Monthly Archives: February 2016

Memento Mori

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A week ago yesterday, I received the news that my mother had passed away. She was 96 years-old and had been in failing health for quite some time, but the news still came as somewhat of a shock. How could my mother no longer exist in this world? How could I suddenly be motherless? I don’t think it matters what age your mother is when she dies, it still stuns your being to its core.

So how can we, as children’s book authors and illustrators, help children mourn?

When I was a young adult, a dear friend of mine was killed in a motorcycle accident. It was truly a shock. The sadness was so painful. Someone gave me the picture book, Badger’s Parting Gifts by Susan Varley. It tells us to focus on what we have gained from knowing someone who is gone, instead of just the loss we feel.

In remembering that instance, I wondered how many other children’s authors have approached the tender, yet terrifying subject of death. So I googled it.

The childrensbooksguide.com has a list of 25 recommended books dealing with death. Badger’s Parting Gifts is one of them. First published in 1984, it is still in print. None of the other books are familiar, but Tear Soup: A Recipe For Healing After Loss by Pat Schwiebert, sounds appealing. Maybe I will see if I can find it here in the U.K.

Death is not an easy topic to discuss at any age. There are two books (for grown-ups) that I have read in the last few years that I found useful when thinking about death and aging.

Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande, is an excellent resource for any adult who has aging parents, or who is aging themselves. As Gawande points out, getting old and dying is not something that medicine can cure. Quality of life has to be balanced with our desire to keep someone alive. Being Mortal helped me understand how my priorities may not be the same as my parents’.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast is a graphic memoir that relates Chast’s experience of following her parents through their final years. I found it comforting to see how she illustrates many of the same difficult situations I was experiencing with both humour and affection. Children know better than anyone else how quirky their parents can be. Aging makes them more so, but it doesn’t mean we love them any less.

 

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Creating a Character? Keep it Simple.

Picture books writers, generally, aren’t doing elaborate character sketches and questionnaires about what secret object their character keeps in the sock drawer, his favorite breakfast food or what her grandfather did for a living. There isn’t going to be time to develop or to even hint at much nuance.

But like most characters, your main character needs to start in one place and end in a different place emotionally. And that not only comes from a change in situation but a change in their character.

So how do you set up a character quickly? I tell my students to think in terms of a core trait. One clear thing you can say about this character after just a few lines.

How would you describe these picture book characters?

visitor for bear “No one ever came to Bear’s house. It had always been that way, and Bear was quite sure he didn’t like visitors. He even had a sign: No Visitors Allowed”   (A Visitor for Bear, Bonny Becker)

Even if I didn’t know this character (but of course I do since I wrote it!) I’d say grouchy and reclusive. There’s a lot I didn’t know about Bear until Kady MacDonald Denton did her illustrations. For example, I didn’t know that Bear was such a fastidious homebody with his ever-present apron, big fat bottom and delicate paws. Although a lot of character is suggested in the text–Bear is very deliberate about fixing his breakfast, he’s the sort to make tea and he has cozy fires- think the reader has a strong sense of his most important trait from the first few lines.

What about this puppy? What’s his core trait.

last puppy“I was the last of Momma’s nine puppies.

The last to eat from Momma, the last to open my eyes.

The last to learn to drink milk from a saucer,

The last one into the dog house at night.”       (The Last Puppy, Frank Asch)

Well, Asch makes it clear across 8 story pages that if this puppy is anything—it’s last! And he has good reason for beating that point home. I won’t give it away, but it sets up one of the best final twists ever in a picture book.

What can you say about Corduroy from the opening lines?

corduroy“Corduroy is a bear who once lived in the toy department of a big store. Day after day he waited with all the other animals and dolls for somebody to come along and take him home.

The store was always filled with shoppers buying all sorts of things but no one ever seemed to want a small bear in green overalls.”    (Corduroy, Don Freeman)

Easily overlooked, like so many children? I know that we quickly care for this little bear and want him to get picked. Later in the story, Corduroy is made even more pitiful because his overall strap has broken making him even less desirable and neglected, but that’s just icing on the cake. Right from the start Freeman has tapped into a universal quality. Who hasn’t felt left on the shelf at one time or another.

The thing about a truly outstanding trait is that it carries the story direction and resolution within it. You just know that the last puppy isn’t always going to be last and Corduroy isn’t always going to be overlooked.

What do you know about Lilly from these opening lines?

lilly“Lilly loved school! She loved the pointy pencils. She loved the squeaky chalk. And she loved the way her boots went clickety-clickety-click down the long, shiny hallways.”      (Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Kevin Henkes)

One word fits Lilly perfectly: exuberant. And, as with all good stories, it’s this very trait that causes her problems. She gets over-exuberant about her purple plastic purse and this causes problems with her teacher. Henke’s book has the longest set-up I’ve ever seen in a picture book. A whopping 500 or so words of what looks to be about a 1,300 to 1,400 word book. It really heightens the emotional trauma of her turning on her beloved teacher. But, really, we get Lilly after just a few words, especially the “clickety-clickety-click” of her boots.

And then there’s Daisy.

Daisy“You must stay close, Daisy,” said Mama Duck.

“I’ll try,” said Daisy.

But Daisy didn’t. “Come along Daisy!” called Mama Duck.

But Daisy was watching the fish.”       (Come Along Daisy, Jane Simmons)

Everyone knows a Daisy. She’s an easily distracted child. But notice how much those few words “I’ll try” do for this story. It makes Daisy a likable character. She’s not willfully disobedient, but she’s not able to promise for sure, either. And she won’t lie about it. Take out the “I’ll try.” And you have a different Daisy.

How about this classic opening? In some ways it doesn’t look like much:

babar“In the great forest a little elephant is born. His name is Babar. His mother loves him very much. She rocks him to sleep with her trunk while singing softly to him.

Babar has grown bigger. He now plays with the other little elephants. He is a very good little elephant. See him digging in the sand with his shell.”   (The Story of Babar, Jean de Brunhoff)

Well, here’s an opening that would probably land this book in the editor’s trash today. Look at that clumsy jump in time. “Babar has grown bigger.” Boom! That’s it? And where the heck is this story going anyway. But it doesn’t matter because in the next two lines Babar’s mother is shot dead and he’s launched into a completely different story. De Brunhoff spends little time getting Babar on his way, but even so we learn several critical things about Babar. He’s happy and he’s good but the key trait is that he is loved. This is why the reader feels for him as he goes away from his home and then comes back.

So, do your characters have a key trait? It’s not that you can’t get some nuance and depth in, but what can be said about your character after the first two paragraphs?

Just for fun, to see the power of a core trait, you might try an exercise. Take a few rather bland lines. For example:

Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Cat walked into the forest.

Now add a trait:

Scaredy Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Scaredy Cat walked into the forest.

Brave Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Brave Cat walked into the forest.

Hungry Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Hungry Cat walked into the forest.

Just one word  suggests a different character and a different story line. And, if I’m really doing my job, that trait starts to drive all my word choices.

Scaredy Cat went to the forest. It was so dark. Scaredy Cat shivered and slunk into the forest.

Brave Cat went to the forest. It was dark. So what? Brave Cat sauntered into the forest.

Hungry Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Just right. Hungry Cat crept into the forest.

And the story starts to unfold. That’s the power of finding a simple trait for your character.

 

 

 

Empty Notebooks

 

Diary

Secrets!!!!!

When I was about ten, my grandmother gave me a little white diary that had a lock and key. I was thrilled, mostly about the lock and key, not the actual diary. I read Nancy Drew books at the time, and locks and keys felt very private-detective-ish. But I don’t remember having any secrets that required high-security handling. In fact, I believe most of my entries related to how the day began: “Mush for breakfast” was common.

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Mush: My Favorite Breakfast AND My Favorite Diary Entry

I never wrote about heartbreak, disappointment, or disillusionment, nor about what I wanted to be when I grew up (in charge of a doll-repair hospital) nor about being under- (or over-) appreciated (though does any 10-year-old feel over-appreciated?) As far as I recall, I had no secret crushes on anyone at that point nor did I want to rant or rave about how my sister, brother, friends, and parents treated me. Frustrated desires – diaries are good for those, but I didn’t long too much for things I didn’t have. I didn’t brood about being liked or disliked. It’s possible I was oblivious to a lot of things. Truth be told, I was happy as a clam; I didn’t have a clue what to write in a diary because my life, unlike Nancy Drew’s life, felt pleasant and ordinary. And I was fine with that. I abandoned my diary after approximately one month of entries re: eggs, toast, oatmeal, orange juice, etc.

That lack of a need for a private journal seems to have followed me into adulthood. I’ve never kept a journal – at least, not the kind of self-reflective journal that a lot of writers keep in order to sort through their feelings. Not that I don’t fall asleep reflecting on the day’s strange bits and pieces and my relationship to them. But I don’t feel a need (or is it just laziness?) to keep a record of those thoughts. If I try to puzzle my thoughts out, I usually do it while washing dishes. No wonder I rarely use my dishwasher….

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Some bound, some stapled, some handmade by me, some berry-ed…all empty.

I do have lots of blank books which could be journals, but that’s only because I like blank books. Blank notebooks, too – cheap stapled ones, nothing fancy. Composition books, things like that. I seem to like blank paper in general. So full of possibilities! So pristine! I even collect notebooks when I’m traveling – buying them in stationary stores or school supply stores when I can find them. Here are two I found in Italy, one of them depicting quite a moment of discovery in the history of electricity (I think.)  Sadly, or not so sadly – I’m not sure which –  the notebooks are empty.

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Though I don’t keep a journal, I do from time to time write down things I see or read which seem remarkable. A sign that said “Men Working in Trees” struck my fancy and made it into the little leather notebook I keep – I call it a “drift record,” that name taken from the idea of being a flaneur and drifting around the city, observing mostly people but also this, that and the other. Like interesting signs.

men working in trees

I named my blog after my drift record, so sometimes blog entries become a kind of journal (though ouch, no tactile pleasure, no lovely paper. Rather than keeping a record of my own thoughts, my real drift record serves to remind me that the world beyond me is a fascinating place. I often put scientific facts from The Smithsonian into my record – a couple of the latest being that it rains metal on Venus and that half of a river in Minnesota is missing. I keep a list of odd occurrences or sightings or facts that have nothing to do with secret thoughts. No lock and key necessary.

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On the left, my drift record. On the right, a notebook (artwork by Julie Paschkis) where I jot titles of books to look for at the library. These two are not empty.

Empty notebooks. I keep buying them despite the fact I never fill them up. It’s a notebook addiction. Now I try to give the ones I buy to friends. I get some beauties from my friends, too; it’s one of the reasons we’re friends, I’m sure – a mutual love of little notebooks. When I go to Europe this spring, I’ll probably buy a few more – I’ll even pack a small notebook for recording where I stay, what I eat, what I see. That’s the plan. But chances are I’ll abandon it in the same way I abandoned my little white diary. I’ll be “in the moment” and I’ll forget my notebook. If I have a quick minute, I might write something – probably “farine d’avoine pour le petit déjeuner ” – mush for breakfast, Paris-style.

Paris Porridge

A Bowl of Oatmeal at Paris’s Bol Porridge Bar (10th Arrondissement)

 

 

THE POWER OF STORY

The experience of one life is limited, bound in time and space, culture and personality. But a story does not have those limits. A story lets us peer into lives that are quite different from our own. A story can build empathy and human understanding.

This was brought home Friday night when we saw HANA’S SUITCASE at the Seattle Children’s Theatre. The play dips forward and back, from recent times in Japan to 1940s Germany. It follows the present-day investigations of two children and their teacher at a Holocaust museum in Tokyo who are given an artifact from the Auschwitz museum. The simple brown suitcase says “Hanna Brady,” on the side. And her date of birth. And “Waisenkind,” (orphan child). The museum group’s investigations lead to a single Jewish family’s experience in wartime eastern Europe.

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As the Japanese teacher and her students uncover Hana’s story, playgoers learn that before Hana turned 11, her mother and father were sent to concentration camps. That year, 1942, she and her older brother George were sent to Therensienstadt, called Terezin by the Czechs. They were able to see each other about once a week during their two years there. Hannah participated in an art class taught by Bauhaus artist Friedl Dicker-Bandeisova. Friedl smuggled 5,000 pieces of children’s art out of the camp and some of Hana’s art survives. This provides one of the few happy moments in the play.

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The Japanese teacher and her students learn that Hana and George were transferred to Auschwitz in 1944. He became part of a work crew and she was sent to the gas chambers shortly after she arrived. Hana and George’s parents died in Auschwitz in 1942. Artist Friedl Dicker-Bandeisova in 1944.

Of the 140,000 people sent to Terezin, 15,000 were children. Only 300 children survived. Much of what the Japanese investigators learned they learned from George Brady, who was one of those survivors. He moved to Canada after the war and raised a family. At age 89, he attended the opening night of the play in Seattle.

george

Such a powerful story, made more powerful because it is told through the viewpoint of a Japanese teacher and her two students; experienced through children’s eyes halfway across the world.

• • • •

It is a tradition at Seattle Children’s Theatre to end performances with a Talk Back.

My favorite question Friday night was from a kid who asked, “Why did the Germans hate the Jews?”

Why indeed? I cannot begin to answer that question. Even Hana’s brother George long avoided such a question by telling his children that the tattoo on his wrist was an old telephone number.

  • • • • •

Nazis, like ISIS terrorists, depend on dividing the world into “us” and “other.” Even a certain presidential candidate participates in this kind of blanket dehumanization.

But stories build our compassion for each other. Stories have the capacity to make us see our common humanity and break through walls of hatred.

 

Note: Hana’s Suitcase the play is based on a book of the same name by Karen Levine. The SCT play, from Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre (see? another world connection), runs through February 7.

The Brady family has a wonderful website, http://www.hanassuitcase.ca/