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Happy, Hope-y Book Birthday, BAT COUNT!

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BAT COUNT — my debut picture book — is officially out TODAY!

I owe many thanks for help bringing this book into being: to supportive family, friends and colleagues; to the wonderful illustrator Susan Detwiler; and to the great folks at Arbordale Publishing.

I wrote BAT COUNT almost three years ago — before I learned that picture books are ‘supposed’ to be 500 words or less (BAT COUNT has almost 1000 words), and that ‘quiet’ books don’t sell. Happily its publisher, Arbordale, is committed to making books that support math and science education, and happily they are also interested in promoting the practice of citizen science. And so they found a place for BAT COUNT on their list.

Jojo, the story’s narrator, shares my worry about the many bats that are dying from white nose syndrome. Being a kid, though, she does NOT know that bats are just one among many species in rapid decline as human activity propels our planet deep into this new phase of mass extinctions known as “The Sixth Extinction“. I lose sleep over this stuff, and over the fact that the current U.S. administration believes in neither science nor global warming nor the fundamental tenets of Democracy, and so is not likely to work towards remedies.

So I feel a different sense of urgency, today, as BAT COUNT is finally being released: I want the book to introduce kids — and adults — to bats and their struggles, and I want it to encourage them to get involved in citizen science — this amazing combination of science and activism — and to learn more about our natural world, care more about it, and make good choices.

And, I want people to feel hope. Because alongside all my fear, like Jojo, I am hopeful. Hope buoys Jojo as she gets ready to count her bats, and hope is where the book ends.

Writing for kids is, ultimately, a hope-filled endeavor. Kate DiCamillo describes it, aptly, as “a ridiculous, wonderful, powerful thing.” It is the balloon that kidlit writers never let go of.

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When I need a dose of hope I sometimes retreat to central Pennsylvania with my family; the barn in this photo is where the bats that inspired BAT COUNT live. And I also do thingswrite, read, pen letters, sign petitions, and talk with people who see the world differently.

It is so important to have places — real and fictional, practical and metaphorical — to find and create hope, especially now. So please keep it up, whatever it is that you do!

And, thanks for stopping by.

You can find BAT COUNT on Amazon or order it through your local independent bookstore. In honor of BAT COUNT’s book birthday, I’m raffling off a signed copy — please leave a comment below or subscribe to Hmmmmm to enter!

 

 

COPYING OTHER PEOPLE’S BOOKS

Sounds like flat-out plagiarism, right? And it would be, if you were trying to pass the words off as your own. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

Somewhere along the journey of thinking and reading and writing about children’s books, I discovered this practice that I find oddly instructive: I copy other people’s books. I don’t do it all the time — it’s an activity I save for picture books that grab me for one reason or another, or that raise some particular question or quandary. But I do do it regularly, and I highly recommend it. (With today’s diminishing word counts in picture books, it’s never a massive undertaking.)

ThisIsSadie waterISwater

... a few of my recent quarries...

(… a few of my recent quarries…)

Once I decide I’m going to copy a book, this is what I do.

First, I get to know the book better: I read it a few more times, a little more slowly and attentively than before. Then, I sit down in front of my computer or my notebook (either is good), go page by page, and re-type or re-write the whole text.

I number the spreads as I go, and break the lines up where the author/illustrator/book-designer breaks them. I use symbols to show where text chunks are separated on the page, and where they are split across the two pages. If the author uses bubble text or plays with the text graphically, I communicate that too. And: I write my own illustration notes.

Pretty simple.

Studying ‘mentor texts’ or ‘precedent books’ or just plain old ‘books you love’ is a great learning tool. Adding in ‘copying’ or ‘rewriting’ can take that pursuit to a whole new level, revealing all sorts of subtleties you otherwise might not see. There’s something about the process of having to write everything down and spell it out for myself that makes me look closer and see more. Sometimes when I’m finished I look back at what I’ve typed up, but often I don’t. Its one of those process things, where just doing it is usually more valuable than the product.

I suppose the next step would be to dummy the books too — although making a dummy of a book that you already have in your hands somehow seems even weirder than rewriting that book. Re-dummying could prove to be just as revealing — or maybe not. It might just make you feel like a human copy-machine, since it doesn’t entail the same kind of dissection.

But still: it might be worth a try.

Holey Books!

 

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yellow bellied sapsucker photo by Cameron Rognan @ allaboutbirds.org

Recently I’ve been reading about sapsuckers and — given their feeding habits — this naturally got me to thinking about HOLES. Children’s books about holes (and digging them) have long had appeal. And there have been some great ones.

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Ruth Krauss nailed it with the line “a hole is to dig”: holes, like so many things kids make when they play (block buildings, fairy houses, etc.) are totally transient. In addition, they are completely immaterial (a hole is made of nothing, really, but space or air). If you spend all this time making something that won’t last, and that thing is really, essentially nothing, then it stands to reason that the joy of it is less in the product than in the process itself: digging or poking or even pecking.

Books with pages that actually have holes have great appeal too. And why not? What little kid doesn’t like to stick her fingers into them? The first book with holes that always comes to mind for me is Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It sports plenty of holes — 20 of them by my count — all the same size and running at the exact same latitude on every page where they appear.

TheVeryHungryCaterpillar

Carle’s holes are left by a hungry caterpillar eating his way through everything and anything, and there is actually something oddly comforting about their consistency and regularity and singularity of purpose.

 JosephHadALittleOvercoat

Simms Taback’s Joseph Had A Little Overcoat, proffers crafted and ever-shrinking holes that move around the pages and track the transformations of an ever-useful (and ever-shrinking) piece of fabric. Like Carle’s, they work beautifully from both sides of the page. (Taback’s version of There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly uses expanding holes nicely too.)

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In Oyvind Torseter’s more recent The Hole, a hole appears in the same spot on every page — as if someone ran a drill through the center of the book. I really wanted to love this book but it didn’t happen for me: while the hole never moves, the narrative twists and turns around it in ways I couldn’t keep a grip on.

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There seem to be a number of board books that offer the toddler set holes too — like the Funny Finger Board Books (by Mark Shulman, illus. by Jenny Harris). The finger-sized holes in these books — and others — lets kids turn their digits into all manner of goofy, wiggly appendages.

It shouldn’t have surprised me to learn (here) that Herve Tullet, master of the interactive book and devotee of toying with notions of book-as-object, has played with the idea a lot — in The Book With A HoleThe Game of Finger WormsThe Game of Lets Go, and The Finger Circus Game..

I managed to get my hands on a copy of The Book With A Hole. More an exploration of what a hole might be than a narrative like The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Joseph Had A Little Overcoat, The Book With a Hole is a sort of graphic list. Tullet’s clever illustrations lay out numerous possibilities for paper holes and the things you can do with them:

  • you can put things in them (fingers, faces, hands and feet are especially fun!)
  • you can pull things out of them
  • you can look through them
  • you can imagine what’s in them
  • you can jump into them
  • you can jump over them
  • you can circumnavigate their edges
  • you can toss things into them
  • you can string things through them
  • you can use them to focus your attention
  • you can live in them!
  • and you can sit, and wait, and watch what emerges from them

All these propositions are rife with opportunities and ideas for more books with holes. And why not? Holes are empty vessels — containers of nothing just waiting to be filled. Which means they are full of possibilities.

Back to my sapsuckers though: the neat rows of holes they peck into the bark of trees initially give the birds access to sap. Once the sap oozes out and starts to get sticky, other insects show up to feed too, and get stuck, and so become but another, more protein-rich sapsucker meal.

Which means that holes can also be:

  • magnets, or
  • traps, or
  • feeding spots

The possibilities really are endless…

Reining in Picture Book Back Story

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May has been a crazy month — so much so that I forgot to link here to a guest-post I did mid-month over at the EPA-SCBWI blog on back story in picture books.

June: please be a little bit calmer!

 

 

Muck-Out Monday: Making Room

(‘Muck-Out Mondays’ = sharing inspiration from the backlog of blog posts in my inbox. Check here and here for previous Muck-Out Monday posts.)

My old friend Liz’s one-a-day poem for National Poetry Month last Friday was a ‘Poem of Apology’, from the POV of a sticky tag. It followed the form of William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just to Say”.

Reading (and thinking) about that particular poetic form made me think (again) about This is Not My Hat — and (this time) about how that book could be understood as one giant apology that doesn’t want to be said. The little fish builds this crazy, untenable, underwater house of cards rationalization not for why stealing the big fish’s hat was ok, but for why he will actually get away with it. Somewhere in there — if you really dig, and you maybe project a little bit too — you may find a misshapen mea culpa.

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I love the dodgy little dance that the text and images do in This Is Not My Hat: the images both undermine and compel the narrative at every turn. So, instead of writing, I sat at my desk Friday perusing various other amazing choreographies of text and illustration — like Julie Fogliano and Erin Stead’s If You Want to See A Whale.

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Two recent blog posts — perfectly timed for thematically-aligned distraction — focus on the making of a new picture book and the author/illustrator dance: one from an author’s perspective and another from an illustrator’s.

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Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad’s This Is Sadie is due out May 12. Pat Zietlow-Miller and Eliza Wheeler’s Wherever You Go was released last week. Danielle Davis interviews Sara O’Leary about her writing process for This Is Sadie at thispicturebooklife.com, while Eliza Wheeler guests posts about the journey of illustrating Wherever You Go at picturebookbuilders.com.

Here’s a bit from the Sara O’Leary interview:

TPBL: Was the fox your idea or did Julie Morstad add in the fox on her own?

Sara O’Leary: There was a fox in the first draft of the story–a line about how when she grew up Sadie might get married and how she might marry a fox or a tin soldier but that she was in no hurry. And then the idea of her little fox family came in later. And then once Julie had added that into Sadie’s imaginative world I found that we didn’t need the line of text anymore. That happened a few times.

My favourite joke in the whole book is when the text says that Sadie is quiet in the mornings because old people need a lot of sleep and then we see Sadie merrily hammering away. My second favourite is when she “tidies her room” and we see everything madly stuffed underneath her bed. That sort of friction between the text and image pleases me inordinately.

It’s very strange because this is my fourth book with the fabulous Julie Morstad but it’s the first that really and truly feels like a collaboration rather than a co-creation. It’s partly a product of working with Tara Walker who is an absolute genius of a picture book editor–an Ursula Nordstrom for our times. It’s also partly a product of knowing Julie and her work so well that I was kind of writing the book for her this time and imagining it as a way of showcasing just what she can do.

And from Eliza Wheeler:

An awesome thing about Pat’s text was that it was completely open; no character descriptions or even specific story-lines. It allowed the story to be told in the pictures, which is a dream scenario for any illustrator.

The take-away for me, at my desk, avoiding writing but thinking about how I would write if I was writing: leave room for those fabulous illustrators.

But: how to leave room? Maybe, as Wheeler describes, you have to leave things out to make space for illustration. But you can’t leave so much out that you create befuddling gaps and holes. Perhaps it’s more about making room, as opposed to leaving it: about opening doors and leaving them ajar, offering up poetic language that is rich and suggestive without being overly prescriptive. Which means: you have to write.

Wherever You Go is about roads and journeys. At the book’s start, Pat Zietlow-Miller writes:

Roads give you chances to seek and explore.
Want an adventure?
Just open your door.

Writing is its own adventure. So: point taken. The first steps to writing-and-leaving-room: open the door; hit the road; write.

And off we go…

Look Who’s Talking

Who’s your favorite first person narrator in a picture book? When I started messing around with writing a story in first person I tried to conjure up a favorite, but had trouble even coming up with any titles that use first person narration.

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The first book that finally did spring to mind was Skippyjon Jones, by Judy Schachner. I’ve always felt some ambivalence about that cat’s voice (check out some of the debate around it here and here), but there is no question that the playful humour and rhyme are regular kid-pleasers. As I struggled to come up with more examples I began to wonder whether first person narration was something of a no-no in picture books — or at least hard enough to pull off that you don’t see it much.

I put a call out for other examples on the Facebook Group of Julie Hedlund’s 2015 12 x 12, and folks there offered up a few more: Judith Viorst’s And Two Boys Booed; John Rocco’s Blizzard; Sam Garton’s I am Otter; Sandra Howatt’s Sleepyheads; Karen Beaumont’s I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More;  and Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat (I was a little embarassed to have overlooked this favorite!).

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Some lists emerged too: one from nancykeane.com and another from msrosenreads.com. I’ve consolidated them here, and added a few more titles that I found on my shelves too.

Argueta, Jorge. A Movie in My Pillow/Una pelicula en mi almohada
Beaumont, Karen. I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More! 
Birdseye, Tom. Airmail to the Moon
Bunting, EveFly Away Home; The Wall; Smoky Night; Riding the Tiger
Carrier, Roch. The Hockey Sweater
Carter, Anne Laurel. Under a Prairie Sky
Childs, Lauren. I Will Never Not Ever Eat A Tomato; etc.
Cooney, Barbara. Basket Moon
DeRegniers, Beatrice. May I Bring A Friend
Elliott, Zetta. Bird
Ets, Marie Hall. In The Forest; Play With Me
Fleischman, Sid. McBroom’s Wonderful One-Acre Farm: Three Tall Tales;  McBroom’s Zoo; McBroom’s Ear, etc.
Freeman, Don. A Rainbow of My Own
Friedman, Ina. How My Parents Learned to Eat
Gackenbach, Dick. Harry and the Terrible Whatzit
Gregory, Nan. Pink
Grossman, Bill. My Sister Ate One Hare
Guarino, Deborah. Is Your Mama a Llama
Gunning, Monica. A Shelter In Our Car
Hesse, Karen. Come on, Rain!
Houston, Gloria. My Great-Aunt Arizona
Johnson, Angela. All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom
Kalman, Maira. Sayonara, Mrs. Kackleman; Smartypants (Pete in School); etc.
Khan, Rukhsana. King for A Day
Krauss, Ruth. A Very Special House
LeSieg, Theo. I Wish That I Had Duck Feet
Lexau, Joan. Go Away Dog
Lowry, Lois. Crow Call
MacLachlan, Patricia. All the Places to Love
Maloney, Peter. The Magic Hockey Stick
Martin, Bill. White Dynamite and Curly Kid (actually more dialogue…)
Meddaugh, Susan. Hog-Eye
Moore, Clement. The Night Before Christmas
Nolen, Jerdine. Thunder Rose
O’Connor, Jane. Fancy Nancy, etc.
Orgel, Doris. Button Soup
Parker, Robert Andrew. Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum
Polacco, Patricia. The Keeping Quilt; My Rotten Redhead Older Brother; The Trees of the Dancing Goats
Recorvits, Helen. My Name is Yoon
Royston, Angela. Ancient Greek Adventure; Space Blog
Seuss, Dr. Green Eggs and Ham; If I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sellow; If I Ran the Zoo; If I Ran the Circus; I Am Not Going to Get Up Today; And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street; etc.
Scieszka, Jon. The True Story of the Three Little Pigs
Spilsbury, Richard. Deep Sea Exploration
Van Allsburg, Chris. The Polar Express
Van Laan, Nancy. Possum Come A-Knockin’
Viorst, Judith. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day
Wilhelm, Hans. I’ll Always Love You
Williams, Mary. Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan
Williams, Vera B. A. Chair for My Mother; Something Special for Me
Yolen, Jane. Owl Moon

The titles I know and am drawn to (full disclosure: I am still one-footed so couldn’t make it to the library to look into the titles I don’t know), seem to fall into one of two categories: in the first, a child (or child-like) narrator — strong-willed, high-intensity, and very focused in his or her desires — tells the story. These are what I would call “spirited” books in the sense that they tap into main arteries of kids’ strong physical and emotional selves: goofiness, petulance, guilt, frustration and, again and again, desire for control — especially of their food. We hear kids own voices LOUD AND CLEAR in what tend to be true ‘picture books’, where the text very much relies on the illustrations to tell the stories.

FancyNancy GreenEggsHam AintGonnaPaint

The second group has a more traditional, old-fashioned feel, with narrators who seem more adult reflecting back on childhood incidents, memories, etc. More like traditional, ‘illustrated story books’, they tell tales of bygone childhoods from the perspective of a nostalgic adult-who-was-there, in voices gentle, reflective and wise.

 BasketMoon OwlMoon

A cluster of Christmas/Channukah books fall into this category — Patricia Polacco’s Tree of the Dancing Goat; Chris Van Allsburg’s Polar Express; Clement Moore’s classic Night Before Christmas — which makes sense, given the nostalgia so many of us feel towards the holidays.

PolarExpress NightBefore Christmas TreesOfTheDancingGoat

In addition to the distinction between ‘child voiced’ and ‘adult voiced’ stories, a few other patterns emerged. First, the list includes a number of stories about children and people who have historically been marginalized and have taken longer to find their way into books for children. In these stories, first person narration effectively pulls a listener in and places them squarely in the storyteller’s shoes — removing the distance of “otherness” that differences in race, nationality and life-history might otherwise engender. It’s an effective strategy, and at the same time seems to underscore a sense that it is well past time for these voices to be heard and to find their rightful place.

Bird FlyAwayHome MyNameIsYoon

And, of course, there are the tall tales (which I’ve written about at length, previously). The first person voices in many of these stories exaggerate and fib and stretch the truth in every possible direction, with a folksy, charming, country vernacular that really is unique to the genre.

McBroomTellsALie

I have such a soft spot for tall tale narrators, but in answer to the question of my own all time favorite I have to go back to one that I read over and over and over again as a child (I even plagiarized it — unwittingly — in a poem I later wrote at a Girl Scout camp-out).

PlayWithMe

I still own my original, yellowed, crumbling 1968 Viking Seafarer paperback copy of Marie Hall Ets’ Play With Me. This book so totally spoke to me as a child that I’m thinking that its nameless protagonist takes the prize. No matter that that little girl’s voice was more a whisper than a shout: I could still hear it.

 

 

 

 

PAIN

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From birth my first daughter’s eyes watered constantly. She rubbed and rubbed and rubbed at them, to no avail. Mira’s tear ducts were clogged, meaning that they couldn’t drain properly and frequently got infected. When we asked the doctor if it was hurting her, the answer was an unequivocal ‘No’. But, the doctor continued, the longer the problem persisted, the less likely it would resolve itself on its own.

So at about 14 months, we took Mira in to have her tear-ducts un-plugged. The procedure was simple (though not for her first time parents): a little anesthesia, a quick probe in each tear duct, two “pop”s, and that was it. Problem solved.

When she came home and the anesthesia had worn off, though, her baseline, overall mood seemed clearly to have made a quantum leap. We may have imagined it, in some sort of projective rationalization in response to the guilt of having put our baby under, but I don’t think so. She really did seem happier.

The experience set me to wondering about how young children experience pain: whether, at that age, the physical sensations they are born with just get rolled into their “normal” like so many other aspects of the lives they land in, or whether kids actually understand pain in some way similar to us adults.

Foot

The past three-plus weeks I’ve been grappling with a tremendous amount of physical pain, thanks first to a late-emerging post-operative staph infection in the site of a foot surgery I had in mid-November, then to a second surgery, and then to an antibiotic that wasn’t quite up to the job. Which has brought me back to thinking about pain. A lot.

In a low moment in the hospital I decided to list the various instances and types of pain I’ve experienced in my life, categorizing and trying to rate them (excessive physical pain most definitely brings my crazy to the surface). It’s navel-gazing stuff that only the bored and unfocused (and drug-addled) can bother with, but my effort at classification does speak to some of the existential angst that can ride on the heels of intense, unpleasant, irremediable hurt: your are unable to control the one physical thing that is totally and undeniably yours — your body; you are powerless in the face of an insanely strong and unbending force; and you are completely alone in the knowledge that the pain is your and yours alone — that others (and even you, later) may have some inkling of the intensity, sorta kinda, but that you and you alone are living it, right here and now. If anybody REALLY understood, they would never take so long to answer the call button — or to retrieve your meds. (A selfish and childish urgency? Yes. But real? Yes again.)

All this, too, got me thinking about how pain and its near-cousins (fear, loneliness, etc.) are handled in children’s literature. Not surprisingly, the physical stuff is pretty hard to capture or convey. But other sorts of pain — the emotional, psychological (and, yes, existential) — under-gird a lot of the books that impact me most strongly. Don’t get me wrong: I love silly books, beautiful books, books that surprise and books that are informational. But the books that trade in pain get hold of me and hang on in a totally different way.

Skellig

I borrowed a copy of David Almond’s Skellig from Mira (now 11 years old) last week. I’d read the prequel, My Name Is Mina, over the summer, and loved it; Skellig did not disappoint. The book is about nothing if not fear and pain — of losing a sister, of a family out of control. And at the same time it is a story about beauty, connection, dreams, love, birds, angels, looking and seeing and being present, and all manner of other important stuff.

When I was little I was a big fan of Evaline Ness’s picture book Sam Bangs and Moonshine. The motherless Sam is alone in the world and prone to talking “moonshine” — with one of her moonshine stories almost leading to the death of a young friend. Plenty of pain there.

Sam Bangs n Moonshine

It’s not for nothing that the percentage of orphans in kids’ books is so much higher than the percentage of orphans in the world at large. What is more painful to a child than losing — or the fear of losing — his or her parents? Likewise, stories about not fitting in — about thinking differently, looking different, living different, being different — abound.

And kids are drawn to the books that take on this heavy stuff (so much the better if the author is able to mix in some humour too). Finding a mirror for one’s own pain and fears and feelings of isolation is a powerful way into story. And learning empathy in the process is a great gift too: we are raising these small people to be adults, after all, and empathy is important.

Speaking of which: at another low moment in the hospital I fantasized about, how, when I was released and healthy again, I would invent a pain simulator for doctors and nurses that would render that fuzzy “where is your pain on a scale of 1 to 10” question obsolete. My simulator would instead allow patients to simply wire themselves to their caregivers for a moment or two so that the caregivers could truly feel patients’ pain levels. That way you might achieve something closer to true empathy. And, you probably wouldn’t have to wait forty-five minutes for your percocet either.

So many ANIMALS!

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The animal-filled nest of the 8 year-old Homo sapiens.

I am prone to bouts of eco-depression, and shortly after buying Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, I decided — as a writing exorcism of sorts — to have a go at developing a story about endangered animals. Extinction — upbeat stuff, right? Not exactly ideal picture book fodder…

SixthExtinction

As I saw it, my first challenge was to figure out a way to deal with extinction that wouldn’t be a complete downer but instead felt light — even funny.

At The Rare Animal Conservation Center of the Philadelphia Zoo I stumbled on an unlikely trio of endangered species sharing a single enclosure — despite their hailing from different continents in ‘real’ life: a three-toed sloth, a pair of Bolivian titi monkeys, and a cache of elephant shrews.

WikipediaTitiMonkey WikipediaSloth Wikipedia ElephantShrewjpg

I am equally as inclined to write about humans as about animals, but when I do opt for animals as characters, it is usually because I am drawn to some unique, compelling aspect/s of a species’ habits or traits — and generally because I relate to those traits in a pretty anthropomorphic and anthropocentric way. I always do a lot of geeky research and end up building on those aspects as I work up the character.

The shrew/sloth/monkey combo provided, and while the resulting manuscript, The Mango Incident (current status: 555-word, back-burnered WIP), didn’t end up addressing extinction head-on, it’s grumpy sloth-narrator does manage some sharp commentary, and the story peaks in a nice (if unfortunately hard to illustrate) moment of hilarity.

Sylvester.image1 CatInHat charlottes-web

Animals are the stuff of children’s literature — and of childhood — right? The Cat and his hat, Sylvester and his pebble, Charlotte and her web — the list goes on and on and on and on. Animals are ubiquitous: in books, as stuffies, as pets, and in the places we take our children on outings (zoos, natural history museums, theme parks etc.).

But why? I had always assumed that their being not-human worked as a sort of convenient and comfortable distancing-method: they’re enough like us that kids identify with them but not so much like us as to be complete (and terrifying) mirrors. “The same only different,” as a witty friend used to say about all kinds of things.

Reading November 23’s New York Times Magazine, I came across not one but two references to an essay about zoos and animals by cultural critic John Berger. (Both Charles Seibert’s piece about the remaking Denmark’s Givskud Zoo, and Alex Witchel’s profile of playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins bring it up.) I bit.

If I had ever before read Berger’s essay, “Why Look At Animals?” (from About Looking, 1977), it hadn’t stuck. In it, Berger argues that with the one-two punch of the enlightenment and industrialization, humans’ relationship to animals shifted away from that of hunting, farming and daily contact with animals who were made or understood to serve various human purposes.  And so, too, away from an attitude of both valuing/worshipping and subjecting/sacrificing them (two stances that, today, we are more likely to understand oppositionally as”either/or”s).

As most of us have moved away from that sort of immediate reliance on animals, animals have been marginalized both culturally and physically. They have been relegated to the role of raw material and of spectacle: in the human food chain, animal flesh and product is just one more ingredient on the assembly line, and elsewhere animals are simply meant to be viewed.

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Not surprisingly zoos came into existence just as productive animals were disappearing from everyday life. As opposed to living in their native environments, zoo animals are “utterly dependent on their keepers”; “nothing surrounds them except their own lethargy or hyperactivity”. They reside there specifically and exclusively to be looked at. Berger emphasizes: “you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal.”

Around the same time pet-ownership mushroomed too.

In the past, families of all classes kept domestic animals because they served a useful purpose — guard dogs, hunting dogs, mice-killing cats, and so on. The practice of keeping animals regardless of their usefulness, the keeping exactly of pets (in the 16th century the word usually referred to a lamb raised by hand) is a modern innovation… It is part of the universal but personal withdrawal into the private small family unit, decorated or furnished with mementoes from the outside world, which is such a distinguishing feature of consumer societies.

(It follows that dogs, now, are now bred not for the work that they do but, instead, for their innocuous (or aggressive) temperaments, their lack of allergens, or their ability to not shed.)

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As for the modern world of childhood, to Berger the preponderance of animal imagery and representation in picture books and toys mirrors the fading of real animals into the background of life experience.

As it turns out, children’s literature historian and critic Leonard Marcus wrote a follow-up essay in 1984, “Picture Book Animals: How Natural A History?“, applying Berger’s thinking and defining the roles of animals in contemporary children’s literature. Surveying the field, Marcus spelled out seven distinct ways that he saw animal characters operating in children’s books, positing one or more examples for each:

1. animal as the embodiment of wildness (wild impulses, unruliness, etc.) — and therefore as needing to be tamed or contained (Curious George, H.A. Rey)

2. “animal as spectacle or performer” (The Happy Lion, Louis Fatio)

3. “animal as misfit or outsider” (The Story of Ferdinand, Munro Leaf)

4. “animal as doll” (which assumes a special, kindred relationship between animal and child) (Corduroy, Don Freeman)

5. “animals as nonsense beings” (The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss)

6. “animals as symbols of unconscious states and private obsessions” (Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak)

7. “animals-in-themselves” (Blueberries for Sal, Robert McCloskey)

Marcus’s categories aren’t all-encompassing, but they offer an interesting framework. And discussion of the examples underscores the complexity of his definitions.

He does leave off one use — perhaps because it is too obvious — which involves using animals as simple, straightforward stand-ins for humans — their “animal natures” being less important than the fact that they are animals-and-not-humans (author Kevin Henkes immediately comes to mind). And in fact, in most of Marcus’s examples I can imagine a human character replacing the animal to tell a fairly similar story to the one told: Ferdinand could’ve been a boy under that tree who didn’t like rough play of other boys; the Cat in the Hat could’ve been a crazy uncle who popped in for the day. Even Corduroy could have been a doll (human toy) instead of a bear (animal toy).

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from BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL

Only in the 7th category does such substitution seem downright impossible: the whole Sal story hinges on the parallel childhoods, motherhoods and blueberry hunting activities of bears and humans. It really is about the animals in a way the others are not. Though of course, in the manner of all good wildlife narratives, it is the anthropomorphic aspects of the bears that we connect to — the ways in which they are like us.

To go back to Berger’s argument for a minute though: the lore and stories of all sorts of native cultures predating the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution are actually loaded with animals. Really — think about Native American tales. Storytelling was oral, as opposed to written and illustrated, but no matter: traditional origin stories and moral tales were always populated with the myriad animals — wild and domesticated — that filled people’s lives. That stories told or read to children contain animals is nothing new. Our relationship to animals has changed, true. But so have our notions of childhood, and I’d warrant that changing ideas of childhood in our modern, consumer world play as large a role in the preponderance of animal imagery in modern western children’s lives as the fact of our changed relationship to animals.

All these interesting historical arguments and structural analyses notwithstanding, I keep coming back to this same basic point: animals are both like us and not like us. The same only different — just like each of the human characters we meet in books. We enter in to stories in places where we connect and relate— sometimes through geography and place, sometimes through situation, and often through characters. If you opt for an evolutionary take on the whole thing: animals are our cousins, albeit distant ones, no? So of course we include them in our stories.

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Still, Berger was spot on about animals in our lives, and when I reflect on my own children’s contact with animals, I see zoos, and books, and stuffies, and a wished-for pet. Even when they do have contact with real, working animals the experience is heavily mediated. We do not — like our friends who farm — rise at dawn to collect eggs or get up in the middle of the night to nurse invalid pigs. The rhythms of our daily lives are not at all dependant on those of other creatures. The birds that wake us up in the spring when we leave our windows open and the kitchen mice we battle are mere annoyances.

I wonder whether with Childhood.2000 — in an increasingly digital age of once/twice/thrice-removed experiencing and consuming of the world — we will eventually look back at the dull act of watching sleeping polar bears and bounce-less kangaroos through scratched plexiglass with nostalgia and say “There used to be these place called Zoos where you could go see REAL animals…”? And so the eco-depression sneaks up again…

THE ART OF CHOOSING: Raymond Almiran Montgomery Junior (1936-2014)

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The one CYOA book that we own because — you know — the SEA….

Remember the “Choose Your Own Adventures” books? The man credited with turning them into the phenomenon that they became — R. A. Montgomery — died on November 9. Given that there were several different authors in the series (all of whom were actually credited, contrary to the standard practice for series like the Warriors books “by Erin Hunter”, or the Nancy Drew books “by Carolyn Keene”), the CYOA books were literary to varying degrees — not that high-brow literary was ever their main thrust. Kids love reading the books again and again for exactly the reasons Montgomery and the first book’s writer, Ed Packard, conceived of them: they heighten readers’ sense of agency and involvement in story. They “allow the reader to become the participant.”

Montgomery’s death and the obituaries that followed have carried reminders of the theory behind the books (this obit at the CYOA website provides great biographical background; another at obitoftheday.com riffs on the books’ format). In Montgomery’s 2010 interview with video game critic and historian Matt Barton, he shares much of his thinking too.

Montgomery began his working life as an educator, exploring gaming as a way to reach kids who were struggling with what he viewed as “rote, assignment-based and punitive” methods of teaching. Through gaming, he sought to involve kids more directly in their own learning and break down their resistance.

He went on to study game theory and simulation design. The way Montgomery saw it, task-oriented, goal-driven simulations and role play — well before they became the stuff of on-line and video gaming — have permeated various fields of study and learning for ages: architects build models of buildings, boat designers test hull shapes in wave tanks, law school students engage in mock trials, and when you learn CPR you pound the chest of a plastic dummy. The list goes on and on. And really: what is a young child building with blocks doing, if not testing her understanding of the world and how it works?

So, why not apply the same ideas to books? Montgomery said of CYOA, “It’s finally saying to you: you’re involved… making choices… Implicit in the choice is an ethical or moral approach or decision, but that is never spelled out, and it is never sold… It’s just an exciting way of getting people involved in their lives. And I had always hoped that this would make some profound changes in the way that people make decisions about their lives, about the lives of their children, about politics [and] all the rest. And I’m still very optimistic about that.” He continued, “I think all these gaming situations open up a world to people — whether they be kids or adults — that allows them not just to fantasize, but to indulge in exactly what CYOA does, which is to pretend without the risk of the real world. To try stratagems out, to develop an approach…”

We have a family game that we learned somewhere which consists rallying questions back and forth that share this basic structure: “Would you rather be a _____ or a _____.” (spoon or fork? english muffin or table? cat or tree?). The idea is to answer quickly and intuitively. And then explain your reasoning. (The William Steig/Harry Bliss book Which Would You Rather Be? emerged from this same game, I think). We’ve been playing it since our kids could first string words together, and the range of thinking behind people’s choices never ceases to surprise.

The CYOA books’ second person narration demands — repeatedly — the seemingly simple act of making a choice. “You are a _____. If you decide to “A”, turn to page ___. If you want to “B”, turn to page ___. ” Like it or not, you are the protagonist. Your choices are, of course, limited to just A or B. But really, how often aren’t your choices in life limited (aside from when you’re staring at a blank screen or page… ahem). Being permitted and required to choose as part of the act of reading, you help construct a story. And at the end of the day, the act of making choices — of being conscious and mindful about how and why we opt for this or that alternative — is integral to being human and to constructing the narratives of our own lives.

Whether Montgomery’s wish for the books to ‘change the way that people make decisions in their lives’ has panned out or not, I don’t know. But the books definitely do encourage children to make decisions, again and again and again, and I can’t think of anything bad about helping kids strengthen the sense of their own agency — in lives real or imaginary.