This little essay ran earlier in the week at a blog I contribute to, From the Mixed Up Files, www.fromthemixedupfiles.com You can read it (and lots of other good stuff) over there or below.
The Trouble With Happiness
Every story needs A Problem. All writers know that.
So many wonderful middle grade novels re-enforce the lesson. Just recently, I’ve read and relished The War That Saved My Life, Stella by Starlight, Echo and Rain Reign, books that deal with abuse, deformity, war, racism, poverty, autism—problems with enormous consequences for the main characters. Their suffering leads to new, often hard-won knowledge about themselves and their world, and, of course, to change.
Something I’ve learned working in the children’s room of a public library is that plenty of kids love sad books. I’ve been asked, “Where are the books that make you cry?” Any time I teach a writing workshop, there’s always one wrenching story about a parent, grandparent or pet dying. Grief, plain and unadorned, is what those stories are about.
So I felt myself going a bit against the grain when I set out to write my new book, Cody and the Fountain of Happiness (first in a series for younger MG readers). The title alone promises that everything will be all right in the end. Better than all right. Happiness will bubble up and overflow!
Joy is less compelling than sorrow. It’s nowhere near as dramatic. When we’re in the midst of joy, we take it for granted, something that does not happen with problems. Problems we want to solve, to conquer and eradicate, but good fortune? Being loved, being secure? We bask in the light, forgetting how lucky we are.
Cody doesn’t forget. She’s the kid who finds delight in the ants in her front yard, or the grumpy new boy who moves in around the corner, or a brand new pair of shoes . For Cody, many things are beautiful, from marshmallows to turtles with their thumb-shaped heads. I think of her as the optimistic part of me, times a zillion.
So what about the big problem? Well, a beloved cat gets lost. Her mother has a hard day at work. Her friend accuses her of tricking him. Cody has her troubles, and to her they are plenty big. She makes mistakes, feels guilty, puzzles over the right thing to do. Yet her whole world, like so many children’s, is her family and neighborhood, literally the (ant-inhabited) ground beneath her feet. The trick of writing her story was to handle her small yet no less real concerns with a light but empathetic hand. To respect her worries and struggles while also keeping the tone reassuring. Writing Cody was as challenging as writing a book with much more serious issues at its center. Kids are figuring out their world every day, every moment. Giving the ordinary its due requires a different, tender kind of attention. For examples of a writer who is a true master at this, see Junoniaand The Year of Billy Miller, by Kevin Henkes.
I confess: this is the kind of book I loved when I was in the middle grades. I hated to be (too) frightened or (too) sad. Surprised was good, but above all I wanted to recognize myself in the story. I’m hoping the same kind of readers will find themselves in the unsinkable Cody.
(I’m giving away two signed copies over there at Mixed Up–you have till Sunday night, 4/19, to enter!)
This is going to be a busy spring. To keep myself organized, I made a list of places I’ve said I’ll be. If you’re in the vicinity, please stop and say hello. It can get lonely sitting at those tables, and I’d love to see you!
April 11, 1 PM
Teacher Appreciation Event—Fun activities open to ALL!
Barnes and Noble
28801 Chagrin Blvd
Woodmere OH 44122 216-765-7520
April 18, 1 PM
Celebrate the launch of Cody and the Fountain of Happiness and the opening of the Coventry Library’s super new kids’ room with readings, crafts, refreshments and more
1925 Coventry Road
Cleveland Hts 44118 216-321-3400
April 21-22, All day
Visiting writer at Gesu Parish School
University Hts OH
April 25, 10—4:30
Ohioana Book Festival—more than 100 authors, with readings, panels, kid activities, you name it
Sheraton Columbus at Capitol Square
75 East State St.
Columbus OH 43215
Joseph-Beth Gifts and Books, the Cleveland Clinic
9500 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland OH 44195 216-444-1700
The Learned Owl
204 North Main Street
Hudson, OH 44236 330-653-2252
Grindstone Elementary School
Berea OH 44017
May 9, 3—5
Barnes and Noble, Youngstown OH, with Rebecca Barnhouse, Cinda Williams Chima, Shelley Pearsall and Megan Whalen Turner-wow
381 Boardman Poland Road
Youngstown OH 44512 330-629-9436
Visits to Toledo area schools
Claire’s Day Festival—full day of family book fun
Maumee Branch Library
501 River Road
Maumee OH 43537
May 30, 5:30-?
Kids Author Carnival—20+middle grade authors—more fun than a barrel of monkeys!
Jefferson Market Library
425 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10011 212-243-4334
Whew. More events coming this summer (including Colby Sharp’s infamous NERD CAMP!)
Kids still do write REAL letters. Recently I got one from a girl who wrote, “I have a brother named William. But don’t worry. I’m gonna change the subject.”
So many of the letters come illustrated. A few I’ve gotten in the last weeks:
Spring is coming. No, this time it really is! Along with flowers and birdsong, hope these make you smile.
The snowdrops are up and school visits are on! It’s time for World Read Aloud Day, Right to Read Week, Young Author Workshops and general thank-heaven-those-standardized-tests-are-over euphoria.
Some highlights from a wonderful visit to St. Dominic’s School in Shaker Hts. Ohio last week…
The poster that greeted me…
The Fountain of Happiness the littlest kids and I made together (further proof I should NOT attempt to draw, but the kids were very gracious and didn’t make fun). My favorite is probably The Liberty Bell.
(Just so you know, it was a teacher, not a child, who added “coffee”.)
And here is my meticulously detailed portrait, down to my cupcake earrings. Now if I could only get Habibi to walk on a leash like that!
My journey to book wonderland almost didn’t happen. Just before we left for the airport (an hour away), we got word that our flight was cancelled. That was the day a plane skidded off the La Guardia runway, and the airport shut down. Whomp. Flights the next day were already sold out. Not for nothing did I marry a superhero. ”We’ll drive,” he said, and within the hour we were on route 80 through Pennsylvania (aka Painsylvania).
Here I am on the sidewalk outside the store:
I had a (literally) honking head cold, my first in years (note to self: build up immunity by working more sub hours in the library children’s room) and concentrated on not breathing on anyone, but still what a fun afternoon! I got to sit in between Pam Munoz Ryan, who rather than read played the harmonica, and Kat Yeh, who talked about fake food and real writing.
My crazy beloved family, my editor Donna Bray and my friend Mary Norris were all there, and for some reason so was Richard Peck, yes THE Richard Peck, a man so gracious all I could do was stutter and gawp.
Were we happy or were we happy?
Didn’t even mind that loooong ride back home.
…author and blogger is hosting me here. Includes A Giveaway!
When my husband and I go to NYC, we almost always make a pilgrimage to City Bakery, home of the famous pretzel croissant and hot chocolate with homemade marshmallows as big my fist.
Almost right across the street is the children’s book store, in what many people consider the book city.
It’s impossible to resist going in, but I always feel some trepidation. So many yes, wonderful, books! It’s humbling. And to be honest, anxious-making. How can there be room on the shelves for them all? If mine aren’t there, I understand, oh I really do, but still…
Well. This coming Saturday, March 7, not only will my books be there, but so will I! With Pam Munoz Ryan and Kat Yeh, two superb middle grade writers in whose company I blush to be.
If you’re anywhere near, please stop in. And don’t forget about those marshmallows!
…I have always loved grammar. In seventh grade I would diagram sentences for fun. Latin was the perfect language for me, a devotee of indirect objects and a prepositional phrase groupie. If you want to know whether to use lie or lay, I’m your girl.
But punctuation? Of course I abide by the difference between its and it’s, a semicolon and a colon, a dash and a hyphen (I think). Yet when I write I’m free with my commas, using them for effect and cadence as much as anything else.
Enter my good, warm, witty friend Mary Norris with another perspective. A copywriter for the New Yorker, she is as firm in her opinions as the good nuns who taught us both, yet leaves more room for questions than they ever did. Her wonderful book, “Between You and Me, Confessions of a Comma Queen”, will be out in April. Here’s an example of what you have to look forward to.
Many years ago, after I published my first novel, my mother wrote a letter to the editors of the New York Times Book Review. Why, she demanded, had they not reviewed Tricia Springstubb’s excellent book? Clearly it was better than 9/10 of the drivel featured in their pages. Obviously this was an up and coming talent. What seemed to be their problem?
I don’t believe she got a reply.
My mother was a master of the Letter of Complaint. When our family, including me, arrived at my graduation from SUNY at Albany, an event akin to a cattle round-up, we were too late to snag a seat, and had to watch it on TV in an auditorium. Graduation was a non-event for me, but my mother went ballistic. Every member of the New York State Board of Regents heard about it. I’m pretty sure the governor got wind as well.
She dashed off angry letters to hospitals, mechanics, insurance agents, food companies, all the usual suspects and more. One of her greatest triumphs was the note she wrote to Cutty Sark, protesting their TV ad: “You’ve made the last alimony payment. Time to launch a Cutty.” Mom found this not only crass but morally offensive (when I informed her it was also misogynst, she didn’t want to hear it–she disliked the word feminist, but that’s another story). One afternoon a delivery man showed up at our front door with a case of Cutty and an official note of apology. I seem to remember some discussion about whether or not to accept this bribe, and my father putting a quick end to any doubt.
My mother was much more than a scold. She wrote short stories, light verse, bits of memoir. And she read. And read. She was a sharp critic, but with writers she loved she became a push-over, giving herself over completely to character and story. I’ve been doing lots of school visits lately, and when kids ask me where I got my inspiration to be a writer, the words “my mother” fly out of me. I became a writer because I’m a reader, and I’m a reader because of her.
Still, I hear her voice best in those Letters of Outrage. (Full disclosure: I love to write angry dialogue. Nothing’s more fun than writing a furious, knock-down argument!) She had strong, unshakeable views, and knew how the world should run. She was on the side of the underdog, the Everyman (I’d add Everywoman but she wouldn’t like it.) Life with all its terrible inequity was ever a struggle for her, and she never quit battling.
Another thing I’ve been telling the kids I talk to: I write for you because you care so deeply about things, and because you have such a deep sense of what’s fair and what isn’t.
“Moonpenny Island”, was just reviewed in the NY Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/books/review/stella-by-starlight-and-moonpenny-island.html It’s a lovely, thoughtful piece, and I can hardly say how gratifying it is, as a writer, to be read by someone who understands and appreciates what you meant to do. (Someone who, in fact, makes you sound far smarter than you will ever be!)
How badly I wish Mom could read the review. I’d give anything to see her eyebrows shoot up and her finger jab the air as she said, “About time they listened to me!”
A blogger who wrote an otherwise happy review of Moonpenny Island had a somewhat unusual complaint. She said that the point of view so completely belonged to my main character Flor that she’d forget the book wasn’t written in first person. Then when Flor would be referred to in third person, this reader would be surprised and annoyed.
This is interesting to me for a lot of reasons. Sometime after I wrote What Happened on Fox Street, my editor, who knows the book as well as I do, said how perfectly it worked in first person. Huh? “Wait,” she said. “For a second there I forgot!” Once again, it seems, my close third point of view was so close that it felt like an “I” speaking.
And the blogger’s comment is also interesting because one of the many, many, too many iterations of Moonpenny was written in first person. That was back when Flor O’Dell was a big-eared boy named Larry Walnut (still have a soft spot in my heart for him). My editor and I agreed that voice didn’t work. Maybe because I’m not good at writing boys (but I don’t really think so). Maybe because the story still hadn’t gelled (possible).
But maybe because first person is not a natural fit for me. It feels like spandex, which I hate. It feels like wearing a hat that comes down over your ears, which I really hate. And–this will sound weird but anyway–it feels too egotistical. I know I know! Many first person narrators are humble, self-deprecating types. Some authors choose first person precisely because their main character is an interior type. Or because the character is unreliable, adding to the story’s complexity. All good. Right now I’m reading A.S. Byatt’s terrific ”Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future” which, like most of Byatt’s writing, is etched in the acidic, heart-breaking voice of the protagonist.
But a big reason I write is to look around. To see what’s close up but also what’s beyond, including what’s not visible to my narrator. Sense of place is so important to me, and I find I can’t render that the way I want when it’s only seen through one pair of eyes. So even as I stay close close close, and even as the story’s voice officially belongs to one person alone, I cheat. I describe things she might not. I sneak in observations that are mostly hers but also a little bit Author. I wear loose, comfortable clothes and no hat.
Not to say I won’t ever try first person again. Every book is different, and each time I start, I have to learn how to write this one, this story. For now I’ll tell myself that the blogger’s complaint is a sort of upside down compliment. She felt so close to Flor she didn’t like stepping back, and that’s the symbiosis I love in fiction.