Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | memories

Tonight is the Night …

… when dead leaves fly like witch­es on switch­es across the sky … 

In the cen­ter of our Wegman’s is all the stuff that is not food. Of course, I head there first. Brows­ing tea tow­els and sun­flower coast­ers is my reward from hav­ing to shop in the too-big gro­cery store. 

Halloween plate

Recent­ly I found a plate among the Hal­loween décor. I didn’t need a Hal­loween plate but this one made me stop. The design remind­ed me of the lit­tle treat bags peo­ple gave out on Hal­loween, filled with pop­corn balls or home­made cook­ies (yes, the old­en trick-or-treat­ing days were bet­ter).  Hal­loween was my favorite hol­i­day when I was a kid. I pulled out my witch cos­tume in August. I drew pic­tures of haunt­ed hous­es. At nine, I want­ed to be a witch liv­ing in a haunt­ed house.

Blue-Nosed WitchAfter I grew up, Hal­loween, slammed against Thanks­giv­ing and Christ­mas, slid back. (East­er is now my favorite hol­i­day, because you don’t have to do any­thing, because it’s spring, because the col­ors and bun­nies are cheer­ful.)

As I stared at that orange and black plate, a door opened, just a sliv­er and just for an instant. I was nine again, flap­ping through our house in my pur­ple (prob­a­bly flam­ma­ble) witch’s cape, eager for Hal­loween even though school hadn’t start­ed yet. What a deli­cious feel­ing, all shiv­ery and excit­ing at the same time.  Then the door shut, and I had to think about let­tuce and cat food and show­er clean­er.

Although I’ve been writ­ing children’s books for near­ly forty years and have spent more years read­ing children’s books or writ­ing about children’s lit­er­a­ture, I have increas­ing­ly lim­it­ed access to my own child­hood. Mem­o­ries fade due to age, med­ica­tion, and Great Big World Prob­lems. It’s hard­er to keep the door to child­hood open when you’re wor­ried about lab results, tax­es, and frack­ing.

This past sum­mer, I taught my last sum­mer term at Hollins Uni­ver­si­ty. My final class in the Children’s Lit­er­a­ture Grad­u­ate Pro­gram was the his­to­ry of children’s book illus­tra­tors. My stu­dents, most­ly young illus­tra­tors, set­tled into this course as if they’d come home.  

Bedknob and BroomstickThey loved see­ing the ground-break­ing work of Wan­da Gâg and Vir­ginia Lee Bur­ton. They loved the sur­prise of Leo Lion­ni and oth­er mod­ernists. They loved the ver­sa­til­i­ty of Mar­cia Brown and the Dil­lons. In each class, a stu­dent would gasp or smile with recog­ni­tion dur­ing the dis­cus­sion of an artist or spe­cif­ic pic­ture book. I could almost see the door swing open. “My moth­er read me that book!” Or, “My grand­moth­er had that book! I for­got about it!”

Most of my stu­dents weren’t that far removed from their child­hoods. But they were so tight­ly focused on learn­ing craft and tech­nique that they had lost track of why they chose this field. It’s not enough to “love children’s books” (though we do). As cre­ators, we must stay con­nect­ed to the child inside.

One of my stu­dents pref­aced her final paper with this quote by Howard Pyle, illus­tra­tor and founder of the Brandy­wine School: “The sto­ries of child­hood leave an indeli­ble impres­sion, and their author always has a niche in the tem­ple of mem­o­ry from which the image is nev­er cast out to be thrown on the rub­bish heap of things that are out­grown and out­lived.” 

HalloweenThose sto­ries may be for­got­ten, buried at the bot­tom of mem­o­ries that are more imme­di­ate, until the unex­pect­ed moment that sin­gle, indeli­ble image ris­es to the top. For me, a $7 plate in a gro­cery store gave me a glimpse of past Octo­bers, and the mem­o­ry of the books I read back then that let me expe­ri­ence shiv­ery, excit­ing feel­ings any day of the year.

Yeah, I bought the plate I didn’t need, but some­how did. My old Hal­loween books keep it com­pa­ny, along with Har­ry Behn’s Hal­loween, illus­trat­ed by Greg Couch, a poem some of us remem­ber from school … 

…When elf and sprite flit through the night on a moony sheen.

It’s delight­ful­ly witchy—look the rest of it up for Hal­loween! 

Read more...

The Book Box

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

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

The Book Box

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

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

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

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

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

Gazing Globe

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

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

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

Book Box Interior

Read more...

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?

Read more...
ill_matchboxdiary.jpg

Gifted: The Matchbox Diary

When a young girl vis­its her great-grand­­fa­ther for the first time, her imag­i­na­tion swirls with every­thing she sees in his antique shop. He asks her to pick out her favorite item and he will tell her a sto­ry about it. She choos­es a cig­ar box filled with match box­es. As it turns out, this is […]

Read more...