Monthly Archives: June 2018

Scary But Not Too Scary

 

Writing a scary book for young readers is a tricky business. Where is that line between fun scary and scary scary?

With my latest book, The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael, I’m hoping I found that line. It certainly was fun to write, even though it took forever. I really can’t remember when I jotted down the first few lines:

It was the thirteenth of November, a stormy night
When the Thirteen bus hove into sight.
Something about it didn’t seem right
But Michael McMichael boarded.

It might have been as long as 20 years ago. Long enough that the first drafts are somewhere on a discarded hard disc drive.  It was just a bit of doggerel that kept stumping me because I’d boxed myself into a corner with my rhyme scheme. The story had to make sense and have a satisfying arc, yet the first three lines of every stanza needed to end in perfect rhyme and the last line had to rhyme or near rhyme with “boarded.”

The first three lines rule wasn’t hard. It was that darn “boarded.” I think I managed to find just about every word that rhymes or near rhymes with “boarded”, from the sensible “hoarded” to the desperate and untenable “sore head.”

Years would go by as I worked on other things; The Frightful Ride forgotten only to be rediscovered once in awhile in my files and noodled with a bit more. Finally it occurred to me that I had a complete story and this might be a picture book. Luckily Sarah Ketchersid at Candlewick agreed—with a few changes.

Back to the drawing board for a few more years. Then the completed manuscript went to the marvelous Mark Fearing for illustrations. (Where I suddenly realized that a word I’d used years ago when banishing the villainous bus driver–deported–needed to be changed to “exported.” Deported had become too loaded of a word.) Then a year for printing and distribution. And finally, it is here! The official release date is July 10, 2018.

But all along it was geared to younger readers, so, of course, the scary thing is defeated in the end. But the real key to me between scary but not too scary is humor. And that was my instinct from the get-go. What was really rattling around in my mind was my memory of the macabre, rhyming tall tales of Robert Service, especially his poem The Cremation of Sam McGee.

My father read that to us when I was a kid and I loved its wonderful “chewy” language.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

 “The men who moil for gold” or “That night on the marge of Lake Lebarge,” who can beat that?

There’s that kind of juicy language throughout Service’s poem. At the same time it’s a complicated story, but Service doesn’t cheat with easy or obvious rhymes. He reaches for the great instead of the good. (I’ve always wondered if “moil” was made up, but it’s a real word as is “marge.” There’s even a Lake Laberge in the Yukon. Service definitely isn’t a cheater.)

I can’t claim I achieved a “Robert Service” but his macabre humor, his love of words and tall tale format were my inspiration. In these tense times with voices of concern all around us, it’s nice to know that sometimes our stories, even scary ones, can just be for the fun and the love of it.

Here are some more samples of Fearing’s wonderful illustrations. Thanks, Mark and Sarah and all of Candlewick for making this book possible.

 

 

 

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Lost Words…?

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I read recently that the British writer Robert Macfarlane – whose work I know primarily through his wonderful adult non-fiction book Landmarks – has published a children’s book titled The Lost Words.  It’s large (11×15), lushly illustrated by Jackie Morris, and it includes twenty acrostic poems (“…not poems but spells,” Macfarlane states in the preface, “of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.”)

The twenty words were selected from a longer list of words deleted in 2007 from the  Oxford Junior English Dictionary “in order to make room for more modern words.” Here is a list of the words Macfarlane singled out, along with a few words from his spells, and some photos I gathered. Imagine kids not growing up with these words…

ACORN

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ADDER

BLUEBELL

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BRAMBLE

CONKER

DANDELION

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(“tick-tock, sun clock”)

dandelion

FERN

HEATHER

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HERON

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IVY

Old house covered by ivy in Paris, France

KINGFISHER 

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(“colour-giver, fire bringer, flame-flicker, // river’s quiver…ripple-calmer, / water-nester, evening angler, weather-teller, rainbringer….” )

LARK

MAGPIE

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NEWT

OTTER

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“Ever dreamed of being otter? That utter underwater thunderbolter, that shimmering twister?”

RAVEN

STARLING

WEASEL

WILLOW

Spring at Dows Lake Park

WREN

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Acorn? Dandelion? Ivy? Otter? Weasel? Kids don’t use these words anymore? I guess many don’t. The words, along with others, were deleted from the OED Junior to make room for high-tech words that kids now use more frequently: block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, MP-3 player, voicemail.

But herons, ferns, newts – what happens when we lose the names for things? Do we lose the ability bit by bit to notice them? Do we lose the ability to care about them?

One of the best discussions about these deletions/additions (filled with explanations from the OED Junior editors, and protests from people like Margaret Atwood) can be read at the Fact Check page of this Snopes site  – Snopes is where people go to check out stories they can’t be sure are true. Can this story about words from nature being deleted from the dictionary be true? Yes, says Snopes, it’s true.

So – is the real crime the fact that the Junior OED deleted the words, or the fact that we don’t get our kids out into a world where they need to know these words? Where they can collect acorns and make troll faces out of them, where they  recognize what kind of bird is referenced in “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore'” where they know what the names of the flowers in their May baskets are, where they walk through a forest and can say to whoever they’re with, “Look at all the ferns…”?

It’s not about going back to word choices that are stiff and archaic. And I don’t want to return to the past and make anything great again. I welcome the word “blog” – here I am, after all, blogging away. So I’m not nostalgic for a lost world. Just for lost words. And for an attitude of inclusion rather than exclusion.

To send you off, here is one of Macfarlane’s spells, written for the tiny acorn – I love both the object and the word (and now, the spell):

Acorn

As flake is to blizzard, as

Curve is to sphere, as knot is to net, as

One is to many, as coin is to money, as
bird is to flock, as

Rock is to mountain, as drop is to fountain, as
spring is to river, as glint is to glitter, as

Near is to far, as wind is to weather, as
feather is to flight, as light is to star, as
kindness is to good, so acorn is to wood.

[As usual, I’m thrilled by both content and technique – love the internal rhymes and near-rhymes – not/net, many/money, flock/rock/drop, river/glitter, weather/feather, flight/light, good/wood – whew! That must have taken blood, sweat and tears to write that, keep it all acrostic, make the structure clean and strong, make the repetitions poetic, and still say something meaningful, from the heart!]

If you would like to follow up about the author or illustrator, here are some links:

ROBERT MACFARLANE is interviewed by a Waterstone’s bookseller  here 

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Robert Macfarlane

JACKIE MORRIS posted a look at how The Lost Words came to be – the collaborative process with Robert Macfarlane – on her blog.

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Jackie Morris

Over at Brainpickings, Maria Popova talks about the link between attentiveness and naming.

And if you’re interested in poetry for children, check out the Poetry Friday round-up this week, hosted by Michelle Kogan.

Alaskan Stories Sewn and Carved

Last week Julie P. wrote about the picture books she discovered on her journey to Portugal. This week, I plan to share some art and stories from our trip to Southeastern Alaska.

We traveled by small boat – an Uncruise – chugging up the inlets of the Inland Passage between Juneau and Ketchikan, everyday kayaking and hiking into the fiords and forests. jkpaddleAKI grew up near Yosemite in California and I think the best way to describe this scenery is to imagine Yosemite – the towering granite cliffs, the waterfalls – filled with salt water. In addition to the animal life you’d find in Yosemite, like bears and mink and eagles, the Southeastern Alaska wilderness is home to whales, sea lions and harbor seals, etc. Yes, it was amazing.

But just as intriguing was the opportunity to learn about the native people of this area – the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian. Our trip included a visit to the Chief Shakes longhouse in Wrangell.

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There, a man named Arthur talked about the history of the Tlingit people and the building of the longhouse, and, more personally, the history of the blanket robe he wore, a garment that had originally been his grandmother’s.

With the robe for illustration, Arthur talked about the two “moieties” in the Tlingit tribe: eagle and raven. Families follow a matrilineal line and marriages are traditionally only allowed between one of each moiety. Arthur’s grandmother was of the eagle clan, thus the eagle at the top front of his blanket.

During his grandmother’s youth, the western government disallowed all tribal regalia as well as the Tlingit language. Grandmother’s robe, made of black and red government-provided blankets and decorated with white buttons, was hidden between the studs of her house.

When Arthur was a young man, his grandmother showed him the robe, then returned it to its hiding place. “It kept us warm, even then,” Arthur said. Thirty years later, Arthur’s family sold the house and the new owner remodeled. A demo crew found the robe and set it aside. The new owner noticed it and stuffed it into a trash bag. When the owner left, workers rescued the robe and gave it to a tribal leader who recognized that it had belonged to Arthur’s grandmother. Five years ago when Arthur left his job as a fisherman to learn more about his Tlingit culture, he took a Tlingit name. The tribal leader gifted him back his grandmother’s robe, which he has altered to fit. Over the years he added an Orca on the front and Wolf and Bear images on the back – each depicting other parts of his family.

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Arthur’s robe is a visual reminder of his family lineage in Tlingit images. In a culture that had no written language, the robe holds the stories.

In Ketchikan at the end of our journey, we met Jason, a Tsimshian guide, in the Totem Heritage Center. He unwound the stories of five ancient totem poles. He told us how totem poles could have a funerary or commemorative use, or tell a family’s history. But this particular one was made to tell a cautionary tale.

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As Jason told us, the face featured is that of a strong and arrogant man who went out fishing. He didn’t want to wait for his partner so he went alone. “That’s when the Alaska weather showed up,” Jason said. Waves capsized the man’s canoe. “The mythological killer whale people saw him. They recognized him as a strong and important person and saved him, bringing him underneath the water to the mythological village of the killer whale people.” They revived him, so he stayed with them for many years to repay them.

Eventually he got homesick. He realized he was not strong enough as a regular man to make it from the bottom of the ocean to the surface. “So he wrapped himself in a sealskin and transformed himself into a seal – until he broke the surface of the ocean and returned to his people.”

Jason added that there are two morals from this story: “Never go out fishing alone, and always take care of those who take care of you.”

This totem pole, unlike most, is carved on all sides. The seal’s skin wraps around the man, with the head of the seal (a little damaged due to age) rising straight above the man, as the seal swims up to the surface of the water.

Stories and storytellers and the beautiful native art that holds the stories surely added to our Southeastern Alaska adventures. These tribes’ oral storytelling traditions relied on art made from materials at hand: fabric, buttons and sewing needles, and huge cedar logs. But the urge to tell a story with words and images is the same urge we picture book people feel. It’s a part of the human condition.

Portugal – Books, Livros, Livres

Ó – it’s a gallery!

Walking on a cobbled street in Porto, Portugal I wandered into the Ó Galeria – a light and airy room filled with the art of Portuguese illustrators.

They were featuring the art of Mariana Malhão. So free and playful!

She just illustrated her first book – poems by Antonio Jose Forte.

In Lisbon, the shop It’s A Book   was chock full of exciting books from Portugal and around the world. If Lisbon is too far, you can visit online here.

A feast!
I bought several books and hungered for more.

Sombras by Marta Monteira shows curious interactions between people, shadows and objects. The shadows have a life of their own. Things happen, sort of.

ABC do CINEMA by Editora Triciclo (Ana Braga, Ines Machado and Tiago Guerreiro is a graphic delight – handprinted (risografia).  Each page features trivia about famous movie directors, made even more intriguing because it is in Portuguese. 

La Visite by Junko Nakamura is a wordless book – subtle and moody. It tells a loose story of cats and christmas and people. Things happen, but the narrative is winding. The story could be interpreted in many ways.

L’Orchestre by Chloe Perarnau is an oversized book. Each page is a postcard from a city somewhere in the world with a member of the orchestra somewhere on the page.

Each page has many stories, plots and subplots. Can you find Lola playing the harp in Porto?

Traveling fills me up with images, ideas, sounds and flavors. Portugal is a visually rich country. The illustration that I saw there is exciting and strong, and grows out of that rich visual history.

This image from 1956 was at the Gulbenkian Museum.

and this is newly published by Planeta Tangerina.

The specific books I bought are filled with evocative imagery and are relatively plotless – a good description of my recent trip and possibly of life.