunny gently reminded me that once I had lived “under a rock, under a stone.” Like the bunny, I had no home of my own until I was five. This was my first book, my first experience in identifying with a character.

The title of Trixie Belden and the Secret of the Mansion contained “secret” and “mansion,” words that made my heart thump. Trixie lived in the country like me, and had to work in the garden, like I did. Trixie stumbled into mysteries and I did, too, when I furiously scribbled whodunnits in fourth grade. Just like that, I became a writer.

Diamond in the WindowThe Diamond in the Window opens with a quote from Emerson: “On him the light of star and moon / Shall fall with purer radiance down … / Him Nature giveth for defense / His formidable innocence; / The mounting up, the shells, the sea, / All spheres, all stones, his helpers be …” At eleven, I skipped those words, but I didn’t ignore the small lessons from Emerson and Thoreau sprinkled throughout this fantasy / adventure / family / mystery story. This book changed my life.

I had to be married on Valentine’s Day, after the “Bride of Snow” chapter (and I was one, too, in three feet of snow!). Our powder room has a Henry Thoreau theme and we have a gazing globe (“The crystal sphere of thought”) in our back yard, like the Hall family.

Gazing Globe

With some thought and imagination, a book box can be a tangible book report. Supplies required: a cigar box, construction paper, glue, and a favorite book. A box covered in red construction paper could represent Wilbur’s barn. A lid could replicate the map of Hundred Acre Wood. Or Mr. Lemoncello’s library.

Making my book box helped me slow down and think about what my favorite books meant to me. How Diamond in the Window led me to the works of Thoreau and Emerson, inspired me to look up from the printed page and truly see the great sphere of our world.  

I still fill my pockets with rocks, pick up shells at the beach, and stare at the stars. I wonder if the rocks were broken off from ancient glaciers, and what happened to the sea creatures inside the shells. The shells and rocks stay in jars and boxes. The stars cannot be contained, thankfully.

Book Box Interior

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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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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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Skinny Dip with Candice Ransom

9_23SkinnyRebelDo you like to gift wrap presents?

Yes! I’ll buy the gift wrap before I buy the present! Years ago when I was a teenager, Hallmark started carrying their products in Dart Drug. I lathered over the Hallmark section, spending my allowance on Peanuts cards and gift tags and wrapping paper, yarn and fancy bows. My sister once said that I always spent more on the wrapping than the actual gift.

Even now I buy beautiful paper in museum gift shops. In April I took a trip to New York. I bought so many paper goods I had to buy an extra suitcase. My favorites? Sheets of Cavallini gift wrap from the American Museum of Natural History. I carried the rolled tube on the train like the Holy Grail.

What’s the first book report you ever wrote?

I don’t remember the very first book report, but I do remember writing a wonderful book review of The Yearling for eighth grade English. And then, the teacher lowered the boom. Instead of turning them in, we had to give them orally. I froze. At that time, I was so shy I couldn’t even answer the phone. Only a certain number of students read each day. Each day I waited in terror for my name to be called. On the fourth day, it was. I could not—simply could not—get up in front of the class. So I lied and told my teacher I hadn’t done my report, even though it was in my notebook, beautifully written, and I took a zero.

What book do you tell everyone to read? 

9_23DiamondWhen I was eleven, the most wonderful book ever fell into my hands, A Diamond in the Window, by Jane Langton. Even now, I chase everyone down and beg them to read this fantasy-mystery-historical-family story liberally sprinkled with Thoreau, Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott. It changed my life. I had to be married on Valentine’s Day because of a chapter in the book (try explaining that to your husband-to-be during the Blizzard of ’79—three feet of snow on the ground, but we made it).

Ten years ago I met Jane Langton and told her how much her book meant to me. I was so eager, so, I don’t know, hero-worshipful that I was not ready when she said in her kind voice, “Oh, every year people tell me the exact same thing.” The breath left my body. No! Her book only changed my life!

Well, I still tell everyone to read it, if they can get hold of a copy. It might change their life, but not the way it changed mine.

Describe your most favorite pair of pajamas ever. 

I was five and we had just moved into a house in the country (read: sticks). I had my own bedroom for the first time, and my own bed (until then, I lived in someone else’s house and slept in a crib—that’s why I’m so short). My mother bought—or made, she sewed all of our clothes—a pair of Donald Duck pajamas. The print was turquoise and yellow. I loved those pajamas beyond all reason. When I finally outgrew them, my mother tucked them in her bottom dresser drawer with her sewing supplies.

When I was in my twenties and on my own, my mother made me a twin-size quilt. Not a fancy quilted quilt, just a nine-patch tied off. She’d used fabric from some of clothes she’d made me. There in the center is a piece of the Donald Duck pajamas. I still have the quilt. I love it beyond all reason.

What do you wish you could tell your ten-year-old self? 

9_23FitnessOh, my. She was such a brave, funny girl. Shy and yet adventurous. Smart but she failed math and the President’s Physical Fitness tests (she was proud of walking the 600, earning the slowest time in the history of field day—over 13 minutes). She wanted so many things, that girl. She wanted to be a writer and a detective and maybe a vet and, secretly, a ballerina even though she was stiffer than barn wood and had never had a dance class in her life. She also wanted to be an artist and she believed she could do all of those things!

Part of me wants to warn her of what’s coming, but a bigger part of me wants her to stay in the dark, let her be herself as long as possible. I wouldn’t tell her that she won’t be able to do all the things she wanted: the sight of blood makes her faint, she can’t stay up long enough to be a detective (all those night stake-outs), and, saddest of all, that she won’t be able to go to art school. Or any school, really, until she’s 50. No, I won’t tell her that.

I think I would tell her to remember better where she lived, every little bit of it. The trees, the garden, the strawberry patch in June, the martin house she asked her stepfather to build but stayed empty, the blue candle lights in the picture window at Christmas, the canning-jar smell of the basement, the rumbly sound of Half-Pint purring, the taste of fried squash washed down with sweet iced tea on a hot July evening, the feel of the brush as Mama worked the tangles from my hair.

Yes, that’s what I’d tell her. Remember better, girl, because your sixty-three-year old self will have trouble. And she needs the gifts of those memories to get through the day. They don’t even have to be wrapped in fancy paper.

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Summer isn’t over yet …

There’s still more summer reading time, whether relaxing in your favorite lawn chair, next to a burbling creek, sitting in the middle of your garden, or soaking in a wading pool. When do I read? I always read before going to sleep. I read when I first get up in the morning—it’s a great way […]

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