“I read because one life isn’t enough, and in the page of a book I can be anybody.”
…the odds against us are endless,
our chances of being alive together
still we have made it, alive in a time
when rationalists in square hats
and hatless Jehovah’s Witnesses
agree that it is almost over,
alive with our lively children
who – but for endless if’s –
might have missed out on being alive
together with marvels and follies
and longings and lies and wishes
and error and humor and mercy
and journeys and voices and faces
and colors and summers and mornings
and knowledge and tears and chance.
“your book on my honor is horrible.” Savannah
The e-mail sent to my website made me smile.
No, I’m not a masochist reveling in abuse. Rather I’m a lover of honesty, even when someone honestly dislikes one of my books.
Most of the letters I receive from young readers pass through teachers’ hands before they reach me, and they are clearly written primarily to please the teacher. “I loved Runt because you used so many similes and metaphors.” or “When I read On My Honor I learned never to lie.”
I’ve always wanted to respond by saying, “Oh come on now. Really?”
I try to write in the simplest possible way, consciously employing a style that avoids calling attention to language. And that’s not just because young people are my audience. I believe the best writing for any audience is always the simplest. I don’t object to teachers using my books to point out similes and metaphors, of course. I hope, though, they will always honor the story, the feelings it engenders and the truth imbedded in those feelings, first. And if my readers truly respond primarily to my similes and metaphors, I have failed.
But it would surprise many earnest teachers to know that I have never written and never will write a piece of fiction meant to imprint a lesson on my readers. Rather I write with the hope of moving my readers and through moving them perhaps even changing them, which is a different—and far more dangerous—mission.
To return to Savannah, though, whatever her teacher was hoping she would learn from my 1987 Newbery Honor novel, On My Honor, she was clearly having none of it. And I admire Savannah for her fierce independence. Not every book is for every reader. I could name some pieces of great literature that I am “supposed to” love that fail to speak to me. Or perhaps it would be more fair to say that I fail to hear them. And so I empathize with Savannah’s one-word review.
I wrote to tell her so, but, as happens too often, teachers give students access to my website’s e-mail address without checking to see whether their school’s e-mail security system will let my responses through. My e-mails bounced back, and Savannah and several other students’ in her class who expressed a more positive opinion of my book will go unanswered.
Since I can’t reach Savannah, I decided to send my response into the ether of the Internet. And here it is:
“Thank you, Savannah! I’m grateful for your honesty. My story is meant to touch your heart, but it isn’t necessarily meant to be loved. I would, in fact, rather have you hate it than be disinterested. If you hate it, that means it has still reached you.
“So thank you for writing, and thank you for having the courage to speak your truth. I hope you will go on to find another book by another author, because I know there are books out there that will touch you in a more positive way. There are even books that you will love.”
And to Savannah’s teacher: “Please check your school’s e-mail security system. Find out what you can do that will allow responses to come through when you have encouraged your students to e-mail.
“And please, help Savannah find another book!”
Norma Fox Mazer and I were good friends. We taught together at Vermont College of Fine Arts back when our MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA was very new, when it was the only program of its kind. And I still remember the time when Norma stopped me in the hall of our ancient stone dormitory and said, “You realize we’re grooming our own replacements.”
I laughed. We both laughed. But, of course, it was true. By passing on the skills we had gathered over so many years we were making certain that those coming up behind us would have the acuity required to step over us one day.
Now Norma who, along with her husband, Harry, practically created the young-adult field, is gone, but that truth she and I once laughed over continues to play out all around me every day.
I saw it again last month when I attended the Minnesota Book Awards ceremony.
My verse novel, Little Cat’s Luck, was one of four books selected in the middle grade category. I attended the ceremony with no expectation of my lucky little cat’s winning, and she didn’t. However, the amazing non-fiction book I was certain would be chosen over mine, Sachiko by Caren Stelson, didn’t win, either. Instead, a beautifully written fantasy, The Secret of Dreadwillow Curse by Brian Farrey took the award.
(If you want evidence of the idiosyncratic nature of any kind of awards selection process, you have only to note that the 2017 Newbery Award novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, is also by a Minnesota writer, Kelly Barnhill, and that book didn’t make the list of four. But that’s another topic entirely.)
I had gathered a group of friends to attend with me, not needing an expectation of winning to enjoy the elaborate evening orchestrated by the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library. I invited my friends and I showed up prepared for the great pleasure of spending an entire evening celebrating Minnesota writers. But when I got there something more awaited me.
I found to my delight that I was sitting at the autograph table next to Abby Cooper, a young woman with whom I have a unique connection. A couple of years ago Abby sent me an e-mail saying, “You may not remember me, but when I was in the fifth grade, you spoke at a young-authors’ conference that I attended.” And, I’ll admit it, I laughed. Not derisively, but quite spontaneously. There had been so many young-authors’ conferences, so many fifth graders. No, I did not remember Abby.
But then she went on to tell me that she had approached me at the end of my session to ask if she could send me a story she was working on. I gave her my address, received her story, and responded with a critique. For a time we wrote back and forth, discussing her work, and then she moved on as fifty graders inevitably do.
Over the years I have had a similar correspondence with quite a few young writers, all of them bright, enthusiastic, passionate. I’ve accompanied each of them for a short distance, and then they’ve moved on. So the truth was, even with this new information, my memory of Abby was vague at best. Still, I was delighted to find out that she was writing to say that her first novel, Sticks and Stones, had been accepted for publication by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Sticks and Stones received a starred review from Kirkus, and now it was one of the four finalists in the middle-grade category for a Minnesota Book Award.
I sat down at the autograph table next to the still very young Abby—she was nearly vibrating in her chair in her excitement—and said quietly, just to myself, “You realize, we’re grooming our own replacements.”
But being there with Abby made the evening for me. I’ve had enough books published, enough awards, enough opportunities to sit in a large, noisy room autographing. But I’ll never have enough of watching young people rise up behind me … even when their rise suggests it’s time for me to move on.
So congratulations, Abby Cooper. I wish you well. May you replace me with vigor and joy. And may you take this good work we love and make it new for a world that is now yours!
Two weeks ago I wrote about a picture book I have been working on for months, both researching and writing.
Since it’s not a text that has come easily I have shown it repeatedly to three of my fellow writers as I worked. They each responded to my multiple requests with thoughtful and candid critiques. “This is what’s working. This is what isn’t.”
My friends were not consulting one another and didn’t always agree about what they saw, what they wanted from the piece, but that didn’t matter. In fact, the places where one loved something that another thought I should take out became easy reentry points for me. Clearly I had to find my own place to stand in what was, after all, my manuscript.
Finally I felt close enough to completion to show the manuscript to my agent. But that was the best I could say. It was close.
While he and I were discussing strategy, a delayed comment came in from one of my critics. For her, the new ending didn’t work. If the ending of any piece doesn’t work, the whole thing collapses. But that is especially true for the delicate construction of a picture book
“Put it on hold,” I told my agent, and I went back to considering the ending. That it worked for only two out of three readers wasn’t good enough.
I went back to the ending and back to pounding my head against my keyboard . . . or at least that’s what I felt like doing.
And then this morning on a walk with my dog—that’s when I often get my best ideas, when walking my dog—I remembered something I hadn’t thought about for a long time. When I first began writing, I had no critics to turn to for help. I had never met an editor, and I knew no other writers either. I knew no one even interested in writing for children. So needing some perspective beyond my own too-close one, I turned to Mary, a friend and a longtime teacher.
From time to time, Mary would stop by my house on her way home from school, settle on the couch in my study and read the pages I handed her. I sat a few feet away, watching, waiting, holding my breath. Mary wasn’t an experienced critic, but she was a thoughtful reader and willing. She would read and read until suddenly she would look up and said, “I don’t know why exactly, but at this point I’m beginning to itch.”
I would take the manuscript back, look to see where she was, and ponder. After some time, I began to realize that Mary’s “itch” developed because my story was getting too talky, too teachy. I soon discovered, too, however, that the problem didn’t begin at the point her discomfort surfaced. It began earlier and became cumulative. So instead of fixing the text where she named the problem, I learned to go back to find the place where the problem began and to rework from that point on.
“Ah!” I said to myself on this morning’s dog walk, suddenly remembering Mary and those long-ago reading sessions. “Maybe it’s not just the ending. Maybe the problem begins farther back.”
So here I am, ready to revise again, this time examining language that feels so solidly in place as to be untouchable, looking for a point of reentry, the point of reentry where the direction for my ending is set.
This is where I allow myself a bit of a sigh. Which is what you’re reading today, a bit of a sigh.
When I’m through sighing I’ll go back to work.