Tag Archives: writing for children

Scary But Not Too Scary

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Why Hadn’t I Done This Before?

I attended Western Washington University’s Children’s Literature Conference for the first time a few weekends ago. And I’m rather chagrined that I’d never attended this 15-year-old event before.

The conference is a gathering of some of the top creators in children’s literature right here in my own backyard—or close enough, anyway. It started relatively small 15 years ago and now it draws a sell-out crowd of over 600 teachers, students, writers, illustrators and children’s lit aficionados to Bellingham, WA.

This year’s speakers were Sophie Blackall, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Kevin Henkes. I won’t even try to list all their awards and accomplishments—but the poster for the event will give you some idea. I think you’ll recognize the books, even you don’t always recognize the name.

I have this thing. Whenever I hear a speaker, I end up kind of wanting to be them. Or, at least, thinking maybe I should talk that way. Maybe that’s how I should present myself. Although, the most heartening thing about it all is that everyone presents themselves differently (scholarly, anecdotally, ad lib, prepared, humorous, philosophically), but if they do it with honesty and care, it works.

Sophie Blackall

Author/illustrator Sophie Blackall shared the things she loves, including six books that were important in her life and she used these as a springboard to anecdotes about herself and her writing. I was intrigued by her fun, idiosyncratic selection: Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard , The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by DuBose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gorey , The Principle of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman , Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The nicest touch of all? She gave her copy of each book to six members of the audience who shared the titles of books that had been important to them.

The give-away seemed to fit into Blackall’s overall approach to life and work. She’s generous. She’s a giver. Check out this project she’s starting for other writers and artists: https://www.milkwoodfarm.org/

Poet and writer of young adult novels, Benajmin Alire Sáenz gave an almost stream-of-consciousness incantation of a talk. Sáenz, who starts his own day with a “word of the day,” repeated the phrase “the word of the day is” throughout his talk. Each time invoking a new word and new idea. “The word of the day is” became something of a catchphrase for the rest of the day.

For Sáenz, in general, the word of the day would have to be “words of the day” including Latino, gay, philosopher, survivor, award-winner, role model and maybe even life-saver. On his Twitter feed are comments like this:

i’m a gay transgender man and i can’t even begin to tell you how grateful i am for this story; it saved my life. thank you so much.

8:02 PM – 8 Mar 2018

And photos like this:

Benjamin Alire Sáenz and a fan

The word of the day for author Pam Muñoz Ryan was clearly serendipity, in particular when it came her latest book Echo. Researching a story that was going to be about segregation Ryan ran across a photo of a classroom of children each holding a harmonica. When she asked about it she was told it was a 1931 photo of the school’s harmonica band, something that apparently was common at the time.

Harmonica bands! What was not to like? Ryan reasoned. As Ryan followed that trail, her story changed completely, turning quite unexpectedly into a tale about a magical harmonica and how it connected three different children in three different times and places but all somewhat connected to WWII and Nazi Germany.

Pam Muñoz Ryan

Pam seems to be one of those people who can turn the every-day events of their lives into stories. Funny stories. Like the time she joined band, decided to play violin, broke said violin, tried to super glue it back together, got ejected from band, but ended up in chorus, then was asked to write an article about being in chorus, which led to her doing more writing, which led to her, of course, becoming a famous author. Isn’t joining band in the 4th grade how everyone’s life stitches together?

Author/illustrator Kevin Henkes word of the day was “waiting.” A common theme in his work and his life. He waits, he said, for ideas. Then he has to wait to see if the idea proves good and solid. His characters wait, like the characters in his book Waiting. And this feels apt, he says because children themselves are always waiting.

A particular creative quirk of his that struck me: he likes to have a title from the very beginning of writing. It helps him know and remember what the book is about. What I liked about Henkes’ presentation was his awareness of and respect for the creative process and for his readers.

It showed in his talk and it shows up in his work. Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse was one of the texts I pored over when I was trying to figure out how to write picture books. The only bad part: it gave me the notion that picture books could be over 1,000 words. Well, if they’re by Kevin Henkes, maybe.

Keep your eyes open for the 2019 WWU Children’s Literature Conference with an equally impressive line-up of speakers: Barbara O’Connor, Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann, Neal and Jarrod Shusterman, and Jerry Pinkney.

Another major children’s lit event that WWU is hosting this year is the May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture on April 28, 2018. This free, annual event features an author, critic, librarian, historian or teacher of children’s literature, of any country, who prepares and presents paper considered to be a significant contribution to the field of children’s literature. This year’s speaker is Naomi Shihab Nye who has received four Pushcart Prizes, was a National Book Award finalist, and has been named a Guggenheim Fellow, among other honors.

Many Gifts

Each month, Julie Paschkis, Laura Kvasnosky, Bonny Becker, Julie Larios and I meet at one of our houses, around one of our tables, to review and critique each other’s work. We also share news, thoughts, stories, quandaries and lunch (or brunch) and tea. As most of you already know, this blog evolved out of our working friendship.

Each year, we exchange gifts for the holidays – small things, often items we have made ourselves, sometimes souvenirs from places we have visited in the past year.

But the greatest gift we give each other isn’t at these yearly holiday gatherings; it is what we give each other each time we meet, and often in between. We give our eyes, ears, brains and trust. It has been many years since I joined this group (around 2002) and it started ten years before that. A few members have come and gone (and come back again). We started blogging together in January of 2012. Between the five of us, we have published 69 books and 309 blog posts. Geez.

There have been a lot of thoughts and ideas shared around our tables. I am forever grateful for the excellent input and feedback I have received over the years – and that is not to discount in any way the friendships we have developed.

If you have a professional critique group like ours, you know how valuable it is. If you don’t and wish you did, find a few open-hearted individuals whose work you respect see if they are amenable to starting a children’s book group with you. Maybe you will find a good group if you take a picture book writing or illustration class or workshop (that is how this group got started). It helps if you are all at a similar place with your writing and/or illustration careers.

Best wishes for a creative and productive new year!

 

What Writers Really Do

Author George Saunders

“What does an artist mostly do? She tweaks that which she’s already done.” So says George Saunders in his brilliant essay on writing published March 2017 in The Guardian newspaper. For me, it captures the process of writing, the feeling of writing, like no other essay I’ve read.*

Saunders discusses many wonderful things in “What writers really do when they write,” including how he developed his acclaimed first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. (Saunders usually writes short stories.)

One thing that jumped out at me is his description of how he revises his work; what he does mentally.

Write-or-wrong-o-meter

“I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the results without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I do something similar, but I have never made it as concrete as a forehead meter. It’s a gut thing for me. But I think we all know what Saunders is talking about. That knowing that we like it, that it works, or that niggle that we desperately want to ignore that tells us “this could be better.”

It did take me awhile to recognize that gut feeling–to trust that this did need changing or that this really did make the story better. So, if you find it hard to tell where the meter is, other than perhaps permanently stuck in “this is crap,” focus on the niggle part. The thing that catches at you but that makes you want to say, “Maybe this doesn’t matter” or “Maybe the reader won’t notice.”

In other words, start with what you don’t want to be true.

Still I like that he asks only that the needle move into the ‘P’ zone. Not that it top the charts. At least, my zones would not be one fixed point of ‘P’ or ‘N’, but rather exactly that—zones. A band. Of course, you would want to move the needle as far into “Positive” as possible but I’m not sure you could hit the top of the zone with every sentence, every passage.

In fact, I worry that the work would become stilted and brittle if you attempted that. I don’t think perfection is a good standard to set for art.

And that’s not the standard that Saunders sets, although I think he thinks that you’ll get close if you just do this: “Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose… through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”

I also love what he has to say about how this process respects the reader.

“We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader.”

The changes Saunders makes are based on the idea that “if it’s better for me over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.”

But rather than a clumsy place where you pull ropes and your reader lurches, Saunders says you’ll end up in a “rarefied place. (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties—the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off)…”

Oh, don’t we all have those bits of craft and serendipity in our writing that so please the artist in us? And according to Saunders they will be pleasing to the reader, too.

Illustration by Noemi Villamuza

“She can’t believe that you believe in her that much… This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you… you revise your reader up…with every pass… ’No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose of easy notion.’

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up, too.”

There is a lot more in Saunders’ essay worth mulling over for any artist. You can check it out here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write

And if you haven’t read Saunder’s short stories—get yourself to a library or bookstore soon. I think you’ll find your reader’s needle is well into the “P” zone.

*Thanks to Wendy Wahlman for handing me a copy recently. It was just what I needed at that moment.

 

 

What Kind of Animal Fantasy Are You Writing?

Original illustration for Charlotte’s Web by Garth Williams

For reasons, I’m not quite sure about; virtually all of my books involve animals, either as protagonists or catalysts. There’s my six Mouse and Bear picture books; I have picture books about a Christmas Crocodile and an ant who takes a day off, and a middle grade novel about a lizard who wants to be an artist and another about a magical school teacher with miniature animals living in the classroom supply closet. The book I’m currently working on features a heroic rat.

I seem to have a thing for animal fantasies. Like all fantasy, the fantasy world has to have consistent rules, and once upon a time, to help me figure out what I was doing, I developed a list of books featuring animals and broke them up into categories as I saw them. I discovered that animal fantasy books seemed to fall into five main types. I thought it would be fun and maybe helpful to share for those of you who also find yourself writing animal fantasy.

MUTUAL WORLD

From A Wind in the Willows, illustration by E.H. Shepard

Animals and humans live side by side in a mutually perceived world. Animals have human cultural artifacts and interact in a human-like way with humans. Some examples:

-The Wind in the Willows—a blend of human culture and animal realism, i.e. they live in burrows, but burrows furnished with fireplaces and easy chairs.
-Stuart Little—milieu is a human culture with Stuart living in it as if he were a boy. But he has some mouse-like qualities. Interestingly, I think Margalo the bird he loves acts as a purely natural bird
Dr. Doolittle—Certainly Dr. Doolittle and people close to him share a mutual world with the animals, other humans see animals as merely animals
Freddy the Detective books—the setting is naturalistic i.e. the farm animals live in the barn, but they use a few human artifacts and a few people know the animals are intelligent. They talk to the animals, although the animals don’t actually talk back to them.

ANIMAL UNDERWORLD

From Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM, illustration by Zena Bernstein

Animals often have a human-like culture, especially the ability to talk, and sometimes their world includes tools, clothing and other artifacts. But the animals are perceived by humans as animals in a natural world. The animals are often threatened by the human world. No communication between animals and humans other than what would seem normal to the humans. Some examples:

-Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Babe
Holbrook, A Lizard’s Tale
Charlotte’s Web–actually, Fern, alone among the humans hears them talk, but we never see her in conversation with them. She merely observes their world—privy to it because she can see into their world by virtue of her innocence. As she gets older and interested in a boy, she loses this.
-A Rat’s Tale–human artifacts adapted to animals’ use, but humans never realize this. Much like the Borrowers
A Cricket in Times Square
The Mouse and His Child–features toy characters, as well as animal characters, who are mostly perceived by humans as regular toys and animals

ALTERNATE UNIVERSE

From Bread and Jam for Frances, illustration by Lillian Hoban

A world only inhabited by animal characters, but their world operates like the human world. Animals in clothes, driving cars, etc. Some examples:

-Abel’s Island
Beatrix Potter books–animals live in cottages, wear clothes, etc. No humans in most of them. Peter Rabbit is an exception and would fit under the Animal Underworld category
Time Stops for No Mouse
Piggins books
Redwall series
Doctor DeSoto
-The Frances books

There something of a subset in this category that shows up a lot in picture books which is the animal world as a kind of Arcadia, a timeless pre-industrial world:

-A Visitor for Bear
Frog and Toad

ALLEGORICAL WORLD

From Watership Down, illustration by Aldo Galli

Animals live in a natural environment, but deal with issues relevant to human culture. The constraints of the naturalistic setting often enhance thrust of the social commentary. For example:

A Hive for the Honeybee
Watership Down
Animal Farm

A SECRET INNER LIFE

Behavior and cultural issues true to natural animal life, but animals think, feel and communicate among themselves. For example:

-Bambi
Black Beauty

Like all efforts to categorize things, some of these books blend in bits of other categories. For example Watership Down has some intrusion by an unknowing human world, making it also an Animal Underworld.

And there are books like Curious George which despite its very human-like little monkey I wouldn’t call an animal fantasy. Maybe there should be a category called HUMANS MADE TO LOOK LIKE ANIMALS. We could fit the Berenstain Bears under there as well.

Even though they are stuffed animals, I think the Winnie-the-Pooh books would fit under the Animal Underworld category with only one human, a child, as in Charlotte’s Web aware of their sentience.

And then there are books like The Mouse of Amherst that I can’t quite fit into any category. The mouse lives in an Animal Underworld, but she communicates through poems with Emily Dickinson, as if they perhaps live in a Mutual World. And there’s a cat who seems to be merely a cat. So, maybe anything goes as long as you know how your world works.

From The Mouse of Amherst, illustration by Claire A Nivola

 

When Your Mind is Blank

Kelly Barnhill, author of this year’s Newbery winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, says her book began with a vision that literally stopped her in her tracks:

I was out for a run, and I had this image appear in my head, unbidden, that was so shocking to me that I had to stop in my tracks. It was of this four-armed swamp monster with a huge tail, and extremely wide-spaced eyes…and these big, damp jaws and it was holding a daisy in one hand and was reciting a poem…

That’s one way ideas come. A gift from the universe. And there are the good times when they seem to come crowding into your mind. But sometimes they don’t come at all. That’s what I want to write about today–what do you do when the ideas aren’t popping.

First, let’s get in the right frame of mind.

There are two types of brain waves associated with generating creative ideas, especially the kind that seem to come from nowhere. The ones that just rise up into your conscious mind. They are alpha and theta waves.

Alpha waves are a function of deep relaxation. In alpha, we begin to access the creativity that lies just below our conscious awareness. It is the gateway, the entry-point that leads into deeper states of consciousness. And they often rise into consciousness on that walk, in the bath, on a car ride.

A deeper state of consciousness is signaled by theta waves. It is also known as the twilight state–which we normally only experience fleetingly as we rise up out of sleep, or drift off to sleep. Probably most of us have been jolted occasionally by a sudden idea or solution or vision in these moments.

But how can we get into these creative states?

Artists through the ages have tried! They’ve called on the gods, made deals with the devil, called on love, passion, nature, drugs, alcohol and madness.

But actually those alpha and theta waves? They like certain conditions, especially alpha.

Your brain waves will tend to fall in with a dominant rhythm in your environment: a drumbeat, a heartbeat, the fall of your footsteps—they call it entrainment. So the creative muse loves rhythmic activity: music, walking, chopping vegetables, riding along in a vehicle.

Mozart said, “When I am traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly.”

It’s no coincidence that Barnhill’s vision of the swamp monster came to her during a run.

But let’s say, you’ve walked your feet off, bathed till your skin is a prune, chopped broccoli for hours, and you still got nothin’. There are also more deliberate ways to generate ideas. Let’s start with this simple formula for a story:

A (character) who (core trait) wants (goal plus hidden need).

The core trait is a simple, quick way to give your character a personality. It’s a good way to think about picture book characters who need to be developed quickly and simply.

So the formula for my book A Visitor for Bear might be: a bear who is grumpy wants to be left alone (but the truth is he needs a friend.) The formula for Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats might be: a couple who are old want a cat (but the true need is companionship or something to care for.)

Of course, these formulas are for books that have already been worked out, and A Visitor for Bear actually was one of those “just popped into my head” ideas, but let’s say you really are at a loss for an idea. So let’s look around and just grab something.

“A cat who is ugly wants to catch a mouse (and I don’t know the true need yet.)”

Okay, I truly did just grab this out of my head. Let’s see what happens if we work with it. I especially like to play with the core trait, because how a character is challenged or changed is what makes the story interesting.

1.Make the core trait conflict with the goal/need.

For example, in Millions of Cats most couples might look to have a child to meet that need to have companionship or something to care for—but their core trait is that they are old. Not only does this heighten their loneliness, it means having a child is not possible. It ups the stakes and means there will be obstacles to overcome in order to not be lonely in their old age.

2. Work with an unusual trait:

Rather than creating a character who is easily scared (a familiar trait), how about someone who loves to scare others?

Rather than someone who’s nice, create a character who’s grouchy (That’s my bear in A Visitor for Bear.) Rather than a child who is scared about the first day of school, a child who can’t wait! Rather than a child who won’t eat his vegetables, a child who is a vege fiend!

3. Combine disparate traits:

A gentle giant. A kind witch. A pacifist bull. A mighty ant.

4. Put two characters with conflicting traits together:

A cheerful mouse and a grumpy bear

You can also work with plot.

5. Set up an unlikely or improbable goal:

A cow who wants to be a ballerina. A horse who wants to drive a car. Your character can be fairly ordinary but there will be story conflict and reader interest because of the improbable goal.

So let’s start messing around with that idea about an ugly cat wanting to catch a mouse. Notice it’s a mundane familiar goal. Picture books have to be simple so if I combined an odd core trait with an unlikely goal it can get complicated. An ugly cat who wants to go to the moon. It might work, but it becomes unclear what’s the real issue of the story.

So I’ll stick with “ugly cat wants to catch a mouse” and start to play with the options. An ugly cat: well, that’s a bit unusual. We don’t often deal with an ugly character in a picture book. But the story immediately suggests humor and the character is not human, so we can have fun with it.

Does his core trait (ugly) conflict with the cat’s desire to catch a mouse? Maybe. Maybe he’s so ugly he scares away mice before he can even get close. Okay that seems funny to me. So I can go with that.

Since he’s always scaring away his intended prey, what does he do? Put on a mask? Put a bag over his head? Try to creep up on mice backward? Now I’m starting to see the obstacles that will make up my plot.

Can I take advantage of two unlikely characters together? Cats and mice aren’t known to be friends. Cats are the predators. Mice, the prey. Cats big, dangerous, brave, graceful. Mice, small, scared, hiding, weak. I could maybe play off those stereotypes or start flipping them in some way. A big mouse. A tiny cat. But I need to ground my story in that core trait. What the one thing I know for sure about my particular cat. He’s uncommonly ugly.

Is my mouse perhaps uncommonly handsome? Or is he the world’s ugliest mouse? Do they have that in common?

Since this is child’s picture book, I know I want to drive it to a happy ending (although if the tone is exactly right, you could perhaps have a more macabre ending like I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. But that is a rare exception.) So now I’m liking the idea of the having the world’s ugliest mouse because I can see friendship there. That’s probably my cat’s true need—friendship or acceptance.

To really develop this story would take a lot more time and thinking. And, more often than not, you might find your story idea ultimately doesn’t work or doesn’t really hold your interest. But generating a story idea in this very deliberate way might get the story making machine inside your mind turning over again.

So grab a random character, a trait and a need and start walking!

 

 

 

Is There a Pattern Here?

Rob Gonsalves

Rob Gonsalves

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

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

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

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

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Or metaphorical:

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

Or startling.

Illustration by Jacek Yerka

Illustration by Jacek Yerka

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

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

Rob Gonsalves

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

Or the vines too silently creeping.

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration by Nom Kinnear King

Illustration by Nom Kinnear King

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

Illustration by Frances Cochiacchio

Illustration by Frances Cochiacchio

Although not all that is out of place is ominous.

Illustration by Michael Sowa

Illustration by Michael Sowa

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

Illustration by Patrick Desmet

Illustration by Patrick Desmet

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

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

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

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

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

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

Community, Connection, Creativity

The floweristas convene in a big workroom at the back of Orcas Center on the morning of the concert. Fresh from their gardens, they bring magenta hollyhocks, bright blue hydrangeas, fat white roses, squiggly branches and phlox. The workroom buzzes as they create huge arrangements to grace the sides of the stage and the lobby.

2015-08-14 11.22.21

Planning up to a year ahead, volunteers plant their gardens with an eye toward creating flower arrangements inspired by each of the concert programs. 

In the nearby kitchen, other volunteers plate cheeses and appetizers for the post-concert reception. Still others prepare the post-reception dinner for the performers. And in the lobby, volunteers settle ticket sales, having already set up an art show of local work.

It is all in anticipation of the 19th annual Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, and it truly takes a village.

We were there for the opening last month, in the island’s 200-seat community theatre. Framed by vats of hydrangeas, a trio named Time for Three – two violinists and a bassist – took the stage. They did not look like classical musicians, rather mid-thirties-aged hipsters dressed in dark t-shirts and torn jeans, like in their student days at Curtis Institute.

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Time for Three: Nikki Chooi, Nick Kendall and Ranaan Meyer

They took us by storm: with dazzling violin runs in exact duet, with bowing so fierce the horsehairs hung ragged on Nick Kendall’s bow. They offered up a whirlwind called Ecuador composed by bassist Ranaan Meyer, and a mash up of Purcell and Stairway to Heaven complete with guitar solo ripped from Kendall’s violin. Then, sweet and pure, violinist Nikki Chooi introduced the melody of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. They passed it back and forth, layering the harmonies, as tears welled in my eyes.

Time for Three impressed not just by their virtuosity, but by their joy in the music. Could it get any better?

The next morning we were part of one of the festival’s three “hamlet” concerts. For these, the musicians travel to outlying communities on Orcas. My friend Betsy, a head flowerista, did the flowers for this one, and I got to assist. We helped set up early at the Olga Energetics Club in what is essentially a large living room, pushing the old couches to the walls and lining up mismatched chairs. A spot was saved for a neighbor who is unsteady on her feet, with extra space for her service dog.

Then the audience began to arrive. Each carried a covered dish, sweets and savories for the after-concert reception: veggie spreads, crab in pate choux, butter cookies. One neighbor provides champagne each year. Another brings her famous apple cake.

We filled up the straight chairs and the folding chairs. Three generations of the Friedmann family squeezed into a couch along the wall: Aloysia Friedmann, violist, the artistic director of the festival; Aloysia’s father Martin, a violinist who played with the Seattle Symphony for 25 years; her mother Laila Storch, oboeist, who taught at UW, and her daughter Sophie.

And the music started.

It had been stunning to hear Time for Three play in the theatre, but was even better in this simple room where we were 10 feet from the musicians. They played without amplification. Raw, pure stuff. Heaven should sound so good.

Then they had a little Q and A.

Someone asked, “What inspires you?”

Bassist Ranaan turned to the Friedmanns on the couch, then reached toward Laila Storch, matriarch of the family, who had studied oboe at Curtis at least 40 years before the trio members.

You inspire me,” he told her, “I see how music sustains a life.”

So what does all this have to do with creating picture books? Maybe it’s more about the general idea of creating. Maybe all those Orcas islanders: the ladies growing and arranging the flowers, the volunteers selling tickets and passing out programs and setting up chairs and bringing covered dishes; maybe those musicians, too, that Time for Three trio, putting their bright and brilliant music out into the fresh Orcas morning, maybe as they participate in the thing they are creating they get the same feeling I get when I work on a picture book. That feeling of how good it is to be alive.

It sustains me.

betsy,laura,flowers

With Betsy, my friend of 40-plus years. Betsy and and her husband John retired to Orcas ten years ago and invite us up each summer for the chamber music festival. 

 

 

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