Category Archives: Children’s Book Critique Group Blog

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.

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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/

 

 

 

Tile Tales

Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) told stories with tiles.  Mercer tileIn  Doylestown, PA. you can find three museums: The Mercer Museum, Fonthill (Mercer’s house) and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works (founded by Mercer and still in operation). I’ve been visiting these places for all of my life, most recently in December. Pile in for a quick tour of the Moravian Tile Works.moravian tile worksMercer was a scholar, an artist, an archaelogist, and a world traveler. He seemed curious about all things, and he built curious and unique places.  The Moravian Tile Works was made of poured concrete and built in the style of a Spanish mission; somehow it fits right into Bucks County, Pennsylvania.Moravian Tile WorksBefore founding the tile works Mercer apprenticed with a German-American potter. He used local clay. With this local clay and from this specific place he told tales that ranged the world and dipped into all his areas of knowledge and interest.IMG_0812

IMG_0813Many of his original designs were based on Moravian cast iron stove designs – thus the name of the tile works.dance stoveplate

dance mercer tileHe was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement in England. His tiles are decorative and rich with pattern.IMG_0835

mercer tileThey often include words.Moravian Tile Works

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Most of all they tell stories. There are stories of workers and craftspeople.Mercer TileMercer TileMercer TileOf seasonal workMercer Tile

Mercer Tileof journeysMercer Tileof playMercer Tileand quarrels.Mercer TileThey tell old storiesMercer Tile

Mercer Tileand of new(ish) discoveries:Mercer tileThe tiles tell their stories on every available surface of Fonthill, and on many walls of the Moravian Tile Works and the Mercer Museum.Moravian Tile Works

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IMG_0826The tiles are still being produced today.

Here is a quick peak outside and inside the Mercer Museum.Mercer Museum

Mercer MuseumThe museum is a treasure trove of tools and objects from America’s past. It is also a peek into the mind of Henry Chapman Mercer. His interests, passions and point of view are all evident in the structure and contents of the museum. All of these things also go into the designs of the tiles: the tiles are the specific expression and compression of who Mercer was.

What does this have to do with children’s books? Children’s books tell stories. A book tells one specific story, but all of the experiences and knowledge of the author and illustrator contribute to the depth of what is created. Mercer told stories with tiles. His travels and studies, his eye for beauty, his respect for work and workers, his love of history and his humor bring the stories alive. He used his head, hands and heart.

Thanks to Henry Chapman Mercer for letting us sip from his cup of knowledge.mercer tile sip

 

Art Is Our Human Right

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I recently went back to the William Morris Gallery to see their current exhibit, “The Artistic Campaigns of Bob and Roberta Smith”.

Bob and Roberta Smith is actually one person, Patrick Brill, who chose this double pseudonym to create a more “egalitarian platform” for art making. The name Bob Smith is the most common name in England (like John Smith in the United States) and Roberta is Patrick’s sister’s name. Combined, this artistic nom de plume is about as low brow as one can get.

The son of a well-known landscape painter and teacher, Smith studied for his MA at Goldsmiths in the early 90s. He has been an Artist Trustee of Tate Museum and the National Campaign for the Arts. He currently is an Associate Professor at the Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media and Design at London Metropolitan University,

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His irreverent humor and straightforward approach is apparent throughout his work. He paints with sign-painting enamel on found objects and discarded wood panels. His images center on the written word – he paints personal stories as well as social commentary. His lettering is mostly freehand, paying homage to the sign-painting styles of fair grounds, old shop advertisements and folk art.

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This exhibit was of special interest to me. In Seattle, I was actively involved in advocating for arts in education. I volunteered as an arts community liaison for in Seattle public schools for over a decade. I started a blog – Pebbles In The Jar – to help inform and encourage others to do the same. I was a member of the arts community advisory group during the development of the Seattle Public Schools Creative Advantage plan. I even spoke on the topic at a few events.

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After moving to London, I was curious to see how arts in education is handled here. I assumed that, with London’s broad art scene and history of supporting the arts, arts teaching in public (what they call “state” schools here) would be more secure. I was wrong. The arts in education have been whittled away by conservative politics and “austerity” measures in the U.K., just as in the U.S.

Smith says he grew up believing “education is not about improving your life chances or getting a better job, education is about building knowledge and experience and enriching humanity and society.” Art as an integral part of democracy.

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Taking his art to another level, Smith in 2013 started the Art Party with Crescent Arts, Scarborough. “The Art Party seeks to better advocate the arts to Government. The Art Party is NOT a formal political party, but is a loose grouping of artists and organizations who are deeply concerned about the Government diminishing the role of all the arts and design in schools.”

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In 2015, Bob and Roberta Smith ran for parliament as an independent during the 2015 general election against conservative Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Education and Member of Parliament for Surrey Heath. This is when I first became aware of his work. I was impressed with a visual artist who dared to enter the outspoken and contentious realm of politics.

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Smith sees his campaigns as “extended art works which include a variety of consciousness raising artifacts.” He has taken to the streets in a camper covered in his campaign slogans. He has created videos, performance pieces and radio shows. He sings. He plays guitar and piano. He walks the walk.

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“It’s almost impossible for kids to study art and music together, let alone dance or drama as well. This is worrying for British culture and Britain’s long-term reputation for being a great place to make, teach and experience the arts.”

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“Art is about the appreciation of ambiguity. Only when people realize what unites us is huge and wonderful and what divides us is small and mean will people live peacefully.”

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“Hey artists, forget about making money, and make things better.”

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It’s notable that the William Morris Gallery has hosted this exhibit and supported Smith’s campaign. William Morris was also a political activist. In 1882 he told the Royal Commission on Technical Education “everybody ought to be taught ought to draw, just as much as everybody be taught to read and write”.

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If you would like to learn more about Bob and Roberta Smith, you can watch this excellent and entertaining documentary, Make Your Own Damn Art: the world of Bob and Roberta Smith, directed by John Rogers.

I wish I could have voted for Bob and Roberta Smith.

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Magical Middle Grade

suzanneselforsBest-selling children’s author Suzanne Selfors remembers the question well.

“Why are all your characters so miserable?” asked the grade-schooler.

She’d never been asked that, but it was a good question because she does like to open her books on kids in less-than-happy situations. And she quickly had her answer, “I like to make my characters as miserable as possible because it’s so much fun to make them happy again.”

I’m on Whidbey Island teaching for the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and Suzanne is one of our guest speakers. (Just to brag a bit, our summer residency featured two Newbery authors–Gary Schmidt and the just-announced medal winner, Matt de la Pena.)

But back to Suzanne–she’s an expert on popular middle grade novels. She has three different series going including the Imaginary Veterinary series, Smells Like Dog series and Ever After High series. She’s also the author of books for teens and adults, but middle grade is her sweet spot. She sold eight middle grades last year with more in the works.

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Middle grade is currently hot” in children’s literature. It used to be YA, but middle grade is in even more demand right now. Some of Suzanne’s insights include:

Middle grade is aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds but 4th graders are considered the core readers of the middle grade genre.

Overwhelmingly middle grade deals with a theme or issue of displacement. The main character is often transported to a new location—they move from one world to another. To a new school, to summer camp, arrive for a visit with grandparents. It makes sense. Not only do you get troublesome parents out of the way, but your kid hero is in a natural situation to discover new things and to be tried and tested.

Speaking of troublesome parents, they, along with other adults, are few and far between in middle grade stories. And, really, who wants them around giving advice, solving problems, soothing hurts and, in general, interfering with this process of growing up.

Even if the basic setting is new much of the action will happen at home or at school, Suzanne says. As an author, she particularly likes conjuring up her main character’s bedroom, because this is such an important space for a child; the one place in the home that is theirs.

many middle grades

Middle grade heroes are doers. No mini-Hamlets here. They are going to jump up and rush in where wise men fear to tread.

Middle grade books are clean. No swearing and no sex. If you get into boy/girl dynamics, your character might have a mild crush, but mostly it will be a friendship. If the kid reader wants something grittier or more romantic at 11 or 12, they are going to read up and find books like the Twilight series.

Make ‘em laugh. Humor is huge. Just consider The Diary of Wimpy Kid series. Author Jeff Kinney is the top-selling children’s author in the U.S., probably in the world, with hundreds of millions of his books sold. As Susanne noted, when it comes to awards, humor doesn’t win, but when it comes to sales and kid-appeal, it definitely does.

Magic is big. Of course, there’s realistic fiction but many, many middle grade books contain magic. Not just in their plot, but in their appeal. Ask people about their favorite books and so often, you’ll get a far away look and a smile as they remember a book they read before they were 12. They are the heart of the childhood reading experience from Charlotte’s Web to Pippi Longstockings to Harry Potter to Percy Jackson.

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Which is one reason they are my favorite genre to write. You can have humor, magic, complex characters, dramatic plots, moments of quiet beauty, and a depth that can hit kids at a level they will remember all their lives.

 

 

 

 

 

My Reading Resolution

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I’m going to do it. I’m actually going to make a New Year’s Resolution, something I haven’t done for many years now, possibly because I’m a bit of a pessimist (no, a big pessimist) about the chance of keeping it. But my fellow Books Around the Table writers are coming up with writing resolutions of their own, so I’ve decided on a reading resolution. Here is what’s inspiring me: The upcoming American Library Association announcement of 2016 Youth Media medal winners and honor books. It happens on Monday, January 11, coming to us via live webcast from their midwinter conference in Boston.

My New Year’s Resolution is to read the winners (or honor books – my choice) in the following categories (explanations of what these categories represent can be found at this link): Caldecott (I’ll read the winner and all honor books for this),  Newbery, Sibert, Pura Belpre, Coretta Scott King, T.S. Geisel, Batchelder and Prinz. And I’ll read them some time before next year’s announcements are made. I’ve got 12 months to read approximately 12 books (well, in addition to other non-kid books that I’ll be reading.) This might just be the year I keep my resolution!!

Read, read, read – that’s the best advice a creative writing student can get. Read like a writer, read for techniques of structure, voice, pacing, setting, character-building. Read!  It’s time to follow my own advice. Speaking of time, the announcement webcast will begin at 7:30 a.m. Eastern time on Monday – easy for East Coasters, harder for those of us on the West Coast. The ALA is setting up a contest involving the time factor:

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When I taught at Vermont College of Fine Arts, our winter residencies sometimes coincided with the ALA announcements; we held Mock Caldecott discussions, led by the divine Leda Schubert. If the announcements were being made on a residency day, we took a break from our tightly-packed schedules to watch and listen carefully, see how we did with our predictions, and either 1) dance a jig because a book we loved had been chosen or 2) stand silent and dumbfounded because a book we loved (and/or one that had gotten many starred reviews and/or had been mentioned in many Best Books of the Year lists) didn’t even get a nod. Committee-made decision are usually quirky, and committees making the choices for 2016 categories will no doubt run true to form.

I have some favorites but feel superstitious about mentioning them – bad luck follows? But here are some books bound to get the attention of the committees:

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For the Newbery and the Sibert, maybe?  Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg & the Secret History of the Vietnam War

A big favorite for the Newbery, though, seems to be this one:

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And for the Caldecott…?

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April Chu for her illustrations of In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van…

or

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The Night World by Mordecai Gerstein (a long shot…?)

or…

or…

so many other wonderful choices….

and I’ll be reading the ones that get chosen.

LISTEN

I spent a lot of time playing the ukulele in 2015, including ukulele camp at Fort Worden where one of my teachers was Aaron Keim. Aaron and his wife Nicole form the duo The Quiet American, picking and singing their way through the folk Americana songbook. He’s a gifted teacher, too. While leading us through his transcription of John Fahey’s Sunflower River Blues, he advised: “By the time you start working on a piece, you should listen to it so much that it is already living in you.”

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The duo called The Quiet American: Nicole and Aaron Keim of Hood River, OR

I like that idea: listen until it is living in you. I know how that feels for a song and also for a story. In fact, I think songs and stories dwell in the same heartful place.

It is a mysterious process, bringing a story into the world. You head out with a few phrases, a character maybe, a situation. You tell yourself your story, imagine it into the world scene by scene. Pretty soon, if you listen closely, that story you are making begins to make itself, you meet anew the story that has been living in you.

I know I am not alone in this way of looking at the writing process. Back in the early 2000s when I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Katherine Paterson often came by. She told us that after a certain point in drafting a novel, she feels her attention switch from generating characters and plot etc. to listening to the story that is already on the page, and shaping the book as that material dictates.

My sister Kate McGee, who is a pastel painter in Philomath, OR, is collaborating with me on illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. I ran this listening idea by her. She said she comes to a point in every painting where, if she pays attention, it starts bossing her around in its effort to become what it is meant to be.

We talked about this while looking at the black and white layer I’d just painted for one of the spreads. We were both listening and paying attention to what the piece still needs. I will make the changes digitally, then email that layer to Kate so she can add the color. We are new to using Photoshop for our artwork and are swimming upstream – but how fun to work together on a project!

And it’s great to have another pair of ears to listen as we find our way through the woods.

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Final spread for Little Wolf’s First Howling, due out from Candlewick Press in 2017.

(to hear The Quiet American play Sunflower River blues on the ukulele click here)

 

 

 

 

 

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Last week Margaret showed you lots and lots of toys. But who delivers them?

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Look on the roof!rogerduvoisin
Roger Duvoisin illustrations 1954

Santa might come by sleigh.

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Edward Bawden illustration

Or on a bighorn sheep. (by Miroco Machico, from the Art Room Plant)mirocomachikoOr with eight tiny reindeer (from my new fountain pen)paschkis tiny reindeeror holding a green tree (my painting of Father Christmas)Paschkis santa

or with two pink trees (by Nivea Ortiz, courtesy of the Art Room Plant)nivea

He might ride a bicycle (image from the collection of Marcia Paschkis)bicycle santaor call out to you (drawing by Gus Hoffmann when he was little).gushoffmannor travel with friends (William Steig)william-steig-new-yorker-cover-1974However he comes he won’t stay long.Roger Duvoisin

So, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

Harald Wiberg illustration from Christmas in the Stable

Harald Wiberg illustration from Christmas in the Stable

‘Tis The Season

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My gift to you.

Toys.

Lots and lots of toys.

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Beautifully rendered illustrations, all from Folk Toys les jouets populaires.

Published in 1951 by Artia books.

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Thanks to Stephen Foster at Foster’s Bookshop for letting me take so many photos at his shop.

Happy holidays, everyone!

In the beginning is the word

When I teach classes on writing picture books, I tell my students that their first reader is going to be an editor and to craft their stories with that in mind. One tip I say is to get something special into the text early. A small word play, a particular truth, a fresh description, just the right rhythm–see if you can work something like that into your first few paragraphs.

Even though it may seem like editors are looking for reasons to say “no,” actually they’re dying to find something wonderful. I know because I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of picture book manuscripts, myself. Your heart leaps just a bit when you feel like maybe here’s something exceptional.

That said, they are looking for reasons to stop reading and get on to the next story in the stack still on the hunt for that special one. So your job is to give them hope.

In my class, I use a few tried and true examples. One of my favorites is the opening to Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag.

Once upon a time there was a very old man and a very old woman. They lived in a nice clean house which had flowers all around it, except where the door was. But they couldn’t be happy because they were so very lonely.

What I love is that completely unnecessary phrase, “except where the door was.” It’s so literal and childlike and would give me hope as an editor that this author sees the world with fresh, whimsical eyes.

But recently I wondered how true my truism was, so I began to pull picture books from my shelves. Not every book fit, of course, but the best did and it was clear why the editor went on reading.

Would your heart lift just a bit with these? (I’ve posted the titles and covers in order, below.)

On a grubby little hill,
in a dreary little funk,
Mrs. Biddlebox rolled over
on the wrong side of her bunk

The birds gave her a headache.
There were creakies in her chair.
A breeze blew dank and dreary
and mussied up her hair.

What’s not to like? The perfect pacing and rhythm, and “grubby” and “dreary” and “dank” but most especially those lovelies: “creakies” and mussied.” I’d be praying that the rest of the text lived up to this start. (It does.)

It was late one winter night, long past my bedtime, when Pa and I went owling.There was no wind. The trees stood still as giant statues. And the moon was so bright the sky seemed to shine. Somewhere behind us a train whistle blew, long and low, like a sad, sad song.

Owling? That sounds intriguing, but what would grab me even more is the perfect sketch here of setting—that cold, bright, still, lonely night. Notice the pacing. The alliteration. The buried rhymes like moon and blew and long and song. I would know I was in the hands of a consummate wordsmith.

It is almost Friday night. Outside, the dark is getting darker and the cold is getting colder. Inside, lights are coming on in houses and apartment buildings. And here and there, uptown and downtown and across the bridges of the city, one hundred and five people are getting dressed to go to work.

The dark getting darker and the cold getting colder. Right away I’m interested because she’s saying things with just a bit of flair. And then, of course that very odd specific detail—105 people getting dressed to go to work. And then you remember that it’s nighttime and smile realizing that’s why the author made such a point of the darkening dark.

Harvey Potter was a very strange fellow indeed. He was a farmer, but he didn’t farm like my daddy did. He farmed a genuine, U.S. Government Inspected Balloon Farm.

No one knew exactly how he did it. Some folks say that it wasn’t real—that it was magic. But I know what I saw, and those were real, actual balloons growing out of the plain ole ground!

Okay, a balloon farm is way cool. But look at the immediate voice. “Fellow,” “daddy,” “genuine” “folks” and that wonderful U.S. Government Inspected Balloon Farm. Every word capitalized because this, after all, is real thing, right?

Oliver was a cat of middle-age, gray with tabby markings. He was a bachelor without wife or kittens and lived in an apartment in Manhattan. A housekeeper, Miss Tilly, who had been with him since kittenhood, looked after the place and prepared his meals.

A perfect description of a certain privileged type, but especially that word “bachelor” for a cat. It makes me think how you can make your character particular with just the right words. You could probably take the most mundane story and make it sing through character alone.

Rock, stone, pebble, sand
Body, shoulder, arm, hand
A moat to dig,
a shell to keep
All the world is wide and deep.

Imagine getting this as plain text? It’s not even completely clear what’s going on—what’s body, shoulder, arm, hand have to do with rock, stone, pebble, sand? And yet your heart rises because there is something so perfect about the rhythm and so deep and resonant about how that last line works.

You’ve probably guessed the title of many of these books. But here they are. And hats off to the editors whose hearts responded and turned such words into completed visions.

 

biddlebox coverMrs. Biddlebox, Her Bad Day and What She Did About It! by Linda Smith, illustrated by Marla Frazee, HarperCollins, 2002

owl moon coverOwl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr, Philomel Books, 1987

philharmonic coverThe Philharmonic Gets Dressed by Karla Kuskin, illustrations by Marc Simont, Harper and Row, 1982

potters balloon farm coverHarvey Potter’s Balloon Farm, by Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by Mark Buehner, Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1994

marshmallow coverMarshmallow, written and illustrated by Clare Turlay Newberry, Harper and Row, 1942

all the world coverAll the World, by Liz Garton Scanlon, illustrated by Marla Frazee, Beach Lane Books, 2009

 

 

 

 

A Moving Target

For someone who doesn’t write fiction, I spend a lot of time thinking about it. The basic problem is this: I don’t get it -that is, I don’t get how it’s done. Given all the things a novelist has to do – create a believable plot and believable characters, provide momentum so the story doesn’t sag, choose a point of view and make it consistent, determine a structure,  make the language compatible with the imagined audience, choose a significant setting, create dialogue that sounds real, avoid cliches, avoid coincidences, avoid sentimentality and melodrama, be modern, be unique – the possibility of so many elements being handled with dexterity by a single person takes my breath away.  It’s like watching someone juggle chain saws.

Chainsaws

Or maybe it’s more like watching a man who is really good at three-card monty. You swear you’ll stay focused and keep your eyes on the cards as they move around, you’ll figure out which card is the Ace of Hearts, and you’ll be able to point to it when asked. But every single time, you end up befuddled, pointing at the wrong card and then thinking, “Wow – nicely done. How did he do that?” Same question for a well-written novel.

Three-Card Monty

I go through phases of liking certain fictional elements more than others, which over the years has allowed me to like quite a few books where the juggling act wasn’t all that stellar. For example, I liked plot for a long time  – from kindergarten through sixth grade, with a sub-category tucked in at the end. The initial Plot Phase culminated in two lists (poets + lists = cream + sugar) where I checked off everything ever written by Marguerite Henry and Carolyn Keene. Good memories, and good (enough) books.

Marguerite Henry

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The sub-category of Plot Phase was Melodrama, a capital offense but unavoidable, since I  was, at that point, a teenager. What can you do when you become a teenager in the early 1960’s except re-read Gone with the Wind ten times? And cry when Lorna is shot and falls into the arms of John, her true love, in Lorna Doone?

Gone with the Wind

 

Lorna Doone

Next came the Read-What-You’re-Told-to-Read Phase – junior and senior years in high school, my first couple of years in college. Some brilliant fiction came along and knocked on my door at that point, but I wasn’t exactly at home. I was busy protesting the war in Vietnam and supporting the Third World Strike,  so I skimmed many classics, knowing I would come back to Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment after my friends and I had saved America from itself. We never managed to do that, but I did finally finish the Dostoevsky.

Books Before You Die

What I preferred during this fiction phase was a modern aesthetic – short sentences, clarity, an ironic tone.  Nuance and luscious language weren’t high on my list then, but I craved humor, social commentary, English as it’s really spoken, straight-forward structure.

I read Vonnegut…

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  …and Salinger

Salinger

…and more Vonnegut.

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Since then, I’ve gone through other phases – cared a lot about dialogue for awhile, found prose disruptive, so I read plays.  Found humor forced and happy endings unrealistic, chose to read only depressing and confusing books, alienating all my friends in my book discussion group who just wanted me to get over it. Went through a phase of believing too much in critical responses, so read quite a few prize-winning books I thought I should like but didn’t.

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When I went back to school and studied poetry, I wanted to hear poetic language in fiction, plot be damned. Continued to drive people in my book discussion group crazy by choosing plotless books with gorgeous sentences – lots to think about, but no adrenaline to make the heart race. Began to teach creative writing and found many students had so much trouble with plotting a story that all I wanted for several years were good plots, better plots and best plots. That is, traditional plots – the kind with a beginning and an end, with stuff happening in-between.

For a while I gave up on fiction and believed I couldn’t read it. Checked out a lot of non-fiction from the library. Found myself longing for a good story. Read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and its follow-up, A God in Ruins – got excited about fiction again. Entered a Structure Phase – wanted to take a book down to its studs, see the house plan used to construct it. If you’re a writer in addition to being a reader, you probably pay attention to this, have some curiosity about it running in the background no matter what you’re reading.

to-the-studs

Sarah Mithcell

Book Structure by British Artist Sarah Mitchell

This month it was my turn again to choose the book for our discussion group. I’d been keeping a list (another list!) of books I was interested in, and gradually I settled on one titled The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards. I hear the narrator has a unique, quirky voice, like an old-fashioned storyteller.  Voice was what I loved most about M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume I: The Pox Party. I feel a Voice Phase coming on.

storyteller

So here I am, still confused, still trying to figure out how it’s done, still trying to figure out the magic and the movement and to guess correctly which card is the Ace of Hearts. I understand my own standards for poetry (musicality, mystery) and my standards for non-fiction (interesting subject, graceful prose), but the standards by which I choose fiction and respond to fiction periodically shift. I don’t have a target with a clear bullseye, so my arrows keep straying. Actually, I should reverse the metaphor and name myself the target. The fiction I read keeps shooting its arrows, but I keep moving.

Archery