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#pb10for10 – HEART

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I just discovered #pb10for10 today, via TwoWritingTeachers. Out here in Central PA, I can’t peruse my own bookshelves for reminders, but I have been close-reading various picture books as a break from working on a middle grade project, so I’m in the groove and will happily jump in with 10 picture books I can’t live without. I’m shooting from the hip for this go-round, and my reasons are all over the place…

  1. PLAY WITH ME, Marie Hall Ets (1955/1976, Picture Puffins). This was my book as a kid. I was the youngest in a big, loud family, and this one never got passed down through the ranks: it was mine and only mine, and in its perfect, quiet way, it totally spoke to me – an introverted kid who loved the outdoors.
  2. CAPS FOR SALE, Esphyr Slobodkina (1940, W.R. Scott). Caps for Sale was the first book that clued me in – as an adult — to the amazing things that could happen between pages and to the magic of the page-turn. And what a page-turn that one, single page turn is!
  3. THIS IS NOT MY HAT, Jan Klassen (2012, Candlewick). LOTS of good page-turns here, and Klassen manages to communicate unimaginable depth with tiny adjustments to his fish’s eyes. Plus, that unreliable, self-rationalizing fish-narrator taps into behavior that’s both kid-like and totally human — and way under-appreciated for its hilarity.
  4. ANDREW HENRY’S MEADOW, Doris Burn (1965, Coward-McCann). An old-school picture book for sure, but I am obsessed with all types of kids’ play – especially what play geeks call ‘constructive play’. I love the world-making that Burn’s kids do in this book, and the dialed-in details of the kids’ obsessive creations. To my eye, Burns’ gorgeous ink work and brilliant use of white space rival Robert McCloskey’s in Blueberries for Sal. (Just ignore the dated gender-roles and stereotypes; it is worth the effort.)
  5. And for what they do with ‘imaginative play’, a couple of more recent favorites: THIS IS SADIE, Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad (2015, Tundra Books). What a great collaboration — and what a voice. And also Joseph Kuefler’s BEYOND THE POND (2015, Balzer + Bray). Kuefler includes some perfect true-kid details and really fun turns of phrase, along with beautiful illustrations.
  6. CHARLIE PARKER PLAYED BE BOP, Chris Raschka (2004, Orchard – a board book; I think the original came out full-sized in 1997 with Scholastic). I have read the board book version of this book aloud hundreds of times.  The meanings of the words are not the point (though they do matter – hugely); their mouth-feel and rhythm and poetry — and, the way the page turns play in too — make reading this book like singing and listening to and helping make a rocking piece of music all at once. And kids just GET it. Raschka captures the feel of be bop perfectly.
  7. WAITING, Kevin Henkes (2015, Greenwillow). I love the life that Henkes imagines for these toys, and the invisible/implied any-child who is responsible for and loves them. And I love the way that the toys take in the simplest joys of being alive – in much the way their child might. Henkes’ illustrations and layouts are so quiet and so powerful.
  8. ELSIE PIDDOCK SKIPS IN HER SLEEP, Eleanor Farjeon, with illustrations by Charlotte Voake (2000, Candlewick – not sure where/how the text was originally published). This is another old-school, longer-format picture book, and a fantastic read-aloud. Again: incredible rhythm and great, lyrical story — with a sweet little dollop of communitarian politics on top.
  9. OWL MOON, Jane Yolen (1987, Philomel). For its lyrical language, for being about a beautiful quest and elemental relationship, and for capturing so many real emotions in the web of its pages.
  10. GRANDPA GREEN, by Lane Smith (2011, Roaring Brook Press). I lost my dad — an avid gardener — this year, so this one has a particular hold on me right now. It took repeat readings to get a handle on all that Smith has going on in this book as it paints it’s lovely portrait of a particular, imagined life — nearing its end — understood through the eyes and actions of a small child.

All these picture books so clearly GET and are relatable to kids in ways that – for one reason and another – resonate. And they are all loaded with HEART.

HUMOR and HEART were the themes of this summer’s Kidlit Summer School, so maybe this list can also serve as one more big shout out to the kidlit folk who put that great, motivating month together. Thanks Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, Kami Kinard, Marcie Coleen, Dawn Young, and Leeza Hernandez!

“a cannibal toward a missionary”

 

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Last week I went to the Rosenbach Museum with a handful of EPA-SCBWI illustrators to say goodbye to Sendak in the Sixties, which closes this weekend and is the final Sendak exhibit before Sendak’s documents head back up to Connecticut.

I don’t often have the time to see an exhibit — of any sort — multiple times; what a treat. On this visit, I  spent some time with Sendak’s Hector Protector and As I Went Over the Water: Two Nursery Rhymes — which I don’t ever remember reading before. Sendak takes two simple nursery rhymes and illustrates them into another realm, elaborating on the simple narratives by teasing out and weaving in new layers with his drawings. They book is study-worthy — with the simplicity of the text underscoring Sendak’s artistry.

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Meanwhile, upstairs at the museum in the Bescribbled, Nibbled and Dog-Eared: Early American Children’s Books exhibit, this bit of text was literally writ large on the wall — from A.S.W. Rosenbach in 1907:

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 “Ediblity” was not a “Way In” that had occurred to me before, but I definitely think it could work.

The Morals of the Stories

This summer I read Little Women out loud to my two daughters. With its occasional mention of a higher power, and regular discussion of how to treat others and what  should and should not matter in life, it felt dated — like something of a time capsule. But, to my surprise, I felt a sense of relief reading it too, like some weight had been moved from my shoulders onto the book’s.

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Louisa May Alcott published Little Women in 1868/1869. The expectations and norms for women in that period make it a no brainer that bookish, reform-minded, marriage-resistant Jo would become modern readers’ favorite. The political-correct-itude (or lack thereof) of the book notwithstanding, its moralizing and lesson-teaching hit a nerve. A notion runs through the book that one should always be trying to do and be better. And this is something that you don’t see much in kids fiction these days, to the degree and in the manner that it is present here.

It’s not that morality is dead: values and morality are there in modern fiction at all levels — they’re just usually more implicit. Thankfully, contemporary fiction enters complex social and political territory that it never would have years ago. Head-on discussion and directives about what it means to be a “good” person and how to behave are way out of fashion though: in our more secular age, you find conversation of that sort relegated to explicitly religious books.

There are still books around that address behavior — like Aliki’s Manners or Jane Yolen’s How Do Dinosaurs… books — but they are about manners, not morals, and the questions they raise tend to be strictly rhetorical. (There is a developmental piece here, to be sure: Little Women is aimed at an older audience and you can’t expect a solid debate about self-sacrifice among the 3 year old set. Discussion of dinosaur eating habits is much more on target.)

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I am a huge believer in progressive, constructivist approaches to learning — in not simply thwunking people over the head with information or ideas. So I was surprised to find this more didactic approach to moral thinking appealing. It seems so old school.

The musings of Mrs. March, the little women, and the narrator regularly refer back to various ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’. A typical admonishment from Mrs. March reads:

Have regular hours for work and play, make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you undertand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will be delightful, old age will bring few regrets, and life become a beautiful success, in spite of poverty.

 

In reading, I found that such directives of Mrs. March’s, as well as her daughters’ discussions, focused our attention in ways that the morality implicit in characters’ actions or decisions which we are more familiar with does not — and so led us into different sorts of conversations. My progressive leanings aside, I also know from my own experience as a learner that a clear, articulate set of rules or codes is a great thing to bounce your own thoughts off  and to use to help figure out what you actually believe.

In the midst of mulling these questions of morality in kidlit I happened to hear an episode of WBUR Boston’s On Point, about morals (or lack thereof) in US football. Guests Steve Almond (author of Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto), David Steele (columnist for Sporting News), and Nate Jackon (former NFL player and author of Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile) talked about myriad ways that the sport and its culture exhibit values that are questionable at best — all driving home the fact that in our consumer culture, concerns about the morality of football take a backseat to consumer desire and market interests. The show reminded: morality is not sexy, is not fun and does not sell. (Except maybe in the land of the televangelist.)

What’s so refreshing about Little Women is not so much the specific values and morals that the books professes, but the fact that it engages in this sort of conversation at all. And while I don’t have plans to rush out to read Pilgrim’s Progress (the Christian allegory is a reference point for the first book of Little Women), it was a nice change to have someone else — some fictional someones — starting these conversations so directly with my kids.

 

WRITING IS LIKE…

… an onion?

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(from LARGER THAN LIFE: THE AMERICAN TALL TALE POSTCARD, 1905-1915, by Cynthia Rubin and Morgan Williams)

Maybe. But that’s not where I’m going.

My summer reading (and listening) has lately brought me back to TWO METAPHORS for writing, and both have been sloshing around in my head for days, like so many more accidental infusions of pool water.

The first one turned up in David Almond’s middle years book, My Name is Mina. Towards the end of the book Mina — the narrator/diarist — and her mom go for a walk, and talk about Paul Klee’s idea about WALKING and how it relates to his art.

Her mom tells Mina that Paul Klee says “drawing is taking a line for a walk”. Mina extrapolates that writing isn’t so different from drawing. “Each word is a step a-long the way to I don’t know where.”

She continues, in a sort of marching song:

“To write is to take some words for a walk.

The words follow the rhy-thm of the feet.

The feet foll-ow the rhy-thm of the words.

To write is to take some words for a walk.”

To geek-out and get a wee bit academic, the Klee/Mina notion of a walk reminded me of the Situationist Internationale and Guy DeBord’s idea of the dérive which — no surprise — I’ve always loved. For the Situationists — a group of avant garde intellectuals and artists active in the mid 1900’s — a dérive was a sort of open-ended and open-hearted wandering — not about work or recreation or reaching some goal, but all about exploring and having new, unexpected experiences. (The Situationists posited it as an antidote to the monotony of daily life in Capitalist culture — which is a whole nother conversation.)

Anne Lamott (I’m finally reading her fabled Bird by Bird ) and others have commented that a great perk of being a writer is having a standing excuse to get out into the world and explore. Amen! Like writing, any walk — weather a dérive or not — can show you things and bring you to places that weren’t on your original itinerary. Arrival at the unexpected is one of the great joys of both enterprises. And there are aspects of walking (as opposed to being in a car, especially) — the slow speed, the immediacy of smells and sounds and visual details — that involve a sort of presence that writing, especially free writing, offers too.

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My second metaphor for writing: BEING A PARENT.

Terry Gross interviewed Richard Linklater on Fresh Air a couple weeks ago about about his new film, Boyhood, and talking about the film’s father character (played by Ethan Hawke), Linklater told Gross “…he’s trying very hard, but… he’s kind of bumbling through parenthood. He’s figuring it out. Kind of endearingly, self-consciously. And I just think he’s trying, which as a parent that’s so much of the game. You know, just to try. We’re all gonna get it wrong anyway but you have to at least try.”

I laughed out loud at that one: welcome to what writing is like too — for me anyway. But there is the lesson: just try. Like that admonishment that you read in every writing book and hear from every working author: just write.

Just being a parent and just writing share lots: you bumble through both; both can be really lonely in their ways (especially when you’re just getting started); the characters involved repeatedly assert their own agendas despite your wishes; and both jobs — once you sign on — you can never (god forbid) quit.

Tangentially: I did end up going to see Boyhood the other night too. It’s the story of a kid growing up in a complicated, modern family in Texas. Linklater filmed over 12 years, using the same actors throughout. Its whopping 166 minutes somehow didn’t seem long enough: I haven’t so wanted for a movie not to end since escaping into Avatar in 3D.

It was a gift to be able to watch kids morph and change over that kind of time frame on the screen. The movie is not plot-driven at all, and you end up recognizing its many small moments as both all-important and no big deal. A bit of bullying, say, might elsewhere become the linchpin for an entire storyline; but here it is just one moment — something that happens. (A nice reminder to sit back a little in an age of problem-oriented “parenting”!) And at the same time, all the small moments — their accumulation and overlay — are exactly what make up a life. Nevermind the great narrative arc.

It is a pretty special movie — definitely worth the 3 hour commitment.

“an education in the possible” in “the wilderness of childhood”

(CHILDREN’S BOOKS, LANDSCAPE & PLAY)

At an alumni event a couple weeks ago at the Design School at Penn, a landscape architect I’d recently met asked for an elevator speech on my career and interests. I gave it my best shot, but thankfully we got interrupted before I could finish — about 4 minutes into what was no doubt a much longer ride than he had bargained for.

I’ve always maintained that there are threads that link my work as a writer, landscape architect, play advocate, teacher, naturalist-wannabe, mother, etc. But I’m never able to articulate exactly what the connections are, beyond offering that a focus on children runs through them all. Sometimes I float phrases like “a lot of my stories derive from natural phenomena” or “my writing tends to have a really strong sense of place” — both feeble attempts at articulating a connection that I know is there.

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A couple days after that meandering elevator speech, I came across an Adam Gopnik piece I’d torn from a New Yorker many, many years ago. About children’s books, Gopnik says “What children need is an education in the possible….. Children know perfectly well who they are; all experience conspires to tell them that. What they would like to know is who they may yet be, and what boat they have to take to get there.”

His words reminded me of an argument for the importance of play, and particularly dramatic play, which had always resonated with me. Play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith has this idea that imaginative play involves an exploration of possibilities and that, in Sutton-Smith’s words‘‘The adaptive advantage [from an evolutionary perspective] has often gone to those who ventured upon their possibility with cries of exultant commitment…. What is adaptive about play, therefore, may be not only the skills that are a part of it but also the willful belief in acting out one’s own capacity for the future.’’ 

This idea that play and story both help children to imagine futures — and moreover to envision their own agency in shaping those futures — is so powerful. Play and books (and life experiences, too) give kids the real, intellectual and emotional space to explore and test the possible. In an interview with KidsReads, Kate DiCamillo says of writing children’s books, “I love that books for kids allow for magic and demand hope…”  Reading, writing and play: hope undergirds all of them.

Ok, so there it is: my functional and philosophical link between play and children’s literature. Phew. Now, what about landscape?

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Conversations about play and landscape have followed a few overlapping tracks in the US’s popular media lately:

Much is written about how unstructured play has been squeezed from the lives of modern children. At one end of the socio-economic spectrum, parents hover, filling their children’s days with extracurriculars, enrichment classes, and infinite other structured, adult-driven activities. At all income levels, electronics and screens now dominate what little free time chidlren do have.

Accompanying and contributing to these trends is our cultural obsession with danger. We are sold everything under the sun by having various fears tapped into and, because in the US we are so prone to suing, our cities and towns and suburbs are plagued with uninspired and unintegrated straight-from-the-catalog play structures. Within the design world, there is a great push for a move away from the monotony of safety-focussed, catalog-purchased playstructures and towards unique designs that engage kids (Paige Johnson’s play-scapes blog is a great voice in the push for good design in outdoor play spaces).

Adventure play and adventure playgrounds — which originated in Europe mid-century and incorporate “loose parts”, lots of mess, and relatively hands-off supervision by trained “play workers”, are also on the table as places where children can better learn to negotiate danger and experiment with less prescribed physical, material and social worlds (see this recent article in The Atlantic).

Finally the Nature Play movement, which gained much traction after the 2005 publication of Richard Louv’s Last Child In the Woods, has focussed specifically on unstructured play in nature, and on the degree to which modern children in developed countries are increasingly deprived of unsupervised time in wild or natural or green spaces.

Why does free time outdoors in ‘natural’ or ‘wild’ spaces matter? There are developmental arguments about the unique sensory stimulation and engagement that nature offers, and about fostering independence, and about learning to negotiate risk. And then there is an argument about love. Environmental Psychologist Louise Chawla has studied and written extensively about the factors that lead people to develop a strong environmental commitment and sense of efficacy. Her research subjects, who were all evnironmentally committed and active, first developed their attachment to the natural world in childhood. And they developed this connection through free, unstructured time spent outdoors.

Children learn to love the natural world by being in it: playing, exploring, planting, picking, making and messing around. Stuff them full of all the facts you want about melting icebergs and dwindling populations of sea turtles; it won’t matter if they haven’t first developed a personal and hands-on affinity.

Chawla identified a second key factor in her subjects’ development as well: a childhood relationship with an adult who demonstates and shares a similar affinity for the natural world. This person is usually a family member or sometimes a teacher. In any case, he or she is understood more as mentor or guide than as imparter-of-knowledge. Which, at their best, all teachers should be.

A sharing and transmittal of this Rachel Carson-esque sense of wonder — somehow pure and elemental — carries real urgency, now, as ongoing population growth continues to bring rapid change to the natural world and our realtionship with it, and continuing urbanization increasingly distances people from un-cultivated and first-hand engagement with nature’s cycles and permutations.

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The Sense of Wonder brings me back to children’s books. A couple years ago author Micheal Chabon wrote about what he called “The Wilderness of Childhood“, and got at the question of landscape in relation to books. “Most great stories of adventure,” he wrote, “from The Hobbit to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, come furnished with a map. That’s because every story of adventure is in part the story of a landscape, of the interrelationship between human beings (or Hobbits, as the case may be) and topography. Every adventure story is conceivable only with reference to the particular set of geographical features that in each case sets the course, literally, of the tale…..”

Chabon goes on,”The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. …. What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children’s imaginations?…. Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?”

So there it is, full circle: from children’s books to play to landscape and back to children’s books. Landscapes (real and fictional) and play within them (actual and imagined) are important, essential parts of childhood. And they are key ingredients in raising children who love their worlds (natural and otherwise) and feel empowered to act in and take care of them. It’s pretty basic and important stuff.

Meanwhile, my new, improved and concise elevator speech remains a work in progress. (I clearly have a ways to go on the ‘concise’ part.)

 

#WeNeedDiverseBooks

We need more diverse children’s books.

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Today is day three of a 3-day social media campaign to address the persistent lack of diversity in children’s books. Add your voice to the chorus on twitter, or with an image and a phrase on tumblr, and maybe even get out and support authors who are leading the charge by buying a book or two.

Check out Salon, The Guardian, Publishers Weekly, etc. for more background on the effort.