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

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

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Many Pleasures of the Novel

I've been devouring 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley, and marking it up like a Bible for its densely packed gems of clear critical insights and unapologetic opinions. The book is the fruit of a process Smiley underwent of reading 100 novels, ranging across centuries, cultures, and styles. She's got me salivating. I want to do the same thing -- make a very deliberate selection of acclaimed, significant, diverse, groundbreaking titles and read them in both a curricular and a personal fashion. 100. Why not? Once I finish poring over this book. And get my life in order. And deadlines met. Sigh.

Jane Smiley is the first author I ever met. Ever laid eyes on. I was a sophomore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (or was I a junior?), and I'd won an essay contest at school. Smiley was invited in as the author who gave an address at the awards ceremony, then handed each of us our award certificates and envelopes containing checks with the award money. (I totally entered for laundry quarters.) I thought her reading (from Moo) and remarks were interesting, but I remember a twinge of disappointment that when I met her, she was a normal human, like me. Both of us had to choose, reluctantly, what to wear that day. Both of us felt vaguely awkward at the ceremonial requirement that we shake hands on a stage and she hand me a paper. I think I wanted her to have a visible, glowing authorial aura. Perhaps the discovery that she didn't was a step on my path toward thinking, heck, maybe I could write a book, too.

Reading 13 Ways unveiled the aura in all its luminosity. I'm mesmerized by the flow of her insights into the novel, at the precision of her thinking, and by both the profundity and the obvious validity of her multifaceted perspectives on this thing I've always loved and now devoted my career to. Am I gushing?  I don't care.

On page 86, Smiley catalogs a long list of the "many pleasures a novelist has to offer" (slight paraphrase).  I reached for my notebook to write them down and mull upon them. I don't presume she meant her list to be exhaustive. In any case I found myself listing a few additional pleasures, meaningful to me, that weren't listed. I hope they're distinct from those that are already there. And I wondered, gentle readers, what have I missed? What other pleasures do you take in books that don't appear on the Smiley-Berry list? (Egads.)

Jane Smiley's List of Pleasures to be Found in the the Novel:

  1. the unusual pleasure of the exotic 
  2. the intellectual pleasure of historical understanding
  3. the humane pleasure of psychological insight into one or more characters
  4. the simple pleasure of entertainment and suspense
  5. the exuberant pleasure of laughter and trickery
  6. the guilty pleasure of gossip
  7. the tempting pleasure of secrecy and intimacy
  8. the confessional pleasure of acknowledged sin and attempted redemption
  9. the polemical pleasure of indignation
  10. the rigorous pleasure of intellectual analysis
  11. the reassuring pleasure of identifying with one's nation or people
  12. the vicarious pleasure of romance

Her use of descriptive adjectives is strategic here; we'd have a much weaker grasp on what she's trying to say the novel actually does in our human brains if we merely listed the pleasures without hinting at what they do to us.

Here are few more that occurred to me as I took my diligent school-girl notes.

Julie Berry's Addenda to Jane Smiley's List of Pleasures

  1. the sensual pleasure of place and atmosphere
  2. the emotion-coloring pleasures of mood
  3. the romantic pleasures of bucolic nature, heroism, idealism, and social simplicity
  4. the nostalgic pleasure of a remembered past 
  5. the subversive pleasure of lunacy and nonsense
  6. the deductive pleasure of puzzle-solving, code-breaking, and mystery-unraveling
  7. the existential pleasure of nothingness, the vertigo of eroded ego in a vast, unfeeling cosmos
  8. the cynical pleasure of irony
  9. the erotic pleasure of horror
  10. the spectator pleasures of vicariously but safely experiencing violence and combat
  11. the aesthetic pleasure of savoring any literary excellence found therein
  12. the therapeutic pleasure or catharsis of release, identification, and/or empathy
  13. the obsessive pleasure of infatuation with a character or a group of them 

It's not a bad gig, really, being in the business of offering a platter of pleasures to readers the world over. I can think of worse jobs.

I'm neither judging nor sneering at any of these pleasures. All are valid and available. Have I overlapped? Have I strayed off the rails? What pleasures have I missed?

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Scandalous Celebration

Today is the release date for the paperback edition of The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, released by the SquareFish imprint of Macmillan, so I thought a scandalous celebration was in order. Cue the ginger beer and the shortbread biscuits! But whatever you do, beware the veal.

First of all, the cover deserves some love. This artistic gem by Italian illustrator Iacopo Bruno has been a gift to the book. But look! The paperback gets a new treatment in blue, as compared to the amber color of the hardback original. I think it makes the girls' faces pop, don't you?

Writing The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place was too much fun. It was my first novel set during the Victorian era, so it was an homage to All Things Victorian: Dickens and shoulder puffs, manners and murder. Their fascination with the macabre took the shape of Dour Elinor, one of my favorites among the girls, who plays the 19th Century version of a goth girl. Their rigid but evolving rules for women created the backdrop for the story: what if seven spry young ladies saw a chance at independence, and seized it?

The book also celebrates my lifelong infatuation with Agatha Christie. The youngest of the girls, Pocked Louise, wins the Hercule Poirot award for this story. She's neither Belgian nor fussy, but she's got enough spunk to stand up to the older girls and solve the mystery.

I can't talk about Scandalous and not show you its animated trailer. Huzzah for illustrator Sally Gardner, animator Chris Becker of Becker Studio, and composer/performer Andrus Madsen who helped make this tasty little morsel. (To see how we made it, click here.)

Scandalous has friends around the globe, with a lovely version illustrated by Nicola Kinnear published by Piccadilly Press in the UK, and this toothsome cover from the German edition, Lasst Uns Schweigen Wie Ein Grab, which, if I'm not mistaken, means something like "Let's be a silent as the grave." The cover is a view from the grave. Super fun. There are also editions of Scandalous in Brazil and Japan. Hope to see them someday. 

The audiobook for Scandalous, performed by the inimitable Jayne Entwistle, won an Odyssey Honor from the ALA, and gained this shiny sticker. Here also is a picture of Jayne celebrating her well-deserved accolades. (Click here to hear a sample.) 

Reviewers & committees brought gifts to the party: a star from Publisher's Weekly, a best of 2014 nod from the Wall Street Journal, inclusion in the Dorothy Canfield Fisher list, the Amelia Bloomer project, and the Whitney Award. Best of all, bookstores, book clubs, and readers got on board and came along for the nutty farcical ride.

I'm thrilled to see the novel find a new readership in paperback, and can't wait to hear from more readers about it. Till next time, sleuths!