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.
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.
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.
We’re back in the grey tunnel of winter here in Seattle, a tunnel made even darker by the gloom of 20 months of Life Under Covid. When it all gets too heavy, I turn to the GOOD NEWS/KINDNESS file I keep on my phone: a list that proves sometimes the world works the way it should. Let’s take a moment to celebrate these individuals who make a difference. Might lift your spirits, too.
The dad and his son in early Spring ushering a mother duck and her eight ducklings across several city blocks — stopping traffic as needed — to get them all safely to Green Lake.
The grandpa and grandson walking to school one Fall day, holding hands plus each one with a grandpa-sized glove on their outside hand – so all four hands were warm.
The woman dropping off a bag of beautiful handknit hats at the local fabric store that was putting together donations for people without houses.
The grey-haired lady at the post office mailing 185 postcards to Georgia voters before the November 2019 election.
From a pre-Covid school visit: A little girl bent over in a wheelchair, propelling herself with her feet. As she rolled along with a line of kids, she was the one to say to me. “I hope you have a nice day at our school.”
From a visit to Emerald City Smoothie with my triplet grandnephews: When it was our turn at the register, we were slow getting our order organized. Instead of getting annoyed, the guy behind us reached forward with his credit card and treated us.
And kudos to these kind people I read about:
The chain of 900 drive-thru customers at the Dairy Queen in Brainerd, Minnesota, last winter who each purchased the meal for the car behind them. The chain went on over two and a half days, finally ending when one customer said he didn’t have enough money to pay for the order behind him, which cost more than his, at a point that the restaurant was out of carry-over funds left by other customers.
The family that created a stick library for dogs. Every neighborhood should have one.
The Southwest Airlines gate steward who returned a Buzz Lightyear doll to a young passenger, after photographing the doll’s adventures in the airport.
“The Don Quixote of Brooklyn” who tilts at plastic bags. This former middle school teacher, now traveling poet, created the Snatcherlator, a 20’ extendable pole that aids his efforts. His quest? To remove garbage from the branches of trees throughout the city.
And the Canadian vet who came to the rescue of an Army wife who was driving her two kids and two dogs and a cat 4,000 miles from Georgia to Alaska to reunite with her husband when she was met with whiteout conditions in British Columbia with 1,000 miles still to go. Kudos to the bigger group of vets in Alaska who paid for his ticket back home, as well.
Not to mention MacKenzie Scott’s $6 billion in gifts. Gotta respect someone who takes the old adage to heart: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
I welcome more items to my GOOD NEWS/KINDNESS list. Please add your stories in the comments.
It’s Back-To-School time and I am reminded of my own elementary school experiences:
I am the new kid at school. Again. After lunch at this new school, we third graders have to sit on benches under the basketball nets until the older kids finish eating and we can all go out for recess.
I sit next to Joanie who has a cool Roy Rogers lunchbox. How can I make myself interesting so that she’ll want to play with me?
“My whole family used to work in the circus,” I tell her. “My cousins flew on the flying trapeze.”
She glances my way.
“And my aunt danced with a bear,” I add.
That seems to get her attention. And the attention of a few other kids sitting nearby.
“Really?” asks a wispy-haired girl in front of us. I think her name is Rene. The others lean in.
“We had a pet baby elephant,” I continue. “She was an orphan so I had to feed her from a bottle. I named her Mimi.”
Now the boys behind us are listening, too.
“Right. You had a pet elephant,” jeers a boy named John who has been sent to the principal’s office twice in the three days I’ve been at this school.
But the other kids are starting to doubt me, too. I can see it in their faces. I need to think quickly.
“And then I woke up,” I say.
“You were dreaming all that?” asks Joanie.
She doesn’t play with me at recess.
I was a liar liar in my early years. Pants. On. Fire. When my mom thought I had lied, she made me stick out my tongue to prove it had not turned black. Of course, I would not open my mouth for fear of being caught. I did not realize Mom was lying in this matter of the black tongue. Such innocence. Such irony.
I was ashamed of the whoppers I told when I was a little kid until I realized maybe lie ability was not a complete liability – but maybe even good practice for a life in fiction writing. (In my early years as a picture book maker, I even explored the idea of my family as the circus in a board book dummy, the sketches of which decorate this blogpost.)
To craft a believable story, we are called upon to create a believable lie. We must invent it all: dialogue that rings true, plausible events, realistic challenges for our characters’ lives. Like good liars, we freely mix in actual factual details from the real world to lend credence. We fabricate to reveal a bigger Truth.
But back to those black-tongued childhood days. I wonder how many of you writers out there were also child liars? Let us know in the comments — and even If you weren’t, you can always make something up.
Philomel associate publisher Jill Santopolo was home on maternity leave when she saw President Joe Biden’s inauguration on TV. She heard him say he hoped “the next chapter in the American story” might sound like one verse in “a song that means a lot to me.” Then he recited:
The work and prayers of centuries / Have brought us to this day.
What shall be our legacy?/What will our children say?
Let me know in my heart that when my days are through
America, America, I gave my best to you.
Biden was quoting the lyrics of Gene Scheer’s American Anthem, a 20-year old song that was sung by opera star Denyce Graves at the memorial service in the Capitol rotunda for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and by Norah Jones in Ken Burns’ 2007 PBS documentary on World War II, The War, among others.
The words resonated with Santopolo. She reflected on her husband’s and her own families’s life trajectories after immigrating to the United States. Then, as she said to Publisher’s Weekly, she decided, “It was a book that I felt I had to do. Especially with a baby at home. There’s a lot we need to work on in this country, but there’s also some wonderful things too. I think that this book celebrates that.”
It was January 20th. Despite a new baby and the pandemic, she wanted the book to launch before the Fourth of July, our nation’s 245th birthday. She envisioned a different illustrator for every spread, so that even in its very make-up the book would reflect the quilt of diversity that is our country. Editor Talia Benamy and art director Ellice Lee swung into action.
My sister Kate and I were honored to be invited to join in. We gave some thought to our family’s American stories, too, including George Chorpenning who founded the first mail service from Salt Lake City to Sacramento, (pre-Pony Express), and our newspaper editor father who taught us about First Amendment rights and flew a big American flag over his office on Main Street Sonora.
What could we say in a single illustration to convey the big feeling of love for America that we shared? How could we ‘give our best’ to America through this project? Our assigned part of the text was: “Know each quiet act of dignity / is that which fortifies / the soul of a nation / that never dies.”
As we considered our text, we thought about where in our lives we experience quiet acts of dignity. Kate immediately thought of the Community Garden, a place where a wide diversity of gardeners come to share the humble work of planting, growing and harvesting. It is a place where gardening knowledge, seedlings and compost are all generously shared — as well as the fruits (and vegetables) of everyone’s labors. There is a quiet dignity in those interactions that respects what each person brings to the garden, as well as a sense of community responsibility.
We are both avid gardeners and that setting seemed right. We poured through scrap to find a lively cast of characters to populate it. Per our usual process, I painted the black lines in gouache resist, scanned and doozied them up in Photoshop. Kate supplied the sumptuous color. And voila! We turned in our illustration by early March and the book was published on schedule as Santopolo planned, in time for the Fourth of July.
It was a revelation to open our first copies of American Anthem, starting with the dedications. Author Scheer and each illustrator contributed one. Some favorites: “To the dream chasers. – Rafael Lopez,” and “For all who call this country home. – Jacquieline Alcantara.” Kate and I dedicated our work “To the growers and grocers, gardeners and gleaners.”
My favorite illustration is by Rafael Lopez. I love the idea of a child drawing his country, imagining it into being. And I hope this book will help children – including Jill Santopolo’s new baby – imagine their futures in America.
Our family is weathering a sad event: my husband John’s younger sister Barbara died on May 16. Among other things, she will be remembered for her humor, her lively black eyes and her New Jersey accent, (she pronounced her name ‘Bobbra’).
Which is a long way to say we are going to postpone the June 1 first public reading of Ocean Lullaby that was to take place via zoom from Green Bean Books – until July or later.
I will let you know the new date when arrangements are set.
Meanwhile, enjoy the trailer John made, with music by our son Tim, played by Tim on slide guitar and his friend Coke Youngblood on acoustic.
APRIL 7 UPDATE: The original May 4 launch date launch has been changed to May 18.
A year before we all retreated to our houses, our family spent an idyllic week at a little resort on Maui’s Napili coast. Our visit coincided with that of a group of retirees from Canada and the US who had met there on previous trips and now regularly return the first week of February. One of them is a singer/guitarist who has a one-man show in Las Vegas. Their tradition is to circle the lounge chairs on the lawn above the beach one night for a sing along. They invited us to join in. He played all the best love songs. We sang. We danced. We rocked our grandchildren on our laps as the sun went down and a crescent moon rose.
That’s when the first lines of OCEAN LULLABY came to me. Song floats up, moon smiles down while we rock to ocean sounds. Shhh, hush. Shhh, hush. The ocean’s soothing song. Shhh, hush. Shhh, hush. We can sing along.
Then I looked out across the surf and started wondering. What do ocean creatures do as night falls? Do they sleep? Do they dream?
That’s how the story progresses.
I learned that adult whales buoy their calves so the calves can continue to breathe while they rest.
After grouping turtles and jellyfish on the same spread, I found out turtles eat jellyfish, so I quickly erected a coral structure to keep them apart.
A diver at the Maui Aquarium told me that resting octopusses (his preferred plural) have a brain pattern similar to humans when they are dreaming.
The monk seals are my favorite spread. As soon as I saw a reference photo with the little guy waving, I wanted to include them.
On May 18 this year – over two years after our trip to Napili beach – OCEAN LULLABY will be published by Philomel. It is the third book my sister Kate Harvey McGee and I have illustrated together. I paint the black lines with a gouache resist technique, doozy them up in Photoshop and email them to Kate who lives near Philomath, OR. She’s a retired landscape architect, now pastel plein air painter, who colors our illustrations in Photoshop. I am so lucky to collaborate with her. I love the way she paints light.
One of the reasons I like to make picture books is because I love my work to be part of a remembered magical circle: those times with my kids, snuggled in the big chair, the neighborhood settling quiet around us, the warmth of their small selves on my lap as we enter a story together. OCEAN LULLABY was crafted for that circle. It ends:
You my sweet, my sleepy child, rest here in my arms awhile. As the new moon rides the sky, dream the ocean lullaby.Shhh, hush. Shhh, hush. Shhhhh…
We hope to set up a zoom event for an official launch soon. Meanwhile, OCEAN LULLABY will be available for sale at all the usual places after May 18. It offers a window to the big world that’s waiting for us out there when the Covid days are over: a world full of dozing whales, dreaming octopuses, snoring monk seals, family and friends.
I was eight when we moved to Sonora, CA. It was my fourth school in five years and I wasn’t adjusting well.
Luckily, our new town had a library tucked into the Veteran’s Hall, right on Main Street, between our house and our dad’s newspaper office.
And luckily, Mrs. Hoe was at the desk there, looking out for lonely readers. She handed me Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the story of a girl like me: same age and name, and quite attached to a warm and wonderful father. I loved reading how that other Laura found her way in her new place.
The book was a lifeline.
Not surprisingly, I was fascinated by the recent PBS show on American Masters, Laura Ingalls Wilder Prairie to Page. It begins by comparing Laura’s real childhood experiences to the Little House series’ stories, pointing out interesting discrepancies. As Laura said in her later years, “All I have told is the truth, but it is not the whole truth.”
But most interesting to me was to learn that the books were a collaboration between Laura and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Rose was an established author in her own right – penning magazine articles and fiction and non-fiction books – when she started working with her mother. Letters between Rose and Laura reveal how the Little House books were shaped by both women from conception to writing to editing.
The TV show uses examples from when they were working on the manuscript for By the Shores of Silver Lake. Rose’s letters are written on an old-fashioned typewriter. She has good advice about inhabiting the main character: “This is Laura’s story. You must stay inside Laura. Try always to make sight, scent, sensation immediate. ‘So Laura took the lines in her hands,’ is better than ‘So Laura drove the black ponies.’ Get it all directly as sight, emotion, thought, scent. Don’t say, ‘It reminded Laura of other times.’ Say, ‘This was like other times.’ Stay inside Laura.”
In another letter, Rose infers the collaboration did not always sit well with her mom. Rose wrote: “You are one of the few writers in the country who would turn down a collaboration with RWL – But go ahead! You certainly are handling the material much better all the time and if you don’t want this book touched, you are absolutely right to not have it touched.”
At issue? Rose advised against including the heartbreaking, true-to-life storyline about Mary going blind. Laura wrote back in her slanted scrawl on lined paper: “A touch of tragedy makes the story truer to life and showing the way we all took it illustrates the spirit of the times and the frontier.”
If you are a Little House fan, you will remember how Mary’s blindness is a poignant part of the book.
More from Rose to her mom: “As to similarity in our writing, of course. You often write lines and whole paragraphs that I feel are what I would have written or anyway I had. What you haven’t developed is structure, a kind of under-rhythm in the whole body of the writing, and a ‘pointing up’ here and there. English is an impressionistic language, an onomatopoeic language. It has a quality of a sunrise or a landscape, a meaning in feeling. Essentially, it is poetry.”
I love thinking of language as sunrise or landscape; as the atmosphere it creates.
The TV show says Rose denied any connection to the Little House books until her dying day. Apparently she did not want the act of writing for children to taint her adult publishing career. Her own best-known book is non-fiction: The Discovery of Freedom, an early work that laid the foundation for the Libertarian party.
The show includes a discussion of the issue of racial prejudice in the Little House books, noting Laura was the first recipient of the ALA’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Lifetime Achievement award in 1954. In 2018 the ALA changed the name of this award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award in light of parts of the Little House books that are “dehumanizing to children of color and send damaging messages to white children.”
Lousie Erdrich characterizes the Little House books as “valorizing things that destroyed entire peoples in this country.” As an adult, I see that and am sickened. Still, when I am asked what books made a big difference in my childhood, Little House in the Big Woods belongs on the list. My adult self sees things differently, but my child self remembers walking into the library’s cool brick building on a hot September afternoon and finding Mrs. Hoe in her crisp white high-collared blouse, doing her best with the books at hand to offer a little bibliotherapy to a lonely kid.
For these past six years and three picture books, I have collaborated with my sister Kate McGee on illustration. I have benefited from the insights of a second brain and a second artistic sense to clarify each project, as well as Kate’s sense of color and innate good cheer. I hope Rose and Laura got some of that, too.
Note: The TV show is 90 minutes and covers lots, lots more. You can access it on demand.
We’re into the tenth month of stay-at-home recommendations. The only regular interactions we have are with our daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons. We always meet outside, always wearing masks. We miss the Fridays we used to care for the little boys before they headed back to socially-distanced school. Oh, how I wish to pull them onto my lap and share a book. Our custom now is to sit opposite from each other when we read. They miss our old coziness, too. The younger one, who is 3 1/2, solemnly told me, “When germ season is over, we can go into your house again, Nana.” The older one, 5 1/2, is planning a two-night sleepover when the situation changes.
Meanwhile, I wonder how this exceptional year will impact the rest of their lives. They’ve come to accept maskwearing as easily as they might a warm coat. But the constant precautions they hear pervade how they understand the world. For instance, they have been reading Greek myths with their mom and were talking about the god Pan.
“Pan is naughty,” said my daughter.
“Yes,” the littlest agreed. “He doesn’t wash his hands.”
We are writers, the keepers of the stories. How will we tell the stories of this world-wide pandemic?
Recently I read Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, which recounts another world-wide horror: World War II. He tells the story of Winston Churchill and the UK, focusing on the 12-month period when Hitler waged a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons, 30,000 of them Londoners. It is a spellbinding account – woven of stories big and small – of how Churchill held the country together and persuaded FDR to join the fight.
Among Larson’s resources are diaries collected as part of the Mass Observation project, founded by an anthropologist, a filmmaker and a poet at the University of Sussex. They felt newspapers were not accurately conveying public opinion around King Edward VIII’s 1936 abdication of the throne to marry the divorcee Wallis Simpson. They recruited almost 500 volunteers to systematically document feelings about this historical event by collecting anecdotes, overheard comments, and “man-in-the-street” interviews in diaries.
When history took the dark turn to WWII, these diarists continued to keep day-to-day accounts of their lives, sometimes reflecting a wider perspective on history than news reports. No special instructions were given to the diarists so their writings vary greatly in their style, content and length. The project continued to the mid-sixties, then was revived in 1981. Archives are held at the University of Sussex.
What resources will future historians consult to understand the effects of our current pandemic?
They will be inundated by accounts on both social media and traditional news sources. I think the challenge will be wading through the ocean of source material.
They might start with the Sunday New York Times in late May. Did you see it? The front section was dedicated to the first 100,000 people who died. Under the headline “An Incalculable Loss,” they listed the names, dates, locations and a single sentence for each person, gathered from nearly 300 news sources. Stuff like: Great grandmother with an easy laugh. Could recite Tennyson from memory. Preferred bolo ties and suspenders. Quiet hero. Man, could she cook. Den mother for Cub Scout Pack 9. Each sentence evokes a lifetime. The interactive version is here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/24/us/us-coronavirus-deaths-100000.html You have to scroll and scroll and scroll to get from the beginning to the end. It’s heartbreaking.
These past weeks I have been working on our 2021 McGee family calendar. I am the middle of five sibs and our family numbers almost 70 now. Our mom started the calendar tradition in the 80’s and we five have kept it up, taking turns to gather the previous year’s photos that tell the story of our children and grandchildren growing up. All together, the calendars make a family archive: vacations, weddings, deaths and births. (We are hoping the first fourth-generation baby, a great-great niece whose due date is Dec. 11, will be born before we have to go to press.)
This year I used my grandsons’ vivid art for backgrounds, as well as my niece Anna’s beautiful batiks and some backgrounds from my books. I grouped COVID-19 photos on the back: family members playing board games, setting up socially-distanced outdoor meeting spaces, wearing masks – even a photo of a masked grandniece and her date posing for their traditional picture before leaving for the prom.
There’s a photo of our immediate family there on the back of the calendar, too. We’re playing Sleeping Queens at the patio table, masked and bundled against COVID and the cold. We are part of the story.
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.