You know how I always forget to take pictures. No problem when I visited Normandy Elementary in Bay Village, OH, last week. The staff took great photos, just one of many things that made it one of the sweetest, smoothest school visits I’ve ever done. Here’s how I was greeted when I walked in the door:
Students made those terrific, reptilian diggers, by the way.
The librarians had read PHOEBE to all the classes. Did I mention Normandy is K-2? Nearly 500 little dynamos in that building. They were so enthusiastic I got bold enough to do my first ever slide show. Here I am showing the difference between some of Jeff Newman’s early sketches and his finished illustrations:
A helpful teacher taught me how to pause the slides, which turns out to be a useful thing to know. And after a long day of talking, reading, asking and answering questions, here we are chilling in the gorgeous school library:
Thank you, Normandy! I dig you all.
…and I like Phoebe and Digger.”
That’s a quote from one of the dozens of letters I got from Boulevard School after a recent visit. Here I am reading–I really need to work on my posture.
And here’s a shout-out to illustrator Jeff Newman:
A few more favorite quotes:
“I like to be a Tricia and a illlustrated.”
“If I see my big brother bullyin on my little brother I will tell him this author name, Mrs. Stringstubb.”
“When you talked I felt like I wanted to bee a Author. But it’s hard to pick from all the jobs I want. I’m going to tell you. A peteyochrishen, dancer, singer, songwriter.”
“I really like your books!!!!!!!! Hope you win a reward. I believe in you. Make me proud.”
And a couple more drawings–wish I could include them all–this one from the next Picasso:
And this one from a girl who cut straight to the heart of the plot.
One last treasure: I showed the kids some of the early sketches for the book, and many, including this girl, preferred the earlier, scarier version of The Bully.
Thank you again, wonderful Boulevard teachers and students!
…with a new man. We’ve been getting to know each other slowly, long distance, through writing and just a few photos–the most old fashioned kind of courtship. Today my affection for him is brimming over–must be the rampant madness of spring–and I have to share him. Here he is:
Charles Robert Darwin, you’ve stolen my heart! Your sense of wonder, your humor and humility, not to mention your infatuation with orchids, barnacles and beetles–how I wish I could take a ramble through the woods or along the shore with you. Once you stood so still, observing, that some baby squirrels mistook you for a tree and raced up your legs and back. Once, you came upon a fox asleep in the daytime, and it woke up so astonished, it stared at you a good long time before running away. Once, hunting beetles, you already had one in each hand when you spied a third and popped it into your mouth, where it released a stream of beetle juice so foul you wound up losing all three specimens. As a boy, you loved birds so much, you wondered why everyone didn’t grow up to be an ornightologist. In your memoir you wrote, “The passion for collection, which leads a man to be a naturalist, a virtuoso, or a miser, was very strong in me.”
Darwin plays a role in my WIP, and what a treat getting to know him beyond the standard stuff. After his adventures on the Beagle, he became a stay-at-home. Every day without fail, after working and reading for a few hours, he’d stroll his Sand-walk, a narrow gravel path he’d constructed, bordered on one side by woods full of hornbeam and lime, birch and dogwood, and on the other by a field that gave way to a quiet little valley. Around and around he’d go, while his children ran past him or played near-by. His dog Polly, a rough little fox-terrier, came along. (“I had a passion for dogs. They seemed to know. I was adept in robbing their masters of their love.”) Imagine what was going on inside that head as he walked, thumping the ground with his stick. He believed in the fruits of idleness as much as industry–how well we’d have gotten along!
His great-great-grandaughter Ruth Padel wrote the wonderful “Darwin–A Life in Poems.” For some of the poems, all she needed to do was arrange his words on the page, like these last lines of “More Funny Ideas About Grandeur”:
But there is a simple grandeur in this view–
that life, with its power to grow, to reach, feel,
reproduce, diverge, was breathed
into matter in a few forms first
and maybe only one. To say that while this planet has
gone cycling on
according to fixed laws of gravity,
from so simple an origin, through selection
of infinitesinal varieties, endless forms
most beautiful and wonderful
have been, and are being, evolved.
Thirty-something years ago, when we told our friends and family in New York we were moving to Cleveland, they offered their condolences. I accepted. I was far from sure about the move myself.
Fast forward to yesterday, when there was no place else on this green Earth I wanted to be. To celebrate my new book, three mighty Cleveland forces came together with the easy grace and generosity typical of people around here. All I’d done was mention the book to Suzanne, who runs one of my neighborhood’s three–THREE–indie bookstores, Mac’s Backs.
Before I knew it, she was hatching plans for a party at everyone’s favorite Cleveland Heights restaurant, Tommy’s, owned by a saint named Tommy Fello, who serves falafel and milk shakes worth a trip from anywhere on the planet.
Oh yes, and smiley pancakes, too. Tommy offered to serve a free breakfast, and Suzanne said she’d donate 20% of book sales to Family Connections, an amazing organization I know well, since it runs a drop-in play center in the library where I work and I’ve often read stories there. It’s staffed by endlessly patient, creative and zany women who nurture families with programs on parenting and early literacy.
1 + 1+ 1 made way more than 3 yesterday, when kids and their caregivers came to listen to me read
And then got to make books of their own.
Food, crayons and books–does it get any better?
Writing is, most of the time, such a solitary thing. But yesterday I was part of a neighborhood, a city, a community of book and kid lovers. I never felt luckier.
Last weekend we went to see “Good People”, David Lindsay-Abaire’s very smart, character-driven play about class and roots and whether we can ever shake them. It’s set in Boston and both main characters are Southies, which in Boston is synonomous for tough as nails and proud of it. Think Dennis Lehane. Think Tea Party–the real tea party.
“You Messed With the Wrong City” was the message Boston sent after the bombing. Heartening as that sounds, it didn’t really jibe with the gentle place we’d visited just a week before. That city was full of earnest young people like our daughter, studying hard to learn how to heal and prevent illness and suffering. It was folk singers in the T-stations, and the creaky, comic T itself, which made me feel like I was on a ride at an old amusement park, and hilly brick streets with windowboxes brimming with spring flowers, and a brisk wind off the river that sent shivers through me to think how cold and beautiful winter must be there.
And it was Candlewick, whose offices are as sweet and humble as they come, and where I never thought to take a single picture, so just imagine a low- slung, butter-colored building, with skylights and stuffed animals and stacks of books wherever you turn, and conference rooms named after books. (We met in Waldo.)
The kids books Candlewick publishes never deny the darkness or destruction loose in the world. But they meet those forces head on, with characters and stories full of grace, determination, hope, compassion, the will to connect and to right wrong. “Never look away” is the first responsibility of a writer. Candlewick embraces that.
Maybe this is, after all, the definition of tough as nails. Tonight I’m speaking at a Young Authors celebration, and the first thing I plan to do is congratulate each of them for making something shining and new and one-of-a-kind. For being creators.
One of the great pleasure of a great city is walking. And walking and walking, which is how we spent an afternoon last week in New York. It was a day full of bluster, and while we were in MoMA where (brag alert) our daughter works as a curatorial assistant, rain swept through. By the time we stepped back outside, the umbrellas were closing and the puddles were shining. Our destination was that bookshop among bookshops, St. Mark’s, but first we meandered, among the shivery daffodils in Bryant Park and out onto
AKA East 41 Street, a two block stretch between Grand Central and…
…the beautiful stone lair of Fortitude and Patience.
Bronze (I think) plaques stud the sidewalk all along the way, each one an illustrated quote from a writer, a lovely, literary, yellow brick road. Paul risked life and limb–unless you harbor a strong streak of masochism, you really don’t want to dawdle on a mid-town sidewalk at 5 PM–to take photos of the ones I liked best, and here some are, starting with my two favorites:
And a couple more:
And of course:
It’s a measure of my something that, except for pictures of my girls and nieces, these are the only photos I thought to take during our entire visit. I even forgot to take a picture at my wonderful publisher Candlewick which, more later. But happily we caught these, burnished and bright in the April air.
And if you can take one more quote, some daunting/inspiring lines from Verlyn Klinkengorg’s “Several Short Sentences About Writing”:
“In our world–the writing world–authority always rests in the hand of the reader, who can simply close the book and choose another. ..And yet she’s willing–yearning–to surrender her authority to the author. And keep reading.”
And a chicken-and-egg one I’ll be thinking about for a while: “When it comes to writing, the intensity of the writer’s feelings and the power of the subject mean almost nothing. We only glimpse that power and intensity in the power and intensity of the prose.”
Every April I subscribe to a Poem-a-Day from Knopf Doubleday. This year they sent a harbigner of delights ahead in this poem by Nabokov, written in English and first published in 1944. Revel!
Not the sunset poem you make when you think
with its linden tree in India ink
and the telegraph wires across its pink
not the mirror in you and her delicate bare
shoulder still glimmering there;
not the lyrical click of a pocket rhyme—
the tiny music that tells the time;
and not the pennies and weights on those
evening papers piled up in the rain;
not the cacodemons of carnal pain;
not the things you can say so much better in plain prose—
but the poem that hurtles from heights unknown
—when you wait for the splash of the stone
deep below, and grope for your pen,
and then comes the shiver, and then—
in the tangle of sounds, the leopards of words,
the leaflike insects, the eye-spotted birds
fuse and form a silent, intense,
mimetic pattern of perfect sense.
I’m in Boston as you read this, visiting our daughter who’s enrolled in Northeastern’s physician assistant program, and also getting to meet the wonderful wizards who make the magic happen at Candlewick. Boston also just happens to be the city where I met my husband 41 (yes) years ago when we were both scraggle-haired hippies. How do I love that city? Let me count…
…nothing will! Enjoy, world!
With a book about to come out, and another almost maybe possibly at last finished (knocks wooden desk), it’s a sweet time in writing land. When I’m in the thick of drafting and figuring out plot, it’s hard to raise my head and have coherent thoughts about the process. But I’m sitting back a little today. Looking around. Having a few thoughts, coherent or otherwise:
I recenlty read a review where the work was highly praised except for the fact that one of the main characters was too reflective and self-aware. The critic said this didn’t leave the reader enough to do. I am taking that to heart.
My husband, a teacher, recently went to an evening of plays written, directed and acted by students. In the program, one of the playwrites said how amazing it was to see her work interpreted by others. She was having, I think, her first experience of sending her words out into the world and seeing them come to belong to others. This echoed something I’d read by the brilliant madman Jack Gantos, who wrote about how, when readers tell him his words have delighted them, he thinks to himself, No, you have delighted yourself. A writer is the catalyst for making something deep within a reader show up.
I also read a blog post by a writer who, while sitting at signings, frequently finds herself stymied by the question, “Is this a book a twelve-year old boy would like?” As if there’s such a thing as a generic twelve year old boy, any more than there is a forty-five year old man. Her post, which you can read here, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marie-lu/writing-a-book-for-boys_b_2806387.html, made me laugh as well as shake my own head. I’ve had enough teachers tell me they’ve successfully read the MO WREN books aloud to know they’re not “girl books”, but who knows how many boys I’ve seen pick them up and set them back down because of the girls on the covers.
And that brings me around to one last thing, the delightful post Julie Danielson, who writes the blog “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast” as well as reviews for Kirkus, did on PHOEBE AND DIGGER. It’s surprised me a bit how much attention reviewers have paid to the “bullying” aspect of the book–I didn’t even think of the mean girl as a bully, just as a fact of playground life–and how little they ‘ve paid to two of the things I love best about it: that Phoebe is a child of color and a girl whose alter-ego is a powerful machine. This post gets both those things. Here it is,http://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/phoebe-digger-trouble-making-duo/ and I have nothing more profound to say on that than Thank you.
With over 1800 titles and more than 250 million copies in print, it’s safe to say the “For Dummies” books have made their mark. There’s something for each of us, from the dangerous sounding ”Beekeeping “, “Welding”, or “Anger Management” for dummies, to the more reassuring “Boost Your Confidence in One Day” and the bucolic “Building Chicken Coops” . Entire relationships are covered: “Flirting” to “Dating” to “Budget Weddings” to “Divorce” to “Grieving” for dummies. At a time when so many people are hiring assistants and coaches for everything from buying clothes to getting their kids into college, these do-it-yourself guides are a drink of well water.
I recently received a copy of the 2nd edition of “Writing Children’s Books for Dummies”, written by Lisa Rojany Buccieri and Peter Economy (a name to love). I am here to recommend it for anyone starting out in the field. Every nut and bolt is in place, including the usual sections on formats and genres, creating compelling characters, writing real-world dialogue, finding your voice, pacing, and revising. It’s user friendly, with icons of lit fuses or raised fingers to warn or remind. While I’ve seen plenty of writing exercises over the years, most of these are new and many lo0k like fun–for example, creating a “Smellography” , an autobiographical record of as many smell memories as you can.
Various writers, editors and publicists weigh in with advice. From Michael Green, publisher at Philomel: “Nothing earns a rejection slip faster than an overwritten first paragraph.” And “Dramatic pacing and characterization are vital. An author needs to be careful, however, of not forcing the issue. Quiet, subtle moments in Chapter 2 might very well be setting up an earthquake in Chapter 5; the contrast betwen the two will help the tension pop when it finally arrives.”
The sections on getting published and book promotion are up to date, at least as of this second. Much of the advice here is classic: for example, under getting an agent: “Just following the agency’s guidelines automatically makes you stand out from the competition.” I had my agent tell me just that, nearly word for word. The chapter on self-publishing, such a different ball game from even a few years ago, lays out the many options in helpful, eye-opening detail.
In the end, no one can tell you how to do this. The heart and intent have to be your own. But reading books like this can make you feel good about how much you already know, and aware, yet again, of all you have to learn, a humbling, not bad thing.