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True Story

Recent­ly I attend­ed a writer’s con­fer­ence main­ly to hear one speak­er. His award-win­ning books remind me that the very best writ­ing is found in children’s lit­er­a­ture. When he deliv­ered the keynote, I jot­ted down bits of his sparkling wis­dom.

At one point he said that we live in a bro­ken world, but one that’s also filled with beau­ty. My pen slowed. Some­thing about those words both­ered me. The crux of his speech was that as writ­ers for chil­dren, we are tasked to be hon­est and not with­hold the truth.

After the applause pat­tered away, the air in the ball­room seemed charged. Every­one was eager to march, unfurl­ing the ban­ner of truth for young read­ers! If we had been giv­en paper, we would have start­ed bril­liant, authen­tic nov­els on the spot.

The keynote’s mes­sage car­ried over into break-out ses­sions. Pan­elists admit­ted to crav­ing the truth when they were kids, things par­ents wouldn’t tell them. Par­tic­i­pants agreed. We should show kids the world as it real­ly is! The impli­ca­tion being that chil­dren lead­ing “nor­mal” lives should be aware of harsh­er real­i­ties and devel­op empa­thy. Kids liv­ing out­side the pale would find them­selves, maybe learn how to cope with their sit­u­a­tions.

I stopped tak­ing notes.

Here’s my truth: I was born into a bro­ken world. By age four, I’d expe­ri­enced scores of harsh­er real­i­ties. At sev­en, I learned the hard­est truth of all: that par­ents aren’t required to want or love their chil­dren. I spent most of my child­hood field­ing one real-world chal­lenge after the oth­er. I did not want to read about them, though few books fifty years ago explored issues of alco­holism, home­less­ness, and domes­tic vio­lence.

Christ­mas Day when I was 11 with my sis­ter and my cousins. I was already a writer at this age.

I read to escape, delv­ing into sto­ries where the character’s biggest chal­lenge was find­ing grandmother’s hid­den jew­els, as in The Secret of the Stone Griffins. Fluff? So what? In order to set the bar, I had to seek nor­mal and didn’t care if Dick-and-Jane fam­i­lies weren’t real. Even Mo, the alien girl in Hen­ry Winterfield’s Star Girl who’d tum­bled from her space­ship, lived a nor­mal life with her fam­i­ly on Asra, climb­ing trees on that far­away plan­et like I did on Earth.

In a fam­i­ly of non-read­ers, I broke free of the norm. Not only did I read con­stant­ly, but decid­ed to be a writer at an ear­ly age. I’d write the kind of books I loved, books where secrets involved buried trea­sure, not things I had to keep qui­et about; books where kids felt pro­tect­ed enough to embark on adven­tures.

My moth­er and step­fa­ther regard­ed me with odd respect, as if unsure what plan­et this kid had come from. So long as “sto­ry-writ­ing” didn’t inter­fere with school­work (it did), my moth­er excused me from chores. Only once did she declare read­ing mate­r­i­al inap­pro­pri­ate.

I was nine and fresh out of library books. I found a True Sto­ry mag­a­zine and was deep into sto­ry about an abused boy when my moth­er caught me. She thought I was learn­ing about sex. I was out­raged by the injus­tice: pun­ished for read­ing about a kid my age! Now I think about the irony.

Judy ScuppernongThen I grew up and wrote children’s books. Most of my fic­tion was light and humor­ous. Yet some brave writ­ers tack­led seri­ous sub­jects. My col­league Bren­da Seabrooke wrote a slen­der, ele­gant verse nov­el called Judy Scup­per­nong. This com­ing-of-age sto­ry touch­es on fam­i­ly secrets and alco­holism. The for­mat was per­fect for nav­i­gat­ing dif­fi­cult sub­jects.

I sat down and wrote a poem called “Nobody’s Child.” More fol­lowed, until I’d told my own sto­ry. My agent sub­mit­ted my book Nobody’s Child. One edi­tor asked me to rewrite it as a YA nov­el. “You’ve already done the hard part,” he said. He was wrong. Each time I revised (many times over the years), I had to crawl back into that dark place. Some peo­ple said that by telling my sto­ry, I’d be able to put it behind me. They were wrong. I nev­er will.

The truth is, I wrote Nobody’s Child to find answers. I already knew the what and the how. I want­ed to know why. But by then every­one involved was gone, tak­ing their rea­sons with them. If I were to fic­tion­al­ize my sto­ry to help anoth­er child in the same sit­u­a­tion, I couldn’t make the end­ing turn out any bet­ter.

In the fan­tasies and mys­ter­ies and books about ani­mals I read as a kid, I fig­ured out I’d prob­a­bly be okay. When I looked up from what­ev­er library book I was read­ing, or what­ev­er sto­ry I was writ­ing, I noticed the real world around me. Not all of it was bro­ken. There were woods and gar­dens and cats and birds and, yes, at last, peo­ple who cared about me.

Author Peter Altenberg said, “I nev­er expect­ed to hold the great mir­ror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a lit­tle pock­et mir­ror …one that reflects small blem­ish­es, and some great beau­ties, when held close enough to the heart.”

Valiant children’s writ­ers will flash the great mir­ror of truth in bold­er works than mine. I’m con­tent to shine my lit­tle pock­et mir­ror at small truths, no big­ger than a starling’s sharp eye, from my heart to my reader’s.


Mighty Jack

Mighty Jack and the Goblin KingWe are thrust into the midst of the action, which nev­er stops until the epi­logue. This is how Ben Hatke tells a sto­ry.

We don’t know what’s going on. There’s no set­up. Instead, we quick­ly learn that Jack is climb­ing some veg­e­ta­tive mat­ter to find the ogre who kid­napped his sis­ter Mad­dy and take her home. His friend, Lil­ly, no side­kick, is climb­ing along­side him.

The vil­lains of the piece are rats, giants, and that ogre. They have con­trol of a nexus point that exists out­side of time and space, a con­nect­ing link between worlds. It looks like the tow­er of a cas­tle built on an aster­oid. The place has lost its lus­ter because of the giants’ nefar­i­ous choic­es, among them the need to feed a human child to the machine that blocks the bridges between worlds. It’s sat­is­fy­ing to dis­cov­er these plot points through­out the sto­ry.

Jack and Lil­ly are split up when Lil­ly falls from the vine (a rat is respon­si­ble). Jack vows to come back for her but he is com­pelled to find Mad­dy.

This is not earth,” illus­tra­tion from Jack and the Mighty Gob­lin King by Ben Hatke

The adven­ture takes off in two direc­tions. Lil­ly is seri­ous­ly hurt by the rats … and saved by the gob­lins who inhab­it the low­er reach­es of the nexus point. The Gob­lin King demands that Lil­ly will be his bride. She has oth­er ideas. In the “trash from all worlds,” she finds a Shel­by Mus­tang. She will find a way to take it with her. Lil­ly is a hero in the truest sense of the word.

The gob­lins are the most endear­ing char­ac­ters in the book. They are fun­ny, resource­ful, knowl­edge­able, and they care for Lil­ly. Their lan­guage is not exact­ly Eng­lish and it suits them. Now we know how gob­lins com­mu­ni­cate.

There are unan­swered ques­tions. Why can’t Mad­dy talk? Where did the mag­ic seeds come from that give Jack and Lil­ly short bursts of need­ed pow­er? Why is Jack’s mother’s house being fore­closed? These are the intrigu­ing bits that encour­age the read­er to fill in the sto­ry, becom­ing one with the sto­ry­teller.

Hatke’s art­work is so much a part of the sto­ry that the book couldn’t be read out loud with­out show­ing the frames of the graph­ic nov­el. His brain cre­ates exot­ic set­tings that invite lin­ger­ing to absorb their odd­ness. His vil­lains are das­tard­ly, fear­some, invit­ing us to defeat them. The gob­lins are oth­er-world­ly but a lit­tle cud­dly. (Just a lit­tle.) The col­or palette is spacey where appro­pri­ate,  con­vinc­ing­ly sub­ter­ranean when we’re in the goblin’s habi­tat, and quite rich­ly appeal­ing when the veg­e­ta­tion trans­forms. And that Shel­by Mus­tang!

The book is filled with sur­pris­es. A turn of the page often brings an unex­pect­ed turn of events. Even the epi­logue, often used to wrap up a sto­ry and tell us about the future, leaves us with a  sense of urgency: what will hap­pen next?

There is a first book, Mighty Jack, which I have not read. It most like­ly cre­ates the world in which Lil­ly, Jack, Mad­dy, and Phe­lix the drag­on (!) live, but I’m very glad that a read­er does­n’t have to first read that book to enjoy this one. I always hat­ed going to my cousin Sig’s house, read­ing his com­ic books, nev­er know­ing where the sto­ries were com­ing from or how they would end because they were pub­lished episod­i­cal­ly. 

This is sto­ry­telling at its very best. Appeal­ing, fun, hold-your-breath sto­ry­telling. I could have revealed that this is a re-telling of the Jack and the Beanstalk sto­ry but it is so much more than that. Ben Hatke’s pow­ers enchant his read­ers once again.

(Please be advised that this might have a PG13 rat­ing because of some vio­lence and one swear word. You’ll know best if this fits for your fam­i­ly.)

Mighty Jack and the Gob­lin King
a graph­ic nov­el by Ben Hatke
col­or by Alex Camp­bell and Hilary Sycamore
pub­lished by First Sec­ond, 2017
ISBN 978−1−6267−226−68


Me, All Alone, Reading This Book

Me, All Alone, at the End of the World

Some­times, the illus­tra­tions are won­der­ful but the lan­guage is cap­ti­vat­ing. You know how you read a pic­ture book and you can’t decide which part to focus on? Should you look at the pic­ture first? Should you read the sto­ry because it’s the thread that’s pulling you through?

Well, when you read “He was a long-leggedy man with a wide, wide hat and a beard in a cir­cle around his head. His glass­es reflect­ed the clouds,” the impe­tus is strong to read the sto­ry first and come back to look at the illus­tra­tions lat­er.

But then you peek at the illus­tra­tions and you real­ize there is always some­thing extra-ordi­nary going on in them. A branch is real­ly a worm-like crea­ture about to devour a pot of gold.

There is being alone, and there is lone­ly, and there is being busy, and there is a world of daz­zle and FUN. This is a book that explores each of those parts of life. The noise and the qui­et. The rau­cous gai­ety and the art of lis­ten­ing. The fun you sign up for and the joy you find and the nev­er-before-noticed amaze­ments you explore.

Me, All Alone, at the End of the World

This is a sto­ry book. It has a longer text which I believe is just right for read­ing out loud. The lan­guage is a rev­e­la­tion. It’s a para­ble of our mod­ern world. And then you real­ize, the sto­ry and the illus­tra­tions are vital to each oth­er. You can read this book again and again to notice a new phrase in Mr. Anderson’s writ­ing, a small ele­ment of won­der in Mr. Hawke’s art. This is a book that tells a sto­ry that means some­thing. It’s a trea­sure.

I missed this book when it was first pub­lished in 2005. Can­dlewick has reis­sued it. Don’t you miss it now.

Me, All Alone, at the End of the World
writ­ten by M.T. Ander­son
illus­trat­ed by Kevin Hawkes
Can­dlewick Press, 2005; reis­sued, 2017


Convincing Details!

Lynne Jonell Page Break


The Girl Who Drank the Moon

I con­fess, I’m a bit of a tough sell when it comes to fan­ta­sy books (unless they are for real­ly young kids). I don’t do vam­pires, I’m not thrilled with dystopic set­tings, and although I love drag­ons and fairies, oth­er fan­tas­tic beasts tend to make my eyes roll, and I…well, I lose inter­est. I believe in mag­ic, but it has to be real­ly well writ­ten to keep my inter­est, and frankly, I’ve not fin­ished a lot of real­ly well done fan­ta­sy nov­els.

I do try. Reg­u­lar­ly, in fact. Dar­ling Daugh­ter is always try­ing to get me to make it through one of the huge fan­ta­sy tomes she’s car­ry­ing around. (Side Note: Why are they all so large? I feel like I would fin­ish more if they were under three hun­dred pages.) And I always give it a go—particularly when Kel­ly Barn­hill has a book come out, because her writ­ing is so love­ly.

I held on to Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon for quite some time. I didn’t let Dar­ling Daugh­ter read it first, as is often our pattern—I hid it for myself, sav­ing it for a time when I could enjoy it all on my own. It was worth the wait.

From the first Shirley Jack­son-esque (The Lot­tery) chap­ter I was hooked. It’s a ter­ri­ble premise—every year the peo­ple of the Pro­tec­torate leave a baby as an offer­ing to the witch who lives in the for­est. But very quick­ly, thanks to Antain (who is at the begin­ning and the end of the sto­ry, but is only deft­ly sprin­kled through the mid­dle so you don’t for­get how dear and impor­tant he is), the read­er real­izes that some­thing is wonky and ten­u­ous with regard to this care­ful­ly pre­served “tra­di­tion.”

In any event, the baby in question—the one this book is about—is res­cued by a kind witch named Xan, who, as it turns out, has no idea why babies are left in the for­est. She has sim­ply res­cued the chil­dren and deliv­ered them to fam­i­lies on the oth­er side of the for­est for ages. She’s been doing it for who-knows-how-long when she finds Luna, the baby who changes every­thing.

You see, Xan feeds the babies with starlight as she takes them to their new fam­i­lies. Starlight! This is exact­ly the sort of fan­ta­sy detail that makes my heart go pit­ter-pat. Such whim­sy, such metaphor! Love it! Luna gets moon­light, not starlight, however—quite acci­den­tal­ly, you understand—and the moon­light fills her with extra­or­di­nary mag­ic. Which is why Xan decides to raise her instead of giv­ing her to a fam­i­ly as she usu­al­ly does. There­fore, Luna grows up with a wise Swamp Mon­ster, a Per­fect­ly Tiny Drag­on, and a kind witch as her fam­i­ly. These endear­ing char­ac­ters pro­vide a large share of the delight of the book. They did not once make me roll my eyes.

When Luna’s thir­teenth birth­day is on the hori­zon, her magic—carefully restrained by Xan for most of her childhood—begins to leak about…and the plot thick­ens! As she grows and changes and learns, she becomes all the more mag­nif­i­cent. So does the sto­ry. There are creep­tas­tic birds, a woman with a Tiger’s heart prowl­ing around, and hero­ic efforts made on the very world’s behalf.

But Luna! Oh, Luna is so incred­i­ble! She is strong and deter­mined, lov­ing and wild, smart and mag­i­cal. The kind of mag­ic that is real. The kind of mag­ic all girls have—and we must help them tap it, because it’s pre­cise­ly the kind of mag­ic that the world tries to beat out of them, and now more than ever they need to tap their mag­ic, peo­ple!

As soon as I fin­ished it, I hand­ed it to Dar­ling Daugh­ter. “It’s ter­rif­ic,” I said. I did not say “It’s impor­tant!” but it is. So impor­tant. This is, as the book­jack­et says, “a com­ing-of-age fairy tale.” It’s a gor­geous book. And I’m giv­ing it today to one of my nieces on the occa­sion of her twelfth birth­day. I can’t wait for her mag­ic to be fully-realized—she’s amaz­ing already.


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


The Fourteenth Goldfish

The ver­sa­tile Jen­nifer L. Holm pens a fan­ta­sy this time around, but it’s a sto­ry suf­fused with humor and sci­ence, deft­ly ask­ing a mind-blow­ing ques­tion: is it a good thing to grow old? So what hap­pens when a 13-year-old boy shows up on your doorstep, argu­ing with your mom, who invites him in, and it […]