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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Knock Knock

Planting Giant Pumpkin Seeds

How to Grow World Class Giant Pumpkins the All-Organic WayAs I write this, Min­neso­ta is in line to get hit with anoth­er Major Win­ter Storm.

I know many of you in the north­ern lat­i­tudes can sym­pa­thize as we’ve all been hit, but it’s mid-April, and even by Min­neso­ta stan­dards, this is demor­al­iz­ing. Proms are being can­celled this week­end, the gro­cery stores are crazy, everyone’s watch­ing the radar while they make soup, and I … I have avert­ed my eyes from the win­dow so as to bet­ter ignore the wet slop com­ing down and bet­ter focus on my gar­den plan­ning!

We hope to have straw­ber­ries this year for the first time, and I have a bazil­lion flower seeds to start this week­end, but I’m also plan­ning ahead just a cou­ple weeks so we’re ready for Giant Pump­kin Seed Start­ing Day on May 1st.

In Giant Pump­kin Suite, Rose and Thomas find the mys­te­ri­ous seed their neigh­bor, Mr. Pick­er­ing, has start­ed on May 1st. May Day is the day I start my giant pump­kin seeds—this is, I believe, our 5th year grow­ing giant pump­kins. We are not the least bit com­pet­i­tive, but it is always an amaz­ing expe­ri­ence, and the start­ing of the seeds is my favorite part.

I get my seeds from the St. Croix Grower’s Asso­ci­a­tion. These are sol­id seeds from prize-win­ning pump­kins and the mon­ey sup­ports a great local orga­ni­za­tion. Look online for your own local sup­ply.

First, I file the edges with a fin­ger­nail file. This helps water pen­e­trate the hard cas­ing of the seed. Once filed, the seeds soak for a few hours. Water is very impor­tant for germination—water is impor­tant in the whole growth process for giant pump­kins, in fact!

Soaking giant pumpkin seeds

Final­ly, when the soil tem­per­a­ture in the pots is above 85 degrees (this requires a bit of a set up, as you can see below—and, yes, I use a ther­mome­ter to check the tem­per­a­ture) and the soil is just past damp, but not sog­gy, I plant the seeds, pointy end down. These seeds are noto­ri­ous­ly fussy and dif­fi­cult to ger­mi­nate; hence, I always start more than I will need.

Growing Giant Pumpkins

They will spend a cou­ple of weeks indoors in the laun­dry room’s make-shift giant pump­kin nurs­ery, then I’ll take the pre­cious fussy lit­tle plants out­side for a few hours each day for a good week so they can accli­mate before they go in the ground.

Usu­al­ly, the pump­kin patch is full of tulips in May … but maybe not this year.

Giant Pumpkin SuiteMay in Min­neso­ta is noto­ri­ous­ly unpre­dictable. We’ll wait for moth­er nature to even out a bit before sub­ject­ing the plants to the ele­ments. In Giant Pump­kin Suite, Rose and Thomas have to build a tent over the pump­kin plant and use a space heater—I’m always hop­ing to avoid that.

Last year was kind of a bust for us on the giant pump­kin scene. A hail­storm in ear­ly June shred­ded the leaves and the plants nev­er quite recov­ered. Hop­ing this year will have a bet­ter show­ing. I want to be clear—we do this for fun at our house, not for com­pe­ti­tion. Once the plants are in the ground, they most­ly fend for them­selves. Grow­ing real giants takes a lot more work.

My favorite part, as I said, is the start­ing of the seeds—it’s astound­ing how fast they grow. The details in Giant Pump­kin Suite are not exag­ger­at­ed at all. If you’d like to see some pic­tures from last year, you can find them here.

If you’d like to fol­low our household’s grow­ing adven­tures this year, check out my Insta­gram.

________________

If you are a Fresh Bookol­o­gy sub­scriber, don’t hes­i­tate to enter our give­away for an auto­graphed copy of this book, but you must do so by mid­night CT on April 20, 2018. Instruc­tions for enter­ing are in your most recent e-newslet­ter. If you aren’t yet a sub­scriber (it’s free), sign up today.

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The Kindness of Teachers

Miss Rosemary Follett and David LaRochelle

Miss Rose­mary Fol­lett and David LaRochelle

I loved first grade.

Fifty-one years lat­er, I still have vivid mem­o­ries of my teacher, Miss Fol­lett. She played the piano every day. She read to us from her giant book of poet­ry. She showed us pho­tos of her trips to exot­ic places, like Alas­ka and Hawaii.

At Hal­loween we screamed in ter­ror and delight when she hob­bled into our class­room dressed as a witch. At East­er we fol­lowed “bun­ny tracks” through­out the school till they led us to a chest filled with panora­ma sug­ar eggs that Miss Fol­lett had hand­made, one for each of us. On our birth­days we sat at the spe­cial birth­day desk that was dec­o­rat­ed with crêpe paper stream­ers and bal­loons. Miss Fol­lett would light the can­dles on the plas­ter of Paris birth­day cake and the entire class would sing.

Miss Fol­lett was also seri­ous about learn­ing. That was fine with me. One of the rea­sons I want­ed to start first grade was because I des­per­ate­ly want­ed to read. Words were all around me; I want­ed to know their secrets.

Humpty Dumpty

Hump­ty Dump­ty

I also remem­ber Hump­ty Dump­ty, Miss Follett’s form of behav­ior man­age­ment. The Hump­ty Dump­ty cook­ie jar sat on the cor­ner of Miss Follett’s desk. If our class was very, very good, Hump­ty Dump­ty might (mind you, might) be mag­i­cal­ly filled with cook­ies for us. No one ever want­ed to do any­thing that would dis­please Hump­ty.

When I became a children’s author, Miss Fol­lett attend­ed one of my pub­li­ca­tion par­ties. It was a proud moment for both of us. When I auto­graphed her book, I includ­ed doo­dles of my favorite first grade mem­o­ries.

Years passed.

This last spring I came home from run­ning errands to find a large box wait­ing in front of my door. When I removed the lay­ers of bub­ble wrap, I dis­cov­ered Miss Follett’s Hump­ty Dump­ty cook­ie jar inside, along with this note:

Dear David,

Now that I am mov­ing to senior hous­ing and need to down­size,
it’s time for Hump­ty to find a new home. I thought
he might enjoy liv­ing in your stu­dio.

Your First Grade Teacher
Rose­mary Fol­lett

Miss Fol­lett did indeed teach me to read. But she taught me a lot of oth­er things as well. She taught me that adults can be both seri­ous and play­ful. She taught me that art and music and poet­ry make life more beau­ti­ful. She taught me that the world is full of fas­ci­nat­ing places, and that I can go vis­it them. She taught me that you are nev­er too old to use your imag­i­na­tion.

And she taught me that teach­ers nev­er stop car­ing about their stu­dents.

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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 JamesHe 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 911. 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

illus_collasping-world-mdb_16-07-26_200

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Old

Virginia Euwer WolffThat’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 coör­di­na­tors 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 Coör­di­na­tor
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.

Cuban home

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

Mary Casanova horses

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 coverNo, 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_ZapJake’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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