Author Archives: Bonny Becker

Getting Bear to the Library

Those who have followed the adventures of Mouse and Bear may have noticed that Bear has never left his cozy Tudor cottage. He’s barely set even a claw out that front door.

The trouble with Bear is he’s a recluse.

He likes his peace and quiet. He likes his privacy and he likes his cottage and pretty much sees no reason to leave it.

The dynamic is much the same in each book. Bear is a grouchy loner who is reluctantly drawn into life and its various celebrations by exuberant Mouse.

The latest book, A LIBRARY BOOK FOR BEAR is the fifth book in the Mouse and Bear series. The trouble with writing sequels about a character who’s a recluse is how to get your character out and about and into different adventures.

I wanted to talk a little in this blog about how I got Bear into the bigger world and about the challenge of writing sequels.

In some ways sequels are easy:

You know your characters and for a picture book it’s easy to follow a fairly similar story arc once you’ve set one up. The young reader is looking for the familiar and so is the editor. So it’s tempting to deliver the same story over and over with minor variations.

Writing each book is, in some ways, as simple as asking myself “what fresh hell can I create for Bear.”

Fortunately I’ve never had any trouble figuring out different ways to bug Bear. I grew up with five siblings, which pretty much makes one an expert on bugging people.

So I’ve had Bear have to deal with this mouse who won’t go away and with the horror of having a birthday party and with a first ever sleep-over with a guest who isn’t as quiet as Bear requires. Bear gets sick and has to deal with the much too cheerful ministrations of Mouse.

But how do you keep the familiar from turning into a formula? How do you keep it fresh, not only for your readers, but for yourself. I didn’t want Bear to simply be bugged and to respond the same way time after time. I hope to move his relationship with Mouse forward bit by bit through the series. And for Bear to change just a little.

So for this sequel I went through a number of scenarios—Mouse and Bear bake a pie together; Mouse and Bear go on a picnic and Bear can’t settle until he finds the perfect spot. Or they could go fishing. I wasn’t sure yet what would bug Bear about fishing but I know enough about fishing to know there’d be plenty of frustration.

But these all felt like I would cover pretty familiar territory. I did get Bear out of the house in a few of these ideas, but it was still just him and Mouse interacting. I wanted to turn things on their head a bit.

Then I remembered one of Bear’s main characteristics. In every story, he is inevitably driven to bellow out his frustration, rather like Donald Duck working up into one of his tantrums.

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And that inevitable process gave me an idea. What if Bear were in a situation where quiet was required. A church, some solemn occasion… I was half-tempted to try out Bear at a funeral. I would love to see him bellowing mid-funeral (ideally about some annoyance he had with the corpse.)

But really what better quiet place than a library? And a library would get Bear out of his house and interacting with at least a few other animals

There was a problem with that idea, however, because I love libraries and books. What could Bear possible be grouchy about?

I grew up in a household with hundreds and hundreds of books. There were bookshelves in virtually every room. One room was a library with shelves from floor to ceiling. Even with all of that, we went to the library once a week and I would walk out with books up to my chin.

Libraries have always had a special place in my life. I still remember being the school library aide when I was in the fourth grade. How I loved to turn the numbers on the rubber date stamp to the correct date and decisively stamp the checkout cards.

My mother was on the Wenatchee, WA library board. My siblings and I even created our own library at home taking all the kids books we had and numbering and labeling them and creating library check out card for each.

So how could Bear not be interested in the library!? Fortunately, Bear is so persnickety and stubborn that he was convinced he already had all the books he needed right at home: he had three about honeybees, three about kings and queens and one about pickles. Who could ask for more?

Of course, Mouse knew you could ask for a whole lot more. He just needs to convince Bear of that. Eventually he does (with the help of a friendly librarian and pickles) and Bear goes home with seven new books. And I’m sure with more visits to the library in his future.

I’m glad I got Bear to go to the library. The book is already in its third printing. (It came out in July.) It’s been reviewed in the Wall St. Journal and Huffington Post, along with the usual children’s book review sources.  It received a starred review from the School Library Journal and was selected as an autumn must-read by Scholastic’s Instructor Magazine.

It will be on the cover of American Booksellers Children’s book holiday catalog. Some 275,000 copies will be printed and distributed to independent bookstores nationwide.

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What’s next for Mouse and Bear? Having gotten Bear into the frying pan, I’m putting him into the fire next time with A HALLOWEEN FOR BEAR. Imagine how much he’s going to love having all kinds of animals come to his house demanding candy!

 

 

The Big Why

Christian Krohg  [Norwegian Realist Painter, 1852-1925]

Christian Krohg
[Norwegian Realist Painter, 1852-1925]

Why do you write? It’s a question asked of me recently and I was surprised by my answer.

It was asked by Linda Urban in a presentation she gave recently at the Whidbey Writer’s MFA program. Linda is the author of three middle-grade novels including “The Center of Everything” which got a lot of Newbery buzz last year.

Linda talked about finding your “big why?”

There are smaller whys. The reasons that underlies any individual story. Why are you writing it? Why does it matter?

And there’s a big why. Why do you write in the first place?

I was surprised to realize that there’s a link between the two for me. I’ve written all kinds of books from a picture book about the first ant in history to take a day off to a to a novel about a lizard who wants to be an artist to the stories of a grumpy bear and his friendship with an exuberant mouse.

I wouldn’t have thought they had much in common. But Linda’s question got me thinking about my work in progress—a new middle grade—and about what I most want kids to get from my work.

I think children’s stories do have a different tone, purpose, motivation, “ground” than adult stories and therefore have hopeful endings and characters who are growing rather than living lives of quiet desperation.

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For me the most profound purpose and role of stories for children is “encouragement”. In the most fundamental meaning of that word. To give courage. The courage to live and enjoy and accomplish.

Because as a child you are a stranger in a strange land. What is this place? Why am I here? Am I safe?   Where am I going?   Am I capable of being in this place? Are the people around me capable?   Is life fun? A curse? A blessing?

A child doesn’t know. We don’t know. Stories are our way of exploring those questions. They are a way to experience a thousand lives and possibilities in one life.

To me that is the endless fascination of story. Why do we tell them in the first place? Why do we have such an appetite for stories? T.v., radio, books, movies, conversation. We are forever telling and listening to stories. They obviously serve a basic need. Yes, they are entertainment and they should be, but what do we find “entertaining” about them? They entrance us because they address our most fundamental questions in an interesting way.

Even a concept picture book serves this purpose. Say a playful rhyming book about color. Part of what it’s accomplishing is telling a child, a reader that life is fun. Life is interesting. Look. See. Enjoy. Isn’t this a fascinating place?

That’s the “why” behind an ant taking a day off or a lizard being willing to dream big or a bear who learns to celebrate friendship, birthdays and sleep-overs.

Gregory Muenzen

Gregory Muenzen

Children’s stories don’t have to paint a perfect world—in fact if they are too unrealistic they fail because children recognize we are lying to them–but they should present a world that is worth living in. Why would we feed our children a diet of cynicism and despair? As we get older we can entertain grimmer possibilities, but not as children. I think that’s why parents instinctively shield their children from certain stories and I think as writers we generally recognize that we want to accomplish a certain tone in our stories. It’s not because we’re not sophisticated enough to see beyond bunnies and happy dancing flowers and wee little elves. Stories for children are generally positive and playful and hopeful and joyful, because we recognize that is our basic purpose. To bring back word from adulthood to children that life is okay. You can do it. Come on in.

For me, that’s my big “why.”

 

 

Once upon a time…

Time, time
Time, see what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities

Paul Simon – A Hazy Shade Of Winter Lyrics

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I’m on Whidbey Island right now at the 10-day residency for the low-residency program I teach at–an MFA program in writing with a special track for children’s and young adult writers.

We’re a small program—only about 50 students. And that’s deliberate. The goal is to have small classes taught by working writers in poetry, fiction, non-fiction and children’s/young adult. It’s funny but each residency will tend to have a theme for me. An idea or issue that comes up again and again.

This year it’s time. Time in our writing, time for our writing, the timing of our days.

This residency one of our speakers was Linda Urban, author of three middle-grade novels including “The Center of Everything” which got a lot of Newbery buzz last year. One of the things Linda talked about was the use of time in our stories. And offered some exercises to help us play with and understand something about how time is conveyed in writing.

For example, set the timer for two minutes and write a scene from a familiar fairy tale (Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) in first person, but either in past, present or future tense. At the two-minute bell without pausing start writing in a different tense.

It’s interesting to see how the pace, mood and sense of distance changes with the tenses. Future tense is oddly ominous. Past reassuring. Present urgent and unsettling.

Another exercise is to expand time. Set the timer for five minutes and take a moment in your story and write the whole time about that one moment.

This wasn’t an exercise of Linda’s but of a student who teaches writing to children, Amy Carlson. She has her students start with the moment they are in—this moment of putting pen to paper and asks them to write backward in time from there back to the moment they woke up. According to Amy, this sets different wheels in motion in our imaginations since our brains aren’t used to thinking backward in time. It’s an exercise to free up the imagination. (Amy says the walking backward can do the same thing—challenge and wake up our brains.)

Not just time in our writing, but time for our writing has come up again and again. Do you set your writing time up by words written, hours spent, specific task? For everyone it seems to be a little different.

One speaker suggested a goal of 500 words a day. I know writers who aim for five pages a day. Writers who sit down diligently for four or six or eight hours. Writers who write for 15 minutes a day.

This morning at breakfast, poet David Wagoner talked about the prolific novelist Anthony Trollope who wrote early in the morning for an hour and a half before he went to work. Trollope’s goal was to write 1,500 words in that time. Two hundred and fifty words every 15 minutes. At this rate he produced some 47 novels and numerous short stories and non-fiction pieces. As he noted, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”

Even so, three hours a day total was apparently his maximum. “Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. “

And from what I can tell most people, like Trollope, seem to have about two to three hours in them. So what do writers do with the rest of the time?

Mostly, we look around for our possibilities.

 

 

 

Black and White and Red All Over

The color red has its literary roots. It’s blood and drama and passion. Red is the first color that Jonas sees in Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” It’s no accident that Little Red Riding Hood wears scarlet or that Robbie Burns’s love is “like a red, red rose.”

Red shows up in literature in another funny way. I collect electronic images of books in art. Copies of illustrations, paintings and prints that feature books in some way. (Like the images that Julie L. shared last week) And I began to notice a lot of red books in art. Not just as a random spot of color, but as a color that makes a statement, suggests a story:

escape from the everyday…

Agata Raczynska

Agata Raczynska

into an imagined passion

Jonathan Burton

Jonathan Burton

Or maybe it’s a real world passion

Jennifer Dionisio

Jennifer Dionisio

Or  forbidden fruit

Jean F. Martin

Jean F. Martin

Alessandro Gottardo

Alessandro Gottardo

Or perhaps red, is after all,  just a mystery

Jennifer Dionisio

Jennifer Dionisio

My favorite literary use of red is the William Carlos William poem, The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

So much depends on the red book, so much is suggested that is dark and forbidden, hinting at hidden depths beneath the most sedate appearances.

Nakamura Daizaburo

Nakamura Daizaburo

And isn’t that what reading is all about–that gateway into other selves. In this case, our red selves. Our read selves.

My Mostly Companion

 

Henry was old for a dog. Nearly 18. He was blind, deaf, arthritic and had grown painfully thin. About a month ago he stopped the small frisking about he did when I brought him in from the outside. And I had told myself it would be time to put him to sleep when he stopped doing that—the last sign of any real joy I saw from him.

But still I hesitated. After all, there was life in him. He liked to eat. He enjoyed standing by the open front door and sniffing the wind. He could still get around—although mostly it had turned into wandering around in an anxious, aimless way.

It was time, really. Not necessarily past time. Henry might have lived along in this fashion for an uncertain number of months. But any “good” days were gone. So it became a matter of when I was ready. Not him.

Today was the day I was ready. My daughters and I took him to the vet and at about 10:30 this morning, he was put to sleep. It was a peaceful death. The room was set up with a cozy blanket. Soft music played. After explaining how things would go, the vet gave Henry a tranquilizing shot.

Henry continued with his anxious wandering for about five more minutes, then at my urging came to the blanket and sunk into a quiet state. Henry was never easy to pet. He was a shiba inu and like many shiba inus he was aloof. He didn’t particularly like being petted. Usually if you approached him you could sense him tolerating your touch until he could move away and shake it off. It wasn’t really until he was around ten that Henry would actively seek out affection. And then, never from strangers.

Shiba inus are beautiful dogs. Most people compare them to foxes with their sharp ears and noses and coats of lush red fur. And they are closer to their wild nature than most dogs. Something in them remains independent and fierce. Henry would duck away if a stranger tried to pet him. That lush fur always just out of reach.

But this morning, Henry fell into his tranquilized sleep and we could pet him to our heart’s content. We cried, laughed and remembered. Then the vet returned and gave Henry his final shot. It worked quickly. In less than a minute, Henry took several sharp breaths. Something about the deep breaths made his mouth turn up and I realized how long it had been since I’d seen Henry smile. It made me feel more certain that I was doing the right thing. Then the vet announced that Henry’s heart had stopped. And we said our last goodbyes.

Now the house feels empty. Eighteen years is a long time. As a writer, home alone much of my day, you were my mostly companion, Henry. The rhythm of our days changed over the years from the days of three and four walks as you were bursting with young energy to the recent days of long, long naps. But they were days we shared.

I always knew you were in the house—barking at the crows who dared to use our roof, joyfully greeting the workmen you seemed to have a natural affinity for, nosing about for some goody in the kitchen, snapping at some fly, officiously investigating odd sounds, paroling the back yard, graciously allowing yourself to be petted, sleeping in my office as I wrote…

You were a good dog, Henry. You were an especially good Henry. And I’ll miss you.

Tell it slant…

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“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind–”      Emily Dickinson

Our first experience with rhyme was probably with nursery rhymes—simple perfect word matches—cat and hat, hog and jog, Horner and corner. But you can work with rhyme in subtler ways. One of my favorite approaches is to “tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson was so fond of doing.

Slant rhymes, also called near rhymes are rhymes created using words with similar but not identical sounds. Words like ground/down, play/stayed and even more tenuous matches like Dickinson’s delight/surprise and eased/gradually. In some near rhymes the vowels are similar; in some the consonants match.

Why do I like to tell it slant? I love it for its rhythmic surprises. It can help you break away from the singsong, drumbeat that’s easy to fall into with perfect rhyme. But best of all, from a writer’s standpoint, it makes this whole business of writing in rhyme easier.

It’s hard to tell a nuanced story in perfect rhyme—with near rhyme your word choices open up dramatically. It makes it a bit easier to do as Dickinson advices—to tell the truth but tell it slant. It can “ease” the telling–and the receiving—both literally and figuratively.

Like Dickinson, I like to mix both near and perfect rhyme. Here are the first few stanzas of my very first book, “The Quiet Way Home.”

“Let’s go the quiet way home.

Not by the dog who growls at the gate

But the way where the kittens play

Hush. Can you hear it.

Skittle. Skattle. Bat and claw

Kitten paw.

Let’s go the quiet way home

Not by the lawn and the roar as John mows

But the way where Mr. Kay’s garden grows

Hush. Can you hear it?

Chip, chop, dig-a-row.

Garden hoe.

There are a couple techniques embedded in these lines. For one thing, if you’re going to use slant rhyme establish early that this is what you’re going to do. With my first stanza, I’ve signaled immediately that I’m not going with perfect rhyme (gate/play). But as you can see from my second verse, I am promising a similar rhythm and pattern to each stanza. And perfect rhyme at times (mows/grows).

Notice also that I use internal rhyme—that is rhyme within the line itself not just at the end, such as “growls” and “gate,” “roar” and “mows,” “way” and “Kay.” Internal rhyme like that is often slant rhyme and poets use it all the time.

(By the way “hush” is a magic word. I’ve never had a class– from kindergarteners to 6th graders–not hush at that moment and listen. I suspect it’s half the magic of “Good Night Moon.”)

Also, with the important moment—when I identify the object making the noise—I consistently use perfect rhyme (claw/paw, row/hoe). It creates a punchy contrast to the near rhyme. Just as Dickinson uses her one moment of perfect rhyme, kind/blind, to such powerful effect in her poem.

One challenge of slant rhyme is it can get away from you. You don’t have the control of perfect rhythm and rhyme. In my book, “Just a Minute” I go so slant at times that I think I come perilously close to going completely off the track.

It’s a tall tale about a boy whose minute of waiting for his mother gradually seems to balloon into eternity. Here’s how it starts:

“Now, don’t you move,”

said Johnny MacGuffin’s mother.

“Stay right here while I shop.

Auntie Mabel will watch.

I’ll be just a minute.”

And she sailed away,

Past the purses and plates,

Up the up escalator

In Bindle’s Department Store.

“But you’ll take forever!” Johnny cried.

“When you get back I’ll be fossilized!”

But it was too late.

He was stuck in the basement of Bindle’s again.

While Johnny’s mom is away he imagines that Christmas comes and goes, a year passes, then more. He grows up and grows old and Bindle’s crumbles to dust. Finally:

The sun shifted its course

And the seas rose and fell

And rose again…

…[then] the tides came in

and the sun burned to a cinder of vermilion…

All this by the time his mother returns. It’s a rather careening path of rhythm and rhyme, but I think it works for a tall tale of time spinning out of control.

Slant rhyme isn’t “cheating” and it can be a powerful tool for you for telling stories in rhyme. But when to use it depends, as it always does, on what’s right for your story. Don’t use it just to be lazy.

As in the Dickinson poem, with or without perfect rhyme, your goal as an author is to “tell all the truth.” To tell a story as honestly as you can. One that is honest about its message and honest about its techniques, and sometimes the perfect choice will be to “tell it slant.”

“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” E.B White

K Hollingsworth-Cat Window books

Painting by Karen Hollingsworth

About a week ago I sat down with Julie and Julie and Margaret and Laura for the first time. A new writing group. A group of women I know from the writing community: some I know pretty well, some I’m just getting to know. All I could think was how lucky I was to be among them.

As a group they’ve published dozens of wonderful books; each is dedicated to her craft; each has high standards for her work. They all know how hard it is to write the short form—poetry, picture books, early readers. And I need them for that. I need their exacting standards, their critical eye.

But I need them for something else. Companionship in this difficult career. I need their clucks of commiseration, their murmurs of agreement. Their encouragement. Their industry gossip. Their inside jokes. Their book recommendations. Their ups and downs with husbands, children and editors.

I’m greedy. This is my second writing group. I have another long-standing group with friends, Dia Calhoun and Kathryn Galbraith. They are true-blue buddies and writing companions. So why two groups?

The creative life is uneven. There are times of great production and times when nothing seems to come. Sometimes an entire group can go stale. Sometimes a group gets shaky because of illness or a personal life crisis takes up so much of a member’s mind and time. Someone leaves. Things fall apart. Or at least grind to a crawl. Maybe I’m hoping that when one group falters, the other will be perking up.

And you can become familiar with each other’s work. It’s easy to fall into a pattern—a familiar call and response in terms of the feedback you get and the feedback you give. It was startling and fun, last week, to hear new and different voices chime in on my work.

So, I’m buying insurance, I guess. I can’t imagine functioning without a writing group. I’ve never failed to get an important insight from a critique. I’ve never failed to get a boost out of talking with people facing the same challenges, frustrations, goals and hopes that I am.

I can’t hear someone else’s words without suddenly feeling an eagerness to write my own words. I can’t help but take any feedback to anyone in the group back to my own work. Someone lands a great contract and I want that, too. Someone is frustrated that they haven’t heard from their editor and I get to tell my story about the three-year wait. Someone’s child has quietly grown up while we were busy making other plans.

Sure Virginia Woolf wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.”  But she also wrote: “Some people go to priests; others to poetry; I to my friends.”

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