Author Archives: Bonny Becker

Are You the One for Me

Author Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are “entities” that circulate out in the universe looking for someone to bring them to life. To Gilbert this isn’t a metaphor or a way to describe the collective unconscious or a shared cultural milieu. Here’s how she puts it in her book “Big Magic.”

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are disembodied, energetic life-forms…Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”

I heard Gilbert speak a few weeks ago to a packed theater in Seattle. She’s a funny, entertaining and insightful speaker. Best known for the book Eat Pray Love, I was there to hear more about Big Magic, her book about nurturing creativity.

According to Gilbert, ideas are so eager to manifest that if you don’t take them up on the offer they’ll find someone else.

But even though, it’s a privilege for an idea tap on your door, you, as the one committing to a lot of hard work, have the right and, indeed, obligation to interview ideas to see if you and the idea are the right fit. As Gilbert says, “I have many times been approached by ideas that I know are not right for me, and I’ve politely said to them, ‘I’m honored by your invitation, but I’m not your girl.’”

What she said about interviewing ideas struck a chord for me. Like many writers, I often have more ideas than I know what to do with. But, especially when I was beginning, I really had a hard time figuring out which ideas were worth the effort and which weren’t. And there were some ideas that I beat to death, so sure was I that I could turn it into something, even though the truth is it had come to the wrong door.

The way I eventually put it to myself was that certain ideas had “energy.” Certain story ideas somehow seemed to demand my attention and effort again and again. It was more intuitive than formalized. I just gradually began to recognize the ideas that were right for me.

I’d never thought to more actively interrogate the idea as Gilbert suggests, but it could be a fun and useful way to find the idea that’s right for you. And I thought about some of the questions I would ask:

 

 

 

Why do you think you’re the right idea for me?

What’s in your heart? Do you have depth or are you just a pretty face?

Do you have breadth? Is there room to move around in this situation or notion?

Do you have any surprises in store? (I want surprises.)

Can I do justice to this idea? Sure, I can research and travel and work hard and probably learn about just about anything, but am I the right writer for a spy novel set in Istanbul? What would it take to learn about international espionage and learn Turkish customs and culture and idioms and geography and so much more?

But even more important than that is the question: is this story “me”? Can I really see the world like Graham Greene or, another way to put it, is my understanding of the world genuinely expressed through a spy novel or will it feel fake in the end?

If a picture book idea comes to my door, I already have some questions that I like to ask:

Do you have a plot? In other words, are you a story or a concept book?

If you’re a concept book, do you have a different or new way to talk about colors or sounds or feelings or trucks? How much “concept” (as in high concept) is there to you so you can stand out?

If you’re an alphabet book do you have a word for Q?

If you’re a rhyming book, why are you a rhyming book? Do you have a good reason to be or do you just think that makes you cute and what one does in kids books?

Are you simple enough to be a picture book, but profound enough to be interesting to me and a reader?

I don’t overwork the question: will you sell? But I let it brush across my mind. How saturated is the market with stories about schools for kids with supernatural skills? Can you, Ms. Idea, or I bring anything new to the table?

Still in the end, probably the most important question for any idea is: Do you excite me? Do I want to do you?

When I mentioned I was writing about interviewing ideas, fellow blogger Julie Paschkis reminded me how fragile ideas are and that you can over-interrogate them. She shared this poem with me.

Shallow Poem

I’ve thought of a poem.
I carry it carefully,
nervously, in my head,
like a saucer of milk;
in case I should spill some lines
before I put them down.

Gerda Mayer

So don’t grill your idea till it’s sweating under the lights, or to really stretch a metaphor, till the milk curdles. But a few gentle questions could allow you to say “No thanks,” with no regrets. Or, “Yes, let’s do it!” more confident that this is an idea that deserves your love and hard work and that will, in turn, work hard for you.

 

Butterflies and Books

Illustrations depicting books and reading tend to feature certain animals over and over. Cats, cats and more cats is one motif. Birds show up quite a bit. And, I’ve noticed in my collection of images about books and reading, although insects are a rare element, there’s one insect that is clearly the favorite.

Winged, fanciful and echoing the shape of a book, it’s easy to see why artists choose the butterfly.

This week, I wanted to share some of the images I like. Most are simply pretty:

Illustration by Duy Huhnh

 

Illustration by Marco Palena

No credit found

No credit found

 

But some have a little more to say:

Illustration by Linda Apple

 

And after all that pretty, I like the vigor of my friend and co-blogger Julie Paschkis’s reading acrobat and his butterfly friend.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis

 

This one is intriguing to me because the butterflies are so flat. Were they flattened in the book and now are set free? Are they dead or artificial ideas even if they can fly off the page? Or just the play of thoughts for this absorbed reader?

Illustration by Jannike Vive

 

There’s one illustration I have to include. I say dragonflies are close enough and perhaps, as even their name suggests, they subvert the sweetness of the butterfly imagery. I love the mischief in this young reader’s eyes.

Illustration by Noemi Villamuza

 

 

Concept book, concept book. What do you see?

Some of the simplest picture books are concept books. Books about sound, color, shapes, seasons… ways that we categorize the world that will be new to a toddler. Concept books might often seem like just random lists, but the good ones have an underlying structure that takes more planning than it seems.

A lot has to do with the order in which information is presented. It can be an order is natural to the concept itself such as the passage of seasons or the sequence of the colors in a rainbow, but often the author has to work to impose order. A lot of the pleasure of a concept book is to see how an author and illustrator do this.

A great example is the picture book Buzz by Janet Wong, illustrated by my blog-mate Margaret Chodos-Irving. It’s a book I’ve used in my writing classes long before I knew Janet or Margaret, because what could be a simpler idea than different things that buzz? But it’s far from a random collection of buzzes.

cover-buzz

In this case, author and illustrator explore the different buzzing sounds a boy hears as his household wakes up.

It starts with the single word: “Buzz.” as a boy sleepily looks out his window. Then a page turn.

buzz_morning-ws

“Outside my window a bee eats breakfast in a big red flower.”

It then moves through the boy’s morning. The buzz of the alarm clock in his parent’s room. Dad shaving. The sound of the gardener mowing across the street. There’s one “buzz” sound per page. And they are relatively peaceful, everyday buzzes. The language is mostly simple declarative sentences.

Then comes breakfast and something interesting happens. The activity level picks up and the language gets more complex:

Mommy grinds coffee Buzzzzzzzzzzz while I fly my airplane Buzzzzzzzzz over the oatmeal Buzzzzzzz and past the apple juice Buzzzzzzz—OH NO!

All this activity happens on one page quickening the pace of the story.

On the next page, there are no buzz sounds—just mild chaos. Airplane lands in juice, cup spills, mom runs to catch cup, toast pops up, clothes are tumbling in dryer and then the BUZZZZ of the dryer gets buzzing back into the story, but now with more urgency. Mom is on the move getting ready to go to work. Buzz goes her hairdryer. Grandma buzzes the doorbell to come baby-sit. Boy kisses Mom goodbye…

“so she can fly BUZZ outside”

(page turn and we see Mom hurrying off to work)

“like a busy bee.”

01Bee.tif

There’s plenty of structure here. The sequence of the buzzes matches the natural order of a morning’s activities. The pace and urgency of the story gradually escalate into mild chaos in the kitchen and Mom suddenly needs to rush to get out the door—this is the top of the story arc. Then the pace slows somewhat—not as leisurely as the beginning, but down off the peak and gradually we come in for a landing, with the closing image of the bee that perfectly rounds out the story at the same place we came in.

tickly-cover

A consistent pattern or rhyming scheme is another way to add structure to a simple book. I wrote a  concept book Tickly Prickly, illustrated by Shari Halpern (now out of print) about how things feel to the touch. It begins with:

Did you ever have a ladybug crawl across your finger?

How did it feel?

Tickly, prickly. Fly away quickly.

Every stanza that follows asks a question about how it feels to touch a familiar animal and answers that question within a consistent rhyming scheme.

Did you ever have a fish wriggle in your hands?

How did it feel?

Slippery, slickery. Turny and twistery.

Ending with:

Did you ever have a puppy cuddle in your arms?

How did it feel?

Velvety snug. A hugful of love.

Like Wong, I had to find an narrow focus for my book. I picked the feel of  animals—not the feel of a bedtime blanket or a snowball. And I picked familiar animals—bunnies, chicks, a cat’s paw—not a hippo hide or the beak of a stork. But I could have gone in those other directions. The main thing is to have a direction, a reason for the choices.

chick-tickly-prickly(By the way, the symbols at the top of this illustration are from an iTunes app that’s available for this book.)

There’s almost no build to the march of animals in Tickly Prickly, but the middle does feature perhaps the more interesting animals that might be in an average child’s world—a horse, a lake fish, a toad. And, it very deliberately ends with the coziest emotion, snuggling with a dog.

Ending with the coziest emotions is my favorite go-to for most concept books, but there are other ways to make sure you end in a satisfying place, including the ending of a day (a built-in cozy moment with a goodnight tuck-in or hug), the reward or result of that activity (the baked cake) or going full circle.

Taro Gomi’s, Spring Is Here is a perfect example of the circular ending.

spring-cover

Spring Is Here is so deceptively simple. The prose couldn’t be more straightforward. It begins:

Spring is here.

The snow melts.

The earth is fresh.

The grass sprouts.

Each line is a new, two-page spread.

the-flowers-bloom

But not only is there a lovely trick he plays with the illustrations (you’re going to have to get this one to see what he does. It’s worth it.) he, too, creates a build as we move from flowers blooming and grass growing to a little drama in the middle:

The wind blows.

The storms rage.

And then back down into the quiet harvest, falling snow and a hushed world. Before returning to:

img_2433

For more concept books to check out, I like this list compiled by the Contra Costa County Library (plus it’s fun to say all those C-words.)

http://guides.ccclib.org/c.php?g=43934&p=1046403

The Seattle Public Library also has this list:

https://seattle.bibliocommons.com/list/show/73413760__seattle_kids_librarians/85218609_seattle_picks_-_concept_books

And here’s this from Goodreads:

https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/concept-books

 

 

 

 

 

Our Nation’s Library

The Library of Congress is one of those things that you feel you know—because you’ve said the words all your life—but then you realize you don’t really know that much about it.

One of my sisters recently sent me a link that I want to share, but first a bit about the library gleaned from the web. It’s the largest library in the world. According to its website “its collections are universal, not limited by subject, format, or national boundary, and include research materials from all parts of the world and in more than 450 languages. Two-thirds of the books it acquires each year are in languages other than English.”

Officially, it’s the research library for the United States Congress and it’s the oldest federal cultural institution in the U.S. It includes the Center for the Book which supports the Young Readers Center and the Poetry and Literature Center, which promote books, reading and libraries.

And it does lots of amazing things including scanning and posting this wonderful collection of classic children’s books: http://read.gov/books

Most of the books are from the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s fun to see how kids books have changed.

I love this one–The Children’s Object Book published in the 1880s.

objects-kitchen

objects-winter

I instantly thought of Richard Scarry books.

scarry-townscarry-mealtime

The objects have changed, the art style has changed, the sheer volume of stuff has changed—but kids still like to look at and identify the objects of their world.

The book collection is heavy on fairy tale and folk tale collections, Mother Goose and lots of rhyming. Some of it pretty tortured.

the-rocket-text the-rocket-1

rocket-dog-and-cat-textrocket-dog-and-cat

rocket-train-set-text

rocket-train-set

But it’s fun to see “concept” books like The Rocket Book by Peter Newell, 1912, being played around with early on in children’s publishing. Another concept book, Gobolinks, or Shadow-Pictures for Young and Old, published in 1896, encourages kids to use their imaginations with inkblots.

gobolink-1

Of course, it instantly brings to mind the Rorschach test. So out of curiousity I googled it to see how the dates matched up. The Rorschach test wasn’t developed until the 1960s, but interpreting blobs of ink started much earlier. According to Wikipedia, “Justinus Kerner invented this technique when he started accidentally dropping blots of ink onto paper due to failing eyesight. Instead of throwing them away, he found that intriguing shapes appeared if he unfolded the papers. He elaborated these shapes into intricate cartoons and used them to illustrate his poems.” This was in the 1850s.

The collections features work from some big name illustrators like Arthur Rackham:

sleeping-beauty

Sleeping Beauty, 1920

And N.C. Wyeth

Robin Hood, 1957

Robin Hood, 1957

And W.W. Denslow:

Denslow's Three Bears, 1901

Denslow’s Three Bears, 1901

There are also early versions of what I would call “franchise” books (like Disney’s Winnie the Pooh books.) There’s a long chapter book about Peter Rabbit called Mrs. Peter Rabbit from 1919. They don’t claim this is Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, but still the name serves its purpose.

In this case, Peter Rabbit, after many adventures finds his true love, gets married and has kids.

mr-and-mrs-peter-rabbit

Part of what I love about this on-line collection is the clarity of the reproductions. The pages show the wear and tear of the years and the hands they passed through.

marked-up-peter-rabbitmother-goose

It reminds me of the books I read from my family bookshelves as a kid. Many of them dating back to the turn of the century. I remember the tattered covers, the soft, yellowed pages and their musty smell; the occasional colored illustration on it’s own page of slicker, whiter paper. Sometimes there was onion paper between the illustration page and the next page of text. All of this shows up in the Library of Congress’s collection. So the experience of these books will be saved for generations to come.

If you want to check out the Library itself and all it has to offer you can here: https://www.loc.gov

 

 

Noise to Avoid

img_2264

With the recent re-issue of my book “The Christmas Crocodile,” I’ve been doing a few readings and suddenly I’m having to deal again with a big scream that happens in the middle of the book.

I remembered a little essay I wrote at the time, which I submitted to the SCBWI national newsletter. It didn’t get accepted, but I thought it would be fun to put here:

As writers, we spend so much time figuring out how to get published, it’s easy to forget that someday you may actually have a book. You may actually have to read it to others, not once, not twice but potentially hundreds of times.

Having put a loud scream into my picture book The Christmas Crocodile, illustrated by David Small, I learned a few things the hard way. Here’s my handy-dandy list of what not to put in your story if you want to ensure read-aloud ease:

– Do not put in weird sounds you really don’t want to make in front of 100 people such as loud, drawn out screams. (see above.)

– Do not put in alliterative names that are used each time you mention that character.  Rodney the Rickety Rabbit gets real tiresome about the twentieth time you have to say it in full.

– A corollary is to avoid overly elaborate, difficult to pronounce character names. Oonaqaurklypomadorio is going to be a source of regret.

– Do not put in word choices that are tongue twisters.  Beware. These are not always obvious.  One line in The Christmas Crocodile reads:  “He waved his tail farewell.” “Tail farewell” does not trip off the tongue and one quickly wishes they’d written “waved goodbye.”

– Avoid big long sentences with numerous dependent clauses, descriptive phrases, qualifiers and just plain meanderings that looked so good on paper and made you feel literary, but make your eyes bulge and have you gasping for breath when read out loud.

– Be sparing with repetition. Repetition is the spice of children’s books and sometimes you just have to write some variant of the “House that Jack Built.” But you will find yourself beginning to sound like a radio ad disclaimer as you try to speed read through the ever-growing, ever more tedious list. “’This is the mouse that swallowed the house that ate the pig that sat on the rat…’ Oh, hell, boys and girls, you know the rest!”

– If you’re picking a selection to read from a novel, try for at least one readable scene/section that does not require a longer explanation than the reading itself.

– Be sparing with foreign phrases you actually don’t know how to pronounce or dialog requiring accents you can’t do—unless, of course, you want to sound like Pepe LePue.

– Beware of jokes, unless you are an expert in comic timing. Sometimes the audience doesn’t laugh. Sometimes there is dead silence. Sometimes you start to really sweat.

And that’s when you wish you’d written a nice little bedtime book, instead of this one about who can fart the loudest.

P.S. The way I solved the big, long, loud scream I didn’t really want to do was to realize (brilliantly, if belatedly) that I could prompt the kids to do it. They love it, especially within the hushed halls of schools and libraries.

new-crocodile-cover

 

 

A long, winding book road

croccover

It began as a ditty in my head over 25 years ago:

There once was a Christmas crocodile

A crocka-a-crocka-a-crocodile

Who said with a wicked and cunning smile

“I shall eat the Christmas tree

unless, you see,

I get exactly what I want.”

Seven years later it had morphed into a prose story about a crocodile who eats up Christmas and begins: The Christmas Crocodile didn’t mean to be bad, not really. Alice Jayne found him on Christmas Eve under the tree. He wore a red bow around his neck. It was lovely. Except he ate it.

A few years later Simon & Schuster bought it. Caldecott-winning artist David Small miraculously agreed to illustrate it and in the fall of 1998 it was published. It got a big glowing review by Judith Viorst in the New York Times; it was read on NPR by Daniel Pinkwater and on the QVC t.v. shopping channel; and it sold out that Christmas season.

Unfortunately, it was also orphaned. My editor, Stephanie Lurie, left Simon & Schuster. And without an in-house champion, The Christmas Crocodile was out of print by 2004.

And that seemed to be that.

banished-crocodile

But I kept hearing from people how much they loved the book. That it was a Christmas favorite, a Christmas tradition at their house. I just knew it was a good book. It was illustrated by David Small, for heaven’s sake. It shouldn’t have died so soon.

So I tried numerous times over the years to get a publisher interested in a re-issue, but it’s an almost impossible goal. Publishers generally don’t like to re-issue some other publisher’s book. If that publisher couldn’t make a go of it, how could they? is the reasoning. For a while, Simon & Schuster even considered reissuing it themselves.

But it seemed like good old Croc was doomed to out-of-print status until I happened to be chatting with Nancy Pearl at an event[i] and she mentioned that she had a new line of “rediscovered” books coming out.

Nancy is probably the best-known librarian in the world. She regularly comments on books on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. She has written a number of best-selling books, including Book Lust and Book Crush, recommending books she loves. Perhaps her most fun claim to fame is as the model for the Shushing Librarian action figure.

shushing-librarian

She also finds out-of-print books for Amazon that she thinks deserve to be re-issued. A few years ago she set her sights on out-of-print kids books. You can imagine how eager I was to tell her about The Christmas Crocodile. Nancy asked to see a copy; she loved it and it went from there.

So my crocodile lives again re-printed by Two Lions Press, a division of Amazon. The team there, headed by editor Marilyn Brigham, did a beautiful job of it. With David Small’s approval, they developed a new cover for it, and it features a couple pages of introduction by Nancy. But otherwise it’s exactly like the original.

new-crocodile-cover

It just came out this September and here’s hoping the book finds a second life!

By the way, if you have an out-of-print kid’s book and don’t have a chance of running into Nancy Pearl anytime soon, there is one press that specializes in re-issues of out-of-print kids books, Purple House Press.

Also, if you buy the book and would like a signed book plate, just let me know who you’d like me to sign it to and where to send it. You can contact me by leaving a comment here or by messaging me on Facebook.

[i] So this is a pitch for seemingly thankless tasks. Nancy and I were volunteer judges for the University of Washington Bookstore’s annual bookmark contest where kids design a bookmark. We judges pick the winners out of many hundreds of entries and these are printed up by the bookstore to hand out over the year. It’s fun, but one of those things that you don’t expect to further your career.

Is There a Pattern Here?

Rob Gonsalves

Rob Gonsalves

Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.
Alfred North Whitehead

I collect images of books in art. And, just as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted, I love to find patterns and motifs among them. I imagine that’s the pleasure of most collections.

Recently I was looking at some of my images and noticed a type of illustration that is relatively unusual. I think of it as the surreal image.

There are tons of images focused on books and reading that are fanciful and unreal. They might be charming:

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Or metaphorical:

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

Or startling.

Illustration by Jacek Yerka

Illustration by Jacek Yerka

But they don’t quite have the quality I’m talking about. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe the word is “unsettling.”

Perhaps the forest is a little too encroaching, a little too dark.

Rob Gonsalves

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

Or the vines too silently creeping.

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration by Nom Kinnear King

Illustration by Nom Kinnear King

With this one, I keep finding myself waiting uneasily for those eyes to open.

Illustration by Frances Cochiacchio

Illustration by Frances Cochiacchio

Although not all that is out of place is ominous.

Illustration by Michael Sowa

Illustration by Michael Sowa

The  most classically surreal image I have (echoes of Magritte for sure) is mostly just amusing.

Illustration by Patrick Desmet

Illustration by Patrick Desmet

Maybe what’s holding these together for me is the thing unnoticed. Something’s odd. Something’s off, but it’s only we, the observers, who are noticing.

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

In fantasy literature, there’s a type of story that fantasy writer and academic Farah Mendelsohn calls liminal. It’s a type of fantasy that’s a little hard to define, but basically it involves a protagonist who doesn’t quite cross through the portal into fantasy, but stays on the border between the real world and the world of the fantastic. Perhaps these images aren’t so much surreal, as “liminal.”

To pull this post back into the world of writing children’s books, I’ll just add a couple links here. One of the questions that almost invariably comes up when I teach classes in writing fantasy and science fiction is where someone’s story “fits.” Like most of children’s literature, there are defined categories in fantasy that are good to at least be familiar with. As a writer you may choose to match those characteristics or violate them, but it’s good to know what rules you’re breaking.

Here’s a list of 10 good terms to be familiar with if you read or write fantasy. And the other is a link to a little information about Mendelsohn and her books. She’s good to know about if you’re going to go deeply into fantasy writing.

In the meantime, don’t turn too quickly to find out about the rustling from that bookshelf behind you. Perhaps it’s best not to know.

Into the Woods With Jung

the egg

Why does Harry Potter battle spiders? And Wilbur, the pig, befriend one? Why does Odysseus sail the sea and that girl go down in the basement in every horror film?

There are lots of reasons for these creative choices, but I think chief among them is the fact that these are all “charged” symbols, characters and events. They carry more than their literal weight when it comes to creating emotional and psychological effects in the reader or viewer. And as a creator it’s worth your while to learn more about deep symbolism.

Carl Jung is a great place to start. The early-20th century psychologist was one of the first people to explore the human unconscious to try to codify the powerful symbols and images that arise from there.

Recently I checked out Jung’s The Red Book from the public library. It’s Jung’s fascinating exploration of his own unconscious through symbolic writing and his own illustrations. (All the illustrations in this post are from “The Red Book.”)

The writing can be hard to work through. Some is reasonably accessible:

Christmas has come. The God is in the egg.

I have prepared a rug for my Lord, an expensive red rug from the land

Of morning…

I am the mother, the simple maiden who gave birth and did not

Know how.

I am the careful father, who protected the maiden.

I am the shepherd who received his message as he guarded his herd at

Night on the dark fields.

Some of the writing not so much:

However, I am not ready, since I have still not accepted that which chokes my heart. That fearful thing is the enclosing of the God in the egg. I am happy that the great endeavor has been successful, but my fear made me forget the hazards involved. I love and admire the powerful. No one is greater than he with the bull’s horns, and yet I lamed, carried, and made him smaller with ease.

But his paintings are powerful and evocative. It’s hard to say exactly how. I don’t know why I keep coming back to study this dragon slayer, but I do.

dragon

Of course, most of his paintings are deliberately symbolic and as, Jung notes, a symbol has “a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it. As the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason.”

Jung goes on to say: “Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend.”

In The Red Book, Jung was exploring his own mind, but he believed that many of our symbols (or archetypes, as he called them) were universal coming from the “collective unconscious” of humanity.

One of my writing friends is very aware of Jungian archetypes and other mythic materials such as Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. And she consciously works these ideas into her stories. The result is often images or characters or events that are supercharged. Somehow they are more evocative or disturbing than their obvious elements would suggest.

mosaic face

But even if you aren’t that conscious of universal symbols, there’s a good chance you’ll hit on them if you let your thoughts and emotions go deep. What scares you more than it seems it should? What naturally comes to mind as you take your character on an adventure? Does she end up in a cave? Does he travel by water? Meet a monster? Climb mountains? Explore attics and basements?

boatWater is often a symbol of the unconscious. And it’s not simply by chance that heroes on a quest for self-knowledge will often cross something watery. We see it in some of our most powerful fiction from The Odyssey to Moby Dick to Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Monsters are constantly rising up from water–the serpent thing in the trash masher in “Star Wars”, the Loch Ness monster, the Swamp Thing.

For some reason there seems to be an almost universal fear of spiders (why do we find the swastika so creepy? Is it just contemporary cultural association or does it go deeper.) Yet, EB White makes Wilbur’s friend a spider. White says  that’s because he became interested in spiders after watching them on his farm. But it’s hard to believe Charlotte’s Web would have the power it does if Wilbur had befriended a less symbolically charged creature. And I suspect EB White was deliberately playing against type and stirring unconscious emotions with this choice of hero.

Jung believed houses and other buildings are symbolic of our own psyches. Tower rooms may represent our conscious intellect. Dark basement our subconscious and every maker of horror films knows that nothing is more frightening than the idea of going down into the dark unknown that lingers there.

I’m betting most of these creators–from JK Rowling to John Carpenter to Ursula LeGuin–were well aware of the symbolic charge of their choices. And you can be to. If you’re interested in exploring archetypes and symbols more, some good books include Man and his Symbols, a book featuring an essay by Jung and then commentary by others on his ideas. There’s Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and authors like Clarissa Pinkola Estés who writes extensively about women and their particular symbolic needs and expressions.

red sun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a Big World Out There

Exactly a week ago, I got home from a three-week trip to Tanzania. I was there to research a book. It was an amazing experience. There’s a lot to say about Tanzania. But the part I want to talk about is a visit I took to a traditional Maasai village.

As they have for centuries, the Maasai primarily live by herding cattle. As we drove around the country, it was common to see young boys in traditional Maasai blankets driving cattle or goats out into the countryside to graze. But it’s not a very secure way to make a living and some Maasai are looking for other ways to make money. A few villages have opened themselves to tourist visits. They sing and dance, offer crafts for sale and show visitors around.

bonny with dancers

But I had to keep telling myself that this wasn’t a visit to Williamsburg or the Polynesian village in Hawaii. This wasn’t an “enactment,” but real life in one of the poorest, least developed countries in the world where the average income is less than $50 a month.

The hands I held were rough. They had worked much harder than I had ever done in my life, but the smiles felt genuine. It’s hard to say. I can say for sure that the bouncing dance of the Maasai is harder to do than it looks.

Here are the village homes.

massai among huts

And no, they don’t go someplace else when the “gates” close, as I had to keep reminding myself. Here’s the kitchen:

kitchen in hut

The heat and “stove”:

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And the bedroom, sitting area:

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It’s true that the Maasai probably spend most of their time outdoors and use their homes mostly for sleeping, but most of the rooms in my house are bigger than any of the huts we saw.

We also visited the village pre-school. I’d done an earlier school visit as an author in the town of Morogoro and was shocked by the contrast. The Morogoro school was a private school and by Tanzanian standards very well off. They had a library of hundreds of books, slide projectors, colorful teaching aids, and well-fed, well-clothed students.

morogoro school

Here’s the school in the Maasai village.

overview of schoolroom

Paper is scarce, (that cupboard in the back was their entire supply closet) so students use a slate until they perfect their letters and numbers and then they might get to work with paper.

hands on slate

Of course, this was the local preschool, which is not mandatory or paid for by the government. I have to hope that the elementary school and secondary school in the area have more resources.

As the Maasai have been traditionally nomadic it’s been a challenge figuring out how to serve this population. It’s a problem the country is still working on. And the Maasai are just one of some 120 different tribes there.

But some things were the same as they are everywhere. The ABCs:

teacher at blackboard

An encouraging teacher:

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And the incandescent beauty of children:

cropped girl

My book isn’t about the Maasai or about poverty. But it reminded me that as a writer, and as a person, travel can do so many things. It brings alive the world you’re trying to create in your book, but it also brings alive the world itself.

P.S. After I posted this, my friend and fellow writer, Carmen Bernier Grand, asked if there was any way to help. I’m so glad she asked because it prompted me to do some research and I found this organization that helps the Maasai right where this school is located in the Ngorongoro region. Here’s a link: http://www.aidtanzania.org/index.cfm

Mixed Grades for Big Name Author Picture Books

Recently two big name authors of books for adults have forayed into picture books: Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley and National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie.

cover thunder boy

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So how’d they do? I’m giving Alexie a B+ and Smiley a C. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but adult novels aren’t the only works that deserve some serious critical attention.

Of the two, I started out inclined toward Alexie. Mainly because in an article in the New York Times, he said, “It’s maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever written.” And he says the book Thunder Boy Jr. took about 70 drafts.

Jane Smiley didn’t seem find it so hard. Other than learning to let the images speak for themselves and cutting down a descriptive prose, apparently, for her the story was “a breeze” (although to be fair, those words are those of the New York Times reporter). Perhaps because as Smiley noted, “It doesn’t have a plot.”

If true, I’m afraid the difference in effort shows.

Alexie did a great job coming up with an idea and an execution that spoke to a univeral kid issue and, yet, was uniquely Native American, too. Thunder Boy Jr. was named by his father, Thunder Boy Sr. It’s not a normal name like Sam and Thunder Boy Jr. hates it.

hate my name

Little Thunder, as he’s called, wants his own name one that celebrates something cool that he’s done. He imagines all kinds of names for himself from Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth (after he touched a wild orca) to Mud in His Ears for his love of playing in the dirt.

ten thousand teeth

The names are fun and imaginative. And kids will love this part and I have no doubt will be coming up with a lot of great names for themselves, and, undoubtedly, less than flattering names for their siblings. (I’m betting Poop and Fart make frequent appearances.)

At any rate, Thunder Boy Jr. doesn’t want to be a small version of his dad. He doesn’t want to be exactly like him. He wants to be mostly himself. But he’s worried about how he can tell his dad because he loves him very much.

Not to worry, Dad suddenly announces that it’s time to give Thunder Boy Jr. a new name. It will be Lightning! And Little Thunder happily concludes that together he and his dad will light up the sky.

dad and son

The language is clear and graceful with a nice rhythm and pacing to it. The names identify this boy with both contemporary life and his Native American heritage. And, as mentioned, the basic idea of picking a name for yourself has a lot of kid appeal.

But I would have liked a more organic ending. Alexie does the classic no-no in children’s books, which is to have an adult solve the problem for the kid. Not only does Dad spontaneously offer to change Thunder Boy Jr.’s name, he is the one to bestow the new name. And, arriving at the name Lightning could have been more clearly developed. The litany of possible new names that Little Thunder runs through show an energetic little boy. He loves drums and being chased by his dog and old toys from garage sales, but this list doesn’t really make the case that Lightning is the name he should have or would have chosen for himself.

I don’t think any of this will make a difference to the success of the book. It’s already been named an Honor Book for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. And I think kids and parents will genuinely enjoy sharing it. It has a great, well-realized premise, and Alexie shows a respect for and an awareness of the particular demands of the picture book form.

Because Smiley seemed to find writing Twenty Yawns fairly easy, I have to admit I was less ready to like it. She’s right. There isn’t really much of a story here and what is there is pretty pedestrian.

dad in sand

Oddly, although the story is basically a bedtime story, it starts with a rather mundanely described day at the beach. Lucy covers her dad with sand and they “laughed and laughed.” Later, Lucy “rolled and rolled’ down a soft warm dune. Okay, I admit I have a visceral reaction to this particular wording in kids writing. Describing people who laugh and laugh, and animals who sit down and think and think, and kids who run and run just feels lazy to me.

The point of the day at the beach seems to be to establish that this has been a long, busy day, so tonight will be an early bedtime. So perhaps Lucy will struggle to sleep? There is a teeny bit of that. And for me the story starts about 12 pages in with this lovely arresting moment: The moon shone through the window, a silver veil that fell across the floor. Everything looked mysterious, even Lucy’s own hands on the bedspread. Suddenly, Lucy was wide awake.

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It even gets a little surreal or creepy: She looked around. Everyone in the pictures seemed to be watching her—Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Elizabeth, Mom, and Dad.

So maybe the story will be about how Lucy deals with her unease? Lucy slips out of bed to get her bear, Molasses, but as she carries him back to her bed, the other toy animals are looking at her and seem lonely. So she takes them all to bed, snuggles down with them and everyone proceeds to yawn including the people in her drawings. And Lucy goes to sleep. That’s it.

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Smiley seems to think it’s okay that this is a book without a plot. And certainly there are picture books that don’t really have a story: board books, concept books, some of the more impressionistic books (like All the World). But there’s a difference between not having a story and not having a point.

Smiley doesn’t even really deliver on the promise of the title. There are indeed 20 yawns in the book, but there is no point to the yawns. Nothing is developed like perhaps number concepts or the different yawns different people or animals might make or a promise that no one can make 20 yawns without falling asleep. Surely something could have given this story some drive.

Bottom line: even if Thunder Boy Jr. was submitted by Anonymous Boy Jr., I think it would have been snapped up. If Twenty Yawns was the work of J. Frownly, I suspect it would have received those familiar words of rejection many of us know only too well—too slight.