Last March we returned from a week’s vacation to find our dishwasher had been leaking while we were gone. The adjacent kitchen floor was buckled, but the worst damage was in the basement below, in our storage room. Boxes of books were ruined. And worst of all, the drip had completely soaked through an apple box labeled “LUNY CLUB ARCHIVES.”
The Luny Club is a 16-year old chapter book project based on my dad’s childhood gang. As I spread out the pages to dry on our patio, my interest was reignited by photos of the original gang in their fort, 1934 calendars, print-outs from microfiche of old Oakland Tribunes, notes from interviews with the two living (since deceased) Luny Club members, print-outs of versions of the manuscript, notes from generous and careful critiquers, sketches from Marcia Paschkis of playclothes of the era, multiple lists and charts that track episodes and scenes and emotions and characters through the plot — in short, hundreds of soaking wet pages.
As I restacked the dried-out index cards and crinkly pages, I felt again the spell that this project had cast all those years ago. Could I try to shape it again? Luckily, among the pages were notes about how to write a novel. The ideas on the page titled LYNN RAE PERKINS spoke to me, so I will recount them here. Lynn is the Newbery award-winning author of Criss Cross as well as author/illustrator of many picture and chapter books. I am not sure where or when I heard her lecture, but thanks to Lynn for these ideas.
Tell in one sentence what the story is about.
Tell in five sentences what the story is about.
Find the parts you know work and put them next to each other.
See the sparks.
Make a list of episodes – what will happen and when.
Consider each episode as it relates to the premise and the concept.
Be aware of possibilities for humor – comedic timing.
The first draft is like arranging furniture or blocking a play.
After waiting all those years in the basement, I think this material is ready for reimagining. With Lynn’s ideas to guide me, I am trying synthesize my Luny Club archives into a (new) first draft. On days when rain keeps me out of the garden, I work with the text: locating episodes that I think work and putting them side by side, looking for the sparks; trying out new sequences and arrangements. It is an enormous puzzle. On sunny days outside, as I weed, mulch and plant my way into Spring, I mull the story through.
Like the garden, I hope it will thrive after a good watering.
If you have tried-and true-strategies for revision, I would love to hear them.
Intention and Attention. Two grabby words that author Elana Arnold used to start a recent SCBWI talk on grammar and syntax—two very non-grabby words, even for those of us who love words and writing.
But Arnold encouraged those listening to pay attention anyway, as she explained things like parataxis, hypotaxis and other ways to help make your writing what you intend.
“Just centering these words (intention and attention) lights up our brains and gets us to notice things we might not otherwise notice and might get us to try things we might not otherwise think to try,” Arnold said.
Arnold covered a lot of ground in her talk, but parataxis and hypotaxis were new to me. I use them all the time but never knew they had specific names.
So what are they?
Parataxis: a literary technique in writing or speaking that favors short simple sentences or phrases without conjunctions or use just coordinating conjunctions And what are those you might ask (as I did)? They are things like and, but, or, as, for, so, yet to connect two parallel words or clauses or sentences.
It’s the para part of parataxis—the root of which means side by side. It suggests that each element mentioned is equally important. Nothing subordinates or goes beneath anything else. The two statements go side by side. Okay, some examples.
Elana used her own picture book An Ordinary Day.
It was an ordinary day in the neighborhood.
There was Mrs. LaFleur, overwatering her roses.
There were Kia and Joseph, attempting to catch lizards
There was Magnificant the Crow letting everyone know that she saw what they were doing and that she did not approve.
Across the street, two houses sat unusually quiet.
At almost the same time, a car pulled up to each.
From one car came a woman. She had a stethoscope draped around her neck and she carried a little bag. From the other car came a man. Like the woman he wore a stethoscope around his neck and he carried a little bag.
The book follows this pattern of simple, mostly declarative sentences as it eventually makes the case that this actually an extraordinary day in the neighborhood involving two equal mysteries.
According to Arnold, parataxis gives your writing some effects to pay attention to:
– It can add mystery because you’re not giving the reader information as to which thing is more important so it allows the reader to figure it out themselves.
– It can help your writing feel simple and straightforward, which is often a great tool when you’re writing about something that is not simple and not straightforward.
– It’s a great way to trim fat. It create a choppy staccato rhythm. So you can use it to give a character a distinctive way of speaking in contrast to a character who uses hypotaxis—which we’ll get to in a minute.
Arnold says when she first wrote An Ordinary Day, she wasn’t thinking: Parataxis, I’m writing parataxis. But later, after her initial draft, she realized what she was doing and in rewrites handled this element more consciously creating an straightforward, but powerful children’s book about the two biggest mysteries in life: birth and death.
Okay, now for:
Hypotaxis: As all you smart people out there have already figured out, it’s kind of the opposite.
Hypotaxis is subordination of one clause to another within sentences or a passages. The technique uses subordinating conjunctions like: although, after, before, because, how, if, once, since, so that, until, unless, when.
Here’s a definition that I found on the MasterClass website: Hypotactic sentence construction uses subordinating conjunctions and relative pronouns to connect a sentence’s main clause to its dependent elements. By explicitly defining a clear connection and order between the clauses through syntactic subordination, hypotactic sentences establish a hierarchy of importance, essentially ranking each clause in the sentence.
And here is an example of it’s use, also from MasterClass:
Among the innumerable practices by which interest or envy have taught those who live upon literary fame to disturb each other at their airy banquets, one of the most common is the charge of plagiarism. When the excellence of a new composition can no longer be contested, and malice is compelled to give way to the unanimity of applause, there is yet this one expedient to be tried, by which the author may be degraded, though his work be reverenced; and the excellence which we cannot obscure, may be set at such a distance as not to overpower our fainter lustre. This accusation is dangerous, because, even when it is false, it may be sometimes urged with probability. Samuel Johnson
So what does Hypotaxis get you? It can help create a sense of interconnection and dependence. An if/then relationship that Arnold used in another soon-to-be-released picture book. The conjunction “because” used over and over in a “this is the house that Jack built” structure shows all the steps it took for a child to end up with wooden blocks he plays with.
Arnold was running out of time, so couldn’t go into this technique in depth, but I feel that it can buy you a more discerning voice. It can ask the reader to make fine distinctions and follow complex reasoning. It’s a good voice for figuring out how the world works and what one’s values are. And as you can see from the Samuel Johnson example, it’s a great tool for irony and cynicism.
But it’s also a valuable tool for simpler writing. Many a picture book as been moved along by conjunctions like then, when, because, if…
I like how Arnold ended her talk. She noted that when she’s evaluating her writing “my very favorite question is does this satisfy me?
“If the answer is no, this is not yet satisfying to me, then, the question is, how can I move one notch closer to being satisfied by the syntax and then your whole job is to just get one tick closer to satisfying, and then the next time you go through it, just one tick more. ‘No’ is not a bad thing; that means that there’s room to play.”
ELANA K. ARNOLD is the author of critically acclaimed and award-winning young adult novels and children’s books, including the Printz Honor winner Damsel, the National Book Award finalist What Girls Are Made Of, and Global Read Aloud selection A Boy Called Bat and its sequels. Several of her books are Junior Library Guild selections and have appeared on many best book lists, including the Amelia Bloomer Project, a catalog of feminist titles for young readers. Elana teaches in Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program and lives in Southern California with her family and menagerie of pets.
At the coming of spring, I go from mostly INSIDE myself (blanket, book, sofa, the smell of hot cocoa, and a mental image of the personal library. above) to mostly OUTSIDE myself (garden, seed packets, blue sky, the smell of fresh dirt.) Sweet peas (pretty) have been planted; raspberries (yumm) have been transplanted (fingers crossed); sugar snap peas (yumm again) are in; tulips, grape hyacinths and forsythia are blooming under pink cherry and white almond trees. Even my daphne bushes survived the big freezes (multiple) of Winter 2022.
As the weather warms and flowers bloom, I’m inclined to share more. So here are a few links, and my reasons (other than red tulips in bloom) for sharing them:
I love the work of local photographer Edmund Lowe (see photo of the Skagit Valley daffodil fields, above.) When I look at his photos I not only see his world, I also hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it. All art is a conjuring of the senses, isn’t it? No matter the medium (including writing!) we want to link our bodies to the story. Here is a link to his website.
I want to share Julie Danielson’s examination of Corinna Luykens and her 2017 book, The Book of Mistakes. At Danielson’s blog “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.” Luykens makes an artist’s case for having fun and letting go of anxieties, specifically those that involve making mistakes with your work. An accidental smudge, a disproportionate head? Serendipitous mistakes, says Luykens, often take you exciting places. And if you’re interested in children’s literature in general, check out Danielson’s blog . It’s not to be missed.
3. Another sharable favorite: Du Iz Tak by Carson Ellis. This is my kind of book, 100%. How did I manage to miss a careful reading of Carson Ellis in all my years with kids books? Her work is relatively new to me, and I’ve had a ball reading it (Home is the most popular, I think, but don’t miss In the Half Room.) Imagine being a fly on the wall when Du Iz Tak was pitched to its editor: “Well, it’s a story told completely in a made-up bug language. No, there’s isn’t a translation; no, there isn’t any explanation. It’s all just bug gibberish.” Of course, the read-aloud inflections and the illustrations provide clues about what these strange words mean. Many picture books stay soft and quiet, but this one makes you laugh out loud. Here’s a link to the Kirkus Review, which locates a deeper meaning. Personally, I’m satisfied with the wordplay.
4. From the Archives: a fascinating look at the life and work of Ursula LeGuin, by Julie Phillips, in the New Yorker a few days after Le Guin died. “An author’s business is lying,” she wrote for the introduction of The Left Hand of Darkness. Reade this article and see if you agree. If you already love Le Guin, I recommend her book of essays, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters.
A bit of trivia: The photographer and all three of the authors mentioned in #1-4 live/lived in the Pacific Northwest – Oregon and Washington, west of the Cascade Range. Is it the fresh air we breathe here that keeps our imaginations stimulated? I say yes.
6. Not from the Pacific Northwest but from a part of the world we all have our minds on: the Ukrainian illustrator Maria Prymachenko (several spellings but Wikipedia goes with this one.) Thanks to Jama Kim Rattigan, a Facebook friend, for the heads-up – Jama has been posting many pictures by Ukrainian artists. Below is a piece of Prymachenko’s art. She worked mainly in embroidery and ceramics.
I know we’re holding in our hearts all the people who are suffering in that part of the world right now. Please do what you can to help them – perhaps a donation to UNICEF, for the children?
[Update from Wikipedia; “The Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, where several works by Prymachenko were held, was burned during the ongoing 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the supposed loss of 25 of her works. However, according to a social media post by journalist Tanya Goncharova, local people were able to save some of Prymachenko’s works from the fire. According to an interview with Prymachenko’s great-granddaughter, Anastasiia Prymachenko, in The Times, ten of her works were saved by a local man who entered the museum whilst it was on fire.” ]
I wrote this post in 2014. I’ve added some new images and thoughts at the end.
Here is the original post: Recently a friend suggested that I consider working on some of my illustrations in photoshop for the ease of trying out different solutions to a problem. I saw her point, but I prefer the point of a pencil, or the flow of a pen.
When I am illustrating or painting I start with an idea in my head. But once I start working on it other things kick in – my hand and the materials with which I am working. A line drawn with a pencil is different than line drawn with a brush. A line drawn with my hand is different than a line drawn in my head. Although a computer can recreate the looks of various media, I want the physical experience of interacting with real materials. I want to eat paper and drink ink.
Ink leads to scratches and blots, like this gongozzler by Ben Shahn.
Ink leads to elegant script and crosshatching as in this drawing by Saul Steinberg.
…or to elegant script and scratchy lines as in this Pennsylvania Fraktur for a Sam Book (psalm book) from 1809.
Ink is tempting, as in this drawing by John Coates.
A pencil will take you to an entirely different place.
James Edward Deeds ( 1908 – 1987) was an inmate of State Hospital #3 in Nevada, Missouri. He was also known as the Electric Pencil. He left behind an amazing trove of subtle and haunting pencil drawings.
Don’t miss the upper left corner of Rebel Girl…
I want to make art, but I don’t want to be the total master of the material. I want to see where the brush or pen or pencil will take me.
P.S. Here is a pencil poem by Todd Boss which I first saw on Julie Larios’s blog, the Drift Record.
I still work by hand although I use the computer to send and store my work. Technology has advanced so much in the last 8 years. I often can’t tell when I look at a book if the art was created digitally or manually.
I still prefer drawing and painting by hand because all of my senses are engaged. I might be able to recreate a dip pen line with a computer, but I like the feel of pressing on the nib. I can’t imagine this drawing (from 2015) deciding to come to me on the computer.
Sometimes I will use photoshop to edit out a blob, change a background, or change the scale of my sketches. But my ignorance might be keeping me from seeing the possibilities of the new tools.
I recently heard an artist explain how ProCreate allowed her to work more directly from sketches and make her work more free and intuitive. It made me want to try it.
If you are an artist how does the medium affect your creating? If you are a reader do you care or notice how the work was created?
Have your habits or creative processes changed as technology has developed?
I am a big fan of Dolly Parton. And not just because of the video she made while getting her Covid shot to the tune of her song Jolene, lyrics reworked to “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine…” Under her fancified outer self beats a heart that’s true.
In 1995 she launched a formidable effort to raise literacy in Sevier County, Tennessee, where she grew up: The Imagination Library. Since its inception, this book-gifting program has mailed monthly high-quality books to children from birth to age five, no matter their family’s income.
The program grew quickly and now serves children in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and Ireland. As of January 2022, 174 million books had been gifted. Wow.
The books are chosen by committee and purchased in wholesale agreement with Penguin Random house. My sister Kate and I were lucky to have our book SQUEAK! included in the Imagination Library. And this year the Dollywood people created an English/Spanish edition of ISLAND LULLABY for distribution.
As you probably know, Dolly’s main gig is not literacy. She is a memorable performer and remarkable composer, known for having written Jolene and And I Will Always Love You on the same day. A ten-time Grammy winner, Dolly says, “I take myself more serious as a songwriter than anything else. I always say I’ve written about 3,000 songs and three good ones, but I just love the joy of writing.”
Now Dolly writes books, too. Monday, March 7, she and author James Patterson co-released Run, Rose, Run, a novel about navigating the music industry in Nashville. The previous Friday she had released her latest studio album with the same title.
I think it was on an American Idol show where she was the guest coach that I heard her advise a contestant, “Figure out who you are and do it on purpose.” That has sure worked for Dolly.
In my collection of illustrations and art featuring books and reading, there are a lot that involve animals. The overwhelming choice of animal is cats, followed closely by birds. I get why those two animals show up again and again. Birds for dreams and flights of fancy and cats for cozy—and both suggest interiority.
But I’ve been surprised to find I have a handful of illustrations featuring rabbits, too. I can’t really think of why. Rabbits do have a bit of literary heritage. There’s Alice in Wonderland, of course, and Peter Rabbit. Maybe the fact that they live in burrows suggests the subconscious and interiority, (but I haven’t run across many illustrations of books, reading and snakes). What mostly seems to come across is a feeling of incongruity.
Like these two intellectuals.
Or this self-satisfied fellow.
This guy has burrowed in. The way I like to.
These readers are just sweet.
There’s a load of incongruities in this one:
In this one, I like how cleverly the artist has blended the two realities. Let’s not even get into how there’s actually no reality here at all.
Here a lot of animals get a chance at reading, but the rabbit definitely stands out. As with some of the other illustrations, the joke seems to be how intellectual the bunny is. So maybe rabbits reading is all about not being a dumb bunny.
I’ve decided to focus my contributions to Books Around the Table on links to sites that intrigue me. Some will have to do with kids books, others with writing, others with quirky sparks that might intrigue you as well. If you have links you want to share which do a similar job, I hope you’ll add them via the comments below.
My favorite this time around: The photo pictured above, of two kids on a jackass. It’s from small-town Anacortes Museum’s collection of 70,000 historic images (this in a town with a population of approximately 17,000 people!) newly digitized and put online as a searchable database. Here’s the link: https://anacortes.pastperfectonline.com/randomimages
Want a writing prompt? Find historic photos of a few unrelated people whose faces or circumstances interest you. Imagine a narrative that connects them.
Joohee Yoon relights the burning tiger in her book Beastly Verse from Enchanted Lion. Yoon’s tiger pulses with energy. She uses a limited palette – the colors vibrate. The shadows of the forest become the stripes of the tiger. The page folds out. First you see mostly the forest, then open the gatefold to reveal the rest of the tiger with fearful asymmetry.
Morris Hirshfield’s tiger radiates energy through the curving stripes of the beast, framed by the curving lines of the sky. This tiger is bigger than any mere tree, bigger than the hills.
Straight lines can be energetic too. Tiger leaps with big paws onto this soft rug, this new year.
This quizzical feline might not be a tiger. He wonders.
He is painted by Tatiana Mavrina. Her joyful style always reminds me to be free when painting.
Today’s tiger journey ends with another visit to William Blake.
Here we are in a new year. I wonder if you, like me, are using this quiet Covid time to generate new writing projects?
The EMOTION door is one way into a new story. Many of my favorite picture books are powered by emotion – i.e. Where the Wild Things Are, Owl Babies, The Rabbit Listened. A whole reason to read is to feel the emotion of the story. Why not cross the border to childhood and mine your own emotional geography for stories from your deepest sense of who you are, your particular take on the world?
For instance, the Zelda and Ivy series comes from my experience as the middle of five children. I earned my black belt in sibling rivalry. Those childhood incidents have provided material for six books about the fox sisters. Mostly I go for stuff that makes me laugh, but those long ago happenings evoke all five of the major emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger and peevishness.
It’s a matter of feeling your way back to where the good stuff is waiting and reconnecting with experiences that provoked big emotions; experiences you found funny or scary or exasperating or intriguing or hurtful as hell.
Here are three exercises I have found useful:
1. Emotional event inventory: Look at the first ten years of your life in two or three year chunks. What significant events occurred in each chunk? Note events that hold emotion: times of great loss, disappointments, times of wonder, deep satisfactions, things that made you laugh. List objects, people, places you loved or hated or found scary or funny. Even if you are not an illustrator, it is helpful to draw this stuff, or at least describe it carefully in words, so you retrieve a mental picture – picture books are a visual medium. Then add the audio. Put the event on scene – write it in first person present tense, using dialogue and narration. Don’t be encumbered by the facts. Lie, embellish and shape your story into the best story it can be.
2. Gather evidence from family archives: Revisit home movies and photos, diaries and any other artifacts from your childhood that bring up emotion.
3. Research Your Own Life: Visit the old neighborhoods, talk to the kids you grew up with. Comb old newspapers and magazines from the places and times in which you were a child. This probably comes from my journalism background, but often research will present stories and backstories. Scratch around. It’s waiting to be discovered. You can tell something belongs in a story if it raises the little hairs on the back of your neck, as friend and fellow Seattle writer Brenda Guiberson taught me years ago. Pay attention. Some stuff is charged for some people. Who knows why? It¹s that emotional charge that will carry your story and connect to readers.
Of course, ideas are found in the present, too. In fact, think it is the synergy of experiences and observations across a lifetime that gives a story juice. Crafting a story is a way to make sense of it all: to savor and honor some memories, and to provide closure and put to rest others.
Books Around The Table is the blog of Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, Julie Paschkis and Bonny Becker. We are a critique group of children's book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, our art and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation.