Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A storybook life

Wouldn't you just know that Jan Brett lives in a house like this? And raises chickens (I can't bring myself to use the article's phrase of "ornamental poultry").

She met her husband, a bassist for the Boston symphony, while taking flying lessons. He caught sight of her flying upside down in an open cockpit. And she runs marathons and travels and describes herself as "very cluttery."

No wonder she creates such wonderful books. A fully lived life is bound to engender lots of stories. I love the illustrations in The Mitten, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary -- all the wonderful details to discover, more every time you read the book. Brett says she works at the pace of an inch an hour!

It's a good thing she works so hard to do what she does. Otherwise, I might feel just a tad jealous.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Phrases: The reveal

Since I've had one request -- no, wait, I mean dozens of requests -- for the sources of favorite children's books phrases I wrote about in Going through a phrase, I thought I'd share them.
And the not so tongue-trippingly paraphrased Linda can quote, how about you? is from Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You?

It's no coincidence that some of the best children's authors ever show up in this list. Judith Viorst, Sandra Boynton, Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle... those are writers who know how to put words together!

Thanks to Tracy for her favorites:
And Sally for these:Anybody else want to join in?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Pass the crayons, please

I'm writing this on a computer. I do almost all of my writing on a computer and have for 30 years (I was a cub reporter when newspapers first went electronic). So I'm pretty good at composing on a computer. It almost feels like second nature to me.


When I'm writing fiction, I often use pencil and paper. Sometimes that's because I'm in the car waiting to pick up my daughter at school or because I just need a break from the screen. But most of the time it's because fiction comes more easily when I write by hand. It puts me in a different frame of mind, one that's less analytical and linear. The writing is more organic somehow.

I don't write all my fiction by hand -- and I certainly end up on the computer very quickly after getting down those first scribbles. The revision process would be impossible any other way.

But there's something about taking pencil in hand. Especially when I've hit a rough spot, it can help me find my way.

I think it's because that's how I learned to write. When I was a kid who didn't have a head full of rules and expectations and just wrote, I used a pencil to do it. Before the nasty nitpicky* editor came to live on my shoulder and whisper all her distracting little criticisms in my ear, I wrote what I wanted to write. From head and heart to hand, no detours and no roadblocks.

That must be why the physical act of scrawling words onto paper -- feeling the scratchiness of the pencil moving, the crumbs of eraser bits under my hand -- connects me with something authentic.

I wonder if it works that way for any other writers. I wonder if it will work that way for children who have always had computers.

I don't know. But I'm glad -- grateful -- it works for me.

*The spell checker for Blogger didn't like this word, so I had to stop and look it up to make sure it was correct. No kidding. The editor wouldn't shut up until I did.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Another act of wise parenting

A friend just emailed that she was sending a copy of Maggie's Monkeys to a mom who specifically asked not to get the book until the weather cooled off. She was worried that her three-year-old son would keep opening the refrigerator door to look for monkeys.

That put a smile on my face this morning. You've got to love a mom who is open to a book engaging her son's imagination and yet practical enough to worry about wastefulness at the fridge.

Parenting a young child is such a delicate balancing act -- bravo to those who walk that high wire every day.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Magic, loss and other topics for children

On learning of Mary Travers' death, I listened to Puff, the Magic Dragon yesterday morning. Abbie had never heard it before. She seemed surprised when I got teary at the end, not expecting either the sad ending or me to react to it. But of course I have both moved beyond childhood and lost friends in my life, so I know what it feels like to sadly slip into my cave. With her on the cusp of adulthood, I couldn't help but feel an extra twinge on her behalf.

It is urban legend that Puff is about smoking marijuana. But Peter Yarrow says it's not (actually, sings that it's not here), and that's good enough for me. The song is about losing innocence, which is a lot more profound than singing about getting high.

The theme of lost innocence seems to explain why so many people have connected to the song over the years -- well, that and the catchy melody. We all feel some reluctance and regret about giving up the magical time of childhood. I find I like it that Peter, Paul and Mary sometimes sang a final verse in present tense when they performed the song. Wonder and magic and delight live by the sea, and we can still frolick in the autumn mist when we choose to.

Which brings me to children's books. When Yarrow published the story, the illustrations suggested a happier ending, showing a little girl coming to play with Puff. My first reaction was disappointment. It seemed like children should encounter the original story, with all its poignancy. They could take from it as much as they were ready for -- a fun story about having a dragon for a friend, or a story of loss.

But now I'm not sure. If I like the addition of a present tense verse, isn't it good to allow kids the same uplift? Yes, the Puff story should be a chance for young children to learn about loss and sadness in a safe fictional place. Children will find out that loss and change are part of life, one way or another. Puff is a good way to encounter that hard truth early on. So letting children know that even with loss you can grieve and survive and even be happy again seems like the right way to end the story.

It's called hope. And we all need as much hope as we can get.

Rest in peace, Mary Travers.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Rejection revisited

Okay, I admit it. I'm not a completely nice person. If I was, I wouldn't write this post. So if you're someone who only likes to read kind-hearted remarks, or who wants to think of me as completely generous and forgiving, don't read on. (What, there's no one who thinks I'm perfect?)

If, on the other hand, you share a certain childish delight in having the chance to say, "See there! You were wrong!" please join me in reviewing comments from some of the 18 misguided editors who rejected Maggie's Monkeys.

(Okay, I admit it. Lots of the editors were very kind. And just because they didn't connect with the book or saw flaws in it doesn't mean they were wrong. It just means the book wasn't a good fit for them. Can I stop being a mature, rational grown-up now and go back to reveling in having had the last laugh?)

The hardest ones to take are the "however" and "unfortunately" ones -- rejections that praise the story and then say it" just doesn't work" for them or their list. MM got lots of form rejections, but here's what some of the editors who offered comments had to say:
  • Nice humor but not quite right for us.
  • You have presented an interesting and creative idea, and I appreciate your sharing it with me. Unfortunately, though, I'm afraid I don't see a place in our publishing program for this project.
  • Though we (editor and editorial director) find the story very appealing we don't feel it quite works as a picture book.
  • Imaginary friends are a universal experience of childhood and a family of pink monkeys living in the refrigerator is a funny idea.... Unfortunately, though, I didn't find the middle or end satisfying.
  • You have such a keen ear and eye for the real details of a child's life. I love the way you capture the sibling relationship. And I wish I could support you on this manuscript, but I'm afraid it isn't quite my taste. I find the story a bit slender, and I'm not sure it's the kind of story a child would turn to again and again.
  • While many aspects of the story are fun, I feel the ending isn't satisfying.
  • Andy [Jack was originally named Andy] and his family are appealing characters and your dialogue is snappy and believable. However... we can only take the manuscripts that -- for whatever reason -- especially appeal to our editors.
I'd like to believe some of these editors have seen the book and the generally nice reviews and are kicking themselves. But I know better than to think they're keeping track of such things.

And I also know they still have the edge on me. Because I have more than 200 other rejections for which I haven't had the last laugh.

At least not yet.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Going through a phrase

Around here, the hallmark of a great book or movie is when some phrase from it enters our permanent vocabulary. Lots of children's books have contributed to the unique Sanders-Wells parlance over the years -- a couple of times I've tried to write an essay or article using as many of them as I could, but it never quite came together. Some projects are like that. Even in Australia.

The three of us are all people who love to play with words, so maybe we latch onto a nice turn of phrase more readily than some people. But I bet every family has their own vocabulary of favorite catch-phrases based on what they read. Some things cross over into general usage, the way "That'll do, pig" from Babe has. (Are we the only ones who also sometimes quote Rex: "Get that pig outta there!"?)

At different times, I've been prone to pepper the conversation with variations on:
  • But not the hippopotamus
  • Let the wild rumpus start
  • "Something is not right!"
  • He was still hungry!
  • Because an elephant's faithful, 100 percent.
  • Happy chicken soup with rice.
  • And that's why the sun won't rise.
If anyone isn't familiar with or can't place one of these, I will identify the source -- in return for hearing some your favorites! Linda can quote, how about you?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Like Alexander, who used to be rich last Sunday

I love Judith Viorst's Alexander books. She uses just the right amount of humor to help get a kid through tough spots. So it's fitting that I felt a bit like Alexander when I decided to write this post about an accomplishment from a long time ago: Linda, who used to work in publishing.

Once upon a time long, long ago, I was the editor for an anthology of short stories called Best Stories from New Writers. It featured a selection of stories that were the first publication for their authors -- their "big break." They appeared in literary and mainstream magazines in the late 1980s.

The publisher was Writer's Digest Books, and the anthology included interviews I did with the authors and editors about how the stories were written, chosen and edited. The idea was to give aspiring writers a glimpse into what made the difference between publishable and not. I still think it was a great idea (hats off to my friend and editor Jean), and I was heartbroken when the publisher canceled the second volume shortly before publication.

Some of the authors who appeared in Best Stories have gone on to establish impressive literary careers, including Deborah Joy Corey, whose first novel Losing Eddie won the SmithBooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award; Abraham Rodriguez Jr., whose novel The Boy Without A Flag was a 1993 New York Times Notable Book of the Year and Spidertown won a 1995 American Book Award; Regina Marler, David Nicholson, Dale Ray Phillips and others. One author, Amy Lippman, was already established in a television career that has since included writing for such great shows as Party of Five and In Treatment.

My book didn't launch any of these writers. For the most part, they were on their way when I found them. But I take some satisfaction in having recognized their talent and shared their work with readers who might not have connected with them otherwise.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Titles I love

Book titles are not my strong suit. I have written entire novels and never landed on the right title for them -- which probably means the novels are too unfocused, but that's another issue.

I appreciate a good title. Some picture books have titles that just demand you pick them up. Mo Willems (the disgustingly brilliant Mo Willems) hit a home run with this one, I think.

I also love this one, from Neil Numberman:

With a title like that, the book has to practically write itself. Then again, it's hard to write a story that can live up to a title like that!

Anybody else have favorite titles?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Missed opportunities

In the children's section of a busy bookstore recently, I spent a little time watching parents with their young children. The kids in the picture book area were happily playing with all kinds of toys, oblivious to the piles of books around them. The adults seemed to prefer it that way. I saw one mom roll a ball toward her toddler and say to her husband, "I should have gotten a ball for each of the kids."

I know there are lots of reasons that so many bookstores have turned into toy stores with books. But I was surprised at how few of the families there that day engaged the kids with the books. Despite an inviting seating area where parents and grandparents could easily have pulled a child onto their lap and tried out a few books together to see if they were keepers, the adults all seemed intent on keeping the children distracted while they chose books.

I couldn't help wondering if the kids weren't getting all kinds of wrong messages about books. Books are for grown-ups, they couldn't possibly be as much fun as a ball, they aren't important enough to take time away from the half dozen other things on our to-do list.

And yet the parents were trying very hard to do the right thing for their kids. They were so earnest about looking for good books, studying the covers and reading the jacket copy and consulting with the sales staff.

I felt sad for everyone. Wouldn't it be nice if those parents could go into a store that was only about books and spend a little time with the children discovering stories together? Wouldn't it be nice for kids to experience a place where books seemed like the most important things in the world?

Maybe those lovely book-centered moments will happen when the families get home with their new books. I hope so. But by making choosing books just another chore to get done, they may have missed the chance for the little ones to spy some treasure that speaks to them and come running over with it, begging, "Read this one!"

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The (occasional) joy of writing

A lot of the time I spend writing isn't fun. It's hard work. Really hard. Hard in the "why do I do this to myself?" kind of way. Hard in the "this is the last piece of fiction I'm ever going to try to write" way.

But every now and then, a moment arrives when the pieces come together in a way I didn't expect and don't control. Those moments -- when the fictional world I'm creating shows an internal consistency that tells me it's real -- are some of the best moments ever.

For instance, in a young adult novel I wrote a few years ago, I was describing a moment when the main character's free-wheeling young aunt, who comes to have surprising depth over the course of the story, is getting dressed. I realized she had a tattoo. A yin-yang tattoo. Nice detail, I thought. It suits her.

Several chapters later I'd written myself into a problem. A central issue in the novel involved the main character deciding whether she was willing to donate bone marrow for her ill brother. I didn't want there to be a lot of potential donors, but it didn't seem realistic to say no one else in the family was a match. And then -- aha! The aunt couldn't be a donor because she got hepatitis when she got her tattoo. It fit perfectly. The aunt's reckless personality made her just the sort of person who might take chances with where she went to get the tattoo.

I didn't give the aunt a tattoo so she could have hepatitis. I just tried to write an authentic character, and the pieces came together. The puzzle solved itself.

It happened again not too long ago. My character bought an Elvis CD for her grandmother for Christmas. No real reason, it just seemed like something her grandmother would like. I considered making it a Cher CD, but that didn't ring as true to me.

The teenager and her grandmother are having a hard Christmas without several people they care about. They put on the CD and try on the new clothes they've gotten each other and try to make Christmas feel merry. Suddenly, just when the tension needs to break, what comes on but Elvis singing "I'll have a blue, blue Christmas without you." They start laughing and a difficult moment passes naturally.

Again, I didn't pick the CD so they could hear that song. That came about without me in control of it.

Man, do I love when that kind of thing happens. It almost makes all those hours of slogging through the hard parts worth it.