Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers, by Deborah Heiligman

I’ve just – only just—finished reading Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman. This was urged upon me by Anita Silvey, whose recommendations one should never overlook, speaking on the power of children’s and teen nonfiction to an audience at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. I had just recently met Deborah Heiligman, briefly, at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago, and her warmth and sincerity leaped across the room. Her masterful work, a lovingly constructed narrative pieced together from the copious correspondence the Van Goghs share, does the same.

I’ve always loved Vincent Van Gogh (but who doesn’t?), but I knew only the most superficial things about him. Dutch, painted in southern France (a favorite place of mine), mentally ill, cut off his ear, committed suicide. Somewhere I’d picked up the notion that he was a bit of a randy, carousing fellow, but I’m not sure where – it may have been an episode of Dr. Who. (See the starry Tardis, below.) 

Heiligman writes, in her author’s note, that when she first learned about Theo, on a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, she wrote the following in her notebook: “What does everyone remember about him? The ear, killing himself. And some paintings, of course. But what about his religion and his decision to become a painter so he could leave the world a souvenir?” She goes on to say, “And then I wrote: ‘Story of brothers. (And sister-in-law.)’” (page 425).

Theo Van Gogh
What do we always try to tell young people in our books? That to know a person, to really observe a life, is to peel away stereotypes, prejudices, gossip and slander, and get to the heart of earnest desires, foolish errors, hopes and sorrows. We preach that we cannot judge another until we really understand them. The secret, of course, is that whom we understand, we hesitate to judge; whom we understand, we love; whom we love, we ache and yearn for.

I’ve spent the last few days riveted by Vincent and Theo, weeping at the sorrows they bore together, but weeping more at the beauty of their bond. Theirs is a complex affection, sometimes turbulent, but always loyal, and boundless in mutual compassion. Theo’s devotion to Vincent, his support (financial and emotional), his unwavering belief in his brother’s potential are an indictment in my own soul of the sister I am not, the wife I am not, the mother I am not. (But this is not about me, so I’ll set my penchant for confession aside.) I never knew about Theo at all, and because I didn’t, I didn’t know about Vincent at all.

Those superficial labels I had acquired somewhere along the way (messed-up, suicidal, rowdy) gave me no information about the fervor with which Vincent approached art and life, and the agonies and ecstasies with which he experienced both. If life is a radio signal, the receiver that was Vincent multiplied wave amplitudes. Both joy and sorrow seem almost to have been too much for him. He poured it onto canvas after canvas, and we are the beneficiaries. Canvas after canvas, paint tube after paint tube, meal and rent and doctor’s bill, were gifts to him (and therefore, the lucky world), given by Theo.  

There’s so much more I’d like to say, about how Heiligman’s work has revealed the warmth and generosity of Vincent’s heart, his eagerness for connection, and his sweetness toward his friends and family (even when they hardly knew what to do with him). I’m moved and rebuked by the purity of Theo’s affection, by how quick he was to forgive and set offenses aside for the sake of intimate childhood and brotherly love, how patient he was with trials Vincent could not control. Not resentfully, not dutifully, but wholeheartedly. Engrossed as I was in the Van Goghs’ story, I couldn’t help connecting thread after thread of it to my own life – to my experiences with siblings and as a mother to four brothers; to my experiences observing acute mental illness in all its terrifying force, and chronic mental illness in its eroding relentlessness. I’m grateful to live in an age where there’s so much more we can do to help sufferers, though there’s far more to be done. I can’t help comparing the urgency and passion of Vincent’s approach to his art to my own relationship with my writing. I doubt Vincent ever got bored with his WIP, griped about his deadline, loitered around on CNN for a while, then paid a thirteenth visit to His Friend the Fridge.

Vincent and Theo will scoop up awards, and it should. The book itself is a thing of beauty, organized like an art gallery, decorated throughout with Vincent’s art, featuring color plates and a trove of back-matter scrupulously annotating sources and providing further context.  I’m urging it upon my own sisters (artists themselves) and on anyone who will listen.  This is compelling, moving, heart-expanding read. 

Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman was published April 18, 2017 by Godwin Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Sons. Also available as an audiobook from Dreamscape Media

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Presenting THE EMPEROR'S OSTRICH (and a groovy trailer!)

The first creative writing workshops I ever conducted took place at Mindess Elementary School in Ashland, Massachusetts. The students were my guinea pigs. The workshop, now called “Let’s Make a Story,” begins with a brainstorming exercise where we fill a large bubble with oodles of words. Next, we each pick three at random and combine them into a situation. From that situation we choose a main character, secondaries, a setting, an antagonist, and so on, until a pretty detailed story plan is complete and ready to be written. 

I’ve done this presentation hundreds of times since. Each time, the recipe is the same, and each time, the magic is new and the idea fresh.

art by Liz Starin
On a subsequent workshop visit to Mindess on March 15, 2012, the three words I selected from the board were “emperor,” “ostrich,” and “ghoul.” To prove to the kids about silly they had permission to be, I decided the main character of this concoction would be a dairy maid named Begonia, who was searching for her lost cow. Why not? I was so tickled by the idea that I came home and wrote a story beginning. Other deadlines, however, claimed priority, and so the idea floated in my Dropbox cloud for years.

Until now. On June 13, 2017, Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan Children's Books will release The Emperor’s Ostrich, my next middle grade title novel. To celebrate, I’ve produced a book trailer. Children's illustrator Liz Starin provided the artwork, which I love. Making these trailers is just too much fun, and I will devote a subsequent post to talking about the process of making it, and the amazing talents that made it shine, but for now, voilà:

I’m excited to waddle this little ostrich adventure story out to schoolkids, because it gives me an opportunity to say, “See? This workshop stuff we’re doing isn’t just pretend writing. It’s the real deal. This is where ideas come from. It worked for me. Why not you?”

Jayne Entwistle at work
There’s also to be an audiobook, published by Penguin Random House Audio, voiced by the brilliant, the mellifluous, the one-and-only Jayne Entwistle. I love her. Listen to an excerpt here!

Check the events page on my website for a list of launch events as they unfold. Some of these will be in the early fall, to coincide with back-to-school.  
Liz Starin's self-portrait
I’ve had so much fun chasing Begonia, her cow, the emperor, his ostrich, and the rest of this motley crew around the countryside of the empire of Camellion, and so glad that that workshop on the Ides of March, 2012, led to such fertile territory. If you’d like me to lead this workshop for yourschool, library, or book club, just give a squawk! It might just point me toward my next big idea.

The Emperor's Ostrich releases June 13, 2017. Find a copy at your local Indie Bookstore | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | Powell's | Amazon.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Grown-Ups, Nonsense, and Imagination: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

(A post for fifth graders, and for fifth graders at heart, with writing prompts. First posted to a school blog.)

Greetings, Fowler Fifth Graders – can I call you FFG for short? – and welcome to our book blog, where we’ll be discussing the titles you’re reading in school. I’m excited to dive in. Let’s look at The Little Prince

Who was your favorite character in the story? I fell completely in love with … drumroll please … its narrator.

Did you think I was going to say the little prince himself? Oh, I like him just fine. But I adore the narrator. Note that I didn’t say Antoine de Saint-Exupéry himself. I said the narrator – the nameless fictional character who crashed his plane in the desert and met the little prince. Is he Antoine himself? Nope. This isn’t an autobiography.

I love the narrator because he’s sly and witty, always poking fun without being mean, and he takes quirky things seriously, or pretends to. (I’m thinking of the danger posed to planets by baobabs. Hysterical!) He’s an adult who refuses to be a “grown-up,” who has never left behind the warmth, trust, openness, and imagination of childhood. Or at any rate, that’s how he sees children, and he sees “grown-ups” as the complete opposite.

The Little Prince – the book, I mean – is a scathing argument against the nonsense believed by “sophisticated” grown-ups in modern society. I think the narrator would say, if asked, that society itself is nonsense. (By the way, “scathing” means boiling hot, so hot it’ll burn you. But it’s a juicier word than “boiling” or “burning.” “Sophisticated” is a fancy way of saying, well, “fancy,” or perhaps, “cultured, refined, elegant, smart, educated.” It goes hand-in-hand with “society.”)

I believe the narrator hands us the theme and main idea of his tale on a silver platter on pages 2 and 3.

Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is exhausting for children to have to provide explanations over and over again.
I have spent lots of time with grown-ups. I have seen them at close range … which hasn’t much improved my opinion of them.

Through the little prince’s travels, we learn many things about grown-ups. According to the narrator:
  • They have no imagination. (Boa constrictor drawings.) 
  • They won’t believe someone’s discoveries if they’re not wearing the right type of clothes. (The Turkish astronomer.) This is also a way of saying that grown-ups distrust people from different cultures.
  • They won’t believe information that doesn’t include numbers. (Asteroid B-612.)
  • They are obsessed with what’s “serious.” (The narrator’s jammed bolt and hammer.)
  • They care about rank –who’s in charge and who’s not. (The king and his “subject.”)
  • They are petty and self-centered, and want to be flattered. (The vain man and his “admirer.”)
  • They are gloomy, sad, and self-destructive. (The drunkard.)
  • They are so busy, and so obsessed with business (“busy-ness”) that they overlook beauty and truth. They care more about what they own than what makes it special. (The businessman.)
  • They mindlessly follow orders, even senseless ones, wasting their lives away. (The lamplighter.)
  • They only believe what’s written down, and prefer learning from books to going out and seeing what’s actually there. (The geographer.)
  • They’re always in a hurry, without ever knowing what they’re looking for. (The railway switchman.)
  • They’d rather buy something to save time than take their time enjoying an experience. (The salesclerk.) 

My goodness! Is there any hope for grown-ups, then, if even part of what the narrator believes is true? I just had a terrible thought. Am I a grown-up? I get older each year, it’s true, but I don’t want to be anything like these grown-ups.

The Little Prince was published in 1943, so probably written in, say, 1941 or 1942. You probably know what was going on then: World War Two. Though the war included significant fighting in the Pacific, World War Two devastated Europe. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a French pilot who flew military missions for France during the war. Hitler’s Germany occupied France – meaning France was under the control of Germany, and German soldiers were stationed throughout the country – from 1940 to 1944.  600,000 French people – soldiers and civilians – died from combat, bombings, and other war crimes. Worldwide, the numbers vary (uh-oh! Am I a grown-up obsessed with numbers?) but anywhere from 50,000,000 to 80,000,000 people died from war causes. Fifty to eighty million.

The causes of the war could fill thousands of pages, but I’m pretty sure Saint-Exupéry’s narrator saw it rather simply, like this: Vain, petty, selfish men, obsessed with power and rank and money, wanted to rule over everything. Like the story’s king, they persuaded people to obey them and become subjects, partly by making them hate and fear cultures that weren’t their own. Like the lamplighter, people mindlessly obeyed orders, even self-destructive ones. Many were so busy and tired from making a living, and in such a hurry doing it, that they lost sight of what’s beautiful and true in the world, so they failed to stop what was happening. Under these conditions, dictators rose, nations invaded nations, the world was sucked into a vicious war, and millions of people died.

Not just died in the long-ago past, but were dying, right in Saint-Exupéry’s beloved France, as he wrote this story.

This, I believe, is how the narrator saw things. Is it any wonder he had lost his faith in grown-ups?

Can we blame him for thinking that if the men in charge were less concerned with power, rank, money, and admiration, and that if others hadn’t mindlessly obeyed their evil plans, the world might not be at war? Can we blame him for believing that if grown-ups were more open to imagination, and to smelling the perfume of a flower that’s right in front of them, and to trusting the essential things that are invisible to the eyes but seen by the heart (oh, how I love that fox!), that maybe his world could have been at peace?

There may come times in your life, as there have in mine, where the busy-ness of work, and the pressure to make money – we must eat, after all – and the desire to fit in and be admired so that we can succeed, crowd out the quiet, invisible things that matter most, like hope and belief in what’s good and simple, kind and true. Like the grown-ups in the story, we can forget who we once were, and what our imaginations taught us when we were young. Thank goodness for children’s stories, which keep hope and imagination alive forever. Perhaps that’s their most sacred job. It’s why I have never stopped reading them, and why I have devoted my life to writing them.

The Little Prince – the book – breaks my heart, in the best way. Perhaps the saddest line in the entire story is at the very beginning of chapter two, on page three. “So I lived all alone, without anyone I could really talk to, until I had to make a crash landing in the Sahara Desert …” In that wide world of grown-ups, our nameless narrator had never found a friend. But the little prince, who loved a flower and tamed a fox and searched the cosmos for friendship, became his true friend. Then, saddest of all, he was gone, but not gone forever, because the stars are always there, like bells ringing. And even though the narrator can’t see his friend, he loves him, which is the essential thing, invisible to the eyes but seen by the heart, and—who knows?—perhaps felt, millions of miles away, by a boy watering a flower, and protecting it from a sheep, among the stars.

Writing Prompts
  1. Imagine you are Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but living today, instead of in the 1940’s. Send the little prince on a voyage to asteroids where he would meet grown-ups who represent problems we see in the world today. What would their bad habits look like now? I’ll bet cell phones, Facebook, selfies, and TV shows would have something to do with the nonsense. Can you write the short scenes where your little prince meets these modern rascals?
  2. What’s an essential thing in your life that’s deeply true, but invisible to the eyes? Maybe it’s the love you feel for someone in your family, or the closeness you share with a friend. Maybe it’s a memory, or the way something beautiful, like art or music, makes you feel. Can you write a short scene from a moment in your life that shows the reality and truth of your precious, invisible thing? (It’s okay if you need tissues!)
  3. Remember that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote this during a horrific war. I’ll bet it was comforting to him. Using our imaginations is often a comforting way to escape harsh realities in our present world. When I need comfort, I often reach for the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, or the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Is there any place you like to escape to for comfort, in stories or in your imagination? Can you write the beginning of a story set in that world? 
This post originally appeared on the Fowler Middle School book blog. 
© 2017 Julie Berry www.julieberrybooks.com

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Faces of The Passion of Dolssa (Paperback Release Day!)

Today The Passion of Dolssa releases in paperback from Penguin.
I love paperbacks. They’re cozy and bendable. They squunch into your purse or backpack. Pricewise, they put books in the reach of more readers. Always a plus. So it’s great to see this second birth.

The cover is essentially the same as the hardback, now with a big silver thingy, but who’s noticing? (Ahem.) Below is a video providing some historical context.  The paperback edition features a great list of discussion questions, perfect for book clubs and classrooms. And for anyone who closes the book shaking their fists at me, here is a page on my website that discusses the ending. Before you click on it you must sign a blood oath* swearing to have read it in full, because I dislike spoilers. *Seriously. **Not really, but still.

It’s interesting to me that, when talking of movies, the directors’ names are widely celebrated, nearly as much as the big stars', and in some cases more. Producers’ names even make the cut, and makeup artists, costume designers, and set designers are starting to have decent brand-name currency among moviegoers. The writers, with very few exceptions, remain fairly obscure. TV tips the scale a bit; TV writers have a bit more clout and power, but still they remain mostly behind the scenes.

Labor pains. Poor guy.
In the book world, however, the author is held up as the lone creative genius (or not-so-genius) who birthed their works in violent explosions of divine creation, much like, I imagine, Athena bursting from the head of Zeus. Editors must be the closest analog literature has to directors and producers, yet they receive no mention unless the writer names them in the acknowledgements. The publisher puts its stamp on the spine, but the army of talent that contributes editorial feedback, book design, production assistance, marketing insight, and management oversight remains faceless, except to industry insiders.

We need an Oscars for the book world. And SAG Awards. We have many book award-granting organizations (bless them!), but in every case, the author is the face accepting the accolades. After watching this year’s Oscars, I thought that the entire publishing family should be ushered onstage when a Newbery, Caldecott, or Printz medal is awarded. Preferably, they wouldn’t need to scurry offstage awkwardly when a wrong title is announced.

Kendra Levin
I am grateful for the many accolades and honors The Passion of Dolssa has received. Beyond grateful. At times, a bit overcome. But it feels wrong to accept such kindness without acknowledging the immense presence of my editor, Kendra Levin, on every page of this book. Her commitment to helping me create the kind of book I aspired to write is the reason why The Passion of Dolssa is what it is today. It was a long, arduous, sometimes torturous process, birthing this story from the swirling mess inside my head. (Kendra might admit it took forceps.) It was also the most stimulating, rewarding intellectual work of my life. Thus far. I wouldn’t change a thing. But I would have nothing if Kendra hadn’t been willing to trudge those miles with me, draft after draft after draft. We had other helpful road companions, too, in the persons of my dear critique group readers, and above all, my highly satisfactory husband, Phil. It takes a hamlet to write a medieval story.
Mark Pegg
Ken Wright

Speaking of which, the historical credibility of this book would be nonexistent without the generous help of Professor Mark Pegg, medievalist and historian on the faculty of Washington University of Saint Lewis. His scholarly research was crucial, and his thoughtful input on the manuscript provided keen insights and spared many errors.
Alyssa Henkin
My agent, Alyssa Henkin of Trident Media Group, and my publisher, Ken Wright, gave this idea two enthusiastic thumbs-up. Dana Leydig and Eileen Kreit have brought forth the beautiful paperback edition, with all its bonus features.

Dana Leydig
Is it goofy to thank the characters? Or at least, acknowledge them? I love them. They are real to me. And I learned so much from them, from every person in this large ensemble cast. Dolssa de Stigata, teenage noblewoman and mystic, and Botille Flasucra, matchmaker, bar wench, and all-around hustler, are the two stars of this story. The friendship they form under extreme circumstances is one of the dearest parts of this story to me. In some ways, the setup is an expanded retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan, though I did not realize it at the time. The novel asks, just how far might caring for the wounded go – all the way to sacrificial love? Or if caring proves dangerous, when should it stop? Loving and trusting another human being may be the most perilous thing we ever do. And the most necessary for our deepest happiness. Just ask Symo.
Eileen Kreit

Where to find The Passion of Dolssa in paperback: Your local Indie store | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | Powell’s | Amazon.  

Friday, March 3, 2017

The Triumph of Technique in "When You Reach Me" by Rebecca Stead

Sometimes you read a book and your soul splits in two. Half is overcome with rapture at its beauty and perfection. The other half beats its chest and tugs its hair, knowing that you will never produce something this exquisite, this perfectly constructed, nor this wise, and this book has just exposed you for the fraud you are.

Reading is a risky business.

One book that shreds me like soggy paper is Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. This 2010 Newbery Medal winner doesn’t need my gushing. If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably read the book. In hopes of learning something, I’ll try to push past reverential awe and describe what’s working. Maybe my hair-tugging half can get over herself and inch her work closer to what her counterpart so admires.

Of the novel’s dozens of literary virtues, I’m emphasizing three: 1. The sequence of revelations and twists, 2. Manipulation of timelines and narrator awareness, and 3. A reusable economy of characters, moments, and objects. And a bonus fourth, TBA.

Virtue Number One: An intricately constructed sequence of revelations and twists. Certainly Reach Me is tightly plotted, but I’m talking about more than plot. It’s not simply that intriguing events, causally connected, are strung together as close beads. (In fact, some causalities are bewildering until the puzzle becomes clearer toward the very end, and this is one of its strengths.) It’s not that details and characters which seem insignificant turn out, surprisingly, to be crucial (more on that below). Rather, it’s that the unspooling thread of the story doesn’t simply alternate between resolving past mysteries and introducing new ones; every new revelation is simultaneously an answer and a new question, twisting and complicating the puzzle ever more minutely, and ratcheting the tension of reader curiosity ever higher. The best mystery novels traverse this path well, playing cat-and-mouse with readers who love this game-like or puzzle-like quality which forms the intellectual half of the reader’s engagement. (In Reach Me, the emotional half saves most of its wallop for the end, after the puzzle begins to fall into place.)

Virtue Number Two: A Deft and Complex Manipulation of Timelines and Narrator Awareness (or, who can know what, when). It’s unavoidable for a time-travel novel to have a complicated, looping, and abstract sequence of events (and sequence of presenting them). But Reach Me not only gets every single timing note right (IMHO, and so few time travel novels do, IMHO), but it employs those timelines, time-loops, and knowledge gaps to excellent dramatic effect, choosing the novel’s beginning at precisely the right time: Miranda knows much; she has experienced most of the story’s key events, and can look back on them retrospectively, consciously piecing together their significance, and yet, and yet, the final puzzle piece has not yet snapped into place. She does not yet know all. The big reveal, organically and deservedly, is yet to come. Readers may scarcely notice when the actual story starts (and how it differs from when the narrative she relates starts).

We have many timelines to keep track of in any story, with extra layers and twists in this one. For example, we must parse out each of the following in Reach Me:
  • The linear order in which events happened.
  • The order in which they are presented to the reader.
  • [Courtesy of time travel element]: The order in which past or future events converged with the story’s main timeline, such as, when visitors left or visited the story’s timeline and interfered with it, and when and how that interference is presented as a deviation. (If we can stretch our brains to accommodate this idea, and depending on whether there are infinite time-loops and multiverses or not, which will vary according to the quasi-physics of each story. Thankfully not, in this case.)
  • The moment in which the narrative consciousness telling the events begins their telling (where & when are they then? Young/old/alive/dead/after-the-fact/living-the-story/somewhere-in-the-middle/post-denouement/pre-denouement?)

I don’t want to be too spoilery here, but consider the significance of where Reach Me begins: April 5 or 6, it seems: 21 or 22 days (if we allow Mom a day to steal a calendar from her work supply closet) prior to Miranda’s mom appearing on The $20,000 Pyramid game show on April 27, 1979. The events of the story as Miranda describes it began the prior autumn, beginning with her friend Sal getting punched, and culminating in some pretty huge events in January. But the story isn’t really and truly over until April 27, 1979, with some mop-up in the days that followed. Or, perhaps, some 50-odd years later. Or, if Julia’s diamond ring theory is correct, it’s never ended. It’s still happening now, and always will be.  

So when we read, we must keep a thumbnail placed in April, 1979, the now of the narrative consciousness, and of Miranda, who is both moving forward, quizzing her mom for the game show, and looking backward; we must keep our other thumbnail in the sequence of past events Miranda told us about which began last fall. Not only does this leaping keep interest high, and deductive smoke puffing out of our ears, but it creates many opportunities for sleight of hand, whilst Stead (or, I should say, the narrative consciousness, see below) plants clue after clue, which we miss because we’re stuck calculating the when of any given scene. Well played.

In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby writes, “Withholding, or hiding, information is crucial to the storyteller’s make-believe. It forces the audience to figure out who the character is and what he is doing and so draws the audience into the story. When the audience no longer has to figure out the story, it ceases being an audience, and the story stops.” (page 7)

And again, on page 273, “A word of caution is warranted here. Don’t overwrite exposition at the start of your story … The mass of information actually pushes your audience away from your story. Instead, try withholding a lot of information about your hero… The audience will guess that you are hiding something and will literally come toward your story. They think, ‘There’s something going on here, and I’m going to figure out what it is.’” (emphasis added)

I’ll add an amen, but then my own caution: Withholding is vital, but it demands a darn good reason for its secrecy. Readers expect to unravel some knots, but they don’t like being manipulated. They expect fair play. When details are withheld because the author is being coy or capricious, for no good reason, or for stupid reasons (convenient amnesia that clears up just in time, or a narrator just being a jerk), the reader feels betrayed. All this is to say, Rebecca Stead’s manipulation of timelines, and of what could be known when, creates a bulletproof justification for all of Miranda’s withholdings. Even looking back on events as she was, there was so much she didn’t understand. And the unusual story she had to tell, to a character who would, in the future, fulfill events that were now already past, obligated her to construct the narrative piece by piece, not alienating her special reader (him) by revealing what she did already know before the proper moment, when conclusions couldn’t be ignored or rejected because they seem unfathomable and unbelievable.

Virtue Number Three: A Reusable Economy of Characters, Moments, and Things. It’s very satisfying to readers when details, events, things, and characters that would seem to be throwaway turn out to matter later. (Up to a point.) It also creates a conveniently economical system for the writer, who can thus keep the headcount, prop-count, and scene-count at manageable levels. But it is a contrivance, and convenience can be carried too far until believability suffers. The tidiness of fiction sometimes strays too far from the randomness of reality. Here, however, the construct of the Reach Me, as a letter, or rather, a journal-like musing aimed toward a mysterious someone that feels letter-like, written to a highly mysterious character, creates not just a reason but an obligation for the narrator to be selective in her presenting of details. She is entirely justified in revealing only characters, details, and moments that will matter again later. To do otherwise would be superfluous. From the outset, Miranda proposes to tell a specific story, selecting only those events and people that are vital to it, because she has a narrowly specific purpose in the telling, and has, in fact, been given a mandate for the telling by the tell-ee (how bizarre! an intriguing mystery in its own right), even though she constantly protests that mandate and considers ignoring it (a choice that readers realize is perilous, whichever way she chooses, even though there’s much that, as yet, we don’t understand). It’s a virtuoso performance of manipulating the limitations of the narrative consciousness of the novel to sophisticated heights. (The narrative consciousness, or the mind behind the narration of any story, which is neither its author, nor its protagonist/narrator, is something I’ve been jawing about lately to anyone I can entrap into listening to me.) This unique setup of telling a specific story to an unknown person, under protest, combined with the time travel plot (not fully unzipped until the end) in which every detail she relates is made to matter by the future person who will read the to-be-written letter and treat it as instructions to be carried out, makes the revealed significance and causal connectedness of each seemingly minor detail, thing, person, and moment a triumph, rather than an eye-roll.

Bonus Virtue Number Four, which I could write 1000 words about, but I won’t: The many levels upon which this referential novel explores A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: as a beloved touchstone title; as a vehicle for book discussion and debate, bringing people together; as a conduit for explorations that might change the science of the future; as a catalyst for thematic discoveries relevant to the story’s spiritual center. Lovely, lovely, worthy of this loveliest of classics.

It’s the heart of a novel, and not its intellectual sophistication, that moves readers to rapture and tears. Yet the masterfully employed virtues of technique in When You Reach Me build a rugged scaffolding for the real story, which is beautifully simple, needing no tesseract, and played out on several plot lines and pairings: People who have long cared about each other – or who learn to care about each other --  can hurt each other deeply; suffer sorrow, regret, and shame; and try, in bumbling but beautiful ways, even after long interruptions, to make it right.  Where there was love, there can be redemption, and love can be found in the unlikeliest places.

I’m so glad this book exists in the world. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Food Fights, Sea Monsters, and Dodgeball: Let’s Talk About Point of View

This post is for some good friends of mine – fifth graders at the schools I visit. Non-fifth graders – you may read it, too, if you like. 

It’s time we talked about Point of View, or, as we call it in the book world, POV.

Imagine there’s a food fight going on in the school cafeteria. What would you see? When you told your family about it, what would you say?
The Food Fight scene from "The Rat Brain Fiasco" by moi & Sally Gardner.
Splurch Academy book 1. 
First of all, where were you when the fight broke out? And, what role did you play in the fight? Were you:
  1. The kid who lobbed the first catapult of mashed potatoes with your spoon?
  2. The kid who fought back with a glop of slimy spaghetti?
  3. The kid who got the spaghetti in her face because kid #2 was such a bad shot?
  4. A kid at the next table over, yelling, “Food fight! Food fight!”
  5. A cafeteria monitor who hears the ruckus, sees flying sloppy joes and French fries, and thinks, “Not again!”?
  6. The assistant principal, in his office, who hears his crinkly walkie-talkie say, “Um, Mr. Martinez, we’ve got a situation in the caf?”

What you saw, what you did, and how you felt about it would really depend on where you were when the fight broke out. Each of the six people we listed above might go home and tell their families about the fight in very different ways, even though they’re all talking about the same fight.

When discussing stories, we often talk about a character’s point of view. What is it, exactly?

Let’s look at those words closely. Point of view. The point from which you view something. It’s the place (point) you’re standing while you watch (view) something happen.

Nurse Bilgewater and Professor Eelpot battle it out in "The Trouble With Squids."
Splurch Academy book 4.

Imagine this: Two sea monsters – a giant squid and a prehistoric-type sea serpent – are battling it out to the death in an ocean lagoon. Awesome, right? If you’re watching it, what do you see?
Well, that depends. Are you:
  1. Sitting on a cliff a hundred yards from the lagoon, watching something splash in the water?
  2. Standing on the beach, watching tentacles and a scaly tail heave up from the waves and crash down again with a terrific wet slap?
  3. Hovering over the lagoon in a helicopter, filming the whole thing with a news camera with a high-powered close-up lens?
  4. Trying to stay afloat in a little rowboat just a dozen or so yards away from this titanic battle, and nearly getting sucked into the undertow?
  5. The person who was swimming in the lagoon, when the sea serpent grabbed you, and opened his snapping jaws wide, when the squid appeared and snagged you with a tentacled arm to make you his own snack? Yikes!

The place where you were standing (or sitting, or flying, or rowing, or swimming) would determine not only what you saw (viewed), but also what you did, and what you felt. The guy on the cliff might wonder, “What’s making that big splash?” But the swimmer in the water, about to become a monster’s lunch, would be frantic to get away, and terrified every instant.

The term “point of view” uses sight (view) and position (point) as metaphors for something that’s actually bigger than just what your eyes can see, and from what distance. For one thing, you don’t just see a food fight or an ocean battle. You hear it – the squelching sounds and screaming school kids and monster roars. You smell it – the scent of steamy ketchup, or the odor of a gigantic fish. If your mouth was open, and a spoonful of chocolate pudding landed IN your mouth, you’d taste the food fight, too. (Gross. Someone else’s pudding!) You feel it – the plop of sloppy joe in your face, dripping down your favorite shirt, or the splash of ocean spray in your face if you’re in the boat. Or worse – the scrape and slime of cold tentacles and claws on your swimsuit-clad body. Disgusting!  

So “view” here stands for (or is a metaphor for) all of the senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. But it goes farther than just senses alone. POV/point of view takes into account who you are and what your past experiences have been. Because, as we’ll see, who we are and what we’ve gone through shape how we see things. For example:

  1. What if you’re the guy in the boat, and the girl in the clutches of the two sea monsters is your twin sister? How do you feel? Suddenly you’re not just trying to row your boat away. You’re trying rescue someone you love. Relationships affect POV.
  2. What if you’re the person in the helicopter with the video camera, and you’re a scientist, and you’ve spent your life saying there are still huge sea serpents in the ocean, and nobody has ever believed you? What if all your scientific colleagues have laughed in your face at marine biology conferences? And suddenly, there it is in the water – the monster! – proof that you’ve been right all along. What do you do? Do you capture that monster fight on video to prove other scientists wrong, and publish the discovery that will make you famous? Or drop down a rope ladder and try to rescue the girl in the water? Desires affect POV – in this case, the desire to succeed in one’s career vs. the desire to help others in danger.
  3. What if you’re the kid in the food fight who had the mashed potatoes thrown in your face, and you just moved to the U.S. from another country, and you don’t speak English, so kids have been picking on you a lot, and you’re super homesick and sad? Do you fight back because you have HAD ENOUGH, or do you slip away and lock yourself in a bathroom stall for a private cry? Past experiences, and especially past emotions, affect POV.
  4. What if you’re the cafeteria monitor, and it’s your job to maintain order at lunchtime, but there have been a couple of incidents lately, and you’ve been warned that if you don’t stop fights from breaking out, you could lose your job? Fears affect POV – this case, fear of losing one’s job.

Who we are shapes what we see. Our past experiences color what we see. And not just see: hear, smell, taste, and touch. And what emotions bubble to the surface. And how we explain it to ourselves and others. And what we choose to do about it.

Everyone has their own unique point of view, their own POV. Twenty-five kids in gym class playing dodgeball will all experience the game differently. The competitive types will go for the kill every time. Others will dread the humiliation of being smacked with a ball.

I think we just discovered another thing that affects POV. Personality.

Is there anything that doesn’t affect POV? I wonder. The weather affects how we see the world. A gloomy day can bring anyone down, and make them pessimistic. Sometimes our health does – for me, things always look a lot worse when I have a stomach bug! Yuck. Sometimes money affects our POV. If I said to you, “What are you going to do this Saturday?” you might have some ideas. But if I said, “On Friday you’re going to win the biggest jackpot in lottery history. What will you do Saturday?” I suspect that your Saturday plans would change in a massive way.  Even your species affects your point of view. If somebody spilled gravy all over the kitchen floor, most humans would be annoyed, but most dogs would be overjoyed! Gravy gravy yum yum.

Point of view really means how each person experiences the world and the things, people, and events in it. Clearly, it needed a shorter name.

The FrankenSquid from "The Trouble With Squids."
Splurch Academy book 4. 
Here’s what’s important about point of view: every person has one, and it’s as real and as true to them as yours is to you, and mine is to me. Every life is unique, and every point of view is valid.
I’m not saying there’s no right or wrong. Facts may be correct or incorrect. Explanations may be wise or foolish. Some choices can be good or bad, kind or cruel. But understanding point of view helps us see that people are complicated, that events are complicated, and that before we criticize or judge another person, we should remember that they see the world differently than we do. Our way of seeing isn’t the only way.

The best stories are the ones where POV feels very real and convincing because the author has created a believable life, history, and mind. As we watch the story unfold, we can say, “I myself would never rob the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London, but I can see how, for a person like them, in their situation, it had to be done!” (To save them from being stolen by space pirates. Obviously.)  

Stories are based on the idea that spending time inside another person’s point of view is fascinating. Getting to know a character is fun. The better we understand someone’s POV, the more we care about what happens to them. Understanding POV won’t just make you a better reader or writer. It can make you a kinder friend and a more understanding human being. That’s the kind of people our little planet needs. Maybe you’ll think twice before hurling mashed potatoes. Maybe, instead of filming the sea monster, you’ll drop the rescue ladder.

Writing Prompts:
  • Think of a situation in your life – at school, at home, in the community – where you and another person have a very different point of view about what happened. Write a paragraph describing your point of view. Then write a paragraph from the point of view of the other person, the one who disagrees with you.
  • Think of the food fight. Imagine the first person who threw the food, and the person who first had food thrown at them. Who are they? Why did the first one throw the food? How did the second person feel to have food thrown at them? What did they do about it? Write a paragraph from the first kid’s point of view (using the “I” first-person voice, as though you are that kid) to help us understand why they started the food fight. Next write a paragraph from the second kid’s point of view (again using the “I” first-person voice, as though you are the second kid) and tell us about the food fight from their perspective.
  •  Think of the sea serpent battle. The girl has been rescued; she didn’t die. Phew! Now, pretend you’re a news reporter. Interview each of the people involved: girl in the water, her twin brother in the boat, the scientist in the helicopter, and the guy watching it from a clifftop some distance away. Write the questions you would ask them, and write their answers, showing how they each had a different point of view about the same event. Try to show how things like distance, desires, fears, and relationships affected what they saw and how they felt about it.  

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Top Craft Book Picks from Writers, Illustrators, and Editors at Kindling Words East, January 2017

I had the fun opportunity to lecture this weekend at Kindling Words East in Essex, Vermont, to an audience of writers, illustrators, and editors. No pressure! My topic was on voice, and specifically, the voice of the narrator of a novel, whether that narrator is a character within a story, a non-character whose storytelling voice is perceptible as a narrator, or even a hidden behind-the-scenes presence orchestrating and interpreting events more stealthily. I drew heavily from 13 Ways of Viewing the Novel by Jane Smiley as my source (a book I blogged about earlier). I found it densely packed with probing insights into the form and origins of the novel, and in particular, thought-provoking discussions of the innovations that gave us point of view (and the politics of point of view), and of the narrative consciousness that permeates a work. So it was perfectly suited to the lecture I wanted to give.

I gave away a copy of 13 Ways as a door prize, and wondered what was the best gimmick to employ in obtaining drawing entries and soliciting a winner. Middle grade author Erin Dionne suggested a great strategy: have the attendees who want to enter the drawing write the name of their favorite craft book on a slip of paper. Draw a winner from among the slips, and compile the data into a list of recommendations. I'm delighted to do so.

Approximately two-thirds of the attendees put a suggestion in the hat. I'll list the offerings below with the number of votes I obtained. I was pleased to see that I'd read a decent handful of these titles, but I have many more on this list to read. Knowing now that they were each some writer or illustrator's favorite pick is all the endorsement I need to give them a chance.

Leading the pack was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott with 7 votes, followed closely by On Writing by Stephen King. Editor Cheryl Klein, who joined us this year, had three votes for The Magic Words and two votes for Second Sight. Other two-vote books included Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Story Genius by Lisa Cron, From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler, and Writing with Pictures by Uri Shulevitz. Jane Yolen and Martin Salisbury both had two votes, but for different titles.

Here's the full list. I've put asterisks by those that I've read and loved, which is more of an embarrassing confession than a boast. Clearly, I have work to do!

Bird by Bird * Anne Lamott 7
On Writing * Stephen King 6
The Magic Words Cheryl Klein 3
Writing Picture Books Ann Whitford Paul 2
Save the Cat Blake Snyder 2
Second Sight Cheryl Klein 2
Story Genius Lisa Cron 2
From Where You Dream Robert Olen Butler 2
Writing with Pictures Uri Shulevitz 2
The Shape of Content Ben Shahn 1
If You Want to Write Brenda Ueland 1
The Writer's Journey Christopher Vogler 1
Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom ed. Leonard  Marcus 1
Creating Short Fiction Damon Knight 1
Art & Fear David Bayles & Ted Orland 1
Catching the Big Fish David Lynch 1
Reflections on the Magic of Writing Diana Wynne Jones 1
Elements of Style E.B. White 1
On Writing  Eurdora Welty 1
Take Joy * Jane Yolen 1
Touch Magic Jane Yolen 1
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers * John Gardner 1
The Anatomy of Story * John Truby 1
Syllabus Linda Barry 1
Brain Science Lisa Cron 1
Walking on Water * Madeline L'Engle 1
Children's Picture Books Martin Salisbury 1
100 Great Children's Picture Books Martin Salisbury 1
The First Five Pages Noah Lukeman 1
Characters & Viewpoint Orson Scott Card 1
Self Editing in Fiction Renni Brown & Dave King 1
About Writing Samuel Delaney 1
Freeplay Stephen Nachmanovitch 1
The Creative Habit Twyla Tharp 1
Steering the Craft * Ursula LeGuin 1
Writing the Australian Crawl William Stafford 1