Tag Archives: Children’s books

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

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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

 

 

Noise to Avoid

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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

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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.

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.

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.

smells like dog

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.

engrossed reader

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

REMEMBERING VERA B. WILLIAMS

I came to love picture books when our kids were little. Every week we’d visit the library and haul home a big bag of books. So I first met Vera B. Williams between the pages of her books.

Sadly, Vera B. died October 16. Happily, we have her wonderful books for comfort.

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If I had to point to the one book that made me want to be a picture book maker, I would point to Vera B. Williams’ Three Days on the River in a Red Canoe.

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Three Days was Williams’ third book, published in 1981 when she was 54. It was the first of her books to gain popularity, winning the Parents Choice award. The story’s in the guise of a young girl’s journal during a family canoe trip, illustrated in colored pencil. Like all of Williams’ books, it has a big generous heart. That’s the part that grabs me.

But Vera B. Williams was not just a children’s author and illustrator. The same year Three Days was published, she spent a month at Alderson Federal Prison Camp following arrest at a women’s peaceful blockade of the Pentagon.

As she wrote, “At various times I have helped start a cooperative housing community, an alternative school, a peace center, and a bakery where young people could work. I have worked to end nuclear power and weapons, and for women’s rights. I have demonstrated and been jailed. I have produced posters, leaflets, magazine covers, drawings, paintings, short stories, and poem, as well as books.” To which I would add she was also a school teacher and the mother of three.

Bookwise, she went on to write and illustrate the Caldecott honor book, More, More, More Said the Baby, inspired by her first grandchild.

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And the Rosa trilogy, including Caldecott-winning A Chair for My Mother.

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My favorite of the Rosa books is Music, Music for Everyone  in which Rosa and her friends form a band to raise money for her grandmother’s medical care. Here’s my favorite (wordless) spread, at the climax.

DANCE

As you can see, decades before the call went out for more diversity in picture books, Vera B. Williams’ stories were inclusive across all racial and economic lines. I love that.

• • • • •

Like Vera Williams, I was in my early forties when I started trying to make picture books. To figure it out, I studied the books my kids and I had loved the most. I made  thumbnail grids of Vera B. Williams’ books to teach myself about pacing and page turns. I pored over her illustrations noting point of view, character depiction, color, flow.

Early on, I attended a workshop that brought together teachers and authors. That’s when I first met Ms. Williams in person. She was an intense little person, already in her 60s. I had a minute to talk to her while she signed a book and I quickly told her how she’d inspired me to try to publish a book. She endured my gushing with equanimity.

I sent her copies of my first board books when they came out in 1994. She sent back an encouraging note.

• • • • •

I am a total fan of Vera B. Williams’ books. But she did not write them for me. Luckily, I got to see how her books impact young readers the year I volunteered as a writing coach in Lilly Rainwater’s fourth/fifth grade split at Hawthorne Elementary.

The kids I worked with at Hawthorne came from all walks of life and many ethnic backgrounds. When we were working on personal narratives, I brought in Williams’ last book, published in 2001, Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart.

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It is a story for older kids, told in poems and pictures. It recounts what happens to two girls whose father goes to prison and then returns.

For months, each week when I returned to the classroom, that book would be in another student’s desk. It made the rounds. These kids had relatives and friends who were in prison. They had had to be brave and smart. The book resonated.

Which, in the end, is what all Vera B. Williams’ books do. Whether it’s a grandma sweeping up a baby to love in More, More, More, or little girl saving up money for A Chair for My Mother, Williams’ stories give us the best of what it is to be human.

Though I wish there were more, more, more Vera B. Williams’ books, I am forever grateful that she showed us all a picture book can be.

Now that’s a life well-lived.

Young Readers and Young Writers

BBC YWA Clare at balcony

Last Spring my youngest daughter submitted a short story to the inaugural Young Writers Award competition, hosted by BBC and Booktrust. Young people aged 14 to 18 who live in the UK were invited to submit short stories of up to 1000 words on any topic. A panel of three judges selected the shortlist of stories demonstrating original and exciting writing that “captures the reader.”

It was recently announced that Clare’s story was one of five to make it on the shortlist,  from over 1,000 submissions. I was thrilled. I was also incredibly pleased and impressed that she had the confidence to submit her story in the first place. It is so easy to talk oneself out of trying.

On October 6th, the five young authors were given a tour of the BBC studios. As mother/chaperone, I got to tag along. It was exciting to see the BBC hive buzzing, and I enjoyed meeting the other kids and chatting with their parents. There were some notable artefacts on display as well.

BBC Dalek

In the evening, we attended the exclusive live broadcast event at the BBC Radio Theatre.

BBC YWA screen

We were joined there by my husband and two special friends – Julie Paschkis and her husband Joe Max Emminger! – who had just flown in from Seattle for a visit. Brennig Davies won the Young Authors award (the prize is mentoring sessions with Matt Haig, one of the judges). The winner of the Adult Short Story Award, Jonathan Buckley, was also announced. There was a reception afterwards, where authors young and old,  publishers, agents, broadcasters, and proud parents, mingled. It was all pretty cool.

The evening was a celebration of stories and writing, but it was one event of many in a country where writing, and reading, are highly valued and celebrated.

I see people reading books everywhere I go here in London. On the train or sitting in the park. The mere fact that over a thousand teenagers submitted stories to this new competition is noteworthy. I also learned from the other parents that there are a number of writing competitions around the U.K. every year. While I don’t like the idea of writing as a competitive sport, I still think that this indicates an appreciation for the skills involved. British culture seems to recognise that young readers are also valuable as young writers, encouraging them at an early stage to put themselves forward.

BBC National Short Story Awards 2015, New Broadcasting House, London

If you would like to read Clare’s submission along with the other runners-up, and hear Sir Ian McKellen read “Skinning”, the winning story by Brennig Davies, go here. And here is the shortlist of the adult entries which include stories by Mark Haddon and Hilary Mantel.

Even though Clare’s story didn’t win, the experience got her thinking more seriously about her writing. I am encouraging her to keep honing her skills, not for the purpose of entering more writing competitions, but to enjoy the success of making good stories even better.

Julie and Margaret in Fosters

And it’s been great showing Julie around London!

With explanation kind…

J.R.R. Tolkien was a staunch defender of the appropriateness of fairy tales and fantasy for both children and adults but in his seminal essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he acknowledged that some stories need to be “sized” for children. “…children may hope to get fairy-stories fit for them to read and yet within their measure; as they may hope to get suitable introductions to poetry, history and the sciences…Their books like their clothes should allow for growth…”

“Sizing” your story and your writing is a common issue for children’s writers. A few writers, like Maurice Sendak, claim they don’t consider their audience at all,* but I have to believe it’s the rare children’s writer who doesn’t pause over a word concerned about its accessibility for the child reader or who isn’t modulating the level of violence and gore in their story.

It gets trickier with the notion of what adult worries and fears kids can absorb. Death, in particular, is a tough one. Oh, there are any number of dead parents littered through children’s lit, and certainly some tragic deaths like Beth’s in Little Woman or Old Yeller, and many near escapes and dangerous situations, but rarely is a child’s own death confronted head on.

Recently, I checked out two versions of a picture book by Russell Hoban, Jim’s Lion, because I was so struck by the very different sizing done by the two different illustrators. **

Hoban’s story is about a young boy, Jim, who is ill and worried about dying.

“People who have what I have, mostly they die, don’t they?” Jim says to his nurse and he worries that he won’t come back from where the doctors send him during his operation.

Jim’s nurse tells him that in his head is everything he’s ever seen or thought about, including all kinds of animals.

“One of those animals is the finder who can bring you back from wherever the doctors send you,” she says.

The rest of the story is about Jim finding and befriending his finder animal, who turns out to be a lion and who does indeed bring him back from his operation

But although the story is exactly the same, look how differently the two illustrators handled it.

Illustrator Ian Andrew’s lion is warm, wise and comforting.

andrew cover

Alexis Deacon’s lion not so much.

deacon cover

In Deacon’s version, Jim meets the lion even before the story begins in a surreal comic book type sequence that foreshadows Jim’s fears.

lion's first appearance

Contrast that with the first encounter in Andrew’s version:

first encounter

In the story, the lion (gentle or otherwise) isn’t immediately tamed and Jim has to first overcome his fear of the lion who greets him with a roar. Here’s Andrew’s roar:

roar andrews

Here’s Deacon’s roar:

roar

But isn’t just in style that the two illustrators vary. Through illustrated sequences, Deacon expands considerably on Hoban’s story taking it into a very dark vein (yes, pun intended). Deacon’s illustrations are bloody, indeed.

blood from box

lion fights bloody animals

 bloodyhands

The operation sequence in the Deacon book takes up 26 pages taking Jim through many changes from the nightmare of the operating room:

operating lights

To a turnabout where the lion is the sick one:

lion sick

And Jim protects him:

jim fights phantoms

The operating sequence in Andrew’s version closely follows the text, which simply notes of the operation that Jim closes his eyes, sees the lion and says, “Okay, let’s do it.” Then he “walked down the long curve of the beach into the dark and lion followed.

operation

The story then immediately jumps to Christmas morning, where Jim is at home: happy and well.

The Deacon version ends in the same place, but what a different journey he takes us on.

Are they appropriately sized for kids? Andrew’s version is aimed at a younger child than Deacon’s. At least based on the boy in the illustrations.  I can see a child taking comfort in this protective, powerful lion.

Even for an older child, the Deacon version is dark,  surreal and unsettling. (It reminds me of David Small’s Stitches.) The lion is not easily won over and Jim’s fight to survive the operation is clearly painful and hard. It seems perhaps YA in its bloodiness and menace, but it is shelved in the children’s section in the Seattle Public Library.

But the reality Jim faces is bloody and menacing. He will be cut open and he may die. Hoban’s story doesn’t shy away from that. And Deacon’s illustrations certainly don’t. I can imagine an older child faced with a hard reality like this could appreciate Deacon’s unflinching take on how frightening and difficult this is.

And I can see other children, not sick or facing anything like death, being intrigued and challenged by the Deacon version, as I was intrigued by the odd and sometimes horrifying art I saw in art history books when I was a kid at home.

It’s an interesting and risky way to illustrate this story. I applaud Deacon and his editors for taking the chance. Perhaps Deacon was aware of another thing that Sendak said in his Tate Modern interview. According to Sendak, “Herman Melville said that artists have to take a dive and either you hit your head on a rock and you split your skull and you die … or that blow to the head is so inspiring that you come back and do the best work that you ever did.”***

* I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,” Sendak said in a taped interview for the Tate Modern. And on The Colbert Report he said, “I don’t write for children. I write and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” My apologies to the late, great Mr. Sendak, but I don’t believe him.

**Interestingly, both U.S. versions were published by Candlewick Press. I’m guessing both were originally published by Candlewick’s parent company, Walker, in the U.K. The Andrew version was published in 2001, the same year as the copyright for the text. The Deacon version was published in 2014.

***It must be pick-on-Maurice-Sendak day, because I haven’t been able to find a quote like this from Melville. But of course, I’m just googling around. Sendak probably actually read Melville.

Every syllable spelled out a spark

The Young Reader by Miguel Mackinlay

The Young Reader by Miguel Mackinlay

Judy Blume was in town last week and I, along with a group of children’s writer buddies, went to hear her speak. She talked about her books, her writing process and a little about growing up in the 1950s, but one thing that stuck in my mind is what she said about reading.

“My parents gave me a great gift. The idea that reading is great. They were proud that I was a good reader.”

It had never hit to me quite so clearly that such an attitude was not universal. I grew up knowing that, of course, being a good reader was a good thing. Of course, you learned to read and to read well. I mean, yes, some kids struggled to read, but surely reading was a valued thing.

But then I remembered homes that oddly didn’t seem to have books in them.  Parents who I never saw reading. Families who didn’t go the library every week. Friends who marveled that our father read aloud to us every Sunday.

I think I was a bit like Harper Lee who said, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

reading is sharing.1

Until Blume made her comment, it never occurred to me that to have people around you who valued reading wasn’t simply a given. Or to put it better, it hadn’t occurred to me that to have such people around you was a gift in itself.

Do you remember when you learned to read? I remember the exact moment.

I’m sitting in the first grade. It’s probably the second or third week of school and we’re learning the alphabet. On the wall is a picture of a clown holding balloons. He has a red balloon, a blue balloon, a green balloon and a yellow one. There are letters of the alphabet on the balloons. And suddenly I realize something amazing. The letters on the red balloon, R-E-D, meant “red.” They are the same thing—the color I’m seeing with my eyes and the letters are telling my brain the same thing.

It was a code and my mind raced with the realization. All the things in the room had a code that meant it—desk, pencil, teacher, floor. What an incredible thing.

“To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark,” said Victor Hugo

Pawel Kuczynski

Pawel Kuczynski

After that, reading came quickly for me. Of course, I was motivated to learn this magic thing. You didn’t need an apple for someone to tell you: apple. You didn’t have to be in the same room or live in the same town or the same country or the same century for someone to tell you, “apple.” For someone to tell you anything.

As George R.R. Martin has one of his character’s say, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

And I wanted to live every life, real and imagined, that I could get my hands on. At that stage, I wasn’t thinking about what I could tell others with my magic code. I just wanted to know what was out there; what others knew; what they could tell me.

Later I began to dream about telling my own stories, casting my own spell with this magic code. But like Blume, I belatedly realize that it began with what I took for granted: being surrounded and supported by those who honored reading.

Kuniyoshi

Kuniyoshi