Tag Archives | Lynne Jonell
Lots of people ask me for advice on writing.
That’s a hard one to answer. Writing is personal, and it’s different for everyone.
But people are curious about my process, the daily practice of my craft.
They think that hearing about my process might help them in their own work.
Maybe it will. At any rate, it is a question I can answer.
This column, Page Break, is my answer to that question. Welcome to my world.
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:
- 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.
- Pick one floor of that house.
- Draw a floor plan of that floor, in that house, that you lived in as a child.
- Pick a spot somewhere on the floor plan, and mark it with an X.
- A memory will come to you of something that happened in that space.
- 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.
- 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?
Thinking about adding a classroom pet? Read and think again!
Arthur and the School Pet
written by Marc Brown
Speedy, the class gerbil, needs a home over Christmas vacation. D.W. volunteers to take care of Speedy. Surprises ensue.
I.Q. Gets Fit
written and illustrated Mary Ann Fraser
During Fitness Month, I.Q., the class pet, learns important lessons about staying healthy as he tries to win a gold ribbon in the School Fitness Challenge.
written by Dayle Ann Dodds
One by one the students in Miss Fry’s room bring a pet for sharing day. And one by one, the pets get left behind. What will happen when the school year’s over?
One of my favorite things ever is when we sit around the table at Thanksgiving and take turns telling what we are particularly thankful for, that year. I get a little choked up, especially when I listen to my sons.
Were you a teacher’s pet or teacher’s challenge?
I was a teacher’s pet up through sixth grade, and then teacher’s nightmare thereafter. (My ninth grade English teacher hated me so much, she slotted me into the slow class for tenth grade English. I couldn’t figure out why I was in a class with a high proportion of good-looking jocks, but I wasn’t complaining! My mother discovered what had happened in my senior year, but by then it was too late.)
Upon reflection, I think I was probably a fairly challenging teacher’s pet, as well.
What’s the first book report you ever wrote?
I can’t be absolutely certain, but I think it was The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes. Besides the fabulous mix of reality and fantasy, which I have always loved, the great thing about that book was that I discovered it when it was my turn to choose library books for our small in-classroom library. All the other third grade girls loved my choice, and begged to read it after me; and for a week, I was popular!
Do you like to gift wrap presents?
Yes, and I thought I was pretty good at it until we had an all-family Olympics one summer. One of the events was gift-wrapping—blindfolded—and my team put me head-to-head with my older sister, Kathy. Not to put too fine a point on it, she mopped the floor with me.
What do you wish you could tell your 10-year-old self?
In the immortal words of Bob Marley, “Don’t worry ‘bout a thing, ‘cause every little thing gonna be all right.”
What 3 children’s book authors or illustrators or editors would you like to invite to dinner?
Louisa May Alcott: She captivated me on a family vacation with Little Women. I had already read through the stack of books I’d brought for the car trip, and my mother bought that book for me instead of the comic book I wanted. Though I complained at first, I read the first page—and I was hooked forever.
C.S. Lewis: He pulled me into his magical world of Narnia, with its great themes of good and evil and children whose choices had powerful repercussions, and I only wished he had written a hundred stories for me to devour, instead of just seven.
Madeleine L’Engle: I still remember exactly where I was when I read A Wrinkle in Time in sixth grade, and how I reread the final chapter because I couldn’t bear for it to be over. When I closed the book at last, I knew that what I wanted to do most of all was to write stories like that, for kids like me.
Where’s your favorite place to read?
It depends on the season!
Winter: curled up in bed with my electric blanket on high. Summer: on the back patio, in the wooden swing, with cushions and a tall glass of something cool. And in spring or fall, on a comfortable sagging corner of my favorite couch, next to my grandfather’s old glass-fronted bookcase (which houses my favorite children’s books.)
by Lynne Jonell
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.
I 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.
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?
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, distances 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.
Being 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
by Marsha Qualey
I made my professional entrance into the world of children’s books in the early 1990s when the first of my YA novels was published. One thing that has changed drastically since then is the increased media coverage; YA lit is an especially big show right now. While you still run across some vestigial articles of the “Should Adults Read Children’s Books” nature, gone are the days when a children’s book author would be dismissed out of hand as not being a real writer, especially by writers of literary fiction and poetry.
My response—most often delivered to unappreciative but patient cats but a few times when face to face with those writers—was always, “Well, where do you think your readers come from? Do you think readers don’t exist until they discover your writing?” #snap!
Another thing that has changed is the prevalence of graphic novels in the classroom, libraries, and publishers’ catalogues. For the second time in its short history Bookology’s Bookstorm™ book is a graphic novel: Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew’s The Shadow Hero.
I’ve had the good fortune of working with Gene in a writing program for adults. He is a natural, brilliant teacher. I’ve observed die-hard novelists and poets emerge from one of his Writing a Graphic Novel workshops excited about this new storytelling form.
Of course it’s not really new, just new to us here in the mainstream US book world. Wouldn’t you love to go back in a time machine to a library conference in the 1940s or 50s and tell everyone about comics in the classroom? Can’t you just see the white gloves flying up to smother gasps or cover ears?
Later this month we will have interviews with both Gene and Sonny. Today we’re rolling out the Bookstorm™ and a couple of related features—storm cells, you might call them (and yes, it’s pouring as I write this.) We also have a thoughtful Knock Knock essay by author Lynne Jonell: “Justice in Another World.” Skinny Dip interviews and our regular columns will of course appear throughout this week and weeks to come.
Enjoy—and thank you for stopping by.
Peace is elusive. It is a goal of some people at some time in some parts of the world. As John Lennon wrote: “Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man / Imagine all the people sharing all the world …” Is […]