Month: April 2014

Listen!

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I somehow missed the newsflash that a World Read Aloud Day takes place on the first Wednesday of every March. I like the idea of that.

My mom read out loud to us all the time as kids: from picture books on through to adult books. Our venue of choice was my parents’ king-sized bed, which for a long time fit all four kids plus my mom. When I read to my own kids I cross my fingers that I can somehow channel her: she is a great reader. (Another less cherished but also beloved voice of my childhood was Bill Cosby’s. My memory would have it that we listened to his stand up sketches every Saturday morning on the car radio, en route to swim lessons at the Y: Noah: Right!, Driving in San Francisco, etc.)

These days my family listens to recorded audio books too. Among our all-time favorites are E.B. White reading Charlotte’s Web, and David Hyde Pierce reading The Phantom Tollbooth. Adult audiobooks and podcasts often buoy me through some of the more tedious parts of my days too: driving distances, or folding laundry, or doing boring exercises.

What is it about hearing a story read aloud, well? In an interview with J. B. Powell of The Rumpus, T.C. Boyle says “I don’t call it reading, I call it performance. Of course, I have many enemies and they all think I’m being highfalutin calling it performance, but the word “reading” has a connotation of something academic with the lights on and you’re going to get a lecture. I’m looking to blow my audiences away by giving a fine, dramatic performance and reminding them of why they love stories.”

Even lap reading with younger kids, isn’t it about the same thing? Drawing a listener in — mind, body and everything else — to some other world and reality? The best readers really do perform with their voices — and sometimes more — rather than simply read. And the best books give them a great framework for doing that.

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As a silent-reader and as a listener I have this horrible habit of deferring gratification and not finishing novels when I really, really love them. (Would that I could cultivate the same behavior around good chocolate — or even not so good chocolate.) I’m halfway through listening to Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto right now, and my delay tactic for it has been to search out interviews with great storytellers and writers to listen to instead. Terry Gross’s final interview with Maurice Sendak in 2011, “On Life, Death and Children’s Lit“, makes me weep every time I listen to it. The segment NPR/Fresh Air ran after Sendak died is great too, “Fresh Air Remembers Author Maurice Sendak“. I listened to the 2011 interview again the other night, and in it Sendak says about a favorite line in his book, Bumble-ardy, “And when I thought of it, I was so happy I thought of it. It came to me — which is what the creative act is all about. Things come to you without you necessarily knowing what they mean.”

Last week I also came across another author interview that was completely new to me. Minnesota Public Radio seems to have special access to Kate DiCamillo since she is a twin cities local. In September 2013, right after Flora and Ulysses was nominated for the National Book Award, Cathy Wurzer interviewed DiCamillo on stage in front of a theater audience for a whopping hour and ten minutes. The interview touches on all the important stuff: libraries, reading out loud, moms, death. As importantly, it is peppered with DiCamillo’s wild, boundless and beautiful laugh (and occasional snort).

In describing Flora’s — the human protagonist’s — experience of giving mouth-to-mouth to Ulysses, a squirrel, DiCamillo writes “It tasted funny. If forced to describe it she would say that it tasted exactly like squirrel: fuzzy, damp, slightly nutty.” Wurzer segues from chuckling about the line, and the book’s humor, with an observation that the book also, “…has themes of loss, abandonment, death — kind of heavy stuff.” She asks, “What do you keep in mind when considering these themes for kids?” DiCamillo answers, “Its surprising to me that they’re in there, but they’re in everything that I do.” Then, quoting writer and teacher Jane Resh Thomas, she continues: “‘You write behind your own back’, and so all that stuff is happening and I don’t know that that’s going in there but [what] I do know, to get around to the ‘what’s it doing in a children’s book’ question, is that children are human beings, and so they’re going to experience all those things, and its nice to have a book that admits that all those things are true — in addition to squirrels tasting funny.”

DiCamillo converges with Sendak both in her belief that children oughtn’t be overly protected or condescended to and, also, in this idea that in the process of writing “Things come to you without you necessarily knowing what they mean”, “you write behind your own back”, ” we leave ourselves clues.” I return to this phenomenon, in wonder, again and again and again. The emergence of seedlings in my garden or the geometries of snowflakes as they reveal themselves under a magnifying glass have the same effect: somehow they are always new and amazing. Of course, to recognize those moments in writing — to be able to see what we’ve wrought, to recognize the power there, and to teach ourselves things that we didn’t know we already knew — demands that we have eyes and ears open, and that we are looking and listening with our whole selves. Like kids listening to a great reader reading a great book.

Of Eels and Heronries

I used to live in New York City, and after I read Joseph Mitchell’s 1951 New Yorker essay “The Bottom of the Harbor” I began to have dreams about scuba diving in New York Harbor. Thanks to Mitchell’s descriptions, I conjured up images of a mucky bottom littered with all manner of human detritus — boots, cans, cinder blocks, retired hulls — with uncountable eels poking out of their every crack and opening.

My first actual encounter with an eel took place at dusk after I’d moved south to Philadelphia. I was in the bay near a town called Margate which sits just south of Atlantic City, New Jersey, fishing with a boyfriend, in a small aluminum skiff decked out with an oversized outboard motor. Though hoping for black bass, or rock fish, I had caught — and thrown back — just one small puffer fish when I apparently ran my leader too far, my bait settling on the bay floor. The line jumped and I immediately began reeling in. The creature on the other end of my line jerked and tugged erratically, with force, and when it finally broke the surface I immediately recognized it as an eel. After multiple, futile attempts to get a grip on its slime-covered, bleeding body (it seemed to have swallowed the hook) I handed it over, in gender-stereotypic fashion, to my mate who, with his pocket knife, did his best to free the creature without killing it. Tossed back over the edge of the boat, still in full squirm despite what seemed like significant blood loss, I had little doubt that this marine-Rasputin would survive its ordeal.

I reaquainted myself with eels more recently when trying to learn more about the creatures living in the Schuykill River, which runs near my home. Eels are full of mystery and unanswered questions that befuddle scientists. James Prosek’s Eels offers a great introduction to their lifecycle and lore.

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Most fish that migrate to breed — like salmon and shad —  are anadromous, meaning they spend the bulk of their lives in salt water and only return to freshwater rivers to reproduce. Not eels though: they are catadromous. Eels grow to adulthood in fresh water streams and rivers and ponds, then return to the sea to spawn — specifically the Sargasso Sea it they are North American or European eels. Nobody knows why they go there. And nobody has ever seen them breed. How do the the baby eels know whether to head to Europe or North America, and which river to swim up? How do they know to become male or female? And later, what tells them it’s time to head back to sea?

While I’m sure they drive researchers a little nuts, I think these unanswered questions are really gifts. Unknowns breed humility: they remind us that we humans can not know and control everything (thankfully!) And, they leave room for invention.

I am working on a story about an eel right now. My eel lives in a farm pond where she is the only one of her kind. Her sole friend is a blue heron. I had long assumed that blue herons were solitary birds: I always see them alone, streamlined and statuesque, in the shallows of creeks and the like. But it turns out that while herons feed alone, they return each night to loud and raucous heron rookeries or heronries, high in tree clumps near water. There, dozens to hundreds of herons of various species build nests with their mates and raise their young, year after year after year.

The best time to see a herony is when the herons have returned from the south and are building said nests — but before the trees have leafed out and blocked visibility. I found a reference on line that described a heronry just north of Philadlephia on the Delaware River, in a small, County Park in New Jersey. And so in the name of research, on a mid-March day that my kids had off of school, we went for a drive and a hike to try to find the Amico Island Park heronry. Our route took us through unfamiliar territory: over the river and through the various strip malls — and of course past a million of New Jersey’s famed jug-handles. When we passed a capped landfill, methane pipes poking up from the engineered slopes of fenced-off mounds, I sensed we must be nearing the river. And when a blue heron soared overhead just after, we were sure we were close to the park.

We began our walk without any clear sense of where the heronry might be: the park had no trail maps or directional signage. We spent 45 minutes tromping around the lumpy, wet, disturbed bottomland before we found the scattered benches described as the viewing spot. The benches looked directly at a small, wooded island floating in the middle of an inland harbor, between us and a marina, and its the trees were loaded with the tell-tale fuzzy nest-blobs of a heronry.

Handing our single pair of binoculars back and forth, we watched the herons head off empty-beaked in all directions and return, repeatedly, with sticks and other nest-building materials. Gone was the grace of the slow-stepping water bird we had become familiar with. Maneuvering improbably on thin branches, wings akimbo for balance, these gangly ceatures seemed like a bumbling, uncoordinated, unrelated breed. And we were peeping Toms: snatching glimpses through a curtain at awkward, domestic moments that should have been private.

It was a lovely way to spend a morning.

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Further up on the Delaware’s East Branch, near Hancock, NY, a man named Ray Turner (featured in Prosek’s book and also here, again, on Science Friday) spends each summer rebuilding a V-shaped, stone weir that spans the river. His eel weir, like those built by Native Americans before him, is one of the last of its kind on the Delaware. With it, he trap eels on their fall run to the Sargasso Sea, then smokes and sells his catch at his Delaware Delicacies Smoke House. This next stop on our adventure-research tour is scheduled for early summer.

Jean Craighead George’s Latest

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The most recent episode of the radio show Science Friday (4/11/14) includes a piece about Jean Craighead George’s latest bookIce Whale. George’s My Side of the Mountain was granted the Newbery Honor in 1960, and her Julie of the Wolves won the Newbery Medal in 1973. She died in 2012 at 92, and Ice Whale was completed posthumously by her daughter Twig, a librarian and children’s book author, and her son Craig, a wildlife biologist. Released this month by Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers this book, like George’s others, builds on her — and her children’s — rich knowledge of the natural world and compassion for its denizens. Centered on a bowhead whale, an animal that lives for hundreds of years, the story spans generations and cultures.

Science Friday’s interview with Twig and Craig offers a sweet glimpse into life growing up in the George family’s naturalist- and pet-heavy household. You get a sense that the incomplete manuscript was something of a gift for her children and that working on it, together, was like a little extra time with her.

The podcast is just 15 minutes (I wanted more), and Science Friday has also provided a short excerpt of the book.

Page Turns and Curtain Drops in Picture Books

When I took my first stab at writing a children’s book — as my Master’s thesis at Bank Street College  a million years ago — one of the “precedent books” that I studied was Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps For Sale (NY: William R. Scott Inc., 1940). I love how Slobodkina’s peddlar handles the frustration of not being able to retrieve his caps from a band of theiving monkeys — flapping his hands, stamping his feet and making indignant demands — so much like the 2 to 6 year old set that has long adored this book.

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My favorite sequence begins on the fourth spread, when the tired peddlar goes to sleep sitting upright against the base of a tree, checking first that his wares are all neatly stacked atop his head. The illustration is direct: peddlar, hats, tree.

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You turn the page, and on the next spread a sun smiles down on a flower through a blue sky that is empty save for three small clouds. There is no peddlar and no tree. The text reads simply “They were all there. So he went to sleep. He slept for a long time.”

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You turn again and find the peddlar still leaning against the tree. But this time, his eyes are open, he is stretching, and there are no hats save for his own. The text does not suggest that anything is amiss: “When he woke up he was refreshed and rested.” If you are reading aloud to an audience of small people, at this point there are howls of “The hats are gone!” and “Where are his hats?!” But the illustration doesn’t offer any clues. You have to turn the page again before the peddlar realizes they are gone, and then two more times — with suspense building — before he (and we) can see that they have, in fact, been commandeered by a band on monkeys.

There is much anticipation in each page turn after the peddlar wakes up, and the sequence offers great reminders of how the turning of the page can extend pauses and gaps, shifting the rhythm of a story and heightening suspense.

Jon Klassen’s amazing This Is Not My Hat (Candlewick Press, 2012) got me thinking about Caps for Sale again recently. Klassen’s two fish — the thieving little one and the aggrieved big one — are physically self-contained in comparison to Slobodkina’s peddlar and monkeys: they swim straight ahead, left to right with the turning pages mostly, their bodies rendered solidly and simply. There is no wiggling or diving or darting. That they are moving (or not) is communicated by their bubbles: in streams when they are in motion and in columns when they are not. Meanwhile, their eyes are quite active: snoozing, popping open, looking around, squinting with determination and — interestingly — directing our attention forward and to the right as we turn the pages. The narration is a long monologue that we get drawn into; it is the story that this little fish tells himself (and us) as he tries to justify having stolen the big fish’s hat and to convince himself that he won’t get caught.

The familiarity of his string of rationalizations — and the way that the illustrations undermine them — carries us along until the key moment in the 13th spread when the big fish, hot on the trail of the little guy who has stolen his hat, dives into the same thick bed of plants that the little fish has swum into before him — the place “(w)here the plants grow big and tall and close together” he says, and (his final words) where “Nobody will ever find me.”

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You turn the page and find yourself looking at a wall of plants. No fish, just a thicket of plants.

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On the next spread, the big guy swims out of the plants, leaving us not quite certain about what has gone on.

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Klassen’s wall of plants functions just like Slobodkina’s blue sky page: implying the passage of time but obscuring what is happening during those moments. In trying to understand this device it occured to me that one rule of ‘the page turn’ may be that you can’t have some pivotal event happen between two spreads, while the page is turning. It is probably like a jump cut in film: it jars people and the logic falters. But the blue sky page and the wall of plants, like dropped curtains (or dimmed lights) in a play, tell us that something is happening without letting on what. In Slobodkina’s book, we’re left with a mini-mystery to solve. Where did the hats go? In Klassen’s: we may be spared a visual of the food chain in action — or maybe not. The spread introduces a smidgen of ambiguity, which I appreciated (though when I realized that the narration ends right there, the little fish’s fate seemed more certain.) In both cases, it is a device used to nice effect.

It was only while I was writing this post that I realized that both Caps for Sale and This Is Not My Hat are books about headgear theft. Hopeful that this might be some interesting, under-reported strand in children’s literature, I wracked my brain for other stories that could be lumped in under this heading — and that maybe even use a ‘curtain drop’. All I came up with was Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers which, while it features both stealing and some spectacular millinery, doesn’t technically fit the bill. Although it, too, is a great one.

 

 

Writing Down the Bones

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We took a family beach vacation last week — an especially appreciated respite after the long winter we’ve had.

In addition to a pile of unread magazines and a couple of novels, I brought a book that has been on my shelf for about twenty-five years now: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I bought it when I was living in New Mexico, and the fact that Goldberg lived there too made me think of her as a kindred spirit of sorts — albeit an older and wiser one. Back then, I understood the book as being about journaling and self-discovery which, as a twenty-year old taking a hastily planned year off from college, I was all for.

More recently, I have been thinking about what it means to have “a writing practice”, generally mulling the question and assuming that it involves writing more, more regularly, with greater focus and structure. The book — which I remembered little of — looked like one that might offer some fodder.

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Goldberg’s notion of ‘writing practice’ is rooted in her spiritual practice as a buddhist, and the book is direct and accessible. The chapters are short — four pages at most — each one offering a nugget or two: give yourself a set amount of time to write and don’t. stop. writing; trust the process; no editting (physical or mental); give yourself a topic — any topic — and just go; the power is always in the act of writing; stay present and fluid; keep a running list of simple ideas and prompts…

When I excerpt her points this way, they seem obvious. But reading them in the context of her writing, and from where I am sitting, they feel important and relevant and true. Each day over the break I let myself read one or two chapters, then I picked a topic, put pen to paper and just wrote for 20 or 30 minutes: non-stop, no editing. I’ve kept at it since coming back home too. No masterpiece has emerged, nor any great, formed story ideas. But surprising little things have begun to happen — remarkable, small moments.

One day I selected the cat I grew up with, Rimsky, as my topic. Writing from that simple beginning, forgotten moments and images came out that I did not know were in me. I have a terrible, terrible memory, with very little on-demand recall: about book plots, movies plots and, worst, details of my own life. My friend Amy and I used to joke that if I ever had grandchildren, she would have to tell them the stories of my youth. I laugh about this, but the reality is also a source of frustration and sadness. The idea that a writing practice could create a sort of a tap or a way in felt pretty radical. And excting.

The chapter I read yesterday was called “Obsessions”. In it Goldberg talked about the power and persistence of our individual obsessions, and how they unavoidably emerge in our writing. Per Goldberg’s direction, I began a list of my own obsessions. For this morning’s ‘practice’, I chose an article I’d read in the paper a couple of days ago that had been clinging to me — about an old fisherwoman. I surprised myself, first, by writing from her point of view. And then with the realization that one of my obsessions — with learnings we’ve lost touch with as our relationship with the ebb and flow of natural cycles has grown more detached — had emerged as if on cue in the voice of a salty old lady from an imagined world, haranguing a bunch of younger women with tales of a life of bodily labor in the sea.

I am up to page 41 (of 170) now, and am finding myself wanting to only read the book in tiny, bite-sized chunks, in order to make it last longer. One of the novels I took on our trip was Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. This book, too, had been lurking on my bookshelf for many years (coincidentally first suggested to me by my New Mexico friend, Deirdre) and I have ended up reading Robinson’s remarkable prose in much the same way, savoring rather than devouring. With my crummy memory, maybe by the time I finish both I can start them over again and they will feel like brand new books. Which, in either case, would be a real gift.