WRITING OLD

There’s been a good bit of chatter about being an OLD writer over at Writer Unboxed this past week — first Juliet Marillier’s post, and then another by Keith Cronin. Age is something I have trouble not thinking about.

I married when I was in the second half of my 30’s. We wanted kids, and at that point I had been steeped in articles about the troubles of getting pregnant after 35, so we got to work posthaste.

Miraculously, or so it seemed, I got pregnant about 20 minutes after our wedding. But when I went to the OBGyn for confirmation, I learned that my pregnancy was not just a pregnancy — it was AN AMA PREGNANCY. AMA stands for Advanced Maternal Age, and the label overshadowed the subsequent 7 or 8 months in ways that repeatedly drove home the fact that I was old. Nevermind that up until that point in my life, I had never really been ready to become a mom.

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And I thought “AMA” was bad — the current label is “Geriatric Pregnancy”. Ow. (from grownupsmag.com)

My first daughter arrived and, in my new role as “mother”, I developed the unfortunate habit of doing mental math whenever I met or read women who were — or were writing about — mothering. Finding other “old” moms always elicited a satisfied, little, internal sigh. And coming across women who’d done it even later than me became cause for a secret, private party in the less-moored parts of my psyche.

In my mid 40’s, I shifted my work-focus away from landscape architecture and over to writing children’s books, in the process gaining a whole new outlet for my age-comparing habit: I could now apply my math skills to the book-birthing age of authors as well.

I’ve thought about this age thing a lot (not that I’ve stopped doing the math, of course). The thing is: I tried my hand at writing children’s books in my (childless) 20’s too. But back then the business of ‘embracing fear’ was relegated to physical activities like white water kayaking, or bike commuting in the then-less-bike-friendly City of New York. I didn’t have the emotional or psychological wherewithal to commit and struggle and fail in more personal ways.

My writing practice, now, seems to have an openness — and also a level of self-awareness and self-critique — that I really don’t think I could’ve mustered up back then. Physical challenges were doable, but jumping in and writing every day over the long haul, with no promise of recognition or success, was beyond me.

Related to this, too, I don’t think I would have approached character in a way that would’ve gotten me very far. I was more prone to judging and criticizing myself and others, and less inclined to empathize. If you’re going to try to write relatable, full-bodied characters you need some understanding and compassion — for others and for yourself. Some of this has come with age and living, and some evolves simply by writing.

I’m nearing 50 now, and I sold my first picture book last year. More importantly, though, I write every day. My writing practice and the interactions I have within my various real-time and on-line writing communities help me grow and bring me joy that I’m pretty sure I couldn’t’ve found and wouldn’t’ve been open to when I was younger. I may be older than some — or even most — people newly trying to write for kids, but at least I am ready. And despite all my mental math, I’m thinking that readiness probably trumps youth.

OLD BOOKS in the NEW YEAR

I am a junk shopper. A user of used things. An enthusiast of thrift. Like most people, I’ll never argue with a bargain, but my inner-Scot is really not the main driver when it comes to shopping used.

Newness is a must for certain things (swimsuits, underwear, etc.), and the convenience and predictability of what you find in regular stores is inarguable. By contrast, at an emporium of used stuff you rarely see the same thing twice. You can’t go in looking for anything too specific, and you have to enter the process with an open mind. Merchandise there lacks crisp, packaged anonymity; every item has a history — and in that history there are stories, real and imagined.

In my junk shopping I watch for old photos to use as writing prompts and inspiration. My latest, obsessive craft project involves felting old wool sweaters so they’re a current quarry too. And always, there are books, especially — of course — children’s books.

I regularly find used children’s titles I’ve never seen before, and no matter where a book falls on the overall “greatness” scale, it usually offers inspiration ripe for the repurposing and, as often, delightful glimpses into the history of the field.

I recently came across a trove at Benton Antiques in central PA.

RunawaySquash The Runaway Squash (1976), a Little Golden Book story retold by Gale Wiersum and illustrated by Bunky, gives a new (old) twist to that folksy, pumpkins-run-wild/pumpkin-profusion theme that shows up in various autumn favorites (Too Many Pumpkins, by Linda White, Megan Lloyd ill.; Pumpkin Town!, by Katie McKy, Pablo Bernasconi ill., etc). This was the first time I’d encountered  a member of the squash family growing so fast that the kid who planted it had to hold on for dear life as the thing tore across the land and overtook everything it touched. I’ve had fun mulling the pumpkin-as-bucking-bronco and pumpkin-vine-as-vehicle mashups.

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I’ve long loved Harper’s “I Can Read Book”s from the 60’s and 70’s, so Leonard Kessler‘s Last One In Is A Rotten Egg (1969, Harper & Row) jumped out at me. I did a double-take when I saw that the cover features an inter-racial group of kids — in a pool no less — at a time when kids books were just beginning to diversify (not that they ever made it that far).

I found Kessler with the help of the generous folks at Purple House Press, who reissued some of Kessler’s out-of-print books, and connected with him through his daughter, Kim. Kim asked her dad about the book’s inclusiveness and whether it had been an issue. She reported back, “He said his editors simply said, it is your book, you make the call… he just felt strongly that his books should reflect real life, and that meant people of all different colors.” His rationale is perfectly straightforward and sensible — while the editorial climate he describes seems unimaginable.

Alexander SoamesKarla Kuskin‘s Alexander Soames: His Poems (1962, Harper & Row) is written at that same early-reader level. Alexander tells his mother “I prefer to speak the speech I speak in poems,” and his mother balks, trying to get him to STOP speaking in poems (never mind that she rhymes a fair bit herself — and not at all ironically). The book drags in the middle as the mother character repeatedly sets Alexander up to speak short, sweet poems, yet there is something so compelling — and right — about the idea of a child character who speaks this way — playing with words and just speak-loving language as we tend to hope kids will.

LittleBoyWithABigHornAnd, there was this little gem, The Little Boy with the Big Horn, (Jack Bechdolt, Aurelius Battaglia ill.) — which belongs alongside my favorite other Karla Kuskin title, The Philharmonic Gets Dressed (1986, Reading Rainbow Books, with Marc Simont ill.). Mid-century Illustrator Battaglia‘s work in this book blew me away (scroll through this great, graphic-filled tribute to see more). The farmer character’s voice made me laugh out loud too: “Drat. The old muley has fallen into the ditch again.” “You can’t play the horn here. It’s enough to sour their milk.”

LitteBoyWithBigHornFARMER

Since I’ve landed on a book about a kid with a horn, I’ll end with a musical tribute. Scott Bradlee’s great ragtime cover of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” makes a better (and more apropos!) case for the fertile and generative pastime of “thrifting” than I ever could.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NARRATION + BUBBLE DIALOGUE in PICTURE BOOKS

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Our favorite Philly graphic novel store. (Photo from http://www.geekadelphia.com)

My kids — now 10 and 12 — LOVE graphic novels. And as the children’s book field explodes with great titles in this format, it is no surprise to see more and more picture books using the graphic conventions of comics as well: serial imagery, speech bubbles and the like. Maurice Sendak is often cited as the first, notable author-illustrator to introduce the low-brow graphic conventions of the comic book into the righteous and upstanding world of children’s picture books — with Hector Protector & As I Went Over The Water (1965, Harper Collins), In The Night Kitchen (1970), etc. Like much of Sendak’s work, this adaptation of comic strip conventions was viewed as bold and transgressive — especially in light of mid-century mores that questioned the morality of comic books (check out the mid 1950’s Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency).

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A recent project got me wondering about picture books that interweave straight narration with embedded bubble-dialogue, and so I did a quick survey of the field to see what’s out there and what sorts of issues come into play when authors and illustrators combine the two. Given how dialogue and narration ostensibly set up very different sorts of rhythm, I found myself paying a lot of attention to flow and cadence as I looked at these books.

There is a whole batch of books that stick primarily with narration, inserting occasional, short speech bubble dialogue here and there in the illustrations: Tor Freeman’s Roar (2002, Candlewick), Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny books (Hyperion), Colin McNaughtons’ Suddenly (1994, Harcourt) and  Oops (1996, Harcourt). In all of these books, relatively traditional narrative storytelling is punctuated with small bits of bubble text that offer these sort of staccato punches within the overall rhythm of the narrative. (Agee’s Terrific (2005, Scholastic) has just a single word in bubble dialogue (“TERRIFIC!”) — on the book’s final page.)

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Picture books written entirely in speech-bubble dialogue without a stitch of narration sit at the other end of the spectrum. One challenge of going with straight dialogue in books for young kids might be to find ways of dynamically illustrating two characters simply talking. Luckily though, young children (and animals who behave like them) don’t speak primarily with their mouths like many of us older sorts: the full-bodied engagement of the characters in Mo Willem’s Elephant & Piggy series (Hyperion), his Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus books (Disney-Hyperion), and Dev Petty’s I Don’t Want to Be A Frog (2015, Doubleday) are all plenty dynamic. These authors do a great job, too, of manipulating the rhythms of the dialogue’s back-and-forth to create tension and energy. Adam Rex’s PSSST! (2007, Harcourt), John Rocco’s Blackout (2001, Disney-Hyperion) and David Weisner’s Mr. Wuffles (2013, Clarion) show clearly how also adding serial imagery to the mix can also replace narration. (For the younger set there are quieter, simpler books too, like Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Bully (2013, Roaring Brook) and Jez Alborough’s Hug (2009, Candlewick).)

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Between the books that use occasional bubble-staccatos and those that use nothing but bubble dialogue are many that alternate or combine the two more evenly — books like Susan Meddaugh’s Martha Speaks (HMH Books For Young Readers) books, and a whole bunch illustrated by Harry Bliss: Doreen Cronin’s Diary of a….. books (HarperCollins), Bliss’s own Bailey books (Scholastic), William Steig’s Which Would You Rather Be? (2005, HarperCollins), and Robie H. Harris’s Don’t Forget to Come Back! (2004, Candlewick).

Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenfeld’s Shark V. Train (2010, Little Brown) is an interesting one in this group for offering sparse narrative text but, at the same time, holding together well even when you ignore the bubble dialogue entirely (try it!) — at least until you get to the last two spreads. The bubble-dialogue, here, mostly elaborates on the conflict and emotion that is already boldly communicated in the book’s illustrations.

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Aaron Reynolds and Matt Davies’ new Nerdy Birdy (2015, Roaring Brook Press) doesn’t use actual bubbles for it’s dialogue, instead opting to distinguish dialogue with a hand-written font and quotation marks, though the idea is much the same. Some spreads mix dialogue and narration while other page-series are either all dialogue or all narration. In one spot the dialogue is even given dialogue tags in the narration font — so it’s a bit of a mash-up. In any case:  the two work together to effectively tell a story that is all about social dynamics.

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In Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is A Monster (2014, Little, Brown & Co.), Children Make Terrible Pets (2010, Little, Brown & Co.), You Will Be My Friend (2011, Little, Brown & Co.), Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (2013, Little, Brown & Co.), etc., speech bubbles tend to be orthogonal and are well integrated with the narrative text and the illustrations — via font, color and graphics. For the most part, the narrative text and the speech bubble text are evenly weighted — except where Brown uses size for emphasis. All these visual clues have a unifying effect, creating a really strong narrative flow.

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A Hornbook Calling Caldecott post in 2013 raised questions about how bubble dialogue and the other graphic conventions of comic books fit into the picture book format and how to talk about them in the awards-making process. It seems clear that the floodgates have opened — and to great effect. It should be fun to see what else swims through in the future.

***

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… and lest we think of bubble dialogue as a completely modern convention, check out this 1506 Bernhard Strigel painting. (Wikipedia, “Speech scrolls”)

Ambiguity in Picture Books & Reaching Adults

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Last summer, my nine year old and I – with our new, 7 month-old puppy alternating between laps, my father’s ginormous, 80 year-old, wooden, Penn Yan canoe strapped up top, and a rented U-haul trailer in tow – drove from St. Louis to Philadelphia. We took our time, and for a big stretch of the trip (much of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio) Sandra Boynton’s Philadelphia Chickens ended up in the CD player.

It had been a bunch of years since we’d last listened to that music. I couldn’t help hearing Boynton and crew as a sort of Flight of the Conchords Jr.: musically adept and clever – but featuring a little-kid lexicon of farm animals, sweet treats and quotidian routines.

For all that I think about good children’s books, I rarely think about Sandra Boynton. Which is crazy. Because I read my kids’ Boynton favorites literally hundreds of times when they were really little: Belly Button Book, But Not the Hippopotamus, Doggies, Moo,Baa, La La La!, Blue Hat, Green Hat, Birthday Monsters

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And I wasn’t like some of my friends who ended up hiding the books or worse, so as not to have to read them one more time. I actually liked them. And enjoyed reading them aloud.

Maybe the books were so ubiquitous for parents like me during that time period that they just sort of became invisible. Though the blank spots in my memory could just as easily have been a bi-product of that period’s sleep deprivation.

In any case, Boynton was well ahead of the trend towards low word counts and high cleverness in books for young children — as if she anticipated parents’ ever-tightening schedules and shrinking attention spans. I’d warrant, though, that concern for accommodating parental impatience had little to do with her creating these tight little books. When you consider the greeting cards she first became known for, her board books feel like a natural extension, formally. Plus she’s a smart adult who doesn’t dumb down to kids or write simply to an idea of what a kid is or needs (you can read her short autobiography here). The incredible rhythm and timing of her spare text and artful page turns (not to mention her humor) — seem clearly rooted in her background in performance and music.

Last week when I sorted through my inbox I came across this appreciation, “The Hidden Depths of Sandra Boynton”, in The New Yorker — written by Ian Bogost. Bogost is a video game designer and researcher — and a contributing editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about technology and pop culture.

His take on Boynton offers a great reminder that children’s books have much to both gain and offer by connecting with the adults who buy and read them aloud. And not just by being short.

ButNotTheHippopotamus

Bogost’s interpretations of But Not The Hippopotamus end up being a shout-out to the power of ambiguity, to that end:

It may seem preposterous to read so much into board books. But why? Art becomes great when its potential meanings multiply, breaking free of obvious uses and even creators’ intentions. On the millionth reading, great children’s books can still offer us something new. They become old friends bearing new secrets.

Hear hear!

 

(And if you make it over to The New Yorker site, check out these other kid lit tidbits that have shown up there recently too: Little Man, by Micheal Cunningham and Re-Reading Children’s Books, a podcast featuring Adam Gopnik, Sarah Larson, Amelia Lester and David Haglund. Oh, and this great piece of kid lit history about Tomi Ungerer, from way back in February.)

 

FUNNY AND

 

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Image c. Michael Dyer, with illustrations by Quentin Blake. Taken from FANTASTIC MR. DAHL.

A post about funny books and the termination of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize crossed my digital path today (Picture Book Den: Why we seriously need a new funny prize, by Jonathan Emmett). I never even knew that the Roald Dahl prize for funny books existed. I’m glad to now know that it did — and sorry that it doesn’t anymore: I adored Dahl and his nasty grown ups and most of his books. But the old-school parent in me (and the American Puritan) gets a little nervous over the implication that we should all write funny kids books because kids like funny books best. I think: my kids love sweets more than anything else in the world too, but do I only feed them candy?

Don’t get me wrong: funny is good. Funny is GREAT. Funny is TOTALLY NECESSARY. (My husband and I have a pact that people who don’t have a sense of humor about themselves can’t be our friends. Seriously: they suck. They are NO FUN.)

But at the same time, smart is important. And so is thoughtful. And purposeful. And gritty. And eye-opening. And magical. And reflective. And soulful. And… you get my drift.

In the trade market in particular, funny sells books so it’s helpful to be funny (if you want to sell books). I get it. What’s the point of writing a book if nobody reads it? Or if they only read it because some pickle-faced adult forces them to? But if we only ever ate deserts, everyone would spend their whole lives walking around with horrible stomach aches. Likewise if all we read was silly books I think we’d probably get a bit bored, too.

Books that are funny and smart, or funny and pointed, or funny and heart-wrenching are not quite the same as books that are just plain silly. And they are that much better-received for reaching readers in more than one way too. If some group really does step in to fill the gap in kidlit funny-prize-giving though – as Emmett is rallying for – I vote for the new prizes to be FUNNY AND prizes.

(and check out that gifted robin…)

 

Narrative Arcs Coming to their Ends: Books, Aging Parents & Dementia

During the long blogging-hiatus that was summer (which got a functional extension here thanks to Pope Francis’s visit last week), I participated in Kidlit Summer School again, a month-long, on-line, free course organized by a gracious quartet of kidlit folk: Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, Kami Kinard, Leeza Hernandez and Marcie Coleen. Last year’s focused on character. This year’s: plotting.

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I am decidedly a pantser, not a plotter – meaning I generally fire before I aim: writing first, then going back over what I’ve produced like David Byrne saying “Good God, what have I done?!” Summer School offered up great tools — not that I’ll change my approach. But it did set me up with an arsenal of good revision techniques.

SARINA

Over the past three months when I wasn’t working or doing summer things with my kids, or trying to train our new, 4-legged addition, Tilly, I spent the bulk of my time focused on issues having to do with my aging father, who lives 1000 miles away where I grew up, in St. Louis. It was hard not to reflect on his life as a narrative as I juggled thinking about plot with making sense of his decline.

With varying degrees of intentionality, my reading over the last several years has been sprinkled with books about aging and the end of life. Some have helped me to understand parts of what my dad and I, respectively, are experiencing. Some have offered good tips and advice in thinking about his care. And all have reminded me repeatedly of the gaps between reading and living.

Olive Kitteridge

I began several years back, by accident, with the audio book version of OLIVE KITTERIDGE (by Elizabeth Stout, read by Sandra Burr). The story collection focuses on one Olive Kitteridge, an elderly woman full of disappointment and judgment for family, friends and her small, changing Maine town. She reminded me much of my own aging father: crotchety, stubborn, resistant — and still compelling. The book gave me a small window into what it might feel like, for my dad, riding the waves of the rapid, unsynchronized changes in his world and in himself.

My dad is a patrician guy: tall, commanding, with a thick head of silver hair. A self-employed entrepreneur, he worked constantly, running the small company his father founded for over 50 years. He was always the one to call the shots in almost every sphere of his life.

I have long said that he would be the perfect guy to sit next to on an airplane: he is genuinely interested and interesting, asking smart questions and sharing great life experiences, and at the same time he has good respect for social boundaries. Still, with me and my siblings, his patented response to information that didn’t jibe with something he thought or believed was invariably “I don’t know that.” It was never clear whether he meant he didn’t ‘know that’ until you just told him, or he still didn’t ‘know that’ despite what you had said. Raised in upstate New York and Canada, it was probably destiny that he would land in a place dubbed “the show me state”.

When, three plus years ago, dad began reporting doorbells and phones ringing in the middle of the night, and complaining that a cup of coffee or can of Coke had been stolen from the fridge, we tried to reason with him. But he knew what he knew and he knew what he’d experienced. I initially saw his odd new complaints as being on the continuum of his personality: skeptical, doubting, and a little distrustful. And so I kept interacting with him pretty much as I always had – as the person I had always known. In retrospect, it is clear that dementia’s tendrils were latching onto his world; in the moment, though, it was harder to name it, much less imagine what its trajectory might be.

Tinkers

Not long after reading OLIVE KITTERIDGE I stumbled on a copy of Paul Harding’s beautiful TINKERS in an airport bookstore. It looked like the best thing the store had to offer (and quite possibly was), plus the book was small (I had bags). Much more internal, Harding’s narrative follows the mental meanderings and hallucinations of an old man as he lies dying. Snippets of his own life, his father’s life and other imagined lives interweave in a dense, intense, strangling-but-beautiful rope-of-a-vine. My dad’s dementia was only beginning then, but TINKERS drove home that the strange sounds he heard at night, the confusion of dreams with reality, and the growing frustration were just a preview of things to come.

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A more purposeful, non-fiction choice came next: A BITTERSWEET SEASON, recommended by an old friend who was struggling with caring for her aging father. In this one Jane Gross, a longtime New York Times reporter on the elderly and aging, navigates the system on behalf of her own, ailing mother, recounting her learning and struggles. Full of information on the institutions and practices that have sprung up to care for an aging population, the book gave the lay of the land on all sorts of practical matters: plans to be laid, questions to ask, alternatives to be considered. All were framed within Gross’s own experience, driving home the magnitude of the stakes.

For so many elderly people a fall is the beginning of the end. My dad has long taken pride in the fact that he knows how to fall and so never breaks anything — saying he learned it as a young man. (In the marines? Skiing? Playing other sports? I never knew where.) He took his first big fall about three years ago, not long after his nighttime delusions began. That fall left him with a frontal lobe concussion and two weeks in rehab. Oddly, his night-time hallucinations faded for a bit.

When he was released from rehab he moved — at his insistence — back home, alone, his oversized house newly retooled with railings, grab bars, and a walker that he refused to use. He did his PT for a little while, but it didn’t take long for his focus to shift back to his omni-present yellow, legal-pad, “To Do” list and to work. He continued going into the office every day, driving himself despite both our protestations and his own mounting confusion.The expanse of space that he inhabited (the house once accommodated six of us plus pets) meant that it regularly took hours to find everyday items that he lost with increasing frequency: keys, checkbook, the yellow pad. The things that were hardest to find were invariably deemed “stolen”.

OldFilth

Dad lived in his house through last autumn, when we finally helped him move to an independent living facility. Last winter when I was laid up – and he was settling in there — a friend brought me a copy of Jane Gardam’s OLD FILTH. The outlines of the life of the titular character — Old Filth — felt eerily familiar, and the book offered an unexpected window into my father’s psychology. Like Filth, my dad was raised in an Anglican world long on learning but short on expressed love; he was sent off to an English-style, Canadian, boys boarding school, like Filth, at an obscenely young age (9, in my dad’s case). And his need for my mother (and, really, his own) was much like Filth’s for his wife: deep beyond deep, and rivaled only in focus by his attention to his work.

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My dad continued going into work every day up until this May, when a flurry of falls triggered myriad stays in ERs, hospitals, and rehab facilities. In the midst of this chain of events, at another friend’s insistence, I began Atul Guwande’s BEING MORTAL. BEING MORTAL does a great job of examining  how we came to this place of “treating” aging strictly as a medical condition, where longevity and safety trump all other considerations. Guwande interweaves stories of individual seniors with historical narratives, inspirational tales of professionals who push the envelope to create more intentional facilities for seniors, and Gawande’s travels through the end of his own father’s life. He also issues strong reminders for us to find out what really matters to each person as their days wane, and to let those desires guide the choices that we make for and with them.

Once dad had stabilized from the domino effect of physical indignities that his falls brought to bear, it was clear that independent living was no longer sustainable. He was increasingly confused and disoriented in both time and space, as the weeks off his feet took a significant toll both physically and mentally. Our hope was that once he got settled into a place and a routine, things would even out. In July, we moved him into a memory care facility.

Over the past two months there, his dementia has steadily progressed. He often thinks he is at a hotel, and talks about switching rooms. And no wonder: he spent so much of his life traveling, living out of hotel rooms. His current digs aren’t much different.

During one stretch when his meds were especially out of whack, visitors found him variously at an airport, in some far flung city (London, San Francisco, Niagara Falls, New Orleans, you name it), or trying to find his way back to his booth at a convention. More often than not he was prepping for a meeting: illegibly scribbling on his yellow pad or busily rifling through whatever paper ephemera might be at hand. Sometimes he was trying to catch a flight so he could meet my mom for dinner. Once, he was hiding from federal agents. Another time he was covered in ants. With a recent adjustment in meds, those extreme delusions have mellowed. In their wake, his sense of humor has returned — thankfully.

***

A couple years ago, before he moved out of his house, I toured an independent living facility with my father. The tour-guide/salesman gave me a copy of a pamphlet about how to talk to our elders. It offered up a sweet nugget of wisdom that I’ve carried with me since, which is this: the brains of old people – and moreso the brains of old people with dementia – are like those of the very young. They are changing quickly – so quickly that it is difficult to keep up with them. The job of those of us who surround them, this booklet argued, is to try understand where they are and what matters, and to respond in developmentally appropriate ways as we would with young children as they move quickly through their developmental milestones. The milestones at the other end of life, though, are harder to pinpoint.

I heard a recent This American Life segment (in Episode #532: Magic Words, starting at minute 29:05) that extended this same idea to interactions with dementia patients. The piece followed a pair of actors who lived with one of their Alzheimers-afflicted mothers, and spotlighted their work with the idea that that when their mother detached from reality, they might simply follow her lead – as if doing improv. Never mind trying to drag her back to their version of reality, which she clearly no longer shared. Instead, they entered her story no matter how strange it might be. Sort of like playing house or grocery store with a three year old. And — like playing with a young child — if you let yourself go with it, it is actually quite fun.

The other weekend I spoke by phone to my dad while my brother was visiting him. Dad told me about good, new work deals my brother was just back from drumming up in Alabama, Oklahoma, and Missouri. And about a football game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma. My brother, he said, was across the room, busy with his girlfriends from Alabama.

Nothing that my dad said was factually accurate: my brother — who has long worked alongside my father in the family business — had just returned from a trip to Montana. He is married to a woman who also hales from Missouri. I am certain that the details all connect to some memory or fragment of Dad’s former or current reality though: my brother was there. He had just returned from a trip. And while I’m pretty sure Oklahoma didn’t play Oklahoma that day Dad probably saw some football game on TV.

As I chatted with him, I tried not to laugh aloud at the goofiness. Since he was content, I was too. As muddled up as the details may be, my father is still writing his own story and creating his own narratives — never mind the factual inaccuracies. And, with any luck, he will get to keep doing so right up to the end of his life.

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.

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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.

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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…

A Desk Homecoming

I am sitting at my desk today, writing, for the first time in three months. I thought I would be spending the morning at PT but it turns out I read my calendar wrong — which only makes the fact that I am here, with extra work time, that much sweeter.

My desk lives in my office (aka guest room), at the back of the third floor of our corner row house. It shares this top level with my daughters’ bedrooms. The desk is situated partway into the bay that projects off the rear of the room so that when I sit, my back is to the bay’s three windows and I face out into the small room and can see through the door to the space of the rest of the third floor and house.

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This morning, sun throws my shadow onto the desk from behind and warms my shoulders, and if I look out the side window I can see the first of the three Okame Cherries that we planted along the side of the house when we moved here 11 years ago and that — despite the indignities perpetrated weekly on their branches by the trash and recycling trucks that wedge their way down our narrow, 19th century side-street — has managed to extend its reach up past the level of the second floor ceiling and into my view. Its deep pink blossoms began to open yesterday, starting at the bottom of the tree and working their way up. Finches and sparrows will soon gather in the glow and pluck the flowers off one by one. I am certain they congregate mainly on this tree because of the feeders that share its pit, but I have never figured out what, if anything, they take from the buds — nectar? droplets of water? On bad days I assume that it is just their way of passing the time and ungraciously thumbing their beaks at me, their feeder. The seed ran out a week ago though, so maybe this year the birds will forget us and let the blooms stay suspended a bit longer before ceding to gravity on their own as they make way for new leaves. Honestly, though, I may just bask in glow of the pink shadow that the plucked blossoms form on the pavement beneath the tree, and laugh.

Since January 6 — D-day for my podiatric post-op nightmare — I have written. Just not here. Life ground almost immediately to a halt when my foot literally exploded, and though I gradually got back to work I wrote first from my lap in bed, later from my lap on the couch and, once calluses developed on the heels of my hands and tendonitis in my right elbow (oh, the palimpsest of indignities), from an adjustable, portable lap desk in the den armchair.

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My old friend Liz has just begun penning a poem a day for National Poetry Month, all prompted by things you would find on/in a desk, and she offhandedly asked friends and colleagues to share photos if inspired. My desk, not surprisingly — and like many other lateral surfaces in my house — has achieved peak accumulation during its extended vacation. To wit, here is what greeted me and my laptop from the center of the desk when we arrived this morning (to address the periphery, too, would take all day so I won’t): a mailing announcing that Cricket’s Odyssey and Muse magazines have merged, atop a copy of Ann Lamott’s Bird By Bird, atop a journal, atop an article about South Korea’s haneyeo or “sea women”, atop an SCBWI Bulletin atop, a North Creek Nursery plant catalog; a grey-black, river-washed stone with a stripe of white through its center, aka ‘the ice cream sandwich’; a Cornell Lab of Ornithology flyer on Citizen Science plus two packs of their ‘Celebrate Urban Birds’ Lemon Queen Sunflower Seeds, together bridging the white envelope they came in with a drawing of an un-named animal by a colleague’s 3-year old daughter on a pink sheet of paper beneath, plus a Vaccine Information Statement about HPV that partly covers my daughter’s cartoon of a ladybug who lives in an avocado; a pin cushion; a gravity-driven, perambulating cast-plastic (and hand painted) Moomintroll; a roll of trace on top of two mock-ups of my nine year-old’s whale and dolphin valentine (“Whale you be my valentine?” “Dolphinately!”); a pile of more native plant nursery catalogues, over a small sketch of one of my older daughter’s Schroth Method exercises; a wool, felted bullseye pin-cushion; and a lacquered, Russian, khokhloma cup that is home to all things long and thin (rulers, eraser brush, flags, pens, pencils, scissors).

The clutter would at other times feel oppressive — a reminder of so many things un-done and the persistent and ignored need to purge. But today my desk is better for the whole mess of it. All this flotsam and jetsam — so easily slid to the side — tells me that the current presses on, and I am so thankful to be easing back into it.